Perik crouched behind a bush, shivering with mingled impatience and fear. Out in the clearing something waited, yet she had to go that way. Go that way, and soon! She whimpered, muzzle low to the ground as she peered through bluish-green foliage. A sheer cliff rose to her right, and on her other side the swamp crowded close. The clearing was her only path to her cubs, and it was blocked.
Amy looked out of place in her neatly pressed lab smock. Her blond hair and clear blue eyes called for a setting of fresh air and sunny skies, not this cramped underground cubicle, but she handled the test equipment with deft familiarity. The lab's airtight door was sealed, and pumps were slowly bringing the air pressure up to the desired fifty centimeters of mercury.
"How did you happen onto it?" Jewel, ebony skin gleaming in the humid air, helped with a rack of small animal cages. Looking only slightly older than Amy, she too moved with lithe athletic grace. "It's nowhere near the usual settings."
"Pure luck." Amy flashed a satisfied smile. "I set the portal controls for as far from here as they would go, then programmed for a random search. Neal's big machines are taking care of searching the most likely patterns, so I decided to have some fun."
The control panel with its proud 'World Traders, Inc.' nameplate was set just to one side of the trans-dimensional portal. Its six dials, each clearly marked with one hundred settings, gave it a range of ten to the twelfth possible combinations. Each one of those combinations addressed a different dimensional universe, many of them complete with planets, suns, star clusters and galaxies. In most of those universes the portal would open out into interstellar or even intergalactic space, but now and again the other end of the dimensional bridge would link with another planet. Many of these, most even, were barren balls of rock with atmospheres of poison gas or no air at all. Still, a few had breathable air, drinkable water, and life forms not too dissimilar from those on Earth.
"Everything's ready." Jewel seated herself at the console and pressed a button. A deep hum, like the sound of a distant swarm of impossibly huge bees filled the room. It rose in pitch, dwindling in volume until its faint whine faded into silence. The framework of the portal, an ovoid some two meters wide by three high, filmed over with a wash of pale blue light. By the time the hum faded completely, the ovoid was a solid sheet of blue that hid the painted concrete of the cubicle's wall.
Jewel turned a knob a tiny increment, and a spot of darkness marred the center of the oval. There was a faint movement of air as the pressure on both sides of the portal equalized. The spot of darkness expanded slightly, until the watchers' eyes could tell that it was an actual opening. Amy wheeled a gleaming machine into position, extending a metal and plastic arm through the opening. The opening clamped down on the arm, and a screen on the back of the machine came to life in brilliant colors.
"We're up too high. Lower us about fifty meters."
Jewel adjusted a knob on a secondary bank of controls, and their viewpoint settled close to the ground. Other than a few color differences the screen might almost have been showing them a subtropical scene on Earth.
"It looks normal enough," Jewel commented.
She moved another control. The picture flowed from right to left, panning around in a full circle. Their viewpoint was close to the base of a steep cliff, near the middle of an irregular clearing. The ground sloped down unevenly toward a tangled marsh, and on the other two sides dense vegetation blocked their view.
"I've already checked this area from just below the cloud cover," Amy responded to a questioning look from Jewel. "No town or villages that I could see, no signs of smoke, nothing but a few game trails, but I couldn't see very far."
"I'm just surprised that everything looks so familiar, so normal." Jewel glanced down at the settings of the primary controls. "The gravitational constant in that universe must be just about double ours. Let's see. Yes, one point nine five standard. And the speed of light is point four five C, while the rate of elapsed time is two and a quarter times what ours is."
An experienced portal operator, she could read at a glance the values of the physical constants that were the 'address' of a particular universe. Each knob on the panel related to a specific constant, and each combination of settings denoted a separate and distinct dimensional universe.
"It doesn't look too bad." Amy continued to study the screen. "Since the planet's diameter is just under ten thousand kilometers, the surface gravity is about one point six three standard gees. All right, dilate the portal a little and I'll start testing."
Few words were exchanged for the next hour. Amy and Jewel had worked together often enough to know just what each was apt to do next. Samples of soil and vegetation were brought in, examined and placed in containers for future, more thorough tests.
"Nothing too odd," Amy decided. "Now for the real test."
She fastened a small cage to the arm she had been using for testing and thrust it through the portal. Inside the cage crouched a white mouse, nose and ears twitching. She lowered the cage to the ground. The mouse nibbled at a point of leaf that stuck through the mesh, then backed away, its nose twitching in disgust. It sampled parts of other plants, all with much the same result.
