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Chapter Thirty-Seven

So Close

The convention hall was packed. Gillian, Lore, and Anna barely could walk shoulder to shoulder through the sea of humanity near its entrance and they had to shout to make themselves heard. The blond-haired guardian elbowed people out of her way as she repeated her answer to Gillian and Lore.

"All the guardians are at their stations! But with all these people we'll be hard pressed to keep order."

"S'okay!" said Lore, though she hardly heard the sound of her own voice. "We know they'll do their best."

Gillian shouted that he missed what she said and Lore turned around and repeated it to him. He nodded, leaned across to Anna, and added, "Thanks. We really appreciate this."

"In a way, it's a good sign," said Lore.

Anna shrugged. "I suppose, but I'm not sure we have enough people to handle the crowd. Rudo and the rest of the hunters are taking care of security outside of the building, but quite frankly, I'd almost want to swap with him. Inside is gonna be far worse. I almost wish we still had those robots running around. We never had these problems with Mother Brain around."

She parted company from them, still mumbling about weapon checks, security points, and traffic routes. Lore and Gillian managed to pry open a door marked for authorized personnel only and ducked into the small hallway. The historian smiled with exaggerated relief as she leaned back against a paste-colored wall.

"This is gonna be big," she breathed.

Gillian nodded. "I'm starting to wonder if it's time for us to have bodyguards."

"Guards?" She pushed herself away from the wall. "You know what Mother Brain used them for. We want people to come to us and help, not to scare them away."

"Not for intimidation," he said, "for protection. Think. If any one of us is taken out the restoration process will-"

She shook her head and started to move further down the hallway. "No. I have to believe in the human spirit. Our society, our culture, is still rebuilding itself. What we say and do has every influence on these people, especially those who were used to a life of nothing under Mother Brain. We have to show them trust so they can be sure they can trust us in return."

Gillian followed her. She could hear him close behind her even if she couldn't see him. "I can't trust that easily," he said softly. "I'll try if that's what you think is best, but I prefer my idealism be tempered by realism."

Lore fumed, but did not challenge him. Perhaps she was being a bit unrealistic, but she had to give people the benefit of a doubt. She had to. People such as Alis Landale existed. Surely their species was not so base that it deserved to have been ruled over by alien refugees from another world. Extinction due to fear or apathy should not be their fate.

She stopped suddenly, allowing Gillian to come beside her. The historian fixed him with a hard look. "Then we must make our ideal the reality."

* * * * *

The convention was Gillian's idea as a way to bring the general populace closer to the heart of the Nurvus project. He said that the current bulletins distributed throughout the various cities of the planet were well and good, but people were used to instant news under Mother Brain. The Council could no longer give them instant news, but they could provide a level of intimacy that Mother Brain never could. If people really wanted to see that things were different, then they could see for themselves exactly what the Council and the various heads of staff wanted to say about their plans. Announcements were released in all the major cities that anyone who wished was welcome to attend the convention in Paseo. Everyone would be allowed inside until the building was filled.

Kain had to admit to himself that it was a nice idea, although he would never admit the same to anyone else. Instead he masked his grudging approval behind various complaints about the crowd. The fact Sharon was clinging to his arm like some kind of rabid dust bunny didn't help much either. David jostled behind him in an effort not to get lost, giving the trio the appearance of being some sort of ungainly beast charging through the mob of people. What Kain wouldn't have given to have Wren standing in front of him like some great plow that could push people aside at will. Granted the android was physically capable of doing just that, he doubted that would leave a favorable impression on people. Besides, the android had already gone ahead, having been left in the building the night before precisely for the reason of avoiding getting caught in a situation he might not be ready to handle. No doubt it would be boring for a Palman staying in a waiting room all night, but Wren should be able to handle it with his usual aplomb.

What really bothered Kain was not Wren, not the crowds, not even Gillian; it was the fact that Nurvus was actually coming together. That should be cause of celebration, but now the pressure to succeed would be even greater. Today Commander Yurik would open the first round of speeches, Councillor Turgen, may his face desiccate to the complexion of a mesoman, would deliver a session on the remaining flaws in Nurvus to be worked on, and Hugh would formally announce the Biolab's integration with Nurvus. Kain had been offered a chance to speak as well, but the only way he'd go up there would be if they dragged him kicking and screaming. No, his seat from the second row in the main auditorium would be fine. He could listen to other people make asses of themselves while he avoided being one himself.

