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"If the Universe is full of advanced civilizations, where are they?"

"The trouble is," Gail "Lucky" Cross griped, "even after all this time marooned on this pest hole, I still haven't lost any weight!"

Jerry Nagel looked up at the sky. "I think you're gonna get the chance real soon. Looks like we're coming around the big planet and into the sunlight. If not today, then tomorrow for sure."

They had been dreading that moment since they'd been marooned on this hot, horrid Hell of a world. It was bad enough as it was.

The entire planet was an active volcanic zone, so far as they could tell. Every mountain, large and small, seemed to be slightly conical and had smoke rising either from the top or from fissures along the sides. Even the flat plains were nothing more than magma flows, recent and not so recent, with soft spots that could crack or invert or turn into pools of magma without notice. The air, heated partly from the proximity of the great gas giant that was a barely failed proto-sun, was further warmed by convection from the large number of hot spots. Since the environmental suits had been put away in case of severe emergency, there was no air conditioning or other comforts, either. The thermometer built into Jerry Nagel's watch said it was a comfy thirty-two degrees Celsius, and the perceived heat was much greater thanks to the tremendous and constant humidity that varied between ninety and a hundred percent. That it rained—a lot—was the only positive about the place. It cooled them off and drained some of the humidity from the air, at least for a short period.

There was also a constant haze: dust particles from the countless eruptions that went on around the planet in a near continuous cycle. They had small nasal dust filters in the survival kit, but it seemed like they were always getting clogged. Three, four hours and you had to wash them out and clean them. They at least allowed breathing, but they were all covered most of the time by fine chalky dust or, when it was wet, a light gray mud.

And yet they were surviving. The rainfall was easily captured and provided a steady supply of drinking and cooking water, and the lush vegetation on the oldest, thickest plains contained plants that proved to be almost made for them. The fruit, while not anything to write home about, was nourishing and had vitamins as well as sugars, starches, and fibers. Their kit told them they could live on it, and they'd been doing so.

There were creatures, both the flying and crawling kind, that served the purpose of insects to the plants, but they didn't seem to be in unmanageable numbers, nor did they seem to be on the prowl for some fresh human. In fact, the things tended to avoid them; either they lacked what the creatures needed or maybe they just smelled wrong.

Jerry Nagel was an engineer by trade. The red and purplish fronds provided huge surfaces for cover and seemed quite tough; other plants resembled bamboo and similar plants that could be depended upon for some structure. With help, he'd managed to fashion a couple of shelters, which allowed them to store the salvaged equipment and some spare materials, and which also provided shelter from the elements to an extent. After the shelters were up, they were able to keep some harvested wood dry, and Lucky Cross had fashioned a crude kiln from lava rock and the nearby fires. She'd already made some large amphora-like jars as well as small cups and trays. Water could be stored before it got fouled by the dust, and they could eat and drink off something other than lava rock.

They had made no attempt to contact or in any way even alert the neighbors that they were around. The nearest creature colony, stranded aliens like them—or the descendants of stranded aliens—was about fifteen kilometers away and they wanted to keep it that way. The things might well be smart, but something that had a giant sucker for a face and clawed appendages clearly designed for ripping and tearing by some violent evolution were not likely to be easy to talk to, and they did not want to become a new taste treat. The alien colony was oriented towards the ocean shore, not inland. For now that was all right with them.

Nagel saw Randi Queson sitting on a rock under a giant fern and thought she looked like a gnome or some other fairy creature from the old children's books. She had average looks and figure, and was putting on a little weight, as they all were with this heavy sugar and starch diet, but she could afford it.

Spacer crews generally took what the doctors called "lust abater" drugs subcutaneously to keep things from getting out of hand in the close quarters of interstellar space, but because people didn't want them to last forever, they tended to wear off after a set period of time, at which point they could be renewed if need be or let go. It was long past the six-month period since those last implants and, as the only man left alive out of the crew, marooned on a planet with three women, he could hardly hide that fact sometimes, but he tried. It wasn't like any of them could have kids; that was abated as a matter of course until undone by a medical science long out of reach somewhere in those vast starfields beyond. Not that any of them wanted kids, particularly on this hellhole, but it was certain that they weren't going to be like the holy commune over on Balshazzar. There would be no human colony on Melchior.

