"No, sir. We can read only the simplest of the Masters' records. They arranged our brains that way, sir."
"I know. They're the type. However, I suspect now that your thinking is reversed. Let's turn it around. Say the Masters didn't come from Terra, but from some other planet. Say that they left here because they were dying out. They were, weren't they?"
"Yes, sir. Their numbers became fewer and fewer each century."
"I was sure of it. They were committing race suicide by letting you Omans do everything they themselves should have been doing. Finally they saw the truth. In a desperate effort to save their race they pulled out, leaving you here. Probably they intended to come back when they had bred enough guts back into themselves to set you Omans down where you belong...."
"But they were always the Masters, sir!"
"They were not! They were hopelessly enslaved. Think it over. Anyway, say they went to Terra from here. That still accounts for the legends and so on. However, they were too far gone to make a recovery, and yet they had enough fixity of purpose not to manufacture any of you Omans there. So their descendants went a long way down the scale before they began to work back up. Does that make sense to you?"
"It explains many things, sir. It can very well be the truth."
"Okay. However it was, we're here, and facing a condition that isn't funny. While we were teamed up I learned a lot, but not nearly enough. Am I right in thinking that I now don't need the other seven at all--that my cells are fully charged and I can go it alone?"
"Probably, sir, but ..."
"I'm coming to that. Every time I do it--up to maximum performance, of course--it comes easier and faster and hits harder. So next time, or maybe the fourth or fifth time, it'll kill me. And the other seven, too, if they're along."
"I'm not sure, sir, but I think so."
"Nice. Very, very nice." Hilton got up, shoved both hands into his pockets, and prowled about the room. "But can't the damned stuff be controlled? Choked--throttled down--damped--muzzled, some way or other?"
"We do not know of any way, sir. The Masters were always working toward more power, not less."
"That makes sense. The more power the better, as long as you can handle it. But I can't handle this. And neither can the team. So how about organizing another team, one that hasn't got quite so much whammo? Enough punch to do the job, but not enough to backfire that way?"
"It is highly improbable that such a team is possible, sir." If an Oman could be acutely embarrassed, Larry was. "That is, sir ... I should tell you, sir ..."
"You certainly should. You've been stalling all along, and now you're stalled. Spill it."
"Yes, sir. The Tuly begged me not to mention it, but I must. When it organized your team it had no idea of what it was really going to do...."
"Let's talk the same language, shall we? Say 'he' and 'she.' Not 'it.'"
"She thought she was setting up the peyondix, the same as all of us Omans have. But after she formed in your mind the peyondix matrix, your mind went on of itself to form a something else; a thing we can not understand. That was why she was so extremely ... I think 'frightened' might be your term."
"I knew something was biting her. Why?"
"Because it very nearly killed you. You perhaps have not considered the effect upon us all if any Oman, however unintentionally, should kill a Master?"
"No, I hadn't ... I see. So she won't play with fire any more, and none of the rest of you can?"
"Yes, sir. Nothing could force her to. If she could be so coerced we would destroy her brain before she could act. That brain, as you know, is imperfect, or she could not have done what she did. It should have been destroyed long since."
"Don't ever act on that assumption, Larry." Hilton thought for minutes. "Simple peyondix, such as yours, is not enough to read the Masters' records. If I'd had three brain cells working I'd've tried them then. I wonder if I could read them?"
"You have all the old Masters' powers and more. But you must not assemble them again, sir. It would mean death."
"But I've got to know.... I've got to know! Anyway, a thousandth of a second would be enough. I don't think that'd hurt me very much."
He concentrated--read a few feet of top-secret braided wire--and came back to consciousness in the sickbay of the Perseus, with two doctors working on him; Hastings, the top Navy medico, and Flandres, the surgeon.
"What the hell happened to you?" Flandres demanded. "Were you trying to kill yourself?"
"And if so, how?" Hastings wanted to know.
"No, I was trying not to," Hilton said, weakly, "and I guess I didn't much more than succeed."
"That was just about the closest shave I ever saw a man come through. Whatever it was, don't do it again."
"I won't," he promised, feelingly.
When they let him out of the hospital, four days later, he called in Larry and Tuly.
