Star Born
by Andre Norton
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Twittering words poured in a stream from the warrior's lips. Raf shook his head regretfully, and the other jerked his shoulders in almost human impatience. Somehow that heartened Raf.

With many guesses to cover gaps, probably more than half of which were wrong, Raf gathered that the officer was one of a very few who still retained the almost forgotten knowledge of how to pilot the remaining airworthy craft in this crumbling city. On their way to the building with the curved roof, Raf had noted the evidences that the inhabitants of this metropolis could not be reckoned as more than a handful and that most of these now lived either within the central building or close to it. A pitiful collection of survivors lingering on in the ruins of their past greatness.

Yet he was impressed now by no feeling that the officer, eagerly trying to make contact, was a degenerate member of a dying race. In fact, as Raf glanced at the aliens about the room, he was conscious of an alertness, of a suppressed energy which suggested a young and vigorous people.

The officer was now urging him to go some place, and Raf, his dislike for being in the heart of the strangers' territory once more aroused, was about to shake his head in a firm negative when a second idea stopped him. He had resisted separation from the flitter. Perhaps he could persuade the alien, under the excuse of inspecting a strange machine, to take him back to the flyer. Once there he would stay. He did not know what Captain Hobart and Lablet thought they could accomplish here. But, as for himself, Raf was sure that he was not going to feel easy again until he was across the northern mountain chain and coming in for a landing close by the RS 10.

It was as if the alien officer had read his thoughts, for the warrior uncrossed his black legs and got nimbly to his feet with a lithe movement, which Raf, cramped by sitting in the unfamiliar posture, could not emulate. No one appeared to notice their withdrawal. And when Raf hesitated, trying to catch Hobart's eye and make some explanation, the alien touched his arm lightly and motioned toward one of the curtained doorways. Conscious that he could not withdraw from the venture now, Raf reluctantly went out.

They were in a hall where bold bands of color interwove in patterns impossible for Terran eyes to study. Raf lowered his gaze hurriedly to the gray floor under his boots. He had discovered earlier that to try to trace any thread of that wild splashing did weird things to his eyesight and awakened inside him a sick panic. His space boots, with the metal, magnetic plates set in the soles, clicked loudly on the pavement where his companion's bare feet made no whisper of sound.

The hall gave upon a ramp leading down, and Raf recognized this. His confidence arose. They were on their way out of the building. Here the murals were missing so that he could look about him for reference points.

He was sure that the banquet hall was some ten stories above street level. But they did not go down ten ramps now. At the foot of the third the officer turned abruptly to the left, beckoning Raf along. When the Terran remained stubbornly where he was, pointing in the direction which, to him, meant return to the flitter, the other made gestures describing an aircraft in flight. His own probably.

Raf sighed. He could see no way out unless he cut and ran. And long before he reached the street from this warren they could pick him up. Also, in spite of all the precautions he had taken to memorize their way here, he was not sure he could find his path back to the flyer, even if he were free to go. Giving in, he went after the officer.

Their way led out on one of the spider-web bridges which tied building and tower into the complicated web which was the city. Raf, as a pilot of flitter, had always believed that he had no fear of heights. But he discovered that to coast above the ground in a flyer was far different than to hurry at the pace his companion now set across one of these narrow bridges suspended high above the street. And he was sure that the surface under them vibrated as if the slightest extra poundage would separate it from its supports and send it, and them, crashing down.

Luckily the distance they had to cover was relatively short, but Raf swallowed a sigh of relief as they reached the door at the other end. They were now in a tower which, unluckily, proved to be only a way station before another swing out over empty space on a span which sloped down! Raf clutched at the guide rail, the presence of which suggested that not all the users of this road were as nonchalant as the officer who tripped lightly ahead. This must explain the other's bare feet—on such paths they were infinitely safer than his own boots.

The downward sloping bridge brought them to a square building which somehow had an inhabited look which those crowding around it lacked. Raf gained its door to become aware of a hum, a vibration in the wall he touched to steady himself, hinting at the drive of motors, the throb of machinery inside the structure. But within, the officer passed along a corridor to a ramp which brought them out, after what was for Raf a steep climb, upon the roof. Here was not one of the tongue-shaped craft such as had first met them in the city, but a gleaming globe. The officer stopped, his eyes moving from the Terran to the machine, as if inviting Raf to share in his own pride. To the pilot's mind it bore little resemblance to any form of aircraft past or present with which he had had experience in his own world. But he did not doubt that it was the present acme of alien construction, and he was eager to see it perform.

He followed the officer through a hatch at the bottom of the globe, only to be confronted by a ladder he thought at first he could not climb, for the steps were merely toe holds made to accommodate the long, bare feet of the crew. By snapping on the magnetic power of his space boots, Raf was able to get up, although at a far slower speed than his guide. They passed several levels of cabins before coming out in what was clearly the control cabin of the craft.

To Raf the bank of unfamiliar levers and buttons had no meaning, but he paid strict attention to the gestures of his companion. This was not a space ship he gathered. And he doubted whether the aliens had ever lifted from their own planet to their neighbors in this solar system. But it was a long-range ship with greater cruising power than the other flyer he had seen. And it was being readied now for a voyage of some length.

The Terran pilot squatted down on the small stool before the controls. Before him a visa plate provided a clear view of the sky without and the gathering clouds of evening. Raf shifted uncomfortably. That signal of the passing of time triggered his impatience to be away—back to the RS 10. He did not want to spend the night in this city. Somehow he must get the officer to take him back to the flitter—to be there would be better than shut up in one of the alien dwellings.

Meanwhile he studied the scene on the visa plate, trying to find the roof on which they had left the flitter. But there was no point he was able to recognize.

Raf turned to the officer and tried to make clear the idea of returning to his own ship. Either he was not as clever at the sign language as the other, or the alien did not wish to understand. For when they left the control cabin, it was only to make an inspection tour of the other parts of the globe, including the space which held the motors of the craft and which, at another time, would have kept Raf fascinated for hours.

In the end the Terran broke away and climbed down the thread of ladder to stand on the roof under the twilight sky. Slowly he walked about the broad expanse of the platform, attempting to pick out some landmark. The central building of the city loomed high, and there were any number of towers about it. But which was the one that guarded the roof where the flitter rested? Raf's determination to get back to his ship was a driving force.

The alien officer had watched him, and now a three-fingered hand was laid on Raf's sleeve while its owner looked into Raf's face and mouthed a trilling question.

Without much hope the pilot sketched the set of gestures he had used before. And he was surprised when the other led the way down into the building. This time they did not go back to the bridge, which had brought them across the canyons of streets, but kept on down ramps within the building.

There was a hum of activity in the place. Aliens, all in tight black wrappings and burnished metal breastplates, their faces barred with black and white paint, went on errands through the halls or labored at tasks Raf could not understand. It now seemed as if his guide were eager to get him away.

It was when they reached the street level that the officer did pause by one door, beckoning Raf imperiously to join him. The Terran obeyed reluctantly—and was almost sick.

He was staring down at a dead, very dead body. By the stained rags still clinging to it, it was one of the aliens, a noble, not one of the black-clad warriors. The gaping wounds which had almost torn the unfortunate apart were like nothing Raf had ever seen.

With a guttural sound which expressed his feelings as well as any words, the officer picked up from the floor a broken spear, the barbed head of which was dyed the same reddish yellow as the blood still seeping from the torn body. Swinging the weapon so close to Raf that the Terran was forced to retreat a step or two to escape contact with the grisly relic, the officer burst into an impassioned speech. Then he went back to the gestures which were easier for the spaceman to understand.

This was the work of a deadly enemy, Raf gathered. And such a fate awaited any one of them who ventured beyond certain bounds of safety. Unless this enemy were destroyed, the city—life itself—was no longer theirs—

Seeing those savage wounds which suggested that an insane fury had driven the attacker, Raf could believe that. But surely a primitive spear was no equal to the weapons his guide could command.

When he tried to suggest that, the other shook his head as if despairing of making plain his real message, and again beckoned Raf to come with him. They were out on the littered street, heading away from the central building where the rest of the Terran party must still be. And Raf, seeing the lengthening shadows, the pools of dusk gathering, and remembering that spear, could not resist glancing back over his shoulder now and then. He wondered if the metallic click of his boot soles on the pavement might not draw attention to them, attention they would not care to meet. His hand was on his stun gun. But the officer gave no sign of being worried; he walked along with the assurance of one who has nothing to fear.

Then Raf caught sight of a patch of color he had seen before and relaxed. They were on their way back to the flitter! He had come down this very street earlier. And he did not mind the long climb back, ramp by steep ramp, which brought him out at last beside the flyer. His relief was so great that he put out his hand to draw it along the sleek side of the craft as he might have caressed a well-loved pet.


At Hobart's bark he stiffened. "Yes, sir!"

"We camp here tonight. Have to make some plans."

"Yes, sir." He agreed with that. To attempt passage of the mountains in the dark was a suicide mission which he would have refused. On the other hand, to his mind, they would sleep more soundly if they were out of the city. He speculated whether he dared suggest that they use the few remaining moments of twilight to head into the open and establish a camp somewhere in the countryside.

The alien officer made some comment in his slurred speech and faded away into the shadows. Raf saw that the others had already dragged out their blanket rolls and were spreading them in the shelter of the flitter while Soriki busied himself at the com, sending back a message to the RS 10.

"... should not be too difficult to establish a common speech form," Lablet was saying as Raf climbed into the flitter to tug loose his own roll. "Color and pitch both seem to carry meaning. But the basic pattern is there to study. And with the scanner to sort out those record strips—did you adjust them, Soriki?"

"They're all ready for you to push the button. If the scanner can read them, it will. I got all that speech the chief, or king, or whatever he was, made just before we left."

