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The ship’s onboard system was moaning to itself, dribbling sparks onto the twisted and buckled bridge deck, dying in agony.
By the glow of those blood red sparks and the faint emergency lights, Krinata Zavaronne could see a small puddle of her own red blood spreading to mix with the deep purple blood of the warm Dushau body she sprawled against. Dying.
No! Not dead yet! We survived the crash!
Driven by sharp urgency, she fought for consciousness, fastening on the nonhuman rhythm of Dushau breathing, groping for the scintillating thrill of the curious psychic resonance she'd once shared with two Dushau.
But her eyes drooped shut, and she slipped back into darkness, swept into what seemed only a dream.
Dazzling sand dunes marched away into the mauve-hazed distance. An unforgiving copper fireball of a sun beat from the bare magenta sky. A small metal sliver lay half buried in a large dune. She became every grain of sand in the desert. She was the metal sliver, and the sky and sun, air and sand, balanced in ecstasy, celebrating within herself, the perfection of the Celestial Artist.
Then, subtly, the vision changed.
Death baked the hollow sliver and the protoplasm within. The huge dune ached to swallow the sliver and heal the wound the foreign thing had made in it.
In the far distance a sinister dirty haze smeared the horizon. A vibration in the sands identified it even as vision expanded to encompass it: sandstorm.
But it was veering away from the metal sliver. The rage of the dune, which was herself yet separate from her, reached out and dragged the scouring menace toward the helpless sliver that was also herself, anticipating a vicious satisfaction, a healing triumph. For a moment she fed all her energies into the dune's effort to cleanse itself, and the hissing, seething wind that moved mountains swerved toward the sliver.
Within the turbulent wall of sand, a face appeared — a Dushau woman, young, elegant, bitterly hostile. The face withered with illness before her eyes, becoming suddenly familiar. It was the face she'd seen on the viewscreen as she'd fired on the Emperor's flagship, Desdinda's face, come to life to wreak her sworn vengeance.
Krinata squirmed and wrenched and beat to free herself of the nightmare, pursued by the rising howl of the anguished winds, a howl of betrayal. "How could you!"
The keening wail of storm faded to the electronic sound of the ship electronic agony.
She put one hand to her forehead and found a bruised slash. Head injury. That explains it. The helpless fear and rage had nothing to do with her real self. Already the details of the nightmare were gone.
She wiped blood from one eyelid and focused her eyes on the whirling kaleidoscope of colored shapes — the bridge monitor displays and control stations of Ephemeral Truth. It all began to come back to her. They had outraced the Allegiancy Empire's Squadron, found this system, and crash landed the orbit-only ship. And we made it!
She pulled herself up, holding her breath against the pain in head and ribs, and found the bleeding gash on her arm. Gripping the pressure point of her left elbow with her right thumb, she twisted free of the torn crash webbing — meant only for Cassrians, not strong enough to hold a human — and staggered to the mangled console that had been her station during their mad flight across the galaxy.
The answer to her inquiry about this planet was still etched faintly into the screen, mocking her. THE DUSHAU OLIAT TEAM, RAICHMAT, DECLARES FOURTH PLANET OF XB333291MS NOT FIT FOR HABITATION, COMMERCIAL EXPLOITATION, OR DOME COLONIES. SYSTEM FILE CLOSED.
Clinging to the warped edge of the console, she turned to look at the only other person on the bridge, Jindigar. He had lied; this was no safe haven. He'd surely known that. Centuries ago he'd been a member of Raichmat, the exploring team that had evaluated the planet. But he had told Krinata the planet was marginally habitable and had never been reported because it was not commercially useful. So, according to Jindigar, this official record did not even exist.
As the shock of betrayal swept through her, she had to fight off a dizzy wave of déjà vu.
The system's wails became barely articulate pleas for relief. It was a Sentient, a half-protoplasmic brain plugged into the ship's circuits. He had named himself Arlai, and had been her friend. But clearly they'd never repair him now. Tears in her eyes, Krinata turned to tug loose Arlai's power cable. Put him out of his misery.
The blood on her hands made her grip slippery, and as she struggled to perform the act of mercy, she didn't hear Jindigar gain his feet. She gasped as his warm, finely napped skin brushed her. He gripped her wrist with his seven fingered, nailless hand, stopping her. "Not yet," he said.
She desisted. It was his ship, and Arlai his oldest friend.
Limping, blood flowing from a ragged hole in his thigh, Jindigar climbed the tilted deck to the astrogator's station, which he had been covering for their dive into atmosphere. In a velvety voice as midnight-deep as his eyes, he crooned to his ship as he worked the controls. "Arlai, I'm sorry. You did your best. I must ask one last service, then I'll give you peace. Please — we must know."
Through his agony the computer responded, "Serving."
"Thank you, Arlai. Can you show me your previous display — the one just before we entered atmosphere?"
"This is the best I can do. Too many circuits out."
The screen before Jindigar flashed. Krinata scrambled up the canted deck to look around the tall Dushau's elbow. Despite the blurs on the screen, she identified the stellar array that had been on their rear viewscreen for days. But near the edge of one blur there was a new symbol — a massive hyperdrive trace — the Allegiancy Squadron.
"We didn't outrun them!" she groaned. A single ship had traced them as they fled the Emperor's flagship and had called the Squadron in on them. They had crossed the galaxy in short dashes to elude the Squadron and had finally lost them just before entering this system.
But they'd known the Squadron would search every nearby system for any trace of them. So they had voted to try to land the orbit-to-orbit vessel. Arlai had insisted he could get the ship and its cargo of colonization materials down safely, though Ephemeral Truth would never make orbit again. When she accused Arlai of volunteering for a suicide mission, he had pointed out that he'd meet a worse end left helpless in orbit.
Arlai had planned for his passengers to take to the landers while Arlai brought the ship in empty, but while they were loading, Jindigar had suddenly called them to strap in and had Arlai take the ship down immediately.
Krinata had been searching the planet for a good site for their colony when she'd found the official report on the planet. Before that, she'd only studied Arlai's other files on the place, coded under the name Phanphihy, confirming Jindigar's statements.
If Jindigar had lied to her, if she'd been wrong about him, it was way too late to change her mind. The crimes against the Allegiancy Empire they had committed together had already condemned her to be executed with him.
"Arlai," whispered Jindigar, "can you show us any sort of scan of this planetary system?"
"Atmosphere distorts, and — "
"Anything, Arlai," begged Jindigar.
The monitor cleared and another view sketched across it, one corner of the screen whited out by the planet's sun, for they were on the dayside. The rest was a blurring haze that shifted as Arlai struggled to find functional sensors and circuits. But the hyperdrive trace still showed clearly at the bottom of the screen. "Jindigar," said Arlai, "I'm sure. The Squadron is still there — and I think they're changing course in this direction." Numbers appeared on the screen. "There's the data. You'll have to plot it. I can't."
Jindigar's head drooped as he leaned on stiffened arms, a very human posture of dejection. "They will search every asteroid in this system until they find us."
"Their instruments will find this ship," she agreed, "but I doubt if they have anything that can locate thirty-one protoplasmic beings on a planet this size."
Arlai interjected, "Eighteen living protoplasmic beings — that I can discern. So many sensories out. . . ."
"If it was a livable planet, we'd have a chance," she accused bitterly, grieving for the dead she'd hardly known.
Jindigar twisted his head to focus his midnight eyes on her. The Dushau face was so humanoid, despite its short nap of dark indigo, large midnight eyes, and nearly bridgeless nose, that she believed she could read his expression: excitement and a revivification her words had given him.
"Of course it's livable. I told you that!"
She pointed to the other screen that still held the faint impression of the Raichmat team's report. She knew how those reports were generated because that had been her job. His eyes held hers from a bare handspan away, and his voice was penetratingly honest, as he said, "That record is in error. We will lose ourselves on this planet until the Squadron leaves, and then we'll be able to live here."
She knew how those records were made and how ships' Sentients accessed the master files. There was no way the record could be wrong — unless a Dushau had lied, just as the Emperor had accused them of doing. A chill shook her. She had defended the Dushau, sure in her heart the Emperor had persecuted them unjustly. If she had been wrong. . . .
She was about to ask Jindigar how he knew the record was in error, when Arlai groaned and his screen went into a pyrotechnic whirl. Jindigar said compassionately, "Easy now, Arlai, it's all over. You've been the very best, and we'll never forget you." As he spoke he moved to the cables Krinata had been struggling with, cables exposed by the sprung seams of the cabinets. "Krinata, help me!"
She gripped, and together they terminated the computer's agony. His last intelligible words hung in the air. "I'm sorry, Jindigar. You were so good to me, and I failed you."
Tears sprang to Krinata's eyes as she remembered all the times she'd felt that she'd failed Jindigar's trust and had been driven to find unsuspected reserves within herself. She couldn't have been wrong about Jindigar.
She sighed as the last of the echoes died away. "Oh, Arlai, I'm so sorry."
"In a way it's for the best. Arlai would have gone mad left alone here while we hide in the hills. He couldn't just turn himself off, you know."
Dushau feared insanity almost more than death. Krinata wiped at a tear. "I know." She'd often wondered if Arlai had been Jindigar's only real friend for the last three thousand years of the Dushau's incredibly long life.
But there was no time to mourn. "Only eighteen survivors," muttered Jindigar, surveying the dead bridge.
She moved her left hand to cover his where he still gripped the cable, needing to comfort him. Jindigar caught her arm, examining the bleeding. "Here, let's tend that," he said, and noticed the blood on her face. He fumbled for a handlight. "Hold still." He shined it in her eyes, searching for signs of concussion.
She squinted against the ultrabright Dushauni light, protesting, "I'm all right."
"It seems so," he answered, setting the light aside as he reached into an upper cabinet and took down the first aid kit.
In the hours that followed, Jindigar's pragmatic, one step at a time way of dealing with the emergency got them all over the shock and into motion. Injuries were bandaged, roll call and inventory taken, and the bodies respectfully gathered and laid out, as if it were all routine.
