Back | Next
Three in the uniform of the Patrol squatted on their heels by the fire. Kartr sat up, his back braced against bedrolls, watching them.
"You never said"he broke the silence at last"why you left the city"
None of the three seemed to wish to meet his gaze. Finally it was Smitt who answered, an almost defiant ring in his tired voice.
"They were grateful to have Cummi and his men removed"
Kartr continued to wait but that appeared to be all the answer the com-techneer was going to give.
"Big of them," Dalgre added after a long pause, a dry rasp under-running his words.
"They decided," Zinga took up the explanation, "that they did not want to exchange one official ruler out of the past for anotherat least the impression they conveyed was that the Patrol had better not plan to take over in Cummi's place. So we weren't welcomeespecially the rangers."
"Yes, they made it clear." Smitt was bleakly cold. " `Now that the war is over, let the troops depart'the usual civilian attitude. We tended to be a disturbing element as far as they were concerned. So we took one of the city aircraft and left"
"He went after the jetman who had burned down the Commander. When we found them later they were both dead. We're the last of the Patrolexcept for Rolth and Fylhthey're out scouting"
The three did not enlarge on that story and Kartr accepted their reticence. Perhaps to the city castaways who had tasted Cummi's grab for power the Patrol had become too much a symbol of the old way of things. And so the Patrol had to go, after the ruler had been deposed. But one thing had come of thatthere were no longer crewmen or rangersthere was only Patroltheir second exile had cemented tight the bonds of the survivors.
"Ah, our fishing party returns!" Zicti, who had been napping in the warmth of the flames, rolled over and got to his feet to greet the three coming through the screen of the trees. "And what luck did you have, my dears?"
"We put Rolth's blue torch down at the water's edge and the creatures were attracted by its light, so we return heavily laden," the thinner voice of a Zacathan female answered. "This is indeed a very rich world. Zor, show your father the armored creature you found under the rock"
The shortest of the three ran into the firelight, holding in one hand a kicking thing of many legs and thick claws. Zicti accepted the captive, being careful not to encounter the claws, and examined it critically.
"But how strange! This might almost be a distant cousin of a Poltorian. But it is not intelligent"
"None of the water dwellers appear to be," agreed his wife. "However, we should be glad of that, for they are excellent eating!"
Kartr had seen few Zacathan women, but his long companionship with Zinga had accustomed him to the difference between human and Zacathan features and he could understand that both Zacita and her young daughter, Zora, would be considered attractive by others of their race. As for young Zorlike an impish young male of any species, he was enjoying every minute of this wilderness life.
Zacita made a graceful gesture to suggest that the company seat themselves again. Kartr noted that Smitt and Dalgre had been as quick to rise to greet the Zacathan ladies as the others. Their feelings concerning Bemmys had certainly undergone a change.
Kartr awoke early the next morning and lay still for a long moment frowning up at the slant roof of the lean-to. There was something Then his mouth straightened into a thin hard line. He knew now what it was he had to do and soon. Meanwhile, he crawled out of his bedroll. Above the drowsy quiet of the sleeping camp he could hear the murmur of the river not too far away.
A little unsteadily at first and then firmly as he gained balance he made his way down to its edge. The water was chill enough to bring a gasp out of him as he waded in. Then he lost touch with the sands of its bed and began to swim.
"Ahthe supreme energy and recuperative powers of the young!"
The booming voice was drowned out by a splash. Kartr raised his head just in time to receive a face full of water as Zor passed him at full swimming speed. And Zicti was sliding cautiously down over a flat rock, allowing the stream to engulf him by inches.
The dignified Zacathan blinked in mild benevolence over the wavelets at the ranger sergeant. With two lazy strokes Kartr joined him.
"Pretty primitive, I'm afraid, sir"
The former hist-techneer of the Galactic University of Zovanta gave a realistic shudder but answered calmly:
"It does one good at times to be shaken out of the comfortable round of civilized life. And we Zacathans are not so physically breakable as you humans. The general idea now held by my family is that this is a most delightful holiday, showing much more imagination on my part than they had believed possible. Zor, for one, has never been so happy" He grinned as he watched that small scaled body shoot across the current of the stream in pursuit of a water creature.
