Unauthorised Laboratory of Experimental History
“SIR,” THE YOUNG assistant was reluctant to disturb his mentor’s deep concentration, but the news he bore was the best. “Sir, . . . ” he waited for the grey head to lift.
At length the deepest of black eyes pierced him.
“Good news, my mentor. The call was just relayed. The shuttle is safely off and is scheduled to land outside the valley north of the central jungle of Ashtar’s major continent.” There was no need to add – just as had been planned.
Mentor Rasmus Gruna spared his eager student no more than a curt nod of acknowledgment, but as soon as the youth backed out and softly closed the door behind him, the habitual scowl of study in perpetually bad light yielded briefly to a broad smile. The piercing black eyes lightened to emerald green as the mentor cast his satisfied glance about the clutter of his small laboratory. At long last the dream of a lifetime was about to be fulfilled. No matter that he would not live to see the final outcome. Mentor Gruna’s notes were both complete and meticulously organised. His students, the best of whom had just left with all the proper humility, were far better trained than most of those who assisted the mentor’s more traditional colleagues. Rasmus Gruna was initiating more than one kind of lineage; one on Ashtar, the other among the generations of scholars he was establishing simultaneously. Both would be without peer among the mentor’s lesser colleagues.
The smile deteriorated into an unconscious sneer before the Kryptane mentor’s features resumed the more familiar scowl. Though he knew it all without need for resort to his notebooks, Rasmus Gruna mentally reviewed the basics of the experiment which would firmly establish his name without challenge among the greatest of Krypta’s, perhaps even Chimur’s, men of science. The “colonists,” Rasmus grinned at the word, had been programmed to make their way through the mountains. It would be as though the caverns were actually leading them on instead of serving to confuse these first-generation Mithonians – Gruna grinned a second time in wry approval of the name he had selected for his empirical Terran “ancients” – with the deadly dark mazes threading the interior of the mountains. Thereafter, only the chosen ones would retain knowledge of the Way, to be set down for the royal line under the guidance and instructions of “the gods.” The food which would sustain the colonists during the first weeks following their awakening had been prepared by the mentor’s own hands. Not even his best assistant had been allowed to take part. Instead, the youth had been relegated to the role of scribe. Late into the evenings Mentor Gruna had then personally read the transcriptions closely to assure their accuracy before setting down the details in his permanent records.
Eventually, the colonists would sleep. When they awoke, the careful genetic manipulations, performed by the mentor’s own skilled hands and based in a lifetime dedicated to both historical and physiological research, would be stimulated. When the subjects of Rasmus Gruna’s studies awakened, it would be with the implanted belief that they were from the Rom of ancient Terra. They would actually believe themselves on that distant planet of another solar system in Gemini’s vast galaxy. Throughout the years of his own work, the mentor had been directing the studies of a dedicated minority of his students to the fragmentary Terran history so crucial to this, the climactic experiment of Rasmus Gruna’s life’s work.
Time thereafter would be enormously telescoped for the colonists and their offspring. While only a matter of Gemini Standard decades were passing, the Mithonians would believe they had experienced the generations of nearly three thousand Terran Standard years. All the while Mentor Rasmus and his scholarly descendants would from time to time surreptitiously observe their progress.
Never before had there been such an opportunity to examine the ways, indeed the history itself, of the ancients of another world. The Mithonians would never suspect the presence of any of the offworld observers. These ethnohistorian observers would be thoroughly trained to pass as members of the experimental community.
The youth who had just interrupted Rasmus’ studies would have been amazed had any informed him that old Mentor Gruna possessed even the vestiges of a sense of humour. As his ruminations turned to the more speculative, Gruna’s thoughts turned away from the detail of experimental protocols that had been his obsession for as long as he could remember. Once again his students would have been amazed. The mentor was blessed with a most lavishly inventive imagination. But this mood, too, eventually followed its predecessor into oblivion to allow Gruna to ponder the more practical aspects of his unique study in experimental history. Depending on the course the study took, he or his successors might someday intervene in the progress of Mithos. Or one of them might find some hitherto unthought-of use for the colony. Who knows?
Unauthorised, Temporary Shuttle Port and Animal Compound
THE DARKNESS OF late Shadow Death descended upon the clearing in the thick Ashtarian jungle. The two men, one of Chimur and the other of her sister planet Ares, made their casual way among the shadowy cages. The despondent occupants observed the passage of their captors without interest. Food was provided only with the coming of full daylight. The miserable creatures had long since accepted that the crowded cages represented the whole of their new world.
The pairs, mated or strangers, and the grouped specimens no longer sought for release or escape. Numbly they accepted whatever each return of Sanjera might bring with it. None of them was possessed with sufficient mentality to entertain any notion of a distant future, better or worse. These were the fortunate ones.
The San-k’aranda – humankind – passed on as they always did. The bright light, which was neither Sanjera nor any form of Jera known to the caged creatures, was extinguished without warning. One by one the captives settled themselves to sleep or to the monotonous pacing or climbing that marked the nocturnal activity of each kind. Only one cage, larger than the others, stood empty and waiting.
