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29.

Klia woke to a gentle tapping sound on her door and quickly dressed. When she opened the door, she was disappointed, then glad, to discover that it was not Brann who had been sent to summon her, but another young man, not a Dahlite and not nearly so handsome.

He was small and shifty-looking, a Misaroan, with a long nose and skin severely marked by brain fever. He was also without speech, and made his errand known by sign language from the Borrowers Guild-a language that Klia knew fairly well.

My name is Rock, he told her, clutching his fist and striking it with his other hand to emphasize his name. Come to talk with the Blank One, he told her, and smiled when he saw she understood at least part of what he signed.

Blank one? Klia made the double-slash sign of puzzlement across her eyes as she followed the small man.

With his fingers, he spelled a name out, and she understood. She was to meet with Plussix, but of course she would not see him. No one ever saw him.

Plussix did not speak while hidden behind a wall, as she had half expected. Klia stood in a small, smooth-walled cubicle with a glassy cylinder close to one wall and a single hard chair close to the opposite wall. In the two other walls there were doors, and one of these shut quietly as Rock departed with a small grunt and a nod.

The cylinder filled with a pale glow, and a figure took shape within: a well-dressed man of middle years, with wavy brown hair cut close to his scalp and a blandly pleasant, somewhat enigmatic expression. His skin was ruddy and his lips very thin, almost ascetic.

Klia had seen telemimics in filmbooks and other entertainments. Wherever Plussix actually was, this figure would follow his motions slavishly. She could not, of course, use any of her skills on such an image.

She did not like deceptions, and this was no exception. She sat on the hard chair and folded her arms.

You know who I am, the figure said, and sat on a ghostly chair within the cylinder. Your name is Klia Asgar, of Dahl. Am I correctly informed?

She nodded.

You come to us on the advice of Kallusin. Its getting very tough for your kind to survive on Trantor now, without help.

I suppose, she said, drawing her own lips tight.

You should find it comfortable here. There are many fascinating things within these warehouses. You could easily spend a lifetime here just studying the history of all we import.

I dont like history, Klia said.

Plussix smiled. There is rather more of it than any of us can personally use.

Look, I did come here of my own free will-

Is there such a thing, in your opinion?

Of course, Klia said.

Of course, Plussix echoed. Please forgive me for interrupting.

I was going to say, I find all this a little creepy. The warehouses, the way you hide yourself-a little creepy. I think maybe Id like to go it on my own.

Plussix nodded. An understandable wish. Not to be granted, now that you are here, for reasons Im sure you understand.

You think I could tell the others where you are. The woman who hunts us.

That is a possibility.

But I wouldnt, I swear it!

I appreciate your candor, Klia Asgar, and I hope you appreciate mine. We are in a kind of war here. You wish to survive the consequences of an irrational force being exerted by unknown figures. I have my means and my ends. You and your brothers and sisters here are my means. My ends are not evil, nor are they destructive. They have to do with free will and the exercise of freedom, which Im sure you find ironic, under the circumstances.

Klia tossed her hair back and clamped her jaw. Yeah, she said tightly.

You have heard all this before, Plussix said. There was not a trace of irony or humor in his voice, little trace of any emotion at all. The mans words were clear and concise and altogether a little cold.

Its what all the tyrants say, Klia said.

Yes. But here, there are benefits to my kind of tyranny. You eat regularly, you do not have to steal or cheat to live, and you stay out of the way of people who would hurt you-for the time being, until you are ready.

Ready to do what?

From your point of view, to get back at those who have disrupted your life.

I dont care about them. Maybe Ill go with the others and leave this planet for good.

Plussix gave the faintest smile.

Klias face flushed. She had hoped for relief; all she faced here, it seemed, was another kind of pressure. Until now, she had run before the wave; here, she was squeezed between that wave and an apparently unyielding surface: Plussix.

Please think, and take your time. There are good people here, and friendly. The duties are light. The opportunities for education and self-improvement are many. Physical training, continuing your schooling-many opportunities indeed.

As Plussix spoke these words, Klia read in his tone pleasure, a relaxed and natural presence, for the first time in their brief interview.

Are you a teacher? she asked abruptly.

Yes, of a kind, Plussix said.

From Imperial schools?

No, Plussix said. I have never taught in Imperial schools. Now, may I ask you a few important questions?

Klia looked up at the ceiling and did not answer, then felt foolish. Sure. Go ahead.

How long have you been aware of your persuasive abilities?

I get along. Thats all I do.

Please. Kallusin assures me youre among the most talented hes encountered.

Since I was a little child, Klia said. I dont remember when. I didnt know everybody wasnt like me until a few years ago.

Your father is a widower?

My mother died when I was four. I miss her. And why tell this ghost about your feelings?

You have been on your own for how many years?

Three years.

Doing jobs for various people. Acting as courier, seeking out informationother jobs? Illegal jobs, sometimes unethical as well, beneath your standards?

Klia looked away from the image and clasped her hands in her lap. I made a living. I even gave my father some money. He didnt turn it down.

No, of course not. Times are difficult in Dahl. Have you met others like yourself?

Sometimes. Theres Brann.

Brann is remarkable, and different from you, as youve noticed. Have you met the woman who is helping the police find your kind?

Klia swallowed. Never saw her. Felt her, mostly by the way all kinds of dirt breaks loose.

Have you ever felt her in your mind?

Like a feather. Like Brann, maybe, only stronger. Are you a persuader?

That is not important. Do you believe you would be better off without your talents?

Klia had seldom considered this possibility. Sooner ask her if she would be better off without her ears or her fingers. No. Well, I sometimes think She stopped.

Yes?

Id like just to be normal. Plain human like the others.

That is understandable. Do you believe in robots, Klia?

No, she said. Not now. Maybe once, before there were tiktoks and stuff. But Ive never believed they exist now. Thats crazy.

Plussix nodded and held up his hand. Thank you for seeing me. I can schedule further appointments for this kind of interview, at regular intervals, for you to brief me on your progress and state of mind. It may not be long before our routine changes. I trust you will be prepared by that time.

What if I keep asking to leave?

I wish you could fly free as a bird, Klia Asgar. But we all have duties here. As I said, light duties and training only, at first, but in time we may be very important indeed. Please try to understand.

Klia said nothing, but wondered how Plussix could expect anyone to understand when he provided so little information. Ive just gotten myself stuck in a different kind of trap!

The image faded, the door opened, and Rock stood there, squinting in at her. He signed, Exercise and breakfast. Can I sit next to you?

Klia looked him over doubtfully, then signed, Yes.

But she was thinking of Brann, wondering what he was doing now-and whom he was with.


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