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V: Sleep No More

Three weeks passed before Telzey returned to Robane's house.

Her encounter with the spook created very little stir. She'd asked her companions not to talk about it, on the ground that it would upset her family if they learned she'd been in danger. Some of the group felt it was a shame to keep so thrilling an adventure a secret, but they'd agreed. The park officials wanted no publicity either. The only news mention of the incident was that a spook, which somehow had found its way from one of the northern wildlife preserves into Melna Park, had been killed there by a visitor's guard dog, and that the park was being carefully scanned to make sure no more of the dangerous animals had strayed in. Telzey's story to her friends was that there'd been a malfunction in the Cloudsplitter. The car had settled inertly to the ground, and when she got out to do something about it, the malfunction apparently cut out again, and the Cloudsplitter floated up out of her reach before she could stop it and drifted away. She'd started walking back to Cil Canyon, and presently found the spook on her trail. The Cloudsplitter was located by a police car next day, fifty miles beyond the park borders, and restored to its owner. Before leaving the park, Telzey quietly recovered Dunker's watch and the other articles Robane had made her discard at the house.

The only people who could see a connection between the dead spook and Robane were the smugglers who'd provided him with an animal of that kind, and they'd have no interest in the fact that it was dead. If anyone who might be associated with Robane in his general work with psi machines became aware of his present condition, the mental damage would be attributed to a miscalculated experiment. Psi machines were considered uncertain devices in that respect. In any case, there was nothing to link Telzey to him. Nor was there really any reason why she couldn't go quietly back to Melna Park at any time to conclude her investigation. She wouldn't need to come within half a mile of the house for that.

She kept putting it off. She wasn't quite sure why. When the weekend came around, she simply found herself unwilling to make the trip. Robane was unfinished business. It wasn't usually her way at all to leave unfinished business lying around. But she told herself she'd take care of it the following week.

One night then she had a dream. It was an uncomfortable, sweaty, nightmarish sort of dream, though nothing much really happened. It seemed to go on for some time. She appeared to be floating in the air near Robane's house, watching it from various angles, aware that Robane watched her in turn, hating her for what she'd done to him and waiting for a chance to destroy her. In the dream, Telzey reminded herself quite reasonably that it wasn't possible—Robane couldn't remember what she'd done or anything about her; he wouldn't recognize her if she were standing before him. Then she realized suddenly that it wasn't Robane but the house itself which watched her with such spiteful malice, and that something was about to happen to her. She woke up with a start of fright.

That settled it. She lay awake a while, considering. A weekend was coming up again. She could fly to Melna Park after her last scheduled lecture in the afternoon, and register at a park hotel. She'd have two full days if necessary to wind up matters at Robane's house. That certainly would be time enough. She'd extract the remaining information she wanted from him, then see to it that somebody among the park authorities discovered a good reason to pay the recluse a visit at his home. When they saw the condition he was in, they'd transfer him to an institution; and Robane shouldn't be disturbing her sleep again.

* * *

He did, however, that night in her room at the park hotel. Or something did. She'd retired soon after dinner, wanting to get off to an early start, found then that she wasn't at all sleepy, tuned in somnomusic, switched on the window screen, and went over to it in the darkened room. She stood there a while, looking out. In the cluster light, Melna Park sloped away, dim and vast, toward the northern mountains. Robane's house lay behind a fold of the mountains. At the restricted pace possible in the park, it would take her almost four hours to get to the house from the hotel tomorrow—twice the time she'd spent crossing half a continent from Pehanron College in the evening.

The music was producing drowsiness in her, but tensions seemed to fight it. It was almost an hour before she got to bed and fell asleep, and it turned then into an uncomfortable night. There were periods of disagreeable dreaming, of which she could recall only scraps when she woke up. For the most part, she napped fitfully; kept coming awake. Something in her simply didn't want to relax; and as she began to go to sleep and her mental screens loosened normally, it drew them abruptly tight, bringing her back to weary alertness. She was up at daybreak at last, heavy-lidded and irritable. But a cold shower opened her eyes, and after she'd had breakfast, she seemed reasonably refreshed.

