"There is only one way they could be moving--toward the mountains." Hume stood in the open space among the bubble tents, facing him the four men of the camp, the three civs and Rovald. "You say it's been seven days, planet time, since I left here. They may have been five days on that trail. If possible we have to stop them before they reach that valley."
"A fantastic story." Chambriss wore the affronted expression of a man who expected no interference with his own concerns. Then catching Hume's eye he added, "Not that we doubt you, Hunter. We have the evidence in those dumb brutes waiting out there. However, by your own story, this Wass is an outside-the-law Veep, on this planet secretly for criminal purposes. Surely there is no reason for us to risk our safety in his behalf. Are you certain he is in any danger at all? You and this young man here have, by your testimony, been into the enemies' territory and have been able to get out again."
"Through a series of fortunate chances which might never occur again." Hume was patient, too patient, Rovald seemed to think. His hand moved, he was holding a ray tube so that a simple movement of the wrist could send a crisping blast across all the rest of the party.
"I say, stop this yapping and get out there and pick up the Veep!"
"I intend to--after I call the Patrol."
Rovald's tube was now aimed directly at Hume. "No Patrol!" he ordered.
"This wrangling has gone far enough." It was Yactisi who spoke with an authority which startled them all. And as their attention swung to him, he was already in action.
Rovald cried out, the weapon spun from his fingers, fingers which were slowly reddening. Yactisi nodded with satisfaction and he held his electo pole ready for a second attack. Vye scooped up the tube which had whirled across the ground to strike against his borrowed boot.
"I'll set the call for the Patrol, then I'll try to locate Wass," Hume stated.
"Sensible procedure," Yactisi approved in his dry voice. "You believe that you are now immune to whatever force this alien installation controls?"
"It would seem so."
"Then, of course, you must go."
"Why?" Chambriss countered for the second time. "Suppose he isn't so immune after all? Suppose he gets out there and is captured again? He's our pilot--do you want to be planet bound here?
"This man is also a pilot." Starns indicated Rovald, who was nursing his numb hand.
"Since he, too, is one of these criminals, he's not to be trusted!" Chambriss shot back. "Hunter, I demand that you take us off planet at once! And it is only fair to inform you that I also intend to prefer charges against you and against the Guild. Empty world! Just how empty have we found this world?"
"But, Gentlehomo," Starns showed no signs of any emotion but eager curiosity, "to be here at this time is a privilege we could not hope to equal except by good fortune! The T-Casts will be avid for our stories."
What had that to do with the matter, puzzled Vye. But he saw Starns' reminder produce a quick change in Chambriss.
"The T-Casts," he repeated, his expression of anger smoothing away. "Yes, of course, this is, in a manner of speaking, a truly historic occasion. We are in a unique position!"
Had Yactisi smiled? That change of lip line had been so slight Vye could not call it a smile. But Starns appeared to have found the right way to handle Chambriss. And it was the same little man who offered his services in another way when he said, diffidently to Hume: "I have some experience with coms, Hunter. Do you wish me to send your message and take over the unit until you return? I gather," he added with a certain delicacy, "that it will not be expedient for your gearman to engage in that duty now."
So it was that Starns was installed in the com cabin of the spacer, sending out the request for Patrol aid, while Rovald was locked in the storage compartment of the same ship, pending arrival of those same authorities. As Hume sorted out supplies and Vye loaded them into the waiting flitter, Yactisi approached the Hunter.
"You have a definite plan of search?"
"Just to cast north from their camp. If they've been gone long enough to hit the foothills we may be able to sight them climbing. Otherwise, we'll go all the way up to the valley, wait for them there."
"You don't believe that they will be released after they have been--processed?"
Hume shook his head. "I don't think we would have been free, Gentlehomo, if it hadn't been for a series of fortunate accidents."
"Yes, though you didn't give us many details about that, Hunter."
Hume put down the needler he had been charging. He studied Yactisi across that weapon.
"Who are you?" His voice was soft but carried a snap.
For the first time Vye saw the tall, lean civ really smile.
"A man of many interests, Hunter--shall we let it go at that for the present? Though I assure you that Wass is not one of them in the way you might believe."
Gray eyes met brown, held so straightly. Then Hume spoke. "I believe you. But I have told you the truth."
