The long Terran winter clung stubbornly to the subdued landscape. Even after several days of bright, warm sunny weather, there were still long fingers of ice and snow clawing desperately for a final hold on the earth. Winter would eventually be vanquished, of that Ahja was sure, yet he couldn’t help marvel at the violent quality of its dying. Maniacal winds howled routinely through the corridors of the streets, bending the tree branches almost to the point of snapping and rattling the street signs. Ahja noted that few people ventured out to fight the icy winds; he knew that the majority of the people in the area were effectively hidden from him, and he waited impatiently for warmer weather to entice them out of their shelters.
Ahja had spent the unusually cold winter at the apartment that served as his base of study and observation. Several times he had had to move that base until his research, with the aid of the ship’s computers had pinpointed this small village on the coast of a large bay, on the south shore of a long, narrow island. He prepared to take the first of the last steps in the completion of his assignment.
Those final steps, however, had to be taken with extreme care. Soon, the people of the village would leave their homes in increasing numbers to take advantage of longer and warmer days. This was the time, Ahja knew, that he would have to put his newly acquired knowledge and abilities to the acid test. He planned to mingle with the people, join them in their activities, gain their trust and perhaps their friendship. If the fugitives were indeed hidden here, perhaps only an insider would know, or be able to locate them.
Ahja stood at the living room window; he watched thoughtfully as the sun rose slowly, and radiated its life‑giving light and warmth. He had always watched the sunrise with joy, but that morning that joy was replaced by dread and apprehension. It was the day that the last phase was to begin; after the long months of preparation, he was ready, and yet he was reluctant to commence.
He made plans and discarded them until he couldn’t think clearly anymore. Indecision of this type, he knew, would get him no where. A moment of meditation would help, and he leaned against the f rosted window to observe and admire the spectacular sunrise that filled the horizon. He could feel the tension inside him retreat as he concentrated on the dawn.
This was so unlike Trag where the differences between day and night were never so dramatic. Tragian night was a pale twilight, and any time of the day, or night, there was one of the twin suns in the sky. Complete darkness was rare because of the twin suns; darkness was a time of terror, or prayer and repentance, a time of atonement when people huddled together to curse the darkness and await the first glimmers of the first rays of the returning light.
From the apartment window, Ahja noticed that the small marina, located at the end of his street filled rapidly with people. Occasionally, he heard the muffled roar of a motor boat engine as it was brought to life. He could even hear the din of voices as people shouted directions and instructions to those attempting to launch a boat off the minicipal ramp. Even at that distance, and even though his windows were shut tightly against the cold, Ahja could hear loud peals of laughter that accompanied the clumsy attempts of an inexperienced individual who attempted a launch. Dogs chased and barked at each other, children ran up and down the docks and got in everyone’s way. The marina had the aspect of a backwoods Tragian festival‑he wanted to be there!
Ahja was nervous and excited as he left the apartment to walk the short distance to the marina. He had decided that it was a good place to begin his search. The goal that he had set for himself that day was to spend all of the daylight hours among the Terrans. It would be difficult not to retreat hurriedly to the apartment as he was accustomed to doing, but that was the challenge that he had set up for himself, and he was fond of challenges.
It was a leisurely stroll to the marina. Ahja smiled and greeted the familiar faces that he met along the way. He started to relax, and he found that he felt very comfortable in this role, more comfortable than what he had, expected. It surprised him that the people accepted him in such a warm and friendly fashion, and Ahja, the alien, didn’t know which gratified him more‑the case with which he had assimilated into this planet, or the obvious pleasure with which he had been received.
The sun rose higher in the sky, its pale yellow disk reflected in the cold bay waters like the myriads of stars in the Milky Way. He smiled wryly at the thought that the First Federation had indeed picked a beautiful world for its prison. But Ahja knew that it was its location, far from the inhabited planets of the Federation that had decided the role that Terra would play.
When Ahja reached the marina, the only thing that he wanted to do was to sit on one of the empty benches and watch the activity around him. By now all of his frantic planning had been set aside; he felt himself being seduced by the warm air, the cries of the sea gulls, the slight breeze that gently ruffled his hair, and the sight of the languorous cresting and ebbing of the waves. He felt more relaxed and comfortable than he had been si nc e he had left Trag. This world was so much like home that he could almost pretend that he was back on Trag. Suddenly, he sensed that something moved towards him. He heard the accelerating roar of an engine come closer; he turned to see what it was.
A van! The Terran words formed immediately in his mind. The van traveled in a direction, and at a rate of speed that would insure deadly collision with him. The tires crunched and spewed out the gravel beneath them as they ate up the short distance between Ahja and the roaring vehicle. Ahja knew that he had to act swiftly in order to preserve his life.
