Don grinned wolfishly. "Khor Fortress. Even I can figure that much out."
Masterson stood up and paced around the office.
"So, if we can get Jasu and his son in motion and get them up in the Morek, something's bound to break. Right?" He stopped in front of Don.
"Oh, of course, Stern might call out the Royal Guard and scream rebellion. He'd probably do just that, if things went that far. He's getting in the propaganda groundwork for it now. But what he doesn't know is that he'd help us that way." He perched on Rayson's desk.
"You see, we've got some colonists that would yell at the top of their lungs for protection of their interests by the Federation. And then there would be a conclave—with plenty of supervision. Either way, he'd get right into checkmate." He clasped one knee in his hands and rocked back and forth.
"But there's one thing that stands in our way. Jasu Waern's scared to death. We've never quite dared explain this whole thing to him, and now no one can get near enough to talk to him. Harle was the clan head and the one with the nerve. He's gone, and Jasu's holed up. Won't let his son out of the house. Won't let anyone in. We can't move."
He got back to his feet and walked over to the window.
"Now, let's take some more suppositions. Suppose a flier went out of control and crashed in the middle of the Waern house. Or suppose some major criminal took refuge close to the place and decided to shoot it out with the Enforcement Corps. Seems to be a habit criminals have gotten into lately. And suppose a stray inductor beam just happened to graze the Waern living room.
"Then, who's checkmated?"
He looked down at his chair, then walked over and dropped into it.
"There's only one way to get Jasu in motion. You're it. The way you slammed Rayson back in his chair yesterday gave me an idea. You can get in there, and you'll have to move him—by force—compulsion—however you want to.
"Meantime, I'll get some things going. Your father can start the hill tribes getting together. He knows all the important head men. I'll give him a little push in that direction. Then, we'll get some more people to work."
Don looked at him for a moment. "Well, Dad told me I'd probably have to earn my keep. Anything else I ought to know?"
* * * * *
Jasu Waern looked up in annoyance, then got to his feet.
"Who are you?" he demanded. "How did you get in here?" He reached into a pocket.
Don Michaels spread his hands away from his body.
"Leave that weapon alone," he said sharply. "I came as a friend, and I'd hate to have someone shooting at me."
"But who are you?"
"I'm Donald Michaels. I want to talk to Pete ... Petoen, I should say."
"My son is seeing no one. There has been——"
"I know," interrupted Don. "Trouble. Listen, I've had trouble myself in the past couple of days. It all started when I prevented a bunch of roughnecks from slapping Pete around." He frowned.
"Since then, things haven't been too pleasant." He held up a finger.
"I got accused of falsifying my report on the affair in the locker room. Pete didn't show up to testify, and everyone was looking at me." He extended a second finger.
"Pressure was put on me to sign a statement saying Pete used mental influence to make me put in a false statement. And I got into it with the school psychologist." A third finger snapped out.
"Next thing, I was being accused of accepting a money bribe from Pete. And I really got into it with the faculty advisor. That's not good." He dropped his hands to his sides.
"Right now, I'm not too popular at school. And I want to know what's going on. I want to know why Pete didn't show up to give me backing. I want to know what can be done to unscramble this mess."
Wearn shook his head slowly. "There are other schools—private schools," he said. "And we are still possessed of some——"
"Careful, Mr. Waern." Don held up a warning hand. "I don't carry the sling, but I do come from the Morek. Don't say something that might be misinterpreted. I want to see things straightened out. I didn't come here to start a feud with you."
Jasu Waern shivered a little. "But you are galactic, are you not? Surely, you are no hillman."
"I was brought up among them. Now get Pete. I want to talk to both of you."
Waern looked unhappy. But he walked across the room and pulled at a cord.
A servant came to the door.
"Tell Master Petoen," ordered Waern, "that I would like to see him in here."
The man bowed and left. Waern turned back to Don.
"You see, Mr. Michaels," he said apologetically, "we are in difficult times here. My brother——"
"I know." Don nodded. "Pete was upset the other evening. He told me a little. A little more than is made public."
Waern's eyebrows went up. "He said nothing about that."
Don waved negligently. "It did no harm. Maybe it was a good thing." He turned toward the door, waiting.
* * * * *
Pete came in, looking about the room. "You brought Don Michaels here, Father?"
Waern shook his head. "He came. He insisted on talking to you, Petoen. And I find he is very persuasive."
"Oh." Pete turned. "I'm sorry, Don. Father thought that I——"
Don laughed shortly. "He was right—to some extent. But I'd like to talk to both of you about a few things."
He moved back, to perch on the edge of a heavily carved table.
"Let's look at it this way. I got into trouble over the affair. Not good, of course, but what happened to me is just one small incident. All over Oredan, good intentioned people have things happening to them. Sometimes, they're pretty serious things—like someone getting killed. And they usually can't figure out what hit them. These things happen pretty often. Why?"
Waern looked uncomfortable, but said nothing. Don looked at him curiously.
"Do you really think, Mr. Waern, that you can sit here in peace? That if you ignore this whole mess, it'll go away?"
Jasu Waern spread his hands. "What dare I do? My brother was trying to do something. He is gone."
"True. He tried to clean up a little here and fix a little there. And that only in one city. He didn't come boldly out and demand. He was playing on the edge of the board, not in the center. A king could do much more than that."
Waern looked at him, shaking his head.
"Yes, I know about the succession," Don told him. "And why shouldn't you demand? You could get the support of the hill tribes. All you need do is ask."
"I have thought of that. Perhaps we should have done that—once. But now? After my brother's death? And what could the hillmen do against the weapons of the plains?"
Don smiled at him. "Would the hillmen believe the stories about your brother in the face of your personal denial before their own council? Would they accept such a thing about any of the Waernu unless it were proven by strong evidence? Yours is one of the clans, even yet, you must remember. And how about the honor of the Waernu?"
Jasu's face was suddenly drawn. Don continued.
"And would the plainsmen dare use their weapons against a legitimate claimant? For that matter, what good would their weapons be against a Federation Strike Group, even if they did use them?"
"You seem so sure."
"Not just sure. Certain." Don glanced at his watch, then frowned.
"We've lost a lot of time." His voice sharpened.
"Come on," he snapped. "My sportster will carry three people. Let's get out of here while we can still make it." He made shooing motions.
Waern moved toward the door, then turned.
"To the Morek?"
"That's right. Up to the Morek. We're going to start a feud."
* * * * *
Andrew Masterson looked at the handset approvingly. Little Mike was getting the idea. He was still just as fast as he'd ever been. He made a little noise in his throat, then spoke.
"Well, if you have any questions, Mr. Michaels, feel free to call us here. Thank you, and good-by."
He dropped the handset to its cradle and leaned back again.
So that was set up. Little Mike would be on his way out to the hills by the time he'd completed this next call. And he'd have the clans ready for talks with the Waernu. Now, the next step would be to alert Jahns, down in the Resident Commissioner's office.
He looked at the surface of his desk, considering, then reached for the phone again. He'd have to be careful on this one.
The door opened and two men came through. One of them held out a card.
"Like to have you come with us. People investigating Rayson's accident have some questions they'd like to ask you."
"Oh?" Masterson's eyebrows went up. "I'm afraid I wouldn't be much help on that. I saw him go down, of course, but the view from this window isn't the best. I really——"
The other shook his head. "Look, don't tell me about it. They just told us to come out and get you. Got a lot of experts down there. They'll ask the questions."
Masterson looked at the man appraisingly, then glanced at his partner, who stood by the door, leaning against the wall.
These two, he thought, would be no great problem. Nothing here but arms and legs. But——
He smiled to himself.
It would be you or the whole tribe, he thought.
He might still be able to remain under cover, and he'd be a lot more effective that way.
So maybe they were a little suspicious. He glanced down at the desk. The little control box was safely destroyed and its operation had left no evidence. Even if they did suspect the cause of Rayson's crash, they couldn't prove a thing. No, his best bet was to go along with these two and hope the questioning would be short enough to allow him to brief Jahns with plenty of time to spare. He shrugged.
"Well," he said aloud, "I'll go with you, of course, though I don't see how I can be of any help. Terrible thing, losing Rayson that way."
"Yeah. Real bad." The other nodded curtly. "Come on. Let's go."
* * * * *
Daniel Stern looked angrily at his aide.
"Just who is responsible for this report?" he demanded.
The aide looked aside. "It came in from Riandar Headquarters, your honor," he said. "Colonel Konir signed it himself."
"I can read," snapped Stern. "But who's responsible? What idiot let this thing fall apart?" He shook the papers angrily.
"Look at this thing," he ordered. "Simple instructions were issued. With the organization they have up there, any fool could have carried them out. So long as they kept it simple, even an idiot could have eliminated that Waern nuisance. But no! Someone had to be subtle. Someone had to make a big project out of it. And, of course, something went wrong." He snorted angrily and slapped the papers down on his desk.
"Rayson was responsible in part, I suppose?"
The aide nodded unhappily and Stern let out an explosive breath.
"Your man! Well, at least, where he is, he can do no more harm. Tell me, are they going to get a confession out of that man, Masterson?"
"I doubt it, your honor. He claims to know nothing of the accident. And there isn't a scrap of evidence that——"
"Evidence! There's very little doubt is there? With those notes of Rayson's? And who else could have caused the crash?"
"Well, there certainly is no other——"
"Of course not. We know Masterson did it somehow. But why?"
The aide said nothing and Stern glared at him.
"Who is this Masterson?" he demanded. "Have you checked back on him?"
"He came here from Nogira," said the aide slowly, "seventeen years ago. He had some civil police experience there. We've checked that. He has a degree in criminalistic science. We checked that, too. Not a suspicious move since he came here. He was in the Civil Branch for a few years, then was assigned to instructional duty. He's got a perfectly clean record."
Stern shook his head slowly, then looked down at the desk again.
"Just that little," he growled. "He could have simply hated Rayson for some private reason. He could have seen him as an obstacle. We could care less about that." He tapped at a paper.
"Or, he could be working with the Waernu. And that's probable. He could even be an undercover agent for the Federation, though that seems a little improbable. He's been here too long. Hah! He could be almost anything except what Rayson thought." He looked up.
"Well, don't let him go. Keep him out of circulation. In fact, you better have him put in tight confinement. We'll look into him more closely later. Right now, I want to know what became of that Waern boy."
