String of Worlds
by Enak Nomolos
Copyright 2022 by Enak Nomolos
    This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places  
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    is entirely coincidental.  
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Copyright 2021 by Enak Nomolos

Merkatus Arcuatus, 33041 R.M.A.

Mordos Kahn slouched on the throne and closed his eyes. The last of the day's seemingly endless procession of envoys counselors, advisers, dignitaries, and other species of nuisance had left, and he was tired, and even more bored than when the day had started. The incessant thunder from the nearby spaceport gradually decreased as the last ships departed, and at last the old castle became quiet.

He dozed, awoke, and saw that the sunlight had faded from the narrow windows of the throne room. In the deepening gloom he leaned back and looked up at the ceiling, forty ehrls above. He contemplated the long brown beams, the grey stone. In his mind he tried to form the alien word for the material in the beams, his father had related to him so long ago. "Wud", he thought. Or something like that. Transported from far away, at enormous expense, twenty or thirty generations back, the material was also used in a few prized pieces of furniture and other items in the castle.

He didn't know why he was thinking about the stuff. Perhaps because it was so alien to his world, to all the worlds he knew. Perhaps because he was bored. He wondered what kind of world it came from. He remembered vaguely the race of creatures associated with it. Odd little beings. He wondered if any of them lived on the homeworld or the worlds in his domain. He couldn't remember ever seeing one at court.

A staff member stuck his head in the door, was ignored, and retreated. He stood up, stretched his enormous body. It was time to sleep some more.

Chapter 1

Earth, 11 August 2029 Parmosa, Missouri

The daylight was almost gone as we finished evacuating our own dead and wounded, and I walked among the ruins of the camp with some of the partisan leaders, looking for anything of interest. As expected, we foun......................ect of the Jefferson City massacre, among ........................back to before the war. We collected IDs and other evidence and took photographs before the sun set. The enemy dead could remain where they were, thei.............uld be rolling in before .................... and could take care of them. And if they stayed there until they rotted, that was all right too. This wasn't a war - it was something much worse.

The insanity of it all was beginning to grind on my nerves, but the war was at last clearly nearing an end. We had control of most of the country west of the Mississippi, and much of the southeast. The Texas militia had joined the Northern Alliance and was by conservative estimates moving over one and a half million men into the area of the capitol. The armed forces were mostly in the rebel camp, despite the military conditioning to obey whatever the nomimally legitimate government was. In a few months, certainly not much more, it would be over.

Chapter 2

Virginia, near Washington D.C., 3 September 2018 Dr. Karl Hamblin stared at the body in the glass cylinder. Not for the first time - the old astrophycisist had come down here often in recent years, since the last of the little beings had passed on. Their bodies were preserved, but they could no longer assist in the attempt to perfectly recreate the technology that might allow them to return home. We are so close, he thought, yet so much is unknown. And who knows what will happen now, with the war, its ultimate outcome no longer in doubt. The southern rebel forces were closing on the capital, escape had never really been an option and was now out of the question. He had seen the force approaching from the south on television. Their numbers were estimated at well over a million, and among them he saw a lot of confederate battle flags. The word payback was often heard from pundits and in rumors from the field. What will the new government do with the project, he wondered. Or would the facility even survive the war?

He closed the doors to the cabinet and went back upstairs. Sitting down at his computer, he tried to get back to work, but his mind wandered constantly. Finally he decided to call it a day, and started home, knowing he would have no more success sleeping than he had working.

Chapter 3

I awoke, again. How many times? This was number five. It didn't take long to remember. Physically and mentally, waking from months, even years, of travel sleep was no different from ending a normal night's rest. The technology was quite impressive.

All of it was, from the sleep chambers which placed a human being in a state of precisely controlled and monitored hibernation for months or years to the giant ship itself, and the engines which pushed it relentlessly, tirelessly, and to those inside, silently through deepest space.

The canopy of the chamber was open, I rolled over and swung my feet to the cool tile floor, stretched, yawned, and stood. The soft light revealed the row of chambers in which some of my fellow travellers slept, and I walked down the aisle between two rows to the end of the room to the showers and dressing room. Twenty minutes later I was making my way to the bridge, as we called the great control room from which the ships progress was monitored by whichever crew members happened to be awake. That was when I got my first shock. The bridge was unoccupied.

That was not supposed to happen. The ship's systems were supposed to keep a small number of crew awake and on duty at all times, normally about half a dozen of us were up at any time. This not only kept the sleep periods short (we were skeptical of anything over a year even though the system, as we understood it, could theoretically keep people in hibernation for extremely long periods.) but allowed a crew to be available for any emergencies requiring human intervention. The crew also sent messages back home detailing our progress. Normally the system that controlled the hibernation process would wake a crew member up and somehow, by means we did not completely understand, program him to go back to sleep about 30-40 days later. I had been up four times before, and there had always been several other crew members about.

I stood there for a few minutes, finishing my coffee, then headed back to the sleep chamber I had just left. It was as I had left it, only my pod was open, the other twenty-nine occupants remained asleep. There were forty-four more rooms like this one, each with thirty occupants, over thirteen hundred people sleeping away the thirty-seven year trip. Asleep, one aged only a few days per year, and even awake the aging process progressed somewhat slowly for a month or so after awakening. Thus we could make the nearly forty year trip while only aging a few years.

I inspected the other rooms, and determined I was the only person awake. It was a strange feeling, and a little unsettling. I continued my tour on one of the small electric vehicles we used for moving throughout the great ship, checking the storage rooms full of food, the stocks of frozen plant and animal genetic material to be used in colonizing a new planet. There were the hangars for the shuttles to be used for exploring prospective planets. Other rooms contained various supplies and equipment, but I was the only thing moving on the ship. I decided to go back to the bridge and see what the computers had to say about it. As I entered the room I was aware of another human presence before I saw him. Glenn Miller (formerly Captain Glenn Miller, USAF) stood at one of the computer consoles, sipping coffee and looking at the screen just as I had a few hours earlier. Miller was the only person on the ship I knew well, and although we had been friends for a number of years, encountering him this way was something of a surprise.

Considering the earlier events of my life, however, I should not have been surprised.

Chapter 4

In 20xx I found myself suddenly idle and rich due to the successful results of my energetic efforts a few years earlier. After 15 years in the frenetic computer business of the 1980s through the new millennium, I had built a small software development business into a company that was worth quite a bit in the real world, many times that in the delirious inflation of high technology companies in the years preceding CWII. So I sold it and was prepared to retire before 40, which was due to arrive in 2015. unfortunately, CWII arrived in the same year.

CWII, is of course, the second Civil War (Civil War II). Despite the economic prosperity of the 1990s and first decade of the 21st century, the chronic problems of corruption and ineptitude on the part of the federal government coupled with increasing erosion of liberty and interference in the lives of the American people continued until it was too late to fix it. Then the president who had just failed to win reelection decided he was not going to leave.

The revolution began as a series of unrelated actions in various parts of the country, but as the factions and their objectives became clear, the rebel organizations began to work together and a full scale war was underway. But this time there was no north and south, no states choosing sides. Instead the rebel organizations held large areas of largely rural territory, while the urban areas were held by the Federals, as we called them. We being the rebels, or the partisans as we called ourselves, after the freedom fighters in Europe in WWII. My retirement estate in northeast Arkansas ended up in the middle of a stronghold of the Southern Militia, which comprised the forces drawn from several deep south states.

The Federals held on for over five years, but in the end we won. I persuaded the militia to leave my property intact by performing some services, which included behind the lines operations that almost got me killed more than once, and brought me into contact with Glenn Miller, Captain, U.S. Air Force. Status AWOL, or perhaps deserter by then. Over three fourths of the armed forces deserted when they they were ordered by a president who they knew despised them to kill their fellow citizens, so Miller had plenty of company.

As the Federals' position progressed from bad to hopeless, the would-be president-for-life tried to flee the country, with his wife and a lot of cash, gold, and other valuable stuff. We had a man inside who gave us everything including the flight plan, so we decided to change their itinerary. Miller and another renegade Air Force pilot used their F-37s to force Air Force One into rebel-controlled airspace while my force of partisans secured the airport long enough to land the aircraft and remove the passengers. The hapless pair were our prisoners for another eight months, until a group of partisans, speculating that the impending cease-fire and likely peace treaty would involve release of all prisoners, executed them. Although Miller and I had nothing to do with it, and in fact did not know about it until it was too late, our participation in their capture, along with our other wartime exploits got us a lot of notoriety, as well as invitations (to use the term loosely) to post-war inquiries and investigations, and eventually more interesting revelations.

When the federal government was completely disassembled and rebuilt by a bunch of outsiders, as was the case after CWII, one result was that all kinds of the most closely guarded secrets spilled out all over the place. Everything from polictical scandals that were successfully covered up for years to the truth behind assassinations and wars, not to mention the aliens.

Of course the rumors and allegations that proof of alien visitors was in the hands of the government had been around for years. And like most issues the government and the social elitists who were in a position to influence public opinion considered too hot to touch, anyone making claims regarding such matters was ridiculed, labeled as crackpots, and "debunked" by the ubiquitous experts. But when the conspiracy was broken there was no longer a way to hide the truth.

They were not in Hangar 18 in Arizona or at Area 51, though. They were stashed in cold war era bunkers in Virginia, close to the people who wanted to keep an eye on them. And there were not any live aliens. Not any more. But there had been.

It was during our time in DC that we met Dr. Hamblin, the old scientist who had studied the the alien material we had for many years. A crashed ship here and there, intercepted communications decoded and analyzed, the results of decades of research in the search for extra-terrestrial life. It was all here, and Dr. Hamblin knew it all. He also knew Miller, or at least his family. Miller's father had ranked high in the intelligence and diplomatic community, and knew Hamblin well. When he recruited us for the project he had dreamed of for years, he told us the whole story.

Most of it was becoming public knowledge anyway, under the new government's policies. What we got were details, technical details that were too long and boring for televison news or even newspapers. How the two aliens who survived a collision with a missile test firing over twenty years earlier. They and their shuttle were interned for years under the Virginia hills while scientists learned to communicate with them and understand their technology. In hopes of being able to return home, the aliens cooperated. But they were never able to build a new ship, or some say, were never allowed to succeed. They eventually died, but we had learned enough.

We learned the construction of the shuttles, their propulsion and navigation systems, and the bases from which they were launched. And we learned of the massive interstellar ships they used to reach our solar system, and of the hibernation system they used to spend most of their time asleep on the lengthy trips. And we learned much about the universe we lived in. Of course we already knew there was other life, we had two live specimens. They were somewhat humanoid in form, but shape was about as far as it went. And they were explorers, looking for worlds with life, colonizing some of them but apparently benign towards existing intelligent life. They had studied us for many years, but had strict orders (apparently not always obeyed) not to interfere in our affairs. Their cooperation with us was born of a desperate desire to return home and not die in a strange place, but it set us on our way to the stars.

Chapter 5

In the months, and eventually years, that followed Miller and I, having volunteered for and been accepted into the program, learned the alien technology and what they knew (or had shared with us) about the universe outside our solar system. We took one of the first operational shuttles out to the base in the asteriod belt (in fact inside an asteroid). We saw the massive ship being carved from one of the rocks, over a mile long and a quarter mile wide, over a thousand feet high. Having been roughly shaped into a slab of rock in these dimensions, the massive engines built into one end, the control facitilites and cargo areas into the other. We learned how the ship would eventually hurtle through space at nearly half the speed of light, the computers doing all the navigation, occasionally waking up a few of the passengers to keep them company. The massive particle beam projectors that could vaporize a small planet if a collision could not be avoided. The hibernation pods that used a combination of drugs and computer software through nerve control implants that could effectively place a human being into a safe hibernation for months or years, allowing long periods of time to pass without the subject aging more than a few days. All the technology to travel to the stars had been handed to us years, decades ago and we had buried it.

I often wondered why.

Then came departure day. Miller and I travelled out to the big ship with a small group of fellow travellers. We said goodbye to our friends forever, and to Dr. Hamblin. The old gentleman wanted so badly to be going with us he could not stand it, but he was far too old. Even if he slept the entire trip, he would still be almost eighty when we got to wherever we were going, unacceptable given the uncertain conditions awaiting us. We stowed our property and joined the others for the beginning of the trip. We would all be awake for the beginning, to take one last look at Earth and our solar system. As the days passed, the hibernation program would send us to our hibernation pods at intervals, where the control system would connect its control and monitoring devices and make us go to sleep until it decided we needed to wake up. Eventually we all would be asleep, except for just a few awake an any one time, only for a few weeks, then back into hibernation. As the ship progressed on its journey, it would scan any planets found along the way. If they seemed environmentally hospitable, a shuttle crew would be awakened to take a trip to investigate. That was the theory, anyway.

We were trusting the star maps the aliens had provided. We still didn't quite understand their computer technology, or at least what served them as computers. But we did manage extract data from it, and from that we got their maps of the part of the galaxy they were familiar with. It was this information that our ship would use to find a world suitable for human habitation, and perhaps one day find its way back to Earth. But by that time, if it ever came, those who sent it on its way would be long gone.

And that is how I came to be walking around inside an enormous rock hurtling through space at unimaginable velocity, in the year... who knows what year?

Chapter 6

"Howdy." Miller grinned over his coffee cup. He is a cheerful guy. He is also several years younger than I, less cynical and world-weary. I think about whether or not I really want to get out of bed in the morning, for him each day is a new potentially a new adventure. I joined Miller at the console he was standing by and poured another cup of coffee. "Something strange about this, wouldn't you say?" I asked. "That's for sure. I woke up about an hour ago and couldn't find anyone else up. I found your pod open, figured you were out looking for company, like I was about to do. I've been up what, four times, there were always a half dozen or so others around. How about you?" "Same here. What do you make of it?" Miller grinned again. "Obviously you didn't check the alarm clock" "What do you mean?" "Come look at this", he said. I followed him back to the room where his hibernation pod was located. As I looked at the display over the pod, I saw what I had missed by neglecting to look at my own display. Unbelieving, I looked again. I turned and headed back to the chamber with my pod, Miller close behind. My "clock" showed the same thing. We had been asleep for 132 years.

Chapter 7

"132 years!" I evidently shouted, as Miller jumped at the sound of my exclamation. "Impossible!"

"Not really", Miller said. "Remember we were advised that, according to the aliens, and confirmed to some degree by tests since the 1960's, the suspension time is almost indefinite. We just didn't want to risk really long periods so we set the system up to give us 18 to 30 month periods."

"That is what I mean", I replied. "That is the way the system was set up. So what are we doing here, the only ones awake, after over 130 years?"

"Good question," he replied. "Let's go back to the bridge and and see what Henry has to say. They've been awake all the time. I hope."

Back on the bridge, we sat down with Henry. Henry VIII (so named because he was the eighth revision of Doctor Henry Hamblin's attempts to merge our own computer technology with what little we understood - and probably some we didn't - of the alien systems) was our interface to the systems that controlled the ship on its journey and managed its systems, which included our hibernation cycles. While our own computer technology (at the time the ship was being built) was about as good as anything the aliens had had, they had made some contributions in the areas of logic pertaining to navigation. And of course, their maps of the parts of the galaxy they had explored were merged in. Dr. Hamblin had confessed to me that our own computer scientists did not completely understand some of it. On occasion I heard him mumble something about their artificial intelligence being as far ahead of ours as was their space travel. I thought about that now as we stared at the ship's log. It contained only the time elapsed since our departure from Earth, and our present position. We had travelled over 20 light years and the ship was orbiting a star we had never heard of, and the computer was advising us to consider inspection of its planets.

Henry had a lot to show. The computers of course recorded all the details of our long journey, but what he wanted now was to show us where we were.

On an enormous screen was displayed a star and some orbiting planets, but unlike anything we would have envisioned. The nearest world was close, somewhat like viewing our own world from a few thousand miles up, blue and green and white against the blackness of space, and far beyond it a star, not so unlike Earth's own sun. But it was the companion planets that caused both Miller and me to momentarily stop breathing and then turn to stare at each other. A platoon of spiders with ice cold feet double-timed down my spine as the motion of the image on the screen was accelerated to reveal a ring of apparently identical planets in the same orbit around their sun. Each one looking much like our own Earth left so far behind, clouds over green land and blue water, turning lazily as they moved past. Miller tapped keys on the console, and one of the smaller screens flanking the main display scrolled down a menu. Miller selected an item and we perused the file.

We were, to begin with, 132 years in time from Earth, and 26 light-years in distance. We were looking at a solar system comprising 33 approximately Earth-sized planets orbiting their star in the same orbits, like marbles rolling around the edge of a plate at equal distances, like a string of pearls. A string of worlds.

Miller and I continued briefly to stare alternately at the screens and each other, then he activated Henry's conversational mode. Henry could converse with us, and the other operators on the ship, in a remarkably normal manner. He could even detect humor to some extent (although Miller alleged mine eluded most humans, to say nothing of a computer).

"Where are we?" he asked Henry.

"We have arrived at (*#&)#@+#4" repled Henry.

"Where?" miller and i asked simultaneously.


"That doesn't tell us much" I complained. "Are we to make a landing here?"

"Affirmative. Check screen 4 for essential preparations."

"Why are we the only crew awake" I asked. "Standard procedure is to have a minimum of four crew at all times. Your records indicate the ship has been unattended for over 80 years. Have there been problems with the systems?"


"Then why the deviation from procedure?" I asked.

"There has been no deviation. You are to take a landing craft to the surface at the earliest opportunity."

"What do you mean, there has been no deviation," Miller asked. "You weren't supposed to leave us asleep for 120 years, or leave the entire crew asleep at once."

"Everything is under control. Review the information. Printed copies are provided in case of communications disruption while you are away from the ship."

I didn't like that part about disruption. Henry was already acting strange.

"Henry," I said, "this looks artificial. Man-made, or made by some one or something. What do you know about it?"

"That information is not available. All information is in the report" replied Henry. "You should prepare to land at the earliest opportunity."

I didn't like it, but there was not much we could do. We had placed our lives in the hands of Henry and the collection of machines he represented long ago when we volunteered for the trip, and would just have to make the best of it. In any case, in spite or our uneasiness, we were both excited and eager to be on our way to explore the new worlds.

Eyeing the screen suspiciously, Miller picked up the stack of papers and a small databook. We sat down and reviewed the data.

It seemed there were indeed 33 identical planets chasing each other around their star. Not really identical, though. Evidently Henry had parked us here for a while, long enough to acquire information on each planet. Each was about 1.11 times the size of Earth, with gravity averaging .91 earth gravity. (Hollow, or lacking metals and other heavy elements?). Large water areas on almost all of them, ranging from an Earthlike 70% to as little as 40%, but there were two with almost no large bodies of water. Interesting. Rotation was likewise Earthlike, about 28 hours. Atmosphere breathable by humans. Moons varied, some had as few as one, some had more, the maximum was 4. Even more interesting was the apparent atmosphere belt that connected the planets. Although it appeared to thin at the midpoint of the distance between any two worlds, it was continuous. They were inhabited, too. By what, Henry didn't say. He simply stated that plant and animal life existed on the surface.

Miller and I finished reading. "Well" he said, "the sooner we get started the sooner we 'll know what's going on. I think"

"Right", I agreed and we headed back to our quarters to prepare.

Given the practically unlimited space available inside the enormous rock we had used to build our starship, there was room to make living quarters for us to use when awake. We went back to prepare for the trip down to the waiting world.

When I was ready I walked over to Miller's quarters just in time to meet him coming out, dressed like me in casual clothes, jeans and long-sleeved aviator shirt, cowboy boots and a black flat-brimmed hat. Our Air Force goatskin flight jackets went along in case it got cold. My own attire was similar, but I preferred my army surplus boonie hat.

Both of us preferred the .45 automatic Colt, and each of us had a pair in shoulder holsters. Slightly customized with six-inch barrels and tuning to ensure reliable operation in less than optimum conditions, they had accompanied us on many adventures back home, and were about to go with us into the unknown. For more personal encounters, Miller had a his trench knife, a long bowie with the handle shaped into brass knuckles.

I brought the samurai-styled short sword I had often carried during the war. Its thirty-eight inches of damascus steel had been fashioned, along with its mate, by an old gunsmith and knifemaker up in the Ozarks, the blade whose mate now rested in a grave atop Crowley's Ridge... but forget that, now. It was a long time ago and far away, literally very long ago and far away beyond imagining.

A pair of long-barrelled derringers completed the outfit. Made by a specialty gunmaker, they had 8-inch barrels and were chambered for 45 Long Colts or .410 shotgun shells. I had long carried them as backup pieces, and now they were tucked into the tops of my boots, with a handful of shells in a pocket of my jacket. One of my favorite pocketknives and one of the late 20th century's ubiquitous multifunction tools completed the outfit.

We took one of the electric cars over to the hangar and prepared to board. We stowed our weapons in our gear bags before boarding, the buttoned up the shuttle and prepared to leave.

The shuttles were easy to fly, even a non-pilot could be trained to operate one. After all, once you remove gravity from the equation (which in effect is what the shuttles did) the rest was not so hard. The ship could provide assistance if you managed to get lost.

Buckled into our seats, Miller called Henry to verify the communicatons were working. Systems checks completed, we fired the engines and Henry opened the door to our hangar, and Miller gently eased the shuttle out into space. Minutes later we were rapidly closing on the world below us, and the shuttle went into atmospheric mode, descending smoothly toward the surface. Henry had downloaded all the available data into the shuttle's computer, and a large screen displayed a map of the planet's surface as we passed over.

We knew there were two enormous continents, approximately on opposite sides of the planet. There were several smaller masses that could be small continents or large islands, but our initial landing was to be on one of the continents.

"Pick a continent, any continent" said Miller as we levelled out about twenty miles above the surface. There didn't seem to be as much green and brown as on Earth, it looked more like shades of red, orange and yellow, and here and there varying shades of grey.

"Lets try the big one", I suggested, "since we've just passed over the smaller one". We were just passing over the coastline and over a seemingly endless ocean. I was suddenly very eager to land. Miller accelerated the shuttle to its maximum atmospheric velocity, about Mach 20, and we watched the ocean scroll away under us until the other continent appeared. Miller dropped back to a slow cruise at a sufficiently low altitude to observe the landscape closely. Henry had advised us there was both plant and animal life, or at least the equivalent to what we understood plants and animals to be. We could see what looked like vegetation, but nothing suggesting civilization.

Miller slowed the shuttle to a near stop as we passed over what looked like a grassy plain that seemed to go on forever in every direction, except the surface below us was a brownish orange instead of green.

"I guess we can land just about anywhere for starters", I said. Miller agreed. "We'll set down and have a look around". He let the ship descend the final mile or so toward the surface, then suddenly said "Uh-oh". I looked over at Miller, then at the instrument panel which had suddenly developed a bad case of flashing red lights. The faint hum, all the noise the engines ever made, suddenly stopped completely. In dead silence we dropped the last few hundred feet to the surface, only the fact that Miller had decided to glide in like an airplane instead of making a vertical landing, softened the blow. He had not deployed the landing gear, and the ship skipped along the surface for a while, and then was still.

Miller and I sat in silence, staring at each other for the proverbial eternity. With his calm fighter-pilot demeanor, Miller casually unfastened his safety restraints. "Unbe- lievable." he muttered. "Aren't these things even good for one flight?"

I had learned long ago not to let Miller be cooler than me. I replied, "Considering how many of them crashed on Earth, apparently not. Between our own government and the Russians, a lot of time and money was spent hiding the evidence and making people who saw them look crazy."

"Unbelievable" Miller mumbled again, and initiated the exit hatch opening.

He climbed out and I followed, our first steps on a new world as unceremonious as getting out of one's car after a traffic accident.

We stood there for a moment, looking at our surroundings. The crashed shuttle was of little consequence as we surveyed the world we had just arrived in, not yet ready to consider the enormity of what we had done, how far away was the home- world we would never see again, of what new experiences awaited us here. We could call Henry and have him wake someone up to come and get us when we were ready, but first we were going to have a look around.

The sky was blue and clear, very Earthlike. So was the air, slightly cool and incredibly clean. The ground was covered with a moss-like growth, in rather un-Earthly colors. Where we stood it was a orange-brown, as we looked across the nearby landscape this color, with some grey-green, and shades and mixtures of yellow and brown predominated. This was the coloration we had seen from space.

The area we had landed on was flat, the nearest features were a depression about a half-mile away, and what looked like mountains much further in the other direction. There were also what looked like trees a short distance away. There was no immediate sign of non-plant life.

Chapter 8

We looked around, then at each other. "Might as well explore a little before we look at the shuttle", I said. "If we require rescuing , which we almost certainly will since we don't know the first thing about repairing it, we'll have to call Henry and have him wake a crew to send after us. Miller agreed and we moved off toward the low-lying area that was the nearest feature of the terrain differing from the flat moss-covered area where we had landed. It was perhaps a quarter-mile away, and it took us only a few minutes to reach it. We noticed immediately the small difference in gravity, although the reduction was under ten percent, we seemed to cover a little more distance with each step without even trying.

As we arrived at the point where the land fell away, we could see that it was filled with water - a wide stream flowing slowly off across the plain we stood on. As we approached the stream, we heard a large splash, then several more. As we watched, several large creatures slid off the banks of the stream into the water. Although we did not get a good look at them before they disappeared into the water, they looked like alligators with extra legs - long creatures with lizard-like tails, and several pairs of legs distributed along their long bodies. They moved too fast to count them, but it seemed there were four or five pairs.

"Our first fauna", commented Miller. "Did those look like mutant alligators to you?."

"Kind of", I acknowledged. "But they moved too fast to get a good look at them."

We walked along the stream for some distance, seeing an occasional ripple in the water as if some creature had come to the surface for air or looking for food. The mossy ground cover extended all the way to the water, which looked just like the water back on Earth. At one point we knelt at the edge of the water and dipped our hands in it. It was cool and felt just like the water we had always known, but of course would need to be analyzed to be sure. We eventually walked back up on the higher ground, to discover the crashed shuttle was now about a half mile away. The sun was high in the sky, the temperature was comfortable, so we decided to take a look at what we thought might be trees. It took about an hour to approach closely enough to determine their nature.

They would pass for trees, we decided. Tall, smooth trunks rising well over a hundred feet, with branches high up, the trunks bare for over half their distance. What looked like large feathery appendages on the branches served as leaves. There was a large group of them, probably several thousand covering an area a square mile or more. Their colors varied considerably within the orange-brown-yellow-red range we had observed on the ground, with some shades of green and grey here and there. We walked for a while in the enormous grove, the ground lightly covered with the mossy growth covering the entire area we had covered so far, but here and there small plant-like growths rose from the ground, perhaps young trees or some smaller species of plants. Once or twice we heard sounds that might have been other creatures moving nearby, but it was a while before we saw one. Hearing a rustle of vegetation behind us, we both turned at once just in time to see a large dark shape disappearing into the trees some distance away. It was large enough to make us think we shouldn't be wandering around until we had more extensive knowledge of our new surroundings, and we headed back out of the trees in the direction of the shuttle.

It was a long walk, and the sun was settling toward the mountains we had observed earlier, and the temperature was beginning to fall. We hadn't checked the our watches to see how the movement of the sun coincided with our time measure- ment, but we guessed there was not over an hour of daylight remaining. As we arrived at the shuttle, the sun was almost out of sight and stars were beginning to appear. One of the moons (Henry's survey had informed us there were two, slightly smaller than Earth's) was rising. A large bright star appeared, and as the darkness grew another, then another appeared in a direct line beyond it, and in the total darkness that followed we could see a fourth, and then a very tiny fifth. As we stared in wonder at the amazing formation, it took a few minutes to realize what we were seeing. It was the string of nearly identical worlds, stretching out around the sun like a pearl necklace. How and why it had happened, whether through accident or design, whether by Henry's intent or something unknown, we now found ourselves in the most amazing situation imaginable.

We decided to sleep inside the shuttle in case any unpleasant night life should come prowling around. Inside the large cargo bay we unrolled sleeping bags and, suddenly more tired than we had realized, we quickly fell asleep.

Morning came well before we awoke. We climbed back into the cockpit and out into the new world. Miller brought out the portable radiophone we were to use for communicating with the ship, Henry that is. He punched Henry's code and waited, and waited, and eventually we decided Henry was not about to answer. Climbing back inside, we tried the shuttle's phone with no result. Calling the bridge, in case someone else was awake proved equally futile.

"Wonderful," commented Miller. "Just wonderful. I've been suspicious ever since we woke up. Henry was being evasive the whole time, and if I didn't know better I'd say he planned this."

"Come on, Glenn" I said. "He's just a computer. He doesn't have any arms or legs, he couldn't sabotage the shuttle".

It seemed reasonable. But I couldn't help adding "Unless it was sabotaged when it was built. Henry and his ancestors helped translate a lot of the alien data we needed to make them".

"Thanks a lot" said Miller. "That makes me feel a lot better. Perhaps this whole project has been manipulated by a computer, whose software is at least half alien"

"It's possible," I admitted. "Dr. Hamblin used to drop some dark hints about what the aliens might be up to. He indicated that our form of life was not unknown to them, that is, there must be beings much like us, in shape at least, elsewhere."

"I know. The aliens themselves were somewhat humanoid in shape." said Miller. "Dr. Hamblin said some people believe any successful life-form, in an environment similar to ours, would look something like us. But this place looks man-made" He paused. "Or made by something, whether man or not I don't know."

