Spēcial Education

“Palmer’s back, and it was well worth the wait. It is possible to have more sheer fun than reading SPĒCIAL EDUCATION delivers—but it requires a partner, and (for most of us) privacy. This, you can enjoy alone on a bus without drawing attention, if you have a good poker face. I haven’t had such a good time with a science fiction novel since . . . well, since Mr. Palmer finished its eye-popping prequel THRESHOLD and stepped out for a short beer—twenty years ago! If audacity were all a man needed to become President . . . wait a damn minute, it is! What have you been waiting for, Mr. Palmer? Quit fiddling around with imagining it, and actually save the world, already. . . .”

—Spider Robinson,author of CALLAHAN’S CON

Author(s):

Formats: mobi, epub, pdf, rtf,

Category:

$5.99

Peter Cory has traversed Isis and become a 10th level WWyhr Läaq but R’gGnrök is still coming and H. Sapiens, Earth humanity, is still acting like a spoiled two-year-old with nukes as its toys and murder as its preferred method of conflict resolution. Before humanity can be trusted with the tools that it desperately needs to fight R’gGnrök It’s going to need some Spēcial Education.

“David R. Palmer is one of the very best of Heinlein’s Children—certainly the most audacious. It’s great to have him back, at the top of his game.”

—Spider Robinson,author of Robert A. Heinlein’s VARIABLE STAR

“The best new writer since John Varley.”

— Spider Robinson,Author of Mindkiller.

“Most SF novels complete one of two sentences: ‘What if . . .’ or ‘If this goes on . . .’ The rarest and most beautiful kind completes a finer sentence, ‘If only . . .’ and points a hopeful finger toward a better future. SPĒCIAL EDUCATION is the greatest avatar of that kind of SF I’ve seen in decades. There is no human problem too intractable for David R. Palmer—an attitude in particularly short supply these days. It’s almost incidental that he’s a gifted storyteller, with the knack of making you love his pixilated characters as much as he does. He doesn’t even need glasses, let alone rose-colored ones, but his tomorrow is one I desperately want to live in. So will you . . . unless you happen to be French.

—Spider Robinson,author of THE CRAZY YEARS

“Clever, knowledgeable, and diabolically inventive. This may well be the space opera to end all space operas.”

—Spider Robinson,author of Very Hard Choices

“Every bit as exciting, inventive, and witty as Emergence.”

—Poul Anderson

“The further you read, the better this one gets. Don’t started late at night if you have to get up in the morning.”

—F. M. Busby

“Doctor Elisabeth! Doctor Elisabeth . . . !” The voice was that of little Tran, almost certainly: shrill, childlike.

And urgent.

I glanced up, my concentration momentarily broken. Ng, conscientious to a fault, interpreted the motion as a cue once again to sponge from my forehead the accumulated beads of “glow” constantly and rapidly brought forth by the steaming heat of the equatorial Cambodian jungle.

(One of Mother’s most strongly held convictions while I was growing up was that ladies glowed, gentlemen perspired—but only horses, the very lowest-caste ruffians, and/or non-Bostonians [which latter two characterizations were in her view effectively synonymous] ever sweat.)

Without visible hesitation, my fingers resumed the delicate, technically complex, life-and-death dance of open-heart surgery, but under my surgical mask I frowned thoughtfully:

Young as she was, Tran had absorbed her limited medical-technician training quickly, and she took her responsibilities seriously. She knew I was in the middle of an especially difficult pediatric heart-valve repair, for which I, a mere GP/pediatric surgeon approaching retirement age, possessing little formal training in cardio­vascular surgery (I’d scrubbed and assisted on a total of possibly three dozen in my entire career to that point), was not remotely qualified to perform alone.

Unfortunately, deep in the jungle, faced with necessity, such distinctions tended blur: The boy’s mother had brought him in comatose, completely unresponsive, mere hours from death. (Why did these sweet, gentle people always wait so long!) Under the circumstances, one selected from among a list of guaranteed unworkable alternatives—but was expected to accom­plish the impossi­ble anyway. In this case the only alternative was watching the kid die as we began the trek toward civilization—as if any of Cambodia’s military-govern­ment-run, big-city hospitals would have admitted him even if he’d survived the journey. . .

In any event, Tran knew the potential consequences of distracting me at such a moment. I wondered what could be so important.

I was not kept in doubt for long: “Soldiers come . . . !”

∆∆∆

My surgical mask failed to absorb a muttered observation which, during their lifetimes, would have caused Mother’s hand to flutter decorously over her heart and Father’s brow to furrow in sternly proper, elegantly patrician disapproval. Unscheduled visits by military detachments were neither rare nor particularly unexpected; certainly not to me—not after having been ejected from seven “developing” countries in three years under virtually identical circumstances . . .

Increasingly, it seemed, right-wing host regimes (as well as the inevitable rebels who opposed them) were coming to view the ninety- to ninety-five-percent reduction in local maternal and/or child mortality which invariably attended establishment of one of our little U.N. neonatology, obstetrics, and pediatrics clinics as a deliberate affront to their own enlightened social policies and healthcare capa­bilities.

Which, at least from my perspective, they were intended to be—especially their social policies: By now, government leaders in general, and in particular those in charge of the more economically disadvantaged, socially deprived (i.e., corrupt) countries (together with those dedicated to toppling them), had earned their way to the very apex of my personal list of people never sufficiently to be despised.

The leaders of these various factions always seemed able to afford weapons and ammunition in quantities adequate to “protect” their people (the same long-suffering civilian population inevitably was claimed by all contenders) from the soul-blighting contamination represented by exposure to, and/or government by, those espousing the wrong ideology/religion/parentage, et cetera; which “protection” invariably left said civilian population homeless, starving, disease-ridden refugees—a point somehow overlooked by would-be rebel saviors and righteous defenders of the status quo alike.

But in any event, providing decent food, shelter, and medical care thereafter (or beforehand, for that matter) seemed to constitute a separate, much more difficult (if somehow less interesting) challenge. . . .

∆∆∆

I muttered further imprecations into my mask and inclined my head in Ng’s direction once again to have my forehead sponged before the steadily mounting flood spilled over into the operative field.

Doubtless these soldiers, like those who had so frequently preceded them (government forces and rebels alike) were here to order us, once again, to limit our services to women and children holding political views of which their faction approved, and would warn us most sternly to have nothing to do with those in any way associated with the “other” side.

Such confrontations had become routine by now; and, in the tiny portion of my mind not occupied with the utterly precise surgery in which I was engaged, I found myself reviewing the earnest, slightly-puzzled-but-eager-to-please diplo­matic tone which had proved effective on so many prior similar occasions:

Of course we understood the political necessities which lay behind such orders. Nothing would please us more than to be able to comply with them. We would never violate governmental (or rebel, depending upon the identity of our visitors) directives. Certainly not knowingly . . .

Oh, but there lay the core of the problem: The stated loyalties of a parent were hardly a reliable test. It seemed likely that a woman, concerned about the progress of her pregnancy, or the well-being of her living but obviously sick child or children, might not be entirely candid when questioned about her political affiliation, once it became known that only one faction was entitled to treatment.

Besides, who could say who might end up with the support of children we treated, if they were allowed to reach adulthood? Had not the revolution sundered families? Were not fathers pitted against sons, brothers against brothers?

Obviously those promulgating such edicts must already have solved the problem—certainly responsible governmental (or would-be governmental) leaders would never issue orders adversely affecting the well-being of whole blocs of their own people without accompanying those orders with guidelines sufficiently detailed to enable those charged with carrying them out to fulfill their responsibilities.

Therefore, I would ask (always with wide-eyed optimism), would they please share with us their obviously foolproof means of determining the ideology of a mother, child, or fetus? For without that assistance, I would explain (always apologetically, with toe-scuffing embarrassment), we were effectively helpless to follow the directives, however much we might wish to comply. . . .

The word-games which preceded such envoys’ disorderly, inevitably sheepish retreats tended to be repetitious and childish, but I still managed to derive a certain perverse, if not downright vindictive, satisfaction from them.

I was not surprised to be receiving yet another visit from officialdom—whichever side they represented; at this point I didn’t know, and cared even less. Nor was I particularly apprehensive over the fact that the last bunch had departed only two days before.

The real crisis which their presence represented was the fact that today their timing was potentially disastrous: I was up to my elbows in the chest cavity of this four-year-old boy. I had repaired the first of two rheumatically damaged heart valves, but several hours of uncompromisingly delicate work still lay ahead before I could even think of turning the procedure over to my dedicated but only marginally competent, home-grown and locally recruited and trained surgical assistants for final closing.

And while I could, theoretically, interrupt the procedure briefly at this point to deal with yet another episode of official harassment, doing so would involve relying on the questionable alertness, dubious skills, and untested inde­pen­dent judgment of my amateur-status anesthetist (not to mention the reliability of our creaky old, donated heart-lung machine—which, by rights, should have been gathering dust in a museum rather than being relied upon in a life-and-death surgical procedure) to maintain the child for however long it might take to abate whatever nuisance the military had planned, plus the time it would take me to rescrub and don fresh gown, gloves, and mask.

Yes, theoretically I could “take five” at this point. However, the reality of the situation was that, if I stopped now, the prognosis was better than even money that I’d lose this little boy. And I don’t like losing children.

The decision was made much faster than the above makes it appear: “Tell them what I’m doing, and that I’ll talk to them as soon as I’m finished,” I called out to whomever might be listening, and made the first incision to begin repairing the boy’s second defective valve.

“You are finished now, doctor lady,” rasped a harsh voice from the direction of the curtained opening which constituted the door to our makeshift little operating room.

Turning as quickly as was consistent with the delicate status of the procedure, I beheld several heavily armed government soldiers standing just inside the room. At their head was a short, physically slight but obviously well-conditioned, bleak-vis­aged Cambodian regular army major, whose aspect reflected the humorless, barely restrained ideological fanaticism which I had seen so many times before in these parts. He was smiling—but only with his mouth.

The situation was so startling, the violation of operating-room asepsis protocol so flagrant, the potential consequences to my patient so gross and inexcusable, that for fractions of a second only the doctor in me responded—with an explosion of outrage so intense as to be almost physical.

“Get out!” I hissed, glaring over my mask. Quickly, in what I knew was probably already a futile effort to prevent contamination of the operative site, I pulled a drape cloth over the incision.

“You’re not sterile!” I continued furiously. “Just by walking in here, dressed like that, you may have killed this child. What on Earth do you think you’re doing . . . ?”

“What I am doing is investigating reports of atrocities being committed upon helpless women and children,” the major replied with a smirk. Looking me smugly in the eye, he strutted mincingly across the room to my side. “I am inves­tigating reports of illegal medical experiments. Stories of vivisection and torture.”

Diminutive stature notwithstanding, he brushed me effortlessly to one side and drew back the drape. Long and thoughtfully he stared down at the child’s exposed, partially opened heart.

Pure malice flickered at the edges of his smile. “I see that the reports were, if anything, understated,” he observed with unconcealed relish. “To do such a thing to a small boy . . . Such cruelty is beyond my meager powers to comprehend. You are all under arrest.”

From outside there came the sound of screams and running footsteps, the sudden, unmistakable roar of machine-gun fire—then silence. . . .

Motioning to the heart-lung machine, the major said, “Sergeant, have this torture device prepared for transport to headquarters. It will be needed as evidence.”

Without expression, the noncom stepped forward. For long moments I could only stare in horrified disbelief as he drew a long knife with one hand and gathered a loop of blood-filled tubing against the edge with the other.

Completely without warning (least of all to me), I found myself across the room, beating furiously (with humiliatingly stereotypical geriatric, never mind feminine, futility) on the sergeant’s back with the heels of both fists, shrieking at him to stop. He glanced over his shoulder with a surprised expression.

The major began a short, harsh laugh—which ended abruptly midbark. Momentarily the sergeant looked puzzled; then he slumped bonelessly to the floor.

Ng’s gasp was loud in the nearly palpable silence which had descended upon the operating room. Half a dozen bright crimson stains had begun to spread across the back of the sergeant’s uniform.

Only gradually, I became aware of the old-fashioned, long-handled scalpel still clutched point-down in my fist.

The major stalked unhurriedly across the room, took the instrument from my hand with surprising gentleness, and nudged the fallen soldier with the toe of a mud-covered boot.

There was no response. I could see no hint of respiration. At least two of the stains were proximal to the heart; a third was directly over the aorta. The blood was visibly arterial.

The major raised his eyes to mine. His mouth smiled again. “Better and better,” he approved. “Unprovoked, premeditated murder of a duly authorized servant of the people engaged in the lawful performance of his duties. First torture and forbidden medical experiments, and now this. You have much to answer for. . . .”

Fascinating . . . ! This, I gather, is what Earthly writers refer to as “the hook”: a transparent, if effective, literary device whose unabashed intent is to rivet the reader’s attention and, theoretically, instill in him sufficient resolve to wade through whatever background exposition may be forthcoming and required to understand upcoming events.

At least I hope that’s how it works. Well, even a Senior Compiler must start somewhere.

Heretofore my staff and I have had little difficulty organizing into useful form even the massive accumulations of data that so often constituted the total picture of historically significant events. Since the capacity of the DataField is limitless, we normally included every detail, regardless how peripheral its connection with the central flow of history, thus ensuring as complete an account as possible.

Now all that has changed: Our previous data-volume problems, while often formidable, pale before the impact of Qaterinyä’s task force’s recent announcement, that their long-in-development Nonvoluntary Remote Realtime Mind-Tap (NvRRtMT) process has been brought to on-line status.

This technology is a quantum-leap improvement to previous thought-recorda­tion techniques, which heretofore (at least in the case of noncooperat­ing principals and witnesses) was limited to accessing sleeping minds only after the fact. The weakness inherent in the old system was of course the blurring of memories during the unavoidable interval which must elapse between an event’s occurrence and an involved subject’s reaching a useful level of sleep thereafter. Such accounts, while firsthand and as objective as the veil of self-serving delusion permits, inevita­bly were frustratingly incomplete, even when foreknowledge allowed us to augment the mental record with realtime visual/aural viewer recordings of the same events.

For megacenturies (using Earth’s time scale) we compilers have yearned for a solution—but now that it is upon us, I find myself experiencing second thoughts . . .

In the past, with the advantage of hindsight, one could weed out grossly irrelevant data beforehand; selecting and recording impressions only from those participants whose memories clearly were pertinent to a given subject.

Now, however, in the interests of accuracy and completeness, it has become necessary—before the fact—to tap into the thought processes of everyone even potentially associated with one’s area of inquiry; to record their impressions regardless how tenuous the connection with pivotal events promises to be. The phrase, “embarrassment of riches,” seems to characterize my situation.

This dilemma, along with, it seems, virtually every problem facing every adept connected with Project Armageddon these past nearly two and a half Earthly years, arose from the serendipitous ripple effects invariably attendant the presence and/or activities of Peter Cory, the Earthman who represents the ultimate product of one of the two bloodlines we developed on Earth as part of our strategy to halt the approach of the galaxy-killer R’gGnrök.

As the product of a society which developed along lines fundamentally dif­ferent from ours (mechanistic versus mMj’q-based), Cory approaches questions from (to us) unexpected directions.

According to Qaterinyä, it was this divergent mental outlook which led Cory, upon being briefed on the details of her project and the difficulties frustrating her, to make the offhand suggestion which enabled her to solve the problem of accessing waking minds without their cooperation.

Which solution, of course, precipitated the quandary my staff and I currently face: a mass of data exceeding by whole magnitudes that which we obtained prior to his “assistance.” (Goodness, how ever can we thank him sufficient­ly . . .)

And now, of course, T’fFelteshezr has hit upon the quaint notion of promulgating a written—hard-copy!—chronicle of these events for the benefit of those unable to access the totality of the Field; particularly those of Earthly origin. This mandate alone, even prior to Cory’s contribution, would have imposed severe practical limitations on the amount of material which ultimately may be included. Accordingly, I am being forced to condense (for which read omit) virtually everything not directly influencing or reflecting upon the outcome.

I understand that Earthly historiographic compilers (as well as wordcrafters in every field, whether fiction or non-) labor under this handicap as a matter of course, employing as they do hard-copy and/or storage-limited electronic media to record the product of their labors. I cannot imagine functioning under such conditions on a day-in/day-out basis. No doubt these pressures offer at least a partial explanation of the reputation of Earthly writers as an idiosyncratic lot.

Recently, for my own amusement, I calculated the dimensions of the volume that would result if I incorporated every pertinent detail and personal account, no matter how peripherally relevant, which has accumulated to date during Project Armageddon prior to incorporation of NvRRtMT technology. Even if we used the very small font customarily seen in Earthly paperbacks, coupled with the twelve- by nineteen-inch page used in large Earthly world atlases, the finished tome would span nearly seventeen feet between the covers. This, I fear, would daunt a significant proportion of the potential readership, even if broken up into thirty or so volumes of more manageable size.

In any event, with something over six million Nonvoluntary Remote Realtime Mind-Taps currently dedicated to, and pouring data into, the Project Armageddon subdirectory alone, locating and identifying relevant individual impressions was a mind-boggling prospect.

It is doubly vexing to be forced to recognize the fact that I probably would not have been able to accomplish this task but for that same Peter Cory’s suggestion to me—at least as offhand as the one he made to Qaterinyä—which led to reorganizing and cross-referencing the DataField along the lines of an Earthly computer database.

Cory’s question—what repetition-rate factor did we use as a test for relevancy in our Boolean key-word-string searches—was eye-opening to say the least. Not only had I never heard of Boolean logic, or considered using key-word-string searches, but the possibility of using repetition-rates to isolate relevant thoughts hadn’t even crossed my mind.

I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised; either at the frequency and/or complexity of the problems Cory’s presence seems to generate, or the fact that he usually solves them for us. After all, this sort of thing has been going on throughout Cory’s participation (witting and otherwise) in Project Armageddon. Since the day we forced open an intrauniversal shunt and rotated young Megonthalyä and Memphus, her fmMh’lr, to Earth to recruit and bring him back with her to Isis, nothing has been the same.

Indeed, it was only hours after Megonthalyä arrived on Earth and wielded the potent combination of her personal charms and an unrivaled skill as a therapist, using the time-honored modus operandi of physical seduction to develop the intimate emotional momentum required to break through the long-sealed mental defenses of the mind of a nonfunctioning but potentially telepathic adult, that Cory subverted the telekinetic techniques she imparted to him, which for eons we had used only to perceive and manipulate the mMj’q particle flow, to control atmospheric static electricity. This achievement was unprecedented in recorded Isi history—though, as Megonthalyä’s subsequent mastery of that medium demonstrated, there was no reason that one of us couldn’t have thought of it.

