"Keep an eye on the scanner for me, will you, beautiful?"
"And forget that sir stuff! Look, Judy--"
"For what do you want me to watch, sir?"
Cain grunted, gave a shrug of his powerful shoulders and turned his attention back to the pursuit's compact control console.
"Two blips, honey. Tearing hell-for-leather out of old Sol's little family. One'll be chasing the other, if my guess is any good. We want the front one."
"But--but that would be the--"
"The Thrayxite crowd. Right?"
For a moment she was silent. She knew he could not mean to attack; not with a tiny pursuit, swift as it was.
"Mister Cain, I can only guess at what you intend doing. But it will be my privilege in court to testify concerning your conduct of custodianship--"
"You must be working on the assumption that we're going back there, sweetheart!"
"A deal is where you find it! Watch for that front blip, sergeant. With what we know of Kriijorl and his crowd, this oughta be a natural!"
The cubicle in which he awoke was softly lit, and the painful throb Mason knew should be splitting his head apart was strangely absent. Kriijorl was bending over him, loosening the tightness of the military collar at his throat.
"They certainly were taking no chances with you," he said. His long Viking's hair was matted with blood just above the temple, yet he seemed to be suffering little pain, himself. "How do you feel?"
"O.K. I guess. Don't feel anything, really...." Kriijorl unbuckled the wide straps that held him solidly in an acceleration-hammock, and he sat up. The steel-walled room rocked for a moment, then steadied.
"The Thrayxites are not vicious, any more than we. If they do not kill outright, they apparently take medical precaution to see that their victims suffer as little pain as possible. We're captives, however, together with your Earthwomen. We've been in flight for about an hour; putting us well out of your system, if we're hyperdriving--moving in what you term R-Space."
"Apparently no help of any kind arrived in time, Lieutenant."
Mason remembered, then. Judith.... Somehow she hadn't made it. Or hadn't made them believe her. This trip, he was strictly on his own. Not just a space weary Scout Lieutenant any more.
"What'll they do with us?"
"Pump us for information, probably. Kill me afterward. You should be safe enough in that respect. You're an alien, not a part of our conflict. Their labor planetoid for you, I would imagine. It is a jungle covered sphere at the edge of their planetary ring; our scouts have sighted it on numerous occasions. A handful of men in each of its camps, mining, probably, for the ore used in Thrayxite engines. But it will be better than death."
"What are our chances, Kriijorl?" Mason felt the familiar nervousness returning to his wiry body, yet this time it was in some way different. Not the kind that ate your insides out from too much Space, for too long.
"Of escape, you mean?" Mason nodded. "There is no reason for you to risk--"
"Sure as hell is, friend. First because I believe you're my friend. Second, there were a couple of things you said awhile back that got me thinking. And third, I got myself shanghaied, and I don't think I'll like where I'm going!" Cain, Mason thought to himself, wasn't the only guy in the universe with a muscle!
The Ihelian grinned. "We'll watch for a chance of some kind, then. But I will not let you risk your life. We of Ihelos obey the Book, even if our enemy sees fit occasionally to violate the spirit in which it was conceived."
"Tell me something," Mason said. "This feud of yours. What's it all about? You mentioned that Book business once before, and it seems a people with your apparent piety and maturity and general advancement would certainly find a way to arbitrate such a dispute. What are you fighting about?"
Kriijorl's answering smile was thin, and there was a puzzled look in his craggy features.
"We fight because the Book of the Saints says we must!" he answered at length. "And further than that--"
"Further than that, I'm afraid we do not know!"
Mason felt his features twisting into an incredulous expression despite his efforts to realize and appreciate the wide gap of cultural differences between them.
"Don't know! But you can't fight a war without knowing why! You--"
"It is in the Book of the Saints," the Ihelian said, "and, therefore, it is our command. And--" he looked into the Earthman's face with the slightest hint of a smile, "from what I've learned of Earth's history from your own lips, Lieutenant, what of your own past wars? Who among your own soldiery has really known why he fought?"
"Well, but--" And then Mason returned the smile. "No, it isn't so different, is it? But tell me more about this Book. Is it based on law, religion, ethics?"
And this time there was no smile on the Ihelian's broad face.
"Legend says all three," he replied.
"Legend? And yet you blindly obey--"
"We always have. Its writings, such as we understand them to be, have governed us for millenia, Lieutenant. The Book is our way, our life. We are told we could not be a civilization without it."
Mason was silent for a long moment. He did not want to question too deeply the beliefs sacred to another, yet it was so damnably peculiar. They fought bitterly, and they did not know why.
"Could you--would you let me see a copy of this Book, Kriijorl?"
"If I could I'd be glad to, Lieutenant. For I have often wished I could see the words it contains myself."
"You've never read it?"
"Never. Nor has any Ihelian or Thrayxite for thousands of years. There is, you must understand, only one Book of the Saints."
"Just one copy?"
"Yes. It has long been deemed sacrilege for mortal eyes to view the ancient writings. The single copy is kept in a great vault, built of indestructible metals, and protectively sheathed to last for all Time. The spot above its burial place is marked by a tall spire of stone. It is jealously protected."
