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But for the two inside the escape craft time moved leadenly. They could only sleep, cramped in the single position allowed them, swallow ration tablets, and talk. And talk Hansu did, spinning in an endless stream tales of far-off worlds on some of which their kind dared not venture, save in the protection of pressure suits, of weird native rites, and savage battles against stacked odds.
Kana forced himself to concentrate on every word, as if he were required to pass an examination on these lectures, for by doing so, he could forget the present, sealed in a minute ship which might or might not make a safe landing on his home world. And he also knew that his companion was now sharing freely with him the lore he himself had spent years in gathering. He was being crammed by a master in X-Tee, a man who was explaining the central passion of his own existence.
"so they had a sacrifice on the night of the double moon and we hid out in the hills to watch. It wasn't at all what we had been led to expect"
A sharp "ping" interrupted Hansu as a tiny bulb glowed red among the controls. They had entered atmosphere!
Kana tried to relax. The worst nightmare of all, that they would miss their home world and go traveling on forever into empty space, was behind them. There was still nothing to donothing they could do. Escape craft were entirely robot controlledoften those who rode in them were too injured or shocked to pilot any course. The tiny ships were designed to make the best landing possible for the passengers and they were to be trusted.
Where would they land? Kana stared blankly at the curve of metal roofing above him. A bad landingsay in the sea But they did not have long to wait, that was a mercy.
"I hope we don't land too far from Prime, sir." He forced himself to deliver that in as even a voice as possible.
"We'd better not!"
When they did come in Kana discovered himself hanging head down in the straps and, panicked by that, he fought his fastenings, unable to loosen the buckles. Then the Blademaster came to the recruit's rescue and got him on his feet. The rear of the narrow cabin was now the floor, and the roof hatch through which they had entered was a side door the Blademaster turned to open. They wedged into the small air lock, to be met by a blaze of fire and billows of stifling white smoke. Hansu slammed the outer door, his face grim.
"The braking system" he muttered. "It must have started a fire when we landed."
Firethe ship must be surrounded by flames. But the memory of one of Hansu's exploring tales flashed into Kana's mind.
"Aren't pressure suits part of the regular survival equipment stored on board these things, sir?"
"That's it!" Hansu edged back into the cabin.
The walls were solid, a few experimental raps told them there were no concealed cupboards. There remained the padded couches. Kana pulled at the surface of one, and the spongy mat came off in a sheet. He had been right! The base of each couch was a storage space and the suits were inside.
"They're going to be tight fits"the Blademaster inspected the finds"but we can stand them for at least an hour."
To climb into those bulky coverings in the limited space of the cabin demanded acrobatic agility from both of them. But they did it and the Blademaster set the temperature controls.
"Let us hope that the fire is merely local. When you leavejump as far from the ship as you can."
Kana nodded as he screwed the bowl head covering into place.
Hansu went first, pausing only for an instant in the lock door and then vanishing. Kana followed as swiftly. He flashed through flames and smoke, and then he landed, went down on one knee, and regained his balance, to run clumsily straight ahead, away from the ship.
He blundered past trees whose crowns were masses of bursting flame, avoiding as best he could the pitfalls laid by roots and fallen logs. The smoke was a thick murk, concealing most of his surroundings. At first he had to nerve himself to stamp through fire, but as he remained unharmed, he grew more confident and did not try to avoid any blaze which crossed the path he had marked for himself.
Suddenly there were no more trees and he was out in the open on the edge of a cliff. Below a road cut through and in the center of that stood a strange unearthly figure he recognized with difficulty as the Blademaster.
Kana edged along the drop hunting a way down but the man below waved his plated arms to attract his attention and then brought the claw gloved hands of his suit to the thick belt which marked its middle. Kana understood and fumbled for the button on his own belt. Then he walked over the rock rim and allowed his body to float to the road, making a good solid landing not too far from Hansu. Pity these things weren't equipped with rockets as well as antigravity, he thought regretfully. By the look of this stretch of wilderness about them, they were somewhere in the Wild Lands, and it would save a lot of time if they could just jet back to civilization.
Wisps of smoke still walled the road so they kept on the suits, not knowing when they might have to go through fire again. But the highway stayed in the cut where the bare soil and stone gave no foothold to the flames. Judging by the vegetation, they must be somewhere in the northeastern section of the ancient North American continentwhich at least had them sharing the same land mass with Prime. This country for almost a thousand years had been deserted after the nuclear wars. There were tales of strange mutations which had developed here and even after the remnants of mankind came spreading back from the Pacific islands, Africa and portions of the southern continent, it still possessed wide uninhabited, almost unexplored areas.
