Familiarity and invisibility are sides of the same coin.
The Valiant stood on its shelf, polished and brilliant. Its shining presence, and Tripley’s ignorance of its significance, amused her. A mean-spirited reaction, she thought, but nonetheless there it was.
“I wasn’t sure,” she told him, “that you’d consent to see me.” They were alone in his office.
He kept his emotions masked and his tone detached. “Why would I not, Kim?” He remained seated behind his desk, allowing her to stand.
“I didn’t intend any of this to happen,” she said.
“I know that.” He pushed back in his chair. “But we all know about good intentions. You destroyed my father’s reputation.” His voice remained flat. “He did not kill those people. He would never have harmed anyone”
“I believe that. I think something unexpected happened during the flight of the Hunter. Something that caused the tragedy.” She lowered herself into a chair. She’d rehearsed everything she’d planned to say, but it all disintegrated in the heat of his presence. “This is not my fault,” she said.
“I know. More or less, it isn’t. But there’s no help for it now. I know you didn’t act out of vindictiveness. I’d have preferred you listened to me at the start, when I tried to warn you what would happen. But—” He shrugged. “It’s a bit late now.”
“Ben, there was no way I could not pursue this. It was a question of finding the truth.”
“And did you find the truth, Kim?”
Her eyes circled back to the Valiant. “Part of it.”
“Part of it.” His intercom sounded. He broke off, listened, told the machine he’d take care of the matter later, and looked back at her. “What truth have you discovered?”
What truth indeed? That the Valiant is a replica of the thing the Tripley mission encountered on the far side of St. Johns? That the Hunter was invaded by something unearthly?—How else explain what happened?—She was gazing at the Valiant as if it were a sacred object. “Tell me again where this came from,” she said.
He looked at it, puzzled. “What has that to do with anything?”
“Humor me, Ben.”
He shrugged. “My grandmother gave it to me.”
She got up and went over to it, looked at it, and ran her fingers across the shell. “May I?”
She picked it up and gazed casually at it. “I’d like to have one of these made up for my nephew.”
He glanced at the spacecraft. “I can get you a sketch if you like.”
“I’d appreciate it.”
“It is a lovely piece.”
“I think I mentioned before it belonged originally to my father.”
She nodded. “Your grandmother passed it along to you.”
Muscles worked in his jaw. “That’s correct. I assume she told you that.”
“I’m sorry about that, too,” she said.
“It’s all right. You’ve caught me in a generous mood.” He softened. “Why the interest? Why do you care about it?”
“Bear with me a moment and I’ll tell you.” She held it under a lamp, letting its polished gleam sink into her fingertips. “When you were a boy, did it bother you that it had no propulsion tubes? No main engines? No way to get from one place to another?”
“Kim,” he said, perplexed, “what are we talking about here?”
She laid it before him, set it down on his desk, and then held out a picture of Kane’s mural. He took it from her, glanced at it, then gazed intently at the turtle-shell ship in Emily’s hand. He looked at the Valiant, frowned, and turned on a desk lamp. “Where did you get this?” he asked.
“It’s on a wall in Markis’s villa.”
His attention moved back and forth between the picture and the replica. “It’s the same, isn’t it?”
“Looks like it.”
“What the hell is it doing in one of Kane’s sketches?” Genuinely surprised, he put the picture down, placed both palms under the model’s superstructure, lifted it, and stared at it as if seeing it for the first time. She watched him examine it, studying its antennas and sensor dishes and hatches. Here along the lower hull was a long door that might have led to a cargo hold or a launch bay for a lander. There was the familiar ring antenna used for hypercomm transmissions. Here was a pod that, to a boy, might have concealed a missile cluster.
Then his face changed, grew dark. He hefted the vehicle and his brow furrowed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I don’t know.” He was staring at the model, weighing it with his hands. “It feels lighter than it used to.” He set it down and scratched the back of his neck. He ran his fingertips along the aft section. “That’s strange,” he said, puzzled.
She watched his eyes narrow.
“The rear hull should have a crease in it. But it’s not there.”
“I don’t follow.”
“There was a dent in the hull. Nothing you’d see unless you were looking closely.” He stared at the model. “And the gun’s different.”
Kim noticed for the first time that a short metal stud jutted out of the Valiant’s nose. “Different how?”
