Chapter V.

18 May

One body had managed to roll out of the area of impact by a single span.

Saluma, almost hysterical, ran up to the dazed pilot who had raised his head.

“Gauge is underneath!” shouted the one who had barely escaped injury. “He’s pinned down where the craft hit him!”

Ban and Saluma stared a second at the motionless legs protruding from where the metal sphere had smashed into the peppergrass.

A loud, unfamiliar voice suddenly reverberated in all directions.

“What has happened here? See if anyone is injured,” cried Urias Asaph, advancing out of his retinue.

Saluma and Ban stared in dismay at the ruler of Avia as he approached them. Neither could believe it was him they were seeing.

“Under the ornither…” stammered the dumbfounded young woman. “It fell right on him. We don’t know what his condition may be.”

By now, the entire hunting party had moved near.

As Ban Nephis lifted himself upright, one of the Dux’s bodyguards walked up to lend him support. “We have to move the aircraft in order to see what happened to the man who was struck to the ground,” said the armed guard.

The Dux pointed his right hand at the fallen ornither. “Let us organize ourselves to move the metal away from his body. It appears to me that he is either dead or unconscious. Whichever is true will determine what is to be done next.”

Sud Lozon was first to move toward the scene of disaster, taking charge of the effort to rescue Gauge Krave.

Where am I and what am I doing here?

It takes a while for an awakening mind to arrange an explanation of the present moment. A drilling head pain pointed to a recent horrific event.

All at once, Gauge recalled his collision with a load of falling beryllium.

At least I did not lose my life, he sighed with relief.

A realization then came that his torso was inside a cast of hard wax.

Are any of my bones broken, any internal organs injured? His eyes, exploring the rough stucco surface of the ceiling, revealed that he was in a building of large, high rooms. It was obvious that this was not one of the Observatory cottages.

Had he been transported to a surgical facility? Where were the persons in charge of the treatment being given him? In his mind there was great confusion.

The tight cast holding him firm indicated there had been some sort of internal intervention inside his body. How serious had been his physical injury? How long would his recovery have to take? How complete would it be?

Gauge heard the opening of the door to the room, then slow footsteps. A long, narrow face with yellow eyes entered his field of vision. There was something familiar, yet terrifying about the cold look sent at him.

He had seen that face through the viewfinder of his recorder. Saluma had identified the person as the head of the raptorium, the tamer of the great teratorn.

“How do you feel, Mr. Krave?” unsmilingly said Lozon.

“I have scattered pains,” mumbled the patient. “What is this place, and how did I get here?”

“You are in one of the residences of our raptor station. Certainly you are aware of the Raptorial Association and its program.”

“I am at the so-called raptorium, then?” asked the perplexed Gauge.

“Yes. It is quite an interesting story how you happened to be brought here. The crash of your friend’s ornither threw you into an unconscious coma. It was fortunate that we of the Dux’s hunting party were in the vicinity and heard the loud crash. It took only moments to make the rescue. Our group succeeded in removing your body from beneath the weight of the aircraft. But what was to be done for your medical treatment?

“The Dux decided to have one of his gyroplanes come to bring you here. One of his bodyguards is a trained medic and was able to give you first aid until the airship arrived. Surgeons were sent in from an army base. They performed several emergency operations on flesh and bone.”

“And placed me in a wax cast?”

“A temporary one that will be removed in about a week, they say.” Lozon paused, staring down into Gauge’s miraculously unscared face. “In the meantime, you will remain as my guest.”

A sudden thought occurred to the one in the bed. “My two friends?” he asked.

Sud Lozon frowned. “They returned to the Bird Observatory to wait for word of your recovery.”

“I would like to see them,” asserted Krave firmly.

“A messenger will be sent to inform them that you have awakened. But the Dux has voiced his desire to visit you. He will be here shortly.”

Gauge gulped with uneasiness. What might the ruler of Avis say or ask?

“I will thank him for all that has been done to save me, especially the surgery.”

