“Never saw anything like that before!” one exclaimed. “What the heck is that, anyway?”
“Looks like a sentient race,” the other remarked. “Bipedal, hands with opposing thumbs … Definitely a male. My! That’s so exposed! Let’s see …” It carefully began poking and probing and was suddenly startled to see the jaw open, then close. “Woof! Reflex action, or … Hey! This thing might still be alive!” “Lower a stretcher on floats and send it out with Doc!” the captain ordered. “Don’t touch it until Doc gets there! If it’s been stuck in a damned tree since the explosion, it’s probably beat up all to hell. Don’t want to do anything that’ll kill it now, not after it came through all that!
It took some time to get the float to the far end of the tree and for the bewildered medic, who had a lot of practice on dozens of races but knew nothing about this one, to supervise extricating the body from the tree and moving it as gently as possible onto the flotation device.
‘Take it easy!” Doc cautioned. The doctor, a birdlike Mosicranz, had little strength in the long, spindly arms beneath her white wings and had to supervise without directly manipulating the body. Once on board and in the clinic, she might be able to do a bit more, since those same fragile limbs possessed an incredible delicacy in control, although she would have preferred to be in a high-tech hex where all the medical equipment that would easily answer her questions would work.
“How should we lay it out, Doc?” one of the Akkokeks asked her. “How should I know? I’m going by deduction here. Flat on the back, I should think, face up. Keep the legs together and the arms against the body. Damn! Whatever he is, he sure looks like he’s been through the dominion of evil! Yes, that’s good. Fine. Make sure the arms don’t drop off or out and let’s get him aboard as quickly as possible. I can see some respiration, although I look at the rest of him and I can’t understand why. I don’t have to know anything at all about his species to know that there’s no rational reason in the world why he isn’t deader than a stone!”
It took about ten minutes to get the new find aboard and below and another ten or fifteen minutes before the doctor came back up to the bridge. “There’s very little I can do except lay him out and hope for the best,” she told the captain. “Anything I do may finish him-if he doesn’t die beforehand anyway. There’s been some loss of blood from all those gashes and tears, impossible to tell how much, and probably some broken bones, although I can’t say without a full scan, which I can’t do here. The gash in his head is particularly deep and nasty, and there’s some swelling in the skull. If we’re going to try and save him, we have to get him into a high-tech facility, and fast. There is no such thing as fast enough.”
The captain thought a moment. “We could make Mowry in less than an hour and a half. That would activate your onboard equipment.”
“Yes, but it might not be nearly enough. I need data. What good is a full scan and examination if I don’t know how much blood and fluid he needs or its composition? In order to fix him, I have to know his definition of ‘normal.’ That means a land hospital.”
The captain thought a moment. “All right. The fact that we have a survivor who is of no race known in the region is worth a risk. If we get up full steam, I can get us into Deslak in …” The mean-looking eyes went to the mate. “About three hours, sir,” the mate responded.
“That be good enough?”
The doctor sighed. “It will have to do. He’s likely to die before we get there, but the gods only know how he managed to live this long. Maybe his will to live is so strong, he’ll make it.”
“Very well. Notify the company we are rushing an injured survivor to Agon and will be off station for eight hours,” the captain said to the bridge staff. “Order the engine room to get up full steam and proceed to Deslak at flank speed as soon as practical.”
“Aye, sir. Um-sir? What about the distress signal?”
The captain froze for a second. “Oh, yes. Totally forgot about that. Let me think … All right, head for them now. Do as quick a shore recon and pickup as you can. If nobody’s there, don’t hunt for them, but if there is another survivor there, they might even know who or what this fellow below is and what he was doing out here. At the very least, they’d have to be taken in somewhere, anyway.”
“Captain, I really think we ought to head for Deslak straight away,” the doctor protested.
The captain gave a clicking sound that was more or less the equivalent of a sigh. “Doctor, I appreciate your concern, but he probably won’t survive to get there anyway, and if he does, he does. He’s held out this long. Another half hour to perhaps save somebody else probably isn’t going to make a whole lot of difference.”
On the beach, the girl had woken with the coming of dawn. With the morning light, she had lost some of her fear and was beginning to wonder what to do next.
