The crisis with the natives was at hand and still the ERB showed no sign of permitting a Frontier Corps officer to make any suggestions.
For the fifth time that day Captain Harold Rider walked up the single dusty street of what had been his Frontier Corps outpost on Deneb Five until the unexpected arrival forty-eight hours before of General Beeling and his Extraterrestrial Relations Board unit. He came to the huge ERB Headquarters prefab at the end of the street. There, still on duty at the door, was the ferret-faced guard who had turned him back twice before.
The guard lounged indolently against the wall, seemed not to see Rider. But when Rider reached out to open the door he came to life with a quick sidestep that barred the way, straightening to attention with his hands brushing his holstered blaster and club.
"No admittance!" he snapped, with the crisp intonation of those who enjoy authority. "General Beeling and the others must not be disturbed, as I told you before."
He added, with deliberate delay, "—sir."
Rider withdrew his reaching hand and considered the pleasure of smashing the pointed chin and walking into the building across the man's stomach. He regretfully dismissed it as wishful dreaming. The feud between the old Frontier Corps and the politically powerful and young ERB was approaching its decisive climax and reached even to Deneb. He was a despised and unwanted superfluity in what had been his own camp and they would like nothing better than an excuse to arrest and confine him.
* * *
Quick footsteps sounded inside and the door swung open. It was Colonel Primmer, Beeling's aide, turning with his hand still on the doorknob and almost bowing in the obsequious manner characteristic of him as he said, "You are so right, General Beeling. Yes, sir. At once, sir."
He turned again and shut the door behind him. The fawning expression vanished from his red face at the sight of Rider and a cold, fishy look replaced it.
"General Beeling is far too busy to see you," he said, "if that's what you're still waiting for."
"It is," he answered. "Surely he can spare a few minutes. Right now we're two shakes away from a mass attack by the natives and if the chief isn't handled just right when he comes for the last talk this camp will be turned into a slaughter pen. Let me tell—"
"I think," Primmer said, "that the Extraterrestrial Relations Board can successfully cope with a barbarian chieftain without first consulting a layman. As for that other matter with which you've been trying to annoy the general all day: he requested me to inform you that the helicopter will not be available to you, that there are issues before him of a great deal more importance than the life of your talking dog."
Primmer turned to the guard, pointedly dismissing Rider. "Go tell Mantingly and Johnson that I want them here on the double. Tell Myers to bring his laborers here—"
Rider turned away and went back down the street, wondering again how he could show Beeling the deadly danger of the situation. It was a hell of a problem—how could you convince a man who wouldn't let you talk to him?
He detoured around a mound of crates—part of the huge mass of ERB equipment and supplies that had been hastily unloaded from the special Missions cruiser before it hurried back Earthward—and was met by a gust of wind that whipped the fine, poisonous sand against his face. Deneb, almost to the horizon, was going down with a purple halo around it and the desert to the southeast was a smoky azure. He could not tell for sure through the haze but the sky above the distant Sea Cliffs seemed to have turned black.
If a storm was in progress there it would already be too late to take the helicopter more than part way to rescue Laughing Girl, the Altairian. But that made little difference—he had virtually no hope of altering Beeling's disdainful regard for what he called "the talking dogs." The helicopter would remain unavailable and he would have to find some other way of saving her.
* * *
Beeling's entire force of laborers and other non-ERB-commissioned personnel was at work along the street, erecting more prefabricated buildings to shelter the supplies. He noticed again the way they spoke to one another in lowered voices and glanced often toward the ragged hills that surrounded the valley. One of them, a red-haired boy, stepped out and spoke to him:
"Sir—could I ask you a question?"
He appraised the boy automatically: Nineteen, a long way from home, and trying not to show that he was scared.
"Of course," he answered. "What is it?"
"Is it true that the natives have been waiting for weeks for this ERB unit to come, so they could kill us all?"
"They didn't even know you existed until you landed here," he said. "Who told you that?"
"Why—" The boy looked suddenly uncomfortable. "I don't remember, sir."
He did not press the question. It would have been something that came down from Beeling or Primmer.
The others had stopped to listen, all of them showing to some degree the same uncertainty that was on the freckled face of the red-haired boy. They were young; the mechanically logical ERB had selected seventeen to twenty-two as the preferred aged for its performers of manual labor since men of that age were the hardiest and made the most efficient workers on worlds not suited to human life.
The ERB encouraged laborer enlistments with colorful posters that promised: GOOD PAY AND HIGH ADVENTURE AWAIT YOU BEYOND THE STARS. The boys had thought, when they landed two days and nights before, that they had stepped across the threshold of the promised high adventure and they had been as excited as children. Now they were solemn and hushed as they tried to adjust themselves to the realization that there would be no adventure, no allure, in quick and violent death . . .
"There may be trouble over your coming," he said, "but it won't be anything that was premeditated. There's a likely chance it won't happen at all. We'll know in a few minutes."
He turned and walked off, feeling them silent and very thoughtful behind him.
At the end of the street was the little building that had been his office until Beeling's arrival with the special order that had changed the Frontier Corps outpost to an ERB Primary Contact Field Installation. It was there that he and the natives had met and talked so many times in the past and it was there that old Chief Selsin would soon come to what might be the last meeting.
He went inside and saw that his few remaining possessions had been piled in a corner pending further disposal. He walked on to the desk where the hyperspace communicator, borrowed from the Frontier ship, stood locked and silent. One of Beeling's first demands, as new commander of the outpost, had been for the hyperspace communicator's key. Beeling did not need the communicator—he had a similar model in his headquarters building—but a locked communicator could not be used by a displaced Frontier Corpsman to send unauthorized reports to Earth.
The camp-to-ship radio was inside the communicator. He switched it on, to try again to reach his Frontier ship on Deneb One. The result was the same as before; a shrieking, roaring, ear-splitting blast of static. The sun was squarely between the two worlds and, since it was a white sun, its electronic emission was tremendous. Contact with the ship was utterly impossible.
He changed the wave length to that of the little shortwave radio under the Sea Cliffs and signaled with the Beep button. There was no response, other than a harsh grinding of static from the storm he thought he had seen, which meant that Laughing Girl must still be out tending to the mineral detector.
He switched the radio off, wondering what he could have told her if she had answered him.
* * *
Loper, the other shaggy, dog-like Altairian, came running through the door, his eyes bright with excitement.
"Are coming now—oh, hundreds and hundreds. Rook, Captain!"
He looked, where a wide, low pass to the northeast led to the higher country beyond, and saw the natives coming down it. There were perhaps five hundred of them, coming with their dragon-beast mounts in a run, their long rifles across their saddles and their bronze battle helmets gleaming brightly in the late sunlight.
There were nine columns and a different pennant fluttered at the head of each. Which meant that the Nine Tribes were solidly allied under the leadership of old Selsin until the business with the humans was settled.
"Are stirr more coming farther back," Loper said. "Pretty soon awr around us wirr be the big rif'res that can kirr us. Why, Captain?" There was puzzled question in his dark eyes. "We not hurt any of them."
