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SIX

Org Rider washed his torn garments in a rain pool and spread them on a rock to dry, but the death-weed stench of the Watchers was still in his nostrils. He was out of the storm area now, the rock where the stranger had been killed and where the Watchers had treated him with such contempt far out of sight in the rain clouds. He was cold, and his aches and pains were enormous; but he was alive and free. It was more than he expected.

He fished bare-handed in the pool for horny brown scuttling creatures and kindled a small fire to broil them. They were quite like pond-dwellers he knew from his own mountain, and when they were cooked they tasted as good. He was overpoweringly weary, but he forced himself to catch more of the scuttlers and prop them over the fire to smoke for his pack.

Then he wrapped himself in his wings, and was immediately asleep.

When he awoke the first thing he felt was the black weight of the Watchmans eye against his throat.

His fingers closed around it, and he was close to ripping it off and throwing it in the pool. But it could not harm him while he was wearing it, he thought, and he had not forgotten the warning about what would happen to him if he took it off.

He put it out of his mind. Warm and dry, he filled his waterskin, caught and broiled one more meal of scuttlers, then strapped on his gear and dove out from the hillside to catch the wind.

He was more cautious than ever now, turning unexpectedly to search the sky behind him to see what might be following. Nothing was, neither small Watcher nor ship carrying the repellent creatures who had marked him with the thing around his neck. He was not so far from the rocky, desolate upper reaches of Knife-in-the- Sky that orgs would be unexpected. But he saw nothing like an org

Until it was almost too late.

The far thin scream drew his eyes aloft. A pale brown fleck was dropping out of that high gray haze, sliding down across the long blade of the summit.

It grew as it came toward him, taking shape and color. A slim, winged fish-form of bronze and silver: the body bronze, tapering to a narrow waist behind the stubby wings; the tail and wingtips shining silver. It was beautiful and terrible.

And it was coming toward him.

Org Rider woke out of the trance that held him and realized his danger. This was not a dream, it was a creature that could kill him in a single careless rake of claw or tooth. And he was exposed in the open air, where its speed and skill were far greater than his own.

He dived, flapping desperately, staring over his shoulder to watch it come. It grew so close that he could see the shape of the individual lapped triangular scales, bronze and silver. Its powerful legs unfolded, spreading cruel black talons that stretched toward him. He closed his own wings and arrowed toward a black crevice below, where two great boulders had tumbled together. Even in that moment the beauty of the org choked his throat. To own that power! It was worth the risk of his life

But it seemed his life was already forfeit; his fall was slower than the orgs dive. His weapons were useless; the bow hanging from his harness, the spear impotent in this free-fall. Even the knife would only annoy the org, it could not hope to prevail against that wide red mouth spiked with shining fangs.

On impulse, without thought, he snatched the cold hard sphere of the Watchmans eye from his throat. He did not even feel the bite of the thong as it broke free. He flung it into the orgs great mouth.

Confused, the creature broke away, lost momentum, soared past and away. It went by with a roar of wind and a strange falling note in its scream. It recovered almost at once, wheeled and returned

But by then Org Rider was deep in the crevice between the boulders.

For many hundreds of breaths the org stayed near the crevice, moaning to itself in anger and frustration, scrabbling at the rock with its claws. Its intelligence was too high to let it come in after him; in the cramped quarters, his spear was a more deadly weapon than its claws. And yet it did not leave.

Its nest had to be nearby. Org Rider knew that nothing else would keep the creature there so long. There was prey in plenty easier to find. Mere hunger did not account for its tenacity.

The thought was like a sniff of dream-fungus, intoxicating, dizzying, a little frightening. Where there was a nest there were eggs. Where there were eggs was one to steal.

Methodically Org Rider unstrapped his wings and lightened his pack. He dared not fly so close to the orgs nest. He would have to move fast, and could carry nothing that he did not urgently need. His only way to reach the nest was to thread the maze of spaces between the boulders, where the org might not see him and would hesitate to attack. He wondered briefly what had become of the Watchmans eye. Had the org swallowed it? Was it broken, so that the Watchers might come angry and avenging at any time? He could not tell.

Leaving everything behind except for knife, compass, and a coil of rope, he breathed heavily to charge his muscles, rocked to test his footing, crouched andjumped. He was only in the open for a moment, in a long surge from shelter to shelter. The org was out of sight. He could hear its baffled screaming, but did not see it and assumed it therefore did not see him.