Ten minutes later, she was on her way to Robane's house through a breezy late-autumn morning. Melna Park was famed for varied and spectacular color changes in its vegetation as winter approached, and the tourist traffic was much heavier now than three weeks ago. Almost everywhere Telzey looked, aircars floated past, following the rolling contours of the ground. The Cloudsplitter moved along at the steady thirty miles an hour to which it was restricted. She'd slipped the canopy down; sun warmth seeped through her, while a chilled wind intermittently whipped her hair about her cheeks. Nighttime tensions grew vague and unreal. The relaxation which had eluded Telzey at the hotel came to her, and she was tempted to ground the car and settle down for an hour's nap in the sunshine before going on. But she wanted to reach the house early enough to be finished with Robane before evening.

Near noon, she reached the series of mile-wide plateaus dropping from the point where Cil Canyon cut through the mountains to the southern forests where Robane's house stood. She circled in toward the house, brought it presently into the car's viewscreen. It looked precisely as she remembered seeing it in the cluster light, neat, trim, quiet. A maintenance robot moved slowly about in the garden.

She considered relaxing her screens and directing a probing thought to Robane's mind from where she was. But she had most of the day left, and a remnant of uneasiness made her wary. She dropped the car behind a rise which hid Robane's house from her, moved on back of the rise for about a mile and settled to the ground at the edge of a stand of trees. Carrying a pocket telscreen, she walked to the top of the rise and across it, threading her way among the trees until she came to a point from where she could watch the house without being picked up in scanning devices from there.

She kept the house area in the telscreen for about ten minutes. The only sign of life was the tending machine in the garden. That was out of sight in some shrubbery for a while, then emerged and began moving back and forth across one of the lawns while a silvery mist arising from the shrubbery indicated a watering system had been turned on. Finally the robot trundled to the side of the house and paused before it. A wide door slid open in the wall, and the machine rolled inside.

Telzey put the telscreen down. She'd had a look through the door before it closed. A large aircar stood behind it. Robane, as was to be expected in his present state, should be at home.

And now, she decided, a light—a very light—probe. Just enough to make quite sure Robane was, in fact, as she'd left him, that there'd been no unforeseen developments of any kind around here.

Leaning against the sun-warm trunk of a tall tree she closed her eyes and thinned the screens about her mind, let them open out. She felt a sudden tug of anxiety resistance, but the screens stayed open. The blended whispers of life currents about her began to flow into her awareness.

Everything seemed normal . . . She flicked a thread of thought down to the forest then, to Robane's house, touched for a moment the patterns she remembered.

Something like a shout flashed through her mind. Not words, nothing even partly verbalized; nevertheless, it was a clear sharp command, accompanied by a gust of hate like a curse. The hate was directed at her. The command—

In the split instant of shock as her screens contracted into a tight hard shield, she'd seemed aware of a blurred dark image rushing toward her. Then the image, the command-and-hate impressions, the touch of Robane's mind, were blocked off together by the shield.

Telzey opened her eyes, glanced about. For long seconds, she remained motionless. The trees stirred above as a breeze rustled past. Here in the world of material reality, nothing seemed changed or different. But what had she run into at Robane's house?

A sound reached her . . . the rolling thunder of explosion. It faded away, echoing across the plain.

It seemed to have come from the forest to the south. Telzey listened a moment, moved forward until she could look out from behind the trees.

An ugly rolling cloud of yellow smoke partly concealed the area where the house had stood. But it was clear that house and garden had been violently obliterated.

And that, Telzey thought numbly, was in part her answer.

* * *

By the time she got back to the Cloudsplitter and lifted it from the ground, tourist aircars were gliding in cautiously toward the site of the explosion. A ranger car screamed down out of the sky, passed above her and vanished. Telzey remained behind the rise and continued to move to the west. She was almost certain that whoever had blown up Robane in his house wasn't physically in the area. But there was no need to expose herself any more than she'd already done.

Robane had been used as bait—bait to trap a psi. The fact that he'd been destroyed then indicated that whoever set the trap believed the psi for whom it was intended had been caught. And there must be a reason for that belief. In whatever she did now, she'd better be extremely careful.

