I mentioned this, and Kendricks looked doubtfully at Kyla. "Can she climb?"
"Can she stay here?" I countered. But I went and sat beside her anyhow.
"How badly are you hurt? Do you think you can travel?"
She said fiercely, "Of course I can climb! I tell you, I'm no weak girl, I'm a free Amazon!" She flung off the blanket somebody had tucked around her legs. Her lips looked a little pinched, but the long stride was steady as she walked to the fire and demanded more soup.
We struck the camp in minutes. The trailmen band of raiding females had snatched up almost everything portable, and there was no sense in striking and caching the tent; they'd return and hunt it out. If we came back with a trailmen escort, we wouldn't need it anyway. I ordered them to leave everything but the lightest gear, and examined each remaining rucksack. Rations for the night we would spend in the pass, our few remaining blankets, ropes, sunglasses. Everything else I ruthlessly ordered left behind.
It was harder going now. For one thing, the sun was lowering, and the evening wind was icy. Nearly everyone of us had some hurt, slight in itself, which hindered us in climbing. Kyla was white and rigid, but did not spare herself; Kendricks was suffering severely from mountain sickness at this altitude, and I gave him all the help I could, but with my stiffening slashed hand I wasn't having too easy a time myself.
There was one expanse that was sheer rock-climbing, flattened like bugs against a wall, scrabbling for hand-holds and footholds. I felt it a point of pride to lead, and I led; but by the time we had climbed the thirty-foot wall, and scrambled along a ledge to where we could pick up the trail again, I was ready to give over. Crowding together on the ledge, I changed places with the veteran Lerrys, who was better than most professional climbers.
He muttered, "I thought you said this was a trail!"
I stretched my mouth in what was supposed to be a grin and didn't quite make it. "For the trailmen, this is a superhighway. And no one else ever comes this way."
Now we climbed slowly over snow; once or twice we had to flounder through drifts, and once a brief bitter snowstorm blotted out sight for twenty minutes, while we hugged each other on the ledge, clinging wildly against wind and icy sleet.
* * * * *
We bivouacked that night in a crevasse blown almost clean of snow, well above the tree-line, where only scrubby unkillable thornbushes clustered. We tore down some of them and piled them up as a windbreak, and bedded beneath it; but we all thought with aching regret of the comfort of the camp gear we'd abandoned. The going had gotten good and rough.
That night remains in my mind as one of the most miserable in memory. Except for the slight ringing in my ears, the height alone did not bother me, but the others did not fare so well. Most of the men had blinding headaches, Kyla's slashed side must have given her considerable pain, and Kendricks had succumbed to mountain-sickness in its most agonizing form: severe cramps and vomiting. I was desperately uneasy about all of them, but there was nothing I could do; the only cure for mountain-sickness is oxygen or a lower altitude, neither of which was practical.
In the windbreak we doubled up, sharing blankets and body warmth: I took a last look around the close space before crawling in beside Kendricks, and saw the girl bedding down slightly apart from the others. I started to say something, but Kendricks spoke, first. Voicing my thoughts.
"Better crawl in with us, girl." He added, coldly but not unkindly, "you needn't worry about any funny stuff."
Kyla gave me just the flicker of a grin, and I realized she was including me on the Darkovan side of a joke against this big man who was so unaware of Darkovan etiquette. But her voice was cool and curt as she said, "I'm not worrying," and loosened her heavy coat slightly before creeping into the nest of blankets between us.
It was painfully cramped, and chilly in spite of the self-heating blankets; we crowded close together and Kyla's head rested on my shoulder. I felt her snuggle closely to me, half asleep, hunting for a warm place; and I found myself very much aware of her closeness, curiously grateful to her. An ordinary woman would have protested, if only as a matter of form, sharing blankets with two strange men. I realized that if Kyla had refused to crawl in with us, she would have called attention to her sex much more than she did by matter-of-factly behaving as if she were, in fact, male.
She shivered convulsively, and I whispered, "Side hurting? Are you cold?"
"A little. It's been a long time since I've been at these altitudes, too. What it really is—I can't get those women out of my head."
Kendricks coughed, moving uncomfortably. "I don't understand—those creatures who attacked us—all women—?"
I explained briefly. "Among the people of the Sky, as everywhere, more females are born than males. But the trailmen's lives are so balanced that they have no room for extra females within the Nests—the cities. So when a girl child of the Sky People reaches womanhood, the other women drive her out of the city with kicks and blows, and she has to wander in the forest until some male comes after her and claims her and brings her back as his own. Then she can never be driven forth again, although if she bears no children she can be forced to be a servant to his other wives."
Kendricks made a little sound of disgust.
"You think it cruel," Kyla said with sudden passion, "but in the forest they can live and find their own food; they will not starve or die. Many of them prefer the forest life to living in the Nests, and they will fight away any male who comes near them. We who call ourselves human often make less provision for our spare women."
She was silent, sighing as if with pain. Kendricks made no reply except a non-committal grunt. I held myself back by main force from touching Kyla, remembering what she was, and finally said, "We'd better quit talking. The others want to sleep, if we don't."
* * * * *
After a time I heard Kendricks snoring, and Kyla's quiet even breaths. I wondered drowsily how Jay would have felt about this situation—he who hated Darkover and avoided contact with every other human being, crowded between a Darkovan free-Amazon and half a dozen assorted roughnecks. I turned the thought off, fearing it might somehow re-arouse him in his brain.
But I had to think of something, anything to turn aside this consciousness of the woman's head against my chest, her warm breath coming and going against my bare neck. Only by the severest possible act of will did I keep myself from slipping my hand over her breasts, warm and palpable through the thin sweater, I wondered why Forth had called me undisciplined. I couldn't risk my leadership by making advances to our contracted guide—woman, Amazon or whatever!
