As always, the after-action review was held in the area that served as the ship's ballroom. It was as much a matter of practicality as of economy; the room had all the necessary facilities, and was familiar and convenient to the seven department heads of the project group. The Director took his usual place at the captain's table, and looked about with a benign smile that comforted no one. "All present? Good, let us begin. Mr. Samuels?"
Samuels, who doubled as one of the five primary stewards, was a psychiatrist who had lost his license some years before being recruited. "What can I say, sir? You know my position on this. Whenever she comes calling, we dance to her tune and come out basically with nothing. Given the nature of the scenario, it went about as well as could be expected. At least, we didn't lose as many people this time."
"That is not your area," the Director reproved. "Mr. LeRoy, how do we stand with personnel?"
LeRoy, face puffed and turning many colors from where Hank had kicked him unconscious, shrugged with passable aplomb. " 'Bout as usual, boss. Ed's dead, o'course, and they're checkin' Paolo for concussion, but I'd say he'll be all right. Tina has a broken collarbone from that champagne bottle; do we fix her up and keep her in the background, or should we …?" He let it trail off.
The Director chuckled. "Don't hesitate to recommend termination, Mr. LeRoy, if logistical and procedural requirements demand it. No, Tina usually doesn't feature heavily in our little reenactments; brace her as she needs, give her a shawl to conceal the brace, and place her in a position of lesser exposure while she heals. That will introduce a variable, of course, but less than if we removed her entirely. Ms. Clarke?"
Clarke was the woman who had carried a radio in her handbag, though neither she nor any of the others knew that Hank had retained any awareness of it. "I did a quick run through all the surveillance, sir, and we'll cover it later in more detail, but we probably didn't get anything new. We seldom do, when Drusilla comes to play."
"She's useless as tits on a boar hog," LeRoy groused, "and not near as much fun to have around. She shows up, we spend all our time tryin' to protect Summers from her, 'steada gettin' on with the job. Not to mention, she almost always eats somebody even though we're s'posed to be workin' together. Why do we put up with that crazy bitch, anyway?"
The Director raised an eyebrow. "We tolerate her intermittent visits, Mr. LeRoy, because that 'crazy bitch' makes possible the continuation of this endeavor. Unless she periodically reinforces the psychic template she imposed upon our Mr. Summers, we cannot maintain the suppression of his memory, and losing that capability would seriously compromise the value we can yet derive from him."
There was no response to this statement, and the Director surveyed the other faces at the table. "I am aware that most of you find dealing with our vampiric colleague to be …" He coughed. "Stressful. You have all behaved with laudable professionalism, as I expect you shall continue to do, and we shall have several weeks to acquire further useful data from Mr. Summers before we can expect Drusilla to reappear." Again he studied his subordinates, and went on. "The majority of you know some part of the background of this project, but none of you have been apprised of its full scope. That is a normal precaution, and you accepted it with appropriate lack of complaint. We've been together for some time, however, and you have all proven yourselves capable of maintaining the necessary internal security. Perhaps, then, an overview of the reasons for our current efforts, its origins and its aims, will clarify your understanding and ease some of your concerns."
None of the others responded to that (LeRoy seemed to recognize that he had drawn uncomfortable attention to himself), but Clarke cleared her throat and said, "It's true that there are some things that might … make more sense, sir, if we knew all the details."
"Very well." The Director smiled again, and several people at the table tensed. "My services were originally retained, and I authorized to assemble a project team, by commission from an … important firm in Los Angeles. I was provided with funds for preliminary operations, one of a number of such individuals tasked to investigate this or that member of the Slayer's immediate circle. The girl's father was to be my purview, and I began what should have been a delicate but routine process.
"We encountered only two substantial difficulties, but they were substantial indeed. The first was when we found that Mr. Summers was tangentially affiliated with an American intelligence organization, and the contact team responded to this discovery by taking him prisoner and carrying him away." His mouth tightened. "They exceeded their mandate, and were suitably disciplined; you needn't concern yourselves with them. The second was when I attempted to make a status report to Mr. Mercer, and found that he had exceeded his mandate; the project was unknown to the larger firm, Mr. Mercer had been dismissed with stringent prejudice, and I had neither authorization nor any likelihood of payment for activities I had already initiated.
