Star Born
by Andre Norton
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But still no mind touch! Never had Dalgard penetrated into the cave cities of the sea folk before without inquiries and open welcome lapping about him. Were they entering a place of massacre where no living merman remained? Yet there was that whistling which had led Sssuri to this place....

And at that moment a shrill keening note arose from the depths to ring in Dalgard's ears, startling him so that he almost lost his footing. Once again Sssuri made answer vocally—but no mind touch.

Then they rounded a curve, and the scout was able to see into the heart of the amphibian territory. This was a natural cave, as were all the merman's dwellings, but its walls had been smoothed and hung with the garlands of shells which they wove in their leisure into strange pictures. Silver-gray sand, smooth and dust-fine, covered the floor to the depth of a foot or more. And opening off the main chamber were small nooks, each marking the private storage place and holding of some family clan. It was a large place, and with a quick estimate Dalgard thought that it had been fashioned to harbor close to a hundred inhabitants, at least the nooks suggested that many. But gathered at the foot of the ledge they were descending, spears poised, were perhaps ten males, some hardly past cubhood, others showing the snowy shine of fur which was the badge of age. And behind them, drawn knives in their ready hands, were half again as many merwomen, forming a protecting wall before a crouching group of cubs.

Sssuri spoke to Dalgard. "Spread out your hands—empty—so that they may see them clearly!"

The scout obeyed. In the limited light his ten fingers were fans, and it was then that he understood the reason for such a move. If these mermen had not seen a colonist before, he might resemble Those Others in their eyes. But only his species on all Astra had five fingers, five toes, and that physical evidence might insure his safety now.

"Why do you bring a destroyer among us? Or do you offer him for our punishment, so that we can lay upon him the doom that his kind have earned?"

The question came with arrow force, and Dalgard held out his hands, hoping they would see the difference before one of those spears from below tore through his flesh.

"Look upon the hands of this—my knife brother—look upon his face. He is not of the race of those you hate, but rather one from the south. Have you of the northern reaches not heard of Those-Who-Help, Those-Who-Came-From-the-Stars?"

"We have heard." But there was no relaxing of tension, not a spear point wavered.

"Look upon his hands," Sssuri insisted. "Come into his mind, for he speaks with us so. And do they do that?"

Dalgard tried to throw open his mind, awaiting the trial. It came quickly, traces of inimical, alien thought, which changed as they touched his mind, reading there only all the friendliness he and his held for the sea people.

"He is not of them." The admission was grudging. As if they did not want to believe that. "Why comes one from the south to this place—now?"

There was an inflection to that "now" which was disturbing.

"After the manner of his people he seeks new things so that he may return and report to his Elders. Then he will receive the spear of manhood and be ready for the choosing of mates," Sssuri translated the reason for Dalgard's quest into the terms of his own people. "He has been my knife brother since we were cubs together, and so I journey with him. But here in the north we have found evil—"

His flow of thought was submerged by a band of hate so red that its impact upon the mind was almost a blow. Dalgard shook his head. He had known that the merpeople, aroused, were deadly fighters, fearless and crafty, and with a staying power beyond that of any human. But their rage was something he had not met before.

"They come once again—they burn with the fire—They are among our islands—"

A cub whimpered and a merwoman stooped to pat it to silence.

"Here they have killed with the fire—"

They did not elaborate upon that statement, and Dalgard had no wish for them to do so. He was still very glad that it had been dark when he had climbed to the top of that cliff, that he had not been able to see what his imagination told him lay there.

"Do they stay?" That was Sssuri.

"Not so. In their sky traveler they go to the land where lies the dark city. There they make much evil against the day when this shall be their land once more."

"But these lie if they think that." Another strong thought broke across the current of communication. "We are not now penned for their pleasure. We may flee into the sea once more, and there live as did our fathers' fathers, and they dare not follow us there—"

"Who knows?" It was Sssuri who raised that objection. "With their ancient knowledge once more theirs, even the depths of the sea may not be ours much longer. Do they not know how to ride upon the air?"

The knot of mer-warriors stirred. Several spears thudded butt down into the sand. And Sssuri accepted that as an invitation to descend, summoning Dalgard after him with a beckoning finger.

Later they sat in a circle in the cushioning gray powder, the two from the south eating dried fish and sea kelp, while Sssuri related, between mouthfuls, their recent adventures.

"Three times have they flown across these islands on their way to that city," the Elder of the pitifully decimated merman tribe told the explorers.

"But this time," broke in one of his companions, "they had with them a new ship—"

"A new ship?" Sssuri pounced upon that scrap of information.

"Yes. The ships of the air in which they travel are fashioned so"—with his knife point he drew a circle in the sand—"but this one was smaller and more in the likeness of a spear with a heavy point—thus"—he made a second sketch beside the first, and Dalgard and Sssuri leaned over to study it.

"That is unlike any of their ships that I have heard of," Sssuri agreed. "Even in the old tales of the Days Before the Burning there is nothing spoken of like that."

"It is true. Therefore we wait now for the coming of our scouts, who were set in hiding upon their sea rock of resting, that they may tell us more concerning this new ship. They should be here within this time of sleeping. Now, go you to rest, which you plainly have need of, and we shall call you when they come."

Dalgard was willing enough to stretch out in the sand in the shadows of the far end of the cave. Beyond him three cubs slumbered together, their arms about each other, and a feeling of peace was there such as he had not known since he left the stronghold of Homeport.

The weird glow of the imprisoned sea monsters gave light to the main part of the cave, and it might still have been night when the scout was shaken awake once more. A group of the merpeople were sitting together, and their thoughts interrupted each other as their excitement arose. Their spies must have returned.

Dalgard crossed to join that group, but it seemed to him that his welcome was not unqualified, and that some of the openness of the early hours of the night was lacking. He might have been once more under suspicion.

"Knife brother"—to Dalgard's sensitive mind that form of address from Sssuri was used for a special purpose: to underline the close bond between them—"listen to the words of Sssim who is a Hider-to-Watch on the island where they rest their ships during the voyage from one land to another." He drew Dalgard down beside him to face a young merman who was staring round-eyed at the colony scout.

"He is like—yet unlike"—his first wisp of thought meant nothing to the scout. "The strangers wear many coverings on their bodies as do they, and they had also coverings upon their heads. They were bigger. Also from their minds I learned that they are not of this world—"

"Not of this world!" Dalgard burst out in his own speech.

"There!" The spy was triumphant. "So did they talk to one another, not with the mind but by making mouth noises, different mouth noises from those that they make. Yes, they are like—but unlike this one."

"And these strangers flew the ship we have not seen before?"

"It is so. But they did not know the way and were guided by the globe. And at least one among them was distrustful of those and wished to be free to return to his own place. He walked by the rocks near my hiding place, and I read his thoughts. No, they were with them, but they are not them!"

"And now they have gone on to the city?" Sssuri probed.

"It was the way their ship flew."

"Like me," Dalgard repeated, and then the truth which might lie behind that exploded within his brain. "Terrans!" he breathed the word. Men of Pax perhaps who had come to hunt down the outlaws who had successfully eluded their rule on earth? But how had the colonists been traced? And why? Or were they other fugitives like themselves? So much, so very much of what the colonists should know of their past had been erased during the time of the Great Sickness twenty years after their landing. Then three fourths of the original immigrants had died. Only the children of the second generation and a handful of weakened Elders had remained. Knowledge was lost and some distorted by failing memories, old skills were gone. But if the new Terrans were in that city.... He had to know—to know and be able to warn his people. For the darkness of Pax was a memory they had not lost!

"I must see them," he said.

"That is true. And only you can tell us what manner of folk these strangers be," the merman chief agreed. "Therefore you shall go ashore with my warriors and look upon them—to tell us the truth. Also we must learn what they do here."

It was decided that using waterways known to the merpeople, one which Dalgard could also take wearing the diving equipment, a scouting party would head shoreward the next day, with the river itself providing the entrance into the heart of the forbidden territory.



Raf leaned back against the wall. Long since the actions of the aliens in the storage house had ceased to interest him, since they would not allow any of the Terrans to approach their plunder and he could not ask questions. Lablet continued to follow the officer about, vainly trying to understand his speech. And Hobart had taken his place by the upper entrance, his hand held stiffly across his body. The pilot knew that the captain was engaged in photographing all this activity with a wristband camera, hoping to make something of it later.

But Raf's own inclination was to slip out and do some exploring in those underground corridors beyond. Having remained where he was for a wearisome time, he noticed that his presence was now taken for granted by the hurrying aliens who brushed about him intent upon their assignments. And slowly he began to edge along the wall toward the other doorway. Once he froze as the officer strode by, Lablet in attendance. But what the painted warrior was looking for was a crystal box on a shelf to Raf's left. When he had pointed that out to an underling he was off again, and Raf was free to continue his crab's progress.

Luck favored him, for, as he reached the moment when he must duck out the portal, there was a sudden flurry at the other end of the chamber where four of the aliens, under a volley of orders, strove to move an unwieldy piece of intricate machinery.

Raf dodged around the door and flattened back against the wall of the room beyond. The moving bars of sun said that it was midday. But the room was empty save for the despoiled carcass, and there was no sign of the aliens who had been sent out to scout.