He touched it with his index finger. “Rounded muzzle,” he said.
“It should have a rough feel. Whatever was on there originally was broken off.”
“You’re saying what? That the model’s been repaired? Or—?”
“—This isn’t mine. It’s a replica.”
“Of course I’m sure.” He set it down on the desk and stared at it. “I’ll be damned if I can figure this out.” He picked up the picture of Kane’s mural. Then he punched a key on the intercom. “Mary, would you come in a moment, please?”
Mary put her head in the door. She was the dark-skinned female from the outer office. “Yes, Mr. Tripley?”
He directed her attention to the Valiant. “This is a duplicate,” he said. “Do you know what happened to the original? Did somebody break it and get another one?”
“No, sir,” she said. “Not that I know of.”
“I’ll be damned if I understand that,” he said when she was gone. His gaze turned toward Kim. “Do you know anything about this?”
“No.” She was running her own fingers over the model, trying to find the dent. “Had it always been damaged?” she asked.
“As long as I can remember.”
“Odd,” she said. She glanced at the time and stood. “Well, I don’t want to take up your day, Ben. I just wanted you to know that I’m sorry for the trouble I’ve caused, and that I’m sure when the whole story comes out your father’s reputation will be intact.”
He was watching her, holding her with his eyes. “Tell me what you know about the Valiant.”
She shook her head. “I just did. I saw it in the mural. I thought you might know how that happened.”
“I’ve no idea,” he said, subsiding.
“I appreciate your time, Ben.” She started for the door.
“It’s okay.” He got up this time. “Thanks for coming by. You’ll let me know if you find out what’s going on? With my starship?”
“Of course,” she said.
She could feel him watching her while she walked to the lift.
Kim rode up to the main concourse, trying to sort it out. Why would anyone steal the replica? She got slowly off and joined the crowd moving purposefully along the promenade, where observation areas provided a magnificent view of the ocean world.
She walked slowly through the mall considering the possibilities, wandering among the shops. The shops were mostly souvenir and clothing stores. There was a Translux, which sold travel packages, on– and off-world. And a cosmetologist. And a Loki’s, which specialized in games and puzzles. They’d put a poster in the window, an artist’s drawing of the type that twists perspective. In this one a staircase seemed to rise from landing to landing around the inside of a hall, before reconnecting eventually, without a visible descent, with the bottom of the stairway. One would climb these stairs forever without getting anywhere. Yet it was hard to see where the perspective changed, how the stairway got back to the bottom.
And she realized why the Valiant had been taken. And by whom.
Ten minutes later she was back outside Interstellar’s main offices. She opened the door, hoping to see only Mary, but prepared with a story in the event she ran into Ben again.
The assistant was alone at her desk. She looked up as Kim went in.
“Good afternoon, Dr. Brandywine. Did you forget something?”
“A pen,” she said, making a show of examining the couch she’d sat in when she’d first arrived. “Oh yes, here it is.” She produced one out of her sleeve and held it up where it could be seen.
“Well,” Mary said, “that was easy enough.”
“Yes.” Kim was walking slowly toward the door, apparently fumbling to return the pen to its normal place in a breast pocket. She paused in front of the desk. “Mary, I wonder if you could tell me something?”
“Yes, if I can.”
“The business with Mr. Tripley’s decorative starship. Is there a security problem here?”
“Oh, no. Not that I’m aware of. That’s the first time I’ve heard of anything being taken. I’m sure it’ll show up. Somebody probably moved it during cleaning or something.”
“The cleaning crew comes in at—?”
Finally, everything was beginning to make sense. It was all a matter of perception, and she’d been as blind as Tripley. Who would have thought?
She rode the lift down in high spirits, and caught the train to Blanchet Preserve. From there she took a cab to Tempest, giving it Sheyel’s address. On the way, she rehearsed what she would say, a mixture of admonition and congratulations. She was in a blissful mood and ready to celebrate, half expecting to see him stride triumphantly out of the house during her approach. He’d know once he saw her coming that she’d figured it out, and he’d be anxious to show her the trophy.
There was, of course, an ethical problem in all this, but she put it aside as the taxi glided through the warm afternoon sunlight. Time enough to think about that later. Anyway it wouldn’t be a question of stealing anything. Sheyel, like herself, just wanted to solve a long-standing puzzle. And make a point.
