Read The Incredible Tide Online

Authors: Alexander Key

The Incredible Tide (6 page)

“I—I can't tell you. It's a long way.”

“Then take me close enough so I can find it alone. I'll never tell anyone you helped me.”

“You promise?”

“Of course I promise! Now let's go.”

When Jimsy finally left her, she was on a ridge far south of High Harbor. Somewhere below, on her right, was a ravine where Orlo's camp was hidden.

The area seemed vaguely familiar, but she did not recognize it until she had crept down to the ravine and saw the tiny stream. Her eyes widened at the sight of water trickling over the flat rocks, making a series of pools. She knew the pools instantly. They were just as they were five years ago, when she and Mazal had stopped here to drink. The only change was in the trees. They'd been a thick, feathery growth when she'd first seen them, just right for cushioning the fall of the little craft when Mazal had been forced to land.

She couldn't make out the craft now, for the trees had grown tall enough to hide it completely. But she knew exactly where it was.

For a moment she hesitated, knowing she would be foolish to go ahead. Then she thought of the precious ax. It was a slender tool of solid steel, light enough for a girl to use, and it had to serve everyone living at the south corner of the harbor.

Her mouth set determinedly. She clenched her small hands and moved swiftly forward.

Suddenly she smelled meat cooking, and seconds later found herself on the edge of a partially cleared space. Directly in front of her a boy was crouched beside a smoldering fire, slowly turning something spitted on a green sapling held up by forked stakes. It looked like the whole carcass of a goat.

With one quick glance Lanna took in the empty huts and shelters on the right, the little aircraft that lay wedged in the trees like a flattened teardrop, and the pile of wood beyond the fire. The ax that had cut the wood lay on the ground beside it.

It seemed almost too good to be true to find Orlo's camp deserted save for the boy at the fire. The others were probably away foraging somewhere.

With her eye on the boy, whose back was to her, she slipped quietly around to the pile of wood. The ax was almost within reach when she heard a small metallic sound on her left. Her head jerked about, and she froze.

Orlo had just swung out of the little aircraft. He stood leaning against it, lazily chewing meat from a bone while he studied her insolently with narrowed eyes. He had the beginnings of a beard, of which he seemed very proud, for he kept twisting the point of it with his free hand. With his unkempt hair and soiled goatskin jacket he made her think of a young, and decidedly unpleasant, pagan deity she had once read about.

“Well, well, well!” he said softly. “Just look who's come to see papa!” Abruptly he flung the bone in the direction of the fire—an action that rewarded him with an instant yelp—and added, “Why didn't you tell me we had company, Limpy?”

“I—I didn't see her, Orlo!” Limpy protested. “Honest—”

“Someday, Limpy, I'm gonna slice you up in little frying-size pieces.” Orlo's eyes flicked back to Lanna. “Oh, no you don't, chickie. The ax stays here.”

“It does
not
stay here,” she said coldly, picking it up. “You've another ax yonder!” She pointed to one with a broken handle. “Why don't you fix it? This one has to serve twenty people.”

“Didn't you hear me? I said it stays here.
Put it down
.”

Lanna ignored him and whirled away. She heard his swift approach, and knew she could have stopped it with the ax. But she could not bring herself to use it as a weapon.

She paid for her decision by having the ax snatched out of her hand. The next instant she received a vicious slap that sent her sprawling.

Somehow she got to her knees, her breath coming in frightened gasps. This was a different Orlo from the rebellious youth who had given Shann so much trouble over a year ago. This was a dangerous animal who had discovered he could do exactly as he pleased. In some part of her mind that continued to work in spite of the blow, she realized two things in an instant—Orlo was going to be a menace to all of High Harbor, and she would never leave here safely unless she managed to trick him.

“It's time you learned about me,” she heard him say. “Get up, chickie. We gonna have a little talk. And don't try skipping off, or you'll really catch it.”

She refused to move. I've got to make him knock me down again, she thought dazedly. And I must fall just right. But first I must make him mad.