In a way, that made it a lot easier here. They were responsible only for themselves and each other, not anybody else, and the future was pretty much now.

He went over to Queson and sat beside her. "You've been thinking again," he kidded her in a mock scolding tone.

She smiled. "It's an occupational hazard."

"We don't have occupations anymore. We're castaways on a desert island with no hope of rescue. Food, shelter, little more, and always afraid the sucker-faced pirates will find us."

"You had a broader education than most engineers," she noted.

He shrugged. "Broader interests, maybe, or maybe just broad-minded parents. My mother was a literary historian who made hand-colored pottery in her spare time. Dad was a mathematician with a passion for playing the piano in an age when few even knew the term except as a digital sound. Both throwbacks. I think they met somewhere in the old Combine, maybe even on or near Old Earth, when he was trying to find a robotic program that could tune a piano and she was working in the library that day on the restoration of ancient live performances. She was actually an expert on children's literature in an age when nobody had to be literate any more and few were or are, I guess, so she got drafted for all sorts of shit like that."

She looked over at him. "That's interesting. I never knew that. Maybe we haven't all talked ourselves out yet. At least we haven't started killing each other. Truth is, I never paid much attention to that sort of thing before, but what I'd give for books and recordings and complinks now. My god I'm bored!"

He sighed. "Yeah, well, there isn't much to do here, that's for sure. I've been thinking, though, that it might be time to see if there was anything at all that we could do." He looked up at the always bright sky, now dominated by the gas giant. In a few hours, rotation would bring them back into the light of the great sun beyond and the temperature would rise to unbearable levels and they would have to seek shelter, shade, and whatever protection they could. He had worked out a system where they collected rainwater from the frequent, violent thunderstorms in rock basins, over which they'd built a thatch and leaf roof. In the worst of the heat they got into the pools and just stayed there until it was over. It wasn't great—often the water temperature was almost too hot to bear on its own—but, usually, it helped. The fact that there was always a breeze from either the inland or ocean sides helped, too. But you didn't live through midday on Melchior, you just survived it.

"Six more days and we'll be out of the sun," she noted. "At least it'll make things bearable."

"Uh-huh. For fifteen days. But it's still fifteen days of nothing much, just improving our area so we can survive the next fifteen days' exposure to the sun. I don't know about you, but I'm just not the type to live like this."

She looked up at the great gas giant that lit the huge moon even when it was away from the sun and shook her head. "At least the Reverend or whatever he is up there has something. Friendly aliens to learn from and about, a large mixed population, probably the books and entertainment we miss in his wrecked ship. Hell, we don't even have that. Just what we salvaged."

He paused a moment. "Well, I've been thinking about them. Particularly on the night side, when you can see them, almost think you can reach out to them, high in the night sky when Balshazzar approaches. They're farther out—it's hot as hell there, too, at midday, but I bet they have a better or more comfortable time. Maybe caves that aren't lava tubes that may or may not open up again at any moment."

"I've been thinking about those. They are cooler, and there are some that collect a fair amount of rainwater. We've seen two or three whoosh out, but most of them are long dead and plugged. Temperature's gotta be, what? Ten, fifteen degrees cooler in there at mid-sun? I'm willing to take the chance on that just to not have to turn into a boiled dinner for hours every day."

"We can move. I can't see any reason not to. Not now, anyway. If one of them did give way it would be a quick death, not a slow one like this. The Rev might not be trapped in heaven like it looked, but we're sure stuck in Hell."

"Li's claustrophobic," she reminded him. "That's the only problem."

Nagel shrugged. "I'm not sure we can do any good by making ourselves martyrs to our problem child. I keep thinking that, if the situation was reversed, the old An Li wouldn't have hesitated a minute if it was her comfort against somebody else's misfortune. She doesn't have to come if she can't hack it. We'll be back over here when it's a little cooler—like now."

"Yeah, can't be more than thirty-five Celsius," she commented. "Not like midday."

She was being facetious, but it wasn't far off the mark. They had some instruments salvaged from the shuttle before it went down in the lava and the midday sun at this latitude had reached as high as fifty degrees, enough to kill any of them if they were exposed for any length of time. Only the countless storms saved them at all.

