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Chapter Six

"Thank you for agreeing to see me on such short notice, Reverend."

"Believe me, Lady Harrington. It is my pleasure to see you at any time, and both I and my office are fully aware of the importance of the work upon which you are engaged. When those factors combine—"

The bald, hook-nosed Reverend and First Elder of the Church of Humanity Unchained tucked Allison’s small hand neatly and possessively into his elbow, smiled, and escorted her across the office. They were on the third floor of Harrington Cathedral which, like every cathedral on the face of Grayson, contained a large, comfortable office suite permanently reserved for the Reverend’s use on his visits to the steading. Now Sullivan seated his visitor in one of the overstuffed armchairs flanking the polished stone coffee table to one side of the desk and ceremonially poured tea. The silver pot flashed in the sunlight streaming through the huge windows which made up one entire wall of the office, and Allison’s nose twitched in surprise as she recognized the aroma rising with the steam. The scent of Sun Plantation Green Tea Number Seven could not be mistaken by anyone who knew their teas, and she was astonished that Sullivan (or someone) had gone to the trouble of discovering her favorite Beowulf blend. It wasn’t hard to obtain in the Star Kingdom, but it was decidedly on the expensive side, and she’d already discovered that it was hard to find on Grayson.

"Do you take sugar, Lady Harrington?" Sullivan inquired, and this time Allison smiled as her host raised his bushy eyebrows in polite question. If he (or someone on his staff, which seemed more likely, now that she thought about it) had taken the pains to determine what blend of tea she preferred, then she had no doubt that he also knew the answer to that question.

"Yes, thank you, Reverend. Two cubes."

"Of course, My Lady." He dropped them into the steaming liquid, stirred gently, and then handed her cup and saucer. "And like the tea, My Lady, I assure you that the metals levels in the sugar are as low as anything you might encounter back home in your Star Kingdom."

"Thank you," she repeated, and waited while he poured tea for himself, as well, before she sipped. "Ummmm... delicious," she purred, and the Reverend smiled back at her as he enjoyed her sensual delight in the treat.

Allison recognized that smile, for she’d seen it often in her life. Most men seemed to take a simple pleasure in making her happy (and they darned well should, too, she thought comfortably), but Sullivan’s smile still surprised her a bit. Oh, she’d discovered very quickly that Grayson males were much more gallant than most, but she’d known before she ever came to Yeltsin’s Star that, however gallant, they could also be smug, patronizing, and paternalistic. She’d come prepared to cut them off at the ankles if necessary to turn that around, and so far she’d never had to squash one of them more than once. On the other hand, she’d spent almost all of her time on Grayson here in Harrington Steading, where public attitudes tended to be a bit more "advanced," and this was the first time she’d actually met Reverend Sullivan, aside from the intensely formal, emotionally shattering day of Honor’s funeral.

But even though she hadn’t had the chance to form a firsthand opinion of him, she’d gathered from Miranda—and from Honor’s letters—that Sullivan was much more conservative at heart than Reverend Hanks had been. No one had suggested that he was anything but committed to supporting Benjamin Mayhew’s reforms with the full power of his office, yet he clearly seemed less comfortable with them on a personal level than, say, Howard Clinkscales. Somehow she’d expected that to carry over to the same sort of discomfort with women as authority figures which she’d seen from the more reactionary Grayson physicians. And even if he hadn’t been stiff and ill at ease with her, she still would have expected the spiritual head of the Church of Humanity to be more... ascetic? Was that the word? No, not quite, but something like it.

Except Reverend Sullivan wasn’t whatever it was she’d expected. Indeed, there was a warm appreciation for her attractiveness in his dark eyes, and she sensed a willingness to play the game hiding just beneath his attentive surface. She knew he was married—with all three of the wives Grayson custom enshrined—and she could tell he would never dream of going further than a cheerful flirtation, yet there was an earthy vitality to him which she had never anticipated.