It was strange how clearly she could think and see things yet know so little about herself or much else. There were a lot of terms that meant nothing, a lot of concepts that seemed more confusing than clear, and absolutely nothing at all to anchor her own self upon. She did know that as far as she could tell from the thoughts she could intercept, she seemed to be the only one of her kind. The storm itself took her by surprise; she didn’t run from it but rather was fascinated by it. All that energy, all that sound and fury and noise and light, and all that rain.
The rain in particular fascinated her. Not that it fell in such great quantities but that it seemed unable to quite touch her. It was like she had some kind of second invisible skin that was keeping her and even her hair dry. She could feel it as a series of constant pulses against her skin, but it didn’t penetrate. With a little effort she could see it, a thin and transparent layer of energy that gave off a vague lavender glow. She reached out her hands and cupped them, and the glow receded to the wrists, allowing the torrent to strike and quickly overfill her hands. The force of the rain and its weight startled her, and the glow quickly shot back around the hands once more.
They couldn’t do that, those creatures out there. None of them could. She didn’t know that as much as sense it through the mind’s eyes of the unlucky sailors who had to be on deck awash in wind and rain and crashing waves. It wasn’t merely that they didn’t want to have it; they simply didn’t. That was clear. So whoever and whatever she was, she had powers they did not. She was not, however, so naive as to think that those powers would give her more than a slight advantage over the rest in some situations. They could hurt her, even kill her, if they wanted to do so.
That knowledge brought things right back to the start once again. What was she to do? Run into the forest here, hope that there was enough to eat and live on, and remain here alone, one of a kind? That didn’t seem very appealing. But what would those creatures out there do if they found her? Would they take her to more of her own kind, or would they put her in a cage or, perhaps, eat her? It was impossible to get a handle on that because they really didn’t know she was here and didn’t seem to have any concept of her kind in their heads. It was lack of knowledge of the world out there that was so disturbing. Surely she must have a past. Those terms which kept popping up in her mind now and then had to come from someplace. And yet, hard as she tried, there just was nothing there. The only thing she knew for sure was that she was here and that somewhere out there there was another, one of her kind yet not like her. She knew this not from memory, though, but because there was some kind of link between them, something she felt. She tried reaching out through that link, but what she got back was unintelligible, confusing, like a thick fog.
Yet, reaching out, there were a few such sensations she could decipher. Water … wetness, and something sharp and misshapen. Then something-some things-grabbing, moving the other out of the water, up onto one of the boats … There was suddenly no choice on the course of action she had to take. One way or the other she had to get on that boat. The other was the only link to any existence beyond what she now knew, the only other one of her own kind. For her own safety she could rely only on instinct and on the strange powers that came unbidden. Basic logic just wouldn’t work here; she didn’t know the rules. Best to go with feelings until she knew enough to make decisions on her own. They were coming for her now; the very boat on which the other had been taken was approaching, apparently drawn by the lights she’d triggered. She left her hiding place and went down toward the big box to meet them.
THE COLONEL OOZED INTO HIS TEMPORARY HEADQUARTERS ON the patrol dock and formed an eyestalk to better focus on his surroundings. It looked quite empty. “Come! Come! Gus! I know you are here!” he said rather casually. When there was no immediate response, his irritation was clear in his tone. “What would you like me to do? Send off a report to Dahir that they should come and pick you up?”
“If you were gonna do that, you’da done it by now,” responded a deep growl of a voice behind the Leeming.
“Ah! What a talent! If I only had such as you back home in Sao Paulo! There would have been no secret closed to us!”
“I was in the news business,” Gus reminded him. “Maybe it’s you who wouldn’t have had no secrets. All the stuff you did in them cells and damp basement rooms woulda been on the evening news. Now the only joy I have left in life is making you as paranoid as you probably made half of Sao Paulo.”
“Ah, my friend! How many times do I have to remind you that my country was a democracy?”
“Not in your version of the good old days,” Gus responded. He didn’t like the colonel very much, and he knew the colonel didn’t much care for him, either, but at the moment they needed each other. “Any news? We’ve been wallowin’ here for too long now.”
“There was a major volcanic eruption on one of the islands a couple of days ago.”
“So? I understand that’s pretty old stuff.”