The aide pointed at the papers on the desk. "The boy and his father are reported to have left their residence, your honor. It is thought they went with that same Donald Michaels who interfered with the original plan."
Stern nodded. "The boy Rayson had right in his hands, and then let go. Yes." He looked around the room, then got to his feet.
"Tell me, has any progress been made on locating the Waern 'Book of Ancestors'?"
"No, your honor. Records has located and destroyed the last of the evidence here in Oreladar. But the Waern copy has not yet been located."
Stern nodded. "Find out who is responsible for the long delay in discovering the Waern claim, Lander. That is inexcusable." He frowned.
"Now, to the Waernu. Did anyone see them leave their home?"
The aide shook his head. "Observers say Michaels' flier landed in the Waern courtyard. A few minutes later, it took off and headed toward the mountains. The observers were unable to determine how many people were in the flier when it departed. It left too abruptly and traveled too fast. They determined its direction, but were unable to follow it."
"Valuable men! I think we should take careful note of all those people up at Riandar. Possibly they should be reassigned to duties more suited to their abilities. Tell me, did anyone have the elementary intelligence to have this flier tracked?"
"They tried, your honor. But it disappeared in the canyons, flying very low. Search fliers have been operating for several hours, but no trace of it has been found."
Stern nodded. "Well, we won't discuss it any further," he decided. "You know my feelings on the Riandar people. I should say it would be safe to assume the Waernu are holed up in Michaels' home. Get the exact location of that place. Then set up an Enforcement Corps operation." He frowned.
"Get some men out to make sure those people don't go into the hill country before we can take care of them. You can use the search planes for that. Then attend to your advance publicity and set up elimination. You'll give that personal supervision, all the way through. Clear?"
The aide nodded.
"Very well. See that you make it simple. I'm not going to tell you how to handle this in detail, but I expect to watch a broadcast showing their removal within the next three days. Get started."
"Yes, your honor." The aide backed out of the room.
* * * * *
Stern watched the door close behind the man, then faced around as a dry voice sounded behind him.
"Real nice, Danny," it said. "You went through it without a stumble. Even came up with something of your own. You're learning, Kid."
Stern glared at the scrawny man.
"I thought you picked those people up at Riandar. I thought you said they knew how to do things."
The other shrugged and spread his hands. "Well, Danny," he said, "you know how it is. Once in a while, we underestimate the opposition, and they slip one over." He leaned back in his chair, staring at Stern.
"But maybe this way, it's even better," he added. "We get a few in the net we didn't even suspect existed, you see?" He paused.
"I think you should have a talk with this Masterson yourself," he went on. "Maybe you should tell him to give us some of this information he has, eh?"
Stern looked at him in annoyance. "I expect you and the rest of the people around here to do some work, Gorham. After all, I'm the regent. Do I have to do everything?"
Gorham got to his feet and brushed some of the dust from his trousers.
"I tell you, Danny," he said seriously, "some of these little things, you have to be doing. Some of these things, only your talent will take care of, no?" He held up one hand, waggling a finger in the air.
Stern glared at him.
"Gorham," he snapped, "I think I'll have to remind you of your place." He tapped himself on the chest.
"I'm the regent, remember? I'm the kingpin here. You're just a senior executive secretary. You wanted it that way, and that's the way it is. But I expect you to start doing some work. I don't care how you get information out of that man, Masterson, but I expect you to get it. I certainly don't intend to do your work for you. Now get at it!"
Gorham considered him for a moment, then walked slowly across the room till he stood before Stern's desk.
"Now, Danny-boy," he said softly, "don't you go trying that funny stuff on old Jake. It don't work so good, remember? Nobody ever tells old Jake he should do things. Nobody!"
He planted his left hand on the desk before Stern and leaned over a little.
"We got an agreement, you and I, remember? I do the thinking. Me—old Jake Gorham—I'm the brain. You got this talent, see. You tell people they should go do something, they go do it. But not old Jake. No, no. With him, it don't work so good. Everybody else, maybe, but not old Jake." He waved his head to and fro, keeping watchful eyes on Stern.
The younger man slammed his hands to his desk, pushing himself back.
"You listen to me, old man," he snapped. "We had an agreement—once. And you've been using it to ride my back ever since. It's come to an end. Right now." He got to his feet, his deepset eyes seeming to flame.
"From now on, I'm the top man, do you understand?" His lip curled.
"I'm the regent. I'm the law. I tell these people what to do, and they do it. And I can tell them to take you out and shoot you. Don't forget that." His hand started toward a button on his desk.
* * * * *
Jake Gorham's hand blurred into motion and a small weapon was suddenly in it. He pointed it at Stern.
"Sit down, Danny-boy," he ordered menacingly. "Sit down. And listen. Listen real good." He spread his legs a little.
"Like I said, I'm the brains here. I do the thinking. Remember back in Tonar City? Remember what happened, you tried once to run things for yourself? Remember who came along and pulled you out just in time?" He laughed shortly.
"Yeah, you need old Jake. You gotta have him. You think you just tell these people—they should do anything you want. Oh sure. That lasts for a while, maybe, but they get tired. Just like on Konelree, remember? And what do you do when a whole mob moves in on you? Eh? What do you do? You ain't got the moxie to handle no mobs, remember?
"But old Jake, he thinks of things, and we both get along real good. Yeah, Danny-boy, you need old Jake." He glanced down at his weapon, then waved it from side to side.
"But you know something else? Old Jake, he don't need you so much. Oh, sure, it's nice here. I like it real good. But I got along real nice for a long time before I picked you up, you see what I mean. You didn't do no good at all. Talent, you got. But brains? No, them they didn't give you. And they didn't give you much guts, either, Danny-boy. Them, I got.
"And you know something else, Danny-boy? I got all kinds evidence. You done some pretty bad things here, remember?" He smiled, exposing yellow teeth.
"Real bad things, they wouldn't like them at all. And I can prove all them things. Me, I ain't got no responsibility. I'm just a poor, little old guy you keep around for laughs, remember?" He chuckled.
"You tell them to take me out and shoot me? I should laugh. You reach for that button. Go ahead. Stick your finger out. Then this thing here, it sings you a little song. And I go get some papers I got somewhere around here. And I go get some recordings. And maybe a few pictures. And then Old Jake's a public hero. And he takes a lot of money and goes away from here, he should spend his old age some place where he likes it better." He waved the weapon again.
"Still want to play?"
Stern's face was bloodless. He dropped into his chair, then put his head in his hands.
"I'm sorry, Jake," he said. "Sorry. I guess I'm just a little tired right now. Forget it, will you?"
"Sure, Danny-boy. Sure. We forget all about it. Now suppose we quit for the night, eh? Then in the morning, we get this Masterson fellow in here. And you find out from him just who he is and why he comes here. And you can let him tell us what he's been doing and who he's been working with, eh?" Gorham smiled and stuck the weapon back in his sleeve.
"We ain't doing so bad," he went on. "We ain't doing bad at all." He reached out to stir the papers on Stern's desk with a forefinger.
"These people up at Riandar, they don't do so good maybe on that Waern kid. But they don't do so bad all the time. They get this Masterson, see? Right away, they're on him, soon as this guy Rayson gets himself killed off."
Stern nodded. "Yes," he admitted, "at least, they did have the sense to pick up Masterson—after he'd done plenty of damage. They were pretty slow. And they missed the Michaels boy entirely. So now, the Waern boy is out of easy reach." He frowned.
"We had things set up for an elimination on him, you know."
Gorham wagged his head. "Makes very little. Him, we can get. Him, they take care of in a couple days. Same operation, they should just move it a few miles, eh? Your boy with all them buttons, he takes care of that, see?" He grinned.
"And that takes care of this Michaels kid, too." Again, he poked at the papers.
"And here, we got another report. This young Michaels' father, he talks to this guy Masterson on the phone. You see that? And right away, he heads for the mountains. Maybe he wants to talk to the hill people, eh?" His grin became wider.
"But somebody at Riandar, he gets a rush of brains to the head, see? And the border patrol, they challenge this old guy, you get it? Just a routine check, see, but the old guy, he don't get the word so quick.
"So they don't take no chances up there. They knock him down in some canyon up there." He shrugged.
"So all this leaves this Masterson, you could talk to him, maybe he sings us some nice music." He turned away.
"I stay around, back at my desk. Maybe I should think of a question or two while we talk, the three of us, eh?"
* * * * *
The royal gold and blue receded from the screen and Merle Boyce's face looked out at his audience.
"This," he said shortly, "is the second day of the hunt for the Wells gang." He came out from behind his desk, his piercing eyes intent.
"For the past full day, this group of robbers have made their way toward the west. It is thought they hope to join rebellious hill tribes somewhere in the Morek region." He paused.
"Late yesterday afternoon," he continued, "these four men burned their way through a road block near Riandar. And despite reinforced blocks and stringent sky checks, they are still at large. All subjects of the realm are urgently requested to notify the authorities of any suspicious strangers."
He faded from the screen, to be replaced by the figures of four men.
"In co-operation with the Enforcement Corps," his voice continued, "we are showing pictures of the fugitives. We see here, Howard Wells, Merla Koer, Dowla Wodl, and Jake Milton." The voice stopped for a moment, then continued.
"These men are regarded as extremely dangerous. Subjects are urged to make no effort to approach them personally. Notify the authorities immediately if they are seen."
Don reached to the switch and snapped the receiver off.
"I don't like it," he said slowly. "I don't like any part of it."
"Think we might have visitors?" Pete looked at him thoughtfully.
Don nodded. "It could be just a build-up," he said. "Did you get that thrust about the tribes?"
Jasu Waern cleared his throat. "You mean those four are perhaps——"
"I doubt if those four ever lived," Don told him. "At least not with those names. If we have visitors, they'll be more official—and a lot more dangerous." He paused.
"Wish Dad had come back. I'd like to get you off to the hills. Not so comfortable, perhaps, but it would be safer." He looked at the ceiling.
"Of course, with all those fliers chasing around right now," he added, "it might be complicated."
Pete looked at him curiously. "One thing I can't figure, Don," he remarked. "Why didn't you head right on into the hills from Riandar?"
Don spread his hands. "Intended to, hang it," he said. "They loused me up. Remember the dipsy-doodle I turned in that box canyon?"