Well, maybe that makes sense after all, she thought. Honor may not have noticed it —she felt a pang as she thought of her daughter, but she kept the thought moving despite the hurt—because, Lord love the girl, the universe had to hit her between the eyes with a brick just to get her to recognize the opposite sex was even out there! But underneath all that gallantry and all those codes of proper behavior and how to act and react around another man’s wives, these people are just as "earthy" (she chuckled mentally at the repeated use of the word) as my high school sex counselor back on Beowulf. Heavens! All you have to do is poke your nose inside an upper-class lingerie shop to know that! That’s rather healthy, really.

But that could also explain Sullivan’s attitude towards her. Women like Honor probably did make him uncomfortable—less because they held and wielded "a man’s" authority than because the background from which they came was so alien to him. He and other Graysons like him were still in the process of reprogramming themselves around a whole new set of social cues, and it was likely many of them never would learn to truly understand those cues even once they learned to recognize them. But Sullivan had recognized the gleam in her own eye, and it was one he knew how to respond to comfortably as long as they used Grayson rules.

That was good, she decided, sipping more tea while she discarded one strategy for delivering her news and organized an alternative. He looked so forbidding and stern that she’d automatically assumed a certain degree of closed-mindedness, and she’d been wrong. That he had the fierce temper reputation assigned him and did not suffer fools gladly she could readily believe, but there was a much livelier mind behind those eyes than she’d expected, and if he was prepared to be comfortable with her on a personal level, so much the better for the professional one, as well.

She gave a mental nod, set down her cup and saucer, and lifted her small briefcase from its place beside her chair into her lap.

"I realize you have a tight schedule, Your Grace, and that you sandwiched me into it at very short notice, so with your permission, I’d like to waste as little of your time as possible and get straight to the reason I asked to see you."

"My schedule is almost always ‘tight’ in Father Church’s service, My Lady," he said wryly, "but believe me, time with you could never be wasted."

"My goodness!" Allison murmured with a smile and a dangerous set of dimples. "I could wish the Star Kingdom would import a little Grayson manners!"

"Ah, but that would hardly be a fair exchange for your own presence here, My Lady!" Sullivan replied with a broad grin of his own. "Your Kingdom would get only an outward expression of our appreciation for beauty and charm, whereas we would get their reality."

Allison chuckled appreciatively, but she also shook her head and unsealed the briefcase, and Sullivan sat back in his own chair, nursing his teacup. The teasing gallantry faded from his expression, and he crossed his legs and watched alertly as she set out a tiny holo projector and keyed her memo pad to life.

"Your Grace," she said much more seriously, "I have to tell you that I felt some trepidation about requesting this meeting. As you know, I’ve been working on mapping the Grayson genome for over six T-months now, and I’ve discovered something which I’m afraid some of your people may find... disturbing." The bushy brows knitted together in a frown—not of anger, but of concentration and, possibly, a little concern—and she drew a deep breath.

"How much do you know about your planet’s genetic background, Your Grace?"

"No more than any other layman, I imagine," he said after a moment. "Even our doctors were several centuries behind your own in that regard before the Alliance, of course, but we Graysons have been aware of the need to keep track of our bloodlines and avoid inbreeding since the Founding. Aside from that and the genealogical and family health history information my own and my wives’ physicians have requested from us over the years, I’m afraid I know very little."

He paused, watching her intently, and she felt the unasked "Why?" floating in the air between them.

"Very well, Your Grace. I’ll try to keep this as simple and nontechnical as I can, but I have something I need to show you."

She switched on the holo unit, and a holographic representation of a chromosome appeared in the air above the coffee table. It didn’t look very much like an actual magnified chromosome would have, for it was a schematic rather than visually representative, yet Sullivan’s eyes flickered with interest as he realized he was looking at the blueprint for a human life. Or, to be more precise, a portion of the blueprint for a human life. Then Allison tapped a command into the holo unit, and the image changed, zooming in on a single, small portion of the schematic and magnifying that portion hugely.

"This is the long arm of what we call Chromosome Seven, Your Grace," she told him. "Specifically, this—" she tapped a macro on the holo unit and a cursor flashed, indicating a point on the image "—is a gene with a long and sometimes ugly history in medical science. A single gene mutation at this site produces a disease known as cystic fibrosis, which drastically alters the secretory function of the lungs and pancreas."

It was also, she did not mention, a disease which had been eradicated over a millennium and a half ago on planets with modern medical science... and one which still turned up from time to time on Grayson.

