COMMANDANT LOCKE HAD completed the surprisingly slim report of his lengthy rescue mission on the Primaeval Planet. Now he faced the official interrogation intended to elicit the details he had for one reason or another omitted. Because the report of the matter conducted by Lord Charwick on behalf of Diyala had previously been locked away in the confidential files, the officer consented to respond anew only when the Board of Enquiry agreed that no record would be take down. Locke was duly warned, however, that a court-martial might be convened or not, at the discretion of the Board. Should the circumstances be shown to warrant full disclosure, whatever it was Commandant Locke sought to suppress would be more formally demanded of him.
Locke accepted the conditions for the simple reason there was no other recourse.
Locke knew his flourishing career and perhaps even his life might be forfeit it he was unable to persuade his supervisors of the wisdom behind his reticence, for he had no intention of revealing the secrets of Mithos to the Gemini worlds, let alone the galaxy. Though their reasons could not have been more divergent, Locke shared his silence with Krypta. It was Locke’s fate, however, that rested with the stern judgment of his command’s Board of Enquiry.
For the curious, alas, the Diyalan Board of Enquiry is both beginning and end. In later years no little suspicion has arisen among serious researchers of such matters. There are many who believe that, while the semi-official enquiry did in fact take place, the dates and names of all the principals have been subtly altered as a measure of added security. Commandant Locke, after all, enjoys the reputation of a most meticulous practitioner of a trade in which extraordinary attention to detail marks the difference between success and failure, life and death.
We now know only that Diyala and the high king himself must have approved Locke’s decision to remain silent. The very existence of the commandant’s slim report and of the enquiry itself have remained subject to the strictest security measures.
No one doubts the veracity of the events that have been chronicled here. None believes there was in fact no hearing. Nevertheless, if any off-worlder ever again enters the Valley of Mithos, it will be the result of no less than the most extraordinary combination of events – each of itself highly unlikely. It will not be because of whatever Guy Locke revealed to his superiours.
GUY LOCKE RETURNED to the Charwick plantation directly upon the conclusion of the enquiry. There he was warmly greeted by Amber Southerly. Despite her obvious effort, the Diyalan despaired of ever again seeing the lovely smile and dancing eyes that once had helped render Lady Charwick an incomparable hostess and a treasured guest whenever she graced the social scene of Meridum or Faxon. The events of the past year had robbed Amber of the sparkle that once had set her apart from all the others of her class.
The Diyalan officer remained as her guest for several days before Amber first spoke of the painful events of their recent past. The two had repaired to the verandah of the charming home her husband had built for her when they were not long married and Blane a mere infant in arms. A light breeze cooled the tropical evening and carried with it the fragrance of the distant jungle. It was there Amber Southerly for the first time opened her aching heart to the man she had always trusted second only to one other.
Without seeking to spare herself in the slightest, Amber told Guy what he did not already know of her experience in Mithos: how she had all but given up hope; how she had come to cherish the friendship of King Stephanos, who was so very like her lost husband; how ultimately she had been reunited with Jer’ok only to have her faith and hope cruelly dashed in pieces yet again.
At the conclusion of her long and painful narrative, Amber was left tired and dispirited. Without a word Guy rose and left her side to return in but a moment with seri to revive their spirits. She smiled and thanked him in the soft tones he had come to love. Though neither could truly relieve the other of the private grief resulting from the tragic events that had transpired from the devastation in Meridum to those in the dark caverns separating Mithos from the outside worlds, the two relaxed in the silence of companionship. It was almost as though Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk and even Blane might rejoin them this very evening.
“You know, there are times when I can fully comprehend why Jason chose to remain,” Amber mused aloud as the sipped the fiery liquor, each lost in private contemplations. She missed the expression that briefly clouded the Diyalan’s features. “Despite everything, I find missing the Valley of Mithos. It possessed a beauty of its own I have never experienced elsewhere.
“What you did was right, Guy,” she hastened to add lest he believe she was somehow accusing him of some great wrong. “It was necessary that the cruel raids be terminated. But even more important was the preservation of Mithos itself.”
“Yes.” Locke picked up her train of thought without revealing more. And then, “The treasure of Mithos transcends the material worth of her precious gems. That microcosm of ancient Terra must never be exploited by the peoples of Gemini or of the Confederation.” He might more properly have said “never again,” but the addition of that one simple word would have revealed too much. Nor did he mention the name of Krypta.
