Naran Makun looked across the table at the caravan master.
“And you couldn’t find a trace of him?”
“Nothing. Not even a scrap of his cargo or so much as the bones of a long-neck. He just dropped out of sight of his whole train. He went through this big estate, you see. Then he cut back to pick up some of his stops on the northern swing. Well, that was all. He didn’t get to the first one.” The other waved a hand.
“Weird situation, too. Oh, the null was swirling, we know that, and he could have been caught in an arm. It happens, but it isn’t too often that an experienced man like your brother gets in so deep he can’t get out somehow--or at least leave some trace of what happened.” The man picked up his cup, eying it thoughtfully.
“Oh, we’ve all had close ones, sure. We’ve all lost a long-neck or so, now and then. Whenever the null swirls, it can cover big territory in a big hurry and most of that northern swing is null area at one time or another. One of those arms can overrun a train at night and if a man loses his head, he’s in big trouble.” He sipped from his cup.
“Young caravan master got caught that way, just a while back. A friend of mine, Dr. Zalbon, was running the swing after the null retracted. He found what was left.”
“Told me he ran into a herd of carnivores. Fifteen or twenty real big fellows. Jaws as long as a man. He killed them off and then found they’d been feeding on what was left of Dar Konil’s train.”
He shook his head. “It’s not a nice area.”
“Hold everything.” Naran leaned forward. “You said my brother went through this big estate. Anyone see him come out?”
Dar Girdek smiled. “Oh, sure. The Master of the Estates, Kio Barra, himself. He saw him to the border and watched him go on his way.”
Naran looked doubtful. “And what kind of a character is this Barra?”
“Oh, him!” Dar Girdek waved a hand. “Nothing there. In the first place, he holds one of the biggest estates in the mountain area. So what would he want to rob a freight caravan for?” He laughed.
“In the second place, the guy’s practically harmless. Oh, sure, he’s got a title. He’s Lord of the Mountain Lake. And he wears a lot of psionic crystalware. But he’s got about enough punch to knock over some varmint--if it’s not too tough. Dar Makun might be your weak brother, but he’d have eaten that guy for breakfast if he’d tried to be rough.”
“Psionic weakling, you mean? But how does he manage to be a master Protector of an Estate?”
Dar Girdek smiled wryly. “Father died. Brother sneaked off somewhere. That left him. Title’s too clear for anyone to try any funny business.”
“I see.” Naran leaned back. “Now, what about this null?”
“Well, of course you know about the time the pseudomen from the Fifth managed to sneak in and lay a mess of their destructors on Carnol?”
“I might. I was one of the guys that saw to it they didn’t get back to celebrate.” Naran closed his eyes for an instant.
“Yeah. Way I heard it, you were the guy that wrapped ‘em up. Too bad they didn’t get you on the job sooner. Maybe we wouldn’t have this mess on our hands now.” Dar Girdek shrugged.
“Anyway, they vaporized the city and a lot of area around it. That was bad, but the aftereffect is worse. We’ve got scholars beating their brains cells together, but all they can tell us is that there’s a big area up there just as psionically dead as an experimental chamber.” He grinned.
“I could tell ‘em that much myself. It’s a sort of cloud. Goes turbulent, shoots out arms, then folds in again.
“We’d by-pass the whole thing, but it’s right on the main trade route. Only way around it is plenty of days out of the path, clear down around the middle sea and into the lake region. Then you have to go all the way back anyway, if you plan to do any mid-continent trading. And you still take a chance of getting caught in a swirl arm.”
Naran tilted his head. “So? Suppose you do get into a swirl? All you need to do is wait.” He smiled.
“You know. Just sort of ignore it. It’ll go away.”
“Uh huh. Sounds easy enough. It’s about what we do when we have to. But there are things living there. They can be hard to ignore.”
“You mean the carnivores?”
“That’s right. If you meet one of those fellow out in normal territory, he’s no trouble at all. You hit him with a distorter and he flops. Then you figure out whether to reduce him to slime or leave the carcass for his friends and relations.” He smiled.
