The Martyr
Poul Anderson

"Evidently we have succeeded," Medina said. "The men have captured the gods."

"Or the baboons have captured the men," said Narden.

Medina shrugged. "Choose your own analogy, major. Just be careful not to take it too seriously. The Cibarrans have existed longer than we; they've had time to learn more, even to develop more brain ... perhaps. And what of it?" An expression crossed his flat countenance, but not one that Narden could interpret. He gestured above his desk with a cigar. "It does not make them supernatural," he finished. "I've always suspected that intellect is a necessary but somewhat overrated quality. As witness the fact that baboons have killed men in the past, and now men have made prisoners of half a dozen Cibarrans."

Narden shifted in his chair. The office was a shining bleakness around him, broken only by the regulation portrait of the Imperial Mother and a map of Earth which, X light-years away in direction Y, betrayed a milligram of human sentimentalism in the hard alloy of Colonel-General Wang K'ung Medina.

"Baboons are extinct," Narden pointed out.

"They never learned how to make guns," snapped the other man. "We'll be extinct too, some generations hence, if we don't overhaul Cibarra."

"I can't believe that, sir. They've never threatened us or anyone else. Everything we've been able to find out about them, their activities at home, on other planets, it's all been benign, helpful, they've come as teachers and--"

"Yes," gibed Medina. "Spiritual teaching, personal discipline, a kind of super-Buddhism sans karma. Plus some information on astronomy, physics, generalized biology. Practical assistance here and there, like making a Ta-Tao High Dam possible on Yosev. But any basic instruction in psi? Any hints how to develop our own latent powers--or even any proof or disproof, once and for all, that our race does have such powers in any reliable degree? If they really gave a hoot and a yelp for us, Major, you know they couldn't watch us break our hearts looking for something they know all about. But never a word. In fifty years of contact, fifty years of watching them do everything from dowsing to telepathic multiple hookups and teleportation across light-years ... we've never gotten a straight answer to one single question about the subject. The same bland smile and the same verbal side-stepping. Or silence, if we persist. God of Man, but they're good at silence!"

"Maybe we have to find all these things out for ourselves," Narden ventured. "Maybe psi works differently for different species, or simply can't be taught, or--"

"Then why don't they tell us so?" exploded Medina. "All they offer us, if you analyze the pattern, is distraction. Twenty years ago, on Marjan, Elberg was studying the Dunne Effect. He'd gotten some very promising results. He showed them to a Cibarran who chanced to be on the same planet. The Cibarran said something about resonances, demonstrated an unsuspected electric phenomenon ... well, you know the rest. Elberg spent the remainder of his life working on electron-wave resonance. He came up with some extraordinary things, but all in the field of physics. His original psionic data have gathered dust ever since. I could give you a hundred similar cases. I've collected them for years. It makes a totally consistent pattern. The Cibarrans are not giving out any psionic information whatsoever; and most of the intellectual 'assistance' we get from them turns out to be a red herring pointed away from that trail." His fist struck the desk. "Our independent research has taught us just enough about psionics to show we can't imagine its potentialities. And yet the Cibarrans are trying to keep it from us. Does that sound friendly?"

Narden wet his lips. "Perhaps we can't be trusted, sir. Our behavior in the present instance suggests as much."

Medina thrust out his jaw. "You volunteered, Major. Too late now for jellyfishing."

Narden felt himself redden. He was a young man, stocky and blond like many citizens of Tau Ceti II, speaking Lingua Terra with their Russki accent. The black and silver uniform of the Imperial Astronaval Service, scientific corps, fitted him crisply; but the awkwardness of the provincial lay beneath. "I volunteered for a possibly dangerous but important mission, sir. That was all I knew."

Medina grinned. "Well?"

After a pause, the general added, "It might cost us our lives, our sanity--even our honor, for the Imperium will have to disown us if we fail and this becomes public. So you'll understand, Major, that shooting a man who drags his feet on the job won't bother me in the least." Harshly: "If we succeed, we stand to gain a million years of progress, overnight. Men have taken bigger chances for less. We're going to learn from those prisoners. Gently if possible, but we'll take them apart cell by cell if we must. Now go talk to them and start your work!"

Baris Narden saluted and marched from the office.

