It was nearly sundown when Ravdin eased the ship down into the last slow arc toward the Earth’s surface. Stretching his arms and legs, he tried to relax and ease the tension in his tired muscles. Carefully, he tightened the seat belt for landing; below him he could see the vast, tangled expanse of Jungle-land spreading out to the horizon. Miles ahead was the bright circle of the landing field and the sparkling glow of the city beyond. Ravdin peered to the north of the city, hoping to catch a glimpse of the concert before his ship was swallowed by the brilliant landing lights.
A bell chimed softly in his ear. Ravdin forced his attention back to the landing operation. He was still numb and shaken from the Warp-passage, his mind still muddled by the abrupt and incredible change. Moments before, the sky had been a vast, starry blanket of black velvet; then, abruptly, he had been hovering over the city, sliding down toward warm friendly lights and music. He checked the proper switches, and felt the throbbing purr of the anti-grav motors as the ship slid in toward the landing slot. Tall spires of other ships rose to meet him, circle upon circle of silver needles pointing skyward. A little later they were blotted out as the ship was grappled into the berth from which it had risen days before.
With a sigh, Ravdin eased himself out of the seat, his heart pounding with excitement. Perhaps, he thought, he was too excited, too eager to be home, for his mind was still reeling from the fearful discovery of his journey.
The station was completely empty as Ravdin walked down the ramp to the shuttles. At the desk he checked in with the shiny punch-card robot, and walked swiftly across the polished floor. The wall panels pulsed a somber blue-green, broken sharply by brilliant flashes and overtones of scarlet, reflecting with subtle accuracy the tumult in his own mind. Not a sound was in the air, not a whisper nor sign of human habitation. Vaguely, uneasiness grew in his mind as he entered the shuttle station. Suddenly, the music caught him, a long, low chord of indescribable beauty, rising and falling in the wind, a distant whisper of life...
The concert, of course. Everyone would be at the concert tonight, and even from two miles away, the beauty of four hundred perfectly harmonized voices was carried on the breeze. Ravdin’s uneasiness disappeared; he was eager to discharge his horrible news, get it off his mind and join the others in the great amphitheater set deep in the hillside outside the city. But he knew instinctively that Lord Nehmon, anticipating his return, would not be at the concert.
Riding the shuttle over the edges of Jungle-land toward the shining bright beauty of the city, Ravdin settled back, trying to clear his mind of the shock and horror he had encountered on his journey. The curves and spires of glowing plastic passed him, lighted with a million hues. He realized that his whole life was entangled in the very beauty of this wonderful city. Everything he had ever hoped or dreamed lay sheltered here in the ever-changing rhythm of colors and shapes and sounds. And now, he knew, he would soon see his beloved city burning once again, turning to flames and ashes in a heart-breaking memorial to the age-old fear of his people.
The little shuttle-car settled down softly on the green terrace near the center of the city. The building was a masterpiece of smoothly curving walls and tasteful lines, opening a full side to the south to catch the soft sunlight and warm breezes. Ravdin strode across the deep carpeting of the terrace. There was other music here, different music, a wilder, more intimate fantasy of whirling sound. An oval door opened for him, and he stopped short, staggered for a moment by the overpowering beauty in the vaulted room.
A girl with red hair the color of new flame was dancing with enthralling beauty and abandon, her body moving like ripples of wind to the music which filled the room with its throbbing cry. Her beauty was exquisite, every motion, every flowing turn a symphony of flawless perfection as she danced to the wild music.
The dancer threw back her head sharply, eyes wide, her body frozen in mid-air, and then, abruptly, she was gone, leaving only the barest flickering image of her fiery hair. The music slowed, singing softly, and Ravdin could see the old man waiting in the room. Nehmon rose, his gaunt face and graying hair belying the youthful movement of his body. Smiling, he came forward, clapped Ravdin on the shoulder, and took his hand warmly. “You’re too late for the concert--it’s a shame. Mischana is the master tonight, and the whole city is there.”
Ravdin’s throat tightened as he tried to smile. “I had to let you know,” he said. “They’re coming, Nehmon! I saw them, hours ago.”
The last overtones of the music broke abruptly, like a glass shattered on stone. The room was deathly still. Lord Nehmon searched the young man’s face. Then he turned away, not quite concealing the sadness and pain in his eyes. “You’re certain? You couldn’t be mistaken?”
“No chance. I found signs of their passing in a dozen places. Then I saw them, their whole fleet. There were hundreds. They’re coming, I saw them.”
“Did they see you?” Nehmon’s voice was sharp.
“No, no. The Warp is a wonderful thing. With it I could come and go in the twinkling of an eye. But I could see them in the twinkling of an eye.”
“And it couldn’t have been anyone else?”
“Could anyone else build ships like the Hunters?”
