HotFreeBooks.com
The Door Through Space
by Marion Zimmer Bradley
1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

THE DOOR THROUGH SPACE

Marion Zimmer Bradley

ACE BOOKS A Division of Charter Communications Inc. 1120 Avenue of the Americas New York, N.Y. 10036



THE DOOR THROUGH SPACE

Copyright (c), 1961, by Ace Books, Inc.

All Rights Reserved



... across half a Galaxy, the Terran Empire maintains its sovereignty with the consent of the governed. It is a peaceful reign, held by compact and not by conquest. Again and again, when rebellion threatens the Terran Peace, the natives of the rebellious world have turned against their own people and sided with the men of Terra; not from fear, but from a sense of dedication.

There has never been open war. The battle for these worlds is fought in the minds of a few men who stand between worlds; bound to one world by interest, loyalties and allegiance; bound to the other by love.

Such a world is Wolf. Such a man was Race Cargill of the Terran Secret Service.

* * * * *

RENDEZVOUS ON A LOST WORLD Copyright (c), 1961, by Ace Books, Inc.

Printed in U.S.A.

* * * * *

Author's Note:—

I've always wanted to write. But not until I discovered the old pulp science-fantasy magazines, at the age of sixteen, did this general desire become a specific urge to write science-fantasy adventures.

I took a lot of detours on the way. I discovered s-f in its golden age: the age of Kuttner, C.L. Moore, Leigh Brackett, Ed Hamilton and Jack Vance. But while I was still collecting rejection slips for my early efforts, the fashion changed. Adventures on faraway worlds and strange dimensions went out of fashion, and the new look in science-fiction—emphasis on the science—came in.

So my first stories were straight science-fiction, and I'm not trying to put down that kind of story. It has its place. By and large, the kind of science-fiction which makes tomorrow's headlines as near as this morning's coffee, has enlarged popular awareness of the modern, miraculous world of science we live in. It has helped generations of young people feel at ease with a rapidly changing world.

But fashions change, old loves return, and now that Sputniks clutter up the sky with new and unfamiliar moons, the readers of science-fiction are willing to wait for tomorrow to read tomorrow's headlines. Once again, I think, there is a place, a wish, a need and hunger for the wonder and color of the world way out. The world beyond the stars. The world we won't live to see. That is why I wrote THE DOOR THROUGH SPACE.

—MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY

* * * * *



CHAPTER ONE

Beyond the spaceport gates, the men of the Kharsa were hunting down a thief. I heard the shrill cries, the pad-padding of feet in strides just a little too long and loping to be human, raising echoes all down the dark and dusty streets leading up to the main square.

But the square itself lay empty in the crimson noon of Wolf. Overhead the dim red ember of Phi Coronis, Wolf's old and dying sun, gave out a pale and heatless light. The pair of Spaceforce guards at the gates, wearing the black leathers of the Terran Empire, shockers holstered at their belts, were drowsing under the arched gateway where the star-and-rocket emblem proclaimed the domain of Terra. One of them, a snub-nosed youngster only a few weeks out from Earth, cocked an inquisitive ear at the cries and scuffling feet, then jerked his head at me.

"Hey, Cargill, you can talk their lingo. What's going on out there?"

I stepped out past the gateway to listen. There was still no one to be seen in the square. It lay white and windswept, a barricade of emptiness; to one side the spaceport and the white skyscraper of the Terran Headquarters, and at the other side, the clutter of low buildings, the street-shrine, the little spaceport cafe smelling of coffee and jaco, and the dark opening mouths of streets that rambled down into the Kharsa—the old town, the native quarter. But I was alone in the square with the shrill cries—closer now, raising echoes from the enclosing walls—and the loping of many feet down one of the dirty streets.

Then I saw him running, dodging, a hail of stones flying round his head; someone or something small and cloaked and agile. Behind him the still-faceless mob howled and threw stones. I could not yet understand the cries; but they were out for blood, and I knew it.

I said briefly, "Trouble coming," just before the mob spilled out into the square. The fleeing dwarf stared about wildly for an instant, his head jerking from side to side so rapidly that it was impossible to get even a fleeting impression of his face—human or nonhuman, familiar or bizarre. Then, like a pellet loosed from its sling, he made straight for the gateway and safety.

And behind him the loping mob yelled and howled and came pouring over half the square. Just half. Then by that sudden intuition which permeates even the most crazed mob with some semblance of reason, they came to a ragged halt, heads turning from side to side.

I stepped up on the lower step of the Headquarters building, and looked them over.

Most of them were chaks, the furred man-tall nonhumans of the Kharsa, and not the better class. Their fur was unkempt, their tails naked with filth and disease. Their leather aprons hung in tatters. One or two in the crowd were humans, the dregs of the Kharsa. But the star-and-rocket emblem blazoned across the spaceport gates sobered even the wildest blood-lust somewhat; they milled and shifted uneasily in their half of the square.

For a moment I did not see where their quarry had gone. Then I saw him crouched, not four feet from me, in a patch of shadow. Simultaneously the mob saw him, huddled just beyond the gateway, and a howl of frustration and rage went ringing round the square. Someone threw a stone. It zipped over my head, narrowly missing me, and landed at the feet of the black-leathered guard. He jerked his head up and gestured with the shocker which had suddenly come unholstered.

The gesture should have been enough. On Wolf, Terran law has been written in blood and fire and exploding atoms; and the line is drawn firm and clear. The men of Spaceforce do not interfere in the old town, or in any of the native cities. But when violence steps over the threshold, passing the blazon of the star and rocket, punishment is swift and terrible. The threat should have been enough.

Instead a howl of abuse went up from the crowd.

"Terranan!"

"Son of the Ape!"

The Spaceforce guards were shoulder to shoulder behind me now. The snub-nosed kid, looking slightly pale, called out. "Get inside the gates, Cargill! If I have to shoot—"

The older man motioned him to silence. "Wait. Cargill," he called.

I nodded to show that I heard.

"You talk their lingo. Tell them to haul off! Damned if I want to shoot!"

I stepped down and walked into the open square, across the crumbled white stones, toward the ragged mob. Even with two armed Spaceforce men at my back, it made my skin crawl, but I flung up my empty hand in token of peace:

"Take your mob out of the square," I shouted in the jargon of the Kharsa. "This territory is held in compact of peace! Settle your quarrels elsewhere!"

There was a little stirring in the crowd. The shock of being addressed in their own tongue, instead of the Terran Standard which the Empire has forced on Wolf, held them silent for a minute. I had learned that long ago: that speaking in any of the languages of Wolf would give me a minute's advantage.

But only a minute. Then one of the mob yelled, "We'll go if you give'm to us! He's no right to Terran sanctuary!"

I walked over to the huddled dwarf, miserably trying to make himself smaller against the wall. I nudged him with my foot.

"Get up. Who are you?"

The hood fell away from his face as he twitched to his feet. He was trembling violently. In the shadow of the hood I saw a furred face, a quivering velvety muzzle, and great soft golden eyes which held intelligence and terror.

"What have you done? Can't you talk?"

He held out the tray which he had shielded under his cloak, an ordinary peddler's tray. "Toys. Sell toys. Children. You got'm?"

I shook my head and pushed the creature away, with only a glance at the array of delicately crafted manikins, tiny animals, prisms and crystal whirligigs. "You'd better get out of here. Scram. Down that street." I pointed.

A voice from the crowd shouted again, and it had a very ugly sound. "He is a spy of Nebran!"

"Nebran—" The dwarfish nonhuman gabbled something then doubled behind me. I saw him dodge, feint in the direction of the gates, then, as the crowd surged that way, run for the street-shrine across the square, slipping from recess to recess of the wall. A hail of stones went flying in that direction. The little toy-seller dodged into the street-shrine.

Then there was a hoarse "Ah, aaah!" of terror, and the crowd edged away, surged backward. The next minute it had begun to melt away, its entity dissolving into separate creatures, slipping into the side alleys and the dark streets that disgorged into the square. Within three minutes the square lay empty again in the pale-crimson noon.

The kid in black leather let his breath go and swore, slipping his shocker into its holster. He stared and demanded profanely, "Where'd the little fellow go?"

"Who knows?" the other shrugged. "Probably sneaked into one of the alleys. Did you see where he went, Cargill?"

I came slowly back to the gateway. To me, it had seemed that he ducked into the street-shrine and vanished into thin air, but I've lived on Wolf long enough to know you can't trust your eyes here. I said so, and the kid swore again, gulping, more upset than he wanted to admit. "Does this kind of thing happen often?"

"All the time," his companion assured him soberly, with a sidewise wink at me. I didn't return the wink.

The kid wouldn't let it drop. "Where did you learn their lingo, Mr. Cargill?"

"I've been on Wolf a long time," I said, spun on my heel and walked toward Headquarters. I tried not to hear, but their voices followed me anyhow, discreetly lowered, but not lowered enough.

"Kid, don't you know who he is? That's Cargill of the Secret Service! Six years ago he was the best man in Intelligence, before—" The voice lowered another decibel, and then there was the kid's voice asking, shaken, "But what the hell happened to his face?"

I should have been used to it by now. I'd been hearing it, more or less behind my back, for six years. Well, if my luck held, I'd never hear it again. I strode up the white steps of the skyscraper, to finish the arrangements that would take me away from Wolf forever. To the other end of the Empire, to the other end of the galaxy—anywhere, so long as I need not wear my past like a medallion around my neck, or blazoned and branded on what was left of my ruined face.



CHAPTER TWO

The Terran Empire has set its blazon on four hundred planets circling more than three hundred suns. But no matter what the color of the sun, the number of moons overhead, or the geography of the planet, once you step inside a Headquarters building, you are on Earth. And Earth would be alien to many who called themselves Earthmen, judging by the strangeness I always felt when I stepped into that marble-and-glass world inside the skyscraper. I heard the sound of my steps ringing into thin resonance along the marble corridor, and squinted my eyes, readjusting them painfully to the cold yellowness of the lights.

