Sunday, February 8, 2015

Free Read "Star Level" Novelette by Hugo & Nebula Finalist & Star Trek TOS Biographer William Rotsler

(from the William Charles Rotsler site)

William Rotsler


Born in 1926, WILLIAM ROTSLER was a long-time and much-beloved, science fiction fan who began writing science fiction in 1970. Before that he was a sculptor, whose work decorated the plaza at the Los Angeles Police Department, a pioneer of adult filmmaking in

the 1960s, a journalist, and a five-time award-winning cartoonist. He achieved fame with his novelette, "Patron of the Arts," a Hugo and Nebula Award finalist, set in a compelling future which he later explored in greater depth in the novel version, Patron of the Arts. He is also the author of To the Land of the Electric Angel, the Zandra series, The Far Frontier, and a number of licensed Star Trek tie-ins, including a book of biographies of the original crew and several books of short stories about them. With his friend Gregory Benford he was the co-author of Shiva Descending. His services for the Science Fiction Writers of America included locating the fossils, crystals and stones for the Nebula Award trophies. He died in southern California in 1997. "Star Level" is that rarity a warmly human story of people with extraordinary power in a cosmic war to determine the fate of homo sapiens. It first appeared, to reader acclaim, in the March 1972 Amazing Stories.

Star Trek fans may find something uncannily familiar in the diction of the mostly unseen, but heard, alien character.


REED CARRAHER LOOKED into the great yawning mouth of the two millimeter Colt laser and had a silly thought: Why wasn't his life flashing before his eyes?

He looked up at the dark visor covering the face of the Patrolman and said, "Yes?" He turned his head deliberately and looked at the second blackclad Patrolman standing by the door. "May I help you in some way?"

"Don't move. Don't even think about moving, mudballer!" the nearest Patrolman snapped.

Be mild Be slightly frightened Be nervous. Be confused.

"Are you confusing me with someone you want?" he asked, with just the right amount of concern in his voice.

"Put your hands on top of your head!" the Patrolman growled.

Stay calm.

"Of course, officer. But I don't see what this has to do w—"


Reed Carraher was very still. He let his face be mildly confused, with an expression that said, 'They'll get this straightened out soon. They're only doing their duty. Be a good citizen and cooperate."

"Whattya think, Bart?" the Patrolman with the drawn gun asked.

"Looks close enough, I guess. Let's take him in. He's the closest yet and we can have the night out in Ares."

"Get up!" A rough gesture with the hand in a metalmesh glove.


"Shut your flapping hatch!" A flick of the laser barrel indicated the direction he wanted Carraher to go.

"Cuffs?" the other Patrolman asked.

The one with the gun snorted. "Him? Hah!"

Outside a sleek dark Patrol flyer waited. Carraher climbed into the back and the laser never left him. The flyer lifted, slid angularly towards the air­lock at the top of the dome, where it hovered while the great gates slid back. Then they were leaping out into the dark Martian sky.

The dome cluster of Bradbury fell away and they were streaking away over the strip mines towards Ares Center a thousand kilometers away. Carraher knew they were going there because there was nothing in between.

You have less than two hours. I have calculated speed and direction. Observe and be ready to react.

"Listen, what's this all about, of­ficers? Where are you taking me? I have a dinner appointment with the General Manager of Icemountain. I'll have to be back for that, you know."

The two blackclad men in front did not answer.

"What's it all about? I haven't done anything. It can't be for that traffic control ticket I got at Northaxe last month. I know I've been meaning to send them a credit memo, but ... well, I mean, two Patrolmen for that ... well, it's silly."

"It's not a traffic violation, citizen, as you well know," the pilot said in disgust.

"What is it then?" Carraher asked. "Come on, you can tell me, can't you?" Put some whine in it.

"Can't you?"

The other Patrolman shrugged his shoulders and turned his head to look through his dark shiny visor at the prisoner. "They want you at headquarters. A guy named Compton got carved by a laser." Carraher felt him­selfbeing scrutinized. "You fit the description close enough." He snorted. "They said you were dangerous. Those desk pilots probably think their grandmothers are dangerous. They've been stranded here so long they've forgotten how to handle citizens." He snorted again and turned contemptuously towards the front.

Point Four is directly south three hundred kilometers. Exterior temperature is twenty-one degrees. Altitude two thousand There's another aircar two kilometers to the Northwest, headed for Grandcanal.

Carraher concentrated on the back of the head of the Second Patrolman. He felt the tenseness in his muscles that was not so much a tenseness as an awareness.

He funneled. He channeled. He pushed the energy out of him.

The Patrolman nodded his head, caught himself, shook his head, then dropped his chin to his chest.

"Hey, Bart, don't slag off now. Keep an eye on that mudballer, will you? Hey! Dammit, if you're going to sleep the rest of the way slap some cuffs on that guy, will you?"

Carraher's gaze went to the head of the pilot. The Patrolman shook his head, grumbling and swearing. The flyer swerved and dropped, but the black-clad pilot caught it and brought it up again.

"Goddammit, Bart—"

His head dropped to one side and the flyer slanted off to the South. Carraher jumped forward and seized the controls, righting the ship over the limp form of the Patrolman.

Carraher swore as he tried to steer the ship with the unconscious body in the way. He stabbed in the stable flight button then tugged and yanked for several minutes before he could get the heavy body over the seat and dumped on the floor in back.

'What good is it?' he thought. 'They'll be after me all the harder now.'

They were inefficient. They did not report your capture. They were overconfident. But your disposal of them was adequate. Unless you desire to kill them, they will awaken with no memory of where or when you escaped.

'I'll keep roughly on this course for another hundred kilometers, angling towards Point Four. Then I'll land, reset the flyer and let them wake up somewhere up near Ares,' he thought, 'unless you have some alternative.'

Negative. Once you found yourself in this situation it was the best course to follow.

"You're implying I botched the whole thing, aren't you?" Carraher said aloud. 'You know I had no choice but to cut Compton and run,' he thought angrily.

There were choices. You did not re­serve sufficient time to analyze. You gave them a look at you, enough of an identification to pick up all likely suspects.

'Well, why didn't you warn me? That's your job!'

My tasks are well known to me. I was working on a primary function, that of emptying Compton's mind You had administered the drug, all you had to do was guardian duty.

"How can I concentrate with you using my mind like that? Don't you know what it's like?" Carraher shook his head in irritation. 'It's like the docks at Sahara Central,' he thought viciously. 'Information going through like torn up newspapers in a hurricane. Chunks. Gas. Lightning. And all the time it's like you're screaming in my ear, forcing it out of him, gouging, prying, cutting.' "And I'm supposed to keep watch! Hah!"

You've done it before. Winecup, on Ganymede. Wilson. Haldeman in that crash on Gilgamesh. Krupp in New York. Coulson in Calcutta. Vados in Sardinia. Craig on Little Zeus. All over the moons of Jupiter, from Amalthea out to Vishnu and Thor. Here. Earth. Lindsay on Luna.

'I know, I know,' "I know!" 'But it never happens to you! You don't know what 'it's like, standing in the middle of that river, that flood of thought, of words, of memory—!'

That is true. Perhaps I was hasty in condemning you. When we return to Base I will not counter a request for transfer.

'You son of a bitch.' "You bastard." 'You know what this means to me. You're blackmailing me, you popping mind-sucking frelk! You know it better than anyone in the Universe.'

That is true. Not even the Master spent as much time in your mind as I have. He merely made the preliminary survey. I have lived in it.

'Do you find it comfortable?' Carraher wondered sarcastically.

As well as any I have tried. Would you be comfortable in a spacesuit constructed for a child?

"Thank you, Secret Master of the Universe," Carraher said.

You are being sarcastic. It is a common fault of your kind. Faced with a problem that you find insoluable, you resort to irony, humor, sarcasm, bitterness, apathy, fear and anger. They are primitive reactions and seldom solve anything.

"Were you always pompous or did you study it?"

Logic. Reason. Experience. Synthesis. Evaluation. Action.

