Authors: Timothy Zahn
Again he paused, and in the silence Sommer heard the pinging from the hallway alert system. Swiveling around in his chair, he squinted across the room at the wall monitor. “Frank Everly’s coming,” he announced.
“I told him to stop by after he finished at the building site,” Sands said absently. “Shh!—there’s more.”
“My friends, I’ll tell you right up front that I don’t know,” Harper said, his face and voice in a homey I’m-just-one-of-you-folks mode. It seemed to be a favorite expression among the wealthy and powerful; Sommer had seen copies of it a hundred times during the long and tedious Capitol Hill hearings that continued to take up an inordinate percentage of his working days.
“It may be one of those mysteries of the End Times that God won’t be revealing to anyone,” Harper continued, “except perhaps to the Two Witnesses who’ll preach for him against the Beast. But then again—” his gaze hardened. “Then again, maybe it’s all right there, right in the open, staring us in the face from our morning news.
Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear
, our Lord said—and may I add, let him who has eyes to see, let him see.”
The bank of sensors was triggering now, feeding onto the second and third screens a series of images of Everly, each less recognizable as a human being than the one before, each clearing him of yet another weapon or potential threat. By the time he reached the outer office and Rita’s desk, he’d been sifted so thoroughly that the Soulminder security computers probably knew as much about him as his own doctor.
“When God set us on this Earth, He set guidelines for our behavior—guidelines for our behavior, and walls about our earthly kingdoms.
Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and to God that which is God’s
. Those were our Lord’s own words.
Abruptly, Harper leaned over the lectern, a finger jabbing accusingly at the camera. “
, there are people
claiming they can command the human soul—that they can hold it in their hands, that they can do with it what they please.
“The human soul. Think about that, my friends.
about that—think about what it truly means.”
On the monitor Sommer watched as Everly pressed both hands against the glass ID plate outside the lab door. The light flickered once, and as Everly removed his hands a chemically treated roller swept over the glass, wiping it clean. Apparently, there were ways an intruder could trick the system by using the trace oil residues left on the glass by the last person to use it. Everly had been just slightly vague on exactly how he’d discovered that trick.
“If there is
part of creation that is unarguably God’s own, my friends, it is the human soul. That quality that sets us apart from the animals; that unique bit of God’s own nature, given to Adam as the greatest gift the Creator of the universe could bestow on his children. It is
not for us to meddle with
The vault-like door swung easily on its balanced hinges, and Everly stepped into the room, giving it his usual quick once-over before sealing the door behind him. “Join the party, Everly,” Sands waved him over, her eyes still on Harper. “Sackcloth and ashes for everyone—put it on Soulminder’s tab.”
“Harper, huh?” Everly commented as he came up. “Puts on a good show—I’ll give him that much. Got good writers, too.”
“He doesn’t write all this himself?” Sommer asked.
“Oh, he does some of it, and rewrites the rest into his own style. But all the more flowery stuff comes from professionals.” Everly nodded toward the TV. “I did a check on him five months ago, when he first latched onto Soulminder.”
Sands frowned up at him. “You hadn’t even
us five months ago.”
Everly shrugged, his eyes on the screen. “The Brainchild Project will be almost as controversial as Soulminder if it ever pans out. You’re ahead of the game if you can identify your opponents before they know whose side they’re on.”
“My friends, I don’t have to tell you the state America’s in today. Abortion on demand, atheists in the highest positions of power, the systematic destruction of the family—God’s people are
this country, my friends. Losing it to the false pride of modern-day Pharisees who think they have more wisdom than God-fearing men and women. Losing it to the arrogance of would-be tyrants who want to run our lives from halfway across the country. Losing it to the sterile, self-appointed morality of people who claim that the world is changing, that there’s no place for God in our schools, our legislatures, or our hospitals. All of them will try and tell you that
, not God, are the ones who should set the moral standards for our nation.”
“A little hyperbole never hurt ratings, did it?” Sommer growled.