The Terran ran lightly down the narrow room to the second door, which gave on the lower pits beneath and the way to the arena. As he took that dark way, he drew his stun gun. Its bolt was intended to render the victim unconscious, not to kill. But what effect it might have on the giant reptiles was a question he hoped he would not be forced to answer, and he paused now and then to listen.

There were sounds, deceptive sounds. Noises as regular as footfalls, like a distant padded running. The aliens returning? Or the things they had gone to hunt? Raf crept on—out into the sunshine which filled the arena.

For the first time he studied the enclosure and recognized it for what it was—a place in which savage and bloody entertainments could be provided for the population of the city—and it merely confirmed his opinion of the aliens and all their ways.

The temptation to explore the city was strong. He eyed the grilles speculatively. They could be climbed—he was sure of that. Or he could try some other of the various openings about the sanded area. But as he hesitated over his choice, he heard something from behind. This was no unidentifiable noise, but a scream which held both terror and pain. It jerked him around, sent him running back almost before he thought.

But the scream did not come again. However there were other sounds—snuffing whines—a scrabbling—

Raf found himself in the round room walled by the old prison cells. Stabs of light shot through the gloom, thrusting into a roiling black mass which had erupted through one of the entrances and now held at bay one of the alien warriors. Three or four of the black creatures ringed the alien in, moving with speed that eluded the bolts of light he shot from his weapon, keeping him cornered and from escape, while their fellows worried another alien limp and defenseless on the floor.

It was impossible to align the sights of his stun gun with any of those flitting shadows, Raf discovered. They moved as quickly as a ripple across a pond. He snapped the button on the hand grip to "spray" and proceeded to use the full strength of the charge across the group on the floor.

For several seconds he was afraid that the stun ray would prove to have no effect on the alien metabolism of the creatures, for their weaving, tearing activity did not cease. Then one after another dropped away from the center mass and lay unmoving on the floor. Seeing that he could control them, Raf turned his attention to the others about the standing warrior.

Again he sent the spray wide, and they subsided. As the last curled on the pavement, the alien moved forward and, with a snarl, deliberately turned the full force of his beam weapon on each of the attackers. But Raf plowed on through the limp pile to the warrior they had pulled down.

There was no hope of helping him—death had come with a wide tear in his throat. Raf averted his eyes from the body. The other warrior was methodically killing the stunned animals. And his action held such vicious cruelty that Raf did not want to watch.

When he looked again at the scene, it was to find the narrow barrel of the strange weapon pointed at him. Paying no attention to his dead comrade, the alien was advancing on the Terran as if in Raf he saw only another enemy to be burned down.

Moves drilled in him by long hours of weary practice came almost automatically to the pilot. The stun gun faced the alien rifle sight to sight. And it seemed that the warrior had developed a hearty respect for the Terran arm during the past few minutes, for he slipped his weapon back to the crook of his arm, as if he did not wish Raf to guess he had used it to threaten.

The pilot had no idea what to do now. He did not wish to return to the storehouse. And he believed that the alien was not going to let him go off alone. The ferocity of the creatures now heaped about them had been sobering, an effective warning against venturing alone in these underground ways.

His dilemma was solved by the entrance of a party of aliens from another doorway. They stopped short at the sight of the battlefield, and their leader descended upon the surviving scout for an explanation, which was made with gestures Raf was able to translate in part.

The alien had been far down one of the neighboring corridors with his dead companion when they had been tracked by the pack and had managed to reach this point before they were attacked. For some reason Raf could not understand, the aliens had preferred to flee rather than to face the menace of the hunters. But they had not been fast enough and had been trapped here. The gesturing hands then indicated Raf, acted out the battle which had ensued.

Crossing to the Terran pilot, the alien officer held out his hand and motioned for Raf to surrender his weapon. The pilot shook his head. Did they think him so simple that he would disarm himself at the mere asking? Especially since the warrior had rounded on him like that only a few moments before? Nor did he holster his gun. If they wanted to take it by force just let them try such a move!

His determination to resist must have gotten across to the leader, for he did not urge obedience to his orders. Instead he waved the Terran to join his own party. And since Raf had no reason not to, he did. Leaving the dead, both alien and enemy, where they had fallen, the warriors took another way out of the underground maze, a way which brought them out into a street running to the river.

Here the party spread out, paying close attention to the pavement, as if they were engaged in tracking something. Raf saw impressed in one patch of earth a print dried by the sun, left by one of the reptiles. And there were smaller tracks he could not identify. All were inspected carefully, but none of them appeared to be what his companions sought.

They trotted up and down along the river bank, and from what he had already observed concerning the aliens, Raf thought that the leader, at least, was showing exasperation and irritation. They expected to find something—it was not there—but it had to be! And they were fast reaching the point where they wanted to produce it themselves to justify the time spent in hunting for it.

Ruthlessly they rayed to death any creature their dragnet drove into the open, leaving feebly kicking bodies of the furry, long-legged beasts Raf had first seen after the landing of the spacer. He could not understand the reason for such wholesale extermination, since certainly the rabbitlike rodents were harmless.

In the end they gave up their quest and circled back to come out near the field where the flitter and the globe rested. When the Terran flyer came into sight, Raf left the party and hurried toward it. Soriki waved a welcoming hand.

"'Bout time one of you showed up. What are they doing—toting half the city here to load into that thing?"

Raf looked along the other's pointing finger. A party of aliens towing a loaded dolly were headed for the gaping hatch of the globe, while a second party and an empty conveyance passed them on the way back to the storehouse.

"They are emptying a warehouse, or trying to."

"Well, they act as if Old Time himself was heating their tails with a rocket flare. What's the big hurry?"

"Somebody's been here." Swiftly Raf outlined what he had seen in the city, and ended by describing the hunt in which he had taken an unwilling part. "I'm hungry," he ended and went to burrow for a ration pack.

"So," mused Soriki as Raf chewed the stuff which never had the flavor of fresh provisions, "somebody's been trying to beat the painted lads to it. The furry people?"

"It was a spear shaft they found broken with the dead lizard thing," Raf commented. "And some of those on the island were armed with spears—"

"Must be good fighters if, armed with spears, they brought down a reptile as big as you say. It was big, wasn't it?"

Raf stared at the city, a square of half-eaten concentrate in his fingers. Yes, that was a puzzler. The dead monster would be more than he would care to tackle without a blaster. And yet it was dead, with a smashed spear for evidence as to the manner of killing.

All those others dead in the arena, too. How large a party had invaded the city? Where were they now?

"I'd like to know," he was speaking more to himself than to the com-tech, "how they did do it. No other bodies—"

"Those could have been taken away by their friends," Soriki suggested. "But if they're still hanging about, I hope they won't believe that we're bigger and better editions of the painted lads. I don't want a spear through me!"

Raf, remembering the maze of lanes and streets—bordered by buildings which could provide hundreds of lurking places for attackers—which he had threaded with the confidence of ignorance earlier that day, began to realize why the aliens had been so nervous. Had a sniper with a blast rifle been stationed at a vantage point somewhere on the roofs today none of them would ever have returned to this field. And even a few spacemen with good cover and accurate throwing aim could have cut down their number a quarter or a third. He was developing a strong distaste for those structures. And he had no intention of returning to the city again.

He lounged about with Soriki for the rest of the afternoon, watching the ceaseless activity of the aliens. It was plain that they were intent upon packing into the cargo hold of their ship everything they could wrest from the storage house. As if they must make this trip count double. Was that because they had discovered that their treasure house was no longer inviolate?

In the late afternoon Hobart and Lablet came back with one of the work teams. Lablet was still excited, full of what he had seen, deduced, or guessed during the day. But the captain was very quiet and sober, and he unstrapped the wrist camera as soon as he reached the flitter, turning it over to Soriki.

"Run that through the ditto," he ordered. "I want two records as soon as we can get them!"

The com-tech's eyebrows slid up, "Think you might lose one, sir?"

"I don't know. Anyway, we'll play it safe with double records." He accepted the ration pack Raf had brought out for him. But he did not unwrap it at once; instead he stared at the globe, digging the toe of his space boot into the soil as if he were grinding something to powder.

"They're operating under full jets," he commented. "As if they were about due to be jumped—"

"They told us that this was territory now held by their enemies," Lablet reminded him.

"And who are these mysterious enemies?" the captain wanted to know. "Those animals back on that island?"

Raf wanted to say yes, but Lablet broke in with a question concerning what had happened to him, and the pilot outlined his adventures of the day, not forgetting to give emphasis to the incident in the celled room when the newly rescued alien had turned upon him.

"Naturally they are suspicious," Lablet countered, "but for a people who lack space flight, I find them unusually open-minded and ready to accept us, strange as we must seem to them."

"Ditto done, Captain." Soriki stepped out of the flitter, the wrist camera dangling from his fingers.

"Good." But Hobart did not buckle the strap about his arm once more, neither did he pay any attention to Lablet. Instead, apparently coming to some decision, he swung around to face Raf.

"You went out with that scouting party today. Think you could join them again, if you see them moving for another foray?"

