Sunday, 13 April 2014

Chapter 28. Of Pallets and Porters

Tuesday came, and a cargo pod settled itself down into the Punishment Pit. It was a tall, black, noisy ship, on the model of three large rockets tied together like organ pipes, the tallest in the middle.

I was down there with my people. John and Galina were recording. Lily and Sabrina, the two most agile Team members, were ready to supervise the work, climbing up on to the pallets as necessary.

Michael came too. “Someone must sign for the delivery,” he said to me. “You have the authority, but your signature was not recorded early enough. My fault, I’m afraid.”

From the vehicle, there came several beings. At first sight, they were like the Cherubim. Blue, with many legs, and rotating. But they had eight limbs, not four. They were a lighter blue than the Cherubim, and far bigger. Their limbs were much wider than thick, more like wings than legs, and they had no feet. They rotated much more slowly than the Cherubim, and both ways.

“These are Garut’nim,” said Michael. “They are Galactic porters. They have suckers on both upper and lower sides of their limbs, which enable them to grip easily. They lift what they are to carry with one or two arms, then whirl it to where it is to go. At the ends of their limbs they have fronds, which are marvellously dexterous. So they don’t just carry furniture, but they can assemble it too.”

One of these land-octopuses came over to me and Michael. He was telepathic, but his signal was much weaker than the Cherubim’s. “Well met,” he sent. “Are you the authorizing parties?”

Michael nodded to me, and “We are,” I said and sent.

The octopus produced a clipboard from one of his arms. Exactly like an Earthly clipboard, but with a ceramic clip instead of metal. “First signature,” he sent. “Authority to deliver. Three hundred and eighty-four pallets. A strange number, if I may say. And eight sanitary facilities.”

I nodded. Michael signed. “There is not space for five hundred and twelve, as you can see,” he said. I relayed this in thought.

The octopus saluted. I won’t try to describe it, except to say that if you have seen in your mind Bart Vorsprong laughing, you should have no difficulty seeing this.

Frenzied activity ensued. A team of eight Garut’nim unloaded, carried and installed the pallets. With each pallet, there was a gym-mat. I thought, this is going to be about as comfortable for the inmates as a prison camp, or even an English boys’ boarding school. There were also eight human-style toilets. Whoever had planned this particular delivery – Balzo, I presumed – obviously intended the punishment to last a while.

Lily and Sabrina were enjoying themselves. Clambering like children over the rising tiers. And indicating to the Garut’nim where they should next apply their dexterity.

All was done, then the octopus came back to us. “Second signature,” he sent. “Proof of delivery.” Michael signed again, then the octopus sent, “Third signature? Acceptance of delivery?”

“I’ll let Lily and Sabrina decide that,” I said, “when they come down.” I signalled to them. Two grown women, treating prison-camp bunks as if they were trees to be climbed and swung down from.

They came. “Are these pallets properly put together?” I asked. “Yes,” said Lily, “these bunks will support the weight of even the very fattest politicians.”

Satisfied, I said to Michael, “Please sign acceptance.”

He held out the clipboard to me. “You can sign this. Acceptance of delivery is always delayed for four Garut’nim weeks. By which time, your signature will be on the formal records.”

I signed. The octopus sent, “I thank you. When we deal with new species, it is often difficult. I am glad that you Humans appreciate us. The Garut’nim are ever at your service.”

“Wow,” said Michael after the pod had blasted off. “You’ve just made some new friends.”

Monday, 7 April 2014

Chapter 27. Many Follow-ups

The first repercussion of our meeting was immediate and obvious. Michael, whose turn it was to pilot the daily ride, pleaded that he had too much work to do, and turned the duty over to Gabriel.

The second repercussion was almost as obvious. Gabriel, too, was weary after his day’s efforts. It was the gentlest ride yet.

Next morning, six of us met again. Harv’I, having expressed satisfaction with the outcome of Monday’s meeting, elected not to take part. Not needing the communications equipment in room 13, we therefore decided to meet in the common room.

The common room had two- and four-seat sofas for about 30 people. (32, actually – Galactics usually do things in powers of 2.) So far, we had only used it as a last, pleasant resort between dinner and bed, and as somewhere to relax on Sundays. But it would come into its own once the trainees were with us. Being the largest room in the building after the dining room, it would also have to double as a classroom.

Michael, Gabriel and I sat. Bart flowed off his climbing-frame and on to a four-seat sofa. The Tuglay chose to stay on their skateboards.

I began with Michael. “How are your notes of yesterday’s meeting?” I asked. “I have a lot of material,” Michael replied. “I am going to have to cut it all down to a summary.”

“If you need any help,” said Bart, “I have done the task before. Also, I think I know what Balzo will expect.” “Let the three of us meet afterwards to help Michael put his notes in order,” I said.

Then to Michael, “Have you entered Bart’s two lists into the Pedia yet?” “Yes,” he said, “I did that last evening. That was why I let Gabriel pilot.”

“Good. Are you happy to continue as recorder, for this meeting also?” Michael nodded.

Next, “Let us review what resources we will need during the project. First, the Punishment Pit. I understand the human-scale furnishings for the Pit should arrive soon?” “Yes,” said Michael, “a week today a cargo pod is scheduled to arrive with them. There will be Garut’nim to move everything into position and to build the pallets.”

“I would like to ask for volunteers from the Team to supervise this work,” I said. “Let’s discuss that at a meeting of all of us with the full Team. I’d like to be ready for such a meeting by tomorrow morning. We can also discuss then how we review and extend Bart’s lists of those to be Pulled for punishment and for training. And how we set up the monitoring, and who does what.” Everyone seemed happy with this.

“Are there any other resources we will need?” I asked. “For example, on P-Day – as I am calling it – I assume we will Pull those for punishment into this building, then we will need some way of getting them down to the Pit while they are still unconscious.”

“I would not advise you to try to Pull from the Pit,” said Gabriel. “The force fields down there are confused. So yes, we must Pull them into this building. I think we already have some trolleys which could be used to wheel them down to the Pit. Ben is the person to check with.”

“OK,” I said. “Next, the trainees. We have already discussed bedrooms for them. Whether we go for Plan A or B, we expect to have two classes, each of up to 32, here at one time. Tuglaydum, Tuglaydee, do we have enough space and furniture for your classes?”

“The dining-room and this room are both suitable,” said Tuglaydum. “We will need chairs and tables, pencils and paper, and three or four Pedia terminals for each class. We have no other large equipment.”