“From what your brother said, you wouldn’t need the distorter.”
Naran smiled deprecatingly. “That’s one of the things they pay me for,” he remarked. “We run into some pretty nasty beasties at sea.”
“Yeah. I’ve heard. Big, rough fellows. Our varmints are smaller. But what would you do if you ran into twenty tons or so of pure murder, and you with no more psionic power than some pseudoman?”
Naran looked at him thoughtfully. “I hadn’t thought of that,” he admitted. “I might not like it. Jaws as longs as a man, you said?”
The other nodded. “Longer, sometimes. And teeth as long as your hand. One snap and there’s nothing left.
“When they kill a long-neck, they have a good meal and walk away from whatever’s left. But people are something else. They just can’t get enough and they don’t leave any crumbs.” He waved a hand.
“There’ve been several trains caught by those things. A swirl arm comes over at night, you see, and the caravan master loses his head. He can’t think of anything but getting out. Oh, he can yell at his drivers. They’ve got a language, and we all know it. That’s easy. But did you ever try to get a long-neck going without psionic control?”
“I see what you mean. It could be a little rough.”
“Yeah. It could be. Anyway, about this time, everybody’s yelling at everybody else. The long-necks are squealing and bellowing. Drivers are jerking on reins. And a herd of carnivores hears the commotion. So, they drop around to see the fun. See what I mean?”
Naran nodded and Dar Girdek went on.
“Well, that’s about it. Once in a great while, some guy manages to get into a cave and hide out till the null swings away and another caravan comes along. But usually, no one sees anything but a little of the cargo and some remains of long-necks. No one’s ever come up with any part of man or pseudoman. As I said, one snap and there’s nothing left.”
Naran smiled wryly. “Tough to be popular, I guess.” He leaned forward.
“But you’ve been over the trail several times since he disappeared. And you said you’ve seen nothing. No trace of the train. That right?”
The other shook his head. “Not even a cargo sling.”
“You’re making up a train now, aren’t you? I’d like to go along on this next trip. Fact is, I’ve been thinking some nasty thoughts. And I’m going to be uneasy till I find out whether I’m right or not.”
Dar Girdek rubbed his chin. “Want to buy in, maybe?”
“No, I don’t think so. I’ll work my way--as your lead driver.”
“Oh, no!” Dar Girdek laughed. “You don’t put a psionic on some long-neck. Lead driver’s pseudoman, just like the rest.” He sobered.
“Oh, sure. You could handle the drivers, but it just isn’t done.”
Naran smiled. “Oh, as far as the other drivers’ll know, I’m just another pseudoman. I’ve been a ship’s non-psi agent, remember? We earn our keep by dealing with the people in non-psi areas.”
“It won’t work.” The caravan master shook his head. “These drivers can get pretty rough with each other. You’d have to set two or three of them back on their heels the first day. It would be either that, or get a lot of bruises and end up as camp flunky.”
“Could be,” Naran told him. “Tell you what. You turn me loose in an experimental chamber so I can’t fudge. Then send your toughest driver in and tell him to kick me out of there. I’ll show him some tricks I learned from the non-psi’s overseas and he’ll be a smarter man when he wakes up.”
Leuwan, Kio Barra, Lord of the Mountain Lake, Master of the Estates Kira Barra, and Protector of the Common Good, stood examining the assortment of crystals in a cabinet. He hesitated over a large, brilliantly gleaming sphere of crystallized carbon, then shook his head. That one would be pretty heavy going, he was sure. The high intensity summary said something about problems of the modern world, so it could be expected to be another of those dull reports on the welfare of the Commonwealth.
Why, he wondered, did some projection maker waste good time and effort by making up things like that? And why did they waste more time and effort by sending them around? When a man wanted to relax, he wanted something to relax with. What he was looking for was something light.
He turned his attention to other crystals, at last selecting a small, blue prism. He held it up, regarding it, then nodded and placed it on the slender black pedestal near his chair, where he could observe without undue effort.
