Star Born
by Andre Norton
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"Until we are summoned—no. They have their customs. And this is a party-for-war. This tribe knows not my people, save by rumor. We wait."

Raf looked over the ranks of the sea folk. The light came from globes borne by every twentieth warrior, a globe in which something that gave off phosphorescent gleams swam around and around. The spears which each merman carried were slender and wickedly barbed, the knives almost sword length. The pilot remembered the flame-throwers of the aliens and could not see any victory for the merman party.

"No, knife blade against the fire—that is not equal."

Raf started, amazed and then irritated that the other had read his thoughts so easily.

"But what else can be done? Some stand must be taken, even if a whole tribe goes down to the Great Dark because they do it."

"What do you mean?" Raf demanded.

"Is it not the truth that Those Others went across the sea to plunder their forgotten storehouse of knowledge?" countered the other. He spoke slowly as if he found difficulty in clothing thoughts with words. "Sssuri said that was why they came."

Raf, remembering what he had seen—the stripping of shelves and tables of the devices that were stored on them—could only nod.

"Then it is also true that soon they will have worse than fire with which to hunt us down. And they shall turn against your colony as they will against Homeport. For the mermen, and their own records, have taught us that it is their nature to rule, that they can live in peace only when all living things on this world are their slaves."

"My colony?" Raf was momentarily diverted. "I'm one of a spacer's crew, not the member of any colony!"

Dalgard stared at the stranger. His guess had been right. A new ship, another ship which had recently crossed deep space to find them had flown the dark wastes even as the First Elders had done! It must be that more outlaws had come to find a new home! This was wonderful news, news he must take to Homeport. Only, it was news which must wait. For the sea people had come to a decision of their own.

"What are they going to do now?" Raf asked.

The mermen were not retreating, instead they were slipping from the ledge in regular order, forming somewhat crooked ranks in the water.

Dalgard did not reply at once, making mind touch not only to ask but to impress his kinship on the sea people. They were united in a single-minded purpose, with failure before them—unless—He turned to the stranger.

"They go to war upon Those Others. He who guided us here knows also that the new knowledge they have brought into the city is danger. If an end is not put to it before they can use it, then"—he shrugged—"the mermen must retreat into the depths. And we, who can not follow them—" He made a quick, thrusting gesture as if using a knife on his own throat. "For a time Those Others have been growing fewer in number and weaker. Their children are not many and sometimes there are years when none are born at all. And they have forgotten so much. But now, perhaps they can increase once more, not only in wisdom and strength of arms, but in numbers. The mermen have kept a watch on them, content to let matters rest, sure that time would defeat them. But now, time no longer fights on our side."

Raf watched the furred people with their short spears, their knives. He recalled that rocky island where the aliens had unleashed the fire. The expeditionary force would not have a chance against that.

"But your weapons would." The words addressed to him were clear, though they had not been spoken aloud. Raf's hand went to the pocket where two more of the blast bombs rested. "And this is your battle as much as ours!"

But it wasn't his fight! Dalgard had gone too far with that suggestion. Raf had no ties on this world, the RS 10 was waiting to take him away. It was strictly against all orders, all his training, for him to become involved in alien warfare. The pilot's hand went back to his belt. He was not going to allow himself to be pushed onto anything foolish, whether this "colonist" could read his mind or not.

The first ranks of the mermen had already waded past them, heading into the way down which the escaping prisoners had come. To Raf's eyes none of them paid any attention to the two humans as they went, though they were probably in mental touch with his companion.

"You are already termed one of us in their eyes," Dalgard was careful to use oral speech this time. "When you came to our rescue in the arena they believed that you were of our kind. Do you think you can return to walk safely through the city? So"—he drew a hissing breath of surprise when the thought which leaped into Raf's mind was plain to Dalgard also—"you have—there are more of you there! But already Those Others may be moving against them because of what you have done!"

Raf who had been about to join the mermen stopped short. That aspect had not struck him before. What had happened to Soriki and the flitter, to the captain and Lablet, who had been in the heart of the enemy territory when he had challenged the aliens? It would be only logical that the painted people would consider them all dangerous now. He must get out of here, back to the flitter, try to help where unwittingly he had harmed—

Dalgard caught up with him. He had been able to read a little of what had passed through the other's mind. Though it was difficult to sort order out of the tangled thoughts. The longer he was with the stranger, the more aware he became of the differences between them. Outwardly they might appear of the same species, but inwardly—Dalgard frowned—there was something that he must consider later, when they had a thinking space. But now he could understand the other's agitation. It was very true that Those Others might turn on the stranger's fellows in retaliation for his deeds.

Together they joined the mermen. There was no talk, nothing to break the splashing sound of bodies moving against the current. As they pressed on, Raf was sure that this was not the same way they had come. And once more Dalgard answered his unspoken question.

"We seek another door into the city, one long known to these tribesmen."

Raf would gladly have run, but he could not move faster than his guides, and while their pace seemed deliberate, they did not pause to rest. The whole city, he decided, must be honeycombed with these drains. After traversing a fourth tunnel, they climbed out of the flood onto a dry passage, which wormed along, almost turning on itself at times.

Side passages ran out from this corridor like rootlets from a parent root, and small parties of mermen broke from the regiment to follow certain ones, leaving without orders or farewells. At the fifth of these Dalgard touched Raf's arm and drew him aside.