"You're not just thinking of the lava tubes, are you?"

She shook her head slowly. "No, not really. Just a first step to doing something."

"You're thinking of Magi stones again, aren't you?"

She nodded. "I know, they're probably just a natural phenomenon, an emitter of some kind of radiation that causes hallucinations, but we've compared notes. Even in that horrible overdose, you, me, Lucky—we all had the same hallucinations. And even with the ones and twos, that sense of observing and being observed, of an intelligence out there, looking back at us, aware of us, but in a way that is alien, possible malevolent, possibly just indifferent or removed, like some Greek god looking down on a peasant village. I can't shake the idea that there's something more to them."

"They're definitely natural. We saw where they were formed."

"Yes, there were several such, but all localized, all seeming to extrude from the hard volcanic basalt. It was almost like . . . like they were being somehow manufactured in those spots. I know it's crazy, but I can't kick it. It's probably the heat and the hopelessness, but what the hell can I do?"

The sameness of the hallucinations had gotten to him as well, almost as if they either were one collective mind at that point or were all receiving the same very strong signal, a signal directly to the brain.

"But it destroyed Li's mind," he reminded her. "She's like a little child. Trusting, not thinking very much, just sort of existing. Almost like a lobotomy. Almost like everything that was there came out in that hallucinatory session and in that butchery of Sark. Little An Li, maybe forty, forty-five kilos, beating up and taking apart a man half again her height and more than twice her bulk."

"And she might do it again, if she got close to the stones."

He nodded. "I've always been afraid of that. I could take the old An Li coming back, but I'm scared of that monster that came out of her. I want to know it left her rather than went back into hiding."

"I think that monster's in all of us," Randi told him. "Except maybe no more in her. In all this time here I've seen no sign of any change. Have you?"

He shook his head. "No, none. Maybe that frenzy killed it, but it makes the point even more. If it's also inside you and me, what's to keep us from winding up letting it out, or letting it run away?"

She shrugged. "After a lot of thought, I've decided that it doesn't matter. If we can learn something by studying the stones, maybe use them, then great. If what was buried deeper in us than in her gets out and one of us dies, so what? Beats living endless years like this, at least to me."

"And if it escapes and runs away?"

"Then we'll be like poor An Li. We'll happily sing little songs and pick flowers and not even care if we crap as we walk and we'll die sooner, but we won't feel a thing."

He looked over at the shelter. "You talk to Lucky about this idea?"

She sighed. "No, but I think we should. Either way, I'm going to try it. You feel like going cave shopping with me?"

He chuckled. "I thought you'd never ask. Our first date. And if we happen to have to go far afield and find an extrusion of Magi stones . . ."

"Then," she said, "we'll see what develops."

Lucky was divided on the idea, but decided to come along anyway. It was better than being stuck back here as nursemaid to An Li. As for Li, she either came with them or she stayed. She didn't seem capable of too many decisions, and that was one she might hate but was capable of making.

They decided that it was best to simply lay it on her as they were going to leave. There was no use in bringing up anything in the future, even a few days in the future, with her, nor giving her any time to go into hysterics or childish rants. They would simply go. She would come, or not, and that would be that.

* * *

The scout who had first discovered and named the Three Kings system had never mentioned that the planet-sized worlds he named after the Magi were moons, so there was no name for the huge planet that loomed over them half of each day. Queson thought of naming it Jerusalem, since Bethlehem seemed too modest for such a monster of a failed star, but Jerry Nagel had nixed that idea. "Next year in Jerusalem," he said. "Jerusalem is hope, the destination we hope to reach. I'm more inclined towards Pharaoh, since it holds us unwilling captives."

"I was thinking more of Babylon," she commented. "Or maybe Egypt?"

"No, not Egypt, nor Babylon, either. There's a will here someplace. The Holy Joes on Balshazzar felt it, sensed it, and warned us of it. The will that traps them there. Pharaoh was the stubborn captor; Egypt was just the place. And not Babylon, surely, and not just for the same reason. Nebuchadnezzar would be a fitting name it's true, but Babylon, and Assyria, and Persia are where the Three Kings came from, right? And we don't know which conqueror is lurking here someplace, making the rules. No, we've got Alexander or Cyrus somewhere in the shadows playing games with us, but not up there. Pharaoh, I think, will do."

