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Volume 6079

Chapter 15: LOCKE
[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 70]
Narrative Transmission 14

      LONG BEFORE FIRST twilight Muthus had carried Jer’ok to the place where Rand Southall had been left for the scavenger beasts.  Soon after scenting the Jer’anda, the beast-man wisely halted his companion some distance away.  Since Amber’s call had brought the two of them to her side Jer’ok had pushed the wild creature to the limit of his tolerance for the unknown.  It was not the beast-man’s purpose to track down Amber’s friends only to have one of his jungle friends destroy them.

      So the beast-man dropped to the ground before Rand was in sight, and Muthus departed to take up his interrupted browsing in another place.  Had he been human, he would have shaken his mighty head in puzzlement.  There was no predicting in what strange behaviour his Aranda companion might next engage.

      Jer’ok found Southall reclining against a tree.  The beast- man’s first view confirmed that the Jer’anda buck was sorely injured, perhaps near long sleep.  With the caution Ashtar rarely allowed him to relax Jer’ok ascertained that no hidden danger lurked in the vicinity before approaching the hurt man.  As he moved toward him the Jer’anda stirred and stared fearfully at Jer’ok.

      Weakly Southall attempted to rise, only to collapse with a low groan.  Jer’ok did not alter his pace.  But then to his chagrin, the buck sat up again in an exercise of sheer will power.  One of the powerful Jer’anda weapons was in his hand.

      In self defence Jer’ok rushed forward to wrench the sidearm from the other.  Southall was too weak to put up much of a battle and his single shot went wild, but Jer'ok was bitterly aware that once again a member of the Jer’anda band had fully intended to kill him.  Only because he suspected the other took him for one of the enemy who had attacked and wounded him did Jer’ok stay his hand and remember his unspoken promise to return him to Amber.

      In truth Jer’ok was moved by the first inclinations to admiration.  This Jer’anda was not so foolhardy as the others, and his willingness to fight even when so gravely injured revealed a spirit Jer’ok could appreciate.  But the beast-man must survive if he would learn more of this man.

      With a savage growl of warning Jer’ok used the shaft of his spear to render the wounded man harmless.  The beast-man then paused only long enough to scrutinise the area for the spoor of the other starfolk buck.  This one would not long survive without attention, but it was wise to ascertain now whatever this place would reveal of the direction in which the second Jer’anda had departed and his condition.  Given that of his wounded companion Jer’ok firmly believed that the second man was unlikely to have left him voluntarily.  Jer’ok grunted appreciatively.  These two might be worthy of his heroic protective efforts after all.

      When he was satisfied that he had discerned every detail his keen senses could reveal, Jer’ok easily lifted Southall, casually slung his cousin over one broad shoulder and launched himself and his human burden into the trees.

      IT WAS AFTER second twilight when Amber heard an unfamiliar call in a voice she knew well.  With a little cry of anticipation she ran to the line of trees from which it had issued.  With no little curiosity the others followed her to the perimeter of the camp.  There they found the unconscious Rand Southall where he had been placed at the base of one of the largest trees.  There was no clue to reveal any hint of the agency of his return.  But Amber knew.

      Relief over the miraculous return of the Tuathan was subdued by his condition and by the continued absence of the Diyalan.  The students sought in vain to elicit the fate of Guy Locke.  Southall had lost so much blood it was all but impossible to rouse him to consciousness, much less rational speech.  When he did swim briefly into semi-consciousness, he was incoherent.  The party could only resign themselves to waiting in the hope that Amber’s wild champion would be successful in returning Locke as he had Southall.  Bridey was the last to join the half-circle of anxious onlookers, but she was the one to come to the assistance of the fallen Tuathan lord.

      “This man needs medical attention,” she observed sensibly, thus moving the others into useful action.

      The Laxton party devoted much of the next several days to the care of the injured man.  The ship diverted to their rescue had been only days away when the two Chimurians had gone off into the jungle, only one to return.  All treks into the forest had been terminated by the disappearance of Southall and Locke.  The party's work was already confined to that which could be accomplished in camp; what was left of their precious time was devoted to preparation for their imminent departure.