THE ARENE POURED a liberal portion of imported seri for the Chimurian and a smaller amount for himself. He sat down and raised his beaker in a toast.
“To our mutual successes!”
The more taciturn Chimurian shrugged his shoulders and merely grunted an inarticulate response. But he raised his beaker. Kryptanes tend to be a superstitious breed. For a long time the two sipped at the potent liquor in a silence that lacked any hint of congeniality. Characteristically it was the Arene who eventually reopened the one-sided conversation. He had endured the stony silence of his colleague for all the strenuous weeks of collecting. Now he was eager for more companionable endeavors. He found himself relieved that they would be splitting up on the morrow.
“The shuttle will be here in less than a week.”
The Chimurian did not disagree, so the Arene continued.
“We will be separating at full light. It has become necessary to oversee the work of our operative to the south. His contributions have dwindled of late. We must determine whether the situation demands assistance or replacement. I expect you to contact me as we have arranged. You will be expected to remain in the valley over a substantial period. It may prove to be necessary to make some adjustments in the program. It has been years . . . . ”
The Arene’s recitation ceased when the bored Chimurian stood to dispose of the emptied beaker. There was little point in pursuing the conversation. Both men were fully aware of their respective assignments. The Chimurian studied the ledger they had posted on arrival. He stretched and yawned, the closest thing to an expression of satisfaction the Arene had observed throughout the unpleasant isolation on Ashtar. He tried again.
“We have filled all the orders, but one. There should be no trouble. A hunterfolk band has been observed nearby and is coming closer. The locals should be able to capture a pair tomorrow, the next day at the latest. A pair of hunterfolk in their prime will provide the needed funds to support a lifetime of continued research, Rorvik. Think of it!”
If Rorvik did think anything of it, he declined to comment. He and his native Ashtarian assistants would almost certainly make their capture by the end of full daylight. Soon thereafter the collected specimens would be on the shuttle and thence the ships which would bear them off to zoos and other destinations even more illicit. There were the outlawed circuses sequestered in remote corners of the galaxy. And there were the illegal laboratories, not unlike Rorvik’s own, where experiments were still performed on living creatures. Vivisection had, of course, long since been replaced with more effective experimental techniques, but the protocols of certain sciences – or pseudosciences and affairs far more nefarious – still required natural beasts as their subjects.
ARAN WAS HUNTING. Miru, his mate, would soon awaken, and experience told Aran that she would be hungry. The strong young buck made his kill with stark efficiency and eagerly returned to the side of his lithe mate.
The two had not been paired long. There was no ta’el at their side, but both Aran and Miru hoped that there soon would be. Once the buck paused in his rapid striding and raised his shaggy head to catch a strange scent carried by Mael, the wind. The San-k’aranda were still about in the jungle. Aran shuddered and continued on his way. This time, however, he took to the trees in his haste.
The hunterfolk buck felt a certain sense of relief to find Miru safely hidden just as he had left her. The buck was grateful he had detected an Aranda band nearby. Today he and Miru would again join their fellows, whether it be one of their former bands or made up of strangers. Aran swelled his chest in pride. He knew he would find a place high among them. Perhaps someday soon he would become alata. For the moment, however, Aran was content in the knowledge that there is certain safety in numbers.
Aran remembered the grizzled old alata of the band he had left, little more than a ta’el although he had already made his kill of passage. Were it not for Miru he might almost regret his decision to depart rather than challenge the old alata.
Aran had no recollection at all of the copper-skinned Jer’anda who had briefly been a member of their band before disappearing as mysteriously as he had appeared. At the time, Aran’s dama had only recently been felled by another San-k’aranda. That disturbing loss was the only other memory Aran retained of that distant past.
Miru, as inexplicably nervous as her mate, greeted Aran warmly. In unspoken accord the two swiftly devoured the buck’s kill that they might promptly renew their search for the band. The two made a wide detour around the reeking lair of the San-k’aranda and the awful hovering spoor of all the animals the two hunterfolk had never before known to consort. From the safety of the trees Aran and Miru watched one of the humankind bucks leave the lair and strike out alone. They wondered if he was hunting. Had they known there were no shes among these bucks, the hunterfolk pair would have been far more disturbed than they were. The two might even have moved with far greater speed, without further detour or pause. But then there would have been no tale to be told.
SANJERA WAS HIGH in the sky before Aran and Miru rested. Aran assured his mate that they would encounter the Aranda band before Sanjera deserted the sky, leaving behind him the darkness that foretold the coming of One Shadow.
Later, as their goal came within easy reach, the two hunterfolk slowed to feed along the way. In the space of only a few heartbeats they were separated as Miru happily munched juicy berries growing thick at the side of the game trail along which their searching had taken them. Just beyond sight of his mate, Aran was reaching for a large fruit more to his taste than her choice when he heard Miru’s cry of frightened surprise. When he returned to determine the source of her alarm, the buck uttered a small sound of astonishment. His mate was being lifted into the trees in the entangling hold of vegetation unlike anything the Aranda had ever before encountered. With a reassuring call to his mate, Aran ran boldly to her assistance.
