“Problem, Ma’am?”

“Herlander Simões,” she said, and he grimaced. She saw his expression and nodded.

“I know he’s been under a lot of strain, Ma’am,” he began, “but, so far, he’s been holding up his end of his project, and –”

“Jack, I’m not criticizing his performance so far. And I’m certainly not criticizing the way you’ve handled him so far, either. But he’s deeply involved in the entire streak drive improvement program, and that’s one of our critical research areas. For that matter, he’s got peripheral involvement in at least two other projects. I think, under the circumstances, it’s probably appropriate for us to show a little additional concern in his case.”

McBryde nodded.

“Tell me more about how you think this is affecting him,” she invited, tipping back in her chair. “I’ve already read half a dozen psych analyses on him, and I’ve discussed his reactions — and his attitude — with Dr. Fabre. The people writing those analyses aren’t in charge of directly supervising his performance, though. I know you’re not either — not in the sense of being his direct superior — but I want your evaluation from a pragmatic viewpoint.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

McBryde inhaled deeply and took a few moments to organize his thoughts. Bardasano’s penchant for demanding operational evaluations on the fly was well known. She’d always believed that what she liked to call “snap quizzes” were the best way to get at what someone really thought, but she also believed in giving her unfortunate minions time to think before they started spewing less than completely considered responses.

“To begin with,” he said finally, “I have to admit I never really knew Simões — either Simões — in any sort of social sense before all of this came up. For that matter, I still don’t. My impression, though, is that the LRPB’s decision to cull the girl really ripped him up inside.”

My, he thought. Isn’t that a bloodless way to describe what that man has been going through? And isn’t it just like those bastards over at the LRPB to have failed to consider all the unfortunate little social consequences of their decisions?

Bardasano nodded, although her own expression didn’t even flicker. Of course, she represented one of Long-Range Planning’s in vitro lines, McBryde reminded himself, and one which had been culled more than once, itself. For that matter, at least one of her own immediate clones had been culled, and not until late adolescence, at that, if he remembered correctly. Still, while the culled Bardasano had been the next best thing to a genetic duplicate to Isabel (not quite; there’d been a few experimental differences, of course), it had scarcely been what the word “brother” or “sister” would have implied to a man like Jack McBryde. Like a lot — even the majority — of LRPB’s in vitro children, she’d been tube-birthed and crèche-raised, not placed in a regular family environment or encouraged to form sibling bonds with her fellow clones. No one had ever officially told McBryde anything of the sort, but he strongly suspected that lack of encouragement represented a deliberate policy on the Board’s part — a way to avoid the creation of potentially conflicting loyalties. So maybe this was simply too far outside her own experience for her to have more than a purely intellectual appreciation for Herlander Simões’ anguish.

“I understand he tried to fight the decision,” she said.

“Yes, Ma’am,” McBryde confirmed, although “fight the decision” was a pitifully pale description of Simões’ frantic resistance.

“There was never much chance he was going to get a reversal, though,” he continued. “According to my information, the LRPB directors considered it a slam dunk, given the quality of life issues that reinforced the utilitarian ones.”

Bardasano nodded again. Despite the qualifier on his own familiarity with the case, McBryde knew quite a lot about it. He knew Herlander Simões — and his wife, apparently — had lowered their emotional defenses when Francesca made it through the anticipated danger zone with flying colors. Which had only made the agony infinitely worse when the first symptoms appeared two years late.

Having them turn up on the very day of her birthday must have been like an extra kick in the heart, and as if that hadn’t been enough, her condition had degenerated with astounding speed. On her birthday, there’d been no outward visible sign at all; within six T-months, the bright, lively child McBryde had seen in the Simões’ security file imagery had disappeared. Within ten T-months, she’d completely withdrawn from the world about her. She’d been totally nonresponsive. She’d simply sat there, not even chewing food if someone put it into her mouth.

“I’ve read the reports on the girl’s condition,” Bardasano said dispassionately. “Frankly, I can’t say the Board’s decision surprises me.”

“As I say, I don’t think there was ever much chance of a reversal, either,” McBryde agreed. “He didn’t want to hear that, though. He kept pointing at the activity showing on the electroencephalograms, and he was absolutely convinced they proved that, as he put it,’ she was still in there somewhere.’ He simply refused to admit her condition was unrecoverable. He was certain that if the medical staff just kept trying long enough, they’d be able to get through to her, reverse her condition.”

“After all the effort they’d already put into solving the same problem in previous cases?” Bardasano grimaced.

“I didn’t say he was being logical about it,” McBryde pointed out. “Although he did make the point that because this child had made it further than any of the others had, she represented the best opportunity the Board would ever have — or had ever had so far, at any rate — to achieve an actual breakthrough.”

“Do you think he really believed that? Or was it just an effort to come up with an argument which wouldn’t be dismissed out of hand?”

“I think it was a bit of both, actually. He was desperate enough to come up with any argument he could possibly find, but it’s my personal opinion that he was even angrier because he genuinely believed the Board was turning its back on a possibility.”

And, McBryde added silently, because those brain scans were still showing activity. That’s why he kept insisting she was really still there, even if none of it was making it to the surface. And he also knew how little of the Board’s resources would actually be tied up in the effort to get her back for him. He figured the return to the Alignment in general if they succeeded would hugely exceed the cost . . . and that the investment would keep his daughter alive. Maybe even return her to him one day.

“At any rate,” he went on aloud, “the Board didn’t agree with his assessment. Their official decision was that there was no reasonable prospect of reversing her condition. That it would have been an ultimately futile diversion of resources. And as for the apparent EEG activity, that only made the situation even worse from the quality-of-life perspective. They decided that condemning her to a complete inability to interact with the world around her — assuming she was even still aware there was a world around her — would be needlessly cruel.”

Which sounded so compassionate of them, he thought. It may even have been that way, for some of them, at least.

“So they went ahead and terminated her,” Bardasano finished.

“Yes, Ma’am.” McBryde allowed his nostrils to flare. “And, while I understand the basis for their decision, from the perspective of Simões’ effectiveness, I have to say that the fact that they terminated her just one day short of her birthday was . . . unfortunate.”

Bardasano grimaced — this time in obvious understanding and agreement.

“The LRPB goes to great lengths to keep its decision-making process as institutionalized and impersonal as possible as the best way of preventing favoritism and special-case pleading,” she said. “That means it’s all pretty much . . . automated, especially after the decision’s been made. But I imagine you’re right. In a case like this, showing a little more sensitivity might not have been out of order.”

“In light of the effect on him, you’re absolutely right,” McBryde said. “It hammered his wife, too, of course, but I think it hit him even harder. Or, at least, I think it’s had more serious consequences in terms of his effectiveness.”

“She left him?” Bardasano’s tone made it clear the question was actually a statement, and McBryde nodded.