The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 29

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"Well," Rockford said, "what do you think of her?"

Hunter tried to keep the personal dislike out of his coldly formal reply: "If you refer to your suggestion that I not make love to her, sir, I can a.s.sure you that such a suggestion was never necessary. I happen to have a code of ethics."

"I didn't say 'make love'. I said, 'fall in love'. That's quite ethical. Did you complete your discussion with her?"

"Well ... no."

"You must do that this afternoon, then. Can't let anything as important as that be delayed."



Hunter stared at him, trying to find one small grain of sanity in Rockford's actions. The Verdam empire already had Jardeen within its grasp, and Vesta, and the end for Earth was inevitable. And Rockford slept, and drank beer, and regarded it as very important that the Vestan s.p.a.ce Guard discussions--of a change that Narf would never permit--be continued without delay.

He walked slowly into his own room. In the nightmare situation of frustration there was one single sane and stable conviction for his mind to cling to: Supreme Command would by now have received his message and shot back the reply that would relieve Rockford of his command. Perhaps it wasn't yet too late-- Then his mind reeled as a new conviction struck it.

There was a sheet of paper on his bed--a message.

His message!

... SITUATION EXTREMELY CRITICAL ... VAL BORAN ALREADY CONVINCED BY SONIG'S PROPAGANDA ... MUST REPORT ROCKFORD IS UTTERLY INCOMPETENT, HIS MIND AND WILL DESTROYED BY ALCOHOL ... REPEAT: ROCKFORD IS DOING NOTHING, HIS MIND DESTROYED BY ALCOHOL....

The words screamed up at him and he felt the sickness of one who sees the last faint hope shattered and gone. All was lost, now....

He went outside, feeling a savage desire for violence rising above the sickness.

"Rootenant!" Alonzo came bounding to meet him and slid to a halt with his saucer feet scattering gravel and the idiotic grin on his face. "I mair your retter and you owe me six fig cook--"

It occurred to Hunter that it was not Alonzo that should be punished. He, Hunter, was the one who deserved execution for ever entrusting anything so important as the message to an imbecilic animal.

He said with cold distinctness: "The ... letter ... is ... inside."

"Oh?" Alonzo blinked. "I sure mair something, awr right. After Mr. Rockford correct it."

"Correct it?"

"Oh, sure. Mr. Rockford, he up rong before you this morning to find me and say you are writing a retter rast night and I must bring it by for him to make awr your mistakes over again."

So Rockford was watching all the time, pretending to be in a drunken sleep....

"Rootenant--" Alonzo s.h.i.+fted his big feet impatiently. "You stirr owe me six fig--"

Hunter swung around and strode away, afraid he might decide to choke the animal after all. A culture of twenty worlds was the same as already destroyed, and he was held in a maddening quagmire of helplessness by a crafty alcoholic and a dog with the mind of a small child.

"Ah ... my boy!" Rockford came out of the cabin, beaming as though nothing had ever happened. "Look to your left, among those ghost trees--Narf is demonstrating his quick-draw skill to Sonig. Narf is supposed to be a very dangerous man, you know."

Hunter looked, and saw Narf whipping up the blunt, ugly spread-beam blaster--known to soldiers as the Coward's Special, because at short range it could not miss and would always cripple and blind a man for life even though it would not always kill him. Sonig was standing by, nodding his weasel head and smiling in open admiration.

"Of course," Rockford said, "Sonig isn't mentioning the needle gun all Verdam envoys carry up their sleeve. He's flattering Narf's ego for a reason--he intends to have Vesta, as well as Jardeen, sewed up for the Verdam empire when he leaves here."

"And so far as I can see," Hunter said coldly, "Sonig never is going to have anything vaguely resembling intelligent resistance to his plans."

"Ah, yes ... so far as you can see," Rockford agreed amiably. "But you obey my order to take Lyla for another walk and everything will turn out all right. In fact, I'll speak to her about that right now."

Hunter stared after Rockford as he walked away. There could be no possible shred of doubt--Rockford was insane!

The breeze s.h.i.+fted and the voice of Narf came: "... Certainly no weapon for a timid man, this spread-beam blaster. Have to meet the enemy man-to-man at close range."

"In that respect, too," Sonig said, "you remind me of our great General Paluk. His skill in hand-to-hand combat was something that--"

"Rootenant--"

Hunter quivered and steeled himself.

"Rootenant--" Alonzo came to a flopping halt beside him. "I terr Princess Ryra and she say I are bad to be mad at you. So I not mad, even if you didn't give me my pay."