Somehow the girl seemed to be the pivot point of all my thoughts. She was not part of the Terran HQ, she was not part of any world Jay Allison might have known. She belonged wholly to Jason, to my world. Between sleep and waking, I lost myself in a dream of skimming flight-wise along the tree roads, chasing the distant form of a girl driven from the Nest that day with blows and curses. Somewhere in the leaves I would find her ... and we would return to the city, her head garlanded with the red leaves of a chosen-one, and the same women who had stoned her forth would crowd about and welcome her when she returned. The fleeing woman looked over her shoulder with Kyla's eyes; and then the woman's form muted and Dr. Forth was standing between us in the tree-road, with the caduceus emblem on his coat stretched like a red staff between us. Kendricks in his Spaceforce uniform was threatening us with a blaster, and Regis Hastur was suddenly wearing Space Service uniform too and saying, "Jay Allison, Jay Allison," as the tree-road splintered and cracked beneath our feet and we were tumbling down the waterfall and down and down and down....
"Wake up!" Kyla whispered, and dug an elbow into my side. I opened my eyes on crowded blackness, grasping at the vanishing nightmare. "What's the matter?"
"You were moaning. Touch of altitude sickness?"
I grunted, realized my arm was around her shoulder, and pulled it quickly away. After awhile I slept again, fitfully.
* * * * *
Before light we crawled wearily out of the bivouac, cramped and stiff and not rested, but ready to get out of this and go on. The snow was hard, in the dim light, and the trail not difficult here. After all the trouble on the lower slopes, I think even the amateurs had lost their desire for adventurous climbing; we were all just as well pleased that the actual crossing of Dammerung should be an anticlimax and uneventful.
The sun was just rising when we reached the pass, and we stood for a moment, gathered close together, in the narrow defile between the great summits to either side.
Hjalmar gave the peaks a wistful look.
"Wish we could climb them."
Regis grinned at him companionably. "Sometime—and you have the word of a Hastur, you'll be along on that expedition." The big fellows' eyes glowed. Regis turned to me, and said warmly, "What about it, Jason? A bargain? Shall we all climb it together, next year?"
I started to grin back and then some bleak black devil surged up in me, raging. When this was over, I'd suddenly realized, I wouldn't be there. I wouldn't be anywhere. I was a surrogate, a substitute, a splinter of Jay Allison, and when it was over, Forth and his tactics would put me back into what they considered my rightful place—which was nowhere. I'd never climb a mountain except now, when we were racing against time and necessity. I set my mouth in an unaccustomed narrow line and said, "We'll talk about that when we get back—if we ever do. Now I suggest we get going. Some of us would like to get down to lower altitudes."
The trail down from Dammerung inside the ridge, unlike the outside trail, was clear and well-marked, and we wound down the slope, walking in easy single file. As the mist thinned and we left the snow-line behind, we saw what looked like a great green carpet, interspersed with shining colors which were mere flickers below us. I pointed them out.
"The treetops of the North Forest—and the colors you see are in the streets of the Trailcity."
An hour's walking brought us to the edge of the forest. We travelled swiftly now, forgetting our weariness, eager to reach the city before nightfall. It was quiet in the forest, almost ominously still. Over our head somewhere, in the thick branches which in places shut out the sunlight completely, I knew that the tree-roads ran crisscross, and now and again I heard some rustle, a fragment of sound, a voice, a snatch of song.
"It's so dark down here," Rafe muttered, "anyone living in this forest would have to live in the treetops, or go totally blind!"
Kendricks whispered to me, "Are we being followed? Are they going to jump us?"
"I don't think so. What you hear are just the inhabitants of the city—going about their daily business up there."
"Queer business it must be," Regis said curiously, and as we walked along the mossy, needly forest floor, I told him something of the trailmen's lives. I had lost my fear. If anyone came at us now, I could speak their language, I could identify myself, tell my business, name my foster-parents. Some of my confidence evidently spread to the others.
But as we came into more and more familiar territory, I stopped abruptly and struck my hand against my forehead.
"I knew we had forgotten something!" I said roughly, "I've been away from here too long, that's all. Kyla."
"What about Kyla?"
The girl explained it herself, in her expressionless monotone. "I am an unattached female. Such women are not permitted in the Nests."
"That's easy, then," Lerrys said. "She must belong to one of us." He didn't add a syllable. No one could have expected it; Darkovan aristocrats don't bring their women on trips like this, and their women are not like Kyla.
The three brothers broke into a spate of volunteering, and Rafe made an obscene suggestion. Kyla scowled obstinately, her mouth tight with what could have been embarrassment or rage. "If you believe I need your protection—!"
"Kyla," I said tersely, "is under my protection. She will be introduced as my woman—and treated as such."
Rafe twisted his mouth in an un-funny smile. "I see the leader keeps all the best for himself?"
My face must have done something I didn't know about, for Rafe backed slowly away. I forced myself to speak slowly: "Kyla is a guide, and indispensable. If anything happens to me, she is the only one who can lead you back. Therefore her safety is my personal affair. Understand?"
* * * * *
As we went along the trail, the vague green light disappeared. "We're right below the Trailcity," I whispered, and pointed upward. All around us the Hundred Trees rose, branchless pillars so immense that four men, hands joined, could not have encircled one with their arms. They stretched upward for some three hundred feet, before stretching out their interweaving branches; above that, nothing was visible but blackness.
Yet the grove was not dark, but lighted with the startlingly brilliant phosphorescence of the fungi growing on the trunks, and trimmed into bizarre ornamental shapes. In cages of transparent fibre, glowing insects as large as a hand hummed softly and continuously.
As I watched, a trailman—quite naked except for an ornate hat and a narrow binding around the loins—descended the trunk. He went from cage to cage, feeding the glow-worms with bits of shining fungus from a basket on his arm.
I called to him in his own language, and he dropped the basket, with an exclamation, his spidery thin body braced to flee or to raise an alarm.
"But I belong to the Nest," I called to him, and gave him the names of my foster-parents. He came toward me, gripping my forearm with warm long fingers in a gesture of greeting.
"Jason? Yes, I hear them speak of you," he said in his gentle twittering voice, "you are at home. But those others—?" He gestured nervously at the strange faces.
"My friends," I assured him, "and we come to beg the Old One for an audience. For tonight I seek shelter with my parents, if they will receive us."
He raised his head and called softly, and a slim child bounded down the trunk and took the basket. The trailman said, "I am Carrho. Perhaps it would be better if I guided you to your foster-parents, so you will not be challenged."
