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Travis set the mouthpiece of a blowgun to his lips and puffed. A thin, shining sliver, tipped with a fleecy tuft, spedto hit on his improvised target of a red-veined leaf and pin it more securely to the trunk of a fern tree ten feet away. He was absurdly pleased with the success of his trial shot. He moved back another four feet and prepared for a second test. All the while the low humming of his enthralled native audience buzzed bee-fashion across the clearing.
When he was able to place a second dart almost beside the first, his satisfaction was close to complete. With a crooked finger Travis beckoned to the winged youth who had helped to carry the newly manufactured weapons to the testing ground. He handed over the tube he had just used, picking up a second, slightly longer, from the selection on the ground.
The young warrior laid his spear on the leaf mold, hooking his clawed toes over its shaft while he fumbled with the blowgun. Raising the weapon to his mouth, he gave a vigorous puff. Not as centered as Travis' shot had been, the sliver hit the tree slightly above the leaf. Two other natives, their wings unfolding slightly as they ran, hurried to inspect the target, and Travis, smiling and nodding, brought his hands together in a sharp clap of approval.
They needed no more urging to try this new weapon. Tubes were snatched, passed from hand to hand, with some squabbling on the outer fringes of the gathering. Then each took his turn to try shooting, with varying degrees of success. They halted from time to time to pick the target clean of ammunition, or put up another leaf over the tattered remnants of the last.
Several of Travis' pupils had sharpshooters' eyes, and the Apache believed that with practice they could far surpass his own efforts. When the midday sun bit down on the range, he left the blowguns with the enthusiastic marksmen and went to hunt up his crew mates.
Renfry was still buried in his study of journey tapes and the ship's circuits. But when Travis climbed to the control cabin he found Ashe there also. The reader was set up on the floor, and both of them were squatting before it, alternately watching some recording and making attacks on the main panel of the pilot's unit. The case of that had been removed, exposing an intricate wiring pattern. And from time to time Renfry traced one of those threads up or down and either beamed or frowned at the results of his investigation.
"What's going on?"
Ashe answered Travis. "We may have had our break! This record is a manual of sorts. It provides some wiring blueprints Renfry has been able to identify with that cat's cradle of cords up there."
"Some wiring." Renfry's enthusiasm did not match Ashe's at that moment. "About one line in ten! This is like trying to put together a missile head when all your working instructions are written in Chinese code! Yeahthe red cord hits the plate therebut does it say anything about these white loop-de-loops to the left?"
Ashe squinted at the loops in question and consulted the record reader again. "Yes!" Renfry was down on his knees in an instant to see for himself the diagram on the picture screen.
"Anybody home?" Ross's voice floated up the well of the interior ladder, and Travis could feel the vibration of his footfalls on the rungs as he climbed.
His head and shoulders emerged from the stairwell. His dust-streaked face testified to his occupation of the morning as the investigator on duty in the crazy treasure house at the winged people's tower.
"Any luck?" Travis asked with some sympathy. Ross shrugged.
"A handful of stuff they may be able to use. I'm no big brain to string together some wire, nails and a couple of pieces of tin and produce a jet all set to fly. Saw your William Tells busy with those spitters of theirs. One of them had already bagged an addition to the dinner potnot that the dear departed looked too edible. I don't care for things with about four dozen legs all clawing at once. But I could relish some more civilized food right now."
Travis glanced at Ashe and the dedicated Renfry. "If we have any today, looks as if you and I are elected to get it ready. They've discovered a record which shows the inside of the control board."
"Wellthat's more like it!" Ross climbed the rest of the way into the cabin and stooped to look over Ashe's shoulder at the miniature screen. "I'd say it's closer to the plans for a demon-inspired highway system," he commented judiciously. "And I'll settle for a can of stew."
Renfry and Ashe were pried away and they ate in the absent-minded fashion of men whose complete interest was centered elsewhere. When they had gone, Ross stretched and gazed at Travis.
