Cain laughed easily. "Then maybe you better consider it if you want to come out on top! And as to the rest of it, if I was part of some counter-plot against you do you think I'd've gone to the trouble of bringing along some security?" And Judith felt something freeze inside her as he threw a careless glance in her direction. "There she is--Sergeant Judith Kent. Your hostage for this little operation! If I misbehave, she should make a pretty good bargaining point with Ihelos. From all I gather, they've got Earth sore enough at them as it is!"
There was an instant's silence, and then the commander said, "You have not proven your statement that our enemy is a male enemy."
"What do you think they wanted women for on Earth after you blasted that planetoid of theirs? A quilting party or something? Add it up."
The quiet in the small control bubble was electric. Judith watched the Thrayxites' faces as they weighed the incredible thing that Cain had said.
"I haven't got all eternity!" Cain snapped. "You think you can afford not to believe me?"
"Very well. Our Book has never mentioned this technique of spying, and therefore there can be no rule against it. As for the rest--that could be immaterial. You could be of value to us. Outline your plan."
"That's better, girls. Only take it just a little slower. We both know what we are, but let's haggle for awhile about the price, shall we?"
Judith shivered, partly from an uncontrollable terror and partly from the pre-dawn dampness creeping from the thick jungle surrounding the small clearing which held one of the breeder planetoid's many secluded colonies. The camp and the tangled growth which bounded it was her prison; a place in which there was freedom, yet where none were free. To walk or to run or to hide--but where? And so it was with the rest--the hard-muscled, obviously drug-clouded males who had never known any other world than this; who never questioned from whence came the periodic groups of Thrayxite women for them to fertilize; who only glared dully at her, dimly understanding that she was to be, although captive here, left to herself and unmolested. Yet despite her status as hostage and Earthwoman, she was afraid.
The brute of a camp leader, Bruhlla.... Not drugged like the rest. There was more to his sidelong glances than curiosity and vague resentment. Too often, she could sense his eyes upon her. And she wondered at the increasing frequency of his visits to the camp's well guarded mentacom installation.
She had lost count of night and days under the white sun of Thrayx and its ringed host. There had been two, perhaps, or three. Three days in which Roger Cain had been doing what? Was he with Kriijorl and Lance posing as their friend, their fellow captive, listening to their plans against their Thrayxite captors ... remembering? Or would they be freed, if indeed they still lived, in order that Cain could, with them, learn even more of Ihelian stratagems on a far greater scale?
And the Earth girls--she had heard the cries of some, the desperate curses of others.
Bruhlla, entitled to use of the mentacom for daily contact reports with Thrayx as he was, was the only other alien being on the planetoid who could converse with her. He had lost little time in probing her to learn her tongue. And he had already hinted at the fate of the women from her planet. In other camps on the planetoid, held in small isolated groups, unmolested, Bruhlla had said. But prisoners, as was she.
Somehow, the Ihelians would have to know.
For there was no Earth to which to turn now.
The shiver again shook her slender body, and her tattered uniform did little to shield her from the damp cold.
"Still one apart from the rest of us, are you?" The growl of Bruhlla's voice behind her startled her, and she turned quickly to face the loose grimace of derision on his thick lips.
"I am to be left to myself," she said with what assurance she could muster. "That is your order."
"I know my order, little one! No need to tell Bruhlla his orders! But perhaps you will grow colder; perhaps you will grow hungry."
"I have no order about feeding you, little one!"
Somehow she found the strength to voice her defiance. For she could still think. And thought, Lance had once told her, was the ultimate strength....
"You lie! There was such an order! But if you wish to bring the wrath of your masters down upon your ugly head." She watched his unkempt face, fanned the sudden puzzlement she saw growing in his red, sadistic eyes. If his intelligence were blurred enough by the self-made drug of his lust. "I myself heard such an order; and if you can prove me mistaken you may do with me what you will!" God, would he stop to realize that she understood not a word of the Thrayxite tongue?