The Traffic Division was efficiency made insolent, in glass and chrome and polished steel, mirrors and windows and looming electronic clerical machines. Most of one wall was taken up by a TV monitor which gave a view of the spaceport; a vast open space lighted with blue-white mercury vapor lamps, and a chained-down skyscraper of a starship, littered over with swarming ants. The process crew was getting the big ship ready for skylift tomorrow morning. I gave it a second and then a third look. I'd be on it when it lifted.

Turning away from the monitored spaceport, I watched myself stride forward in the mirrored surfaces that were everywhere; a tall man, a lean man, bleached out by years under a red sun, and deeply scarred on both cheeks and around the mouth. Even after six years behind a desk, my neat business clothes—suitable for an Earthman with a desk job—didn't fit quite right, and I still rose unconsciously on the balls of my feet, approximating the lean stooping walk of a Dry-towner from the Coronis plains.

The clerk behind the sign marked TRANSPORTATION was a little rabbit of a man with a sunlamp tan, barricaded by a small-sized spaceport of desk, and looking as if he liked being shut up there. He looked up in civil inquiry.

"Can I do something for you?"

"My name's Cargill. Have you a pass for me?"

He stared. A free pass aboard a starship is rare except for professional spacemen, which I obviously wasn't. "Let me check my records," he hedged, and punched scanning buttons on the glassy surface. Shadows came and went, and I saw myself half-reflected, a tipsy shadow in a flurry of racing colors. The pattern finally stabilized and the clerk read off names.

"Brill, Cameron ... ah, yes. Cargill, Race Andrew, Department 38, transfer transportation. Is that you?"

I admitted it and he started punching more buttons when the sound of the name made connection in whatever desk-clerks use for a brain. He stopped with his hand halfway to the button.

"Are you Race Cargill of the Secret Service, sir? The Race Cargill?"

"It's right there," I said, gesturing wearily at the projected pattern under the glassy surface.

"Why, I thought—I mean, everybody took it for granted—that is, I heard—"

"You thought Cargill had been killed a long time ago because his name never turned up in news dispatches any more?" I grinned sourly, seeing my image dissolve in blurring shadows, and feeling the long-healed scar on my mouth draw up to make the grin hideous. "I'm Cargill, all right. I've been up on Floor 38 for six years, holding down a desk any clerk could handle. You for instance."

He gaped. He was a rabbit of a man who had never stepped out of the safe familiar boundaries of the Terran Trade City. "You mean you're the man who went to Charin in disguise, and routed out The Lisse? The man who scouted the Black Ridge and Shainsa? And you've been working at a desk upstairs all these years? It's—hard to believe, sir."

My mouth twitched. It had been hard for me to believe while I was doing it. "The pass?"

"Right away, sir." He punched buttons and a printed chip of plastic extruded from a slot on the desk top. "Your fingerprint, please?" He pressed my finger into the still-soft surface of the plastic, indelibly recording the print; waited a moment for it to harden, then laid the chip in the slot of a pneumatic tube. I heard it whoosh away.

"They'll check your fingerprint against that when you board the ship. Skylift isn't till dawn, but you can go aboard as soon as the process crew finishes with her." He glanced at the monitor screen, where the swarming crew were still doing inexplicable things to the immobile spacecraft. "It will be another hour or two. Where are you going, Mr. Cargill?"

"Some planet in the Hyades Cluster. Vainwal, I think, something like that."

"What's it like there?"

"How should I know?" I'd never been there either. I only knew that Vainwal had a red sun, and that the Terran Legate could use a trained Intelligence officer. And not pin him down to a desk.

There was respect, and even envy in the little man's voice. "Could I—buy you a drink before you go aboard, Mr. Cargill?"

"Thanks, but I have a few loose ends to tie up." I didn't, but I was damned if I'd spend my last hour on Wolf under the eyes of a deskbound rabbit who preferred his adventure safely secondhand.

But after I'd left the office and the building, I almost wished I'd taken him up on it. It would be at least an hour before I could board the starship, with nothing to do but hash over old memories, better forgotten.

The sun was lower now. Phi Coronis is a dim star, a dying star, and once past the crimson zenith of noon, its light slants into a long pale-reddish twilight. Four of Wolf's five moons were clustered in a pale bouquet overhead, mingling thin violet moonlight into the crimson dusk.

The shadows were blue and purple in the empty square as I walked across the stones and stood looking down one of the side streets.

A few steps, and I was in an untidy slum which might have been on another world from the neat bright Trade City which lay west of the spaceport. The Kharsa was alive and reeking with the sounds and smells of human and half-human life. A naked child, diminutive and golden-furred, darted between two of the chinked pebble-houses, and disappeared, spilling fragile laughter like breaking glass.

A little beast, half snake and half cat, crawled across a roof, spread leathery wings, and flapped to the ground. The sour pungent reek of incense from the open street-shrine made my nostrils twitch, and a hulked form inside, not human, cast me a surly green glare as I passed.

I turned, retracing my steps. There was no danger, of course, so close to the Trade City. Even on such planets as Wolf, Terra's laws are respected within earshot of their gates. But there had been rioting here and in Charin during the last month. After the display of mob violence this afternoon, a lone Terran, unarmed, might turn up as a solitary corpse flung on the steps of the HQ building.

There had been a time when I had walked alone from Shainsa to the Polar Colony. I had known how to melt into this kind of night, shabby and inconspicuous, a worn shirtcloak hunched round my shoulders, weaponless except for the razor-sharp skean in the clasp of the cloak; walking on the balls of my feet like a Dry-towner, not looking or sounding or smelling like an Earthman.

That rabbit in the Traffic office had stirred up things I'd be wiser to forget. It had been six years; six years of slow death behind a desk, since the day when Rakhal Sensar had left me a marked man; death-warrant written on my scarred face anywhere outside the narrow confines of the Terran law on Wolf.

Rakhal Sensar—my fists clenched with the old impotent hate. If I could get my hands on him!

It had been Rakhal who first led me through the byways of the Kharsa, teaching me the jargon of a dozen tribes, the chirping call of the Ya-men, the way of the catmen of the rain-forests, the argot of thieves markets, the walk and step of the Dry-towners from Shainsa and Daillon and Ardcarran—the parched cities of dusty, salt stone which spread out in the bottoms of Wolf's vanished oceans. Rakhal was from Shainsa, human, tall as an Earthman, weathered by salt and sun, and he had worked for Terran Intelligence since we were boys. We had traveled all over our world together, and found it good.

And then, for some reason I had never known, it had come to an end. Even now I was not wholly sure why he had erupted, that day, into violence and a final explosion. Then he had disappeared, leaving me a marked man. And a lonely one: Juli had gone with him.

I strode the streets of the slum unseeing, my thoughts running a familiar channel. Juli, my kid sister, clinging around Rakhal's neck, her gray eyes hating me. I had never seen her again.

That had been six years ago. One more adventure had shown me that my usefulness to the Secret Service was over. Rakhal had vanished, but he had left me a legacy: my name, written on the sure scrolls of death anywhere outside the safe boundaries of Terran law. A marked man, I had gone back to slow stagnation behind a desk. I'd stood it as long as I could.

When it finally got too bad, Magnusson had been sympathetic. He was the Chief of Terran Intelligence on Wolf, and I was next in line for his job, but he understood when I quit. He'd arranged the transfer and the pass, and I was leaving tonight.

I was nearly back to the spaceport by now, across from the street-shrine at the edge of the square. It was here that the little toy-seller had vanished. But it was exactly like a thousand, a hundred thousand other such street-shrines on Wolf, a smudge of incense reeking and stinking before the squatting image of Nebran, the Toad God whose face and symbol are everywhere on Wolf. I stared for a moment at the ugly idol, then slowly moved away.

The lighted curtains of the spaceport cafe attracted my attention and I went inside. A few spaceport personnel in storm gear were drinking coffee at the counter, a pair of furred chaks, lounging beneath the mirrors at the far end, and a trio of Dry-towners, rangy, weathered men in crimson and blue shirt cloaks, were standing at a wall shelf, eating Terran food with aloof dignity.

In my business clothes I felt more conspicuous than the chaks. What place had a civilian here, between the uniforms of the spacemen and the colorful brilliance of the Dry-towners?

A snub-nosed girl with alabaster hair came to take my order. I asked for jaco and bunlets, and carried the food to a wall shelf near the Dry-towners. Their dialect fell soft and familiar on my ears. One of them, without altering the expression on his face or the easy tone of his voice, began to make elaborate comments on my entrance, my appearance, my ancestry and probably personal habits, all defined in the colorfully obscene dialect of Shainsa.

That had happened before. The Wolfan sense of humor is only half-human. The finest joke is to criticize and insult a stranger, preferably an Earthman, to his very face, in an unknown language, perfectly deadpan. In my civilian clothes I was obviously fair game.

A look or gesture of resentment would have lost face and dignity—what the Dry-towners call their kihar—permanently. I leaned over and remarked in their own dialect that I would, at some future and unspecified time, appreciate the opportunity to return their compliments.

By rights they should have laughed, made some barbed remark about my command of language and crossed their hands in symbol of a jest decently reversed on themselves. Then we would have bought each other a drink, and that would be that.

But it didn't happen that way. Not this time. The tallest of the three whirled, upsetting his drink in the process. I heard its thin shatter through the squeal of the alabaster-haired girl, as a chair crashed over. They faced me three abreast, and one of them fumbled in the clasp of his shirtcloak.

I edged backward, my own hand racing up for a skean I hadn't carried in six years, and fronted them squarely, hoping I could face down the prospect of a roughhouse. They wouldn't kill me, this close to the HQ, but at least I was in for an unpleasant mauling. I couldn't handle three men; and if nerves were this taut in the Kharsa, I might get knifed. Quite by accident, of course.