I breathed more freely. I did not personally recognize Carrho, but he looked pleasantly familiar. Guided by him, we climbed one by one up the dark stairway inside the trunk, and emerged into the bright square, shaded by the topmost leaves into a delicate green twilight. I felt weary and successful.
Kendricks stepped gingerly on the swaying, jiggling floor of the square. It gave slightly at every step, and Kendricks swore morosely in a language that fortunately only Rafe and I understood. Curious trailmen flocked to the street and twittered welcome and surprise.
* * * * *
Rafe and Kendricks betrayed considerable contempt when I greeted my foster-parents affectionately. They were already old, and I was saddened to see it; their fur graying, their prehensile toes and fingers crooked with a rheumatic complaint of some sort, their reddish eyes bleared and rheumy. They welcomed me, and made arrangements for the others in my party to be housed in an abandoned house nearby ... they had insisted that I, of course, must return to their roof, and Kyla, of course, had to stay with me.
"Couldn't we camp on the ground instead?" Kendricks asked, eying the flimsy shelter with distaste.
"It would offend our hosts," I said firmly. I saw nothing wrong with it. Roofed with woven bark, carpeted with moss which was planted on the floor, the place was abandoned, somewhat a bit musty, but weathertight and seemed comfortable to me.
The first thing to be done was to despatch a messenger to the Old One, begging the favor of an audience with him. That done, (by one of my foster-brothers), we settled down to a meal of buds, honey, insects and birds eggs! It tasted good to me, with the familiarity of food eaten in childhood, but among the others, only Kyla ate with appetite and Regis Hastur with interested curiosity.
* * * * *
After the demands of hospitality had been satisfied, my foster-parents asked the names of my party, and I introduced them one by one. When I named Regis Hastur, it reduced them to brief silence, and then to an outcry; gently but firmly, they insisted that their home was unworthy to shelter the son of a Hastur, and that he must be fittingly entertained at the Royal Nest of the Old One.
There was no gracious way for Regis to protest, and when the messenger returned, he prepared to accompany him. But before leaving, he drew me aside:
"I don't much like leaving the rest of you—"
"You'll be safe enough."
"It's not that I'm worried about, Dr. Allison."
"Call me Jason," I corrected angrily. Regis said, with a little tightening of his mouth, "That's it. You'll have to be Dr. Allison tomorrow when you tell the Old One about your mission. But you have to be the Jason he knows, too."
"I wish I needn't leave here. I wish you were—going to stay with the men who know you only as Jason, instead of being alone—or only with Kyla."
There was something odd in his face, and I wondered at it. Could he—a Hastur—be jealous of Kyla? Jealous of me? It had never occurred to me that he might be somehow attracted to Kyla. I tried to pass it off lightly:
"Kyla might divert me."
Regis said without emphasis, "Yet she brought Dr. Allison back once before." Then, surprisingly, he laughed. "Or maybe you're right. Maybe Kyla will—scare away Dr. Allison if he shows up."
* * * * *
The coals of the dying fire laid strange tints of color on Kyla's face and shoulders and the wispy waves of her dark hair. Now that we were alone, I felt constrained.
"Can't you sleep, Jason?"
I shook my head. "Better sleep while you can." I felt that this night of all nights I dared not close my eyes or when I woke I would have vanished into the Jay Allison I hated. For a moment I saw the room with his eyes; to him it would not seem cosy and clean, but—habituated to white sterile tile, Terran rooms and corridors—dirty and unsanitary as any beast's den.
Kyla said broodingly, "You're a strange man, Jason. What sort of man are you—in Terra's world?"
I laughed, but there was no mirth in it. Suddenly I had to tell her the whole truth:
"Kyla, the man you know as me doesn't exist. I was created for this one specific task. Once it's finished, so am I."
She started, her eyes widening. "I've heard tales of—of the Terrans and their sciences—that they make men who aren't real, men of metal—not bone and flesh—"
Before the dawning of that naive horror I quickly held out my bandaged hand, took her fingers in mine and ran them over it. "Is this metal? No, no, Kyla. But the man you know as Jason—I won't be him, I'll be someone different—" How could I explain a subsidiary personality to Kyla, when I didn't understand it myself?
She kept my fingers in hers softly and said, "I saw—someone else—looking from your eyes at me once. A ghost."
I shook my head savagely. "To the Terrans, I'm the ghost!"
"Poor ghost," she whispered.
Her pity stung. I didn't want it.
"What I don't remember I can't regret. Probably I won't even remember you." But I lied. I knew that although I forgot everything else, unregretting because unremembered, I could not bear to lose this girl, that my ghost would walk restless forever if I forgot her. I looked across the fire at Kyla, cross-legged in the faint light—only a few coals in the brazier. She had removed her sexless outer clothing, and wore some clinging garment, as simple as a child's smock and curiously appealing. There was still a little ridge of bandage visible beneath it and a random memory, not mine, remarked in the back corners of my brain that with the cut improperly sutured there would be a visible scar. Visible to whom?
She reached out an appealing hand. "Jason! Jason—?"
* * * * *
My self-possession deserted me. I felt as if I stood, small and reeling, under a great empty echoing chamber which was Jay Allison's mind, and that the roof was about to fall in on me. Kyla's image flickered in and out of focus, first infinitely gentle and appealing, then—as if seen at the wrong end of a telescope—far away and sharply incised and as remote and undesirable as any bug underneath a lens.
Her hands closed on my shoulders. I put out a groping hand to push her away.
"Jason," she implored, "don't—go away from me like that! Talk to me, tell me!"
But her words reached me through emptiness.... I knew important things might hang on tomorrow's meeting, Jason alone could come through that meeting, where the Terrans for some reason put him through this hell and damnation and torture ... oh, yes ... the trailmen's fever.
Jay Allison pushed the girl's hand away and scowled savagely, trying to collect his thoughts and concentrate them on what he must say and do, to convince the trailmen of their duty toward the rest of the planet. As if they—not even human—could have a sense of duty!
