Lois McMaster Bujold, "ETHAN OF ATHOS"

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CHAPTER EIGHT

After a moment's stunned silence Ethan sputtered, "What do you want of Athos?"

"Refuge, sir," said the young man. "For I'm surely a refuCee." Tension rendered his smile false and anxious. He grew more urgent as Ethan backed away slightly. "The census courier's manifest listed one of your titles as ambassador-at-large. You can give me political asylum, can't you?"

"I—I—" Ethan stammered. "That was just something the Population Council threw in at the last minute, because no one was sure what I'd find out here. I'm not really a diplomat, I'm a doctor." He stared at the young man, who stared back with a kind of beaten hunger. The automatic part of Ethan totted up the symptoms of fatigue Cee presented: grey in the hollows of his skin, bloodshot sclera, a barely observable tremula in his smooth corded hands. A horrid realization shook Ethan. "Look, uh—you aren't by chance asking me to protect you from Ghem-colonel Millisor, are you?"

Cee nodded.

"Oh—oh, no. You don't understand. It's just me, out here. I don't have an embassy or anything like that. I mean, real embassies have security guards, soldiers, a whole intelligence corps—"

Cee's smile twisted. "Does the man who arranged Okita's last accident really need them?"

Ethan stood with his mouth open, his utter dismay robbing him of reply.

Cee went on. "There are many of them—Millisor can command the resources of Cetaganda against me—and I'm alone. The only one left. The sole survivor. Alone, it isn't a question whether they'll loll me, only how soon." His beautiful structured hands opened in pleading. "I was sure I'd eluded them, and it was safe to double back. Only to find Millisor— the fearless vampire hunter himself!—" the young man's mouth thinned in bitterness, "squatting across the last gateway. I beg you, sir. Grant me asylum."

Ethan cleared his throat nervously. "Ah—just what do you mean by 'vampire hunter'?"

"It's how he views himself," Cee shrugged. "To him all his crimes are heroics, for the good of Cetaganda, because somebody has to do the dirty work—his exact thought, that. He's proud to do it. But he doesn't have to nerve himself to do the dirty work on me. He hates and fears me worse than any hell, in his secretive little soul—ha! As if his secrets were more vital or vile than anyone else's. As if I gave a damn for his secrets, or his soul."

Wanly, Ethan recognized the seasick symptoms of talk at cross-purposes again. He stretched for some bottom to this floating conversation. "What are you?"

The young man drew back, his face suddenly shuttered with suspicion. "Asylum. Asylum first, and then you can have it all."

"Huh?"

The suspicion turned to despair before Ethan's eyes. The excitement that hope had lent Cee evaporated, leaving a bleak dryness. "I understand. You see me as they do. A medical monstrosity, put together from graveyard bits, cooked in a vat. Well," he inhaled resolution, "so be it. But I'll have venfeance on Ghem-captain Rau, at least, before my death. That much I swear to Janine." Ethan seized upon the one intelligible item in all this, and with as much dignity he could muster said, "If by a Vat' you are referring to a uterine replicator, I'll have you know I was incubated in a uterine replicator myself, and it is every bit as good as any other method of generation. Better. So I'll thank you not to insult my origins, or my life's work."

Some of the same floating confusion that Ethan was sure must be in his own face crossed Cee's. Why not. Misery, Ethan thought with acid satisfaction, loves company.

The young man—boy, really, for take away the aging effects of exhaustion upon him and he was surely younger than Janos—seemed about to speak, then shook his head and turned away.

Necessity, thought Ethan frantically, is the uterine replicator of invention. "Wait!" he cried. "I grant you the asylum of Athos!" He might as well have promised the remission of Cee's sins as well, since he had about as much power to effect one as the other. But Cee turned back anyway, hope flaring again in his blue eyes, hot like a gas jet. "Only," Ethan went on, "you have to tell me where you took the ovarian cultures the Population Council ordered from Bharaputra Laboratories."

It was Terrence Cee's turn to stand in open-mouthed dismay now. "Didn't Athos receive them?"

"No."

The breath hissed from the blond man's mouth as though he had been struck in the stomach. "Millisor! He must have got them! But no—but how—he could not conceal—"

Ethan cleared his throat gently. "Unless you think your Colonel Millisor would spend seven hours interrogating me—quite unpleasantly—as to their whereabouts for a practical joke, I don't think so."

It was actually quite refreshing to see somebody else look as agitated as he felt, Ethan thought. Cee turned to his new protector, his arms spread wide in bewilderment.

"But Dr. Urquhart—if you don't have them, and I don't have them, and Millisor doesn't have them— where'd they go?"