"This is our way." Tensely the scout waited. If the stranger refused, then the one plan the scout had formed during the past half-hour would fail. He still held to the hope that Raf, with what Raf carried, could succeed in the only project which would mean, perhaps not his safety nor the safety of the tribe he now marched among, but the eventual safety of Astra itself, the safety of all the harmless people of the sea, the little creatures of the grass and the sky, of his own land at Homeport. He would have to force Raf into action if need be. He did not use the mind touch; he knew now the unspoken resentment which followed that. If it became necessary—Dalgard's hands balled into fists—he would strike down the stranger—take from him—Swiftly he turned his thoughts from that. It might be easy, now that he had established mental contact with this off-worlder, for the other to pick up a thought as vivid as that.

But luckily Raf obediently turned into the side passage with the six mermen who were to attack at this particular point. The way grew narrower until they crept on hands and knees between rough walls which were not of the same construction as the larger tunnels. The smaller mermen had no difficulty in getting through, but twice Raf's equipment belt caught on projections and he had to fight his way free.

They crawled one by one into a ventilation shaft much like the one he had climbed at the Center. Dalgard's whisper reached him.

"We are now in the building which houses their sky ship."

"I know that one," Raf returned almost eagerly, glad at last to be back so close to familiar territory. He climbed up the hand-and footholds the sea-monster lamp disclosed, wishing the mermen ahead would speed up.

The grille at the head of the shaft had been removed, and the invaders arose one by one into a dim and dusty place of motionless machinery, which, by all tangible evidence, had not been entered for some time. But the cautious manner in which the sea people strung out to approach the far door argued that the same might not be true beyond.

For the first time Raf noticed that his human companion now held one of the knives of the merpeople, and he drew his stun gun. But he could not forget the flame-throwers which might at that very moment be trained upon the other side of that door by the aliens. They might be walking into a trap.

He half expected one of those disconcerting thought answers from Dalgard. But the scout was playing safe—nothing must upset the stranger. Confronted by what had to be done, he might be influenced into acting for them. So Dalgard strode softly ahead, apparently not interested in Raf.

One of the mermen worked at the door, using the point of his spear as a lever. Here again was a vista of machinery. But these machines were alive; a faint hum came from their casings. The mermen scattered, taking cover, a move copied by the two humans.

The pilot remained in hiding, but he saw one of the furred people running on as light-footedly as a shadow. Then his arm drew back, and he cast his spear. Raf fancied he could hear a faint whistle as the weapon cut the air. There was a cry, and the merman ran on, vanishing into the shadows, to return a second or two later wiping stains from his weapon. Out of their places of concealment, his fellows gathered about him. And the humans followed.

Now they were fronted by a ramp leading up, and the mermen took it quickly, their bare, scaled feet setting up a whispering echo which was drowned by the clop of Raf's boots. Once more the party was alert, ready for trouble, and taking his cue from them, he kept his stun gun in his hand.

But the maneuver at the head of the ramp surprised him. For, though he had heard no signal, all the party but one plastered their bodies back against the wall, Dalgard pulling Raf into position beside him, the scout's muscular bare arm pinning the pilot into a narrow space. One merman stood at the crack of the door at the top of the ramp. He pushed the barrier open and crept in.

Meanwhile those who waited poised their spears, all aimed at that door. Raf fingered the button on his gun to "spray" as he had when he had faced the attack of the scavengers in the arena tunnels.

There was a cry, a shout with a summons in it. And the venturesome merman thudded back through the door. But he was not alone. Two of the black guardsmen, their flamers spitting fiery death, ran behind him, and the curling lash of one of those flames almost wreathed the runner before he swung aside. Raf fired without consciously aiming. Both of the sentries fell forward, to slide limply down the ramp.

Then Dalgard pulled him on. "The way is open," he said. "This is it!" There was an excited exultation in his voice.



The space they now entered must be the core of the building, Raf thought a little dazedly. For there, towering over them was the round bulb of the globe. And about its open hatch were piles of the material which he had last seen in the warehouse on the other continent. The unloading of the alien ship had been hastily interrupted.

Since neither the merman nor Dalgard took cover, Raf judged that they did not fear attack now. But when he turned his attention away from the ship, he found not only the colony scout but most of the sea people gathered about him as if waiting for some action on his part.

"What is it?" He could feel it, that strong pressure, that band united, in willing him into some move. His stubborn streak of independence made his reaction contrary. He was not going to be pushed into anything.

"In this hour," Dalgard spoke aloud, avoiding the mind touch which might stiffen Raf's rebellion. He wished that some older, wiser Elder from Homeport were there. So little time—Yet this stranger with practically no effort might accomplish all they had come to do, if he could only be persuaded into action. "In this hour, here is the heart of what civilization remains to Those Others. Destroy it, and it will not matter whether they kill us. For in the days to come they will have nothing left."

Raf understood. This was why he had been brought here. They wanted him to use the blast bombs. And one part of him was calculating the best places to set his two remaining bombs for the wildest possible destruction. That part of him could accept the logic of Dalgard's reasoning. He doubted if the aliens could repair the globe if it were damaged, and he was sure that much which they had brought back from the eastern continent was irreplaceable. The bombs had not been intended for such a use. They were defensive, anti-personal weapons to be employed as he had done against the lizard in the arena. But placed properly—Without thinking his hands went to the sealed pocket in the breast of his tunic.

