His Take, Her Take

It is my pleasure and a privilege to be joining acclaimed author and writer James LaFond in the launch of Gender in Fiction: His Take/Her Take, where we will be examining gender and sexuality in classical and contemporary literature.

Visit jameslafond.com to share in reviews of works that continue to shape how gender is portrayed -- our newest joint review will be a fun look at Queen of the Black Coast by Robert E. Howard (author of Conan). Join us for masterpieces and mistakes.


On a distant planet of the Homeworld Alliance, Dr. Stephen Weller, acclaimed expert in behaviour, is about to penetrate one of the great mysteries of his field. After months of determined planning and care, he will finally enter Altair Base, a high security experimental research facility, whose dark work has as its only focus the war efforts against the hostile planets of the Outworlds.

There he will meet the being known as Tau 4, the terrible, and now uncontrollable brainchild of Dyle Carzon - brilliant, enigmatic, and ruthless - the force behind a military project that has traveled a shadowed and increasingly bloody path from medical miracle to the edge of horrific destruction.

But Weller is not what he appears to be.

This is a story of deceit and betrayal, of obsession and determination. It chronicles the universal struggle between strength and right, the clash between creator and created. TAU 4 takes the reader to strange worlds of storm and ancient jungle, to the life and death battle of a warrior people and to the unavoidable conflict of a man who refuses to accept the limits of his own humanity, and a creature who is just beginning to learn her own.



Sample Chapters

Prologue - Odyssey

Prologue - Odyssey

“Dr. Weller.” The voice was soft, precise, non- intrusive. Well trained. Stephen Weller's grey eyes narrowed as he looked up. In the brittle calcimine light of the shuttlecraft cabin, his digital notepad shone brightly before him, throwing a rainbow of coloured lights across his chest. And in the panel screen beside his seat, the image of the visored head of the shuttle pilot had just materialised into inquisitive life.

“Excuse me, Sir. Just letting you know. We'll be landing at Altair Base in less than an hour.”

Weller nodded.

Then he smiled, very deliberately. He wanted to convey a clear message of innocent compliance, a compliance which would be registered in the visual record that he knew the pilot was making, a record that was even now being sent on to the Base itself.

The screen went to a satisfied black.

How many lies? How many lies does it take to make one thing true? Weller pushed back his dark hair and looked down one last time at the file opened so mockingly before him. Explicitly and very descriptively, it told him what everyone already knew about what awaited him at the Base. Absolutely nothing. He glanced out the shuttle's window, his eyes finding the second moon rising creamy white against the glowing hues of the Altairan dusk. The shuttle banked gently. He shifted in his seat to better appreciate the view. Below them, an endless expanse of rainforest stretched in all directions; ancient, mysterious, trees marching in unbroken line, from horizon to horizon, as far as Weller could see.

There was no end to it. It was an old forest, old almost beyond record. Of all the planets in the Homeworld Alliance, few other than Altair had the perfect union of lush climate and isolation to support anywhere near such luxuriant growth. This was true frontier. Altair had seen its first settlers a scant three hundred years before and the burden of serious technology for less than a century. And still the jungles successfully resisted every attempt at real penetration. All in all, it was the ideal setting for a high security research venture like the Base.

It's because we're not here, thought Weller, wryly. We can hardly get into this place. To this forest, we're nothing; we're not really here at all. He drew closer to the view port. In the clear light of dusk, he picked out flocks of basilisks, their red-tipped leathery wings flapping noiselessly as they made their way just above the canopy. As ubiquitous as birds on other worlds, they were not yet as populous as the wdji-ko, those tiny prosimian hermaphrodites whose numbers had swollen to near pest proportions on so many of the tropical Rim Planets. Here, these colourful little dragons were known as palú; small and feisty, they were as eager to feast on one another as on anything else. Two paused mid-flight, pirouetting fantastically, flashing scimitar- edged claws at one another in brief display, their raucous cries nearly drowned out by the sibilant purr of the shuttle.

Weller's gaze returned to the small, efficient cabin. For a brief moment, his bright eyes focused on nothing as his thoughts raced ahead to his destination. Altair Base.

Then for the last time, he afforded himself the luxury of a real smile, deep and sardonic. The pilot would continue to watch him; right up to the moment they landed. He knew that. But he had never needed any reminders of his peril. From now on, the only Stephen Weller that would be seen by anyone here would be as carefully composed and as obscure as the smile he had flashed only moments ago. And just as meaningless.

The meticulous planning of the last six months had at last paid off. He was finally getting inside. And in just twenty-four hours more...

He settled into his seat to wait.

Nestled in thickly forested mountains and nearly indistinguishable, the Base was the premier facility of its kind in biomechanical genetic research. In its early days, scientific leaders from every planet in the Homeworld Alliance had flocked there simply for the chance to stare speechless with wonder at the latest marvels in biophysical interface generation and neuromatrix conversion. But it was for what would soon become pioneering work in genetic substrate manipulation, the fusion of the genetic material from vastly different animal sources, that Altair became unsurpassed.

And, just as soon, unstoppable. It took no genius to see from what source the minds at Altair drew their terrible inspiration. Each experiment darker and more deadly than the last, its research engines soon began to propel themselves ever more rapidly forward, their purpose much more sinister than that of a questionable route to mankind's salvation. Skillfully designed, maximally secure and at unimaginable cost, the Base's sole function was to exploit every scientific means available to ensure the continued military dominion of the Alliance, in whatever novel System it chose to impose itself.

It became a military installation par none. To allay the public's feeble suspicions, there were the yearly despatches of life-saving miracles, the medical cures and wonders culled from the planet’s forests. But for those more astute, there came dark rumours; whispers of monstrous procedures whose horrifying results were designed to be ready-made grist for the hungry vagaries of the Alliance's military strategists.

The unvarnished truth about the Base was cloaked from even her sister facilities, including the Neurotechnical Institute on the far side of the planet that this particular shuttle passenger might have called home.

For a score of years, the two institutions had waged intellectual war, friendly at first, then increasingly more hostile, as the Base continued to eclipse its partner in fame, secrecy, and power. Dr. Abrams, Weller's mentor and the Institute leader in the field of behavioural conditioning, had long suspected that his competitor tenured darker secrets than were good for anyone and could only watch helplessly as the cloaks of secrecy wound tighter and more densely around the fledgling installation on the far side of the planet's thick jungles.

But as time passed, there were to be no opportunities to intervene. Suiting everyone's interests to perfection, the Alliance's declared, diligently maintained truce was fragile. It yielded equilibrium, encouraging badly needed commerce while still permitting a strategically continual state of near war to loom eternally between the Homeworlds and the enemy planets of the Out Worlds. The Military remained firmly behind the Base in all its activities. No one would contest what happened here under the cover of jungle night and determinate seclusion.

Not that attempts had not been made. In recent years, many of the keenest scientific minds in the System had systematically monitored the Base, their alarm growing until open dissension finally reached the planet’s Government. But at the last, even the established heads of state were officially powerless to interfere. Invasion by the Out Worlders was a continuous threat to the Homeworlds. As long as that danger existed, the Base would operate unchecked. The Military would prevail. Altair Base would keep its power.

And Weller knew as well as anyone that the author and wellspring of that power was Dyle Carzon.

Dyle Carzon had been here since the first stones of the Base had been set into the jungle floor. His rise had been prodigious. While yet in his teens, his applications of genetic substrate fusions alone had revolutionised his field.

Now, only a handful of men yet living could approach his capabilities; his steady and continued brilliance had made him the unquestioned leader at the then new facility. But it was Carzon's savage intellect and charisma that established him as the undisputed ruler here. His understanding of human nature and motivation was legendary. And as the might and prestige of Altair Base grew, Carzon grew with it. His mind unfathomable and complex, his actions subtle, unpredictable and often cruel; he was feared by all. Few dared oppose him. They had good cause. Weller had heard stories about those who crossed Dyle Carzon. They became silent. They disappeared.

And it was everything the Military had hoped for. Through Carzon's sorcery, the Base was transformed. A steady stream of men would come, men who would be tested, evaluated and invariably rejected until Carzon, his intent satisfied, unwavering in his purpose and now certain of his supreme dominion, installed his perfect team. Blindly loyal, united in mastery, they were men whose reputations were soon to become as shocking as his own.

So that when Carzon assumed the Directorship, it was with absolute authority that he took steps to accomplish his dream. And in less than two decades, he had forged an empire, a scientific machine that permitted him to push back the limits of human enquiry. With the might of the Military behind him, his vision was made flesh. His work was groundbreaking, unspeakable, beyond the scope of men's dreams and nightmares.

It was this work that now drew Weller here, work so incredible and covert that no one at Neuro could discuss it. He was not alone in knowing almost nothing of the Project. But in this particular case, what Weller didn't know was very likely to kill him.

