Transcriber's note: Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the copyright on this publication was renewed.
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"What of our children—the second and third generations born on this new world? They will have no memories of Terra's green hills and blue seas. Will they be Terrans—or something else?"
—TAS KORDOV, Record of the First Years
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The travelers had sighted the cove from the sea—a narrow bite into the land, the first break in the cliff wall which protected the interior of this continent from the pounding of the ocean. And, although it was still but midafternoon, Dalgard pointed the outrigger into the promised shelter, the dip of his steering paddle swinging in harmony with that wielded by Sssuri in the bow of their narrow, wave-riding craft.
The two voyagers were neither of the same race nor of the same species, yet they worked together without words, as if they had established some bond which gave them a rapport transcending the need for speech.
Dalgard Nordis was a son of the Colony; his kind had not originated on this planet. He was not as tall nor as heavily built as those Terran outlaw ancestors who had fled political enemies across the Galaxy to establish a foothold on Astra, and there were other subtle differences between his generation and the parent stock.
Thin and wiry, his skin was brown from the gentle toasting of the summer sun, making the fairness of his closely cropped hair even more noticeable. At his side was his long bow, carefully wrapped in water-resistant flying-dragon skin, and from the belt which supported his short breeches of tanned duocorn hide swung a two-foot blade—half wood-knife, half sword. To the eyes of his Terran forefathers he would have presented a barbaric picture. In his own mind he was amply clad and armed for the man-journey which was both his duty and his heritage to make before he took his place as a full adult in the Council of Free Men.
In contrast to Dalgard's smooth skin, Sssuri was covered with a fluffy pelt of rainbow-tipped gray fur. In place of the human's steel blade, he wore one of bone, barbed and ugly, as menacing as the spear now resting in the bottom of the outrigger. And his round eyes watched the sea with the familiarity of one whose natural home was beneath those same waters.
The mouth of the cove was narrow, but after they negotiated it they found themselves in a pocket of bay, sheltered and calm, into which trickled a lazy stream. The gray-blue of the seashore sand was only a fringe beyond which was turf and green stuff. Sssuri's nostril flaps expanded as he tested the warm breeze, and Dalgard was busy cataloguing scents as they dragged their craft ashore. They could not have found a more perfect place for a camp site.
Once the canoe was safely beached, Sssuri picked up his spear and, without a word or backward glance, waded out into the sea, disappearing into the depths, while his companion set about his share of camp tasks. It was still early in the summer—too early to expect to find ripe fruit. But Dalgard rummaged in his voyager's bag and brought out a half-dozen crystal beads. He laid these out on a flat-topped stone by the stream, seating himself cross-legged beside it.
To the onlooker it would appear that the traveler was meditating. A wide-winged living splotch of color fanned by overhead; there was a distant yap of sound. Dalgard neither looked nor listened. But perhaps a minute later what he awaited arrived. A hopper, its red-brown fur sleek and gleaming in the sun, its eternal curiosity drawing it, peered cautiously from the bushes. Dalgard made mind touch. The hoppers did not really think—at least not on the levels where communication was possible for the colonists—but sensations of friendship and good will could be broadcast, primitive ideas exchanged.
The small animal, its humanlike front pawhands dangling over its creamy vest, came out fully into the open, black eyes flicking from the motionless Dalgard to the bright beads on the rock. But when one of those paws shot out to snatch the treasure, the traveler's hand was already cupped protectingly over the hoard. Dalgard formed a mental picture and beamed it at the twenty-inch creature before him. The hopper's ears twitched nervously, its blunt nose wrinkled, and then it bounded back into the brush, a weaving line of moving grass marking its retreat.
Dalgard withdrew his hand from the beads. Through the years the Astran colonists had come to recognize the virtues of patience. Perhaps the mutation had begun before they left their native world. Or perhaps the change in temperament and nature had occurred in the minds and bodies of that determined handful of refugees as they rested in the frozen cold sleep while their ship bore them through the wide, uncharted reaches of deep space for centuries of Terran time. How long that sleep had lasted the survivors had never known. But those who had awakened on Astra were different.
And their sons and daughters, and the sons and daughters of two more generations were warmed by a new sun, nourished by food grown in alien soil, taught the mind contact by the amphibian mermen with whom the space voyagers had made an early friendship—each succeeding child more attuned to the new home, less tied to the far-off world he had never seen or would see. The colonists were not of the same breed as their fathers, their grandfathers, or great-grandfathers. So, with other gifts, they had also a vast, time-consuming patience, which could be a weapon or a tool, as they pleased—not forgetting the instantaneous call to action which was their older heritage.
The hopper returned. On the rock beside the shining things it coveted, it dropped dried and shriveled fruit. Dalgard's fingers separated two of the gleaming marbles, rolled them toward the animal, who scooped them up with a chirp of delight. But it did not leave. Instead it peered intently at the rest of the beads. Hoppers had their own form of intelligence, though it might not compare with that of humans. And this one was enterprising. In the end it delivered three more loads of fruit from its burrow and took away all the beads, both parties well pleased with their bargains.
Sssuri splashed out of the sea with as little ado as he had entered. On the end of his spear twisted a fish. His fur, slicked flat to his strongly muscled body, began to dry in the air and fluff out while the sun awoke prismatic lights on the scales which covered his hands and feet. He dispatched the fish and cleaned it neatly, tossing the offal back into the water, where some shadowy things arose to tear at the unusual bounty.
"This is not hunting ground." His message formed in Dalgard's mind. "That finned one had no fear of me."
"We were right then in heading north; this is new land." Dalgard got to his feet.
On either side, the cliffs, with their alternate bands of red, blue, yellow, and white strata, walled in this pocket. They would make far better time keeping to the sea lanes, where it was not necessary to climb. And it was Dalgard's cherished plan to add more than just an inch or two to the explorers' map in the Council Hall.
Each of the colony males was expected to make his man-journey of discovery sometimes between his eighteenth and twentieth year. He went alone or, if he formed an attachment with one of the mermen near his own age, accompanied only by his knife brother. And from knowledge so gained the still-small group of exiles added to and expanded their information about their new home.
Caution was drilled into them. For they were not the first masters of Astra, nor were they the masters now. There were the ruins left by Those Others, the race who had populated this planet until their own wars had completed their downfall. And the mermen, with their traditions of slavery and dark beginnings in the experimental pens of the older race, continued to insist that across the sea—on the unknown western continent—Those Others still held onto the remnants of a degenerate civilization. Thus the explorers from Homeport went out by ones and twos and used the fauna of the land as a means of gathering information.
Hoppers could remember yesterday only dimly, and instinct took care of tomorrow. But what happened today sped from hopper to hopper and could warn by mind touch both merman and human. If one of the dread snake-devils of the interior was on the hunting trail, the hoppers sped the warning. Their vast curiosity brought them to the fringe of any disturbance, and they passed the reason for it along. Dalgard knew there were a thousand eyes at his service whenever he wanted them. There was little chance of being taken by surprise, no matter how dangerous this journey north might be.
"The city—" He formed the words in his mind even as he spoke them aloud. "How far are we from it?"
The merman hunched his slim shoulders in the shrug of his race. "Three days' travel, maybe five. And it"—though his furred face displayed no readable emotion, the sensation of distaste was plain—"was one of the accursed ones. To such we have not returned since the days of falling fire—"
Dalgard was well acquainted with the ruins which lay not many miles from Homeport. And he knew that that sprawling, devastated metropolis was not taboo to the merman. But this other mysterious settlement he had recently heard of was still shunned by the sea people. Only Sssuri and a few others of youthful years would consider a journey to explore the long-forbidden section their traditions labeled as dangerous land.
The belief that he was about to venture into questionable territory had made Dalgard evasive when he reported his plans to the Elders three days earlier. But since such trips were, by tradition, always thrusts into the unknown, they had not questioned him too much. All in all, Dalgard thought, watching Sssuri flake the firm pink flesh from the fish, he might deem himself lucky and this quest ordained. He went off to hack out armloads of grass and fashion the sleep mats for the sun-warmed ground.
They had eaten and were lounging in content on the soft sand just beyond the curl of the waves when Sssuri lifted his head from his folded arms as if he listened. Like all those of his species, his vestigial ears were hidden deep in his fur and no longer served any real purpose; the mind touch served him in their stead. Dalgard caught his thought, though what had aroused his companion was too rare a thread to trouble his less acute senses.
"Runners in the dark—"
Dalgard frowned. "It is still sun time. What disturbs them?"
To the eye Sssuri was still listening to that which his friend could not hear.
"They come from afar. They are on the move to find new hunting grounds."
Dalgard sat up. To each and every scout from Homeport the unusual was a warning, a signal to alert mind and body. The runners in the night—that furred monkey race of hunters who combed the moonless dark of Astra when most of the higher fauna were asleep—were very distantly related to Sssuri's species, though the gap between them was that between highly civilized man and the jungle ape. The runners were harmless and shy, but they were noted also for clinging stubbornly to one particular district generation after generation. To find such a clan on the move into new territory was to be fronted with a puzzle it might be well to investigate.
"A snake-devil—" he suggested tentatively, forming a mind picture of the vicious reptilian danger which the colonists tried to kill on sight whenever and wherever encountered. His hand went to the knife at his belt. One met with weapons only that hissing hatred motivated by a brainless ferocity which did not know fear.
But Sssuri did not accept that explanation. He was sitting up, facing inland where the thread of valley met the cliff wall. And seeing his absorption, Dalgard asked no distracting questions.
"No, no snake-devil—" after long moments came the answer. He got to his feet, shuffling through the sand in the curious little half dance which betrayed his agitation more strongly than his thoughts had done.