"I see," Sullivan said after a moment, then quirked one eyebrow at her. "And the reason for telling me this, My Lady?" he inquired politely.

"The reason for telling you, Your Grace, is that my research and mapping suggest quite conclusively to me that this portion of the genetic code of your people—" she jabbed an index finger at the cursor in the holo image "—was deliberately altered almost a thousand years ago."

"Altered?" Sullivan sat upright in his chair.

"Altered, Your Grace. Engineered." Allison drew a deep breath. "In other words, Sir, you and all your people have been genetically modified."

She sat very still, awaiting the potential eruption, but Sullivan only gazed at her for several seconds without speaking. Then he leaned back, reclaimed his teacup, and took a deliberate sip. She wasn’t certain if he was buying time for shattered thoughts to settle or simply deliberately defusing the tension, but then he set saucer and cup back in his lap and cocked his head.

"Continue, please," he invited, and his voice was so calm she felt almost flustered by its very lack of agitation. She paused a moment longer, then glanced down at her memo pad and scrolled through two or three pages of preliminary, hysteria-soothing notes it had just become obvious she wasn’t going to need.

"In addition to my purely laboratory research," she said after a second or two, "I’ve been doing some extensive searches of your data bases." Which was one hell of a lot more work than it would have been back home with proper library computer support. "In particular, I was searching for the earliest medical records—dating back to your Founding, if at all possible—which might have shed some corroborative light on my lab findings. Unfortunately, while there is a good bit of information, including case history notes on a surprising number of individual colonists, I was unable to find any data on the specific points which concerned me. Which," she said, meeting his eyes with a frankness she had not intended to bring to this meeting before she got a feel for his personality, "was one reason for my concern."

"You thought that perhaps those records had been suppressed?" Sullivan asked her, and chuckled at her expression. "My Lady, for all your frankness, you’ve been very cautious in your choice of words. Bearing that in mind, did you really think it would require a—what is the Manticoran slang phrase? a hyperphysicist, I believe?—to deduce the reason for your concern?" He shook his head at her. "I suppose it’s possible, even probable, that Father Church’s servants have suppressed... unpleasant information from time to time in our history, but if so, they did it without Father Church’s approval. Or the Tester’s." Her eyebrows rose against her will, and he chuckled again. "My Lady, we believe God calls us to the Test of Life, which requires us to test both ourselves and our beliefs and our assumptions as we grow and mature in His love. How could we do that, and what validity would our Tests have, if Father Church itself distorted the data which forms the basis upon which we are to make them?"

"I... hadn’t thought of it that way, Your Grace," Allison said slowly, and this time Sullivan laughed out loud.

"No, My Lady, but you’ve been rather more polite about it than some off-worlders have. We are a people of custom, and one which has traditionally embraced a highly consensual Faith and way of life, yet our Faith is also one of individual conscience in which no one —neither a man’s Steadholder, nor his Protector, nor even the Reverend or the Sacristy—may dictate to him on matters of the spirit. That is the central dynamic of our beliefs, and maintaining it has never been easy. Which is fair enough, for God never promised us the Test would be easy. But it means that, for all our consensuality, we have experienced many periods of intense, even bitter debate and doctrinal combat. I believe that has ultimately strengthened us, but memories of those periods make some of us uneasy about embracing changes in our Church and society. To be perfectly honest, I myself harbor some personal reservations about at least some of the changes—or, perhaps, about the rate of change—which I see around me. Yet not even the priests of Father Church, or perhaps especially not the priests of Father Church, may dictate to the consciences of our flock. Nor may we properly decide that this or that bit of knowledge, however unpleasant we may fear its consequences will be, should be restricted or concealed. So continue with your explanation, please. I may not fully understand it, and it may yet shock or concern me, but as a child of the Tester and of Father Church, it is my duty to hear and at least try to understand... and not to blame the bearer of the news for its content."

"Yes, Your Grace." Allison shook herself again, then smiled crookedly. "Yes, indeed," she said, and nodded much more comfortably at the holo image.