"Care for a little look-see of our own?" he asked with a casualness which aroused Travis' suspicion.
"In what direction?"
"That funnel place. Rememberthe front hall is packed as if the boys living there had been in a hurry to move out, but had to leave their baggage behind? I'd like to have a good look at the baggage."
"If I remember rightly, there is also a good stout grill over the doorway," Travis reminded him.
"And I have a way to get around that. Come on."
Ross's way of passing the secured door was simple enough. One of the natives flew to a second-story window equipped with a coil of climbing cord from the ship. He confronted a shutter across the window. But prying with his spear point forced the latch on that, and a few moments later the rope dangled down the side of the building in open invitation to climb.
The gallery into which they so forced a way gave many indications it had been hurriedly stripped. Some ragged tatters of flimsy web, which fell to powder at the touch of a finger, still hung on the walls. And there were pieces of oddly shaped furniture shrouded in dust. But the dust on the floor was marked in places by tracks and, seeing those, their native companion fingered his spear. Then, his eyes on the humans holding their attention, he drove it point down into the pattern of that trail with the vigor of one making a determined attack upon an enemy.
Another lair of the weasel things? Travis, studying those tracks in the half gloom beyond the light from the opened window, believed not. In fact, the marks were disturbingly like a human footprint. And the teasing picture provided by his imagination of some one of the old lords of this place lingering on to haunt its solitude, grew disturbingly in the back of his mind.
Here for the first time they found a stairway, though its treads were so narrow and steep as to make the humans believe that it had been built to accommodate bodies unlike their own. Ross, taking the lead, went down, his explorer's zeal well tempered with caution, in search of the crowded hall they had seen from without.
Travis sniffed. There was a faint fetid odor, not just the accumulated dust of centuries, leaf mold borne in by the wind, or the taint of some small animal lair. This was not only strong enough to be recent, but the stench was also vaguely familiar.
Warning of a weasel den? He did not think so. This was not quite so rank and compelling as the stench of the red-walled structure those beasts had taken for their own. And it was not the alien but inoffensive odor which clung to the winged people's quarters.
He noted that the nose flap of their native companion expanded, and the deep-set eyes in that lavender face glittered as they turned alertly from side to side. Not for the first time the Apache regretted the absence of a quick common form of communication. It had proved impossible for the humans to approximate the humming sounds which made up the natives' speech. And none of them in return appeared able to utter any recognizable word, in spite of all the coaxing and patient repetition of common nouns or action verbs.
The interior of the building was gloomy, though the hall into which they had descended received a greater measure of light from the door. Ross stepped out, skirting a pile of boxes. He laid his hand on the top one, his other hovering over the grip of his weapon.
Travis remained where he was. That smellit tugged at his memory. They stood still, the winged youth freezing with them. Then a sudden gust of wind through the latticed doorway brought with it a warm, fresh reek and Travis knew
"The sand people!" His words were a hiss of whisper but they carried the authority of a shout. What were the nocturnal creatures of the shrouded desert world doing here?
"You are sure?" To his surprise Ross questioned his identification no further than that.
"You don't forget a stink like that in a hurry." Travis' eyes were busy, surveying the pools of shadow about the crates and boxes piled in the hallway. Had anything moved out there? Were they being watched now by eyes which could see farther than their own in this dusk?
The hand of the native touched his arm, an appeal for attention. Travis' head swung slowly as he saw the other ready a spear. He fitted a dart in his blowgun.
"There is somethingto the left." Ross's whisper was the thinnest trickle of sound. His blaster was pointed at that shadowy corner.
Then the hall came alive, a boiling up of forms from every likely and concealing cover. The attacking things shambled swiftly on four limbs like animals. Their silent advance carried with it an added horror in the fact that those slavering beastsor their remote ancestors had once beenmen!
