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´╗┐Title: The Weakling
Author: Cole, Everett B., 1918-1977
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Weakling" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



THE WEAKLING

By EVERETT B. COLE


    _A strong man can, of course, be dangerous, but he doesn't
    approach the vicious deadliness of a weakling--with a weapon!_


Illustrated by van Dongen



[Illustration]


[Illustration]


Naran Makun looked across the table at the caravan master.

"And you couldn't find a trace of him?"

"Nothing. Not even a scrap of his cargo or so much as the bones of a
long-neck. He just dropped out of sight of his whole train. He went
through this big estate, you see. Then he cut back to pick up some of
his stops on the northern swing. Well, that was all. He didn't get to
the first one." The other waved a hand.

"Weird situation, too. Oh, the null was swirling, we know that, and he
could have been caught in an arm. It happens, but it isn't too often
that an experienced man like your brother gets in so deep he can't get
out somehow--or at least leave some trace of what happened." The man
picked up his cup, eying it thoughtfully.

"Oh, we've all had close ones, sure. We've all lost a long-neck or so,
now and then. Whenever the null swirls, it can cover big territory in a
big hurry and most of that northern swing is null area at one time or
another. One of those arms can overrun a train at night and if a man
loses his head, he's in big trouble." He sipped from his cup.

"Young caravan master got caught that way, just a while back. A friend
of mine, Dr. Zalbon, was running the swing after the null retracted. He
found what was left."

"Told me he ran into a herd of carnivores. Fifteen or twenty real big
fellows. Jaws as long as a man. He killed them off and then found they'd
been feeding on what was left of Dar Konil's train."

He shook his head. "It's not a nice area."

"Hold everything." Naran leaned forward. "You said my brother went
through this big estate. Anyone see him come out?"

Dar Girdek smiled. "Oh, sure. The Master of the Estates, Kio Barra,
himself. He saw him to the border and watched him go on his way."

Naran looked doubtful. "And what kind of a character is this Barra?"

"Oh, him!" Dar Girdek waved a hand. "Nothing there. In the first place,
he holds one of the biggest estates in the mountain area. So what would
he want to rob a freight caravan for?" He laughed.

"In the second place, the guy's practically harmless. Oh, sure, he's got
a title. He's Lord of the Mountain Lake. And he wears a lot of psionic
crystalware. But he's got about enough punch to knock over some
varmint--if it's not too tough. Dar Makun might be your weak brother,
but he'd have eaten that guy for breakfast if he'd tried to be rough."

"Psionic weakling, you mean? But how does he manage to be a master
Protector of an Estate?"

Dar Girdek smiled wryly. "Father died. Brother sneaked off somewhere.
That left him. Title's too clear for anyone to try any funny business."

"I see." Naran leaned back. "Now, what about this null?"

"Well, of course you know about the time the pseudomen from the Fifth
managed to sneak in and lay a mess of their destructors on Carnol?"

"I might. I was one of the guys that saw to it they didn't get back to
celebrate." Naran closed his eyes for an instant.

"Yeah. Way I heard it, you were the guy that wrapped 'em up. Too bad
they didn't get you on the job sooner. Maybe we wouldn't have this mess
on our hands now." Dar Girdek shrugged.

"Anyway, they vaporized the city and a lot of area around it. That was
bad, but the aftereffect is worse. We've got scholars beating their
brains cells together, but all they can tell us is that there's a big
area up there just as psionically dead as an experimental chamber." He
grinned.

"I could tell 'em that much myself. It's a sort of cloud. Goes
turbulent, shoots out arms, then folds in again.

"We'd by-pass the whole thing, but it's right on the main trade route.
Only way around it is plenty of days out of the path, clear down around
the middle sea and into the lake region. Then you have to go all the way
back anyway, if you plan to do any mid-continent trading. And you still
take a chance of getting caught in a swirl arm."

Naran tilted his head. "So? Suppose you do get into a swirl? All you
need to do is wait." He smiled.

"You know. Just sort of ignore it. It'll go away."

"Uh huh. Sounds easy enough. It's about what we do when we have to. But
there are things living there. They can be hard to ignore."

"You mean the carnivores?"

"That's right. If you meet one of those fellow out in normal territory,
he's no trouble at all. You hit him with a distorter and he flops. Then
you figure out whether to reduce him to slime or leave the carcass for
his friends and relations." He smiled.

"From what your brother said, you wouldn't need the distorter."

Naran smiled deprecatingly. "That's one of the things they pay me for,"
he remarked. "We run into some pretty nasty beasties at sea."

"Yeah. I've heard. Big, rough fellows. Our varmints are smaller. But
what would you do if you ran into twenty tons or so of pure murder, and
you with no more psionic power than some pseudoman?"

Naran looked at him thoughtfully. "I hadn't thought of that," he
admitted. "I might not like it. Jaws as longs as a man, you said?"

The other nodded. "Longer, sometimes. And teeth as long as your hand.
One snap and there's nothing left.

"When they kill a long-neck, they have a good meal and walk away from
whatever's left. But people are something else. They just can't get
enough and they don't leave any crumbs." He waved a hand.

"There've been several trains caught by those things. A swirl arm comes
over at night, you see, and the caravan master loses his head. He can't
think of anything but getting out. Oh, he can yell at his drivers.
They've got a language, and we all know it. That's easy. But did you
ever try to get a long-neck going without psionic control?"

"I see what you mean. It could be a little rough."

"Yeah. It could be. Anyway, about this time, everybody's yelling at
everybody else. The long-necks are squealing and bellowing. Drivers are
jerking on reins. And a herd of carnivores hears the commotion. So, they
drop around to see the fun. See what I mean?"

Naran nodded and Dar Girdek went on.

"Well, that's about it. Once in a great while, some guy manages to get
into a cave and hide out till the null swings away and another caravan
comes along. But usually, no one sees anything but a little of the cargo
and some remains of long-necks. No one's ever come up with any part of
man or pseudoman. As I said, one snap and there's nothing left."

Naran smiled wryly. "Tough to be popular, I guess." He leaned forward.

"But you've been over the trail several times since he disappeared. And
you said you've seen nothing. No trace of the train. That right?"

The other shook his head. "Not even a cargo sling."

"You're making up a train now, aren't you? I'd like to go along on this
next trip. Fact is, I've been thinking some nasty thoughts. And I'm
going to be uneasy till I find out whether I'm right or not."

Dar Girdek rubbed his chin. "Want to buy in, maybe?"

"No, I don't think so. I'll work my way--as your lead driver."

"Oh, no!" Dar Girdek laughed. "You don't put a psionic on some
long-neck. Lead driver's pseudoman, just like the rest." He sobered.

"Oh, sure. You could handle the drivers, but it just isn't done."

Naran smiled. "Oh, as far as the other drivers'll know, I'm just another
pseudoman. I've been a ship's non-psi agent, remember? We earn our keep
by dealing with the people in non-psi areas."

"It won't work." The caravan master shook his head. "These drivers can
get pretty rough with each other. You'd have to set two or three of them
back on their heels the first day. It would be either that, or get a lot
of bruises and end up as camp flunky."

"Could be," Naran told him. "Tell you what. You turn me loose in an
experimental chamber so I can't fudge. Then send your toughest driver in
and tell him to kick me out of there. I'll show him some tricks I
learned from the non-psi's overseas and he'll be a smarter man when he
wakes up."

       *       *       *       *       *

Leuwan, Kio Barra, Lord of the Mountain Lake, Master of the Estates Kira
Barra, and Protector of the Common Good, stood examining the assortment
of crystals in a cabinet. He hesitated over a large, brilliantly
gleaming sphere of crystallized carbon, then shook his head. That one
would be pretty heavy going, he was sure. The high intensity summary
said something about problems of the modern world, so it could be
expected to be another of those dull reports on the welfare of the
Commonwealth.

Why, he wondered, did some projection maker waste good time and effort
by making up things like that? And why did they waste more time and
effort by sending them around? When a man wanted to relax, he wanted
something to relax with. What he was looking for was something light.

He turned his attention to other crystals, at last selecting a small,
blue prism. He held it up, regarding it, then nodded and placed it on
the slender black pedestal near his chair, where he could observe
without undue effort.

He turned, examining each corner of his empty study, then took his
sapphire-tipped golden staff from under his arm, placing it carefully on
a rack built into his chair arm, where it would be convenient to his
hand should the need arise.

One could never be too careful, he thought. Of course, he could deal
with any recalcitrant slave by other means, but the distorter was
convenient and could be depended upon to give any degree of pressure
desired. And it was a lot less trouble to use than to concentrate on
more fatiguing efforts such as neural pressure or selective paralysis.

One must conserve one's powers for times when they might be really
needed.

Too, there was the remote possibility that some lackland wanderer might
come by and find a flaw in the protection of the Estates--even somehow
penetrate to the Residence. Barra shuddered at that thought, then
shrugged it off. Kira Barra was well protected, of that he had made
sure. Ever vigilant surrogates were deposited in all the strategic spots
of the Estates--not only to allow quick observations of the condition of
the lands, but also to give automatic warning of the approach of anyone
of inimical turn of mind.

He eased his bulk into the chair, twisted about for a few moments as it
adjusted to fit his body, then leaned back with a sigh of relaxation and
directed his thoughts to the crystal before him.

Under the impulses of his amplified thought, the crystal glowed,
appeared to expand, then became a three-dimensional vista.

The high intensity summary and excerpt leader had been not too
deceptive, Barra told himself as the story unfolded. It was a well done
adventure projection, based on the war with the Fifth planet.
Critically, he watched the actions of a scout crew, approving of the
author's treatment and selection of material. He, Barra, was something
of a connoisseur of these adventure crystals, even though he had never
found it necessary to leave the protection of Earth's surface.

He shrugged, taking his attention from the projection.

The lacklanders, he told himself--entertainment people, caravan masters,
seafarers, other wanderers of light responsibility--were the natural
ones to be selected to go out and deal with remote emergencies.

