Chapter VIII.

19 May

In the gathering green dusk, the crawling fugitive made out the call of an anthus pipit saying goodbye to the disappearing daystar.

A little bit farther, then attempt to stand upright, he told himself. His strength seemed to be rebuilding as the pains of the shock receded. The rising notes of a soaring skylark fell down to the ground as he slowly moved along. From somewhere far off, a plaintive pewee bird made a lament. The yellow light of lampyridae began to flicker in the darkness of the forest. There was much for a person to see here.

He spotted a brown and buff wheatear on a laburnum tree when he stopped for a brief rest. Now is the moment to rise and walk, the Secretary of Nature decided. It was a risk that had to be taken. The Secretary began to rise up.

It was a wrenching effort of physical agony, but successfully accomplished.

How stiff his leg bones felt, as if they had been petrified and he had become a living fossil. The first step forward took him several moments to complete. His equilibrium had been affected by the charge of high voltage. Simple movement were hard to complete.

There were stories of electric gun victims who never recovered their faculties.

The second step was just as painfully uncertain as the first.

Do my killers now take me for dead, waiting for my body to be discovered and the event reported to the civilian police? Are they confident of having successfully killed me?

A shudder crept down Cetab Daisan’s back. In all probability, the Auspex has been assigned the task of my elimination. Perhaps that organization already is aware that there is no corpse lying in the garden. What might they then do? The search for me must be continuing. They pursue after me.

Deeply terrified, he tried to pick up the pace of his advance through the trumpetwood and torchwood forest. The air seemed to thicken as dusk fell. Soon it would become too dark to proceed farther. What to do, then?

Cetab thought and thought, stumbling forward as best he could. What was the best course for him to take?

A forest like this one often has a woodsman to take care of it. Someone who spends his day removing fallen branches and cleaning out the brush.

He scanned from side to side, looking for signs of a keeper having done work hereabouts.

If it is that type of woods, I may have a glimmer of hope, his conscious mind said to him.

He continued his hunt for a way out of the situation he was in.

The Dux sat in his secret sanctum at Auspex headquarters.

An agent had just left after giving him a two-word written message.

“Game downed,” said the terse report from the gunsel assigned to bring down the Secretary of Nature in his own wooded garden.

Urias Asaph sat for a time in thought. He made no movements at all.

The end-all and be-all of his scheming efforts was the safety and preservation of his dominance.

With Daisan out of the way, things should move more smoothly, he grinned.

His small black eyes, for a moment or two, had an eery sparkle to them as he reviewed the plans formulated in the labyrinth of his mind.

The next phase lay at the raptorium, in the hands of Sud Lozon.

The ornithologist from Landia would play a key role, if things went right.

The future of his dictatorship depended on the next several days, the fat man recognized. The second phase of his strategic scheme was now under way. He had placed a large gamble on the teratorn program of Lozon and the raptorials.

Dr. Azael Talmon was taciturn most of the evening, reading scientific papers in fields close to his own sent in by telephote from all over the Continent. His daughter and Ban Nephis took a stroll to the raptorium to spend a few hours with their friend who was still there.

All of a sudden, a yellow urgency light began to flash on his control board. The gray-haired Director switched off the reception that was on his viewscreen and turned on the intruding communication signal trying to break on.

A laconic one-sentence message with no signature to it appeared for a few seconds, then disappeared before the reader realized who had sent the words.

“Something has happened, will be there to visit you once again.”

Talmon gave a deep moan. He knew at once that it was from Secretary Daisan. What did it mean? Why was the cabinet official on his way here after having just left? None of it made sense to him.

He meditated at length, until the others returned from the raptorium.

“How was our friend?” asked the Director.

“Much better,” answered Ban. “He will be on his feet tomorrow morning, for sure. His body has responded to the treatments received at the raptorium.”

“Gauge was taken to see the teratorn by Lozon,” murmured Saluma. “He was invited to lecture the cultists on foreign raptors when the convention assembles. The goal is to make use of him.”

“Did he accept?”

“Yes, but with grave doubts about it,” frowned the daughter. “It appears there is an endless series of requests and demands from Lozon. Gauge believes that he wishes to recruit him into the Raptorial Association and make him one of its active operatives.”

“It is dangerous there for him, but he is the only source of inside information that we have. Do we have an alternative source except for Secretary Daisan?” All at once, he remembered that he had not yet informed them of the strange message.

“And he will be here again within days,” concluded the Director.

“Cetab is returning, then?” said Saluma.

Her father described the sentence that had appeared on his telephote screen.

Saluma’s sapphire eyes seemed to reach out beyond their limits.

“What might that mean?” she asked.

“Nothing very good, I fear,” was his chilling reply.

Early the next morning, the cult members began to arrive.

Large tents were set up for those for whom there was insufficient room in the guest buildings. A few landed in gyroplanes, but most came in batterycars and horse-drawn carriers. Several had ridden in saddles and appeared exhausted from their long trek. The raptrorium grounds bubbled with a contagious fervor. The believers were going to hold a Great Roosting. Hundreds were coming from all corners of Avia.

One of the lorryvans held a traveler who disappeared before the raptorium was reached. Cetab Daisan, dressed in country dark brown clothing, had palmed himself off as a comrade to a small group from near the capital. The travelers had accepted him as an extra passenger.

It had been the woodsman who had sheltered him the night of the electric gun attack who suggested this particular means of transportation.

Why not go into the raptor station along with the raptorials themselves? Nothing could have been logically simpler. As a hitchhiking cultist, it was easy to locate someone with extra room and willing to take him along.

The fugitive succeeded in giving his companions the slip in the darkness of the valley forest. No one on board the van thought again of the stranger who traveled with them. Their minds were filled with rhapsodic enthusiasm for what they would soon be experiencing at the raptorium. Everyone seemed at a distance, their attention elsewhere.

Cetab at once oriented himself to reach the Bird Observatory of Dr. Talmon.

A short walk on the pre-dawn green and his arduous journey was completed.

A sleepy Saluma opened the front door.

“Come in, dear friend!” she beamed. “Father will be so happy to see you have arrived safely.”

Sud Lozon came into Gauge’s room with two towering, muscular assistants.

“Good morning,” he greeted the guest. “This is the day of the beginning of the Roost, but it is also when we place you back on your feet for the first time since your terrible mishap.

“And once you are ambulatory, I will show you an important secret.”

“Secret?” inquired the Landian with surprise. “What sort of secret?”

Lozon bent forward over the prone figure in the bed. “How we target and attack our enemies, my dear fellow.”

For a second, Gauge thought he could hear his heart accelerating like a gyroplane’s engine. Did the other man perceive his inner commotion and unrest? Had he aroused suspicion of any kind?

“What do you say to that?” teased the falconer. “It is something you shall have to know in all its aspects, if the Dux’s ambitions are to be fulfilled.”

“I am most eager to learn the details of this campaign.”

“But at the moment we must get you up and walking, Mr. Krave,” dryly said the head of the raptorials. He nodded to his aides, who began to lift the recovering patient from both sides of the bed.

Before he realized it, Gauge was standing upright by himself. He made no effort to keep himself from swaying to the side or backwards when the aides stepped away from him.

Slowly, the first tentative step was made by the new recruit. From that point on, each subsequent step grew easier to fulfill.

Confidence in himself and his possibilities rose in the mind of the Landian.


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