Dick Aston leaned back, propped his heels on the lower arc of Amanda's stainless-steel wheel, and watched pipe smoke swirl away on a brisk quartering breeze. A battered old cap, visor crowned with golden leaves, protected his bald head from the sun, and cold foam trailed down the chill aluminum can in his hand, dripping from his fingers. All in all, he could not have presented a more idyllic picture.
But the eyes behind his dark glasses were far from relaxed.
He took the pipe from his mouth and sipped beer, feeling his bone-deep weariness, and grinned wryly. There'd been a time, he reminded himself. A time when he was brash and confident, full of his own immortality and the endless vitality of youth, able to go forever with only occasional catnaps and proud of it. But that was long ago, before he'd experienced reality. He'd seen too much dying since, dipped too close to extinction himself, to believe in anyone's immortality. Too many tough, confident young men had perished. He'd grown less brash with every death, and it dismayed him to realize how long it had been since he had even thought of himself as young. He knew he was fit and hard for his age, but that was the crucial difference between him and the self he once had been. "For his age" said it all.
How much sleep had he gotten in the last two weeks? It must be more than it felt like, given that he could keep his eyes open at all, but probably not by all that much. First there'd been the nasty weather, then the wild confusion of what he'd come to think of as The Night, followed by the long, grueling drag of nursing his patient . . . Ludmilla.
She had a name, he reminded himself—Ludmilla—and she was no longer simply his patient. She was a person, one whose insane tale he believed implicitly. Her story was what had stolen last night's sleep as she poured out the details of the endless Kanga-human war and the epic voyage which had brought her here.
That was what had truly convinced him. He was a trained interrogator, and though he'd asked few questions, he'd never listened more intently in his life, and he hadn't heard a single discrepancy, a single inconsistency. He remained amazed that someone of her youth could hold colonel's rank, but the understated way she'd described her own actions told him she'd earned it. And she was older than her years. There was a shadow in her eyes when she described the death of BatDiv Ninety-Two, but it was buffered by the familiarity of dealing with loss. He saw it in her face, in her ability to laugh despite the pain, and he recognized it. He'd seen it in too many other faces . . . including his own.
His thoughts broke off as Ludmilla climbed cautiously up the companion. She poked her head out the hatch, wind plucking at her long, chestnut hair, and studied him with those calm, knowing eyes in that absurdly young face.
"May I come up?" she asked in the clipped accent that could not make her voice less musical and no longer even sounded quite so strange.
"If you feel up to it," he agreed, and she grinned wryly at his oblique reminder. She'd reached the end of her energy with unnerving suddenness last night—or early this morning, depending upon one's perspective—and virtually collapsed back into the bunk. Aston was still unsure which surprised him more: the amount of vitality she'd displayed, or the abrupt way it had flagged.
"Thank you," she murmured, and climbed the rest of the way on deck. She still wore only his tee-shirt, and it rose high on her firmly muscled thighs. He sternly suppressed a sudden internal stirring.
"Do you swim?" he asked.
"Pretty well." She looked around the limitless stretch of ocean and gave a little headshake. "Not on this scale, though."
"In that case," he said, and held out a life jacket. She took it gingerly, holding it up and examining it thoughtfully. He started to explain, then stopped and watched her mind working for a moment before she slipped it on and tightened the straps about her.
"This, too," he went on, and she donned the safety harness with more assurance, for she could see how his was secured. "House rules," he explained. "Whenever you're on deck, you wear both of those. It may not seem like we're moving all that fast, but if you went over the side and had to catch up swimming, you'd soon find out differently."
"Aye, aye, Sir." She smiled, but her words were sincere. So, he thought. She understood the limitations of her own expertise and how to take orders as well as giving them. That was more than he could say for some officers he'd met.
She sat in the other corner of the cockpit, leaning back into the angle of the transom, and breathed deeply. He felt a stab of irritated envy for her youthful vitality, and knowing it was strengthened by his own reaction to her naked, shapely legs and the way the tee-shirt molded itself to her under her bulky life jacket shamed him slightly.
