"You through now?"
"Well, get up to the fortress. Alexander just flew in and he's calling a meeting. Something important has come up."
Something important! A wave of ice rattled down Kennon's spine, and then he grinned feebly. Alexander didn't know. He couldn't know. It had to be something else.
"I'll be right up," he said, marveling at the calmness in his voice.
Kennon couldn't help comparing this meeting with the one a year ago. The location was different -- the conference room in Alexandria was more formal than Blalok's parlor but the same people were present: Alexander, Blalok, Jordan, and himself. Somehow Alexander seemed to have shrunk. He was no longer as impressive as he had been. But the man still radiated force, even though it didn't seem quite so overpowering. The year, Kennon thought, had done much to build his self-confidence. He felt assured rather than nervous.
"Good to see you, Kennon," Alexander said. "Reports say you're doing a good job."
"I can't claim the credit," Kennon said. "Eighty-five per cent of our success is due to co-operation from the operating staff. And that's Blalok's doing -- he knocked the heads of the division managers together and they took care of their staffs. Otherwise we could have had a bad time."
"But you didn't," Alexander said. "And you were the motive force."
"I've darn near motivated myself out of a job," Kennon said. "They co-operate all too well nowadays."
"Which goes to prove that my theories on preventive medicine are right," Alexander said, turning to Blalok.
"It looks that way," Blalok admitted, "but that could be because you picked a good man."
"He's good in more ways than one," Alexander said. "Or did he tell you he saved Douglas's life out on Otpen One?"
"He's never said a word."
Alexander smiled. "Another point in his favor. He knows how to keep his mouth shut."
"Not when he's telling someone what to do about disease," Jordon interjected.
"Or telling someone off when they haven't followed directions,'' Blaiok added.
"Better and better. I was sure that he was the one we needed when we first met."
Kennon felt his ears turn flaming red.
"But that's not the reason I brought you here. This isn't a Jac Kennon admiration society. I called you because I want to expand the Lani breeding program."
"Why?" Jordan asked.
Blalok stiffened. "You know my feeling about that, sir. I've never liked the idea of selling them. If that's what's in your mind--"
Alexander shook his head. "Simmer down," he said, as he seated himself at the head of the table. "There's going to be no selling. The Lani are too valuable for that. We'll need them more than the money they'd bring on the market. You see -- I've acquired a planet out on the periphery. A place called Phoebe. One of our ships found it, and I staked a discovery claim on the major land mass, and the crew made lesser claims that covered all the available land. Last month the Brotherhood allowed the claims. Last week the crewmen sold me their land. Phoebe's a lovely place -- quite a bit like Flora -- and the ecological tests show it's capable of supporting mammalian life. Just before I came here I sent three shiploads of exterminators to clean it up and make it ready for us. It should be ready in two years."
"What sort of an ecology are you exterminating?" Jordan asked.
"Not that it makes any difference," Alexander said, "but it's mainly reptilian. Nothing over Group I. We'll restock with Floran animals."
Jordan sighed. "Since that's the way it is, it doesn't make any difference," he said. "But it could have. The Lani are sensitive to things like that. If they thought that they were walking in over a pile of bodies they'd do badly. It'd be like Olympus all over again. And we couldn't keep them from knowing. We talk and we forget, but they'd tell each other - and they'd remember."
"I know," Alexander said, "somehow they've never forgotten that Grandfather trapped the last of the Lani males on Olympus."
Jordan nodded. "They can't stand the place. That's why we had to abandon the station."
"Does this new world have a moon?" Kennon asked abruptly.
"Yes -- in fact it has two."
