The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xi Part 50

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I found myself seized and frog-marched to the gate. One guard pushed my skean back into its clasp. The other shoved me hard, and I stumbled, fell sprawling in the dust of the cobbled street, to the accompaniment of a profane statement about what I could expect if I came back. A chorus of jeers from a cl.u.s.ter of chak children and veiled women broke across me.

I picked myself up, glowered so fiercely at the giggling spectators that the laughter drained away into silence, and clenched my fists, half inclined to turn back and bull my way through. Then I subsided. First round to Rakhal. He had sprung the trap on me, very neatly.

The street was narrow and crooked, winding between doubled rows of pebble-houses, and full of dark shadows even in the crimson noon. I walked aimlessly, favoring the arm the guard had crushed. I was no closer to settling things with Rakhal, and I had slammed at least one gate behind me.

Why hadn't I had sense enough to walk up and demand to see Race Cargill? Why hadn't I insisted on a fingerprint check? I could prove my ident.i.ty, and Rakhal, using my name in my absence, to those who didn't know me by sight, couldn't. I could at least have made him try. But he had maneuvered it very cleverly, so I never had a chance to insist on proofs.

I turned into a wineshop and ordered a dram of greenish mountainberry liquor, sipping it slowly and fingering the few bills and coins in my pockets. I'd better forget about warning Juli. I couldn't 'vise her from Charin, except in the Terran zone. I had neither the money nor the time to make the trip in person, even if I could get pa.s.sage on a Terran-dominated airline after today.



Miellyn. She had flirted with me, and like Dallisa, she might prove vulnerable. It might be another trap, but I'd take the chance. At least I could get hints about Evarin. And I needed information. I wasn't used to this kind of intrigue any more. The smell of danger was foreign to me now, and I found it unpleasant.

The small lump of the bird in my pocket tantalized me. I took it out again. It was a temptation to press the stud and let it settle things, or at least start them going, then and there.

After a while I noticed the proprietors of the shop staring at the silk of the wrappings. They backed off, apprehensive. I held out a coin and they shook their heads. "You are welcome to the drink," one of them said. "All we have is at your service. Only please go. Go quickly."

They would not touch the coins I offered. I thrust the bird in my pocket, swore and went. It was my second experience with being somehow tabu, and I didn't like it.

It was dusk when I realized I was being followed.

At first it was a glimpse out of the corner of my eye, a head seen too frequently for coincidence. It developed into a too-persistent footstep in uneven rhythm.

Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.

I had my skean handy, but I had a hunch this wasn't anything I could settle with a skean. I ducked into a side street and waited.

Nothing.

I went on, laughing at my imagined fears.

Then, after a time, the soft, persistent footfall thudded behind me again.

I cut across a thieves market, dodging from stall to stall, cursed by old women selling hot fried goldfish, women in striped veils railing at me in their chiming talk when I brushed their rolled rugs with hasty feet. Far behind I heard the familiar uneven hurry: tap-tap-tap, tap-tap-tap.

I fled down a street where women sat on flower-decked balconies, their open lanterns flowing with fountains and rivulets of gold and orange fire. I raced through quiet streets where furred children crept to doors and watched me pa.s.s with great golden eyes that shone in the dark.

I dodged into an alley and lay there, breathing hard. Someone not two inches away said, "Are you one of us, brother?"

I muttered something surly, in his dialect, and a hand, rea.s.suringly human, closed on my elbow. "This way."

Out of breath with long running, I let him lead me, meaning to break away after a few steps, apologize for mistaken ident.i.ty and vanish, when a sound at the end of the street made me jerk stiff and listen.

Tap-tap-tap. Tap-tap-tap.

I let my arm relax in the hand that guided me, flung a fold of my s.h.i.+rtcloak over my face, and went along with my unknown guide.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN.

I stumbled over steps, took a jolting stride downward, and found myself in a dim room jammed with dark figures, human and nonhuman.

The figures swayed in the darkness, chanting in a dialect not altogether familiar to me, a monotonous wailing chant, with a single recurrent phrase: "Kamaina! Kama-aina!" It began on a high note, descending in weird chromatics to the lowest tone the human ear could resolve.

The sound made me draw back. Even the Dry-towners shunned the orgiastic rituals of Kamaina. Earthmen have a reputation for getting rid of the more objectionable customs--by human standards--on any planet where they live. But they don't touch religions, and Kamaina, on the surface anyhow, was a religion.

I started to turn round and leave, as if I had inadvertently walked through the wrong door, but my conductor hauled on my arm, and I was wedged in too tight by now to risk a roughhouse. Trying to force my way out would only have called attention to me, and the first of the Secret Service maxims is; when in doubt, go along, keep quiet, and watch the other guy.