He turned, examining each corner of his empty study, then took his sapphire-tipped golden staff from under his arm, placing it carefully on a rack built into his chair arm, where it would be convenient to his hand should the need arise.
One could never be too careful, he thought. Of course, he could deal with any recalcitrant slave by other means, but the distorter was convenient and could be depended upon to give any degree of pressure desired. And it was a lot less trouble to use than to concentrate on more fatiguing efforts such as neural pressure or selective paralysis.
One must conserve one’s powers for times when they might be really needed.
Too, there was the remote possibility that some lackland wanderer might come by and find a flaw in the protection of the Estates--even somehow penetrate to the Residence. Barra shuddered at that thought, then shrugged it off. Kira Barra was well protected, of that he had made sure. Ever vigilant surrogates were deposited in all the strategic spots of the Estates--not only to allow quick observations of the condition of the lands, but also to give automatic warning of the approach of anyone of inimical turn of mind.
He eased his bulk into the chair, twisted about for a few moments as it adjusted to fit his body, then leaned back with a sigh of relaxation and directed his thoughts to the crystal before him.
Under the impulses of his amplified thought, the crystal glowed, appeared to expand, then became a three-dimensional vista.
The high intensity summary and excerpt leader had been not too deceptive, Barra told himself as the story unfolded. It was a well done adventure projection, based on the war with the Fifth planet. Critically, he watched the actions of a scout crew, approving of the author’s treatment and selection of material. He, Barra, was something of a connoisseur of these adventure crystals, even though he had never found it necessary to leave the protection of Earth’s surface.
He shrugged, taking his attention from the projection.
The lacklanders, he told himself--entertainment people, caravan masters, seafarers, other wanderers of light responsibility--were the natural ones to be selected to go out and deal with remote emergencies.
Like all stable, responsible men of property and worth, he was far too valuable to the Commonwealth to risk himself in wild dashes to the dead, non-psionic lands, or out into the emptiness of space. As far as risking himself on combat missions of interplanetary war-- He shook his head. This was pure stupidity.
He frowned uneasily. It had been a bit unfair, though, of the Controllers. They had completely excused him from service on the basis of inaptitude. It had rankled ever since.
Of course he couldn’t be expected to dash madly about in some two-man scout. Even as his brother’s assistant, he had been a person of quite definite standing and responsibility and such antics would have been beneath his dignity. He had made that quite plain to them.
There had been responsible posts where a man of his quality and standing could have been of positive value. And, as he had pointed out, they could have assigned him to one of those.
But no! They had merely excused him. Inapt!
As far as that went, he told himself angrily, he, Kio Barra, could comport himself with the best if necessity demanded.
Those dashing characters in this projection were, of course, the figments of some unstable dreamer’s imagination. But they showed the instability of the usual lackland wanderers. And what could such men do that a solid, responsible man like himself couldn’t do better?
He returned to the crystal, then shook his head in disgust. It had become full--flat--meaningless. Besides, he had matters of real import to take care.
He directed his attention to the chair, which obediently swung about until he faced his large view crystal.
“Might as well have a look at the East Shore,” he told himself.
As he focused his attention, the crystal expanded, then became a huge window through which he could see the shores of the inland sea, then the lands to the east of the large island on which he had caused his Residence to be built. He looked approvingly at the rolling, tree-clad hills as the view progressed.
Suddenly, he frowned in annoyance. The great northern null was in turbulence again, thrusting its shapeless arms down toward the borders of Kira Barra. He growled softly.
There, he told himself, was the result of the carelessness of those lackland fools who had been entrusted with the defense of the home planet. Their loose, poorly planned defenses had allowed the pseudomen of the Fifth to dash in and drop their destructors in a good many spots on the surface. And here was one of them.
Here was a huge area which had once been the site of a great city and which had contained the prosperous and productive estates of a Master Protector, now reduced to a mere wasteland into which slaves might escape, to lead a brute-like existence in idleness.
