DEEP SAFARI

 

CHARLES SHEFFIELD

in Elton Elliott, ed., Nanodreams, Riverdale, N.Y.; Baen, 1995.


 

Tradition calls for a celebration on the evening that the hunt is concluded.

 

The hunters will be tired, some will be hurting, some may even have died. There will be a party anyway, and it will go on for most of the night. Tradition is the younger sister of ritual. Rituals are better if they do not make sense.

 

I do not like to attend the parties. I have seen too many. The theory is that the hunters should be permitted to overindulge in food, in drink, in sex, in everything, but particularly in talk, because on hunt night they want to relive the glorious excitement of the chase, the shared danger, the deeds of valor, the climactic event of the kill.

 

Sounds wonderful. But for every hero or heroine flushed with quiet or noisy pride there will be three or four others, drinking and talking as loud as any but glancing again and again at their companions, wondering if anyone else noticed how at the moment of crisis and danger they flinched and failed.

 

I notice. Of course. I couldn't afford not to notice. My job is to orchestrate everything from first contact to coup de grace, and to do that I have to know where everyone is and just what he or she is doing. That is much harder work than it sounds, so when a hunt is over all I want is sleep. But that relief is denied to me by my obligatory attendance at the post- hunt party.

 

The morning that Everett Halston called, the hunt celebration the previous night had been even harder to take than usual. The group had consisted of a dozen rich

 

159

 

160

 

NANODREAMS

 

merchants, neophytes to hunting but in spite of that-- because of that?--determined to show their nerve by tackling one of the animal kingdom's most efficient and terrifying predators.

 

I had warned them, and had been overruled. When we finally met the quarry, all but two of my group had frozen. They were too overwhelmed by fear to advance or even to flee. Three of us stepped forward, stood our ground, and made a difficult kin. A very difficult kill. Without a little luck the roles of hunter and prey could easily have been reversed.

 

Perhaps because of that near-disaster the hunt party had been even noisier and wilder than usual. My group of twelve participants was augmented by an equal number of male and female partners, none of them the least tired and every one ready to dance 'til dawn.

 

About four- thirty I managed to slip away and collapse into bed. And there I found not the calm and peaceful sleep that I had looked forward to for twelve hours, but a dream- reprise of the hunt finale as it might have been.

 

I had managed to move the whole group to the bottom of the pit in good order, because they had not so far had a sight of the living prey. I anticipated trouble as soon as that happened. Before we entered Adestis mode we had studied the structure and actions of the spider, but I knew from previous experience that wouldn't mean a damn during live combat. It's one thing to peer at an animal that's no bigger across the carapace than the nail on your indexfinger to study its minute jaws and poison glands and four dedicate tube- like spinnerets, and plan where you will place your shots for maximum effect; it's another matter when you are linked into your Adestis simulacrum, and the spider that you are supposed to hunt and kill is towering ten paces away from you like a gigantic armored tank, its invincible back three times as high as the top of your head.

 

Before I had the group organized to my satisfaction, our quarry took the initiative. The spider came from its hiding-place in the side of the pit and in that first rush it came fast. I saw a dark- brown body with eight pearly eyes patterning its massive back. The juggernaut drove

 

Deep Safari

 

161

 

forward on the powerful thrust of four pairs of seven-jointed legs. Those legs had seemed as thin and fragile as flower stamens in our studies, but now they were bristly trunks, each as thick as a simulacrum's body. The chelicerae, the pointed crushing appendages at the front of the spider's maw, were massive black pincers big enough to bite your body in two.

 

Without taking the time to see how my group was reacting, I did what I had explicitly warned them not to do. I lifted my weapon and sprayed projectiles at the three eyes that I could see. I think I got one of them, but the carapace itself was far too tough to be penetrated Ricocheting projectiles flew everywhere. The spider was not seriously injured--I knew it would not be. But maybe it wondered if we were really its first choice for dinner, because it halted in its forward sweep. That gave me a little breathing space.

 

I scanned my group. Not reassuring. For ten of them the sight or the advancing spider had been more than they could take. Their personal simulacra stood motionless, weapons pointed uselessly at the ground.

 

These Adestis units were not furnished with sound generation or receiving equipment. Everything had to be signaled by our actions. We had rehearsed often enough, but unfortunately this was nothing like rehearsal I ran forward waving at my group to lift their weapons and follow me, but only two of them did. They moved to stand on either side and just behind me.

 

I glanced at their two helmet IDs as I turned to urge the rest to advance and deploy in a half-circle as we had planned. Even though I would never reveal the information to anyone, I liked to know who the cool ones were-- they might play Adestis again some day. None of the others moved, but a second later the weapon of the simulacrum on my right was lifting into position, while his other arm reached to tap my body in warning.

 

I spun around. Forget the half circle. The spider was coming forward again, in a scuttling rush that covered the space between us at terrifying speed.

 

Before I could fire the predator had reached us. I saw the maw above me, the dark serrated edge of the

 

162

 

NANODREAMS

 

carapace, the colonies of mite and tick parasites clinging to the coarse body bristles. Then I was knocked flat by the casual swat of one powerful leg.

 

I sprawled under the house-wide body and saw the chelicerae reach down, seize one of my companions at midriff, and crush until his simulacrum fell apart into two pieces.

 

He writhed but he did not scream--here.

 

(I knew that his real body, coupled by its telemetry headset to control his simulacrum and receive its sensory inputs, would be writhing and screaming in genuine agony.

 

It didn't have to be that way. I would have been quite happy to do without pain signals altogether, useful as they might be as a warning for simulacrum injury. But any proposal to eliminate pain was consistently vetoed by the paying customers for Adestis. They wanted referred pain when their simulacrum was injured. It was part of the macho (male and female) view of the game. The Adestis hunt had to feel real, as real as it could be; occasional deaths, from the heart failure that can accompany terror and intense agony, were an important part of what they were paying for.)

 

And at the moment my own body, the gigantic form that somewhere infinitely far above us sat motionless in the Adestis control theater, was within a split-second of its own writhing, screaming agony. The spider knew I was underneath it--knew it not from sight, which was a sense it did not much rely on, but from touch. The legs, in spite of their power, were enormously sensitive to feel and to vibration patterns. The spider was backing up, questing. It wanted me. I was shaking, with fear, my hands trembling and my belly so filled with icy terror that the muscles of my whole midsection were locked rigid.

 

And then came the single precious touch of good luck, the accident of position that saved me and the rest of our group. As the spider moved over me I saw the pedicel; there it was, the thin neck between cephalothorax and abdomen, the most vulnerable point of the whole organism. It was directly above my head, impossible to miss.