"But this is not a holiday, sir."
Zicti's large grave eyes met Kartr's. "Yes, there is that to take into consideration. Permanent exile"
He looked away, over the tumbled rocks, the bluffs beyond the river, the massed greenery of the wilderness. "Well, this is a rich world, and a wide empty oneplenty of room"
"There is the city, partly in working order," Kartr reminded him.
And in that instant he felt a warmth of reassurance close about him, a mental security he had not known for a long, long time. Zicti was not replying with actual mind speech, but answering the ranger in his own way.
"I believe that those in the city must be left to work out their own destiny," the hist-techneer said at last. "In a manner of thinking that choice is now a retreat. They wish life to remain as it always has been. But that is just what life never does. It goes upone advancesor it goes downone retreats. And if one tried to stand stillthat is retreat. We are now following the path our whole empire is taking. We have been slowly slipping back for the past century"
"Just so. For examplethis spread of dislike for those who are not human. That is increasing. Luckily we Zacathans are sensitiveswe are ready to meet situations such as that which ensued after the X451 set down"
"What did you do then?" asked Kartr, momentarily distracted.
Zicti chuckled. "We landed, tooon a lifeboat. There was a promising tract of wilderness not too far away. Before they got over the surprise of seeing us pop out of the escape port we were safely beyond their reach. Buthad we not been able to sense Cummi's attitudeit might have ended differently
"We came in this direction and established a camp. And I must tell you, sergeant, I was the most amazed being in this solar system when I accidentally contacted Zinga. Another Zacathan here! It was as if I had met a sootacl face to face when I was not wearing a wrist blaster! After we joined forces with your party everything was, of course, satisfactorily explained. They were hunting youyou are very well regarded by your men, Kartr"
Again that warmth of security and reassurance flooded the sergeant's mind. He colored. "Then, when they found me"
"Yes, when they found youwell, they loaded you on the lifeboat and brought you here. And your adventure has taught all of us an important lessonnot to underrate an opponent. I would never have believed Cummi capable of such an attack. But, in turn, he was not as strong as he thought himself to be, or you would not have been able to escape from his control after you left the city"
"But did I?" Kartr's frown was black. "In spite of your therapy I can't remember what happened between leaving the city and waking up alone in the wilderness."
"I believe that you did break free from him," Zicti said soberly. "Which is why I have laid the compulsion on you But, let us examine the facts, you men of Ylene are six point six on the sensitive scale, are you not?"
"Yes. But Ageratans are supposed to be only five point nine"
"True. But there is always the chance lately that one may be dealing with a chance mutant. And this is the proper time in the wave of history for mutants to appear. A pity we do not know more of Cummi's background. If he is a mutant that would explain a great deal."
"Would you mind," Kartr asked humbly, "telling me just where on the sensitive scale Zacathans place themselves?"
The big eyes twinkled at him. "We have purposely never submitted to classification, young man. It is always best and wisest to keep some secretsespecially when dealing with non-sensitives. But I would rate us somewhere between eight and nine. We have produced several persons who are combination telepaths and teleports, and more only a step or two below them, during the past three generations. So I am sure that while such mutation is on the increase among my people, it must be working in other races also."
"Mutants!" Kartr repeated and he shivered. "I was on Kablo when Pertavar started the Mutant Rebellion"
"Then you know what can come of such an upcurve in mutant births. There are good and bad results from all changes. Tell me, when you were a small child, were you aware of being a sensitive?"
Kartr shook his head. "No. In fact I was never aware of my powers until I entered the ranger cadet school. Then an instructor discovered my gift and I was given special training."
