“We truly never had any intentions of hurting you, Master Ahja, but now you know we are here, and our orders were very specific. We are sincerely sorry, Master Translator, that it had to be you.”
“As is due to someone of your rank,” the other Rizorian said, “we shall afford you some time to prepare yourself according to your custom.”
“As you can see,” the first man interrupted apologetically, “we are not a heartless people devoid of feeling. Perhaps some communication with your diety will be comforting, and you will cross the void in peace.”
“It’s too late,” Ahja lied, “I’ve already made contact with the ship. All of my information has been sent to the Lord Chairman.”
“We think not, Lord Ahja. In any case, none will be allowed to return from Terra.”
“You have discovered us, therefore your elimination will merely take place a little sooner.”
“I demand to speak,” Ahia stammered, “with the Lady Sadayna, the Rizorian Envoy.”
“It would change nothing to speak with her,” the first Rizorian said, “our orders come directly from the Lady herself!”
“As you see, Master Ahja, you foolishly waste the time that we have given you. Our orders must, and will be followed.”
As the Rizorians spoke, Ahja’s fingers curled around the controls of the laser rod. He knew that he would need a wide beam, and he hoped that he could make the adjustments blindly. His hands shook, and he realized that he was not familiar enough with the rod to handle it without being able to see what he did. As if to meditate, Ahja turned his back to the two men, and he took that opportunity to glance down at the rod. There was not enough light; he could not see well enough. “This acursed planet,” Ahja moaned softly to himself, “was there never enough light?”
In the feeble light, Ahja thought that he had seen that the laser rod had been set to kill when what he had attempted to do was widen the beam. He tried to return the setting to heavy stun. The Rizorians interrupted him, however, as they urged him to hurry. Ahja had run out of time, and he knew that he would have to use the weapon as it was, or face the void himself.
Ahja spun around on his heels, aimed and discharged the laser rod. The Rizorians had no time to even express surprise. Their bodies glowed through the different colors of the spectrum before they metamorphosed into a fine, beige powder that drifted into neat, little piles in the spots where they had stood seconds before.
Ahja started to gag as a heavy, burning odor permeated the apartment instantly. He ran to the windows and raised them open as far as they could go in order to allow the stench to escape, but he was overcome by nausea. The Master Translator barely made it to the bathroom, where he thought that he was going to lose his insides. Over and over again he coughed, gagged and gasped, and if he could’ve, he would have cried.
When it was all over, Ahja rinsed his mouth and face with cold water, and he leaned against the bathroom wall. A feeling of serenity, which seemed entirely out of place, considering what had just happened, took hold of him. It was over. They had underestimated him. The Rizorians were not that perfect after all.
“Hey, what the hell am I doing on the floor?”
Ahja ran into the living room; he had forgotten all about Mr. Webster.
“What have you done to me?” asked the old man, who looked dazed and disoriented. He squinted up at Ahja, glanced around the room nervously, and ran his hands over his body as if he searched for something that he had lost.
“Why did you say I was on the floor? Did I trip?”
Ahja forced himself to smile reassuringly. “You came in to see how I was, and you just fainted,” he answered smoothly. “Here, let me help you up. Perhaps the same virus that made me sick earlier also grabbed hold of you,” he added as he extended his hand to the man on the floor.
Old Mr. Webster ignored Ahja’s offer of help and scrambled to his feet unsteadily.
The custodian was well known for his weekend bouts with bottled spirits, and if one were to listen to tenant gossip, with all kinds of imaginary spirits. Ahja was well aware of this, and he knew that this incident would be explained away with his next drink, which would probably be soon.
“What’s that awful smell,” Charlie Webster asked as he looked around the room. “It’s enough to want to make a man puke.”
“Nothing my ass. Why the hell do you have all of the windows open if it’s nothing?”
Ahja didn’t answer.
“If you can’t clean out this place by yourself, why don’t you get some help? Cheap is one thing, but this smell is something else!”
The Master Translator glanced around the living room nervously. There was absolutely nothing there to acknowledge the fact that the two Rizorians had been there, or what had happened to them. The cold wind blew in through the open windows; the two neat piles that were the remains of the Rizorians had been scattered. And there was no way that anyone could have distinguished between that unusual powder and ordinary house dust.
“The landlord’s not gonna like all these open windows. You’re letting all of the heat out,” Webster grumbled.