But Krinata saw his face in the unguarded moment after they found the seven dead Dushau in the nearly crushed cargo hold above the landers' docking bay. With a lifespan of well over ten thousand years, death by accident was different for Dushau than for ephemerals. The death of a friend close for thousands of years could be a paralyzing blow. She, alone, saw how shattered Jindigar was by the seven deaths, and knowing more of what he'd just been through, she alone marveled at his regained composure. He'd pay a price for that stoicism.
Soon after that they assembled outside the ship in the desert afternoon sun to plan their next moves.
Only eighteen survivors gathered in the shade of the half buried hull of the Ephemeral Truth. The ship's nose was buried deep in a sand dune, the tail stretching out farther than Krinata would care to walk in the loose sand. The bottom of the hull had crumpled, but even so, the ship rose many times Krinata's height. Around them, white sand dunes showed ripples from the action of ferocious winds, and no hint of vegetation as far as the eye could scan. The sky was a vivid magenta behind the blinding copper sun. A pale rosy peach moon hung near the horizon.
Krinata folded her ankle length desert cloak around her. She'd never been to such a place, yet it was oddly familiar. Seized with inexplicable anxiety, she found herself searching the horizon for she knew not what. Lots of habitable planets have places like this, she told herself, trying to be the professional ecologist she'd trained to be. They're vital to the biosphere and shape the weather. The sourceless anxiety receded, and she told herself it had been mere rational terror at being marooned, a quarry at bay who'd just found she'd been lied to by the only one she trusted.
Using all the discipline learned during the last few months' adventures, she refused to think about the dead and considered the survivors and their possible choices.
None of the eighteen were of desert species. There was the small family of Cassrians, two adults and three nearly grown children, as tall as Krinata but wasp-slender. They had their heat repelling desert cloaks drawn tight around their dark exoskeletons. The male, Trassle, was a fair space pilot, a shrewd businessman, and quick in an emergency. The children were well controlled and responsible. The three of them had taken over the care of the ship's two mascots, a mated pair of piols. But the male piol, Imp, had not been seen since the crash. Now the children consoled Rita, the female piol, who was busily trying to shred the hems of the children's desert cloaks with her long fishing claws.
Next to the Cassrians, squatting on the soft sand, were the four Lehiroh men. So humanoid you could mistake them for a Terran race at first glance, they had vastly different organs, could eat substances humans could not, and could tolerate radiation exposures fatal to a human. They were professional explorers who worked with the Dushau Oliat teams, the ecology specialists like Jindigar. Their young bride, Bell, had been among the dead. Krinata wondered if they'd be too grief stricken to function.
The two Holot — a mated pair — huddled beneath two of the silvery desert cloaks so you couldn't see their six-limbed forms at all. They were warm-blooded, densely furred, and miserable in the unrelenting heat.
The other four survivors were humans, from Terran colonies much younger than Krinata's home world. Two men and two women, though Krinata wasn't sure if they were paired. They had hardly spoken to her since they'd come aboard. Such uncivilized pioneers had a much better chance of surviving here than Krinata did. And they were the only humans she'd ever know now. She had to make friends with them.
So she chose her place near them, seating herself with a glancing smile at the older woman. Last out of the ship were Jindigar, and the only other surviving Dushau, a male named Frey, whose nap was a lighter indigo than Jindigar's, indicating he was centuries younger.
Jindigar was dressed in the loose white shirt and baggy yellow trousers of standard desert wear. He wore his usual yellow turban, and on top of it perched a chittering piol, the male, Imp. Under one arm was a small, glittering square package, while in his other hand he carried a half eaten ration bar. Frey followed, pulling his silvery desert cloak about himself, and together they negotiated the flimsy, improvised emergency ramp. Jindigar seemed to bounce deliberately, as if absently enjoying the swaying footing while munching his ration bar, though his overall manner was uncharacteristically somber. Testing his wounded thigh?
The sun turned the Dushau a dark purple, the color of dense shadow. Frey's head was bandaged, but he had no trouble balancing.
At the bottom of the ramp Jindigar set the snuffling, wriggling piol down, and the animal scampered through the gathering to his mate, greeting the Cassrian children effusively. The children shouted to Jindigar and gathered the ship's two mascots into a tumbling heap.
Jindigar unfolded the package he was carrying and, with a flourish, threw a desert cloak carelessly around himself as he approached the group. "Storm," he called to one of the Lehiroh, "is the burial finished?"
"Yes. We took all thirteen bodies into the drive chamber and laid them out respectfully." He glanced at the others, grief in his eyes. "We took care of Bell, but we had no idea what to do for the others, if anything."
Jindigar scanned the group, and as he spoke, he revealed light blue teeth. "I believe we've all said our goodbyes privately. It seems fitting that Ephemeral Truth become their tomb and our monument to the Allegiancy Empire."
"Jindigar," said the older human woman, Viradel. "How can you set a monument to the Empire? The Empire's out to kill every Dushau loose in the galaxy, and every friend of a Dushau!" She looked around. They were all here because the Emperor had confiscated their homes and businesses and condemned them to death because at some time in the past, they had helped Jindigar or other Dushau.
Cutting off a rising mutter, the Cassrian male, Trassle, piped up in his reedy voice, trained to the single tones of standard speech, "The Empire's dead but doesn't know it yet. Dukes and Kings are still fighting each other for the throne, and I'll bet it's some Duke who's sent that Squadron after us to revenge the Emperor. They're not going to give up. Even if Ephemeral Truth could lift again, there's no place to go. This is no time to set monuments. Let's discuss how to lose ourselves on this planet before we're caught."
Jindigar knelt effortlessly, smoothing a spot of sand like an artist preparing a canvas. Then, as he spoke, he drew a map with deft strokes. "We're on the largest of the northern continents, but to the southwest quarter, with a formidable mountain range to the north. This is a desert valley, surrounded by wooded hills. The nearest edge of this desert is due east, which is the path the Allegiancy troops will search first once they locate Truth."
The Cassrian female, Allel, said, in her untrained, multi-toned voice, "If we'd left the bodies strewn about, maybe the Allegiancy would think we'd all died. After all, there were seven other Dushau, some pretty badly burned."
"That's disgusting!" spat Viradel, making the Cassrian recoil. But Krinata felt that the Cassrian's sense of decency had been overridden by desperation. After all, she was a Cassrian parent with young to protect, and Krinata had seen the ruthless savagery she was capable of in defense of her young. It had saved Krinata's and Jindigar's lives.
"Ugly," agreed the Lehiroh, Storm. "But it might have been worth a try if it had any chance of succeeding." He exchanged a silent glance with his co-husbands.
Jindigar cut in. "I doubt such a ruse would help now. When the Squadron locates Truth, they'll probably blast the ship because it was the instrument of our escape from the Emperor's flagship, and the home of a Sentient who could break Allegiancy law. They will probably assume Arlai left trap programs aboard and not even dare to search it."
Frey, the Dushau youth, shuddered, and Jindigar gave him a silent paternal look before continuing. When he tapped the map with one long finger, Krinata saw he'd embellished it with artistic curlicues to create a work of art while they argued. "We'll head northeast toward the foothills at the edge of the valley. Southeast of those foothills is a high plateau, and on the edge of the plateau should be a fertile area suitable for all our species. Distances? I don't know. Arlai-" He glanced toward the buckled and twisted hull of Truth, swallowed hard, and continued. "Arlai hadn't completed mapping, but I did see his scan of the area as we came down."
Charlie Gibson, who'd been elected second in command for the group's ground activities, asked, "Any idea how far to the edge of this sand?" The experienced colony manager who'd been elected leader had died in the crash.
"Oh," said Jindigar, turning from them. He gathered Frey's attention with a glance that prickled Krinata's skin, then bent to pick up a handful of sand and squint northeast as it sifted through his fingers. She watched avidly as the two Dushau made rapport with the place. For centuries Jindigar had worked in the Dushau explorer teams, the Oliat, honing that singular talent. And he was the best.
Recently she'd become Jindigar's debriefing officer, a Programming Ecologist responsible for certifying new worlds to be colonized. She had dreamed of going into the field as an Oliat Liaison Officer, helping to plant a new colony. Now she was living that dream — but without the full seven members of the Oliat team. They had only Jindigar and his young student, Frey.
Jindigar turned back to them, momentarily shrouded in the distracted air of his Oliat skills, and she yearned to join him and Frey in the odd triune consciousness they had shared to escape from the Emperor's flagship. But his indigo eyes were fixed on the distance as he said, "If we start now, we could reach the edge of this sand-sea by dawn. It's another day's hard march to water. The only problem is the windstorm that's brewing. There'll be some shelter from that at the edge of the desert."
"Isn't there enough energy in that storm to bury the ship?" asked Frey of his elder.
"Good observation," granted Jindigar. "Here, the ship is our only shelter from the blowing sand. But if we stay, we may not be able to dig out and get clear before the Imperials find us. If we start, we must forcemarch to the edge of the valley and climb to shelter before the storm hits." He glanced once more at the sky, brushing the last of the sand from his skin. "Does anyone want to sit here and wait for the Imperials?"
There was a general murmur of negatives, and Gibson stood up to say, "Come, if we're going to outrun that storm, we've got to hurry."
Jindigar sat staring at his map as everyone rose, breaking into groups and heading for the ramp. He added a finishing touch, then wiped the area clean and, with a few deft strokes, sketched a frolicking piol. To an objective observer he might seem untouched by tragedy, but Krinata sensed an undertone of anguish, and recalled how Imp, as a piol pup, had rescued Jindigar's spirits by just being alive.
Finally he rose and turned to go back inside while Krinata stared at the horizon that had captivated Jindigar's attention. Sandstorm?! Why did that send preternatural terror through her nerves? Shuddering, she scrambled to catch Jindigar, drawing him aside at the foot of the ramp.
"If the storm is that close," said Krinata softly, "why don't we make our triad again and push the storm aside?"
"I've told you, Krinata, you can't. You don't dare join us ever again. I should never have allowed it, even once."
"But I could do it. I know I could."
He summoned patience to reiterate wearily, "Desdinda died while trying to make a tetrad out of our triad, and she was insane at that moment. You took the brunt of the shock because you'd had absolutely no training — Frey was hurt so he can barely tolerate the duad now, and I — didn't get away unscathed, either. A triad is out of the question."
