Org Rider involuntarily started to move forward to help Ben Yale Pertin, but Redlaw caught his arm.
“Don’t touch him!” the giant rumbled. Then, looking past Org Rider to the stranger, he lowered his voice, adding, “There’s nothing you can do for him now. That slime doesn’t thrive on vegetation. But it eats flesh. He’s done for.”
“But—but it’s only some kind of sap, or something like that. We can take him to the river, wash it off—”
“You’re not hearing me, boy. There’s no chance for him at all. If he’s lucky, he’ll be dead in five sleeps. If he’s not, he’ll linger on for a dozen. But there’s no way to clean him now, and he’s death to touch.”
Pertin was staring at them, aware they were talking about him, suspicious of what they were saying. He asked a question that Org Rider could not understand, but Redlaw chirped some sort of answer in the whistling screech of the Watchers. Under his breath he said to the boy, “He said those bones were his. What can he mean by that?”
Org Rider said, with the uneasy fascination of horror, “It is as it was before, Redlaw. Remember? He died already, and was alive again. Can it be that he dies many times, and always lives again?”
“If he lives again after that blue slime gets through with him I’ll be astonished,” the giant rumbled. “Ah, well. We can’t help him, but we can feed him. I’ll get some food. You build a fire.”
“What about the slamming machine?” the boy cried.
The giant nodded somberly. “There it is,” he agreed. “We’ll ask Ben Yale Pertin if there are weapons there. But if they’ve got that blue slime on them, it will be ticklish work to find a way to use them.”
“Can’t we clean them?”
“Ah, yes, clean them. But it’s being sure they’re clean that’s the hard part. And one single drop of the blue murder, so tiny you might not even see it, is enough for death. If you see it anywhere on you, boy, on toe or finger, wherever, don’t wait. If it’s on a toe, lop off the foot! It’s miserable work to do, but it’s your life if you don’t!”
Numbly, the boy nodded and turned to his org. “Don’t go near him, Babe,” he ordered. The soft trunk squirmed out to touch him reassuringly.
“What I think,” ruminated Redlaw, staring at Ben Yale Pertin, who was scrabbling feverishly in the wreckage’of the ship, “is that this slamming machine is not his but another’s. Identical ships. Maybe identical people. I think it landed on the living peak of Knife-in- the-Sky, touched the slime, and then it came down here. Its occupant, perhaps another Ben Pertin, came out and touched the slime. When he did that, it was too late for him.”
The boy nodded somberly. “Stay with this one, Red- law,” he said. “Perhaps you can help him. I will get food.” But he felt as he left the org with a cautioning word and turned into the forest that there was no way for Redlaw to help Pertin, and that his real reason for going after food was that he could not bear to see him doomed thus to die. To die a third time! It was heavy enough to die once. What courage these people must have, to die again and again!
He was fortunate almost at once, scouring the wet black gravel along a sluggish stream, when something like a buried log humped itself and sprang free of the black muck. The boy caught his knife and waited; in a moment he was rewarded, as the “log” ripped suddenly down the back.
A wild-flower sweetness exploded into the air, and a delicate pink shape thrust and thrust, struggling to escape from its black prison. Org Rider paused, entranced. It was almost too beautiful to kill for food! But he thought of the dying Ben Yale Pertin, and of his org; he had no choice. He waited only until the lacelike wings of black-veined rose unfolded, and the new- hatched creature gripped the sides of the canoelike shell and slowly pulled itself free. Huge luminous eyes, glowing with the rosy red of live coals, gazed blankly at him and were just beginning to focus when he was upon it with his knife, stabbing the new life out of it.
When they had the skinned and gutted body of the butterfly-creature broiling over the low fire Redlaw had made, the giant took him aside. “Here is what I have secured,” he said with satisfaction. “Look!” And he offered a handful of gleaming objects to the boy.
Org Rider recoiled. “They’re from the slamming machine!” he cried.
“Yes,” Redlaw agreed. “But I have taken them out myself, from the interior, where the blue slime did not penetrate. Ben Yale is angry at me because I would not let him touch them. I made him understand that the blue slime is very deadly to us—though I did not say that it was also deadly to him,” he added in an undertone.
“What do they do?”
“This,” Redlaw said proudly, “is a weapon.” He held up a thing shaped like a short seed-cone, with a slim cylinder perched at an angle across its tip. “It is not what I had hoped for,” he admitted. “It is only a laser. The Watchers, too, have lasers. Still, it is better than anything we have had so far!
“And this”—he held up a thing like tiny windows, set in an elastic band—”is for far-seeing. Look through it, Org Rider! You will see as far as you can travel in a dozen sleeps!”
The boy took it gingerly. The elastic part clasped his skull gently but firmly as he put it on; the transparent part hung just over his eyebrows. Squinting upward, he caught strange, bent glimpses of the treetops and clouds, like watersnakes seen through the turbulence of a rapid. He shook his head, and the visor popped into place in front of his eyes.
Suddenly the great broad yellow leaves of the tree over his head rushed in on him, and the bright golden clouds beyond swooped down almost within arm’s length. Involuntarily he ducked and yelped.