"Well," I said, "we seem to be stuck here for at least a while. Let's explore for a while, and try to call Henry when we return." We locked the shuttle and walked away, surveying our new surroundings with more deliberation than the previous day. We were again drawn to the forest we had visited the previous evening, mainly because it was a prominent feature on a rather plain landscape, and the path to the trees diverged only slightly from a path to the far-away mountains.

As we again looked upon the forest from a distance, we could see that it extended a great distance, much further than we could see. It appeared that the area we had explored was perhaps an arm extending from a vast forest.

Remembering the suggestion of a large creature we had seen on our previous visit, we checked our weapons before proceeding. We took the hour or so walk toward the forest in a fairly leisurely manner, and when we arrived at the edge of the wood we sat down to rest for a while and plan our exploration. After some discussion, we both agreed that it might be more productive to walk around the edge of the forest to avoid getting lost. We began walking, looking over at the trees occasionally, and sometimes over at the relatively feature- less landscape.

We walked a considerable distance, stopping twice to call the ship without success. The arm of the forest we were walking along seemed to merge into a larger body of trees some distance away, but it looked like more than a day's walk. We stopped and looked back the way we had come. "Without some type of vehicle, we aren't going to do much exploring," said Miller. "If we don't contact the ship, we could be in a lot of trouble."

I agreed. "Let's walk back that way. I don't know a thing about repairing the shuttle, and it isn't likely it healed itself while we've been gone, but this isn't very productive"

"We don't have any food", said Miller. "If Henry doesn't answer us soon we may have to find out the hard way if any of the local flora or fauna are edible."

With that unpleasant thought occupying our minds, we headed back toward the shuttle. As we reached the end of the woods and looked over at the site of the crash, it was evident that something had changed. There appeared to be some movement around the crashed ship, as if there were people, or something, moving around it. Whatever they were, they evidently saw us at the same time, because immediately figures began moving in our direction.

Miller and I looked at each other, at the approaching figures, and back at the woods. Under the circumstances, it seemed our best bet was to await their arrival. We were, after all, in a bad situation already. And in case the worst happened, we were armed.

We continued moving toward the crash site, and the figures continued to approach us. Long before we met, it was apparent they were not anything like us. We stopped and let them approach, standing with our hands at our sides to present a non-threatening appearance. They soon arrived, about a dozen of them, and surrounded us.

At first they looked like enormous worms, caterpillars actually. But as we continued to examine them we could see that the legs were longer, their length relative to the thickness of the body about like that of a large dog. All eight of them. And the two pairs of what we would consider arms were about the same proportion to their bodies as the arms of a human. The large wormlike bodies were about seven to eight feet in length, the front third held upright, the remainder resting horizontally on its four pairs of legs. The head, apparently just the end of the long tube-like body, bore a pair of large eyes, from their appearance were positioned to allow a wide field of vision ahead and to the sides. There was nothing resembling a nose, but there was what looked like a mouth. No ears that we could see, but there were a pair of large antennae, long black rods extending a little over a foot from the top of the head. The bodies were a medium to dark olive green on the top and sides, lighter on the bottom. They were vaguely segmented, smooth and leathery in appearance.

They were also apparently taking us prisoner. Each of us was held firmly from behind by two pairs of arms while another reached under our flight jackets and removed our guns. The knives were similarly confiscated, and a quick frisk apparently satisfied our captors that we were disarmed.

After they released us, Miller and I took off our jackets, removed the holsters and knife sheaths and handed them to our captors, who seemed to immediately understand we wished them to store the weapons in them, and they did. There was little sound from any of them, just a few whistles and chirps that didn't seem to bear any relationship to their activities.

As we were being taken into custody, the mass of creatures around the shuttle began to move in our direction, and shortly there were perhaps a couple hundred of them. When the assembly was apparently complete, they began to move, our captors gently guiding us by loosely holding our arms as the march began. We went along, largely because it seemed the only thing to do. At least, I thought, we might get something to eat.

Miller looked over at me as we walked along inside a small group of the creatures. "So much for humanoid life", he said. "Our first contact is with a bunch of oversized tomato worms".

"They seem somewhat intelligent, I remarked. "I wonder where they came from"

"They must have seen our ship coming down and travelled to the site of the crash" Miller theorized. "In which case they may have come from some distance away. We aren't going toward the woods or the mountains"

We were, in fact, again traversing the edge of the edge of the stream we had explored immediately after landing. As the day progressed on and the sun climbed to the midpoint of its daily journey, we began to see signs of larger vegetation in the distance. It was too soon to tell if it was trees like those we had seen near the crash site, but it looked as if we would be there before the daylight ended. Miller and I were in good shape and could easily handle a leisurely 20- mile march, but the creatures soon stopped, whether to rest or allow us to rest we did not know. We sat down and took the opportunity to observe our captors more closely.

The spiraling indented line around their bodies did, as Miller had observed, remind me of the large green cater- pillars that crawled on the tomato plants in our gardens back on Earth. Their greenish skin was darker, and they had no horn at the end of their body, but the plump green bodies and multiplicity of legs did make them look like huge cater- pillars. On closer examination, we could see that they were not all alike. The small group of about a half dozen that had disarmed us and surrounded us as we walked, were noticeably different from the others. Of the latter, about half had longer, more slender bodies with longer legs and arms. The remainder also had longer, but stockier bodies and shorter, thicker legs. Their arms were as long as the others, but appeared to be much stronger. We also noticed that the antennae were somewhat different, shorter and some what fuzzy on both groups.

There was little in the way of vocalizing, the small group with smooth black antennae occasionally making some sounds with their mouth, but it was rarely accompanied by any gestures of eye contact between them. We wondered if it was some kind of speech. Their cooridnated actions without any discernible communication was rather eerie.

After a few minutes they started moving again. Miller and I got up and walked along among the small group of what appeared to be the leaders. The others marched quietly along behind us. After two more stops, the sun was going down and it did not appear that we were going to arrive at wherever we were going before dark, but in the last light we crossed a low ridge and saw what might have been a settlement of some sort.

Chapter 9

It consisted of patches of small vegetation, most not over twenty feet high, and a large number of what appeared to be mounds of rock and earth. We were now on a well-worn path that led into the midst of the mounds and trees, and shortly arrived among them. Our escort stopped, turned toward the troop following us, and it began to disperse. The creatures crawled off in all directions, quickly disappearing from sight. Our captors herded us further into the settlement, finally stopping at a large circle of the mounds, which we could now see were shelters or dwellings of some sort, there were tunnels going into them and creatures were coming and going in and out.

A number of them approached, examining us and apparently discussing us with our escort, though as before with very little sound. Our weapons were handed over and examined by the others, and eventually we were escorted to one of the mounds. A couple of the creatures came over, carrying long sticks with luminous ends, providing a greenish glow which lighted the area as the sun finally disappeared. One of them made a very human gesture toward the entrance, which we took to be instruction to enter. We did, and passed through a short tunnel into a large chamber, perhaps forty feet in diameter and about half that high at the center. The floor was hard packed earth, with few furnishings. The creatures that followed us set two of the luminous sticks in holders near the door, and one of them brought in two large leathery sacks and set them on the floor, and then left.

Miller and I looked at each other. We were tired and hungry, and we turned to the sacks to see if they contained food. One was full of water, the other contained some small oblong cakes of what may have been processed food, whether animal or plant we could not determine. We each took a small drink from the waterskin, it seemed to be normal water. Realizing that we really had no alternative to trying the food, except starvation, we each also took a small bite from one of the cakes. Our intention was to wait a while and see if we suffered any ill effects before eating and drinking any more, but we fell asleep before we got around to it.

When we awakened the day was well under way. The light- sticks still glowed by the doorway, but sunlight was streaming in to light the interior of the room. Miller was awake before me, sitting up with his back against the wall. I was very thirsty and reached for the waterskin or whatever it was. The water was cool and refreshing, I noticed. "They brought in fresh food and water a while ago," said Miller. "I ate some more of that bread-like stuff, about an hour ago, and don't feel any ill effects". Encouraged by this, and the lack of alternatives, I ate one of the cakes and drank some more of the water. I had just finished when the light from the doorway was interrupted by the arrival of one of our hosts.

It was one of the long-black-antennae types, those that were few in number among the host from yesterday, the ones we thought might be some kind of leaders or supervisors. He looked us over, then held up its upper pair of arms with the hands in the air, then moved the hands back toward its head if a pulling motion, or perhaps a "come-here" gesture. It repeated the gesture a couple of times, then as Miller and I got to our feet it turned and headed to the door, looking back to see if we were following. We did, and exited into the morning air, standing in the large circular area enclosed by the mound-dwellings. There were two others there, also of the long-antennae type. They took up positions on either side of us, and the other moved away between two of the mounds, our escorts following. We understood we were to accompany them and did so.

"So far they don't seem inclined to harm us, although we do seem to be prisoners" Miller commented as we passed among the mounds, which we could now see numbered in the hundreds. "I wonder what their plans are".

There did not seem to be any streets, just the bare areas between the mounds and some sparse vegetation. "I don't know," I replied, "but they don't seem too surprised to see us. I wonder if they have had visitors before. And if they did, did they look like us?"

We arrived at a rather large mound, and our escort stopped outside while the leader went inside. After a while he emerged, followed by a large group. Miller and I looked at them, then at each other. "Are you thinking what I'm thinking" asked Miller.

"Probably so," I said. The main attraction of the new specimens was a particularly huge one, nearly twice the size of the largest we had seen so far, and it looked much older, its hide very dark, weathered-looking, with various marks here and there, some of which looked like scars. It was accompanied by a large group of large specimens much like our escorts, but somewhat larger. There were about two dozen of them - it was hard to count them in close groups - and they seemed to be some sort of guard. They formed a circle around the huge one, and they held long staves in both the left and right arms. I looked over at Miller. "I'm thinking these are some sort of social creature like bees or ants, with different physical characteristics determined by their function."

We continued to observe the guards. Their antennae were long and black, but with red tips. Their legs were somewhat longer and appeared more muscular (assuming these things had muscles) as were the arms. They surrounded the enormous specimen as he approached, then parted to let him move forward to meet our escort.

They appeared to be conversing, except there was very little sound. Occasionally they would look or gesture at us, but mostly just stood there in a small group. After a while the big one moved in our direction, stopping a few feet away. It was large enough that its head was level with ours and we looked directly into its eyes at is looked us over. The eyes, we noticed, resembled those of humans, except there was no white part, making it difficult to make out any detail. They had considerable range of movement, and occasionally seemed to move independently, as if theyh could look at two different things at the same time.

The big one turned away and moved back to our escort, and another brief, nearly noisless conversation (we assumed) took place, and then it turned and headed back into its mound, accompanied by the guards. Our escort now turned back to us, and directed us into a neighboring mound. Inside the large, circular interior, well lit by what appeared to be some type of skylights supplemented by lightsticks like those we had seen the night before. One of them gestured toward a pile of what looked like ovesized waterskins, but they turned out to be stuffed with something soft when we sat on the. As the others sat down in a semicircle behind it, it opened its mouth and said "{______} (__) /__/ !_____!".

Chapter 10

It was the beginning of our learning their language. Miller and I immediately recognized the creature's intention and responded appropriately. Both of us had an aptitude for languages, both human and computer, and had no problem learning another one.

The teacher's name was Repac Alonac Ecir, which we would later learn meant that he was the 134th unit of the 16th generation of a particular line of something best described as administrator-engineer. As we had suspected, they were a social creature like ants or bees, with various sub-types within a society designed for different purposes. While the visible differences were slight, the division between the types was clear. The vast majority were what we would call workers, comprising about 80% of the population and doubling as warriors when the need arose. Another 15% or so were dedicated warriors, and the few remaining were the ones who ran the show. There was the king, with his harem of breeders, a handful of prospective successors to provide a replacement when the king eventually died, and the type represented by our teacher Repac.

Another of our suspicions was confirmed when Repac explained their method of communication. While they could speak, they mostly used something we might call radio-telepathy, using their antennae to communicate. Although the language barrier would take some time to overcome, it appeared that they could broadcast thoughts to any and every creature within range, or could converse directly with a single creature at will. Their vocalizations, Repac explained, were nothing more than an additional means of expression, much like facial expressions or movement of hands would be to humans. We had noticed that they used head and limb movements a lot as well. Still we wondered why they had a comprehensive spoken language if their communication was almost entirely non-vocal.

Repac didn't seem to understand the question, but Miller and I were suspicious. These creatures were quite intelligent, as evidenced by what we had witnessed of their society. They built the stone and earth huts they lived in, they had a king who presided over the society and maintained order. They grew crops and made food and stored it in warehouses. Still, they seemed to have no interest in anything beyond the rather limited activities of the community.

Repac claimed they had no interest in or theories about the string of planets visible in the sky each night, or the sun and other celestial bodies. When we asked if they had ever seen other creatures like us, he again seemed confused and issued a vaguely negative answer. When we asked what they were doing so far from home when they found us, he explained that they were patrolling the area a round their home. When we asked what for, he replied that they were looking for any things that might be harmful to the community. It was one of his duties.

We did learn a lot about the Twarms, as Repac called his species. (We would not learn for some time that they were an egg-laying species with females which laid eggs and males which fertilized, but we had been thinking of Repac, the king, and most of the others as males. The females were relatively few in number, since only the King and a few types (like Repac) had mates with whom they propogated personally. The workers and warriors were produced by small numbers of breeders who produced a lot of eggs.

We learned about their rather primitive technology, which was primarily using elements found in nature with little processing. The light sticks, for example, were the seed pods of a local plant. When the fluid extracted from another plant was poured into the pods, they glowed with a soft, cool light for several days. The ubiquitous bread-like food which we ate regularly (but later supplemented by various local fruits and vegetables) was made from a local plant which they planted in large orderly fields around the colony. The bulbous fruit it produced was ground to a powder and mixed with other ingredients to form a dough which was baked in large ovens. They produced massive quantities of the stuff and it seemed to the the only thing the workers ate. Repac and his colleagues did eat some other foods, mostly the fruit of the local plants, and after cautious tasting Miller and I partook of some of it. The one thing we noticed was that they did not hunt any of the wildlife, and when asked Repac reacted to the idea of eating a living creature with equal amounts of distaste and confusion. In any case, we had not seen a lot of creatures besides our hosts. In fact, when we thought about it, there seemed to be no flying creatures at all, and nothing resembling insects either.

They produced some simple tools, including the spears the warriors carried, and some cutting and digging tools used in their agricultural operation and in harvesting vegetation. We examined some of them and discovered that the cutting surfaces seemed to be some type of chipped stone, like the arrowheads used by our ancient ancestors. They did, however, seem to have different materials which seemed to have a "grain", which made some types suitable for long narrow pointed instruments, like the spear heads, while others could be used to produce wide cutting blades to make an axe or a digging instrument like a shovel.

We went on a patrol with Repac and several of his colleagues, accompanied by a horde of the general-purpose workers like the ones that had been in on our capture. They may have been the same ones for all we knew, as they all looked so much alike. We could recognize Repac and a few others only after being around them constantly on a regular basis. They were so nearly identical in appearance we had to use features such as marks on the skin, scars, or the subtle mannerisms (which were very subtle indeed) to identify them. I asked Repac if we would be going back to where they found us, and he said not on this trip but maybe some other time. They seemed to have no interest at all in our crashed shuttle. Indeed, they seemed to have very little interest in us - but we were soon to learn that was not the case.

We travelled all day across a relatively featureless plain, in the opposite direction from where our ship had crashed. Once we skirted the edge of a forest, not unlike the one we had briefly explored immediately after our landing. The Twarms seemed to ignore the forest, but Miller and I both noticed that they actually altered our course slightly as if to pass it at a safer distance. When I asked Repac if they ever went into the forest, he replied that they had all the plants they needed. Again I suspected he was being evasive, but said nothing more about it. We camped on the open plain, Miller and I tried to make ourselves comfortable on the mossy surface, most of the Twarms curled up and slept with a few standing watch.

The next day we continued, approaching a low line of hills. We reached them about midday, and followed a path to the top of the ridge, which was probably no more than 200 feet above the surrounding terrain. We continued along the ridge for most of the day, and as the sun was setting we stopped and Repac and his fellows observed the land on the other side of the ridge. They seemed to be staring intently at something for a while, and carrying on a rather excited conversation to judge from the vocalizing and hand motions. When the conversation ended, Repac directed Miller and me to accompany most of the company down the slope in the direction of their colony. He and one of his fellows, accompanied by half a dozen of the workers, went down the other side. As we made camp, I asked Marax, one of them we knew slightly, if something was wrong. He replied that a small scouting party was going over the ridge for some distance and would rejoin us the next day. Having learned by now that that was all the answer we were likely to get, we lay down on the mossy ground and tried to get some sleep.

The next morning we were awakened by the creatures scurrying about, and we quickly got up and pulled on our boots and hats and grabbed our gear. We immediately began heading back in the direction of the colony, but we did not see Repac or the others who had left the night before. But about an hour into the homeward march, some of the troop turned to look back, evidently having picked up a broadcast from them. Miller and I turned to look and saw them trotting up behind us at a considerable speed. In fact, we had never seen them move so fast. They soon joined us and slowed somewhat, but urged us to increase our pace. Their faces didn't express much in the way of thoughts or emotion, but I would have sworn they looked worried.

We continued at a brisk pace through the night, our progress facilitated by the string of companion planets and the two small moons. We stopped at regular intervals for a brief rest and a drink (for Miller and me, at least - the Twarms didn't seem to require frequent watering). At the first stop we got close to Repac and asked what was happening. Receiving the usual confusion, evasion, or whatever it was, I recalled an earlier conversation. "Did you find something harmful?" I asked. Repac looked at us, looked back the way we had come. "Yes" he replied "time to go". And off we went.

We reached the colony before sunrise , and Repac and his intellectual colleagues headed off in the direction of the king's residence. Miller and I were left standing around with the general-purpose creatures, which was something we had seldom experienced for any length of time. It was strange, as they seemed to be unaware of our presence. They seldom vocalized at all, and we wondered if they transmitted, or only received orders from the higher-ups.

As the sun rose, we saw vast numbers of workers and warriors coming out of the huts and heading to the outside perimeter of the colony. They all carried spears with long slender heads, the dedicated warrior types carried two long spears, while being accompanied by a number of workers with bundles of shorter spears - the size and quantity suggested these were for throwing. Other workers carried several short spears and a long one.

Repac and some other leaders were running here and there, organizing the troops and obviously preparing for some anticipated action. Whether they were preparing for an attack, or to go out and attack someone or something, I didn't know, but suspected the former. As the Twarms moved from the center of the village to the perimeter, Repac came back and stood for a moment regarding us with apparent indecision. "What is happening," I asked.

"The |=====| come," he replied, then finally decided "You must go inside"

"Who are the |=====|," asked Miller. "Is there to be a fight?"

"Yes," replied Repac. "Now go inside and wait."

Miller and I thought of it at the same time. "Where are our weapons?" he asked.

Repac stared at us in confusion. "The weapons you took when we first met," I reminded him, indicating the positions our shoulder holsters had occupied. He got the idea, but seemed undecided. Suddenly he turned and trotted away into the maze of huts. Miller and I followed, and he stopped at the group of huts surrounding the king's residence. He turned and signalled for us to follow, and we went in. He rummaged among a stack of boxes and soon produced our pistols and knives. Miller grabbed our rigs and we put them on, and we belted on the knives just to be safe. Repac headed back out and we followed.

As we approached the perimeter we saw them. Presumably the Vilbaz, they looked more like huge bats, and there were a lot of them. Repac ran ahead, grabbing a couple of the short spears from a nearby worker, and joined a group of his fellows. The flying creatures were descending in a cloud over the entrance to the village. As they neared the ground, they glided swiftly over the Twarms, hurling short darts with a pair of short limbs on the upper body, slashing at them with short spearlike weapons held in a longer pair of limbs that would have been legs on a human being, then climbing away to prepare for another attack.

Miller and I pulled our pistols and ran forward to join them. One of the attackers was coming straight at me, just out of reach of a spear or knife, but not my .45. I dropped into a crouch and fired at the center of the small body between the huge wings, and the creature folded up and fell in a heap in front of me. Beside me I heard the deafening blast of Miller's weapon as he downed another one.

The effect of our joining the battle was, to say the least, spectacular. The Twarms froze at the first shot, and at the second some turned as if to flee. However, those close to us saw what had happened and apparently broadcast some sort of calming message, as they quickly returned to their positions. The attackers also reacted, pulling out of their dives and circling around to see what had happened. Miller and I stood still, wondering if they had identified us as the source of the noise and the instant death of two of their number.

They did, and came back in a dense wave, concentrating on our position. Miller and I began firing at them as they came, one by one they fell into crumpled heaps on the ground, and as our guns were emptied they were on us. We hit the ground, felt the wind as they passed over, but they failed to touch us with their weapons. We reloaded and got back up to our knees, seeing the Twarms around us throwing the short spears at the attackers, using the long spears to block their weapons and stab at the as them as they came close. We shot some more and were reloading when we noticed they were no longer attacking.

They were circling some distance away, out of range even for our guns. As we watched, I tried to estimate their number. There appeared to be well over a hundred, perhaps twice that many. And there were fifty or more dead on the ground before us. I knew the Twarms to number about 400, so they certainly did not have much of an advantage in numbers. And they couldn't fly. But they had Miller and me.

We watched as they circled the village at a distance of several hundred yards, and then they turned away and were soon out of sight.

The Twarms continued to mill around the perimeter, while the leaders stood scanning the sky in all directions. Miller and I went looking for the empty magazines we had dropped from our guns during the fight. We soon found them and returned them to their carriers in our. Each of us had six extra magazines, plus one in each pistol, meaning we had just used a fourth of our ammunition. There was some more on our crashed landing craft, and it was looking more and more like we would need to go back and find it. Meanwhile, however...

Repac and a couple of his colleagues were back, wanting to examine our weapons. Miller tried to explain how they worked, using some our our used cartridge cases and some unfired cartridges to demonstrate their operation. They did not seem to understand much beyond the fact that the weapons were effective at a greater range than their javelins. Before the subject of confiscating our weapons came up again, Miller and I had some questions of our own. To answer the first one, as in "what are these creatures and what were they doing here?" Repac took us to examine the nearest bodies.

While shooting them we had observed that they looked like giant bats, seemingly too big to fly, but close examination made them more plausible. The small body, less than half the size of an average human, seemed very lightweight, and the wingspan was probaby less than ten feet. Besides the two leathery wings, they had a pair of long arms high on the body, just under the head, and a pair of even longer limbs at the bottom, where our legs are located. The legs, however, were multitalented. They had been wielding the long spearlike weapons, one of which Miller was examining.

The weapon was about four feet long, about half was some type of organic-looking handle, while the other half was a long, slightly curved blade of chipped stone similar to the spears of the Twarms. Swung by the long leg-arms of the flying creatures, they had inflicted substantial damage during the brief battle. Several Twarms were dead and there were a number of wounded.

In answer to our questions, Repac explained that they were sometimes attacked by the creatures, who killed them and used them for food. They also captured the workers whenever possible and used them to carry away the bodies of their victims, and then used them as draft animals. He indicated that the small attacking force, probably less than half the number of the Twarms, could easily have overwhelmed them had they succeeded in killing most of the leaders. The leaderless workers could then be killed or captured easily. He said that might have easily have happened here, had it not been for Miller and me, and our weapons. They were surprised, and lost a large part of their force quickly. After withdrawing to consider their options, they apparently decided it unwise to continue. It seemed that their flight endurance was relatively limited, and if they did not accomplish their objective quickly, they would have to end the attack.

Chapter 11

I asked Repac if the sudden termination of our patrol and return to the colony was their warning of the attack. He replied that it was, and there was no more time for questions. He had to lead one of the patrols to see how far the Vilbaz had withdrawn. He did not believe they would attack again, but it was possible. He said they would have to land and rest for a while after the battle, and would not have gone far. Miller and I immediately volunteered to go. Repac and his fellows looked at us and at each other, no doubt having a silent conversation. I placed my hand on the butt of one of my pistols, and Repac decided quickly we would be handy to have along.

Repac and Mistok, another Twarms of Repac's type, assembled about two dozen workers and a similar number of warriors, and packed what appeared to be about three days of supplies. Then we set off, as a number of other patrol groups did the same. We quickly noticed that we were going over the route taken by our previous patrol. When asked about it, Repac said that on the previous patrol they had spotted the camp from which the attack was launched. He suspected it was on the way back to the Vilbaz home, and they would probably stop to rest for a while somewhere near there. Of course, we could never catch them, but signs of their camp could tell us where they had been.

Also, he explained, they might have left some pack animals at their last stop on the way to the Twarms colony, to carry away their victims. Surely they were not going to track the Vilbaz down and attack them, I wondered. Repac assured us they were just going to make sure they were gone and not resting for another attack, or awaiting reinforcements.

We found their staging area before midday, though Miller and I wouldn't have known it. It was just an area where a large number of the creatures had spent some time on the ground, evidenced by the trampled ground cover and a few footprints. Repac said they had probably spent the night here. The flight to the Twarms colony would be brief and they would not be too tired to fight when they arrived.

We continued on, spotting their next resting place before nightfall. The next day we crossed the hills we had seen on our previous patrol, and descended onto another wide plain. Here, as on the other side of the hills, the plain was dotted with forests large and small, and as we stood at the top of the ridge we had seen a wide river passing nearby. Further away, near the limit of the ability to discern details, the plain appeared to give way to unbroken forest, and beyond that rose what must have been an enormous mountain range. Even at the great distance from which we viewed it its size was impressive.

I asked Repac how far away it was. He had no idea, but suggested it would take a march of many, many days to get there. When I asked where the Vilbaz lived, he looked out over the plain with its patches of forest. "In the trees," he replied.

Miller asked "How much further are we going?".

"This far enough," replied Repac. "There is no sign of them. They have returned home for now."

"Why don't we continue on to the river?" I suggested. Repac gave me a strange look. "We Hamanz (as they called us) like water", I explained. "It is very dry in your village". Repac looked at Mistok, the two appeared to be carrying on one of their radio-telepathy conversations. Then Repac turned and led us toward the river.

It took less than half a day to reach the river. Because night was approaching, we camped there on the river bank. Early the next morning, Miller and I walked along the bank for a some distance, Repac and Mistok trailing along. Repac had just suggested we turn back and prepare to head home when Miller pointed at something on the muddy river bank. It was the body of a Vilbaz, apparently washed up on the bank.

We were headed upstream, which was apparently where the thing had come from. Miller and I examined it, he used the tip of his knife blade to move one of the wings which covered the small body. The body appeared to have been seriously damaged, whether by the weapons of an enemy or something else we did not know. I asked Repac if it could have flown this far so badly wounded. He didn't think so. Without waiting for the Twarms, Miller and I headed on up the river at a quickened pace. After a moment's hesitation, Repac and his companions followed.

We continued for perhaps a mile along the river before we saw signs of their presence. The ground cover was torn up in places and a number of Vilbaz bodies lay on the ground, with some of the weapons we had seen used in the attack on the Twarms. As we continued walking around the area I was startled by Miller's sudden shout "Will you look at this!" I turned to see him a few feet away looking at the ground, and walked over to see what he was looking at. It was a footprint.

Not a Twarms or a Vilbaz footprint, nor, as I first thought, one made by me or Miller. But it certainly appeared to be a human footprint. Just to be sure I looked at the boots Miller and I were wearing, then at the footprint. Circling the area, we soon found others, but we followed them only a short distance before the thick mossy ground cover made it impossible to see them.

Repac and Mistok were apparently conversing, occasionally gesticulating with their upper limbs and looking over at us. Repac notices us watching them and came over. Miller pointed at the footprints and looked accusingly at Repac. "What do you know of this?" he demanded.

The two Twarms looked at each other briefly, then Repac said simply "Hamanz have been here".

Chapter 12

"Indeed!" Miller said indignantly. "You knew there were others like us here and said nothing. Why?"

"We did not understand the circmstances of your coming" said Repac. "You said you fell from the sky in the thing where we found you. We have never seen or heard of such a thing. !****! (the king) instructed us to say nothing for a while, until we knew more."

"Who are these Hamanz," I asked. "Are they like us? Do you have any dealings with them?" That didn't translate well. "Do you trade with them, fight with them? Do you ever see them?"

"Let us return " said Repac. "I will explain as we travel. When we have arrived you will have the answers you require"

We headed back, not going very far before night fell and we stopped to sleep. On the brief march Repac answered some of the more essential questions, just enough that Miller and I both thought we would never go to sleep. There were apparently human beings here! Looking up at the night sky, where Henry and our ship and fellow travellers were. Were they still there, keeping pace with our world as it pursued the path it shared with its companion worlds? Or had Henry gone somewhere else? The presence of humans here was no accident. We had been brought here deliberately, and someone had planned it all along. Of that we were certain before we finally fell asleep.

The next morning we continued the march, and Miller and I walked along with Repac, listening as he described the people who lived here. It seems the Twarms did trade with them, mostly trading agricultural products for the chipped stone tools and weapons they used. The Twarms produced vast quantities of the fruit they made their bread from, and apparently the humans used it for food as well. They also produced some other crops they found useful. They did not meet often however, as the Hamanz lived some distance beyond the river and preferred the fringes of the forested areas as their home. Their patrol areas did not quite overlap, but came close, and trading parties were arranged regularly. They were both preyed upon by the Vilbaz, which would explain the killings by the river. Repac said a small group of them must have landed there, perhaps because of tiring earlier than the main group, and were discovered by the Hamanz, who killed some or all of them.