The chaks moaned and gibbered. The Dry-towners glared at me and I tensed for the moment when their steady stare would explode into violence.

Then I became aware that they were gazing, not at me, but at something or someone behind me. The skeans snicked back into the clasps of their cloaks.

Then they broke rank, turned and ran. They ran, blundering into stools, leaving havoc of upset benches and broken crockery in their wake. One man barged into the counter, swore and ran on, limping. I let my breath go. Something had put the fear of God into those brutes, and it wasn't my own ugly mug. I turned and saw the girl.

She was slight, with waving hair like spun black glass, circled with faint tracery of stars. A black glass belt bound her narrow waist like clasped hands, and her robe, stark white, bore an ugly embroidery across the breasts, the flat sprawl of a conventionalized Toad God, Nebran. Her features were delicate, chiseled, pale; a Dry-town face, all human, all woman, but set in an alien and unearthly repose. The great eyes gleamed red. They were fixed, almost unseeing, but the crimson lips were curved with inhuman malice.

She stood motionless, looking at me as if wondering why I had not run with the others. In half a second, the smile flickered off and was replaced by a startled look of—recognition?

Whoever and whatever she was, she had saved me a mauling. I started to phrase formal thanks, then broke off in astonishment. The cafe had emptied and we were entirely alone. Even the chaks had leaped through an open window—I saw the whisk of a disappearing tail.

We stood frozen, looking at one another while the Toad God sprawled across her breasts rose and fell for half a dozen breaths.

Then I took one step forward, and she took one step backward, at the same instant. In one swift movement she was outside in the dark street. It took me only an instant to get into the street after her, but as I stepped across the door there was a little stirring in the air, like the rising of heat waves across the salt flats at noon. Then the street-shrine was empty, and nowhere was there any sign of the girl. She had vanished. She simply was not there.

I gaped at the empty shrine. She had stepped inside and vanished, like a wraith of smoke, like—

—Like the little toy-seller they had hunted out of the Kharsa.

There were eyes in the street again and, becoming aware of where I was, I moved away. The shrines of Nebran are on every corner of Wolf, but this is one instance when familiarity does not breed contempt. The street was dark and seemed empty, but it was packed with all the little noises of living. I was not unobserved. And meddling with a street-shrine would be just as dangerous as the skeans of my three loud-mouthed Dry-town roughnecks.

I turned and crossed the square for the last time, turning toward the loom of the spaceship, filing the girl away as just another riddle of Wolf I'd never solve.

How wrong I was!



CHAPTER THREE

From the spaceport gates, exchanging brief greetings with the guards, I took a last look at the Kharsa. For a minute I toyed with the notion of just disappearing down one of those streets. It's not hard to disappear on Wolf, if you know how. And I knew, or had known once. Loyalty to Terra? What had Terra given me except a taste of color and adventure, out there in the Dry-towns, and then taken it away again?

If an Earthman is very lucky and very careful, he lasts about ten years in Intelligence. I had had two years more than my share. I still knew enough to leave my Terran identity behind like a worn-out jacket. I could seek out Rakhal, settle our blood-feud, see Juli again....

How could I see Juli again? As her husband's murderer? No other way. Blood-feud on Wolf is a terrible and elaborate ritual of the code duello. And once I stepped outside the borders of Terran law, sooner or later Rakhal and I would meet. And one of us would die.

I looked back, just once, at the dark rambling streets away from the square. Then I turned toward the blue-white lights that hurt my eyes, and the starship that loomed, huge and hateful, before me.

A steward in white took my fingerprint and led me to a coffin-sized chamber. He brought me coffee and sandwiches—I hadn't, after all, eaten in the spaceport cafe—then got me into the skyhook and strapped me, deftly and firmly, into the acceleration cushions, tugging at the Garensen belts until I ached all over. A long needle went into my arm—the narcotic that would keep me safely drowsy all through the terrible tug of interstellar acceleration.

Doors clanged, buzzers vibrated lower down in the ship, men tramped the corridors calling to one another in the language of the spaceports. I understood one word in four. I shut my eyes, not caring. At the end of the trip there would be another star, another world, another language. Another life.

I had spent all my adult life on Wolf. Juli had been a child under the red star. But it was a pair of wide crimson eyes and black hair combed into ringlets like spun black glass that went down with me into the bottomless pit of sleep....

* * * * *

Someone was shaking me.

"Ah, come on, Cargill. Wake up, man. Shake your boots!"

My mouth, foul-tasting and stiff, fumbled at the shapes of words. "Wha' happened? Wha' y' want?" My eyes throbbed. When I got them open I saw two men in black leathers bending over me. We were still inside gravity.

"Get out of the skyhook. You're coming with us."

"Wha'—" Even through the layers of the sedative, that got to me. Only a criminal, under interstellar law, can be removed from a passage-paid starship once he has formally checked in on board. I was legally, at this moment, on my "planet of destination."

"I haven't been charged—"

"Did I say you had?" snapped one man.

"Shut up, he's doped," the other said hurriedly. "Look," he continued, pronouncing every word loudly and distinctly, "get up now, and come with us. The co-ordinator will hold up blastoff if we don't get off in three minutes, and Operations will scream. Come on, please."

Then I was stumbling along the lighted, empty corridor, swaying between the two men, foggily realizing the crew must think me a fugitive caught trying to leave the planet.

The locks dilated. A uniformed spaceman watched us, fussily regarding a chronometer. He fretted. "The dispatcher's office—"

"We're doing the best we can," the Spaceforce man said. "Can you walk, Cargill?"

I could, though my feet were a little shaky on the ladders. The violet moonlight had deepened to mauve, and gusty winds spun tendrils of grit across my face. The Spaceforce men shepherded me, one on either side, to the gateway.

"What the hell is all this? Is something wrong with my pass?"

The guard shook his head. "How would I know? Magnusson put out the order, take it up with him."

"Believe me," I muttered, "I will."

They looked at each other. "Hell," said one, "he's not under arrest, we don't have to haul him around like a convict. Can you walk all right now, Cargill? You know where the Secret Service office is, don't you? Floor 38. The Chief wants you, and make it fast."

I knew it made no sense to ask questions, they obviously knew no more than I did. I asked anyhow.

"Are they holding the ship for me? I'm supposed to be leaving on it."

"Not that one," the guard answered, jerking his head toward the spaceport. I looked back just in time to see the dust-dimmed ship leap upward, briefly whitened in the field searchlights, and vanish into the surging clouds above.

My head was clearing fast, and anger speeded up the process. The HQ building was empty in the chill silence of just before dawn. I had to rout out a dozing elevator operator, and as the lift swooped upward my anger rose with it. I wasn't working for Magnusson any more. What right had he, or anybody, to grab me off an outbound starship like a criminal? By the time I barged into his office, I was spoiling for a fight.

The Secret Service office was full of grayish-pink morning and yellow lights left on from the night before. Magnusson, at his desk, looked as if he'd slept in his rumpled uniform. He was a big bull of a man, and his littered desk looked, as always, like the track of a typhoon in the salt flats.

The clutter was weighted down, here and there, with solidopic cubes of the five Magnusson youngsters, and as usual, Magnusson was fiddling with one of the cubes. He said, not looking up, "Sorry to pull this at the last minute, Race. There was just time to put out a pull order and get you off the ship, but no time to explain."

I glared at him. "Seems I can't even get off the planet without trouble! You raised hell all the time I was here, but when I try to leave—what is this, anyhow? I'm sick of being shoved around!"

Magnusson made a conciliating gesture. "Wait until you hear—" he began, and broke off, looking at someone who was sitting in the chair in front of his desk, somebody whose back was turned to me. Then the person twisted and I stopped cold, blinking and wondering if this were a hallucination and I'd wake up in the starship's skyhook, far out in space.

Then the woman cried, "Race, Race! Don't you know me?"

I took one dazed step and another. Then she flew across the space between us, her thin arms tangling around my neck, and I caught her up, still disbelieving.

"Juli!"

"Oh, Race, I thought I'd die when Mack told me you were leaving tonight. It's been the only thing that's kept me alive, knowing—knowing I'd see you." She sobbed and laughed, her face buried in my shoulder.

I let her cry for a minute, then held my sister at arm's length. For a moment I had forgotten the six years that lay between us. Now I saw them, all of them, printed plain on her face. Juli had been a pretty girl. Six years had fined her face into beauty, but there was tension in the set of her shoulders, and her gray eyes had looked on horrors.

She looked tiny and thin and unbearably frail under the scanty folds of her fur robe, a Dry-town woman's robe. Her wrists were manacled, the jeweled tight bracelets fastened together by the links of a long fine chain of silvered gilt that clashed a little, thinly, as her hands fell to her sides.

"What's wrong, Juli? Where's Rakhal?"

She shivered and now I could see that she was in a state of shock.

"Gone. He's gone, that's all I know. And—oh, Race, Race, he took Rindy with him!"

From the tone of her voice I had thought she was sobbing. Now I realized that her eyes were dry; she was long past tears. Gently I unclasped her clenched fingers and put her back in the chair. She sat like a doll, her hands falling to her sides with a thin clash of chains. When I picked them up and laid them in her lap she let them lie there motionless. I stood over her and demanded, "Who's Rindy?" She didn't move.

"My daughter, Race. Our little girl."

Magnusson broke in, his voice harsh. "Well, Cargill, should I have let you leave?"

"Don't be a damn fool!"

"I was afraid you'd tell the poor kid she had to live with her own mistakes," growled Magnusson. "You're capable of it."

For the first time Juli showed a sign of animation. "I was afraid to come to you, Mack. You never wanted me to marry Rakhal, either."

"Water under the bridge," Magnusson grunted. "And I've got lads of my own, Miss Cargill—Mrs.—" he stopped in distress, vaguely remembering that in the Dry-towns an improper form of address can be a deadly insult.

But she guessed his predicament.

