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Twenty years after the Leone-Wandatta Treaty, twenty years after honest relations had opened between human and Dur-ill worlds, there were still ways in which the isolationism hadn't changed. The races dealt with one another but still held themselves curiously apart, as though prodded by guilts of the old war that separated the two intelligent species for over a century. Humans traveled freely to Dur-ill worlds, but they did so mostly aboard human spaceships with other humans for companions. Humans visited and even lived on Dur-ill worlds, but stayed mostly within enclaves segregated by custom rather than law. The same was true of Dur-ill who traveled in human space. Dur-ill and humans both felt more at ease with their own kind than with each other; their differences and their memories could not easily be forgotten.
The Hura-Nada was a Dur-ill spaceliner of standard class, neither luxurious nor spartan. Its passengers and its crew were all Dur-ill. Barring the usual minor annoyances, there should have been nothing to mar the shipboard feeling of unity.
But there was an alien presence on the Hura-Nada; crew and passengers alike could sense it like a tangible taste in the purified air. There was a difference hiding among the sameness--a difference that took no pains to disguise itself, a difference all the more frightening because it made no attempt to do anything. It just was.
The strangeness was readily traced to three passengers, two males and a female. They had names--the males were Wisson-Dai and Gir-Thorna, the female was Ath-Agroda--but that hardly seemed to matter.
There was nothing about their looks that would set them apart from other Dur-ill. They were slender and bipedal with large unblinking eyes on either side of their heads, enormous mouths, and scaly gray skin, although the female was of a race that had pastel purple mottling patterns. The trio did not dress alike or share the same cabins. And yet there was some quality that set them apart from the other passengers and made people think of them as cut from the same mold.
The Three Strangers--as the other passengers, and even the crew, began calling them--did not talk much, either to other people or among themselves. When in public they were seldom separated from one another, and every so often would share knowing glances or smile as though at some private, unspoken joke. Sometimes they seemed to be mimicking each other's behavior, although they stopped instantly when they realized they were being watched. During the communal steambaths they held themselves strictly apart from the general camaraderie. A few of the bolder passengers attempted to make friends with them early in the voyage, but the Three Strangers remained aloof and at last the others gave up trying. But there was no way to stop the shipboard gossip.
The Hura-Nada was now nearing the planet Iwagen, final destination of this bizarre trio. The Three Strangers stood together in the central lounge, watching the planet grow in the oversized telescreen. Other passengers were also watching the image of Iwagen, but left a discreet distance between themselves and the threesome. The Strangers either didn't notice or didn't care.
A silent sequence of thoughts flashed through the air among the trio. IWAGEN IS SUCH A BACKWARD WORLD, EVEN HAVING LOST SPACE TRAVEL UNTIL FIFTEEN YEARS AGO.**YES, BUT IT REQUIRES SEEDING. THE MENTAD MUST FLOURISH.**IT WILL BE GOOD TO GET OFF THIS SHIP AND AWAY FROM THE DEPRIVEDS.**THERE WILL BE MORE DEPRIVEDS ON THE PLANET THAN ON THE SHIP.**BUT WE WILL NOT BE IN CLOSED CONFINEMENT.**ONCE THE SEEDING BEGINS AND WE GROW STRONG IT WILL HARDLY MATTER ANYWAY.
Six hours later, the Hura-Nada landed at the tiny Iwagen spaceport in the city of Aladek. The Three Strangers and a few other travelers disembarked. The rest of the passengers and crew breathed a collective sigh of relief that the alien presence was at last removed from their midst. The Three Strangers could sense the feelings, but they did not care.
The Mentad had arrived on Iwagen.
As the Hura-Nada sat on the landing field, another ship was in orbit around Iwagen, awaiting permission to land. This was a smaller ship, with no passengers and a crew of one. More to the point, it was a human ship, brand new and just completing its maiden voyage.
Richard Cheney floated in the webbing at the control station, surrounded by dials, readouts, and the computer board that ran the entire ship. He was feeling more smug than any eighteen-year-old had a right to be. There were parts of him, his older self, that disapproved of such behavior in general--but even that portion of his mind was relaxed today, reveling in the good feelings. Richard Cheney had just been away from Iwagen for the first time in his life, visiting a human world and surrounding himself with human contacts. His trip had more than accomplished every goal he'd set, and now he was returning home in triumph with a brand new ship to call his own.
There were very few people who could afford their own spaceship, large or small. The Allaya--christened after both of Richard's parents--was built to be flown by one person, though there was room for up to six passengers. The controls were most compact; from this one spot, Richard could run virtually every shipboard function.
Richard turned to a panel and tapped in a set of instructions. The ship's tiny galley automatically mixed a khari, the mildly alcoholic beverage popular on Iwagen; from the galley, the squeeze-bulb was shot up a tube to an opening just across the control cabin from where Richard was positioned. The lanky young man considered unstrapping himself and floating through the zero-gee environment to get the bulb--but that would have been too much effort and he preferred showing off, even though there was no one around to appreciate it. He opened his hand and the squeeze-bulb, of its own accord, lifted off its platform and floated across the room to him.
There were still fifteen minutes before his landing clearance commenced. Richard sipped slowly on his drink and relived the events of the last month, allowing the exhilaration to wash over him once more.