"You said that its commands commit you and Thrayx to eternal battle. But if you could only read it, you might learn the basic cause of your conflict--and, knowing, certainly--"
"The thought has often occurred to me. But, there is even more prohibiting such an impossible undertaking than the powerful bondage of tradition and belief alone, Lieutenant. And that is the Book's very location."
"The subterranean vault in which it rests is guarded in the Forest of Saarl. And the Forest of Saarl, my friend, is on Thrayx."
"It is something completely beyond my understanding," the Ihelian was saying. The two men stood, each flanked by two guards, at the threshold of a great ramp which led from the main air lock of the Thrayxite ship to the reddish surface of the spaceport upon which it had landed but minutes before. Mason felt a chill of awed amazement, not because of the unexpected beauty of the verdant hills that rolled in a delicate blend of kaleidoscopic pastels on every side of the 'port and as far as the eye could see, nor was it even from the sight of the exquisite towers that rose as though from the heart of some fabled fairyland scant miles to the south.
"They're all--all women!" Mason breathed. "Not a single man!" And he looked quickly to Kriijorl. "You mean you did not know this?"
"Know? By the teeth of Jhavuul, we never so much as suspected, Lieutenant! We have not looked upon a Thrayxite face for five thousand years."
The guards spoke to them tersely in the common tongue of Ihelos and Thrayx, although peculiarly accented to Ihelian ears, and Kriijorl gestured with a slight movement of his head to Mason. At a quick pace they started down the ramp.
"We're sunk, kid," Mason said. And he saw the heaviness in the great Viking's face. "We'll never make it out of here in a million years. Even if we made a break for it; even if we had our hands free, where could we hide? Couldn't make a move. Two men among an entire female populace--"
He let the sentence trail off as he realized that Kriijorl wasn't hearing him. And as their brief view of Thrayx was terminated by their entrance into a smaller shuttle-ship, he saw the hint of a smile flicker at the corners of the Ihelian's lips.
Their captors strapped them into hammocks, and when they had gone to assist others in herding a portion of the Earthwomen aboard the same craft, Kriijorl finally spoke.
"I think for the moment their probes may be off us," he said quickly. "I was relieved of my own during my unconsciousness, so we're no longer screened. And the fact that we speak in your tongue does us little good. But hear me. If we are being taken where I hope we are, then they are playing into our hands almost as well as we could have asked. There will be a limited freedom there, and a chance, if we are clever enough, to get to a mentacom installation. A planetary unit of unlimited range."
"But among women?" Mason asked, and his throat was dry.
"That is the point," Kriijorl replied tersely. "We shall be among males almost exclusively, save for the Earthwomen and those Thrayxites who periodically will be sent to breed."
"You mean the planetoid that you talked of before...? But I--"
"Think a moment! Thrayxite is a matriarchy, something we of Ihelos never suspected. And therefore we erred further--what we believed to be a labor planetoid is not, of course!"
"Exactly. And if we can make it to one of their mentacoms, perhaps our problem will be solved. Except that--" His voice hesitated, and Mason saw doubt in the sudden frown. "I--I have no right to sacrifice your life nor those of your women. If we were to get to a mentacom it would be to contact my people, to inform them of the planetoid's true nature, so that we may even the score for what was done to our own breeders, and perhaps even form a plan to take prisoners to replace them. But such a message would be intercepted, of course."
"Hell, we could dodge 'em long enough--"
"Perhaps we could, Lieutenant. But the ships I summon will be fighting their way through a trebled Thrayxite guard--and once within range of our enemy's breeder satellite, they will have little time to seek us out and effect our rescue. Destruction will have to be immediate. Now do you understand?"
Mason wet his lips. He understood. Death for the breeders. For the Earthwomen. And for themselves.
"Nuts!" he clipped out. "That means that as far as you're going to be concerned, I'm just another Ihelian private first class for awhile, not a space-neurotic Earthman! And our girls ... well, I think--I think they'd prefer anything to the living death in store for them--the rotting away of their lives in some infested alien jungle. Anyway, somebody's got to be judge. So let's get this damned thing doped out!"
The Ihelian began a reply, but the words were stopped in his throat by the sudden pressure of acceleration as powerful engines fumbled suddenly to throbbing life and lifted the Thrayxite craft quickly toward the eye of a great white sun.
For the second time in her life, Judith Kent watched the warp configurations of the Large Magellanic Cloud from the far side of the Rim; somehow it frightened her, as though some awful deadliness must lie within it.
Helplessly, she carried out Cain's orders, and as hopelessly, wondered of the fate of Lance and Kriijorl. Captives, with the Earthwomen, in the Thrayxite ship with which Cain was so rapidly closing? Or lying dead somewhere, as she more than half believed, in the chill wilds of northern Canada? The odds had been so great. She knew that to hope without reason was folly, and yet not to hope was no longer to care.
She twisted away quickly from Cain's muscular arm.