Like all stable, responsible men of property and worth, he was far too
valuable to the Commonwealth to risk himself in wild dashes to the dead,
non-psionic lands, or out into the emptiness of space. As far as risking
himself on combat missions of interplanetary war-- He shook his head.
This was pure stupidity.

He frowned uneasily. It had been a bit unfair, though, of the
Controllers. They had completely excused him from service on the basis
of inaptitude. It had rankled ever since.

Of course he couldn't be expected to dash madly about in some two-man
scout. Even as his brother's assistant, he had been a person of quite
definite standing and responsibility and such antics would have been
beneath his dignity. He had made that quite plain to them.

There had been responsible posts where a man of his quality and standing
could have been of positive value. And, as he had pointed out, they
could have assigned him to one of those.

But no! They had merely excused him. Inapt!

As far as that went, he told himself angrily, he, Kio Barra, could
comport himself with the best if necessity demanded.

Those dashing characters in this projection were, of course, the
figments of some unstable dreamer's imagination. But they showed the
instability of the usual lackland wanderers. And what could such men do
that a solid, responsible man like himself couldn't do better?

He returned to the crystal, then shook his head in disgust. It had
become full--flat--meaningless. Besides, he had matters of real import
to take care.

He directed his attention to the chair, which obediently swung about
until he faced his large view crystal.

"Might as well have a look at the East Shore," he told himself.

       *       *       *       *       *

As he focused his attention, the crystal expanded, then became a huge
window through which he could see the shores of the inland sea, then the
lands to the east of the large island on which he had caused his
Residence to be built. He looked approvingly at the rolling, tree-clad
hills as the view progressed.

Suddenly, he frowned in annoyance. The great northern null was in
turbulence again, thrusting its shapeless arms down toward the borders
of Kira Barra. He growled softly.

There, he told himself, was the result of the carelessness of those
lackland fools who had been entrusted with the defense of the home
planet. Their loose, poorly planned defenses had allowed the pseudomen
of the Fifth to dash in and drop their destructors in a good many spots
on the surface. And here was one of them.

Here was a huge area which had once been the site of a great city and
which had contained the prosperous and productive estates of a Master
Protector, now reduced to a mere wasteland into which slaves might
escape, to lead a brute-like existence in idleness.

He had lost pseudomen slaves in this very null and he knew he would
probably lose more. Despite the vigilance of the surrogates, they kept
slipping across the river and disappearing into that swirling
nothingness. And now, with that prominence so close--

He had no guards he could trust to go after the fellows, either. Such
herd guards as he had would decide to desert their protector and take up
the idle life which their fellow pseudomen had adopted. A few of them
had gone out and done just that. Their memories of the protection and
privileges granted them were short and undependable. He sighed.

"Ungrateful beasts!"

Some Master Protectors had little trouble along that line. Others had
managed to hire the services of halfmen--weak psionics, too weak to
govern and yet strong and able enough to be more than mere pseudomen.

These halfmen made superb, loyal guards and overseers--for some--but
none had remained at Kira Barra. They had come, to be sure, but they had
stayed on for a time, then drifted away.

And, he thought angrily, it was illegal to restrain these halfmen in
any way. Some soft-headed fool had granted their kind the rights of
Commonwealth citizenship. Halfmen had even managed to take service with
the fleet during the war with the Fifth Planet. Some of them had even
managed somehow to be of small value--and now many of them held the
status of veterans of that victorious war--a status he, one of the great
landholders, was denied.

No, he told himself, until such time as the nulls were solved and
eliminated, such pseudomen as managed to cross the northeastern river
were safe enough in their unknown land. And, he thought sourly, the
scholars had made no progress in their studies of the nulls.

Probably they were concerning themselves with studies more likely to
give them preferment or more immediate personal gain.

Of course, the wasteland wasn't entirely unknown, not to him, at least.
He had viewed the area personally. There were hilltops on the Estates
from which ordinary eyesight would penetrate far into the dead area,
even though the more powerful and accurate parasight was stopped at its
borders. Yes, he had seen the affected area.

He had noted that much of it had regained a measure of fertility. There
was life now--some of it his own meat lizards who had wandered across
the river and out of his control. And he had even seen some of the
escaped pseudomen slinking through the scrub growth and making their
crudely primitive camps.

"Savages!" he told himself. "Mere animals. And one can't do a thing
about them, so long as they let that dead area persist."

Eventually, the scholars had reported, the dead areas would diminish and
fade from existence. He smiled bitterly. Here was a nice evasion--a neat
excuse for avoiding study and possible, dangerous research.

So long as those nulls remained, they would be sources of constant loss
of the responsible Master Protectors, and would thus threaten the very
foundations of the Commonwealth.

Possibly, he should-- He shook his head.

No, he thought, this was impractical. Parasight was worthless beyond the
borders of the null. No surrogate could penetrate it and no weapon would
operate within it. It would be most unsafe for any true man to enter.
There, one would be subject to gross, physical attack and unable to make
proper defense against it.

Certainly, the northern null was no place for him to go. Only the
pseudomen could possibly tolerate the conditions to be found there, and
thus, there they had found haven and were temporarily supreme.

Besides, this matter was the responsibility of the Council of
Controllers and the scholars they paid so highly.

He concentrated on the crystal, shifting the view to scan toward the
nearest village.

       *       *       *       *       *

Suddenly, he sat forward in his chair. A herd of saurians was slowly
drifting toward one of the arms the null had thrust out. Shortly, they
would have ambled into a stream and beyond, out of all possible control.
Perhaps they might wander for years in the wastelands. Perhaps they and
their increase might furnish meat for the pseudomen who lurked inside
the swirling blankness.

He snarled to himself. No herders were in sight. No guard was in
attendance. He would have to attend to this matter himself. He
concentrated his attention on the power crystals of a distant surrogate,
willing his entire ego into the controls.

At last, the herd leader's head came up. Then the long-neck curved,
snaking around until the huge beast stared directly at the heap of rocks
which housed the crystals of the surrogate himself. The slow drift of
the herd slowed even more, then stopped as the other brutes dimly
recognized that something had changed. More of the ridiculously tiny
heads swiveled toward the surrogate.

Kio Barra squirmed in his chair. Holding these empty minds was a chore
he had always hated.

Certainly, there was less total effort than that required for the
control of the more highly organized pseudomen, but the more complex
minds reacted with some speed and the effort was soon over. There was a
short, sometimes sharp struggle, then surrender.

But this was long-term, dragging toil--a steady pushing at a soggy,
unresisting, yet heavy mass. And full concentration was imperative if
anything was to be accomplished. The reptilian minds were as unstable
as they were empty and would slip away unless firmly held. He stared
motionlessly at his crystal, willing the huge reptiles to turn--to
waddle back to the safe grasslands of the estate, far from the null.

At last, the herd was again in motion. One by one, the huge brutes swung
about and galloped clumsily toward more usual pastures, their long necks
swaying loosely with their motion.

Switching from surrogate to surrogate, Barra followed them, urged them,
forced them along until they plunged into the wide swamp northeast of
Tibara village.

He signed wearily and shifted his viewpoint to a surrogate which
overlooked the village itself. What, he wondered, had happened to the
herdsmen--and to the guards who should be overseeing the day's work?

       *       *       *       *       *

Half hidden among ferns and the mastlike stems of trees, the rude huts
of Tibara nestled in the forest, blending with their surroundings, until
only the knowing observer could identify them by vague form. Barra
shifted his viewpoint to the central village surrogate.

There were other open spaces in the village, but this was the largest.
Here was the village well, near which a few children played some
incomprehensible game. An old man had collected a pile of rock and had
started work on the well curb. Now, he sat near his work, leaning
against the partly torn down wall. Spots of sunlight, coming through
the fronds high above, struck his body, leaving his face in shadow. He
dozed in the warmth, occasionally allowing his eyes to half open as he
idly regarded the scene before him.

Before some of the huts surrounding the rude plaza, women squatted on
the ground, their arms swinging monotonously up and down as they struck
their wooden pestles into bowls of grain which they were grinding to
make the coarse meal which was their mainstay of diet.

A few men could be seen, scratching at small garden plots or idly
repairing tools. Others squatted near their huts, their attention
occupied by fishing gear. Still others merely leaned against convenient
trees, looking at each other, their mouths moving in the grotesque way
of the pseudoman when he could find an excuse to idle away time.

Barra listened to the meaningless chatter of grunts and hisses, then
disregarded the sounds. They formed, he had been told, a sort of
elementary code of communication. He coughed disparagingly. Only some
subhuman could bring himself to study such things.

Of course, he knew that some lacklanders could make vocal converse with
the pseudomen and caravan masters seemed to do it as a regular thing,
but he could see no point in such effort. He could make his demands
known without lowering himself by making idiotic noises.

His communicator crystals would drive simple thoughts into even the
thick skulls of his slaves. And he could--and did--thus get obedience
and performance from those slaves by using normal, sensible means as
befitted one of the race of true men.

And what would one want of the pseudomen other than obedience? Would one
perhaps wish to discuss matters of abstract interest with these beast
men? He regarded the scene with growing irritation.

Now, he remembered. It was one of those days of rest which some idiot in
the Council had once sponsored. And a group of soft-headed fools had
concurred, so that one now had to tolerate periodic days of idleness.

Times had changed, he thought. There had been a time when slaves were
slaves and a man could expect to get work from them in return for his
protection and support.

But even with these new, soft laws, herds must be guarded--especially
with that null expanding as it was. Even some lackland idiot should be
able to understand that much.

He turned his attention to the headman's hut.

The man was there. Surrounded by a few villagers, he squatted before his
flimsy, frond-roofed hut, his mouth in grotesque motion. Now, he stopped
his noisemaking and poised his head. Then he nodded, looking about the
village.

Obviously, he was taking his ease and allowing his people to do as they
would, without supervision.