More details emerged as we went on. Apparently they were almost as primitive as the Twarms, living in nests in trees, hunting with stone weapons and gathering wild plants or trading for cultivated crops. They looked like us, almost exactly like us, in fact. Which is what caused the Twarms so much confusion, finding two of us far away from where we were supposed to live, strangely dressed and apparently having fallen out of the sky in a strange device unlike anything they had ever seen.

On our arrival at the village, Repac took us to see the king. There not being much of anything else to do with us, he agreed we should be allowed to meet the Hamanz at the next opportunity. Soon, he said, there would be a large harvest with much excess fruit to trade, and they would arrive with their beasts of burden to haul it away. If they, and we wished, we could return to their territory when they left.

Since it was to be some time before the first trading party would arrive, Miller and I wanted to go back to our ship and retrieve some items. We were permitted to accompany the next patrol going in that direction. I say permitted, there had never been a determination in our minds, and we suspected, in the minds of the Twarms (whatever that might mean) of whether we were guests or prisoners. We had not tried to leave without permission and so did not know what they would do if we did.

In any case, we felt safer going with a patrol, and would not have any problem finding our way there and back. At least they professed to know where the wreck was. Repac went with us - he seemed to have developed a sort of attachment to us. We wondered if he would miss us. The creatures never seemed to display anything resembling emotion (unless you consider the agitation they displayed prior to the Vilbaz attack), and our conversations with them never progressed beyond the affairs of their everyday world. Their curiosity (if they had any) was limited to possible threats in the vicinity of their habitat, hence the patrols. Perhaps Repac's seeming interest was a result of his being assigned as our primary caretaker and he was simply taking his duties very seriously.

We arrived at the crash site and found it almost exactly as we had left it. The mossy ground cover didn't seem to grow much, and apparently any visitors to the site had been unable to damage it or uninterested in doing so. Upon entering we immediately tried to call Henry again. We were not particularly surprised when we were unable to raise him with either the portable phone or the shuttle's radio. Either something had happened to Henry or, more likely, we had been deserted. Or more likely we were being ignored, for whatever reasons Henry had.

There was not much to take - we had brought only a small amount of survival gear, some ammunition for our pistols, and a couple changes of clothes. We were happier to get our hands on those than anything else. We had taken to wearing some rather minimal attire fashioned from a fabric the Twarms made (not for clothes - they didn't wear any) primarily to make containers and covers of various types. It wasn't uncomfortable as the climate was mild, but we were about to meet other human beings and wanted to look presentable.

We were, in fact, quite excited. Repac wasn't able to answer many of our questions, his attempts to describe their appear- ance were limited to a rather dry technical description: average size about the same as ours, hair and eye color varies, clothing similar to ours (i.e. body mostly covered with garments). Beyond that and the trade they conducted, he didn't know much.

Before we arrived at the colony, Miller and I took a brief swim in a small pool. The environment the Twarms lived in was so dry and dusty we had frequently visited some small pools near the colony. We had been warned not to swim in the rivers and larger bodies of water as there were things in there that would eat us, but the small quiet pools were safe.

Chapter 13

During the next few weeks we could do little but speculate on our upcoming meeting. We watched the Twarms gathering their harvest, assembling containers of produce and other items. Finally one morning a watcher spotted the approaching caravan and Repac came to alert us.

They came across the mossy plain, a small group of people and what looked like some sort of draft animals pulling carts. Before long they were before the entrance to the village. Some of them began unloading and erecting some large tentlike structures, while others unhitched the carts and tethered the animals. Miller and I stood inside the doorway of a hut near the traders' campsite and watched them.

There were about thirty of them, as far as we would see they were all men. The dozen or so draft animals were quite strange. They stood in a group not more than twenty yards from where we watched. Each was about ten or eleven feet long, and the top of its domed back was about the height of a man's head. The back appeared to be something very hard, like a shell. Underneath were four pairs of stout legs, which appeared to terminate in flat, padded feet. From the front of the shell a short neck protruded, with an elongated head at the end. The head had a mouth and nose at the front end, and at the back a pair of short protuberances I immediately thought of as horns. Except they were short, thick and had round knobs at the end. The normal position of the head seemed to be with the nose end down and the horned end up. As we watched we could see that the neck was occasionally extended slightly to allow the nose to reach the ground, suggesting a grazing herbivore.

Each one had arrived pulling a train of carts (actually wagons, we could see as we came closer). They were about ten feet long and had two wheels at each end. The front wheels were connected to a tongue which turned them left or right to follow the animal's movement. There were four of them behind each animal, indicating the animals must be very strong.

Miller and I continued to watch as the visitors arranged the wagons in neat rows and led the beasts off and tethered them nearby. As far as we could tell, the men looked just like us. They wore simple clothing that appeared to be made of a fabric like that the Twarms had given us to make our crude replacement clothing. Their dress consisted of shirts and trousers, some type of sandals, and wide-brimmed hats. The shirts had short sleeves and were open in front, and the pants in most cases ended just below the knee. The climate was fairly warm, and their dress seemed to be intended for outdoor manual labor. We did not see any weapons.

As we watched, Repac arrived and indicated we were to go with him. We followed him to the area in front of the king's dwelling, where we had our first meeting with humans from another world.

One of the three men standing there conversing with a group of Twarms moved toward us, stopping about two steps away and holding up his right hand about head high, palm facing us, in what we took to be a sign of greeting. Miller and I reciprocated. "Welcome," he said in the language we had learned from the Twarms. "I am Hernak".

Chapter 14
Miller and I introduced ourselves, and Hernak then introduced the two men with him, Merdack and Karsen. All three of them looked at our clothing , and from the careful inspection I suspected they were looking for our weapons. No doubt Repac had told them about us before we met. But the weapons were with our gear back in our hut, and Hernak said nothing of it. Instead he said "Come, we have much to discuss" and turned to walk toward a nearby hut. Miller and I followed with a sense of eager anticipation we had not felt since our arrival.

We entered a large hut and Hernak bade us be seated at a large low table. The Twarms of course did not use tables and chairs, presumably this one was provided by or for the visiting Hamanz. This one was designed for it users to sit on the floor, which we did. Hernak produced a jug and some glasses, filled them with an amber liquid, and passed them around. He and his two colleagues drank heartily, Miller and I did so cautiously. The drink was pleasant and fruity, with a little bite like carbonation, and perhaps alcohol.

"Welcome to our world" said Hernak. "We have spoken somewhat with the Twarms of you, but their understanding of some matters is less than sufficient. If you have truly come from beyond our world, we have much to talk about.

"My brothers here," indicating Merdack and Karsen, "are my most trusted assistants, and you can trust them as you do me.

"We are, of course, most interested in learning about you, but no doubt you too have questions.

"We call ourselves the Markarro, and we dwell near the edge of the forest at the base of the Kares Mondos, a journey of ten days from here. At least it is with our animals. A man on foot could travel there in seven or eight days.

Kares Mondos meant, as near as I could determine, Mountains of the Moon. I suspected he meant the enormous mountain range we had observed on landing and could see from our present position. When the moons came up at night, they rose over the mountains in a spectacular fashion.

"We come here occasionally to trade with the Twarms. We bring some goods we make to trade for food and other products of the Twarms. When we arrived this time, they told us there were two Hamanz among them. They said they were strange and had come from a far away place they did not know of."

Hernak paused for a moment. He and his companions looked at us and then at each other before he continued. "They also said you had strange weapons. Very powerful weapons with which the two of you defeated a large number of Vilbaz that attacked them. Tell us about yourselves, where you have come from, and how you came to be here."

Miller looked at me as if to say, go ahead, so I did. It wasn't too difficult. The Markarro had a fairly advanced (if their technology was as primitive as it appeared) understanding of their world and its place in the universe. They knew it was a round ball and that beyond the sky there were more worlds. They even understood that the companion worlds to Irata, as they called the world we were on, were other similar worlds. The source of their knowledge was not clear, but it seemed to be folklore handed down over the generations. They readily accepted the idea of a vehicle that could travel beyond Irata to visit other worlds, although it was a simple conceptualization that did not involve any understanding of the technology involved.

I wondered why the Twarms didn't exhibit their interest, since they were apparently intelligent creatures, and asked Hernak about it. Hernak shrugged, thought about it for a moment. "The Twarms are intelligent enough, in a way," he said. "But they do not have the curiosity or imagination that we Hamanz do. They have no interest in anything beyond the welfare of their colony.

"Our legends have it that there was a time when they did not speak, or trade with the Hamanz. The language we speak is our own, and the Twarms learned it from us.

"I said it is our own" he continued, "but in fact we share it with other peoples, even other creatures. It is said that even across the sea there is little difference in the way people speak."

"What do you know of the lands beyond the sea" I asked. We had landed near the center of the world's two large continents, and these people were far from the ocean.

"Not much" replied Hernak. "Only that far from our home, the land ends, there is much water, and then land again. We have visitors occasionally, and in past times some of our own people have gone away to see what lies beyond our homeland. Though in my lifetime, and in recent generations none has returned to tell of their journeys."

He paused. "It is said that there are other peoples, both in this land, and beyond the sea, who live much differently than we do, and who possess strange and wonderful things, as you do. I have often thought of travelling, but do not wish to do so alone, and few of my people have the inclination to leave the safe and comfortable life they know. In any case, I will soon be too old to think about such things."

Hernak didn't look that old, he could have been in his early thirties. But I remembered that Miller and I were both nearly forty and to most people easily looked ten years younger. Of course, not knowing anything about their lifespan or developmental cycles, his age would be hard for us to judge. This world had a day slightly longer than that of our homeworld, and its year was much longer - nearly two Earth years.

Hernak interrupted my thoughts. "The Twarms said you came in a machine which you told them fell from the sky." he said. "Can we see it?"

"Of course" I replied. "It is only two days from here."

Hernak looked at his lieutenants. "It will take at least two days to conclude our business here" he said. "And the men will be in no hurry to return home." He smiled. "One thing you will learn about us is that we rarely are in a hurry to do anything.

"I will leave Merdack here to oversee our business, and Karsen will accompany us. Perhaps some of the Twarms will go with us.

Hernak poured another round of drinks. "It is too late to start today" he said. It was only about midday, but that was fine with us. "I will arrange for food" said Hernak. "Real food, not this stuff the Twarms eat. No wonder they lead such dull lives."

Hernak had lunch delivered, and it was a most excellent meal after the bland diet the Twarms had been feeding us. It had obviously been brought with them and and was prepared and preserved for travel, but was nevertheless quite enjoyable. There were lots of something resembling whatever passed for fruits and vegetables here, as well as some items that were evidently once part of a living creature, i.e. meat.

After lunch we went with Hernak and his men to watch the work of unloading their trade goods and reloading their wagons with the product they obtained from the Twarms. As Hernak had said, they were in no hurry. For that matter, the Twarms did not conduct their lives with any particular urgency either. They worked at a casual pace, often stopping to talk or to sit down and have a drink. There was a lot of conversation, laughing and a fair amount of horseplay. The men looked at us curiously as we followed Hernak among them, Merdack and Karsen stopped to converse with them, apparently telling them something about us as eventually the entire group was gathered around them.

Hernak showed us the things they had brought - the finely crafted stone spear points and ax blades and agricultural tools, the luminous sticks the Twarms used inside their huts, and piles of various fabric and various slabs and planks of what looked like wood, but on closer inspection looked like plastic or some other type of synthetic material. It was, however, apparently organic, as we could see the marks where branches had been removed and what looked like growth rings and parasite damage.

The Twarms, for their part, provided huge quantities of the fruits and vegetables (or their equivalent on this world) which they produced in their fields. They didn't really do a lot of cultivation, just cleared land to give the plants a place to grow, then harvested the fruit. Hernak's men were loading the wagons with it. Since Hernak didn't seem to be any more impressed with their food than we did, I asked why they traded for food.

Hernak explained that they didn't have a lot of land to cultivate crops, and the trade helped supplement the food they obtained by hunting and gathering in the forest. They also desired certain fruit the Twarms had, he explained with a grin "to make ######", picking up a jug which proved to contain more of the beverage we had enjoyed at lunch. He poured glasses for Miller, me and himself and we drank. Presumably, then, it was a fermented drink of some type. I was beginning to feel a little light-headed.

We examined their wagons and the animals that pulled them. The Rongas, as they were called, were quite impressive. They had a tough leathery skin, the "shell" we had observed appeared to be layer of even thicker and harder hide covering the back and sides. They completely ignored us as we moved among them, standing quietly and grazing on the mossy ground cover. Hernak told us they possessed absolutely no intelligence or motivational processes. When pushed from behind they would walk until restrained by pulling on the reins. Changing direction was as simple as pulling on one side. When not travelling, he told us, they would stand quietly for days at a time without moving as long as they were fed occassionally. Since they didn't eat much when not working, they seemed to be a low-maintenance form of transportation.

The wagons were interesting as well, looking much like old farm wagons from our own world. They consisted of a box with wheels at the corners, a simple axle running under the bed at each end, with what looked like some type of bearings on the wheel hubs. The wheels themselves were made of heavy spokes with a thick rim around the outside. The only odd thing was that none of the materials seemed to be the wood or metal I expected. Like the stacks of material they had transported, they looked at once synthetic and organic. Organic plastic, I thought. I didn't know how close to the truth that was.

We watched the work for a while, and talked with some of the men. They were a friendly, likeable lot. They were curious about us but not nearly as excited about meeting someone from another world. Of course, they might not understand that concept as well as we did, or perhaps being a primitive people were receptive to new and strange ideas. Later, as the sun set, we had dinner with them before retiring to our quarters for the night.

In the morning Miller and I were up as soon as sunlight appeared at the door of our hut. We wandered out to the area where the wagons and animals were, and where most of Hernak's people had camped. They were having breakfast in a leisurely manner, and we joined them. Fortunately we did not suffer from the lack of coffee, because neither the Twarms nor Hernak's people seemed to have any kind of early morning stimulant. The food was good, however, as was the fruity beverage that went with it.

In a while Hernak appeared from inside the village. He called Karsen and Merdack over to talk with Miller and me. "The Twarms will send out a patrol with us to the place your vessel lies" he said. "Karsen will go with us, and Merdack will oversee the remainder of the work here. They will be done by the time we return.

"They are ready to go when we are" he continued. "Are you ready?"

"We need to fetch some things from our hut" said Miller. "It will not take long".

We had kept our weapons since the attack by the Vilbaz, but did not carry them around. When only the Twarms were around, we felt safe leaving them in our dwelling, but with other humans around, we did not fancy leaving them unattended. Besides, we now knew there were some dangerous creatures about. Having buckled on our guns and knives, we rejoined Hernak and Karsen. They looked curiously at our gear, but asked no questions at the time.

We found the small group of Twarms who would accompany us and set out on our journey. The leader was a specimen we were only slightly acquainted with , a seemingly young (judging from his small size and the relative lack of wear and tear on its hide. His name was Kepock, and he seemed competent enough. Of course, we didn't know if there was such a thing as an inept Twarms. They seemed genetically programmed to properly fulfill their function in life. Hernack reinforced this opinion when we discussed it.

"We are not even sure to what extent they think" he said. "They can learn to speak and conduct trade with us, but they are so unimaginative and limited in their activities, we are not sure if the are not like an animal learning to perform tricks."

Chapter 15
The journey was certainly more enjoyable with people to talk to. The four of us talked constantly, Hernak and Karsen telling us about their people and their world, and Miller and I telling of our homeworld and our journey. Given the rather limited knowledge they had of their own world, they must have been rather overwhelmed, and somewhat skeptical, of our own stories. Until we arrived at our wrecked shuttle.

Hernak and Karsen were considerably amazed by the small spaceship. We opened it up and showed them the inside, the cockpit and small cargo area, and the engine (which we didn't understand much better than they did - it was a gift from a civilization whose technology was as far beyond ours was ours was to that of this world). It seemed that they looked at us a little differently after that, which was not a complete surprise. They may or may not have accepted our story of being from beyond their world without question, but this would have erased any lingering doubts.

After our examination of the ship we continued with the Twarms on their patrol, which took us along the edges of the forest we had entered when we arrived, and eventually turned back toward their village. We arrived late in the day, but not too late for Merdack to find us and report that the company was ready to depart. At dinner Hernak advised us we would be leaving in the morning, so Miller and I packed up our gear before retiring for the night.

There was no ceremony about the departure. We accompanied Hernak to the staging area and he showed us to a comfortable seat on the lead wagon. "The Rongas move very slowly" he said, "so we might as well be comfortable". So dull was the ride, in fact, that most of the men walked much of the time, only riding in the wagons when they were tired.

We passed the days of the long journey talking with Hernak and his men, all of them spent some of their time with us, listening to us talk about our world and ourselves, asking questions and answering ours. The subject of our guns came up, and we asked Hernak if he wanted us to demonstrate them. He said it would be better to wait until we had arrived home. I thought that was a good idea as well, as our ammunition was limited and didn't want to waste it. Hernak seemed a little uneasy about the guns, having heard about them from the Twarms, and our own descriptions of how they worked. Our knives did not bother him, even though they were made of an unfamiliar material and had unusual designs. The guns, though, were something else. His people were uneasy with weapons that could be used from a distance. Even throwing a knife or a spear was frowned upon by his people.

After that we spoke of them no more until trip was over. As the mountains grew larger before us, so did the forest that lay before them. Eventually the mossy plain suddenly gave way to enormous trees, much larger than those in the forest near our landing site. As we looked up the long trunks, they seemed to go on forever. The tops were not visible. They must have been several hundred feet high, perhaps a thousand feet or more.

Smooth trunks, bare most of the way up, ranged from several feet to perhaps 40 to 50 feet in diameter. We followed a vague path among them for some distance before we encountered the first signs of their settlement. The ground around some of the trees was covered in areas with large flat stones, forming a smooth floor around the trees and paths between and among them. Looking up, we could see the doors and windows, and stairways cut into the sides of the trees. Hearing voices, we moved around a large tree to be greeted by a group of people, presumably Hernak's people.

There were about a dozen of them, a couple of older men and some younger men and women who looked to be in their early to middle twenties. Two of the women ran towards us, their attention focused on Hernak. First one, then the other embraced him before, turning to the remainder of the group, noticed us.

Their eyes widened and they stood staring at us, then turning to Hernak, who laughed. He motioned to us to join him, and Miller and I walked over to where he stood, his arm around one of the women and holding the hand of the other. They were two extraordinarily good looking ladies, and I (and no doubt Miller as well) had trouble keeping our eyes off them. As one of the older men joined us, Hernak introduced us.

"This is Kiera" he said looking at the one he had his arm around "and this", indicating the other "is my sister Sara".

He gestured to the older man. "This is my father, Karask, chief of our clan. And these", he said, indicating Miller and me "are two strangers who have a strange story to tell. I ask you to make them welcome among us".

They proceeded to do so, the men crowding around us to greet us with a kind of handshake we have learned from Hernak and his men - the two participants simultaneously grasping each other's upper forearm for a second or so while slightly tilting the head forward. The women performed the act somewhat differently, gently holding our right hand between their hands while performing the slight bow.

The greeting party helped move the animals into a small clearing and unhooked the wagons. The animals were dealt with in a most unusual fashion. They were herded off to a small area sheltered by some low branches, and given a drink of something that caused them to go to sleep almost immediately. Hernak explained that they could sleep for long periods of time, and did not need to eat much even when working, and almost nothing at all while sleeping. They would administer another substance, a liquid splashed into their nostrils, to wake them up when they were needed again. I thought that was interesting, since I had travelled here in a drug-induced hibernation for over a hundred years. The wagons were separated and pulled off to one side, and as we watched more people appeared, unloading the wagons and disappearing into the trees with the cargo.

Hernak indicated that we should accompany him, which we did. We walked among the trees a short distance until we arrived at a particularly large specimen, its grey-green trunk looked to be a good fifty feet in diameter, disappearing in the canopy above us. Despite the heavy growth of trees, a considerable amount of sunlight penetrated to the floor of the forest. It seemed the foliage above us was not especially thick.

Hernak entered a door carved into the side of the tree, inside which we found a stairway spiraling upward into the trunk. We ascended perhaps two stories and found ourselves in a large open room, about twenty by twenty feet. On two sides other stairways continued upward, and on the other two sides windows had been cut through the trunk. The room was roughly furnished - several large bags partially filled with something (we later learned they were chairs), a couple of small tables and some boxes stacked in a corner.

Hernak, his father, and two of the younger men, as well as Kiera and Sara, had entered the tree with us. Hernak gestured to the bags and then sat down on one, the other men followed suit. Kiera and Sara disappeared up one of the stairways.

"After we enjoy some refreshments, we'll show you to your rooms" said Karask. "Needless to say, those of us who have heard about you are excited and eager to talk with you. But you must be tired after your journey and will want to rest and change your clothes before dinner." It was mid- afternoon, if they followed the pattern of mealtimes we had experienced with Hernak and his troop (like our own custom, there were meals at morning, midday and early to middle evening, typically allowing several hours between dinner and bedtime.

Kiera and Sara returned with another woman whom Karask introduced as his wife. They brought bottles of beverages and trays of light fruit and pastry snacks which were set out on the low tables, then sat down on some of the bag-chairs. Karask introduced us to his wife and briefly explained that we were travelers from far away and would be staying with them for a while. The next hour or so was filled with small talk, mostly our hosts telling us about their home and lifestyle. The drinks were only mildly intoxicating, and I wondered if they drank anything stronger.

Eventually, Karask and Hernak got up and asked Miller and me to accompany them up one of the stairs. We picked up our bags and followed, passing one door which seemed to access another level, then entering another door. The stairway continued upward, how far we did not know. Following our hosts down a surprisingly wide hall (considering it was carved into a tree trunk) with rooms on each side. We were shown two modest rooms, each roughly square and about fifteen feet on each side, with ceilings about seven to eight feet. Each room was furnished with a small table and a couple of chairs, some pegs and hooks suitable for hanging clothing and other articles, and another partially stuffed bag, this one about six to seven feet long and obviously intended as a bed. A pillow and folded covers were also present.

"These are your sleeping chambers" said Hernak. "You may leave your gear here while I show you the bath." On the journey from the Twarms colony we had occasionally come across a small stream or pool in which we, and Hernak and his troop, eagerly took advantage of the opportunity for a swim. The bath Hernak showed us (there were actually two of them on this floor) was nearly as modern as the ones we enjoyed on our homeworld. The toilet was a bit primitive but would prove to be quite serviceable, the tub was a large round depression in the floor about three feet deep and about six feet across. A large pipe was used to fill the tub, a flexible hose with a shower head on it was also avail- able. The fittings all had the organic look we had observed, and the showerhead was clearly some type of plant growth, gourd-shaped with the small end attached to the hose and the large end penetrated by a small group of holes to allow the water to come out.

"If you wish to rest for a while after your bath, take your time" said Hernak. "It is still almost four pahs until dinner." The pah was the unit time analogous to an hour on Earth. But since the day was divided into 16 units, a pah was over an hour and a half. I was looking forward to sleeping in a bed, even one of those beanbags they used here. Kiera and Sara appeared at the door, bearing a small stack of folded clothes for each of us. "We will wake you when it is time to eat" said Hernak, and then they all left us.

Bathed and wearing the robes from the pile of clothing we had been provided, Miller and I went to our rooms. I was asleep as soon as I achieved a horizontal position. When I awoke the light from the window was completely gone. The only light in the room came from two of the ubiquitous light- sticks. Looking out the window I saw nothing, at first. As my eyes adjusted to the outside darkness I could see a few small lights, apparently from other tree-houses like the one I was in.

Figuring it was probably getting close to dinnertime, I turned to the remainder of my new wardrobe. The trousers, of some soft fabric resembling brushed cotton, fit perfectly. The shirt, of something lighter and feeling like silk, was also comfortable. I had seen Karask wearing one and knew the extreme length was to allow it to be worn like a tunic over the trousers, and a belt was provided to cinch the waist. Soft slippers, appearing to perhaps be made of some type of animal skin and lined on the inside with something furry, completed the outfit.

Chapter 16
I had just finished dressing when I heard a knock at the door. Miller also was awake and dressed, and came in and sat down. It was the first time in a while we had been alone, and Miller promptly asked "Well, what do you think of our hosts?"

"You mean besides the fact they're friendly, laid back and have a lot of beautiful women?" I replied.

"Noticed that, did you?". Miller grinned but his voice was serious. "I don't know what I was expecting when we began this trip, but whatever it was, there is something really strange about this. Not just the obviously artificial construction of this solar system, or Henry's strange behavior, but almost everything that has happened so far has been like a strange dream, or maybe a hallucogenic drug trip." I looked at him curiously. "Not that I've ever had one" he added.

"I don't know what you would find strange about our ship's computer going crazy and stranding here, probably knowing all along exactly where he was taking us." I replied. "Or about spending a few weeks with a bunch of giant caterpillars, being attacked by giant armed bats, then falling in with a bunch of genial hippies living in giant tree-houses.

"Seriousness aside, however" I continued, "it certainly is strange. But we are apparently with human beings like us, I suggest we observe our hosts for a while and see what we think."

"One odd thing," said Miller, "is that neither the Twarms or the Hernak's people questioned our story about where we came from. Even though they don't seem to have much, if any, understanding of the concept, they readily accepted it. What I wonder is, are these a primitive people who are just beginning their civilization, or are they survivors from one that somehow fell apart?"

"Their ready acceptance of things they don't understand would seem to indicate a primitive people" I said. "Free of prejudice and preconceptions. In our world of high technology and learning, people who believed UFOs were alien visitors were ridiculed. While some of that was the result a deliberate and well-organized campaign to conceal the fact that extraterrestrial beings actually were visiting the Earth, most people refused to believe in them because the more we learn, the more we fear the things we can't explain. These are a simpler people who simple accept what happens without a lot of analysis."

"OK, Doctor" said Miller. "Sounds good to me. But would a people who had lost a high-tech civilization and returned to a primitive state behave as they did before they became civilized?"

"Beats me." I replied. "They seem friendly enough. This should be more enjoyable than living with the worms. I wonder if dinner is ready"

As I spoke, there was a knock at the door. Hernak was there, and advised us it was time for dinner. We traversed the stairs, past the large room we had been in after our arrival, past another level, finally coming out into a wide hall where a number of people were standing around talking and drinking. A large table that appeared to be suitable for seating the entire group was being set with dishes and food. Hernak led us over to a table bearing an abundance of beverage containers and poured us drinks, then guided us over to the group of dinner guests.

Besides his parents, Kiera and Sara, Merdack and Karsen had rejoined us. Hernak introduced us to a number of other family and friends, including another sister named Lara. There were a number of close relatives who lived nearby, as well as friends who had been invited for what looked like a special occasion. "Is dinner always this elaborate?" I asked Hernak.

"We have quite a few guests tonight" he said. "We normally have a big banquet like this when we return from a trading trip, but it isn't every time we come back with two visitors from far away. By tomorrow everyone in the forest will have heard of you, and will want to find an excuse to come here and see you and hear all about you."

"There are a lot of beautiful women here" Miller commented. "Is this normal?"

Hernack grinned and looked at Kiera and Sara, who smiled shyly and blushed just a little. "Kiera and Sara were so excited about you they told all their friends who live nearby about the two handsome visitors" he said, then added "That was their description".

This was our first opportunity to spend time up close with Hernack's people in this setting. On the trip from the Twarms colony, we were all dressed in rough work clothing and dusty and unkept most of the time. Now we were seeing how they lived at home.

Like us, Hernak and his brothers had cleaned up and dressed in fine colorful clothing like that they had provided us. The older women wore dresses of silky material resembling that of our shirts, generally falling just below the knees, usually with long loose sleeves, and belted at the waist. The younger women wore them shorter, well above the knee, and short sleeves were common. Their almost universally long hair was usually contained by a band near the collar, allowing a long pony tail to fall down below the shoulders.

They appeared to use makeup as well, though not as much as we were used to. Most of them had no more than a clear glossy substance applied to the lips, and the suggestion of darkening the eyelashes. Not that they needed it. There was indeed, as Miller had observed, a plethora of beautiful young women here. Their colorful jewelry appeared to be made of various mineral and perhaps organic materials, and while attractive and interesting, there was no evidence of gold or silver. Again I wondered if there was any metal of any kind on this world.

Hernak interrupted my speculation. "Dinner is ready" he said. "Come with me". We followed him and Kiera, Sara and Lara and a couple of their friends following us. We sat near the head of the table, which was narrow at the ends and quite wide at the center. Hernak and Kiera sat on one side of me, Sara and one of her friends on the other. Across the table Miller was flanked by Lara and another lovely young lady on one side, with Merdack and Karsen and their escorts on the other.

Chapter 17
The meal was excellent, an astonishing variety of unfamiliar but delicious dishes, apparently of both the plant and animal kingdoms, accompanied by generous quantities of the pleasant, fruity beverage we had become accustomed to. This evening's drink, however, seemed a bit more robust, and the warning of impending intoxication caused me to moderate my consumption. Watching Miller, I noticed that he too was not having much of it. Neither of us was a heavy drinker, and experience had taught us to be careful about drinking around strangers.

Before long the activity had progressed from primarily eating to talking, and Miller and I spent at least a couple of hours answering questions from anyone near enough to converse with us. Eventually people began to leave the table and form small groups where they stood drinking and conversing quietly. Miller and stood with Hernak and his family, with guests joining our group briefly, listening to us talk and asking a few questions, then politely moving on to allow someone else to visit with us.

And they were a remarkably polite people, the men looking strong and fit, yet seemingly more refined and introspective than one might expect of a primitive people. The women were graceful and feminine, more so than the women of my experience, yet moved with an air of confidence and poise. They joined in the conversations as equals with the men, and their interaction left me with the impression that each sex regarded the other with a high degree of affection and respect.