As my eyes adapted to the dim light, I saw that most of the crowd were Charin plainsmen or chaks. One or two wore Dry-town s.h.i.+rtcloaks, and I even thought I saw an Earthman in the crowd, though I was never sure and I fervently hope not. They were squatting around small crescent-shaped tables, and all intently gazing at a flickery spot of light at the front of the cellar. I saw an empty place at one table and dropped there, finding the floor soft, as if cus.h.i.+oned.

On each table, small smudging pastilles were burning, and from these cones of ash-tipped fire came the steamy, swimmy smoke that filled the darkness with strange colors. Beside me an immature chak girl was kneeling, her fettered hands strained tightly back at her sides, her naked b.r.e.a.s.t.s pierced for jeweled rings.

Beneath the pallid fur around her pointed ears, the exquisite animal face was quite mad. She whispered to me, but her dialect was so thick that I could follow only a few words, and would just as soon not have heard those few. An older chak grunted for silence and she subsided, swaying and crooning.

There were cups and decanters on all the tables, and a woman tilted pale, phosph.o.r.escent fluid into a cup and offered it to me. I took one sip, then another. It was cold and pleasantly tart, and not until the second swallow turned sweet on my tongue did I know what I tasted. I pretended to swallow while the woman's eyes were fixed on me, then somehow contrived to spill the filthy stuff down my s.h.i.+rt.

I was wary even of the fumes, but there was nothing else I could do. The stuff was shallavan, outlawed on every planet in the Terran Empire and every halfway decent planet outside it.

More and more figures, men and creatures, kept crowding into the cellar, which was not very large. The place looked like the worst nightmare of a drug-dreamer, ablaze with the colors of the smoking incense, the swaying crowd, and their monotonous cries. Quite suddenly there was a blaze of purple light and someone screamed in raving ecstasy: "Na ki na Nebran n'hai Kamaina!"

"Kamayeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeena!" shrilled the tranced mob.

An old man jumped up and started haranguing the crowd. I could just follow his dialect. He was talking about Terra. He was talking about riots. He was jabbering mystical gibberish which I couldn't understand and didn't want to understand, and rabble-rousing anti-Terran propaganda which I understood much too well.

Another blaze of lights and another long scream in chorus: "Kamayeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeena!"

Evarin stood in the blaze of the many-colored light.

The Toymaker, as I had seen him last, cat-smooth, gracefully alien, shrouded in a ripple of giddy crimsons. Behind him was a blackness. I waited till the painful blaze of lights abated, then, straining my eyes to see past him, I got my worst shock.

A woman stood there, naked to the waist, her hands ritually fettered with little chains that stirred and clashed musically as she moved stiff-legged in a frozen dream. Hair like black gra.s.s banded her brow and naked shoulders, and her eyes were crimson.

And the eyes lived in the dead dreaming face. They lived, and they were mad with terror although the lips curved in a gently tranced smile.

Miellyn.

Evarin was speaking in that dialect I barely understood. His arms were flung high and his cloak went spilling away from them, rippling like something alive. The jammed humans and nonhumans swayed and chanted and he swayed above them like an iridescent bug, weaving arms rippling back and forth, back and forth. I strained to catch his words.

"Our world ... an old world."

"Kamayeeeeena," whimpered the shrill chorus.

"... humans, humans, all humans would make slaves of us all, all save the Children of the Ape...."

I lost the thread for a moment. True. The Terran Empire has one small blind spot in otherwise sane policy, ignoring that nonhuman and human have lived placidly here for millennia: they placidly a.s.sumed that humans were everywhere the dominant race, as on Earth itself.

The Toymaker's weaving arms went on spinning, spinning. I rubbed my eyes to clear them of shallavan and incense. I hoped that what I saw was an illusion of the drug--something, something huge and dark, was hovering over the girl. She stood placidly, hands clasped on her chains, but her eyes writhed in the frozen calm of her face.

Then something--I can only call it a sixth sense--bore it on me that there was someone outside the door. I was perhaps the only creature there, except for Evarin, not drugged with shallavan, and perhaps that's all it was. But during the days in the Secret Service I'd had to develop some extra senses. Five just weren't enough for survival.

I knew somebody was fixing to break down that door, and I had a good idea why. I'd been followed, by the legate's orders, and, tracking me here, they'd gone away and brought back reinforcements.

Someone struck a blow on the door and a stentorian voice bawled, "Open up there, in the name of the Empire!"