“I am still astounded that my superiours consented to consigning her to oblivion. The temptations are many and great.”
Amber almost laughed: “You left them little choice, my friend. You explosives were a more effective argument than your words, I think.”
Guy chuckled in spite of himself. “I, too, have little faith in the power of words to sway governments. Impossibility – in the company of judicious silence – is far more persuasive.” He grew more pensive. “You know, with the safeguards we installed, in only a few years it will be impossible to detect the presence of humankind hands. For those who come after us, if any do, there will never have been a passageway, only a massive cavern. Eventually the raids will become no more than a local legend, one among many. One day even the legends will fade from memory.”
The silence, this time vaguely uncomfortable, again fell between them. Amber was lost among her own poignant memories, and Guy was uncertain whether she would welcome any effort on his part to dissipate them. He watched Amber’s face as he sipped that last of his seri. When she spoke again, it was as if there had been no lull in the conversation.
“Given the choice, I would almost rather be a part of Mithos than return to Meridum. Legend or not, of the two cities, Meridum new seems the more unreal.” Almost in the same breath Amber changed the subject: “I only hope it is the spirit of Stephanos rather than that of Drusus – or Varela – that will prevail in Mithos.” Not even gentle Amber was capable of uttering that name without the emphasis lent by bitterness.
Abruptly, Amber asked the question Guy Locke had been dreading. His own overbearing sense of guilt had not been a part of that which the commandant had revealed in the hours spent before his superiors. He knew Amber was aware of it, though she was careful not to allude to it out of deference to him.
“Guy, do you suppose he could have survived? Is there any chance that he lived through the explosion and its aftermath?”
Guy did not answer immediately. He misliked the reopening of wounds that had not yet healed and might never fully do so. He at last shook his head sadly and shrugged without knowing he did so.
“I don’t know, Amber. I only wish I could give you an answer I could believe in, myself.”
He went on, choosing his words with care: “If he did survive, he almost certainly will have returned to Varela’s influence. Who can know what the future holds if he has returned to the queen?” Guy observed the sad expression on his companion’s face. “I am sorry,” he said simply. “I deeply regret I could not have prevented it. There was just no way to warn him in time.” At least if the other was to be stopped forever, he reminded himself.
To Amber he gently added, “Sometimes, you know, a man’s sixth sense will serve to warn him when all else has failed. Perhaps . . . ” But he could put no real hope in his words. And Amber Southerly was too sensitive to miss the lack of conviction.
Amber nodded without speaking. Perhaps he did still live, but he was lost to her forever, whatever the fate. The woman had to admit that it was probably for the best that she would never be certain. The situation caused her enough anguish. She doubted she could bear the added burden of his certain death on her conscience. For Guy Locke had closed Mithos from outsiders for all eternity, because he had deferred to her, willingly to be sure.
Only because of her eloquent pleas that Mithos deserved isolation, not annihilation by the modern machines of war; only in deference to her love for both the Mithos of Stephanos and the jungle world of Jer’ok, had Guy Locke simply closed Mithos from the reach of humankind without bringing the evils who possessed her to Gemini justice. And in doing so, the Diyalan still feared he had done yet a greater evil.
Silence again fell between Guy and Amber. This time it was not lifted. After a while he left her to retire. The woman remained to savour the fragrance of the jungle beyond the plantation grounds and to listen to the night sounds. The gentle breeze touched her face and stirred her golden hair as she sat in morose contemplation. It was hours later before she, too, broke away from the call of the jungle beyond and went inside for the remainder of another sleepless night.
FAR FROM THE Southerly home in the land of the Sanaca and farther still from Meridum, there was one who had not yet relinquished the frail hope that the son of Jer’ok still lived as was to be found. That one would not rest before he had exhausted all hope of finding the boy.
THE ALATA OF the small band of Aranda was suspicious of the peculiar san-k’aranda who faced him, but he was also curious. So long was the stranger made no overt threat, Kor-lu’s curiosity would prevail over the natural aggression born of suspicion.
