From the Journals of the Terran
Log, Location Unspecified [DATE UNKNOWN]
Jer’ok’s insight was quite accurate as far as it went. For as long as he lived, Jer’ok was never to be fully Aranda or fully of Tuatha. He was never to comprehend fully the gifts that were of his Chimurian and
Ashtarian inheritance, fused into something greater than either part in that distant instant when Jera's touch consumed Ta’el and yielded Jer’ok-ta in his stead. In his own mind Jer’ok would forever be the outcast.
But in Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk it was the finest of two worlds which had been irrevocably fused. True, he was always in a sense alone, but only for a chosen few, of whom Jer’ok was one, to be alone is the result of
being uniquely strong of spirit as well as of body: Such men have been regarded throughout the history of numerous planets as heroes, even if only by those fortunate few favored by their friendship.
From the Journals of the Terran
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 55-65]
This time it was the Admiral who terminated the transmission. I was so deep in reflections of what lay in “Jer’ok’s” future that the tape ran on for a matter of minutes before I realized the Diyalan had stopped speaking. I switched the recorder off and waited. The Admiral was obviously lost in his own thoughts. Neither of us broke off the silence that descended so completely.
We have now learned to respect each other’s solitary moods, so I made no comment when the Admiral got to his feet and strolled off, obviously with little attention to where he was headed. We are fortunate to have the Wanderer to ourselves. I knew he would meet no hungry predator or equally dangerous human enemy. Whenever the mood strikes us, our solitary hikes are entirely safe.
Left to my own devices I see by the stars that it is very late. I am about to turn in, no doubt to spend the remainder of the night being pursued by some slathering carnivore my subconscious never will have the decency to identify. Perhaps it is just as well.
Today the predicted nightmares caused my skin to crawl every time a leaf stirred in a light breeze. Being a creature of the wild is not my choice among life patterns. I prefer danger in more sophisticated packages.
The Admiral was not inclined to pursue his narrative this evening.
For the last several nights we both have been too exhausted to do anything but sleep from what passes in Gemini as dusk to dawn. I find the dim light unpleasant, but I am becoming accustomed to it to the point of actually missing it when we are clouded in.
We have been hit with heavy winds, dust storms and a freak thunderstorm. It has required all our combined skills, but we have managed to survive with our camp and its contents intact. Over the next few days I hope to pick up the threads of Jer’ok’s history.
Of late I have mostly asked questions, and the Admiral replies shortly, with little enthusiasm. I can not help but wonder why. I suppose the isolation is beginning to have its inevitable effect. My own enthusiasm for the legend is fully restored now that we again have time on our hands. I hope my interest will be the catalyst he needs.
The Admiral has started slowly, warming to his subject under my verbal prodding, but it is going to be slow going for a while. I am keeping my disappointment to myself.
The Admiral has confirmed my speculation that young Ta’el had in all likelihood been struck by a tiny meteorite heavy with copper at the conclusion of a meteor shower – not at all unusual in the Gemini system today, particularly on Ashtar. He admitted that there was no acceptable scientific or medical explanation for the youth’s survival, let alone the fortuitous transformation. All he would say, when I raised a disbelieving eyebrow, was that the whole thing is legend and therefore does not require logical explanations. He, after all, had not scoffed when Kal-El took to the Terran skies under his own power. The full extent of the
transformation had not yet been revealed to the youthful Jer'ok, he added in a conspiratorial tone.
It seems Jer’ok and Lael, reunited (at Lael’s insistence) with the hunterfolk, were permitted to participate in the creation of the signal to those who would come from the stars. Although the hunterfolk spent the better part of their waking hours on completing the Earth-Mother beacon for distant humankind, the members of the band still pursued their individual lives as they always had. The novel demand on their time merely reduced the area over which they roamed. There was still no move toward overt cooperation in the hunt. Agriculture, even of the most rudimentary sort, remained in the remote future. The hunterfolk were yet to attain the
lofty human estate of hunter-gatherers. That advance would require decades, if not centuries.
The sensations that had so awed Jer’ok upon his first sighting of the design never returned. In fact, the youth soon became bored with the tedious task of locating and hauling white stones and pebbles to the hillside. More and more often he would abandon the work to find adventures on his own or simply to hunt. Every adventure added to the extent or the depth of the youth's knowledge of the dangerous land in which he lived. Lael, on the other hand, quickly became absorbed in the task the folk had undertaken. Her short temper improved tremendously.
Lael would only infrequently accompany her spirited offspring on his independent forays. More often the youth explored the jungle on his own. His own unique abilities built on the training provided by his hunterfolk sire and dama to provide Jer’ok with a comprehension of his adopted habitat that could be matched by none.