"This is nice," she said wistfully. "I always wanted to learn to sail, but Midgard's too dusty, and by the time I got off-planet I was too busy."
"It can be a lot less relaxing sometimes, but days like this make up for a lot," he agreed. He remembered the can in his hand and half-raised it. "Would you like a beer?" he asked.
"No, thanks. I'm afraid alcohol doesn't agree with me." She gave a strange little smile, and he shrugged. Silence stretched between them—not tensely, but quietly. It was strange how comfortable he felt with this wanderer from an alien future, he thought.
"Have you decided to believe me?" she asked, breaking the silence at last.
"Yes," he replied without hesitation, and her shoulders relaxed minutely. It amused him, and he grinned. "What's the matter, Colonel? Did you expect me to ask the local witch doctor to exorcize you, instead?"
"Well, maybe just a bit," she admitted. "I tried putting myself in your place to see what I'd think. The answer wasn't very comforting."
"Be of good cheer. We happy primitives are just naturally credulous."
"Ouch! I think you just paid me back for that leader crap."
"Me?" He raised his sunglasses to give her the full benefit of his innocent expression. "You wrong me, Colonel!"
"Like hell," she snorted.
"Well, maybe just a bit," he said, deliberately using her own words as he slid the tinted lenses back in place. She made a face and slid more comfortably down onto the end of her spine. The tee-shirt rose higher, and he hastily transferred his attention to the wind-swollen spinnaker.
"So what do we do now, Ster Aston?" she asked.
"First," he said, "you explain what the hell a `ster' is."
"Excuse me?" She blinked at him, then smiled. "Sorry. I suppose I ought to be saying `Mister' Aston, shouldn't I?"
"Thought so," he said thoughtfully. "You chop off syllables in the damnedest places, Colonel. I think that's one reason I believe you."
"But I'd better get over it."
"Why worry about it? No one's going to be too surprised if someone from the future sounds a little odd."
"That's the point—the fact that I'm alive can't be made public." Her intensity surprised him.
"Unless your noises are a lot different from mine, that should be pretty obvious," she said tartly.
"Oh, damn! I mean your blabs." His eyebrows rose, and she made a frustrated face. "Your . . . newsies? reporters?" He nodded in sudden understanding, and she sighed in relief. "I know how ours would react if someone turned up from the past, and that Troll certainly has the capacity to tap your news networks."
"I see." He eyed her thoughtfully. "Why would that matter?"
"I wish I knew how it would affect his thinking," she said pensively. "As I said, Trolls aren't very sane by human standards, so I don't know what this one is planning, but I do know that he's certain I'm dead." He raised an eyebrow, and her lips tightened. "No Troll would have passed up the chance to kill me; that's one of the less pleasant things about them. One of them turned back to kill my com officer when she blew out, even though he knew it would give me a chance to kill him. No, St—Mister—Aston. He was positive I was dead, or he would have blown Sputnik apart to make certain."
"So why didn't he do it anyway?"
"Arrogance, I think. We don't know enough about how their minds work, but one thing we do know is that they seem to pride themselves on their own infallibility. Only they do it in their own skitzy way—almost as if they're out to prove something to the Kangas."
"In what way?"
"Kangas are logical, first, last, and always, and any Kanga would have wiped the wreckage just to be cert. A Troll will kill anything that even looks like it might be alive, but if they decide its dead, they won't attack. It's almost like . . . like a way to show contempt for an enemy."
She paused for a moment, as if searching for a better way to put it, then shrugged.
"Anyway, we try to play the angles when it comes to saving our people's lives, and Sputnik was equipped with a new escape program." Her eyes darkened with a trace of sadness. "From what you've told me, it worked."
