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by Fred Saberhagen

And so another of the damned things had been destroyed, thanks to a few good people in the right place. That made two down at least, Lars thought, when he was able to come back to his own thoughts. Not that the defeat would be considered much of a setback by this far-distant machine that had wrung its prisoners' minds and bodies to obtain the news of it. The berserker base had plenty of other fighting units to send out. And on the plus side for the enemy, at least one more entire planet, Polara, had been destroyed too.

But when the telepathic session connecting Lars Kanakuru with people on the planet of Botea was completely over, his body and mind again released from immediate bondage, he retained the memory of that fortunate far world to cling to. To keep himself going, he had received a transfusion of hope from Gemenca Bahazi and Pat Devlin.

He, Lars, had once known someone who was in the Adamant navy. That corporation had a stronger fleet than a lot of planetary governments could boast. If only, Lars thought, as he got slowly back to his feet beside the mind-probing machinery, if only the other half of that navy were here now or all of it. But all of it probably still wouldn't be enough to take a base like this one.

Again Lars was returned to the society of his fellow prisoners, back in the common room. He found them arguing at the moment over the question of who should have which sleeping blanket. It seemed to Lars as he came upon them that this childish behavior exemplified the divisions and weaknesses of humanity.

He wanted, to interrupt and say to them: "The berserkers are going to win the great war, in the end. Because they are one, ultimately, and life, humanity, is ultimately, divided, scattered, always working at cross-purposes." That was the truth, Lars told himself, that he had never been able to bring himself to face, till now. There were a lot of people who could not face it

Dorothy Totonac appeared to be near tears, on the verge of breakdown, not having got the blanket she had wanted. Probably the others would have been willing to give it to her by now, but the situation was more complicated than that all situations were.

Pat Sandomierz seemed to be trying to negotiate some way to help her, but the two men for some reason resented Pat's efforts, and they themselves were doing no one any good

Probably an unfair criticism, Lars thought, What real good could anyone do anyone else here?

Now Captain Naxos moved a little apart from the others, with an expression oh his face as of wonder, maybe at how he had got himself into such a childish argument. He was muttering something that Lars could not hear. Meanwhile the other man, Nicholas Opava, went to stand by himself too, on his face an expression of childish sullenness. He was generally, Lars thought, in a condition that Lars himself felt only in his worst moments.

Naxos at last took note of Lars's arrival. "Where've you been?"

"Hooked up to the thing in there. Where else?" He had been about to say that he had just stepped out for a drink, but decided that at the moment humor would not be well received.

"Let's not talk shop." Naxos almost made it an order. "It's bad enough we have to do it."

Dorothy Totonac looked up. "Talking helps keep me sane, and I intend to go on doing it!"

And Pat added: "There's no sense in being afraid it'll overhear us. It already knows everything we've experienced here."

But Lars, at least, knew better than that. He couldn't very well say so, though.

Time went by, and the prisoners were not recalled to duty. There were no clocks or watches available, no day or night here in the cells, but everyone agreed that this interval between telepathic sessions was longer than any similar interval that had passed before.

Someone put into words a thought that was new to no one: "Maybe our usefulness is almost over. Maybe it doesn't need us anymore; because the rest of the units it sent out are winning, all across the board."

There was no way to argue with a statement like that.

Then unexpectedly the inner door of the airlock opened. Several escort machines stood there. They were carrying spacesuits, one for each ED prisoner.

The five people looked at each other. Then the machines handed out the suits and the people began to pull them on. When they were ready, they were escorted out in a group.

We could all open our suit valves at once, thought Lars. Bat the thought had no place within him to take root. The idea of suicide had become remote and academic.

The five discovered at once thai their suit radios worked, and were set on a common channel. They could still converse.

"It wouldn't bother with the suits if it was going to kill us now."

"Rather obvious. But what does it want, then?"

"'We're just being moved. It's dug put bigger quarters for as."

"Or smaller ones."

"With a set of the latest model mind-probing machines."

The berserker volunteered no information, and answered no questions. Lars had not heard it speak since he arrived, though he did not doubt it could. But judging by its actions, what it wanted was to take them on a tour.

At first, when they were led outside into the glare of the blue-white sun, and toward the great docks where there waited a seemingly endless rank of spacegoing destroyers, at least some of which were undergoing repair, the prisoners all believed that they were going to be shipped somewhere else.

"Maybe it has goodlife, who want human slaves. I've heard stories"

Someone else cut that speaker off: "We all have."

They were taken aboard spacegoing death machines, one after another, but they were not locked up on any of them; it was a relief to all five people, a surprisingly intense relief, that they were not yet to be separated. A bond had formed, despite the childish arguments.

The idea was evidently not to ship them out, but to give them all an extensive and intensive tour of the berserker base and its facilities. The whole thing took a couple of hours. The five prisoners were made to crawl in and out of machines, across catwalksnone high enough, in this low gravity, to suggest a chance for suicide to those who might be so inclinedand to peer into mine shafts. There were hundreds of machines, of all sizes and shapes and functions. Some were workers, all of them busy, others were fighting devices either under construction or in for repair. The whole operation looked even more formidable than Lars had imagined it. Maybe two Adamant navies wouldn't be enough.

It's going to ask us now, he thought. It's going to ask us to be goodlife, officially and formally. The really hideous thing was that at that moment he wasn't sure what he would answer.

But the offer never came. Whatever the great computer that ran the base expected to accomplish by displaying its might to them, it was not that. The reason behind the tour had to be something else. Perhaps it was only meant to overawe them more thoroughly than before, to beat down inward mental resistance that counted for more than formal statements.

Lars wondered suddenly if the Carmpan were going to be given a comparable tour, if Carmpan too sometimes turned goodlife. Though certainly, he thought, the ones he had been teamed with so far had proven that they were not. Then for a moment, Lars was puzzled by his own thought. How had they proven that? Oh yes. It was something that he would be wise not to remember deliberately he steered his thoughts to something else.

Presently the five ED prisoners were brought back to their quarters, the spacesuits silently demanded back. Then they were allowed a rest period, during which no one had much to say, and everyone was thoughtful.

And again if was time for another telepathic session

The session for Lars this time did not go well. Or at least it did not go as the others had. This time, Lars realized shortly after the induced semi-trance began, the Canmpan he was teamed with was somehow blocking the material from coming through completely into his, Lars's, conscious mind. Something came through but then it was gone again, in some way concealed.

Lars was aware of nothing but the mental analog of static. The Carmpan was doing something subversive, blocking a good coherent episode, screwing it up, hiding it somehow. Burying it. Where?

Through the whole episode Lars remained at least partially conscious of himself attached to the mind-probing machine. When the session was over, he was if anything more tired than he had been after earlier sessions.

Back in the living compound, he drank water thirstily, wishing that he had something strongly alcoholic. Then, for the time being indifferent to hunger, he crawled into his cell and fell at once into a deep sleep.

And learned where the Carmpan had buried the episode that had just come through,

Lars dreamed

WITH FRIENDS LIKE THESE by Connie Willis | Berserker Base | ITSELF SURPRISED by Roger Zelazny