"You used to call me Juli, Mack. It will do now."

"You've changed," he said quietly. "Juli, then. Tell Race what you told me. All of it."

She turned to me. "I shouldn't have come for myself—"

I knew that. Juli was proud, and she had always had the courage to live with her own mistakes. When I first saw her, I knew this wouldn't be anything so simple as the complaint of an abused wife or even an abandoned or deserted mother. I took a chair, watching her and listening.

She began. "You made a mistake when you turned Rakhal out of the Service, Mack. In his way he was the most loyal man you had on Wolf."

Magnusson had evidently not expected her to take this tack. He scowled and looked disconcerted, shifting uneasily in his big chair, but when Juli did not continue, obviously awaiting his answer, he said, "Juli, he left me no choice. I never knew how his mind worked. That final deal he engineered—have you any idea how much that cost the Service? And have you taken a good look at your brother's face, Juli girl?"

Juli raised her eyes slowly, and I saw her flinch. I knew how she felt. For three years I had kept my mirror covered, growing an untidy straggle of beard because it hid the scars and saved me the ordeal of facing myself to shave.

Juli whispered, "Rakhal's is just as bad. Worse."

"That's some satisfaction," I said, and Mack stared at us, baffled. "Even now I don't know what it was all about."

"And you never will," I said for the hundredth time. "We've been over this before. Nobody could understand it unless he'd lived in the Dry-towns. Let's not talk about it. You talk, Juli. What brought you here like this? What about the kid?"

"There's no way I can tell you the end without telling you the beginning," she said reasonably. "At first Rakhal worked as a trader in Shainsa."

I wasn't surprised. The Dry-towns were the core of Terran trade on Wolf, and it was through their cooperation that Terra existed here peaceably, on a world only half human, or less.

The men of the Dry-towns existed strangely poised between two worlds. They had made dealings with the first Terran ships, and thus gave entrance to the wedge of the Terran Empire. And yet they stood proud and apart. They alone had never yielded to the Terranizing which overtakes all Empire planets sooner or later.

There were no Trade Cities in the Dry-towns; an Earthman who went there unprotected faced a thousand deaths, each one worse than the last. There were those who said that the men of Shainsa and Daillon and Ardcarran had sold the rest of Wolf to the Terrans, to keep the Terrans from their own door.

Even Rakhal, who had worked with Terra since boyhood, had finally come to a point of decision and gone his own way. And it was not Terra's way.

That was what Juli was saying now.

"He didn't like what Terra was doing on Wolf. I'm not so sure I like it myself—"

Magnusson interrupted her again. "Do you know what Wolf was like when we came here? Have you seen the Slave Colony, the Idiot's Village? Your own brother went to Shainsa and routed out The Lisse."

"And Rakhal helped him!" Juli reminded him. "Even after he left you, he tried to keep out of things. He could have told them a good deal that would hurt you, after ten years in Intelligence, you know."

I knew. It was, although I wasn't going to tell Juli this, one reason why, at the end—during that terrible explosion of violence which no normal Terran mind could comprehend—I had done my best to kill him. We had both known that after this, the planet would not hold the two of us. We could both go on living only by dividing it unevenly. I had been given the slow death of the Terran Zone. And he had all the rest.

"But he never told them anything! I tell you, he was one of the most loyal—"

Mack grunted, "Yeah, he's an angel. Go ahead."

She didn't, not immediately. Instead she asked what sounded like an irrelevant question. "Is it true what he told me? That the Empire has a standing offer of a reward for a working model of a matter transmitter?"

"That offer's been standing for three hundred years, Terran reckoning. One million credits cash. Don't tell me he was figuring to invent one?"

"I don't think so. But I think he heard rumors about one. He said with that kind of money he could bargain the Terrans right out of Shainsa. That was where it started. He began coming and going at odd times, but he never said any more about it. He wouldn't talk to me at all."

"When was all this?"

"About four months ago."

"In other words, just about the time of the riots in Charin."

She nodded. "Yes. He was away in Charin when the Ghost Wind blew, and he came back with knife cuts in his thigh. I asked if he had been mixed-up in the anti-Terran rioting, but he wouldn't tell me. Race, I don't know anything about politics. I don't really care. But just about that time, the Great House in Shainsa changed hands. I'm sure Rakhal had something to do with that.

"And then—" Juli twisted her chained hands together in her lap—"he tried to mix Rindy up in it. It was crazy, awful! He'd brought her some sort of nonhuman toy from one of the lowland towns, Charin I think. It was a weird thing, scared me. But he'd sit Rindy down in the sunlight and have her look into it, and Rindy would gabble all sorts of nonsense about little men and birds and a toymaker."

The chains about Juli's wrists clashed as she twisted her hands together. I stared somberly at the fetters. The chain, which was long, did not really hamper her movements much. Such chains were symbolic ornaments, and most Dry-town women went all their lives with fettered hands. But even after the years I'd spent in the Dry-towns, the sight still brought an uneasiness to my throat, a vague discomfort.

"We had a terrible fight over that," Juli went on. "I was afraid, afraid of what it was doing to Rindy. I threw it out, and Rindy woke up and screamed—" Juli checked herself and caught at vanishing self-control.

"But you don't want to hear about that. It was then I threatened to leave him and take Rindy. The next day—" Suddenly the hysteria Juli had been forcing back broke free, and she rocked back and forth in her chair, shaken and strangled with sobs. "He took Rindy! Oh, Race, he's crazy, crazy. I think he hates Rindy, he—he, Race, he smashed her toys. He took every toy the child had and broke them one by one, smashed them into powder, every toy the child had—"

"Juli, please, please," Magnusson pleaded, shaken. "If we're dealing with a maniac—"

"I don't dare think he'd harm her! He warned me not to come here, or I'd never see her again, but if it meant war against Terra I had to come. But Mack, please, don't do anything against him, please, please. He's got my baby, he's got my little girl...." Her voice failed and she buried her face in her hands.

Mack picked up the solidopic cube of his five-year-old son, and turned it between his pudgy fingers, saying unhappily, "Juli, we'll take every precaution. But can't you see, we've got to get him? If there's a question of a matter transmitter, or anything like that, in the hands of Terra's enemies—"

I could see that, too, but Juli's agonized face came between me and the picture of disaster. I clenched my fist around the chair arm, not surprised to see the fragile plastic buckle, crack and split under my grip. If it had been Rakhal's neck....

"Mack, let me handle this. Juli, shall I find Rindy for you?"

A hope was born in her ravaged face, and died, while I looked. "Race, he'd kill you. Or have you killed."

"He'd try," I admitted. The moment Rakhal knew I was outside the Terran zone, I'd walk with death. I had accepted the code during my years in Shainsa. But now I was an Earthman and felt only contempt.

"Can't you see? Once he knows I'm at large, that very code of his will force him to abandon any intrigue, whatever you call it, conspiracy, and come after me first. That way we do two things: we get him out of hiding, and we get him out of the conspiracy, if there is one."

I looked at the shaking Juli and something snapped. I stooped and lifted her, not gently, my hands biting her shoulders. "And I won't kill him, do you hear? He may wish I had; by the time I get through with him—I'll beat the living hell out of him; I'll cram my fists down his throat. But I'll settle it with him like an Earthman. I won't kill him. Hear me, Juli? Because that's the worst thing I could do to him—catch him and let him live afterward!"

Magnusson stepped toward me and pried my crushing hands off her arms. Juli rubbed the bruises mechanically, not knowing she was doing it. Mack said, "You can't do it, Cargill. You wouldn't get as far as Daillon. You haven't been out of the zone in six years. Besides—"

His eyes rested full on my face. "I hate to say this, Race, but damn it, man, go and take a good look at yourself in a mirror. Do you think I'd ever have pulled you off the Secret Service otherwise? How in hell can you disguise yourself now?"

"There are plenty of scarred men in the Dry-towns," I said. "Rakhal will remember my scars, but I don't think anyone else would look twice."

Magnusson walked to the window. His huge form bulked against the light, perceptibly darkening the office. He looked over the faraway panorama, the neat bright Trade City below and the vast wilderness lying outside. I could almost hear the wheels grinding in his head. Finally he swung around.

"Race, I've heard these rumors before. But you're the only man I could have sent to track them down, and I wouldn't send you out in cold blood to be killed. I won't now. Spaceforce will pick him up."

I heard the harsh inward gasp of Juli's breath and said, "Damn it, no. The first move you make—" I couldn't finish. Rindy was in his hands, and when I knew Rakhal, he hadn't been given to making idle threats. We all three knew what Rakhal might do at the first hint of the long arm of Terran law reaching out for him.

I said, "For God's sake let's keep Spaceforce out of it. Let it look like a personal matter between Rakhal and me, and let us settle it on those terms. Remember he's got the kid."

Magnusson sighed. Again he picked up one of the cubes and stared into the clear plastic, where the three-dimensional image of a nine-year-old girl looked out at him, smiling and innocent. His face was transparent as the plastic cube. Mack acts tough, but he has five kids and he is as soft as a dish of pudding where a kid is concerned.

"I know. Another thing, too. If we send out Spaceforce, after all the riots—how many Terrans are on this planet? A few thousand, no more. What chance would we have, if it turned into a full-scale rebellion? None at all, unless we wanted to order a massacre. Sure, we have bombs and dis-guns and all that.

"But would we dare to use them? And where would we be after that? We're here to keep the pot from boiling over, to keep out of planetary incidents, not push them along to a point where bluff won't work. That's why we've got to pick up Rakhal before this gets out of hand."

I said, "Give me a month. Then you can move in, if you have to. Rakhal can't do much against Terra in that time. And I might be able to keep Rindy out of it."

Magnusson stared at me, hard-eyed. "If you do this against my advice, I won't be able to step in and pull you out of a jam later on, you know. And God help you if you start up the machines and can't stop them."

