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II: Undercurrents

Chapter 1

At the Orado City Space Terminal, the Customs and Public Health machine was smoothly checking through passengers disembarking from a liner from Jontarou. A psionic computer of awesome dimensions, the machine formed one side of a great hall along which the stream of travelers moved towards the city exits and their previously cleared luggage. Unseen behind the base of the wall—armored, as were the housings of all Federation psionic machines in public use—its technicians sat in rows of cubicles, eyes fixed on dials and indicators, hands ready to throw pinpointing switches at the quiver of a blip.

The computer's sensors were simultaneously searching for contraband and dutiable articles, and confirming the medical clearance given passengers before an interstellar ship reached Orado's atmosphere. Suggestions of inimical or unregistered organisms, dormant or active, would be a signal to quarantine attendants at the end of the slideways to shepherd somebody politely to a detention ward for further examination. Customs agents were waiting for the other type of signal.

It was a dependable, unobtrusive procedure, causing no unnecessary inconvenience or delay, and so generally established now at major spaceports in the Federation of the Hub that sophisticated travelers simply took it for granted. However, the machine had features of which neither Customs nor Health were aware. In a room across the spaceport, two men sat watchfully before another set of instruments connected to the computer's scanners. Above these instruments was a wide teleview of the Customs hall. Nothing appeared to be happening in the room until approximately a third of the passengers from Jontarou had moved through the computer's field. Then the instruments were suddenly active, and a personality identification chart popped out of a table slot before the man on the left.

He glanced at the chart, said, "Telzey Amberdon. It's our pigeon. Fix on her!"

The man on the right grunted, eyes on the screen where the teleview pickup had shifted abruptly to a point a few yards ahead of and above a girl who had just walked into the hall. Smartly dressed and carrying a small handbag, she was a slim and dewy teenager, tanned, blue-eyed, and brown-haired. As the pickup began to move along the slideway with her, the man on the right closed a switch, placed his hand on a plunger.

Simultaneously, two things occurred in the hall. Along the ceiling a string of nearly microscopic ports opened, extruding needle paralyzers pointed at the girl; and one of the floating ambulances moored tactfully out of sight near the exits rose, shifted forward twenty feet and stopped again. If the girl collapsed, she would be on her way out of the hall in a matter of seconds, the event almost unnoticed except by the passengers nearest her.

"If you want her, we have her," said the man on the right.

"We'll see." The first observer slipped the identification chart into one of his instruments, and slowly depressed a calibrated stud, watching the girl's face in the teleview.

Surprise briefly widened her eyes; then her expression changed to sharp interest. After a moment, the observer experienced a sense of question in himself, an alert, searching feeling.

Words abruptly formed in his mind.

"Is somebody there? Did somebody speak just now?"

The man on the right grinned.

"A lamb!"

"Maybe." The first observer looked thoughtful. "Don't relax just yet. The response was Class Two."

He waited while the sense of question lingered, strengthened for a few seconds, then faded. He selected a second stud on the instrument, edged it down.

This time, the girl's mobile features showed no reaction, and nothing touched his mind. The observer shifted his eyes to a dial pointer, upright and unmoving before him, watched it while a minute ticked past, released the stud. Sliding the identification pattern chart out of the instrument, he checked over the new factors coded into it, and returned it to the table slot.

Forty-two miles off in Orado City, in the headquarters complex of the Federation's Psychology Service, another slot opened, and a copy of the chart slid out on a desk. Somebody picked it up.

"Hooked and tagged and never knew it," the first observer was remarking. "You can call off the fix." He added, "Fifteen years old. She was spotted for the first time two weeks ago. . . ."

In the Customs hall the tiny ports along the ceiling sealed themselves and the waiting ambulance slid slowly back to its mooring points.

* * *

The visiting high Federation official was speaking in guardedly even tones.

"I, as has everyone else," he said, "have been led to believe that the inspection machines provided by the Psychology Service for Health and Customs respected the anonymity of the public."

He paused. "Obviously, this can't be reconciled with the ability—displayed just now—of identifying individuals by their coded charts!"

Boddo, director of the Psychology Service's Department Eighty-four, laid the identification chart marked with the name of Telzey Amberdon down before him. He looked at it for a moment without speaking, his long, bony face and slanted thick brows giving him a somewhat satanic appearance. The visitor recently had been appointed to a Federation position which made it necessary to provide him with ordinarily unavailable information regarding the Psychology Service's means and methods of operation. He had spent two days being provided with it, in department after department of the Service, and was showing symptoms, not unusual on such occasions, of accumulated shock.

