Voodoo Planet/Chapter IV
Dane regarded his throbbing feet morosely. Nymani's operations with burning splinters had been hard to take, but he had endured them without disgracing himself before the Khatkans, who appeared to regard such a mishap as just another travel incident. Now, with Tau's salve soothing the worst of the after affects, the Terran was given time to reflect upon his own stupidity and the fact that he might now prove a drag on the whole party the next morning.
Dane was startled out of the contemplation of his misery to see the medic on his knees before their row of canteens, the vial of water purifier held to the firelight for a closer inspection.
"What's the matter?"
"We must have hit with a pretty hard thump back there. Some of these pills are powder! Have to guess about the portion to add." With the tip of his knife blade Tau scraped a tiny amount of pill fragments into each waiting canteen. "That should do it. But if the water tastes a little bitter, don't let it bother you."
Bitter water, Dane thought, trying to flex his still swollen toes, was going to be the least of his worries in the morning. But he determined that his boots should go on at daybreak, and he would keep on his feet as long as the others did, no matter how much it cost him.
And when they set out shortly after daybreak, wanting to move as far as they could before the heat hours when they must rest, the going was not too bad. Dane's feet were tender to the touch, but he could shuffle along at the tail of the procession with only Nymani playing rear guard behind him.
Jungle lay before them and bush knives began to swing, clearing their path. Dane took his turn with the rest at that chore, thankful that the business of cutting their way through that mass of greenery slowed them to a pace he could match—if not in comfort, then by willpower.
But the sand worms were not the only troubles one could encounter on Khatka. Within an hour Captain Jellico stood sweating and speaking his mind freely in the native tongues of five different planets while Tau and Nymani worked as a team with skinning knives. They were not flaying the spaceman, but they came near to that in places as they worried a choice selection of tree thorns out of his arm and shoulder. The captain had been unfortunate enough to trip and fall into the embrace of a very unfriendly bush.
Dane inspected a fallen tree for evidence of inimical wild life, and then rested his blanket between him and it as a protecting cushion before he sat down. These trees were not the towering giants of the true forests, but rather oversized bushes which had been made into walls by twined vines. Brilliant bursts of flowers were splotches of vivid color, and the attendant insect life was altogether too abundant. Dane tried to tally his immunity shots and hoped for the best. At the moment he wondered why anyone would want to visit Khatka, let alone pay some astronomical sum for the privilege. Though he could also guess that the plush safari arranged for a paying client might be run on quite different lines from their own present trek.
How could a tracker find his way through this? With the compasses playing crazy tricks into the bargain! Jellico knew that the compasses were off, yet the captain had followed Asaki's lead without question, so he must trust the Ranger's forest craft. But Dane wished they were clear on the mountain side again.
Time had little meaning in that green gloom. But when they worked through to meet rock walls again, the sun said it was well into the after part of the day. They sheltered for a breather under the drooping limbs of one of the last trees.
"Amazing!" Jellico, his torn arm in a sling across his chest, came down-slope from the higher point where he had been using the distance lenses. "We struck straight across and cut off about ten miles by that jungle jog. Now I believe all that I've heard of your people's ability to cross wilderness and not lose their built in 'riding beams,' sir. With the compasses out, I'll admit I've been nourishing a healthy set of doubts."
Asaki laughed. "Captain, I do not question your ability to flit from world to world, or how you have learned to set up trade with strange humans and non-humans alike. To each his own mystery. On Khatka every boy before he becomes a man must learn to navigate the jungle, and with no instruments to help him, only what lies in here." He touched his thumb to his forehead. "So through generations we have developed our homing instincts. Those who did not, also did not live to father others who might have had the same lack. We are hounds who can run on a scent, and we are migrators who have better than a compass within our own bodies."
"Now we take to climbing again?" Tau surveyed the way before them critically.
"Not at this hour. That sun on the upward slopes can cook a man's skin were he to touch any rock. We wait...."
Waiting for the Khatkans was a chance to sleep. They curled up on their light blankets. But the three spacemen were restless. Dane would have liked to have taken off his boots, but feared he could not replace them; and he could tell from the way the captain shifted his position that Jellico was in pain too. Tau sat quietly, staring at nothing Dane could see, unless it was a tall rock thrust out of the slope like a finger pointing skyward.
"What color is that rock?"
Surprised, Dane gave the stony finger closer attention. To him it was the same color as most of the other rocks, a weathered black which in certain lights appeared to carry a brownish film.