Hmm, the mMj’q flow . . . Perhaps, in hopes of making this record more accessible to those of Earthly origin, I should explain:

Collectively, Isi science—that which underlies our chemistry, metallurgy, electronics, engineering, physics; the sum total of our understanding of the workings of the hyperverse—is known as the pwW’r. The “hardware,” in Earthly terms, of that science is the mMj’q flow: Monopole particles some twelve magni­tudes smaller than tachyons leak into our universe from whence they originate through perfect monolithic crystals of pure corundum known as wWn’dt—rubies, in English—ranging in size from several inches in diameter to several feet. Obvi­ously the larger the wWn’dt, the more mMj’q flow it generates, and the more sophisticated its potential control. The mMj’q-transmission qualities of these crystals are vastly enhanced by cutting raw stones into dodecahedrons—an object whose surface consists of twelve equal, interlocking pentagrams—and activating them.

MMj’q particles have two unique characteristics:

First, their motion through time is lateral, with a velocity so high a multiple of the speed of light that, when attempting to express it in Earthly Arabic figures, the compounded stacking of exponents becomes unworkable at best, and tends to generate amusement at worst.

Secondly, upon being forced into twelve-way collision, mMj’q particles generate fusion by-products which affect the bonds that keep matter, mass, and energy in their respective forms, and may, within limits, be used to determine those forms.

Of practitioners of the pwW’r, male adepts are known as wWyhr läaqs; females are wWy’djs. The extrauniversal beings from the Half-World, who have chosen to enter into lifelong symbiotic relationships with certain of us, such as Megonthalyä’s Memphus, are known as fmMh’lrs.

Of course, in typical fashion, Cory nearly derailed Project Armageddon at the outset. After we tricked Megonthalyä and Memphus into luring him to Isis, we separated him from them, then stranded him out in the wilds—without exaggeration, the most appallingly violent and sheerly dangerous environment in the galaxy. There we visited ever-mounting travails upon him, hoping to drive him to the utterly hopeless depths of despair which forced our ancestors ultimately to discover the to the pwW’r.

However, even prior to leaving Earth, upon being instructed in the techniques of total cellular control, Cory hit upon the notion of expanding its use from mere repair and rejuvenation to shape-changing. He used this technique on Earth to extract Megonthalyä, Memphus, and himself from a number of fraught situations during their expedition to locate a wWn’dt—crystals of the requisite size and structural perfection are rare there. During that excursion, he metamorphosed from the Caucasian appearance of his birth to that of a Chinese military officer; then to a gill-breathing merman; and finally to a batman, with wings spanning nearly fifty feet.

Once on Isis, however, he used the technique repeatedly in an attempt to develop a form capable of dealing with the frightful conditions. Ultimately he arrived at a winged, multilegged, omnienvironmentally adapted dragonform monstrosity which proved equal to the challenge of pwW’rless survival out in the wilds. As a result, Cory was never driven to the requisite level of hopelessness necessary to enable one to find his own kï.

It never occurred to us to seek his threshold in rage, but that is where eventually he found it: Arriving at La’ïr, our capital, Cory erroneously “realized” that we Isis were soulless, depraved monsters, whose chief entertainment consisted of watching, via our viewers, the struggles, suffering, and eventual deaths of well-intentioned adventurers whom we lured to Isis and marooned in the wilds. This, combined with his simultaneous misapprehension that Megonthalyä, whom he had come to love, not only did not reciprocate his feelings but was herself a willing participant in the “deception,” drove him to a state of rage transcending even the Berserker-level fury of his more direct-action-oriented ancestors, where, spontaneously if inadvertently, he discovered his kï.

From that point, Cory’s progress was incredibly, unprecedentedly rapid. Of course, during Megonthalyä’s initial forcing of rapport with him, her entire mind, complete with her knowledge of the practice of the pwW’r, was virtually exploded into his at the moment of breakthrough. Regrettably, however, thereafter, due to differences in their respective mental filing systems, he was unable to access any of it without direct stimuli.

Nonetheless, he plowed into the practical aspects of wWyhr läaq training with the same enormous enthusiasm and almost reckless disregard for the odds and/or level of difficulty which has characterized his approach to every challenge facing him throughout his lifetime: Doggedly he pursued the knowledge locked away in his brain, eventually locating and putting it all into practice, achieving Tenth Order in a mere year and a half, twenty-three full years short of the time heretofore required by the most proficient of Isi candidates.

Even Megonthalyä, whose parents were the first couple in the past approximately eleven centuries to choose to conceive a child, and who, consequently, benefitted from all we had learned about gene selection and education, required twenty-two years of training to reach her full power and capability.

Possibly the best illustration of the unexpected directions Cory’s curiosity leads him occurred some six months into his formal wWyhr läaq training; to-wit . . .

DF:\\NvRRtMT_SOURCE:      Peter Cory, Third Order, student wWyhr läaq.

Nothing about the Isis’ wWyhr läaq training regimen bore any resemblance to classes at Hogwarts. All my lessons were one-on-one; each instructor the top specialist in his field, each expecting me not only to excel in, but to embrace his own manic enthusiasm for, whatever abstruse peninsula of the Arts he might be marooned on.

Fortunately, Meg, whose entire knowledge of the Arts reposed somewhere in my head, had learned her craft well. Unfortunately, since I couldn’t access any of it without experiencing something which triggered that particular pattern of responses, or “relearning” it, either of which would cause me to “remember” it, I spent most sessions in a rotating swivet of frustration, wonder, then boredom.

Without exception, everything I heard triggered one of Meg’s memories. But only one. Since they weren’t cross-indexed, I understood everything every instruc­tor said or demonstrated perfectly upon first exposure—but lacked any hint of context against which to understand how any of it interrelated.

And as time passed, I found myself in possession of an ever-increasing number of disparate, tunnel-vision glimpses of simply marvelous concepts. This led me continually to speculate about how those concepts might work in various combinations. Which led me to experiment. Sometimes privately. Which led occasionally to consequences . . .

For instance, one day I learned how the Isi viewer worked—and the mechanics simply took my breath away. One of the most widely used, most fundamental underpinnings of Isi civilization, never mind the pwW’r, is the viewer—whose operation is based on the principle of bending space. By means of Isi “physics,” the active viewing plane, which exists an almost immeasurably tiny but finite distance above the treated physical surface of the viewer structure itself, becomes identical to the plane of the viewpoint at the location of the scene being presented.

Long before my instructor’s show-and-tell came to a close, I had come up with additional potential uses for the principles he seemed to be demonstrating. However, my previous instructor had been D’sSorbynsan, whose life-focus, apart from an obsession regarding the details of his specialty, seemed to be advancement of the frontiers of sarcasm. Invariably, regardless what question I might ask, his response was scathing. Since Meg’s grasp of the subject emerged in my head as he spoke and demonstrated, eventually I stopped asking questions and just let him run down.

Thereafter, for several days following my session with the viewermeis­ter, I toyed with the concept in my head and watched for an opportunity to experiment, unobserved by anyone who might volunteer sarcastic opinions and/or advice. Eventually a lesson ended early and the next instructor wasn’t due for over two hours.

Long enough.

Actually, even then I wasn’t completely alone. Meg and T’fFelteshezr were conferring elsewhere, but Memphus had chosen to stay with me. As usual, the fmMh’lr was hard at work, building up sleep credits against the likelihood that future pressing circumstances might force him to remain awake longer than fifteen minutes at a crack. Accordingly, his three-foot-long (counting the tail), portly, yellow- and black-striped feline bulk lay sprawled on a cabinet just below a mural-sized (about four feet by six, actually), wall-mounted viewer. He was oblivious to my tinkering as I modified the controls of the smaller (about eighteen inches by twenty-one) desktop unit before me.

Even as I labored, it struck me as incongruous, if not downright incredible, that in all of Isi history no one had yet attempted this. But no matter how I structured the search, nowhere in the DataField could I find a mention of the subject; and nothing I was doing in preparation triggered anything from my locked-away secondhand memories.

Further, most of my training and experience thus far had confirmed Meg’s opinion, that the Isis’ minds and mine were wired very differently. So it really was possible that I was in unexplored territory.

Well, time was wasting. If my next instructor were to arrive while I was in the midst of this experiment, sarcastic words might be spoken, and my skin was still more than a little thin following the session with D’sSorbynsan.

So I pressed on, refining the desktop viewer’s controls, adding levels of finer and ever finer sensitivity, until I had achieved increments of control measurable in fractions of individual angstroms. Then I copied the reprogramming control-set across to the larger, wall-mounted viewer overlooking the sleeping fmMh’lr.

Finally I aligned the two units as precisely as could be achieved with my modified controls, so that each viewer was looking out of the other: Peering into my desktop unit, I could see myself from the perspective of the wall-mounted unit, as well as glimpse Memphus asleep in the foreground just below.

Now, unless I’d missed something during my research, I was the first to try to achieve perfect alignment of two viewpoints originating from physically separate viewers. And if my theory were correct, at this point those two planes should share the same location in space with no material between them.

Hardly daring to breathe, I touched the apparent surface of the desktop viewer before me with a fingertip. Or tried to. Despite the fact that, intellectually, I more or less expected it, I still was astonished to feel nothing—but had the surreal experience of watching my finger, then hand, sink physically into the picture before me.

Turning my head, I saw it projecting from the wall-mounted viewer above Memphus—but three times life-size, in direct proportion to the size difference between the two units. I wiggled my fingers; the huge hand wiggled its fingers in perfectly synchronized response.

“Memphus,” I called, without thinking, “look up and tell me what you see.”

Opening his eyes lazily, the fmMh’lr’s vision focused upon the monster hand hovering above him. For a moment the tableau remained frozen. Then, with a truly explosive tomcat spit and earsplitting shriek, Memphus’ hardwired feline instincts reacted—launching him straight off the cabinet.

Without thinking, I snatched him out of the air and pulled him back to safety—through the mismatched viewers.

Earthly ­historical figure Harold Samuel once opined that location is everything. This is only partially correct. In truth, karma is driven by timing: The door opened; Meg and T’fFelteshezr breezed merrily back into the room.

“Oh, Peter,” cooed Meg; “where’d you get the cute little”—there was a heartbeat’s silence, then—

Memphus . . . !”

It took only moments for a laughing T’fFelteshezr to restore an indignant Memphus to his normal size and molecular density—the passage through the viewers had not affected his weight or mass.

Or his disposition: It took somewhat longer for the fmMh’lr to forgive me—particularly once he learned that it had been little more than a coincidence that my experimental lashup had maintained synchronization long enough for him (and my hand, but he’d used up all his sympathy on himself) to pass through safely.

Ultimately, however, the word came down: Yes, indeed, the peculiar workings of the Earthman’s brain had indeed led him to invent (or, more properly, I suppose, discover) matter-transmission. But a great deal of work remained before it would become practical, never mind safe, over useful distances.

FROM:                    T’lLeq’tomn, Tenth Order, Senior Compiler.

DF\\:TO:  DataField Historical Archives.

In the interest of producing a coherent, intelligible record of these events, we will continue to edit the raw NvRRtMT input from the multichanneled, stream-of-consciousness flow of which it actually consists to the more easily assimilated, first- and third-person, past-tense narrative format.

Whereupon, the major nodded to the remaining soldiers and, seizing my arm, quick-marched me outside. Plopping me down on the blisteringly hot, exposed-to-the-sun, leather front passenger seat of the foremost top-down HumVee (a gleam­ing white, gold-trimmed con­vertible!—leave it to the Cambodian military to afford custom transportation while the populace starved), he got in next to me and started the engine.

Staring around the clearing in stunned bewilderment, I noticed that the ground was littered with shapeless, unidentifiable forms. It took me several whole seconds to realize that I was looking at the bodies of my staff and whatever patients had failed to run soon enough or fast enough.

Over my shoulder I watched two soldiers emerge, bearing the body of the sergeant between them. Two more carried the heart-lung machine. A fifth, having the grace to look at least a little penitent, carried the small bundle which was all that remained of my patient.

As our tiny convoy pulled away, the last soldier to leave stopped in the doorway and tossed something over his shoulder. We were perhaps a hundred yards down the jungle trail when the clinic erupted in flame and thunder.

The major glanced across at me from behind the wheel as I stared behind us with disbelieving eyes dry only through operation of a level of shock which exceeded grief and horror, leaving only a transcendent but helpless rage. “Do not take it personally,” he said, almost sympathetically. “Global politics are complex; much too subtle a game for one with your well-meaning but simplistic motivations to grasp. You must realize that your presence and work, while benefitting a few, had no effect on the real problems facing the people of this country. The charges against you, and your public trial, conviction, and execution, on the other hand, will have a profound effect indeed.

“World awareness will focus upon certain issues that we wish to see advanced, and from a perspective advantageous to us. More benefit will flow to more people as a result of the outcome of this little charade than you and those like you could achieve in a lifetime of sticking band-aids on pregnant women and sick children.”

For a moment my eyes went round and my jaw hung slack. At first I simply couldn’t reply—the enormity of this murderous little ghoul’s depravity completely took my breath away! Even to imply that his butchery and our efforts somehow might arise from common, let alone similarly humanitarian, ambitions—how dare he . . . !

My anger returned then, this time accompanied by tears triggered by the maddening awareness of my own impotence: Physical revenge was ludicrous to contemplate—the major was a superlatively conditioned, trained killer in the prime of life; I was a sixty-eight-year-old, four-foot-ten-inch, eighty-four-pound, unarmed woman.

Nothing I could possibly say would be sufficiently hurtful to have any impact on someone so utterly, fundamentally evil. All I could do was ignore him, mourn Ng, Tran, and my friends and patients back at the clinic, and wait for the next development.

Drying my eyes on a sleeve, I took a long, shaky breath and thought back to the thousands of women and children I had treated in eight God-forsaken countries.

Damn the major’s soulless heart to hell and back! We had helped!—we had made a difference . . . !

But then, unbidden, with those memories came the nagging, indisputable awareness that, each time, within a week of our forced departure, prenatal, delivery room, and infant mortality rates had shot right back up to where they had been the day we arrived.

And suddenly I hated that man more than any human being I had ever met or heard of—more intensely, just then, than I had known I was capable of hating anyone. Because—

He had forced me, in that moment, to realize and, worse yet, to admit to myself that, in a ghastly, perverted sort of way, he was at least partially correct. The fact was, the hard work contributed by the good people who had worked with me—locally recruited and trained natives and imported professional volun­teers alike—had had no substantive, lasting effect on the quality of the lives of the people living in those countries. The underlying problems were of such a magnitude as to swallow our efforts without a ripple.

For the first time in my entire career I found myself wondering whether medicine, as practiced and/or advocated by ethical physicians and medical societies worldwide, was even capable of solving problems on this scale. There were so few of us and so terribly many who needed our help.

But suddenly, in a dazzling flash of insight—after having been ejected from eight countries now in three years for no reason beyond the fact that, in doing our jobs well, we called attention to those who weren’t—finally I understood what really was happening . . .

The loathsome little major was right! As sincere as our efforts were, they had amounted to sticking band-aids on pregnant women and sick children . . . !

We physicians had been treating symptoms—engaging in an ego-satisfying, worldwide healers’ joyride, whose real, bottom-line objective was the discharge of our own sociological guilt. In no wise had our efforts ever been directed toward solving the real problem, in which the misery that we so piously decried was rooted.

For that fundamental problem wasn’t organic. Neither, however, was it geographic, climatologic, or even social.

It was moral: Many, if not most, of the countries of the world were being run by sociopaths—men whose interest in the welfare of others was limited to, and defined by, the effect of that welfare on the perpetuation of their own posses­sion and exercise of power.

More simply put: Too many evil men were running things.

But, incredibly—I knew the solution . . . !

∆∆∆

The Hippocratic/Maimonidean view of a physician’s responsibility (restated more rationally in Geneva in 1948) sets forth the generally prevailing ideal of the ethical practice of medicine worldwide and, from my first day of practice, formed the basis of my own professional conduct, as well guiding the behavior of every doctor with whom I had ever worked.

The Declaration of Geneva requires no pagan oaths; no lofty, meaningless hyperbole; no silly, undeliverable promises to one’s teachers; no philosophical leaps past logic; no speculation about what “laboring under the stone” really meant; no translation from obsolete concepts.

It says what it says, clearly and unambiguously, and—though my graduating class had, by unanimous vote, deleted that mindlessly simplistic clause about respecting human life “from the time of conception”—is a generally satisfying statement of what a conscientious physician should strive toward.

In reciting the slightly abridged Declaration of Geneva agreed upon by my fellow fledgling healers and me, I swore to “consecrate my life to the service of humanity,” that “the health of my patient” would be “my first consideration,” and never to “use my medical knowledge contrary to the laws of humanity.

How could I (and my colleagues) have been so blind! Not only was the solution to Mankind’s socioeconomic woes obvious, it was absolutely, unequivocally mandated by a literal reading of the Declaration:

A worldwide doctors’ boycott . . .

An absolute denial of medical attention to governmental (and rebel) leaders who prevented their populations from achieving even the most minimally decent living conditions and/or exercise of fundamental civil rights.

As a last resort, amputation has always been an accepted form of treatment in the ethical practice of medicine: Sometimes sacrificing a diseased or dying limb or organ is the only way to save the life of a patient.

All that was required to accept this revised view of the ethical practice of medicine was an expansion of the definition of “patient,” as specified in the Declaration, from individuals to humanity as a whole.

Viewed in that light, failing to refuse treatment to an actively symptomatic sociopath abusing a position of power would be a clear violation of a doctor’s ethical obligations.

The concept was a shock after so many years of unthinking dedication to what I had assumed my Oath stood for. (The framers of that Declaration were doctors, not semanticists; I suspect they would have been even more shocked than I, had they realized what a literal reading of their words really called for. . . .)

My dedication, however, was unthinking no longer—I knew!

Of necessity, the cure would be gradual; the mechanism would be attrition, with sociopathic rulers dying from disease, wounds inflicted by would-be assassins, and old age.

But given time and resolve, it would work. . . .

∆∆∆

Not that I personally was likely to have an opportunity to set the machinery in motion, given my circumstances; but sooner or later, before the regime killed me to achieve their nebulous (but surely nefarious) ends, I would have an opportunity to pass on my revelation to someone who could. And that would toll the bell for men like the major.

I cast a sidelong glance at him. He noticed. “Since no one is around to overhear me say this,” he offered conversationally, “I will tell you candidly that I did not enjoy what we did this morning. Personally, I bear you no malice and, in fact, I privately approve of your work and that of your colleagues. It accomplishes nothing in the long view, of course, but you care. Unfortunately, you also represent an unmatched political opportunity.”

Briefly our eyes locked; then a great contentment settled over me, and I smiled. The major looked somewhat nonplused; suddenly I no longer feared him, and it must have shown.

It was almost possible to feel sorry for the man now, knowing what I did. His fate was sealed, along with all those like him.

The concern in his eyes deepened as I shook my head pityingly. “You poor, soul-damaged malignancy. . . .” I sighed.

DF\\:FIELD_STAFF_MEETING_NvRRMT

COMPILED/EDITED_BY:       T’lLeq’tomn, Tenth Order, Senior Compiler.