Ahja ignored him; it was obvious that he remembered nothing.
“Here, Webster, let me help you to your place.” Even as Ahja spoke he wondered if it were safe for him to leave the apartment. Suddenly, an even more terrifying thought shook him; was it safe for him to stay there at all? At that point, after what had happened, he didn’t think so.
“You don’t gotta walk me home!” The custodian pushed Ahja away from him. “Anyhow, you don’t look none too good yourself. I’ve been getting home under my own steam for more years than I can
count.” Webster giggled foolishly as he wrinkled his nose and squinted his pale blue eyes. As he turned to leave, he dropped a set of keys that looked very familiar to Ahja.
“So this is how you broke into my apartment!” Ahja scooped up the keys from the floor and shook them under the astonished old man’s nose.
“I didn’t break into anyone’s apartment,” he protested. “Didn’t you just say that you let me in?”
“No, I didn’t just say that, I said that you came, but I never let you in.” Ahja grabbed the man by the shoulders; he shook him several times and then shoved him towards the door.
“Didn’t I tell you when I took this place that I didn’t want anyone to have a copy of my keys?”
Webster opened the door in order to make a hasty retreat. “Custodians always have copies, that’s the landlords orders. What if you lost your keys, or locked yourself out, and I had to break in the door? Who would pay for the door, huh?”_
“Get out of here!” Ahja shoved the man into the corridor, and slammed the door after him.
The solid, heavy sound that the door made when it was slammed was no longer satisfying to Ahja. This apartment had been his safe place, but it was not safe any longer. His security had been breached, and he felt sick.
For a very long while, he paced the floor as he had done for the past week. His energy seemed boundless, but he didn’t know what to do with that energy. He opened and closed the windows aimlessly; he arranged and re‑arranged everything and anything that he touched. There was no reason, plan, or logic to his actions; Ahja only knew that he had to keep moving, that he had to do something, that he had to think.
There was a loud pounding at the door. Ahja froze.
“You betta close those god‑damned windows, or I’m gonna tell the landlord!
Ahja hurled a ceramic lamp at the door, and he laughed. The Tragian scholar couldn’t stop laughing, and the sounds of his laughter followed Charlie Webster down the long corridor to the stairs.
“The fucker is crazy!” he shouted as he ran.
Ahja sank into a chair; he felt very tired.
Nothing made any real sense. Why would they want to kill him? His assignment was to help them find the fugitives, therefore, he was actually working for them. They were all conspirators together. Who had ordered his execution? Who would’ve had to … no, nothing made any sense. Ahja got up to pace the room again, and instead threw himself on the sofa. He cradled the back of his head in his arms. The germ of a nasty thought tried relentlessly to be born even as he resisted it.
After all, what did he know of conspiracies? He was a scholar, a man who studied words and their power. The power that Ahja wielded was in those words and the languages that they formed, the music that they made, and the ideas that they conveyed. Ahja had never fantasized himself as some kind of an epic hero, who dashes off to adventure without a second thought to personal danger. He was not a hero, and he wasn’t the type of fool to try to imitate one. And he had killed, even if in defense of his own life; the thought sickened him. That act did not make him feel heroic at all.
So many ideas ran through his head, but the one idea that he did not want conceived, grew stronger. Was it Minje himself? Had the Lord Chairman deliberately sacrificed his friend when he had assigned him to the mission? It was hard for Ahja to believe that Minje would do such a thing, and yet if one were to weigh the two‑the Master Translator’s life against the safety and security of the Federation, the scales would be unevenly balanced against Ahja. He knew that the Chairman was capable of such a thing, given these unusual circumstances, Ahja might be too. The Tragian Translator clenched his fists; he should have been given the dignity of a choice. He was important and influencial in his own right, and yet he had allowed himself to be used like a mindless puppet.
Ahja rubbed his forehead with his fingertips. There was always the possibility that he was wrong, but then again, he was the perfect choice. He had the necessary abilities to perform the required functions, he had no family and he had few friends who would question his disappearance. And he was loyal, unquestioningly loyal to the Federation and to Minje. Ahja hoped that he was wrong, that at that moment Minje struggled at the rim of the solar system for the very salvation of the Federation, and that he would return in the Lodestar to rescue his friend from Terra.