It was on an occasion when Lael was not with him that Jer’ok encountered humankind for the first time. The encounter was not a happy one for any concerned.
It is most unfortunate that it is the first impression that is the most lasting. The humankind who formed Jer’ok’s first impression of his own race were, like the hunterfolk and many other humans he would later meet on the planet of his birth, the result of the unregulated early history of experimentation and colonization of Ashtar. These humankind were of the most dreaded primitives to be found in the galaxy. For some unknown reason the cultural evolution of these worthies had ground to a premature halt long before Jer’ok was to encounter them. Though he was not to discover their identity until some years later, the first humankind Jer'ok met are known in the Gemini histories as the Khazarish.
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 66: Begin Transmission]
Narrative Transmission 6
JER’OK WAS NOT far from the band. Lael and the others were foraging some kilometres from the centre of their range. The momentary serenity of the day led the hunterfolk to disperse more widely than was their wont. Bran, himself, was relaxed in the company of a number of juveniles. Their vocalisations were few and low. No warning of danger was sounded by any of the scattered hunterfolk. It was the kind of day that lulls even the jungle beast into a serenity seldom permitted by Ashtar.
Jer’ok was alone, having devoted himself to observations of a colony of small primates he had recently observed for the first time. He was intrigued, because they were not unlike some of the shadows he had been watching in his lair.
The Ashtarian home of the elder Leede and Sabratha was now Jer’ok’s. Most of the other creatures avoided it because it was so profoundly foreign to them. Those few who chanced to approach when Jer’ok was present were driven away. The young beast-man had worried over protection in his frequent absences, but, once protection became of interest to him, Jer’ok was not long in discovering the mechanisms his unknown sire had devised to defeat any intruders not repelled by threats or outright attack. Certainly, Jer’ok’s defensive behaviour was more readily grasped for what it was than had been either the shouting or the beams fired by his sire. More than once, the elder Leede had found it necessary to drop one of the great carnivores to establish that his territory was not to be disturbed. A screaming hunterfolk buck endowed with a long fang unlike any the beasts had previously experienced spoke a language for which the beasts needed no further translation.
Always a keen observer of all the creatures of Ashtar, today Jer’ok was amassing an understanding of the behaviour of Meru’s family. The small creatures struck Jer’ok as delightful smaller versions of the hunterfolk and other k’aranda creatures, similar to his people but usually with richer coats and far less intelligence. Meru sported not only a rich coat of many beautiful colours, but a long, ringed tail that served, Jer’ok discovered, not only as an effective source of balance when the creatures were high in the trees, but also in communication among Meru individuals. The bushy appendage made a fine signaling device.
This family’s alata Jer’ok judged to be in his prime. The creature showed no fear in the presence of the beast-man, although the latter noted with some amusement that he was allowed to come only so close before the little alata gathered himself for an impressive display of aggression. How far he might have taken the bluff – if bluff it was – Jer’ok avoided discovering. What the beast-man was discovering was an astonishing degree of intelligence.
To his surprise, when the other members of the group one by one ceased the foraging for tasty berries and twigs to roll up in their tails to sleep, the alata neither joined them nor maintained his guard. Instead he inched closer to where the beast-man lounged, the heat of Sanjera lulling him into a nap of his own. Half asleep, Jer’ok observed Meru’s approach, wondering what he would do.
The wondering beast-man held his breath. And then one hand went up to the scar that reached from his eye into his hair. For an instant Jer’ok almost felt he was living again the dreadful event of his Pers-Alata. This little Meru alata bore the very same kind of scar in nearly an identical pattern extending from eye to between his ears.
But nothing, not even the astounding intelligence in the eyes now regarding him with such serenity, could have prepared Jer’ok for what next transpired.
“I am Farr,” the creature announced in the language of the Aranda.
Jer’ok’s heart actually skipped a beat. Although numerous denizens of the jungle could understand something of his people's language, no other creature, not even the shaggy beasts so like them in form, actually were able to use it themselves. It is true they voiced some of the same sounds and thus conveyed something of their thoughts, but sound is not necessarily language. This was a special Meru indeed, and he was now steadily regarding Jer’ok with an expectant air.
The beast-man opened his eyes cautiously, still taking care not to offend with a direct stare despite the boldness Farr was displaying.
“I am Jer'ok,” he responded softly.
But what might have followed from this extraordinary encounter was shattered with a sound like the galloping of Eos or Lopus, but much louder and heavier, followed by the screams of hunterfolk. The sleeping Meru exploded from their slumbers and, scattering in all directions, disappeared into the trees. The sound of their cries of fear and fury at the disruption in their midday rest faded as they raced away through the branches, Farr not lagging behind.