"Think I'd forget?" Pete grinned. "Nearly got a busted head out of that one."
"Yeah. Well, I'd planned to jump the ridge and go on over to a clan village I know. We nearly caught it right there."
"Uh, huh. Some border patrol ship had a ripper. Lucky he got over-anxious. He cut loose out of effective range and shook us up. That gave me the news and I ducked for cover and streaked for home before he could get to us for a better shot."
"And now, you think perhaps they are trying to hunt us down as they did my brother?" Jasu Waern shook his head. "But this—it would be impossible to represent us as...."
Don tilted his head. "Nothing impossible about it—if they know where we are." He looked around the room.
"And it looks as though they do. Someone probably spotted my flier when I landed in your courtyard."
Pete looked at him unhappily. "Maybe we moved right into his hands. Maybe we're better targets here than we were in the city."
* * * * *
Don moved his head from side to side decisively. "Never happen. This mythical Wells gang could have been holed up in the city, too, you know. And there, you'd have no warning. You'd have no defense and nowhere to go. This isn't some little summer cottage, you know. We can give them a bad time."
Jasu Waern shook his head sadly. "Yes," he admitted, "we can, as you say, give them a bad time. But a flash or two from one of their inductors will destroy this house just as surely as it did my brother's cottage."
"Maybe." Don smiled. "I've got some ideas on that, too. But there's more to this house than you see from outside. This place was built during the border wars, you know. We've got a place to duck to."
Pete stood up. "What's that?"
"There's a basement under this house. Shelters down there. Even total inductor destruction of the house wouldn't hurt anyone down there." Don pointed with a thumb.
"Got entry locks right out in the court."
"But their clean-up crews. Where would you hide from them?"
Don shook his head, smiling. "They won't do too much searching," he said calmly. "If they actually do attack this place, they'll get some genuine resistance. And there'll be a Federation patrol out here right after the shooting, to investigate the destruction of a Galactic Citizen's property."
His smile broadened. "At least, that'll be a good excuse. You see, Mr. Masterson's alerted people at the Commissioner's office. They know who's here—or will, when the shooting starts."
"But with this build-up, it will seem like an ordinary hunt for a criminal gang." Pete shook his head doubtfully.
"No, I don't think so." Don walked over to the heavy door leading to the range.
"Better get some of the weapons up here now, though. We'll have to give them a little show."
Pete looked at him curiously.
"Why bother?" he asked. "Why can't we just duck into the shelter and let 'em blast? Then we could wait for the patrol."
Don shook his head.
"The type of resistance offered will be a tip-off to the Guard," he said. "I'm going to use an unusual type of weapon. Besides, Stern's people have detectors. Remember those? There's got to be life force in detector range, or they'll assume we've either deserted the place or found refuge below ground. Then they would come in for sure. And they'd really search the place." He smiled grimly.
"I'd rather take my chances on getting shelter from a blast after they commit themselves than take on a batch of those monkeys in a hand-to-hand down in the basement." His smile faded.
"It'll be touch and go, at that. The force of an inductor blast is nothing to joke about. We can roll into the ledges and hope, but we still might get singed a little." He sighed and spread his hands.
"Well, I asked for work. Guess I've got it. Sorry you may get scorched around the edges, but——"
Pete looked at the heavy wall on the other side of the outer court.
"At least, we've got a better chance than Uncle Harle had. They probably tied him up. And no matter——" He shrugged.
"All right, Don, let's get those weapons."
"Well, here they come." Don Michaels looked out of a weapons embrasure.
From the port, the advancing men were far more visible than they intended to be. One after another, they crawled and dashed through the grass, their weapons held before them. They concealed themselves from the house as best they could behind hummocks and clumps of grass. Then, weapons probing toward the house, they waited.
A couple of hundred meters from the house, a weapons carrier purred into position, wheeled to face the house, and stopped, the muted roar of its motor dying to a faint rumble.
Closer to the house, there was a hollow in the earth, a scar from some long-forgotten skirmish. Over the years, rain and wind had worked on it, softening its once harsh outlines. Grass had grown in, to further mask the crater, till now it was a mere smooth depression in the ground. From the edge of this depression, rose the slender rod of a speaker, a small, directional loud-speaker blossoming from it.
Michaels grinned and turned aside for an instant.
"Just like the big broadcasts, Pete," he remarked. "Feel important? You're going to have a big audience."
"Kind of like it better if I were making a personal appearance. Be a lot nicer if I could talk to them—and they could see my face."
"They can't let you do that," Don grinned. "You don't look enough like any of those guys they're supposed to be hunting. Spoil the whole effect that way."
Pete looked at him thoughtfully.
"You know, they always tell people to throw their weapons out and come out with their hands in the air. What would happen if someone took 'em up on it—like the wrong someone—like me, for instance?"
"Good question," Don told him. "Saw a guy come out in one broadcast. Someone vaporized him. No way of telling which direction the spray came from, of course. No tracer on the beam." He shrugged.
"Somehow, I don't think it would lead to a long and happy life."
"No." Pete nodded. "I didn't suppose it would." He looked at the long target rifle in Don's hands.
"You could have gotten several of them with that, while they were getting into position, couldn't you?"
"Suppose so," Don nodded. "But I'm saving it for a while. Got an idea, but it's a one-shot and I'll have to wait before I try it." He paused as a head appeared close to the base of the loud-speaker stand.
"Well, the show's about to start," he added quietly. "Here's the man with the serenade."
The speaker disintegrated in blazing fury and Pete turned away from the glare, to look back at the house.
"Took your father years to get this place built the way he wanted it," he remarked. "Shame you're going to have to lose it this way." He glanced over at his companion.
Don was stretched out in the prone position, his sling tight on his arm, the rifle extended.
"Yeah," he said. "But maybe we won't lose it—not just yet."
He rolled, forcing his elbow further under the rifle.
"Look, Pete, I think I'll wait till these guys are ready for the last act, but you better go ahead and take cover. They've committed themselves now. I'll duck later, if I have to, but I've got an idea that just might work out."
He laid his cheek against the stock, concentrating on his sights. The barrel moved up and down with his breathing, then stopped.
Pete examined him curiously, then looked out of his port.
The projector barrel was moving, to center its lens on target. As Pete watched, the lens barrel swung till he could see the glint of light on the outer focusing circles. As the rack with its charges started to face him, he moved back, preparing to roll into the narrow slit beneath the wall.
Now, the lens was pointing directly toward him, its iris beginning to widen. He slid off the ledge.
There was a sudden, snapping explosion near him. He looked up, to see the lens system disintegrate. The projector suddenly became a blue glare.
Pete watched as the tiny figures of the crew members flew back from their fiercely glowing weapon.
Abruptly, he realized he was in an exposed position. He ducked sideways, away from the opening, and covered his face.
There was a rumbling multiple explosion. Blinding light reflected from the walls of the house. A few tiles crashed to the court. Pete caught his breath again and risked an upward glance.
A tall pillar of flame had grown from the field outside. For long moments, it stood motionless, searching for a limit to the sky. Then it darkened. Smoke drifted toward the ranch house and bits of wreckage rained down upon house and field alike. Little puffs of smoke appeared in the sky, close by the still rising cloud.
"Pinwheel," said Don calmly. "That's one Dad couldn't beat if he tried. Wish he'd been around to see it." Suddenly, his forced calm deserted him.
"Oh, boy," he yelled happily. "Like shooting snakes in a pit." He shoved his rifle back through the port.
"Try to wreck our house, will you, you bums!"
A figure wobbled up from the field, weapon weaving unsteadily toward the wall. The rifle snapped viciously and the figure melted back into the ground.
There was another motion and a sudden spurt of dust followed immediately after the sound of a shot. The motion ceased.
The sound of the click of the rifle action was loud against the silence of the scene.
* * * * *
No more figures moved. Bright flames were growing—working toward one another, to form a widening lake of flame in the grass. Don sighed and started pulling the sling from his arm. Pete stood up, looking at him.
"I'm a little confused," he said slowly. "I thought that weapon of yours merely threw a solid missile. The way you described it, I thought it was just ... well, something like a long-range throwing sling."
He looked out the port again, then pointed.
"But that weapons carrier was shielded. I didn't think you could touch one of those with anything but another inductor."
Don leaned the rifle against the wall.
"That's the way they figured it, too," he remarked. "But they forgot something.
"You see, rifles have been obsolete for so long everybody's forgotten their capabilities. Everybody, that is, except a few crazy hobbyists. And no one ever thinks in terms of long-range missile throwers."
"So, I've been watching these clay pigeon shoots of theirs for a long time. They've had a lot of them on broadcasts, you know. And I noticed they always operate the same way. Actually ... well, you saw them. They're not too careful." He smiled.
"Remember you remarked that I could have potted a few of them while they were getting into position? Only reason I didn't was that I didn't want to give them a warning." He shoved his hands in his pockets.
"You see, they know they're going to use that projector. The rigged speaker just makes it look good—as though the blast were necessary and unavoidable. That way, the public is convinced that the whole affair is a heroic battle against evil. See what I mean?
"So, they have everything all set up. Safeties are off. Activators are hot. Everything's lined up so they can look sharp. Snappy operation."
He shook his head with a smile. "But actually, they're a little overconfident. Their field screen will stop any heat ray. No khroal charge can get through—it'd get damped. The screen will ground out a Nerne-Herzfeld couple, and no bunch of fugitives is going to be lugging an inductor around with them. So there can't be any counter-battery fire. Result? The projector crew feels perfectly safe."
His smile widened. "But that isn't enough. They want to be comfortable, too. It's hot inside a deflector screen and they'd get their uniforms all sweaty and out of press. Besides, the screen draws a lot of power and they'd have to rev up their motor. The noise would make it rough for the sound crew. Catch?"
Pete moved his head. "I begin to get the idea," he said. "The inductors are real touchy when they're armed. They can arc over and flare back in a real hurry if things get in their fields. That's why the safety lens—and the iris."
"Sure." Don nodded. "Sure it is. And it keeps the beam tube nice and unobstructed. Dry, too. As I said, they're pretty safe. Just like pigeon hunters." He looked out at the field.
"Sort of funny how things can add up," he added. "Here's a guy who makes all sorts of plans. He's got everything figured out and tied up with a ribbon. He's got the whole Galactic Federation standing around, just watching. Not a thing they can do to him legally. And he's got all Oredan in his pocket—all but one family and a few odd yokels he doesn't even worry about. So he's about to fix the family.