"Hm?" She shook herself. "Oh. The techies built in a jammer to block Kanga scanners and programmed the escape computer for a delayed blow-out. You said he followed me down for a while?" He nodded, and she shrugged again. "He was probably scanning the wreckage to make sure we were all dead—and that's exactly what his systems told him. Then Sputnik waited till the last minute to zerch herself and blow the cockpit. The computers must have spotted you and homed on your boat." She smiled tightly. "If we'd been in deep space, the program would've aborted and I'd be dead. There's no point evading in an environment where long-term survival is impossible, and Fleet doesn't want to flash the capability when it won't do any good."
"So he's certain you're dead," Aston mused. "But how would it affect his plans if he found out you aren't?"
"I don't know," she said, frustration sharpening her tone. "Look, the Kangas came back to wipe us before we could become a threat, and he damned well knows it. But he's in a position no Troll's ever been in; there aren't any Kangas to order him around, and he `knows' he personally killed the last humans from his own time, which means no one in 2007 can have the least scan of who he is or what he wants. For the first time in history, a Troll may be free to make his own decisions." She paused for a long moment, her eyes unfocused as she thought.
"Who can say what that means?" she continued finally. "The Kangas' programming may carry over on him, or he may be entirely on his own. What I suspect is that he's in a position to make plans of his own and that he's still considering his options. What I know is that if he finds out he didn't kill me after all, he'll feel threatened. In which case—"
"In which case," Aston interrupted thoughtfully, "he may do something we'll all regret."
"Exactly." She shivered slightly. "You have no concept of what his hate is like, Mister Aston, and of everyone in the galaxy, he hates me most. Add that I'm the one person on this planet who really knows anything about him . . ." She gave a tiny toss of her head. "He'll come after me," she said softly, "and he won't care how many other people he kills to get me."
Aston felt his shoulders tighten and forced them to relax. The bright sunlight felt icy, and he suddenly realized his inner chill was personal as well as intellectual. It was important to him that this young woman survive, and not simply because of the information source she represented.
"All right," he said, forcing himself to sound cheerful, "we just have to make sure none of our `noises'—" he grinned as he used her term "—find out about you."
"It goes a bit further than that, Mister Aston. You see—"
"Please," he interrupted again. "We've introduced ourselves, and my name's Richard—Dick, to my friends. I wish you'd use it."
"All right, Dick." She smiled, and something inside him gave a little shiver he hadn't felt in years. "But only if you stop calling me `Colonel.' My name is Ludmilla—or, as you'd say, Milla, to my friends."
"Thank you, Milla," he said, careful to keep his smile friendly, without a trace of the attraction he felt. Damn it, she was a third his age—too damned young for the thoughts he was thinking. He tried to tell himself it was being alone with her, but he knew better. Her features were too severe ever to be beautiful, but they had something far more important. They had strength and character, and her eyes were beautiful . . . and wise. Too wise for her years. . . .
He shook himself and hoped she'd noticed nothing. Or did he?
"You were saying something about going further?" he prompted.
"Um?" She blinked. "Oh, yes. It's not quite as simple as just clamping on security . . . Dick." She gave that same little toss of her head. "You see, the Kangas did quite a bit of tinkering with the Trolls. We're not quite certain, but a lot of evidence suggests the Kangas themselves are at least rudimentary telepaths. At any rate, they tried to build that ability into the Trolls."
"It's telepathic?" Despite everything else she'd said, that thought shocked him.
"I'm afraid so. Apparently they meant to give them a com channel we couldn't jam, but it didn't work out too well. Troll brains are still basically human, and about a third of all normal humans can tap into their mental net if they know it's there. None of us can transmit, as it were, but we can `hear' them doing it, if we know they're out there to listen to. I understand it's not a very . . . pleasant thing to do, but it means they can't use their `secure com' without being overheard, so it never gave them the advantages the Kangas apparently hoped for."
"Wait a minute." Sick suspicion tightened his throat. "If we can `hear' them, can they—?"
"They can," she replied grimly. "Worse, they can influence human thoughts and attitudes. We found that out the hard way. If you don't know to watch for it, they can really warp you out. The number of people who can realize what's happening on their own is low, too. Very low." Her face grew even grimmer.
