Riuku listened to her half of the conversation. Stupid Earthman. If only she'd start thinking about the job. Or if only his contact with her were better. If he could use her sense perceptions, see through her eyes, hear through her ears, feel through her fingers, then everything would be easy. But he couldn't. All he could do was read her thoughts. Earth thoughts at that....
... The time clock. Where's my card? Oh, here it is. Only 3:57. Why did I have to hurry so? I had lots of time....
"Why, Mary, how nice you look today. That's a new hairdo, isn't it? A permanent? Yeah, what kind?" ... What a microbe! Looks like pink straw, her hair does, and of course she thinks it's beautiful.... "I'd better get down to my station. Old Liverlips will be ranting again. You oughta be glad you have Eddie for a lead man. Eddie's cute. So's Dave, over in 77. But Liverlips, ugh...."
She was walking down the aisle to her station now. A procession of names: Maisie, and Edith, and that fat slob Natalie, and if Jean Andrews comes around tonight flashing that diamond in my face again, I'll--I'll kill her....
"Oh hello, Clinton. What do you mean, late? The whistle just blew. Of course I'm ready to go to work." Liverlips, that's what you are. And still in that same blue shirt. What a wife you must have. Probably as sloppy as you are....
Good, Riuku thought. Now she'll be working. Now he'd find out whatever it was she was doing. Not that it would be important, of course, but let him learn what her job was, and what those other girls' jobs were, and in a little while he'd have all the data he needed. Maybe even before the shift ended tonight, before she went through the Shielding boost.
He shivered a little, thinking of the boost. He'd survive it, of course. He'd be too well integrated with her by then. But it was nothing to look forward to.
Still, he needn't worry about it. He had the whole shift to find out what the weapon was. The whole shift, here inside Alice's mind, inside the most closely guarded factory on or under or above the surface of the Earth. He settled down and waited, expectantly.
Alice Hendricks turned her back on the lead man and looked down the work table to her place. The other girls were there already. Lois and Marge and Coralie, the other three members of the Plug table, Line 73.
"Hey, how'd you make out?" Marge said. She glanced around to make sure none of the lead men or timekeepers were close enough to overhear her, then went on. "Did you get away with it?"
"Sure," Alice said. "And you should of seen Pete's face when I walked in."
She took the soldering iron out of her locker, plugged it in, and reached out for the pan of 731 wires. "You know, it's funny. Pete's not so good looking, and he's sort of a careless dresser and all that, but oh, what he does to me." She filled the 731 plug with solder and reached for the white, black, red wire.
"You'd better watch out," Lois said. "Or Susan's going to be doing something to you."
"Oh, her." Alice touched the tip of the iron to the solder filled pin, worked the wire down into position. "What can she do? Pete doesn't give a damn about her."
"He's still living with her, isn't he?" Lois said.
Alice shrugged.... What a mealy-mouthed little snip Lois could be, sometimes. You'd think to hear her that she was better than any of them, and luckier too, with her Joe and the kids. What a laugh! Joe was probably the only guy who'd ever looked at her, and she'd hooked him right out of school, and now with three kids in five years and her working nights....
Alice finished soldering the first row of wires in the plug and started in on the second. So old Liverlips thought she wasted time, did he? Well, she'd show him. She'd get out her sixteen plugs tonight.
"Junior kept me up all night last night," Lois said. "He's cutting a tooth."
"Yeah," Coralie said, "It's pretty rough at that age. I remember right after Mike was born...."
Don't they ever think of anything but their kids? Alice thought. She stopped listening to them. She heard Pete's voice again, husky and sending little chills all through her, and his face came between her and the plug and the white green wire she was soldering. His face, with those blue eyes that went right through a girl and that little scar that quirked up the corner of his mouth....
"Oh, oh," Alice said suddenly. "I've got solder on the outside of the pin." She looked around for the alcohol.
Riuku probed. Her thoughts were easy enough to read, but just try to translate them into anything useful.... He probed deeper. The plugs she was soldering. He could get a good picture of them, of the wires, of the harness lacing that Coralie was doing. But it meant nothing. They could be making anything. Radios, monitor units, sound equipment.
Only they weren't. They were making a weapon, and this bit of electronic equipment was part of that weapon. What part? What did the 731 plug do?
Alice Hendricks didn't know. Alice Hendricks didn't care.
The first break. Ten minutes away from work. Alice was walking back along the aisle that separated Assembly from the men's Machine Shop. A chance, perhaps. She was looking at the machines, or rather past them, at the men.
