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Chapter 1

On Lodi, a crossroad station of the space lanes, the Outworld Traders Base had been set up to accommodate transient servicemen on their way to and from assignments. It had the calculated comfort of a leave post, combined with the impersonality of a space port caravansary, that very impersonality a goad to flight if one had an uneasy conscience.

In the reception lounge of the assignment officer, a young man was seated in an easy rest which embraced his lanky body with an invitation to relaxation he plainly did not accept. One brown hand moved across the breast of his garnet red dress tunic. A twinge of pain followed that faint pressure. He would carry more than one scar for the rest of his life reminding him of his failure at his first post.

Only a stubborn spark of rebellion far inside Kade Whitehawk still insisted that he had been right. He frowned at a wall he did not see and freed himself from the foam cushion with a twist of his shoulders, planted his boots squarely on the floor, again baffled by a contradiction he had been facing for days. Why had the Service tests assigned him to outpost duty when he manifestly could not emotionally adjust to meeting Styor arrogance with the necessary detachment and control?

Service tests were supposed to be above question, always fitting the right man to the right job. Then why hadn't it been clear that one Kade Whitehawk, Amerindian of the Northwest Terran Confederation, under the right provocation would revert with whirlwind action to less diplomatic practices of savage ancestors and handle a Styor lordling just as that alien's decadent cruelty demanded?

What if the tests were not infallible? Blind faith in them was a part of the creed of the Service. And if the tests could so misfire, what about the sacrosanct Policy?

Kade's hand balled to a fist on his knee. That Policy of neutral coexistence with the Styor rasped, or should rasp, every Terran. Suppose one could challenge the Policy, upset the Styor rule somewhere along the Star lanes and make it stick! Given a chance at the right time—

"Whitehawk!" The metallic voice of the call-box hissed the whisper through the lounge. He stood up, jerked his tunic smooth, and tramped into the next room to face a man who displayed no signs of welcome.

"Whitehawk reporting, sir."

Ristoff regarded his subordinate with detachment, his broad face impassive. Just so did Kade's own tribal elders confront an offender.

"You realize, of course, that your recent actions have thrown grave doubt on your eligibility for reassignment?"

"Yes, sir."

But I wouldn't have been called here, Kade thought, if that first official verdict had not been set aside. I'd already have been shipped out on the transport which lifted for home yesterday. Which means something has changed!

"We can not prevent the rising of emergencies." Dislike, cold and deadly, underlay those formal words. "And sometimes our hand is forced. A mixed Team on Klor has just lost one of its members by an act of violence. As you are the only one of your race unattached on Lodi at the moment, we are obliged to send you. You understand that this is a concession almost without precedent, considering the charge against you, Whitehawk, and that any future mark on your record will mean immediate dismissal, perhaps further proceedings under our charter?"

"Yes, sir."

Mixed Team! That was a jolt. Mixed Teams were special. Why, with his record smeared apparently past redemption, had he been given a mixed Team status, even temporarily?

"You will ship out at fourteen hours on the Marco Polo, with a personal kit not to exceed one shoulder bag. The Team has been established dirt-side five months now and are fully supplied. And, Whitehawk, just one more mistake and it may mean the labor gangs for you."

"Yes, sir."

Of course, mixed Team work was dangerous. Kade wondered if they used such duty as a form of discipline now and then. Exile and possible execution in one? No, Team responsibilities were too important to suggest they were a disposal for the unwanted. Mixed Teams were sent to open up trade on those primitive planets ruled, but not colonized, by the Styor; undeveloped worlds with native races held in peonage by the alien lords.

Kade thought about the Styor as he sorted gear in his quarters, trying to be objective, not influenced by his personal dislike for the aliens. Physically they were humanoid enough to pass at least as cousins of the Terrans. Mentally and emotionally the two species were parsecs apart. The Styor had built their star empire long ago. Now it was beginning to crack a little at the seams. However, they still had galactic armadas able to reduce an enemy planet to a cinder, and they dominated two-thirds of the inhabited and inhabitable worlds.