The corridor was even more sterile, a white tunnel where his heels clacked hollowly and a humming came from behind closed doors. Now and then he passed a man, but they didn't speak. There was too much silence. Light-years of silence, thought Narden--beyond these caves, the rock and the iron plains of the rogue planet, glaciers and snowfields that were frozen atmosphere, under the keen glitter of a million stars. Perhaps a dozen men of the hundred-odd manning this base knew its location and its sunless orbit. This was like being dead. He remembered the hills of Novaya Mechta, his father's house under murmurous trees, and wondered what had driven him thence. Ambition, he thought wearily; the Imperium and its glamour; most of all, the wish to learn. So now he had his science degree, and his small triumphs in the difficult field of psionic research, and was lately a collaborator in kidnapping, which might lead to torture and murder ... oh, yes, a career.

The guards at the entrance to the research area let him through without fuss. Medina wasn't interested in passes, countersigns, or other incantations. Beyond lay a complex of laboratories and offices. A door stood open to a room where Mohammed Kerintji worked amid crowded apparatus. Meters flickered before him, and the air was filled with an irregular buzzing that sawed at the nerves.

The small dark man didn't seem bothered. He glanced up as Narden passed, and nodded, "Ah, there, Major."

"All serene, Captain?" asked Narden automatically.

"Quite, and better." Kerintji's eyes glistened. "I am not only keeping our tigers tame, but learning a few new things."

"Oh?" Narden stepped into the room.

"Yes. First and foremost, of course, General Medina's basic idea is triumphantly confirmed. Faint, randomly pulsed currents, induced in their nervous systems by the energies I am beaming in at them, do inhibit their psionic powers. They've not teleported out of here, telekineticized me outdoors, anything at all." Kerintji chuckled. "Obviously! Or we wouldn't be here. Maybe this entire planet wouldn't be here. The facts do not, however, confirm the general's hypothesis that psionic energies arise in the brain analogously to ordinary encephalographic waves."

"Why not?" Despite himself, Narden felt an upsurge of interest. This all fitted in with his previous laboratory results.

"Look at these meters. They are set in a dowser-type hookup. Energy is required to move the needles against the tension of springs. And the needles are being moved, in a pattern correlated with the randomizer's nerve-currents. Furthermore, the work done against the springs represents too much energy for any living nervous system to carry. The neurons would burn out. Ergo, the randomizer which keeps the Cibarrans helpless does not do so by suppressing their psionic output, but merely prevents them from controlling it. Also ergo, the energy does not come from the nervous system, which is probably just the modulator."

Narden nodded. "My own data have led me to speculate that the body as a whole may be the generator," he said, "though I've never gotten consistent enough readings to be certain."

"We will now," crowed Kerintji. "We can use calorimetry. Measure every erg passing through the Cibarran organism. If output, including psionic work done, is greater than input, we will know that psi involves tapping some outside, probably cosmic force."

"Those are delicate measurements," warned Narden. "I found out how delicate, in my own lab."

"You were using humans, and had to be careful of them. Also, the human output is so miserably feeble and irregular. But look!" Kerintji twisted a dial. One of his meter needles swung wildly across its scale. "I just quadrupled the randomizing energy. The psi output increased fiftyfold. Like sticking a pin in a man and watching him jump. We can control this!"

Narden left, a bit sick.

Another pair of guards stood before the prison suite. It was fitted with a spaceship airlock, the outer valve being dogged shut before the inner one could be opened. Narden wondered if it helped anything except the fears of men. The rooms beyond were large and comfortable. And did that help anything except the consciences of men?

Two Cibarrans occupied a sofa. They didn't get up; their civilization had its rich rituals, but almost entirely on the mental plane. Big amber-colored eyes, and the fronded tendrils above, turned to Narden. He felt afresh, sharply, how beautiful they were. Bipedal mammals, long legs giving a sheer two meters of height, three-clawed feet, slender humanoid hands, wide chest and shoulders, large over heads with faces not so much flat as delicately sculptured, short gray fur over the whole body, thin iridescent kilt and cloak ... words, without relationship to the feline grace before him.

One of them spoke, in calm, resonant Lingua Terra: "I call myself Alanai at this moment. My companion is Elth."

"Baris Narden." The man shifted from foot to foot. The tiniest of smiles curved Alanai's mouth.