“Very good,” Memphus purred approvingly. Lazily the fmMh’lr stretched and repositioned himself more comfortably on the desktop. “I really have to hand it to you: You have an authentic genius for identifying outstanding key personnel. Up to this point I’d have said she was too genteel and refined, not to mention downright soft, for the job. Not now, though; she’s ready. —Be­sides,” he added, his diabolical tomcat features crinkling into a smile, “my host approves of her: This body wants to purr and do head-dives every time I see her.”

Peter Cory, WWyhr Läaq of Earth and Field Director of Project Armageddon, nodded uncomfortably. “To be of use, a tool must be tempered,” he muttered, mostly to himself. “I know that; in my career, I’ve crisis-toughened hundreds of executives. Maybe thousands.”

Cory glanced back and forth between the flatscreen monitor, on which Doctor Tyler’s NvRRtMT output scrolled upward, and an Isi viewer which displayed the events as they transpired in real time. His expression was bleak.

“It was necessary to let this happen,” he continued, his voice unsteady. “And one expects the process to be unpleasant for the beneficiary. But never before have I deliberately caused injury and death to innocent bystanders to achieve a goal—any goal. . . .”

Megonthalyä stood close behind him; her hands rested on his shoulders. Now she bent and placed her cheek against his. “Stop it,” she ordered gently. “You know as well as I do that you didn’t cause those murders. You merely extrapo­lated from the data that this would happen. Your prediction has enabled us to observe the event as it happened. And because we observed, you now are in a position to take steps which ultimately will bring about an outcome very different from that intended by those who are responsible.”

Meg paused momentarily; her lips brushed Cory’s temple. “The debate over the conflicting needs of the many versus the rights of the few is older than your planet,” she reminded him. “We Isis haven’t come up with a solution in all of our history. It would be nice to think you can, but I’m not holding my breath. Meanwhile, you’ll just have to do what your intellect and instincts tell you is necessary, and cope as best you can with the price exacted by your conscience.

“However,” she continued, her voice turning suddenly hard, “even the most distasteful task may have its more satisfying elements. . . .”

Cory nodded. He straightened, his expression becoming grim. Glaring into the viewer, he depressed the send switch, activating the desktop microphone. “Rebecca,” he grated, “do it now. . . .”

DF:\\NvRRtMT_SOURCE:      Elisabeth VanBuren Tyler, M.D.

I had never wanted to be a hero—and especially not a martyr! Never, not even in my misspent childhood, had I ever entertained any such inclinations.

I delighted in romance novels, the slushier the better (Mother’s adjective for them was “trashy”); and tearily identified with fatally attractive but unfailingly put-upon ingénues for whose favor stalwart Galahads unceasingly labored against the most horrendous odds and/or diabolical workings of star-crossed fate. In this outlook (though distinct from my taste in literature) I was encouraged by my parents, stereotypically old-stock, self-considered upper-caste Bostonians both.

Unsurprisingly, my ultimate decision to become a physician had been greeted with ambivalence: While decorously proud of the notion of having a respected healing professional in the family, Mother was skeptical whether, for instance, the conduct of a procto­logical exam was compatible with then-existing standards of ladylike comportment; and the prospect of my being in the presence of an unclothed adult male other than a duly social-register-, family-, and church-approved, and state-licensed (in that order), husband filled Father with a sense of deeply personal disquiet.

Assertiveness had been one of my less salient personality traits at the time; and if Devlin, my fiancé, had not backed me then (as he did for the next forty-eight years, may his Rest be tranquil) and urged me to stand my ground, the probability is great that in the end I would have allowed them to browbeat me out of entering the medical profession.

But I didn’t. And indeed, it was Devlin’s advice, delivered during his final days, which prompted me, immediately after the funeral, to place my comfortable suburban-Boston neonatal/pediatrics clinic and our farm, horses, and Miss Char­lotte Ann (my aristocat, the prospect of prolonged separation from whom was one of the more difficult aspects of the decision) under the capable stewardship of Doctor Catheryn Tyler, my youngest and most promising daughter, and, ignoring the solicitous carryings-on of the rest of the family, plunge myself into the distracting challenges of the United Nations’ Children’s Relief Administration’s overseas effort.

Despite recipient governments’ (and, not infrequently, Washington’s) arbitrary and obstructive behavior, the work was rewarding: Against all odds, we saved thousands of pregnant women, laboring mothers and their babies, and healed uncounted sick children.

And, just incidentally, I made considerable progress toward healing my own widow­hood scars. My spirits and confidence mounted steadily as evidence of the need for and value of our work accumulated.

My only dissatisfaction (apart from missing, most intensely, Miss Charlotte Ann) was a growing feeling that we were paddling upstream, our progress hindered by an ever-swelling torrent of, at best, bureaucratic indifference and, at worst, active governmental opposition—both theirs and ours. Repeatedly, shipments of vital drugs, equipment, and supplies (often paid for with my own funds) were delayed or swallowed up en route. Whether the culprits were Wash­ing­ton bureaucrats, who habitually contended we were smuggling military supplies destined for officially “disapproved” administrations’ troops, or rebels fighting “approved” governments; local politicians, eager to flex their meager political muscles and/or hustle bribes; or out-and-out bandits, ready to steal anything that wasn’t bolted down, welded in situ, or surrounded by armed guards, the effect was the same: People—mostly women and children—died.

Repeatedly we were forced to make do with obsolete equipment, little or no medication or expired shelf-dates, unsafe buildings, no electricity, and contami­nated water sources. And more people died.

And increasingly, local governments imposed ever more stringent restrictions on our operations, effectively keeping more and more of their populations from the benefits our clinics offered. And still people more died.

The level of such interference had been mounting steadily during the previous three years; and, in the last six months, there had been a marked increase both in frequency and severity. In hindsight, it should have been obvious that someone, sooner or later, was going to come up with the idea of drawing up a list of bogus charges to use as a pretext for raiding our clinics, killing off our personnel, and driving away our patients. Staged public trials and executions of the doctors involved would drive home the lesson even more clearly for the benefit of would-be do-gooders and patients alike.

I really should have seen it coming . . .

∆∆∆

As we rounded a curve, barely a mile from the smoldering wreckage of the clinic, the major growled something no doubt starkly unprintable in his own obscure dialect. A massive tree on the right side of the trail just ahead had uprooted and blown over; it now leaned partially across our path. The road was not actually blocked by the six-foot-thick trunk, but the remaining clearance beneath it promised to be a tight fit for the HumVees.

The major slowed to a crawl, causing vehicles behind us to bunch up. He reached forward, unlatched the windshield-support locks, and, grasping the bug-spotted glass by the frame, folded it down flat onto the hood.

He edged over to the extreme left-hand side of the trail, brushing shrubbery with his fender, and nosed into the opening. We had to duck our heads to clear the trunk as we crept under it.

But then, quite without warning, as we emerged on the far side I was seized under the arms by a pair of big, strong hands attached to equally large, powerful arms. Unceremoniously if gently, I was snatched from the HumVee, swung effortlessly upward, and deposited carefully on a platform affixed to the tree trunk, invisible from our direction of approach.

As I scrambled for a handhold on the narrow shelf (unnecessarily, it turned out; the one-armed grip about my waist maintained by the human derrick seemed unlikely to yield before anything less stressful than Judgment Day itself), there came what sounded like a single gunshot—except that it was astonishingly loud and seemed, somehow, to emanate from every point of the compass simultaneously.

Glancing quickly below me, I watched the major slump sideways out of the HumVee, which continued driverless down the path at an idle. The following vehicle, now unoccupied as well, thumped gently over his head.

For a moment I stared down at the mess, expecting to feel appropriately horrified, and trying to muster even a twinge of regret at the little murderer’s passing—but failed utterly: However fractional the improvement, the world was now a cleaner, brighter, better place!

These events undoubtedly would have rendered me paralyzed with astonish­ment if I’d had any emotions left to be startled with by that point. Instead, I looked around to see who my rescuers (one could always hope) might be.

On the far end of the platform, squatting contentedly Indian-style (my joints ached even to contemplate such a posture), was a short, stocky (if not downright plump) woman whose loose-fitting, camouflaged, combat fatigues were festooned with a truly remarkable collection of weapons.

Her eyes were dark and merry, and, though they twinkled through a pair of 1890s-style “granny” bifocals, seemed unlikely to miss anything.

The woman had a round, grandmotherly face, the sort I’ve always tended to associate with the word, “kindly”—though the mischievous, self-satisfied grin currently bisecting it seemed somewhat out of place in someone of her apparent age and dignity. This detail was not entirely irrelevant, given the fact that the tiny corner of my mind not involved in the generalized attack of private hysteria which constituted the bulk of my mentation at that moment had noticed that the lady was little, if any, younger than I!

However, age, gender, and appearance notwithstanding, there was about her a certain indefinable quality which left no doubt in my mind that I was in the presence of a leader.

Carefully turning my head to follow the arm about my waist to its source, I beheld the largest man I’d ever seen in my entire life. He, too, looked inordi­nately pleased with himself.

At about this point in the proceedings, perhaps a dozen additional men and women, also dressed in camouflage and bristling with weapons, materialized soundlessly from the jungle below us. Quickly and efficiently they boarded those vehicles which were still moving. Dumping bodies overboard as necessary, they brought the remnants of the convoy to a halt; then glanced upward toward the woman, obviously awaiting further instructions.

That worthy elevated a brow and fixed me with a cryptic eye. In slightly Israeli-accented American English, she said, “Miss Charlotte Ann asked us to look in on you. She was worried about you.” Eyes twinkling, she paused; then continued dryly: “It appears she had cause. Our next stop is the U.S.; would you care to ride along . . . ?”

∆∆∆

Now, notwithstanding my youthful tastes in literature, I have never been mistaken for a fluttery, palpitating ingénue. Ever. (Fluttery, palpitating ingénues seldom establish reputations as competent pediatric surgeons.)

Nonetheless, I have limits.

And in the past hour, I, a sworn, dedicated healer, had killed a man with my own hands—unintentionally, true, but what really horrified me was the discovery that I felt only incidental regrets.

I had witnessed an ailing child, whom I might have been able to save, cold-bloodedly murdered before my eyes.

I had seen several of my closest friends butchered without cause. I had watched my patients slaughtered or driven away and my clinic destroyed.

And I had resigned myself to death, hoping for no more than an opportunity to pass my solution to the world’s misery on to someone who might set it in motion, only

—to find myself saved by

—a heavily armed, total stranger who

knew Miss Charlotte Ann. . . .

Dear Lord—of course I fainted!

DF\\:FIELD_STAFF_MEETING_NvRRMT

COMPILED/EDITED_BY:       T’lLeq’tomn, Tenth Order, Senior Compiler.

“Neatly done,” yawned Memphus. The Isi viewer in which he, Megonthalyä, and Peter Cory were following the action now showed Doctor Tyler lying mercifully inert in the back of a HumVee as Rebecca Two-Knives and her crack team of private commandos drove their confiscated vehicles through the steaming jungle toward a small clearing several miles distant, in which six heavily armed helicopters waited.

Cory nodded tightly. The lines of pain in his face eased fractionally. “Becky does good work.”

“On the other hand,” observed the fmMh’lr, arching a quizzical brow, “her greeting seemed unnecessarily rugged, if not downright gratuitously cruel. Couldn’t you just have had her say ‘Hello’?”

“No,” interjected Meg. “Peter knew what he was doing. He was monitoring Doctor Tyler’s NvRRtMT emotional readings closely. She needed that cathartic discharge by then, and Becky’s bolt-from-the-blue mention of her cat triggered it. We’re going to keep her asleep now until we get her home, which will give her subconscious time to heal some of the trauma arising from what she’s just gone through.

“We’ve been in contact with her daughter, Doctor Tyler, Junior, and told her everything she needs to know. Doctor Tyler, Senior, will feel substantially better when she wakes up—though she’ll still be in the grip of that elemental but calculating rage.”

“Okay, I’ll buy that,” responded the cat. “What now?”

“Now we leave her alone,” stated Cory firmly. “She needs time to get her feet back under her, to gather her facts and attempt to organize her campaign, and ultimately to learn that—no matter how angry she is, and regardless of the merits of her analysis of the problem and her proposed solution for it—she faces an impossible task.”

DF:\\NvRRtMT_SOURCE:      Elisabeth VanBuren Tyler, M.D.

Slowly and contentedly I drifted up from slumber. I felt more rested and relaxed this morning than at any time since Devlin had had to leave me. And as I gradually attained full consciousness, I became aware of a warm, welcome, familiar weight on my chest and the faintest tickling sensation on my chin. Opening my eyes the slightest squinty crack, I beheld Her Royally Regal, Highnessly Majestic Princessness­ship, Miss Charlotte Ann, lying sphinxlike on my chest, peering intently at me from a distance of perhaps an inch.

Slowly, as though still asleep, I slid a hand from under the covers and proffered a fingertip. With her customary initial suspicion, Miss Charlotte Ann sniffed tentatively at it; then delicately accepted to the extent of essaying a diffident nose-push. I added four more fingers to the invitation. Miss Charlotte Ann regarded them dubiously for a moment. She looked around to make sure no one was watching. A rusty purr echoed through the bedroom, and finally she performed a sincere head-dive.

I brought my other hand into play. Whereupon, Miss Charlotte Ann launched into an absolutely disgraceful display of openly loving conduct. She head-dived repeatedly, rapturously against my chin (which made continuing the pretense of being asleep difficult, because that really tickles), finally rolling over onto her back and writhing shamelessly as I massaged her tummy with one hand and inflicted collateral indignities with the other.

(Closet snugglers, according to the professional literature, are all alike: They can apparently function normally in society for hours at a time—but once they’ve accepted that first caress, it’s not a pretty picture.)

I gave Miss Charlotte Ann five minutes’ assorted tummy-rubbings and head-scritchings before yawning and stretching elaborately to warn her that I was about to “wake up,” which gave her time to sit up and compose herself.

Opening my eyes fully, I encountered a normally regal, only slightly disap­proving gaze, and proffered the single decorous chin-scritch-and-nose-to-tail-stroke which comprised the informal-but-duly-respectful greeting that Miss Charlotte Ann considered an appropriate form of obeisance from her more fondly regarded vassals.

She accepted with grace; then rose elegantly and withdrew to the foot of the bed, waiting (with an artful rendering of the visibly-forced-but-unconcerned air of long-suffering patience affected by the Ruling Class when managing their domestics) for me to get out of bed and carry her downstairs. (The Ruling Class never walks when a ride is available—and it’s supposed to be.)

From my bed, I could see through the windows that the sky was a typical early-winter-Boston-gray. My watch was not on the bedside stand, so I couldn’t tell what time it was, but somehow it felt late. And while I was certain that Catheryn or Jennifer had long since fed Miss Charlotte Ann her proper breakfast, I was equally certain that I, personally, was expected to produce a token offering as soon as I got up, to make partial amends for having been gone so

Oh . . . !

It all came back.

The jungle. The heat. The smell. The endless succession of poverty-complicated pregnancies and difficult deliveries and deathly sick children. The bureaucratic indifference and/or obstruc

The major . . . The killings . . . The—

“ ’Morning, Gramma.” The sober, breathy little voice jerked me back to suburban Boston with a snap that probably came near to closing my file. (Mortal shocks are generally contraindicated for sixty-eight-year-old hearts.) Jennifer, my favorite granddaughter, stood in the partially open bedroom door, eyeing me with concern.

∆∆∆

The last time I had seen Jennifer prior to that morning had been more than six months earlier, during a month of R-and-R occasioned by my firm but relatively polite ejection from a South American country, just before beginning that final, catastrophic, far-eastern assignment.

To the uninitiated, Jennifer looked like a completely unprepossessing, typically winsome, barely eight-year-old girl. Like all females in our family, she was quite small for her age (except, sad to say, currently her ears were progressing according to standard childhood benchmarks). She had a snub nose, a modest scattering of freckles, silver-blonde bangs and pigtails, and enormous, emerald-green eyes—bottomless pools of apparently ever-amazed, always-delighted innocence whose depths revealed only occasional flashes hinting at the intellect lurking behind them.

Now, we all knew that Jennifer was very smart. This had become obvious when she was little more than a baby. She apparently had eidetic recall, and was reading on her own well before her second birthday. Not even the accelerated-learning center in which Catheryn had had the good sense to enroll her offered her any particular challenge; she scored an unvarying one hundred percent in all formal courses. By now she had progressed further in math than I ever will.

And while I knew, in a vague, intellectual sort of way, that nothing was safe from the ceaseless probing and experimentation which characterized Jennifer’s insatiable curiosity, I had never had even an inkling of the scale of the iceberg (nay, glacier!) which her behind-the-scenes activities represented, nor the sheer scope and complexity of her operations.

However, her mother never suspected either—and Catheryn was no intellec­tual slouch in her own right: A Board-certified pediatrician by age twenty (having dropped out of the U.S. gymnastics team upon acceptance by Harvard’s medical school), she had practiced with me at the Tyler Pediatric Clinic until Devlin died; then had run the place in my absence “to keep the bills paid,” and (just because she liked to “keep abreast of what’s happening in space research”), picked up a Ph.D. from M.I.T. in astrogeophysics during her leisure hours, and promptly wangled a part-time consulting contract with National Space Transport, Inc.

My discovery of Jennifer’s unsuspected depths had come about quite by accident. One Saturday afternoon, needing to catch up on the professional literature I’d missed while working in South America, I decided to go down to the clinic and avail myself of the in-house medical library. (Catheryn absolutely refused to hear of anyone occupying my old office so long as my carcass retained even a trace of warmth.) Jennifer came along, both to keep me company and to please Catheryn (who was doing no better at concealing her ambition to have Jennifer follow her into medicine than I had with her).

Adjourning to my office as soon as we arrived, I began wading through the foot-high stack of journals which had accumulated during my absence. Probably twenty minutes later, and quite without warning, the speakerphone on the desk switched on and I found myself inadvertently eavesdropping on a whispered conversation between Jennifer (she was doing the whispering) and an urbane-sounding, unidentified adult male.

Because they were on the speaker, I couldn’t follow my first impulse and just hang up. However, as I was on the point of apologetically calling attention to my presence and excusing myself to call a telephone serviceman, the subject matter of the conversation suddenly caught my attention . . .

(Now, I was brought up with as much abhorrence for party-line snoops as anyone. But this was my granddaughter that man was talking to! And the topic under discussion was distinctly outside the realm of normal eight-year-old-girl-type interests. So I sat quietly and listened, my eyes growing rounder by the second.)

“You were right again,” the male voice was saying. “Those corporate-reorgan­ization experts Ford hired are Nissan agents, and they’re about to spring their trap. What do you want me to do; shall I warn them?”

“No,” replied Jennifer, sounding regretful. “I don’t think we’d better. I can’t prove any of it without compromising my source, and I’d hate to do that.”

“I’ll bet you would,” the man replied in dry tones.

