No one noticed Rita’s affliction the first few days after her birth-mother left. Everyone was depressed, and Rita normally secluded herself in her cell. Added to the stress of her upcoming coming of age, no one was too surprised when she missed her training.
Mother came back into the room. She waited quietly as Father talked. James nodded to her. He was beginning to understand.
She joined in the narrative. “The telepathic can see an echo of themselves in others. It’s normal and we expect it. But when Rita’s sister noticed that she was eating her meal with the same gestures in time with her, she was shocked to see more than an echo. Rita’s mind was a mirror, echoing her every act and thought. She knew the signs. She wrapped her thoughts in ineda, and after a moment of confusion, Rita latched onto the mind of another cousin.
“I was notified, and we moved her here, in the depths. We’ve tried everything, but if Rita is still there in that body, we can’t find her anymore.”
Rita was being fed, in a special, locked cell. Mother explained, “She’s underweight. We tried an isolation trial, where no one was in the cell with her, and she would have to read changing instructions to find the food and feed herself. It wouldn’t help to link to the mind of another, since no one outside her keepers could read the instructions, and we all had our minds blocked.
“But it didn’t work. Like now, she has locked onto one of the infants and just cried. And that’s dangerous for the real infant as well. We had to give it up. She was starving to death.”
James nodded, understanding on an intellectual level. The girl looked dazed, sucking at the bottle. It was a thin version of Pam, and she didn’t appear well.
“How can I help?” But no sooner had he said the words than he felt so helpless to do anything. How could a person deaf to the telepathic world be of any help?
Mother looked at Father. He gestured to the door and said, “Follow me.”
“There are at least four independent groups of Cerik telepaths that monitor us.” Father gestured to a shelf of written reports. James opened one of the bound volumes. It consisted of endless reports, where Mother or one of the older generation had detected the echo of the U’tanse in a Cerik mind.
“The Name has his spies, but there are others. None of them trust us. They lost a city to their previous slaves. They don’t intend to make the same mistake twice.”
James nodded. “You explained. We have to keep our ineda up.”
“Yes, but this isn’t a problem we can hide. Rita is keeping no block. She’s wide open. I don’t know which group put the pieces together, but the Name now knows that one of ours has a strong case of attachment. Some Cerik are telepathic -- more than traditional humans, but much less than the U’tanse. It is extremely rare, but attachment has happened to them as well. When a Cerik cub becomes attached, it is killed immediately.
“The Name demands that we get rid of Rita.”
James took in a deep breath, trying to get an idea of what Father meant. “How?”
He shrugged. “The Name would be happy to have us kill her, or failing that, turn her outside where one of them, or the air itself, would kill her.”
“We can’t do that!”
“I agree, and I’ve been working for weeks to find an alternate solution that the Name would approve.”
“What’s wrong with just keeping her here, and hoping that she’ll get better?”
Father pulled out a roll of reed paper and spread it on the table.
“This is a chart of the stars as seen from this planet.”
James looked at the dark dots on the whitish surface. There were thirty or forty of them, much more than he’d ever glimpsed in the sky on those rare occasions when he’s been out late.
“Did the Cerik make this?”
“No. These are my own observations. Many of these stars can only be seen on the darkest of nights, when the volcanos have been quiet, and the Moon is on the other side of the globe.”
“I’ve never seen so many.”
Father chuckled. “From Earth, you could see thousands. But the air there was clear.”
He stabbed a finger at one of the smaller dots. “The Cerik don’t care much about other worlds, but when their Delense Builders discovered how to fly in space, they went here first. In spite of its faintness, it’s one of the closest stars.
“What they discovered there frightened them to the core.”
James thought he mis-heard. How could the Cerik be frightened of anything?
Father continued, “On a planet around this star is a world much like the Earth, from the Cerik legends I’ve heard. It is blue with oceans. And it is populated by beings more like humans than Cerik or the Delense.
“Their first ship sent a scout boat down to the surface to see if the animals could be eaten. The boat landed, but the Cerik never reported in. A second boat was sent, ready to attack any danger, but it vanished silently as well.
“Now, the Cerik are not inclined to back off to any threat. A third boat was sent to get close enough to observe where their boats landed, and then destroy them with a bomb which would burn the whole area.”
“Burn their own people?”
“Yes. They decided to destroy the boats to prevent giving enemies access to them.”
