Ahja lay on his bunk; the probe had left him too exhausted to do much of anything else. With the ordeal of the debriefer over, he was supposed to rest and recover his strength, but he couldn’t. The grip of unrelenting tension would not leave him. From the moment he arrved at the rendezvous point, and brought aboard the Lodestar, Ahja knew that there was something wrong. Outwardly, everything was as correct and proper as could be expected, but something he couldn’t quite pinpoint told him otherwise.
Ahja decided that he had to rest because unless he did, he wouldn’t be able to think clearly. He summoned all of his self‑discipline to concentrate on the slow moving patterns of colors that emanated from the cabin’s communicator screen. He watched them as they stretched lazily across the ceiling and oozed down the four walls to seemingly melt on the floor. Accompanying the colors were the whispering musical tones designed to relax him after his ordeal with the probe. But nothing relaxed him, and strangely, some of the patterns of light appeared to excite him, though he couldn’t understand why. Ahja found himself gritting his teeth whenever a particular sequence of blue‑green lights drifted alone across the cabin surfaces. It seemed contradictory to him that those particular lights should arouse in him joy and despair.
The portal of the tiny cabin slid open; the accompanying rush of air alerted him, and Ahja tried to jump to his feet. Two slightly familiar security guards, unsmiling and stiffly at attention, entered and stood at either side of the portal. Following them, nodding her head and smiling solitiously, the Chief Probe‑Tech entered. She examined him quickly and efficiently, and clicked her tongue disapprovingly as she did so.
“You have not rested, Master Ahja,” she said accusingly as if he had committed some grave crime. “You know rest is necessary in order to avoid the adverse effects of the probe.”
Ahja shrugged his shoulders and smiled at her in a helpless sort of way, which seemed to shatter her patience. She waved her carefully manicured hand in the direction of the portal, and almost immediately, an assistant tech entered the cabin with the medication tray in his hands. Before Ahja could object, the Chief Probe‑Tech took what she needed from the tray, and her fluttering hands came to rest on his face. The black sleep mask covered his face, and sleep took hold of him with the next sweep of his eyelashes.
The dream was strange. It aroused in him such strong feelings of loss that even as he slept, tears escaped his tightly closed eyelids.
Young Ahja ran barefoot through the white marble streets of Tragia. He ran aimlessly, desperately; he searched for something that he had lost. Many kind, but faceless passersby stopped to ask what was the matter, but the boy would not answer. He only wailed loudly and continued to run through the maze of the city’s streets. As he ran, he grew older, and he matured into a sure footed, determined youth who no longer cried, but the desperation that he felt was undiminished until, without warning, a comforting warmness enveloped him. He felt peaceful and secure.
It was not a voice, nor were there words that echoed in the surrounding stillness, but the message was clear, and Ahja understood.
Do you remember?
Yes, I do! I remember!
Ahja felt such a strong, throbbing, pulsating joy grab hold of him that he felt light‑headed. A tingling warmth reached into every nerve ending of his body, until nothing else existed for him. He felt that he was spinning crazily through the spirals of time and the vacuums of space. Enraptured, he defied the laws of gravity, and he soared above the graceful spires of the city towers. He taunted the spires that gleemed maliciously in the blinding light of Trag’s twin suns, and suddenly they reached for him, they would impale him!
“I remember!” he shouted. His voice rang rebelliously through the empty streets. “I remember!”
Ahja wept as he awakened from his medicated sleep, and even as he shouted his words of defiance to the expressionless walls of the cabin, he knew that he had already forgotten the knowledge. Faint traces of the joy that he had experienced still remained with him, yet it too rapidly ebbed out of his reach, and beyond recall.
The portal to the cabin slid open. Almost immediately, the white‑faced security team assigned to him leapt into the cabin. Concern and apprehension were apparent on their usually expressionless faces. Seconds later the Chief Probe‑Tech ran into the cabin.