Kana hoped that Hansu knew more of the country than he did and that they were not now just tramping farther into the wilderness. Maybe they should have stuck with the ship and waited for the firefighters who patrolled the wild areas.
It was proved that Hansu did know where he was goingor else had made a lucky guess as to direction. For the road sloped down to cross a wide river. And on the other side of the flood lay grain fields, yellow under the sun. The fugitives tramped over a bridge and then halted to pull off their suits with sighs of relief.
They drew deep breaths of rich Terran air with unspoken thanks. How rich it was Kana had never guessed until he had had to fill his lungs with the thin stuff of Fronn's atmosphere. Between the wine of the air and the warmth of the summer sun he was growing light-headed and light-hearted. He was home again, that was the most important thing right now.
"There ought to be a harvest station along somewhere soon now," Hansu said. "And we can find a vidphone there. It'll call us a 'copter to reach Prime"
"How far do you suppose we are from Prime, sir?"
"Not too far would be my guess. There's a wilderness section such as this just north of the center."
They marched along the road between yellow-brown fields which stretched endlessly over the horizon. A daring rabbit hopped beside them for a while, its nose twitching curiously. And above birds flew in formation.
"This was all thickly settled country once," Kana mused.
"The Old Ones were lavish with everythinglife as well as death. They bred faster than they killed in their wars. Hathere's a station!"
The building ahead was sheltered by trees and there was the glint of a small lake, an oasis of coolness in the midst of all the dusty hot yellow. Kana felt almost as if he were coming home, remembering his own summer terms of land labor. Perhaps they were already therethe harvesters. This wheat was fully ripe.
But there was no one in the building. Its rooms and halls echoed to their steps with that resonance peculiar to an empty space. Kana went to the food storage place while Hansu hunted the vidphone. Beyond the back entrance was a strip of cool greenery spreading out toward the lake. Yellow and white lilies formed ranks along the stone set path which led down to the cupped coolness of the green waters and other flowers were banked in borders, the boldest of which had overtopped all boundaries to creep among the grass.
On impulse Kana went out. A breeze ruffled his ridge lock, thrusting fingers inside the collar of his tunic. Yet it was very quiet, quiet and peaceful.
Slowly he unfastened his tunic, shucking off the stale cloth with a feeling of relief. Then he groped inside his undershirt. He had come down to the water's edge by now. Long-legged insects skated jauntily across the quiet surface of the pond. Fish made swift, black, hardly seen shadows flitting in the depths. It was peaceit was homeit was quiet and forgetfulness. He poised his hand above it.
The Grace Knife, the sad dimness of its blade hidden by the sheath which had rubbed over his heart all those weeks, rested on his palm. His hand turned slowly. The knife slid, splashing into the dark murk, a swirl of disturbed mud marking its landing. But when Kana stared down he could see nothing of it. It must have buried itself, to be forever hidden from sight. As it should be!
He trailed his fingers in the water, and as his flesh tingled from the feel of the liquid, he knew a sense of reliefof peace. Maybe Hansu's dreams for their future would never know fruitionbut he had made his own decision. If he went back to the stars he would not go as a Combatantas a Swordsman of any class.
And being sure of that Kana rose briskly and strode back to the harvest house. When he opened the freezer and transferred food to the cooking unit he was whistling somewhat tunelessly, but with a very light heart. Luck was playing on their side, or at least had done so thus far. They had reached Terra, now they had only to contact Matthias at Prime. The rest of their mission might be very simple. He looked up smiling as the Blademaster came in. But Hansu met him with a frown.
"Could you get through, sir?" Kana poured stew out into soup plates.
"Yes. It was easytoo easy"
"Too easy, sir?"
"Well, it was a little as if someone had been waiting for such a call. So we shan't wait for the 'copter"
Kana put down the container of stew. "What"
"What makes me think that? What made you suspect trouble just before that flood nearly trapped you in the Fronnian mountains? How did you guess the Ventur had a hiding place in the roof of the warehouse? Sixth senseESP warning? How do I know? But I know that it isn't going to be too healthy for us to stay here."
Kana got up from the table with a sigh. "But, sir, they can sight us easily in the open." He offered a last half-hearted protest.
