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FIFTEEN

Org Rider way too full of mourning for the loss of Babe to feel any great concern about the dying strangers excitementuntil Redlaw translated some of what he said.

I do not understand all, Redlaw said, but it is a woman of his people and she is a captive of the Watchers. I expect they will eat her, he added, moodily stroking his cleaver. He wishes us to save her. And he says, too, that if we do this a great ship of his people will come to battle the Watchers for us.

Redlaw paused, uncertain. I do not know if he is telling the truth, he said. He is a dying man. Perhaps he has the madness of the dying?

Org Rider shrugged, but he was thinking about what Redlaw had said. With Babe gone, he was not happy enough to care much about danger. And the woman die stranger spoke about. If she was the one he had seen so briefly as she dashed herself into the treetopsbut was that possible? could she have survived that nightmare plunge?no matter; if it was she, there had been something about her that had appealed powerfully to him.

He said mournfully, What does it matter if he lies? Let us do as he asks. Where is this woman?

Redlaw scowled and gestured down the slope of Knife-in-the-Sky. He says he knows precisely and will show us. But how can he travel? I have seen men before, eaten alive by that blue slime. They do not travel through the jungle! But he is doing it. It is something in those cloths he puts on his ulcers, perhaps, or in thosesmall things he eats and drinks from the metal box. I wish I knew Redlaw gazed doubtfully at Ben Yale Pertin, still shouting and gesticulating at them to hurry. And there is so much more he says that I cannot understand.

No matter, Org Rider said. Let us save the woman. For him, he added politely, as an afterthought.

Even so, they were far too slow for Ben Yales liking; and then the trek through the jungle was longer and harder than they had expected, more than two thousand breaths, because Ben Yale insisted that they wait for him. He chose to carry some great metal thing from the ship that he called bazooka. It was a wonder he could move at all, even without that weight. Beneath the stained bandagesthough he had replaced them just before they leftthe blue slime oozed out, always spreading, always etching new ulcers into his flesh. And it was a constant peril to be near him in his clumsy lunging through the trees. A single accidental touch of the blue slime might have meant death for either of them.

But the two thousand breaths were over, and in time they reached a point where they could see the distant black gleam of the tiny lake. There on the far shore loomed the mottled hulk of the Watcher vessel.

Org Rider wished for the far-seeing glasses, but of course they were no longer safe to use: Ben Yale had touched them. He squinted across the lake. With mounting excitement he saw: yesthere she was! The very girl he had seen. Wrapped like the prey of a cord spinner in the golden coils of the Watchers device, lying helpless on the blinding white sands of the little beach.

Even so, even at that distance, she was beautiful. Disordered as her hair was, it had the reddish glint of far lightning. Something about her made him think of his brothers wife. Yet this girl was more beautiful by far, in spite of the drained pale cast of her face and the terror in her expression.

He glanced at Redlaw, and started to move toward the lake.

The giant stopped him.

Wait! he rumbled. Ben Yale says he has a plan. He says that this bazooka is a weapon. He wishes us to go around the lake, to be ready to attack the Watchers from the forest. He says from here, with this weapon that he has carried, he will destroy the Watcher ship. When he has done that, we are to kill those who survive with his weapon andhe patted his cleaverthis one!

What weapon does he have that will destroy the ship? Org Rider demanded suspiciously. You told me he had no such weapon.

He lied, the giant growled moodily. I knew he lied. And perhaps he is lying now, how can I tell? I can understand so little of what he says!

What does it matter? repeated Org Rider, quelling the rising surge of feeling in himself. Let us do as he asks.

They left Ben Yale just inside the undergrowth, lying on the scarlet moss, peering over the sights of his tree- trunklike weapon, chuckling and muttering to himself in his strange language. And they moved like ghosts through the vegetation, circling around.

They paused fifty yards from the beach. The foul deathweed stench of the Watchers reeked in their nostrils as Org Rider whispered savagely, How do we know when he will destroy the ship? We should have arranged a signal.

Should have, should have, Redlaw rumbled. But we didnt, boy. He scowled toward the beach. If only I were sure of him. I hate like poison to get closer! Those golden ropes of theirs can smell a man, and they never sleep. Still He sighed. Ill try to get them with this thinghe patted the laser weaponand you go after them with your bow. With any luck theyll be disorganized

He broke off. There was a sharp, flat crack from across the lake and a puff of grayish smoke. Out of the smoke emerged a needlelike metal object lancing across the lake toward the Watcher vessel. It struck, and opened into a bright flower of flame.

Blam.