With an unaccustomed surge of emotion, he wished he were with the others. Kendricks, now. Jay knew, precisely, why Forth had sent the big, reliable spaceman at his back. And that handsome, arrogant Darkovan—where was he? Jay looked at the girl in puzzlement; he didn't want to reveal that he wasn't quite sure of what he was saying or doing, or that he had little memory of what Jason had been up to.
He started to ask, "Where did the Hastur kid go?" before a vagrant logical thought told him that such an important guest would have been lodged with the Old One. Then a wave of despair hit him; Jay realized he did not even speak the trailmen's language, that it had slipped from his thoughts completely.
"You—" he fished desperately for the girl's name, "Kyla. You don't speak the trailmen's language, do you?"
"A few words. No more. Why?" She had withdrawn into a corner of the tiny room—still not far from him—and he wondered remotely what his damned alter ego had been up to. With Jason, there was no telling. Jay raised his eyes with a melancholy smile.
"Sit down, child. You needn't be frightened."
"I'm—I'm trying to understand—" the girl touched him again, evidently trying to conquer her terror. "It isn't easy—when you turn into someone else under my eyes—" Jay saw that she was shaking in real fright.
He said wearily, "I'm not going to—to turn into a bat and fly away. I'm just a poor devil of a doctor who's gotten himself into one unholy mess." There was no reason, he was thinking, to take out his own misery and despair by shouting at this poor kid. God knew what she'd been through with his irresponsible other self—Forth had admitted that that damned "Jason" personality was a blend of all the undesirable traits he'd fought to smother all his life. By an effort of will he kept himself from pulling away from her hand on his shoulder.
"Jason, don't—slip away like that! Think! Try to keep hold on yourself!"
Jay propped his head in his hands, trying to make sense of that. Certainly in the dim light she could not be too conscious of subtle changes of expression. She evidently thought she was talking to Jason. She didn't seem to be overly intelligent.
"Think about tomorrow, Jason. What are you going to say to him? Think about your parents—"
Jay Allison wondered what they would think when they found a stranger here. He felt like a stranger. Yet he must have come, tonight, into this house and spoken—he rummaged desperately in his mind for some fragments of the trailmen's language. He had spoken it as a child. He must recall enough to speak to the woman who had been a kind foster-mother to her alien son. He tried to form his lips to the unfamiliar shapes of words...
Jay covered his face with his hands again. Jason was the part of himself that remembered the trailmen. That was what he had to remember—Jason was not a hostile stranger, not an alien intruder in his body. Jason was a lost part of himself and at the moment a damn necessary part. If there were only some way to get back the Jason memories, skills, without losing himself ... he said to the girl, "Let me think. Let me—" to his surprise and horror his voice broke into an alien tongue, "Let me alone, will you?"
Maybe, Jay thought, I could stay myself if I could remember the rest. Dr. Forth said: Jason would remember the trailmen with kindness, not dislike.
Jay searched his memory and found nothing but familiar frustration; years spent in an alien land, apart from a human heritage, stranded and abandoned. My father left me. He crashed the plane and I never saw him again and I hate him for leaving me ...
But his father had not abandoned him. He had crashed the plane trying to save them both. It was no one's fault—
Except my father's. For trying to fly over the Hellers into a country where no man belongs ...
He hadn't belonged. And yet the trailmen, whom he considered little better than roaming beasts, had taken the alien child into their city, their homes, their hearts. They had loved him. And he ...
* * * * *
"And I loved them," I found myself saying half aloud, then realized that Kyla was gripping my arm, looking up imploringly into my face. I shook my head rather groggily. "What's the matter?"
"You frightened me," she said in a shaky little voice, and I suddenly knew what had happened. I tensed with savage rage against Jay Allison. He couldn't even give me the splinter of life I'd won for myself, but had to come sneaking out of my mind, how he must hate me! Not half as much as I hated him, damn him! Along with everything else, he'd scared Kyla half to death!
She was kneeling very close to me, and I realized that there was one way to fight that cold austere fish of a Jay Allison, send him shrieking down into hell again. He was a man who hated everything except the cold world he'd made his life. Kyla's face was lifted, soft and intent and pleading, and suddenly I reached out and pulled her to me and kissed her, hard.
"Could a ghost do this?" I demanded, "or this?"
She whispered, "No—oh, no," and her arms went up to lock around my neck. As I pulled her down on the sweet-smelling moss that carpeted the chamber, I felt the dark ghost of my other self thin out, vanish and disappear.
Regis had been right. It had been the only way ...
* * * * *
The Old One was not old at all; the title was purely ceremonial. This one was young—not much older than I—but he had poise and dignity and the same strange indefinable quality I had recognized in Regis Hastur. It was something, I supposed, that the Terran Empire had lost in spreading from star to star. A feeling of knowing one's own place, a dignity that didn't demand recognition because it had never lacked for it.
Like all trailmen he had the chinless face and lobeless ears, the heavy-haired body which looked slightly less than human. He spoke very low—the trailmen have very acute hearing—and I had to strain my ears to listen, and remember to keep my own voice down.
He stretched his hand to me, and I lowered my head over it and murmured, "I take submission, Old One."
"Never mind that," he said in his gentle twittering voice, "sit down, my son. You are welcome here, but I feel you have abused our trust in you. We dismissed you to your own kind because we felt you would be happier so. Did we show you anything but kindness, that after so many years you return with armed men?"
The reproof in his red eyes was hardly an auspicious beginning. I said helplessly, "Old One, the men with me are not armed. A band of those-who-may-not-enter-cities attacked us, and we defended ourselves. I travelled with so many men only because I feared to travel the passes alone."
"But does that explain why you have returned at all?" The reason and reproach in his voice made sense.
Finally I said, "Old One, we come as suppliants. My people appeal to your people in the hope that you will be—" I started to say, as human, stopped and amended "—that you will deal as kindly with them as with me."
His face betrayed nothing. "What do you ask?"
I explained. I told it badly, stumbling, not knowing the technical terms, knowing they had no equivalents anyway in the trailmen's language. He listened, asking a penetrating question now and again. When I mentioned the Terran Legate's offer to recognize the trailmen as a separate and independent government, he frowned and rebuked me:
"We of the Sky People have no dealings with the Terrans, and care nothing for their recognition—or its lack."
