When they put new chains on him, around neck and waist, he thought it was only to make sure he didn't run away before they could deliver him ostentatiously to the ship.
A dozen adult males had gathered in the clearing, but that was hardly an unusual event. Even when they all started out, on a winding trail that didn't head in the direction of the ship's recent landing-sounds, Chet was convinced they were just circling some geographic obstacle.
He was interested in the forest of 20-foot mosses and 50-foot evergreen hardwoods pressing densely on each side of the trail. Unconscious when they'd carried him from the beach, he'd never been out of the village since, had never inspected these woods. And he thought his mates from Earth would want to know about them.
Chet could easily have outdistanced the clumsy Agvars if not forced to imitate their crouching walk. But he knew from experience that to show off his erect stance and 18-inch height advantage would make them find some unpleasant way to put him in his place.
They'd shown him that quite often. He'd show them--but later, not just yet. And after showing them, he'd put these Agvars behind him--them, their filthy planet, and their scorching sun.
It had often tortured him, that gauzy, amorphous solar blaze, but never more than now. For the sun of Hedlot, when he glanced at it vengefully, proved from its position that he was not being taken to the ship, but away from it.
Disappointment didn't rouse Chet to a fighting pitch--it caused him to become crafty. Slyness and deceit, the indirect weapons of the powerless, were not attributes schooled into a student space-pilot. But he'd learned them tied naked to a sunbaked post. That, too, is an effective school.
He hung back, faking fatigue. Malingering brought him pokes and jerks, made the Agvars choke him and beat him and harangue him in their sullen mutter of clicks and growls and glottal catches. But some sense of urgency drove them to give up their fruitless sadism after a while, and drag him through the trail's blue mud by brute strength, two on the neck-chain, two hauling at his waist.
He let them. Not that he was inured to pain--he just was stubborn.
He wondered, once when they all stopped at a spring for a drink and some rest, whether their haranguing showed the Agvars were sorry they hadn't taught him their language. Probably not, he decided; probably they didn't want to think he could have learned it.
He'd tried, in the absence of lessons, by repeating what he heard around him. He'd learned a few words, of course. And for a while, a couple of villagers had seemed to enjoy and encourage his parrot-like attempts to recite whole sentences they voiced for him. But after a few beatings, Chet gathered that he'd only been mouthing obscenities. And that experience, plus inertia, had made him give up the attempt.
Just as well, he now decided. If they'd known of his technical skills, if they'd let him raise their standards, the Agvars might be carrying bows and arrows, instead of mere slings and sticks.
Their hard luck! What they didn't know, they'd never learn from him! The mere presence of a spaceship on the same planet gave him a buoyant feeling of contempt.
But though contempt helped him endure that journey through the tall mosses and taller trees, it couldn't ward off exhaustion. When the party stopped at the foot of a sheer rock spire that rose four or five hundred feet above the tallest growth, he collapsed and slept.
They woke him in the pre-dawn twilight and another group of Agvars took over. These--there were only three--looked older than the familiar villagers. And they'd smeared their faces with bands of red and yellow mud. He wondered....
He stopped wondering when they passed a pile of bones at the base of the spire. Among the grisly relics were skulls--brow-ridged, pointed, unmistakably Agvar. Sacrifices!
He was to be killed, then, to propitiate his own rescuers. His three guides--or guards--must be witch-doctors! He let them drag him along while he thought about it.
They'd give him no breakfast, not even water. If they'd eaten themselves, it was while he still slept. The scraps, if any, hadn't been flung in his face, and there'd been no smooth post to lick the dew from.
Hunger and thirst were nothing new, but neither was the resulting lethargy. Realizing his danger, Chet could only hang back.
Today though that was an old stall; the witch-doctors seemed to expect it. They broke branches from the trees and beat him till he bled. And when the climb up the rocks began, they put one of their number behind him to push, set the other two in front to pull, and tried by main strength to haul him up the five hundred foot rock-face.
Hazily, not hastily, Chet tried to think of a way out. His starved brain could come up with nothing. That, he finally decided, was only natural; it was not thinking that was needed, but action.
Still, he wasn't precipitate. Caution reinforced his habitual lassitude while trying to dispell it. Half a dozen times he tensed for combat, only to relax hopelessly. But finally he found a place--and the will--to make a stand.
He passed up a wide shelf, and let them tug him along a narrow ledge without much objection. He chose a near-vertical pitch about a hundred feet from the bottom--a mere crack that slanted upward to the right, offering the shallowest of hand- and foot-holds.
He could only hope that he wasn't in sight from the trail--or else that the villagers had left. He couldn't see through the treetops to make sure. But he hadn't the strength to worry.
He froze to the rock, pulling as if in fright. The two witch-doctors in single file above him jerked on the chains they held. But they needed a hand apiece to hold on with, and couldn't lift him.
The one below, standing on a six-inch ledge, tried to push. When that didn't work, he broke off a chunk of rock and beat Chet's left foot with it.