She brought the thought impressions she'd recorded back into awareness, examined them closely.

They were brief but strong and vivid. She began to distinguish details she hadn't consciously noted in the instant of sensing them. This psi was human, must be; and yet the flavor of the thought forms suggested almost an alien species. They were heavy with arrogance as if the psi himself felt he was different from and superior to human beings. The thrust of hard power carrying the impressions had been as startling to her as the sudden angry roar of an animal nearby. She recalled feeling that a curse was being pronounced on her.

And blended in was a communication—not intended for her, and not too clear. It was, Telzey thought, the sort of mental shortcode which developed among associated telepaths: a flick of psi which might transmit an involved meaning. She could guess the basic meaning here. Success! The quarry was snared! He'd had one or more companions. His own kind, whatever it was.

Finally, the third part, the least clear section of the thought structure. It had death in it. Her death. It was a command; and she was almost certain it had been directed at the indistinct shape she'd seemed to glimpse rushing toward her. Something that might have been a large animal.

Her death . . . how? Telzey swallowed uncomfortably. They might have been involved with the ring which had catered to Robane's criminal inclinations—minds like that would have no objection to delivering one human being to another, to be hunted down and killed for sport. But psis would have recognized a special value in Robane. He was a precision instrument that could provide them with machines to extend and amplify their powers. His inventive genius had been at the disposal of a telepath who'd set him problems and left him to work them out, not knowing why he did it, or for whose benefit, in the solitude of Melna Park.

She'd put an end to Robane's usefulness and might presently have come on clues pointing to them in the unconscious recesses of his mind if they hadn't discovered what had been done. They knew it was the work of another psi. She'd sealed most of Robane's memories away but left them intact; and that told them she planned to return to look for more information. They could have destroyed Robane at once, but they wanted to dispose of the unidentified meddler. So they'd set up the trap with Robane's mind as the bait. The psi who touched that mind again would spring the trap. And, some twenty minutes ago, cautious and light as her touch had been, she'd sprung it.

Immediately afterwards, she'd locked her screens. In doing it, she might have escaped whatever was planned for her. But she had to accept the probability that she still was in the trap—and she didn't yet know what it was.

The Cloudsplitter went gliding at its thirty miles an hour across the upper plateaus of the plain, a hundred feet above the ground. The southern forest where the house had stood had sunk out of sight. The flanks of the mountains curved away ahead. Telzey turned the car in farther toward them. Another car slipped past at the edge of her vision, half a mile to the left. She had an impulse to follow it, to remain near other people. But she kept the Cloudsplitter on its course. The company of others would bring her no safety, and mingling with them might distract her attention dangerously.

She set the car on automatic control, sat gazing at the mountains through the windshield. The other impression at the moment of touching Robane's mind—the shape like an animal's—it might have been a hallucination, her own mind's symbol of some death energy directed at her. Psi could kill swiftly, could be used as a weapon by minds which understood its use for that purpose and could handle the forces they turned on another. But if that had been the trap, it seemed to her she would have interpreted it differently—not as a moving shadow, a half-glimpsed animal shape, an image darting toward her.

What else could it be? Telzey shook her bead. She didn't know, and she couldn't guess. She could find out; eventually she'd have to find out. But not yet.

She glanced at the car clock. Give it another hour. Evidently they hadn't identified her physically; but it could do no harm to place more physical distance between herself and the area of Robane's house before she made any revealing moves. Mentally, she should have seemed to vanish for them as her shield closed. The difficulty was that the shield couldn't stay closed indefinitely.

* * *

An hour later, the effects of having passed a night with very little sleep were becoming noticeable. There were moments of reduced wakefulness and physical lassitude of which she'd grow suddenly aware. The nearest ranger car would have provided her with a stimulant if she'd put out a communicator call for one, but her enemies might have means of monitoring events in the park she didn't know about. It didn't seem at all advisable to draw attention to herself in that way, or in any other way. She'd simply have to remain alert long enough to get this situation worked out.