 

Deep Safari

 

163

 

I lifted my weapon. Fired. And blew the spider into two clean halves that toppled like falling mountains on either side of me.

 

But not this fume. In my dream, the pedicel moved out of view before I could squeeze off a shot. I was staring up at the hard underside of the cephalothorax-- at the head section--at the doomsday jaws and glistening poison glands as they lowered towards me. They would engulf me, swallow me whole, to leave me struggling and hopeless within the dark interior cavern of the spider's body.

 

I knew, at some level of my mind, that spiders do not swallow their prey. They inject enzymes, predigest their victims, and suck them dry. But we select our own personal nightmares. I would die slowly, in the night of the spider's body cavity.

 

I braced myself for the unendurable.

 

And came to shuddering wakefulness at the loud, insistent ring of my bedside telephone. I realized where I was and groped for the handset, almost too relieved to breathe.

 

"Fletcher?" The voice in my ear was familiar. It ought to have suggested a face and a name, but in my dazed condition it was just a voice.

 

"Uh- uh." I squinted at the clock. Seven-fifteen. Two and three- quarter hours of sleep. Although I had eaten little and drunk nothing last night, I felt hung over and a hundred years old. Seven-fifteen P.M. was what I'd had in mind as a decent wake- up time.

 

"Clancy Fletcher?" insisted the voice.

 

"Uh- uh." I cleared my throat. "Yes. That's me. I'm CIancy Fletcher."

 

"Don't sound like him. This is Everett Halston. I need to talk to you. You awake enough to take anything in?"

 

"Yes." I'd found the face, and the name, even before he gave it. He sounded older.

 

Palpitations and inability to breathe came back, worse than when I woke. Everett Halston. He really was old. The Pearce family's professional aide and confidant for three generations. And Miriam's personal lawyer.

 

"Did Miriam--" I began.

 

166

 

NANODREAMS

 

"Certainly."

 

We both listened in silence. Miriam's voice was so infinitely familiar. Too familiar. I had heard her on a nanodoc television broadcast less than a year ago, a couple of months after a minor operation on her larynx. Her voice was slightly affected then. I had assumed that the change would be permanent.

 

"Mr. Halston, when did Miriam make the tape?"

 

There was a click as though some recording device had been turned off, followed by a dry chuckle at the other end of the line. "Mr. Fletcher, you are as perceptive as ever. This tape has been in my possession for over three years."

 

Three years. Before Miriam hated me.

 

"I suspect that Dr. Miriam Pearce forgot about it," he went on, "or did not get around to changing it. However I will argue, in a court of law if necessary, that no action of Dr. Miriam has ever led me to suspect that the recording reflects anything other than her current wishes. Now. Will you be going to New Hanover Hospital?"

 

"As soon as we get through."

 

"Then I will say only three more things. First, I will make sure that you are expected at the hospital. Second Thomas Abernathy will probably not be your friend."

 

"I know that. What's the other one?"

 

"Just good luck, Clancy. Good luck for you; and good luck for Miriam.

 

The New Hanover Hospital was a nine- story spire of glass and carved stone, a whited sepulcher jutting from well-tended lawns.

 

In one sense it was a memorial, a testament to Pearce money. The entrance hall bore a message inlaid into its marble mosaic floor, informing the world that the construction of the edifice had been made possible by Pearce munificence. The fifth floor, where Miriam lay unconscious, was known as the Meredith Franklin Pearce ward.

 

I did not get to see Miriam at once, much as I wanted to. When the elevator door opened Thomas Abernathy was there, Iying in wait for me.

 

We had never met, although I had studied his career

 

Deep Safari

 

167

 

from afar. But skill I did not know him. As he came forward with outstretched hand I watched his face closely, as a druid might have peered from the misted woods at an arriving Christian. What was the newcomer who had taken my place?

 

Just as important, what had she told him of me? Had there been long afternoons of naked revelahon, luxurious nights when Tom Abernathv heard all about a poor despised Clancy? Miriam bathled after love- making, in a dreamy stream of consciousness at odds with her usual controlled speech.

 

We all give to ourselves an importance that is seldom jushfied. Dr. Thomas Abernathy did stare at me when we shook hands, but it was with perplexity rather than knowing amusement. He did not seem to~know who or what I was. But he himself looked a real smoothie, tall and fair and elegant, with a just- right handshake and a physician's perfect bedside manner.

 

One that he was not willing to waste too much on me.

 

"I do have the right person, don't I?" he said after a few moments of cridcal inspection. "When Everett Halston said Clancy Fletcher, I thought, if that's the toy man . . .

 

"The Small Game Hunter. That's right. That's me." It was the way that the present owners of Adestis ran their television advertisements, a business over which I had no control. Did you think that the Big Game Hunt became impossible when the largest carnivores became extinct? (Television shots of a rearing grizzly, a leaping tiger). Not so! The world's most deadly game has always been at smaller scale. (Three shots, in rapid sequence, of a praying mantis, a dragonfly, and a trapdoor spider, enlarged to the scale that would be seen by a simulacrum). These prey are available to hunt today, in unlimited numbers. Join an Adestis safari, and go on a Small Game Hunt--where the line between hunter and hunted can never be drawn. (A final shot of a writhing figure, totally human in appearance as a true simulacrum never was, being dismembered by a quartet of furious soldier ants).

 

It was one way to make a living.

 

168

 

NANODREAMS

 

"I'd like to see Miriam Pearce. I assume that she is still unconscious?"

 

"I'm afraid so."

 

Abernathy hesitated. It was easy to see his problem. Someone had been dumped in his lap who presumably knew nothing about medicine, someone who made his living in a trivial way from what Thomas Abernathy must regard as toys designed for adults with more money than sense. And poor Doctor Tom, who was surely a god in his own domain, had to humor this clown. Because the clown had unfortunately been given the keys to the Pearce treasure chest, and if Clancy Fletcher felt like it he could throw Abernathy out of his own hospital, at least until Miriam Pearce awoke.

 

The terrible thing was my own feelings. I hated Abernathy from deep inside me. If I was to help Miriam, I had to control myself.

 

The other terrible thing, of course, was my conviction that I was inadequate to help Miriam in any way.

 

"Do you have any idea what happened to her?" I had to start Abernathy talking, or that conviction was bound to prove correct.

 

"I have--a theory." He was finally moving, leading me along the corridor away from the elevator. "You know, I assume, that Dr. Miriam Pearce is one of the world's pioneers in the field of microsurgery?"

 

"Yes. I know that."

