Temple blushed furiously and Hilton came instantly to his bride's rescue. "Chip-chop the comedy, gang. She and I aren't human any more. We're a good jump toward being Omans. I couldn't make her believe it doesn't show."
That stopped the levity, cold, but none of the six could really believe it. However, after Hilton had coiled a twenty-penny spike into a perfect helix between his fingers, and especially after he and Temple had each chewed up and swallowed a piece of uranexite, there were no grounds left for doubt.
"That settles it ... it tears it," Karns said then. "Start all over again, Jarve. We'll listen, this time."
Hilton told the long story again, and added: "I had to re-work a couple of cells of Temple's brain, but now she can read and understand the records as well as I can. So I thought I'd take her place on Team One and let her boss the job on all the other teams. Okay?"
"So you don't want to let the rest of us in on it." Karns's level stare was a far cry from the way he had looked at his chief a moment before. "If there's any one thing in the universe I never had you figured for, it's a dog in the manger."
"Huh? You mean you actually want to be a ... a ... hell, we don't even know what we are!"
"I do want it, Jarvis. We all do." This was, of all people, Teddy! "No one in all history has had more than about fifty years of really productive thinking. And just the idea of having enough time ..."
"Hold it, Teddy. Use your brain. The Masters couldn't take it--they committed suicide. How do you figure we can do any better?"
"Because we'll use our brains!" she snapped. "They didn't. The Omans will serve us; and that's all they'll do."
"And do you think you'll be able to raise your children and grandchildren and so on to do the same? To have guts enough to resist the pull of such an ungodly habit-forming drug as this Oman service is?"
"I'm sure of it." She nodded positively. "And we'll run all applicants through a fine enough screen to--that is, if we ever consider anybody except our own BuSci people. And there's another reason." She grinned, got up, wriggled out of her coverall, and posed in bra and panties. "Look. I can keep most of this for five years. Quite a lot of it for ten. Then comes the struggle. What do you think I'd do for the ability, whenever it begins to get wrinkly or flabby, to peel the whole thing off and put on a brand-spanking-new smooth one? You name it, I'll do it! Besides, Bill and I will both just simply and cold-bloodedly murder you if you try to keep us out."
"Okay." Hilton looked at Temple; she looked at him; both looked at all the others. There was no revulsion at all. Nothing but eagerness.
Temple took over.
"I'm surprised. We're both surprised. You see, Jarve didn't want to do it at all, but he had to. I not only didn't want to, I was scared green and yellow at just the idea of it. But I had to, too, of course. We didn't think anybody would really want to. We thought we'd be left here alone. We still will be, I think, when you've thought it clear through, Teddy. You just haven't realized yet that we aren't even human any more. We're simply nothing but monsters!" Temple's voice became a wail.
"I've said my piece," Teddy said. "You tell 'em, Bill."
"Let me say something first," Kincaid said. "Temple, I'm ashamed of you. This line isn't at all your usual straight thinking. What you actually are is homo superior. Bill?"
"I can add one bit to that. I don't wonder that you were scared silly, Temple. Utterly new concept and you went into it stone cold. But now we see the finished product and we like it. In fact, we drool."
"I'll say we're drooling," Sandra said. "I could do handstands and pinwheels with joy."
"Let's see you," Hilton said. "That we'd all get a kick out of."
"Not now--don't want to hold this up--but sometime I just will. Bev?"
"I'm for it--and how! And won't Bernadine be amazed," Beverly laughed gleefully, "at her wise-crack about the 'race to end all human races' coming true?"
"I'm in favor of it, too, one hundred per cent," Poynter said. "Has it occurred to you, Jarve, that this opens up intergalactic exploration? No supplies to carry and plenty of time and fuel?"
"No, it hadn't. You've got a point there, Frank. That might take a little of the curse off of it, at that."
"When some of our kids get to be twenty years old or so and get married, I'm going to take a crew of them to Andromeda. We'll arrange, then, to extend our honeymoons another week," Hilton said. "What will our policy be? Keep it dark for a while with just us eight, or spread it to the rest?"
