Back | Next
"I don't believe it." Smitt's voice sounded thin; his attention was fixed on that high seat and the incredible sign it bore. "This can't be the Hall of Leave-Taking. That was just a legend"
"Was it?" asked Kartr. "But legends are not always fables."
"And out there"Dalgre pointed toward the doorway without turning his head from the dais"is the Field of Flight!"
"How long?" Rolth's question dwindled off into silence, but his words continued to echo down the hall.
Kartr wheeled to face those rows of chairs and the section of seats each one headed. Therewhy, right there had sat the commanders, and behind them crews and colonists! And so they must have gathered, shipful after shipful for yearsmaybe centuries. Gathered, spoke together for the last time, received their last orders and instructionsthen went out to the field and the waiting ships and blasted off into the unknownnever to return. Somea fewhad won through to their goals. They, Smitt, Dalgre, Rolth and he, were living proof of that. Othersothers had reached an end in the cold of outer space or on planets which could not support human life. How long had it gone on, that gathering, that leave-taking? With no return. Long enough to drain Terra's veins of lifeuntil only those were left who were temperamentally unfitted to try for the stars? Was that the answer to the riddle of this half-and-half world?
"No return" Rolth had picked that out of his thoughts somehow. "No return. So the cities died and even the memory of why this exists is gone. Terra!"
"But we remember," Kartr answered softly. "For we have made the full circle. The greenthat is the green of Terra's hills. It has been a legend, an ancient song, a dim folk memory, but it has always been ours, going with us from world to world across the galaxy. For we are the sons of Terrainner system, outer system, barbarian and civilizedwe are all the sons of Terra!"
"And now," Smitt observed with wistful simplicity, "we have come home."
It was a home which bore no resemblance to the dark mountains and chill valleys of Rolth's half-frozen Falthar, to his own tall forests and stone cities now forever dust, to the highly civilized planets which had been the birthplaces of Smitt and Dalgre. It was a planet of wilderness and dead cities, of primitive natives and forgotten powers. But it was Terra and, as different as their races might be today, they were all originally of the stock which had walked this earth.
Once more he surveyed that assembly of empty seats. Almost he could people it. But those he summoned to sit there could not be the ones who had once done so. The men of Terra had been gone too longwere scattered too far
He walked slowly down the center of the hall. The Zacathans and Fylh had drawn apart. They must have watched with amazement the actions of the humans. Now Kartr tried to explain.
"This is Terra"
But Zicti knew what that meant. "The ancient home of your species! But what an amazing discovery!"
What else he might have added was drowned out in a shout which drew all their attention to the dais again. Dalgre stood at the left of it beckoning to them. Rolth and Smitt had disappeared. In a body they hurried to join Dalgre.
The new discovery was behind the dais, hidden by a tall partitionand it covered most of the wall. A giant screen of some dark glass on which pin points of light made patterns.
Below it was a table top of which was inlaid with a paneling of switches and buttons. Smitt crouched on the bench before it, his face intent.
"A communication device?" asked Kartr.
"Either that or some kind of a course plotter," Dalgre answered. Smitt merely grunted impatiently.
"Could it still be in working order?" Zacita marveled.
Dalgre shook his head. "We can't tell yet. The city functioned again after they pulled the right switches. But this"he indicated the giant star map and the intricate controls on the table"will have to be studied before we can push the right levers. Why, we don't understand any of their wiring methods"
The techneer, any techneer, might possibly put the machine into working order again. But, Kartr knew, such a feat was totally beyond the rangers. He studied the star map slowly, identifying the points he could recognize. Yes, here was the galaxy as it appeared from this ancient planet close to its rim. He noted the brilliance of Sarmak, moved on to Altair and the others. Had this board once plotted the course on which man went out to those far-off suns and the worlds they nourished?
It was growing darker as the evening closed down. But even as the light faded from overhead, a soft glow outlined the star map and illumined the tablealthough the rest of the hall remained shrouded with shadows.
Kartr moved. "Shall we camp outside or return to the hills?" he asked Zicti.
"I see no reason for returning," the Zacathan replied. "If all the natives have withdrawn, as they apparently have, surely there can be no objection to our staying"
Behind him Zinga laughed and pointed a talon at Smitt. "If you think that you can drag him away from here even by force, you are sadly in error, Sergeant."
