A sound, slight, but easily heard in the silent vacuum of the storage cabin, alerted him. The crack of the sliding panel door opened and Vye crouched, his hand cupping the only possible weapon, the ration container. Hume edged through, shut the door behind him. He stood there, his head turned so his ear rested against the wall; obviously he was listening.
"You brain-smoothed idiot!" The Hunter's voice was a thread of whisper. "Why couldn't you have kept that swinging jaw of yours closed last night? Now listen and listen good. This is a slim try, but it's one we have to take."
"We?" Vye was startled into asking.
"Yes, we! By rights I ought to leave you right here to do the rest of your big, brave speechmaking for Wass' benefit. If I didn't need you, that's just what I would do! If it weren't for those civs--" His head snapped back, cheek to panel, he was listening again. After a long moment his whisper came once more. "I don't have time to repeat this. In about five minutes Peake'll be here with rations. I'll leave this door unlatched. There's another storage cabin across the corridor--see if you can hide there, then trick him into getting in here and lock him in. Got it?"
"Then--make for the exit port. Here." He snapped a packet loose from his belt. "This is a flare pak, you saw how they worked on the island. When you get on the ramp beyond the atom lamp, throw this. It should hit the camp force barrier. And the result ought to hold their attention. Then you head for the flitter. Understand?"
The flitter, yes, that was the perfect escape. With a camp force barrier on, any fugitive could only break out by going straight up.
Hume gazed at him soberly, listened once more, and then went. Vye counted a slow five before he followed. The cabin across the corridor was open, just as Hume had promised. He slipped inside, waited.
Peake was coming now, the metallic plates on his spaceboots clicking in regular pattern of sound. He earned another ration container and crooked it in his arm as he snapped up the lock bar on the other cabin.
There was an exclamation of surprise. Vye went into action. His hand, backed by all the strength of his thrusting arm, thumped between Peake's shoulders, sending him staggering into the prison compartment. Before the other could recover either his balance or his wits, Vye had the panel shut, the bar locked into place.
He ran down the corridor to the well ladder, swung down its rungs with an agility born of necessity. Then he was in the air lock, getting his bearings. The flitter stood to his left, the flashing atom lamp, where the men were gathered, to his right.
Vye stepped out on the ramp. He wiped his sweating hand across his thigh. There had to be no failures in the tossing of the flare pak.
Choosing a spot, not directly in line with the lamp but near enough to dazzle the men, he hurled it with all the force he could muster. Then he was running down the ramp, forward to the area of the ship.
There was a flash--shouting--Vye curbed the impulse to look back, darted for the flitter. He jerked open the cabin compartment, scrambled into the cramped space behind the pilot's seat, leaving that free for Hume's quick entrance. More shouting--now he saw the lines of fire wavering from earth to sky along the barrier.
A black shape put on a burst of speed, was silhouetted against that flaming wall, then passed the spacer, grabbed at the open cockpit, and slid in behind the controls. Hume pulled the levers with flying fingers. They arose vertically at a pace which practically slapped Vye's stomach up into the lower regions of his throat.
The searing line of at least one blaster reached after them--too slowly, too low. He heard Hume grunt, and they again leaped higher. Then the Hunter spoke: "Half an hour at the most--"
"The safari camp?
They no longer climbed. The flitter was boring forwards on a projectile flight, into the dark of the night.
"What're those?" Vye suddenly leaned forward.
Had some of the stars across the space void broken free from their fixed orbits? Flecks of light, moving in an arc, headed towards the speeding flitter.
Hume hit a button. Again they arose in a violent leap above those wandering lights. But ahead on this new level more such dots flocked, moving fast to close in on the flyer.
"A straight ram course," Hume muttered, more to himself than Vye.
Again the flyer drove forward in a rising thrust of speed. Then the smooth purr of the propulsion unit faltered, broke into protesting coughs. Hume worked over the controls, beads of sweat showing on his forehead and cheek in the gleam of the cabin light.
He brought the flitter around in a wide circle, the purr smoothed out once more in a steady reassuring beat.
"Out run them!"
But Vye feared they were back again on the losing side of a struggle with the unknown alien power. As they had been herded along the river, so now they were being pushed across the sky, towards the mountains. The enemy had followed them aloft!