"You were a latent sensitive. Ylene was a frontier planet, its people too close to barbarism to know their full strength. Ahto have such a vigorous world thrown away! The foul sins of war! It is just because things such as the destruction of Ylene are happening too often now that I am convinced our civilization is nearing its end. Now in this camp we are a strange mixture." He pulled himself out of the water and applied a towel with vigor. "Zor, it is time to come!" he called after his son.
"Yes, we are a strange mixturea collection of odds and ends of the empire. You and Rolth, Smitt and Dalgre, are human, but you are all of different races and widely separated stock. Fylh, Zinga and my family are non-human. Those back in the city are human and highly civilized. And, who knows yet, there may also be natives in this world. One might almost believe that Someone or Something was about to conduct an experiment here." He chuckled and sniffed the air. "Ah, food, and I am indeed empty. Shall we go to see what lies in the cooking pots?"
But before they came up to the fire Zicti touched Kartr's arm.
"There is only one thought I wish to leave with you, my boy. I know little of your raceyou may not be a mystic, although most sensitives tend to look beyond the flesh and seek the spiritand you may have no religious beliefs. But if we have been chosen to work out some purpose here, it is up to us to prove worthy of being so selected!"
"I agree," Kartr returned shortly but he knew that the other recognized his sincerity.
The Zacathan nodded. "Fine, fine. I am going to enjoy my declining years. And to think I have been given this just when I thought that life was totally devoid of excitement. My dear"he raised his voice to address Zacita"the aroma of that stew is delightful. My hunger increases with every step I draw nearer to the fire!"
But Kartr spooned up the soup mechanically. It was very well for Zicti to paint the future in such bold strokes. A hist-techneer by his training was always taught to look at the whole situation, not to study details. Now ranger instruction worked in just the opposite fashion, it was the small details which mattered most, the careful study of a new planet, the long hours of patient spying upon strange peoples or animals, the rebuilding by speculation from a few bricks of a whole vanished civilization. And here and now they were faced with a detail which he and he alone must handle.
He must render Cummi harmless!
That was the thought which had held over from sleep that morning, had been part of his dreams, and was now crystallized into a driving urge. Living or deadhe must and would find the Ageratan. If Joyd Cummi were still alive he was a menace to all of them.
OddKartr shook his head as if to clear ithe was so haunted by that thought. Cummi was a danger, and Cummi was his business. Luckily the Ageratan was no trained explorer-woodsman, he must leave a trail so plain it would be child's play for a ranger to follow. They had been together when they left the city. Somewhere that night they had parted company. Had Cummi pushed him off the sled in the dark, intending the fall to kill him? If that were so it would be a much more difficult task to locate the Ageratanhe would leave no footprints on clouds. The thing for Kartr to do was to return to that ledge where he had first gained consciousness.
"That's tenmaybe fifteen miles north"
The sergeant started to hear the words come from Zinga's thin lipspicked out of his own thoughts.
"AndKartryou do not go alone, not on that trail!"
He stiffened. But Zinga must know his protest without his putting it into words.
"That job is mine," the sergeant returned, his teeth set hard.
"Granted. But still I say you do not take such a trail alone. We have the lifeboatit will cover ground with time-saving speed. And with it we can better prospect for any traces of Cummi's passing."
That was good common sense, but it was no sweeter to swallow because it was logical. Kartr would rather have left camp alone and on his two feet. It burned inside him that Cummi was his alone, and that he would not feel whole and well again until he had fronted the Ageratan and won.
"Take one more day of rest," Zinga advised, "and then, I promise, we shall go. This matter of Cummiit is one of importance."
"Others might not think so. He is alone in a wilderness he can know very little about. The wilds may already have done our job for us."
"But he is Cummi, and so will continue to linger as a threat until we are sure of him. Did Zicti tell you that he believes him a mutant? Remember Pertavar and what that one was able to do. And Cummi is not going to win next time you face him!"
Kartr smiled at the Zacathan, a smile which was hardly more than ten percent humor. "D'you know, my friend, there I think you are right! And this time I do not believe that I am being too confidentthe mistake I made before. He has no Can-houndand surely no other brains to tap!"