"Good, very good!" In the light of the portable lamp by Soriki's com, Lablet settled down, plugged the scanner tubes in his ears, absently accepting a ration bar the captain handed him to chew on while he listened to the playback of the record the com-tech had made that afternoon.

Hobart turned to Raf. "You went off with that officer. What did he have to show you?"

The pilot described the globe and the body he had been shown and then added what he had deduced from the sketchy explanations he had been given. The captain nodded.

"Yes, they have aircraft, have been using them, too. But I think that there's only one of the big ones. And they're fighting a war all right. We didn't see the whole colony, but I'll wager that there are only a handful of them left. They're holed up here, and they need help or the barbarians will finish them off. They talked a lot about that."

Lablet pulled the ear plugs from his ears. In the lamplight there was an excited expression on his face. "You were entirely right, Captain! They were offering us a bargain there at the last! They are offering us the accumulated scientific knowledge of this world!"

"What?" Hobart sounded bewildered.

"Over there"—Lablet made a sweep with his arm which might indicate any point to the east—"there is a storehouse of the original learning of their race. It's in the heart of the enemy country. But the enemy as yet do not know of it. They've made two trips over to bring back material and their ship can only go once more. They offer us an equal share if we'll make the next trip in their company and help them clean out the storage place—"

Hobart's answer was a whistle. There was an avid hunger on Lablet's lean face. No more potent bribe could have been devised to entice him. But Raf, remembering the spear-torn body, wondered.

In the heart of the enemy country, he repeated to himself.

Lablet added another piece of information. "After all, the enemy they face is only dangerous because of superior numbers. They are only animals—"

"Animals don't carry spears!" Raf protested.

"Experimental animals that escaped during a world-wide war generations ago," reported the other. "It seems that the species have evolved to a semi-intelligent level. I must see them!"

Hobart was not to be hurried. "We'll think it over," he decided. "This needs a little time for consideration."



This was not the first time Dalgard had faced the raging fury of a snake-devil thirsting for a kill. The slaying he had done in the arena was an exception to the rule, not the usual hunter's luck. And now that he saw the creature crouched at the far end of the hall he was ready. Sssuri, also, followed their familiar pattern, separating from his companion and slipping along the wall toward the monster, ready to attract its attention at the proper moment.

Only one doubt remained in Dalgard's mind. This devil had not acted in the normal brainless fashion of its kin. What if it was able to assess the very simple maneuvers, which always before had completely baffled its species, and attacked not the moving merman but the waiting archer?

It was backed against another door, a closed one, as if it had fled for refuge to some aid it had expected and did not find. But as Sssuri moved, its long neck straightened until it was almost at right angles with its narrow shoulders, and from its snake's jaws proceeded a horrific hissing which arose to a scream as its leg muscles tensed for a spring.

At just the right moment Sssuri's arm went back, his spear sang through the air. And the snake-devil, with an incredible twist of its neck, caught the haft of the weapon between its teeth, crunching the iron-hard substance into powder. But with that move it exposed its throat, and the arrow from Dalgard's bow was buried head-deep in the soft inner flesh.

The snake-devil spat out the spear and tried to raise its head. But the muscles were already weakening. It fought the poison long enough to take a single step forward, its small red eyes alight with brainless hate. Then it crashed and lay twisting. Dalgard lowered his bow. There was no need for a second shot.

Sssuri regarded the remains of his spear unhappily. Not only was it the product of long hours of work, but no merman ever felt fully equipped to face the world without such a weapon to hand. He salvaged the barbed head and broke it free of the shred of haft the snake-devil had left. Knotting it at his belt he turned to Dalgard.

"Shall we see what lies beyond?"

Dalgard crossed the hall to test the door. It did not yield to an inward push, but rolled far enough into the wall to allow them through.

On the other side was a room which amazed the scout. The colonists had their laboratory, their workshops, in which they experimented and tried to preserve the remnants of knowledge their forefathers had brought across space, as well as to discover new. But the extent of this storehouse with its bewildering mass of odd machines, tanks, bales, and stocked shelves and tables, was too much to be taken in without a careful and minute examination.

"We are not the first to walk here." Sssuri had given little attention to what was stacked about him. Instead he bent over the disturbed dust in one aisle. Dalgard noted as he went to join the merman that there were gaps on those tables which ran the full length of the room, lines left in the grimy deposit of years which told of things recently moved. And then he saw what had interested Sssuri: tracks, some resembling those which his own bare feet might leave, except that there were only three toes!


Dalgard who had been a hunter and a tracker before he was an explorer crouched for a clearer view. Yes, they were recent, yet not made today or even yesterday; there was a thin film of dust resettled in each.

"Some days ago. They are not in the city now," the merman declared with certainty. "But they will come again."

"How do you know that?"

Sssuri's hand swept about to include the wealth around them. "They have taken some, perhaps to them the most needful. But they will not be able to resist gathering the rest. Surely they will return, perhaps not once but many times. Until—"

"Until they come to stay." Dalgard was grim as he completed that sentence for the other.

"That is what they will work for. This land was once under their mastery. This world was theirs before they threw it away warring among themselves. Yes, they dream of holding all once more. But"—Sssuri's yellow eyes took on some of the fire which had shone in those of the snake-devil during its last seconds of life—"that must not be so!"

"If they take the land, you have the sea," Dalgard pointed out. The mermen had a means of escape. But what of his own clansmen? Large families were unknown among the Terran colonists. In the little more than a century they had been on this planet their numbers, from the forty-five survivors of the voyage, had grown to only some two hundred and fifty, of which only a hundred and twenty were old enough or young enough to fight. And for them there was no retreat or hiding place.

"We do not go bask to the depths!" There was stern determination in that declaration from Sssuri. His tribe had been long hunted, and it wasn't until they had made a loose alliance with the Terran colonists that they had dared to leave the dangerous ocean depths, where they were the prey of monsters more ferocious and cunning than any snake-devil, to house their families in the coast caves and on the small islands off-shore, to increase in numbers and develop new skills of civilization. No, knowing the stubbornness which was bred into their small, furry bodies, Dalgard did not believe that many of the sea people would willingly go back into the sunless depths. They would not surrender tamely to the rulership of the loathed race.

"I don't see," Dalgard spoke aloud, half to himself, as he studied the tables closely packed, the machines standing on bases about the walls, the wealth of alien technology, "what we can do to stop them."

The restriction drilled into him from early childhood, that the knowledge of Those Others was not for his race and in some way dangerous, gave him an uneasy feeling of guilt just to be standing there. Danger, danger which was far worse than physical, lurked there. And he could bring it to life by merely putting out his hand and picking up any one of those fascinating objects which lay only inches away. For the pull of curiosity was warring inside him against the stern warnings of his Elders.

Once when Dalgard had been very small he had raided his father's trip bag after the next to the last exploring journey the elder Nordis had made. And he had found a clear block of some kind of greenish crystal, in the heart of which threadlike lines of color wove patterns which were utterly strange. When he had turned the block in his hand, those lines had whirled and changed to form new and intricate designs. And when he had watched them intently it had seemed that something happened inside his mind and he knew, here and there, a word, a fragment of alien thought—just as he normally communicated with the cub who was Sssuri or the hoppers of the field. And his surprise had been so great that he had gone running to his father with the cube and the story of what happened when one watched it.

But there had been no praise for his discovery. Instead he had been hurried off to the chamber where an old, old man, the son of the Great Man who had planned to bring them across space, lay in his bed. And Forken Kordov himself had talked to Dalgard in his old voice, a voice as withered and thin as the hands crossed helplessly on his shrunken body, explaining in simple, kindly words that the knowledge which lay in the cubes, in the oddly shaped books which the Terrans sometimes came across in the ruins, was not for them. That his own great-grandfather Dard Nordis, who had been one of the first of the mutant line of sensitives, had discovered that. And Dalgard, impressed by Forken, by his father's concern, and by all the circumstances of that day, had never forgotten nor lost that warning.

"We cannot hope to stop them," Sssuri pointed out. "But we must learn when they will come again and be waiting for them—with your people and mine. For I tell you now, brother of the knife, they must not be allowed to rise once more!"

"And how can we foretell their coming?" Dalgard wanted to know.

"Perhaps that alone we cannot do. But when they come they will not leave speedily. They have stayed here before without harm, and their distrust has been lulled. When next they come, it will be only according to their natures that they will wish to stay longer. Not snatching up the closest to hand of these treasures of theirs, but choosing out with care those things which will give them the best results. Therefore they may make a camp, and we can summon others to aid us."

"To return to Homeport will take several days even if we push," pointed out the scout.

"Word can pass swifter than man," the merman returned, with confidence in his own plan of action. "We shall put other eyes, other ears, many eyes, many ears, to service for us. Be assured we are not the only ones to fear the return of Those Others from overseas."

Dalgard caught his meaning. Yes, it would not be the first time the hoppers and other small animals living in the grasslands, the runners and even the moth birds that only the mermen could mind touch, would relay a message across the land. It might not be an accurate message—to transmit that by small animal brains was impossible—but the meaning would reach both merman and colony Elders: trouble in the north, help needed there. And since Dalgard was the only explorer at present who had chosen the northern trails, his people would know that he had sent that warning and would act upon it, as Sssuri's message would in turn be heeded by the warriors of his tribe.

Yes, it could be done. But what of the traces they had left here—the slaughtered snake-devils—?

Sssuri had an answer for that also. "Let them believe that one of my race came here, or that a party of us ventured to explore inland. We can make it appear that way. But they must not know of you. I do not believe that they ever learned of you or how your fathers came from the sky. And so that may swing the battle in our favor if it comes to open warfare."

