She returned her attention fully to Soad. She’d found out a great deal about that entity. Soad didn’t seem to have the equivalent of a human psi’s shield; and apparently it was a while before he began to suspect that she might be gathering information through the contact between them. Then he’d suddenly interposed a confusion of meaningless psi impressions, which she wasn’t trying to penetrate at present.
Soad was in a machine in the desert west of the Ralke Mine. Telzey wasn’t sure of the distance, but it might be something like forty miles. The machine was almost completely buried in sand drifts and screened against metal-locating devices. She’d thought at first it was a spaceship; but it wasn’t that, though it could serve as one. It was more like Soad’s permanent home and base of operations, and in time of need apparently also his fortress—a single massive block threaded by a maze of chambers and narrow tunnels, through which his protean, semi-metallic body flowed with liquid smoothness. He’d been stranded on Mannafra with the machine for a long time.
He needed djeel oil to get away. He might have enough now, but his tests indicated it would be enough by a narrow margin at best. That made it essential to add the oil on hand at the Ralke Mine to his stores. If Telzey hadn’t made an unanticipated nuisance of herself, there would have been no problem about it.
It seemed likely that his kind hadn’t developed the ability to shape psi energy into killing bolts, as she and other human psis had done. Otherwise, he should have attacked as soon as he saw that she was threatening to interfere, at least temporarily, with his plans. So far, she’d made only a restrained use of the weapon herself, in knocking out the mine personnel.
Used to its full extent, she thought it might stop Soad. But that was a possibility to hold in reserve. There was no doubt that the Children of the Gods were savagely formidable beings. They preyed on other species and warred regularly among themselves; and minds like that must be dangerously equipped, in ways still unknown to her. Any serious mistake she made about Soad now was likely to be a fatal one.
So she attempted no immediate new moves. She maintained light contact with the meaningless-seeming flow of psi impressions which veiled Soad’s mentality, and probed cautiously at the mentality itself whenever she could, trying to outline further its alien strengths and weaknesses. She thought Soad might be doing much the same thing.
More distantly, Telzey probed also for the touch of any human mind she might use to inform the Federation Station of Soad’s presence on Mannafra, and of the plight of the survivors at the Ralke Mine. She’d need luck there, particularly since she could afford to give only partial attention to it; and as the minutes passed, it seemed luck wasn’t going to be with her. In the viewscreen, the dune shadows lengthened while the sun dropped toward the horizon. Then the sun was gone and the desert lay in shadow everywhere. Above it, the starblaze was brightening.
And, finally, there was a development.
* * *
Telzey wasn’t immediately sure what it was. There was psi charge building up, and building up here, at the mine. She waited. Something took shape, was formed swiftly. And now she knew. Soad, having studied her, was constructing a slave mechanism specifically designed for her, an involved and heavily charged one. She didn’t think it could affect her seriously through her shield, but she didn’t care to take chances with the alien device. Her psi knives slashed through it, shredded and tore it apart, then took care of two designs she found beginning to attach themselves to Gulhas and Alicar.
Now she and Soad again had learned something about the other’s capabilities; but Soad had learned more than she. That couldn’t have been avoided; and since she was no longer giving anything away, she destroyed the other control mechanisms still functioning at the mine in quick sequence in the same manner. Frustrated anger washed about her as she did it—so he had intended to use those constructions in some way when he came.
Minutes later, she realized suddenly that he already was on the move.
“Gulhas,” she said, “any change?”
He shook his head without looking around.
Telzey reached through the defensive screen she’d closed about his mind, and took full control of him.
* * *
She was sitting in the Romango’s operator chair soon afterwards, while Gulhas lay stretched out on the floor beside Alicar’s carrier. Both men were in an unconscious paralysis from which nothing, specifically new mechanisms employed by Soad, was likely to arouse them during the next few hours. So was everybody else at the mine. At least, Soad wouldn’t be able to turn enslaved minds against her again in some still unpredictable way.
The Romango type of computer was unfamiliar, but that didn’t make much difference now. If the machine resolved the blocks they’d set it to work against, a panel on the console before Telzey would turn green, informing her that the communication systems had been released. She’d be able to take the Romango under voice control then, assuming it was still functional. Her eyes moved between the panel and the screen which showed the surrounding desert, scanners defining every detail of the landscape as clearly as in bright daylight. Somewhere on the dunes, Soad would presently appear.
She knew the moment wasn’t far away; and if the computer remained out of commission, the Ralke Mine’s mechanical barriers would be no obstacle to Soad. His strange body could form its substance into heavy battering rams; he’d break through, flow inside, and when he came to her at last, she’d be destroyed. If that wasn’t to happen, she must prevent it herself. Her psi weapons were ready, but she wouldn’t begin to use them until she caught sight of the swiftly moving great shape in the screens. There was a personal limit to the sheer quantity of destructive energy she could channel into a single bolt, a personal limit also to the number of such bolts she could handle within a given time period. Having tested herself to the danger point, she knew rather closely what the limits were. At peak effort, she might last a little more than four minutes. If Soad could absorb such an assault and keep coming, she couldn’t stop him. Nor would she know she’d failed. She’d be unconscious, probably close to death.
So she waited. Then it was Soad who struck first.
Telzey didn’t realize at once that it was an attack. There’d been a gradual increase in the vividness of the random psi impressions Soad was pouring out as if he were trying to shroud himself more completely during his approach. The impressions were distracting enough; she had to give conscious effort now to maintain awareness of him. Then something like lines of fire flickered behind her eyes, blurring her physical vision, and a psi storm burst about her like shrieking sound, an impossibly swift swirling of hallucinations at every sensory level.
She knew then what was happening. Soad wasn’t able to reach her mind directly through its shield. But he could let her face chaos. None of it was real, but she couldn’t ignore what seemed to hammer at all her senses simultaneously. Her attention was torn this way and that.
It was sweeping to her through her psi contact with Soad. She could stop it in an instant by breaking the contact.
And that, of course, was what Soad intended. If he put her out of effective action during the critical period, the mine would have no defense against him. Telzey thought that if she waited any longer, he’d succeed. She either would lose contact with him and find herself unable to regain it in the short time left, or get bludgeoned into temporary insanity.
She lashed out with the heaviest bolt she could muster, sensed shock pass through Soad. The storm of illusion faltered. She struck again at once, and illusion was gone, replaced by reactions of agonized violence.
Soad had expected nothing like this. His kind never had encountered such a weapon. Telzey, committed now, slamming in bolt after bolt, searching for vital centers in the alien mind, felt him slow to a wavering halt, knew then that he’d already almost reached the perimeter of the mine’s defense zone.
Stop him there—paralyze him . . .
His desperation and fury howled at her. Troublesome as she’d been, Soad had looked on the human psi as an essentially insignificant opponent. Belatedly now, he drove himself into the full destructive action he would have taken in an encounter with one of his own grim species. Chaos crashed at Telzey again, intensified, and her mind seemed to flow apart. She clung to shreds of awareness of Soad, of herself, slashed blindly into something horribly damaged but unyielding, was whirled through an exploding universe and knew abruptly that she was no longer reaching Soad, while the tumult still seemed to increase. Vast thunders shook her then, and blackness folded in about her.