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Chapter Nine

THE PATH veered more to the east so that the upper rim of the sun fell below the horizon and only a dull, red glow shone from beyond the sea. The stars were brighter now, limning the bulk of the mountains which waited ahead, casting a thin, ghost-light on the grass and the boulders to either side. Far below, from the base of the cliffs, the muted roar of the waves sounded like the pounding of a monstrous heart.

Gloria hated the sound. She sat beneath the canopy of her raft and felt her own heart pick up the rhythm and adjust to its tempo. It was too slow. She felt her blood grow turgid, her thoughts dull. Irritably she sniffed at her pomander and concentrated on other things: the line of the column stretching behind; the shorter line reaching ahead. The Prince of Emmened was in the van, no longer whipping his bearers now that he was in the lead. The lights on his rafts looked like miniature stars.

"An unusual sight, My Lady." Dyne sat beside her, his face shielded by his cowl. The scarlet of his robe looked the color of congealed blood in the dim light. He looked at the cavalcade, the combination of pomp and pride and poverty unique to Gath. The Matriarch was unimpressed.

"I have seen better," she snapped. "The installation of a matriarch of Kund is a sight I have yet to see equaled."

"Naturally, My Lady."

"You doubt?"

"No, My Lady. But this spectacle is of nature rather than man." He lifted his face to the heavy air. The tension had increased so that it lay like a hot, crackling blanket over the area. Wisps of electrical energy glowed at the tips of metallic protuberances. The storm was very close. He said so. The Matriarch shrugged.

"We spent much time in camp and killed our early advantage." The time had not been wasted. Gloria looked at the cyber, breathed deeply of the chemicals rising from her pomander, and spoke what was on her mind. "You are sure of your findings?"

"Yes, My Lady."

"And Melga?"

"She too, My Lady."

The Matriarch nodded, her eyes thoughtful at the expected answer. She had seen the physician later than Dyne, sitting slumped in her chair, her face sagging with the weight of fatigue. She had shown her yearsa great many years, but they had given her skill as well as experience. Her body shaken with the effects of drugs, she had made her report.

"Our findings are as expected, My Lady. I have verified the prediction and have made some attempt to isolate the relevant factors. I"

The Matriarch had been kind. She had permitted the physician to sleep. She was still asleep, lying in one of the tented rafts, glucose and saline dripping into her veins, the magic of slow-time adding to her therapy. But her report had vindicated Dyne's answer. They had found one of the secrets of Gath.

"The animals, then, are telepathic?"

"Yes, My Ladyas I predicted." His eyes shone with his sole pleasure. "Once it was clear that they had no auditory system the logical extrapolation was obvious. No creature can be totally devoid of survival characteristics; some breed with incredible fecundity, some can race the wind, or have amazing powers of vision or scent. Others have the power of camouflage. None are wholly deaf."

A basket stood at his feet. He stooped, opened it, took out a small, furry creatureone of those captured by the guards. It struggled for a moment then relaxed as he stroked the featureless head.

"There are historical cases of species being so defenseless that they are now extinct," he continued. "They are rare. This animal has no special powers of scent or vision, hardly any camouflage and a relatively low rate of reproduction. Also it is quite deaf. It should make easy prey." His hand continued its soothing rhythm. "The stranded travelers have done their best to catch the creatures for use as food. They failed. Yet the beasts are numerous and have little defensive equipment. Physical equipment, naturally."

The Matriarch was paying little attention. She concentrated on the animal. "Why isn't it afraid?"

"Because I am concentrating on harmless thoughts," said the cyber. "I mean it no harm. In a short while I shall release it. But if I were to think of other things. Of killing it, for example"

His hand ceased its soothing motion. The animal tensed then, suddenly, and went wild with terror.

"You see?" Dyne released the creature. It jumped from the raft and was immediately lost in the undergrowth. "It could only have sensed my thoughts. Not actual words, of course, it has no language or means of verbal communication so could not have thought in a verbal sense. It sensed my intention. It must be very sensitive."

Gloria nodded, her forehead creased with thought, her heart beating to a rising excitement. Telepathy was not an unknown talent in the cluster of worlds which had known the foot of Man but it was, at best, an unpredictable thing spawned by sport mutations and wholly unreliable. If these creatures had compensated for their lack of hearing by developing a telepathic ability then they were unique.

Unique because they were of flesh and blood and physiologically akin to the human race.

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