He had lost pseudomen slaves in this very null and he knew he would probably lose more. Despite the vigilance of the surrogates, they kept slipping across the river and disappearing into that swirling nothingness. And now, with that prominence so close--
He had no guards he could trust to go after the fellows, either. Such herd guards as he had would decide to desert their protector and take up the idle life which their fellow pseudomen had adopted. A few of them had gone out and done just that. Their memories of the protection and privileges granted them were short and undependable. He sighed.
Some Master Protectors had little trouble along that line. Others had managed to hire the services of halfmen--weak psionics, too weak to govern and yet strong and able enough to be more than mere pseudomen.
These halfmen made superb, loyal guards and overseers--for some--but none had remained at Kira Barra. They had come, to be sure, but they had stayed on for a time, then drifted away.
And, he thought angrily, it was illegal to restrain these halfmen in any way. Some soft-headed fool had granted their kind the rights of Commonwealth citizenship. Halfmen had even managed to take service with the fleet during the war with the Fifth Planet. Some of them had even managed somehow to be of small value--and now many of them held the status of veterans of that victorious war--a status he, one of the great landholders, was denied.
No, he told himself, until such time as the nulls were solved and eliminated, such pseudomen as managed to cross the northeastern river were safe enough in their unknown land. And, he thought sourly, the scholars had made no progress in their studies of the nulls.
Probably they were concerning themselves with studies more likely to give them preferment or more immediate personal gain.
Of course, the wasteland wasn’t entirely unknown, not to him, at least. He had viewed the area personally. There were hilltops on the Estates from which ordinary eyesight would penetrate far into the dead area, even though the more powerful and accurate parasight was stopped at its borders. Yes, he had seen the affected area.
He had noted that much of it had regained a measure of fertility. There was life now--some of it his own meat lizards who had wandered across the river and out of his control. And he had even seen some of the escaped pseudomen slinking through the scrub growth and making their crudely primitive camps.
“Savages!” he told himself. “Mere animals. And one can’t do a thing about them, so long as they let that dead area persist.”
Eventually, the scholars had reported, the dead areas would diminish and fade from existence. He smiled bitterly. Here was a nice evasion--a neat excuse for avoiding study and possible, dangerous research.
So long as those nulls remained, they would be sources of constant loss of the responsible Master Protectors, and would thus threaten the very foundations of the Commonwealth.
Possibly, he should-- He shook his head.
No, he thought, this was impractical. Parasight was worthless beyond the borders of the null. No surrogate could penetrate it and no weapon would operate within it. It would be most unsafe for any true man to enter. There, one would be subject to gross, physical attack and unable to make proper defense against it.
Certainly, the northern null was no place for him to go. Only the pseudomen could possibly tolerate the conditions to be found there, and thus, there they had found haven and were temporarily supreme.
Besides, this matter was the responsibility of the Council of Controllers and the scholars they paid so highly.
He concentrated on the crystal, shifting the view to scan toward the nearest village.
Suddenly, he sat forward in his chair. A herd of saurians was slowly drifting toward one of the arms the null had thrust out. Shortly, they would have ambled into a stream and beyond, out of all possible control. Perhaps they might wander for years in the wastelands. Perhaps they and their increase might furnish meat for the pseudomen who lurked inside the swirling blankness.
He snarled to himself. No herders were in sight. No guard was in attendance. He would have to attend to this matter himself. He concentrated his attention on the power crystals of a distant surrogate, willing his entire ego into the controls.
At last, the herd leader’s head came up. Then the long-neck curved, snaking around until the huge beast stared directly at the heap of rocks which housed the crystals of the surrogate himself. The slow drift of the herd slowed even more, then stopped as the other brutes dimly recognized that something had changed. More of the ridiculously tiny heads swiveled toward the surrogate.
Kio Barra squirmed in his chair. Holding these empty minds was a chore he had always hated.
Certainly, there was less total effort than that required for the control of the more highly organized pseudomen, but the more complex minds reacted with some speed and the effort was soon over. There was a short, sometimes sharp struggle, then surrender.
