Chapter VII.

19 May

A team of three medicos helped the government surgeon remove the sections of wax encasing both of the patient’s legs.

“It has been an amazingly speedy restoration,” smirked the doctor in charge. “But you can only move your limbs with caution at first. Their use will return gradually, over many days. In the meantime, a motorized wheelchair has been sent from Arom by the Dux for your immediate use. You should be very thankful for that.”

How thoughtful, marveled Gauge. The fat man wants results from me, that’s for sure. He is determined to gain them one way or another.

Once the wax shell was gone, the medicos lifted their patient, placing him in the wheeled mover. In less than half a minute, Knave was master of all its potentials and capabilities.

“I want to go outside,” insisted the now liberated bird watcher.

Thus it was that Sud Lozon found his newest assistant on the outer veranda of the lodging, sitting in the mover with two medicos accompanying him.

“You are already about,” said the falconer with a start of surprise. “I can see that you are a man of initiative. Ready to see the big mews where our teratorns nest?”

“Yes, of course,” smiled the man in the mobile chair, restraining his glee of success.

That was why he had accepted the Dux’s offer. It would provide him the opportunity to learn the truth about the teratorn predators.

“You must observe their cousins, the gymnogyps first,” teased the yellow-eyed Sud Lozon.

From “The Avian Natural Encyclopedia”, Volume IV, p. 159.

Gymnogyps avianus.

Males and females appear alike. This very large bird compares to a large vulture or condor in other lands of the Continent. The head and neck are bare of feathers, having reddish orange skin of intense brightness. The forehead is covered with very fine black feathers of exceptional stiffness. Visible around the neck is a ruff of lance-shaped feathers. The back, wings, and underparts are black with brown edges on the feathers, except for the outer gray secondaries and a few light feathers on the back. The underwing coverts and axillaries are white. The primaries and the tail are black. Bill and feet are a gray horn hue. There is a small red patch on the knee. The color of the head and neck change to bright red during the morning display.

The gymnogyps nests in mountain caves and large tree cavities.

When hatched, it is covered with gray down, which is kept for two years. Plumage is much like that of the adult, except that underwing coverts are gray, edged with white. Subadult plumage remains for five years. By the age of six, head and neck become orange-red.

The bird only breeds after the age of six. It builds no nest, but deposits its single egg in a small cave, crevice, or under a ledge on a mountain slope. The period of incubation is forty days.

The gymnogyps prefers fresh meat, but will eat carrion if it must.

Wingspan: ten to fifteen feet.

The two tall figures moved along the second-storey corridor with one-way windows on each side. To the left were the square chambers in which dozens of gymnogyps nested. Gauge studied them with hypnotic interest, one-by-one. Each bird was impressive in its impassive hauteur. The opaque silicon surface was nothing but a blank wall to the inhabitants of the gymnogyps mews.

Sud Lozon pointed across to the other side of the walkway. Gauge followed him across to where falxes, buteos, and hieraxes made their separate roosts. The ornithologist knew each of the varieties from his study of field reels, but here they existed as living creatures.

The pair came to the end of the corridor and stopped.

“Our teratorns are kept away from all the other inhabitants,” said the falconer, pointing down a side wing of the observation structure of the raptorium. “There are fewer of them, of course, but each bird needs a large area for itself because of its comparative size.”

A few more steps, and there were the giants of Avia, resting in their spacious stalls. Large raptor eyes, gazing languidly into undefined spatial distances, were frightening. No movement, no motion, not even a twitch could be seen. Gauge marveled at the firmness, the solidity of the royalty of Avia’s avifauna. They were terrifying birds, creating dread in all humans who had a look at them.

The teratorn was as large as a small-scale man. It was fully able to snatch up any livestock. In the long ago past, the teratorn had been known for taking away helpless human children. It was a terrifying bird to attempt to contend with.

Sud Lozon spoke with pride about his star raptor.

“Weight can go up to 200 pounds in an adult teratorn,” he told the ornithologist. “Wing span reaches 25 feet, making the bird as large as a man.

“The teratorn is able to swallow an entire hare as a whole. It resembles a candor in many features, but it is a biological relative of the stork. The legs are longer and stronger than those of a vulture. As you can see, its head is completely feathered. This bird possesses powerful claws with tremendous gripping power to them. It can overpower its victims or competitors because of its extraordinary strength.