"Black, or maybe dark brown?"
Tau looked past him to Jellico. The captain nodded.
"I'd agree with that."
Tau cupped his hands over his eyes for a moment and his lips moved as if he were counting. Then he took his hands away and stared up-slope. Dane watched the medic's eyelids blink slowly. "Nothing but black or brown?" Tau pressed.
"No." Jellico supported his injured arm upon his knees, leaning forward, as intent upon the designated rock as if he expected it to assume some far more startling appearance.
"Queer," Tau said to himself, and then added briskly, "You're right, of course. That sun can play tricks with one's eyes."
Dane continued to watch the finger rock. Maybe strong sunlight could play tricks, but he could see nothing odd about that rough lump. And since the captain asked no questions of Tau, he did not quite want to either.
It was perhaps a half-hour later, and the medic and Jellico had both succumbed to the quiet, the heat, and their own fatigue, when Dane did sight a movement up-slope. The throbbing in his feet was worse now that he had nothing to occupy his mind but his own troubles, and he was sitting facing the finger rock.
Was that what Tau had seen earlier? That quick movement around the side of the rough pillar? But if so, why the question of color? There it was again! And now, centering all his attention on that one point, the Terran picked out the outline of a head—a head grotesque enough to be something conjured out of Lumbrilo's sorcerer's imagination. Had Dane not seen its like among the tri-dee prints in Captain Jellico's collection, he would have believed that his eyes were playing tricks.
It was a bullet-shaped head, embellished by two out-sized prick ears, the hair-tufted pointed tips of which projected well above the top of the skull. Round eyes were set deeply in sunken pits. The mouth was a swinish snout from which lolled a purple tongue, though the rest of that gargoyle head was very close in color to the rock against which it half rested.
Dane had no doubts that the rock ape was spying upon the small camp. Having heard tales of those semi-intelligent animals—the most intelligent native creatures of Khatka—most of which were concerned with their more malignant characteristics, Dane was alarmed. That lurker could be an advance scout of some pack. And a pack of rock apes, if able to surprise their prey, were formidable opponents.
Asaki stirred, sat up. And that round head above turned to follow the Chief Ranger's every move.
"Above ... by the finger rock ... to the right...." Dane kept his voice close to a whisper. When he saw the sudden constriction of muscle across the Khatkan's bare shoulders, he knew that the other had heard and understood.
Only, if Asaki had spotted the rock ape, he did not betray his knowledge. The Khatkan got lithely to his feet. Then one of those feet stirred Nymani into the instant wakefulness of the wilderness-trained man.
Dane slid his hand about the bole of the tree and touched Jellico, watched the captain's gray eyes open with a similar awareness. Asaki picked up his needler. Weapon in hand, he whirled and fired almost in one connected movement. It was the fastest shot Dane had ever seen.
The gargoyle head lifted away from the rock, and then turned to one side as its body, somehow vaguely obscene in its resemblance to the human form, fell away, to sprawl limply down-slope.
Though the dead rock ape had not had a chance to give tongue, there came a cry from above, a coughing, deep-throated hawking. Down the steep incline bumped a round white ball, bouncing past the tumbled carcass of the ape, sailing up into the air, to strike and burst open a few feet away.
"Back!" With one arm Asaki sent Jellico, his nearest neighbor, tumbling back into the jungle. Then the Chief Ranger pumped a stream of needle rays into the remains of the ball. A shrill, sweet humming arose as red motes, vivid as molten copper in the sunlight, climbed on wings beating too fast to be seen.
The debris of the nest smoked into nothing. But no needle ray could hope to stop all the poisonous army issuing forth from it, fighting mad, to seek any warm-blooded creature within scenting distance. The men threw themselves into the brush, rolling in the thick mold of the vegetable decay on the ground, rubbing its moist plaster over their bodies in frantic haste.
Red-hot fire, far worse than any of the splinter torment Dane had undergone the night before, pierced between his shoulders. He rolled on his back, shoving himself along, both to kill the fire-wasp and coat the sting with cooling mold. Cries of pain told him that he was not the only sufferer, as all dug hands into the slimy stuff under them and slapped it over their faces and heads.
"Apes...." That half shout got through to alert the men on the jungle floor. True to their nature, the rock apes, now streaming downhill, were coughing their challenges, advertising their attack. And it was only that peculiarity of their species which saved their intended victims.