The sound of the explosion was far louder than they had expected. The mottled vessel of the Watchers seemed to lift off the sand, and fall slowly. Bright flame spouted from the hole that the strangers weapon had made in its side.

Curse him, Redlaw howled, we should have been closer! Do the best you can, boy! And he loped toward the Watchers, firing with the laser weapon. Sounds like the tearing of paper came from it, and Watchers fell before it.

Org Rider ran to the side of the lake, dropped to one knee, and began launching arrows toward the Watchers. While one was still in the air he was notching and aiming the next. He did not wait to see how successful he was, but out of the corner of one eye he saw one Watcher leap high over the vessel with a startled squeal, an arrow protruding clear through him. Another, squalling and hooting, lay on the ground, tugging at a shaft through his throat, while his drumming feet revolved him in a complete circle around his shoulders.

Theyve broken! Redlaw exulted over his shoulder. Come on, boy! Lets go in and finish them off! As he spoke his laser weapon sliced through the golden coils, and another blast from it burned a crisply sizzling hole through a Watcher skull. Now the giant flung the laser to the winds and, screaming as he leaped, bowled in on the Watchers, hacking at them with his cleaver. Org Rider was just behind. The two of them drove the Watchers back like avenging angels. With every stroke of Redlaws cleaver and the boys knife a Watcher squealed and fell from their paths.

Zzzzzzat!

The noise was louder than anything Org Rider had ever heard, and for a moment he did not understand what it was.

Then he saw that the Watcher vessel was not, after all, quite dead.

From a round bulge on its top something flashed like lightning, and the great ripping sound lashed at his ears again. The Watcher ship was firing its main armament. Not at them, Org Rider realizednot that there was any question about that; if the laser cannon had been aimed at them they would never have known what hit thembut probing across the lake for the bazooka. Zzzzzzatf, and a bee-tree went up in smoke, smitten by a lightning bolt Zzzzzat., and a sudden corridor opened up in a stand of deathweed.

Grab the girl! Redlaw bawled. Lets get out of here before they finish with Pertin and start on us!

There were still Watchers alive and Org Rider yearned to catch and kill every one; but he knew Red- law was right. He bounded to the side of the girl. She was just beginning to sit up. The blood had been squeezed out of her limbs for so long she was numbed and tottering.

Org Rider felt almost as dizzy as she was. All this was so terribly new and confusing! The needle-bright light of the laser, the harsh explosions and lightning- bolt sizzling of the long-range battle across the lake were entirely out of his experience, in a life lived in the perpetual pink-gray dawn of Cuckoo. He was not afraid; but he was disoriented.

Still he had to act. He grabbed the girls arm and pulled her away. She did not resist, except to break free for a moment and pick up a piece of metallic equipment. Then she was with him, bounding as fast as they could into the shelter of the woods, Redlaw close behind. The last Watcher on his feet outside the ship challenged Redlaw, but lost his head and half his trunk to the keen-edged cleaver. Then the giant was besidethem, shouting, Hurry! Weve got to get out of sight! The girl could not have understood his words; but she didnt have to, the need was clear.

At last there was another bazooka shot from across the lake, and this one was clean and true on the bulge at the top of the Watcher ship. It blew up in a gout of flame.

All three of them cheered.

We did it, boy! the giant bellowed. Beat the Watchers in fair fight! Its the first time it ever happened in all the time of the world!

Org Rider crowed in pleasure, pummeling the girls back as though she were another man. Exultant, laughing, as delighted as he, she clapped him on the shoulder with a force that sent him spinning.

He picked himself off the ground and looked at her with new respect. She was no timid, frail maiden! She was as strong as he. And yetshe seemed more feminine than any woman he had ever seen. More so even than the girl who had married his brother. A glow of color began to light her death-pale face, and he found himself staring into her widening eyes. They were a bright-flicked brown, like the wild flowers that colored the grassworld after the rain. Even with the hated reek of the Watchers still fouling his nostrils he could smell the faint scent that came from her, a clean sweetness that swept away the Watchers fetor and left him with the fragrance of the rain itself, after the flatworld had been brown and dry.

Stop mooning, boy! Redlaw ordered, laughing as he said it. Weve beaten one shipload of Watchers, but theyre not through yet. Therell be more. When this ship doesnt report in, theyll send another to look for it. If they managed to send off a distress report, that ship is on its way now!

Org Rider tore his eyes off the girl. All right. Which way?

The giant gazed about. Well have to go back around the lake, he decided. First place, wed best tryto find Ben Yale, if hes still alive. Second, I dont think we can get out this way. Thats bare rock up there. Wed be easy targets on itand I see blue on those rocks, boy; I think its the slime. We dont want to go near that.