"We're lucky in at least two respects, though. First, a single Troll doesn't have much range—no more than a few hundred kilometers. They have a greater reach when several combine, but their touch gets a lot more evident when they do. And, secondly, I'm not one of the people who can tap them, so our Troll shouldn't be able to tap me, which means he can't pick me up to know I'm still alive. I just hope he can't read you, either."
"You and me both, lady," he said uneasily. "But how in hell are we supposed to know?"
"I've been thinking about that," she answered slowly. "There's a standard test, back home. I know you don't have the technology we do, but your people can do brain scans, can't they?"
"That depends on what you mean by `brain scan,' " he said carefully.
"Damn," she muttered. "This language problem is terrible. I'm never certain I'm saying what I think I am!"
"Don't worry," he told her dryly. "We'll be in the same boat—if you'll pardon the pun—when we hit England."
"Never mind. Just tell me what this brain scan is supposed to scan."
"Brain waves," she said. "Oh, back home it's all one procedure that also analyzes cellular structure and all the rest, but it's the brain waves that matter."
"That sounds like an EEG," he said. She raised her eyebrows. "An electroencephalogram," he explained. "It measures electrical charges in the brain."
"Good!" Her face brightened and she nodded vigorously. "There's a distinctive spike in the alpha waves for people who can't hear the Trolls—and the reverse, we think."
"Do you mean to tell me," he demanded, "that we have to run an EEG on anyone we consider telling about you?"
"Of course." She seemed surprised. "What's the problem?"
" `What's the problem?' How the hell are we supposed to convince someone to have an EEG run without even telling him why?"
"Wait a tick." She cocked her head. "Back home it takes about two minutes and it's part of any medicheck. I gather that's not the case here?"
"No," he said with commendable restraint, "it's not." He went on to explain the procedure, and it was her turn to look astonished.
"Good Lord! I've never heard of anything so primitive!"
"We're a pretty primitive bunch, Milla," he said plaintively, "but you're not going to make a lot of friends if you keep reminding us of it."
"Oops." She put a hand on his forearm and squeezed gently. "I'm afraid I've got a bigger mouth than I thought."
"Don't worry," he reassured her, patting her hand in what he fondly thought was an avuncular fashion. "We are primitive by your standards, I guess, but if you're right about how important it is to blend in, you're going to have to work on attitudes as much as speech patterns."
"I know." She smiled at him, and the warmth of her expression reached deep inside him. "Anyway, if we can figure out how to arrange it, all we have to do is run one of these—EEGs?—" she used the unfamiliar term hesitantly, and he nodded "—on me and use it as a comparison base." She frowned. "I think it should be fairly simple. I know what my scan pattern looks like, and I know which spike to watch for. I only hope this EEG is similar enough to let me orient myself."
"I guess we'll just have to cross that bridge when we come to it," he said slowly. He became aware that her hand was still on his forearm and tried to disengage himself unobtrusively. But she tightened her grip, and he stopped and looked up to meet her eyes.
It was a mistake. Those eyes were not, he thought after a moment, what he would have expected from such a young woman. Their incredibly clear, darkly blue depths understood. There was a soft almost-twinkle in them, a sort of gentle teasing he almost grasped laid over a bittersweetness he couldn't begin to fathom. They held neither the embarrassment nor the unintentional cruelty of surprise he might have expected from one so young. And, perhaps most surprising of all, they showed no rejection, not even the gentle nonresponse of someone trying to avoid hurting him for his ridiculous interest.
He was caught. He couldn't recall ever seeing anything quite like her understanding expression, and it was hard to remember hers was the face of a woman who'd killed—killed repeatedly—in the performance of her duty. He had killed, sometimes at a range so close he had smelled his victim's sweat before he struck, and he knew it had marked him inside. He hoped it hadn't made him callous or cold, but he knew it hadn't left him untouched, and he'd often suspected it must show. Even if it didn't, he'd never thought of himself as a ladies' man—certainly no one had ever accused him of being handsome, and age and more than his fair share of scars hadn't improved things. But those young-old eyes seemed to look past externals, totally free of rejection or condemnation.