"The hoppers have no news," Dalgard said.
Sssuri gestured impatiently with one outflung hand. "Do the hoppers wander far from their own nest mounds? Somewhere there—" he pointed to the left and north, "there is trouble, bad trouble. Tonight we shall speak with the runners and discover what it may be."
Dalgard glanced about the camp with regret. But he made no protest as he reached for his bow and stripped off its protective casing. With the quiver of heavy-duty arrows slung across his shoulder he was ready to go, following Sssuri inland.
The easy valley path ended less than a quarter of a mile from the sea, and they were fronted by a wall of rock with no other option than to climb. But the westering sun made plain every possible hand and foot hold on its surface.
When they stood at last on the heights and looked ahead, it was across a broken stretch of bare rock with the green of vegetation beckoning from at least a mile beyond. Sssuri hesitated for only a moment or two, his round, almost featureless head turning slowly, until he fixed on a northeasterly course—striking out unerringly as if he could already sight the goal. Dalgard fell in behind, looking over the country with a wary eye. This was just the type of land to harbor flying dragons. And while those pests were small, their lightning-swift attack from above made them foes not to be disregarded. But all the flying things he saw were two moth birds of delicate hues engaging far over the sun-baked rock in one of their graceful winged dances.
They crossed the heights and came to the inland slope, a drop toward the central interior plains of the continent. As they plowed through the high grasses Dalgard knew they were under observation. Hoppers watched them. And once through a break in a line of trees he saw a small herd of duocorns race into the shelter of a wood. The presence of those two-horned creatures, so like the pictures he had seen of Terran horses, was insurance that the snake-devils did not hunt in this district, for the swift-footed duocorns were never found within a day's journey of their archenemies.
Late afternoon faded into the long summer twilight and still Sssuri kept on. As yet they had come across no traces of Those Others. Here were none of the domed farm buildings, the monorail tracks, the other relics one could find about Homeport. This wide-open land could have been always a wilderness, left to the animals of Astra for their own. Dalgard speculated upon that, his busy imagination supplying various reasons for such tract. Then the voiceless communication of his companion provided an explanation.
"This was barrier land."
Sssuri turned his head. His round eyes which blinked so seldom stared into Dalgard's as if by the intensity of that gaze he could drive home deeper his point.
"What lies to the north was protected in the days before the falling fire. Even Those"—the distorted mermen symbol for Those Others was sharpened by the very hatred of all Sssuri's kind, which had not paled during the generations since their escape from slavery to Astra's one-time masters—"could not venture into some of their own private places without special leave. It is perhaps true that the city we are seeking is one of those restricted ones and that this wilderness is a boundary for it."
Dalgard's pace slowed. To venture into a section of land which had been used as a barrier to protect some secret of Those Others was a highly risky affair. The first expedition sent out from Homeport after the landing of the Terran refugee ship had been shot down by robot-controlled guns still set against some long-dead invader. Would this territory be so guarded? If so they had better go carefully now—
Sssuri suddenly struck off at an angle, heading not northeast now, but directly north. The brush lands along the foot of the cliffs gave way to open fields, bare except for the grass rippled by the wind. It was not the type of country to attract the night runners, and Dalgard wondered a little. They should discover water, preferably a shallow stream, if they wanted to find what the monkey creatures liked best.
Within a quarter-hour he knew that Sssuri was not going wrong. Cradled in a sudden dip in the land was the stream Dalgard had been looking for. A hopper lifted a dripping muzzle from the shore ripples and stared at them. Dalgard contacted the animal. It was its usual curious self, nothing had alarmed or excited its interest. And he did not try to establish more than a casual contact as they made their way down the bank to the edge of the stream, Sssuri splashing in ankle-deep for the sheer pleasure of feeling liquid curl about his feet and legs once more.
Water dwellers fled from their passing and insects buzzed and hovered. Otherwise they moved through a deserted world. The stream bed widened and small islands of gravel, swept together in untidy piles by the spring floods, arose dry topped, some already showing the green of venturesome plants.
"Here—" Sssuri stopped, thrusting the butt of his spear into the shore of one such islet. He dropped cross-legged on his choice, there to remain patiently until those he sought would come with the dark. Dalgard withdrew a little way downstream and took up a similar post. The runners were shy, not easy to approach. And they would come more readily if Sssuri were alone.
Here the murmur of the stream was loud, rising above the rustle of the wind-driven grass. And the night was coming fast as the sun, hidden by the cliff wall, sank into the sea. Dalgard, knowing that his night sight was far inferior to that of the native Astran fauna, resignedly settled himself for an all-night stay, not without a second regretful memory of the snug camp by the shore.
Twilight and then night. How long before the runners would make their appearance? He could pick up the sparks of thought which marked the coming and going of hoppers, most hurrying off to their mud-plastered nests, and sometimes a flicker from the mind of some other night creature. Once he was sure he touched the avid, raging hunger which marked a flying dragon, though they were not naturally hunters by darkness.
Dalgard made no move to contact Sssuri. The merman must be left undisturbed in his mental quest for the runners.
The scout lay back on his miniature island and stared up into the sky, trying to sort out all the myriad impressions of life about him. It was then that he saw it....
An arrow of fire streaking across the black bowl of Astra's night sky. A light so vivid, so alien, that it brought him to his feet with a chill prickle of apprehension along his spine. In all his years as a scout and woodsman, in all the stories of his fellows and his elders at Homeport—he had never seen, never heard of the like of that!
And through his own wonder and alert alarm, he caught Sssuri's added puzzlement.
"Danger—" The merman's verdict fed his own unease.
Danger had crossed the night, from east to west. And to the west lay what they had always feared. What was going to happen now?
Raf Kurbi, flitter pilot and techneer, lay on the padded shock cushion of his assigned bunk and stared with wide, disillusioned eyes at the stretch of stark, gray metal directly overhead. He tried to close his ears to the mutter of meaningless words coming from across the narrow cabin. Raf had known from the moment his name had been drawn as crew member that the whole trip would be a gamble, a wild gamble with the odds all against them. RS 10—those very numbers on the nose of the ship told part of the story. Ten exploring fingers thrust in turn out into the blackness of space. RS 3's fate was known—she had blossomed into a pinpoint of flame within the orbit of Mars. And RS 7 had clearly gone out of control while instruments on Terra could still pick up her broadcasts. Of the rest—well, none had returned.
But the ships were built, manned by lot from the trainees, and sent out, one every five years, with all that had been learned from the previous job, each refinement the engineers could discover incorporated into the latest to rise from the launching cradle.
RS 10—Raf closed his eyes with weary distaste. After months of being trapped inside her ever-vibrating shell, he felt that he knew each and every rivet, seam, and plate in her only too well. And there was no reason yet to believe that the voyage would ever end. They would just go on and on through empty space until dead men manned a drifting hulk—
There—to picture that was a danger signal. Whenever his thoughts reached that particular point, Raf tried to think of something else, to break the chain of dismal foreboding. How? By joining in Wonstead's monologue of complaint and regret? Raf had heard the same words over and over so often that they no longer had any meaning—except as a series of sounds he might miss if the man who shared this pocket were suddenly stricken dumb.
"Should never have put in for training—" Wonstead's whine went up the scale.
That was unoriginal enough. They had all had that idea the minute after the sorter had plucked their names for crew inclusion. No matter what motive had led them into the stiff course of training—the fabulous pay, a real interest in the project, the exploring fever—Raf did not believe that there was a single man whose heart had not sunk when he had been selected for flight. Even he, who had dreamed all his life of the stars and the wonders which might lie just beyond the big jump, had been honestly sick on the day he had shouldered his bag aboard and had first taken his place on this mat and waited, dry mouthed and shivering, for blast-off.
One lost all sense of time out here. They ate sparingly, slept when they could, tried to while away the endless hours artificially divided into set periods. But still weeks might be months, or months weeks. They could have been years in space—or only days. All they knew was the unending monotony which dragged upon a man until he either lapsed into a dreamy rejection of his surroundings, as had Hamp and Floy, or flew into murderous rages, such as kept Morris in solitary confinement at present. And no foreseeable end to the flight—
Raf breathed shallowly. The air was stale, he could almost taste it. It was difficult now to remember being in the open air under a sky, with fresh winds blowing about one. He tried to picture on that dull strip of metal overhead a stretch of green grass, a tree, even the blue sky and floating white clouds. But the patch remained stubbornly gray, the murmur of Wonstead went on and on, a drone in his aching ears, the throb of the ship's life beat through his own thin body.
What had it been like on those legendary early flights, when the secret of the overdrive had not yet been discovered, when any who dared the path between star and star had surrendered to sleep, perhaps to wake again generations later, perhaps never to rouse again? He had seen the few documents discovered four or five hundred years ago in the raided headquarters of the scientific outlaws who had fled the regimented world government of Pax and dared space on the single hope of surviving such a journey in cold sleep, the secret of which had been lost. At least, Raf thought, they had escaped the actual discomfort of the voyage.
Had they found their new world or worlds? The end of their ventures had been debated thousands of times since those documents had been made public, after the downfall of Pax and the coming into power of the Federation of Free Men.
In fact it was the publication of the papers which had given the additional spur to the building of the RS armada. What man had dared once he could dare anew. And the pursuit of knowledge which had been so long forbidden under Pax was heady excitement for the world. Research and discovery became feverish avenues of endeavor. Even the slim hope of a successful star voyage and the return to Terra with such rich spoils of information was enough to harness three quarters of the planet's energy for close to a hundred years. And if the RS 10 was not successful, there would be 11, 12, more—flaming into the sky and out into the void, unless some newer and more intriguing experiment developed to center public imagination in another direction.