"The next time would be the last time. So there won't be any," he told them. "But just how sure are you that some other of our boys or girls may not have just enough of whatever it takes to do the job? Enough oompa, but not too much?"
"Since we, too, are on strange ground the probability is vanishingly small. We have been making inquiries, however, and scanning. You were selected from all the minds of Terra as the one having the widest vision, the greatest scope, the most comprehensive grasp. The ablest at synthesis and correlation and so on."
"That's printing it in big letters, but that was more or less what they were after."
"Hence the probability approaches unity that any more such ignorant meddling as this obnoxious Tuly did well result almost certainly in failure and death. Therefore we can not and will not meddle again."
"You've got a point there.... So what I am is some kind of a freak. Maybe a kind of super-Master and maybe something altogether different. Maybe duplicable in a less lethal fashion, and maybe not. Veree helpful--I don't think. But I don't want to kill anybody, either ... especially if it wouldn't do any good. But we've got to do something!" Hilton scowled in thought for minutes. "But an Oman brain could take it. As you told us, Tuly, 'The brain of the Larry is very, very tough.'"
"In a way, sir. Except that the Masters were very careful to make it physically impossible for any Oman to go very far along that line. It was only their oversight of my one imperfect brain that enabled me, alone of us all, to do that wrong."
"Stop thinking it was wrong, Tuly. I'm mighty glad you did. But I wasn't thinking of any regular Oman brain...." Hilton's voice petered out.
"I see, sir. Yes, we can, by using your brain as Guide, reproduce it in an Oman body. You would then have the powers and most of the qualities of both ..."
"No, you don't see, because I've got my screen on. Which I will now take off--" he suited action to word--"since the whole planet's screened and I have nothing to hide from you. Teddy Blake and I both thought of that, but we'll consider it only as the ultimately last resort. We don't want to live a million years. And we want our race to keep on developing. But you folks can replace carbon-based molecules with silicon-based ones just as easily as, and a hell of a lot faster than, mineral water petrifies wood. What can you do along the line of rebuilding me that way? And if you can do any such conversion, what would happen? Would I live at all? And if so, how long? How would I live? What would I live on? All that kind of stuff."
"Shortly before they left, two of the Masters did some work on that very thing. Tuly and I converted them, sir."
"Fine--or is it? How did it work out?"
"Perfectly, sir ... except that they destroyed themselves. It was thought that they wearied of existence."
"I don't wonder. Well, if it comes to that, I can do the same. You can convert me, then."
"Yes, sir. But before we do it we must do enough preliminary work to be sure that you will not be harmed in any way. Also, there will be many more changes involved than simple substitution."
"Of course. I realize that. Just see what you can do, please, and let me know."
"We will, sir, and thank you very much."
As has been intimated, no Terran can know what researches Larry and Tuly and the other Oman specialists performed, or how they arrived at the conclusions they reached. However, in less than a week Larry reported to Hilton.
"It can be done, sir, with complete safety. And you will live even more comfortably than you do now."
"The mean will be about five thousand Oman years--you don't know that an Oman year is equal to one point two nine three plus Terran years?"
"I didn't, no. Thanks."
"The maximum, a little less than six thousand. The minimum, a little over four thousand. I'm very sorry we had no data upon which to base a closer estimate."
"Close enough." He stared at the Oman. "You could also convert my wife?"
"Of course, sir."
"Well, we might be able to stand it, after we got used to the idea. Minimum, over five thousand Terran years ... barring accidents, of course?"
"No, sir. No accidents. Nothing will be able to kill you, except by total destruction of the brain. And even then, sir, there will be the pattern."
"I'll ... be ... damned...." Hilton gulped twice. "Okay, go ahead."
"Your skins will be like ours, energy-absorbers. Your 'blood' will carry charges of energy instead of oxygen. Thus, you may breathe or not, as you please. Unless you wish otherwise, we will continue the breathing function. It would scarcely be worth while to alter the automatic mechanisms that now control it. And you will wish at times to speak. You will still enjoy eating and drinking, although everything ingested will be eliminated, as at present, as waste."
"We'd add uranexite to our food, I suppose. Or drink radioactives, or sleep under cobalt-60 lamps."
"Yes, sir. Your family life will be normal; your sexual urges and satisfactions the same. Fertilization and period of gestation unchanged. Your children will mature at the same ages as they do now."