Org Rider nodded and turned to the girl. Speaking as clearly as he could, gesturing to make his meaning plain, he said: Come. We leave here. Now.

She laughed. She touched the metallic thing she had picked up and spoke, and from the thing came a flat, dead voice that said: I understand. I agree. Andto Org Rider even the lifeless metallic tone of the translator could not keep all feeling out of the wordswith all my heart I thank you both.

The boy was enraptured. He recognized the speaking machine; it was the same as Ben Yales, but whole and working properly. In Ben Yales conversations with Redlaw he had become accustomed to being excluded; it had not occurred to him that an undamaged machine would make it possible for him to be in one-to-one contact with this wondrous person.

He caught the girls hand, and they followed Redlaw back toward the lake margin

And stopped.

From behind the wrecked Watcher vessel a lance of green fire spat out at them.

Redlaw shrieked in agony and spun away, clutching his arm. Run! he bawled, setting them an example. They blundered after him, and at every leap Org Rider expected that green fire to burn through their backs.

They stopped almost up against the bare rock wall that cupped that edge of the lake. There was one still alive, Redlaw gasped, holding the place on his upper arm that had blossomed into a blood-red blister of pain. Its lucky he fired when he did! If hed waited hed have had me clean, and you two as well. He scowled up at the mountain. We cant go up that way, he muttered. And we cant go back to the lake, because hes waiting there.

Org Rider risked raising himself to peer around the multiple boles of a flame-tree. He could see the Watcher, broad yellow wings slowly stirring. One was damaged, and dragged; the Watcher had been hurt, too. But he held the thing that looked like a black stick, and spat green flame, without faltering.

If we cant go forward, Org Rider said, and cant go backand cant stay here, because theyll be another Watcher ship before longthen what do we do?

They waited and watched, but the creature remained steadfastly alert.

We have no choice, Redlaw groaned at last. We have to kill him. His gun outranges our weapons, and his bug eyes can see us in every direction. It wont be easy.

Redlaw scowled at his cleaver.

The only way I see to take him is to rush from all sides. He may kill us all, but I dont think so. One of us will get him. But the other two

He hesitated, then he finished: At least one of the other two will be dead.

No! the boy shouted. Not her. She has suffered enough from the Watchers. You and I can do it, Red- law!

The girl, listening, shook her head. She spoke in that pretty, singing voice, and the metal voice from her arm echoed, I can perform my share. I thank you for your good heart.

Org Rider stared at her and said, Please dont. I dont know your name

She said in her own voice, not through the translator, Zara. It sounded like music to him as he rehearsed it several times, tasting its flavor.

Zara. Please, Zara, dont do this. You are not a warrior. Redlaw and I can handle the Watcher.

The giant thundered, Idiot boy, we cant! Our only hope is three attacks at once. That is a faint enough hopetwo is suicide!

The girl spoke, and the Pmal rattied flady, It is decided, Org Rider. I again thank you, but now let us act. Tell me what I must do.

The giant rasped, Come in from behind the ship. Get close to him. The beast has a hard shell, but there are soft joints. One is where his neck would be, if he had a neck. Theres a pale stripe above his black hump. Stab him deep in the middle of that, if you can.

Org Rider watched the girl go on her longer, roundabout trip with his breath caught in his throat. She would not die! He would see to it. The first one to display himself to the Watcher would surely be the first one fired on; the other two would have a chance at least minutely better. Org Rider determined to be that first one.

But it would be foolish, would even endanger them, for his break to come much before their own. It would simply mean that the . Watcher would pick him off quickly, and then have only two foes to confront. So he squirmed to his place and waited, watching the faint ripples in the underbrush that marked the movements of Redlaw and the girl. Could the Watcher see and understand those same ripples? He did not know. He could only hope.

Something was tugging at the back of his mind. What was it?

Then he recognized the growing sound from the sky, and looked up. Down at him dived a great org.

Org Rider froze. It was his death he saw coming. With only the knife leftthe bow was long since cast awayhe could not prevail against talon and fang. All he could do was stare at its savage splendor. He crouched numbly, waiting for the hooked black talons to strike.

Even in that moment he saw the blue beauty of its huge, hooded eyes, the bright flow of its form, the even sheen of bronze scales shading into the silver flash of its narrowed wings. Wonder at its clean, sleek power madehis throat ache. Orgs were better and greater than men! Surely they were more beautiful. It was his death but if he had to perish, here on Knife-in-the-Sky, it was better to be killed by this mighty org than by die waiting Watcher.