"I have never doubted that--only the amount of it. There must be more talking later on--you understand that?"
"I never thought otherwise." Hume set the needler inside the flitter. The civ smiled again, this time including Vye in that evidence of good will before he walked away.
Hume made no comment. "That does it," he told his companion. "Still want to go?"
"If you do--and you can't do it alone." No man could take on the valley and Wass and his men.
Hume made no comment. They had rested briefly after their return to the safari camp, and Vye had been supplied with clothing from Hume's bags, so that now he wore the uniform of the Guild. He went armed, too, with the equipment belt taken from Rovald and that other's weapons, needler and tube. At least they started on their dubious rescue mission with every aid the safari camp could muster.
It was mid-afternoon when the flitter took to the air once again, scattering the hovering globes. There was no alteration in the ranks of the blue watchers waiting--for the barrier to go down, or someone in the camp to step beyond that protection?
"They're stupid," Vye said.
"Not stupid, just geared to one set of actions," Hume returned.
"Which could mean that what sends them here can't change its orders."
"Good guess. I'd say that they were governed by something akin to our tapes. No provision made for any innovations."
"So the guiding intelligence could be long gone."
"I think it has been." Hume then changed the subject sharply.
"How did you get into service at the Starfall?"
It was hard now to think back to Nahuatl--as if the Vye Lansor who had been swamper in that den of the port town was a different person altogether. In that patch of memories into which Rynch Brodie still intruded he hunted for the proper answer.
"I couldn't hold the state jobs. And once you get the habit of eating, you don't starve willingly."
"Why not the state jobs?"
"Without premium they're all low-rung tenders' places. I tried hard enough. But to sit pressing buttons when a light flashed, hour after hour--" Vye shook his head. "They said I was too erratic and gave me the shove. One more move on and it would have been compulsive conditioning. I turned port-drift instead."
"Ever thought of trying for a loan premium?"
Vye laughed shortly. "Loan premium? That's a true fantasy if you've been job hopping. None of the companies will take a chance on a man with an in and out record. Oh, I tried...." That memory arose to the surface, clear and very chilling. Yes, he had tried to break out of the net the law and custom had put around him from the day he had been made a state child. "No--it was conditioning, or port-drift."
"And you chose port-drift?"
"I was still me--as long as I stayed away from conditioning."
"Then you became Rynch Brodie in spite of your flight."
"No--well, maybe, for a while. But I'm still Vye Lansor here."
"Yes, here. And I don't think you'll have to worry about raising a premium to get a new start. You can claim victim compensation, you know."
Vye was silent, but Hume did not let him remain so.
"When the Patrol arrives, you put in your claim. I'll back you."
"That's where you're mistaken," Hume told him crisply. "I've already taped a full story back at the spacer--it's on record now."
Vye frowned. The Hunter seemed determined to ask for the worst the Patrol--or the planet police back on Nahuatl--could deal out. A case of illegal conditioning was about as serious as you could get.
They shot along the diagonal of the triangle made by three points, the mountain valley, Wass' camp, and the safari headquarters, heading to the slopes up which the men must be herded if the beasts were shepherding them to the mountain valley. Vye, surveying the forest thick below, began to doubt they would ever be able to pick them up before they reached the valley gate.
Hume took a weaving course, zigzagging back and forth, while they both watched intently for a glint from one of the globes, any movement which would betray that trail. And it was on one of the upper slopes that the flitter passed over two of the blue beasts lumbering along. Neither of the creatures paid any attention to the flyer, they moved with purpose on some mission of their own.
"Maybe the tail end of the hunting pack," Hume commented.
He sent the flyer hovering over a stunted line of trees and brush. Beyond that was bare rock. But though they hung for moments, nothing moved into that open.
"Wrong scent somehow." Hume brought the flitter around. He had it on manual control now, keeping it answering to the quick changes of his will.
A longer sweep supplied the answer--a vegetation roofed slit running back into the uplands, in a way resembling the crevice through which they had originally found their way into this country. Hume brought the flyer along that. But if the men they sought were pushing their way through below they could not be sighted from the air. At last, with evening drawing in, Hume was forced to admit failure.
"Wait by the gap?" Vye asked.
"Have to now." Hume glanced about. "I'd say maybe tomorrow--mid-morning before they make it that far--if they are here. We'll have plenty of time."