"Please be seated," said Elth. "Would you like refreshment? I am told we can ring for food as required."

Narden found a chair and perched on its edge. "No, thanks." I may not break bread with you. "Are you well?"

"As well as can be expected." Alanai's grimace was a work of art. Narden remembered the theory of some xenologists, that Cibarran "telepathy" was in part a matter of gestures and expressions. It was plausible, in a race where each individual evolved a private spoken language to express nuances uniquely his own, and learned those of all his friends. But it would not account for the proven fact that Cibarrans, without apparatus, could travel and communicate across light-years.

"I hope"--Narden dragged the words out--"I hope conditions are not unduly inconvenient."

"The nervous-energy scrambling? Yes and no," said Elth. "We can block off physical pain and prevent lesions. But the deprivation--imagine being deafened and blinded."

His tone remained gentle.

"I'm afraid it's necessary," Narden mumbled.

"So that we can't escape, or summon help, or otherwise thwart your plans? Granted." Alanai reached out to a crystal-topped coffee table on which stood a chess set. He began to play against himself. It was a swift and even match. Brain-jumbler or not, the Cibarrans retained a mastery of their own minds and bodies such as humans had hardly dreamed about.

"I am curious as to how you engineered the kidnapping," said Elth, not unmaliciously. "I have considered numerous possibilities."

"Well--" Narden hesitated. The hell with Medina. "We knew your planet was sending a mission to New Mars. The world we call New Mars, I mean. One of the native tribes had asked your help, via interstellar traders, the usual grapevine, to rationalize and make beautiful its own culture. We've seen a lot of planets where you've done a similar job, and didn't expect you could resist such an appeal, even if it was way out of your normal territory. Our psychotechnicians had spent years putting the chiefs of that tribe up to it."

Elth actually laughed.

Narden plunged on, as if pursued. "What little we've been able to discover about psi indicated certain limitations which could be exploited. You can probably communicate across the universe--"

"There are ancient races in other galaxies," Alanai agreed.

A third Cibarran appeared in the doorway. "There is one entire intelligent galaxy," he said, very low. "We are children at its feet."

"Don't you think we might also want to--" Narden checked himself. "Distance can't block a telepathic message, but noise can. If you aren't actually tuned in on someone who is parsecs away, you'll receive only the babble of billions and trillions of living minds on planets throughout space--and block it out of your own perceptions. So we didn't expect you would get any hint of our plot. After all, New Mars is out in this arm of the galaxy, and Cibarra lies twenty thousand light-years toward the center.

"When your delegation arrived, it was invited to visit the Imperial charge d'affaires. He knew nothing; this was routine courtesy. The kidnappers were waiting at his house, unbeknownst to him. They were raw recruits from colonial planets where the languages and cultures are different from Earth's. Our researchers had suggested that you couldn't readily read the mind of someone whose socio-linguistic background was new to you. His conceptual universe would be too different. You'd at least need to study him a short while, classify his way of thinking, before you could put yourselves in rapport. So ... these men knocked you out with stun beams, whisked you onto a spaceship, and kept you unconscious all the way to this base."

Elth laughed again. "Clever!"

"Don't compliment me," said Narden hastily. "I had nothing to do with it."

"You spoke as if you did," said Alanai.

"Did I?" Narden searched a flustered memory. "Yes. Yes, I did say 'we', didn't I? Must have been thinking in ... collective terms. I was only co-opted at the last minute, after the capture. This isn't being done for selfish reasons, you know."

"Why, then?" asked Alanai, but softly, as if he already knew the answer. And the other Cibarrans grew as still as he.

"Not for ransom, as you may have thought, or--anything but the need of our people," stumbled Narden. "It's been fifty years now ... since Imperial ships, exploring toward galactic center ... encountered your race on some of the planets there. We've had sporadic contact, from time to time, since then. Just enough to understand the situation. Your home world is much older than ours--"

"It was," corrected Alanai. "The Lost was a planet of an early Population Two star, hence poor in metals. We lingered ages in a neolithic technology, which may have encouraged our peculiar mental form of development. Physical science was carried out with ceramics, plastics, acid-filled conductors, as pure research only. The final hottening of our sun forced us to leave our home. That was many thousands of years ago; and yet we too, in a way, have known the Lost, and mourned it with our fathers--"

Elth laid a warning hand on his wrist. Alanai seemed to wake from a dream. "Oa, Anna," he murmured.