What the merman said was sensible enough, and Dalgard was willing to obey orders. As he left the storehouse, Sssuri trailed him, scuffing each dusty print the scout left. Perhaps a master of trailcraft could unravel that spoor, but the colonist was ready to believe that no such master existed in the ranks of Those Others.

In the outer hall the merman approached the now dead snake-devil and jerked from its loose skin the arrow which had killed it. Loosing the head of his ruined spear from his belt, he dug and gouged at the small wound, tearing it so that its original nature was concealed forever. Then they retraced their way through the underground passages until they reached the sanded arena. Already insects buzzed hungrily about the hulks of the dead monsters.

There was a shrill squeal as the remaining infant reptile fled from the pouch where it had hidden. Sssuri hurled his knife, and the blade caught the small devil above the shoulder line, half cutting, half snapping its tender neck, so that it bounded aimlessly on to crash against the wall and fall back squirming feebly.

They collected the darts which had killed the others. Dalgard took the opportunity to study those bands on the forearms of the adults. To his touch they had the slick smoothness of metal, yet he was unfamiliar with the material. It possessed the ruddy fire of copper, but through it ran small black veins. He would have liked to have taken one with him for investigation, but it was out of the question to pry it off that scaled limb.

Sssuri straightened up from his last gruesome bit of stage-setting with a sigh of relief. "Go ahead." He pointed to one of the other archways. "I will confuse the trail."

Dalgard obeyed, treading as lightly as he could, avoiding all stretches in which he could leave a clear print. Sssuri ran lightly back and forth mixing the few impressions to the best of his ability.

They backtracked to the river, retrieved the boat and recrossed, to leave the city behind and strike into the open country beyond its sinister walls. Night was falling, and Dalgard was very glad that he was not to spend the time of darkness within those haunted buildings. But he knew that it was more than a dislike for being shut up in the alien dwellings which had brought Sssuri out into the fields. The second part of their plan must be put into operation.

While Dalgard willed his body motionless, the merman lay relaxed upon the ground before him as he might have floated upon his beloved waves in some secluded cove. His brilliant eyes were closed. Yet Dalgard knew that Sssuri was far from asleep, and with all his own power he tried to join in the broadcast: that urgency which should send some hopper, some night runner, on to spread the rumor that there was trouble in the north, that danger existed and must be investigated. They had already met one colony of runners ranging southward to escape. But if they could send another such tribe traveling, arouse and aim south a hopper exodus, the story would spread until the fringe would reach the animals who lived in peace within touch of Homeport.

The sun was gone, the dark gathered fast. Dalgard could not even see the clustered buildings of the city now. And since he lacked Sssuri's range and staying power, he had no idea whether their efforts had met with even a shadow of success. He shivered in the bite of the wind and dared to lay his hand on Sssuri's shoulder, feeling anew the electric shock of warmth and bursting life which was always there.

Having so broken the other's absorption he asked a question: "Would it not be well, brother of the knife, if with the rising sun you returned to the sea and struck out to join your tribesmen, leaving me here to watch until you return?"

Sssuri's answer came with a speed which suggested that he, too, had been considering that problem. "We shall see what happens with the sun's rising. It is true that in the sea I can travel with greater speed, that there are hunting parties of my people striking into these waters. But they will not come to this city without good reason. It is an accursed place."

With the early morning the city drew them once more. Dalgard's curiosity pulled him to that storehouse. He could not stifle the hope that with luck he might find something there which would solve their problem for them. If there could only be a way to avoid open conflict with Those Others, some solution whereby the aliens need never know of the existence of the Colony. For so many generations, even centuries, the aliens had been confined, or had confined themselves, safely overseas on the western continent. Perhaps if now they were faced by some new catastrophe, they would never attempt to come east again. He had visions of discovering and activating some trap set to protect their treasures which could be turned against them. But he realized that he lacked the technical knowledge which would have aided him in the search for such a weapon.

The remnants of Terran science and mechanics, which the outlaws had brought with them from their native world, had been handed on; the experiments they had managed since with crude equipment had been carefully recorded, and he was acquainted with the outlines of most of them. But the few destructive arms they had imported were long since worn out or lacked charges, and they had not been able to duplicate them. Just as they had torn asunder the ship in which they had crossed space, to use its parts for the building of Homeport, so had they hoarded all else they had brought. But they were limited by lack of materials on Astra, and their fear of the knowledge of the aliens had kept them from experimenting with things found in the ruins.

There might be hundreds of objects on the shelves of that storage place, which, properly used, would reduce not only just the room and its contents to glowing slag, but take half the city with it. But he had no idea which, or which combination, would do it.

And here Sssuri could be no help. The mermen had made great strides forward in biological and mental sciences, but mechanics was a closed section of learning because of their enforced habitat under the sea, and of machines they knew less than the colonists.

"I have been thinking—" Sssuri broke into his companion's chain of reasoning, "of what we may do. And perhaps there is a way to reach the sea more swiftly than by returning overland."

"Downriver? But you said that way may have its watching devices."

"Which would be centered on objects coming upstream, not down. But in this city there should be yet another way—"

He did not enlarge upon that, but since he apparently knew what he was doing, Dalgard let him play guide once more. They recrossed the sluggish river, the scout looking into its murky depths with little relish for it as a means of transportation. Though it had an oily, flowing current, there was a suggestion of stagnant water with unpleasant surprises waiting beneath its turgid surface.

For the second time they entered the arena. Avoiding the bodies, Sssuri made a circuit of the sanded floor. He did not turn in at the archway which led to the storage place, but paused before another as if there lay what he had been searching for.

Dalgard's less sensitive nostrils picked up a new scent, the not-to-be-missed fetor of damp underground ways where water stood. The merman edged around a barred gate as Dalgard sniffed again. The smell of damp was crossed by other and even less appetizing odors, but he did not catch the stench of the snake-devils. And, relying on Sssuri's judgment, he followed the merman into the dark.

Once again patches of violet light glimmered over their heads as the passage narrowed and sloped downward. Dalgard tried to remember the general geography of the section which was above them now. He had assumed that this way with its dank chill must give on the river. But when they had pattered on for a long distance, he knew that either they had passed beneath the stream or that he was totally lost as to direction.

As their eyes adjusted to the gloom of the passage the violet light grew stronger. So Dalgard saw clearly when Sssuri whirled and faced back along the way they had come, his body in a half crouch, his knife ready in his hand.

Dalgard, his bow useless in the damp, drew his own sword-knife. But, though his mind probed and he listened, he could sense or hear nothing on their trail.



They were air-borne once more, but Raf was not pleased. In the seat beside him, which Captain Hobart should be occupying, there now squirmed an alien warrior who apparently was uncomfortable in the chair-like depression so different from the low stools he was accustomed to. Soriki was still in the second passenger place, but he, too, shared that with another of the men from the city who rested across bony knees a strange weapon rather like a Terran rifle.

No, the spacemen were not prisoners. According to the official statement they were allies. But, Raf wondered, as against his will he followed the globe in a northeastern course, how long would that fiction last if they refused to fall in with any suggestions the aliens might make? He did not doubt that there was on board the globe some surprise which could shoot the flitter out of the air, if, for example, he adjusted the controls before him and bore west toward the mountains and the safety of the space ship. Either of the aliens he now transported could bring him under control by using those weapons, which might do anything from boiling a man in some unknown ray to smothering him in gas. He had not seen the arms in action, and he did not want to.

Yet Hobart and Lablet did not, as far as he could tell, share his suspicions. Lablet was eager to see the mysterious storehouse, and the captain was either moved by the same desire or else had long since deduced the folly of trying to make a break for it Thus they were now heading seaward with the captain and Lablet sharing quarters with the leaders of the expedition on board the globe, and Raf and the com-tech, with companions—or guards—bringing up the rear. The aliens had even insisted on stripping the flitter of much of its Terran equipment before they left the city, pointing out that the cleared storage space would be filled with salvage when they made the return voyage.

The globe had been trailing along the coastline, and now it angled out to glide over a long finger of cape, rocky and waterworn, which pointed at almost a right angle into the sea. This dwindled into a reef of rock, like the nail on a finger. The sea ahead was no unbroken expanse. Instead there was a series of islands, some merely tops of reefs over which the waves broke, others more substantial, rising well above the threatening water, and one or two showing the green of vegetation.

The chain of islets extended so far out that when the flitter passed over the last one the main continent was out of sight. Now only water stretched beneath them. The globe skidded on as if its pilot had given it an extra burst of power, and Raf accelerated in turn, having no desire to lose his guide. But they were not to make the ocean-wide trip in one jump.

At midday he saw again a break in the smooth carpet of waves, another island, or perhaps the southern tip of a northern continent for the land swept in that direction as far as he could see. The globe spiraled down to make a neat landing on a flat plateau, and Raf prepared to join it. When the undercarriage of the flitter jarred lightly on the rock, he saw signs that this was a man-or alien-fashioned place which must have had much use in the dim past when his new companions ruled all their native world.

The rock had been smoothed off to a flat surface, and at its perimeter were several small domed buildings. Yet, as there had been in the countryside and in the city, except at its very heart, there was an aura of desertion at the site.

Both his alien passengers jumped out of the flitter, as if only too pleased at their release from the Terran flyer. For the first time Raf was shaken out of his own preoccupation with his dislike for the aliens to wonder if they could be moved by a similar distaste for Terrans. Lablet might be interested in that as a scientific problem—the pilot only knew how he felt and that was not comfortable.

