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Chapter Two

"Place with cats," Tani read the words out to them. "Big, big cats, thousands of 'em. Funny buildings. Ruins melting in the rain, an' little mice things. Muhbes' friend, Gerry was, even if he was Tiffy. Dead now. But what he seen before he died, he tol'me. All the cats, watching the ship, he come back 'n' died, stupid accident. Miss him, should'a died too, then I wouldn't be so lonely, poor Gerry, all gone, no records, no nothin'. Gimme 'nother drink?"

Tani looked up. "Kady said that after that she did buy him another drink. It was the last one he needed to put him to sleep, unfortunately. She described the man as possibly a former spaceman, at least seventy. The bartender said the old man was known only as Harb. He thought that might be his last name."

Storm was disgusted. "Ramblings. What do we get from that?"

Brad smiled. It was a wicked grin which said to everyone around the table that he knew something they didn't. Tani pounced.

"What is it? You heard something in that we didn't. What do you know?"

"Tiffy," Brad said and waited.

Logan was onto that. "It's a name, a title, something you've heard before that may give us a lead?"

"That's right, son. It was a long time back. Maybe twenty years before the Xik war started. Before you were born. There was a small group formed on Lereyne, but a couple of its directors were based here on Arzor. Its full name was the Thorson-Frederickson Combine, but it used only the initials TF in its logo. Those who knew about it usually called the combine and those who worked for it 'the Tiffies.' I was asked to invest but I turned them down. I didn't like their chances, and although what they were doing wasn't quite illegal it was pretty close to the line."

Logan remembered the phrase in Kady's 'gram. "So that was it. Illegal surveying."

"Well, surveying," Brad confirmed. "In those days it was heavily frowned on to survey without proper scouting—but it wasn't completely illegal, not unless you didn't declare to the authorities any Earth-type planets or intelligent races you found."

Storm looked up. "That's what the beast master training was for originally. They had an institute to train first-in scouts and their teams for dealing with new worlds. If survey found a Terran-livable world, it was a lot cheaper to drop a beast master and team, collect them a few weeks later, and get a preliminary report." He recalled another phrase from Kady's report and frowned.

"'Ruins melting in the rain,' the old man said. That implies there'd been intelligent life there. A planet showing ruins would be interdicted until specialists could arrive. I've never heard of such a world."

Brad nodded. "He also said 'little mice in the ruins.' That implies a possible landing—you might see ruins from orbit, but you'd be unlikely to see something as small as mice—unless he was referring to larger creatures they could see from space on the ship's viewscreens.

"To sum up: Harb's friend, Gerry, was in the Thorson-Frederickson Combine when it surveyed this planet. They may have found a Terra-type world, with ruins suggesting there was once—and still could be—intelligent life there. It's clear it was never officially reported. Then Gerry was killed in an accident sometime afterward."

"The question is, are we sure it was never reported?"

"No," Storm said slowly, smiling at Tani. "The question is, was that Prauo's world? If not, it's interesting but doesn't tell us anything we need to know."

Tani shrugged. "Lots of big cats, he said. 'Thousands of them.' How many Earth-type worlds would produce a major feline-appearing population?"

Brad broke in: "That would depend on how big the animals were and how close a look this Gerry got. 'Thousands' could well be an exaggeration; he might have simply seen a number of cats together. And size is subjective. Besides which, we're hearing this filtered through the memories of another man who may not be completely reliable." Everyone grinned at this understatement. Brad turned to Tani again. "Did you ask Kady to go back and see if she could find out anything more?"

"Of course. She said she would as soon as she could find the time. She'll send the information then. I set the com-caller on automatic receive and translate, download, and print. It doesn't matter when she sends; we'll have the message at once. We just need to keep an eye on the com-caller."

Brad rose. "I can do better than that. I'll hook it into the ranch alarm. If a message comes in, the alarm will let us all know it's arrived." He left to hook up the alarm, while around the ancient table the others argued over the possible meanings in some of the old man's words. They stopped after another hour, when it was generally agreed that more information would help.