"Quickly proven, my little one! Quickly enough proven! And then if what you say is untrue...." He left the sentence mercifully unfinished, and turned toward the sturdily-built cubicle that housed the colony's mentacom.
"Wait! I'll only believe your proof if I can hear it for myself!"
"Come along then and you shall hear it!" The thick lips slackened into a lascivious grin that sickened her, but she hastened to follow him. And he did not see her as she scooped the jagged stone from the ground, thrust it into a tattered tool-pocket of her uniform.
Past the quiescent, sweat reeking bodies of the bull-muscled guards, into the dimly lit chamber beyond, Bruhlla half walking, half shambling before her.
She watched him as he switched the device into life; waited until its dull orange glow assured that it was ready for use. So much like the communications room of an ordinary ship of Earth, she thought. So like the familiar things of her life, yet so alien.
He had barely slipped the mentacom's headpiece on his skull and adjusted a simply calibrated control dial when she struck him at the base of his thick neck with the stone, all the force of her supple young body behind it.
Blood spurted as its ragged edges tore through flesh, bone and nerves, and slowly, Bruhlla crumpled from the rude chair that held his dying bulk.
Thought images as well as words, Kriijorl had explained during their flight so long ago in the helio. Language would be no barrier. Over the head, like this ... and this switch-- She twirled the large dial from its setting, watched a slender thread of light within a transparent sphere above it fluctuate in breadth as the dial twisted. And when it was at its widest, she gambled that it indicated the broadest transmitting beam of which the mentacom was capable.
And then she marshalled her thoughts, carefully chose the simplest words.
Warning, Ihelos! There is an Earthman among you at work as a spy for Thrayx! I am a captive.
Over and over, the same words, the same thought images which they formed; of Cain, of this hell-planetoid itself.
The orange glow pulsated as though itself alive with the desperation of her signal. And she heard the guard barely in time.
A howl of rage bellowed from him as she turned, twisted frantically just outside his grasp, darted headlong through the door.
And she was quicker than those outside; she was beyond them, running, the breath sobbing in her throat.
Away from the blood-soaked thing she'd left crumpled in death behind her, and toward the jungle's edge. Toward some new horror, perhaps, and toward a freedom that would be short-lived at best. For she had killed Bruhlla, and she knew they would not stop now until she had been run to earth.
The three men watched as the six ships landed in the jungle clearing; emptied of the selected Thrayxite women who would in little more than a day's time re-enter them, the breeders' seed within their bodies, for the journey back to the mother planet.
It had been the same the day before, and the day before that, and in the distance, they had watched similar craft descend toward other of the many colonies with which the lush planetoid was dotted.
"Nuts!" Cain said. He turned to Mason. "What the hell else is there to do? Sit here and rot? They won't kill us. They'll just let Nature take its course--"
"There's more to be done than simply make a run for it to one of their ships," Mason snapped. "The mentacoms on them, Kriijorl's said a dozen times, haven't the necessary range."
"So what's your plan? Or don't I get to hear any of the details?"
Mason studied the big man's face. Captured in his attempt to rescue the Earthwomen, he had said. His explanation had been that simple. New-UN hadn't believed Judith, but she had convinced him, and so he'd tried on his own responsibility, and simply hadn't made it. And then they'd brought him here, scarcely hours after Mason and Kriijorl had themselves been delivered to the teeming colony.
Logical enough, yes. Cain was the kind who would try such a crazy stunt, alone, with such supreme overconfidence in his own muscle power. Yet-- "We must not be impatient," Kriijorl interrupted his thought. He stood up, his blond head nearly touching the top of the plastifabric tent. "We must be certain and wait for the best time, Mister Cain. For if we fail in our first attempt, there will not be a second. And it has only been three days. As yet, we have been left quite to ourselves; even my life has not been threatened."
Mason noticed the puzzled frown that was across the Ihelian's forehead. "Do you think--"
"I cannot even guess the reason for that," Kriijorl murmured, as though more to himself than in answer to Mason's question. "By all the rules of our conflict, I should be stretched naked for the jungle beasts by now."