Everly shrugged. “He acts like he believes it.”
“Oh, right,” Sands said sourly. “And it’s pure coincidence that in picking on Soulminder he just
to strike a major ultra-conservative nerve?”
“It’s a major nerve because there’s a large chunk of people who really believe we’re evil,” Everly reminded her. “Who’s to say he isn’t one of them?”
“Awfully charitable of you,” Sands said with a snort. “I still think he’s just playing games.” She looked at Sommer. “His people still nagging you to come on his show and defend our side of it?”
“We get a registered letter from them about once a week,” Sommer told her, grimacing. “We’ve got a form-letter refusal I keep sending them. Can we turn this off yet? I’ve about had all I can take.”
“Yeah, he’s probably finished flaying us for today,” Sands said, reaching for the switch and pausing a moment to listen. Harper had segued into a condemnation of welfare money intended for the poor instead simply disappearing into the bloated welfare bureaucracy; turning off the set, Sands settled back into her chair. “I’d sure like to find some way to shut that guy up.”
“We’d probably do better to ignore him,” Sommer told her, listening to his heartbeat slow down. Harper’s accusations got far deeper under his own skin than he cared to admit. “Starting right now, in fact. So tell us about your trip to the new building, Frank. Everything going all right?”
“Oh, the work itself is coming along okay,” Everly said. “But I think we’re going to have to tighten things among the employees. We’ve got what looks like four or five CIA men who’ve infiltrated the concrete crew.”
“What?” Sands sat up straighter. “What are they doing, scoping out the floor plans?”
“More likely looking for good places to plant bugs,” Everly said. “They would have had a complete set of the blueprints months ago.”
Sands hissed a curse between clenched teeth. “What about Soulminder’s own employees? Your people finding any moles there?”
“Oh, sure,” Everly said. “At the moment we’re up to about seven, all in low-level, non-critical positions. More or less the sort of deep-mole gambit we expected. I’m having them watched until we’re sure we have everyone, at which point we can throw the whole group out at once.”
“Are they all CIA?” Sommer asked.
“No, actually they’re a mixture of military and civilian intelligence types,” Everly told him. “From what my contacts have said there seems to have been a kind of jurisdictional struggle when you first hit the scene, which the Secret Service apparently won. My guess is they invited these other people into their Soulminder task force to help soothe any feathers that were still ruffled.”
“So the CIA people in the construction crew are really on temporary Secret Service duty?”
“Or else they’re the CIA keeping its own hand in,” Everly said dryly. “They can be sore losers sometimes.”
“Wonderful,” Sands growled. “Just wonderful. On one side we’ve got Congress trying to legislate and oversight-committee us into their own box, and
we’ve got the Executive Branch doing
best to put us on strings. What’s next, the Supreme Court?”
“Oh, they’ll find a way into it eventually,” Everly agreed. “But I doubt it’s the Administration that’s behind this mole operation, at least not directly.” He waved a hand, the gesture encompassing the lab. “Remember that you have a hell of a lot of
important lives in the palm of your hand here, and no one in government is ever happy at leaving that kind of power under private control.”
“But they always have that problem, at least potentially,” Sommer pointed out. “You get the President visiting some out-of-the-way place and having a heart attack, and they’re going to be stuck with local doctors.”
“And they don’t like it one bit, which is why the Presidential party always includes an Army doctor,” Everly said. “But flukes like that they can’t control. Soulminder they can.” A faint smile twisted at his lips. “Or so they think.”
Sands looked at Sommer. “We’ve got to head them off,” she said. “Go public with this, maybe, and let the country know what they’re up to.”
“I’d strongly recommend against that, Dr. Sands,” Everly said, shaking his head. “There’s a loud chunk of the populace that thinks all health care should be under government control, and another chunk who don’t trust
form of big business. If you force the issue into the open, you’re likely to get both groups of people calling for a government takeover.”
“They try it and they can all go straight to hell,” Sands said, her voice icy. “I’ll destroy Soulminder before I’ll let anyone take it away from us.”
