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They circled the crumpled length of the Starfire and saw a figure waving from a point near her nose. When they landed the sled Jaksan was waiting.
"Well?" he demanded harshly, almost before the sand had fallen away from the keel of the sled.
"There's good, open, well-watered land to the north," Kartr reported. "Animal life in a wilderness"
"Eatable water creatures!" Zinga broke in, licking his lips at the memory.
"Any indications of civilization?"
"An old road, buriednothing else. The animals know no superior life form. We had the recorder onI can run the wire through for the Commander"
"If he wants it"
"What do you mean!" The tone in Jaksan's voice brought Kartr up short, the reel of spy wire clutched in his good hand.
"Commander Vibor," Jaksan's answer came cold and hard, "believes it our duty to remain with the ship"
"But why?" asked the sergeant in honest bewilderment.
Nothing was ever going to raise the Starfire again. It was folly not to realize that at once and make plans on that basis. Kartr did now what he seldom dared to attempt, tried to read the surface mind of the arms officer. There was worry there, worry and something elsea surprising, puzzling resentment when Jaksan thought of him, Kartr, or of any of the rangers. Why? Did it stem back to the fact that the ranger sergeant was not a child of the Service, had not been reared of a Patrol family in the tight grip of tradition and duty, as had the other human members of the crew? Was it because he was termed a Bemmy lover and alien? He accepted that resentment as a fact, pigeonholed the memory of it to recall when he had to work with Jaksan in the future.
"Why?" The arms officer repeated Kartr's question. "A commander has responsibilitieseven a ranger should realize that. Responsibilities"
"Which doom him to starve to death in a broken ship?" cut in Zinga. "Come now, Jaksan. Commander Vibor is an intelligent life form"
Kartr's fingers moved in the old warning signal. The Zacathan caught it and fell silent while the sergeant cut in quickly on the heels of the other's last word.
"He will undoubtedly wish to see the record tape before making any plans anyway."
"The Commander is blind!"
Kartr stopped short. "You are sure?"
"Smitt is. Tork might have been able to help him. We don't have the skillthe wounds go beyond the help of the medic-first-aid."
"Well, I'll report." Kartr started toward the ship, feeling as if he carried several pounds of lead in the sole of each boot and some vast and undefinable burden had settled down upon his shoulders.
Why, he asked himself dispiritedly as he climbed through the lock of the port, did he have this depression? Certainly leadership now in no way fell upon him. Both Jaksan and Smitt outranked a sergeantas a warrant officer of rangers he was just barely within the borderline of the Service as it was. But even knowing that did nothing to free him from this unease.
"Kartr reporting, sir!" He came to attention before the masked man propped up against two bedrolls in the lounge.
"Your report" The request was mechanical. Kartr began to wonder if the other really heard him, or, hearing, understood a word he said.
"We have crashed near the edge of a desert. By sled the scouting party traveled north along a river to a well-watered, forested tract. Because of the limited supply of fuel our cruising range was curtailed. But there is a section to the north which looks promising as a base for a camp"
"Many animals of different types and breedson a low scale of intelligence. Only trace of civilization is a portion of roadway so covered as to argue long disuse. Animals have no memory of contact with superior life forms."
But Kartr did not go. "Pardon, sir, but have I your permission to break out what is left of the main drive energy supply to use when we arrange for transportation"
"The ship's supply? Are you completely mad? Certainly not! Report to Jaksan for repair party duty"
Repair party? Did Vibor honestly believe that there was the slightest chance of repairing the Starfire? Surely The ranger hesitated at the door of the lounge and half turned to go back. But, guessing the uselessness of any further appeal made to Vibor, he went on to the rangers' quarters where he found the others gathered. A smaller figure just within the doorway turned out to be Smitt, who got up to face Kartr as he came in.
"Any luck, Kartr?"
"He told me to report for repair party duty. Great Winds of Space, what does he mean?"
"You may not believe it," answered the com-techneer, "but he means just what he says. We are supposed to be repairing this hulk for a take-off"
"But can't he see?" began Kartr and then bit his lip, remembering. That was just itthe Commander could not see the present condition of the wrecked ship. But that was no excuse for Jaksan or Smitt not making it plain to him
As if he was able to pick that thought out of the air the com-techneer answered:
"He won't listen to us. I was ordered to my quarters when I tried to tell him. And Jaksan's only agreed with every order he's issued!"
"But why would he do that? Jaksan's no fool, he knows that we aren't going to lift again. The Starfire's done for."