The journey to the top of the boulder pile was long and hard, and beyond it a naked cliff rose above the highest crevice, a dozen times his height.

Org Rider could leap that far; any of his people could. Yet it tested his strength, and he would be exposed while leaping, off balance and vulnerable when he landed. He peered out, saw no org, and leaped without allowing himself time to be afraid.

He soared upward, caught the slippery rock at the rim of the cliff and pulled himself up onto it.

Before him lay a level mile of flat, black rock. In the middle of it rose a rough pink cone.

The orgs nest.

Although it was in view, no more than half a dozen long leaps away, it was not yet in reach. A great org hovered over it, scales gleaming in the high blue light of the peak. It had not seen him, but if he approached it would be a matter of moments only. It would never let him reach the nest.

He needed to think. He could not remain in the open for that purpose; he spotted a narrow crevice and scuttled across the flat rock, hugging the ground as inconspicuously as he could.

He drowsed and thought for a long time, and at the end of it the solution to the problem seemed as far away as when he began. It was maddening to have come so far and to fail now. Yet where was the choice? He could stay there for a long time hoping that the guardian org would wander away. That hope was foolish. Far more likely the other org would give up its fruitless sentry duty at the crevice between the boulders or below, and come up to ioin its mate; and then he would have two to avoid. With two adult orgs nearby it was no longer a question of being able to steal an egg,but of survival. Sooner or later they would find him. And that would be his death.

But as he crouched and drowsed his problem was being solved for him. He did not know it at first. He heard the raucous shrieks of the org, realized tardily that there were two orgs now crying out their rage and resentment, and heard with his mind what his subconscious had been listening to for long moments: a dull, distant slam, slam, slam unlike any other sound he had ever heard.

Cautiously Org Rider poked his head out of the crevice and was just in time to see a brilliant flare of golden light.

Dazzled and half-blinded by afterimages, he knew at once that again one of the small Watchers was nearby. Squinting to see what was happening, he saw a naked machine in the air, quartering away from him, emitting the slamming sounds and puffs of smoke. It was curiously ugly, like a stick figure of an org or a person; it had wings, but they did not move, were rigidly extended. And the two orgs were attacking it, screaming in fierce rage. Pieces were falling from it, broken bits that scattered down across the face of the mountain. One seemed to have the shape of a man, and it was from it that the yellow flare had come. But if it was a man he had forgotten his wings and did not know how to hand-soar to guide his landing; he tumbled end over end, disappearing from sight. The machine itself slammed crazily on.

There would never be a better chance.

Blind and caught unawares, Org Rider knew he had to act. He did not stop to think. He was out of the crevice and leaping for the pink cone in less than a breath.

Now was when he needed wings! But he did not have them, and so could only leap, guide himself with his hands, come down with his legs already under him, and leap again. He could hear the distant slam-slam of the machine, and the scream of the orgs, but he darednot leap high enough to see what they were doing, lest the orgs see what he was doing. At least the sounds were still distantand he was already tumbling over the rim of the nest.

Built of stones plastered with org manure, it had a good, clean, dry odor, a little like the smell of parching grain. The shallow pink cup held a single egg.

Even in his mad haste, Org Rider took time to look at it, and to feel his heart catch at the sight. Smooth ball, mottled bronze and blue, it was too large for his arms to close around it. The surface felt warm and elastic, yielding slightly when he touched it. It had a friendly feel.

But the yells of the distant parents were not friendly. Gasping with his haste, Org Rider wound and knotted his rope to make a sling for the egg. Its weight was almost nothing, not much greater than his own. He slung it over his shoulder, scrambled to the rim of the nest, and leaped away.

A breeze had freshened, sliding down the mountain; it was at his back, and it made each leap half again as long as before. At the second leap he craned his neck around. Neither orgs nor the queer slamming machine were in sight. He could hear the distant angry baying, but it seemed less furious now. That was not advantageous; it meant the adult orgs were calming down, presumably having destroyed the machine. It would not be long before their fierce parental pugnacity drove them back to the guarding of the nestand when they found it empty their rage would become incandescent, and all directed at him.

If they could find him.

His life depended wholly on making sure that they did not. He came to the edge of the tableland and leaped straight out, not even looking back.

It took all his skill to guide his descent into the best hiding place he could see. The bulk of the egg was a sail that unbalanced and tumbled him; the one freehand he had for air-swimming was not enough to make much difference. But in the slow, gentle gravity of his home falling could seldom be dangerous, although he was concerned about the safety of the egg. He hit hard when he hit. At the last moment he had thrown himself around to cushion the egg with his own body.