"Milla," he said finally, "I think—" he gripped her wrist gently and removed her hand from his forearm "—that I should be ashamed of myself."
"Why? I've seen how hard you're working at being a gentleman, but you shouldn't strain yourself. I'm flattered that you enjoy looking at me—why does it bother you?" She asked the question simply, and his face reddened.
"Because of what I'm thinking when I do it." He straightened his shoulders. "You're a stranger here. You've lost everything you ever knew—your friends, your world. . . . And I'm fifty-nine years old, Milla. You don't need an oversexed geriatric lech trying to—"
He broke off in astonishment at her totally unexpected reaction. It was laughter. Not cutting, dismissive laughter, but soft, genuine amusement . . . touched, he realized, with more than just an edge of world-weary sorrow that sat strangely on her fresh, young face.
"I'm sorry, Dick," she said, and her lovely voice was soft. She touched his cheek before he could draw back, and those surprisingly strong fingers were gentle. "I'm not laughing at you—it's just that I keep forgetting how little you know about me." His expression showed his confusion, and her smile faded just a bit. "How old do you think I am, Dick?"
"What?" He looked at her for a moment, then frowned. "I don't know," he said slowly. "When I first saw you, I'd've said eighteen or nineteen. But with all you've seen and done, you have to be older than that, don't you?" He shook his head. She couldn't be much older than that. "Twenty-five?" he hazarded uncertainly, and she laughed again, almost sadly.
"Chronologically," she said, and something in her tone told him she was approaching the point with care, "and bearing in mind the time dilation effect of all the time I've spent at relativistic velocities, I am—or was when this started—a bit over a hundred and thirty." He swallowed, his eyes wide, and she gave him a wry smile. "Biologically, of course, I'm younger than that. Only eighty-three."
He stared at her. Eighty-three? Impossible! She was a child! He started to speak, then stopped, remembering the way she'd healed.
"Eighty-three?" he asked finally, amazed by how calm he sounded, and she nodded. "Just what is the average life span where you come from, Milla?"
"About a hundred and twenty," she said steadily, and he shook his head.
"You folks do all your aging in a hurry at the end or something?" he asked slowly.
"No. We age at the same proportional rate we always did. Or most of us do." She smiled, but for the first time, it did not touch her eyes. "You see, there was a reason I reacted so strongly when you suggested I might not be human, Dick. My grandfather survived the bio attack on Midgard, and I've heard a lot of that kind of thing because in a sense I'm not . . . not really."
"What—" He paused and licked his lips, even more shaken by the carefully hidden pain in her expression than by what she had just said. He reached out and touched her wrist. "What exactly does that mean?" he asked, forcing his voice to sound level.
"It's a bit complicated," she said, and her eyes thanked him for controlling his surprise. "You see, the Kangas were short on time, so instead of whipping up a new bug from scratch, they modified a nasty little parasite from Delta Pavonis. It wasn't so much a biological weapon as an organic one—and a nasty one, at that. Essentially, it was transmitted as an airborne bacteria and matured into a multicellular parasite rather like a Terran slime mold that invaded the respiratory and alimentary systems and used the circulatory system to get around its host's body. The parasite itself didn't look like much—just a double handful of protoplasmic ooze that scavenged its hosts for its own needs until they died of starvation or respiratory failure. If that didn't kill them, something very like cancer set in . . . and if anyone actually managed to survive that, the parasite simply went on growing until it clogged the arteries.
"The beauty of it, from the Kangas' viewpoint, wasn't just that it was lethal in so many different ways, but that they'd already been playing around with it for a couple of decades. They had its life cycle down pat and they'd been working on ways to aim it at specific DNA/RNA groups. That was what made it perfect for Midgard, because only one species on the planet used DNA at all: man. Actually, the biochemistry on Midgard isn't all that much different from Terra's, bearing in mind that we're talking two entirely different biospheres, but it uses a different complex of amino acids.