"Yes," said Narden. "I know all that. I know too how you have chanced to meet them. But only in the smallest ways."

"You could not assimilate physical knowledge at a much greater rate than you are already producing it," said one of the other Cibarrans. Four of them now stood in the door. Narden squared his shoulders and said:

"Perhaps. There are no hard feelings about that. We're quite able to learn whatever we wish in physics. We have no reason to believe you're very far ahead of us in any branch of it, either. You may well lag behind in certain aspects which never interested your civilization, such as robotics. In a finite universe, physics is limited anyway. What embitters us is your withholding the next stage of basic knowledge--your active hindering us, now and then, in our own search."

Elth said, the barest edge of harshness in his tone, "You captured us hoping to make us teach you about that aspect of reality you call psionics. Or, if we refuse to instruct you--and we do--you will seek to gather data by studying us."

Narden swallowed. "Yes."

Alanai said without haughtiness (and did tears blur his eyes?), "Cibarran philosophers were exploring these concepts before Earth had condensed from cosmic dust. Do you really believe we are reticent because of selfishness?"

"No," said Narden doggedly. "But my people ... we aren't the kind who accept meekly that father knows best. We've always made our own way. Against beasts and glaciers and ourselves and the physical universe. Now, against gods, if we must."

Elth shook his head, in a slow regretful motion. "I am as finite as you are," he said. "More, in some ways. I do not believe I could find the courage to live, if I were--" He bit off his words, suddenly alarmed.

"We've got to do this," said Narden. He stood up. "Forgive us."

"There is nothing to forgive," said Alanai. "You cannot help it. You are young and raw and greedy for life. Oh," he whispered, "how you hunger for life!"

"And yet you leave us to stagnate, half animal, when we might also be sending our minds across all space?" Narden looked into the grave, strange faces. He knotted his fists together and said, "For your own sakes, help me. I don't want to rip out what you know!"

"For your own sake," said Alanai, "we shall fight back. Every step of the way."

* * *

At another date Narden remembered the words. He sighed. "It's been one long struggle."

Medina settled himself more firmly in his chair. "They haven't made any physical resistance," he declared.

"This is not a physical problem," Kerintji reminded him.

Medina had the practicality to leave his scientists alone; but he had finally demanded an informal accounting, which Narden had to admit was reasonable. Elsewhere in artificial caverns, engineers worked with the machines that kept men alive, soldiers drilled and loafed and wished they were home, technicians pondered the interpretation of measurements and statistical summaries. Here in the central office, Narden felt immensely apart from it all, somehow more akin to the prisoners.

Isn't every man? he told himself. Isn't the Cibarran silence keeping our whole race locked in our own skulls? But he knew, tiredly, that his indignation was only words. One of the slogans men invented, to justify their latest cruelty and most fashionable idiocy.

If we could see across the universe, and into the heart, as they do on Cibarra, we wouldn't need slogans, Narden thought. The idea straightened his back a little. He looked across the big desk and said:

"Since they don't cooperate, we've so far used them as mere generators of psionic forces. We were held up for days when they worked out some method to damp their own output. I think we have, now, an inkling of how that was done--an interference phenomenon within the nervous system itself, probably painful as hell. But it frustrated us at the time."

"How did you lick it?" Medina inquired.

"Put one of them under anesthesia," Kerintji said. "We got no response again, to nervous stimuli. More organized response, in fact, than when consciousness was present to throw out random bursts of energy with deliberate intent to confuse our readings. So we kept him anesthetized for a week. After that, the others quit their damping."

Narden remembered how Alanai had lain amidst the indignity of intravenous tubes, and how the machine's nerve-pulses had convulsed his body until he had to be strapped down. He remembered how thin the Cibarran was at last, when they let him waken and returned him to the prison suite. And yet he had looked on them without bitterness. It seemed to Narden thinking back, that the yellow eyes held pity.

"Never mind the details now," said Medina. "Have you reached any conclusions?"

"In four weeks?" scoffed Kerintji.

"Yes, yes, I know it'll take decades to work out a coherent psi theory. But you must at least have some working hypotheses."