"What's eating you, duchess? Your conscience giving you trouble, or are you just plain scared?" When she didn't reply, he laughed shortly, and gestured toward the scanner. In it, the slender Thrayxite craft was growing steadily larger as Cain's swift pursuit gradually folded the gap of curved Space between them. "In a couple of minutes, we'll be ready to talk turkey, sweetheart. They ought to be aware of us right this minute. I think they'll listen to what we have to offer."
"To what you have to offer!"
He laughed again. "It's more than Mason ever had! You know, sometimes I think you were torching for that space-happy has-been!"
She felt the burn of rising color in her cheeks and turned quickly away from him.
"You don't get it yet, do you duchess?" his heavy voice was saying behind her. "It's never occurred to you that there are other places to be beside with your own flock; that there are other men among whom to seek your fortune if the ones you were born among didn't offer the opportunities you expected. What are we among the stars at all for if it's not to find our destinies anywhere we think they might lie? What's this Big Freedom for, if not to use to some kind of advantage? And me, I'm sick of being a Warrant under worn out space-neurotics like Mason! And I don't want to end up being one, either!"
Judith held her lips tight against the thing that surged hotly inside her. There would have to be a way to stop this man. And if there weren't--How the pampered friends whom she'd left so proudly to choose this calling would laugh at her, would say "that was what the hot-headed little rebel deserved ... she had it coming if she couldn't act like a lady." And they were wrong!
But this man was hideously twisting all the things she had thought were good and right, worth hoping and striving for. All the priceless things that had stood for more than the soft, idle and pointlessly shallow existence to which she'd been born.
"But I guess you wouldn't get it," Cain was saying. "Born with a silver shovel in your mouth, you don't have to worry about sweating out your pile! Quit any time and there it all is after your little adventure, still waiting for you to come home to! Maybe they'll even want you to write a book! But me--my father wasn't a lucky g-prospector."
A proximity alarm clanged, and Cain quickly turned his attention to the control banks. He jacked out the auto control and took over manually. And within seconds the pursuit was hovering over the great whale-like back of the Thrayxite craft, and then was drawn slowly to it as its powerful magnetics reached out, ensnared it. Then Cain cut the pursuit's drive, and they both waited.
The airlock opened, and the two women stepped through. There were weapons in their hands.
"I want to see your commander," Cain barked.
"I am the commander of this complement," the taller of the two said in an almost unaccented English. "You will consider yourselves my captives. Daleb...."
"What? Not all women." There was a curious look on Cain's face; thoughts were racing behind the thin blades of his eyes.
"You are prisoners of the matriarchy of Thrayx," the officer called Daleb said. "If you do not resist, you shall be unharmed."
"All right, come off that alien-meets-alien stuff," Cain said as though the two briefly-uniformed women before him held toys rather than weapons in their hands. "I didn't just tag after you at a billion times the speed of light to get thrown into one of your dungeons! I've got some information I think you can use. And--" and the curious look was again on his face, "--there are some--shall we say--services, I think I can profitably perform for you."
"Profitably, Earthman? Profitable to whom?"
"To both of us. To me--that's why I'm here--and to you."
Judith's face was white. Perhaps this was some clever trick of Cain's. She could have been wrong.
"Tell me this information you have, Earthman."
"Let's dicker about price, first, Goldylocks!" He stood there, confident, defiant, great muscles bunched beneath the fabric of his tunic.
"You, Earthman, are hardly in bargaining position!" Only the woman's mouth moved; her eyes bored straight into Cain's like fine diamond drills.
"Chuck me," Cain said with a grin, "and you chuck the best chance you've ever had to take your Ihelian friends to the cleaners. What information I have concerning Ihelian plans is one thing." Judith caught her breath. She knew Cain was lying now. Even Lance had learned little of the Ihelian strategy, above Kriijorl's attempt to enlist Earthwomen for Ihelian breeding colonies. It was all, she realized suddenly, a colossal bluff, from which Cain planned to play his cards as he went along! And now he had found a wedge of some sort, some new bargaining point. There was still that curious look on his face, that careless grin at his lips. "But what service I can render you," he was continuing, "is quite another! Ladies, how good are your teleprobe gadgets against an Ihelian screen? A big blank, aren't they? But I still think you'd give those cute shirts of yours to find out what's going on inside the thick skulls of our Ihelian friends."
A puzzled look flickered across the Thrayxite commander's face, yet she remained immobile, and her weapon held steady.
"First of all, bright eyes," Cain said swiftly, "may you be the first to know that they're all men! All men, get it?" There was a soft gasp from Daleb, and the commander's eyes flickered, widened almost imperceptibly. "And better yet, I'm a pal of Kriijorl, their commander who picked us up just inside the Rim that time you followed us into Earth. So think it over. It ought to be worth a fancy little pile to you, ladies, since women agents would be kind of conspicuous in an all-male civilization!"
"You expect us to believe this fantasy? Do you expect us to accept your proposal on the basis of nothing more than words? And the technique you describe. It has never been used, never even considered as a legitimate method of battle!"