 

"Well, what is not so well-known is that she has over the years been operating at smaller and smaller scales. When she began, ten years ago, her first generation of remotely-guided instruments for microsurgery were huge by today's standards. Each one was as big as your fingertip. They were also primitive in their remote control capability. The human operator could use them to perform only limited surgical functions. However, about three years ago Dr. Pearce learned how to produce a line of much more sophisticated instruments, smaller and more versatile."

 

I knew all about that, too, far more than Thomas Abernathy would ever know. But my attention was elsewhere. As we were talking we had moved along the corridor and

 

Deep Safari

 

169

 

at last entered a private room. Miriam lay on a bed near the window, eyes now quite closed. I stepped nearer and saw a thin slit of pale blue iris. Her color was good, her expression calm. She was still beautiful, not at all like a person unconscious because of accident or disease. She seemed only asleep. But in her arm were the IVs and next to her stood a great bank of electronic equipment.

 

I lifted her hand and pressed it gently. She did not stir. I squeezed harder. No response. I leaned over and spoke into her ear. "Miriam!"

 

"Naturally, we have tried all the usual and safe stimulants." Tom Abernathy's expression said that he disapproved of my crude experiments. "Chemical, aural, and mechanical. The responses have been limited and puzzling."

 

Chemical, aural, mechanical. Drugs, noises, jabs. They won't wake Sleeping Beauty. Did you try a kiss?

 

I wanted to. Instead I straightened up and said, "You say you have a theory for what's happening?"

 

"I do. Dr. Pearce next produced a line of smaller microsurgery instruments, each one no bigger than a pea, and each capable of much finer control by the human operator. They were a huge success, and they have transformed surgical technique.

 

"But they were still too big for certain operations, particularly for fine work within the brain. A few months ago Dr. Pearce took the next step. Nano- surgery, with dozens of multiple, mobile remote-controlled tools far smaller than a gnat, and all under the control of a single operator."

 

He glanced at me for a reaction. I nodded to show that I was impressed. If he hoped to amaze me, he had a long way to go. There were Adestis games in which the player's simulacrum was small enough to fight one-on-one with hungry single-celled amoebas, and there were other games in which one human controlled dozens or even hundreds of simulacra. But I was beginning to see why old Everett Halston believed I might have a role to play in solving Miriam's problem. I didn't know medicine or surgery, but I knew Adestis technology better than anyone on earth.

 

170

 

NANODREAMS

 

"We tested the nanodocs on animals," went on Abernathy, "and they seemed to work fine. So after we had the permits we performed our first work on human subjects. That was just five days ago. In my opinion those operational experiments succeeded perfectly. But Miriam--Dr. Pearce--had her reservations. She believed that although the operations had given satisfactory results, our level of control of the nanodocs was an order of magnitude more crude than the design ought to permit. Her theory was that we were making tools so small that their performance was being adversely affected by quantum effects. I tended to agree with her.

 

"That was where we were three days ago, when I left for a conference in Rochester. I returned a day later and learned that Miriam had been found unconscious in the lab.

 

"She had been in perfect health when I left, but naturally we assumed at first that it was some conventional medical problem. It was only when the routine tests showed normal results that I went back to see what Miriam had been doing while I was away. Yesterday I found that a set of the new nanodocs was missing--and the monitors insisted that they had been placed under Miriam's control. According to the monitors, they are still under her control, even though she is unconscious."

 

"But where are they?" I was afraid that I knew the answer. Miriam had her own ideas as to how medical tests ought to be conducted.

 

Thomas Abernathy nodded to the body on the bed. "I feel sure they are inside her, a couple of hundred of them. I can't prove that idea--or let's say, I dare not try. The only way to be sure would be to break the telemetry contact between Dr. Pearce and the nanodocs. If they are inside her, then letting them run out of control might kill her. Because in view of her condition it is natural to assume that they are lodged somewhere within her brain."

 

I took another look at the silent beauty on the bed. If hundreds of nanodocs were running wild inside Miriam, ~t did not show.

 

"What do you plan to do about it, Dr. Abernathy?"

 

Deep Safari

 

171

 

He stared at me, uncertain for the first time since we had met. "I do not know what to do, Mr. Fletcher. Several of my colleagues are urging exploratory surgery--" (Saw the top off Miriam's head. Slice open the protective membranes of her brain. Dive in, poke around, and see what you can find. I shivered.) "--but I regard that as a last resort. I would rather wait, watch, and pray for a change in her condition."

 

Which was also a last resort. Strange. Abernathy had analyzed the problem to the point where it was obvious what had to be done. But he could not or would not take that next step.

 

"Are there more of the nanodocs--the same size as the ones that are missing?"

 

"There are several sets of them, in all important respects identical.

 

"That's good. Is there a staff cafeteria in the building?"

 

"What?"

 

"I must have something to eat, because I don't know how long this might take. And then I'll need to practice with your nanodocs for a few hours, to make sure I have the feel for these particular models. Then I'm going into Dr. Pearce."

 

I took a last look at Miriam, willing her to wake as I started for the door. Given a choice, I certainly didn't want to have to go in. I wanted to go home, and go to bed. Preferably with Miriam.

 

"You can't do that!" Abernathy had lost his smooth self- control. "You are not a physician You are an Adestis employee. Just because you have a bit of experience with your stupid little toys doesn't mean you can handle nanodocs! This is very specialized equipment, very complex. It takes months to learn."

 

"I've had months. In fact, I've had years." I tried to keep the bitterness out of my voice as I walked from the room. I'm sure I failed. "While I'm gone, Dr. Abernathy, I suggest that you check the name of the patent holder for the first microsurgery developments. The name of the original holder, I mean--the idiot who had all the patents, until the Pearce family broke them and acquired the rights for themselves. And while you're at it, check

 

172

 

NANODREAMS

 

who was the creator, founder, and hundred percent owner of Adestis, before it was bankrupted and taken over."

 

Whatever I had done to Miriam, her family had paid back in full.

 

The food in the cafeteria was ridiculously overpriced at seven dollars. I know it cost that, because I had left home without money or any form of credit, and I had to sign what amounted to a personal IOU with the manager for the contents of my tray.

 

But that's all I do know about the food, or the cafeteria. I must have eaten, but I don't remember it.

 

I was almost finished when Thomas Abernathy marched in and sat down opposite me. He had with him an attractive dark- haired woman in her early twenties, who gave me a tentative smile as she sat down.

 

Abernathy took the document that he was holding and pushed it across the table towards me.

 

"This is a hospital, Mr. Fletcher, not a carnival." He was struggling to be polite, but hardly succeeding. "It isn't 'anything goes' here. We have strict rules, which every one of us has to obey."

 

I glanced at the paper. I had an idea what it might say.

 

"All right. So I'm not 'authorized personnel' for the use of the nanodoc equipment. Who is?"

