“We’re somewhat to the south, I think,” Ri said, bending over the crude field map. “That ridge,” he pointed, “on our left, is right here.” He drew a finger down the map. “It was over here,” he moved the finger, “over the ridge, north of here, that we sighted them.”
Extrone asked, “Is there a pass?”
Ri looked up, studying the terrain. He moved his shoulders. “I don’t know, but maybe they range this far. Maybe they’re on this side of the ridge, too.”
Delicately, Extrone raised a hand to his beard. “I’d hate to lose a day crossing the ridge,” he said.
“Yes, sir,” Ri said. Suddenly he threw back his head. “Listen!”
“Eh?” Extrone said.
“Hear it? That cough? I think that’s one, from over there. Right up ahead of us.”
Extrone raised his eyebrows.
This time, the coughing roar was more distant, but distinct.
“It is!” Ri said. “It’s a farn beast, all right!”
Extrone smiled, almost pointed teeth showing through the beard. “I’m glad we won’t have to cross the ridge.”
Ri wiped his forehead on the back of his sleeve. “Yes, sir.”
“We’ll pitch camp right here, then,” Extrone said. “We’ll go after it tomorrow.” He looked at the sky. “Have the bearers hurry.”
Ri moved away, his pulse gradually slowing. “You, there!” he called. “Pitch camp, here!”
He crossed to Mia, who, along with him, had been pressed into Extrone’s party as guides. Once more, Ri addressed the bearers, “Be quick, now!” And to Mia, “God almighty, he was getting mad.” He ran a hand under his collar. “It’s a good thing that farn beast sounded off when it did. I’d hate to think of making him climb that ridge.”
Mia glanced nervously over his shoulder. “It’s that damned pilot’s fault for setting us down on this side. I told him it was the other side. I told him so.”
Ri shrugged hopelessly.
Mia said, “I don’t think he even saw a blast area over here. I think he wanted to get us in trouble.”
“There shouldn’t be one. There shouldn’t be a blast area on this side of the ridge, too.”
“That’s what I mean. The pilot don’t like businessmen. He had it in for us.”
Ri cleared his throat nervously. “Maybe you’re right.”
“It’s the Hunting Club he don’t like.”
“I wish to God I’d never heard of a farn beast,” Ri said. “At least, then, I wouldn’t be one of his guides. Why didn’t he hire somebody else?”
Mia looked at his companion. He spat. “What hurts most, he pays us for it. I could buy half this planet, and he makes me his guide--at less than I pay my secretary.”
“Well, anyway, we won’t have to cross that ridge.”
“Hey, you!” Extrone called.
The two of them turned immediately.
“You two scout ahead,” Extrone said. “See if you can pick up some tracks.”
“Yes, sir,” Ri said, and instantly the two of them readjusted their shoulder straps and started off.
Shortly they were inside of the scrub forest, safe from sight. “Let’s wait here,” Mia said.
“No, we better go on. He may have sent a spy in.”
They pushed on, being careful to blaze the trees, because they were not professional guides.
“We don’t want to get too near,” Ri said after toiling through the forest for many minutes. “Without guns, we don’t want to get near enough for the farn beast to charge us.”
They stopped. The forest was dense, the vines clinging.
“He’ll want the bearers to hack a path for him,” Mia said. “But we go it alone. Damn him.”
Ri twisted his mouth into a sour frown. He wiped at his forehead. “Hot. By God, it’s hot. I didn’t think it was this hot, the first time we were here.”
Mia said, “The first time, we weren’t guides. We didn’t notice it so much then.”
They fought a few yards more into the forest.
Then it ended. Or, rather, there was a wide gap. Before them lay a blast area, unmistakable. The grass was beginning to grow again, but the tree stumps were roasted from the rocket breath.
“This isn’t ours!” Ri said. “This looks like it was made nearly a year ago!”
Mia’s eyes narrowed. “The military from Xnile?”
“No,” Ri said. “They don’t have any rockets this small. And I don’t think there’s another cargo rocket on this planet outside of the one we leased from the Club. Except the one he brought.”
“The ones who discovered the farn beasts in the first place?” Mia asked. “You think it’s their blast?”
“So?” Ri said. “But who are they?”
It was Mia’s turn to shrug. “Whoever they were, they couldn’t have been hunters. They’d have kept the secret better.”
“We didn’t do so damned well.”
“We didn’t have a chance,” Mia objected. “Everybody and his brother had heard the rumor that farn beasts were somewhere around here. It wasn’t our fault Extrone found out.”
“I wish we hadn’t shot our guide, then. I wish he was here instead of us.”
Mia shook perspiration out of his eyes. “We should have shot our pilot, too. That was our mistake. The pilot must have been the one who told Extrone we’d hunted this area.”
“I didn’t think a Club pilot would do that.”
“After Extrone said he’d hunt farn beasts, even if it meant going to the alien system? Listen, you don’t know ... Wait a minute.”
There was perspiration on Ri’s upper lip.
“I didn’t tell Extrone, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Mia said.