“You are looking at the largest flying bird on the Continent or anywhere on the planet,” boasted the director of the raptorium. “We have attained incredible results in the development and training of this giant. But this is only the beginning of our program. There is much more that lies ahead in the future of the teratorn.”

Present day depredations are devastating the agriculture of Avia, recalled Gauge.

Could it all be coming from birds living in the wild? Or were the attackers the teratorns residing at the raptorium?

Gauge stared at the black giants. The answer appeared to lie behind these one-way windows.

Cetab Daisan and his family occupied a government villa outside the capital. The garden park surrounding it was the only place of solace for the troubled official.

Where else could the Secretary of Nature be truly alone by himself? Where else was there refuge from his difficult official duties?

When there were matters that troubled him, this was a place of rest for the besieged bureaucrat, for the garden was home to a number of small native birds.

Dark green with heads of purple, the Avian bellbird produced the sound of tiny silver chimes. From a distance came the song of a red honeyeater, sweet and mellow. There was nowhere else with such natural pleasures.

Cetab spotted a foot-long green solitaire high in a fraxine tree. He smiled at the sight of one of his favorites, a brown and white fernbird. A black and orange hueia, one of the finest beauties of the country, flew into his line of sight.

These residents of the garden had come to trust its owner, he realized. They were not at all disturbed by his personal presence among them.

It was in early afternoon that an electric gun fired from somewhere, throwing a clap of voltage into the body of the cabinet member. Staggering a step forward, he tumbled to the ground almost by instinct. This is an assassination attempt, no question of that. How close could the shooter be? From what direction was he firing? It is best to make my fall impressive, thought the groaning victim as he squeezed his stomach with both hands. Make the attempt on my life look perfectly successful. Simulate a quick death and hope the killer does not come closer to investigate the result of the attack.

Would he succeed in fooling his enemy into thinking he had killed his targeted victim? wondered the Secretary of Nature.

An electric charge from a small weapon has a limited range, so that the enemy must be on the periphery of the garden, firing into it from there.

The assassin must not enter to examine me, Cetab was able to tell himself.

Waves of pain ascended to his brain from the lower parts of his body.

Perhaps it was a good thing that the bolt had hit him down there, he realized. The least affected area, so far, was his head and brain. He was still thinking.

There must not be a second firing, for that might turn out to be fatal.

He lay as still as possible, waiting for a sign that the crisis was over. A bellbird’s ringing was all that his ears could pick up, nothing else at all.

His pain was unbearable and excruciating. It grew in sharpness and spread over his entire body.

From a distance, the faint sound of a landcar starting echoed, then died out.

Cetab realized that he had been left for dead.

Where was he to hide now? How was he going to find protection and shelter?

The idea occurred to him that the originator of his shooting had to be the Dux of Avia. There was no alternate explanation of what had just happened.

There was no one here who could be trusted, that was clear.

He resolved to crawl away to the adjoining forest. Seek refuge in the places where the birds do, among tall stands of trees.

“What does Sud Lozon plan for you?” asked Saluma.

She and Ban Nephis had brought Gauge’s mover out to the open veranda, where no unfriendly ears could overhear them talking among themselves.

The injured one glanced around, then spoke in a muffled tone.

“He invited me to give a lecture on the raptors outside Avia, in other countries.”

“To the Great Raptorial Roosting?” she inquired.

“Yes. It is only a few days away. The cult members should start arriving soon.”

It was Ban who asked the next question. “Did you agree to his proposal?”

Gauge turned his head toward him. “I felt that was necessary in order to fit in with their plans for me. They must see me as cooperative.”

“You must take great care in all such matters,” whispered Saluma. “These people are relentless. They would show no mercy if…” She did not finish.

The man in the wheeler gave her a radiant smile of assurance.

“I will try to be prudent,” he promised her.

“Try to learn all you can about their activities,” advised Ban. “There appears to be something big in the offing, from all the coming and going that can be seen.”

“Yes,” said Gauge. “Lozon and his staff are excited at the prospect of all the cultists who will be congregating here soon. The Dux seems to have left new, unprecedented orders before he returned to the capital.”

“We shall soon see what the dictator is planning,” uttered Saluma between her teeth. “You, Gauge, are the only one who can nail down the specific details of what the intentions of these people are.”

The Landian ornithologist nodded his head in agreement.

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