Jer’ok himself was on his feet in an instant and racing in the opposite direction – toward the awful sounds. He had recognised Lael’s voice among those hunterfolk screams. In it was a tone unlike any the beast-man had heard in it before. It turned his blood cold.
By the time Jer’ok arrived on the scene it was far too late to be of any service. In less time than it takes to tell of it, the beast-man saw and had read the detail in the signs of destruction.
The Aranda had been scattered about an opening in the jungle ranging on either side of an unusually broad game trail from which emanated an assortment of unfamiliar scents. Jer’ok’s nostrils flared in disgust and then in fury. Despite the sweep of unwonted emotions, his eyes missed no detail of the scene, not the least feature of which were the most peculiar hoofprints he had ever seen. And yet there was something hauntingly familiar about them, something that seemed to accompany the mingled scents; one not unlike that of Eos, another so like Aranda yet so perversely different that Jer’ok actually felt the hair at the back of his neck rise in challenge. Where another might have experienced fear, Jer’ok felt nothing so much as a profound abhorrence for which he had no time for examination.
There was another scent lingering through the dreadful scene. This scent was associated with a small group of creatures hovering about the downed body of his dama.
As he paused to observe the fatal tableau the infuriated beast-man recognised the creatures as san-k’aranda, but far darker in colour than those of his shadows. One of them stood to one side as the others chattered incomprehensible sounds over Lael who was ominously still.
For a moment Jer’ok allowed his attention to turn completely onto the creature who stood to one side. Standing at the edge of the forest, he eyed the primitive tribesman. Under the intensity of this feral regard, the man glanced toward the point of its origin.
The cannibal gasped and, instinctively taking a firmer grip on the only weapon he still held, stood his ground as the naked giant glowered from the edge of the forest. Here was no hunterfolk buck; this was another man but with skin unlike any the astonished observer had ever beheld. His tribesmen looked up from the female's body and became silent.
The giant’s attention was now fully on the armed member of the party. The native stood his ground. Armed as he was with freshly poisoned darts, he feared no creature other than armed members of another tribe – an unlikely encounter on the Ashtar of Jer’ok’s time. It was a fatal curiosity that held the tribesmen rooted.
Curiosity is not to be trifled with in this universe. This time it doomed the cannibal and all his tribe. For the appalled beast-man suddenly grasped the intent of these strangers: They were preparing to consume the body of his dama! How could Lael rest in her long sleep if she filled san-k'aranda bellies instead of returning to the jungle through the bellies of other beasts, large and small? Jer’ok instinctively sensed something different and wholly wrong in what these creatures were about. The beast-man found his own belly rising to fill his throat from below and swallowed hard. He was moved by something even more disturbing than grief for his slain mother.
Jer’ok took a step closer, only to see a tiny fang swiftly inserted in the hollow tube held by the alerted san-k’aranda. The tube and its threatening contents were then directed at the beast-man with unmistakable menace. Jer’ok recognised the weapon as such, even though it was unlike anything he had seen used in his parents’ tapes. He also recognised a certain personal danger, but foremost in his mind was Lael. He reacted as Aranda.
There was nothing human in the challenging screams that issued from the throat of the beast-man. The cannibal very nearly inhaled the dart, but he recovered and, hardly pausing, directed it for the intruder's midsection.
Jer’ok was quick for human or folk, but he perceived death in the san-k’aranda’s actions. The beast-man could not hope to dodge the missile. Instinct alone prompted him to turn away from his would-be killer to provide a smaller target. To his own astonishment the tiny missile glanced off the skin of one muscular arm.
Jer’ok looked down. There was not so much as a mark on his skin. He raised his eyes to the attacker.
If Jer’ok was surprised, the cannibal’s reaction could only be described as incredulous horror. The creature should have dropped where he stood.
Was this some daemon of the jungle come to haunt his people – or him alone? The man cast a glance at his stunned tribesmen to assure himself they were experiencing what he was. Then he sent two more darts toward the creature in rapid succession, but his marksmanship suffered along with his nerves. One dart glanced off the daemon's side. The other missed entirely.
As a man, the cannibals wisely elected to beat a hasty retreat, but it was too late. In a matter of a few seconds Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda had killed a man for the first time.
Undaunted by the ineffectual missiles, Jer’ok, snarling and spitting his fury, scattered the san-k’aranda in every direction by sheer force of his incredible charge, launched in appalling silence.
If the beast-man was astonished by the events of the moment, it was mild indeed in comparison to the consternation of the depraved cannibals who had joined in the Khazarish attack on the hunterfolk in the expectation of a fine meal.
The small party was prepared for the ferocity of aroused hunterfolk individuals. Not one of them, however, could have predicted – or prepared themselves for – the presence of so horrific a humankind defender of the beasts.
