Susan held out her hand warily. Killgrace looked at it for a long moment. Then his arm moved, while the rest of his body remained disconcertingly still. His hand took hers, fingers curling carefully round. She felt nothing, but her own hand curled over automatically to grip what she could see. The holography failed instantly, leaving her holding empty air, facing the Cull that squatted incongruously behind a teak desk.
"This method will not succeed." The mechanical tones sounded almost disappointed.
"You mapped my hand’s position," Susan said with a nod. It was a good attempt, and a possible way round the creature’s problems with contact. "Unfortunately that only works if you can map it accurately during movement and match it. Try it with something other than a handshake. It’s natural for a person to try to close their hand on that."
Cet blurred and, sitting in its place, Killgrace looked thoughtful. Then the arm reached forward again, brushing an imaginary speck of dust off her collar. Susan nodded.
"Nice, but if you move that fast you might make someone jump."
"Sudden reflex movements will be an issue," the alien allowed and Susan sat down.
"Why are you suddenly so interested in this?" Given how much the creature hated direct contaminating contact with lessers – as it viewed everything that wasn’t the creature itself – it was a strange thing for it to be focused on.
"Tactical advantage. My perceived weakness is a problem," Cet stated. "If I was not viewed as weak, the company would be threatened less often."
"Direct interaction is still going to be a problem." Susan looked at the desk, trying to find another way round the issues. "Could you work out a way to pick something up?"
"If the secretaries put something in the in-tray, and you pick it up yourself, it creates a stronger impression than if I do it for you." She smiled wryly. "And inanimate objects don’t jump."
"Try with that envelope." Susan pulled the top one from Cet’s in tray and dropped it on the desk in front of Killgrace. The alien focused on it, moving its head from side to side as the creature within the illusion tried to gauge the paper’s position. It reached forward, and its form flickered. There was a hiss of annoyance as it sat back, an odd sound from the human mouth. After a moment, when the hologram had stabilised, it tried again. This time the hologram was faultless, and the hand raised with an envelope. Susan coughed.
"You’ve forgotten something." She looked pointedly at the desk, where the original envelope still sat.
Killgrace, or rather the hologram, locked still for a moment. It said nothing, but the expression on the normally blank face spoke volumes. Abruptly the envelope vanished and Killgrace looked smug. Susan raised an eyebrow, and without warning, she tossed a pen on the desk. The hologram sparked and dissipaited, leaving the alien sat, irritated, behind the desk. The envelope was still lying in front of it.
"Extending the hologram puts it at more risk of breaking," Susan said. "What will you do if a fly lands on it?"
"Minimal weapons system already employed to preserve holograph." Susan raised an eyebrow, not really surprised but filing that titbit away for future reference. There had to be some way for the alien to deal with potential disruptions, and destroying inconveniences at the molecular level was definitely in-character.
The form shifted and flickered again as it brought the hologram backup. Killgrace was still staring at the envelope, and from its expression, if it was human, she thought he would have sworn. Since it was not, she suddenly realised what it must be thinking and snatched up the envelope, glaring. "Do not incinerate that. You don’t know what is in it yet."
Killgrace glared back, but its expression slowly cleared, resuming the blank mask she knew too well.
"Put a paper-clip upon it." Cet ordered abruptly. She did, dropping the envelope down on the desk. Killgrace’s brows drew together in an expression so similar to the creature’s own focused sensors when it concentrated that she almost laughed. There was a moment of silence and then it spoke. "Not brass."
"Oh," Susan exclaimed, as she realised what it wanted, and dug through the drawers to find a steel paper-clip. She clipped it to the envelope. "Try that."
Killgrace sat in its chair, staring at the envelope fixedly. Then, without warning, one hand extended, picked up the envelope and ripped it open with a finger. The hand tilted, pressing the sides of the envelope and tilting it to see inside, and then the envelope was tossed into the out tray. Killgrace looked at her, triumphant, and Susan resisted the urge to clap.
She reached forward and picked up the envelope. It was real, paper crinkling in her hand, and it had been opened, if not neatly. Nothing vanished. The desk in front of the creature remained bare. It had to have been done with magnets, but without knowing how she could only guess at the details.
"So as long as you can match start and end position, the actual movement is all that requires an extended hologram?" she asked, and it angled its head to view the out-tray.
"Correct." She nodded, examining the envelope. She was not going to ask how Cet had opened it: a letter opener hidden by the hologram perhaps, since using a manipulator arm would have severed the illusion. It did not matter – the solution worked. As long as she made sure she was between Killgrace and anyone who might interact with the item while he manipulated it, she could block most potential problems.
"Did you read the contents?" she asked, not knowing what level of contact would destroy the illusion . Her fingers found a second paper-clip inside the envelope, and she wondered if Cet had simply used the two clips to work against each other to rip through the top.
"Negative. Sufficient shape distortion was not possible." Susan nodded, pulling out the slip of cream paper and unfolding it. She would have to remember that for the future.
"Well, here’s another incentive for you to improve." She held up the little slip. "An invitation to a tournament at the club. If I don’t have to hold your cards for you, we could make a killer pair at Bridge."
"Why is that of interest?"
"The prize is four hundred dollars – four hundred legitimate dollars. Resources?"
"Gambling is unwise." Cet said unmoved. Susan stood up, smoothing her skirt and gave him a cultured smile.
"My dear Cet, we are both mathematicians, both card counters, both familiar with codes, and you have an inbuilt camera and 1080 degree vision. I do not intend to gamble."