Smitt leaned back against the wall. He was a small man, thin and tough and almost black with space tan. And now he appeared to share a portion of Fylh's almost malicious detachment. The only things he had ever really loved were his communicators. Kartr had seen him once furtively stroking the smooth plastic of their sides with a loving hand. Because of the old division of the ship's personnelPatrol crew and rangersKartr did not know him very well.
"You can easily accept the idea that we're through," the com-techneer was saying now. "You've never been tied to this hunk of metal the way we are. Your duty is on planetsnot in space. The Starfire is a part of Viborhe can't just walk into the wide blue now and forget all about her Neither can Jaksan."
"All right. I can believe that the ship might mean more to you, her regular crew, than she does to us," agreed Kartr almost wearily. "But she's a dead ship now and nothing any of us or all of us can do will make her ready to lift again. We'd best leave hertry to establish a base somewhere near food and water"
"Cut clean from the past and begin again? Maybe. I can agree with youintellectually. Only in suggesting that you'll come up against emotions, too, my young friends. And you'll find that another matter altogether!"
"And why," asked Kartr slowly, "is it up to me to deal with anything?"
"Process of elimination elects you. If we're grounded past hope of escape, who is the best able to understand our problemssomeone who has spent his life in space almost since childhoodor a ranger? What are you going to do?"
But Kartr refused to answer that. The longer Smitt needled him in that fashion the more uneasy he became. He had never been treated with such frankness by a crew officer.
"The Commander will decide," he began.
Then Smitt laughed, a short harsh sound which lacked any thread of mirth. "So you're afraid to face up to it, fly-boy? I thought you rangers could never be rattledthat the fearless, untamed explorers would"
Kartr's good hand closed on the tunic folds just below Smitt's throat.
"What kind of trouble are you trying to start, Smitt?" he asked, omitting the respect due an officer.
But the com-techneer made no move to strike away the sergeant's hand or twist free from the hold. Instead his eyes lifted to meet Kartr's steadily, soberly. Kartr's fingers loosened and his hand dropped. Smitt believed in what he was trying to say, believed in it very much even though he had been jeering. Smitt had come to him for help. Now for the first time Kartr was glad he possessed that strange gift of histo sense the emotions of his fellows.
"Let's have it," he said and sat down on a bedroll. He was aware that the tension which had held them all for a second or two was relaxing. And he knew that the rangers would follow his leadthey would wait for his decision.
"Vibor is no longer with ushe'she's cracked." Smitt fumbled for words. And Kartr read in him a rising fear and desolation.
"Is it because of his loss of sight? If that is so, the condition may be only temporary. When he becomes resigned to that"
"No. He has been heading for a breakdown for a long time. The responsibility of command under present conditionsthat fight with the Greenieshe was good friends with Tork, remember? The ship falling to pieces bit by bit and no chance for repairs It's added up to drive him under. Now he's just refusing to accept a present he doesn't dare believe in. He's retired into a world of his own where things go right instead of wrong. And he wants us in there with him."
Kartr nodded. There was the ring of truth in every word Smitt said. Of course, he himself had never had much personal contact with Vibor. The rangers were not admitted to the inner circle of the Patrolthey were only tolerated. He was not a graduate of a sector academy, or even a product of the ranks. His father had not been Patrol before him. So he had always been aloof from the crew. The discipline of the Service, always strict, had been tightening more and more into a rigid caste system, even during the few years he had worn the Cometperhaps because the Service itself had been cut off from the regular life of the average citizens. But Kartr could at this moment understand the odd incidents of the past months, certain inconsistencies in Vibor's ordersone or two remarks he had overheard.
"You think that there is no chance of his recovering?"
"No. The crash pushed him over the edge. The orders he's given during the past hour or soI tell youhe's finished!"
"All right." Rolth's low voice cut through the thick air. "Then what do we door rather, what do you want us to do, Smitt?"
The com-techneer's hands spread out in a gesture of hopelessness.
"I don't really know. Only we're downpermanentlyon an unknown world. Explorationthat's your department. And somebody's got to take the lead in getting us out of here. Jaksanwell, he might follow the Commander even if Vibor says blast us and the ship. They went through the battle of the Five Suns together and Jaksan" His voice trailed off.
"What about Mirion?"
"He isn't conscious. I don't think he's going to pull through. We can't even tell how badly he's injured. He can be counted out."
Counted out of what, wondered Kartr, and his green eyes narrowed. Smitt was hinting now of some kind of conflict to come.