For that I had no answer, and the Old One continued, kindly but indifferently, "We do not like to think that the fever which is a children's little sickness with us shall kill so many of your kind. But you cannot in all honesty blame us. You cannot say that we spread the disease; we never go beyond the mountains. Are we to blame that the winds change or the moons come together in the sky? When the time has come for men to die, they die." He stretched his hand in dismissal. "I will give your men safe-conduct to the river, Jason. Do not return."
Regis Hastur rose suddenly and faced him. "Will you hear me, Father?" He used the ceremonial title without hesitation, and the Old One said in distress, "The son of Hastur need never speak as a suppliant to the Sky People!"
"Nevertheless, hear me as a suppliant, Father," Regis said quietly. "It is not the strangers and aliens of Terra who are pleading. We have learned one thing from the strangers of Terra, which you have not yet learned. I am young and it is not fitting that I should teach you, but you have said; are we to blame that the moons come together in the sky? No. But we have learned from the Terrans not to blame the moons in the sky for our own ignorance of the ways of the Gods—by which I mean the ways of sickness or poverty or misery."
"These are strange words for a Hastur," said the Old One, displeased.
"These are strange times for a Hastur," said Regis loudly. The Old One winced, and Regis moderated his tone, but continued vehemently, "You blame the moons in the sky. I say the moons are not to blame—nor the winds—nor the Gods. The Gods send these things to men to test their wits and to find if they have the will to master them!"
* * * * *
The Old One's forehead ridged vertically and he said with stinging contempt, "Is this the breed of king which men call Hastur now?"
"Man or God or Hastur, I am not too proud to plead for my people," retorted Regis, flushing with anger. "Never in all the history of Darkover has a Hastur stood before one of you and begged—"
"—for the men from another world."
"—for all men on our world! Old One, I could sit and keep state in the House of the Hasturs, and even death could not touch me until I grew weary of living! But I preferred to learn new lives from new men. The Terrans have something to teach even the Hasturs, and they can learn a remedy against the trailmen's fever." He looked round at me, turning the discussion over to me again, and I said:
"I am no alien from another world, Old One. I have been a son in your house. Perhaps I was sent to teach you to fight destiny. I cannot believe you are indifferent to death."
Suddenly, hardly knowing what I was going to do until I found myself on my knees, I knelt and looked up into the quiet stern remote face of the nonhuman:
"My father," I said, "you took a dying man and a dying child from a burning plane. Even those of their own kind might have stripped their corpses and left them to die. You saved the child, fostered him and treated him as a son. When he reached an age to be unhappy with you, you let a dozen of your people risk their lives to take him to his own. You cannot ask me to believe that you are indifferent to the death of a million of my people, when the fate of one could stir your pity!"
* * * * *
There was a moment's silence. Finally the Old One said, "Indifferent—no. But helpless. My people die when they leave the mountains. The air is too rich for them. The food is wrong. The light blinds and tortures them. Can I send them to suffer and die, those people who call me father?"
And a memory, buried all my life, suddenly surfaced. I said urgently, "Father, listen. In the world I live in now, I am called a wise man. You need not believe me, but listen; I know your people, they are my people. I remember when I left you, more than a dozen of my foster-parents' friends offered, knowing they risked death, to go with me. I was a child; I did not realize the sacrifice they made. But I watched them suffer, as we went lower in the mountains, and I resolved ... I resolved ..." I spoke with difficulty, forcing the words through a reluctant barricade, "... that since others had suffered so for me ... I would spend my life in curing the sufferings of others. Father, the Terrans call me a wise doctor, a man of healing. Among the Terrans I can see that my people, if they will come to us and help us, have air they can breathe and food which will suit them and that they are guarded from the light. I don't ask you to send anyone, father. I ask only—tell your sons what I have told you. If I know your people—who are my people forever—hundreds of them will offer to return with me. And you may witness what your foster-son has sworn here; if one of your sons dies, your alien son will answer for it with his own life."
The words had poured from me in a flood. They were not all mine; some unconscious thing had recalled in me that Jay Allison had power to make these promises. For the first time I began to see what force, what guilt, what dedication working in Jay Allison had turned him aside from me. I remained at the Old One's feet, kneeling, overcome, ashamed of the thing I had become. Jay Allison was worth ten of me. Irresponsible, Forth had said. Lacking purpose, lacking balance. What right had I to despise my soberer self?
At last I felt the Old One touch my head lightly.
"Get up, my son," he said, "I will answer for my people. And forgive me for my doubts and my delays."
* * * * *
Neither Regis nor I spoke for a minute after we left the audience room; then, almost as one, we turned to each other. Regis spoke first, soberly.
"It was a fine thing you did, Jason. I didn't believe he'd agree to it."
"It was your speech that did it," I denied. The sober mood, the unaccustomed surge of emotion, was still on me, but it was giving way to a sudden upswing of exaltation. Damn it, I'd done it! Let Jay Allison try to match that ...
Regis still looked grave. "He'd have refused, but you appealed to him as one of themselves. And yet it wasn't quite that ... it was something more ..." Regis put a quick embarrassed arm around my shoulders and suddenly blurted out, "I think the Terran Medical played hell with your life, Jason! And even if it saves a million lives—it's hard to forgive them for that!"
* * * * *
Late the next day the Old One called us in again, and told us that a hundred men had volunteered to return with us and act as blood donors and experimental subjects for research into the trailmen's disease.
The trip over the mountains, so painfully accomplished was easier in return. Our escort of a hundred trailmen guaranteed us against attack, and they could choose the easiest paths.
Only as we undertook the long climb downward through the foothills did the trailmen, un-used to ground travel at any time, and suffering from the unaccustomed low altitude, begin to weaken. As we grew stronger, more and more of them faltered, and we travelled more and more slowly. Not even Kendricks could be callous about "inhuman animals" by the time we reached the point where we had left the pack animals. And it was Rafe Scott who came to me and said desperately, "Jason, these poor fellows will never make it to Carthon. Lerrys and I know this country. Let us go ahead, as fast as we can travel alone, and arrange at Carthon for transit—maybe we can get pressurized aircraft to fly them from here. We can send a message from Carthon, too, about accommodations for them at the Terran HQ."
