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"You must admit that his account was plausible enough"
Kartr faced Jaksan across the flat rock which served the camp as a table.
"And the city," persisted the arms officer mercilessly, "is in an excellent state of preservation. Not only that, but this party from the X451 includes mech-techneers who have been able to start it functioning again"
The sergeant nodded wearily. He should have brought to this contest of will a clear mind and a rested body. Instead he ached with both mental and physical fatigue. It was an effort to hold his stand against the hammering disapproval of the other.
"If all this is true"Jaksan reached what he certainly believed to be a logical and sensible conclusionfor the third time"I cannot understand this reluctance of yours, Kartr. Unless" he was radiating hostility again but the sergeant was almost too tired to care"unless you have taken a dislike to this Ageratan for personal reasons." Then he paused and his hostility was broken for an instant by an emotion close to sympathy. "Wasn't it an Ageratan who gave the order to burn off Ylene?"
"It might have been for all I know. But that is not the reason why I distrust this Joyd Cummi," began Kartr with such remnants of patience as he could muster.
There was no use in making an issue of Cummi's use of the Can-hound. Only another sensitive could understand the true horror of that. Jaksan had settled on an explanation for Kartr's attitude which was reasonable to him and he would hold to it. The sergeant had learned long ago that those who were not sensitives had a deep distrust of perception and the mind touch and some refused to even admit its existence as a fact. Jaksan was almost of that grouphe would believe in Kartr's ability to meet and deal with animals and strange non-humans, but he inwardly repudiated the sergeant's being able to contact or read his fellow men. There was no arguing with him on that point. Kartr sighed. He had done what he could to prevent what he knew would be Jaksan's next move. Now he could only wait for the menace he believed was in the city to show itself.
So they made the journey to join the X451's survivors, and they admitted, against all Kartr's pleas, their own shipwrecked condition. Joyd Cummi greeted them with urbane and welcoming ease. There was a ship's medico to attend to Viborthere were luxurious quarters in, as Kartr noted with suspicion, corridors adjacent to the Vice-Sector Lord's own, for the crewmen and the officers.
The welcome granted the rangers was, however, somewhat cooler. Kartr and Rolth were accepted, given subtly to understand that, as humans, they would stand equal with the commoners of Cummi's kingdom. But the Ageratan had given Zinga and Fylh no more than a nod and made no suggestions for their lodging. Kartr gathered his small command together in the center of a large bare room where no eavesdropper could possibly listen in.
"If," Zinga said as they settled themselves cross-legged on the floor, "you still maintain that the odor issuing through these halls is far from flower-like, I shall agree with you! How long"he turned to Kartr"are you going to let some ragged tails of loyalty pull you into situations such as this?"
Fylh's claws rasped along the hard scales on the other's forearm.
"Rangers should only speak when spoken to. And Bemmy rangers must let their superiors decide what is best for them. Such must be dutiful and humble and keep their places"
The close guard which Kartr had kept upon his temper ever since his warning had been so quickly disregarded vanished at Zinga's remark.
"I've heard enough of that!"
"Zinga has a point," Rolth paid no attention to Kartr's outbreak. "We either accept the prevailing conditions hereor we leaveif we can. And maybe we can't wait too long or be halfway about it."
" `If we can,' " repeated, Zinga with a grin displaying no humor but many sharp teeth. "That is a most interesting suggestion, Rolth. I wonder if there wereor areany Bemmys numbered in the crew or among the passengers of the X451. You notice that I am inclined to use the past tense when I refer to them. Indications would make that seem proper."
Kartr studied his two brown hands, one protruding from the dirty sling, the other resting on his knee. They were scratched and calloused, the nails worn down. But though he was examining each one of those scratches with minute attention he was really absorbed in the nasty implications of Zinga's words. Nohe didn't have to accept matters as they were. He should make a few preparations of his own.
"Where are our packs?" he asked Zinga.
Both eyelids closed in a slow wink. "Those creatures are under our eye. If we have to leave in a hurry we'll be able to do so with full tramping equipment."
"I shall suggest to Jaksan that the rangers take quarters on their owntogether" Kartr said slowly.
"There is a three-story tower on the west corner of this building," cut in Fylh. "Should we withdraw to that lofty perchwell, it may be that they will be so glad to be rid of us that they will permit it."
"Let ourselves be bottled up?" asked Zinga with some sting in his hissing voice.
Fylh clicked his claws with an irritated snap. "No one is going to be bottled up. Please remember we are dealing with highly civilized city dwellers, not explorers. To them all possible passages in and out of a building are accounted for by windows and doors only."
