Beyond the spaceport gates, the men of the Kharsa were hunting down a thief. I heard the shrill cries, the pad-padding of feet in strides just a little too long and loping to be human, raising echoes all down the dark and dusty streets leading up to the main square.
But the square itself lay empty in the crimson noon of Wolf. Overhead the dim red ember of Phi Coronis, Wolf’s old and dying sun, gave out a pale and heatless light. The pair of Spaceforce guards at the gates, wearing the black leathers of the Terran Empire, shockers holstered at their belts, were drowsing under the arched gateway where the star-and-rocket emblem proclaimed the domain of Terra. One of them, a snub-nosed youngster only a few weeks out from Earth, cocked an inquisitive ear at the cries and scuffling feet, then jerked his head at me.
“Hey, Cargill, you can talk their lingo. What’s going on out there?”
I stepped out past the gateway to listen. There was still no one to be seen in the square. It lay white and windswept, a barricade of emptiness; to one side the spaceport and the white skyscraper of the Terran Headquarters, and at the other side, the clutter of low buildings, the street-shrine, the little spaceport cafe smelling of coffee and jaco, and the dark opening mouths of streets that rambled down into the Kharsa--the old town, the native quarter. But I was alone in the square with the shrill cries--closer now, raising echoes from the enclosing walls--and the loping of many feet down one of the dirty streets.
Then I saw him running, dodging, a hail of stones flying round his head; someone or something small and cloaked and agile. Behind him the still-faceless mob howled and threw stones. I could not yet understand the cries; but they were out for blood, and I knew it.
I said briefly, “Trouble coming,” just before the mob spilled out into the square. The fleeing dwarf stared about wildly for an instant, his head jerking from side to side so rapidly that it was impossible to get even a fleeting impression of his face--human or nonhuman, familiar or bizarre. Then, like a pellet loosed from its sling, he made straight for the gateway and safety.
And behind him the loping mob yelled and howled and came pouring over half the square. Just half. Then by that sudden intuition which permeates even the most crazed mob with some semblance of reason, they came to a ragged halt, heads turning from side to side.
I stepped up on the lower step of the Headquarters building, and looked them over.
Most of them were chaks, the furred man-tall nonhumans of the Kharsa, and not the better class. Their fur was unkempt, their tails naked with filth and disease. Their leather aprons hung in tatters. One or two in the crowd were humans, the dregs of the Kharsa. But the star-and-rocket emblem blazoned across the spaceport gates sobered even the wildest blood-lust somewhat; they milled and shifted uneasily in their half of the square.
For a moment I did not see where their quarry had gone. Then I saw him crouched, not four feet from me, in a patch of shadow. Simultaneously the mob saw him, huddled just beyond the gateway, and a howl of frustration and rage went ringing round the square. Someone threw a stone. It zipped over my head, narrowly missing me, and landed at the feet of the black-leathered guard. He jerked his head up and gestured with the shocker which had suddenly come unholstered.
The gesture should have been enough. On Wolf, Terran law has been written in blood and fire and exploding atoms; and the line is drawn firm and clear. The men of Spaceforce do not interfere in the old town, or in any of the native cities. But when violence steps over the threshold, passing the blazon of the star and rocket, punishment is swift and terrible. The threat should have been enough.
Instead a howl of abuse went up from the crowd.
“Son of the Ape!”
The Spaceforce guards were shoulder to shoulder behind me now. The snub-nosed kid, looking slightly pale, called out. “Get inside the gates, Cargill! If I have to shoot--”
The older man motioned him to silence. “Wait. Cargill,” he called.
I nodded to show that I heard.
“You talk their lingo. Tell them to haul off! Damned if I want to shoot!”
I stepped down and walked into the open square, across the crumbled white stones, toward the ragged mob. Even with two armed Spaceforce men at my back, it made my skin crawl, but I flung up my empty hand in token of peace:
“Take your mob out of the square,” I shouted in the jargon of the Kharsa. “This territory is held in compact of peace! Settle your quarrels elsewhere!”
There was a little stirring in the crowd. The shock of being addressed in their own tongue, instead of the Terran Standard which the Empire has forced on Wolf, held them silent for a minute. I had learned that long ago: that speaking in any of the languages of Wolf would give me a minute’s advantage.
But only a minute. Then one of the mob yelled, “We’ll go if you give’m to us! He’s no right to Terran sanctuary!”
I walked over to the huddled dwarf, miserably trying to make himself smaller against the wall. I nudged him with my foot.
“Get up. Who are you?”
The hood fell away from his face as he twitched to his feet. He was trembling violently. In the shadow of the hood I saw a furred face, a quivering velvety muzzle, and great soft golden eyes which held intelligence and terror.
“What have you done? Can’t you talk?”
He held out the tray which he had shielded under his cloak, an ordinary peddler’s tray. “Toys. Sell toys. Children. You got’m?”
I shook my head and pushed the creature away, with only a glance at the array of delicately crafted manikins, tiny animals, prisms and crystal whirligigs. “You’d better get out of here. Scram. Down that street.” I pointed.
A voice from the crowd shouted again, and it had a very ugly sound. “He is a spy of Nebran!”
“Nebran--“ The dwarfish nonhuman gabbled something then doubled behind me. I saw him dodge, feint in the direction of the gates, then, as the crowd surged that way, run for the street-shrine across the square, slipping from recess to recess of the wall. A hail of stones went flying in that direction. The little toy-seller dodged into the street-shrine.
Then there was a hoarse “Ah, aaah!” of terror, and the crowd edged away, surged backward. The next minute it had begun to melt away, its entity dissolving into separate creatures, slipping into the side alleys and the dark streets that disgorged into the square. Within three minutes the square lay empty again in the pale-crimson noon.
The kid in black leather let his breath go and swore, slipping his shocker into its holster. He stared and demanded profanely, “Where’d the little fellow go?”
“Who knows?” the other shrugged. “Probably sneaked into one of the alleys. Did you see where he went, Cargill?”
I came slowly back to the gateway. To me, it had seemed that he ducked into the street-shrine and vanished into thin air, but I’ve lived on Wolf long enough to know you can’t trust your eyes here. I said so, and the kid swore again, gulping, more upset than he wanted to admit. “Does this kind of thing happen often?”
“All the time,” his companion assured him soberly, with a sidewise wink at me. I didn’t return the wink.
The kid wouldn’t let it drop. “Where did you learn their lingo, Mr. Cargill?”
“I’ve been on Wolf a long time,” I said, spun on my heel and walked toward Headquarters. I tried not to hear, but their voices followed me anyhow, discreetly lowered, but not lowered enough.
“Kid, don’t you know who he is? That’s Cargill of the Secret Service! Six years ago he was the best man in Intelligence, before--” The voice lowered another decibel, and then there was the kid’s voice asking, shaken, “But what the hell happened to his face?”
I should have been used to it by now. I’d been hearing it, more or less behind my back, for six years. Well, if my luck held, I’d never hear it again. I strode up the white steps of the skyscraper, to finish the arrangements that would take me away from Wolf forever. To the other end of the Empire, to the other end of the galaxy--anywhere, so long as I need not wear my past like a medallion around my neck, or blazoned and branded on what was left of my ruined face.