"No, not really. We took considerable time gathering in our boy here." Lanko inclined his head toward Genro Kir. "And the Bordeklu's home port is Tanagor, so Musa's old ship wouldn't spend too much of a layover in Kneuros. They're on schedule all right. You'd like to see your old friend, Dontor, again, wouldn't you, Musa? Sort of watch him try to save his ship in a real emergency?"
Musa grinned wolfishly. "Might be fun, at that," he agreed.
Dontor strode firmly toward the ladder leading to the observation deck. The slaves had rigged the screen, and the priest looked proudly about this ship of which he was the actual and absolute master. Slowly, in majestic silence, he mounted the ladder and passed through the opening in the curtain.
He went to the middle of the forecastle, and stopped, waiting until the two junior priests had taken their positions near him and the slaves had set down the equipment chests. The slaves straightened, and stood, arms folded, waiting. Dontor inspected the area, then moved his head imperiously.
"Very good," he said. "Take your posts."
As the slaves left, the three priests opened their instrument chests, removing navigational tools. Alnar went to the folding table, spread the chart over it, then took his watch out of the chest and stood back, holding it.
"Just about time, sir."
"Very well." Dontor glanced at the juniors, saw that Kuero had his sextant ready, and raised his own.
"Now," he instructed, when the readings were complete, "you will each calculate our position independently. I'll check your work when you have finished." He replaced his sextant in its case, then headed the small procession back to the cabins.
The ship's routine continued its uneventful course. The junior priests reported to Dontor with their calculations. Their work was examined, criticized, and finally approved. They were given further instructions. All was well aboard the Bordeklu.
The chief priest examined the charts and decided on the course for the next watch. The ship, he thought, would have to put in for water. And some of the island fruits would go well on the table. He set a course accordingly, and went topside to give instructions to the pilot.
"Are you going to help them on their way?"
"It's not necessary, unless they start to by-pass the island. They'll have plenty to worry about when they try to anchor."
Ahead of the ship, the sea was calm. No cloud marred the bright blue overhead. Slowly, a vague shape formed on the horizon, then it grew, to become a small, wooded island.
The ship continued on its course, approaching the bit of land, and neared the breaker line. Orders sounded sharply, and the sails collapsed, spilling their wind. A crew forward cut the snubbing line, and the bow anchor splashed into the water.
The ship continued, and the anchor cable became taut. In defiance of the helmsman's efforts, the ship continued on a straight course. The bow line stretched, then loosened a little, as the anchor dragged. Still, the ship refused to swing. Hurriedly, the crew aft dropped the stern anchor. But the ship persisted on its course. All hands forward took shelter as the bow cable snapped and whipped viciously across the deck. The ship maintained its slow progress.
Frantically, the crew backed the sails, hoisting them to take all the wind possible. The helmsman spun the wheel in a final effort to turn the ship back to sea, then cast a glance astern at the taut cable, and ducked for shelter.
Sea anchors were hastily thrown overside, but still the ship approached the beach. The keel grated on sand, and the ship continued to move forward, as though, tired of the sea, it had decided to return to the forest. At last, wedged among the trees, the vessel stopped, far above the sands of the beach.
It was obviously there to stay.
Dontor stood, looking seaward. He shook his head, looked forward, then down at the ground beneath the ship. This was outside his experience. It was also outside the teaching so carefully instilled in his mind in the classrooms back at Tanagor, and later during those long days and nights when he was a junior priest. He had been taught to speak of sea demons, and to explain their actions, but he had not been told to believe in them.
He wondered if the great Kondaro really existed, and if he did, just what he might think of Dontor and of the ship he had so recently controlled. The thought crossed his mind that a real god might be somewhat critical of the priesthood of the sea.
"Something," he mused aloud, "will have to be done to prevent loss of faith."
"Well," remarked Lanko as he snapped the tractor off. "That's the first handful of sand for the cook pot."
Sira Nal drummed impatiently on the table before him.
"I thought you could handle routine operations," he said bitingly. "Now, you tell me you've been missing ship after ship. What happened to them?"
The high priest shook his head. "We haven't been able to find out, sir."
"Do you mean to tell me you haven't anything to report on them?"
"We have sent out investigating ships, sir."
"They haven't reported back, sir."
Sira Nal's checks paled slightly with rage as he stared at his underling.
