Ships have been disappearing in Quandon Sector, and the Commandos planet on Omrai to discover why. Formidable wildlife and bitter cold almost end the mission and their lives with it, but Connor discovers the horrifying answer to the puzzle. A gigantic Arcturian battleship had crashed some ten years previously and is using slave labor and material from the captured vessels to reoutfit itself and return to a war its crew cannot know has ended. To Sogan’s horror, he learns the workers are held, not by physical force, but by mental compulsion, and the mind slaver can only be a kinsman of his. If this almost spaceworthy war craft and its renegade commander return to the starlanes, the results will be disastrous, but how can the unit and their on-world ally stop the twin menace?
Varn Tarl Sogan knew his enemy well enough to guess his intention. He realized there was no hope of reaching Islaen’s blaster, but he had known from the beginning this would be settled between them with another weapon, one forged in them by some strange, unwelcome quirk of birth, a weapon that set them apart from all the rest of their race and from the remainder of humankind as well.
Varn tried to compose himself, to concentrate on what he must do. He had used the analogy of a spear to describe the force with which he had killed that poor yeoman. So it was, a spear fashioned of the mind’s invisible, potent energy. He set himself to forming another like that first.
Fortune had favored him greatly in sending him that earlier encounter. Tragic and nearly fatal as it was, it had taught him not only how to summon and fashion his weapon but how to use it as well, how to direct it against that part of his enemy’s brain controlling his life systems. If he could do that here and strike true with it, death would come instantly, more mercifully than this man before him deserved.
Accomplishing that would be no easy matter, and victory was by no means guaranteed. This was Aleke Tarl Sogan’s talent, apparently the prime channel or one of the major channels of it, whereas it was but a secondary and newly awakened aspect of his own. He would be hard-pressed to overcome so expert a killer with it, and only the fact the captain had never before encountered a true shield or any sort of active opposition gave him real hope.
Victory was too uncertain for either of them to depend upon it, but perhaps it was not necessary that he actually conquer. If Aleke was deeply enough absorbed in their duel, Islaen or Barak might then jump him or go for the Commando’s blaster. He would not be capable of taking any such action himself…
A sudden blast of force smote violently against his mind. It was strong, his kinsman’s sending, but he had anticipated its coming. His shields held firm.
Realizing his first wild rush had failed, Aleke withdrew and began seeking for some weakness in the War Prince’s defense, even as Varn searched his.
The former admiral realized his opponent was trying to elicit physical aid from the other prisoners, and he knew a moment’s fear, but he relaxed again in the next. Too much of Aleke’s power was tied up in the duel itself to seriously threaten either. Islaen’s shields were as strong as Varn’s own, and as long as he could keep the captain occupied at least on their present level, even Barak would not be overcome a second time.
Soon the Arcturian commander recognized the futility of his efforts and ceased all attempts to go beyond the fight itself. The strain of this silent combat was too great to so squander his resources.
Barak seized the blaster, but neither he nor the Commando made any attempt to interfere with the strange warfare being waged by the two Arcturians. Not only would it be difficult to avoid burning down both if the boy fired, but they were afraid to distract their champion or to inadvertently do him injury while his mind was so closely engaged with the other’s. Not unless it was obvious his defeat was upon him would they move.
Varn had at first been concerned that Aleke’s shields would be equal in strength with his power or nearly so, but he soon found this not to be the case. They had been clumsily erected and even now were deeply fissured and of uneven strength, a readily understandable weakness, since the captain had never had any reason to develop them and had had no experience in their use. That he had attained this degree of facility gave testimony to his innate strength.
Whatever the imperfections of his defense, it did little to damage his cause. Such was the power of Aleke Tarl Sogan’s mind and the ease with which he could harness it to take the offensive that the former admiral dared not make a direct attack against his shields. He knew he could not meet the force his cousin could generate head-on.
What frontal assault could not accomplish might sometimes be gained by stealth. A very small part of his mind crept through one of the fissures scoring his enemy’s defense. It was risky work, but if he could bring enough of himself inside the other’s mind to form his own spear there, he should be able to strike the death blow quickly and from such short range as to finish the duel.
Aleke’s spear slammed against his cousin’s shields again with a hard, angry blow, growing frustration adding both keenness and determination to it. Once more, the War Prince’s defenses held firm, but he had been concentrating so heavily on formulating his own attack that he instinctively returned the strike.
Too late, Varn recognized his error. He had not been ready, not nearly ready, to show his hand. His opponent gasped and reeled back, but surprise more than injury had unbalanced him. He was wounded, aye, but his life centers remained intact, and Aleke whirled on the invader as would a pain-maddened wild thing.
Before he could act either to withdraw or to defend himself, Varn Tarl Sogan was struck such a blow that he was driven to his knees.
Another followed it and another, strike after strike slamming into him with ever-increasing fury and effect until Varn fled his cousin’s mind to the security of his own in a near panic.
Temporary security. His shields were beginning to crumble under the constant hammering and strain.
He groaned in his soul. Once they went, the closing of the duel and the vile fate his kinsman had planned for him would be upon him.