"Hey, Cargill, you can talk their lingo. What's going on out there?"
I stepped out past the gateway to listen. There was still no one to be seen in the square. It lay white and windswept, a barricade of emptiness; to one side the spaceport and the white skyscraper of the Terran Headquarters, and at the other side, the clutter of low buildings, the street-shrine, the little spaceport cafe smelling of coffee and jaco, and the dark opening mouths of streets that rambled down into the Kharsa--the old town, the native quarter. But I was alone in the square with the shrill cries--closer now, raising echoes from the enclosing walls--and the loping of many feet down one of the dirty streets.
Then I saw him running, dodging, a hail of stones flying round his head; someone or something small and cloaked and agile. Behind him the still-faceless mob howled and threw stones. I could not yet understand the cries; but they were out for blood, and I knew it.
I said briefly, "Trouble coming," just before the mob spilled out into the square. The fleeing dwarf stared about wildly for an instant, his head jerking from side to side so rapidly that it was impossible to get even a fleeting impression of his face--human or nonhuman, familiar or bizarre. Then, like a pellet loosed from its sling, he made straight for the gateway and safety.
And behind him the loping mob yelled and howled and came pouring over half the square. Just half. Then by that sudden intuition which permeates even the most crazed mob with some semblance of reason, they came to a ragged halt, heads turning from side to side.
I stepped up on the lower step of the Headquarters building, and looked them over.
Most of them were chaks, the furred man-tall nonhumans of the Kharsa, and not the better class. Their fur was unkempt, their tails naked with filth and disease. Their leather aprons hung in tatters. One or two in the crowd were humans, the dregs of the Kharsa. But the star-and-rocket emblem blazoned across the spaceport gates sobered even the wildest blood-lust somewhat; they milled and shifted uneasily in their half of the square.
For a moment I did not see where their quarry had gone. Then I saw him crouched, not four feet from me, in a patch of shadow. Simultaneously the mob saw him, huddled just beyond the gateway, and a howl of frustration and rage went ringing round the square. Someone threw a stone. It zipped over my head, narrowly missing me, and landed at the feet of the black-leathered guard. He jerked his head up and gestured with the shocker which had suddenly come unholstered.
The gesture should have been enough. On Wolf, Terran law has been written in blood and fire and exploding atoms; and the line is drawn firm and clear. The men of Spaceforce do not interfere in the old town, or in any of the native cities. But when violence steps over the threshold, passing the blazon of the star and rocket, punishment is swift and terrible. The threat should have been enough.
Instead a howl of abuse went up from the crowd.
"Son of the Ape!"
The Spaceforce guards were shoulder to shoulder behind me now. The snub-nosed kid, looking slightly pale, called out. "Get inside the gates, Cargill! If I have to shoot--"
The older man motioned him to silence. "Wait. Cargill," he called.
I nodded to show that I heard.
"You talk their lingo. Tell them to haul off! Damned if I want to shoot!"
I stepped down and walked into the open square, across the crumbled white stones, toward the ragged mob. Even with two armed Spaceforce men at my back, it made my skin crawl, but I flung up my empty hand in token of peace: "Take your mob out of the square," I shouted in the jargon of the Kharsa. "This territory is held in compact of peace! Settle your quarrels elsewhere!"
There was a little stirring in the crowd. The shock of being addressed in their own tongue, instead of the Terran Standard which the Empire has forced on Wolf, held them silent for a minute. I had learned that long ago: that speaking in any of the languages of Wolf would give me a minute's advantage.
But only a minute. Then one of the mob yelled, "We'll go if you give'm to us! He's no right to Terran sanctuary!"
I walked over to the huddled dwarf, miserably trying to make himself smaller against the wall. I nudged him with my foot.
"Get up. Who are you?"
The hood fell away from his face as he twitched to his feet. He was trembling violently. In the shadow of the hood I saw a furred face, a quivering velvety muzzle, and great soft golden eyes which held intelligence and terror.