"Dalgre and Snyn?" asked Zinga.
"They're both Jaksan's squadmen. Who knows how they'll stand if he starts giving orders?" returned the com-techneer.
"There is one thing I find puzzling." Fylh broke in for the first time. "Why do you come to us, Smitt? We're not crew"
There was the question which had been in all their mindsat last brought into the open. Kartr waited for the answer to it.
"Whywell, because I think that you're the best equipped for the future. It's your job. I'm dead weight now anywaythe crash did for the coms. The crew's dead weight without a ship to raise. So, all rightwe should be ready to learn what it takes to keep on living"
"A recruit, is it?" Zinga's chuckle was more hiss. "But a very green one. Well, Kartr, do you sign him?" The Zacathan's grotesque head turned to the sergeant.
"He's speaking the truth," Kartr returned very soberly. "I call council!" He gave the order which alerted them all. "Rolth?"
That white-skinned face, more than half masked by the dark goggles, was hard to read.
"The land is good?"
"Very promising," Zinga replied promptly.
"It's plain we can't keep on squatting here forever," mused the ranger from dusky Falthar. I'd vote to strip the ship, take everything we can possibly use, and establish a base. Then look around a bit"
The Trystian's claws beat a tattoo on his broad belt. "I agree with that wholly. But it's probably too sensible." His half-sneered ending appeared to be directed at Smitt. Fylh was not going to forget in a hurry the old division between ranger and Patrol crewman.
"Establish a base, yes. I would say close to that river which houses those delectable creatures. A fine mess of them right now" His eyelids dropped in mock ecstasy.
Kartr looked at Smitt. "My vote goes with theirs. We have one usable sled left. On it we could ferry the Commander, Mirion and the supplies. If we plunder the main drive we should be able to fuel it for a number of trips. The rest of us can walk out, and pack stuff on our backs besides. The land is good, there's food and water to be foundand it seems to be desertedno evidence of anything like the Greenies to fight us for it. If I were the Commander"
"But you aren'tyou Bemmy rangeryou aren't!"
Kartr's hand had fallen to the grip of his hand blaster even before he saw the man who was edging through the door. The wave of menace which he emitted was like a physical blow to the ranger's sensitive perception.
Knowing that any answer he might make verbally would only feed the other's rage, Kartr hesitated, and in the moment of silence Smitt took up the challenge.
"Shut up, Snyn!"
Light glinted from the small weapon almost completely concealed in the armsman's hand as he turned it toward the com-techneer. The waves of fear-based hatred were so thick that Kartr marveled that the others could not feel them too. Without attempting to gain his feet the sergeant hurled himself sideways, his shoulder catching Snyn at knee height. A bolt of searing green flame cut high through the air as the armsman's trigger finger tightened convulsively. He staggered forward as Kartr tried in vain to use his one good hand to pull him off balance.
A second or two later and it was over. Snyn still rolled and screamed muffled curses under Zinga but Fylh was methodically forcing his arms behind him so that a "safe" bar might be locked across his wrists. That done he was pushed over on his back and settled into position for questioning, with jerks which were anything but gentle.
"He's crazy!" Smitt stated with honest conviction. "Using a hand blaster like that. What in Black Heaven!"
"I should have burned you all" mouthed the captive. "Always knew you ranger devils couldn't be trusted. Bemmysall of you!"
But his stark hatred was more than three-quarters fear. Kartr sank down on the bedroll and regarded the twisting man with startled concern. He had known that the rangers were not accepted as full members of the Patrol, he also knew that there was a growing prejudice against nonhuman racesthe "Bemmys"but this raw and frightening rage directed by a crewman against his own shipmates was worse than anything he had ever dreamed possible.
"We've done nothing against you, Snyn"
The armsman spat. And Kartr guessed that he could not reach him with any reasoning. There was only one thing left to do. But it was something he had sworn to himself long ago never to trynot against any of his own kind. And would the others allow him if he wished to? He stared across the writhing body of the armsman at Smitt.
Smitt glanced up at the ragged tear in the wall, still glowing cherry red.
"You don't have to underline that!" Then the com-techneer shifted his feet uneasily. "What are you going to do with him?"
Long afterward Kartr realized that that had been the turning point. For, instead of appealing to Smitt or to his own men for backing, he made his own decision. Lightning swift and compelling he launched his will against the guard of the man before him. Snyn's contorted face was a dusky red, his twisted mouth flecked with foam. But he had no control, no mind barrier which could hold against the sergeant's trained power. His eyes glazed, fixed. He ceased to struggle, his mouth fell slackly open.