Laris went out to the corrals to lean on the smooth top rail and consider the sunset. It flamed shades of lavender and purple across the sky, soothing her with the colors and the feeling that if one day was ended, another still held so many new possibilities. Prauo stood at her side, leaning his big head against her hip. Her hand slipped down to stroke his skull gently between his eyes, which mirrored some of the amethyst shades of the sky.

*What do you think, brother-in-fur?*

*I have no way of knowing, and yet...* His mind-voice was wistful.

*And yet you find you may be interested more than you thought?*

*Yes.* He felt the sudden leap in her heartbeat, the flicker of fear in her mind, and hastened to reassure her. *Sister-without-fur, we are one. How should I love another more than you? I have no need for a people, but I would like a world. I would wish to see from what soil I sprang, feel home wind comb through my fur.* There was a glimmer of amusement in his sending. *Perhaps hunt these mice the old man spoke of, through the ruins his friend saw. Do you not wonder what this world was—and what humans might make of it?*

Laris was caught by something in his mind-voice. "Wonder what?" she said aloud.

Brad's voice spoke from behind her. "What are you both wondering?"

Tani repeated Prauo's sending and received a smile from Logan's father in return. "That's an excellent question Prauo asks. If the world holds no intelligent life and is Earth-type, it could be colonized. If that's so, then the finders could receive a very good fee. Sufficient to keep you comfortably for several years or to buy a good-sized piece of land. If it holds intelligent life, they may be your friend's kin. Terran High Command would want to talk treaties and, again, the finders would receive a good fee. Either way, I would say we win. It could be worth investing as much as a year in searching for this world."

Laris grinned. "If we found this world."

"Of course. There's always an 'if' in life. But Kady may find out more, and I've started checks on the TF combine. It folded at the start of the war, and their headquarters had shifted to Ishan by then. But there may still be old records to be found, and a few of the company staff might have survived."

"Ishan?" Laris's face fell. "That was burned off by the Xik."

"True, but a number of people escaped, and most companies had records in other places as a precaution." He patted her arm. "Let's see what we can find." He left her then, but for a long time the girl and the big feline stayed outside, watching the sunset fade as night swept in to darken the sky.

They were awakened early the next morning by a long wailing scream from within the house. It came again as Prauo and Laris bolted upright from their respective beds. Laris's heart was hammering; an alarm like that in the camps had often been a signal of imminent danger and a need to react quickly. She was about to scramble into her clothing when Logan tapped on the door, a look of disgust across his face.

"Relax. It's that damned space communicator alarm Dad rigged. He forgot to mute it for overnight."

"Was it—"

"No, nothing from Tani's aunt. It was just some stuff for Dad. He'll tell us over breakfast, but I think it's all negative. Finish dressing, come and eat, and we'll hear. After that we could go for a ride again. Dad thinks he would like that frawn bull found. If it stays on our land, it's a danger to anyone riding herd."

Laris dressed as her pulse rate slowed, and a few minutes later she was sitting enjoying hot pancakes with steaming mugs of swankee. Like Tani before her, Laris had found she loved the sweet, rather chocolaty taste of the local drink.

The original settlers had been introduced to it by the natives of Arzor. But unlike the natives, the settlers had cultivated the plant. Most of the ranches had a number of the low nut-bearing bushes.

Turning the pods into the drink was easy. It required only husking the outer fiber from the nut, then grating the dried nut into a fine powder. Dry swankee nuts were one of the few items which could entice the Nitra—the wilder native tribes on Arzor—into a trade deal which did not necessarily end in the trader's death.

Laris savored her drink; it was even better with a little sweetening—bees had done well on Arzor—and opened the conversation.

"Was there anything interesting in the spacegram, Mr. Quade?"

"There was—hold on a minute. I can hear Storm coming." He waited until his step-son was seated beside Tani, then unfolded the plastic sheets.

"It's all negative, unfortunately. But it does mean we can cross off a few things we had to check. First, TF Combine was dissolved the year the war started. The assets were divided among the shareholders and the ships officially taken over by Terran Command for use as freighters. But the interesting thing on that is that the same crews were left intact on them. The other interesting thing is that at least one of the ships vanished and never reported in to Terran Command."

Storm's head came up instantly. "Was that before TF folded or after?"