Do I feel that strongly about it
? he wondered uncomfortably. If push really came to shove, would he be willing to sacrifice all the potential good in Soulminder for … was it really anything more than pride?
“I wouldn’t worry about any serious takeover bids, at least not at the moment,” Everly said, saving Sommer from having to say anything. “Mr. Porath’s people downstairs have good reputations—they could tie anything overt into legal knots with their eyes closed.” He nodded toward the blank TV. “Actually, people like the Reverend Harper are some of your best allies right now.”
Sands gave a snort. “You
kidding, I presume.”
“Not really. His followers may feel uneasy about Soulminder, but they
well don’t trust the government.”
“Ah,” Sommer nodded as understanding came. “If they think Soulminder is potentially evil
that the government is controlled by atheists, it would be utterly disastrous if the government took us over.”
“Right,” Everly said. “And there are a lot of people who’d react that way, with or without Harper’s religious overtones.”
“So we’re back to your floodlit-microscope theory, are we?” Sands commented, her voice growing thoughtful.
Everly shrugged. “Light
tend to keep the rats away.”
“In that case, maybe we should turn up the rheostat a little.” Sands looked at Sommer, an odd glint in her eye.
“What?” he demanded suspiciously. He’d seen that look before.
“I was just thinking,” she said, “that maybe you ought to accept that head-to-head with Harper, after all.”
kidding,” Sommer growled. “Why don’t you just stake me out over an anthill and invite the media in?”
“It might not be a bad idea, actually,” Everly said. “It would help keep the pot stirred, as well as showing them that you’re not some shadowy government bureaucrat they can’t even find, much less confront. It’d make Soulminder more human.”
Sommer glared at him. Sands was already way too good at talking him into things he really didn’t want to do. The last thing he needed was someone else feeding her ammunition. “So one of
do it,” he growled. “If you think I’m going to be turned into dog meat on Harper’s own show—”
“Well, now, of course you wouldn’t want to face him on his own ground,” Sands soothed. She must have sensed victory, Sommer thought sourly; she’d shifted into conciliatory mode. “I meant neutral territory. One of the Sunday talking-head shows or something. Maybe a prime-time debate special—we’re big enough news to pull something like that.”
“You could require that other religious leaders be invited in, too,” Everly suggested. “It would give a more balanced view of the questions involved, besides giving you a chance to bring in some allies.”
“Sure,” Sands said, nodding. “It wouldn’t be any harder than going up to Capitol Hill and facing Barnswell and his crowd.” She hesitated. “And it’s something only you can do, Adrian. You’re the public image of Soulminder, not me.”
A fact that she’d been reminding him of and pushing him with ever since Soulminder’s creation. How much of that, he wondered, was public hero-worship, and how much merely Sands’s own self-fulfilling prophesy?
And did it really matter?
As a theoretical matter, perhaps. As a practical matter, not at all.
With a quiet sigh, Sommer pushed his chair back to his worktable and reached for the phone.
“ … but as the initial euphoria about the breakthrough itself ran its course,” the reporter droned on, “questions and doubts began to appear … ”
His eyes on the monitor, Sommer took a deep breath and willed calm into his throat. Why the producers had felt it necessary to recap Soulminder’s brief history for the viewers he couldn’t imagine—there couldn’t be any adult in the Western Hemisphere who hadn’t heard the story over and over again in the past year.
But it hadn’t been worth arguing about. So he sat and suffered the pre-broadcast jitters, and wished they could just get on with it.
As, he suspected, did at least three of the other four guests. Rabbi David Kaufmann was puckering his lips in and out as he stared the monitor, while the Reverend Robert Edgington’s hands rubbed back and forth endlessly across his chair arms and Father James Barry ran a finger inside his clerical collar as if trying to loosen it. Even the host of this circus, Barbara Leach, was staring down at her notes as if seeing them for the first time, a tight set to her mouth. Only Harper, at the far end of the semicircle, seemed totally at ease.