"Not at all. I should desire nothing more than to see the worlds of other suns, other places in the far paths of space. Yet...."
"Yet what? Have you a wife here, children?"
"No, not that. But I have possessions it cost me many years of effort to acquire."
Carna came silently into the room, stood on the other side of the queen. For an instant Wananda closed her eyes, and some subtle sense of my own told me they were talking with each other in a way I could not hear. Wananda opened her eyes, turned to me, smiling whimsically.
"Carna suggests that she will give your love to me in return for a certain favor."
"Do you want my love, Wananda?" I asked softly.
She did not stop smiling secretly to some sound she heard and I did not.
"You see, earthman, our race has never developed the morals and inhibitions which your people find so necessary. We are polygamous, and not apt to be jealous. She offers to give you to me as a royal husband in return for the privilege of being your slave, your housekeeper, your body-servant as it were. What do you say?"
I was stunned. So openly to be bargained over; frankly to be invited to marriage, to two women at the same time! Weakly I countered: "Your people would object to an alien consort!"
"The word is strange to me. Among us you would be a ruler if you married me. Among us all men have several wives. But women have but one husband."
"You are offering me the rule of the Schrees?"
"Yes, and if our coming war with the Jivro creatures turns out well, it will mean not one planet, but many. I cannot say how many, as some of those never allied with the Schrees before will naturally gravitate to us in gratitude for our releasing them from the Jivros. I am agreeable mainly because I know that we need your earth science, your different culture--as wedded to our own science we would be invincible. We will need everything finally to conquer the ancient ingrown tyranny of the Jivros. I am not offering you exactly any bed of roses. Besides, I like and trust Carna. I can understand why she loves you, and why she bargains for any part of you. She knows I have but to exert my own wisdom of Zoorph to release you from her hold on you."
"I see. Let me get this straight. You love me; it is agreeable to you that I continue to love Carna; but I will love you too. Two wives who love me, a kingdom, and the chance of knocking over a whole empire of insects who have parasitized human races in space and meant to do it here. There is no way I can refuse!"
"With two of us working your mind for you, how could you refuse?"
Wananda frowned at Carna's frankness.
"It is stated in the nineteenth law of Zoorph code that no victim is ever to be told of his enslavement openly, Carna. Why do you break the law?"
"I don't know, Wananda Highest. I think it is because I want to be fair to him, and give him a chance to do his own thinking, too."
"Our race has long been familiar with your so-called magic, dear ones. We call it hypnotism, and if you think I cannot resist it, remember that I shot the Old One with his eyes upon me."
Wananda suddenly set the big lever she held into a notch, turned to me, her face full of a charming surprise which I yet knew was an act.
"So you think you can resist your wives' wills, do you, earthman? Come, Carna, let us humble his boasts once and, for all!"
Their two lovely faces pressed cheek to cheek, the two pair of eyes bored into my own, and four quick slim hands gestured about my chin. A dizzy enervation swam into me as though I were bleeding to death, as though honey and whiskey were being poured down my throat, as though I had fallen suddenly onto a pink cloud of spun candy.
Visions of terrific pleasure began to hum in my head, my knees gradually gave way beneath me, until I was on my knees before the two women. My hands were unconsciously extended as if to fend them off, and each of them seized a hand, pulled me to the round bench at the back of the control cabin. They stroked my cheeks, began to murmur their "magical" phrases in their mysterious mystic secret words, and my wits began to float into a very genuine paradise where their two faces, side by side, became flower and fruit and tree and earth itself.
When I awoke from the dream into which they had sent me, Carna was seated beside me, nodding sleepily, her head on her chest, and Wananda had returned to the controls of the ship. As I looked at each of them, I found a new something had been added! I loved each of them equally well!
I sat up, stretching. Sometimes it is comforting to have problems decided for one. Now I did not have to go through any excruciating pangs of conscience or guilt or fight myself into a state of not wanting one or the other of them. They had just adjusted me to the situation mentally, and I felt that everything was perfect in the best of all possible marriages for me!
"Well, I'm getting hungry!" I cried, apropos of nothing except that I did feel pangs.
My Zoorph did not even get up. She reached out one hand to where a covered tray sat on the bench beside her, and handed it to me. I took off the lid, and on it were broiled chops, steaming deliciously baked beans, some kind of soft brown bread--fruit, a sweet perfumed wine.
"The master is hungry, Carna will provide!"
If I get cross-eyed as Jake Barto, it will be from trying to see two women at once.
Oh yes, I forgot to tell you that Nokomee became the prince's third wife. I wished her happiness. For me, two are enough!