“Maybe. But it was in the very area we searched so long and so hard, my friend. On the very island where you were convinced they had to have been.” Gus was suddenly concerned. “That one? You think maybe they … 7’ “Who knows? If they are. it is the end of this part of the problem since this Brazil person would obviously not be an immortal and would certainly not be the man with the keys to the Well, now, would he? But if he is, and many people do believe he is, then, my friend, either he was not there or he would escape, no?” “But Terry-the girl! She’s no immortal!”
“That is true, and I understand your concern. She was a friend. Perhaps she lives, perhaps not. What would you do if you found her? Found her separated from the captain, I mean? I have heard of some odd couples in my time, but this is a bit much, I think.”
“It’s not like that! It wasn’t sexual. It was different than that.” “Indeed? And which planet are you from? I know where I was born and where I am now. Or perhaps you are a throwback to the days of romance and chivalry, to Platonic love and honor and duty and all that? Or were you honorably married and religiously faithful? Or perhaps it was she who was married?”
“No, she wasn’t married, and neither was I.”
“I can see why not! You might as well be a monk. Or did you perhaps not find women sexually attractive?”
“I wasn’t gay, if that’s what you mean, and I wasn’t no monk, neither. If you want to know, I didn’t want to make it with her because I thought it would spoil things. She was the closest thing I had to a best friend. We had what they call mutual respect, and she sure as hell had guts. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe we were both married. Not to other people but to the job, to the lifestyle. There wasn’t nothin’ neither of us wanted to do with our lives than what we was doin’. Both of us. If either of us had been willin’ to stop, I guess it mighta worked, but we was two of a kind, you might say. I guess you could say we shared the same lover, if you want to make it like that. No use beatin’ this horse anymore. If you don’t get it now, I could never make you understand it.”
‘To each his own,” the colonel responded. “I think perhaps that things are not so different here as they seem. Only back on Earth we all looked pretty much the same, so we thought of ourselves as one when really, our cultures and natures were as alien as, well, a Dahir and a Leeming. And perhaps, too, we change less here than we think we do, eh?” The colonel sighed. “Well, that is neither here nor there. The question is. What do we do next? Do we go back out and see if we can find anything in the aftermath of this, or do we wait and see what gets picked up?”
“I’m for going back out,” Gus replied without hesitation. “If either or both survived, then things got really stirred up, didn’t they? It might have spooked ‘em-and remember, they got the knack like me. If they don’t want to be seen, you can’t see ‘em. You can’t, but 7 can.” And that was precisely why the colonel needed Gus. For his part, though, Gus did not underestimate the colonel, who had managed to accumulate a whole hell of a lot of authority and rank, which implied trust, in a very short time on the Well World. That kind of man was dangerous in and of himself, but even more so when it was not at all clear to whom the man gave his loyalty.
The colonel considered Gus’s response, then said, “I think perhaps you are right, my friend. If I’d had a boat at my disposal, we would have left at the first reports, but they have a veritable armada out there, from patrol boats to scientific teams, and that left them thin in other areas.
There’s one due in for refueling and reprovisioning this afternoon, though. I think when it sails, you and I should be on it.”
The colonel’s question had bothered Gus more than he let on. What was he going to do if he found Terry? What sort of future did he have in mind, particularly considering the state she’d been in when he’d found her? Her only hope was the captain, and while he seemed like a decent enough guy, he didn’t seem to be all there in a number of ways. In a sense, his only real hope was the captain, too, since he sure couldn’t go back to Dahir and didn’t see much of a future anywhere else. In point of fact, until things had stalled, this business had been the most fun he’d had since he had arrived in this strange place.
They’d probably let Terry go. She wasn’t much good to anybody, but she wasn’t very good company as it was, either. But Brazil-that was a different story. At best, they’d lock him up and try to get enough guts to trust him on any deal he might make, or they’d march him into that whatever it was up north with guns pointing at his head. Not a good condition for granting favors, although Brazil always seemed confident that if he got in there, he could handle anything. Still, old Gus wasn’t one of the folks likely to be invited to the party, and Brazil would have a lot more on his mind than his brief acquaintance and shipmate.
Damn! he thought. Kinda like The Wizard of Oz, only you got to steal the wizard and carry him off, too. Yeah, and when they’d gotten to the wizard, he’d proved to be a fake, anyway. Wouldn’t that take the cake! All this crap and you get Brazil inside and he’s just another con man. Hell, the captain had even described himself as a con artist! Seemed damned proud of it, although where had it gotten him up to now?