"I could try."

"Sure," Soriki chuckled, "they couldn't do any more than pop him back at us. What do you think about them, sir? Are they fixing to blast us?"

But the captain refused to be drawn. "I'd just like to have a record of any more trips they make." He handed the camera to Raf. "Put that on and don't forget to trigger it if you do go. I don't believe they'll go out tonight. They aren't too fond of being out in the open in darkness. We saw that last night. But keep an eye on them in the morning—"

"Yes, sir." Raf buckled on the wristband. He wished that Hobart would explain just what he was to look for, but the captain appeared to think that he had made everything perfectly plain. And he walked off with Lablet, heading to the globe, as if there was nothing more to be said.

Soriki stretched. "I'd say we'd better take it watch and watch," he said slowly. "The captain may think that they won't go off in the dark, but we don't know everything about them. Suppose we just keep an eye on them, and then you'll be ready to tail—"

Raf laughed. "Tailing would be it. I don't think I'll have a second invitation and if I get lost—"

But Soriki shook his head. "That you won't. At least if you do—I'm going to make a homer out of you. Just tune in your helmet buzzer."

It needed a com-tech to think of a thing like that! A small adjustment to the earphones built into his helmet, and Soriki, operating the flitter com, could give him a guide as efficient as the spacer's radar! He need not fear being lost in the streets should he lose touch with those he was spying upon.

"You're on course!" He pulled off his helmet and then glanced up to find Soriki smiling at him.

"Oh, we're not such a bad collection of space bums. Maybe you'll find that out someday, boy. They breezed you into this flight right out of training, didn't they?"

"Just about," Raf admitted cautiously, on guard as ever against revealing too much of himself. After all, his experience was part of his record, which was open to anyone on board the spacer. Yes, he was not a veteran; they must all know that.

"Someday you'll lose a little of that suspicion," the com-tech continued, "and find out it isn't such a bad old world after all. Here, let's see if you're on the beam." He took the helmet out of Raf's hands and, drawing a small case of delicate instruments from his belt pouch, unscrewed the ear plates of the com device and made some adjustments. "Now that will keep you on the buzzer without bursting your eardrums. Try it."

Raf fastened on the helmet and started away from the flitter. The buzzer which he had expected to roar in his ears was only a faint drone, and above it he could easily hear other sounds. Yet it was there, and he tested it by a series of loops away from the flyer. Each time as he came on the true beam he was rewarded by a deepening of the muted note. Yes, he could be a homer with that, and at the same time be alert to any other noise in his vicinity.

"That's it!" He paid credit where it was due. But he was unable to break his long habit of silence. Something within him still kept him wary of the com-tech's open friendliness.

None of the aliens approached the flitter as the shadows began to draw in. The procession of moving teams stopped, and most of the burden-bearing warriors withdrew to the globe and stayed there. Soriki pointed this out.

"They're none too sure, themselves. Look as if they are closing up for the night."

Indeed it did. The painted men had hauled up their ramp, the hatch in the globe closed with a definite snap. Seeing that, the com-tech laughed.

"We have a double reason for a strict watch. Suppose whatever they've been looking for jumps us? They're not worrying over that it now appears."

So they took watch and watch, three hours on and three hours in rest. When it came Raf's turn he did not remain sitting in the flitter, listening to the com-tech's heavy breathing, but walked a circular beat which took him into the darkness of the night in a path about the flyer. Overhead the stars were sharp and clear, glittering gem points. But in the dead city no light showed, and he was sure that no aliens camped there tonight.

He was sleeping when Soriki's grasp on his shoulder brought him to that instant alertness he had learned on field maneuvers half the Galaxy away.

"Business," the com-tech's voice was not above a whisper as he leaned over the pilot. "I think they are on the move."

The light was the pale gray of pre-dawn. Raf pulled himself up with caution to look at the globe. The com-tech was right. A dark opening showed on the alien ship; they had released their hatch. He fastened his tunic, buckled on his equipment belt and helmet, strapped his boots.

"Here they come!" Soriki reported. "One—two—five—no, six of them. And they're heading for the city. No dollies with them, but they're all armed."

Together the Terrans watched that patrol of alien warriors, their attitude suggesting that they hoped to pass unseen, hurry toward the city. Then Raf slipped out of the flyer. His dark clothing in this light should render him largely invisible.

Soriki waved encouragingly and the pilot answered with a quick salute before he sped after his quarry.



Dalgard's feet touched gravel; he waded cautiously to the bank, where a bridge across the river made a concealing shadow on the water. None of the mermen had accompanied him this far. Sssuri, as soon as his human comrade had started for the storage city, had turned south to warn and rally the tribes. And the merpeople of the islands had instituted a loose chain of communication, which led from a clump of water reeds some two miles back to the seashore, and so out to the islands. Better than any of the now legendary coms of his Terran forefathers were these minds of the spies in hiding, who could pick up the racing thoughts beamed to them and pass them on to their fellows.

Although there were no signs of life about the city, Dalgard moved with the same care that he would have used in penetrating a snake-devil's lair. In the first hour of dawn he had contacted a hopper. The small beast had been frightened almost out of coherent thought, and Dalgard had had to spend some time in allaying that terror to get a fractional idea of what might be going on in this countryside.

Death—the hopper's terror had come close to insanity. Killers had come out of the sky, and they were burning—burning—All living things were fleeing before them. And in that moment Dalgard had been forced to give up his plan for an unseen spy ring, which would depend upon the assistance of the animals. His information must come via his own eyes and ears.

So he kept on, posting the last of the mermen in his mental relay well away from the city, but swimming upstream himself. Now that he was here, he could see no traces of the invaders. Since they could not have landed their sky ships in the thickly built-up section about the river, it must follow that their camp lay on the outskirts of the metropolis.

He pulled himself out of the water. Bow and arrows had been left behind with the last merman; he had only his sword-knife for protection. But he was not there to fight, only to watch and wait. Pressing the excess moisture out of his scant clothing, he crept along the shore. If the strangers were using the streets, it might be well to get above them. Speculatively he eyed the buildings about him as he entered the city.

Dalgard continued to keep at street level for two blocks, darting from doorway to shadowed doorway, alert not only to any sound but to any flicker of thought. He was reasonably sure, however, that the aliens would be watching and seeking only for the merpeople. Though they were not telepathic as their former slaves, Those Others were able to sense the near presence of a merman, so that the sea people dared not communicate while within danger range of the aliens without betraying themselves. It was the fact that he was of a different species, therefore possibly immune to such detection, which had brought Dalgard into the city.

He studied the buildings ahead. Among them was a cone-shaped structure which might have been the base of a tower that had had all stories above the third summarily amputated. It was ornamented with a series of bands in high relief, bands bearing the color script of the aliens. This was the nearest answer to his problem. However the scout did not move toward it until after a long moment of both visual and mental inspection of his surroundings. But that inspection did not reach some twelve streets away where another crouched to watch. Dalgard ran lightly to the tower at the same moment that Raf shifted his weight from one foot to the other behind a parapet as he spied upon the knot of aliens gathered below him in the street....

The pilot had followed them since that early morning hour when Soriki had awakened him. Not that the chase had led him far in distance. Most of the time he had spent in waiting just as he was doing now. At first he had believed that they were searching for something, for they had ventured into several buildings, each time to emerge conferring, only to hunt out another and invade it. Since they always returned with empty hands, he could not believe that they were out for further loot. Also they moved with more confidence than they had shown the day before. That confidence led Raf to climb above them so that he could watch them with less chance of being seen in return.

It had been almost noon when they had at last come into this section. If two of them had not remained idling on the street as the long moments crept by, he would have believed that they had given him the slip, that he was now a cat watching a deserted mouse hole. But at the moment they were coming back, carrying something.

Raf leaned as far over the parapet as he dared, trying to catch a better look at the flat, boxlike object two of them had deposited on the pavement. Whatever it was either needed some adjustment or they were attempting to open it with poor success, for they had been busied about it for what seemed an unusually long time. The pilot licked dry lips and wondered what would happen if he swung down there and just walked in for a look-see. That idea was hardening into resolution when suddenly the group below drew quickly apart, leaving the box sitting alone as they formed a circle about it.

There was a puff of white vapor, a protesting squawk, and the thing began to rise in jerks as if some giant in the sky was pulling at it spasmodically. Raf jumped back. Before he could return to his vantage point, he saw it rise above the edge of the parapet, reach a level five or six feet above his head, hovering there. It no longer climbed; instead it began to swing back and forth, describing in each swing a wider stretch of space.

Back and forth—watching it closely made him almost dizzy. What was its purpose? Was it a detection device, to locate him? Raf's hand went to his stun gun. What effect its rays might have on the box he had no way of knowing, but at that moment he was sorely tempted to try the beam out, with the oscillating machine as his target.

The motion of the floating black thing became less violent, its swoop smoother as if some long-idle motor was now working more as its builders had intended it to perform. The swing made wide circles, graceful glides as the thing explored the air currents.

Searching—it was plainly searching for something. Just as plainly it could not be hunting for him, for his presence on that roof would have been uncovered at once. But the machine was—it must be—out of sight of the warriors in the street. How could they keep in touch with it if it located what they sought? Unless it had some built-in signaling device.