'Yes, I know. The path to knowledge. I can't knock it, but its bare bones can be a bore, IOK. You can be a bore, sometimes. IOX was a bore. IOR was something of a bloody bore.'

And IOZ?

Carraher turned to the unconscious Patrolman slumped in the next seat and said, "Do you know the trouble with having someone live in your mind twenty-four hours a day? It's like a house guest that looks in your desk and in your dresser and reads your mail. That's what's wrong with having a xeron in your head. In case you should ask."

IOZ gave you exotic dreams.

"I know IOZ gave me exotic dreams," Carraher snapped. "I liked her best and I don't know why Base changed us."

You are aware we have no sexual differential. Why do you persist in labeling?

'Because she was a she! She thought like a she, she acted like a she. You are a he. IOX was an it. IOR was a maybe.' "Get it?"

It is at moments like this that I question my decision to become a Warder. Despite the Plan, there are times I sense that xeron and man shall never grow together.

"There are times like this," Carraher said, punching out codes on the telex, "that I question my own goddamn sanity for letting one of you alien basketballs into my dome." 'I really do. You are nothing but trouble.'

Why do you persist in the pretense of anger? It is not logical nor practical.

I know your true feelings. You are proud of your association with us. The instant we sense a significant lessening of interest and dedication we will confer and act.

"Do you make me blow my head off or do I just go quietly insane?"

That is unworthy of you. You are quite aware of the decontamination procedures. Honorable retirement on any of three worlds and nine moons. A life of leisure and happiness. Waiting for you at any time you desire. That was our pledge.

'Unless I get cut down first.' "Or caught. Or snagged by the Patrol's Psych Group and my brain drained."

Your brain will not be drained. We promise you that.

"Yesh," Carraher, said gloomily, "that's what I'm afraid of."

Your continual pessimism did not stop you from accepting our offer.

"So I believed you!" 'Maybe you hypnotized me, I don't know. You convinced me you wanted to help man.'

Intelligence. Man is not the only intelligent being.

'Okay, okay.' "Okay." 'So most of mankind would think I was a traitor and the rest would think I was insane. Helping an alien scoop out all the knowledge in carefully selected humans.'

We need to know certain things. We do not know what we need to know. You and the others help. In the long view you realize we are correct.

"Sometimes I do." 'Sometimes I don't.' "It's weird having someone live in your head like this!" 'It's not natural!'

It is natural to us. We use scores of host races.

"Well ... Like the joke says, it seemed like a good idea at the time."

Humans are a constant source of wonder. Their reactions are so unpredictable at times. There is always a sense of danger about you.

'Are you calling us savages?'

Such judgements are highly subjective. To us you are savages. To the Thula we are savages, though they are too polite to say so. You merely seem dangerous because of your unpredictability. You have come remarkably far in a very short time.

'Thanks, loads.' "I'm going down now."

The flyer sank abruptly and almost immediately Ares Control called, asking why they had dropped off the scopes. Carraher ignored them and swept to a landing on a rocky stretch in a wide, shallow crater. Working as fast as he could he pulled the unconscious pilot back into the seat, so that he might awaken somewhere and discover that their prisoner had simply "vanished." He grabbed an airmask and tanks and moved to the door.

He punched the takeoff button and leaped to the rocky, sandy soil. He did not look up as the flyer jumped skyward. It would sit down four more times, then clear the destination board and simply go west until the pilot woke up.

Carraher started walking and the xeron said in his mind, That way. The lithe young spaceman turned slightly and continued walking, adjusting the airmask more tightly to his face.

The air was thin and cold and the xeron turned up his body heat to compensate, but kept the simulated fever from interfering with other body functions. it cost calories and would need adjusting later, but it would save time and energy.

Carraher was walking for over an hour when the warning sounded in his head.

Flyer at 175° and coming fast.

Carraher trusted the xeron's experienced use of his own sensing devices and jumped for the curve of a crater lip, hiding in the shadow. He watched the yellow dot of a commerical flyer move across the dark blue sky a few kilometers off.

Course computed. Wait until out of sight and then continue.

Carraher watched until the ship disappeared beyond a crater edge, then heaved himself up and started out again.

The sand dragged at his feet and the airmask made his chest hurt. "Do something about the hunger, will you?" he said aloud. The hollow feeling died away and his thrist calmed. Carraher knew the toil it would take on his body to have all the warning signals suppressed, but he had no choice.

When night came he curled up in a ball and hugged himself. 'Put me to sleep for a couple of hours,' he thought at the xeron. The sleep was instantaneous and dreamless. He was almost instantly awake again, but he knew too well the terrible efficiency the xeron had over many of his body functions.

He rose and his eyes seemed to penetrate the darkness better and after three hours tiny Phobos rose to become a pale dot in the black jewel case of the sky. Carraher fought the boredom by having IOK take over the motor and visual functions and to continue walking his body across the night desert while he luxuriated in fantasy.

Give me Earth, he said. Tahiti before the white man. But this time throw in a few white women.

Your capacity for trivial escape mechanisms amazes me. If you wish merely to be distracted from this purely mechanical act of walking I could familiarize you with Acanthocephala or Coelenterata. They are most interesting. I have been learning about these parasitic worms and various jellyfish from IOG, who is with Bergin in the Mozambique Channel.

"IOK, will you for Christ's sake, just never mind!" 'I want quiet and coolness and ease. And maybe a woman. I haven't had a woman since Chris's Place.' "Just give me Tahiti with the changes, huh?"

You are very uninformed in the sciences. You do not have all the atomic weights correct, for instance. I could coach you. I'll cool your interior sense and keep up the exterior warmth while‑

"IOK! "

Very well.

The dark bowl of night grew blacker then lightened and Carraher heard the soft slap-slap of waves. He turned from the blue dome and there were green trees, palms and wide-leaved tropical plants. The waves broke quietly on the wide white beaches, protected from the sea by the reefs. He heard children's laughter and under the trees he saw the huts of a small village.

Beyond the trees the dark red cones of the volcanos rose, impossibly steep, their lower sides skirted heavily in dark green. Near him, playing in the surf were several brown-skinned young women, slim and sleek and naked, their long black hair like bird's wings, stuck to their shoulders and back. Their flesh was speckled with water jewels as they frolicked naked and unashamed beneath a sun that had yet to see a thermonuclear blast.

"Hello, Reed," a soft voice said near him, just barely heard above the sound of waves and laughter. Carraher turned and saw what he expected to see and hoped to see and thought he would never see again, except in the illusions of his mind.

"Hello, Mara."

They looked at each other for a long time and Carraher ran his eyes over the ripe perfection of her body, over the naked, tanned skin, over the full, firm breasts, over the flat, taut stomach, down the long, shapely legs.

Her eyes were the same, no matter what form he made her body. Usually deep violet, but in bright sunlight they could be blue. Last time, "on Earth," she had been slimmer, quicker, more demanding, running in the untouched forest, legs wet with dew, falling laughing in a meadow of flowers, opening her dress, reaching for him ... dancing and flying in the Astrobubble on Station Two, weightless and gay, imaginary wings spreading wide, swooping and kissing, he in his black uniform trimmed with scarlet, she in a shimmering skintight that changed colors ... standing on the tip of Redrock with a sandstorm coloring the sunset with glory, not needing airmasks because IOK had given Mars a crisp, clean blanket of air ... a fresh clean world all new and untouched ... twisting and dipping, gods in space, perfect bodies as long as a comet, using the Solar System as a playground, dodging planets and laughing as they felt the flame of the Sun ... naked in the water, in the fish and seaflowers and coral castles, never needing air, making love, playing games, swimming, diving, finding a lost temple of Ishtar in sunken Atlantis ...

... Mara ...

... again ... not lost ... alive ... here ...

Reed Carraher took the warmly smiling girl into his arms to kiss and the nearby maidens giggled in appreciation, their wet shiny breasts jiggling. He swept her up into his arms and started for the shore, knee-deep in the crystal waters. She snuggled into his shoulder as they went up onto the beach, towards the cool shade, towards the bower of flowers, towards the flood of love words, silent and spoken.

