This is stupid, he thought. I can’t change any of it, and neither can Herlander. Not only that, I know perfectly well that all that pain is just eating away at him, adding itself to the anger. The man’s turning into some kind of time bomb, and there’s not a damned thing I can do about it. He’s going to snap — it’s only a matter of time — and I was wrong when I downplayed his probable reactions to Bardasano. The break is coming, and when it gets here, he’s going to be so damned angry — and so unconcerned about whatever else might happen to him — that he’s going to do something really, really foolish. I don’t know what, but I’ve come to know him well enough to know that much. And it’s my job to keep him from doing that.

It was bizarre. He was the man charged with keeping Simões together, keeping him working — effectively working — on his critical research projects. And with seeing to it that if the time ever came that Simões self-destructed, he didn’t damage those projects. And yet, despite that, what he felt was not the urgent need to protect the Alignment’s crucial interests, but to somehow help the man he was supposed to be protecting them from. To find some way to prevent him from destroying himself.

To find some way to heal at least some of the hurt which had been inflicted upon him.

Jack McBryde raised his glass to take another sip of whiskey, then froze as that last thought went through his mind.

Inflicted, he thought. Inflicted on him. That’s what you’re really thinking, isn’t it, Jack? Not that it’s just one of those terrible things that sometimes happens, but that it didn’t have to happen.

Something icy seemed to trickle through his veins as he realized what he’d just allowed himself to admit to himself. The trained security professional in him recognized the danger of allowing himself to think anything of the sort, but the human being in him — the part of him that was Christina and Thomas McBryde’s son — couldn’t stop thinking it.

It wasn’t the first time his thoughts had strayed in that direction, he realized slowly as he recalled past doubts about the wisdom of the Long-Range Planning Board’s master plan, its drive to master the intricacies, shape the best instruments for the attainment of humanity’s destiny.

Where did we change course? he wondered. When did we shift from the maximizing of every individual into producing neat little bricks for a carefully designed edifice? What would Leonard Detweiler think if he were here today, looking at the Board’s decisions? Would he have thrown away a little girl whose father loved her so desperately? Would he have rejected Herlander’s offer to shoulder the full financial burden of caring for her? And, if he would have, what does that say about where we’ve been from the very beginning?

He thought about Fabre’s memo again, about the thoughts and attitudes behind it. He never doubted that Fabre had been completely sincere, that she’d truly been attempting to protect Simões from the consequences of his own mad, quixotic effort to reverse the irreversible. But hadn’t that been Simões’ decision? Hadn’t he had the right to at least fight for his daughter’s life? To choose to destroy himself, if that was what it came to, in an effort to save someone he loved that much?

Is this really what we’re all about? About having the Board make those decisions for all of us in its infinite wisdom? What happens if it decides it doesn’t need any random variations any more? What happens if the only children it permits are the ones which have been specifically designed for its star genomes?

He took another, deeper sip of whiskey, and his fingers tightened around the glass.

Hypocrite, he thought. You’re a fucking hypocrite, Jack. You’ve known — known for forty years — that that’s exactly what the Board has in mind for all those “normals” out there. Of course, you didn’t think about it that way, did you? No, you thought about how much good it was going to do. How their children, and their grandchildren and their great-grandchildren would thank you for allowing them to share in the benefits of the systematic improvement of the species. Sure, you knew a lot of people would be unhappy, that they wouldn’t voluntarily surrender their children’s futures to someone else, but that was stupid of them, wasn’t it? It was only because they’d been brainwashed by those bastards on Beowulf. Because they were automatically prejudiced against anything carrying the “genie” stigma. Because they were ignorant, unthinking normals, not an alpha line like you.

But now — now that you see it happening to someone else who’s also an alpha line. When you see it happening to Herlander, and you realize it could have happened to your parents, or to your brother, or your sisters . . . or some day to you. Now you suddenly discover you have doubts.

He dragged in a deep, shuddering breath and wondered how the warmth and love and caring of his family could have crystallized this dark, barren night of the soul for him.

It’s only fatigue — emotional and physical fatigue, he told himself, but he didn’t believe it. He knew it went deeper and farther than that. Just as he knew that anyone who found himself suddenly experiencing the doubts he was experiencing, asking the questions he found himself asking, should immediately seek counseling.

And just as he knew he wasn’t going to do anything of the sort.