I knew that. A month wasn't much. Wolf is forty thousand miles of diameter, at least half unexplored; mountain and forest swarming with nonhuman and semi-human cities where Terrans had never been.

Finding Rakhal, or any one man, would be like picking out one star in the Andromeda nebula. Not impossible. Not quite impossible.

Mack's eyes wandered again to his child's face, deep in the transparent cube. He turned it in his hands. "Okay, Cargill," he said slowly, "so we're all crazy. I'll be crazy too. Try it your way."



CHAPTER FOUR

By sunset I was ready to leave. I hadn't had any loose ends to tie up in the Trade City, since I'd already disposed of most of my gear before boarding the starship. I'd never been in better circumstances to take off for parts unknown.

Mack, still disapproving, had opened the files to me, and I'd spent most of the day in the back rooms of Floor 38, searching Intelligence files to refresh my memory, scanning the pages of my own old reports sent years ago from Shainsa and Daillon. He had sent out one of the nonhumans who worked for us, to buy or acquire somewhere in the Old Town a Dry-towner's outfit and the other things I would wear and carry.

I would have liked to go myself. I felt that I needed the practice. I was only now beginning to realize how much I might have forgotten in the years behind a desk. But until I was ready to make my presence known, no one must know that Race Cargill had not left Wolf on the starship.

Above all, I must not be seen in the Kharsa until I went there in the Dry-town disguise which had become, years ago, a deep second nature, almost an alternate personality.

About sunset I walked through the clean little streets of the Terran Trade City toward the Magnusson home where Juli was waiting for me.

Most of the men who go into Civil Service of the Empire come from Earth, or from the close-in planets of Proxima and Alpha Centaurus. They go out unmarried, and they stay that way, or marry women native to the planets where they are sent.

But Joanna Magnusson was one of the rare Earth women who had come out with her husband, twenty years ago. There are two kinds of Earthwomen like that. They make their quarterings a little bit of home, or a little bit of hell. Joanna had made their house look like a transported corner of Earth.

I never knew quite what to think of the Magnusson household. It seemed to me almost madness to live under a red sun, yet come inside to yellow light, to live on a world with the wild beauty of Wolf and yet live as they might have lived on their home planet. Or maybe I was the one who was out of step. I had done the reprehensible thing they called "going native." Possibly I had done just that, and in absorbing myself into the new world, had lost the ability to fit into the old.

Joanna, a chubby comfortable woman in her forties, opened the door and gave me her hand. "Come in, Race. Juli's expecting you."

"It's good of you." I broke off, unable to express my gratitude. Juli and I had come from Earth—our father had been an officer on the old starship Landfall when Juli was only a child. He had died in a wreck off Procyon, and Mack Magnusson had found me a place in Intelligence because I spoke four of the Wolf languages and haunted the Kharsa with Rakhal whenever I could get away.

They had also taken Juli into their own home, like a younger sister. They hadn't said much—because they had liked Rakhal—when the breakup came. But that terrible night when Rakhal and I nearly killed each other, and Rakhal came with his face bleeding and took Juli away with him, had hurt them hard. Yet it had made them all the kinder to me.

Joanna said forthrightly, "Nonsense, Race! What else could we do?" She drew me along the hall. "You can talk in here."

I delayed a minute before going through the door she indicated. "How is Juli?"

"Better, I think. I put her to bed in Meta's room, and she slept most of the day. She'll be all right. I'll leave you to talk." Joanna opened the door, and went away.

Juli was awake and dressed, and already some of the terrible frozen horror was gone from her face. She was still tense and devil-ridden, but not hysterical now.

The room, one of the children's bedrooms, wasn't a big one. Even at the top of the Secret Service, a cop doesn't live too well. Not on Terra's Civil Service pay scale. Not, with five youngsters. It looked as if all five of the kids had taken it to pieces, one at a time.

I sat down on a too-low chair and said, "Juli, we haven't much time, I've got to be out of the city before dark. I want to know about Rakhal, what he does, what he's like now. Remember, I haven't seen him for years. Tell me everything—his friends, his amusements, everything you know."

"I always thought you knew him better than I did." Juli had a fidgety little way of coiling the links of the chain around her wrists and it made me nervous.

"It's routine, Juli. Police work. Mostly I play by ear, but I try to start out by being methodical."

She answered everything I asked her, but the sum total wasn't much and it wouldn't help much. As I said, it's easy to disappear on Wolf. Juli knew he had been friendly with the new holders of the Great House on Shainsa, but she didn't even know their name.

I heard one of the Magnusson children fly to the street door and return, shouting for her mother. Joanna knocked at the door of the room and came in.

"There's a chak outside who wants to see you, Race."

I nodded. "Probably my fancy dress. Can I change in the back room, Joanna? Will you keep my clothes here till I get back?"

I went to the door and spoke to the furred nonhuman in the sibilant jargon of the Kharsa and he handed me what looked like a bundle of rags. There were hard lumps inside. The chak said softly, "I hear a rumor in the Kharsa, Raiss. Perhaps it will help you. Three men from Shainsa are in the city. They came here to seek a woman who has vanished, and a toymaker. They are returning at sunrise. Perhaps you can arrange to travel in their caravan."

I thanked him and carried the bundle inside. In the empty back room I stripped to the skin and unrolled the bundle. There was a pair of baggy striped breeches, a worn and shabby shirtcloak with capacious pockets, a looped belt with half the gilt rubbed away and the base metal showing through, and a scuffed pair of ankle-boots tied with frayed thongs of different colors. There was a little cluster of amulets and seals. I chose two or three of the commonest kind, and strung them around my neck.

One of the lumps in the bundle was a small jar, holding nothing but the ordinary spices sold in the market, with which the average Dry-towner flavors food. I rubbed some of the powder on my body, put a pinch in the pocket of my shirtcloak, and chewed a few of the buds, wrinkling my nose at the long-unfamiliar pungency.

The second lump was a skean, and unlike the worn and shabby garments, this was brand-new and sharp and bright, and its edge held a razor glint. I tucked it into the clasp of my shirtcloak, a reassuring weight. It was the only weapon I could dare to carry.

The last of the solid objects in the bundle was a flat wooden case, about nine by ten inches. I slid it open. It was divided carefully into sections cushioned with sponge-absorbent plastic, and in them lay tiny slips of glass, on Wolf as precious as jewels. They were lenses—camera lenses, microscope lenses, even eyeglass lenses. Packed close, there were nearly a hundred of them nested by the shock-absorbent stuff.

They were my excuse for travel to Shainsa. Over and above the necessities of trade, a few items of Terran manufacture—vacuum tubes, transistors, lenses for cameras and binoculars, liquors and finely forged small tools—are literally worth their weight in platinum.

Even in cities where Terrans have never gone, these things bring exorbitant prices, and trading in them is a Dry-town privilege. Rakhal had been a trader, so Juli told me, in fine wire and surgical instruments. Wolf is not a mechanized planet, and has never developed any indigenous industrial system; the psychology of the nonhuman seldom runs to technological advances.

I went down the hallway again to the room where Juli was waiting. Catching a glimpse in a full-length mirror, I was startled. All traces of the Terran civil servant, clumsy and uncomfortable in his ill-fitting clothes, had dropped away. A Dry-towner, rangy and scarred, looked out at me, and it seemed that the expression on his face was one of amazement.

Joanna whirled as I came into the room and visibly paled before, recovering her self-control, she gave a nervous little giggle. "Goodness, Race, I didn't know you!"

Juli whispered, "Yes, I—I remember you better like that. You're—you look so much like—"

The door flew open and Mickey Magnusson scampered into the room, a chubby little boy browned by a Terra-type sunlamp and glowing with health. In his hand he held some sparkling thing that gave off tiny flashes and glints of color.

I gave the kid a grin before I realized that I was disguised anyhow and probably a hideous sight. The little boy backed off, but Joanna put her plump hand on his shoulder, murmuring soothing things.

Mickey toddled toward Juli, holding up the shining thing in his hands as if to display something very precious and beloved. Juli bent and held out her arms, then her face contracted and she snatched at the plaything.

"Mickey, what's that?"

He thrust it protectively behind his back. "Mine!"

"Mickey, don't be naughty," Joanna chided.

"Please let me see," Juli coaxed, and he brought it out, slowly, still suspicious. It was an angled prism of crystal, star-shaped, set in a frame which could get the star spinning like a solidopic. But it displayed a new and comical face every time it was turned.

Mickey turned it round and round, charmed at being the center of attention. There seemed to be dozens of faces, shifting with each spin of the prism, human and nonhuman, all dim and slightly distorted. My own face, Juli's, Joanna's came out of the crystal surface, not a reflection but a caricature.

A choked sound from Juli made me turn in dismay. She had let herself drop to the floor and was sitting there, white as death, supporting herself with her two hands.

"Race! Find out where he got that—that thing!"

I bent and shook her. "What's the matter with you?" I demanded. She had lapsed into the dazed, sleepwalking horror of this morning. She whispered, "It's not a toy. Rindy had one. Joanna, where did he get it?" She pointed at the shining thing with an expression of horror which would have been laughable had it been less real, less filled with terror.

Joanna cocked her head to one side and wrinkled her forehead, reflectively. "Why, I don't know, now you come to ask me. I thought maybe one of the chaks had given it to Mickey. Bought it in the bazaar, maybe. He loves it. Do get up off the floor, Juli!"

Juli scrambled to her feet. She said, "Rindy had one. It—it terrified me. She would sit and look at it by the hour, and—I told you about it, Race. I threw it out once, and she woke up and screamed. She shrieked for hours and hours and she ran out in the dark and dug for it in the trash pile, where I'd buried it. She went out in the dark, broke all her fingernails, but she dug it out again." She checked herself, staring at Joanna, her eyes wide in appeal.