"What have you done? Can't you talk?"
He held out the tray which he had shielded under his cloak, an ordinary peddler's tray. "Toys. Sell toys. Children. You got'm?"
I shook my head and pushed the creature away, with only a glance at the array of delicately crafted manikins, tiny animals, prisms and crystal whirligigs. "You'd better get out of here. Scram. Down that street." I pointed.
A voice from the crowd shouted again, and it had a very ugly sound. "He is a spy of Nebran!"
"Nebran--" The dwarfish nonhuman gabbled something then doubled behind me. I saw him dodge, feint in the direction of the gates, then, as the crowd surged that way, run for the street-shrine across the square, slipping from recess to recess of the wall. A hail of stones went flying in that direction. The little toy-seller dodged into the street-shrine.
Then there was a hoarse "Ah, aaah!" of terror, and the crowd edged away, surged backward. The next minute it had begun to melt away, its entity dissolving into separate creatures, slipping into the side alleys and the dark streets that disgorged into the square. Within three minutes the square lay empty again in the pale-crimson noon.
The kid in black leather let his breath go and swore, slipping his shocker into its holster. He stared and demanded profanely, "Where'd the little fellow go?"
"Who knows?" the other shrugged. "Probably sneaked into one of the alleys. Did you see where he went, Cargill?"
I came slowly back to the gateway. To me, it had seemed that he ducked into the street-shrine and vanished into thin air, but I've lived on Wolf long enough to know you can't trust your eyes here. I said so, and the kid swore again, gulping, more upset than he wanted to admit. "Does this kind of thing happen often?"
"All the time," his companion assured him soberly, with a sidewise wink at me. I didn't return the wink.
The kid wouldn't let it drop. "Where did you learn their lingo, Mr. Cargill?"
"I've been on Wolf a long time," I said, spun on my heel and walked toward Headquarters. I tried not to hear, but their voices followed me anyhow, discreetly lowered, but not lowered enough.
"Kid, don't you know who he is? That's Cargill of the Secret Service! Six years ago he was the best man in Intelligence, before--" The voice lowered another decibel, and then there was the kid's voice asking, shaken, "But what the hell happened to his face?"
I should have been used to it by now. I'd been hearing it, more or less behind my back, for six years. Well, if my luck held, I'd never hear it again. I strode up the white steps of the skyscraper, to finish the arrangements that would take me away from Wolf forever. To the other end of the Empire, to the other end of the galaxy--anywhere, so long as I need not wear my past like a medallion around my neck, or blazoned and branded on what was left of my ruined face.
The Terran Empire has set its blazon on four hundred planets circling more than three hundred suns. But no matter what the color of the sun, the number of moons overhead, or the geography of the planet, once you step inside a Headquarters building, you are on Earth. And Earth would be alien to many who called themselves Earthmen, judging by the strangeness I always felt when I stepped into that marble-and-glass world inside the skyscraper. I heard the sound of my steps ringing into thin resonance along the marble corridor, and squinted my eyes, readjusting them painfully to the cold yellowness of the lights.
The Traffic Division was efficiency made insolent, in glass and chrome and polished steel, mirrors and windows and looming electronic clerical machines. Most of one wall was taken up by a TV monitor which gave a view of the spaceport; a vast open space lighted with blue-white mercury vapor lamps, and a chained-down skyscraper of a starship, littered over with swarming ants. The process crew was getting the big ship ready for skylift tomorrow morning. I gave it a second and then a third look. I'd be on it when it lifted.
Turning away from the monitored spaceport, I watched myself stride forward in the mirrored surfaces that were everywhere; a tall man, a lean man, bleached out by years under a red sun, and deeply scarred on both cheeks and around the mouth. Even after six years behind a desk, my neat business clothes--suitable for an Earthman with a desk job--didn't fit quite right, and I still rose unconsciously on the balls of my feet, approximating the lean stooping walk of a Dry-towner from the Coronis plains.
