The leap across the stars did not take long, but the pilot took care to position the ship into a stable orbit around the planet.
James only had a few minutes before he was called back to the boat. He found one of the kills. There was little but bloody bones left in the corridor, and some of those bones were gnawed into pieces.
Who cleans this up? He was the first U’tanse to ever be taken on a space mission. Did Cerik cubs get the cleanup jobs?
But it looked like this time, as before, the ship was going to be left as is, bloody and all, in orbit. Would it power itself down? James didn’t know. He spent the waiting time as the Cerik piloted the boat down, refreshing his ineda exercises. He was again back in the Cerik world.
It had been nice, for a bit, to just let my mind relax. I won’t get a chance to do that again any time soon.
He had been ordered to stay back with the runners.
“<These will likely be sensitive to Cerik air, like the Geisel runners. I have set...>”
“<Stay put. I will give you orders with the shouter.>”
James moved back a step. Just for a moment, as the pilot left the boat, he glimpsed the buildings outside.
This isn’t Home. Where am I?
It had to be some large Cerik city. There were many buildings and courtyards wide open under the brown sky.
He tapped away at the menu pad until he discovered how to show a simple visual display of the surroundings. The map gave him the details in a small, oddly-accented voice. This was the Perch of Hagnel -- the Name of the Tenthonad clan who owned him.
It made sense. The pilot had come to the Name to report on his mission. I just hope that I survive it. He had great faith in Father. Father had defended the U’tanse since the beginning. But did Father even know that he was back?
He watched the view outside. As near as he could tell, the boat had landed in a large courtyard. There were a number of Cerik around, and more were arriving. They all seemed to keep their distance.
Afraid of Ferreer contamination, probably. And that was one point in favor of his early death. Somebody out there was arguing for his quick slaughter, just to be on the safe side. Even the pilot was at risk for the same reasons.
James remembered the thoughts Rita had pulled from the pilot. Something about a guild that had sabotaged the mission. The pilot wanted them dead.
Could he have gone on a revenge hunt? And if so, what would happen to him?
I have to get Home.
The training he’d gotten all his life was simple. The U’tanse would survive if they were no threat, and they were useful.
I need to be useful. He couldn’t argue that he wasn’t a threat. A super intelligent hive mind might have planted some hidden trigger in his brain -- one that he wouldn’t be aware of.
I have to be ready to report everything I’ve learned about the Ferreer. They might even demand I drop my ineda.
That’s why assertive thoughts were needed. He needed to be ready to think only about his experiences on the planet and his strong opinions. And nothing else.
The runners began some kind of squabble among themselves. It was quickly over. You obviously have no idea you’re surrounded by hundreds of bloodthirsty predators.
James looked them over again. Four was a dangerously low breeding pool, but if they could be cultivated as yet another rare food item for the Cerik, they could be very valuable. The Ferreer, like little green men with tails, had told him that the Cerik who had been absorbed had all liked the taste of this variety. They were a peace offering to a species who didn’t understand what peace was.
From all he knew, he suspected they would be poisoned by the Cerik air, but the Name knew about that issue already with the Geisel runners and the U’tanse. The pilot wasn’t concerned, but he’d need to make that clear if questioned. It would be sad to bring them here, just to have them curl up and die from the air.
On the display, there was a group of Cerik approaching from one avenue. The crowd began to appear more agitated.
“<U’tanse! Release the runners.>”
It was the pilot, speaking into some gadget, a shouter, strapped to his chest.
All of them? Surely not.
But that larger Cerik beside him just might be the Name himself. Be subservient.
“<For the Name.>” He managed to shout, without too much of a stutter.
He opened the gates and pushed them all out. He didn’t attempt to follow.
The rule of survival here was to follow orders. No more. No less.
He dashed back to the display.
Poor things. The runners dashed back and forth, penned into the center of the courtyard by the very dangerous beasts all around them.
There was a shout. It didn’t come over the boat’s shouter, but it was loud enough to be heard through the hull. The Name was saying something very formal, some kind of chant. James puzzled out part of it.
He could only shake his head as the Name, the pilot, and one other large Cerik moved in on the runners. It looked more like a dance than a hunt, but a hunt it was. The grazers were trapped, and from three sides, the giant beasts with formidable jaws and sharp claws closed in, until in an explosion of blood, all four were torn apart and eaten. The surrounding crowd cheered, only wishing that they could have participated.
So much for a valuable crop. As near as he could understand from the stilted chant, the Name had considered it more important to publicly slaughter beasts from the Ferreer planet than any economic considerations.
James shook his head. Maybe they were right. No other Name on the planet could claim to have taken blood from the Ferreer planet. That was a very Cerik kind of brag, and just might be worth it.
And if the pilot had been sent on the mission as punishment, he must have come up in the world to have been permitted to participate in the kill.