Isaiah leaned against a scaly blue tree trunk and reflected that housebreaking wasn't as bad as he had expected. Thanks to the remote nature of psi, he and Jeanette could violate a nobleman's privacy from several hundred meters away.
He and Jeanette were sitting, not even hiding, in woods near the Mayer plantation. It looked like the sort of place Svetlana was aiming for – a self-sufficient farm, with lumber mill and furniture shop, the many residents spreading out into separate dwellings so that the plantation was halfway to being a village.
They had landed a rented air car in a clearing some distance away, then snuck up to the edge of the woods in the wee hours of the morning, under the light of a gibbous Charlemagne, Philippia's huge moon. From their post in the bracken, they could see the baronial manor. Jeanette launched a clairvoyant viewpoint at the house, penetrated a window, and planted a tracer on the sill.
Then they made their stealthy way back to here, having committed nothing more than a very minor form of trespassing. (Philippia had no laws, yet, to cover clairvoyance.) Jeanette sat down, closed her eyes, and returned her viewpoint to the tracer, which acted as a kind of psychic bookmark.
Now, Isaiah stood watch while Jeanette patiently searched for the android, so as to read its history. This cost her time and effort. Occasionally, she has to recharge her energies from a battery. This was a pair of coins that Jeanette had stuck together with bound TK. She then increased the pressure bit at a time over several days, until it would take several hundred pounds of force to separate them. Now, she unravelled the binding bit at a time, reclaiming the power for herself.
Isaiah looked at the coins in her hand and wondered what form to give his own batteries, when he was good enough at TK to make them. A blur of color flashed between him and Jeanette, then lit on a tree trunk. It was an insectile, beaked like a bird and as large as a sparrow. It folded wings like stiff, crimson feathers and scampered up the trunk.
Isaiah called up his skills of perception and hyperesthesia, the better to stand guard and, for that matter, to enjoy himself. Now he heard his breathing and heartbeat. He heard wind in the trees, sounding exactly as it had on Earth so long ago, but mixed with un-Earthly peeps and trills from tiny wildlife. Far away, at the plantation, people spoke as they started their morning chores; they were too distant for him to make out the words, even with his amplified sensitivity.
Around him, the forest presented a rainbow of blue, leaves and bark varying from violet to aqua, from nearly black through steely grays. The trees bore scaly bark, sometimes patterned like tiles. Here and there, the blue was interrupted by little scribbles of color – branching twigs and fans of fungi, this world's version of wildflowers.
Tiny air-squids the size of eggs wandered through the branches, rising, sinking, hauling themselves along by threadlike tendrils, or fluttering in the faint breezes. Most were dull blue-gray, but others were startling jots of color, as if tinted for some aeriel Easter.
Isaiah pulled in a long breath of wine-scented air and decided that he had the easiest post at the moment. FX was with Svetlana, breakfasting with a merchant peer in Kingston, at a carefully contrived visit. While FX made polite distracting chat, Svetlana audited the history of the android servants, using powers like Jeanette's.
Daima and Vivian were sneaking about a plantation like this, but lacked long-range psi talents. Vivian could read the genetic codes of the androids, but only from nearby, while Daima helped her hide and sneak.
Canorus and Borne were on a similar mission, with the Melior reading the histories and Borne acting as guard, like Isaiah.
Jeanette sighed and pocketed her bound coins. "I don't even want to think about Canorus and Borne working together," she said. Had she picked up his thought?
"Whenever I think about it," he answered, "I imagine them completing the assignment, but walking out of smoking ruins."
Jeanette laughed. "It won't be that bad."
"Can you read the future as well as the past?"
She shook her head. "Hardly at all. The causal tangles get in the way." She stood up, accepting Isaiah's unnecessary hand. "The Timekeepers do teach precog, but it's either very short-range or very vague." She led the way into an aimless stroll. "They're not much better than fast reflexes and guessing."
"How about the past?" he asked, looking for a way to string the conversation along. "There's the history-reading, of course."
"Retrocog, right. And you can do telepathy across time. For instance, I can pick up a tool and read the skills of prior users. That means I can use a tool as well as any past user ever did. Theoretically. Actually, it helps if it was used by one person for a long time."
"So you could pilot the Will o' the Wisp as well as Borne?"
She nodded. "I'd even tend to use his style. And there's also regular thought-reading into the past. It has lots of names – reading the akashic record, retro-telepathy, race memory, or mediumship, depending on your metaphysics."
