It appeared to have been an expression of definite assent....
The dreamlike sensation increased, hazing over Telzey's thoughts. If there was nothing to this mind-communication thing, what harm could symbols do? This time, she wouldn't let them alarm her. And if they did mean something....
She closed her eyes.
The sunglow outside faded instantly. Telzey caught a fleeting picture of the door in the wall, and knew in the same moment that she'd already passed through it.
She was not in the dark room then, but poised at the edge of a brightness which seemed featureless and without limit, spread out around her with a feeling-tone like "sea" or "sky." But it was an unquiet place. There was a sense of unseen things on all sides watching her and waiting.
Was this another form of the dark room--a trap set up in her mind? Telzey's attention did a quick shift. She was seated in the grass again; the sunlight beyond her closed eyelids seemed to shine in quietly through rose-tinted curtains. Cautiously, she let her awareness return to the bright area; and it was still there. She had a moment of excited elation. She was controlling this! And why not, she asked herself. These things were happening in her mind, after all!
She would find out what they seemed to mean; but she would be in no rush to....
An impression as if, behind her, Tick-Tock had thought, "Now I can help again!"
Then a feeling of being swept swiftly, irresistibly forwards, thrust out and down. The brightness exploded in thundering colors around her. In fright, she made the effort to snap her eyes open, to be back in the garden; but now she couldn't make it work. The colors continued to roar about her, like a confusion of excited, laughing, triumphant voices. Telzey felt caught in the middle of it all, suspended in invisible spider webs. Tick-Tock seemed to be somewhere nearby, looking on. Faithless, treacherous TT!
Telzey's mind made another wrenching effort, and there was a change. She hadn't got back into the garden, but the noisy, swirling colors were gone and she had the feeling of reading a rapidly moving microtape now, though she didn't actually see the tape.
The tape, she realized, was another symbol for what was happening, a symbol easier for her to understand. There were voices, or what might be voices, around her; on the invisible tape she seemed to be reading what they said.
A number of speakers, apparently involved in a fast, hot argument about what to do with her. Impressions flashed past....
Why waste time with her? It was clear that kitten-talk was all she was capable of!... Not necessarily; that was a normal first step. Give her a little time!... But what--exasperatedly--could such a small-bite possibly know that would be of significant value?
There was a slow, blurred, awkward-seeming interruption. Its content was not comprehensible to Telzey at all, but in some unmistakable manner it was defined as Tick-Tock's thought.
A pause as the circle of speakers stopped to consider whatever TT had thrown into the debate.
Then another impression ... one that sent a shock of fear through Telzey as it rose heavily into her awareness. Its sheer intensity momentarily displaced the tape-reading symbolism. A savage voice seemed to rumble: "Toss the tender small-bite to me"--malevolent crimson eyes fixed on Telzey from somewhere not far away--"and let's be done here!"
Startled, stammering protest from Tick-Tock, accompanied by gusts of laughter from the circle. Great sense of humor these characters had, Telzey thought bitterly. That crimson-eyed thing wasn't joking at all!
More laughter as the circle caught her thought. Then a kind of majority opinion found sudden expression: "Small-bite is learning! No harm to wait--We'll find out quickly--Let's...."
The tape ended; the voices faded; the colors went blank. In whatever jumbled-up form she'd been getting the impressions at that point--Telzey couldn't have begun to describe it--the whole thing suddenly stopped.
She found herself sitting in the grass, shaky, scared, eyes open. Tick-Tock stood beside the terrace, looking at her. An air of hazy unreality still hung about the garden.
She might have flipped! She didn't think so; but it certainly seemed possible! Otherwise ... Telzey made an attempt to sort over what had happened.
Something had been in the garden! Something had been inside her mind. Something that was at home on Jontarou.
There'd been a feeling of perhaps fifty or sixty of these ... well, beings. Alarming beings! Reckless, wild, hard ... and that red-eyed nightmare! Telzey shuddered.
They'd contacted Tick-Tock first, during the night. TT understood them better than she could. Why? Telzey found no immediate answer.
Then Tick-Tock had tricked her into letting her mind be invaded by these beings. There must have been a very definite reason for that.
She looked over at Tick-Tock. TT looked back. Nothing stirred in Telzey's thoughts. Between them there was still no direct communication.
Then how had the beings been able to get through to her?