The policy in these cases was based on the assumption that the visitor possessed considerable intelligence, or he would not have been there. He should be given ample time to work out the shock and revise various established opinions. If he failed to do this, his mind would be delicately doctored before he left Headquarters, with the result that he would forget most of what he had learned and presently discover good reason for taking another job—specifically one which did not involve intimate contacts with the Psychology Service.

Boddo, not an unkind man, decided to do what he could to help this unwitting probationer over the hump.

"The Customs computer isn't supposed to be able to identify individuals," he agreed. "But I believe you already know that many of the psionic machines we put out aren't limited to the obvious functions they perform."

"I understand, of course, that complete candor can't always be demanded of a government agency." The visitor indicated the one-way screen through which they had looked in on the room at the spaceport. "But this is deliberate, planned deception. If I understood correctly what happened just now, the so-called Customs machine—supposedly there simply to expedite traffic and safeguard the health of this world—not only identifies unsuspecting persons for you but actually reads their minds."

"The last to a rather limited extent," Boddo said. "It's far from being the best all-around device for that purpose. In practice a vanishingly small fraction of the public is affected. I couldn't care less about having the thoughts of the average man or woman invaded; and if I wanted to, I wouldn't have the time. Department Eighty-four is the branch of the Service's intelligence which investigates, registers, records and reports on psis, and real or apparent psionic manifestations outside the Service. This office coordinates such information. We aren't interested in anything else."

"I imagine," Boddo went on, "you've been told of the overall program to have advanced psionic machines in general use throughout the Hub in the not too distant future?"

"Yes, and I don't like it," The visitor said. "The clandestine uses to which these machines are being put today certainly are undesirable enough. What is to insure that the further spread of your devices won't lead to the transformation of the Federation into a police state with an utterly unbreakable hold on the minds of the population? The temptation . . . the possibility . . . will always be there."

"And if that doesn't happen," he said, "in a few decades the situation will be as bad, or worse. Inevitably, the machines will multiply the tremendous problems already presented by organized crime, by power politics, by greed, stupidity and ignorance."

"As I've understood it," Boddo replied, "the gradual, orderly introduction of psionic machines is expected to solve the problems you've mentioned progressively as the program unfolds."

"I don't see how that will happen," said the visitor. "Unless that's the reason you track down these so-called human psis. A clever campaign to divert the public's concern to such people might very well leave the psionic machines looking innocuous by comparison."

"Um . . ." Boddo pursed his lips, frowning. "As it happens," he observed, "the purpose of this office is almost the reverse of what you suggest."

"I don't follow that," the visitor said shortly.

Boddo said, "The last thing in the world we'd want is to bring the information this office gathers to the public's attention. The Service, of course, is conducting a continuous campaign on many fronts to reduce uneasiness and hostility about psionic machines. Our specific assignment is to prevent occurrences—arising from the activities of human psis—which might strengthen that feeling. Or, if they can't be prevented, to provide harmless explanations for them, and to make sure they aren't repeated—at least not by the psi in question."

The official scowled. "I still don't see . . . What occurrences?"

"We are not," Boddo said patiently, "in the least worried about what dowsers, professional mind-readers and fortune-tellers might do. Not at all. The public's familiar with them and regards them on the whole as harmlessly freakish. When the performance of such a person is sufficiently dependable, we call him or her a Class One psi. Class One falls into rather neat categories—eighteen, to be exact—and functions in a stereotyped manner. The Class One, in fact, is almost defined by his limitations."

"Then . . ."

"Yes," Boddo said, "there's another type. The Class Two. A rare bird, as he apparently always has been. But recent breakthroughs in psionic theory and practice make it easier to identify him. We feel that the most desirable place for a Class Two at present is in the Psychology Service. I'll introduce you presently to a few of them."

"I . . . what kind of people are they?"

Boddo shrugged. "Not too remarkable—except for their talents. If you met the average Class Two, you'd see a normal, perhaps somewhat unusually healthy human being. As for the talents, anything a Class One can do, the Class Two who has developed the same line does better; and he's almost never restricted to a specialty, or even to two or three specialties. In that respect, his talent corresponds more closely to normal human faculties and acquired skills. It can be explored, directed, trained and developed."

"Developed to what extent?" the official asked.

"It depends on the individual. You mentioned mind-reading. In the Class Two who has the faculty, it may appear as anything from a Class One's general impressions or sensing of scattered specific details on up. Up to the almost literal reading of minds." Boddo looked thoughtfully at the visitor. "A very few can tell what's passing through any mind they direct their attention on as readily and accurately as if they were reading a book. The existence of such people is one of the things we prefer not to have publicized at present. It might produce unfavorable reactions."

Doubt and uneasiness were showing in the visitor's face. "That would not be surprising. Such abnormal powers leave the ordinary man at a severe disadvantage."

