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Chapter Six

THE ROOM WAS very quiet, very cool, the light soft and restful to the eyes. A faint scent of perfume hung in the air, gentling the more acrid odor of antiseptics, almost killing the elusive hint of spice. Something made tiny, metallic sounds to one side and he could hear the sound of breathing. Dumarest turned his head. A woman, no longer young, sat on a low stool before a squat machine. She was simply dressed in green, a caduceus emblazoned on her breast. She smiled as she saw the opened eyes.

"You are in the tents of the Matriarch of Kund," she said. "I am her personal physician. You are safe and have nothing to fear."

She was efficient. She had answered his anticipated questions. Her voice was dry, a little precise, but softer than he would have guessed. Dumarest looked past her at the soft hangings of the room, the thick carpet on the floor, the squat machine beside his couch. From it came the tiny, metallic clicking. The woman frowned.

"Did you understand what I said?"

"Yes." Dumarest swallowed, surprised that he felt no pain. He touched his throat; it was unmarked, unswollen. He looked at his arm. It was covered by the sleeve of a shirt. The shirt was of a silken, metallic fiber. He was fully dressed, even to his boots, but the clothes were not his own.

"You made no comment."

"There was no need." He sat upright and swung his legs over the side of the couch. "I assume that I have been given some kind of medication."

"You know?"

"I guessed." He stretched, wondering a little at his feeling of well-being. He felt as he did after waking from a passage. He had been bathed, of course, and drugged and dressed in new clothes. He must also have been fed with intravenous injections of quickly-assimilated concentrates. He wondered why the old woman had treated him so well.

"The Matriarch is no lover of the Prince of Emmened," said the physician. She seemed able to read his mind or perhaps it was simply the extrapolation of the obvious. "It pleased her to see his fighter die."

"I killed him?"

She leaned forward a little, her eyes watchful. "You remember?"

Dumarest nodded, wondering just what had happened after he'd made his final effort. Bone had snapped, that he could remember, and it must have been Moidor's neck. Then Megan had rushed forward, his face distorted with excitement. But after?

"You were an automaton," explained the woman. "You stood and moved but without conscious awareness. The final exertion had thrown you into metabolic shock. You had overstrained your resources. Left alone you would have collapsed and, without proper treatment, could have died. The Matriarch recognized what had happened and took you under her protection."

And, thought Dumarest grimly, had undoubtedly saved his life. The treatment he had needed was unavailable in camp and no one else would have risked the enmity of the prince by supplying it.

"How long have I been here?"

"I put you under slow-time. Subjectively you have been unconscious for a week. In actual time it has been a little under four hours."

She turned to study the machine. Lights glowed from behind transparent windows, flickering to the rhythm of the metallic clicks, casting small splotches of color over her face. Thoughtfully Dumarest massaged his throat. The equivalent of a week's skilled medication would more than account for his fitness. But slow-time is expensive. The old woman had been more than generous.

"I would like to see the Matriarch," he told the physician. "I want to give her my thanks for what she did."

"That will not be necessary."

"I think that it is."

"What you think," she said flatly, "is of no real importance." She did not turn from the machine. "Later, if she should wish, you may have the opportunity of meeting her."

Her meaning was crystal clear. He had been reminded that while the Matriarch ruled a complex of worlds he was nothing but a penniless traveler. Her generosity had been impersonal, the satisfying of a whim. She no more expected thanks from him than she would from a starving dog she had ordered to be fed.

The machine ceased its clicking. Stooping close the woman read the symbols in the transparent windows and frowned. Impatiently she pressed several buttons and slammed her hand on the release. The clicking began again, this time at a higher tempo.

"A diagnostic machine?" Dumarest had reason to be interested. She guessed his concern.

"Partially, yes. I have been giving you a routine check. You may be interested to learn that you have no contagious disease, virus infection, malignant growth or organic malfunction. Also that you have no trace of any foreign objects implanted in or on your body." She hesitated. "And I was totally unable to discover any sign of any post-hypnotic suggestion or mental conditioning impressed on your subconscious."

He relaxed, smiling. "Did that machine tell you all that?"

"That and more." She glanced at the windows again as the machine fell silent. She frowned, then turned to face him. "There are some questions I would like to ask. I have been studying your physique and encephalogram together with the constituents of your blood and your glandular secretions. I am somewhat puzzled. Where were you born?"

"Are you saying that I am not wholly human?"

Impatiently she brushed aside the suggestion. "It isn't that. This machine contains the encoded data of all known physiology down to the molecular level. With the information I have introduced, it should be able to tell me on which world you originated. It has failed to do so. Therefore the machine is either malfunctioning or you originated on a world of which it has no knowledge." She paused. "It is not malfunctioning."

"Therefore, by your logic, I must originate on a world of which it has no knowledge." Dumarest smiled. "Is that so incredible? There are countless inhabited worlds."

"Not quite so many—and the machine embraces all that are known."

Dumarest shrugged. "Assuming that to be true, haven't you overlooked the possibility of mutation?"

"No. That is not the reason. What is the name of your native world?"

"Earth."

She frowned, her lips thinning with anger. "Please do not jest; I am serious. Many races so call the substance of their planet as they call it dirt or soil. What is the name of your primary?"

"Sol."

"This is ridiculous!" She rose to her feet, insulted. "I ask you the name of your sun and you reply with a word meaning exactly the same. Sun!" She almost spat the word. "What sun?"

"The Sun." He rose and smiled down at her, amused by her anger. "I assure you that I am telling the truth."

She snorted and left the room. After a while he tried to follow and a guard blocked his passage. She was almost as tall as himself. Massive doses of testosterone had accentuated her masculine characteristics. She faced him, one hand resting lightly on the butt of her bolstered weapon.

"No." Her voice was deep, as strong as her determination. "You are to wait here."

"Wait? For what?"

She didn't answer and Dumarest returned to the couch. He lay down, enjoying the softness of the bed, idly studying the motif on the ceiling. He had no objection to being detained in such luxurious surroundings.


* * * | The Winds of Gath | * * *



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