“We have enough tables and chairs in the store-room underneath for 80 people,” said Michael. “But I think we will have to re-arrange the rooms each morning and evening. This room will be a classroom by day, and a common room in the evening.”

“I don’t think that should be a problem,” I said. “We should have plenty of willing hands.

“Now, to victuals. We need to discuss how things will work when there are 80-odd people here. This will need so many of the Team, that I think we should take it as part of the main Team meeting.” General agreement.

“We will also need to check over the clothing, shoe and linen stock with Shami, and work out how she will manage so many people requiring her services. That probably needs only me, Michael and Gabriel, though Bart, please come if you want. I think we can do that this afternoon.” Again, agreed.

“Now two matters for you, Michael and Gabriel, to ponder. First, the daily ride. So far, most of the Team have been going pretty much every day. Except Lily, who has been going twice!” (Laughter.) “I don’t know whether the take-up rate among the trainees will be that high, but if it is, we are going to have to do one of two things. One, up the number of opportunities, perhaps shortening the rides in the process. Two, institute a roster.”

“I think we can easily expand the supply to meet the demand,” said Gabriel. “We may perhaps need to start a little earlier, but that depends on the Tuglay’s classroom hours.”

“Normally, we will teach in class from the 9 to the 12, and the 13 to the 16,” said Tuglaydee. “Six days a week. We will omit the first hour on Friday, because of the meeting. There will often be individual sessions as well. These are usually half an hour or maximum an hour, and we will do them between the 16 and the 18. So every trainee will have at least an hour free between the 16 and the 18.”

“Then it seems we have no problem there,” I said. “But what about journeys on Sundays? If everyone wants to go – and I expect most will – we need to take five groups, not two. Depending on where we are going, that may mean an earlier start for the first group, a later finish for the last, or a shorter time spent there for all.”

“I think we will have to look at each Sunday individually,” said Michael.

“Last, for this morning,” I said, “we need to get a handle on how long all this is going to take. Let’s just think about Plan A for now. First, we need to flesh out the lists of trainees – particularly of the first wave – and of those to be punished. That’s a couple of weeks at least. Then we need to start monitoring those we want to Pull in the first wave. It’s not clear to me how long that will take. Michael and Gabriel, have you any idea?”

“If you are going to Pull them one by one, and it doesn’t matter exactly when, then one Perinent working day on each individual or couple, spread over some weeks, should be sufficient,” said Gabriel. If you are going to Pull them all at once, though, you need to spend about three times as long. Even then, you won’t get all of them at exactly the moment you want.”

“So that’s 52 man-days for 12 couples and 40 individuals. Now, Galina’s machine will be used mainly for news collection, and there will also be some time needed for Pulling food and drink. So I think we must assume only 4 machines for monitoring. That is 13 days. It sounds like we should allow three to four weeks to monitor and Pull them all?”

“Let’s bear in mind, also,” said Michael, “that the Time of Storms is coming. It is quite a disruptive season. In three or four weeks from now, there will be a week, or perhaps two, in which you cannot do much work, if any. There is little point in Pulling any trainees here until the Time of Storms is over.”

“Right,” I continued. “Then, Tuglaydum, Tuglaydee, your training course I believe takes ten to twelve weeks for these numbers – two groups, each of up to 32?” “Correct,” said Tuglaydum.

“We could start one group perhaps a couple of weeks ahead of the other, if we wanted. Is that a good idea?”

“I think probably not,” said Tuglaydum. “If the two groups start together, we can move individuals so the strongest are all in the same group. Competition between them will then help to drive them forward.”

“In the meanwhile,” I went on, “we will be monitoring the individuals to be Pulled for punishment, and the second wave of trainees. This is a lot of effort – several hundred Perinent man-days, though anyone in the Team can do the work. The critical resource is that we only have five machines.”

“It looks to me,” said Bart, “as though we can do it in the time it takes to train two waves. But not in half that time. That, by the way, is an argument against Plan B. Without more machines, you wouldn’t have enough time to monitor those to be punished closely enough to Pull them all at once.”

I nodded, having reached the same conclusion. “So we are looking, roughly, at six weeks from now to Pulling our first trainees, say three more to assemble the first wave, and twelve weeks to train them. At which point, we send them by Naudar’I ship back to Earth. We Pull the second wave of trainees rather more quickly – say, a week. There’s then another twelve weeks to train them, and only then are we ready to Pull those to be punished, send the second wave back, and have them join the first wave who have arrived by ship.

“That’s 34 weeks, gentlemen. Not far short of a year on Perinent, or a little over seven Earth months. It’s a long time to wait until we can even start the revolution.”

“You need not worry,” said Bart. “Your timescale is short by the standards of other projects. The Skobar project took many weeks longer. And they only had one wave of trainees.”

“And now, the big question,” I said. “What have I forgotten? What have we missed?”

“I am not sure yet,” said Bart, “but Balzo will know. By tomorrow, you and I will have enough to write down a detailed plan. If we get it to Balzo on Thursday, he will review it before our meeting on Friday.

“I know Balzo’s reputation. He is good at these things.”

* * *

The rest of the week passed much as planned. There was enough time on the Tuesday afternoon to allow Bart, guided by Dede, to visit Harv’I. “I have never had the opportunity to meet an Elo’I directly before,” he said.

On the Wednesday, Ray was not pleased at being asked to change from preparing all Earthly food to a diet mainly of Seraphim food, though he did understand the reasons why. Nor was Cees pleased that he wouldn’t be doing as many Earthly procurement Pulls as before. “I really enjoyed Pulling that lamb from that president’s store,” he said. “You can still do that kind of thing,” I replied, “just not as often.”

And Sabrina took charge of Bart’s lists, and realized that the job she had volunteered for was one of the toughest among all the Team.

We talked also about how we could flesh out Bart’s lists. Where Team members suggested individuals to add to the punishment list, they would be investigated by John and Galina, who would report back to the rest of the Team. A show of hands would save or condemn (and, in the event of a tie, we would ask Harv’I to be an impartial judge.)

Trainee candidates suggested by the Team, if they were public figures, would be dealt with the same way. If they were friends, I would appoint a member of the Team as “devil’s advocate” to say why they should not be brought to Perinent for training. And the sponsor and the devil’s advocate would debate before a jury of three – nominated by me in each case, but not including me.

Bart and I had our plan and timescales finished early on the Thursday – though we hadn’t bothered to do much work on Plan B. We circulated the draft to everyone, Harv’I included. We received many helpful comments, but in the end there was little change, except that my desire to Pull the second wave all in one week had been replaced by a more realistic three weeks. There were 36 Perinent weeks from now to P-Day. Gabriel sent the plan by mescap to Balzo about lunchtime.