"Spread it, I'd say," Kincaid said.
"We can't keep it secret, anyway," Teddy argued. "Since Larry and Tuly were in on the whole deal, every Oman on the planet knows all about it. Somebody is going to ask questions, and Omans always answer questions and always tell the truth."
"Questions have already been asked and answered," Larry said, going to the door and opening it.
Stella rushed in. "We've been hearing the damnedest things!" She kissed everybody, ending with Hilton, whom she seized by both shoulders. "Is it actually true, boss, that you can fix me up so I'll live practically forever and can eat more than eleven calories a day without getting fat as a pig? Candy, ice cream, cake, pie, eclairs, cream puffs, French pastries, sugar and gobs of thick cream in my coffee...?"
Half a dozen others, including the van der Moen twins, came in. Beverly emitted a shriek of joy. "Bernadine! The mother of the race to end all human races!"
"You whistled it, birdie!" Bernadine caroled. "I'm going to have ten or twelve, each one weirder than all the others. I told you I was a prophet--I'm going to hang out my shingle. Wholesale and retail prophecy; special rates for large parties." Her voice was drowned out in a general clamor.
"Hold it, everybody!" Hilton yelled. "Chip-chop it! Quit it!" Then, as the noise subsided, "If you think I'm going to tell this tall tale over and over again for the next two weeks you're all crazy. So shut down the plant and get everybody out here."
"Not everybody, Jarve!" Temple snapped. "We don't want scum, and there's some of that, even in BuSci."
"You're so right. Who, then?"
"The rest of the heads and assistants, of course ... and all the lab girls and their husbands and boy-friends. I know they are all okay. That will be enough for now, don't you think?"
"I do think;" and the indicated others were sent for; and in a few minutes arrived.
The Omans brought chairs and Hilton stood on a table. He spoke for ten minutes. Then: "Before you decide whether you want to or not, think it over very carefully, because it's a one-way street. Fluorine can not be displaced. Once in, you're stuck for life. There is no way back. I've told you all the drawbacks and disadvantages I know of, but there may be a lot more that I haven't thought of yet. So think it over for a few days and when each of you has definitely made up his or her mind, let me know." He jumped down off the table.
His listeners, however, did not need days, or even seconds, to decide. Before Hilton's feet hit the floor there was a yell of unanimous approval.
He looked at his wife. "Do you suppose we're nuts?"
"Uh-uh. Not a bit. Alex was right. I'm going to just love it!" She hugged his elbow ecstatically. "So are you, darling, as soon as you stop looking at only the black side."
"You know ... you could be right?" For the first time since the "ghastly" transformation Hilton saw that there really was a bright side and began to study it. "With most of BuSci--and part of the Navy, and selectees from Terra--it will be slightly terrific, at that!"
"And that 'habit-forming-drug' objection isn't insuperable, darling," Temple said. "If the younger generations start weakening we'll fix the Omans. I wouldn't want to wipe them out entirely, but ..."
"But how do we settle priority, Doctor Hilton?" a girl called out; a tall, striking, brunette laboratory technician whose name Hilton needed a second to recall. "By pulling straws or hair? Or by shooting dice or each other or what?"
"Thanks, Betty, you've got a point. Sandy Cummings and department heads first, then assistants. Then you girls, in alphabetical order, each with her own husband or fiance."
"And my name is Ames. Oh, goody!"
"Larry, please tell them to ..."
"I already have, sir. We are set up to handle four at once."
"Good boy. So scat, all of you, and get back to work--except Sandy, Bill, Alex, and Teddy. You four go with Larry."
Since the new sense was not peyondix, Hilton had started calling it "perception" and the others adopted the term as a matter of course. Hilton could use that sense for what seemed like years--and actually was whole minutes--at a time without fatigue or strain. He could not, however, nor could the Omans, give his tremendous power to anyone else.