"Hello, Tommy. How's the love life?" He's not bad at all. Real cute. Though not like Pete, oh no.
The machines. Riuku prodded at her thoughts, wishing he could influence them, wishing that just for a moment he could see, hear, feel, think as she would never think.
The machines were--machines. That big funny one where Ned works, and Tommy's spot welder, and over in the corner where the superintendent is--he's a snappy dresser, tie and everything.
The corner. Restricted area. Can't go over. High voltage or something....
Her thoughts slid away from the restricted area. Should she go out for lunch or eat off the sandwich machine? And Riuku curled inside her mind and cursed her with his rapidly growing Earthwoman's vocabulary.
At the end of the shift he had learned nothing. Nothing about the weapon, that is. He had found out a good deal about the sex life of Genus Homo--information that made him even more glad than before that his was a one-sexed race.
With work over and tools put away and Alice in the restroom gleefully thinking about the red Friday night tag she was slipping onto her ID badge, he was as far from success as ever. For a moment he considered leaving her, looking for another subject. But he'd probably not be able to find one. No, the only thing to do was stay with her, curl deep in her mind and go through the Shielding boost, and later on....
The line. Alice's nervousness.... Oh, oh, there's that guy with the meter--the one from maintenance. What's he want?
"Whaddya mean, my shield's low? How could it be?" ... If he checks the tag I'll be fired for sure. It's a lot of nonsense anyway. The enemy is everywhere, they keep telling us. Whoever saw one of them? "No, honest, I didn't notice anything. Can I help it if.... It's okay, huh? It'll pass...."
Down to fifteen per cent, the guy said. Well, that's safe, I guess. Whew.
"Oh, hello, Paula. Whatcha talking about, what am I doing here tonight? Shut up...."
And then, in the midst of her thoughts, the pain, driving deep into Riuku, twisting at him, wrenching at him, until there was no consciousness of anything at all.
He struggled back. He was confused, and there was blankness around him, and for a moment he thought he'd lost contact altogether. Then he came into focus again. Alice's thoughts were clearer than ever suddenly. He could feel her emotions; they were a part of him now. He smiled. The Shielding boost had helped him. Integration--much more complete integration than he had ever known before.
"But Pete, honey," Alice said. "What did you come over to the gate for? You shouldn't of done it."
"Why not? I wanted to see you."
"What if one of Susan's pals sees us?"
"So what? I'm getting tired of checking in every night, like a baby. Besides, one of her pals did see us, last night, at the bar."
Fear. What'll she do? Susan's a hellcat. I know she is. But maybe Pete'll get really sick and tired of her. He looks it. He looks mad. I'd sure hate to have him mad at me....
"Let's go for a spin, baby. Out in the suburbs somewhere. How about it?"
"Well--why sure, Pete...."
Sitting beside him in the copter. All alone up here. Real romantic, like something on the video. But I shouldn't with him married, and all that. It's not right. But it's different, with Susan such a mean thing. Poor Petey....
Riuku prodded. He found it so much easier since the Shielding boost. If only these Earthmen were more telepathic, so that they could be controlled directly. Still, perhaps with this new integration he could accomplish the same results. He prodded again.
"Pete," Alice said suddenly. "What are we working on, anyway?"
"What do you mean, working on?" He frowned at her.
"At the plant. All I ever do is sit there soldering plugs, and no one ever tells me what for."
"Course not. You're not supposed to talk about any part of the job except your own. You know that. The slip of a lip--"
"Can cost Earth a ship. I know. Quit spouting poster talk at me, Pete Ganley. The enemy isn't even human. And there aren't any around here."
Pete looked over at her. She was pouting, the upper lip drawn under the lower. Someone must have told her that was cute. Well, so what--it was cute.
"What makes you think I know anything more than you do?" he said.
"Well, gee." She looked up at him, so near to her in the moonlight that she wondered why she wanted to talk about the plant anyway. "You're in Final Assembly, aren't you? You check the whatsits before they go out."
"Sure," he said. No harm in telling her. No spies now, not in this kind of war. Besides, she was too dumb to know anything.
"It's a simple enough gadget," Pete Ganley said. "A new type of force field weapon that the enemy can't spot until it hits them. They don't even know there's an Earth ship within a million miles, until Bingo!..."
She drank it in, and in her mind Riuku did too. Wonderful integration, wonderful. Partial thought control. And now, he'd learn the secret....