Barra started to concentrate on the surrogate, to make his wishes and
his displeasure known. Then he turned impatiently from the crystal,
seizing his staff. Efficient as the surrogates were, there were some
things better attended to in person.

       *       *       *       *       *

He got to his feet and strode angrily out of the study, sending a
peremptory summons before him. As he entered the wide hallway, an
elderly slave came toward him. Barra looked at the man imperiously.

"My cloak," he demanded, "and the cap of power."

He projected the image of his fiber cloak and of the heavy gold
headpiece with its precisely positioned crystals, being careful to note
the red, green and blue glow of the various jewels. Meticulously, he
filled in details of the gracefully formed filigree which formed mounts
to support the glowing spheres. And he indicated the padded headpiece
with its incrustation of crystal carbon, so his servitor could make no
mistake. The man was more sensitive than one of the village slaves, but
even so, he was merely a pseudoman and had to have things carefully
delineated for him.

As the man walked toward a closet, Barra looked after him unhappily. The
heavy power and control circlet was unnecessary in the Residence, for
amplifiers installed in the building took care of all requirements. But
outside, in the village and fields, a portable source of power and
control was indispensable and this heavy gold cap was the best device he
had been able to find.

Even so, he hated to wear the circlet. The massive crystals mounted on
their supporting points weighed a couple of pounds by themselves and
though the gold insulating supports were designed as finely as possible,
the metal was still massive and heavy. It was a definite strain on his
neck muscles to wear the thing and he always got a headache from it.

For an instant, envy of the powerful psionics crossed his mind. There
were, he knew, those who required no control or power devices, being
able to govern and direct psionic forces without aid. But his powers,
though effective as any, required amplification and when he went out of
the Residence it was essential that he have the cap with him.

Proper and forceful handling of the things of the Estates, both animate
and inanimate, demanded considerable psionic power and this made the
large red power crystal at the center of his cap most necessary.

Besides, simultaneous control problems could be difficult--sometimes
even almost impossible--without the co-ordinating crystals which were
inset at the periphery of the headband.

And there was the possibility that he might meet some trespassing
lacklander who might have to be impressed with the resources of the
master of Kira Barra. He knew of more than one instance wherein a Master
Protector had been overcome by some predatory lackland wanderer, who had
then managed by one means or another to secure his own accession to the
estates of his victim. He smiled grimly.

Carelessness could be costly. He had proved that to his brother.

Kio Barra still remembered the first time he had quarreled violently
with Boemar. He still remembered the gentle, sympathetic smile and the
sudden, twisting agony that had shot through him as his power crystal
overloaded. The flare of energy had left him incapable of so much as
receiving a strongly driven thought for many days.

He laughed. But, poor, soft fool that he had been, Boemar had carefully
nursed his brother's mind back to strength again.

Yes, Boemar had been a powerful man, but a very unwise one. And he had
forgotten the one great strength of his weaker brother--a strength that
had grown as Leuwan aged. And so, it was Leuwan who was Kio Barra.

[Illustration]

But such a thing would never again happen at Kira Barra. With his
controls and amplifiers, he was more than a match for the most powerful
of the great psionics--so long as they didn't meet him with affectionate
sympathy.

He stood silently as the servitor put the cap on his head and placed the
cloak about his shoulders. Then, tucking his heavy duty distorter under
his arm, he turned toward the outer door. The control jewels on his cap
burned with inner fire as he raised himself a few inches from the floor
and floated out toward the dock.

       *       *       *       *       *

Not far from the forest shaded village of Tibara, logs had been lashed
together to form a pier which jutted from the shore and provided a
mooring for the hollowed logs used by men of the village in harvesting
the fish of the lake. Several boats nested here, their bows pointing
toward the fender logs of the pier. More were drawn up on the gravel of
the shore, where they lay, bottoms upward, that they might dry and be
cleaned.

A few villagers squatted by their boats and near the pier. Others were
by the nets which had been spread over the gravel to dry.

One large section of the pier was vacant. Always, this area was reserved
for the use of the Lord of the Mountain Lake.

As Barra's boat sped through the water, he concentrated his attention on
the logs of the pier, urging his boat to increasing speed. The sharp
prow rose high in the water, a long vee of foam extending from it, to
spread out far behind the racing boat.

As the bow loomed almost over the floating logs, Barra abruptly
transferred his focus of attention to his right rear, pulling with all
the power of the boat's drive crystals. The craft swung violently,
throwing a solid sheet of water over pier and shore, drenching the logs
and the men about them.

Then the bow settled and the boat lay dead in the water, less than an
inch from the pier's fender logs.

Barra studied the space between boat and logs for an instant, then
nodded in satisfaction. It was an adequate landing by anyone's
standards.

His tension somewhat relieved, he raised himself from the boat and
hovered over the dock.

Sternly, he looked at the villagers who were now on their feet, brushing
water from their heads and faces. They ceased their movements, eying
him apprehensively and he motioned imperiously toward the boat.

"Secure it!"

The jewels of his control cap glowed briefly, amplifying and radiating
the thought.

The villagers winced, then two of them moved to obey the command. Barra
turned his attention away and arrowed toward the screen of trees which
partially concealed the village proper.

As he dropped to the ground in the clearing before the headman's hut,
men and women looked at him, then edged toward their homes. He ignored
them, centering his attention on the headman himself.

The man had gotten to his feet and was anxiously studying his master's
face.

For a few seconds, Barra examined the man. He was old. He had been
headman of the village under the old Master Protector, his father--and
his brother had seen no reason for change, allowing the aging headman to
remain in charge of the welfare of his people.

But this was in the long ago. Both of the older Kio Barra had been soft,
slack men, seeking no more than average results. He, Leuwan, was
different--more exacting--more demanding of positive returns from the
Estates.

Oh, to be sure, Kira Barra had somehow prospered under the soft hands of
his predecessors, despite their coddling of the subhuman pseudomen, but
there had been many laxities which had infuriated Leuwan, even when he
was a mere youth. He frowned thoughtfully.

Of course, if those two hadn't been so soft and tolerant, he would have
been something other than Lord of the Mountain Lake. He would have had
to find other activities elsewhere. He dropped the line of thought.

This was not taking care of the situation.

He put his full attention on the man before him, driving a demand with
full power of cap amplifier.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Why are all your people idling away their time? Where are your herdsmen
and guards?"

The headman's face tensed with effort. He waved a hand southward and
made meaningless noises. Faintly, the thought came through to Barra.

"In south forest, with herd. Not idle, is rest day. Few work."

Barra looked angrily at the man. Did this fool actually think he could
evade and lie his way out of the trouble his obvious failure to
supervise had brought? He jabbed a thumb northward.

"What about that herd drifting toward the north river?" The two green
communicator crystals gleamed with cold fire.

The headman looked confused. "Not north," came the blurred thought. "No
herd north. All south forest, near swamp. One-hand boys watch. Some
guard. Is rest day."

Unbelievingly Barra stared at the pseudoman. He was actually persisting
in his effort to lie away his failure. Or was he attempting some sort
of defiance? Had his father and brother tolerated such things as this,
or was this something new, stemming from the man's age? Or, perhaps, he
was trying the temper of the Master Protector, to see how far he could
go in encroaching on authority.

He would deal with this--and now!

Abruptly, he turned away, to direct his attention to the central
surrogate. It was equipped with a projector crystal.

The air in the clearing glowed and a scene formed in the open space.
Unmistakably, it was the northern part of Kira Barra. The lake was
shown, and sufficient landmarks to make the location obvious, even to a
pseudoman. Carefully, Barra prevented any trace of the blank, swirling
null from intruding on the scene. Perhaps the subhuman creature before
him knew something of its properties, but there was no point in making
these things too obvious.

He focused the scene on the stream and brought the approaching herd into
the picture, then he flashed in his own face, watching. And he brought
the view down closely enough to indicate that no human creature was near
the herd. Finally, he turned his attention to the headman again.

"There was the herd. Where were your people?"

The old man shook his head incredulously, then turned toward one of the
few men who still remained in the clearing.

He made a series of noises and the other nodded. There were more of the
growls and hisses, then the headman waved a hand southward and the other
nodded again and turned away, to run into the trees and disappear.

The headman faced Barra again.

"Send man," he thought laboriously. "Be sure herd is still south." He
pointed toward the area where the projection had been.

"That not herd," he thought. "That other herd. Never see before."

       *       *       *       *       *

Barra scowled furiously.

"You incapable imbecile! You dare to call your master a liar?"

He swung about, his furious gaze scanning the village. The pile of
stones he had noticed before caught his attention. He focused on it.

A few stones rose into the air and flew toward the headman.

The old man faced about, his eyes widening in sudden fear. He dodged one
of the flying stones, then turned to flee.

Barra flicked a second control on him briefly and the flight was halted.

More stones flew, making thudding sounds as they struck, then sailing
away, to gain velocity before they curved back, to strike again.

At last, Barra turned from the litter of rock about the formless mass on
the ground. He stared around the village, the fury slowly ebbing within
him.

A few faces could be seen, peeping from windows and from between trees.
He motioned.

"All villagers," he ordered. "Here before me. Now!" He waited
impatiently as people reluctantly came from their huts and out of the
trees, to approach the clearing.

At last, the villagers were assembled. Barra looked them over,
identifying each as he looked at him. Apart from the others, one of the
younger herd guards stood close to his woman. Barra looked at him
thoughtfully.

This man, he had noted, was obeyed by both herds and herdsmen. He had
seen him at work, as he had seen all the villagers, and obviously, the
man was capable of quick decisions--as quick, that was, as any pseudoman
could be. He pointed.

"This village needs a new headman," he thought peremptorily. "You will
take charge of it."

The man looked toward the huddled mass in the center of the litter of
rocks, then looked back at his woman. A faint wave of reluctance came to
Barra, who stared sternly.

"I said you are the new headman," he thought imperiously. "Take charge."
He waved a hand.