“There are questions that our Leader wishes to have answered.”

With that, the raptorium chief whirled around and left the room.

The man in the rolls of wax waited apprehensively for the arrival of the absolute autocrat.

Urias Asaph wore leisure slacks and an Avian pullover. Only a single bodyguard accompanied him into the room. A servitor had lifted Gauge’s head with a pillow so that he could see his visitors with ease.

I would wager that the second man belongs to the Auspex, speculated the patient.

The Dux approached the bed on the left side, while the guard stayed next to the closed door of the small room.

“How are you, young man? That was a nasty experience you had, I must say.”

Gauge looked up, avoiding the tiny black eyes of his visitor.

“I still have pains in my legs, but it is good to be alive and recovering.”

“That is satisfying to hear,” mumbled the fat dictator. “I am leaving this place in a few hours. Matters of state in the capital demand my presence. But it is important that we meet and talk before my departure.

“My people have learned that you are a Landian ornithologist who is in the Aeries to study our bird life.”

“That is true, Sir.”

“And that when your ornither first crashed, you and the pilot found refuge at the Bird Observatory across the valley from here.”

“We came back to attempt retrieval of objects from the damaged craft.”

“I see,” slowly said the Dux, as if his mind were mulling over a complicated scheme. “Tell me: do you have expert knowledge of the raptors of our Continent? In other words, have you studied them beyond your own country of Landia?”

Gauge at once began to perceive the pattern of the powerholder’s thought.

“Yes, I have made field trips to at least half a dozen lands before visiting Avia. But coming here has always been my most cherished dream. Nowhere is there such a variety of bird species. That is especially true of raptors.”

He stared into the round, yellow face of Asaph.

The latter began to smile in an inscrutable, feline way.

“Do you, at present, have any sort of formal, definite employment, Mr. Krave?” abruptly asked the dictator.

“No. I came to Avia on my own, paying all the expenses myself.”

His interrogator moved closer to the side of the bed.

“I need an objective advisor on ornithological questions. Someone who can provide unprejudiced assessments for me.

“A certain project is in its early stages at the raptorium. It involves matters that you can make valuable contributions to. You have met Mr. Lozon?”

“Indeed, I have.”

“He is a skilled falconer with years of practical experience. But he needs a trained scholar who has journeyed over the Continent to help him on matters that extend beyond our borders. I wish to hire you as my consulting adviser attached to the raptorium. You would assist Lozon, but also be available to me.”

“I don’t understand,” murmured Krave, although he was beginning to put together the scheme that the Dux had constructed. Working under Lozon, yet finally answerable to the chief of state. In other words, he was to become an informer, a sort of spy.

He was to act as if he were an agent of the Auspex.

“Yes, that will be possible,” the Landian agreed, not certain why.

“I shall tell Sud that you will serve, then,” said the dictator with a nod of his head. “You must recover speedily, so I will leave you now to rest and recover.”

Within seconds, the occupant of the room was alone again. He had much to ponder concerning the odd offer made to him. Perhaps he should not have accepted it.

Lozon sat at his desk in the raptorium office. No one else was around, giving him the opportunity to consider the Dux’s unexpected decisions.

Why was he foisting this injured foreigner on him?

Was it so important to find out what raptors the teratorn would encounter when it passed beyond the borders of Avia?

Why place trust in an unknown outsider who had only just appeared?

Urias Asaph, brooking no contradiction, had summarily informed him of the decision to make the man called Gauge Krave a member of the raptorium staff. Acceptance had been expected and was immediately given. Yet the falconer nursed deep reservations in his own mind.

Lozon folded his hands together, firmly pressing the one with the other.

It was becoming clear that the Dux had interests and plans that were not precisely identical to his own. What were the outlines of the dictator’s scheme?

For the present, any divergence had to be suppressed in order to advance with teratorn development at the raptorium.

Patience, Sud Lozon thought with a sigh. That is what the situation calls for.

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