"They're afraid we might," he said. "We're getting this one last chance to prove we won't."
"If they not berieve us, how soon wirr they kirr us?"
"I think they'll give us a chance to leave, first."
"But we can't reave—our ship is gone."
"That, Loper, is the big, repulsive fly that's in everybody's soup today."
The columns of armed natives split as they reached the bottom of the pass, and raced to north and south along the valley's rim.
"They going to surround us," Loper said. "If they say, 'You not pass,' we have to have the hericopter." He looked away from the natives and toward the Sea Cliffs. "She die there if we not come and nobody care. I not understand."
To Loper it was still incomprehensible that there could be humans who did not like Altairians. He had known only the men of the Frontier ship, who regarded Altairians with the same affection they would have had for loyal and cheerful—and sometimes blundering—twelve-year-old children. Except when it was time to meet the natives of a new world, when the Altairians' highly developed sense of empathy changed their role to that of invaluable coaches and advisors.
* * *
Frontier ships were always undermanned—each year the increasingly huge expenditures of the ERB forced the Space Board to cut the Frontier Corps budget to make up the difference—and the Altairians diligently performed all tasks of which they were capable. When the order came through to have Deneb One surveyed immediately he had needed to send his entire crew and had used Laughing Girl to replace the man tending the electronic mineral detector that had been set up under the Sea Cliffs. It was a job she could manage, since the detector was near-enough automatic in its operation that its supervision required no technical knowledge. This had enabled him to send a full crew to Deneb One, while he remained at camp with Loper to help him and continued the meetings with the natives.
He had intended to take the helicopter to the Sea Cliffs a safe twenty hours in advance of the Big Tide and bring back Laughing Girl and the portable mineral detector. But Beeling had ordered: "Our only means of transportation will not be permitted to leave this camp until this trouble with the natives is fully settled."
By then it would be too late. The three moons of Deneb Five possessed complex orbits that brought the Big Tide every ten days; a titanic bulge in the waters of the oceans that raced around the world at a speed of five hundred miles per hour. The three moons were already on the opposite side of the world, swinging close around it and bringing the Big Tide with them. It would strike the high, unscalable Sea Cliffs at sunrise and Laughing Girl, still faithfully tending the detector down under them and waiting for him to come for her, would be killed instantly.
To the few of the ERB staff he had managed to talk to, his persistent requests for the helicopter had seemed ridiculous. "Really, Captain," one natty young lieutenant he had cornered outside Headquarters had said, "you're taking the loss of your mascot far too seriously. After all, you can pick up a dozen of the beasts the next time you pass Altair." . . .
"Not much longer, Loper. Only until the talk with Selsin is over."
"I think he come now."
The long columns were still coming down the pass and parting at the bottom but one native was coming straight toward the camp in a slow trot. It was Selsin.
* * *
"—lively there! Faster, all of you . . ."
The voice of Primmer, edged with strain, came from the street. Rider went to the window and looked out upon a scene of confused activity.
Primmer, with two blasters buckled around him, was trying to post as many guards as possible as quickly as possible; all the laborers and technicians among them. They were being stationed around Headquarters, around the helicopter, and all along the windows of supplies in the street.
"Damn!" he said aloud.
Beeling could have done nothing worse than to order the show of armed defense at a time when everything depended upon regaining Selsin's trust.
The door of the ERB Headquarters building opened and General Beeling stepped out, briskly despite his paunchy overweight. He strode down the street with his pink moon-face looking straight ahead, not glancing once toward the natives. He stopped a moment to say something to Primmer that caused most of Primmer's nervousness to vanish then came on with the bearing of calm purpose.
"He not worried," Loper said. "How can he not worry now?"
Beeling stepped through the doorway with cold satisfaction on his face and a look at Rider that said, I have your muddled situation well in hand, my man.
"Good afternoon, General," Rider greeted him, and Loper said politely, "Her'ro, Generar Beering."
Beeling's eyes flicked to Loper in brief curiosity then, without answering either of them, he seated himself behind the desk.
"I presume you know we're surrounded, Rider?"
There was the same vengeful satisfaction in his tone as on his face. Rider noticed, absently, that his blouse bulged with the bulk of a concealed blaster.
"I knew they would come ready for war," he said. "When Selsin gets here we'll have our one last chance to avert it and I've been trying to see you all day to tell you we'll have to show Selsin the respect that—"
"My dear Captain," Beeling interrupted, "I have been very busy the entire day supervising a review of all data and deciding upon the best method of counteracting the damage you have done. I feel rather certain that I know how to speak to the native."
Rider kept his face expressionless and said with careful courtesy, "But couldn't you order the guards off duty before Selsin gets here, sir? He'll regard them as proof of suspicion and enmity on our part."
The soft answer seemed to have slightly lessened Beeling's dislike for him; Beeling's next statement was more pompous than sarcastic:
"On the contrary, that display of preparedness will prove to the natives that we are quite aware of their hostility and are not to be intimidated by it; that our request for friendship is sincere and does not spring from fear of them."
Rider looked again at the guards, able to count only seven blasters among them, and back to Beeling. "You don't understand, sir—if they call our bluff we won't have a chance."
Beeling's reply was to spread a sheaf of papers on the desk before him and say:
"Here are the Analysis Sheets; the result of almost two days of work by myself and my staff and our computer. For your information, these natives are like children both in the awe and fear with which they regard our weapons and in their eagerness to possess the labor-saving machines, the luxury items and the pretty novelties of our 'grown-up' society. By dramatically presenting the two choices—the gift-laden helping hand or the unyielding fist—they cannot logically do other than ask for our friendship and gifts."
"But it isn't that simple," he protested. "They'll—"
Annoyance passed across Beeling's face and the full degree of coldness returned. "As I remarked, the procedure outlined by the Analysis will counteract the damage you have done. Insufficient data, however, leave two questions answered. One: why have your reports never mentioned the consistent enmity of the natives?"
"Because no enmity ever existed. They were only exercising reasonable caution, due to the experience they had with that other alien race forty years ago."
"Yes? Then perhaps you can answer the other question: why should this 'reasonable caution' flare so suddenly into a lust for war? What did you do to make them hate humans so?"
"I lied to them. They were almost ready to agree to everything but they wanted a little more time in which to be sure that we would not betray their trust as that other alien race did. I gave my solemn promise as the representative of Earth that no reinforcements would come in the meantime. And within forty-eight hours after receiving its copy of my report to the Frontier Corps, the ERB had you and thirty men and a hundred tons of supplies on the way to Deneb.
"Just what do you suppose the natives thought of my truthfulness—of the truthfulness of any human—when that cruiser dropped down out of the sky and men and equipment began rolling out of it?"