I was surprised and a little guilty that I had not thought of this myself. I covered it with a mocking, "I thought you didn't give a damn about 'any of my friends.'"
Rafe said doggedly, "I guess I was wrong about that. They're going through this out of a sense of duty, so they must be pretty different than I thought they were."
Regis, who had overheard Rafe's plan, now broke in quietly, "There's no need for you to travel ahead, Rafe. I can send a quicker message."
I had forgotten that Regis was a trained telepath. He added, "There are some space and distance limitations to such messages, but there is a regular relay net all over Darkover, and one of the relays is a girl who lives at the very edge of the Terran Zone. If you'll tell me what will give her access to the Terran HQ—" he flushed slightly and explained, "from what I know of the Terrans, she would not be very fortunate relaying the message if she merely walked to the gate and said she had a relayed telepathic message for someone, would she?"
I had to smile at the picture that conjured up in my mind. "I'm afraid not," I admitted. "Tell her to go to Dr. Forth, and give the message from Dr. Jason Allison."
Regis looked at me curiously—it was the first time I had spoken my own name in the hearing of the others. But he nodded, without comment. For the next hour or two he seemed somewhat more pre-occupied than usual, but after a time he came to me and told me that the message had gone through. Sometime later he relayed an answer; that airlift would be waiting for us, not at Carthon, but a small village near the ford of the Kadarin where we had left our trucks.
When we camped that night there were a dozen practical problems needing attention; the time and exact place of crossing the ford, the reassurance to be given to terrified trailmen who could face leaving their forests but not crossing the final barricade of the river, the small help in our power to be given the sick ones. But after everything had been done that I could do, and after the whole camp had quieted down, I sat before the low-burning fire and stared into it, deep in painful lassitude. Tomorrow we would cross the river and a few hours later we would be back in the Terran HQ. And then....
And then ... and then nothing. I would vanish, I would utterly cease to exist anywhere, except as a vagrant ghost troubling Jay Allison's unquiet dreams. As he moved through the cold round of his days I would be no more than a spent wind, a burst bubble, a thinned cloud.
The rose and saffron of the dying fire-colors gave shape to my dreams. Once more, as in the trailcity that night, Kyla slipped through firelight to my side, and I looked up at her and suddenly I knew I could not bear it. I pulled her to me and muttered, "Oh, Kyla—Kyla, I won't even remember you!"
She pushed my hands away, kneeling upright, and said urgently, "Jason, listen. We are close to Carthon, the others can lead them the rest of the way. Why go back to them at all? Slip away now and never go back! We can—" she stopped, coloring fiercely, that sudden and terrifying shyness overcoming her again, and at last she said in a whisper, "Darkover is a wide world, Jason. Big enough for us to hide in. I don't believe they would search very far."
They wouldn't. I could leave word with Kendricks—not with Regis, the telepath would see through me immediately—that I had ridden ahead to Carthon, with Kyla. By the time they realized that I had fled, they would be too concerned with getting the trailmen safely to the Terran Zone to spend much time looking for a runaway. As Kyla said, the world was wide. And it was my world. And I would not be alone in it.
"Kyla, Kyla," I said helplessly, and crushed her against me, kissing her. She closed her eyes and I took a long, long look at her face. Not beautiful, no. But womanly and brave and all the other beautiful things. It was a farewell look, and I knew it, if she didn't.
After the briefest time, she pulled a little away, and her flat voice was gentler and more breathless than usual. "We'd better leave before the others waken." She saw that I did not move. "Jason—?"
I could not look at her. Muffled behind my hands, I said, "No, Kyla. I—I promised the Old One to look after my people in the Terran world. I must go back—"
"You won't be there to look after them! You won't be you!"
I said bleakly, "I'll write a letter to remind myself. Jay Allison has a very strong sense of duty. He'll look after them for me. He won't like it, but he'll do it, with his last breath. He's a better man than I am, Kyla. You'd better forget about me." I said, wearily, "I never existed."
That wasn't the end. Not nearly. She—begged, and I don't know why I put myself through the hell of stubbornness. But in the end she ran away, crying, and I threw myself down by the fire, cursing Forth, cursing my own folly, but most of all cursing Jay Allison, hating my other self with a blistering, sickening rage.
* * * * *
Coming through the outskirts of the small village the next afternoon, the village where the airlift would meet us, we noted that the poorer quarter was almost abandoned. Regis said bleakly, "It's begun," and dropped out of line to stand in the doorway of a silent dwelling. After a minute he beckoned to me, and I looked inside.
I wished I hadn't. The sight would haunt me while I lived. An old man, two young women and half a dozen children between four and fifteen years old lay inside. The old man, one of the children, and one of the young women were laid out neatly in clean death, shrouded, their faces covered with green branches after the Darkovan custom for the dead. The other young woman lay huddled near the fireplace, her coarse dress splattered with the filthy stuff she had vomited, dying. The children—but even now I can't think of the children without retching. One, very small, had been in the woman's arms when she collapsed; it had squirmed free—for a little while. The others were in an indescribable condition and the worst of it was that one of them was still moving, feebly, long past help. Regis turned blindly from the door and leaned against the wall, his shoulders heaving. Not, as I first thought, in disgust, but in grief. Tears ran over his hands and spilled down, and when I took him by the arm to lead him away, he reeled and fell against me.
He said in a broken, blurred, choking voice, "Oh, Lord, Jason, those children, those children—if you ever had any doubts about what you're doing, any doubts about what you've done, think about that, think that you've saved a whole world from that, think that you've done something even the Hasturs couldn't do!"
My own throat tightened with something more than embarrassment. "Better wait till we know for sure whether the Terrans can carry through with it, and you'd better get to hell away from this doorway. I'm immune, but damn it, you're not." But I had to take him and lead him away, like a child, from that house. He looked up into my face and said with burning sincerity, "I wonder if you believe I'd give my life, a dozen times over, to have done that?"