Thus far the stranger’s behaviour remained above reproach. He had promptly deferred to Korlu’s authority, though he did assume a status above the other bucks, all of whom were too intimidated by his appearance to challenge the odd creature. He treated the females and ta’els with the respect they deserved and kept a scrupulously correct distance from them.
Strange as he was, the k’aranda was completely familiar with the rules of proper decorum. More than once the new buck shared a toothsome Talpi with the alata. Here was a fine fellow indeed! Korlu basked in his new-found friendship.
Now that he had been among them for several passages of Sanjera without incident, the stranger hunkered down at the side of the leader for the first time one sweltering afternoon when the jungle was unusually quiet in the shimmering heat of Two Shadows. After the exchange of a few insects and grubs and lethargic attention to their consumption, the stranger struck up a conversation. The discussion, which was stretching Korlu’s intellect far beyond any previous cerebral activity, drifted lazily from topic to topic. They considered the weather and the plenty provided by this region of the jungle. The stranger politely praised Korlu’s many talents for leadership and remarked on the fine ta’els who had recently joined the band.
In time alata and stranger launched into tall tales of their respective prowess and adventures. Korlu, however, soon lapsed into silence. His adventures could not hope to match the wild excitement of the life the stranger claimed to be his. The alata favoured his guest with a sidelong glance from under the heavy brow. The alata listened with suspicious care, but the k’aranda did not so much as hint at any threat or intent to overthrow Korlu’s rule. It was well he did not. This mighty alata of Aranda recalled with satisfaction his own strength and agility. There had been few challenges to his rule after the first few passages of Solea’s light to and from the sky of near-dark.
The conversation dwindled to nothing as each member of the odd pair lost himself in memories of his past. Neither bothered to stir from his comfortable position when the other members of the band slipped from their sight in the endless search for food. The folk were all upwind. Their movements, thus, were not really hidden from Korlu, and he was too content to follow after them just yet. It was not often the alata could find a kindred spirit among his fellows.
The shadows were growing long, and most of the band had returned to sleep away the remainder of the heat of the two suns, when the stranger broke into Korlu’s thoughts to ask a most curious question. Had Korlu ever seen, asked the stranger, an old buck named Aran, who traveled in the company of a young san-k’aranda very much like himself?
Korlu thought and thought. He scratched his head as he strained at concentration. There had been something familiar about the stranger. Hadn’t Korlu seen another creature very like him somewhere, sometime? To hide his massive effort the hunterfolk buck shuffled off a few paces, pretending to search for other tidbits to fill his perpetually empty belly. He was grateful that the k’aranda did not join him. Korlu turned to look as he absently scratched one shoulder. The stranger appeared to be asleep.
For the next several days the presence of the stranger among his people served to remind Korlu that he wished to remember where he had seen another san-k’aranda. At first his sole recollection was of numerous san-k’aranda of the dark hides, who appeared to have established permanent lairs not far from the feeding place. Korlu remembered observing them from a cautious distance and watching their pitiful effort at Pers-Alata. There had been no victim and no altar that he could recall, but, wonder of wonders, they had managed to trap Jera, the lightning, who hissed and crackled and bounded upward in helpless red rage as they danced triumphantly about him.
Korlu deliberately turned his wandering thoughts back to the stranger’s question. More days passed. They were often spent in the company of his guest, who, but for his appearance, would already have been as completely acceptable as a member of the band as any who had been born into it. His appearance not only set him apart, it also served as a constant reminder to Korlu of that elusive memory he was striving to catch. It fluttered about in his mind like the broad-winged small one who was buffeted here and there at the whim of Mael.
ONE SULTRY AFTERNOON even more debilitating than the one that he and the san-k’aranda had earlier passed in wide-ranging conversation, Korlu developed a thirst and approached the nearby lake that served all the local community of creatures. To his shock he spotted the creature splashing about in the menacing waters. At first the alata naturally assumed his new friend was drowning. He sat down to watch with regret. It would not have occurred to him to risk Nea’s cold embrace in a rescue effort, but Korlu would miss this uniquely companionable fellow. That he remained on the shore to observe his passing into long sleep was a mark of his great respect.