"We won't know that until we try it," argued Krinata, part of her acknowledging his expertise, but another part frightened enough of the sandstorm to try anything. She knew the danger. She'd seen Oliat members die when others of their team died. "We've all had time to heal-"
Jindigar interrupted her with a gesture and sighed. Frey had gone on into the ship, and the Cassrian children were chasing the piols up the ramp. He said, "This is no time to play games with your sanity. You're lucky your imagination isn't running wild during ordinary consciousness. Don't even think of experimenting with other states. I stand in awe of human mental pliability but even humans have limits."
She shook her finger at the horizon, a sense of outrage starting to build, as if her only chance at real life were being snatched away. "That sandstorm out there could scour the flesh from our bones. Isn't it worth a risk to save the group?"
"Krinata, I know you've never seen anything wrong with Inverting the Oliat function to affect the environment. But to us, it isn't to be done lightly. It's so dangerous, it's often better to accept death. Even if we could triad, I'd never consider influencing that storm's course. It's not the Oliat way to step onto a world and arbitrarily remake it to our convenience."
His words made complete sense. No decent ecologist would interfere with such large natural phenomena without the guidance of a complete Oliat. But, irrationally, her whole body yearned to battle that storm and subdue it. She put it down to her enchantment with the triad rapport. That one taste of the multicentered awareness told her how it could be to perceive the whole ecology of a world. That was what she'd been born to do. Any training, discipline, or purging she had to go through would be worth it.
Then an odd thought occurred to her. They're afraid to attempt a triad with me again!
Seeing her capitulate, Jindigar turned and climbed the ramp with the Holot, Storm, and the humans, leaving Krinata to follow.
The interior of the ship had heated to baking oven temperatures, hotter than the open shade. They found the three Lehiroh and Frey using cutting torches to open the side of the ship to let them pull their anti-grav sleds out. Long ago they'd loaded the colonizing equipment onto the sleds. A mass of less portable items had been stowed in the crushed and inaccessible cargo holds with the two-seater skybirds Truth carried. The orbital landers and the atmosphere skybirds were all useless now. So the only way to take the bare essentials with them was to pull the anti-grav sleds by hand.
Jindigar took up a cutting torch, only the set of his mouth betraying his distress at butchering his ship. Then they guided the sleds down the ramp made from the side of the ship, the Lehiroh instructing them in the use of the sled controls. Meanwhile, Jindigar left to return minutes later with a long, flat box Krinata instantly recognized, a Sentient’s core, which stored the essence of personality if not all peripheral memory of the artificial intelligence. Lovingly he inserted the box into a compartment in one of the sleds and then claimed that sled for his own.
At first Krinata couldn't imagine why he'd done it. Arlai couldn't be revived without a higher technology than they'd be able to rebuild. Then she thought again. In perhaps a thousand years they may have regained such capability, and Jindigar might well be here to use it. Arlai would wake again and to him it would seem no time had passed. Jindigar would not abandon a friend.
Minutes later they walked out of Ephemeral Truth and into the ankle-deep sands. She saw Jindigar caress the ship's skin as they passed through the opening. Then, out in the direct sun, Krinata pulled the hood of her cloak over her head. Though her hair was dark, her skin was fair. Despite months of exposure to high-actinic light, she could get the burn of her life in such a desert. And there would be no medical help for any longer term effects.
The padded sled harness fit her shoulders so she could lean into it, getting the massive but weightless sled into motion. The sled consisted of a thick platform housing its machinery, surrounded by a peg and rope fence set back from the edge to restrain the cargo, which was covered by tarpaulins of the heat repellent fabric used in their desert cloaks.
On each of the four sides of the sled was a covered control panel with one conspicuous lever, the brake. The brake levers on either side were down to keep the sled from drifting sideways. She'd have to be fast with the brake if she stopped or the mountain would float inexorably over her and into the sleds and people in front of her.
Jindigar had placed Frey and Storm at the rear, towing the sled loaded with water and indispensable supplies, certain they could keep the pace. They had only one sled to tow between them, so if something happened ahead of them, one of them would be free to help. The two piols chose to ride atop this sled, and Frey made them a small lean-to for shade.
It was past noon when they started, the hottest part of the day yet ahead. She slogged through the sand, turning her mind off, setting her body to endure. Jindigar said they'd make it, and everyone, even the Lehiroh, who were seasoned explorers, Oliat Outriders, believed him. She'd heard their leader, Storm, say that Jindigar hadn't survived thousands of years on strange planets by miscalling sandstorms.
As the afternoon wore on, she grew accustomed to the thumping of her canteen against her thigh, the abrading sand in every crease of her skin, the desiccating heat. She had been strengthened by the hard life she'd lived since she'd defied the Emperor to break Jindigar out of prison.
Gradually, without intending to, she began to move faster than those ahead of her, and rather than waste the momentum in the sled, she stepped out of line and passed them one by one, exchanging cordial words with everyone but Viradel, who looked her up and down as if Krinata were trying to show her up. The sun was perceptibly lower, beginning to blur behind a dirty haze gathering at the horizon, when Jindigar led them to the eastern trough of a huge dune that could provide some shade for a rest stop.
She was tiring. It was getting harder to ignore the places where she hurt, but she was approaching Jindigar, who was towing his sled far in the lead, setting a cautious pace, working his eyes from side to side searching the ground. The moon, off to their right, was riding higher. Sunset would not stop them.
She shivered in sudden dread of the desert night, and fought a growing sense of menace as if she were walking into a nightmare where, however hard she ran, she could not escape.
Just then Jindigar turned his head, saw her coming, and gave what could only be a warmly welcoming smile. Suddenly the smile flicked through alarm to anger. He shrugged out of his towing harness, leaving it to trail in the sand as his sled kept going on momentum, and waded to her sled, nailless fingers working the controls adroitly. In seconds he had slowed and turned her sled, inserting it at the center of the line next to his own, dragging her with it.
As he slipped back into his own harness he roared, "Are you trying to get yourself eaten alive by sandswimmers? I thought you were an ecologist!"
"Didn't you hear me state explicitly that no one should stray from the direct line of march?"
Jindigar never gave orders, he made statements. But she'd never seen him angered by someone who ignored one of his statements. "I got going so fast, I couldn't-"
"Trying to wear yourself out before the night's over?"
"Jindigar, nothing happened," she said reasonably.
"No? You miss walking yourself — and one sixteenth of our gear — into a traplair and you say nothing happened?"
Sandswimmer? Traplair? Tasting the words, she recognized them as generic terms for sorts of desert life she'd rather not meet on a dark night. She twisted to glance over her right shoulder at the strip of sand she would have walked on if Jindigar hadn't pulled her into the line. She saw no sign of any animal lurking beneath the sand surface, but if Jindigar said it was there, it was there. She shuddered, but the sense of menace had evaporated. Had she picked up some awareness from the duad Jindigar and Frey maintained? "Thank you, Jindigar. I'm sorry."
He studied her as they paced side by side, his anger evaporating. "Not really your fault. I expect too much of you." A troubled look crossed his dark indigo features. "I don't know why." Then he smiled, the warmth of welcome back again as he asked, in a softer tone, "Is your arm hurting?"
"It just aches, but I think the heal-jelly is working."
"Good," he replied. Then, as if he needed to rationalize his interest in her, he added, "I hope the others are doing as well. Serious infection could jeopardize our survival."
"And what about your thigh? This is a hike, not a mountain climb. My thighs are killing me!"
"The Dushau body handles infection a little better than the human," he replied.
That was the biggest understatement Krinata had heard in a long time. The Dushau were virtually immune to even the most virulent cross-species infections that had developed in the galaxy. "But you don't heal so very much faster, and you were bleeding even more than I was."
"I took a blood replacement accelerator, and the heal-jelly is working." He brought his ever-roving gaze to focus on her and said in a different tone, "Yes, it does hurt."
"I'm glad you admitted that. Maybe your thigh will tell you when us office workers could use a rest?"
"Soon. Right in the shadow of that big dune, there. The sand should be cool enough to sit on by now, and there are no lurkers waiting to eat us. Also, notice how the ridge of the dune runs right along our course? It will shelter the sleds from the wind so we won't have to chase them."
When they reached the dune and the entire marching column was in the shade, he glanced at her. "Ready?"
Before she knew what had happened, he had slipped out of his harness, ducked under his sled, and as it passed her by, he gave it a hefty shove. Only then did he notice she had not followed suit. "Need help? Here."
He paced with her, helping her worm her injured arm out of the harness. "I'll shove it for you," he offered. "Help me get the others unharnessed!"
He worked his way back along the line, shouting, "Get loose, let the sled pass over you, then give it a good push. It will come to rest about an hour straight on, and we'll pick them up after we rest!"
She helped others out of their harnesses, until they came to the trailing sled, pulled by Frey. "All right, Frey, let's get this thing stopped!" called Jindigar. It was the water sled, massive enough to pose a problem.
The young Dushau slipped out of the harness and turned to catch at the control panel on the leading edge, dancing back before the oncoming mass. He got his hand on the brake lever, but it would not move down. "It's stuck!" yelled Frey.
"Storm!" snapped Jindigar, throwing himself at one corner of the sled. "Drag it down!" And then to Frey, he called, "Take the other corner!"
Krinata took the middle of the front of the sled, held on, and let it drag her heels in the sand. The Lehiroh caught the rear corners, and as the mass dragged them toward the group of humans, the two men, Gibson and Fenwick, joined on the sides. The commotion excited the piols, who scampered from side to side and chittered happily, as if this were the grandest entertainment.
The sled stopped just short of the two exhausted Holot who'd slumped in their tracks without noticing the commotion.
"Our first equipment failure," said Jindigar, grimly eyeing the furred, six-limbed Holot while examining Krinata's arm. "Is it bleeding again?" With a medic's firm touch he pushed her sleeve back to poke at the bandage. "Looks all right. How does it feel?"
"Fine," she lied. She didn't think it would bleed.
Jindigar knelt beside the drooping Holot, who were blearily aware they'd almost been run over. Examining their eyes, one hand feeling each sweat-plastered pelt, he said, "You just need water. You'll be fine. You've done well so far, and it's going to be easier now that the sun's down."
