Chapter XVI.

22 May

Sud Lozon glanced at the telephote screen in the border post office as he passed back and forth.

The public news channel had just announced the execution of the general staff of the uniformed services. Never had Avia witnessed a purge as thorough as this one, he sighed in his nervous dance of excitement.

From the window facing westward, he could see the lights of his caravan. Already, the test base the Dux had ordered him to operate was being set up.

His mind flitted to the pair who had fled. There was no time left to look for them. They were a loss to his project, which now had to go on without them.

All night he would be busy reviving the teratorn for its first flight on the morrow. Urias Asaph was eager to see the results of the fantastic enterprise.

The great raptor as a weapon of warfare? An instrument of foreign conquest?

Who could deny that the dictator might use it against internal enemies as well?

Lozon stopped, struck by the desperation of his thought.

Each new level of raptorial exploitation led only to a more dangerous one. The violence cascaded in intensity.

Where would the hysteria end? What would the final price be?

The falconer sensed a cold shiver of stark recognition. His future depended on what the teratorn accomplished the next day. On whether he satisfied his distant master in this new wild fancy of his.

His own fate and that of the Raptorial Association hung in the balance, to be decided by whether a bird could be made into an assassin, a weapon of war.

All at once, a small blue light sac on the telephote panel began to blink. A communication on a private channel was being transmitted.

Lozon moved quickly to the screen, pressing the changer tab.

It was a message for him from the dictator himself.

“Will be at Mount Gyps in the morning awaiting word on your first experiment.”

The yellowish eyes turned glassy after reading this.

Lozon switched off the channel, uncertain of tomorrow’s outcome.

In the tortoise green light of dawn, the jaegerish hunters gathered their traps and took down their conoids. Acub ate a quick breakfast of krullers and hard curd with the two bird watchers he had put up for the night.

“My band had a very successful night with the traps. We brought down a small klipspringer, a black sasin buck, and a large sassaby. That, together with the fat kudu taken at our last laager, puts us well ahead on our circuit of this territory. Do either of you know how long my tribe has been in these forests?”

It was Saluma who replied. “For centuries, I would guess.”

“Yes, scores of generations. Long before the present frontier was drawn. In fact, our ancestors trapped at one time in what is now Landia. Over half of our hunt zone was lost with the present boundary. Our jaegers had no rights in the lands that were taken from us. For a long time, though, secret hunting incursions were made. The line was only lightly fenced back in those days.”

His listeners perked up with acute attention.

“How did they manage to cross over into Landia?” inquired Gauge with burning eagerness.

The Sachem gave him a self-satisfied smile. “Our predecessors had a genius for moving through artificial barriers. They were expert tunnelers, for instance. Deep underneath the international boundary, hidden passages were dug. Not just one or two, but dozens.”

Saluma intervened. “That is fascinating. Do the jaegers still cross over into Landia through some underground route?”

Acub’s face and mouth lost all expression.

“Conditions have changed from then till now. There are many more guard posts, on both sides. Besides, our Avian government today exacts terrible punishment from anyone caught trying to cross. The charge would be that of attempted smuggling, whether valid or not. There are ground and air patrols on our side of the line.”

“But such tunnels should be invisible from above,” opined Gauge. “I can’t doubt but that one could use one of them even today. Do you know which of them is in the best condition?”

The jaegerish leader hesitated. “Yes, I think that my knowledge of the tunnels is adequate for such a judgment, although that question has never before been put to me in such a fashion. You see, when we were young boys, my brothers and I would explore the holes in secret. Our father threatened to punish us if we went near these tunnels, yet that did not deter us at all. It was a place of adventure for us. I did not then realize the risks that we were playing with. Fortunately, border guards did not suspect our illegal explorations. Several times, our gang passed over into Landia from below.”

“That must be quite a memory,” exclaimed Saluma, glancing surreptitiously at Gauge. “I would have loved to have seen one of them.”

Even today, she thought to herself. Especially today.

Gauge turned his face and eyes on Saluma. “You have never seen Landian birds, have you?”

“No,” she answered. “Not once in my life. But I have always wanted to. In fact, crossing over to watch for new varieties has been my personal dream. But I have never received authorizing papers for any such trip.”

“That’s too bad,” said her associate sympathetically. “If only the two of us could find an informal way of carrying out field research over on the other side.” His eyes shifted over to the Sachem. For a few moments, he dared not express the daring idea in his mind.

Saluma was the one who presented the proposition to the white-haired trapper.

“If you showed us the entrance to the best one, we could go down on our own. There would be no risk whatsoever to any jaeger. No one will ever know, because only the two of us would actually make the subterranean journey. What do you say? It would make me happier than anything that I have ever experienced before.”

Acub’s ruddy face became a deep crimson.

“What you ask goes beyond what the government allows,” he grumbled.”Our tribe must never bring the wrath of the ruler, the Dux, down upon it. We have suffered terrible punishments in the past. The idea of allowing you two to go down into an old passage is a foolish one. If word ever got out, there could be painful trouble for my people.”

By now, the daystar was shining radiantly a little above the eastern horizon.

“We must be setting out for the next laager site,” said the chief. “Are the two of you coming with us?”

Gauge glanced at Salmuna, then gave an affirming nod of his head.

The Sachem marched at the head of the hunting band, the two strangers immediately behind him. The rest of the trappers followed them through the torchwood forest. No one said a word until noon, when the party halted to eat and rest.

Acub motioned to the bird watchers to sit down with him on a fallen log to share his curds and biscuits.

“How far are we from the laager location?” inquired Krave of their guide.

The latter looked up. “A dozen more hills and kops. It should take about an hour and a half. Are the two of you tired already?”

“Not at all,” replied Gauge, turning to Saluma.

The latter had a distant, abstracted look on her face. She began to talk in a voice that sounded like someone else’s. “I was thinking about birds I have seen in pictures and read about, but never viewed because they live outside Avia. The green kea. The snakebird and pink flamingo. They have always been beyond the reach of my eyes. Snowbirds never come to our country. We do not have the coastal blue crane or the yellowlegs seen elsewhere.

“I have dreamed since childhood of the wood ibis, but never had direct experience of it as a watcher. Without papers or the chance of obtaining them from the dictatorship, there is no hope of seeing any of them with my own eyes.” Her voice became dry and rough. “But do you know what I miss the most? The greatest blank spot in the record of my mind’s eye? What would you guess it is, Gauge?”

He gazed at her with amazement, marveling at her skill on a verbal high wire.

“Tell me,” he politely whispered.

Both of them realized that Acub was listening with rapt attention.

“The white stork, over on the Landian side of the Continent,” she said with freely flowing tears. “So graceful, so beautiful, yet we don’t have the waters they demand here on our side.”

All of a sudden, the Sachem sprang to his feet.

Saluma and Gauge stared at him as he moved closer, then stopped right before them.

“You are a very determined person,” the jaeger said to the young lady. “It is a good sign that you will not betray me.”

Both fugitives felt rising hope.

“I shall not go with you to the entrance, only give you instructions on how to get to it. Then, it will be none of my business what happens. I say now that I intend to deny ever having seen the two of you. Is that understood?”

Saluma nodded a second before Gauge.

“Good. We will break away from the band as we near the base. It should be easy to find the entrance once I describe it.”

The pair exchanged quick looks. They had won.

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