"Then this tower of yours boasts some feature not included in that catalogue which would serve us in a pinch?" There was a little smile curving Rolth's pale lips.
"Naturally. Or I would not have seen its possibilities as our stronghold. There are a series of bands projecting in a pattern down the outer walls. As good as a staircase to someone who knows how to use fingers and toes"
"And keep his eyes closed while he does it," groaned Zinga. "Sometimes I wish I were civilized and could lead a sane and peaceful life."
"We could allow"Fylh had talked himself back into his best humor again"these people to believe that we are safely out of mischief. They can put a guard at the single stairway leading up in that tower if they wish."
Kartr nodded. "I'll see Jaksan. After all, we may be rangers, but we are also Patrol. And if we want to stick together no civilian has any right to question usVice-Sector Lord or not! Stay out of trouble now."
He got up and the three nodded. They might not be sensitivesthough he suspected that Zinga had some power akin to his, but they knew that they were only four in a potentially dangerous environment. If they could just get themselves exiled into Fylh's tower!
But he had to wait a long time to see Jaksan. The arms officer had accompanied Vibor to the medico. And when he at last returned to his quarters and found Kartr waiting for him, he was anything but cordial.
"What do you want now? The Vice-Sector Lord has been asking for you. He had some orders"
"Since when," Kartr interrupted, "has even a Vice-Sector Lord had orders for one of the Patrol? He may advise and requesthe does not order any wearer of the Comet, patrolman or ranger!"
Jaksan had crossed to the window and now he stood there, tapping his nails against the casing, his shoulders and back stubbornly presented to the sergeant. He did not turn when he answered:
"I do not believe that you take our position now into proper consideration, Sergeant. We do not have a ship. We"
"And since when has a ship been necessary?" But maybe that was the exact truth, right there. Maybe to Jaksan and the crew the ship was necessarywithout it they were naked, at a loss. "It is because I feared this very thing," he continued more quietly, "that I was against our coming here." Whether it was politic or not he had to say that.
"Under the circumstances we had very little choice in the matter!" Jaksan showed some of his old fire in that burst. "Great Space, man, would you have us fight the wilderness for food and shelter when there was this to come to? What of the Commander? He had to have medical attention. Only a" He stopped in mid-sentence.
"Why not finish that, sir? Only a barbarian ranger would argue against it. Is that what you want to say? Well, I maintain, barbarian that I am, that it is better to be free in the wilderness than to come here. But let me have this clearam I to understand that you have surrendered the authority of the Patrol to Joyd Cummi?"
"Divided authority is bad." But Jaksan refused to turn and face him. "It is necessary that each man contribute his skills to help the community. Joyd Cummi has discovered evidence that there is a severe cold season coming. It is our duty to help prepare for that. I think he wishes to send out hunting parties as food may be a problem. There are women and children to provide for"
"I see. And the rangers are to take over the hunting? Well, we shall make a few plans. In the meantime we will take quarters for ourselves. And it might be well to arrange those with an eye to the futureunless there is also a butcher to be found among these city men."
"You and Rolth were assigned rooms here"
"The rangers prefer to remain as a unit. As you know, that is only Patrol policy. Or has the Patrol totally ceased to exist?" If Kartr had not been needled by increasing uneasiness he might not have added that.
"See here, Kartr." Jaksan turned away from the window. "Isn't it about time that you looked straight at some hard facts? We're going to be here for the rest of our lives. We are seven men against almost two hundredand they have a well-organized community going"
"Seven men?" queried Kartr. "We number nine if you count the Commander."
"Men." Jaksan stressed the word.
There it wasout in the open. Kartr had feared to hear it for a long time now.
"There are four qualified Patrol rangers and five of you," he returned stubbornly. "And the rangers stick together."
"Don't be a fool!"
"Why shouldn't I have that privilege?" Kartr's rage was ice cold now. "All the rest of you seem to enjoy it."
"You're a human being! You belong with your kind. These aliensthey"
"Jaksan"Kartr repudiated once and for all the leadership of the arms officer"I know all those threadbare, stock arguments. There is no need to run through them again. I have had them dinned into me by your kind ever since I joined the Service and asked for ranger detail"
"You young idiot! Since you joined the Service, eh? And how long ago was that? Eight years? Ten? You're no more than a cub now. Since you joined the Service! You don't know anything at all about itthis Bemmy problem. Only a barbarian"
"We'll admit that I'm a barbarian and that I have odd tastes in friends, shall we? Admit it and leave it out of this conversation!" Kartr was gaining control of his temper.
It was plain that Jaksan was attempting to justify some stand he had taken or been forced into agreement with, not only to Kartr but to himself.
