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Flight in Yiktor


1.

Cold, cold. Fold in the legs—do not move.

Cold—pain—the big one was using the prod again—pain. Stand—jump—but it is cold—so cold.

The small body edged between the two large woven baskets uttered a mewing cry. Then one claw hand flew to provide a gag against any more sound. But shivers continued to shake the too thin body.

Cold—where is cold—where is pain?

The curled body jerked as if a tormenting lash had been applied to the wrinkled greenish skin only too visible through the tatters which were not true clothing. No one had shouted those words. Yet they had come as clear and loud as if Russtif his ugly self were standing over the hider. In the head—not in the ear. Talking in the head!

The small one tried to wedge even more out of sight, and now the shudders of fear were worse.

Where is cold? Where is pain?

The demand came again, imperative—to be obeyed. Wrinkled hands covered ears, but that did not keep the questions from opening like dry and curled leaves under the touch of water—an opening in the head. Once more the body jerked—

Pain—Russtif was using the prod on the other side of the tent wall, using it with the skill of a trained showman to stir up a sulky or frightened beast. And, like the words out of the air, the pain reached the lurker with a hot burst that brought a second whimper.

“Here!”

There were legs beyond the crack where the small one crouched—two pairs of them in space boots.

“No harm—there is nothing to fear.”

A pallid tongue licked cracked lips. But there was something that made the fear less, lulled it a little. Beyond the wall Russtif growled and spat threats. His anger and love of tormenting that which could not fight back was like a spurt of fire.

“Nothing to fear.” Again the words spun into a mind that had to listen even if the ears were stoppered against sound. Nor did either pair of boots move toward or away from the lurker. Crouch, wait for a hand to reach down and jerk out the small body, perhaps cuff hard for being there—for existing at all.

But this was not Russtif and the boots did not move. Slowly the head, covered with dry tangles of thick hair, came up, drawn against all will by the new note—the very strange note—in that mind voice. Large eyes looked up and out.

Very far from Russtif these two. There were always strangers about, some of them as odd in their way as Russtif’s imprisoned performers. So it was not their difference, rather the way they stood shoulder to shoulder looking down. Not with disgust nor cruel curiosity but in another way the lurker could not understand.

“Do not be afraid.” It was the male who spoke now, uttering words in the trade lingo that was common speech all through this quarter which catered to the entertainment of ship people. He was very fair of skin and his hair was white—though he was not an old man. Those eyebrows so pale even against his skin ran up at the temples to join the hairline, and his eyes were green, luminous as if there were tiny fires behind each.

“There is nothing to fear.” That was the other one, the female, who spoke now. Beside the fairness of her companion she was a fire glowing—hair as red as one of Russtif’s oil lamps was braided and looped about her head to look like a heavy crown. She was—

The small body uncoiled. Claw hands went out to the big basket and drew the hunched body up as far as nature would let it. For it was a very crooked body, hunched forward by a misshapen burden at shoulder level, so that the head had to be raised to an uncomfortable angle to see the other two at all.

Arms and legs were thin, their greenish skin encrusted with dirt. The mass of uncombed hair was black, gray with dust at places, but black underneath.

“A child.” It was the spaceman who said that aloud. “What—”

The woman made a gesture with one hand. There was a listening look about her. Could she hear Toggor, too?

“This one, yes,” she said. “But also another. Is that not so, little one?”

The answer was pulled out by the intent gaze of her eyes—coming before thought muffled it with caution.

“He—Russtif—he would make Toggor play. It is cold—too cold. Toggor hurts from the cold—from the pain whip.”

“So?”

She stooped to set a hand beneath the chin of the small, bent and maimed figure. From her touch, from the tips of her fingers, something warm and good flooded right into the shaking body.

“Toggor is what?”

“My—my friend.” That was not quite the way of it either, but they were the closest words could be found.

There was a hiss of breath from the man; the woman’s lips fitted tightly together. She was angry—not like Russtif, all noise and quick to aim a blow—but neither was her anger turned toward the one before her.

“We may have found what we seek.” She spoke above the bowed head to her companion. “And who are you?” Again warmth flowed from her.

“The Dung one.” Long ago had that name of the lowest been accepted. There was no other. “I run errands. I do what I can.” A pride which was seldom felt made shoulders hunch a little higher.

“For Russtif?” The man indicated the tent behind.

Dung shook his head. “Russtif has Jusas and Sem.”