Which, of course, was true. The com-techneer, confronted by a mysterious device in his own field, refused to leave even for food, preferring to gulp down a cup of water and chew on a piece of tough meat absently while his eyes were busy with the marvels before him.
They chose to drag their bedrolls into the hall when the full night fell, putting out their cooking fire and lying closely together below the empty seats of the vanished colonists.
"There are"Zicti's voice boomed through the emptiness"no ghosts in this place. Those who gathered here once were already voyaging on in spirit, even as they sat here, eager to be gone. They have left nothing of themselves behind."
"In a way," Rolth agreed, "that was also true of the city. It was"
"Discarded." Kartr produced the right word as the Faltharian hesitated. "Discarded as might be a garment grown too small for its wearer. But you are right, sir, we shall meet no ghosts here. Unless Smitt can awaken some with his tinkering. Is he going to stay there all night?"
"Naturally," Zinga replied. "And let us hope that he will not raise any voices out of the pasteven out of your human past, friend. I have an odd desire to spend this night in slumber."
Kartr awakened twice during the night. And by the faint glow which crept around the edges of the partition he saw that Smitt's bedroll was still unoccupied. The com-techneer must be hypnotized by his discovery. But there was a limit to everything. So, at his second awakening, Kartr pulled himself out of the warmth of his bed with an impatient sigh, shivered in the chill, and padded on bare feet across the cold stone. Either Smitt would come willingly or he would be dragged to bed now.
The com-techneer was still on the seat, his head thrown back, his gaze fixed on the star map. In the reflection of the light his eyes appeared sunken and there were dark shadows like bruises along his cheek bones.
Kartr followed the direction of the other's set stare. He saw what held Smitt fascinated, blinked, and gave a gasp.
There was a red dot on the black glass surface, a dot which moved in a steady curve.
"What is it"
Smitt replied without taking his eyes from the traveling dot.
"I'm not sureI'm not sure!" He passed his hands across his face. "You do see it, too?"
"I see a red dot moving. But what is it?"
"Well, I've guessed"
And Kartr knew the nature of that guess. A shipmoving through spaceheaded in their general direction!
"It's on a coursebuthow can we tell? Look!"
Another dot had sprung into being on the screen. But this moved with a purpose. It was on the track of the first, a hunter on the trail. Kartr pushed down beside Smitt on the bench. His heart was thumping so that he could feel the sullen beat of blood in his temples. It was very importantthat flight and pursuitsomewhere within him he knew thatso important he feared to watch.
The first dot was moving in a series of zigzags now.
"Evasive action." Smitt mouthed the words. He had served on a battle cruiser, Kartr knew.
"What kind of ships are they?"
"If I understood this"Smitt swept his hand over the controls before him"maybe I could answer that. Wait!"
The first dot engaged in a complicated maneuver which had no meaning as far as the sergeant could see but which flipped it back on a level with its pursuer.
"That's a Patrol ship! It's offered battlebut why"
They were even, those two dots. And thena third appeared on the board! It was slightly larger and moved more slowly, avoiding the two which would shortly be locked in combat. And, in making the arc to avoid the fight, it headed straight toward Sol's system.
"Covering action," Smitt translated. "The Patrol is covering for this other ship! A suicide mission, I think. Looktheir battle screens are up now!"
A faint, very faint orange haze encircled the two dots near the outer verge of Sol's system. Kartr had never been in space action, but he had heard enough tales, seen enough visigraphs, to be able to create in his mind a picture of the struggle now beginning. The larger dot had no part in the struggle. Instead it crept at its snail's pace on and on, away from the dead-locked fighters.
Pressurepressure of screen against screen. And when one of those screens failedflaming and instant death! That was a Patrol ship out there holding the enemy at bay while a defenseless prey escaped.
"If I could only read this!" Smitt smashed his fists against the edge of the table.
On the board a tiny bubble of light blazed suddenly to light.
"Set off by the ship coming this way?"