Determined to keep it in sight, Raf risked a jump from the parapet of the building where he had taken cover to another roof beyond, running lightly across that as the hound bobbed and twisted, away from its masters, out across the city in pursuit of some mysterious quarry....

* * * * *

The climb which had looked so easy from the street proved to be more difficult when Dalgard actually made it. His hours of swimming in the river, the night of broken rest, had drained his strength more than he had known. He was panting as he flattened himself against the wall, his feet on one of the protruding bands of colored carving, content to rest before reaching for another hold. To all appearances the city about him was empty of life and, except for the certainty of the merpeople that the alien ship and its strange companion had landed here, he would have believed that he was on a fruitless quest.

Grimly, his lower lip caught between his teeth, the scout began to climb once more, the sun hot on his body, drawing sweat to dampen his forehead and his hands. He did not pause again but kept on until he stood on the top of the shortened tower. The roof here was not flat but sloped inward to a cuplike depression, where he could see the outline of a round opening, perhaps a door of sorts. But at that moment he was too winded to do more than rest.

There was a drowsiness in that air. He was tempted to curl up where he sat and turn his rest into the sleep his body craved. It was in that second or so of time when he was beginning to relax, to forget the tenseness which had gripped him since his return to this ill-omened place, that he touched—

Dalgard stiffened as if one of his own poisoned arrows had pricked his skin. Rapport with the merpeople, with the hoppers and the runners, was easy, familiar. But this was no such touch. It was like contacting something which was icy cold, inimical from birth, something which he could never meet on a plain of understanding. He snapped off mind questing at that instant and huddled where he was, staring up into the blank turquoise of the sky, waiting—for what he did not know. Unless it was for that other mind to follow and ferret out his hiding place, to turn him inside out and wring from him everything he ever knew or hoped to learn.

As time passed in long breaths, and he was not so invaded, he began to think that while he had been aware of contact, the other had not. And, emboldened, he sent out a tracer. Unconsciously, as the tracer groped, he pivoted his body. It lay—there!

At the second touch he withdrew in the same second, afraid of revelation. But as he returned to probe delicately, ready to flee at the first hint that the other suspected, his belief in temporary safety grew. To his disappointment he could not pierce beyond the outer wall of identity. There was a living creature of a high rate of intelligence, a creature alien to his own thought processes, not too far away. And though his attempts to enter into closer communication grew bolder, he could not crack the barrier which kept them apart. He had long known that contact with the merpeople was on a lower, a far lower, band than they used when among themselves, and that they were only able to "talk" with the colonists because for generations they had exchanged thought symbols with the hoppers and other unlike species. They had been frank in admitting that while Those Others could be aware of their presence through telepathic means, they could not exchange thoughts. So now, his own band, basically strange to this planet, might well go unnoticed by the once dominant race of Astra.

They—or him—or it—were over in that direction, Dalgard was sure of that. He faced northwest and saw for the first time, about a mile away, the swelling of the globe. If the strange flyer reported by the merpeople was beside it, he could not distinguish it from this distance. Yet he was sure the mind he had located was closer to him than that ship.

Then he saw it—a black object rising by stiff jerks into the air as if it were being dragged upward against its inclination. It was too small to be a flyer of any sort. Long ago the colonists had patched together a physical description of Those Others which had assured them that the aliens were close to them in general characteristics and size. No, that couldn't be carrying a passenger. Then what—or why?

The object swung out in a gradually widening circle. Dalgard held to the walled edge of the roof. Something within him suggested that it would be wiser to seek some less open space, that there was danger in that flying box. He released his hold and went to the trap door. It took only a minute to fit his fingers into round holes and tug. Its stubborn resistance gave, and stale air whooshed out in his face as it opened.

In his battle with the door Dalgard had ignored the box, so he was startled when, with a piercing whistle, almost too high on the scale for his ears to catch, the thing suddenly swooped into a screaming dive, apparently heading straight for him. Dalgard flung himself through the trap door, luckily landing on one of the steep, curved ramps. He lost his balance and slid down into the dark, trying to brake his descent with his hands, the eerie screech of the box trumpeting in his ears.

There was little light in this section of the cone building, and he was brought up with bruising force against a blank wall two floors below where he had so unceremoniously entered. As he lay in the dark trying to gasp some breath back into his lungs, he could still hear the squeal. Was it summoning? There was no time to be lost in getting away.

On his hands and knees the scout crept along what must have been a short hall until he found a second descending ramp, this one less steep than the first, so that he was able to keep to his feet while using it. And the gloom of the next floor was broken by odd scraps of light which showed through pierced portions of the decorative bands. The door was there, a locking bar across it.

Dalgard did not try to shift that at once, although he laid his hands upon it. If the box was a hound for hunters, had it already drawn its masters to this building? Would he open the door only to be faced by the danger he wished most to avoid? Desperately he tried to probe with the mind touch. But he could not find the alien band. Was that because the hunters could control their minds as they crept up? His kind knew so little of Those Others, and the merpeople's hatred of their ancient masters was so great that they tended to avoid rather than study them.

The scout's sixth sense told him that nothing waited outside. But the longer he lingered with that beacon overhead the slimmer his chances would be. He must move and quickly. Sliding back the bar, he opened the door a crack and looked out into a deserted street. There was another doorway to take shelter in some ten feet or so farther along, beyond that an alley wall overhung by a balcony. He marked these refuges and went out to make his first dash to safety.

Nothing stirred, and he sprinted. There came again that piercing shriek to tear his ears as the floating box dived at him. He swerved away from the doorway to dart on under the balcony, sure now that he must keep moving, but under cover so that the black thing could not pounce. If he could find some entrance into the underground ways such as those that ran from the arena—But now he was not even sure in which direction the arena stood, and he dared no longer climb to look over the surrounding territory.

He touched the alien mind! They were moving in, following the lead of their hound. He must not allow himself to be cornered. The scout fought down a surge of panic, attempted to battle the tenseness which tied his nerves. He must not run mindlessly either. That was probably just what they wanted him to do. So he stood under the balcony and tried not to listen to the shrilling of the box as he studied the strip of alley.

This was a narrow side way, and he had not made the wisest of choices in entering it, for not much farther ahead it was bordered with smooth walls protecting what had once been gardens. He had no way of telling whether the box would actually attack him if he were caught in the open—to put that to the test was foolhardy—nor could he judge its speed of movement.

The walls.... A breeze which blew up the lane carried with it the smell of the river. There was a slim chance that it might end in water, and he had a feeling that if he could reach the stream he would be able to baffle the hunters. He did not have long to make up his mind—the aliens were closer.

Lightly Dalgard ran under the length of the balcony, turned sharply as he reached the end of its protecting cover, and leaped. His fingers gripped the ornamental grillwork, and he was able to pull himself up and over to the narrow runway. A canopy was still over his head, and there came a bump against it as the baffled box thumped. So it would try to knock him off if it could get the chance! That was worth knowing.

He looked over the walls. They guarded masses of tangled vegetation grown through years of neglect into thick mats. And those promised a way of escape, if he could reach them. He studied the windows, the door opening onto the balcony. With the hilt of his sword-knife he smashed his way into the house, to course swiftly through the rooms to the lower floor, and find the entrance to the garden.

Facing that briary jungle on the ground level was a little daunting. To get through it would be a matter of cutting his way. Could he do it and escape that bobbing, shrilling thing in the air? A trace of pebbled path gave him a ghost of a chance, and he knew that these shrubs tended to grow upward and not mass until they were several feet above the ground.

Trusting to luck, Dalgard burrowed into the green mass, slashing with his knife at anything which denied him entrance. He was swallowed up in a strange dim world wherein dead shrubs and living were twined together to form a roof, cutting off the light and heat of the sun. From the sour earth, sliming his hands and knees, arose an overpowering stench of decay and disturbed mold. In the dusk he had to wait for his eyes to adjust before he could mark the line of the old path he had taken for his guide.

Fortunately, after the first few feet, he discovered that the tunneled path was less obstructed than he had feared. The thick mat overhead had kept the sun from the ground and killed off all the lesser plants so that it was possible to creep along a fairly open strip. He was conscious of the chitter of insects, but no animals lingered here. Under him the ground grew more moist and the mold was close to mud in consistency. He dared to hope that this meant he was either approaching the river or some garden stream feeding into the larger flood.

Somewhere the squeal of the hunter kept up a steady cry, but, unless the foliage above him was distorting that sound, Dalgard believed that the box was no longer directly above him. Had he in some way thrown it off his trail?

He found his stream, a thread of water, hardly more than a series of scummy pools with the vegetation still meeting almost solidly over it. And it brought him to a wall with a drain through which he was sure he could crawl. Disliking to venture into that cramped darkness, but seeing no other way out, the scout squirmed forward in slime and muck, feeling the rasp of rough stone on his shoulders as he made his worm's progress into the unknown.

Once he was forced to halt and, in the dark, loosen and pick out stones embedded in the mud bottom narrowing the passage. On the other side of that danger point, he was free to wriggle on. Could the box trace him now? He had no idea of the principle on which it operated; he could only hope.