“You're the worst kind of scummy thief,” she began, with all the cold loathing she could muster. “The rest of us work hard for what we have, and we share it so everyone can eat. But you don't do a thing to help. You steal. Anyone so low that he'd steal food from young ones half his size—”

“Shut up!”

“—is worse than a rat. And you're stupid! You're actually killing the poor animals we're trying to save for wool—”

All at once, like a striking snake, his hand shot out and jerked her to her feet. The next instant she was reeling back from a tremendous blow against the side of her head. Only the rumpled hood of her cloak saved her from being knocked senseless. It was hard to keep her wits, but somehow she managed to fall close to the fire—so close that she could feel the hot ashes in her hands.

She forced herself to remain motionless until she heard him move close. Then she plunged her hands into the coals, whirled, and heaved burning coals and ashes directly into his face.

He yelled and began cursing as he clawed frantically at his eyes. Before he realized what she was doing, she was on her feet and swinging a stick she had snatched from the pile of wood.

It took three hard swings to knock Orlo down, but when he finally fell he lay still. She threw the stick at the gaping Limpy, sending him hobbling away from her, then she caught up the ax and ran.

5

PATCH

I
T MAY HAVE BEEN MIDNIGHT, OR LONG AFTER, WHEN
Conan became aware that someone was approaching. In his tiny prison he could only guess the time, for no clock struck the hour and no star was visible in the overcast sky. The darkness would have been absolute save for the feeble glow of light coming from the area of the administration building.

He had been given neither food nor water since leaving the survey boat, and by now his thirst had become a torment. Hopefully he peered through the wall slit on his right, trying to distinguish form and movement in the shadow. Before he could make out anything, he was startled by a low whisper at the edge of the slit.

“Conan?”

“Teacher!” he said hoarsely.

“S-s-s-sh! Never use that name while you are here.” A bony hand came through the slit and gripped his own. “Just call me Patch, or even Patchy.”

“Yes, sir. Lord, but it's good to see you! Of all the places to find you—I wouldn't have dreamed—”

“I've been here nearly four years. And of course I've been expecting you—but more of that later. Our time is short. Now listen carefully, son. I brought a plastic bag of water, and two rations of food. Eat every bit of the food before dawn. Don't leave even a crumb for somebody to find. After you've eaten, finish the water, every drop of it, and hide the bag until tomorrow night. You can roll it up and put it in your boot, or stuff it in a crack in the wall. Here's the food. Set it on the floor, then I'll slide the water bag through the window.”

Conan recognized the food by the feel of it, for he had had it on the boat. It was a pair of sandwiches made of synthetic materials, obviously the product of machines. He thrust the unpalatable things in a corner and reached eagerly for the water bag. After untying the knot in the top, he let part of the contents trickle into his parched throat, then carefully retied the bag and placed it by the sandwiches.

“This place hasn't any regular guards,” Teacher said quickly. “But someone's always on the prowl, checking on things. So I'll have to make this fast. Whatever they decide to do with you later, they'll punish you first. They'll hold you here with barely enough water to keep you alive. That's their way. It might be wise to do your sleeping during the day, and put on an act when anyone comes to have a look at you. Now, if matters turn bad and I have to free you, I'll find a way—”

“Don't worry about getting me out,” Conan interrupted. “I can break down the door anytime. I was getting ready to smash it this afternoon, just before I saw you. If you hadn't come when you did—”

“Thank God I got here! It's almost impossible to escape from Industria alone. Together, we'll have a chance.” The old man paused and chuckled softly. “Ah, how I would have loved seeing what happened in the commissioner's office! You must have grown into a powerful fellow. But watch it, son. Don't lose your temper again, or we'll never make it.”

“I'll be careful.”

“You don't have to crawl. Just be negative.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Now here's the situation. I'm in the boat shop, and I need another helper—a strong one.”

“I heard someone say you'd been trying to get more help.”