"Well, dear," said Joanna with mild, rebuking kindness, "you needn't be so upset. I don't think Mickey's so attached to it as all that, and anyhow I'm not going to throw it away." She patted Juli reassuringly on the shoulder, then gave Mickey a little shove toward the door and turned to follow him. "You'll want to talk alone before Race leaves. Good luck, wherever you're going, Race." She held out her hand forthrightly.

"And don't worry about Juli," she added in an undertone. "We'll take good care of her."

When I came back to Juli she was standing by the window, looking through the oddly filtered glass that dimmed the red sun to orange. "Joanna thinks I'm crazy, Race."

"She thinks you're upset."

"Rindy's an odd child, a real Dry-towner. But it's not my imagination, Race, it's not. There's something—" Suddenly she sobbed aloud again.

"Homesick, Juli?"

"I was, a little, the first years. But I was happy, believe me." She turned her face to me, shining with tears. "You've got to believe I never regretted it for a minute."

"I'm glad," I said dully. That made it just fine.

"Only that toy—"

"Who knows? It might be a clue to something." The toy had reminded me of something, too, and I tried to remember what it was. I'd seen nonhuman toys in the Kharsa, even bought them for Mack's kids. When a single man is invited frequently to a home with five youngsters, it's about the only way he can repay that hospitality, by bringing the children odd trifles and knicknacks. But I had never seen anything quite like this one, until—

—Until yesterday. The toy-seller they had hunted out of the Kharsa, the one who had fled into the shrine of Nebran and vanished. He had had half a dozen of those prism-and-star sparklers.

I tried to call up a mental picture of the little toy-seller. I didn't have much luck. I'd seen him only in that one swift glance from beneath his hood. "Juli, have you ever seen a little man, like a chak only smaller, twisted, hunchbacked? He sells toys—"

She looked blank. "I don't think so, although there are dwarf chaks in the Polar Cities. But I'm sure I've never seen one."

"It was just an idea." But it was something to think about. A toy-seller had vanished. Rakhal, before disappearing, had smashed all Rindy's toys. And the sight of a plaything of cunningly-cut crystal had sent Juli into hysterics.

"I'd better go before it's too dark," I said. I buckled the final clasp of my shirtcloak, fitted my skean another notch into it, and counted the money Mack had advanced me for expenses. "I want to get into the Kharsa and hunt up the caravan to Shainsa."

"You're going there first?"

"Where else?"

Juli turned, leaning one hand against the wall. She looked frail and ill, years older than she was. Suddenly she flung her thin arms around me, and a link of the chain on her fettered hands struck me hard, as she cried out, "Race, Race, he'll kill you! How can I live with that on my conscience too?"

"You can live with a hell of a lot on your conscience." I disengaged her arms firmly from my neck. A link of the chain caught on the clasp of my shirtcloak, and again something snapped inside me. I grasped the chain in my two hands and gave a mighty heave, bracing my foot against the wall. The links snapped asunder. A flying end struck Juli under the eye. I ripped at the seals of the jeweled cuffs, tore them from her arms, find threw the whole assembly into a corner, where it fell with a clash.

"Damn it," I roared, "that's over! You're never going to wear those things again!" Maybe after six years in the Dry-towns, Juli was beginning to guess what those six years behind a desk had meant to me.

"Juli, I'll find your Rindy for you, and I'll bring Rakhal in alive. But don't ask more than that. Just alive. And don't ask me how."

He'd be alive when I got through with him. Sure, he'd be alive.

Just.



CHAPTER FIVE

It was getting dark when I slipped through a side gate, shabby and inconspicuous, into the spaceport square. Beyond the yellow lamps, I knew that the old city was beginning to take on life with the falling night. Out of the chinked pebble-houses, men and woman, human and nonhuman, came forth into the moonlit streets.

If anyone noticed me cross the square, which I doubted, they took me for just another Dry-town vagabond, curious about the world of the strangers from beyond the stars, and who, curiosity satisfied, was drifting back where he belonged. I turned down one of the dark alleys that led away, and soon was walking in the dark.

The Kharsa was not unfamiliar to me as a Terran, but for the last six years I had seen only its daytime face. I doubted if there were a dozen Earthmen in the Old Town tonight, though I saw one in the bazaar, dirty and lurching drunk; one of those who run renegade and homeless between worlds, belonging to neither. This was what I had nearly become.

I went further up the hill with the rising streets. Once I turned, and saw below me the bright-lighted spaceport, the black many-windowed loom of the skyscraper like a patch of alien shadow in the red-violet moonlight. I turned my back on them and walked on.

At the fringe of the thieves market I paused outside a wineshop where Dry-towners were made welcome. A golden nonhuman child murmured something as she pattered by me in the street, and I stopped, gripped by a spasm of stagefright. Had the dialect of Shainsa grown rusty on my tongue? Spies were given short shrift on Wolf, and a mile from the spaceport, I might as well have been on one of those moons. There were no spaceport shockers at my back now. And someone might remember the tale of an Earthman with a scarred face who had gone to Shainsa in disguise....

I shrugged the shirtcloak around my shoulders, pushed the door and went in. I had remembered that Rakhal was waiting for me. Not beyond this door, but at the end of the trail, behind some other door, somewhere. And we have a byword in Shainsa: A trail without beginning has no end.

Right there I stopped thinking about Juli, Rindy, the Terran Empire, or what Rakhal, who knew too many of Terra's secrets, might do if he had turned renegade. My fingers went up and stroked, musingly, the ridge of scar tissue along my mouth. At that moment I was thinking only of Rakhal, of an unsettled blood-feud, and of my revenge.

Red lamps were burning inside the wineshop, where men reclined on frowsy couches. I stumbled over one of them, found an empty place and let myself sink down on it, arranging myself automatically in the sprawl of Dry-towners indoors. In public they stood, rigid and formal, even to eat and drink. Among themselves, anything less than a loose-limbed sprawl betrayed insulting watchfulness; only a man who fears secret murder keeps himself on guard.

A girl with a tangled rope of hair down her back came toward me. Her hands were unchained, meaning she was a woman of the lowest class, not worth safeguarding. Her fur smock was shabby and matted with filth. I sent her for wine. When it came it was surprisingly good, the sweet and treacherous wine of Ardcarran. I sipped it slowly, looking round.

If a caravan for Shainsa were leaving tomorrow, it would be known here. A word dropped that I was returning there would bring me, by ironbound custom, an invitation to travel in their company.

When I sent the woman for wine a second time, a man on a nearby couch got up, and walked over to me.

He was tall even for a Dry-towner, and there was something vaguely familiar about him. He was no riffraff of the Kharsa, either, for his shirtcloak was of rich silk interwoven with metallic threads, and crusted with heavy embroideries. The hilt of his skean was carved from a single green gem. He stood looking down at me for some time before he spoke.

"I never forget a voice, although I cannot bring your face to mind. Have I a duty toward you?"

I had spoken a jargon to the girl, but he addressed me in the lilting, sing-song speech of Shainsa. I made no answer, gesturing him to be seated. On Wolf, formal courtesy requires a series of polite non sequiturs, and while a direct question merely borders on rudeness, a direct answer is the mark of a simpleton.

"A drink?"

"I joined you unasked," he retorted, and summoned the tangle-headed girl. "Bring us better wine than this swill!"

With that word and gesture I recognized him and my teeth clamped hard on my lip. This was the loudmouth who had shown fight in the spaceport cafe, and run away before the dark girl with the sign of Nebran sprawled on her breast.

But in this poor light he had not recognized me. I moved deliberately into the full red glow. If he did not know me for the Terran he had challenged last night in the spaceport cafe, it was unlikely that anyone else would. He stared at me for some minutes, but in the end he only shrugged and poured wine from the bottle he had ordered.

Three drinks later I knew that his name was Kyral and that he was a trader in wire and fine steel tools through the nonhuman towns. And I had given him the name I had chosen, Rascar.

He asked, "Are you thinking of returning to Shainsa?"

Wary of a trap, I hesitated, but the question seemed harmless, so I only countered, "Have you been long in the Kharsa?"

"Several weeks."

"Trading?"

"No." He applied himself to the wine again. "I was searching for a member of my family."

"Did you find him?"

"Her," said Kyral, and ceremoniously spat. "No, I didn't find her. What is your business in Shainsa?"

I chuckled briefly. "As a matter of fact, I am searching for a member of my family."

He narrowed his eyelids as if he suspected me of mocking him, but personal privacy is the most rigid convention of the Dry-towns and such mockery showed a sensible disregard for prying questions if I did not choose to answer them. He questioned no further.

"I can use an extra man to handle the loads. Are you good with pack animals? If so, you are welcome to travel under the protection of my caravan."

I agreed. Then, reflecting that Juli and Rakhal must, after all, be known in Shainsa, I asked, "Do you know a trader who calls himself Sensar?"

He started slightly; I saw his eyes move along my scars. Then reserve, like a lowered curtain, shut itself over his face, concealing a brief satisfied glimmer. "No," he lied, and stood up.

"We leave at first daylight. Have your gear ready." He flipped something at me, and I caught it in midair. It was a stone incised with Kyral's name in the ideographs of Shainsa. "You can sleep with the caravan if you care to. Show that token to Cuinn."

* * * * *

Kyral's caravan was encamped in a barred field past the furthest gates of the Kharsa. About a dozen men were busy loading the pack animals—horses shipped in from Darkover, mostly. I asked the first man I met for Cuinn. He pointed out a burly fellow in a shiny red shirtcloak, who was busy at chewing out one of the young men for the way he'd put a packsaddle on his beast.

Shainsa is a good language for cursing, but Cuinn had a special talent at it. I blinked in admiration while I waited for him to get his breath so I could hand him Kyral's token.

In the light of the fire I saw what I'd half expected: he was the second of the Dry-towners who'd tried to rough me up in the spaceport cafe. Cuinn barely glanced at the cut stone and tossed it back, pointing out one of the packhorses. "Load your personal gear on that one, then get busy and show this mush-headed wearer of sandals"—an insult carrying particularly filthy implications in Shainsa—"how to fasten a packstrap."