On the Friday morning, we met as before in Room 13. Again, I controlled the communication with Harv’I, and Gabriel with Balzo.

Balzo did not waste time. His first mescap said a lot. “Ur work, Bart and Nil,” he said, “is excepshunal. I do not fault anything in it. I approve ur Plan A. It is within our budget.

“I have searched for a sootable ship to convey ur first trainee group to Earth. The standard journey from Perinent to Earth is eight to nine Earth weeks. U allow fifteen Perinent weeks, or almost fourteen Earth. Slow ships are uncomfortable, so I propose an indirect route.

“Ur group will change ships at Socotera-5. The wait will be about four Earth weeks. Accommodation will be Seraphim standard throughout. And the Seraphimobile and pilots to take the Hoomans to Earth and to defend them there will meet them at Socotera. Unless, perhaps, I can find a pair of Seraphim who can go first to Perinent.

“Bart, are u happy with this?”

“Socotera-5,” said Bart, “is a planet with similar gravity to Perinent, slightly less than Earth’s. It is quite cold by Galactic standards – even colder than your Earth. But it is a favoured waiting-point for those with ships to catch, because the Socoterans are good at providing environments comfortable for each visiting species.”

With acceptance of this route, I sent more questions to Balzo. “How long will we the Team – and Harv’I – need to remain on Perinent after P-Day? And what will we be doing in that time?”

“U will be interfaring,” replied Balzo. “U will be Pulling more individals for punishment. For this phase, if necessary, I will send either Bart again, or perhaps my assistant Lohman, to guide u.

“As to how long, it is hard to say. From prevous projects, I think perhaps six Earth months, thirty or so Perinent weeks. But it may be longer.

“Once the Board has decided u are fit to be Junors, we will take Michael, Gabrel and u the Team back to Earth in a first class ship – smaller, faster and more comfortable than the one u came to Perinent in. Ur return journey will take about four Earth weeks.

“Meanwhile, Harv’I, if u leave once the Board have made their decizhun, u will have plenty of time to reach Earth before the Team do.” Harv’I concurred.

“Then,” said Balzo, “U will all jon the celebrashuns on Earth. I too hope to be there.”

Bart left us on the Saturday morning, to fond farewells. Kenny could come out of hiding at last.

Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Chapter 26. A Meeting of Minds

Monday was warm and sunny again, but with a hint of cloud away to the south-west. It was going to be the most crucial day of the whole project. What we agreed in today’s meeting would strongly affect, not only our own futures, but also the futures of everyone on Earth.

We assembled in the room I used for my Pulling and Pushing. It was number 13. It was a comfortable, spacious and well air-conditioned Earth style hotel room, with the window facing west.

Now, imagine the scene. I sat at a small desk near the south-west corner of the room, with a Pedia terminal to communicate with Harv’I. Bart Vorsprong in his climbing-frame was in front of me, under the window, close to where my chalk circle had been. Beyond Bart, towards the north-west corner, the Tuglay on their skateboards. And Michael and Gabriel sitting on the bed. Gabriel, further from me and nearer the bed-head, had the Pulling and Pushing machine, and several mescaps. Michael, who I had asked to be secretary of the meeting, had another Pedia terminal, this one with a printer.

“Let us begin now,” I said on the stroke of the 9. “First, let us check our communications with Balzo and Harv’I.”

Gabriel Pushed a mescap, with a message of greetings to Balzo from all of us. I typed a short message into the Pedia, and Harv’I replied instantly. “Good day to you all, and cordial greetings to Balzo and Bart,” was his message. I read it out to those assembled in the room.

It took Balzo several minutes to reply, and when he did, his message was rather longer. Gabriel read it out to us.

“I greet u all, Bart, Harv’I, Nil, Gabrel, Michael, Tuglaydum and Tuglaydee. U have successfully reached my personal office.

“I have with me Lohman. He is my assistant, and a champon Pusher too. He will Push my mescaps to u by the direct protocol. I have also with me Olgal. She has voluntaired to help on this project. I think her expairence of what happened on Skobar will be ooseful to us.

“First administrative matter. Who will lead the meeting, and who will be recorder?”

“I will chair the meeting,” I said. “I have already asked Michael to be secretary. Is everyone here happy with that?” General assent.

We had no scanner, so I had to type a summary of Balzo’s message for Harv’I. Meanwhile, Michael typed a message about my role and his, and printed out the result. He handed it to Gabriel, who Pushed it in a mescap to Balzo. He also copied it into Harv’I’s area, so Harv’I could see what we sent to Balzo.

“Good,” was Balzo’s reply about a minute later. “Second administrative matter. How much of our time do u need, and what meeting protocol will u oose with us?”

I was a bit at a loss what this meant, but Bart unwound part of himself for the first time, and said, “What we usually do in meetings by mescap is batch up ideas and questions to be sent to the remote party. Then we send them at regular intervals. I would suggest we start by sending Balzo a mescap about once each Perinent hour. We can change the timing later if we need to.”

“That sounds good,” I said. “It has the advantage, too, that to Balzo, Harv’I – though he too is remote from us – will not appear any different from those in this room.”

“Balzo is also asking how long we will continue today,” said Michael.

“My plan,” I said, “is to try to discuss as much as possible today. But to leave aside anything needing further research. We can deal with those things in the remaining days Bart is here. We will also need at least one break. I suggest we set our hours from the 9 to the 12, then the 13 to the 16.”

“I am happy with that,” said Bart. “Neil, you are a hard master,” said Michael. “But yes, Bart’s and Balzo’s time with us is limited, so we must use it as best we can.”

“Good,” I said. “Michael, can you summarize what we have just agreed, for Balzo? I would like us all – including Harv’I – to hear or see it, and comment before it goes.”

Our reply must have answered Balzo’s questions, for his next mescap said, “This protocol is good to us. I, Lohman and Olgal will be available today until 16 of the Perinent 22.

“Now, third and final administrative matter. What do we have to discuss?”

I had already prepared a printed agenda. It was based on the list of questions from my speech two Fridays before. I had added to it, with help from Harv’I, questions about how long it would take to do each of the things we needed to do. I had primed Gabriel to send this agenda as soon as Balzo asked about it. So it went within ten seconds of Balzo’s message arriving.

A minute later, there came another reply. “Bart told me,” Gabriel read out, “u Hoomans have much execitive ability. He spoke truth. I wait, now, ur next mescap. In about one hour.”

