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FOUR

The figure that came out of the bubble was twice as broad as the boy, and nearly a head shorter. To the boy it looked like one of his own people, but somehow squashed down and wearing strange bright clothing such as he had never seen before.

The wingmen and their women wore no more than they had to: the harness to hold their wallets and fasten to their wings, a few square inches of cloth or shaved leather for ornament, a few more for modesty.

By the boys standards, the man was fearsomely overdressed. His clothing covered nearly all of him. From waist to feet he wore a sort of bright yellow leotard, ending under bright-colored soft boots. From waist to shoulders he wore a sleeveless tunic. His wrists were ornamented with broad, bright-colored bands that looked as if they had the feel of leather, but were colored in blues and greens and mauves; they held little pouches and bright shiny things that glittered and seemed to move. Even the mans head was covered, with a soft cap which (the boy did not know) could come down to protect his eyes against dust or glare, or if need be could shield the entire upper part of him against rain or cold. And that was a bright orange color; taken all in all, the man was queerly and fearsomely garbed, the boy marveled. With such apparel he could never hope to avoid being seen by org or Watcher or game!

His costume and his queer proportions were not all that was queer about him. Even his face was strange.

He was surely much older than the boy, two or three thousand sleeps at least. But his face did not show it. It was not weathered or lined from wind or storm. His teeth were bright and even, as perfect as the boys own, and far more so than, say, those of the boys older brother, who had used them to nip off ends of leather for the five thousand sleeps of his adult life.

All this the boy saw in the same photographic glance in which he observed that the man carried no weapon. None at all; neither bow nor knife. Not even a club. Even so, the boy judged, he might not be without danger. His squat frame had the look of strength.

The man took a step toward the boy. It was not menacing. It was comic. The boy had never seen anything like it; the mans step was grotesquely energetic, it propelled him unmeaning into the air. He came down, stumbled, caught himself, fell again in overreaction, and sprawled to the ground. The expression on his broad face was funnier than his ungainly tumbling act itself. The boy could not help laughing. From the ground the man laughed, too.

Then the man stood up, quite carefully, with a wink and exaggerated caution. He spread his hands as if to show he had no weapons. The boy knew that already; he made no move.

The man, slowly and carefully, as if to show that he meant no harm, grasped one wrist with the fingers of the other hand and did something to the shiny baubles on it. Then he spoke to the boy.

When he did, his voice came from two places at once. It came from his mouth in the normal way. Another voice, harsher and more metallic than his own, came stumbling from the bauble on his wrist. The sounds from the thing on his wrist were not the same as the sounds from his mouth, but the boy could understand neither of them. He bent his head in the gesture of negation.

The man looked as if he were irritated with his toy. He touched it again, and spoke once more.

This time the boy thought he caught the suggestion of a word. Strangely, it came from the mans wrist, not his mouth. It sounded rather like the word the boys people used for what? But there was more to it, and the rest was gibberish.

The man shrugged and let his arm fall to his side. Then he grinned, touched his chest, and said a single word. The sound of it was Ben. The man waited inquiringly, as if expecting a response.

The boy was not sure what was expected of him, other than that the man seemed to want him to speak. The man gestured, pointed to his wrist, and made several other sounds. One sounded like Pmal, pronounced very slowly and carefully, but what it meant the boy had no idea.

He said slowly, I dont know what you want me to do.

The man applauded, grinned, motioned for more.

Well, the boy said, I am Fifteenth of the men in my people. He paused, a little suspiciously, but the man urged him on. It seemed foolish, but there did not seem to be anything dangerous in it. Hesitantly he went on: But I am far from my people and no longer one of them, he soliloquized. So perhaps I can have only a word-name, like an outlaw or a woman. Are you an outlaw? But I am going to get an orgs egg. I will hatch it and tame the org. Perhaps I will call myself Org Rider! he finished, and fell silent, listening to the pleasing sound of the name in his minds ear.

Excited, the man touched his wrist and spoke again. This time the words from his wrist made sense; they were poorly pronounced, but clearly enough they said: I am Ben. You are Org Rider!