Isaiah caught a watchful glance from her and nodded thoughtfully. "I'd heard the Timekeepers accused of necromancy, but this is the first time I've heard their side of it. Or your side. You're a Timekeeper, after all."
"I suppose so. I'm an alumna, anyway. It's just a technical college, after all, not a religious order. I sure don't regard it as necromancy. I've never read a dead man's thoughts. Mostly my professor's, in training exercises."
Isaiah nodded and paced silently for a time. "I can see why the idea upsets people, though," he said. "Even your past thoughts not being private." Now it was his turn to watch her carefully.
Jeanette did stiffen a little. "As private as present ones. Remember telepathy is always reciprocal. That means causal problems can crop up and scuttle your efforts, when you do it across time. The akashic reader normally has to keep a deeply passive mindset, to minimize that. And there's psilence of course," she added.
There was an uncomfortable sound to the last sentence. Was there something odd about psilence and time? Isaiah dismissed the question. "I didn't mean to irritate you," he assured her. "It's just that I'm used to more privacy than I have with a team of telepaths."
"You'll be ready to learn shielding soon," she told him. "That'll help."
They walked in silence for a few paces. Isaiah mentally kicked himself for seeming to criticize her. It was true, though: he had precious little privacy at present. At any moment, another team member could tap his brain on the shoulder and start chatting. Though, to do them justice, they didn't do that much. At least he was private with Jeanette now and free to think about her privately now. He was still getting younger every day. It seemed a shame to waste such an opportunity...
He made a quick decision.
"I know this may sound silly," he said, "the way we've been living in each other's pockets ever since Carmel – in each other's heads even. But would you like to spend an afternoon with me?"
Jeanette smiled. "I'm spending the morning with you now."
"I meant not detecting things. In Kingston. Or just walking in the woods around Svetlana's place. Just us."
A small monster ran by. In the throes of asking for his first date in two centuries, Isaiah had let all his patharchy drop. Jeanette was no more prepared. The thing was wine red and almost a meter long, combining the worst features of cockroach and crocodile. It snapped toothy palps at Jeanette, who danced back nimbly.
The thing ran on. Isaiah rode his adrenalin back up into heightened perception, but it wasn't necessary; anyone could hear the pounding feet in the dry leaves. Hunters. "Blazes!" he hissed.
"Frass!" exclaimed Jeanette, and levitated straight up into the nearest tree.
Isaiah dove into a bush, with enough presence of mind to do so quietly. Jeanette grabbed his mind just in time to catch his wish that he, too, could fly. She dove past the verbal level, straight to conceptual.
There are two hunters. Slowing down. Damn. One male voice. Another. How about using clairvoyance? They might be psychic enough to spot it. Heard one say "footprints." Ours? Heard him say "two people." Is one hunter a patharch? Maybe just a good tracker. Just as bad either way. I think they're getting curious. How about a quick cover story? If you can think of one, be my guest. Up a tree is pretty natural reaction to a crocker, but into a bush? Yes, they're definitely looking around for us.
Isaiah risked a peek, though the glitter of an eye was an easy thing to spot. Two men in hunter's orange, with rifles. They were tracking through the leaf-litter, wondering aloud how fresh the human prints were. They were only three meters away, and one was looking at Jeanette's tree, where she was now crouched on a branch. She was in plain sight to anyone who raised his head forty-five degrees.
Miles away, FX accidentally dropped four sugar cubes into his coffee. "Hello?" he thought. Jeanette barreled through the doors of his mind with a millisecond-long "'Scuse me," and rummaged through his skills. She vanished. Moments later, under the bush, so did Isaiah. His relief tripped over a stray thought. He peered down through his chest. Yes, he made a clear bodyprint in the violet leaf mould. Adding hysterical endurance to the speed and agility, he silently pushed himself up a few centimeters and watched the bed of leaves spring back.
"C'mon. It's just hikers," said one hunter. "The crocker's getting away."
Two minutes later, there were a few rustling noises, a couple of thuds as people tripped over their own invisible feet, and then Jeanette and Isaiah faded back into view, facing in two random directions. They turned to face each other.
"Yes," said Jeanette. "Thank you."
"I'd love to go on a date with you. But let's go to the city, not the forest."
From miles away, FX thought at them, "Be sure to tell me what all that was about some time."