So far their might could not be challenged by the League. Thus there was an uneasy truce, the Policy, and trade. Traders went where the Patrol of the League could not diplomatically venture. In the beginning of Terran galactic expansion some Styor lords had attempted to profit by that fact. Traders had died in slave pens, been killed in other various unpleasant ways. But the response of the Service had been swift and effective. Trade with the offending lord, planet or system had been cut off. And the Styor found themselves without luxuries and products which had become necessities. Exploiting the wealth of worlds, they needed trade to keep from stagnating, and to bolster up their economic structure—the Styor themselves now considering such an occupation below their own allowed employments of politics and war—and the Terrans were there to be used.

With an inborn belief in their godship, and weapons superior to any possessed by the Terran upstarts, the Styor continued their empire. Styor lords dealt with any rebellion by a subject race drastically. Believing themselves invincible, they tolerated the Terrans.

But fire smoldered, never quite dying into ashes. Let one subject world make a successful resistance—Kade detoured about a mound of crates on his way to the ship pickup platform. He caught the pungent reek of animal odor and glanced at the contents of the nearest, making out a furred ball three-quarters buried in soft-pack. The prisoner of the cage had already been needled into sleep for the take-off, but it was plainly live cargo, and Kade was surprised. Not many shippers could afford the high rates for animal cartage across the star lanes.

Aboard the Marco Polo he found his own cramped cabin, endured the discomfort of take-off impatiently. When free to shuck his acceleration straps, he reached eagerly for the portable tape reader which could supply him with all the Terran information on Klor.

The instructive sequence of pictures crossing the palm-sized screen absorbed him. This was an encyclopedia of knowledge stripped to the essentials. As he studied, Kade was teased by an odd sense that something in this combination of history, geography and trade lore was hauntingly familiar. But he could not single out any fact he was sure he had known before.

Along his spine crept that chill which warns the fighting man of an ambush ahead, one no other sense has disclosed. Yet there was nothing more dangerous on Klor, as far as these records went, than on half a dozen other frontier worlds he could name.

The man whose place he was filling—how had Rostoff put it?—"Lost by an act of violence." Kade considered those stilted words. Had the Styor played one of their old tricks? No, a Terran's death at the hands of the Styor could not have been kept a secret, in spite of all hush-hush precautions. Such a rumor would have spread with speed across the whole Lodi base. Act of violence did not mean accident either.

Klor: climate in the temperate zones similar to that of northern Terran continents; three land masses, two lying north and south of the equator in the western hemisphere, and one, long, narrow, shaped roughly like a hook, occupying both hemispheres in the east. The south-western continent was so twisted by volcanic action that the land mass was largely a waterless, uninhabited desert, having no assets to attract the Styor. A handful of squalid native fishing villages clung tenaciously to its northern tip.

The hook land of the east was the most important to the Traders. Though there was a spine of sharply set peaks running diagonally the length of the continent and those peaks conventionally equipped with a fringe of foothills, the major portion of the land consisted of grassed plains. In fact, that section bore a fleeting resemblance to the ancient maps of his own home before the atomic wars had ended one civilization and allowed the return of his own race from backwaters of desert and mountain land where they had been driven earlier by the encroachment of a mechanized culture which had at last blown itself out of existence. The plains of Klor stirred ancient racial memories in Kade.

About halfway down the spine of the main mountain range, but set in the level country, was the Terran Trade Post. Its site marked a mid-point between the two major Styor centers. One housed the giant smelter-producer of kamstine, the other, Cor, the administrative headquarters for the whole planet. The rest of the country was carved into strips and patches which were the individual holdings of the lords. But Klor, except for the mines which were counted as personal holdings of the Emperor, was not rich picking. With the possible exception of the High-Lord-Pac, the aliens in residence on this frontier planet would be men of new families, or failures sent into limbo by clan exile, men under a cloud at home.

Terra's import was not kamstine, they had no use for the stuff, but fur. Those jagged mountains, showing their dull gray rock bones through patches of ochre vegetation, were honeycombed with caves, and most of those caves harbored musti in seemingly inexhaustible flocks.