A blast from Ross's weapon brought down three of the clumsy runners. A tentacle licked out and then a fourth attacker went down, a dart dancing in its hairy throat. Behind Travis the native ran back a few steps up stairs, launched out into the air with a beat of his wings. Wheeling over the enemy, he stabbed at the boneless middle limbs raised to drag him down with a concentration which hinted at a long enmity between the two species.
Ross cried out. A tentacle flicked from the shadows, coiled about his ankle and pulled, as he fought to keep his balance. He turned his weapon beam on that rope of living flesh. He was answered by a roar as the loop fell away. Then Travis' dart caught the thing which arose to its hind legs clawing for Ross's shoulders. The Apache shot as fast as he could insert darts into the pipe. Backed against the stairs, he now flailed out with his weapon as a club, clearing a space to drag Ross with him.
A tentacle had jerked the native's spear from his hold. Perching on one of the piles of boxes, he rocked back and forth on his refuge, beating his wings to hasten the tumble of the stack. He rose into the air just as the bulky containers crashed down across the foot of the stairway to provide the beginnings of a barricade.
"Weapon chargeexhausted," Ross panted. Gripping the barrel of the gun, he smashed the butt down on the round skull of a creature scrambling over the wreckage.
They retreated up the stairway. Travis kicked out, catching a hairy head under the chin, slamming its owner back and down to tangle with another eager attacker. The native sent a second pile of boxes crashing. Now he was flying back and forth over the ruck of the enemy's main body, bombing them with smaller packages snatched up from the heaps.
For a moment the humans were free. Taking advantage of that lull, they won back to the gallery where they had entered what might have proved a trap. The native shot up, over their heads. He stood on the sill of the open window to beckon them on, uttering excited hums which rose to a volume approaching squeaks.
Travis shouldered Ross behind him toward the exit. "I've only two more dartsget out quick!"
For a moment the other resisted, then his common sense took command and he ran for the window. Travis aimed a dart at a hunched shoulder and head just appearing above the stairs. But that missile only nicked a furred upper arm, and fangs showed in a gap which was no longer a man's mouth. Eyes, small, red with fury and yet alighthorribly sowith a spark of intelligence, spotted him.
He backed to the window. A lavender-skinned arm reached over his shoulder, a hand fastened on the blowgun, twisted at it, trying to pull the tube from his grasp. The native still kept his post on the sill; now he wanted the weapon.
And Travis, knowing that the other had a means of escape he himself did not possess, surrendered the blowgun, then boosted his body over and out on the rope. He watched the lavender back of their rear guard. Wings projected outside the frame of the window and they were raised, ready . . .
Then the native threw himself backward and out in a wild display of aerial gymnastics. His wings flapped wide, broke his fall and he soared again, spiraling upward as the first shaggy head protruded from the window. Hairy fists pawed at eyes which were apparently blinded by the sun. Ross had reached the ground, Travis was not far behind him. The rope swung vigorously, scraping him along the building, and he realized that those above were trying to draw him up.
The Apache let go, falling as relaxed as he could, and the lightened rope flapped wildly as it was jerked up into the window. But they were safely out in the day. He did not believe that the nocturnal creatures would pursue them into the light. However, as they crossed the strip of jungle to reach the ship, both of them applied their scoutcraft to discovering whether or not they were being tailed.
Ashe listened to their report frowningly. "It might be worseif we were staying here."
Ross threw aside his useless weapon. "D'you mean we're getting out? When?"
"Another daymaybe two. Renfry is ready to try rewinding the tape."
For the first time Travis made himself face how much would depend upon the proper handling of that slender length of wire, how one small break would defeat their purpose and leave them exiled here forever. Or how a weakness which they could not see might develop in space, snapping their invisible tie with their home world, to set the ship drifting between solar systems an eternal derelict. Could Renfry rewind the spool? And if it were rewoundwould it work in reverse? There could be no test flight. Once they raised ship from this spot, they were gambling with their lives on a very slender thread composed mainly of hope and an illogical belief in luck.