For Jindigar, Krinata knew, the darkness would bring the greater hardship of near blindness. The intense desert light was dim to his perceptions, while the slightly higher gravity was his norm. She asked Frey, "Can you get at the water?"
"Yes." He attacked the shrouded cargo, the two piols peeping over the edge at him as he loosed tethers.
Gibson helped, saying, "My canteen went dry hours ago."
Krinata remembered her own canteen, which she'd barely touched. She gave it to Jindigar, who held it for the Holot female, Terab, who'd been a spaceship captain until she'd lost her license for helping Jindigar's son. Jindigar had financed her new start in life. She struggled to drink from the spout built for humanoid lips, then curbed her eagerness, shoving the canteen toward her mate. "He needs it more!"
Jindigar rose, pleased they'd revived enough to share the water. As he passed Krinata, heading for where Frey had the cargo exposed, he scolded, "You shouldn't have refrained. You could go down with heatstroke."
He's changed so since our escape! But she was too tired to be charitable. She followed him, complaining, "Why are you always thinking of the things that could happen to me? Haven't you learned I'm not so frail-"
He turned, desert cloak flying, indigo face unreadable. "I've worked on many worlds with human Outriders who competed with other species until they collapsed, endangering everyone. Experience is a harsh teacher. If I've wronged you- "
Abruptly it seemed to Krinata that he was using the group's welfare to rationalize his behavior, so he wouldn't have to admit how much he really cared for these ephemerals. It was unlike him. He'd defended his friendships with ephemerals before other Dushau. But after what he'd endured lately she couldn't blame him. "Forget it. I'll be more careful."
She bent to untangle the lashing cords, and Jindigar went to where the Cassrian family sat, cleaning sand out of the joints of their exoskeletons. He played with the piols, fed the smallest child, and cheered them by twittering in their own language. The father, Trassle, had once pulled Jindigar out of a fire, saving his life. Now he seemed to be concealing weakness and pain from his family — but not from Jindigar. He respects Trassle.
Later, she was leaning against the sled's cargo and drinking greedily when Jindigar paused to apologize. "I've been treating you as a patient because I perceive you as gravely injured. I failed to keep Desdinda out of our triad, so your injury is my responsibility. From your point of view, you took a risk to save us all — and succeeded, which is worth taking pride in. I suppose we're both right."
She stood up straight. "Does that mean you're going to give me another chance in the triad?"
"Krinata, that's impossible. For all the reasons-"
"Humans heal certain things more quickly than Dushau."
"Perhaps, but-" Storm called something to Jindigar, and he shouted back, "Coming!" He left, muttering, "We'll talk!"
She slumped down to the sand, propping her back against the sled, shoulders, hips and thighs aching. Jindigar had taken an awful risk letting a human into a triad, an Oliat subform used to train Oliat officers. No human had ever done that before. And in the end Krinata had done what no Dushau could ever do: she'd deliberately killed another Dushau who was linked to them all, having invaded their triad and made it a tetrad, a different Oliat subform. Did Jindigar feel he'd created a monster? How could she prove to him that he hadn't?
Her eye drifted to the shaded side of the dune where Frey was sitting munching rations, staring into space. On impulse — the kind of instant action Jindigar had praised in her, calling it a trait cultivated by those who studied Aliom, the philosophy behind the Oliat practices — she grabbed another ration bar and went to join Frey.
He glanced up in welcome and made a place for her beside him. "I wanted to talk to you," he said. Silence stretched until she asked what about, and he offered hesitantly, "We're zunre, you know."
"I've wanted to think of the three of us that way." Zunre, those bound to the same Oliat, were considered closer than blood relatives. "Only Jindigar doesn't accept me."
"But he does, and that's the problem. Krinata, do you understand why he mustn't? It isn't my place to say it, but I see you gravitating to Jindigar's company, and I see him fighting to protect himself and the Archive he carries, and — it's hard to watch your zunre hurting each other."
He's thinking of Desdinda too. She was zunre to us, if only for a moment. "I've never meant to hurt Jindigar — or any Dushau."
"You were there when Grisnilter promised Jindigar he could take the Archive from him and still work Oliat without the Archive interfering. Jindigar didn't believe it — Grisnilter knew nothing of Oliat dangers — but Jindigar took the Archive, anyway."
Krinata remembered the windowless bus in which they'd been prisoners. Grisnilter, the oldest Dushau she'd ever seen and a famous Historian, lay across the backseat of the bus, dying. Grisnilter had been custodian of a historical record, the Archive, a living memory impressed into his mind, and it would perish with his death if he couldn't impress it on another Dushau with the talent to become Historian.
"It hasn't given Jindigar any trouble," offered Krinata.
"Not until Desdinda's death," answered Frey. "He tries, but he can't hide it from me. He's erratically accessing the Archive, and he's frightened. It's a . . . a sacred trust. He mustn't mar that record, he mustn't become lost in it, he mustn't lose it behind grieving scars, and he mustn't die before he can pass it on to a Historian. Do you understand?"
"Dushau memory works differently from human." Krinata nodded. "You re-experience emotional pain every time you access a memory of something that happened before that pain was first experienced."
"Yes, and Jindigar was always very good at farfetching, despite his many scars and lack of Historian's training."
Farfetching was the eidetic recall of memories thousands of years past. The danger was to go episodic, to become lost in memory, a fatal form of insanity for a Dushau. Grisnilter had thought Jindigar immune to that — but he wasn't.
"Now he's afraid that his lack of training," continued Frey, "may cause him to betray a trust. Everything seems to evoke the Archive for him — even just talking to you."
"So that's why he won't attempt the triad again."
Frey shook his head. "Jindigar's been qualified to Center an Oliat longer than I've lived. I couldn't guess at all the factors he's considering when he says no. I'd never dare go against his judgment."
"Even when it may be impaired by his personal problems? Even when the survival of the whole group may depend on it? Frey, you're surely old enough to think for yourself!" She couldn't believe she'd just said that. "I didn't mean. . . ."
Frey laughed. "And you, zunre, are likewise old enough to think for yourself." He sobered. "Krinata, we may be zunre, but I don't wish to acquire ephemeral friends. I don't know on what grounds to appeal to you — professional, personal, or ethical. I can only beg — stay away from him."
"The group is too small to promise that, but I'll try not to hurt him." He should have told me. If Frey was right, that explained why none of her arguments affected Jindigar's decision. He didn't fear her infirmity, but his own, and his own was not aggravated by the Cassrians.
As the young Dushau gathered his canteen to rise, Jindigar mounted the dune to join them. "Storm's right," he called as he drew close, "there's no way to fix the brake on the water sled without tearing it apart. And there's no time for that." He surveyed the western horizon where the dirty pall was creeping higher into the magenta sky. "Frey?"
The youth's eyes flicked to Krinata, then fixed on the ground as he replied, "Yes, I've been studying the storm. We're not going to make it at this rate. But now that we're this far, there's nothing to do but try."
He said we could make it. Is Jindigar's judgment slipping?
"With the sun down we'll be able to pick up the pace," argued Jindigar.
"Jindigar," Krinata said, "a triad could read the situation better. Perhaps if we change course, the storm would only graze us? Or maybe we can find a closer shelter?"
Below them, the line of march was forming up under the Lehiroh's guidance. Frey offered, "It's your decision, of course, but if you judge the danger to the Archive from the storm greater than the danger from the triad, I'd be willing to attempt the triad with Krinata again. I think I might be able to hold it this time, and it would increase our range."
"What's changed your mind?" asked Jindigar.
"That storm frightens me more than Krinata does. I've never been in a sandstorm before."
"That's not it. That storm frightens me, too." As Jindigar compared Krinata and Frey, then gazed into the sunset, she wondered what she'd said to win Frey's confidence. Then Jindigar muttered, "Perhaps we should attempt a triad, though it may incapacitate Krinata."
"Jindigar," she pled, "just try it for a second or two. We have to get a glimpse of what's really out there. And I'm not as fragile as you think!"
The Lehiroh were coaxing the water sled back into the air and turning it so the rear end would now lead. Jindigar glanced down, then fixed his back to the scene, agreeing reluctantly. "Just for a second or two." He issued technical instructions to Frey, then gathered Krinata's eyes.
Presently she felt a wall enclosing the two Dushau, shutting her out. It dissolved and re-formed behind her, and then she lost touch with the sand dune, and the people below.
Boiling, raging, churning storm, a billion particles seething skyward, organized as a living being; the helpless, abandoned sliver of metal half swallowed by a dune; scattering of stick figures, glittering against the sand in artificial desert cloaks; line of massive lumps floating beside a long ridge; and beyond, slightly north of their course, the rising ground broken, scraggly bushes, a fan shape of dead bushes leading to the mouth of a dry wash whose sides were cave-riddled.
She was the sand, the wind, the struggling life, and it was all one, its oneness a painful beauty. She was also the storm, her anger rising at the escape of the sparkling parts of the sliver she needed to bury, to destroy. She looked out of the whirling chaos of storm, and she also watched herself looking out, undisturbed by four loci of perception. She saw her face, as if in a mirror, indigo against dirty magenta, bridgeless Dushau nose, hate filled indigo eyes, sickly white teeth — Desdinda's face. She was herself and hated Desdinda, and was Desdinda and hated the human intruder and Jindigar, the Aliom priest who had befouled an Archive with his Inversions. Destroy!
Krinata felt the ravening madness reaching out to shake the very sky, and everything in her defied it. Then, another presence was attracted by the turmoil, a sevenfold presence that stretched her brain and distorted her mind as if to rip her identity apart. She didn't hear herself scream.
A wide, meandering river approached a sheer cliff, and between its bend and the cliff, dirt roads cut across an area strewn with half finished foundations and piles of logs. On one side a stockade was going up, on the other, orbital landers were parked.
A subaudible hum shimmered through the scene, a growing vibration. She could feel everything in that settlement beginning to thrum to a complex rhythm, linking and affecting everything and everyone else. Her teeth, her bones, every nerve vibrated with increasing energy. She was being shaken apart from within as another Dushau woman's face formed. She was lovely, about the same coloring as Jindigar. As the vibration increased, her serene pleasure turned to recognition, shock, and then alarm.
