Authors: Terry Carr
Tags: #Science Fiction
Manning paused, looking appraisingly at the faces before him. “Most of you are armed already, I see. We have some extra stunners here; if you need them, come on up. But remember, the men who carry the shockers will be in front; and their business will be simply to down the horses—any killing that's to be done will be left to those of you who have knives, or anything lethal.”
There was a rising wave of voices from the crowd. Some men came forward for weapons; Rynason saw others drawing knives and hatchets, and a few of them had heavy guns, projectile type. Rynason watched with narrowed eyes; it had been a filthy maneuver on Manning's part to organize this mob, and his open acceptance of their temper was dangerous. Once they were turned loose, what could stop them?
There was a sudden shouting in the back of the mob; men surged and fell away, cursing. Rynason heard scuffing back there, and sounds of bone meeting flesh. The men at the front of the mob turned to look back, and some tried to shove their way through to the fight.
A scream came from the midst of the crowd, and was answered by an excited, angry swelling of voices around the fighting men. Suddenly Manning was among them, smashing his way through with a stunner in his hand, swinging it like a club.
“Get the hell out of the way!” he shouted, stepping quickly through the men. They grumbled and fell back to let him by, but Rynason heard the men still fighting in the rear, and then he saw them. There were three of them, two men and what looked like a boy still in his teens. The boy had red hair and a dark, ruddy complexion: he was new to the outworlds. The two older men had the pallor of the Edge drifters, nurtured in the artificial light of spacers and sealed survival quarters on the less hospitable worlds.
The larger of the two men had a knife, a heavy blade of a type that was common out here; many of the men used them as hatchets when necessary. This one dripped with blood; the smaller man's left arm was torn open just below the shoulder, and hanging uselessly. He stood swaying in the dust, hurling a string of curses at the man with the knife, while the boy stood slightly behind him, staring with both fear and hatred in his eyes. He had a smaller knife, but he held it loosely and uncertainly at his side.
Manning stepped between them. He had sized up the situation already, and he paused now only long enough to bite out three short, clipped words which told these men exactly what he thought of them. The man with the knife stopped back and muttered something which Rynason didn't hear.
Manning raised the stunner coldly and let him have it. The blast caught the man in the shoulder and spun him around, throwing him into the crowd; several of them went down. The long knife fell to the ground, where dirt mixed with the blood on it. There was silence.
Manning looked around him, swinging the stunner loosely in his hand. After a moment he said calmly, but loud enough for all to hear, “We won't have time for fighting among ourselves. The next man who starts anything will be killed outright. Now get these men out of here.” He turned and strode back through the mob while the boy and a couple of the other men took the wounded away.
Malhomme had moved further into the crowd. He was strangely silent; usually he went among these men roughly and jovially, cursing them all with goodnatured ease. But now he stood watching the men around him with a frown creasing his heavily lined face. Malhomme was worried, and Rynason, seeing that, felt his stomach tighten.
Manning faced the men from the front of the crowd. He stared at them shrewdly, holding each man's gaze for a few seconds. Then he grinned, and said, “Save it for the horses, boys. Save it for them.”
Rynason rode out to the field with Manning, Stoworth, and a few of the others. It was a short trip in the landcar, and none of them spoke much. Even Stoworth rode silently, his usual easy flow of trivia forgotten. Rynason was thinking about Manning: he had handled the outbreak quickly and decisively enough, keeping the men in line, but it had been only a temporary measure. They would be expecting some real action soon, and Manning was already offering them the Hirlaji. If the alarm turned out to be a false one, would he be as easily able to stop them then?
Or would he even try?
The flyers were ready when they got to the field, but Mara was gone. Les Harcourt met them at the radio office on the edge of the field; he was the communications man out here. He led them into the low, quick-concrete construction office and shoved some forms at Manning to be signed.
“If there's any trouble, you'll be responsible for it,” he said to Manning. “The men can look out for themselves, but the flyers are Company property.”