Presently, however, Korlu came to understand the stranger was not drowning after all. He was actually enjoying himself in the grip of Nea. Obviously, he could release himself at will. Korlu watched the other’s antics with renewed interest. It was then it abruptly came to Korlu where it was he had seen the san-k’aranda, the one being sought. Like his brother who now splashed contentedly only a few paces away from the alata, that one had also splashed about while an older buck with stolid patience awaited his return to the grassy bank. Korlu had been delayed in returning to his band, because he had stopped to watch even as he watched today.
Korlu could hardly wait for his new friend to rejoin him that he might tell him what he had observed so many moons ago. The alata’s chest swelled with justifiable pride for his mighty mental accomplishment.
UPON FINALLY CONFIRMING that Blane and Aran had indeed been in the area, Jer’ok of the Aranda left Korlu’s band in a renewed effort to pick up the spoor of his son. First the beast-man ranged far and rapidly in increasingly large circles in the hope a random search might reveal some clue to his son’s territory. If the boy was still in the company of the wily Aran, his chances of survival improved tremendously. Jer’ok remembered well the buck’s unusual intelligence. That Aran still lived after more than a year back on Ashtar was ample demonstration of his inherent jungle craft. Blane would have been well instructed. The physique he had inherited from his father would also serve him well. The jungle of Ashtar is not for the frail of body. For the first time Jer’ok was experiencing that special sense of pride given the parent of a particularly promising offspring.
Only recently freed from the cruel shackles of Mithos and the equally restraining, if more kindly, bonds of the physicians and hospital of Guy Locke’s countrymen, Jer’ok all but literally flew from branch to branch now that his spirit was further buoyed with renewed hope.
This time Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk ranged his jungle alone. This time not even his beloved mate stood in the way of his search. Amber was content to recover from her experiences in Mithos among their Sanaca retainers while the Lord of Ashtar pursued their quest alone. The only thing that slowed the beast-man’s flight through his jungle was the rare encounter with bands of Aranda. Jer’ok could not doubt Blane’s certain affinity for the life his father had led and more often than not yearned after. The son of Jer’ok would be found among his brothers, the Aranda.
Even when the beast-man’s search continued to be fruitless, his hope refused to waver in the slightest. Occasionally, he approached the village of the treacherous tribesman who had sent him off in the direction of waiting Mithos, but Jer’ok never encountered any of the villagers. There was neither fear not antipathy; the beast-man simply had no cause to go among them. On those occasions when his hunt returned him to Korlu’s band, however, Jer’ok made a point of renewing the alata’s friendship. As the Stars would have it, this habit saved Jer’ok’s life.
KORLU DECIDED THAT this time he would follow Jer’ok as the latter sought out other Aranda and applied all his immense store of jungle craft to the detection of his lost ta’el’s spoor. Perhaps the alata would learn something useful from his friend, though he declined to take an active part in the other’s search. One often learns more by stealth – that the wily alata needed no san-k’aranda to tell him.
Now, taking care to remain always downwind and well hidden by the thick tangle of vegetation, Korlu was observing every move as Jer’ok methodically scrutinized each footprint. His sensitive nostrils tested the air and every leaf, large or small, close enough to the water that it might be brushed by the body of one on approaching or departing the watering places. With Korlu close behind, the beast-man occasionally took to the trees and cast his sharp eye about for signs left by travelers. Whenever he detected any sign, he would examine the spot on foot and sniff about carefully for the unforgotten scent that would tell him his son had been there.
Although Jer’ok was utterly engrossed in his methodical search, he did not neglect his own safety. From time to time he would pause to scan the expanse of the grassy expanse and the jungle itself for signs of danger. He remained alert to any alteration in the behaviour of the herbivores who came to drink or in the songs of the brightly coloured birds fluttering in the leaves overhead. Often, he would interrupt his search to test the air himself, alerted by some sound Korlu had failed to detect.
And yet for all his caution the beast-man missed the killer who stalked him. So to had Korlu at first, though he was maintaining his surreptitious watch downwind of Jer’ok. Himself downwind and slightly to the south of Korlu, the dark san-k’aranda came to Nea. The alata’s place of concealment lay between the two k-aranda. Indeed, the humankind did not at first espy the beast-man, who was at the moment conducting his search on the ground. When he did see Jer’ok, the man’s evil countenance twisted into what Korlu – who only at that very moment first scented him before turning to look over toward the interloper – interpreted as a snarl. The alata knew at once the two were hunter and his prey.