Raf's eyes closed wearily. Soon the gong would sound and this period of rest would be officially ended. But it was hardly worth rising. He was not in the least hungry for the concentrated food. He could repeat the information tapes they carried dull word for dull word.
"Nothing to see—nothing but these blasted walls!" Again Wonstead's voice arose in querulous protest.
Yes, while in overdrive there was nothing to see. The ports of the ship would be sealed until they were in normal space once more. That is, if it worked and they were not caught up forever within this thick trap where there was no time, light, or distance.
The gong sounded, but Raf made no move to rise. He heard Wonstead move, saw from the corner of his eye the other's bulk heave up obediently from the pad.
"Hey—mess gong!" He pointed out the obvious to Raf.
With a sigh the other levered himself up on his elbows. If he did not move, Wonstead was capable of reporting him to the captain for strange behavior, and they were all too alert to a divagation which might mean trouble. He had no desire to end in confinement with Morris.
"I'm coming," Raf said sullenly. But he remained sitting on the edge of the pad until Wonstead left the cabin, and he followed as slowly as he could.
So he was not with the others when a new sound tore through the constant vibrating hum which filled the narrow corridors of the ship. Raf stiffened, the icy touch of fear tensing his muscles. Was that the red alarm of disaster?
His eyes went to the light at the end of the short passage. But no blink of warning red shown there. Not danger—then what—?
It took him a full moment to realize what he had heard, not the signal of doom, but the sound which was to herald the accomplishment of their mission—the sound which unconsciously they had all given up any hope of ever hearing. They had made it!
The pilot leaned weakly against the wall, and his eyes smarted, his hands were trembling. In that moment he knew that he had never really, honestly, believed that they would succeed. But they had! RS 10 had reached the stars!
"Strap down for turnout—strap down for turnout—!" The disembodied voice screaming through the ship's speecher was that of Captain Hobart, but it was almost unrecognizable with emotion. Raf turned and stumbled back to his cabin, staggered to throw himself once more on his pad as he fumbled with the straps he must buckle over him.
He heard rather than saw Wonstead blunder in to follow his example, and for the first time in months the other was dumb, not uttering a word as he stowed away for the breakthrough which should take them back into normal space and the star worlds. Raf tore a nail on a fastening, muttered.
"Condition red—condition red—Strap down for breakthrough—" Hobart chanted at them from the walls. "One, two, three"—the count swung on numeral by numeral; then—"ten—Stand by—"
Raf had forgotten what breakthrough was like. He had gone through it the first time when still under take-off sedation. But this was worse than he remembered, so much worse. He tried to scream out his protest against the torture which twisted mind and body, but he could not utter even a weak cry. This, this was unbearable—a man could go mad or die—die—die....
He aroused with the flat sweetness of blood on his tongue, a splitting pain behind the eyes he tried to focus on the too familiar scrap of wall. A voice boomed, receded, and boomed again, filling the air and at last making sense, in it a ring of wild triumph!
"Made it! This is it, men, we've made it; Sol-class sun—three planets. We'll set an orbit in—"
Raf licked his lips. It was still too much to swallow in one mental gulp. So, they had made it—half of their venture was accomplished. They had broken out of their own solar system, made the big jump, and before them lay the unknown. Now it was within their reach.
"D'you hear that, kid?" demanded Wonstead, his voice no longer an accusing whine, more steady than Raf ever remembered hearing it. "We got through! We'll hit dirt again! Dirt—" his words trailed away as if he were sinking into some blissful daydream.
There was a different feeling to the ship herself. The steady drone which had ached in their ears, their bones, as she bored her way through the alien hyper-space had changed to a purr as if she, too, were rejoicing at the success of their desperate try. For the first time in weary weeks Raf remembered his own duties which would begin when the RS 10 came in to a flame-cushioned landing on a new world. He was to assemble and ready the small exploration flyer, to man its controls and take it up and out. Frowning, he began to run over in his mind each step in the preparations he must make as soon as they planeted.
Information came down from control, where now the ports were open on normal space and the engines were under control of the spacer's pilot. Their goal was to be the third planet, one which showed signs of atmosphere, of water and earth ready and waiting.
Those who were not on flight duty crowded into the tiny central cabin, where they elbowed each other before the viewer. The ball of alien earth grew from a pinpoint to the size of an orange. They forgot time in the wonder which none had ever thought in his heart he would see on the screen. Raf knew that in control every second of this was being recorded as they began to establish a braking orbit, which with luck would bring them down on the surface of the new world.
"Cities—those must be cities!" Those in the cabin studied the plate with awe as the information filtered through the crew. Lablet, their xenobiologist, sat with his fingers rigid on the lower bar of the visa plate, so intent that nothing could break his vigil, while the rest speculated wildly. Had they really seen cities?
Raf went down the corridor to the door of the sealed compartment that held the machine and the supplies for which he was responsible. These last hours of waiting were worse with their nagging suspense than all the time which had gone before. If they could only set down!
He had, on training trips which now seemed very far in the past, trod the rust-red desert country of Mars, waddled in a bulky protective suit across the peaked ranges of the dead Moon, known something of the larger asteroids. But how would it feel to tread ground warmed by the rays of another sun? Imagination with which his superiors did not credit him began to stir. Traits inherited from a mixture of races were there to be summoned. Raf retreated once more into his cabin and sat on his bunk pad, staring down at his own capable mechanic's hands without seeing them, picturing instead all the wonders which might lie just beyond the next few hours' imprisonment in this metallic shell he had grown to hate with a dull but abiding hatred.
Although he knew that Hobart must be fully as eager as any of them to land, it seemed to Raf, and the other impatient crew members, that they were very long in entering the atmosphere of the chosen world. It was only when the order came to strap down for deceleration that they were in a measure satisfied. Pull of gravity, ship beaming in at an angle which swept it from night to day or night again as it encircled that unknown globe. They could not watch their objective any longer. The future depended entirely upon the skill of the three men in control—and last of all upon Hobart's judgment and skill.
The captain brought them down, riding the flaming counter-blasts from the ship's tail to set her on her fins in an expert point landing, so that the RS 10 was a finger of light into the sky, amid wisps of smoke from brush ignited by her landing.
There was another wait which seemed endless to the restless men within, a wait until the air was analyzed, the countryside surveyed. But when the go-ahead signal was given and the ramp swung out, those first at the hatch still hesitated for an instant or so, though the way before them was open.
Beyond the burnt ground about the ship was a rolling plain covered with tall grass which rippled under the wind. And the freshness of that wind cleansed their lungs of the taint of the ship.
Raf pulled off his helmet, held his head high in that breeze. It was like bathing in air, washing away the smog of those long days of imprisonment. He ran down the ramp, past the little group of those who had preceded him, and fell on his knees in the grass, catching at it with his hands, a little over-awed at the wonder of it all.
The wide sweep of sky above them was not entirely blue, he noted. There was the faintest suggestion of green, and across it moved clouds of silver. But, save for the grass, they might be in a dead and empty world. Where were the cities? Or had those been born of imagination?
After a while, when the wonder of this landing had somewhat worn away, Hobart summoned them back to the prosaic business of setting up base. And Raf went to work at his own task. The sealed storeroom was opened, the supplies slung by crane down from the ship. The compact assembly, streamlined for this purpose, was all ready for the morrow.
They spent the night within the ship, much against their will. After the taste of freedom they had been given, the cramped interior weighed upon them, closing like a prison. Raf lay on his pad unable to sleep. It seemed to him that he could hear, even through the heavy plates, the sigh of that refreshing wind, the call of the open world lying ready for them. Step by step in his mind, he went through the process for which he would be responsible the next day. The uncrating of the small flyer, the assembling of frame and motor. And sometime in the midst of that survey he did fall asleep, so deeply that Wonstead had to shake him awake in the morning.
He bolted his food and was out at his job before it was far past dawn. But eager as he was to get to work, he paused just to look at the earth scuffed up by his boots, to stare for a long moment at a stalk of tough grass and remember with a thrill which never lessened that this was not native earth or grass, that he stood where none of his race, or even of his kind, had stood before—on a new planet in a new solar system.
Raf's expert training and instruction paid off. By evening he had the flitter assembled save for the motor which still reposed on the turning block. One party had gone questing out into the grass and returned with the story of a stream hidden in a gash in the plain, and Wonstead carried the limp body of a rabbit-sized furred creature he had knocked over at the waterside.
"Acted tame." Wonstead was proud of his kill. "Stupid thing just stood and watched me while I let fly with a stone."
Raf picked up the little body. Its fur was red-brown, plush-thick, and very soft to the touch. The breast was creamy white and the forepaws curiously short with an uncanny resemblance to his own hands. Suddenly he wished that Wonstead had not killed it, though he supposed that Chou, their biologist, would be grateful. But the animal looked particularly defenseless. It would have been better not to mark their first day on this new world with a killing—even if it were the knocking over of a stupid rabbit thing. The pilot was glad when Chou bore it off and he no longer had to look at it.
It was after the evening meal that Raf was called into consultation by the officers to receive his orders. When he reported that the flitter, barring unexpected accidents, would be air-borne by the following afternoon, he was shown an enlarged picture from the records made during the descent of the RS 10.
There was a city, right enough—showing up well from the air. Hobart stabbed a finger down into the heart of it.
"This lies south from here. We'll cruise in that direction."
Raf would have liked to ask some questions of his own. The city photographed was a sizable one. Why then this deserted land here? Why hadn't the inhabitants been out to investigate the puzzle of the space ship's landing? He said slowly, "I've mounted one gun, sir. Do you want the other installed? It will mean that the flitter can only carry three instead of four—"
Hobart pulled his lower lip between his thumb and forefinger. He glanced at his lieutenant then to Lablet, sitting quietly to one side. It was the latter who spoke first.
