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I have heard it stated that a Zexro tape will last forever. But even a second generation now may find nothing worth treasuring in our story. Of our own company, Dinan, and perhaps Gytha, who now work on the storage of all the old off-world records may continue to keep such a history of our times. But we do not run our reader now except for a pressing need for technical information, since no one knows how long its power pack will last. Therefore, this tape may keep its message locked for a long time unless, ages from now, those off-world do remember our colony and come seeking to learn its fate, or unless there shall arise here people able to rebuild machines that have died for want of proper repairs.

My recording may thus be of no benefit, for in three years our small company has taken a great backward leap from civilized living to barbarism. Yet I spend an hour each evening on it, having taken notes with the aid of all, for even young minds have impressions to add. This is the tale of the Dark Piper, Griss Lugard, who saved a handful of his kind, so that those who walk as true men should not totally vanish from a world he loved. Yet we who owe him our lives know so little about him that what we must in truth set upon this tape are our own deeds and actions and the manner of his passing.

Beltane was unique among the Scorpio Sector planets in that it was never intended for general settlement, but instead was set up as a biological experimental station. By some freak of nature, it had a climate acceptable to our species, but there was no intelligent native life, nor, indeed, any life very high in scale. Its richly vegetated continents numbered two, with wide seas spaced between. The eastern one was left to what native life there was. The Reserves and the hamlets and farms of the experimental staffs were all placed upon the western one, radiating out from a single spaceport.

As a functioning unit in the Confederation scheme, Beltane had been in existence about a century at the outbreak of the Four Sectors War. That war lasted ten planet years.

Lugard said it was the beginning of the end for our kind and their rulership of the space lanes. There can rise empires of stars, and confederations, and other governments. But there comes a time when such grow too large or too old, or are rent from within. Then they collapse as will a balloon leaf when you prick it with a thorn, and all that remains is a withered wisp of stuff. Yet those on Beltane welcomed the news of the end of the war with a hope of new beginning, of return to that golden age of "before the war" on which the newest generation had been raised with legendary tales. Perhaps the older settlers felt the chill of truth, but they turned from it as a man will seek shelter from the full blast of a winter gale. Not to look beyond the next corner will sometimes keep heart in a man.

Since the population of Beltane was small, most of them specialists and members of such families, it had been drained of manpower by the services, and of the hundreds who were so drafted, only a handful returned. My father did not.

We Collises were First Ship family, but unlike most, my grandfather had been no techneer, nor bio-master, but had commanded the Security force. Thus, from the beginning, our family was, in a small measure, set apart from the rest of the community, though there was nothing but a disparity of interests to make that so. My father lacked ambition perhaps. He went off-world and passed in due course through Patrol training. But he did not elect to try for promotion. Instead, he opted to return to Beltane, assuming, in time, command of the Security force here that his father had commanded. Only the outbreak of the war, which caused a quick call-up of all available trained men, pulled him away from the roots he desired.

I would have undoubtedly followed his example, save that those ten years of conflict wherein we were more or less divorced from space kept me at home. My mother, who had been of a techneer family, died even before my father lifted with his command, and I spent the years with the Ahrens.

Imbert Ahren was head of the Kynvet station and my mother's cousin, my only kin on Beltane. He was an earnest man, one who achieved results by patient, dogged work rather than through any flashes of brilliance. In fact, he was apt to be suspicious of unorthodox methods and the yielding to "hunches" on the part of subordinates—though, give him his due, he only disapproved mildly and did nothing to limit any gropings on their part.

His wife, Ranalda, was truly brilliant in her field and more intolerant of others. We did not see much of her, since she was buried in some obtuse research. The running of the household fell early on Annet, who was but a year younger than I. In addition, there was Gytha, who usually was to be found with a reading tape and who had as little domestic interest as her mother.

It must be that the specialization that grew more and more necessary as my species entered space had, in a fashion, mutated us, though that might be argued against by the very people most affected. Though I was tutored and urged to choose work that would complement the labors of the station, I had no aptitude for any of it. In the end, I was studying, in a discontinuous manner, toward a Rangership in one of the Reserves—an occupation Ahren believed I might just qualify for—when the war, which had not affected us very directly, at last came to a dreary end.

There was no definite victory, only a weary drawing apart of the opponents from exhaustion. Then began the interminable "peace talks," which led to a few clean-cut solutions.

Our main concern was that Beltane now seemed forgotten by the powers that had established it. Had we not long before turned to living off the land, and the land been able to furnish us with food and clothing, we might have been in desperate straits. Even the biannual government ships, to which our commerce and communication had sunk in the last years of the war, had now twice failed to arrive, so that when a ship finally planeted, it was cause for rejoicing—until the authorities discovered it was in no way an answer to our needs but rather was a fifth-rate tramp hastily commandeered to bring back a handful of those men who had been drafted off-world during the conflict. Those veterans were indeed the halt and the blind—casualties of the military machine.