But dying that way would not serve Zara

Org Rider leaped to his feet, yelling and bounding toward the Watcher ship.

As he had expected, the Watcher was staring up with his great blind eyes, distracted by the org. Perhaps after the org finished with him it would go for the Watcher next! Org Rider glanced toward the Watcher, husbanding his charges as he nervously waited under the shelter of the ship, then back toward the org.

It screamed again.

The bright wings opened a little, flaring it toward him out of the bottom of the dive, and he saw the scars that marred its lean perfection. A long, dark wound, not fully healed, where the scales had been ripped from its flank. A break in the brightness of one wide wing.

The screaming changed and queerly, became words.

Babe! blared the mighty voice of the org, repeating his own voice like a tape under maximum gain. Babe come back!

The boy heard his own voice thunder down at him from the sky and could hardly understand. But what the words did not explain the actions did. The org dipped down over him. Its golden-scaled trunk snatched him up into the air, squeezed him almost too hard, flexed to set him on its back above the widened wings.

Then recognition hit him.

It was Babe! Changedolderhurt, but Babe! Scales had replaced the infant fur. The healing scars told of combat. But it was he!

A laser scream spat past his ear and brought him out of his dreaming. He kicked the org strongly and shouted, Fast, Babe! Over the trees!

The beast responded instantly, putting the loom of the ship between them and the Watcher. And Org Rider sobbed, Babe! Im so glad! He stroked the bronze scales. Yards below he could see the top of the trees and caught a glimpse of Zaras terrified pale face, staring up at them. What could she be thinking? Had she ever seen an org before? Did she understand that Org Rider was master, not prey?

But looking at her brought him back to the needs of that moment. He wheeled Babe around, low over the treetops, and shouted down: Now! Lets get him!

And as he saw the mighty form of Redlaw leap free and begin to run toward the Watcher, he gouged his heels into Babes scaled side and commanded, Kill, Babe! The Watcher! Kill him!

The chaos of the next moments was indescribable. Org Rider heard the shouts of Redlaw and the shriller, fainter cry of the girl. He saw the cleaver glinting in the hands of the giant.

Then he was around the ship and beating back in toward the Watcher.

The black stick crackled. Bright light blasted Org Riders eyes; a sudden electrical stench choked him. But it had been a miss; he was still alive!

And then they were on top of the Watcher. Babe bellowed as his striking talons ripped the Watcher out from under the hull. They all tumbled in a slow-motion heap, boy, org, and Watcher together. The reek of the squealing Watcher stung his throat as he stabbed and stabbed with his knife to find the death place.

In the end it was Babe that took the last of the life from the Watcher, the great claws simply wrenching the hideous head free of its body. The shrilling scream stuttered and stopped abruptly, and the ugly carcass toppled slowly forward in death.

We did it! Org Rider called. Babe, youre a hero! Babe

But the org did not respond.

Shaken, Org Rider lifted his head free and stared. The delicate pink trunk was trembling violently. The huge eyes were dulled. As Org Rider reached out to touch him, Babe screamed in pain.

The Watchers laser had found its mark after all.

As Redlaw and the girl came running up, Babe fumbled out to touch the boy with his shuddering trunk. The voice that mimicked Org Riders own said, Babe go. Babe go . .

The light went out of the great eyes, and the org was dead.

Org Rider sat mourning with the great head in his lap, Redlaw and the girl standing helplessly by, until at last Redlaw rumbled, Sorry, boy, but weve got to get out of here. The Watchersll be after us any time now.

Org Rider looked up and nodded somberly. I know. He got up, reaching a hand to the girl. Are you all right? She smiled, in both reassurance and compassion; he needed no translator to understand that, or the look of sympathy in her eyes.

There was a sudden scream of high speed from the sky, and all three of them looked upward in instant reawakened fear.

Too late! Redlaw raged. Friends of hell! Theres the Watcher ship on us, while were standing around like fools! We cant get away now. Well have to fightand weve nothing to fight with but the Watchers own lance! He dove to the side of the decapitated beast, choking in fury as much as the evil cloud of its deathweed stink.

The girl stopped him.

Her clear voice, repeated through the translator on her arm, said: Its all right. Its not a Watcher ship. Look.

Unbelieving, Redlaw and the boy craned their necks to stare upward.

The vehicle that was settling down on them was far larger than any Watcher ship either had ever seen. Even the colors were different: bright silver, crisp black, a flare of yellow-white gas from its underjets.

Theyve come to rescue us, Zara said. Were safe now. All of us.



FOURTEEN | Farthest Star | SIXTEEN



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