Rynch watched dispassionately before he caught the needler, jerking it away from the prisoner. The man eyed him steadily, and his expression did not alter even when Rynch swung the off-world weapon to center its sights on the late owner.
"Suppose," Rynch's voice was rusty sounding in his own ears, "we talk now."
The man nodded. "As you wish, Brodie."
"Brodie?" Rynch squatted on his heels.
Those gray eyes, so light in the other's deeply tanned face, narrowed the smallest fraction, Rynch noted with an inner surge of triumph.
"Were you looking for me?" he added.
"We found an L-B--we wondered if there were survivors."
Slowly Rynch shook his head. "No--you knew I was here. Because you brought me!" He fashioned his suspicions into one quick thrust.
This time there was not the slightest hint of self-betrayal from the other.
"You see," Rynch leaned forward, but still well out of reach from the captive, "I remember!"
Now there was a faint flicker of answer in the man's eyes. He asked quietly: "What do you remember, Brodie?"
"Enough to know that I am not Brodie. That I did not get here on the L-B, did not build that camp."
He ran one hand over the stock of the needler. Whatever motive lay behind this weird game into which he had been unwillingly introduced, he was now sure that it was serious enough to be dangerous.
"You have no cup this time."
"So you do remember." The other accepted that calmly. "All right. That need not necessarily spoil our plans. You have nothing to return to on Nahuatl--unless you liked the Starfall." His voice was icy with contempt. "To play our roles will be for your advantage, too." He paused, his gaze centering on Rynch with the intensity of one willing the desired answer out of his inferior.
Nahuatl. Rynch caught at that. He had been on or in Nahuatl--a planet? a city? If he could make this man believe he remembered everything clearly, more than just the scattered patches that he did....
"You had me planted here, then came back to hunt me. Why? What makes Rynch Brodie so important?"
"Close to a billion credits!" The man from the spacer leaned well back in the hole, his arms spread flat out on either side to keep his body from sinking deeper. "A billion credits," he repeated softly.
Rynch laughed. "You'll have to think of a better one than that, fly-boy."
"The stakes would have to be high, wouldn't they, for us to go to all this staging? You've been conditioned, Brodie, illegally brain-channeled!"
To Rynch the words meant nothing. If they ever had, that was gone, lost in the maze of other things which had been blotted out of his mind by the Brodie past. But he would not give the other the advantage of knowing his uncertainty.
"You need a Brodie for a billion credits. But you don't have a Brodie now!"
To his surprise the prisoner in the earth trap laughed. "I'll have a Brodie when he's needed. Think about a good share of a billion credits, boy, keep thinking of that hard."
"Thoughts alone won't work it, you know." For the first time there was a hint of some emotion in the man's voice.
"You mean I need you? I don't think so. I've stopped being a plaque for someone to play across the board." That expression brought another momentary flash of hazy memory--a smoky, crowded room where men slid counters back and forth across tables--not one of Brodie's edited recalls, but his own.
Rynch stood up, started for the rise of the slope, but before he topped that he glanced back. The damaged com box still smoked where its wearer had flung it. Now the man was already straining forward with both arms, trying to reach a rock just a finger space beyond. Lucky for him the burrow was an old one, uninhabited. In time he should be able to work his way out. Meanwhile there was the whole of a wide countryside in which Rynch could discover a hideout--no one would find him now against his will.
He tried, as he strode along, to piece together more of his memories and the scanty information he had had from the Nahuatl man. So he had been "brain-channeled," given a set of false memories to fit a Rynch Brodie whose presence on this world meant a billion credits for someone. He could not believe that this was the spaceman's game alone, for hadn't he spoken of "we"?
A billion credits! The sum was fantastic, the whole story unbelievable.
There was a hot stab of pain on his instep. Rynch cried out, stamped hard. One of the clawed scavengers was crushed. The man leaped back in time to avoid another step into a swarming mass of them at work on some unidentifiable carrion. Staring down at the welter of scaled, segmented bodies and busy claws, he gasped.
Three dead water-cats were near the man trapped in the pit. Bait to draw these voracious eaters straight to the prisoner. Rynch's empty stomach heaved. He swung around, ran across the grassy verge of the upper bank, hoping he was not too late.