On the other hand, if Minje had truly abandoned him, he might as well consider that his part of the Terran operation was over. The Rizorians had located their fugitives, and they had efficiently set into motion that which they did best‑the elimination of those so designated. The only problem that Ahja had left was to stay alive. He had no intention to allowing them to eliminate him as well.
Ahja sighed; he was tired of thinking about death. Nothing was more important than life, and yet death had been his sole preoccupation for so long. For as long as he could remember, he had always marveled at the fragility of life, and yet how tenaciously it endured. Weeds clung stubbornly to the soil, their roots dug into rocks, their stems would bend perilously close to snapping in the wild mountain winds. There might be flood, or drought, and still their life endured. Every spring, whenever Ahja remembered to look, the weeds had indeed increased their number triumphantly. It had always made Ahja smile even as the gardeners had groaned in desperation. Secretly, Ahja loved the weeds, and he honored their victory.
But it was counter productive to think about weeds at this particular moment. Ahja got up and stretched. There must be a great number of things that he should do. He bathed and dressed slowly; somewhere, among all of his thoughts, there had to be a workable plan hidden away.
Suddenly, he thought of the Rizorian fugitive, the one that he had seen at the marina. She was the cause of all of his problems, yet strangely, he felt no rancor towards her. What Ahja did feel was a sudden and impelling curiosity. He wondered what her life had been like on Earth, and how she had managed to survive? Did her Adept powers help her to survive? Ahja set aside that idea quickly. If she were an Adept, she wouldn’t have been able to hide as successfully as she had. The Terrans would have discovered her as soon as her powers had surged out of control.
Ahja’s curiosity developed into a sudden, and powerful urge to see the fugitive before the Purification Squad had accomplished its purpose. It was a totally illogical urge; any attempt to see her, or to communicate with her would surely put him directly into the firing line. Or would it? The Rizorians might not expect him to make such a foolish move; if he were careful, perhaps he could do it, and get away with it. The idea appealed to him; it was better than merely waiting in fear for the other members of the Purification Squad to come for him.
His determination grew stronger. For the first time in a long time he would act on his own initiative, and it felt wonderful to him. Unhesitatingly, he strode to the door of his apartment, stepped out into the hallway, and closed the door behind him. The semi‑darkness of the corridor, instantly made him feel uneasy, but he continued along the hall, and went down the stairs. His pace slowed down considerably as he put greater, and greater distance between him and the apartment.
The fear was familiar to him. He tried to control it even as a terrified part of him insisted that he return to his apartment, where there was mind saving light. Once or twice, he thought that he should return, lock his doors, and wait until the morning, but he fought that impulse with the belief that if he didn’t go now, he might never have another chance.
Ahja concentrated on his breathing patterns, he changed them and controlled them, but his mind was still able to perceive and register the dreaded fear of the darkness. One foot in front of the other, he concentrated on that simple movement as he tried to ignore the wild, chilling sensation that licked at his spine. Ahja also fought not to feel the tingling that had started at the tips of his shaking fingers and ran up his arm to reach for his pounding heart.
When he reached the front door of the building, his body seemed to refuse him the strength to push it open. He struggled with the simple operation until he was drenched in sweat, and suddenly the door flew open. Ahja stepped out and stood beheath the pale sphere of the overhead lamp. Beyond that artificial pale twilight, the darkness pulsated threateningly as if daring him to arouse it. He stretched out his hand and touched the darkness cautiously; it repelled him.
For all the time that he had spent on Earth, he had never ventured from the well‑lit, comfortable sanctuary during the dreaded night. Every muscle in his over‑tensed body was ready to carry him back to the tiny apartment where there was light and safety. Everytime that he thought that he had found the courage to go forward and leave the twilight of the front steps, terror rushed at him from the darkness, and left him immobile. Once again he thought that perhaps he should wait until sunrise. Perhaps he should, but he could not wait; the Rizorians would never expect him to travel at night. They were very familiar with the Tragian fear of the dark. Ahja moved a few steps away from the light, but to step off of the stoop was like jumping into the void of space without protective armour. Ahja just couldn’t do it; he whirled on his heels, and scrambled back to the comforting light. He reached out with his fingertips to touch its pale yellow warmness, but inches away from it, he stopped. He was suddenly angry and tired of being afraid, of being weak. The people of Earth, whom he had considered just a step above the beasts, were unafraid, how could he be any less than they? Ahja turned around stiffly to face the night; it threatened him as before. This time, however, fueled by the rage that had built up inside of him, Ahja found the strength to leap into the blackness that surrounded him.