He had met Carzon only once before.

He remembered being struck by the man's physical grace and the uncanny power of his gaze. Carzon was tall, his body hardened by training, his movements as fluid as those of the animals he studied and revered, the great carnivorous felids of the Altairan jungles. Most similar in size and proportion to the extinct paleofelids of Earth, they were enormous, savage predators. As large and fearsome as the long-dead Dinictus, the great cats of Altair were untamable. They killed with terrifying readiness. No man knew them as did Carzon and it was around these celebrated creatures that he had focused his work.

Unexpectedly, his obsession had borne deadly fruit.

For Carzon had made an extraordinary breakthrough in his research. And on the verge of what should have been brilliant triumph, something had gone suddenly and fearfully awry.

In less than an hour, it would begin. Weller would be face to face with something whose fame, if only as vague whispers and increasingly wild conjecture, had spread well beyond the emerald confines of Altair's jungles.

Something called Tau 4.

And all he had to do was stay alive.

Chapter 1 - Altair Base

Chapter 1 - Altair Base

Dyle Carzon knew something was wrong long before he heard the shrill alarm sirens erupt angrily into violent life, filling the pristine corridors of Altair Base with deadly, insistent, sound.

Call it premonition. It wouldn't be the first time since this Project had begun. Before the first note had sounded, he was already on his way, running to Tau's quarters before anyone else was even dimly aware that catastrophe had occurred.

Even at this distance he could hear it. The fading echo of the morph's scream still hung in the air –guttural, metallic, always unearthly. The scream hadn't come from Tau; that he knew with absolute certainty. He had always been able to distinguish her vocal patterns from amongst those of any of the other morphs. All of the morphs had the capability of producing sounds in frequencies beyond the range of human hearing. But this terrible cry had cut off short. Tremulous and desperate, it had never gone higher than mid-range. Always within the range of hearing, it could only have been a death-scream, the last sound the creature would ever make.

That alone told him it was bad this time, very bad.

Tall and agile, he started to run faster, pushing people out of his way. So absorbed was he as he moved through the press of Security and Medical personnel, that he barely noticed when Block fell into step beside him.

Even with the confusion of sirens everywhere and men and women streaming past, with eyes as cold and nearly colourless as his hair, Carzon's trusted Military advisor showed none of his apprehension. The halls brimmed with the clear signs of disaster, but Block's actions were governed now as they were always. Secretive and oppressively demanding, his sharp mind moved under an unrelenting, icy ambition. He had worked so long and so closely with Carzon that he seemed almost a living extension of his Director. It was exactly as Carzon wished it; he was a man who needed satellites rather than colleagues. The two moved on in silence, Carzon finally rousing himself to bare civility when Tyler also pushed through the press to join them.

“Status, Tyler.”

The little man hesitated. In his long years as scientific coordinator, Tyler was used to having to justify setback, even outright failure. Placating and resilient, it was what he did best.

But not this time. His fingers hovered anxiously over his plain lab coat.

“No change from the initial report. Carzon, I don't know what to say, I just don't understand how this happened.”

“Yes. That's clear. Do you think you can figure out how to kill the alarms?

We don't need more confusion. Do we. “

Tyler stiffened, busying himself, visibly relieved when Carzon turned his attention elsewhere.


The tall man snapped to attention, seemingly mid-stride. “Yes, Carzon.”

“Keep your eyes open. For a change.”

The three who had ruled here virtually unchallenged for so long now marched forward as one. They crossed the last security checkpoint and entered Prime One, where the most dangerous and highly secured experiments were housed.

From the throng of Security and Project people jamming the corridor outside Tau's quarters, a shocked and excited chatter rose to meet them, a chatter that died away the moment Carzon stepped into view. Before he had even reached the door, the Director shot a look at Tyler, who was happy to hang back among the mass of people milling fearfully outside. There was nothing for him to do in that room and he knew it.

Carzon and Block pushed their way within.

Just inside the door, Carzon was now keenly aware of the palpable surge of mingled fear and desperation that met and rolled over him like a wave. But he was untouched by it. To one such as he, inconsequential and nearly contemptible seemed the white faces that turned distractedly to face his. The room might just as well have been empty, so unerringly did his gaze flash across, penetrating the apprehensive crowd, fixing on the single thing of any significance.

At the far end of the suite, a core of Medical personnel worked frantically over a body which was sprawled limply on the floor. Block and Carzon moved quickly forward. In profound silence, the two men looked down on pure carnage at their feet.

What lay stretched on the floor before them had once been a slightly built young man, well muscled and lithe. His near-perfect limbs were unscathed, with no signs of wounds or even bruises. His body was untouched.

But the head was cruelly pulled to one side. Lying at a vicious angle, it jutted harshly away from the rest of the neck, twisted back upon itself. The ashen throat had been ripped open. There, whole sections of vertebrae protruded, stark white against the bloody foam still streaming down his chest.

In a scornful crimson line, from the torn remains of one once-graceful eyebrow to a point under the shattered chin – the livid mark of talons. Slices of skin, still bleeding, hung loose across one cheek where nails, sharp and of no known animal form, had cut deeply into the tissue.

And across the dead face, a smile was fixed coldly in the stiffening flesh.

From the midst of those by the body, a woman rose stiffly to her feet. Unaffected by the reddening carcass below her, Dr. Temwold looked straight at Carzon. Her bright brown eyes were direct, but curiously devoid of emotion and her low voice held the merest trace of sarcasm as Carzon now turned to face her.

“Well, Carzon. It’s nice work. But you should expect that by now.”

“Enough, Temwold. Just give me the damage.”

“Probable compression fractures at C3 through 6. Clavicle rupture at the sternal insertion. And just to be absolutely certain -- she crushed his neck.” Carzon looked again at the gape of ripped throat and darkly oozing face.

“Crushed his neck?” Temwold calmly folded her tools. “You can see for yourself. The cord is soup. And there isn't going to be a single thing that I...” Such was the relationship between Block and all others here that he cut her off.

“Is there going to be any possible salvage at all?”

She regarded the Military man with measured scorn.

“There's no time,” she murmured softly. “In two minutes, the genetic fractions will fail.” Then she leaned closer to Carzon in a bizarre mockery of intimacy. “Kiss this one goodbye, Carzon.”

He looked away and his voice was a whisper of barely controlled rage.

“Fuck.” His eyes searched the room, coming to rest on a young woman at the far corner.

As slightly built as the young man on the floor, with limbs curled gracefully beneath her, she sat languidly on a tabletop. The two Security men that stood directly before her blinked mindlessly in fear. With rigid, whiteknuckled hands, they clutched their sonic rifles in what they hoped was a threatening manner. It was unnecessary. The girl on the table utterly ignored them.

The frantic obeisance of the Medical team fell on deaf ears. Their Director's gaze was riveted on Temwold as she moved to the girl seemingly carven in stone.

“Tau.” Temwold said, wearily. “I don't understand.”

The young woman on the table pushed long, tapering fingers through her golden hair. The wide blue eyes she turned on Temwold were troubled. But her voice, low and melodious, was resolutely firm.

“You, of all people, should.”

“He was your friend, he trusted you! Gerda, how could you do this?”

Those blue eyes flashed unexpectedly as the girl took a deep breath.

“Because he was my friend. He asked me to. And I promised him I would.

That's how.” Then Tau looked away.

Temwold studied the young woman before her. How beautiful she would be, she thought. If she were only completely human...

The scientist was used to the illusion that was created when they eventually produced a stable morph form. All the morphs started as human. It was usually only some time after the addition of the non-human substrates that the final form of the creatures would be revealed, often to the very great surprise of them all. Temwold and team had been mixing radically different genetic substrates for years, in hopes of creating new genetic recombinants that could survive. What was produced was largely a matter of trial and error, the horrendous mistakes expiring quickly, mercifully, never leaving the laboratory tables.

But what successes they did achieve were both extraordinary and thrilling, and not solely due to their incredible rarity. Once in a long while, the mix was perfect and something like Gerda Tau would be created, a recombinant that was a living and breathing reality. A creature that seemed almost completely human.

Yet, a creature that was much more. For it was an illusion. In spite of Tau's near perfect human female form, Temwold knew that of all the morphs created in the Project, Gerda was the most powerful and by far, the deadliest. Tau always looked too small and delicate to be capable of the bloody havoc that was by now a signature. And it had been a long, long, time since Tau had shown any remorse for her handiwork.

But this time was different. There was an unaccustomed uncertainty in Tau's eyes, a slight trembling in the girl’s shoulders. To one less knowing, the morph's body would have spelled nothing less than absolute calm. But Temwold had known this girl for some time; few were closer to her. She saw the active will, the composure. And she also saw that the girl's finely molded hands were clenched tightly in her lap.

