Back | Next
The Patrol ship Starfire came into her last port at early morning. She made a bad landing, for two of her eroded tubes blew just as the pilot tried to set her down. She had bounced then, bounced and buckled, and now she lay on her meteor-scarred side.
Ranger Sergeant Kartr nursed his left wrist in his right hand and licked blood from bitten lips. The port wall of the pilot's cubby had become the floor and the latch of its door dug into one of his shaking knees.
Of his companions, Latimir had not survived the landing. One glance at the crazy twisted angle of the astrogator's black head told Kartr that. And Mirion, the pilot, hung limply in the torn shock webs before the control board. Blood rilled down his cheeks and dripped from his chin. Did dead men continue to bleed? Kartr didn't think so.
He drew a slow, experimental breath of his own and knew relief when it was not followed by a stab of pain. Ribs were still intact then, in spite of the slam which had smashed him into his present position. He grinned mirthlessly as he stretched arms and legs with the same caution. Sometimes it paid to be a tough, uncivilized frontier barbarian.
The lights flickered and went off. It was then that Kartr almost panicked, in spite of his carefully nurtured veteran's calm. He grabbed at the door latch and pulled. Sharp stabs of agony shot from his injured wrist and jerked him back to sanity. He wasn't sealed in, the door had moved an inch or so. He could get out.
Must get out and find the medico to look at Mirion. The pilot should not be moved until they knew the extent of his injuries
Then Kartr remembered. The medico wasn't around any more. Hadn't been with them since threeor was it four?planets back. The ranger shook his aching head and frowned. That loss of memory was almost worse than the pain in his arm. He mustn't lose his grip!
Three planet landings backthat was it! When they had beaten off the Greenies' rush after the ship's nose blaster had gone dead on them, Medico Tork had gone down, a poison dart right through his throat.
Kartr shook his head again and began to work patiently, with one hand, at the door. It seemed a very long time before he was able to force it open far enough for a person to squeeze through. A blue beam suddenly shot up at him through the gap.
"Kartr! Latimir! Mirion!" The roll call followed the light.
Only one man on board carried a blue torch.
"Rolth!" Kartr identified him. Somehow it was encouraging that it should be one of his own squad of specialist-explorers waiting below. "Latimir got it, but Mirion is still living, I think. Can you come up? My wrist seems to be broken"
He edged back to let the other squirm through. The thin blue spear of light swept across Latimir's body and centered on the pilot. Then the torch tube was thrust into Kartr's good hand as Rolth crawled over to untangle the webbing which held the unconscious man.
"How bad are we?" Kartr raised his voice to be heard over the moans now coming from the pilot.
"I do not know. Our ranger quarters came through all right, but the hatch to the drive section is jammed and when I beat on it there was no answer"
Kartr tried to remember who had been on duty with the drive. They were so ruinously shorthanded that everyone was doing another's job. Even the rangers were pressed into the once jealously guarded Patrol duties. It had been that way ever since the Greenie attack.
"Kaatah" A call more hiss than word came from the passage.
"Okay." The sergeant responded almost automatically. "Got a real light, Zinga? Rolth's up here, but you know how far his two-for-a-credit shiner goes"
"Fylh is hunting out one of the big spots," the newcomer answered. "You have trouble?"
"Latimir is dead. Mirion's still breathingbut there's no telling how bad he is hurt. Rolth says that the drive room gang didn't answer at all. You all right?"
"Yes. Rylh and I and Smitt of the crew. We were bumped a little but nothing serious. Hah"
A yellow-red beam of some brilliance silhouetted the speaker.
"Fylh brings a battle torch"
Zinga climbed up and went to work with Rolth. They had Mirion free and flat on the plating before Kartr asked his next question.
"How about the Captain?"
Zinga turned his head slowly, almost as if he were unwilling to answer that. His agitation, as usual, was betrayed by the quiver in the pointed neck frill of skin, which would not lie flat on his shoulders when he was worried or excited.
"Smitt has gone to seek him. We do not know"
"One spot of luck in the whole knock out." That was Rolth, his voice as usual unemotional. "This is an Arth type planet. Since we aren't going to lift off it again in a hurry we'd better thank the Spirit of Space for that!"
An Arth type planetone on which the crew of this particular ship could breathe without helmets, walk without discomfort of alien gravity, probably eat and drink natural products without fear of sudden death. Kartr eased his wrist across his knee. That was pure luck. The Starfire might have blown anywhere within the past three monthsshe had been held together only with wire and hope. But to blow on an Arth type world was better fortune for her survivors than they would have dared pray for after the black disappointments of the past few years, years of too many missions and no refittings.