"From what my contact could discover, it would have been about the same time. That way the ship could have received the message saying TF was being dissolved as a company and all ships were being taken over by Terran Command for the war."

"And if a majority of the crew didn't like the idea, they could quietly disappear," Logan said thoughtfully. His gaze met his father's. "What kind of ship were they using? Don't tell me—it was one of the Garands. That far back it would almost have to have been."

"A Bir-Garand. Planetary landing capacity, mostly automated scientific testing lab for checking atmosphere, toxic food components, and ability for breaking down and reconstituting alien vegetation in circumstances of food shortage," Brad recited.

Storm whistled softly. "They could have stayed out there for years with that."

"No proof they weren't killed by the Xiks or wrecked in some way, though. However, there is another interesting thing. This Harb that Kady talked to. She hasn't found him again as yet, but I had his records checked. He fought in the war and was eventually discharged on a small disability pension. Charon gas inhaled while fighting to retake Lereyne. But for all of the war he was under the eyes of the ser vice. He wouldn't have met his friend during that time."

Logan looked frustrated. "So he could have met him before or after. No way of knowing."

"Isn't there?" Storm said suddenly. "Kady quoted Harb as saying 'illegal survey.' But he couldn't have been talking of something done before the war. Brad says it wasn't illegal then, not officially. So..."

Brad picked up the thought. "So if Harb called it an illegal survey, it could well have been something done either just before the end of the war, when it was illegal in case it led the Xiks somewhere Terran Command didn't want them, or just after the war, when the Patrol codified the laws for survey vessels approaching newly discovered planets. Either way, if Harb really meant the survey was illegal, and if he wasn't just using the term loosely, then he'd had to have seen his friend long after the TF ship was listed as missing."

He stood up. "I'll have the Lereyne records checked to see if we can find out about this Gerry's death. Harb seems to think his friend died in an accident and, from the context, it may have been on-planet. If we can find a date, it'll give us a new lead."

He strode from the room, almost breaking into a run as he headed for the space transmitter. His bill this month was going to be huge, but it was worth it. He remembered on the way he still hadn't talked to Laris about her inheritance. The child probably thought it was only a few credits. She'd find she was wrong, and he looked forward to telling her—once he got this call in to Lereyne.

Comfortably replete with breakfast, Logan was discussing the frawn bull with his half-brother, his sister-in-law, and Laris.

"What's he like?" Tani was interested.

Logan grinned. "Massive. He has to be one of the oldest and biggest wild frawns I've ever seen. He's fast, too. When that girth broke, if Prauo hadn't held the bull off for a few minutes until Laris could pick me up, he'd have killed me."

Storm frowned. "Even wild frawn bulls aren't usually quite that aggressive. I wonder if he's been injured. Pain would produce that sort of attack. Maybe one of the Nitra took a swing at him and he's carrying an arrowhead somewhere. That'd do it."

"If any native got a point into him, I'd guess the bull got one in right back," Tani said soberly. "You know the native laws on that. Leaving a wounded beast offends the Thunder. If one of the Nitra injured his target, couldn't follow it up and it got away, he'd have asked a clan-brother to go after it—if he was still alive to ask."

"Did either of you see any indication the animal was hurt?" Logan looked at Laris, and she and Storm shook their heads, grinning wryly.

"All I saw was that set of horns coming for me," Logan said.

Laris nodded. "Me, too." From the floor came a small sniff, the sort which suggests the sniffer would like to be noticed.

Storm looked irritated at himself. "Of course. We're forgetting Prauo was with you two. There might be no visible injury but might Prauo have smelled something?"

*I did,* the big feline confirmed. *There was no sign of blood but when the bull turned quickly he flinched and became more angry. I could smell the increase in rage. I would guess at an old injury, maybe an arrowhead deep inside and healed over.*

"Any Nitra who lost an arrow like that would know he had a wounded beast," Tani said quietly. "Either the hunter was killed, or he is outcast from his tribe, one who defies the Thunder and clan laws. I'm riding to see the Djimbut and Talks-with-Thunder. She may know who it could have been."

"Wait a while, dearling. Today we can look for the bull. He'll have to be killed if he's rogue. Then you can tell the clan the man-killer is dead—if that's what did happen."