The apes came forward, partially erect, at a shambling run. The first two, bulls close to six feet, went down under fire from Asaki's needler. A third somehow escaped, swerving to the left, and came bounding at an angle toward Dane. The Terran jerked free his force blade as that swine snout split wide to show greenish tusks and the horrible stench of the creature's body made him gasp.
A taloned paw clawed at him eagerly, slipped from his slime-covered body just as he brought the force blade up. Foul breath coughed in his face and he stumbled back as the heavy body of the ape crashed against him, cut in half by the weapon. To Dane's sickened horror the paws still clawed for him, the fangs still gnashed as he rolled free of the mangled body and somehow got to his feet.
The roar of a blaster, of two blasters, drowned out the clamor of the apes as Dane drew his fire ray, set his shoulders against a tree bole and prepared to fight it out. He fired, saw a smaller and more nimble enemy go down screeching. Then there were none left on their shaggy feet, though some on the ground dragged themselves forward, still striving to reach the men.
Dane slapped a fire-wasp from his leg. He was glad of the support of the tree at his back as the smell of the ape's blood drenching him from chest level down, and the mess on the ground, made his stomach churn.
When he could control his retching, he straightened. To his relief he saw that all the others were on their feet, apparently unharmed. But Tau, catching sight of the younger spaceman, gasped and started for him.
"Dane! What did they do?"
His junior laughed a little hysterically. "Not mine...." He swabbed with a handful of grass at his bloodied breeches and blundered on into the sunlight.
Nymani found them a foam-flecked stream below a miniature falls where the swift current prevented the lurking of sand worms. They stripped eagerly, cleaning first themselves and then their fouled clothing while Tau tended the wealth of fire-wasp stings. There was little he could do to relieve the swelling and pain, until Asaki produced a reed-like plant which, chopped in sections, yielded a sticky purple liquid that dried on the skin as a tar gum—the native remedy. So, glued and plastered, they climbed away from the water and prepared to spend the night in a hollow between two leaning rocks, certainly not as snug as the cave but a fortress of sorts.
"And credit-happy space hoppers pay a fortune for an outing like this!" Tau commented bitterly, hunching well forward so that a certain stung portion of his anatomy would not come in contact with the rock beneath him.
"Hardly for this," Jellico replied, and Dane saw Nymani grin one-sidedly, his other cheek puffed and painted sticky purple.
"We do not always encounter apes and fire-wasps in the same day," supplied the Chief Ranger. "Also, guests at the preserves wear stass belts."
Jellico snorted. "I don't think you'd get any repeats from your clients otherwise! What do we meet tomorrow? A herd of graz on stampede, or something even more subtle and deadly?"
Nymani got up and walked a little way from their rock shelter. He turned down-slope and Dane saw his nostrils expand as they had when he had investigated the cave.
"Something is dead," he said slowly. "A very large something. Or else—"
Asaki strode down to join his men. He gave a curt nod and Nymani skidded on down the mountain side.
"What is it?" Jellico asked.
"It might be many things. There is one I hope it is not," was the Chief Ranger's somewhat evasive reply. "I will hunt a labbla—there was fresh spoor at the stream." He set off along their back trail to return a half hour later, the body of his kill slung across one shoulder. He was skinning it when Nymani trotted back.
"Death pit," supplied the Hunter.
"Poachers?" Jellico inquired.
Nymani nodded. Asaki continued his task, but there was a glint in his dark eyes as he butchered with sure and expert strokes. Then he glanced at the shadow extending beyond the rocks.
"I, too, would see," he told Nymani.
Jellico arose, and Dane, interested, followed. Some five minutes later none of them needed the native keenness of smell to detect the presence of some foulness ahead. The odor of corruption was almost tangible in the sultry air. And it grew worse until they stood on the edge of a pit. Dane retreated hurriedly. This was as bad as the battlefield of the rock apes. But the captain and the two Khatkans stood calmly assessing the slaughter left by the hide poachers.
"Glam, graz, hoodra," Jellico commented. "Tusks and hides—the full line of trade stuff."
Asaki, his expression bleak, stepped back from the pit. "Day old calves, old ones, females—all together. They kill wantonly and leave those they do not choose to pelt."
"Trail—" Nymani pointed eastward. "Leads to Mygra swamp."
"The swamps!" Asaki was shaken. "They must be mad!"
"Or know more about this country than your men do," Jellico corrected.
"If poachers can enter Mygra, then we can follow!"
But not now, Dane protested silently. Certainly Asaki did not mean that they were to track outlaws into swamps the Khatkan had already labeled unexplored death traps!