He scrambled over the bench and ran for safety behind several boat trailers. The dark grey van, as if alive, reacted; it swerved abruptly to avoid hitting the small cement bench on which Ahja had been sitting seconds earlier. The brakes screached. The van seemed to balance dangerous on two side wheels, but all four tires regained contact with the ground, and the van spun around. It lurched forward. Ahja held onto the cold metal frame of the boat trailer as he watched the van move out across the marina road. It seemed to be aimed at a young couple, a man and a red‑haired woman. Busily engaged in trying to launch a blue and white run‑about, they seemed unaware of the danger rushing towards them. Forgetting about the danger from which he had just barely escaped, Ahja ran from the safety of the boat trailer. He waved his arms and shouted frantically in an attempt to warn them.
It was foolish to try to run and to shout at the same time. After covering only a short distance, Ahja was completely out of breath. A sharp pain in his chest forced him to his knees; he hit the ground hard. Although he tried, he was unable to get back on his feet, and the pain had left him gasping for air and unable to shout. Everytime that he tried to yell, he ended up by gulping back the unspoken words in order to gasp for air again. Helplessly, he watched the van bear down on the unsuspecting couple across the other side of the parking field. Finally he succeeded; the scream burst forth as a loud odd‑sounding gargle. Perhaps they heard him.
They looked up to see the van almost on top of them. Ahja saw that both the man and the woman opened their mouths as if to scream in terror, but he heard nothing. The roar of the van’s engine had smothered all other sound.
The man lunged at the woman and managed to push her out of the van’s path. Her body fell and rolled on the ground. Ahja held his breath until she moved and tried to get up.
Unfortunately, the man’s speed and momentum were not sufficient to carry him out of the path of the van as well. For a split second, the man looked back at the gray van hurling itself at him. From the expression on the man’s face, Ahja could tell that the victim knew that there was no hope of moving out of danger in time. Ahja heard the sickening thud of flesh and bone as it was struck, and he saw the man’s limp body thrown through the air as if it were a thing casually discarded. Even as he ran towards them, Ahja knew that there was little that he could do to help, but he could not stand by idly.
“How can I help?” he asked. For the first time he looked directly at the woman’s face.
The woman returned his gaze unblinkingly as she pushed her dark copper‑colored hair out of her dark copper‑colored eyes. Ahja could see her lips moving, but the sounds and their meaning were momentarily drowned out by the seemingly relentless pounding of some giant Augite hammer sounding in his head. It was she, but it couldn’t be! Except for the slight differences in coloring, he would have sworn that this woman was the Rizorian Envoy herself. For a few seconds he felt like an animal trapped in a snare, and he tensed his muscles, ready to escape. He stepped back as she reached out to touch him, and he recognized fear tug at him. But there was no place for him to run; she had taken hold of his arm. Ahja took a deep breath and stood his ground as he worked to control the surges of fear that had taken him unawares.
Ahja’s body trembled, but his self control had returned, and his mind grew clearer, colder and calculating. He knew what he had to do. He had to be sure; the remarkable resemblance could be coincidence. The test for positive identification would be the sound of her voice, and all that he had to do was to listen to it in order to be certain. Ahja dropped the shields from his mind and made himself vulnerable; it was dangerous, but it was necessary.
The voices of Rizorian women were infamous for their serene quality. No man, or woman, from any planet of the galaxy could resist the emotional appeal when a Rizorian woman used the power of her voice; no one, not even the Selenians were immune. One could only shield one’s mind, or harden himself, but once taken unawares, there was very little that anyone could do to resist.
The sounds of her speech washed over Ahja, and immediately those wonderful, magical tones wrapped themselves around him and caressed him. There was no nerve ending in his body that was left unstimulated. Drifting towards the darkest depths of his pleasure, Ahja recognized her voice, Sa‑Dayna’s voice, and he knew that there had to be some genetic relationship between the two women. While the members of a family could differ physically, the quality of the voices of those women related by blood was the same. And in each family unit the tonal quality was different. On Rizoria there were only thirty‑six tonal qualities; Ahja had learned them all during his student days. He knew Sa‑dayna’s secret; she hunted a woman from her own clan!
Ahja struggled to control the effects of the woman’s voice before he was lost entirely to its power. He blocked his mind to the sounds as he had been taught to do when he had studied on Rizoria. It was difficult, but not impossible, and even as he succeeded he felt the pain of a great disappointment take hold of him. Seconds later he was once again in control.
The Master Translator studied the woman as she knelt in front of him, and he wondered about the differences in coloring. Her hair and eyes were much darker than what they should be by Rizorian standards. Her skin was much paler, and it appeared to be almost dull because it lacked the irridescent, luminous quality shared by all Rizorians. It was almost as if she had developed some sort of protective coloring that had enabled her to appear remarkably similar to ordinary Terrans.