"I see," Beeling said acidly. "You were the innocent victim of unfair circumstances. But, as the ERB informed the Supreme Council, you had accomplished nothing concrete in your six months here and this world was too badly needed by Earth to permit any more cautious delays. Despite anguished wails of protest from the Frontier Corps we persuaded the Supreme Council to transfer command of this outpost to the ERB. I was dispatched at once to analyze the situation, to remedy whatever mistakes you had made, and to gain the cooperation of the natives as quickly as possible.
"I trust"—the acidic dislike increased—"that properly explains my presence here."
Loper lifted his ears toward the door and Rider heard the squeak of saddle leather.
"I hope your plans work out the way you think," he said. "Selsin is here."
* * *
Selsin was so big that his bulk in the doorway half darkened the room as he came through. He was seven feet tall, black as coal, with muscles that bulged and rippled as he walked. He had the thin, curved nose and pointed ears of a devil, while his green, glittering eyes under slanting brows added to his satanic appearance.
His bristling blue-gray head was bare; he had left his helmet on his saddle, together with his rifle and sword, as a gesture of peaceful intention.
"Chief Selsin!" Beeling rose, smiling. "You honor us. I'm sorry there was no one to meet you—I told my aide—"
"It is of no importance." Selsin spoke in accented Terran. "I came to hear you, not your assistant."
"Ah—of course. Will you sit down?"
Selsin did so, the chair creaking under his weight. He waited for Beeling to speak, regarding him with a mocking half smile. The smile was meaningless—the cheek muscles of the natives were different from those of humans and caused their lips to turn upward at the corners—but it could be rather disconcerting to a human at first.
Beeling cleared his throat. "I see you came alone. At the end of our brief meeting yesterday I requested that all nine of you tribal chiefs come again this afternoon so I could tell all of you that I am here to help you."
"You told us that yesterday," Selsin said. "I came today to hear your proof."
Beeling looked down at the Analysis Sheets, a touch of uncertainty in his manner. It's all right, Rider thought as he watched him, to speak of handling the natives as one would handle children—but it's a little hard to hang on to that conception when the child is a three-hundred-pound black devil sitting two yards in front of you.
Beeling looked up from the Analysis. "We want the friendship of your race," he said to Selsin, "and your race needs our friendship. We are here on your world only to help you"—stern reproof came into Beeling's voice—"and yet you foolishly prepare to attack us with your puny rifles!"
Selsin's expression did not change. He answered in the emotionless manner of one stating unalterable facts:
"We do not, we have never, wanted war. But the promise your world made to mine was a lie and your second ship came, bringing more men and great stacks of strange objects which we fear are weapons—and which you are now guarding as one would guard weapons. We do not know how many more of your ships may be on the way, now, with still more men and weapons. We can only hope that if we must fight for our world, we have not waited too long."
"Your suspicions are baseless, your plans are foolhardy," Beeling said with admonishing sternness. "Consider, friend Selsin; think of the terrible price an attack would cost you. You would meet certain defeat—and you would forever forfeit our friendship and our gifts!"
Selsin's black face seemed to turn even darker and his teeth flashed in a quick snarl. "Forty years ago we were offered friendship and gifts, as you are doing, by another alien race—the gini-deglin, the three-eyed ones. They needed metal to repair their ship and we used all our supply of charcoal to smelt the ores we had mined for them, for they told us they were very grateful and would within a year bring us an atomic furnace so we would never have to hoard charcoal again. Then, on the day they finished repairing their ship, they turned their weapons on us. They butchered thirty, to take along as fresh meat. Three others were killed with a gas that would not mar their appearance, so they could be stuffed and placed in a museum. A man, a woman, and a child—and the child was my sister!"
Selsin leaned toward Beeling, his devil's face ugly with the hatred the memory aroused.
"To them we were only animals who had served their purpose. Their pretense of friendship was a lie—we should have killed them all when their ship crashed!"
Beeling's chair squealed as he shoved it back and his hand pawed at the buttons of his blouse, reaching in for the concealed blaster. His hand closed around the butt of it and he held it there, still concealed, as he appraised Selsin with wary thoughtfulness. Rider spoke quickly, before he could say or do something that would destroy the last faint hope of regaining Selsin's trust.
"The three-eyed-ones kill and take specimens from every world they visit, Chief Selsin. Someday our ships will meet them and they will want some humans as specimens, too. They are already our enemies as well as yours."
Selsin settled back in his chair and his anger faded.
"We have thought of that," he said. "We had hoped that your race would be our ally should they ever return. But now—does it matter whether a race is killed for food and specimens or killed to get it out of the way for worldwide mining operations?"
Rider told Selsin again, for what would probably be the last time, why his world was needed by humans:
"Earth's policy strictly forbids colonizing a world against the wishes of its inhabitants. This world is doubly forbidden—beryllium is present in the dust over all its surface, in a form that would be fatal to humans within two years.
"But we need domed repair and refueling bases here for our exploration, survey and colonization ships bound for worlds farther on. This is the only world within three hundred light-years that has metal for repairs, and that has the rare earths and elements that make our ships' hyperspace drives possible. You have such an abundance on this world that fifty centuries from now we would have used less than one-tenth of one percent, yet that small amount is so necessary to us that if we cannot have it we will have to abandon all further exploration in this sector of space."
When he had finished Selsin sat still and thoughtful, his green eyes unwaveringly on Rider's as though trying to see inside Rider's mind and know that he spoke without deceit. Rider had the feeling that Selsin's suspicions were wavering before an almost desperate desire to believe.
Then Beeling, his composure regained, jerked his chair back to the desk with another noisy squeal. He cleared his throat in a profound manner, ready to resume the talk with Selsin, and Rider crossed his fingers with a wordless prayer that something would happen to interrupt him before he could again anger Selsin.
* * *
The interruption came: a signal beep from the radio beside the hyperspace communicator, the call from Laughing Girl at the Sea Cliffs.
Rider stepped to the radio, reaching past the scowling Beeling to turn the volume to maximum. A muffled roaring filled the room when he did so, static grinding and crashing through it.
"Go ahead, Girl," he said into the transmitter.
"A awrfur storm come, Boss"—Laughing Girl's voice was hard to hear through the roaring—"from off the sea—a wind that tear down the detector and scatter our record tapes and I try to find them but it are so dark with brack crouds and rain and then the sea come in and things are in it, things that—"
A louder roaring drowned out her voice. He waited, knowing that she was frightened. Whenever she was scared and faced with problems too great for her, she called him "Boss" and talked in the quick, rushing manner of a child.
Her voice came in again:
"—and then they see me rooking for the record tapes and they run after me, awrfur big things with craws and beaks, and they are stirr coming and I have no prace to hide. Terr me what to do, Boss—"
"Run to the cliffs!" he ordered, in his mind the vision of the lumbering horde of two-ton Elephant Crabs closing in on her. "Climb as far as you can up that crevice in the cliffs—they're too big to follow you in—and wait for me."
"Wirr you come for me soon—before the Big Tide?"
"I'll be there. Now, run!"
"Okay, Boss—I run."