“Never mind,” Jennifer went on more cheerfully. “I’m really calling to confirm that buy/sell order I e-mailed you this morning; to sell all the Ford and everything else on the list that accompanied the order, and buy every scrap of Lilly-Wyeth Pharmaceuticals you can get your hands on.”

There was a discernible pause. “Everything on the list?”

“Yes, please.”

“Is that wise? Putting so many of your eggs in one basket after you’ve worked so hard to build a diversified, high-yield portfolio? What’s so earthshaking about Lilly-Wyeth?”

“Well . . .” Jennifer paused melodramatically; I could tell that she was trying not to bounce up and down with excitement, but when she continued, her baby-girl voice positively rang with childish triumph. “Next week,” she declaimed grandly, “the FDA will announce approval of Lilly-Wyeth’s survival-time-limited, human-fat-cell-digesting strain of DNA-tailored bacteria. Isn’t that neat . . . ?”

This time the pause was distinctly pregnant. “The ultimate quickie cure for obesity,” breathed the man in almost reverent tones.

Despite the awkward ethical situation forced upon me by my initially unintended eavesdropping (not to mention the patently improbable background facts suggested by the conversation thus far), I found myself nodding in agree­ment: actual physical elimination of excess fat cells for good (together with the never-ending cravings intrinsic to their presence in the shrunken condition produced by dieting), all without the risks attendant to lyposuction . . .

If it really worked (and distinct from the moral questions inherent in spending all that money to develop a product intended solely to save the “haves” from the consequences of eating too much food—which otherwise could have gone a long way toward easing the plight of the “have-nots”), neat was an apt descriptive indeed.

And even if Lilly-Wyeth charged a reasonable price (not a common practice among drug companies enjoying a monopoly, in my experience), in our current overweight society the potential profits would be measured in tens of billions!

Another pause. “This is the first I’ve heard either of a fat-digester or that the FDA was testing one,” the man observed in cautious tones.

“Of course,” replied Jennifer, managing somehow to sound both apologetic and smug simultaneously. “Lilly-Wyeth paid the FDA personnel involved lots of money under the table. Not for the approval itself, of course. That would have been bribery—which,” she added snidely, “as you know, would have been wrong. Besides, there was never any doubt the approval would go through—the FDA hasn’t bounced one of Lilly-Wyeth’s applications in the last three adminis­trations.

“Nope; their investment was to make sure there were no leaks during testing, which gave their upper brass time to accumulate additional stock over time at modest prices. It was a pretty good strategy; so far as I know, I’m the only outsider who’s managed to find out.”

“As usual, the between-the-lines implications of our little chats scare me worse than the facts you actually divulge,” commented the man dryly. “I don’t know that your information comes from illegal sources; if I did, it would be my duty to counsel you to cease and desist and, if you refused, to withdraw from repre­sentation—regardless of the young fortune I’m making under that aston­ishing asset-management contract you claim to have designed. And because Rodriguez, Wu, MacBernstein, and Chandrasekhara, P.A., is first and foremost an ethical law firm, I would do just that. But I’d sure hate to have to; so if someday you find yourself in the grip of a sudden compulsion to purge your conscience, please suppress it around me. And be very, very, very careful.”

“I’m always careful,” said Jennifer solemnly; but I could hear the grin in her voice.

The lawyer sighed; then his tones became crisp and businesslike. “I should have the Ford stock disposed of in a day, and most everything else within the week. I could do it more quickly, but we don’t want to look overeager. It might attract attention.”

“You probably ought to start buying the Lilly-Wyeth right away, too,” said Jennifer, “for the same reasons. If we have to hurry, our own activity could start bumping the price up toward the end. If you have to, and if there’s enough, dip into my cash reserve at first to get started.”

The lawyer chuckled. “You haven’t checked your reserve-cash balance lately, have you?”

“No.” Jennifer sounded chagrined. “I generally try to keep track of it in my head; but, come to think of it, it’s been over two months since I actually called up the P-and-L/balance-sheet display. How much reserve do I have, and what’s my net worth at the moment?”

He told her.

They continued to chat briefly thereafter, but nothing they said registered because I was in shock—not merely the emotional upset which accompanies extreme astonishment; this was the actual, medically defined, physical condition: I had to put my head between my knees, and briefly, before my vision began to clear, I contemplated the wisdom of lying down on my back with my feet elevated.

Somehow—despite what I understood was a body of law that totally barred minors from participation in transactions involving substantial sums—my very own favorite baby granddaughter had acquired control over enough money to have bought most of the countries I’d been thrown out of . . . !

∆∆∆

For probably the better part of an hour, then, I sat there, mentally rerunning that conversation over and over again in my head, trying to decide what I should do about it.

It never occurred to me to take what I had heard at other than face value; Jennifer wasn’t into rôle-playing games, and no other explanation made even that much sense.

In fact, by the time she skipped merrily in through the door, just prior to our previously agreed-upon departure time, I hadn’t even decided whether to do anything about it. But I’ve never been good at intrigue and, as our eyes met, the decision was taken out of my hands immediately.

Jennifer stopped short. For the briefest fraction of a second, the façade wavered; a hint of the real Jennifer stared from the depths of those huge green eyes: first, a sudden realization that, somehow, I knew; followed by a quick look around the room for an explanation of how I knew; followed even more quickly by something that might have been calculation; and then, visibly, she reached a decision.

Perching on the very edge of one of the patients’ chairs, she drew up a leg, clasped her arms about the knee, and eyed me thoughtfully. “That phone has been turning itself on every so often for quite some time,” she began cautiously. “So far the service people haven’t been able to tell why or to fix it. If I hadn’t been so preoccupied with that Lilly-Wyeth business, I would have realized what was happening when Mr. Rodriguez started to sound as if he were speaking across open space instead of directly into the mouthpiece.”

I said nothing.

She regarded me apprehensively but continued: “Usually, when I miss something so obvious, things turn out for the better in the end. Which makes me wonder whether lapses like that really are entirely inadvertent, or whether perhaps this is my subconscious’ way of telling me that it’s decided upon a certain course of action; that it’s deliberately caused me to overlook a pivotal detail to get its own way.

“If that’s the case, then probably this time my id has decided that I need someone close to me to confide in about my secret life in the world of high finance and it’s chosen you. Actually,” Jennifer half-smiled, “you would have been my first choice even if I had done it consciously. How much did you hear?”

“Enough to make me wonder whether I want to hear more,” I responded, more than half in earnest.

Jennifer gazed at me solemnly for a long moment; then, slowly, a conspiratorial grin overspread her features. “Come on, Gramma,” she teased; “they can’t put you in jail just for keeping quiet about how frugal I’ve been with my allowance.”

I fixed her with what I hoped would pass for a gimlet eye and said, “Do you expect me to believe that, at your age, you amassed that fortune just by saving your allowance?”

“Of course not,” she replied immediately, her expression reflecting an earnest­ness borne of complete amazement; “by investing it. . . .”

“Your allowance is ten dollars a week,” I pointed out in prosecutorial tones. “And even that’s been only since your seventh birthday. Before then it was five.”

“It was only three when I began.” Apart from a hint of apology, which sug­gested that she didn’t enjoy having to correct me, Jennifer spoke with quiet assurance. “But if you double a dollar twenty times, you end up with over a million. —I don’t mean to imply that I’ve doubled my money every time I’ve traded,” she added hastily. “Probably no more than a fifth of my deals turn out that well,” she assured me blithely; “—but I engage in lots of transactions.”

I leaned back in my chair and regarded her thoughtfully. For some time now Jennifer had displayed an increasing tendency to answer questions in this fashion: calm statements of inarguable fact which somehow, upon rigorously logical examination (and despite being absolutely responsive semantically), not only failed to address the central issue but usually diverted the questioner’s attention from it.

This time it didn’t work. “I’m not interested in your trading secrets; I want to know how you’ve managed to avoid the legal pitfalls: How are you, at your age, getting away with conducting transactions on that scale in your own name?”

Jennifer failed to answer right away. Her eyes went slightly out of focus, as if the question had triggered memories. She was gone barely long enough for me to wonder whether to repeat myself; then she was back and grinning wryly. “It’s a long, complicated story,” she offered, crooking a warning brow.

“I have time,” I responded firmly.

“Do you?” Jennifer eyed me appraisingly for a moment before continuing. “Then would you mind making a slight detour on the way home? There’s some­one I want you to meet. I think you’ll probably feel more comfortable hearing about this from a third party . . .” She hesitated awkwardly, then finished, “. . . from an adult.”

Indignantly I opened my mouth to demand what difference age made—then stopped without speaking. Jennifer was right: To my discomfit and everlasting discredit, the real issue underlying this discussion—in fact, the sole reason we were having it—was her age and my attitude toward her because of it . . . !

Merely because she was my very own favorite baby granddaughter, whom I used to feed and bathe and powder and diaper and hold in my lap at every opportunity, and whom I had propped up on a pony when she was only fifteen months old, and whose cute little first riding boots from her cute little first riding habit still adorned my mantle (Catheryn never did have a proper appreciation for keepsakes from milestone events!), and whom I—

Mm-m-m . . . Yes. All of that. And more. Much more.

Which unquestionably was why I was having so much trouble coping with the notion that, in many ways, Jennifer was at least my equal, and in many other areas—notably matters financial—my self-evident superior.

Yes, input from another adult would help; particularly if that adult already were accustomed to dealing with her on that level.

Wherefore, something over an hour later, I found myself seated in the luxuriously appointed offices of the nationally known law firm of Rodriguez, Wu, MacBernstein, and Chandrasekhara, P.A. (whose members even I had heard of, as top-drawer lawyers and paragons of legal virtue), listening wide-eyed to Senior Partner Harrison Rodriguez relate, with only a little coaching from the object of the recital, the unlikely story of Jennifer’s meteoric rise to covert financial stardom.

No, we hadn’t had an appointment. We hadn’t needed one. Except where an unscheduled visit might conflict with a previously set appearance before someone along the lines of a U.S. district judge or higher, appointments were not required by the firm of Rodriguez, Wu, MacBern­stein, and Chandrasekhara for clients of Jennifer’s importance.

With which disclosure, my education commenced. . . .

∆∆∆

Harrison Rodriguez was a tall, slender man with thinning white hair, a warm smile, and an engaging personality. A grin of pure, unabashed admiration crinkled the corners of his eyes, and he gazed at Jennifer with a transparently paternal pride as his thoughts wandered back to their first meeting.

(And while I had resolved firmly to suspend judgment until all the facts were in, I found myself tentatively reflecting that nobody who was that fond of my granddaughter could be all bad. . . .)

“At first,” the attorney recalled, “she did everything in writing, by mail. And since no one asked, she simply ignored the issue of age altogether. She entered into a brokerage contract, made her first purchases with multiple small money orders bought with cash at various nondescript convenience-store-type places, and opened savings and checking accounts; all by mail, using a Post Office box—also rented by mail!

“Her net worth was well into seven figures,” he continued, “before an issue zigged when it should have zagged and she learned firsthand the disadvantages of trading by mail. The delay cost her a lot of money, which taught her that she needed to be able to react more quickly to market-indicators. Unfortunately, she was only about five years old then—and her voice at that time was hardly suitable for instructing brokers by telephone. . . .”

I repressed a smile. Even now, though both her syntax and diction were well beyond what most people would consider “adult-level,” Jennifer’s vocal tone quality was reminiscent of a breathy and/or breathless three-year-old.

Rodriguez chuckled. “Now, what would you or I have done at that juncture? I don’t know about you; I probably would have been stopped cold. But not Jenny. She analyzed the situation and identified the problem, which was that the law, which means government—by and for adults—as a matter of policy treats children largely as articles of property. In our all-knowing wisdom we deny them the right to own anything, to sell anything, to transact business; in fact, the right to accomplish anything meaningful in their own interest—even to the point of refusing them, as a group, any opportunity to prove that, as individuals, some are capable and eminently worthy of assuming adult responsibilities long before the legal age of majority.

“Obviously, the situation was not to be borne; and, following an in-depth study of the question, Jenny concluded that the first step toward beating the system was to learn its rules—all the rules. So to that end, she interviewed a Harvard law school professor by telephone, ostensibly for a grammar-school newspaper article—”

“And he thought it was just the most precious thing,” Jennifer cut in, her eyes almost emitting sparks, “for such a young, cute little girl to be so interested in such weighty subjects and to ask such intelligent questions!”

His expression a study in disapproving solemnity, Rodriguez nodded concurrence with Jennifer’s righteously indignant condemnation of such patently adultist, not to mention blatantly sexist, conduct. (However, with the eye on the side of his face away from Jennifer, he winked at me.)

“Personalities aside,” he continued severely, “she followed much the same procedure she used to obtain her unofficial M.D. education—”

He stopped and regarded me momentarily. “I guess you don’t know about that either? You must be having an eye-opening day. Yes, from a theoretical standpoint, she’s medically as well-educated as someone can be without a hands-on internship and residency training.

“But as I was saying,” he continued, “Jennifer obtained from him a complete list of the texts Harvard uses to prepare students to pass the Bar. She ordered them by mail and also arranged, still by mail, to have her computer upgraded during what her parents thought was a routine preventive-maintenance service call.”

“You know the one,” Jennifer added; “the big-screen PC in my bedroom that Mom thinks I wanted for video games.”

Rodriguez visibly suppressed a smile. “She had the serviceman install a next-next-generation motherboard and processor, terabytes of RAM, a half-petabyte, multiplatter RAID laser harddrive array, the fastest cable modem on the market, and hard- and software which gave her access to the leading subscription legal-resource databanks. She studied the texts and case law for a while and finally ordered sample exams from the major bar-exam prep services. After passing several without error, she declared herself a de facto attorney.”

Rodriguez’s sternly controlled delight intensified as he continued. “I might add that my partners and I have served as Bar examiners many times in the past. We have confirmed to our own satisfaction that, from the standpoint of academic preparation, Jenny is as well-qualified as any one of us. —Of course, she’ll still have to take and pass the Bar exam formally at the appropriate time before being allowed to practice.”

I simply had to break in: “Jennifer, I can only guess how much reading is involved in qualifying as a lawyer, but I know what’s involved in M.D. training—how could you possibly have found the time . . . ?”

“I read pretty fast, Gramma,” she contributed diffidently.

“Fast doesn’t cover it,” chuckled Harrison. “Have you ever watched her read? She absorbs a page at a glance. A quick glance. And, of course, she has as close to total recall as anyone I’ve ever met.

“Initially, the controlling factor was the strength of the paper; there’s a limit to how fast one can turn pages without tearing them. However, she quickly realized it was going to be impractical to read them all in hardcopy—never mind the problem of storing them at home without someone noticing—so she did a bit of digging, and managed to locate most of the volumes already in PDF format.

“As for the rest”—he grinned—“working entirely by mail, she snookered the local high school business club faculty sponsor into setting up an afterschool work program. School officials never met the anonymous business samaritan who funded it, but since they were allowed to run it themselves, they were delighted with the seed money. However, one of the first projects they were paid to accomplish was the scanning, exporting to PDF, and copying to disk a number of law texts which were delivered to the school.

“Then it was off to the races. I’ve timed Jenny’s onscreen computer reading rate with a stopwatch—she absorbs and flips screens twice to three times per second, depending on page density. Her reading rate is reminiscent of Com­mander Data doing research on Star Trek.

“Commander who?” I asked, my eyes going round. “What track?”

“I’ll explain later,” Jennifer whispered, trying without appreciable success not to smile.

“Anyway,” continued Harrison, “her first project, using what she had learned, was to research the question of minors’ rights. She soon determined that the situation was even worse than her first impression had suggested: that, practically speaking, apart from a vague, confusing, and generally ineffectual body of statutes and administrative rules directed, at best half-heartedly and at worst conflictingly, toward prevention of abuse and neglect, minors don’t have any rights at all; that, as I mentioned, the relationship between adults and minors parallels closely the owner/chattel relationship defined by law in most countries as ‘slavery’—except that, because we adults have magnanimously assigned ourselves ‘responsibility’ for our children, we’ve been able to rationalize keeping them under controls which, in most ways, are even more repressive than those practiced by unrepentant, self-confessed slaveowners of yore. Worse, she learned that no direct remedy at law was available or even contemplated.”

Jennifer’s indignant snort served as audible confirmation of her opinion of that state of affairs.

Rodriguez pretended not to notice. “She concluded, therefore, that since it’s clearly an ‘us-versus-them’ situation in which adults not only don’t deal fairly but patently don’t intend to, the solution need not adhere to traditional concepts of ‘legality.’

“Accordingly, she designed the most diabolically clever contract I’ve ever seen, under which an adult attorney would set up a trust-owned holding company with her as sole beneficiary. Then, under her direction, he would represent the trust in major-league financial transactions.

“Thereafter, following a background-and-qualifications investigation of all the investment-oriented law firms in the Boston area, the likes of which I’m not sure I could have performed myself, and using evasive tactics which the attorney/client privilege undoubtedly precludes me from discussing to get here without the knowledge of her family, Jenny approached us, and me in particular—”

“Mr. Rodriguez is listed in Who’s Who as the investment and corporate-merger specialist to whom the serious investment lawyers bring their own problems,” Jennifer interjected proudly. “But at least as important as his professional qualifications was the fact that, when we first met, he didn’t pat me on the head and laugh. He was a gentleman; he listened to what I had to say long enough to recognize that I knew what I was talking about.”

“Despite the fact that she was plowing new legal ground,” Rodriguez continued resolutely, “I determined to my own satisfaction that the contract was both unbreakable and offered adequate protection to the parties. Whereupon, I signed on as her ambassador to the world of adult finance, and she was off and running.”

He smiled indulgently; then his eyes grew distant. “It’s been an educational experience,” he mused absently, mostly to himself. “Jenny’s ability to locate and identify reliable market-indicators is positively amazing—if not downright alarming.”

Jennifer grinned. “I’ll admit to ‘amazing’ but not ‘alarming’; not if it means ‘illegal.’ —I mean, I won’t admit to ‘illegal.’ —If there were anything illegal to admit. —Which, of course, there isn’t.”

Rodriguez rolled his eyes skyward. “Heartwarming protestations of innocence notwithstanding, and while I can’t prove anything, I’m morally certain that most of her market information is the product of her astonishing ability with computers.

“For some time now, her PC, together with our office’s central mainframe to which it’s modem-linked, has borne little resemblance to any other system anywhere in the world. They consist of relatively commonplace, if state-of-the-art, hardware, but Jennifer wrote the disk-operating-system on which they’re now based, as well as the translator that renders it compatible with all the standard, off-the-shelf business software.”

“Which translator also allows our system to talk down to lesser computers,” Jennifer put in. “Meaning everything else,” she added with more than a hint of smugness.

“And all of it runs a full magnitude faster than any part of it theoretically is capable,” Rodriguez added thoughtfully. “At least, our hardware serviceman says that in his experience the things this system does, and the speed with which it does them, are flatly impossible; and we’re currently in negotiations with EM-ES for the rights. I bet it won’t surprise you to learn that Jennifer wrote their current operating system, JS-DOS 1.7, two years ago.”