And by God were they ever going to make a point!
The treetops opened up and she was circling his house. Inside, the AI would be informing him of the approaching visitor, of the descending cab, but the doors stayed shut.
She settled to earth, paid up, and got out.
The taxi lifted off.
She strode up to the front entrance. The house stared silently back at her. “Sheyel,” she said. “Congratulations.”
The afternoon was pleasant and still. Insects hummed and a blue jay watched her curiously from the lip of a fountain.
A gentle breeze sighed in the treetops.
She looked at the empty windows. The jay took off and landed on the roof.
Kim tried her commlink. A female voice came on the line: “I’m sorry. Dr. Tolliver is not available at the moment. If you wish to leave him a message, please do so.”
“This is Kim Brandywine,” she told the AI. “I’m doing some work for Dr. Tolliver. He’ll want to know about it forthwith. Can you please put me in touch with him?”
“I’m sorry, Dr. Brandywine. But he does not like to be disturbed. When he calls in, I’ll be certain to tell him you’ve been trying to contact him.”
And it shut off.
Where was he? She should have called before coming all the way out here, but she’d assumed he’d be home, and she’d wanted to take him unawares. And to help him celebrate his coup properly. In person.
She walked around the house, but saw no one, inside or out.
Where would he have gone?
Only one place she could think of.
Sheyel had always maintained that few actions are driven by reason. People act out of emotion, perception, prejudice. They will believe what they’ve always believed, filtering out all evidence to the contrary. Until they go too far and run onto the rocks of reality.
If she was guessing right about Sheyel, he was about to run onto a few rocks himself.
She called Shep on the commlink.
“I need you to do something for me.”
“Of course, Kim.”
“I want you to design an entity.”
“Consider it an intellectual exercise.” She described everything she knew about the intruder. And the creature in the lake. Apparent incorporeity. Green eyes. Green tinge. Electrical fields. Free hydrogen molecules. Methane. Oxygen.
“I can give you a model,” Shep said after a few minutes, “but I do not think it would be a lifeform that would evolve naturally.”
Kim had summoned another cab, and she was watching it approach. “Doesn’t matter. What have you got?”
“Uneven charge distribution in individual cells.”
“A living system need not be contained within a coherent sheath. A skin cover or shell. It is possible that regions of opposite charges, enclosed for example by a pocket of ionized gases, could function quite effectively by manipulating each other within the system.”
“It sounds as if you’re talking about a living battery.”
“That’s an oversimplification. Let me explain in more detail—”
“No. That’s okay. Might such a system achieve intelligence?”
“I’m not sure how to define intelligence. But I think it could perform fairly sophisticated tasks.”
“Like piloting a starship?”
“Where would it get energy?”
“You indicated a greenish tint. Green eyes. That might indicate the presence of chloroplasts. That would allow it to convert light.”
She directed the flyer to take off. “How would you combat such a creature?”
“Lure it into an area of extremely high winds. Separate the molecules. Put enough external pressure on it that it becomes unable to maintain its integrity.”
“Blow it apart.”
“I might not have a hurricane handy. What else?”
“It would also be vulnerable, I would think, to short circuiting.”
She took the cab back into town, to a tech shop, tended by an aging woman in a trim black suit. Her hair was silver and her expression placid. She looked out of place, the sort of culturally resplendent woman one might expect to find discussing art while presiding over a salon. “Can I assist you?” she asked, with perfect diction.
“Yes,” Kim said. “I wonder if anyone has recently asked you to make a model starship?” She showed her a picture of the Valiant. “It would have looked like this.”
The woman studied the picture. “Why, yes,” she said. “We did do something very much like that. In fact, we still have the template.”
Gotcha, Sheyel. “Would you be willing,” asked Kim, “to make one for me?”
“The same model?”
“If you like.” She brought up a schedule on her screen. “Tomorrow at about this time?”
“Oh,” said Kim. “That won’t do, I’m afraid. I’m just passing through. Out on the next train. I hoped you might be able to do it while I wait.”
The woman nodded to herself, consulted the screen again. “I’ll need about an hour,” she said.
“Good. Do it. I’ll be back.”
“There’s an extra charge.”
