Something hurt him, something threatened him. He put his hand to his cheek and it came away red.
Paula and Webber were yanking at him, trying to get him to move.
A stone whizzed past his head. It struck the side of the flitter with a sharp clack, and fell. Kieran's nervous relays finally connected. He jumped for the open hatch. Automatically he pushed Paula ahead of him, trying to shield her, and she gave him an odd startled look. Webber was already inside. More stones rattled around and one grazed Kieran's thigh. It hurt. His cheek was bleeding freely. He rolled inside the flitter and turned to look back out the hatch. He was mad.
"Who's doing it?" he demanded.
Paula pointed. At first Kieran was distracted by the strangeness of the landscape. The flitter crouched in a vastness of red-ochre sand laced with some low-growing plant that shone like metallic gold in the sunlight. The sand receded in tilted planes lifting gradually to a range of mountains on the right, and dropping gradually to infinity on the left. Directly in front of the flitter and quite literally a stone's throw away was the beginning of a thick belt of trees that grew beside a river, apparently quite a wide one though he could not see much but a tawny sparkling of water. The course of the river could be traced clear back to the mountains by the winding line of woods that followed its bed. The trees themselves were not like any Kieran had seen before. There seemed to be several varieties, all grotesque in shape and exotic in color. There were even some green ones, with long sharp leaves that looked like spearheads.
Exotic or not, they made perfectly adequate cover. Stones came whistling out of the woods, but Kieran could not see anything where Paula was pointing but an occasional shaking of foliage.
"Sakae?" he asked.
Webber snorted. "You'll know it when the Sakae find us. They don't throw stones."
"These are the humans," Paula said. There was an indulgent softness in her voice that irritated Kieran.
"I thought they were our dear little friends," he said.
"You frightened them."
"I frightened them?"
"They've seen the flitter before. But they're extremely alert to modes of behavior, and they knew you weren't acting right. They thought you were sick."
"So they tried to kill me. Nice fellows."
"Self-preservation," Webber said. "They can't afford the luxury of too much kindness."
"They're very kind among themselves," Paula said defensively. To Kieran she added, "I doubt if they were trying to kill you. They just wanted to drive you away."
"Oh, well," said Kieran, "in that case I wouldn't dream of disappointing them. Let's go."
Paula glared at him and turned to Webber. "Talk to them."
"I hope there's time," Webber grunted, glancing at the sky. "We're sitting ducks here. Keep your patient quiet--any more of that moaning and flopping and we're sunk."
He picked up a large plastic container and moved closer to the door.
Paula looked at Kieran's cheek. "Let me fix that."
"Don't bother," he said. At this moment he hoped the Sakae, whoever and whatever they were, would come along and clap these two into some suitable place for the rest of their lives.
Webber began to "talk".
Kieran stared at him, fascinated. He had expected words--primitive words, perhaps resembling the click-speech of Earth's stone-age survivals, but words of some sort. Webber hooted. It was a soft reassuring sound, repeated over and over, but it was not a word. The rattle of stones diminished, then stopped. Webber continued to make his hooting call. Presently it was answered. Webber turned and nodded at Paula, smiling. He reached into the plastic container and drew forth a handful of brownish objects that smelled to Kieran like dried fruit. Webber tossed these out onto the sand. Now he made a different sound, a grunting and whuffling. There was a silence. Webber made the sound again.
On the third try the people came out of the woods.
In all there were perhaps twenty-five of them. They came slowly and furtively, moving a step or two at a time, then halting and peering, prepared to run. The able-bodied men came first, with one in the lead, a fine-looking chap in early middle age who was apparently the chief. The women, the old men, and the children followed, trickling gradually out of the shadow of the trees but remaining where they could disappear in a flash if alarmed. They were all perfectly naked, tall and slender and large-eyed, their muscles strung for speed and agility rather than massive strength. Their bodies gleamed a light bronze color in the sun, and Kieran noticed that the men were beardless and smooth-skinned. Both men and women had long hair, ranging in color from black to tawny, and very clean and glistening. They were a beautiful people, as deer are a beautiful people, graceful, innocent, and wild. The men came to the dried fruits which had been scattered for them. They picked them up and sniffed them, bit them, then began to eat, repeating the grunt-and-whuffle call. The women and children and old men decided everything was safe and joined them. Webber tossed out more fruit, and then got out himself, carrying the plastic box.