Ethan thought he finally understood Elli Quinn's stated dislike of being on the damned defensive. He'd had a belly full of it himself. Dump enough shit on it, he thought savagely, and even the fragile seed of resolution in his timid heart might blossom into something greater. He smiled pleasantly at the blond young man. Cee really did look like a shorter, thinner Janos. It was the coloration that did it. But Cee's mouth held no hint of the petulance that sometimes marred Janos's when set in anger or weariness.

"Suppose," suggested Ethan, "we pool our information and find out?"

Cee gazed up at him—he was several centimeters shorter than Ethan—and asked, "Are you truly Athos's senior intelligence agent?"

"In a sense," murmured Athos's only agent of any description, "yes."

Cee nodded. "It would be a pleasure, sir." He took a deep breath. "I must have some purified tyramine, then. I used the last of my supply on Millisor three days ago."

Tyramine was an ammo acid precursor of any number of endogenous brain chemicals, but Ethan had never heard of it as a truth drug. "I beg your pardon?"

"For my telepathy," said Cee impatiently.

The floor seemed to drop away under Ethan. Far, far away. "The whole psionics hypothesis was definitively disproved hundreds of years ago," he heard his own voice say distantly. "There is no such thing as mental telepathy."

Terrence Cee touched his forehead in a gesture that reminded Ethan of a patient describing a migraine.

"There is now," he said simply.

Ethan stood blinded by the dawning of a new age. "We are standing," he croaked at last, "in the middle of a bleeding public mallway in one of the most closely monitored environments in the galaxy. Before Colonel Millisor leaps out a lift tube, don't you think we'd better, uh, find some quieter place to talk?"

"Oh. Oh, yes, of course, sir. Is your safe house nearby?"

"Er ... Is yours?"

The young man grimaced. "As long as my cover identity holds."

Ethan gestured invitingly, and Cee led off. Safe house, Ethan decided, must be a generic espionage term for any hideout, for Cee took him not to a home but to a cheap hostel reserved for transients with Stationer work permits. Here were housed clerks, housekeepers, porters, and other lower-echelon employees of the service sector whose function Ethan could only guess at, such as the two women in bright clothing and gaudy make-up almost Cetagandan in its unnatural coloration, who started to accost Cee and himself and shouted some unintelligible insult after them when they brushed hastily by.

Cee's quarters were a near-clone of Ethan's own neglected Economy Cabin, plain and cramped. Ethan wondered rather fearfully if Cee were reading his mind right now—apparently not, for the Cetagandan expatriate gave no sign of realizing his mistake yet.

"I take it," said Ethan, "that your powers are intermittent."

"Yes," replied Cee. "If my escape to Athos had gone as I'd originally planned, I meant never to use them again. I suppose your government will demand my services as the price of its protection, now."

"I—I don't know," answered Ethan honestly. "But if you truly possess such a talent, it would seem a shame not to use it. I mean, one can see the applications right away."

"Can't one, though," muttered Cee bitterly.

"Look at pediatric medicine—what a diagnostic aid for pre-verbal patients! Babies who can't answer, Where does it hurt? What does it feel like? Or for stroke victims or those paralyzed in accidents who have lost all ability to communicate, trapped in their bodies. God the Father," Ethan's enthusiasm mounted, "you could be an absolute savior!"

Terrence Cee sat down rather heavily. His eyes widened in wonder, narrowed in suspicion. "I'm more often regarded as a menace. No one I've met who knew my secret ever suggested any use for me but espionage."

"Well—were they espionage agents themselves?"

"Now that you mention it—yes, for the most part."

"So, there you are. They see you as what they would be, given your gift."

Cee gave him a very odd look, and smiled slowly. "Sir, I hope you're right." His posture became less closed, some part of the tension uncoiling in his lean muscles, but his blue eyes remained intent upon Ethan. "Do you realize that I am not a human being, Dr. Urquhart? I'm an artificial genetic construct, a composite from a dozen sources, with a sensory organ squatting like a spider in my brain that no human being ever had. I have no father and no mother. I wasn't born, I was made. And that doesn't horrify you?"

"Well, er—where did the men who made you get all your other genes? From other people, surely?" asked Ethan.

"Oh, yes. Carefully selected strains, all politically purified." Wormwood could not have set Cee's mouth in a tighter line.