Manning scowled impatiently and bent to sign the papers.
“Where's Mara?” Rynason asked.
“She's already taken one of the flyers out,” Harcourt said. “Left ten minutes ago. We've got her screen in the next room.” He waved a hand toward the door in the rear of the room.
Rynason went on back and found the live set. The screen, monitored from a camera on the flyer, showed the foothills of the southern mountains over which Mara was flying. They were bare and blunt; the rock outcroppings which thrust up from the Flat had been weathered smooth in the passage of years. Mara was passing over a low range and on to the desert beyond.
Rynason picked up the mike. “Mara, this is Lee; we just got here. Have you found them yet?”
Her voice came thinly over the speaker. “Not yet. I thought I saw some movement in one of the passes, but the light wasn't too good. I'm looking for that pass again.”
“All right. We'll be going up ourselves in a few minutes; if you find them, be careful. Wait for us.”
He refitted the mike in its stand and rose. But as he turned to the door her voice came again: “There they are!”
He looked at the screen, but for the moment he couldn't see anything. Mara's flyer was coming down out of the rocky hills now, the Flat stretching before her on the screen. Rynason could see the pass through which she had been flying, but there was no movement there; it took him several seconds to see the low ruins off to the right, and the figures moving through them.
The screen banked and turned toward them; she was lowering her altitude.
“I see them,” he said into the mike. “Can't make out what they're doing, on the screen. Can you see them any more clearly?”
“They're entering one of the buildings down there,” she said after a moment. “I've counted almost twenty of them so far; they must all be here.”
“Can you go down and see what they're doing? The sooner we find out, the better: Manning's got a pretty ugly bunch of so-called vigilantes on the way out there.”
She didn't reply, but on the screen he saw the crumbling buildings grow larger and nearer. He could make out individual structures now: a wall had fallen and was half-buried in the dust and sand; an entire roof had caved in on another building, leaving only rubble in the interior. It was difficult to tell sometimes when the original lines of the buildings had fallen: they had all been smoothed by the wind-blown sand, so that broken pillars looked almost as though they had been built that way, smooth and upright, solitary.
At last, he saw the Hirlaji. They were slowly mounting the steps of one of the largest of the buildings and passing into the shadows of the interior. This building was not as deteriorated as most of the others; as Mara's flyer dipped low over it Rynason could see its characteristic lines unbroken and clear.
With a start, he sat up and said hurriedly, “Mara, take another close pass over that building, the one they're entering.”
In a moment she came in again over the smooth stone structure, and Rynason looked closely at the screen. There was no mistaking it now: the high steep steps leading up to a colonnade which almost circled the building, the large carvings over the main entrance.
“You'd better set down away from them!” he said. “That's the Temple of Kor!” But even as he finished speaking the image on the screen jolted and rocked, and the flyer dipped even closer toward the jumbled ruins below.
“They're firing something!”
He saw that she was trying to gain altitude, but something was wrong; the buildings on the screen dipped and wavered, up and down, spinning.
“Mara! Pull up—get out of there!”
“One of the wings is damaged,” she said quickly, and suddenly there was another jolt on the screen and he heard her gasp. The picture spun and righted itself, seemed to hang motionless for a moment, and then the stone wall of one of the buildings was directly ahead and growing larger.
The image spun wildly, the building filled the screen, and then it went black; he heard a crash from the speaker, cut off almost before it had sounded. The room was silent.
Rynason stared at the dead screen for only a moment; he wheeled and ran back to the outer room.
“Let's get those flyers up! Mara's found them, but they've brought her down.” He was already going out the door as he spoke.
Manning and the others were right behind him as he dashed out onto the field. Rynason headed for the nearest flyer, a small runabout which had been discarded as obsolete on the inner worlds and consigned to use out here on the Edge, where equipment was scarce. He leaped through the port and was shutting the door when Manning caught it.
“Where are they? What's happened to the woman?”