He lifted his hand to the switch, then paused as he heard deep, jarring sounds through the wind's roaring. Four seconds later there was a loud crashing, a snap, and sudden silence. The monsters had smashed the transmitter in their pursuit of Laughing Girl.
He switched off his own transmitter and said in answer to Beeling's questioning, irritated look, "A local tornado. Sometimes one will precede the Big Tide and push a small tide ahead of it."
"They awrfur crose behind her," Loper said. He looked at Beeling with worry and accusation in his eyes. "We are supposed to go after her yesterday but you say, 'No.' Now, maybe awready they are catch her and kirr her."
Beeling glanced at Loper with the same momentary curiosity he had exhibited before, then he gave his full attention to Selsin. He began in a tone of smooth sincerity:
"You are an exceptionally intelligent person, Chief Selsin, or you would never have risen to your position as leader. Therefore, I know you are far too wise to betray the trust of your people in you by making the wrong choice of the two kinds of future offered your world.
"Should you refuse to cooperate with us, we would be forced to reroute our ships through other sectors of space and your world would see no more of us for centuries to come. You would continue to stagnate here—you are no doubt aware that the resources of your world are such that you can never leave it without our help. Your unlimited wealth of minerals is of no use to you—you have no coal deposits, no trees, nothing but scrawny shrubs with which to make a meager supply of charcoal for smelting. There is no oil on your world; you have no fuel for steam engines or internal combustion engines. Your environment will force you to remain in a state of barbarism, nomads in animal skins, with privation your only known way of life.
"This we can alter for you, in wondrous ways beyond your imagining. We will give you atomic furnaces, processing plants, manufacturing machinery. We will help you build factories that will produce not only all the things you need but also luxuries beyond counting—the very same luxury goods our own society uses! And we will give you costless and unlimited power for your factories and homes and vehicles by showing you how to get it out of a rock which is to be found all over your world; a magic rock we call 'uranium' but for which you probably don't even have a name."
* * *
Beeling paused, as though for effect. He was smiling at Selsin, very sure of himself.
"Choose, Chief Selsin! Will you condemn your race to a future of poverty and stagnation by refusing to cooperate with us? Or will you give them all the achievements and luxuries of a civilization three thousand years in advance of theirs—will you be the wise leader and accept this tremendous payment which we offer for merely your race's friendship?"
Selsin stood up, on his face an anger and hatred such as Rider had never seen. He looked down at Beeling and gave his answer in words that came like the spitting of a tiger:
"My people's insignificant friendship is not for sale today, human!"
Beeling gaped in incredulous disbelief.
Selsin turned to Rider.
"We believed your promise, until your reinforcements came. Even then we still had a faint hope that you humans were sincere. Now I know we were wrong. It is better so."
"You know we can't prove our good intentions," Rider answered. "Not here and now, in this room."
"I realize that. But I wanted to know the attitude of your superior toward my race. As he regarded us, so likely would all the others who would follow him. My people and I wanted to know if we would be regarded with respect, or if we would be dismissed as an inferior species to be used for human purposes.
"I learned. We are backward barbarians, simple savages who can be bought and then ignored."
Through the anger on Selsin's face something like regret showed for a moment, something like a look of farewell.
"I do not think it is your fault—but you are one of them and responsible with them. This is our world and we will live here and fight here and die here—but we will be no race's inferiors here."
Then the regret was gone as Selsin turned back to Beeling.
"You will be given until sunrise tomorrow to recall your ship and leave this world. If you and all the other humans are not gone by then, we will have no choice but to remove you."
Then, not waiting for an answer, Selsin strode to the door.
Beeling half rose, still gaping with amazement. "Wait—"
* * *
The door closed behind Selsin's broad back and Beeling ordered sharply, "Call him back, Rider! Something is wrong—he didn't understand my offer."
Rider listened to Selsin's dragon-beast departing in a fast trot. "He understood you," he said to Beeling. "But you cooked our goose by not understanding him."
"He failed to comprehend," Beeling said flatly. "Or else—and I'll have that question put to the computer—he's bluffing, trying to extort still more from us. In either case, he knows we can't leave here; he knows the Special Missions cruiser has gone back to Earth and the Frontier ship can't receive our signals."
"He didn't believe that explanation yesterday and he doubly doesn't today."
"Something is wrong," Beeling said again. "The Analysis showed the natives to want all the things I offered him. They don't even have wooden-wheeled carts—and yet, instead of the grateful acceptance that the Analysis predicted, the native's reaction was one of irrational enmity."
"Didn't you know the Analysis was meaningless drivel?" he asked.
Beeling jerked up his head with a shocked expression, as though Rider had uttered an obscene heresy. "What do you mean by that?"
"All your calculations are based on the assumption that the species being studied is as emotionlessly logical as one of your computers. That worked once, with that ant-like race on Medusa, and it was played up by the ERB politicians until now most of the Supreme Council believes the ERB claim that relations with alien life forms has been reduced to an exact science by the ERB and the slow methods of the Frontier Corps are worthlessly obsolete. But the ERB has failed on every world since Medusa, even though you've kept the fact covered up, and now you've failed here. I tried to tell you from the day you came, that Selsin and his race are proud individualists and it would be a fatal mistake to try to convert them into mathematical equations."
Beeling smoothed the Analysis under his fingers. "We made a mistake; the mistake of depending upon a Frontier Corps layman to procure adequate data for our Analysis, among which would have been Selsin's emotional instability. It is a mistake that will not happen again. I can assure you."
"I suppose you'll send a full report of this to Earth, at once?"
"A most complete report. Why do you ask?" Beeling answered.
"Because in the morning you're going to die, and I, and all those kids out there, and you can try to prevent such a thing happening again by telling not the ERB but the Supreme Council exactly what caused it."
"I assure you, the ERB will properly present the facts to the Council."
"No—not the true facts. You know that, Beeling."
"General Beeling. And what are you trying to say—are you asking me to omit mention of the incompetence on your part that created this situation?"
"I'm asking you to tell the Council that you followed all the rules in the ERB textbooks and did exactly what the Analysis told you to do and that you and everyone here is going to die because you did so. Tell them that if a form of life behaved according to absolutely predictable rule and logic it wouldn't be anything intelligent—it would be a vegetable."
Beeling smoothed out the Analysis sheets again. "Do you really think I might give my superiors hysterical nonsense like that?"
He knew that further argument would be useless. He had already explained to Beeling that a Frontier Corpsman, or any man first meeting an alien race, had to base his actions upon the reactions of the natives; he had to develop something like a sixth sense in detecting their emotions and let that be his guide or he would become enmeshed in misunderstandings that would result in death for him and the loss of the new world for Earth.
Beeling had refused to listen and had laughed outright when Rider told him the Altairians were far better than any human sixth sense; that all Frontier and ERB ships should carry Altairians and that the ERB's erroneous classification of the Altairian race as "Animals" unjustly condemned them to continuing half-starvation on their rocky, barren world by denying them the assistance that Earth's empire gave to all needy forms of life that had been classified as "Intelligent inhabitants."