By ALBERT TEICHNER
For thousands of years the big brain served as a master switchboard for the thoughts and emotions of humanity. Now the central mind was showing signs of decay ... and men went mad.
The trouble began in a seemingly trivial way. Connor had wanted to speak to Rhoda, his wife, wished himself onto a trunk line and then waited. "Dallas Shipping here, Mars and points Jupiterward, at your service," said a business-is-business, unwifely voice in his mind.
"I was not calling you," he thought back into the line, now also getting a picture, first flat, then properly 3-D and in color. It was a paraNormally luxurious commercial office.
"I am the receptionist at Dallas Shipping," the woman thought back firmly. "You rang and I answered."
"I'm sure I rang right," Connor insisted.
"And I'm sure I know my job," Dallas Shipping answered. "I have received as many as five hundred thought messages a day, some of them highly detailed and technical and--"
"Forget it," snapped Connor. "Let's say I focussed wrong."
He pulled back and twenty seconds later finally had Rhoda on the line. "Queerest thing happened," he projected. "I just got a wrong party."
"Nothing queer about it," his wife smiled, springing to warm life on his inner eye. "You just weren't concentrating, Connor."
"Don't you hand me that too," he grumbled. "I know I thought on the right line into Central. Haven't I been using the System for sixty years?"
"Exactly--all habit and no attention."
How smugly soothing she was some days! "I think the trouble's in Central itself. The Switcher isn't receiving me clearly."
"Lately I've had some peculiar miscalls myself," Rhoda said nervously. "But you can't blame Central Switching!"
"Oh, I didn't mean that!" By now he was equally nervous and only too happy to end the conversation. Ordinarily communications were not monitored but if this one had been there could certainly be a slander complaint.
On his way home in the monorail Connor tried to reach his office and had the frightening experience of having his telepathic call refused by Central. Then he refused in turn to accept a call being projected at him, but when an Urgent classification was added he had to take it. "For your unfounded slander of Central Switching's functioning," announced the mechanically-synthesized voice, "you are hereby Suspended indefinitely from the telepathic net. From this point on all paraNormal privileges are withdrawn and you will be able to communicate with your fellows only in person or by written message."
Stunned, Connor looked about at his fellow passengers. Most of them had their eyes closed and their faces showed the mild little smile which was the outer hallmark of a mind at rest, tuned in to a music channel or some other of the hundreds of entertainment lines available from Central. How much he had taken that for granted just a few minutes ago!
Three men, more shabbily dressed, were unsmilingly reading books. They were fellow pariahs, Suspended for one reason or another from paraNormal privileges. Only the dullest, lowest-paying jobs were available to them while anyone inside the System could have Central read any book and transmit the information directly into his cortex. The shabbiest one of all looked up and his sympathetic glance showed that he had instantly grasped Connor's changed situation.
Connor looked hastily away; he didn't want any sympathy from that kind of 'human' being! Then he shuddered. Wasn't he, himself, now that kind in every way except his ability to admit it?
When he stepped onto the lushly hydroponic platform at the suburban stop the paraNormals, ordinarily friendly, showed that they, too, already realized what had happened. Each pair of suddenly icy eyes went past him as if he were not there at all.
He walked up the turf-covered lane toward his house, feeling hopelessly defeated. How would he manage to maintain a home here in the middle of green and luxuriant beauty? More people than ever were now outside the System for one reason or another and most of these unfortunates were crowded in metropolitan centers which were slumhells to anyone who had known something better.
How could he have been so thoughtless because of a little lapse in Central's mechanism? Now that it was denied him, probably forever, he saw more clearly the essential perfection of the system that had brought order into the chaos following the discovery of universal paraNormal capacities. At first there had been endless interference between minds trying to reach each other while fighting off unwanted calls. Men had even suggested this blessing turned curse be annulled.
The Central Synaptic Computation Receptor and Transmitter System had ended all such negative thinking. For the past century and a half it had neatly routed telepathic transmissions with an efficiency that made ancient telephone exchanges look like Stone Age toys. A mind could instantly exchange information with any other Subscribing mind and still shut itself off through the Central machine if and when it needed privacy. Except, he shuddered once more, if Central put that Urgent rating on a call. Now only Rhoda could get a job to keep them from the inner slumlands.
He turned into his garden and watched Max, the robot, spading in the petunia bed. The chrysanthemums really needed more attention and he was going to think the order to Max when he realized with a new shock that all orders would have to be oral now. He gave up the idea of saying anything and stomped gloomily into the house.
As he hung his jacket in the hall closet he heard Rhoda coming downstairs. "Queer thing happened today," he said with forced cheerfulness, "but we'll manage." He stopped as Rhoda appeared. Her eyes were red and puffed.
