Authors: Greg Bear
Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction
Chen shook his head. “We have very nearly made the biggest blunder of our careers. ”
“How?” Prothon asked.
“We nearly lost Hari Seldon. ”
“I presumed he was expendable. ”
Chen almost frowned, but his face quickly returned to impassivity. “This man here... do
you recognize him?”
“No, ” Prothon said, squinting at the magnified image.
“Once he was known as Demerzel, ” Linge Chen said.
Prothon drew his head back and narrowed his eyes dubiously, but did not contradict the
“He never dies, ” Chen continued. “He goes away for decades at a time, then he returns. He
has often been associated with the interesting career of Hari Seldon. ” Chen, for the
first time that day, smiled up at Prothon. That smile was peculiar, almost wolfish, and
Chen's eyes glittered with mixed emotions. “I suspect he has been directing my efforts in
various ways for years now, always to my advantage... ” He said again, musing softly,
“Always to my advantage... ”
“Another machine-man, I presume, ” Prothon said. “I am glad not to be privy to that
“No need for you to have known, ” Chen said. “I myself can only suspect. He is, after all,
a master of camouflage and prevarication. I will enjoy meeting with him and asking a few
questions, one master to another. ”
“Why don't you simply execute him?”
“Because there could easily be others to take his place. For all I know, they are right
here, in this palace. ”
“Klayus?” Prothon asked, his grin almost invisible.
Chen sniffed. “We should be so lucky. ”
“Why would it have been so bad to lose Seldon, a thorn in the Empire's side?” Prothon
“Because this Demerzel of old might spend another thousand years trying to raise up
another Hari Seldon, ” Chen said. “And this time, all would probably not go well for me,
or for you, my dear Dragon. Seldon said as much, and for once, I believe him. ”
Prothon shook his head. “I can more easily believe in machine-men than in Eternals. I've
met robots, after all. But... as you say, Commissioner, as you say. ”
“You may return to your smoke-filled cave for now, ” Chen murmured. “The young Emperor is
sufficiently cowed. ”
“Gladly, ” Prothon said.
Wanda stood in the huge Streeling Central Travel Station, wrapped in her warmest coat-a
thin decorative wrap. The air in the cavernous taxi and robo hangar was cooler than in the
rest of the Sector-about eight degrees, and getting colder. Ventilation and conditioning
had been fluctuating for eighteen hours now, and air was being pumped in by emergency
blowers from outside, bringing Streeling from perpetual springtime to a chill
autumn none of its inhabitants was quite prepared for. No official explanation had been
given, and she expected none-it was part and parcel with the broken ceil and the general
air of malaise that seemed to grip the planet.
Stettin returned from the information booth beneath the high steel and ceram archway.
“Taxi and robo dispatch is pretty jerky, ” he said. “We'll have to wait another twenty or
thirty minutes to get to the courts. ”
Wanda clenched her fists. “He almost died yesterday-” “We don't know what happened, ”
Stettin reminded her. “If they can't protect him, who can?” she demanded. Her guilt was
not assuaged by the fact that Grandfather had ordered her to go into hiding upon his
arrest, and not to emerge until his release.
Stettin shrugged. “Your grandfather has his own kind of luck. We seem to share it. That
woman is dead. ” They had heard this much in the official news-the assassination of Farad
Sinter, and the unexplained death of Vara Liso, identified as the woman Sinter had placed
in charge of many of the searches that had prompted rioting in Dahl, the Agora of Vendors,
“Yes-but you felt the-” Wanda did not have words to describe the shock wave of some sort
of extraordinary combat. Stettin nodded soberly. “My head still hurts. ” “Who could have
blocked Liso? We couldn't have, not all of the mentalics, even had we allied. ”
“Someone else, stronger than her, ” Stettin suggested. “How many are there like Vara
Liso?” “No more, I hope. But if we can recruit this other-” “It would be like having a
scorpion in our midst. What could we do with such a person? Anything that displeases-”
Wanda began to pace. “I hate this, ” she said. “I want to get off this accursed planet,
away from the Center. I wish they'd let us take Grandfather with us. Sometimes he seems so
Stettin looked up at a warm rich hum, different from the guttural grav-stator grumble of
the taxis and the whine of the robos. He patted Wanda's shoulder and pointed. An official
transport from the Commission of Public Safety was decelerating smoothly in their lane. It
slowed directly beside them. Other passengers glared at this intrusion of an official
vehicle into public taxi lanes, even though the lanes were empty.