"And get this mess cleaned up. I want a neat village from now on."

As the man lowered his head submissively, Barra turned away, rose from
the ground, and drifted majestically toward the lake shore. He could
check on the progress of the village from his view crystal back at the
Residence.

The situation had been taken care of and there was no point in remaining
in the depressing atmosphere of the village for too long.

Besides, there was that adventure projection he hadn't finished.
Perhaps it would be of interest now.

       *       *       *       *       *

As the projection faded, Barra looked around the study, then got out of
his chair and picked the crystal from its pedestal. He stood, looking at
it approvingly for a few seconds, then went over to the cabinet and set
it back in its case. For a time, he looked at the rest of the
assortment.

Finally, he shook his head. Some of them, he would sell unscanned. The
others--well, they could wait.

Yes, he thought, the record crystals had better be left alone for a
while. He hadn't finished his inspection of the Estates and the
situation at Tibara might not be an isolated case. It would be well to
make a really searching inspection. He sighed.

In fact, it might be well to make frequent searching inspections.

Shortly after his accession to the Estates, he had seen to the defense
of Kira Barra. He smiled wryly as he thought of the expense he had
incurred in securing all those power and control crystals to make up his
surrogate installations. But they had been well worth it.

He had been most thorough then, but that had been some time ago. His
last full inspection had been almost a year ago. Lately he had been
satisfying himself with spot inspections, not really going over the
Estates from border to border.

Of course, the spot inspections had been calculated to touch the
potential trouble spots and they had been productive of results, but
there might still be hidden things he should know about. This would
have to be looked into.

He turned and went back to his chair, causing it to swivel around and
face the view crystal.

There was that matter of Tibara, as far as that went. Possibly it would
be well to count that herd and identify the animals positively.

Maybe the pasturage was getting poor and he would have to instruct the
new headman to move to better lands. Those strays had looked rather
thin, now that he thought of it.

Maybe some of the other long-necks had strayed from the main herd and he
would have to have the headman send out guards to pick them up and bring
them in.

He concentrated on the viewer, swinging its scan over to the swamp where
he had driven that small herd.

They were still there, wallowing in the shallow water and grazing on the
lush vegetation. He smiled. It would be several days before their feeble
minds threw off the impression he had forced on them that this was their
proper feeding place.

Idly, he examined the beasts, then he leaned forward, studying them more
critically. They weren't the heavy, fat producers of meat normal to the
Tibara herd. Something was wrong.

These were the same general breed as the Tibara long-necks, to be sure,
but either their pasturage had been unbelievably bad or they had been
recently run--long and hard. They looked almost like draft beasts.

He frowned. If these were from the Tibara herd, he'd been missing
something for quite a while.

Thoughtfully, he caused the scan to shift. As he followed a small river,
he noted groups of the huge, greenish gray beasts as they grazed on the
tender rock ferns. Here and there, he noted herdsmen and chore boys
either watching or urging the great brutes about with their noisemakers,
keeping the herd together. He examined the scene critically, counting
and evaluating. Finally, he settled back in his chair.

The herd was all here--even to the chicks. And they were in good shape.
He smiled wryly.

Those brutes over in the swamp really didn't belong here, then. They
must have drifted into the Estates from the null, and been on their way
back. The headman-- He shrugged.

"Oh, well," he told himself, "it was time I got a new headman for
Tibara, anyway. And the discipline there will be tighter from now on."

       *       *       *       *       *

He started to shift scan again, then sat up. The view was pulsing.

As he watched, the scan shifted automatically, to pick up the eastern
border of the Estates. Stretching across the landscape was a thin line
of draft saurians, each with its driver straddling its neck. The train
had halted and a heavily armored riding lizard advanced toward the
surrogate. Its rider was facing the hidden crystals.

As Barra focused on him, the man nodded.

"Master Protector?"

"That is correct." Barra activated his communicators. "I am Kio Barra,
Master of the Estates Kira Barra."

The other smiled. "I am Dar Makun, independent caravan master," he
announced. "The null turbulence forced me off route. Lost a few carriers
and several days of time. I'd like to request permission to pass over
your land. And perhaps you could favor me by selling some long-necks to
fill my train again. The brutes I've got left are a little overloaded."

Barra considered. It was not an unusual request, of course. Certain
caravans habitually came through, to do business with the Estates.
Others were often detoured by the northern null and forced to come
through Kira Barra.

Of course, the masters of the caravans were lacklanders, but they had
given little trouble in the past. And this one seemed to be a little
above the average if anything. In his own way, he was a man of
substance, for an owner master was quite different from someone who
merely guided another's train for hire.

The northern null was a menace, Barra thought, but it did have this one
advantage. The regular caravans, of course, passed with the courtesy of
the Estates, doing business on their way. But these others paid and
their pasturage and passage fees added to the income of the Estates.

In this case, the sale of a few draft saurians could be quite
profitable. He shifted the view crystals to allow two-way vision.

"To be sure." He waved a hand. "Direct your train due west to the second
river. Cross that, then follow it southward. I will meet you at the
first village you come to and we can kennel your slaves there and put
your beasts to pasture under my herdsmen. From there, it is a short
distance to the Residence."

"Thank you." Dar Makun nodded again, then turned and waved an arm.
Faintly, Barra caught the command to proceed.

He watched for a few minutes and examined the long train as it moved
over the rolling land and lumbered into a forest. Then he shifted his
scan to continue his inspection of the rest of the lands. It would be
several hours before that caravan could reach Tibara and he could scan
back and note its progress as he wished.

He relaxed in his chair, watching the panorama as the Estates unrolled
before him. Now and then, he halted the steady motion of the scanner, to
examine village or herd closely. Then he nodded in satisfaction and
continued his inspection.

The Estates, he decided, were in overall good condition. Of course,
there were a few corrections he would have to have made in the days to
come, but these could be taken care of after the departure of the
caravan.

There was that grain field over in the Zadabar section, for example.
That headman would have to be straightened out. He smiled grimly. Maybe
it would be well to create a vacancy in that village. But that could
wait for a few days.

He directed the scan back to the eastern section, tracing the route he
had given the caravan master. At last, the long line of saurians came
into view and he watched their deceptively awkward gait as the alien
crawled through a forest and came out into deep grass.

They were making far better progress than he had thought they would and
he would have to get ready if he planned to be in Tibara when they
arrived.

He was more careful of his dress than usual. This time, he decided, he'd
want quite a few protective devices. One could never be quite sure of
these caravan masters.

Of course, so long as they could plainly see the futility of any
treacherous move, they were good company and easy people to deal with,
but it would be most unwise to give one of them any opening. It just
might be he would be the one who was tired of wandering.

He waited patiently as his slave attached his shield brooches and placed
his control cap on his head, then he reached into the casket the man
held for him and took out a pair of paralysis rings, slipping one on
each of his middle fingers. At last, he dismissed the man.

He floated out of the building and let himself down on the cushions in
the rear of his speedboat. Critically, he examined the condition of the
craft. His yardboys had cleaned everything up, he noted. The canopy was
down, leaving the lines of the boat clean and sharp.

He turned his attention to the power crystal and the boat drew out of
its shelter, gained speed, and cut through the water to the distant
shoreline.

With only part of his mind concentrated on controlling the boat, Barra
looked across the lake. It was broad in expanse, dotted with islands,
and rich in marine life.

Perhaps he might persuade this Dar Makun to pick up a few loads of dried
lake fish, both for his own rations and for sale along the way to his
destination. Some of the warehouses, he had noted, were well stocked and
he'd have to arrange for some shipments soon.

       *       *       *       *       *

The boat was nearing Tibara pier. He concentrated on setting it in close
to the dock, then made his way to the eastern edge of the village,
summoning the headman as he passed through the village center.

His timing had been good. The head of the long train was nearly across
the wide grassland. For a moment, the thought crossed his mind that he
might go out and meet the caravan master. But he discarded it. It would
be somewhat undignified for the master of the estate to serve as a mere
caravan guide. He stood, waiting.

He could see Dar Makun sitting between the armor fins of his riding
lizard. The reptile was one of the heavily armored breed he had
considered raising over in the northwest sector.

They were, he had been told, normally dryland creatures. Such brutes
should thrive over in the flats, where the long-necks did poorly. He
would have to consider the acquisition of some breeding stock.

The caravan master drew his mount to a halt and drifted toward the
trees. Barra examined the man closely as he approached.

He was a tall, slender man, perfectly at ease in his plain trail
clothing. A few control jewels glinted from his fingers and he wore a
small shield brooch, but there was no heavy equipment. His distorter
staff, Barra noted, was a plain rod, tipped by a small jewel.
Serviceable, to be sure, but rather short in range. Barra's lip curled a
trifle.

This man was not of really great substance, he decided. He probably had
his entire wealth tied up in this one caravan and depended on his fees
and on the sale of some few goods of his own to meet expenses.

As Dar Makun dropped to the ground near him, Barra nodded.

"I have instructed my headman to attend to your drivers and beasts," he
said. "You have personal baggage?"

The other smiled. "Thank you. I'll have one of the boys bring my pack
while the drivers pull up and unload. We can make our stack here, if you
don't mind."

As Barra nodded in agreement, Dar Makun turned, waving. He drew a deep
breath and shouted loudly, the sounds resembling those which Barra had
often heard from his slaves. The Master Protector felt a twinge of
disgust.

Of course, several of the caravan masters who did regular business at
Kira Barra shouted at their slaves at times. But somehow, he had never
become used to it. He much preferred to do business with those few who
handled their pseudomen as they did their draft beasts--quietly, and
with the dignity befitting the true race.

He waited till Dar Makun had finished with his growls and hisses. One of
the caravan drivers had swung down and was bringing a fiber cloth bundle
toward them. Barra looked at it in annoyance.

"This," he asked himself, "is his baggage?" He recovered his poise and
turned to Dar Makun.

