One assumes the kindness of a friend;
But the kindness of a stranger,
Ah, that is of a different order of magnitude—
“And you thought Tripley’s grandmother put the body in the river.” Matt’s eyes contained a rare twinkle.
“I couldn’t imagine who else might have done it. I never even thought of Kane.”
“Do you think Tora knows?”
“She knows.” They were on the sundeck at Kim’s home. It was a trifle cool but the day was pleasant and the sound of the surf soothing.
“I wonder what the customs people will say when they find out somebody smuggled a starship past them.” His eyes closed. “So what are you going to do now? You can’t really sit on something like this.”
“What do you suggest?”
“Turn it over to Woodbridge.”
“Then nothing. We’re out of it at that point.”
“Look, Kim, I understand how you feel. The reputations of Kane and Tripley are hanging out there. People think they’re killers. But they’re the ones who mismanaged everything. You have an agreement with Woodbridge and he’s absolutely right. We’re just going to have to swallow this as best we can.”
She stared out to sea. “Matt, we aren’t talking reputations anymore. Or politics. Think about what happened out there. At Alnitak.”
“Yes, they did. They encountered a vehicle from another civilization, and they hijacked it.”
“One of the most important events in human history. We need to find a way to set things right.”
“Are we talking about the celestials?”
“Yeah. That’s exactly what I’m talking about.”
“Kim, how in heaven can we do that? It’s done. Fini. Too late.”
“Maybe not. We could try mounting another mission. Go back to Alnitak and try again to talk to them.”
“That’s good. Wasn’t it you the other day who was calling them murderous sons of bitches? Who wanted to kill them all? Wasn’t it you who stirred up Woodbridge? Warned him that we shouldn’t let anybody near the little bastards? I think that’s quoted correctly.”
“—Who encouraged him to cancel Beacon? Which project, by the way, the director was proud of? And which your colleagues had been working on for years?”
“Matt, I was wrong. Think about what happened. The crew of the Valiant sacrificed themselves to save members of a species that had kidnapped and marooned them. Why do you think they did that?”
“I don’t know. Maybe they weren’t very bright.”
“I think they’re worth getting to know.”
A couple of joggers were passing. They waved, and Kim and Flexner waved back. “Flip-flop,” he said. “Are these things dangerous or not?”
“Of course they’re dangerous. But think how the Hunter incident must have looked to them. Look, we know that the Valiant had a hyperspace capability. That would also mean they’d have hypercomm. If they were in trouble, as apparently they were, they’d already sent out a call for help. What would they have done when the Hunter arrived? Another message, right? ‘My God, you ought to see this huge son of a bitch that just showed up.’”
“And what do they say next?”
“‘They’re trying to grab us.’”
“Exactly. The transmission probably gets cut off in the middle. That’s why Solly and I found an unfriendly welcome when we arrived in the neighborhood. Ask yourself how we’d react if a giant ship grabbed one of ours. No wonder they wanted to know our address.” She listened to him breathe and wondered why he was so fearful. Why was there no one like Solly in the upper levels of the organization?
Flexner shook his head. “It’s too late to repair the damage now. I mean, how can you do it? It looks as if it’s a shoot-first situation out there. And we can’t even talk to them.”
“Sure we can.”
“Oh yeah. Two-four-six-eight. That’s good.”
“Matt, we’ve got to talk with something other than language. Something they’ll understand.”
He got up, walked to the end of the deck, and looked out at the sea. “What would you suggest?”
“The Valiant. I think we go back and do a gesture.”
“Return the Valiant. Tell them we’re sorry and leave it to them to figure out what the words mean. The important thing is the gesture. So we stand out there, give them a clear shot at us, show them we trust them, and return their ship.”
“Sounds like a formula for getting killed.”
“Maybe,” she said. “But people who’ll sacrifice themselves for strangers—” A couple of kids playing tag ran giggling through the yard and past the Institute flyer. Kim watched them for a minute.
“Let me think it over,” said Flexner. “We can make a judgment on that more easily after we’ve had a good look at the thing. After we have a better idea what their technology looks like.” He gazed at her uncertainly. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I don’t think we can risk doing the lab work, Matt.”
His face hardened. “Why not?”
“Because it’ll get out. I don’t believe we’re capable of keeping the secret. Once it’s out, we’ll lose the ship and that’ll be the end.”
“We can keep it quiet,” he insisted. “I’ve been careful about the people we’re bringing in.” He sounded frightened.
“No. We’re only going to have one chance to do this right.”
“Kim, it really doesn’t matter what you and I think. Woodbridge would never allow it.”
“I agree. So we don’t tell him.”
“No.” He shook his head. “We can’t do this.”
Come on, Matt, show some guts for once.
“Then you can forget about the Valiant. It’ll stay where it is.”
“Kim, I wish you’d be reasonable.”
She pressed her advantage: “We’ll have to move on this before word gets out that we have a celestial. We’ll have to plan the rendezvous in such a way that nothing would be at risk except the ship and crew. Strip the data banks so there’s no way to trace them back here, even in a worst-case scenario. Give everybody poison, if you want.”
“Kim, you’re putting me in a terrible position.”
“I know.” She looked at him. “Make it happen, Matt.”
“Phil will never allow it.”
“Don’t tell him, either.”
“What? How can I not tell Phil?”
“Matt, this time you have to make the call.”
He got up, took out his remote, and started the flyer. “I’ll let you know,” he said.
She watched the aircraft lift into the sky, retrieved the Kane disk, relabeled it ACCOUNTING, and left it on the coffee table. In plain sight. Then she sat quietly for a few minutes watching the tide come in. “Shep, give me Solly.”