He drew breath and began to swear at the luckless youngster again, and I relaxed. He evidently hadn't recognized me, either. I took the strap in my hand, guiding it through the saddle loop. "Like that," I told the kid, and Cuinn stopped swearing long enough to give me a curt nod of acknowledgment and point out a heap of boxed and crated objects.

"Help him load up. We want to get clear of the city by daybreak," he ordered, and went off to swear at someone else.

Kyral turned up at dawn, and a few minutes later the camp had vanished into a small scattering of litter and we were on our way.

Kyral's caravan, in spite of Cuinn's cursing, was well-managed and well-handled. The men were Dry-towners, eleven of them, silent and capable and most of them very young. They were cheerful on the trail, handled the pack animals competently, during the day, and spent most of the nights grouped around the fire, gambling silently on the fall of the cut-crystal prisms they used for dice.

Three days out of the Kharsa I began to worry about Cuinn.

It was of course a spectacular piece of bad luck to find all three of the men from the spaceport cafe in Kyral's caravan. Kyral had obviously not known me, and even by daylight he paid no attention to me except to give an occasional order. The second of the three was a gangling kid who probably never gave me a second look, let alone a third.

But Cuinn was another matter. He was a man my own age, and his fierce eyes had a shrewdness in them that I did not trust. More than once I caught him watching me, and on the two or three occasions when he drew me into conversation, I found his questions more direct than Dry-town good manners allowed. I weighed the possibility that I might have to kill him before we reached Shainsa.

We crossed the foothills and began to climb upward toward the mountains. The first few days I found myself short of breath as we worked upward into thinner air, then my acclimatization returned and I began to fall into the pattern of the days and nights on the trail. The Trade City was still a beacon in the night, but its glow on the horizon grew dimmer with each day's march.

Higher we climbed, along dangerous trails where men had to dismount and let the pack animals pick their way, foot by foot. Here in these altitudes the sun at noonday blazed redder and brighter, and the Dry-towners, who come from the parched lands in the sea-bottoms, were burned and blistered by the fierce light. I had grown up under the blazing sun of Terra, and a red sun like Wolf, even at its hottest, caused me no discomfort. This alone would have made me suspect. Once again I found Cuinn's fierce eyes watching me.

As we crossed the passes and began to descend the long trail through the thick forests, we got into nonhuman country. Racing against the Ghost Wind, we skirted the country around Charin, and the woods inhabited by the terrible Ya-men, birdlike creatures who turn cannibal when the Ghost Wind blows.

Later the trail wound through thicker forests of indigo trees and grayish-purple brushwood, and at night we heard the howls of the catmen of these latitudes. At night we set guards about the caravan, and the dark spaces and shadows were filled with noises and queer smells and rustlings.

Nevertheless, the day's marches and the night watches passed without event until the night I shared guard with Cuinn. I had posted myself at the edge of the camp, the fire behind me. The men were sleeping rolls of snores, huddled close around the fire. The animals, hobbled with double ropes, front feet to hind feet, shifted uneasily and let out long uncanny whines.

I heard Cuinn pacing behind me. I heard a rustle at the edge of the forest, a stir and whisper beyond the trees, and turned to speak to him, then saw him slipping away toward the outskirts of the clearing.

For a moment I thought nothing of it, thinking that he was taking a few steps toward the gap in the trees where he had disappeared. I suppose I had the idea that he had slipped away to investigate some noise or shadow, and that I should be at hand.

Then I saw the flicker of lights beyond the trees—light from the lantern Cuinn had been carrying in his hand! He was signaling!

I slipped the safety clasp from the hilt of my skean and went after him. In the dimming glow of the fire I fancied I saw luminous eyes watching me, and the skin on my back crawled. I crept up behind him and leaped. We went down in a tangle of flailing legs and arms, and in less than a second he had his skean out and I was gripping his wrist, trying desperately to force the blade away from my throat.

I gasped, "Don't be a fool! One yell and the whole camp will be awake! Who were you signaling?"

In the light of the fallen lantern, lips drawn back in a snarl, he looked almost inhuman. He strained at the knife for a moment, then dropped it. "Let me up," he said.

I got up and kicked the fallen skean toward him. "Put that away. What in hell were you doing, trying to bring the catmen down on us?"

For a moment he looked taken aback, then his fierce face closed down again and he said wrathfully, "Can't a man walk away from the camp without being half strangled?"

I glared at him, but realized I really had nothing to go by. He might have been answering a call of nature, and the movement of the lantern accidental. And if someone had jumped me from behind, I might have pulled a knife on him myself. So I only said, "Don't do it again. We're all too jumpy."

There were no other incidents that night, or the next. The night after, while I lay huddled in my shirtcloak and blanket by the fire, I saw Cuinn slip out of his bedroll and steal away. A moment later there was a gleam in the darkness, but before I could summon the resolve to get up and face it out with him, he returned, looked cautiously at the snoring men, and crawled back into his blankets.

While we were unpacking at the next camp, Kyral halted beside me. "Heard anything queer lately? I've got the notion we're being trailed. We'll be out of these forests tomorrow, and after that it's clear road all the way to Shainsa. If anything's going to happen, it will happen tonight."

I debated speaking to him about Cuinn's signals. No, I had my own business waiting for me in Shainsa. Why mix myself up in some other, private intrigue?

He said, "I'm putting you and Cuinn on watch again. The old men doze off, and the young fellows get to daydreaming or fooling around. That's all right most of the time, but I want someone who'll keep his eyes open tonight. Did you ever know Cuinn before this?"

"Never set eyes on him."

"Funny, I had the notion—" He shrugged, turned away, then stopped.

"Don't think twice about rousing the camp if there's any disturbance. Better a false alarm than an ambush that catches us all in our blankets. If it came to a fight, we might be in a bad way. We all carry skeans, but I don't think there's a shocker in the whole camp, let alone a gun. You don't have one by any chance?"

After the men had turned in, Cuinn patrolling the camp, halted a minute beside me and cocked his head toward the rustling forest.

"What's going on in there?"

"Who knows? Catmen on the prowl, probably, thinking the horses would make a good meal, or maybe that we would."

"Think it will come to a fight?"

"I wouldn't know."

He surveyed me for a moment without speaking. "And if it did?"

"We'd fight." Then I sucked in my breath, for Cuinn had spoken Terran Standard, and I, without thinking had answered in the same language. He grinned, showing white teeth filed to a point.

"I thought so!"

I seized his shoulder and demanded roughly, "And what are you going to do about it?"

"That depends on you," he answered, "and what you want in Shainsa. Tell me the truth. What were you doing in the Terran Zone?" He gave me no chance to answer. "You know who Kyral is, don't you?"

"A trader," I said, "who pays my wages and minds his own affairs." I moved backward, hand on my skean, braced for a sudden rush. He made no aggressive motion, however.

"Kyral told me you'd been asking questions about Rakhal Sensar," he said. "Clever. Now I, for one, could have told you he'd never set eyes on Rakhal. I—"

He broke off, hearing a noise in the forest, a long eerie howl. I muttered, "If you've brought them down on us—"

He shook his head urgently. "I had to take that chance, to get word to the others. It won't work. Where's the girl?"

I hardly heard him. I was hearing twigs snap, and silent sneaking feet. I turned for a yell that would rouse the camp and Cuinn grabbed me hard, saying insistently, "Quick! Where's the girl! Go back and tell her it won't work! If Kyral suspected—"

He never finished the sentence. Just behind us came another of the long eerie howls. I knocked Cuinn away, and suddenly the night was filled with crouching forms that came down on us like a whirlwind.

I shouted madly as the camp came alive with men struggling out of blankets, fighting for life itself. I ran hard, still shouting, for the enclosure where we had tied the horses. A catman, slim and black-furred, was crouched and cutting the hobble-strings of the nearest animal. I hurled myself on him. He exploded, clawing, raking my shoulder with talons that ripped the rough cloth like paper. I whipped out my skean and slashed upward. The talons contracted in my shoulder and I gasped with pain. Then the thing howled and fell away, clawing at the air. It twitched and lay still.

Four shots in rapid succession cracked in the clearing. Kyral to the contrary, someone must have had a pistol. I heard one of the cat-things wail, a hoarse dying rattle. Something dark clawed my arm and I slashed with the knife, going down as another set of talons fastened in my back, rolling and clutching.

I managed to get the thing's forelimbs wedged under my elbow, my knee in its spine. I heaved, bent it backward, backward till it screamed, a high wail.

Then I felt the spine snap and the dead thing mewled once, just air escaping from collapsing lungs, and slid limp from my thigh. Erect it had not been over four feet tall and in the light of the dying fire it might have been a dead lynx.

"Rascar...." I heard a gasp, a groan. I whirled and saw Kyral go down, struggling, drowning in half a dozen or more of the fierce half-humans. I leaped at the smother of bodies, ripped one away with a stranglehold, slashed at its throat.

They were easy to kill.

I heard a high, urgent scream in their mewing tongue. Then the furred black things seemed to melt into the forest as silently as they had come. Kyral, dazed, his forehead running blood, his arm slashed to the bone, was sitting on the ground, still stunned.

Somebody had to take charge. I bellowed, "Lights! Get lights. They won't come back if we have enough light, they can only see well in the dark."

Someone stirred the fire. It blazed up as they piled on dead branches, and I roughly commanded one of the kids to fill every lantern he could find, and get them burning. Four of the dead things were lying in the clearing. The youngster I'd helped loading horses, the first day, gazed down at one of the catmen, half-disemboweled by somebody's skean, and suddenly bolted for the bushes, where I heard him retching.

I set the others with stronger stomachs to dragging the bodies away from the clearing, and went back to see how badly Kyral was hurt. He had the rip in his arm and his face was covered with blood from a shallow scalp wound, but he insisted on getting up to inspect the hurts of the others.