It was going to be a very nice walk to Point Four, Carraher thought. They both smiled at the voluptuous brown-skinned beauties and Reed walked across the fine sand of the coral beach and into the trees.

The bower was there, heavy with the incense of nature, and the wide soft bed of deep green moss. They looked at each other with shy smiles on their faces, lovers twice a hundred times yet strangers, virgins on a new planet.

Reed touched her flesh, his fingertips tracing a romance across her golden flesh. Her great blonde cascade of hair spread out over the moss, over the world, a fine net of life and beauty and memory.

He lay next to her and she touched his lips, a fingertip tracery with her smile of love beyond. Her breasts were firm and smooth, with a hardening button in his palm, and her body arched towards him ...

... night ... torches and glistening flesh ... a ring of dancers ... music ... moonlight on a world of water, silver and purple ...

... warm days of sea and sun and sand, of fruit and love and laughter ... seaweed forests and underwater coral sculpture ... waves and fish and flowers.

... a simple, happy people, brown and naked and untouched.

... an innocent world . .

... a new world ...

... and Mara...

We are almost there.

The trees overhead shimmered and blurred. The silken skin, beaded with moisture and warm with love, slowly disappeared. The moss bed darkened. The sky was black, without stars, and then it was dark blue and a Martian day.

Carraher took another step and stopped, crying out with pain. "Hey! What the hell were you doing with my body! My knees are—ouch!—banged raw and my elbow—"

A Patrol craft approached us twice. I did not think it necessary to remove you from your Dream while I hid your body.

"Did you have to be so rough?" Carraher examined his bloody elbow through a rip in his suit. He was aware of weakness and dehydration and a general soreness. His airmask chafed badly and his lips were split and dry.

They came over at high velocity. I had to reduce your body heat below the level of their infrared detectors. I am sorry if I have injured your flesh, but the alternative was not viable.

"Uh ... okay, thanks. I know you did your best." 'Thanks for those days with Mara, though. But I just asked for a variation. Just a few zoftic white women in with the regular natives, just for variety.'

If you would permit me someday to indoctrinate you in the IOC-IOM disciplines you could contact the deeper portions of your mind and achieve a truer whole.

"In other words, you read me that I wanted Mara." 'Is nothing sacred? How much do you peek and don't tell me? Are you going to say you know me better than myself?'

I am a Fourth Level adept, a moka in the IOC-IOM disciplines.

And that's the answer I deserve, I suppose, Carraher thought. "Where are we?"

Point Four is one kilometer straight ahead. They know we are here.

Carraher walked over a low ridge, the worn remnant of an ancient crater, and down into the inconspicuous jumble of rocks and mud cracks and craterlets that was the hidden entrance to Point Four.

That way. Into that crack. Stop. IOR will open the entrance.'

IOR's here? Who is he with? Uh, who is it, er, IOR with?'

Was that humor or indecisiveness?

'Aha! Something you can't understand?' Carraher grinned and then put his fingers to his cracked lips as he felt the blood flow. 'Damn!'

Interpretation of alien thought symbols is not yet perfection, for it differs from individual to individual.

'Maybe I have a place to hide in my own head,' Carraher thought quietly to himself.

Only if we permit it.

"Oh, will you open this goddamn hole?"

The ground yawned-and dilated before him as rocks moved aside and cracks widened. Carraher walked down into the darkness and the rocks swung closed over his head. His eyes dilated quickly and he walked towards a darker rectangle to the left, then down a slanting corridor into darkness.

'Who else is here?' Carraher asked listlessly. The repair work on his body was going to be a bore, even with IOK's help.

IOR ... IOT'moki ... IOZ...

"IOZ?" Gladness and warmth welled up in Carraher. IOZ had been fun, like having a beautiful weekend guest, always considerate and friendly.

You are criticizing me?

'Goddamn it, IOK, will you stop listening to everything I think?'

You prefer IOZ? I find that difficult to comprehend. IOZ is only a Third Level adept. A moka, it is true, but only at the Third Level.

Carraher laughed. "Did I hurt your nonexistent ego? Aw, poor baby ..."

It is only logical that you would prefer the highest level adept. If you were able to accept a Fifth Level adept, even a barlwan, I should not question it. It would only be logical.

Carraher turned into the hatch at the end of the dark corridor and went through a silent decontamination room.

'There's a lot you have to learn about human relationships, IOK. Even about human-xeron relationships. All of you in your morrea nest better run it through the disciplines again.'

Yes, we have begun a trial discipline.

'Umm, fast.' "Which way?"

Right. The others wait in the central room.

Carraher walked confidently through the dim rooms, his physical pain blunted. "Who is IOZ with?"

A female of your race.

Before Carraher had much time to digest that information a hatch dilated and he stepped through into the bright light of the central room.

"Reed!" Carraher stared at the totally unfamiliar and totally familiar form of a well-built brunette in a gray jumpsuit.

'Mara! No ... not Mara ... you don't even look like Mara ...' "IOZ?"

"Yes!" the girl said, delight in her voice. Ignoring the two others, both men, the girl launched herself across the room at Reed Carraher and they embraced as old friends. She raised a shining, smiling face up to his and they kissed. One of the men sighed wearily and the other made a small, rather strangled sound.

"Hello, Reed," the brunette said. "I'm Mina. Mina Wallace."

"Hello, Mina ... Hello, IOZ."

"Hello, Reed Carraher. It is a gladness that we meet again." The words came from Mina's soft red mouth but Reed immediately sensed the difference.

Are you finished?

"Let them alone, IOK," Mina said.

"Oh, very well," Reed heard himself say, "but let's get on with it."

"IOZ told me IOK was a drudge," Mina said.

"IOZ is no fool. IOK is a raincloud looking for a place to turn himself inside out."

Why do you insult me?

"Let them alone," Mina said, frowning up Reed's forehead.

"Yeah, let us alone," Reed said, tasting the blood on his lips again as he smiled. "I'm greeting an old-new friend."

"Let's get you started healing up," Mina said, smiling. "That hurts, kissing a mouth like that."

"It hurts on this end, too," Reed said.

Please. Salute the others.

"Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry." Reed walked towards the two men, also in grey jump suits. "I'm Reed Carraher ... and IOK ... but of course, you know that."

"Yes," said the older of the two, a paunchy, moody-looking, dark-haired man in his late forties. "I'm Webster Gianelli. This is Torbert Minden."

Carraher turned towards the other man, a slim, graceful, gray-haired man in his late thirties, who smiled and said, "How do you do? I am with IOT'moki and of course Webster is with IOR."

Reed shook their hands and then let Mina pull him away towards a bright white dispensary where she rubbed salve on his wounds and made him lie down on a soft-topped table under a Healer.

I have begun reconstruction of the damaged tissues. The girl will bring you food. When you have eaten you should sleep. Would you like a Dream?

"You sound as if you are going away."

In a sense. The Healer will require several hours and I must confer with IOT'moki about the Plan. The Fourth Level Conclave is engaging the Third Level Comilla in the k'stals. I have entered myself in the xxxTerm Callidity and must prepare that portion of my being. Within one time period it will be my duty of obligation and I must be certain I have purged all channels so that the energy flow is unimpaired.

"All at once?"

Of course these functions are concurrent. It would be grossly inefficient not to use every portion of your being in as many levels as you are capable of handling at peak levels of service.

"When IOZ was with me she didn't go on like that. She thought of fantastic images for me and delights that were a great deal of fun."

Must I remind you again that IOZ is Third Level and therefore neither capable of nor likely to be of service to her race, her morra nest or even her host.

"But she was fun."

Great Egg. I shall never rise to Fifth Level. You humans will corrupt me and I shall never rise higher. Your devious insanity will stain my thinking and I shall be cast out.

"A dedicated public servant like you? Never? Ah, here's Mina!"

The girl entered with a tray of food and drink, all in fanciful goblets and good plastic copies of Royal Martian china. "Here, my lord, the choice of the larder. Drink! Eat!"

Reed tore his eyes away from the smiling girl, wondering about his sudden strange feeling of warmth upon seeing her. Was it just that she was with IOZ? The two together seemed more fitting than even the closeness they had shared, and Reed was quite pleased. Two friends in one. And such a beautiful friend.