"True enough," Boddo said. "But the ordinary man is under a similar disadvantage whenever he confronts someone who is considerably more intelligent or more experienced than himself, or who simply points a gun at him. And he's much more likely to run into difficulties like that. It's extremely improbable that he would come to the attention of a capable Class Two mind-reader even once in his lifetime. If he did, the probability is again that the mind-reader would have no interest in him. But if he did happen to take an interest in our ordinary man, there's still no reason to assume it would be for any malevolent purpose."

The visitor cleared his throat. "But there are criminal psis?"

"Of course there are," Boddo said.

"And your office takes steps to protect the public against them?"

Boddo shook his head.

"Don't misunderstand me," he said. "It isn't my business to look out for the public. I believe you know that the only category of crimes with which the Psychology Service concerns itself directly are those against the Federation or against humanity. That applies also where psis are involved. What a Class Two does becomes of interest to us only when it might have an adverse effect on the psionic program. Then it doesn't matter whether he's actually committing crimes or not. We close down on him very quickly. Indirectly, of course, that does protect the public.

"Ordinarily, it isn't a question of malice. A Class Two may get careless, or he begins to engage in horse play at the expense of his neighbors. He's amusing himself. But as a result, he draws attention. Bizarre things have happened which seemingly can't be explained by ordinary reasoning. At other times, such incidents would cause some speculation and then be generally forgotten. At present, they can have more serious repercussions. So we try to prevent them. If necessary, we provide cover explanations and do what is necessary to bring the offending psi under control."

"In what way do you control these people?" the visitor asked.

Boddo picked up the personal identification chart of Telzey Amberdon.

"Let's consider the case of the young psi who came through the space terminal a short while ago," he said. "It will illustrate our general methods satisfactorily." He blinked at the codings on the chart for a moment, turned it over, thrust one end into a small glowing desk receptacle marked For Occasional Observation, withdrew it and dropped it into a filing slot.

"We knew this psi would be arriving on Orado today," he went on. "We'd had no previous contact with her, and only one earlier report which indicated she had acted as a xenotelepath—that is, she had been in mental communication with members of a telepathic nonhuman race. That particular ability appears in a relatively small number of psis, but its possessor is more often than not a Class One who fails to develop any associated talents.

"The check made at the spaceport showed immediately that this youngster is not Class One. She is beginning to learn to read human minds, with limitations perhaps due chiefly to a lack of experience, and she has discovered the art of telephypnosis, which is a misnamed process quite unrelated to ordinary hypnotic methods, though it produces similar general effects. These developments have all taken place within the past few weeks."

The visitor gave him a startled look. "You make that child sound rather dangerous!"

Boddo shrugged. "As far as this office is concerned, she is at present simply a Class Two, with a quite good though still largely latent potential. She picked up a scrambled telepathic impulse directed deliberately at her, but was not aware then that her mind was being scanned by our machine. A really accomplished Class Two would sense that. Neither did she realize that the machine was planting a compulsion in her mind."

"A compulsion?" the official repeated.

Boddo considered, said, "In effect, she's now provided with an artificial conscience regarding her paranormal talents which suggests, among other things, that she should seek proper authorization in using them. That's the standard procedure we follow after identifying a Class Two."

"It prevents them from using their abilities?"

"Not necessarily. It does tend to keep them out of minor mischief, but if they're sufficiently self-willed and motivated, they're quite likely to override the compulsion. That's particularly true if they discover what's happened, as some of them do. Still, it places a degree of restraint on them, and eventually leads a good number to the Psychology Service . . . which, of course, is what we want."

The visitor reflected. "What would you have done if the girl had realized the Customs machine was investigating her mind?"

Boddo smiled briefly. "Depending on her reactions, the procedure might have become a little more involved at that point. The ultimate result would have been about the same—the compulsion would have been installed."

There was a pause. The official looked thoughtful. He said finally, "You feel then that the Service's method of supervising psis is adequate?"

"It appears to keep the Class Two psis from causing trouble well enough," Boddo said. "Naturally, it isn't completely effective. For one thing, we can't expect to get a record of all of them. Then there's a divergent group called the unpredictables. Essentially they're just that. You might say the one thing they show in common is a highly erratic development of psionic ability."

"What do you do about them?"

Boddo said, "We have no formula for handling unpredictables. It wouldn't be worth the trouble to try to devise one which was flexible enough to meet every possibility. They're very rarely encountered."

"So rarely that there's no reason to worry about them?"

Boddo scratched his cheek, observed, "The Service doesn't regard an unpredictable as a cause for serious concern."

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Title: Telzey Amberdon
Author: James H. Schmitz
ISBN: 0-671-57851-0
Copyright: © 1962 by James H. Schmitz
Publisher: Baen Books