* * *
Loper moved restlessly, sensing his emotions and disturbed by them. He spoke with the suddenness and frankness of a child:
"Once Sersin awrmost berieve us, Captain. He come in thinking with question and uncertain, and hoping very much we are his friends but afraid we not be. Then you terr how we need his friendship and not ever harm his race even if they not want to be our friends. Sersin rook at you he awrmost happy, awrmost ready to berieve you, then Generar Beering speak about awr the things humans have that Sersin's race don't have and say very proud, 'We give you awr these things for mer'rey your friendship,' and Sersin get mad and not hope at awr anymore, and when he reave he thinking of fighting and kirring. He not rike, but he know it have to be. Why it have to be?"
"You have the animal well coached," Beeling observed. "Its ability to relate a witnessed incident proves your claim that Altairians are telepathic, I presume?"
"Loper was aware of Selsin's emotions before he ever walked into this room. It isn't telepathy; it's a highly developed sense of empathy. It serves the same purpose."
"I'm afraid your naïve trust in the animal's power of—"
* * *
Beeling never finished the sentence. A drum was suddenly beating along the near side of the valley; a hard, fast stuttering that rose sharp and clear above the whining of the wind.
"What is that?" Beeling demanded.
"A signal drum, sending the word around the circumference of the valley."
"The word?" For an instant Beeling's face registered blankness. "Do you mean they really intend to attack us?"
"Good Lord—haven't you realized that yet?"
Beeling chewed his lip, his face thoughtful, then shook his head. "You must be wrong. The Analysis showed that they wouldn't dare attack us."
"The Analysis also showed you how to win Selsin's friendship—remember?"
Beeling looked thoughtful again. "If your guess is correct, we'll have to prepare an impenetrable defense system. How many heavy weapons do you have here, and what kind?"
"The ship's blasters are always the prime defense weapons of a Frontier unit. There are a few other weapons on the ship, too—but now everything is on the other side of the sun. There's one hand blaster in my room, and we have the ten blasters your men brought."
"One?—you have one blaster here?" Beeling glared, "I thought you had a supply of weapons—must every action of a Frontier man be one of mindless bungling?"
"I was trying to make friends with the natives, not kill them."
"Eleven hand blasters to stand off thousands of bloodthirsty savages . . ." Beeling chewed his lip again. "How long can we hold the natives off with eleven blasters?"
"About as long as a snowball would remain firm in hell."
"We need the ship—how incredibly stupid of you to send it away. Our lives are in the balance—"
"Rook!" The voice of Loper interrupted, from where he had moved to the north window. "A smoke signar are going up, too."
Beeling swung with such haste that he knocked the Analysis sheets off the desk. A tall, black column of smoke was standing up from the high hill at the valley's head. It could be seen for miles, despite the angle at which the wind was making it lean, and it was rolling blacker and higher by the second.
"That will be to summon all the reserve forces from the highlands," Rider said. "They think we're well armed and they'll hit us with everything they have."
Beeling's nervous movement as he turned back to Rider changed abruptly to decision.
"There's only one thing we can do—evacuate. We'll use the helicopter."
Rider shook his head. "The helicopter is small, for scouting, and can't carry more than three. It's five hundred miles to the nearest safe refuge, the Northern Islands, and the helicopter carries fuel for seven hundred miles. It would be a one-way trip."
"We'll go as soon as you can check the helicopter for the flight."
"Colonel Primmer has had only a few hours flying time and I have had none. You will be our pilot."
He shook his head. "I'm as afraid to die in the morning as the next man but I'll be damned if I could run like that."
Annoyance passed across Beeling's face. "You will obey my order and forget the heroic ideals. It would be only stupid for all to die when some can be saved with the helicopter."
"I agree. But why not let everybody cut cards or draw straws so all would have the same chance?"
"This Field Installation is not a gambling casino. Furthermore, there is an ERB regulation which reads: 'In times of critical danger and limited transportation the unit commander will arrange for the survival of his command in the order of each individual's importance to the unit as a whole.' "
"I see," he said, and thought: So in the ERB you do even your running by the book?
* * *
Beeling began hastily scribbling a note. "This is an order to Colonel Primmer, authorizing you to go past the helicopter guards. Make sure you overlook nothing in preparing it for the trip."
"I have other things to do. Primmer can check it."
Beeling stopped writing and his face hardened dangerously under its pink softness. "As commander of this outpost and your superior officer, I can have you locked up in chains for insubordination if I wish to. Would you prefer that?"
"It still wouldn't force me to be your pilot. Anyway, you needn't worry about my absence—the helicopter is easily enough handled that Primmer can land you safely at your destination."
He saw that the sun was setting, already a bright, molten silver on the horizon, and he turned to Loper.
"Run to the storage shed and get me that coil of small rope. I'm ready to start."
"Where are you going?" Beeling demanded, suspicion in his eyes and his hand reaching inside his blouse.
Loper ran to the door, using both paws to turn the knob. He slammed it shut behind him and Rider saw him race past the window, where the spinning, wind-blown dust half obscured the ground. It was a good thing, he thought, that the Altairians were immune to beryllium poisoning. Loper and Laughing Girl would never see any other world again . . .
"Where are you going?"
"The Sea Cliffs," he answered.
"Do you think you can hide from the natives there?"
"Not to hide. To keep my promise to Laughing Girl. The Big Tide is coming and she can't escape it."
Beeling stared, as though he had babbled gibberish.
"You—you're going to walk forty miles through beryllium dust, through armed natives and man-killing beasts, to save an animal—and yet you refuse to lift a hand to help save the lives of your fellow human beings?"
"Or, to be specific, the lives of you and Primmer. That's right."
He went to the corner where his remaining possessions lay and swung the still-full canteen from his shoulder. He kicked his respirator to one side—he would never need it again—and picked up the long-bladed knife.
He shoved the knife in his belt and said to Beeling, "I'm leaving my blaster for the others to use."
Beeling withdrew his own blaster from his blouse and laid it on the desk with the muzzle pointing toward Rider. His hand continued to rest on it as he stared at Rider with cold savage calculation.
The door banged open and a gust of wind scattered the pages of the Analysis across the floor as Loper plunged through. The coil of rope was in his mouth and he was panting from his running as he dropped it at Rider's feet.
"Are you ready to go, Captain—can we hurry now, prease?"
Beeling reached out with the transmitter key in his left hand and unlocked the hyperspace communicator. His right hand did not leave the blaster.
"You might be interested in knowing what my report will be," he said. He flipped on the signal switch.
"I suppose I already know," Rider answered. "I ask you to overlook our personal differences and tell them the real cause behind tomorrow's massacre. It could go a long way toward saving the lives of others in the future."