"What're you guys talkin' about?" Lucky asked, already breathing hard from the long walk, carrying, as they all were except An Li, supplies for several days on their otherwise bare backs. "All them names nobody can pronounce. They sound like those names a Hindu guy once spouted trying to explain his charms to me when we was offloading freighters back in the old days. Never got that right, either."

"Well, they're from a religion," Randi Queson responded. "Judaism and Christianity, mostly. But the places were real, and historical."

"You study all that shit?"

"Some of it," she replied. "A lot more I picked up, and some was from my own family. Mostly, I think I just looked into things because I found them interesting and I got curious."

"And I'm pretty much the same," Nagel told her. "Not much on the family side—they were about as religious as you are—but from other people I worked with or got to know. You weren't curious about the Hindu fellow's beliefs?"

"Not really. Sounded pretty silly to me. So does all this shit. Fancy names from folks too long dead talkin' about places that probably don't exist no more if they ever did and old fairy stories. What good does it do to know any of that? Does it fill your belly or get you a job or make you well when you're sick? Just stories, that's all. We're all the way out here in the middle of who knows where, a zillion light-years from anything or anybody 'cept the others stuck here, too, and we ain't bumped into no gods yet."

"I wonder," Randi muttered.


"Somebody once said that if we ever ran into a race so advanced that they were as far ahead of us as we were of bugs and germs they'd be supernatural to us. Maybe that's what God and the angels really are." She paused a moment, liking the idea. "And maybe Satan and his demons, too. A lot of our myths and legends and core beliefs came from real events and real people at some point, even if they got twisted or misinterpreted. Certainly those monks who scouted the known and unknown universe were devoted to looking for God. That's how we got these names for these moons."

Lucky Cross looked over the blasted volcanic landscape and coughed some dust and sulphur from her lungs. "And you think God's hiding around here playing with us now or something?"

Randi Queson looked around at the same landscape and shook her head. "No, not God. Definitely not God. . . ."

There was a darkening above and the sounds of rumblings in the distance.

"Going to rain soon," Jerry Nagel noted. "We ought to find some shelter while we have time."

"Great!" grumped Cross, in a singularly bad mood this day. "So we'll be stuck in mud and wrapped in mud and slip-sliding the rest of the day."

"It'll cool things off for a bit," Queson noted hopefully.

"Make us human mud-pies, that's all," Cross responded.

"Where's An Li?" Jerry asked them, looking around. "Li!An Li!" he shouted.

"You two go find us a shelter," Randi told them. "I'll find An Li."

The former leader of the salvage team that employed them all wasn't far away; she'd simply gotten distracted by something and that became the only thought in her mind. She was sitting there, dusty and stark naked, staring at something she'd found in the volcanic ash and humming a little tune from some distant point in her childhood.

"Li, honey, you can't go off by yourself like this," Randi scolded. "You have to stay with us."

An Li didn't seem to hear, but she was certainly aware that the older woman was there. She turned, looked up at Randi Queson, and smiled a vacant, little child's smile, and held out whatever she had to show the team geologist what she'd found. "Pretty," she said.

Randi squatted down and took an object from An Li's hand and looked at it. It wasn't very large, but it was definitely no volcanic oddity. It was a bright, shiny, golden color, so polished that it reflected a distorted vision of whatever image it captured. It was certainly not heavy enough to be pure gold—a hundred and fifty grams, no more. It had a pentagonal base no more than fifty or sixty millimeters long with a series of pentagonal brackets, a half dozen or so, running down its length. Why it wasn't sandblasted or bent and twisted was as much a mystery as what it was or whose it might be. The only thing she was sure of was that it couldn't have been dropped very long ago from the looks of it, and whoever lost it just might come back looking for it.

They were in strange territory now, and needed to tread softly and carefully. She wasn't sure whether to take it or leave it, but An Li made up her mind for her by grabbing it out of her hands and clutching it to her. "Mine!" she said. "Pretty!"