Smitt nodded. "Could be." He leaned forward with quick decision and pressed his finger on the button set under that pinprick of light. There followed sounda vast roar as of rushing winds. They stared at the map almost deafened. And then through the roar came the chatter of something else, a sharp clicking which formed a pattern. Smitt jumped to his feet.
"Patrol summons, Patrol summonsTARZTARZ"
Kartr's hand reached for a blaster he was not wearing. The old call to action for the Service! He heard amazed cries behind him. The others were up, crowding around the partition to see and hear what was happening.
The beat of the summons echoed hollowly through the building. It might go on until the end of that battle or until there was some answer. But no answer came. The haze about the dots thickened until they were completely hidden in it and each spot was a stationary fire.
"Top pitch!" that was Dalgre breathing the words down Kartr's back. "Reaching overload fast. They can't take that much longerthey can't!"
One spot swept from orange to yellowto incandescent white. It was an instant of splendor and then it was gone. They blinked blinded eyes and looked again. But there was nothingnothing at all of the two fiery spots. The dark glass of the screen where they had been was as bare and cold as the wastes of outer space it represented.
"Bothout!" Dalgre was the first to speak. "Overload and it blasted them both. One ship took the other with it."
"But the thirdit is still intact" Zicti pointed out.
That was true. The battle had wiped out two ships, but the third dot still movedthe one which the Patrol ship had died to save. It was on coursetoward Sol and Terra!
The clicking sound changed, made another series of coded calls. Smitt listened and read them aloud for his companions.
"Patrolauxiliarypersonnel ship2210calling nearest Patrol ship or station. Come in, pleasecome in. Survivors of Patrol Base CC4calling nearest Patrol ship or stationoff known coursesneed guide callcome in please"
"Survivors of Patrol Base CC4," Rolth repeated. "But that was a Ranger Station! What in the name of Space!"
"Pirate raid, maybe" suggested Zinga.
"Pirates don't tangle with the Patrol" began Dalgre.
"You meanpirates didn't! We've been out of circulation and off the maps for some time. A coalition of pirate forces can do a lot of damage," Zinga observed.
"Note also," Zicti added to that, "this ship now flies from the more populated sections of the galaxy. It heads out toward the unknown which it would not do if there were not some barrier between it and more familiar routes."
"Personnel survivor shipfamilies of Patrolmen." Dalgre was visibly shaken. "Why, the base must be utterly gone!"
The clicking of the code still filled the musty air of the hall. And on the map the dot moved, on the board before Smitt the tiny bulb still blazed. Then, as suddenly, it snapped off and a second went on in turn in the block next to it. Kartr glanced from that new light to the screen. Yes, the dot was appreciably closer to the system of Sol.
Smitt's fingers hovered over the board. He licked his lips as if his mouth was dry.
"Is there any chance of guiding her in here?" Kartr asked the question he knew was tormenting the other.
"I don't know" Smitt snarled like a tortured animal.
His finger went down and pressed the button below the second light. And then he jumped back, as did Kartr, for out of the edge of the table sprang a thin black stalk ending in a round bulb. The com-techneer laughed almost wildly and clutched at the thing.
Then he began to speak into it, not in code but in the common tongue of Central Control.
"Terra calling! Terra calling! Terra calling!"
They were frozen, silent, listening to the chatter of the code filling the air. Kartr sagged. It hadn't worked after all. And then came a break in the ship's broadcast. He had forgotten about the time lag.
"Terra calling." Smitt was cool, calm again. To that statement he began to add a series of code words and clicks. Three times he repeated the message and then leaned back to await reply.
Again the wait seemed too longtearing at their ragged nerves. But at last an answer came. Smitt translated it for them all.
"Do not entirely understand. But think can ride in on message beamkeep talking if you have no signal. Whatwhere is Terra?"
So they talked. First Smitt, until his voice was but a husky whisper issuing from a raw throat, and then Kartr, using ordinary speech and the old formula, Terra callingthen Dalgre and Rolth
There was sunshine lighting the space around them and then it grew dark again and still they crouched in turn on the bench before the sky map and talked. And the red dot crept on, now on a straight course for Terra. It was when it had drawn almost even with the outermost planet of Sol's system that Zor pointed out to the half-dazed Kartr on duty, the newcomer. Another dotalready past the point where the battle had been foughtand on a line after the personnel ship! Enemy or friend?