 

"I have some experience. Dr. Pearce, of course. And Miss Lee, who is a specialist in nanodoc operations." He nodded his head at the woman sitting next to him.

 

She held out her hand but glanced at Tom Abernathy for approval before she spoke. "Belinda Lee. When Dr. Abernathy said you were here, I told him that I'd just love to meet you. You don't know it, but you and Adestis are putting me through medical school."

 

I let that opening pass. She was being as sociable as she knew how, but we didn't have time for it.

 

"You could make me authorized personnel if you wanted to, Dr. Abernathy. It is under your jurisdiction."

 

"There's no reason for me to do so. I now agree with you, Mr. Fletcher, interior exploration of Dr. Pearce by nanodocs is a logical and urgent step. Miss Lee and I

 

Deep Safari

 

will make that exploration. I also admit your experience with remotely-controlled micro-surgical equipment"--so he had checked on me, at least a little. What else had he found out.?--"but we do not need you. Also, we cannot afford the time needed to train you."

 

"I have to disagree. You need me, even if you don't want me. You'll be making use of hospital equipment. This whole place runs on Pearce support If I call Everett Halston he'll contact the Board of Trustees. You'll have an injunction slapped . on you against using nanodoc equipment, one that will take weeks to break."

 

The last trace of bedside manner vanished. "You idiot, are you trying to kill Miriam? You are the one who suggested we have to go in and find out what happened to the nanodoc units inside her."

 

"We must do that. We can do that. As a team. You, I, and if you like, Miss Lee. If you authorize me to use the equipment, I'll bless the exercise at once with Everett Halston."

 

He grabbed the paper, stood up, and rushed out of the cafeteria without another word. Belinda Lee gave me an unhappy and puzzled look before she followed him. Why was I being so unreasonable?

 

I carried on with the meal. I was unreasonable because I sensed possible dangers that Abernathy could not. He lacked the right experience. He would agree to my participation--he had no choice--but it was not an auspicious beginning to a safari when team members were so divided and suspicious at the outset. Teams were supposed to cooperate totally.

 

On the other hand, I had been on an expedition where the team members had started out as close and loving and trusting as humans could get, and that one had ended in bitterness, disappointment, and heartbreak.

 

Maybe this time the process would work the other way round.

 

173

 

Belinda Lee was my instructor for the nanodoc units. Perhaps Tom Abernathy would not spend more time with me than he was obliged to; but to be more charitable, he also had two important tasks to perform.

 

174

 

NANODREAMS

 

First, a set of nanodocs had to be tuned to Miriam's individual body chemistry. Otherwise her immune system would be triggered at our entry and we would be attacked by every leukocyte that we encountered. Although they couldn't damage the nanodocs, they could certainly impede us.

 

As a second and trickier assignment, Tom Abernathy had to decide our access route into Miriam's brain. He and the neurological specialists had already decided our destination. Although the sleep state of humans and animals is controlled by an area at the rear of the brain known as the reticular formation, Miriam's responses to stimuli had them convinced that her troubles did not lie there. The problem was in the cerebral hemispheres. But to the tiny nanodocs, those hemispheres were like buildings a mile on each side. Where specifically should we be heading?

 

I was glad I did not have that responsibility. My own worries were quite enough.

 

Two hours had been allocated by the hospital for my training session, but it was clear in the first five minutes that they had been far too generous. True, two hours was less than half the training time that I insisted on before anyone could take part in Adestis, and in that case the simulacra were far more human in appearance than the hospital nanodocs. But for most team members the training session was a first exposure to micro-operation. Familiarity with the shape of their remote analogues was reassuring to them

 

In fact, the proportions of a human are quite wrong for optimum performance of anything less than half an inch tall. Holding to the human shape in some ways makes things harder. As the size of an organism decreases, the importance of gravity as a controlling force becomes less and less, while wind and vibration and terrain roughness are increasingly dominant. Six legs become much better than two. At the smallest scale, the Brownian motion forces of individual molecular collisions have to be taken into account. Learning to gauge and allow for those changes is far more important than worrying about actual body shape.

 

Deep Safari

 

175

 

On the other hand, as soon as I had seen the latest nanodocs I could not agree with Miriam and Thomas Abernathy that quantum effects might be important. Wispy and evanescent as the tiny currents might be that control the simulacra, they were still orders of magnitude too big to be affected by quantum fluctuations.

 

There was certainly an unanticipated problem with the new nanodocs. I certainly had no idea what it might be. But it was not what Miriam and Tom Abernathy suspected.

 

As soon as Belinda Lee had watched me work a team of nanodocs for a few minute--each one a little bloated disk a few tens of micrometers long, with half a dozen legs/scrapers/knives along each side--she took off her telemetry coupler and leaned back in her seat. She waited patiently until I emerged from remote-control mode.

 

"You ought to be teaching me, you know." She was a different person when Tom Abernathy was not around. "How on earth did you make them zip backwards so fast, and still know where they were going? I'm supposed to be our expert, and I can't do that. The optical sensors won't turn up and over the back."

 

"No. They will turn downward, though, and scan underneath the body. You don't have enough experience looking between your legs and running backwards."

 

She offered me an owlish look. Belinda Lee thought I was poking fun at her. I was and I wasn't. I had never done what I suggested in my own body, but I had done it a hundred times with Adestis simulacra of all shapes and sizes. As I said, the hunter simulacra are all humanoid, but I had been both hunter and hunted, because we run hunts with remote- controlled simulated prey as well as with the real thing.

 

"So how is Adestis putting you through medical school?"

 

Belinda Lee seemed really nice, and I didn't want to upset her. I needed at least one friend at the New Hanover Hospital.

 

She laughed, the sort of full- throated laugh I had once heard from Miriam. "I was convinced you didn't want to hear. I was crushed in the cafeteria when you didn't ask."

 

176

 

NANODREAMS

 

"Sorry. I had other things on my mind. What did you have to do with Adestis? I'm sure you've never been involved in a hunt. I would have remembered you."

 

She took it for the compliment it was, and dipped her head towards me in acknowledgment. "I had problems when I was a teenager. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, but I'd heard of Adestis and I was fascinated by it. My life's ambition was to be team leader on an Adestis underwater safari. You know, the Larval Hunt."

 

"I sure do. Scary stuff. They wouldn't sign off?" You need written parental permission to enter Adestis mode before age twenty- one.

 

"Not in a million years, they said. So I did the dutiful daughter bit, went off to college and majored in biology. But I never stopped thinking about Adestis. For my senior thesis I wondered about the possible uses of that sort of technology in medical work. I wrote and asked and some sweetheart at Adestis headquarters sent me a bale of terrific information. I used it to write probably the longest undergraduate thesis in the college's history Of course I had no idea that Dr. Pearce was years and years ahead of me. But my prof knew, and he sent- my finished project to her. She called a couple of days later. And here I am."