Krinata, her heart stuttering as if she hadn't breathed in minutes, her bones aching with inaudible hot sound, saw through a screen of black dots Jindigar's face suffused with a naked pleasure that was embarrassing. Then everything went black. She never felt herself hit the sand.
When she came to, the sun had barely moved, and Storm was bending over Jindigar, who was muttering, "Darllanyu, darllanyu . . ." while Frey knelt over him arguing, "No, it's sunset, not dawn. Jindigar!"
She sat up, holding her breath, remembering Frey had been afraid that Jindigar could become lost in the Archive, episodic, disoriented beyond cure. That settlement they'd seen, must have been from the Archive. If he thought it was now dawn. . ..
Storm saw her clutching her pounding head. "Krinata!" He came to her. "What happened?"
"Not sure — some — ooohhh!" She hurt all over.
Jindigar, on his knees, shaking his head to clear it, saw her. "You-" he started. "Desdinda!"
"She's dead," Krinata reminded him insistently.
He got to his feet, drawing Frey with him, reassuring them both. "I know. Frey, don't you remember now!"
Bewildered, the younger Dushau said, "Remember what?"
"What Krinata did while we were unconscious after the crash!" He looked to Krinata as if normal people always remembered what they'd been doing while unconscious, and at her denial, prompted, "You linked us in triad, and Desdinda Inverted us and brought the storm down on Truth."
"Jindigar," repeated Krinata through the buzzing ache in her skull, "Desdinda is dead."
"Yes! I should have realized!" He gazed down at the three Lehiroh who were testing the water sled brake, but he wasn't seeing them. He was abstracted as pieces of a puzzle fell into place. "It's a Loop, of course."
Frey exclaimed, "You mean Desdinda is looping in Krinata!" He turned to her. "Oh, Krinata, I'm sorry!"
"It's only apparent," continued Jindigar, "when we link triad. I knew we never should have tried it!"
"Now wait a minute," protested Krinata, getting up despite the explosion of pain all over her body. "I seem to recall an image of a dry wash — and caves — a bit off our course to the north. Wouldn't it be a shorter trek to head-"
"I remember!" said Frey. "Jindigar, we can make it!"
"Yes, but, Krinata, you must understand. This loop is dangerous. A fragment of Desdinda's hatred resides in your mind like a flight of electrons trapped in a superconducting torus, or an endless loop recording. Whenever we tap you in triad, it's activated, Inverts us, and uses us to destroy ourselves."
She felt soiled. "Well, it didn't win this time. And it won't — ever — I promise."
He put one hand on her shoulder. "No, it won't win, zunre. I promise."
Then, in a whirl, they were pulling out, racing the storm again. They found their sleds drifting lazily, and Jindigar swiftly made the assignments, giving one to Shorwh, the eldest of the Cassrian children, when he insisted he was strong enough to spell his father at the task.
She slogged behind Jindigar's sled, contemplating this alien thing inside her, wondering what the cure would be. Revolted by the idea of being dominated by a malevolent spirit, she had to force herself to think about it, to formulate questions to ask Jindigar at the first chance. Knowing what it was, she could surely control it.
As the hours wore on she spent most of her energy ignoring the rough chafing of the straps of her harness where grit had sifted through her clothing. She'd bound her hair tightly on top of her head, but wisps escaped and plastered themselves to her sweating face. The explorer issue hiking boots she wore were full of sand again and seemed to weigh more than she did. There was a blister on her right heel that screamed with every step.
Angling north, Jindigar set a faster pace now that the cruel sun was down. He walked with his desert cloak thrown back and his head high, as if sniffing the wind, no sign in his stride that he was nearly blind and using the duad perceptions to guide them.
It was a race now, she told herself, banishing the image of the storm swerving and chasing them across the desert. Desdinda's rage was not hers, and would not dominate her.
The moon had passed zenith and begun its descent before Krinata stumbled for the first time. "I tripped on a rock!" she exclaimed as she regained her balance. "A rock!"
Jindigar glanced over at her and called, "Good. Watch your step now. We're coming to the edge of the valley." He had her pass that message back, and Krinata heard grumbling protests that it was too dark to watch anything.
Throughout the long night's march she battled the insidious voice of failure and helpless horror, which she now identified as her awareness of an inward festering sore, Desdinda. Every triumph left her more confident, until finally the attacks on her will, ceased. Jindigar didn't know everything about humans.
She was concentrating on keeping her numb legs going like pistons, telling her brain to ignore damage signals from her tortured feet, lungs, and chest, when a shadow covered the moon. She looked around to see it glowing dimly behind a haze about forty degrees above the horizon. They hadn't much time left. Shortly after that, Storm worked his way up the now elongated column of marchers speaking encouragingly to each one. The Lehiroh reached the front, panting, and paced along to exchange a few words with Jindigar. "I took Shorwh off the sled and had him drop back to march with Frey until I get back. I gave his sled back to Terab."
Terab, the Holot female, had been hardest hit by the heat of the day. If she collapsed, what would Jindigar do? Strap her to one of the sleds like cargo? They'd lose one of the sleds then, with no one to pull it.
"How is Viradel holding up?" asked Jindigar.
The Lehiroh drew closer to Jindigar and said, "Swearing luridly in nine languages and determined not to be shamed by Krinata. But I think she may have sustained some injury she hasn't mentioned."
"Who do you think will be the first to collapse?"
"Well, we're all right, of course, and the human males aren't in bad shape. The Holot are in the most physiological distress, but they've got spirit. The Cassrians have perked up since sundown. But the male, Trassle, is in difficulty."
Jindigar clamped a hand on Storm's near shoulder. "Not a good situation, I know."
"If this was an Oliat expedition, there'd be no problem! It's trying to drag a bunch of cityworms out of their lairs that's making it hard. We've already got enough breeze to rig the sails and ride out of here! They couldn't sail a dinghy in a reservoir!"
Jindigar laughed. "Don't look down on them. The whole purpose of exploration is to build more cities, so we can breed more cityworms, so we can explore more territory. You and I are as awkward in their territory as they are in ours. And by the time they learn to cope with ours, they'll have built a city in which we'll be awkward."
"Well, if they do, exploring the rest of this planet will take the rest of my life — if not yours!"
"We've got to win that life first, my friend. When you drop back, tell Frey I'm extremely pleased with him, but he should pay attention now to the wind. If we have to cut losses, we must save the water sled at all costs."
"I told him that before I came up here. But I'm praying we can hang on to Sled Four as well."
As Storm stepped out of line to wait for the end, Krinata realized their conversation had carried to her because a definite wind had arisen. At first it blew toward her, then, as they passed the end of another dune, it swirled around to come at her from behind, adding a gentle push to her sled. She had to walk faster to keep ahead of it.
Gradually the rocks became more prevalent. She had thought the footing impossible already, but now her pant legs caught in snarls of dead vegetation, adding bruises and scratches to her miseries. Her throat was on fire, and she could barely swallow, let alone speak, when Jindigar called to her, "Pass the word back, everyone should take a stimtab now, and drink well. The climb is just ahead."
We made it? Her fingers were clumsy at the belt pouch as she got out the precious energy capsule, and she spilled some of the irreplaceable water as she gulped it. But then she was able to pass the word back to Gibson, and she heard him hollering to the other humans strung out far behind. In moments they hit a gentle slope, and she had to pull the sled upward, at an awkward angle. Then Jindigar called, "Here we must set our sleds on tilt-climb!"
Fuzzily she remembered being shown how to do it, but not in the dark! Letting the harness go slack, she waited for the sled, then danced backward before it as she fumbled with the control cover. She ran numb fingers over the controls, and then, panicked, she called, "I can't do it!"
Jindigar dropped back, free of his sled, risking letting the wind take it away in order to help her. Two moves and he had the cover closed again, the sled now climbing obediently. "Gibson, can you set your sled on climb?" he called.
"I got it now. I passed the word back."
Then Jindigar was gone into the forward gloom, chasing his sled. Krinata squinted against the curtain of fine grit in the air. She had given up trying to keep it out of her mouth. Before long, her feet rolled on fist-sized rocks, a dry riverbed that felt like a highway after the sand.
When it was so dark she couldn't make out Jindigar's sled which was right ahead of her, his voice floated back on the whipping wind, "Time to break out the handlights!"
A tiny point of light flared to mark his place. He swung it in an arc to mark the path, and Krinata passed the signal back. He led them from side to side, over a fallen log swept down from some distant hilltop. The wind tore at them, their desert cloaks no protection. The sand abraded Krinata's face right through her face screen. Her whole body was raw, and she was about to give up when she smashed full tilt into Jindigar.
While she was still stunned, he stopped her sled next to his own, making it settle to the ground. "You can sit here!" he yelled over the roaring wind. Her light showed his face whitened by the sand powdering his indigo nap. His eyes were closed, the bulging eyeballs shrouded by opaque lids, but he moved as if he could see clearly as he helped Gibson stop his sled at an angle to hers, making a shelter. She rested as sleds accumulated and people huddled, exhausted. Then there was an ominous gap in the line of arrivals, and Jindigar took off into the murk, saying, "I'll be right back." His tone said he knew, through Frey, what had gone wrong.
Krinata forced her protesting legs to carry her after Jindigar. Walking into the wind was harder than pulling the sled with the wind. But it was downhill. Her feet slid out from under her, and she fetched up at the bottom of a slope. One of the Cassrians sprawled behind a sled, which was dragging him while Frey wrestled it to a halt.
"It's Trassle," Frey announced to Jindigar.
Storm freed the Cassrian of the harness as Krinata joined them. Jindigar swept his light over her, then bent to examine the stiff sectioned body as Frey said, "Cassrians don't have a central circulatory system, but he could be suffering a kind of circulatory collapse."
"Maybe it's just exhaustion," suggested Storm. "If we get him onto the sled, I can pull-"
Jindigar interrupted. "I've got everyone stopped near a place where we can climb to a cave. It's not the best choice, but we've got to try it while we have the strength."
"And before the storm hits," agreed Frey.
"It hasn't?!" asked Krinata.
"Not yet," warned Jindigar. "Frey, can you climb onto the cargo and make a place to tie Trassle securely?"