Teacher chuckled again. “I started that talk long ago. I knew you were alive, just as Lanna knew it, and I was sure the survey ship would find you in time. So I've been getting ready. Now, if they won't let me have you in the shop, I've another plan—”

The old man broke off abruptly, then whispered, “Here comes a prowler. See you tomorrow night.…”

The prowler turned out to be someone on a clattering bicycle making a casual inspection of the waterfront. By the time the bicycle came close enough for its rider to flash a light into his cell, Conan was stretched upon the floor, apparently asleep. The food rations and water were tucked safely out of sight in a corner.

He finished the food and water before dawn, and hid the plastic bag in a deep crack in the wall. The long day that followed was much like the first. No one brought him anything, or even stopped to speak. He managed to sleep through the afternoon. When he awoke the workers were leaving the buildings on his left, and the survey vessel was no longer tied up at the distant pier. Evidently she had put to sea again in search of the man who was already here as a prisoner.

Early that night, long before Teacher was due, two bicycles clattered up and stopped, and a light played over him. He was surprised when a woman's voice ordered impersonally, “On your feet, brand. We've brought your water allowance. Drink it, and return the bottle.”

A small plastic bottle was passed through the front opening, and another voice, also a woman's, said, “We advise you to drink it slowly. It will have to do you for two more days.”

In spite of the water he had had last night, thirst was beginning to torment him once more, and he had no trouble finishing the bottle. Both women carried flashlights, and by the occasional flickers from them he saw that they were as old as Dr. Manski, and had the same cold grimness in their features. He suddenly wondered why everyone in this unpleasant place seemed to be middle-aged. Weren't there
any
young people here?

“You called me a brand,” he said. “I thought I was supposed to be an apprentice citizen.”

“As long as you have that cross on your forehead,” one woman told him, “you'll be a brand to us. Frankly, we haven't too much use for brands. They're seldom to be trusted.”

“Thank you,” he muttered. “I'm surprised you even bothered to bring me water. Aren't you afraid to speak to me? Everyone else seems to be.”

“We happen to be citizens first class,” the other woman informed him sharply.

“And that gives you the right to speak?”

“It gives us many rights, including the use of bicycles.”

“Oh. And all lower forms of life have to walk?”

“If you're below first class, and haven't grown wings, you can just bet you walk!”

Conan scowled at their dim faces. “If you are so important, why are you out doing guard duty at night?”

“Because the safety of Industria is our responsibility.”

“And we can't leave it to inferiors,” added her companion. “Too much can go wrong. A broken wire, a faulty valve—” She paused, and said, “But you need never trouble your head about responsibilities. With the points against you, it'll be a wonder if you ever make citizen third.”

The other snorted. “He shouldn't be given the chance. Independence has warped his mind. He's as bad as that devilish old Patch.”

“Who's Patch?” Conan asked innocently.

“Another brand who should have been disqualified. If I'd had my way—”

“But Patch is needed,” said the other. “Who else can build boats? Frankly, if he's turned over to Patch, it ought to satisfy everyone.”

“Everyone except Repko. You in there, if you're through with the bottle, pass it back. We can't stand here all night.”

Conan was glad to see them go. Later that night, when he told Teacher about them, it brought forth an amused chuckle.

“Pair of harpies,” said the old man. “They're not the worst here, but you'll find them typical of the first class. They're pretty tough.”

“From all I've heard, you seem to have a reputation for being tough yourself.”

“Yes. I've built it up carefully. Without it, we wouldn't be in a position to escape.”

“How do you mean?”

“Son, I'm the only brand here with any kind of authority. I've had a chance at citizenship, but I've managed to keep away from it.”

“But why? I should think that would be a help.”

“Not at all. It would have taken me away from the boat shop, especially at night. Except for Tellit, the place is mine. I even sleep there.”

“Who's Tellit? Your helper?”

“Yes. He's working for citizenship, and will do anything to get it. So don't trust him.”

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