They looked back. Something squat and black was walking up the path toward them, its outlines wavering here and there as if it were composed of dense smoke. They turned away from it, started along the path. It was wide enough to let them walk side by side, but not much wider.
Gaziel breathed, “I wish Ti hadn’t picked this one!”
Telzey was wishing it, too. Perhaps they were in no real danger. Ti certainly shouldn’t be willing to waste them if they made a mistake. But they’d seen Martridrama puppets die puppet deaths in this ravine tonight; and if the minds of which Challis had spoken existed and were watching, and if Ti was not watching closely enough, opportunities for their destruction could be provided too readily here.
“We’d better act exactly as if it’s real!” Telzey murmured.
To get safely out of the ravine, it was required to keep walking and not leave the path. The black death which followed wouldn’t overtake them unless they stopped. Whatever moved along the sides of the ravine couldn’t reach them on the path. There were sounds and near-sounds about them, whispers and a hungry whining, wisps of not quite audible laughter, and once a sharp snarl that seemed inches from Telzey’s ear. They kept their eyes on the path, which mightn’t be too stable, ignoring what could be noticed along the periphery of their vision.
It shouldn’t go on much longer, Telzey told herself presently—and then a cowled faceless figure, the shape of a man but twice the height of a man, rose out of the path ahead and blocked their way.
They came to a startled stop. That figure hadn’t appeared in the ravine scene they’d watched. They glanced back. The smoky black thing was less than twenty feet away, striding steadily closer. On either side, there was an abrupt eager clustering of flickering images. The cowled figure remained motionless. They went on toward it. As they seemed about to touch it, it vanished. But the other shapes continued to seethe about now in a growing fury of activity.
The ravine vanished.
They halted again—in a quiet, dim-lit passage, a familiar one. There was an open door twelve feet away. They went through it, drew it shut, were back in the room assigned to them. It looked ordinary enough. Outside the window, tree branches rustled in a sea wind under the starblaze. There were no unusual sounds in the air.
Telzey drew a long breath, murmured, “Looks like the show is over!”
Gaziel nodded. “Ti must have used his override to cut it short.”
Their eyes met uneasily for a moment. There wasn’t much question that somebody hadn’t intended to let them get out of that scene alive! It hadn’t been Ti; and it didn’t seem very likely that it could have been Linden. . . .
Telzey sighed. “Well,” she said, “everyone’s probably had enough entertainment for tonight! We’d better get some sleep while we can.”
Ti had a brooding look about him at the breakfast table. He studied their faces for some moments after they sat down, then inquired how they felt.
“Fine,” said Telzey. She smiled at him. “Are just the three of us having breakfast here this morning?”
“Linden’s at work,” said Ti.
“We thought your wife might be eating with us,” Gaziel told him.
Ti made a sound between a grunt and a laugh.
“She died during the night,” he said. “I expected it. She never lasts long.”
“Eh?” said Telzey.
“She was a defective puppet,” Ti explained. “An early model, made in the image of my wife Challis, who suffered a fatal accident some years ago. A computer error which I’ve been unable to eradicate causes a copy of the puppet to be produced in the growth vats from time to time. It regards itself as Challis, and because of its physical similarity to her, I don’t like to disillusion it or dispose of it.” He shrugged. “I have a profound aversion to the thing, but its defects always destroy it again within a limited number of hours.”
He gnawed his lip, observed dourly, “Your appetites seem undiminished! You slept well?”
They nodded. “Except for the Martri stuff, of course,” said Gaziel.
“What was the purpose of that?” Telzey asked.
“A reaction test,” said Ti. “It didn’t disturb you?”
“It was scary enough,” Telzey said. “We knew you didn’t intend to kill us, but at the end it looked like the computer might be getting carried away. Did you have to override it?”
Ti nodded. “Twice, as a matter of fact! It’s quite puzzling! That’s a well-established sequence—it’s been a long time since the computer or a puppet attempted a logic modification.”
“Perhaps it was because we weren’t programmed puppets,” Gaziel suggested. “Or because one of us wasn’t a puppet at all.”
Ti shook his head. “Under the circumstances, that should make no difference.” His gaze shifted from one to the other. For an instant, something unpleasant flickered in his eyes. “You may be almost too stable!” he remarked. “Well, we shall see—”
“What will we be doing today?” Telzey asked.
“I’m not certain,” Ti said. “There may be various developments. You’ll be on your own part of the time, at any rate, but don’t go roaming around the estate. Stay in the building area where I can have you paged if I want you.”
They nodded. Gaziel said, “There must be plenty of interesting things to see in the complex. We’ll look around.”
They had some quite definite plans for looking around. The longer Ti stayed busy with other matters during the following hours, the better . . .
It didn’t work out exactly as they’d hoped then. They’d finished breakfast and excused themselves. Gaziel had got out of her chair; Telzey was beginning to get out of hers.
There was something like a dazzling white flash inside her head.
* * *
And she was in darkness. Reclining in some kind of very comfortable chair—comfortable except for the fact that she was securely fastened to it. Cool stillness about her. Then a voice.
It wasn’t mind-talk, and it wasn’t sound picked up by her ears. Some stimulation was being applied to audio centers of her brain.
“You must relax and not resist,” she heard. “You’ve been brought awake because you must try consciously not to resist.”
Cold fear welled through her. Ti had showed them the programming annex of the Martri computer yesterday. She was there now—they were trying to program her! Something was fastened about her skull. Feelings like worm-crawlings stirred in her head.
She tried to push the feelings away. They stopped.
“You must relax,” said the voice in her audio centers. “You must not resist. Think of relaxing and of not resisting.”
The worm-crawlings began again. She pushed at them.
“You are not thinking of relaxing and not resisting,” said the voice. “Try to think of that.”
So the programming annex knew what she was and was not thinking. She was linked into the computer. Ti had said that if a thought was specific enough—
* * *
“We’ve been trying for almost two hours to get you programmed,” Ti said. “What was your experience?”
“Well, I couldn’t have been awake for more than the last ten minutes,” Telzey said, her expression sullen. “I don’t know what happened the rest of the time.”
Linden said from a console across the room, “We want to know what happened while you were awake.”
“It felt like something was pushing around inside my head,” Telzey said.
“Nothing else?” said Ti.
“Oh, there was a kind of noise now and then.”
“Only a noise? Can you describe it?”
She shrugged. “I don’t know how to describe it. It was just a noise. That was inside my head, too.” She shivered. “I didn’t like any of it! I don’t want to be programmed, Ti!”
“Oh, you’ll have to be programmed,” Ti said reasonably. “Let’s be sensible about this. Were you trying to resist the process?”
“I didn’t know how to resist it,” Telzey said. “But I certainly didn’t want it to happen!”
Ti rubbed his chin, looking at her, asked Linden, “How does the annex respond now?”
“Perfectly,” Linden said.
“We’ll see how the other subject reacts. Telzey, you wait outside—that door over there. Linden will conduct you out of the annex in a few minutes.”
Telzey found Gaziel standing in the adjoining room. Their eyes met. “Did you get programmed?” Gaziel asked.
Telzey shook her head.
“No. Some difficulty with the annex—almost like it didn’t want me to be programmed.”
Gaziel’s eyelids flickered; she nodded quickly, came over, watching the door, slipped something into Telzey’s dress pocket, stepped back. “I suppose it’s my turn now,” she said.
“Yes,” Telzey said. “They were talking about it. It’s like little worms pushing around inside your head, and there’s a noise. Not too bad really, but you won’t like it. You’ll wish there were a way you could override it.”