But this was long-term, dragging toil--a steady pushing at a soggy, unresisting, yet heavy mass. And full concentration was imperative if anything was to be accomplished. The reptilian minds were as unstable as they were empty and would slip away unless firmly held. He stared motionlessly at his crystal, willing the huge reptiles to turn--to waddle back to the safe grasslands of the estate, far from the null.
At last, the herd was again in motion. One by one, the huge brutes swung about and galloped clumsily toward more usual pastures, their long necks swaying loosely with their motion.
Switching from surrogate to surrogate, Barra followed them, urged them, forced them along until they plunged into the wide swamp northeast of Tibara village.
He signed wearily and shifted his viewpoint to a surrogate which overlooked the village itself. What, he wondered, had happened to the herdsmen--and to the guards who should be overseeing the day’s work?
Half hidden among ferns and the mastlike stems of trees, the rude huts of Tibara nestled in the forest, blending with their surroundings, until only the knowing observer could identify them by vague form. Barra shifted his viewpoint to the central village surrogate.
There were other open spaces in the village, but this was the largest. Here was the village well, near which a few children played some incomprehensible game. An old man had collected a pile of rock and had started work on the well curb. Now, he sat near his work, leaning against the partly torn down wall. Spots of sunlight, coming through the fronds high above, struck his body, leaving his face in shadow. He dozed in the warmth, occasionally allowing his eyes to half open as he idly regarded the scene before him.
Before some of the huts surrounding the rude plaza, women squatted on the ground, their arms swinging monotonously up and down as they struck their wooden pestles into bowls of grain which they were grinding to make the coarse meal which was their mainstay of diet.
A few men could be seen, scratching at small garden plots or idly repairing tools. Others squatted near their huts, their attention occupied by fishing gear. Still others merely leaned against convenient trees, looking at each other, their mouths moving in the grotesque way of the pseudoman when he could find an excuse to idle away time.
Barra listened to the meaningless chatter of grunts and hisses, then disregarded the sounds. They formed, he had been told, a sort of elementary code of communication. He coughed disparagingly. Only some subhuman could bring himself to study such things.
Of course, he knew that some lacklanders could make vocal converse with the pseudomen and caravan masters seemed to do it as a regular thing, but he could see no point in such effort. He could make his demands known without lowering himself by making idiotic noises.
His communicator crystals would drive simple thoughts into even the thick skulls of his slaves. And he could--and did--thus get obedience and performance from those slaves by using normal, sensible means as befitted one of the race of true men.
And what would one want of the pseudomen other than obedience? Would one perhaps wish to discuss matters of abstract interest with these beast men? He regarded the scene with growing irritation.
Now, he remembered. It was one of those days of rest which some idiot in the Council had once sponsored. And a group of soft-headed fools had concurred, so that one now had to tolerate periodic days of idleness.
Times had changed, he thought. There had been a time when slaves were slaves and a man could expect to get work from them in return for his protection and support.
But even with these new, soft laws, herds must be guarded--especially with that null expanding as it was. Even some lackland idiot should be able to understand that much.
He turned his attention to the headman’s hut.
The man was there. Surrounded by a few villagers, he squatted before his flimsy, frond-roofed hut, his mouth in grotesque motion. Now, he stopped his noisemaking and poised his head. Then he nodded, looking about the village.
Obviously, he was taking his ease and allowing his people to do as they would, without supervision.
Barra started to concentrate on the surrogate, to make his wishes and his displeasure known. Then he turned impatiently from the crystal, seizing his staff. Efficient as the surrogates were, there were some things better attended to in person.
He got to his feet and strode angrily out of the study, sending a peremptory summons before him. As he entered the wide hallway, an elderly slave came toward him. Barra looked at the man imperiously.
“My cloak,” he demanded, “and the cap of power.”