The clerk behind the sign marked TRANSPORTATION was a little rabbit of a man with a sunlamp tan, barricaded by a small-sized spaceport of desk, and looking as if he liked being shut up there. He looked up in civil inquiry.
"Can I do something for you?"
"My name's Cargill. Have you a pass for me?"
He stared. A free pass aboard a starship is rare except for professional spacemen, which I obviously wasn't. "Let me check my records," he hedged, and punched scanning buttons on the glassy surface. Shadows came and went, and I saw myself half-reflected, a tipsy shadow in a flurry of racing colors. The pattern finally stabilized and the clerk read off names.
"Brill, Cameron ... ah, yes. Cargill, Race Andrew, Department 38, transfer transportation. Is that you?"
I admitted it and he started punching more buttons when the sound of the name made connection in whatever desk-clerks use for a brain. He stopped with his hand halfway to the button.
"Are you Race Cargill of the Secret Service, sir? The Race Cargill?"
"It's right there," I said, gesturing wearily at the projected pattern under the glassy surface.
"Why, I thought--I mean, everybody took it for granted--that is, I heard--"
"You thought Cargill had been killed a long time ago because his name never turned up in news dispatches any more?" I grinned sourly, seeing my image dissolve in blurring shadows, and feeling the long-healed scar on my mouth draw up to make the grin hideous. "I'm Cargill, all right. I've been up on Floor 38 for six years, holding down a desk any clerk could handle. You for instance."
He gaped. He was a rabbit of a man who had never stepped out of the safe familiar boundaries of the Terran Trade City. "You mean you're the man who went to Charin in disguise, and routed out The Lisse? The man who scouted the Black Ridge and Shainsa? And you've been working at a desk upstairs all these years? It's--hard to believe, sir."
My mouth twitched. It had been hard for me to believe while I was doing it. "The pass?"
"Right away, sir." He punched buttons and a printed chip of plastic extruded from a slot on the desk top. "Your fingerprint, please?" He pressed my finger into the still-soft surface of the plastic, indelibly recording the print; waited a moment for it to harden, then laid the chip in the slot of a pneumatic tube. I heard it whoosh away.
"They'll check your fingerprint against that when you board the ship. Skylift isn't till dawn, but you can go aboard as soon as the process crew finishes with her." He glanced at the monitor screen, where the swarming crew were still doing inexplicable things to the immobile spacecraft. "It will be another hour or two. Where are you going, Mr. Cargill?"
"Some planet in the Hyades Cluster. Vainwal, I think, something like that."
"What's it like there?"
"How should I know?" I'd never been there either. I only knew that Vainwal had a red sun, and that the Terran Legate could use a trained Intelligence officer. And not pin him down to a desk.
There was respect, and even envy in the little man's voice. "Could I--buy you a drink before you go aboard, Mr. Cargill?"
"Thanks, but I have a few loose ends to tie up." I didn't, but I was damned if I'd spend my last hour on Wolf under the eyes of a deskbound rabbit who preferred his adventure safely secondhand.
But after I'd left the office and the building, I almost wished I'd taken him up on it. It would be at least an hour before I could board the starship, with nothing to do but hash over old memories, better forgotten.
The sun was lower now. Phi Coronis is a dim star, a dying star, and once past the crimson zenith of noon, its light slants into a long pale-reddish twilight. Four of Wolf's five moons were clustered in a pale bouquet overhead, mingling thin violet moonlight into the crimson dusk.
The shadows were blue and purple in the empty square as I walked across the stones and stood looking down one of the side streets.
A few steps, and I was in an untidy slum which might have been on another world from the neat bright Trade City which lay west of the spaceport. The Kharsa was alive and reeking with the sounds and smells of human and half-human life. A naked child, diminutive and golden-furred, darted between two of the chinked pebble-houses, and disappeared, spilling fragile laughter like breaking glass.