"It won't eat any of them, but they don't seem to have done it any harm," Amy reported into a recorder. "Now, let's try a hamster."
She had first noticed a faint disagreeable odor. Perik had been retracing her earlier footsteps, doubly alert since her hunting foray had been barren of results. She needed to return to her hideaway, check that her children were safe, and set out again, this time armed for night hunting. She had to find food, and soon. Her spear had been lost the day before, and now she had only a bone knife to back up her own built-in weapons.
She had been about to enter the clearing when the faint stench drifted her way. At first, she saw nothing unusual. Without the smell it would have gone unnoticed, merely a troubling of the air like heat waves over a sun-baked ledge. It hung in the air like the eye of a legendary demon, turning in all directions before becoming still.
Perik crouched behind her bush, not daring to move. She was too close to back away without being seen, and anyway there was no way around. The cliff on one side and the swamp on the other saw to that. A stifled moan escaped from behind clenched fangs as the eye grew larger. A gleaming, strangely rigid arm reached out, scrabbled at the ground and drew back into nothingness. The eye of the demon hung there, growing larger or smaller as the arm reached through again and again.
The shadow of the cliff grew long across the clearing. She would have to hurry to reach the children before dark, and they would all go hungry this night. Perik moved slightly, easing cramped muscles. This was no place for her, out here braving dangers and demons. She should be with her mate, sharing his burdens in civilized comfort, but he was dead and she was on her own.
The eye of the demon grew large, and again the arm reached forth. This time it carried a shining basket, a cage that held something alive! Perik watched intently, aware of something she hadn't noticed before. This demon was slow, its arm moving awkwardly. Yet the tiny creature in the cage moved with darting speed. Perhaps she could cross the clearing in one frantic dash, be gone before the demon could move to stop her. The urge to be back with her children was an ache within her, an ever-mounting pain.
The tiny cage was drawn back into the eye, and a larger one brought forth. The arm moved clumsily to set it down, and then it happened. The cage caught on the corner of a rock and pulled free. The arm groped for it, seemingly unable to bend as a proper arm should. The cage was beyond the demon's reach. Now, to run past while the demon's thoughts were on the tipped cage...
The impulse died even as it was born. The demon's eye suddenly grew huge! Through it Pirek could see things so strange that her memories of them never did make sense. Then, through the demon's eye, came another of its creatures, tall and stalky, and of strange bright colors. With a shriek of fear and desperation, Pirek charged! The creature stumbled, falling directly in her path. Pirek scooped it up in her arms, carrying it with her into the forest!
Jewel hit the alarm button. In seconds, a squad of guards cycled in through the lab's emergency airlock.
"What's up, Jewel?" The squad leader, a veteran of combat on a dozen worlds, held his carbine at the ready.
"It's Amy. She stepped out through the portal for a second and something grabbed her. Looked like a fat, furry alligator with tentacles growing out of its shoulders. Went into the jungle that way. Watch it when you go through, Frank. The gravity's one point six gees out there."
"No trace of her," he reported moments later. "Was she wearing a beeper?"
"Of course! I must be getting senile."
She took a flat case from a drawer and snapped a switch. The box squealed as she held it up to the portal, and rattling, crashing noises came from it.
"Static!" Jewel spat the word as though it was a curse. "Here, put it outside the portal so that the frequencies match."
Once out in the clearing under the watchful guns of the guards, the box did pick up an occasional faint beep.
"About all I can tell is that it seems to be coming from that general direction," she decided, rotating the tiny loop antenna that popped up when the locator was turned on. "All right, everybody, back inside. We'll follow her with the portal."
The guards covered their retreat through the portal, and it shrank to a fist sized opening. Lifting high into the air, it left behind only a battered wire cage and a frightened hamster.
The creature lay limp in Perik's grasp. Perhaps it would serve to feed her cubs tonight. Or if the demon followed them, it would serve as a hostage. Her lungs labored as she crashed through the brush. She couldn't go much farther at this pace, and she was leaving much too clear a trail. As she slowed, the creature stirred and moaned. Keeping an arm wound twice around its middle, pinning one set of legs to its body, Perik lowered it to the ground and looked it over carefully.