It was a curious, austere reward. But vaguely it comforted me. And then, as we rode into the village itself, I lost myself, or tried to lose myself, in reassuring the frightened trailmen who had never seen a city on the ground, never seen or heard of an airplane. I avoided Kyla. I didn't want a final word, a farewell. We had had our farewells already.
* * * * *
Forth had done a marvelous job of having quarters ready for the trailmen, and after they were comfortably installed and reassured, I went down wearily and dressed in Jay Allison's clothing. I looked out the window at the distant mountains and a line from the book on mountaineering, which I had bought as a youngster in an alien world, and Jay had kept as a stray fragment of personality, ran in violent conflict through my mind:
Something hidden—go and find it ...
Something lost beyond the ranges ...
* * * * *
I had just begun to live. Surely I deserved better than this, to vanish when I had just discovered life. Did the man who did not know how to live, deserve to live at all? Jay Allison—that cold man who had never looked beyond any ranges—why should I be lost in him?
Something lost beyond the ranges ... nothing would be lost but myself. I was beginning to loathe the overflown sense of duty which had brought me back here. Now, when it was too late, I was bitterly regretting ... Kyla had offered me life. Surely I would never see Kyla again.
Could I regret what I would never remember? I walked into Forth's office as if I were going to my doom. I was ...
Forth greeted me warmly.
"Sit down and tell me all about it ..." he insisted. I would rather not speak. Instead, compulsively, I made it a full report ... and curious flickers came in and out of my consciousness as I spoke. By the time I realized I was reacting to a post-hypnotic suggestion, that in fact I was going under hypnosis again, it was too late and I could only think that this was worse than death because in a way I would be alive ...
* * * * *
Jay Allison sat up and meticulously straightened his cuff before tightening his mouth in what was meant for a smile. "I assume, then, that the experiment was a success?"
"A complete success." Forth's voice was somewhat harsh and annoyed, but Jay was untroubled; he had known for years that most of his subordinates and superiors disliked him, and had long ago stopped worrying about it.
"The trailmen agreed?"
"They agreed," Forth said, surprised. "You don't remember anything at all?"
"Scraps. Like a nightmare." Jay Allison looked down at the back of his hand, flexing the fingers cautiously against pain, touching the partially healed red slash. Forth followed the direction of his eyes and said, not unsympathetically, "Don't worry about your hand. I looked at it pretty carefully. You'll have the total use of it."
Jay said rigidly, "It seems to have been a pretty severe risk to take. Did you ever stop to think what it would have meant to me, to lose the use of my hand?"
"It seemed a justifiable risk, even if you had," Forth said dryly. "Jay, I've got the whole story on tape, just as you told it to me. You might not like having a blank spot in your memory. Want to hear what your alter ego did?"
Jay hesitated. Then he unfolded his long legs and stood up. "No, I don't think I care to know." He waited, arrested by a twinge of a sore muscle, and frowned.
What had happened, what would he never know, why did the random ache bring a pain deeper than the pain of a torn nerve? Forth was watching him, and Jay asked irritably, "What is it?"
"You're one hell of a cold fish, Jay."
"I don't understand you, sir."
"You wouldn't," Forth muttered. "Funny. I liked your subsidiary personality."
Jay's mouth contracted in a mirthless grin.
"You would," he said, and swung quickly round.
"Come on. If I'm going to work on that serum project I'd better inspect the volunteers and line up the blood donors and look over old whatshisname's papers."
But beyond the window the snowy ridges of the mountain, inscrutable, caught and held his eye; a riddle and a puzzle—
"Ridiculous," he said, and went to his work.
* * * * *
Four months later, Jay Allison and Randall Forth stood together, watching the last of the disappearing planes, carrying the volunteers back toward Carthon and their mountains.
"I should have flown back to Carthon with them," Jay said moodily. Forth watched the tall man stare at the mountain; wondered what lay behind the contained gestures and the brooding.
He said, "You've done enough, Jay. You've worked like the devil. Thurmond—the Legate—sent down to say you'd get an official commendation and a promotion for your part. That's not even mentioning what you did in the trailmen's city." He put a hand on his colleague's shoulder, but Jay shook it off impatiently.
All through the work of isolating and testing the blood fraction, Jay had worked tirelessly and unsparingly; scarcely sleeping, but brooding; silent, prone to fly into sudden savage rages, but painstaking. He had overseen the trailmen with an almost fatherly solicitude—but from a distance. He had left no stone unturned for their comfort—but refused to see them in person except when it was unavoidable.
Forth thought, we played a dangerous game. Jay Allison had made his own adjustment to life, and we disturbed that balance. Have we wrecked the man? He's expendable, but damn it, what a loss! He asked, "Well, why didn't you fly back to Carthon with them? Kendricks went along, you know. He expected you to go until the last minute."
Jay did not answer. He had avoided Kendricks, the only witness to his duality. In all his nightmare brooding, the avoidance of anyone who had known him as Jason became a mania. Once, meeting Rafe Scott on the lower floor of the HQ, he had turned frantically and plunged like a madman through halls and corridors, to avoid coming face to face with the man, finally running up four flights of stairs and taking shelter in his rooms, with the pounding heart and bursting veins of a hunted criminal. At last he said, "If you've called me down here to read me the riot act about not wanting to make another trip into the Hellers—!"
"No, no," Forth said equably, "there's a visitor coming. Regis Hastur sent word he wants to see you. In case you don't remember him, he was on Project Jason—"
"I remember," Jay said grimly. It was nearly his one clear memory—the nightmare of the ledge, his slashed hand, the shameful naked body of the Darkovan woman, and—blurring these things, the too-handsome Darkovan aristocrat who had banished him for Jason again. "He's a better psychiatrist than you are, Forth. He changed me into Jason in the flicker of an eyelash, and it took you half a dozen hypnotic sessions."
"I've heard about the psi powers of the Hasturs," Forth said, "but I've never been lucky enough to meet one in person. Tell me about it. What did he do?"
* * * * *
Jay made a tight movement of exasperation, too controlled for a shrug. "Ask him, why don't you. Look, Forth, I don't much care to see him. I didn't do it for Darkover; I did it because it was my job. I'd prefer to forget the whole thing. Why don't you talk to him?"