Isaiah pushed under Borne's shoulder blade and at the base of his neck. "Feel better?"
"I guess so." Vivian swabbed the scrapes on Borne's arm. Thanks to the pressure Isaiah was putting on nerves, Borne only flinched a little.
Isaiah turned to Jeanette. "I thought you said they wouldn't come back walking out of smoking ruins."
"They didn't," she answered. "The chimney was perfectly un-ruined and not even smoking at the time. And they didn't walk out, they flew."
The team was gathered in Borne's room, watching him get patched up.
"What did Svetlana say when you told her?" Isaiah asked Jeanette.
"She laughed. Partly with relief, but she did laugh. We aren't to do it again," she added firmly.
Isaiah followed her gaze as she took stock of the TSTO agents' faces. "Right," he agreed quietly.
FX cleared his throat and asked Canorus, "You're sure Vanagas didn't suspect?"
"Yes," said the Melior.
"Elaborate on that a little," FX commanded. "Why are you sure?"
Svetlana entered, grinning. "Elaborate on what?" she asked. "I want to hear all the details." She sat down at the foot of the bed and stared at Canorus in an attitude of rapt attention, still smiling.
He said nothing immediately. Disclosing was not an act Canorus practiced much. So it was Borne who answered her: "Well, we couldn't do anything from a distance because the house is psilenced. So we had to sneak in with openers."
"Why were they using psilencers?" FX asked. "No one else here seems to."
Borne shrugged, then winced as this dislodged Isaiah's pressure on his nerves. But Svetlana said, "Oh, some of us do. Let me think. Vanagas." She consulted her own mnemonic skills. "A countess. Seat near Kingston. Azure, some bird argent. Commercial peer. Off-planet trade. That is probably it. Business with Terran Space and Refuge has made her more concerned about psi privacy, I expect."
FX nodded and Borne continued. "Then we had to find this android and open psi near him. Then we–"
"Where did you find the android?" FX asked. "Did it see you?"
"Him. He was a zygote, just like you said. He was in an office, working at a terminal."
"No hands, no voice," Canorus supplied unexpectedly. "Had a direct comm link built in. Still needed to look at the screen, though. We turned on an opener, floated it in under his chair."
"He never noticed us," Borne assured FX, "or the open psi either. After that, we turned on our own opener and hid on the roof while Canorus read his origin."
"Nothing," the Melior said. "Normal birth."
"Ah! The roof. Now we come to the chimney?" asked Svetlana.
"Uh, not yet," said Borne. "We had to go get the opener back. The one in the android's office. Canorus pulled it in, but then we heard someone coming. They were between us and the window. So we headed the other way, looking for another window, but we heard people that way, too. Then we saw this fireplace and decided to try the chimney."
"So why doesn't Canorus have cuts and scrapes?" asked Vivian, finishing off the last of Borne's abrasions.
Canorus chuckled. "He flew. I climbed."
"Yeah, and you got to go second," Borne answered resentfully. "You could hear me thumping around and guess where the sharp corners were."
Canorus shrugged. "It was your turn to go first."
"Did anyone else hear you thumping around?" FX asked Borne.
"No," Canorus answered for him. "I'd've heard them below me."
"I have checked the net," Svetlana said, "and Countess Vanagas has not reported any housebreaking, or anything else. But please, stop pushing your luck."
Isaiah rubbed his hands against each other and flexed his fingers, working the blood back into them. "There's something I don't understand," he said. "Canorus, you had both psi openers?" The Melior nodded. "So how could you fly, Borne? The openers only have a range of two meters' radius. Wasn't the chimney in psilence?"
Borne shrugged. "It was on an outside wall."
"Four down, eight to go," said FX, and rattled off a list of names. "So, how do we investigate them this time?"
"Well," said Svetlana, "you will not have to use sneakery around Étienne Bourgeois. He is my own liege lord."
Vivian and Borne shifted uncomfortably. FX and Canorus stared blankly into the middle distance. Svetlana took in these hints and snorted. "That means," she said, "that he gave me this fief. He recommended me for it. He also wrote a letter of recommendation to the Timekeepers, when I applied to them. He is my patron."
"He's still a suspect," Canorus rumbled.