"Finally!" Kain barged past a pair of guardians and spilled into the waiting room. Behind him, David apologized to the two and offered them their identification. Sharon let go of his arm and collapsed into the nearest chair. Out of sight of the door, Wren stood watching them.

David shut the door behind him and looked around. Kain sank into a seat and heaved a sigh of relief. "Glad that's over with. We can go directly to the auditorium from here, right?"

"Correct," said Wren, coming to life. He walked over to join them. "The door on the north side of the room will open to a corridor leading directly to the restricted area of the main auditorium."

"Great, then we can wait out the storm here."

"I wish the rest of our staff was so lucky," said Sharon. "They shouldn't have to compete with the rest of the crowd."

David shook his head. "You know how limited the seating is though. Even for the restricted area seating is tough. Of course they have room for Kain and Wren, but the two of us barely made it."

"I still find it funny that they gave an android a seat," said Kain.

"It's good though," said Sharon. "That shows they're starting to treat him like a person." She smiled at Wren and asked him, "Don't you like that?"

"That is good," the android replied. It was about as honest a reply as she would get out of him, which she found an improvement. David managed to stop Wren from excusing his own inability to feel Palman emotions after every inquiry that asked him how he felt.

"Now, Wren, you're going to get a good look at Palman politics in action," said Kain. "I want you to absorb all that and later tonight ask me, Sharon, or David any questions you have about today. Once we get Nurvus up and running, you're still going to have to deal with people, and this should be a good example of how people are going to act when major political events are happening."

"It is unfortunate that such deliberation must take place before a decision."

Kain nodded. "Yes, it is. But it's necessary. We Palmans aren't logical beings, and we aren't all networked together like a bunch of computers. You'll get used to it. Besides, being human has a certain charm to it as well."

"That is something I can not experience."

"No, but we'll bring you as close as we can."

* * * * *

"Hugh! Hugh! Come this way! The ceremony's about to start!"

Cass frantically waved at Hugh from further down the hall. The congestion was worse than the biologist had counted on. This hall wasn't nearly so bad as it was outside, but the closer the time came to the keynote speech the more crowded even the restricted halls became. He was supposed to have a personal escort to the backstage area where he would wait until it came time for his announcement, but his escort must have gotten waylaid en route to him, because he was already late by the time he left his waiting room. Now Cass must have rushed out here in a hurry to find him.

He jogged up to her, hoping he still looked presentable. He wore a formalized version of his usual lab coat in a hope that looking more like a scientist than a politician would lend credence to his words. If the crowd seemed more relaxed he might not have as strong a case of dry mouth as he did right now.

"Esa couldn't find you," said Cass, "so I came looking. We'll miss the beginning of Yurik's speech, no doubt about it, but we can get you there in time so someone won't look like an idiot calling you out on stage when you're not even there!"

"Sorry about that."

"It's not your fault," she said, grabbing a hold of his sleeve, "but we're just in such a mess right now. Gillian's got guardians all over the inside and hunters all over the outside, but there are still too many people for them to watch! I managed to skip by them while they were busy so I could get here faster."

Hugh allowed her to pull him along, figuring that she knew the way better than he did. They got up to the backstage security and flashed their badges to the guardians at the door. Once inside Hugh could hear the muffled speech of the Commander. Cass guided him to the greenroom, where the other speakers were waiting.

Once they closed the door behind them, Hugh could no longer hear the muffled speech, rather, he heard more clearly. Someone had placed a video display in the room so that the people waiting to go on could see the events on stage.

"I'll come and get you when it comes time for you to get on," said Cass. "That shouldn't be long, but you never know. Sometimes people improvise and ramble on longer than they're supposed to."

Hugh nodded and she left. He glanced around the room to look at whose company he had the pleasure of sharing. It appeared to be two members of the Council and the head of Shure Engineering. He wasn't familiar with any of them except by name and reputation. The Council representatives were from Zema and Piata and seemed to be okay sorts, but still came from the generation ahead of him. The head of Shure was about his own age though. So Hugh chose to strike up a conversation with the engineer. It was no sort of professional bias against their age or positions, simply that if Hugh was going to start a social interaction, he preferred to do it with someone his own age.