"He can put it in the boat," he told the man. "I'll have one of my
people pick it up for you when we get to the island. Now, if you'll
follow me, the pier is over this way." He turned and floated toward the
dock.

       *       *       *       *       *

As they pulled out into the lake, Dar Makun settled himself in the
cushions.

"I never realized what a big lake this is," he remarked. "I've always
made the northern swing through this part of the continent. Oh, I've
seen the lake region from the hills, of course, but--" He looked at the
water thoughtfully.

"You have quite a lot of fresh-water fish in there?"

Barra nodded. "We get a harvest."

Dar Makun closed his eyes, then opened them again. "I might deal with
you for some of those," he commented. "People out west seem to like
fresh-water stuff." He looked at Barra closely.

"I'll have to open my cargo for you," he went on. "Might be a few items
you'd be interested in."

Barra nodded. "It's possible," he said. "I always need something around
the place." He speeded the boat a little.

The boat came to the dock and Barra guided his guest into the Residence
and on into the study, where he activated the view crystal.

"There's still light enough for you to get a look at some of the herds,"
he told Dar Makun. "I believe you said you might need some more draft
beasts."

Makun watched as the hills of Kira Barra spread out in the air before
him.

"It's a good way to locate the herds and make a few rough notes," he
admitted. "Of course, I'll have to get close to the brutes in order to
really choose, though."

"Oh?"

"Fact. You see, these big lizards aren't all alike. Some of 'em are
really good. Some of 'em just don't handle. A few of 'em just lie down
when you drop the first sling on 'em." Makun nodded toward the
projection.

"That big fellow over there, for instance," he went on. "Of course, he
might slim down and make a good carrier. But usually, if they look like
a big pile of meat, that's all they're good for. A lot of 'em can't even
stand the weight of a man on their necks. Breaks 'em right down."

"A good carrier can handle a dozen tons without too much trouble, but
some of these things have it tough to handle their own weight on dry
land and you have to look 'em over pretty closely to be sure which is
which. Can't really judge by a projection."

Barra looked at the man with slightly increased respect. At least, he
knew something about his business. He shifted the viewer to the swamp.

Of course, he thought, there were draft animals over in the western
sector. But this small herd was convenient.

"Well," he said, "I've got this little herd over here. They got away
some time ago and lost a lot of weight before I rounded them up again."

Makun examined the projection with increased interest.

[Illustration]

"Yeah," he remarked. "I'd like to get out there in the morning and look
those fellows over. I just might get the five I need right out there.
Might even pick up a spare or two."

       *       *       *       *       *

The swamp was a backwater of the lake, accessible by a narrow channel.
Barra slowed the boat, easing it along through the still water. Here,
the channel was clear, he knew, and it would soon widen. But there were
some gravel bars a little farther along that could be troublesome if one
were careless. And his attention was divided. He glanced at his
companion.

Makun leaned against the cushions, looking at the thick foliage far
overhead. Then he turned his attention to the banks of the channel. A
long, greenish shape was sliding out of the water. He pointed.

"Have many of those around here?"

"Those vermin?" Barra looked at the amphibian. "Not too many, but I
could do with less of them."

He picked up his distorter from the rack beside him and pointed it ahead
of the boat. The sapphire glowed.

There was a sudden, violent thrashing in the foliage on the bank. The
slender creature reared into the air, tooth-studded jaws gaping wide.

It rose above the foliage, emitting a hissing bellow. Then it curled
into a ball and hung suspended in the air for an instant before it
dropped back into the shrubbery with a wet plop.

Barra put the jewel-tipped rod back in its hanger.

"I don't like those nuisances," he explained. "They can kill a slave if
he gets careless. And they annoy the stock." He tilted his head forward.

"There's the herd," he went on, "at the other end of this open water.
I'll run up close and you can look them over if you wish."

Makun looked around, then shrugged. "Not necessary. I'll go ahead from
here. Won't take me too long."

He lifted himself into the air and darted toward one of the huge
saurians. Barra watched as he slowed and drifted close to the brute's
head, then hovered.

A faint impression of satisfaction radiated from his mind as he drifted
along the length of the creature. He went to another, then to another.

At last, he returned to the boat.

"Funny thing," he commented. "A couple of my own carriers seem to have
wandered clear through that null and mixed with your herd." He smiled.

"Stroke of luck. Too bad the rest didn't manage to stay with 'em, but
you can't have everything. I'll pay you trespass fees on those two, of
course, then I'd like to bargain with you for about four more to go with
'em. Got them all picked out and I can cut 'em out and drive them over
to the train soon's we settle the arrangements."

Barra frowned.

"Now, wait a minute," he protested. "Of course, I'll bargain with you
for any or all of this herd. But I'm in the breeding and raising
business, remember. I certainly can't give away a couple of perfectly
good beasts on someone's simple say-so. I'd like a little proof that
those two belong to your train before I just hand them over."

"Well, now, if it comes to that, I could prove ownership. Legally, too.
After all, I've worked those critters quite a while and any competent
psionic could--" Makun looked at Barra thoughtfully.

"You know, I'm not just sure I like having my word questioned this way.
I'm not sure I like this whole rig-out. Seems to me there's a little
explaining in order about now--and kind of an apology, too. Then maybe
we can go ahead and talk business."

"I don't see any need for me to explain anything. And I certainly don't
intend to make a apology of any kind. Not to you. I merely made a
reasonable request. After all, these brutes are on my land and in my
herd. I can find no mark of identification on them, of any kind." Barra
shrugged.

"As a matter of fact, I don't even know yet which two you are trying to
claim. All I ask is indication of which ones you say are yours and some
reasonable proof that they actually came from your train. Certainly, a
mere claim of recognition is ... well, you'll have to admit, it's a
little thin."

       *       *       *       *       *

Makun looked at him angrily.

"Now, you pay attention to me. And pay attention good. I'm not stupid
and I'm not blind. I can see all those jewels you're loaded down with
and I know why you're wearing them. They tell me a lot about you, you
can be sure of that. Don't think I haven't noticed that patronizing air
of yours, and don't think I've liked it. I haven't and I don't.

"I know you're scared. I know you're worried to death for fear I'm going
to pull something on you. I spotted that the first time I talked to
you." He paused.

"Oh, I've been trying to ignore it and be decent, but I've had about
enough. I've been in this caravan business for a long time. I've dealt
square and I'm used to square dealing. Now, you've been putting out a
lot of side thoughts about thievery and I don't appreciate being treated
like some sneak thief. I'm not about to get used to the idea, either.

"Now, you'd better get the air cleared around here and then we can talk
business. Otherwise, there's going to be a lot of trouble."

Barra felt a surge of fury rising above his fear. This lacklander clown
actually dared to try to establish domination over a member of the
ruling class? He breathed deeply.

"I don't have--"

"All right, listen to me, you termite. You've come way too far out of
your hole. Now, you just better crawl back in there fast, before I turn
on the lights and burn your hide off."

The surge of mental power blazing at Barra was almost a physical force.
He cringed away from it, his face wrinkling in an agony of fright. Makun
looked at him contemptuously.

"All right. Now, I'll tell you--"

Smoothly, Barra's hand went to the haft of his distorter. The jewel
seemed to rise of its own accord as it blazed coldly.

For an infinitesimal time, Makun's face reflected horrified
comprehension before it melted into shapelessness.

Barra put the distorter back in its rack, looking disgustedly at the
mess on the cushions. There was nothing for it, he thought. He'd have to
destroy those, too. Cleaning was out of the question. He shook his head.

Like all these strong types, this Makun had neglected a simple
principle. With fear as his constant companion, Barra had been forced to
learn to live with it.

Extreme mental pressure was merely another form of fright. It could
paralyze a braver soul--and often did. It merely made Barra miserably
uncomfortable without disturbing his control. And the hatred that was
always in him was unimpaired--even amplified by the pounding terror.

The more thoroughly Barra was frightened, the more effectively he
attacked.

He leaned back in his seat, letting the drumming of his heart subside.
Eventually, he would recover enough to guide the boat out of the swamp
and back to the Residence.

Tomorrow? Well, he would have to inventory the freight the man had
carried. He would have to check those draft beasts. Perhaps he could
discern the hidden identification Makun had mentioned.

And he would have to make disposition of some twenty slaves. He summoned
up a smile.

Now that he thought of it, this affair could be turned to profit. After
all, Dar Makun had been diverted from his route and he had lost some of
his train. And caravans had been known to disappear in the vicinity of
turbulent nulls.

All he had to do was deny knowledge of the fate of Dar Makun's caravan
if there were any inquiry. Oh, certainly, he could tell any inquirer,
Dar Makun had arrived. He had stayed overnight and then taken his
departure, saying something about cutting around the null and back to
his normal, northern swing.

He was feeling better now. He turned his attention to the control
crystal and the boat swung about, to make its way back toward the lake.

       *       *       *       *       *

It took longer than he had thought it would. It was evening of the day
after the death of Dar Makun when Barra turned in his seat and raised
his hand, then waved it in a wide circle.

A quickly directed thought halted his mount and he looked about once
more, at the thick forest.

This clearing was as close to the village of Celdalo as he wanted to
come. The villagers never came into this heavy screen of trees, but
beyond the forest, there might be some who would watch and wonder. He
smiled grimly.

Of course, it didn't make too much difference what slaves might
think--if they could think at all, but there was no reason to leave
unnecessary traces of the day's work.

He swung about in his cushions and looked back at the line of draft
beasts. They were swinging out of line now, to form a semicircle, facing
the trees ahead.

He impressed an order on his mount to stand, then lifted himself out of
the cushioned seat between the armor fins. For a few seconds, he
hovered, looking down at the beast he had been riding.

Yes, he thought, he would do well to raise a few of these creatures.
They were tractable and comfortable to ride. A good many caravan masters
might be persuaded to get rid of their less comfortable mounts in
exchange for one of these, once they had tried a day's march.