 

That sounded like Miriam. She recognized the real thing when she saw it. Her first exposure to Adestis had come through a friend at the hospital, a woman who had been on a hunt and regarded it all as a lark. But Miriam didn't. Before the end of the first training session she was asking me if I knew any way that Adestis control technology could take her clumsy microsurgery tools down in size and up in handling precision.

 

That had been the beginning of the patents. And the Adestis expeditions with Miriam. And an the rest.

 

I used to think I knew the real thins,, too. I recalled that highly detailed and imaginative student inquiry, even if I had not remembered Belinda's name.

 

At the same time, I began to worry. If Belinda Lee had begun to work with Adestis technology only after she graduated, she couldn't have more than a couple of years experience with simulacra. Also she had never been on

 

Deep Safari

 

177

 

a hunt, and therefore probably never been exposed to a dangerous situation. Yet Tom Abernathy had described her as a specialist in nanodoc operation--a specialist, presumably, compared with him. In agreeing that the three of us would go into Miriam, I had burdened myself with two team members lacking the right sort of experience.

 

Or was I being paranoid? What made me think that a safari into Miriam might be dangerous? Tom Abernathy and Belinda Lee certainly didn't think so.

 

Maybe that was one reason.

 

The other reason was more complex. For this safari, I too would lack the right experience. I had never, in all my years with Adestis, been exposed to a situation where the environment within which my simulacrum would operate was more precious to me than my own survival.

 

Our entry into Miriam began with an argument. I wanted to go in with a single nanodoc simulacrum each. Tom Abernathy argued for many more.

 

"There are several hundred in Dr. Pearce's brain. Three simulacra won't be able to remove them, even if we find them."

 

"I know. Once we understand what's happening, though, we can introduce more."

 

"But think of the time it will take."

 

He seemed to forget the full day that he had wasted before I came along to force a decision.

 

And yet he was right. His way would be quicker. So why wouldn't I go along with it?

 

That was a difficult question. In the end it all came down to instinct. A single simulacrum was easier to control than a group of them, even though a group had more firepower. But firepower against what? The nanodocs were not armed, the way that Adestis hunters had to be armed. Why should they be? I was too used to thinking in terms of a prey, and that didn't apply in this case.

 

Yet I stuck to my position, and overruled Abernathy. We would go with single simulacra, one per person.

 

But I also, illogically, wished that my nanodoc unit was

 

178

 

NANODREAMS

 

equipped with something more powerful than the tiny scalpels and drug injection stings built into its eight legs.

 

Destination: Brain.

 

We had adopted remote- control mode outside Miriam's body, as soon as the nanodocs were inside the syringe. We remained there for fifteen minutes, long enough to become completely comfortable with our host simulacra.

 

By the end of that time I knew my partners much better. Tom Abernathy was confident but clumsy. He might understand the theory, but no matter what he thought he knew about nanodoc control he didn't have goon reflexes or practical experience.

 

Belinda Lee was far better, a little nervous but quite at ease in her assumed body. If she ever dropped out of medical school there would be a place for her on the Adestis underwater safaris. (And I'd be more than glad to give up my own involvement in those. The larval animal life of streams and ponds is fierce enough to make a mature insect or arachnid look like nature's pacifist. Maybe Belinda would change her mind when she saw at first hand Nature red in mandible and proboscis.)

 

We were injected into Miriam's left carotid artery at neck level, our three nanodoc units at my insistence holding tightly to each other. I did not want us separated until we were well within her brain. Otherwise I at least might never get there.

 

As we ascended Miriam's bloodstream towards the three meninges membranes that surround and protect the brain, it occurred to me that my two partners would soon know my own weaknesses. I could handle my nanodoc better than Belinda and far better than Tom, but I was missing something they both had: a good working knowledge of human anatomy or microstructure. Abernathy had given me a lightning briefing, of which I remembered only a fraction. I peered around us. The minute compound eyes of the nanodocs couldn't see much at all. They delivered a blurry, red-tinged view of surroundings illuminated by the nanodoc's own pulsed light sources, enough so that I could see that we were

 

Deep Safari

 

179

 

being carried along a wide tunnel whose sides were barely visible. All around swam a flotsam of red blood cells, not much smaller than we were, interspersed with the occasional diminutive platelets. Through that swirl a white cell would occasionally come close, extend a testing pseudopod, and then retreat. Tom Abernathy's preliminary work on the nanodocs was satisfactory. The prowling leukocytes had no great interest in us.

 

I knew that the blood also carried an unseen flux of chemical messengers, taking status information from one part of the body to all the rest. Tom Abernathy could probably have explained all that to me, if our nanodocs had been capable of better communication. They were better than most Adestis units, because they did possess a primitive vocal interface, but it was at a bit transfer rate so low that Abernathy, Lee, and L were practically restricted to single word exchanges. We would mostly convey our meaning by stylized gestures.

 

Our progress through the internal carotid artery was far slower than I had expected. As we drifted from side to side and occasionally touched a spongy wall, I had time to explore every function of my nanodoc. And to reflect on its present owners.

 

Three years ago I was convinced that the Pearce family had acted in direct reprisal for what I had done to Miriam. It took a long time to realize that nothing personal was involved, that anger at the family made no more sense than rage at the gravid sphex wasp who takes and paralyzes a live grasshopper as feeding ground for its hatching larva.

 

I doubt if Miriam herself was aware of what had happened. Through her the Pearces had been alerted to the existence of a highly valuable tidbit, in the form of the Adestis patents. Miriam wanted and needed those for her own medical work, but that was irrelevant. It was the desire to increase assets that controlled group action, and to the family there was nothing more natural than the use of wealth to acquire my patents. They had simply turned on an existing machinery of scientists, lawyers, lobbyists, and political influence. I doubt if any one of them ever suspected that the owner of the patents also

 

180

 

NANODREAMS

 

happened to be the man who had hurt Miriam. For if she had never talked of me to her present lover, would she have spoken to her family?

 

I liked to think that she would not.

 

The nanodoc hooked tightly to my four left legs started to tug gently at them. I turned and saw Tom Abernathy's gesturing digit.

 

"Circle--of--Will- is,"' said a thin, distorted voice.

 

We had reached Checkpoint One. After passing along the internal carotid artery we were through the protective membranes of the aura mater and pia mater and were now at the circulus arteriosus, the "circle of Willis," a vascular formation at the base of the brain where all the major feed arteries meet. Abernathy was steering us into the anterior cerebral artery, which would take us into the cerebral cortex.