"Forget it!" Cain broke in quickly. "You're alive now, and if we can have a little action around here maybe you'll stay that way. We've watched long enough. They don't guard those ships at all. These breeders they keep drugged to the eyes, so why should they? I say we just grab one and blast off! Unless somebody's got a better plan, and I still haven't heard one--"
"Awfully anxious, aren't you, Mister Cain?" Mason asked.
"I'm not afraid of 'em if that's what you mean!"
Lance turned to Kriijorl. "Maybe he's right. We've watched for three days. What do you think?"
The Ihelian looked out across the colony of low, square-shaped enclosures and to its far side where the twisted jungle began; to the spot where the mentacom was housed in a squat, guarded dome of crudely-shaped steel. Then he turned back to the Earthman, and Mason saw the uncertainty in his eyes.
"We have gained far less than I had hoped by watching," he said slowly. "We have learned the number of their guards, and the period of their change, but perhaps that is all we shall learn. If you think that as soon as there is darkness--"
"About time!" Cain said sourly. "And it'll be straight for the--"
"To the mentacom first," Mason said quietly. "And after that, to the ships if we can, Mister Cain." He felt strangely calm as his eyes met Cain's squarely. Somewhere within him, there was something changing. "Take it from an ex-has-been, big man! That's how it's going to be!"
The camp was dark and silent as the three men left the tent. They walked as if from boredom, changing direction often as though at random; yet they moved with a deceiving swiftness, and each step brought them closer to the crude dome. The sound of their movements was as a whisper that lost itself with the quiet murmur of the night wind through the web of the jungle, and when they were close enough, they halted, to wait; to watch.
There was the soft clink of metal on metal and the mutter of dead-toned voices as the guard changed. Four hulking shapes walked at last in a tired shamble from the structure housing the mentacom. Four others prepared to take their posts.
And there was little to disturb the silence after that.
A muffled grunt, a choked off curse lost in a brief rustle of undergrowth as though a sudden breeze had momentarily ruffled its languid calm. And that was all.
Four breeders lay dead outside the dome.
Mason felt the warm stickiness of blood on his face, and the sting of a deep cut somewhere upon it. He saw that Cain was straightening over a mangled form; that Kriijorl had overcome odds of two to one. The breeder at his own feet had died swiftly of a deftly broken neck, a reddened dirk still clutched in his stiffening fingers.
Then they were inside the dome, and Kriijorl was placing the head-unit of the mentacom over his matted yellow hair.
Mason watched in the half-light of the pulsing orange glow, listened to the heaviness of Cain's breathing.
And he saw Kriijorl's face stiffen suddenly. With a swift movement the Ihelian had handed him the head-unit, and with slippery fingers he fumbled the device into place over his own head.
Before he could think he had given Cain all the warning that he had needed.
"My God, it's Judith! Somehow she's--"
Kriijorl lunged too late. The man whom Judith's mentacom message had branded as a spy was already through the dome's door, running.
Mason moved more quickly than the Ihelian then. Ahead in the jungle there was a crashing sound, and Mason tripped suddenly himself as he ran, fell. Kriijorl leapt past him in the darkness, as though he could somehow see through it, and then Mason had regained his feet and was following blindly.
And suddenly he thought of the empty ships behind them, and Cain's abrupt uselessness to his Thrayxite employers. Then-- But the gamble was too great. Cain might not double back, but instead plunge headlong further and further into the concealing morass before him. No, Cain would not double back. Not now. For in Kriijorl he had met an even match, and now he was afraid!
Fully an hour had passed when, his tunic torn and the exposed flesh bleeding, Mason caught up with Kriijorl.
"He was nearly within my hands for a moment--" the giant whispered hoarsely. He breathed with difficulty, and there were long slashes gleaming redly in the darkness across his great muscles.
Mason stood silently for moments, toying with a thought that nagged insistently at the edge of his brain. He knew Cain. He knew the man.
Then suddenly his thoughts were interrupted by the muffled sound of a rocket blast, and within moments there was a vertical trail of fire above them as a Thrayxite ship hurtled skyward.