"No -- they're too small to hold air. But men could live there in domes -- but why do you? -- oh! I see! I hadn't considered that point." Alexander's hand darted to the phone beside him. "Get me Albertsville," he snapped. "Yes, my offices -- I want Mr. Oliver in purchasing and contracting. Hello -- Ward? Alexander here. Yes -- everything's fine. I have a job for you -- use your scrambler - pattern two." Alexander dialed the scrambler code on the second dial at the base of the phone, effectively preventing eavesdropping by beam tappers. "Yes," he went on. "It's Project Phoebe. Have you secured title to the moons? You haven't? Well -- you'd better do it before some of our competitors get bright ideas. Sure they know about the project -- do you think they're stupid? Warren over at Consolidated practically told me that he was onto our scheme. So get title to those moons. Since they're uninhabitable and within the planet's primary field they come under the Spatial Debris Act and you should be able to get Kardonian title without any great amount of trouble. Naturally we want them. -- For defense -- what else? We'll have most of our eggs in that basket. No -- I don't know how we overlooked that point. But if it wasn't for a bright young man out here we'd have left ourselves wide open. Now get cracking -- get that leak plugged!" Alexander dropped the phone back in its cradle and sighed. "Well -- that's buttoned up," he said. "Thanks, Kennon."
Kennon looked at Alexander's grinning face, his own impassive, but a shattering certainty exploded in his mind - Alexander was a telepath! That was his difference! That was the thing that made him feared and respected by his business associates. It wouldn't have been enough on the Central Worlds, where men knew of sensitives and took precautions against them. But out here on the periphery it was a deadly advantage.
"So I gave it away," Alexander said. "I suppose I was careless, but your thoughts about the moons shocked me."
"You practically told me once before, when you hired me," Kennon said, "but I never realized it."
"You were too excited then."
"I wouldn't know," Kennon said. "At any rate I didn't add the facts correctly." From somewhere deep in his memory an old quip came floating to the surface: "An executive is a man who picks brains -- others' brains." By that definition Alexander was an executive of the first class. Alexander chuckled.
Suddenly Kennon wanted to run. Panic flooded him! What had he been thinking about? Had he thought of -- two times two are four, four times four are sixteen, sixteen times sixteen are -- let's see, six times sixteen is ninety-six, one times sixteen is -- six, five, carry one -- two -- two hundred fifty-six. Two hundred fifty-six times-- "What's eating you?" Alexander demanded.
"I'm angry," Kennon said. "I told you the conditions I'd sign that contract, and you wrote a Peeper Clause into it. And then you peep in the worst way possible. There's no defense against a Telep unless you know about him; you've had my whole mind bare! You've violated my personal privacy like no man has done before. Sure I'm mad. I expected honesty from you -- and you peep!" The anger was stronger now -- a wave of raw emotion based on a lifetime of training in mutual respect of a man's privacy -- a feeling intensified by his childhood environment of a crowded planetary ecology and the cramped crew quarters on a spaceship. To Kennon, Alexander had committed the ultimate sin.
"I can see I made a mistake by not telling you," Alexander said. His voice was cold. "But you have no right to insult me."
"I'm not saying it, am I?" Kennon snapped. The moonflower on the bookcase behind Alexander was a thing of beauty. Alexander liked beauty. He had said so, and the Great Hall below them bore it out. It was a lovely room. Those four bronze Lani in the fountain were works of art. One of them looked remarkably like Copper. Copper in bronze. The little witch had probably posed for the casting. Maybe it had even been made from her body.
"They're all of Susy," Alexander said. "I can see why you are angry, and I don't blame you. But remember I warned you about Lani."
Copper -- Kennon wrenched his thoughts back to the moonflower. It had twelve petals, limpid white on the borders shading to deep blue in the center-from which the cream-colored stamen surrounded by transparent pistils sprang to burst into a golden glory of pollen that dripped in tiny yellow flecks to the broad petals below. It was a magnificent flower. There was nothing like it on Beta. That was a marvelous thing about flowers -- wherever one went in the universe, plants used the same methods to fertilize their seed and spread their germ plasm. It was too bad that -- Kennon jerked his attention to Alexander's face. He detested the thought that his mind was common property. A man should have something he can call his own. There had been a clinics instructor in Year Six who was a sensitive. The classes had protected themselves against his prying with a circlet -- a thought screen -- he had done it too. Maybe he had brought the circlet with him. If he did, no one was going to catch him without it. It was a dirty business, this reading of others' thought. Now where had he put that circlet? Was it among his old books -- or was it with his instruments?
"Why don't you go back to your house and find it?" Alexander snapped. "As you are, you're nothing but a disruption. I want you in on this meeting, but not the way you're acting."