"As nearly as I can reconstruct what must have happened, Your Grace, at least one person, and possibly several, in your original colonial medical team must have been real crackerjack geneticists, especially given the limitations of the technology then available. As you may be aware, they were still using viruses for genetic insertions rather than the precisely engineered nanotech we use today, and given the crudity of such hack and slash methodologies, his—or their—achievements are truly remarkable."

"I am less surprised to hear that than you might think, My Lady," Sullivan interposed. "The original followers of Saint Austin were opposed to the way technology had, as they saw it, divorced men from the lives God wished them to lead. But they recognized the advances in the life sciences as the gift of a loving Father to His children, and their intention from the beginning was to transplant as much of that gift to Grayson as they could. And that was certainly as well for all of us when our ancestors discovered what sort of world they had come to."

"I believe that probably constitutes at least a one or two thousand percent understatement, Your Grace," Allison said wryly. "One of the things which has puzzled those of us who have studied the situation has been how your colony could possibly have survived for more than a generation or two amid such lethal concentrations of heavy metals. Obviously, some sort of adaptive change had to have occurred, but none of us could understand how it happened quickly enough to save the colony. Now, I think, I know."

She took a sip of tea and crossed her own legs, leaning back in her chair and cradling the tissue-thin porcelain cup between her hands.

"Heavy metals enter the body via the respiratory and digestive tracts, Your Grace, hence your air filtration systems and the constant battle to decontaminate your farm soil. Apparently, whoever was responsible for this—" she jutted her chin at the holo image once again "—intended to build a filtration system into your bodies as well, by modifying the mucosal barriers in your lungs and digestive tract. Your secretory proteins are substantially different from, say, my own. They bind the metals—or a large proportion of them, at any rate—which allows them to be cleared from the body in sputum and other wastes, rather than being absorbed wholesale into the tissues. They don’t do a perfect job, of course, but they’re the reason your tolerance for heavy metals is so much higher than my own. Up until two or three months ago, the assumption, particularly in light of your ancestors’ limited technological resources and, um, attitude towards the resources they did have, was that this must represent a natural facet of adaptive evolution, even if we had no idea how it had happened so quickly."

"But you no longer believe this to be the case," Sullivan said quietly.

"No, Your Grace. I’ve found flanking regions of rhinovirus genetic material around the cystic fibrosis locus indicated in the holo here, and I think I can say with some assurance that it didn’t get there accidentally."

"Rhinovirus?"

"The vector for the common cold," Allison said dryly, "which could have offered several useful advantages to the med teams who made use of it. For one thing, with your people so tightly confined in the limited air-filtered habitats they could build, an aerosol vector like this would be very easily spread. Given the fact that I’ve found absolutely no mention of it anywhere in the records, I might also hazard the guess that the project was kept confidential at the time—possibly to avoid raising hopes if, in fact, it should fail. Or there could have been other reasons. And if there were, spreading the alteration via ‘a cold’ would have the advantage of maximum concealability, as well."

"Indeed it would have, and there could well have been ‘other reasons’ to do such a thing quietly," Sullivan agreed, and it was his turn to smile crookedly. "Despite my own analysis of why Father Church does not believe in suppression, not everyone in our history would have agreed with me, and no doubt there have been times when our freer thinkers found that... discretion was indicated. As I’m sure you’ve discovered in the course of your research, My Lady, many of our Founders were zealots. Heavens, look at those lunatics who launched the Civil War four hundred years later! However trying our own times may be, they do not compare to the Tests which faced the Founders, and it would certainly have been possible that the Founding Elders might have feared that some of the more blindly faithful among their flock would have reacted badly to the notion of such a thing as permanently modifying their own bodies and those of all their descendants."

"As you say, Your Grace," Allison murmured, then shrugged. "At any rate, we might think of this as a sort of weapon of beneficent biological warfare, an agent designed to modify the genetic material of your people in order to give them a fighting chance at surviving their environment. Unfortunately, it looks like it was a fast and dirty method, even by the standards of then-current technology."

Sullivan frowned, and she shook her head quickly.

"That wasn’t a criticism, Your Grace! Whoever managed this was clearly working on a shoestring, with limited resources. He had to do the best with what he had, and what he managed was brilliantly conceived and clearly executed effectively. But I suspect that the need for speed, coupled with extremely limited facilities, prevented his team from carrying out as careful an analysis as they would have wished, and it looks like the vector carried a second, unintentional modification which they failed to recognize at the time."