Soriki got out and walked across the rock, stretching. But for a long moment Raf remained where he was, behind the controls of the flyer. He was as cramped and tired of travel as the com-tech, perhaps even more so since the responsibility of the flight had been his. And had they landed in open country he would have liked to have thrown himself down on the ground, taking off his helmet and unhooking his tunic collar to let the fresh wind blow through his hair and across his skin. Perhaps that would take away the arid dust of centuries, which, to his mind, had grimed him since their hours in the city. But here was no open country, only a landing space which reminded him too much of the roof of the building in the metropolis.

A half-dozen of the breastplated warriors filed out of the globe and went to the nearest dome, returning with heavy boxes. Fuel—supplies—Raf shrugged off the problem. The pilot was secretly relieved when Captain Hobart dropped out of the hatch in the globe and made his way over to the flitter.

"Everything running smoothly?" he asked with a glance at the two aliens who were Raf's passengers.

"Yes, sir. Any idea how much farther—?" Raf questioned.

Hobart shrugged. "Until we work out basic language difficulties," he muttered, "who knows anything? There is at least one more of these way stations. They don't run on atomics, need some kind of fuel, and they have to have new supplies every so often. Their head man can't understand why it isn't necessary for us to do the same."

"Has he suggested that his techneers want a look at our motors, sir?"

Hobart unbent a little. It was as if in that question he had read something which pleased him. "So far we've managed not to understand that. And if anyone tries it on his own, refer him to me—understand?"

"Yes, sir!" Some of the relief in Raf's tone came through, and he saw that the captain was watching him narrowly.

"You don't like these people, Kurbi?"

The pilot replied with the truth. "I don't feel easy with them, sir. Not that they've shown any unfriendliness. Maybe it's because they're alien—"

He had said the wrong thing and knew it immediately.

"That sounds like prejudice, Kurbi!" Hobart's voice carried the snap of a reprimand.

"Yes, sir," Raf said woodenly. That had done it as far as the captain was concerned. The fierce racial and economical prejudices which had been the keystones of the structure of Pax had left their shadow on Terra's thinking. Nowadays a man would better be condemned for murder than for prejudice against another—it was the unforgivable crime. And in that unconsidered answer Raf had rendered unreliable in the eyes of authority any future report on the aliens which he might be forced to make.

Silently cursing his lack of judgment, Raf made a careful check of the flyer, which might not be necessary but going through the motions of doing his duty gave him some relief. Once the idea struck him of claiming some trouble that would take them back to the spacer for repairs. But Hobart was too good a mechanic himself not to see through that.

They covered the second stage of their flight by evening, this time putting down on an island where, by some ancient and titanic feat of labor, the top had been sheared off a central mountain to make a base. A ring of reefs cut off the land from the action of the waves. At once a party of aliens left the main company and made their way down the mountain to prowl along the shore. They made a discovery of sorts, for Raf saw them ring in some object they had pulled up on the sand. What it was and what meaning it had for them they did not try to explain to the Terrans.

The party spent the night there, the four spacemen wrapped in their sleeping rolls by the flitter, the aliens in their globe ship. The Terrans did not miss the fact that the others had unobtrusively posted guards at the only two places where the mountain could be climbed. And each of those guards cradled in the crook of his arm one of the rifle weapons.

They were aroused shortly after dawn. As far as Raf could see the island was barren of life, or else any creature native to it kept prudently out of the way while the flyers were there. They took off, the globe rising like a balloon into the morning sky, the flitter waiting until it was air-borne before scaling after it.

The mountainous island where they had based was the sea sentinel of an archipelago, which they saw spread out below them as if someone had flung a handful of pebbles into a shallow pool. Most of the islands were merely rocky crags. But there were two which showed the green of small open fields, and Raf thought he caught a glimpse of a dome house on the last.

They were now over a region thick with islands, the first collection giving way to a second and then a third. Raf, expecting no sudden move on the part of the globe he trailed, was startled when the alien ship made a downward swoop. At the same time the warrior seated beside him tugged at the sleeve of his tunic and jabbed a finger toward the ground, clearly an order to follow. Raf cut speed and cautiously lost altitude, determined that he was not going to be rushed into any move for which he did not know the reason.

The globe was hovering over a small island set a little apart from the others. A moment later Soriki's excited voice drew Raf's attention from his controls to what was going on below.

"There's, people down there! Look at them run!"

They were too far away to be sure of the nature of the brown-gray things so close to the color of the sea-washed rock that they could only be detected when they moved. But it was evident that they were alive, and as Raf brought the flitter closer, he was also certain that they ran on their two hind feet instead of on an animal's four pads.

From the under part of the globe ship licked a tongue of fire. With the force of a whiplash it coursed across the rock and in its passing embrace, the creatures below writhed and withered to charred heaps. They had no chance under that methodical blasting. The alien beside Raf signaled again for a drop. He patted the weapon that he held and motioned for Raf to release the covering of the windshield. But the pilot shook his head firmly.

This might be war. The aliens could have a very good reason for their deadly attack on the creatures surprised below. But he wanted no part of it, nor did he want to get any closer to the scene of slaughter. And he made an emphatic gesture that the windshield could not be opened while the flitter was air-borne.

But as he did so they glided down, and he caught a single good look at what was going on on the rock—a look which remained to haunt his dreams for long years to come. For now he saw clearly the creatures who ran fruitlessly for safety. Some reached the edge of the cliff and leaped to what was an easier death in the sea. But too many others could not make it and died in flaming agony. And they were not all of one size!

Children! There was no mistaking the infant in its mother's arms, the two small ones who fled hand in hand until one stumbled and the burning lash caught them both as the other strove to pull the fallen to its feet. Raf gagged. He triggered the controls and soared up and away, fighting the heaving in his middle, shaking off with one savage jerk the insistent pawing hand of the alien who wanted to join in the fun.

"Did you see that?" he demanded of Soriki.

For once the com-tech sounded subdued. "Yes," he replied shortly.

"Those were children," Raf hammered home the point.

"Young ones anyway," the com-tech conceded. "Maybe they aren't people. They had fur all over them—"

Raf grinned mirthlessly. Should he now accuse Soriki of prejudice? What did it matter if a thinking creature was clothed in a space suit, silken bandages, or natural fur—it was still a thinking creature. And he was sure that those had been intelligent creatures he had just seen blasted without a chance to fight back. If these were the enemy the aliens feared, he could understand the vicious cruelty of the attack which had killed the man he had been shown back in the city. Fire against primitive spears was not equal, and when the spears got their chance they must make up for much to balance the scales of justice.

He did not even wonder why his emotions were so wholeheartedly enlisted upon the side of the furred people. Nor did he try to analyze his feelings. He was only sure that more than ever he wanted to be free of the aliens and out of this whole venture.

The warrior sharing his seat was sulking now, twisting about to look back at the island as Raf circled in ever-widening glides to get away from the site and yet not lose track of the globe when it would have finished its dirty business and take once more to the air. But the alien ship was in no hurry to leave.

"They are making sure," Soriki reported. "Giving the whole island a fire bath. I wonder what that stuff is—"

"I'd just as soon not know," Raf returned from between set teeth. "If that is one of their pieces of precious knowledge, we're as well off without it—" he stopped short. Perhaps he had said too much. But Terra had been racked by the torrid horror of atomic war, until all his kind had been so revolted that it was bred into them not to meddle again with such weapons. And war by fire aroused in them that old horror. Surely Soriki must feel it too, and when the com-tech did not comment, Raf was sure of that. He hoped that the slaughter had made some impression on the captain and on Lablet into the bargain.

But when, as if sated with killing, the globe rose again from its position over the island, moving almost sluggishly into the fresh sky, he had to follow it on. More islands were below, and he feared that each one might show some sign of life and tempt the killers to a second hunting.

Luckily that did not happen. The chains of islands became a cape as they had on the coast of the western continent. And now the globe swung to the south, trailing the shore line. Forests made green splotches with bluish overtones running from the sea cliffs back to carpet the land. So far no signs of civilization were to be seen. This land was as untouched as that where the spacer had landed.

Then they saw the bay, stretching out wide arms to engulf the sea. It could have harbored a whole fleet. And marching down to its waters were broad levels of buildings, a giant's staircase leading from sea to cliff tops.

"They had it here—!"

Raf saw what Soriki meant by that outburst. Destruction had struck. He had seen the atomic ruins of his own world, those which were free enough from radiation to explore. But he had never seen anything like these chilling scars. In long strips the very stone which provided foundation for the tiered city had been churned and boiled, had run in rivulets of lava down to the sea, enclosing narrow tongues of still untouched structures. The fire whip the globe had used, magnified to some infinitely greater extent—? It could be.

The alien at his side pressed tightly against the windshield gazing down at the ruins. And now he mouthed a gabble of words which was echoed by his fellow sitting with Soriki. Their excitement must mean that this was their goal. Raf slacked speed, waiting for the globe to point a way to a landing.

But to his surprise the alien ship shot forward inland. The long day was almost over as they came to a second city with a river knotting a ribbon through its middle. Here were no traces of the fury which had laded the seaport with havoc. This collection of buildings seemed whole and perfect.

There was, oddly enough, no landing strip within the city. The globe coasted over the rough oval and came down in open fields to the west. It was a maneuver which Raf copied, though he first dropped a flare as a precaution and brought the flier down in its red glare, with the warrior expressing shrill disapproval.

"I don't think they like fireworks," Soriki remarked.

Raf snorted. "So they don't like fireworks! Well, I don't like crack-ups, and I'm the pilot!" But he didn't believe that the com-tech was really protesting. Soriki had been very quiet since they had witnessed the attack on the island.

"Grim-looking place," was his second comment as they touched ground.

Since Raf privately had held that opinion of all the alien settlements he had so far seen, he agreed. Their two alien passengers were out of the flitter as soon as he opened the bubble shield. And as they stood by the Terran flyer, they held their weapons ready, facing out into the dusk as if they half expected trouble. After the earlier episode that day, Raf did not wonder at their preparedness. Terror begets terror, and ruthlessness arouses retaliation in kind.