"I'm not going to act any other way until I get some protection from peeping," Kennon said grimly. "And if you think this is bad wait till I start going through comparative anatomy.''
"What's the matter with you two?" Blalok asked.
"Be quiet," Alexander snapped. "This isn't your problem. Kennon is behaving like a spoiled child!"
"He's a telepath!" Kennon said. "And he didn't tell me."
"So what? I've known that for years."
"And you stand for it?"
"I'm a Mystic, not a Betan," Blalok said. "I don't have your insane desire for privacy."
"Go find that thought screen if you still have if!" Alexander said. "I don't want any more of this. You're making me ill!"
Kennon grinned thinly as he rose to his feet. It was a good thing he remembered Alexander was squeamish and didn't like anatomy. The door was to his left, an iris door with eight leaves -- terribly old-fashioned. About ten steps away. Count them -- one -- two -- three-- Alexander sighed as Kennon left the room. "I certainly pushed the panic button on that young man," he said. "He has a pathological attitude toward telepathy. Wonder what he has to hide that he wants privacy so badly? Even for a Betan this reaction was violent."
"Oh, I don't know. He's a pretty emotional sort. Maybe he hates to look like a fool. He's gotten himself mixed up with one of the Lani. Cute little thing by the name of Copper," Blalok said.
"Oh -- that's it. I thought that was what he was hiding. A picture of a girl kept popping up." Alexander chuckled. "I suppose that's the trouble. A man hardly likes to look a fool, particularly to someone who has warned him. At that, I don't blame him. They are beautiful and affectionate. And even with their superstitions and tabus they're better than most humans."
"For pets," Blalok said heavily.
"They're not better at anything," Jordan demurred. "They can't be -- man is the best and always will be."
"The eternal racial chauvinist," Alexander murmured. He turned his attention to Blalok. "But for awhile, Evald, I'd suggest you keep an eye on our young man. I still don't like his reaction. It was too violent -- too defensive. I don't feel right about it. Perhaps Betans are more sensitive than most people but it seems to me that he's trying to conceal something. There was an undertone of fear -- and something else -- beneath his defenses."
"Couldn't you get any more than that?" Blalok asked. "You're pretty good at this mind-reading business."
"His defenses were remarkably good," Alexander said dryly.
Well he'd done it now, Kennon thought. He found the thought-screen circlet sandwiched between two books on comparative neuroanatomy which he hadn't bothered to unpack. He slipped it on and connected the lead wires to a portable battery pack. There was a half-forgotten tingling as the weak field heterodyned his thought waves. Kennon sighed. If Alexander wasn't suspicious of him now the man was a fool. He'd done as well as he could with confusion and outrage, but it was hardly possible to hide behind superficialities. Even the most disciplined mind couldn't do that without some preparation. Undoubtedly his concern about Copper had leaked through. He could only hope that other and more important things had not.
Well -- he could go back to the conference now, but he would have to be doubly careful from now on. He couldn't make daily trips to Olympus. His reaction had killed that plan. Alexander would be suspicious now -- and unusual actions would crystallize suspicion to certainty. Now he needed a reason to be in that area. And then he grinned. He had a reason -- a good one -- one that would fit in with Alexander's plans and his own. The only problem would be to make Alexander buy it -- and that might be difficult. He'd have to work carefully -- but with normal luck he could put the idea across. He crossed his fingers as he trudged back up the path to Alexandria.
The conference dragged on. Unlike most meetings, this one accomplished things -- which was a tribute to Alexander's ability to keep the subject in hand. Details of the expansion program presented by Alexander were rapidly reduced to workable plans. They involved some rearrangement of existlng facilities, and the construction of others. But the obvious snags were rapidly disposed of, and the whole revamped operation was outlined on paper in surprisingly few hours. A deadline date was set, construction was authorized, and in the morning the first steps in the practical implementation of the new program would be taken.
"Well, that's that," Alexander said with a sigh. "I think this calls for a drink."
"There's one more thing," Kennon said. "I know it isn't much, but Jordan's remark started me thinking."
"What remark?" Jordan asked.
"The one you made at the beginning about Phoebe possibly being like the Olympus Station. I've often wondered why that particular location has been so difficult to operate. Sure, I know the accepted explanation, but I think we should learn why it works and how to break a tabu. If we don't, we might be in for trouble."