"I'd say this shows definite traces of retrogression." He touched the photograph. "The place may even be only a ruin."
"Very well. Leave off the other gun," Hobart ordered crisply. "And be ready to fly at dawn day after tomorrow with full field kit. You're sure she'll have at least a thousand-mile cruising radius?"
Raf suppressed a shrug. How could you tell what any machine would do under new conditions? The flitter had been put through every possible test in his home world. Whether she would perform as perfectly here was another matter.
"They thought she would, sir," he replied. "I'll take her up for a shakedown run tomorrow after the motor is installed."
Captain Hobart dismissed him with a nod, and Raf was glad to clatter down ladders into the cool of the evening once more. Flying high in a formation of two lanes were some distant birds, at least he supposed they were birds. But he did not call attention to them. Instead he watched them out of sight, lingering alone with no desire to join those crew members who had built a campfire a little distance from the ship. The flames were familiar and cheerful, a portion, somehow, of their native world transported to the new.
Raf could hear the murmur of voices. But he turned and went to the flitter. Taking his hand torch, he checked the work he had done during the day. To-morrow—tomorrow he could take her up into the blue-green sky, circle out over the sea of grass for a short testing flight. That much he wanted to do.
But the thought of the cruise south, of venturing toward that sprawling splotch Hobart and Lablet identified as a city was somehow distasteful, and he was reluctant to think about it.
Dalgard drew the waterproof covering back over his brow, making a cheerful job of it, preparatory to their pushing out to sea once more. But he was as intent upon what Sssuri had to tell as he was on his occupation of the moment.
"But that is not even a hopper rumor," he was protesting, breaking into his companion's flow of thought.
"No. But, remember, to the runners yesterday is very far away. One night is like another; they do not reckon time as we do, nor lay up memories for future guidance. They left their native hunting grounds and are drifting south. And only a very great peril would lead the runners into such a break. It is against all their instincts!"
"So, long ago—which may be months, weeks, or just days—there came death out of the sea, and those who lived past its coming fled—" Dalgard repeated the scanty information Sssuri had won for them the night before by patient hour-long coaxing. "What kind of death?"
Sssuri's great eyes, somber and a little tired, met his. "To us there is only one kind of death to be greatly feared."
"But there are the snake-devils—" protested the colony scout.
"To be hunted down by snake-devils is death, yes. But it is a quick death, a death which can come to any living thing that is not swift or wary enough. For to the snake-devils all things that live and move are merely meat to fill the aching pit in their swollen bellies. But there were in the old days other deaths, far worse than what one meets under a snake-devil's claws and fangs. And those are the deaths we fear." He was running the smooth haft of his spear back and forth through his fingers as if testing the balance of the weapon because the time was not far away when he must rely upon it.
"Those Others!" Dalgard shaped the words with his lips as well as in his mind.
"Just so." Sssuri did not nod, but his thought was in complete agreement.
"Yet they have not come before—not since the ship of my fathers landed here," Dalgard protested, not against Sssuri's judgment but against the whole idea.
The merman got to his feet, sweeping his arm to indicate not only the cove where they now sheltered but the continent behind it.
"Once they held all this. Then they warred and killed, until but a handful lay in cover to lick their wounds and wait. It has been many threes of seasons since they left that cover. But now they come again—to loot their place of secrets—Perhaps in the time past they have forgotten much so that now they must renew their knowledge."
Dalgard stowed the bow in the bottom of the outrigger. "I think we had better go and see," he commented, "so that we may report true tidings to our Elders—something more than rumors learned from night runners."
"That is so."
They paddled out to sea and turned the prow of the light craft north. The character of the land did not change. Cliffs still walled the coast, in some places rising sheer from the water, in others broken by a footing of coarse beach. Only flying things were to be sighted over their rocky crowns.
But by midday there was an abrupt alteration in the scene. A wide river cut through the heights and gave birth to a fan-shaped delta thickly covered with vegetation. Half hidden by the riot of growing things was a building of the dome shape Dalgard knew so well. Its windowless, doorless surface reflected the sunlight with a glassy sheen, and to casual inspection it was as untouched as it had been on the day its masters had either died within it or left it for the last time, perhaps centuries before.
"This is one way into the forbidden city," Sssuri announced. "Once they stationed guards here."
Dalgard had been about to suggest a closer inspection of the dome but that remark made him hesitate. If it had been one of the fortifications rimming in a forbidden ground, there was more than an even chance that unwary invaders, even this long after, might stumble into some trap still working automatically.
"Do we go upriver?" He left it to Sssuri, who had the traditions of his people to guide him, to make the decision.
The merman looked at the dome; it was evident from his attitude that he had no wish to examine it more closely. "They had machines which fought for them, and sometimes those machines still fight. This river is the natural entrance for an enemy. Therefore it would have been well defended."
Under the sun the green reach of the delta had a most peaceful appearance. There was a family of duck-dogs fishing from the beach, scooping their broad bills into the mud to locate water worms. And moth birds danced in the air currents overhead. Yet Dalgard was ready to agree with his companion—beware the easy way. They dipped their paddles deep and cut across the river current toward the cliffs to the north.
Two days of steady coastwise traveling brought them to a great bay. And Dalgard gasped as the full sight of the port confronting them burst into view.
Tiers of ledges had been cut and blasted in the native rock, extending from the sea back into the land in a series of giant steps. Each of them was covered with buildings, and here the ancient war had left its mark. The rock itself had been brought to a bubbling boil and sent in now-frozen rivers down that stairway in a half-dozen places, overwhelming all structures in its path, and leaving crystallized streams to reflect the sun blindingly.
"So this is your secret city!"
But Sssuri shook his round head. "This is but the sea entrance to the country," he corrected. "Here struck the day of fire, and we need not fear the machines which doubtless lie in wait elsewhere."
They beached the outrigger and hid it in the shell of one of the ruined buildings on the lowest level. Dalgard sent out a questing thought, hoping to contact a hopper or even a duck-dog. But seemingly the ruins were bare of animal life, as was true in most of the other towns and cities he had explored in the past. The fauna of Astra was shy of any holding built by Those Others, no matter how long it may have been left to the wind, and cleansing rain.
With difficulty and detours to avoid the rivers of once-molten rock, they made their way slowly from ledge to ledge up that giant's staircase, not stopping to explore any of the buildings as they passed. There was a taint of alien age about the city which repelled Dalgard, and he was eager to get out of it into the clean countryside once more. Sssuri sped on silent feet, his shoulders hunched, his distaste for the structures to be read in every line of his supple body.
When they reached the top, Dalgard turned to gaze down to the restless sea. What a prospect! Perhaps Those Others had built thus for reasons of defense, but surely they, too, must have paused now and then to be proud of such a feat. It was the most impressive site he had yet seen, and his report of it would be a worthy addition to the Homeport records.
A road ran straight from the top of the stair, stabbing inland without taking any notice of the difficulties of the terrain, after the usual arrogant manner of the alien engineers. But Sssuri did not follow it. Instead he struck off to the left, avoiding that easy path, choosing to cross through tangles which had once been gardens or through open fields.
They were well out of the sight of the city before they flushed their first hopper, a full-grown adult with oddly pale fur. Instead of displaying the usual fearless interest in strangers, the animal took one swift look at them and fled as if a snake-devil had snorted at its thumping heels. And Dalgard received a sharp impression of terror, as if the hopper saw in him some frightening menace.
"What—?" Honestly astounded, he looked to Sssuri for enlightenment.
The hoppers could be pests. They stole any small bright object which aroused their interest. But they could also be persuaded to trade, and they usually had no fear of either colonist or merman.
Sssuri's furred face might not convey much emotion, but by all the signs Dalgard could read he knew that the merman was as startled as he by the strange behavior of the grass dweller.
"He is afraid of those who walk erect as we do," he made answer.
Those who walk erect—Dalgard was quick to interpret that.
He knew that Those Others were biped, quasi-human in form, closer in physical appearance to the colonists than to the mermen. And since none of Dalgard's people had penetrated this far to the north, nor had the mermen invaded this taboo territory until Sssuri had agreed to come, that left only the aliens. Those strange people whom the colonists feared without knowing why they feared them, whom the mermen hated with a hatred which had not lessened with the years of freedom. The faint rumor carried by the migrating runners must be true, for here was a hopper afraid of bipeds. And it must have been recently provided with a reason for such fear, since hoppers' memories were very short and such terror would have faded from its mind in a matter of weeks.
Sssuri halted in a patch of grass which reached to his waist belt. "It is best to wait until the hours of dark."
But Dalgard could not agree. "Better for you with your night sight," he objected, "but I do not have your eyes in my head."
Sssuri had to admit the justice of that. He could travel under the moonless sky as sure-footed as under broad sunlight. But to guide a blundering Dalgard through unknown country was not practical. However, they could take to cover and that they did as speedily as possible, using a zigzag tactic which delayed their advance but took them from one bit of protecting brush or grove of trees to the next, keeping to the fields well away from the road.
They camped that night without fire in a pocket near a spring. And while Dalgard was alert to all about them, he knew that Sssuri was mind questing in a far wider circle, trying to contact a hopper, a runner, any animal that could answer in part the inquiries they had. When Dalgard could no longer hold open weary eyes, his last waking memory was that of his companion sitting statue-still, his spear across his knees, his head leaning a trifle forward as if what he listened to was as vocal as the hum of night insects.
When the colony scout roused in the morning, his companion was stretched full length on the other side of the spring, but his head came up as Dalgard moved.