"Suppose you allow me to go to perdition my own way. Is this `All humans stand together' a rule of Cummi's?"
Jaksan refused to meet the sergeant's demanding gaze. "He is very prejudiced. Don't forget he is an Ageratan. They had an internal problem in that system when they had to deal with a race of alien non-humans"
"And they solved that problem neatly and expediently by the cold-blooded massacre of the aliens!"
"I forgotyour feeling against Ageratans"
"My feeling for Ageratans, which, I might say, is different from the one you deem it to be, has nothing to do with this case. I simply refuse now or ever to hold any such views against any stranger, human or Bemmy. If the Vice-Sector Lord wants the rangers to do his huntingall right. But we shall stick together as a unit. And if to continue to do so means troublethen we might oblige in that direction also!"
"Look here." Jaksan kicked moodily at the bedroll which lay on the floor. "Don't stop thinking about it, Kartr. We'll have to live the rest of our lives here. We're really lucky beyond our dreamsCummi believes that this city can be almost entirely restored. We can start all over. I know that you don't care for Cummi, but he is able enough to organize a shipload of hysterical passengers into a going settlement. Seven men can't fight him. All I ask of you for the present is don't repeat to Cummi what you just said to me. Think it over first."
"I shall. In the meantime the rangers will take quarters together."
"Oh, all right." Jaksan shrugged. "Do itwherever you please."
"Maybe he should have said where Cummi pleases," thought Kartr as he left the room.
He found the rangers waiting for him and gave his own orders.
"Rolth, you and Fylh get up to that tower. If anyone tries to stop you pull Patrol rank on him. It may still carry some weight with the underlings here. Zinga, where did you leave our packs?"
Five minutes later Kartr and the Zacathan gathered the four pioneer packs. "Slip an anti-gravity disc under them," said Kartr, "and come on."
With the packs floating just off the floor and easy to tow, they made their way toward the rear of the building. But, as they approached the narrow flight of stairs Zinga said led to the roof, they were met by Fortus Kan. He edged back against the wall to let them pass, since Kartr did not halt. But he asked as they went by:
"Where are you going?"
"Settling in ranger quarters," the sergeant returned briefly.
"That one is still watching us," Zinga whispered as they mounted. "He is none too stout of heart. A good loud shout of wrath aimed at him would sent him scuttling"
"But don't try it," Kartr returned. "There is enough trouble before us now without stirring up any more."
"Ho! So you learned that, did you? Well, a short life and a merry one, as my egg brother often said while we were still shipmates. I wonder where Ziff is nowrolling in silk and eating brofids three times a day if I know that black-hearted despoiler! Not that it wouldn't be good to see his ugly face awaiting us above when we have finished this climb. His infighting is excellent, a very handy man with a force blade. Zipppand there's an enemy down with half his insides gone"
They could do, thought Kartr bitterly, with about fifty good infighters right nowor even with only ten.
"Welcome home, travelers!" That was Rolth, his goggled eyes lending his face an insect-like outline as he looked down at them. "For once the old pepper bird has found us a real perch. Come in and relax, my brave boys!"
"Flame bats and octopods!" Even Zinga seemed truly amazed as he stared about the room they entered.
The walls were a murky translucent green. And behind them came and went shapes of vivid color, water creatures swimming! Then Kartr saw that it was an illusion born of light and some sort of automatic picture projection. Zinga sat down on the packs, bearing them under his weight to the floor.
"Luscious! Luscious! Enough to tempt the most fastidious palate. The being who planned this room was a gourmand. I would be proud to shake his hand, fin or tentacle. Magnificent! That red onedoes it not resemble almost to the last scale the succulent brofid? What a wonderful, wonderful room!"
"What about rations?" Kartr inquired of Rolth over Zinga's head.
The Faltharian's eyebrows raised until they could be seen over the rim of his goggles. "Are you contemplating our sitting out a siege? We have a few basic supply tins still unopenedabout five days of full mealstwice that if we have to draw in our belts."
"Do you mean to tell me," Zinga broke out, "that you have brought me into this place of culinary promise and now propose to feed me extract of nourishingbahwhat a word, nourishing! As if nourishment and food are ever the sameto feed me extract of fungus and the rest of that unexciting goo we have to absorb when we are climbing over bare rock with no chance of hunting! This is a torture which cannot be refined upon. I insist upon my rights as a freeborn citizen"
"A freeborn citizen?" queried Fylh. "Second classthird class twice removed, would be much more apt. And you have no rights at all"
But Rolth had been watching Kartr's expression and now he broke in.
"Is that the way of ithonestly?"
