Alicar scratched his chin. “It really doesn’t make very much sense, does it?”
“None at all,” Telzey said. “If it were the Service and they thought Ralke might be a psi, everything at the mine would look completely normal now. In fact, it would be normal—except that there’d be a strike group sitting up here in the mountains somewhere, one of them a third-string Service telepath. And he’d be in watch-contact with someone at the mine, probably Hille, and as soon as you came back, he’d know.”
Alicar pursed his mouth, frowning. “Well, let’s say it’s not the Service then. How does an independent psi operator like myself look to you?”
“Not much better,” Telzey said. “Unless it’s someone you know.”
“Huh? Why that?”
“Somebody who doesn’t like you,” she explained. “It probably would be a hot-shot psi, because if those mechanisms are as complicated as they seemed to me, I don’t think either you or I would be able to construct something like them.”
The expression on Alicar’s life mask indicated he didn’t enjoy the suggestion. “There might be someone like that,” he said slowly. “What would be his purpose?”
Telzey said, “He needn’t be interested in djeel as such. But he knows you own the mine and will come back to it. So he sets up a psi phenomenon you’re bound to detect and which you’ll have to investigate before you risk setting foot in the mine.” She grimaced briefly. “In that case, something very unpleasant—I don’t know what—is supposed to happen to you while you’re probing the phenomenon. What he couldn’t know, of course, is that you’d do your probing by proxy.”
Alicar’s eyebrows had lifted. “An interesting theory!”
Telzey went on. “It isn’t some psi who doesn’t know you and simply wants to take over the djeel project. Because, while he might have some reason for constructing those mechanisms, he’d certainly slap shields on Hille and the others besides, so nobody else could catch them leaking thoughts about djeel.”
“Yes, that omission’s a curious aspect,” Alicar said. He regarded her a moment. “Any more theories?”
“Only one—that’s completely wild.”
He smiled. “You’ve been doing well so far! Let’s hear the wild one.”
“I was wondering whether it might be the djeel that created those psi mechanisms.”
“The djeel?” Alicar repeated.
“It’s supposed to be a unique form of matter, isn’t it?” Telzey said. “Mystery stuff?”
“Yes, it’s that. But still—” Alicar shook his head. “Well, we’re speculating! And we seem to have speculated sufficiently. In the light of what’s actually established, what do you suggest as our next step?”
“Our next step? That’s obvious. Let’s get out of here!”
He laughed. “No. You might be surprised at how quickly I could get out of here if I had to. But I don’t intend to do that unless we come across a very definite reason for it.”
She sighed. “Then I’ll have to go on probing. And if I go outside again and do it from here, there’s too much chance of diffusion. A telepath might pick me up.”
“I can work you in a good deal closer,” Alicar said.
“How much closer? I suppose your Romango computer has defensive armament?”
“Of course. That’s standard in a region like this. There’s an automatic defense zone with a three-mile radius. Normal sensor range is three times that, and can be extended.”
“Nine miles,” said Telzey. “That’s still hardly an ideal condition.”
“One and a half miles,” Alicar said. “We’ll use the aircar and the arrangement will be the same. You’ll be outside, and I’ll be in the car and behind a psi-block. The car’s gun, incidentally, will be pointing at you in case something goes wrong. So try to make sure nothing does.”
“How are we going to get within one and a half miles of the mine?”
He grinned. “There’re blind spots in the defense system because of the surrounding dunes. I checked them out when we first set up the installation. A car that’s hugging the ground can avoid the sensors. I’ll take you there. The rest will be up to you.”
To Telzey’s right, the section of sky beyond the gray-black mountain range where Alicar had left his spacecruiser was beginning to lighten. Morning wasn’t far away. The top of the sloping hill of sand which hid the Ralke Mine from her, as it hid her from the mine computer’s sensors, was thirty feet above her head. She sat, shivering, knees drawn up under her coat, arms wrapped around them, looking back down the slope at the small aircar which had brought them here. It hovered eight feet above a straggly patch of dune vegetation, shifting back and forth in occasional surges of wind. Concentrated on what she was doing, she wasn’t aware of it.
Then Alicar’s voice came suddenly from the speaker in her respirator. She gave a slight start.
“Anything new?” There was an edge of impatience in his voice.
She cleared her throat. “Nothing that seems important. Gulhas is in the computer control room now. He was thinking about you a minute or two ago.”
“In what connection?”
“That blip the Romango picked up and identified as an aircar before you ducked behind the dunes. Gulhas thought of it and wondered then when you’d be coming back to Mannafra. That’s all. It slipped from his mind again immediately.”
There was a moment of dissatisfied silence before Alicar said, “You’re sure you didn’t miss anything? There should have been further reflections associated with that.”
“There should have been,” Telzey agreed. “But there weren’t. I wouldn’t have missed them. You’re apparently one of the subjects they don’t have reflections about there now! Gulhas simply has his mind on what he’s doing. Routine start-of-day checks. Nothing else.”
“What about the rest?”
“No change. Ceveldt and his assistant are at their operational stations. They don’t think about what’s being brought up, so it’s probably djeel ore. Hille’s fast asleep now, and the remaining three are still sleeping. When they dream, the dreams have nothing to do with the Ralke Mine. And there’s still no mind or life trace of the other five people who should be there. Unless they’re behind the psi-block around your office area—”
Alicar interrupted. “I told you it’s out of the question that anyone could be in there! To open the office in my absence would take something like a blast almost heavy enough to flatten the mine.”
“Well, in that case,” Telzey said, “those five are either dead; or they’re gone. And whichever it is, nobody thinks about them either.”
Alicar swore in exasperation. Telzey shrugged.
“That’s the way it is,” she said. “The controls have been extended since I did the first probe from the mountain. The men are more limited in their thoughts, apparently including even their dreaming thoughts. Whether that’s a temporary precaution, connected with the fact that the Romango recorded a passing aircar, I can’t tell. It might be a reaction to my earlier scanning—say, a prearranged defense pattern against a telepathic encounter. The men think of nothing, remember nothing, that has to do either with djeel or with anything abnormal in the situation at the mine. That goes on down through the unconscious levels. The mechanisms block out the prohibited material.”
“A reaction like that could be an automatic one,” Alicar remarked.
“It could be. But at a guess, there’s a psi around, and he’s on guard.”
“If there is one around, he couldn’t be physically at the mine?”
“No, definitely not. With established controls, he wouldn’t have to be there, of course. I should have picked up some trace of him by now if he were even within ordinary scanning range.”
There was a pause until Alicar said, “Could you take one of those control mechanisms apart?”
“Taking them apart shouldn’t be difficult in itself,” Telzey told him. “They’re only mechanisms, after all, and they don’t hold much energy. But I’m rather sure we’d get a drastic reaction if I started doing it. There must be a kind of shared sentience between them to explain what’s going on. So it would be noticed.”
“What if you and your subject were behind a psi-block?”
“Then it wouldn’t be noticed,” Telzey said. “What psi-block?”
“My offices at the mine. I’m beginning to believe I can get us inside without undue risk.”
“Well,” Telzey said after a moment, “I suppose they might let us in. And, frankly, I wouldn’t mind getting out of the cold. But I think you’d be stepping into a trap.”
“No, it should be the other way around. When I first got the Romango, I arranged to have it accept voice override from me against any other instructions given it. Once we’re there, I can take over the internal and external defense system at any time. Nobody at the mine knows about that. I’ll have you work the psi controls off one or two of the men in the office area, and we should soon know exactly what the situation is and what we can do about it.”