Unexpectedly, Tau looked at her, an unspoken plea in the clear blue eyes.

But Temwold looked away. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I won't be able to get you out of this one. Whatever happens, I won't be able to help you,” she said.

There was just a trace of surprise on Gerda's face. “I know, “ she said softly. Temwold walked back to the body on the floor.

Its delicate features, once so fair, were changing. Softening, growing less and less distinct, the different elements of man and something not-man warred savagely from within. Now, it was impossible to say which was which, as the forms shifted ever more convulsively back and forth in a terrible, increasingly violent struggle. Then it was done; first the skin, and finally the muscles began to break down. The tissues were melting under their own weight, until finally what had once been apparently human was only an apparition from a nightmare.

Carzon watched in silence. Then his eyes glittered strangely and he turned to Temwold.

“You'll be right outside. Won't you.”

It was not a question. Temwold quickly left the room as one last time, Carzon looked down in disgust at the unholy thing on the floor. “Get that...body..out of here, “ he growled. “And clear this room. Now. “ When the last Security guard had closed the door behind him, Carzon looked across at Gerda with cold fury. He crossed the room with slow deliberation, stopping directly in front of her. The beautiful profile remained averted with studied indifference.

“My dear Gerda. What have we done now.” The question came out like a soft snarl.

On the girl’s full, curving lips, darkened to true carnelian by the presence of the alien substrates, there was a smile. Her answer was a near perfect mimicry of his own tone.

“My dear Carzon. I would think it's obvious, isn't it? He wanted to die; I just helped him.” But her eyes flashed as she gazed coolly at him. “And I'd be happy – so very happy – to extend the same favour – to you. How would you like that?”

“I'd like to break your fucking neck. “

Tau's laugh was tremulous with cold delight. “But you won't, will you.” she asked, very gaily. “ You can't afford to. Not any more. Go ahead, Carzon, I'd love to hear you explain this to your superiors. Go and tell them how you're down to just one morph because I've gone and killed the other one. You can't hurt him anymore.” She slid down from the table to face him. “And you don't dare touch me.”

He looked down at her beautiful face, now raised up, unafraid, in staunch and determined challenge.

Here we are again, he thought bitterly. Standing just barely apart, close enough to touch. So much closer than just inches away. So much closer, indeed. Her face was just a breath away from his, so near to him that the scent of her hair and skin filled his nostrils and, without realising it, he inhaled deeply, tasting their achingly familiar, strangely inhuman fragrance. The girl’s eyes sparkled again. And in spite of his knowing every perfect line, every contour of her face, despite his legendary will and iron self-control – he was enthralled; moved yet unmoving, lost in profound fascination.

Because now, from somewhere far below in their midnight depths, a strange copper fire was rising, growing until the blue of those eyes so close to his glinted like azure sparks on the billows of a unearthly fire-coloured sea. And his own bright gaze was locked to hers, to those eyes whose pupils were no longer circular, no longer completely human. For a moment, he stopped thinking, intoxicated once more by the sensation that suddenly coursed through him. By her nearness and the nearly human eyes turned up to his. His hand rose up to her face. The long fingers passed close to her cheek, never touching, tracing her jaw line as his voice lowered to a bare, impassioned whisper. And now his eyes gleamed with something more than simple malice.

“Believe me, Tau. I intend to do a lot more than just...touch you.”

Then he turned on his heel and strode from the room.

Her quarters seemed suddenly darker and ominously quiet. The breath she had been holding came out of Gerda in a long, low rush. Slowly, she walked back to the place where the young man's body had lain. Curling her long, powerful limbs, she knelt down, bereft, seemingly as small and impotent as the child she felt herself to be, lost in thought. A smooth white hand reached out, hesitated, and the long fingers quivered. Then the girl gently touched the bloodstained floor.

What have you done, Gerda? What have we done?

There it was again. Her eyes, dark blue with emotion, closed tightly against it. Ghostly, relentless, like something heard in dream; the faint, sweet, voice in her head. And the morph frowned and covered her open mouth with trembling hand, unable now at the last to tell if it was his voice that she heard, or her own.

Tense with unaccustomed dread, Temwold waited in the deserted corridor as Carzon breezed out from Tau's rooms. Without a moment's hesitation, he walked to her and grabbed her tightly by the arm. She felt herself pulled forward as if suddenly weightless. Before she could utter any protest, Carzon hauled her into the ready room beside Tau's quarters, where he threw her, nearly off her feet, to the far side of the room.

The door clicked shut behind them. For one long breathless moment, there Carzon rested, his whip-like back firmly pressed against the only exit, coolly watching her as she glared at him, all anger and indignation, her face white with fury.

“Just who the Hell do you think you are? “ she cried. “ I'm not Gerda Tau!” Feel fear now, he thought.

And he smiled at her, smiled with obvious pleasure at her unmistakable dismay. And at her unmistakable helplessness, so apparent to them both.

“No. You're not Gerda Tau. But we both know who I am, don't we?” Large, richly coloured and riveting, his eyes glittered at her. Whatever dark dreams came from Carzon's work, the evidence of them was nowhere to be found on the face of the man who gazed at her with such fearsome gravity. The high forehead was lofty and unlined. Dark-haired, with classic features, his strong jaw line gave only a hint of that terrible intellect, the darkly celebrated will. He was an astonishingly handsome man, never so mesmerising, nor so dangerous as when he was just like this. Absolutely calm. But his eyes were deadly and Temwold quickly stepped backward as he moved suddenly closer.

Yet he came to a stop, and actually laughed – softly; certain and content that he now had her full attention. To the shaken scientist with her back against the cold wall, his low voice was terrifying. “How lucky for our Gerda – to have you so close. But it's not always healthy, is it? So many of her friends are alive one moment. And dead the next. For one reason or another. Now, I wonder, what part is it that you've played in what has just happened? No, please, don't deny anything, we're far past that.”

“Don't you threaten me.”

“I wouldn't think of it. But things will be changing here. I just wanted you to be among the first to know.”

“How very kind of you.”

“It is my pleasure. Oh, and I think you'll find there's something interesting for you to learn in your office.” And he fell silent. It was over; she’d been dismissed. She walked across the room, hoping desperately for at least the appearance of control. And all the time, his penetrating gaze never left her, appraising every aspect of her face and bearing until the door closed solidly behind her.

Deeply alarmed, her thoughts racing as quickly as her heart, Temwold made her way back to her office.

For five long, turbulent years, as Government liaison to the morph Project, she had watched Carzon delved ever deeper into a grim obsession. What had begun as a brilliant hypothetical boon to genetic manipulation had grown slowly into a thirst, unwavering and consuming, for dreadful secrets that men were never meant to know. In awe, she had watched his genius flourish astonishingly under unthinkable pressures and mind-shattering revelations.

Until finally, after countless trials with uncountable horrific failures, he had achieved his masterpieces: a series of morphs. Not merely alive, but healthy, stable – and able to change form at will.

And at the end of the series; the being that became Gerda Tau. But for the scientist turned diplomatist, those years had brought a gradually heightened sense of horror and, over and above the grisly work itself, one of dread. More questions arose, darker and increasingly unsettling, than were ever answered. And ever more suspicious of the Director's true designs, she herself had been brought into direct and now bitter conflict with the paragon she had been appointed to serve.

As of moments ago, her sense of personal jeopardy had never been greater. Clearly, he would brook no further opposition.

Yet she was never less proud of her role at the Base than now. Never easy and often frightening, their work was still monumental. They had accomplished things deemed impossible, even with the current mind-searing level of technological support. But death, violent and haunting despite its frequency, was ever present here. More than just a risk in such work, it was a certainty. The initial survival rate of any of the recombinants was consistently expected to be less than three percent.

The young man whose life had ended so brutally on Tau's floor had been much more than just another casualty of their deadly enterprise. He was dead. But what was devastating to them all and to the Project, was the fact he was virtually impossible to recreate. Long years of planning, painstaking manipulation and tedious hours of training; all had vanished in a twinkling. What had died in Tau's room represented a goldmine of genetic potential. In the few minutes it took for Gerda's claws to tear out the throat of her last victim, a milestone had been irrevocably lost from the program.

Now only Gerda was left in the Project. With that terrible and unavoidable reality, came the first real chance of utter failure for them all. Temwold smiled ruefully. She knew the morph better than anyone. She clearly saw Tau's desperate purpose behind what had seemed at first to be an act of purely wanton destruction. With what could only have been cool premeditation, Gerda had eliminated the last experimental subject in the Project. In so doing, she had guaranteed that success would rest on her alone. Carzon knew this, too. Why else that power play in the ready room? Of all men, he was the most covert in his actions. He never threatened. He never had to.