Spurred by the sudden pain, Chet kicked the witch-doctor in the face. The Agvar fell, screaming--until he crashed through the treetops and was still.
To Chet, forgetful of his hearing superiority, it seemed as if that outcry would be heard on Earth itself. Certainly he expected it to alarm the countryside. Still, unless the swift foot-thrust had been seen, no one would be sure the witch-doctor's fall was not an accident....
Chet had tasted victory for the first time in three years! He'd had a little revenge, and he wanted more. He could take the other two witch-doctors with him to death!
He put all his weight on the chains they held. But they chose not to die--let go, instead, to save themselves. The chain-ends rattled past, dislodging a small avalanche of dust and gravel and bruising stones--dislodging him when the full weights jerked at neck and waist.
Prepared, he didn't let himself be pulled away from the cliff's face. He slid down it to the ledge from which the Agvar below him had fallen. There he teetered a moment, balancing precariously on toes scraped raw in his slide. Clawing fingers found a crack to the right, a knob to the left--safety! He clung there breathless.
No time for resting! Rattling stones warned of pursuit. He looked quickly around, found a route, and after a short traverse let himself slide to a long talus-slope. Down it he ran barefoot through sharp debris into concealing mosses.
The silence alarmed him. But it freed him from the need for craft; he didn't know what to avoid nor where it might be lurking, so he set out for the spaceship by what he hoped was the shortest way.
In the village, he'd located the landing-place by sound, fixed it by sun. The sun would guide him now. Not accurately, but well enough.
The ship would have landed in a clearing. Standing on its tail, it should loom high over the woods. And its men would scatter--he ought to run into one.
Run he did, trotting under thirty pounds of hardwood chain on reserves of strength dredged from a deep pit of desperation, through a forest overgrown with menace, full of life he could always sense but seldom see--of noises whose origin he couldn't guess.
The Agvars, for all their inferior hearing, could at least interpret what they heard. Chet couldn't. Every whispered cry, wild grunt and muttered growl was completely unfamiliar. He didn't know which sound signalled danger. He feared them all.
But more than sounds he feared the silence that chinked the logs of time between each nerve-wracking noise. Often he had to stop and rest, and silence threatened him then like the ominous quiet of bated breath. When he'd force himself to go on, each tree seemed like a porchful of malicious old women, pretending to disregard him as he passed, certain to make trouble when he'd gone. The buzz of small life-forms was a deprecatory murmur, ready at any second to burst into condemnation and terror....
What was that sound? And that? Noises that seemed out of place in their familiarity pinned him to the forest floor.
It was only the village. Satisfied, he worked up courage to skirt the place and walk on toward the ship.
But he was near collapse. When he heard human voices he could only yell incoherently once or twice, sob, and pass out.
Dimly through succeeding days Chet was aware of the ship's sickbay, of the enlisted attendants, the hovering doctor, the silent commander. Later he realized he'd been kept under opiates so his body could recover while his mind rested. At the time, he felt only the dimness.
It wore off abruptly. He was in a civilized cot, stretching luxuriously, aware of warmth and comfort and a cheerful voice that seemed familiar.
He opened his eyes. A fat young corpsman had been watching.
"How do you feel, sir?" the boy said. "Ready for coffee?"
"Sure," Chet answered. And grinned lazily as he sat up to sip the proffered cup. "You've taken good care of me."
"Used to be a barber in civilian life," the boy said smugly. And Chet found with an exploratory hand that he'd been shaven and shorn, bathed, bandaged where necessary--even, he saw, clad in a pair of fancy red broadcloth pajamas.
"You've got me cleaned up, all right," he said. "Whose p.j.'s have I got on?"
"Dr. Pine's, sir. You'll see him in a couple of minutes--he and the Old Man been waiting to question you. There's a robe and slippers, if you want me to help you get up...."
"I'm not helpless," Chet said, boasting in his turn. He proved it by climbing--gingerly--out of the cot. The boy helped him into the robe, found the slippers, pushed the small room's one chair an inch closer to the open porthole, and left, closing the door behind him.
Vaguely Chet found he knew the two men who soon entered the room--they'd been there before. But this was his first fully conscious look at them. Commander Seymour, the C.O., looked surprisingly young for his job. He was young, Chet decided--not over thirty-five--and his short slight figure made him seem younger still.
He had few words. "You're looking fine, Barfield," he said, and sat on the edge of the cot, thin face impassive, gray eyes alert.
Dr. Pine--tall, balding, affable--was associated in Chet's mind with hypodermic needles, bitter medicines, restrictions. Today, the doctor gave him a firm and friendly handshake, but yesterday, Chet felt, that same hand had inflicted pain.
"Glad to see you looking so well," the doctor said, taking a stance against the wall by the porthole. He sounded sincere enough, but Chet, resuming his chair, wondered how much of the gladness was based on the doctor's pride in professional handiwork.
There was an awkward pause. Chet remembered to murmur polite replies to the men who were so obviously sizing him up. Then he asked, "When do you think I'll be ready for duty?"
