For a fraction of a second, Toloth's mind stood still; then, as understanding came upon him, his self-contempt flowed over into mental speech. «Brazthee!» he swore. «Fools, the lot of us! How could we not see classic dearth regression when it was ululating in front of us?»
«What do you mean?» Teresa said, sounding as panicked as her cortex said she was. «What's going on, what's wrong with Kati – I mean, with Elskir? I thought that she was all right, that she had her Kandrona issue under control; she perked up so well after she did that meditation thing…»
«Yes, didn't she?» said Toloth. «A well-documented natural phenomenon, vestigial in most Yeerks but by no means all: on the brink of fugue, the body suddenly collapses into a simpler interior form, to the needs of which its depleted store of Kandrona is still sufficient for a little while – long enough, ideally, for the creature to get back to a properly conductive environment. If not, though, then the fugue, when it does hit, is short and brutal; your Controller's friend will be lucky if she lasts an hour.»
«Oh,» said Teresa softly. «Oh… oh…»
She couldn't bring herself to say any more, but Toloth could see the thoughts linking up in her mind. She knew what had been done to the hosts of starving Yeerks, when the Kandrona had been destroyed a few months before; she knew that Kati, like so many of those other hosts, was only making things worse by screaming heedlessly for her mother to rescue her. The one thing that she did not know, and that Toloth did, was the identity and position of the dark-skinned man in the back row – whose eyes, Toloth noted with a surreptitious glance, were fixed on the spastically hysterical girl, shining with ruthless resolve.
Fate would arrange for a Council representative to be present for this, he thought grimly. And now, what do I do? (It didn't even occur to him that he needed do nothing at all – that he might simply let Iniss and the Council representative clean up Elskir's mess. He was in too deep for that; one who had just been thinking as he had could hardly stand by and let such a clean-up process take its course.)
Well, the first thing, obviously, was to silence Kati. If she could be persuaded not to look like a threat to the Empire's cover, there was a chance for Elskir, and therefore for her; in dearth-regression fugues, typically, expulsion didn't become visible until about fifteen minutes after the loss of host control, leaving that much of a window to get her secreted away to the pool without the uninfested humans being any the wiser. He couldn't simply knock her out, not with Teresa's body – and any attempt at persuasion would be taken by her as coming from Malcar Seven-Four-Five, and therefore would only inspire her to further resistance. But sheer confusion might silence her, if…
With a single, swift movement, Toloth slid forward and pressed Teresa's hand against Kati's forehead, and her lips against her temple. "Peace, comrade," he whispered, surreptitiously tracing a random squiggle above her eyebrow with his borrowed thumb. "Moscow does not believe in tears."
He had no idea what that meant; it had just happened to be the first thing available in Teresa's mind that sounded roughly suitable. But it achieved its purpose: Kati stared at him in bewilderment, all thoughts of crying for succor momentarily driven from her head. Before she could recover herself, Toloth had turned sharply, and was addressing Iniss, Kati's parents, the Council representative, and Bishop Perlmutter, all of whom seemed to have arrived at Elskir's and his Experience station roughly simultaneously. (The Bishop's presence was a surprise to Toloth, but not to Teresa; such solicitude for the distressed, Christian or otherwise, appeared to be just what she expected from her overseers.)
"She feels pretty feverish to me," he said, projecting all the girlish trepidation he could into his words – not a hard task, under the circumstances. "You don't think it's that thing that was going around in July, do you, Mr. Chapman?" As he met Iniss's gaze, he mouthed the Yeerkish word nerutek – regression – and hoped against hope that the chapter head would understand and grasp the implications.
"Oh, my God," said Kati's mother, covering her mouth with her hand. (Toloth was nonplussed for a moment; then he realized that the phrase was being used in a purely emotive fashion, not as any kind of concrete appeal.)
"Better get her to the emergency room," said the Council representative, and Toloth saw him quietly reaching for his breast pocket. "My car's just outside; I'll take her…"
"No," said Iniss sharply. "I'll go."