The third edition of the Valiant looked as good as either of the others. When this was all over, she promised herself, it would make a fine souvenir.
The proprietor sealed it in a box, accepted payment, and Kim rode to the station, arriving just in time to see an east-bound freight passing. Its lights winked out as her own train appeared around a bend.
The ride from the Preserve to Eagle Point was just under two hours. She tried to sleep, but she was too tense. She gave up after a while and sat watching the countryside begin to grow dark.
At 8:20 local time she walked into the lobby of the Gateway, registered, went up to her room, and activated the phone. “I’ll need a flyer tonight.”
“Certainly, Dr. Brandywine,” came the electronic voice, neither male nor female. “Did you have any particular model in mind?”
“The same one I had last time, if it’s available.”
“It is. Will there be anything else?”
Kim thought it over. “Yes,” she said. “A crucifix, a wooden stake, and a silver bullet.”
“Never mind,” she said. “It’s a joke.”
Next she called Plaza Sporting Goods and ordered a portable microwave oven. “I’m going into a protected area,” she explained. “Where they don’t allow fires.”
“Ah.” The voice belonged to an automated clerk. “We have just the thing. What size does madame prefer?”
“The biggest you have.”
“The family size. Very good. This model is big enough to cook a large game bird.”
“Excellent. That’s exactly what I want.”
She just had time for a quick snack, after which the hotel informed her that her flyer was ready, and that her package from Plaza Sporting Goods had arrived. She pulled on her jacket, and took a moment to gaze around the room. The last time she’d been in the Gateway, Solly had been with her. And had urged her not to go back to Severin without him.
She put a laser cutter into her pocket, picked up the spare Valiant, and headed for the roof.
Ten minutes later she was south bound, moving through a night sky illuminated by the distant flicker of lightning over the western mountains. It was a beautiful evening, crisp and still. Two moons were rising through a filmy haze. Another was directly overhead.
Kim watched the lights of the city begin to fade. She tried to relax in the darkened cabin, and to anticipate the reaction she’d receive from her old teacher. She expected that he’d be pleased to see her, to show off his trophy. And perhaps to have a witness to the presence that he hoped to entice. But she wasn’t sure. Sheyel was becoming unpredictable.
The screens showed another aircraft off to the east, a little behind, moving parallel. It was a black-and-white Cloudrider, a luxurious vehicle favored by VIPs and corporate executives.
She watched it for several minutes until it changed course and veered away.
“Doctor,” said the AI, whose name was Jerry, “you haven’t specified a destination.”
“We don’t have one yet,” she said. “Stay southwest. Toward Mount Hope.”
She had come to the realization that Sheyel wasn’t going to want to give the Valiant back.
Had she an ethical responsibility to urge its return? To insist? Probably. But somewhere down deep she was pleased that he’d gotten away with it. And she didn’t really want to see it returned to Tripley. What right had he to a treasure of this magnitude? He’d walked into it by accident, and had never understood its significance.
“We have arrived, Doctor,” Jerry said. “Have you further instructions?”
She couldn’t see anything down there. Even Remorse was lost in gloom. “Circle,” she said. “Stay at six hundred meters. Keep just offshore. We’re looking for a landed flyer.”
“I will tell you if I detect one.”
The aircraft moved deliberately around the perimeter of the lake. Kim watched for a light, but saw no break in the darkness. After a while Jerry reported they had done a complete sweep. “There is no other aircraft in the vicinity,” it said, “either aloft or on the ground.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Do you wish to expand the search?”
“No.” Sheyel wasn’t here yet, but he would arrive before the night was over. “There’s some open space in the town. Set down there. But keep the door closed.” Not that she had any illusions that a locked door would be sufficient to keep out unwelcome critters. But it would make her feel a little safer.
She put a hand on the microwave oven, then made another effort to raise Sheyel, but once again she got only the recording.
Kim was reasonably certain she knew what he planned on doing with the Valiant: it was going to serve as a lure, to summon the phantom, the thing that had been left over from the Mount Hope incident. Sheyel Tolliver wanted to make first contact. He believed as she had that the creature could be reasoned with. One had only to draw it into conversation.
The flyer eased down between ruined buildings. The sky was clear and the stars ran on forever.
She turned off the lights but left the engine running.