"There may be a jopper in the depot here. They usually leave one or two at each station." Hansu tramped on into the machine storage room.
Again he was right. Two of the round-nosed, teardrop-shaped surface cars stood there, sealed with protective coating, but otherwise ready for use. It was the work of a very few minutes to slough off that film with clearing spray. And before Hansu got into the vehicle he caught up a dull green coverall from a hook on the wall and threw it at Kana, taking its counterpart for himself. Their Mech battledress was well hidden by those and they could pass for men from the general labor pools.
The jopper purred out to the road and began to eat miles. From above, if any 'copter was on their tail, there was nothing to distinguish their car from any other. And many of the transportation men favored the ridge-lock hairdress. The farm road soon brought them to a master highway where they found company. Giants of the heavy transport trucks boxed them in. Hansu cut speed, content to be lost in the procession which thickened as they drew nearer to the port of Prime. Most of the trucks Kana noted were carrying suppliessupplies to be sent off-world to the Hordes, the Legions, out in the lanes of space. For so long had Terra been geared to her task of supplying mercenaries and their needswhat would happen if a sudden change came, if the Hordes and Legions no longer had any reason for existence? How long would it take to re-gear this world, to turn the brimming energy of its inhabitants into other paths?
He found himself dozing now and again, and he was regretting that stew he had left untasted. Real Terra-style foodfreshhot No rations!
"What's the matter?"
Kana's head jerked and his eyes opened. But Hansu's shout had not been directed at him. The inquiry was addressed to the driver in the bubble control seat on a transport which had come to a stop beside them. They were locked in a line of stalled transports and passenger joppers. The Blademaster got a garbled answer Kana could not hear. His face tensed.
"There's an inspection point aheadnot a regular one."
"Looking for us, d'you think, sir?"
"Might be. We'll hope that they're only after a hot runner."
A hot runner, one of the undercover dealers in illegal foods and drugs, was the type of criminal at which most Terran police drives were aimed. And if the Combat Police were in search of a runner, every jopper and transport in that line would be inspected, every man would have to produce identification. One glimpse of their armlets, of the uniforms they wore under the coveralls and they would be scooped up at once. Then too, they might be the objects of this general hunt.
"Can we get out, sir, turn off somewhere?"
The Blademaster shook his head. "If we tried that now, we'd give ourselves away at once. Wish I knew who was in command at this post. It might just make a difference"
If Deputy-Commander Matthias was part of some mysterious organization fighting for Terran freedom, as Hansu had hinted, there must be others of a like mind scattered through the whole system of Combat. And so the Blademaster might claim the assistance of such a oneif he were on duty here. But the chance was extremely slim.
There were men walking along the edge of the highway, moving up to see what was holding up the traffic. Hansu watched them and then stepped out of the jopper. When he joined the others he affected a heavy limp which quite cloaked the trained Swordsman's usual springy stride.
Kana ventured out into the neighboring field in an attempt to see what lay ahead. It was a temporary inspection post all right; the bright silver helmets of the police winked in the sun. But this was late afternoon. And with dark If they did not have to pass that post until dusk He turned to survey the fields, assessing the countryside for a promise of freedom.
Ahead they were setting up camp lightsstringing them along the road for about a quarter mile. But that illumination would not reach to where the jopper now stood. Then the steady beat of a machine brought his head around. So that was how they would keep the trapped in line until they had a chance to sort them out! A police coaster skimmed along the row of vehicles.
With eyes which had been trained from early childhood to evaluate such problems, Kana watched the three-man machine pass. He timed it with his watch. Yes, it looked as if they were on a regular beat. It was the most elaborate trap to catch a hot runner that he had ever seen. Which argued that either runner was in the super classwhich Kana did not believe, for those captains of undercover industry did not travel, they hired others to take the risksor the police were after other game. What other game? Them?
Some of the drivers who had gone forward were now returning, loud in their complaints. Apparently none of them had had any satisfaction from the police. Hansu was with them.
"There's a coaster on patrol along the road, sir," Kana reported.
"Yes." The Blademaster motioned for him to climb back into the jopper. "We'll have to do some thinking and fast."
"Are they really after a hot runner, sir?"
"I believe that they are after us."
Kana was suddenly cold. "But why, sir?" he protested. "Terra police wouldn't pick us up on C.C. ordersnot without a secondary warrant from Combatand it would take them more time to get that."