"So," said Ethan "if you count back, let me see, four generations, every human being is a composite from as many as sixteen different sources. They're called ancestors, but it comes to the same thing. Your mix was just marginally less random, that's all. Now, I do know genetics. With the exception of that new organ you claim, I can flat guarantee the just marginally.' That is not the test of your humanity." "So what is the test of humanity?" "Well—you have free will, obviously, or you could not be opposing your creators. Therefore you are not an automaton, but a child of God the Father, answerable to Him according to your abilities," Ethan catechized.

If Ethan had sprouted wings and flapped up to the ceiling Cee could not be staring at him in more shaken astonishment. It seemed as though these perfectly obvious facts had never before been presented to him.

Cee strained forward. "What am I to you, then, if not a monster?"

Ethan scratched his chin reflectively. "We all remain children of the Father, however we may otherwise be orphaned. You are my brother, of course."

"Of course . . . ?" echoed Cee. His legs and arms drew in, making his body a tight ball. Tears leaked between his squeezed eyelids. He scrubbed his face roughly on his trouser knee, smearing the tears' reflective sheen across his flushed face. "Damn it," he whispered, "I'm the ultimate weapon, the super agent. I survived it all. How can you make me weep now?" Suddenly savage, he added, "If I find out you're lying to me, I swear I will kill you."

In another man's mouth they might have seemed empty words. Coming from Cee's ragged edginess, the threat was stomach-knotting. "You're obviously extremely tired," Ethan, alarmed, offered in solace. Cee had not yet quite regained his self-control, though he was clearly trying, breathing carefully as a yogi. Ethan hunted around the room and handed him a tissue. "And I'd think looking at the world through Millisor's eyes, if that's what you've been doing lately, would be something of a strain."

"You've got that straight," choked Cee. "I've had to go in and out of his mind since this thing," he made the migraine gesture again, "got fully developed in my head when I was thirteen years old."

"Ick," said Ethan, in heartfelt candor. "Well, that's it, then."

Cee emitted a surprised laugh that did more for his self-control than the breathing exercise had. "How can you know?"

"I don't know anything about how your telepathy works, but I've met the man." Ethan rubbed his lips thoughtfully. "How old are you?" he asked suddenly.

"Nineteen."

There was no adolescent defiance in the reply. Cee was merely stating a fact, as if his youth had never been an object in any test put to him. The insight chilled Ethan, like sighting the tip of an iceberg. "Ah—I don't suppose you'd care to tell me a little more about yourself? Speaking as your Immigration Officer, as it were."

The work had been based on a natural mutation of the pineal gland, Terrence Cee explained. How the migrant witch-woman, deformed, impoverished, and quite mad, had first caught the attention of Dr. Faz Jahar, Cee did not know. But she had been swept from her slum hovel into the university laboratory of the alert young medico. Jahar knew somebody who knew somebody who knew a high-ranking army Ghem-lord and could make him look and listen; and so Jahar tapped a researcher's dream, unlimited secret government funding. The madwoman vanished into classified oblivion, and was never seen alive again. To be sure, none of her previous acquaintances ever inquired after her.

Cee's recitation was cool and distant now, on-track, as something practiced too many times and overtrained. Ethan was not sure if the previous breakdown or current excess of Cee's self-control was more unnerving.

The telepathy complex was refined in vitro, twenty generations in five years. The first three human experiments to have it spliced into their chromosomes died before they ever outgrew their uterine replicators. Four more died in infancy and early childhood of inoperable brain cancers, three of some subtler failure to thrive.

"Is this disturbing you?" Cee, glancing up, inquired of Ethan.

Ethan, greenish-white and curled into a corner, said "No ... go on."

The specifications of the matrix genetic blueprints— Ethan would have called them children—were made more rigid. Jahar tried again. L-X-10-Terran-C was the first survivor. His early test results proved ambiguous, disappointing. Funding was cut. But Jahar, after so much human sacrifice, refused to give up.

"I suppose," said Cee, "Faz Jahar was as much of a parent as I ever had. He believed in me—no. He believed in his own work, within me. When the nurses and the extra technicians were dropped out of his budget, he tutored me himself. He even tutored Janine."

"Who is Janine?" asked Ethan after a moment, as Cee fell silent.

"J-9-X-Ceta-G was—my sister, if you will," said Cee at last. His inward gaze did not meet Ethan's eyes. "Although we shared few genes besides those for the pineal receptor organ. She was the only other survivor among Jahar's early creations. Or perhaps she was my wife. I'm not sure if Jahar intended her from the beginning as a co-progenitor of his new model human, or if she was merely an experimental trifle—he encouraged sex between us, as we grew older—but she was never trained as an intelligence agent. Millisor always thought of her as a sort of potential brood-mare for some nest of spylets—he had these secret, sexually-charged fantasies about her. ..." Ethan was relieved when Cee broke off, sparing him a guided tour of Millisor's questionable sexuality.