"We may go forward without fear," he shaped the assurance. "What has troubled this land has gone."
"A long time ago?"
Dalgard was not surprised at Sssuri's negative answer. "Within days they have been here. But they have gone once more. It will be wise for us to learn what they wanted here."
"Have they come to establish a base here once more?" Dalgard brought into the open the one threat which had hung over his own clan since they first learned that a few of Those Others still lived—even if overseas.
"If that is their plan, they have not yet done it." Sssuri rolled over on his back and stretched. He had lost that tenseness of a hound in leash which had marked him the night before. "This was one of their secret places, holding much of their knowledge. They may return here on quest for that learning."
All at once Dalgard was conscious of a sense of urgency. Suppose that what Sssuri suggested was the truth, that Those Others were attempting to recover the skills which had brought on the devastating war that had turned this whole eastern continent into a wilderness? Equipped with even the crumbs of such discoveries, they would be enemies against which the Terran colonists could not hope to stand. The few weapons their outlaw ancestors had brought with them on their desperate flight to the stars were long since useless, and they had had no way of duplicating them. Since childhood Dalgard had seen no arms except the bows and the sword-knives carried by all venturing away from Homeport. And what use would a bow or a foot or two of sharpened metal be against things which could kill from a distance or turn rock itself into a flowing, molten river?
He was impatient to move on, to reach this city of forgotten knowledge which Sssuri was sure lay before them. Perhaps the colonists could draw upon what was stored there as well as Those Others could.
Then he remembered—not only remembered but was corrected by Sssuri. "Think not of taking their weapons into your hands." Sssuri did not look up as he gave that warning. "Long ago your fathers' fathers knew that the knowledge of Those Others was not for their taking."
A dimly remembered story, a warning impressed upon him during his first guided trips into the ruins near Homeport flashed into Dalgard's mind. Yes, he knew that some things had been forbidden to his kind. For one, it was best not to examine too closely the bands of color patterns which served Those Others as a means of written record. Tapes of the aliens' records had been found and stored at Homeport. But not one of the colonists had ventured to try to break the color code and learn what lay locked in those bands. Once long ago such an experiment had led to the brink of disaster, and such delvings were now considered too dangerous to be allowed.
But there was no harm in visiting this city, and certainly he must make some report to the Council about what might be taking place here, especially if Those Others were in residence or visited the site.
Sssuri still kept to the fields, avoiding the highway, until mid-morning, and then he made an abrupt turn and brought them out on the soil-drifted surface of the road. The land here was seemingly deserted. No moth birds performed their air ballets overhead, and they did not see a single hopper. That is, they did not until the road dipped before them and they started down into a cupped hollow filled with buildings. The river, whose delta they had earlier seen, made a half loop about the city, lacing it in. And here were no signs of the warfare which had ruined the port.
But in the middle of the road lay a bloody bunch of fur and splintered bone, insects busy about it. Sssuri used the point of his spear to straighten out the small corpse, displaying its headlessness. And before they reached the outer buildings of the city they found four more hoppers all mangled.
"Not a snake-devil," Dalgard deduced. As far as he knew only the huge reptiles or their smaller flying-dragon cousins preyed upon animals. But a snake-devil would have left no remains of anything as small as a hopper, one mouthful which could not satisfy its gnawing hunger. And a flying dragon would have picked the bones clean.
"Them!" Sssuri's reply was clipped. "They hunt for sport."
Dalgard felt a little sick. To his mind, hoppers were to be treated with friendship. Only against the snake-devils and the flying dragons were the colonists ever at war. No wonder that hopper had run from them back on the plain during yesterday's journey!
The buildings before them were not the rounded domes of the isolated farms, but a series of upward-pointing shafts. They walked through a tall gap which must have supported a now-disappeared barrier gate, and their passing was signaled by a whispering sound as they shuffled through the loose sand and soil drifted there in a miniature dune.
This city was in a better state of preservation than any Dalgard had previously visited. But he had no desire to enter any of the gaping doorways. It was as if the city rejected him and his kind, as if to the past that brooded here he was no more than a curious hopper or a fluttering, short-lived moth bird.
"Old—old and with wisdom hidden in it—" he caught the trail of thought from Sssuri. And he was certain that the merman was no more at ease here than he himself was.
As the street they followed brought them into an open space surrounded by more imposing buildings, they made another discovery which blotted out all thoughts of forbidden knowledge and awakened them to a more normal and everyday danger.
A fountain, which no longer played but gave birth to a crooked stream of water, was in the center. And in the muddy verge of the stream, pressed deep, was the fresh track of a snake-devil. Almost full grown, Dalgard estimated, measuring the print with his fingers. Sssuri pivoted slowly, studying the circle of buildings about them.
"An hour—maybe two—" Dalgard gave a hunter's verdict on the age of the print. He, too, eyed those buildings. To meet a snake-devil in the open was one thing, to play hide-and-seek with the cunning monster in a warren such as this was something else again. He hoped that the reptile had been heading for the open, but he doubted it. This mass of buildings would provide just the type of shelter which would appeal to it for a lair. And snake-devils did not den alone!
"Try by the river," Sssuri gave advice. Like Dalgard, he accepted the necessity of the chase. No intelligent creature ever lost the chance to kill a snake-devil when fortune offered it. And he and the scout had hunted together on such trails before. Now they slipped into familiar roles from long practice.
They took a route which should lead them to the river, and within a matter of yards, came across evidence proving that the merman had guessed correctly; a second claw print was pressed deep in a patch of drifted soil.
Here the buildings were of a new type, windowless, perhaps storehouses. But what pleased Dalgard most was the fact that most of them showed tightly closed doors. There was no chance for their prey to lurk in wait.
"We should smell it." Sssuri picked that worry out of the scout's mind and had a ready answer for it.
Sure—they should smell the lair; nothing could cloak the horrible odor of a snake-devil's home. Dalgard sniffed vigorously as he padded along. Though odd smells clung to the strange buildings none of them were actively obnoxious—yet.
There was the river at the end of the way they had been following, a way which ended in a wharf built out over the oily flow of water. Blank walls were on either side. If the snake-devil had come this way, he had found no hiding place.
"Across the river—"
Dalgard gave a resigned grunt. For some reason he disliked the thought of swimming that stream, of having his skin laved by the turgid water with its brown sheen.
"There is no need to swim."
Dalgard's gaze followed Sssuri's pointing finger. But what he saw bobbing up and down, pulled a little downstream by the current, did not particularly reassure him. It was manifestly a boat, but the form was as alien as the city around them.
Raf surveyed the wide sweep of prairie where dawn gave a gray tinge to soften the distance and mark the rounded billows of the ever-rippling grass. He tried to analyze what it was about this world which made it seem so untouched, so fresh and new. There were large sections of his own Terra which had been abandoned after the Big Burn-Off and the atomic wars, or later after the counterrevolution which had defeated the empire of Pax, during which mankind had slipped far back on the road to civilization. But he had never experienced this same feeling when he had ventured into those wildernesses. Almost he could believe that the records Hobart had showed him were false, that this world had never known intelligent life herding together in cities.
He walked slowly down the ramp, drawing deep breaths of the crisp air. The day would grow warmer with the rising sun. But now it was just the sort of morning which led him to be glad he was alive—and young! Maybe part of it was because he was free of the ship and at last not just excess baggage but a man with a definite job before him.
Spacemen tended to be young. But until this moment Raf had never felt the real careless freedom of youth. Now he was moved by a desire to disobey orders—to take the flitter up by himself and head off into the blue of the brightening sky for more than just a test flight, not to explore Hobart's city but to cruise over the vast sea of grass and find out its wonders for himself.
But the discipline which had shaped him almost since birth sent him now to check the flyer and wait, inwardly impatient, for Hobart, Lablet, and Soriki, the com-tech, to join him.
The wait was not a long one since the three others, with equipment hung about, tramped down the ramp as Raf settled himself behind the control board of the flyer. He triggered the shield which snapped over them for a windbreak and brought the flitter up into the spreading color of the morning. Beside him Hobart pressed the button of the automatic recorder, and in the seat behind, Soriki had the headset of the com clamped over his ears. They were not only making a record of their trip, they were continuing in constant communication with the ship—now already a silver pencil far to the rear.
It was some two hours later that they discovered what was perhaps one reason for the isolation of the district in which the RS 10 had set down. Rolling foothills rose beneath them and miles ahead the white-capped peaks of a mountain range made a broken outline against the turquoise sky. The broken lands would be a formidable barrier for any foot travelers: there were no easy roads through that series of sharp lifts and narrow valleys. And the one stream they followed for a short space descended from the heights in spectacular falls. Twice they skimmed thick growths of trees, so tightly packed that from the air they resembled a matted carpet of green-blue. And to cut through such a forest would be an impossible task.
The four in the flitter seldom spoke. Raf kept his attention on the controls. Sudden currents of air were tricky here, and he had to be constantly alert to hold the small flyer on an even keel. His glimpses of what lay below were only snatched ones.
At last it was necessary to zoom far above the vegetation of the lower slopes, to reach an altitude safe enough to clear the peaks ahead. Since the air supply within the windshield was constant they need not fear lack of oxygen. But Raf was privately convinced, as they soared, that the range might well compare in height with those Asian mountains which dominated all the upflung reaches of his native world.
When they were over the sharp points of that chain disaster almost overtook them. A freakish air current caught the flitter as if in a giant hand, and Raf fought for control as they lost altitude past the margin of safety. Had he not allowed for just such a happening they might have been smashed against one of the rock tips over which they skimmed to a precarious safety. Raf, his mouth dry, his hands sweating on the controls, took them up—higher than was necessary—to coast above the last of that rocky spine to see below the beginning of the downslopes leading to the plains the range cut in half. He heard Hobart draw a hissing breath.