"Kurbi! Soriki!" Hobart's voice sounded out of the shadows. "Stay where you are for the present."

Soriki settled deeper in his seat. "He doesn't have to tell me to brake jets," he muttered. "I like it here—"

Raf did not need to echo that. He had a strong surmise that had he been tempted to roam away from the flitter the move would not have been encouraged by the alien guardsmen. If this was their treasure city, they would not welcome any independent investigation by strangers.

When the captain joined them, he was accompanied by the officer who had first shown Raf the globe. And the warrior was either disturbed or angry, for he was talking in a steady stream and his hands were whirling in explanatory gestures.

"They didn't like that flare," Hobart remarked. But there was no reproof in his words. As a spacer pilot he knew that Raf had only done what duty demanded. "We're to remain here—for the night."

"Where's Lablet?" Soriki wanted to know.

"He's staying with Yussoz, the alien commander. He thinks he has the language problem about solved."

"Good enough." Soriki pulled out his bed roll. "We're out of touch with the ship—"

There was a second of silence, unduly prolonged it seemed to Raf. Then Hobart spoke:

"We couldn't expect to keep in call forever. The best com has its range. When did you lose contact?"

"Just before these wrapped-up heroes played with fire back there. I gave the boys all I knew up until then. They know we were headed west, and they had us beamed as long as they could."

So it wasn't too bad, thought Raf. But he didn't like it, even with that mitigating factor. To all purposes the four Terrans were now surrounded by some twenty times their number, in an unknown country, out of all communication with the rest of their kind. It could add up to disaster.



"What is it?" Dalgard asked his question as Sssuri, his attention still on their back trail, stole along cautiously on a retracing of their path.

But that retreat ended abruptly with the merman plastered against the wall, his whole shadowy form a tense warning which stopped Dalgard short. In that moment the answer flashed from mind to mind.

"There are those which follow—"

"Snake-devils? Those Others?" The colony scout supplied the only two explanations he had, sending his own thought out questing. But as usual he could not hope to equal the more sensitive merman whose race had always used that form of communication.

"Those who have long haunted the darkness," was the only reply he could get.

But Sssuri's actions were far more indicative of danger. For the merman turned and caught at Dalgard, pulling the larger colonist along a step or two with the urgency of his grip.

"We cannot return this way—and we must travel fast!"

For Sssuri who would face and had faced up to a snake-devil with a spear his sole weapon, this timidity was new. Dalgard was wise enough to accept his verdict of the wisdom of flight. Together they ran along the underground corridor, soon putting a mile between them and the point where the merman had first taken alarm.

"From what do we flee?" As the merman began to slacken pace, Dalgard sent that query.

"There are those who live in this darkness. By one, or by two, we could speedily remove them from life. But they hunt in packs and they are as greedy for the kill as are the snake-devils scenting meat. Also they are intelligent. Once, long before the days of burning, they served Those Others as hunters of game. And Those Others tried to make them ever more intelligent and crafty so they might be sent to hunt without a huntsman. At last they grew too knowing for their masters. Then Those Others, realizing their menace, tried to kill them all with traps and tricks. But only the most stupid and the slowest were so disposed of. The others withdrew into underground ways such as this, venturing forth only in the dark of night."

"But if they are intelligent," countered the scout, "why can they not be reached by the mind touch?"

"Through the years they have developed their own ways of thought. And these are not the simple creatures of the sun, or such as the runners. Once they were taught to answer only to Those Others. Now they answer only to each other. But"—he spread out his hands in one of his quick, nervous gestures—"to those who are cornered by one of their packs, they are sudden death!"

Since they could not, by Sssuri's reckoning, turn back, there was only one course before them, to follow the passage they had chanced upon. The merman was certain that it underran the river and that eventually they would reach the sea—unless some side turn before that point would make them free in the countryside once more.

Dalgard doubted if it had ever been a well-used way. And the presence of earth falls here and there, over which they stumbled and clawed their way, led him to consider the wisdom of keeping on to what might be a dead end. But his trust in Sssuri's judgment was great, and as the merman plowed forward with every appearance of confidence, he continued to trot along without complaint.

They snatched moments of rest, taking turns at guard. But the walls about them were so unchanging that it was hard to measure time or distance. Dalgard chewed at his emergency rations, a block of dried meat and fruit pounded together to an almost rocklike consistency, and tried to make the crumbs he sucked loose satisfy his growing hunger.

The passageway was growing damper; water trickled down the walls and gathered in fetid pools on the floor. Dalgard's dislike of the place grew. His shoulders hunched involuntarily as he strode along, for his imagination pictured the rock above them giving away to dump tons of the oily river water down to engulf them. But though Sssuri avoided splashing through the pools wherever he might, he did not appear to find anything upsetting about the moisture.

At last the human could stand it no longer. "How much farther to the sea?" he asked without any hope of a real answer.

As he had expected him to do, Sssuri shrugged. "We should be close. But having never trod this way before, how can I tell you?"

Once more they rested, choosing a stretch which was reasonably dry, munching their dried food and drinking sparingly from the stoppered duocorn horns which swung from their belts. A man would have to be dying of thirst, Dalgard thought, before he would palm up any of the stagnant water from the passage pools.

He drifted off into a troubled sleep in which he fled beneath a sky which was a giant lid in the hand of an unseen enemy, a lid which was slowly lowered to crush him flat. He awoke with a start to find Sssuri's cool, scaled fingers stroking his shoulder.

"Dream demons walk these roads." The words drifted into his half-awake mind.

"They do indeed," he roused to answer.

"It is always so where Those Others have been. They leave behind them the thoughts which breed such dreams to trouble the sleep of those who are not of their kind. Let us go. I would like to be out of this place under the clean sky, where no ancient wickedness hangs to poison the air and thought."

Either the merman had miscalculated the direction of their route or the river mouth was much farther from the inland city than they had believed, for, though they pushed on for what seemed like weary hours, they came to no upward slope, no exit to the world they knew.

Instead Dalgard began to realize that just the opposite was true. At last he could stand it no longer and broke out with what he feared, hoping that Sssuri would deny that fear.

"We are going downhill!"

To his disappointment the merman agreed. "It has been so for the last thousand of our paces. It is my belief that this leads not to the sun but out under the sea."

Dalgard missed a step. To Sssuri the sea was home and perhaps the thought of being under its floor was not disturbing. The land-born human was not so prepared. If he had experienced discomfort under the river, what would it be like under the ocean? His terrifying dream of a lid being pressed down upon him flashed back into his mind. But his companion was continuing:

"There will be doors, perhaps into the sea itself."

"For you," Dalgard pointed out, "but I am no dweller in the depths."

"Neither were Those Others, yet they used these ways. And I tell you"—in his earnestness the merman laid his hand once more on Dalgard's arm—"to turn back now is out of the question. The death which haunts the darkness is still sniffing out our trail."

Dalgard glanced involuntarily over his shoulder. By the faint and limited light of the purple disks he could see little or nothing. An army might creep there undetected.

"But—" His protest was in answer to the merman's seeming unconcern.

Sssuri at the first intimation that the hunters were behind them had shown wariness. Now he did not appear to care.

"They had fed," he replied. "Scouts follow because we are something new and thus suspect. When hunger rises once more in them, and their scouts report that we are meat, then is the time to draw knives and prepare for battle. But before that hour we may have won free. Let us search for the gate we now need."

However confident the merman might be, Dalgard could not match that confidence. In the open air he would have faced a snake-devil four times his size without any more emotion than a hunter's instinctive caution. But here in the dark, unable to rid himself of the belief that thousands of tons of sea water hung over his head, he found himself starting at any sound, his knife bare and ready in his sweating hand.

He noted that Sssuri had stepped up the pace, passing into his sure-footed glide which made Dalgard exert himself to keep up. Before them the corridor stretched without a break. The merman's promised exit, if it existed, was still out of sight.

It was difficult to gauge time in this dark hall, but Dalgard thought that they were at least an hour farther on their way when Sssuri paused abruptly once more, his head cocked in a listening attitude, as if he caught some whisper of sound too rarefied for his human companion.

"Now—" the thought hissed as if he spat the words, "they hunger—and they hunt!"

He bounded forward with a spurt, which Dalgard copied, and they ran lightly, the dust undisturbed in years puffing up beneath the merman's bare, scaled feet and Dalgard's hide boots. Still the unbroken walls, the feeble patches of violet in the ceiling. But no exit. And what good would any exit do him, Dalgard thought, if it opened under the sea?

"There are islands off the coast—many islands—" Sssuri caught him up. "It is in my mind that we shall find our door on one of those. But—run now, knife brother, for those at our heels awake and thirst for flesh and blood. They have decided that we are not to be feared but may be run down for their pleasure."

Dalgard weighed his knife in his hand. "They shall find us with fangs," he promised grimly.

"It will be better if they do not find us at all," returned Sssuri.

A burning arch of pain encased Dalgard's lower ribs, and his breath came in gusts of hastily sucked air as their flight kept on, down the endless corridor. Sssuri was also showing signs of the grueling pace, his round head bent forward, his furred legs pumping as if only his iron will kept them moving. And the determination which kept him going was communicated to the scout as a graver warning than any thought message of fear.

They were passing under one of the infrequent violet lights when Dalgard got something else—a mental thrust so quick and sharp it was as if a sword had cut through the daze of fatigue to reach his brain. Yet that had not come from Sssuri, for it was totally alien, wavering on a band so near the extreme edge of his consciousness that it pricked, receded, and pricked again as a needle might.