Stunned more by surprise than immediate fear, the men leapt from the body of the she they were preparing to butcher. Before any had the presence of mind again to raise any of their formidable arsenal against their suddenly crazed attacker, he was amidst them in a veritable maelstrom of flashing knife and, to their horror, gnashing teeth which had ripped open the throat of one before any fully realised the ferocity of the attack.
Jer’ok had his retribution against the creature who had dared threaten him. Another of them fell to the slashing knife before the survivors of this misconceived venture could extricate themselves and race in wild panic for the cover of the forest.
In their haste to be away from this daemon-possessed, their weapons remained where they had been set aside while the butchering of their quarry was to proceed. Had Jer’ok followed, not one of the cannibals would have survived the infuriated beast-man’s personal hunt of vengeance to spread the word of this daemon’s existence.
While they lived, the story lost nothing in the telling and retelling over the remainder of the survivors' lives and those of their families and comrades. Thus was born the earliest of Jer'ok-ta's mortal enemies.
Jer’ok was oblivious to any such future enmity, nor would he have cared about the notoriety. His only thought now was of Lael. He screamed his challenge and threats of vengeance to the disappearing san-k’aranda even as he turned his back on them to return to his downed foster mother.
He knelt by his dama’s side and gently lifted her in his arms. To Jer’ok’s horror Lael had already entered long sleep. For all his love and his prowess the beast-man was utterly helpless before the reality of her departure. In vain he sought the agency of her demise in an altogether human need to understand and, perhaps, with some dwindling hope – equally human – of somehow reversing this last finality of every life.
Lael’s body bore no obvious wounds, save those inflicted by the sharp sticks protruding from her arms and neck. But these Jer’ok’s jungle craft told him were not severe enough to drive her into long sleep. Jer’ok looked about him at the scattered weapons. He recognised the devices by which the sticks had been delivered and the larger throwing sticks with their sharp broad fangs. The san-k’aranda his attack had scattered had not taken Lael’s life from her. It must have been whatever it was who had been associated with the mysterious spoor left by the hooves of some beast unknown to him.
But they could wait. Jer’ok hunkered down to support his dama’s body as the warmth of lost life drained away. He knew ought else to do but could not yet bring himself to leave her to her final rest in the way of Aranda. The beast-man grieved in total silence. The loss of Lael brought with it a dawning understanding.
None of his jungle-bred skills and stupendous strengths can avail Jer’ok-ta of the Aranda when faced with the finality of death.
AT LAST JER’OK gently lowered Lael to the ground and slowly rose to his feet. The ache within rose with him. Somehow he knew this was a pain that must be endured. Not even avenging the slaying of Lael would ever ease it. From his earlier experience with Char’s loss, Jer’ok was aware that the aching would diminish with the passage of time. Oh, it would return from time to time with the memory of his lost loved one, but it would never again be so anguishing as at present.
Still silent within the grip of his grief, the beast-man turned his back on Lael and took up the unusual spoor. At first he walked that he might study the unfamiliar detail. Then, satisfied, he picked up an easy jog-trot. But, then, as if he might thus escape that dull ache, Jer’ok lengthened his stride until he was racing along the wide trail with all the speed he possessed.
It was still too late, despite the fact that the Khazarish were in no hurry and had passed far along the trail at a lethargic walk, their spirited but perpetually overworked mounts in need of the respite. As a result, Jer’ok actually caught a glimpse of this future lifelong enemy. The grieving beast-man would have attacked but for their numbers and the fact they had already left the jungle trail for the vastness of the hot, dry domain where Sanjera ruled with cruel sway. His own wisdom stayed him at the edge of the jungle, where he glowered in their wake. As much fascinated as frustrated, Jer’ok observed the dwindling Khazarish band out of sight.
When the last of them disappeared into Sanjera’s ferocious glare, he returned to the place of the attack. The beast-man was in no hurry. He remained on the ground and backtracked without haste in contemplation of the hurtful events of the day. By the time he reached the clearing, Lael’s body was gone, but the primitive weapons of the cannibals remained where they had been scattered. Jer’ok made it his business to discover how they might serve him along with the deadly knife inherited from his true father.
When next Jer'ok encountered humankind, it would be under far more auspicious circumstances – for him.
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 66, Transmission interrupted]
From the Journals of the Terran
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 66]
I remarked dryly that it was a season of amazing firsts for the legendary Jer’ok. The Admiral gazed at me with only a hint of irritation. This time he did not bother to remind me it is only legend. This time he has answered my amused expression of disbelief.