Then before him he saw the ghostly gray of light and squirmed with renewed vigor—to be faced then by a grille, beyond which was the open world. Once more his knife came into use as he pried and dug at the barrier. He worked for long moments until the grille splashed out into the sluggish current a foot or so below, and then he made ready to lower himself into the same flood.

It was only because he was a trained hunter that he avoided death in that moment. Some instinct made him dodge even as he slipped through, and the hurtling black box did not strike true at the base of his brain but raked along his scalp, tearing the flesh and sending him tumbling unconscious into the brown water.



Raf was two streets away from the circling box but still able to keep it in sight when its easy glide stopped, and, in a straight line, it swooped toward a roof emitting a shrill, rising whistle. It rose again a few seconds later as if baffled, but it continued to hover at that point, keening forth its warning. The pilot reached the next building, but a street still kept him away from the conical structure above which the box now hung.

Undecided, he stayed where he was. Should he go down to street level and investigate? Before he had quite made up his mind he saw the foremost of the alien scouting party round into the thoroughfare below and move purposefully at the cone tower, weapons to the fore. Judging by their attitude, the box had run to earth there the prey they had been searching for.

But it wasn't to be so easy. With another eerie howl the machine soared once more and bobbed completely over the cone to the street which must lie beyond it. Raf knew that he could not miss the end of the chase and started on a detour along the roof tops which should bring him to a vantage point. By the time he had made that journey he found himself on a warehouse roof which projected over the edge of the river.

From a point farther downstream a small boat was putting out. Two of the aliens paddled while a third crouched in the bow. A second party was picking its way along the bank some distance away, both groups seemingly heading toward a point a building or two to the left of the one where Raf had taken cover.

He heard the shrilling of the box, saw it bobbing along a line toward the river. But in that direction there was only a mass of green. The end to the weird chase came so suddenly that he was not prepared, and it was over before he caught a good look at the quarry. Something moved down on the river bank and in that same instant the box hurtled earthward as might a spear. It struck, and the creature who had just crawled out—out of the ground as far as Raf could see—toppled into the stream. As the waters closed over the body, the box slued around and came to rest on the bank. The party in the boat sent their small craft flying toward the spot where the crawler had sunk.

One of the paddlers abandoned his post and slipped over the side, diving into the oily water. He made two tries before he was successful and came to the surface with the other in tow. They did not try to heave the unconscious captive into the boat, merely kept the lolling head above water as they turned downstream once more and vanished from Raf's sight around the end of a pier, while the second party on the bank reclaimed the now quiet box and went off.

But Raf had seen enough to freeze him where he was for a moment. The creature which had popped out of the ground only to be struck by the box and knocked into the river—he would take oath on the fact that it was not one of the furred animals he had seen on the sea island. Surely it had been smooth-skinned, not unlike the aliens in conformation—one of their own kind they had been hunting down, a criminal or a rebel?

Puzzled, the pilot moved along from roof to roof, trying to pick up the trail of the party in the boat, but as far as he could now see, the river was bare. If they had come ashore anywhere along here, they had simply melted into the city. At last he was forced to use the homing beam, and it guided him back across the deserted metropolis to the field.

There was still activity about the globe; they were bringing in the loot from the warehouse, but Lablet and Hobart stood by the flitter. As the pilot came up to them, the captain looked up eagerly.

"What happened?"

Raf sensed that there had been some change during his absence, that Hobart was looking to him for an explanation to make clear happenings here. He told his story of the hunt and its ending, the capture of the stranger. Lablet nodded as he finished.

"That is the reason for this, you may depend upon it, Captain. One of their own people is at the bottom of it."

"Of what?" Raf wanted to ask, but Soriki did it for him.

Hobart smiled grimly. "We are all traveling back together. Take off in the early morning. For some reason they wanted us out of the globe in a hurry—practically shoved us out half an hour ago."

Though the Terrans kept a watch on the larger ship as long as the light lasted, the darkness defeated them. They did not see the prisoner being taken aboard. Yet none of them doubted that sometime during the dusky hours it had been done.

It was barely dawn when the globe took off the next day, and Raf brought the flitter up on its trail, heading westward into the sea wind. Below them the land held no signs of life. They swept over the deserted, terraced city that was the gateway to the guarded interior, flew back over the line of sea islands. Raf climbed higher, not caring to go too near the island where the aliens had wrought their terrible vengeance on the trip out. And all four of the Terrans knew relief, though they might not admit it to each other, when once more Soriki was able to establish contact with the distant spacer.

"Turn north, sir?" the pilot suggested. "I could ride her beam in from here—we don't have to follow them home." He wanted to do that so badly it was almost a compulsion to make his hand move on the controls. And when Hobart did not answer at once, he was sure that the captain would give that very order, taking them out of the company of those he had never trusted.

But Lablet spoiled that. "We have their word, Captain. That anti-grav unit that they showed us last night alone—"

So Hobart shook his head, and they meekly continued on the path set by the globe across the ocean.

As the hours passed Raf's inner uneasiness grew. For some queer reason which he could not define to himself or explain to anyone else, he was now possessed by an urgency to trail the globe which transcended and then erased his dislike of the aliens. It was as if some appeal for help was being broadcast from the other ship, drawing him on. It was then that he began to question his assumption that the prisoner was one of them.

Over and over again in his mind he tried to re-picture the capture as he had witnessed it from the building just too far away and at slightly the wrong angle for a clear view. He would swear that the body he had seen tumble into the flood had not been furred, that much he was sure of. But clothing, yes, there had been clothing. Not—his mind suddenly produced that one scrap of memory—not the bandage windings of the aliens. And hadn't the skin been fairer? Was there another race on this continent, one they had not been told about?

When they at last reached the shore of the western continent and finally the home city of the aliens, the globe headed back to its berth, not in the roof cradle from which it had arisen, but sinking into the building itself. Raf brought the flitter down on a roof as close to the main holding of the painted people as he could get. None of the aliens came near them. It seemed that they were to be ignored. Hobart paced along the flat roof, and Soriki sat in the flyer, nursing his com, intent upon the slender thread of beam which tied them to the parent ship so many miles away.

"I don't understand it." Lablet's voice arose almost plaintively. "They were so very persuasive about our accompanying them. They were eager to have us see their treasures—"

Hobart swung around. "Somehow the balance of power has changed," he observed, "in their favor. I'd give anything to know more about that prisoner of theirs. You're sure it wasn't one of the furry people?" he asked Raf, as if hoping against hope that the pilot would reply in doubt.

"Yes, sir." Raf hesitated. Should he air his suspicions, that the captive was not of the same race as his captors either? But what proof had he beyond a growing conviction that he could not substantiate?

"A rebel, a thief—" Lablet was ready to dismiss it as immaterial. "Naturally they would be upset if they were having trouble with one of their own men. But to leave now, just when we are on the verge of new discoveries—That anti-gravity unit alone is worth our whole trip! Imagine being able to return to earth with the principle of that!"

"Imagine being able to return to earth with our skins on our backs," was Soriki's whispered contribution. "If we had the sense of a Venusian water nit, we'd blast out of here so quick our tail fumes'd take off with us!"

Privately Raf concurred, but the urge to know more about the mysterious prisoner was still pricking at him, until he, contrary to his usual detachment, felt driven to discover all that he could. It was almost, but Raf shied away from that wild idea, it was almost as if he were hearing a voiceless cry for aid, as if his mind was one of Soriki's coms tuned in on an unknown wave length. He was angrily impatient with himself for that fantastic supposition. At the same time, another part of his mind, as he walked to the edge of the roof and looked out at the buildings he knew were occupied by the aliens, was busy examining the scene as if he intended to crawl about on roof tops on a second scouting expedition.

Finally the rest decided that Lablet and Hobart were to try to establish contact with the aliens once more. After they had gone, Raf opened a compartment in the flitter, the contents of which were his particular care. He squatted on his heels and surveyed the neatly stowed objects inside thoughtfully. A survival kit depended a great deal on the type of terrain in which the user was planning to survive—an aquatic world would require certain basic elements, a frozen tundra others—but there were a few items common to every emergency, and those were now at Raf's fingertips. The blast bombs, sealed into their pexilod cases, guaranteed to stop all the attackers that Terran explorers had so far met on and off worlds, a coil of rope hardly thicker than a strand of knitting yarn but of inconceivable toughness and flexibility, an aid kit with endurance drugs and pep pills which could keep a man on his feet and going long after food and water failed. He had put them all in their separate compartments.

For a long moment he hunkered there, studying the assortment. And then, almost as if some will other than his own was making a choice, he reached out. The rope curled about his waist under his tunic so tautly that its presence could not be detected without a search, blast bombs went into the sealed seam pocket on his breast, and two flat containers with their capsules were tucked away in his belt pouch. He snapped the door shut and got to his feet to discover Soriki watching him. Only for a moment was Raf disconcerted. He knew that he would not be able to explain why he must do what he was going to do. There was no reason why he should. Soriki, except for being a few years his senior, had no authority over him. He was not under the com-tech's orders.

