The Romango acknowledged her identity and control and asked for instructions.
“Activate the Ralke Mine’s defense zone,” she said.
She felt a little better. “You’ve been given the identification of a being called Soad, or the Child of the Gods?”
“I have. This is the recorded image.”
A panel before Telzey became a viewscreen, and in the screen appeared a picture much like the one she’d seen in Ponogan’s mind as he dreamed: a great liquid-seeming globe rolling along the side of a desert dune under the starblaze.
She said, “Is Soad at present in your sensor range?”
Her tensions lessened again, but she remembered how far Alicar had been able to maneuver them in toward the mine. She said, “If you do sense it, inform us immediately.”
She went on. “And if Soad appears within the defense zone, attack it with every weapon you have until it’s destroyed.”
There was the shortest of pauses. Then the computer said, “The instruction is not comprehensible.”
* * *
Startled, Telzey glanced at Gulhas. He said, “That’s correct. Soad told us to see to it that the mine’s armament couldn’t be turned against him, and the Romango was programmed accordingly. Your override doesn’t affect that because the computer doesn’t know it’s been programmed. An order to attack Soad simply has no meaning for it.”
“Then get it unprogrammed fast!” Telzey said. “But first have it put me in communicator contact with the Mannafra Federation Station.” She hesitated, seeing the response in Gulhas’s mind. “So it’s been programmed against that, too!”
The Romango had, in fact, been programmed against letting a communication of any kind go out from the Ralke Mine. The Child of the Gods hadn’t relied entirely on conversion and psi mechanisms to maintain its hold on the humans. Telzey asked a few more questions, saw how complete their isolation had been. Except for the automatic contacts with vehicles approaching the defense zone, the computer’s external communication system was shut off. There was no other communicator at the mine, and the only air truck and two groundcars had been destroyed.
Nor would it be at all easy now to turn the Romango into a weapon against the Child of the Gods, or to restore the use of the communicator. Gulhas hadn’t been involved in installing the prohibiting programs. Hille had let the machine calculate for him how it should be done, and how the programs then could be deleted from record and made inaccessible to its locators, leaving it unable to act on later instructions to erase something which for it had no existence.
Telzey then had Gulhas set the situation up as a theoretical problem. Could a method be developed to track down and eliminate such lost programs? The computer said it was possible, but warned that a number of the procedures involved might reduce it to uselessness before the task was accomplished.
Since it was effectively useless as it was, Telzey told Gulhas to go ahead. His pessimistic estimate was that if the job could be done, it should take several hours to carry it out. But that couldn’t be helped.
She had time now to give attention again to other matters. Alicar was deeply sedated; unless and until they got him to a hospital, there was no more to be done for him. She’d scanned the remaining personnel occasionally, half expecting to find Soad’s mechanisms attempting to make the same kind of awkward use of the unconscious bodies as they had of Ceveldt and Hille, but all was quiet in that area. It couldn’t have made much difference in any case. The approaches to the computer room were sealed, and throughout the mine’s structures every security lock controlled by the Romango had slammed shut. Even if the men had been awake, they wouldn’t have been able to interfere with her here.
She turned to Soad’s presence at the fringes of consciousness. Gradually and very cautiously—since she didn’t know what he might do if he chose—she began to develop her awareness of him.
“Gulhas,” she said presently.
The technician started, looked around at her. “Yes?”
“Will talking distract the computer?”
Gulhas shook his head glumly. “It’s out of communication. There’s nothing to indicate whether that’s a malfunction or a necessary part of the tracing process. But it won’t respond to any type of signal, and couldn’t register our voices.”
“It is still trying to trace out Hille’s programs?”
“It’s still doing something,” Gulhas said. “I don’t know what. Our problem set sections of it working against other sections. It may have destroyed itself in part and gone insane in its fashion. That was the risk we took.”
“I know.” Telzey reflected. “You can get a screen view of what it looks like outside, of the area around the mine?”
“Yes. A three hundred and sixty degree view. That screen on your left!” Gulhas pressed a button. The indicated screen lit up. He said, “You think Soad may be out there somewhere?”
“Not yet.” Telzey’s glance slipped over the screen, held on Mannafra’s pale hot sun hanging low above the dunes. “How long before sunset?” she asked.
Gulhas looked at a console chronometer. “Perhaps half an hour.”
“Does it get dark quickly after that?”
“Quite quickly in these latitudes. It will be night in approximately another half hour.”
“I see.” Telzey was silent a moment. Gulhas, watching her, said abruptly, “You’re a mentalist, aren’t you?”
She glanced at him. “A telepath, a psi, yes.”
“I thought you must be,” Gulhas said. “It seemed the only explanation for what’s happened.” He cleared his throat. “I want to thank you. I still feel something like loyalty toward Soad, but I realize now that loyalty was forced on us. We never would have served such a creature of our own will.”
“No, you hardly would,” Telzey agreed.
“He seems to know what’s been going on since you and Mr. Ralke arrived.”
“Unfortunately, he does,” she said.
“Then why hasn’t he appeared?” Gulhas asked her. “You’d think he’d act immediately to restore the situation he created here.”
Telzey said, “He can’t move now. Sunlight would kill him. Even the starblaze produces more radiation than he likes, but he can stand that. He’ll come when it’s night. He’s waiting.”
“So we have till then!” Gulhas blinked at her. “That’s why he always came at night for the oil—we thought it was simply that he was trying to reduce the chance of being seen from the air. You’re certain he’ll come?”
“Quite certain. He’s changed his plans.”
“In what way?”
Should she tell him? Telzey decided it could do no harm to weaken further his enforced subservience to Soad. She said, “He’s given up on getting back the djeel oil Mr. Ralke took from the mine. He’d be safer having it, but he’s been experimenting with what he’s collected and thinks he already has as much as he really needs—especially if he adds to it what’s been processed here during the past days. So he’ll come for that.”
“Then he’ll leave?” Gulhas asked, staring at her.
“That’s what he intends. We gave him a surprise he didn’t like today. He hadn’t expected to have any trouble with humans.”
“In that case, why not let him know he’s welcome to the djeel oil?” Gulhas suggested. “Perhaps—”
Telzey shook her head.
“If we did, he wouldn’t just pick it up and go,” she said. “Everybody at the mine, dead or alive, would be going with him. He isn’t leaving anybody behind to talk about the Children of the Gods—or about what they use djeel oil for either.”
“No,” Gulhas said after a moment. “You’re right. He wouldn’t want that.” He reflected. “Can’t you use telepathy to have someone outside send over a few aircars to pull us out of here?”
“It’s not too likely,” she told him. “I’ve been trying, but that kind of thing generally doesn’t work when you most want it to.”
“I see.” Gulhas sighed heavily. “I’m not really myself yet,” he remarked. “I know I should be horrified by this situation, but somehow I’m not extremely alarmed. It’s as if someone else were sitting here . . .” He shrugged. “Well, I’ll keep watching the Romango. If it gives me an opening, I’ll cut in and let you know. Then we might be able to do something. But our prospects don’t look good there either.”
* * *
He swung about in the chair and settled himself again before the console. Telzey said nothing. There was no reason to tell Gulhas that she hadn’t been letting him feel frightened. He knew enough now to make sure there’d be no lingering subjective hesitation to help her act against the Child of the Gods if the opportunity came. She’d equipped him with a provisional psi screen, which should reduce Soad’s awareness of what went on in the technician’s mind. But it couldn’t be completely effective. The less Gulhas was told of what really counted here, the better.