"Been here long?" he asked around a mouthful of analog-chicken.

"Point Four or Mars?"

"Marshxxx ... " He washed it down with a crimson goblet of blue wine.

"On Mars a year, ever since I graduated from college. Just jumped on a ship and still had on my mortar board when I docked. I've been here at Point Four for a month. IOZ and I gulped an engineer around at Welles and had to hide out."

"Why all the way around the planet? Why not go to ground at Touchdown Station or out near Northaxe where that new station is?"

"I dunno, IOZ said here." There was a slight pause and then she continued. "I perceived that if your assignment with Compton required you to go to ground it would be here, and I wanted you two to meet."

Mina's smile faltered and she blushed. Carraher swallowed the wedge of blossom cheese and grinned into Mina's dark eyes. "Why, you sneaky match-maker you!"

I informed her it would be counter productive but she did it nevertheless.

'Are you back?'

IOT'moki is conferring with his nest. The Conclave and the Comitia are changing the rules to fit the Artala. My duty period has yet to begin and I am well on the way to purging my channels.

'So you're still hanging around?'

Until the designers of the Plan reassign me some portion of my being shall always be with you. Always. No matter where you are. Even if you were dead, I would remain in some energy pocket to be certain the body was disposed of to the satisfaction of the Planners.

'Ask a stupid question and you get more answer than you need.'

"You'd better relax," Mina said. "The Healer works better that way." She bent over Carraher as he lay back and her lips were close to his. "Do you believe in love at first sight?"

"No, do you?"

"No." She kissed him lightly on the corner of his mouth. "But I'm always having my beliefs shattered."

Reed smiled at her and this time there was no taste of blood. "There are times I resent being steered around like some kind of bio-car. But this isn't one of them."

"Do you feel like a pawn in the great chess game in the sky?"

"Yes. Mostly I kept wandering over to other squares but today ... today I've been captured by a queen."

"Sleep ... Get well. We have things to do," Mina said.

"Sleep, Reed Carraher, and heal," she said.

"Goodnight, Mina ... 'Night, IOZ ..." 'Take me down, IOK."

Blackness came so fast Reed did not have time to ask for a Dream. But then, he didn't really need one.


"Huh? Oh." 'Oh, that's better. Everything's fixed, huh?'

Your tissues have been regenerated I have made certain modifications in your facial structure and your voice identification pattern.

"Dammit, you should have consulted me!" 'Hey, I do sound different! What did you do to my face?'

Carraher swung from the table and stepped towards a mirror. He stared at the new face dumbly.

He was different ... but the same. No, more different than same.

There was only so much I could do with the time available. Given a much longer time I could alter your fingerprints and retinal patterns. I sense pleasure in you.

"You did consult me after all. I ..." 'I look like a composite of all the men I have admired.' "I'm taller, I think."

Two centimeters.

"But why?"

A world wide telecast named you, by name, as the assassin of the scientist Compton. They broadcast a telefax of you and holos are being distributed

Carraher sighed, then grinned at his image. "Not bad."

I shall never understand the mysteries of the human ego. What possible difference does a physical exterior make? The essential you remains untouched.

"You've been giving me Dreams, doesn't that give you a hint?"

I have merely been detailing fantasies that already exist in your mind. A First Level adept could do as well. IOZ left codings in your mind for me to use, if I desired

"Okay, all right! I don't understand you, either." 'Now what? Where's Mina?'

While you slept the Conclave was assembled and it was decided that you human agents should attend.

"Why? Can't you just tell each of us what's happening?" 'It's safe here. I'd like to just hide out awhile and let things blow over.'

There is no time anymore. Events are progressing at a faster rate than anticipated. Our accelerated program of information acquisition has brought us important new information.

"You go." 'I'll stay here with Mina and get acquainted.'

Negative. The Conclave has determined that a Focus might be necessary. There is a need for a physical closeness between xerons and humans. Telepathic power is subject to the square root law just as any other power. With togetherness we can bring our powers to the highest peak.

"Oh, very well. But where do we go? I have no idea where the Nest is."

You will know when the time is appropriate.

'Secretive bastard.' "Okay, when?"

As soon as possible. It will be necessary to abandon Point Four and destroy it when we leave. They will detect our leaving the planet and backtrack us to this site.

"Okay, let's go!" Carraher took one last glance at his own image and left the Healer room grinning.

In the main room he found everyone assembled and saw their expressions as they absorbed his new appearance. Mina did not restrain her admiration.

"Ummm ..." she said, saying a lot.

"Quite attractive," she said again and Reed sensed I0Z speaking.

"Did you really assassinate Compton?" Mina asked.

"Yes and no," Reed answered. "IOK was emptying Compton's mind. You know what that's like. But this was the fastest yet and I ... I was confused and distracted. The security guards surprised us and started shooting. I had to fire back or be killed. Compton got in the way and ... I cut him down with a laser. I felt bad about that. We've always left them alive before."

"I don't like it either," Mina said.

"It is a necessary but regrettable action," said Webster Gianelli, who was with TOR "A portion of the Plan will be revealed to you at the Conclave."

"Only a part?" Reed said.

Torbert Minden spoke, and Carraher realized it was IOT'moki speaking. "There are levels of the Plan. It is not necessary that lower levels know or understand the All."

Carraher grinned. "There are some things man was not meant to know, huh?" 'Name one,' he thought.

It would be advisable to exercise caution.

'Watch my mouth?'

Affirmative. There is no need to agitate friction. We all have work to do.

"Let us leave," Gianelli said.

They went through another airlock and down a long curving passage, then slightly upward to another airlock. In­side was the first xeron spaceship Carraher had seen, a forty-foot egg-like vessel virtually featureless.

We adapted several ships for human use. Humans are larger and require a higher complexity of life support systems. For xeron use this would be a very large ship.

"Where are the acceleration couches?" Mina asked, looking around at casual-looking low padded benches.

They are not required.

The Martian desert split above them and the ship lifted off effortlessly. Torbert Minden lay on a couch with a glowing red ball suspended near his head. He appeared to be asleep.

Carraher exchanged looks with Mina and they shrugged and went to explore the ship. There were common sleeping quarters which caused Mina to blush slightly.

Another cabin held more casual couches and another floating globe, this one a deep blue, shot with half-glimpsed dots of light, like furry stars.

"Who built this ship?" Reed asked.

It is of Dubrian design and manufacture. The type is Crevlar-mulmato and the classification is Minor Vessel, Star Class.

"You mean we could ... go to the stars in this thing?"

Affirmative. The Dubrians are one of the many races of this galaxy which use space travel. They are honored members of the Galactic Council and supply many races with vessels for exploration.

'You mean the xerons did not have space travel?'

Our explorations have been in other areas. The Dubrians are scientists. They discovered this system while mankind was still in the caves. They established a station for observation around Jupiter.

Your largest planet has many unique properties and they made a long study of it. But something happened and the entire party was lost on the surface of the planet. The station remained unoccupied until it was discovered by asteroid miners. The technology they acquired was instrumental in their revolution and independence from the central Terran government.

'So that's where all that great stuff came from!' "I thought they'd been developing their own technology."

That was their desired impression. But the accidental evacuation of the Dubrian station meant that man was not monitored until recent times and by then it was too late. Drastic action was and is necessary. With the acquisition of Dubrian technical knowledge mankind took a much bigger step forward than it was socially prepared to do.

"So what are we going to do?" Mina asked, shooting a glance at Reed as if to explain the same speech was in her head, too, relayed through IOZ.

Humans have proved much more difficult to handle than anticipated. We are not superbeings and man has become more intelligent faster than the primary surveys indicated

"Man is a clever monkey," Reed said.

"And drastic action is needed," Mina said sadly.

The adaptation of the Dubrian star-drive is almost complete. Four ships have been constructed and provisioned in lunar orbit. In a matter of weeks the drive will be tested and explorers and colonists selected. We must act swiftly.

"But why not just let them go?" Mina asked.