Dalgard saw that gesture and inside him some taut cord began to unwind. Then the stranger's hands dropped, and he swung around to face the colony scout squarely, a scowl twisting his black brows almost together.

"This isn't my fight," he stated flatly. "I've got to get back to the flitter, to my spacer—"

What was the matter? Dalgard tried to understand. If the aliens won now, this stranger was in as great a danger as were the rest of them. Did he believe that Those Others would allow any colony to be established on a world they ruled?

"There will be no future for you here," he spoke slowly, trying with all his power to get through to the other. "They will not allow you to found another Homeport. You will have no colony—"

"Will you get it into your thick head," burst out the pilot, "that I'm not here to start a colony! We can take off from this blasted planet whenever we want to. We didn't come here to stay!"

Beneath the suntan, Dalgard's face whitened. The other had come from no outlaw ship, seeking a refuge across space, as his own people had fled to a new life from tyranny. His first fears had been correct! This was a representative of Pax, doubtless sent to hunt down the descendants of those who had escaped its throttling dictatorship. The slender strangely garbed Terran might be of the same blood as his own, but he was as great an enemy as Those Others!

"Pax!" He did not know that he had said that word aloud.

The other laughed. "You are living back in history. Pax has been dead and gone almost two centuries. I'm of the Federation of Free Men—"

"Will the stranger use his fire now?" The question formed in Dalgard's mind. The mermen were growing impatient, as well they might. This was no time for talk, but for action. Could Raf be persuaded to aid them? A Federation of Free Men—Free Men! That was what they were fighting for here and now.

"You are free," he said. "The sea people won their freedom when Those Others fought among themselves. My people came across the star void in search of freedom, paying in blood to win it. But these, these are not the weapons of the free." He pointed to the supplies about the globe, to the globe itself.

The mermen were waiting no longer. With the butts of their spears they smashed anything breakable. But the damage one could do by hand in the short space of time granted them—Raf was surprised that a guard was not already down upon them—was sharply limited. The piled-up secrets of an old race, a race which had once ruled a planet. He thought fleetingly of Lablet's preoccupation with this spoil, of Hobart's hope of gaining knowledge they could take back with them. But would the aliens keep their part of the bargain? He no longer believed that.

Why not give these barbarians a chance, and the colonists. Sure, he was breaking the stiffest rule of the Service. But, perhaps by now the flitter was gone, he might never reach the RS 10. It was not his war, right enough. But he'd give the weaker side a fighting chance.

Dalgard followed him into the globe ship, climbing the ladders to the engine level, watching with curious eyes as Raf inspected the driving power of the ship and made the best disposition possible of one of the bombs.

Then they were on the ladder once more as the ship shook under them, plates buckling as a great wound tore three decks apart. Raf laughed recklessly. Now that he was committed to this course, he had a small-boy delight in the destruction.

"They won't raise her again in a hurry," he confided to Dalgard. But the other did not share his triumph.

"They come—we must move fast," the scout urged.

When they jumped from the hatch, they discovered that the mermen had been busy in their turn. As many of the supplies as they could move had been pushed and piled into one great mass. Broken crystal littered the floor in shards and puddles of strange chemicals mingled smells to become a throat-rasping fog. Raf eyed those doubtfully. Some of those fumes might combine in the blast—

Once again Dalgard read his mind and waved the mermen back, sending them through the door to the ramp and the lower engine room. Raf stood in the doorway, the bomb in his hand, knowing that it was time for him to make the most accurate cast of his life.

The sphere left his fingers, was a gleam in the murky air. It struck the pile of material. Then the whole world was hidden by a blinding glare.

It was dark—black dark. And he was swinging back and forth through this total darkness. He was a ball, a blast bomb being tossed from hand to hand through the dark by painted warriors who laughed shrilly at his pain, tossed through the dark. Fear such as he had never known, even under the last acceleration pressure of the take-off from Terra, beat through Raf's veins away from his laboring heart. He was helpless in the dark!

"Not alone—" the words came out of somewhere, he didn't know whether he heard them, or, in some queer way, felt them. "You are safe—not alone."

That brought a measure of comfort. But he was still in the dark, and he was moving—he could not will his hands to move—yet he was moving. He was being carried!

The flitter—he was back on the flitter! They were air-borne. But who was piloting?

"Captain! Soriki!" he appealed for reassurance. And then was aware that there was no familiar motor hum, none of that pressure of rushing air to which he had been so long accustomed that he missed it only now.

"You are safe—" Again that would-be comfort. But Raf tried to move his arms, twist his body, be sure that he rested in the flitter. Then another thought, only vaguely alarming at first, but which grew swiftly to panic proportions—He was in the alien globe—He was a prisoner!

"You are safe!" the words beat in his mind.

"But where—where?" he felt as if he were screaming that at the full power of his lungs. He must get out of this dark envelope, be free. Free! Free Men—He was Raf Kurbi of the Federation of Free Men, member of the crew of the Spacer RS 10. But there had been something else about free men—

Painfully he pulled fragments of pictures out of the past, assembled a jigsaw of wild action. And all of it ended in a blinding flash, blinding!

