by Fred Saberhagen
"Thousands of years?" Lars, as he asked the question, was still lying helplessly flat on his back, still attached to the mind-probing machine. He was staring at the rocky ceiling close above him, but he hardly saw the ceiling. The vision he had just experienced was still tremendously real.
Neither his Carmpan partner nor the berserker answered him.
Lars repeated the question aloud, in a weary and shaky voice: "Thousands of years? Their colony was that old, really?"
The two people whose minds he had recently been in contact with, Temple and Gracias, had been conscious of such a length of history. For Lars, the feeling of their conviction was unmistakably authentic. Those folk aboard the Aster's Hope were members of some colony older than Lars had thought any Earth-descended colony could be.
Just as the last threads of mental contact were about to break, Lars felt his Carmpan partner touch his mind and for a moment longer hold it gently. One more thought came through: The path of the colonizing ship from Earth to Aster, deviating from flightspace, may have undergone relativistic distortion, sending the ship into the Galactic past. But the contact we have just experienced was in our present, "Carmpan, what are we to do?"
Try to keep secret from the berserker the existence of the at-right-angles weapon. Do not think of it. "How am I to keep from thinking—?"
But no answer came. The mental contact had been broken. And a moment later it was obvious to Lars that there was also no hope of achieving what the Carmpan had just suggested. Lars could feel the cold probe of berserker circuitry sending exploratory impulses into his mind again. It was not a material probe, but a trickle of energy producing a mental sensation hideous and indescribable. The entire episode from the lives of Gracias and Temple was suddenly forced through his mind again at high speed, like a film, and Lars felt sure that it had now been retrieved in some way by the berserker computer conducting the experiment. For an instant only Lars could feel his thought in direct contact with that receptacle fashioned of metal and electricity and mathematics. And in that instant the man knew by direct experience that the machine received the news of a defeat imperturbably, as it would have accepted any other news.
The berserker had ransacked and and robbed his mind, and… but wait. Its probing presence was now gone from his mind, and it had missed—something. Two things, actually. Because he, Lars, had not been thinking of those two things when the probe came. And for the berserker to read his memory more thoroughly was, he prayed beyond its capability.
He had been helpless to prevent it taking from him the knowledge of the right-angle weapon. Had the Carmpan deliberately caused him to think of that, by telling him not to do so? In order that some greater prize be hidden?
For whatever reason, the berserker had missed the two items that Lars's first Carmpan partner had been greatly concerned to hide: qwib-qwib, whatever that might be, and also the—what had that other thing been called? The something program?
Lars realized how effectively the Carmpan had enabled him to forget, how much more powerful their race had to be than his own in the realm of pure mental activity.
There was no further communication now from his current Carmpan partner. Lars, released again from the physical bonds of his couch, sat up. Now he could see that his partner was still breathing, but except for that the Carmpan body lay inert on its couch, as if exhaustion were complete. It had been released too, and its guide machine stood waiting alertly for it to get up.
Lars's own guide machine was waiting for him too. At least, thought Lars, free again to think his own thoughts, at least one of the damned things had been destroyed, by those people aboard Aster's Hope. At least one branch of humanity had been able to win that much. Though now the computers that ran this base, eager to find the secrets of the at-right-angles effect, would doubtless send more fighting units to Aster…
Loathing the feel of the couch to which he had been fastened for some indeterminate time, Lars got to his feet. He felt dirty, hungry, thirsty, in need of a bath, of every kind of physical ease and comfort.
The small machine that was acting as his personal guide and overseer raised one of its insect-limbs and pointed. But Lars was already moving. He was allowed to find his own way back to the common room, where the other four Earth-descended prisoners were already congregated. They all looked weary, and were already talking to each other about their various turns in the telepathic machinery.
All four looked at Lars with interest as he approached, Naxos remarked: "We were wondering about you. The rest of us have been back here for some time."
"It was something of an experience. Give me a drink."
As be drank water, and picked up some food from the tray where the machines always left if, Lars listened to the others talk. The berserker apparently had no objection to its living tools talking freely among themselves about what they had experienced.
The others were reporting fragmentary success at best, and some of them reported almost total failure.
If occurred to Lars as he listened that his team might well have been the most successful.
"How'd you do?" someone asked him finally.
He could think of no reason why he shouldn't tell them the truth. He felt sure that everything about the Gracias-Temple episode was already known to the berserker. He said: "Quite well, I think, compared to what you've told me."
He related fee essentials of the story of Gracias and Temple. His fellow captives were allowed to share in that distant and perhaps isolated human victory. Nothing happened to interfere with Lars's felling, The great machine that held them did not care that they rejoiced over the defeat of one of its units. Perhaps, Lars decided, it computed that its prisoners would be more useful to it if they were allowed to hear something to make their spirits rise.
When Lars had finished his narrative, Dorothy took the floor. She detailed, as if reluctantly, a human defeat, the story of a squadron of ships wiped out by the berserker unit that her mental vision, allied with that of her Carmpan partner had been forced to follow. The spirits of the four people listening were dampened somewhat.
Again there was no reason to think that their reaction mattered to their captor, which seemed to care nothing about what they said. Lars had the strong impression now that it was simply allowing reasonable periods of mutual contact as being conducive to the life-units' mental stability.
He voiced this thought.
Nicholas Opava suggested: "Or maybe… it wants us to tell things to each other that it couldn't get out of us with its probe. So it can hear them."
The five people looked at each other, while the words hung in the air. Then the group broke up, with nothing else said beyond a few muttered routine complaints on hunger and fatigue.
The group was next summoned to the mind-machines a few hours later. Lars thought he had the same Carmpan as a partner this time, but he could not be sure. Not even when the flow of mental pictures started.