"So they revamped their parasite, accelerated its growth cycle, and dusted Midgard with it. Before we realized what they'd done, everyone on the planet was infected."
She looked out to sea, her face drawn, and Aston surrendered to a sudden impulse. He slid closer to her and reached one arm around her. Not really in an embrace, far less a caress, but simply to let her know he was there. She looked back at him and smiled, her eyes suspiciously bright.
"Anyway," she said in a voice which was just too calm, "it performed to specs. According to the records, it was incredibly painful, too, so perhaps it was merciful that it killed so quickly in most cases. The actual death rate was something like 99.8%. Out of just over two million people, there were exactly 5,757 survivors.
"But—" her eyes flashed suddenly, and he saw the she-tiger in her smile once more "—they'd expected a hundred-percent kill. They should've gotten one, too. The best theory is that their little horror was unstable and they got an unexpected mutation. Whatever, one tiny batch didn't kill everyone it infected. Most of them, yes, but not all. And in the case of those it didn't kill, it became not a parasite, but a symbiote. Not only that, it piggy-backed itself onto their chromosomes."
"Symbiote? Piggy-backed? I'm afraid I'm not with you yet, Milla," he said gently.
"It's simple, really." She turned to face him fully. "I mass about sixty-six kilos, but I tip the scales at just under sixty-eight. The other two kilos is my symbiote."
"That . . . `protoplasmic ooze' you mentioned?" he asked levelly.
"That's right. Only it's not as greedy as the original version." She smiled mirthlessly. "You might say it's a case of mutual advantage; it lives off my respiratory and digestive systems, and, in return, it protects its environment: me."
"Those wounds . . ."
"Exactly. It used its own mass to seal the ruptured tissues while it kickstarted the `regular' healing process. It even pulled me out of shock by tightening itself down around my arteries. It takes good care of me, because without me it dies."
"My God," he murmured, his voice touched not with disgust but with awe, and she responded with a more natural smile.
"I can't complain," she said. "It does some other nice things, too. It's infected my chromosomes. Effectively, I've got a couple of extra genes—dominants, I might add. And my symbiote's not a very gracious host; it eats anything—bacteria, viruses, whatever—that isn't tagged with `our' genetic code. Which means, of course, that things like cancer and the common cold never bother me. On the other hand, even though I can eat just about anything in an emergency, my symbiote gives me fits over some things—like alcohol—and it also means that transurge would be all but impossible if I suffered catastrophic damage; unless they're cloned ahead of time, transplants don't carry the right genetic code, so they're rejected automatically. And if I'd been born with genetic birth defects, there wouldn't've been a damned thing that could be done for me—because the symbiote locks in the defect and won't let go. Even impacted wisdom teeth can be a real pain; they keep regenerating." She shrugged once more.
"On the other hand," she said softly, "it seems to regard old age the same way it does any other disease."
"I mean that every living organism eventually `forgets' how to regenerate itself . . . except people like me." She grinned crookedly. "That's one reason some Normals don't much care for us. Polite people pretend not to know it, but there're names for us. `Thuselah' is the kindest—from `Methuselah'—but the others are a lot nastier. It's easy enough to understand. The people who use those names get old and die; we don't. Why shouldn't they resent us?"
"But surely not everyone does," he said, and she shook her head.
"No. Some Normals see our women as brood mares," she said grimly. "We're not all that fertile—which is probably just as well, since our ova regenerate, too, and we stay fertile—but we tend towards multiple births, and all our children are born with the symbiote and pass it to all their children. For some reason we haven't quite figured out, we're just as fertile with `normal' humans as with each other, so some male Normals see us as a way to beget `immortal' children of their own." She brushed hair out of her eyes, and this time he understood the half-wry, half-bitter wisdom of the old eyes in her young face.