Raf cowered mentally if not physically, as his mind seized upon that last word. The blinding flash, then this depth of darkness. Had he been—?

"You are safe."

Maybe he was safe, he thought, with an anger born of honest fear, but was he—blind? And where was he? What had happened to him since that moment when the blast bomb had exploded?

"I am blind," he spat out, wanting to be told that his fears were only fears and not the truth.

"Your eyes are covered," the answer came quickly enough, and for a short space he was comforted until he realized that the reply was not a flat denial of his statement.

"Soriki?" he tried again. "Captain? Lablet?"

"Your companions"—there was a moment of hesitation, and then came what he was sure was the truth—"have escaped. Their ship took to the air when the Center was invaded."

So, he wasn't on the flitter. That was Raf's first reaction. Then, he must still be with the mermen, with the young stranger who claimed to be one of a lost Terran colony. But they couldn't leave him behind! Raf struggled against the power which held him motionless.

"Be quiet!" That was not soothing; it had the snap of a command, so sharp and with such authority in it that he obeyed. "You have been hurt; the gel must do its work. Sleep now. It is good to sleep—"

Dalgard walked by the hammock, using all the quieting power he possessed to ease the stranger, who now bore little resemblance to the lithe, swiftly moving, other-worldly figure of the day before. Stripped of his burned rags of clothing, coated with the healing stuff of the merpeople—that thick jelly substance which was their bulwark against illness and hurt—lashed into a hammock of sea fibers, he had the outward appearance of a thick bundle of supplies. The scout had seen miracles of healing performed by the gel, he could only hope for one now. "Sleep—" he made the soothing suggestion over and over and felt the other begin to relax, to sink into the semicoma in which he must rest for at least another day.

It was true that they had watched the strange flying machine take off from a roof top. And none of the mermen who had survived the battle which had raged through the city had seen any of the off-worlder's kind among the living or the dead of the alien forces. Perhaps, thinking Raf dead, they had returned to their space ship.

Now there were other, more immediate, problems to be met. They had done everything that they could to insure the well-being of the stranger, without whom they could not have delivered that one necessary blow which meant a new future for Astra.

The aliens were not all dead. Some had gone down under the spears of the mermen, but more of the sea people had died by the superior weapons of their foes. To the aliens, until they discovered what had happened to the globe and its cargo, it would seem an overwhelming triumph, for less than a quarter of the invading force fought its way back to safety in the underground ways. Yes, it would appear to be a victory for Those Others. But—now time was on the other side of the scales.

Dalgard doubted if the globe would ever fly again. And the loss of the storehouse plunder could never be repaired. By its destruction they had insured the future for their people, the mermen, the slowly growing settlement at Homeport.

They were well out of the city, in the open country, traveling along a rocky gorge, through which a river provided a highway to the sea. Dalgard had no idea as yet how he could win back across the waste of water to his own people. While the mermen with whom he had stormed the city were friendly, they were not of the tribes he knew, and their own connection with the eastern continent was through messages passed between islands and the depths.

Then there was the stranger—Dalgard knew that the ship which had brought him to this planet was somewhere in the north. Perhaps when he recovered, they could travel in that direction. But for the moment it was good just to be free, to feel the soft winds of summer lick his skin, to walk slowly under the sun, carrying the little bundle of things which belonged to the stranger, with a knife once more at his belt and friends about him.

But within the quarter-hour their peace was broken. Dalgard heard it first, his landsman's ears serving him where the complicated sense which gave the sea people warning did not operate. That shrill keening—he knew it of old. And at his warning the majority of the mermen plunged into the stream, becoming drifting shadows below the surface of the water. Only the four who were carrying the hammock stood their ground. But the scout, having told them to deposit their burden under the shelter of an overhanging ledge of rock, waved them to join their fellows. Until that menace in the sky was beaten, they dare not travel overland.

Was it still after him alone, hunting him by some mysterious built-in sense as it had overseas? He could see it now, moving in circles back and forth across the gorge, probably ready to dive on any prey venturing into the open.

Had it not been for the stranger, Dalgard could have taken to the water almost as quickly and easily as his companions. But they could not float the pilot down the stream, thus dissolving the thick coating of gel which was healing his terrible flash burns. And Those Others, were they following the trail of their mechanical hound as they had before?

Dalgard sent out questing tendrils of thought. Nowhere did he encounter the flashes which announced the proximity of Those Others. No, it would appear that they had unleashed the hound to do what damage it could, perhaps to serve them as a marker for a future counterattack. At present it was alone. And he relayed that information to the mermen.

If they could knock out the hound—his hand went to the tender scrape on his own scalp where that box had left its glancing mark—if they could knock out the hound—But how? As accurate marksmen as the mermen were with their spears, he was not sure they could bring down the box. Its sudden darts and dips were too erratic. Then what? Because as long as it bobbed there, he and the stranger were imprisoned in this pocket of the gorge wall.

Dalgard sat down, the bundle of the stranger's belongings beside him. Then, he carefully unfastened the scorched cloth which formed that bag and examined its contents. There was the belt with its pouches, sheaths, and tool case. And the weapon which the stranger had used to such good effect during their escape from the arena. Dalgard took up the gun. It was light in weight, and it fitted into his hand almost as if it had been molded to his measure.