Telzey wrinkled her nose. Assuming this was real, it seemed clear that the game of symbols she'd made up between herself and TT had provided the opening. Her whole experience just now had been in the form of symbols, translating whatever occurred into something she could consciously grasp.
"Kitten-talk" was how the beings referred to the use of symbols; they seemed contemptuous of it. Never mind, Telzey told herself; they'd agreed she was learning.
The air over the grass appeared to flicker. Again she had the impression of reading words off a quickly moving, not quite visible tape.
"You're being taught and you're learning," was what she seemed to read. "The question was whether you were capable of partial understanding as your friend insisted. Since you were, everything else that can be done will be accomplished very quickly."
A pause, then with a touch of approval, "You're a well-formed mind, small-bite! Odd and with incomprehensibilities, but well-formed--"
One of the beings, and a fairly friendly one--at least not unfriendly. Telzey framed a tentative mental question. "Who are you?"
"You'll know very soon." The flickering ended; she realized she and the question had been dismissed for the moment. She looked over at Tick-Tock again.
"Can't you talk to me now, TT?" she asked silently.
A feeling of hesitation.
"Kitten-talk!" was the impression that formed itself with difficulty then. It was awkward, searching; but it came unquestionably from TT. "Still learning too, Telzey!" TT seemed half anxious, half angry. "We--"
A sharp buzz-note reached Telzey's ears, wiping out the groping thought-impression. She jumped a little, glanced down. Her wrist-talker was signaling. For a moment, she seemed poised uncertainly between a world where unseen, dangerous-sounding beings referred to one as small-bite and where TT was learning to talk, and the familiar other world where wrist-communicators buzzed periodically in a matter-of-fact manner. Settling back into the more familiar world, she switched on the talker.
"Yes?" she said. Her voice sounded husky.
"Telzey, dear," Halet murmured honey-sweet from the talker, "would you come back into the house, please? The living room--We have a visitor who very much wants to meet you."
Telzey hesitated, eyes narrowing. Halet's visitor wanted to meet her?
"Why?" she asked.
"He has something very interesting to tell you, dear." The edge of triumphant malice showed for an instant, vanished in murmuring sweetness again. "So please hurry!"
"All right." Telzey stood up. "I'm coming."
"Fine, dear!" The talker went dead.
Telzey switched off the instrument, noticed that Tick-Tock had chosen to disappear meanwhile.
Flipped? She wondered, starting up towards the house. It was clear Aunt Halet had prepared some unpleasant surprise to spring on her, which was hardly more than normal behavior for Halet. The other business? She couldn't be certain of anything there. Leaving out TT's strange actions--which might have a number of causes, after all--that entire string of events could have been created inside her head. There was no contradictory evidence so far.
But it could do no harm to take what seemed to have happened at face value. Some pretty grim event might be shaping up, in a very real way, around here....
"You reason logically!" The impression now was of a voice speaking to her, a voice that made no audible sound. It was the same being who'd addressed her a minute or two ago.
The two worlds between which Telzey had felt suspended seemed to glide slowly together and become one.
"I go to Law school," she explained to the being, almost absently.
Amused agreement. "So we heard."
"What do you want of me?" Telzey inquired.
"You'll know soon enough."
"Why not tell me now?" Telzey urged. It seemed about to dismiss her again.
Quick impatience flared at her. "Kitten-pictures! Kitten-thoughts! Kitten-talk! Too slow, too slow! YOUR pictures--too much YOU! Wait till the...."
Circuits close ... channels open.... Obstructions clear? What had it said? There'd been only the blurred image of a finicky, delicate, but perfectly normal technical operation of some kind.
"... Minutes now!" the voice concluded. A pause, then another thought tossed carelessly at her. "This is more important to you, small-bite, than to us!" The voice impression ended as sharply as if a communicator had snapped off.
Not too friendly! Telzey walked on towards the house, a new fear growing inside her ... a fear like the awareness of a storm gathered nearby, still quiet--deadly quiet, but ready to break.
"Kitten-pictures!" a voice seemed to jeer distantly, a whispering in the park trees beyond the garden wall.
Halet's cheeks were lightly pinked; her blue eyes sparkled. She looked downright stunning, which meant to anyone who knew her that the worst side of Halet's nature was champing at the bit again. On uninformed males it had a dazzling effect, however; and Telzey wasn't surprised to find their visitor wearing a tranced expression when she came into the living room. He was a tall, outdoorsy man with a tanned, bony face, a neatly trained black mustache, and a scar down one cheek which would have seemed dashing if it hadn't been for the stupefied look. Beside his chair stood a large, clumsy instrument which might have been some kind of telecamera.