Redlaw guffawed. “Startles you, doesn’t it?” he rumbled. “But you’ll see Watchers coming at you through that a hundred breaths before your bare eyes will see them, boy. And this thing—Ben Yale Pertin calls it an ‘audio log,’ whatever that is—listen!” And he touched a switch on it, and a voice—Ben’s voice, the boy realized—began to speak from inside the box somewhere. Org Rider could not understand what it said, to be sure; it was in that strange gibberish tongue the stranger used. But it was his voice, beyond doubt.
Redlaw’s mood changed. He dropped the audio log to the ground and stared at it angrily. “But there’s not what I wanted,” he muttered. “Not a weapon that the Watchers don’t already have. Not anything that will let us destroy them!”
“Perhaps Ben Pertin does not have any such weapons,” Org Rider offered.
“He has them! Or his people do. I’d kill him, if it would make him get them for me! But how can you kill a man who’s dying already?” He stared at the squat man, then glanced past him at the woods. “Boy, what’s the matter with your org?”
Tardily Org Rider realized that Babe had wandered away from his side, was on the hillside above the wrecked slamming machine. He leaped to his feet, tensely afraid that the org might somehow brush against the blue death. But it was not near the machine and showed no interest in it; something else was engaging its attention. It stood upthrust on its great talons, huge eyes staring frozen into the sky, soft pink trunk squirming upward as to feel what the eyes were looking at.
“What is it?” Org Rider demanded sharply. The org did not even look at him. Then, reflected in the org’s eye, he saw a peculiar flash of bright cobalt blue; startled, he looked upward through the leaf canopy and saw, lancing through the sky, a line of cobalt fire that winked, flashed again in a different place, and again. The light was so intense it almost blinded him, who had seen few bright sources of light in his life, but he was almost sure he saw several small dots around the bright blue beams. A distant rushing sound, as of cloth tearing, came to him from where those bright beams flashed, and was repeated again and again. “Lasers!” Redlaw bellowed.
Remembering what he wore, Org Rider jerked the far-seeing visor into place, and after a moment of frantic search, found the magnified images of what was going on above him. A man! A man wearing a queer tree-trunklike thing strapped to his back, pointing something like the weapon Redlaw had showed him; and around and below the man, falling like dead leaves through the sky, two, no three orgs. Dead. Slain by those bright blue bolts.
The boy peered under the glasses, trying to make sense of what he saw, and became aware that there were other dots in the sky. It took him time to find them through the visor, but there they were—four or five creatures, and what strange creatures they were! Something that looked like a winged woman made of silvery metal! A tiny creature with frail wings and a hideous five-eyed head! A thing that looked like an enormous eye, unsupported in the air! A machine, a— what? he could not say for sure, but something that looked like a single great cube of metal with metal attachments hanging from it—also floating unsupported in the air. And with them—
Org Rider caught his breath, steadied the glasses, and looked again. A woman. A girl. Dressed like Ben Yale Pertin, or the man who had beamed down the orgs; but a girl whose pale face and bright eyes were like no other woman he had ever seen.
He was jolted out of his reverie by Redlaw. “Give me that far-seer,” the giant growled, snatching it off Org Rider’s head. He bounded over to a clearing, jamming the visor onto his own head, upward. “Blood and death!” he muttered. “What are those things?” He lifted the lenses away from his eyes and stared blankly at the boy. “Did you see them?” he demanded. “Queer machine things! Animals like nothing I’ve ever seen!”
Org Rider nodded soberly. He heard the distant screams of orgs, wondered if they were the three he had seen killed, the sound reaching them so late because of distance; then realized it would not be that. These screams were nearer.
And suddenly the strange sights he had seen in the sky were driven from his mind, as he heard those wild screams repeated—less raucously, but closer at hand. He turned and shouted, “Babe! What are you doing?”
The young org turned the great eyes on him. The trunk was quivering and snaking out, now toward Org Rider, now toward the sky. The boy bounded over to the org, caught it around the neck. “Don’t listen, Babe!” he begged, and the org mimicked, in his own voice:
“Listen … listen … listen!”
“Stay, Babe,” he coaxed, stroking the org’s quivering head. He could feel a roughness beneath the velvet, along the ridges over the great staring eyes, and knew that the hard bronze scales of maturity were beginning to form there. The shrieks of the wild orgs sounded again, nearer. “Please, Babe,” he begged.
The org’s trembling stopped. It froze, staring into the sky, and die boy saw what its huge eyes had discovered. Black and narrow and swift against the gray sky, two orgs were scudding over the treetops, up-mountain, away from where their fellows had just been slain. And the cries they were shrilling were of fear and warning.
The drives of his genes and chromosomes were too strong to resist. Babe answered with a hoarse, hooting cry, and launched himself into the air.
The first stroke of his powerful wing struck Org Rider, sent him tumbling across the mossy rock. As the boy picked himself up, Babe paused for an instant high above him. “Please,” it screamed, hoarsely mimicking the boy’s own voice. “Please … please . . ,”
And it spun in air and climbed into the bright sky to follow its wild kin.
Alone and desolate, Org Rider stood watching until Babe and the others were out of sight.