They shook their heads.
“A good deal of mystery is made of it,” Ti said. “But the difficulty lies in the basic programming of the computer. That takes a master! If anything at all is botched, the machine never quite recovers. Few Martri computers in existence might be said to approach perfection. This one comes perhaps closest to it, though it must operate on a much wider scale than any other built so far.”
“You programmed it?” Telzey asked.
Ti looked surprised. “Of course! Who else could have been entrusted with it? It demanded the utmost of my skills and discernment. But as for the handling of the computer—the work of the dramateer—that isn’t really complicated at all. Linden lacks genius but is technically almost as accomplished at it as I am. You two probably will be able to operate the computer efficiently and to direct Martridramas within a few months. After you’ve been here a year, I expect to find you composing your own dramas.”
He stepped down into the control complex, settled into one of the seats, took a brimless cap of wire mesh from a recess and fitted it over his head. “A dramateer cap,” he said. “It’s not used here, but few dramas are directed from here. Our Martri Stage covers the entire island and the body of water immediately surrounding it, and usually Linden and I prefer to be members of the audience. You’re aware that the computer has the capability of modifying a drama while it’s being enacted. On occasion, such a modification could endanger the audience. When it happens, the caps enable us to override the computer. That’s almost their only purpose.”
“How does it work?” Gaziel asked.
Ti tapped the top of his head. “Through microcontacts in my skull,” he said. “The dramateer usually verbalizes my instructions, but it’s not necessary. The thought, if precise enough, is sufficient. It’s interesting that no one knows what makes that possible.”
He indicated the wall at the far end of the room with a nod. “A check screen. I’ll show you a few of the forest puppets.”
His hands flicked with practiced quickness about the controls, and a view appeared in the screen—a squat low building with sloping walls, standing in a wide clearing among trees. That must be the control fort Remiol and Eshan had talked about.
The screen flickered. Telzey felt a pang in the center of her forehead. It faded, returned. She frowned. She almost never got headaches. . . .
Image in the screen—heavily built creature digging in the ground with clawed feet. Gaziel watched Ti, lips slightly parted, blue eyes intent. Ti talking: “—no precise natural counterpart but we’ve given it a viable metabolism and, if you will, viable instincts. It’s programmed to nourish itself, and does. Weight over two tons—”
The pain—a rather mild pain—in Telzey’s head shifted to her temples. It might be an indication of something other than present tensions.
An inexperienced or clumsy attempt by a telepath to probe a resistant human mind could produce reactions which in turn produced the symptom of a moderately aching head.
And Linden was a clumsy psi.
It could be the human original he was trying to probe, Telzey thought, but it could as well be the Martri copy, whose head presumably would ache identically. Linden might be playing his own game—attempting to establish secret control over Ti’s new tools before he had normal psi defenses to contend with. . . . Whichever she was, that could be a mistake! If she was resisting the attempt, then some buried psi part of her of which she hadn’t been conscious was active—and was now being stimulated by use.
Let him keep on probing! It couldn’t harm at all. . . .
“What do you think of that beauty?” Ti asked her with a benign smile.
A new thing in the screen. A thing that moved like a thick sheet of slowly flowing yellowish oil along the ground between the trees. Two dark eyes bulged from the forward end. Telzey cleared her throat. “Sort of repulsive,” she remarked.
“Yes, and far from harmless. Hunger is programmed into it, and it’s no vegetarian. If we allowed it to satisfy its urges indiscriminately, there’d be a constant need to replenish the forest fauna. I’ll impel it now into an attack on the fort.”
The flowing mass abruptly shifted direction and picked up speed. Ti tracked it through the forest for a minute or two, then flicked the screen back to a view of the fort. Moments later, the glider came out into the clearing, front end raised, a fanged, oddly glassy-looking mouth gaping wide at its tip. It slapped itself against the side of the fort. Gaziel said, “Could it get in?”
Ti chuckled comfortably. “Yes, indeed! It can compress itself almost to paper thinness, and if permitted, it would soon locate the gun slits and enter through one of them. But the fort’s well armed. When one of our self-sustaining monsters threatens to slip from computer control, the fort is manned and the rogue is directed or lured into attacking it. The guns will destroy any of them, though it takes a good deal longer to do than if they were natural animals of comparable size.” He smiled. “For them, too, I have plans, though those plans are still far from fruition.”
He shut off the screen, turned down a number of switches, and got out of the control chair. “We’re putting on a full Martridrama after dinner tonight, in honor of your appearance among us,” he told them. “Perhaps you’d like to select one you think you’d enjoy seeing. If you’ll come down here, I’ll show you how to scan through samples of our repertoire.”
They stepped down into the pit, took the console seats. Ti explained the controls, moved back, and stood watching their faces as they began the scan. Telzey and Gaziel kept their eyes fixed on the small screens before them, studied each drama sample produced briefly, went on to the next. Several minutes passed in silence, broken only by an intermittent muted whisper of puppet voices from the screens. Finally Ti asked blandly, “Have you found something you’d like?”
Telzey shrugged. “It all seems as if it might be interesting enough,” she said. “But it’s difficult to tell much from these samples.” She glanced at Gaziel. “What do you think?”
Gaziel, smooth face expressionless, said, “Why don’t you pick one out, Ti? You’d make a better selection than we could.”
Ti showed even white teeth in an irritated smile.
“You aren’t easy to unsettle!” he said. “Very well, I’ll choose one. One of my favorites to which I’ve added a few twists since showing it last.” He looked at his watch. “You’ve seen enough for today. Run along and entertain yourself! Dinner will be in three hours. It will be a formal one, and we’ll have company, so I want to see you come beautifully gowned and styled. Do you know your way back to your room from here?”
They said they did, followed him out of the Dramateer Room, watched as he sealed and locked the door. Then they started back to their room. As they turned into a passage on the next level up, they checked, startled.
The blue-haired woman Ti had called Challis stood motionless thirty feet away, looking at them. Pale eyes, pale face . . . the skin of Telzey’s back began to crawl. Perhaps it was only the unexpectedness of the encounter, but she remembered how Ti had lost color when Challis first appeared; and the thought came that she might feel this way if she suddenly saw a ghost and knew what it was.
Challis lifted a hand now, beckoned to them. They started hesitantly forward. She turned aside as they came up, went to an open door, and through it. They glanced at each other.
“I think we’d better see what she wants,” Telzey said quietly.
Gaziel nodded, looking quite as reluctant about it as Telzey felt. “Probably.”
They went to the door. A narrow dim-lit corridor led off it. Challis was walking up the corridor, some distance away. They exchanged glances again.
They slipped into the corridor, started after Challis. The door closed silently behind them. They came out, after several corridor turns, into a low wide room, quite bare—the interior of a box. Diffused light poured from floor, ceiling, the four walls. The surfaces looked like highly polished metal but cast no reflections.
“Nothing reaches here,” Challis said to them. “We can talk.” She had a low musical voice which at first didn’t seem to match her appearance, then did. “Don’t be alarmed by me. I came here only to talk to you.”
They looked at her a moment. “Where did you come from?” Gaziel asked.
“Inside the machine. I’m usually there, or seem to be. I don’t really give much attention to it. Now and then—not often, I believe—I’m told to come out.”