"What does he do next?" whispered Kieran to Paula. "Scratch their ears? I used to tame squirrels this way when I was a kid."
"Shut up," she warned him. Webber beckoned and she nudged him to move out of the flitter. "Slow and careful."
Kieran slid out of the flitter. Big glistening eyes swung to watch him. The eating stopped. Some of the little ones scuttled for the trees. Kieran froze. Webber hooted and whuffled some more and the tension relaxed. Kieran approached the group with Paula. There was suddenly no truth in what he was doing. He was an actor in a bad scene, mingling with impossible characters in an improbable setting. Webber making ridiculous noises and tossing his dried fruit around like a caricature of somebody sowing, Paula with her brisk professionalism all dissolved in misty-eyed fondness, himself an alien in this time and place, and these perfectly normal-appearing people behaving like orang-utans with their fur shaved off. He started to laugh and then thought better of it. Once started, he might not be able to stop.
"Let them get used to you," said Webber softly.
Paula obviously had been here before. She had begun to make noises too, a modified hooting more like a pigeon's call. Kieran just stood still. The people moved in around them, sniffing, touching. There was no conversation, no laughing or giggling even among the little girls. A particularly beautiful young woman stood just behind the chief, watching the strangers with big yellow cat-eyes. Kieran took her to be the man's daughter. He smiled at her. She continued to stare, deadpan and blank-eyed, with no answering flicker of a smile. It was as though she had never seen one before. Kieran shivered. All this silence and unresponsiveness became eerie.
"I'm happy to tell you," he murmured to Paula, "that I don't think much of your little pets?"
She could not allow herself to be sharply angry. She only said, in a whisper, "They are not pets, they are not animals. They--"
She broke off. Something had come over the naked people. Every head had lifted, every eye had turned away from the strangers. They were listening. Even the littlest ones were still.
Kieran could not hear anything except the wind in the trees.
"What--?" he started to ask.
Webber made an imperative gesture for silence. The tableau held for a brief second longer. Then the brown-haired man who seemed to be the leader made a short harsh noise. The people turned and vanished into the trees.
"The Sakae," Webber said. "Get out of sight." He ran toward the flitter. Paula grabbed Kieran's sleeve and pushed him toward the trees.
"What's going on?" he demanded as he ran.
"Their ears are better than ours. There's a patrol ship coming, I think."
The shadows took them in, orange-and-gold-splashed shadows under strange trees. Kieran looked back. Webber had been inside the flitter. Now he tumbled out of the hatch and ran toward them. Behind him the hatch closed and the flitter stirred and then took off all by itself, humming.
"They'll follow it for a while," Webber panted. "It may give us a chance to get away." He and Paula started after the running people.
Kieran balked. "I don't know why I'm running away from anybody."
Webber pulled out a snub-nosed instrument that looked enough like a gun to be very convincing. He pointed it at Kieran's middle.
"Reason one," he said. "If the Sakae catch Paula and me here we're in very big trouble. Reason two--this is a closed area, and you're with us, so you will be in very big trouble." He looked coldly at Kieran. "The first reason is the one that interests me most."
Kieran shrugged. "Well, now I know." He ran.
Only then did he hear the low heavy thrumming in the sky.
The sound came rumbling very swiftly toward them. It was a completely different sound from the humming of the flitter, and it seemed to Kieran to hold a note of menace. He stopped in a small clearing where he might see up through the trees. He wanted a look at this ship or flier or whatever it was that had been built and was flown by non-humans.
But Webber shoved him roughly on into a clump of squat trees that were the color of sherry wine, with flat thick leaves.
"Don't move," he said.
Paula was hugging a tree beside him. She nodded to him to do as Webber said.
"They have very powerful scanners." She pointed with her chin. "Look. They've learned."
The harsh warning barks of the men sounded faintly, then were hushed. Nothing moved, except by the natural motion of the wind. The people crouched among the trees, so still that Kieran would not have seen them if he had not known they were there.
The patrol craft roared past, cranking up speed as it went. Webber grinned. "They'll be a couple of hours at least, overhauling and examining the flitter. By that time it'll be dark, and by morning we'll be in the mountains."
The people were already moving. They headed upstream, going at a steady, shuffling trot. Three of the women, Kieran noticed, had babies in their arms. The older children ran beside their mothers. Two of the men and several of the women were white-haired. They ran also.
"Do you like to see them run?" asked Paula, with a sharp note of passion in her voice. "Does it look good to you?"