Kartr shook Zor's shoulder and pushed him toward the outer hall with the message to bring Smitt. The com-techneer, rubbing sleep-heavy eyes, half reeled in. But when Kartr showed him the dot he was thoroughly awake. He shoved the sergeant away from the microphone and took over with a sharp question in code.
After lagging minutes it was answered:
"Undoubtedly enemy ship. Pirate signals have been picked up during last quarter hour"
To Kartr's sick eyes the enemy ship was darting across space. It was now a race, a race in which the Patrol ship might already be the loser. And, even as he thought that, there was a flash of light on the control board. The enemy was now within hailing distance. Smitt turned a grim face to him.
"Get one of the Zacathans and Fylh. If they can talk in their own language it will be better than using control speech or the code as a guide. There are few Bemmys in pirate crews. All the ship needs is a steady sound to center her finder on"
But he spoke his last words to empty air. Kartr was already on his way to rout out the others. Seconds later Zinga slipped into Smitt's place, hooked his talons around the stem of the phone and unloosed a series of hissed sounds which certainly bore no resemblance to human speech. When he tired, Fylh was ready and then twittering and fluting broke across space to talk the ship in. But ever relentlessly behind it came that other dot, seeming to leap across great expanses of space as if such stretches were nothing.
Zora brought in a canteen of water and they all drank feverishly. They ate after a fashion, too, of whatever was thrust into their hands, unknowing and untasting.
The Patrol ship passed more planets. Then a third light snapped on the board. Zor came running in.
"There is a big lightreaching into the sky!" he shouted shrilly.
Kartr jumped to his feet to see that for himself when a sound of ship's code stopped him.
"Pulse beam picked up. We can ride it in. If we still have time"
Zinga let go of the phone and as one they hurried out into the open. Zor was right. From the end of the roof directly over the control table a beam of light speared into the evening sky.
"How did that?" Kartr began.
"Who knows?" Dalgre replied. "They were master techneers in their day. That must pulse strongly enough to be picked up by a ship approaching this planet within a certain distance. At least we can now stop talking."
In the end they drifted back to the mapto watch the ship and its pursuer. The gap between those two was narrowingtoo quickly. A last light flashed on the control boardit was warning red.
"Ship's entered the atmosphere," Smitt guessed. "Get everybody inside here. It may not land on the field and the power wash will be brutal"
So they waited inside the ancient Hall of Leave-Taking and they heard rather than saw a ship land on a field which had not felt the bite of spaceship's fire for at least a thousand years. But it was a good landing.
Smitt remained at the board. "The other is still coming" His warning rang out to hasten the others.
Still coming! They might lose even now, Kartr thought, as he watched the exit bridge swing out from the side of the rusty old tub perched in the field. All the enemy would have to do would be to hover and blast them with missiles. He wouldn't have to land, but when he pulled out again he would leave nothing behind but a blackened and lifeless waste.
If they could get the refugees into the hall they might have a chance to survive thata very thin one. The sergeant ran to the edge of the smoking landing area and waved at the figure who had appeared on the bridge.
"Get your people off and into the hall!" he shouted. "The pirate's coming and he can try for a burn-off!"
He saw the jerk of an assenting nod and heard orders. The passengers filed down the bridge at the double quick. They were mostly women, some carrying or leading children. The rangers and the Zacathans stood ready to act as guides. Kartr half hauled, half carried the strangers to the precarious safety of the old building. Then when the flow of refugees ceased he hurried back to the bridge.
"All out," the officer replied. "And what course is the pirate oncan you tell?"
Zinga came running toward them. "Pirate coming in on the same course"
The officer turned and went inside the ship. Kartr drummed nervous fingers on the guard rail of the bridge. What in the name of Space was the fellow waiting for?
Then the sergeant was almost bowled over as five men flung themselves out of the hatchway and ran for the hall, taking both rangers with them. They had just reached the protection of the doorway when the Patrol ship took off.
Blinded by the sweep of flame Kartr clung to one of the pillars to keep his footing.
"What?" he gasped.
And a babble of question joined and drowned out his.
Back | Next