"Unintentional?" Sullivan’s frown was deeper now, not in displeasure but in thought, and Allison nodded.

"I’m certain it was. And the nature of their problem no doubt helps explain what happened. You see, whoever designed this modification had to make the adaptive mutation inheritable. Simply modifying the gene in those actually exposed to the rhinovirus wouldn’t work, because it would have been a purely somatic mutation, which means it would have died with the first generation of hosts. To keep that from happening, he—or they—had to cross from the somatic to the germ line—modify the rhinovirus to cross the mucosal barrier and show a predilection for primordial germ cells in the host’s ovaries and testes—in order to pass it on to the first generation’s offspring. What had to be accomplished was analogous to, oh, the mumps virus. That infects the salivary glands, but also attacks the ovaries and testes and can account for some cases of male infertility."

Sullivan nodded to indicate understanding, and Allison hid another mental smile. Interesting that he showed no discomfort at all with the way the conversation was headed. Of course, with the high percentage of stillborn boys on this planet, Graysons had been fanatical about prenatal care for centuries, and men were just as involved in the process (at one remove, of course! she amended) as women.

"They had no real option about that," she went on. "Not if they wanted the change to be a permanent addition to the planetary genome. But in the process, they also got an unintended mutation. Their intervention introduced a stable trinucleotide repeat on the X chromosome, which wouldn’t have been a problem... except that it in turn affected one of the AGG codons." Sullivan looked blank. "AGG codons are adenine-guanine-guanine sequences that act as locks on the expansion of other trinucleotide repeats," she explained helpfully.

"Of course," Sullivan agreed. He didn’t look too terribly enlightened, but he nodded for her to continue, and she punched a new command into her holo unit. The imagery changed to a color-coded schematic of nucleotides—an enormous chain composed of the color-coded letters "A," "C," "G," and "T," repeating again and again in jumbled patterns. As Sullivan watched, the image zoomed in on a single section—two three-letter groups of "CGG" in yellow, green, and green, separated by an "AGG" in red, green, and green.

"Essentially, it was a very tiny change," Allison told the Reverend. "An adenine here—" she touched another key, and one of the "AGG" codes flashed brilliantly "—mutated to cytosine—" another key, and the flashing red "A" turned into a yellow "C" and the three-letter group to its right grew suddenly into an enormous chain of the same codes, repeating again and again "—which deactivated the lock and allowed unstable expansion of—"

"Excuse me, My Lady," Sullivan interrupted, "but I think we’re drifting into deep water here. What, precisely, does that m— No." He stopped and raised one hand. "I’m certain that if you told me what it meant, I would be no closer to understanding than I am now. What I truly need to know, I suppose, is what the consequences of this... unstable whatever are."

"Um." Allison sipped some more tea, then shrugged.

"DNA is composed of four nucleotides, Your Grace: adenine, cytosine, guanine, and thymine. They link together in thousands of repeats—codes, if you will—which combine to carry the blueprint for our bodies... and transmit it to the next generation. They link in groups of three, hence the term ‘trinucleotide,’ which usually occur in ‘runs’ of thirty or less, but there are several diseases, such as the one we call ‘Fragile X,’ in which the number of repeats expands enormously, often into the thousands, effectively... well, scrambling a portion of the master code, as it were. Are you with me so far?"

"I believe so," he said cautiously.

"All right. This schematic represents a portion of the nucleotides—in this case cytosine, adenine, and guanine—from the Grayson genome. This trinucleotide here—" she touched her controls and the holo reverted to its original form with the "AGG" flashing once more "—is what we call a ‘lock,’ sort of a blocker to prevent the CGG repeats on either side of it from expanding in a way that would scramble the code. What happened, though, was that when the adenine mutated into cytosine, the ‘lock’ disappeared... and that allowed an unstable expansion of the CGG chain ‘downstream’ of it."

"I won’t pretend to understand completely, My Lady," Sullivan said after a moment, "but I believe I understand the process, in general terms at least. And just how serious a problem is this ‘unstable expansion’?"