He aimed at the hovering box, pressed the button as he had seen the other do, with no results. The stun ray, which had acted upon living creatures, could not govern the delicate mechanism in the hound's interior. Dalgard laid it aside. There were no more of the bombs, nor would they have been effective against such a target. As far as he could see, there was nothing among Raf's possessions which could help them now.

One of the black shadows in the water moved to shore. The box swooped, death striking at the merman who ran to shelter. A second followed him, eluding the attack of the hound by a matter of inches. Now the box buzzed angrily.

Dalgard, catching their thoughts, hurried to aid them. They undid the knots of the hammock about the helpless stranger, leaving about him only the necessary bandage ties. Now they had a crude net, woven, as Dalgard knew, of undersea fibers strong enough to hold captive plunging monsters a dozen times the size of the box. If they could net it!

He had seen the exploits of the mermen hunters, knew their skill with net and spear. But to scoop a flying thing out of the air was a new problem.

"Not so!" the thought cut across his. "They have used such as this to hunt us before, long ago. We had believed they were all lost. It must be caught and broken, or it will hunt and kill and hunt again, for it does not tire nor can it be beaten from any trail it is set upon. Now—"

"I will do that, for you have the knowledge—" the scout cut in quickly. After his other meeting with the hound he had no liking for the task he had taken on, but there must be bait to draw the box within striking distance.

"Stand upright and move toward those rocks." The mermen changed position, the net, now with stones in certain loops to weigh it, caught in their three-fingered hands.

Dalgard moved, fighting against hunching his shoulders, against hurrying the pace. He saw the shadow of the flitting death, and flung himself down beside the boulder the mermen had pointed out. Then he rolled over, half surprised not to be struck.

The hound was still in the air but over it now was draped the net, the rocks in its fringes weighing it down in spite of its jerky attempts to rise. In its struggles to be free, it might almost have led the watcher to believe that it had intelligence of a sort. Now the mermen were coming out of the stream, picking up rocks as they advanced. And a hail of stones flew through the air, while others of the sea people sprang to catch the dangling ends of the net and drag the captive to earth.

In the end they smashed it completely, burying the remains under a pile of rocks. Then, retrieving their net, they once more fastened Raf into it and turned downstream, as intent as ever upon reaching the sea. Dalgard wondered whether Those Others would ever discover what had become of their hound. Or had it in some way communicated with its masters, so that now they were aware that it had been destroyed. But he was sure they had nothing more to fear, that the way to the sea was open.

In mid-morning of the second day they came out upon shelving sand and saw before them the waves which promised safety and escape to the mermen. Dalgard sat down in the blue-gray sand beside Raf. The sea people had assured him that the stranger was making a good recovery, that within a matter of hours he could be freed from his cocoon of healing.

Dalgard squinted at the sun sparkling on the waves. Where now? To the north where the space ship waited? If what he read in Raf's mind was true the other wanted to leave Astra, to voyage back to that other world which was only a legend to Dalgard, and a black, unhappy legend at that. If the Elders were here, had a chance to contact these men from Terra—Dalgard's eyes narrowed, would they choose to? Another chain of thought had been slowly developing in his mind during these past hours when he had been so closely companioned with the stranger. And almost he had come to a decision which would have seemed very odd even days before.

No, there was no way of suddenly bringing the Elders here, of transferring his burden of decision to them. Dalgard cupped his chin in his hand and tried to imagine what it would be like to shut oneself up in a small metal-walled spacer and set out blindly to leave one world for another. His ancestors had done that, and they had traveled in cold sleep, ignorant of whether they would ever reach their goal. They had been very brave, or very desperate, men.

But—Dalgard measured sand, sun, and sky, watching the mermen sporting in the waves—but for him Astra was enough. He wanted nothing but this land, this world. There was nothing which drew him back. He would try to locate the spacer for the sake of the stranger; Astra owed Raf all they could manage to give him. But the ship was as alien to Homeport as it now existed as the city's globe might have been.



Raf lay on his back, cushioned in the sand, his face turned up to the sky. Moisture smarted in his eyes, trickled down his cheeks as he tried to will himself to see! The yellow haze which had been his day had faded into grayness and now to the dark he feared so much that he dared not even speak of it. Somewhere over him the stars were icy points of light—but he could not see them. They were very far away, but no farther than he was from safety, from comfort (now the spacer seemed a haven of ease), from the expert treatment which might save, save his sight!

He supposed he should be thankful to that other one who was a slow voice speaking out of the mist, a thought now and then when his inner panic brought him almost to the breaking point. In some manner he had been carried out of the reach of the aliens, treated for his searing wounds, and now he was led along, fed, tended—Why didn't they go away and leave him alone! He had no chance of reaching the spacer—

It was so easy to remember those mountains, the heights over which he had lifted the flitter. There wasn't one chance in a million of his winning over those and across the miles of empty plains beyond to where the RS 10 stood waiting, ready to rise again. The crew must believe him dead. His fists clenched upon sand, and it gritted between his fingers, sifted away. Why wasn't he dead! Why had that barbarian dragged him here, continued to coax him, put food into his hands, those hands which were only vague shapes when he held them just before his straining, aching eyes.