From the boys expression the man saw that communication had begun. His own face reflected joy. He spoke again, and the thing on his wrist stuttered, emitted a few nonsense syllables, and then, very clearly, said: My people far.

He gestured for the boy to speak on.

But the boy had heard another sound. Frowning, he turned to search the sky.

It was a strangely ominous sound, like the hum of a bee-tree. The boys first thought was Org! Yet the sound was wrong, not the harsh scream his mother had described, but even more fearsome.

Then he saw it: a faint gray glint against the polychrome sky, diving toward them, very fast.

Watcher!

It was like a spearpoint arrowing toward them in the sky; it had no wings, but it moved so fast the boy could hardly realize what was happening. The man heard it, too. Astonishment spread across his broad face. He turned, bounced toward the silently hovering small Watcher, fell clumsily but righted himself and touched it with quick, skillful hands.

At once one face of the small Watcher flared with a bright golden flame, and a bubble began to grow out of it.

The boy did not stand watching this performance. He ran for his weapons. He did not know what good they would be against a Watcher, but he had no other options open to him than to use them.

A bright flash of light from above gave him a split seconds warning, then something crashed nearby. Queer sudden yellow flowers bloomed on the black rock, and faded into pale smoke. A sharp reek of burning choked him.

The bubble from the side of the small Watcher had grown tall as the boy now; abruptly it flared brightly gold. Unfortunately for the boy he was staring directly at it when it happened. For a moment he was blinded. Bright lights were out of his experience entirely, except for lightning and the smoky glow of a campfire; the eyes of his people did not have quick recovery mechanisms, since they had no sun in their sky to contend with and no need. He clawed at his eyes in acute pain. He could not distinguish just what was happening.

The man named Ben was clawing at the bubble, trying to drag out of it some glittering object that had appeared inside. The boy could not recognize it; he could barely see the outlines, could barely see when again there was that sudden crash, and a flash of light behind and above him, and yellow flame and smoke exploded on Ben himself. The boy heard a terrible scream, felt splinters of rock as they tore at his flesh, smelled a queerly hot choking odor that took his breath.

Then blackness drowned him. His bow was in his hand, but he had not had time to raise it, or even see what it was that had killed Ben and was almost killing himself.

Consciousness returned, out of a crazy pain-filled fantasy that was not a dream but a memory. He lay face down on hard, wet gravel. He was shivering to a cold, slow rain.

His first thought was astonishment at being alive, his second to get his wings to wrap around him, covering his nakedness against the rain.

When he tried to move something wrapped around his neck, so tight that he could hardly breathe, tugged him back.

Panic shook him. He tugged at the coil around his neck; it would not loosen. His hand flashed to his knife, but it was gone. He was tied by the neck, like a food- beast awaiting slaughter.

Sitting up more carefully, he saw that he was tied to a great machine, spearhead-shaped, that lay on the gravel. It was mottled in brown and yellow, but under it was the glint of silvery metal.

Ten paces away lay the squat butchered corpse of Ben. A faint pathetic mechanical squeal came from the silvery cube of the small Watcher that had brought him; it would bring no one ever again, for the explosion that had killed Ben had blasted it as well, and it lay sparking feeblv, cracked and broken, on the gravel.

Good to see you awake, boy!

The booming voice caught Org Rider by surprise. He moved suddenly and was jerked back by the choking coil around his neck. When he caught his balance he saw a man, taller than himself, red-bearded, green- eyed, half grinning, rocking on his feet by the small pile of the boys weapons and wings.

Who are you? the boy demanded.

Why, the man said, you can call me Redlaw. Youre a long way from home, Fifteenth.

The boy kept off his face the sinking astonishment that this man knew his name. I am not Fifteenth anymore, he said stubbornly. My name is Org Rider.

The mans laugh boomed out. An Org Rider without an org? Your brother was right, boy, youre a fool. Then he said, not unkindly, Oh, dont be surprised. The Watchers dont only watch. They listen as well. Weve been listening to you for a long time.