Mankind is not mature. Not yet. We are not trying to stifle man but to help and guide him into the conclave of races. If he goes now into the stars he will be a disruptive force. If sufficient disruption is made the consensus will surely be to force mankind back to a pre-scientific age and to begin all over again. The next time he will be fully and carefully monitored

"Controlled?" asked Reed.

Watched. But we hope for a better solution. To mature man first so that he might not need to suffer the rejection and pain of a realignment. Thus we have conceived the way for man to fit into the Plan for the galaxy.

"But if we're not capable of maturity ... we get blasted back to the caves?" Carraher was both sad and angry.

How do you tell a child that he has not matured sufficiently to handle responsibility? So that he will believe it?

'I see what you mean,' thought Reed, 'though I hate to think of Mankind as some kind of felon or beast.'

We are an ethical race. Our ultimate goal is to secure the cooperation of humans in preparing them for galactic acceptance. But if they achieve a star drive before they are sufficiently mature we would have no choice but to return you to the pre-scientific levels.

"Damn!" snapped Carraher. "I hate being told what to do like this!"

There is little choice.

"Listen," Reed said. "Why don't we go to Earth and broadcast the whole story. We could demonstrate some of the—say, could all the xerons together give all of mankind a Dream, all at once?"

It is possible. We would all need to go there at once. The dream would be adequate but not as vivid as yours. No. The risk is too much. All of us together would be too great a risk if the reaction was violently against us.

"Then our advances in technology have been far greater than our social and humane advances?" Mina asked.

Your technological advance was accidental. It must be corrected before unrestricted star flight would be permitted.

"Between the Devil and the Deep Blue sea ..." muttered Reed.

"And the Conclave at the Nest is to determine policy?"

Affirmative. Why do you not use the blue sphere here to entertain yourselves? It has a different effect than supplying you with Dreams from your own mind. It can blend two minds by electronic telepathy and the effect is unusual.

"What do we do?" Reed asked.

Lie on the couches. Think out to each other. It will happen. You have two hours before arrival.

Mina looked at Reed and a faint flush colored her face. Her expression said Want to? Reed nodded and they lay down on the couches, feeling eager but self-conscious.

"What do we think about?" Reed asked aloud.

There was no answer but the floating globe began to flicker with interior light. It seemed to spin without spinning and Reed's attention was riveted on it.

An alien ball, floating in an alien ship ... an alien in your mind ... Electronic telepathy ...

Mina ... Mina ... Mina ... that instant recognition that had xxcexperienced ...

Lights spinning . .. spinning into the room, into their heads ...

Mina ...

Reed ...

A warmness ... a pleasure doubled ... a pleasure shared ...

Space around ... stars ... Mina ... Reed ... Mina/Reed ... Reed/ Mina ...

A oneness ...

Not a physical oneness ... but a fitting together ... you are the other half of me ... the words that are not words ... a blending, a sharing, a oneness ...

Moving ... spinning ... bodies and minds and souls merged like gases stars collide ... a recognition of self in the other ... there is "other" and there is "self" . .. doubled and doubled and doubled ... without the zerons ... by themselves ... they were doing it ... their minds kissed, their body-mind floated and fountained and was fiery and cold and flowing and one and two ...

A spinning galaxy ...

A spinning world ...

A spinning globe ...

Awakening ...

Reed turned his head to look at Mina with his new face and with a new mind. She stared at him, wordless, her eyes searching his.

"You could never tell anyone and make them understand," Reed said. "Never."

Now you have had a glimpse of the xeron existence.

"My god," Mina said softly.

We are almost at the Nest.

"Where are we?" Reed asked.

You should not know. What you do not know you cannot reveal, even inad­vertantly. The ship will be encased in the Nest's enclosure. If you attempt to look out your eyesight will be removed temporarily.

"I bet we're in the Jovian system. One of the moons or maybe some chunk of rock floating around. Of course, the Nest could be in the Asteroids. Ceres or Vesta or maybe Pallas. No, they have auto-stations. Eunomia, maybe. Hidalgo .. . Amor .. . hmm ..."

"It doesn't matter, Reed," Mina said. "We shouldn't know."

"It's hard to calculate, this ship moves so differently ... we could be at Pluto, for Christ's sake."

"Reed," Mina pleaded, "forget it." Mina put her arms around Reed and got his attention. "Let's do something we've never done before, okay?"

Carraher's face broke into a wide grin. He put a hand on top of her dark head and tilted up her face. They looked at each other for a long moment and the smiles faded and they knew that an important thing had come to pass between them. Reed bent his head and they kissed, long and hard and well.

"That other kiss ..." Mina said, "that was IOZ. This was me. The first time."

We have arrived. We must disembark.

Reed and Mina walked back through the ship to the airlock arm in arm and a foolish grin tugged at the corners of Reed's mouth. When he saw the portly Gianelli and the lean, gray Minden he could not help himself and broke into a delighted laugh.

"We've just had the most extraordinary experience—!"

"Yes, yes," Gianelli said with irritation, "Let us get into the Nest."

Reed grinned at him, feeling smug and benevolent. He helped Mina out of the hatch and through a short translucent duct into another airlock.

They emerged into a corridor, cut in rock and melted smooth. The passage led to a central chamber, where there were low couches.

"Where are the xerons?" Carraher asked.

It is not necessary that we become physically confronted. The nearness of us all is sufficient.

"You guys must be really xxxooogly," Reed laughed. "Think we can't take it?"

Over a hundred people were in the room, patiently waiting. Some were Dreaming. There were no introductions and they arranged themselves at various spots casually. Torbert Minden showed one of the men how to use the liquid dispenser and drinks were handed around. The Dreamers awoke.

`Well?' Reed asked IOK.

The Third Level Comitia has disengaged from the Conclave and is involved in a portion of the Plan.

"Are we the only humans here?" asked one of the men.

"Yes," Minden answered. "There was no time to get others."

"All normal xeron activity has been cancelled," a woman said.

"We are on alert status everywhere," one of the men said.

We begin.

Everyone turned or moved, although there was no focal point. Most just stared at the wall.

Xeron actions have come to the xxxdetention of the Terran governments. They had presumed it was the work of the United Jovian System until the human called Langley was given command of the force opposing us.

Carraher could not identify the thoughts of the xeron speaking to them and presumed it was that of the Fifth Level adept who commanded the xeron force.

Langley is the human genius who achieved the breakthrough in understanding and adapting the Dubrian star-drive to Terran technology.

'But the stardrive's not finished—!'

There are only the final modifications and testing left. Langley saw patterns in our investigations and was intrigued. We fascinate him and unfortunately he is in possession of a few facts that we thought unimportant. He formulated theories and found means to check them and has discovered too much.

Carraher felt a sudden elation. The xerons could be fooled! They could be out-thought! It took a genius but it had been done!

Those of his aides and those in the government who know about us, or about the mystery they attribute to us, are angry and resent our guidance as intrusion. They will be extremely difficult to persuade that the Plan is of the utmost importance.

"How has this affected the Plan?" one of the men asked.

The Plan needs modification and quick execution. The governments of Earth are very disturbed about the sabotaging of their star drive. They believed it was a parochial reaction of the Jovian government, but now that they believe it is the result of extraterrestial power they resent the intrusion even more and think it is an attempt to keep mankind from the stars.

"Is it?" Reed asked and several people looked at him, including Mina.

No. Only to delay. To contain mankind in this system until he is mature enough to accept his galactic responsibilities is our only desire.

"Perhaps you are wrong. Perhaps even the best intentions are wrong." Carraher felt trapped in the role of Devil's Advocate, but his conscience compelled him to ask.

We are not gods, Reed Carraher.

"Less than gods and more than men?" Carraher asked.

Different. Not better. Not worse. Different. Different powers, different goals, different races. But the Plan was not conceived just for this tiny system. It is the Plan for the galaxy, conceived by a conclave of races over twenty million of your years ago, and adhered to ever since. Yours would not be the first race returned to a savage level, nor will it be the last. There have been other races obliterated, races so savage and so immune to sane persuasion that they were imprisoned. eliminated, or radically amended.

"Will that happen here?"