"You really want to know how it works?" Pete Ganley said. When she nodded he couldn't help grinning. "Well, it's analogous to the field set up by animal neurones, in a way. You've just got to damp that field, and not only damp it but blot it out, so that the frequency shows nothing at all there, and then--well, that's where those Corcoran assemblies you're soldering on come in. You produce the field...."
Alice Hendricks listened. For some reason she wanted to listen. She was really curious about the field. But, gee, how did he expect her to understand all that stuff? He sounded like her algebra teacher, or was it chemistry? Lord, how she'd hated school. Maybe she shouldn't have quit.
... Corcoran fields. E and IR and nine-space something or other. She'd never seen Pete like this before. He looked real different. Sort of like a professor, or something. He must be real smart. And so--well, not good-looking especially but, well, appealing. Real SA, he had....
"So that's how it works," Pete Ganley said. "Quite a weapon, against them. It wouldn't work on a human being, of course." She was staring at him dreamy-eyed. He laughed. "Silly, I bet you haven't understood a word I said."
"I have too."
"Liar." He locked the automatic pilot on the copter and held out his arms. "Come here, you."
Who cared about the weapon? He was right, even if she wouldn't admit it. She hadn't even listened, hardly. She hadn't understood.
And neither had Riuku.
Riuku waited until she'd fallen soundly asleep that night before he tried contacting Nagor. He'd learned nothing useful. He'd picked up nothing in her mind except more thoughts of Pete, and gee, maybe someday they'd get married, if he only had guts enough to tell Susan where to get off....
But she was asleep at last. Riuku was free enough of her thoughts to break contact, partially of course, since if he broke it completely he wouldn't be able to get back through the Shielding. It was hard enough to reach out through it. He sent a painful probing feeler out into space, to the spot where Nagor and the others waited for his report.
"Riuku? Is that you?"
"Yes. I've got a contact. A girl. But I haven't learned anything yet that can help us."
"Louder, Riuku. I can hardly hear you...."
Alice Hendricks stirred in her sleep. The dream images slipped through her subconscious, almost waking her, beating against Riuku.
Pete, baby, you shouldn't be like that....
Riuku cursed the bisexual species in their own language.
"Riuku!" Nagor's call was harsh, urgent. "You've got to find out. We haven't much time. We lost three more ships today, and there wasn't a sign of danger. No Earthman nearby, no force fields, nothing. You've got to find out why." Those ships just disappeared.
Riuku forced his way up through the erotic dreams of Alice Hendricks. "I know a little," he said. "They damp their thought waves somehow, and keep us from spotting the Corcoran field."
"Corcoran field? What's that?"
"I don't know." Alice's thoughts washed over him, pulling him back into complete integration, away from Nagor, into a medley of heroic Petes with gleaming eyes and clutching hands and good little Alices pushing them away--for the moment.
"But surely you can find out through the girl," Nagor insisted from far away, almost out of phase altogether.
"No, Pete!" Alice Hendricks said aloud.
"Riuku, you're the only one of us with any possible sort of contact. You've got to find out, if we're to stay here at all."
"Well," Alice Hendricks thought, "maybe...."
Riuku cursed her again, in the lingua franca of a dozen systems. Nagor's voice faded. Riuku switched back to English.
Saturday. Into the plant at 3:58. Jean's diamond again.... Wish it would choke her; she's got a horsey enough face for it to. Where's old Liverlips? Don't see him around. Might as well go to the restroom for a while....
That's it, Riuku thought. Get her over past the machine shop, over by that Restricted Area. There must be something there we can go on....
"Hello, Tommy," Alice Hendricks said. "How's the love life?"
"It could be better if someone I know would, uh, cooperate...."
She looked past him, toward the corner where the big panels were with all the dials and the meters and the chart that was almost like the kind they drew pictures of earthquakes on. What was it for, anyway? And why couldn't anyone go over to it except those longhairs? High voltage her foot....
"What're you looking at, Alice?" Tommy said.
"Oh, that." She pointed. "Wonder what it's for? It doesn't look like much of anything, really."
"I wouldn't know. I've got something better to look at."
Compared to Pete, he didn't have anything, not anything at all.
... Pete. Gee, he must have got home awful late last night. Wonder what Susan said to him. Why does he keep taking her lip, anyway?
Riuku waited. He prodded. He understood the Restricted Area as she understood it--which was not at all. He found out some things about the 731 plugs--that a lot of them were real crummy ones the fool day shift girls had set up wrong, and besides she'd rather solder on the 717's any day. He got her talking about the weapon again, and he found out what the other girls thought about it.