—Oh, yes, it did! “You were just six then,” I protested. “Operating systems are huge programs. That’s worse than the reading; how could you possibly have found time to write all those hundreds of thousands of lines of code along with doing everything else?”

“Yeah,” she agreed dismissively. “I was five when I actually wrote it. Though,” she continued, “the bulk of my time was spent writing the macros that did most of the actual coding. They’re pretty advanced, for macros; fairly close to artificial intelligence. Plus,” she added, making only a pro forma effort to restrain her smugness, “even the first version was coded much more tightly than the competition; that’s partly why it was so much faster.

“But this 2.1 update is way beyond that. I haven’t decided whether just to collect zillions in royalties, hold them up for a percentage of the gross, or both,” Jennifer finished matter-of-factly.

“Whatever she decides, they’ll pay it,” opined Rodriguez. “Especially since she also wrote the security modules; to test which, I’ve arranged for some of the most notoriously gifted hackers in the world—in and out of prison—to take a run at our defenses, offering a big cash prize to anyone who can get in and then tell us how he did it. Thus far, no one’s collected.”

“Nobody will,” predicted Jennifer confidently.

“Probably not,” Rodriguez agreed, “since, during testing, I watched her use that system to break into some of the most sophisticated computers in the world—legally, of course, by prearrangement, ostensibly as a security check—almost at will, and without leaving a trace of her presence.”

“Unless you count the full-screen, winking-smiley-face animated graphic I always install in their message boxes to prove I was there.” Jennifer grinned. “I think that’s more elegant than merely superimposing a big Z onto their main menu, don’t you?”

“For quite some time,” Rodriguez continued doggedly, “we’ve been using Version 2.1 to manage our entire office, including all our client files, as well as Jenny’s portfolio, so I know that’s how she keeps track of her holdings—though I confess, I dread to contemplate what other uses she makes of it.”

“Why, Mr. Rodriguez, sir . . .” Jennifer murmured in unconvincingly reproachful tones, “how could you even think such a thing! As long as I’ve known you, you’ve made it abundantly clear that the law frowns on people who snoop other people’s computers without permission. Surely by now you know that I’d never get caught doing anything illegal. . . .”

“If you only knew the extent to which that reassures me,” the lawyer replied dryly. Then mischief twinkled in his eyes. “And don’t call me ‘Shirley,’ ” he added sternly.

As can be imagined, the interview deteriorated rapidly from that point into a round robin of gentle mutual teasing and giggles; and shortly thereafter, with my primary fears having been put to rest, we took our leave.

The safety—or even the existence—of Jennifer’s money had never been among my concerns. She had started with nothing; and even if events unexpectedly came completely unstuck and she lost everything (which I judged most improbable), it seemed even less likely that a resourceful eight-year-old would find bankruptcy the life-blighting trauma it is for most adults (though it probably would be worth the price of admission to watch the bankruptcy judge’s face as the case devel­oped). I had no doubt that she could and would start over again without blinking an eye or shedding a tear. Indeed, she undoubtedly would profit from the experience in the long-run—it wouldn’t happen twice. . . .

No; my primary apprehension had centered on Jennifer’s safety: the legal exposure posed by what she was doing and the intentions of the adult male stranger with whom she was doing it. (Though not in that order. . . .)

But I liked Harrison Rodriguez and, more importantly, I trusted him. That he had been, and would continue to be, a good influence on Jennifer was apparent, as was the fact that he was clearly almost as interested in her well-being as I was. And if no laws were being broken (detectably, anyway), and if she and her money were in good hands, my legitimate interest in her business affairs was at an end.

(Of course, my grandmotherly pride in her accomplishments was barely getting up to speed; to say nothing of a rampant, shameless curiosity [the intensity of which must surely have jeopardized all nine lives of every cat within a ten-mile radius!] regarding her continuing operations. . . .)

∆∆∆

And now, more than six months later, Jennifer eased into my bedroom and stood eyeing me with undisguised concern. She stopped at the foot of the bed, unconsciously stroking Miss Charlotte Ann as she regarded me intently. “Was it very bad . . . ?” she asked presently.

I considered stonewalling, but only momentarily. I’ve always been able to conceal my feelings from Catheryn when something was wrong, but I’ve never been able to fool Jennifer; somehow she’s always known.

“Very, very bad,” I breathed, with a shudder. Something stirred down in the depths of my memory; it felt important somehow, but refused to take shape. “Worse than you can imagine. . . .” I finished tremulously.

Jennifer nodded. “I’ve got a pretty vivid imagination,” she offered soberly. “But even I have trouble conceiving of someone degenerate enough to drag a doctor out of the operating room in the middle of cardiac surgery on a little kid—never mind machine-gunning all her patients and staff and blowing up her clinic—just for political gain.”

There came a deafening flash of darkness and a blinding roar of silence; the Universe tore lose from its mountings and, for a timeless but somehow endless segment of eternity, rotated about me in slow-motion as my mind found itself locked into a positive-feedback logic loop centered on a single patently impossible fact, and otherwise simply ceased to function.

I couldn’t have been gone for very long, but apparently some portion of my internal turmoil was detectible from the outside, for as my vision cleared, I found that Miss Charlotte Ann had forsaken Jennifer, seated herself again in my lap, and was staring up at my face with an expression of distress. As I returned, she opened her mouth and uttered a soundless “Meow”; and Jennifer, the concern in her eyes intensifying, was saying, “Gramma, are you all right? Gramma? Gramma . . . !”

I blinked, took a deep breath, held it, then let it out slowly. To my utterly certain knowledge, with the exception of myself, everyone who had witnessed that scene was dead. Everyone. Wherefore . . .

With an almost feral urgency my eyes sought and locked with Jennifer’s. “How did you know that?” I almost hissed. “How could you possibly have known those details . . . !”

She glanced away quickly, looked back, hesitated momentarily, and finally shrugged. “I listened on the extension when Mom got that call about you.”

I pondered briefly; then shook my head. “You aren’t the type just to eavesdrop casually, you had no reason to suspect that that call was going to be about me, and your mother would have heard the click if you had picked up during the call itself. What really happened?”

Jennifer eyed me thoughtfully for a moment; then an embarrassed little half-smile flickered briefly across her features. “Somebody’s been fooling around with our phones, both here and at the clinic, and at Mr. Rodriguez’s office. I figured it was one of those silicon barracudas he challenged—”

(At the word “barracuda,” that undefined ghost of a memory stirred again. And again I had a feeling that it was really important but couldn’t put a finger on it.)

“—to break into the computer. So I cobbled up a signal analyzer—”

(By now I knew without asking that the speed, sensitivity, and discrimination of her version of such a device would be magnitudes beyond that offered by anything commercially available.)

—“and had all the phone lines run through it. I wrote a routine that would, one, tell the phone company’s switching computer not to let a caller hang up until released from our end; two, trace the call back along the open circuit and identify the calling number; and, three, query the line after the caller thought he had hung up to see what equipment might be attached to it—in particular, of course, I was looking for computers and/or recording devices. The content of all calls was digitized and stored until I could scan and compare them with the signal analyses.

“Two days ago Mom got a call from a lady who said her name was Meg. That’s all, just Meg. She also glossed over the company she was with, beyond mentioning that they were international in scope.

“She said that some of their security people, while in Cambodia on conspic­uously undescribed business of their own, had pulled you out of a nasty situation and were bringing you home. She described in detail what ‘nasty’ meant. Then she apologized both for the fact that they were too late to save anybody else, and that they were keeping you sedated on the way home to prevent you from learning anything about them, but suggested that doing so probably would be beneficial, in that it would give your subconscious time to begin your recovery.”

Jennifer paused; she eyed me appraisingly. I said nothing. She continued: “My system tried to analyze and identify the source of that call, but there was a computer on the line. And whoever set it up really knows her stuff. It overrode my phone-company-override and made the switching computer hang up on us only nanoseconds after this Meg person did. That would have been enough to get my attention all by itself, but there’s more: Not only was my system unable to get even a phone number—their system had time to deliver an animated frowny-face graphic to my e-mail in-box . . . !”

Briefly I mulled the explanation. In point of fact, it raised more questions than it answered—and some of the between-the-lines implications were unsettling at best. But it did partially account for Jennifer’s possession of information that I would have sworn no other living person could have known—and explained as well her initial reluctance to discuss how she knew.

I repressed a smile. Not handicapped by false modesty, my granddaughter had already formed an accurate picture of how much smarter she was than the norm, and she knew the degree to which creation of the software that distin­guished her computer from other outwardly similar systems had taxed her abilities.

It was obvious that she was wondering whether she might finally have met her match.

It was equally obvious that she was more worried than she was willing to admit. No doubt she was envisioning someone capable of devising software as far ahead of hers as hers was everything else; a system able to penetrate her computer’s defenses instantly and depart without leaving a clue to the operator’s identity.

But I knew something that she didn’t; and I viewed the matter from the perspective of enough years of experience to offset (partially, anyway) the difference between Jennifer’s inherently flashing brilliance and my own admittedly more pedestrian intellect:

Firstly, the woman who led the strike team that had rescued me had known of Miss Charlotte Ann. . . . That alone suggested that she (or, more realistically, they) had somehow (and for whatever reason) developed a line of intelligence into our family and/or businesses.

Secondly, in my experience (and evidently in Occam’s, too), possibilities should be evaluated beginning with the most probable—and as stunningly advanced as Jennifer and her computer were (according to Harrison Rodriguez, who struck me as a sensible, feet-on-the-ground sort, not given to casual hyperbole), it seemed extremely unlikely that anybody would be that far ahead of her.

Viewed in that light, Jennifer’s system’s startlingly unproductive experience during “Meg’s” call suggested to me that a more likely explanation was that someone (yes, maybe someone as intelligent as Jennifer, but I’d have to see proof) had devoted appreciable time and effort to maneuvering past her computer’s defenses and, once inside, working at his leisure, had installed the makings of that offending graphic in some out-of-the-way, unlikely-to-be-noticed region of her software, no doubt along with a subroutine to erase any information her computer managed to glean during the encounter, the whole thing waiting to be triggered by a single pulsed telephone command.

Plus, reflecting further, I concluded that a fair portion of Jennifer’s apparent concern was really delighted anticipation (though possibly only on the subconscious level thus far) over the prospect of finally meeting someone who might be her equal.

All this, including the fact that those commandos had gone to considerable trouble in rescuing and delivering me not only to America but to my very own home, pointed strongly to the likelihood that, whoever they were and whatever they wanted from us, their intentions were at least benign and quite possibly were even friendly. (Though I did find the idea of being observed without my knowledge by parties unknown distinctly uncomfortable.)

For several moments after I told Jennifer about the commando leader’s cryptic reference to Miss Charlotte Ann and related the balance of my suspicion about the computers, she remained silent, her attention focused on a nonspecific point in the vicinity of the floor. Then, abruptly, she looked up and grinned.

(Though I thought I detected a hint of disappointment underlying the relief in her eyes, which tended to confirm at least one of my suspicions.)

“I love you, Gramma!” she laughed. “You’re right—I really must start eliminating the simpler, more obvious possibilities before getting all bogged down in complexity. Unquestionably that’s the answer. I’m going to go audit my software right away, but I know what I’ll find. I even know how they did it—now that you’ve shifted my common-sense function back into gear. . . .”

“Good,” I approved.

“And then . . .” she muttered darkly, “I’m going to do something about this business of being spied upon!”

“How?”

“First I’ll have Mr. Rodriguez hire one of the more technologically advanced security services to do a complete sweep of our properties and offices—his included. He’s going to be thrilled no end to learn that someone—probably one of those world-class killer hackers he’s been waving the red flag in front of—has been listening in on his client conversa . . .

“Uh, Gramma . . . ?”

I blinked, and as my eyes focused, I realized that once again Jennifer was regarding me with concern. But I didn’t care—I had remembered! Finally, that tantalizing, half-formed memory flitting around the periphery of my brain had crystallized. The word “killer” had done it. Now I knew why I’d had the feeling that it was so important. . . .

It was. What I had been trying so hard to remember was nothing less than the spontaneous insight which had burst upon me while riding with the major after he had slaughtered my patients and staff and destroyed my clinic: I knew the real cause behind most of the poverty, hunger, and misery stalking the world—and I knew the remedy . . . !

But even as full recollection returned, it occurred to me that I was sixty-eight years old and not getting any younger; that very possibly I was the only person in the whole world who knew the truth, let alone what to do about it—and that at any moment something vital in my thoroughly run-down carcass (in fairness, by now almost anything!) could reach the end of its service life. Goodness knows I’d have no standing to complain if it happened. I’d had the use of this body for a long time and it had given me exemplary service; it had been, in fact, appreciably more reliable than those of most of my contemporaries.

For some time now I’d been meaning to look into the cost/risk/benefit numbers involved in letting one of those rejuvenation-research labs run a beta-test batch of DNA/telomere-patching/debugging nanomachines loose inside me, to shovel out the ashes or whatever they do; I’d just never found the time.

But now, if time did run out before I got around to disseminating my revelation, the loss to Mankind might well be irreplaceable—who could say how long it would be before someone figured it out again? Or even whether anyone would, ever again. . . .

Under ordinary circumstances I would have hesitated to burden someone Jennifer’s age with such a responsibility. But she was terribly intelligent, and wise beyond her years; and I knew that she had both the ability and the resolve to follow through for me In The Event Of . . .

Besides, she was my granddaughter . . . !

Doubly besides, she was the nearest available person whom I trusted utterly. Of course I told her first.

DF\\:FIELD_STAFF_MEETING_NvRRMT_-

COMPILED/EDITED_BY:       T’lLeq’tomn, Tenth Order, Senior Compiler.

Now you’re in trouble,” observed Memphus, regarding Peter Cory with poorly repressed amusement. “She’s on to you. You can run, but you can’t hide. If I were you, I’d ’fess up right now and throw myself on her mercy.”

Cory chuckled. Meg’s fmMh’lr sprawled before the flatscreen monitor where, in a triply-split-screen display, the twin columns of Doctor Elisabeth’s and Jennifer’s NvRRtMT-translated stream-of-consciousness texts scrolled upward next to their images. “Aren’t you being overly dramatic?” he smiled. “Granted, she’s inhumanly intelligent. But she only knows how; she has no idea who.

The cat smirked. “Of course,” he agreed blandly. “And I’ll bet she remains ignorant of who at least through the end of the day. . . .”

“Longer than that,” replied Cory dryly. “She can’t trace me if I give her nothing to trace. And I’m not going to, because, within the hour, that system of hers, and all the phone and comm lines associated with it, will have become a single quivering hair-trigger, capable of compromising entire networks in a single nanosecond. From now on, we do all our spying via NvRRtMT and viewer, thank you very much.”

Memphus sniffed. “Chicken.”

“Your ability to divine my innermost motivations remains nothing short of uncanny,” Cory responded dryly; adding in admiring tones: “Dealing with that wondrously precocious little knee-biter will be tough enough even if we manage to initiate contact precisely at the psychologically and karmically propitious moment. Coping with her if she gets off the first shot simply doesn’t bear thinking about. . . .”

“ ‘Knee-biter’?” Meg sputtered indignantly. “This is not an infant; she’s eight years old! —What’s it worth to you for me to forget I ever heard that . . . ?”

Cory regarded her with mock concern. “Name your price, woman,“ he said; “where that little girl is concerned, I’m going to need all the help I can get.”

Meg’s expression closed. “You have no idea . . .” she muttered enigmatically.

Cory blinked. “I beg your pardon?”

Meg glanced up and shook her head archly. “Oops, sorry; insider information. Privileged. Girl stuff. . . .”

DF:\\NvRRtMT_SOURCE:      Elisabeth VanBuren Tyler, M.D.

For some time after I finished, Jennifer regarded me with round eyes and a solemn manner. That she understood, I had no doubt; that she agreed in principle, I was fairly certain. I was even moderately confident that she wouldn’t send for the FunnyFarm Express over the prospect of my attempting to implement the boycott. Still, I found her silence unsettling. Finally I blurted, “Well, say something!”

Jennifer was silent for probably another ten seconds, her expression thoughtful. “Okay,” she said finally. “I think you’re probably absolutely right. But unless everybody goes along with you, it won’t work. And even if they do—actually, especially if they do . . .”

She shook her head ominously. “You need to tell Mr. Rodriguez about this right away, before you take even the first step toward organizing the boycott. I foresee really horrendous legal pitfalls looming on the horizon. Just for starters, participants may possibly be exposed to antitrust charges in the U.S. and, quite probably, allegations of conspiracy and even treason—and Heaven only knows what kinds of repercussions will emerge in countries with less individual-civil-rights-oriented constitutions. . . .”

“Oh . . .” I responded cleverly. It occurred to me, then, that I really hadn’t thought this through.

Not that I’d had time, thus far, to think much of anything through! Certainly I expected a pitched battle from the medical fraternity based on ethical, philo­sophical, and/or emotional grounds. And I knew, too, in a distant, intellectual sort of way, that my intended targets enjoyed holding and abusing positions of power, and were unlikely to approve.

But somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that this was apt to be a fraught undertaking: that opposing powerful, evil men was, by definition, an inherently dangerous game; that almost certainly many of us would go to jail—and that undoubtedly some of us would even be put to death!

Gracious—who would have expected such naïveté in someone my age. . . .

∆∆∆

Harrison Rodriguez was not thrilled to learn that someone might have been eavesdropping on the inner workings of his firm. He immediately commissioned one of his clients (a security firm owned on the side by a CIA “researcher”) to investigate the apparent leaks Jennifer and I had deduced.

Thereafter he listened intently and researched thoroughly; then, though concurring with my hypothesis, predicted ultimate failure: “First of all, you’re ignoring the single most obvious weakness of any boycott: You’ve got to have absolute worldwide solidarity, and we all know that you physicians are the most stubbornly independent individuals ever to walk the face of the Earth. In my view, your chances of getting that pack of anarchists unanimously to agree to anything—even on inconsequential matters—are effectively zero. Hoping to achieve unanimity on this issue equates to the search for the Holy Grail.

“And mind you, I say that without even taking into account the effect of the governmental pressures which your members certainly must face, ranging from possible contempt-of-court jailings in this country, on orders from bought-and-paid-for judges, to nonstop torture and death for participants and their families in less enlightened jurisdictions.

“Because I’d say there’s better than a fifty-fifty chance that you’re going to run afoul of the law, even in America. What you propose is not, strictly speaking, illegal here; but there’s no question in my mind that a fair number of people holding key positions in our own government will be identified as fair game for your campaign, and they’ll certainly take steps. —In fact, I’d bet my own grandmother’s soul that our current Attorney General himself will be one of the very first to find himself sweating in your spotlight. Plus, as Jenny mentioned, I can absodamntively guarantee that you’re going to have legal troubles in most other countries. Really bad ones.