“Yet you are here. It is Toggor. I—I bring him—” The claw hand fumbled in the front of the single ragged garment. Once more truth was pulled forth by that warmth of the other. “I bring this.” He held an unwholesome-looking lump of stuff. “Russtif does not feed Toggor enough. He wants him to fight for food. Toggor will die”—the sharply pointed chin quivered—“there!”

They could all hear the crackle of the prod and a rising mutter of obscenities from beyond the tent wall.

“Toggor fights and they bet on him. Russtif never had so good a clawed one before.”

“So,” the man said, “let us see this fighter, Maelen. Also Russtif. He interests me.”

The woman nodded. She dropped her hand from beneath the pointed chin to lace a hold in the tatters which crossed the bowed shoulder hump. What did she want with Dung?

“Come.” Her hold unchanging, she urged him forward just behind the man who walked with the swing of one who has spent most of his years in space, and who was now heading toward the entrance to Russtif’s domain at the other end of the tent. Whether or not the lurker wished to accompany them was not asked. There was no breaking that hold which was drawing Dung along. Somehow the thought of fighting for freedom had vanished.

There was the thick and nasty smell which was Russtif’s—one of uncleaned cages with weak and sickening captives—to fill the nose as soon as they had pushed past the open flap. Things rustled and squeaked until Russtif roared and the silence of fear snapped down. He was a big man who had once been proud of his strength but now was entombed in rolls of greasy fat. His bare skull shone with oil in the light of the lantern he had set on the table where there was also a cage—Toggor’s place of prison. Now he looked up with a sullen scowl. Then that changed, by a visible effort, into a showman’s ingratiating grin.

“Gentle Fern, Gentle Homo, how can I serve you?” His back was to the table now, and he had dropped the prod on it. It was then he caught sight of Dung.

“Has the trash made some trouble?” He took a ponderous step forward, his hand lifted as if to aim a blow at the hunchback.

“What trouble is this one noted for making?” asked the woman.

“A thief, a piece of walking dung, a monster like that? Why, whatever comes to hand to upset honest people—”

“Such as Beastmerchant Russtif perhaps?” asked the man.

Russtif’s smile slipped and slid but still he caught it. “Such as me and everyone else. I caught this sewer scum tampering with a cage just two eves ago. Luck was with him then, or else he would have smarted for a good lessoning. Trash should be thrown away and not come to annoy others.”

“Opening a cage? Is perhaps the cage that one?” The man pointed to the one on the table.

Russtif’s smile did vanish then. With the hand in sight he made a fist which might have fallen like a hammer blow on the hunchback.

“Why do you wonder that, Gentle Homo? Has the trash been spewing out some vomit that you would believe?”

“You have a fighting smux is what I believe,” the woman cut in and Russtif hastened to draw on his showman’s smirk again.

“The best, Gentle Fern, the best! There have been stellars wagered on this one—not just market coppers—and stellars won!” He moved along the edge of the table now so they could better view his possession.

The woman stooped a little so she could see most of what looked like a ball of hairy rags squatting in the center of the cage. Under her hold Dung gave a quick start and then stood very still. She was mind speaking to Toggor. The smux did not answer. It was as if he did not or would not listen.

“These be—good.” Unknowingly at first, Dung’s mind reached out to become a part of that other steady stream of reassurance.

Toggor’s answer never came in words such as those that had struck Dung. Rather it was feeling: pain, fear, and sometimes but very seldom, a rough kind of contentment. Thus Dung thought “good,” even “help,” which Toggor somehow seized upon avidly, as if Dung had indeed flung open his place of hopeless captivity.

The handful of legs folded tightly to the haired body was visible. Those vicious-looking claws at the end of the first four were clamped together as the creature answered Dung’s reassurance rather than the more concise broadcast of the woman.

The smux was no thing of beauty. Had he grown larger he might have been such a monster as to set human kind to flight. His body, covered with spiky hairs thick enough to look like quills, was a grayish red like a fire coal smoldering in ashes. Each quill was tipped also with a darker red as if blood-dipped. There were eight of the long hairy legs, the fore pairs equipped with claws which were sawtoothed on the inner sides. His body was two ovals attached, the smaller fore one to larger hind one with a waist no thicker than two of his legs held side by side. His eyes—all six of them—were now retracted into his ball of head, concealing the stalks on which they were mounted. All in all he was ugly, and, with that ugliness, he gave off the promise of quick and vicious attack.