This was no message of fear or warning, but of implacable stubbornness and ravening hunger. And in that instant Dalgard knew that it came from what was sniffing out their trail, and he no longer wondered that the hunters were immune to other mental contact. One could not reason with—that!

He spurted forward, matching the merman's acceleration of speed. But to Dalgard's horror he saw that his companion now ran with one hand brushing along the wall, as if he needed that support.


His thought met a wall of concentration through which he could not break. In a way he was reassured—for a moment, until another of those stabs from their pursuers struck him. He longed to look back, to see what hunted them. But he dared not break stride to do that.

"Ahhhh!" The welcoming cry from Sssuri brought his attention back to his companion as the merman broke into a wild run.

Dalgard summoned up his last rags of energy and coursed after him. Sssuri had halted before a dark lump which protruded from the side of the corridor.

"A sea lock!" Sssuri's claws were clicking over the surface of the hatch, seeking the secret of its latch.

Panting, Dalgard leaned against the opposite wall. Just as a protest formed in his mind he heard something else, the pad of feet, many feet, echoing down the corridor. And somehow he was able now to look.

Round spots of light, dull, greenish, close to the ground, as if someone had flung a handful of phosphorescence into the dark. But this was no phosphorescence! Eyes! Eyes—he tried to count and knew it was impossible to so reckon the number of the pack that ran mute but ready. Nor could he distinguish more than a very shadowy glimpse of forms which glided close to the ground with an unpleasant sinuosity.

"Ahhhhh!" Again Sssuri's paean of triumph.

There was the grate of unwilling metal forced to move, a puff of air redolent with the sea striking their bodies in chill threat, the brightness of violet light stepped up to a point far beyond the lamps in the corridor.

With it came no rush of drowning water as Dalgard had half expected, and when the merman clambered through the hatch he prepared to follow, well aware that the eyes, and the pattering feet which bore them, were now almost within range.

There was a snarl from the passage, and a black thing sprang at the scout. Without clear sight of what he was fighting, he struck down with his knife and felt it slit flesh. The snarl was a scream of rage as the creature twisted in midair for a second try at him. In that instant Sssuri, leaning halfway out of the hatch, struck in his turn, thrusting his bone knife into shadows which now boiled with life.

Dalgard leaped for the lock door, kicking out swiftly and feeling the toe of his boot contact with a crunch against one of those darting shades, sending it back end over end into the press where its fellows turned snapping upon it. Then Sssuri grabbed at him, bringing him in, and together they slammed the hatch, feeling it shake with the shock of thudding bodies as the pack outside went mad in their frustration.

While the merman fastened the locking bar, bringing out of the long-motionless metal another protesting screech, Dalgard had a chance to look about him. They were in a room some eight or nine feet long, the violet light showing up well tangles of equipment hanging from pegs on the walls, a pile of small cylinders on the floor. At the far end of the chamber was another hatch door, locked with the same type of bar as Sssuri had just lowered to seal the inner one. The merman nodded to it.

"The sea—"

Dalgard slid his knife back into its sheath. So the sea lay beyond. He did not welcome the thought of passing through that door. Like all of his race he could swim—perhaps his feats in the water would have astonished the men of the planet from which his tribe had emigrated. But unlike the mermen, he was not sea-born, nor equipped by nature with a secondary breathing apparatus to make him as free in the world of water as he was on land. Sssuri might crawl through that hatch without fear. For Dalgard it was as big a test as to turn and face what now raged in the corridor on the inner side.

"There is no hope that they will go now," Sssuri answered his vague question. "They are stubborn. And hours—or even days—will mean nothing. Also they can leave a guard there and rove at will, to return upon signal. That is their way."

This left only the sea door. Sssuri padded across the chamber and reached up to free one of the strange objects dangling from the wall pegs. Like all things made of the marvelous substance used by Those Others for any article which might be exposed to the elements, it seemed as perfect as on the day it had first been hung there, though that date might be a hundred or more Astran years earlier. The merman uncoiled a length of thin, flexible piping which joined a two-foot canister with a flat piece of metallic fabric.

"Those Others could not breathe under the water, as you cannot," he explained as he worked deftly and swiftly. "Within my own memory we have trapped their scouts wearing aids such as these so that they might spy upon our safe places. But their last foray was some years ago and at that time we taught them such a lesson that they have not dared to return. Since they are not unlike you in body and since you breathe the same air aboveground, there is no reason why this should not take you out of here."

Dalgard accepted the apparatus. A couple of elastic metal bands fastened the canister to the chest of the wearer. The fabric molded into a perfect, tight face mask as it touched the skin.

Sssuri went to the pile of cylinders. Choosing one he tinkered with its pointed cone, to be rewarded with a thin hiss.

"Ahhhh—" again his recognition of the rightness of things. "These still contain air." He tested two more and then brought all three back to where Dalgard stood, the canister strapped into place, the mask ready in his hand. With infinite care the merman fitted two of the cylinders into the canister and then was forced to set the other aside.

"We could not change them while under water anyway," he explained. "So it will do little good to take extra supplies with us."

Trying not to speculate on the amount of air he could carry in the cylinders, Dalgard fastened on the mask, adjusted the air tube, and sucked. Air flowed—he could breathe! Only—for how long?

Sssuri, seeing that his companion was fully provided for, worked at the bar locking the sea hatch. But in the end it took their combined strength to spring that barrier and win through to a small cubby which was the actual sea lock.

Dalgard knew one moment of resistance as the merman closed the hatch behind them. For an instant it seemed that the dubious safety of the dressing chamber and a faint hope of the hunters' giving up their vigil was better than what might lie before them now. But Sssuri pushed shut the hatch, and Dalgard stood quietly, without offering any visible protest.

He tried to draw even breaths—slowly—as the merman activated the lock. When the water curled in from hidden openings, rising from ankle to calf and then to knee, its chill striking through flesh to bone, he kept to the same stolid waiting, though this seemed almost worse than a sudden gush of water sweeping them out in its embrace.

The liquid swirled about Dalgard's waist now, tugging at his belt, his arrow quiver, tapping on the bottom of the canister which held his precious air supply. His brow, shielded from the wet by its casing, was swallowed up inch by inch.

As the water lapped at his chin, the outer door opened with a slow inward push which suggested that the machinery controlling it had grown sluggish with the years. Sssuri, perfectly at home, darted out as soon as the opening was large enough to afford him an exit. And his thought came back to reassure the more clumsy landsman.

"We are in the shallows—land rises ahead. The roots of an island. There is nothing to fear—" The word ended abruptly in what was like a mental gasp of either astonishment or fear.

Knowing all the menaces which might lie in wait, even in the shallows of the sea, Dalgard drew his knife once more as he plowed through water—ready to rescue or at least to offer what aid he could.



The spacemen spent a cramped and almost sleepless night. Although in his training on Terra, on his trial trips to Mars and the harsh Lunar valleys, Raf had known weird surroundings and climates, inimical to his kind, he had always been able to rest almost by the exercise of his will. But now, curled in his roll, he was alert to every sound out of the moonless night, finding himself listening—for what he did not know.

Though there were sounds in plenty. The whistling call of some night bird, the distant lap, lap of water which he associated with the river curving through the long-deserted city, the rustle of grass as either the wind or some passing animal disturbed it.

"Not the best place in the world for a nap," Soriki observed out of the dark as Raf wriggled, trying to find a more comfortable position. "I'll be glad to see these bandaged boys on the ground waving good-bye as we head away from them—fast—"

"Those weren't animals they killed—back on that island." Raf brought out what was at the heart of his trouble.

"They wore fur instead of clothing." Soriki's reply was delivered in a colorless, even voice. "We have apes on Terra, but they are not men."

Raf stared up at the sky in which stars were sprinkled like carelessly flung dust motes. "What is a 'man'?" he returned, repeating the classical question which was a debating point in all the space training centers.

For so long his kind had wondered that. Was a "man" a biped with certain easily recognized physical characteristics? Well, by that ruling the furry things which had fled fruitlessly from the flames of the globe might well qualify. Or was "man" a certain level of intelligence, no matter what form housed that intelligence? They were supposed to accept the latter definition. Though, in spite of the horror of prejudice, Raf could not help but believe that too many Terrans secretly thought of "man" only as a creature in their own general image. By that prejudiced rule it was correct to accept the aliens as "men" with whom they could ally themselves, to condemn the furry people because they were not smooth-skinned, did not wear clothing, nor ride in mechanical transportation.

Yet somewhere within Raf at that moment was the nagging feeling that this was all utterly wrong, that the Terrans had not made the right choice. And that now "men" were not standing together. But he had no intention of spilling that out to Soriki.

"Man is intelligence." The com-tech was answering the question Raf had almost forgotten that he had asked the moment before. Yes, the proper conventional reply. Soriki was not going to be caught out with any claim of prejudice.

Odd—when Pax had ruled, there were thought police and the cardinal sin was to be a liberal, to experiment, to seek knowledge. Now the wheel had turned—to be conservative was suspect. To suggest that some old ways were better was to exhibit the evil signs of prejudice. Raf grinned wryly. Sure, he had wanted to reach the stars, had fought doggedly to come to the very spot where he now was. So why was he tormented now with all these second thoughts? Why did he feel every day less akin to the men with whom he had shared the voyage? He had had wit enough to keep his semirebellion under cover, but since he had taken the flitter into the morning sky above the landing place of the spacer, that task of self-discipline was becoming more and more difficult.

"Did you notice," the com-tech said, going off on a new track, "that these painted boys were not too quick about blasting along to their strongbox? I'd say that they thought some bright rocket jockey might have rigged a surprise for them somewhere in there—"

Now that Soriki mentioned it, Raf remembered that the alien party who had gone into the city had huddled together, and that several of the black-and-white warriors had fanned out ahead as scouts might in enemy territory.