“So, given the numbers of physicians worldwide, you haven’t a prayer of maintaining a united front. Somebody is bound to disagree philosophically, or crack under predictably extreme duress, and that will be the end of it. Because if even one competent physician defects, he’ll undo your efforts in the short-term, and those he’ll train thereafter will scuttle your program in the long-run.”

I nodded. Since unburdening myself to Jennifer, I had devoted a great deal of thought to those probabilities. Indeed, I had thought about little else.

“I know,” I replied in what I hoped were calmly resolute tones. “But if I don’t try, I’ll always wonder whether I might have succeeded. And even if we fail, at the very least the media coverage surrounding our efforts will have focused worldwide attention on the facts underlying the problem.

“Men of this sort are moral vacuums in the purest sense, obviously, but they aren’t stupid; in the face of widespread publicity which clearly, inarguably exposes them as, and proves them to be, the patent sociopaths I know them to be, I think we’re likely to see a fair number attempt to undermine the validity of our claim by spontaneously improving the conditions under which their people live—which is itself an acceptable interim solution. . . .”

“Or,” interjected Harrison, crooking a brow, “more probably, they’ll simply line you up and, one-by-one, torture you and your families and/or shoot you all until they find someone insufficiently dedicated to the cause; followed by tightening the screws even further to make sure everyone gets the message that opposing the regime is bad policy.”

“Or that,” I agreed with a shudder. “But wholesale slaughter of doctors won’t go down well with a populace already in desperate need of medical care. There’s a limit to how repressive a government can be and survive. Beyond a certain point, rebellion by the affected population or invasion by morally offended neighbors are assured.” I paused thoughtfully. “Come to think of it, I guess that’s a third potentially viable solution in the long-run.”

“But damned Pyrrhic in the short-term.” Harrison shook his head. “Obviously you’ve forgotten the Chinese Red Guard’s Cultural Revolution, targeting intellectuals and the educated—and don’t get me started on Pol Pot, the ISIL, and their ilk.

“Either way, I don’t think you have the proverbial snowball’s chance of carrying it off. —And with that said and out of the way, tell me what you want me to do; I’ll help in any way I can.”

Jennifer stood and put her arm around me. “Me too,” she declared quietly, holding me tightly.

“Where do we start?” asked Harrison.

A sigh of relief escaped me—at last, a question for which I knew the answer. . . .

“At the very top,” I replied firmly.

∆∆∆

The flight home from Chicago was smooth, uneventful, and on time; surface transportation at both ends was equally efficient and unobtrusive.

Not that any of that mattered particularly; I doubt if I’d have noticed if the airline had furnished me a Ford Trimotor and the cab driver had had two heads. In fact, very little of what took place on the return leg of that journey registered on a conscious level—I traveled in a state of shock so profound as to be almost physical in nature.

The meeting had begun so promisingly. . . . I knew that Benjamin Walther, M.D., current President of the North American Medical Association, had already seen a copy of my report to the United Nations’ Children’s Relief Administration, and was familiar with the straightforward (i.e., uneditorialized) details of my encounter with Far Eastern medicopoliti­cal reality. And the fact that he had taken advantage of a cancellation to move up my appointment by several weeks, with so many important people clamoring to see him, seemed a clear indication that he had become personally interested in my experience in Cambodia, and, by logical extension, would be inclined to give an equally sympathetic hearing to my conclusion and admittedly startling recommendation.

And Doctor Walther did listen: intently, leaning forward on his elbows, frequently nodding understandingly, occasionally shaking his head in dismay, and interjecting a quick question or three for clarification, as I repeated my by-now-well-drilled recital of the events which had culminated in my miraculous escape following the destruction of the clinic and massacre of my staff and patients.

In fact, I had finished setting forth my premise—that most of what was wrong with the world today was caused by a- and/or antisocials and sociopaths in positions of leadership, willfully misusing their authority to enhance and perpetuate their own power at the expense of those whom they governed, and had just outlined my proposed solution to the problem—when I realized that, somehow, in the last few seconds, something had gone very, very wrong. . . .

It was nothing I could put my finger on: Doctor Walther’s expression was unchanged; he still regarded me intently, elbows on desktop, apparently every bit as interested and concerned as when our meeting had begun. But somehow, from one moment to the next, he had become distant, and a faint chill seemed to pervade the room. Likewise, it was about then that I noticed that he wasn’t meeting my gaze anymore.

Suddenly unsure of what was happening, I pressed on resolutely, if somewhat distractedly. The silence which greeted completion of my presentation lengthened awkwardly until I was forced to break it myself, adding lamely, “Well, that’s it; what do you think?”

Doctor Walther stared at his desktop for another long moment before reply­ing. Finally he looked up and met my gaze. Then he smiled warmly and—

Abruptly, at that moment, between one heartbeat and the next, I realized that I was deathly afraid of Doctor Walther. Which made no sense: I had never met him before; certainly I had no reason to fear him.

Nevertheless, I was almost on the point of leaping to my feet and literally bolting from the office when Doctor Walther’s smile switched to an expression of solicitude which, if possible, frightened me even more.

And I still didn’t know why!

Dimly, in some still-barely-coherent corner of my mind, I realized that some part of my reaction must be showing. “Doctor Tyler,” Doctor Walther was saying gently; “Doctor, are you all right?”

With a supreme effort, in the wan hope of avoiding making an even bigger fool of myself, I consciously slowed my respiration to normal and tried to compose myself before answering.

“You’re not in Cambodia anymore,” Doctor Walther continued firmly but ever more gently. “You’re in Chicago. You’re safe. There are no soldiers here. No one is going to hurt you. . . .”

I blinked, momentarily nonplused; puzzlement overrode panic long enough to allow me to regain a semblance of poise. After a moment’s thought, I remembered that Doctor Walther’s bio had mentioned his work with emotionally traumatized combat veterans. I realized, then, that he had interpreted my sudden inexplicable behavior as an episode of posttraumatic stress disorder: a “combat flashback,” growing out of the disastrous conclusion to my stint in Cambodia—

And just as quickly, I knew what it was about him that had triggered my adrenalin: When he looked up from his desk, Doctor Walther’s expression—first his smile and then that look of concern—no longer included his eyes.

I knew that expression; I had seen it before. And now I remembered where: Doctor Walther’s aspect at that moment was virtually identical to that of the murderous little Cambodian major as he issued the order which signaled my arrest and the massacre of everyone else at the clinic . . . !

∆∆∆

“Walther didn’t even question my sanity,” I almost snarled, as I related what had transpired at NAMA headquarters to Harrison and Jennifer. “—To my face!” I added as a furious afterthought. “He even agreed that I had arrived at a ‘fascinating hypothesis.’ But, as he so apologetically pointed out, it was only an opinion, speculation even, unsupported by any shred of research or evidence acceptable to the scientific community. Accordingly, he declined my request to address the membership at this year’s Continental Medical Convention, or to publish in the NAMA Journal, on the grounds that, while I might well be entirely correct, neither the Convention nor the Journal are proper forums for the promulgation of speculation, however well-meaning its origin. . . .”

“He’s one of them, isn’t he,” observed Jennifer grimly. “Walther’s a closet sociopath: an utterly amoral person who has managed to get himself into a posi­tion of really vital authority.”

“We don’t know that,” I lied—mostly for my own benefit. “Back in the days when he was a practicing psychiatric neurologist, Doctor Walther was widely known as a brilliant researcher and a highly motivated physician.”

“Those are not necessarily incompatible propositions,” offered Harrison. “Perhaps the primary goal behind his excellence back then was not so much to be a good doctor as to be widely known as a good doctor. Historically, conspicuous overachievement has been one of the more reliable routes to power.”

“Or maybe he was sincere then,” I demurred, reluctant to impute less than honorable motives to a gifted healer; “but perhaps, once he found himself propelled into leadership, he just came to believe in his own indispensability: that no one could do as good a job as he in the position; and that, if he were unseated, the level of medicine practiced in North America would deteriorate and people would suffer as a result.”

“Horsefeathers,” Harrison snorted inelegantly. “If he wasn’t dirty to begin with, he probably just found exercising all that authority habit-forming.”

“Thank you.” Jennifer grinned at him. “She’s my grandmother, so I can’t talk to her like that. But sometimes I sure want to.”

She turned back to me with an apologetic little smile. “Gramma, Gramma . . . After all you’ve been through, you’re still determined to try to find some good in everyone, despite the clearest possible evidence to the contrary.”

“Power doesn’t automatically corrupt people,” interjected Harrison firmly; “I know quite a few absolutely honest powerful people. However, it sure as hell attracts corrupt people! Clichés to the contrary are just so much self-serving, crocodile-tears-apologetic propaganda—conceived and promulgated, in my experience, by corrupt people holding positions of power to rationalize their own misconduct. . . .”

I sighed. They were right, of course. I just hated facing the fact that we doctors were human, too; that it was possible for one of us—a sworn healer!—to be just as rotten at the core as any demonstratedly conscienceless lay national leader.

But facts were facts, however distressing, and had to be faced—including the most distressing fact of all: “If Doctor Walther truly is one of them,” I mused unhappily, “the boycott is already dead in the water—where could you possibly find a better advocate for sociopathic governmental leaders’ ‘right’ to medical attention than an equally sociopathic physician in charge of the single largest medical association in the world?”

“Not to mention the fact that he is a competent physician himself,” added Jennifer.

“That’s right,” agreed Harrison; “he can singlehandedly negate the nonpartici­pa­tion of all the rest of you—there just aren’t that many world leaders, socio­pathic or otherwise.”

I nodded reluctantly. “Actually, their numbers amount to a pleasantly busy one-horse practice, if you don’t mind the commuting.”

“No doubt offering better-than-average perquisites and fringe benefits,” Jennifer predicted dryly.

“Private jets, limousines, hot and cold running medical technologists,” suggested Harrison, with a dignified twinkle.

“A principality here, a barony there, a province somewhere else,” contributed Jennifer, focusing as always on fundamentals.

“Plenty of human ‘volunteers’ for avant-garde medical research—”

Knock it off!”

Judging by their expressions, the outburst caught Jennifer and Harrison almost as completely by surprise as it did me. In fact, until I saw the hurt look in their eyes, I wasn’t altogether sure where it had come from; and I probably would have felt guilty over my conduct if I hadn’t realized, during those few seconds of silence, that the pieces had fallen together and I now knew what had to be done. Apparently my subconscious had diagnosed the problem, decided that it needed a few moments’ peace and quiet in which to transfer the answers across to what passes for my volitional thought centers, and had resorted to direct action to obtain it.

Choosing my words with care (at least as much to clarify the concept in my own mind as to inform my coconspirators), I began: “I don’t know whether a boycott can be made to function or not,” I said into the continuing silence. “Probably not. Almost certainly not. But at this point its feasibility—arguable at best anyway—has no bearing on what we have to do next . . .”

Doctor Walther had wanted proof, backed by solid research. Very well, he’d get his proof—nailed-down and irrefutable.

However, along with identifying, with utter certainty, the power-hungry, cold-bloodedly calculating, remorseless sociopaths who gravitated toward positions of power, and who seemed to be running so much of the world these days for their own amusement, the profile which must emerge from that research almost certainly would describe NAMA President Benjamin Walther, M.D., right down to his neatly manicured fingernails; which match-up, when made public (always assuming I was right about him; thus far all we had was my spontaneous, unsup­ported gut-reaction), should destroy him completely: as NAMA’s chief executive, as a doctor, and personally—so utterly that not even the sociopaths who represented our primary targets would turn to him; so thoroughly that, with any luck at all, he’d suicide and save us all a lot of trouble.

(Gracious, I’d come a long way, baby—and I wasn’t at all sure I liked the pragmatic, world-saving, new me who had emerged. . . .)

DF\\:FIELD_STAFF_MEETING_NvRRMT_-

COMPILED/EDITED_BY:       T’lLeq’tomn, Tenth Order, Senior Compiler.

“I do,” Memphus volunteered. “In fact, everything I learn about her just makes me like her that much better. And I’ll bet she’s an absolutely dynamite chin-scritcher.”

Peter Cory smiled indulgently at the fmMh’lr. “You’re prejudiced; she’s a cat person.”

Memphus eyed him expressionlessly. “Your point being . . . ?”

“I’m glad she’s realized the boycott can’t work,” observed Meg. “Now she’s on her way to figuring out what their next step really has to be.”

Cory nodded. “So far she’s managed to avoid all the potential pitfalls, either by thinking of them herself or by choosing her friends and relations well.”

Meg smiled; then abruptly grinned and said: “I like Harrison. I think we ought to invite him to join the family.”

Cory snorted; then did a double-take and regarded her intently. Memphus watched with unconcealed amusement.

Meg crooked a brow. “After all you’ve been exposed to,” she said, her voice dripping with mock scorn, “you aren’t still crippled by corn-belt-morality precon­ceptions as to what constitutes a family unit, are you?”

Cory looked thoughtful for a moment. “I don’t think so,” he said cautiously. “But of course I’ve never had to face the question before on a personal level. Is it time I started thinking about it?”

“Wouldn’t hurt,” interjected Memphus dryly. “A rational decision at this point is likely to improve your strategic position down the road, if everything goes as planned.”

Suddenly Cory’s expression was a study in suspicion. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Memphus snickered. “Spoken like a true paranoid,” he said. “—But are you paranoid enough . . . ?”

“I think,” said Meg, obviously choosing her words carefully, “that Memphus is suggesting that you avoid painting yourself into a corner relationshipwise by being too quick to rely absolutely upon conventional rules the first time their applicability is tested, lest you find yourself hoist by your own petard.”

“Generally petards are placarded against structural use,” Memphus interjected with a slow smile. “I understand that, even if they don’t break right off when you apply stress, it hurts like the dickens.”

Ignoring the fmMh’lr’s persiflage, Cory regarded Meg with only partly feigned exasperation. “That wasn’t a responsive answer; it was contract language: ‘If everything goes’—according to what plan?”

“That’s need-to-know information,” replied Meg enigmatically. “And you don’t.”

“Yet,” added Memphus, with a wicked twinkle. “Actually, you already do know it; you’ve just forgotten. And I’m not going to remind you. You’ll be reminded soon enough.”

“I gather this data is not vital to the success of our mission, or it wouldn’t be the subject of frivolity?”

Memphus snickered. “Oh, it’s vital, all right.”

“But not specifically to any immediate goals,” added Meg quickly.

“ ‘Specifically’ and ‘immediate goals,’ ” mused Cory. “I know trouble’s afoot when you two start double-teaming me and parsing syntax.”

“Whatever—” began Meg.

Memphus picked it up: “—are you—”

“—talking about?” Meg finished, fluttering her lashes.

DF:\\NvRRtMT_SOURCE:      Elisabeth VanBuren Tyler, M.D.

“So,” mused Harrison, “we need a research program, conducted according to protocols currently acceptable to the scientific community. What does that mean? What protocols are acceptable to the scientific community? What do they regard as valid evidence, and how much is required to constitute proof? What are the mechanics of such a study? Are we talking about statistical analysis or vivisection? Do we need money, computer time, warm bodies, or what?”

I repressed a smile. Harrison, once his initial, predictably gloomy, lawyerish disclaimers, statements of reservation, and dire warnings lay behind him, tended to throw himself into projects with an enthusiasm seldom seen in psychiatrically asymptomatic adults.

“All of the above,” I replied. His eyes grew round.

“—Not vivisection,” I hastened to assure him. “At least not usually.

“To generate reliable statistics, we need a randomly selected test population, the larger the better in terms of reducing error potential, none of whom is aware of his inclusion in the study. After selection, we perform a really in-depth background investigation of each. Then we identify the subset—in this case the majority—of people whose conduct seems generally to conform with what most of us think of when we use the term ‘civilized behavior.’ After digitizing the contents of all the individual background investigations, we combine them into a graph, or more probably a series of graphs, generating our statistical profile of the ‘norm.’ ”

(I hadn’t been personally involved in statistical-analysis research in years, but it’s like riding a bicycle: Once you learn how, you never forget. —Though most of us would have preferred to. . . .)

“Thereafter,” I continued, “and still within our test population, we identify individuals who have demonstrated a lifelong tendency toward less exemplary conduct, as well as any patent sociopaths; and, by plotting their backgrounds, we develop a profile which should represent, and enable us to identify among the general population, those possessing asocial, antisocial, and sociopathic tendencies, and the degree of their deviation.

“Once our data are refined beyond the point where their validity can be questioned, we run equally in-depth investigations of the backgrounds of everyone whom we suspect, whether in government or not, and see where on our chart their profiles fall.”

“Doesn’t sound that difficult,” observed Harrison. “Time-consuming, certainly, and expensive in manpower and computer time, but essentially straightforward.” He looked thoughtful for a moment. “But there must be a joker in the deck somewhere. If it were all that easy, someone surely would have done it already . . .” He paused thoughtfully, then smiled; “. . . if not motivated by an interest in the value potentially accruing from the results themselves, then inevitably, considering the mobs of doctoral candidates beating the bushes for anything even remotely resembling a worthwhile thesis topic, merely as a demonstration of scholarly competence.”

“Or more likely,” I put in dryly, “as a smokescreen to attract grant money really intended for other purposes.” (I’d also had experience with the practical side of academic-research funding.)

“The primary obstacles to such studies are twofold,” I continued. “Firstly, they require large test populations—a thousand, minimum, if you have ambitions of endowing your conclusions with any semblance of credibility; and more is better. The cost of so many in-depth background investigations is high, but they’re absolutely necessary to generate a defensible control-group database against which further data may be measured. Typically, this factor alone rules out most Ph.D. candidates, who, by and large, lack the resources—money and manpower—to run such projects.”

“Money is not a problem,” Jennifer stated emphatically. “I told you I’d back you. That means a hundred percent.”

“I can’t take your money,” I protested, instantly horrified at the prospect.

“Why not?” demanded Jennifer pointedly.

“Because you’re my . . . my . . .”

I ground to a halt (too late, as usual), realizing that, once again, my knee-jerk, conditioned responses were betraying me for the hard-core, adultist grandmother that I was.

Harrison chuckled. “You’ll get used to it,” he sympathized.

“Don’t you believe him,” Jennifer advised me, eyeing the attorney with only partially mock reproof. “He’s still guilty of that himself occasionally. —Though he is getting better,” she added encouragingly in her victim’s direction.

“I try,” Harrison replied in long-suffering tones. “I do try.” To me he muttered, “But it isn’t easy—and I’m not even related to her. . . .”

“So that’s settled,” said Jennifer firmly. “You have a blank check. Now, what’s the second problem?”

“We’ll need to employ a fair number of people to process data, both computerized and non-, which means an organizational structure to handle payroll, accounting, and taxes.”

Harrison chuckled. “You mean a front,” he smiled. “Leave that to me. I know all about fronts—I have a securities and corporate-merger practice. What’s next?”

I opened my mouth to reply—then stopped abruptly and said something distinctly unladylike (something I almost never do at all, let alone in Jennifer’s presence), which caused Harrison’s eyes to grow round.