"Well, in Fragile X, the consequence is—or was, before we learned to repair it—moderate mental retardation. But what resulted here was worse—much worse. It destroyed a portion of the chromosome necessary for early embryonic development."

"Which means, My Lady?" Sullivan asked intently.

"It means that it produced an embryonic lethal mutation in males, Your Grace," Allison said simply.

This time the Reverend came bolt upright in his chair, and she nodded to the display still glowing above the coffee table.

"Any male embryo with this mutation cannot be carried to term," she said. "Female embryos each have two X chromosomes, however, which gives them the chance for an extra copy of the destroyed gene. And the lyonization process, which inactivates one X chromosome in a female, almost always inactivates the structurally damaged one in cases like this, which means that, unlike males with the same problem, they survive."

"But in that case—" Sullivan stared into the holo for several seconds, then looked back at Allison. "If I understand you correctly, My Lady, you’re saying that no male child with this mutation could live?" She nodded. "In that case, how could our ancestors possibly have survived? If everyone who received the benign mutation also received this one, then how were any living male children born at all?"

"The two mutations are linked in that they were both introduced by the same vector, Your Grace, but that’s the only linkage between them. Everyone got the intended mutation—well, that’s probably an overstatement. Let’s say that everyone who survived got the intentional one, but the unintentional one, fortunately, had incomplete penetrance. That means that thirty percent or so of the males didn’t express the mutation and so survived—but even those who survived could be carriers. To use the Fragile X analogy again, the fragile site from that disease is seen in forty percent of the cells of affected males, but carriers may not show the fragile site at all."

"I... see," Sullivan said very slowly.

"There was nothing anyone could have done about it, Your Grace. The original modification was essential if your people were to survive at all. It had to be made, and even assuming that any of the original med team were still alive by the time the harmful side effect began to manifest, and even assuming that they still had the technical capability for genetic level examinations, it was too late to do anything about it," Allison said quietly, and sat back to wait.

"Sweet Tester," Sullivan murmured at last, his voice so soft Allison hardly heard him. Then he pushed himself all the way back in his chair and inhaled deeply. He gazed at her for endless seconds, then shook himself.

"I feel certain that you must have felt very confident in your findings before you brought them to my attention, My Lady. May I also assume that your documentation of them will be sufficient to convince other experts of them?"

"Yes, Your Grace," she said positively. "For one thing, it explains the two things about your population which have most puzzled the Star Kingdom’s geneticists from the beginning of the Alliance." Sullivan raised an eyebrow, and she shrugged. "I’ve already mentioned the incredible rapidity with which your ancestors evolved a ‘natural’ defense against heavy metals. That was number one. But a disparity in male-female birth rates on the scale of Grayson’s, while not all that unusual under distressed conditions, seldom lasts as long as yours has."

"I see." He gazed at her meditatively, then drank more tea. "And is there anything which can be done about this, My Lady?"

"It’s really too early for me to say yes or no to that one, at least with any degree of confidence. I’ve isolated two or three possible approaches, but the site of the problem may well make things difficult, because the mutated gene on the X is near the zinc-finger X protein gene. That’s a key gene in sex determination, and it’s at the Xp22.2—" She paused as his expression began to indicate that he was lost once more.

"It’s at a locus where changes can involve literally dozens of disease states, Your Grace," she simplified. "Many of those diseases are lethal, and others can cause disorders of sex determination. We know a lot more about sex differentiation than whoever whipped up your survival modification did, but we still dislike meddling with it, and particularly in this area. There’s a lot of room for small errors to have large consequences, and even if we avoid the more dangerous disease states, the Beowulf Code specifically prohibits genetic manipulation in order to predetermine the sex of a child." She grimaced. "There were some very unpleasant—and shameful—episodes relating to that in the first and second centuries Ante Diaspora, and I’m afraid they’ve been repeated from time to time on some of the more backward colony worlds since. Nonetheless, I think I could probably at least ameliorate the situation. But whatever I do, it will take time to perfect the methodology... and probably result in at least some decreased fertility among your planet’s male population."

"I see," he said again, and switched his eyes to the holo image above the coffee table once more. "Have you spoken to the Sword’s health authorities about this yet, My Lady?" he asked.