Before Aran could reach Miru, the buck spotted one of the San-k’aranda on the side of the trail. Aran faltered in sudden fear but dared not halt. Instead his speed increased. He reached Miru’s side and, without hesitation, launched himself in the prodigious leap required to carry him onto the green mass of lianas and leaves that held her. His fighting fangs were already bared to rend the oddly twisted strands. To Miru’s horror, even as he leaped, Aran abruptly froze in immobility, somehow stunned unconscious just as the San’k-aranda below trained a straight dark branch on him.
Miru screamed her terror and then a courageous Aranda challenge as she watched Aran drop lifeless to the ground below. Her terror grew as the San-k’aranda came closer to where she was helplessly entangled. Presently, he was joined by others of his kind. The she lifted her head and called out for the aid of the stranger band. But, before she could raise her call a second time, Miru was stunned into nothingness just as had been her mate.
Neither hunterfolk would ever forget the San-k’aranda who had cruelly torn them from their homeland and condemned them to the terrors of the captivity dreaded by all the denizens of Ashtar’s jungles. His brilliant eyes – the colour of the jungle herself – would haunt them both for the whole of a lifetime.
ARAN AND MIRU were spared the misery of the interplanetary voyages that delivered them to their ultimate destination. It was no kindness but simple practicality that kept them in a state of physiological and mental suspension until they reached Chimur and the Tuathan laboratory, which had paid the exorbitant price required to secure a prime hunterfolk pair, a Gemini species of prohominids now known to exist only on the Primaeval Planet.
Once delivered to their destination, Aran and Miru were subjected to no intentional cruelty. That was not the way of these scientists, nor was it any part of their investigations. Very little was known of hunterfolk behaviour. The level of the prohominids’ intelligence still went unrecognised by all but a very few who were not scientists themselves. In all of Gemini there was only one man, a Tuathan by heritage, who had good reason to believe in Aranda intelligence, who was fully aware of what captivity alone would inflict upon hunterfolk.
ARAN DESPAIRED FOR Miru’s life. She grew steadily more withdrawn from their dreadful new lair and from her mate. The buck himself had long since given up any hope of returning to the jungle. Among the myriad of unknown spoors that carried to his ever-questing nostrils, there was none that suggested the presence of any familiar creature, let along Aranda. Still, for Miru’s sake if not his own, Aran watched and he waited. Even if the jungle beyond their lair was unlike any they had ever before experienced, it was more appealing than this grim place.
Then one day, that for which the buck was waiting with the infinite patience of the predator beasts, came to pass. He and Miru were given their food by a San-k’aranda neither of them had seen before. This one was unfamiliar with the strange manner by which the entrance to their cramped lair opened and closed. Out of sheer boredom, if nothing else, Aran had always watched closely whenever the humankind were active in the space around their lair. He had taken particular interest whenever the manipulations at the lair’s entrance were in progress. Now this stranger grew angry as Aran watched him fumble to open the door. When finally the new humankind succeeded and had thrust the tasteless fruit within, Aran’s long-dormant hopes were revived. It seemed to the buck that the k’aranda had not completely restored the intricate arrangement. Neither Aran nor Miru reached for the food.
When the k’aranda disappeared through a dark passage in the outside space surrounding them, Aran moved to inspect the lair’s entrance. After lengthy concentration he was certain he could open the way to freedom. Certainly, the jungle lay beyond the space, in all likelihood by way of that dark passageway. After all, what else could lie beyond? The buck’s heart beat faster with hope renewed. At Aran’s urging, Miru ate all the fruit. He was relieved to see her eyes sparkle with reawakening life when he told her of his discovery.
Miru waited breathlessly as her mate squatted before the intricate impediment to their freedom. He thought long before he dared act. When he did begin his own manipulations, it was only with immense concentration and care. Miru watched the deft movements of his hands but found herself constantly glancing about the outer lair for any who might stop them. At length, Aran’s care led to success. Miru could not suppress a small sound of relief when the front portion of the lair swung wide. She bared her teeth at Aran in a broad Aranda smile of triumph.
At long last freedom was within their grasp.
The hunterfolk stared at each other in wonder. For an instant they were too astonished at the development to take immediate advantage of the opportunity. It was Aran who first recovered. Cautiously he stepped out into the larger lair and then turned to assist Miru.
With a strangely human gesture, Aran supported Miru’s much reduced form close to his own. It was as if he sought to provide her some of his own strength. Thus close together, the two crept to the passageway, and the observant Aran took only a few heartbeats to release the opening. Both hunterfolk halted and nearly raced back to the familiar lair in terror: the whole passage and beyond seemed to them a strange trap. There was no jungle in sight; nothing familiar to be heard or scented. Instead the passage and the outer lair continued, on and on into the deep forbidding darkness of a One Shadow night.
The two hunterfolk controlled the dangerous homing urge and persisted in testing the air again and again. The spoors the two detected meant nothing to them. Mael was not about. Instead, there was a strange, frightening stillness all around them. Where were all the creatures of this place? The San-k’aranda must eat something. And surely something fed on them.