There were bats of Terra whose silver-silk fur, had it been in sizeable skins, would have excited the trades with their beauty. But a pelt only fingers wide had no value. Man prospected the stars before he discovered the musti. Like the bats of his home world, the leather-winged flyers of Klor were nocturnal, but their wings had a spread of ten feet and the furred bodies they supported were in proportion. The fur was silky, with a delicate ripple-wave, or, as with the musti of the upper heights, a short spring-curl, shaded in color from the silver-grey of Klorian rock to the dark blue of her night sky. And one season's catch could raise the leave-pension bonus of a Trader to an upper-bracket income.

Musti were hunted by the Ikkinni, the natives. Each Styor lord had as many Ikkinni slaves as he could capture in the mountains or buy from a professional slaver. Kade pressed the repeat button on the reader, studied the image which appeared on the screen.

Humanoid, yes—but certainly X-Tee—although more alien physically than the Styor who argued by that premise that the Ikkinni were mere animals. And certainly in contrast to their oppressors they were weirdly different.

The specimen on the viewer was perhaps Kade's height, but the length and slenderness of arms and legs gave an illusion of added inches. Body and limbs were covered with fine, long black hair through which white skin showed pallidly. The hair was heavier on shoulders and chest, rising on top of the head into a peak of coarser, stiffer growth. On the cheeks and chin the sprouting was a soft down from which a hard beak of nose protruded in a bold curve, overshadowing the rest of the features. A wide, seemingly lipless mouth was a little open, and teeth, certainly those of a carnivore, matched the skin of whiteness.

For clothing the native wore a sash-like length about the hips, the ends brought between the legs and drawn through the front band, to hang free to knee level, the material a tanned hide. But the collar about the native's neck proclaimed his slave status.

About three inches wide, that article fitted smoothly to the flesh, and Kade knew that its presence doomed the unfortunate Ikkinni to the lifelong servitude from the moment it was welded on. For that band was a guard, a taskmaster, a punishment in turn, by the whim of the Styor owner. Impulses broadcast miles away could transmit jolts of pain, or killing agony, to the slave. One could not escape by running.

Before the coming of the Styor, as far as the Terrans could learn, the Ikkinni had lived in loosely governed tribes, mostly in collections of two or more family clans. Intertribal war had existed, usually as a means of obtaining new wives or raising the prestige of the competing tribes. They had been wandering hunters, with the exception of some coastal fishermen and a handful of families who had settled in the highly fertile river bottoms to plant and harvest fruit and grain.

The farmers had been the first victims of the Styor aggression, the hunters retreating after a series of disastrous skirmishes into the mountains where freak air currents prevented the use of Styor aircraft. Slavers still led raids into those vast mountains and trapped Ikkinni with the same dispatch as the natives in turn netted the musti of the caves.

Kade noted the two spears and coiled net that the primitive in the tape scene carried. They were no defense against a blaster, a needler, or the supposedly innocuous stunner allowed Terran Traders on Styor-held worlds. And without any effective weapon, what chance had the poor devils ever had?

The Terran's hand had gone to the grip of the weapon riding on his own hip before he realized where that line of thought led. Tadder could happen all over again. He was thinking in the same pattern which had led to his disgrace there. Traders did not meddle. At the slightest hint of any involvement with local affairs outside the strict bounds of the service duties, their commanding officer shipped them back to base. He must remember. Remember and control his temper and instincts.

Kade adjusted the reader, called into being on its screen the list of Team personnel. Not that he could hope for any backing from those veterans if he blasted off orbit a second time.

"Shaka Abu, Commander." The click of words introduced his new superior officer. An Africo-Venusian, tough-looking, the slightest tinge of gray showing in his head lock. Perhaps not a particularly successful man or he wouldn't still be a Team leader in the field, but rather would occupy some position of greater authority at one of the sector bases.

"Che'in Lan." Younger, placid, something self-satisfied in his sleepy-eyed face.

"Jon Steel."

Kade curbed a start of surprise as he viewed the picture of not just a fellow Amerindian, but one, by the faint touch of paint between his brows, of the Lakota; a tribesman of the Sioux! This must be the man he replaced, the one who had died by violence. No team had more than one representative of any Terran race.

"Manuel Santoz." Kade hardly glanced at the last man on the list. He was too intent on Jon Steel, who had died on Klor. Again that sensation of a waiting trap. There were too many coincidences in all this.