Some core of stubborn will in Hume would not yet allow him to admit that. Time and time again he climbed higher--always to meet climbing, twisting, spurting lines of lights which reacted on the engine of the flitter and threatened it with complete failure.
Where they were now in relation to Wass' camp or that of the safari, Vye had no idea, and he guessed that Hume could not be too certain.
Hume switched on the flitter's com unit, tried a channel search until he picked up a click of signal--the automatic reply of the safari camp. His fingertip beat out in return the danger warning, then the series of code sounds to give an edited version of what must be guarded against.
"Wass has a man in your camp. His skin is in just as much danger as the rest. He may not relay it to the Patrol, but he'll keep the force barrier up and the civs inside--anything else would be malicious neglect and a murder charge when the Guild check tape goes in. This call is on the spacer tape now and will be a part of that--he can't possibly alter such a report and he knows it. This is the best we can do now--"
"We're close to the mountains, aren't we?"
"Do you know much about this part of the country?" Vye persisted. Hume's knowledge might be their only hope.
"Flew over the range twice. Nothing to see."
"But there has to be something there."
"If there is, it didn't show up during our survey." Hume's voice was dull with fatigue.
"You're a Guild man, you've dealt with alien life forms before--"
"The Guild doesn't deal with intelligent aliens. That's X-Tee Patrol business. We don't land on any planet with unknown intelligent life forms. Why should we court trouble--couldn't run a safari in under those conditions. X-Tee certified Jumala as a wild world, our survey confirmed that."
"Someone or something landed here after you left?"
"I don't believe so. This is too well organized an action. And since we have a satellite guard in space, any ship landing would be taped and recorded. No such record appeared on the Guild screens. One small spacer--such as Wass'--could slip through by knowing procedure--just as he did. But to land all those beasts and equipment they'd need a regular transport. No--this must be native." Hume leaned forward again, flipped a switch.
A small red light answered on the central board.
"Radar warn-off," he explained.
So they wouldn't end up smeared against some cliff face anyway. Which was only small comfort amid terrifying possibilities.
Hume had taken the precaution just in time. The light blinked faster, and the speed of the flyer was checked as the automatic control triggered by the warn-off came into command. Hume's hands were still on the board, but a system of relays put safety devices into action with a speed past that which a human pilot could initiate.
They were descending and had to accept that, since the warn-off, operating for the sake of the passengers, had ruled that move best. The directive would glide the flitter to the best available landing. It was only moments before the shock gear did touch surface. Then the engine was silent.
"This is it," Hume observed.
"What do we do now?" Vye wanted to know.
"Wait! For what?"
Hume consulted his planet-time watch in the light of the cabin.
"We have about an hour until dawn--if dawn arrives here at the same time it does in the plains. I don't propose to go out blindly in the dark."
Which made sense. Except that to sit here, quietly, in their cramped quarters, not knowing what might be waiting outside, was an ordeal Vye found increasingly harder to bear. Maybe Hume guessed his discomfort, maybe he was following routine procedure. But he turned, thumbed open one of the side panels in Vye's compartment, and dug out the emergency supplies.
They sorted the crash rations into small packs. A blanket of the water-resistant, feather-heavy Ozakian spider silk was cut into a protective covering for Vye. That piece of tailoring occupied them until the graying sky permitted them a full picture of the pocket in which the flitter had landed. The dark foliage of the mountain growth was broken here by a ledge of dark-blue stone on which the flyer rested.
To the right was a sheer drop, and a land slip had cut away the ledge itself a few feet behind the flitter. There was only a steadily narrowing path ahead, slanting upward.
"Can we take off again?" Vye hoped to be reassured that such a feat was possible.
Vye backed against the cliff wall, stared up at the sky. Well above them those globes still swam in unwearied circles, commanding the air lanes.
Hume had cautiously approached the outer rim of the ledge, was using his distance glasses to scan what might lie below.
"No sign yet."
Vye knew what he meant. The globes were overhead, but the blue beasts, or any other fauna those balls might summon, had not yet appeared.
Shouldering their packs they started along the ledge. Hume had his ray tube, but Vye was weaponless, unless somewhere along their route he could pick up some defensive and offensive arm. Stones had burst the lights of the islet, they might prove as effective against the blue beasts. He kept watch for any of the proper size and weight.