After examining Ahja carefully, she assured the nervous guards that there was no cause for alarm.
“The Master Translator is in no danger, you are dismissed.” The guards bowed deeply before they backed out of the cabin; they obeyed her orders, but the expressions on their faces indicated that they were unconvinced.
“Your period of rest is not yet done, Master Ahja,” she scolded him in the low, soft, breathless voice that characterized her speech. “Lie back and rest,” she added as she pushed him back on the bunk with her tiny hands.
There was something about the way that she touched his shoulders that disturbed him. The touch of her hands seemed to recall something in him that he couldn’t fully visualize. He covered her hand with his own. The feeling was not quite right, but it was similar to something that he wanted to remember.
The Chief Probe‑Tech noticed his confusion, and she smiled at him reassuringly. “Please, lie back and rest, Master Ahja. I’ll stay near you, in case you have need of me.”
Ahja shook his head, but he did hat she asked of him.
“Sleep now, Master Ahja,” she whispered so softly that he couldn’t be certain that she had spoken at all. The spot on his shoulder that she had touched felt warm with the memory of her touch.
Ahja closed his eyes, and he was very surprised to discover that sleep was indeed about to close in on him once again. He reached out for her hand as she adjusted the pillow beneath his head, and he held onto it tightly. She did not object, and this time his sleep was undisturbed by dreams.
When he awakened, Ahja found himself thoroughly rested and refreshed. He welcomed the summons to the presence of the Lord Chairman, Minje; Ahja was willing and eager to resume his duties as the Master Translator once again. There was the final step of the debriefing which would mark the end of the Terran mission, and the return to his former life. Ahja relished the thought of the forthcoming interview with the Lord Chairman; he knew that it would be a stimulating and memorable one, the most important meeting of his career.
The greeting was formally correct. Minje was cordial, even warm as he expressed his concern for Ahja’s state of health after his exhausting experiences with the probe. The Master Translator waved aside all concerns about his well‑being with a heroic wave of his hand, and he murmured his thanks for the Chairman’s personal interest in him.
The pleasantries and formalities over, Minje grew unusually silent. Ahja felt as if he were being studied, and he squirmed under the Chairman’s scrutiny. As it was required by protocol for Minje to begin the interview, Ahja did not speak. He stood at attention and wondered why he had not been invited to sit; it was not like Minje to forget a simple courtesy to an old friend. The waiting seemed endless, and Ahja grew weary.
“The job of analyzing the tapes of your debriefing was a long and difficult one, Master Ahja. I must add, however, that it was extremely interesting to me, if not altogether fascinating. Under different circumstances, I could almost envy your adventures on the planet surface.”
Minje smiled weakly as he got up from his comfortable chair in the shimmering conference room of the Lodestar.
“Ah, my friend, you have aged,” he said as he pointed out the touches of gray that had appeared in Ahja’s hair. “That is one aspect of your adventures that I do not envy.” The Chairman sighed and returned to his seat.
“We, the probe‑techs and I, had a great deal of difficulty with your experiences during the Terran night. I must admit to you that most of us grew ill during those segments.” Minje got up again, and he started to pace around the huge conference table.
“I was extremely proud of you, Ahja, when you conquered the night terror. You were the man that I hand picked for this mission, and you surprised even me, with your courage.” Minje stopped his pacing and stood still at the opposite end of the table. He placed his large, powerful hands on the table surface as if to support his weight, and he leaned forward. There was a scowl on his face, and he bared his teeth as if he were ready to spring across the table and attack.
“But the motivation for such an astonishing feat of courage was not loyalty to me, or to the Federation!” Suppressed anger rumbled beneath the controlled exterior of the Lord Chairman.
Ahja remained silent. It was true. He knew that his acts on the planet surface could be considered treason, and now he had to face the consequences. He had done what he thought was right; it was his only defense, and yet it was no defense at all.
