Yes, Chaheel was frightened of him, and his fear did not embarrass him.
The commander of the transport ship, who was in truth a military officer incognito inside the UTW, greeted the psychologist as he boarded the shuttle, which was to take him into orbit. From there the ship would depart the UTW. Chaheel Riens was going home.
The commander’s eyes, however, were nearly devoid of color. Chaheel knew instantly that something serious was troubling the commander.
Naturally the commander was troubled, he reminded himself. They knew that if he returned at all they would be greeting a murderer and a fugitive. The officers would be glued to their screens, frantically scanning orbital space around Evenwaith for the signs of pursuit they expected to arrive at any moment. He hastened to reassure the officer opposite him.
“All is at rest, Commander. I was in the wrong. There is no plot to poison our children. Our own government is aware of it. It is only minor functionaries like ourselves who have been kept ignorant of the details of this fine working, to protect it from accidental disclosure. They trust us not, truly.
“I did not have to kill the human Lewmaklin. The _lehl_ remains within him. Both implant and host continue to function efficiently on family business.”
“Truly,” murmured the commander. He seemed distracted. “That is excellent news indeed.” He moved to a communicator, absently called off the alert.
Chaheel frowned. “Did you not understand? There is no plot to poison our young. The additive that is to go into their food is harmless. It degrades within the bloodstream. All is part of a wider plot to fool the humans into believing that Lewmaklin is working for them.” He held out the information chip the man had given him.
“Here is proof. Names and locations of our own scientists who have worked on this project. I would think you would be excited, Commander, by such news.”
“I am greatly relieved,” the commander admitted, trying to muster some enthusiasm.
“Then why do you look so virelsham?”
“We have a new puzzle.”
“It cannot confuse or depress me as much as the one just unraveled,” Chaheel assured him.
“I am certain it cannot, but it is a puzzle just the same and your opinion is urgently solicited. Come.” He motioned with a tentacle tip and they started up the corridor.
In the same conference chamber where not so very long ago Chaheel had announced his intention to slay Loo-Macklin waited a cluster of silent officers.
The commander indicated Chaheel’s cupouch, slid greasily into his own.
“Several days ago we picked up a transmission that originated from this Lewmaklin’s personal residence, the one you have just returned from. We were monitoring all transmissions from that place because that was your destination and we hoped we might learn something useful to you. The residence conceals an extremely large and powerful deepspace broadcast array.”
Chaheel thought back to the array of seemingly decorative, gleaming towers, which rose like a metal forest from the island. As he suspected, Lewmaklin did not indulge in frivolous decor.
“The beam employed by this system is of a new, formerly unknown type, apparently designed to cover great distances without the aid of the usual booster stations. Our chief communications officer was scanning when he happened to encounter an ultrafast series of numbers being blasted out via this method. Fortunately, he had them recorded before they escaped completely.
“It took us until yesterday, shiptime, to decode the mathematical sequence. I will play the gleaning back for you now.” He made a gesture.
At the far end of the oval depression, around which the cupouches and their occupants were grouped, another officer touched controls. The already dim room darkened further and the hollow in the floor lit up.
Chaheel saw the squat shape of Loo-Macklin standing in the same grand room where he himself had stood the previous evening. The human turned to face a visual pickup. His expression was solemn. A storm-tossed ocean was visible through the transparent wall behind him.
“Hail tomothee, Falexia. Everything goes as planned. It will not be longer now until the final phase of our dealing can be brought to fruition, an end toward which we have worked for so long. The projections for success are still good. I look forward as always to meeting you in person.
“I am in position to manage all details of the business from my end. All final concerns have been obviated. Until we have the honor of a successful meeting, Falexia, I faretheewell.”
It was not a long transmission.
Chaheel had just finished a graphic lesson in the folly of jumping to wrong conclusions. The message left him curious, but untroubled.
“Save for the somewhat stilted language, which may be due to improper decoding — ” an officer across the oval stiffened slightly — “and the unfamiliar forms of greeting, I see nothing to be concerned with here. He is clearly in converse with some commercial opposite, finalizing the details of some large transaction.
“Lewmaklin’s business interests are among the most extensive known. Is it surprising that he should utilize a new variety of tightbeam communication for such purposes? The heads of certain Families employ similar methods for security purposes.”
“I question nothing you point out.” Despite this confession, the commander still appeared uneasy.
“Then why retain you the aspect of a crespik deadbone?” Chaheel wanted to know.
“Three days following, evening yesterday local planetary time, and apparently in response to the message you have just viewed, we intercepted another transmission. Incoming, this time. It is only because we continued to monitor the special beam frequency that we were able to trap it.”
The depression in the center of the floor flickered to life once more, only this time the image was distorted and violent with static.
While engineers worked to clear it, the commander continued to talk. “The method of broadcast actually differs slightly from that used by Lewmaklin. Despite the aid of computers, our decoding efforts were not completely successful. As you see, it is highly difficult to unscramble.
“I believe that this is an instantaneous response to the broadcast you just saw.”
Chaheel did some rapid calculating. He was neither physicist nor communications expert, but even he knew that within a volume of space several parsecs across, subspace communications took a matter of minutes. Transmission across greater distances required proportionately more time.
If the commander was correct and this garbled communication was truly instantaneous, then that could mean that Lewmaklin’s outgoing message took a day and a half to reach its destination, instead of minutes. And another day and a half for the reply to reach Evenwaith. That implied conversation over distances so great that…
“Truly,” whispered the commander as he saw astonishment come over the psychologist, “the scale involved is nothing less than incredible. To mention not the power requirements necessary to boost such a signal.”
“Surely Lewmaklin doesn’t have access to such energy sources?” Chaheel ventured.
“Perhaps not,” murmured the commander. “Perhaps it took his transmission three days to reach its destination and the reply only minutes to return.”
“That’s quite impossible,” said Chaheel.
“So say you. So say my own communications and engineering staffs. Yet I wonder. Many important developments have emerged from this human’s laboratories. They have produced this mysterious additive, which you insist is harmless to us yet effective enough to fool the UTW’s own scientists. Might they not also invent a new and unique method of long-range communication?”
“Is that what you think has happened?”
“No. No, I do not. I think Lewmaklin has purchased the technology necessary to build it.”
“Purchased it? But no known people…”
Again the commander cut him off, discarding all semblance of politeness. The image on the screen was clearing. It resolved into a thing.
The creature was huge. At least, Chaheel had an impression of considerable size. There was nothing in the field of view to give scale to the being.
It stood against a metal wall, which generated its own light, a harsh bronze glow. The being was a quadruped, clad in thin golden scales like a fish. A curving row of tiny black eyes ran in a line across the center of the massive, rotund body. A pair of long arms reached out from either side and ended in hands, which were interlocked beneath the row of onyx-colored eyes.
Overlapping scales fringed a wide mouth. When the orifice moved, a strange whistling sound emerged from hidden depths and short, pointed teeth became visible. The black eyes remained solid, showing no visible pupils. There were no other visible external organs.
When the creature altered its stance, which it did with ceremonial frequency, it moved on a single revolving limb, which was somehow fastened to its ventral side. It appeared that the creature was spinning, balancing on a cushioned ball covered with thicker, darker scales.
“Distance and slightly different methodology of transmission made it rough on our decoders,” the commander reminded Chaheel. “All we have been able to do thus far is produce a clear picture and sound. As to the language, if it is one, we are still ignorant.