 

From this point on it would be up to me. Abernathy had made it clear that he could guide us no farther

 

I had not told him that I too had little idea where we would go once we were within the cerebral hemispheres. He had worries enough.

 

And I was not quite ready to mention, to Tom Abernathy or to Belinda Lee, that something seemed to be slightly wrong with my simulacrum.

 

The change was so subtle that I doubted if Belinda and still less Tom, could notice it. Only someone who had developed the original Adestis circuits and lived with them, through every good or bad variation, would sense the difference. The motor response was a tiny shade off what it had been when we were outside Miriam's body.

 

"Ex- peri- ment." I released my hold on the other two, then deliberately reduced motor inputs within my simulacrum to absolute zero.

 

I should now be floahug like a dead leaf in the arterial tide, carried wherever the blood flow wanted to take me But I was not. Not quite. There was a hny added vector to my mohon, produced by faint body impulses that I was not creating. I was angling over to the left, away from the broad mainstream of blood flow. When the artery divided, as it would shortly do, I would be channeled into the left branch.

 

Deep Safari

 

181

 

Tom Abernathy and Belinda Lee were following, not knowing what else to do. I restored motor control to my simulacrum, and noted again the difference between my directive and the unit's response. Slight, but not so slight as before.

 

"Mov--ing," said Belinda's faltering and attenuated voice. She was noticing it too, and she was frightened. That was good. I did not want on my hunts anyone who was not scared by the inexplicable. The force did not feel external, either. It was arising from within, a phantom hand affecting our control over the simulacra.

 

"Stay." I halted, and laboriously sent my instruction. "I--go--on. You wait--for me." I believed we were sure by heading for the missing nanodocs, and just as surely it might be dangerous for all to travel together. If I did not return, Abernathy and Lee could find their way to the left or right jugular vein exit points. Equipment was waiting there to sense, capture, and remove from Miriam's body any returning nanodoc units.

 

I again reduced motor inputs and allowed myself to drift with the arterial flow. Soon the channel branched and branched again, into ever- finer blood vessels. I had no idea where I was, or where I was going, but I had no doubt about my ability to return to the safe highway of the jugular veins. Every road led there. All I had to do was follow the arrow of the blood, down into the finest capillary level, then on to the fine veins that merged and coupled to carry their oxygen-depleted flow back toward heart and lungs.

 

And while I was filled with that comforting thought, I noticed that the motion of my simulacrum was changing. Without input from me the left and right sets of legs were twitching in an asynchronous pattern. Their movement added a crab- like sideways component to my forward progress. Soon my nanodoc was squeezing against the wall of the blood vessel. It pressed harder, and finally broke through into a narrow chamber filled with clear cerebrospinal fluid.

 

I thought that might signal the end of the disturbance, but after a few seconds it began again. Every thresh of the side limbs made the anomaly more obvious. I

 

182

 

NANODREAMS

 

restored motor control and willed the leg movements to stop. They slowed, but they went on. My simulacrum was turning round and round, carried along in the colorless liquid of the new aqueduct until suddenly it was discharged into a larger space. After a moment of linear motion we started to spin around the vortex of an invisible whirlpool.

 

I had arrived in one of the larger cerebral sulci, the fissures that run along and through the human brain. Tom Abernathy could undoubtedly have told me which one. For the moment, though, I did not care. I had found the missing nanodocs.

 

They extended along the fissure, visible in the watery fluid as far as my crude optical sensors could see. Each one appeared to be intact. And each was obsessively turning on its own individual carousel, always moving yet never leaving one main chamber of the sulcus.

 

It took thirty seconds of experiment to discover that I too was trapped. I could think commands as well as ever. The simulacrum would start to respond. And before the movement was completed another component would reinforce my instruction. The result was like an intention tremor, a sequence of over-corrections that swung me into more and more violent and uncontrolled motion.

 

I dared not allow that to continue--I was deep in the delicate fabric of Miriam's brain, where even light contact could cause damage. The only way I could stop the spinning in random directions was to inhibit the motor control of my nanodoc unit. Then we returned to a smooth but useless cyclic motion around an invisible axis.

 

There was no way to signal the other nanodocs except through gestures. Designed to be worked as a group by a single operator, they were of a more primitive design than the unit I inhabited. I tried to make physical contact with one, but I was balked by its movement. Each unit remained locked in its own strange orbit, endlessly rotating but never advancing within the fissure's great Sargasso Sea of cerebrospinal fluid.

 

I was ready to try something new when I experienced my worst moment so far. In among the hundreds of nanodoc units I saw one different from the rest. But it

 

Deep Safari

 

183

 

was identical to my own, therefore it must belong to Tom Abernathy or Belinda Lee. A few seconds later I saw the other. Somehow they had been unable to follow my instructions. Like me they had been carried willy-nilly to this dark interior sea. Like me, they would be trying to assert control. And failing.

 

I knew how they must feel. The whole success of Adestis depends on the power of the mental link. When you are in Adestis mode you do not control a simulacrum, you are the simulacrum. Its limbs and body and environment become your own. Its dangers are yours, its pain is your pain. If it is poisoned by a prey, it dies--and you experience all the agony.

 

Without that total transfer, Adestis would be nothing but a trivial diversion. No one would pay large sums to go on a Small Game Hunt.

 

That same total immersion of self had been carried over, by design, into the nanodocs. I knew how helpless Tom Abernathy and Belinda Lee would be feeling now. They could not control their spinning simulacra, nor could they escape to or even recall the existence of their own bodies, outside the world of the nanodocs.

 

I knew that all too well; because three years ago Miriam Pearce and I had been in the same situation.

 

Our quarry was a first-time prey for both us and Adestis. No one had ever before hunted Scolopendra Although Miriam and I knew it as one of the fastest and most ferocious of the centipedes, we started out in excellent spirits. Why should we not? We had hunted together half a dozen times before, and knew we were an excellent team. Shared danger only seemed to draw us closer.

 

And after it was over we planned to hold our own private post- hunt party.

 

Scolopendra came flickering across the ground towards us, body undulating and the twenty pairs of legs a blur. I took little notice of those. My attention was on the poison claws on each side of the head, the pointed spears designed to seize an unlucky prey and inject their venom. Between the claws I saw the dark slit of a wide mouth. It was big enough to swallow me whole.

 

We had agreed on the strategy before we entered

 

184

 

NANODREAMS

 

Adestis mode: Divide and conquer. Each of us would concentrate on one side of the centipede. As it turned towards one of us, the other would sever legs and attack the other side of the body. The animal would be forced to swing around or topple over. And the process would be repeated on the other side.