“Do you think,” I said, “we should use a similar protocol with Harv’I? But much more frequently, obviously. If I have to relay to Harv’I everything we say in this room, my slow typing will be holding up the whole meeting.

“Should we send Harv’I a summary, and bring him into the discussion, every ten minutes or so? Then I will only need to type for about one minute every ten. What I send to Harv’I should be helpful for Michael’s records, too.” Michael nodded. “And there is no problem in the other direction – Harv’I is very quick to answer.”

“That is a good idea,” said Bart. I put the suggestion to Harv’I, and he agreed.

“To business,” I said. “Let us begin with my first question. How do we pick the particular individuals to be Pulled for punishment?”

Bart used his nose to open a small chest attached to his climbing-frame. “I have prepared,” he said, “a preliminary list.” Dipping in, he came out with a scroll in his mouth. He reached over and laid the scroll on the bed beside Michael. Michael opened it and passed it to me. It was in English – fortunately. I ran my eye down the list of about 150 names, with countries, cities and positions, to within a few tens of metres, of their homes, offices or both. It contained most of the expected suspects, and a few I hadn’t heard of. My respect for Bart went up – he obviously knew a lot about what was happening on Earth.

I gave it back to Michael. “Good work, Bart. Let us enter this list into the Pedia after the meeting,” I said. “From my side, I have two Team members, John and Galina, finding out as much as they can about events on Earth, and keeping our knowledge up to date. A third, Sabrina, has volunteered to keep dossiers on the individuals we are to Pull.

“I understand we have space to punish a little less than four hundred.” Michael nodded. “So we will need to be selective about our choices. We could take every head of state on Earth if we wanted to, but that wouldn’t leave much space for other baddies. So I think a first wave of 150 or so is a good start.

“By the way” – I turned to Michael – “do you know when the furnishings for the Punishment Pit are due to arrive?” “In a little over a week from now,” he replied.

“I think,” I went on, “that we can leave the question of exactly which individuals are to be punished to a later meeting with the Team. Is everyone happy with that?” Assent. “Please record that, Michael, and I will send it to Harv’I also, with a request for any ideas he has.”

“My second question. How do we know where these individuals are most likely to be at any time? We can get their general locations from Bart’s list or from the news we Pull, but we need to be more specific. We can find out much by tracking them to their homes and observing their habits. But that is a lot of work.”

“I know it well,” said Gabriel with a grimace. “Michael and I had to do exactly that for the Team, before we picked you up from Earth. It took the two of us about four Earth weeks, working at six hours a day.”

“You mean to say,” I said, aghast, “that you were spying on us for almost a month before picking us up?”

“Yes, we watched you, it is true,” said Gabriel. “But we did not spy on you to catch you out, like Earthly governments do. We were not interested in the detail of what you were doing. We recorded nothing except whatever was strictly necessary for us to work out where you were likely to be, when it came time to pick you up.”

Bart sent a clearing of the throat. A strange thing for an anaconda to do, you may think; but it made it obvious that he wanted to move on. “I know,” he said, “that Balzo and his team monitored the Skobar exactly as you describe. However, we must consider another question too. Do you want to Pull them all at once – as Balzo did – or one by one? If one by one, since they are virtually all public figures, there will be times when you know exactly where they will be. If all at once, then I fear you must put in many weeks of monitoring work, to know where they are most likely to be at the particular moment.”

“That question,” I said, “is one of the most important for our project. And I don’t want to try to answer it yet.”

Then, “It is time to bring Harv’I into the discussion again.” His view was that Balzo had likely got his strategy right with the Skobar, but we should keep both options open for now. And he had no strong suggestions to offer on who we should Pull for punishment.

“Let us consider another question,” I went on. “How do we pick the individuals to be trained? Before that, how many can we train? And before that, even” – looking at the Tuglay – “how long will it take to train each?”

“Our standard Galactic values and leadership course takes about eight Perinent weeks,” replied Tuglaydum. “We can teach two classes at a time, with up to about 32 in each class. Then there are individual sessions beyond that. But some will learn quicker than others. I think you should allow ten to twelve weeks for each trainee, if we have two classes of 32 here at once. Slightly less if the classes are smaller.”

I continued, “OK. Now, there are 64 human rooms in the hotel. The Team occupy seven. I prefer to leave the five machines in unallocated rooms, so different people can use them for monitoring work. Remember, anyone in the Team can do monitoring – they don’t need to be able to Pull.

“That leaves us with 52. All the rooms have double beds. So we can train up to about 12 couples and 40 singles. That makes up your 64, Tuglaydum.”

“We could train more, if we did it in two or more waves,” said Bart.

“Yes,” I replied, “but what do we do with the ones we train first? We could send them back to Earth to wait for the second lot, but that would put them in an impossible position. We can’t keep them here. Is there anywhere else we could house them, till we are ready to send them back to Earth?”

“That, I think, is one to ask Balzo,” said Bart. All of us agreed.

I brought Harv’I into the discussion again. Even if we sent the first group back to Earth all together, he said, it would still make sense to have a second group in training. As reinforcements for later, and as a backup if things with the first group went seriously wrong. “An excellent point,” I said.

“Let us consider, now, how we select the trainees. Bart,” I said – hoping beyond hope – “have you done any work on this?”

Bart lifted his head, then made a stately bow. Everyone laughed. “Yes, I have done some work,” he said. “As you know, I picked the Team in the first place. This task was several times larger than that, but from all the information I had, I managed to squeeze a shortlist of possibilities.” More laughter.

Bart put his head in the chest again, and came out with a second scroll. He gave it to Michael, who opened it and handed it to me. It had about 75 names on it, with the same details as the other list. In addition, some of them were marked as having partners who would be worth training too.

“Time out,” I said. It was 10 and a quarter of the 22, about fifty minutes since we had sent the last mescap. “We have 10 minutes to put together our next message to Balzo. Michael, please use the summaries we prepared for Harv’I as the basis for what we have agreed so far. Please include Harv’I’s contributions.

“We have only one question for Balzo so far. Can we house a group who have completed training, without sending them back to Earth, while we train another?”

It was done and sent, then Michael said “Tea break,” got up and left the room. I had asked the kitchen team to have tea ready at all times, so it was less than two minutes before he returned. He had water for Bart and the Tuglay too, as he knew only he, Gabriel and I would take tea.

Balzo’s reply came. “Ur progress is excellent, and I concur with all ur thinking,” it said. “As to housing trainees after training, it is a matter of budget. I cannot say possible or no, until the plan is more detaled.”