Brad returned only to find them already clattering out through the door, a pulse-rifle in Logan's hands. There were quick explanations and Brad decided to leave discussion of Laris's inheritance until later. The credits wouldn't run away and he'd be glad to see the rogue bull gone—one way or another. Frawn herders were often casual about the big beasts; with a rogue like the old bull it would take only a back turned too long, and the beast could kill again. Brad didn't want that happening on his land or to any of his people.

Outside, under a strengthening sun, four riders and one long-striding feline headed towards the last place the bull had been seen. Once there Prauo laid his nose to the trail and trotted away into the desert fringe. The bull seemed to have known where he was going. His trail was almost straight, slanting into the desert at an angle with no real detours.

The pursuers topped a small, ragged crest of land and saw below a long line of purplish desert brush. At one end it broadened into a larger clump. Logan studied that with an experienced eye. He'd been born on Arzor and knew the desert.

"There has to be water there. Not much, judging from the area of that brush, but some sort of seep where the brush thickens out. It'd be a great place for a single animal to hole up in. Food, water, shade..."

"And a nice target to kill if anyone came carelessly wandering in looking for water," Storm added.

Prauo was running fast, body held low to the ground as he circled to catch the erratic desert breeze. From halfway around the bushes he mind-sent quickly to them all, *He is here. He had already caught your scent, I think. I smell his anger.*

For once it was Logan who took charge. Storm was battle-trained, but Logan knew frawns and the terrain.

"Two possibilities: he'll either run or attack. He won't stay in there now that he knows we're coming. If he runs he'll head downwind. If he attacks he'll come at us into the wind so he can keep track of how we move to meet him. Laris, you and Prauo go with Storm and circle to cut the bull off if he runs. Tani and I will move in very slowly and make a stand just short enough of the brush so we'll have warning if he breaks cover."

Laris felt slightly hurt. Didn't he want her to be with him? She'd done the right thing last time, and he'd admitted that between her and Prauo they'd saved him, too. She said nothing, though; she didn't want Logan to think her a whiner. He probably had a good reason for his choice.

Logan did have that reason, but it hadn't occurred to him to explain. It was Tani who saw the very slight droop of Laris's shoulders and casually added to the discussion, putting a wry look on her face as she spoke.

"It's a pity Destiny is no good for this job." She looked at Laris. "Duocorns may be grass-eaters like frawns, but they tend to be aggressive. I need to keep her back well behind Logan and any attack. But then if the bull does attack us, she won't spook like most horses. You three will be out there to slow the bull down if he runs, and believe me, it'll take all three of you if he does." She saw Laris's shoulders straighten again, and she smiled kindly to herself as the hunters parted company, two to one side, the other three circling.

Tani remained astride Destiny. If the bull did attack and anything went wrong, she was on a mount which would not only not spook at the sight of an onrushing frawn bull, but one which would openly attack the bull at need. Behind Destiny, Logan's mount drowsed in the sun, the split reins trailing in the universal sign that indicated it was ground-hitched.

Within the clump of brush the bull lurched to his hooves. The frawn was a big, strong animal that looked a little like a bison. Oddly enough, it was the frawn cows that were usually the more aggressive; most ranched bulls were quite placid. But now and again there was a bull which did not fit the profile, and this bull was larger than usual, one which had been born and lived wild all his life.

He'd learned to hate humans and the natives and some time ago he'd also learned they could be killed. At this moment he was one of the most dangerous beasts on Arzor. A frawn bull that not only had learned to kill but had learned too, to enjoy that killing.

He picked up the scent of the approaching hunters and from deep in his throat, he growled his hatred. He stood still briefly, sniffling the air and placing where they were. Then, slowly, moving through the scrub like a shadow, he closed in towards those he loathed.

Storm halted at the far side of the bushes. "Move out in a half-circle. Don't go closer than two hundred yards. If he comes this way he'll be moving fast and he won't be stopping. Get out of his way, then close in on either side. Laris, if you and Prauo can hold him running straight, I can come up on the other side and shoot. A full stunner clip behind his ear should kill him." They spread out as ordered, Prauo digging his claws into the hard-packed earth in anticipation.