With a tremendous show of courage Aran and Miru proceeded. They avoided those areas along the passageway to which the hated stench of San-k’aranda clung thickest. At any moment they feared the dreaded humankind would discover them and force them back to that awful lair they had just deserted. The terror of the Aranda pair mounted, but freedom would be theirs.
After a seemingly endless search, they found the heaviest of the impediments they had encountered thus far. Even Aran hesitated before daring to open it to the jungle he was certain lay beyond. He actually heard Miru’s heart racing with fear. His own threatened to choke him. But anything was better than returning. The buck pressed his mate closer. And reached forward to open the way out of the peculiar lair.
Once again Aran and Miru nearly turned back as terror welled in their hearts. Upon the discovery of the horror that was the strange jungle beyond the passageway, even the smaller of the two lairs within seemed a safe haven. Only their own sudden discovery, signaled by the warning calls of the San-k’aranda behind them, forced the hunterfolk out into the dismal grey of the strange dead jungle teeming with a myriad of awful beings of forms and scents wholly unfamiliar. There were no images, no expressions for what the two Aranda now beheld.
Miru clung to Aran. Aran himself was at last overcome by panic. With a shriek of sheer misery he dragged his awestruck mate out of the passageway and began to race for . . . he knew not what – so long as it was as far away as his sinewy legs could carry him.
Everywhere they looked, there were San-k’aranda all around them. A glimpse as the hunterfolk ran revealed the oddest assortment of bodily decorations the two had ever seen. But neither fugitive took the time to examine the strangers more closely. Once and then twice, Aran dragged Miru across broad trails of unusual texture that teemed with horrendous beings who must certainly have been every bit as confused as they, for there was no recognisable pattern to their rapid movements. Aran was wily enough to seek the opportunity to lose himself and his mate among them until the hunterfolk might hide themselves more completely. Though completely unfamiliar and of considerable mass, the behaviour of these flighty beasts was more that of timid herbivores than of any predator known to Aranda.
Even as his first wild panic began to subside, Aran commenced to perceive that there was no place in this jungle where any creature might find a haven from whatever predators were lurking, whether San-k’aranda or of any other kind. No sooner had that revelation dawned than another even more horrible overwhelmed the desperate buck. While most of the San-k’aranda made way for his flight, others were in obvious pursuit.
Aran urged Miru into greater speed, only to find that he and his mate had become trapped in a narrow canyon bordered by sheer grey walls. Aran turned back, but their escape had already been blocked.
Aran stopped and thrust Miru behind him. The buck bared fighting fangs and from beneath his shuddering breath somehow managed to scream the Aranda challenge. His bold move was rewarded. San-k’aranda scattered mindlessly in obvious terror. Now only those who had driven Aran and Miru into this trap were waiting.
And one other.
At first Aran did not see the tall San-k’aranda who stood quietly to one side and thrust his handsome young ta behind him in an action not unlike that of Aran in protecting his she.
Aran kept his eye on the approaching enemy and slowly sidled away, pressing Miru in the direction that would free them from the canyon’s trap. As a result Aran was almost upon the creature who looked San-k’aranda before the hunterfolk took heed of its presence. This stranger buck neither fled nor threatened. But the creature was calling out to the enemy in the odd vocalisations with which the two had become familiar.
Once again Aran swung around to face this newest strangeness, and once again he thrust farther Miru behind him. The buck did not know which of the many dangers about them was the greatest hazard to his mate. With a rough twist of his arm, he now pushed Miru away from him altogether and cried out for her to run, while he held the attention of this newest in an endless array of foes. Miru started to obey, but as his mate ran she fell and made no attempt to rise.
Distracted, Aran studied the courageous San-k’aranda buck. His bearing was very like an Aranda at the very peak of his prime. The stranger’s young one stood behind him but was watching Aran with eyes that glittered with curiosity. Neither of these creatures was manifesting the slightest fear. Nor did they offer any threat. As Aran studied them, the ta spoke to his sire when Miru fell and failed to rise. The buck, apparently satisfied that the foes of Aranda would as yet come no closer, turned to Aran. And, wonder of wonders, he actually spoke to the stunned buck in Aranda!
“Do not fear. You and your she will not be harmed.”
Aran’s inner need for immediate attack was forestalled, but he knew the danger had not passed. He dared not trust this stranger buck. Aran backed away, never taking his eyes from those of the stranger. The other kept his eyes fixed on Aran’s, but they were hooded, suggesting neither threat nor challenge. Miru rose now but ran back to the side of her mate instead of fleeing. Aran looked wildly about. Fear for his mate was the foremost matter in his mind.
“Do not run,” the stranger admonished with uncanny recognition of Aran’s intent. But the hunterfolk buck had been driven beyond rational action. The other enemy bucks had slowed their pace, but they still threatened. Without warning, Aran grasped his she’s hand and charged the gathering strangers with a desperate series of roared threats and challenge.
There was a burst of shrill sounds that rivaled Jera, the lightning, at his most threatening. Aran had heard such a sound only once before. It was one not even an Aranda could forget. It was then that his dama had entered long sleep. This time it was Aran’s mate who dropped lifeless to the hard ground of this most terrible of jungles.