Toloth let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding. There's hope for you yet, Iniss Two-Two-Six, he thought.
"You, Mr. Chapman?" said Kati's father. "Don't you still have to conclude the fête?"
"Tom can take care of that," said Iniss. "This happened to Kati on my watch; it's my responsibility to see that no harm comes to her."
"Mr. Chapman, we're perfectly capable of driving our own daughter to the hospital," Kati's mother snapped. "Certainly more capable than you'd be, in that beat-up old jalopy of yours…"
"Actually," the Bishop interjected, reaching into his pocket and withdrawing a small key on a ring, "if speed is the issue, take my vehicle. The blue Range Rover, third along the curb – admirably suited," he added with a dry smile, "for getting promptly to hospitals."
"Thank you, Father," said Iniss peremptorily, snatching the key-ring from his hand. "Now, if everyone else will please return to their seats…"
"Mr. Chapman." The iciness in the Council representative's voice sent a shiver up Toloth's borrowed spine. "Your solicitude for your members is admirable, but it really isn't necessary. I'll see to the girl."
"You?" said Kati's mother. "And just who are you, may I ask?" (Toloth was relieved to hear her ask this question; logical as it was, from the free humans' point of view, he doubted that Iniss would have had the nerve to do so.)
"Someone with a great deal of experience in these matters, ma'am," said the Council representative coolly.
"Are you a doctor?"
"Then why should I need you to take care of my daughter? God!" Kati's mother exclaimed. (Again, Toloth had to remind himself that she didn't mean by it what Teresa would have.) "Why is everyone so opposed to leaving a girl with her own mother?"
"That's the Sharing for you, Viv," Kati's father said dryly.
Indeed it is, Toloth thought, and drummed Teresa's fingers anxiously against her thigh. He could see Elskir and Kati's chances of survival dwindling by the second; the longer this squabble continued, the more attractive the easy out of 5 cc's to the carotid would appear even to Iniss, let alone to the Council representative. The only chance was if Elskir could somehow, that instant, be made to appear uniquely valuable to the Empire – valuable enough to be worth risking one's own cover to save.
"What's that, Kati?" he said aloud, leaning over and cocking Teresa's ear toward Kati's mouth.
Kati, or Elskir – it was hard to say which was in control at that point – stared dazedly for a moment, and then whispered vaguely, "Um… heil Stalin?"
"Tell the fisher?" said Toloth. "What fisher? Tell him what?" It was the best he could think of on such short notice; hopefully, the word Visser was sufficiently ingrained into the other Yeerks' minds that they would take the hint. If only they wouldn't stop, during the crucial split-second, to wonder when Elskir Five-Nought-Seven had ever moved in such rarefied circles; if only they would be mindlessly galvanized with the urgency of saving a Visser's confidante…
Then came a slight whisper of cool air over Teresa's ear, as Iniss shot forward and pulled Kati toward himself, pressing her left ear against his vest and covering her right with his hand. "I'm sorry, folks," he said, "but the poor child's getting delirious, and there's no time left to argue. I'll be back in an hour with your car, Padre; if you need a ride anywhere before then, I'm sure one of my people will lend you one." All this appeared to come out in a single breath; the next second, he was leading the squirming Kati forcibly toward and out the nearest door.
"Mr. Chapman!" Kati's mother shrilled – and, when this had no effect, she made an aggravated noise through her teeth and turned to her husband. "Excuse me, Dave," she said. "I'll be back in a little bit."
Kati's father frowned. "Viv, are you sure that's a…"
But Kati's mother was already striding single-mindedly toward the door; its silver-and-gold festoons rattled as she yanked it open, and the others heard her footsteps echo down the hall at what, given the height of her shoes' heels, was quite a respectable pace. Indeed, it seemed to Toloth, what with Kati's resistance slowing Iniss down, that there was every chance she would catch up with him before he made it to the Bishop's vehicle – which was a pity for her, but a bit of luck for some fortunate izcot.