"Miron," he snapped, "I'm not going to tell you exactly what to do, or how. You're supposed to know how to treat emergencies, not to call me any time something outside of routine happens. I want a report on those ships tomorrow morning." He glanced out of the window. "I don't care how you do it, but find out what happened, and I don't ever want to hear you admit again that you can't account for any ship I ask about. Is that clear?"
Miron nodded unhappily. "Yes, sir." He bowed and backed out of the room.
He forced himself to suppress his anger as he gently closed the door. Then, he stood for a moment, fists clenched, as he directed a furious gaze at the panels.
"How?" he thought. "How does he expect me to know what's going on at sea unless ships come in to give me information, or I am able to go out personally. And how does he expect me to make a personal check in one night?"
He started walking along the corridor. "I have no supernatural powers, and he knows it. He's the prophet. Wish I'd never--"
He looked at the walls around him, then shook his head. No use thinking of that. None had ever successfully left the service of Kondaro. He continued to a stair, mounted it, then climbed ladders, to finally come out at the observation platform atop the temple. The observer bowed as his superior entered the little room just below the torch.
"Have there been any arrivals?"
"None, sir. I've seen no sails."
"I am going to send you an acolyte. If you see anything, send him to me immediately." Miron turned to go back to his quarters.
After Miron's departure, Sira Nal sat for a time, still staring at the closed door. He had caught the wave of frustrated rage, and had almost responded for a second. But, he was forced to admit, the priest had justification. He had organized his forces adequately--had been a useful piece, within his limitations.
"I wonder," mused Sira Nal, "if Buron's pulling a sneak punch." He tilted his head. "It would be a little foul, but he might try something like that." He reviewed the rules they had agreed upon.
After all, this phase of his operation was outside of the home zone, and he was actually vulnerable to attack, even this early. He had assumed that Buron would be too busy developing his own pieces to spend any time on an offensive move at this stage. Of course, direct intervention was a little unethical, but Buron might try it.
He had thought his opponent would be too occupied to notice a move at this remote part of the board. And he had established this advance base by direct intervention, too. If Buron had noticed, and if he had checked Nal's methods, he might have felt justified, and have taken time for a quick, disruptive move. And Sira Nal was forced to admit that such a move might be allowed by Kir. It might be even approved, and hailed as a brilliant counter.
He rose to his feet, pacing about the room. If this were a move by Buron, the priesthood would be powerless to counter. It would take direct action by the player, of course. He grumbled to himself.
"Can't let this development be wasted. I'd lose too much time. I'll have to check personally."
He crossed to the window, opened it, and stepped out on the balcony.
Outside, the sun glinted on the harbor. A ship was standing out to sea, sails set to pick up the breeze from the headland. Sira Nal looked over toward the shipyards. It was a well organized secondary base, and it would probably develop into a highly valuable position. Somehow, he doubted that Buron would have been able to do as well, considering the time factor. He shook his head. This must be retained.
He threw the robe back, checked his equipment belt, adjusted his body shield, and stepped off the balcony, activating his levitation modulator. He swung around the outgoing ship, noting the activity aboard with approval, then headed seaward, to follow the route he had prescribed for his navigators. Somewhere out there, he would undoubtedly find Buron, poised to strike at any ship which bore the red and gold of Kondaro.
And when he did find him, he knew, he would have to outline a counter move which would force immunity to his sea lanes. He considered the possibilities as he sped over the sea.
Musa sat before the detector, idly watching the vague patterns that grew and collapsed on the viewscreen. The scanner, Lanko had explained, picked up ghost images from heated air masses, or from clouds, but it discriminated against them, refusing to form a definite image unless a material body came within range. Then, it indicated range and azimuth, checked the body against the predetermined data, and the selective magnification circuits cut in.
As Musa watched, a sea bird appeared on the screen, outlined sharply against the darkness of the sea. The viewscreen tracked it for an instant, then continued its scan. Another body showed, seeming to come from under the sea. Musa looked at it curiously, then noticed that the range marks had tripped on. The screen was holding the object at center. A slight glow appeared, obscuring visual detail, and more marks showed in the legend. Musa turned around.
"Banasel," he called, "what's this?"
Banasel was engaged in his usual pastime of tinkering with the equipment. He looked around, then walked quickly over to the screen, to make adjustments. The object came into sharp focus, revealing itself as a man in the robes of Kondaro. Range and azimuth lines became clearly defined, and a graph showed in the legend space. Banasel glanced down at the dials.