As always, he’d have to just wing it. At least those two somehow had learned the same knack for not being noticed that was built into the Danir; they might be pretty damned hard to keep locked up. That was something of an advantage, although, as the colonel said, it wouldn’t take forever to get somebody else here, somebody native, who could see through the trick.
“Ship off the port bow!” the lookout cried. “Coming landward and at full speed! Looks like one of ours!”
“Make to approaching craft by signal lantern as soon as she’s in range,” the ship’s captain instructed. “Ask them for identification and the reason for coming in. They might have some problems. Nobody was due in for another thirty hours.”
The semaphore lantern was soon clicking away, and after an interval during which time the approaching craft had covered a good deal of distance toward them, the signalman read out the reply.
“Corvette Swiftwind Thunderer, carries two survivors, unknown species, one in critical condition.”
The colonel snapped to. “It’s them! I know it is them! Captain, tell them to approach and lay to next to us. My companion and I are going to board that ship and ride it back in.”
“Might not be who you’re looking for.” the officer pointed out. “It is. I will chance it anyway. Just give the order before they get so close that they pass us.” He paused a moment, then called, “Gus? You hear?” “I heard. Might as well see what they caught.”
The two corvettes were nearly identical, and when alongside they secured to one another with grappling hooks and lines, close enough that a metallic plank could be laid between them.
Watching the colonel move fast when he wanted to was an education. While he normally seemed to just ooze across the floor or deck, his great translucent blob now seemed to shrink, and then an object the size of a basketball extruded and fairly shot across the gangway. The rest of the body followed as if the whole were a rubber band that had been stretched and now was released. It was a bit harder for Gus, but his feet gave him a good grip on all but the smoothest surfaces, and he was able to leap the last meter or two.
“I’m here,” he told the colonel, who signaled for the two ships to disconnect. Captain Haash oozed down from the wheelhouse himself as soon as they were again under way. “What the blazes is all this about? And who are you?” he demanded to know. “I am Colonel Lunderman of the Royal Leeming Forces, currently assigned to South Zone Council duty. My orders and authority are at the patrol base at Deslak, if you have any doubts.”
Haash thought a moment. “Well, I doubt if you’d be on old Shibahld’s ship unless you were who you said. Still, can’t say as I can figure out if you’re comin’ or goin’.”
“Neither, Captain. I was headed out for another search for certain creatures wanted by the council. I am looking for two Glathrielians, and you have two unknowns from the right region. Am I correct?”
“Glathrielians? Never heard of ‘em. So that’s what they are!”
“Perhaps. If we can just see them? That is the only way to make sure.” “Sure. No problem. ‘We,’ you say? More’n one of you in that blob?” “He is referring to me, Captain,” Gus put in. Haash proved that a Macphee could move even faster than a Leeming-and up a bulkhead, too. Then the huge head peered back over, and two enormous but very human-looking eyes peered down. “Don’t do that to somebody like me! Don’t ever do that again! I’m likely to take your head off!”
Gus decided that it was the better part of discretion not to point out that the captain’s reaction had been not to fight but to flee. After all, it was his ship. “Sorry. Can’t help it. A defense mechanism that’s just built in. I couldn’t turn it off if I tried. You haven’t noticed this sort of thing with either of your survivors?” Gus was beginning to worry that they’d just blown it on a wild-goose chase.
“No! And from the looks of things it’s gonna be touch and go if one of ‘em don’t disappear into the grave.”
The colonel felt impatient. “May we just see them. Captain?”
“Infirmary below. At least the one that’s wracked up is there. The other one roams all over the place but generally stays out of the way. Anybody can point you the way.”
As they went below, led by a crewman, Gus wasn’t at all sure that he wanted it to be they. If it was Terry who was down there, near death … It was pretty clear, though, in the small infirmary that they hadn’t wasted any time at all and that Gus’s fears had not been realized, either. Hooked up to a forced breathing apparatus and submerged in a fluid tank that at least insulated the injured man from the effects of the sea was clearly a battered, bruised, and cut Nathan Brazil.
“Jeez! He looks awful! Gus noted, examining the man through the plastic casing. “What the hell did they do to him?”