"Thank you," Hunter said acidly. "I was deeply disturbed by your resentment."

"Oh, I know, you don't rike me. But I think you not as mean as you act. But Rord Narf--he is. I terr you, he awready mad enough to kirr you."

"What? Lord Narf wants to kill me?"

"Oh, he know you hord Princess Ryra's hand awrmost awr the way down the hirr this morning. Mr. Sonig, he see you, and he run and terr Rord Narf and Mr. Boran, too."

"But I was only helping her down the hill."

"Rord Narf, he are going to say mean things about it to Princess Ryra, too. I know. He are awrways saying mean things to my Princess Ryra."

Alonzo sighed, a sound strangely humanlike in its sadness.

"Who wirr watch over my Princess Ryra after she marry Rord Narf? He said, 'The first thing to go around here wirr be that stupid brabber-mouth animar that are not worth what it costs to feed it.' I think maybe he are afraid that if he ever hit my Princess Ryra, I wirr kirr him." The brown eyes looked up at Hunter, and suddenly they were unlike he had ever seen them; cold with deliberate decision. "I wirr, too."

Hunter was still standing by the cabin, thinking of what Alonzo had said, when Rockford returned.

"I also stopped by to see Val Boran," Rockford said. "While you're off with Lyla, we'll go to the city. Lyla is giving us free access to the Royal Library and the records of a neutral world carry more weight than anything I could say. Not that it's going to change his mind any--but it will give me a chance to work on him in another way."

Rockford went into the cabin as Val Boran came up the path, Princess Lyla walking beside him. She was saying, "... And anything we have in the library is yours for the asking."

They were close enough for Hunter to see her expression as she looked up at Val and added with what seemed a touch of wistfulness, "I'll be glad to go in with you and Mr. Rockford and do what I can to help if you want me to."

"Lyla"--it was the grating voice of Narf who seemed to have the ability to materialize anywhere--"I'm sure the man knows his business. Besides, I want to talk to you about something as soon as I have finished my discussion with Mr. Sonig."

With that, Narf started on toward his cabin. Sonig, close behind him, paused long enough to bow to Lyla and say with the meaningless smile, "Good afternoon, Princess Lyla. Your husband was just demonstrating his marvelous skill with weapons. I would very much dislike"--the little eyes darted to Hunter and back again--"being the man who aroused his lords.h.i.+p's wrath."

Then Sonig followed Narf, with one last flickering glance at Hunter to see how the remark had fallen.

Rockford came out of the cabin with his brief case and said to Val, "Are we ready to go?"

"I just told Val"--Lyla spoke quickly--"that I would be glad to go along and help any way I can." The words were addressed to Rockford but her eyes were on Val, with the same wistful expression. "Do you want me to?"

Val answered her with cool, formal courtesy: "The librarian can find all the records we will need, Princess Lyla, without our interrupting your schedule for the day or your discussion with your husband. Thank you very much."

For an instant Lyla's face had the hurt expression of a child rebuffed without reason. Then she looked away and Val turned to Rockford and said, "I'm ready when you are, sir."

Lyla watched them walk away and she was still watching when the helicopter had lifted into the air and faded from sight.

Hunter hesitated, then spoke to her: "I understand you want to talk more about the s.p.a.ce Guard, Princess Lyla?"

"Princess Lyla!" Her lips curled as she turned to face him and she seemed to spit the words at him in sudden, unexpected resentment. "I love the meaningless sound of my official figurehead t.i.tle! It's so much better than being regarded as a living person with feelings that can be hurt!"

"But Princ ... I mean--" He floundered, not quite sure what had caused her reaction.

She made a visible effort to compose herself. "I'm sorry," she said. "I suppose my ... husband ... is quite right; an immature female has no business trying to rule a world and the sooner the marriage is confirmed, the sooner a competent man can take over the job."

"No," he said. "I think--"

He decided that what he thought had better be left unsaid.

"I'll"--she looked toward the cabin she shared with Narf--"let you know when we can talk."

She went back toward the cabin, walking slowly. From inside Narf's half of it came the sound of Narf's voice as he spoke to Sonig: "... Of course, this collection of heads is nothing compared with what I have in the Sea Islands ... but some interesting stories here ... take that snow fox there...."

Hunter sighed, and saw that Lyla had stopped before her door, as though dreading to enter. Narf's voice droned on: "... Only wounded, so I finished it with a knife. Even with its heart half cut out, it still wanted to live ... beautiful pelt ... coat for Ja.n.a.lee, the strip-tease queen ... always had a way with women--Lyla could tell you that ... had my pick of hundreds but I'm letting her be my choice...."