He wasfor the moment, at leastsafe.

And the egg was his!

He had landed in a vale of boulders, half buried in banks of gray, mossy stuff. A mountain stream purled and cascaded languidly down the slope. Org Rider had chosen the spot for that reason; as soon as he could regain the breath that had been smashed out of him and move he scratched and leaped his way to where a thin, bright ribbon of water leaped out from a sill of rock, and slid and scattered behind it.

What he had hoped for was therea dry place behind the waterfall. It would do. The sound would drown out any noise he made, even from the keen hearing of the orgs. The spray would carry scent away. The curtain of lazily falling water would screen them from the vision of the parent orgs

Them.

With a start, Org Rider realized he was already thinking of the egg as if it were grown and mature. He let himself grin with wolfish joy; the worst part was done, that dream would yet come true!

But now he had work to do. Cautiously he ventured out and, one eye on the sky and both ears alert, tore armloads of moss out of the hidden sides of the boulders and carried them back to make a nest for his egg. When at last it lay safe, he took time to rock back on his haunches and inspect it.

It was there, real and true, and truly his. He studied every inch of its blue, bronze-speckled surface, so smooth and warm. It had no crack or flaw. It had not been harmed by the abduction; and, best of all, from itswarmth and certain mysterious sounds of movement inside it, it showed every indication of being very near to its hatch time.

His heart filled to bursting with joy and pride, Org Rider sat back and rested for a long moment, planning what next to do.

As near as he could tell, he had come down somewhere near where the cartwheeling figure from the slamming machine had fallen, but a long, long way from where he had left his weapons and supplies. He was in a sort of great natural chimney, with steep rock on all sides. He drank his fill of water from the falls, and it was cold and sweet. He found nuts with queer paperlike shells growing nearby, and though they tasted faintly unripe and he did not want to eat very many of them, they stilled his hunger.

His first step was to try to get his cache.

He crept to the edge of the falls and looked up.

As soon as he was away from the gabble of the falling water, he heard the distant agonized screams of the orgs. They had learned of their loss now, it was clear. The long moaning bellows sounded of rage and the promise of revenge.

But they were far away, perhaps as far as the other edge of the tableland where they had built their nest.

There was a cluster of bee-trees nearby. Org Rider regretted that; the creatures who hived in the trees were dreadful enemies when aroused, and it was known that they had some chemical loathing of orgs. This would perhaps make the adult orgs approach only reluctantly, which was good. But what if they should smell out and attack his egg?

He could not guard against every contingency, he decided with a pang of worry and regret; it was the first lime in his life that he had felt like a parent.

Reluctandy (but he had no choice!) he turned his back on the egg, and started out to hunt for better food, his cache, and a good way out of the giant chimney in which they lay.

The boy was gone a long time, longer than he planned, for at one point in his search the adult orgs came wheeling and shrieking overhead and he had to hastily bury himself in the undergrowth beneath a stand of flame-trees. Small creatures like red insects shared his hiding place with him and, although they did not sting, their crawling over his flesh was maddening; but he dared not leave. He lay motionless, half drowsing, for a long, long time, not even able to lift his head to see what was happening when the bellowing screams of the orgs were so close that it seemed certain they had spied him. They had not; of this he was sure, because he was still alive. When they were more distant he dozed again, and he dreamed a frightful dream in which his cherished egg hatched and turned into a black- winged Watcher that stank of death-weed and came at him with a throttling-noose that bore a watchmans eye

He woke trembling, and found the orgs were gone.

He had not located his cache or a way out, but there was food of a sort, succulent stalks from a purple bush that tasted sweet and meaty, some torpid red water- snakes that were dull enough to allow themselves to be caught. He returned to his waterfall feeling cheered and expectant, looking forward to seeing his egg, touching it, listening for its tiny slow heartbeat and the stirring sounds inside it.

With a wary eye out for the orgs he ducked under the lazy waterfall, and shouted with astonishment and anger.

The egg was there, luminously blue in the half-light under the falls. But a creature was crouching over ita squat man-shape, blfck-haired and nearly naked, smashing at the egg with a red-smeared rock. The man looked up in fear and astonishment at Org Riders yell.

And then, for almost the first time in his life, Org Rider felt the creeping terror of ru^erstitious fear. He knew that man; it was the stranger from the small Watcher. He had seen him dead.



| Farthest Star | SEVEN



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