James remembered a tale -- the story of how Mother and Father were captured from the human home world. There were similarities.
“The third boat was in constant communication with the big ship. As they got close to the ground, the pilot became -- something else. For an instant, there was battle on the boat as the pilot’s mind was taken over by the creatures on the surface. But soon all the Cerik changed and the third boat was lost. Fragments of the communications told a tale of minds being ‘eaten’. The Cerik call them the Ferreer. Long distance pictures showed them as green, standing upright on two legs and having two arms. The Cerik left that world alone. In their later explorations, they discovered other worlds, also populated by the Ferreer. In each case the story was the same. Any pilot that got too close lost his mind and became one of them, landing the boat safely and walking peacefully among the green ones.
“The Ferreer are the nightmare goblins of Cerik folklore, but all too real. If the Names could destroy those worlds, they would. As it is, since they’ve seen the Ferreer on multiple worlds, the green ones must have access to space travel. If they were inclined to come after the Cerik, they just might.”
James shivered. “They frighten me too.”
Father gestured at the map. “One theory is that the Ferreer are a race of attached telepaths. They have a hive mind, but one so strong that they could swamp out a partially telepathic race and take those minds over.”
James absorbed the idea. “Do the Cerik think this?”
Father nodded. “And from our experiences, I believe it too. Rita is dangerous to us, as well. We’ve spend a great deal of effort attempting to break her attachment, but we can’t afford to let her stay here. We could feed her and take care of her physical needs, but she is a seed of a much more dangerous problem. How many attached telepaths does it take to form an unstoppable hive mind? The U’tanse are close to a merged consciousness already. Too close. The Ferreer can take over even untrained, partially telepathic Cerik minds. What would happen to one of the U’tanse?”
He shook his head. “The Cerik are natural killers. Their solution for the attached is probably reasonable for them.”
James didn’t like it, but Father’s assessment was probably correct. “But we can’t kill Rita.” He knew in his heart that they could... but it would be traumatic to the person who did it. It would be traumatic to everyone. There had to be another solution.
Father was silent for a moment, then he asked, “What if we could take her to the Ferreer planet?”
James considered it. “She would attach to them. If she could eat the food and breathe the air... I guess she wouldn’t be lonely. She’s already given up what made her Rita. And it’s not likely she would ever ... un-hook from the hive mind.”
Father nodded. “That’s what we thought. But there is a problem.”
James saw it. “We don’t have space ships.”
Father shrugged. “The Name does. He has more than he’s using. The Cerik have been retreating from space since they lost the Delense. If we had a year to design a way to send a ship without a pilot, there would be no problem.”
James thought about it. “No Cerik is going to deliver Rita there for us.”
“No. Not a one of them.”
“And none of us can pilot.”
“The Name would never allow it. I’ve been here fifty years and they have never allowed me to fly anywhere myself. Not even in a little boat.”
“So, is there any solution?”
Father gestured as he explained. “Theoretically, a Cerik pilot and a non-telepath could take Rita to the Ferreer system. The Cerik could keep a safe distance in the main ship and the non-telepath could attempt to land a boat, unload Rita, and escape before his brain was taken over.
“I’ve offered to do this. But the Name wouldn’t allow it -- he wouldn’t allow me to do it.”
“And I’m the only other non-telepath.”
No sooner had he said it, when the next question came. “What if the Ferreer can take over a non-telepath?”
Father sighed, “It’s a risk. We’re dealing with Cerik story-telling here. We don’t know the hard facts. Sharon doesn’t think they could. She could cause muscles to clench in another body. She’s even communicated with me via facial twitches, but landing a space ship? Not likely.
“Still, you would be risking everything. If the Ferreer can take over your mind, Rita would be saved, but you’d be lost. You’ll have to make that decision yourself.”
“Why would the Cerik let me at the controls of a boat?”
Father tried to be honest. “The Name expects you to fail. But he considers the loss of an untried cub less than that of the boat that he’s already gambling.”
James frowned. “He’s risking a ship, too. And the pilot. What does he get out of it?”
“Good relations with his valuable slaves, and he could possibly gain some strategic information about the Cerik’s most dangerous enemies. If the Name could brag to the others at the Face that he had gotten a boat to the surface of the Ferreer world and retrieved it, he could gain prestige.”
James tasted the idea. “I’d be proving that U’tanse could be weapons.”
“Yes. What do you think about that?”