The test she intended was a simple one. The psi shield would flash open, instantly be closed again. During that moment, her perceptions, fully extended, would be set to receive two impressions: thought patterns of the telepath who'd laid a trap for her, and the animal shape involved with the trap. If either was still in her mental vicinity, some trace would he obtained, however faintly. If neither was there, she could begin to believe she'd eluded them. Not indefinitely; psis could determine who had destroyed Robane's effectiveness if they put in enough work on it. But that would be another problem. Unless they were as intently prepared as she was to detect some sign from her now, the momentary exposure of her mind should pass unnoticed.

The shield flicked open, flicked shut, as her sensitized perceptions made their recording. Telzey sat still for a moment then, feeling the heavy drumming of fear.

Slowly, like an afterimage, she let the recorded picture form again in awareness.

A dark beast shape. What kind of beast she didn't know. Something like a great uncouth baboon—a big heavy head, strong body supported on four huge hand-paws.

As the shield opened, she had the feeling of seeing it near her, three-dimensional, every detail clearly etched though it stood in a vague nothingness. The small red eyes stared in her direction. And short as the moment of exposure was, she was certain she'd seen it start in recognition, begin moving toward her, before it vanished beyond the shield again.

What was it? A projection insinuated into her mind by the other telepath in the instant of contact between them—something she was supposed to develop to her own destruction now?

She didn't think so. It seemed too real, too alertly, menacingly, alive. In some way she'd seen what was there—the vague animal shape she'd glimpsed—nearby and no longer vague. In physical space, it might be hundreds of miles away; or perhaps it was nowhere in that sense at present. In the other reality they shared, she hadn't drawn away from it. After its attention was turned on her, it had waited while she was concealed by her shield, moved closer at the brief new impression it received of her mind. . . . What would happen when, in its manner, it reached her, touched her?

She didn't know the answer to that. She let the image fade, began searching for traces of the telepathic mind associated with it. After long seconds, she knew nothing had been recorded in her perceptions there. The psi was gone. He'd prepared the trap, set the creature on her; then apparently turned away—as if confident he'd done all that needed to be done to dispose of her.

The thought was briefly more chilling than the waiting beast image. But if it was only an animal she had to deal with, Telzey told herself, escape might be an easier matter than it would have been if minds like the one she had encountered had remained on her trail.

The animal still seemed bad enough. She'd never heard of a creature which tracked down prey by sensing mental emanations, as this one evidently did. It might be a native of some unrecorded world, brought to the Hub for the specific purpose of turning it into a hunter of human psis—psis who could make trouble for its masters. It knew about mind shields. Either it had dealt with such defenses in its natural state, or it had been trained to handle them. At any rate, it seemed quite aware that it need only wait with a predator's alert patience until the quarry's shield relaxed. As hers would eventually. She couldn't stay awake indefinitely; and asleep she didn't have enough control to keep so steady and relentless a watcher from detecting mental activity.

It had been a trap in several ways then. If she'd entered Robane's house, she would have vanished in the explosion with him. Since she'd checked first, they'd turned this thing on her. It was either to destroy her outright or force her into behavior that would identify her to its masters—and she had to get rid of it before the need to sleep brought down her defenses.

She felt the psi bolt begin to assemble itself. No ordinary brief sharp slash of psi was likely to serve here. She'd turn the heaviest torrent of energy she could channel on her uncanny pursuer. Something like a black electric swirling about her was sending ripples over her skin. Not at all a pleasant sensation, but she let it develop. It would be to her disadvantage to wait any longer; and since the psis weren't around themselves, this was as good a place as any for the encounter. The Cloudsplitter was drifting up a wide valley into the higher ranges of the park. There was a chill in the breeze and few tourists about. At the moment she saw only three aircars, far ahead.

The energy pattern grew denser, became a shuddering thunder. She gathered it in, held it aimed like a gun, let it build up until she was trembling almost unbearably with its violence, then abruptly released her shield.

Almost at once, seeing the dark shape plunge at her through the nothing-space of psi, she knew that on this beast it wasn't going to work. Energy smashed about it but found no entry point; it wasn't being touched. She expended the bolt's fury as the shape rushed up, snapped the shield shut before it reached her—immediately found herself slewing the Cloudsplitter around in a sharp turn as if to avoid a physical collision. There was a sound then, a deep bubbling howl, which chilled her through and through.