The stunned Aran heard the roar of the Aranda challenge behind him and saw the San-k’aranda ta run to his mate with an unmistakable cry of distress. The buck turned in time to watch as the San-k’aranda buck strode past him. The stranger’s hand was raised to the others. To Aran’s surprise, they actually fell back. It was the stranger who had challenged a mutual enemy.
The hunterfolk buck turned away from the San-k’aranda and walked slowly to the side of Aran’s mate. It was not so much trust of the stranger as a sudden cessation of all caring. Now that stranger came close to walk by his side, clearly rejecting the threat at their backs. At a word from his sire, the youngster moved away from Miru’s still form. Aran knelt beside her in mute despair. The ta looked from him to the tall San-k’aranda who could speak in Aranda. As Aran grieved, the ta stood close to his sire in silence. Aran could not help but notice that his grief was actually being shared by these others.
Once he looked up and snarled as the other creatures ventured closer to form a ragged circle around the three of them and the still form of his Miru. The buck spoke to him again.
“Your she has entered long sleep. Jer’ok will care for her. Jer’ok knows well the ways of Aranda. You must go with these k’aranda,” – his “near-folk” was almost a snarl – “now, or they will take your life away as well. Jer’ok will come to your aid when he has cared for your she. Jer’ok is your friend.”
Great Briten of Inland
FROM THE JOURNALS OF THE TERRAN
For the first time in our acquaintance the Admiral and I are meeting on my own home world. It is good to be back for the first time in many a year and to renew an old friendship. I have been making little effort to conceal my excitement.
For all his cosmopolitan ways, the Admiral cannot not hide the thrill of his first visit to Terra, a world whose distant past was reborn on his own planet, Chimur. Of course, we could meet only on the tiny island once known throughout the venerable nations of Terra as the Great Briten of Inland. No one now knows just what a “Briten” was or why that of Inland has earned the appellation “Great.” Not even the avid scholars of Chimur, even of Tuatha, can provide an answer, though they probably know more of Terra’s past than those of us who were born here.
While the Admiral has been anxious to explore the ruins of Inland, I have been more than a little hopeful of a continuation of the legend of Jer’ok-ta of Ashtar, Lord of Two Worlds. I fear neither of us has been overly successful in keeping from the other a certain selfish interest associated with our reunion. We have already laughed about it over Terran brandy, not unlike the seri of Jer’ok’s world.
Our first few days have been spent in exploration, on foot whenever possible. Beautiful Terra is a far cry from the stark planetoid that drew the Admiral and me into lifelong friendship. We have spent hours in quiet companionship: strolling the footpaths that wind through the ancient trees, pausing to stare across the ocean which still holds a mystery like that of dark space herself. It is not at all difficult to feel a certain kinship with those who long ago lived and died on Terra’s vast oceans.
I believe the Diyalan feels the call every bit as deeply as I. No doubt he, too, wonders what part he might have played, had he been born of that adventurous era on my ancient world.
Sometimes, of one accord, we move inland in our random wanderings. Here the worn old mountains give us a taste of peril and then provide a new perspective on the distant ocean when that peril is met and overcome.
When we became tired of returning each evening to our inn, we each made the unavoidable arrangements in the event either of us should be called to active status. Then we gathered the necessary supplies and set off on a trek that promises to last nearly a Terran month before we must return to civilization and thence back to our mundane lives, where we will almost certainly experience a vague discontent.
There is something irresistible about the past of any planet or any people. No doubt we romanticize an era none of us could now bear. We have become accustomed to our luxuries and consider them indispensable. Even the peoples of Gemini hedge their bets and take advantage of today’s galactic technologies, despite those peoples’ cultural re-creation of Terra’s ancient ways.
It was our third night out before the Admiral mentioned Lord Charwick. I have never been particularly subtle. It was I who started it: “I wonder if Leede Southerly’s Battersea is like this in the winter.”
The Admiral made no comment at first. He was lost in his own thoughts. I remembered that, for a Diyalan, the mild weather was completely at odds with the deep black of the night sky. The stars stood out with a stark beauty that seems unique to Terra or even to Inland. The Admiral was clearly entranced. After a moment, though, he grinned. I am uncertain whether the Diyalan was responding to my impatience or to some amusing memory of his own.
“She is beautiful – your Terra. It makes me nostalgic for Diyala and for . . . Tuatha.”
The grin faded. His pause, I am certain, suggested suppressed reference to Battersea and the “memories” the Admiral has never overtly admitted to be his own. Memories and a love forever forbidden by selfless friendship that could hardly be called one-sided.
The Admiral has previously told me of the formative years of Jer’ok, Lord of Two Worlds. I know of Jer’ok’s courtship of and eventual marriage to Amber Laxton of Ares. But his life shortly after the birth of their first son is a matter the Admiral has not dwelled upon. I know only enough to be deeply intrigued. The life of Jer’ok and his Amber is a bittersweet one. It certainly was no easy life for Amber, but her love for Jer’ok sustained her though the tragedies the Stars brought down upon her.