It was a quite a while before, as far as we could tell, all the guests had had a chance to observe and speak with us, and began to leave. Despite my best intentions, the long party and constant flow of drink left me feeling rather unsteady. Miller seemed to be having a similar experience and Hernak, observing this, laughed. "I apologize for inflicting so much of our drink on you" he said. "It takes some getting used to. You are probably ready for bed." Miller and I readily agreed, and we were escorted up to our chambers, where I immediately fell asleep.

Just as they had potent recreational beverages, the Markarro had the equivalent of coffee. They apparently experienced intoxication, and attempted to recover from it, the same way we did. Hernak and Kiera (we had suspected, and during the previous night's conversation, learned that they were what we would call engaged to be married) woke us and we went down to breakfast. The meal was a variety of preserved items, rather than freshly prepared. I wondered if they had developed the habit of eating the eggs of any particular animal, as we did. Or if in fact there were any egg-laying creatures on this world.

The breakfast drink was not hot, but it had much the same headache-relieving and stimulant properties of coffee. Miller and I drank a lot of it, but noticed that our hosts did as well. Apparently they had overindulged as well, even if they were accustomed to the stuff.

After breakfast Hernak and his father showed us around their house before going outside. The treehouse was an impressive piece of work. The five levels of rooms were cut into the side of the tree, penetrating perhaps 20 to 30 feet into the trunk, connected by stairs spiraling around the outside just under the skin. I asked if the tree could be harmed by too much carving. Hernak indicated that as long as the trunk was not structurally weakened, it didn't seem to be affected by their presence. When chambers were carved into it, it seemed to produce a protective layer forming the walls, floor and ceiling. He showed us where a new room was being carved. The dense, slightly damp tissue which formed the trunk was more like a weed than a tree, covered on the outside by a skin several inches thick. It was easily excavated with the stone tools they used.

After looking around the house for a while, we went outside. The trees here were not particularly thick, the large ones were one to two hundred feet apart, in places smaller trees grew somewhat more closely. The ground was clear of any small vegetation, except for small cultivated patches, presumably for food or other domestic use. Much of it was covered by smooth, flat slabs of stone forming paths and in places covering large clearings. Looking up we could see windows and doors indicating inhabited trees.

"How many people live here?" asked Miller.

"Our clan now numbers close to four hundred" answered Karask. The word he used to describe the community was similar to our definition of clan - in this case a group of large families, some related by blood or marriage, others by having chosen to live in the same community. As for their numbering system, it was a almost exactly like ours. Of course, they were physically identical to us, having ten fingers, so that was not surprising.

They led us around the area occupied by their tree-houses, pointing out others used for storage and other uses. Outside this area, the trees were somewhat closer together and the forest floor was darker, although we could see places where paths led away from the settlement into the forest. I asked about them.

"Other clans live nearby" said Karask. "There are several settlements less than a day's walk from here, and many people come and go by these paths."

"Are all the clans friendly?" I asked. I wasn't sure I had chosen the right word. The only antisocial behavior we had witnessed was the attack by the Vilbaz at the Twarms colony, and had never heard the term for enemy.

Hernak understood. "All the clans of the forest live at peace. Most of us are related to people in other clans, as we usually go to other clans to seek our mates. Kiera is from the Mandaris clan, about a day's journey from here. There is also much trade among the various clans."

"Are there any people with whom you are not at peace?" asked Miller. "The Twarms indicated that the Vilbaz sometimes attack you as well as them"

"The Vilbaz attack any creature they come upon in the open" said Karask. "They can not attack us here in the forest because they must fly to fight, and are clumsy on the ground, but sometimes our trading parties have been attacked."

"We saw some that had been killed after they attacked the Twarms" said Miller, "apparently by Hamanz. We saw tracks there and that is how we came to know there were people like us on this world."

"It could have been members of one of the clans if it was close to the forest" said Karask, "or perhaps some Hamanz who dwell further away, from your description of the place."

"Are they intellgent creatuers?" asked Miller. "We noticed they were using weapons similar to your own?"

Karask answered after a moment. "Like the Twarms, they are somewhat difficult for us to understand. Some of us think that the Twarms, and perhaps the Vilbaz as well, are not thinking creatures as we are but rather mimic us, even in communicating with our speech and using tools.

"I once heard of a wounded Vilbaz being captured by Hamanz, who tried to question it, but although we know them, some of them at least, to be capable of understanding our speech, this one never did anything other than snarl and spit and struggle to escape, and after a while died."

It wasn't such a great stretch, I thought. Ants are among the least complex of creatures on our world, physically at least, yet carried out incredibly complex operations, even performing agriculture and animal husbandry in their tunnels. And the Twarms, certainly, exhibited many of these social creature behaviors.

Chapter 18
We were walking along one the the paths among the trees as we talked. Pointing up at a point high on one of the tree trunks, Karask called our attention to what looked like large pipes running from tree to tree. "Far away, where the forest gives way to the mountains and the trees grow more sparsely, we draw water from the mountain streams that flow down to join the great river. These tubes run high in the trees, higher than we build our homes."

We had inquired about their ability to have running water in the tree houses. Aqueducts were not surprising even for a people as seemingly primitive as these, but running water inside houses forty feet off the ground was.

Karask went on to explain that some trees had large hollow areas inside them to serve as storage and provide constant pressure to all the outlets. I asked what the pipes were made of, and he told us they were the stems of large plants that grew in wet areas near the edges of the forest. They were naturally hollow, very strong and grew to great lengths. So abundant were they that it was possible to bring water from the mountains many miles away and also put complex plumbing inside their dwellings.

As we continued on, we met a small group of people coming from the other direction. As we came close both groups stopped and the members greeted each other and conversed. The newcomers looked at us the whole time, apparently eager to get past the usual pleasantries and ask about us.

"Yes, these are our visitors from a far-away world" said Karask with a smile. The other group was composed of two older men, about Karask's age, and two younger men. "No doubt the word is all over the forest."

He introduced us to the others. " We are just showing them around. If you are staying with us tonight no doubt have a chance to ask them as many questions as we can stay awake for."

After a little more talk, they continued on their way and we continued on the path. Eventually the shade of the trees became somewhat lighter and looking up we could see that they seemed to be less tall and have less foliage. Hernak noticed us looking up at the trees. "We are approaching the edge of the forest" he said. "Another hour or so of walking will bring us within sight of the mountains. Let us rest a while before we continue."

As we sat down near the base of a large tree, Hernak and his father produced large skins of drink and passed them to us. For some reason I was still wearing my watch. Even though it was useless for keeping track of time here, it was still capable of determining elapsed time. I had checked it when we left Hernak's tree, and saw that we had been walking for about three hours.

Hernak looked at me curiously, and I took off the watch and handed it to him. As he and Karask examined it, I explained how it worked, and how it would be different if it were made for the rotational period of this world. They seemed to understand, but were not sure what it was useful for.

I tried to explain the necessity for knowing what time it was when one had to go to work, to keep an appointment, or just about anything else we did in our former world. I don't know if they understood, or could even conceptualize the frantic pace of life we had experienced on Earth, but Karask seemed to.

"We have stories from people who have traveled far away, or who have come to us from far places, of people who conduct their affairs in accordance with devices like this, which measure time. It is said they do other strange things as living in enormous piles of stone, competing with their fellow beings to acquire the most wealth, and fighting over territory and possessions. Of course these are only tales from strangers, so who knows."

"Speaking of strange things, though" he said, handing my watch back to me, "when we return home I will show you some interesting things." With that mysterious statement, he took another drink and handed me the skin, then got to his feet. "Let us go and see the mountains."

We resumed our walk, stopping just once more before coming to the end of the forest. The slightly longer days gave us more travel time, and it was still midday when we emerged from the last of the trees onto the stony ground. Just like that, the trees ended and the rock began, as if the mountains had just recently emerged from beneath the earth. Perhaps they had. This close, we could see how enormous they were. The snow- covered peaks seemed many miles away, most of those miles bare rock. It seemed that crossing them would be impossible. I asked about it.

"To our knowledge, no one has crossed the mountains in this area" said Karask. "We have heard that far south of here, there are places where the mountains are smaller and there are passes through them. But those are unknown lands, and no one of our people has been there that I know of, and we have had no visitors who claimed to have actually crossed them.

"Then you have no idea what is on the other side?" inquired Miller.

"No, none at all" replied Karask.

"Do your people ever travel, explore the world outside your forest?" I asked.

"Rarely," said Karask. "Once in a while someone from one of the clans ventures as far as the end of the river, where it joins the ocean, and returns to tell us what they saw. If anyone goes further, they do not return. We trade with some Hamanz who live along the river, as far as two, perhaps three days down the river. We will be sending a party downriver before long, you may go along if you wish."

"How far is the river from here" I asked.

"About two day's walk from where we are now" replied Karask. "Usually the party will camp along the edge of the trees in a place like this and complete the trip to the river the next day. The Rongas move very slowly."

"You use the Rongas?" I asked.

"Of course" replied Karask. "What else?"

"I was thinking you had some kind of..." I paused, trying to think of the word and realized I had not yet learned it in their language. "Do you have vessels that travel on water?"

"Such things exist" said Karask. "But we have nothing safe enough to travel on water, to protect us from the things that live in the river. We follow trails along the river, where the trees grow close.

"Of course" he continued, "floating down the river would be easy enough, but coming back would be impossible. The current is very strong."

"What sort of things live in the river?" asked Miller. We had seen some rather unpleasant-looking creatures in some of the lakes and streams we had come across, but knew little of the local aquatic life.

"You have perhaps seen some of the creatures that live in the water?" asked Karask. "Well, in the great river, once it flows for a while from here and becomes deep and wide, there are things much larger, much hungrier. One would need a very large and strong boat to be safe from them."

"When might we be able to see the river?" I inquired. The idea of a great river flowing to the sea promised the ability to make quick progress in exploring this world, if we didn't get eaten by a river monster. I wondered what the sea monsters were like.

"As I said, it is a two day journey" said Karask, "so some planning and preparation is required. It will only be a few weeks before Hernak will be leading a small party downriver. That would be the best time to go."

Their word which approximates a week was actually ten days. Thus far I knew the length of a day, and now understood their equivalent of a week. Henry had given us the orbital time and other data on the planet, but I had forgotten it. I wanted to ask about their other timekeeping methods, but this was not the time.

Karask looked up at the sky. "We had best turn back now," he said, "if we don't want to walk in the dark".

Chapter 19
As we turned back toward the trees I looked up and saw one of the two moons, small and pale in the daylight, coming up over the mountains. Our experience indicated the other would soon follow, and as darkness fell they would illuminate the planet with a soft glow, but not enough to penetrate the depths of the woods as the sunlight did.

We retraced our route back home in a somewhat less leisurely manner (but still not what would qualify as hurriedly - we had yet to see anyone or anything on this world get in a hurry, except during the fight the Twarm village) and arrived with enough light to find our way to Karask's house.

We had a few new dinner guests, but not as many as the night before. Again we sat up late, talking and drinking, until we could not stay awake any longer. After breakfast the next morning, Karask took us up to the top level of the tree-house, Hernak accompanying us. We went inwards toward the center of the tree, to a large round chamber about thirty feet across. All around the walls were lined with shelves, and a large table with several chairbags occupied the center of the room.

The shelves were filled from floor to ceiling with a variety of objects. We followed Karask as he moved to one of the shelves. On it were a variety of items, most of them looking like rolled or folded fabric or animal skins, but some of them appeared to be books. Karask carefully removed several items and carried them to the table in the center of the room.

He opened one of the book-like ones, and sure enough, it was a collection of pages contained within stiff covers. The pages were rather thick, almost like leather - the book was about four inches thick and appeared to contain only about one hundred pages. Although they looked very old, they were relatively pliable and there seemed to be no danger of damaging it by turning the pages.

Karask did so, most of them being covered with strange writing, but after a while an illustrated page was revealed, the drawing resembling a map. We looked at it closely and Miller said "That looks like a map of the world".

Indeed, there were the two large continents we had observed from space, and the few prominent islands we remembered seeing.

Karask was looking at strangely, and Miller and I both realized at the same time he had spoken in our native tongue. Perhaps because he didn't know the word for map in the Makarro language. Now we attempted to explain to Karask and Hernak what it was.

"As we have told you" I said, "this world is a round ball, with land and water covering its surface. These two large spots are the major land areas, and here and there you can see smaller ones, some close to the large land, others out in the middle of the ocean.

"If you were up high in the sky, as we were before we landed here, this is what the world would look like, except on this page it is flattened out."

While the pages of the book were large, about ten by fifteen inches, the map was not extremely detailed. However, we could see mountains and rivers, and there was one very large mountain range, with several smaller ones, on the larger continent. There was also a river running out of it toward the sea, and nearby a large area that might represent forest.

"This looks like where we are" I said. I looked up at Karask. "Do you know how old this book is?".

"No" he said. "I have all these from my father, who got most of them from his father. He acquired a few things in his lifetime, as I have, but nothing like this. They are very old. Some of them were acquired several generations even before my father's time, and who knows how old they were then."

We looked at some of the others. A few were books like the first one we had examined, pages sewn or glued together between more or less rigid covers, while others resembled scrolls like those used on Earth in ancient time. Others were simple sheets of material rolled up singly or in groups and stored inside tubes. There were several very large ones, several feet long and wide, folded like blankets. There were some more maps, some appearing to detail small areas. And there were illustrations, some of them quite complex and colorful.

We looked at some that represented things we had already seen, the people and animals, the enormous trees, and even some depictions of the night sky, showing the moons and the string of worlds stretching off into the distance. Some of them contained what looked like some type of statistical or analytical data, columns and tables of the characters of the unknown language.

"Do you understand this?" I asked Karask, indicating the writing.

"No" he said, "though we believe it is some method of communication, a way of talking by making marks."

"That is exactly what it is" I said. "Do you not have a way to record your words like this?"

"I have heard of it" he said, "and it may be something our ancestors did. I have heard that it is still done in some places. Perhaps it is something we have lost - we have many stories about things we once did, long ago."

"Look at this!" Miller had been flipping the pages of one of the books, and had stopped at an illustrated page. The page he was looking at had a picture of what looked like a castle, with two enormous towers at the sides, rising far above the walls to the top of the page. Looking closer it appeared that the two towers were two tree trunks, roots visible at the bottom and the remains of cut-off branches on the trunk. Like the dwellings of Karask and his clan, they seemed to inhabited, as indicated by the windows. Between them was a high wall, with a massive gate in the center. Beyond the wall rose other towers and buildings.

Karask looked at the picture, then indicated a spot on the picture with his finger. In front of the gates were small figures, people and animals. If they were normal sized people, the walls were at least a hundred feet high, perhaps more.

"I have looked at this picture many times, and many others as well" said Karask, indicating the books. He looked at Hernak. "My son shares my interest, and has spent much time here?"

"Do you ever think about leaving here, seeing the world outside?" asked Miller.

"Indeed I do" replied Karask. He paused, looked down at the table, at Hernak. "I should say I did. Now I am too old. I let my life go by and it is too late for me. But Hernak is still young, and has often dreamed of exploring beyond the areas in which our trading activities take us."

"Does anyone here ever leave?" I asked.

"Rarely" replied Karask. "Legend has it that one of my ancestors left here when he was a young man and returned when he was very old, bringing some of the things you see here, as well as a wife and several children. Another one, in my great-grandfather's time, left but never returned.

"But things are different now" he continued. "You are adventurers, with experience and knowledge beyond our understanding. No doubt you will wish to explore this world?"

"Yes" I said. "If we had the company of Hernak, and perhaps any other of your people who might wish to go, it would help us greatly."

Hernak looked down at the books on the table, then at his father. "I will go" he said.

Chapter 20
Karask produced a bottle and glasses from among the artifacts and poured drinks. "What will you tell Kiera?" he asked his son.

"It is a year yet until we are married" said Hernak. "I will go for a while, and see more of the world than I ever have. When I return, Kiera and I will decide together. Perhaps she will wish to go too".

He paused, looked and me and Miller, and smiled. "Kiera has been more intrigued by you than most anyone except father and I. Her younger sister has sent word she will be visiting her in a few days. They have heard about you and she is most eager to meet you."

He looked back at the table, and Miller and I looked at each other. The women here had displayed considerable interest in us, especially Hernak's sister Sara, who had spent a lot of time around us. We had had a few discussions about the matter in the privacy of our quarters. One persistent question involved how far our physical similarity extended. Hernak and his people certainly looked just like us, and it seemed likely that we were completely like them, but we wondered.

After lunch we went with Hernak and his father to see some more of their colony. We visited some storehouses and saw some of the goods they produced and traded for with the Twarms and others. We learned that much of our clothing was made from fabric acquired from the Twarm, who maintained herds of small creatures which produced various textures and weights of the fibers from which it was woven. There were animal hides as well, used for footwear, belts and other items, such as the beverage skins they used to carry drink when travelling.

We saw some of their skilled artisans at work making the stone knives, spear points and other tools they used. These included axes, saw and agricultural tools. We would later see some of these put to work in an interesting manner.

It was while watching these tools being made that we noticed something very strange. Handling their weapons we had observed that the handles were very light and strong, even though they appeared to be made from the stalk or limbs of some kind of plant.

One of the men was fitting spear points into their shafts. The spear shafts he was using were about five feet long and perhaps two inches thick, and they appeared to be rather soft and flexible, like freshly cut weeds. It was easy to cut a channel in the end of the shaft and push the stone head into it, after which strands of more vegetable fiber were wrapped around it. Then the shaft was painted with some kind of fluid which looked like the sap or juice of some plant and set aside. I asked what they were doing.

"The peruga sticks are very soft when freshly cut" explained Hernak. "They put the spear heads on them, then coat them with the sap of the tuka tree. In a few days the shaft is as stiff as the stone head, and even stronger."

I remembered the light sticks they made. Some type of fluid, extracted from a plant, was poured into the seed pod of another plant, producing a cool light that lasted for several days. When they traded with the Twarms, they brought many of the sticks, and bottles of the fluid. Most of my life I had had an interest in biology, though more in animals than plants. I found myself wishing I had the time and facilities to study the plant life here.

When we returned to Karask's home that evening, we spent some time in Karask's artifacts room, looking at books, maps, and the various objects on display. There were many art objects, sculptures, paintings on various materials including stone, woven fabric, and slabs of plant stalks or trunks (their equivalent of wood, I supposed.) Most interesting, both to Karask and to Miller and me, were the weapons. The large round object with the bands attached to the back was something Karask was not familiar with, although the had figured out it was a shield of some sort. Miller put it on and picked up a long knife to demonstrate how the shield was used in battle. Then he put down the shield, looked closely at the knife, and handed it to me.

It was clearly metal, resembling high-quality steel. The edge was sharp and the blade free of corrosion. In form it was not unlike the sword I carried, the blade a little wider and heavier, but the shape was nearly identical. Its handle was wrapped with some type of cord, and the scabbard looked like the hardened plant-stalk we had already observed. I asked Karask about it.

"Aron is a very rare material here" said Karask. "It is said to be dug from the ground in various places, others say it falls from the sky. Great skill and a hot fire, as well as special tools, are required to work it. There are a few other items here, but not many. It is quite rare." He showed us some jewelry, some of which looked like copper, and some like silver, but I couldn't be sure. I wondered if there was any gold on this world, and thought they would all be better off if there was not. As for the sources Karask had described, both could be true. Meteorites could be sources of metal, and it was possible that quantities of metal could have been embedded in the planet when it was constructed.

We stayed up late that night, looking at the books and trying to discover more about this world we proposed to explore. Hernak fetched the nearest thing they had to paper, some sheets of fibrous stuff about the texture and weight of thin cardboard. A bit of charcoal-like debris from a fire was fashioned into a pencil. Hernak watched with interest as I began copying some of the details of a map onto the paper. He seemed amazed at what I was doing.

I was constantly amazed, too, at the illiteracy and laziness of these strange people. They were absolutely wonderful specimens of humanity, handsome men and beautiful women, all in excellent health and physical condition, and obviously quite intelligent. They built marvelous dwellings inside the giant trees, conducted trade with other people, even other species, and had a moderate level of technology for a primitive people living in a world with an acute shortage of metals. Yet they displayed little curiosity about the world outside their forest, and worked just as much as they needed to in order to maintain their lifestyle. Even the appearance of two beings from beyond their world, assuming they understood the concept, did not cause the stir it would have in our former homeworld.

Chapter 21
The next day, just before lunch, the party of visitors Hernak had told us of arrived. He had said Kiera's younger sister would be among them, and I spotted her immediately. She looked much like Kiera, but even more so like my lost love back on Earth. So much so, in fact, that for an instant I thought it was her. The warm sunlight streaming through the trees suddenly was blinding and I felt light-headed, and for a moment I was back on Crowley's Ridge, beside the pile of rocks with which I had just finished covering the shallow grave.

"Are you all right?". It was Miller, his hand on my arm. I blinked and the vision disappeared. Miller looked at me, then at Kiera's sister. He had known Caroline, and understood what had happened.

"This is my sister Aarilla" said Kiera. The lovely young woman smiled shyly as she took my right hand between both of hers and tilted her head slightly forward, then looked up at me. We stood there for a moment, and then she suddenly let go of my hand, lowered her eyes and stepped back to Kiera's side.

"And this is our mother, Kaalith" Kiera continued. I didn't know much about the lifespan or aging process of these people, but Kaalith didn't seem a lot older than her daughters. And it wasn't hard to see where they got their looks. They all had long hair, jet black, very slightly wavy and very soft and fine. Their brother, Derrik, resembled them in this way, his long black hair falling to his shoulders and confined by a headband that appeared to be made from some type of animal skin. His beard was long and full but neatly trimmed and combed. Altogether the family of Hernak's fiance looked much like his own, except that Hernak's clan had mostly light brown to blonde hair.

Also like Hernak's people, they were friendly and not particularly industrious once their basic needs and comforts were taken care of. When we talked over lunch about our plans to go exploring, and Hernak's intention to go with us, Derrik did not seem interested. He was, however, interested in going on the next trading trip downriver. That evening he, along with Kiera, Aarilla and Sara joined us in Karask's library as we looked at the materials there in an effort to learn more about this world. It was while explaining the layout of their solar system that Hernak asked what was for him a most extraordinary question.

"You came to our world in a machine that flies between worlds." he said. "Could you build another one, and go to these worlds."

I had drawn a sketch of their solar system, showing the sun and the ring of planets around it. They understood it in a general way, but I doubted they really grasped the scale of the distances between the worlds. Their longest journeys were perhaps fifty to a hundred miles - the millions of miles between the planets must have been meaningless to them. Nevertheless, Hernak at least was thinking beyond his small world.

He had placed his finger on one of the worlds I had marked as their home, and moved it to the next one, then then the next, and so on around the sun.

"It is possible" I said. "But it would not be easy. On our homeworld, many thousands, millions of people worked for many years to create machines, each generation more complex and powerful than the ones before, until in our own time we had flying machines, even ones that can travel between the stars.

"But to recreate all that here - who knows how long it might take. But perhaps, in time, we might." I stopped, realizing that all of them were looking at me. Silently and intently, as if hypnotized.

"Why do you ask?" I said. "Would you like to go there."

They all looked at each other in silence. "I would" said Hernak. "But you say it may take many more years than I will live. Still, it would be enough to see more of my own world."

He looked down at the drawing. I looked around the room. Derrik, too was looking at it, but Sara was looking at Miller. And Aarilla was looking at me. We were both embarassed at catching each other staring, and quickly found something else to occupy our attention.

After another hour of talk and drink, we called it a night and Miller and I headed to our quarters. Aarilla and her family were on the same level, and we walked down the hall together and said good night before turning into our own rooms. Miller followed me into my room.

Chapter 22
"Where are we going with all this?" he asked as we sat down. "Do you think we can mount an expedition with their help, see whether there is a prospect for getting off this world?"

"I certainly don't intend to sit around here and become a walking vegetable. It's a good life for a lazy person, but I'm not ready for retirement yet."

"You realize our prospects for leaving this world are pretty much nonexistent unless we happen to find a fairly advanced civilization hanging out somewhere?" he asked.

"Probably" I admitted. "But anything is possible. Remember that the planets are connected by a belt of atmosphere. It's possible that an airplane could be designed to fly that distance. We're both pilots and have built experimental aircra

"An airplane that can fly 6 million miles? How long would that take?"

"I don't know" I admitted. "We'll have to figure it out"

"By the way" I said as Miller got up to leave, "have you been thinking about the other thing?"

"What other thing is that?"

I put on my most devilish grin. "Sara hardly takes her eyes off you when she is around."

"Don't look so smug" Miller retorted. "The new arrival was giving you the same treatment tonight, all through dinner and after"

"I already noticed" I replied. Miller must have noticed my mood change. "Sorry." he said. "I noticed the resemblance as soon as I saw her, so of course you did."

"It's all right." I said. "That was long ago. And really, really far away."

"Do you believe in destiny?" he asked.

"What do you mean?"

"Think about the last few years of our lives. Could you plan something like this, or even imagine it?"

"You mean the last hundred forty something years?" I asked.

"Yeah. I guess so." Miller laughed. "Good night"

Chapter 23
During the next few days we began to prepare for the trip downriver. Merdack and Karsen, who had gone on a hunting trip with friends from a nearby clan, had returned and were going with us. During the day we prepared the wagons and packed supplies for the trip. It was about three days each way, so we did not require as many supplies as they had used on the trip to the Twarm colony. There were also fewer of us. Besides Hernak and his brothers, only Derrik, Miller and I were going. But for part of the way, Kiera, Sara, and Aarilla and her mother would be with us. We would pass by their village on the way to the river, and Kiera wanted to visit her family while we were gone. When we returned she and Sara would accompany us home.

We took three Rongas, each pulling only one wagon due to the primitive trail along the river. Alternately walking and riding the wagons, I found myself often close to Aarilla. Though a little shy, she was most interested in us and we spent hours talking. Aarilla told me all about her village and her family. She adored her older sister Kiera and hoped to marry a man from Karask's clan and to be able to live near Kiera and Hernak. I had noticed that Kiera and Hernak seemed to regard her with considerable affection, which was not hard to understand. Aarilla was the most utterly charming little creature I had ever met. And beneath her sparkling personality and perpetual good nature, she was a very smart girl.

As she asked me about my own homeworld and how we came to be there, she asked some questions that one would not normally expect. I had gotten to the point of describing our asteroid ship and Henry, the computer who had piloted it and then somehow managed to abandon us here, when she asked if my people had always been as we were.

I didn't immediately understand. "You have told me of the many things - machines that fly through the heavens, machines that think and talk, it seems your entire world was created by you, as ours grows around us." she said. "How did you become that way? Was there a time when you were - like us?

"Oh no" I replied. "Within a few generations of my own time, there were hardly any machines at all. Almost all the things I have told you about did not exist just a few generations before I was born.

"For many thousands of years, we walked or rode on animals everywhere we went. Our communications were primitive - the books, maps and other things Karask has in his library were still being used in my own time. In my time we built tall buildings, taller than most of your trees, but only a hundred years earlier such things were unheard of."

The subject of time turned into a math lesson. Aarilla asked me about our measurement of time. I showed her my watch and explained how we used it to keep track of time. When we stopped to rest, we continued to explore the subject by comparing the length of their days to those of Earth. Using my pocketknife, I drew circles in the dirt to show the layout of their solar system. Using my vague memory of the statistics Henry had given us on the ship, I showed them the difference between the length of time our respective worlds took to make a trip around their suns.

Although some of the concepts involved, particularly the distances, were probably beyond their ability to readily assimilate (I had travelled over 50 light-years from home and had problems visualizing it), they were intelligent and open-minded and curious. I had placed a ring of small stones in a circle around a larger one, representing the ring of planets around their sun. Aarilla placed a finger on one, then moved it to the next in line, and then on to the next.

After a moment she looked up at me. "Hernak says you wish to explore our world" she said. "Are you going to go to these other worlds as well?"

I looked at Miller but he was preoccupied with watching Sara, who was watching my astronomy lesson, and apparently hadn't noticed the question.

"Perhaps, in time" I replied. "But that is probably a long time away."

Chapter 24
It was time to be on our way, and we went back to get the Rongas moving again. With the slow-moving creatures we would not reach Mandaris village before nightfall, but that was not a problem. About halfway there we stopped at a tree that had apparently been prepared for travellers to stay in. It was a simple dwelling, just some rooms to sleep in and some preserved food and drink for those who arrived unprepared.

We spent the remainder of the daylight having a picnic at the base of the tree, then climbed up to the rooms where we would spend the night. Although we were safe from any of the dangerous creatures that prowled the forest floor after dark, we men slept in the rooms near the entrance while the women took rooms inside. We kept our spears and knives close by in case it was necessary to protect the Rongas. They were so big and tough that even a large predator probably couldn't do much damage before we drove them away.

The next day we continued on our way, arriving at the Mandaris village. It was much like Hernak's village - a group of tree houses with a few stone-paved paths and places for public gatherings. Since Miller and I were celebrities, they kept us up rather late that night drinking and talking. In the morning we said goodbye to our hosts and the women and continued our journey.

Later in the day the trees began to grow somewhat smaller. In addition, we were travelling in the direction of the sunset, so the daylight lasted longer. Well before dark we were at the river.

The forest stopped perhaps a hundred yards from the river. Between the trees and the water lay a strip of sandy soil with little vegetation. The slope of the land from the trees down to the water's edge was very slight, and it appeared that the river overflowed from from time to time.