"It hasn't been burnt off either," he observed almost absently.
"Why should it have been?" inquired Fylh, his voice tinged with almost cheerful mockerybut mockery which also had a bite in it. "This system is far off our mapsvery far removed from all the benefits of our civilization!"
The benefits of Central Control civilization, yes. Kartr blinked as that struck home. His own planet, Ylene, had been burnt off five years agoduring the Two-Sector Rebellion. And yet he sometimes still dreamed of taking the mail packet back, of wearing his ranger uniform, proud with the Five Sector Bars and the Far Roving Star, of going up into the forest countryto a little village by the north sea. Burnt off! He had never been able to visualize boiled rock where that village had stoodor the dead cinder which was the present Ylenea horrible monument to planetary war.
Zinga worked on his wrist and put it in a sling. Kartr was able to help himself as they angled Mirion through the door. By the time they had the pilot resting in the lounge the Patrolman, Smitt, came in, towing a figure so masked in head bandages as to be unrecognizable.
"Commander Vibor?" Kartr hazarded. He was on his feet, his shoulders squared, his heels brought smartly together so that the vlis hide of his boots rasped faintly.
The bandaged head swung toward him.
"Who else?" The voice began with customary briskness but then it trailed off into a disconcerting silence.
Kartr frowned. The vlis skin gave off another whisper as he shifted his feet.
"Of the PatrolLatimir is dead, sir. We have Mirion herehurt. And Smitt is okay. The Rangers Fylh, Rolth, Zinga, and myself are all right. Rolth reports that the drive room hatch is jammed and that no one replied when he pounded on it. We will investigate that now, sir. Also the crew's quarters."
"Yesyes Carry on, Ranger."
Smitt jumped just in time to catch and ease that lank, limp body to the floor. Commander Vibor was in no shape to resume command.
Kartr knew again a touch of that panic which had gripped him when the lights had failed. Commander Viborthe man they had come to believe was a rock of certainty and security in their chaotic world He sucked in the tainted air of the too old ship and accepted the situation.
"Smitt." He turned first to the Patrol com-techneer, who by all the rigid rules of the service certainly outranked a mere ranger sergeant. "Can you take over with the Commander and Mirion?"
Smitt did have some medico training, he had acted as Tork's assistant once or twice.
"Right." The shorter man did not even look up as he bent over the moaning pilot. "Go along and check the rest of the wreckage, fly-boy"
Fly-boy, eh? Well, the high and mighty senior service of the Patrol should be glad that the fly-boys were with them during this tour of duty. Rangers were trained to calculate and use the products of any strange world. After a crack up they would certainly be more at home in an alien wilderness than Patrol-crewmen.
Holding his injured arm tightly to his chest Kartr made his way back along the corridor, followed by the begoggled Rolth, his eyes shaded against what was to him the violent fire cast by the ordinary beam torch the sergeant clutched in his good hand. Zinga and Fylh brought up the rear, having armed themselves, as Kartr noted, with a portable flamer to cut through jammed bulkheads.
Even with that it took them a good ten minutes to break the hatch of the drive room. And in spite of the clamor they made during the process there came no answer from within. Kartr steeled himself inwardly and pushed through first. He looked only once at what was caught in the full shaft of his beam and then backed out, sick and shaking. The others, seeing his face, asked no questions.
As he leaned against the edge of the battered door fighting nausea they all heard the pounding from the tail section.
Fylh answered. "Armory and suppliesthat would be Jaksan, Cott, Snyn, Dalgre." He counted them off on the tips of his claw-boned fingers. "They must be"
"Yes." Kartr was already leading the rescue party toward the sound.
Again they had to apply the white-hot energy of the flamer to buckled metal. And then they must wait until they metal had cooled before three battered and blood-streaked men came crawling through.
Jaksanyes, Kartr would have wagered a year's pay credits that the tough, very tough, Patrol arms officer would survive. And Snyn and Dalgre.
Jaksan began to speak even before he got to his feet again.
"How is it?"
"Smitt's okay. The Commander has some head injuries. Mirion's bad. The rest" Kartr's hands swept out in a gesture from his childhoodone of those strange barbarian exuberances he had been so careful to suppress during his service years.
"I'm a ranger, no Patrol techneer. Maybe Smitt could tell you better about that. He's the nearest to an expert that we have left."
Jaksan's fingernails rasped in the stubble on his unshaven chin. There was a long rip in his right sleeve, an oozing scratch under it. He stared at the three rangers absently. Already he was probably cutting losses. If the Starfire could function again it would be because of his drive and determination.
