Alicar added, “You’ll have to put up with the cold a little longer. I still intend to reduce the risks as much as I can, so we won’t leave this place until shortly before daybreak. You’re to remain alert for any changes in the situation at the mine—and in particular, of course, for any indications of activity on the part of a psi.”
* * *
The starblaze was fading by the time Telzey finally climbed back into the car. She’d had nothing of significance to report in the interval; and as the door closed behind her, her residual contacts with the mentalities at the mine were shut off abruptly by the car’s psi-block. She took off her coat, grateful for the warmth, sat down, pulled off the respirator and massaged her chilled face.
Neither of them spoke while Alicar maneuvered the car back along the low ground between the dunes until they were well beyond the range of the Romango computer’s sensors. Then they lifted into the air and headed west, away from the mountains.
“Nothing showing in the screens,” Alicar observed presently.
Telzey glanced at him. “Did you think somebody would follow us?”
“Somebody might—if they suspected I was around.”
“What would you do if we did get trailed?”
“Lead them toward the Federation’s Mannafra Station. If that didn’t discourage them, I’d feel we were dealing with the Psychology Service, after all, and I can’t afford to play around with that outfit! I’d cut back to the cruiser in that case, and get out.”
“Supposing we’re overtaken?”
He grunted. “This is a modified racing car. There’s not likely to be anything on Mannafra that could overtake it, but for emergencies it has a very powerful little gun. Besides”—he indicated a distant brown-tinted cloudbank—”you never have to look far here to find some sizable dust storm to lose yourself in. Enough of the dust’s metallic to blind sensors. Don’t worry about that part of it. Now let’s get that mind shield of yours open and make sure you’re still the completely dependable little helper you’re supposed to be . . .”
He remained silent for the next few minutes, blinking in concentration now and then. Telzey couldn’t sense the scan, so that specific awareness had been sealed away, too. Presently her shield locked again.
“Well, you’ve done your best to carry out your assignment so far, and the opinions you’ve given me were honest ones,” Alicar acknowledged. “I think I have you safe enough!”
There didn’t seem to be much question about it. Telzey said after a while, “It wouldn’t really explain anything, but those five men who’ve disappeared from the Ralke Mine—you said they didn’t have anything to do with the djeel operation.”
Alicar nodded. “They didn’t. At the time I left, at any rate, it was still simply a serine crystal mine as far as they were concerned.”
“Supposing,” Telzey said, “they found out about the djeel and decided they didn’t want to be involved in something like that? Couldn’t they have gone to the authorities?”
“Meaning that’s why the mine is staked out now?” Alicar shook his head. “No. Aside from the fact that it doesn’t, as you say, explain the present situation, it’s unlikely in itself. The system we developed was automatic and foolproof. The only way those five could have got information about the djeel would be accidentally through one of the three men in the know.” He added, “And if that had happened, they wouldn’t have gone bearing tales to the authorities! Hille and Gulhas control the computer, and you can be sure Hille would have rigged up some plausible mining accident. I was careful to choose the right kind of man to be manager here.”
* * *
The screen scanners picked up several dozen air vehicles in the next few hours, but none were moving in the same direction, none came near them, and certainly none seemed interested in following their car. Alicar appeared to be going out of his way to advertise their presence. They flew past a number of installations, coming close enough to one to alert its defense zone and draw a standardized communicator warning from the guard computer, followed by discourtesies from the computer’s operator. The car’s cooling system had switched on shortly after Mannafra’s yellow-white sun lifted above the horizon—the days evidently were as hot in this region of the planet as the night had been cold. Alicar said finally, “Close to noon! We’ve given any interested parties plenty of time to take action, and they haven’t. So now we’ll tackle the Ralke Mine! If there’s no hitch on the approach, we’ll go in, and once we’re inside, we’ll move fast. I’ll take over the Romango at once from my offices, in case we run into difficulties.”