A little beast, half snake and half cat, crawled across a roof, spread leathery wings, and flapped to the ground. The sour pungent reek of incense from the open street-shrine made my nostrils twitch, and a hulked form inside, not human, cast me a surly green glare as I passed.
I turned, retracing my steps. There was no danger, of course, so close to the Trade City. Even on such planets as Wolf, Terra's laws are respected within earshot of their gates. But there had been rioting here and in Charin during the last month. After the display of mob violence this afternoon, a lone Terran, unarmed, might turn up as a solitary corpse flung on the steps of the HQ building.
There had been a time when I had walked alone from Shainsa to the Polar Colony. I had known how to melt into this kind of night, shabby and inconspicuous, a worn shirtcloak hunched round my shoulders, weaponless except for the razor-sharp skean in the clasp of the cloak; walking on the balls of my feet like a Dry-towner, not looking or sounding or smelling like an Earthman.
That rabbit in the Traffic office had stirred up things I'd be wiser to forget. It had been six years; six years of slow death behind a desk, since the day when Rakhal Sensar had left me a marked man; death-warrant written on my scarred face anywhere outside the narrow confines of the Terran law on Wolf.
Rakhal Sensar--my fists clenched with the old impotent hate. If I could get my hands on him!
It had been Rakhal who first led me through the byways of the Kharsa, teaching me the jargon of a dozen tribes, the chirping call of the Ya-men, the way of the catmen of the rain-forests, the argot of thieves markets, the walk and step of the Dry-towners from Shainsa and Daillon and Ardcarran--the parched cities of dusty, salt stone which spread out in the bottoms of Wolf's vanished oceans. Rakhal was from Shainsa, human, tall as an Earthman, weathered by salt and sun, and he had worked for Terran Intelligence since we were boys. We had traveled all over our world together, and found it good.
And then, for some reason I had never known, it had come to an end. Even now I was not wholly sure why he had erupted, that day, into violence and a final explosion. Then he had disappeared, leaving me a marked man. And a lonely one: Juli had gone with him.
I strode the streets of the slum unseeing, my thoughts running a familiar channel. Juli, my kid sister, clinging around Rakhal's neck, her gray eyes hating me. I had never seen her again.
That had been six years ago. One more adventure had shown me that my usefulness to the Secret Service was over. Rakhal had vanished, but he had left me a legacy: my name, written on the sure scrolls of death anywhere outside the safe boundaries of Terran law. A marked man, I had gone back to slow stagnation behind a desk. I'd stood it as long as I could.
When it finally got too bad, Magnusson had been sympathetic. He was the Chief of Terran Intelligence on Wolf, and I was next in line for his job, but he understood when I quit. He'd arranged the transfer and the pass, and I was leaving tonight.
I was nearly back to the spaceport by now, across from the street-shrine at the edge of the square. It was here that the little toy-seller had vanished. But it was exactly like a thousand, a hundred thousand other such street-shrines on Wolf, a smudge of incense reeking and stinking before the squatting image of Nebran, the Toad God whose face and symbol are everywhere on Wolf. I stared for a moment at the ugly idol, then slowly moved away.
The lighted curtains of the spaceport cafe attracted my attention and I went inside. A few spaceport personnel in storm gear were drinking coffee at the counter, a pair of furred chaks, lounging beneath the mirrors at the far end, and a trio of Dry-towners, rangy, weathered men in crimson and blue shirt cloaks, were standing at a wall shelf, eating Terran food with aloof dignity.
In my business clothes I felt more conspicuous than the chaks. What place had a civilian here, between the uniforms of the spacemen and the colorful brilliance of the Dry-towners?
A snub-nosed girl with alabaster hair came to take my order. I asked for jaco and bunlets, and carried the food to a wall shelf near the Dry-towners. Their dialect fell soft and familiar on my ears. One of them, without altering the expression on his face or the easy tone of his voice, began to make elaborate comments on my entrance, my appearance, my ancestry and probably personal habits, all defined in the colorfully obscene dialect of Shainsa.