"Another trip into the blue?"

The pilot replied to that with a nod.

"Somehow, boy, I don't think anything's going to stop you, so why waste my breath? But use your homer—and your eyes!"

Raf paused. There was an unmistakable note of friendliness in the com-tech's warning. Almost he was tempted to try and explain. But how could one make plain feelings for which there was no sensible reason? Sometimes it was better to be quiet.

"Don't dig up more than you can rebury." That warning, in the slang current when they had left Terra, was reassuring simply because it was of the earth he knew. Raf grinned. But he did not head toward the roof opening and the ramp inside the building. Instead he set a course he had learned in the other city, swinging down to the roof of the neighboring structure, intent on working away from the inhabited section of the town before he went into the streets.

Either the aliens had not set any watch on the Terrans or else all their interest was momentarily engaged elsewhere. Raf, having gone three or four blocks in the opposite direction to his goal, made his way through a silent, long-deserted building to the street without seeing any of the painted people. In his ear buzzed the comforting hum of the com, tying him with the flitter and so, in a manner, to safety.

He knew that the alien community had gathered in and around the central building they had visited. To his mind the prisoner was now either in the headquarters of the warriors, where the globe had been berthed, or had been taken to the administration building. Whether he could penetrate either stronghold was a question Raf did not yet face squarely.

But the odd something which tugged at him was as persistent as the buzz in his earphones. And an idea came. If he were obeying some strange call for assistance, couldn't that in some way lead him to what he sought? The only difficulty was that he had no way of being more receptive to the impulse than he now was. He could not use it as a compass bearing.

In the end he chose the Center as his goal, reasoning that if the prisoner were to be interviewed by the leaders of the aliens, he would be taken to those rulers, they would not go to him. From a concealed place across from the open square on which the building fronted, the pilot studied it carefully. It towered several stories above the surrounding structures, to some of which it was tied by the ways above the streets. To use one of those bridges as a means of entering the headquarters would be entirely too conspicuous.

As far as the pilot was able to judge, there was only one entrance on the ground level, the wide front door with the imposing picture-covered gates. Had he had free use of the flitter he might have tried to swing down from the hovering machine after dark. But he was sure that Captain Hobart would not welcome the suggestion.

Underground? There had been those ways in that other city, a city which, though built on a much smaller scale, was not too different in general outline from this one. The idea was worth investigation.

The doorway, which had afforded him a shelter from which to spy out the land, yielded to his push, and he went through three large rooms on the ground floor, paying no attention to the strange groups of furnishings, but seeking something else, which he had luck to find in the last room, a ramp leading down.

It was in the underground that he made his first important find. They had seen ground vehicles in the city, a few still in operation, but Raf had gathered that the fuel and extra parts for the machines were now so scarce that they were only used in emergencies. Here, however, was a means of transportation quite different, a tunnel through which ran a ribbon of belt, wide enough to accommodate three or four passengers at once. It did not move, but when Raf dared to step out upon its surface, it swung under his weight. Since it ran in the general direction of the Center he decided to use it. It trembled under his tread, but he found that he could run along it making no sound.

The tunnel was not in darkness, for square plates set in the roof gave a diffused violet light. However, not too far ahead, the light was brighter, and it came from one side, not the roof. Another station on this abandoned way? The pilot approached it with caution. If his bump of direction was not altogether off, this must be either below the Center or very close to it.

The second station proved to be a junction where more than one of the elastic paths met. Though he crouched to listen for a long moment before venturing out into that open space, he could hear or see nothing which suggested that the aliens ever came down now to these levels.

They had provided an upward ramp, and Raf climbed it, only to meet his first defeat at its top. For here was no opening to admit him to the ground floor of what he hoped was the Center. Baffled by the smooth surface over which he vainly ran his hands seeking for some clue to the door, he decided that the aliens had, for some purpose of their own, walled off the lower regions. Discouraged, he returned to the junction level. But he was not content to surrender his plans so easily. Slowly he made a circuit of the platform, examining the walls and celling. He found an air shaft, a wide opening striking up into the heart of the building above.

It was covered with a grille and it was above his reach but....

Raf measured distances and planned his effort. The mouth of a junction tunnel ran less than two feet away from that grille. The opening was outlined with a ledge, which made a complete arch from the floor. He stopped and triggered the gravity plates in his space boots. Made to give freedom of action when the ship was in free fall, they might just provide a weak suction here. And they did! He was able to climb that arch and, standing on it, work loose the grille which had been fashioned to open. Now....

The pilot flashed his hand torch up into that dark well. He had been right—and lucky! There were holds at regular intervals, something must have been serviced by workmen in here. This was going to be easy. His fingers found the first hold, and he wormed his way into the shaft.

It was not a difficult climb, for there were niches along the way where the alien mechanics who had once made repairs had either rested or done some of their work. And there were also grilles on each level which gave him at least a partial view of what lay beyond.

His guess was right; he recognized the main hall of the Center as he climbed past the grid there, heading up toward those levels where he was sure the leaders of the aliens had their private quarters. Twice he paused to look in upon conferences of the gaudily wrapped and painted civilians, but, since he could not understand what they were saying, it was a waste of time to linger.

He was some eight floors up when chance, luck, or that mysterious something which had brought him into this venture, led him to the right place at the right time. There was one of those niches, and he had just settled into it, peering out through the grid, when he saw the door at the opposite end of the room open and in marched a party of warriors with a prisoner in their midst.

Raf's eyes went wide. It was the captive he sought; he had no doubt of that. But who—what—was that prisoner?

This was no fur-covered half-animal, nor was it one of the delicate-boned, decadent, painted creatures such as those who now ringed in their captive. Though the man had been roughly handled and now reeled rather than walked, Raf thought for one wild instant that it was one of the crew from the spacer. The light hair, showing rings of curl, the tanned face which, beneath dirt and bruises, displayed a very familiar cast of features, the body hardly covered by rags of clothing—they were all so like those of his own kind that his mind at first refused to believe that this was not someone he knew. Yet as the party moved toward his hiding place he knew that he was facing a total stranger.

Stranger or no, Raf was sure that he saw a Terran. Had another ship made a landing on this planet? One of those earlier ships whose fate had been a mystery on their home world? Who—and when—and why? He huddled as close to the grid as he could get, alert to the slightest movement below as the prisoner faced his captors.



The dull pain which throbbed through Dalgard's skull with every beat of his heart was confusing, and it was hard to think clearly. But the colony scout, soon after he had fought his way back to consciousness, had learned that he was imprisoned somewhere in the globe ship. Just as he now knew that he had been brought across the sea from the continent on which Homeport was situated and that he had no hope of rescue.

He had seen little of his captors, and the guards, who had hustled him from one place of imprisonment to another, had not spoken to him, nor had he tried to communicate with them. At first he had been too sick and confused, then too wary. These were clearly Those Others and the conditioning which had surrounded him from birth had instilled in him a deep distrust of the former masters of Astra.

Now Dalgard was more alert, and his being brought to this room in what was certainly the center of the alien civilization made him believe that he was about to meet the rulers of the enemy. So he stared curiously about him as the guards jostled him through the door.

On a dais fashioned of heaped-up rainbow-colored pads were three aliens, their legs folded under them at what seemed impossible angles. One wore the black wrappings, the breastplate of the guards, but the other two had indulged their love of color in weird, eye-disturbing combinations of shades in the bandages wrapping the thin limbs and paunchy bodies. They were, as far as he could see through the thick layers of paint overlaying their skins, older than their officer companion. But nothing in their attitude suggested that age had mellowed them.

Dalgard was brought to stand before the trio as before a tribunal of judges. His sword-knife had been taken from his belt before he had regained his senses, his hands were twisted behind his back and locked together in a bar and hoop arrangement. He certainly could offer little threat to the company, yet they ringed him in, weapons ready, watching his every move. The scout licked cracked lips. There was one thing they could not control, could not prevent him from doing. Somewhere, not too far away, was help ...

Not from the merpeople, but he was sure that he had been in contact with another friendly mind. Since the hour of his awakening on board the globe ship, when he had half-consciously sent out an appeal for aid over the band which united him with Sssuri's race, and had touched that other consciousness—not the cold alien stream about him—he had been sure that somewhere within the enemy throng there was a potential savior. Was it among those who manned the strange flyer, those the merpeople had spied upon but whom he had not yet seen?

Dalgard had striven since that moment of contact to keep in touch with the nebulous other mind, to project his need for help. But he had been unable to enter in freely as he could with his own kind, or with Sssuri and the sea people. Now, even as he stood in the heart of the enemy territory completely at the mercy of the aliens, he felt, more strongly than ever before, that another, whose mind he could not enter and yet who was in some queer way sensitive to his appeal, was close at hand. He searched the painted faces before him trying to probe behind each locked mask, but he was certain that the one he sought was not there. Only—he must be! The contact was so strong—Dalgard's startled eyes went to the wall behind the dais, tried vainly to trace what could only be felt. He would be willing to give a knife oath that the stranger was within seeing, listening distance at this minute!

