6 am, GMT, Friday, October 24th, 2132, Masseria Stiffelio, Puglia

"Where am I?" asked Slavica, opening her eyes to see Michael holding her hand on one side of the bed, and a nursebot cradling a baby boy on the other. She seemed to be in a standard hospital environment.

"We're in Puglia," said Michael. "You fell down the stairs at the Institute and got severe concussion. The doctors said there had to be a Caesarian, so I got you out here immediately and they did it."

The nurse gave Slavica the baby to hold, and it sucked avidly at her breast.

"But why here?" she puzzled.

"I bought the Masseria," said Michael. "At least, they rented it to me and I have an option to buy if they can't find an owner, and they're sure they won't. They're not even trying. It seemed a good place for you to be. I had half of the second floor ripped out, and there's a maternity unit with an operating theatre."

"Oh," said Slavica. "Rich is good, sometimes. But why didn't I know about it? I'm supposed to be in charge of this place."

Michael coughed. "I think there is a notification in your mail-box at the house; but I managed to persuade them that there was no need for too much information to be spread around."

"Oh," repeated Slavica. "I see. Rich is bad sometimes, as well."

"Safer this way," concluded Michael.

"Mongolia might have been safer. This is the heart of mafia territory."

"Just where they won't look for you," said Michael, reassuringly, but privately cursing himself. "I must admit I hadn't thought of that. We have to get you away from here as soon as possible."

"How was Ferdinand?" asked Slavica. A week before, with the birth still theoretically a month away, they had decided to ask Ferdinand to start the process of unveiling the new RCC to the Assembly. Final tests, at least up to the level of 100 participants, had shown no lessening of performance, and Slavica was supremely confident that there would be no limit on the size of the participating group.

"A bit hesitant, to be honest," admitted Michael. "He does see that it's right, and inevitable, but he can't quite see how to get them to agree to give up their nice fizz privileges. So he was going to try to convince some of the more open-minded leaders to try it, so they would be converted, at least on a personal level, and then gradually build up a majority on the Scientific Advisory Committee."

"That will take forever," said Slavica, "and all the time it will get more and more dangerous for the Institute. And me. I suppose we always knew it, but that was before him. Peter, I want to call him, if you agree."

"Sure, Peter. Of course. What else!"

"What next?" asked Slavica, plaintively. "I can't stay here. I can't bring him up in the Institute. But I've still got to go there."

They had discussed it often enough while Slavica was pregnant, without reaching a conclusion. Michael's suggestion was to buy a house near the Institute with another harness assembly, have bodyguards everywhere, a bullet-proof car with blacked-out windows for the daily trip to the Institute. Slavica had trouble accepting such a constrained life. "I won't be able to think straight," she kept saying. Now there seemed to be no option. "I won't quit the Institute," she insisted, although of course that would have made everything so much simpler.

"The baby is premature," said Michael. "He seems perfectly OK, but there needs to be intensive care here for a couple of weeks at least. And you're not exactly well, yourself. There doesn't seem to be any permanent damage, but the docbots have to watch you for a bit. I've gone ahead with buying a house on Long Island; it's only five miles from the Institute and they're doing the conversion work now. In three weeks' time it'll be ready, and I'll take you to Rome. It's a long way, but Bari and the jopper is just too dangerous. Then we'll use my own stratocruiser to go to Kennedy."

"I suppose so," said Slavica. "It doesn't seem real to me. But what can I do? Where are you, officially, so to speak?"

"In China," Michael grinned. "I'll have to go back there tomorrow. I was actually there last week when you fell down the stairs; Sven organized everything and we met up in Rome the day before yesterday. Sorry, but I had to tell him the truth. He was very happy to have a real sibling at last! He doesn't know about the other one. I'll come back here once you're ready to go."

"So when was . . . Peter actually born?"

"This morning. Three hours ago. They kept you in an induced coma for the birth; it was safer and you would have had to have a full anaesthetic otherwise. How do you feel?"

"Oh, I don't know. OK. Physically OK. My mind is clear. And I'm happy, so happy to have him. Happy with you. But not moving I don't like. How long will I have to stay cooped up like this?"

"Just another few hours, they said. Just time to give the wound a chance to settle down. By tomorrow morning you should be able to get out of bed. But it'll be a few days before you're properly mobile. Best if you don't go out of the house, though, in case there's a satellite watching. Nothing and nobody can get near the house, in any case, but it's good if nobody knows you're here. We've capped off the location monitors in New York, just in case. Frans put on a software patch. Theoretically no-one outside the location team can get at the info, in any case, and Ferdinand trusts them; but better safe than sorry."

"What about the staff here?" worried Slavica. "Couldn't they be subverted?"

"They're all bots," said Michael. "I had them all replaced anyway when I bought the place. I tried to think through all the possible weak spots. I can't be sure I thought of everything. but I don't think it's any more dangerous for you to be here than anywhere else. It's traveling that is an issue, and would be anywhere. When we go to Rome, that's the difficult moment. I can't hide the plane, and you might think they wonder what I'm doing in Italy. I don't think they can have followed us here, I was ultra careful and we danced around in various cars and ambulances to make sure. We'll be just as careful going back."

He paused, but could see that Slavica was worried.

"Anyway, we are probably worrying unnecessarily. Even if they know about the RCC work, they won't see it as a threat until it's public enough for them to understand what it will mean, and by then it'll be pointless for them to attack me or you because the cat will be out of the bag. Even now, they'd have to deal with me as well as you, since you gave me the code structure."

"But they don't know that," said Slavica nervously. "They're only guessing, anyway, based on scraps of information, and the one person who is clearly at the centre of it all is me. If nothing else, getting rid of me would be a big setback for the program."

She laughed. "Ouch! That hurt."

"Let's talk about something nicer. What's done is done. Tell me about Betty. How you met, her parents, all that. Now I'm officially family, so to speak, at least for Sven, I need to bone up!"


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