We continued. In the second session, we agreed that we would invite everyone in the Team to suggest anyone they knew who might be suitable for training. For we now expected to have to look for two waves of trainees totalling over 120 people, while Bart’s list had only about 75, plus 20 or so partners.

We discussed whether we should tell the trainees anything before Pulling them. Bart’s opinion was no, it would not gain anything, and might be a security risk. Harv’I and Gabriel concurred. I was not so sure. My main worry was, what to do with someone who decided after we Pulled them that they did not want to co-operate. “We cannot send them back to Earth until after the project is over,” I said. “They would know too much.”

“If that happens,” said Bart, “though I think it unlikely, we could send them on a holiday to some Galactic resort, until our project is finished.”

We discussed whether we should let the trainees communicate with Earth while on Perinent. We decided to do as Balzo had done with the Skobar, let each send one message to family or friends telling them they were safe, and to wait for their return. “But not by mescap,” I said. “I don’t want to send any more mescaps to Earth. Sheets of paper will do. I certainly don’t want us Pulling mescaps back from Earth – that is a major security risk.”

We broadened the topic, and discussed supplies in general. “Pulling our food and drink from Earth works fine at the moment,” I said. “But if we continue, it will become harder with time, as those we take from increase their precautions. Also, I am concerned how much time our Pullers would spend each day scouring Earth for supplies for eighty people. Particularly when the machines would be better used in monitoring those we plan to Pull later. Is it possible,” I asked Michael, “to have packages of fresh supplies for us put together on Seraph, so we can Pull, say, a day’s worth in one go?”

“Yes, it is possible,” said Michael. “In fact, it is what we originally intended.”

“Then let us do that from next week,” I said. “Except, of course, we will continue to Pull Earth’s finest for special occasions.”

In the last mescap before we broke for lunch – but that was a misnomer, for none of the participants ate a midday meal – I asked Balzo three questions. One, how did he think we should best deal with anyone, whom we Pulled for training, but who refused to co-operate? Two, how had he ensured the safety of the trained after they were sent back to Skobar? And three, was there anything about the Skobar project that he would do differently if he were doing it again?

* * *

Having made Balzo work while we rested, we had his reply when we resumed. I have paraphrased it below.

There had been two Skobar Pulled for training, who were reluctant to undergo the training and to become leaders. As Bart suggested, they had been sent instead to a resort for a holiday. But they were laughed at when they finally arrived back on Skobar. In our case, we must try our hardest to persuade the unwilling to carry on, but if not, we would have to do the same. It certainly wouldn’t be an expensive resort, though.

And if he had the Skobar project again, the two things he would change were already dealt with on our project. One, he would not have Pulled the Skobar team to Perinent; he would have taken them there by ship. And two, he would have used Tuglay teachers instead of Avallin.

Also, he would not wish to change the order he did things in. Pulling all those for punishment in one go, so causing one great panic instead of many smaller ones, had worked well with the Skobar. Olgal agreed with this.

As to the trainees, his team had Pulled them one by one. He had kept them all together on Perinent until the great panic, and then sent them all back in one wave. They were safe because they were the only Skobar offering a believable solution (“solushun”) to the troubles.

But, Balzo added at the end, he was not qualified in human (“hooman”) psychology. He would defer to Bart and me on whether this was the best way forward for us.

In the next session, we discussed our plan. We sketched out two alternatives. In both, we would Pull the trainees one by one over a few weeks, so not to arouse any more suspicion than we had to. But, when they were all trained, the two plans diverged.

In Plan A, we would send the first group back to Earth on a Galactic ship – Harv’I’s suggestion. Then we would Pull a second group of trainees, and train them. When the first group were near Earth and the second trained, we would Pull as many of the individuals to be punished as we could at the same time, in one concerted operation.

Following this, we would monitor the panic, and Pull for punishment any politicals that tried to take advantage of it to make more trouble. We would then Push the second group back, timed at or shortly after the arrival of the first group on Earth. Whatever Galactic vessel or vessels delivered the first group to Earth would be around to give hell to anyone that tried to harm any of our people.

Plan B was simpler and cheaper, but less sure. We only had one group of trainees, instead of two. As in Plan A, we would Pull those to be punished in one operation. We would then Push the trainees back as soon as possible. If we could have a Galactic ship near Earth to guarantee their safety, we would use that. If not, we could send the one interstellar ship we already had allocated to the project, Harv’I’s.

Harv’I was somewhat reluctant about this idea. Though he confirmed his ship could reach Earth from Perinent in a few weeks, and it (and he) had enough firepower to do the job.

I tried to enthuse Harv’I about landing in St. Peter’s Square, showing off his father’s trick, and then telling the pope what he thought of him. But he thought I was joking. Perhaps I was.

* * *

In the final session of the day, we went through the plans with Balzo. “Plan B is well within our budget,” he sent, “if Harv’I is willing to be policeman. Otherwise it depends on what vessel can be nair Earth at that time. I doubt any Seraphimobiles are schedooled to be there, and to send a Naudar’I ship would be far too expensive. There might be a third-party opshun. I will have to check what is feasible.

“But I like Plan A better,” he continued. “We get twice as many trainees. And to send one group by ship while u train and then Push the second group, I find plain and elegant.”

I picked up Balzo’s joke – even leaving aside Pushing, three means of transport all in the same sentence. And he had made a brave try for a fourth – elephant. Bart and I exchanged amused glances.

“The extra resources u need for Plan A are three,” continued Balzo. “One, travel in a standard class Naudar’I ship from Perinent to Earth for up to 64 Hoomans. Two, transport for them from the ship’s docking stashun to Earth. Three, protecshun as needed when they reach Earth.

“That looks to me like one 64-passenger, fully armed Seraphimobile. And two Seraphim to pilot it. I am not certain up to now, but I think Plan A can work.”

“I know Avor’I,” said Bart quietly to me. “Balzo means he will approve Plan A. We should not spend too much effort on Plan B.”

“So, the pope will be denied his audience with Harv’I?” I replied. Bart laughed.

* * *

We ended by agreeing on a further meeting beginning at 9 of the 22 on the Friday. Four Perinent days was close to three Avoran days, so that was convenient for Balzo. It was also convenient to Bart’s timetable. Balzo would find out the costs of the options we had outlined. In the meantime, Bart and I would produce draft plans A and B, with timescales against each activity. We were to send them to Balzo by mescap on or before Thursday.

After the partings were completed, I suddenly felt exhausted. Michael was sweating. Gabriel looked under stress. Then Bart said, “In my long time in the Company, I have never before been in a meeting like this. Usually it would take a week or more to achieve such progress. Even with Avor’I involved. But as a result, even I am weary.” And he flexed himself in his climbing-frame.