"And some clear conclusions," Narden told him, speaking fast to hold at arm's length the image of Alanai.

"Well?" Thick fingers drummed the desk top.

"First, we've established certain things about the energy involved in these processes. It's never very great, by mechanical standards. But at peak stimulation, it does go far over the total possible output of the physical organism. That proves it must come from elsewhere. The psionic adept, to borrow the common term, puts in a small amount of energy himself; in fact, he radiates constantly in the psionic spectrum at a definite minimum level. But for purposes like doing work on material objects--teleportation, telekinesis--and presumably for all other purposes, he's more analagous to an electronic tube than to a generator. He borrows and modulates the psionic energy already there."

"What do you mean by 'psionic spectrum' and 'psionic energy'?" demanded Medina.

Kerintji shrugged. "A convenient label for a certain class of phenomena. It is not in itself electromagnetic, thermal, or gravitational; and yet it's convertible to those physical forms. For instance, it was proven some years ago by a researcher on Earth that poltergeists do work by altering local gravitational parameters."

"Then physical energy must also be convertible to psionic," Medina said.

Narden nodded, with an increase in his already considerable respect for the general's mind. "Yes, sir. The mechanism which makes the two-way conversion appears to be the living organism itself. Most species, including man, are very weak converters, with almost no control. The Cibarrans are extraordinarily powerful, sensitive, and complex converters. They can do anything they want to, repeatedly, with psionic forces; whereas even the greatest human adepts can do only a few simple things sporadically."

"I gather you knew as much before you ever got here," Medina complained. "What have you learned in this project?"

"What do you expect in four weeks?" said Narden, irritated as Kerintji had been. "I think we've done rather well. Having a strong, reliable psionic source at my disposal, I've been able to confirm a few tentative conclusions I'd reached previously. Besides establishing that the individual does not provide all his own psi energy, I've shown that its transmission is at least partly by waves. I've created interference phenomena, you see, as registered by detectors appropriately placed."

Medina pursed his lips. "Are you certain of that, Major? I thought psionic propogation was instantaneous."

"And waves require a finite velocity. True. But I've no idea what the speed of a psionic wave is. Far beyond that of light, certainly. Maybe it only requires a few seconds to go around the universe. After all, the Cibarrans admit being in communication with distant galaxies."

"But the inverse square law--"

"Somehow, they evade it. Perhaps psionic forces operate continuously, no quantum jumps, and have an exceedingly low noise level. Even so, simple broadcast transmission across interstellar distances is obviously impossible. You yourself, sir, realize the Cibarrans couldn't 'listen in' on all the minds in a sphere light-years across; and then there's also attenuation to overcome. There has to be some kind of tuning or beaming effect. How it works, I don't know."

Kerintji perked up. "Wait a bit, Major," he said. "You were speculating about that too, the other day."

"Sheer speculation," said Narden uncomfortably.

"Let's hear it anyhow," said Medina.

"Well, if you insist. Considering that space is of finite extent, however large, and that psi transmission is by waves, however unlike classical electromagnetics ... it should theoretically be possible to establish a, uh, a standing wave on a cosmic scale. In effect, a vast total amount of psionic energy would pervade all space in an orderly pattern. Its source would be the basic psionic radiation of all life, everywhere in the cosmos. An adept could draw as much of this energy as he needed--and could handle--at any one time, and use it. Living organisms would always be putting more back, so the total would remain nearly constant. In fact, it would increase, because radiated energy isn't lost with the death of the radiator, and new life is always getting born. This adds a rather fantastic clause to the second law of thermodynamics. Physical energy becomes more and more unavailable, as entropy increases, but psionic energy becomes more and more available. Almost as if the universe were slowly evolving from an inanimate, purely physical state, to an ultimate ... well ... pure spirit."

Medina snorted. "I'll believe that when I see it!"

"I told you it was speculation," said Narden. "I don't take it seriously myself."

"But it would explain all the facts," interrupted Kerintji eagerly. "The mind modulates this standing wave, do you see. Oh, infinitesimally, of course, compared with the enormous natural amplitude; but the modulation is there. It can ride the standing wave with the phase velocity of the total. It can be directed and tuned."