Laris sat her mount, her mind drifting to Prauo's desire to find his own world. He was her brother, she loved him, and what ever he wanted she'd try to find. And—a thought suddenly sparked—she had her own spaceship. Her thoughts shot off in that direction. There were possibilities there.

On the other side of the brush, only a hundred yards out, Logan and Tani could see nothing moving, not even the bushes. No sounds, no sign. Logan spoke softly to Tani, who lifted a small, powerful, native-made catapult from her belt. Logan stooped, picked up a handful of pebbles and sorted them carefully. He handed them up to her.

"One at a time and searching fire."

He glued his attention to the brush as Tani began to fire, spacing the hurtling stones to land into the brush edge several feet apart. The fifth stone hit the bull. It was enough. Tani, from her higher vantage point, saw the first movement. Her warning yell alerted Logan, who dropped to one knee, steadied the pulse-rifle, and aimed just as the enraged bull broke cover.

The bull was huge, fast, and lethal, but a pulse-rifle could have dropped a mammoth in its tracks had there been such weapons around when they lived. Logan sighted coolly, waited until the big head dropped halfway through the charge, and shot over the head to strike the spinal cord at the point where the neck and shoulders joined. The frawn bull crashed down, the huge body sliding limply onward for some yards, from its own momentum.

Logan stood and closed in carefully. On Destiny, Tani signaled the filly to move up; if the bull wasn't dead yet, she'd put herself and Destiny between Logan and the bull to distract it. The rogue lay still. Logan reached the body and nudged it with the rifle butt. There was no movement, but it was better to be safe than sorry. Carefully he laid the muzzle against the twisted neck and pulled the trigger again. The body twitched then settled.

"If he wasn't dead before, he is now," Tani said cheerfully. "I'll call in the others. You see if you can find any old injuries."

While Logan and Storm butchered the dead frawn, Tani rode swiftly for the ranch and a cart. She returned instead with Brad driving the ranch crawler.

"I thought we'd take everything. I don't want to see it wasted. Surra and her mate like frawn."

Tani agreed with that. "Minou and Ferrare won't say no, either." Storm smiled at her. His dune cat and her mate would eat to repletion as would his wife's coyotes, and they could feed scraps to most of the rest of their beast teams as well. A safer ranch and several days' food for nothing was no bad bargain.

His thoughts were interrupted by a call from Logan: "Dad, everyone, look here!" He moved the leg bone and, buried in the upper muscles of the thigh, they could see a dark spot. Logan split the muscle and pried it apart. "An arrowhead. Every time the poor brute turned to that side it would have been like being stabbed. No wonder he turned rogue."

Tani picked out the beautifully worked piece of stone. "Loris Nitra. They're at peace with the Djimbut clan just now."

"What do you want to do?" Brad deferred to Tani, who was clan-friend of the Djimbut.

"I'll ride to the Djimbut tomorrow. Speaker-of-Dreams will arrange for me to talk to the Loris clan. I should take the bull's skin, both as proof the killer of their warrior was slain, and as a death-gift to his kin."

"What if whoever the bull killed was an outcast?"

Tani shrugged. "They'll be able to tell from the arrowhead who it was. If he was outcast, I'll gift the skin to their Thunder-Talker. A gift to a shaman is always honorable." She grinned, and repeating Brad's words in a teasing tone, she turned to Storm.

"And what do you want to do?"

"Get this bull home and have a shower," was Storm's prompt reply. As he was wearing some quantity of the animal's blood this was understandable, and everyone chuckled. Storm's face broke into what had once been a rare smile, but what was now and had been since his marriage a more frequent expression. He looked at his half-brother. "So, Logan, what do you want to do?"

"Something exciting and adventurous, but I guess I'll have to settle for dinner." He waited out the laughter, then his gaze met Laris's. Before he could ask her the question that seemed to be doing the rounds, she found she was blurting out an answer.

"I want to take my spaceship and search for Prauo's world. I want Logan to come with me, and Storm and Tani if they will, and it would be wonderful if Mr. Quade could help us get all the permits or anything else we'll need."

There was a stunned silence.

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