One by one, the big saurians came to the forest edge and entered the
clearing, then crouched, to let their drivers swing to the ground. Barra
looked at the lead driver.

"Make your cargo stack over here," he ordered, "at this side of the
clearing. You will wait here for your master."

The man looked confused. A vague, questioning thought came from him. It
wasn't really a coherent thought, but just an impression of
doubt--uncertainty. Barra frowned impatiently.

It had been much the same when he had ordered this man to load up back
at Tibara. Perhaps it was no wonder Dar Makun had been forced to learn
vocalization if this was the best slave he could find to develop into
his headman.

Carefully, he formed a projection. It showed the carriers gathering in
their unloading circles. He made one of the projections turn and drop
its head over another's back. The wide mouth opened and stubby, peg
teeth gripped the handling loop of a cargo sling. Then the long-neck
swiveled back, to repeat the performance.

Barra watched as the man before him nodded in obedient understanding. He
shot out a sharp, peremptory order.

"Do it, then! Do it as shown."

The man made noises, then turned, shouting at the other drivers.

Barra watched as the stack of cargo grew. At last, the final sling was
positioned and a heavy cloth cover was dropped over the great piles.
Barra looked at the headman.

"Bring your drivers close," he ordered. "I have something for them to
see."

Again, there was the moment of confusion, but this time the man had
gathered the main sense of the command. He turned again, shouting.

The drivers looked at each other questioningly, then moved slowly
forward, to form a tight group before Barra, who watched until they were
in satisfactory position.

He concentrated on the group for a few seconds, starting the formation
of a projection to his left.

As the air glowed and started to show form, the eyes of the drivers
swung toward it. Barra smiled tightly and swung his distorter up. The
crystal flamed as he swept it across the group of slaves.

He kept the power on, sweeping the distorter back and forth until all
that remained was a large pool of slime which thinned, then oozed into
the humus. At last, he tucked the rod back under his arm and examined
the scene.

There was the pile of goods. There were the carrier beasts. But no man
or pseudoman remained of the caravan. His smile broadened.

Once he had sorted this cargo and moved it to the Residence and to
various warehouses about the Estates, all traces of Dar Makun and his
train would be gone.

To be sure, a few villages would find that their herds had increased,
but this was nothing to worry about. He sighed.

It had been a hard day and it would be a hard night's work. He would
have to forget his dignity for the time and do real labor. But this was
necessity. And there was plenty of profit in it as well.

So far as the rest of the world might know, Dar Makun and his caravan
had left Kira Barra to cut back to the northern swing. And the turbulent
null had swallowed them without trace.

He turned away. He would have to bring work boats in to the nearby
beach. Their surrogates were already attuned and ready, and one of them
had been equipped with an auxiliary power crystal. He would need that.

As the boats arrived at village piers, the various headmen would merely
follow instructions as given by the boat's surrogates. He would be done
with this operation in a few hours.

       *       *       *       *       *

The days went on, became weeks, then hands of weeks. Little by little,
Barra changed his attitude toward caravan masters. Once, he had been
cautious about dealing with them, allowing only a chosen few to do
business within his borders.

Now, however, he had found a whole, new source of income. And a new
sense of power had come to him. Caravans were more than welcome at Kira
Barra.

He leaned back on his new chair, enjoying the complete ease with which
it instantly shaped to fit his body. It was precisely like hovering a
short distance above the floor, yet there was no strain of concentration
on some control unit. He allowed himself to relax completely and turned
his attention to the viewer crystal.

It was new, too. The old one of his father's which he had brought to the
new Residence had seemed quite inadequate when the Residence was redone.
This new viewer had been designed for professional use. It was a full
two feet in diameter and could fill thousands of cubic feet with solid
projection.

Animals, trees, pseudomen, all could be brought before him as though
physically present in the study. Too, it was simpler than the old one
and much more accurate in its control. He sighed.

The Estates had prospered. Of course, he had been cautious. Many
caravans had come to Kira Barra and left again, their masters highly
pleased with the fair dealings of the Estates. Several had returned,
time and time again.

There had been others who had come through during times when the null
was in turbulence and it was from these that he had taken his harvest.
He had been particular in his choices, making careful evaluation before
taking any action.

By this time, his operation was faultless--a smooth routine which
admitted of no error. He smiled as he remembered his fumbling efforts
with the first caravan and his halting improvements when he had dealt
with the next. What were those fellows' names?

He shrugged. He could remember that first fellow practically begging him
to take action and he could remember his own frightened evaluation of
the situation after the first step. He had gone over a whole, long line
of alternative choices, rejecting them one by one until the inevitable,
ideal method of operation had come out. He smiled.

When he had finally settled on his general method, it had been elegantly
simple. But it had been very nearly perfect. Basically, he was still
using the same plan.

Now, of course, it was smoother and even more simplified. There were two
general routines involved.

Most caravan masters were treated with the greatest of consideration.
They were allowed to pass through the Estates with only nominal fees and
invited to avail themselves of the courtesy of the Estates at any time
in the future. If trades with the Estates were involved, the fees were
waived, of course. And many of them had returned, bringing goods and
information, as well as taking away the produce of the Estates.

Then, there were those caravans which came during turbulences in the
null and which seemed worthwhile to the now practiced eyes of Kio Barra.
These were the ones ripe for harvest. Their owners had been offered the
courtesy of the Estates--and more.

They had been taken for sightseeing tours--perhaps of the lake--perhaps
to see valuable carrier stock which could be had at bargain rates.

Then, in complete privacy, a distorter beam had made neat disposition of
them.

Their goods had been distributed through the various warehouses and
later disposed of through the safe channels which Barra had carefully
cultivated. Their slaves, of course, had been eliminated.

Barra regretted this waste of valuable property, but this way there
could be no leak of information and no inquiry could be successful.

There had been an inquiry at one time, but that had been in the earlier
days.

The inquirer had gone away with no suspicion in his mind. He had
examined the null from the hills and had agreed with Kio Barra that it
was indeed a menace. He had listened sympathetically to Barra's rueful
comments about slaves and stock which had drifted into the null, never
to be heard from again.

Barra activated the view crystal. It was time for another inspection of
the Estates.

       *       *       *       *       *

The projection formed and Barra was suddenly in a wood, looking across a
wide field. Grain waved in the breeze and here and there, the
silhouettes of both long-neck and fin-back could be seen, half hidden by
grass and trees.

The scanner progressed, crossing the field and continuing to another
forest, operating on the route impressed on it. Barra relaxed as he
watched. As the scan progressed through field, swamp and forest, he
nodded in satisfaction. The Estates were in far better shape than ever
before.

Suddenly, he halted the scan, looking critically at the scene. He was in
the central clearing of Tibara. And the village didn't match with the
standards he wanted.

He looked critically at the huts. They were becoming run-down. It had
been too long since the roof thatches had been replaced. Uprights were
bending a little here, a trifle out of plumb there.

There were broken stones again in the well curb and the pile of stone
brought for repair wasn't neatly stacked. He frowned.

This was not the first time he'd had to take a firm hand in Tibara. Of
course, he had replaced headmen in other villages--more than once in
some cases. But Tibara was working on its third headman. There was
something really wrong in that village.

To be sure, Tibara was the village where most caravan slaves were
quartered. A lodge had been built there for that purpose and it was in
frequent use. Naturally, it was maintained by the villagers. But that
was even less excuse for shoddiness. This should be the neatest, best
kept village in all Kira Barra. It wasn't.

The frown deepened. This time, Tibara was going to be cleaned up, and
he'd keep his attention on it. The village would stay clean if the
villagers had to spend every second of their time on it when they
weren't taking care of their herds, their boats, and their guest lodge.

And there'd be no slacking in those other areas, either.

He looked around the clearing. There were, he was forced to admit, no
idlers about at the moment. The only people he could see were women and
children. And the women were busily occupied.

Again, he studied the scene. The men would be coming in from their
fields and from the lake in another hour. He would examine a few other
villages, then return his attention to Tibara.

       *       *       *       *       *

Wearily, Retonga, headman of Tibara, pulled himself to a sitting
position. He looked over to the other side of the room. Mir was already
on her feet. She smiled at him uncertainly.

"It's morning," she said. "Rest day, at last."

"Yes." Retonga closed his eyes for an instant. It had been bad for her,
too, he knew. He'd probably been pretty hard to live with these past few
days. He sighed.

"Rest day," he mused. "But it means nothing. There's still work. There's
always work these days." He got to his feet.

"I wish I were just a herd boy--in some other village." He went to the
door and looked out.

Someone had disturbed the pile of building stones. Children had been
playing in the clearing the night before and the earth was scuffed up.
Bits of wood and cloth lay scattered here and there.

He looked at the houses. Folshan's roof was sagging a trifle, he
noticed. And there were a couple of dolls lying outside his door. He
shook his head and went out into the clearing.

Old Tamiso was squatting by the well. Retonga walked over to him.

"Your stone pile," he said. "A few of the stones are scattered."

The old man looked over, then shrugged.

"I just picked this one out," he explained. "When I get it laid, I'll
have to get another. I'll straighten the pile when I finish here."

Retonga smiled wearily. "And if the master sees your pile now?"

Tamiso pushed himself to his feet, rubbing his back thoughtfully.

"Yes," he said. "The master can give great pain, and it seems he is
always watching these days." He walked over to the stones.

For a moment, Retonga watched as he rearranged his pile, then he turned,
tilting his head back.

"Awaken," he shouted. "For the sun looks down and shall he find us
asleep?"

A head poked out of a door.

"It's a rest day. We'll be at it soon enough, but what's the hurry?"

Retonga shook his head. "I know it's rest day. You know it's rest day.
But there's one who forgets these things. Remember the other evening?"

Folshan winced and Retonga pointed.

"Better get those dolls picked up. And there's that roof of yours. I'll
give you a hand with it."

Folshan came out of his hut, then looked back.