“They were shooting something!” Rynason snapped. The knife-scar over his right eye stood out sharply in his anger. “She crashed—may be badly hurt. She didn't have too much altitude, though. The hell with where she is—
He slammed the door and squeezed into the flying seat. While he warmed the engines he saw the others scattering across the field to the other flyers. In a moment the hum of the radioset told him that their communications were open. He saw the props of the other flyers starting to turn, and flicked on his mike.
“They're on the other side of the south range,” he said quickly. “She didn't give me coördinates, but I should be able to find the spot. When we get there, we land away from the city and go in on foot.”
Manning's voice came coldly through the radioset: “Are you giving orders now, Lee?”
“Right now I am, yes! If you want to try going in before reconnoitering, that's your funeral. They have weapons.”
“When we touch ground again I'll take over,” Manning said. “Now let's get going—Lee, you're first.”
But Rynason was already starting his run across the field. When he had some speed he kicked in the rocket booster and fought the little flyer skyward. When he had caught the air he banked southward and fed the motors all he had. He didn't look around for the others; he was setting his own pace.
The mountain range was ten miles to the south; they should be able to make it in five or six minutes, he figured. Below him on the dry Flat he saw the pale shadow of his flyer skimming across the dust. The drone of the motors filled the compartment.
The radio cut in again. It was Manning. “What's this about a city, Lee? Is that where they are?”
“The City of the Temple,” Rynason said. “It's down among overhanging rocks—no wonder we hadn't seen it before. Doesn't seem to have been used for centuries or more. But that's where the Temple of Kor is—and the Hirlaji are all in the Temple.”
Static hissed at him for a moment. “How did they bring her down?” someone asked. It sounded like Stoworth.
“Probably the disintegrators,” Rynason said. “The Hirlaji don't have many of them, but they've got enough power to give us a lot of trouble.”
“And they're using them, eh?” Manning said. “What do you think of your horses now, Lee?”
Rynason didn't answer.
In a few minutes they were over the range. Rynason had to scout for awhile before he found the pass he had seen on Mara's screen, but once he saw it below him he followed it out to the other side. The city was there, lying darkly amid the shadows of the mountains. Rynason banked off and set down half a mile away.
He waited for the others to land before he left the flyer. He took a pair of binocs from the supply kit and trained them on the city across the Flat, but he couldn't find Mara's fallen flyer.
When they were all down he clambered out of the compartment and alighted heavily in the dust. Manning strode quickly to him, wearing twin stunners. He took one from its holster and fingered it thoughtfully as he spoke.
“The main party was back in the pass. They should be here inside half an hour. We'll storm the temple immediately—we've got them outnumbered.”
Rynason made a dubious sound deep in his throat, looking out at the city. He was remembering that he had seen it before from this Flat ... and had stormed it before. The defensive walls were high.
“They can fire down on us from the walls,” he said in a low voice. “There's no cover out there—they'd wipe half of us out before we could get in.”
“We can come around from the pass,” Manning said. “There's plenty of cover from that direction.”
“And more fortification, too!” Rynason snapped. “Just remember, Manning, that city was built as a fortress. We'd
to come from the Flat.”
Manning paused, frowning. “We've got to take them anyway,” he said slowly. “Damn it, we can't just stand here and wait for them to come out at us. What are they doing, anyway?”
Rynason regarded the older man for several moments, almost amused. “Right now,” he said, “they're probably having a conference—with the Outsiders. That's where the machine is, remember.”
“Then the sooner we attack, the better,” Manning said. “Marc, get the main party on the hand-radio—tell them to get here as fast as they can.” He turned for a moment to look out across the Flat at the city. “And you can promise them some action,” he said.
Stoworth dropped the radio from his shoulder and threw back the cover. He switched on the power, and static sounded in the dry air. He lifted the mike ... and a voice cut through the static.
“Is anyone picking this up? Is anyone there?”
It was Mara's voice.
Rynason knelt beside the set and took the mike from Stoworth's hand. “This is Lee. Are you hurt?”