As if reading my mind, although neither of us is of stock capable of telepathy, the Admiral began his narrative at that juncture. He referred briefly to the numerous missions Leede Southerly – Jer’ok – performed for both Tuatha and Diyala. Many of these quite naturally took Jer’ok to his home planet of Ashtar where his talents could be put to the best use. All the missions are shrouded in secrecy. Often, but not always, they resulted in lengthy separations from Amber.
The deserved honorarium of an invitation to become a prince of the Hua was long in coming because of Jer’ok’s stubborn refusal to embrace fully the ways of civilization. His was the pride not only of the nobility of Tuatha but also of the aloof wild beast. Though Southerly’s services gained him recognition among his peers, his natural reticence and the sense of imminent ferocity dissuaded most Chimurians. They sensed his unease among them. Some resented him. Very few, notably the Diyalan, Guy Locke, considered him friend. Often it was Amber who charmed the reluctant into the initial begrudging respect.
Always, however, the high king accepted Lord Charwick both as loyal servitor and as aloof Ashtarian. Only he predicted and comprehended the man’s refusal of the honor extended. And he accepted it. The high king knew that Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk, for all his loyalty, would not be bound to Tuatha. He would always prefer the ways of Ashtar.
It would be a mistake, however, to believe the high king’s acceptance had been immediate – or unwavering. The ways of the Lord of Two Worlds constantly threatened Southerly with the label of traitor. The high king once came very close to a formal denunciation of Lord Charwick – and of signing his death warrant, but somehow his hand was stayed.
I started at this new revelation, but the Admiral moved on to more private affairs without taking notice of my interest. I know better than to press him. He would not have deferred to my curiosity, and I would have distracted him from whatever part of the legend he was about to embark upon.
For some reason, I take it the infancy of Leede and Amber’s son, Leede Blane, is shrouded in mystery of its own. I suspect some awful event, perhaps a kidnaping, but, whatever transpired, my impression is that Lord and Lady Charwick confided in no one. It is a closed book, the grim detail revealed to no one, not even Guy Locke. Thereafter, it is evident that the haunted parents made a supreme effort to avoid overprotecting the boy. Still, according to the Admiral, Blane was not told of his father’s highly unusual childhood and youth. Apparently, as is the way of children, young Southerly took for granted his father’s unique capabilities. He never questioned and was clearly proud of both his parents. If Blane ever wondered about his father’s silence regarding his relationship with the high king, the younger Southerly never spoke of it. And the boy also took for granted the family homes at Battersea, in Meridum and on the Primeval Planet.
Inheritance, however, cannot be denied. Like both his father and his paternal grandfather, Blane took to life on his parents’ Ashtarian plantation with an enthusiasm that brought an irrepressible grin to Leede’s mouth and a pang of dread to Amber’s heart. There was no mistaking Leede Blane Southerly as any but the son of his father. It frightened Amber, because she better than any other knew what Leede’s ties to Ashtar had cost him. And yet Amber could not quite suppress her pride in both husband and son – they were so alike.
As the Admiral continued to speak of Blane, I began to perceive the direction of his tale. Unconsciously, I held my breath as if any distraction, however slight, would force my Diyalan companion off-course.
Blane inherited the Charwick independence of spirit, a spirit that served to keep the skin of Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk intact but which found little outlet in the normal boyhood of Tuatha. That school was out of the question for the son of Jer’ok became apparent soon enough to be an embarrassment to Amber, the daughter of a slightly stuffy Armerian mentor. At first the distraught mother turned to tutors. The father held his tongue. Eventually, at the suggestion of Locke, a compromise acceptable to all was struck.
There was a program conducted by a few exclusive institutions which truly guided the whole boy into manhood. The students of these institutions were not spared the tedium of the ordinary curriculum suffered by most mortals of this galaxy, but there was a highly strenuous outlet for those endowed with an unquenchable thirst for adventure. They learned the meaning of survival as few others had the slightest conception. Blane thrived on it. It very nearly matched his imaginary exploits on Ashtar beyond the relatively safe grounds of the Charwick plantation.
Not one of the Southerly family could have predicted that those adventures of the imagination would become reality before Blane could attain the age of manhood.
It all began when Leede Southerly discovered the presence of a hunterfolk pair in Meridum. Unfortunately, Blane was with him when Leede happened upon the fugitive pair too late to save the female. In order to save the male, the Tuathan had been required to reassure the prohominid in the near-language of the hunterfolk.
Most scientists and any laymen who happened to know of these creatures believed them too primitive to possess a language. Because of his mother’s concerns, Blane was numbered among these.
Once the male was secured pending Southerly’s efforts to gain his return for release on Ashtar, it was unavoidable. Life could not quite return to normal at Charwick Manor. Leede conferred first with Amber and then revealed the entire story of his life to his utterly fascinated son.
Blane did not delay in the discovery that he was every bit as resourceful as his father. It was not long before the boy learned where the hunterfolk male was being held in relative comfort until he could be returned to his home world. A rapport quickly developed between the grieving hunterfolk buck and the son of Jer’ok. When it became obvious that his father’s efforts would release the hunterfolk only after a protracted period of negotiations and formalities, Blane took matters into his own capable hands. It is not for nothing that he is the son of the Lord of Ashtar.