Minje plodded back to his chair; he looked tired, and it was as if the suppression of his rage had exhausted him. The Lord Chairman sighed as he lowered his bulk into his seat.
“She was beautiful, wasn’t she?”
“Yes, my Lord Chairman.”
“Yes, she was beautiful, as all Rizorian women are beautiful. I can almost understand how she succeeded in playing with your emotional weakness in order to sway you from your sworn duty.”
Minje paused in his speech to allow Ahja time for a rebuttal, but when he saw that none was forthcoming, he continued.
“You forgot, Ahja, that she was not as helpless as you supposed. Hidden beneath that beauty was the incredible Adept power. What was even more unbelievable was the control that she displayed.” Minje lowered his voice to a whisper. “The Rizorian fanatics were wrong in her case, weren’t they, Ahja?”
“Wrong, Chairman Minje?”
“Of course they were wrong. This one could and did control her abilities,” Minje sighed again, “but then our loyalties must always be with our own, and in this case, it is the Rizorian government. It was not your place to judge, or to interfere in an internal affair. The job with which you were charged was to maintain the unity of the Federation at all cost.”
Ahja didn’t answer, he stood stiffly at attention, and he concentrated on keeping control.
The Lord Chairman traced a haphazard pattern on the surface of the table with his long fingernail; he seemed lost in thought. After a long while, when he did look up, all of the anger had vanished from his face, but Ahja was not fooled. The Master Translator knew that the Chairman’s rage had been hidden because something even more important required his attention. Ahja steeled himself for whatever might come.
The Chairman smiled at Ahja, and with a gracious wave of his bejeweled hand, he invited the Translator to be seated. Ahja did so, and he hoped that he had hidden his sense of apprehension from the sharp perception of the Chairman. And when the Lord Chairman smiled at him almost apologetically, Ahja nearly lost control.
“It is beyond my comprehension,” the Chairman mused, “how one human being, a flesh and blood creature, like us, can hold within her being such power as you witnessed. And yet, what frightens me even more was the insistence of the Rizorians that the trained Adept were capable of so much more!”
Once again Ahja did not respond to Minje’s comments. He noted to his chagrin, however, that sitting down was no more comfortable than standing.
“Friend Ahja, let us put the past aside. The Adept has been eliminated, and the Rizorians are satisfied. We have, however, another serious problem on our hands at the moment.”
“Another problem, Lord Minje?”
“You, Ahja, appear normal; outwardly you seem to have suffered no ill effects from your stay on the planet surface. You appear to be the same person, but‑”
“But?” Ahja suddenly felt panic claw at his chest.
“You are not the same person, the man I have known since your student days at the academy. You have been tampered with; your mind has been altered!”
The Chairman’s words rushed at him, they hammered at his senses, and they almost crushed Ahja with their implication. Somehow Ahja managed to control himself; he knew that above all, he must not do anything to worry, or upset the Chairman. When he spoke, Ahja surprised himself at the clear, controlled steadiness in his voice.
“I am the same person that I have always been, my Lord Chairman. Why do you say that I am not?”
Minje breathed deeply as he folded his hands into a giant fist that he let fall onto the shimmering table surface.
“Ahja, there is something wrong with the results of the probe!”
“You do mean that the probe‑techs have committed an error, don’t you?” Ahja thought that he would have to face the debriefer once again, and that thought sickened him.
“We have cross‑checked; the probe‑techs are not in error, instead they have discovered something so incredible that they don’t know how to explain it.
“Something is very much wrong with you, Ahja, or perhaps I should say that something is wrong with your recall of the time that you spent on the planet surface!”
Ahja held his breath. How could that be possible?
“It is the opinion of the Chief Probe‑Tech that the gaps in your memory have been produced mechanically and systematically.”
Ahja managed to control an outcry of protest, but the effort was evident. His hands shook, and he sought to control them by holding onto the shimmering table in front of him.
“How is that possible?” he asked in what he hoped was a cool, calm and rational voice. “Respectfully, I submit that there is some sort of error, to which the tech will not admit.”
