“Don’t try probing in depth!” Alicar said quickly. “Simply retain light contact and see what impressions you get.”
She said, with a touch of irritation, “That’s what I’m doing.” Couldn’t he trust her to handle this? Another minute or two went by. She murmured, “Picking up that other mind again. No, wait!” She shifted to Ponogan, strengthened her contact with him.
“Now here’s something odd!” she said suddenly. “Both Hille and Ponogan—” She hesitated.
“Yes?” There was alert interest in Alicar’s voice.
“I’m not sure what it means,” Telzey said. “But each of them seems to have a kind of psi structure attached to him. Quite complicated structures! They seem almost part of their minds, but they’re independent—sort of pseudominds.” She hesitated again. “And I think—” She stiffened. “Djeel oil!”
“Djeel oil! Hille’s thinking about it. Alicar, they’re processing djeel at your mine.”
There was silence for a moment. Then Alicar’s voice said: “Come back inside.”
* * *
He looked around from the console as Telzey came into the cruiser’s control section. But the face wasn’t Alicar’s, didn’t resemble it in the least. She checked, startled.
The face smiled. “Life mask, of course,” Alicar’s voice said. “Nobody at the mine knows what I really look like. No need to explain why now, is there?”
She sat down. “You’re mining and processing djeel ore here?”
“I am,” Alicar said dryly.
She stared at him. “I didn’t know there was any on Mannafra!”
He shrugged. “No way you could know. I’m reasonably sure I’m the only one to have come across it here, and I haven’t advertised it.”
Telzey shook her head. Djeel was a substance in a class by itself, located so far on only a handful of worlds. The processed ore yielded djeel oil—and djeel oil was believed to have unidentified properties which had scooped a hundred-mile semiglobular section out of a planetary surface, producing cataclysmic secondary effects. Any djeel detected since then had been confiscated by the Federation for removal and disposal in space. She said, “Aren’t you likely to work yourself into the worst kind of trouble? If you get caught importing djeel anywhere in the Hub, they’ll hang medals on whoever shoots you!”
“I haven’t imported it anywhere in the Hub,” said Alicar. “The oil processed by the mine in its first three months of operation is at present stored away on an asteroid chunk only I can identify. The reason I came back three days ago was to pick up a new load. Let’s drop that subject for the moment. Just before Hille started thinking about djeel, you seemed to have an idea about those psi structures associated with him and Ponogan. What was it?”
“Well, that,” Telzey said. “I’d have to check a lot more closely to be sure. But I think they’re automatic control mechanisms—something that lets the men seem to function normally but cuts in if they’re about to think, or do, something that isn’t wanted. Was that what you noticed three days ago?”
“Yes,” Alicar said. “But I didn’t stay around long enough to analyze it. Apparently everyone at the mine has been equipped with such a mechanism—we can check on that presently. The immediate question is why it was done.”
Telzey nodded. “Do you have any ideas?”
“Nothing definite,” he said. “Look, let me give you the background on this—I want your opinions. I was scouting around last year, looking for good investment possibilities. Most of Mannafra’s mining is concentrated in sections where rich strikes have been made. This whole general area has been almost completely neglected. But something about the formations down there looked interesting to me. It was mainly a hunch, but I came down, and inside an hour I knew I’d found a quite respectable deposit of serine crystals.”
“If I hadn’t been doing my own analysis, that’s as far as it would have gone. There were djeel traces in the samples I’d taken.” Alicar smiled. “Those, naturally, weren’t the samples submitted with my application for mining rights, and I got the rights under an identity which goes with this appearance.” He tapped the life mask’s cheek.
“Well, now wait!” Telzey said. “Why did you want djeel oil in the first place? If they’re right about what happened on Tosheer, it’s horribly dangerous. And I’ve never heard that it was supposed to be good for anything. Though—” She paused abruptly.
