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--"