"Only because you are suspicious! If–"
"Excuse me," said Isaiah. "He is not suspected of being a neb-runner. At worst, he is suspected of, um, knowingly receiving nebs. Or shebs. He is also a member of the local authorities, and it would be greatly to our advantage to have him on our side. I recommend we approach him openly. Since he is Svetlana's patron, that only increases the already large chance that he is quite innocent. I don't think people with guilty secrets often send their protégés off to take telepathy lessons."
FX cheered up at that, then looked doubtful again and asked, "Is he a patharch?"
"Oh, yes," said Svetlana proudly. "In many fields. Almost in Isaiah's league, I think." Isaiah felt his ears grow warm.
"It's possible for a patharch to forget his guilty secrets," FX said, "if he knows amnesia. That would hide them even from a telepath."
Svetlana bristled again. "And it is possible for a telepath with mnemonic skills to uncover those secrets again, and he knows that. He has even told me to stand ready to do psi work for him. Would he–"
"It's possible that I'm dreaming, or mad, and this conversation isn't happening," said Isaiah. "In fact, it seems likelier by the moment. But I–" He checked momentarily. Vivian had turned pale and was staring out the window. "–I wouldn't waste much time on the idea."
"You might," murmured Jeanette, so softly he was not sure later that it wasn't telepathy.
FX sighed. "You're right, you're right. We're suspicioning ourselves into a corner. Paralytic paranoia. So. We approach Count Étienne Bourgeois openly. An aristocrat named Bourgeois. I hope he has a sense of humor."
Svetlana, relaxed once more, smiled at him. "His arms are gules, a chimera passant, argent, so I think he sees the joke."
Isaiah slipped sideways in the saddle. "Your knees, dammit," said the horse in a deep, nasal voice. "Hold on with your knees."
"Sorry," Isaiah said, renewing his knees' grip and reminding himself to sit up straight. He had not been on a horse for at least a century. In fact, it would take him some time to remember whether he had ever been on a horse at all.
"'S all right," grunted the horse. This horse – named George – was a neo-horse. His whole race was less than two centuries older than Isaiah. Like all neo-beasts, his ancestors had been gene-tooled for enhanced intelligence, the power of speech, long life, and reduced fertility. The neo-horses had also been given reinforced backs, more flexible digestive tracts, an almost goat-like nimbleness, and sharp color vision with greater stereoscopic range.
None of which really made up for the lack of hands. This did not matter for most neo-horses, who were legal minors and generally had their needs seen to by doting guardians. But George was a legal adult. Folk such as he tended to carry submissive riders with opposable thumbs – a child, a young neo-ape, a cheap robot or android, or, in this case, Isaiah.
George was a lumberjack, working for Count Étienne. He and several other neo-horses were on their way to work in the forest. Normally, they carried axes, saws, rope, and the occasional human or neo-ape co-worker, but today they carried the count, Svetlana, Isaiah, and the others.
Isaiah looked ahead, where Étienne and Svetlana rode side by side. "We look like a parade," he reflected. Everyone was wearing their best – uniforms, or formals; even the three species of lumberjacks wore liveries in honor of the guests. But the count looked like he was on parade all the time. It wasn't a matter of beauty – his blocky body and slab-like face were perfectly ordinary. It was a matter of bearing.
There was a minor patharchic skill for capturing attention. Many actors learned it, even without training. It was a matter of attracting any available limelight to yourself, of saying "look at me" in body language. Isaiah thought Count Étienne used it all the time. It had gone from skill to habit to part of his demeanor. Isaiah wondered what he was like when he was alone or with his intimates.
The question was not academic. The count's working persona made all his remarks sound like official pronouncements or diplomatic pleasantries. This narrow range of expression hampered Isaiah's truth-reading. Was it meant to?
Isaiah gave it up for the moment and enjoyed his ride. The logging trail wound through multi-blued forest like the woods he and Jeanette had haunted yesterday. Cumulus clouds lumbered by overhead, the double sunlight accenting their shapes, making them seem unnaturally close and rounded. Many voices drifted through the trees from the camp ahead – humans, apes, horses, machines. And three androids.
They wound through the last curve of the trail and into the camp. Isaiah dismounted. "Thank you, George."
"My pleasure." An orangutan came over to take off the saddle.
Isaiah joined the little court that was forming spontaneously around the count. He was talking to Svetlana. "I shall recommend three this year for the Peerage Academy. All apes. A 'pithecine and two gorillas."
"And what prospects do you see for them?" Svetlana asked.