A morph was dead. One morph remained. They were all one step closer to disaster.

Yet Tau had unwittingly forced many hands today. For when her young friend’s life had ebbed from him, with it had drained away the last protection the girl was likely to have had. It had taken her only seconds to kill, but they were seconds which might very likely cost her everything.

Temwold halted and shuddered, suddenly struck by a chilling thought. In doing this, by irreparably shifting the delicate balance of power to center on her alone, the morph had placed herself in unprecedented peril.

Had she known? Had she known ... and killed him anyway?

The pieces are moving now, thought Temwold. We can no longer stop. We are all moving with irresistible certainty toward our final positions on the board. Her pace quickened, and she disappeared down the hall. When, readying for the worst, Temwold at last regained her office, she entered to the sound of voices familiar and unloved, raised loudly in anger and accusation.

For it was this suddenly real likelihood of failure that was at that moment being heatedly debated by Block and Tyler as they waited, some more anxiously than others, for Dyle Carzon.

At least two of the three in the room now also waited for Stephen Weller, not without trepidation. For, resolved in secrecy, Carzon had decided to keep hidden his plan for the coercive specialist's visit and it was a very angry Temwold that was just now hearing from his team of the imminent arrival of their guest.

She became properly livid when Tyler stepped forward with the standard, well-rehearsed recitals: the importance of discretion, the need to minimise the expected gossip at such a controversial course.

But when he blithely chirped that the necessary secrecy preserved the interests of the Military, he caught that look in her eye. He wisely stopped talking. This time, he was indeed for it.

“So why am I once again the last idiot to know this man is coming here?”

“Well! Well, ah.. Dr. Temwold,” Tyler hedged. “You know his credentials. His fame is legendary. As far as coercive conditioning goes, Weller is simply the best there is. He can make pigs fly.”

She stood up, glared disdainfully at him and began pacing with that characteristic restless energy that foreboded a serious fight. “Just because I haven't met the man doesn't mean I'm a moron, Tyler. I don't give a damn if he screws the pigs first. His credentials are not the issue.”

“That's the point,” said Block, just as disdainfully. “ The issue is not one of credentials but of time. As of right now, with what she did twenty minutes ago, if we don't get some cooperation from Tau real soon, then this Project stops. And I mean it stops cold. Everyone agreed that a command decision was necessary.”

“Oh, stuff it, Block!” she cried. “Who is this 'everyone'? You, him, and the rest of the cleaning crew? The issue is that once again your little boys' club has seen fit to make a 'command decision' and once again and as usual, I might add, no one else on the Team knows squat about it!”

Tyler tried vainly to calm her. “I knew it, I knew it, that was suffici...” It was the wrong moment to stir Temwold's glowing ashes and now those embers flared into violent life.”Damn it, Tyler, I am supposed to know it! You don't run this Medical Team, I do!”

“And you don't run this Project, Dyle Carzon does.” said Block. “And we are at war, Dr. Temwold.”

“No! Really? Fuck your war, Block, it's the same, tired old excuse.”

“Fine. But until a better one comes along, our Director represents the interests of the Military in that capacity.”

Temwold turned and looked at Block as if he had just broken wind. Her opponent’s eyes were as cold, as untroubled and as covert as marble. Very slowly, she walked up to him, and stopped just inches away. Her voice was calm. But her words fell with molten precision, like incandescent drops of venom.

“Dyle Carzon may run Altair but I represent the interests of the Government in this Project. And the Government just doesn't have time for this shit anymore. I've got three dead morphs in the last three months and a review board asking me what the Hell is going on out here. What should I tell them? Block? Tyler?”

Block's steely eyes bore into those of his adversary. “We're all on the same side, Temwold.” “Yes. Aren't we,” she purred softly, unfazed. “And until that side has a good explanation for the latest events, I advise the two of you to cover your asses. And do it by the book.”

As if on cue, Carzon walked into the room. As usual, no one had heard him approach the door. As usual, he had made an instantaneous and accurate estimation of the scenario before him.

“So, here we all are, asses covered, by the book, and do accept my apologies for not telling you of Doctor Weller's little visit to us, my dear Temwold,” he said lightly. “I thought we could use some extra help, don't you agree? Or what would you recommend?” Then he sat himself impudently and comfortably on the edge of her large desk.

And smiled again at her.

She wasn't going for it. He knew it. But she smiled sweetly back at him. “The Government recommends...you get any help you can beg, borrow or steal to get you out of this fuck-up, Carzon. And my next report will so state.”

She moved to the door. “Now if you'll excuse me, I have someone's mess to clean up.”

The door closed behind her. The three men looked at one another.

Whatever thin veneer of geniality had existed during the conversation instantly evaporated. Behind it, hanging like a yellow stain in the still room, only the stale, tight scent of desperation remained.

Alone in the hall, once again Temwold took a deep breath to steady herself. Then she started shakily down the corridor. So that was how it was going to come down. The behaviour of Carzon and his team had only confirmed her worst fears; things were very grave, indeed.

Temwold's information web had functioned perfectly; she had expected not to be informed about Weller's visit and she hadn't been. She also knew quite well that the man was expected momentarily. It was the final proof she needed to assure her that Carzon's devices had ripened to the next stage. Everything was proceeding as planned.

There wasn't a moment to be lost. She flew down the corridor. While outside the Base, unmindful of the petty life or death schemes of human machination within, night – mysterious, compelling and primordial – had begun to fall.

Outlined against a sky that flamed wantonly with gold, crimson, and deep purple, the intense green of the magnificent trees darkened to lustrous black velvet. Thin wisps of clouds hung silver against the darkening heavens and the light of the setting sun turned the soaring towers of the Base blood red as the dusk drew on. Leaping from cloud to cloud, heat lightning crackled against a glowing horizon. Their thin, pale wings flashing like tarnished bronze in the sultry light as they swept the sky before them clean of small prey, squalling flocks of cheiropts passed overhead, seeking the safety of their roosts in the deeper jungles to the south. Anywhere else, it would have been a picture of unqualified tranquility.

The incidental glory and very real jeopardy of the twilight were not lost to all.

From her chambers securely set high above the main buildings, Gerda Tau eagerly watched the drama in the heavens. It had taken her years to become accustomed to the pale iridescent glimmer of the security force grid mockingly arrayed just outside the window. Intent as she was on the sunset, this barely tangible proof of her captivity was now hardly noticeable to her bright eyes as she peered outward.

It was her favourite time of day. Sensitive as she was to the nuance of light and shadow so easily lost to the simple, hampered discrimination of the full humans around her, she had left the room lights off to better watch the play of the light's spectral range as the sun set. In the quiet chamber behind her, purple shadows deepened, spreading dark, furtive fingers across her bed. With the ravenous curiosity of the perennial prisoner, she languidly studied level after level of the many structures jutting outward just below her rooms, her gaze traveling outward and downward.

Until it came to a sudden halt.

A singular event, startling in its rarity, was unfolding on the shuttle bay dock.

Its hull glowing brightly in the last pale rays of the sun, a small shuttlecraft now hovered just above the dock. Tau's sharp eyes caught the glint off the stabilizers as they fired one last time and the ship gently set down. There was no doubt; it was a passenger craft. Coming here, to a place where no one came. Where no one was allowed to come.

Now what? Another of Carzon’s puppets, come to sport with me?

As the bay crew moved forward to the ship, the shuttle hatch slid slowly open. Alive with curiosity, she leaned closer. The dock was ablaze with lights but the morph would have been able to see just as easily and with the same heart-stopping clarity, the same deadly accuracy, had it been much thicker darkness.

From out of the craft, a tall man now stepped. He was apparently alone and for a second, he stood apart from the crew busily attending to the ship. Then, to her complete surprise, he looked upward, directly to her window.

Had Weller been closer, he would have been fascinated by the changes now occurring in the features of the young woman as she gazed down at him. The pupils of Tau's eyes had narrowed and in an instant, the colour of the eyes themselves had begun to change, altering from clear blue to dark blue shot with copper. Weller stepped forward. He was still looking up, his gaze still mysteriously fixed on her window.

On her.

And Gerda's eyes began to tilt upward, suddenly growing larger, their very shape changing as the pupils, unearthly and now unrecognisable as human, narrowed completely to bottomless black slits. Then, just as quickly, her eyes were normal, again just the eyes of a young woman, a woman a little fearful of this stranger. Feeling suddenly vulnerable in full view at the window, she stepped backward, instinctively seeking the shadows behind her. Her small form melted into the dim sanctuary of the familiar room. As it did so, there came the sudden flash of the fading light of the day, reflecting from her eyes.

On the shuttle dock, Weller turned and joined the armed and silent men who stood waiting to lead him in.