We tethered the Rongas and followed Hernak and the others toward the river. They moved cautiously and silently, spears held out in front of them, and Miller and I followed. We were almost to the water when several large creatures suddenly lurched off the muddy bank and plunged into the water with large splashes. As quickly as they moved, we could see that they resembled creatures we had seen along river banks before - huge lizard-like bodies, four pairs of legs and a long tail - but these were enormous. We went down to the muddy area where they had been lying and examined the indentations made by the huge bodies. Not counting the tail, they must have been ten to twelve feet long. And they moved fast.

"Is that why you don't travel on the water?" I asked.

"Yes" replied Hernak. "The Mokkos are quite dangerous. They were startled by our approach and went into the water, but if we were to go into the water we would likely be eaten. Even trying to use a boat or raft to cross the river or travel on it would be dangerous. They could easily climb aboard and attack the passengers. We have heard that further down the river, near the sea, are people with very large boats in which they are safe."

"How far is it to the sea?" asked Miller. We had tried to estimate the distance while looking at maps, but didn't know with any degree of accuracy.

"I do now know exactly" replied Hernak. "It is many days journey. The Devroni may have a better idea."

The Devroni were the people we were going to visit. According to Hernak it was about a day's journey to their settlement. We would continue down the river until we came to a campsite they used on these trips. He indicated we would arrive well before dark, and sure enough when we got there was stll enough light to see that people had camped here before. Several small circles of stone surrounded an area about thirty feet in diamter, each containing what appeared to be the residue of a fire.

There was a large pile of tree limbs nearby, and Hernak and the others began placing small piles of them within each of the stone circles. Miller and I joined them in this activity and when they were all supplied with fuel, they built fires in them. Their organic chemistry was useful for this as well - their version of the match was a small twig from a local plant with one end dipped in the sticky sap from another. The other part of the system was a small object with a flat surface, usually a stone, coated with another plant extract. Rubbing the twig against this produced a flame. Only the stuff on the twig would burn - just like a safety match.

Hernak explained that no predators, either from the river or the forest, would come very close to the fires. Even the Rongas, tethered outside the circle, were close enough to the fire to be safe. We sat down inside the circle had our evening meal. Soon afterward we rolled up the large squares of thick but lightweight fabric we carried and lay down to sleep on the soft ground.

Chapter 25
In the morning we rose and had a light breakfast before continuing. The fires had burned out but evidently not long before daybreak, as smoke still rose from the piles of ashes. We got the Rongas moving and continued along the river.

There wasn't much change in the scenery as we progressed downriver, but later in the day the straight channel we had been following began to bend sharply, so that we could not see any great distance along it. As a result, we came upon the Devrani settlement rather suddenly.

We had been going slightly uphill for a while, with the land along the river becoming firmer and even rocky in places. The Devroni village occupied a large clear area perhaps a half mile across. Whether it was a natural clearing or the forest had been removed we could not determine. The village was a small collection of buildings, mostly of stone and local vegetation. Near the forest side were perhaps a hundred small houses, in small groups with narrow streets winding among them. Toward the river there were larger buildings, many of them appeared to be commercial in nature.

We could see people walking about in the streets as we approached, and some draft animals and wagons. Some of the animals were Rongas, but there were some we had not seen before. Looking something like the river monsters we had seen, but with longer legs so that they stood close to five feet high at the back, with the head, on its long neck, held somewhat higher. A long lizard-like tail completed the creature. Somewhat smaller than the other eight-legged creatures we had seen, they were just about right for a man to ride on, which is what they were being used for.

"I bet those things are fast" commented Miller. "Imagine a horse with eight legs". Hernak wondered what a horse was, and Miller explained. "The dongos are indeed fast" he said. "I have seen their owners ride them in contests along the river banks. Most of these riders are adventurers from further south, some are traders. They are said to be difficult to acquire and train, so their owners must be rather prosperous"

We proceeded along the river bank, eventually stopping at a large building which looked something like an inn, which it was. But we wouldn't be staying inside it. A man came out and spoke with Hernak. He looked much like Hernak's people, but civilization showed on him. He was a little overweight, and neither he nor his clothing appeared quite as clean as the forest people. He apparently knew Hernak, and directed us around the side of the building. We herded the Rongas into a large corral at the back, unhitched the wagons and tethered the animals. Over in one corner of the corral was a small shelter, a large tent-shaped frame with some heavy fabric stretched over it, with a floor of stone.

"We will sleep here" said Hernak. "It is much cleaner and quieter than inside the building."

It was late in the day, so we built a fire and had dinner, and sat around talking for a while before we went to bed. Miller and I were of course curious about the town, and asked quite a few questions.

Hernak told us that his people had traded here for many generations, and that it was their main source of the small knowledge they had about the world beyond their forest. The rare Makarro who went away on an adventure, and the equally infrequent visitor from afar, normally passed through this town as they came or went. Miller and I, who had fallen from the sky on the plain where the Twarms lived, were the rare exception.

He indicated that the river continued for a considerable distance, and other settlements like this existed throughout its length. From here on down the river, there was a regular flow of people moving from one town to another. Also, he said, the further downriver one went, the larger and more populous the settlements became.

"They also become more strange" he said. "Or so we are told by those who have been there. Always in a hurry, with many people living in tall, crowded buildings. They trade with small pieces of metal and stone, instead of food and other goods as we do. And they are often violent."

He spoke as if talking about these things disturbed him. I wondered how a people like Hernak's people came to be. He and his brothers, and all the men we had seen, were strong, tough, capable outdoors type. They hunted the beasts of the forests, some of them dangerous, without fear. Yet they were a quiet, gentle people who were uncomfortable with the idea of violence among their own kind.

The facility at which we were guests was an inn and tavern, as would be found in any primitive town. The lower level was for serving food and drink, rooms on the upper floor served overnight guests. The man who had met us was the proprietor, who provided Hernak's trading party a place to stay whenever they came to town. I asked Hernak if he knew anyone here who could tell us about travelling downriver, and he told us we would see a man the following day who could answer many of our questions.

Chapter 26
The next morning Hernak and Karsen went out to find buyers for our goods. Miller and I remained with Derrik and Merdack to watch the animals and goods. We had brought along, among other things, a big load of the fine silky fabric they had acquired from the Twarms. They also brought along some containers of their interesting biochemical plant products. Miller and I had helped them fill and load the containers, which were pieces of a segmented plant not unlike bamboo in appearance, except these pieces of the stalk were nearly three feet in diameter. After cutting the stalks into uniform lengths, they made a bottom which was glued into place, and a removable top. The barrels we had brought were filled with several different fluids extracted from various plants, which were apparently unavailable in the local area.

They were not gone long, and by early afternoon we had unloaded all our product and loaded the goods we had acquired into the wagons, after which we enjoyed a late lunch. Among the product we had acquired were quantities of a local beverage, which we sampled. It was noticeably stronger than the stuff Hernak's folk made, and we didn't drink much of it. "This is for later at night" Hernak said with a grin as he put the bottle away. I thought that for their relatively primitive civilization they enjoyed a rather luxurious life, and fine food and drink were high priorities for them.

After lunch, Hernak decided we had time to visit the acquaintance he had mentioned. Leaving his brothers and Derrik to guard our property, he led Miller and me down the stone-paved street along the river. We passed through the marketplace, a large square filled with people and goods for sale, and on toward the other side of town. Here, where the buildings thinned out somewhat, were rather large houses on large lots, some of them surrounded by fences.

We went up to the gate of one of these fenced yards. Actually the fence was just strands of rope between short posts not much over knee-high, as if the fence was mostly ornamental or used to define property lines rather than to keep out intruders. Following Hernak, we stepped over the low fence and walked up the path toward the house.

The door opened before Hernak had a chance to knock, and a very large man stood there in the doorway. He reminded me of my grandfather, who was six eight and built like an oak tree. But my grandfather was a somber old fellow, while this one regarded us with a jovial expression in his green eyes and a huge grin within his graying beard as he recognized his visitor.

"Hernak, my boy!" He stood aside, holding the door. "It's good to see you again. Come in, and bring in your strange friends."

We entered the house, and our host showed us into a large comfortably furnished room. The stone floor was covered with thick rugs, while colorful fabric hangings covered most of the walls. Various articles, evidently trophies or souvenirs, hung here and there, or lay about on shelves and furniture. Some of them were weapons, others looked like tools or art objects. The chairs were quite normal to Miller and me, and while nothing like the bean-bags Hernak's people used, he seemed comfortable in these. Apparently he was not an infrequent visitor here.

"This is my friend Kindall" said Hernak. He introduced Miller and me. A very pretty young lady had entered the room with a tray of bottles and glasses. She set them down on the low table among the group of chairs we were sitting in. With a smile at Hernak and a shy glance at Miller and me she retired from the room. Our host observed her with an affectionate smile.

"Anya is growing up fast" said Hernak. "Soon you will have to deal with a multitude of lovestruck young men."

"Indeed" said Kindall with a grimace. "When I think about that I wonder if we should not have stayed down on the Erindal. But it wasn't right for Elia and the girls, not having any friends their own age to grow up with. But it isn't so bad. There are some fine young men here I'd not mind having marry my girls.

"But tell me, my friend, about your companions. Although they are dressed like you and have evidently been among you long enough to acquire your look, something tells me they have come from far away."

"You do not know how far" said Hernak. "They have come from beyond our world"

Kindall stroked his beard and looked at us. "Yes," he said. "Something told me you were beyond my experience. I have travelled over much of this world, and seen many peoples. But I have never seen any such as you. And something tells me you are adventurers as well, travellers and explorers."

"That is one of the reasons we have come to see you" said Hernak."

After Miller and I had told our story of how we came to be there, Kindall sat silently for a while. His eyes seemed to be looking beyond us, past the walls of his home, perhaps at the faraway places he had seen, perhaps trying to visualize those places he would never see. His daughter, the lovely and demure Anya, came in with more drinks.

"I wish I had met you when I was younger" he said. "Together we would have some memorable adventures. I have travelled over much of this world, even crossing the seas to other lands. But I am afraid I am too old now, and my children are growing up. No more journeys for me, I'm afraid."

"That is too bad" said Hernak. "We were hoping you might go with us. But I understand. Even I can not be gone long - Kiera cannot wait forever."

"I will help you all I can" said Kindall. "I have maps and journals from my travels. They are yours. And I know people along the river all the way to the sea, and in other places as well." He paused, took a drink, and grinned. "I will go with you down the river, get you on your way. When you come back, I will be an old man sitting here watching the seasons pass, and you can tell me all about your travels."

He stood up and looked out the window at the darkening sky. "It will soon be time for dinner. Will you join us, stay the night?"

"Regrettably not" said Hernak. "We are on a trading trip and have left our companions alone too long. We will come back to visit soon, I promise. My friends are most eager to start their exploration. And to tell the truth, so am I."

Chapter 27
When we woke the next morning it was raining. It was one of those slow, methodical rains. Water falling, small drops in a steady shower, no wind, everything grey and wet. Water dripping from everything. It took Miller and me a while to realize what was so strange, but finally we realized that we had not seen any rain since we had arrived.

"You arrived during the dry season" said Hernak when I asked about it. "From now, for the next 20 hapah or so, we will see a lot of rain. After that it becomes less frequent until for about six hapah it hardly rains at all."

A hapah was their equivalent of a month. Where their calendar came from they did not know - they used the same system as the river town people they traded with, who did not seem to know either. It was something that had been handed down from their ancestors. What was curious to us was that there were 33 hapah in their year. We knew there were 33 nearly identical planets sharing an orbit around the same sun. Was there a connection?

We started on our way home, riding in the wagons to stay out of the mud. Our garments proved to be somewhat waterproof, and later in the day when the rain stopped they quickly dried. We made our way back up the river and eventually to the the Mandaris village. We collected Kiera, Sara and Aarilla, who wanted to go back with her sister. Or so she said. Occasionally Miller or I would spot her and Sara eyeing us and talking and laughing, only to shyly look away when they saw us looking. And as we made our way back to Hernak's village, they began to spend as much of their time as possible in our proximity.

This behavior became more pronounced once we arrived, and it soon became apparent to us that the two girls were quite enamored of us. I didn't know how Miller was taking it, but I was a little confused. Aarilla was a bright, charming young lady whose company I found exciting to the point of being a little scary. Nothing like most of the the women of my former world, any of whom one might adore, curse or ignore all in a day's time. Just standing close to her, not quite touching, not speaking or even looking over at her, just the sense of her presence was thrilling as making love to the most exciting woman I had ever known.

The problem was, I was pushing forty and she looked (in terms of earth girls) about seventeen. I had calculated her age to be about twenty-two earth-years, but that was simply a mathematical conversion of their world's orbital time with that of my world. But I had no way of knowing whether time worked the same way here.

We immediately began planning our expedition. We had been studying in Karask's library for quite a while, and have developed a good picture of the world and where we were in it. We already knew there were two large continents, almost directly opposite each other, which meant that a voyage from one to the other would be a very long trip. Our estimation was that it might be as much as five to six thousand miles.

But there were several other large land masses and groups of islands between them, and it might be possible to make the trip in stages, if it came to that. But the continent we were on was quite large and most of the inhabitants we had met thus far knew little about it. There was probably quite a bit of exploring to do before crossing the ocean.

Within a few days we were about as ready as we were ever likely to be, and prepared to depart. Of course the news of our plans was all over the community, and when Hernak's family held a going-away party for us there were a lot uf guests. As usual, we drank a lot and stayed up late.

We made our way, a bit unsteadily, to our rooms. Miller went into his and I went on down the hall to mine. As I pushed door open I sensed a presence in the room and paused, the light-stick thrust inside. Through the partially open door I saw Aarilla, standing by the window. She turned to face me and put a finger to her lips. I set the light in its holder the door and placed the cover on it. Later it occurred to me that any questions I had about our complete physical compatibility had been laid to rest.

The next day, after a late breakfast and our final goodbyes, we set out. We were lightly equipped, as we had no idea what to take besides food, weapons and some extra clothing. We each had a small backpack and a walking stick. Miller and I had showed them how to make the backpacks, and they found them quite handy. The walking sticks were actually spears, a hollow cylinder made of the same material as the spear shaft was fitted over the head to protect it, and its user, when it was used as a walking stick. It could be quickly removed to ready the spear for combat.

Miller and I carried our pistols and a small supply of ammunition, as well as our knives. We had not had the guns out since the battle with the Vilbaz, except to show to Hernak, his father and a few close associates. We kept them wrapped in some of the silky fabric they used for making clothing, using a locally produced lubricant which seemed to work as well as oil.

Hernak carried his spear and a couple of fine stone knives. One was short and utilitarian, useful as both a tool and a weapon. The other was quite large, the double edged blade close to a foot long. The handle was a piece of hardened vegetation fused around the back end of the stone blade.

We retraced the path we had taken previously, spending the night in the camp we had used before. Eventually we arrived at the town and made our way to Kindall's house before dark. Kindall was glad to see us, and before anything else made us sit down to dinner with his family, which included his wife, an attractive, cheerful lady who looked considerably younger than him. Also present were three daughters and two sons. We would learn that he had another daughter, who was married, and two other sons who were away on business. His first wife and mother of two sons and two daughters, had died at an early age. He had remarried and had four more children, and through his travels as an explorer and merchant and become quite wealthy. Now his sons were following in his footsteps, and he was enjoying a comfortable retirement.

We retraced the path we had taken previously, spending the night in the camp we had used before. Eventually we arrived at the town and made our way to Kindall's house before dark. Kindall was glad to see us, and before anything else made us sit down to dinner with his family, which included his wife, an attractive, cheerful lady who looked considerably younger than him. Also present were three daughters and two sons. We would learn that he had another daughter, who was married, and two other sons who were away on business. His first wife and mother of two sons and two daughters, had died at an early age. He had remarried and had four more children, and through his travels as an explorer and merchant and become quite wealthy. Now his sons were following in his footsteps, and he was enjoying a comfortable retirement.

After dinner we sat around talking and drinking with Kindall. The younger children soon lost interest in us and went to bed, but the oldest boy, Marris, stayed up with us for quite a while. He had been on some short trips with his father and could not wait to go on adventures of his own. We discussed our plans and Kindall advised us on supplies and equipment. He had a considerable inventory of his own and told us we were welcome to take anything we needed. As he had promised on our previous visit, he was prepared to go with us some distance down the river.

The next day Kindall packed his gear and prepared to leave with us. In the storeroom where he kept his equipment and supplies, he prepared his pack. Like us, he carried a small backpack, a couple of knives, and a spear much like ours. He also produced some other items he hought we would be interested in.

He first handed each of us a small bag. It felt like it contained coins, and sure enough it was filled with small bits of metal in various shapes - round, oval, rectangular. Hernak seemed to know what it was, but seemed confused.

"I know your people don't use mantuh" said Kindall. "But in the world beyond here it is common to trade with these bits of metal." He turned to me and Miller. "You probably know something of this" he said. "I will instruct you in its use. The system of trade with mantuh is rather haphazard, but it can be quite useful in some places."

He turned to a rack of weapons and took one down and handed it to me, then handed two more to Miller and Hernak. It appeared to be a sort of projectile weapon, simliar to an arrow gun I had seen some years back. Like a crossbow, it had a shoulder stock and foreend like a rifle, with a track for the arrow. But instead of the bow, it had an elastic band which was drawn back inside the channel behind the arrow. Pulling the trigger released the band and propelled the arrow on its way. I was amazed by the similarity of the weapon to the one I was familiar with, right down to the trigger guard and the firing mechanism.

The arrows were familiar as well. About two feet long, they were slender like the arrows used with a bow, with a sharp stone head. Kindall produced several quantities of these, in quivers that looked to be made of a very thick, hollow plant stalk. I noticed that Hernak, who was as calm and confident as any man I ever met, held his weapon somewhat uncertainly. Kindall noticed as well.

"I know most people in these parts aren't comfortable with projectile weapons" he said. "I was like that as well. But as you go into other parts of the world, you will find that many other people have overcome that particular inhibition." He looked at Miller and me and grinned. "I suspect you don't have that problem."

He knew about our guns, of course. They were in their shoulder holsters under the light jackets we wore, but during our conversation of the night before we had showed them to him and described their operation.

"I have seen some powerful weapons" he said, "but none that work like yours. You are wise not to use them much if you cannot renew your supplies. Still, they may prove useful before your journey is completed."

When Kindall was ready, he said goodbye to his family and we set off. It was about a two week journey to the end of the river, just a short trip for Kindall. I wondered how long our journey would be.

Chapter 28
Our first surprise was not far away. Kindall led us toward the river and the road that ran along it. Near the river side of the town, we stopped at one of the numerous inns that offered various services to travellers. We waited outside while he went in, and shortly emerged with another man. We followed them around the back to the animal pens, where he showed us four animals tied to the fence.

These were jungoes, a stocky and slower moving version of the dongo. They were larger in every direction, their broad backs too wide for a rider to sit on like a horse. The saddles were high seats that left the rider's feet just about level with the beast's back. Their eight legs ended in padded feet, each of which had five wide toes. Between the toes were enormous blunt claws, which were retractable. As we would learn, these claws greatly increased the versatility of the creatures in traversing various types of terrain. The short tail didn't appear to be useful for much of anything.

"If you are going to go exploring, you will need reliable transportation" said Kindall. "I have walked over much of this world, and believe me it is too big for walking. These jungoes will serve you well. They can carry you and as much gear and supplies as you wish to carry. And they will eat just about anything."

Hernak was comfortable with animals, and Miller and I were moderately accomplished horsemen, and soon we were on our way. We rode on out to the road and followed the river south. As the town disappeared behind us, I wondered if Miller and Hernak were thinking what I was. We were leaving what had become our home on this world, and Hernak was leaving behind all he had ever known. But the experienced Kindall was a reassuring presence, and by the time he left us we would be well on our way.

We continued along the river for the remainder of the day without seeing any people. As we were preparing our camp for the night I asked Kindall about it. He said it was a full day or more to the next town, and that travellers were rare in this part of the world.

"Until we reach the coast we will see few, if any, travellers" he said. "In all my years of going about from one place to another, I have been almost always alone, except when I had travelling companions.

"My father, and his father, also spent much of their lives travelling and exploring. From what I have learned, there are today perhaps more people who go exploring as we do, but for the most part, people live their entire lives in the place where they were born. It is only the few of us, such as my family and Hernak's, who feel the need to go see what the world is like outside our little villages."

I remembered that, during the middle ages on earth, most people lived their entire lives without ever going more than a few miles from their birthplace. I had been born in the twentieth century, hundreds of years later, and had to go more than five miles to get to work, and making trips of hundreds or thousands of miles was routine. Yet, in other parts of the same world, were people who lived the way they had in medieval times, living their entire earthly existence in the same spot.

The people here were, in some respects, like those aboriginal people on earth, whose lifestyle had not changed in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Most of them displayed little curiosity about things outside their local society, yet they were as intelligent and imaginitive as the people of my own world.

They might be a young race, still developing and maturing. Yet the materials in the libraries of Kindall and of Hernak's father indicated people had lived here a long time, and contained evidence of advanced (relatively speaking) technology. Might they be awakening from some massive disaster which had left the world sparsely populated and with little or no memory of their past?

As I lay in my sleeping bag looking up at the night sky, the string of worlds began to come into view. The thought of people awakening sent the cold-footed spiders traversing my spine again. Henry was up there with hundreds of sleeping colonists. I wondered what he was doing. Could he be sending them down to the other planets? Or had he malfunctioned beyond recovery, dooming them to whatever fate awaiting those who were put to sleep in the pods and never woke up again? After a few more such unpleasant thoughts sleep finally came.

Chapter 29
The next morning we woke to find Kindall gone. His gear was still there, and our campfire of the previous night had been rekindled. The jungoes, which we had tethered nearby, had been moved to a patch of mossy ground cover near the trees, and were quietly grazing. I got up and began stowing my gear, and Miller soon awoke and began to do the same. As we worked, Kindall came walking out of the forest.

He carried a net bag over one shoulder, and in the other hand he carried several small animals by the tails. He tossed them on the sandy ground by the fire and sat down. As Miller and I broke out food and drink for breakfast, he opened the bag and took out some of its contents. They were large rounded pods, a little smaller than a man's head, with a furry brown surface that was cracked in places. He tore the skin off one to reveal a handful of smaller, nutlike objects, which he handed to us.

"Minkakus seed" he said. "They grow in great quantities along the river. You could travel the length of the river without any supplies, if you don't mind eating these all the time."

I could probably eat them for quite a while, I thought, as I tasted one. They had a thin skin which was easily removed even with a stone knife, and the interior was a firm white flesh with a sweet, slight nutty taste.

After breakfast Kindall skinned and gutted the hapless creatures he had collected, while Miller and I loaded the jungoes with our gear. The little creatures were similar to some I had seen while hunting with Hernak and his clan. They had a slender body about the length of a man's forearm, six legs, and a tail nearly as long as the body. They lived in the trees, using their clawed feet to grip the branches. Unfortunately for them, they were also quite delicious.

We mounted our beasts and continued our journey downriver. The river looked the same as it had from the point at which we had first encountered it - so wide it was not possible to distinguish any details of the land on the other side. I asked Kindall if he had been to the other side.

He told us that he had travelled the length of the river on both sides, from its headwaters at the base of the Kares Mondos to the ocean. There were people on the other side as well, in a few small groups. There were a couple of settlements along the river, like the one where he lived, and some people like Hernak's folk who lived in the forests. Much further away, he said, the forest gave way to a lightly forested and in many places bare plain, there were some nomadic tribes who lived in portable dwellings made from plant fibers and animal skins. From his description I suspected they looked very much like tents.

We came in sight of the next town about midday, and had a extended lunch break on the riverbank. We watched some of the large river creatures lying on the bank or swimming in the shallows. Occasionally one would break the surface with a smaller creature in its grip, thrashing around in the water as it subdued and consumed the hapless prey. Smaller creatures, some aquatic and some terrestrial, crept unnoticed among them. There did not seem to be anything resembling insects on this world, their ecolocigal niche seemed to be filled by tiny versions of the larger creatures - with their leathery skins and and variously clawed, padded or webbed feet. Some of them were quite tasty. If we were ever reduced to eating the local bugs it wouldn't be as bad as back home.

After lunch we continued into the town, which was much larger than Kindall's hometown. There were a number of two-story buildings, and a fair number of streets. Three were many houses around the central business area - it looked as if there might be several hundred residents.

Kindall led us to one of the larger business establishments. Inside he was greeted by a man whom we took to be the proprietor. They conversed briefly and the man summoned a young man. "Urnan here will help you with your gear" he said. The young man went outside with us and showed us to a stable where our jungoes would spend the night, and helped us unload our gear. After the animals were put away, he helped us carry it upstairs - to the roof.

Hernak's people preferred sleeping outdoors to the insides of the buildings of the townspeople, and Kindall seemed to agree. "I never got used to the way city people live" he said. "I have spent most of my life outdoors, and other people's houses were never quite clean enough for me." We put out our bedrolls and had dinner, then sat around drinking and talking for a while. Neither of the moons was up as darkness fell, and we watched the string of planets appear. I asked Kindall if he had met other people who knew much about the universe beyond their world.

"The Enoi, the plains people, far beyond the river, have told me things much like what you have." he said. "They said that in ancient times men traveled between these worlds" - he looked up at the planets - "and others much farther away. Your presence seems to indicate that their legends have some basis in fact. They also say that the people on this world came from beyond the stars, long ago"

Chapter 30
"Do they say how long ago?" I asked.

"Not with any consistency" replied Kindall. "Among the Enoi the accounts vary from one tribe to another, from thousands of ahns to unmeasurable ages. In the southern part of the western ocean, there are some islands I visited once when I was very young. There are people living there whose ancestors lived on the western continent. They have had a high degree of civilization for a long time, and many artifacts from earlier times. It is likely," he said, looking at Hernak, that much of your father's collection came from across the ocean, as did mine, though it is not possible to say when."

"Anyway" he continued, "These people have more detailed knowledge of the past. If you get the chance, you should travel there and meet them."

I knew about the islands, they were the other major feature besides the two huge continents. There were various groups of islands scattered around the oceans of this world, several of them large. But the group in the southern part of the ocean to the west of us was quite large, probably with as much as half the land area as either of the continents. They also extended a considerable distance toward the other continent, which raised the possibility of using them as a bridge to make the crossing easier.

We woke with the sunrise, and before long were packed and ready to go. We made our way through the center of the town with its already busy market, and continued on our way. The next settlement near the river was perhaps another two days away. Kindall advised the forest contained many inhabitants, some of whom were like Hernak's people, living in trees, while in some places they had cleared large areas deep in the forest and built walled towns. These became more common in the southern parts of the forest, before it gave way to the mossy plain that extended from the forest's edge to the ocean.

We arrived there in the early afternoon, so there was plenty of time for Kindall to show us around. This place was much larger, and had what looked like an artificial harbor, with boats tied up at the docks. We went down to take a look.

I wasn't too impressed, and neither was Miller. There were a couple of rather barge-like vessels, perhaps fifty feet long and about half that wide. They had extremely high sides, with a large cabin amidships of the top deck. There was a single mast which looked like it might support a simple square sail.

"Travelling on the river is dangerous" said Kindall. "Some of the river beasts will come out of the water and try to climb on board. The strong cabin protects the crew in case one succeeds." He pointed to a group of men on the dock, near one of the large vessels. "It looks like they have one. Let's go down and have a look"

We rode on down and watched as the men worked to load a large animal carcass onto a cart, which they then began to pull up toward the shore. As they passed we looked at the beast. It was larger than any we had seen on the river bank, a good twenty feet in length. Its four pairs of legs terminated in large, clawed feet, which were large enough to use as paddles in the water, and from the look of the claws they would probably be good climbers. The long tail, accounting for nearly half the creature's length, was wide and flexible, likely augmenting its swimming ability. The long head had a large mouth full of sharp teeth.

"I wouldn't want that thing trying to hitch a ride on my boat" said Miller.

"Neither would I" I agreed. "From the marks on it it doesn't like it went quietly." The huge body had a large number of what looked like wounds made with edged or pointed weapons, some of them still dripping its strange blue-green blood.

"They are not easy to kill" said Kindall. "They probably thrust a number of spears into it and shot a few arrows at it as well before it went down. The vital organs, such as they are, are deep inside and it is very tough." He gestured toward one of the men who had an unusually long spear. It was probably eight feet long and had a long, wide head. "They carry those on boats for this purpose"

"Where are they going with it?" asked Miller.

"To the market, most likely" replied Kindall. "The meat of the revas is quite desireable, and a big one like this will have a lot."

"Do people eat them a lot?" I asked.

"When they can get them" said Kindall. "They are usually found far out in the river, in deep water. Their smaller relatives, the matras and others, are sometimes hunted as they lie on the river banks. It takes a brave man to hunt even those, as they are fierce and very fast. These big revas are usually killed when they attack boats."

Our journey took us through two more towns, each somewhat larger than the ones further up the river. The forest ended and the vast plain stretched out before us as far as we could see. The first settlement we visited outside the forest had considerable agricultural activity, with crops and livestock in the fields around the town. There were more and larger boats on the river, some of them appeared large enough to be capable of ocean travel.

"That one, perhaps" said Kindall when I asked. He indicated a large ship, perhaps three hundred feet long. It seemed little more than a barge with high sides, with rounded bow and square stern. "That one might manage the shallow coastal waters and some of the nearer islands, but doesn't look to be suitable for a voyage on the open seas.

They were beginning to get the idea of multiple sails, I saw. The high mainmast was accompanied by a smaller one forward and another one aft. I asked Kindall what sort of monsters we could expect to see if we ventured onto the deep.