"It was at this juncture, fortunately, that I was sought out by the vampiress. You are aware, of course, that she is insane, but she is also endowed with formidable psychic gifts. It was she who first set Mr. Summers' memory on indefinite loop, and she also who informed me of my captive's potential importance. I do not pretend to understand the motives behind her contributions — very probably she herself does not, in the unlikely event that she has ever considered the matter — but that is the reason we allow her active participation when she desires it."
He stopped, and waited, and this time it was Samuels who spoke up. "I knew some of this, like you said, but that does put it into more of a logical context. But, sir, we're not really getting anything from Summers. Even without Drusilla's interference, no matter how many times we run him through the scenario, no matter which variables we alter, we can never take him past a certain point —"
"Mr. Summers is a man of severely limited imagination," the Director said blandly, and all the faces watched him with careful, expressionless attention. "His obstinacy, however, is quite remarkable. Every day he awakes on the same morning; every day, thanks to Drusilla's trance, he walks about our floating operations center, seeing the rooms and decks and hallways of the ship from which he was taken, and securely believing that this is his second day of that never-completed cruise. Every day he does a quick workout, showers, takes a walk, and begins the dreary masquerade of his long-absent partner's illusory presence. Every day, we test his resolution, and he never breaks. He never breaks, no matter what approach we take; we can overwhelm but never defeat him. And every day, the memory of that testing is taken from him with the sunset; he cannot resist us, he cannot begin to mount defenses, because he is unaware of the need. We accumulate a mounting store of knowledge about him, but his own knowledge never increases. It is the perfect captivity."
Again Samuels was the one to respond. "You've cleared up a great deal for us, sir, and I'm sure we're all grateful. It's … it's difficult, though, to see how Summers could be worth it. I agree that his resolution in this regard is exceptional, but it's exceptional only in human terms." He looked around for a support that wouldn't be forthcoming. "Compared to the areas where you operate, he's just so … well, ordinary."
"Yes, so it would seem. On the surface." The Director's expression was still calm, tolerant, but no longer encouraging. "I have the testament of Drusilla, however, and have confirmed it with reference to several well-authenticated prophecies." He looked over his subordinates, one by one, and no one doubted that further inquiry would be unwelcome. "The Slayer's father features signally in coming battles; he is pivotal to a point only barely less than the Slayer herself and Los Angeles' vampire champion. He is key, ladies and gentlemen; the Slayer's father is a vital figure, and we control him, and that allows us priceless access to the power that will change hands with the coming End of Days."
Clarke, listening, felt a pang of unease. Something Drusilla had said to Summers … she'd caught only a part of it, she'd have to remember to check it when she went over the tapes … She sat very straight and kept her mouth firmly closed. The mood had changed here, she could see that, and she wasn't about to stick her neck out by speaking now. And it really might be her imagination: Clarke was not a sentimental woman, and felt no more sympathy for Hank Summers than for a lab rat; but seeing him and Drusilla together was like watching a baby play with a cobra, an assault on feelings she had thought burned out long ago. Any hint of this reaction might be seen as weakness. No, best to stay quiet.
"I am willing to bring this meeting to an early close," the Director was saying, "as I agree with the general consensus that today's events have neither brought out new information nor raised new issues. If no one has anything else —?"
"He's gettin' better," LeRoy said.
All eyes turned to the burly chief of human security. "Yes, Mr. LeRoy?" the Director prompted.