Among these was Griss Lugard. Although he had been a very close part of my childhood, the second-in-command of the force my father had led starward, I did not know him as he limped away from the landing ramp, his small flight bag seeming too great a burden for his stick-thin arms as its weight pulled him a little to one side and added to the unsteadiness of his gait.

He glanced up as he passed, then dropped that bag. His hand half went out, and the mouth of a part-restored face (easy to mark by the too smooth skin) grimaced.


Then his hand went to his head, moving across his eyes as one who would brush aside a mist, and I knew him by the band on his wrist, now far too loose.

"I'm Vere," I said quickly. "And you are"—I saw the rank badges on the collar of his faded and patched tunic—"Sector-Captain Lugard!"

"Vere." He repeated the name as if his mind fumbled back through identification. "Vere—why, you're Sim's son! But—but—you might be Sim." He stood there blinking at me, and then, raising his head, he turned to give his surroundings a slow, searching stare. Now he gazed as if he saw more than his boots raising planet dust.

"It's been a long time," he said in a low, tired voice. "A long, long time."

His shoulders hunched, and he stooped for the bag he had dropped, but I had it before him.

"Where away, sir?"

There were the old barracks. But no one had lived there for at least five years, and they were used for storage. Lugard's family were all dead or gone. I decided that, whether Annet had room or not, he could guest with us.

But he was looking beyond me to the southwest hills and to the mountains beyond those.

"Do you have a flitter, Sim—Vere?" He corrected himself.

I shook my head. "They're first priority now, sir. We don't have parts to repair them all. Best I can do is a hard-duty hopper."

And I knew I was breaking the rules to use that. But Griss Lugard was one of my own, and it had been a long time since I had had contact with someone from my past.

"Sir—if you wish to guest—" I continued.

He shook his head. "When you've held to a memory for some time"—it was as if he talked to himself, almost reassuring himself—"you want to prove it, right or wrong. If you can get the hopper, point her west and south—to Butte Hold."

"But that may be a ruin. No one has been there since Six Squad pulled out eight years ago."

Lugard shrugged. "I've seen plenty of ruins lately, and I have a fancy for that one." With one hand he fumbled inside his tunic and brought out a palm-sized metal plate that flashed in the afternoon sun. "Gratitude of a government, Vere. I have Butte Hold for as long as I want—as mine."

"But supplies—" I offered a second discouragement.

"Stored there, too. Everything is mine. I paid half a face, strong legs, and quite an additional price for the Butte, boy. Now I'd like to go—home." He was still looking to the hills.

I got the hopper and signed it out as an official trip. Griss Lugard was entitled to that, and I would face down any objection on that point if I had to.

The hoppers had been made originally to explore rough country. They combined surface travel, where that was possible, with short hops into the air to cross insurmountably rough terrain. They were not intended for comfort, just to get you there. We strapped into the foreseats, and I set the course dial for Butte Hold. Nowadays it was necessary to keep both hands on the controls. There was too apt to be some sudden breakdown, and the automatics were not to be trusted.

Since the war the settlements on Beltane had contracted instead of expanded. With a short supply of manpower, there had been little or no time wasted in visiting the outlying sites, abandoned one after another. I remembered Butte Hold as it had been before the war—dimly, as seen by a small boy—but I had not been there for years.

It was set on the borders of the lava country, a treacherous strip of territory that, in remote times, must have lighted most of this continent with titanic eruptions. Even the eroded evidence of these volcanoes was still spectacular. Of late years it was an unknown wilderness of breaks and flows, a maze of knife-sharp ridges with here and there pockets of vegetation. Rumor had it that, beside the forbidding aspect of the land itself, there were other dangers—from beasts that had escaped the experimental stations and found this forsaken range an ideal lair. No one actually had evidence of such. It was rumor only. But it had grown into tradition, and a man wore a stunner when he ventured in.

We left the road at a turn trace so dim by now that I could not have found it without Lugard's direction. But he gave that with the surety of one seeing markers plain in the sun. And very shortly we were out of the settled land. I wanted to talk, but I did not quite dare to ask my questions. Lugard was so plainly occupied with his thoughts.