That had happened before. The Wolfan sense of humor is only half-human. The finest joke is to criticize and insult a stranger, preferably an Earthman, to his very face, in an unknown language, perfectly deadpan. In my civilian clothes I was obviously fair game.
A look or gesture of resentment would have lost face and dignity--what the Dry-towners call their kihar--permanently. I leaned over and remarked in their own dialect that I would, at some future and unspecified time, appreciate the opportunity to return their compliments.
By rights they should have laughed, made some barbed remark about my command of language and crossed their hands in symbol of a jest decently reversed on themselves. Then we would have bought each other a drink, and that would be that.
But it didn't happen that way. Not this time. The tallest of the three whirled, upsetting his drink in the process. I heard its thin shatter through the squeal of the alabaster-haired girl, as a chair crashed over. They faced me three abreast, and one of them fumbled in the clasp of his shirtcloak.
I edged backward, my own hand racing up for a skean I hadn't carried in six years, and fronted them squarely, hoping I could face down the prospect of a roughhouse. They wouldn't kill me, this close to the HQ, but at least I was in for an unpleasant mauling. I couldn't handle three men; and if nerves were this taut in the Kharsa, I might get knifed. Quite by accident, of course.
The chaks moaned and gibbered. The Dry-towners glared at me and I tensed for the moment when their steady stare would explode into violence.
Then I became aware that they were gazing, not at me, but at something or someone behind me. The skeans snicked back into the clasps of their cloaks.
Then they broke rank, turned and ran. They ran, blundering into stools, leaving havoc of upset benches and broken crockery in their wake. One man barged into the counter, swore and ran on, limping. I let my breath go. Something had put the fear of God into those brutes, and it wasn't my own ugly mug. I turned and saw the girl.
She was slight, with waving hair like spun black glass, circled with faint tracery of stars. A black glass belt bound her narrow waist like clasped hands, and her robe, stark white, bore an ugly embroidery across the breasts, the flat sprawl of a conventionalized Toad God, Nebran. Her features were delicate, chiseled, pale; a Dry-town face, all human, all woman, but set in an alien and unearthly repose. The great eyes gleamed red. They were fixed, almost unseeing, but the crimson lips were curved with inhuman malice.
She stood motionless, looking at me as if wondering why I had not run with the others. In half a second, the smile flickered off and was replaced by a startled look of--recognition?
Whoever and whatever she was, she had saved me a mauling. I started to phrase formal thanks, then broke off in astonishment. The cafe had emptied and we were entirely alone. Even the chaks had leaped through an open window--I saw the whisk of a disappearing tail.
We stood frozen, looking at one another while the Toad God sprawled across her breasts rose and fell for half a dozen breaths.
Then I took one step forward, and she took one step backward, at the same instant. In one swift movement she was outside in the dark street. It took me only an instant to get into the street after her, but as I stepped across the door there was a little stirring in the air, like the rising of heat waves across the salt flats at noon. Then the street-shrine was empty, and nowhere was there any sign of the girl. She had vanished. She simply was not there.
I gaped at the empty shrine. She had stepped inside and vanished, like a wraith of smoke, like-- --Like the little toy-seller they had hunted out of the Kharsa.
There were eyes in the street again and, becoming aware of where I was, I moved away. The shrines of Nebran are on every corner of Wolf, but this is one instance when familiarity does not breed contempt. The street was dark and seemed empty, but it was packed with all the little noises of living. I was not unobserved. And meddling with a street-shrine would be just as dangerous as the skeans of my three loud-mouthed Dry-town roughnecks.
I turned and crossed the square for the last time, turning toward the loom of the spaceship, filing the girl away as just another riddle of Wolf I'd never solve.
How wrong I was!