AS THE CLOSED vehicle silently entered the formal drive and came to a smooth halt before the main entrance of the manor house, Bridey, Amber Southerly’s former nurse, personal attendant, and now close friend, eased her bulk through the entrance and hurried down to sweep the tiny Lady Charwick to her ample bosom. As the two women made their way into the house, Leede Southerly and Guy Locke watched with sad approval.
Lord Charwick was relieved to observe his wife finally burst into tears as she clung to that dear familiar form and was whisked out of sight. It was Bridey who had comforted Amber through the little tragedies of her motherless childhood and who remained a source of steadfast solace whenever calamity touched her adult life. As the wife of Leede Southerly, known by only a select few to be the legendary Jer’ok-ta of the Hunterfolk, Amber Laxton Southerly, the former belle of Armerian society, had frequent need for Bridey’s unselfish devotion.
As Lord Charwick emerged from the vehicle, he addressed Locke for the first time, “Thank God Amber has finally expressed her grief. Blane’s disappearance has brought us closer than ever, but she had never come to me in tears. Not even on the day when we received the call. We are most fortunate in Bridey’s friendship.”
“And you, Lee,” was Guy’s rejoinder, “have you allowed yourself any release?”
“As always, my friend, I find relief from the Stars’ constant intervention in our lives only through action. As soon as Amber is settled, I will return to Rune Pellucid. We shall see if indeed there are no leads.
Guy was well acquainted both with Leede Southerly’s extraordinary senses and with his instinctive need to protect his own. The Diyalan had observed the man he called Lee at close hand in the latter’s jungle habitat long before the savage beast-man had learned to speak his first humankind tongue. Locke was well aware that no amount of social intercourse would be allowed to dull those senses or to inhibit the instinctive reactions to threats against mate or young one. The Diyalan suppressed a shudder.
It was the son of Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk who had disappeared. It would be Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk who trailed the boy and who would succour him – or avenge him. Woe unto him who aroused the rage of this half-tamed creature of Ashtar’s jungles.
And woe unto him who presumed to take the law into his own hands here on Chimur. Lee had endeavoured to forsake the law of the jungle, but it still ruled his acts more often than not. Guy prayed that his friend would avoid trouble, but he rather doubted his prayers would be answered. The appearance of the vivid scar, stark against the face seemingly engraved of deep copper, did little to foster any hope of restraint on the part of Lord Charwick.
“Did you detect anything in Blane’s compartment?”
“It was far too late. The police investigators refused to grant me entrance until they completed their own examination. Clumsy fools!”
This slight loss of composure was eloquent testimony to the depth of the man’s profound distress. Whatever he might think, it was unlike the stoic beast-man actually to voice such sentiments toward others. Guy studied Lee’s face as the latter detailed the awkward situation.
“By the time I gained access to the compartment,” Lee concluded, “there were so many scents I could no longer be sure Blane, himself, had been present. I could, of course, make no issue of it because of Amber.”
The likely fate of Locke’s prayers improved substantially with Lee’s acceptance of the situation in deference to his lady-wife. As always, Amber’s presence was a gentling influence on the primitive reactions so easily aroused in the beast-man’s savage breast. While those reactions served to preserve his life in his native jungle, they were more likely to serve him ill when he walked among civilised humankind.
Slowly the two friends took the broad stone steps into the manor as they talked. Lord Charwick nodded to the sober servants waiting in the entry to offer the deeply respected master their silent support. In response to the gentle query Sir Leede said there would be four for a light supper. Yes, in an hour would be acceptable.
Leede escorted Guy to the library to conclude their conversation. The roaring fire did little to lift the gloom that neither man attempted to shake.
“What can you do, Lee?” Guy enquired of his grief-stricken friend. Locke was not misled for a moment by the stoicism with which the other was accepting this most recent tragedy. Nor did he need to see that scarlet scar to know the agitation seething in the savage breast now confined beneath the immaculate attire of a Tuathan gentleman.
“I will go to Rune Pellucid,” Southerly repeated. “After that . . . .” He shrugged the massive shoulders. A moment passed without further comment by either man.
“If you would excuse me, Guy; I must see to Amber. I would not leave her alone at this time. She is haunted by the past.”
“But of course, my friend.”
Both the Diyalan and the Tuathan were men of few words. Locke needed to hear or say no more. Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk would take action as soon as he gleaned all he could from the detectives assigned to investigate the disappearance of his son. Guy understood that the agitation Lee was experiencing was not solely on account of the present situation. Like Amber, he could not fail to recall the terrible ordeals each had endured alone at the hands of Jer’ok’s archenemies who years earlier had kidnapped their son still in his infancy. These conspirators had come closer than any others to destroying both the man and his wife, when each fell into their clutches while taking desperate action to regain their firstborn. Thus far, there were no indications that this episode would develop into a repetition of the events of more than a decade ago. Nevertheless, both Lee and his wife were understandably loath to be separated, even briefly.