"That was a close call." Lablet's precise, lecturer's voice cut through the drone of the motor.
"Yeah," Soriki echoed, "looked like we might be sandwich meat there for a while. The kid knows his stuff after all."
Raf grinned a little sourly, but he did not answer that. He ought to know his trade. Why else would he be along? They were each specialists in one or two fields. But he had good sense enough to keep his mouth shut. That way the less one had to regret minutes—or hours—later.
The land on the south side of the mountains was different in character to the wild northern plains.
It did not require that identification from Lablet to point out what they had already seen. The section below was artificially divided into long narrow strips. But the vegetation growing on those strips was no different from the northern grass they had seen about the spacer.
"Not cultivated now," the scientist amended his first report. "It's reverting to grassland—"
Raf brought the flitter closer to the ground so that when a domed structure arose out of a tangle of overgrown shrubs and trees they were not more than fifty feet above it. There was no sign of life about the dwelling, if dwelling it was, and the unkempt straggle of growing things suggested that it had been left to itself through more than one season. Lablet wanted to set down and explore, but the captain was intent upon reaching the city. A solitary farm was of little value compared with what they might learn from a metropolis. So, rather to Raf's relief, he was ordered on.
He could not have explained why he shrank from such investigation. Where earlier that morning he had wanted to take the flitter and go off by himself to explore the world which seemed so bright and new, now he was glad that he was only the pilot of the flyer and that the others were not only in his company but ready to make the decisions. He had a queer distaste for the countryside, a disinclination to land near that dome.
Beyond the first of the deserted farms they came to the highway and, since the buckled and half-buried roadway ran south, Hobart suggested that they use it as a visible guide. More isolated dome houses showed in the course of an hour. And their fields were easy to map from the air. But nowhere did the Terrans see any indication that those fields were in use. Nor were there any signs of animal or bird life. The weird desolation of the landscape began to work its spell on the men in the flitter. There was something unnatural about the country, and with every mile the flyer clocked off, Raf longed to be heading in the opposite direction.
The domes drew closer together, made a cluster at crossroads, gathered into a town in which all the buildings were the same shape and size, like the cells of a wasp nest. Raf wondered if those who had built them had not been humanoid at all, but perhaps insects with a hive mind. And because that thought was unpleasant he resolutely turned his attention to the machine he piloted.
They passed over four such towns, all marking intersections of roads running east and west, north and south, with precise exactness. The sun was at noon or a little past that mark when Captain Hobart gave the order to set down so that they could break out rations and eat.
Raf brought the flitter down on the cracked surface of the road, mistrusting what might lie hidden in the field grass. They got out and walked for a space along pavement which had once been smooth.
"High-powered traffic—" That was Lablet. He had gone down on one knee and was tracing a finger along the substance.
"Straight—" Soriki squinted against the sun. "Nothing stopped them, did it? We want a road here and we'll get it! That sort of thing. Must have been master engineers."
To Raf the straight highways suggested something else. Master engineering, certainly. But a ruthlessness too, as if the builders, who refused to accept any modifications of their original plans from nature, might be as arrogant and self-assured in other ways. He did not admire this relic of civilization; in fact it added to his vague uneasiness.
The land was so still, under the whisper of the wind. He discovered that he was listening—listening for the buzz of an insect, the squeak of some grass dweller, anything which would mean that there was life about them. As he chewed on the ration concentrate and drank sparingly from his canteen, Raf continued to listen. Without result.
Hobart and Lablet were engrossed in speculation about what might lie ahead. Soriki had gone back to the flitter to make his report to the ship. The pilot sat where he was, content to be forgotten, but eager to see an animal peering at him from cover, a bird winging through the air.
"—if we don't hit it by nightfall—But we can't be that far away! I'll stay out and try tomorrow." That was Hobart. And since he was captain what he said was probably what they would do. Raf shied away from the thought of spending the night in this haunted land. Though, on the other hand, he would be utterly opposed to lifting the flitter over those mountains again except in broad daylight.
But the problem did not arise, for they found their city in the midafternoon, the road bringing them straight to an amazing collection of buildings, which appeared doubly alien to their eyes since it did not include any of the low domes they had seen heretofore.
Here were towers of needle slimness, solid blocks of almost windowless masonry looking twice as bulky beside those same towers, archways stringing at dizzy heights above the ground from one skyscraper to the next. And here time and nature had been at work. Some of the towers were broken off, a causeway displayed a gap—Once it had been a breathtaking feat of engineering, far more impressive than the highway, now it was a slowly collapsing ruin.
But before they had time to take it all in Soriki gave an exclamation. "Something coming through on our wave band, sir!" He leaned forward to dig fingers into Hobart's shoulder. "Message of some kind—I'd swear to it!"
Hobart snapped into action. "Kurbi—set down—there!"
His choice of a landing place was the flat top of a near-by building, one which stood a little apart from its neighbors and, as Raf could see, was not overlooked except by a ruined tower. He circled the flitter. The machine had been specially designed to land and take off in confined spaces, and he knew all there was possible to learn about its handling on his home world. But he had never tried to bring it down on a roof, and he was very sure that now he had no margin for error left him, not with Hobart breathing impatiently beside him, his hands moving as if, as a pilot of a spacer, he could well take over the controls here.
Raf circled twice, eyeing the surface of the roof in search of any break which could mean a crack-up at landing. And then, though he refused to be hurried by the urgency of the men with him, he came in, cutting speed, bringing them down with only a slight jar.
Hobart twisted around to face Soriki. "Still getting it?"
The other, cupping his earphones to his head with his hands, nodded. "Give me a minute or two," he told them, "and I'll have a fix. They're excited about something—the way this jabber-jabber is coming through—"
"About us," Raf thought. The ruined tower topped them to the south. And to the east and west there were buildings as high as the one they were perched on. But the town he had seen as he maneuvered for a landing had held no signs of life. Around them were only signs of decay.
Lablet got out of the flitter and walked to the edge of the roof, leaning against the parapet to focus his vision glasses on what lay below. After a moment Raf followed his example.
Silence and desolation, windows like the eye pits in bone-picked skulls. There were even some small patches of vegetation rooted and growing in pockets erosion had carved in the walls. To the pilot's uninformed eyes the city looked wholly dead.
"Got it!" Soriki's exultant cry brought them back to the flitter. As if his body was the indicator, he had pivoted until his outstretched hand pointed southwest. "About a quarter of a mile that way."
They shielded their eyes against the westering sun. A block of solid masonry loomed high in the sky, dwarfing not only the building they were standing on but all the towers around it. Its imposing lines made clear its one-time importance.
"Palace," mused Lablet, "or capitol. I'd say it was just about the heart of the city."
He dropped his glasses to swing on their cord, his eyes glistening as he spoke directly to Raf.
"Can you set us down on that?"
The pilot measured the curving roof of the structure. A crazy fool might try to make a landing there. But he was no crazy fool. "Not on that roof!" he spoke with decision.
To his relief the captain confirmed his verdict with a slow nod. "Better find out more first." Hobart could be cautious when he wanted to. "Are they still broadcasting, Soriki?"
The com-tech had stripped the earphones from his head and was rubbing one ear. "Are they!" he exploded. "I'd think you could hear them clear over there, sir!"
And they could. The gabble-gabble which bore no resemblance to any language Terra knew boiled out of the phones.
"Someone's excited," Lablet commented in his usual mild tone.
"Maybe they've discovered us." Hobart's hand went to the weapon at his belt. "We must make peaceful contact—if we can."
Lablet took off his helmet and ran his fingers through the scrappy ginger-and-gray fringe receding from his forehead. "Yes—contact will be necessary—" he said thoughtfully.
Well, he was supposed to be their expert on that. Raf watched the older man with something akin to amusement. The pilot had a suspicion that none of the other three, Lablet included, was in any great hurry to push through contact with unknown aliens. It was a case of dancing along on shore before having to plunge into the chill of autumn sea waves. Terrans had explored their own solar system, and they had speculated learnedly for generations on the problem of intelligent alien life. There had been all kinds of reports by experts and would-be experts. But the stark fact remained that heretofore mankind as born on the third planet of Sol had not encountered intelligent alien life. And just how far did speculations, reports, and arguments go when one was faced with the problem to be solved practically—and speedily?
Raf's own solution would have been to proceed with caution and yet more caution. Under his technical training he had far more imagination than any of his officers had ever realized. And now he was certain that the best course of action was swift retreat until they knew more about what was to be faced.
But in the end the decision was taken out of their hands. A muffled exclamation from Lablet brought them all around to see that distant curving roof crack wide open. From the shadows within, a flyer spiraled up into the late afternoon sky.
Raf reached the flitter in two leaps. Without orders he had the spray gun ready for action, on point and aimed at the bobbing machine heading toward them. From the earphones Soriki had left on the seat the gabble had risen to a screech and one part of Raf's brain noted that the sounds were repetitious: was an order to surrender being broadcast? His thumb was firm on the firing button of the gun and he was about to send a warning burst to the right of the alien when an order from Hobart stopped him cold.
"Take it easy, Kurbi."
Soriki said something about a "gun-happy flitter pilot," but, Raf noted with bleak eyes, the com-tech kept his own hand close to his belt arm. Only Lablet stood watching the oncoming alien ship with placidity. But then, as Raf had learned through the long voyage of the spacer, a period of time which had left few character traits of any of the crew hidden from their fellows, the xenobiologist was a fatalist and strictly averse to personal combat.