"Hey, Lanko," he called, "we've got a customer."
"Where?" Lanko came out of the mess compartment.
"About seventy-one, true, and coming in fast. Range, about a hundred K's." Banasel twisted dials, watching the result on the screen. "Looks as though our friend's coming in for a conference."
"Personal body shield. Probably a Morei twelve. Nothing special."
Lanko got into the gunner's chair and punched a button. The sight screen lit, showing the approaching body clearly. He turned a knob, increasing magnification.
"All dressed up in his ceremonial robes, too," he laughed. "This kid could have done well as a clothing designer."
He adjusted a few knobs, examining a meter. Then, he reached for the weapon's grip.
"No point in discussing matters with him now. He can talk after we get him in, and he's just about in range now." He brought the hair-lines on the viewscreen to center on the approaching figure, and squeezed the grip.
Sira Nal felt the sudden pressure. Annoyed, he reached to his belt, to turn his shield to full power. This was highly unethical. Buron should certainly know better than to resort to personal attack. Such action could be protested, and Sira Nal could demand concessions.
He looked ahead, searchingly. The horizon ahead was broken by a faint cloud, which indicated the islands, but there was no evidence of his opponent. He shook his head, and started to rise, but his shield was failing. Suddenly, he became aware of the overheating generator pack. Something was decidedly wrong. He reached for his own hand weapon, still searching for his attacker. At last, he noticed a slight shimmer, dead ahead. He pointed the weapon.
"Now, now," cautioned a voice, "you could get hurt that way. Close down your shield and relax. This is a guard flier. You're in arrest tractor."
Sira Nal recognized that the tractor was pulling him ahead. His generator pack was heating up dangerously.
He was being captured!
Furiously, he thought of the attacks he had made in similar manner, in this same area. He still could remember the horrified expression on one shipowner's face just before his ship broke to bits under him.
They wouldn't get him, though.
He would blast them out of his path. Just as he had blasted the presumptuous natives who opposed him.
Thumbing the hand weapon to full blast, he centered it on the faint shimmer ahead, and squeezed the trigger.
Let the meddlers look out for themselves.
Banasel winced a little as the fireball spread, then rose skyward, to form a large cloud.
"You could have relaxed," he protested. "The blast wouldn't have jolted our screen too much, and you could have gotten him again."
"I know." Lanko flicked off the gunnery switches and leaned back, rubbing his head. "There was a possibility, and I fully intended to relax. But the decision time was short, and frankly, those thoughts of his overrode me for just too long. That boy was dangerous!"
He turned to Genro Kir, who was looking with horrified fascination at the still growing cloud in the screen.
"It's unfortunate. We'll try to get your other partner alive."
"You destroyed him!" Kir looked a little sick.
"No. We didn't destroy him. He should have known better than to fire into a tractor. I'll have to admit, I did slip a little. I assumed he was the usual type of drone. I didn't recognize the full extent of his aberration."
Lanko got out of his chair, and crossed the room, to confront the prisoner.
"Look, Kir. I don't know whether your other partner's like that one or not. But I think it's about time you helped a little. If you had given us clues to Sira Nal's personality and probable location, we might have been able to take precautions. He might be with us now. Or, do you enjoy seeing your friends turn themselves into flaming clouds of smoke?"
"You mean I ... I'm responsible ... for that?"
"Partially. You helped them. You refused any assistance in their capture. And you knew they were going to be captured, one way or another."
Kir directed a horrified look at the screen.
"What can I do?"
"Get in contact with Koree Buron. Tell him what happened here. Tell him, too, that we're looking for him, and that there is a Sector Guardsman due to join us within a few hours. Explain to him that there will be direction-finders on him very soon, and that any effort he may make to use his body shield, his weapons, or even his thought-radiations, will be noted, and will lead to him.
"Once you establish contact, we will ride in, if you wish. And we can assure him that he'll be either hunted down promptly, or he will have to assume and accept the role of a native--and a very inconspicuous, uninfluential native, at that.
"Tell him that he is free to come to us and surrender at any time within the next twenty hours, planetary. After that, he will be taken by the most expedient means. After the surrender deadline, you can assure him that his life will be of less importance to us, and to the Sector Guardsman, than that of the most humble native.
"Here's your mental amplifier, if you need it."