"Very well." Zinga arose. "Now let me go and pick Dalgre's store of mechanical knowledge. It might be wise to know just how much ranging power the lifeboat unit has left."
They took off the next morning and no one asked questions although Kartr was sure they all knew his mission. The lifeboat did not have the springy lift of the sled and its pace was slower. Zinga, at the controls, held it steady over the winding reaches of the river until they found the stream which had served to guide Kartr's wanderings.
From time to time the Zacathan glanced anxiously at the heavy clouds bulging over the horizon. Storm was indicated and they had best take shelter when the wind which was driving those clouds struck. To be tossed about the sky in a light-weight lifeboat was no experience to be desired.
"Anything below look familiar?
"Yes. I'm sure I crossed this open field. I remember pushing through the tall grass. And those trees ahead are promising. Think we'd better land in their shelter?"
Zinga measured the cloud spread again. "I'd like more to reach that ledge where you came to. Flame bats! It's getting dark. Wish I had Rolth's night eyes."
It was darkening fast and the rising wind swept under the boat so that it lurched as it might on pounding sea waves. Kartr clung to the edge of his seat, his nails biting into its cover.
"Wait!" He got the word out at the risk of a bitten tongue as the lifeboat bucked. Through the dusk he had caught a glimpse of a recent rock slide down the side of a hill beside the stream. "This looks like where I fell!"
They were already past the point but Zinga circled back, as Kartr squinted through the storm dusk and tried to imagine how that same section would look to a man lying flat on the ledge near the top of the rise.
The aircraft snapped out of the circle and veered suddenly to the right, across the crest of the hill. Kartr's protest was forgotten as he sighted what had drawn Zinga's attention. The top of a tree had been shorn off, the newly splintered wood of the trunk gleaming whitely. With the pressure of expert fingers on the controls the Zacathan set the lifeboat down on the slope of the rise, a piece of maneuvering which might have at another time brought honest praise from the sergeant. But now Kartr was too intent upon what might lie just beyond the broken tree.
He found a mass of crushed branches and the remains of the sled. No one, not even a master mech-techneer, could ever reassemble what lay there now. The wreckage was jammed almost bow down in tight wrappings of withered leaves and broken wood and it was empty.
Zinga sniffed deeply as his torch revealed the bareness of that crumpled seat.
"No blood even. The question iswere either or both of you aboard when she hit?"
Kartr shook his head, a little awed by the completeness of the crack-up.
"I don't think either of us could have been. Maybe he threw me out and"
"Yesand if you fought back that could have made him lose control so this would happen. But then where is Cummior his remains. No mess at allsomething would remain if he had been collected by a wandering meat eater"
"He could have jumped just before she hit," suggested the sergeant. "If he had an anti-grav on his belt he could have made it on such a short fall without smashing himself."
"So we look for a few tracks now?" Zinga's long jaw jutted out as he glanced up at the sky. "Rain is going to spoil that"
For the clouds were emptying their weight of water at last. Together the rangers stumbled through a beating downpour to the lee of a rock outcrop which gave a faint hint of shelter. The trees might have kept off more of that smothering blast but, Kartr decided as he saw branches whiplash under the wind, that might be more dangerous an asylum than the corner where they huddled gasping, the rain stinging their skin and finding its way through every crevice of their tunics and breeches.
"It can't keep on like this foreverthere isn't that much water," Kartr said and then realized that the drum of rain drowned out any but a parade ground pitch of voice.
He sneezed and shivered and thought bitterly that Zinga was going to be proved right. This deluge would mask any trail Cummi might have left hereabouts.
Then, in an instant, he snapped erect and felt Zinga's answering jerk. The Zacathan was as startled as he had been.
They had caught a faint, very faint plea for help. From Cummi? Somehow he believed not. But it had come from a humanor rather from an intelligent mind. Someone or something which was alive, and reasoning, was in trouble. The sergeant turned slowly, trying to center the source. The pain and terror in that plea must be answered!
Back | Next