Why, its wrappings seemed to be artificial! What she had thought to be folds of loose skin were removable coverings. Could this creature be civilized? The fastenings were complicated, and before all the coverings were removed the creature came fully awake. It squirmed and protested, but Pirek persisted until its skin was completely bare except for a few almost negligible patches of fur.
Satisfied that it carried no weapons large enough to be dangerous, Perik let the creature have its coverings back. Some of them had been damaged, but it seemed much calmer when it was partially covered. It eyed the strangely shaped club that had been strapped to its upper body, but made no move to reach for it. Pirek swept the rest of its belongings up in the curl of an arm.
"We go that way. Move," she commanded.
The creature didn't budge. She pushed at it with one hand, pointing which way to go. Reluctantly it started moving, awkwardly graceful on its long hind legs. Its front legs were used mostly for balancing, but had strangely jointed hands instead of proper feet. Perik's most careful examination had revealed its complete lack of arms.
It moved swiftly, seemingly at ease in the jungle, but never so fast that Pirek had trouble keeping up. She wondered that it didn't try to escape. Perhaps it wouldn't be able to find its way back to the demon through the gathering dusk.
They were almost to the hideaway when they were attacked. With a paralyzing roar the warb sprang at them, jaws agape. She twisted to meet it, cursing her lack of a spear, arms straining to keep its fangs from her throat. Its blunt claws tore at her belly as they rolled on the ground, its stubby feeding arms waving feebly. She held on, grimly aware that she hadn't the strength to hold it off for long. The gleaming rows of teeth caught the light of the setting sun, looking as though they were already dripping blood.
The warb was on top now, stubby legs straddling her body. Its weight was too much for her failing strength, already drained by a day without food. In another moment the fight would be over. She saw only the teeth that were about to meet in her throat. The blood would spray forth...
The warb shuddered in her grasp! It rolled limply away, pushed aside by the last of her strength. There had been a loud noise, like the breaking of a dead tree, only many times louder...
The demon's creature held its strange club, ready to strike again. It had been a weapon! Perik struggled to her feet, careful to make no sudden moves. What would the creature do, now that it had its weapon?
It made a sound, strange words that held no meaning, and pointed back the way they had come. Perik in turn pointed at the lowering sun, now almost out of sight behind the trees, then motioned the way they had been going. It spoke again, more urgently. Perik looped her arms together and squatted motionless in the dirt. The creature started to walk away, hesitated, then turned back to Perik.
Taking this as a sign of agreement, Perik picked up the body of the warb and led the way. The creature darted over to the pile of its belongings she had dropped when the warb attacked, picking up a few things before following her into the dusk.
Static crashed and sputtered, almost drowning out the faint beeping. Sweat beaded Jewel's brow, trickling down her cheek. The darkness on the other side of the portal was almost complete, and a curtain of rain veiled the trees. She strained to zero in on the beeper's faint cries, deftly nursing the portal's controls. The beeps grew stronger, clearer, then faded into a crackling silence.
Neal Marten had been watching over her shoulder, itching to take the controls himself but knowing that she was more skilled at this than he would ever be. Just past middle age, he too held himself with the assurance of perfect physical conditioning. He looked like a man of action, rather than the executive who had built World Traders, Inc. into one of the most influential of the trans-dimensional trading companies.
The beeper wasn't smashed," he mused half to himself. "It didn't cut off, it faded away. Like it had gone underground. Freeze the portal where it is. We'll put a whole company of high-gravity troops down there. How long does this planet's night last?"
"According to Amy's notes, the planet rotates in about fifteen hours. The time-flow ratio is about two point two five to one. That gives us about three more hours until dawn. Seven and a half hours down there."
That's too long, but it can't be helped." His hand rested lightly on her shoulder. "If she's still alive, we'll find her. If she isn't..."
"We'll find her. I'll keep watch here at the portal while you call out the troops." She rubbed her cheek against his hand where it rested on her shoulder, then turned all of her attention to her instruments.
Pirek knocked on the heavy door in a coded signal. The heavy planks were painted to look like rock, almost unnoticeable amidst jumbled boulders. The door swung open, revealing a stair that led down into darkness. The demon's creature ducked down, following on all fours as the door swung shut behind them. Patches of glowing fungus made a greenish twilight, revealing a low vaulted room carved into the rocky hillside.
"Mother! You're so late! We were worried when you didn't come back by dark."
"You did bring us food. Ugh, a warb."
"Look out! There's something following you!"