From his own office windows on the far side of the complex, Dyle Carzon observed the same sunset, the same arrival. The handsome face was without expression, but his eyes followed Weller intently as he entered the Base. From behind him in the room, harsh and bitter indictments flew between the members of his team as Tyler and Block furiously tried to lay blame for the latest exploit of Gerda Tau.

It was far too late for such antics. Carzon's thoughts had flown forward to a critically impending event and so busily engaged were they elsewhere, that he was only dimly aware of the childishly ineffectual argument which raged heatedly back and forth just beside him.

Exasperated, Tyler threw himself into the nearest chair. “So where was Security while she was doing this? Picking its collective nose?” But Block was in no mood to play victim and his muscular body tensed as he paced the room. “Don't try to push this one off on Security. We work on indications. You remember, that’s what your team is supposed to give us!”

Tyler stared up at his partner in a rage and began to sputter. “Indications? What indications? She didn't send a damn memo! I don't know why she killed him. I don't know what goes on in Tau's mind when she decides to tear someone's head off. I am not paid to read minds!” This observation, true in only the most limited sense, drew their master's attention and the two men froze into rebellious silence with his first words.

“Correction. That is precisely what you are paid to do. And Security is paid to observe and control. Which is what they didn't do. With the result that this program is now, suddenly, unable to tolerate any more mistakes.

Am I clear?”

The attentive silence in the large, elegant room was now tinged with fear. “What now,” asked Block.

“We proceed as planned with the single refinement that Gerda is the only morph left. For everything. Weller gives us what we need. And we deal with Temwold as necessary. “

“So when do we get to see some action from our expert in coercion?” Carzon's fingers gently touched the control panel beside the window.

Outside, narrow shutters glided noiselessly into place, screening out the beauty and promise of the coming night. And in the suddenly deepened shadows of the room, before the sensors slowly raised the ambient level of soft, humanising light, his face was uncannily reminiscent of Gerda's; willful, closed, almost spectral. He looked purposefully at the two men before him.

There would be no more discussion. “Weller's shuttle has just docked. This is full dress. And there are to be no more slip-ups.”

Chapter 2 - Cats Paw

Chapter 2 - Cats Paw

The man upon whom so many wildly divergent hopes rested was at that moment just settling into the visitor's quarters.

His surroundings were simple and austere and his first cursory appraisal did little to change his overall impression of the place. Entirely consistent with what he had heard, it was comfortable if Spartan. It was also in keeping with the subtle but pervasive military creed that suffused everything, just below the surface.

Perfectly suitable, he thought. For so short a visit.

He walked quickly through his quarters, carefully but unobtrusively checking various security and communication systems. Out of long established habit, he made mental notes of exit routes. There were too few by far, even for his somewhat unconventional standards. It was very likely that the rooms were monitored. That was also to be expected. But his dark eyes sparkled with delight when he contemplated how that assumption might be best used to amuse himself as well as his hosts. He smiled with relish; the idea was almost as good as that of cookies and milk before bed.

The fun would have to wait for, at that moment, his door chime sounded. It was Temwold. The two looked one another over silently for a long moment. Weller was quickly forming his own opinions.

Very cool. Very non-committal. Undoubtedly, very necessary, he decided. “I've heard so much about you,” she finally said. “Dr. Weller, I presume.” He took a very nonchalant and deliberate second to adjust the lighting in the room. From the corner of his eye, he could see that her gaze never left him.

“A dubious honor, I'm afraid,” he answered, adding a warm grin.

Her smile was polar. “No doubt.”

He tried again. “You're Temwold.”

Her eyes circled the room, came to rest on him once more.

“I am. Let's take a walk.”

Almost from the very first moment that Altair was chosen to be the future site of such a research undertaking, enterprising minds had at once set to work to create a masterpiece of form combined with function.

What eventually rose from the perfectly impassible jungle was essentially a hollow shell, with three levels soaring loftily skyward around an enormous open central rotunda. At the bottommost expanse were planted trees and the other rich natural vegetation that characterised the Altairan jungle flourishing so impenetrably just outside the main compound's meter thick walls. And, heedless of their captivity, the trees and vines grew joyously upward, their great green limbs straining toward the tantalising expanse of an enormous skylight high overhead. It was truly spectacular, the desired effect being that of a miniature rainforest set within a stunningly vast, three tiered sphere.

But illusion was at the core of most matters here. The Base had been conceived as a scientific venue unlike any other and it was so. Yet what was also true was that it was a military installation without peer. Ostensibly one could argue that the wilderness within improved the living and working environments of those at the facility. In reality, what had been meticulously created was a perfectly controlled security space, whose myriad corridors were organised to make as difficult as possible any infiltration by undesirable outsiders. Altair Base was undeniably beautiful. But anyone foolish enough to contemplate a quick incursion and easy escape would feel the consequences of their misjudgment.

It was on the second level of this elegantly designed mousetrap that Weller and Temwold paused. Soft golden light from the fading sun still streamed down through the immense channeled skylights high above, bathing everything in a deceptively soothing glow. Weller looked down over the chest-high railing, noting the simple yet deliberate lay -out. The trees, their lacy tops emerald green in the dusk, were very far below. He turned an inquisitive face to the scientist beside him.

“I like it up here. Far from prying eyes,” she mused.

He smiled. “Where there's truth, there's satire. But I've learned to take advantage of whatever opportunities present themselves. This place is as circumspect as the file I saw on the Project; I've learned next to nothing on what this is really all about.”

Her eyebrows shot up.

“You shouldn't have been able to learn anything. I must speak to someone about that. Seriously, the Government's main fear is letting any information get out at all about what we do here. But you know that already. And as one of our Military geniuses here so repeatedly reminds me: we are at war.”

“Yes, I keep hearing something like that, too.”

“As much as I deride it, it’s still very real. We had a settlement wiped out on Altair by a raiding party less than twenty years ago. It happened on the other side of the planet. But nearly two hundred people died. Whole families were wiped out.”

“So, we agree. The war is very real. But still, this place…that is the issue. Will you be telling me now that the Out Worlders would kill to get an operative in here?”

This time she smiled. “No. Not at all. Because if we've done our jobs right, they haven't a clue that the Base even exists.”

“Come now. We both know the likelihood of that, don't we? We have our research bases, they have theirs. How can it be that important or even possible that they not know?”

“You might say that the future of the Homeworlds depends on it,” she said quietly.

“You might. If you wanted the simplest, least truthful rationale for a lot of what's been said to happen here. Dr. Temwold, we both know the Alliance has heaps of other research facilities: I’d imagine, many just like here.”

“No. Nothing like here. You'll see, very soon. What we do here in genetic recombination doesn't just open doors, it invents them. And this Project...”

His voice lowered. “What's military and what's medical at this point?”

Her expression turned even more serious. “It's always been more military than medical. But especially lately. It wasn't always that way. I can actually remember a time when we were simply the best place in the entire System to do genetic substrate recombinant studies. Or maybe it wasn't so simple, even back then. I can't tell anymore. Even the Tau 4 Project was originally just to explore genetic plasticity, and just that. It was only later that he...that we decided to focus ...I mean, once the basic substrate fusions were successful, once it worked reliably, it was a natural extension to focus on specific traits.”

The slip was cataclysmic but he let it go in hopes of more. “Like aggression, I would imagine,” he offered innocently.

“Specifically, aggression. Again, the natural choice, given our location.

Look outside. Altair has some of the best predator stock in all the Homeworlds. Getting suspicious yet? It’s hardly a new concept. We wanted to genetically engineer not just a new kind of super-animal. We wanted something that does not exist, not in any natural world we know of. Something that could change form at will, that could alternate between two utterly different life forms, with all the best qualities intact. At least, that was the plan,” she added.

“What went wrong?”

Temwold dropped her eyes thoughtfully while the man beside her just as thoughtfully drank in her silence. Beneath the calm exterior of tight control, the woman was deeply troubled, even fearful. It was clear the rumours he’d heard everywhere had held at least a grain of truth. Issues here went much further than a simple experiment gone wrong and he hoped that her perception of the situation might tell him what he desperately needed to know now.

“We got what we wanted,” she said softly.

The tête-à-tête between the two had not gone unnoticed.

From across the wide mezzanine, with his team close beside him, Carzon watched attentively as Temwold spoke ever more emphatically to the behaviourist, the miracle worker, the man who would save them all. And, as the conversation grew more and more animated, Carzon never took his eyes off them.

“How cozy, “ he remarked, then turned to Tyler. “Get over there and break it up. Stay with him.”

Weller did not speak as Temwold finished her story.