"You understand now?" Ashe asked. "Remember thiswe can stay here."
They would be exiles for the rest of their lives, but they would be alive. There were enemies here, but they could set up an alliance with the winged natives, join them. Suddenly Travis got to his feet. He went to that compartment in the cabin where they had put the square of picture block which could tune in on a man's memory and make home visible to him. He had to knowwhether the past had enough strength to push him into this greatest gamble of his life.
He held the slab between his hands, looked into its curdled depths. Soon he sawred cliffs rising from the fringe of smoky green marking piñona blue skythe hills of home. He could almost taste the bite of alkali dust in a rising wind, feel the swell of a horse's barrel between his legs. And he knew that he must take the chance . . .
In the end they all made the same choice. Ross summed up their feelings:
"Time travelthat is different. We're still on our own world. If something goes wrong and we're marooned back before history beganwell, it'll give a guy a bad jolt, sure. Who wants to play around with mammoths when he's more used to jets? But still, he'd know pretty well what he was up against and that the people he'd meet would be his own species. But to stay here No, not even if we get the job of playing gods for the winged people! They aren't our kindwe're visitors, not immigrants. And I don't want to be a lifetime visitor anywhere!"
They made a last trip to the record library transporting back to the ship and stowing away in every available storage place all the record tapes which appeared to be intact. The chief of the natives, delighted with the blowguns, allowed them to choose other objects from the tribe's treasure room. He only asked that they return in time, bringing with them new knowledge to share. They saw no more of the nocturnal creatures from the funnel-spired buildingthough they again took the precaution of sealing the ship at night.
"Will we be back?" Ross asked when Ashe came from his last meeting with the chief.
"Let us get home safely with this haul," Ashe returned dryly, "and someone will be back, all right. You can depend on that. Well, Renfry?"
The technician looked like a ghost of his usual self. Lines of tension that would probably never fade bracketed his mouth, marked the corners of his tired eyes. His hands shook a little and he could not lift his drinking container to his mouth without hooking all ten fingers about it.
"The tape's rewound," he said flatly. "And the wire didn't break. Tomorrow I'll thread it ready to run. For the restwe pray the trip out. That's all I can tell you."
Travis lay on his bunk that nighthis bunk, their ship . . . The globe and its contents had grown progressively less alien when compared to what lay without. Around his wrist was a heavy band of red metal set with small sea-green stones in a pattern which suggested breaking waves, a gift presented to him by the winged chief at their formal farewell. He was sure that the lavender-skinned flying man had not fashioned that bracelet. How old was the ornament? And from what world, from the art of what forgotten and long-vanished race had it come?
They had not even scratched the surface of what was to be found in this ancient port. Had the jungle-cloaked city been the capital of some galaxy-wide empire, as Ashe suspected? They had had no time to explore very far. Yes, there would be a returnsometime. And men from his world would search and speculate, and learn, and guessperhaps wrongly. Then, after a while there again would be a new city rising somewheremaybe on his own worldwhich would serve as a storehouse of knowledge gained from star to star. Time would pass, and that city, too, would die. Until some representative of a race yet unborn would come to search and speculateand guess. Travis slept.
He awoke swiftly, with a quick sense of urgency. Over his head he heard the sigh of the speaker from the control cabin.
"All ready," came Renfry's voice, thin, drained. Why, the technician must have worked through the night, eager to prove his handiwork.
They still had time to say "no" to this crazy venture, to choose known perils against the unknown. Travis felt a surge of panic. His hands levered against the bunk, pushing his body up. He had to stop Renfrythey must not blast into space.
Then he lay down once more, made his hands clasp the bunk straps across his body, his lips pressed tightly together. Let Renfry push the proper buttonsoon! It was the waiting which always wore on a man. He felt the familiar vibration, singing through the walls, through his body. There was no going back now. Travis closed his eyes and tried not to stiffen his whole body in protest against that waiting.
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