A poisoned dart coming straight on would have killed Jer’ok instantly, I have been assured in the tone of voice usually reserved for children who are bright but slow to grasp a lesson repeatedly taught. The Admiral did relent to explain that the change in Jer’ok’s skin had been more than merely cosmetic. Whatever had struck him on the night of his passage into manhood _ or more accurately, folkhood – had actually caused tiny particles of copper to become embedded in his skin. A physiological alteration ensued which rendered the pure metal a permanent component of Jer’ok’s skin. So long as he was exposed to the light of the two Gemini suns his copper skin was richly colored and actually afforded him a certain degree of protection, at least from minor wounds.
I only noted caustically that, given the size of Ashtarian mosquitoes, Jer’ok must have been exceedingly grateful. I desisted when the Admiral shot me a look that would have curdled the venom of an Ashtarian killer-wasp. I am still learning to accept his tale without question. It is rough going. No one considers me much of a romantic despite my fascination with old legends.
Jer’ok took his firsts one step further before embarking on a life of solitude. He proceeded to organize Bran’s hunterfolk band in a campaign of aggression that would have brought most modern guerrilla fighters to tears of frustration. The majority of the cannibal tribe was destroyed. Those who survived were widely scattered and never again encountered by Bran’s band. The village’s primitive buildings were torn to pieces. The vengeful Jer’ok was not satisfied until the contents of an overturned cooking pot burst into flames and burned the entire village and most of its protective boma. The fire was only getting started when the band
disappeared into the jungle. Jer'ok, however, remained to watch until it burned itself out.
Later, when Bran died of old age, an unusual death among hunterfolk leaders, Jer’ok was unanimously hailed as his successor. The maturing beast-man accepted the honor and served his people well for nearly a year, although not without having to defend his title on more than one occasion. Fortunately, Jer’ok fought with skill enhanced by keen intelligence. For all his strength he could not match a full grown hunterfolk buck without that advantage.
Jer'ok was a talented leader. But his band’s pro-hominid limitations were a source of increasing frustration both to Jer’ok’s wanderlust and to his virtually untapped human intelligence. As time wore on Jer’ok’s absences increased in frequency and duration until he found himself far from the band with no intent to return.
Even in his self-imposed isolation the beast-man continued to despair of his own future. Each time he saw his image in still water or caught a glimpse of his shadow, he knew he would never possess the luxuriant beard of his fellows. Worse, his skin itself was hairless and likely to remain so. It mattered little to his hunterfolk mind that his appearance was obviously entirely acceptable among humankind, except for the peculiar metallic red of his skin. He must have wondered about that in particular.
The only other men he had observed closely were dark skinned, almost black. None had the coppery glow of Jer’ok. Nevertheless he had met humankind. That race was hardly worthy of emulation. The relationship was rather cause of shame. That his naked skin served to protect him in much the same way folk fur protected its owner was small consolation for his apparent association with the despised tribe.
The inevitable associate of prolonged isolation is profound loneliness. This was a state Jer’ok increasingly experienced whenever his existence as both predator and prey of his fellow Ashtarians allowed him time for thought. He naturally turned to his fellow creatures for companionship. He continued to study their ways with an insight and depth of perception shared by no other of Ashtar or elsewhere in the galaxy. His unique comprehension of Ashtar would serve him well in the future.
He learned to appreciate deeply a special friendship with the mastodons, themselves on the brink of evolution to a creature who is both servant and loyal friend of humankind on a number of planets endowed with rich tropical lands.
He sought out and befriended Farr, so much like my planet's extinct lemur, who, by reason of an accident not unlike that of Jer’ok’s youth was in certain ways far more intelligent than Jer’ok’s hunterfolk. The Admiral noted that, while Jer’ok’s physical prowess had thus been enhanced, Farr’s mental capacity had been altered.
It is even said, according to the Admiral, that Jer’ok attempted to enlist the friendship of some of the more evolutionarily advanced felines. It is also said that he enjoyed substantial success in this unlikely endeavor with one of the big cats – a larger progenitor of Terra’s cheetah in form, despite being known as the Ashtarian Black Lion – of all the unlikely beasts.
This time I succeeded in imposing my own strong will. The offending eyebrow did not ascend. I am learning.
As time went on and Jer’ok’s explorations carried him far and wide on Ashtar’s largest continent, he came upon other tribes of primitive humankind. He might have visited his vendetta on these more advanced primitives, but his hand was curiously stayed. Jer’ok never approached these scattered peoples, but he did observe them from a respectable distance and learned much. Above all he learned the value of skill with the weapons complementing the knife of the late Lord Charwick.