The ledge narrowed, one shoulder scraped the cliff now as they rounded a pinnacle to lose sight of the flitter. But the globes continued to hover over them.
"We are still traveling in the direction they want," Vye speculated.
Hume had gone to hands and knees to negotiate an ascent so steep he had to search for head and toe holds. When they were safely past that point they took a breather, and Vye glanced aloft again. Now the sky was empty.
"We may have arrived, or are about to do so," said Hume.
Hume shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine. And both of us can be wrong."
The steep ascent did not quite reach the top of the cliff around the face of which the ledge curled. Instead their path now leveled off and began to widen out so that they could walk with more confidence. Then it threaded into a crevice between two towering rock walls and sloped downward.
A path unnaturally smooth, Vye thought, as if shaped to funnel wayfarers on. And they came out on the rim of a valley, a valley centered with a wood-encircled lake. They stepped from the rock of the passage onto a springy turf which gave elastically to their tread.
Vye's sandal struck a round stone. It started from its bed in the black-green vegetation, turned over so that round pits stared eyelessly up at him. He was faced by the fleshless grin of a human skull.
Hume went down on one knee, examined the ground growth, gingerly lifted the lace of vertebrae forming a spine. That ended in a crushed break which he studied briefly before he laid the bones gently back into the concealing cover of the mossy stuff.
"That was done by teeth!"
The cup of green valley had not changed, it was the same as it had been when they had emerged from the crevice. But now every clump of trees, every wind-rippled mound of brush promised cover.
Vye moistened his lips, diverted his eyes from the skull.
"Weathered," Hume said slowly, "must have been here for seasons, maybe planet years."
"A survivor from the L-B?" Yet this spot lay days of travel from that clearing back in the plains.
"How did he get here?"
"Probably the same way we would have, had we not holed up on that river island."
Driven! Perhaps the lone human on Jumala herded up into this dead-end valley by the globes or the blue beasts. "This process must have been in action for some time."
"I can give you two reasons." Hume studied the nearest trees narrowly. "First--for some purpose, whatever we are up against wants all interlopers moved out of the lowlands into this section, either to imprison them, or to keep them under surveillance. Second--" He hesitated.
Vye's own imagination supplied a second reason, a revolting one he tried to deny to himself even as he put it into words: "That broken spine--food...." Vye wanted Hume to contradict him, but the Hunter only glanced around, his expression already sufficient answer.
"Let's get out of here!" Vye was fighting down panic with every ounce of control he could summon, trying not to bolt for the crevice. But he knew he could not force himself any farther into that sinister valley.
"If we can!" Hume's words lingered direly in his ears.
Stones had smashed the globes by the river. If they still waited out there Vye was willing to try and break them with his bare hands, should escape demand such action. Hume must have agreed with those thoughts, he was already taking long strides back to the cliff entrance.
But that door was closed. Hume's foot, raised for the last step toward the crevice corridor, struck an invisible obstruction. He reeled back, clutching at Vye's shoulder.
The younger man put out his hand questingly. What his fingers flattened against was not a tight, solid surface, but rather an unseen elastic curtain which gave a little under his prodding and then drew taut again.
Together they explored by touch what they could not see. The crevice through which they had entered was now closed with a curtain they could not pierce or break. Hume tried his ray tube. They watched thin flame run up and down that invisible barrier, but not destroy it.
Hume relooped the tube. "Their trap is sprung."
"There may be another way out!" But Vye was already despondently sure there was not. Those who had rigged this trap would leave no bolt holes. But because they were human and refused to accept the inevitable without a fight, the captives set off, not down into the curve of the cup, but along its slope.
Tongues of brush and tree clumps brought about detours which forced them slowly downward. They were well away from the crevice when Hume halted, flung up a hand in silent warning. Vye listened, trying to pick up the sound which had alarmed his companion.
It was as Vye strained to catch a betraying noise that he was first conscious of what he did not hear. In the plains there had been squeaking, humming, chitterings, the vocalizing of myriad grass dwellers. Here, except for the sighing of the wind and a few insect sounds--nothing. All inhabitants bigger than a Jumalan fly might have long ago been routed out of the land.
"To the left." Hume faced about.