Faint and far away, the dim memory of a warning bell. Dean stirred, uneasy. The sky was blue, a few scattered clouds fleecy-white. In the meadow, glints of gold where flowers clustered, Beyond, trees stood tall, cool and green.
A little longer to rest, then he would seek the shade. Find a bubbling stream from which to drink. But for now the suns were warm...
TWO suns! Instantly he was awake, the warm lush meadow replaced by plastic and cold steel. The palm of one hand hit the transmitter button, swept across the row of switches that armed the scout's defenses. His other hand gripped the microphone.
First contact with the aliens! He'd been set down on this deserted out-back planet a full month ago, living bait. The first-in scout had landed here a year ago, reported in, and -- vanished! A second scout, forewarned -- the same.
Little chance of a double malfunction, less chance even of simple physical attack; a scout craft's screens should hold off any gross physical battering long enough to cry warning across the emptiness between the stars. The prime possibility was that the attacks had been purely mental. The Brains, great semi-sentient computers that charted the course of history yet to come, had picked Dean, tested and trained him to resist just this kind of attack. Still, he had nearly failed.
His transmitter radiated warmth as it hurled its near-instantaneous warning forth across the parsecs. "Okaro to Base. Dean Okaro to Sector Base III. Am under attack. Projected illusions. Earth-normal scene, except for binary suns."
He spoke each word clearly, slowly despite his excitement. The computers would unscramble the message easily, given his voice-prints for comparison...
Deep under the earth, the tap-tap-tapping of his mallet was the only sound. He crouched there in the gloom, scarcely able to see the pattern he was chipping in the stone. It had to be done right or the Gods would be angry, the hunt would fail. The people would go hungry, and it would be his fault.
Behind him, Ee-La placed another fragment of wood on the fire. Hers was the equally important task of tending the sacred flames, making the scant supply of fuel last until his work was done. Too little flame, and he could not see. Too much, and the light would not last.
His eyes ached as he followed the lines. The charcoal strokes lay dark across the gray rock, This line was for the stream. There the prey would come to drink. This line, the wind. It must not carry the hunter's scent ahead. A heavier line, rising and falling. The land that upheld hunter and hunted alike. This row of dots, the footsteps of the hunter. That one, larger and more solid, the hunted.
Now the rows of dots came together - but the light was fading fast. Fading, as the day would fade if the hunter ran too slow. Ee-La stirred the coals, coaxing a last flicker of orange against the dark. He worked faster, mallet falling in a frenzy of blows. The last spark faded, but he was done!
The hunt would not fail. Leaving his tools where they had fallen, he led the way toward the light of day. Ee-La followed close, anxious to be out from under the weight of the Sacred Mountain.
The air was fresh and good beneath the low-arching trees. Ee-La stood close, her eyes raised to his. Eyes like chips of emerald against the pale blue of her skin...
Dean wrenched himself back to reality. He spoke staccato phrases into the microphone, telling of this illusive attack on his mind. Every detail would be of value, revealing vital facts about this enemy. Facts that could, perhaps, be put together to make a larger pattern of strengths and weaknesses. It was already plain that the illusionists were not from this tiny barren world, with its single reddish sun. He let his mind drift, eager for more knowledge...
Again the suns beat down, darkening his leathery skin from blue to purple. The whip, cherished symbol of his status as field-foreman, dangled idly from his wrist. The workers, knee-deep in squelchy brown mud, moved more slowly as his attention wandered. Darveel drank sparingly from his flask, the trace of drug in the water bracing his will. Once more the workers quickened their movements, their drowsing minds responsive to his commands. At the back of his own mind was a dull resentment. To drive such cattle as these! They were the dregs of the work force, good for nothing but the simplest, most repetitive of tasks. He must keep his thoughts almost on a level with theirs, or contact would be lost.
"Ho, Darveel!" Her laughing voice broke in on his thoughts. "Bring your workers to high-suns meal."
The workers straightened broad backs, setting down their precious baskets of seedlings. There was a wholeness here, a rightness between the slow, heavy movements and their earthy task. Broad flat feet left splotches of glistening mud on the trampled ground as they crowded about the food cart.
"How goes the planting?" On some hot afternoon a bored field-foreman had called a worker from her tasks to relieve his tedium. Jarvon was the result, a mind of at least moderate power housed in the body of a small worker-woman. Idly Darveel reached out a compulsion to bring her closer.
"It goes well. The plants are setting in as rapidly as might be expected. These brutes are but poor things, barely able to move one flat foot past the other without guidance."
He frowned. The compulsion was having no effect. He pulled harder.
"They are good enough for work such as this." She smiled, pointed teeth pink against azure lips. "Surely so skilled a field-foreman has no trouble guiding them."
This was ridiculous! She still hadn't moved any nearer ... and he had the strangest urge to get down on all fours. His teeth clenched as he made a greater effort. The workers, done eating, wandered off to sit under a nearby grove of trees for an unauthorized rest. No matter.
Jarvon was approaching one slow step at a time, but he was sinking to one knee.
Stronger! Fiercer! The drive that had brought him from humble clerk to field-foreman now centered on Jarvon. She stood before him, a slender six-fingered hand unbelting her coarse tunic.
He was down on both knees, straining to keep his body erect. His will beat like a roaring gale; Jarvon was a slender reed that bent and sprang erect. He struggled to his feet, his eyes locked with hers. Now each tried to force the other to give way. Feet braced wide on the muddy ground, they swayed like dancers to unheard music.
She dropped to one knee, tunic falling away, then to both knees. She lay full length, belly to the ground. He crouched beside her. Slowly, slowly she rolled onto her back ... but her eyes told him that somehow she had won, he had lost...
"Dean Okaro to Base. More data on enemy. This episode seems to be from early history of their civilization." He told of the fragment of life he had lived, knowing how vital any scrap of information could be. Once conquered, this race would contribute much to the Great Crusade...
The two armies were drawn up in precise array. On two low hills the commanding generals faced each other, ready for the supreme test. Dilleshon might have been a pale blue statue, but for a droplet of sweat that trickled from beneath his helmet. The tension ... Oh, the tension!
One step forward! Again silence. Then the sound of the other army moving as one man. One step. Then two. Now he was moving again, lending his will to the massed mental force of his fellows. Behind them, the General led and drove. The swordsmen of the front rank met the foe. Now fast, now slow they cut and slashed. Faster as their massed will commanded, slow as the enemy's force prevailed.
The helmet pressed down on Dilleshon's skull. Open at the back, its metal was supposed to shield him from the enemy's commands. He was strong! They were moving faster now, hurling their will before them. The enemy swirled away, falling and dying. His General was stronger, his will striking like a lance at the enemy's heart!
Their foes were falling, dropping to the ground before they were even touched by steel. Dilleshon and his fellows drove forward inexorably. There would be triumph tonight, enemy women dancing to their commands. Victory to the strong!
.... There is more of this story ...