"Just about, I'm afraid." Kartr sat down on the room's single piece of furniturean opaline bench. "I went to Jaksan. He said Cummi had orders for me"
"Orders?" Again the Faltharian's eyebrows betrayed his surprise. "A civilian giving orders to the Patrol? We may be rangers, but we are also still Patrol!"
"Are we?" Fylh wondered. "A Patrolman has ships, force to back him up. We're just survivors now, and we can't ring in the fleet if we get in a tight place"
"Jaksan agrees with that. I gathered that he has more or less abdicated in Cummi's favor. The idea is that the Vice-Sector Lord has a running concern here"
"And that we are more or less lucky to be included in?" demanded Rolth. "Yes, I can see that argument being advanced. But Jaksanhe's veteran Patrol to the core. Somehow his standing aside this wayit doesn't fit!"
Fylh made a gesture of brushing aside nonessentials. "Jaksan's psychological response need not concern us as much as something else. Do I gather that here Bemmys are second class citizens?"
"Yes." That answer was bald but Kartr saw no need to temper it.
"I take it that you were urged toerwithdraw from contagion," Zinga drawled, leaning back and hooking his taloned fingers over his knees.
"That was part of it."
"How stupid can they get?" Rolth wanted to know. "If they want us to do their hunting, they must need food. And a bunch of these soft inner system men are not going to get much game by running out and beating the bushes. Instead of antagonizing us they ought to be making concessions."
"When did you ever know prejudice to act logically? And Jaksan seems to have agreed to this down-with-the-Bemmys plan, hasn't he?" Fylh's red eyes had gleams in them not very pleasant to see.
"I don't know what's happened to Jaksan," Kartr exploded. "And I don't care! It's what is going to happen to us which is more important right now"
"You and Rolth," Fylh pointed out, "need not worry"
Kartr jumped to his feet and took two strides across the room so that his green eyes were on a level and boring into those round red ones.
"That is the last time I ever want to hear anything like that! I told Jaksan and I shall tell Cummiif it becomes necessarythat the rangers stand together."
Fylh's thin lips shut. Then the hard points of fire in his eyes softened. He made a small soothing gesture with his claws and when he spoke his voice was even again.
"What was Jaksan's reaction to your speech?"
"Just a lot of words. But it gave me an excellent chance of putting through our coming here together."
Zinga had arisen and was prowling around the room. "Done any more exploring, you two?" he asked Rolth. "What's the layout?"
"One more room beyond that archway on this floor. It has two windows both of which overhang Fylh's outside stairway. There is one large room immediately above this one and a third over that with a bathroom off. Believe it or notthe water is running in that!"
Kartr disregarded Zinga's exclamation of approval. "Only the one way inunless someone climbs up the wall? Sure of that?"
"Yes. Of course they might descend upon us from the sky. But I hardly think we need fear that. And this door can be lockedwatch"
Rolth trod on a dull red block set in the floor. A door moved silently out of the right wall and sealed the entrance. On it was a metal plate and the Faltharian set his hand on it for an instant.
"Now try to get that open," he urged the sergeant.
But, even when Zinga and Fylh added their strength to his, Kartr was unable to force the door. Then Rolth stepped again on the stone and it opened easily.
"Fylh locked me out when we were exploring and we had a time finding out how to open it again. Tricky, the fellows who built that. It would take a full size disruptor to breach that."
"Which leads me to wonder if they do have one of those." Zinga put Kartr's thought into words.
But then that worry was blocked out for he sensed someone coming up the stairs. At the sergeant's signal the rangers melted away. Zinga was now flat against the wall beside the door where he could be at the back of anyone who entered before the stranger would know of his presence. Fylh lay belly down behind the pile of packs, and Rolth had drawn his blaster, standing a little behind the sergeant who waited, his good hand empty.
They knew the voice but they did not relax.
Smitt obeyed. He gave a start as Zinga materialized behind him. But there was a worried frown on his face and Kartr knew that he was no danger to them. For the second time the com-techneer had come to them because he was in trouble and not because he was an enemy.
"What is it?" asked the sergeant with very little welcome. After all Smitt was to be normally reckoned with Jaksan's forces.
"They're talkinga lot. They've said you rangers are too alien to be trusted."
"Well"Kartr's lips curled back in what was not even a shadow of a smile"I've heard that a good many times before and I can't see that we're any the worse for it."
"Maybe you weren'tbefore. But this Ageratanhe'sthe man must be mad!" Smitt exploded. "I tell you"his voice slid up the scale a little"he must be raving mad!"
"Suppose," hissed Zinga, "you just sit downover there where we can keep an eye on youand tell us all about it."
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