Étienne shrugged. "They are young, all three. I do not know for them individually. But I have made a little study of the psychological data, and it is my opinion–" Isaiah had his perceptions in high gear again. The word "opinion" had the weight of "finding" or "ruling" when Étienne said it. "–that a suitably ambitious neo-ape over the age of one hundred could qualify for the peerage ten to twelve percent of the time and qualify for a dukedom one half to one percent of the time. The numbers, you see, are very similar to the human projections."
Svetlana nodded. "And for the other neo-beasts?"
Étienne smiled. "I find it difficult to believe that a neo-cat would be interested in our peerage. The same thing for a neo-dolphin. For horses and dogs, the numbers are about one half those of apes. Of course, it is one thing to meet the qualifications and quite another to gain a title. But it should be possible!" He glared protectively at the apes and horses laboring around him. "I am not at all of the opinion of Magenetti, with his talk of historical esthetics and compatibility of instinctual structure. Either we believe in the tests or we do not. If we believe in them, then anyone who passes is qualified, regardless of species. If we do not believe in them, then what are we about here?"
There was a set quality to the little speech, Isaiah noted. Étienne had had it ready in his mind. The count went on to worry about the state of the economy and to reminisce sadly about the King's two failed marriages. In both cases, the transitions were slightly forced, the delivery slightly canned. Still, it showed Étienne in a variety of moods, which was handy for Isaiah.
Then Isaiah realized that it was deliberate. The count knew Isaiah was observing him, developing a baseline for truth-reading. And the count was obliging him, displaying happiness, anger, fear, and sadness. "Go ahead, verify me," he was saying. "Let me help you. I have nothing to hide."
The count finished his anecdote and met Isaiah's eyes. Isaiah smiled and nodded to him, then turned slightly to gaze around the clearing. Étienne fell silent, his performance done.
The trees were full of apes and ropes. Some of the trees were being stripped of limbs for later felling. Others were being harvested – only a few limbs taken, to be grown back and harvested again. On the ground, horses pulled on ropes or brought wagons around for loading. Humans set up the tackle and loaded the wagons.
Isaiah turned back to survey his companions. Jeanette, Vivian, and FX were standing next to the count, FX in the midst of an anecdote of his own. Canorus, Borne, and Daima stood in the next rank back. Borne, the most obviously bored of the three, looked around, then up into the trees. As casually as a puff of dandelion down, he floated up, along his line of sight. Daima followed him.
Two dozen meters ahead and above, a gorilla and an orangutan in hardhats were tying ropes and threading pulleys, preparing to cut off a scaly blue tree limb. Borne and Daima drifted up to watch them. The two apes stopped their work and fell silent, staring at the levitators.
The count was staring, too. FX fell silent and looked annoyed. He opened his mouth to say something apologetic and diplomatic, then shut it again as a third figure rose from the ground. It was a man, wearing the count's colors and a hardhat. He carried two more hardhats in his hands. Isaiah could not hear him speak, but clearly he was offering them to Daima and Borne.
"I wondered if he would do that," the count murmurred.
"Why?" asked FX. "Who is it?"
"It is one of the androids you have come to see. He is, as you observe, a telekinetic, but he rarely uses the power. Myself, if I could fly, I would flit about on the slightest pretext, like your brother, Mlle. Kallinysios. But of course, an android does not care."
Now Canorus launched into the air, met the android, spoke briefly to him, then flitted back, the android following. Daima and Borne trailed down behind. "This is Andre," Étienne said as the fliers touched down. "I bought him as a general attendant – valet, secretary, and chauffeur all in one – but I desire him to be very general in his talents and responsibilities, so I have placed him in charge of safety on this project."
"Andre the Android," FX murmured. "How original." Isaiah gathered it was like naming your dog "Spot" or "Rover." Silence fell while Canorus, Jeanette, and Svetlana stared at Andre, examining his history. Vivian took the android's left hand and held it, silver light playing about her fingers. Daima took the other hand, but produced no special effects.
Isaiah, with no arcane tricks to play, satisfied himself with looking. Andre was not tinted, like Svetlana's androids. He looked, for the most part, like an ordinary man, tall and slender, with fair skin and sandy blond hair. Only the eyes were nonhuman – solid black in both iris and sclera. These black "marker eyes" were the standard signal used to distinguish androids and humans. On some worlds, Isaiah had heard, it was illegal to buy or sell unmarked androids.
