Melody nodded. “As we of Mintaka honor Polarian circularity and exchange of debt. I will consider your convention, if I can comprehend its specific mechanism.”
“In this situation, I would agree to answer a number of questions to the best of my ability. You would free me thereafter.”
“I am not certain I stand to benefit. How would I be assured of accuracy?”
“Put me in the transfer unit. The fluctuations in my aura will reveal my state. Under the Lot, I am obliged to give responsive answers without deceit, drawing on what I know of your needs. You would get better information than you would in crude plumbing of my aura.”
That was possible. Melody found it easier to put a question to Yael than to delve for the answer directly; and Yael was a cooperative, voluntary host. The host always had the best command of its faculties. Now Melody was tired and uncomfortable, and the hostage would not be voluntary. It would not be a pleasant chore. “How many questions?”
“Determined by chance?”
Melody considered again. She didn’t want to hurt the girl if she didn’t have to, despite her certainty that Tiala had hurt her own host. Why undertake this difficult, perhaps risky procedure, if she had a ready alternative? And time was of the essence; she did not know how much time they had before the other hostages in the fleet caught on to what was happening and attacked. “I agree.”
Melody brought out her Tarot cube, another poignant reminder of Dash. “This deck presents Trumps numbered from zero to twenty-nine, and five sets of suit cards numbered from one to fourteen, in effect. Is this a fair range of numbers?”
Tiala nodded. “It is fair. But the dealer controls the presentation.”
Melody shook the cube and set it down. The face manifesting on the top surface was the Moon, symbol of hidden things. The Tarot was always responsive! “Select a number from one to a hundred,” Melody told Tiala.
“So Sphere Slash has an octal numeric system,” Melody remarked. “Skot, key this deck to present the sixty-fourth card in the present order.”
Skot, not conversant with the nuances of Tarot cube operation, did it the hard way. He touched the surface sixty-three times, watching a new face appear each time, until the sixty-fourth face appeared. It was the Three of Energy, with flaming, sprouting torches crossing each other.
“Three questions,” Melody said. “Agreed?”
Tiala nodded. “You have a certain flair.”
“How many hostages are present in the Segment Etamin fleet?”
Tiala concentrated, her brow furrowing prettily. “I can’t give the exact figure. It is a massive effort; Etamin isn’t considered a major target, not like Knyfh or Lodo or Weew with their sophisticated center-galaxy organization and technology. But Planet Outworld was the origin of the aura that balked us the first time, so…” She considered a moment more. “There are about a hundred ships in this fleet, and I think about four agents were placed on each ship, concentrating on the key vessels. About four hundred total—that’s as close as I can make it.”
Four hundred hostages! Melody had eliminated only the eleven in the officers’ section of this ship! The whole fleet might well be hostage…
But still, there was some comfort in it. With an average of four hostages per ship, the concentration had to be on the officers. The flagship had a greater number, as it was the most important, but still it was unlikely that much effort had been expended on the crew quarters. And the Andromedans’ overall perspective was of interest, also; they were most concerned with the center-galaxy segments like Knyfh and Lodo, and not with the Fringe segments like Qaval and Thousandstar—and Etamin. It put her own effort into perspective, such as it was. Tiala had provided a more than responsive answer.
If the Andromedan effort of a thousand years earlier had been organized like this, the hero Flint of Outworld had foiled it by pure luck! How could a Stone Age barbarian have halted the ongoing program of a major galaxy? But by the same token, how could an old female neuter isolated in an officerless ship in space even hope to…?
I wish I had known you, Flint! she thought. For, in addition to his other capabilities, he was supposed to have had a Kirlian intensity of over two hundred, the only other such rating in this galaxy before her own. High-Kirlian entities were doomed to be lonely.
But she had to get on to the second question. “What is the specific locale of the secret of involuntary transfer hosting?”
“I’m not sure. But I think it is Planet £ of Sphere Dash. It is a hotbed of Ancient sites, good ones, regarded as shrines to Aposiopesis. Certainly it is somewhere in that Sphere, and that is where they’ve set their closest guard, though it is not one of the advanced Dash worlds. It is said to be quite primitive, actually, though the Dash have occupied it for millennia. Now they have a fleet like this one hovering near it.”
Planet £ of Sphere Dash in Andromeda. If only the Milky Way could transfer an agent there, undetected. Obviously no frontal approach could succeed.
Melody shook her human head. The task was virtually impossible—but it would have to be attempted. She hardly envied the entity assigned to it!
Now for the third question. Too bad the Tarot had not granted her fifteen questions, but it must have had its reason. Three of Energy—meaning, in the old fashion, strength, virtue, communication, and cooperation. Three of Wands. How did that apply to this situation? She was cooperating with Tiala to gain information for her galaxy that would strengthen it, but there seemed to be little virtue in it without stretching the implications.
Virtue—the missing element. Was that the hint? Should the third question relate to that?
Tiala looked at her expectantly. The aural indication showed increasing stress. Something was preying on her; she was afraid of that third question. That meant there was something vital, something Melody should not miss. What was it?
She couldn’t stall; that was not fair play. She had to make her move—right or wrong. Virtue or vice. Maybe…
“What have I overlooked?” Melody asked.
The aural indicator went wild. “How can I know what—?” Tiala demanded, terrified.
Hot on the trail! “That is a nonresponsive remark. You know something I should know. There was no restriction on the type of question I could ask. You are aware of something vital to my interest. Tell me that thing.” It could be that this would amount to two questions: the nature of the subject, and the specific information; she would just have to hope Tiala wouldn’t think of this.
“I—can’t!” Tiala cried.
Melody frowned, not liking this but knowing she had to do it. She knew Skot was squirming; she was putting pressure on Tiala as she had put pressure on him, once. “You can. Only the manner of the telling is in doubt.”
But Tiala only shook her head.
“You are aware that this constitutes reneging?” Melody demanded, forcing a fierceness she did not feel. Why did there have to be so much brutality to adventure? “You know the alternative.”
The girl nodded mutely. Tears were on her cheeks. Oh, my sister of aura, why must this be? What sense is there in it? But Melody steeled herself. How could she afford to be moved by affinity or pity in the face of the savagery of Andromeda’s thrust into the Milky Way?
She glanced first at Llume, then at Skot. “It seems I must after all make siege against the aura of Tiala of Slash. Opinions?”