"Then someone else starts planning. And some little guy goes and slips a little chunk of fast moving lead down a lens barrel that nobody even thought of protecting. And everything goes wrong. All kinds of things happen. Like investigating patrols ordered in by the Stellar Guard. And conclaves." He grinned and looked at the sky to the west.
"So," he added, "a few little things add up. One family. One little piece of lead. One house that didn't get blown up. One flight of——" He let his voice trail off and looked at his watch.
"Wonder where those patrol ships are. They should be in plain sight by this time, diving down the eastern slope."
He narrowed his eyes, searching the empty western sky.
* * * * *
Pete looked around the courtyard. Broken tiles littered the ground. Here and there, lay bricks and bits of mortar. Some freak of backblast had torn a shutter off the house and it lay brokenly a few feet from him. He looked back toward the house.
One corner of the roof had been shattered and he could see broken roof beams. A cornice from the wall had crashed into the house front and bits of it lay strewn through a gaping hole in the living room wall. Stucco littered the narrow border of shrubbery around the house, whitening the green of the leaves.
And a twisted bit of metal caught his attention. Obviously, it was part of a flier. He shook his head and looked at the sky over the western mountains.
"Quite a blast," he said. "Look, Don, are you sure anything's coming to back us up? A couple more of these and we'll be standing in an open field."
Michaels reached up to stroke his face. "Right now, I'm not too sure about anything," he admitted. "Except that next time they try to comb us over, they'll take a few less chances." He frowned.
"Mr. Masterson was pretty certain about things, but——"
He spun around and walked toward the flier port.
"You know, I think we'd better play it safe," he went on. "Right now, we've got clear air. That explosion put everything around here on the ground, but hard. But that won't last. Stern's people will be flocking around here in a few minutes to see what went on. We better not be around when they arrive. Go get your father."
He pulled the flier door open.
"I'll have this thing warmed and ready to flit by the time you get back up here. Make it fast, will you?"
Pete had already dived down an escape slot. As Don started through his pre-flight routine, he reappeared. Jasu Waern followed him.
"What happened?" The older man looked around the littered courtyard, then at the flier which Don had pushed out of its cover. His eyes widened.
"But I thought they would use an inductor."
"They tried," Don told him. "Come on. Get in." He looked anxiously at his instrument panel.
"Little risky," he muttered, "taking off so fast. Synchs and generators haven't had time to stabilize. But it beats letting them get in range for some more target practice."
He eased a lever toward him and watched the pointers on a dial as the flier lifted. The red needle started to oscillate and he reached quickly to adjust a knob. The oscillation stopped. He looked overside.
"Hm-m-m," he said, "so far, so good. Well, let's have at it."
He reached out and pulled a handle toward him, watching the needles. They remained steady and he nodded and pulled another control toward him, then gripped the control wheel.
The flier leaped into the air and surged toward the mountains.
Don sighed and made a minute adjustment on the synchro knob.
"Well, we haven't flipped yet," he said. "We'll stay on deck all the way. Not such a good target that way. Take a look back there, Pete. See anything in the air to the east?"
"Yeah." Pete had been looking back. "There's plenty back there. And they're in a hurry."
Don jerked his head around, then glanced at the mountains before them.
"So are we. They built this thing to win races, not lose them. Hope they knew what they were doing." He pulled a panel lever all the way back and the flier surged forward, pressing them back into their seats.
"Hang on," he said. "Some of these corners are going to be tight."
The ship swung into a narrow valley between two hills, bucking and twisting as Don worked the control back and forth. As a high cliff loomed up in front of them, he pulled the flier up, then around in a screaming turn. A second later, they almost touched the tips of trees as they swung around the shoulder of a steep hill. The flier dropped abruptly, seeking the floor of a gorge, then swung violently as it followed a swift flowing stream.
Don guided it into a side gorge, then suddenly pulled up, to jump through a notch in the surrounding hills. For an instant, the flier paused, hovering in the air over a deep, wide valley, then it dropped like a stooping falcon, sweeping sideways at the end of its drop, to come to rest under an overhanging rock formation. The pilot snapped off switches and leaned back.
"We've got a small-sized walk ahead of us," he said, "but it's through some pretty dense growth and we'll be invisible from the air." He grinned.
"The way I dove into that first canyon, anyone with detectors on me would assume I was heading for the Doer—if he knew the country fairly well. Hope that's the way they know it—just about that well."
He climbed out of the ship, holding the door open.
"Come on, Pete," he ordered, "give me a hand and we'll shove this thing back in the cave so it won't be too easy to spot."
Jasu Waern climbed out after his son.
"I shall help, too," he said resignedly. "Which of the clans do we join?"
Don put a shoulder against the side of the flier. "Kor-en," he said. "I know them pretty well. Matter of fact, the Korenthal wanted to adopt me at one time. Dad talked him out of it."
Waern nodded. "The Kor-en are known to us," he murmured. "Possibly——" He added his weight to the pressure on the flier's side.
They pushed the machine far back into the cavern under the rock, then camouflaged its smooth lines with brush and rubble. Finally, they walked over the rough ground to a nearby thicket. Don paused, looking up. Then he pointed.
"There they are," he said, "in a search pattern. Guess they got a detector flash on us when we jumped the ridge." He shrugged. "Well, they've got a tough hunt now. We'll detour through that line of trees to keep out of the open."
He jerked his head, to point.
"There's a narrow break in the cliffs way over there. When we get through that, we'll come into Korelanni."
* * * * *
Halfway through the narrow crevice, Don stopped and turned aside, to enter a narrow alcove that had been carved out of the rock. Hanging inside was a long tube of wood. Don rubbed his hands vigorously on the moss which grew on the rocks, then stroked the tube.
A tone resonated from the chamber, growing louder as Don continued to stroke the tube. After a few seconds, an answering note of different pitch could be heard. Don nodded and stepped back into the path.
"It's all right," he said. "They'll meet us at the head of the path." He smiled.
"This way, we don't have someone dropping rocks on our heads."
Pete looked up at the towering cliffs which almost joined overhead.
"You mean they've got guards up there?"
"Always," Don told him. "Day and night. Right now, they're at peace with everybody, but they never let their guard down. We'll have a reception committee waiting for us." He started striding up the steep path.
At the head of the chasm, five men waited for them. In their hands, they held sticks about two feet long. At the end of each stick was a thong, with a flexible leather pad which could hold a fair sized stone. Don bowed in the direction of one of the group.
"I know you, Korendwar," he said.
The other bowed. "Michaels," he said. "I know you. And these?"
Don looked at him, his thoughts going into overdrive. The form of address was all wrong. Always before, he had been Donald, of the clan Michaels—they abbreviated it to Michaelsdon. But what had gone wrong now?
He tensed a little, then relaxed. At least, it was a friendly greeting. One does not "know" an enemy. He extended a hand toward Jasu Waern.
"I bring the Waerntal, Jasu. And his son, Waernpeto," he said.
The other nodded. "The men of Kor-en know the Waernu," he said noncommitally. "You want dealings with the Korental?"
Don nodded. "The Waerntal would discuss clan affairs with the Korental." he said. "I but serve as guide."
"It is well. You and this clansman may rest by the wells." Korendwar turned toward Jasu Waern, gesturing with his sling.
"I will conduct you to the Korental, your honor."
* * * * *
Pete leaned against a mossy bank and watched one of the village women as she raised a clay pot from a well.
"Tell me, Don, why did you push my father forward to consult with the Korental? Why didn't you go ahead and deal with him yourself? You said you knew him. Father doesn't."
"That's just the point," smiled Don. "I do know him. And I know his people, and his way of thinking." He waved a hand to indicate the entire collection of huts.
"These people are about as formal as you can get, when business is at hand. Did you notice the way I talked to Korendwar? Migosh, I've hunted with that guy, rolled around in the dirt with him when we were kids, know him about as well as you'd know a brother. But he was on guard. And, friend, you don't get informal with a clansman when he's on guard.
"This is just like a little nation, and the Korental is just as surely a ruler as any king of a huge country," he went on. "Even more so than most."
He fixed his eyes on the council hut, across the narrow end of the valley.
"Everyone in his clan is his child—symbolically, at least. He tells them what to do. He tells them what to plant and when—and how much. He tells them when to hunt, and where. Governs their lives down to some pretty fine points. I mean, he's as absolute as an absolute monarch can get.
"And if you want to get along with an absolute monarch, you treat him on his terms." He glanced at his companion.
"Oh, I don't mean this guy's a tyrant or despot," he added quickly. "These people are pretty proud. They wouldn't like a dictator—as such. But the Korental doesn't need force to govern his people. They do things his way because ... well, it's a matter of tradition. It's the only honorable way to do things. See what I mean?"
Pete shook his head doubtfully and Don frowned.
"Pete, your family was originally a mountain clan. I should think you'd know these customs better than I do."
Again, Pete shook his head. "I'm sorry," he said slowly, "but I don't. You see, my father and my uncle thought it would be better if I learned the customs and culture of your people and of the plainsmen. And they thought I should be familiar with the ways of the great cities."
He looked across the village at the great tree which shaded the council hut.
"You see," he continued, "my great uncle was king. And he had no children. He was getting old and it was agreed that if he died childless, his queen would then adopt me. And, of course, I would then be head of the Onaru, and king of Oredan." He smiled wanly.
"The agreement was not made public, of course. And the queen no longer lives. But signatures and agreement are recorded at Oreladar. And they appear in the Book of the Waernu, against my name. References in the Book of the Waernu are so arranged that I may be quickly removed, to be placed in an already prepared place in the Book of the Onaru, if the time should come. This and the fact that my mother was the daughter of a brother of the king, places me in the line of kings of Oredan." He shrugged.
"Especially since the king did, in fact, die childless.
"And this, in my father's eyes, meant that I should know of the plains, of the cities, and of the galactics, since there, he said, lies the power and wealth of the present day Oredan."
Don shrugged. "Wealth, maybe," he said quietly. "I'm not so sure about the power. The pressure of History is a very real thing, and I seem to remember noticing that every time some king has gotten into a jam with one of the other kingdoms or with his own nobles, he's had to raise the clans. And there have been times when that wasn't easy."