He had never been around people very much before. His parents had established their farm in a sparsely settled corner of Iwagen as a deliberate attempt to get away from everyone, human and Dur-ill. Alain Cheney had been very ill, and the impinging presence of others was more than he could take. As a result the two children, Richard and Mara, had grown up with a minimum of outside contacts--few Dur-ill and even fewer human beings. There'd been little reason to change the pattern after Alain's death, even though Richard then knew his true calling. It was not until his mother, Laya, was nearing her own death that Richard and Mara started making contacts with the outside world.
Laya's death last year had caused the big transition. The children began their recruitment drive in earnest then. At first they concentrated just on Iwagen, but Richard had set his sights on a higher goal. There were great things to accomplish, and Richard was impatient to do them all. There were long discussions that bordered on arguments, although Richard and Mara could never really argue, and Richard's dynamic persuasion carried the day. Scraping together what money he had and lifting some more from bank vaults where it might never be missed, he bought a ticket to Nouvelterre.
Richard had never seen so many humans at one time before, and that fact alone was exhilarating. The constant flow of thoughts was a stimulant, even though he had his father's calming influence to keep him under control. Still, he spent his first couple of days gawking like any young tourist. He felt he had it coming to him. Then he got down to business.
He had chosen Nouvelterre because it was a place where a person with his peculiar talents could make a lot of money in a very short time. A group of cities in the smaller northern continent were known throughout human space as wide-open gambling towns. With his father's practical bent to guide him, Richard had no scruples against using the gaming palaces to further his own ends.
His first problem was to disguise his age. Most of the casinos would have looked askance at an eighteen-year-old gambling there and winning so consistently. His father's knowledge of disguise served him well. There were tricks of makeup and clothing style that added years to his appearance; they wouldn't make him look old, but he'd at least seem mature enough to belong where he was and to be doing what he was doing.
His biggest problem, though, was not to call attention to himself. Casinos were constantly on the lookout for people who won large sums of money too quickly. Thus, while he could have taken home millions in a single afternoon, he forced himself into a game of patiently building up his stakes in a consistent but unobtrusive fashion.
He started with the machines--slot machines, randomizers, and all the other mechanical devices that didn't require a human interface. He avoided the machines with the large payoffs, contenting himself with a series of small victories. He had but to drop a coin in a machine and use his abilities to rig a jackpot each time. He never hit more than one jackpot per casino per day, and never a big enough one to come to the management's attention.
When he'd built up enough of a stake, he moved on to bigger games. Again, he was careful to spread his winnings around. In one casino, he'd play at cards; it was easy to win--or at least avoid losing much--when he knew what all the other players had in their hands. He was considered lucky, but he always left the game just as the suspicion was starting to form in their minds that he might be cheating. In another casino he would play roulette; the tiny ball was a cinch to manipulate where he wanted it to go. In a third casino he would play the crap tables, where the cubes were hardly more of a challenge. Then to a fourth casino for more cards, and so on around town. Before his face could become too familiar, he'd move to a different gambling town. He was always a winner, but never a big enough winner anywhere for anyone to think he was anything more than a lucky stiff.
An unexpected problem was his reaction to the people around him--and, in particular, to the women. He'd been raised with only two human females, his mother and his sister. Now there were other women, available women. They were all around him as he sat at the gaming tables. His constant winning was pure aphrodisiac to the women who frequented the casinos; he didn't need telepathic abilities to see the lust on their faces when he raked in a pile of chips. Being a good-looking young man only compounded the problem.
Mentally, Richard was quite mature for his years; under his particular circumstances, that was only to be expected. But his body was still that of a teenage boy, and occasionally it betrayed him. A woman with an attractive cleavage would smile at him and bend over, and suddenly he'd have to cross his legs to hide the rapidly growing erection. In crowded gaming halls he couldn't help an occasional brush against a voluptuous feminine body. A dozen sensuous perfumes seduced his nostrils. There were times he left a casino earlier than he'd intended, just to calm his nerves and escape the distractions.
He knew he could have any number of beautiful women in his bed if he made an effort, and there were several times he was sorely tempted. But something in him held back. There was a feeling of wrongness, as though somehow having relations with another woman would mean being unfaithful to both Laya and Mara. He held back through sheer willpower--but this was still the only aspect of his trip he viewed in a negative way.
In less than a month, through careful management of his resources, he found himself rich beyond even the goals he'd set for himself at the start of the project. He could even afford to by a luxury like the Allaya, handing the startled salesman the purchase price in cash without batting an eye. And there was still plenty of money left over to finance his recruiting expeditions anywhere he chose to go in human or Dur-ill space.
Now he was returning home to share his success with his sister. Together they would plan a further course of action. They both knew their destiny had decreed them greatness, but it was up to them to chart their future in the most effective manner.
An alarm bell rang, breaking Richard out of his reverie. It was time to begin his descent. Taking one last sip of his drink, he tossed the squeeze-bulb toward the disposal unit across the room. His shot was slightly inaccurate and the container would have bounced off the wall, but he caused its course to alter just enough that it fell neatly through the hole. Then he turned his attention to the control panel and switched on the radio to reverify his landing pattern with spaceport traffic control.
His next couple of hours were filled with the tedious but demanding job of landing the Allaya on Aladek's tiny field. By the time his ship touched down, the Three Strangers who comprised the Mentad had left the spaceport area, and Richard had no contact with them.
Richard had to go through routine customs procedures, and there was a long, boring task of arranging with the quasi-religious authorities who ran virtually everything on Iwagen for the Allaya's hangar space while Richard was home planning his next move. Richard dealt with these matters impatiently; all his thoughts were about the farm half the world away, and how well his sister had survived the past month without him.
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