Handlight swinging from his belt, the young Dushau swarmed up the cargo heap as if he hadn't been hiking all day. Jindigar fashioned a rope cradle for the exoskeletal body, and the three men easily hoisted the Cassrian to the top.
Surveying the situation, Jindigar said, "Krinata, would you be willing to ride on top with Trassle in case he comes to? It may be a dangerous ride."
"I can do it," she replied.
Frey jumped down as if it were no height at all, and Krinata took a grip to climb, wondering where she'd get the strength. Jindigar said, "Let's pamper that arm of yours a bit. Here, I'll give you a boost."
He made a cradle of his two hands. She placed her boot gingerly, and his strength seemed limitless as he raised her until she could scramble aboard and secure herself beside the Cassrian. The three men maneuvered the sled up the slope, keeping it almost level. Another sled followed, and then they were all gathered in one place.
Allel, Trassle's mate, scrambled up beside Krinata, calling piteously to her mate in the Cassrians' multitoned speech. Krinata slid off the cargo and joined Jindigar, Frey, and the four Lehiroh beneath a forbidding cliff at the side of the river wash barely lit by their handlights. "I think we can get the sleds up there," said Storm, and the three other Lehiroh agreed. "But you've got to get the cityworms out of our way."
"I think they can climb it by themselves," said Jindigar. "What do you think, Krinata?"
"None of us are mountaineers, but do we have a choice?"
"No. We don't have time to make it to the next possible climb. Good thing we came north." Krinata didn't exult in being proven right.
Gibson joined them, asking, "Strategy council?"
"Could you climb that without help?" asked Jindigar.
"In daylight, and without this wind," allowed Gibson.
"Frey?" prompted Jindigar.
"I did something like it once, in snow. Does anybody know where we put the climbing gear?"
"Sled Four," answered Storm.
"On the bottom," added Jindigar. "But we've got enough rope loose for a few traverses of this thing."
"I can't make the height," admitted Frey, flashing his light upward. It was swallowed by murk.
Jindigar pried a rock loose from the wall before them and tossed it to Frey. "Here, try this."
Frey caught it, then held it between both hands. "Five or six times my height. Not too bad. Hey! Now I've got the cave! But will it be big enough for all of us?"
"We'll leave some of the gear outside for a barricade. Notice the wind, though. Sand won't bury that cave."
"I thought Dushau needed bright light to see," said Gibson, squinting up the cliff.
"We can't see as well as you can in this," answered Jindigar. "But Frey is learning to balance."
Before Gibson could pursue that, Frey said, "I'll get the rope. Give me a hand, Gibson?"
"Sure," answered the man, and he followed Frey.
"When Frey has the rope rigged, we'll have them climb it," said Storm. "Then we'll take the sleds up — a twenty-minute job. Allow an hour. Will we make it?"
"Maybe," answered Jindigar. "Just barely."
Moments later Frey was back, a heavy loop of rope over one shoulder and a bundle of lights slung from his waist. He tackled the cliff without hesitation, and until he was well over Krinata's head, he didn't even pause to consider hand and toeholds. Every so often he stopped to plant one of the lightsticks, or to use the butt of one to dig a hold. Then he was out of sight, and they waited, Jindigar narrating Frey's progress until the rope snaked down to dangle before them, and Jindigar said, "I think it's time to see if anyone has the ambition to go first."
Gibson replied, "I'll go see."
Krinata considered the increasing wobble in her legs. With every moment there was less chance she'd have the strength to make it. "I'll give it a try."
"I'm worried about that arm of yours," said Jindigar.
"I think it'll hold. Besides, I'm right handed."
She grabbed the rope, a large, padded climbing rope with knots evenly spaced along it. Jindigar secured a loop around her waist and gave her a boost. She braced her feet against the cliff, finding toeholds Frey had made, and for a few moments it was just like an exercise class. But then her general fatigue caught up to her, and next to the fifth light, she was once again caught in the down rushing suction of flagging will. She fought back as she'd learned to fight off Desdinda's attacks. She'd banish the ghost here and now.
Sweat ran into her eyes, stinging, and her hands became slippery. Once her feet swung free, and she clung to the rope listening to the sob of her breathing. If she let go, she'd be nearly cut in half by the safety rope around her waist. Then her foot found a crevice, and warm hands reached down to roll her onto a ledge.
"Good climb," said Frey. "Here comes Gibson."
Panting, she lay on the edge, looking down into occluded air. She could only see three lightsticks. The fourth was a mere blur, and there were nine or ten. "The storm's worse."
"It'll hit in less than an hour. I'm going back down as soon as Gibson gets here. Can you help him with the lines?"
"I'll do my best."
He sprawled prone at the edge of the cliff and pulled Gibson up. A quick exchange and the Dushau was over and down the rope as if it were a staircase. She used all her weight and all her remaining strength to help belay the rope as Viradel made the climb. The human woman lay panting, limp with exhaustion, until the male Holot joined them. Krinata couldn't imagine how the six-limbed Holot had climbed a rope, but he had. And he was strong enough to help others up and over the edge. So Krinata retreated to look for the cave. They were on a rocky slope dotted with scrub and small trees.
The bushes had stalks as thick around as her thigh, polished to a gleaming dark red surface. Picking her way beyond the bush, she confronted a solid wall of darkness. A few more strides and the dim lights and cries of the group were swallowed by the roaring dark. An irrational terror rose to a scream clogging her throat, and she turned and stumbled back through the wildly lashing branches to the edge of the cliff where the others worked.
Feeling like a silly child scared of the dark, she clung to the puddle of light where everyone leaned over the edge to watch the Lehiroh begin raising the sleds.
Krinata joined them. The four Lehiroh had stationed themselves along the rope at intervals, one foot braced against the cliff, the other wound into the rope, one hand free. With much shouting they got the first one into the air. Frey rode atop it, piloting it neatly.
He was on the edge of the sled nearest the cliff, so he could work the controls. A mooring line was looped around the taut vertical rope and passed from Lehiroh to Lehiroh as the sled rose. The ferocious wind pulled the sled this way and that, but Frey compensated while the Lehiroh played the sled like a large fish on a line. In minutes the sled landed a good distance from the edge, the only damage a loose tarp.
Fourteen times they repeated this performance, with much shouting, cheering, and congratulating, making it look easy. Frey and Jindigar took turns riding the sleds, Frey piloting the second to last sled with Trassle and Allel aboard. Jindigar, after some argument with Frey about risking his life and thus the Archive, had descended to bring up the sled with the malfunctioning controls, their water sled, insisting it was vital and that he was the best at this sort of maneuver.
Krinata couldn't tear herself from the cliff edge as the process began, even though her vantage point was downwind of the rope and she had to squint into the dense hail of sand just to make out the vague glow of the lightsticks.
The Lehiroh who had shouted confidently through the whole procedure were now as calm and quiet as a medical team in the midst of the most delicate part of an operation.
The sled, with Jindigar clinging to the long side, turned to the cliff, finally rose from the murk like a marine creature surfacing into the light. It was moving much slower than the others had and had drifted to the end of its tether downwind. Clinging with one hand, Jindigar was working the controls with singular concentration. Krinata fought that battle with him, her whole will focused on bringing him and the sled safely to them. She could see it there already in her imagination. Her yearning made the vision so real, she couldn't quite believe what she was watching.
Storm, stationed near the top of the rope, called authoritative directions to the Dushau, but his words were suddenly torn away by a roar as a wall of wind hit the river channel. As darkness engulfed them Krinata glimpsed the sled capsizing, the cargo dangling by the restraining ropes, Jindigar hanging from the side by one arm, the whole sled straining upward, pulling the mooring rope, the climbing rope, the four Lehiroh, and the tree to which the lines were secured upward and toward Krinata.
Then she was left in utter darkness, wind pressuring her like a giant wave, devouring her. Without thinking she reached out in a way she'd never been taught, groping for wider awareness. The triune consciousness she'd learned to treasure as well as fear bloomed within her, and instantly it lit with the vividness of her imagined vision — just as Jindigar had taught her to do when they'd Inverted their triad to escape from the Emperor's flagship — and she saw Jindigar on top of the sled, and the sled right side up on the ground beside her.
For long-drawn moments her image was the palest ghost of the reality she sensed, and time after time, a rush of despair weakened her. But each time, she caught herself up and redoubled the effort, her whole will behind it. They could not afford to lose Jindigar — they'd all die here. She was not going to let Desdinda's ghost rob her of Jindigar, or Jindigar of the good life he'd earned.
Suddenly resistance weakened, and she commanded the triad, forcing Frey to channel her vision and make it real. Her vision etched over reality and was solidifying when her guts churned with a gloating triumph. Desdinda!
In a fit of unthinking panic Krinata flung all her strength against the menace. To no avail. Frey, nerves afire, screaming pain, squirmed and fought the grip on him, reflexes slamming against her invasion. Krinata, determined, reached for Jindigar. Abruptly, something flipped inside out.
She tumbled into a black abyss, bright points streaming past, out of control, terror vanishing into numbness, just like the time she'd spun away from her tether in deep space. Phobic paralysis gripped her.
There was a warm weight on her chest, and a rough tongue licked her face. She smelled the odor of piol fur and felt the sharp prick of claws kneading her chest.
She was in a cool enclosure, a cave, lit only by the dancing orange flame of a campfire. The air was pungently moist with the aroma of soup. The roof was low. There was barely room for all the people curled, huddled, or sprawled on the sandy floor amid piles of cargo. Dim beige light filtered through cracks around the cargo piled at the entrance, but fingers of dry wind pried into the cave. Gusts produced an eerie, whining howl, above the constant dull roar.
Krinata's head hurt. The rest of her body seemed to have been chewed on by something with sharp teeth.
At last she gathered the strength to shove Imp aside. He promptly curled up by her left ear and began grooming her hair. She discovered she was lying on a sleeping bag. Then it all came back to her, and she levered herself up on one elbow, trying to sift reality from nightmare.
Jindigar was propped against the wall beside her right shoulder, a white bandage wrapped around his forehead like the turban he often wore, and his napped skin was mottled with darker indigo patches, bruises and abrasions. He assured her, "Yes, you're alive."