The hatch to the transport opened. Within the utilitarian hull, luxury seating and warmth
and a golden glow awaited. Sedjar Boon stood up in the hatchway and peered at them. “Wanda
Seldon Palver?” he inquired. She nodded.
“I represent your grandfather. ” “I know. You're one of Chen's legal staff, aren't you?”
Boon looked irritated, but did not deny the accusation. “Chen would leave nothing to
chance, ” Wanda said, biting off the words. “Where is my grandfather? He had better not
“Physically, he's fine, ” Boon said, “but the courts need someone in his family to accept
his release and take charge of him. ”
“What do you mean, 'physically'? And why 'take charge'?” “I really do represent your
grandfather's interests-however peculiar the arrangement, ” Boon said. His brows knit.
“Something happened, however, outside of my control, and I just wanted to warn you. He's
uninjured, but there was an incident. ”
Boon surveyed the other waiting passengers, shivering and staring enviously at the
transport's warm interior. “It's not exactly public knowledge-”
Wanda gave Boon a withering glare and pushed past him into the transport. Stettin followed
close behind. “No more talk. Take us to him now, ” Wanda said.
Hari had not seen such luxurious accommodations since his days as First Minister, and they
meant nothing at all to him. These were the auxiliary quarters of Linge Chen himself, in
the Chief Commissioner's own tower bloc, and Hari could have had any treat he wished,
asked for and received any service available on Trantor (and Trantor still, whatever its
problems, offered many and varied services to the wealthy and powerful); but what he
wished for most of all was to be left alone.
He did not want to see the physicians who attended him, and he did not want to see his
granddaughter, who was on her way to the palace with Boon.
Hari felt more than doubt and confusion. The blast of Vara Liso's hatred had failed to
kill him. It had even failed to substantially damage or alter his mind or personality.
Hari did have a complete loss of memory about what had happened in the Hall of
Dispensation. He could recall nothing but the face of Vara Liso and, strangely enough,
that of Lodovik Trema, who was, of course, missing and presumed dead in deep space. But
Vara Liso had been real.
Trema, he thought. Some connection with Daneel. Daneel's conditioning, working on me? But
even that hardly mattered.
What had so profoundly altered his state of mind, his sense of mission and purpose, was
the single clue, the single bit of contradictory evidence, that Liso had inadvertently
Never in all of their equations had they taken into account such a powerful mentalic
anomaly. Yes, he had calculated the effects of persuaders and other mentalics of the class
of Wanda, Stettin, and those chosen for the Second Foundation-
But not for such a monstrosity, such an unexpected
mutation, as Vara Liso. That small, gnarled woman with her intense eyes-
Hari shuddered. The physician attending to him-all but ignored-tried to reattach a sensor
to Hari's arm, but Hari shrugged it off and turned a despairing face toward him.
“It's over, ” he said. “Leave me alone. I would rather die anyway. ”
“Clearly, sir, you are suffering from stress-”
“I'm suffering from failure, ” Hari said. “You can't bend logic or mathematics, whatever
drugs or treatments you give me. ”
The door at the far end of the study opened, and Boon entered, followed by Wanda and
Stettin. Wanda pushed past Boon and ran to Hari. She dropped to her knees by the side of
his chair, clutched his hand, and stared up at him as if she had feared she might find him
in scattered pieces.
Hari looked down in silence upon his dear granddaughter, and his eyes moistened. “I am
free, ” he said softly.
“Yes, ” Wanda said. “We're here to take you home with us. We signed the papers. ” Stettin
stood beside Hari's chair, smiling down on him paternally. Hari had always found Stettin's
stolid, gentle nature a little irritating, though he seemed the perfect foil for Wanda's
willfulness. Next to the outlandish mad passion of Vara Liso... like candles in the glare
of a sun, both of them!