Now his abdomen dragged on the floor of the cage, and Dung knew Toggor was both filthy and hungry. To be dropped into a rounded half sphere with another of his kind and a piece of raw meat flung in for a victory prize should arouse every fighting instinct of the smux. At Dung’s thrust of thought he raised one foreleg and clicked the claw there in entreaty—a friend had food.

Russtif kept his hand well away from the prod. Would he dare to move when these two strangers were here? Dung did not know, but breaking the long-held rule of his own survival, he wadded together the bit of offal he had sneaked from behind the butcher’s and, measuring the distance carefully, while Russtif was watching the woman, his small eyes leering, Dung threw the bit of food into the cage. Toggor was on it in an instant, grasping the unwholesome-looking piece and bringing it to his mandibles.

Russtif roared and swung one of those hammer fists at Dung, but it did not crash against the side of the hunchback’s head as he expected. It was the woman who swung her lightly held captive out of the way, and it was the man whose hand came down in a sharp chop across the beast seller’s wrist, bringing an angry cry out of him.

“What you do?” Russtif seemed to swell as if his bulk had suddenly increased.

“Nothing.”

“Nothing? You let this trash throw poison to my smux and it is nothing? Ho, let the wardens decide whether this is nothing.”

That Dung had not expected. That Russtif would allow the law such interference was unheard of. Yet the beastmerchant was slipping farther along the edge of the table, his eyes turning from the spaceman standing at quiet ease, to Toggor, to the woman, almost as if he expected they were about to unite against him. Dung made a second attempt to wring free of the grasp which had brought his misshapen body into the tent, fruitlessly. Though that hand twisted in the rags across the hump did not tighten, yet moving away was impossible.

“The smux—quote a price on it.” That was not the man but the woman who said that quietly. Russtif grinned a little, showing broken, black, rotted teeth.

“There is no price for good fortune. Gentle Fern.” He had stopped his crabwise retreat from the two, standing now at the end of the table with Toggor’s cage between them. The smux had finished the bit of near-carrion Dung had scraped out of a discarded E tube and had closed himself once more into ball form which was his only protection, since Russtif had soaked the poison from his claws only an hour ago.

“There is always an end to good fortune,” said the woman, standing tall so that only the tips of her fingers touched Dung, yet light as that touch was now, captivity remained. “Also for everything there is a price. You have fought that smux ten—double ten—triple ten times, starving it between so that it will come to battle as you wish. There is a flicking of life force in it now. Would you kill it rather than profit?”

Dung’s dark tongue swept across pale lips. “Toggor.” He was not aware that he had spoken aloud until he heard his own word.

The spaceman moved his wrist out into the open, closer to the lantern. That light showed a cal dial, its light steady. As Russtif saw that, his small eyes held a new glitter. Everything this off-worlder said was true. The smux was—or had been—a strong contender, the best he had ever been able to find. He had marked the day he had had it out of the hands of the drunken crewman who had wanted to raise a stellar to see him back to his ship, as a fortunate one for him. But who knew how long the thing would continue to live? Russtif was greedy, but there was an undercurrent of sly profit sense in him, too.

“Off-worlders cannot run gaming,” he pointed out. He was absentmindedly rubbing the wrist the spacer had struck with the fingers of his other hand.

“We have a license to buy,” the woman cut in. “We do not choose fighters as such, but only strange beings or creatures.”

Now Russtif made a wide gesture that took in the other cages and prisoners. “Take then your choice, Gentle Fern; we have such in abundance here. There is a hopper from Grogon, a dry tongue sucker from Basil, a—”

“Smux from—from where, Beastmerchant? From which world comes your lucky fighter?”

Russtif’s thick shoulders arose in a shrug. “Who knows? By the time such come—and they come seldom—they have been traded perhaps a dozen times. And surely the thing itself is not prepared to snicker out its home world. It fights—fights to eat. It sleeps. It lives after a fashion, but no one can bring charges that Russtif deals in a thinking species. These are all below the official recording, and the records will tell you so.”

Dung could have protested. Alone among Russtif’s captives had the hunchback made contact with Toggor. The creature’s mind pattern was different, very hard to follow. It wove in and out when he tried to communicate more than the most primitive messages or emotions. Yet he was sure that smux had more powers of thought than Russtif believed.

The spaceman tapped the edge of his cal dial with a forefinger, the small click-click underlining the restlessness of the caged creatures about. Russtif’s own cal dial showed.