Smitt half drew his own blaster.
"What are you doing to him?"
Snyn was relaxed and very still now, his eyes on the metal above him.
Smitt reached out to clutch at Kartr's shoulder. "What did you do to him?"
"Quieted him down. He'll sleep it off."
But Smitt was edging toward the door, backing out. "Let me alone!" His voice rose shakily. "Let me aloneyouyou blasted Bemmy!" He scrambled for the opening in panicky haste but Rolth reached it before him to block his exit. Smitt turned and faced them, breathing harda hunted animal.
"We're not going to touch you." Kartr did not move from his seat or raise his voice. Rolth caught the hand signal he made. The Faltharian hesitated a second and then he obeyed, stepping out of the doorway. But even seeing a clear exit now Smitt did not move. Instead he continued to watch Kartr and asked shakily:
"Can you dodo that to any of us?"
"Probably. You've never cultivated a high mind blockany of you."
Smitt's blaster went back into its holster. He rubbed his sweating face with trembling hands.
"Then why didn't youjust now?"
"Why didn't I use the mind power on you? Why should I? You weren't planning to burn usyou were entirely sane"
Smitt was steadying. The panic which had ridden him was almost gone. Reason controlled emotion. He came forward and peered down at the sleeping armsman.
"How long will he be like this?"
"I have no way of knowing. I have never used this on a human being before."
Awe overrode the other's personal fear.
"And you can knock us all out like that?"
"With a man of greater self-control or strong will, it would be a harder task. Then they have to be tricked into dropping their mind guards. But Snyn had no guards up at all."
"That," Zinga said smoothly, "is not going to be your way out of this, Smitt. If you are planning to have the sergeant go around and drop all the opposition in their tracks you can just forget it. We will either reason it out with them or"
But Smitt was already aware of the next point. "We fight?" he asked almost grimly. "But that will be"
"Mutiny? Of course, my dear sir. However, if you had not had that in your mind all along you would not have come to us, would you?" Fylh demanded.
Mutiny! Kartr made himself consider it calmly. In space or on planet Vibor was the Commander of the Starfire. And every man aboard had once sworn an oath to obey his orders and uphold the authority of the Service. Tork, realizing the officer's condition, might have removed Vibor. But Tork was gone and not one man aboard the ship now had the legal right to set aside the Commander's orders. The sergeant got to his feet.
"Can you get Jaksan and Dalgre"
He looked about the rangers' quarters. No, it would be wiser to hold a meeting in some more neutral place. Outside, he decided swiftly, where the psychological effect of the ruined ship right before their eyes all during the discussion might well be the deciding point.
"Outside?" he ended.
"All right," agreed Smitt, but there was a note of reluctance in that. He went out.
"Now," Zinga asked, after watching the com-techneer safely out of hearing range, "what are we in for?"
"This would have come sooner or later anywayit was inevitable after the crash." That was Rolth's soft voice answering. "When we were space borne, they had a reason for lifethey could close their eyes and minds to things, drugging themselves with a round of familiar duties. Now that has been swept away from them. We are the ones who have a purposea job. And because we aredifferentwe have always been slightly suspect"
"So," Kartr put into words the thought which had been growing in his own mind, "unless we act and give them something to work for, we may become the target for their fear and resentment? I agree."
"We could cut loose," Fylh suggested. "When the ship crashed our ties with her were broken. Recordswho's ever going to see any of our records now? We're able to live off the land"
"But they might not be able to," Kartr pointed out. "And it is just because that is true that we can't cut loose and go. Not now anyway. We shall have to try and help them"
Zinga laughed. "Always the idealist, Kartr. I'm a Bemmy, Fylh's a Bemmy, Rolth's half Bemmy and you're a Bemmy lover and we're all rangers, which in no way endears any of us to these so-called human Patrolmen. All right, we'll try to make them see the light. But I'll do my arguing with a blaster near my hand."
Kartr did not demur. After the resentment with which Jaksan had greeted him when they returned from the trip and the insane attack of Snyn, he knew enough to understand that such preparedness on their part was necessary.
"Do we count on Smitt, I wonder," Zinga mused. "He never before impressed me as a ranger recruit."
"No, but he does have brains," Rolth pointed out. "Kartr"he turned to the sergeant"it will be your playwe'll let you do the talking now."
The other two nodded. Kartr smiled. Inside him was a good warm feeling. He had known it beforethe rangers stood together. Come what might, they were going to present a united front to danger.
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