Glancing around, she saw it for an instant twenty feet behind the car—no mind image, but a thick powerful animal body, plunging head downward, stretched out as if it were diving, through the air of Melna Park. Then it vanished.

It was a psi creature whose natural prey were other psi creatures, she thought; that was why she hadn't been able to touch it. Its species had a developed immunity to such defensive blasts and could ignore them. It had a sense through which it traced out and approached the minds of prospective victims, and it had the psi ability to flick itself across space when it knew by the mind contact where they were to be found. For the kill it needed only physical weapons—the strength of its massive body, its great teeth and the broad flat nails of the reaching beast hands which had seemed only inches from her when the shield shut them from view. If she hadn't swerved aside in that instant, the thing would have crashed down into the car and torn the life out of her moments later.

Her attempt to confront it had made the situation more immediately dangerous. Handling that flood of deadly energy had drained her strength; and a kind of dullness was settling on her now, composed in part of growing fatigue and in part of a puzzled wonder that she really seemed able to do nothing to get away from the thing. It was some minutes before she could push the feeling aside and get her thoughts again into some kind of order.

The creature's dip through space seemed to have confused it temporarily; at any rate, it had lost too much contact with her to materialize near her again, though she didn't doubt it was still very close mentally. There were moments when she thought she could sense its presence just beyond the shield. She'd had a respite, but no more than that. It probably wasn't even a very intelligent animal; a species with its abilities and strength wouldn't need much mental equipment to get along in its world. But she was caught in a game which was being played by the animal's rules, not hers, and there still seemed no way to get around them.

Some time past the middle of the afternoon, she edged the Cloudsplitter down into a cluster of thickets on sloping ground, brushing through the vegetation until the car was completely concealed. She shut off its engines and climbed out, stood swaying unsteadily for a moment, then turned and pushed her way out of the thickets.

If she'd remained sitting in the car, she would have been asleep in minutes. By staying on her feet, she might gain another period of time to work out the solution. But she wasn't far from the point where she'd have to call the park rangers and ask them to get a fix on her and come to her help. Stimulants could keep her awake for several days.

At that point, she would have invited danger from a new source. A public appeal for help from someone in Melna Park could be a beacon to her enemies; she had to count on the possibility that they waited alertly for just such an indication that their hunter had the quarry pinned down. She might be identified very quickly then.

But to try to stay awake on her own for even another fifteen or twenty minutes could be fatal. The thing was near! A dozen times she'd been on the verge of drifting into a half-dreaming level where outside reality and the universe of psi seemed to blend, and had been jolted awake by a suddenly growing sense of the psi beast's presence.

Getting out of the car and on her feet had roused her a little. The cold of the mountain air produced a further stimulating effect. She'd come far up into a region of the park which already seemed touched by winter. It might have been almost half an hour since she'd last seen a tourist car or any other indication of humanity on the planet.

She stood looking around, rubbing her arms with her hands to warm them. She was above a rounded dip in the mountains between two adjoining ridges. Hip-high brown grass and straggling trees filled the dip. A swift narrow stream wound through it. She'd grounded the car three quarters of the way up the western side. The far side was an almost vertical rock wall, festooned with yellow cobwebs of withering vines. That half of the dip was still bathed in sunlight coming over the top of the ridge behind her. Her side was in shadow.

She shivered in the chill, shook her head to drive away another wave of drowsiness. She seemed unable to concentrate on the problem of the psi beast. Her thoughts shifted to the sun-warmed rocks she'd crossed at the top of the ridge as she turned the Cloudsplitter down into the little valley.

She pictured herself sitting there, warmed by the sun. It was a convincing picture. In imagination she felt the sun on her shoulders and back, the warm rock beneath her, saw the dry thorny fall growth about—

Her eyes flickered, widened thoughtfully. After a moment, she brought the picture back into her mind.

I'm here, she thought. I'm sitting in the sun. I'm half asleep, nodding, feeling the warmth—forgetting I'm in danger. The wind blows over the rocks, and the bushes are rustling all around me . . .

She relaxed the shield—"I'm here, Bozo!"—closed it.