The woman spoke to him. Even with the shield set firmly in place, the sounds of her voice were totally captivating.
“Mister, please call for help. My husband is hurt!”
“Is he hurt badly?”
“I don’t know. But please don’t waste time. There’s a phone at the entrance of the marina.”
Ahja nodded stfiffly and ran in the direction of the telephone, but someone had already called, and help was on its way. Ahja turned to rush back to the accident scene. Suddenly, he saw the woman standing in the midst of the crowd that had gathered. He stopped running so abruptly that he almost fell to the ground. Anja flushed with acute embarrassment as he stared at the woman’s outline. It had been such an obvious thing, and yet he had failed to note it immediately. The Rizorian fugitive was pregnant!
There were people everywhere asking questions. Ahja fought his way to the side of the young couple. He knelt alongside the young blond man only to be yanked unceremoniously out of the way by a huge, brawny, ambulance driver. “Give him air, buddy,” the driver had muttered as he pushed Ahja aside.
They were very efficient and fast. In seconds they had their patient tied to the stretcher and inside the ambulance. They helped the woman into the vehicle and slammed shut the doors.
Ahja tried to get closer; he didn’t want to lose her, but when a uniformed Terran arrived to ask questions, Ahja moved away. He didn’t want to get involved with the Terran authorities. As he moved through the crowd, however, he picked up valuable snatches of information from the various conversations. With very little effort, he had acquired the last of the information that he had needed to complete his mission, the name and address of the Rizorian fugitives. Ahja felt elated; it had all been so easy! He could not believe his good fortune. He repeated the information over and over again in his mind; it was the most valuable bit of data in the galaxy, and it was his. He would have no trouble finding them when the time came to lead the Purification Squad to them. He rushed away from the marina and thought happily that he had taken his first steps towards his long journey home.
Ahja headed back to the apartment. The most important thing to do now was to transmit his information back to Minje. Back at the apartment, he prepared the tapes with his data, but as he did so, something kept bothering him until he set aside his task to think about it. Hours later after long and deep thought, he knew. It had all been so simple, really. Why hadn’t he thought of it sooner? The woman that he had found could not possibly be the Rizorian fugitive, Samira. No Rizorian woman, born and raised within the strict culture of Rizoria, would ever take a non‑Rizorian as a mate. The woman that he had found that morning had done the unthinkable, and the answer to that puzzle could only be that she had never had any contact with Rizoria, or its strict code of behavior. This particular female was not the outlaw, Samira, but her child.
Ahja had been briefed on the fugitive’s escape from Rizoria. One of the fugitives had been on board when their ship had been destroyed by the Purification Squad; their scans had confirmed that. The other outlaw and the child, it was supposed, had escaped to the planet surface. But now Ahja knew that the adult had to have died shortly after planet fall; the child must have been raised by Terrans. It was possible, and most probable that this surviving female did not know her origins, and that as far as she knew, she was just an ordinary person, who led an ordinary life. Ahja smiled; her ignorance would make her capture easy. It would also cost her her life, but he didn’t want to think about that. He busied himself with the preparation of the information tapes.
In spite of his efforts not to speculate further, and to concentrate on the demanding task at hand, once again a disturbing thought nagged at him until he had to stop what he was doing.
Time. How much time? How long had it taken for the infant to develop into a woman? Even with the corrections for the differences in time, this adult female should have been an older child, or at the latest, an adolescent. They must have miscalculated the velocity of the time flows that surrounded Earth! The planet was in a fast moving current, and therefore, time moved faster on Earth than on the planets of the Federation. Now Ahja understood why this particular world had been chosen as a penal colony. It was not just because it was isolated, but because the condemned aged faster, and the Federation was rid of its problems that much quicker!
Ahja stared at his hands, still young and strong, and he wondered how much time had passed since he had left Trag. He had gone on this mission to preserve Trag as he knew and loved it, but when he returned to his home, he would be a stranger, and an old man. Ahja the Master Translator would be an alien, a mis‑fit, and he didn’t know if he could bear the grief that was beginning to take hold of him. His thoughts and feelings were the sharpest and the most painful that he had ever known. Minje and the people aboard the Lodestar were outside the solar system and would, very probably, escape the effects of accelerated time. Ahja felt trapped; he studied his hands for signs that the aging process had begun. He clenched his jaw as he pushed in his forehead with his fists; he had to hurry. The phrase: time is of the essence, took on a deeper, more personal meaning. And at that moment he decided; he would go home. He might be an old pitiful, mis‑fit, there might be another Master Translator in his place, but he would go home.