The solid black eyes made it difficult to tell where Andre was looking. But, Isaiah saw, that didn't matter much. Nothing mattered much to Andre. The expensive zygote shared the bottomless indifference of Svetlana's cheap clones.
The three time-readers stiffened. A moment later, Vivian murmured, "Gotcha." She looked at FX and announced, "A sheb. He's genetically human."
"Quoi? Je ne comprends pas," said the count. "Do you mean he is not android? But no, you said a sheb was an android made from ectoplasm."
"Oh, yes," FX assured him, "Andre is an android. That is, he has the android brain structure. He does, doesn't he?" he asked Vivian.
"I haven't checked yet," she said. "I was looking at his chromosomes. He has forty-six, like a human. Regular androids have fifty." She moved her hand to Andre's head.
"He has the android emotional structure," Jeanette volunteered. "Nil."
FX turned back to Étienne. "Any living thing you make from ectoplasm has the genetic code of the maker, unless you have additional tricks for altering it. But Andre is an android. However, if you rejuvenated him several times, he would start to resemble his maker and probably shift toward a human brain structure."
"Ah? Interesting. But he was created psychically?"
Canorus and Jeanette nodded. Sveltana said, "His history begins in a large tub, my lord, as an adult. He was not born, but made. From something like egg white, I think."
Étienne nodded. "Very interesting. So what do we do now?"
FX produced an instrument pack and answered, "We would like to run some tests on Andre and your other androids. And we would like to ask some questions."
"Certainly. And, to expedite matters, Major Hola, would you be so good as to verify me? And to educe me?"
Isaiah blinked. "That's very ... obliging of you, sir." He turned to face the count directly, who gazed calmly back. He gathered his thoughts for a few seconds, then spoke. "Dites-moi, si vous plait, les circonstances de votre achat de cet android."
Isaiah's teammates blinked. Not only were the words French instead of Earthron, the voice was nearly Étienne's own, the delivery quick, slightly impatient, assured of obedience. Isaiah had sculpted the order precisely to Étienne's character. This was the patharchic art of command that Canorus had admired back in hyperstate. But command was normally inflicted by surprise, when the target was off guard; when it was expected and accepted, it was called educing. Étienne had asked for eduction and truth-reading, after giving Isaiah every assistance; he wanted no doubts about his innocence.
The count answered in a smooth rattle of French. Canorus, who was recording the testimony on a comm unit, growled briefly and glared at the unit. Isaiah, wrapped deep in his truth-reading, felt a distant spark of psi as the Melior did something with psi-coding. A moment later, Wisper's voice came on, speaking a translation: "'I purchased this android, together with two others, five months ago from a company called Homunculine.'"
"Describe the other two androids," Isaiah ordered, in French.
"One is a mechanic and electrician. The other is a medic. All are male and are half-brothers to Andre, or so I was told. All have psychic skills. Shall I go on?"
"No, thank you. Tell me how you came to choose Homunculine."
"I was short of staff and decided to fill the need with androids, largely from curiosity. You must realize, I have made a professional study of governing different species. And here is a species designed to be governed. I wanted zygotes, not clones, and I wanted definite and particular skill sets, especially psychic skills. However, few dealers in zygotes do business on Philippia yet. Homunculine was best able to match my requirements."
"Tell me about the Homunculine people."
"I found them advertised on the net. There followed five phone conversations, all but the first with visual. I met them in person only once, when they delivered the androids. They claimed to be traveling representatives – trade scouts. They said that Homunculine is based on Earth and suggested that it is a large company, but in fact I never saw more than three individuals."
"How did they suggest a large size?"
"In the way they referred to other departments and offices of the company, and in their use of plural pronouns."
"Describe the people you saw."
"My phone conversations were with a black woman, small, a bit plump, delicate features and hands. The three androids were delivered by two men, a tall blond and a robot – a short, blocky sim." Étienne broke out of the serious, rapid-fire exchange to remark, "An unusual design for a sim, no? That should make him easier to trace."
"If he was a sim," FX said, dubiously. "It's easy enough to look like a sim if you have glamour." As he spoke, his hair seemed to evaporate and his skin faded to a clay-like gray. His eyes shifted to silver.
"You need a skin set," Vivian remarked.