Halet performed introductions. Their visitor was Dr. Droon, a zoologist. He had been tuned in on Telzey's newscast interview on the liner the night before, and wondered whether Telzey would care to discuss Tick-Tock with him.
"Frankly, no," Telzey said.
Dr. Droon came awake and gave Telzey a surprised look. Halet smiled easily.
"My niece doesn't intend to be discourteous, doctor," she explained.
"Of course not," the zoologist agreed doubtfully.
"It's just," Halet went on, "that Telzey is a little, oh, sensitive where Tick-Tock is concerned. In her own way, she's attached to the animal. Aren't you, dear?"
"Yes," Telzey said blandly.
"Well, we hope this isn't going to disturbed you too much, dear." Halet glanced significantly at Dr. Droon. "Dr. Droon, you must understand, is simply doing ... well, there is something very important he must tell you now."
Telzey transferred her gaze back to the zoologist. Dr. Droon cleared his throat. "I, ah, understand, Miss Amberdon, that you're unaware of what kind of creature your, ah, Tick-Tock is?"
Telzey started to speak, then checked herself, frowning. She had been about to state that she knew exactly what kind of creature TT was ... but she didn't, of course!
Or did she? She....
She scowled absent-mindedly at Dr. Droon, biting her lip.
"Telzey!" Halet prompted gently.
"Huh?" Telzey said. "Oh ... please go on, doctor!"
Dr. Droon steepled his fingers. "Well," he said, "she ... your pet ... is, ah, a young crest cat. Nearly full grown now, apparently, and--"
"Why, yes!" Telzey cried.
The zoologist looked at her. "You knew that--"
"Well, not really," Telzey admitted. "Or sort of." She laughed, her cheeks flushed. "This is the most ... go ahead please! Sorry I interrupted." She stared at the wall beyond Dr. Droon with a rapt expression.
The zoologist and Halet exchanged glances. Then Dr. Droon resumed cautiously. The crest cats, he said, were a species native to Jontarou. Their existence had been known for only eight years. The species appeared to have had a somewhat limited range--the Baluit mountains on the opposite side of the huge continent on which Port Nichay had been built....
Telzey barely heard him. A very curious thing was happening. For every sentence Dr. Droon uttered, a dozen other sentences appeared in her awareness. More accurately, it was as if an instantaneous smooth flow of information relevant to whatever he said arose continuously from what might have been almost her own memory, but wasn't. Within a minute or two, she knew more about the crest cats of Jontarou than Dr. Droon could have told her in hours ... much more than he'd ever known.
She realized suddenly that he'd stopped talking, that he had asked her a question. "Miss Amberdon?" he repeated now, with a note of uncertainty.
"Yar-rrr-REE!" Telzey told him softly. "I'll drink your blood!"
Telzey blinked, focused on Dr. Droon, wrenching her mind away from a splendid view of the misty-blue peaks of the Baluit range.
"Sorry," she said briskly. "Just a joke!" She smiled. "Now what were you saying?"
The zoologist looked at her in a rather odd manner for a moment. "I was inquiring," he said then, "whether you were familiar with the sporting rules established by the various hunting associations of the Hub in connection with the taking of game trophies?"
Telzey shook her head. "No, I never heard of them."
The rules, Dr. Droon explained, laid down the type of equipment ... weapons, spotting and tracking instruments, number of assistants, and so forth ... a sportsman could legitimately use in the pursuit of any specific type of game. "Before the end of the first year after their discovery," he went on, "the Baluit crest cats had been placed in the ultra-equipment class."
"What's ultra-equipment?" Telzey asked.
"Well," Dr. Droon said thoughtfully, "it doesn't quite involve the use of full battle armor ... not quite! And, of course, even with that classification the sporting principle of mutual accessibility must be observed."
"Mutual ... oh, I see!" Telzey paused as another wave of silent information rose into her awareness; went on, "So the game has to be able to get at the sportsman too, eh?"
"That's correct. Except in the pursuit of various classes of flying animals, a shikari would not, for example, be permitted the use of an aircar other than as means of simple transportation. Under these conditions, it was soon established that crest cats were being obtained by sportsmen who went after them at a rather consistent one-to-one ration."