"Remember that big revas we saw back at Tharp?" he asked. "A handful of them would't make a light snack for some of the creatures out in the ocean. I have seen one or two of them, and they are indeed huge."

As we approached the ocean the river delta became more populated, with small settlements scattered throughout the area. We continued along the branch of the river we had been following until we came to a large community around a large bay. We followed Kindall to the town center, a large square perhaps two hundred yards on each side, with large buildings, some of them three and even four stories high, all facing inward. He looked around for a while and then continued toward one of them.

"I have a friend here, if he is still alive" said Kindall as we crossed the square. "I haven't been here in several years, but it looks like his shop is still here." We tied our mounts to rings on a large post in front of the shop, then entered the building through an arched doorway flanked by long narrow windows. We had not seen any glass in the other settlements, and there was none here either. The windows had bars, presumably to prevent unauthorized entry, and shutters to completely cover them.

As we stood looking around the dimly lit room, a man emerged from another door which led deeper into the building. He was old, older than Kindall and nearly bald. He was carrying something, I couldn't tell what. He set it down on a table and picked up a piece of cloth to wipe his hands, then turned to us. As he recognized Kindall he smiled and rushed forward to greet him.

"Bandar, my friend. It's good to see you again" said Kindall. The men clasped hands, and our host turned to examine Miller and me. "These are my friends, Miller and Lawrence" said Kindall. Miller and I called each other by our last names as often as not, due mainly to our military background, and had adopted them as our names here.

Bandar looked us over, then looked at Kindall, who said nothing. He turned back to us. "You have the look about you, of travellers from far away" he said. "Perhaps from across the ocean?"

"Not exactly" said Miller. Bandar looked again at Kindall, who smiled quietly.

"Somewhat further than across the ocean" I said.

Bandar looked at us quietly for a moment.

"Yes," he said. "Indeed, you have indeed come from beyond our world. Come, let me close up here and we will go to my house."

Chapter 31
Once the shop was locked up, Bandar got his beast and joined us, leading us out of the town center toward the river. We rode out into a sparsely populated area, to a small estate comprising several acres of land, a large house, and several large outbuildings. A few trees surrounded the house, and there were small cultivated areas.

We went up to the house, where a couple of young men took our jungoes away. I wondered if they were family or employees. Or perhaps servants. I wondered if the institution of slavery existed here. We went inside and Kindall showed us to a large comfortable room, where we sat down and were promptly served food and drink by a lovely young lady.

"Well, my old friend, it is good to see you once again." said Kindall as we sipped our beverages and sampled the snacks. "I had thought myself retired when I returned home two ahns ago, and often wondered if I should ever see you again. Fortunately these two friends arrived and gave me the excuse to make one more journey."

"Indeed" said Bandar. "Our adventures are all behind us. Life is comfortable enough here, and there is much to be enjoyed here, but hardly a sed goes by that I do not go down to the sea and see if someone is preparing a ship, or if one has arrived."

"Are there many?" asked Kindall.

"Since I last saw you, several expeditions have left for the southern islands. As far as I know none of them has returned. But there has been one interesting development." He paused and sipped his drink, while Miller and I waited for him to get to the point.

"All right, all right!" exclaimed Kindall. "Get on with it."

Bandar laughed. "Your curiosity remains unabated, my friend. Well, about six or seven hapah ago, a small ship landed here. I say small, it was about as small as one could cross the ocean with, about a hundred ten eals."

An eal was about a yard, that would make the ship about 330 feet long. Not large by our standards, but certainly large for a people without our technology to build.

"Anyway" he continued, "A small number of young men were aboard. They said they were from the southern islands, far to the west. Further than you and I ever went. I recognized their dress and speech as being similar to many of the people we saw there."

"Why did they come?" asked Kindall. "Are they still here?"

"They are" said Bandar. "They seem to be explorers, but there is something else about them, another mission they have not mentioned, perhaps.

"They came to my shop soon after they arrived, and were most interested in my artifacts. They asked many questions, and we talked of my travels to the islands an on this land as well. They seemed very interested in the people on this continent, and seemed disappointed that our settlement here was the most advanced civilization we had to offer. But exactly what they are looking for, if anything, I do not know. But obviously, we should arrange a meeting with our visitors here"

"Certainly we should" agreed Kindall. "How soon can that be arranged?"

"I will send a messenger into town to inquire as to their whereabouts. Their ship was badly damaged in a storm and is not in a condition to sail back. They went upriver to look at trees to see if they might build a new one.

"It will be time for dinner soon" he continued. "Let me send my man on his way before we start. Perhaps we will know something tonight."

Bandar showed us to rooms where we could spend the night. Our gear had been unloaded and brought to the rooms, which were more luxurious than the tree houses of Hernak's folk or even Kindall's house. I wondered how they managed the running water here.

Dinner was conducted with a fairly large group - besides Bandar, his wife and four of their children, several guests had arrived. Since the guests were interested in meeting us, I suspected word of our arrival had been passed to some close friends. The food was excellent and served by a considerable crew of servants. Evidently this Bandar was a fairly wealthy man. Afterward, Bandar conducted our group, along with the guests, to a small semi-enclosed area at the back of the house, where we watched the sun set over the ocean as we talked and enjoyed after-dinner beverages.

Bandar's guests were, like him, mostly older men who had more knowledge of, and curiosity about, their world than most people did. They were eager to hear us tell of our homeworld and our journey. They nodded and exchanged knowing looks when we described the nature of the universe, the great distances between the stars and the time required to travel from one place to another. They apparently had, at least, legends or theories based on these facts.

Shortly after dark, as Bandar was setting some of the organic torches around the area, a young man came from within the house and spoke to Bandar, then departed.

"Well" said Bandar "it seems you are in luck. The men I told you of are still here in Iree, and are staying at a inn here. In the morning we will go into town and see if we can talk with them. In which case, since an early start is always a good thing, we should get to bed."

Bandar got us up early the next day, and after breakfast the three of us headed into town with him. He led us to an inn near the river where he inquired after the guests we sought. The innkeeper sent a boy up to find them. After a while a young man came into the common room where we waited. He looked around for a moment and then headed to our table.

A clean-cut young man, about 25 by our time, he was dressed in an elegant outfit that looked something like a military uniform, with what looked like embroidered designs on the wide-sleeved shirt and some type of decorations pinned on the collar. The shirt was tucked neatly into snug-fitting trousers with a wide belt which supported a short sword. Although the fancy outfit and its owner looked somewhat the worse for wear, he appeared quietly confident and comfortable in his present environment. Properly dressed, he could have passed for one of Miller's former fighter-pilot colleagues. After a moment he apparently tired of me staring at him and spoke.

"I am Alain Forth" he said. "I was told you wished to speak with me." He looked at Bandar, recognized him. "I remember visiting your shop - perhaps you have thought of something of interest to us"

"My friend Kindall arrived yesterday" said Bandar, "with two explorers you may wish to meet." He nodded toward Miller and me. "They too are travellers from afar, and are interested in a voyage to your islands, or beyond."

He introduced us to Alain, who sat down. His speech was somewhat difficult to understand at first, due to a slight accent and dialectic variations no doubt due to the limited contact between peoples in different parts of the world. Soon, though, we were conversing quite fluently and Miller and I shared the tale of our adventures.

Alain was only moderately surprised at our account of having come from beyond his world, and indeed seemed excited by our descriptions of our technology. He didn't ask a lot of questions about it, but seemed to be storing away the information for future use.

When our story was finished, Alain told his. Most of his group had gone up the river with a guide and would be back in a few days. Of the eight who had survived the voyage, he and one other were still in town.

Chapter 32
"Our ship was wrecked in a storm" he said. "We lost two of our number then, and another died from wounds inflicted by a sea monster. Most of our supplies were lost as well, and we were lucky to wash up on the shore north of here a few days later. We wish to build a new ship and go back, but that is a job that will take a long time.

"Bandar had told us that explorers sometime sail from here, and we have been inquring after such, without much luck."

"Perhaps your luck has changed" I said. "We wish to explore your world, and Kindall suggested we start by sailing to your islands. We will gladly share any of our knowledge that may be of use to you, and assist you in building or acquring a ship to return."

"We would welcome your help, and you company on our return trip" said Alain. "Have you any knowledge of shipbuilding or sailing?" He paused, and grinned. "What a question to ask of one who has journeyed from beyond the stars. You probably know a great many things we would like to know."

"Perhaps" I said. "We will do our best to help"

"I will help you as well, in any way I can" said Bandar. "My adventuring days are all behind me, but they have left me a wealthy man, and I have a good number of men here on my estate who can help. Perhaps I shall live long enough to see you return, and I can share yet one more great adventure. At the very least I can make a financial contribution. Building a new ship and outfitting it for a voyage is expensive."

It turned out that Alain and a companion were staying at the inn, while the remainder of their party, six men, had gone up the river to look for trees to build a new ship. They were not expected back for several days. Alain collared one of the of the errand boys and sent him up to fetch his companion. Before long we were joined by another young man who might have been Alain's brother, and in fact was. Mikkal was a bit younger, but displayed the same quiet self-assurance as his brother. I wanted to see the ship they had arrived in, and suggested we go to see it. What I really wanted was to see the ocean, which I had seen only from the patio at Bandar's house. Alain agreed to guide us, and we headed out.

It was a short ride from the town to the beach, and the site of the wreck was not far. We dismounted and tethered our beasts, and then turned to look at the ocean. We all stood looking out over the water for a while, and then I looked over at Hernak, who was standing next to me. All of us except him had seen oceans before, and he looked a little uneasy.

"Not having second thoughts?" I asked.

"No." he replied. He grinned. "I was just thinking a man would have to be crazy to go out there."

"You are probably right" I said.

Alain and his brother began walking up the beach, and we followed. Ahead was a large pile of debris, some of it in the water and some washed up on the dry sand. As we came closer we could see that it was mostly the trunks of enormous trees, with what looked like the remains of material used to bind them together, and a small amount of man-made material.

I walked up alongside Alain. "Your ship?" I asked.

"It was coming apart before we washed up here," he said. "We spent twelve days trying to hold it together after the first storm. Another storm hit us as we sighted land, and left us here."

"Your ship was a raft?" I enquired. The wreckage seemed to consist of an enourmous trunk, better than forty feet across, an an assortment of slightly smaller ones.

"Of sorts" said Alain. "We used a tree over a hundred eals long as the center, with four smaller ones on each side. It was a good ship, but we will need a better one to return. I don't wish to risk our lives again by going out in an inadequate ship."

"Well" I said, "they certainly have bigger trees here, if that is what you need, and if you can find a way to cut them down."

"Cutting trees is no problem" said Alain. "No doubt my crew will be returning soon, and we can get started. How far upriver do you think we will have to go to find suitable trees?"

I looked at Hernak. "Two or three days up, you can find trees three hundred eals high, perhaps fifty-five, sixty thick." he said.

"That would certainly suffice" said Alain. "But cutting them and floating them down the river will be quite a task. Still, we must do what we must. Let us return to the town - my comrades should be returning soon, perhaps in the next day or two."

Bandar invited Alain and his brother to join us for dinner that night, and we returned to his house together. Later that night, we sat with Bandar and Kindall discussing our adventures and exchanging our knowldege of the world. Miller and I contributed our information we had from Henry and our overflight before landing. Alain was aware, like Bandar and Kindall, of the theory that there were two main land masses, approximately opposite each other, hence the enormous ocean distance between them. Alain was able to supplement some of the maps we had made from Hernak's father's library, and Kindall had a collection of his own. Alain and his folk, being from the southern islands, were able to add much information about them, including a more accurate map of their location relative to the continent on which we now resided. He also told us a good deal about the islands and the people who lived there.

Chapter 33
"The southern islands, as we call them, lie somewhat less than halfway across the ocean separating the two continents." Alain had spread out one of Bandar's maps and pointed out their position. "This map is consistent with most I have seen back home, and the ones you have are similar. According to them, the other continent is considerably larger than this one.

"What the maps do not show is how many islands there are. While we have not completely mapped them, we know that there are a great many, more than the handful of spots on this map. My crew and I live on one of the larger ones, which we call Haruka. There are twenty-eight of what we consider big islands, and over a hundred and forty smaller ones have been explored and mapped, and most have people living on them. How many remain unxeplored I am not sure, but it is perhaps a hundred or more."

"How numerous are your people" I asked. "And how did they come to be living in the islands?"

"It is of course difficult to make an exact count" said Alain, "But recent attempts at counting have our numbers at about six thousand farhans."

A farhan was 1,000 - about 6 million people. Hernak seemed to be struggling with the concept - Bandar and Kindall were less skeptical, probably because they had been there.

"As for how we came to live there, we have a long and detailed history of our origins, at least to the time before we came to the islands.

"It begins long ago, how long I do not know. A cataclysmic event of some sort, which destroyed land in some places and created it in others, and also destroyed much of the life on our world. My ancestors, it is believed, survived the destruction of their land and were able to make their way to safety on the new lands. The few who survived, took many generations to increase their numbers and make a home in the new land.

"As time passed they moved inland, occupying much of the northern part of the continent." He indicated an area on the map. "They filled the country from one coast to the other, from south of the Kamast mountains in the north to the desert in the south."

If the scale of the map was anywhere near accurate, and I suspected it was, the continent was perhaps as much as five thousand miles across. The area he described was the northern part of the continent, with pictures of trees and organic colors indicating its hospitable environment. It was bordered on the north by mountains, while a bare area on the south presumably indicated the desert.

"They were like a new people in a new land." Alain continued. "As time passed, they grew ever more numerous. The fruit of the land was plentiful, and bountiful crops were grown with little effort. Because of the vastness of the land, it was divided into smaller parts, and the people in each district chose leaders to govern them and to represent them in the central government. Beyond keeping order and resolving disputes, there was not much for a government to do. There were some wild tribes beyond the mountains, and in the south as well, so we had an army to which all the provinces contributed men and supplies."

Alain paused, raised his glass and took a drink, looked out the window into the darkness. He held a book open on his knee, and looked down at it, then closed it and laid it on the table.

"Back home we have many such books, brought from our homeland long ago. They tell of the great wonders of that land, of the life that my people enjoyed there. But, even when things seem to be perfect, especially then, they change. As time went on, the people we chose to lead us wanted to spend more and more of their time in the capitol making new rules for us. The taxes we paid to maintain the army and our roads, and a few other necessities, continued to increase, as did the number of rules we had to obey.

"Worse, as our society grew, some people acquired wealth in various degrees, while others did not. Although poverty was rare, and even people who did not choose to work would not go hungry in land where food was bountifully supplied by nature, there were some who resented those who accumulated wealth and property. So there were more taxes and more laws, mainly to distribute property and money, and always, to provide more money for the government, whom we now regarded as our rulers rather than leaders."

Miller and I looked at each other with a 'Haven't we been there and done that' look. Hernak was fascinated, and perhaps a little disturbed at what he was hearing. I suspected that Bandar and Kindall, in their travels and studies, had heard some of this.

"There was a war, when some of the provinces tried to break away and form a separate nation. Although we have never been a particularly warlike people, there was a bloody civil war that lasted for nearly six ahn. The provinces which sided with the central government brutally crushed the rebellion and reclaimed their territory.

"That was almost a hundred ahn before I was born, but the memory of it is strong in those who survived. The oppression grew ever worse after the war, and before long people began to flee. First across the desert, then to the southern coast where some of them eventually crossed the sea, and reached the islands. Some of those returned, and continue to return even today, to our ancestral homeland. Those who have come back, though not in my lifetime or in the memory of anyone living today, have told us that things are even worse today. The people are virtual slaves, and most have the minimum food and shelter required for survival. The nearest thing to a decent life, if one is not a member of the ruling class, is in the army, the primary occupation of which is to keep the population under control."

Alain fell silent for a moment, and I took the opportunity to ask a question. "Does your journey here have anything to do with what happened in your homeland?"

Chapter 34
He looked at Miller and me, seeming to sense, much as I had earlier, that we were probably much alike. Not only were we adventurous men of action, but we had lived through the decay of a corrupt society and a civil war, and our decision to embark on the extraterrestrial expedition had, to considerable extent, been prompted by our disenchantment with the world we had lived in.

"It does indeed" said Alain. "You have been most courteous hosts and I will not deceive you.

"Although my people have a good life in the islands, and are nowhere near to overpopulating them, some among us dream of returning to our ancestral lands and reclaiming them from the oppressive rulers.

"We are not numerous enough to do that at this time, even if we had the transportation. But it is a dream that some of us pursue, even if it will not happen in our lifetimes.

"Although we are not a warlike people and find violence distasteful, it would seem that is the only way to overcome them. We had heard stories about times long ago, when there were machines, and weapons, of great power. Those who had them, whether they were our ancestors or some other people, disappeared long ago, but there are always tales of survivors in hidden places, or of people who have rediscovered these things. We came to your land to see if there are any such to be found here, should any of the stories be true."

"We too have heard these stories" said Bandar. "And there are the artifacts we have collected in our travels, and the pictures and writings in the books. But we have seen no evidence that such things still exist."

"And perhaps it is just as well" said Kindall. "From what we know of these ancient machines, they brought only misfortune to those who possessed them. I am a curious man, and have travelled far in this world, to learn about it and its people. But it is possible, I think, for men to know too much for their own good."

He looked and Miller and me. "Our friends from beyond may have ideas about that."

For the next hour or so Miller and I told them of our world and discussed the effects of technology on our civilization. Hernak and Kindall had heard some of it, but Bandar and Alain and Mikkal were fascinated by our stories. Eventually we could stay awake no longer and went to bed, with a promise to continue the discussion later.

The next morning I went over to Miller's room before we went down to breakfast, to talk about our new acquaintances.

"They seem so much like us it's scary" said Miller. "Not only do they look like us, they act like us."

"You mean like cowboys or fighter pilots?" I asked. "Their ancestors must have been a lot like that - adventurous and freedom-loving. According to them, they became exiles rather than live as slaves to a corrupt bureaucracy. Kind of like us."

"And like us, they would like nothing better than to go back and set things right, hence the talk about looking for ancient weapons to give them an edge" said Miller.

"And their interest in two visitors from beyond their world" I added. "I wonder, how long before they start asking what we know about such things.

"I'm sure it will come up before long" said Miller. "Let's go see what they're up to."

Chapter 35
About midday a messenger came from the inn where Alain and his men were staying. The men who had gone upriver to look for trees had returned, and Alain and Mikkal were eager to see them. So we rode into town, except for Kindall and Bandar who decided to stay behind.

The remaining half-dozen of Alain and Mikkal's group were much like them, good-looking clean-cut young men with a look of strength and toughness about them, but with a polite and reserved manner. They were clearly curious about us but wasted no time with questions, instead reporting immediately on their mission and awaiting their leader's decision.

"We will begin as soon as possible - tomorrow morning" said Alain. "It is late in the day and we must take leave of our hosts." He turned to our group. "You will go with us?"

Miller and I of course had no doubts. We looked at Hernak. He nodded. "I am ready."

As we took leave of our hosts the next day, Kindall went with us. It was time for him to be returning home,and since we were going upriver, his journey would coincide with ours for some distance.

We joined the remainder of the group at the inn, and headed back the way we had come. It was an uneventful journey, and soon we arrived at the site where the trees were to be cut. Kindall, halfway home, left us then and we went to work.

I was naturally interested in seeing how they were going to cut a tree a thousand feet high, not to mention getting it into the river. Alain had said it was no problem, and indeed it was not.

They had selected a site where a slight bend in the river caused the beach to narrow to just a few yards, and large trees stood near the water. If a tree was cut and fell in the right direction, it would be in the river. But I was still wondering how they were going to cut the selected trees, the largest close to sixty feet thick.

As Alain had promised, it was no problem. Two of Alain's men rode up the river some distance, taking most of a day to go and return. They had taken a pair of extra jungoes with them, and when they returned the beasts were laden with coils of what looked like some kind of vines, and some large skin bags of some type of liquid.

We spent the last part of daylight and part of the next day wrapping these vines around the base of one huge tree and a half dozen slightly smaller ones. Based on my previous experiences with the local plant life, I was beginning to suspect what was going to happen. We poured the oily liquid from the skins on the vines, and went back to our camp.

"The tiya vines, when soaked in the juice of the ippel fruit, will begin to contract" said Alain when I asked. "The vine, already very strong, becomes stronger than stone or metal. Within a few days, it will cut through the tree and cause it to fall."

It did, and by the fourth day the trees were in the water. I knew that many of the trees were light and spongy inside, and trimming them to the proper size and shape was feasible even with primitive tools. While most of the crew worked on the raft under Mikkal's direction, Alain asked us to join him in gathering supplies.

In the days that followed, the ship began to approach its finished form. The largest tree was close to five hundred feet long after being trimmed. The limbs on one side were of course broken off when it fell into the shallow water, those protruding horizontally from the sides were left, as were some that were somewhere near a vertical position. The upright ones were cut to a maximum height of fifty feet or so, and the horizontal ones extended close to a hundred feet to each side. The smaller trunks were lashed to these branches, three on each side. The finished product, six hundred feet long and over two hundred wide, floated lightly on the surface of the small cove into which we had felled the trees.

Hernak, Miller and I had been busy as well. Working with Alain in the surrounding forest, we gathered supplies for the voyage. The forest was not much different here from that around Hernak's village, and fruit and game were plentiful among the enormous trees. Hernak's knowledge of the local plants and wildlife proved valuable here, as we selected and prepared food suitable for long-term storage aboard the ship.

A large plant abundant in the area provided containers - its segmented stem, like an emormous bamboo plant, was easily cut into sections, each about four feet high and about three in diameter, with a top and bottom made from circular pieces of the trunk. A sticky sap from another plant provided a glue which provided a watertight seal. A wide variety of fruits and the local wildlife went into dozens of these barrels, which accumulated on the beach as the days passed.

Other materials from the forest provided primitive sails and rigging, and provided some comfort in our quarters. The tough-skinned tree was soft on the inside, almost like styrofoam, and it was easy to cut out little chambers in the vertical branches, high above the water, to put us safely out of reach of any large creatures that might assail us on the high seas. Other spaces were made to store our provisions.

Eventually we were ready to go. The ship had been drifting toward the river as we worked, and only the cables braided from thick vines held it in place as the sluggish current continually pulled at it. When we were all aboard, the cables were released and we floated slowly out into the wide river.

Chapter 36
The view was certainly different. We were out near the center of the river, and could barely see the land on either side. Although we were only moving at perhaps three or four miles per hour, the land seemed to go by much faster. Alain guessed we would reach the ocean in just a couple of days.

We saw a few of the river monsters, but none of them were big enough to threaten us. A couple of times a really big one, twenty to thirty feet long, would climb on board and look up at us in our high perches. Although some of them had multiple pairs of legs, some with clawed feet, they were too clumsy out of the water to climb the smooth branches. After a while they would dive back into the river and disappear.

Once we saw what looked like a large flock of birds come over the forest and descend toward the water. As they came closer we saw they were vilbaz, perhaps a couple hundred or more. Miller and I went for our guns, and Hernak grabbed his spear and took up a defensive position. But they passed over us and disappeared over the trees on the other side of the river.

"We had a bad experience with those once" I explained to Alain as I holstered my weapon. "Unpleasant creatures."

"I have heard of such things," said Alain "but we do not have them in the islands."

"They were flying slowly" said Hernak. "Probably they have just eaten and are not hungry and are too heavy to attack us. And to them we may have looked like logs floating on the river. Still, one can not be too careful."

Before long we reached the mouth of the river, passing by the small towns of the delta region, but too far away to see the place where we had met. The slightly muddy grey water of the river became a deep blue as we passed into the ocean. Alain's crew adjusted the sails and our speed increased, and soon the land was left behind. They were excited and happy to be going home. I looked at Hernak - he was clearly excited, but I had to wonder how he felt at leaving behind everything he knew. Miller and I had done that, long ago, and I knew well the strange mix of emotions evoked by such a drastic action.

The first few days passed uneventfully, as we sailed under a warm sun and clear skies. The mariners of this world had their own star to navigate by - a very large and bright one. It was often visible even through light clouds. We saw a few of the sea monsters, some of them larger versions of the aquatic octopeds from the river, others looking like enormous serpents. It was with one of these that we were to have a memorable encounter.

We rode out a mild (according to Alain) storm on the eleventh day, and it was early the next morning before the clouds cleared. We went down on the deck to check for damage. Miller and I slipped our .45s into their shoulder holsters and covered them with the lightweight water-repellent cape we had for wet weather. A number of the men carried long lances, nearly twenty feet long. They had made them while were building the raft, using the largest spearheads they could acquire locally. Hernak had one as well, and one of the arrow guns Kindall had given us. He had taken some practice with it and was quite good. The other two were with two of Alain's men, who stood watch for sea monsters.

The ship proved to be in good condition, the lashings holding the logs together were undamaged, and none of the storage holds had taken water. We were headed back to the row of tall branches where our cabins were located, when a shout from the watchers stopped us.

We looked back toward the bow, to see an enormous creature rising from the sea. Although it was some distance away, the splash as it plunged back into the water sent a wave rolling over the top of the central log where we stood.

"Up here" shouted Alain as he started up the nearest vertical branch. It was only about thirty feet high, with a platform about twenty by twenty feet built on top. He and his brother climbed to the top, followed by several of their men. Hernak, Miller and I scaled one of the branches that served a mast. The others also scrambled up the nearest available branches.

From my perch about thirty feet up, I watched the thing approach. We were near the center of the raft, and even from a hundred yards away its enormous size apparent. The mouth, easily twenty feet wide and ringed with long sharp teeth, was open as it heaved its enormous bulk onto the port side of the raft, which tilted under its weight. There was at least a hundred feet of body behind the mouth.

At first I thought it was an enormous serpent, but then then noticed the two huge fins not far behind the head, folded along its sides. Another pair appeared as more of the creature emerged from the water, back near the tail, which was flat and merged with a long dorsal fin which ran nearly the entire length of its body.

As it neared the central log, it brought the front part of its body upright, placing its head on a level with the platform where Allan and Mikkal stood. They looked vulnerable, as the creature looked capable of biting off the entire platform they stood on. Alain and his men raised their spears, preparing to strike if it came within range. Beside me, Hernak held his spear ready as well.

I had only my sword and pistols, neither of which was likely to be of much use against someething this big. But I drew one of them anyway, and Miller did the same. The thing took a bite of the branch just below the platform, breaking - or biting - it off. The platform tilted and then fell, with its occupants, to the deck. The big head turned down toward them.

"The eyes" shouted Miller. "Shoot the eyes". Of course. The thing had enormous eyes, suggesting visual acquisition of prey. Below us, one of the eyes was facing us. Miller and I aimed and fired at the same time. I pumped in five rounds, Miller delivered several more. The enormous eye was certainly damaged, yellow-green fluid spurting from it. The monster turned toward us.

The head came back up, the ruined eye passing by, then the uninjured one was staring at us from just a few feet away. Miller and I both fired, emptying our guns, but the monster turned its head as we did and we both missed. Its good eye turned to the deck below and seemed to see the men there, and its body began to descend. As it did, Hernak leaped onto its head and drove his spear into the uninjured eye, then lost his footing and fell.

I grabbed a piece of rigging and slid down to the deck, ignoring the damage I was doing to my hands as the rough fiber passed through them. As I hit the deck I drew my other pistol, and looked up at the monster looming over me. The eye holding Hernak's spear was turned toward me, and I emptied the magazine into it.

We retreated back up central log, toward the stern, and watched as the creature, now apparently blinded, thrashed around on the logs. The raft rocked as its enormous weight shifted, and it seemed it might demolish even this giant vessel. Finally, though, it rolled to the edge and back into the sea and disappeared.

Chapter 37
After all hands were accounted for, and we determined that no one was seriously injured, we had to check for damage again. Despite its enormous size and violent thrashing about, the creature did not seem to have harmed the raft, except for the destruction of the observation platform. We returned to the large branch which contained Alain and Mikkal's quarters, as well as a large common room where we often gathered for meals or to pass the time talking.

We spent a while talking about the attack, and of course we had to pass our pistols around for inspection and explain how they worked. As we did so I had time to regret the loss of the brass cases when we had each emptied two magazines into the monster. I didn't know if we would ever find a way to make gunpowder, bullets and primers to reload them, but I still hated to lose them.

Our companions were considerably amazed by them, even Alain and Mikkal who knew about them but had not seen them in action. Alain was especially interested in how the ammunition was made, and we spent a fair amount of time discussing it. I wondered why, then remembered the story he had told about what had happened to his people's homeland, and I knew.

We continued without any more visits from large sea monsters, although a small one would occasionally cause us to retreat into our refuges high in the branches until it tired of slithering around on the deck and returned to the sea. And while we rode out a couple more storms, they were less violent than the first one and did no damage to the ship.

Eventually, the journey ended. One morning we woke to the sound of a celebration, which turned out to be Alain and his folk down on the deck, laughing and talking loudly. From my cabin window I could see the land we were approaching.

We soon passed the first of many small islands, which were at first small and scattered, then larger and closer together as Alain's men used the primitive sails to steer the ship. Before sunset we were approaching a large island, so large it might have been a small continent. The crew allowed the huge ship to ride the tide onto a wide smooth beach, and as soon as it stopped we casually disembarked and were immediately surrounded by the large crowd that had come to meet us.

Alain and Mikkal took the point as we worked our way through, the remainder of the crew surrounding Miller, Hernak and me. Many of the crowd shouted greetings to members of our group who were apparently friends or relatives, those nearest reached out to touch them or to offer small gifts, bunches of colorful plant foliage and jewelry. Those close enough to see us strangers eyed us curiously and pressed closer for a better look.