"Children! Be quiet, and don't frighten it. I don't know what it is, but it saved my life when the warb attacked us. I had captured it, and was bringing it here."
In terse sentences she told them of the demon's eye, and how the creature had appeared from empty air.
"That club it carries is a weapon, so don't try to touch it. Take the warb and prepare it for dinner. Now that we are safe I'm going to try to talk to the creature. It seems to have a language, but not one that I have ever heard."
The children dragged the warb from the room. Pirek fed the fire that smoldered in the fireplace, then offered the creature a flagon of water. It crouched near the center of the room, where its head barely cleared the ceiling. Raising the flagon to its mouth it sniffed carefully before taking a tiny sip. Another sip and another until the flagon was two-thirds empty. Setting the flagon on the floor, it spoke softly to her.
Perik curled her arms in a smile. It too wanted to learn, to be taught to speak true language.
"Perik." She tapped herself on the muzzle.
"Ai-Mee." It touched its face with a jointed finger. "Ai-Mee. Pay-Rick."
By the time the warb steaks were cooked, they had several dozen words between them. Ai-Mee tasted the meat of the warb, but did not eat. The meal ended, but Pirek and Ai-Mee continued the lesson far into the night.
"Morning Ai-Mee tribe come," it told them when it had words enough. "Take Ai-Mee back. Not hurt Pirek. Not hurt littles. Give good things."
"Give what things?" Pirek asked. "Club that kill?"
"Kar-binh." Ai-Mee laid a hand on the club. "Not good. Take long-long to learn use."
By now the children had lost their fear of this strange creature. Naldek, the son for whose sake she had fled to this place, was curled across its hind legs while its jointed fingers scratched and soothed the fur around his ears. His sisters, Pirtel and Wannest were snuggled down on either side of it, content to bask in the warmth of its attention.
Not for the first time she cursed the ill chance that had brought them here. Her brother Nallishek had been a good chief, fair and open-handed with his subjects. It had been the work of but a few men, supported by the traitor-priest Korrun that had brought him down to death. Her own husband, Oggban the Strong had been caught in the ambush with him. It was planned that the deaths be blamed on a neighboring tribe, the warlike n'Makkaroth, but Oggban had fought off death long enough to flee the scene. His dying command had been for her to escape, taking Naldeck with her. As the Chief's-sister's-son he was next in line for the crystal throne. She would be his regent until he came of age.
"Soon be light?" Ai-Mee stirred restlessly as Pirek placed another sick of wood on the fire.
"Soon. How will your tribe find you?"
"From this." It held up a tiny lump of black substance that had been among its coverings. "It need be outside. It call, tribe hear."
"Then come." Pirek lead the way back up the hallway, Ai-Mee crawling along behind. A faint trickle of light seeped in by the spy-hole, warning of the coming dawn. Pirek looked out cautiously before unbarring the door.
"Die, Chennith slut!"
The n'Makkaroth warrior plunged forward, spear upraised. Behind her, Ai-Mee's club made a flat barking sound, echoing doubly loud in this enclosed space. The warrior, blood flowing redly against the painted crimson stripes across his fur, slid forward on his belly and lay still. Pirek pulled him on out of the way, slammed and bolted the door.
"Quickly, this way."
She charged past Ai-Mee, around a corner and up a ramp, shouting for the children to follow. A blank wall fell open in front of her and she herded them inside. The darkness was unrelieved by any faint flicker of light, and the air was stale and musty. They crept forward through a tunnel that twisted and turned endlessly.
The low-voiced sigh of relief might have come from any of them as a dim patch of light appeared ahead. Like the rest of the hideaway, the room at the end of the tunnel was carved out of the solid rock of the hillside. This room, however was at the very crest of the hillside, looking out on slopes of bare rock. Through narrow slits of windows they could see furtive movement amidst the trees at the base of the hill.
"How did they find us?" Naldeck, wise beyond his tender years as befit the rightful heir to the crystal throne of the tribe Chennith, voiced the thought that had been floating in the back of her own mind.
"The same treachery that brought us here," she sighed. "I left word with one I trusted. Korrun has long preached that we need closer ties with neighboring tribes. He must have found out that we were here. A simple word to a priest of the n'Makkaroth would have done the rest."
A rhythmic thudding rose from among the trees at the base of the hill. A hint of movement revealed where n'Makkaroth warriors smashed a heavy boulder against the door to the hideaway.