“To give me the initial impression that everything was normal here,” Alicar said. “That much could be preplanned and automatically activated by my arrival. But, obviously, I wouldn’t retain the impression very long. For one thing, I’d soon be asking what happened to the five missing members of the staff. So this setup is intended simply to gain a little time! For someone who isn’t at present at the Ralke Mine.”
“Enough time for the next move,” Telzey said.
“A move,” said Alicar, “which I should have already forestalled by shifting ultimate control of the computer to myself . . .”
A bell sounded as he spoke. He turned to a desk, switched on a small viewscreen. It showed the passage outside the offices, Ceveldt and another man standing before the door. “Ceveldt and Hille.” Alicar switched off the screen. “We’ll soon know now!” He pressed a button, releasing the outer door.
“Gentlemen, come in—be seated!” he said as Hille and Ceveldt appeared in the door of the inner office. “Nessine, get the files I indicated.”
He hadn’t indicated any, but she went back into the outer office, stood there waiting. After some seconds, Alicar called, “All right, you can come back in!”
Hille and Ceveldt were slumped in chairs when she rejoined him. Alicar had placed a facemask and a short plastic rod on the table beside him. “They both got a good whiff of the vapor and should be fairly limp for a while,” he told her. “If necessary, I’ll repeat the process. Now get them unhooked from those mechanisms enough so they can tell me what’s been going on.”
Telzey said, “I could do it easier and faster, and perhaps safer, if you’d knock a few of your controls off me! At least, until I finish with these two.”
He grinned, shook his head. “Not a chance! I like you better on a short leash. You’re doing fine as you are. Get to work!”
* * *
She sat down in another chair, went to work. Alicar remained standing, gaze shifting alertly between her and the men. Two or three minutes went by.
Telzey closed her eyes, carefully wiped sweat from her face.
“Getting results?” she heard Alicar inquire.
She opened her eyes, looked at him.
“Yes!” she whispered.
She shook her head.
“I can tell you one thing right now,” she said. “We should get away from here as fast as we can!”
“I’d need to hear a very good reason for that,” Alicar said.
“Ask them!” she said. “They can talk to you now. Perhaps they’ll convince you.”
Alicar stared at her an instant, swung to Hille. “Hille?”
Hille sighed. “Yes, Mr. Ralke?”
“What’s happened here since I went away?”
Hille said, “Soad came and made us see what we’d been doing.”
“Soad?” Alicar repeated.
Ceveldt nodded, smiling. “The Child of the Gods. You see, djeel oil is god matter, Mr. Ralke! It wasn’t intended for men. Only the Children of the Gods may use it. Soad wants djeel oil, so we’ve been processing it for him. He’s forgiven us for taking it for ourselves.”
Alicar looked exasperated. “Telzey, get them out of this trance or whatever they’re in!”
“They’re in no trance,” she told him. “I’ve neutralized the control mechanisms enough to let them say what they really think. The Child of the Gods converted them, don’t you see? They believe him. The only djeel oil stored at the mine at this moment is what’s been processed during the past week. He comes by regularly to collect what they have on hand for him.”
“Who is that Child of the Gods?”
She giggled helplessly. “A great big drop of liquid rolling like mercury across the desert at night! Ponogan was dreaming about it when I checked the mine from the mountain. I mentioned it, remember? That’s Soad. And, believe me, he is big!”
Alicar stared at her. “There’s no creature like that on Mannafra!”
Ceveldt said, “Soad came from far away. He needs djeel oil to return, and it’s been our privilege to provide him with what we could. But it isn’t enough.”
Hille added, “Mr. Ralke, he wants the djeel you took away from Mannafra. That was terribly wrong of you, but you didn’t know it. Soad’s forgiven you and has been waiting for you to return. He’ll come tonight, and you’ll understand then why you must go with one of his servants to bring back his djeel.”
” ‘Servant’ meaning one of those control mechanisms,” Telzey put in.
Alicar looked startled. “I doubt he could do that to a shielded psi mind!”
She giggled again. “Couldn’t he? Remember how you stumbled across the djeel ore in the first place? You said you were flying by overhead and turned down on a hunch to take mineral samples—possibly at the one point on Mannafra where djeel can be found. On a hunch! Doesn’t it look like Soad was waiting for someone to come within psi range who could dig up and process the stuff for him? He slipped up then in letting you get away with the product of the first three months of operation. He’d like it back, of course. And he put full controls on the people who remained at the mine after you’d left, to make sure nothing like that could happen again.”
She added, “Whatever he is, he has a use for a ready supply of protoplasm, too! He’s collected the five missing members of your mine personnel along with his djeel.”
“Well,” Ceveldt said mildly, “it was required. The desert offers insufficient nourishment for Soad. Naturally, we’re no longer interested in mining serine crystals, and those men weren’t needed in the full production of the oil. It was an honor for them to serve him in another way.”
Alicar shook his head, drew a deep breath. “Code Alicar!” he said sharply.
The Romango computer’s flat voice came into the office. “Instructions?”
“Close and seal every section of the installation to make sure the personnel stay where they are. Free passage at will is permitted only for myself and Nessine!”
“Complying,” said the computer.
“Unlock the vehicle section and open its exit.”
“Accept no further orders until I address you again.”
“End of instructions.” Alicar jerked his head at Telzey, started for the door to the outer office. “Come along!”
Hille and Ceveldt began to push themselves up from their chairs, the vapor-induced weakness still evident in clumsy motions.
“Mr. Ralke,” said Hille, “you mustn’t attempt to leave! That’s against Soad’s wishes!”
Alicar swung around to them, and now his gun was in his hand.
“Shut up!” he said savagely. “Stay in those chairs! If you try to follow, you’re dead men . . . Come on, Telzey!”
They left Hille and Ceveldt staring after them, hurried through the outer office, along the passage.
“Soad’s more than I counted on!” Alicar’s voice was unsteady. “We’re leaving, of course!”
“Hille was thinking the computer wouldn’t obey you,” Telzey told him.
“Well, he’s wrong! He didn’t know about the code override. You heard it acknowledge my instructions. The Romango’s one thing their monster can’t control. But hurry it up! I won’t feel safe until I’m off the planet.”
They ran back the way they’d come. There were blurred impressions of various minds in the surrounding structures, but Telzey tightened her shield and ignored them. For once, she agreed with Alicar—getting completely out of this area seemed the best immediate thing they could do. If possible.
They came to the passage leading to the vehicle section, to the door at its end. Alicar grasped the door handle, pulled at it, then strained, putting in all his strength. He swore furiously.
“Still locked! What—”
“Can you check with the computer?” Telzey asked.
“Not here! No voice pickup around!” Alicar chewed his lip, added, “Stand back!” and stepped away from the door, leveling his gun. Long darts of scarlet flame hissed around the lock. Metal flowed under the flame, hardened lumpily again. The air in the passage grew hot.
Alicar switched off the gun. He stepped forward, rammed the sole of his boot against the surface of the door. The door flew open.
“Come on!” he gasped. “We can open the exit manually!”
They started through into the vehicle section, came to a stop together.
* * *
The big work crane which had been standing in a corner when they arrived at the mine hadn’t stayed there. It was near the center of the compartment, swinging around toward the door on its treads as they caught sight of it. Crushed parts of their aircar lay scattered about. The crane started rolling toward them then. They backed hastily out into the passage.
“Now what?” Telzey felt short of breath. “Your override system’s a fake—a trick! Hille was right. Somebody spotted it while you were gone!”
Alicar stared at her, mouth twisting.
“Gulhas,” he said. “The technician! Where is he?”
“In the computer room, I think. I’ll check.”