There was a moment's awkward silence in the Roller-Plaza; then Penjoth stepped forward and flashed the crowd a rueful half-smile. "Too bad about that, everybody, huh?" he said. "Here's hoping Kati pulls through okay. And, under the circumstances, I think it'd be best if we let the Experience go, and skipped right to the part where I wish you all a safe journey home."
There was a general murmur of agreement, and the humans in the seats began to rise and gather their things. Penjoth slipped down from the podium and went to help Mrs. Berenson with her coat; Kati's father remained standing awkwardly by the table for a moment, until the Bishop produced a worn deck of cards from his pocket and invited him to a few friendly hands of gin rummy. As for Toloth, he wiped Teresa's forehead with the side of her hand, and was getting ready to return to her family when he heard a cold voice whisper, "May I ask, miss, what the meaning was of that little charade?"
With a thrill of impotent horror, he turned and met the expressionless gaze of the Council representative. "Beg pardon, sir?" he said, in what he hoped was a nonchalant tone.
"No games, please," said the Council representative. "I haven't the leisure. We both know that the other girl didn't say anything like what you intimated; I can read faces, if Mr. Chapman can't. So why did you pretend that she did? Are you, perhaps, one of those who object to due efficiency?"
A small corner of Toloth's mind couldn't help admiring the elegance with which this sentence was formulated: no free human, if he overheard, could possibly infer anything dangerous from it, and yet its meaning was excruciatingly clear. The Council of Thirteen trained its officers well; the question was, what to say in response?
Not having any clear idea, he opened Teresa's mouth and let the words flow out. "I object to waste, sir," he said. "I'm sure you do, too. And it would have certainly been a waste to do anything but what I did."
"Oh?" said the Council representative. "A waste of what?"
"Of what we most need, sir," said Toloth. "If you want to eat the world, you need all the mouths you can get. And there was no need to lose one this time – not that you could know that, of course. You didn't know how Kati shrank when she got hungry, and nobody had a chance to tell you. So I had to do what I could."
"Ah, was that it?" said the other.
The Council representative seemed to consider. "Do you know who I am, young lady?"
"I can guess, sir," said Toloth.
"Had you guessed at the time?"
"Then you knew what might come of deceiving me," said the Council representative, "but you preferred to save this one mouth that there was no need to lose. Is that correct?"
"It was the principle of the thing, sir," said Toloth.
"Principle," said the Council representative, and shook his host's head. "Principles can be very dangerous sometimes, my dear. I've known others before you who cared too much for our principles and not enough for our practicalities; I shouldn't care to see you end up as they did."
"I'll bear that in mind, sir," said Toloth.
"Do." And the Council representative walked away.
It's all right, Toloth told himself firmly. He didn't suspect you of imposture, and that's the crucial thing. What if he does issue a watch notice against the inordinately zealous Yeerk who Controls Teresa Sickles? That will be her problem, not yours.
Just the same, he had some difficulty dialing down Teresa's heartbeat as he made his way over to her relatives' seats. It was not well to attract the attention of a Conciliar operative, and he wished he hadn't had to do so – wished he could have simply left Elskir and her host to their destiny, rather than put his own on the line on the mere chance of averting it. After all, they were nothing to him personally – and Althematwi could hardly repay him for being thus loyal to it…
«Never mind him, Toloth,» came Teresa's whisper to his mind. «I think it was wonderful, what you did.»
This, of course, was totally irrelevant to the proud Yeerk, as any other chatter from a host life-form would have been. The feeling of serene satisfaction that it awakened in him was a mere irrational reflex, which he allowed to fill his mind only because serenity was a known performance optimizer; it had nothing to do with depending on a mere human to affirm his moral judgments.
Or so he told himself. The habits of a lifetime, after all, don't evaporate in fifteen minutes.