"Not yet," Allison admitted. "I wanted to be certain of my data before I did, and then your visit to Harrington gave me the opportunity to speak to you first. Given the role your Church plays in the day-to-day life of Grayson, I thought it might be wiser to speak to you first."

"Obviously Father Church will have to address the issue," Sullivan agreed, "but we who serve him have learned bitter lessons about meddling in secular affairs. I believe you should draw this to the Sword’s attention as soon as convenient, My Lady. If my offices can be of assistance to you in this, please tell me."

"I appreciate the offer, Your Grace, but I have the channels to take care of that myself."

"Good. And if I may offer one bit of advice—or, perhaps, make a request?"

"Certainly you may, Your Grace," Allison said. Of course, I don’t have to follow the advice if it violates my own professional oaths, she thought, bracing herself for some last-minute swerve towards suppression of her findings.

"This information must be made public, and the sooner the better," he said firmly, "yet it would be wiser, I think, to allow the Sword to make the announcement." She cocked her head at him, and he twitched his shoulders with a small, apologetic smile. "You remain a woman, a foreigner, and—if you will forgive the term—an ‘infidel.’ We learned from your daughter that those were not necessarily bad things, yet some of our people, especially the more conservative, remain uneasy with the notion of women in positions of authority. Including, alas, myself from time to time. I wrestle with it in prayer, and with the Comforter’s aid, I feel I have made some progress, yet I had hoped that Lady Harrington would—"

He broke off, his expression sad, and Allison felt a brief, terrible stab of hurt deep down inside. "I had hoped Lady Harrington would live long enough to change our minds," she completed the thought for him, and felt her eyes sting. Well, she didn’t. But that doesn’t mean other people can’t pick up the torch for her, and I can damned well be one of them! Howard Clinkscales’ request flickered in the back of her mind as the thought flashed past, but she only looked at Sullivan and nodded.

"I know, Your Grace." Her voice was just a bit husky. Then she inhaled deeply. "And I understand. I have no problem with allowing Protector Benjamin’s people to make the announcement. Besides, there’s no huge rush about this—your planet has survived for the next best thing to a thousand years with the problem, and I’m nowhere near devising a corrective procedure that I’d feel comfortable recommending, anyway. Better to go through channels and possibly even give the Sword a little while to consider the best way to go public... and what position the Protector should take when it hits the ’faxes."

"That was very much my own thought," Sullivan told her. "Nonetheless, I also believe I’ll personally suggest to the Protector that you should be present—and clearly credited with the discovery—when the announcement is made."

"You will?" Allison blinked in surprise, and he shrugged.

"My Lady, you did discover it, and you and the clinic your daughter endowed will undoubtedly take the lead in devising any ‘corrective procedure’ which may be found. Besides, if we’re ever to overcome that ‘foreign and female’ problem among our more mulish people," he smiled and flicked one finger briefly at his own chest, "then we dare not miss an opportunity such as this."

"I see." Allison considered him with fresh thoughtfulness. Reverend Sullivan was not only less comfortable with the changes in his society, on a personal level, than his predecessor had been; he was also aware that he was. His faith and his intellect impelled him to accept and support them, but a part of him longed for the stability and comfortably defined roles of the planet on which he had been raised, and that part resisted his own duty to help demolish those definitions. Which made his last suggestion even more impressive, and she felt a deep, warm rush of affection for him.

"Thank you, Your Grace. I appreciate the suggestion—and the thought."

"You are more than welcome, My Lady," he told her, setting his teacup aside and rising as she came to her feet, switched off the holo projector, and tucked it back into her briefcase. "But no thanks are necessary," he continued, once more capturing her hand to escort her back to the door. "This planet, and all the people on it, are far too deeply in debt to the Harrington family, and especially to the really remarkable women of that name, for that."

Allison blushed, and he chuckled delightedly, then paused as they reached the door. He bent over her hand and kissed it gallantly, and then opened the door for her.

"Farewell, Lady Harrington. May the Tester, the Intercessor, and the Comforter be with you and your husband and bring you peace."

He bowed once more, and she gave his hand a squeeze of thanks and stepped through the door. It closed quietly behind her.


* * * | Echoes Of Honor | Chapter Seven



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