"There are even wierder implications," said Narden, a little impatiently. "For one thing, this would mean that the mind isn't a mere epiphenomenon of the brain. The modulations of the cosmic wave may be as important to the mind's existence as the physical modifications of neurons and synapses. But don't you see, General, we can't go yondering off like that. We have to work step by step, grab one fact at a time. Fifty years from now it may be possible to talk about mind versus body, and make sense. Right now, it's a waste of man-hours that should be spent measuring the constants of propogation."

"Or getting those damned Cibarrans to cooperate," grumbled Kerintji.

Medina noddde. "Yes, I understand. Actually, gentlemen, I brought you here to discuss practical problems. I only wanted the necessary background first."

He stared at the map of Earth for a while. Then, swiftly, as if his words were a bayonet: "I expected something like this. Planned on it. But there was always a chance the Cibarrans would give up, or that you would make some breakthrough. I suppose both chances still exist. But they look smaller every day, don't they? So this will have to be done the hard way. Years. Our entire lifetimes, perhaps. Not even any home leaves, for any of us, I'm afraid. Because the other Cibarrans will wonder what's happened to their mission, and go looking through the galaxy ... telepathic ...." He took a cigar from the box on his desk, stuck it in his mouth and puffed savagely to light it. "I'll do what I can to make conditions tolerable. We'll enlarge the caverns, build parks and other recreation facilities. Eventually we may even be able to bring in some prospective wives for our personnel. But"--wryly--"I'm afraid we're prisoners too."

* * *

Narden entered the suit and closed its inner valve. The six Cibarrans were gathered in the living room. He was shocked to note how gaunt they all were, how their pelts had grown dull. Alani was almost a skeleton, only his eyes alive. Narden thought: Being locked up this way, and probed, and watched, and always feeling the energy chaos in their nerve cells, which deafens and blinds their inmost selves, is destroying them. They're going to end my own captivity by dying.

The ridiculous flutter of hope disappeared. No. We have biochemists on our staff, who understand their metabolism too well. Vitamins, hormones, enzymes, bioelectrics will bar that road too.

Elth said quietly, "There is grief in you, Baris."

Narden halted. Where he stood, and they sat on the floor or stretched on the couches, his head was above theirs. "I've conferred with General Medina," he said.

One who sometimes called himself Ionar and sometimes Dwanin, but mostly uses a trill of music for his name, stirred. "Your determination was reaffirmed," he said.

Their understanding of the human mind no longer astonished Narden. He had learned to allow for the fact that they usually knew in advance, from sheer logic, what he would try next. "We'll continue as long as we must," he told them. "Do you know what that means?"

"Until we are all dead." Alanai's words were barely audible.

"Or rescued," said Elth. "Even unhelped by our own telepathy, our friends will suspect what has happened."

"This is too big a galaxy to ransack," Narden said. "Everyone who knows anything about the project is right here. Why are you holding out? Do you think I enjoy what's being done to you?"

"I beg." Alanai raised one strengthless hand. "Do not hurt yourself so. Your own pain is the worst we have to endure."

"You can end it all, and go free, any time you wish," Narden replied. "We're not afraid of reprisals from your planet; that isn't in your nature. We'll make any reparation we can. But if you really care about us--Can't you see what it's beginning to do to my race, what it will do more and more as the years go by ... this living in the shadow of beings who're like gods? Who own powers that make our sciences look like a child playing in the mud? If we can't have a share, even a small share, in the things and discoveries that matter, what's the use of our existing at all?"

Ionar groaned aloud. "Don't," he said. "Have we not watched this happen before, again and again, in the long history of our race? Let us help you in the only way we can. Let us show your people how to make the cultural adjustment and be content with what they have and what they are."

Something stirred in Narden, lifted his bent head and crackled through his voice. "Let you domesticate us, you mean? No, before God! We're men, not those miserable dog-peoples we've found on too many planets where you've been!"

Elth leaned forward. "But see here," he argued, "how do you know psionics would be of any value to you? Do you envy the Osirian his ability to breathe hydrogen, or the Vegan his immunity to ultraviolet radiation?"

"Those aren't lacks which handicap us," Narden snapped. "We can send a remote-control robot anywhere one of those races can go. But how can we even know what we are until--"

The idea flashed through him, wildest of chance shots, but he hurried on without daring to stop:

"--our minds have also ridden the standing wave around the universe?"