FX nodded and started to turn coppery red, then apparently changed his mind and took on a veneer like polished wood, accented with shiny black wig and fake mustache. "After all," he said, turning to the fascinated count, "we know their group includes an ectoplastician. Glamour is even easier than ectoplastics, and many ectoplasticians learn it first. They may even have sent more than two men, invisibly."
Étienne smiled as he watched FX's disguise fade away. "Remarkable. Well, I shall continue to describe these people, in case they were not disguised."
"My lord," Isaiah interrupted, "did you happen to commit any of these encounters to memory?"
"Yes. It was, after all, a large purchase."
"Then, if you would be willing, we can do better than a verbal description. FX can tap your memory and display it with glamour."
Étienne nodded. "I would be most interested."
"I'd like Jeanette to assist," said FX. "Her telepathic and mnemonic skills are better than mine." Jeanette nodded.
"And how may I assist?" asked the count.
"Recall those memories," said Isaiah, "and ready your mind as for a directed visualization. Jeanette and FX will take it from there."
Étienne nodded, stood at parade rest, and gazed into the middle distance. A little circle cleared before him, lined by his visitors and five of his lumberjacks – a woman, a man, two apes, and a horse – who had been fascinated by the play of illusions.
Suddenly, a small black woman appeared in the circle. Her features started out improbably average, but took on detail and individuality quickly. She wore the tunic and slacks that were business dress for both sexes in the Solar System, hued a subdued buff. A silver pin gleamed on her left shoulder – a little comedy mask.
The blond and the sim appeared soon after, the sim in an elegant skin that mimicked brushed steel, both in business dress, both wearing a little silver mask pin.
Then FX stepped aside and gestured, as though lifting an invisible curtain. A wall screen appeared to float in the air. The black woman's image flicked into it and replayed her conversations with Étienne. Then the screen showed the landing pad outside the count's mansion; the human and robot men arrived in a rental air car, delivering Andre and two similar androids. Canorus recorded it all with his comm unit. When the last illusions faded away, there was a patter of applause from the surrounding lumberjacks, clapping hands and thumping hooves.
"A hallmark," murmured Isaiah as the count waved everyone back to work. "Remember Noah's tooth? There were little theatrical masks carved all over it."
FX nodded. "Now, why would neb-runners do something as hazardous as use a hallmark? Surely security is more important to them than their advertising image. If not, then they're very confident. That's either very good for us or very bad, depending on whether or not the confidence is justified."
Isaiah shifted his weight back and forth uneasily. "You called them neb-runners. But we haven't found any nebs yet. Just a sheb. Now, I'm just as sure as you that the same organization made Andre and Noah, but we don't have proof yet. We don't even know for sure that the people who made Andre had any knowledge of the neb-running. Homunculine might be a mixture of innocent and guilty parties."
"Right, right," FX agreed. "Well, we'd better get more evidence. Vivian, how about a blood sample? If that's all right with you, count?"
"Certainly. If it is all right with Andre. What do you say, Andre?"
The android said, "Certainly, my lord," and offered Vivian his hand.
While Vivian took the sample, Étienne asked, "What do you think of all this, Andre? These folk say you were created a few weeks ago, from a tub of slime."
"I don't think so, my lord."
"And why not?"
"Because I remember a longer life than that."
Étienne raised his eyebrows and smiled at the investigators. "Interesting. His memory against your time-reading. Are his memories faked?"
"They could be," said Jeanette. "Two or three different ways. We'd better have a look. Isaiah, you're our best mnemonist. Shall we?"
She looked at the count. "Since you're interested in psi, want to come along?"
The count blinked in surprise, but nodded.
Jeanette turned to the android. "Andre, please think about the day you were delivered to Count Étienne." She made contact and Isaiah followed her in.
Andre was unused to obeying orders on what to think, but he was very used to the general idea of obeying. The mental images floated there, in the total blank of android affect. Jeanette gave Isaiah a mental nudge in the ribs, and he began tracing the memory back further.
The ride in the rental car. A long walk through streets lined with warehouses, following the blond and the sim. A lengthy lecture from the black woman about Count Étienne and Andre's duties. (Where had this lecture happened? Someplace dark and bare and harshly lit. A warehouse, it seemed.) Exercises of some sort – no, testing, psychological, neurological, physical test, by the blond man and the black woman. It had gone on for some time. It was the first thing of note to happen that day.