“I disapprove, Kim. Your state of mind precludes—”
She heard the electronic whine. It took longer than usual this time. But Solly appeared, wearing diving gear. He frowned, said something uncomplimentary about Shepard, removed his fins and converter, sat down on a virtual bench, and looked at Kim. “Hi, babe,” he said.
“Hello, Solly.” Her strength ebbed out of her. “I wish we could do it again.”
“Do what?” he asked.
“Dive,” she said. “Dive deep.”
She listened to the sea. “I miss you, Solly.”
“I know. You’ll just have to give it time. There’ll be others.”
“Sorry.” And after a moment: “I shouldn’t stay.”
“That’s Shepard talking.”
“No. It’s me.” He gazed for a long moment into her eyes. The room seemed very quiet. “I have a suggestion.”
“I don’t want you to take offense.”
She knew what was coming. “I won’t, Solly.”
“It would be best if you let me be. For a while anyhow, until you’ve got things back together.”
She stared at him. His image got blurry. “Solly, I can’t stand it, not having you here.”
“You don’t. You never went through anything like this.”
“Kim, you were the best part of my life. And I wouldn’t trade the voyage to Alnitak for anything. The price was worth it.”
He grew indistinct and faded gradually, very unlike Shep’s usual exit technique. When he was gone she got up, started for the bedroom, but paused at the foot of the stairs. “Shep?”
“How did you know what happened on the Hammersmith?”
The AI didn’t answer.
Two days later Matt called to tell her they were moving ahead with the Alnitak mission and that he was optimistic. She asked whether there was anything she could do.
“Just stay out of trouble,” he said.
It was midafternoon. She’d just gotten home after completing a luncheon speaking engagement at the Seabright Literary Society. A heavy rain was pounding the island. At this time of year storms came in every day at a quarter to three. They moved as punctually as the trains. She was sprawled on the divan, listening to the weather, thinking about the Valiant, when Shep broke in. “Kim,” he said, “Tora Kane would like to speak with you. She says it’s urgent.”
Kim looked around the room. It was not very tidy. “Put her through, Shep. Audio.” And after the click: “Hello, Tora. What can I do for you?”
“Kim, I’m at home. Can you come over? There’s something I want to show you.”
“Sure. What’s it about?”
“Not on an open circuit. I’ll tell you when you get here. Please hurry.”
So they were on a first-name basis now. Puzzled, Kim sent for a taxi. Ten minutes later she was in the air, headed north. Rain beat down on the aircraft and the wind gave her a rough ride. But the storm subsided as she came in sight of Tora’s villa. The flyer descended onto the pad and Kim got out, instructing the vehicle to wait. She splashed through puddles and climbed onto the porch.
“Can I help you?” asked the house AI.
“Dr. Kane asked me to come by.”
“I’m sorry. Dr Kane is not at home.”
“That can’t be right. Are you sure?”
“She is not here. But I will be happy to relay a message to her, if you wish.”
Kim stared at the front door. The house stared back.
She used her commlink to find Kane’s number and then put through a call. It chimed twice.
“Tora, this is Kim Brandywine.”
“Hello, Brandywine. What can I do for you?”
“I’m at your place. You asked me to come over.”
“At your place.”
“My place? I don’t know anything about it. Who’d you talk to?”
“Forget it,” she said. She switched to Shep’s circuit, but he didn’t answer.
Not good. She strode quickly to the taxi and ordered it back home.
Two hours later she walked into Matt’s office. He looked up from his desk, surprised to see her, startled at her appearance. “You okay?” he asked.
She closed the door behind her and sat down. “Somebody’s been at Shep.”
“Uh-oh. What did they get?”
“I think we can assume everything.”
“The Kane disk?”
He looked around the office as if suddenly wondering whether it was secure. “Why? Who would do it?”
“I can only think of one person.”
“So what’s everything? Do they know what we talked about this morning?”
“There’s no way to be sure. Shep didn’t have any of it, but it’s possible somebody was listening.”
Matt nodded slowly. “So what did they get that they didn’t already have?”
“They know where it is?”
“They know it exists.”
“That’s not so good.” He inhaled. Exhaled. Looked uncertain. “I was going to call you.”
“I’ve spoken with Dr. Agostino.”
“I thought we agreed we wouldn’t bring him in.”
“Come on, Kim. Be reasonable. He understands the situation and he’s willing to set up a contact team.”
“He’s probably why I got raided.”
“I don’t believe it. When’d it happen?”
“I talked to him less than an hour ago.” It was almost five o’clock.
“All right,” she said. “Look, they’ll be coming after the Valiant. We need to get moving.”
“The plan was to leave next week. We thought that was pushing it.”
“Not good enough. We need to be on our way tomorrow.”
“That’s not practical.”
“Forget practical. We’d be better off clearing out tonight. Tell everybody we go tomorrow. Anybody who can’t be there, leave without.”
“You’ll need supplies, Kim. This kind of thing can’t be managed overnight.”
“This one has to be. Do it overnight or forget it.”
“I’ll do what I can,” he said. “We’ll be using the McCollum. It’s in port and ready to go. All we need is the people.”
“Then get them started. Have we got a pilot?”
“Ali Kassem. Do you know him?”
“Met him once or twice.” Solly had spoken well of him. That was good enough.
Matt called her at home late that evening. “We got a late request,” he said. “Can you talk to the Terminal City Business Association tomorrow?”
It was the signal. They would leave tomorrow night.
She complained that it was short notice, and he apologized, said he’d originally planned to handle it himself, but something had come up, and he’d appreciate it.
“Okay,” she said. “But you owe me.”
And she went to bed happy.