We do not know. We sincerely hope not. Mankind has a vigor and a vitality far above the average. Your quick growth in the sciences attests to that.

"But we're just savages with lasers, cavemen with spaceships?"

To some of the races of the galactic conclave you are just that.

"Suddenly I feel like a traitor to my own race," Reed said and two of the men nodded.

"Don't feel that way, Reed," Mina said, touching his sleeve. "The Plan is a sensible one. The use the xerons makes of us is logical. They need a mobile focusing point, a sensory pickup."

"And someone to stick the drug into another human to eat his mind in a gulp." Reed found himself glaring around at the circle of humans.

"But the person is not destroyed. The information is replaced as fast as it is taken and recorded. You know that." Mina looked up at him with concern.

"And Compton is dead," Reed said bitterly.

The death of the human is regrettable but your guilts are not the concern of this Conclave. Plan modifications must be made and executed. Our use of humans was only logical. We needed to find out the specifics of the Dubrian adaptations. We have decided upon the area of action so that the quickest and best result will come from the least effort.

"What are we to do?" asked Gianelli.

Our agents on Earth and Luna have concentrated upon locating Langley. He is the key. If we can convince him of our intentions much time and a great amount of energy will be saved. As soon as he is located we will focus upon him and the power of the assembled Conclave will overcome his defenses. He will be ours.

"That's not convincing him," Carraher said angrily. "That's rape!"

We have no time for subtle methods.

"Those aren't 'Bad Guys' down there on Earth! They believe sincerely in what they're doing!"

Mina put a cautionary hand on Reed's sleeve.

Kagor of Thembis believed in what he thought was right and destroyed two billion beings. Both sides of the Torrus were 'right' but they destroyed three planets. Blar-kla-mon killed only three hundred beings but he destroyed the future of his race forever. Molanu was `right' and Jillik 1 Borad was 'right' but now two entire star systems are dust. Shall we go on?

"Okay, forget it." Carraher sighed. How can you argue with someone for whom the galaxy and umpteen billions years of history is part of his heritage?

It is known that Langley has attempted in various ways to discover our whereabouts, even though he has no idea who or what we might be. He is unusually intelligent.

"Is he star level?" Mina asked.

Carraher looked curiously at her. 'Evidently,' he thought, 'there are things that she and IOZ discuss that I don't know.'

There was a long pause, almost as if the xerons were either reluctant to answer or still pondering the question. Then the voice in their heads said, Perhaps.

"Well, what do we do?" one of the men asked. "Just sit here until he finds us?"

All of those not here are attempting to locate Langley. Until then there is nothing to do. He could be anywhere. Apparently he keeps his person secretive. There is even evidence that he might be telepathic, for it was only he who found the proper analogues between the Dubrian technology and his own. The Dubrian ships are controlled by telepathic computers and an intelligent telepath might find out more quickly the secrets of an alien system.

"How long do we wait?" another man asked.

We do now know. Rest. When he is found there will be much to do.

Reed turned to Mina and said, "Let's look around."

"Looking for another blue globe?" she asked, a smile spreading across her serious expression. Carraher grinned and took her hand and led her through the milling humans and down a passage.

The Nest seemed to be cut from solid rock, the passages cut and sheared and melted smooth into wide, low corridors and the rooms small but compact. There were many communal sleeping quarters but no single rooms.

"Only a race without sexes would think that was a good idea," Reed said, looking at their second communal sleeping room.

"They seemed to have constructed this place for humans, though," Mina said, looking into another room, apparently a recreational section.

"What I'm looking for," Reed said, prowling along the corridor with Mina in tow, "is a blue globe ..."

"Ah!" Mina said cheerfully.

Seven rooms later they found a series of small rooms, each with a floating blue sphere and around it, low and wide, were seven radiating couches, like flower petals.

Reed looked at the couch arrangement and said, "That must be something. Seven minds merging."

"Incredible," Mina whispered. She tugged at Reed's hand and they lay down on couches.

"I'm beginning to think this is better than sex," Reed sighed, wiggling back into comfort.

"You're hooked," Mina said with mock distaste.

"Yup ... on you. And if this isn't the fastest, best way to get to know the inside of your head I'd sure like to know about it."

"How do we start it, anyway," she asked. "Just think it on?"

"Let's try." On. Start. Begin.

The tiny flicks of lightning flashed through the blue globe. The spinning started and the two humans stared in fascination at the alien sphere over their heads.

... faster ...

... faster ... a whirling through void, through a nebulous gas ... then stars were flung into space, flaring balls of fire ... suns were born ...

... there were stars in their heads ... spinning galaxies of stars, moving away, pinwheels of starfire arcing off into void ...

... Reed?

... Mina!

... It's fantastic! I'm—I'm frightened—but it's incredible—!

... It's all of space! It's bigger this time! The Universe!

... Giant gas clouds were shining in the blackness, lit by the burning hearts of a million suns, and they were drifting past, light-years long, with stars bursting and dying within, new stars forming, gleaming ...

... Nebulae ... star clusters ... gleaming, shinningxxc walls of stars ... galaxies on edge, spinning past, a mosaic of fiery electrons ...

... a glimple of something beyond ...

... what's that?

... another universe?

... beyond that!

... the beginning? The end? God?

... the two of them were swollen beyond galaxies, their minds expanding faster than light ... galaxies were growing smaller ...

... Reed ... Reed, it's too much to hold! It's so beautiful! So vast!

... I love it!

... Reed . . flow into me ... make me part of you ...

... colliding universes ...

... a flowering ...

... spinning ... joining ... flowing

... being ...

... stars were born, grew old and red, and died ...

... galaxies turned, flinging long starry arms out into the void ...

... time stretched and stretched ... meaningless time ...

... Reed! I love you, Reed!

... Bursting ... BURSTING ... BURSTING!

... I love you ...

... you are me ... I am you ...

we are one ...

... it was the beginning of time ... galaxies of bright burning stars exploded out through the dusty nebulae ... catapulted into blackness, populating it with light ...

... Reed!

... Mina!

... two parts of oneness, crying across the infinite void to capture itself ...

... to become ...

... to be ... Reed and Mina ...

... a spinning world ...

... a whirling globe ...

... dying starpoints within the blue xxshere ...

... to lie, gutted and spent and weak, shorn of ego and identity and memory ...

... to swim back ...

... to return ...

... to be Reed ...

... to be Mina ...

... to be separate, yet forever one ...

... to be Reed and Mina lying on couches in an alien Nest ...

Along silence. A soft silence, broken only by breathing. A long sigh. "Ohh, Reed ..." Mina's hand fluttered weakly.

"If ... if this is an example of how it is in the stars ... then I'm for doing anything I can to help ... it's ... fantastic."

"But it's you and I, Reed. We did it, the sphere only focused us."

"Then Man better get out into the stars! But not if going to soon and too unprepared will screw it up. We can't lose the chance! It's too important."

"Reed ..." Mina put out her hand and Carraher took it.

"Honey, if that's what we can do on our second trip out I'm not so sure we'll come back next time. That's potent stuff."

"I won't worry if you are along ... and I'm not going unless you are," Mina said, slipping from the couch to lie next to Reed, who embraced her.

"Don't worry, baby, I—"

We are under attack! The Nest is in danger!

Reed Carraher jumped to his feet and pulled Mina with him. "Where? What's happening? What do we do?"

Six ships of the United Earth fleet are approaching from Callisto.

"Then we are in the Jovian system!" Reed cried.

They fired four atomic missiles but we activated the defenses of the four ships and the Nest. Two more ships have joined the fleet from Callisto. They are coming around Jupiter now.

"How do they know where we are?" Reed demanded as they raced along the corridor. Other humans were running for the airlocks and the ships.

No time for that. The Conclave states that the oncoming ships will be too much for the defenses to handle. We must outrun them.

Suddenly the-. running humans all stopped and changed direction. Reed and Mina felt compelled to follow. They ran down another corridor and straight at a blank smooth rock wall.