But I didn’t bother to apologize; however inadvertent my outburst might have been, it was heartfelt: For the first time, the practical implications of the next point had occurred to me. “The second obstacle is legal: Many, if not most, of the records we’ll need to access are privileged. We can get at employment, and some school records, and even adult criminal files without difficulty. Juvenile court records, however, which are absolutely essential to a study of this type, are another matter entirely, as are military . . .”

“As are grand jury and in camera proceedings and evidence,” Harrison interjected thoughtfully.

“Not to mention the fact that medical records in general are sealed,” I pointed out; “flatly unavailable, statutorily and ethically, without patient permission or court order. I don’t know how we’re going to get our hands on them in quantity, and the study can’t be done without them.”

“I can get at some of it,” mused Harrison. “As a law firm, of course, we have access to any nonclassified records in the National Crime-Information Computer and most other law-enforcement-oriented databank networks; and for decades now, court reporters have been downloading virtually all transcripts from criminal depositions and court proceedings directly into clerks’ databases.”

I can get the rest,” declared Jennifer confidently. “Virtually everything of that sort has been digitized by now; I doubt if one permanent personal-records document in a million remains on hard-copy, still physically taking up space in a file drawer somewhere.”

Harrison regarded her dubiously, if not downright apprehensively. “Without admitting complicity, before or after the fact, by virtue of any knowledge which I may or may not possess regarding what you might or might not intend,” he began cautiously, “it is my impression that a good many of those records are stored in federal government computers. Don’t such installations enjoy a fairly sophisticated level of security?”

Jennifer’s expression was solemn, but there was a twinkle in her eye which raised my suspicions, too, even before she replied. “Yes,” she agreed earnestly, “very sophisticated indeed. In fact—”

Harrison’s jaw dropped.

“—apart from the very highest-clearance-level military strategic-defense sys­tems, which we don’t need anyway, the federal government has begun to upgrade all their computer installations to EM-ES’s latest and most advanced operating system, JS-DOS, Version 2.1—”

“Which you wrote,” the attorney cut in, “security and all. EM-ES certainly didn’t waste any time, did they. How long has it been since we sold them that system? Six months? —But what about the unconverted installations?”

“Five,” Jennifer replied, trying without success to look demure. “And never mind the unconverted systems—do you remember that big, legally sealed package that EM-ES delivered to you, along with equally sealed but urgent instructions for your client?”

“Vaguely. I didn’t open it, of course; I just passed it on to you.”

“I know,” smiled Jennifer. “Well, the feds’ information technology people were really worried about the possibility of incompatibility problems during their anticipated two-year upgrade schedule, and the EM-ES people didn’t fully under­stand my system yet, so—”

“So along with emphatic instructions from EM-ES to do whatever testing and rewriting was necessary to make sure the new system was fully compatible with data still in the old,” Harrison guessed, “you received documentation for the government’s old system, too.”

The innocent joy in Jennifer’s smile would have shamed an angel.

“Okay. But what about their logon records?” demanded Harrison. “I was under the impression that even the old system was just about unbeatable.”

Still Jennifer said nothing, but a hint of unmistakable smugness began to edge in alongside the now clearly bogus innocence in her expression. Harrison eyed her closely. “I’ll be damned!” he blurted. “They gave you the source code. . . .”

He turned to me. “Which means that the first thing she does after logging onto a government computer is enter the software at the machine-language level and install an eraser to scrub all evidence of her presence after she’s gone—as well as the eraser itself.” He paused thoughtfully and glanced again at Jennifer. “And I’ll bet you’ve already buried something like that in the new package . . . !”

“That is the sort of precaution a prudent person might take on the off-chance that it might come in handy someday,” agreed Jennifer, her attempt at affecting round-eyed innocence now an utter failure. “That is,” she added quickly, “if it weren’t totally against the law. But,” she continued impishly, “given the liability and obligations imposed by the attorneys’ code of professional ethics, I’m guessing you probably don’t want to follow-up on this line of inquiry; do you, counselor, sir?”

“Absolutely not,” Harrison stated instantly.

“Good,” said Jennifer; “that eliminates my need to invoke the Fifth.

“And, again speaking hypothetically,” she continued, “since computers oper­ated by state and local authorities tend to be less sophisticated than even the old federal system, getting at the records you need shouldn’t pose any problem at all.”

“Good,” Harrison echoed unconsciously. Then he turned to me. “All right, what’s next?”

“Next we select our control group and start the background checks.”

“Gramma,” Jennifer murmured diffidently, “didn’t you say that the test population should be as large as possible; that the larger your group, the lower the potential for error?”

“Yes; I’d like to use at least a thousand. Two or three thousand would be even better. But, of course, costs mount proportionately as the numbers increase.”

“Not necessarily,” mused Jennifer. Her eyes went slightly out of focus. I recognized that look and held up a hand to forestall an impending comment from Harrison.

She was back in slightly under a minute and, without preamble, said, “On a purely theoretical basis, in terms of reducing assigned-error potential to an absolutely unassailable minimum, if a statistical population base of a thousand is good, then a million must be terrific, and a billion all but indistinguishable from perfection. As a practical matter, though, at what point does the law of diminishing returns become significant?”

Harrison smiled, but I didn’t. I knew my granddaughter; I knew the question was not idle speculation. Quickly I reviewed my statistical training.

“As a practical matter,” I replied presently, “there is little to be gained from using control groups larger than a hundred thousand. Statistical reliability mounts so slowly above that point that there is virtually no additional benefit to be found.”

Jennifer nodded. “That’s what I thought,” she mused. “All right. Shall we take all the wind out of the opposition’s sails in advance and use a million?”

Harrison’s double-take was entirely devoid of poise. I hope I reacted with a bit more dignity, but I doubt it.

“Jennifer,” I sputtered, “even with your resources, how can we possibly obtain in-depth analyses of the backgrounds of a million people?”

“Within a useful span of time,” added Harrison. “Say our lifetimes—and without calling attention to what we’re doing. . . .”

Jennifer elevated a knowing brow. “Leave that up to me,” she grinned. However, then she hesitated; an expression of trepidation overspread her features. “But I am going to leave one step entirely in your hands,” she said slowly, not meeting my eyes.

“What’s that?” I asked apprehensively. Jennifer seldom made a big deal out of anything but a big deal.

“This is going to take a lot of time,” she replied. She glanced quickly at me and then across at Harrison. “More than I can slip past Mom. You’re going to have to tell her.”

My lack of comprehension must have shown.

“About me . . .” she added in a very small voice. “I’ll have to come out of the closet.”

Oh. Then I did understand. Indeed.

I wondered what Catheryn thought of the ancient tradition of killing messengers who bore unsettling news.

∆∆∆

“Gramma, would you come look at this, please?” Jennifer’s tone was per­plexed, if not downright peevish-sounding.

I glanced up from my own terminal. She continued: “The numbers aren’t developing at all the way I thought they would. If these curves are really valid, and not just the result of a glitch I’ve managed to write into the program, then things are even worse than you thought. . . .”

∆∆∆

The weeks following my return from Chicago with my tail between my legs had been busy ones:

First I had informed Catheryn (hardly a duck by anyone’s definition) that she had hatched a swan. She took it better than I had, and promptly justified my already high opinion of her by demanding to be included in the campaign.

Harrison had already set up our nonprofit foundation, P.A.C. (Physicians Against Crime), whose publicly stated objective was identifying causes of asocial, antiso­cial, and sociopathic behavior, but whose actual function, as he so inelegantly phrased it, was to serve as a “front”; partly for admini­strative purposes, but mostly in hopes of streamlining our dealings with official­dom: Research foundations purportedly trying to get at the root causes of criminal behavior frequently are able to obtain access to medical files and even, occasionally, juvenile criminal records.

Happily (and to my considerable surprise), the gambit worked: Following brief negotiations (buttressed by some judicious behind-the-scenes pot-stirring by some of Harrison’s Truly Influential Clients), we were given not only an FBI security clearance to dig into juvenile and/or grand jury records of nonclassified closed cases but a modest National Institutes of Mental Health research grant, with its attendant carte blanche authorization to inspect any medical records we judged pertinent to our objective.

Official blessings notwithstanding, however, without Jennifer’s participation the deed would not have been possible. The sheer volume of data required could not have been obtained—let alone processed!—within a reasonable timespan and at an affordable cost without her; the “legwork” alone would have been prohibitive.

“Of course it would be expensive to obtain everything we need conven­tionally, never mind legally,” she had agreed; “too expensive even for me. But it’s not necessary.” And it wasn’t.

Pulling strings that surprised (and I suspect alarmed) even Harrison when he learned of them, Jennifer leapfrogged to the front of the Cray computer skunkworks’ three-year waiting-list, elbowing ahead of Rockwell, ITT, Warlock, GM, and Mattel (all normally regarded as customers of some importance), and took delivery of the very next top-of-the-line system to emerge from the incubator.

Of computers available to civilian buyers at that time, the Cray was the most powerful currently being grown.

Its one million forty-eight thousand five hundred seventy-six, parallel-wired, electron-tunneling-transputer-chip-based central processing units, coupled via holographic optitronics to multipetabyte biocircuit storage units (actually listed as “CrayFiche” in the manufacturer’s catalog!), when running Jennifer’s newest version of JS-DOS (2.2; not the 2.1 she had sold EM-ES a mere seven months previously—this one, I was told, was well past the threshold of artificial intelli­gence, and in fact bordered upon self-awareness), produced computing speeds and storage capacity beyond rational contemplation.

“I’ve nicknamed V2.2 Igor,” she announced as Cray’s installation team packed up their tools and took leave of the new hermetically sealed, dust-free, climate-controlled computer room at Rodriguez, Wu, MacBern­stein, and Chandrasek­hara, P.A., where the new system resided. Then, with a snicker, she added, “Every mad scientist who plans to create monsters should have an Igor working in her laboratory.”

Harrison looked blank. I think he thought she had attempted an allegorical joke and it had fallen flat.

You’d think he’d have learned. . . .

DF\\:FIELD_STAFF_MEETING_NvRRMT_-

COMPILED/EDITED_BY:       T’lLeq’tomn, Tenth Order, Senior Compiler.

“Now you’re really in trouble,” predicted Memphus. “A Cray, her latest operating system, her brains—I’m not at all sure she’s going to need to set a phone trap to find you.”

Cory regarded the screen thoughtfully without response.

“That was supposed to be a joke,” prompted the fmMh’lr. “You remember jokes? Drum rimshot, ending with a cymbal crash . . . ?”

For another moment Cory seemed not to hear. Then he blinked and turned. “I know you’re joking—but unfortunately, you’re also right. I’ve just figured out a way to do it, and if I’ve thought of it, she’ll think of it; it’s only a matter of time.

“Her system is sufficiently powerful to hack all the long-distance phone companies in the country—any country, or the whole world if need be—almost simultaneously, and search the billing records for a specific call placed to her mother’s home from anywhere on a given date, at a given time. She knows when Meg called. It would take only a few minutes. I need to get in there first and edit those records. . . .”

DF:\\NvRRtMT_SOURCE:      Elisabeth VanBuren Tyler, M.D.

Six weeks later, Jennifer pushed back from her terminals and tapped the enter key to “. . . bring my monster to life.”

Igor, in keeping with his traditional role in these matters, had provided invaluable assistance. “He actually wrote the tens of thousands of lines of cascading, daisy-chained subroutines which form the macros that actually wrote the millions of lines comprising the ultimate program after I showed him how,” Jennifer explained. “And he compiled the whole thing into machine language when we finished, so it runs at the maximum possible speed. It would have taken years to write and debug this program by hand—it’s as tightly coded as Igorly possible, but it’s still really big.

“What we’ve got here,” she continued, glowing with purest self-admiration, “is nothing less than the most sophisticated selected-data-gathering software ever created. This,” she stated flatly, “is the network worm to end all network worms. I’m going to call it,” she added with an impish twinkle, “ ‘Ouroborous’ ”. . . .”

And as the details of Ouroborous’ capabilities emerged, it quickly appeared, at least to my admittedly prejudiced if decidedly unsophisticated eye, that Jenni­fer’s outrageous boast was in fact the product of modesty incarnate.

In its current guise, and on only one of its many levels of operation, Ouroborous incorporated what Jennifer described as a “simple random-number genera­tor/verifier.” Logging onto the Social Security system, it randomly selected one million taxpayer identification numbers and verified that each was still active; i.e., contributions were coming in and/or retirement benefits, as distinct from survivors’ payments and so forth, continued to be made.

Then Ouroborous settled down to work in earnest: From the Cray’s just under a million and a half networked CPUs, an electronic avalanche of simultaneous parallel searches flashed out along fiber-optic connections into the Internet’s backbone, methodically probing for every communi­cations-accessible computer in which records filed under the targeted Social Security numbers might conceivably be stored—which, as Jennifer defined them, meant effectively every nonclassified military-, political-, court-system-, police-, education-system-, healthcare-, and private-sector-based computer in existence, whether accessible directly via internet or phone lines, or only secondarily, through private networks linking accessible systems to those otherwise theoretically isolated.

Upon locating and identifying a computer, Ouroborous first attempted a routine logon, based on P.A.C.’s FBI/NIMH authorizations. If rebuffed, it adopted what Jennifer expressionlessly referred to as a “more intense approach.” In the unlikely event that that failed, the system was flagged for Jennifer’s subsequent “personal attention.”

Once inside, regardless how entry was gained, the worm scanned quickly but thoroughly for the specified Social Security numbers. When one was found, all data filed under it were downloaded into Social Security-number-based subdirectories in the Cray’s storage.

Finally the worm inspected the host system for secondary-communications-access connections. If any were found, it followed the same procedure, repeating until the trail ended.

Thereafter Ouroborous sorted, compiled, and collated the contents of each of the one million individual subdirectories by category, ultimately generating the series of superimposable graphs which constituted the study’s bottom line.

It had done so; the task was complete.

But something had gone very wrong.

Even before incorporating the perhaps two percent of our data which, it turned out, required someone’s individual attention (either Jennifer’s personal touch via computer or the on-site presence of a member of our slowly-but-steadily-growing team of volunteers—mostly altruistically motivated young people recruited from various local colleges: budding anthropologists, lawyers, physicians, psychologists, social workers, and the like, but including some of my own peers as well as Harrison’s), it was apparent that the preponderance of sociopaths running things was merely the tip of the iceberg. If the preliminary figures could be believed, somewhere between thirty and fifty percent of all adult males in the database had histories suggesting that, to varying degrees, they were actively practicing asocials, antisocials, and/or sociopaths!

∆∆∆

“That’s impossible,” I protested, duly horrified.

“Well, of course it is,” Harrison grumped.

“Oh, no, it isn’t,” Catheryn responded instantly. “Not according to S.P.A.R.C.’s figures.”

Jennifer glanced up at her mother for a second without replying; then turned back to her terminal. “I don’t think so either,” she muttered. On the upper left-hand monitor she pulled up a fresh screenload of data. “There, you’re right—look at this: According to S.P.A.R.C., almost twenty percent of all women in the U.S., Canada, and participating countries overseas, have reported receiving severe physical injuries from their husbands or Significant Others on more than one occasion; and as many as fifty percent have experienced threats of physical violence which they had reason to believe were absolutely sincere. —And the figures on child abuse are even higher. Those are reported cases; I think it’s safe to assume the actual figures are higher still.”

Harrison blinked, taken aback; but, as usual, he rallied immediately, zeroing in on the pivotal question. “Who or what is S.P.A.R.C.?” he demanded. “I know I’ve seen the name—among Jennifer’s payables, if I’m not mistaken. But who or what are they?”

“The Sexual/Physical Abuse Resource Center,” Catheryn replied; “an international women’s advocacy foundation which shelters and counsels abused women and children. They also operate in countries, where court systems permit them to, as rape-crisis centers, offering victim counseling and support prior to, during, and after trial. They do good work. I’ve had occasion to refer a number of abused women and children to them over the years.”

“They’ve been gathering male-on-female violence and child-abuse data for years,” Jennifer continued. “Their database is one of the oldest and most respected in the field. I stumbled upon them while studying law. You’ve seen the name because I’m a regular contrib—

“Oops!” she interrupted herself abruptly. “That’s another source of data; we can work backward from victim-abuse advocates’ databases to get still another perspective on violence.”

“Good thought,” said Harrison approvingly. “But,” he continued thoughtfully, “without impugning their honesty or motives, or your judgment in supporting them, selection of statistics is a time-honored tool in the arsenal of the professional advocate: ‘There are liars, damned liars—and then there are statistics.

“The mere fact that they’re an advocacy organization automatically subjects their data to a more rigorous level of scrutiny than if it had come from a demon­strably unbiased source. Personally, I find it absolutely incredible that so many men could be beating on women and children, and apparently almost no one knows about it.”

Catheryn smiled grimly. “If you think that’s incredible, how about this: Not only is it a virtual secret that the problem is so widespread, but the fact that it’s absolutely illegal, never mind wrong, to batter your significant other—spouse or otherwise—or children seems to be practically unknown outside law-enforcement, counseling, and medical circles.

“And the phenomenon is not confined to the so-called lower classes; signifi­cant-other- and child-batterers are found in every segment of society. Of course, not all child-abusers are men. —But I will grant you that it’s astonishing how few uninvolved people know about it.”

Jennifer nodded thoughtfully. For a long moment she stared at her center monitor. Finally she called up a menu and soon all five screens were flickering dizzyingly through a series of indexes and subindexes, as she made selection after selection and entered strings of commands in each.

Presently she glanced up. “That should do it,” she observed crisply. “I’ve told Ouroborous to have Igor locate and download everything in the databases of the Library of Congress, Justice Department, and state-level prosecutors and family-protection services, sealed or not, relating to spouse and child abuse, including, as I mentioned, working backward from abuse-advocates’ databases. That should generate some fairly reliable numbers.”

It doesn’t take long for a computer based on one million forty-eight thousand five hundred seventy-six parallel-wired, electron-tunneling-transputer-chip-based CPUs to carry out so simple an instruction. Within seconds the data began to flow in.

Quickly Jennifer set up a routine to display certain aspects of the requested data in graphic form. Five minutes later she pushed back from her terminals.

“There,” she announced triumphantly. “Look at that summary. If anything, S.P.A.R.C.’s statistics are conservative. I expected that; you have to be conservative to establish a reputation for credib—”

Abruptly Jennifer broke off to stare intently at her center screen. “Hel-l-o-o,” she said slowly, her tone more appropriate for discussion of something pale, multilegged, and slimy found unexpectedly under a rock.

Quickly she called up another screenload of detail. She glared at it briefly; then pushed back, glanced up at us, and shook her head. “You better sit down first, Gramma; then take a look at this. . . .”

For several seconds I stared uncomprehendingly at the figures. The new data were in red, neatly superimposed over Ouroborous’ previous results displayed in green. The differences were negligible.

And then suddenly they weren’t and I did sit down. Quickly. Hard. I’ve never actually received a well-placed kick to the solar plexus, but I suspect it feels much like the sensation I experienced at that moment. “Are you sure of this?” I demanded.