He saw Lyla half lift her hand, as in some mute gesture of protest, then she turned and walked swiftly away; up the path that led into the ghost trees, and out of sight.

He waited, but she did not come back. He went into his cabin and moved about restlessly, hearing again Narf's sadism-and-s.e.x boasting and seeing again how she turned and almost ran from it-- * * * * *

"Rootenant!"

Alonzo was panting, a look of frantic appeal in his eyes.

"Prease herp me ... Princess Ryra ... she wirr die!"

He felt his heart lurch. "She's hurt?" he demanded, and was already on his way to the door.

"She are about to cry and she are going to where the tree tigers riv. They wirr kirr her--prease come with me!"

He asked no more questions but went out the door and up the path, Alonzo running ahead of him.

The ghost trees grew thinner as they went up the mountain's slope, and the blue-green fernlike trees of the tiger forest began to appear. They grew thicker and thicker, until the ground was black with their shadows and the midday sunlight was filtered out by the foliage overhead. Alonzo was trailing her, his nose to the ground, and Hunter hurried close behind him, watching for the red-and-white of the clothes she was wearing and hoping they would not find her too late.

They were deep in the forest when they found her.

She was standing motionless in the center of a clearing, facing away from him and looking as small and alone as a lost child. She seemed to be waiting....

He realized for the first time how alone she really was, with only a doglike alien, Alonzo, to love her or care what might happen to her, and with a future she could not bear to face. But Rockford had been wrong when he had said, For her, there is no escape.

There was escape for her. She had only to wait, as she was waiting now, and it would come in the windlike whisper of a tiger's rush through the gra.s.s behind her....

He hurried to her. She turned, and he saw the stains of tears now dry on her face and in her eyes the darkness of utter defeat.

"I was afraid you might get hurt, Lyla--"

Then, seemingly without volition on his part, he put his arms around her and she was clinging to him and crying in m.u.f.fled sobs and trying to say something about, "I didn't think anybody cared...."

It was some time later, when her crying was finished, that he was reminded of the tigers by Alonzo: "Rootenant ... awr the time, some tigers are coming croser and croser. We better get her out of here, Rootenant, before they find us."

Lyla looked down at Alonzo. "Thank you, Alonzo, for watching over me and ... and--" Her voice caught and she dropped to her knees and hugged the s.h.a.ggy head tight against her.

Hunter watched ahead, Lyla beside him as they went through the dense trees. Alonzo walked soft-footed behind them, watching the rear. When they came to the first ghost trees and the dwindling of the tiger trees, Hunter thought it safe to walk slower and talk to her.

"I saw you go," he said. "I didn't know where until Alonzo came running to tell me."

"I heard him bragging about killing, and about his women--I was weak, wasn't I?"

"Weak?"

"I was afraid to face the future, just because it isn't to be exactly like I thought I wanted."

"What was the kind you wanted, Lyla?"

"Oh ... I guess I wanted a husband who could see me only, and children, and evenings together in the flower garden, and ... well, all the silly, sentimental little things that mean so much to a woman."

He thought, Even with its heart half cut out, it still wanted to live ... Coat for Ja.n.a.lee ... the strip-tease queen....

They pa.s.sed through the last of the tiger trees and she said, "We're safe, now. The tigers never attack anyone outside their forest."

She was walking slowly and he said, "We should get on back before you're missed, shouldn't we?"

"Who would miss me?" she asked. "So long as I remain physically intact for the marriage night, who cares where or why I went away?"

There was the cold bleakness of winter in her eyes as she spoke, and in her voice the first undertone of bra.s.s. He saw that this was already the beginning of the change that Narf would make in her; the transformation of a girl young and wanting to love and be loved into a hard and cynical woman.

He put his arm around her shoulder, thinking that he should tell her that he cared and that she must never let Narf change her.

"Lyla, I--"

He realized how futile and foolish the words would sound. She would marry Narf, he would return to Earth, and they would never meet again. There were no words for him to speak on this last walk together, no way to tell her that he wanted to help her, to protect and care for her. No way to express the feeling inside him....

He did what seemed as natural under the circ.u.mstances as it had been for him to put his arm around her in the clearing. He tilted up her face and bent his head to kiss her.

And walked with jarring impact into the k.n.o.bby elbow of a ghost tree limb.

The sun was down and dusk was darkening the camp when they arrived back at her cabin.

"Thank you, Dale," she said. Her hand squeezed his arm. "I didn't know I had a friend ... but now we'll have to be strangers because--"

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 29

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The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Iv Part 29 summary

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