Dr. Faz Jahar's fortunes took an abrupt upward turn when Terrence Cee hit puberty. Completion of his brain growth and change in his biochemical balance at last activated the frustratingly quiescent organ. Cee's telepathic abilities became demonstrable, reliable, repeatable.

There were limitations. The organ could only be kicked into a state of electrical receptivity upon the ingestion of high doses of the ammo acid tyramine. Receptivity faded as Cee's body metabolized the excess and returned him to his original biochemical balance. Telepathic range was limited to a few hundred meters at best. Reception was blocked by any barrier that interfered with the electrical signals emitted by the target brains.

Some minds could be experienced more clearly than others, some could barely be picked up at all even when Cee was actually touching his target's body. This seemed to be a problem of fit, or match, between sender and receiver, for some minds that registered as no more than a formless, mushy sense of life to Terrence came through in hallucinatory clarity—subvocalization, sensory input, the stream of conscious thought, and all—to Janine, and vice versa.

Too many individuals within target range created interference with each other. "Like being at a party where everything is too loud," said Cee, "and straining to pick out one conversation."

Dr. Jahar had primed Terrence Cee all his short life for his destiny in service to Cetaganda, and at first Cee had been content, even proud, to fulfill it. The first hairline cracks in his resolve came as he became familiar with the true minds of the hard-edged security personnel who surrounded the project. "Their insides didn't match their outsides," explained Cee. "The worst ones were so for gone in their corruptions, they didn't even smell it anymore."

The cracks propagated with each new experimental assignment in counter-intelligence.

"Millisor's deadliest mistake," Cee said thoughtfully, "was having us probe the minds of suspected intellectual dissidents while he interrogated them on their loyalty. I never knew people like them were possible, before."

Cee began military training with carefully selected private tutors. There was talk of using him as a field agent, on safe assignments or ones vital enough to justify risking his expensive person. There was no talk at all of ever admitting him to the Ghem-comrades, the tightly-knit society of men who controlled the officer corps and the military junta that in turn controlled the planet of Cetaganda, its conquests, and its client outposts.

Cee's telepathy gave him no secret window into the subconscious minds of his subjects. The only memories he could probe were those the subjects were presently calling to mind. This made using Cee for mere surveillence, in the hopes of catching something valuable on the fly-by, rather wasteful of the telepath's time. Organized interrogations were much more efficient. The interrogations Cee attended became wider in scope, and often much uglier.

"I understand completely," said Ethan with a small shiver.

It was Janine, perhaps, who first began thinking of their creators as their captors. The dream of flight, never spoken aloud, fed back and forth between them during the rare occasions when both their powers were activated at the same time. Both began siphoning off and hoarding their tyramine tablets. Escape plans were laid, debated, and honed in utter silence.

The death of Dr. Faz Jahar was an accident. Cee became quite passionate trying to convince Ethan, who hadn't questioned the point, of the truth of this. Perhaps the escape might have gone better if they hadn't tried to destroy the laboratory and bring the four new children with them. It had complicated things. But Janine had insisted that none be left behind. When she and Terrence were made to sit in more frequently on more intensive interrogations of political prisoners, Cee gave up arguing that part of the plan with her.

If only Jahar hadn't tried to save his notes and gene cultures, he wouldn't have gone up with the bomb. If only the little children hadn't panicked and cried out, the guard might not have spotted them; if only they hadn't tried to run, he might not have fired. If only Terrence and Janine had chosen a different route, a different planet, a different city, different identities, in which to lose themselves.

The coolness of Cee's recitation froze altogether, his voice going flat, drained of emotion and self. He might have been denouncing the past decisions of some figure of ancient history, instead of his own, except that he began to rock, unconsciously, in cadence with his words. Ethan found his foot tapping along, and stilled it.

If only he had not left the apartment that afternoon to pick a little money off the spacers at cards down by the shuttleport docks and get groceries. If only he had arrived back a little earlier, and Captain Rau a little later. If only Janine had not gambled her life against Captain Rau's nerve disrupter to warn him. If only. If only. If only.

Cee discovered the altered consciousness of the berserker within himself in the battle to keep her body, every cell harboring the genetic secret, from falling back into Millisor's hands. It was a full day before Cee was able to get her corpse cryogenically frozen, much too long to beat brain-death even if there had been no disrupter damage.