"They didn't go any farther than that building to the west either."

That Raf had not noticed, but he was willing to accept Soriki's observation. The com-tech had a ready eye for details. He'd better pay closer attention himself. This was no time to explore the why and wherefore of his present position. So, if they went no farther than that building, it would argue that the aliens themselves didn't care to go about here after nightfall. For he was certain that the isolated structure Soriki had pointed out was not the treasure house they had come to loot.

The night wore on and sometime during it Raf fell asleep. But the two or three hours of restless, dream-filled unconsciousness was not what he needed, and he blinked in the dawn with eyes which felt as if they were filled with hot sand. In the first gray light a covey of winged things, which might or might not have been birds, arose from some roosting place within the city, wheeled three times over the building, and then vanished out over the countryside.

Raf pulled himself out of his roll, made a sketchy toilet with the preparations in a belt kit, and looked about with little favor for either the scene or his part in it. The globe, sealed as if ready for a take-off, was some distance away, but installed about halfway between it and the flitter were two of the alien warriors. Perhaps they had changed watches during the night. If they had not, they could go without sleep to an amazing degree, for as Raf walked in a circle about the flyer to limber up, they watched him closely, nor did their grips on their odd weapons loosen. And he had a very clear idea that if he stepped over some invisible boundary he would be in for trouble.

When he came back to the flitter, Soriki was awake and stretching.

"Another day," the com-tech drawled. "And I could do with something besides field rations." He made a face at the small tin of concentrates he had dug out of the supply compartment.

"We'd do well to be headed west," Raf ventured.

"Now you can come in with that on the com again!" Soriki answered with unwonted emphasis. "The sooner I see the old girl standing on her pins in the middle distance, the better I'll feel. You know"—he looked up from his preoccupation with the ration package and gazed out over the city—"this place gives me the shivers. That other town was bad enough. But at least there were people living there. Here's nothing at all—at least nothing I want to see."

"What about all the wonders they've promised to show us?" countered Raf.

Soriki grinned. "And how much do we understand of their mouth-and-hand talk? Maybe they were promising us wonders, maybe they were offering to take us to where we could have our throats cut more conveniently—for them! I tell you, if I go for a walk with any of these painted faces, I'm going to have at least three of my fingers resting on the grip of my stun gun. And I'd advise you to do the same—if I didn't know that you were already watching these blast-happy harpies out of the corner of your eye. Ha—company. Oh, it's the captain—"

The hatch of the globe had opened, and a small party was descending the ladder, conspicuous among them the form and uniform of Captain Hobart. The aliens remained in a cluster at the foot of the ladder while the Terran commander crossed to the flitter.

"You"—he pointed to Raf—"are to come along with us."

"Why, sir?" "What about me, sir?" The questions from the two at the flitter came together.

"I said that one of you had to remain by the machine. Then they said that you, in particular, must come along, Kurbi."

"But I'm the pilot—" Raf began and then realized that it was just that fact which had made the aliens attach him to the exploring party. If they believed that the Terran flitter was immobilized when he, and he alone, was not behind its controls, this was just the move they would make. But there they were wrong. Soriki might not be able to repair or service the motor, but in a pinch he could take it up, send it westward, and land it beside the spacer. Each and every man aboard the RS 10 had that much training.

Now the com-tech was scowling. He had grasped the significance of that arrangement as quickly as Raf. "How long do I wait for you, sir?" he asked in a voice which had lost its usual good-humored drawl.

And at that inquiry Captain Hobart showed signs of irritation. "Your suspicions are not founded on facts," he stated firmly. "These people have displayed no signs of wanting to harm us. And an attitude of distrust at this point might be fatal for future friendly contact. Lablet is sure that they have a highly complex society, probably advanced beyond Terran standards, and that their technical skills will be of vast benefit to us. As it happens we have come at just the right moment in their history, when they are striving to get back on their feet after a disastrous series of wars. It is as if a group of off-world explorers had allied themselves with us after the Burn-Off. We can exchange information which will be of mutual benefit."

"If any off-world explorers had set down on Terra after the Burn-Off," observed Soriki softly, "they would have come up against Pax. And just how long would they have lasted?"

Hobart had turned away. If he heard that half-whisper, he did not choose to acknowledge it. But the truth in the com-tech's words made an impression on Raf, a crew of aliens who had been misguided enough to seek out and try to establish friendly relations with the officials of Pax would have had a short and most unhappy shrift. If all the accounts of that dark dictatorship were true, they would have vanished from Terra, and not in their ships either. What if something like Pax ruled here? They had no way of knowing for sure.

Raf's eyes met Soriki's, and the com-tech's hand dropped to hook fingers in his belt within touching distance of his side arm. The flitter pilot nodded.

"Kurbi!" Hobart's impatient call sent him on his way. But there was some measure of relief in knowing that Soriki was left behind and that they had this slender link with escape.

He had tramped the streets of that other alien city. There there had been some semblance of habitation; here was abandonment. Earth drifted in dunes to half block the lanes, and here and there climbing vines had broken down masonry and had dislodged blocks of the paved sideways and courtyards.

The party threaded their way from one narrow lane to another, seeming to avoid the wider open stretches of the principal thoroughfares, Raf became aware of an unpleasant odor in the air which he vaguely associated with water, and a few minutes afterward he caught glimpses of the river between the buildings which fronted on it. Here the party turned abruptly at a right angle, heading westward once more, passing vast, blank-walled structures which might have been warehouses.

One of the aliens just ahead of Raf in the line of march suddenly swung around, his weapon pointing up, and from its nose shot a beam of red-yellow light which brought an answering shrill scream as a large, winged creature came fluttering down. The killer kicked at the crumpled thing as he passed. As far as Raf could see there had been no reason for that wanton slaying.

The head of the party had reached a doorway, sealed shut by what looked like a solid slab of material. He placed both palms flat down on its surface at shoulder height and leaned forward against it, almost as if he were whispering some secret formula. Raf watched the muscles stand up on his slender arms as he exerted strength. And then the door split in two, and his fellows helped him push the separate halves back into the wall.

Lablet, Hobart, and Raf were among the last to enter. It was as if their companions had now forgotten them, for the aliens were pushing on at a pace which took them down an empty corridor at a quickening trot.

The corridor ended in a ramp which did not slope in one straight reach but curled around itself, so that in some places only the presence of a handrail, to which they all clung, kept them from losing balance. Then they gathered in a vaulted room, one of which opened a complete circle of closed doors.

There was some argument among the aliens, a dispute of sorts over which of those doors was to be opened first, and the Terrans drew a little apart, unable to follow the twittering words and lightning-swift gestures.

Raf tried to work out the patterns of color which swirled and looped over each door and around the walls, only to discover that too long an examination of any one band, or an attempt to trace its beginning or end, awoke a sick sensation which approached inner turmoil the longer he looked. At last he had to rest his eyes by studying the gray flooring under his boots.

The aliens finally made up their minds, or else one group was able to outargue the other, for they converged upon a door directly opposite the ramp. Once more they went through the process of unsealing the panels, while the Terrans, drawn by curiosity, were close behind them as they entered the long room beyond. Here were shelves in solid tiers along the walls, crowded with such an array of strange objects that Raf, after one mystified look, thought that it might well take months to sort them all out.

In addition, long tables divided the chamber into aisles. Halfway down one of these narrow passageways the aliens had gathered in a group as silent and intent now as they had been noisy outside. Raf could see nothing to so rivet their attention but a series of scuffed marks in the dust which covered the floor. But an alien, whom he recognized as the officer who had taken him to inspect the globe, moved carefully along that trail, following it to a second door. And as Raf pushed down another aisle, paralleling his course, he was conscious of a sickly sweet, stomach-churning stench. Something was very, very dead and not too far away.

The officer must have come to the same conclusion, for he hurried to open the other door. Before them now was a narrow hall broken by slit windows, near the roof, through which entered sunlight. And one such beam fully illuminated a carcass as large as that of a small elephant, or so it seemed to Raf's startled gaze.

It was difficult to make out the true appearance of the creature, though guessing from the scaled strips of skin it had been reptilian, for the body had been found by scavengers and feasting had been in progress.

The alien officer skirted the corpse gingerly. Raf though that he would like to investigate the body closely but could not force himself to that highly disagreeable task. There was a chorus of excited exclamation from the doorway as others crowded there.

But the officer, having circled the carcass, turned his attention to the dusty floor again. If there had been any trail there, it was now muddled past their reading, for remnants of the grisly meal had been dragged back and forth. The alien picked his way fastidiously through the noxious debris to the end of the long room. Raf, with the same care, toured the edge of the chamber in his wake.

They were out in a smaller passageway, which was taking them underground, the Terran estimated. Then there was a large space with barred cells about it and a second corridor. The stench of the death chamber either clung to them, or was wafted from another point, and Raf gagged as an especially foul blast caught him full in the face. He kept a sharp look about him for signs of those feasters. The feast had not been finished—it might have been that their entrance into the storeroom had disturbed the scavengers. And things formidable enough to drag down that scaled horror were not foes he would choose to meet in these unlighted ways.

The passage began to slope upward once more, and Raf saw a half-moon of light ahead, brilliant light which could only come from the sun. The alien was outlined there as he went out; then he himself was scuffing through sand close upon another death scene. The dead monster had had its counterparts, and here they were, sprawled out, mangled, and torn. Raf remained by the archway, for even the open air and the morning winds could not destroy the reek which seemed as deadly as a gas attack.