      All too soon their ship-to-surface transceiver crackled to life.  The ship was in Ashtarian space, its shuttle in orbit oriented for linkage with the expedition's craft.  As her father’s successor, it was Amber who explained their desperate situation, but first the ship’s communications officer and then her commanding officer ordered them all to return immediately.

      Amber could hardly refuse the summons, but she was not without a certain guile.   With a wry smile she asked if any of her companions was acquainted with the operation of the shuttle Locke had piloted to the planet surface.  As she suspected, she alone was experienced in the rudiments of its operation – thanks to one of her father's indulgences of her adventurous spirit.  Nevertheless, her limited experience had been at the controls of a much smaller flyer.  It would not be safe to attempt evacuation of the party and all its paraphernalia with only a single, relatively inexperienced person at the controls of Locke’s shuttle.  And Amber had no experience at linkage.

      In any event, though the Laxton expedition was sadly reduced in number, evacuation would require no less than two runs of their craft; the ship's shuttle was not designed for landfall.  Directing the others to prepare for immediate departure should she fail, Amber piloted their shuttle to that hovering in its perigee orbit about Ashtar.  Somehow she managed the intricate linkage maneuvers under the patient instruction of the shuttle’s pilot.

      In due course a contingent from the orbiting ship effected the necessary transfers and landed in Locke’s shuttle.  There were medical personnel to attend Lord Charwick and volunteers to assist the surviving members of the Laxton expedition in preparing to quit Ashtar in the little time deemed to be available.  It was doubtful that any of the party would ever return.

      Amber Laxton did not come planetside with them.  The shuttle pilot and then the ship’s captain himself had faced that emergent iron will.  Inevitably, Amber persuaded first the one and then his superior.  They were, after all, sympathetic to her plea, despite their concern for the safety of all participating in the forthcoming maneuvers.  A Diyalan himself, the ship’s captain was loath to maroon a fellow officer and countryman.  Unfortunately, however, there was no help for it.  A meteor shower was reported to be imminent.  The Laxton party had to be evacuated from Ashtar as quickly as humanly possible, and both shuttles and the ship herself had to clear Ashtarian space.  There was no telling when any shuttle or flyer would be able to land again once another ship could achieve safe orbit.

      Amber had to be satisfied with the captain’s solemn promise that his or another ship would dispatch a rescue mission as soon as conditions permitted.  There would be a full-scale search for Lieutenant Guy Locke.  Amber had no choice but to accept.  There was no alternative.  She asked for and was granted a minimum of time to prepare a letter.

      As she hastily wrote to the Diyalan friend who might never see her effort, Amber Laxton found herself inconsolable in the sudden realisation that she would never again set eyes on Jer'ok.  The Arene was taken completely by surprise.  There was no rational explanation for her wholly unexpected feeling for the savage creature.

      True, she had learned to turn to him for . . . .

      Amber flushed in sudden embarrassment.  Jer’ok could be no more than an intelligent – freak – among the hunterfolk.  The direction her thoughts persisted in taking was unspeakable.  Yet the Arene woman was honest enough to acknowledge gratitude – at the very least.  There was not much time to transcribe her complicated feelings, but a second letter joined the first.

      The ship’s shuttle linked again with Locke’s and the latter was dispatched to the surface for the last time.  As the captain had promised, the crew was permitted to carry Amber’s hastily drafted letters to the camp where a sealed container was fixed to a tree.  There the recipients would find it, if ever they returned.  The two shuttles barely returned in time for the ship to clear orbit and Ashtarian space ahead of the predicted spacestorm.

      JER’OK LOST NO time in returning to the place where he had located the first of the two missing Jer’anda.  His earlier scrutiny had already told him that this buck like the other was wounded.  The fact that this one had been made captive suggested to the son of Aranda that he was not so gravely wounded as the one he had restored to the Jer’anda band.