Both the problem and the solution was Gerda Tau. She was the ultimate morph, able to change forms on a whim. She could climb with a skill unmatched by the cat-like predator that had served as the primary donor for her non-human genetic components. And even in her alternate form, after she had changed completely, Tau's thumbs still remained apposable. Weller listened intently; he was genuinely fascinated. He was also more than a little chilled by everything he heard. But he noted that Temwold carefully avoided any description of the morph’s transformation. So tight had the security been on the Project that there was never the slightest indication anywhere what it was that Gerda Tau actually changed to — but he certainly wasn't about to stop Temwold now for what could only be the simplest of explanations.

“Reaction times?” he asked, instead.

“Much faster than in the unchanged state. For either species.”

“And human judgment?”

“Primarily...the same.”

She would say no more. Weller pondered, one idea foremost in his thoughts. The many possibilities such a creature presented to its makers staggered the imagination.

“So she can handle a weapon. If she wants.” he remarked quietly.

“If she wants. You get the idea,” said Temwold bitterly. “And Gerda's control over the change, her use of it, is more subtle, more accomplished than that of any recombinant we've seen.”

“Sounds ideal. For someone. What's the problem?”

Temwold opened her mouth and then closed it, seemingly at a momentary loss. Then she shook her head, as though the answer would have been funny under very different circumstances.

“She won't do it anymore,” she said at last. There was just a hint of a laugh in her voice but the tall man at her side noted with a chill that there was no trace of a smile on her face.

“She will not change for us.”

Of course. What was the good of a creature like Tau, capable of altering itself instantaneously into something so unusual, so necessarily invaluable to the eager, rapacious minds behind the Base, if that creature refused to cooperate and...change.

“She was doing brilliantly,” continued Temwold. “No, really. I’ll never understand exactly how she's managed to acclimate to what has happened to her. To what we've done to her. The changes are unimaginable, for both mind and body. Actually, I don't actually understand how any of the morphs can deal with it, integrate it, and she's coped especially well. But what has been truly unexpected is how, even after the addition of these incredibly different genetic inserts, Tau has learned to do so much more with this, this...ability. To change the way she does, so completely. So quickly. And she's been easy to work with. Except for now. And now, with Carzon....”

Here it was.

“What's his part in all this, Temwold?”

Not unexpectedly, she hesitated. Something very complicated was happening here and he might never be able to learn the complete story. At least, not yet. He composed himself, scrupulously attentive as she looked straight into his eyes. And after many moments, her words were strikingly precise when they came and, once again, those words raised more questions for him than they answered. They would stay long in his memory.

“The ... vision... of Dyle Carzon was the basis, the spiritual beginning, if you will, for what would become the Tau Project. What he tried to do, what he has done, it's not just a matter of mixing the genetic codes of two different species. That can produce a recombinant, and sometimes, once in a long while, you get something that can even stay alive. But it doesn't necessarily produce a morph. Out of two different animals comes one, one that can alter form. And survive. Something has come into being here, something never seen before. Terrible. Wondrous. And now, unique. What we have made here... lives solely because of Dyle Carzon . He is the only one who could have done this thing. He alone was capable of writing the program to create the substrate fusions. He made it possible to build the morph. To keep it alive and capable of functioning.”

“Dyle Carzon designed Gerda Tau.”

“ I see. But two animals, two personalities, if you will.”

“ No.” she said. “One animal, almost human. That's not it. She was stable.

Before. But now something has gone terribly wrong. It's almost as though something has snapped deep inside Tau and we can't get in to fix it. And until we do, this Project is dead in the water. And that's not all that's going to be dead. Now, something dreadful has happened, something that ...”

She never finished for at that instant, Tyler rushed up to join them. Her face close and emotionless once more, Temwold looked away as Weller smiled at the little man, wondering again how he managed to combine such furtiveness with such effusion.

“Hello! Dr. Weller, how are you, what a pleasure to see you. You remember me.” Tyler gushed.

At this, Weller nearly blurted out what was in his mind.

“Of course, Dr. Tyler,” he said instead. “I've just been getting the grand tour.”

Tyler looked nervously at Temwold. She was silently absorbed in a careful study of the treetops far below.

“We're all very proud of Altair Base,” said Tyler, and his face twitched slightly as this drew a sharp look from Temwold.

“Oh, Dr. Temwold,” he added. “The Director asked me to tell you we'll be meeting tomorrow with Dr. Weller. He hopes you're free.”

“Tell the Director that I wouldn't miss it for the world.” With one more look at Weller, she left them abruptly. Tyler smiled again, this time even more uncertainly at his guest.

“Lovely woman. Very competent,” he murmured finally. “Ah..did you have a...nice... chat?” A

nd Weller smiled back at him. “Oh, yes,” he answered. “Lovely woman. Very competent.”

For a second, first confusion, then a flash of real anger crossed Tyler's small, intense face. But he recovered immediately and another effortless smile appeared in its place.

“Yes. Well. We have some time. What shall I show you for fun?” Tyler's idea of fun was to take his guest to the Base Vivarium, an enormous area designed to hold and maintain a full spectrum of the plants and animals of the planet. It was also where many of the most interesting representative animal species indigenous to Altair were housed. Before they were used.

Even Weller was impressed. It was a stunning achievement. Broad in scope and skillfully designed, the enclosures were luxuriantly spacious, some extraordinarily so. Each had been carefully landscaped and planted to ensure that its captives were maintained in as natural a setting as possible. Here, within the confines of cleverly disguised walls and force fields, high rocky perches loomed up, towering over the massed, glossy leaves, their crests jutting out from the thick, tangle of green, snaking vines. The silver murmur of rushing water as it tumbled down off glittering stones to join cool, still pools reached their ears. Piping their soft, curiously musical calls, the strange, bird-like creatures of the deep jungles of Altair flitted from view in the heavy air. In each space, the densely planted trees and vegetation worked to create a veritable microcosm of living forest.

And as they passed from area to area, Tyler rattled on, compulsively talkative, his nervous voice rising and falling. Then he fell silent, leading Weller to a section far off to one side. Cordoned and peculiarly secluded from all the rest, one particularly impressive display extended far before their eyes. Bold and brilliantly effective in execution, it was clear that here, far beyond that given to any of the other enclosures, especial care had been taken to effect a synthesis of profound creation. Like a sea of living green, the space was vast, far larger than any Weller had yet seen. Beyond the softly luminous grid of a force field, stretched almost impenetrable thickets of dense growth. Water dripped languidly from the lush vines and the warm, fragrant air was heavy with natural humidity. As the nurturing darkness of an artificial twilight drew on, Weller stood in silent awe before trees whose mighty girths approached that found in their natural setting. Flowers opened before his eyes and he sighed, rapturously breathing in the living scent of deep jungle.

Small creatures rustled briskly in the undergrowth, scurrying out of sight as the two men drew nearer. From the dimly seen tops of a soaring natural canopy, the sharp, chattering cries of captive flying palú and cheiropts reverberated, reaching the men as though from a great distance, from unknown sources hidden far within the foliage.

Then astonishingly, all sound ceased completely.

An ominous hush fell over the scene, while like a living thing, twilight crept forward from beneath the still trees. And as the eerie, silent moments passed, Weller's eyes began to unconsciously search that thickening darkness, more and more apprehensively, more and more instinctively aware now that something was watching them from out of that terrible quiet, something that moved toward them in almost absolute silence, with deadly purpose and merciless regard.

Then, just when he felt he could no longer stand there, helplessly waiting for he knew not what, from out of the darkest shadows under the enormous, dripping leaves, he heard a twig softly snap.

Without warning, an enormous cat-like creature threw itself forward toward the two men. Coming up hard against the force grid with a loud snarl, the thing fell back, hissing loudly. Its dark lips drew back, baring long, sharp teeth that glowed ghostly white against the surrounding gloom.

Weller exhaled in wonder.

The creature's heavy, muscular body stretched more than two meters in length. Over its powerful shoulders, a soft, barely distinguishable pattern of indistinct rosettes marked the short fur, making it almost invisible against the light and dark of the deepening night. The thing began to pace rapidly before them, its muscled limbs moving strangely, far too smoothly, so silently that Weller had to look again to be certain that the creature's paws actually passed in contact with the damp ground. Large, luminous eyes, coppery red and shot with green, fixed directly on the men beyond the grid, studying them with a terrifyingly calm, clearly intelligent malevolence. For a long moment, the thing seemed to consider them carefully. Then the creature growled, and its long tail lashed so furiously that for a second, Weller imagined the thing would launch itself at them once more. But instead, it began to turn away, moving with liquid grace back toward the safety of the dark trees.

Tyler had nearly fallen over backward in his haste to instinctively get away. He did not notice how quickly Weller had regained his composure, or that the behaviourist's movements away from the cage had been reflexive, smooth and under practised control.

While Weller stood quietly beside him, Tyler tried to collect himself. His unsuccessful attempts at levity yielded little more than an apologetic squeak, yet the sound was unnaturally loud in the still space.