For what seemed to be an eternity, Ahja fell, and when at last he felt solid ground beneath his feet, he had to force himself to look around. He stood just out of reach of the feeble, yet highly desirable arc of yellow light. His body trembled violently, and he sweated profusely even though it was a very chilly spring night. Inch by torturous inch, he backed away from the siren call of the light. Every atom of his being recoiled from the increasingly stronger grasp of the darkness. He dared not hesitate any longer. Ahja used whatever strength he had left to push even further away from the light, while he was still able to do so.
Ahja fought the sensation that he would drown, that ebony that surrounded him, robbed him of life sustaining breath, and that it deliberately, with a human like awareness, strangled him. An overwhelming surge of panic swept over him‑he would die, he was in the void. Fully expecting to find himself hopelessly entangled in the coils of the ebony death, Ahja started to scramble back to the protection of the light. So great was his panic that he almost didn’t realize that his movements were unencumbered. It was a shocking discovery that froze him in his tracks with the wonder of it.
A sudden child‑like delight filled him. He moved his limbs time and time again, and thrilled with the discovery that he was free. Ahja closed his eyes and stood very still. He allowed the darkness to swirl all around him; it nuzzled against his chest, rubbed against his leg and caressed the edge of his face. Tears flooded his eyes, spilled over the sharp angle of his cheeks and worked their way into his mouth; they stung his lips, where earlier he had bit them in apprehension.
Ahja opened his eyes; astonishment and delight filled him when he realized that his eyes were slowly becoming accustomed to the lack of light. He could see! The blackness was not as powerful as he had thought because he could make out the forms of the objects close to him. It was a limited vision, but it would allow him to function.
He inched his way to the street, a few steps at a time, stopping now and then to touch the shadowy, indistinct forms that he passed. He rejoiced in the knowledge that his eyes reported to him accurately, and he reveled in his new found ability to see through the darkness. The Master Translator felt foolish, but that did not stop him from inventing a game of see, touch and identify the objects that crossed his line of vision. He felt as happy as a child with a new and marvelous toy.
And suddenly, he knew that he was free, as the Earth men were free to travel on the face of their world, where and whenever they chose. It would be necessary no longer to retreat into the apartment whenever the sun disappeared from the sky. Ahja felt an incredible strength well up from deep inside of him. It was a strength that he had never known was there; he felt invulnerable. For the first time in his life, he was glad that it was dark, and that no one could witness all this foolishness.
Ahja remembered the address that the fugitive had given to the police; he headed in that direction. He was very familiar with the streets of the village, but he found that he made wrong turns and that he wasted a great deal of time retracing his steps. Frustration and anxiety replaced his earlier feelings of elation, and he began to suspect that he would never find his way unaided. Furthermore, a quick glance at his watch, with the aid of a bright street lamp, told him that it was much too late to visit anyone under the guise of a casual, social visit. He toyed with the idea that it might be better after all to return in the morning, but there was still the problem of the ever threatening Purification Squad. They had no fear of the night, and very soon, when they missed their two companions, they would figure things out and come hunting for him. This time, Ahja was sure, they would not underestimate him, or his capacity for self preservation.
Each squad had six members that formed the basic unit. Ahja was sure that there were at least four able‑bodied Rizorians left, perhaps more, who would set out to succeed where their companions had failed. Ahja had no doubt that they would be much better at tracking him down than he would be at eluding them. If he were going to survive, he had to do what they expected him not to do. He decided to go searching for the fugitive.
In his determination to succeed, Ahja found that he had grown bolder. He stopped several Terran on the street to ask for directions. Surprisingly, they all complied with his request, and one of them even went so far as to walk part of the way with him. This type of courtesy was unheard of even on Trag. A total stranger, who displayed no insignia of high rank would get no help. At that moment Ahja realized that he liked these people of Earth in spite of their outlaw origins, and that he was beginning to place less importance on the fact that they were descendants of rebels and madmen. “Primitive mongrols,” Minje had called them once, “mongrols abandoned by the Federation, and sentenced to a bare existence on this most isolated of penal colonies. Helpless in the face of the elements, and preyed upon by the beasts, they were all supposed to have died!” All of what Minje had told him might be the truth, but Ahja knew that he liked them all the same.