"Arth type. Mirion was trying to set down in what looked like open country when the tubes blew. No traces of civilization noted before landing." This information was Kartr's own territory and he answered with confidence.
If the rangers' sleds hadn't been too badly banged up they could break one out soon and begin exploring. There was, of course, the fuel problem. There might be enough in sled tanks for one tripwith a very even chance that the scouting party would walk home. Unless the Starfire was definitely done for and they could tap her supply But that could all be gone into later. At least they could take a look now at their immediate surroundings.
"We'll sortie." Kartr's voice was crisp and assured and asked no permission from Jaksanor any crewman. "Smitt is with the Commander and Mirion in the lounge"
The Patrol officer nodded. This return to routine was correct, right. It seemed to steady them all, Kartr observed, as he found his way into the ranger's own domain. Fylh was there before him, freeing their packs from the general jumble the crash had made of their supplies. Kartr shook his head.
"Not full packs. We won't go more than a quarter mile. And, Rolth," he added over his shoulder to the begoggled Faltharian in the doorway, "you stay here. Arth sun is bad for your eyes. Your turn will come after nightfall."
Rolth nodded and went toward the lounge. Kartr picked up an explorer's belt with one hand but Zinga took it from him.
"This I do. Stand still." The other's scaled digits buckled and snapped the vlis hide band and its dangling accouterments about the sergeant's flat waist. He gave a wriggle to settle the weight in the familiar balance. No need to pick up a disrupterhe couldn't fire it with one hand. The short blaster would have to serve as his sole weapon.
Luckily they had not landed air-lock side down. To burn and burrow their way out was a job none of them would have cared for just then. But they only had to hammer loose the hatch and climb through, Kartr being boosted by his companions. Then they slid down the dull and scored metal to the still smoking ground, ran across that to the clean earth beyond the range of the blast. Once there they halted and wheeled to look back at the ship.
"Bad" Fylh's chirp put all their dismay into words. "She will not lift from here again."
Well, Kartr was no mech-techneer, but he would endorse that. The wrenched and broken-backed ship before them would certainly never ride the space lanes again, even if they could get her to a refitting dock. And the nearest of those was, Space knew, how many suns away!
"Why should we worry about that?" asked Zinga mildly. "Since we first set out on this voyage we guessed that there would be for us no return"
Yes, they had feared that, deep in their hearts, in the backs of their minds, with that flutter of terror and loneliness which plucked at a man's nerves as he rode between system and stars. But none of them had before admitted it openly to another. Noneunless
Maybe the humans had not admitted it, but the Bemmys might have. Loneliness had long since become a part of their livesthey were so often the only individuals of their respective species aboard a ship. If Kartr felt alien in Patrol crews because he was not only a specialized ranger but also a barbarian from a frontier system, what must Fylh or Zinga feelthey who could not even claim the kinship of a common species?
Kartr turned away from the broken ship to study the sandy waste studded with rock outcrops. It must be close to midday and the sun beat down heavily upon them. Under this wave of heat Zinga thrived. His frill spread widemaking a fan behind his hairless head, pulsing a darker red with every passing moment, his slender tongue flickered in and out between his yellow lips. But Fylh moved to the protection of the shadow by the rocks.
This was desert land. Kartr's nostrils expanded, taking in and classifying strange scents. No life except
His head snapped to the left. Life! But Zinga was before him, his big four-toed feet running lightly over sand, the thin webs between the toes keeping the reptilian ranger from sinking into the stuff through which the others slipped and slid. When Kartr joined him the tall Zacathan was squatting beside a rock on which curled a whiplash of scaled body. A narrow head swung up, a tongue flickered in and out.
Kartr stopped and tried mind touch. Yes, this was native life. Alien, of course. A mammal he might have made contact with. But this was reptile. Zinga might not have the same mind touch power that the sergeant possessed but this creature was distantly of his own kindcould he make friends? Kartr fought to catch and interpret those strange impressions which hovered just on the borderline of thought waves he could read. The creature had been alarmed at their coming, but now it was interested in Zinga. It had a high degree of self-confidence, a confidence which argued that it must have a natural weapon of potency.
"It has poison fangs" Zinga answered that question for him. "And it does not like your scent. I think that you may suggest some natural enemy. But me it does not mind. It cannot tell us muchit is not a thinker"
The Zacathan touched a horny fingertip to the creature's head. It permitted this liberty warily. And when Zinga rose to his feet its head lifted also, swinging higher above the coils of its body as if to watch him the better.