He hoped anyway. All his will was focused now on the single obsession of making as much money as he could as quickly as possible. Terrence Cee, who had embraced a near-honest poverty for the sake of Janine's scruples while she lived, now plumbed the twisted uses of his power to their limits to amass the wealth needed to serve her corpse. Enough for the passage of a man and a heavy cyro-carton to the laboratories of Jackson's Whole where, it was whispered, enough money could buy anything.

But even a great deal of money could not buy life back from that death. Alternatives were gently suggested. Would the honored customer perhaps wish a clone made of his wife? A copy could be produced which even the most expert could not tell from the original. He would not even have to wait seventeen years for the copy to grow to maturity; things could be speeded up amazingly. The copy's personality could even be recreated with a surprising degree of verisimilitude, for the right price—perhaps even improved upon, were there aspects of the original not quite to the honored customer's taste. The clone herself would not know the difference.

"All I needed to get her back," said Cee, "was a mountain of money and the ability to convince myself that lies were truth." He paused. "I had the money."

Cee was silent for a long time. Ethan stirred uneasily, embarrassed as a stranger in the presence of death.

"Not to be pushy or anything," he prodded at last, "but I trust you were about to explain the connection of all this with the order for 450 live human ovarian cultures Athos sent to Bharaputra Laboratories?" He smiled winningly, hoping that Terrence Cee was not about to clam up just before the pay-off.

Cee glanced at Ethan sharply, and rubbed his forehead and temples in unconscious frustration. In a little while he answered, "Athos's order came into the genetics section of Bharaputra Labs while I was going around and around with them about Janine. I'd never heard of the planet before. It sounded so strange and distant to me—I thought, if only I could get there, maybe I could lose Millisor and my past forever. After Janine's remains were—" he swallowed painfully, his eyes flinching away from Ethan's, "were cremated, I left Jackson's Whole and started on a roundabout route designed to bury my trail. I lined up a job here to give me a cover identity while I waited for the next ship to Athos.

"I got here five days ago. Out of pure habit, I checked the transients' register for Cetagandan nationals. And found Millisor had been set up here for three months as an art and artifacts broker. I couldn't imagine how I'd spotted him before he spotted me, until I maneuvered close enough to read him. He'd pulled everyone off transient surveillance to hunt for you and Okita. They're at least a week behind in covering the exits, and with one man short they're going to be a long time catching up. I believe I owe you more than one thank you, Doctor. What did you do with Okita, anyway?"

Ethan refused to be diverted. "What did you have Bharaputra Laboratories do to Athos's order?" He experimented with giving Cee a stern and fishy stare.

Cee moistened his lips. "Nothing. Millisor just thinks I did. I'm sorry it got him all wound up."

"I'm not quite as dense as I appear," said Ethan gently. Cee made a vague I-never-suggested-it gesture. "I happen to have independent information that Bharaputra's top genetics team spent two months assembling an order that could have been put together in a week." He glanced around at the tiny, sparse room. "I also note that you appear to be minus a mountain of money." Ethan gentled his voice still further. "Did you have them make an ovarian culture from your wife's remains, instead of having her cloned, when you realized cloning could not bring back what was essential in her? And then bribe them to slip the culture into our order, meaning to follow it on to Athos?"

Cee twitched. His mouth opened; he finally whispered, "Yes, sir."

"Complete with the gene complex for this pineal mutation?"

"Yes, sir. Unaltered." Cee stared at the floor. "She liked children. She was beginning to dare to want them, when we thought we were safe, before Rau caught up with us the final time. It was the last thing—the last thing I could do for her. Anything else would have merely been for myself. Can you see that, sir?"

Ethan, moved, nodded. At that moment he would have cheerfully decked any Athosian fundamentalist who dared to argue that Cee's tragic fixation upon his forbidden female could have no honor in it. He trembled at his own radical emotion. And yet, something did not add up. He almost had it ...

The door buzzer blatted.

They both jumped. Cee's hand checked his jacket for some hidden weapon. Ethan merely paled.

"Does anyone know you're here?" Cee asked.

Ethan shook his head. But he had promised this young man the protection of Athos, such as it was. "I'll answer it," he volunteered. "You, er—cover me," he added as Cee started to object. Cee nodded, and slipped to one side.

The door hissed open.

"Good evening, Ambassador Urquhart." Elli Quinn, framed in the aperture, beamed at him. "I heard the Athosian Embassy might be in the market for security guards—soldiers—an intelligence corps. Look no further, Quinn is here, all three in one. I'm offering a special discount on daring rescues to any customer who places his order before midnight. It's five minutes till," she added after a moment. "You going to invite me in?"