* * *
“No, I didn’t do it,” Telzey said. “That Child of the Gods was simply too much for me! I was finished. I did hurt him rather badly and slowed him down, but even so he’d come halfway through the defense zone when the computer finally got itself unblocked.”
“And you ordered it to attack the creature?” asked Alicar Troneff. He was lying in a narrow hospital vat half filled with something that looked like green mud and smelled like vinegar, in the process of getting his beam-mangled left leg restructured.
Telzey shook her head.
“No. I was completely out of it by then. But I didn’t have to give the order. I’d told the Romango earlier to cut loose on Soad if he showed up in the defense zone, and the instruction was recorded. So that’s the first thing it did. The radiation guns finished him at once then, of course. He couldn’t even stand sunlight. That was an awfully close call, Alicar!”
“Yes, it was,” he agreed. He regarded her a moment. “And it seems I’m no longer in control of you—”
She smiled. “No.”
“I never did trust you!” Alicar remarked dourly. “But how did it happen? You shouldn’t have been able even to try to identify my controls, let alone tamper with them.”
Telzey said, “If you’d left it at the specific controls, I probably wouldn’t have been able to do it. At least, not in time. But you put me under a binding general injunction besides, remember? Whatever I did had to be what was best for you—in your interest. That overrode everything else. After you’d been shot, I realized it would be very much in your interests if I got back every scrap of ability I’d had, fast.” She laughed. “And that broke the whole spell, Alicar! Including the injunction itself, since considering what might, or might not, be to your advantage from moment to moment in that situation certainly would have handicapped me in dealing with something like Soad.”
He grunted, scratched his chin with his left hand. “Mind telling me where I am at present then?”
“Well, you’re not going to like that part of it,” Telzey said. “You’re on a hospital ship of the Psychology Service.”
He swore softly and bitterly. “I suspected something of the sort! I noticed the area is psi-blocked.”
“Yes, it is,” Telzey said. “But don’t take it too hard. If I’d been looking out only for you, this still is exactly where you’d have wound up.”
“What do you mean?”
“Soad wasn’t the only problem we had there.”
“His supply of djeel,” she said. “After we got to the mine and he decided it might be too risky to send you back for the oil you’d taken away, he began experimenting with what he’d collected to find out how close he was to the minimum he’d need. He miscalculated finally and started a reaction—the same kind of reaction that tore up Tosheer. That’s why he was desperate to get what was at the mine. He needed it at once to balance out the reaction.”
Alicar had paled. “And did—”
“No, it didn’t,” said Telzey. “But I’d picked that up from him at the end, and as far as I knew, it was going to happen. So as soon as I started thinking again, I had the Romango connect me with the Federation Station. When I mentioned psi was involved, the Service moved in, and everyone on Mannafra was evacuated in an awful hurry.”
“But the djeel didn’t go off then, after all?”
“Oh, it went off, all right,” she said. “Four hours later. All it did though was to leave a hole in the desert about five hundred yards across where Soad’s machine had been. It seems there simply hadn’t been enough djeel affected by the reaction to do more than that.”
* * *
Alicar said after a moment, “Not that the information is likely to be of much use to me, but exactly what does djeel oil do?”
“I don’t know exactly what it does,” Telzey said. “And I’m not going to try to find out. In general though, processed djeel oil interacts with psi energy. The Service already knew that, though they haven’t talked about it. As to what it does when it works as it’s intended to, the Children of the Gods use it in connection with psi as their main form of transportation. They still have accidents with it, at least planned ones. Soad seems to have been in a fight with some of the others, and they started an uncontrolled psi reaction in the djeel of his machine that whipped him and the machine across intergalactic space—”
“Intergalactic space?” Alicar repeated.
Telzey said, “That’s not really the way to put it. He was simply somewhere else, and then he was here in the Hub. But that somewhere else doesn’t seem to have been even one of our neighbor galaxies! Still, he could have made it back to his starting point with a fresh supply of djeel oil. The reaction had almost exhausted what he had, and the nearest ore bed his machine could detect was on Mannafra. Soad barely made it there. But he had no way of processing the ore, so he had to wait then for something with enough intelligence to do it for him to come along. He waited a long time. Finally, you came.”
Alicar nodded. “And, of course, that clears me! If I was under that monster’s influence, I can’t be held responsible for what’s happened.”
Telzey looked at him a moment.
“Well, Alicar,” she said, “If you think you’ll get the Service to believe that, give it a try! Since they’ve been checking around in your mind while you were out, I doubt you’ll have much luck. And, frankly, I don’t feel you should get away with it. Seven men died at your djeel mine; and the way you made use of me was cold-blooded, to say the least. Besides, I think—though that’s not my business now—that I had several predecessors who didn’t last very long as your controlled psi proxies. You’ve been letting others take chances for you for quite a while.”
She added, “All things considered, I understand they’re letting you off rather lightly. You were thinking of experimenting with djeel oil, and you’ll get the chance, in one of the Service’s high-risk space projects. You know too much about it to be turned loose anyway.”
Alicar glowered at her.
“What about yourself?” he demanded. “You know at least as much as I do!”
Telzey stood up. “True,” she said. “But the Service found out a while ago that I’m good at keeping secrets. I’ll be starting back to Orado in a few minutes. I just stopped in to say good-bye.”
He didn’t reply. She went to the door, looked back at him.
“Cheer up, Alicar!” she told him. “It’s still better than working for Soad until he decided to make a meal of you—which is what you would have been doing if things had turned out just a little differently!”
An auburn-haired, petal-cheeked young woman who belonged in another reality came walking with feline grace along a restaurant terrace in Orado City where Telzey had stopped for lunch during a shopping excursion.
Telzey watched her approach. This, she decided, was quite strange. Going by her appearance and way of moving, the woman seemed to be someone she’d met before. But she knew they hadn’t met before. She knew also, in a curiously definite manner, that the woman simply couldn’t be on this terrace in Orado City. She existed in other dimensions, not here, not now.
The woman who didn’t exist here glanced at Telzey in passing. There was no recognition in the look. Telzey shifted her chair slightly, watched the familiar-unfamiliar phantom take another table not far away, pick up an order disk. A very good-looking young woman with a smooth unsmiling face, fashionably and expensively dressed—and nobody else around seemed to find anything at all unreasonable in her presence.
So perhaps, Telzey reflected, it was her psi senses that found it unreasonable. She slipped out a thought probe, held it a moment. It produced no telepathic touch response, no suggestion of shielding. If the woman was psi, she was an atypical variety. She’d taken a snack glass from the table dispenser by now, was sipping at it—
Comprehension came suddenly. No mystery after all, Telzey told herself, half amused, half disappointed. A year ago, she’d gone with some acquaintances to take in a Martridrama. The woman looked and walked exactly like one of the puppets they’d seen that evening, one who played a minor role but appeared enough of an individual to have left an impression in memory. No wonder it had seemed a slightly uncanny encounter—Martri puppets didn’t go strolling around the city by themselves.
Another thought drifted up then, quite idly.
Or did they?