While he was so engrossed in his own problem, the guard had moved. The hooped bar which locked his wrists was loosened, and his arms, each tight in the grip of one of the warriors were brought out before him. The officer on the dais tossed a metal ring to one of the guards.

Roughly the warrior holding Dalgard's left arm forced the band over his hand and jerked it up his forearm as far as it would go. As it winked in the light the scout was reminded of a similar bracelet he had seen—where? On the front leg of the snake-devil he had shot!

The officer produced a second ring, slipping it smoothly over his own arm, adjusting it to touch bare skin and not the wrappings which served him as a sleeve. Dalgard thought he understood. A device to facilitate communication. And straightway he was wary. When his ancestors had first met the merpeople, they had established a means of speech through touch, the palm of one resting against the palm of the other. In later generations, when they had developed their new senses, physical contact had not been necessary. However, here—Dalgard's eyes narrowed, the line along his jaw was hard.

He had always accepted the merpeople's estimate of Those Others, that their ancient enemies were all-seeing and all-knowing, with mental powers far beyond their own definition or description. Now he half expected to be ruthlessly mind-invaded, stripped of everything the enemy desired to know.

So he was astonished when the words which formed in his thoughts were simple, almost childish. And while he prepared to answer them, another part of him watched and listened, waiting for the attack he was sure would come.


He forced a look of astonishment. Nor did he make the mistake of answering that mentally. If Those Others did not know he could use the mind speech, why betray his power?

"I am of the stars," he answered slowly, aloud, using the speech of Homeport. He had so little occasion to talk lately that his voice sounded curiously rusty and harsh in his own ears. Nor had he the least idea of the impression those few archaically accented words would have on one who heard them.

To Dalgard's inner surprise the answer did not astonish his interrogator. The alien officer might well have been expecting to hear just that. But he pulled off his own arm band before he turned to his fellows with a spurt of the twittering speech they used among themselves. While the two civilians were still trilling, the officer edged forward an inch or so and stared at Dalgard intently as he replaced the band.

"You not look—same—as others—"

"I do not know what you mean. Here are not others like me."

One of the civilians twitched at the officer's sleeve, apparently demanding a translation, but the other shook him off impatiently.

"You come from sky—now?"

Dalgard shook his head, then realized that gesture might not mean anything to his audience. "Long ago before I was, my people came."

The alien digested that, then again took off his band before he relayed it to his companions. The excited twitter of their speech scaled up.

"You travel with the beasts—" the alien's accusation came crisply while the others gabbled. "That which hunts could not have tracked you had not the stink of the beast things been on you."

"I know no beasts," Dalgard faced up to that squarely. "The sea people are my friends!"

It was hard to read any emotion on these lacquered and bedaubed faces, but before the officer once more broke bracelet contact, Dalgard did sense the other's almost hysterical aversion. The scout might just have admitted to the most revolting practices as far as the alien was concerned. After he had translated, all three of those on the dais were silent. Even the guards edged away from the captive as if in some manner they might be defiled by proximity. One of the civilians made an emphatic statement, got creakily to his feet, and walked always as if he would have nothing more to do with this matter. After a second or two of hesitation his fellow followed his example.

The officer turned the bracelet around in his fingers, his dark eyes with their slitted pupils never leaving Dalgard's face. Then he came to a decision. He pushed the ring up his arm, and the words which reached the prisoner were coldly remote, as if the captive were no longer judged an intelligent living creature but something which had no right of existence in a well-ordered universe.

"Beast friends with beast. As the beasts—so shall you end. It is spoken."

One of the guards tore the bracelet from Dalgard's arm, trying not to touch the scout's flesh in the process. And those who once more shackled his wrists ostentatiously wiped their hands up and down the wrappings on their thighs afterwards.

But before they jabbed him into movement with the muzzles of their weapons, Dalgard located at last the source of that disturbing mental touch, not only located it, but in some manner broke through the existing barrier between the strange mind and his and communicated as clearly with it as he might have with Sssuri. And the excitement of his discovery almost led to self-betrayal!

Terran! One of those who traveled with the aliens? Yet he read clearly the other's distrust of that company, the fact that he lay in concealment here without their knowledge. And he was not unfriendly—surely he could not be a Peaceman of Pax! Another fugitive from a newly-come colony ship—? Dalgard beamed a warning to the other. If he who was free could only reach the merpeople! It might mean the turning point in their whole venture!

Dalgard was furiously planning, simplifying, trying to impress the most imperative message on that other mind as he stumbled away in the midst of the guards. The stranger was confused, apparently Dalgard's arrival, his use of the mind touch, had been an overwhelming surprise. But if he could only make the right move—would make it—The scout from Homeport had no idea what was in store for him, but with one of his own breed here and suspicious of the aliens he had at least a slim chance. He snapped the thread of communication. Now he must be ready for any opportunity—

Raf watched that amazing apparition go out of the room below. He was shaking with a chill born of no outside cold. First the shock of hearing that language, queerly accented as the words were, then that sharp contact, mind to mind. He was being clearly warned against revealing himself. The stranger was a Terran, Raf would swear to that. So somewhere on this world there was a Terran colony! One of those legendary ships of outlaws, who had taken to space during the rule of Pax, had made the crossing safely and had here established a foothold.

While one part of Raf's brain fitted together the jigsaw of bits and patches of information, the other section dealt with that message of warning the other had beamed to him. The pilot knew that the captive must be in immediate danger. He could not understand all that had happened in that interview with the aliens, but he was left with the impression that the prisoner had been not only tried but condemned. And it was up to him to help.

But how? By the time he got back to the flitter or was able to find Hobart and the others, it might already be too late. He must make the move, and soon, for there had been unmistakable urgency in the captive's message. Raf's hands fumbled at the grid before him, and then he realized that the opening was far too small to admit him to the room on the other side of the wall.

To return to the underground ways might be a waste of time, but he could see no other course open to him. What if he could not find the captive later? Where in the maze of the half-deserted city could he hope to come across the trail again? Even as he sorted out all the points which could defeat him, Raf's hands and feet felt for the notched steps which would take him down. He had gone only two floors when he was faced with a grille opening which was much larger. On impulse he stopped to measure it, sure he could squeeze through here, if he could work loose the grid.

Prying with one hand and a tool from his belt pouch, he struggled not only against the stubborn metal but against time. That strange mental communication had ceased. Though he was sure that he still received a trace of it from time to time, just enough to reassure him that the prisoner was still alive. And each time it touched him Raf redoubled his efforts on the metal clasps of the grid. At last his determination triumphed, and the grille swung out, to fall with an appalling clatter to the floor.

The pilot thrust his feet through the opening and wriggled desperately, expecting any moment to confront a reception committee drawn by the noise. But when he reached the floor, the hallway was still vacant. In fact, he was conscious of a hush in the whole building, as if those who made their homes within its walls were elsewhere. That silence acted on him as a spur.

Raf ran along the corridor, trying to subdue the clatter of his space boots, coming to a downward ramp. There he paused, unable to decide whether to go down—until he caught sight of a party of aliens below, walking swiftly enough to suggest that they too were in a hurry.

This small group was apparently on its way to some gathering. And in it for the first time the Terran saw the women of the aliens, or at least the fully veiled, gliding creatures he guessed were the females of the painted people. There were four of them in the group ahead, escorted by two of the males, and the high fluting of their voices resounded along the corridor as might the cheeping of birds. If the males were colorful in their choice of body wrappings, the females were gorgeous beyond belief, as cloudy stuff which had the changing hues of Terran opals frothed about them to completely conceal their figures.

The harsher twittering of the men had an impatient note, and the whole party quickened pace until their glide was close to an undignified trot. Raf, forced to keep well behind lest his boots betray him, fumed.

They did not go into the open, but took another way which sloped down once more. Luckily the journey was not a long one. Ahead was light which suggested the outdoors.

Raf sucked in his breath as he came out a goodly distance behind the aliens. Established in what was once a court surrounded by the towers and buildings of the city was a miniature of that other arena where he had seen the dead lizard things. The glittering, gayly dressed aliens were taking their places on the tiers of seats. But the place which had been built to accommodate at least a thousand spectators now housed less than half the number. If this was the extent of the alien nation, it was the dregs of a dwindling race.

Directly below where Raf lingered in an aisle dividing the tiers of seats, there was a manhole opening with a barred gate across it, an entrance to the sand-covered enclosure. And fortunately the aliens were all clustered close to the oval far from that spot.

Also the attention of the audience was firmly riveted on events below. A door at the sand level had been flung open, and through it was now hustled the prisoner. Either the aliens still possessed some idea of fair play or they hoped to prolong a contest to satisfy their own pleasure, for the captive's hands were unbound and he clutched a spear.

Remembering far-off legends of earlier and more savage civilizations on his own world, Raf was now sure that the lone man below was about to fight for his life. The question was, against what?

Another of the mouthlike openings around the edge of the arena opened, and one of the furry people shambled out, weaving weakly from side to side as he came, a spear in his scaled paws. He halted a step or two into the open, his round head swinging from side to side, spittle drooling from his gaping mouth. His body was covered with raw sores and bare patches from which the fur had been torn away, and it was apparent that he had long been the victim of ill-usage, if not torture.