There was no one without a claw-wound in leg or back or shoulder, but none were serious, and we were all feeling fairly cheerful when someone demanded, "Where's Cuinn?"

He didn't seem to be anywhere. Kyral, staggering slightly, insisted on searching, but I felt we wouldn't find him. "He probably went off with his friends," I snorted, and told about the signaling. Kyral looked grave.

"You should have told me," he began, but shouts from the far end of the clearing sent us racing there. We nearly stumbled over a single, solitary, motionless form, outstretched and lifeless, blind eyes staring upward at the moons.

It was Cuinn. And his throat had been torn completely out.



CHAPTER SIX

Once we were free of the forest, the road to the Dry-towns lay straight before us, with no hidden dangers. Some of us limped for a day or two, or favored an arm or leg clawed by the catmen, but I knew that what Kyral said was true; it was a lucky caravan which had to fight off only one attack.

Cuinn haunted me. A night or two of turning over his cryptic words in my mind had convinced me that whoever, or whatever he'd been signaling, it wasn't the catmen. And his urgent question "Where's the girl?" swam endlessly in my brain, making no more sense than when I had first heard it. Who had he mistaken me for? What did he think I was mixed up in? And who, above all, were the "others" who had to be signaled, at the risk of an attack by catmen which had meant his own death?

With Cuinn dead, and Kyral thinking I'd saved his life, a large part of the responsibility for the caravan now fell on me. And strangely I enjoyed it, making the most of this interval when I was separated from the thought of blood-feud or revenge, the need of spying or the threat of exposure. During those days and nights on the trail I grew back slowly into the Dry-towner I once had been. I knew I would be sorry when the walls of Shainsa rose on the horizon, bringing me back inescapably to my own quest.

We swung wide, leaving the straight trail to Shainsa, and Kyral announced his intention of stopping for half a day at Canarsa, one of the walled nonhuman cities which lay well off the traveled road. To my inadvertent show of surprise, he returned that he had trading connections there.

"We all need a day's rest, and the Silent Ones will buy from me, though they have few dealings with men. Look here, I owe you something. You have lenses? You can get a better price in Canarsa than you'd get in Ardcarran or Shainsa. Come along with me, and I'll vouch for you."

Kyral had been most friendly since the night I had dug him out from under the catmen, and I knew no way to refuse without exposing myself for the sham trader I was. But I was deathly apprehensive. Even with Rakhal I had never entered any of the nonhuman towns.

On Wolf, human and nonhuman have lived side by side for centuries. And the human is not always the superior being. I might pass, among the Dry-towners and the relatively stupid humanoid chaks, for another Dry-towner. But Rakhal had cautioned me I could not pass among nonhumans for native Wolfan, and warned me against trying.

Nevertheless, I accompanied Kyral, carrying the box which had cost about a week's pay in the Terran Zone and was worth a small fortune in the Dry-towns.

Canarsa seemed, inside the gates, like any other town. The houses were round, beehive fashion, and the streets totally empty. Just inside the gates a hooded figure greeted us, and gestured us by signs to follow him. He was covered from head to foot with some coarse and shiny fiber woven into stuff that looked like sacking.

But under the thick hooding was horror. It slithered and it had nothing like a recognizable human shape or walk, and I felt the primeval ape in me cowering and gibbering in a corner of my brain. Kyral muttered, close to my ear, "No outsider is ever allowed to look on the Silent Ones in their real form. I think they're deaf and dumb, but be damn careful."

"You bet," I whispered, and was glad the streets were empty. I walked along, trying not to look at the gliding motion of that shrouded thing up ahead.

The trading was done in an open hut of reeds which looked as if it had been built in a hurry, and was not square, round, hexagonal or any other recognizable geometrical shape. It formed a pattern of its own, presumably, but my human eyes couldn't see it. Kyral said in a breath of a whisper, "They'll tear it down and burn it after we leave. We're supposed to have contaminated it too greatly for any of the Silent Ones ever to enter again. My family has traded with them for centuries, and we're almost the only ones who have ever entered the city."

Then two of the Silent Ones of Canarsa, also covered with that coarse shiny stuff, slithered into the hut, and Kyral choked off his words as if he had swallowed them.

It was the strangest trading I had ever done. Kyral laid out the small forged-steel tools and the coils of thin fine wire, and I unpacked my lenses and laid them out in neat rows. The Silent Ones neither spoke nor moved, but through a thin place in the gray veiling I saw a speck which might have been a phosphorescent eye, moving back and forth as if scanning the things laid out for their inspection.

Then I smothered a gasp, for suddenly blank spaces appeared in the rows of merchandise. Certain small tools—wirecutters, calipers, surgical scissors—had vanished, and all the coils of wire had disappeared. Blanks equally had appeared in the rows of lenses; all of my tiny, powerful microscope lenses had vanished. I cast a quick glance at Kyral, but he seemed unsurprised. I recalled vague rumors of the Silent Ones, and concluded that, eerie though it seemed, this was merely their way of doing business.

Kyral pointed at one of the tools, at an exceptionally fine pair of binocular lenses, at the last of the coils of wire. The shrouded ones did not move, but the lenses and the wire vanished. The small tool remained, and after a moment Kyral dropped his hand.

I took my cue from Kyral and remained motionless, awaiting whatever surprise was coming. I had halfway expected what happened next. In the blank spaces, little points of light began to glimmer, and after a moment, blue and red and green gem-stones appeared there. To me the substitution appeared roughly equitable and fair, though I am no judge of the fine points of gems.

Kyral scowled slightly and pointed to one of the green gems, and after a moment it whisked away and a blue one took its place. In another spot where a fine set of surgical instruments had lain, Kyral pointed at the blue gem which now lay there, shook his head and held out three fingers. After a moment, a second blue stone lay winking beside the first.

Kyral did not move, but inexorably held out the three fingers. There was a little swirling in the air, and then both gems vanished, and the case of surgical instruments lay in their place.

Still Kyral did not move, but held the three fingers out for a full minute. Finally he dropped them and bent to pick up the case instruments. Again the little swirl in the air, and the instruments vanished. In their place lay three of the blue gems. My mouth twitched in the first amusement I had felt since we entered this uncanny place. Evidently bargaining with the Silent Ones was not a great deal different than bargaining with anyone anywhere. Nevertheless, under the eyes of those shrouded but horrible forms—if they had eyes, which I doubted—I had no impulse to protest their offered prices.

I gathered up the rejected lenses, repacked them neatly, and helped Kyral recrate the tools and instruments the Silent Ones had not wanted. I noticed that in addition to the microscope lenses and surgical instruments, they had taken all the fine wire. I couldn't imagine, and didn't particularly want to imagine, what they intended to do with it.

On our way back through the streets, unshepherded this time, Kyral's tongue was loosened as if with a great release from tension. "They're psychokinetics," he told me. "Quite a few of the nonhuman races are. I guess they have to be, having no eyes and no hands. But sometimes I wonder if we of the Dry-towns ought to deal with them at all."

"What do you mean?" I asked, not really listening. I was thinking mostly about the way the small objects had melted away and reappeared. The sight had stirred some uncomfortable memory, a vague sense of danger. It was not tangible enough for me to know why I feared it, but just a subliminal uneasiness that kept prodding at me, like a tooth that isn't quite aching yet.

Kyral said, "We of Shainsa live between fire and flood. Terra on the one hand, and on the other maybe something worse, who knows? We know so little about the Silent Ones, and those like them. Who knows, maybe we're giving them the weapons to destroy us—" He broke off, with a gasp, and stood staring down one of the streets.

It lay open and bare between two rows of round houses, and Kyral was staring fixedly at a doorway which had opened there. I followed his paralyzed gaze, and saw the girl.

Hair like spun black glass fell in hard waves around her shoulders, and the red eyes smiled with alien malice, alien mischief, beneath the dark crown of little stars. And the Toad God sprawled in hideous embroideries across the white folds of her breast.

Kyral gulped hoarsely. His hand flew up as he clutched the charms strung about his neck. I imitated the gesture mechanically, watching Kyral, wondering if he would turn and run again. But he stood frozen for a minute. Then the spell broke and he took one step toward the girl, arms outstretched.

"Miellyn!" he cried, and there was heartbreak in his voice. And again, the cry making ringing echoes in the strange street:

"Miellyn! Miellyn!"

This time it was the girl who whirled and fled. Her white robes fluttered and I saw the twinkle of her flying feet as she vanished into a space between the houses and was gone.

Kyral took one blind step down the street, then another. But before he could burst into a run I had him by the arm, dragging him back to sanity.

"Man, you've gone mad! Chase, in a nonhuman town?"

He struggled for a minute, then, with a harsh sigh, he said, "It's all right, I won't—" and shook loose from my arm.

He did not speak again until we reached the gates of Canarsa and they closed, silently and untouched, behind us. I had forgotten the place already. I had space only to think of the girl, whose face I had not forgotten since the moment when she saved me and disappeared. Now she had appeared again to Kyral. What did it all mean?

I asked, as we walked toward the camp, "Do you know that girl?" But I knew the question was futile. Kyral's face was closed, conceding nothing, and his friendliness had vanished completely.

He said, "Now I know you. You saved me from the catmen, and again in Canarsa, so my hands are bound from harming you. But it is evil to have dealings with those who have been touched by the Toad God." He spat noisily on the ground, looked at me with loathing, and said, "We will reach Shainsa in three days. Stay away from me."



CHAPTER SEVEN

Shainsa, first in the chain of Dry-towns that lie in the bed of a long-dried ocean, is set at the center of a great alkali plain; a dusty, parched city bleached by a million years of sun. The houses are high, spreading buildings with many rooms and wide windows. The poorer sort were made of sun-dried brick, the more imposing being cut from the bleached salt stone of the cliffs that rise behind the city.

1  2  3     Next Part
Home - Random Browse