“The thing brings in a stellar—”

Now the woman laughed, and there was a note of scorn in that sound. “A stellar a battle? And for how much longer? It is weakening, is it not? At the last fight did it not nearly lose a claw?”

Russtif’s eyes narrowed. He stared at her insolently, though he was careful to keep his voice at a respectful pitch as he answered.

“I did not see you there among the wagerers, Gentle Fern.”

“Nor would you,” she replied. “But I speak the truth.”

Again Russtif shrugged. “A stellar this bit of ugliness did win. And he will win again.”

“Two stellars.” That was from the spaceman and it came crisply.

Dung gasped and then raised his stick-thin fingers to cover his betraying mouth. Two stellars—it was a fortune beyond imagining in the haunts of the outcasts where the hunchback sheltered.

“Two stellars, urn?” Russtif rolled the words around in his mouth as if he could taste the sweetness of such an offer. “Three.” A brainsick fool who would make such an offer could perhaps be edged upward yet again.

“Do not bargain.” The woman’s voice was not raised. It was neither harsh nor threatening. Yet Dung shivered and sunk his head lower, not wishing to see her face. Though the hunchback had scurried away from threats all the years of harsh memory he had never heard such a tone before. What was this woman? Certainly some great lady, such as one would never think might venture into such a hole. She should come carried on the shoulders of stout chair veeks with outrunners and speakers-for-the-great in attendance. Who or what was she?

The effect her order had on Russtif was made plain in the way his fists fell upon the table and his eyes took on a reddish glare. Dung expected to hear foul words ordering these two out of the trader’s sight. Yet no words came. Instead, a purplish flush covered the beastmerchant’s oily jowls and he looked as one who might be choking on his own spittle.

“Two stellars,” the man said again, and his speech was as quiet as the woman’s, although with none of that compulsion in it. Yet it was also not to be denied.

Russtif made a noise like the honk of an enraged grop, the purpling color still in his cheeks waxing deeper. He gave a sharp shove to the smux’s cage, sending it skidding along the greasy tabletop.

“Two stellars.” He choked out the words with the same enthusiasm he might have given had the offer been only copper.

The man began tapping out on his cal the transfer from his own holdings to Russtif’s.

The skidding cage was about to dive over the edge of the table. Dung’s skeleton hand caught it, and for the first time the hunchback dared to try to reach Toggor again.

“These are good.” Anyone would be better than Russtif, to be sure, but there was the additional promise in the mind touch of the woman. One could not lie with thoughts as one could with words.

The woman did not try to take the cage, but neither did she loosen her hold on Dung’s rags. Instead, she gave a slight pull which brought him around and started him for the open tent flap. Then they were out in the twilight where other tents’ smoky torches and impulse lamps gave a measure of sight. A moment later the man joined them.

“Trouble?” The woman did not use speech, but had mind touch that Dung found easy to catch.

The man could not laugh in that mind-to-mind communication, but there was something in his answer which was light as laughter.

“Trouble? No, he will be slightly puzzled perhaps for a space, and then congratulate himself on a bargain that he made. I wish we could clear out that whole den of his.”

“Think freedom?”

Dung caught not only words but a picture—a picture that showed paws, and insectile legs, and tentacles looping through wire, mastering the catches on the cages in the tent behind. “Bend so—push. Go, little ones, go!”

Dung felt a touch on his own grime-blackened hand. The smux had thrust a foreleg through the wire netting, was grasping with a claw the catch of the cage. Like those in the tent, Toggor had caught that message and was following the promise that was like an order.

Gasping, Dung held the cage against his body. But that gesture came too late. Toggor had already freed himself and caught with all four claws at the rags across the pinched chest of the hunchback. Dung dropped the cage, then nearly stumbled over it, except a strong hand caught at his bony shoulder, pulling the small figure back on balance.

Dung cupped both hands about Toggor, having no fear of any cutting slash from those claws, for the smux fitted itself into the hollows of his palms as if those were a safe home nest. Now those hands swung out to the man who stood so straight and tall that Dung had to stretch his neck painfully to see his face, offering Toggor to him who had paid that unbelievable sum to free the smux.

“Hold him well, little one. Bring him that we may tend him—he still hungers and thirsts. And”—the mind speech was softer than any Dung had ever heard in a short hard life—“so do you.”

Thus one who had always slunk through shadows now walked as straight as an ungainly and broken body would allow, a friend sheltered in hand and a stranger on either side acting as if one was as tall and well-formed as themselves. It was beyond belief yet it was the truth!


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