Time for what? To make ready for a pitched battle with Wass--or with the beasts herding him? To try in the space of hours to solve the mystery of the lake?
"Do you think we could blast that thing in the lake?" Vye asked.
"We might be able to, just might. But that must be the last resort. We want that in working order for the X-Tee men to study. No, we'd better plan to hold Wass at the gate, wait for the Patrol to come in."
Less than an hour later after a soaring approach, Hume brought the flitter down with neat skill on the top of one of the cliffs which helped to form the portal of the gap. There was no difference in the scene below, save that where the two bodies of the blue beasts had lain there were now only clean and shining bones.
Darkness spread out from the lake woods like a growing stain of evil promise as the sun fell behind the peaks. Night came earlier here than in the plains.
"Watch!" Vye had been gazing down the gap; he was the first to note that movement in the cloaking bush.
Out of the cover trotted a four-footed, antlered animal he had not seen before.
"Syken deer," Hume identified. "But why in the mountains? It's a long way from its home range."
The deer did not pause, but headed directly for the gap and, as it neared, Vye saw that its brown coat was roughed with patches of white froth, while more dripped from the pale pink tongue protruding from its open jaws, and its shrunken sides heaved.
"Driven!" Hume picked up a stone, hurled it to strike the ground ahead of the deer.
The creature did not start, nor show any sign of seeing the rock fall. It trotted on at the same wearied pace, passed the portal rocks into the valley. Then it stood still, wedge-shaped head up, black horns displayed, while the nose flaps expanded, testing the air, until it bounded toward the lake, disappearing in the woods.
Though they shared watches during the night there were no other signs of life, nor did the deer reappear from the woods. With the mid-morning there was a sudden sound to warn them--a wild cry which must have come from a human throat. Hume tossed one of the needlers to Vye, took the other, and they scrambled down to the floor of the gap passage.
Wass did not lead his men, he came behind the reeling trio as if he had joined the blasts as driver. And while his men wavered, staggered, gave the appearance of nearly complete exhaustion, he still walked with a steady tread, in command of his wits, his fears, and the company.
As the first of the men blundered on, a fresh trickle of red running down his bruised face, Hume called: "Wass!"
The Veep stopped short. He made no move to unsling the needler he carried, its barrel pointing skyward over his shoulder, but his round head with its upstanding comb of hair swung slightly from side to side.
"Stop--Wass--this is a trap!"
His three men kept on. Vye moved, for Peake leading that wavering group, stumbled, would have fallen had not the younger man advanced from the shadows to steady him.
"Vye!" Hume made his name a warning.
He had only time to glance around. Wass, his broad face impassive except for the eyes--those burning madman's eyes--was aiming a ray tube.
Broken free of his hold, Peake fell to the right, came up against Hume. As Vye went down he saw Wass dart forward at a speed he wouldn't have believed a driven man could summon. The Veep lunged, escaping the shot the Hunter had no time to aim, rolled, and came up with the needler Vye had dropped.
Then Hume, hampered by Peake's feeble clawing, met head on the swinging barrel of that weapon. He gave a startled grunt and smashed back against the cliff, a wave of scarlet blood streaming down the side of his head.
The momentum of Wass' charge carried him on. He collided with his men, and the last thing Vye saw, was the huddle of all four of them, flailing arms and legs, spinning on through the gate into the valley with Wass' hoarse, wordless shouting, bringing echoes from the cliffs.
He lay against a rock, and it was quiet again, except for a small whimpering sound which hurt, joined with the eating pain in his side. Vye turned his head, smelled burned cloth and flesh. Cautiously he tried to move, bring his hand across his body to the belt at his waist. One small part of his mind was very clear--if he could get his fingers to the packet there, and the contents of that packet to his mouth, the pain would go away, and maybe he could slip back into the darkness again.
Somehow he did it, pulled the packet out of its container pouch, worked the fingers of his one usable hand until he shredded open the end of the covering. The tablets inside, spilled out. But he had three or four of them in his grasp. Laboriously he brought his hand up, mouthed them all together, chewing their bitterness, swallowing them as best he could without water.
Water--the lake! For a moment he was back in time, feeling for the water bulbs he should be carrying. Then the incautious movement of his questing fingers brought a sudden stab of raw, red agony and he moaned.