Pete nodded. "I know. The Onaru took the throne two hundred years ago, simply because the clans withheld support from the Chalenu—the Old Line."
"Yeah." Don picked idly at the bark of a tree. "And Stern's been trying to get the clans into hot water ever since he took over."
Pete looked at him for a moment, then looked about the village.
There was no orderly arrangement of houses, as could be found in town. Wherever someone had found a suitable spot, there he had embedded his poles. And there, he had erected walls, daubed them with clay from the nearby stream, and formed long, limber wands from the thickets into arched roofs, to be covered with long grass from the valley. There were isolated houses, and there were tight little groups of houses. Possibly, Pete thought, family groups.
No streets existed here, though generations of sandaled feet had beaten the ground into winding paths which led from houses to wells, and from wells to fields, and to the surrounding forest.
And there was no litter, as could be found in any city. No fallen twig or leaf was allowed to remain on the ground of the village. Grass and moss grew on unused ground and on hillsides, but before each hut, the growth gave way to the forecourt and the small garden.
Here and there, a bank by a path had been reinforced with clay cemented stones and over these grew the moss, to soften the hard outlines of the works of man. Here and there, a small, neat pile of material for building lay, to remind the onlooker that this was a still growing community. Pete leaned back.
"It's quite a bit different from the plains," he said, "and not as I thought it would be. I always thought the hillmen were wild and uncultured." He turned toward Don.
"But you still haven't really answered my question. Why is it my father has to talk to the Korental—alone?"
Don lifted a shoulder. "Simple enough," he said. "Your father is the head of your branch of the family right now. It's a pretty small clan branch—just the two of you, but he's the clan head—the Waerntal. Right?"
"I suppose so. Yes." Pete thought a moment. "Actually, I guess he's tal over more than just the two of us. We are the senior line of the family."
"Well, then. This is clan business. Your father wants to advance a member of his clan as a claimant for the throne of Oredan. He needs the support of other clans to do this. And this is important clan business. See?"
Pete rubbed at an ear. "I begin to get the idea, I guess, but it just doesn't make too much sense. He could have you speak for him. Or I could plead my own case, for that matter, couldn't I?"
"Makes all kinds of sense." Don shook his head. "Look, you can't talk to the Korental—not on even terms—not now. You're just a clansman. If he accepts you as king-to-be, then you'll be a sort of super clan head. Then you'll be able to discuss policy with him. But even then, only as an equal—never as a superior. He actually acknowledges no superior." He pointed to himself, pausing.
"Me? Good grief, I'm not even in this. I'm just a hired hand—not even a member of your clan. Before I could open my mouth, I'd have to be adopted into your clan and designated as a clan councilor. Even then, the tal would have to open the discussion.
"Oh, I can talk to the Korental as an individual who wants to get help from some of his people for a hunt, sure. And we can then arrange an exchange of goods. That's between him and me. But if I tried to talk to him on this affair, he'd throw me out of the village." He rubbed his cheek thoughtfully.
"And, come to think of it, if he thought you'd asked me to intervene, after he'd tossed me out, he'd probably feed you to the Choyneu. That, he'd regard as a selling of honor."
Pete looked at him quizzically. "I can just see him—or any other person, monarch or no—throwing you anywhere you didn't want to go. I'd say the throwing would be the other way."
Don laughed softly. "Oh, that." He shook his head. "Well, let's just say I don't think I'd care to try it out on a whole clan at once. Things might get a little complicated."
* * * * *
A short, heavily muscled man came out of the council hut. In his hands, he held his slender sling-stick. He paused as he got to the door, then shook out the thong. For a moment, he stood, glancing across the end of the valley, then he wound the thong about the stick, securing it at the end with a half-hitch.
Again, he looked in the direction of Don and Pete. Then he held up the stick and beckoned to them.
Don pushed himself away from the bank.
"Well," he said, "here we go. They've come to some sort of a decision."
They walked through the door of the hut, stopping as they came inside. An old man sat on a hide-covered stool, facing the entrance. Near him stood Jasu Waern. The old man got to his feet.
"Waernpeto?" he asked.
Pete stepped forward and bowed. "I am Peto of the clan Waern," he said.
"It is good." The Korental nodded briefly, then looked at Don.
"And Michaels. I know you," he added.
Don looked at him curiously. There was that odd form of address again. Had he suddenly come to be regarded as clanless? What was this? He bowed.
"I know you, Korental," he said formally.
The old man before him nodded.
"We are not now sure how to address you," he explained. "Your father may yet be alive, so we cannot regard you as clan head. But as your father has not been found you may, therefore, be clan head in fact. The men of clan Mal-ka have joined us in searching the gorge of the Gharu, where his flier was shot down. Thus far, nothing has been found. It is a long gorge, and deep."
"Dad?" Don blinked. "Shot down?"
The Korental nodded. "Two days since," he said. "A flier of the Royal Guard fired upon him and his flier weaved and dropped into the gorge. No man saw its landing place." He paused thoughtfully.
"Nor were there flames."
Don glanced about the hut. It was the same place he had come to many times before, when he wanted to get beaters. It was familiar. And yet it was now a place of strangeness. Suddenly, he felt rootless—disassociated from people. He struggled to regain his poise and retain the formal manner expected of him. He managed a bow of acknowledgment.
"I thank the Korental for this information," he said. "I beg permission to await further word under his protection."
Somehow, he couldn't imagine anyone succeeding in shooting his father out of the sky. Kent Michaels had been one of the hottest fighter men in the guard. And even if he hadn't been able to get away from the guy, he'd have taken him down with him. How...? He jerked his attention to the Korental.
The old man had inclined his head. "My clan is yours during this time of trouble," he was saying. He looked toward Pete.
* * * * *
"And you are he who would be King of the Oredanu?"
Pete nodded. "I am."
"I see. Your father tells me of certain agreements made many years ago. He tells me of relationships, and of your possible adoption into another clan. These things are true?"
Again Pete nodded. "These things are true."
The old man considered him for a few seconds.
"Among the men of the hills," he said, "the simple word of a man may be accepted. For only a clanless one would think of speaking other than the truth. But I am told the men of the low countries have no such faith. They require writings, and the speech of many witnesses. This is also true?"
The question was obviously rhetorical. Pete smiled ruefully, but said nothing.
The Korental allowed his lips to curl in a half smile.
"These customs of the plainsmen are not unknown to me," he said. "Men of my clan have gone to the low country and have dealt with the men of the cities. Even now, members of the Kor-en live in the cities. But on the clan days, they return to their home, here in the hills." He looked down at the matting on the floor.
"Your father mentions a clan book," he continued. "Do you have this with you?"
Pete looked at him, then at his father. His expression was suddenly blank.
Jasu Waern stepped forward. "This book is in a safe place," he said, "in Riandar."
Don closed his eyes for an instant. "Oh, Brother," he told himself, "the lights just went out! I'll bet they're tearing that house up, stone by stone, about now."
The Korental nodded slowly. "How safe?"
"Why," Jasu was thoughtful. "Why, the hiding place is known only to me—and to my son." He bent his head, then looked up, smiling confidently. "No, it could never be discovered by an outsider."
"The book must be produced," the Korental told him. He resumed his seat on the stool and folded his hands over a short staff.
"We of the clans would be happy to support a legitimate claimant to the throne of Oredan. We are not happy with the rule of this outlander who has forced himself into power. But we also recognize the rules and the customs of the nobles of the land, who must have proof of everything before they will act. We are not strangers to the conclave, you must remember. And we are familiar with the power of the outlander." He looked at Don.
"Tell me," he said, "do you have an interest in this matter?"
Don nodded. "I am not of the clan Waern," he said carefully. "But my interests have become tied with theirs. Should the Waernu fail, my father's lands would be lost. And the climate of this land would become unhealthy for me—as well as for my father, if he still lives."
"Yes." The Korental regarded him. "I can understand that. We are not as uncivilized as many think us to be. We watched the broadcast of an attack upon your house." He tilted his head.
"Tell me," he added. "The broadcast ended rather suddenly. The announcer mentioned technical difficulties. Can you explain this?"
Don relaxed. The formal session was over for a while.
"I took a shot at them," he said, "with a Ghar rifle."
"Ha! They do have a weak spot, then. We'll discuss this later." The old man looked at Jasu Waern.
"Let us suppose that this young man should ask to be adopted into your clan. What would your answer be?"
Waern looked confused. "Why—— But he's been giving us——"
The Korental chuckled. "I know. He has some of those characteristics attributed by legend to clan talu, and to them only." He bent his head for a moment.
"Suppose I put it this way. When the clans and tribes meet for full consideration of your request for support, you will need strong council. And the councilor who presents your cause must be a member of your clan, of course. He must speak for you, the head of the Waernu."
Waern looked at him. "I see," he said thoughtfully. "And here, we may find strong council." He looked across at Don.
"You would consider this?"
Don paused. This, he thought, was getting serious. It had been fine at first. He had just followed instructions from an experienced agent. And there had been quite a thrill at being in the middle of things. But somehow, everything was flying apart. All at once, he was on his own.
And now—well, clan councilors were pretty responsible individuals. They were supposed to be the experts on law and custom. They were supposed to put things together—and keep them that way. He could remember daydreams he'd had once, of helping run a country. Some of them had been pretty dramatic. But—well, it was beginning to look like real trouble. If things went wrong, a councilor could get his neck on a block for sure.
Then he smiled inwardly. So what of it? How could he get into any more trouble? He already had the entire Enforcement Corps screaming for his blood. He'd killed off a Royal Guard projector crew, an entire Enforcement crew, and a few odd news people. They didn't like him. But they wanted him. The only way out of this one would be straight ahead. He nodded.
"Of course," he said simply.
The Korental came to his feet and grabbed his staff. Beside his stool was a battered tone tube. He swung the staff at the dented wood and a deep tone followed the sharp crack.
He wheeled upon the man who came through the door.
"Tell the Korensahn to come up here," he ordered. "And have him bring five men with him. We have a clan adoption to witness."
* * * * *
Don flexed his back and hunched his shoulders a little to get the pack-board more comfortably settled. The darn things were heavy. He looked at the others, who walked along the road. Hang it, they seemed to swing along under their loads as though they were just taking a short walk before breakfast. He poked at the hard ground with his stick.