Beeling nodded, smiling. "Such a report is precisely what I have in mind. I feel they should know how your blundering Frontier Corps methods had stirred the natives into such a murderous anti-human frenzy that my ERB unit arrived too late to remedy the situation. I shall point out that every world lost by the ERB was due to the incompetence of the Frontier men who preceded the ERB units there and created hatred and distrust among the natives. I shall point out the tragic mistake of continuing to permit Frontier Corps laymen to try to assume the duties of ERB specialists and I shall urge the Supreme Council let this be the last bloody sacrifice by passing the Harriman Proposal now before it; the proposal that would dissolve the Frontier Corps and place all its ships and men under ERB supervision.
"And it is my duty"—Beeling's smile was as vindictive as the sting of a wasp—"to report your actions of this afternoon; your flagrant insubordination, your flat refusal to assist in transporting others to safety, your desertion in time of danger, your flight to the Sea Cliffs, leaving the rest of us to do the fighting."
It required a few seconds for Rider to comprehend the extent of Beeling's malice, then he said, "I thought you were only inexperienced and too blind to see. I didn't know the half of it, did I?"
"It should be obvious to you what my report will do to the Frontier Corps when it's read before the Supreme Council."
It was very obvious. Beeling's report would be the climax of the ERB's all-out effort to absorb the Frontier Corps. The already delicately balanced scales would be tipped, the Harriman Proposal would be passed, and the Corps would cease to exist . . .
"Do you still want to go to the Sea Cliffs?" Beeling asked.
He saw Beeling's prime objective. Beeling was still afraid to let the inexperienced Primmer be his pilot.
"Suppose I should decide to be your pilot?" he asked.
"I certainly couldn't report you as a deserter. In fact, I might find it possible to forget to mention several of the facts concerning you and the Frontier Corps."
He did not reply at once and Beeling added, "What is the welfare of an animal compared with your life and the existence of the Frontier Corps to which, I understand, you and the others have dedicated your lives?"
Loper made a whining sound, looking up at Rider with his face twisted in apprehension.
"What are he mean?" Then he read the answer in the conflicting emotions of the two men and his question came like a despairing whimper. "Are it have to be that way?"
* * *
The hyperspace communicator blinked an orange light and said in a metallic voice:
Beeling spoke into the transmitter: "Connect me with General Supervision, Classified AA circuit." He turned to Rider. "Which will you take, Rider?"
It seemed to him that he could see the two alternative courses of events with vivid clarity. He could see the dissolution of the Frontier Corps, his name in the records as a coward who had run in vain—and he could see Laughing Girl crouching cold and scared in the crevice, trusting him to come for her before the black tide rushed out of the dawn to kill her, knowing in her child-like mind that he would be there in time as surely as she and Loper had raced to him in time that night on Vulcan when he lay injured and helpless under the cliff and the moon wolves were gathering around him for the kill . . .
"Office of General Supervision," the communicator said. "Classified AA. Give us your report."
"A moment, please," Beeling said to it. To Rider he said, "I give you exactly ten seconds—which will it be?"
Which would it be? Death and infamy at the Sea Cliffs—and know that to the end he had done what seemed right and just to him? Or life and safety and an unmarred record on the Northern Islands, while Laughing Girl died still waiting for him and he knew he was a coward no less than Beeling?
There was the brittle snap of ultimatum in Beeling's single word. He gave his answer:
"I'm going to the Sea Cliffs."
For a moment Beeling sat rigid, so sure had he been that the answer would be the one he wanted. Then he leaned forward, his lips thin and white with the intensity of his hatred and his words half choking in his throat:
"You fool—you incredible fool! I can legally shoot you down where you stand as a deserter!"
The muzzle of the blaster tilted up. Loper's eyes went fire-bright with understanding and his claws ripped at the floor as he threw himself back, into position to leap at Beeling's throat. Rider reached for the knife in his belt, warned by Loper's action and knowing he would never live to throw it. Beeling, in the insanity of his rage, was going to fire—
* * *
"Sir, the natives are—"
Primmer burst into the room and the scene froze. Primmer gawked at Beeling's blaster, at Rider's hand reaching for the knife, then he seized his own blasters and leveled them waveringly on Rider.
"Don't touch that knife!" he commanded. He turned his red face to Beeling. "What is it, sir—what is he trying to do?"
Slowly, almost regretfully, Beeling let his grip on the blaster relax.
"A little matter of desertion," he said to Primmer. He spoke to Rider. "I've changed my mind. You are experienced in eluding danger on alien worlds and you might have a good chance of hiding from the natives until a ship comes to pick you up. I hope so. I want you to live, to sit in your death row cell and read about the end of the Frontier Corps before they take you out and hang you as a deserter and a coward."
He motioned toward the door with a quick jerk of the blaster. "Now go! Get out of this room!"
Rider picked up the coil of rope and started toward the door, Beeling's blaster following him. Primmer spoke in protest:
"But General Beeling! As a deserter he should be held for proper punishment, sir—"
Beeling silenced him with a hard look and turned to the communicator. He began his report:
"General David A. Beeling, Unit Twenty, Deneb Five. Subjects: Impending attack of native armies, due to erroneous reports and general incompetence of Frontier Corps commander Captain Harold Rider; Report of Captain Rider's rebellion and desertion on eve of attack; Details of dangerous impracticability of Frontier Corps methods and—"
The words faded away, drowned by the wind, as Rider and Loper went down the street.
"He rie," Loper said. "They can't berieve him, can't ever hang you, can they?"
He smiled a little. "No, they won't be able to hang me."
He angled across the street, toward the edge of the dagger-brush thicket, and passed not far from one of the guards. It was the red-haired boy, facing the enemy lines with his weapon, a crate hammer, gripped tightly in his hand. Rider saw the code number on the supplies he guarded: XG-B-193.
"I'll be damned," he said.
"What are he guarding?" Loper asked.
"Exchange items and good-will gifts that the ERB has designated as suitable for barbaric cultures of this type. He's supposed to fight to the death to protect three thousand pounds of glass beads, hand mirrors, and bright red toy magnets."
They went into the thicket and the camp was hidden from view. The winding course of an old animal trail led in the desired direction and they followed it until it skirted the base of a small hill. He climbed to the top of it, with Loper at his heels, and looked back at the camp. There was a great deal of activity around the helicopter and he could distinguish Primmer standing to one side and directing the refueling operations.
He looked to the southeast, along his route to the sea, and along the rocky ridge that lay like a barrier between he saw the natives waiting and watching.
"I think," Loper said, "that they not want us to pass. I think we fight there, Captain."
"You'll stay here, on this hill," he said.
"Stay?" Loper jerked up his head in surprise and defiance. "No!"
"That's an order. I want you to watch the camp until after it's all over with tomorrow."
"I not stay safe whire you fight arone!" Loper braced his forepaws wide-apart and stubborn on the ground. "I not do it!"
* * *
He sat down on a sun-blackened boulder. "Listen, Loper—listen to the reasons why you have to help me:
"The government of Earth is four hundred light-years away and they will have to believe Beeling's story; that the natives are treacherous and hate all humans and that the Frontier Corps goaded them into massacring the entire camp. The natives are honest in their fear and distrust of humans—they think they are fighting for their world—and there will be no one after tomorrow to tell them they are wrong.