“You'd think I'd get used to him doing that. Even with the grid there, it doesn't stop him from trying.”

His guest watched as, again in uncanny silence, the animal melted into the shadows under the trees. “It must feel good,” he said finally and his voice was curiously soft. “ So, this is it. This is the source animal for the other half of Gerda Tau.”

Carzon's assistant stared at the man beside him, at the look on Weller's face as he watched the creature turn once more to regard them, its gaze no less intimidating, revealing a final fiery flash of eyes that glowed back at them from the darkness. Then it disappeared.

“The better half, some would say,” said Tyler. “Except Tau is faster and much stronger than our friend here. “ His voice lowered and he stared at the spot where the creature had disappeared. “And she can do things he can't even dream of.”

Block's deep voice grated suddenly from behind them. “Or rather she will. After your assistance here, Dr. Weller,” he added meaningfully, as he moved forward and he, too, stared long at the spot in the foliage where the animal had finally vanished.

“We certainly took the best from him. Strength, ferocity. Instinct unrestrained by conscience.”

“This is Mr. Block's favorite animal.” Tyler said, and his fingers again nervously played over his lab coat. “After Tau, of course.”

“That's a curious way to refer to someone,” said Weller and his eyes met Block's unflinchingly. The Military man coldly returned the look.

“As Carzon says: ' we are what we are'.”

There was a protracted moment of unrelenting and uncomfortable silence as the two men gazed stonily at one another, before Tyler broke in quickly.

“And we all have the greatest respect for what she is,” he said weakly. The moment passed. Block looked once again at the dense vegetation, the shadows which spread secretively under those lustrous dark green leaves.

“And what she can become,” he added.

The three men moved away from the enclosure. And as they did, the infrared sensors mounted before the cage automatically dropped the viewing light level, lowering it to almost total darkness and a veil of true night closed finally over the captive wilderness within.

The shadows in the strange and artificial wood began to deepen, until they were as obscure as those that lengthened now in Tau's room as she sat before her mirror, brushing her hair.

There was just enough light in the room for the average human to see her, but dimly, as she stared at her reflection in the refractive glass field. The brush moved almost mechanically in her hand; its repetitive touch was soothing to the girl who now restlessly shifted forward in her seat. For Gerda, the light level was more than sufficient for her to see quite clearly. She did not actually need the light at all, being well able to see in near total darkness. But she kept it on, at a low setting, out of long established habit. Still curiously agitated, she sighed deeply, then hummed a little to herself. Then she stopped, and her hand moved to slowly replace the brush on the table before her.

Rising suddenly to her feet, she stretched stiffly, and moved to the wall where a heavy composite bar had been set into the surface. Grasping it firmly, she pulled hard against it, feeling her joints loosening, popping audibly as she bore down on the metal, taxing it to its limit. She moved away. Gerda had used the bar before, many times, to relieve the tension of captivity. But this time, the force of her grip had left behind small deformations in the dense material, imprints impossible for any normal human to imitate.

I need exercise. Badly. I need....I need....

A cool smile came to her face as she dwelt on Carzon's most likely response to any such request from her now. After what she had done today, he was just as likely to put her on bread and water for the next month. And he would have, had he any clear assurance that such a diet would not injure the morph. Or more alarmingly, cause her to revert to some older, more primitive behaviour patterns with regards to nourishment. It was one thing to keep a leopard in a cage; quite another to insist that it eat soup.

Unconsciously, the girl began to pace and without realising it, found herself back at the window, her eyes once more searching the now vacant shuttle dock below. Where he had landed. Suddenly uneasy, she glided away from the view with its tantalising expanse of darkening sky and nightblack forest, and seated herself once more at the table. Surprised at her sudden sense of loneliness.

Surprised that I should still feel this way...

Thoughtfully, Gerda studied the face of the girl in the mirror. The high cheekbones she would always have, even after the change. Barely visible beneath her full, now darkened lips, her teeth were perfect, white and even. Not nearly as imposing as they might be. Would be, when she wished it. One need not always have fangs. The thick golden hair was kept short; she liked it that way. It was easier to keep it out of the way when she altered into the other form and needed to move quickly. Her eyes were large and very beautiful, their blue being cast with what seemed many colours. Tau tilted her head; as she did so, the light from the table flickered in them, reflecting back at her as it would in a cat's. The effect startled most people. It was pretty. Not human, but pretty nonetheless.

Her long, graceful fingers touched the ivory skin of her throat, tracing its smooth outline. But as her hand stretched across to the mirror’s cold surface, her fingers reaching to do the same with those of the image there, those fingers no longer ended in shapely nails.

Talons – long, retractable, inhuman, and razor sharp, now tipped each digit and followed the youthful lines of the throat of the young woman in the reflection. The fingers themselves were now longer and had thickened slightly in girth, with just a suggestion of silky hairs extending upward from them onto her hand. Her fair head tilted again and the face of the creature in the mirror stared at those fingers as though they belonged to the hand of another, still unknown being.

A sound, sudden and at the limit of human hearing, came from outside her door.

Gerda's eyes altered in ungoverned alarm, the pupils full slits now. Even had the lights been fully on, no human being could have followed her movements as she glided from the chair.

With a soft whirr, the door slid open and into the nearly dark room, Temwold stepped, a tray of food in her hands. The door closed quietly behind her. The very last of the day's light filtered softly into the room close beside the window. All else was in deep shadow and the room itself seemed to wait breathlessly as Temwold took a cautious step forward. Then she spoke, and her voice was as faint as a whisper, swallowed up by hungry silence.

“Tau. Where are you? “

Only silence answered, silence as profound and alive as the shadows that now seemed to grow alarmingly, filling the space around her. Behind the visitor, a dark form began to move, rapidly, silently, and at ceiling height along the far wall, purposefully edging closer and closer to the woman who, all unheeding, stood waiting with the tray. Then the form dropped to the floor, to land noiselessly behind the scientist.

And Tau stepped forward into the pale light near the table.

“I'm here,” she said gently. Temwold turned in relief.

“We need to talk,” she said. “Someone is coming to see you.”

Twilight continued to spread its long fingers in the room. The two women, lit only by the lingering glow from the window and the faint pale light from Gerda's night table, sat closely huddled together. One voice rose and fell gently, its tones increasingly insistent, yet more and more hushed with terrible implication.

As clearly as she could, Temwold explained to Gerda that Carzon had summoned yet another behavioural modifier to the Base.

But this time would be different. Weller was unlike any of the others. The stellar history of his many past triumphs was marred by terrible chilling rumours, even amongst the colleagues who esteemed him and respected his formidable abilities. While he was reputed to be clever and engaging, he was also known to be manipulative, coldly premeditative, almost ruthless in his determination to get his subjects to do his will. And Temwold felt certain that Carzon would allow him to deal with the morph any way he wished. And as forcibly as Carzon himself would have deemed necessary. She tried to tell Gerda that there was no longer any chance she could refuse involvement in the Project. Carzon's lifelong work, his entire future was on the line and he would let nothing stand in his way. With the use of any means possible, he was ready now to force Gerda to work with him once more.

This time there would be no bargaining.

Her soft hair fell forward over her forehead as Tau listened in silence and the shadows grew ever deeper around them. Then, without a word, she rose slowly to her feet. The morph walked away from Temwold, who watched the silent and unmoving form at the far side of the room. And the scientist frowned, surprised and now alarmed, as a vague sense of apprehension began to build inside her, growing like a cold knot.

It was completely unlike the morph to react like this.

“Talk to me, Tau,” Temwold said finally. She sat upright, straining to look more closely at the shadowed figure of the girl, motionless and only a short distance away. What she saw there made her unconsciously hold her breath. Standing apart in the dark room, Tau was trembling.

Temwold began to feel the first soft touch of real fear. Gerda had still made no answer and Temwold stiffened when she heard the girl's breathing begin to quicken slightly. It occurred to her suddenly there was a very real possibility that the morph was breaking down.

They had seen this happen before. During the early days of the Project, they had lost as many as sixty percent of their prototypes to superego fragmentation. Time and again, helpless to do anything but watch, Temwold had seen nightmare become hideously real.

What would begin as a simple unpredictability in behaviour would, for some, eventually progress into a form of insanity. They had almost no understanding of the phenomenon; perhaps it was a breakdown at the insert level, perhaps the final revelation of a natural weakness in the human receiving the substrate. But the result was always the same; violent and terrifying. As the differing elements of human and donor species struggled for supremacy, the human ego would disintegrate, dissolving until finally only an unrecognisable and uncontrollable hybrid creature would remain. It was not simply a matter of instability, the instability one would expect from having two very different emotional hyperstructures in one animal. The ability to alter was critically dependent on the genetic fusions of the two component species being balanced, balanced yet always fluid.