When next the beast-man returned to the territory of his childhood and youth, he carried a spear. A bow was slung over his back, and a quiver of fine arrows rested beside it. On the thong about his waist was a long rope he had woven from the tough stems of certain reeds that grow along most Ashtarian riverbanks. Jer’ok had indeed learned much from his fellow humans, but distaste based on his initial encounter discouraged him from making his presence known to them. Thus he primarily discovered humankind ways of aggression.
Individuals among the tribes must have observed the giant man of the coppery skin, for even then legends began to build around such sightings.
Life went on with dismaying monotony, but Jer’ok knew no other way. It would have been an injustice to both the man and the workings of the Stars to suggest he was dissatisfied. He took each day – the good and the bad – as it came and made the most of it. It was a good life, one that many of us would willingly embrace given the proper preparation. Aside from the intellectual stimulation of human companionship, without which Jer’ok was clearly doing quite well, there was only one thing missing.
I had waited for what I consider to be a decent interval and have been waiting for an opening. This seemed to be as good a time as any. Subtlety is not one of my numerous virtues. A healthy libido is – or so I am told. In any event, tonight I asked the question directly and without preamble.
Fortunately, the Admiral’s recent dour mood had lightened substantially. He laughed aloud when I noted with some asperity that it was hard to believe Jer’ok, hunterfolk or humankind, had not found the young shes of his band attractive to put it mildly. Indeed, he did seem to have been a healthy young animal in every sense. The Admiral laughed, but his response was less than elucidating. He merely replied dryly that some things are universal, and they never change.
I have resigned myself to the elusive answer that is no answer at all. Fortunately, Jer’ok was soon to find a somewhat more adequate outlet for whatever frustrations he might have been enduring. The efforts of the hunterfolk had not gone unnoticed. An archeo-anthropologic party was dispatched to investigate.
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 67
Narrative Transmission 7
AMBER LAXTON WAS finding increasingly difficult the challenge of maintaining an outward show of calm reserve. It was the last evening on board before her father’s expeditionary party departed for the jungles of mysterious Ashtar on a shuttle to be piloted by Lieutenant Guy Locke, Gemini Fleet, Diyalan Command. Amber was savouring the quality and diversity of the expeditionary party her father had assembled.
This was, after all, the first venture of the slim young Arene girl into Gemini’s heady scholastic society, at which her mentor father was an old hand. The very membership of the expedition was a tribute to the respect the mentor engendered, indeed took for granted as the reward for a lifetime of exemplary scholarship. For his daughter, however, everything was novel and exciting. Sleep would be impossible tonight as she anticipated her first shuttle voyage and the work her father was allowing her to accomplish with him among the hunterfolk bands on Ashtar. And then there was the matter of the Tuathan, Rand Southall.
Here was a mystery to add to the excitement of her scholarly debut! Amber cast her glance around the table.
The captain was honouring Mentor Blane Laxton and the other expedition leaders with a formal dinner in the ship's state dining room, reserved for royalty, Chimurian nobility – and renowned scholars from throughout the galaxy. Other than Amber, singled out as the mentor’s daughter and as the guest of Southall, the students were being feted separately by the ship's junior officers.
Amber was not disappointed to be seated between Rand and the Diyalan Lieutenant. Other than the Chimurians who came to study with her father in Armeria on their home world, including a contingent with this expedition, Rand and Locke were the first Chimurians in Amber's limited experience. Privately, she thought of them as the only adult Chimurians she had encountered. The mentor, having been widowed as a young man under tragic circumstances, imposed a sheltered life on his daughter. This expedition represented a major victory of Amber's iron will over her father's protective stance.
As the dinner progressed amid wide-ranging conversations, both Chimurians were living up to their respective nations’ reputations for infectious charm, although Locke, who was slightly Southall’s elder, was far more reserved. Rand had recently succeeded to the venerable Charwick barony, but rumor suggested he had declined investiture for reasons subject to considerable speculation and no answers. Formally, he remained Heir Presumptive to Charwick. Amber smothered a particularly girlish smile that threatened to become a childish giggle. Rand was the first member of Tuathan nobility in her sheltered life.
Her fellow students, as is the wont of irrepressible youth throughout the galaxy, had instituted two pools; one propounding wild theories of explanation, the other slyly projecting when Amber would charm the information from the Tuathan. As the voyage waxed long the theories waxed prodigiously outrageous.
Amber was a member of neither pool. Privately, she theorized that Rand was simply sowing his last wild oats on this expedition before leaving his studies and taking on the heady responsibilities of the title. She was well aware that he was also beginning to contemplate the wisdom of finding someone who would be a companionable lifelong helpmeet as well as Lady Charwick. The distaff members of the student contingent had not missed the need for a chatelaine of the manor and spent much of their time speculating on the reasons the Charwick Heir Presumptive had joined the expedition. They simply dismissed the Tuathan's scientific education in paleobotany and the fact that his skills were a worthy complement to those of the other scholars in the Laxton expedition.