The exiled cannibal’s approach had been as silent as Pardu. Now it took on the stealth of the successful hunter. The scowling visage was transformed with a broad smile of anticipation as he drew ever closer to the unsuspecting beast-man. Quietly, the hunter drew an arrow from his quiver and fitted it to his bow as he crept forward to draw against his vulnerable foe. Still unaware, the quarry had turned and was striding into range. The cannibal waited until he could not miss. The point of his arrow did not waver from the broad chest of his hated enemy.
Korlu watched the unfolding drama in perplexity. He saw Jer’ok’s broad stride and observed the peculiar reactions of the dark san-k’aranda. Dimly he began to recall that the odd objects in the misshapen hands of the creature were weapons. Korlu’s friend was being threatened, yet he remained completely unaware of the danger. The alata struggled with the need to help and the desire to maintain the secrecy of his observations of the san-k’aranda. It was the hunterfolk’s great intelligence in combination with forest craft natural to the Aranda that served the one purpose without defeating the other. He slid from his place of hiding to the position taken by the wicked k’aranda. Neither that k’aranda nor Jer’ok detected the slightest hint of the hunterfolk’s passage through the tangled jungle. Silently, the alata Jer’ok had befriended encountered and so swiftly slew the exiled cannibal, still seeking to satisfy his thirst for vengeance against the Lord of Ashtar, that neither humankind ever knew of Korlu’s presence.
Well pleased with himself, Korlu silently returned to his neglected duties as alata to his band. He would return to watch over Jer’ok when Sanjera next returned.
For Korlu tomorrow never came. In typical folk fashion his mind had turned to other matters of greater import at the coming of second dawn. Two and then several days passed before the buck remembered there was something he had wanted to do at the place where Nea touched the land. By then, however, he had lost interest. When at last his curiosity did draw Korlu back, the shore was deserted except for a few grazing Kiwasa who lifted their heads lazily to stare at the Aranda until he departed. What had drawn Korlu there the buck no longer knew. He drank without much thirst and returned again to his band, taking care to avoid the picked bones of a large k’aranda who had fallen in death at the edge of the jungle.
FOR THE FIRST time in his life the Lord of Two Worlds tasted the bitter flavour of total defeat. As he moved through the jungle to rejoin his mate, the beast-man sadly pondered the circumstances that had contrived to keep him from his desperate search too long. At least he and Amber had not lost each other. He longed for the comfort only she could give, but he knew he had failed her as well as Blane and himself. Only Guy Locke had been served. For that at least Jer’ok was grateful. He owed much to the Diyalan. But not even the beast-man’s great cunning and agility had been sufficient to overcome the tremendous odds the Stars and Jer’ok’s humankind enemies had array against him. Some of the battle light, always so quick to enter Jer’ok’s eyes, was dimmed forever.
GRADUALLY THE SOUND of the ocean replaced the jungle of Ashtar in my mind. The troubles of Jer’ok and Amber were not so easily dissipated. The Admiral and I did not speak. The unpredictable Terran weather remained mild, so we were comfortably stretched out on the accommodating rocks that provided an excellent overview of the breakers below. Not unlike Battersea on Chimur, our surroundings provided a certain sense of continuity across the galaxy. But not even Inland’s rugged landscape could dispel the gloom that had descended with the unexpected conclusion to the Admiral’s narrative.
Surprise is a mild description for my reaction to the fact that Jer’ok, for all his preternatural talents, had actually been defeated in his search for Blane. The Admiral’s face was turned away. I could not see the express accompanying the silence. I must say, however, I was relieved to discover whatever had transpired in the caverns beyond Mithos.
“I suppose, of course,” I ventured, “it was Stephanos who may have died in the explosion?” With that question I pause in some confusion. “Certainly, Amber had no special feeling for Jason Tiberius, for all the camaraderie arising from the coincidence of their common home world.”
I had never before heard anything like hatred in the Admiral’s voice. Despite the mild weather I shuddered with sudden chill.
“Don’t you understand?” With a kind of snort, the Admiral sat up to stare beyond the horizon. A nerve fluttered in his jaw. “No, I suppose you wouldn’t. Amber never did.”