The pilot did not leave his seat at the gun. But within seconds he knew that they had lost the initial advantage. As the tongue-shaped stranger thrust at them and then swept on to glide above their heads so that the weird shadow of the ship licked them from light to dark and then to light again, Raf was certain that his superiors had made the wrong decision. They should have left the city as soon as they picked up those signals—if they could have gone then. He studied the other flyer. Its lines suggested speed as well as mobility, and he began to doubt if they could have escaped with that craft trailing them.
Well, what would they do now? The alien flyer could not land here, not without coming down flat upon the flitter. Maybe it would cruise overhead as a warning threat until the city dwellers were able to reach the Terrans in some other manner. Tense, the four spacemen stood watching the graceful movements of the flyer. There were no visible portholes or openings anywhere along its ovoid sides. It might be a robot-controlled ship, it might be anything, Raf thought, even a bomb of sorts. If it was being flown by some human—or nonhuman—flyer, he was a master pilot.
"I don't understand," Soriki moved impatiently. "They're just shuttling around up there. What do we do now?"
Lablet turned his head. He was smiling faintly. "We wait," he told the com-tech. "I should imagine it takes time to climb twenty flights of stairs—if they have stairs—"
Soriki's attention fell from the flyer hovering over their heads to the surface of the roof. Raf had already looked that over without seeing any opening. But he did not doubt the truth of Lablet's surmise. Sooner or later the aliens were going to reappear. And it did not greatly matter to the marooned Terrans whether they would drop from the sky or rise from below.
Familiar only with the wave-riding outriggers, Dalgard took his seat in the alien craft with misgivings. And oddly enough it also bothered him to occupy a post which earlier had served not a nonhuman such as Sssuri, whom he admired, but a humanoid whom he had been taught from childhood to avoid—if not fear. The skiff was rounded at bow and stern with very shallow sides and displayed a tendency to whirl about in the current, until Sssuri, with his instinctive knowledge of watercraft, used one of the queerly shaped paddles tucked away in the bottom to both steer and propel them. They did not strike directly across the river but allowed the current to carry them in a diagonal path so that they came out on the opposite bank some distance to the west.
Sssuri brought them ashore with masterly skill where a strip of sod angled down to the edge of the water, marking, Dalgard decided, what had once been a garden. The buildings on this side of the river were not set so closely together. Each, standing some two or three stories high, was encircled by green, as if this had been a section of private dwellings.
They pulled the light boat out of the water and Sssuri pointed at the open door of the nearest house. "In there—"
Dalgard agreed that it might be well to hide the craft against the return. Although as yet they had found no physical evidence, other than the dead hoppers, that they might not be alone in the city, he wanted a means of escape ready if such a flight would be necessary. In the meantime there was the snake-devil to track, and that wily creature, if it had swum the river, might be lurking at present in the next silent street—or miles away.
Sssuri, spear ready, was trotting along the paved lane, his head up as he thought-quested for any hint of life about them. Dalgard tried to follow that lead. But he knew that it would be Sssuri's stronger power which would warn them first.
They cast east from where they had landed, studying the soil of each garden spot, hunting for the unmistakable spoor of the giant reptile. And within a matter of minutes they found it, the mud still moist as Dalgard proved with an exploring fingertip. At the same time Sssuri twirled his spear significantly. Before them the lane ran on between two walls without any breaks. Dalgard uncased his bow and strung it. From his quiver he chose one of the powerful arrows, the points of which were kept capped until use.
A snake-devil, with its nervous system controlled not from the tiny, brainless head but from a series of auxiliary "brains" at points along its powerful spine, could and would go on fighting even after that head was shorn away, as the first colonists had discovered when they depended on the deadly ray guns fatal to any Terran life. But the poison-tipped arrow Dalgard now handled, with confidence in its complete efficiency, paralyzed within moments and killed in a quarter-hour one of the scaled monstrosities.
Dalgard did not need that warning thought from his companion. There was no mistaking that sickly sweet stench born of decaying animal matter, which was the betraying effluvium of a snake-devil's lair. He turned to the right-hand wall and with a running leap reached its broad top. The lane curved to end in an archway cut through another wall, which was higher than Dalgard's head even when he stood on his present elevation. But bands of ornamental patterning ran along the taller barrier, and he was certain that it could be climbed. He lowered a hand to Sssuri and hoisted the merman up to join him.
But Sssuri stood for a long moment looking ahead, and Dalgard knew that the merman was disturbed, that the wall before them had some terrifying meaning for the native Astran. So vivid was the impression of what could only be termed horror—that Dalgard dared to ask a question:
"What is it?"
The merman's yellow eyes turned from the wall to his companion. Behind his hatred of this place there was another emotion Dalgard could not read.
"This is the place of sorrow, the place of separation. But they paid—oh, how they paid—after that day when the fire fell from the sky." His scaled and taloned feet moved in a little shuffling war dance, and his spear spun and quivered in the sunlight, as Dalgard had seen the spears of the mer-warriors move in the mock combats of their unexplained, and to his kind unexplainable, rituals. "Then did our spears drink, and knives eat!" Sssuri's fingers brushed the hilt of the wicked blade swinging from his belt. "Then did the People make separations and sorrows for them! And it was accomplished that we went forth into the sea to be no longer bond but free. And they went down into the darkness and were no more—" In Dalgard's head the chant of his friend skirled up in a paean of exultation. Sssuri shook his spear at the wall.
"No more the beast and the death," his thoughts swelled, a shout of victory. "For where are they who sat and watched many deaths? They are gone as the wave smashes itself upon the coast rocks and is no more. But the People are free and never more shall Those Others put bonds upon them! Therefore do I say that this is a place of nothing, where evil has turned in upon itself and come to nothing. Just as Those Others will come to nothing since their own evil will in the end eat them up!"
He strode forward along the wall until he came to the barrier, seemingly oblivious of the carrion reek which told of a snake-devil's den somewhere about. And he raised his arm high, bringing the point of his spear gratingly along the carved surface. Nor did it seem to Dalgard a futile gesture, for Sssuri lived and breathed, stood free and armed in the city of his enemies—and the city was dead.
Together they climbed the barrier, and then Dalgard discovered that it was the rim of an arena which must have seated close to a thousand in the days of its use. It was a perfect oval in shape with tiers of seats now forming a staircase down to the center, where was a section ringed about by a series of archways. A high stone grille walled this portion away from the seats as if to protect the spectators from what might enter through those portals.
Dalgard noted all this only in passing, for the arena was occupied, very much occupied. And he knew the occupiers only too well.
Three full-grown snake-devils were stretched at pulpy ease, their filled bellies obscenely round, their long necks crowned with their tiny heads flat on the sand as they napped. A pair of half-grown monsters, not yet past the six-foot stage, tore at some indescribable remnants of their elders' feasting, hissing at each other and aiming vicious blows whenever they came within possible fighting distance. Three more, not long out of their mothers' pouches scrabbled in the earth about the sleeping adults.
"A good catch," Dalgard signaled Sssuri, and the merman nodded.
They climbed down from seat to seat. This could not rightfully be termed hunting when the quarry might be picked off so easily without risk to the archer. But as Dalgard notched his first arrow, he sighted something so surprising that he did not let the poisoned dart fly.
The nearest sleeping reptile which he had selected as his mark stretched lazily without raising its head or opening its small eyes. And the sun caught on a glistening band about its short foreleg just beneath the joint of the taloned pawhands. No natural scales could reflect the light with such a brilliant glare. It could be only one thing—metal! A metal bracelet about the tearing arm of a snake-devil! Dalgard looked at the other two sleepers. One was lying on its belly with its forearms gathered under it so that he could not see if it, also, were so equipped. But the other—yes, it was banded!
Sssuri stood at the grille, one hand on its stone divisions. His surprise equaled Dalgard's. It was not in his experience either that the untamed snake-devils, regarded by merman and human alike as so dangerous as to be killed on sight, could be banded—as if they were personal pets!
For a moment or two a wild idea crossed Dalgard's mind. How long was the natural life span of a snake-devil? Until the coming of the colonists they had been the undisputed rulers of the deserted continent, stupid as they were, simply because of their strength and ferocity. A twelve-foot, scale-armored monster, that could tear apart a duocorn with ease, might not be successfully vanquished by any of the fauna of Astra. And since the monsters did not venture into the sea, contact between them and the mermen had been limited to casual encounters at rare intervals. So, how long did a snake-devil live? Were these creatures sprawled here in sleep ones that had known the domination of Those Others—though the fall of the master race of Astra must have occurred generations, hundreds of years in the past?
"No," Sssuri's denial cut through that. "The smaller one is not yet full-grown. It lacks the second neck ring. Yet it is banded."
The merman was right. That unpleasant wattle of armored flesh which necklaced the serpent throat of the devil Dalgard had picked as his target was thin, not the thick roll of fat such as distinguished its two companions. It was not fully adult, yet the band was plain to see on the foreleg now stretched to its full length as the sun bored down to supply the heavy heat the snake-devils relished next to food.
"Then—" Dalgard did not like to think of what might be the answer to that "then."
Sssuri shrugged. "It is plain that these are not wild roamers. They are here for a purpose. And that purpose—" Suddenly his arm shot out so that his fingers protruded through the slits in the stone grille. "See?"
Dalgard had already seen, in seeing he knew hot and terrible anger. Out of the filthy mess in which the snake-devils wallowed, something had rolled, perhaps thrown about in play by the unspeakable offspring. A skull, dried scraps of fur and flesh still clinging to it, stared hollow-eyed up at them. At least one merman had fallen prey to the nightmares who ruled the arena.
Sssuri hissed and the red rage in his mind was plain to Dalgard. "Once more they deal death here—" His eyes went from the skull to the monsters. "Kill!" The command was imperative and sharp.