      Now it was only a matter of tracking the k’aranda and removing the captive from their cruel attentions without getting either of them killed in the effort.  How he would accomplish the latter requirement singlehandedly Jer’ok was yet to resolve.  For one thing the k’aranda had the benefit of Sanjera’s fullest light.   Sanjera had entered the portion of his journey when covering darkness was seldom to be had.

      But daylight, even during two shadows, does not last forever.  And it certainly aided Jer’ok in following an already easy spoor.  The Khazarish were not yet fully acquainted with the ways of the beast-man.  They knew no fear and thus made no effort at stealth.

      The cannibals had reason to fear what they suspected to be a renewed campaign of terror.  They suspected the presence of the daemon who had once made life miserable if not extremely dangerous for any who dared enter the jungle inadequately armed.  But their foreign colleagues laughed off as superstitious nonsense their tales of a daemon-protector of hunterfolk, a daemon of red metallic hide and eyes of crimson fire.

      The Khazarish persisted in their refusal to take any of the tales seriously.  There was a rational explanation, although only Setar knew the true source of the uncannily accurate arrows that had scattered their recent foray against the unusual contingent in land of the hunterfolk.  Hence, the slavers moved through the jungle without haste.  No effort at concealment hindered them.

      Jer’ok caught up with the slavers less than two days’ trek from the Laxton camp.  With all his wonted caution the beast-man constantly assessed the situation from the trees along their route.  As he had suspected, the Jer’anda buck he sought was suffering from no more than a minor wound in the shoulder, but it was being neglected.  His captors made no effort to accommodate the buck’s deteriorating condition.

      Jer’ok was disgusted anew by the brutality that marked the san-k’aranda’s treatment of an enemy who was well beyond retaliation.  The torment of enemies was a blessing of incipient humanity that had not yet entered the receptive minds of the Aranda.  Nor had either his lair’s shadows or Amber’s band prepared the beast-man for what the galaxy dares to describe as bestial behaviour.

      From the lower terrace the beast-man evaluated his chances.  There were too many for Jer’ok to wrest away their captive by sheer force.  If he failed, the captive was likely to suffer for his attempt.  Since the k’aranda posted guards while they slept through near-dark, Jer’ok saw little opportunity to take the Jer’anda by stealth.  There was no choice.  With infinite patience the beast-man resigned himself to watching and waiting.  Before long his patience was rewarded.

      First one, then another and then a series of accidents befell the Khazarish and their cannibal colleagues-at-arms.  The crafty son of two peoples was careful never to reveal that events appearing to be mere misfortune were in actuality the work of intelligence.  He was sufficiently astute to know the Jer’anda would be made to suffer in the event the k’aranda detected intentional interference.

      Once their Aranda antagonist commenced his campaign of ruthless harassment, it was not long before the Khazarish were beginning to afford more than slight credence to the tales their terrorised cronies repeated with increasing frequency.  It occurred to the leaders that it would behoove them to return to Camassia with all the speed they could muster.

      AS WAS HIS habit, after making his kill and feeding, the beast-man was passing near-dark asleep in a tree from which he could observe any activity among the k’aranda.  He had become greatly concerned about the Jer’anda, who was obviously unable to withstand much more of the punishment he was enduring with a stolid resistance that met with Jer’ok’s waxing admiration.  Aside from Amber’s surprisingly undaunted spirit there was little enough Jer’ok found to admire in the creatures who, the beast-man had come to fear, might in some sense be his own.

      Now it was hope renewed that Jer’ok watched the two parties of k’aranda split when their trek was renewed with the coming of second dawn.  The strangely garbed strangers took up the trail they had been following since taking the prisoner.  The dark-skinned k’aranda took up a small game trail along which the captive was dragged.  Jer’ok’s choice was predetermined.  Vengeance on the strangers for the harms to those protected by Jer’ok of the Aranda would wait.  His immediate mission was rescue.

      The jungle craft of the cannibals was far superior to that of their former comrades.  They had reason to fear what they believed to be the supernatural force behind the series of fatal accidents suddenly afflicting the combined force.  Thus, Jer’ok found no opportunity to act before they made their way to a large communal lair, much smaller than that Jer’ok and his Aranda had once reduced to ashes.