“There is no error, Ahja. I’ve checked the accuracy of the probe myself. Someone, or something has tampered with your memory. And we do not know what else in your mind has been altered!”
Minje’s voice was cold and quiet with that sliver of sharpness to it that Ahja recognized as a warning of danger. The Master Translator had heard that particular tone in the Chairman’s voice only a few times before, and he would have never imagined that someday it would’ve been directed at him. Ahja also knew that that particular tone in Minje’s voice signalled that a decision had been made. Nothing would disuade the Chairman from his decision, and all that remained was for Ahja to listen and obey the will to of the Chairman.
“There are tell-tale imperfections in the otherwise perfectly woven cloth that is your memory, Ahja.”
“How was it done, Lord?”
“We are not certain. There are two possibilities. Either the Terrans have the technology to achieve such a surgery, or‑”
“Perhaps an Adept still hides on the planet surface.”
“The planet has been scanned with the detector, hasn’t it?”
“The results are negative, but negative results are merely inconclusive, Ahja. For an Adept as skilled, and as powerful as this one would have to be, the shielding of the brain waves against the detector would be a simple task, child’s play.”
“And the disposition of my case, Lord Minje?” Ahja knew that it was improper for him to ask that particular question, but at some point during the conversation, he had stopped caring what was proper.
“This is the most difficult part of all, Ahja. Somewhere in your mind there could be something hidden, placed there by forces hostile to the Federation, and placed there for purposes too diabolical to guess. At some preprogrammed moment, you might be responsible for setting forces into motion which could prove disasterous to the Federation.”
“I cannot be trusted! My loyalty is at question?”
“Regretfully true, Ahja. You are not the same man who started out on this mission. You have been altered, and we must assume that you are the unwilling agent of forces hostile to us. Since we do not know why, and in what way they tampered with your mind’s memories, nor do we know for what purpose, we cannot allow you to remain aboard this ship any longer. You survived well on the planet surface, and we shall return you there. It is all that we can do.”
“It is a harsh sentence, Ahja, but it is not as harsh as execution. Out of love and respect for the man, Ahja, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude, and who was our dear friend, we wish you no harm.” For the first time during the interview, Minje spoke with regret, and even with a trace of sadness. Ahja wasn’t fooled; weakness did not exist in the Lord Chairman when he played his role.
“There is one chance. If you are able to find the answers to our questions on the planet’s surface, the source and the method of the tampering, and if that tampering can be reversed, or nullified, I shall be able to withdraw the sentence of exile.”
“What you ask is impossible!” Ahja laughed nervously. “it is hopeless, hopeless to even dream that such a thing could be ever accomplished.”
“Do not sell your capabilities short, Ahja. It is something that I think you should attempt. I have no doubt that given your motivation, and given enough time, you could accomplish what at this moment appears to be impossible. The problem as I see it is one of time. Even our closest allies question our motives for our prolonged stay in this quarantined zone, and we cannot stall for much longer.
“Allowing you the maximum length of time possible to return to Earth, and to carry out your investigation, we calculate that you should have one fulI Earth year. Ahja, my friend, I sincerely hope that this is enough time for you to accomplish the impossible. And think of the advantage that we would have if you were to return with the knowledge to erase a man’s memory as skillfully as it was done to you!”
Ahja studied the smooth face of the Lord Chairman with disbelief; now, he knew what Minje truly wanted— the knowledge that he hungered for. Minje was willing to sacrifice Ahja in the gamble to acquire that knowledge. How was it possible, Ahja wondered, that this man, whom he had considered his friend, could so easily commit him to a lifetime of exile? What good was the bastard’s friendship, or his regret?
“Ahja, when the Lodestar leaves this orbit, the Quarantine will be reset. From that time forward, as long as the Federation exists, Federation ships will be assigned to patrol this sector. Penal Colony Terra will never be disturbed again!”