"It is not as bad as you think," the words came again out of the fog, spoken with a gentleness which rasped Raf's nerves. "Healing is not done in a second, or even in a day. You cannot force the return of strength—"

A hand, warm, vibrant with life, pressed on his forehead—a human, flesh-covered hand, not one of the cool, scaled paws of the furred people. Though those hands, too, had been laid upon him enough during the past few days, steadying him, leading him, guiding him to food and water. Now, under that firm, knowing touch he felt some of the ever-present fear subside, felt a relaxation.

"My ship—They will take off without me!" He could not help but voice that plaint, as he had so many times before during that foggy, nightmare journey.

"They have not done so yet."

He struggled up, flung off that calming hand, turned angrily toward where he thought the other was. "How can you be sure?"

"Word has come. The ship is still there, though the small flyer has returned to it."

This assurance was something new. Raf's suspicions could not stand up against the note of certainty in the other's voice. He got awkwardly to his feet. If the ship was still here, then they must still think him alive—They might come back! He had a chance—a real chance!

"Then they are waiting for me—They'll come!"

He could not see the soberness with which Dalgard listened to that. The star ship had not lifted, that message had found its way south, passed along by hopper and merman. But the scout doubted if the explorers were waiting for the return of Raf. He believed that they would not have left the city had they not thought the pilot already dead.

As to going north now—His picture of the land ahead had been built up from reports gained from the sea people. It could be done, but with Raf to be nursed and guided, lacking even the outrigger Dalgard had used in home waters, it would take days—weeks, probably—to cover the territory which lay between them and the plains where the star ship had planeted.

But he owed Raf a great deal, and it was summer, the season of warm calms. So far he had not been able to work out any plan for a return to his own land. It might be that they were both doomed to exile. But it was not necessary to face that drear future yet, not until they had expended every possible effort. So now he said willingly enough, "We are going north."

Raf sat down again in the sand. He wanted to run, to push on until his feet were too tired to carry him any farther. But now he fought that impulse, lay down once more. Though he doubted if he could sleep.

Dalgard watched the stars, sketched out a map of action for the morning. They must follow the shore line where they could keep in touch with the mermen, though along this coast the sea people did not come to land with the freedom their fellows showed on the eastern continent—they had lived too long in fear of Those Others.

But since the war party had reached the coast, there had been no sign of any retaliation, and as several days passed, Dalgard had begun to believe that they had little to fear. Perhaps the blow they had struck at the heart of the citadel had been more drastic than they had hoped. He had listened since that hour in the gorge for the shrilling of one of the air hounds. And when it did not come the thought that maybe it was the last of its kind had been heartening.

At last the scout lay down beside the off-world man, listening to the soft hiss of waves on sand, the distant cluttering of night insects. And his last waking thought was a wish for his bow.

There was another day of patient plodding; two, three. Raf, led by the hand, helped over rocks and obstacles which were only dark blurs to his watering eyes, raged inwardly and sometimes outwardly, against the slowness of their advance, his own helplessness. His fear grew until he refused to credit the fact that the blurs were sharpening in outline, that he could now count five fingers on the hand he sometimes waved despairingly before his face.

When he spoke of the future, he never said "if we reach the ship" but always "when," refusing to admit that perhaps they would not be in time. And Dalgard by his anxiety, tried to get more news from the north.

"When we get there, will you come back to earth with us?" the pilot asked suddenly on the fifth day.

It was a question Dalgard had once asked himself. But now he knew the answer; there was only one he dared give.

"We are not ready—"

"I don't understand what you mean." Raf was almost querulous. "It is your home world. Pax is gone; the Federation would welcome you eagerly. Just think what it would mean—a Terran colony among the stars!"

"A Terran colony." Dalgard put out a hand, steadied Raf over a stretch of rough shingle. "Yes, once we were a Terran colony. But—can you now truthfully swear that I am a Terran like yourself?"

Raf faced the misty figure, trying to force his memory to put features there, to sharpen outlines. The scout was of middle height, a little shorter in stature than the crewmen with whom the pilot had lived so long. His hair was fair, as was his skin under its sun tan. He was unusually light on his feet and possessed a wiry strength Raf could testify to. But there was that disconcerting habit of mind reading and other elusive differences.

Dalgard smiled, though the other could not see that.

"You see," deliberately he used the mind touch as if to accent those differences the more, "once our roots were the same, but now from these roots different plants have grown. And we must be left to ourselves a space before we mingle once more. My father's father's father's father was a Terran, but I am—what? We have something that you have not, just as you have developed during centuries of separation qualities of mind and body we do not know. You live with machines. And, since we could not keep machines in this world, having no power to repair or rebuild, we have been forced to turn in other directions. To go back to the old ways now would be throwing away clues to mysteries we have not yet fully explored, turning aside from discoveries ready to be made. To you I am a barbarian, hardly higher in the scale of civilization than the mermen—"

Raf flushed, would have given a quick and polite denial, had he not known that his thoughts had been read. Dalgard laughed. His amusement was not directed against the pilot, rather it invited him to share the joke. And reluctantly, Raf's peeling lips relaxed in a smile.

"But," he offered one argument the other had not cited, "what if you do go down this other path of yours so far that we no longer have any common meeting ground?" He had forgotten his own problem in the other's.