As he half fell, half slid down to the water, he saw that the man had managed to hook the webbing of the smouldering box to him, was casting it out and dragging it back patiently, aiming at the nearest rock of size, fruitlessly attempting to hitch its straps over the round of stone.
Rynch dashed on, caught at that loop of webbing, and dug his heels into the loose gravel as he began a steady pull. With his aid the other crawled out, lay panting. Rynch grabbed the man's shoulder, jerked him away from the body of the female water-cat. He was sure he had seen a telltale scurrying around the smaller of the dead cubs.
The man straightened, glanced toward Rynch who was backing off, the needler up and ready between them.
"My turn to ask why?"
Then his gaze followed Rynch's. The smallest cub twitched from side to side. Not with any faint trace of life, but under the attack of the scavengers. More scuttled towards the second cub.
"Thanks!" The stranger was on his feet. "My name is Ras Hume. I don't think I told you that when we last met."
"This doesn't make any difference. I'm not your man, not Brodie!"
Hume shrugged. "You think about it, Brodie, think about it with care. Come back to camp with me and--"
"No!" Rynch interrupted. "You go your way, I go mine from here on."
Again the other laughed. "Not so simple as all that, boy. We've started something which can't just be turned off as easily as you snap down a switch." He took a step or two in Rynch's direction.
The younger man brought up the needler. "Stay right where you are! Your game, Hume? All right, you play it--but not with me."
"And what are you going to do, take to the woods?"
"What I do is my business, Hume."
"No, my business, too, very much so. I'm giving you a warning, boy, in return for your help here." He nodded at the pit. "There's something in that woods--something which didn't show up when the Guild had their survey exploration here."
"The watchers." Rynch retreated step by step, keeping the needler ready. "I saw them."
"You've seen them!" Hume was eager. "What do they look like?"
In spite of his desire to be rid of Hume, Rynch found himself answering that in detail, discovering that on demand he could recall minutely the description of the animal hiding in the tree, the one who had waited in the shelter, and those he had glimpsed drawing in about the L-B clearing.
"No intelligence." Hume turned his head to survey the distant wood. "The verifier reported no intelligence."
"These watchers--you don't know them?"
"No. Nor do I like what you've seen of them, Brodie. So I'm willing to call a truce. The Guild believed Jumala an open planet, our records accredited it so. If that is not true we may be in for bad trouble. As an Out-Hunter I am responsible for the safety of three civs back there in the safari camp."
Hume made sense, much as Rynch disliked admitting it. And the Hunter must have read something of his agreement in his face for now he nodded and added briskly: "Best place now is the safari camp. We'll head back at once."
Only time had run out. A noise sounded with a metallic ring. Rynch whirled, needler cocked. A glittering ball about the size of his fist rolled away from contact with a boulder, came to rest in the deep depression of one of Hume's boot tracks. Then another flash through the air, a clatter as a second ball spun across a patch of gravel.
The balls seemed to appear out of the air. Displaying rainbow glints they rolled in a semicircle about the two men. Rynch stooped, then Hume's fingers latched about his wrist, dragging his hand away from the globe. It was only then that he realized that sharp action had detached his attention from that ball he had wanted to take up.
"Don't touch!" Hume barked. "And don't look at that too closely! Come along!" He pulled Rynch forward through the yet unclosed arc of the globe circle.
Hume detoured around the feasting scavengers and brought Rynch with him at a trot. They could hear behind them the plop and tinkle of more globes. Glancing back Rynch saw one fall close to the bodies of the water-cats.
"Wait a minute!" He pulled back against Hume's hold. Here was a chance to see what effect that crystal had on the clawed carrion eater.
There was a change in the crystal: Yellow now, then red--red as the few scraps of fur remaining on the rapidly disappearing body.
The pulsating carpet which had covered the dead feline ceased to move. But towards that spot rolled two more of the globes, approaching the scavengers. Now the clawed things were stirring, dropping away from their prey. They spread out in a patch, moved purposefully forward. Behind them, as guardians might head a flock, rolled three globes, flushing scarlet, then more.