Ri’s mouth twisted. “I didn’t say you did.”
“Listen,” Mia said in a hoarse whisper. “I just thought. Listen. To hell with how he found out. Here’s the point. Maybe he’ll shoot us, too, when the hunt’s over.”
Ri licked his lips. “No. He wouldn’t do that. We’re not--not just anybody. He couldn’t kill us like that. Not even him. And besides, why would he want to do that? It wouldn’t do any good to shoot us. Too many people already know about the farn beasts. You said that yourself.”
Mia said, “I hope you’re right.” They stood side by side, studying the blast area in silence. Finally, Mia said, “We better be getting back.”
“What’ll we tell him?”
“That we saw tracks. What else can we tell him?”
They turned back along their trail, stumbling over vines.
“It gets hotter at sunset,” Ri said nervously.
“The breeze dies down.”
“It’s screwy. I didn’t think farn beasts had this wide a range. There must be a lot of them, to be on both sides of the ridge like this.”
“There may be a pass,” Mia said, pushing a vine away.
Ri wrinkled his brow, panting. “I guess that’s it. If there were a lot of them, we’d have heard something before we did. But even so, it’s damned funny, when you think about it.”
Mia looked up at the darkening sky. “We better hurry,” he said.
When it came over the hastily established camp, the rocket was low, obviously looking for a landing site. It was a military craft, from the outpost on the near moon, and forward, near the nose, there was the blazoned emblem of the Ninth Fleet. The rocket roared directly over Extrone’s tent, turned slowly, spouting fuel expensively, and settled into the scrub forest, turning the vegetation beneath it sere by its blasts.
Extrone sat on an upholstered stool before his tent and spat disgustedly and combed his beard with his blunt fingers.
Shortly, from the direction of the rocket, a group of four high-ranking officers came out of the forest, heading toward him. They were spruce, the officers, with military discipline holding their waists in and knees almost stiff.
“What in hell do you want?” Extrone asked.
They stopped a respectful distance away. “Sir...” one began.
“Haven’t I told you gentlemen that rockets frighten the game?” Extrone demanded, ominously not raising his voice.
“Sir,” the lead officer said, “it’s another alien ship. It was sighted a few hours ago, off this very planet, sir.”
Extrone’s face looked much too innocent. “How did it get there, gentlemen? Why wasn’t it destroyed?”
“We lost it again, sir. Temporarily, sir.”
“So?” Extrone mocked.
“We thought you ought to return to a safer planet, sir. Until we could locate and destroy it.”
Extrone stared at them for a space. Then, indifferently, he turned away, in the direction of a resting bearer. “You!” he said. “Hey! Bring me a drink!” He faced the officers again. He smiled maliciously. “I’m staying here.”
The lead officer licked his firm lower lip. “But, sir...”
Extrone toyed with his beard. “About a year ago, gentlemen, there was an alien ship around here then, wasn’t there? And you destroyed it, didn’t you?”
“Yes, sir. When we located it, sir.”
“You’ll destroy this one, too,” Extrone said.
“We have a tight patrol, sir. It can’t slip through. But it might try a long range bombardment, sir.”
Extrone said, “To begin with, they probably don’t even know I’m here. And they probably couldn’t hit this area if they did know. And you can’t afford to let them get a shot at me, anyway.”
“That’s why we’d like you to return to an inner planet, sir.”
Extrone plucked at his right ear lobe, half closing his eyes. “You’ll lose a fleet before you’ll dare let anything happen to me, gentlemen. I’m quite safe here, I think.”
The bearer brought Extrone his drink.
“Get off,” Extrone said quietly to the four officers.
Again they turned reluctantly. This time, he did not call them back. Instead, with amusement, he watched until they disappeared into the tangle of forest.
Dusk was falling. The takeoff blast of the rocket illuminated the area, casting weird shadows on the gently swaying grasses; there was a hot breath of dry air and the rocket dwindled toward the stars.
Extrone stood up lazily, stretching. He tossed the empty glass away, listened for it to shatter. He reached out, parted the heavy flap to his tent.
“Sir?” Ri said, hurrying toward him in the gathering darkness.
“Eh?” Extrone said, turning, startled. “Oh, you. Well?”
“We ... located signs of the farn beast, sir. To the east.”
Extrone nodded. After a moment he said, “You killed one, I believe, on your trip?”
Ri shifted. “Yes, sir.”
Extrone held back the flap of the tent. “Won’t you come in?” he asked without any politeness whatever.
Ri obeyed the order.
The inside of the tent was luxurious. The bed was of bulky feathers, costly of transport space, the sleep curtains of silken gauze. The floor, heavy, portable tile blocks, not the hollow kind, were neatly and smoothly inset into the ground. Hanging from the center, to the left of the slender, hand-carved center pole, was a chain of crystals. They tinkled lightly when Extrone dropped the flap. The light was electric from a portable dynamo. Extrone flipped it on. He crossed to the bed, sat down.
“You were, I believe, the first ever to kill a farn beast?” he said.