Sure, many Armerindians were enlisted in the Service, the adventure of out-world duty was welcomed by the youth of the Federation of Tribes. But there were twenty or more of those tribes with numerous subdivisions. For a Lakota to replace a Lakota seemed hardly to come about by chance alone.

And Ristoff, because of his position, must have known that to send Kade to take the place of a dead tribal brother was to unleash an avenger. Or was this sequence of events a new and stiffer testing set up on purpose? If Kade followed the dictates of tribal custom and made trouble on Klor, then Ristoff would have him, space cold.

He slid his stunner from its holster, checked the charge now activating that side arm. The weapon could not kill, not with the diluted energy issued to Trade men, but it could knock an enemy insensible, to be dealt with in a more fatal fashion when and if opportunity offered.

However Kade had learned one lesson on Tadder: the need for caution. In the old, old days his kind had had a standard to measure skill and courage. One entered a hostile camp and exited again unharmed, undetected, bringing along an enemy's favorite war mount into the bargain. He'd play his own game. If Ristoff had set up a frame for some murky reason, he'd learn the why of that, too. Again there was that chill along his back, almost as if a coup stick had thudded home. And not a friendly one, no, not a friendly one at all!

When the Marco Polo broke out of hyper over Klor, Kade knew all the Terran records could tell him about that world. He could trace an accurate course from the most detailed maps available to the Traders, which included the musti hunting grounds in the mountains. For the Styor allowed hunting passes for periodic inspection of the trapped caves, to make certain that one section was not being denuded of breeding-stock. Such details were beneath the attention of the local lordling whose income might depend upon the result of a season's net work in the caverns.

In addition, the Terran had added to his storehouse of facts all points dealing with the Ikkinni, although limited, since the Styor did not encourage any anthropological research on the part of off-worlders. And he had tabulated his own findings concerning the methods and manners of the Styor, together with any modifications of those as listed by Terran observation on Klor. He had no idea of what lay ahead, save that the problem of Jon Steel's death was part of it. But in some way the doubts he had had in the waiting lounge on Lodi were backing his determination to do some investigating on his own.

He might have guessed that that was not going to be too easy, Kade thought a twenty-seven hour day later when he did at last have a measure of privacy. With a small staff, every member of the Team had been engaged in high-pressure work seeing to the disposition of the Marco Polo's cargo and the mountain of paper work to be discharged before the transport lifted again. Kade, with only hasty introductions to his fellows, had been so buried in details that after a full day and night on Klor, he still had only a confused impression of post and personnel.

There were Ikkinni porters in service, hired out from their Styor masters. And one of them now stood just within the door panel of Kade's room, his eyes with their ruddy pupils gathering extra fire from the atom lamp, his long fingers hooked into the front of his sash kilt.

"It wants?" Kade asked in the tongue he had learned as well as he could from the Hypo-trainer on ship board.

"It has." The Ikkinni reached back a foot, hooked limber toes about a package and pushed it from corridor to room, showing the usual reluctance of his people to the carrying of burdens. A Styor would have instantly punished that act of rebellion. Kade made no show of knowing the subtle defiance for what it was.

Neither did he move to pick up the packet, knowing that to do so would be to admit inferiority.

"It has where?" He looked carefully beyond the packet lying on the floor. Then, turning his back to the native, he busied himself with placing a pile of record tapes in a holder.

"It has here."

Kade glanced around. The packet now rested on his bunk. Since no one had witnessed the action which had put it there, honor on both sides had been maintained.

"It has my thanks for its courtesy." Deliberately the Terran used the warrior intonation.

Those red eyes met his. There was no change of expression which Kade could read on that down-covered face. With a quick movement the native disappeared through the half-open panel of the door. He might never have been there, save that the packet was on the bunk. Kade picked it up, read the official markings of the Research and Archives Division. Below them was a name: STEEL.

For a long moment he weighed the package in his hand. But the communication was not personal. And officially the contents might well be his business. He smothered a small twinge of guilt and stripped away the wrapping, eager to discover what had been so important that Jon Steel had sent to Base for aid.


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