"That's a good thought," Alexander said. "I tried to find out once, but all I could discover was that it was tabu. The Lani simply didn't like it. And despite the fact that I can read minds, I didn't learn any more than that. There's a certain sex-linkage to telepathy, as you probably know."
"All I could discover was that their dislike of Olympus was a basic emotion rather than reasoned thought. They were nervous, irritable, disobedient, and uncooperative while they were there -- and even they didn't know why. It was merely tabu. We even tried youngsters -- but the attitude was the same. I'd like to know more about that basic emotion."
"We should understand it," Kennon agreed. "If we transship a large number of Lani to a strange world, we should know their deepest motivations. We cannot take the chance that the transplant won't take, with all the money you're sinking into this project."
"You have a point there. Have you any suggestions about how to accomplish this?" Alexander's voice was interested.
"I have. Hire a psychologist. And reopen Olympus."
"It'll be the same story," Jordan said.
"Not if you apply experimental procedure," Kennon said. "Divide the place into a number of separate units in which groups of -- say ten -- Lani of various ages are kept. Let every group know where they are, but don't let them come in contact with one another. Observe them constantly. Put spy cells in the units. Couple them to recorders. Prepare a set of test situations and observe how each group performs. Question individuals under narcosynthesis. Observe and record any changes in physical condition -- give them the works. Maybe we can collect some basic data that will indicate the answer."
"Not a bad idea," Alexander said.
"I don't like it," Jordan said. "It sounds cumbersome."
"It is," Kennon agreed. "But it may save a great deal of trouble later."
"I think you're right, Kennon," Blalok said. "We should know everything we can."
"What would you do first if you were heading this program?" Alexander asked. He eyed Kennon critically.
"Nothing," Kennon said promptly. "I'm not qualified to run an investigation like this. You need a specialist. I am a practitioner."
"Hmm -- but you know experimental procedure."
"Naturally -- but I do not have the training to prepare a program or evaluate its results. The only thing I could do would be to check the physical condition of the experimental groups."
"Could you set up the physical facilities?" Alexander asked.
"Possibly -- I'd need a set of plans of the station, and I couldn't guarantee that the specialist wouldn't want to make changes. But the physical arrangements should be simple enough to construct."
"How long would it take you to prepare a plan?"
"I could have it by tomorrow, or perhaps a day later."
"If you can do it by then I'll stay over. I'd like to examine this proposal more closely. It has merit. That's the second constructive suggestion you've made tonight. Despite your peculiar desire for privacy, I'm glad you came back." Alexander smiled.
Kennon smiled back. Apparently the entrepreneur had taken the bait. But it was too early to tell whether he had swallowed it without reservation. It all depended upon how much had been given away before he had discovered that Alexander was a telepath. Perhaps Alexander was merely leading him on. There were too many intangibles, and there was no way of predicting how it would turn out. But he felt mildly optimistic.
Alexander closed the meeting, and Kennon left promptly. He had a good excuse. There was plenty of work to do if he was going to prepare an adequate plan for utilizing Olympus Station. Jordan went with him, but Blalok stayed behind. It was natural enough. Blalok was the administrator, but Kennon felt uneasy. Nor would he have felt any better if he could have heard what went on after he left.
Alexander looked quizzically at Blalok after the door closed behind the two men.
"Well, Evald, what do you think? Does it strike you that Kennon's sincere -- or does it sound as though he has something up his sleeve?"
"If he does," Blalok said, "I don't know what it could be. I wouldn't take a job on Olympus if you gave it to me."
"If he doesn't know about the place," Alexander said thoughtfully, "it's probable that his suggestion was honest. I think it is but I'm not sure. He worries me now that I can't read him. I think I'll send Douglas back here to watch him."
"Why? In my book that'd be a poor choice. After all, you said Kennon saved his life. He should be grateful."
"You don't know Douglas," Alexander said. "He hates Kennon's guts for what he did."
"What did he do?"
"He made Douglas feel inferior. And there's no surer way to gain my cousin's undying enmity." Alexander laughed. "I know," he said. "He'd like to kill me, too."