Overall, they seemed a decent lot, much like Hernak's folk they seemed very friendly. There were a lot of good-looking young folk, both men and women. Eager as they were to see us, they were polite and respectful, moving out of the way as Alain and Mikkal led us to wherever we were going.

After a short walk, the beach gave way to vegetation, and we entered a small grove of trees. We passed through the trees to a small clearing, where another greeting party awaited us. The crowd that had accompanied us fell back and allowed us to approach unimpeded.

Before a large tentlike structure a small party, about a dozen in number, sat around a low table. As we approached, one of the men rose and came to meet us, the others following him. As our groups met, the leader, an older man, stepped forward. "Alain, Mikkal." he exclaimed. "Welcome home, my boys!" He embraced Alain and Mikkal, then moved among the crew, clasping hands and speaking with each. He looked briefly at us strangers before speaking again.

Chapter 38
"Your expedition has been costly, I see" he said. "Sergil, Merris, and young Palos. All lost?"

"Yes, father" replied Alain. "We paid a high price, as do all who challenge the open seas. And while there seems to be nothing of great value in the eastern lands, compared to what we have here, we may have had some good fortune." He turned to look at the three of us.

"Yes, indeed" said Alain's father. "Come inside, and bring your guests. We will talk for a while while preparations are made for our return home."

Alain and Mikkal ushered the three of us inside after their father, and we sat down around a low table. From somewhere in the back a pair of young women appeared just long enough to discreetly set food and drink on the table and then disappeared.

"I am Anlaf" said our host, "governor of Merdian. As you have no doubt surmised, Alain and Mikkal are my sons. Your raft was sighted two days ago from Pakkos, and we have been waiting here for you."

"The men will have the camp torn down soon, and then we will return home. But first, have some refreshment and tell me something of yourselves, and how you came to visit us. I have reason to suspect you are not ordinary inhabitants of the eastern continent."

Hernak and Miller looked at me, so I briefly related the story of how we had arrived. We had never encountered any skepticism when telling our story before, and there was none now. I wondered if these people were so open-minded they had no problems with the concept of people coming from beyond their world, or if there was some other reason. Perhaps they themselves, or their ancestors, were transplants from beyond?

In a while the workers came to disassemble our tent, and we went outside. Transportation for us came in the form of a small animal similar to the jungoes we had ridden back on the mainland. These were somewhat smaller and somewhat nimbler, which came in handy on the island with its inconsistent terrain and heavy vegetation. Much travel on the island, we would discover, involved narrow forest trails and a lot of hills.

The disassembled encampment was loaded onto pack animals, and we began the ride back. Most of the crew had found friends and family among the welcoming committee and rode with them. Alain and Mikkal took Hernak, Miller and me along with them and their father. It was late in the day when we started, so we spent a night on the trail. About the middle of the next day we arrived at our destination.

Emerging from the forest we had been traversing most of the day, we saw a range of low hills stretching out to the limits of vision. We soon entered the hills, following a trail that soon became a wider road, and eventually a broad avenue paved with stone. Buildings were present on the hills around us, becoming more numerous as we proceeded. Before long we were in the middle of a large city, its center dominated by a very large hill with a flat top.

This hilltop was our final destination. The perfectly flat and smooth surface was perhaps a mile or more across, and appeared to be roughly circular. The edge was ringed with small trees and other vegetation, and a road ran around the hilltop inside the ring of trees. Other roads, like spokes of a wheel, ran from this road toward the center of the hilltop.

We rode on one of these roads through buildings which became both larger and more numerous, but not to the extent that the area was crowded. Everywhere the streets were wide and lined with trees, and the building sites were also ornamented with vegetation. Eventually we arrived at a very large building, at least for this world, four or five stories high from the looks of it.

Here we stopped, and followd the example of our hosts as they dismounted. Waiting attendants took away our mounts, and Alain and Mikkal ushered the three of us up the broad steps toward a great doorway flanked by uniformed guards. They acknowledged our hosts with what might have been a formal salute of some sort, looked at us as we passed but did not relax their military bearing. We passed within and found ourselves in the great hall of a luxurious palace.

"This is our home," said Alain. "Although we are here only when not on duty. Father has business which may take all day, and it may be tomorrow or the day after before he has an opportunity to meet with you, but he is most interested in doing so.

"We too, have business" he continued. "We must visit the families of our comrades who were lost on the voyage. We will arrange for your lodging here, and will see you later today or tomorrow."

As he spoke, servants approached and received instructions. We were led away into the interior of the palace, up a couple of flights of stairs, to our quarters. The three suites we were assigned were modest but quite comfortable. A bedroom, bath, and two more rooms were comfortably furnished and had all the amenities we had experienced anywhere else, including running water.

Chapter 39
We made use of the facilities and the clean clothing provided by our hosts. They collected the dirty clothes from our trip and carried them away, after some discussion. Miller and I were not about to relinquish our hats, boots and jackets until we were certain we would get them back.

Food and drink were brought, and we gathered in my room and spent the afternoon and evening talking. It was our first time in quite a while to be alone, and we had a lot to talk about. I was curious about how Hernak was enjoying his adventure.

"I am glad I came," he said. "I never knew there was so much to the world outside our forest. I thought our trading trips to the Twarm colonies and the river towns were adventures.

"Of course, I had heard something of the faraway places from an occasional traveler, and have looked at Father's books and other things in his collection. But actually being here and seeing these things is much different."

"Do you miss your home and family?" I asked.

"Often. Especially Kiera." he replied. "Although I should not say it, the more time that passes and the more new things I experience, the less often I think about home. And I worry about whether I might someday lose interest in returning."

"I wouldn't worry about that" said Miller. "I think you never forget where you came from, and no matter how far away or how long you are gone, you will someday want to return. Unless, like us, you leave your world entirely and can't get back."

"How long do you think we will be gone?" asked Hernak.

"That is hard to predict" I said. "We had only a vague plan when we started, to come here and then to the other continent. Much of our journey may be as much the results of circumstance as planning. Who knows where we would be if we had not met Alain and his men, and set out for the islands on our own?

"What do you think will happen here?" asked Hernak.

"Again, that is hard to say." I replied. "Our hosts seem to be a decent lot, with an advanced civilization. I don't see any reason to believe they will harm us, but whether they will allow us to continue our journey, or help us, we will have to wait and see."

"Kindall said he and others had been here," said Miller. "So apparently they tolerate people passing through. But I suspect they have a special interest in us."

"Our technology," I explained to Hernak's questioning look. "When we first met them, Alain said they would like to go back and reclaim their homeland, and their expedition was to look for useful things, like weapons. Two men who arrived from the stars in a spaceship would likely know a useful thing or two."

"Alain and Mikkal spoke of their people's dream of returning to conquer the homeland they fled from" said Miller. "They may well press us for information about weapons."

"Should we cooperate?" I asked. "And if so how much?"

Miller looked at Hernak. "Most people here don't seem to be particularly violent or aggressive" he said. "But Alain and Mikkal spoke of a bloody war in their past."

"Among our people" said Hernak, "violence is quite rare. But our communities are small and most people know or are related to many others in their communities. In the larger settlements along the river there is some crime, but wars are something we know nothing about, except from the stories told by others.

"My father believes, from this studies of old books and stories passed down from his ancestors, that there were once many more people, so many the lands were crowded to the degree that there was not enough food or other resources, and wars were common then."

"Which doesn't answer our question" I said. "How far should we go in sharing our technological knowledge, such as it is? And what happens if we refuse?"

"I don't suppose they would torture us" said Miller. "Since they probably wouldn't know what questions to ask."

"How much do we actually know, anyway?" I said. "We have a lot of theoretical knowledge, but even for us building an airplane or a machine gun would be difficult, involving almost as much experimentation and trial and error as someone who has never seen one.

"And in any case, this world seems to be deficient in metals. It may be difficult or impossible to implement any kind of technology on the scale we are accustomed to, unless they have some suitable substitute."

"They just might" I thought aloud, but further discussion was postponed as a servant arrived to summon us to dinner. It would be a while before we got around to discussing it again.

We were conducted to a large hall where a substantial banquet was about to get under way. Alain and his father met us and introduced us to some of the many people present. Some were friends and family, others important people in the community. We were naturally the center of attention, especially to those sitting near us, and spent a good deal of the time trying to answer their questions.

Chapter 40

After dinner there was more standing around drinking and talking, until we were too tired, and probably too inebriated, to continue. Alain and Mikkal saw us to our quarters and told us a servant would come and get us for breakfast.

It was a more private affair, just Alain and Mikkal, two of their sisters, a younger brother, and their father. We had learned that they were a large family, something common in their society. The four siblings present were less than half the children. The remainder, two boys and three girls, were all younger.

There was not much talk during the meal, but afterward Anlaf asked us to join him and his two older sons, and we were off to a wing of the palace some distance away, where we sat in a big comfortable room that looked like a combination of office and library. At one end of the room was a collection of furniture which included several tables of various sizes, with large comfortable chairs The other end was mostly shelves, filled with books, scrolls, and various artifacts. It was not unlike the rooms at the home of Hernak's father, or those of Kindall and Bandar, but much larger and with a larger inventory.

Anlaf motioned us to take seats around one of the larger tables. As we were being seated a servant came in with a tray of refreshments. After he had left, Alnaf sat down as well. Miller, Hernak and I sat one side of the oval table, across from us sat Anlaf with Alain on one side and Mikkal on the other.

Anlaf was an impressive man. Like his sons, he was a fine physical specimen - tall, strong and apparently in superb physical condition. He moved with the grace and quiet confidence of a warrior - but most of the battle-hardened men I had known lacked his dignity and refinement. He was the perfect image of a medieval warrior king - the fictional type, that is.

"I hope you have been comfortable" he said. We assured him we were. "I thank you for the assistance you rendered my sons and their crew in returning safely home. If there is anything we can do to make your stay here more pleasant, you need only ask.

After a moment he continued. "From what I have been told of your situation, it would appear that you are unable to carry out your original objective. May I ask what your plans are?"

"We would most like to find a way to return to our ship" I said. "Unfortunately, that would require repairing our landing craft, or building something like it. That could take longer than our lifetime, if we were able to do it at all. And of course, we don't know where the ship is. Is it up there waiting, or have we been abandoned?"

"I suspect, then, that you wish to explore this world" said Anlaf. "As no doubt others have related to you, it seems that there was a time on this world when machines, perhaps like yours, existed here. Small relics from those times remain," he gestured to the shelves of artifacts. "Perhaps you might find something of use?"

"Is that possible?" asked Miller.

Anlaf shook his head. "Not likely. In the land from which our ancestors came, as in the place you came from, they are only a distant memory."

"It would seem, then, that we will never leave here." I said. "But anything is possible, and we are people who do not give up. We will have to see what the future holds"

"I know Alain and Mikkal discussed with you some of our history" said Anlaf. "And as you know, they were looking for evidence of these ancient things. And whether or not they told you, you must have guessed why."

"Of course" I said. "To return to your ancestral lands and free them, you need an advantage. They must outnumber you considerably, and superior weapons would give you an edge." I thought of our firearms, which of course he would know about. I might as well get it over with. "You know, of course, about the weapons we brought with us."

"Naturally." He smiled. "They seem to have made quite an impression on those who witnessed their use. But from what you have told my sons, their usefulness is limited."

"Yes. Without the ability to produce more..." I paused, trying to think of a word for firearms ammunition on a world where it did not exist, finally chose the word for the darts used in the arrow guns Bandar had given us. I had noticed these people had similar weapons. "When all the ammunition is gone, the guns are useless."

"Is it difficult to reproduce?" Anlaf asked.

"Not in comparison to making other things, such as the guns themselves. The problem is that first we would have to build other machines to make the parts and assemble them, and to make those machines would require other machines, and people with special skills.

"That is always the problem with machines. To make them and keep them working requires other machines, and it goes on like that until the entire society becomes like a big machine and all the people are just parts of it. In the end they become dependent on it, so that they could not survive if it ever stopped."

Anlaf nodded solemnly. "It would seem our distant ancestors may have had such problems. Sometimes I think it is just as well, whatever happened so long ago. There are stories about the destruction of those times, of the numbers of people who died in the wars - more people, perhaps, than are living in the world today."

"Yet to protect yourself from enemies, or to make right the wrong things they have done, you still would seek superior weapons to give you an advantage over them?" I asked.

"I am afraid that is our nature" said Anlaf. "We know that there are always those who will use power wrongly, so we seek it that it may be used for good.

Chapter 41

"You know something, perhaps, of our history. Once we ruled ourselves, by choosing leaders to do our will. In the end they divided the people into classes and set one against another, thus our servants became our masters. When we came to the islands, those who arrived first decided on a different system.

"Our government here is almost the opposite. We have a king, who rules all the islands. The monarchy is passed from father to son, as are the governorships such as mine. We rule our districts by the king's authority, and we support the king by paying taxes and providing military support.

"It is not the way we would have chosen, but our experience with letting people rule themselves has been less than encouraging. So our ancestors chose a king, and charged him with ruling his people with the appropriate measure of justice and kindness. If he, or his successors, failed to to so, they would do away with him and choose a new one. As our population grew, the islands were divided into districts, with governors appointed by the king."

"Sort of a feudal arrangement" said Miller. "Didn't one of the noble Greeks say the best government would be a benevolent dictator?"

"Plato, I believe." I replied. "One of Dr. Hamblin's friends, professor Hannity, thought a proper implememtation of feudalism in our time would be a good way to go, if you could balance power effectively.

"What are you talking about?" asked Anlaf.

"Sorry," I said. "People from our past. We were wondering how you would keep a king, or a governor like yourself, from abusing his power."

"That is no doubt the hardest part." said Anlaf. "But the first thing is to choose a man who does not want the position, but will accept it from a sense of duty. A man who wants to be a ruler should not be one."

"You would be surprised how many people do not understand that," I said. "Among my people it was widely believed, throughout most of our history, that power and wealth would corrupt. Too few people understood that it was the desire that corrupted.

"But" I continued "mistakes happen. What would you do if your ruler was out of control?"

"That actually has been the easier part" said Anlaf "although it has never been tested. The king commands the largest part of our military forces, but not nearly all of them. The governors maintain large forces, which are normally intended to supplement the king's armies, but if we had problems with him, the total combined forces of all, or nearly all, of our governors, would be capable of overcoming him, even if all his own men remained loyal.

"And if a governor, or several of them at once, got out of hand, the king could handle the situation, probably without requiring help from the other governors.

"Of course, it has never been tested. We have never had any enemies attack us here, either, so except for the men who go to sea, there is not much in the way of adventure here. But we are prepared, and look forward to the time we may go back to our homeland and free our brothers"

"And you wonder where we might fit in?" I asked.

Chapter 42

"The thought has occurred to some of us" said Anlaf. "But what you do is your business. You are our welcome guests here, and I certainly hope you will stay for a while. Whatever knowledge you wish to share with us, whatever it may be, is of course welcome. But you are under no obligation to us."

"One goal we share" I said. "We do not know what our future is, on this world or elsewhere, assuming we are ever able to leave. But we wish to see as much of it as possible. If any of your people are planning to travel to the western continent, we would like to go along."

"That may be possible" said Anlaf. "For some time we have been contemplating an expedition to Mirransk". Mirransk was their ancestral land, the western continent, we learned, was called Arawan. Arawan simply means "the land". When they discovered the eastern continent, they called it "Amarawan", which means "the eastern land".

"It has been a while, close to twenty ahns, since any who went there returned. he continued. "We would like to have a better idea of what things are like there. Alain and Mikkal wish to be part of it. I suspect you would be more than welcome as part of such an expedition."

Anlaf rose and moved to a nearby table, his sons following. We got up and went with them. A large map was spread out on the table, apparently a map of the islands. It was large, perhaps three by five feet, on a heavy paperlike material. The islands, hundreds of them if you counted the very small ones, were drawn in considerable detail. There were perhaps a half dozen extremely large ones, like Alaris (the island we were on). Perhaps forty to fifty were considerably smaller, but still quite large.

Considering that Alaris was almost a continent itself, even the smaller islands were large. A rough calculation of the distances on the map indicated it was well over a thousand miles in its longest dimension, the shortest distance across it over half that.

It was not the center of the islanders' empire, however. It was divided into four districts, with Anlaf's district being the western end. The center part of the island was divided into two parts, and the eastern end was a fourth district. The king, however, was on another island, further west.

Anlaf indicated the royal island, less than half the size of Alaris. He explained that the island where the king lived, and which served as the center of their government, was one of the first islands settled when his people arrived. They eventually chose one of the larger islands that had been explored at that time as their capital. The enormous island of Alaris was not discovered until much later, otherwise it might have become the center of the island nation.

"I visit there at least once each ahn, sometimes more often." he said. "There is a council that all governors must attend." He looked at us. "I daresay your arrival justifies a visit."

"You mean you are taking us to visit your king?" asked Hernak.

"By now the news of your arrival has made its way to nearby islands." said Anlaf. "Before long King Bardok will know of you. He would surely question my judgment in not advising him of your presence here and bringing you before him."

"It will most likely take a few days," he continued. "I may receive a summons to come immediately, although I doubt it. The king is not easily excited, and will probably send a letter asking me to bring you over at my earliest convenience."

"Is your king as friendly as your people have been?" I asked.

"Oh, indeed he is" replied Anlaf. "We would not tolerate a bad king." He smiled . "He is indeed a worthy ruler, wise and just, kind and generous, but as strong and firm as a ruler needs to be. He is also, like me and my sons, interested in learning, especially knowing more about our world. He will be curious about you, and you will probably spend much time with him and his wise men."

Chapter 43

Alain told us we were going for a ride in the country after lunch. Mounted on the little jungoes they used for getting around here, were joined a small group that included the two sisters of Alain and Mikkal whom we had met earlier, and several other young men and women, two of whom seemed to be very attached to the brothers.

After introductions were made, we rode out of the city into the countryside. After some time we arrived at a small forested area. The enormous trees were relatively sparse compared to the forests we had seen back on the continent, and a small lake occupied a clear area among them.

After dismounting and tethering the mounts, our companions casually took off their clothes and ran into the lake. We would learn that the Arwanians were quite fond of swimming, but, as was the case in Hernak's land, it was only safe to do so in small inland lakes and pools where no large predators lived.

We quickly recovered from our surprise and joined our friends, and spent the afternoon swimming , drinking from the ample supply of liquor they had brought, and pursuing other entertainments. Under other circumstances I surely would have been surprised at such behavior, but these people were so innocent and wholesome that whatever they were doing it was hard to judge them so critically. Then, too, the liquor did blur things somewhat.

As Anlaf had predicted, the summons soon arrived. We returned from a trip outside the city to find him entertaining a messenger from the capital. In the usual courteous manner of these people, the king requested that Anlaf send us to see him at his earliest convenience, with whatever entourage he saw fit to include (meaning, as Anlaf explained, he would like him to send as many guests as possible).

"I will send you with Alain and Mikkal" he said. "They are two of my most capable and trusted men. And of course, they will represent me at the court.

"You will also have an escort of my best soldiers. The waters around the islands are not like the open ocean, but they are a sufficient challenge."

We spent a few more idle days with our new friends, while preparations were made for the journey. Too soon it was time to go - although we were eagerly anticipating the new adventures ahead, we had become rather attached to the young women who had been our regular companions.

Kara, the oldest of Alain and Mikkal's sisters, laughed when I expressed my regrets the night before we were to leave. "We have had many good times together" she said, "and when you return we will have many more. Meanwhile, I am sure there are many lovely women on Hierras." Hierras was the island where the king dwelt.

"Of course," she continued, "there must be many fine young men there as well. I wish I could go with you. But Father has promised I can go with him on his next trip. I can hardly wait."

We said our goodbyes the next morning, and I kept from her my own thoughts, that it might be a long time before I returned, if I returned. Experience had taught me better. Yet I hoped, as I was fairly sure Miller and Hernak did, that we would be able to retrace our steps and return again, not only to Alaris but also to the Amarawan and the peaceful forest abode of Hernak's people.

Miller and Hernak appeared every bit as excited as I was as we continued on our journey. Alain and Mikkal joined us at breakfast with Anlaf, who accompanied us down to the courtyard where our jungoes waited, with a handful of servants, some wagons of provisions, and a squad of twenty- four warriors with their leader and two lieutenants. As we rode out, the group was divided into two parts, half in front and half behind. Their commander rode with us in the center of the formation. He occasionally engaged in conversation with us, but we noticed he was in constant communication with the two squad leaders at the front and rear with a system of hand signals. I observed to Alain that they seemed very well trained and disciplined.

"They take their work seriously." he said. "We have had no wars here, and there is no danger to speak of except on our ocean voyages. But our armies are always ready for anything, and are quite dedicated to their work." He went on to explain that the the governors regularly conducted competitions, what we would call war games, to show the excellence of their troops. And always, he said, there was the dream of one day returning to the mainland to reclaim their ancestral home.

Chapter 44

We were going to begin our voyage from a different location than the one where we landed, and it was a better than two day trip. We spent two nights camping on the road, the five of us having a leisurely dinner and drinks in a comfortable tent. Our escort commander, Jarak, joined us for dinner and stopped by a couple of times to talk with us, but spent almost all his time with the troops, arranging positioning and scheduling of guards and checking the camp to see that all was in order.

Eventually, we arrived at the coast, where we found our ship waiting. The king's messenger had left some days before us, so they had time to prepare. It was a raft of huge logs, somewhat more refined than the one we had built for our previous voyage. Evidently it had been in use for some time, as it had sophisticated sails and rigging, and we found the cabins well furnished. It was also smaller, not much over two hundred feet in length.

"The waters around the islands are shallow." Alain explained when I asked if such as small ship was safe. "While there are still monsters there, they are nowhere near as large as the ones in the open ocean." Remembering the one we had encountered before, I was happy to hear it.

Our provisions were loaded aboard and we soon followed. Once our gear was stowed in our cabins we assembled on an open area about twenty feet or so above the deck to watch as our crew prepared for departure. They used long poles to push the ship away from the shore, and the large sails quickly filled with a brisk breeze and we were on our way.

The three-day voyage was relatively uneventful. We passed a number of islands but did not stop until we arrived at the king's island. A welcoming party had brought mounts for us, and we were soon on our way to meet the monarch.

The island was not as large as the one where Alain and Mikkal lived, but still it was over a day's journey to the capital. We arrived about midday on the day after our landing, and were escorted directly to the palace.

It was not substantially larger or more luxurious than Anlaf's, but then these people did not place much value on impressing visitors. They certainly enjoyed the luxuries they were able to acquire from their environment, in their houses, clothing, and food, but they enjoyed these things for the pleasure of having them, rather than trying to outdo their neighbors. We would find the people here to be much like those we had already met.

After being shown to our rooms - making a guest comfortable was always a high priority here - we were given some time to rest and prepare for our audience with the king, which came just before dinner.

I reminded Miller as we waited for our handlers to return, this is a real king. Unlike the ceremonial relics of our homeworld, this guy was the ruler of a sizeable empire. Not that he needed reminding.

"Yeah, I know" he said. "Kinda weird. This is the real deal here. Feudal societies, kings and all."

We were shown to the audience chamber, where a distinguished, older gentleman sat in a large ornate chair which apparently served as a throne. At least we suspected this was the king, as the chair sat alone on the highest point of a multi-tiered platform. A handful of other people surrounded him, some sitting in chairs at lower levels, others standing around the platform.

To our surprise, though perhaps it should not have been so, he rose to greet us. "Alain, Mikkal." he said. "It is good to see you at last. Your father has spoken much of you, and has promised to bring you when you were old enough. Which you clearly are. Tell me of your companions."

Alain introduced us, and, not having been briefed on the proper greeting methodology, we all performed the same slight bow we had seen Alain and Mikkal perform, which seemed to be the correct thing to do. After a few pleasantries, Bardok had an aide escort us to the banquet room, where we were seated at the large table, at which other guests were taking seats. We found ourselves at the end, arranged on both sides of two large fancy chairs at the end. Obviously King Bardok was going to sit there, and wanted us near him, no doubt to begin satisfying his curiosity. Presumably the other chair was for his wife, though we had not yet seen any sign of one.

They eventually arrived, and he introduced his wife. Riana, her name was, a very attractive lady who appeared somewhat younger than him but it was hard to say how much. She might have been 25 to 30 or our own years, but I was still having trouble figuring how their planetary cycles related to physical age. Of course, if we stayed in one place long enough to think about it, I might be able to.

Sure enough, both Bardok and Riana had plenty of questions for us, but managed to converse without significantly intruding on the task at hand, which was enjoying a quite spectacular feast. We didn't know what most of it was, but it was quite good. Especially the beverages, which continued to be served long after the business of eating was over. By the time the king bade us good night and left, things were getting a little fuzzy.

The next day I wasn't sure what all we told him, but we had a mid-afternoon meeting with him. One of the palace staff escorted us to a small chamber behind the throne room where we had met him the previous day. There were several other men there as well, and we joined them around a large table.

The meeting was not long. The king introduced us to his chief of staff (that being the closest translation we could make to his job description) Arries Stim, who did most of the talking. It seemed the king was of a scholarly nature, with a keen interest in scientific matters, ranging from biology to astronomy to mechanical engineering. One of the men present, Eryk Gorth, was his chief scientist. Bardok wanted us to spend some time with him and exchange knowledge and ideas. The other notable character present was Beryn Mora, commander of the armed forces. Both appeared to be older men (judging by the weathered appearance and greying hair) and would prove to be men of considerable knowledge and experience.

Chapter 45

Bardok had, of course, heard about our weapons, and wanted to see a demonstration. He directed Eryk Gorth to set up the event after he had time to see them and discuss them with us. Before long he excused himself and left us.

There was still a lot of day left, so Gorth and Mora took us to visit his domain. A couple of comfortable carriages drawn by teams of jungoes picked us up on the broad avenue running by the front of the palace and took us a short distance to the edge of the city. I rode in the carriage with Gorth, and as we passed through the city I asked him how many people lived there.

"Within the city," he said "about two hundred thirty farhans, as of the last census. That was two ahns ago. There are perhaps another two hundred farhans living in the suburbs and country side within ten falans of the city line."

I had once done some quick calculations with their distance measurements, and found that a falan was close to a mile. So there were over 400,000 people living in the city and its surrounding area. He told me there were a number of small towns on the island, and most people lived in or near them. Like most of the islands, this one had a considerable amount of land suitable for agriculture, and was also populated with naturally occurring plants which provided a bountiful supply of food, which the supplemented by fishing the relatively safe shallow waters near the islands.

We arrived at a small walled compound of buildings, and our drivers stopped at a small gate to let us disembark. An attendant, who appeared capable of serving as a guard if necessary, opened the gate, and Gorth and Mora led us inside.

Gorth noticed me and Miller assessing the setup. "We guard against unauthorized entry." he said. "Our people are almost without exception honest and law-abiding, but it would not do for people to be wandering around in here without an escort. There are too many dangerous things here."

Eventually we found ourselves inside a very large building, resembling a warehouse, with a large and diverse collection of items, piled on shelves and stored in a variety of containers. At one end was what looked like a workshop or laboratory, with worktables and tools and what looked like any number of experiments in progress. A couple of men were working on something at one of the tables.

Gorth showed us around, with obvious pride. The place was filled with all manner of what was apparently raw material for his work. We saw a variety of what was clearly metals of various types - some of it recognizable as copper, iron and similar substances, or at least something that looked and felt much like it. There were other materials, apparently minerals, some nondescript chunks of stone, others were quite colorful and some resembled the colored gemstones we were familiar with from home.

Much of it, though, appeared to be organic. There were blocks and slabs of what looked lumber cut from the great trees, as well as large containers of various fluids of many colors and consistencies. There were also a number of living plants (assuming that is what the local vegetation was) growing in pots filled with earth.

As we suspected, the place was a laboratory and warehouse of materials for experimentation. Gorth had a number of assistants who aided him in his work, among them his two sons. While not strictly a hereditary post, he explained, his family had been scientifically inclined for many generations, and a succession of kings had retained them as scientific advisers and provided facilities and budget for their work. His great-grandfather had travelled to both continents, and had acquired a considerable collection of artifacts.

We had to return to the palace sooner than we would have liked, but Gorth promised us plenty of time later. He was as interested in us as we were in his world. And he and Mora were both looking forward to seeing our weapons and other tools.

Our quarters in the palace consisted of suites of rooms surrounding a large common area. When not attending formal dinners, we would have our meals here. When we returned, a servant was waiting to see when we would be ready for dinner. It was delivered, and later we all sat around the table drinking and discussing our adventure.

Hernak was beginning to take the wonders he encountered in stride, and was clearly enjoying himself. Alain and Mikkal were excited about their first trip to the capital. All of us were eager to spend more time with Gorth and see what he was up to. After the others had gone to bed, Miller and I stayed and talked for a while longer.

"Any new ideas" I asked. We had both had a good bit to drink. Some of our most memorable discussions had been conducted while drunk. I was fairly certain the decision to volunteer for this mission had been one of them.

"You mean besides the idea this is some kind of laboratory. Maybe one of about thirty-three?" he replied.

"I was thinking along those lines." I said. "We've seen a bit of the way the local vegetation, if that is what is, seems almost engineered. They have trees you can break into neat hollow cylinders to make containers of all kinds, vines that can cut down huge trees, if you apply the juice of the right fruit to them. Trees you can live in and don't seem to mind having people hack out huge holes in them."