The engineer turned out to be quite talkative, speaking about his plans to redesign the architecture of the cities to make them more adaptable for Motavia's increasingly arid environment. Hugh mentioned the sinking of the Biolab to him and how the building itself was largely intact, but the town around it was still in the midst of being rebuilt. The engineer offered to take a look at it and see if he could help. He might also be able to see about better proofing the buildings against earthquakes should another one happen.

Satisfied that at least something good had been done while he waited, Hugh found himself eager and ready when Cass called him to come on stage.

* * * * *

The master of ceremonies announced Hugh's name with a flourish, and Kain couldn't help wondering what a useless job what was--someone to just stand there, smile, and announce names. The wrecker wanted to lean back in his seat and put his feet up on the chair in front of him, but he knew that would irritate some self-righteous politician. That was a pleasant thought, but he still couldn't afford it. He'd still have to play their game, for as long as it took for Nurvus to get into action. Once he was sure it was up and running, once it was free from the dangers of being pulled apart before it could prove itself, then he could let them know exactly what he thought.

Hugh stepped up to the podium, still a distant figure from Kain's perspective. He, David, Sharon, and Wren had been shoved off to the side near the aisle. Second row be damned, they could have been placed in the fifth row and still have gotten a better seat if only they were closer to the middle of the auditorium. At least Lore seemed to have fared better. She and Gillian sat together in the front row and close to the podium.

"Greetings," said Hugh. "If you haven't heard the news already from the bulletins, I have decided that the Biosystems Lab will join with Nurvus. Some of you are no doubt wondering why I reversed my earlier position..."

Kain grunted, shifting in his seat, and to one side of him David whispered for him to stop fidgeting. Wren, on his other side, remained entranced by the whole proceeding, no doubt recording the entire thing for further review. Kain couldn't get comfortable, not with this view of the stage and not in this stupid seat, and he wasn't getting sympathy from either side of him. Even Sharon, on the other side of David, was looking at him strangely. Fine, he'll quit disturbing them. He'd probably get a better view from the aisle anyway. No heads in the way and at least he could stand up and stretch his legs.

"In ancient times and even today, there are people trained in the ways of combat, more specifically, with the sword," said Hugh. "It's a weapon that can be used to destroy, but also to protect. The warriors who use these weapons know that not all battles are fought with the sword. Can a sword slay sickness or heal a family? No. But these warriors learn about these weapons because for some fights they can be used. They are another part of an arsenal that includes things such as hope, trust, and compassion that can make our world a better place."

Kain ducked under Wren's vision and scrambled across the other people between him and the aisle. He annoyed a couple of them, but they'd live. It's not like Hugh was giving a command performance or anything, though he had to admit the biologist didn't look as stiff as he expected him to be.

"So you can see why I want the Biosystems to be a part of Nurvus," continued Hugh. "Nurvus has the potential to do so much, and with the Biolab it will be able to do one thing more. Science used in the wrong hands can kill. We have seen the result of that. Science used in the right hands can cure. Science is a double-edged sword and like all weapons must be wielded carefully. I would rather that power, the power of the Biolab, be available and connected to everyone than for it to disappear after my passing. Yes, it is early to be saying such a thing, but realize that Nurvus is designed to protect us and our descendants for centuries to come."

Kain paced up and down the aisle. No one paid him any mind. He originally thought to keep his eyes trained Hugh, but figured listening worked just as well. The floor would be interesting to look it if only it wasn't so dark.

"All that we want to add to Nurvus we must do now while we are still able, while we still possess the knowledge and technology, before we lose any more of it. We can't isolate ourselves and simply hope that things will get better. Then perhaps someday in the future we will be able to take that knowledge and once again move forward."

A thin red glint in the far catwalk caught Kain's eye. It was suspended over the rear of crowd where no one was looking. He wouldn't have noticed it except that it seemed distinctly out of place. The flash was off metal, but not the dulled metal of an old stage lamp or the catwalk itself. More than that, the light came from behind it, where there should be none. A lasersight?

It could take only seconds to aim.

Kain whipped around, ceremony and security be damned, and shouted, "Hugh! Get down! Assassin!"

Then the bullets pierced the stage.

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