Nehmon sighed wearily. “No one that we know.” He glanced up at the young man. “Sit down, son, sit down. I--I’ll just have to rearrange my thinking a little. Where were they? How far?”
“Seven light years,” Ravdin said. “Can you imagine it? Just seven, and moving straight this way. They know where we are, and they are coming quickly.” His eyes filled with fear. “They couldn’t have found us so soon, unless they too have discovered the Warp and how to use it to travel.”
The older man’s breath cut off sharply, and there was real alarm in his eyes. “You’re right,” he said softly. “Six months ago it was eight hundred light years away, in an area completely remote from us. Now just seven. In six months they have come so close.”
The scout looked up at Nehmon in desperation. “But what can we do? We have only weeks, maybe days, before they’re here. We have no time to plan, no time to prepare for them. What can we do?”
The room was silent. Finally the aged leader stood up, wearily, some fraction of his six hundred years of life showing in his face for the first time in centuries. “We can do once again what we always have done before when the Hunters came,” he said sadly. “We can run away.”
The bright street below the oval window was empty and quiet. Not a breath of air stirred in the city. Ravdin stared out in bitter silence. “Yes, we can run away. Just as we always have before. After we have worked so hard, accomplished so much here, we must burn the city and flee again.” His voice trailed off to silence. He stared at Nehmon, seeking in the old man’s face some answer, some reassurance. But he found no answer there, only sadness. “Think of the concerts. It’s taken so long, but at last we’ve come so close to the ultimate goal.” He gestured toward the thought-sensitive sounding boards lining the walls, the panels which had made the dancer-illusion possible. “Think of the beauty and peace we’ve found here.”
“I know. How well I know.”
“Yet now the Hunters come again, and again we must run away.” Ravdin stared at the old man, his eyes suddenly bright. “Nehmon, when I saw those ships I began thinking.”
“I’ve spent many years thinking, my son.”
“Not what I’ve been thinking.” Ravdin sat down, clasping his hands in excitement. “The Hunters come and we run away, Nehmon. Think about that for a moment. We run, and we run, and we run. From what? We run from the Hunters. They’re hunting us, these Hunters. They’ve never quite found us, because we’ve always already run. We’re clever, we’re fortunate, and we have a way of life that they do not, so whenever they have come close to finding us, we have run.”
Nehmon nodded slowly. “For thousands of years.”
Ravdin’s eyes were bright. “Yes, we flee, we cringe, we hide under stones, we break up our lives and uproot our families, running like frightened animals in the shadows of night and secrecy.” He gulped a breath, and his eyes sought Nehmon’s angrily. “Why do we run, my lord?“
Nehmon’s eyes widened. “Because we have no choice,” he said. “We must run or be killed. You know that. You’ve seen the records, you’ve been taught.”
“Oh, yes, I know what I’ve been taught. I’ve been taught that eons ago our remote ancestors fought the Hunters, and lost, and fled, and were pursued. But why do we keep running? Time after time we’ve been cornered, and we’ve turned and fled. Why? Even animals know that when they’re cornered they must turn and fight.”
“We are not animals.” Nehmon’s voice cut the air like a whiplash.
“But we could fight.”
“Animals fight. We do not. We fought once, like animals, and now we must run from the Hunters who continue to fight like animals. So be it. Let the Hunters fight.”
Ravdin shook his head. “Do you mean that the Hunters are not men like us?” he said. “That’s what you’re saying, that they are animals. All right. We kill animals for our food, isn’t that true? We kill the tiger-beasts in the Jungle to protect ourselves, why not kill the Hunters to protect ourselves?”
Nehmon sighed, and reached out a hand to the young man. “I’m sorry,” he said gently. “It seems logical, but it’s false logic. The Hunters are men just like you and me. Their lives are different, their culture is different, but they are men. And human life is sacred, to us, above all else. This is the fundamental basis of our very existence. Without it we would be Hunters, too. If we fight, we are dead even if we live. That’s why we must run away now, and always. Because we know that we must not kill men.”
On the street below, the night air was suddenly full of voices, chattering, intermingled with whispers of song and occasional brief harmonic flutterings. The footfalls were muted on the polished pavement as the people passed slowly, their voices carrying a hint of puzzled uneasiness.
“The concert’s over!” Ravdin walked to the window, feeling a chill pass through him. “So soon, I wonder why?” Eagerly he searched the faces passing in the street for Dana’s face, sensing the lurking discord in the quiet talk of the crowd. Suddenly the sound-boards in the room tinkled a carillon of ruby tones in his ear, and she was in the room, rushing into his arms with a happy cry, pressing her soft cheek to his rough chin. “You’re back! Oh, I’m so glad, so very glad!” She turned to the old man. “Nehmon, what has happened? The concert was ruined tonight. There was something in the air, everybody felt it. For some reason the people seemed afraid.”
Ravdin turned away from his bride. “Tell her,” he said to the old man.