“You can’t mean Jason Tiberius was an agent of Krypta!” But even as I voiced it, I remembered the faint suggestions that had from time to time occurred.
“An agent of Krypta?” I would have sworn the Admiral snorted in disgust a second time. “No, Tiberius was no agent.”
For a moment confusion reigned. Just what was the Admiral conveying with such notable lack of subtlety? He was not being deliberately obscure, nor am I obtuse. That was anger I saw. Pure and simple anger bordering on rage.
“Tiberius was the principal. It was he who was directing the shipments from Ashtar. It was he who profited from the illicit trade in lives.
“Commandant Locke did some genealogical research upon his return to Diyala while Leede Southerly was recovering from the wound he nearly succumbed to. Locke managed to obtain certain records of Krypta by means no one has ever seen fit to reveal. It appears Tiberius was a direct descendent of the Kryptane mentor who established the illegal colony known as Mithos in the first place. There was little suggestion in the records of the original intent. Tiberius and others like him had no concern with any legitimate scientific purpose Mithos might once have served.
“No, Tiberius was no more of Ares than you are, my Terran friend. He was pureblooded Kryptane.”
“Whatever betrayed him?”
“His attempt to murder the slave Silvaticus.”
I searched my memory of the tale. The notes I had in hand revealed no hint of murder. Unless . . .
“Locke himself should have known immediately upon observing Jer’ok’ condition. Medical science has made advances throughout Gemini. Jer’ok would have died as few as five Terran years previously. At the time, the wound was painful, but it was not mortal – unless inadequately – or maliciously treated. It was not until the Diyalan medic examined him that the truth of the matter was revealed. Tiberius was a physician who was well aware of all the current treatments – at least as of the time he would have been practicing beyond Mithos. And yet Jer’ok was dying.
“Why?” I could not help but wonder aloud.
“Because he was given no honest assistance. Only the most rudimentary anaesthetics. And subtle doses of a poison nearly excruciating when applied to an open wound. In effect, it was the pain that was killing him. He had no strength and little will to fight for life. A lesser man would have been beyond caring. By the time the Diyalans came on the scene, it was almost too late. But had they been there sooner, there would have been no need for hospitalization at all.” The Admiral relaxed slightly and even grinned, though it was not directed at me. “Weak as he was, Jer’ok resented every hour ‘cooped up’ in that hospital. He was prepared to let nature perform her own miracles of healing by the time he was brought home to Chumur.
“Commandant Locke’s medic understood the situation immediately. In fact, I am surprised he did not kill his treacherous colleague when he encountered him. Fortunately, the troop carried an ample supply of endomorph stimulant. From the moment the injections commenced Jer’ok was no longer in danger.”
“Legends,” I mused privately, “always recover from the most devastating of wounds with the most miraculous ease.” But I was relieved to know the redoubtable Jer’ok had not let the fraternity down. Superheroes are nothing if not durable. Thank the Stars! We would miss them sorely!
Aloud I remarked that it was sad that after all they endured, Jer’ok and Amber were never reunited with Blane.
“But they were!”
It was my turn to sit up and take notice. The Admiral still was not addressing me when he went on as if there had been no interruption in his narrative: “There was none to tell the Lord of Ashtar that one day his son would be restored to him, and with Blane would come Ashanti, the daughter Leede and Amber longer for but would otherwise never have.”
There was something in his voice that made me ask.
“Who is Ashanti?
The earlier grin was repeated, but this time it was frankly directed at me.
“It is a long story, my friend, but, if you insist, Ashanti is only the name by which Blane first knew her. It turns out that ‘Ashanti’ was in fact Neani Locke, a niece of Guy Locke.”
Of course I wanted to hear the whole story, but it was time for the Admiral and me to return to our inn and to make our separate ways.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Dateline: Meridum 1
I. Chimur (Location Unknown)
II. Terra (Great Briten of Inland)
III. Chimur (Battersea, Tuatha)
Continued Next Week
IV. Chimur (Rune Pellucid; Battersea)
V. Chimur (Battersea); Ashtar (Sanaca Lands; Unspecified Coastal Settlement)
VI. Ashtar (Jungle Location, Classified)
VII. Ashtar (Jungle Location, Classified)
XI. At Court
XIV. King’s Ward
XIX. Silence 177
XX. Defeat 181
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