How? the boy cried. I never saw you before! The man only shrugged and smiled. Ive never seen any Watcher, the boy said. And you have never been on our mountain I am certain.

Youre making a wrong assumption, the man said. Tm not a Watcher. I work for them. As butcher in their galleyshe gestured at the bloodstained apron he woreand sometimes as translator, when they want to know what people like you are saying. But I know you are truthful when you say youve never seen a Watcher, because they dont look a bit like you or me.

Then where are the Watchers? Org Rider cried.

Youll see them soon enough. The man stirred the boys weapons with a foot, and peered at the boy out of shrewd green eyes. Its not you they care about, you know, he said suddenly. Its your dead friend here. What do you know about him?

Nothing, Org Rider said proudly, fighting back the pain and dizziness that were tearing at him. Dried blood on his arms and in his hair showed where he had been struck. No one had troubled to do anything about it while he was unconscious. He appeared from nowhere. I do not know how. I had never seen him before. This is true.

Oh, Redlaw said, I believe you. Whether the watchers will or not is something else. But youll find outone way or anotherbecause here they come now.

A section out of the middle of the ship dropped flat, to make a wide door and a ramp. Five creatures came flapping out and dropped to the rock around Redlaw, staring from a distance at the boy.

Though they waddled on two legs when they were not flying, they did not look human. They were squat and powerful-looking, like the man who had died so quickly and uselessly. Even more so; they were hardly half the height of Org Rider or Redlaw. But the ways in which they differed from human were extreme.

They wore slick bright armor that looked as if it grew on them, black on their humped backs and red on their bellies; an Earthling would have thought of an insects chitin, but there were no true insects for comparison in the boys world. Their armored arms looked thick and muscular, and their wings were yellow- streaked leatherit looked frighteningly like tanned human skin to the boythat stretched from their arms to their stubby legs. Their faces were beaked. They had no necks. Wide black flexible ears spread out from each side of their beaks. Their multiple eyes were greenish bulges, set on each side of the head, protruding out, behind the ears.

Their hands horrified the boy when he looked at them more closely. For fingers they had short, boneless bundles of what looked like squirming pink food- worms. These twisting worms were palping every seam of his tented wings, every strap of his flying gear.

They emitted a foul odor that struck him in a suffocating wave. It took his breath and stung his eyes, with a sour scent like death-weeds burning. Even Redlaw, who clearly had had opportunity to get used to it, was wrinkling his nose and showing distaste.

The creatures squeaked to each other and then paused, with big ears spread, as if expecting an answer. One of them was holding the needled guide that had been his mothers gift, the direction-showing trinket. The boy shouted: Thats mine! You have no right to rob me!

Easy, boy, Redlaw said tightly. Youre very close to being dead right now. Dont push it.

The Watchers squeaked to each other, then once again went through the routine of palping his wings, his garments, his waterskin, his firepot, knife, coils of rope, empty pots. Then they moved, like stumps rocking across the graveled rock, to where the dead man lay. They did not touch him, perhaps from fear. But they squeaked again, this time peremptorily. I

Redlaw scowled uneasily, and puckered his lips to whistle some sort of message. It was not much like the squeaks of the Watchers but it was as close as a human could come, Org Rider thought; and the Watchers seemed to understand it. They replied.

Redlaw nodded and turned to the boy. Ive told them what you say. Two of them think you are lying. One thinks you are too stupid to lie. The other two have not yet made up their minds.

The boy was silent, letting that information soak through his brain.

You see, Redlaw said, this strange-looking fellow here is very disconcerting to them. He squinted thoughtfully at the racked body that lay staring sightlessly at nothing. In a way they know that what you say is true. In another way, they are not sure. Why did he come to you, boy? By accident? Theyll never believe that.

I know nothing more than what Ive told you, said Org Rider stubbornly. If I die for it.

You just might, Redlaw observed mildly, then flinched as a blast of whistling came from the Watchers.

In quite a different tone he demanded: Why dont you carry the Watchmans eye?