As he had said, he could do a certain amount of reworking; but the amount of improvement possible to make depended entirely upon what there was to work on. Thus, Temple could cover about six hundred light-years. It developed later that the others of the Big Eight could cover from one hundred up to four hundred or so. The other department heads and assistants turned out to be still weaker, and not one of the rank and file ever became able to cover more than a single planet.
This sense was not exactly telepathy; at least not what Hilton had always thought telepathy would be. If anything, however, it was more. It was a lumping together of all five known human senses--and half a dozen unknown ones called, collectively, "intuition"--into one super-sense that was all-inclusive and all-informative. If he ever could learn exactly what it was and exactly what it did and how it did it ... but he'd better chip-chop the wool-gathering and get back onto the job.
The Stretts had licked the old Masters very easily, and intended to wipe out the Omans and the humans. They had no doubt at all as to their ability to do it. Maybe they could. If the Masters hadn't made some progress that the Omans didn't know about, they probably could. That was the first thing to find out. As soon as they'd been converted he'd call in all the experts and they'd go through the Masters' records like a dose of salts through a hillbilly schoolma'am.
At that point in Hilton's cogitations Sawtelle came in.
He had come down in his gig, to confer with Hilton as to the newly beefed-up fleet. Instead of being glum and pessimistic and foreboding, he was chipper and enthusiastic. They had rebuilt a thousand Oman ships. By combining Oman and Terran science, and adding everything the First Team had been able to reduce to practise, they had hyped up the power by a good fifteen per cent. Seven hundred of those ships, and all his men, were now arrayed in defense around Ardry. Three hundred, manned by Omans, were around Fuel Bin.
"Why?" Hilton asked. "It's Fuel Bin they've been attacking."
"Uh-uh. Minor objective," the captain demurred, positively. "The real attack will be here at you; the headquarters and the brains. Then Fuel Bin will be duck soup. But the thing that pleased me most is the control. Man, you never imagined such control! No admiral in history ever had such control of ten ships as I have of seven hundred. Those Omans spread orders so fast that I don't even finish thinking one and it's being executed. And no misunderstandings, no slips. For instance, this last batch--fifteen skeletons. Far out; they're getting cagy. I just thought 'Box 'em in and slug 'em' and--In! Across! Out! Socko! Pffft! Just like that and just that fast. None of 'em had time to light a beam. Nobody before ever even dreamed of such control!"
"That's great, and I like it ... and you're only a captain. How many ships can Five-Jet Admiral Gordon put into space?"
"That depends on what you call ships. Superdreadnoughts, Perseus class, six. First-line battleships, twenty-nine. Second-line, smaller and some pretty old, seventy-three. Counting everything armed that will hold air, something over two hundred."
"I thought it was something like that. How would you like to be Five-Jet Admiral Sawtelle of the Ardrian Navy?"
"I wouldn't. I'm Terran Navy. But you knew that and you know me. So--what's on your mind?"
Hilton told him. I ought to put this on a tape, he thought to himself, and broadcast it every hour on the hour.
"They took the old Masters like dynamiting fish in a barrel," he concluded, "and I'm damned afraid they're going to lick us unless we take a lot of big, fast steps. But the hell of it is that I can't tell you anything--not one single thing--about any part of it. There's simply no way at all of getting through to you without making you over into the same kind of a thing I am."
"Is that bad?" Sawtelle was used to making important decisions fast. "Let's get at it."
"Huh? Skipper, do you realize just what that means? If you think they'll let you resign, forget it. They'll crucify you--brand you as a traitor and God only knows what else."
"Right. How about you and your people?"
"Well, as civilians, it won't be as bad...."
"The hell it won't. Every man and woman that stays here will be posted forever as the blackest traitors old Terra ever disgraced herself by spawning."
"You've got a point there, at that. We'll all have to bring our relatives--the ones we think much of, at least--out here with us."
"Definitely. Now see what you can do about getting me run through your mill."
