“A fossil deposit,” she said. “Mined on Mannafra, I think. The cosmetic industry uses it.”
“Correct on all counts! I located a serine bed last year, acquired rights to the area and brought mining equipment in to Mannafra to extract the crystals. It isn’t a large mine, but it could easily produce enough to meet all my financial requirements for the next dozen years. I went back to Mannafra two days ago after an absence of several months and discovered I had a problem at the mine. I need a telepath with high probe sensitivity to investigate it further for me. You should be perfect in that role.”
She looked at him. “A psi problem?”
“Psi seems to be involved. I won’t tell you what I noticed, or think I noticed, because I want your unbiased opinion.”
“And you think an investigation might be dangerous,” Telzey added. “Or you’d do it yourself.”
Alicar smiled. “That’s possible. I’ve told you as much as you need to know at this stage. You’re to think of some good reason now for being absent from Orado for about a week, and, of course, you’ll avoid arousing anybody’s curiosity. We’ll leave in my private cruiser whenever you’re ready. How long will it take you to make the arrangements?”
She shrugged. “A few hours. We can start this afternoon if you like. Anything special I should take along?”
“The kind of clothing you’d want in a desert climate with a wide range of temperature,” Alicar said. “We might be going outdoors—at least, you might be. I’ll take care of everything else.”
He added, “One other thing before you go. While I was setting up my controls, I checked over a few of your past experiences and realized belatedly that I’d taken more of a chance in trapping you than I’d thought. It seems that if I’d made any mistake in that initial encounter, I might have been fortunate to get away with my life!”
Telzey nodded. “Perhaps. If I could have reached you, I’d have slammed you with everything I had.”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Well, I’m going to install a prohibition against your use of psi bolts, and another one against your techniques for controlling others as I control you at present.”
“But why?” she said, startled. “I might need all I know if I’m to handle a psi problem, and particularly a dangerous one, for you. I wouldn’t use anything against you now. I couldn’t!”
Alicar’s handsome face hardened, and became thereby rather ugly.
“Probably not,” he said. “But I had to leave considerable flexibility in the control patterns to let you function satisfactorily, and there might be moments when my overall hold on you will become a little lax. I’m making sure there’ll be no disagreeable surprises at such moments! If a situation calls for it, I can always rearm you—but I’ll be the judge of that. You’ll go blank now on what happens during the next few minutes.”
Alicar Troneff had approached Mannafra on the night side and activated a psi-block in his spacecruiser’s hull while they were still high above the surface. Nine-tenths a desert world from pole to pole, Mannafra looked almost featureless under the starblaze. Mining complexes and an occasional government post dotted some areas; between them, the sand dunes rolled from horizon to horizon, broken here and there by dark mountain ranges. Perhaps an hour after they’d entered atmosphere, Alicar’s cruiser dropped down behind such a range, moved through winding passes, and presently came to rest on a wide rock shelf high above the desert floor.
“We’re now about fifteen miles from the mine,” Alicar said, shifting the engines to idling, “and that’s as close as I intend to get to it until you’ve done some preliminary scouting.”
“I’m to scout the mine from the car?” Telzey asked. There was a small aircar stored in the rear of the cruiser near the lock.
Alicar handed her a respirator.
“Fit that over your face,” he said. “We may use the car later, but at present you’re simply going outside. You wouldn’t actually need a respirator, but it’ll be more comfortable, and it has a mike. Put on a long coat. You’ll find it chilly.”
“You’re staying in the cruiser?”
He smiled. “Definitely! Behind its psi-block. The scouting job is all yours.”
She got out her warmest coat, put it on, and fastened the respirator into place. They checked the speaking attachment.
“What am I to do when I’m outside?” Telzey said.
An image appeared in her mind. “Take a look at that man,” Alicar told her. “It’s Hille, the mine’s manager and chief engineer. I want you to identify him at the mental level. Think you can do it?”
“At fifteen miles? I might. How many other people are around?”
“Twelve in all at the mine. It’s run by a Romango computer. There isn’t another installation within nine hundred miles.”
“That’ll make it easier,” Telzey acknowledged. “Anything else?”
Hille’s image vanished; that of another man appeared. “Ceveldt, the geologist,” said Alicar. “Try him if you can’t locate Hille. If you can’t find either, any of the minds down there should do for now. But I’d prefer you to contact one of those two.”
She nodded. “No special difficulties? Any probe-immunes among them?”
Alicar shrugged. “Would I have a probe-immune working for me?”
“No, I guess you wouldn’t,” Telzey said. “All right. Is there something specific I’m to scan for?”
“No. Just see what general impressions you pick up. Above all, probe cautiously!” He cleared his throat. “It’s possible that there’s a telepathic mind at or near the mine. If you get any indication of that, withdraw your probe at once. We’ll consider then what to do next.”
She reflected a moment, not greatly surprised. “Could the telepath be expecting a probe?”
“I don’t know,” Alicar said. “So be careful about what you do. You’ll have plenty of time. I want as much information as I can get before daybreak, but it’ll be another two hours before it begins to lighten up around here.”
* * *
Even in her coat, it was cold on the shelf of rock where Alicar had set down the cruiser. But the shelf extended for about fifty feet ahead of her before the mountain sloped steeply down. To right and left, it wound away into night dimness. She could move around; and that helped.
So now to find out what was going on at the serine crystal mine! The crystals were skeletal remains of a creature belonging to an early geological period when there still had been water on Mannafra. Sizable deposits had been found here and there at what presumably were former lake sites. Their commercial value was high because of a constant demand for the processed product; and no doubt there were outfits around that’d be interested in pirating a working serine mine.
Nevertheless, Telzey felt sure Alicar was holding back information. He’d said the mine wasn’t a large one, and competent psis had no reason to involve themselves in criminal operations at a relatively minor level. When they had larcenous inclinations, it still simply was too easy for them to come by as much money as they wanted without breaking obvious laws. If psis were creating a problem at Alicar’s mine, the cause wasn’t serine crystals; and he probably knew what it was. At a guess, she thought, some enemies had trailed him to this point on Mannafra and were waiting for him to return. It wasn’t at all difficult to imagine Alicar Troneff making enemies for himself among other psis.
Well, she’d see what she could do for him . . .
She opened her mental screens, sent light search thoughts drifting through the starlit night. The desert world wasn’t dead; whisperings of life began to come into her awareness. But for a while, there was nothing to indicate human life or thought, nor any guarded and waiting telepathic mind. Alicar, watching her in the cruiser’s screens, remained silent.
* * *
Perhaps half an hour later, Telzey opened the respirator’s mike switch, said, “Getting touches of human mind stuff now! I’ll let it develop. Not a psi, whoever he is.”
“Good,” said Alicar’s voice. “Take your time.”
A few minutes passed. Then Telzey went on. “Someone called Ponogan—”
“Yes,” Alicar said. “One of the mining technicians. You’re there! Specific impressions?”
“Nothing useful. Imagery. He’s probably asleep and dreaming. It could be a drug fantasy. Something like a big round drop of water rolling across the desert toward him . . . Traces of another mind now.”
“Haven’t made out much about it so far. Shall I work on that, or probe directly for Hille?”
Alicar said after a moment, “Try Hille first.”
She projected Hille’s name and appearance lightly among the mental impressions she was touching, sensed, seconds later, a faint subconscious response. “Hille, I think,” she said. And after a pause: “Yes, it is. Self-awareness. He’s awake . . . Calculating something . . . Alone . . .”