"Yeah," said Miller. "Genetic engineering. Grow your tools instead of making them. Great for a world that doesn't have a lot of minerals."

"Makes sense." I said. "Don't figure the animals, though. Some of them make sense, but I don't know what use the sea monsters are. Or the worm-things that may be intelligent or may be mimicking intelligence. And how did the humans get here."

"Maybe humans built it." said Miller. "Our long-lost relatives.

"How do you build a planet? Not to mention thirty-three of them. Any bright ideas there?"

"Well," he said. "If you had unlimited energy and enough material, you could stick it together in balls, put them in the proper orbital position"

"Like putting little rocks, asteroids or something, in a chain around the sun, at the optimum distance. Then you just continue to collect debris and add it to each one at the same rate, making them all the same size and weight."

"Could be done" said Miller. "Like I said, if you had unlimited material and energy. We already had plans to mine the asteroid belt by moving asteroids closer to earth, extracting minerals on the way, then shipping them down to the surface. The alien technology only accelerated that process by giving us the ability to travel faster around the solar system."

"So instead of a Dyson Sphere or a ringworld, like those envisioned by science fiction writers, you make a string of planets around a common sun. Not quite as much room, but still a lot. And perhaps actually feasible to construct."

"And a disaster on one world wouldn't affect the others." said Miller. "And the humans?"

"Colonists?" I suggested. "Or survivors. I would guess whoever built them also populated them, and then something happened. One thing we know about human civilization is that they are adept at self-destruction. If these people are just like us, they probably did themselves in."

"And like I said, disaster on world doesn't wreck all the others. I wonder what's on the others."

"Good question" I said. "Not space travellers, though. Else they should have had visitors before now."

"Not even aircraft, I would guess" Miller said. "Remember the atmosphere surrounds the planets and the space between them. You should be able to fly some sort of aircraft from one to the next."

"Which suggests," I said, "that if there are people on the other planets, they haven't gotten around to inventing a suitable vehicle yet. At least any of our near neighbors"

Chapter 46

In the days that followed, we spent a good deal of time with Gorth and his staff. After demonstrating our firearms and other gadgets for the king, we spent more time with Gorth explaining how they worked.

He readily grasped the concepts. They were, after all, very old technology. They didn't have the amount of metals on this world, or the sophisticated metallurgy to make guns, but they had done some interesting work. And once Miller and I got our hands on it, some of their projects suddenly made great advances. Mainly because of the batteries.

They had electricity, but didn't know what to do with it. When Gorth brought out the chunk of vegetation with the metal strips plugged into it, I thought of organic batteries. A novelty device back home was a clock that could be plugged into a fruit or vegetable and would run on the minute amount of electricity it produced.

And sure enough it was. Only much more powerful. This one gave me a nasty shock while I was playing with it. Gorth explained how they were made - putting the right blend of certain fruit pulps into a section of hollow plant stem and adding the electrodes made a very serviceable battery. He had done some work with it, but wasn't sure just what to do with it. I had some ideas.

There were some possibilities for gunpowder. I didn't see anything that they might use to approximate the gunpowder we used, but they had some effective propellants. One day we witnessed a demonstration of rather primitive rocketry, and saw how they made the propellants. They were quite crude, but there were definite possibilities.

We spent many days with Gorth in his lab, others we spent with Mora, watching the military at their exercises. Mora was the king's commander-in-chief, in charge of all the king's armed forces. Almost all of them, about 300,000 men, were on this island and several other neighboring islands that made up the king's private domain. A small number were dispersed about the other islands, acting as liasions to the governors, or performing other duties such as messengers, or perhaps, spies to keep an eye on the vassals. The navy, such as it was, was not a separate branch, and any military serviceman might do duty on land or sea.

We also spent a some time with Bardok, usually with a number of his curious subjects present, talking about our world and how we came there. Although amazed at the things we told them, they seemed to readily accept it as being true. Our artistic skills were taxed to their limits as we were often given the opportunity to illustrate things. They had a good quality paper and colorful inks and paints. The source of these was, not surprisingly, the local plant life.

They watched in fascination as we drew pictures of the world we had left behind. There were pictures of our cities, our automobiles and airplanes, houses and pets. We illustrated our solar system, and then theirs. They evidently grasped the concept reasonably well, as one of them asked why our solar system was so haphazardly constructed, while theirs was so neat and orderly. Was ours broken?

We had plenty of leisure time. Even the hardest workers in these parts didn't work that hard. The relatively low population density and the bountiful environment provided plenty of food and materials for shelter and clothing. The most industrious people were people like Gorth, who worked long days in his lab for the love of knowledge.

As the weeks passed, the subject of our future plans came up occasionally, particularly in our discussions with Bardok. He knew we (Miller and I, and Hernak as well) were inclined to continue our journey to the other continent and see what was there. We knew from past discussions with Alain and his family that they, and others of their people, were interested in returning and freeing their kin whom they believed were being oppressed by evil rulers.

We expressed our desire to continue the journey, and Bardok was most interested in having us go. "Occasionally some of our people journey there, or to the eastern land. Rarely do they return. The experience of Alain and his expedition shows how dangerous the journey alone is, to say nothing of what one may face upon reaching land."

"We had relatively little trouble coming back" I said "due mainly to the large and strong ship we built. It is possible that a sizeable force of men, with the right equipment and weapons, could make a successful expedition to the western lands and return safely."

"I believe you are right" said Bardok. "Your knowledge and experience, along with your powerful weapons, would certainly give you an advantage. And perhaps Gorth can help with some his inventions"

"Indeed he could" I said. Working with Gorth regularly we had already been able to turn the abundant materials at our disposal into some very useful devices. I was looking forward to trying them out.

As time passed, we met regularly with Gorth and Mora, and occasionally with Bardok, to discuss our plans. We spent a lot of time in Gorth's lab, but also went about with Mora as he carried out his duties of commander-in-chief of the king's armies. Both of us being ex-military, we talked about the subject a lot. He was very interested in our accounts of the wars our people had conducted.

"Such a warlike people you must be" he once said. Miller and I agreed that sadly, we seemed to be. "There have been no real wars here" he said. "Long ago, in my grandfather's time, there were a couple of incidents - both involving ambitious governors who tried to conquer their neighbors and set up a rival kingdom. The king's forces and those of the loyal governors quickly put an end to it."

He was most interested in our accounts of flying machines, and we were even able to find suitable materials to build small gliders and demonstrate some of the principles of flight. Unfortunately, the absence of large quantities of suitable metals on this world would probably limit the amount of aviation that would ever be accomplished, if it ever happened at all.

During this time, also, the ships for our upcoming journey were being built, and we frequently visited the site. The three ships would be a little larger than the one we had arrived on. The center logs measured out to about 600 feet, and were about forty feet in diameter at the base, narrowing only slightly toward the top. Shorter logs were placed on either side, forming a raft about 120 feet across. As was the case with the raft we had helped Alain build, the branches that were pointing up from the trunks were used for making cabins and storage chambers far above the water. He assured us we would almost certainly meet sea monsters like the one we had seen on our previous voyage.

Chapter 47

Eventually, the time came. The ships were loaded with our gear and provisions, and the expedition assembled. Of course, Miller, Hernak and I were going. Alain would go as well, but Mikkal, as much as he wanted to go with us, would return home. These expeditions were too dangerous for Anlaf to risk two of his sons again, and we all knew it.

However, we did acquire two more travelling companions - one of Mora's sons and one of King Bardok's would accompany us. Large families were common here - Mora had six sons and four daughters, Bardok had six of each. We had become rather fond of the ladies during our stay, and the last few nights before our departure were occupied with emotional farewells. I think they thought we wouldn't make it back. I knew better. I hadn't survived a war, over a century of flight through space at the mercy of a crazy computer, to drown in an alien ocean or get eaten by a sea monster. At least I was reasonably certain that was the case.

At last it was time to go. When we boarded the ships in the early morning, the small number of soldiers Bardok had provided was already on board. When he asked how many men we would need, we requested only enough to efficiently man the ships and deal with small emergencies such as sea monster attacks of perhaps a landing among unfriendly natives.

So it was that each ship was manned by ten men, who had spent the past several weeks sailing the vessels around the shallow coastal waters. They were all experienced seamen, and while they had never had such large ships before, they quickly became as proficient as one can at sailing a log raft.

Bardok had put Miller and me in charge, and made it clear to the others, including his son. Miller and I had debated on how to divide ourselves among the three vessels, and in the end decided we should remain together on one vessel for ease of communication. We put Hernak in charge of one of the others, with Bora's son Aran assisting. Mikkal commanded the other, with Bardok's son Bren as his second-in-command.

We had taught them a sort of morse code, the only way we knew to communicate ship-to-ship. We had built a device which used the ubiquitous organic light-sticks to blink the dots and dashes. Then we realized we would have to teach them our alphabet, so we developed a series of patterns that could be used in emergencies. If it became necessary to bring the ships together, it could be done on a calm sea. They could be tied together so we could pass from one to the other, or transfer personnel and supplies of one became sufficiently damaged that it could not continue. If necessary, we could all travel on one ship, though it would be a little crowded.

Two days later we passed out of the islands, and by the end of the next day they were not even visible behind us. There was nothing but the blue sea as far as we could see. We had guessed, from our maps we had seen and from our overflight when we arrived, that the western continent could be three or four thousand miles away, perhaps much more. In any case, it was going to be quite a few days before we arrived anywhere, so we settled in to enjoying the trip.

Steering by the great star Axtaru, the capable crew kept us on course (we hoped) and we had plenty of time to fool around and act generally useless. Alain and his folk had taught us to fish (not that they had fish here - the aquatic creatures here all seemed to be many-legged lizardlike creatures) and we often caught some of the smaller ones on lines trailing behind the ship. They were apparently all air breathers, so spent a lot of time on the surface and, being voracious eaters as well, were easy to catch. They were quite tasty, and we had fresh meat anytime we wanted, cooked over an open fire on the deck.

Of course, the ones we were eating were available in the extra huge size as well, and there was always a lookout on a high branch, and all of us kept a watch on the water around us at all times. We knew the odds of an encounter were high, but we hoped to be better prepared on this trip. With full-time lookouts on all three ships, we didn't expect to be taken by surprise. In addition, we had brought along some advanced weaponry.

Miller and I had our guns and a fair amount of ammunition for them, but we knew we had to prepare for the time when they would not be available. The shortage of metals on this world would limit that sort of technology, if we could reproduce it at all. But our time with Eryk Gorth had been most productive. While trying to find a use for his organic batteries, he had showed us how a spring made from some type of plant fiber would contract when an electric current was applied to it, and expand when the electricity stopped. It worked on springs of any size, some of the ones we tested it on were quite large and strong.

We eventually used it to develop powerful arrow guns, much more powerful than the elastic ones they had. Using a small battery to contract the spring, a locking mechanism held it in place until released by the trigger. An arrow, about the same length as those used in the elastic guns but heavier, with a thicker shaft and wider head, could be propelled a considerably greater distance by the spring gun. Gorth's staff had produced a number of them for us, along with some special versions.

The rudimentary rocket science Gorth had developed was incorporated into some of these units. By adding rocket propellant to the base of the arrows, with an igniter which was triggered as it left the gun, the power and range was greatly increased.

Gorth and his crew had made two types - one was a large one-man weapon, designed to be fired like a rifle. It was a double unit, capable of being loaded with two arrows which could be fired independently, like a double-barreled shotgun or rifle. A larger version was mounted on the ships, attached to a swivel mount so it could be fired in any direction. This one was designed for defense against sea monsters.

One especially calm evening we lashed the ships together and demonstrated them for the crew. We fired a few small arrows and a couple of the big ones into the darkening sky. The seamen were amazed at the distance they travelled, the fiery trail marking their ascent until they disappeared completely. The rate of fire wasn't bad, about like one of the old muzzle loading arms from back home. I wished we could have developed an explosive charge for them, but they were quite lethal in their present state of development. The arrows for the big ones were over four feet long and three inches in diameter. They should make as much impression on a sea monster as a full magazine of .45 ACP.

The voyage was relatively uneventful but long. Several days out it became apparent that we were being carried along in a strong current. Even on calm days the ships moved along at a regular pace which I estimated at several miles per hour. I expected it would eventually carry us close to land, perhaps to our planned destination.

There were several storms, but none of them caused any serious problems. We rode them out in the safety of our cabins, high above the waves washing over the decks. After each one we checked to see that no one had been lost and no major damage had been done to the ships, and continued on.

Even sea monster attacks were relatively infrequent. We often saw large ones coming to the surface nearby, but only occasionally did one come to investigate us. Several times a small one did climb on board, look up at us and try to climb up. Being unable to do so, they eventually lost interest and returned to the deep. One fairly large one boarded Mikkal's ship, and we moved alongside and prepared to assist them, but it too eventually gave up and departed. I was tempted to try out our big gun on it, but somehow the needless killing of even a sea monster didn't seem right.

Chapter 48

We did eventually arrive. After forty-seven days at sea we sighted land, which turned out to be an island. Passing by it we could see it was part of a group of islands. We navigated among them until we could see a land mass ahead much too large to be another island. Smooth sandy beaches provided an attractive landing area, and we ran the ships aground there.

It was early in the day, which gave us time to set up a camp and do some inland scouting before deciding what to do next. All we knew about the western continent (we were assuming that was where we were) was that the northern region was inhabited by the ancestors of Mikkal's people, and that there were populations of other people south of there. These latter peoples had been described as less than civilized, and Mikkal's ancestral people as having degenerated into a brutalized people ruled by corrupt dictators. We had no idea where we were, but we would have to be careful about making contact with whomever we met.

We organized scouting parties while the seamen were setting up the camp. Miller and I each selected a partner and a couple of our crewmen for the first trip. Miller took Hernak and I took Aran. Mikkal and Bren would remain to supervise the camp.

We decided to time the exploration, and Miller and I synchronized our watches. I congratulated myself on having brought a good watch, and was glad it was a windup. A battery over a century old was unlikely to work. I made a mental note to reinvent the clock, and watch, as soon as possible. We decided to go out for an hour and then return, which should allow us to cover a couple of miles and see if there was any sign of human life nearby.

We had judged that the shoreline where we had landed had a roughly north-south orientation, so we set off at what we judged to be northeast and southeast. The two seamen with us carried our new arrow guns, while Aran and I each carried a short spear. Of course, Miller and I had our pistols for really serious situations. There were not enough of us to deal with a large group of unfriendly natives, so excessive armament was pointless. Hopefully we could deal with any dangerous beasts we might encounter.

We didn't meet any people, or animals of any size. When we had been walking about an hour, we turned and started back to the camp. The terrain was relatively featureless, the sandy beach had soon given way to the mossy ground cover that covered much of the open country on the other continent. Our hour of walking had barely taken us out of sight of the smoke from the fire our men had started before we left. We soon sighted it again and before long were back at the campsite. Miller and Hernak arrived shortly afterward.

They too had seen nothing of note. "You'd think there would be people living near the ocean, if this area was populated" said Miller.

"One would think so" I said. "The question is, where are we? We passed a few islands just before we landed. Some of the maps we've seen, for whatever they're worth, showed a group of islands"

"We may have landed in a place no one lives" suggested Hernak. "In our own land, whether in the forest where my people live, of on the plains and along the river, settlements are small and separated by considerable distances. There may be people just beyond the distance we walked, or further away."

He was right. The island people were accustomed to a higher population density, but on Hernak's home continent, there were vast unpopulated areas. Even back on Earth, large areas of our country and other parts of the world were very sparsely populated.

We decided to call it a day, and after dinner sat around the fire talking until it was time for bed. Miller and I took the first watch, along with a couple of the seamen. They were conversing in their language, and Miller and spoke in English. Miller was wondering if I had anything like a plan.

"You mean beyond exploring the rest of this world? Not at this point. Since Henry marooned us here, this is all we've got. To get off this world, either back to the ship or to one of the other worlds, requires technology we don't have, and probably won't see again in our lives. I suspect this is our new home, so I guess the first thing to do is learn as much as we can about it."

"About what I was thinking" said Miller. "Assuming we could build a ship to travel to the nearest planet, it would take many years to develop the industry, even though we know a lot about how to do it. That will most likely be job for our children. It would be fun, though, to be around for it."

"We can plant the seeds" I said. "And with the knowledge we have, they will have a huge head start. One of their big problems, though, will be the shortage of metals. If they are a scarce as they seem to be. Of course, the way these worlds are constructed, there may be a lot of useful elements that are just hard to find."

"How so" asked Miller. "What construction?"

"Well" I said, "we both assumed when we first saw this solar system from Henry's bridge, that it was artificial. Made by some intelligent beings. Think of them as really big space stations. We rode here on an asteroid a mile long. If someone collected space debris, asteroids and such, and formed them info balls about the size of Earth, the structure might be a little haphazard. There might be large deposits of metals, or other elements we never heard of, just about anywhere."

"Makes sense" Miller said. "Of course, we don't want to overlook the native materials. The plant life here is pretty amazing. I suspect the natives haven't come close to tapping its full potential. It seems almost as if the place was set up as some sort of laboratory to produce high-tech vegetation, so you can grow stuff instead of building it."

"Exactly" I said. "Remember that a strand of spider's web is stronger that steel wire of the same size, and a coral reef built by some of the tiniest creatures on earth can wreck the biggest ship. So can a really big chunk of ice. Metals and minerals may not be such a big problem after all.

In the morning, while the crew packed up and prepared to move on, we had a meeting with Mikkal, Bren, Aran and Hernak to decide where we were going. We decided to follow the coast- line for a while. If we did not encounter signs of people by midday we would turn inland.

We began our trek divided into three groups, with the same command structure as we had had on the ships. We maintained sufficient distance that we in the lead group could see the group behind us, and they in turn could see the third group. Anyone we met might see the second group, but would not know about the next. If something really bad happened, some of us might escape. What happened was, we met the knight.

Chapter 49

Hernak and I, leading the first group, stopped at the top of a low sand hill to survey country ahead. About a quarter of a mile away, we could see what looked like a group of people mounted on animals. Their number was not readily discernible, but there were enough to be easily visible at that distance. I sent one of our men back to Miller, who was in command of the second group, with a brief summary of the situation, and a suggestion he and his men take advantage of the fact that they could not have been spotted, and conceal themselves. He would of course relay the same message to the third element of our force. Then he and a few of his men would move in closer to observe our meeting.

I decided to make the meeting happen downrange, so Miller and his men could use the hill for cover. Leaving our men on the hilltop, Hernak and I proceeded onward. They had already spotted us, and were moving in our direction. I readied one of my pistols and put it back in the holster, concealed under the light-weight but large cloak I wore. The island people's fashion had its good points.
We didn't get far down the hill before we met them, since we were walking and they were riding the local version of a dongo. These were sleek and lean like those we had seen, but a little larger and stronger, like a war horse. Not for racing, but not for pulling a wagon either.

The leader stopped about ten yards away, not much more than the length of the lance he carried. The similarity to a medieval European knight was quite striking. A large shield, roughly oval but somewhat wider near the top, hung from the saddle. A helmet covered his head, but there was no covering for the face. A large breastplate covered most of his torso, and extended back over the shoulders. Heavy gloves and boots protected the arms from fingertips to elbow, and from the feet to above the knee. A long sword, slightly curved with a fairly heavy blade, hung from a wide belt, which also held several long knives. A mace, which looked like a ball of stone set in a handle of some of the local vegetation. And completing the outfit was the lance, another fifteen feet of the same material, with a metal head that might have been bronze, or for all I knew some unknown material.

I counted twelve more, all armed and mounted, albeit somewhat less spectacularly. All but two had slightly smaller, more rounded shields, and their lances were about half the length of that carried by their leader. They also carried several lances. The swords were similar in design, as was their armor, but their gear and garb was all the same, various shades of grey-green common in the vegetation. The other two were attired more like the leader, and were clearly more assistants to him than ordinary soldiers. Their colorful clothing matched his, and they led a couple of riderless dongoes loaded with gear, including a number of the long lances. Again I thought of the medieval knight and his squires.

"Who are you, and what do you do in Berikut?" he asked.

Since it didn't look like he was going to assault us right away, and Miller should be in position shortly, I released the grip of my .45 and gave my right hand a rest. He had a slight accent, but the language was the same one everyone else seemed to speak.

"We have come from across the sea," I replied. "I am Walter, and this is my friend Hernak. We landed yesterday, a few falans south of here."

He handed his lance to one of the squires and dismounted. He looked closely at both of us. "You do indeed have the look of travelers from far away" he said. "Your dress is that of the islands, and you," he looked at me, "might be from the elsewhere, or indeed one of my people." He turned his gaze on Hernak. "But Hernak here is not. He might be from the other side of the world, from the forest or the plains beside the great river."

Hernak's people were somewhat different in appearance from the island people, having somewhat dusky skin and dark hair, and generally dark eyes of brown, or sometimes a deep green. Mikkal and his folk, and this knight and his people, looked much like me and Miller, with our lighter skin, hair and eyes. I had noticed, of course, but had not thought much about it.

"You know about the eastern continent?" I asked.

"I studied at Kersatuan" he replied. "There we have the most extensive collection of information about our world. Those who have travelled to other lands, and returned, have contributed much information to our libraries"

"You are correct about Hernak" I said, "but my story is a little different. Of course, the degree to which I can enlighten you depends on what your intentions are."

"Forgive me." he said. "I am Beran Dor. If you mean us no harm, you need fear none among my people. I am most interested in learning more about you. If you will call the rest of your men, you can accompany us to our camp. We are on a patrol, and were about to turn back to camp when we saw you. And you have aroused my curiosity. If you are not of the island people, it seems you may have a lengthy story to tell."

I turned and waved to our detachment, still watching from the hill. They came down, but Miller and his men remained out of sight. He knew what to do, and would shadow us for a while before coming in.

As far as I could tell, Beran Dor suspected nothing. He walked alongside us, leading his dongo, and the squires did likewise. It was quite a while before we arrived at the camp, and after sunset, and we were ready to eat, which is the first thing we did. Despite his curiosity, Beran Dor suggested we go right to bed after dinner, and apparently he did likewise. They had sentries posted, but the camp was soon quiet, and I fell asleep quickly.

Chapter 50

In the morning we had a better look at the camp. We had spent the night in a large tent, which seemed to be made of some heavy fabric. The floor was like a thick carpet, and we had slept in large tubes not unlike sleeping bags. In daylight we could see that the tents were colorful, in this case bearing the same colors as Beran Dor's livery. The design painted on his shield also appeared on his tent, and on two miniature shields mounted on poles plated on either side of the entrance. I suspected it was some form of heraldry, given the other similarities to the middle ages practices we had observed. The peoples of this world had developed some interesting customs, but the feudalistic streak was strong, perhaps related to their state of cultural and technological development.

There were some surprises. The unit, comprising a little over a hundred men, had some draft animals and wagons, much like the rongas used by Hernak's people. The difference was that two of them were pulling large covered wagons, something we had not seen. Not so much covered, we discovered on closer inspection, but large shells mounted on a very long wagon chassis. Each was about forty feet long, and perhaps ten to twelve feet wide. They had windows and a door, and seemed like the local equivalent of a travel trailer.

Made of sections of tree trunks, they provided accommodations for Beran Dor and his squires, who rode sometines inside them, or slept inside if they didn't want to take the time to set up their large tents. The soldiers used smaller tents that could be set up or taken down in a few minutes - the large tents took an hour or more. It also served as a kind of office and offered protection for things they did not want carried in the open wagons.

After breakfast and attending to some operational matters, Beran Dor sat down with me and Hernak for some discussion. He got right to the point.

"Yesterday you suggested you are not, as I thought, from the southern islands. Where do you come from?"

"Far away" I said. I looked up at the sky. "Do you know what lies beyond the the sky, among the stars?"

"A little." he replied. "I have studied some ancient history, and the theories of some who believe that the stars we see at night are like the sun, very far away, too far to even imagine. And that there are people like us living there. Are you telling me that is where you have come from?"

I decided at this point to give Miller and his men the signal to join us, after explaining to Beran Dor. We waited until they had arrived before continuing the discussion. Miller's appearance did a good deal to facilitate Beran Dor's acceptance of our story.

"Truly, you two seem strangers to our world" he said of us. "Your speech has an unusual accent, and you speak our language less than perfectly." He smiled. "Although you speak it well, if you have just arrived. And I have heard you speak in another language that does, indeed, seem to be not of this world. It is believed by us, and all the people of this world speak the same language, with little variation even across the oceans."

The language of this world, and indeed there was only one as far as we had been able to discover, was relatively simple to learn. Unlike our native English, its workings were so consistent and predictable it was almost like an invented language, a verbal code. Perhaps it was. If someone had gone to the trouble of constructing planets, and perhaps popluating them with bio-engineered plants and animals, why not give the colonists a common, easy-to-use language. The alphabets, too, where we had encountered them, were quite similar, as if they had a common ancestor.

"And also" he continued "there is your appearance. While light skin and hair is not uncommon, especially among my people, there is something vaguely..."

Here he paused, searching for a word, and the one he used meant, as near as I could tell, the equivalent of "alien" in English.

It was not something I had noticed, and I wondered what it was, but he did not elaborate. Instead he returned to the subject of our origins. Miller and I explained briefly the nature of the universe, that the stars in the night sky were suns like the one that lighted his world, only very far away, so far they seemed like tiny dots of light. I described our ship and how we had journeyed many years, sleeping most of the time, eventually arriving here. Beran Dor seemed to accept the explanation even while clearly struggling with some of the concepts, especially the great distances.

"We have scholars who will no doubt understand you better than I do, when you meet them." he said. "Meanwhile, it is time for us to begin our return journey. I am required to bring any strangers found within our borders to appear before our leaders. I hope you do not mind accompanying us to the capital."

"Not at all" I said. "We were most fortunate to meet you. We are looking forward to seeing more of your country and people."

There were not enough spare dongoes for our men, so most of them rode on the wagons. Miller and I, along with Hernak, Mikkal, Bora and Bren rode along with Beran Dor and a couple of his lieutenants. The squires followed our group at some distance, spending most of their time keeping the convoy in order and relaying orders from their commander to the troops.

We kept Beran Dor busy as we rode alongside him. Miller and I were strangers to this world, but our companions were also far from home and were curious. We got a fairly good account out of him as we rode together for the next three days.

We were in the southern half of the large western continent, in the nation of Berikut. Berikut was one of the two large nations occupying most of the continent, their neighbor to the north was Turania, apparently the ancestral home of both the Berikutians and of Mikkal's people. A large area, mostly desert and rocky hills, sparsely populated by nomadic people, formed a buffer between them. And appartently that was a good thing, as the Turnanians were apparently not very nice people. It seemed they were pushing their southern borders further south, putting pressure on the nomads, who were becoming concentrated in the southern part of their territory and beginning to come into conflict with the Berikutians.

"The Turanians are a people oppressed by their rulers, a king supported by warlords who control the various provinces of Turania," Beran Dor explained. "Most of the people are poor and virtual slaves to the provincial rulers, but those who serve in the army are somewhat better off. Or at least they eat more regularly. So it is not difficult for them to maintain a large and powerful army, and in recent years they seem to have been increasing the size of it, and moving into the areas occupied by the nomadic people north of us. We do not know why, but based on some information we have, it seems they may eventually intend to attack Berikut. So we are naturally interested in what goes on beyond our borders, not only to the north but in other directions as well. Which is the reason for the extensive patrols such as the one we are on."

We were beginning to pass through populated areas, small villages along the road, and individual dwellings or small groups of them further away from the main road. Mosf of the people seemed to live in houses that looked rather modern given the relatively low level of technology of their world. Probably it was the material - much of the natural material, including the plants, had a rather synthetic look to it, so even though the houses were built of the local trees and stone, they looked much like houses on Earth with their metal, glass other man-made materials. They even had windows which looked like glass but were actually an organic material. It had the advantage of begin available in a variety of colors, as well as being flexible before curing, so it could be easily formed into different shapes.

Eventually we stopped at what appeared to be, and in fact was, a military installation. Beran Dor carried out some business - mostly dismissing his troops and reporting to his superior, which included presenting us. He told us it would be the next day before we continued our journey to the capitol, and we were put up in some tents much like their campaign tents, only larger and apparently designed more for long-term occupancy. Miller and I, along with Hernak and Mikkal, were summoned to dinner with Beran Dor and some of the local military brass (they actually did use metallic decorations on their uniforms, so the term still worked for us) and a couple of apparently civilian dignitaries were present as well. The discussion of our origin was limited - Beran Dor had of course briefed them on the basics. It seeme to be mostly a case of those who had the rank or connections to do so wanted to see us. So we had a nice dinner and retired for the night.

The next morning we left on the last stage of our journey, and by early evening we were in a more heavily populated area, suggesting we were nearing the capitol. "Indeed we are," said Beran Dor when I inquired. "The city lies just a few falans away. As we reach the top of this hill you will be able to see it".

And we did - as the slope gave way to flatter land, we saw a large walled city ahead. Like a medieval fortress back home, towers rose behind high stone walls around an immense structure in the center. It looked like a castle.

Chapter 51

A very large castle. Larger than any we had ever seen on Earth. As we passed through the gate a wide paved road ran another quarter mile or so to the castle's outer wall. Even at that distance it almost entirely blocked our view of what was behind it. As we became closer we could see that the towers at the corners were enormous trees. At least as tall as the ones we had used to build our raft, they were apparently alive, given the branches and foliage at the top. Hernak's people lived inside living trees, so it was not surprising. Intermediate towers at intervals were somewhat smaller, but still enormous compared to earthly trees. As we
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