"Except you and Laughing Girl. They might listen to you Altairians since you know humans well and yet aren't human. You must tell them that Earth never takes a world by force, that even Beeling meant well but did not understand, and that all the things I told them Earth would do for them would have been done. And you must stay here until after tomorrow morning and watch the camp so that when a ship comes from Earth to investigate you can tell the officers exactly what happened here and what caused it to happen. It will be too late to save the Frontier Corps but if they will listen to you it might not be too late for them to see the mistakes that have been made and start over again."
The rigid stubbornness was gone from Loper, understanding and dark misery in its place. "It wrong—everything are happen awr wrong and I never see you again!"
"Yes," he said, "everything is all wrong and shot to hell. I'm trying to salvage the remains the best I can and I have to have your help."
"I do everything you say, Captain."
"For some time this will be your world and Laughing Girl's. Maybe for all your lives. So be friends with the natives and don't blame them for what they did. Remember that."
"Yes, sir. I remember."
He looked at the sunset's violet afterglow and stood up. "I'll have to hurry or I won't get there in time. Good luck, Loper."
"Good-bye, Captain. I—I sorry."
He turned and went down the hill and across the flat beyond. He looked back when he was almost to the ridge and saw Loper still staring forlornly after him.
* * *
He reached the foot of the ridge and climbed its steep slope. Three natives were waiting for him on top, their long rifles in their hands and the smiles on their faces. The one in the center was Resso, a sub-chief in Selsin's tribe.
"Where would you go, human?" Resso asked in the native language.
"I would go to the sea," he answered in the same language, and told them why. "I ask permission to pass," he said.
Resso rubbed the breach of his rifle, his eyes thoughtful and hard. "Between here and the sea are many by-paths. You might lose your way and be troublesome for us to find in the morning."
He took the long knife from his belt, spun it in the air and caught it by the blade. The three rifles centered on him as he did so.
"This is my only weapon," he said to Resso. "I think I can put it in your throat before I can be killed—but I ask you to let me save the Altairian first and match it against your rifles tomorrow."
Resso spit on the ground. "Tomorrow I will make you eat it before I kill you."
Rider felt a great sense of relief—Resso was going to let him pass . . .
"I want to ask a favor of you," he said to Resso. "That the Altairians not be harmed."
Surprise showed on Resso's face. "Why should we harm the furry ones? They are only your slaves and not responsible for what humans do."
"Then you promise?"
Resso took a step forward, glowering in quick anger. "Do you have the insolence to question what I say? Be on your way—run, human, and find your hiding place!"
He went, walking past them with the glum thought: This makes Ignominious Exit Number Two. I hope my last one, tomorrow, will have at least a little dignity to it . . .
* * *
The desert was miles of red iron sand, across which rocky ridges lay like a hundred randomly flung barriers. Some of the ridges were of limestone, honey-combed with natural caves. These he would have to avoid at all costs since they were the lairs of the ten-foot sand hounds.
He was no more than well started when dark came. He had no light and without a blaster he would not dare to use one if he had it. It would attract the attention of sand hounds for miles around.
For the greater part, his way was along relatively clear stretches of the wind-packed sand and his progress was fairly fast. At intervals, however, he came to dense and wide-spreading thickets of the poison-thorned desert vegetation and these he had to bypass with time consuming detours.
Once he almost walked upon a band of wild dragon-beasts, grazing silently in the starlight. Only the good fortune of the wind being in his favor prevented them from detecting him and charging. He had to backtrack and then climb a long ridge to get around them. It cost him an hour of time.
The last of the clouds disappeared from the eastern sky as the storm went its way across the Southern Gulf. He was grateful that it had not swerved inland and turned the dim starlight into total darkness. His time margin would be small, at best.
Shortly before midnight he stopped on a sand dune, to rest for the first time. It was there that he saw a tiny, distant red spark; a signal fire on the hill north of camp. It blinked for several minutes in a code he did not understand, then went out.
When it did not reappear at the end of two more minutes he got up and resumed his journey to the sea.
Not long afterward the sky to the east turned pale; a whiteness that grew swiftly brighter and obscured the eastern stars. It was the dawn of the three moons; the moons that brought the Big Tide with them.
They lifted above the horizon in a flying wedge formation, flooding the desert with cold, white light. He could see well, then, and he hurried faster down the long slopes that led to the sea.
The bright moonlight greatly increased the danger of being seen by a sand hound and he had not gone far when one screamed from somewhere behind him. He stopped, and looked back.
He could not see it but he saw something else when he looked to the rocky ridge west of him; flitting shadow-shapes that seemed to be dragon-beasts were keeping pace with him. He wondered if it would be Resso and the others, making certain he would not be hard to find when morning came. They were gone from view before he could be sure he had not imagined seeing them.
He hurried on again. The character of the desert had changed as the elevation decreased and a dry, wiry grass was replacing most of the vegetation. He changed his course slightly so that he could walk down the center of a shallow valley where it grew the thickest, listening for the sand hound to scream again.
It did so, much closer than before. Two more answered it from farther back, then a third. Which made four of them racing toward him, each of them like a reptilian ten-foot greyhound with the claws of a tiger and the teeth and jaws of a young tyrannosaurus.
He lighted the grass at his feet, then started two more fires on each side of the first one. Within that short time the tinder-dry grass was burning in a solid wall of flame, pushed down the valley by the wind at increasing speed and spreading wider as it went.
* * *
He had to run to get in front of it and then run still faster to keep ahead of it. Through the choking smoke he could see nothing except the red blaze of fire behind him but he heard the sand hounds screeching in frustration beyond it. The sound of their fury faded as he ran on, and then was gone.
A mile farther on he angled to the left, to the rim of the valley where the grass was too thin to burn, and there he rested until his hard panting had subsided. Then he walked on again; to hurry faster and faster as the three moons neared the zenith. Shortly after they had passed the zenith it would be sunrise and the Big Tide would reach the Sea Cliffs.
He saw no more of the phantom dragon-beasts, but the smoke from the valley he had fired lay like a pall across the desert and visibility was limited.
The eastern sky was lightening with the first glow of dawn when he saw the distant gleam of moonlight on the ocean. The delays during the night had been greater than he had thought—there would be no time margin, at all.
He went the rest of the way in a fast trot, the rope ready in his hand.
The sea to the east was flat and calm when he reached the ragged top of the Sea Cliffs but the pale violet of dawn had turned into a vivid blue-white. Sunrise and the Big Tide were at hand.
He looked down over the edge of the cliffs, down the sheer face of them where the crevice reached up for two hundred feet before it dwindled into nothing, and saw the red-shelled horrors grouped in a thick mass at the bottom. Laughing Girl was above them, wedged tightly in the crevice as far up it as she had been able to climb. It had not been far; the groping claws of the topmost Elephant Crabs were cracking together only inches below her.
