“No, no, it’s not settled yet,” said Dr. Payne hastily. “There’s a lot to discuss—it’s all still very fluid. Sir Charles, please sit down. Can I get you some coffee?”
“That would be very kind,” said Sir Charles, and sat again, with the air of a satisfied cat.
Dr. Malone looked at him clearly for the first time. She saw a man in his late sixties, prosperous, confident, beautifully dressed, used to the very best of everything, used to moving among powerful people and whispering in important ears. Oliver was right: he did want something. And they wouldn’t get his support unless they satisfied him.
She folded her arms.
Dr. Payne handed him a mug, saying, “Sorry it’s rather primitive . . . . ”
“Not at all. Shall I go on with what I was saying?”
“Do, please,” said Dr. Payne.
“Well, I understand that you’ve made some fascinating discoveries in the field of consciousness. Yes, I know, you haven’t published anything yet, and it’s a long way—seemingly—from the apparent subject of your research. Nevertheless, word gets around. And I’m especially interested in that. I would be very pleased if, for example, you were to concentrate your research on the manipulation of consciousness. Second, the many-worlds hypothesis—Everett, you remember, 1957 or thereabouts—I believe you’re on the track of something that could take that theory a good deal further. And that line of research might even attract defense funding, which as you may know is still plentiful, even today, and certainly isn’t subject to these wearisome application processes.
“Don’t expect me to reveal my sources,” he went on, holding up his hand as Dr. Malone sat forward and tried to speak. “I mentioned the Official Secrets Act; a tedious piece of legislation, but we mustn’t be naughty about it. I confidently expect some advances in the many-worlds area. I think you are the people to do it. And third, there is a particular matter connected with an individual. A child.”
He paused there, and sipped the coffee. Dr. Malone couldn’t speak. She’d gone pale, though she couldn’t know that, but she did know that she felt faint.
“For various reasons,” Sir Charles went on, “I am in contact with the intelligence services. They are interested in a child, a girl, who has an unusual piece of equipment—an antique scientific instrument, certainly stolen, which should be in safer hands than hers. There is also a boy of roughly the same age—twelve or so—who is wanted in connection with a murder. It’s a moot point whether a child of that age is capable of murder, of course, but he has certainly killed someone. And he has been seen with the girl.
“Now, Dr. Malone, it may be that you have come across one or the other of these children. And it may be that you are quite properly inclined to tell the police about what you know. But you would be doing a greater service if you were to let me know privately. I can make sure the proper authorities deal with it efficiently and quickly and with no stupid tabloid publicity. I know that Inspector Walters came to see you yesterday, and I know that the girl turned up. You see, I do know what I’m talking about. I would know, for instance, if you saw her again, and if you didn’t tell me, I would know that too. You’d be very wise to think hard about that, and to clarify your recollections of what she said and did when she was here. This is a matter of national security. You understand me.
“Well, there I’ll stop. Here’s my card so you can get in touch. I shouldn’t leave it too long; the funding committee meets tomorrow, as you know. But you can reach me at this number at any time.”
He gave a card to Oliver Payne, and seeing Dr. Malone with her arms still folded, laid one on the bench for her. Dr. Payne held the door for him. Sir Charles set his Panama hat on his head, patted it gently, beamed at both of them, and left.
When he’d shut the door again, Dr. Payne said, “Mary, are you mad? Where’s the sense in behaving like that?”
“I beg your pardon? You’re not taken in by that old creep, are you?”
“You can’t turn down offers like that! Do you want this project to survive or not?”
“It wasn’t an offer,” she said hotly. “It was an ultimatum. Do as he says, or close down. And, Oliver, for God’s sake, all those not-so-subtle threats and hints about national security and so on—can’t you see where that would lead?”
“Well, I think I can see it more clearly than you can. If you said no, they wouldn’t close this place down. They’d take it over. If they’re as interested as he says, they’ll want it to carry on. But only on their terms.”
“But their terms would be . . . I mean, defense, for God’s sake. They want to find new ways of killing people. And you heard what he said about consciousness: he wants to manipulate it. I’m not going to get mixed up in that, Oliver, never.”
“They’ll do it anyway, and you’ll be out of a job. If you stay, you might be able to influence it in a better direction. And you’d still have your hands on the work! You’d still be involved!”
“But what does it matter to you, anyway?” she said. “I thought Geneva was all settled?”
He ran his hands through his hair and said, “Well, not settled. Nothing’s signed. And it would be a different angle altogether, and I’d be sorry to leave here now that I think we’re really on to something.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m not saying—”
“You’re hinting. What are you getting at?”
“Well . . . ” He walked around the laboratory, spreading his hands, shrugging, shaking his head. “Well, if you don’t get in touch with him, I will,” he said finally.
She was silent. Then she said, “Oh, I see.”
“Mary, I’ve got to think of—”
“Of course you have.”
“It’s not that—”
“You don’t understand—”
“Yes, I do. It’s very simple. You promise to do as he says, you get the funding, I leave, you take over as Director. It’s not hard to understand. You’d have a bigger budget. Lots of nice new machines. Half a dozen more Ph.D.s under you. Good idea. You do it, Oliver. You go ahead. But that’s it for me. I’m off. It stinks.”
“You haven’t . . . ”
But her expression silenced him. She took off her white coat and hung it on the door, gathered a few papers into a bag, and left without a word. As soon as she’d gone, he took Sir Charles’s card and picked up the phone.
Several hours later, just before midnight in fact, Dr. Malone parked her car outside the science building and let herself in at the side entrance. But just as she turned to climb the stairs, a man came out of another corridor, startling her so much she nearly dropped her briefcase. He was wearing a uniform.
“Where are you going?” he said.
He stood in the way, bulky, his eyes hardly visible under the low brim of his cap.
“I’m going to my laboratory. I work here. Who are you?” she said, a little angry, a little frightened.
“Security. Have you got some ID?”
“What security? I left this building at three o’clock this afternoon and there was only a porter on duty, as usual. I should be asking you for identification. Who appointed you? And why?”
“Here’s my ID,” said the man, showing her a card, too quickly for her to read it. “Where’s yours?”
She noticed he had a mobile phone in a holster at his hip. Or was it a gun? No, surely, she was being paranoid. And he hadn’t answered her questions. But if she persisted, she’d make him suspicious, and the important thing now was to get into the lab. Soothe him like a dog, she thought. She fumbled through her bag and found her wallet.
“Will this do?” she said, showing him the card she used to operate the barrier in the car park.
He looked at it briefly.
“What are you doing here at this time of night?” he said.
“I’ve got an experiment running. I have to check the computer periodically.”
He seemed to be searching for a reason to forbid her, or perhaps he was just exercising his power. Finally he nodded and stood aside. She went past, smiling at him, but his face remained blank.