But what happened before anything noteworthy? One got up, of course, and had breakfast. Memories of Andre's morning routine in Étienne's service. No, no, before that. On that day. What was the old morning routine?
What were the routines of life before Étienne's service? Where had Andre lived?
There was a spaceship, of course. Images of a cargo hold, of drab, functional corridors.
Where was sleeping, on that spaceship? Where was eating? Who else was there?
And before the spaceship? Where had he lived? Where eaten and slept? Who had been there?
At an android farm, of course. Owned by Homunculine. Bred there fifteen Earth-years ago. Trained to secondary-school level, then trained in home economics, small business economics, etiquette, French, home engineering, telekinesis, mnemonic patharchy–
Stop, stop, this is a resume, a brochure, a recitation. Remember the Homunculine farm.
An image of barracks in countryside. A few interiors of barracks.
Who did you know at the Homunculine farm?
Where did you eat? Where did you sleep? Where were you taught?
"Interesting," said Isaiah aloud, and Jeanette and Étienne could feel the direction of his attention. Andre was feeling confused. He was not upset about the confusion, or worried, but he was confused. It was a powerful response, for an android. Perhaps Andre was learning how to be confused at this very moment.
Isaiah decided to try something. He had been sorting through Andre's memories as if they were his own. Now he tried to hunt for amnesia blocks in those memories, just as he would have hunted for them in his own. There was a risk, he knew, of imagining these blocks when they weren't there and, once they were undone, of imagining the memories on the other side.
But try it anyway. Think about waking up. Think about metal tubs. Think about lying on wet, leftover slime. No? Where does that resistance come from? There. Push. Wait.
Not lying on the back, as Isaiah had unconsciously expected, but on the left side, curled in the fetal position. Naked. Wet. Warm, but chilling quickly. Darkness around but harsh light above. A smiling face. The blond's...
No, he was dark-haired. The face was different. But the build was the same. Silhouetted in the dark, the shoulders and height were the same as the blond's. And something about the expression. There was at least a strong family resemblance. The dark man turned, smiling, to speak to someone. A woman. Short and fair. What did he say to her, and her to him? No memory of meaning – Andre had not been paying attention to the meaning and so it left no trace – but memories of the voices. The blond's voice, coming from the dark man, and the black woman's voice, coming from the short, fair woman.
Isaiah lingered over those new voices and faces and tied them firmly into his own memory. So did Jeanette, and so, for that matter, did Étienne. Isaiah dropped the contact.
They all sighed, even Andre.
"Confabulations," said the count. "Andre, my friend, your memories of life before here are confabulations, fakes. You began in that tub."
"Yes, my lord," said the android, obediently changing his beliefs.
"Not even good confabulations," Isaiah mused. "When humans make false memories, say under hypnosis, they come up with much more detail."
"Well," said Jeanette, "a human would have years of real experience to draw on for models. So would a normal android, a non-sheb."
Isaiah nodded. "And the human has unconscious motivation," he added. "Andre doesn't. Even those images of the android farm must have been supplied to him."
"Yes," said Jeanette. "We can forget about innocent parties at Homunculine. Andre's makers are not honest, whether or not they're the neb-runners."
"What names did the Homunculine people give?" Isaiah asked Étienne.
"The woman was Imogene Chase," he answered. "The human man was Jan Storen. The sim was Isaac Isenman. Or so they said."
"I'll start a check on the names," Canorus said, "but they won't be real."
"No," said Isaiah, "and their faces weren't real, and Andre's background isn't real. But that tub of slime in the dark was real. And so maybe the faces around it were real, too."
"Here's something else real," said Vivian, holding up the little vial containing Andre's blood. "And I want samples from your other two androids, Count, if you don't mind. Then we'll look up Noah and see if he's solid enough yet to have real DNA. If they all match, we'll know that the same person made Noah and Andre."
A few minutes later, they were walking back. (None of the neo-horses were in-bound.) Behind them, the lumber camp buzzed with gossip and speculation. Many people gathered around Andre, pumping him. Isaiah remarked to Jeanette, "If the DNA matches, we'll know they were all made by the same person, but we won't know where that person is. They could be anywhere within light-centuries."
She shrugged. "We're not done yet. We'll have to see what else they've left behind."
On to Chapter 15, Heights
Back to Chapter 13, Baronies
Return to Dragons' Teeth Introduction
Return to Wind Off the Hilltop
Copyright © Earl Wajenberg, 2013