He would find other changes on Beltane, less tangible than those of the abandonment of old landmarks but nonetheless sharp. The settlements had been drained of certain types of men: first the guard, and then scientists and techneers. Those left had unconsciously, perhaps consciously in some ways, changed the atmosphere. The war had not come close enough to make any great impression on our planet. It remained a subject of reports, of attrition of supplies and manpower, of growing irritation as men, buried in their own chosen fields of research, had been commanded to explore other paths for refinements in killing. I had heard enough to know that there had been a deliberate dragging of feet in sections that had been set to war problems. And there had been angry outbursts five years back, threats passed between the last commander and such men as Dr. Corson. Then the commander had been ordered off-world, and Beltane settled down to a peaceful existence.

The sentiment now on Beltane was pacifist—so much so that I wondered whether Lugard would find an accepted place among these men bent so strongly on keeping matters as they were and had been. He had been born on Beltane—that was true. But, like my father, he was of a Service family, and he had never married into one of the settlement clans. He spoke of Butte Hole as his. Was that literally true? Or did it mean that he was sent here to make ready for another garrison? That would not be welcome.

Our trail was so badly overgrown that I reluctantly took to the air, skimming not far above the top of the brush. If Lugard was the forerunner of a garrison, I hoped they would number among them some techneer-mechanics with training in the repair of vehicles. Already our machines had become so unpredictable that some of the settlements talked of turning to beasts of burden.

"Take her farther up!" ordered Lugard.

I shook my head. "No. If she parts at this height, we have a chance of getting out in one piece. I won't chance more."

He glanced first at me and then at the hopper, as if he really saw it for the first time. His eyes narrowed.

"This is a wreck—"

"It is about the best you can find nowadays," I replied promptly. "Machines don't repair themselves. The techneer-robos are all on duty at the labs. We have had no off-world supplies since Commander Tasmond lifted with the last of the garrison. Most of these hoppers are just pasted together, with hope the main ingredient of that paste."

Again I met his searching stare. "That bad, is it?" he asked quietly.

"Well, it depends upon what you term bad. The Committee has about decided it is a good thing on the whole. They like it that off-world authority has stopped giving orders. The Free Trade party is looking forward to independence and is trying to beam in a trader. Meanwhile, repairs go first for lab needs; the rest of it slides. But no one, at least no one with a voice in Committee affairs, wants off-world control back."

"Who is in charge?"

"The Committee—section heads—Corson, Ahren, Alsay, Vlasts—"

"Corson, Ahren, yes. Who is Alsay?"

"He's at Yetholme."

"And Watsill?"

"Drafted off-world. So was Praz—and Borntol. Most of the younger men went. And some of the big brains—"


"He—well, he killed himself."

"What?" He was clearly startled. "I had a message—" Then he shook his head. "It was a long time reaching me—out there. Why?"

"The official verdict was minor fatigue."

"And behind that verdict?"

"Rumor has it that he discovered something deadly. They wanted him to develop it. He wouldn't. They pressured him, and he was afraid he might give in. So he made sure he would not. The Committee like that rumor. They have made it their talking point against off-world control. They say that they will never put weapons into anyone's hands again."

"They won't have the chance—into former hands, that is," Lugard replied dryly. "And they had better give up their dreams of trade, too. The breakup is here and now, boy. Each world will have to make the most of its own resources and be glad if someone else doesn't try to take them over—"

"But the war is over!"

Lugard shook his head. "The formal war, yes. But it tore the Confederation to bits. Law and order—we won't see those come again in our time, not out there—" He motioned with one thin hand to the sky over us. "No, not in our time, nor probably for generations to come. The lucky worlds with rich natural resources will struggle along for a generation or two, trying hard to keep a grip on civilization. Others will coast downhill fast. And there will be wolves tearing all around—"


"An old term for aggressors. I believe it was an animal running in packs to pull down prey. The ferocity of such hunts lingered on in our race memories. Yes, there will be wolf packs out now."

"From the Four Stars?"

"No," he answered. "They are as badly mauled as we. But there are the remnants of broken fleets, ships whose home worlds were blasted, with no ports in which they will be welcomed. These can easily turn rogue, carrying on a way of life they have known for years, merely changing their name from commando to pirate. The known rich worlds will be struck first—and places where they can set up bases—"

I thought I knew then why he had returned. "You're bringing in a garrison so Beltane won't be open—"

"I wish I were, Vere, I wish I were!" And the sincerity in his husky voice impressed me. "No, I've taken government property for my back pay, to the relief of the paymaster. I have title to Butte Hold and whatever it may contain, that is all. As to why I came back—well, I was born here, and I have a desire that my bones rest in Beltane earth. Now, south here—"

The traces of the old road were nearly hidden. There had been a washout or two, over which the quickly growing guerl vines had already laid a mat. Now we were coming to the lava country, where there were signs of the old flows. The vegetation rooting here was that fitted to the wastelands. This was midsummer, and the flowering period was nearly over. But here and there a late blossom still hung, a small flag of color. There were ripening yellow globes on the vines, and twice spoohens fluttered away, at the approach of the hopper, from where they had been feeding.