"Listen to me! You must be thinking we're some kind of persecuted minority! We aren't, really, but sometimes we feel a bit hunted and harried. Only about half the Midgard population is Thuselah, and the percentage is a lot lower everywhere else—there're less than a billion of us even now. The funny thing is how many of us feel most at home in the service. Maybe it's because the chance of dying by violence is so much higher there. I know there was a time in my life when I felt unspeakably guilty because I knew I would never get old—at least, not as long as my symbiote holds out. I suspect we're drawn to the military out of a need to share the mortality of the non-Thuselahs."
She gave the tiny toss of her head he was coming to realize was associated with the shifting of mental gears.
"The Navy and the Corps are glad to get us, especially in the interceptor squadrons. Fighters are a youngster's game, and our bodies and reflexes stay young while we go right on gathering experience. The casualty rate catches up with most of us in the end, however good we are, but that's fair. No one makes us hang on and hang on the way we do. We . . . just do. It's almost addictive."
"I know," he said softly. She looked at him curiously, but he wasn't quite ready to talk about his own impending retirement from active duty . . . or what those duties had been. "I've known a lot of fighter jocks in my time," he said instead. "The one thing they all dread is getting too old to strap on a fighter."
"That's the way it is," she agreed with a sigh. "Actually, it's even more addictive for a Thuselah, because we tend to be so good at it. We've got extraordinary reflexes—again, thanks to our symbiotes. Our neural impulses move about twenty percent faster than the norm, so we can get more out of a fighter. And when we have to, we can go a long time without sleep, because our symbiotes scavenge the fatigue products out of our blood. In a real emergency, they actually supply us with energy. It's a survival tactic for them; they keep us going so we can both survive. Until they exhaust their own stored energy, anyway. Then they start scavenging our tissues to keep themselves alive. When that happens, we're in trouble. We go into a coma and, without someone to feed us—" she gave him a warm smile "—our poor, stupid symbiote goes right on eating until it kills us both."
"My God," he said again, regarding her with so much wonder she actually blushed.
"Doesn't it . . . bother you?" She sounded almost shy.
"Why should it?" he asked simply. "Oh, the idea will take some getting used to, and I'm not immune to envy, if that's what you mean, but I really don't think it bothers me." He gave her a smile of his own. "And you are human, you know—you're just the new, improved model. If I understand you right, this genetic modification is an acquired survival trait. Eventually, everybody will be like you."
"I think that part bothers some Normals even more than the fact that they personally don't share it," she admitted. "They think we're some sort of mutant monsters out to supplant `true' humanity. There were some ugly incidents a couple of hundred years ago."
"Which only proves stupidity is endemic to the human condition even in the future," he said tartly, and won another smile from her.
"Maybe. But, Dick, this is important. If I get hurt again, make damned sure none of my blood gets into any open wounds."
"Why?" He asked the question, but inside he knew the answer already.
"Because the only way the symbiote can be transmitted—other than during conception—is by direct blood transfer," she said, her face serious, "and it's still deadly. That's why Normal women don't dare conceive by our men; a Thuselah embryo's blood carries the symbiote and kills a Normal mother. There were several cases in the early days, before we understood. With the best hospital facilities available—and I'm talking about modern hospitals, not the primitive facilities you have here and now—the survival rate is under five percent. Without them, it's less than one."
"I'll remember," he said softly.
"Good." She reached down and patted his hand where it rested on her ribs. "But in the meantime, youngster—" her smile turned into a grin and her eyes twinkled up at him "—don't worry about my tender years, all right? If you enjoy looking at me, do it."
"I'll try to bear your advanced age in mind," he said with a grin of his own, "but it's not going to be easy—and I hate to think what anyone who sees me doing it is going to think!"
"Oh, that's easy," she said airily. "They'll just think I'm you're sugar momma." She produced the period slang with simple pride and looked rather puzzled when he began to laugh.