 

But why were we hunting at all? Although we found the danger stimulating, neither Miriam nor I had a taste for blood sports for their own sake. As usual on our hunts, we wanted to refine a new piece of Adestis control technology. When it was perfected it would find a home in the world of the nanodocs.

 

The centipede picked me as its first choice of prey. It turned, and Miriam disappeared behind the long, segmented trunk. I caught a glimpse of jointed limbs--each one nearly as long as my body--then the antennae were sweeping down towards me and the poison claws reached out.

 

Scolopendra was even faster than we had realized. I heard the crack of Miriam's weapon, but any damage she might inflict would be too late to save me. I could not escape the poison claws by moving backwards. All I could do was go closer, jumping in past the claws to the lip of the maw itself

 

It was ready. A pair of maxilla moved forward, to sweep me into the digestive tube

 

I had never before hunted a prey able to swallow a victim whole. And I had never until that moment known the strength of my own claustrophobia.

 

I crouched on the lower lip of the maw, and thought of absorption into the dark interior of the body cavity. I could not bear it.

 

I threw myself backwards and fell to the ground A suicidal movement, with the poison claws waiting. I did not care. Anything was better than being swallowed alive.

 

The claws approached me. Shuddered. And pulled back. The antenna and the wide head turned.

 

Miriam's shots were doing their job. I sprawled full-length, peered under the body, and saw half a dozen severed legs in .spasm on the ground.

 

Now it was my turn to shoot. I did it--halfheartedly.

 

Deep Safari

 

185

 

I dreaded the broad head swinging back, the mandibles poised to ingest me.

 

And it was ready to happen. I had shot off two legs. The body was shaking, beginning to turn again in my direction.

 

I stopped firing. For one second I stood while the centipede hesitated, unable to decide if I or Miriam provided the greater threat. The head turned once more to her side.

 

Then I was running away, a blind dash across dark and uneven ground. I did not look back.

 

I left Miriam behind, to die in agony in Scolopendra's poison claws.

 

Three years, three bitter years of remorse and analysis and self- loathing; in three years I had learned something that maybe no other Adestis operator had ever known. If I had known it then, it might have saved Miriam.

 

The body of the nanodoc, shell- like back and eight multipurpose legs, was my body. I had no other. As I gyrated in the brain sulcus along with Tom and Belinda and a couple of hundred other units, I turned off every input sensor.

 

I imagined an alien body, a body nothing like my own. A strange body with a well- defined head and slender neck, with two legs, with two jointed arms that ended in delicate manipulators. When the imagined body image was complete I took those two phantom arms and moved them to the sides of the head, just above a strange pair of external hearing organs.

 

I grasped. And lifted. And reeled with vertigo, as the whole Adestis telemetry headset that maintained my link with the nanodoc ripped away from my skull.

 

I leaned forward and placed my forehead on the bench in front of me. Of all the warnings that I gave to attendants in Adestis control rooms, none was stronger than this: Never, in any circumstances, rupture the electronic union between player and simulacrum.

 

Hospital staff were hurrying across to me. I waved them away. The nausea would pass, and I had work to do. I understood what had happened to Miriam. I knew

 

186

 

NANODREAMS

 

what had happened to me, and what was happening now to Tom Abernathy and Belinda Lee. Unless I was too slow and stupid, I could end it.

 

The control system for Adestis, and for all its applications such as the nanodocs, has built- in safeguards. I opened the main cabinet, found the right circuits, and inhibited them. I turned the electronic gain for my own unit far past the danger point. Then I went back to my seat.

 

"Tell the technicians with Dr. Pearce to watch for us coming out," I said. "Maybe fifteen minutes from now."

 

And cross your fingers.

 

I took a deep breath, gritted my teeth, and crammed the control headset back on.

 

The pain and dizziness of returning were even worse than going out. I was again a nanodoc, but the overloaded input circuits were a great discordant shout inside my head. Every move that I wanted to make produced a result ten fumes as violent as I intended. I allowed myself half a minute of practice, learning a revised protocol. The interference that had kept me helpless before was still there--I could feel a pushing to one side--but now it was a nuisance rather than a dancer.

 

First I steered myself across to Belinda Lee's nanodoc. As I suspected, her loss of control included loss of signals. She could not talk to me, and she probably could not hear me. I simply took her by the legs on one side and dragged her across to where Tom Abernathy was drifting around in endless circles. I linked the two units together, right four legs to left four legs, and locked them.

 

After that it was a purely mechanical task. I proceeded steadily along the brain fissure, systematically catching the nanodocs and linking them by four of their legs to the next unit in the train. The final result was itself something like a very long and narrow centipede, with over two hundred body segments. When I was sure that I had captured every nanodoc I positioned myself at the head of the file, attached four legs to Belinda's free limbs, and looked for the way out.

 

I had seen it as too simple. Follow the direction of the

 

Deep Safari

 

187

 

blood. But we were in one of the major sulci, where in a healthy human there must be no blood. (As I learned later, blood cells in the cerebrospinal fluid is one sign of major problems in the brain.)

 

Where were the signposts? I pondered that, as our caravan of nanodoc units set out through one of the most complex objects in the universe: the human brain. We went on forever, through regions corresponding to nothing that Tom Abernathy had described to me. Finally I came across the rubbery wall of a major blood vessel

 

Artery or vein? The former would merely carry us back into the brain. The latter would mean we were on our way out.

 

I entered, and pulled the whole train through after me. But still I did not know where we were heading until the channel in which we rode joined another of rather greater width. Then I could relax. We were descending the tree, all of whose branches would merge into the broad trunk of the jugular.

 

I knew it when we at last entered that great vein; knew it when we were removed from the body, all at once, in the swirl of suction from a syringe.

 

The return to our own bodies under technician control was--as it should be--steady and gentle. I blinked awake, and found Tom Abernathy already conscious and staring at me.

 

I grinned. He looked away.

 

My hatred of him had dissolved after shared danger. Apparently his disdain for me persisted. I glanced the other way, at Belinda Lee. And found that she, like Tom Abernathy, would not meet my eye.

 

'We did it," I said. I couldn't stop smiling. "They're all out. I bet Miriam recovers consciousness in just a few minutes."

 

"We didn't do anything," Belinda said. "You did it all. I was useless."

 

I couldn't see it that way. But her reaction seemed too strong to be pure wounded ego.

 

"I couldn't have done anything without your help," I said. "Hey, without you two I'd never even have found my way into the brain."

 

188

 

NANODREAMS

 

'You don't understand." Tom Abernathy's face was pale, and his voice was as sour as Belinda's. "I know how she feels, even if you don't. Because I'm the same. We re not like you, with your crazy Adestis heroics. I wasn't just useless and helpless in there, I was scared when I lost nanodoc control Too frightened even to follow what you were doing. Too terrified to try to help Miriam."