“Let’s meet at the 9 tomorrow morning to follow up,” I said.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Chapter 25. Of Professor Bart Vorsprong

On the Saturday afternoon, Gabriel, as he had promised, brought Bart Vorsprong to us. It was quite a to-do to get a six metre long, fast asleep, light green anaconda from the Seraphimobile into one of the rooms. Ben and Ray, the two biggest and strongest Team members, helped Michael and Gabriel carry him in.

Bart also had with him several chests of food. For his biochemistry was, unfortunately, not compatible with the food that was available on Perinent. He had a large climbing-frame on castors, the Tefla equivalent of a comfortable and easily moveable armchair. And he had a translator, with spools of paper which moved from one side to the other in front of his eyes, and on which the dots of the Tefla language could be displayed.

The translator had also a clasp, to attach it securely to what I can best describe as Bart’s neck. And, between and below the reels, a bottle of dark red liquid, darker than any wine. The Ink Drink, which Tefla use to write – or, perhaps, I should say speak – with.

“How long will Bart be here?” I asked Gabriel. “The plan is seven to nine days,” he replied. “But he has supplies for fourteen.”

* * *

Next morning, purple-robed and heading from the Pedia room towards breakfast after my daily chat with Harv’I, I met Bart Vorsprong in the passageway.

“Greetings,” he wrote/said to me. “I am Professor Bart Vorsprong of the Tefla of Tefla-4, and I am your project consultant.”

“I greet you, Bart,” I replied. “I am Neil, Team Leader of the Humans, and I hope you had a good journey.”

It was a little while before he replied. I realized I had to get used to this, because, although Bart wrote quickly, the reels of paper moved quite slowly.

“I had to sleep long and deep,” said Bart. “Travel is not kind to us Tefla. But my coils are now unwound, thank you.”

“Good,” I said. “I understand you have your own food, but will you meet with us at our breakfast?”

“I have already breakfasted,” he replied. “I am happy to meet your Team now.”

I had a sudden thought. Bart Vorsprong was the acknowledged Galactic expert on humans. Yet I was the first human he had ever met face to face.

At breakfast, I introduced Bart to the Team. He was well received by all its human members. Kenny, however, obviously decided that having a six metre long snake in his patch was bad news. He retired, with some speed, to the kitchen, where Jenna tried to console him with extra rations of food and milk.

When Gabriel arrived, he was carrying another mescap. “From Balzo,” he said. “All is well. Balzo will be ready to begin the meeting at 9 of the 22, Perinent time, tomorrow. And we don’t need to use Basic; we can send and receive everything in English.”

* * *

The Team had decided that today we would repeat the trip of the first Sunday, the walk in the mountains to the south-west. I was surprised when Bart said, “Yes, I will come. I love beautiful places, and I am told these mountains are beautiful. My normal pace is a little quicker than your human walk, but I am happy to go round about.”

“There is another advantage of having Bart with us,” said Gabriel. “We shall not need a laser gun. If a D’Leinotl tried to attack us, Bart would simply give it a hug.”

“Yes,” said Bart. “We Tefla have a way to deal with predators. We call it Hug the Thug.”

Laughter from the Team. “I suppose,” I said, hoping that the stories about the Tefla sense of humour were true, “that you could also call it Spoils in your Coils.”

“Quite so,” said Bart, with a shaking motion of his foremost metre or so, which I interpreted as laughter.

* * *

As before, Lily and I went in the morning group. This time, Gabriel piloted, and Michael led the walk. Otherwise, strangely, it was exactly the same group as three weeks before. Except that we also had Bart Vorsprong with us, cramming his ample length into the back seats as best he could.

The weather was, if possible, even better than at our last visit. Certainly, warmer; 30 degrees or so at our starting altitude.

This time, Shami elected to stay in the ’mobile. To begin with, Gabriel kept it close to us, flying in lazy curves, occasionally adding a sudden burst of speed or a sharp turn. But after twenty minutes or so, he obviously decided we didn’t need any help for a while, so he was going to give Shami an experience.

He set the ’mobile down a little way in front and to the right of us, pointing it towards the high mountain slopes to our left. Shami waved to us as we came up towards her. Then suddenly the ’mobile started moving, her head went back, and we saw her smile as the ride took her.

Less than ten seconds bumping over the meadow, then the ’mobile climbed at an ever steepening angle towards the peaks. Less than thirty seconds after that, we saw it pass the highest peak. It was fifteen minutes before we saw it again.

I spent most of the walk with Lily and Bart. It was a bit disconcerting to have a six-metre snake going round and round you. Even if he hardly ever came within a metre of us. But, when he was not talking to us, he forged ahead, and would often come back with some illuminating comment about the flora or fauna of Perinent.

Bart also let off a few puns, and I realized I was in the presence of a master. I replied as best I could, but I soon knew I was a second-rate pun gent. Still, a bond formed between us. Lily was unfazed; puns were not really her style, but she knew how important it was that Bart and I got on well together.

When we came to the higher meadows, they were full of insects, as Gabriel had predicted three weeks before. But Bart was not happy; he found Perinent insects annoying. And his biochemistry wouldn’t let him eat them.

We came to the green mound. Gabriel brought the ’mobile down, and offered to take to the top those who didn’t want to walk. Only Dede insisted on walking up with Michael, and then only because he hadn’t done it the previous time.

The rest of us enjoyed a brief, exhilarating journey up the mound, which, getting ever steeper, provided a perfect springboard for the high-speed loop which followed.

On the way back to the camp, Lily said to me, “Would you like to go again with the afternoon group? Let’s stay in the ’mobile. I will check with Michael that it is OK for us to go twice.”

“Yes, please,” I said. “As long as he promises to give us that same ride Shami had this morning, up to the peaks. Preferably more than once.”

Wednesday, 12 March 2014

Chapter 24. Of a Quiet Interlude

For the next two weeks, our lives were mainly routine. But…

There was the mescap which Gabriel Pulled back from Ray and Jenna’s neighbours, Paul and Melinda. They were on our side.

There was the slightly joyless Sunday, which Michael, Gabriel and the Team spent in four groups of four, meeting first Harv’I, and then the Cherubim. It was the first cloudy day since we had been on Perinent, which was probably why the Team were a bit subdued. Though Harv’I’s pillar of fire and smoke, which close up was loud as well as spectacular, did cause amazement and some amusement. As did his story about his father’s doings on Earth – though Lily in particular, being of the religious persuasion, looked a bit scandalized.

