“That’s right.” Her tone was sober. “We provide a service which some people—some very rich people indeed—have found so precious that they’ve done things like covenant to pay us a tithe of their salary for life. Once we were left the income on an estate of sixty million, and though the family tried like hell to overturn the will in the courts… I believe you just recognized us, didn’t you?” Shaking, fists clenched, mouth so dry he was almost unable to shape the proper words, Sandy blurted out his guess.
“There’s only one thing you could be. But—Oh, my God. Are you really Hearing Aid?”
CROSS TALK “After which I immediately wanted to ask how they managed to keep that incredible -promise of theirs, but—”
“Wait, wait!” Freeman was half out of his chair, peering closely at his data console as though shortening the range could alter what the instrument display was reporting.
“Is something wrong?”
“I… No, nothing’s wrong. I merely observed a rather remarkable event.” Freeman sank back in his chair, and with an air of guilt produced a handkerchief to mop his face. All of a sudden sweat had burst out in rivers on his forehead.
There was a brief silence. Then: “Damn, you’re right. This is the first time you ever transferred me from regressed to present mode and I didn’t have to be steered back to the same subject Ve-ery interesting! Don’t bother telling me this indicates how deeply I was affected; I know, and I still am. What I learned from that first conversation at Precipice left me with a weird tip-of-the-tongue sensation, as though I’d realized the people there had the answer to some desperately urgent problem, only I couldn’t work out what problem the answer belonged with…Incidentally, please tell me something. I think I deserve it. After all, I can’t prevent you from making me tell you everything, can I?”
Freeman’s face was glistening as though he were being roasted on a spit before an immensely hot fire. He mopped away more perspiration before he replied. “Go ahead and ask.”
“If it had become known that I’d called Hearing Aid and talked for an hour about Miranda and myself and Tarnover… would I have been expelled via an operating theater?”
Freeman hesitated, folding and refolding his handkerchief prior to returning it to his pocket. At long last he did so, and with reluctance spoke.
“Yes. With an IQ of 85 if you were lucky.”
As calmly as before: “What about Hearing Aid?”
“Nothing would have been done to them.” The admission was almost inaudible. “You must know why.”
“Oh, sure. Sorry—I admit I only asked to see you squirm with embarrassment. But there’s such a David-and-Goliath pattern about Precipice versus the U.S. government. Want me to continue?”
“Do you feel up to it?”
“I think so. Whether or not Precipice will work for everybody, it worked for me. And it’s high time I faced the reason why my stay there ended in a disaster, when if I hadn’t been a fool it need have been no worse than a minor setback.”
THE MESH OF A RIDDLE “This is the most incredible place. I never dreamed—” Walking uphill on the aptly named Drunkard’s Walk, Kate interrupted him.
“Sandy, that dog. Natty Bumppo.”
“He gave you quite a fright, didn’t he? I’m sorry.”
“I know, I know. I was startled. But I wasn’t scared. I simply didn’t believe it. I thought none of Dad’s dogs was left.”
“What?” He almost stumbled, turning to stare at her. “What on earth could he have to do with your father?”
“Well, I never heard of anybody else who did such marvelous things with animals. Bagheera was one of Dad’s too, you know. Almost the last.”
He drew a deep breath. “Kate dear, would you please begin at the beginning?”
Eyes troubled and full of sadness, she said, “I guess I ought to. I remember asking if you knew about my father, and you said sure, he was Henry Lilleberg the neurophysiologist, and I left it at that. But it was a prime example of what you said only an hour ago Precipice is designed to cure. Slap a label on and forget about it. Say ‘neurophysiologist’ and you conjure up a stock picture of the sort of person who will dissect out a nervous system, analyze it in vitro, publish the findings and go away content, forgetting that the rest of the animal ever existed. That isn’t a definition of my father! When I was a little girl he used to bring me amazing pets, which never lasted long because they were already old. But they’d been of service at his labs, and as a result he couldn’t bear to throw them down the incinerator chute. He used to say he owed them a bit of fun because he’d cheated them of it when they were young.”