How had he managed to haul himself into this one, anyway? Blasted thing had all seemed so logical, back there in Korelanni. He reviewed the steps.
First, it had been essential that the safety and contents of the Book of the Waernu be determined. Without it, Pete's claim would be so vague as to be untenable. Especially before a conclave with the regent in active opposition.
Second, the book would have to be placed in safekeeping where it could be immediately produced upon demand. He frowned. That was a tough one. So anyway——
Then, there had come the question. Who was going to get this book and bring it back—or protect it? Pete was too valuable and too vulnerable. He was known, and if any of the police agencies got their hands on him ... well, that would be all. So Pete was out.
Jasu Waern? Don grinned to himself. "Skip it," he told himself. He poked at the ground again with the stick. It was getting hot. And he was thirsty.
"Hope that gunk they used to monkey up my complexion doesn't sweat out," he told himself. "That would do it for sure."
He glanced up at the sky. It was getting close to midday. Ahead, he could see a few men sitting at the side of the road, leaning back against their packs. He went forward a few more paces, then selected a comfortable looking bit of moss.
So what had happened? A little guy named Donald Michaels had been disguised as a clanless mat maker. He leaned back against the pack. And, brother, had they given him a stock of mats to sell. This clansman in Riandar would be busy for a month, just unloading all these things from his stock.
He thought of those daydreams he had once had. A king's councilor, he had imagined, was a highly important, greatly respected individual. He had dreamed of himself, dressed in the ornate formal robes he'd seen in pictures of the old nobility. He'd pictured himself exchanging urbane chatter with other beautifully turned out characters, who hung on his every word. He'd seen himself striding between low-bowing lines of assorted courtiers and soldiery, pausing now and then to tap at the pavement with his jeweled staff. He'd—— Hah!
He looked at the dusty trail. He'd been striding, all right, but the field reeds didn't look too much like bowing lines of—— Yeah, and his staff didn't have too many jewels, either. No pavement, even, and this fool pack didn't feel much like a finely tailored robe of office. He shrugged.
"This is no dream," he told himself. "You let one of Stern's people get suspicious, and you'll find out just how real things can get." He twisted around to get the package of food and the water bottle which dangled from the pack.
Distastefully, he looked at the little packet of powder which was in the food package. He glanced around quickly, then dumped the powder into his mouth, quickly gulping water to wash it down.
"Gaah!" he growled, "does it have to taste like the inside of an old shoe? Oh, well, it'll keep me nice and dark for the next thirty hours or so." He pulled a strip of dried meat from the package. Maybe this will help take the taste out.
He sighed and worked his jaws on the leatherlike substance. It started to soften a little.
Well, anyway, he knew how to get to the vault where the ancestral volumes of the Waernu were kept. And he knew just which volume to pick out. Only one small problem remained. How was he going to get into the house—and on into the little pond in the inner garden? He grinned as he thought of Pete's remark.
"It'll be simple for you," he had said enviously. "All you have to do is tell any guard you meet to stand aside and forget he ever saw you. Then you go on down to the vault. Wish I had that ability of yours."
"Sure," he told himself, "hang your clothes on yonder bush—and get right into the water. It's just a simple matter of diving down ten feet and pushing the right rock the right number of times—in the right directions. Nothing to it. And then you go through the pressure trap, and there you are. Simple!"
And who was going to guard the pond while he was down there? Suppose he broke surface right in front of a flock of trigger-happy Enforcers? He sighed.
"Oh, well," he told himself. "You asked for it. Now, you've got it. Have fun." He looked into the food package and selected a meal cake.
* * * * *
At last, he dusted his fingers and leaned back lazily against his pack, looking into the clear sky. For a few minutes, he simply relaxed, his eyes fixed on the infinite distance, his mind a near blank.
Other pack-laden men strode past him, intent on their destination. At last, a group swung by and the sound of their conversation brought Don out of his semitrance. Behind the group was another, who walked a little faster than the others, in an apparent effort to catch up. Don pushed himself up with the aid of his staff, drew a few deep breaths, and started pacing along behind him.
Ahead, the group went around a curve in the path. The man ahead of Don cut over into the grass, still intent on catching up with his companions, who were not more than a few meters ahead. Don watched him casually.
There was no use, he thought, in trying to keep up with this fellow or his companions. It was too hot. Besides, this was probably a clan group who would not welcome company—especially the company of one of no clan.
He started to slow down to a normal pace, then his attention was caught by movement by a rock just ahead of the other. A small, greenish-brown body was vaguely outlined in the long grass nearly in the man's path.
Don looked more closely. The animal was heavy-bodied, with rather short forelegs. Powerful hind legs were tucked under the body, twitching a little now. The forelegs pawed slightly at the grass and the flat, wide head probed out, extending toward the approaching man.
"Hey!" yelled Don. "Look out. Gersal!" He started forward in a half run, his staff poised for a blow.
The other jumped sideways but the furry body grazed his leg and spun, claws and teeth working furiously. The man looked down and screamed.
Don's staff came down in a chopping blow and the animal bounced out onto the open path. Its paws raised little spurts of dust as it spun about and prepared for another spring.
Again, Don's staff swung down. The gersal flopped about for an instant in the dust of the path, then faced toward him, an angry scream coming from its throat.
Again, it tried to get its balance for a spring, but one hind leg dragged limply. Again, the staff swung, tumbling the beast over in the dust.
There was a flurry of paws and the gersal struggled up to its haunches, then sat up, its brilliant red eyes fixed on Don. It stretched out short forelegs in seeming supplication, then batted futilely at the punching staff end.
Disregarding the pleading attitude of the beast, Don continued to punch at the squirming body till it was obvious that no vestige of life could remain. Then, he looked at the other man.
The fellow had managed to get to the center of the path before he had collapsed. He half sat, half lay against his pack, breathing raggedly. Sweat stood out on his forehead. He looked at Don vaguely, making an obvious effort to focus his eyes.
"Thanks ... Friend," he mumbled. "You tried—— Oooh!" He closed his eyes and stiffened, his legs stretching out and his back arching.
The men who walked ahead had been attracted by the commotion. They came back and one jerked off his pack and bent over the man in the path. He looked over at the dead animal, then glanced up at Don.
"How many times was he bitten?"
"I doubt if he got more than one," Don told him.
The other nodded and looked searchingly at the victim. Then, he reached into his clothing and removed a small packet. He opened it and pulled the protective cover off a syrette.
"There's a small chance, then," he remarked. He poked the needle of the syrette into the sufferer's forearm and squeezed the tube.
The stricken man moved convulsively and opened one eye. His companion nodded.
"You might make it, Delm," he said cautiously. "Only one bite, and we got to you soon." He nodded.
"If you can hang on for just five minutes, you'll walk the trail again." He looked up at Don.
"That was quick action," he said. "You may have saved our clan brother." He looked down at the torn place on the man's leg.
"A couple of more bites, and he'd surely be dead by now." He got to his feet.
"Whom do we have to thank?"
Don looked down at the path in apparent discomfort.
"I am Kalo," he said, "of the mountains."
The other's eyes clouded. "Oh," he said tonelessly. He looked down at his companion, then back at the dead animal.
"Well," he said slowly, "we are grateful, Clanless One. Go your way in peace. We will take care of our brother."
Don started to turn away. "I hope he——"
The other nodded curtly. "The gersal's poison is strong," he said. "But soon we shall see. May your way be safe." He turned back to his patient.
Don turned away and went around the curve in the path. Well, maybe the Korental had been right, he thought. So long as they kept from bothering others, the clanless ones weren't molested. And they certainly didn't form any associations that might be embarrassing later on. He glanced back.
"Hope that guy lives through it," he told himself, "but I'm glad I don't have to put up with a three-day celebration. Haven't got the time."
In the distance, he could see the walls and towers of Riandar. The walk was nearly over now. He stepped his pace up a little, then slowed down again. There was no sense in coming through the gate all hot and sweaty, he reminded himself. It would be way out of character.
* * * * *
It was funny, Don thought, that he hadn't remembered this store when the Korental had described its location. Probably it was the use of the word "shop." This was a large department store. He'd done some shopping here at one time or another, himself. He started to go by the front, then a display in one of the windows attracted his attention. He paused.
Someone had designed a tasteful array of furniture, set up like a nobleman's bedroom suite. One could, without too much effort, imagine himself standing on the enclosed walkway of a palace, facing away from the inner garden. The furniture, he noted, was of excellent quality. In fact, when he started refinishing the ranch, maybe he'd come in here. He glanced at the display floor. The mats were similar in design to those in his pack.
Suddenly, he remembered his own present status and stepped back, away from the window. Simple mat makers don't concern themselves with examining displays that would cost more than they'd make in a lifetime. This window was strictly for people who could afford large platters of luxury. He turned away, looking for another, less elaborate entrance.
Down the street, at the corner of the building, he found an inconspicuous door. A brass plate indicated that this was the employees' entrance to the Blue Mountain Mercantile Company's offices. Another plate indicated that the delivery entrance was around the corner. Don shrugged and went into the door.
He found himself in a narrow hallway. Before him was a stairway, its lowest step blocked by a light chain. To his right, a man sat in a small cubby.
"You're in the wrong door," he said expressionlessly. "Deliveries are received around the corner."
"I know," Don told him. "I'm from the Kor-en. I'd like to see Korentona."
The man frowned fleetingly. "Tell you," he said casually, "maybe it would be better if you made your delivery right now. Then you can come back later on."
Don examined him for a moment. "You mean something is——"
"That's right." The man nodded. "Go around to the receiving room. Drop your pack, and come back—say in about an hour." He glanced upward as footsteps sounded on the stairs.
"Oh, oh," he added softly. "Keep quiet and let me handle this."
A heavy-set man came down the stairs. He looked sharply at Don, taking in his appearance and the details of his pack.
"What's this, Mora?" he demanded.
The timekeeper shrugged casually. "Just some porter," he said negligently. "Can't read too well, I guess. Got in the wrong door. I was telling him where to drop his pack."
"Oh?" The other looked at Don more closely. "Looks like another load of those mats from the Morek. Look, Fellow, you wouldn't be from one of those clans, would you now?"
Don shook his head. "I am Kalo," he said, "of the mountains. I have no clan. I make mats. And twice a year I come here to Riandar to sell them."
"Been here before?"
"I have been in Riandar many times."
