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Page 12

Sil-Chan hung in his harness trying to breathe deeply while his mind replayed the whirling madcap landscape through which he had just dervished. He felt his heart pounding. His left shoulder ached.

That cost me half my longevity.

The adrenaline reaction began to set in. His hands trembled uncontrollably. He knew he would have to find a supply of anti-S soon. That dive had taken him through months of normal life.

The jetter creaked and settled slightly. A strange quiet intruded upon Sil-Chan's awareness. The quiet bothered him. Faint swishing grew discernible. A masculine voice intruded on the quiet.

"Hey in there! You all right?"

Sil-Chan could imagine the racing stream of robot emergency equipment which would have greeted such a landing on a regular field. He shuddered. All of the quiet, single-purposed reserve which had marked his life to this point dissolved like the mists around the island. It was as though he had passed through an invisible barrier to become an unexpected person on the other side.

"You funnel-mouthed, vacuum-headed idiots!" he bellowed.

The jetter trembled as someone forced open the door beside him. He turned his head, looked upside down into the face of a man who reminded him of a younger Director Tchung. It was the set of the eyes and the reserved look in a narrow face.

"You sound healthy enough," the man said. "Did you break anything?"

"No thanks to you!" Sil-Chan raged.

"Here, let me help you out of the harness," the man said. He knelt and gently helped Sil-Chan remove the crash harness. The man's hands were rough and there was unexpected strength in his arms. He smelled of some odd spice.

Sil-Chan winced as the straps were eased over his left shoulder.

"Bit of a bruise there," the man said. "Doesn't feel like anything's broken. How about your legs and back?"

"They're fine. Get me out of this stupid . . ."

"Easy there. Easy does it."

The man gentled Sil-Chan out the door and onto the grassy ground, helped Sil-Chan to sit up. There was an acrid fuel smell mixed with the odors of crushed grass. The sky swayed a bit above his rescuer.

"Just sit there a bit until you feel better," the man said. "You seem to be all in one piece."

Sil-Chan studied this first Dornbaker he had seen. The man was a loosely hung figure in a brown fringed jacket, tight pants. The jacket was open almost to his navel and exposed a smooth, almost hairless chest. The same could not be said of his head -- which was a tangle of black hair, some of which straggled over his forehead, He looked as primitive and wild as this island.

"David! David! Is he all right?"

It was the voice of the young woman at Free Island Control. She came panting around the end of the wrecked jetter, bare legs swishing in the long grass. At sight of Sil-Chan, she came to a stop and leaned against the jetter, gasping for breath. "Thank the Stone you weren't killed," she panted. "I ran all the way from Control."

Sil-Chan stared up at her: skin as dark as Tchung's but her hair was a golden cloud and her eyes were the blue of the misty sea, full of lurking merriment that even her obvious worry could not conceal. She, too, wore the oddly fringed clothing, but a curve of bright red blouse filled the wedge of her jacket. It came to Sil-Chan that she was the most delicately beautiful creature he had ever seen. He found himself unable to look away from that lovely face, the soft mouth, the tiny nose, the smooth rounding of chin and cheeks. All of the careful repression that had kept him grinning upward in the Archival hierarchy, everything of his past peeled away. It was an effort to wrench himself back to duty. He cleared his throat.

Before he could speak, she said: "I told them that runway was too short. But no! They had to get off right away on the hunt!"

"Easy, Hep," the man said. His voice floated out in an effortless baritone.

Sil-Chan shook his head to clear it of that lovely female vision. "Would you direct me to the Paternomer, please?" he asked.

"He won't be back for two days," the man aid. "I'm David. This is Hepzebah." He spoke the names as though they should convey important information. "We're to take care of you until the PN returns."

Stiffly, painfully, Sil-Chan levered himself to his feet, waving away David's profered help. "I have to see the Paternomer as soon as possible. Can you take me to him?" He glanced at the wreck. "This hardly seems the way to get to him anymore."

"We're very sorry about that," Hepzebah said. "Really, we had nothing to do with the arrangements."

"I'm afraid you'll have to wait for the PN's return," David said. "No way to get to him when he's on a hunt."

"But it's urgent and I . . ."

"You sure aren't going back mainland in that." Hepzebah indicated the wreck. "Best you stay. My brother here has tight quarters and he's a good host when he wants to be."


Once more, Sil-Chan found himself staring at Hepzebah. Lovely. Lovely. And such a charming name. There was a painful constriction in his chest where the crash harness could not have touched him. Brother. Sil-Chan had feared they might be a mated pair. She still might have a mate somewhere.

She blushed under the steadiness of his stare.

I mustn't stare. I must say something.

"It's a very nice day," he said.

"Yes, it is," she agreed. "Let's go over to David's." She waved at a low structure in the trees at the side of the field. Sil-Chan had not noticed it until she pointed, as though she had created the structure by some wild magic -- red-brown logs, rock chimney, small windows. It nestled among the trees as though it has grown there.

"You're favoring your left arm," David said. "We'd best go in and have a look at it." He turned and led the way across the tall grass.

Sil-Chan kept pace behind with Hepzebah walking close beside, studying him. There was a penetrating quality to her stare which made Sil-Chan uncomfortable but he would not have had her look away for anything. Lovely! "I'm sorry I blew up back there," he said.

"You had a perfect right," she said. "I'd have never permitted it, but the PN makes all his own rules. He sent us in from Big North Cape to greet you and didn't give us enough help. They wouldn't make other arrangements -- only what the PN ordered."

"There was the hunt," David said. He spoke without turning.

"The hunt!" she flared. "You're here because you're the Aitch/Aye." She turned to Sil-Chan. "David has to do all the official work that the PN doesn't want to do. The PN made me come because I wouldn't take the trothing. He thinks he's punishing me."

Sil-Chan shook his head. What were they talking about? He said: "I'm afraid I don't understand."

"He's from far mainland," David said. "You're making no sense to him." David slowed his pace and walked beside Hepzebah, speaking across her to explain. "Hep wouldn't accept the mate the brothers picked for her. Made the PN angry. She really doesn't have to accept, but the PN's K-cousins are expected to obey. Things are different with H- and B-cousins."

Sil-Chan stared back at David without comprehension.

"No sense yourself!" Hepzebah laughed.

"Is it some special language?" Sil-Chan asked.

David grinned. They were into the trees now, within only a few steps of a wide split-wood door into the house.

"It's Dornbakerish, I guess," David said. I'll try again. I was tolled off to greet you because the PN wouldn't miss the hunt. He's getting old and he figures he doesn't have many more. They're running fallow deer on Big Plain. That's why I'm here. I'm the Aitch Aye. That means I'll be PN when the present PN goes upStone. Hep's of the same line, a K-cousin. She . . ."

"What is a K-cousin?" Sil-Chan asked.

They stopped just outside the wide door of the house.

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