Dalgard had qualified as a master bowman before he had first gone roving. And the killing of snake-devils was a task which had been set every colonist since their first brush with the creatures.
He snapped the cap off the glass splinter point, designed to pin and then break off in the hide so that any clawing foot which tore out an arrow could not rid the victim of the poisonous head. The archer's mark was under the throat where the scales were soft and there was a chance of piercing the skin with the first shot.
The growls of the two feeding youngsters covered the snap of the bow cord as Dalgard shot. And he did not miss. The brilliant scarlet feather of the arrow quivered in the baggy roll of flesh.
With a scream which tore at the human's eardrums, the snake-devil reared to its hind feet. It made a tearing motion with the banded forearm which scraped across the back of one of its companions. And then it fell back to the blood-stained sand, limp, a greenish foam drooling from its fangs.
As the monster that the dead devil had raked roused, Dalgard had his chance for another good mark. And the second scarlet shaft sped straight to the target.
But the third creature which had been sleeping belly down on the sand presented only its armored back, a hopeless surface for an arrow to pierce. It had opened its eyes and was watching the now motionless bodies of its fellows. But it showed no disposition to move. It was almost as if it somehow understood that as long as it remained in its present position it was safe.
"The small ones—"
Dalgard needed no prompting. He picked off easily enough the two half-grown ones. The infants were another problem. Far less sluggish than their huge elders they sensed that they were in danger and fled. One took refuge in the pouch of its now-dead parent, and the others moved so fast that Dalgard found them difficult targets. He killed one which had almost reached an archway and at length nicked the second in the foot, knowing that, while the poison would be slower in acting, it would be as sure.
Through all of this the third adult devil continued to lie motionless, only its wicked eyes giving any indication that it was alive. Dalgard watched it impatiently. Unless it would move, allow him a chance to aim at the soft underparts, there was little chance of killing it.
What followed startled both hunters, versed as they were in the usual mechanics of killing snake-devils. It had been an accepted premise, through the years since the colonists had known of the monsters, that the creatures were relatively brainless, mere machines which fought, ate, and killed, incapable of any intelligent reasoning, and therefore only dangerous when one was surprised by them or when the hunter was forced to face them inadequately armed.
This snake-devil was different, as it became increasingly plain to the two behind the grille. It had remained safe during the slaughter of its companions because it had not moved, almost as if it had wit enough not to move. And now, when it did change position, its maneuvers, simple as they were, underlined the fact that this one creature appeared to have thought out a solution to its situation—as rational a solution as Dalgard might have produced had it been his problem.
Still keeping its soft underparts covered, it edged about in the sand until its back, with the impenetrable armor plates, was facing the grille behind which the hunters stood. Retracting its neck between its shoulders and hunching its powerful back limbs under it, it rushed from that point of danger straight for one of the archways.
Dalgard sent an arrow after it. Only to see the shaft scrape along the heavy scales and bounce to the sand. Then the snake-devil was gone.
"Banded—" The word reached Dalgard. Sssuri had been cool enough to note that while the human hunter had been only bewildered by the untypical actions of his quarry.
"It must be intelligent." The scout's statement was more than half protest.
"Where they are concerned, one may expect many evil wonders."
"We've got to get that devil!" Dalgard was determined on that. Though to run down, through this maze of deserted city, an enraged snake-devil—above all, a snake-devil which appeared to have some reasoning powers—was not a prospect to arouse any emotion except grim devotion to duty.
"It goes for help."
Dalgard, startled, stared at his companion. Sssuri was still by the grille, watching that archway through which the devil had disappeared.
"What kind of help?" For a moment Dalgard pictured the monster returning at the head of a regiment of its kind, able to tear out this grille and get at their soft-fleshed enemies behind it.
"Safety—protection," Sssuri told him. "And I think that the place to which it now flees is one we should know."
"Those Others?" The sun had not clouded, it still streamed down in the torrid heat of early afternoon, warm on their heads and shoulders. Yet Dalgard felt as chill as if some autumn wind had laid its lash across the small of his back.
"They are not here. But they have been—and it is possible that they return. The devil goes to where it expects to find them."
Sssuri was already on his way, running about the arena's curve to reach the point above the archway through which the snake-devil had raced. Dalgard padded after him, bow in hand. He trusted Sssuri implicitly when it came to tracking. If the merman said that the snake-devil had a definite goal in view, he was right. But the scout was still a little bemused by a monster who was able to have any goal except the hunting and devouring of meat. Either the one who fled was a freak among its kind or—There were several possibilities which could answer that "or," and none of them were very pleasant to consider.
They reached the section above the archway and climbed the tiers of seat benches to the top of the wall. Only to see no exit below them. In fact nothing but a wide sweep of crushed brown tangle which had once been vegetation. It was apparent that there was no door below.
Sssuri sped down again. He climbed the grille and was on his way to the sand when Dalgard caught up with him. Together they ventured into the underground passage which the snake-devil had chosen.
The stench of the lair was thick about them. Dalgard coughed, sickened by the foul odor. He was reluctant to advance. But, to his growing relief, he discovered that it was not entirely dark. Set in the roof at intervals were plates which gave out a violet light, making a dim twilight which was better than total darkness.
It was a straight passage without any turns or openings. But the horrible odor was constant, and Dalgard began to think that they might be running head-on into another lair, perhaps one as well populated as that they had left behind them. It was against nature for the snake-devils he had known to lair under cover; they preferred narrow rocky places where they could bask in the sun. But then the devil they now pursued was no ordinary one.
Sssuri reassured him. "There is no lair, only the smell because they have come this way for many years."
The passage opened into a wide room and here the violet light was stronger, bright enough to make plain the fact that alcoves opened off it, each and every one with a barred grille for a door. There was no mistaking that once this had been a prison of sorts.
Sssuri did no exploring but crossed the room at his shuffling trot, which Dalgard matched. The way leading out on the opposite side slanted up, and he judged it might bring them out at ground level.
"The devil waits," Sssuri warned, "because it fears. It will turn on us when we come. Be ready—"
They were at another door, and before them was a long corridor with tall window openings near the ceiling which gave admittance to the sunlight. After the gloom of the tunnel, Dalgard blinked. But he was aware of movement at the far end, just as he heard the hissing scream of the monster they trailed.
Raf, squatting on a small, padded platform raised some six inches from the floor, tried to study the inhabitants of the room without staring offensively. At the first glance, in spite of their strange clothing and their odd habit of painting their faces with weird designs, the city people might have been of his own species. Until one saw their too slender hands with the three equal-length fingers and thumb, or caught a glimpse, under the elaborate head coverings, of the stiff, spiky substance which served them for hair.
At least they did not appear to be antagonistic. When they had reached the roof top where the Terrans had landed their flitter, they had come with empty hands, making gestures of good will and welcome. And they had had no difficulty in persuading at least three of the exploring party to accompany them to their own quarters, though Raf had been separated from the flyer only by the direct order of Captain Hobart, an order he still resented and wanted to disobey.
The Terrans had been offered refreshment—food and drink. But knowing the first rule of stellar exploration, they had refused, which did not mean that the hosts must abstain. In fact, Raf thought, watching the aliens about him, they ate as if such a feast were novel. His two neighbors had quickly divided his portion between them and made it disappear as fast, if not faster, than their own small servings.
At the other end of the room Lablet and Hobart were trying to communicate with the nobles about them, while Soriki, a small palm recorder in his hand, was making a tape strip of the proceedings.
Raf glanced from one of his neighbors to the other. The one on his right had chosen to wear a sight-torturing shade of crimson, and the material was wound in strips about his body as if he were engulfed in an endless bandage. Only his fluttering hands, his three-toed feet and his head were free of the supple rolls. Having selected red for his clothing, he had picked a brilliant yellow paint for his facial makeup, and it was difficult for the uninitiated to trace what must be his normal features under that thick coating of stuff which fashioned a masklike strip across his eyes and a series of circles outlining his mouth, circles which almost completely covered his beardless cheeks. More twists of woven fabric, opalescent and changing color as his head moved, made a turban for his head.
Most of the aliens about the room wore some variation of the same bandage dress, face paint, and turban. An exception, one of three such, was the feaster on Raf's left.
His face paint was confined to a conservative set of bars on each cheek, those a stark black and white. His sinewy arms were bare to the shoulder, and he wore a shell of some metallic substance as a breast-and back-plate, not unlike the very ancient body armor of Raf's own world. The rest of his body was covered by the bandage strips, but they were of a dead black, which, because of the natural thinness of his limbs, gave him a rather unpleasant resemblance to a spider. Various sheaths and pockets hung from a belt pulled tight about his wasp middle, and a helmet of the metal covered his head. Soldier? Raf was sure that his guess was correct.
The officer, if officer he was, caught Raf's gaze. His small round mouth gaped, and then his hands, with a few quick movements which Raf followed, fascinated, pantomimed a flyer in the air. With those talking fingers, he was able to make plain a question: was Raf the pilot of the flitter?
The pilot nodded. Then he pointed to the officer and forced as inquiring an expression as he could command.
The answer was sketched quickly and readably: the alien, too, was either a pilot or had some authority over flyers. For the first time since he had entered this building, Raf knew a slight degree of relaxation.
The wrinkleless, too smooth skin of the alien was a darkish yellow. His painted face was a mask to frighten any sensible Terran child; his general appearance was not attractive. But he was a flyer, and he wanted to talk shop, as well as they could with no common speech. Since the scarlet-wound nobleman on Raf's right was completely engrossed in the feast, pursuing a few scraps avidly about the dish, the Terran gave all his attention to the officer.