Telzey said nothing. She felt uneasy about the prospect; but from Alicar’s point of view, regaining control of the djeel oil operation was worth taking some personal risks. There was nothing she could do about it. Something less than two hours later, the car began to slant down toward the Ralke installation. The pink glow of a semiglobular force field appeared abruptly in the forward viewscreen, centered above the mine structures. The communicator went on simultaneously.
An uninflected voice said, “Warning! You are approaching the defense zone of the Ralke Mine, which is visible at present in your screens. You are required by law to provide verbal or code identification, or to change your course and bypass the zone. Failure to comply promptly will result in the destruction of your vehicle.”
Alicar tapped out a signal on the communicator. The pink glow vanished, and the voice resumed. “Your identification is acknowledged. The defense zone has been neutralized. Your approach to the vehicle storage section is clear.”
The communicator shut off. Alicar said in a taut voice, “That part of it is normal anyway! Let’s waste no time . . .”
The car swept down, skimming the tops of surrounding dunes, toward the central building of the Ralke Mine. A circular door opened at the building’s base—a door easily large enough to have let Alicar’s spacecruiser pass through. He snapped over a switch, said to Telzey, “Psi-block’s off! Start checking!” and she felt the block fade about her.
She’d been waiting for it; and her mind reached out instantly toward the minds she’d previously contacted here, picking them up one by one, aware that Alicar’s mental screens had tightened into a dense shield. The car slid into the vehicle section. Telzey was opening the door on her side as it stopped. She slipped out, glancing around. A big loading crane stood in one corner; otherwise the section was empty. Alicar was beckoning to her from the other side of the car; she joined him and trotted along beside him as he walked rapidly toward a door in the back wall. It opened as they came up. Simultaneously, the entry door snapped shut.
They went through into a passage. A man was coming along it toward them, moving with a quick, purposeful stride. Ceveldt, Telzey told herself, the mine’s geologist, one of the three involved with Alicar in the original djeel conspiracy.
“Mr. Ralke!” Ceveldt said, smiling. “We’d been wondering when you’d return.” He looked questioningly at Telzey. “This young lady—”
“Nessine, my assistant.” Alicar’s right hand was in his pocket, and Telzey knew the hand rested on a gun. He went on. “She’s part of our private operation. Everything still going smoothly there?”
Ceveldt’s smile widened. “It couldn’t be going better!”
Alicar nodded. “There’ve been some highly promising developments outside in the meantime. I want to see you and Hille in my office in about five minutes.”
“I’ll inform Hille,” Ceveldt said.
He went toward a door leading off the passage. Alicar glanced briefly at Telzey. “Come along, Nessine!”
* * *
They didn’t speak on the way to his offices. It took Alicar some seconds to open the massive door, which evidently was designed to respond to the keys he produced only after it had registered his body pattern. As it swung shut behind them, the psi-block installed about the area closed and cut off Telzey’s contacts with the mine group again. They passed through an outer office into a larger inner one. There Alicar motioned to Telzey to remain silent, then spoke aloud.
“Code Alicar!” he said.
The Romango computer’s voice responded promptly from a concealed speaker. “Code Alicar in effect. Verbal override acknowledged. Instructions?”
“Scan my companion for future reference,” Alicar said.
“The companion has been scanned.”
“Her name is Nessine. You’ll recognize her?”
“No further instructions at present,” said Alicar. “I’ll repeat the code before giving you new ones.” He drew in a breath, looked at Telzey. “Well, that’s in order!” he remarked. “I control the Romango. Now, what’s happened here since this morning? Ceveldt acted as if nothing had changed after I left.”
Telzey nodded. “And that’s how it seems to him now! The mechanisms have modified their control patterns again. Not just for Ceveldt—as far as I could make out, the same thing seems to have happened to everyone else here. Of course, they all still have the impression that everything is normal at the Ralke Mine. But the three who should know about djeel now know about it; the others have no suspicion it’s being hauled up and processed. I believe the shift was made as soon as you identified yourself from the aircar.”