He had already tied a series of knots in the end of the rope so she could grip it firmly between her teeth. He dropped the knotted end over the cliff and gave the rope a flip to guide it toward the crevice.
He glanced again to the east, at the calm, flat sea, and in that instant its horizon abruptly swelled and lifted up and became a mountain rushing toward him.
The Elephant Crabs were spilling apart, scrambling to positions of safety where they could anchor themselves against the rough rock surface and be protected by the thick armor of their shells. Laughing Girl was suddenly alone in her refuge, a small black huddle that watched the coming of the Big Tide in frozen helplessness.
The rope was snaking down the crevice as fast as he could play out the coils. He whistled at her as the rope neared her. She jerked up her head, almost falling in her surprise, and greeted him in her native language; a word that was like the joyous yelp of a pup. Then the end of the rope reached her and she seized it between her teeth.
* * *
He hauled up on the rope, bringing it back hand over hand, while Laughing Girl clawed at the rock to help all she could. She disappeared from his sight where the cliff became vertical and the thin, hard rope was almost impossible to grip tightly as her full weight went upon it.
The tide raced inward as he struggled with the rope; the forefront of an oceanic plateau. Between it and the cliffs the beach and sea below lay like a valley, then a narrow basin, then suddenly a vanishing canyon—
* * *
Laughing Girl's head popped into view and she came pawing and scrambling over the edge of the cliff. She dropped the rope and leaped toward him in ecstatic welcome.
"You come for me! You—"
The tide struck the cliffs with a thunderous roar, making the earth shake. He seized Laughing Girl by the scruff of the neck and dropped flat to the ground, where he could lock his free arm around a projection of rock. A solid mass of water was flung high into the air by the impact, to descend upon them with a smashing force that knocked the breath from his lungs and bruised his face against the rocks. He held grimly to the rock and Laughing Girl as the mass of water poured back over the cliff, ripping and tearing at him as it tried to take them with it.
They staggered erect as it drained away and ran. A second mass of skyward-flung water came too late to do more than drench them. They stopped a little farther on, along the top of a low ridge.
Behind them the sea growled and rumbled as it surged against the cliffs. Laughing Girl looked back, trembling a little.
"I thought you had forgot me, Boss. I was scared, and I wait and wait . . ."
"Everything is all right, now," he said. "You won't ever have to go under the Sea Cliffs again."
He was tired, weak with near-exhaustion. He wiped the salty water from his face and saw, as something that was no longer of importance, that the sun was up. His job was done, his last duty carried out, and the thing that would happen next was something inevitable and beyond his control. He saw that his knife was gone, washed into the sea—but that no longer mattered, either.
"You will go home now," he said to Laughing Girl. "Don't wait for me. Loper will probably be starting on his way to meet you in a few minutes. He'll tell you about the things that have happened in the past two days. From now on the two of you will do whatever he thinks is best for you."
"What are wrong, Boss? What are going to happen to you—prease, what are wrong?"
* * *
A slow, muffled thudding came from the east and he looked into the bright blaze of the sun to see the dragon-beasts trotting down the ridge toward him. There were six of them and even against the sun he could see the gleam of battle helmets and the long rifles across the saddles.
"Go home!" he ordered. "Right now!"
She looked from the approaching war party back to him and flung up her head in defiance as Loper had done.
"No! You know they come to kirr you—I can terr. I stay!"
"There are things you don't yet understand, Girl," he said. "For my sake, go now. Run."
"I—" She hesitated, her sense of duty and sense of loyalty conflicting. The loyalty won. "No! I not go!"
He could not permit her to stay. When the natives shot him down she would attack them with a fury that only her own death could stop.
He stepped forward and hit her; a hard, open-handed blow alongside the jaw that sent her rolling. She got to her feet with amazement and hurt in her eyes and he made his tone harsh and ugly:
"I'll not order you but this one more time—go home!"
She obeyed, her tail drooping as she started across the swale. She stopped once, to look back at him, and he motioned her on with a curt gesture.
She was gone from sight when the natives reached him. Resso was not with them—it was Selsin who rode in the lead.
They stopped before him in a semi-circle and regarded him silently, the mocking smiles on their faces.
"It is sunrise," Selsin said.
"It is," he agreed.
"We followed you last night. I wanted to know if you told the truth about going to save the furry one."
"And now," he said, "I want to know if Resso told the truth when he said she and her mate would not be harmed."
There was nothing more to say, then. He waited, wondering if they were deliberately delaying his execution in the hope of seeing him weaken under the tension.
Selsin spoke again:
"Your superior and his aide escaped in the flier shortly after you left. The fire signal at midnight said they had landed on one of the Northern Islands and were firing steadily at a school of bladder fish. They seemed to think the fish were an attacking party."
He had the impression that Selsin and the others were amused. He could understand why—but for himself there was only a sick feeling of shame and the thought: So they wouldn't even leave those kids their blasters?
"It is sunrise," Selsin said again, "and there is no reason to wait any longer. Do you have anything to say?"
"Nothing," he answered, and braced himself for the impact of the bullets.
But the long rifles were not lifted. Instead, Selsin swung down from the saddle and came up to him.
"The furry one—Loper—came to me before dark and told me what you had said to him on the hill. Didn't you know that what you were doing was more proof of good intentions than all the promises in the world?"
"I don't understand," he said.
"You claimed from the beginning that humans respected other forms of life and kept their promises to them—but words are only little noises. You proved what you had claimed when you spent what was to be the last night of your life in keeping the promise you had made to a being who was far less human than even my own race."
"But the camp—" He did not dare believe what Selsin's statements implied. "They were to be killed at sunrise—"
"I ordered the attack postponed until your actions could be judged. Now, there will be no attack."
* * *
He tried to see past Selsin's meaningless smile, wishing he had let Laughing Girl stay so she could tell him if they were only taunting him before they killed him.
"You will ride one of the dragon-beasts, if you are ready now," Selsin said. "When you call Earth from your camp today, I will speak to them, too. I want no more misunderstandings."
"What will you tell them?" he asked.
"The truth of it all, and how the fat one boasted and insulted my race, and then ran. I will offer the friendship of my race under the condition that no more of his kind ever be sent here and that you, or others of your choice, be in charge of all operations here.
"I suppose," Selsin added, "that your Supreme Council would like to hear what I have to tell them?"
There was a flash of black across the swale and he saw Laughing Girl running toward them; disobeying his order, after all, and come back to fight beside him. But now she was running with her tail up, her white teeth grinning, and happiness like something tangible about her.
She was an Altairian—she knew that everything was suddenly all right. There could be no doubt whatever about Selsin's sincerity, about the future that lay ahead for all of them.
Even for Laughing Girl's race, although she did not yet know it. Loper, in his simple wisdom, had made it possible for Earth to regain the friendship of a badly needed world. The Council, in return, could do no less than to promptly overrule the ERB's classification of the Altairians as "Animals."
"The Supreme Council," he said in answer to Selsin's question, "is going to be delighted by what you have to tell them. Let's go."