Randi sighed. "All right, you can keep it, but we have to go and find the others. It's going to rain. Get very wet. Can you hear it?"

As if on cue, loud rumblings of thunder sounded far too close to ignore.

An Li got up and took Randi's hand, clutching the strange artifact in the other, and kept pace as much as she could with the larger woman striding off towards where the other two had vanished.

The golden artifact wasn't the first such strange, small, manufactured alien object they'd come across on Melchior, and such things had been reported even in the original scouting reports. It seemed at times as if some alien machine was shedding parts, but it was more likely some minor tool of one of the stranded alien creatures they'd spent time avoiding. No two that they'd found had ever been alike, almost as if each were from a different creature or civilization, but that meant little. It was why the term alien had been invented.

They often had wondered if Doc Woodward up on the paradise-seeming moon of Balshazzar stumbled over these things. Maybe he even found out from his alien friends what they were and why they were scattered all over the place. Still, it would make more sense if he found them on the relatively static garden moon than them finding such things here, on volcanic Melchior, where everything was constantly in motion from dust, quakes, volcanism just under the surface and sometimes on top of it, and violent rainstorms. Things like these should be mostly melted or worn away by now. Most instead looked almost new, like this thing. Even the aliens shipwrecked along the coast had been here long enough to have pretty much exhausted what they'd salvaged and they surely didn't have the kind of technology to make whatever this stuff was. It made no sense at all.

Rocks that stimulated your emotional centers and maybe spied on you and exquisitely manufactured pieces of junk that did nothing. Parts of the puzzle that they'd all love to solve, but which they had about as much chance of solving as they had of flying off this hellish world. Still, they occupied the mind, even Li's.

They came up over a rise and looked for Jerry and Lucky. A fumarole nearby spouted loud white noise and steam from venting the result of rainwater hitting something far too hot and not very far below. All of them had learned not to go too near those roaring holes in the rock.

The storm was really coming towards them now; you could see its darkness creeping towards their position, blotting out the sky and landscape. If they didn't spot the others quickly, it would be necessary to find someplace else to ride out the fury that was clearly unavoidable.

Randi spotted an oval opening about a meter high and perhaps two wide that looked promising. Hoping that it opened out a bit, she headed for it, letting Li get down and back in, then doing the same, but the childlike woman got to the edge of it and suddenly shouted "No!" over the noise of the storm.

"Come on! You've got to! Otherwise you'll be out in the open!" Randi yelled back, but Li shook her head, twisted, broke away and began running off in the direction they'd been heading. Realizing that the only choices were between getting caught outside and staying put, the older woman decided not to chase the other. The gods had a strange protection for the mad.

She backed further in as the storm hit with all its fury and, feeling a bit more room, she managed to get back so that she never lost sight of the opening but could roll over if necessary or crawl on her elbows and knees. She didn't want to get too far in; there would be nothing but absolute darkness not far from where she was now.

Lying there, though, she first appreciated the cooler feel of the cave rock against her bare skin. A little bit of rain made it in, and there was a tiny rivulet now coming in and going around her which also felt quite nice. It wasn't enough to fear flooding the cave, but she kind of rolled in it, wetting herself down some more and thus cooling off all the better, and she used a little of it to wet her lips. After that, she just lay there, waiting for the fierce storm to abate.

For a while there was nothing but the roar outside, the slight wetness of the pencil-thin leakage, and the smell of damp rock but, as she lay there, she suddenly began to get the impression that she wasn't alone.

There wasn't much in the way of wildlife on Melchior to fear; everything dangerous seemed to come from worlds even more distant than her own. Still, might not one of those have taken shelter from the storm just as she was doing now?

The thought unnerved her, particularly when coupled with Li's adamant refusal to take shelter there.

She reflected that, since they'd been marooned here, she'd never really been alone nor, for the most part, had she wanted to be. Not even the kind of privacy that you got from going to your cabin on board ship, or doing the most private of things. They'd all stuck very close together, at least in pairs, even when there was nothing to do but lie around and brood. Now she was feeling that sense of being alone, of being apart from other human company, and her mind was playing the usual games with her. She knew that, but she also couldn't shake it. She didn't want to be alone, and the idea that she might well be, and that she might well not be but with something she didn't want to meet, started to eat at her.