By exerting his authority, Hilton got Sawtelle put through the "Preservatory" in the second batch processed. Then, linking minds with the captain, he flashed their joint attention to the Hall of Records. Into the right room; into the right chest; along miles and miles of braided wire carrying some of the profoundest military secrets of the ancient Masters.
Then: "Now you know a little of it," Hilton said. "Maybe a thousandth of what we'll have to have before we can take the Stretts as they will have to be taken."
For seconds Sawtelle could not speak. Then: "My ... God. I see what you mean. You're right. No Omans can ever go to Terra; and no Terrans can ever come here except to stay forever."
The two then went out into space, to the flagship--which had been christened the Orion--and called in the six commanders.
"What is all this senseless idiocy we've been getting, Jarve?" Elliott demanded.
Hilton eyed all six with pretended disfavor. "You six guys are the hardest-headed bunch of skeptics that ever went unhung," he remarked, dispassionately. "So it wouldn't do any good to tell you anything--yet. The skipper and I will show you a thing first. Take her away, Skip."
The Orion shot away under interplanetary drive and for several hours Hilton and Sawtelle worked at re-wiring and practically rebuilding two devices that no one, Oman or human, had touched since the Perseus had landed on Ardry.
"What are you ... I don't understand what you are doing, sir," Larry said. For the first time since Hilton had known him, the Oman's mind was confused and unsure.
"I know you don't. This is a bit of top-secret Masters' stuff. Maybe, some day, we'll be able to re-work your brain to take it. But it won't be for some time."
The Orion hung in space, a couple of thousands of miles away from an asteroid which was perhaps a mile in average diameter. Hilton straightened up.
"Put Triple X Black filters on your plates and watch that asteroid." The commanders did so. "Ready?" he asked.
Hilton didn't move a muscle. Nothing actually moved. Nevertheless there was a motionlessly writhing and crawling distortion of the ship and everything in it, accompanied by a sensation that simply can not be described.
It was not like going into or emerging from the sub-ether. It was not even remotely like space-sickness or sea-sickness or free fall or anything else that any Terran had ever before experienced.
And the asteroid vanished.
It disappeared into an outrageously incandescent, furiously pyrotechnic, raveningly expanding atomic fireball that in seconds seemed to fill half of space.
After ages-long minutes of the most horrifyingly devastating fury any man there had ever seen, the frightful thing expired and Hilton said: "That was just a kind of a firecracker. Just a feeble imitation of the first-stage detonator for what we'll have to have to crack the Stretts' ground-based screens. If the skipper and I had taken time to take the ship down to the shops and really work it over we could have put on a show. Was this enough so you iron-heads are ready to listen with your ears open and your mouths shut?"
They were. So much so that not even Elliott opened his mouth to say yes. They merely nodded. Then again--for the last time, he hoped!--Hilton spoke his piece. The response was prompt and vigorous. Only Sam Bryant, one of Hilton's staunchest allies, showed any uncertainty at all.
"I've been married only a year and a half, and the baby was due about a month ago. How sure are you that you can make old Gordon sit still for us skimming the cream off of Terra to bring out here?"
"Doris Bryant, the cream of Terra!" Elliott gibed. "How modest our Samuel has become!"
"Well, damn it, she is!" Bryant insisted.
"Okay, she is," Hilton agreed. "But either we get our people or Terra doesn't get its uranexite. That'll work. In the remote contingency that it doesn't, there are still tighter screws we can put on. But you missed the main snapper, Sam. Suppose Doris doesn't want to live for five thousand years and is allergic to becoming a monster?"
"Huh; you don't need to worry about that." Sam brushed that argument aside with a wave of his hand. "Show me a girl who doesn't want to stay young and beautiful forever and I'll square you the circle. Come on. What's holding us up?"
The Orion hurtled through space back toward Ardry and Hilton, struck by a sudden thought, turned to the captain.
"Skipper, why wouldn't it be a smart idea to clamp a blockade onto Fuel Bin? Cut the Stretts' fuel supply?"