      The beast-man allowed himself a snarl of useless frustration.  Time, usually without meaning for the Aranda, was growing desperately short if his rescue mission was to be of any meaning for the Jer’anda.  Nevertheless, Jer’ok could do nothing but wait.  Boldness was dangerously foolhardy.  Stealth alone held the promise of success.

      The captive was hauled through the village and thrust into a small hut where he was left alone.  For the remainder of the day none entered or left the small, dark hut.  Jer’ok settled himself for a long watch.  From time to time he dozed.

      At first twilight the beast-man considered and rejected embarking on his daily hunt.  He left his watch only to drink at a nearby water hole.  He returned by an indirect route along which he selected nuts and berries to satisfy his hunger until he could again take time for the hunt.

      It is strange indeed that Jer’ok-ta, for all his preternaturally developed senses, failed to remember the portent of the oddly unseasonable rumble of Ok and play of distant Jera.  His only reaction to the threat of violent weather was a disgruntled hope that it would aid rather than hinder his rescue effort.  Perhaps the events the portents foretold had literally been burned from the beast-man's memory.

[Log, Gemini Wanderer, Day 70]
 Narrative Transmission 15

      IT WAS NOT yet second twilight when Jer’ok returned to the small village.  There he found the k’aranda in the midst of urgent activity that conveyed a sense of barely suppressed excitement.  Jer’ok watched with interest, intent on any opening to serve the Jer’anda captive.

      To any but the cannibals the preparations in progress below Jer’ok’s vantage point were sinister indeed.  A wooden stake from which rusted chains depended was erected at one end of the village.  In the very centre of the village an immense pile of dry wood was gathered and arranged under the impatient supervision of the one Jer’ok identified as alata.  The shes next hauled their cooking pots to the ominous woodpile, where they were set in a precise pattern by the bucks while the alata ran among them with frantic gestures.  Presently the last vessel was placed to his satisfaction.  More wood was added until each pot rested in its own bed of logs.  The k’aranda loitered about in small groups until the alata vouchsafed his satisfaction. Then the shes went about their daily tasks while the bucks retired to their drinking and loud boasting until well after second twilight.  Two boys emerged from the largest hut and set afire torches set out in a rough circle which encompassed the stake, the pyre and the hut of the captive.

      To the watching Aranda the creatures were certainly working themselves up to something out of the ordinary.  They did not notice, nor did the engrossed beast-man, but the usual near-dark wind was absent.  From a great distance thunder and lightning were creeping closer even though the air remained untouched by any scent of rain.  Nea was in hiding with Mael.  This night was Jera’s.

      As the beast-man watched, the k’aranda bucks and shes below gathered in small groups around the pyre.  Gradually one group and then another commenced to exhibit what had the appearance of ritualistic movement reminding Jer’ok of the dance of Pers-Alata.  Under Jer’ok’s watchful eye the mass of k’aranda formed a ragged circle in which each dancer twisted and swayed in motions suggesting Jera’s children.  The shes took up a song reinforcing the mimicry of Jera.  This fire-dance continued without alteration at some length.

      Then, without warning, the bucks suddenly rushed toward the hut where the Jer’anda languished.  The shes’ song ceased abruptly, only to be resumed with a completely different rhythm.  One by one the villagers took up another primitive dance more slowly circling the pile of wood.  Upon one full circuit their alata uttered a loud cry.  He selected a torch and stepped forward to call Jera’s children to life from out of the cold wood.

      As the flames were released from their hidden sanctuaries, the alata waved the torch over his head by way of signalling those who dragged the unresisting captive out of the hut and across the centre of the village to the stake, where the Jer’anda was bound in place by the ancient chains.  Jer’ok observed that it was the chains alone which held the buck upright.

      These ominous activities were not subject to misinterpretation, even had Jer’ok not once seen such k’aranda prepare to consume his Lael.  He had never before witnessed the cannibalistic ritual playing out below.  Yet the beast-man could not fail to comprehend what was about to take place.