"I tried to reach you," she sobbed.
"Oh, you already know. Well, we can manage, you know, honey. You can work two days a week and--"
"You don't understand," she screamed at him. "I'm Suspended too! I tried to tell it I hadn't done anything but it said I was guilty by being associated with you."
Stunned, he fell back into a chair. "Not you, too, darling!" He had been getting used to the idea of his own reduced status but this was too brutal. "Tell Central you'll leave me and the guilt will be gone."
"You fool, I did say that and my defense was refused!"
Tears welled in his eyes. Was there no bottom to this horror? "You yourself suggested that?"
"Why shouldn't I?" she cried. "It wasn't my fault at all."
He sat there and tried not to listen as waves of hate rolled over him. Then the front bell rang and Rhoda answered it.
"I haven't been able to reach you," someone was saying through the door. It was Sheila Williams who lived just down the lane. "Lately lines seem to get tied up more and more. It's about tonight's game."
Just then Rhoda opened the door and Sheila came to an abrupt halt as she saw her old friend's face. Her expression turned stony and she said, "I wanted you to know the game is off." Then she strode away.
Unbelieving, Rhoda watched her go. "After forty years!" she exclaimed. She slowly came back to her husband and stared down at him. "Forty years of 'undying' friendship, gone like that!" Her eyes softened a little. "Maybe I'm wrong, Connor, maybe I said too much through Central myself. And maybe I'd have acted like Sheila if they had been the ones."
He withdrew his hands from his face. "I've done the same thing to other wretches myself. We'll just have to get used to it somehow. I've enough social credits to hang on here a year anyway."
"Get used to it," she repeated dully. This time there was no denunciation but she had to flee up the stairs to be alone.
He went to the big bay window and, trying to keep his mind blank, watched Max re-spading the petunia bed. He really should go out and tell the robot to stop, he decided, otherwise the same work would be repeated again and again. But he just watched for the next hour as Max kept returning to the far end of the bed and working his way up to the window, nodding mindlessly with each neat twist of his spade attachment.
Rhoda came back downstairs and said, "It's six-thirty. The first time since the boys left that they didn't call us at six." He thought of Ted on Mars and Phil on Venus and sighed. "By now," she went on, "they know what's happened. Usually colonial children just refuse to have anything more to do with parents like us. And they're right--they have their own futures to consider."
"They'll still write to us," he started reassuring her but she had already gone outside where he could hear her giving Max vocal instructions for preparing dinner. Which was just as well--she would know the truth soon enough. Without a doubt the boys were now also guilty by association and they'd have nothing left to lose by maintaining contact.
At dinner, though, he felt less kindly toward her and snapped a few times. Then it was Rhoda's turn to exercise forebearance and to try to smooth things over. Once she looked out the picture window at the perfect synthetic thatch of the Williams' great cottage, peeping over the hollyhock-topped rise of ground at the end of the garden. "Well?" he demanded. "Well?"
"You sighed and I want to know what the devil--"
"Since you insist--I was thinking how lucky Sheila Williams always is. Ten years ago the government authorized twins for her while I haven't had a child in thirty years, and now our disaster forewarns her. She'll never get caught off guard on a paraNormal line."
He snapped his fingers and Max brought out the pudding in a softly shining silver bowl. Above it hovered a bluish halo of flaming brandy. "Maybe not. I've heard of people even being Suspended without a reason." He slowly savored the first spoonful as if it might be the last ever. From now on every privileged pleasure would have that special value. "One more year of such delights."
"If we can stand the ostracism."
"We can." Suddenly he was all angry determination. "I did the wrong thing today, admitted, but it really was the truth, what I said. I've concentrated right and still got wrong numbers!"
"Me too, but I kept thinking it was my own fault."
"The real truth's that while the System assumes more authority each decade it keeps getting less efficient."
"Well, why doesn't the government do something, get everything back in working order?"
His grin showed no pleasure. "Do you know anybody who could help repair a Master Central Computer?"
"Not personally but there must be--"
"Must be nothing! People are slack from having it so good, don't think as much as they used to. Why bother when you can tap Central for any information? Almost any information."
"How can it all end?"
"Who knows and who cares?" He was angry all over again. "It will still be working well enough for a few centuries and we, we're just left out in the cold! I'm only ninety, I can live another sixty years, and you, you're going to have a good seventy-five more of this deprivation."
Max was standing at the foot of the table, metal visual lids closed as he waited for instructions. Rhoda considered him unthinkingly, then snapped back to attention. "Nothing more, Max, go to the kitchen and disconnect until you hear from us."