"No," said Kieran, frowning. He looked in the direction in which the sound of the patrol craft was vanishing.
"Move along," Webber said. "They'll leave us far enough behind as it is."
Kieran followed the naked people through the woods, beside the tawny river. Paula and Webber jogged beside him. The shadows were long now, reaching out across the water.
Paula kept glancing at him anxiously, as though to detect any sign of weakness on his part. "You're doing fine," she said. "You should. Your body was brought back to normal strength and tone, before you ever were awakened."
"They'll slow down when it's dark, anyway," said Webber.
The old people and the little children ran strongly.
"Is their village there?" Kieran asked, indicating the distant mountains.
"They don't live in villages," Paula said. "But the mountains are safer. More places to hide."
"You said this was a closed area. What is it, a hunting preserve?"
"The Sakae don't hunt them any more."
"But they used to?"
"Well," Webber said, "a long time ago. Not for food, the Sakae are vegetarians, but--"
"But," said Paula, "they were the dominant race, and the people were simply beasts of the field. When they competed for land and food the people were hunted down or driven out." She swung an expressive hand toward the landscape beyond the trees. "Why do you think they live in this desert, scraping a miserable existence along the watercourses? It's land the Sakae didn't want. Now, of course, they have no objection to setting it aside as a sort of game preserve. The humans are protected, the Sakae tell us. They're living their natural life in their natural environment, and when we demand that a program be--"
She was out of breath and had to stop, panting. Webber finished for her.
"We want them taught, lifted out of this naked savagery. The Sakae say it's impossible."
"Is it true?" asked Kieran.
"No," said Paula fiercely. "It's a matter of pride. They want to keep their dominance, so they simply won't admit that the people are anything more than animals, and they won't give them a chance to be anything more."
There was no more talking after that, but even so the three outlanders grew more and more winded and the people gained on them. The sun went down in a blaze of blood-orange light that tinted the trees in even more impossible colors and set the river briefly on fire. Then night came, and just after the darkness shut down the patrol craft returned, beating up along the winding river bed. Kieran froze under the black trees and the hair lifted on his skin. For the first time he felt like a hunted thing. For the first time he felt a personal anger.
The patrol craft drummed away and vanished. "They won't come back until daylight," Webber said.
He handed out little flat packets of concentrated food from his pockets. They munched as they walked. Nobody said anything. The wind, which had dropped at sundown, picked up from a different quarter and began to blow again. It got cold. After a while they caught up with the people, who had stopped to rest and eat. The babies and old people for whom Kieran had felt a worried pity were in much better shape than he. He drank from the river and then sat down. Paula and Webber sat beside him, on the ground. The wind blew hard from the desert, dry and chill. The trees thrashed overhead. Against the pale glimmer of the water Kieran could see naked bodies moving along the river's edge, wading, bending, grubbing in the mud. Apparently they found things, for he could see that they were eating. Somewhere close by other people were stripping fruit or nuts from the trees. A man picked up a stone and pounded something with a cracking noise, then dropped the stone again. They moved easily in the dark, as though they were used to it. Kieran recognized the leader's yellow-eyed daughter, her beautiful slender height outlined against the pale-gleaming water. She stood up to her ankles in the soft mud, holding something tight in her two hands, eating.
The sweat dried on Kieran. He began to shiver.
"You're sure that patrol ship won't come back?" he asked.
"Not until they can see what they're looking for."
"Then I guess it's safe." He began to scramble around, feeling for dried sticks.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting some firewood."
"No." Paula was beside him in an instant, her hand on his arm, "No, you mustn't do that."
"But Webber said--"
"It isn't the patrol ship, Kieran. It's the people. They--"
"I told you they were low on the social scale. This is one of the basic things they have to be taught. Right now they still regard fire as a danger, something to run from."
"I see," Kieran said, and let the kindling fall. "Very well, if I can't have a fire, I'll have you. Your body will warm me." He pulled her into his arms.
She gasped, more in astonishment, he thought, than alarm. "What are you talking about?"
"That's a line from an old movie. From a number of old movies, in fact. Not bad, eh?"
He held her tight. She was definitely female. After a moment he pushed her away.
"That was a mistake. I want to be able to go on disliking you without any qualifying considerations."
She laughed, a curiously flat little sound. "Was everybody crazy in your day?" she asked. And then, "Reed--"