"This guy —" LeRoy shook his head, as if unable to articulate the thoughts inside it (which was not out of the question; though superbly accomplished in his own field, LeRoy had considerably less education than anyone else in the room). "Every day, 'less we change the scenario or Princess Froot-Loops prances in to screw everything up, he goes down to that same damn gift shop, he buys the same damn karate magazine, he goes back to his room and practices the same damn techniques, and if we have to fight, he comes at me the same damn way every time. I know exactly what he's gonna do and exactly how to stop it, he should be cotton candy on a stick. But he keeps gettin' better." He looked to his colleagues with troubled eyes. "He caught me out today, and it ain't the first time. Sticking the ashtray in the sock, that was new, too. It's spooky, is what it is."
"Mr. Summers' memory of this day remains perpetually virgin," the Director pointed out, "but his body does reap the benefits of sustained regular exercise, and his muscles establish new neural pathways as he repeats the same few techniques again and again. This is a change we cannot prevent without causing greater change, but it remains within acceptable tolerances. As for his innovation with weaponry, that is as likely to have sprung from Drusilla's presence in the equation, as from any other cause. Your concern is noted, but I believe it can be safely disregarded for the present."
"I don't know, there's just somethin' about the guy." LeRoy became aware of the circle of eyes on him, and flushed beneath the bruises, but went on doggedly. "We've got him cold, nothin' he can do about it, solidest setup I've ever seen. But I read this science fiction story once —" He paused to glare at the others (but not at the Director). "C'mon, we didn't all grow up studyin' ritual sacrifices. Anyway, this buncha aliens was tryin' to figure out how, ever' ten thousand years or so, humans would come boilin' outta Earth, go tearin' through whatever galactic empire was runnin' things about then, bust everything to hell, and then burn out and settle back down on their own little mudball. They wondered what made us able to do that, so they grabbed one ordinary Earth guy and took him back for study.
"See, this is the part that creeps me out: they put him in the perfect prison, just like we got here. They fixed up his body so it would never wear out, so they could keep him forever; he couldn't even get away by killin' himself, they'd just revive him and stick him back in the same cell. They fixed it so there wasn't any possible way to get out —"
"I believe we appreciate the particulars of your parallel, Mr. LeRoy," the Director interjected. "Is there a point to it?"
"So," LeRoy continued, speaking more quickly now, "he got out in an impossible way, he got out in a way that couldn't be done. And he stole one of their ships and took off, in a body that never aged, with somethin' woke up in his head that shouldn't'a popped up for another coupla thousand years, ready to start raisin' hell all over again. They grabbed one guy to try and figure out how his people could be a threat, and turned out they revved up the thing they were scared of."
There were several seconds of silence after he finished. "Does this mean," the Director asked very softly, "that you lack confidence in the foundations of our endeavor, Mr. LeRoy?"
"Huh? Nah, nothin' like that." LeRoy slumped back in his chair, as if unaware of how deadly the wrong answer could be, though that was deeply unlikely. "I'm in, you know you can count on me. The guy just gets to me. He bugs me, I don't know why."
"Very well." The Director stood. "We'll select one of the alternates to take Ed's place in tomorrow's reenactment. For a few days we'll let that be the only variable — along with the small change in Tina's appearance, of course — and see what comes of it. Mr. Summers' part-time employers are still maintaining the fiction that he remains incommunicado with his secretary, rather than actually missing, so we needn't anticipate the Slayer's searching for him for some time yet." He beamed at his still-seated staff. "I'll want to look over a plan for tomorrow's activities, but I foresee no difficulties, we've all done this many times before." The benign mask flicked off, and now nothing concealed the cruelty of his smile. "Let us be about it, then. Tempus fugits … for everyone except Mr. Henry Summers."
~ – ~ – ~
His eyes opened before his bedside alarm could sound, and he turned off the folding travel clock with the deftness of long habit. He knew it was meaningless, but nonetheless felt a small pride when he saw that he had awakened within a minute of the scheduled time. He stood, stretched, and spent a moment debating whether he should try to squeeze in some exercises before he showered …
… and deep within the recesses of his brain, far down where his conscious mind would never fare, deep in the forests of the night, a lion stirred and grumbled in its sleep. It wouldn't wake, not today, nor for many days to come …
… but it wouldn't sleep forever.