"I do not believe that will ever happen. Perhaps our bodies may change; climate, food, ways of life can all influence the body. Our minds may change; already my people with each new generation are better equipped to use the mind touch, can communicate more clearly with the animals and the mermen. But those who were in the beginning born of Terra shall always have a common heritage. There are and will be other lost colonies among the stars. We could not have been the only outlaws who broke forth during the rule of Pax, and before the blight of that dictatorship, there were at least two expeditions that went forth on Galactic explorations.

"A thousand years from now stranger will meet with stranger, but when they make the sign of peace and sit down with one another, they shall find that words come more easily, though one may seem outwardly monstrous to the other. Only, now we must go our own way. We are youths setting forth on our journey of testing, while the Elders wish us well but stand aside."

"You don't want what we have to offer?" This was a new idea to Raf.

"Did you truly want what the city people had to offer?"

That caught the pilot up. He could remember with unusual distinctness how he had disliked, somehow feared the things they had brought from the city storehouse, how he had privately hoped that Hobart and Lablet would be content to let well enough alone and not bring that knowledge of an alien race back with them. If he had not secretly known that aversion, he would not have been able to destroy the globe and the treasures piled about it.

"But"—his protest was hot, angry—"we are not them! We can do much for you."

"Can you?" The calm question sank into his mind as might a stone into a troubled pool, and the ripples of its passing changed an idea or two. "I wish that you might see Homeport. Perhaps then it would be easier for you to understand. No, your knowledge is not corrupt, it would not carry with it the same seeds of disaster as that of Those Others. But it would be too easy for us to accept, to walk a softer road, to forget what we have so far won. Just give us time—"

Raf cupped his palms over his watering eyes. He wanted badly to see clearly the other's face, to be able to read his expression. Yet it seemed that somehow he was able to see that sober face, as sincere as the words in his mind.

"You will come again," Dalgard said with certainty. "And we shall be waiting because you, Raf Kurbi, made it possible." There was something so solemn about that that Raf looked up in surprise.

"When you destroyed the core of Those Other's holding, you gave us our chance. For had you not done that we, the mermen, the other harmless, happy creatures of this world, would have been wiped out. There would be no new beginning here, only a dark and horrible end."

Raf blinked; to his surprise that other figure standing in the direct sunlight did not waver, and beyond the proudly held head was a stretch of turquoise sky. He could see the color!

"Yes, you shall see with your eyes—and with your mind," now Dalgard spoke aloud. "And if the Spirit which rules all space is kind, you shall return to your own people. For you have served His cause well."

Then, as if he were embarrassed by his own solemnity, Dalgard ended with a most prosaic inquiry: "Would you like shellfish for eating?"

Moments later, wading out into the water-swirled sand, his boots kicked off, his toes feeling for the elusive shelled creatures no one could see, Raf felt happier, freer than he could ever remember having been before. It was going to be all right. He could see! He would find the ship! He laughed aloud at nothing and heard an answering chuckle and then a whoop of triumph from the scout stooping to claw one of their prey out of hiding.

It was after they had eaten that Dalgard asked another question, one which did not seem important to Raf. "You have a close friend among the crew of your ship?"

Raf hesitated. Now that he was obliged to consider the point, did he have any friends—let alone a close one—among the crew of the RS 10? Certainly he did not claim Wonstead who had shared his quarters—he honestly did not care if he never saw him again. The officers, the experts such as Lablet—quickly face and character of each swept through his mind and was as swiftly discarded. There was Soriki—He could not claim the com-tech as any special friend, but at least during their period together among the aliens he had come to know him better.

Now, as if Dalgard had read his mind—and he probably had, thought Raf with a flash of the old resentment—he had another question.

"And what was he—is he like?"

Though the pilot could see little reason for this he answered as best he could, trying to build first a physical picture of the com-tech and then doing a little guessing as to what lay under the other's space-burned skin.

Dalgard lay on his back, gazing up into the blue-green sky. Yet Raf knew that he was intent on every word. A merman padded up, settled down cross-legged beside the scout, as if he too were enthralled by the pilot's halting description of a man he might never see again. Then a second of the sea people came and a third, until Raf felt that some sort of a noiseless council was in progress. His words trailed away, and then Dalgard offered an explanation.

"It will take us many, many days to reach the place where your ship is. And before we are able to complete that journey your friends may be gone. So we shall try something else—with your aid."

Raf fingered the little bundle of his possessions. Even his helmet with its com phone was missing.

"No," again Dalgard read his mind. "Your machines are of no use to you now. We shall try our way."

"How?" Wild thoughts of a big signal fire—But how could that be sighted across a mountain range. Of some sort of an improvised com unit—

"I said our way." There was a smile on Dalgard's face, visible to Raf's slowly clearing vision. "We shall provide another kind of machine, and these"—he waved at the mermen—"will give us the power, or so we hope. Lie here," he gestured to the sand beside him, "and think only of your friend in the ship, in his natural surroundings. Try to hold that picture constant in your mind, letting no other thought trouble it."

"Do you mean—send a message to him mentally!" Raf's reply was half protest.

"Did I not so reach you when we were in the city—even before I knew of you as an individual?" the scout reminded him. "And such messages are doubly possible when they are sent from friend to friend."

"But we were close then."

"That is why—" again Dalgard indicated the mermen. "For them this is the natural means of communication. They will pick up your reaching thought, amplify it with their power, beam it north. Since your friend deals with matters of communication, let us hope that he will be sensitive to this method."