Relief was followed by awareness of a lonely, single feeling she'd suffered after the triad had been dissolved the first time, not the walled-away feeling that had come when Jindigar and Frey had joined to read this planet. So even the duad was gone. "Where's Frey? What happened?"
"He's finally asleep." He gestured to the other side of the fire. "I think he'll live."
His tone bespoke an ordeal she didn't dare ask about. Raising her head a bit, she could just see Frey's indigo head outlined against a bright sleeping bag liner. He was curled in a near fetal position, shuddering with each breath.
She looked back at Jindigar. "You're all right?"
"Banged my head when they finally fished the sled down."
"The triad — I shouldn't have — I nearly killed us. Or — Desdinda did. I only meant-"
"To help? I thought you understood that every time you balance triad, you evoke the Loop, and Desdinda died wanting nothing but to kill us all. That’s all that’s in that Loop." He hugged his knees and looked over them. "What do you remember after Desdinda hurled you into the Archive?"
"Is that what happened?" How could a ghost do that? She remembered the sled capsizing, a surge of heightened awareness as the triad bonded them, and a chance to right the sled — pain, Frey's pain, then horror. "I dreamed I was out in space again, falling away from Truth into the galaxy." There was a stray image, a pond and a huge, improbable figure.
"The ephemeral mind is amazing." There was a thread of his normal delight in that, but a pall hung over his spirit.
She tried to raise herself, but her vision blurred and pain seized her. Against the noise of the storm, and in the semi-privacy of the heaps of goods, their voices had gone unnoticed. But when Krinata's head poked up, Shorwh, the oldest of the Cassrian children, whistled. "She's awake!"
There was a stirring on the other side of the fire, and Storm came around, saying reproachfully, "Jindigar, you promised to call me when she woke."
"How's Terab?" asked Jindigar, starting to get up.
"She's fine. Sleeping," answered Storm, pushing him back down. "Sometimes I envy the Holot constitution more than the Dushau! Arlai would have you under sedation, you know." He turned to inspect Krinata's head.
She realized her skull was swathed in bandages and explored them with a finger. "What happened to my head?"
"You hit it when you fell."
Storm sported no bandages, and Krinata asked, "How did you get the sled down?"
"When Terab grabbed the tether rope and Jindigar got his weight shifted to the side, we flipped it back over easily enough, but it barely missed crushing Jindigar, hit the ground, and dragged all of us a good way before we could stop it. I'm afraid that sled is done for."
"I suggest," said Jindigar thoughtfully, "we leave it in the cave here. We might come back for spare parts one day."
Storm agreed, adding, "We won't be traveling today, and you should be better tomorrow. Now, we've got some soup over here that the humans said wasn't bad, and I've dug out some medication that should help you. Willing, Krinata?"
"Yeah, sure," she answered. As Storm rose to get it she asked, "What about Trassle?"
"Trassle . . . died," said Jindigar.
Her breath caught. The children! Trassle's spacemanship had saved their lives more than once. "Allel and her children?"
The Lehiroh wilted. "She seems to be in shock, and the rest of us are helping the children. They're trying to be brave, but . . . Trassle was a survivor. They'll make it."
When he'd gone, Jindigar said, "That's the highest compliment I've ever heard Storm pay to anyone not a licensed Outrider. And I agree. I'm going to miss Trassle, but — Allel — she married an officer with unlimited potential who was cashiered for an injury, then started a lucrative business, only to have it confiscated and their eldest son murdered by Imperials because they had a Dushau investor. She's been snatched from a safe life, dumped on a wild planet, and widowed. Cassrians mate for life, you know. They live for their children."
Jindigar buried his face in his hands. They were bandaged. "I've got to convince her she's not alone here. She'll come out of it for the sake of her children." He rolled to his feet, one hand against the wall, and moved carefully around to the Cassrian family as Storm brought Krinata the soup.
The food was good, and the medicine put her to sleep before Jindigar returned, so she couldn't ask how such a small group could survive alone on a marginal world. Certainly Jindigar knew it took more than seventeen to form a colony. Had he ever really used that word? Or was that only her impression of what he'd meant? She'd have to ask.
She slept away a day, and the following morning, she woke to find bright sunlight spearing through the chinks in the wall of cargo at the mouth of the cave. They dug themselves out. The fresh air smelled marvelous, for the searing heat of the desert had not yet developed. In the long shadows of early morning the arroyo below them was decorated with clean new sand drifts and freshly sandblasted rocks, some of which gleamed as if they had precious gems embedded in them.
The higher ground on which they stood was dotted with reddish-brown bushes covered with tiny russet and gold leaves. Her eyes seemed to be adjusting to the odd colored sunlight, making things seem normal.
The cliff that housed their cave meandered east, turning into slowly rising hills. The near ones seemed barren, but farther away, magenta, gold, and scarlet vegetation made an autumnal display that caught at the heart. "Jindigar, are you sure it's spring here?" she asked as he walked by.
He followed her gaze, staring wide-eyed into the rising sun as if it were the dimmest lightglobe, apparently calculating visual acuity ranges. "It must seem like fall to you. Will it bother you if the vegetation turns green in late summer? But I assure you, it is livable."
"I'm almost convinced of that, but-" He was called away before she could finish.
She helped prepare food for everyone and coaxed the children to eat. But nothing could hold Allel's attention long enough to convince her to eat.
It took all morning to repack the sleds. As Jindigar and the Lehiroh decided which items to leave behind, they all pitched in to hide the broken sled and a few crates that could not fit onto the other sleds.
Trassle was buried in a cairn at the front of the cave, disguised to look natural, and Allel had to be dragged away while Shorwh watched, clutching Imp to his chest. He had seen his older brother murdered, and now he'd buried his father.
As the Lehiroh were settling Allel and the younger children atop one of the sleds, Krinata took the piol from Shorwh and sat him down on a boulder. She talked to him about his siblings and his mother, until she got him to admit that he was afraid. Then she explained, "I don't know how it is with Cassrians, but human adults have to live with many fears. Sometimes it takes awhile and all our physical strength to overcome a new fear. It's especially bad when someone who's been part of our lives for many years is suddenly gone.
"You're talking about my mother."
"Yes, I guess so. It's terrible for you. It's even worse for her right now. We've got to take care of her. And we've got to take care of the children, to keep her from worrying about them, too. We're all going to help you."
He looked up at her. She was sure he'd grown even in the short time since they'd first met. "We've got to take care of the children," he concurred, accepting her judgment that he wasn't a child anymore. "But I don't know what to do for Mama. My father didn't tell me that." His voice went reedy and uncontrolled.
"Give her time," said Krinata. She handed Imp to him. "Or maybe Imp can help. Do you ever tell him your troubles?"
He gave her a sidelong glance, the sun sparkling off his dark exoskeleton. Then he looked down at the piol, seemingly embarrassed. "I didn't think humans knew about things like that. I guess I have a lot to learn?"
"Imp's very understanding. I've told him a lot of my problems that I couldn't talk to anyone about."
Oh, especially Jindigar! She sidestepped the issue. "Do you suppose your mama might be able to talk to Imp where she just can't talk to you?" He held the piol up to look him in the eye. The long furred limbs dangled down ridiculously, and the piol's tail flicked around for balance, but he wrinkled up his black nose, showing sharp teeth in a lopsided grin. "I will try."
When he'd gone, Krinata looked around for Jindigar and Frey, who'd recovered slowly but had not spoken to Krinata. Now there was no sign of either Dushau. The Lehiroh had formed them into a double line, for there would be no danger of being blown sideways today, and a more compact line was easier to defend. She found her sled near the middle of the line, next to Viradel's.
Krinata was checking the harness when a cold feeling came over her, as if a cloud had blocked the sun. But she was standing in warm sunlight. Probing inward, she found the feeling familiar, though more acute than ever. Frey and Jindigar had retempered their duad. Jindigar had warned her that they had to try it, but she must not attempt the triad or it might kill Frey.
"What's the matter?" asked Viradel sarcastically as she checked her sled. "They pack your sled too heavy?"
Krinata bristled. "I presume it's the same as it was."
"Oh. Too light, then," she muttered, and walked off.
Krinata straightened and stared after her, unbelieving. But there was nothing she could say. So, while the column was waiting for the two Holot to finish filling in the refuse pit, Krinata wandered to the front where the Lehiroh were hunkered down over a map scratched in the loose sand.
". . . we get in under those trees, it'll be cooler and we'll consume less water-" Storm looked up. "Krinata! Did Arlai set your watch for this planet, too?"
She looked at the field timepiece, strapped to her right wrist, and noticed that it stood at about noon, which was indeed local time. "It seems so." She blinked back a tear. She missed the Sentient. "Where's Jindigar?"
"They'll be back in a little, and-"
Just then the two Dushau came around an outcropping. "Krinata!" called Jindigar. "Would you gather everyone? I think we've found a good camping area."
Frey wouldn't meet her eyes. She nodded and went to gather everyone. Jindigar made it brief, giving them an idea of the route they'd follow. The duad had been able to discern a confluence of waterways ahead of them, tucked into a sheltered valley that teemed with enough life to mask the refugees from orbital sensors. But they had to cross two ridges to get there, and that would take a couple of days.
"One thing you must absorb now," finished Jindigar. "The life on this planet is organized into hives. The hive tends to be paranoid and territorial but not aggressive. If we stay clear of marked territories, we won't be attacked. So each of you must stay in line, follow the path we cut, and keep the pace. Straying could bring disaster. Don't experiment with fruits from the bushes we pass. Let Frey and I do the foraging. There's a great deal we can eat, but we mustn't compete with native creatures for the food."
With that, they got under way. The first few steps were an agony on Krinata's shoulders, but after the sled was moving and the kinks worked out of her stiffened muscles, she was able to unclench her teeth and ease her breathing.
As the day passed, the land rose steadily and began to show signs of abundant, if sporadic, water supply: dry washes with the scum of flood wrack plastered high on their sides, foliage that stored moisture, dormant plants, and insect and small animal life. But the breath of the desert followed them until near sundown, when a freshening breeze stirred the brittle bushes that had needlelike green leaves.
Viradel had refused all of Krinata's conversational gambits, taking her rest breaks with Gibson, Fenwick, and the other human woman, Adina. Krinata had sat alone, trying to come to terms with being a loner, but had only hatched a stronger determination to make at least some friends.