"It will be of little use to us, and to your kind it may be deadly. I shall send it away." Zinga stared down at the coiled creature. Its head began to sway in a short arc. Then it hissed and was gone, slipping into a crack between the rocks.
"Come here, leaden feet!" Fylh's voice drifted down from the sky.
The Trystian's feather-crested head with its large round eyes, unlidded, looked down from the tallest of the rock peaks. Kartr sighed. That climb might be nothing at all for the birdman with his light bones, but he certainly dreaded to try itwith only one hand in working order.
"What do you see?" he asked.
"There are growing thingsover there" The golden arms above his head swung eastward, the large thumb-claw out in added emphasis.
Zinga was already scuttling up the side of the sun-baked rock.
"How far?" Kartr demanded.
Fylh squinted and considered. "Perhaps two fals"
"Space measure, please," Kartr pleaded patiently. In his aching head he simply could not translate the measures of Fylh's home planet into human terms.
Zinga answered. "Maybe a good mile. The growing things are green"
"Green?" Well, that wasn't too strange. Yellow-green, and blue-green, and dull purple, red, yellow, even sickly whitehe had seen all kinds and colors of vegetation since he had put on the comet insignia.
"But this is a different green" The Zacathan's words floated down slowly, as if Zinga was now puzzled by the evidence before his eyes.
And Kartr knew that he must see too. As a ranger-explorer he had walked the soil of countless planets in myriad systemsnowadays he found it hard to reckon how many. There were some easy to remember, of course, because of their horror or their strange inhabitants. But the rest were only a maze of color and odd life in his mind. He had to refer to old reports and the ship's log to recall facts. The thrill he had once known, when he pushed for the first time through alien vegetation, or tried to catch the mind waves of things he could not see, had long since gone. But now, as he scrabbled for a hand hold and dug the toes of his boots into hollows in the gritty rock, he began to recapture a faint trace of that forgotten emotion.
Claw fingers and scaled digits reached down to hook in his shoulder harness and belt and heave him up to the narrow top of the spur. He flinched from the heat of the stone and shielded his eyes against the glare with his cupped hands.
What Fylh had discovered was easy to see. And that prick of excitement stirred again far inside him. For that ribbon of vegetation was green! But the green! It had no yellow tint, and none of the blue cast it would have held on his own vanished Ylene. It was a verdant green such as he had never set eyes upon beforerunning in a thin line across the desert country as if it followed some source of moisture. He blinked to clear his sight and then, knowing that his natural powers at that range were far inferior to Fylh's, he unhooked his visibility lenses. It was hard work to adjust them with only one hand but at last he was able to turn them on that distant ribbon.
Trees, bushes, leaped at him across the baked rock. He might almost touch one of those leaves, trembling in the passing of some faint breeze. And under that same cluster of leaves he caught a fleck of dancing light. He had been right, that was flowing water.
Slowly he turned, the lenses at his eyes, Zinga's hands closing on his hips to steady him as he moved, following that green streak north. Miles ahead it widened, spread into a vast splotch of the restful color. They must have crashed close to the edge of the desert. And that river could guide them north to life. Fylh stirred beside him and Kartr tipped the lenses skyward, having caught in his mind that far-away shimmer of life force. Wide wings wheeled and dipped. He saw the cruel curve of a hunter's beak and strong talons as the sky creature sailed proudly over them.
"I like this world" Zinga's hissing speech broke the silence. "And I think for us it will be right. Here are those of my bloodeven if far distantand there, in the sky, is one akin to you, Fylh. Do you not wish sometimes that your ancestors had not shed their wings along the path they trod to wisdom?"
Fylh shrugged. "What of the tails and fighting claws your people dropped behind, my brave Zinga? And Kartr's race once went with fur upon themmaybe tailed toomany animals are. One cannot have everything." But he continued to watch the bird until it was out of even his range of sight.
"We might try getting one of the sleds loose. There ought to be enough fuel left to take us as far as that patch of green in the north. Where there is grass there should be food"
Kartr heard a faint snicker from Zinga. "Can it be that our Bemmy-and-animal lover has turned hunter?"
Could he killkill to eat? But the supplies were low in the shipif any had survived the crash. Sooner or later they would have to live off the land. And meatmeat would be necessary for life. The sergeant forced himself to think of that in what he hoped was a sensible fashion. But still he was not sure that he could align the sights of a blaster and pull the triggerfor the purpose of meat!
No need to think of that until the time came. He hooked the lenses back on his belt.
"Back to report?" Fylh began to lower himself over the edge of the pinnacle.
"Back to report," agreed Kartr soberly.
Back | Next