The Punishment Pit, and the Cherubim’s attitude, also caused some raised eyebrows and a few chuckles. But by the end of the day, I was thinking that Sunday was supposed to be Fun-day, and maybe the joylessness was my fault.

Gabriel picked this up. “Next Sunday, we will take you in the ’mobile to The Canyon,” he said. “That will be fun.”

Still, one excellent result came out of the visit to Harv’I – the “God is a Penguin” T-shirts, which Marie designed soon after. It was a good likeness too, and many of us liked to wear them underneath our robes.

Then there were my troubles with Cees. He wanted to Pull a human being now, but I wouldn’t allow it. “All in good time,” I said. Eventually, exasperated, I said to him, “Pull an elephant.” He did. And sent it back.

Elise was dischuffed. “What kind of elephant was it?” she asked. “Indian, I think,” I replied.

Next afternoon, we had a full-grown African elephant outside the east door. Sent back, without hitch, but not before Galina had several minutes of footage.

There were my growing skills – and Hoong’s, and Galina’s – in Pulling and Pushing. We could all Pull and Push medium-sized animals now. I wanted to get my metaphorical mitts on the worst of the politicians, as soon as possible. But I knew that it was not yet time.

Then there was John and Galina’s project to make a record of our doings at Camp Two. Including, even, some of what Galina saw in the remote eye from various places on Earth.

But, “Galina should try not to spend too much time in simultaneity,” Michael said to me. “It could make it easier for the politicals to detect us. She can continue to browse, but she should not engage the force fields unless it is actually necessary to Pull or Push.”

I put four and four together, and on this occasion got nine. I told John and Galina that, if willing to volunteer of course, they were now our chief information gatherers. They should Pull newspapers and relevant videos from Earth, scan them or have other Team members scan them for what was useful, and enter it into the Pedia for the rest of us. “When at last we are ready to strike,” I said, “we will need to know exactly who is who on Earth. Which of the current crop of politicians are the worst of the bad guys and must be Pulled for punishment, and which can be safely left.

“I’m sure you have seen the Earth section in the Pedia, which gives a lot of that kind of information. But it’s well out of date. It’s your job now to keep us updated.”

“Purveyors of news to His Majesty,” said John, amused. “Newshounds. That’s what you want us to be?”

“Right enough,” I replied.

Then there was the brainstorming session on the following Friday, to discuss the planning questions I had asked. From which, the main conclusion was that we weren’t yet ready to reach any conclusions. Though we did make one appointment. Sabrina volunteered for the admin job of keeping detailed dossiers on the individuals we planned to Pull, once we decided who they were.

Then there was my second progress report to Balzo. Elephantine escapades excepted, there wasn’t much progress to report.

Then there was the Sunday visit to the canyon. It was in a different mountain range to the one we had walked in two weeks before, about twenty minutes’ flight to the north of our camp. The canyon’s mouth was wide, and much of its lower course was walkable. The upper part, though, was narrow and near vertical. We spent several happy hours alternating between enjoying fast, high-g canyon rides, and walking – in the sun again – in the Arizona-like mountain landscape. Not to mention waving to our friends when the ’mobile came by at anything up to two hundred metres a second and about twenty metres above our heads.

Then there was the heavy shower which hit us on the following Tuesday. The first rain we had experienced on Perinent. “It is a precursor of the Time of Storms,” said Michael. “Showers like this will become more frequent, as the summer becomes hotter. We have probably four to six weeks now before the big storms come.”

Then, on Friday morning after breakfast, Gabriel said, “This evening, I will go with the ’mobile to pick up Bart Vorsprong. I will be back tomorrow afternoon, but my passenger will be asleep for many hours. So, you will meet him on Sunday morning.”

“Before you go,” I said to Gabriel, “please send a message to Balzo to tell him that we will start our meetings on Monday. And to request his presence via mescap, when it is convenient to him.”

That’s good, I thought to myself. It lets me out of doing today’s progress report.

Friday, 28 February 2014

Chapter 23. Of a Progress Report

Elated after my speech, but somewhat drained too, I set off to see Harv’I. I told him, at length, about what had happened during the week. I apologized for not spending more time communicating with him.

“No,” Harv’I said, “I am happy as things are. You are already doing very well. Please ask John and Galina to put your speech on the Pedia, so I can think about your questions too.”

I asked Harv’I if it was OK for the Team to come and meet him the following Sunday. “Fine,” he said. “But you must divide the Team into several smaller groups. There is not space enough, on that sofa you are sitting on, for more than four.”

“Will you tell your father’s story to each group in turn?” I asked. “Or would you prefer to write the story once, and put it on the Pedia?”

“I will tell it to each group,” Harv’I replied. “A story told twice is a story told better the second time. And, when John and Galina come, they can record me telling the story, too. So you can have it on the Pedia, as well as hearing it directly from me.”

Harv’I and I parted with many felicitations, and I walked on towards the elevator to the Punishment Pit. As I neared it, the lift arrived and its door opened. Perhaps Harv’I had sent a telepathic message to the Cherubim to tell them I was coming?

I got in the lift, and stood with my back to the blue wall. There was no button for me to press – as soon as I touched the wall, the door closed. I was better prepared for the near weightlessness than I had been the last time, but the deceleration was knee-bending. I made a mental note to look at equipping the lift with seats, or perhaps asking if the Cherubim could run it more slowly.

All four Cherubs greeted me at the exit. After the pleasantries, I said and sent to them, “I will come here to the Pit to meet with you every Friday, after I have spoken with Harv’I. If there is anything we need to talk over, that is the time to do it.

“Today, I want to ask you if it is OK for me to bring the Team to meet you, and to see the Pit, this Sunday. I expect there will be several small groups.”

“That to us good is,” sent the nearest Cherub. “You come four by four, is best.”

“I also noticed,” I sent, “that your lift, which I came down in, is very fast. Standing up, the extra weight put quite a strain on my body. If we are going to come here regularly, I would like to put seats in the lift. Alternatively, I don’t know if it’s possible to run it a bit slower?”

“We make it go slower,” sent the Cherub. “Half gravity, not full. You try on way up.”

There being no further business, we exchanged cordial partings. The journey up was indeed gentler than before – thirty seconds to cover the distance, instead of twenty. My knees remained intact. And, in place of the earlier weightlessness, I felt half my normal weight. Pleasant.

I continued on my trudge, back to the hotel.

* * *

I sat in the Pedia room, composing my report for Balzo. This is what I eventually wrote.