Dana looked at them, her gray eyes widening in horror. “The Hunters! They’ve found us?”
Ravdin nodded wordlessly.
Her hands trembled as she sat down, and there were tears in her eyes. “We came so close tonight, so very close. I felt the music before it was sung, do you realize that? I felt the fear around me, even though no one said a word. It wasn’t vague or fuzzy, it was clear! The transference was perfect.” She turned to face the old man. “It’s taken so long to come this far, Nehmon. So much work, so much training to reach a perfect communal concert. We’ve had only two hundred years here, only two hundred! I was just a little girl when we came, I can’t even remember before that. Before we came here we were undisturbed for a thousand years, and before that, four thousand. But two hundred--we can’t leave now. Not when we’ve come so far.”
Ravdin nodded. “That’s the trouble. They come closer every time. This time they will catch us. Or the next time, or the next. And that will be the end of everything for us, unless we fight them.” He paused, watching the last groups dispersing on the street below. “If we only knew, for certain, what we were running from.”
There was a startled silence. The girl’s breath came in a gasp and her eyes widened as his words sank home. “Ravdin,” she said softly, “have you ever seen a Hunter?”
Ravdin stared at her, and felt a chill of excitement. Music burst from the sounding-board, odd, wild music, suddenly hopeful. “No,” he said, “no, of course not. You know that.”
The girl rose from her seat. “Nor have I. Never, not once.” She turned to Lord Nehmon. “Have you?”
“Never.” The old man’s voice was harsh.
“Has anyone ever seen a Hunter?”
Ravdin’s hand trembled. “I--I don’t know. None of us living now, no. It’s been too long since they last actually found us. I’ve read--oh, I can’t remember. I think my grandfather saw them, or my great-grandfather, somewhere back there. It’s been thousands of years.”
“Yet we’ve been tearing ourselves up by the roots, fleeing from planet to planet, running and dying and still running. But suppose we don’t need to run anymore?”
He stared at her. “They keep coming. They keep searching for us. What more proof do you need?”
Dana’s face glowed with excitement, alive with new vitality, new hope. “Ravdin, can’t you see? They might have changed. They might not be the same. Things can happen. Look at us, how we’ve grown since the wars with the Hunters. Think how our philosophy and culture have matured! Oh, Ravdin, you were to be master at a concert next month. Think how the concerts have changed! Even my grandmother can remember when the concerts were just a few performers playing, and everyone else just sitting and listening! Can you imagine anything more silly? They hadn’t even thought of transference then, they never dreamed what a real concert could be! Why, those people had never begun to understand music until they themselves became a part of it. Even we can see these changes, why couldn’t the Hunters have grown and changed just as we have?”
Nehmon’s voice broke in, almost harshly, as he faced the excited pair. “The Hunters don’t have concerts,” he said grimly. “You’re deluding yourself, Dana. They laugh at our music, they scoff at our arts and twist them into obscene mockeries. They have no concept of beauty in their language. The Hunters are incapable of change.”
“And you can be certain of that when nobody has seen them for thousands of years?”
Nehmon met her steady eyes, read the strength and determination there. He knew, despairingly, what she was thinking--that he was old, that he couldn’t understand, that his mind was channeled now beyond the approach of wisdom. “You mustn’t think what you’re thinking,” he said weakly. “You’d be blind. You wouldn’t know, you couldn’t have any idea what you would find. If you tried to contact them, you could be lost completely, tortured, killed. If they haven’t changed, you wouldn’t stand a chance. You’d never come back, Dana.”
“But she’s right all the same,” Ravdin said softly. “You’re wrong, my lord. We can’t continue this way if we’re to survive. Sometime our people must contact them, find the link that was once between us, and forge it strong again. We could do it, Dana and I.”
“I could forbid you to go.”
Dana looked at her husband, and her eyes were proud. “You could forbid us,” she said, facing the old man. “But you could never stop us.”
At the edge of the Jungle-land a great beast stood with green-gleaming eyes, licking his fanged jaws as he watched the glowing city, sensing somehow that the mystifying circle of light and motion was soon to become his Jungle-land again. In the city the turmoil bubbled over, as wave after wave of the people made the short safari across the intervening jungle to the circles of their ships. Husbands, wives, fathers, mothers--all carried their small, frail remembrances out to the ships. There was music among them still, but it was a different sort of music, now, an eerie, hopeless music that drifted out of the city in the wind. It caused all but the bravest of the beasts, their hair prickling on their backs, to run in panic through the jungle darkness. It was a melancholy music, carried from thought to thought, from voice to voice as the people of the city wearily prepared themselves once again for the long journey.
To run away. In the darkness of secrecy, to be gone, without a trace, without symbol or vestige of their presence, leaving only the scorched circle of land for the jungle to reclaim, so that no eyes, not even the sharpest, would ever know how long they had stayed, nor where they might have gone.