It must have disturbed the officer too, for he hesitated. Then with visible effort he advanced toward the hunks of flesh, casting back and forth as if to find some clue to the manner of their death. He was still so engaged when a second alien burst out of the archway, a splintered length of white held out before him as if he had made some important discovery.

The officer grabbed that shaft away from him, turning it around in his hands. And though expression was hard to read on those thin features under the masking face paint, the emotion his whole attitude expressed was surprise tinged with unbelief—as if the object his subordinate had brought was the last he expected to find in that place.

Raf longed to inspect it, but both aliens brushed by him and pattered back down the corridor, the discoverer pouring forth a volume of words to which the officer listened with great intentness. And the Terran pilot had to hurry to keep up with them.

Something he had seen just before he had left the arena remained in his mind: a forearm flung out from the supine body of what appeared to be the largest of the dead things—and on that forearm a bracelet of metal. Were those things pets! Watchdogs? Surely they were not intelligent beings able to forge and wear such ornaments of their own accord. And if they were watchdogs—whom did they serve? He was inclined to believe that the aliens must be their masters, that the monsters had been guardians of the treasure, perhaps. But dead guardians suggested a rifled treasure house. Who and what—?

His mind filled with speculations and questions, Raf trotted behind the others back to the chamber where they had found the first reptile. The alien who had brought the discovery to his commander stepped gingerly through the litter and laid the white rod in a special spot, apparently the place where it had been found.

At a barked order from the officer, two of the others came forward and tugged at the creature's mangled head, which had been freed from the serpent neck, rolling it over to expose the underparts. There was a broad tear there in the flesh, but Raf could see little difference between it and those left by the feasters. However the officer, holding a strip of cloth over his nose, bent stiffly above it for a closer look and then made some statement which sent his command into a babbling clamor.

Four of the lower ranks separated from the group and, with their hand weapons at alert, swung into action, retracing the way back toward the arena. It looked to Raf as if they now expected an attack from that direction.

Under a volley of orders the rest went back to the storeroom, and the officer, noting that Raf still lingered, waved him impatiently after them.

Inside the men spread out, going from shelf to table, selecting things with a speed which suggested that they had been rehearsed in this task and had only a limited time in which to accomplish it. Some took piles of boxes or other containers which were so light that they could manage a half-dozen in an armload, while two or three others struggled pantingly to move a single piece of weird machinery from its bed to the wheeled trolley they had brought. There was to be no lingering on this job—that was certain.



Intent upon joining Sssuri, Dalgard left the lock, forgetting his earlier unwillingness, stepping from the small chamber down to the sea bottom, or endeavoring to, although instinctively he had begun to swim and so forged ahead at a different rate of speed.

Waving fronds of giant water plants, such as were found only in the coastal shallows, grew forest fashion but did not hide rocks which stretched up in a sharp rise not too far ahead. The scout could not see the merman, but as he held onto one of those fronds he caught the other's summons:

"Here—by the rocks—!"

Pushing his way through the drifting foliage, Dalgard swam ahead to the foot of the rocky escarpment. And there he saw what had so excited his companion.

Sssuri had just driven away an encircling collection of sand-dwelling scavengers, and what he was on his knees studying intently was an almost clean-picked skeleton of one of his own race. But there was something odd—Dalgard brushed aside a tendril of weed which cut his line of vision and so was able to see clearly.

White and clean most of those bones were, but the skull was blackened, and similar charring existed down one arm and shoulder. That merman had not died from any mishap in the sea!

"It is so," Sssuri replied to his thought. "They have come once more to give the flaming death—"

Dalgard, startled, looked up that slope which must lead to the island top above the waves.

"Long dead?" he asked tentatively, already guessing what the other's answer would be.

"The pickers move fast," Sssuri indicated the sand dwellers. "Perhaps yesterday, perhaps the day before—but no longer than that."

"And they are up there now?"

"Who can tell? However, they do not know the sea, nor the islands—"

It was plain that the merman intended to climb to investigate what might be happening above. Dalgard had no choice but to follow. And it was true that the merpeople had no peers or equals when it came to finding their ways about the sea and the coasts. He was confident that Sssuri could get to the island top and discover just what he wished to learn without a single sentry above, if they had stationed sentries, being the wiser. Whether he himself could operate as efficiently was another matter.

In the end they half climbed, half swam upward, detouring swiftly once to avoid the darting attack of a rock hornet, harmless as soon as they moved out of the reach of its questing stinger, for it was anchored for its short life to the rough hollow in which it had been hatched.

Dalgard's head broke water as he rolled through the surf onto a scrap of beach in the lee of a row of tooth-pointed outcrops. It was late evening by the light, and he clawed the mask off his face to draw thankful lungfuls of the good outer air. Sssuri, his fur sleeked tight to his body, waded ashore, shook himself free of excess water, and turned immediately to study the wall of the cliff which guarded the interior of the island.

This was one of a chain of such isles, Dalgard noted, now that he had had time to look about him. And with their many-creviced walls they were just the type of habitations which appealed most strongly to the merpeople. Here could be found the dry inner caves with underwater entrances, which they favored for their group homes. And in the sea were kelp beds for harvesting.

The cliffs did not present too much of a climbing problem. Dalgard divested himself of the diving equipment, tucking it into a hollow which he walled up with stones that he thought the waves would not scour out in a hurry. He might need it again. Then, hitching his belt tighter, pressing what water he could out of his clothing, and settling his bow and quiver to the best advantage at his back, he crossed to where Sssuri was already marking claw holds.

"We may be seen—" Dalgard craned his neck, trying to make out details of what might be waiting above.

The merman shook his head with a quick jerk of negation. "They are gone. Behind them remains only death—much death—" And the bleakness of his thoughts reached the scout.

Dalgard had known Sssuri since he was a toddler and the other a cub coming to see the wonders of dry land for the first time. Never, during all their years of close association since, had he felt in the other a desolation so great. And to that emotional blast he could make no answer.

In the twilight, with the last red banners across the sky at their back, they made the climb. And it was as if the merman had closed off his mind to his companion. Flesh fingers touched scaled ones as they moved from one hold to the next, but Sssuri might have been half a world away for all the communication between them. Never had Dalgard been so shut out and with that his sensitivity to the night, to the world about him, was doubly acute.

He realized—and it worried him—that perhaps he had come to depend too much on Sssuri's superior faculty of communication. It was time that he tried to use his own weaker powers to the utmost extent. So, while he climbed, Dalgard sent questing thoughts into the gloom. He located a nest of duck-dogs, those shy waterline fishers living in cliff holes. They were harmless and just settling down for the night. But of higher types of animals from which something might be learned—hoppers, runners—there were no traces. For all he was able to pick up, they might be climbing into blank nothingness.

And that in itself was ominous. Normally he should have been able to mind touch more than duck-dogs. The merpeople lived in peace with most of the higher fauna of their world, and a colony of hoppers, even a covey of moth birds, would settle in close by a mer tribe to garner in the remnants of feasts and for protection from the flying dragons and the other dangers they must face.

"They hunt all life," the first break in Sssuri's self-absorption came. "Where they walk the little, harmless peoples face only death. And so it has been here." He had pulled himself over the rim of the cliff, and through the dark Dalgard could hear him panting with the same effort which made his own lungs labor.

Just as the stench of the snake-devil's lair had betrayed its site, here disaster and death had an odor of its own. Dalgard retched before he could control throat and stomach muscles. But Sssuri was unmoved, as if he had expected this.

Then, to Dalgard's surprise the merman set up the first real call he had ever heard issue from that furred throat, a plaintive whistle which had a crooning, summoning note in it, akin to the mind touch in an odd fashion, yet audible. They sat in silence for a long moment, the human's ears as keen for any sound out of the night as those of his companion. Why did Sssuri not use the customary noiseless greeting of his race? When he beamed that inquiry, he met once again that strange, solid wall of non-acceptance which had enclosed the merman as they climbed. As if now there was danger to be feared from following the normal ways.

Again Sssuri whistled, and in that cry Dalgard heard a close resemblance to the flute tone of the night moth birds. Up the scale the notes ran with mournful persistence. When the answer came, the scout at first thought that the imitation had lured a moth bird, for the reply seemed to ripple right above their heads.

Sssuri stood up, and his hand dropped on Dalgard's shoulder, applying pressure which was both a warning and a summons, bringing the scout to his feet with as little noise as possible. The horrible smell caught at his throat, and he was glad when the merman did not head inland toward the source of that odor, but started off along the edge of the cliff, one hand in Dalgard's to draw him along.

Twice more Sssuri paused to whistle, and each time he was answered by a signing note or two which seemed to reassure him.

Against the lighter expanse which was the sea, Dalgard saw the loom of a peak which projected above file general level of the island. Though he knew that the merpeople did not build aboveground, being adept in turning natural caves and crevices into the kind of living quarters they found most satisfactory, the barrenness of this particular rock top was forbidding.

Led by Sssuri, he threaded a tangled patch among outcrops, once-squeezing through a gap which scraped the flesh on his arms as he wriggled. Then the sky was blotted out, the last winking star disappeared, and he realized that he must have entered a cave of sorts, or was at least under an overhang.

The merman did not pause but padded on, tugging Dalgard along, the scout's boots scraping on the rough footing. The colonist was conscious now that they were on an incline, heading down into the heart of the island. They came to a stretch where Sssuri set his hands on holds, patiently shoved his feet into hollowed places, finding for him the ladder steps he could not see, which took him through a sweating, fearful journey of yards to another level, another sloping, downward way.

Here at long last was a fraction of light, not the violet glimmer which had illuminated the underground ways of those Others, but a ghostly radiance which he recognized as the lamps of the mermen—living creatures from the sea depths imprisoned in laboriously fashioned globes of crystal and kept in the caves for the light they yielded.

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