[BEGIN REPORT]

[PROGRESS THIS PERIOD]

  1. The Team have settled in. The accommodation is comfortable. The food and drink are excellent. The clothing facilities are adequate. The evening rides are most enjoyable.

  2. The Seraphim, Harv’I, the Tuglay and the Cherubim are all working well with the Team.

  3. Five of the Team have learned to Pull and Push inanimate objects. Four have Pulled small or medium-sized animals from Earth to Perinent, and a fifth is close. One has Pushed a medium-sized animal back to Earth, and a second is close.

  4. Many questions regarding project planning have been circulated to the Team.
[ACTIVITIES NEXT PERIOD]
  1. Continue preparations for Bart Vorsprong’s visit, and the detailed project planning.

  2. Continue Pulling and Pushing training.

  3. Assure that food, alcohol and other necessary supplies can be scaled up to match future predicted loads.

  4. Make the Team aware of the full implications of what we’re doing.
[CURRENT CRITICAL PROBLEMS]
  1. We have committed a potential security breach, by sending a mescap to Ray and Jenna’s neighbours in Australia. Address by monitoring. In extremis, Pull them here
[ANTICIPATED CRITICAL PROBLEMS]
  1. We don’t yet have enough knowledge to anticipate what Bart Vorsprong may require of us when he visits.

  2. I have no visibility of the project budget.
[CONCLUSION]

A good start. Much yet to do.

[END REPORT]

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Chapter 22. Many Questions

Our project was now gathering speed. On the Wednesday afternoon, I Pulled my first mice. Hoong just beat me to it, so pushing me (no pun intended) down to fourth in the Pulling and Pushing rankings.

Later that afternoon, Gabriel came to me with a mescap. “This is a reply from Balzo,” he said. “He did not wait for me to Pull it back, but one of his staff Pushed it. From Avoran to Perinent is a truly remarkable Push, for it goes right against the grain of the force fields.”

“Did you translate it?” I asked.

“No,” said Gabriel. “It was not necessary. Balzo must have a full-function message translator, for his message is already in English.”

He handed me a sheet of paper, and I read. I’ll leave out the [HEADERS] and the [TRAILERS].

* * *

[BEGIN MESSAGE]

[FROM]: Balzo, Avor’I, Company for Galactic Advancement, Avoran-2

[TO]: Gabrel, Seraph, Project Helper, Perinent-2

[CHARGE TO]: DSE/11619/BV

[ABOUT]: Progress on Perinent

[TEXT]

Greetings, Gabrel. I greet also Nil, Team Leader of the Hoomans at Camp Two on Perinent.

I hair of ur progress so far, and it is good.

When Bart Vorsprong is with u in fifteen to twenty Perinent days, I shall be mostly at my base office. I will happily make some time then to meet with u by mescap.

To Nil: I hair u already make much good forward movement. Will u, if please, send to me by mescap a regoolar report? Each seven Perinent days would be good. My thanks.

I relay also hearty greetings from Lohman and Olgal.

[SIGNOFF]: Gabrel and Nil, may u enjoy the whole time all the pleasures u earn.

Balzo

[END MESSAGE]

* * *

“He wants me to write him a weekly progress report,” I said. “I was thinking of doing it anyway.”

It took me much of Thursday to decide what to do, and to chat it over with Michael, Gabriel, the Tuglay and Harv’I.

“Right,” I said as I got up to speak after dinner, “I’ve decided to devote my Fridays from now on to progress assessment and reporting to Balzo. That means I want to hold a meeting after breakfast each Friday to work out where we are, and to get input from all of you. Tomorrow morning will be the first such. Then, you won’t see much of me for the rest of Friday – I may be with Harv’I, or perhaps the Cherubim, or writing in the Pedia room. But I’ll be back with you in time for the ride.”

* * *

And so the next morning, Friday, our ninth day on Perinent, I stood up and began, “What I’m going to do today is ask questions.”

I had asked John and Galina to record my speech – audio and video. They could now do so, thanks to Gabriel’s friend on Seraph, who had made five adaptors so we could use or recharge Earth appliances (European and Russian standard) from the local electricity supply.

“I want you all to think about these questions,” I continued. “When Bart Vorsprong is here, we will work out what we will do, based on the answers to them.

“We are here to bring our human species up to minimum Galactic standards. That means ending the bad political system, that allows criminal gangs to masquerade as governments, and to rule over good people unjustly and to their harm. And replacing it by a better way, a Galactic way, in which all individuals are treated fairly and justly; good people well, bad ones badly.

“We have, thanks to our Galactic friends, at least two sets of things we can do to speed this transition.

“First, we can Pull bad individuals – dictators, warmongers, violators of human rights, lying, thieving and deceiving politicians – here for punishment. We can submit them to the tender mercies of our friends the Cherubim and their Punishment Pit. And we can record their punishments, and Push that record back to Earth. So, good people will know that someone, at last, is starting to work on their behalf to avenge what the politicals have done to them.

“Second, we can Pull good individuals – those with humanity, honesty, integrity and leadership potential – here for training. We can submit them to the equally tender mercies of our friends the Tuglay.” Some laughter here from the Team, and a bow from Dum and Dee. “And afterwards we can Push them back, so they can lead or help lead the people of Earth into a new Galactic era of peace, prosperity and justice.

“Now, the questions. How do we pick the particular individuals to be punished? We can take less than four hundred – at least, until the first lot are dead. How do we make sure we get all the very worst? How do we find and track them? When do we Pull them – all at once, in a concerted operation, or one by one? How do we make the record of their punishment available to everyone on Earth?

“And more questions. How do we pick the particular individuals to be trained to lead the human race into the new world? How prominent should they be already? What, if anything, do we tell them before Pulling them? What, if any, message should we leave behind after we Pull them? How long will it take to train them? Should we Push them back all at once, or should we Push them back one by one, as they are ready? How do we make sure they are safe, and able to do their job, after we send them back?

“Yet more questions. How do we make sure the politicals don’t find out what we are doing? We have already made one security error – my fault, asking Jenna to send that mescap to her neighbours about Kenny. And how do we make sure the politicals can’t damage us, for example by planting a bomb among the supplies we Pull?

“And a final question team leaders rarely ask. What have I missed? Is there anything else any of you can think of, which has a bearing on what we should do?

“I don’t want you to try to answer these questions today,” I concluded. “Think about them, sleep on them. Let’s have an ideas session next Friday.”

I stopped. No-one moved or spoke for several seconds. It was John who spoke first. “I got all that,” he said. Galina gave a thumbs-up, too.

The others all seemed a little dazed.