Jennifer nodded sorrowfully.

Catheryn and Harrison peeked over my shoulder. Distantly I heard Catheryn’s breath catch and Harrison’s muttered but heartfelt imprecation.

Among the data Jennifer had pulled up was a graphic display of reported domestic violence listed by professions. Male policemen and physicians were first and second, respectively, on the list . . . !

“How can that be . . . ?” I breathed.

“In the case of policemen, two possibilities come to mind immediately,” Catheryn replied, reaching over Jennifer’s shoulder and causing more data to flicker rapidly across Igor’s lower right-hand screen. “Job stress is the first,” she continued after few moments’ study. “Policemen as a group spend their days subjected to intolerable tensions: constant psychological abuse and physical danger; responsibility for human lives in the face of wide-ranging threats; their authority and operating methods ever more crippled by the courts; every life-and-death, split-second decision subject to leisurely review by desk potatoes, whose disapproval leaves them turning slowly in the wind, exposed to consequences ranging from professional to legal and financial ruin—of course some of them explode off the job.”

She paused, looking thoughtful. “But apart from that—can you think of a profession more intrinsically attractive to a predator, one with brains enough to know that it’s safer and more lucrative to work within the system than against it, than manhunting . . . ?”

“Dictator,” responded Jennifer instantly.

“Pentagon chiefs-of-staff,” Harrison contributed.

“Head of the CIA,” Jennifer added.

“Secretary of Defense.”

“Senator.”

“Reporter for the National Libeler.

“TV evangelist.”

Both clearly were on a roll, and I was about to offer a few suggestions myself, but Catheryn cut us off: “As for doctors,” she pressed on resolutely, “many, if not most, of us face similar job stresses, compounded by related, if not precisely similar, frustrations. . . .”

That I understood, all too well. Job stress? —I’ll give you job stress: For virtually my whole professional life, I had contributed a minimum of one day a week (two or three, more often than not) working at the public-aid clinics in the low-income neighborhoods of Boston, treating drug-addicted newborns; prepubertal children with VD; pregnant pre- and barely teenagers; children with deficiency diseases (rickets and even scurvy—in modern America, for Heaven’s sake!); children whose twisted limbs and joints betrayed unset healed fractures that could not have escaped parents’ notice at the time; multiple cigarette-burn, belt-buckle, scalding, and even obvious blade-cut scars; children whose neurological deficits revealed years of lead-poisoning from living in illegally painted slum dwellings . . .

And you’d be surprised how few “respectable” Bostonians—especially those in charge of clinic funding—are willing to admit such neighborhoods even exist.

Even in my own practice, in the respectable (i.e., upper- and upper-upper-middle-income) suburbs of Boston, arguably one of the most socially refined thirty-mile radii on Earth, I had suspected abuse strongly enough to file reports with the authorities in a good ten percent of my trauma cases, and agonized over at least that many more where my instincts had sounded the alarm but I lacked sufficient evidence to risk getting sued by involving officialdom—and if I had actually seen that many possibly/probably abused/neglected children, how many more never received medical attention at all, because their well-educated or street-smart parents knew that a doctor would recognize those injuries for what they were . . . ?

“But physician sociopaths . . .” Catheryn trailed off uncomfortably.

“They exist,” I answered her uncompleted question without hesitation. The psychic scars from my interview with Doctor Walther were still fresh—no one was going to tell me a doctor couldn’t be a predator. . . .

No; notwithstanding the prominence of policemen and physicians in the domestic-violence statistics, overall the figures emerging from Jennifer’s latest search were not significantly at odds with my own experience.

I took a long breath. “I’m satisfied that the figures are valid,” I said. “If there are errors, they’re minor ones, and they’ll show up as we proceed. Now we need to assemble a clinical picture of both normal and deviant personalities.”

“That’s easy,” asserted Jennifer comfortably. “Now that all the data are present in the system, Igor will chew them up in a matter of hours, regardless what comparisons you want to make.”

She was right: We took much longer to determine and draft the questions than the Cray did to generate the answers. By the end of the afternoon we had our profiles.

∆∆∆

“I hate this,” fretted Catheryn, glaring at Igor’s display, where, just inside the right edge of the main screen, a gradually upward-curving line, representing that portion of the male population whose physical violence had resulted in notice by medical, law-enforcement, and/or protective agencies, terminated in an abrupt, nearly vertical upstroke, rather like a hockey stick resting on its side. “Statistics are supposed to be tidy. Those aren’t.”

“Not my problem,” teased Jennifer. “You tell me what you want to know; I shovel numbers until you have answers. I take no responsibility for the substance of those answers.”

“I know,” Catheryn muttered. “I know! But everything else has generated smooth, census-related curves. This violence line is neither. And I want to know why. . . .”

So did I. “Jennifer,” I began, “can you enlarge the scale of the graph? I mean enough so that only a portion of the line appears on the screen at a time. I want to look closely at the point at which that anomaly begins.”

Jennifer nodded. Her fingers danced briefly. The display zoomed in. Even at maximum scale, the junction unquestionably was an angle; not a curve

“Ha!” sniffed Catheryn. “I’ll bet those are two completely unrelated curves, except that the data which produces them got lumped together for this graph.”

I thought so, too. “Can you separate them, Jennifer?” I asked. “More importantly, can you identify the individuals whose data supports each curve?”

“Yes,” she said, “and yes. It will take a while, though, because I’ve got to tool up to trace those curves back to their source data. Selected portions of about half a million files are summarized in this graph. Go away; come back tomor­row.”

∆∆∆

The data which awaited us in the morning was not what we expected. At least I certainly didn’t expect it.

Jennifer had instructed the Cray to identify first which files had furnished the data contributing to the reported-violence-indicator curve, and thereafter to categorize the incidents of which they consisted by sex of offender, type of incident (i.e., street-crime versus Significant-Other- and/or child-abuse, et cetera), numbers of incidents per individual, and degree of violence.

The first and most obvious datum to emerge from the statistics confirmed that violent crime per se was an almost exclusively male career election—and initiation of violence was an almost exclusively male option.

Of course, we had known that all along: Nationwide, approximately one penal institution was devoted to women for every twenty-five men’s prisons; but the vast majority of female inmates were there for drug purchases, drug-habit-support theft, and/or drug-related child-neglect and/or -abuse. Of those convicted of violence, most had been found guilty, in the judgment of the (primarily male-run) justice system, of using “excessive” or “inappropriate” force to defend themselves from male serial attackers: husbands, boyfriends, fathers, et cetera.

Among violent males, however, two separate classes of data were in fact involved in that hockey-stick-shaped line. The incidents generating the gradually curved line reflected a compilation of all the factors characteristic of what we had begun, at least tentatively, to label as stress-related violence; ranging from one-time outbursts to regular explosions, on a monthly basis or even several times a week: by substance-abusers and/or otherwise exemplary individuals living and/or working in high-stress situations, a group experience encompassing almost fifty percent of the male population.

However, the data supporting that anomalous, nearly vertical component departing from the high end of the stress-related line was traceable entirely to the conduct of a tiny but appallingly busy group of men. This class comprised perhaps a tenth of a percent of the total male population, scattered randomly across the spectrum irrespective of age, race, religion, socioeconomic status, or profession.

The violence which characterized the members of this group was triggered by little or no provocation (or even mere inconvenience!), and, once set in motion, tended to be more difficult to stop. As a result, the level of violence engaged in by these men generally produced more severe victim injuries than those caused by the stress-related group; not infrequently, those injuries resulted in death.

Intriguingly, the fact that family members received the brunt of their attacks seemed to be no more than a by-product of exposure time: The longer people of any description remained in their presence, the greater the likelihood of becoming victims.

More importantly, from our perspective, various personality-factor curves which characterized these subjects’ behavior profiles were, as a group, consistent and distinguishable from the norm.

A slow, mischievous grin overspread Harrison’s features as he scrutinized one such display. “Hah!” he snorted. “Look here—I knew it all the time . . . !”

Some of us were born to deliver the straight lines: “Knew what?” I asked reluctantly.

“That the atrocious driving manners and/or patently murderous attitudes displayed by three out of every four men encountered behind the wheels of pickup trucks are the result of active sociopathic tendencies and not mere stupidity. See? These loose cannons drive seventy-five percent more pickups than fully sapient human beings. . . .”

If I smiled at Harrison’s wry observation, it was a perfunctory effort; I had just arrived at an unexpected realization: “You know,” I began, “between Jennifer, Igor, and this incredible mass of data, P.A.C.—front or not—is in a position to deliver on at least a portion of the stated purpose of our charter. We should be able to run the first statistical analysis in history with a chance of actually shedding something resembling light on the root causes of sociopathic person­alities and/or their behavior.”

Jennifer looked thoughtful. “Are you talking about environmental or physiological factors?”

Bless the child—I hadn’t even considered the possibility of physical causes. “Both, of course.”

“This won’t take long.” Briefly she addressed her keyboard. Presently a series of graphs emerged, summarizing the sociological and medical histories of every asocial, antisocial, and sociopath in our database; each superimposed over similar graphs assembled from the data of those representing our norm.

I didn’t know what we were looking for; I could only hope we’d recognize it when we found it. An hour later, Catheryn spotted our first clue. “Mother, look at this,” she said: “the testosterone-breakdown chart . . .”

“Ah-hah!” said Jennifer, with which sentiment I agreed emphatically. Harrison’s reaction was limited to a pro forma display of the long-suffering patience which he customarily affected when confronted by excessively technical medical jargon.

I explained: “In the normal male, testosterone is converted by 5α-reductase, an enzyme, to an androgen known as dihydrotestosterone, which is thereafter broken down cascade-fashion into still other androgens, most of which have been shown to be vital to functions ranging from physical differentiation between the sexes to emotional regulation. In the sociopath population, we’re seeing an anomaly in that process.”

“So, in—if you’ll pardon the expression—laymen’s terms,” offered Harrison, “these monsters are a product of glandular problems?”

May be a product,” I interjected.

“Endocrine problems,” corrected Jennifer primly.

“Aren’t endocrines produced by glands?”

“Yes, but—”

“No ‘buts.’ Glands I can cope with; I’ll leave the dying tested toaster drones to you real and would-be doctor types.”

“Dihydro—” Catheryn began reflexively before breaking off with a grin.

“ ‘Would-be’ . . . ?” flared Jennifer. “Smile when you say that, stranger!”

“But what causes such glandular misfunctions?” asked Harrison pointedly. “My medical knowledge is limited to what I picked up during the plaintiff medical-malpractice phase of my early career; but what you’ve found here sounds more like a symptom than an underlying causative mechanism.”

As usual, he was right. But before I could reply, Jennifer scowled and said, “Damn!”; and then, before either Catheryn or I could remind her of appropriate eight-year-old vocabulary limits, set furiously to work on her keyboard. “I hate when my mind switches off,” she muttered absently. “We wasted all that time scanning those graphs visually when all we needed to do is run a simple report-comparison generator.”

Three minutes later we had our answer. “Just look at that EEG. . . .” breathed Catheryn almost reverently.

“It’s not actually abnormal,” I pointed out cautiously.

“No,” she agreed; “it’s barely within normal range. But given the fact that every member of our behavior-based predator population for whom an EEG exists demonstrates that precise, identifiable lambda-lead deviation—together with the testosterone-breakdown anomaly where that test was done—I think we can pretty well consider this a determinative clinical picture.”

Harrison cocked a brow. “Do you think we’re looking at a widespread form of physical brain damage?”

“Possibly,” I mused; “or chemical imbalance, as in bipolar disease. —Manic-depressive syndrome,” I added, in semi-lay, TV talk-show dialect, as he cocked the other brow. “In the past, this type of thing has been traced to factors ranging from physical and social environmental factors to—”

“Genetics,” volunteered Jennifer. “But whether it’s an inherited factor or a sport or . . . ” Abruptly she broke off and began furiously pounding Igor’s keyboard.

“A throwback,” Catheryn continued, eyes flashing. “I’ll bet any money—safely, considering we have no way of resolving the question at this point—that the men in our predator group are victims of atavistic levels of territorial imperative.”

I nodded; my head was almost spinning with the potential significance of the discovery. “Back when males were hairy and smelly and had no chins or foreheads, and women were totally dependent broodmare/nursemaid/domestics, a single-minded preoccupation with acquisition of territory, property, and women was a prosurvival male trait.”

“Bingo . . .” Jennifer whispered intensely. “Look at this.

Catheryn scanned the screen. Then her breath caught. “That’s my daugh­ter . . .” she announced softly, her voice suddenly husky. A quick glance revealed that she was blinking back tears.

“She’s my granddaughter,” I responded tartly, attempting to lighten the moment, “so I get credit for both of you.” It didn’t work; in a moment both of us were sniffling.

“She’s my client,” interjected Harrison, regarding us with caution, “but at this point I have no idea whether to crow or disavow all knowledge of, and/or responsibility for, her activities.”

Igor’s center screen displayed the image of a DNA analysis. Jennifer highlighted certain bands. “Everyone from whom we have both EEG and DNA scans, and whose EEG includes that unique lambda-lead characteristic, also demonstrates this equally unmistakable DNA banding pattern at this point on his chromosomal structure.”

Catheryn paused briefly, her hand resting lightly on Jennifer’s shoulder. “You may of course go to Stockholm to pick up your Nobel Award,” she offered, with a feeble smile, “but do try to be home before dark. . . .”

“Nobel candidates under ten must be accompanied by an adult,” Harrison offered in ringing, deliberately pompous tones; “however, laureates are allowed to stay up as late as they choose, regardless of age. It says so clearly in the rules. I’m a lawyer; I know these things. And I’d be humbly proud to escort you, ma’am.”

Jennifer dimpled and performed a sitting-down curtsy. “Oh, thank you, kind sir.”

“I’ll arm-wrestle you for it,” Catheryn responded instantly, only half-kidding.

I smiled absently. Increasingly, for several seconds now, something had been bothering me; a feeling that we were missing something. Something important. Briefly I fretted unproductively.

“Let’s work backward,” I suggested. “Does anyone demonstrating either or both of the physical anomalies not show that DNA pattern? And does anyone with that DNA reading not have an abnormal personality-index profile?”

For several minutes Jennifer flickered through displays, set up command strings, and let them run. “The pattern appears to be uniform,” she said presently. “After checking our entire sociopath group, as defined by physical findings—one or both—I have found no one who doesn’t show this DNA profile, and no one with it fails to demonstrate the predator behavior profile—”

Wait!” I cut in. That was it! I was almost panting with excitement. “Run the norms; see if any of them reads positive for any of the three markers and/or the DNA profile. . . .”

A population of closet sociopaths—predators with the intelligence to suppress unproductive violence while working their way into positions of authority from which they could inflict real damage—would go a long way toward explaining much of what was wrong with the world. And this would be proof . . .

Jennifer complied. Presently names, coded to show which or how many of the four factors applied, began to scroll up the top left-hand screen. We were still operating from our original one million randomly selected Social Security numbers, so it turned out to be a fairly short list. However, those few hundred names included a disproportionately large number of influential public figures.

Harrison recognized several enormously successful Wall Street tycoons, a collection of equally successful attorneys, two powerful senators, and a federal judge. I spotted a policy-level State Department bureaucrat toward whom I still experienced recurring homicidal urges following discussions over funding for the U.N.’s overseas children’s clinics. Jennifer pointed out three nationally prominent TV clergymen, known for their “prolife” views; and the CEO of a multinational oil company, notorious for the frequency with which their tankers figured in major spill incidents; a stand-up “comic” best known for vicious “jokes” centering upon women . . .

No doubt existed: We had isolated our predators. For the first time since the Cambodian major had given me insight into the true nature of evil, I felt almost at peace.

“A positive differential diagnosis . . .” Catheryn breathed; “a scientifically inarguable Scarlet Letter! —We’ve got them!”

Jennifer was almost bouncing up and down. “Let’s publish . . . !”

“Right. But let’s assemble a presentation easily understood by the layest layman and go straight to the national media,” I contributed. “Medical journals are too slow, and almost no one but doctors reads them—besides which, Walther undoubtedly would delay publication.”

Harrison cleared his throat; a sound which, in times past, had heralded the impending arrival of a Considered Opinion of the sort for which his regular clientele paid upwards of a couple thousand dollars an hour. We paused in anticipation.

“Mightn’t it be a good idea,” he suggested diffidently, “to hold off on our whistle-blowing party until we have a more accurate picture of whom all it is we’re blowing whistles about—and perhaps even make something resembling plans to cope with the possible consequences . . . ?”

I blinked; then found myself thinking furiously. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed that Catheryn and Jennifer were taken aback as well.

Harrison was right: Certainly before we publicized the existence of such a test, and the type of men whom it would reveal, it would be prudent to identify as many members of the worldwide predator-male population as possible—especially the closet sociopaths, and the positions of authority they occupied.

Belatedly it occurred to me that none was apt to be thrilled; and that, both individually and as a group, male predators might be uncommonly skilled at imple­menting their objections.

The prospect of becoming the focus of the undivided attention of a worldwide population of sociopathic males, closet or patent, was something deserving of, at the very least, some forethought. . . .

∆∆∆

My father was fond of observing that the best way to deal with an insoluble problem was to delegate it to someone expendable. My personal approach has always been to divide it into as many smaller, potentially resolvable problems as possible, solve them, and then take a hard look at what remains.

Accordingly, Jennifer’s worm soon was prowling again, this time worldwide, compiling a list, broken down by profession or occupation, of every male on Earth whose behavioral, endocrinological, EEG, and/or DNA profiles bore the stamp of the sociopath.

As the results began flowing in, it became apparent that we did indeed have a tiger by the tail—a powerfully situated, exclusively self-interested, utterly insatiable man-eater.

My original insight into the cause of world problems was now proved correct: More than half of world leaders—especially those most conspicuously repressive toward their populations and/or protective of terrorists—were on the list. Along with, by and large, all . . .

Unabashed dictators, military governors, presidents (both “for-life” and purportedly elected varieties), prime ministers, cabinet officers, legislators, ranking members of the military; a substantial, though lesser, proportion of the top judiciary.

All known international terrorists, regardless of ethnic background or cause espoused; likewise, all known druglords, heads of organized-crime families, and national and international union leaders.

And, of course, it went almost without saying that the list included leaders of most religious denominations, from ayatollahs to the Pope to the head Baptist.

In America, most professional staffers of the Republican National Party, along with an only slightly lower proportion of their opposite numbers among the Democrats; a majority cross-section of the investment-banking community; most big-league corporate raiders; most televangelists; the entire male population of the national governing body of the right-to-life movement; several television network CEOs (though, intriguingly, apart from the FoxNews network, almost no one of significance within the news industry itself); the Grand Dragon and all the officers of the KKK—

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. . . .

The fact that Benjamin Walther, M.D., and the military “president” of Cambodia were on the list, too, probably would have given me special satisfaction, had not the list itself been so formidable.

Indeed, we had isolated our sociopaths—but now what . . . ?