"No," he said slowly. "You're headman. Remember how that happened? Let
the master catch you helping with the work and we'll need yet another
headman." He shook his head.

"This time, it could be me." He bent over to pick up the toys his
daughter had left.

"Kina," he called, "tell Chama to keep her toys picked up, or she might
be needing a new father." He turned again.

"I'll get Kesonta to help with that roof. It'll be straight in an hour
or so."

Retonga looked after him for a moment, then caught the eyes of a couple
of the women. He made a sweeping motion toward the earth of the
clearing, then walked back to his own door.

[Illustration]

He turned, inspecting each detail of the village.

"Let's see. Is there anything else for the master to find wrong?" Again,
he examined each house closely.

At last, he turned away, walking toward a path.

"He'll probably be looking at the waterfront, too," he told himself,
"and at the lodge."

He walked slowly along the path, checking the forest floor as he went.
As he got to the beach, he looked toward the pier, then winced.

A few hundred yards out in the lake, a high wedge of water was sweeping
toward him. At the apex of the vee, he could see the shape of a boat,
its bow riding high over the water.

"Oh, no," he groaned to himself. "Trouble again!" He waited.

As the wave splashed to the pier, he dashed forward to secure the boat.
Kio Barra merely glanced at him. Briefly, he caught the impression of a
wide field. A line of great beasts were crossing it, their long necks
bobbing as they walked. He nodded in understanding.

A caravan was coming in. That would be trouble, of course, but of minor
nature. He turned, to follow the glittering figure as it floated toward
the path and on, into the village.

       *       *       *       *       *

As the caravan came to a stop, Naran's beast bent its knees and
crouched. He swung himself to the ground.

[Illustration]

He was getting the hang of this, he told himself. At first, he had been
forced to fight an almost uncontrollable compulsion to float down
normally, but now it seemed quite sensible to grab the heavy fiber
strands and swing forward till his feet were solidly on the ground. He
spun about.

"All right," he shouted. "Take your reins. Form your unloading circles
on me. We'll be here for a day or two."

He watched as the slings were lifted from the brutes' backs, then turned
his attention to the man who was greeting Dar Girdek.

So this was the Lord of the Mountain Lake. He shook his head. The fellow
glittered almost from head to foot. Naran examined the jewelry
appraisingly. He wore a fourth-order cap. They didn't make them any
heavier than that one. And if there was a device that had been left out,
he had never heard of it.

In addition, he could identify three heavy-duty shields, a power
levitator, a handful of destructor and paralysis rings, and a projector
medallion capable of forming several hundred cubic feet of solid,
detailed illusion. He shook his head.

This man must have spent the entire income of his estate for several
years in assembling this array. There was enough there to outfit a
battle group of competent psionics.

"If this guy needs all that stuff just to get by, he's as near to
psionic zero as you can get," Naran told himself. "Either that, or he's
loaded with a power compulsion that's never been equalled." He frowned.

"Or both," he added thoughtfully.

He looked again at the blaze of jewelry.

Faintly, he could sense the sour feel of fear. It acted as a carrier for
a mixture of hatred, envy, and contemptuous hauteur. Naran whistled
softly. There was more, too. He wished he dared try a probe, but with
all that arsenal of psionic crystalware, it would be unwise.

"Hit those shields of his and I'd bounce off with a noise like a million
bells," he thought. He turned away.

He'd have to keep his own mind fully hooded around here. He looked back
again, glancing at the distorter rod Barra carried. His eyes widened a
little.

"Given adequate drive, that thing would stop a Fifth Planet battleship."
He grinned.

"Arm a couple of hundred men with those things and they could go out and
take the Fifth apart, bit by bit. Then we wouldn't have to worry about
those people and their mechanical gadgets."

He dragged his attention back to the business at hand, tapping in on Dar
Girdek's thoughts.

"... And we can tour the Estates later today," Barra was saying. "I may
be able to show you some worthwhile goods, as well as a few good draft
beasts to carry them."

Naran risked a light probe, taking advantage of Barra's diverted
attention.

He had been right, he thought. It was the "or both." He shook his head.
The guy was almost pathetic. Obviously, he wanted to be the greatest man
on the planet. And equally obviously, without his amplifier jewels, he'd
be little stronger psionically than one of Dar Girdek's drivers.

As Dar Girdek followed his host toward the village, Naran turned his
attention back to his drivers. He would have to make camp and then get
together with that village headman. There'd be plenty of arrangements
they would have to make.

He was surprised at the arrangements Retonga had already made. There
wasn't much question about it, the entertainment of caravans was
familiar business with this headman. He knew all the problems--and their
answers.

Of course, Dar Girdek had told him about the hospitality of Kira Barra,
but this had to be seen to be believed. He spent his first really
restful night in weeks.

The next morning, he walked slowly along the path to the drivers' lodge,
paying little attention to his surroundings. Somehow, in spite of the
reception given the caravan, he was uneasy.

He recalled his conversation with Retonga the night before.

The man had asked questions about the conditions of the trail. He had
been curious about the treatment of the drivers by the master of the
train. Then he had shaken his head, looking out over his village.

"It is far different here. This is an estate of death and terror, and
our master is the very lord of these. I was a child when his father
died, but I think things were different then." He had looked searchingly
at Naran.

"I've never mentioned these things before," he went on. "But there's
something--" He had looked down at the ground, then up again.

"Our master became Kio through the death of his brother," he went on,
"and it was through the deaths of other headmen that I was placed in
charge of this village." He had glanced back into the door of his hut.

"I had no part in causing those deaths. The life of a headman here in
Tibara is short and none but a fool would fight for this position of
mine. It is not a good one. The master's demands are heavy and his hand
is even heavier."

This didn't match with the reputation of Kio Barra as a considerate
host--a fair man to do business with. It made him wonder.

Had his brother actually ever left this place? But if not, where were
his drivers? What had happened to his train of draft brutes? How had the
cargo he carried been disposed of?

Oh, of course, he knew there were caravan masters who would accept
freight and ask a minimum of questions. Goods could be disposed of. And
this was a breeding estate. The slaves? He shook his head. Too simple!

He brought himself back to the present, looking thoughtfully at the
drivers' lodge ahead of him. Then he probed gently, trying to establish
rapport with Dar Girdek. The man could be in real danger.

He frowned and probed with more force. There was nothing. The frown
deepened.

After his talk with Retonga, he had established rapport with the caravan
master, but the older man had attached no importance to his suspicions.

"No," he had thought back, "you are seeing a robber behind every rock
now. Kio Barra is a tough master, of course. He's got a big estate here,
and he really keeps it up to the mark. He's a good host and a really
good man to deal with--liberal trader. Remember, I know this guy. I've
been here before." There had been the impression of a smile.

"Besides, this guy's harmless, remember? Sure, he's a businessman. But
if he should try anything violent, I could take care of him without
taking time out to think about it." A final, dismissing thought had
come.

"Look, forget about it, will you? If you had to suspect someone of dirty
work, pick on some of those northerners. Kio Barra's too well known for
fair dealing. I'll make a deal with him, then we can go up to the
northern swing and really look around to see if we can find any trace of
that caravan of your brother's."

Naran kicked at the trail. Dar Girdek was a good trader and a successful
caravan master. He knew goods and their value, and he was expert in
handling beasts and drivers. But he had never been too sensitive. And
he'd absolutely refused to wear a probe amplifier.

"Look," he'd thought disgustedly, "how would you like to do business
with some guy that wore a great, big, yellow headlight to tell you he
wanted to poke around in your mind?"

Naran put his foot on the lowest rung of the short ladder leading to the
lodge door.

Unless he was badly mistaken, he knew now where his brother had gone.
And now Dar Girdek had joined him. The details? He shrugged.

They were unimportant. But what was next? What would be the next step in
Barra's plans? And what could be done about this guy? He climbed the
ladder and went into the lodge.

Of course, if the Council found out about this, they could deal with the
situation. All they'd need would be a little proof and Kio Barra would
be well and promptly taken care of. But how would someone get word out?

The estate was loaded with surrogates, he knew that. A caravan--even a
single man--would find it impossible to either enter or leave without
the knowledge and consent of the Master Protector. He smiled.

He could just visualize Kio Barra letting anyone out with proof of his
activities. The smile faded.

A distant projection? There were those surrogates again. They were broad
tuned and he knew it. They'd flare like a field of beacons.

Of course, he could get out a flash appeal and it would be heard. He
grinned.

Now, there was a nice way to commit suicide. There'd be no time for help
to arrive, he was sure of that. And no shield would stand up under that
heavy-duty distorter, even if Barra could only summon a minimum of power
to operate it. He shook his head, looking around the room.

       *       *       *       *       *

Drivers were beginning to stir and get to their feet. Naran looked at
the flunky.

"Better get with it, Bintar," he said. "Going to be a bunch of hungry
men around you in a couple of minutes."

"Yeah." The man started out the door, yawning. "Got to eat, if we don't
do anything else." He climbed down the ladder.

Naran glanced at the drivers.

"Soon's we've eaten," he said, "I'd like to check up on the long-necks.
See whether they've wandered during the night. I'd hate to have them get
mixed up with the village herd."

A driver looked around at him.

"Aw," he protested, "the master probably pinned 'em down good before he
left. Besides, he can identify 'em anyway. They won't go far--not with
those herd boys running around."

"Sure," Naran told him. "The master would really like spending half a
day cutting out his long-necks from the village herd. And how about that
Master Protector? What would he think of our caravan?"

The other looked at him disgustedly. "Aw, who cares about that? Why
worry about what one of them witchmen thinks about another? Long's we
don't get twisted around, what's the difference?"

Naran growled to himself. He'd blundered on that one. There was no
answer to that argument that he could present. He had learned to
understand--and in some measure sympathize with--the deep-seated
resentment of the non-psi for the psionic. The non-psionics felt they
were just as good men as anyone, yet here were these psionics with their
incomprehensible powers. And there was nothing to be done about it
except obey.