      There was no more time for planning.  He must take action now or lose the Jer’anda to these hated k’aranda.  Fortunately, Jer’ok was vaguely aware of the superstitious fear he had engendered in the hearts of these craven creatures.  Scarcely had the flames raged upward to threaten the sky and the victim prepared for his role in the celebration, when the cannibals cringed at the horrid sound of hunterfolk challenge.

      These were the few of their kind who had lived to carry with them the fear of that awful cry.  The rhythm of the cruel rite faltered and came to an uncertain halt.  When no untoward event followed the uncanny scream, the ceremony resumed, but it was a dance uncertain and even more ragged than before until the song of the shes swelled to give them all the heart to proceed in anticipation of the feasting to come.

      The bound captive must have remained oblivious to all, for he never so much as stirred.  Jer’ok had hoped for some sign of life.  His purpose might have need of at least some slight assistance it it was to meet with success.  But that was not to be.

      Inspired by the lead of the alata the dance of death was resuming its steady rhythm and began to build toward its inevitable climax.  One of the bucks below grasped a spear and danced his sinuous way toward the man at the stake.

      Jer’ok’s second warning pierced the monotonous sound of the chanting voices below.  The spearman hesitated only briefly before lifting his weapon for the vicious thrust.  But before he could complete the action, an arrow whistled out of the trees and through the still air to strike home in the heart of the bold figure poised like some dark shadow against the fierce offspring of Jera.

      Man and spear dropped harmlessly to the ground.  Infuriated, a second man in a veritable blur of motion against the flames caught up a spear and rushed forward to replace his slain tribesman.  But he, too, died before his spear could seek the body of the prisoner.

      Each time one of the cannibals dared to threaten the bound form at the stake, that one died instantly.  There was no further warning, no sign of their nemesis.  Each arrow flew to its target from a different part of the forest surrounding the village, a forest until this moment revered as protector to those falling victim to whatever lurked over their heads.  It did not take long for the lesson to sink in.  Those who did nothing to threaten the captive were unharmed.  No other spearman came forward.

      Only the chief remained unimpressed.  He had no intention of being thwarted by some cowardly daemon of the forest who feared to show himself.  His own provocative war cry shattered the silence that had fallen, but it went unanswered.

      Thus emboldened, the chief favoured his trembling tribesmen with a glance of undisguised scorn.  The chief boldly walked forward until he was within range of the living target.  Nothing happened.

      He looked about with an arrogant air of supreme confidence.  The spear was raised for the cast, and still no arrow whistled out of the trees.  The cannibal chief laughed aloud, but as his muscles tensed in the split second before the fatal missile could launched, his followers heard the dread whistle and saw him drop as had the others before him, his heart pierced.

      With the death of their chief the false courage of the cannibals was stripped away.  With shrill cries of abject terror they fled from the village into the uncertain protection of their forest.

      As soon as the village was emptied of all but the slain cannibals and their scarcely breathing captive, Jer’ok slipped to the ground and ran lightly to the bound figure, careful to keep a respectful distance between himself and the angry heat of Jera.  He fervently hoped he was not too late.  If the Jer’anda still lived, the beast-man knew he must somehow release him from the chains and bear him away from this place before the k’aranda could regain their courage and return to find the source of their terror, in fact nothing more than mortal man and far from invulnerable.

      LIEUTENANT GUY LOCKE had resigned himself to his fate.  He knew his wound would prove mortal when left untreated.  It was a better fate than that which capture by the Khazarish threatened.  For Lieutenant Locke had instantly recognised the motley cadre of misfits who had attacked the members of the Laxton party.  The Diyalan thanked the Providence who watched over him when the Khazarish failed to recognise him.

      But now he regretted that the poisons had taken far too long to spread though his system to release his spirit.  It was thus with a certain sense of gratitude when his fevered mind leaped at the belief that his nameless captors were about to hasten the end.  Resigned to that end, Locke was not prepared for the sudden cessation in the sacrificial rite.