AMBER’S BOUDOIR FORMED a charming antechambre to the rather imposing master bedchambre of the historic Charwick estate. Some earlier Lady Charwick had found the massive cold stone far too daunting for her taste and had seen to the addition of this smaller, more intimate room. At Lady Amber’s hands, the chambre had blossomed with new warmth as she had selected furniture, fabrics, and rich paneling to make it her own. The room was not long in becoming Leede Southerly’s favourite retreat. It reflected Amber’s personality as did no other place he knew. Now, Leede paused briefly at the closed door to compose himself before entering.
When Leede entered his wife’s boudoir, she greeted him with a warm smile that nearly succeeded in bringing back the cheer he ordinarily experienced here. Bridey left Amber’s side, embraced him with a muttered expression of encouragement, and departed to give way to her own sorrow. Leede Southerly saw the tears glistening on her cheeks for all the Armerian’s care in averting her face from him. Blane was the light of Bridey’s life, second only to Amber Laxton Southerly in her affections.
Amber was sitting, apparently composed, in one of the comfortable chairs. A low fire burned in the huge fireplace, lending its warmth to the setting. As Leede approached, she rose to embrace him. For a long time each drew comfort from the expressive contact with the other. It spoke volumes for two who had little use for the oft-times empty words that pass between wedded members of the gentry. At last Amber drew back and lightly traced the scar across his forehead with her fingertips.
“It still burns, my Jer’ok. How long can the madness last?”
He did not immediately answer. Lady Amber sighed deeply before giving voice to a thought that came as something of a pleasant shock to her husband.
“I wish we were on Ashtar. There my Jer’ok would not be forced to remain inactive.”
Leede dropped his head to kiss Amber’s golden hair. She clung still closer and raised her own head to return his kisses. But even in this tender moment prompted by mutual bereavement, the normally imperceptible scar betrayed Southerly’s inextinguishable agitation.
“Jer’ok of the Hunterfolk would have found his son by now, were it not for the interference of these others. Jer’ok would punish any who dared to threaten his son or who stood in the way of his search.”
Amber recognised the cold tone of voice that was not quite a growl. She shivered with renewed fear.
“My love, you must learn to accept your limitations. We both have wanted Blane to live as normally as possible, even with our strong ties with Ashtar. For this to be possible you must allow others to do what you have always expected to do for yourself.
“The authorities are not incompetent, Leede. They lack Jer’ok’s abilities, but they have others in many ways superiour. If Blane is anywhere in Tuatha, they will find him. I know they will. You must not antagonise them, Leede; it will not help Blane.”
Once again her fingers touched that vivid scar as her eyes searched his. Whatever she saw there caused her heart to beat faster with fear. She rested her head against the broad chest. There was much comfort in the solid strength that was Jer’ok. But strength such as his could also be a dangerous foe.
“You must not act outside the law,” she whispered. “Not now. You must not, not even . . . ,” she halted on the brink of the unthinkable. “Leede, I cannot lose both of you.”
Though Lady Charwick did not allow herself to weep, her hands clutched his arms almost involuntarily. It seemed as though she could escape both horrid memories and an uncertain future in the security of his embrace. Never had this man failed her.
“Forgive me, my dear,” Leede Southerly tried to reassure the woman whose faith he hoped never to betray: “I do not wish to add to your burden. I promise you I will not act outside the law.” He lifted her head so he might again look into her eyes. “Jer’ok promises this to his mate.”
That drew an uncertain smile. Amber, he knew, was not without her own courage. “But you, my heart, must help. I need your trust. I cannot completely isolate myself from the search for our son. You must understand.”
Amber touched the vivid scar once more. “I do understand. I would not love you, were you not what you are. All I ask is that you remember that this is Tuatha and I need your strength. I cannot lose both of you,” she repeated softly. “Not again.”
“And you will not. I promise it, Amber.”
“I believe in you, Leede. I always have.”
She clung to him for support. He, too, found some respite in her closeness. Neither said more. The low fire flared and crackled in the lengthy interlude. It was Lord Charwick who reluctantly broke the spell.
“Let us go down to supper. Guy is waiting and the servants wish to lend us their support. Do you think you can eat, Amber?”
“Perhaps a little.” She smiled wistfully. “You know, it all seems so far away. It is almost as if it were happening to strangers.”
“I know,” was his terse reply. The crime had been committed so long before they had word of it that it seemed eerily unreal. But Jer’ok’s head throbbed with the tension that accompanied his barely suppressed rage. The thing had been accomplished so many days ago the spoors of his son and of his hypothetical abductor were already beyond the literally superhuman capacity of the beast-man. At least there had been no demand for ransom – or any other demands, more dangerous. Somehow, that silence gave Leede reason for hope.
As Lord and Lady Charwick went down to join Locke and Bridey for supper, Leede tentatively spoke to Amber of his intentions. She had surmised most of it without being told. When he concluded, he turned to her, his question unspoken.
“I will be fine,” she assured him. “No one could be safer,” Amber’s eyes almost sparkled with her wonted gaiety, “With Guy and Bridey to protect me, none would dare . . . . ” But she had again entered on dangerous ground and abruptly broke off. As always Amber turned to her Jer’ok for comfort. “I will be safe enough, my love,” she whispered, “only come back to me as soon as you can. With you I will have no fear.”
“One more thing I promise, Amber. I will not leave Tuatha without first coming back to you.”
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