“So now it’s occurred to you!” Alicar nodded. “Something capable of releasing energies of that magnitude isn’t going to be simply ignored. You can be sure the djeel ore the Overgovernment obligingly hauls off wherever it’s found isn’t being dumped into some solar furnace, though that’s the story.”
“You know that?”
“I know it. A good many other people suspect it.” Alicar chewed his lip. “I spent a large part of the past year trying to find out just what is being done with it, but that’s one of the best-guarded operations around. I couldn’t even establish what government branch is involved. Incidentally after we’ve cleaned up the problem here, continuing that investigation may be your next assignment.”
Telzey said after a moment, “I didn’t think you really intended to let me go again.”
He laughed. “No, not for a while! You’re too useful. I have several jobs lined up for you. You can see that a supply of djeel oil would have a fabulous value if the right people can be contacted safely.”
“You want to sell it?”
“I might. I’d prefer to set up a research project designed to harness djeel, but I may decide it’s too risky. Because that’s where djeel oil becomes dangerous—the experimental stage! It’s not general knowledge, but it’s been processed and stored without incident in much greater quantities than this mine, for example, would produce in years. Unfortunately, nobody seems to know what kind of experiments that industrial outfit on Tosheer was conducting with djeel when the planet’s mantle erupted.”
“Now to get back to the present situation. The mine went into operation roughly seven months ago. It took careful preparation, and the personnel had to be handpicked. Of the twelve men down there, nine knew only that we’d be producing serine crystals—which, aside from serving as our cover, has turned out to be sufficiently profitable in itself. The three involved in the processing of djeel oil are Hille, Ceveldt and Gulhas, who is the Romango computer technician.”
Telzey said, “You were controlling those three?”
“No. As I’ve told you, I use psi only when it’s necessary. I did check their personalities carefully, of course, and knew they’d go along with me dependably in the matter of the djeel. During the first month, we worked only serine. Then the secret djeel operation began. As soon as it was underway, I left Mannafra.”
“Because I intend to stay in the clear in this, Telzey! The chance of discovery seemed remote. But if it happened, all Hille and his colleagues could point government investigators to is this substitute identity of mine. It was created to give me cover in other activities which might have brought me into conflict with various authorities. I can drop it at any time.”
Telzey said, “If you still are in the clear, wouldn’t this be a good moment to back out of the djeel project and discard your cover identity for good? You’d be safe then.”
Alicar smiled. “No doubt. But I’m not going to give up that easily!”
“We don’t know at all what’s happened here,” she pointed out. “Supposing we go on with the investigation and I get caught.”
“That would be unfortunate,” Alicar told her. “I wouldn’t like to lose you.”
“I suppose it was a stupid question,” Telzey said after a moment. “You’d simply kill me before I could give you away—”
“I’d have to, wouldn’t I?” Alicar said. “But we’ll take every reasonable precaution to keep you from getting caught. You know as much as I can tell you now, so let’s get on with this. You say we don’t know what’s happened here. But we do know one thing, don’t we? A psi’s been operating on Hille and Ponogan, and probably on all the mine personnel. In other words, they’re now controlled.”
“That’s what it looks like,” Telzey agreed. “But so far, the picture doesn’t make sense.”
“Why not?” said Alicar, watching her.
“Well—somebody outside realizes djeel is being processed at the mine. If that somebody is government, they’d want to catch the absent owner—”
“Mr. Ralke,” supplied Alicar. “It’s the Ralke Mine.”
“All right—Mr. Ralke. They can’t locate him elsewhere in the Hub because he becomes nonexistent there. So, knowing he’s come back once to pick up the processed djeel oil, they stake out the mine. In your other activities, have you given anyone reason to suspect Mr. Ralke might be a psi?”
He shook his head. “I doubt it very much.”
“But it’s possible?”
Alicar shrugged. “Let’s say it’s possible.”
“If that were discovered,” Telzey said, “it would bring in government psis—the Psychology Service. But then why control the mine people with mechanisms that would make any probing telepath suspicious? They have to assume that Mr. Ralke, psi, does probe his employees before showing himself at the mine.”