It grew totally quiet in the room. So quiet that for an instant Narden thought he had been deafened, and knew a little of the horror that his randomizers were working in the Cibarrans, and wondered at a spirit which could endure it and not even need to forgive. But his feeling vanished in the upward leap of a flame.

By Man and Man's God, I've hit a mark! They can't hide their own shock. They believed they could keep me plodding indefinitely, and hoped something would turn up meanwhile to save them. Now ... my friends, it is already too late for you!

Elth spoke, and his lips were the only thing which moved in all that gray band of beings. "So you have hypothesized it? I did not believe any human had quite that much intuitive ability."

"And I'm going to work along those lines." Narden tried to keep his voice from shaking. His pulse roared in his ears. "Even so vgue and general an idea puts me fifty years ahead. I'll know what to try, what to look for. The theoreticians can develop the concept mathematically. The biologists can work on the exact method of psi generation. Eventually there'll be an artificial generator, a mutant animal perhaps, for making controlled experiments. There's no way short of war for Cibarra to stop us!" It was anticlimax, but he dropped his tone again and added, "Why don't you help us, then, instead of hindering?"

None of them had really listened. Eyes began to seek eyes. A few words murmured in an unknown language. Alanai gestured. Elth sprang to him. Alanai got up, slowly and painfully, leaning on the other. He passed from the room. The rest followed.

Somehow, it was a procession.

Narden gaped a moment, sprang forward, and caught the arm of Ionar, who was at the end of the line. "Where are you going?" he cried. "What's all this about?"

Now the amber eyes looked down on him. "We had discussed this contingency," said the Cibarran. "We delayed, because physical life is sweet and none of us had explored its limits yet. But you leave us no choice."

With sudden unexpected strength, he broke loose and glided out through the doorway. Narden stood staring. He heard a murmur of their voices; perhaps they sang, he couldn't be sure.

Kerintji screamed through an intercom: "Get in there, you idiot! Stop them! They're killing him!"

Narden remembered in shock that every room here had a spy lens. He cracked his paralysis and ran. The main valve opened behind him and a pair of soldiers burst in.

Alanai was already dead. Elth and another Cibarran had broken his neck with a single skillful twist. They laid the body down and turned calmly to face the Imperial guns.

"Don't move," Narden heard himself shrill, and as if far away.

"Separate them," chattered Kerintji through the intercom. "Chain them up. Keep a suicide watch--"

"Whatever you wish," said Elth. "We have completed it."

He stooped and with a slow, tender gesture closed the eyes of Alanai. Yet Narden thought his tone had not entirely hidden an eagerness, like a child on birthday morning.

* * *

"They didn't do it for no reason." Medina puffed till smoke hid his face. "They sacrificed the weakened one, who'd be easiest to kill. Didn't even try to eliminate any others. What touched off their action?"

"My guess about the nature of psionic transmission wasn't too far off," Narden said. "They didn't dare to let me continue my work."

"But we still have five of them! And the body of the sixth." Medina glanced at Kerintji. "No luck with re-animation, eh?"

"No, sir." The little man shook his head. "Our medics used emergency techniques immediately: opened the skull and applied direct nutrition and stimulation to the brain, as well as the usual visceral procedures. They put in a spiral jack, bypassing the damaged section of cord. By that time, any human would have been conscious again. You would at least expect the organs to respond individually. But no, the Cibarran stayed dead. I mean dead. A piece of meat. Microscopic tissue sections were examined, and even the less organized cells, such as the liver, were inert."

"Well," Medina said, "I guess we can't expect critters from another planet to die after our own patterns."

"But they ought to, sir," Kerintji protested. "They breathe oxygen, metabolize carbohydrates and amino acids, just like us. Their cells have nuclei, genes, chromosomes. Oh, there are peculiarites, of course, such as a very fine network of filaments in every cell, whose purpose we don't understand at all. But they should not be that different!"

Medina ground out his cigar, stared at it, and fumbled after another. "We'll find out," he said. "Maybe. You're such a good guesser, Major Narden, suppose you tell us why they did this."

"I don't know," said Narden slowly. "I don't seem able to think about it."

"For Mother's sake! Control that damned conscience of yours! We're doing this for man, the whole race, all our descendants, from now till the end of forever."