"Don't ask me why or how!" Hansu's irritation spilled over in that bark. "But we're going to be kept from meeting Matthiasthat's my bet!"
"And whoever is able to do that," Kana said, "has influence enough to call out the police. It's only a matter of time before they pick us up, sir. Unless in the dark"
"Yes, it is getting dark. That's one point in our favor. They're searching every person to the skin up there."
And they were wearing Mech uniforms they had no means of discarding or destroying now.
Hansu snapped open a small compartment and pulled out the district map which was part of every jopper's equipment. He traced road markings with a finger tip and then leaned his head on the back of the seat and closed his eyes, a deep frown line between his brows. The sun was almost gone, but still the line of vehicles before them had not moved. More and more of the drivers were gathering in the fields and words of argument carried through the air. Now and then one of them went back to his jopper or transport, probably to ring in to his employer on a speecher and report his non-progress.
"Can we make it, sir, even in the dark?" Kana asked at last.
"Get away from hereyesI'm sure of that. But reaching Primethat's another matter. If they are searching for us they must have Prime sealed as tight as a lifting spacer. Karr, what did they teach you in ancient history about the pre-Blow-up cities?"
Though he couldn't see how ancient history was going to get them out of this, Kana obediently recited the few facts which had stuck in his mind for five years.
"The Old Ones built tower buildingsand they were open to the weatherno bubble domes. Wonder that the winds didn't wreck them"
"What about underground?"
Underground? It was because the towers were unusual that he remembered them. During the nuclear wars most of the survivors had lived underground. There was nothing ancient about that mode of life. There had been one lecture during his training, delivered on a hot afternoon when he had wanted to be elsewhere with a Zacathan he admired more than the droning Terran instructor. Under the ground
"They traveled under the ground sometimes, didn't they, sir? Through tubes running under their cities."
Hansu gave a curt nod. "What are those drivers doing?"
Kana surveyed the scene in the field from his side vision plate. "Building a fire, sir. I think they're going to open their emergency rations."
The Blademaster tore the map loose from its holder. "We'll join them, Karr. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. And watch that police coaster. We want to know when to expect its passing."
Though some of the drivers still grumbled, most of them now looked upon the halt as an unexpected gift of free time. Having reported in on the speechers they no longer felt any sense of responsibility. There was a general air of relaxation about the fire as they opened their rations.
"Yeah, I'm driving a time job," announced a tall, red-haired man, "but if the C.P. says stop, I stop. And the boss can just argue it out with them. He said I should try to make time on the road if we ever get away from here."
One of his companions in misfortune shook his head. "Don't try the river cut-off, it's not too good at night. Since this new section of highway was opened, they don't run a breakdown crew along there and there've been cave-ins."
Hansu insinuated himself into this group, assuming a protective covering of manner so that he might have spent most of his adult life pushing one of the transports. Another example of a good AL man at work, Kana decided. On Fronn the Blademaster had met Venturi and Llor as an equal, here he was adapting to another clan with strange tribal customs of its own.
"This river road"he addressed the red-head"is it a short cut to Prime?"
"Yeah." The driver gave him a measuring look. "You new on this haul, fella?"
"Just been assigned to Prime. I'm driving a jopper from the west, don't know this country"
"Well, the river road's not so good if you don't know it. It's an old oneparts of it pre-Blow-upor so they say. Last summer there was a pack of fellas outta Prime digging around there, uncovered some old stuff, too. But it does save you twenty-thirty miles. Only it's posted as unsafe"
"Unsafe!" echoed one of the others. "It's a trap, Lari. I don't care what the boss says, you'd better not run it in the dark. I've not forgotten that cave-in we saw. Big enough to pull a wheel out of the trans. That's what brought those digging fellas outthey had such a time filling it in they thought maybe there was a room or something underneath."
"Was there?" Hansu displayed just the proper amount of interest.
"Maybe. Fella from Prime thought it was part of a tunnel, but they couldn't clear it enough to be sure. But you'll be all right if you take it slow and beam your lights down. You have to turn off to the left about two miles from here"
"Any more chance of a cave-in?"
"Could be. There's some ruins along it. I tell you, when we get past the barrier here, you cut your jopper in behind my trans and I'll guide you."
Hansu returned the proper thanks and in his own way faded into the general group where the talk now turned on the forest fire one driver had seen blazing that afternoon. A moment later the Blademaster's hand closed on Kana's arm.
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