“I wouldn’t want to disappoint her,” Trigger said.
* * *
Attuk was a rather large, healthy-looking man with squared features and a quite bald head, who dressed with casual elegance and gave the impression of enjoying life thoroughly. Torai appeared past middle age—a brown-skinned woman with a handsome face and fine dark eyes. Her clothes and hair style were severe, but her long fingers glittered with numerous rings. Something ornate, which might have been a musical instrument in the general class of a flute, or perhaps a functional computer control rod, hung by a satin strap from her belt. Trigger decided it was a computer control rod.
A place had been set for Trigger at a small table near the center of the room, and refreshments put out—fruit, a chilled soup, a variety of breads, two loaves of meat. The utensils included a sizable carving knife.
The others weren’t eating. They sat in chairs around the wide green and gold room, which had a number of doors and passages leading from it. Torai was closest to Trigger, some fifteen feet away and a little to Trigger’s left. Perr Hasta, beyond Torai, had tilted her chair back against the wall, feet supported by one of the rungs. Attuk was farthest, on Trigger’s right, beside a picture window with an animated seascape at which he gazed when he wasn’t watching Trigger.
“I had the impression,” Torai remarked, “that you recognized me as soon as you saw me.”
Trigger nodded. “Torai Sebaloun. I’ve seen pictures of you. I’ve heard you’re one of the wealthiest women on Orado.”
“No doubt I am,” Torai said. “And Attuk and Perr Hasta are my associates in the Sebaloun enterprises, though the fact isn’t generally known.”
“I see.” Trigger sliced a sliver of meat from one of the loaves and nibbled at it.
“You created something of a problem for us, you know,” Torai went on. “In fact, it seemed at first that it might turn into a decidedly serious problem. But we moved in time, and had some good fortune in those critical first few hours besides. You’ve talked freely meanwhile and told us what we needed to know. You don’t remember that, of course, because at the time you weren’t aware of doing it. At any rate, there’s nothing to point to us now—not even for the Psychology Service’s investigators.”
Trigger said, “I’ve seen something of the Service’s methods of investigation. Perhaps you shouldn’t feel too sure of yourself.”
Attuk grunted. “I must agree with our guest on that point!”
“No,” Torai said. “We’re really quite safe.” She smiled at Trigger. “Attuk favors having Telzey Amberdon picked up, to find out what she can tell us about the Service’s search for you. But we aren’t going to try it.”
“It would be a sensible precaution,” Attuk observed, looking out at the restlessly stirring seascape. “We could have a new mercenary group hired, with the usual safeguards, to do the job. If anything went wrong, we still wouldn’t be involved.”
Torai said dryly, “I’d be more concerned if nothing went wrong and she were delivered safely to our private place!” She looked at Trigger. “We obtained a dossier on Amberdon, as we previously had on you. What we found in it hardly seemed disturbing. But what you’ve told us about her is a different matter. It appears it would be a serious mistake to try to maintain control over a person of that kind.”
Attuk made a disparaging gesture. “A mind reader, a psi. They can be handled. I’ve done it before.”
“Well, you are not having that particular mind reader brought to the satellite for handling!” Torai told him. “The information we might get from her isn’t worth the risk. She can’t harm us as long as we keep well away from her. My decision on that is final. To get back to you, Trigger. Your interference made it necessary to terminate the very lucrative Marell operation at once. Now that it’s known such a world exists, we can’t afford to retain any connections with it.”
Trigger said evenly, “I’m glad about that part, at least. You three have all the money you can use. You had no possible excuse for exploiting the Marells. They’re as human as you are.”
They stared at her a moment. Then Attuk grinned and Perr Hasta chortled gleefully.
“That’s where you’re mistaken,” said Torai Sebaloun.
Trigger shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh, but truly you are! The Marells may be human enough. We aren’t.”
The statement was made so casually that for a moment it seemed to have almost no meaning. Then there was a crawling between Trigger’s shoulder blades. She looked at the smiling faces in turn. “Then what are you?” she asked.
Torai said, “It may sound strange, but I don’t know what I am. My memory never goes back more than fifty or sixty years. The past fades out behind me. I keep permanent records to inform me of past things I should know about but have forgotten. And even the earliest of those records show that I didn’t know then what I was. I may have forgotten that very long ago.” She looked over at Attuk. “Attuk isn’t what I am, and neither is Perr Hasta. And neither of them is what the other is. But certainly none of us is human.”
She paused, perhaps expectantly. But then, when Trigger remained silent, she went on. “It shouldn’t be surprising, really. A vast culture like this one touches thousands of other worlds, often without discovering much about them. And it alerts and attracts other beings who can live comfortably on its riches without revealing themselves. An obvious form of concealment, of course, is to adopt or imitate the human form. With intelligence and experience and sufficiently long lives, such intruders can learn in time to make more effective use of the human culture than most humans ever do.”
Trigger cleared her throat, then: “There’s something about this,” she remarked, “that doesn’t fit what you’re telling me.”
“Oh?” Torai said. “What is it?”
“Torai Sebaloun herself. The Sebaloun family goes back for generations. It was a great financial house when the War Centuries ended. It’s less prominent now, of course, but Torai must have been born normally. Her identification patterns must be on record. She must have grown up normally. Where a member of the Sebaloun family was involved, nothing else could possibly have escaped attention. So how could she be at the same time a long-lived alien who doesn’t remember what it really is?”
Torai said, “You’re right in assuming that Torai Sebaloun was born and matured normally. I sought her out when she was eighteen years old. I’d been watching her for some time. She was a beautiful woman, in perfect health, intelligent as were almost all members of the Sebaloun line, and wealthy in her own right, not to mention her family’s great wealth. So I became Torai Sebaloun.”
“I transferred my personality to her. The body I’d been using previously died. I forced out Torai’s personality. I acquired her body, her brain and nervous system, with its established habit patterns and memories. I was Torai Sebaloun then, and I let the world grow gradually accustomed to the various modifications I wanted to make in its image of her. There were no problems. There never are.
“That’s how I exist. I’m a personality. I take bodies and use them for a while. Before I discovered human beings, I was using other bodies. I know that much. And when my host body no longer seems satisfactory, I start looking around for a new one. I’m very selective about that nowadays, as I can afford to be! I want only the best.”
She smiled at Trigger. “Of late, I’ve been looking again. I was on Orado when you took my property from Blethro. Since he’s shown himself to be a most capable individual, I was interested in the fact that you’d been able to do it. As soon as we had your name, I was supplied with a dossier on you. I found that even more interesting, though it left a number of questions unanswered. So I had you brought to our satellite to make sure of what I’d come across. You’ve had a medical examination during the past hours, which confirms that you’re in superior physical condition. Our interrogation revealed other excellencies. In short, I find no disqualifying flaw in you.”
Trigger glanced at the other two. They had the expressions of detachedly interested listeners.
She told Torai carefully, “Perhaps you’d better go on looking. There are obvious reasons why it wouldn’t be advisable for you to try to take over my identity.”
“No, I couldn’t do that,” Torai agreed. “So this time we’ll create a new one. Your appearance will be surgically altered. So will your identification patterns. And, of course, I don’t intend to give up the Sebaloun empire. All the necessary arrangements were made some while ago. Torai is the last of her family, and her sole heiress is a young protégée to whom the world will be gradually introduced after Torai’s death. All that remained then was to find the protégée. And now—”