It was this fluidity that had been the problem, time and again. It meant that the fusions were never perfectly stable, especially at the higher cortical levels of expression. Personality and the ability to reason were radically affected. It was anticipated that all of the morphs would always display profoundly unusual and often very unexpected emotional reactions. But many were outright unstable, often with devastating results.

Tau might be going mad.

Then, nothing short of death would stop her.

Temwold slowly rose to her feet. Blinking against the perilously encroaching dark, she dared not move closer to Gerda just yet. For there to be any chance at all for survival, if Gerda were on the verge of losing control, the scientist sensed that words and rational ideas alone might be the only thing that could save her now.

“I do understand, Tau. The first instinct is to run. Always. Gerda, that's coming from the non-human component.”

But the voice of the morph came out of the dark like a sabre, uncharacteristically harsh, charged with bitter anger. “Don't you think I know that?!”

Temwold took a hesitant breath and started again, this time more gently and more plaintively. “They don't know what else to do, they're desperate, Tau. We're all getting a little desperate.”

“Desperate? Yes, aren't we all.”

There was suddenly nothing left to say. Now Temwold watched in despair as the figure of the morph began to pace, her taut body moving rapidly back and forth in the dark room. Holding in check a rising panic, the scientist tried once more to reason with the girl, whose breathing began to come sharply, with a terrifyingly uneven intensity. And Temwold could only manage a halting whisper.

“I didn't mean... I know that you, of all...” Once again the morph's answer slashed out of the darkness. But now the sound of that voice was horribly harsh, metallic, the pitch lowering even as she spoke.

“Do you?! But do you know just how desperate? I just can't do this anymore.”

And her last words came out as a low snarl.

Utterly inhuman.

Frozen with terror, Temwold watched as the dark profile of the girl started to change before her eyes. She could only dimly make out the outline of Tau's head, but already the girl's ears were beginning to alter, growing taller, their dark tips narrowing to end in high, rounded points, with just the suggestion of a strange, unnatural crest forming out of the thick mass of hair on Gerda's head. And Temwold knew with heart stopping certainty what must now be happening to her nails and teeth.

If it came to it, the scientist would never be able to reach the door. She pleaded softly, for what might be the last time.

“Tau. Please.”

This time came silence. There was no answer from that dreadful form standing there shaking in the darkness. What came instead was a long breathless moment of blind terror while Temwold stood helpless, barely moving, waiting for this nightmare silence to end with her own death, unable to do little more than watch in wondrous horror as the creature just beyond the soft pale of light struggled passionately, and inhumanly before her. Then at the last fearful moment, just as Temwold contemplated a final mad, inevitably hopeless dash of escape, she heard Gerda suddenly exhale raggedly.

It was almost a sob.

But the girl's breathing had softened and slowly became ever more regular. Temwold could sense that Tau had turned to look directly at the shaken human behind her. Moments later, bright spots of light shown back at Temwold like two stars in Gerda's eyes. And now the voice of the morph came sadly from out of the darkness and her voice was gentle and sweet and once more altogether human.

“You...of all people. I would never hurt you. Could never hurt you. You know that. Please. Say that you know that.”

“ I know that, Gerda,” breathed the scientist.

The slight figure of the young woman stepped back into the dim light as she came up to Temwold and hesitantly took her hand.

“You've done so much for me.”

There were tears in the morph's eyes.

Overcome with pity, Temwold looked at the drawn, white face before her, at the weariness there and she sighed, still trembling herself, drawing Tau nearer, until her arms encircled the tired girl. Gerda's face lowered to the woman's shoulder, and while still pale, was calm now.

Temwold smoothed back the gossamer wisps of golden hair from Gerda’s forehead.

“I always did have a thing for cats,” she said, finally. Tau's laugh was soft, but still shaky.

“Me too. Once.”

Temwold settled both of them down again.

“Just see him,” she said gravely. Her dark eyes held Gerda's and Tau could see how very serious she was.

“And Tau, promise me, just one thing. No, I mean it, it's so important. Please. Promise me you won't eat this one.”

That brought a grim laugh from them both.

“All right,” replied Tau. “I'll see him. Afterward? Well.”

With another long, searching look and one last embrace, Temwold rose and left the room.

She did not see Gerda walk back to the bed, with sightless tear-filled eyes, her hand reaching to smooth the coverlet, her golden hair falling forward as her head bowed in despair. She did not see her then move in terrible mounting agitation to the window where the morph's eyes, dilated and shining out from the shadows, searched the dark forests below, seeing the jungle as could no other living human. She did not see as the girl's frail calm began to slowly unravel, disintegrating, finally giving way to growing rage, until Gerda's hand, moving too fast to see, suddenly shot out and slammed hard against the force-field grid.

A low snarl came out of the girl at the window. And other than in its softness and inflection, it was identical to that which had come from the thing in the vivarium.

Sleep was impossible.

In her mind, Tau could still see the image of Temwold before her, standing there in the dark. She could still see the stark fear in the woman's eyes as she had stared at Tau, as terror stricken and as helpless as had been all the others before her, waiting for her to change completely. And return, inexorable, no longer even remotely human.

To kill.

Haunted by this vision, Gerda was overcome with horror. Her legs and arms drew up as she huddled fearfully under her coverlet, shuddering with the thought of what might have happened. Of what had nearly happened. Temwold's sweet scent, charged with fear, still hung in the room. It reminded the morph of how little control she had had just moments before. The musky, honeyed scent of human flesh. Of human blood. Her eyes closed tightly as she tried in vain to shut out the memory, to shut out all the other memories.

What have we done now?

I nearly killed her, she thought. Tonight, I nearly destroyed my best friend, the only friend I have right now in the world.

And with a soft cry of dismay, she bolted upright in the bed, anguished and miserable.

What am I going to do? she agonised. What is there left for me to do now?

She tossed back the covers in exasperation, and was about to leave the bed when, senses tingling, she froze. Quickly pulling up the thin covers, Tau covered herself, tucking the linens firmly across her breasts. There was no doubt of it. She was being watched. Anger flooded through her.

“ You won't see anything you haven't seen before,” she said coldly. From out of the shadows came Carzon's clear, vibrant laughter. Then he spoke to her through the intercom that connected him with every location on the Base.

“Haven't seen. Haven't touched. Haven't made.”

Not far from the morph's rooms, Carzon's large suite was dark, except for his bedroom which was now illuminated softly by the glow of the viewing screen just opposite his bed.

The room was masculine, powerful but understated, simply appointed but leaving little doubt of the tastes of the man. Carzon's bed was spacious and his lithe body was sprawled comfortably in that bed, naked, the silken linen pooled across his hips. He shifted slightly to better see the enhanced infrared image of Gerda as she sat up. He marveled with delight at how she managed to look both icy and utterly unconcerned at his invasion of her privacy. His eyes passed over the proud head, traveled down the long, graceful throat. Lowering to her smooth, white shoulders, his gaze rested on the thin fabric of the covers that rounded softly over the firm curve of the breasts of the young woman in the bed. Even on the screen he could see the delicate flare of Tau's nostrils as she turned her head in cold disdain. And there was an enigmatic smile on the face of the Director as he studied his creation.

“I will never tire of watching you, Gerda,” he said. “Let's make a deal. Do what I ask ...and I'll stop watching you.”

Her face was now impassive. “I'll make you a deal,” she countered. “Stop watching me...and I won't kill you.”

Carzon found this deeply amusing and his smile widened as he settled luxuriantly against his pillows. “How was dinner tonight, Gerda?”

“Would you believe me if I said the meat was a little too rare?”

“No,” he said. Then his voice lowered intimately. “What if I told you it was human flesh?”

“What if I told you I wish it was yours?” she asked, without a trace of humour.

Carzon laughed again, the sound very rich, very male in her room. “ Liar,” he whispered.

If Gerda could have seen, she would have wondered at how bright Carzon's eyes were at that moment. The smile had left him. The sensuous lips were now parted as his gaze passed again over the morph's finely chiseled features. Then his face became pensive, transfixed by a curious expression that few would have acknowledged or even recognised in so indomitable a man. For, as he contemplated the young woman in the bed, his eyes shone with unforeseen tenderness and longing, as irresistible as it was disturbing. And as though suddenly afraid that the morph might peer back at him from across the screen to discover the unwonted vulnerability in his eyes, he glanced one final time at her shadowed figure, then turned away.

“Good night, Tau,” came his soft whisper.

She knew he had switched off the monitor. She sighed. Then, completely wretched and exhausted, she settled deeper into her bed. Now certain he could no longer hear her, she answered him, very softly, as she had done so many times before.

“Good night, Carzon.”