Shrill cries arose from the alien spectators as the furred one blinked in the light and then sighted the man some feet away. He stiffened, his arm drew back, the spear poised. Then as suddenly it dropped to his side, and he fell on his knees before wriggling across the sand, his paws held out imploringly to his fellow captive.

The cries from the watching aliens were threatening. Several rose in their seats gesturing to the two below. And Raf, thankful for their absorption, sped down to the manhole, discovering to his delight it could be readily opened from his side. As he edged it around, there was another sound below. This was no high-pitched fluting from aliens deprived of their sport, but a hissing nightmare cry.

Raf's line of vision, limited by the door, framed a portion of scaled back, as it looked, immediately below him. His hand went to the blast bombs as he descended the runway, and his boots hit the sand just as the drama below reached its climax.

The furred one lay prone in the sand, uncaring. Above that mistreated body, the human stood in the half-crouch of a fighting man, the puny spear pointed up bravely at a mark it could not hope to reach, the soft throat of one of the giant lizards. The reptile did not move to speedily destroy. Instead, hissing, it reared above the two as if studying them with a vicious intelligence. But there was no time to wonder how long it would delay striking.

Raf's strong teeth ripped loose the tag end of the blast bomb, and he lobbed it straight with a practiced arm so that the ball spiraled across the arena to come to rest between the massive hind legs of the lizard. He saw the man's eyes widen as they fastened on him. And then the human captive flung himself to the earth, half covering the body of the furred one. The reptile grabbed in the same instant, its grasping claws cutting only air, and before it could try a second time the bomb went off.

Literally torn apart by the explosion, the creature must have died at once. But the captive moved. He was on his feet again, pulling his companion up with him, before the startled spectators could guess what had happened. Then half carrying the other prisoner, he ran, not onward to the waiting Raf, but for the gate through which he had come into the arena. At the same time a message beat into the Terran's brain—

"This way!"

Avoiding bits of horrible refuse, Raf obeyed that order, catching up in a couple of strides with the other two and linking his arm through the dangling one of the furred creature to take some of the strain from the stranger.

"Have you any more of the power things?" the words came in the archaic speech of his own world.

"Two more bombs," he answered.

"We may have to blow the gate here," the other panted breathlessly.

Instead Raf drew his stun gun. The gate was already opening, a wedge of the painted warriors heading through, flame-throwers ready. He sprayed wide, and on the highest level. A spout of fire singed the cloth of his tunic across the top of his shoulder as one of the last aliens fired before his legs buckled and he went down. Then, opposition momentarily gone, the two with their semiconscious charge stumbled over the bodies of the guards and reached the corridor beyond.



So much had happened so quickly during the past hour that Dalgard had no chance to plan or even sort out impressions in his mind. He had no guess as to where this stranger, now taking some of the burden of the wounded merman from him, had sprung from. The other's clothing, the helmet covering his head were more akin to those worn by the aliens than they were to the dress of the colonist. Yet the man beneath those trappings was of the same breed as his own people. And he could not believe he was a Peaceman of Pax—all he had done here spoke against those legends of dark Terran days Dalgard had heard from childhood. But where had he come from? The only answer could be another outlaw colony ship.

"We are in the inner ways," Dalgard tried to reach the mind of the merman as they pounded on into the corridors which led from the arena. "Do you know these—" He had a faint hope that the sea man because of his longer captivity might have a route of escape to suggest.

"—down to the lower levels—" the thought came slowly, forced out by a weakening will. "Lower—levels—roads to the sea—"

That was what Dalgard had been hoping for, some passage which would run seaward and so to safety, such as he had found with Sssuri in that other city.

"What are we hunting?" the stranger broke in, and Dalgard realized that perhaps the other did not follow the mind talk. His words had an odd inflection, a clipped accent which was new.

"A lower way," he returned in the speech of his own people.

"To the right." The merman, struggling against his own weakness, had raised his head and was looking about as one who searches for a familiar landmark.

There was a branching way to the right, and Dalgard swung into it, bringing the other two after him. This was a narrow passage, and twice they brushed by sealed doors. It brought them up against a blank wall. The stranger wheeled, his odd weapon ready, for they could hear the shouts of pursuers behind them. But the merman pulled free of Dalgard and went down on the floor to dig with his taloned fingers at some depressions there.

"Open here," the thought came clearly, "then down!"

Dalgard went down on one knee, able now to see the outline of a trap door. It must be pried up. His sword-knife was gone, the spear they had given him for the arena he had dropped when he dragged the merman out of danger. He looked to the stranger. About the other's narrow hips was slung a belt from which hung pouches and tools the primitive colonist could not evaluate. But there was also a bush knife, and he reached for it.

"The knife—"

The stranger glanced down at the blade he wore in surprise, as if he had forgotten it. Then with one swift movement he drew it from its sheath and flipped it to Dalgard.

On the track behind the clamor was growing, and the colony scout worked with concentration at his task of fitting the blade into the crack and freeing the door. As soon as there was space enough, the merman's claws recklessly slid under, and he added what strength he could to Dalgard's. The door arose and fell back onto the pavement with a clang, exposing a dark pit.

"Got 'em!" the words burst from the stranger. He had pressed the firing button of his weapon. Where the passage in which they stood met the main corridor, there was an agitated shouting and then sudden silence.

"Down—" The merman had crawled to the edge of the opening. From it rose a dank, fetid smell. Now that the noise in the corridor was stilled Dalgard could hear something: the sound of water.

"How do we get down?" he questioned the merman.

"It is far, there are no climbing holds—"

Dalgard straightened. Well, he supposed, even a leap into that was better than to be taken a second time by Those Others. But was he ready for such a desperate solution?

"A long way down?" The stranger leaned over to peer into the well.

"He says so," Dalgard nodded at the merman. "And there are no climbing holds."

The stranger plucked at the front of his tunic with one hand, still holding his weapon with the other. From an opening he drew a line, and Dalgard grabbed it eagerly, testing the first foot with a sharp jerk. He had never seen such stuff, so light of weight and yet so tough. His delight reached the merman, who sat up to gaze owlishly at the coils the stranger pulled from concealment.

They used the door of the well for the lowering beam, hitching the cord about it. Then the merman noosed one end about him, and Dalgard, the door taking some of the strain, lowered him. The end of the cord was perilously close to the scout's fingers when there was a signaling pull from below, and he was free to reel in the loose line. He turned to the stranger.

"You go. I'll watch them." The other waved his weapon to the corridor.

There was some sense to that, Dalgard had to agree. He made fast the end of the cord and went in his turn into the dark, burning the palm of one hand before he was able to slacken the speed of his descent. Then he landed thigh-deep in water, from which arose an unpleasant smell.

"All right—Come—" he put full force into the thought he beamed at the stranger above. When the other did not obey, Dalgard began to wonder if he should climb to his aid. Had the aliens broken through and overwhelmed the other? Or what had happened? The rope whisked up out of his hands. And a moment later a voice rang eerily overhead.

"Clear below! Coming down!"

Dalgard scrambled out of the space under the opening, heading on into the murk where the merman waited. There was a splash as the stranger hit the stream, and the rope lashed down behind him at their united jerk.

"Where do we go from here?" The voice carried through the dark.

Scaled fingers hooked about Dalgard's right hand and tugged him on. He reached back in turn and locked grip with the stranger. So united the three splashed on through the rancid liquid. In time they came out of the first tunnel into a wider section, but here the odor was worse, catching in their throats, making them sway dizzily. There seemed to be no end to these ways, which Raf guessed were the drains of the ancient city.

Only the merman appeared to have a definite idea of where they were going, though he halted once or twice when they came to a side passage as if thinking out their course. Since the man from the arena accepted the furred one's guidance, Raf depended upon it too. Though he wondered if they would ever find their way out into the open once more.

He was startled by sudden pain as the hand leading him tightened its grip to bone-bruising force. They had stopped, and the liquid washed about them until Raf wondered if he would ever feel clean again. When they started on, they moved much more swiftly. His companions were in a hurry, but Raf was unprepared for the sight which broke as they came out in a high-roofed cavern.

There was an odd, cold light there—but that light was not all he saw. Drawn up on a ledge rising out of the contaminated stream were rows of the furred people, all sitting in silence, bone spears resting across their knees, long knives at their belts. They watched with round, unblinking eyes the three who had just come out of the side passage. The rescued merman loosened his grip on Dalgard's hand and waded forward to confront that quiet, waiting assembly. Neither he nor his fellows made any sound, and Raf guessed that they had some other form of communication, perhaps the same telepathic ability to broadcast messages which this amazing man beside him displayed.

"They are of his tribe," the other explained, sensing that Raf could not understand. "They came here to try to save him, for he is one of their Speakers-for-Many."

"Who are they? Who are you?" Raf asked the two questions which had been with him ever since the wild adventure had begun.

"They are the People-of-the-Sea, our friends, our knife brothers. And I am of Homeport. My people came from the stars in a ship, but not a ship of this world. We have been here for many years."

The mermen were moving now. Several had waded forward to greet their chief, aiding him ashore. But when Raf moved toward the ledge, Dalgard put out a restraining hand.

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