The rock split and swung back and the humans raced through without stopping. Inside was a large room carved from rock. The air was thin and strangely scented and the light was dim and red. Around the walls were bins filled with strange rotting fruit the size of watermelons. Reed leaped for one particular bin and even as his body reacted, swiftly but gently scooping up the great tan and black fruit, he realized what they were.

The Xerons!

Reed spun and started running for the entrance, seeing that each of the humans scooped up one of the xerons and was racing back. They were heavy, a full armload to carry gently, and had a fragile, feel to them.

Reed saw Mina cuddling a tan and black melon to her breast as she dodged past older and slower humans to race out with her precious cargo. They sprinted down the corridor and back towards the airlocks.

'How did they know?' Reed thought furiously.

They transmitted to a passive signaling device concealed in the xxccorns of three of the humans. The tuned circuit returned a signal they could trace.

"Who were the traitors?" Reed snarled.

Mina was one.

Ahead, Reed saw Mina falter and throw him a frightened, bewildered look over her shoulder. She struck the wall with her shoulder, staggered and ran.

"How?" 'Why?'

Unknown. Unknown. We are penetrating deeply into the minds of—answer found. Langley. He is of star level after all. He put together several counterforces on several levels and in different areas—faster than we conceived a human could correlate the sparse facts he had.

Reed jumped through the hatch into the Dubrian ship along with several others. They deposited the xerons on couches and started back for the rest.

Stop. There is no time. The rest know their fate.

"But we can still save some!" a man shouted.

No time. Activate ship.

The hatches closed and there was a faint whirring.

We are in space. The Terran fleet is still out of laser range and the atomic missiles are being deflected by Nest's defenses. When the ships are closer they will be able to reinforce the energy and overcome the deflectors.

"Where are we going?" Reed asked.

Earth. We will outrun the fleet and appear to be heading out of the plane of the ecliptic. With stardrive we will go far out and around and approach Earth from the other side.

"Why Earth? Oh ... Langley's there?"

Affirmative. He is our only hope. If he is truly of star level he will understand. He must understand.

Suddenly Reed remembered what the xeron had said earlier. "But you said Mina was one of the traitors! I can't believe that!"

Mina looked white.

She was the unwitting pawn of Langley. One of the counterforces he erected was a group of agents who had been implanted with passive devices in corns and old scars and other insensitive areas. Xerons find it distasteful to enter any more of the host's body than is absolutely necessary, thus the devices concealed in areas serviced with little or no blood escaped undetected.

"But you must have detected something!" Reed was aghast.

Mina Wallace was known to be on Mars and when our ship left and Point Four detonated behind us they activated the frequency her device was on. It was a tuned circuit and retransmitted the signal. Apparently the first signal accidentally came during your first use of the mind focuser.

"And the computers gave them the orbit to the Nest," Reed said wearily.

Mina cleared her throat and said, "Reed, I didn't know."

"I know, baby."

"Those poor xerons."

Do not feel guilt. There were two others. You were unknowing. We compute that bringing so many humans to one spot to allow for a strong focusing caused a focal point in the tracing of their agents.

"But why me?" Mina asked.

Langley perceived a pattern. We were investigating in one main area, that of how advanced man's adaptation of the Dubrian stardrive might be. Langley seeded the most likely areas with implanted agents. Our selection of those we work through is partially dictated by their ability to move in the area we are investigating. Mina Wallace was unknowingly recruited just before graduation.

"My degree is in physics, and my specialty is cybernerttics: I was hoping to get a berth on the starships when they went," Mina said. "I really wanted that. I thought I had a damn good chance to get it, too, because I was doing some good work for the Lockheed Spaceframe Division, which built the starships. Damn!"

Reed took her in his arms, and patted her back. "Don't feel too bad. If this guy Langley can outsmart the xerons then he can outfox you and me, honey."

"I feel like such a bloody fool!" she grumbled into his chest. "It's my fault all those other xerons are dead. Or going to be dead."

Dead. One megaton missile broke through the overloaded deflectors two and one half minutes ago.

"I'm sorry ..."

"Sorry ..."

"Did the other ships escape?" Reed asked.

Two did. Two did not. There were too many attackers. One ship headed into the attackers to draw fire. The other was too close to the missile when it destroyed the Nest.

"Oh, god ..." Mina said softly.

"Why did they just attack like that?" Reed asked angrily. "Why didn't they talk to us first?"

Fear. They were afraid of our powers for we were an unknown quantity to them. We were alien invaders that suck minds dry and control humans with mental force.

'Well, they're right,' Reed thought, `xcxbut not the way they think.'

Rest. I will awaken you.

Humans were bedding down on the deck everywhere and Reed and Mina picked a way thro:ugh them towards a free space. They glanced into the room where all the xerons had been placed.

Tan and black melons from the stars. 'I feel as if I should be repelled, but I'm not,' thought Reed. 'They're ... different, that's all. Well meaning friends or well meaning enemies—who knows? The scope upon which they think and plan and act is too big for me to understand. Plans twenty billion years long. Galaxy wide. Umpteen races. Faster-than-light ships. Stars like diamond dust.'

Reed settled down against a smooth wall and cuddled Mina to him, feeling her warmth and friendly presence.

"Mina ... dear Mina ... the other part of me ..." 'The whole thing is incredible. Me, a mind-sucking secret agent helping to decide the fate of Man.. I get into it because that smooth-talking dude at Ares Center got into my head. I get a "trial run" and like it. The Dreams are worth it all. Or so I thought. But now ... now I'm not so sure. Mina is worth it. So I'm in. To the end. And maybe out the other side, greedy guts. Reach for a Dream bigger and better and wilder than any psychedelic and find something greater than you suspected possible.'

... the stars ...

... life in the great black void of space ...

... sleep ...

REED CARRAHER STOOD in the bubble of the ship's control room and looked out at space and the growing blue-green ball of Earth.

'I never get tired of seeing it,' he thought, 'ever since that first look when I was a kid, looking out of the port of that old Galileo class tub when my father took me to the moon. Blue with swirls and feathers of white; green and tan laced over with clouds. The home world.

'Man's world. No matter how many planets, how many moons or orbiting rocks he makes a home on, Terra will always be home. Even if we go to the stars, it will always be home world, the poor gutted, over-populated son of a bitch.'

We must land and get to Langley as swiftly as possible. There will be no second chance. The last ship sacrificed itself so that we might escape.

Carraher shivered. It was becoming altogether too serious. He'd signed up with the xerons because it was a challenge, a lark, a real adventure with the promise of a treasure at the end. A life of riches and ease, for after all, what good was money to a xeron, except as a tool in dealing with a human?

"Where do we land?" Where's Langley?

Sahara Base. We will dive straight down and land atop the building where he is most likely to be. The ship will immobilize everyone within several hundred yards. But we only have so long before they counterattack and the ship's sensors will be overloaded.

Commandos, thought Carraher, just like ancient commandos. Or suicide troops.

He watched the Earth grow and they were angling straight down out of space towards the tanned top of the African continent with its miles and miles of concrete pads and maintenance buildings and passenger terminals and atmospheric transport facilities.

Carraher began to see ships rising up from the pads and they passed one fairly closely, a sleek new Gorgon class streaming fire. They overtook and passed a bulky ore transporter coming in on auto from the moon mines.

The horizon changed from a ball to a curve to nothing but the brown stretch of Sahara Base and still they shot down at fantastic speed.

"I hope you guys know what you are doing," muttered Reed.

We will brake at the appropriate time. It is one of the advantages of antigravity units. You should go to the airlock now and prepare to disembark.

Reed found Mina buckling on a laser and he picked up a heavy duty Colt Magnum and strapped the laser on.

"I hope we don't have to use these," he said. Mina nodded, checking the charge indicator.

The humans crowded into the passage, filling the airlock. They overrode the automatics and set up both hatches to open at once so that all the humans could stream out onto the roof as quickly as possible.

We are landing on the building assigned to the counterforce.

Reed loosened the laser in its holster and shot a glance at Mina. She looked up at him and a faint smile came and went before she sobered and looked back at the gray metal lock door.

A slight tremor and then the outer hatch swung wide. The humans jumped out and started for the several entrances down into the building from the helipad. Reed noticed scattered figures frozen in attitudes of flight or startlement.