The fear was becoming overwhelming; a sense not so much of claustrophobia as of being cut off, utterly, completely defenseless and alone, and she felt panic rising in her. The storm was still going, and it was still a very dangerous storm, but she fought a building compulsion to wriggle forward, to run out, to get away. . . .

There was something there! She couldn't hear it nor did she have any physical evidence of it, but she could sense it, just back there, looking at her, studying her. . . .

She managed to turn slightly, to look back into the darkness, to make one last stab at conquering her insanity and, after a moment, she began to see what was back there, what was causing all the fear and distress.

The Magi stones were there, embedded in the cave wall, and they were softly glowing . . . .

Radiation! she told herself. It's just some form of radiation! They're nothing but a geophysical phenomenon! 

But the operative word was "physical." It was a real effect, and knowing that it was an effect of the stones did her no more good than realizing that a knife was a knife when the important thing was that the knife was stabbing you.

She could feel it going right through her, right down to her soul, the feelings of fear and danger and menace.

"It takes practice," said a man's voice, and she almost jumped out of her skin.

"Who's there?" she shouted, backing towards the cave opening.

"It's kind of like piloting. You can crash. It can even kill you. But if you can get the hang of it, it will change you in amazing ways."

The Magi stones seemed to pulse at the man's words, keeping a throbbing action in between that beat at the inner corners of her mind. She wasn't sure even now if she was hearing anything at all or if she was simply overwhelmed by the radiation of the stones and on her way to Li's land of insanity or worse.

"Calmly. If you know any meditation it helps," the voice said. Now she was certain it wasn't a physical voice, but speaking directly to her mind. "The stones were not designed for minds like ours. They grow them for themselves, we think."

" 'We'? Who's 'we'?" She was trying to focus just on the voice, breathing in a steady manner, and trying to put out of her mind the emotional pulses that rushed to the core of her being every time the other spoke.

"My name is Robey. John Robey. I'm on station today and I was attempting to see what came in when I sensed you. We should not talk more now. Can you leave? Get away from the stones?"

"I—I'm not sure," she responded. "There's a storm. . . ."

"Go if you can. It takes a lot of practice. I am holding off the effects as much as possible, but I'm not the most gifted at this. You are now tuned to this batch. Were I to lift my mental shield it might well steal your mind or your very soul. Come back. Any outcrop will do. Return for a few minutes each day. Alone. Slowly we will teach you."

"Who is 'we'?" she asked again. "And why should I believe I'm not already having a conversation with myself?"

"We are the Arm of Gideon. On Balshazzar. Make sure that Balshazzar is in your sky before you try again. The kind of power required to go through the big planet would fry your mind. Someone, often many, are always on duty. We will be watching for you. We've been wondering how long it would take before this happened. Now go if you can. If the storm will not kill you, you must go into it. Even with help, I'm losing it. Go!"

She backed out of the cave even as she felt first a sudden release in her mind, then almost immediately a return to a building attack on her last emotional defenses.

The rain was still falling but the worst of it was past, and the electrical activity was now intermittent even though occasional claps of thunder, echoing against the barren landscape, could still deafen her.

She started to run. Not in any particular direction, just away, away from the cave. She didn't think, she couldn't think. It was as if her mind was totally blank leaving only emotion, a desire to flee, to just go anywhere but there. She ran through the rain, wild-eyed, more animal than human, until finally slipping, falling, she lost consciousness altogether in the remnants of the storm.

* * *

She came to, rather than awoke, trembling, and she looked up into the concerned face of Jerry Nagel. "Randi! Come on! Snap out of it! Are you all right?"

Slowly her senses flowed back into her mind, but they didn't make things any easier. She trembled as if she had contracted a serious palsy for several minutes, then choked on something, began having a coughing fit, and eventually she threw up over and over until there was nothing left for her stomach to give.

She felt—weird. That was the word that came to mind, and it fit, even though she was having trouble defining it further. She felt detached, as if her mind, the thinking part, the personality, was somehow disconnected from her body but floating just beyond it. She could barely feel the body, nor did it fully respond to her commands. Still, when she could, she gasped, "Jerry!" And then for some reason she just began to break into uncontrollable sobs, grabbing and holding onto him with a viselike grip.