"I rather had the idea that he wanted to see you personally. Jay, you did a tremendous thing, man! Damn it, why don't you strut a little? Be—be normal for once! Why, I'd be damned near bursting with pride if one of the Hasturs insisted on congratulating me personally!"
Jay's lip twitched, and his voice shook with controlled exasperation. "Maybe you would. I don't see it that way."
"Well, I'm afraid you'll have to. On Darkover nobody refuses when the Hasturs make a request—and certainly not a request as reasonable as this one." Forth sat down beside the desk. Jay struck the woodwork with a violent clenched fist and when he lowered his hand there was a tiny smear of blood along his knuckles. After a minute he walked to the couch and sat down, very straight and stiff, saying nothing. Neither of the men spoke again until Forth started at the sound of a buzzer, drew the mouthpiece toward him, and said, "Tell him we are honored—you know the routine for dignitaries, and send him up here."
Jay twisted his fingers together and ran his thumb, in a new gesture, over the ridge of scar tissue along the knuckles. Forth was aware of an entirely new quality in the silence, and started to speak to break it, but before he could do so, the office door slid open on its silent beam, and Regis Hastur stood there.
Forth rose courteously and Jay got to his feet like a mechanical doll jerked on strings. The young Darkovan ruler smiled engagingly at him:
"Don't bother, this visit is informal; that's the reason I came here rather than inviting you both to the Tower. Dr. Forth? It is a pleasure to meet you again, sir. I hope that our gratitude to you will soon take a more tangible form. There has not been a single death from the trailmen's fever since you made the serum available."
Jay, motionless, saw bitterly that the old man had succumbed to the youngster's deliberate charm. The chubby, wrinkled old face seamed up in a pleased smile as Forth said, "The gifts sent to the trailmen in your name, Lord Hastur, were greatly welcomed."
"Do you think that any of us will ever forget what they have done?" Regis replied. He turned toward the window and smiled rather tentatively at the man who stood there; motionless since his first conventional gesture of politeness:
"Dr. Allison, do you remember me at all?"
"I remember you," Jay Allison said sullenly.
His voice hung heavy in the room, its sound a miasma in his ears. All his sleepless, nightmare-charged brooding, all his bottled hate for Darkover and the memories he had tried to bury, erupted into overwrought bitterness against this too-ingratiating youngster who was a demigod on this world and who had humiliated him, repudiated him for the hated Jason ... for Jay, Regis had suddenly become the symbol of a world that hated him, forced him into a false mold.
A black and rushing wind seemed to blur the room. He said hoarsely, "I remember you all right," and took one savage, hurtling step.
The weight of the unexpected blow spun Regis around, and the next moment Jay Allison, who had never touched another human being except with the remote hands of healing, closed steely, murderous hands around Regis' throat. The world thinned out into a crimson rage. There were shouting and sudden noises, and a red-hot explosion in his brain ...
* * * * *
"You'd better drink this," Forth remarked, and I realized I was turning a paper cup in my hands. Forth sat down, a little weakly, as I raised it to my lips and sipped. Regis took his hand away from his throat and said huskily, "I could use some of that, Doctor."
I put the whiskey down. "You'll do better with water until your throat muscles are healed," I said swiftly, and went to fill a throwaway cup for him, without thinking. Handing it to him. I stopped in sudden dismay and my hand shook, spilling a few drops. I said hoarsely, swallowing, "—but drink it, anyway—"
Regis got a few drops down, painfully, and said, "My own fault. The moment I saw—Jay Allison—I knew he was a madman. I'd have stopped him sooner only he took me by surprise."
"But—you say him—I'm Jay Allison," I said, and then my knees went weak and I sat down. "What in hell is this? I'm not Jay—but I'm not Jason, either—"
I could remember my entire life, but the focus had shifted. I still felt the old love, the old nostalgia for the trailmen; but I also knew, with a sure sense of identity, that I was Doctor Jason Allison, Jr., who had abandoned mountain climbing and become a specialist in Darkovan parasitology. Not Jay who had rejected his world; not Jason who had been rejected by it. But then who?
Regis said quietly, "I've seen you before—once. When you knelt to the Old One of the trailmen." With a whimsical smile he said, "As an ignorant superstitious Darkovan, I'd say that you were a man who'd balanced his god and daemon for once."
I looked helplessly at the young Hastur. A few seconds ago my hands had been at his throat. Jay or Jason, maddened by self-hate and jealousy, could disclaim responsibility for the other's acts.
Regis said, "We could take the easy way out, and arrange it so we'd never have to see each other again. Or we could do it the hard way." He extended his hand, and after a minute, I understood, and we shook hands briefly, like strangers who have just met. He added, "Your work with the trailmen is finished, but We Hasturs committed ourselves to teach some of the Terrans our science—matrix mechanics. Dr. Allison—Jason—you know Darkover, and I think we could work with you. Further, you know something about slipping mental gears. I meant to ask; would you care to be one of them? You'd be ideal."
I looked out the window at the distant mountains. This work—this would be something which would satisfy both halves of myself. The irresistible force, the immovable object—and no ghosts wandering in my brain. "I'll do it," I told Regis. And then, deliberately, I turned my back on him and went up to the quarters, now deserted, which we had readied for the trailmen. With my new doubled—or complete—memories, another ghost had roused up in my brain, and I remembered a woman who had appeared vaguely in Jay Allison's orbit, unnoticed, working with the trailmen, tolerated because she could speak their language. I opened the door, searched briefly through the rooms, and shouted, "Kyla!" and she came. Running. Disheveled. Mine.
At the last moment, she drew back a little from my arms and whispered, "You're Jason—but you're something more. Different ..."
"I don't know who I am," I said quietly, "but I'm me. Maybe for the first time. Want to help me find out just who that is?"
I put my arm around her, trying to find a path between memory and tomorrow. All my life, I had walked a strange road toward an unknown horizon. Now, reaching my horizon, I found it marked only the rim of an unknown country.
Kyla and I would explore it together.