"No!" Mason exclaimed. "The blast was from in front of us, he didn't double back! Must be another colony near our own, and he stumbled out of this overgrown mess and right into it. There was simply an empty ship--"
"Then the traitor has won!" Kriijorl's face was tilted upward, and in the faint glow of the planetesimal belt that girdled Thrayx, it seemed more than ever that of an heroic Viking king of ages gone.
"There's a chance he hasn't!" Mason breathed. He had the thought now, pinned down, clear in his head. "If there has been no alarm back at our own camp we may still have the mentacom to ourselves. We'll signal Ihelos as you planned and then--then there is something else you will say. Something else that I think will, as the saying goes on Earth, kill two birds with a single blast."
Mason had lost track of time; perhaps it was as many as two hours before they had fought their way through the clutching undergrowth back to the mentacom at the fringe of their own camp. Several times they had had to stop, for there had been sounds in the jungle other than those they had made themselves. Animals, Kriijorl had said, who had got the scent of their blood. But the noises had not been fast and crashing--more those of stealth, as were those of their own steps. A single animal, perhaps, with the scent of their blood; or that of the breeder guard they had slain. And stalking.
The dome was still silent, and the stiff corpses outside it lay undisturbed in the thick undergrowth. In the clearing the six empty Thrayxite ships towered in the sleeping quiet, star-shine glinting faintly from their polished hulls.
Wordlessly, they entered the dome, and it was as they had left it.
Kriijorl again adjusted the headset, and the orange glow pulsed and waned as Mason watched.
And then at length, "If they are to know, they know now," Kriijorl said. "And the Thrayxite host as well. What was there you wished to add, Lieutenant?"
Mason spoke quickly. "Say that you have discovered that the priceless--and you must say priceless--Book of the Saints is in the Forest of Saarl on Thrayx. Say that we have discovered it to be less well protected than is generally believed. Then give the location of the subterranean vault as precisely as you can!"
"But my people are well aware--"
"I realize that, but our friend Cain doesn't!"
The Ihelian's face was still puzzled, but he projected the thought-message Mason had dictated.
And then in seconds the Ihelian had hastily but thoroughly wrecked the mentacom, and the two men left its silent dome for the empty ships that beckoned so tantalizingly a scant quarter-mile distant.
They had run perhaps a dozen steps when the undergrowth behind them ripped and tore, and Mason spun.
There was a muffled cry, and he had barely time to catch Judith's bleeding body as she fell in exhaustion into his arms.
The muscles in his arms and legs trembled with fatigue as he lifted the semi-conscious girl up to Kriijorl, and then with what seemed an impossible effort, hauled himself through the deserted ship's stern airlock.
The Ihelian seemed to carry Judith as though she were a feather as he climbed the narrow ladder above Mason, infinitely upward, the Earthman thought ... an infinite distance to the ship's forehull, to its control banks.
There was only the sound of his own hoarse breathing in his ears as he climbed, rung after rung, and the hollow echo of Kriijorl's boots as they mounted resolutely above him.
Then they had made it, and were strapping Judith into a hammock, were taking their own shock-seats before the control-banks of the Thrayxite shuttle-craft.
The Ihelian did not hesitate. His fingers deliberated for only a moment above the firing studs in the blue-green glow of the banks, and then they flicked home, and engines muttered, roared into terrifying life.
Within moments, saying nothing, moving the swift, silent movements of desperation, they had freed themselves of the grasping snare of the jungle beneath them; were once more strong, liberated things in the vast freedom of Space.
"And now Ihelos!" Kriijorl cried as they broke swiftly from the ecliptic of the great spangled ring of Thrayx. "If we can but escape their fleet. Any moment they should be on the scanner, forming to meet the onslaught of Ihelian squadrons--"
"No!" Mason said, and his voice was like a solid thing clogging his throat. "No, not Ihelos--not yet!" His eyes burned, and the red welts that covered his body had begun to sting, to pain, and it was hard to think.