The colonel, too, stared at the man floating in the tank. “He’s survived many weeks, probably with very little, on a tropical atoll.” he noted. “I doubt if he had a comb, razor, or medical kit. However, note the scars.”
“I’m trying not to,” Gus responded.
“Be observant! The scar tissue is brown but of roughly the same uniform age, shade, and thickness. The bruises and black and blue areas also look to be rather similar. This says that most of what, we see happened in a relatively short period of time. I think that Captain Brazil might very well have been on that island when it exploded and was somehow blown away with the debris. Strange … He seems, well, so much smaller, more frail-looking than I remembered him. I suppose, like many small men, his personality and energy are in inverse proportion to his real size and strength.”
A Mosicranz, looking something like an anemic and sickly angel to Gus, although with a more birdlike head, came into the room. “I am the doctor,” she told them. “I understand you know who and what this is.”
“He is a Glathrielian,” the colonel told her. “Not likely to be an extensive entry in your medical books, I fear. They are generally a very closed and primitive society and do not travel. This man was an exception to the rule.” “I can believe the primitive part,” the doctor responded. “The female seems to be totally ignorant of the simplest things, almost like a little child.” “She is not so badly hurt?” Gus asked anxiously. Predictably, the doctor started but recovered quickly. Clearly she’d seen that trick before.
“She’s not hurt at all. She apparently made it to a nearby island with a lifesaving chest and beacon and apparently triggered it by accident. That’s the only reason we knew she was there and picked her up. She seems very concerned about the male-they were mated, perhaps?”
“In a way,” Lunderman acknowledged. “Although I don’t think it was necessarily mutual. This man is quite sophisticated about things, while the girl seems about as primitive as you can get.”
“You knew them before, then?”
“Yes, indeed. We both did,” the colonel told her. “My companion goes back even further with the girl.”
“Is that so? Well, I’m afraid that might not count for much anymore,” the doctor told them.
“Why? Something happen?” Gus asked. “You said she wasn’t hurt!” “Not physically, no. But we Mosicranz are very good healers, sir, with our own set of inborn attributes. I am mildly telepathic. Only surface thoughts, no deep probes, but sufficient to read and respond. She, too, has this ability-to what depth I can’t say, although it appears to be very similar to mine. When I say she is like a child, I mean that literally. She has no memories at all before waking up on that island. None. She doesn’t know who she is, where she is, what she is, or how she got there. She is here only because she has a permanent connection of some sort to the male and sensed that even on the island. It is impossible to say where they were when the eruption took place, but I would think it was quite close. They became separated in the water. She made it to the island; he did not, struggling in the channel until he found a large tree floating there and managed to wrap himself in it. That is all deduction but is probably correct. He was so badly injured that it’s incredible he managed as much as he did. As for the female, there is no clear evidence of head trauma, so I can only suspect that the memory loss was due to either shock or internal concussion when the thing blew-literally a shaking of the brain inside the skull. I should like to examine her more thoroughly when we get to a high-tech port to see if there is any brain damage or internal hemorrhaging that I can’t now detect.”
“Huh? You mean she might really be hurt, after all?” Gus asked her. “Perhaps. I would have kept her here, but I had no knowledge of what she was, so sedation was out of the question. What dosage? Which drug? You see? And she’s not one to be kept lying down without forcible restraint.”
“Where is she now?” Gus asked her.
“Somewhere aft and almost certainly topside. She doesn’t like to be inside for long. But don’t expect too much from her. If she. is capable of vocalized speech, I haven’t been able to get anything out of her.”
“She is, but she may have forgotten how,” the Dahir replied. “Still, I’ll see what I can do. Maybe later you can act as a bridge for us and I’ll see if I can stir up anything in her memories.”
“That might be a very big help,” the doctor agreed. Gus went out to find Terry, leaving the colonel with the doctor.
“So, Doctor, what is your best guess, and I realize that it is only that, on this one?” he asked her.
“Frankly, I can’t understand how he’s still alive. Just looking at the external injuries, I can well imagine what is inside. If he lasts long enough, I hope to be able to do as much for him as possible, but frankly, unless he can somehow heal himself of mortal wounds, I would be shocked if he lasts more than a matter of days.”