“I ... No, sir. There must have been previous hunters, sir.”
Extrone narrowed his eyes. “I see by your eyes that you are envious--that is the word, isn’t it?--of my tent.”
Ri looked away from his face.
“Perhaps I’m envious of your reputation as a hunter. You see, I have never killed a farn beast. In fact, I haven’t seen a farn beast.”
Ri glanced nervously around the tent, his sharp eyes avoiding Extrone’s glittering ones. “Few people have seen them, sir.”
“Oh?” Extrone questioned mildly. “I wouldn’t say that. I understand that the aliens hunt them quite extensively ... on some of their planets.”
“I meant in our system, sir.”
“Of course you did,” Extrone said, lazily tracing the crease of his sleeve with his forefinger. “I imagine these are the only farn beasts in our system.”
Ri waited uneasily, not answering.
“Yes,” Extrone said, “I imagine they are. It would have been a shame if you had killed the last one. Don’t you think so?”
Ri’s hands worried the sides of his outer garment. “Yes, sir. It would have been.”
Extrone pursed his lips. “It wouldn’t have been very considerate of you to--But, still, you gained valuable experience. I’m glad you agreed to come along as my guide.”
“It was an honor, sir.”
Extrone’s lip twisted in wry amusement. “If I had waited until it was safe for me to hunt on an alien planet, I would not have been able to find such an illustrious guide.”
“ ... I’m flattered, sir.”
“Of course,” Extrone said. “But you should have spoken to me about it, when you discovered the farn beast in our own system.”
“I realize that, sir. That is, I had intended at the first opportunity, sir...”
“Of course,” Extrone said dryly. “Like all of my subjects,” he waved his hand in a broad gesture, “the highest as well as the lowest slave, know me and love me. I know your intentions were the best.”
Ri squirmed, his face pale. “We do indeed love you, sir.”
Extrone bent forward. “Know me and love me.”
“Yes, sir. Know you and love you, sir,” Ri said.
“Get out!” Extrone said.
“It’s frightening,” Ri said, “to be that close to him.”
The two of them, beneath the leaf-swollen branches of the gnarled tree, were seated on their sleeping bags. The moon was clear and cold and bright in a cloudless sky; a small moon, smooth-surfaced, except for a central mountain ridge that bisected it into almost twin hemispheres.
“To think of him. As flesh and blood. Not like the--well; that--what we’ve read about.”
Mia glanced suspiciously around him at the shadows. “You begin to understand a lot of things, after seeing him.”
Ri picked nervously at the cover of his sleeping bag.
“It makes you think,” Mia added. He twitched. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid he’ll ... Listen, we’ll talk. When we get back to civilization. You, me, the bearers. About him. He can’t let that happen. He’ll kill us first.”
Ri looked up at the moon, shivering. “No. We have friends. We have influence. He couldn’t just like that--”
“He could say it was an accident.”
“No,” Ri said stubbornly.
“He can say anything,” Mia insisted. “He can make people believe anything. Whatever he says. There’s no way to check on it.”
“It’s getting cold,” Ri said.
“Listen,” Mia pleaded.
“No,” Ri said. “Even if we tried to tell them, they wouldn’t listen. Everybody would know we were lying. Everything they’ve come to believe would tell them we were lying. Everything they’ve read, every picture they’ve seen. They wouldn’t believe us. He knows that.”
“Listen,” Mia repeated intently. “This is important. Right now he couldn’t afford to let us talk. Not right now. Because the Army is not against him. Some officers were here, just before we came back. A bearer overheard them talking. They don’t want to overthrow him!”
Ri’s teeth, suddenly, were chattering.
“That’s another lie,” Mia continued. “That he protects the people from the Army. That’s a lie. I don’t believe they were ever plotting against him. Not even at first. I think they helped him, don’t you see?”
Ri whined nervously.
“It’s like this,” Mia said. “I see it like this. The Army put him in power when the people were in rebellion against military rule.”
Ri swallowed. “We couldn’t make the people believe that.”
“No?” Mia challenged. “Couldn’t we? Not today, but what about tomorrow? You’ll see. Because I think the Army is getting ready to invade the alien system!”
“The people won’t support them,” Ri answered woodenly.
“Think. If he tells them to, they will. They trust him.”
Ri looked around at the shadows.
“That explains a lot of things,” Mia said. “I think the Army’s been preparing for this for a long time. From the first, maybe. That’s why Extrone cut off our trade with the aliens. Partly to keep them from learning that he was getting ready to invade them, but more to keep them from exposing him to the people. The aliens wouldn’t be fooled like we were, so easy.”
“No!” Ri snapped. “It was to keep the natural economic balance.”
“You know that’s not right.”
Ri lay down on his bed roll. “Don’t talk about it. It’s not good to talk like this. I don’t even want to listen.”
“When the invasion starts, he’ll have to command all their loyalties. To keep them from revolt again. They’d be ready to believe us, then. He’ll have a hard enough time without people running around trying to tell the truth.”
“You’re wrong. He’s not like that. I know you’re wrong.”