"That's not what I mean. Have you been here—to this store—before?"
Don shook his head. "Not to this store, no. But they told me the Blue Mountain was paying better than some others. I thought I'd try——"
"Yeah," the other said coldly. "Sure. Now, suppose we take a little walk, you and I? Some people down the street would like to talk to you."
Don shook his head. "I merely came here to sell mats," he insisted. "I make good mats."
The heavy man frowned. "Maybe," he snapped. "We'll see about that after we've had a talk with you." He stepped closer. "If you're just a mat maker, nothing will happen to you. If you really have good mats, you might even get a nice price for some of your stuff. Come on."
He reached out to take Don's sleeve. Don stepped back, his face suddenly losing its vague, apologetic expression. His features sharpened, to become hard, uncompromising.
"Get over to that wall, Fellow," he ordered sharply. "Move!"
The man's hand dropped. For a moment, he stared slackly at Don.
"Come on!" Don's voice raised a little. "Get over to that wall. And then stand still." He started to shuck off the straps of his pack.
The man before him sobbed helplessly, then shuffled away. Don knelt down and stripped the pack off. Then he stepped aside and raised a hand in a beckoning gesture.
"Now get over here," he snapped. "Pick up that pack and take it up to Mr. Tona's office. I'll follow you."
The man in the cubby rubbed his head for a moment, then picked up the phone. Don swung toward him. "Put that phone back," he ordered, "and come out of there. You're coming with us."
* * * * *
Korentona looked up as the small procession entered his office.
"What's happened now?"
Don nodded at him, then faced the man with the pack.
"Put that pack down," he commanded. "Now, stand over there." He pointed. "And be very quiet." He glanced at the doorman.
"You can stay where you are." He looked at Korentona.
"My apologies," he said, "for being so informal. But I come from the Kor-en, and I had a little trouble. There's a message for you in the pack. You know, of course, where to find it. Who are these two?"
Korentona looked worried. "This one," he pointed at the doorman, "is a trusted employee. He's been with me for years."
He paused, looking at the other man. "But this one, I have never trusted. I'm sure he reports to the police."
Don glanced at the doorman. "My apologies," he said. "You are free to go as you will." He looked closely at the other.
"Is this correct?" he demanded. "Are you a police agent?"
The man nodded. "That's right," he said reluctantly. "I'm supposed to watch this place and report on its visitors."
"Here," Don told him, "is one visitor you won't report." He stopped, considering, then impaled the man with a cold stare.
"Have you ever seen a man bitten by a gersal?"
The man shrugged. "Yeah. What about it?"
Don nodded. "You will remember that scene," he said. "Do you remember that man's struggles? Do you remember the animal, chewing at him, injecting its poison? Do you remember this man dropping, first to his knees, then to his back? Do you remember——"
"Hey!" protested the other. His hands came up before his face.
"Put those hands down," snapped Don. "And listen closely. I want you to have full recall on this. You remember this man who was bitten, how he sobbed for breath—how his legs stretched out and his back arched, till the muscles tore from the bones with their effort. You remember all this?"
The man nodded wordlessly, his fascinated stare fixed on Don's face.
"Then I want you to fix this in your mind," Don told him. "Should you be so unwise as to attempt to mention any of these things that have happened since you came down those stairs—should you even allow your memory to dwell on these things for too long—these are the things that will happen to you.
"You will sink to your knees. Your muscles will be unable to support you, and you will fall to your back. You will find it impossible to breathe, for the muscles of your chest will distend the ribs. And in your struggles, you will break bones. And you will tear your body to bits. Do you understand this?"
The man sagged against the wall, panting. He managed a nod.
"Then forget about this afternoon," commanded Don. "Go about your business in normal fashion. And forget about this afternoon. Nothing happened that was worthy of note." He waved a hand in dismissal, then turned to Korentona.
"I don't want to go into a lot of detail," he said. "As I said, there's a detailed message in the pack. I'll wait for you to read it." He glanced down at his clothing.
"I'd like a place, though, where I can clean up. And I could use some other clothes, if you don't mind."
* * * * *
When he came back to the office, Korentona waved him to a chair.
"So," he said musingly, "they were right. You did go to the clans for aid." He smiled.
"The police have been keeping close watch on everyone in the city who might have even a remote connection with the hill clans. And they're really keeping an eye on the Waern home. You're going to have a nice time getting in there."
Don nodded. "I expected some trouble. Do you know whether they've done any searching?"
Korentona shrugged. "I don't run an investigative agency," he said with a smile, "so I don't know everything that's going on. But I've heard there've been lights on up there nearly every night. And they've had crowds of people around the place. Not so much activity the last couple of days, though. They're just watching."
"I see," Don nodded. "Wonder if they've found what they were looking for?"
The other shook his head, "Doubt it," he said. "If they had, they'd relax. Now that I know what it's all about, I can figure out what I've heard. They'll take off the watch as soon as they find that book, I think.
"Oh, of course, they still want you," he added. "And they'd like to get their hands on the Waernu. But they wouldn't be frantic about it if they weren't worried about the outcome of a conclave."
"No," agreed Don. "I guess they wouldn't, at that."
He stretched. "Well, guess I'd better get on my way. I've got to get into that house somehow. Think I'll take a wander out there and see if I can get some ideas."
The merchant put up a detaining hand. "Take it slow," he advised. "You can't go up there tonight."
"No. It wouldn't be wise at all. There are a bunch of young fellows that have been hanging around there lately. It isn't safe to walk around that neighborhood. They've beaten five or six people pretty badly. And they've killed a couple." Korentona paused.
"Funny," he added. "The police don't seem to be so upset about that."
"They wouldn't be," Don told him.
"So you think I'd better wait till morning?"
"It'll be a lot better. I can give you a place to stay tonight. And my house isn't too far from the Waern place, so you can get over there in a hurry if you want to." Korentona paused.
"Say, how about that fellow, Foree? Are you sure he'll keep quiet?"
Don smiled. "Pretty certain. Of course, I don't know whether an effort to talk would actually kill him. But he'd be pretty uncomfortable for a while. Might even come up with shock amnesia." The smile broadened.
"He may have already done enough careless thinking by this time to make him pretty sick." He regarded Korentona thoughtfully.
"You say there's a gang of young fellows hanging around the Waern neighborhood?"
The merchant nodded. "Quite a few of them, I think. People living around there don't spend any time on the street or in the park, you can be sure of that."
"I see." Don nodded slowly. "That way, it's a lot easier to watch the Waern place at night. Look, there must be quite a few hillmen in this city. I should think you'd know quite a number of them."
"Yes, I do, of course." Korentona smiled. "We don't exactly form a closed group, but ... well, I'll have to admit we do think a little differently from the plainsmen."
"I know." Don reached into his jacket and slowly withdrew a stick with a thong wrapped around it.
"Many of your friends carry these?"
The merchant laughed. "Certainly!" He produced a polished stick of his own.
"Can you imagine any clansman without this sling?"
Don looked at him speculatively. "I wonder," he said casually, "what would happen if these young toughs found themselves being hunted down by ... say ten or fifteen blood hungry clansmen. Might worry them a little, wouldn't you think?"
Korentona shook his head doubtfully. "You know what the situation is here in Riandar," he remarked. "The police don't worry too much about these robberies and beatings. But they'd be pretty perturbed if someone started hunting the hunters."
"That's what I mean." Don spread his hands. "Might even get the people watching the Waern place upset and nervous." He shrugged. "And who's to know what caused the uproar, or who's involved? After all, all the clansmen were at home. The watchers on their houses could testify to that."
Korentona looked at him curiously. "Interesting idea, at that, you know." He got to his feet. "Suppose we talk it over for a while."
* * * * *
Maurie VanSickle crouched behind a bush, watching the path. This, he thought, was getting old. It had been a lot of fun at first. Profitable, too. He thought with amusement of the old man who had scrambled about in the dirt that first night. Boy, what a beat jerk he'd been. And what a beautiful job Gerry had done on him. Clipped the stupid yokel so hard he didn't make a sound when he went down.
Then he and Walt had come in. Man, how the old guy had wriggled! He looked down the path.
Now, though? Phooey! Not a lousy person on the path all evening. He'd tried to tell Gerry they were on a loser. Park was all worked out for a few weeks. But the stubborn clown wouldn't listen. Kept insisting they try it a couple more nights. Maurie reached into his pocket.
"Better make a strike pretty soon," he muttered to himself. "The old cash bag's getting empty." He stretched, then tensed. There were footsteps on the path.
This one was his!
Silently, he gathered himself. He'd clip the guy from behind, then Gerry and Walt could come in from the other side and pin him down.
"Hope the jerk's got plenty of that stuff," he muttered.
The stroller came closer. Maurie appraised him as he walked. Oh, boy, another little, old guy. Clothes looked pretty good, too. Nice stack of cloth. Should be quite a rack of the purple in them.
Now the man was almost close enough. Maurie's eyes followed him as he approached, then passed. He launched himself in a crouching dash.
As he left the shelter of the bush, something bumped against his neck. He found himself whirling to the ground. Dimly, he saw his intended victim whirl around. He attempted to dodge the foot as it came down on his face, but it was like moving in a dream. Somehow, he was too slow.
For just an instant, he felt crushing pain, then the world dissolved into bright specks in a spreading blackness. One by one, the points of light winked out. And then, there was nothing.
As their intended victim whirled to crush Maurie, Gerry Kelton poked at his brother.
"Come on," he urged. "He can't take two of us. Let's go."
The two dashed out of their cover, then found themselves prostrate at the edge of the path.
Walt Kelton was flipped over and held in a vicelike grip, his head grinding into the path. Close by, he could see his brother. Two men held him down. As he watched, they seized Gerry's hands, twisting them so that his head flopped face up.
A third man leaned over, a long knife in his hand. Unbelievingly, Walt watched as the man thrust the knife into Gerry's throat. The boy's feet kicked convulsively a couple of times, then dropped. The toes sank, to point outward.
With calm precision, the killer turned his knife and forced it across the throat with the heel of his hand. Dark fluid welled out on the path, making a pool which flowed toward Walt.
Casually, the man pulled the slack of Gerry's shirt toward him and wiped the blade till it was gleaming again. Then he looked toward Walt. He got to his feet.