The chanting broke in ragged quavers. Evarin stopped. Somewhere a woman screamed. The lights abruptly went out and a stampede started in the room. Women struck me with chains, men kicked, there were shrieks and howls. I thrust my way forward, b.u.t.ting with elbows and knees and shoulders.

A dusky emptiness yawned and I got a glimpse of sunlight and open sky and knew that Evarin had stepped through into somewhere and was gone. The banging on the door sounded like a whole regiment of s.p.a.ceforce out there. I dived toward the s.h.i.+mmer of little stars which marked Miellyn's tiara in the darkness, braving the black horror hovering over her, and touched rigid girl-flesh, cold as death.

I grabbed her and ducked sideways. This time it wasn't intuition--nine times out of ten, anyway, intuition is just a mental shortcut which adds up all the things which your subconscious has noticed while you were busy thinking about something else. Every native building on Wolf had concealed entrances and exits and I know where to look for them. This one was exactly where I expected. I pushed at it and found myself in a long, dim corridor.

The head of a woman peered from an opening door. She saw Miellyn's limp body hanging on my arm and her mouth widened in a silent scream. Then the head popped back out of sight and a door slammed. I heard the bolt slide. I ran for the end of the hall, the girl in my arms, thinking that this was where I came in, as far as Miellyn was concerned, and wondering why I bothered.

The door opened on a dark, peaceful street. One lonely moon was setting beyond the rooftops. I set Miellyn on her feet, but she moaned and crumpled against me. I put my s.h.i.+rtcloak around her bare shoulders. Judging by the noises and yells, we'd gotten out just in time. No one came out the exit behind us. Either the s.p.a.ceforce had plugged it or, more likely, everyone else in the cellar had been too muddled by drugs to know what was going on.

But it was only a few minutes, I knew, before s.p.a.ceforce would check the whole building for concealed escape holes. Suddenly, and irrelevantly, I found myself thinking of a day not too long ago, when I'd stood up in front of a unit-in-training of s.p.a.ceforce, introduced to them as an Intelligence expert on native towns, and solemnly warned them about concealed exits and entrances. I wondered, for half a minute, if it might not be simpler just to wait here and let them pick me up.

Then I hoisted Miellyn across my shoulders. She was heavier than she looked, and after a minute, half conscious, she began to struggle and moan. There was a chak-run cookshop down the street, a place I'd once known well, with an evil reputation and worse food, but it was quiet and stayed open all night. I turned in at the door, bending at the low lintel.

The place was smoke-filled and foul-smelling. I dumped Miellyn on a couch and sent the frowsy waiter for two bowls of noodles and coffee, handed him a few extra coins, and told him to leave us alone. He probably drew the worst possible inference--I saw his muzzle twitch at the smell of shallavan--but it was that kind of place anyhow. He drew down the shutters and went.

I stared at the unconscious girl, then shrugged and started on the noodles. My own head was still swimmy with the fumes, incense and drug, and I wanted it clear. I wasn't quite sure what I was going to do, but I had Evarin's right-hand girl, and I was going to use her.

The noodles were greasy and had a curious taste, but they were hot, and I ate all of one bowl before Miellyn stirred and whimpered and put up one hand, with a little clinking of chains, to her hair. The gesture was indefinably reminiscent of Dallisa, and for the first time I saw the likeness between them. It made me wary and yet curiously softened.

Finding she could not move freely, she rolled over, sat up and stared around in growing bewilderment and dismay.

"There was a sort of riot," I said. "I got you out. Evarin ditched you. And you can quit thinking what you're thinking, I put my s.h.i.+rtcloak on you because you were bare to the waist and it didn't look so good." I stopped to think that over, and amended: "I mean I couldn't haul you around the streets that way. It looked good enough."

To my surprise, she gave a shaky little giggle, and held out her fettered hands. "Will you?"

I broke her links and freed her. She rubbed her wrists as if they hurt her, then drew up her draperies, pinned them so that she was decently covered, and tossed back my s.h.i.+rtcloak. Her eyes were wide and soft in the light of the flickering stub of candle.

"O, Rakhal," she sighed. "When I saw you there--" She sat up, clasping her hands hard together, and when she continued her voice was curiously cold and controlled for anyone so childish. It was almost as cold as Dallisa's.

"If you've come from Kyral, I'm not going back. I'll never go back, and you may as well know it."

"I don't come from Kyral, and I don't care where you go. I don't care what you do." I suddenly realized that the last statement was wholly untrue, and to cover my confusion I shoved the remaining bowl of noodles at her.

"Eat."

She wrinkled her nose in fastidious disgust. "I'm not hungry."

"Eat it anyway. You're still half doped, and the food will clear your head." I picked up one mug of the coffee and drained it at a single swallow. "What were you doing in that disgusting den?"