We circled about an escarpment and saw before us Butte Hold. It was a major feat of adaptation, the rock of the mountain carved away and hollowed to make a sentry post. It had been fashioned right after First Ship landing, when there was still doubt about the native fauna, meant to be a protection against what lay in the saw-toothed wilds of the lava country. Though the need for such a fort was soon known to be unnecessary, it had served as a headquarters for all the outland patrols as long as they kept watch here.

I set down on the landing strip by the main entrance. But the doors were banked with drifting sand and looked as if they had been welded so. Lugard got out, moving stiffly. He reached for his bag, but I already had it, sliding out in his wake. By the looks of it, he was traveling light, and if there were no supplies within—well, he might change his mind and want to return, if only temporarily, to guest in the section.

He did not deny my company but went on ahead, once more in his hand that metal plate he had shown me at the port. As he came to the sand-billowed doorway, he stood a long moment, looking at the face of the stronghold, almost as if he expected one of those now shuttered windows to open and himself to be hailed from within. Then he stooped a little, peering closely at the door. With one hand he brushed its surface and with the other fitted the plate he carried over the locking mechanism.

I half expected to see him disappointed, my belief in the durability and dependability of machinery having been systematically undermined by the breakdowns of years just past. But in this case I was wrong. There was a moment or two of waiting, to be sure, but then the seemingly solid surface parted into two leaves, rolling silently back on either side. At the same time, interior lights glowed, and we looked down a straight hall with closed doors to right and left.

"You ought to be sure of supplies," I ventured. He had turned to reach for the bag I still held. Now he smiled.

"Very well. Assure yourself, come in—"

I accepted that invitation, though I guessed he would rather be alone. Only I knew Beltane now as he did not. I would have to leave in the hopper, and he would be, could be, disastrously on his own—marooned here.

He led the way straight down the hall to a door at the rear, raising his hand to pass it in a swift, decisive gesture over the plate set into its surface. That triggered the opening, and we stood on the edge of a gray shaft. Lugard did take precautions there, tossing his kit bag out. It floated gently, descending very slowly. Seeing that, he calmly followed it. I had to force myself after him, my suspicions of old installations being very near the surface.

We descended two levels, and I sweated out that trip, only too sure that at any minute the cushioning would fail, to dash us on the floor below. But our boots met the surface with hardly a hint of a jar, and we were in the underground storeroom of the hold. I saw in the subdued glow shrouded machines. Perhaps I had been wrong to think Lugard would miss transportation when I left. But he was turning to the right and some alcoved spaces, where there were containers and cases.

"You see—I am well provided for." He nodded at that respectable array.

I looked around. There were weapon racks to the left, but they had been stripped bare. Lugard had gone past me to pull the covering off one of the machines. The plastic folds fell away from a digger, its pointed pick nose depressed to rest tip against the surface under us. My first hopes of a command flitter, or something like it, faded. Perhaps, just as the weapon racks had been stripped, so had such transports been taken.

Lugard turned away from the digger, and there was a new briskness about him.

"Have no doubts, Vere. I am well situated here." His tone was enough to send me to the grav, and this time he signaled reverse, so we rose to the entrance hall. I was on my way to the door when he stopped me.


"Yes?" I turned. He was looking at me as if he were hesitant to say what was in his mind, and I had the impression that he fought to break through some inner reserve.

"If you find your way up here again, look in." It could not be termed a warm invitation; yet, coming from him, I knew that it was as cordial a one as I would ever have, and it was honestly and deeply meant.

"I will that," I promised.

He stood in the doorway, a light sundown wind stirring up the drifted sand, driving some of it over the threshold to grit in the bare hallway, to watch me go. I deliberately circled once as I left and waved, to see his hand raised shoulder high in return.

Then I headed to Kynvet, leaving the last of Beltane's soldiers in his chosen retreat. Somehow I disliked thinking of him alone in that place, which must be for him haunted by all the men who had once trod its corridors and would never now return. But that it was a choice no one could argue against, I knew, Griss Lugard being who and what he was.

When I put the hopper down at Kynvet, I saw the wink of lights through the summer dusk.

"Vere?" Gytha's voice called from our house. "Annet says hurry. There is company—"

Company? Yes, there was the other hopper with the Yetholme code on its tail, and beyond it the flitter Haychax kept in flying order—almost as if we were entertaining half the Committee. But—why? I quickened pace and for a space forgot about Butte Hold and its new commander.



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