Of course, they didn't like it--or their masters.

As far as that went, the caravan herd was unimportant now. The only
trouble was Retonga. If the herds were mixed, he would be in real
trouble.

"Well," he said aloud, "I'm not about to get the master to spinning.
Long's we keep him happy, we'll all be a lot better off. As I said,
right after breakfast. I want everyone out on the herd." He started to
turn away.

"Aagh," growled the other. "Why don't you face it? You're just one of
those guys likes to toss orders around and make people jump. It's about
time someone showed you a few things."

Naran turned back. Rosel had been resentful ever since the caravan had
formed. He had expected to be lead driver on this trip and he'd made no
effort to hide his fury and disappointment at being displaced in favor
of a newcomer.

For an instant, Naran considered. There was no point in continuing his
masquerade any further. Dar Girdek was gone and he'd have to take the
caravan back anyway--if he could work his way out of here, past Barra.

If he couldn't get out--if he joined his brother and Dar Girdek--it
would make no difference what the caravan drivers thought.

He could put this man in his place right now. Then, he could give him
the job of lead driver.

But there was something else to think of. If he got the train out of
here, he would have to work with this guy. And there would always be an
even greater resentment added to the normal fear and hatred of the
psionic. That could demoralize the whole train. Naran sighed.

Rosel had put his feelings in the open now and Naran would have to play
out the role he had assumed.

He crossed the room to confront Rosel. Abruptly, he thrust a hand out.
The other made a grab for it and Naran moved smoothly forward, locking
the grasping hand.

Quickly he extended a leg and threw Rosel over it. As the man hit the
floor, Naran retained his grip and brought his other hand over, twisting
the man's arm. His foot went out, to smack into the man's face, pinning
him to the floor. Slowly, he put pressure on the prisoned hand.

"Once more," he said coldly, "I'm going to have everyone out on the herd
right after breakfast. Now, do you want to go out and work with 'em, or
do I keep winding up on this thing and then have 'em load you up with
the rest of the spare gear?"

"Aw, look." Rosel's voice was muffled. "Didn't mean a thing, I was just
making a crack."

"Yeah, sure." Naran's voice was scornful. "Just having a little fun
before breakfast. Now you listen to me. So long as I'm lead driver,
you're going to do what I say--when I say it. If you give me any more
trouble, I'll pull your head off and make you carry it under one arm.
Got it?"

"Ow! Yeah, I got it. You're the lead driver."

Naran released his pressure and stepped back.

"All right," he said. "Let's forget it. Now, we'll get breakfast over
with and then we'll take care of the long-necks. You take the drivers
out, Rosel. I'm going to make some arrangements in the village. Be with
you later." He swung away.

       *       *       *       *       *

Barra looked at his reflection with satisfaction. It was too bad, he
thought, that he didn't have some companion to appreciate his wealth and
power. He examined his equipment carefully.

Everything was clean. Everything was in order. There was no device
lacking.

Proudly, he looked down at the huge, yellow pendant he was wearing for
the first time. It was funny, he thought, that he had never considered a
probe unit before. Now that he thought of it, this was a most
satisfactory device. Now, he could look into his villagers' minds and
see clearly what lay there. Even, he could get some ideas of the
intentions of visiting caravan masters.

Fitting the device and becoming familiar with it had been hard work, of
course, but he had mastered it. And today, he could wear the jewel and
use it. It would make the day's work easier.

He activated his levitator, floated to his boat, and pulled it away from
its shelter, setting the course toward Tibara.

The hard part of this operation was over, he thought. The rest was
simple routine.

This caravan master had given him a bit more trouble than some of the
others, but his final reaction had been just like all the others. He
smiled.

That flash of incredulity, followed by sudden, horrified comprehension,
then blankness, was becoming perfectly familiar. In fact, even this was
simple routine.

He wondered if he might be able to extend just a little. Perhaps he
could operate on a wider scale. There should be some way he could work
out to take over a neighboring estate and go from there.

Surely, there must be some outlet for his abilities, beyond mere
increase in the wealth of Kira Barra. And there must be some way to gain
a companion of sorts. He would have to think that over.

He swung the boat to the pier and floated away, grandly ignoring the
pseudomen who hurried to secure his lines.

He examined the village with approval as he stood in the center of the
clearing. There had been a great improvement since he had taken that
headman in hand. Perhaps this fellow would be satisfactory--might even
learn to take some pride in the appearance of his village--if, that is,
a pseudoman were capable of pride.

He looked over toward the headman's hut.

The fellow had come out, followed by the lead driver of the caravan.
Good, that would save the trouble of hunting the fellow out.

He concentrated on the caravan slave.

"Your master has decided to remain at the Residence for a time," he
thought confidently. "You may have your drivers load up and move to a
more permanent location."

The answering thought was unexpectedly distinct.

"This location looks as though it were designed for a caravan's stay.
Where's Dar Girdek?"

Barra looked at the man in surprise. What was this? This fellow didn't
think like any pseudoman. Had Dar Girdek somehow managed to persuade a
halfman to act as his lead driver? But why?

He drew back a little, tensing. There was something wrong here.

"Now, look," persisted the man before him. "I'd like to see Dar Girdek.
I'd like to know why I haven't been able to get in touch with him this
morning."

Barra blinked, then activated the new probe. He would have to find out
what this man knew--how much others might know. Abruptly, he felt a
violent return of the fear sickness which had temporarily subsided with
the death of Dar Girdek.

The probe was met by an impenetrable barrier. Barra's eyes widened. This
man was no halfman, either. He was one of the great psionics.
Frantically, Barra's thought retraced the past.

Was this an investigator from the Council? Was he, Kio Barra, suspect?
But how had any leak occurred? The fear grew, till he could almost smell
the sour stench of it. And with it, came a buoying lift of pure fury.

This man may have unmasked him, to be sure. The Council might even now
be sending men to take him, but this spy would never know the results of
his work. He would profit nothing here.

He flipped the distorter from under his arm.

       *       *       *       *       *

As the Master Protector started to raise his distorter, Naran felt a
sharp twinge of regret. He had resigned himself to this, and had made
his preparations, but he hated to leave Barra to someone else. Of
course, the man had no chance now. The disturbance he had keyed himself
to make if he were hit with a distorter would be heard by every scholar
in Ganiadur, and by half the Council. But--

Suddenly, he felt a sort of pity for the killer before him. The guy
wasn't really altogether to blame. He'd been living for all these years
with everything against him.

Born into a psionic family, he had been the family skeleton--a thing of
disgrace--to be hidden from the rest of the world and given tolerant
protection.

And when this barely tolerated being had managed somehow to gain power
and get amplifying devices? Well--

The crystal was leveled at him now. He looked at it indifferently,
thinking of the man who held it.

"Poor, lonesome weakling!"

Abruptly, the clearing was lit up by a blinding red glare. Naran closed
his eyes against the searing light. Seconds went by and he opened his
eyes again, looking about the village in confusion.

Had he somehow managed to retain full consciousness of ego, even after
being reduced by a distorter beam? Was there a release into some other
state of being? He had felt no--

He looked at Kio Barra. The man stood, slack-faced, still holding his
distorter rod, but gradually allowing it to sag toward the ground. Naran
shook his head.

"Now, what goes on?"

He probed at the man's mind.

There was consciousness. The man could think, but the thoughts were dim
and blurred, with no trace of psionic carrier. The control and amplifier
jewels he wore had lost their inner fire--were merely dull, lifeless
reflectors of the sunlight. This man could do no more toward bringing
life to the jewels than could the village headman--perhaps, even less.

Naran looked at him in unbelieving confusion, then turned as a sudden,
screaming thought struck his mind.

"A stinking, high-nosed witchman! And we thought he was one of us! Ate
with him. Argued with him. Even fought with him. I've got to get away.
Got to!"

There was desperation in the thought. And there were hatred overtones,
which blended, then swelled.

As the terrorized ululation went on, Naran swung his head, locating the
source. He'd have to do something about that--fast. The fellow would
really demoralize the caravan now--even infect the big saurians--cause a
stampede.

This guy had some power of projection and his terror was intensifying it
till anyone could receive the disturbing impulses, even though complete
understanding might be lacking.

Naran lifted himself from the ground, arrowing rapidly toward the
caravan, his mind already forming the thoughts which he hoped would
soothe the frantic fear and--at least to some degree--allay the frenzy
of hatred that swelled and became stronger and stronger.

Barra could wait.

       *       *       *       *       *

As Barra swung his distorter to bear, he concentrated on the violent
pulse needed to trigger the jewel, his mind closed to all else. He
turned his attention on his target.

Suddenly, he recognized the curiously tender expression which had formed
on the face of the man before him.

Frantically, he tried to revise his thoughts--to recall the blaze of
energy he had concentrated to build up.

It was too late.

With a sense of despair, he recognized the sudden, lifting, twisting
agony that accompanied the flare of the overloaded power crystal. For an
eternal instant, his universe was a blinding, screaming, red nightmare.

The flare died and he watched dully as the unharmed man before him
looked about unbelievingly, then looked back to carefully examine him.

"Oh," he told himself dully. "I suppose they'll take care of me, but
what of it? They'll put me somewhere. I'll lose everything. It'll be
just like the place Boemar thought of sending me, when I--"

Furiously, he tried to summon some tiny bit of energy to activate the
distorter.

Nothing happened.

The man whose pity had destroyed him suddenly frowned, then turned and
darted away. Dully, Barra watched him, then he turned, to look around
the village. His face contorted in new terror.

Some of the village men were moving toward him, curious expressions on
their faces. He backed away from them and turned.

A few more had moved to block his path.

They were grunting and hissing to each other. Barra looked from face to
face, then looked over toward the well.

There were men over there, too, by the pile of stones. The old man who
worked on the retaining walls of the village had picked up some of his
building material.

He stood, eying Barra calculatingly, a stone poised in each hand.


THE END





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