He let her go for a little bit, but when he finally tried to break free and get her some water she couldn't release him.

"Please! Please!" she managed, breathless. "Just—humor me for a little bit. Just hold me. I need—I need to bring myself back."

So, for as long as he could, he just held her there and let her calm herself and gather her wits.

Lucky Cross came up with a boot in her hand. It was one of Randi's, and it was last seen on the woman's foot. Now it was not only not being worn, it seemed to have been yanked, pulled apart, ripped half to shreds. "Pack's back there as well," the pilot commented. "Straps are broke but it's still okay. We can probably mend it. She's barefoot from now on, though. Musta been real wild to have had the strength to rip them things like that. Them boots are rated for industrial units!"

Nagel looked down at Randi, who seemed half lost in some other mental place, but she was still awake, still staring at him.

"You want to tell us what happened?" he prodded gently.

"I—I needed to get out of the storm. The cave I picked had the rocks."

He gave a low whistle. "You're lucky you didn't go Li's route," he noted. "All comes clear now. I wonder just how common those damned things are?"

"Very, I think. And there's more, but even I can't tell you if it was real or not." Slowly, between gasps and occasional reflexive gags, she managed to tell the other two about her ethereal conversation with John Robey up on Balshazzar.

Lucky cross-checked the sky, which was already clear after the storm. "Yep, it's up there, all right. See it? 'Bout two hands up from the horizon to the west and maybe, oh, five o'clock."

They had discovered almost from the start that the other moons were readily visible when all were in the same part of the sky, and that Balshazzar, being so relatively close, was quite prominent. A blue-white world about the size of a gaming token in one of the bars back on Marchellus, it would have dominated any sky it was in save for the even larger gas giant that loomed over them and trapped them both.

Kaspar, much farther out and smaller than either of the other two, was harder to spot, but hardly invisible in the night sky. There was just too much of a light source for reflection for anything of any size to remain hidden out there.

"You think it was real?" he asked Randi.

"I—I think it might have been. I think you and I both had an idea it was more than just a mineral. I wonder, though. Do they also have outcrops of them on the other two moons?"

He smiled. This was the old Randi coming back, slowly but surely. "I think they might. At least on Balshazzar. Who knows about Kaspar?"

She sighed, but made no move to get up or break physical contact from him. "He said it took practice. Like learning to fly. And that it was just as dangerous. Do you think maybe he really was real?"

"Well, it ain't like we got a computer with a roster handy," Cross noted. "Still and all, mind-rotting rocks I can see, but mind-reading radio rocks, well, I got to say you'd hav'ta show me."

"Well," Nagel said, "remember that horrible night when those rocks took us over? I can't help remembering that when those of us who survived, one way or the other, compared notes we found we all had the same nightmares. Pretty strange alien nightmares, too. Ones I never got out of my head, and I don't think you two ever got out of yours. Suppose we were actually seeing something real? Some real places, real events? Something so horrible, so traumatic, it stuck in the minds of the entire alien race that created these things, assuming that they are artifacts, not natural. Maybe, just maybe, our minds don't work like theirs so we don't process the information right, but it's nonetheless real. If these things could in fact be controlled . . . Think of it! Two-way telepathic broadcasting! And they—the Holy Joes up on Balshazzar—they've been stuck there a lot longer than we've been stuck here, and with more contact with other alien species who might have been there longer. It's possible. It just could be . . . ."

"Then you think—maybe . . . I wasn't losing my mind?"

He gave a wan smile and shrugged. "You might well have been at the brink of insanity and still heard just what you heard. Who says they're mutually exclusive? One thing's sure, though. All of us—one at a time, anyway, with the others ready to pull them out—have got to experience this, maybe, if it's learned, all get taught how to master the damned things. It may be the only chance we got of ever getting off this hole."

"Or it may just drive us all nuts like Li," Cross noted.

"If it isn't real, what's the difference?" Randi asked her. "And if it is, and even one of us manages it even if the price might be madness for others, then to me it's more than worthwhile. I'm scared to death, and all I want to do is run and hide and sleep for a year," she added. "And yet, tomorrow, I'm going to try it again."


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