      When, after many tortured heartbeats, nothing broke the stillness which had fallen, Locke’s eyes reluctantly opened to the merest slit.  To his astonishment, the primitive Ashtarians who served Khazarish masters had disappeared without a trace – save those who lay dead on the bare soil separating the Diyalan from the roaring fire.

      The exhausted prisoner allowed his aching head to fall back, but, before he lost consciousness, Locke thought he saw a man of copper appear out of the fire as if by some sorcery of this evil night.  The creature ran toward him.  Vaguely, the prisoner wondered what new torment his captors had devised.

      CONSCIOUSNESS RETURNED DESPITE Locke’s stubborn will.  At least he was no longer bound before the raging fire.  Instead he awoke to find himself resting comfortably against the solid presence of what appeared to be a naked Chimurian.  Locke’s hurt mind registered the glow of copper along one sinewy leg and in the hand that was offering him cool water from some rude vessel.

      As the Diyalan drank he noted that he and his unknown rescuer were at the edge of the forest just beyond the village in which he had been imprisoned.  The mystified Diyalan would have lapsed into the safety of unconsciousness, but his rescuer shook him gently at first and then with greater urgency.  He did not, however, speak.

      More water was proffered and accepted.  Guy found himself able to take cognisance of his surroundings.  Guy painfully turned to look at the copper-skinned savage.

      “Thank you,” he started weakly.  “How can I ever . . . ?”  Locke lost his train of thought and started again: “Who are you?”

      But his rescuer persisted in his uncanny silence.  Ever so carefully Locke was lifted to his feet only to discover he could not stand alone.  He swayed and would have fallen, had the giant man of copper not steadied him.

      Guy Locke was tall but this man was taller still.  Suddenly Locke remembered Amber’s description of the jungle man who had forcibly taken her from a hunterfolk rogue, apparently with no better purpose in mind.  Against all odds, Amber’s rescuer had proven to possess the qualities of the finest gentleman.  The Armerian girl had said the man appeared to be Tuathan even though all his mannerisms were those of hunterfolk.  She had also remarked that his skin appeared almost to be of copper.  And now here he was offering assistance to a complete stranger.  Despite his circumstances, Locke was amused.

      Here indeed was the noble savage of myth, legend, and lore from a hundred worlds.  Untainted by civilisation’s well nigh ubiquitous influence, it was a fine fantasy, but no one believed such tales.

      Locke knew his Ashtarian history better than most.  The creature could only be a feral son of Chimurian parents.  But who . . . ?  And how . . . ?  It was beyond Locke’s present capacity even formulate the rush of questions.  But he did recall another detail concerning Amber's noble savage.

      “Are you Jer’ok?” he asked.

      The young giant smiled broadly and nodded: “Je’'ok,” he assured his new friend.

      The Diyalan smiled weakly, “Guy Locke,” he responded.

      There was no time for more.  Jer’ok none too gently lifted Locke to his feet and indicated a narrow game trail.  Then the savage started to guide Locke toward the trail.  But the Diyalan took only a few feeble steps before weakness dropped him to his knees.  Jer’ok turned back to lower him gently to the ground and then moved some distance apart where he squatted on his haunches to wait until his charge regained some of his strength.

      Locke watched him from beneath lowered lids.  He seemed to be completely at ease in this dangerous setting.  But then something too faint for Locke's disused senses brought the jungle man to the alert.  He rose and surveyed their surroundings.

      For what seemed a long interval the man stood in a statuesque attitude of rapt attention before resuming his former posture.  Only now there was no suggestion of relaxation about him.  Jer'ok was obviously nervous.  He glanced frequently at Guy Locke whenever his eyes or ears were not directed to the slight hint of danger only he could detect.  Once Locke saw him lift his head to scent a stray breeze.  The attitude was pure Aranda.  Still, there was more; at once something even more wild and something truly noble, putting to shame any hackneyed conventional image of noble savage.