For an instant, the boy lay limp, paralyzed with terror. Then, he kicked and struggled madly. Unbelievingly, he felt the hands which restrained him loosen and he kicked and squirmed until he was free to scramble away.
He skittered on all fours till he reached the middle of the path.
Then he struggled to his feet.
* * * * *
Don Michaels flipped on the light in the vault and looked around him. Yes, it was just as Jasu Waern had said it would be. He walked over to the closet at the side of the room and pulled out a towel. As he dried himself, he continued his examination of the room.
It had been easier to get in than he had hoped. When that screaming kid had come dashing along, it had been like a stick in an ant hill. Everyone around the house had been shaken up. Several men had gone streaking over to the park. The others had given the incident their full attention.
And all Don had needed do was walk up to the front door and go in.
"Guess they thought they had a full-scale revolution on their hands," he told himself. "Wonder how many Hunters the Moreku nailed." He grinned.
The men Korentona had talked to had jumped at the plan like starving gersals. Several of them had been victimized in the past. They really wanted blood. The others saw a good hunt in the offing. Every one of them knew someone who had been robbed. He'd turned something loose, all right.
"Hope they don't get too enthusiastic about it," he said. "Hate to have 'em make a habit of that sort of thing." He shrugged.
"Oh, well, let's see where that book is."
The sides of the room were lined with books. Over in a corner was a reading table with writing materials and a conveniently placed light. Don walked over to a glass-fronted bookcase and opened it, studying the titles of the volumes within. Finally, he selected a book and carried it over to the reading table.
He leafed through the volume, noting the careful engrossing. Then he paused as he came to the pages he was searching for. He examined the ornate script closely, then looked at the intricate stamp. It was the signature stamp of the old king. Beside it was his queen's less pretentious stamp. Don nodded in satisfaction.
Now, the only problem was to wrap the book safely in the waterproof tissue he'd brought with him, and get it out of the house. He stood, looking at the door.
It might not be too safe to leave the book with Korentona, as had been originally planned. With the clansmen under surveillance as they had been, and now, with this additional disturbance, there could be a disastrous slip. Don shook his head.
Somehow, the idea of carrying this document in a peddler's pack didn't make too much sense, either. Too many things could go wrong. He sat back in the chair and stuck his legs out.
"Well," he told himself, "I can't stay here for the rest of my life. I'll have to do something." He grinned ruefully.
"The best defense," he quoted, "is a determined and well-directed offense. So, if you don't know what to do, do anything. Then you'll find out what to do next."
He snapped the light out and opened the door. At the edge of the water lock, he breathed deeply a few times. Then he plunged in, closed the underwater door, and swam rapidly toward the surface of the garden pool.
* * * * *
He climbed out of the water, strode forward a few steps, then stopped in consternation. The place was suddenly flooded with light.
An oily voice sounded in his ears.
"Just stand still, young fella. That way, you don't get hurt. Not right away, anyhow."
Don turned. At the side of the garden, stood a scrawny old man, his seamed face wrinkled into a sardonic smile. In his hand, he held a small weapon.
Don recognized it—a khroal. The weapon could put out vibration which would tear any target to tiny, singing fragments in a few microseconds. It was a complete anomaly which had been in the possession of the Khlorisanu for measureless time. Its origin was mystery, its exact principle of operation a puzzle. But it was easy to duplicate, and it was one of the most deadly hand weapons known.
He held his hands out.
"Put that thing away," he snapped coldly. "Get it down—quick!"
The older man's smile broadened into happy amusement.
"Oh, funny stuff, eh?" he said joyfully. "I kinda hoped you'd be the one they'd send. Yeah, I kinda wanted to see you—what you look like, eh?" He waved the weapon.
"Just stand still, young fella, so old Jake can get a good look at you. Hey, you look like one of these here natives." The man bobbed his head.
"Woulda fooled me, you know?" He looked reproachful.
"Only, a smart young fella like you, you oughta know better than go and get that Foree so worried. You know, that fella, he comes in every night—got a lot of things he wants to talk about. Got theories. Got plans. Real eager fella. Only tonight, he ain't got nothing. Just grunts.
"Nothing goes on today, he says." Jake shook his head reproachfully.
"You know, that was careless. You shoulda let him talk anyhow a little, see. Something like that happens, old Jake, he gets ideas. So I come out here, to see who comes along." He looked at the package under Don's arm.
"That the book we're all looking for?" He jerked his head toward a door.
"Yeah, guess it is. Come on, young fella, that funny stuff, it don't work so good with old Jake, see? So let's you and me take a nice little ride. What ya say?"
The khroal remained steadily pointed at its target.
Don hesitated. This was about as far from good as it could get, he thought. Now who was this? Where did he fit into the situation?
"Who are you?" he demanded.
"Oh, I don't mind telling you that. Name's Jake. Jake Gorham. But come on. Let's get on our way. We got a nice, long ride, you and me, see?" Gorham waved his weapon again.
"Come on," he repeated. "Nice young fella like you, he don't wanna get all scattered around. Shame to mess up this nice pretty little garden, you know?"
Don hesitated. Of course, he might be able to dive into the pool again. But the khroal could kick out a cone several feet deep. There was no escape that way. No way out of the pool, anyway—except through this garden. He moved in the indicated direction.
* * * * *
Gorham herded him to the courtyard and closed the door. The house lights filtered through curtains, to show the outline of a flier in the middle of the court. Gorham urged him toward it.
"All right, young fella," he said, "just stand real quiet for a minute. I'll get this thing unlocked and start them synchronizer things." He reached toward the door, then paused.
"Yeah, I been kinda wondering about you," he added conversationally. "See, I got a smart young fella down there in Oreladar. He's got people pretty well trained down there by now. Chap named Stern. You hear of him, maybe?" He chuckled.
"Kinda set him up in business here a few years back, and he's doing pretty well. Old Jake just hasta hang around—kinda look after things now and then, this boy shouldn't get in too much trouble, see?" He cleared his throat.
"See, this Danny, he ain't got too much in the brains department. And he don't do so good when people get violent. Might say he sorta scares easy sometimes. Now you, I'd say you were a little different, see? Ya know, I just might be able to use a real smart young fella like you." He flipped the khroal up and down negligently.
"Now, don't go making up no mind yet. Like I say, we got time. We have a nice, long talk on the way to Oreladar. Maybe we work something out, eh? You know, old Jake, he ain't such a bad guy. You ask Danny. He'll tell you. We could get along real nice, the three of us." He paused, considering.
"Oh, maybe you don't like the idea at first," he added. "But we got all kinds ways to persuade people.
"Got a fella, name's Masterson, down there right now. Danny tries, but he can't do nothing with him. But he'll come around. You give us a few more days—a week, maybe, he's going to be a real reasonable fella." He pulled the flier door open.
"We're getting this country organized, see? One of these days, some fella's been smart and got in at the right time, he's going to be quite a guy. Have just about anything he wants, see?" He reached into the flier and snapped switches. A muted humming sounded through the courtyard.
"Tell you, though, Kid. Maybe old Jake's not real trusting like he oughta be. Not just yet a while. Suppose you just turn your back to me for a minute, eh?"
Don turned slowly, straining his ears.
He could hear the faint sibilance of Gorham's clothing as the man approached. Then the sound stopped. There was a slight grating noise.
Obviously, then, the man was lifting an arm and shifting his weight.
Don dropped suddenly to the ground, whirling as he went down. He seized Gorham's legs, lifted, then dashed the man's body to the ground. Swiftly following up, he seized the gun hand and twisted violently.
Jolted by the sudden fall, Gorham was quiet for a fraction of a second. Then he burst into explosive action, trying to tear himself free from Don's restraining grip. He twisted and tried to kick himself free, then groaned as the twisting pressure ripped at elbow and shoulder tendons. The khroal rattled on the stones.
Abruptly, Don jerked the tortured arm around and pinned it beneath a leg. He placed a hand on Gorham's throat and reached for the other arm.
"Aw," whispered Gorham agonizedly, "aw, take it easy, will you? I got the idea all right. So let me up, we do things your way, huh?" He looked anxiously at the face which stared down a few inches from his own.
Don saw the pleading expression on the man's face. For a heartbeat, he started to relax the pressure on the throat.
Then he remembered another pleading pair of eyes that had looked at him. The gersal, he remembered, had been just as helpless under his stick as this man was now under his hands. But given the slightest chance, it would have had its teeth in his leg. And the poison would have poured into his veins. He looked again at Gorham.
His hand tightened and drove downward.
Gorham's eyes widened, then glazed. He gave a half-choked squawk. Feet and body jerked convulsively. Then the hard, taut strength was gone and the man lay limply. Don raised his hand and put his entire weight behind the stroke which drove his extended fingers into the soft part of the man's throat. Then he felt carefully, to be sure there was no vestige of a pulse.
* * * * *
He got to his feet and stood for a moment, looking down at the crumpled figure on the stones. Then he brought his hands up, to look at them appraisingly. He was suddenly aware of a feeling of lightness, of an uncontrollable desire to go into rapid motion. Any motion would do. His muscles simply demanded some sort of violent action. It seemed to him as if he almost floated as he walked over to the book he had thrown as he whirled on Gorham. He bent over and picked it up, then looked about the courtyard.
He turned and looked at the flier.
It was warmed up by this time. He moved swiftly over to it, his body jerking in a peculiar, off-beat cadence as he walked.
As he sat down before the controls, a calm voice echoed in his memory, going through his mind like a cold breeze.
"Let yourself get emotionally involved in a problem and it'll turn around and bite you."
He forced himself to sit back, his hands away from the controls.
Then he looked back at the body on the courtyard paving.
Gorham had implied that he was the power behind the whole present regime. Maybe he'd been bragging. But again, maybe he hadn't. There had been a queer, hard force about the man. There had been an aura which Don had sensed, but could not analyze. One thing was certain. This man had never been able to work under someone else's orders.
He looked around the interior of the flier.
"It's a Royal Guard job," he told himself.
He could see painted legends, giving cautions and instructions to whomever should pilot the ship. He felt under the dash.
There was a light board snapped into clips. He pulled it out and turned on the cabin lights.
Yes, it was all there. Instructions for the identification devices—description of the identification and warning lights. It gave the location of switches—the settings for communications. There was even a small card inserted in a pocket. It gave the communications code used by patrol fliers in routine communication. Don smiled happily.