Narden remembered Alanai again, as if across ages of time. "You cannot help it. You are young and raw and greedy for life. Oh, how you hunger for life!" But his brain felt stiff and strange. He sat unmoving.

Kerintji said, tense in the lips, "I can guess, General. And if I am right, we had best evacuate the whole project elsewhere. At the instant he died, when he didn't really need his nervous system any longer, Alanai could have burned it out by transmitting a telepathic call loud enough to be heard at Cibarra through the interference of our inhibitor and all the usual noise. A shout to bring them here--"


When the word was spoken, Medina laid down his cigar and sat like a yellow meal sack, all the life drained from his face. Narden and Kerintji had to turn around in their chairs to see. Kerintji's hand dropped to his belt and a pistol leaped up. A force that tore the skin off his fingers yanked away the gun. It clattered across the floor.

Narden thought, somewhere at the back of his awareness, that he had always been expecting this moment. He looked up and up the tall gray form, to the amber gaze which could not be troubled to hold anger at him. The head was enclosed in a cage of wires and the air about it shimmered. He decided vaguely that it must protect against the randomizing energies. Doubtless only the necessity of constructing such helmets had delayed the rescue these few hours.

"I congratulate you upon your deduction," said the voice which was music even in man's language. "You need not be alarmed for your own safety. Your victims will now depart, of course, and we shall take precautions against a repetition of episodes such as this, but that concenrs only ourselves. It is not our way to interfere with the freedom of others, it would be damaging to our own ethos, but we shall publicly appeal to the Imperium to desist from this research, as being too dangerous; and I think, in the course of time, that men will heed."

Narden rose. He took a step toward the Cibarran, and was halted by an unseen wall. "But it is my work!" he cried aloud.

The impersonal eyes could not have pierced his skull, but the Cibarran asked gently, "Was there not a house in the forest, on a planet called Novaya Mechta?"

Another shape flashed into the office, Elth. He was helmetless--the randomizer must now be silenced--and his tendrils shivered with joy. "I have come to say goodbye, Baris."

Medina covered his face. "Damn you, damn you."

"We learned something," Kerintji snarled. "A few of us, in spite of all you can do, will keep learning. One day it won't be enough for you to commit murder and get help. There will be no help for you anywhere."

Narden stood silent once again. He had no idea if some little part of him, a rudimentary molecule which might in a million years of evolution become a true psionic organ, had caught one of the great thoughts now swirling and singing around him. It might have been subconscious logic, even. "No," he said.

"What?" Kerintji blinked. And now the Cibarrans grew still.

"Your burnout theory," Narden said. It felt like a stranger talking. "They hope we'll think that was how Alanai got the word to them. But it's another false trail. Communication is by patterns, not by chaotic bursts of energy. How could he have organized his nervous system enough, especially when he was dying? The randomizer was in operation all that while. No ... remember what I also theorized ... that the pattern which is the mind could be imposed on the cosmic wave, as well as on the neuron complex? He died to make the transfer complete. To liberate his mind, so to speak, from the confused body. He didn't send a shout to Cibarra. He went there himself, as a wave pattern!"

Medina looked up. "You don't mean he's still alive?" he choked.

"In a way." Narden's words tumbled over each other. He himself, his consciousness, did not know whither they led. "In a very real way, yes. But not identically with his life while the body functioned. He hasn't got physical parts or senses any longer, you see. But of course, he must have gained new psionic abilities which more than compensate. He could speak mind to mind with living Cibarrans, tell them the facts--and then, maybe, go on to the next phase of his existence, like a butterfly leaving the cocoon--"

He turned to the watching Cibarrans and shouted, "That's what you've been trying so hard to keep us from finding out, that death isn't the end! But why? You claim to be interested in our happiness. You couldn't have told us anything more wonderful than that we have immortal souls!"

The stranger vanished. Elth remained a second more. Narden realized it was a surrender: the answer given now because it would be discovered anyway, unless these humans joined in hiding the fact. When he spoke, it was with surgical compassion.

"You don't," he said.

Go to the top of this page.
Go back to my prose library.
Go home.

This page was built with the help of Arachnophilia, a CareWare HTML editor with a really cute mascot Cute Spider Graphic.