      Locke knew what disturbed his rescuer.  Whatever forced the natives to quit their village in the midst of the cannibalistic orgy would not, in all likelihood, long prevent their return.  Locke was in no condition to fight.  Jer’ok would be only one against many.  And the cannibals would return armed with weapons dipped in deadly poison.

      The Diyalan knew himself beyond rallying no matter the danger.  He wished he knew a way to release his guardian.  There was no reason Jer’ok should sacrifice his life in the futile attempt to preserve that of a total stranger.

      At last Jer’ok dared wait no longer.  He swarmed to his feet and looked about, his snarl breaking the silence.  His hand went to the knife at his hip.  Once again he lifted his head to test the air.

      Apparently satisfied that whatever had alerted him presented no immediate threat, the beast-man relaxed.  But instead of returning to his former position, he came to Locke’s side and chattered in a low voice.  His expression was sad, as if he knew the Diyalan would not understand.

      The savage waited only a few heartbeats before stooping and lifting Locke onto one shoulder as easily as the Diyalan would have lifted a tiny babe.  With an easy stride Jer’ok ran to the tallest of the nearby trees.  But, just as he sprang to lift them both up into the network of intertwining branches, there was a deafening roar and the first of the meteorites struck the very spot where Jer’ok had been lounging.

      Everything that surrounded Amber’s Jer’ok, including the savage's present manifestation of friendship, had been a source of astonishment to Guy Locke.  But now the Diyalan experienced an astonishment of a different sort.

      He felt the jungle man falter inexplicably.  His magnificent leap fell short, and the two of them sprawled in the grass beneath the tree.  They both surged to their feet, Locke steadying his arm and shoulder against the jar of the fall.

      As Locke watched in perplexity Jer’ok whirled to face the fading glow of the half-buried space debris.  The creature growled, but this time the sound carried the faintest trace of fear to the watching Diyalan.

      The two men cringed together when another meteorite struck some distance away with a second shattering wall of sound.  Jer’ok looked to his companion when the Diyalan laughed ruefully and shook his head.

      “Those were close, Jer’ok, but it is highly improbable that another will fall in this area.  Two in the same place almost never . . . .”

      Once more Guy reminded himself that Jer’ok could not understand him.  He smiled an apology and shrugged, an unfortunate gesture so resented by his wounded shoulder that the Diyalan was brought to his knees by the answering bolt of sheer agony.

      Locke’s nonchalant attitude seemed to steady the jungle man.  The Diyalan’s stifled cry as he fell brought an instant look of selfless concern.  With an effort Locke could almost feel, Jer’ok overcame that which had so severely shaken him to return to his side.  The hand that lifted Locke to his feet did not tremble, but only at the cost of a superhuman effort of will.

      It was very cold, but there was sweat on Jer’ok’s brow.  For the first time Guy noticed a fine scar on the forehead.  It disappeared into the thick hair, leaving a trace of white in its wake.

      Jer’ok regarded the Diyalan with curiosity.  The brow lifted in unspoken query.  Guy responded, “It is but a meteor shower.  Dangerous, yes, but no more so than the more ordinary phenomena and beasts of Ashtar.”

      Though Jer’ok could not know what the Diyalan said, the man’s tone continued to convey its message of calm.  Jer’ok turned to watch the frightful display of Nature at her most violent.

      He knew of no defence against such allies of Ashtar when they came seeking his life.  The beast-man misliked an enemy he could not fight.  Jer’ok shuddered with a memory of horrors the Diyalan could not share, but he managed to check the mad impulse to attempt escape from the anger of Jera in mindless flight.  Then he heard a sound that presaged a more immediate danger; one he could fight.

      Jer’ok sniffed the air.  The k’aranda were stealing close with vengeance foremost in their evil hearts.  Once again Locke felt himself lifted as though weightless.  This time, however, he was borne high into the trees without mishap.  The power of the mighty thews and sinews that bore him aloft lent a sense of security the Diyalan had seldom experienced even in the relative safety of his home world.  The sensation of flying added its mesmerizing effect.  Before he knew it the Diyalan felt himself slip away in the comforting darkness of oblivion.