Raf was only half convinced that it might work But he remembered how Dalgard had established contact with him, before, as the scout had pointed out, they had met. It was that voiceless cry for aid which had pulled him into this adventure in the first place. It was only fitting that something of the same process give him help in return.

Obediently he stretched out on the sand and closed his dim eyes, trying to picture Soriki in the small cabin which held the com, slouched in his bucket seat, his deceptive posture that of a lax idler, as he had seen him so many times. Soriki—his broad face with its flat cheekbones, its wide cheerful mouth, its heavy-lidded eyes. And having fixed Soriki's face, he tried to believe that he was now confronting the com-tech, speaking directly to him.

"Come—come and get me—south—seashore—Soriki come and get me!" The words formed a kind of chant, a chant aimed at that familiar face in its familiar surroundings. "South—come and get me—" Raf struggled to think only of that, to allow nothing to break through that chant or disturb his picture of the scene he had called from memory.

How long that attempt at communication lasted the pilot could not tell, for somehow he slipped from the deep concentration into sleep, dreamless and untroubled, from which he awoke with the befogged feeling that something important had happened. But had he gotten through?

The ring of mermen was gone, and it was dawn, gray, chill with the forewarnings of rain in the air. He was reassured because he was certain that in spite of the gloom his sight was a fraction clearer than it had been the day before. But had they gotten through? As he arose, brushing the sand from him, he saw the scout splashing out of the sea, a fish impaled on his spear.

"Did we get through?" Raf blurted out.

"Since your friend cannot reply with the mind touch, we do not know. But later we shall try again." To Raf's peering gaze Dalgard's face had a drawn, gaunt look as if he had been at hard labor during the hours just past. He walked up the beach slowly, without the springing step Raf had come to associate with him. As he settled down to gut the fish with one of the bone knives, the scout repeated, "We can try again—!"

Half an hour later, as the rain swept in from the sea, Raf knew that they would not have to try. His head went up, his face eager. He had known that sound too long and too well ever to mistake it—the drone of a flitter motor cutting through the swish of the falling water. Some trick of the cliffs behind them must be magnifying and projecting the sound, for he could not sight the machine. But it was coming. He whirled to Dalgard, only to see that the other was on his feet and had taken up his spear.

"It is the flitter! Soriki heard—they're coming!" Raf hastened to assure him.

For the last time he saw Dalgard's slow, warm smile, clearer than he had ever seen it before. Then the scout turned and trotted away, toward a fringing rock wall. Before he dropped out of sight behind that barrier he raised the spear in salute.

"Swift and fortunate voyaging!" He gave the farewell of Homeport.

Then Raf understood. The colonist meant just what he had said: he wanted no contact with the space ship. To Raf he had owed a debt and now that was paid. But the time was not yet when the men of Astra and the men of Terra should meet. A hundred years from now perhaps—or a thousand—but not yet. And remembering what had summoned the flitter winging toward him, Raf drew a deep breath. What would the men of Astra accomplish in a hundred years? What could those of Terra do to match them in knowledge? It was a challenge, and he alone knew just how much of a challenge. Homeport must remain his own secret. He had been guided to this place, saved by the mermen alone. Dalgard and his people must not exist as far as the crew of the RS 10 were concerned.

For the last time he experienced the intimacy of the mind touch. "That is it—brother!" Then the sensation was gone as the black blot of the flitter buzzed out of the clouds.

From behind the rocks Dalgard watched the pilot enter the strange machine. For a single moment he had an impulse to shout, to run forward, to surrender to his desire to see the others, the ship which had brought them through space and would, they confidently believed, take them back to the Terra he knew only as a legend of the past. But he mastered that desire. He had been right. The road had already forked and there was no going back. He must carry this secret all the rest of his life—he must be strong-willed enough so that Homeport would never know. Time—give them time to be what they could be. Then in a hundred years—or a thousand—But not yet!

* * * * *

"Nobody today is telling better stories of straight-forward interstellar adventure."

New York Herald-Tribune

When Raf Kurbi's Terran spaceship burst into unexplored skies of the far planet Astra and was immediately made welcome by the natives of a once-mighty metropolis, Kurbi was unaware of three vital things:

One was that Astra already harbored an Earth colony—descended from refugees from the world of the previous century.

Two was that these men and women were facing the greatest danger of their existence from a new outburst of the inhuman fiends who had once tyrannized Astra.

Three was that the natives who were buying Kurbi's science know-how were those very fiends—and their intentions were implacably deadly for all humans, whether Earth born or STAR BORN.

It's an Andre Norton space adventure—and therefore the tops in its field!

* * * * *

Quotes from the reviews:

"All science-fiction fans will thrill to these new adventures created by Andre Norton.... All who enjoy a good adventure about the unknown parts of our galaxy will find this an enchanting story."

Jackson (Tenn.) Sun

"Superb science-fiction."

Montgomery Advertiser

"Andre Norton adds another star to her literary laurels."

Cleveland Press

"A good, clearly thought-out story."

New York Times

"Exciting and adventure-laden."

Library Journal

"Suspense and excitement.... A storyteller of the first class, this is one of her best."

Fantasy & Science Fiction

* * * * *



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