"How do you--oh, I see. You wouldn't change any molecular linkages or configurations in the genes or chromosomes."
"We could not, sir, even if we wished. Such substitutions can be made only in exact one-for-one replacements. In the near future you will, of course, have to control births quite rigorously."
"We sure would. Let's see ... say we want a stationary population of a hundred million on our planet. Each couple to have two children, a boy and a girl. Born when the parents are about fifty ... um-m-m. The gals can have all the children they want, then, until our population is about a million; then slap on the limit of two kids per couple. Right?"
"Approximately so, sir. And after conversion you alone will be able to operate with the full power of your eight, without tiring. You will also, of course, be able to absorb almost instantaneously all the knowledges and abilities of the old Masters."
Hilton gulped twice before he could speak. "You wouldn't be holding anything else back, would you?"
"Nothing important, sir. Everything else is minor, and probably known to you."
"I doubt it. How long will the job take, and how much notice will you need?"
"Two days, sir. No notice. Everything is ready."
Hilton, face somber, thought for minutes. "The more I think of it the less I like it. But it seems to be a forced put ... and Temple will blow sky high ... and have I got the guts to go it alone, even if she'd let me...." He shrugged himself out of the black mood. "I'll look her up and let you know, Larry."
He looked her up and told her everything. Told her bluntly; starkly; drawing the full picture in jet black, with very little white.
"There it is, sweetheart. The works," he concluded. "We are not going to have ten years; we may not have ten months. So--if such a brain as that can be had, do we or do we not have to have it? I'm putting it squarely up to you."
Temple's face, which had been getting paler and paler, was now as nearly colorless as it could become; the sickly yellow of her skin's light tan unbacked by any flush of red blood.
Her whole body was tense and strained.
"There's a horrible snapper on that question.... Can't I do it? Or anybody else except you?"
"No. Anyway, whose job is it, sweetheart?"
"I know, but ... but I know just how close Tuly came to killing you. And that wasn't anything compared to such a radical transformation as this. I'm afraid it'll kill you, darling. And I just simply couldn't stand it!"
She threw herself into his arms, and he comforted her in the ages-old fashion of man with maid.
"Steady, hon," he said, as soon as he could lift her tear-streaked face from his shoulder. "I'll live through it. I thought you were getting the howling howpers about having to live for six thousand years and never getting back to Terra except for a Q strictly T visit now and then."
She pulled away from him, flung back her wheaten mop and glared. "So that's what you thought! What do I care how long I live, or how, or where, as long as it's with you? But what makes you think we can possibly live through such a horrible conversion as that?"
"Larry wouldn't do it if there was any question whatever. He didn't say it would be painless. But he did say I'd live."
"Well, he knows, I guess ... I hope." Temple's natural fine color began to come back. "But it's understood that just the second you come out of the vat, I go right in."
"I hadn't ought to let you, of course. But I don't think I could take it alone."
That statement required a special type of conference, which consumed some little time. Eventually, however, Temple answered it in words.
"Of course you couldn't, sweetheart, and I wouldn't let you, even if you could."
There were a few things that had to be done before those two secret conversions could be made. There was the matter of the wedding, which was now to be in quadruplicate. Arrangements had to be made so that eight Big Wheels of the Project could all be away on honeymoon at once.
All these things were done.
Of the conversion operations themselves, nothing more need be said. The honeymooners, having left ship and town on a Friday afternoon, came back one week from the following Monday morning. The eight met joyously in Bachelors' Hall; the girls kissing each other and the men indiscriminately and enthusiastically; the men cooperating zestfully.
 While it took some time to recompute the exact Ardrian calendar, Terran day names and Terran weeks were used from the first. The Omans manufactured watches, clocks, and chronometers which divided the Ardrian day into twenty-four Ardrian hours, with minutes and seconds as usual.
Temple scarcely blushed at all, she was so engrossed in trying to find out whether or not anyone was noticing any change. No one seemed to notice anything out of the ordinary. So, finally, she asked.
"Don't any of you, really, see anything different?"
The six others all howled at that, and Sandra, between giggles and snorts, said: "No, precious, it doesn't show a bit. Did you really think it would?"