Bridey, Amber’s companion, confidant, and best friend, was seated across from Amber between two of the ship’s senior officers. Amber was pleased to observe that her friend and Locke engaged in lively conversation throughout the sumptuous repast. The officers listened with rapt attention, adding an occasional comment or question, often setting the conversation off in a new direction. Watching Bridey’s innate reserve melt in the warmth of the lieutenant’s charm, Amber smiled in recollection of growing up with the support of the native Amerian’s friendship.
Bridey, in fact, had been with the Laxton family for many years. She was so old she herself claimed being unable to remember ever possessing a surname. The Laxton name served her well enough, she would always say with an air of mystery without responding to Amber’s gentle enquiries. Not even Amber had been able to extract from Bridey anything of the woman’s youth among her own tragic people. If Mentor Blane Laxton was aware of any details of Bridey’s life before she became a cherished member of his household, he, too, had maintained a firm silence over the years.
In some ways the Armerian had been the mother Amber could not remember, but Bridey was as much sister as parent. For all her stern and passive demeanour, she was not above the occasional mild prank, at Amber's instigation, of course. Because Amber was a subdued child and ever the dutiful daughter, the occasional show of spirit had always been encouraged. None, however, not even Bridey, who did suspect, had yet discovered just how much spirit lay beneath Amber’s own placid mien. Casual acquaintances found the girl lovely but mistook her reticence and depth of thought for a shallow, mildly pedantic personality of doubtful interest to any self-proclaimed sophisticate. To date there had been nothing in Amber’s life to bring to the fore her finer qualities much less her inner strength and iron will.
The mentor, as protocol demanded, was, of course, seated on the captain’s right, with the lieutenant on the left. Their side of the table exhibited the greatest decorum. Flanking Bridey, the ship’s officers formed a line of demarcation, allowing Amber and Rand a modicum of privacy. But the captain’s table was small enough to allow conversation to move in many directions, often simultaneously.
After dinner, Amber was too restless to sleep. Instead of retiring to her cabin, she entered the observation deck where she cleared an entire wall of panels to reveal the countless stars flowing in every direction through the galaxy Terrans call the Milky Way. Amber preferred her own system’s galactic appellation: Velvet Spiral of Gemstones. The Gemini conjured far more romantic images.
Ashtar, Gemini’s Primaeval Planet, floated in the near darkness surrounding the ship. By morning the glowing orb would completely fill the cleared vistaport. It was hard to believe how fast they were traveling. Everything seemed so still. The girl began to daydream of what lay ahead for the members of the expedition on Ashtar and beyond.
“Amber, am I intruding?”
It was Rand, of course. Amber reluctantly turned away from the galactic array of gems to take a seat across from the Tuathan.
“Your company is always welcome, Rand. I am too excited to sleep this night, but you? Surely, there is nothing to keep you awake . . . .” She bit off her suggestion that a member of Chimur’s nobility must be far too sophisticated to remain sleepless at the prospect of further scientific studies, even on Ashtar.
“One can never tire of such beauty.”
The remark was innocent enough, but something in Rand’s tone suggested his admiration was not for the cosmic beauty surrounding the ship. The two sat in companionable silence as each studied the eternal stream of stars and worlds in which their ship floated. Who can know what might have been passing through their hearts and minds at such a moment? There was nothing at all awkward in that lengthy silence. Perhaps that is why Rand broke the stillness when it became safe to assume no one would interrupt them. They could almost sense the ship's principal company and passengers retiring from the activity imposed by the ship’s standard daytime clock.
“Amber,” he began, “there are some things I would say to you before we become caught up in our studies. Who knows when there will be another moment as private as this?”
The odd inflection remained in Rand’s voice. Instinctively, Amber put him at ease by allowing herself to relax completely in her chair. She encouraged him further with a smile, but vouchsafed no comment.
“You must know,” Rand went on with all the polish of the skilled man of affairs she knew him to be, “I am already succumbing to your charms. I would like to tell you more of myself now, while it can still be relatively impersonal.”
Amber maintained her air of discreet interest. Rand regarded her in a steady silence before proceeding. In another, the penetrating regard would have been a presumption – or outright insult. Instead, Amber found it oddly reassuring. But she was stunned by what came next.
“Amber, my father was murdered some months ago. Some say he was executed for treason against the High King. The Rune Silentio, which I believe to be more than political lore, has been implicated by certain of my confidants at court. I have deferred assumption of the title in the hope the cloud on his assumption can be lifted.” Rand paused and grinned in acknowledgment of those pools he knew very well were pending. “You will hold this conversation in the strictest confidence?”
