"The air is clean."
He nodded. Standing in the door, he was struck by the color. In Father's writings, he'd used the term 'sky blue', which never made sense to him, since the Cerik sky was a reddish brown.
But this sky was blue. It shaded from darker hues directly overhead to a pale color on the horizon.
"The Greeters of the People will be coming from that direction."
James fought the urge to run -- to seal the door and climb back into the sky. "Greeters" could not dispel the fears of "Eaters of Minds".
"Don't take my mind over."
Rita patted his hand. "I want you to stay with me, but I won't force your will."
"But you can do that, right?"
Rita's smile didn't waver. “You only know us through the stories of the Cerik. Yes, we had to stop them from scattering destruction across the world, but forcing a merger is not our preference.”
“A merger? Only some of the Cerik were telepathic. Did you control their muscles?”
Rita watched the cloud of dust on the horizon. “No. It was a telepathic merger. In species like the Cerik, and the U’tanse, where there are some minds that cannot sense other thoughts, there is often a way to activate that ability.”
“You could make someone like me telepathic?” His mind raced. If that were possible...
She smiled at him. “Does that appeal to you? We could make it happen.”
James considered it. How could he not? There wasn’t a day in his life when he didn’t stumble over some fact that everyone else knew, because they were telepaths. All his life, he was the one left out. And now, it was offered to him.
“How? How would you change me?”
“The U’tanse are new to us.” Rita smiled, “This one is the first to have embraced the People, so we are still learning how your mind works. With the Cerik, the telepaths connected deeply with the People -- their motive was to learn our weaknesses, and so discover how to attack us. But as they linked in, their motives changed, and soon became part of us.
“You are already aware that your sisters and brothers can control the cells of their bodies. They can also control your cells. We did the same for the others, who did not think of themselves as telepaths. The patterns of cells and their interconnections -- developed over the life of the telepaths, were duplicated in the brains of the non-telepaths, opening up their new comprehension of the world.”
James tried to imagine it. “You took brain cells and clusters in the non-telepathic Cerik and changed them to match the telepaths?”
“Essentially correct.” The Rita shaped person talking to him had become different, like a tutor, lecturing him.
“And you propose to do the same with me? To copy part of Rita’s brain and overlay part of mine?”
“The part that opens up telepathy, yes.”
James asked, “And what would I lose? What part of me would be lost when that part of the brain is changed?”
She shook her head. “Unknown. We have not known Rita and you long enough to completely understand those details.”
He saw that the dust cloud was getting larger. A group of vehicles were approaching. James had a gut feeling that once the ‘People’ were represented by more than Rita, things would be different.
And would he even know it, if his mind began to change?
“No. I don’t want my brain altered in any way. I’ve lived without telepathy. I don’t need it. And I want to get back off the planet just as soon as I can. The pilot might abandon me.”
Rita sighed. “I understand, but he’s in dan right now. Don’t you want to see the People? Surely Father will want to know everything you can tell him about us.”
He wanted to be gone. He glanced back inside. “Will you have food here? Should I leave you the sack?”
“The People have an excellent understanding of biology. Compatible food will be found, or made. The U’tanse will probably be easier to sustain than the Cerik. Merging minds did not change their need for freshly killed meat.”
He looked her in the eyes. “Can I talk to Rita alone? Is that possible?”
She hesitated, and then over the course of ten seconds, she sagged.
Rita blinked, her eyes watered, and she moved in little abrupt shifts.
He took her hand. “Rita? Are you okay?”
Her voice wavered. “No. They left me.”
“They’ll come back.” He squeezed her hand. “Do you know what’s going on? Do you understand?”
She wouldn’t look up his eyes. She nodded. “I want them back. I want the People.”
He sighed. “I just needed to know.”
She lunged forward and wrapped her arms around him, her face buried against his chest. “You were nice. I’ll miss you.”
He had no response, other than to hold her. He whispered, “I just had to be sure.”
She sniffed, and then pulled back. He let her go. In a moment she straightened up, she smiled, taller and happy.
“Don’t make a run for it. We have a present for you.” The three vehicles were just pulling up next to the boat.
The Cerik ship hadn’t left. James slashed, placing the target mark on the loading hatch and activating the automated docking sequence.
The pilot only growled at him over the distance shouter as he reported that he was returning from the Ferreer planet. One of the theories he’d heard growing up was that the Cerik’s hunting growl set up resonance in the bodies of prey, startling them into running, even when they were safely hidden. He had no idea if it were correct or not, but his instincts were crying out that he should flee, not go into the predator’s den.
But he was at least happy to see the ship. The distances were so great that the landing boat’s navigation display had lost track of the main vehicle. Once he had gained space with his cargo, he was horrified that he had no idea where the ship had gone. Only when he had made ‘contact’ with the pilot via the distance shouter did he notice that a marker appeared on the display when the pilot was growling at him.
The trip back to the ship took him only ten hours. Not only was he eager to be gone from the Ferreer planet, the cargo was driving him crazy.
When the boat settled to the deck and the hangar refilled with air, he sighed and walked back to the cargo chamber, where he’d secured them behind a restraining gate. The big eyes all stared at him.
He chose one. “Sorry, girl.” He snagged the rope collar around her long neck and pulled her with him out of the boat and up to the hangar hatchway. He shoved her through and slapped her haunch. She scampered away, her hooves clattering on the corridor floor.
He hurried back into the boat and activated the shouter.
“<I have returned. My mind is intact. I have also brought some runners from the grasslands below. I have released one into the corridors.”>
There was a great shout that echoed throughout the boat. The runners in the cargo area stirred uncertainly. James reduced the sound level. He repositioned himself so that he could watch the animals.
Outside, muffled by rooms and corridors, one of their own was being hunted. He didn’t think it would take long.
About ten minutes later, the shouter spoke, in a faint voice. “<Release another.>”
James tried to make his voice properly obedient. “<Another will be released. It will take a moment. Please note that there are only five remaining.>”
Even quietly, there was no give in that voice.
James chose the next one. “Let’s hope you’re the last one. Come with me.”
The grazer was compliant, and he had no trouble leading it to the door, until it opened.
Long slitted nostrils opened wide and the animal bucked and tore loose from his grip, dashing at top speed, skidding on the metal floor. Quickly, it was gone.
James hurried back inside the boat.
It was longer this time. Again, James had been watching the animals in the boat. There wasn’t a hint that these creatures had any telepathic connection to the ones that had gone outside to their death. That second one had sniffed something in the air, perhaps the blood of the first one, but that was all. As near as he could tell, the good-will offering by the Ferreer had no Trojan Horse telepathic nature.
They might not even last long enough to return to the Cerik world, at the rate the pilot is gorging himself.
But James was happy to accept them. The pilot had gotten very hungry while waiting. Better them than me.
The shouter spoke, “<U’tanse. Get to the engine room. We will be preparing to leap.>”
James nodded to himself. The pilot was sounding normal again.
“<I am going there.>”