“Not what I mean, ” Hari said. “At last I'm free of my illusions. ”
Wanda reached up to stroke his cheek. The touch was needed, welcome even, but it did not
soothe. What I need is soothing, not sooth-entirely too much sooth has been afforded me.
“I don't know what you mean, Grandfather. ”
“Just one of her-one of her kind-throws all our calculations into the bucket. The Project
is a useless failure. If one of her can arise, there can be others-wild talents, and I
don't know where they come from! Unpredictable mutations, aberrations, in response to
“Do you mean Vara Liso?” Wanda asked.
“She's dead, ” Stettin observed.
Hari curled his lip. “To my knowledge, until now, certainly not more than a century before
now, there has never been anything like her, on all the millions of human worlds, among
all the quintillions of human beings. Now-there will be more. ”
“She was just a stronger mentalic. How could that make a difference? What does it matter?”
“I'm free to be just a human being in the last years of my life. ”
“Grandfather, tell me\ How does she make such a difference?”
“Because someone like her, raised properly, trained properly, could be a force that
unites, ” Hari said. “But not a saving force... A source of organization from a single
point, a truly despotic kind of top-down order. Tyrants! I spoke to enough of them. Merely
fires in a forest, perhaps necessary to the health of the forest. But they would have been
more... They all would have succeeded-if they had had what that woman had. A destroying,
unnatural force. Destructive of all we have planned. ”
“Then rework your equations, Grandfather. Put her in. Surely she can't be that large a
“Not just her! Others! Mutations, an infinite number of them. ” Hari shook his head
vehemently. “There isn't time to factor in all the possibilities. We have only three
months to prepare-not nearly enough time. It's all over. Useless. ”
Wanda stood, her face grim, lower lip trembling.
“It's the trauma talking, ” the physician said in a low voice to Wanda.
“My mind is clear!” Hari stormed. “I want to go home and live the rest of my years in
peace. This delusion is at an end. I am sane, for the first time-sane, and free!”
“I would never have believed such a meeting would be possible, ' Linge Chen said. ”Had I
believed it possible, I would have never believed it to be useful. Yet now we are here. "
R. Daneel Olivaw and the Chief Commissioner walked in the shadow of a huge unfinished hall
in the eastern corner of the palace, filled with scaffolding and construction machinery.
It was a day of rest for the workers; the hall was deserted. Though Chen spoke in low
tones, to Daneel's sensitive ears, his echoes came from all around them, befitting the
words of the most pervasive and powerful human influence in the Galaxy.
They had met here because Chen knew that the hall had not yet had its contingent of spying
devices installed. Clearly, the Commissioner did not want their meeting ever to be
Daneel waited for the Commissioner to continue. Daneel was the captive; it was Chen's show.
“You would have sacrificed your life-let us say, your existence-for the sake of Hari
Seldon. Why?” Chen asked.
“Professor Seldon is the key to reducing the thousands of years of chaos and misery that
will follow the Empire's collapse, ” Daneel said.
Chen lifted an eyebrow and one corner of his mouth, nothing more. The Commissioner's face
was as impassive as any robot's, yet he was entirely human-the extraordinary product of
thousands of years of upbringing and inbreeding, suffused with subtle genetic tailoring
and the ancient perquisites of wealth and power. "I have not made these extraordinary
arrangements to trade puppet's banter. I have felt your intervention, your strings of
influence, time and again for decades, and never been quite sure...
"Now that I am sure, and stand with you, I wonder: Why am I still alive, Danee, Daneel,
whatever your real name is-
let me call you Demerzel for now-and still in power?"
Chen stopped walking, so Daneel stopped as well. There was no sense prevaricating. The
Commissioner had arranged for complete and thorough physicals of all those captured in the
Hall of Dispensation, or rounded up in the warehouse. Daneel's secret had for the first
time been revealed. “Because you have seen fit to accommodate yourself to the Project and
not block it, during your time as de facto ruler of the Empire, ” Daneel said.
Chen looked down at the dusty floor, gorgeous lapis-and-gold tile work still streaked with
glue and grout, techniques as old as humanity and used now only by the wealthiest, or in
the Palace. “I have often suspected as much. I have watched the comings and goings of
these powers, behind the scenes. They have haunted my dreams, as they seem to have haunted
the dreams and the biology of all humanity. ”