Even were Amber not so inclined herself, the steel hovering beneath his soft tones carried a warning that something between them would be forever lost, should she ever betray this confidence. This was no callow youth engaging in meaningless flirtation.
“Of course, Rand. You can trust me.”
“I know,” the Tuathan murmured to himself before proceeding. “His predecessor, my uncle, is said to have died on Ashtar without issue. There are those at court who make no secret of their belief that he died at the hands of his brother, my father.”
Rand paused again. “He was always good to me. I don’t believe the tales,” he added simply, without hint of rancour. “Still, it would gratifying to be able to discover the fate of Leede and Sabratha Southerly. This, your father’s expedition, is not just a matter of my obligatory scholarship. It could provide an opportunity to clear my father’s name, although there is not much chance that any artifact remains after all these years.
“I hope I can at least clear my conscience before . . . . Well, let’s just say I want to be certain of my rights before,” he stood and took her hand in his own, “before I speak to you again, Amber Laxton.”
With that he left her to ponder the future he had in mind. She was at once excited by his interest and relieved he had deferred anything more serious. Amber suddenly felt herself very young and very inexperienced in the ways of the galactic
THE EXPEDITION WAS off to a promising start. Head in the clouds, Mentor Blane Laxton was barely setting an occasional foot on the Ashtarian soil. This foray into the depths of the Ashtarian jungles represented the culmination of a lifetime devoted to research. Moreover, even his wonted professorial fog of oblivion had been penetrated by an awareness that his beautiful daughter was soon to be invited to become Lady Charwick. Rand Southall was everything a man could reasonably expect of a son-in-law, and more.
Always astute in the choice of students and even more so in assembling this climactic expedition, the mentor had made certain enquiries. The young Lord Charwick – Laxton scoffed at his hesitance in assuming the title; no man should be held accountable for the actionable sins, if any, of his father – was not much older than Amber, herself, but he had already earned an honoured place among the elite nobility of Tuatha.
Although the mentor, like so many of his fellow Armerians, had frequently dismissed the socially prominent of Chimur as effete representatives of a hopelessly outmoded political system, he privately conceded to nurturing an admiration for both. Rand Southall justified the secret admiration. Many of his venerable family had been trusted advisors close to the throne of the High King.
More than one of Southall’s forebears had been King of Tuatha. None had yet attained the throne of Chimur's High King, but the present heir to the title might be the first. Blane Laxton’s daughter was worthy of nothing less.
The newest Lord Charwick had no living family. Laxton gathered that he resided at the ancient family estate where the retainers, fields and stock all thrived under his enlightened hand. Certainly, Rand was a skilled paleobotanist. Otherwise he would not have been granted a place in Laxton’s party.
Since his father’s recent untimely death, Southall had taken his place in the Council of Lords where the Charwick talent for governing quickly became apparent to his fellow barons, for all his youth. He would be giving up his promising scientific career for the court upon his return from Ashtar.
Laxton had not yet discovered just how the elder Southall had met his end. Typically, the mentor was secure in his belief that no scandal was attached. The students would have spread that word en route to Ashtar, and it would have found its
way to Blane Laxton.
But Southall’s youth could not be denied. The students reported with approval that Rand had rejected the ways of many of his contemporaries. To the obvious amusement of Laxton’s select expeditionary party Southall’s outlet for all the pent-up energies of young manhood was dedication to the Ashtarian research effort.
From Laxton’s biased perspective, Southall could not be faulted for engaging in the voyage into the mysteries of Ashtar, an adventure not so far removed from the treasure hunts of a distant age. In any event, the students confided, Southall had committed himself to settling down to a proper marriage and proper children to carry on the Charwick lineage, after this one last flouting of conventional demands.
Despite the mentor’s preoccupation, the expedition had efficiently gone about the business of setting up their permanent camp. From the opening of his shelter, the mentor could actually keep an eye on the hill upon which the Earth-Mother design now stood sharp and clear. And the expedition’s observations had been initiated at first full light following their landing. It was then that Jer’ok, newly returned to his home territory, came upon them. The intent scientists never became aware of the newcomer.
IF JER’OK’S PREVIOUS experience with humankind had been less traumatic he might have approached these wondrous visitors from the stars. But creatures of the jungle are by nature timid. One experience survived is a valuable lesson permanently taught. From a cautious distance Jer’ok recognised the strangers as the living originals of the images on his tapes. Over the first days of his return, he watched them all with fascination and soon found himself infatuated by the beautiful young she of the golden hair. Nevertheless Jer’ok maintained his aloof distance, watching without ever being observed himself.
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 67, Transmission terminated]
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