 

I laughed. Not with humor. The irony of Clancy Fletcher as heroic savior for Miriam Pearce was too much to take.

 

"It's not courage," I said. "It's only experience."

 

And then, when they stared at me with no comprehension, it all spilled out. I had bottled it up for too lone and it hurt to talk. But I could feel no worse about myself no matter what they knew, and perhaps a knowledge of other cowardice would help them to deal with what they thought of as their own failure.

 

"But there's a bright side,' I said as I concluded. "If I hadn't failed Miriam then, I would never have experimented later with forced interruption of Adestis mode. And we'd skill be inside Miriam's brain

 

"I've never told anyone this before. But now you understand why she won't talk to me after she recovers consciousness."

 

They had listened to my outpourings in an oddly silent setting. As soon as they were sure that we were all right the nanodoc technicians had hurried off to the next room, where Miriam Pearce was reported to be showing a change of condition. The only sound in the room where we sat was the occasional soft beep of nanodoc monitors reporting inactive status.

 

"I'm sorry to hear all that." Tom Abernathy's sincerity was real. Rumpled and sweaty, he was no longer the elegant physician with the polished bedside manner. "Miriam won't talk to you?"

 

He ought to know that, if anyone did.

 

"Not for years."

 

"Strange. Doesn't sound like the Miriam Pearce that I know."

 

"Nor me," said Belinda. "She's nice to everybody. But when are you going to tell us what was going on in there?

 

Deep Safari

 

189

 

I try to pass myself off as somebody who knows nanodocs, and I can't even understand what you did, let alone do it myself."

 

"It was no big deal. It all depends on one simple fact. As soon as you know that, you'll be able to work everything else out for yourself. The key factor is interference effects. The electrical currents that control an Adestis module--including a nanodoc--"

 

I was interrupted, by a technician hurrying through from the next room.

 

"Dr. Abernathy. We think Dr. Pearce is waking up."

 

I was first through the door. Miriam's condition was clearly different--she was shirring restlessly on the bed-- but her eyes were closed. Before I could get to the bedside Tom Abernathy had pushed me aside and was checking the monitors.

 

"Looks a hell of a lot better." He leaned right over Miriam, and was inches from her face when her eyes flickered open.

 

"I knew you would." The faint thread of sound would not have been heard, had not everyone in the room frozen to absolute stillness. "I knew you'd come and save me.'

 

Her mouth and eyes were smiling up--at Tom Abernathy. Then the smile faded, she sighed, and her eyes closed again in total weariness.

 

I blundered out of the room more by feel than by sight. Company was the last thing I wanted, but Belinda followed me.

 

"You can't leave it like that," she said. "What about electrical currents?"

 

She wanted to talk. Well, why not? What did it matter? What did anything matter?

 

"The electrical currents that are sent to an Adestis unit are a few milliwatts," I said. "But the ones that are received at the unit, and the magnetic fields they generate, are orders of magnitude smaller than that. They're minute--and almost exactly the size of the fields and currents within the human brain. When Miriam sent nanodocs into her own brain, they were subject to two different sets of inputs, one arriving fractionally later than

 

190

 

NANODREAMS

 

the other. In her case that set up a resonance which left both her brain and the nanodocs incapable of functioning normally. She was trapped. Maybe she even knew that she was trapped.

 

"In our case it worked differently. Her brain currents interfered with our nanodoc operation, so we lost control, but there was no resonance and no loss of consciousness.

 

"All I did was break out of Adestis mode and reset the input currents to the highest level on my unit. When I went back in there was still a disturbance from Miriam but it was one small enough for me to be able to handle."

 

Belinda was nodding, but she was beginning to stare at the door to the next room. "You know, Tom has to hear this, too."

 

"He'll hear it. Just now he has other things on his mind."

 

I don t know how I sounded, but it was enough to earn Belinda Lee's full attention.

 

"What is it with you and Tom? I thought you hadn't even met until today."

 

"You really don't know? I'd have expected it to be the talk of the hospital." And then, when she gaped at me "Miriam Pearce and Tom Abernathy--" he had opened the door and was walking into the room, but it was too late to stop "--are lovers."

 

"Tom and Miriam Pearce." Belinda exploded. "Over my dead body--and over his, if it s ever true."

 

She rushed to his side and grabbed him possessively by the arm. "He's mine. He's my lover, and no one else's."

 

Abernathy must have wondered what he had walked into. Whatever it was, he didn't care for it. "My God Belinda! You know what we agreed. Shout it out, so the whole hospital hears you." He actually blushed when he looked at me, something I had not seen on a mature male for a long time. And then his expression slowly changed, to an odd mixture of satisfaction and defiant pride.

 

"It's his fault.' She was pointing at me. "He told me that you and Miriam Pearce are lovers!"

 

"Miriam and me? No way! Honest, Belinda, there's nothing between us--there never has been."

 

Deep Safari'

 

191

 

"I hope not. But I know she doesn't have a man of her own." Belinda was persuaded. Almost. "And she did say to you, 'I knew you'd come and save me.'"

 

"To me? What a joke that'd be!. I was as much use inside her head as a dead duck. She wasn't talking to me, she was talking to him. She said his name, Clancy, right after you two left. I came out here to get him."

 

"She doesn't have a man--doesn't have a lover?" That was me, not Belinda. Shock slows comprehension.

 

"Not any more. She once told me she had some guy, years ago, but he dumped her. Her family did something terrible to him. He wouldn't see her, didn't answer phone calls. In the end she just gave up."

 

"I thought a Pearce family member could get absolutely anything." That was Belinda, too cynical for her years.

 

Tom Abernathy patted her arm. With their secret out, his attitude was changing. "Almost anything. Miriam told me that a billionairess can have any man in the world. Except the one she wants."

 

"Does she want you?" Belinda had to be sure. But long- suffering Tom Abernathy was spared the need to offer that reassurance, because again one of the hospital staff came running through from the other room.

 

"Dr. Abernathy," he said. "She's finally waking up. Really waking up this time."

 

Tom and Belinda hurried away. I followed, more slowly

 

.Finally waking up. Really waking up. If only that had happened years ago, before it was too late.

 

I walked to the open door. Tom Abernathy was at the bedside. Miriam was sitting up, pale blue eyes wide open and searching. I stood rooted on the threshold. Belinda Lee was coming towards me, suddenly knowing, one hand raised.

 

I forgot how to breathe.

 

Sleeping Beauty slept for a whole century, and that still worked out fine.

 

Perhaps for some things it is never too late.