Hume's hand came up. From the cone tip of the ray tube spat a lance of fire, to strike the middle crystal. The beam was reflected into the block of scavengers. Scaled bodies, twisted, crisped, were ash. But the crystal continued to roll at the same pace.
"Move!" Hume's other hand hit Rynch's shoulder, knocked him forward in an impetuous shove which nearly took him off his feet. Both men began to run.
"What--what are those things?" Rynch appealed between panting breaths.
"I don't know--and I don't like their looks. They're between us and the safari camp if we keep to the river--"
"Between us and the river now." Rynch saw that glittering swoop through the air, marked the landing of a ball near the water's edge.
"Might be trying to box us in. But that's not going to work. See--ahead there where that log's caught between two rocks? Run out on that when we reach there and take to the water. I don't think those things can float and if they sink to the bottom that ought to fix them as far as we are concerned."
Rynch ran, still holding the needler. He balanced along the drift log Hume had pointed out and a jump sent him floundering in the brown stream thigh deep. Hume joined him, his face grim.
Rynch looked. One shape--two--three--Clearly detailed where matching vegetation gave them no covering camouflage, the watchers had come out of the woods at last. A line of them were walking quietly and upright towards the humans, their blue-green fuzz covering like a mist under the direct rays of the sun. Quiet as they seemed at present, the things out of the Jumalan forest were a picture of sheer brute strength as they moved.
"Let's get out of here--fast!"
The men kept moving, and always after them padded that silent line of green-blue, pushing them farther and farther away from the safari camp, on towards the rising mountain peaks. Just as the globes had shaken the scavengers loose from their meal and sent them marching on, so were the humans being herded for some unknown purpose.
At least, once the march of the beasts began, they saw and heard no more of the globes. And as they reached a curve in the river, Hume stopped, swung around, stood studying the line of decorously pacing animals.
"We can pick them off with the needler or the ray."
The Hunter shook his head. "You don't kill," he recited the credo of his Guild, "not until you are sure. There is a method behind this, and method means intelligence."
Handling of X-tee creatures and peoples was a part of Guild training. In spite of his devious game here on Jumala, Hume was Guild educated and Rynch was willing to leave such decisions to him.
The other held out the ray tube. "Take this, cover me, but don't use it until I say so. Understand?"
He waited only for Rynch's nod before he started, at a deliberate pace which matched that of the beasts, back through the river shallows to meet them. But that advancing line halted, stood waiting in silence. Hume's hands went up, palm out, he spoke slowly in Basic-X-Tee clicks: "Friend." This was all Rynch could make out of that sing-song of syllables Rynch knew to be a contact pattern.
The dark eye pits continued to stare. A light breeze ruffled the fuzz covering of wide shoulders, long muscular arms. Not a head moved, not one of those heavy, rounded jaws opened to emit any answering sound. Hume halted. The silence was threatening, a portending atmosphere spread from the alien things as might a tangible wave.
For perhaps two breaths they stood so, man facing alien. Then Hume turned, walked back, his face set. Rynch offered him the ray tube.
"Fight our way out?"
"Too late. Look!"
Moving lines of blue-green coming down to the river. Not five or six now--a dozen--twenty. There was a small trickle of moisture down the side of the Hunter's brown face.
"We're penned--except straight ahead."
"But we're going to fight!" Rynch protested.
"No. Move on!"
It was some time before Hume found what he wanted, an islet in midstream lacking any growth and rising to a rough pinnacle. The sides were seamed with crevices and caves which promised protection for one's back in any desperate struggle. And they had discovered it none too soon, for the late afternoon shadows were lengthening.
There had been no attack, just the trailing to herd the men to the northeast. And Rynch had lost the first tight pinch of panic, though he knew the folly of underestimating the unknown.
They climbed with unspoken consent, going clear to the top, where they huddled together on a four-foot tableland. Hume unhooked his distance lenses, but it was toward the rises of the mountains that he aimed them, not along the back trail.
Rynch wriggled about, studied the river and its banks. The beasts there were quiet, blue-green lumps, standing down on the river bank or squatting in the grass.
"Nothing." Hume lowered the lenses, held them before his broad chest as he still watched the peaks.