He projected the image of his fiber cloak and of the heavy gold headpiece with its precisely positioned crystals, being careful to note the red, green and blue glow of the various jewels. Meticulously, he filled in details of the gracefully formed filigree which formed mounts to support the glowing spheres. And he indicated the padded headpiece with its incrustation of crystal carbon, so his servitor could make no mistake. The man was more sensitive than one of the village slaves, but even so, he was merely a pseudoman and had to have things carefully delineated for him.
As the man walked toward a closet, Barra looked after him unhappily. The heavy power and control circlet was unnecessary in the Residence, for amplifiers installed in the building took care of all requirements. But outside, in the village and fields, a portable source of power and control was indispensable and this heavy gold cap was the best device he had been able to find.
Even so, he hated to wear the circlet. The massive crystals mounted on their supporting points weighed a couple of pounds by themselves and though the gold insulating supports were designed as finely as possible, the metal was still massive and heavy. It was a definite strain on his neck muscles to wear the thing and he always got a headache from it.
For an instant, envy of the powerful psionics crossed his mind. There were, he knew, those who required no control or power devices, being able to govern and direct psionic forces without aid. But his powers, though effective as any, required amplification and when he went out of the Residence it was essential that he have the cap with him.
Proper and forceful handling of the things of the Estates, both animate and inanimate, demanded considerable psionic power and this made the large red power crystal at the center of his cap most necessary.
Besides, simultaneous control problems could be difficult--sometimes even almost impossible--without the co-ordinating crystals which were inset at the periphery of the headband.
And there was the possibility that he might meet some trespassing lacklander who might have to be impressed with the resources of the master of Kira Barra. He knew of more than one instance wherein a Master Protector had been overcome by some predatory lackland wanderer, who had then managed by one means or another to secure his own accession to the estates of his victim. He smiled grimly.
Carelessness could be costly. He had proved that to his brother.
Kio Barra still remembered the first time he had quarreled violently with Boemar. He still remembered the gentle, sympathetic smile and the sudden, twisting agony that had shot through him as his power crystal overloaded. The flare of energy had left him incapable of so much as receiving a strongly driven thought for many days.
He laughed. But, poor, soft fool that he had been, Boemar had carefully nursed his brother’s mind back to strength again.
Yes, Boemar had been a powerful man, but a very unwise one. And he had forgotten the one great strength of his weaker brother--a strength that had grown as Leuwan aged. And so, it was Leuwan who was Kio Barra.
But such a thing would never again happen at Kira Barra. With his controls and amplifiers, he was more than a match for the most powerful of the great psionics--so long as they didn’t meet him with affectionate sympathy.
He stood silently as the servitor put the cap on his head and placed the cloak about his shoulders. Then, tucking his heavy duty distorter under his arm, he turned toward the outer door. The control jewels on his cap burned with inner fire as he raised himself a few inches from the floor and floated out toward the dock.
Not far from the forest shaded village of Tibara, logs had been lashed together to form a pier which jutted from the shore and provided a mooring for the hollowed logs used by men of the village in harvesting the fish of the lake. Several boats nested here, their bows pointing toward the fender logs of the pier. More were drawn up on the gravel of the shore, where they lay, bottoms upward, that they might dry and be cleaned.
A few villagers squatted by their boats and near the pier. Others were by the nets which had been spread over the gravel to dry.
One large section of the pier was vacant. Always, this area was reserved for the use of the Lord of the Mountain Lake.
As Barra’s boat sped through the water, he concentrated his attention on the logs of the pier, urging his boat to increasing speed. The sharp prow rose high in the water, a long vee of foam extending from it, to spread out far behind the racing boat.
As the bow loomed almost over the floating logs, Barra abruptly transferred his focus of attention to his right rear, pulling with all the power of the boat’s drive crystals. The craft swung violently, throwing a solid sheet of water over pier and shore, drenching the logs and the men about them.
Then the bow settled and the boat lay dead in the water, less than an inch from the pier’s fender logs.
Barra studied the space between boat and logs for an instant, then nodded in satisfaction. It was an adequate landing by anyone’s standards.
His tension somewhat relieved, he raised himself from the boat and hovered over the dock.