His visitors exchanged a glance. "Later," Commander Seymour said. "Take it easy while you can, Barfield." He smiled unconvincingly at what must have been meant as a joke.
Talk again lapsed, and Chet became uncomfortable. "The corpsman said you wanted to ask me some things," he said. And added, "You've already questioned me, haven't you?"
"Only a little," Dr. Pine said, flexing his long fingers and looking down at them. "We--ah--we had to find out about your shipmates. Commander Seymour wanted to look for them, naturally...."
Naturally.... "Are we going to leave here now, sir?" Chet asked the commander.
"Not yet," he said. "Dr. Pine has a job to do."
"What's that, Doctor?"
"I'm going to study your Agvar friends, Mr. Barfield. Want to help?"
"Sure," Chet said. "There's nothing I'd rather do than bring you a few corpses to dissect."
"That--ah--that isn't the idea," Dr. Pine said, bending his fingers and rocking from toes to heels. "I--ah--I want to do a little anthropology--study them in the life...."
"Why?" Chet demanded. "I can tell you all about them. I can tell you what they did to me, too! They don't deserve to live! And this planet won't be safe for spacemen till they're dead. Why waste time studying them? It isn't as if you were a professional anthropologist, sir--didn't you give me medical care?"
"Yes.... But I do anthropology, too. Medical help--ah--gains the confidence of the people...."
"You mean--?" Chet was at first incredulous, then outraged. "You mean you're not going to punish them?"
"That's right," Dr. Pine said, smiling.
"That's wrong!" Chet contradicted.
Cheeks burning, he turned to Commander Seymour. "How about you, sir? Do you want your men chained to a post if they get captured? Do you want me to dismiss three years of torture as a mistake, or something? Do you want--"
"Here, here!" Commander Seymour said. He didn't raise his voice. But as he rose from the cot, Chet rose with him, and found himself at attention. They eyed each other.
"Relax," Dr. Pine suggested. "Please sit down--both of you."
Commander Seymour obeyed his subordinate. But Chet, still standing, still angry, turned hotly on the doctor.
"I can't just sit and let you talk about rewarding the Agvars for torturing me!" he cried. "We don't have to appease them--they can't fight. You don't have to be afraid--"
"That'll do, Barfield!" Commander Seymour was on his feet again, and his tone was sharp. It quieted Chet instantly.
In silence he watched Commander Seymour motion Dr. Pine to follow him out the door. Someone locked it after them.
Alternately tossing on the cot and pacing the floor, Chet seethed for hours. His first interview with the new C.O., and two bawlings-out in five minutes! Because of Pine--Pine, who kept him confined in this room, seeing no one but the attendants, having his meals alone....
When a day passed, and then two, and he felt his strength returning, Chet was sure that Dr. Pine kept him out of the wardroom and away from the other officers only as punishment. Three years a prisoner--and a prisoner still! By the time Commander Seymour came to see him again, Chet had spent hours plotting revenge.
"Barfield," the commander said, "Dr. Pine is going--alone--to the village you escaped from. He'll pretend he's you, or someone like you--whichever he can get away with. So here's your chance for a little fresh air--you can guide us to the village."
"Does that mean I go on active duty, sir?"
"Not quite. Dr. Pine hasn't released you from sickbay."
Pine again! Pine found him good enough to imitate, it seemed, but not good enough to put on duty.
Suddenly Chet saw the possibilities. So Pine was going to impersonate him? Then Pine would be taken for an escaped sacrifice, a prisoner who'd killed a witch-doctor!
Tell him? Huh. Let him find out the hard way! Then even he, yellow as he was, would want revenge on the Agvars. If he survived their welcome....
"I'll be glad to go, sir," Chet said.
They brought him fatigues, not a dress uniform. But fatigues and shoes--even tight ones--were clothing, at least. And clothing would change his appearance. The Agvars had never seen him dressed, nor, since his first days, with a haircut and shave. Whether Pine's impersonation worked or not, Chet saw no danger for himself in approaching the village. But he wondered how it was to be managed.
He was told the plan when Commander Seymour and Dr. Pine met him outside by the ship's tail. The commander, who was armed, and the doctor, already naked except for a pair of slippers and a sunlamp tan, would go with him by the shortest route direct to the village. But only Dr. Pine would enter it.
Commander Seymour explained Chet's part--and his own. "Barfield," he said, "I want you to find and point out some kind of game animal they use for food. I count on killing something after we come under the Agvars' observation. That should show off our weapon-superiority--and pave the way for a feast."
"No medical stuff?" Chet asked sarcastically. "I thought Dr. Pine was supposed to cure all their ills, not give them indigestion."
"He has to get their confidence before he can treat them," Commander Seymour explained seriously. "And on a strange planet like this, he's taking quite a chance to try treatment at any time: if it fails, they're apt to accuse him of murder!"
Chet said nothing. But he felt as if he'd drawn a wild card in a poker game.