What is it?

The talisman of their service! Redlaw touched a sort of medallion he wore around his own neck. Like this, boy! To show you are their friend and servant, like me!

My people are not servants, the boy declared.

Maybe that used to be true, Redlaw acknowledged. Your people lived almost out of range. But times are changing. This fellow here is making them change. I think you will go away from here wearing an eye if you go away at all, Org Rider.

A burst of peremptory whistling, and two of the Watchers waddled toward the boy. The yellow coil around his neck tightened, half-strangling him, forcing him to his knees. The man warned: Dont resist them, boy! Its your life.

The bitter reek set him sneezing even while he gasped for breath. A leather wing slapped him into silence, knocked him down. A hot, hard-armored body fell on him, and those pink, writhing fingers searched his body, prying into mouth and nostrils, anus and ears. The weight, the pain, the indignity, the lack of air all combined to fill the boy with a helpless fury. He could not cope with it, he could only rage inside himself, in pain and fear, until at last the weight came off him and the Watchers took their foul reek away, whistling disagreeably among themselves.

What they were doing was at that moment of no interest to the boy. He was preoccupied inside himself. He had never been so treated. He had never been so helpless, not even when the girl he was interested in had whispered to him that she had pledged to marry his brother, not even when he was tiny and his mother died. Not ever.

In pain and anger, Org Rider was conscious of one certainty. Whatever happened, he would see the Watchers paid for this.


* * *


At length Redlaws voice boomed: You can stand up, boy. Ive made a deal for you.

He whistled sharply, and the yellow rope fell away from the boys neck.

Youre to wear the watchmans eye, Redlaw ordered. It will show them everything you see. If you have any further contact with these funny-looking fellows, they want to know about it.

What if I refuse? the boy blazed.

Redlaw scowled. I dont care what you do! he shouted. Its your life. He tapped the square-bladed knife at his waist. Maybe I didnt tell you that they

have a taste for human flesh.

The boy said staunchly, more staunchly than he felt, "I'll throw it away the minute you leave me.

Tie it to a bubble-seed if you want, Redlaw grumbled. If they know you do it theyll kill you. If they dontits your gamble, not mine.

He paused, looking toward the ship. From the gaping hatch a sixth, and larger, Watcher flapped down. It was darker than the others as well as bigger, its stubby wings almost black. It flew directly to Org Rider and caught him in a reeking hug, clasping something around his neck.

Careful now! Redlaw shouted, but the boy had already taught himself not to resist. It lasted only a moment, then the large Watcher fell away.

The object was a heavy black globe, twice the size of the ball of Org Riders thumb. A slick black cord of some sort of leather held it around his neck.

Our captain asked me to tell you, Redlaw said, that if you take it off he will do you the honor to eat you himself. He glanced over his shoulder. The cap-

tain of the Watchers had already returned to the ship; the others were flapping slowly after him, no longer appearing interested in the boy or in the body.

Good-bye, Org Rider, the man said, almost reluctantly, as if he had more he wanted to say. If he had, he did not say it. He turned away andentered the ship. The hatch closed. At once, a small curved shell tipped down outside the longer shell of the ship. Something whined. A gust of warm wind sent the boy rocking away across the gravel, sliding onto the moss.

The ship rose and slid whining away through the sky. Org Rider watched it until he was sure it was not coming back.

Then he set about gathering his lost gear. None of it was gone, or badly damaged, though it was scattered all over the rock and all of it stank of the death-weed reek of the Watchers.

As soon as he had it, he strapped his harness on, loaded himself with what he had to carry. His torn body was sending messages of pain from the crusted wounds in scalp and arms, and his stomach fought against the clinging reek of the Watchers. He put them out of his mind. He did not even look again at the dead creature who had appeared out of the bubble, or the glittering, broken toy that had brought him.

He turned his back on the campsite that had become so hateful to him, launched himself into the air, turned, and with great, painful strokes continued toward the distant peak of Knife-in-the-Sky. He did not look back.



THREE | Farthest Star | c



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