When they re-formed, Jindigar placed the sled carrying Allel, the younger Cassrian children, and the piols right behind Viradel, where Krinata could see it, and assigned Shorwh to pull it. "Keep an eye on him, Krinata, and let us know when he tires," said Jindigar with apparent effort. Though a wall shut her away from the duad, she felt Jindigar struggling with Frey's inability to hold to the duad.
Viradel said, "I'll take the youngster's sled, Jindigar. With riders like that — a child. . . ."
Jindigar's eyes closed as he summoned the strength to deal with the objection. Krinata said, "Jindigar knows Cassrians. The responsibility is probably good for Shorwh right now, and when he tires-"
"I didn't ask you!" spat Viradel.
Gibson had come to see what the fuss was and jumped into the argument. "You can trust Viradel, Jindigar-"
"I know," assured the Dushau. "Later, we'll shift again." Even those few words cost him a tremendous effort Viradel seemed not to notice. He went to murmur a few words to Frey and then take up his place at the head of the line beside Storm. Gibson calmed Viradel and left. Krinata spent the next several hours trying to find words to explain to Viradel that Jindigar was a proficient Emulator, capable of manifesting within himself the imperatives of many species.
When they finally entered the cover of taller, riotously colored trees, loaded with fruits and inhabited by busy flying creatures, Krinata commented to Viradel, "Jindigar said the green plants, like those over there, produce edible fruits." She pointed to a stand of trees with long, needlelike leaves and luscious yellow fruits.
Viradel looked around and muttered, "He did?"
The woods were relatively clear of underbrush, dead needles heaped in places as if a gardening team had been interrupted. "If we can camp here, Frey and Jindigar will pick our spot very carefully and maybe forage some fruit."
Viradel looked at her sharply and offered a woman to woman comment. "You toady to them too much. What you think it'll get you? Dushau make good business partners, but lousy friends, and worse bosses 'cause they can't care how we feel. Those two ain't an Oliat. They was wrong on the sandstorm, could be wrong on anything."
Viradel and her friends had transferred to Truth from another refugee ship and had not known Jindigar before. "I've never heard Jindigar issue an order," she protested.
"But he's controllin' what we do that oughta be decided by vote. Otherwise, you got a boss. If that's what them two wanna be, they ain't gonna share it with you. You oughta join the right side o' this, afore it's too late."
Side!? She knew Jindigar had no personal interest in how ephemerals governed themselves. "With the Squadron after us we can't discuss every decision. The Dushau and the Lehiroh are professionals weighing hundreds of factors-"
"We don't think as good as them? Where I come from, a person don't let nobody do their thinkin' for 'em."
Krinata gestured at the shade all around them now, as if it made her argument self-evident. "They found this for us."
"Yeh," Viradel agreed, surveying a stand of saplings surrounding a taller tree drooping under the weight of a crop of globular yellow fruit buried in gorgeous sprays of green needles. "And then he forbids us to touch anything! As if we had no wilderness sense. Now, where I was raised, fruit like that was fer pickin'! There's so much — we wouldn't be competin' with no animal-"
As Krinata took a routine glance at Shorwh she said, "But Jindigar knows what he's talking about!" Turning back to Viradel, she found her shrugging out of her harness, eyes fixed on the ripe fruit. "Viradel, no! Don't be a fool!" It came out as a command of Lady Zavaronne.
Viradel flashed her a defiant grin, and before Krinata could move, she darted to the saplings where she picked two of the fruits. She was back in line with her treasure, shrugging into her harness when a liquid, wailing ululation filled the peaceful woods. Oonnoolloolloolloolllloooo! Krinata heard a thud and whirled to see a creature on top of Shorwh's sled. It was a bipedal, brown hairy ape with an extra joint in each arm and leg. Its most splendid feature was a pair of gleaming black horns growing from its forehead over its skull. Its tail was curled up over its back and hooked around the horns as it stood on top of the sled and issued a splashing stream of yellow urine toward Allel and the children who huddled, clutching the piols.
Krinata yelled, "Shorwh, get out of your harness!" She smacked the brake on her own sled. Turning to comply, Shorwh saw the creature and froze. The sled plowed straight over him, and at the last second Shorwh had to dive under it. It bobbed with the weight of the creature, almost flattening Shorwh. The beast emitted another Onnoolloo! and bent to rip at the cargo tarp with its horns.
Krinata threw herself flat to fish Shorwh out from under the dangerously low sled while Viradel went for the sled's controls. She got Shorwh clear just in time to see the creature, frustrated by the tough fabric, stomping and hopping about chasing after the two Cassrian children. Both piols leapt at the creature's back and, clinging to its horns, began savaging its eyes with their long fishing claws.
Simultaneously Allel came out of her stupor. Her children were threatened. She gave a piercing cry and leapt at the animal, almost knocking it and herself over the side of the sled. But the thing recovered, cried out again, and swatted Allel so hard, she was pitched through the air to land hard on the flat ground.
Shorwh screeched and ran to his mother. Krinata watched in horror as the creature captured both the smaller children, who were screaming piteously. Without even knowing what she was doing, she reached, as she had during the sandstorm, and found the triad accommodating around her.
For an instant she saw the battle through Jindigar's eyes: a hive-ripper, challenged by a hive-swarm passing through his territory, was simply demonstrating his authority, while incidentally picking up a meal.
Jindigar's hand came down firmly on her shoulder. "No!" She felt Frey, nerves screaming, struggling to be free of her. Stricken, she tried to tell Jindigar, I don't know how to get out!
"Let me!" His bulging, swirling indigo eyes loomed, and she felt the wall intruding between them again. She curled in on herself and tried to shut off the horrible sounds, the seductive awareness.
As Frey and the Lehiroh gathered, Jindigar wound his fingers into the sled's guy ropes and shook mightily, his voice going up in a perfect rendition of the creature's howl. The thing hugged the two children to its chest, shook off the piols, and leapt down directly between Jindigar and the still form of Allel. Shorwh flung himself over his mother.
The animal kicked Shorwh aside, shifted the two small children to one arm, and grabbed up the unconscious Allel. Her stiff-jointed exoskeleton made her an awkward burden.
Jindigar retreated, drawing the animal away from Shorwh and toward Frey, emitting low llooollooo sounds. The thing followed Jindigar as if hypnotized, though showing no signs of letting his prizes go. Viradel tackled the creature, as if to pull its feet out from under it.
Surprised, the hive-ripper swiveled in midair and thumped to the ground in a sitting position, still almost as tall as Krinata, and maddened. Viradel rained blows about the creature's head, screaming, "Let 'em loose!"
The hive-ripper leaned back on his tail, kicked Viradel, and used Allel as a ram to knock Viradel backward. Then he was on his feet and heading for the largest tree in sight.
Only then did he realize he couldn't climb with both hands full. Casually he tossed the two children aside and flung Allel over his shoulder. In a flash of brown and green he disappeared.
Jindigar attacked Krinata's sled cargo with both hands, loosing the guy ropes and the tarp to flip open the sides of a crate, revealing slender stunner rods, which he seized and tossed to the Lehiroh. Without a word, the four Lehiroh and Frey took off after the creature.
Dusk was gathering swiftly now, and Jindigar announced, "We can't camp here. It would only invite another attack. We can find a flat spot behind that ridge over there, and it should be safe for the night. But there must be no foraging, and no fire to disturb the animals."
"We need fire for safety," protested Gibson, and there was a murmur of agreement.
"We need darkness for safety," corrected Jindigar. "Anything that glows will be savagely attacked in this part of the wood, and we can't make it beyond in the remaining light. I think you've all seen how important it is for us to humor the locals. Viradel's mistake in picking that fruit may have cost us dearly." He never referred to the incident again, but later Krinata overheard Viradel confessing to Gibson that she did feel guilty, though she blamed Jindigar for not explaining his reasons for proscribing foraging.
Krinata jumped into the overheard conversation, to defend Jindigar: "Because he didn't know why we shouldn't forage! He's only got Frey to help him, not an Oliat. He didn't know about the hive-ripper until he actually saw it."
"And how do you know?" challenged Adina, the woman Krinata had never exchanged a word with.
"She's just making that up," claimed Gibson. "Jindigar was practically talking its own language to it. He's been on this planet before!"
"Jindigar was just imitating the creature's call. He's expert at that — it's an Oliat skill, Emulator!"
"If Viradel hadn't o' hit it," said Fenwick, "maybe-"
"Viradel was very courageous," Krinata interrupted him. "She did her best to save the children."
"If anyone, blame Jindigar," suggested Fenwick. "If I had my way, we wouldn't even be in this woods."
She turned and left them to their wrangling. The exchange had left a bad taste in her mouth and a guilt in the pit of her stomach. Perhaps if she hadn't gotten Viradel all upset over Jindigar's leadership, the woman wouldn't have taken the fruit from the hive-ripper's tree and challenged it.
When she brought the last sled up to the circle of sleds, Jindigar guided it into place, leaving a slender gap for a door. Then he stepped out to stare in the direction the hive-ripper had taken. Krinata leashed back an impulse to seek for that ineffable contact again. Then she squelched an impulse to ask if he could sense Frey. The duad locked her out as firmly as ever, and it was better to leave it that way. But the temptation welled up.
Strangling a sob, she slid down the wall of cargo and huddled with her forehead on her knees, willing herself to be strong until Jindigar went about his business. But he didn't leave. He hunkered down beside her and let the tip of one velvety finger stroke the back of one of her fingers. It was the tiniest gesture, but it undid her. The suppressed tears came. "I'm sorry," she gasped, ashamed.
"We're all very tired — and frightened. Can I help?"
"No." After a time he rose to go. "Jindigar-"
He knelt beside her. "Let me help, as you've helped me so many times."
They don't make good friends, huh? "Jindigar, I —I'm not sure I can make myself stay out. I'm so afraid — of Desdinda, of hurting Frey, but — I could hardly help it!"
He hugged her to his chest as if he could shelter and protect her. "Oh, Krinata, what have I done to you!"
Before she had herself well in hand again, the Lehiroh arrived with Frey — and Allel's body.
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