The ship is holding them to free us for the final battle.

Carraher felt himself directed towards the furthest entrance and he ran across the rooftop with Mina close behind. Down the stairs ... top floor ... more stairs ... next floor ... frozen humans staring from their immobilized bodies ...

Here. Turn here. That corridor. That door.

Carraher and Mina were joined by several humans converging on the same spot. Reed was just behind two others as they rushed through an outer office, then an inner lab of some sort, then into another office and stopped before a final door.

Six of them pushed through it and crowded into the room, lasers ready, and Carraher noticed that Torbert Minden was one of them. A man sat frozen at a desk, quietly sitting as if listening.

A trick. A holograph.

Panels snapped open and big brute lasers were aiming at them, manned by automatics, controlled from where—? Carraher spun and there were more lasers, big monster ten millimeter GEs that could cut a ship in two.

He was taking no chances, Reed thought. But they weren't firing ...

"Hello, there," a voice said conversationally and the trapped humans looked at the figure of the man in the chair. He gestured with his hand. "You all look very human. Are you, or do aliens control you?"

No one answered and the holographic projection continued blandly."I am some distance from you, shielded and protected. Everything there is controlled by my aides or myself from outside your sphere of control. I can see now that I overestimated your area of immobilization, but no matter.

"I am Steven Langley. Ah ... and you are .. . Torbert Minden and Artur Gregorio ... and the beautiful Mina ... and our famous blundering assassin, Reed Carraher ... oh, yes, I know many of you."

A man turned towards the door despite the lasers but froze even before Langley spoke. The man turned back slowly and assumed a placid expression.

"Ah ..." Langley sighed softly, "So you are controlled. Whoever or what­ever rides your brains knows that my autolasers have stopped everyone on the roof." He laughed softly. "Quite an impasse, no? Here we are, meeting creatures from the stars for the first time and I do not have some sand to draw a solar system in."

Mina spoke, her voice sudden and startling in the silence. "We are not themonsters you think we are. Yes, what you see are human beings, but we are with members of a race from a system of planets near what we call the Horsehead Nebula. They are the xerons and are a peaceful and philosophical race."

"That seeks to control the Earth or at least bottle up man and keep him from the stars," sneered Langley.

"That's not true," Mina answered. "The xerons want only to help us mature enough to be accepted by the various races and cultures."

Langley looked at her a moment, then scanned the others. "A very convincing speech, my dear, especially coming from the mouth of a double traitor!"

"I am not a traitor! You made me a spy and I didn't even know it! And I am not a traitor to the human race! I'm trying to help it, just as I would help a child that's about to run off a cliff!"

"You are all renegades!" Langley's eyes flared. "You have conspired to keep man from the stars!"

"The star drive was Dubrian. You merely adapted it," Reed said.

Langley's gaze swung to him. "A murderer speaks ..."

"You will be the greatest murderer of all earth's history if you let man go out now," Mina said. "Man will be smashed back to savagery and on the way back up he will be monitored all the way. A much different sort of Man will emerge."

Langley looked at them again, his dark eyes moving from face to face.

He must be looking at a bank of screens, Reed thought. Where is he hiding?

Five hundred ten meters to the South Southwest. Concrete bunker underground.

Why didn't you know that before?

We did.

"What?" 'Why did you let us be trapped like this?'

To talk. Attacking the bunker would have been suicide.

Langley spoke, slowly and with deadly earnestness. "I want to go to the stars now. I don't want to wait until Man is 'mature.' That may never happen and certainly not in my lifetime. All my life I have been surrounded by fools and morons; I expect always to be wading through idiots. I'll not let their stupidity keep me from the stars. I can go to the stars now; I will go now!"

"And you will bring disaster upon Mankind," Torbert Minden said. "I will bring glory!"

We must use the power of our minds in conclave. Support me.

It was a whole new "voice" in his head and Carraher recognized it as IOZ ... but a new IOZ. Stronger, bigger, more ... powerful, as if she had been holding back, hiding ... as if it had been masquerading.

Reed stared at Mina, who was looking with a startled expression at the image of Langley.

Reach out—quickly!

Carraher felt the funneling effect as the power of IOK's mind swept through him. The lights in the room dimmed and brightened, dimmed and went out as energy of every sort flowed towards Langley.

There were swirling lights in his mind and soundless winds ... all following IOZ ... the new IOZ ... there was a mindless moaning.

She is Sixth Level.

There was amazement in IOK's thoughts, though the thought/image/ words/emotions were still calm.

She was hiding even from us. The Plan has many levels ...

The room of humans stood motionless in the darkness as the storm raged through their minds. There seemed to be no walls, no citadels, only void and space and blackness and the silent storm.

None of them had even been part of an attacking Conclave before and briefly Reed wondered if they would all return sane. Or alive.




The funneling into blackness, into void, into Langley ... the focusing ... racing along wires ... crackling through circuits ... searching ... a million mice racing for a black moon ... blanking, blocking ... shielding ...

A tightbeam of mental force smashed into the bunker, into the human called Langley ... a granite boulder washed by a raging sea ...

The boulder moved and shuddered, then struck back, a weak and unfocused blow, but they sensed the power behind the untrained weapon. The sea struck again and again, crashing endlessly down on the granite surface ...

Cracks appeared and closed, appeared again ...

Opening ... closing ... lightning jagged cracks ripped open and slowly closed ... thoughts leaking out, spurting out like blood under pressure ... colors .... redness . .. fear . .. question ... space with stars streaking and running like water ... comets flashing close ... fire ...

The boulder cracked and cracked and cracked under the storm pressure ... then the bursting ... and the sea washed over it ... a fierce tight whorl of force drew to it all the power, all the photons and psychic energy ... blackness ... and in the blackness a voice ...



'Beaten but not owned ...'

Langley's thoughts came through to Carraher like weak shouts in the wind, but they were defiant thoughts and Carraher admired him.

'Go to hell ... kill me ... but Man will go to the stars ...'

You are powerless.

'Yes ... for now ...'

Suddenly there was a lifting, at Langley's admission of helplessness ... light returned ... the pressure was gone ...

Reed felt helpless, completely open and defenseless. He could not move.

He sensed an outpouring of information into Langley's mind, flowing through him, through them all, into one human mind ... stars and maturity ... life and death ... savages in the outworlds ... vandals in the clean palaces of the starworlds ... corruption ... disease ... responsibility ... maturity ... decision ...

Then a pulling back, a releasing, and Langley was free. Only a line of thought tied him to them all..

We are open to you. You know the situation. It is your decision. You decide for mankind. What you decide mankind will follow. We are helpless. We make no pressure upon you, overt or covert. Now ... you decide.

Langley's voice came to them. "But I want the stars!" His voice was weak, both in power and determination. It was almost a cry for help.

There was a long pause and Reed heard only the winds of time, then IOZ spoke again.

It is possible that mankind might mature faster than expected. This race has done everything else faster than anticipated.

"Yes ..." Langley's voice bore the weight of a heavy responsibility. "Yes ... I cannot bring the death of my culture ... you are right. I will help. But I'm not going to like it one bit! I want—god-dammit—to go to the stars!"

IOZ spoke kindly.

You are the first of the New humans. The first human of star level. That is a greater thing than being a freebooter among the outworlds.

"I didn't want to take. I wanted to learn." Langley's voice was sad but hopeful. "Maybe we have something to teach, too."

You do. Many things. We will all learn.

Langley stood in the Dubrian ship next to a low couch. "Lie down," Carraher said. The slender, dark-haired man lay on the couch and watched Reed and Mina lie down on other of the "petals."

"What do we do now?" Langley asked.

"Let it happen," Mina said.

"Will I0Z be going with us?" the scientist asked.

Yes. In all three of your minds.

"To the stars," breathed Langley softly.

"In a way," Reed said. "You'll see things but you won't be there. But you'll be there in a way you could never be. Then you can truly tell mankind about it all."

"Let's go," Langley said. The sphere began to whirl.

And they went to the stars. Mankind was never to be the same again.

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