Without warning she flung herself across the table at me, throwing her arms round my neck. Startled, I let her cling a moment, then reached up and firmly unfastened her hands.

"None of that now. I fell for it once, and it landed me in the middle of the mudpie."

But her fingers bit my shoulder.

"Rakhal, Rakhal, I tried to get away and find you. Have you still got the bird? You haven't set it off yet? Oh, don't, don't, don't, Rakhal, you don't know what Evarin is, you don't know what he's doing." The words spilled out of her like floodwaters. "He's won so many of you, don't let him have you too, Rakhal. They call you an honest man, you worked once for Terra, the Terrans would believe you if you went to them and told them what he--Rakhal, take me to the Terran Zone, take me there, take me there where they'll protect me from Evarin."

At first I tried to stop her, question her, then waited and let the torrent of entreaty run on and on. At last, exhausted and breathless, she lay quietly against my shoulder, her head fallen forward. The musty reek of shallavan mingled with the flower scent of her hair.

"Kid," I said heavily at last, "you and your Toymaker have both got me wrong. I'm not Rakhal Sensar."

"You're not?" She drew back, regarding me in dismay. Her eyes searched every inch of me, from the gray streak across my forehead to the scar running down into my collar. "Then who--"

"Race Cargill. Terran Intelligence."

She stared, her mouth wide like a child's.

Then she laughed. She laughed! At first I thought she was hysterical. I stared at her in consternation. Then, as her wide eyes met mine, with all the mischief of the nonhuman which has mingled into the human here, all the circular complexities of Wolf illogic behind the woman in them, I started to laugh too.

I threw back my head and roared, until we were clinging together and gasping with mirth like a pair of raving fools. The chak waiter came to the door and stared at us, and I roared "Get the h.e.l.l out," between spasms of crazy laughter.

Then she was wiping her face, tears of mirth still dripping down her cheeks, and I was frowning bleakly into the empty bowls.

"Cargill," she said hesitantly, "you can take me to the Terrans where Rakhal--"

"h.e.l.l's bells," I exploded. "I can't take you anywhere, girl. I've got to find Rakhal--" I stopped in midsentence and looked at her clearly for the first time.

"Child, I'll see that you're protected, if I can. But I'm afraid you've walked from the trap to the cookpot. There isn't a house in Charin that will hold me. I've been thrown out twice today."

She nodded. "I don't know how the word spreads, but it happens, in nonhuman parts. I think they can see trouble written in a human face, or smell it on the wind." She fell silent, her face propped sleepily between her hands, her hair falling in tangles. I took one of her hands in mine and turned it over.

It was a fine hand, with birdlike bones and soft rose-tinted nails; but the lines and hardened places around the knuckles reminded me that she, too, came from the cold austerity of the salt Dry-towns. After a moment she flushed and drew her hand from mine.

"What are you thinking, Cargill?" she asked, and for the first time I heard her voice sobered, without the coquetry, which must after all have been a very thin veneer.

I answered her simply and literally. "I am thinking of Dallisa. I thought you were very different, and yet, I see that you are very like her."

I thought she would question what I knew of her sister, but she let it pa.s.s in silence. After a time she said, "Yes, we were twins." Then, after a long silence, she added, "But she was always much the older."

And that was all I ever knew of whatever obscure pressures had shaped Dallisa into an austere and tragic Clytemnestra, and Miellyn into a pixie runaway.

Outside the drawn shutters, dawn was brightening. Miellyn s.h.i.+vered, drawing her thin draperies around her bare throat. I glanced at the little rim of jewels that starred her hair and said, "You'd better take those off and hide them. They alone would be enough to have you hauled into an alley and strangled, in this part of Charin." I hauled the bird Toy from my pocket and slapped it on the greasy table, still wrapped in its silk. "I don't suppose you know which of us this thing is set to kill?"

"I know nothing about the Toys."

"You seem to know plenty about the Toymaker."

"I thought so. Until last night." I looked at the rigid, clamped mouth and thought that if she were really as soft and delicate as she looked, she would have wept. Then she struck her small hand on the tabletop and burst out, "It's not a religion. It isn't even an honest movement for freedom! Its a--a front for smuggling, and drugs, and--and every other filthy thing!

"Believe it or not, when I left Shainsa, I thought Nebran was the answer to the way the Terrans were strangling us! Now I know there are worse things on Wolf than the Terran Empire! I've heard of Rakhal Sensar, and whatever you may think of Rakhal, he's too decent to be mixed up in anything like this!"

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xi Part 50

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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xi Part 50 summary

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