She stood in the shadow of the western ridge, shivering and chilled, listening. Far above, for a moment, there'd been noises as if something plunged heavily about in the growth at the top of the ridge. Then the noises ended abruptly.

Telzey's gaze shifted down into the dip between the ridges, followed the course of the little stream up out of the shadows to a point where it ran between flat sandy banks, glittering and sparkling in the afternoon sun—held there.

And now I'm here, she thought, and nodded down at the little stream. I'm sitting in warm sand, in the sun again, sheltered from the wind, listening to the friendly water—

The shield opened. For an instant.

"I'm here!"

Looking down from the shaded slope, shield sealed tight, she saw, for the second time that day, Bozo the beast appear in Melna Park, half in the stream, half out. Its heavy head swung this way and that; it leaped forward, wheeled, glared about, plunged suddenly out of sight among the trees. For an instant, she heard its odd howling voice, like amplified drunken human laughter, furious with frustrated eagerness.

Telzey leaned back against the tree behind her and closed her eyes. Drowsiness rolled in immediately in sweet heavy treacherous waves. She shook her head, drove it back.

Darkness, she thought. Darkness, black and cold.

Black, black all around me—because I've fallen asleep, Bozo. Now you can get me—

Blackness closed in on her mind like a rush of wind. The shield slipped open.

"Bozo! I'm HERE!"

In the blackness, Bozo's image flashed up before her, jaws wide, red eyes blazing, great arms sweeping out to seize her.

The shield snapped shut.

Eyes still closed, Telzey swayed against the tree, listening to the echoes of the second explosion she'd heard today. This one had been short and sharp, monstrously loud, like a thunderbolt slamming into the earth a hundred feet from her.

She shook her head, opened her eyes, and looked across the dip. The cliff face on the eastern side had changed its appearance. A jagged dark fissure showed in it, beginning at the top, extending halfway down to the valley. Puffs of mineral dust still drifted out of the fissure into the open air.

She'd wondered what would happen if something more than five hundred pounds of solid animal materialized, suddenly deep inside solid rock. She'd expected it might be something like this. This time, Bozo hadn't been able to flick back into no-space again.

"Goodbye, Bozo!" she said aloud, across the dip. "I won't miss you at all!"

That had been one part of it, she thought.

And now the other.

The shield thinned again, opened out. And stayed open—one minute, two minutes, three—as her perceptions spread, searching for impressions of the psi mind that had cursed her with Bozo, long, long hours ago, at Robane's house. That mind, or any mind like it.

And there was nothing. Nowhere around here, for many miles at least, was anyone thinking of her at the moment, giving her any attention at all.

Then you've lost me for now, she told them. She turned, stumbling, her balance not too good at the moment on the rocky ground, and pushed back through the bushes to the point where she'd left the Cloudsplitter. A minute later, she'd lifted the car above the ridges, swung it around to the south. Its canopy was closed and she was luxuriously soaking in the warmth of the heaters. She wanted to go to sleep very badly now, but there was one thing still to be done. It was nearly finished.

One section, a tiny section, of her mind was forming itself into an alarm system. It would remain permanently on guard against psis of the kind who'd nearly trapped her, for good. At the slightest, most distant indication that minds like that were about, long before she became consciously aware of them, her screens would lock into a shield and she would know why.

It was necessary. There was no reason to believe she was done with them. They'd relied on their trap; and it had failed. But they could go back now to the night Robane's spook had been killed and try to find out who'd been involved in that. She'd covered herself as well as she could. It would involve a great deal of probing around in the minds of park personnel, a detailed checking of visitors' registers at the entrance stations; but eventually they could work out a line on the psi who'd trespassed on their operation and locate her. If she were doing it herself, it shouldn't take more than two weeks. She had to assume it would take them no longer.

Telzey felt her new alarm system complete itself, reached over and set the Cloudsplitter on the automatic controls which would guide it back down through the mountains into the warm southern plains of Melna Park to drift along with other tourist cars. Later, she thought, she'd decide what she'd have to be doing about the psis within the next two weeks. Later—

She slumped back gently in the seat and was instantly asleep.

 

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