      WHEN LOCKE REGAINED his senses it was to the familiar brightness of the combined light of the Gemini suns.  Looking about he was amazed to find himself in the place where the Laxton camp should have been.  But instead of the accoutrements of what was supposedly a permanent encampment there was nothing but emptiness.  The ground was bare where the shelters had been erected in their tidy arrangement so typical of the late mentor.

      But for the bare ground, the brief intrusion of civilisation on primitive Ashtar might never have been, for all the sign left behind.  Locke rose to his feet despite his condition.  His shuttle was gone!

      In place of that visible symbol of their ties with their home worlds, the Diyalan saw the giant jungle man standing in dejected solitude.  Locke slipped bonelessly to the ground, never taking his eyes off the savage.  It would have been difficult to discern which man was the more devastated.

      As if in reaction to Locke’s intense gaze Jer’ok turned to look back to his charge.  After a moment he walked slowly to the Diyalan’s side.  Before lifting the wounded man to his feet, the jungle man looked about them sadly.  Locke could sympathize with the desolation in the handsome features.  Jer’ok murmured only one soft word.  The Diyalan was almost certain it was a familiar name:  Amber.

      Lieutenant Guy Locke was finding incomprehensible the fact that he had actually been left to his solitary fate on remote Ashtar.  He sought reassurance in the possibility that his shuttle had been temporarily evacuated upon receiving ship-to-surface warning of the imminent meteor shower.  With the next turn of mind his pragmatic nature forced Locke to admit that the expedition almost certainly believed him dead.  In uncharacteristic petulance the Diyalan wondered if they had managed at least to rescue Rand Southall.

      Guy Locke looked about, swept with a desolation that matched that of the obviously love-struck jungle man.  But for the Diyalan hope was easily rekindled.  A message canister had been left for him.  As Jer’ok watched curiously, Locke made his awkward way to the tree that had shaded the place where Amber’s lair once stood.  The Jer’anda plucked from the tree an object Jer’ok had not noticed and sat down with a broad grin directed at the increasingly intrigued beast-man.  Jer’ok squatted in the shade nearby to discover what it was that so pleased the other.

      Locke opened the cylinder with hands that shook not entirely as the result of his weakness.  He extracted the two letters.  One was addressed to Jer’ok, the other to him.  The handwriting was unfamiliar, but he was certain the author could be none but Amber.  Locke smiled again to the patient beast-man before opening his own letter.

      Amber’s note was brief for reasons she sketched hastily but clearly enough for the experienced Fleet officer.  She hoped Providence had spared her new but already dear Chimurian friend and that he would soon be returned to his home planet.  A rescue mission would not be long in coming to Ashtar.  She also alluded somewhat cryptically to her feeling for Jer’ok and hoped that if, as she expected, it was the savage who had returned him to camp, then Guy might find a way to see to it that her letter to him was delivered, against the day when Jer’ok should come to understand their common language.

      For the moment Locke elected to leave the second sealed letter untouched.  He lifted the envelope and touched it to Jer’ok’s great chest just over the heart.

      “Amber,” he said.  “Amber for Jer'ok,” he repeated as something of hopeful comprehension entered the strange eyes.

      Jer’ok took the envelope and touched it to his face.

      “Amber,” he smiled and nodded before returning it with obvious reluctance and watching every move as Locke placed it with his letter in a pocket.  By then the Diyalan had exhausted the last reserves of meagre strength.  His head dropped forward as he supported the aching shoulder by pressing the arm close to his body with his other hand.

      Jer’ok stood at once to chatter rapidly as he indicated the deserted campsite with a gesture of helplessness.  The one-sided conversation commenced with “Jer’ok” and concluded with “Guy Locke.”

      The Diyalan looked up to see Jer’ok smile his encouragement.  Once again the fine brow was lifted in obvious query.  Suddenly nothing mattered in the least to Guy Locke.  Whatever it was Jer’ok sought was of complete indifference to him. He nodded wearily.  Then he fell forward in a dead faint.



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