Tuf Voyaging



Hello? Hello?

Yes, I see it works. Good.

I am Rarik Hortvenzy, apprentice factor, speaking a warning to whomever finds my words.

Dusk comes now, for me the last. The sun has sunk beneath the western cliffs, staining the land with blood, and now the twilight eats its way toward me inexorably. The stars come out, one by one, but the only star that matters burns night and day, day and night. It is always with me, the brightest thing in the sky but for the sun. It is the plague star.

This day I buried Janeel. With my own hands I buried her, digging in the hard rocky ground from dawn through late afternoon, until my arms were afire with pain. When my ordeal was done, when the last spadeful of this wretched alien dirt had been thrown upon her head, when the last stone had been placed atop her cairn, then I stood over her and spat upon her grave.

It is all her fault. I told her so, not once but many times as she lay dying, and when the end was near she finally admitted her guilt. Her fault that we came here. Her fault that we did not leave when we might have. Her fault that she is dead - yes, no doubt of it - and her fault that I shall rot unburied when my own time comes, my flesh a feast for the beasts of the dark, and the flyers and night-hunters we once hoped to trade with.

The plague star twinkles but little, shines down upon the land with a clear bright light. This is wrong, I told Janeel once; a plague star ought to be red. It ought to glower, to drape itself with scarlet radiance, to whisper into the night hints of fire and of blood. This clear white purity, what has that to do with plague? That was in the first days, when our charter ship had just set us down to open our proud little trade complex, set us down and then moved on. In that time the plague star was but one of fifty first-magnitude stars in these alien skies, hard even to pick out. In that time we smiled at it, at the superstitions of these primitives, these backward brutes who thought sickness came from the sky.

Yet then the plague star began to wax. Night after night it burned more brightly, until it became visible even by day. Long before that time the pestilence had begun.

The flyers wheel against the darkening sky. Gliders, they are, and from afar they have a beauty. They call to my mind the shadowgulls of my homeplace, Budakhar upon the living sea, on the world Razyar. Yet here is no sea, only mountains and hills and dry desolation, and I know too that these flyers have small beauty when close at hand. Lean and terrible creatures they are, half as tall as a man, with skin like tanned leather pulled tight across their strange hollow bones. Their wings are dry and hard as a drumskin, their talons sharp like daggers, and beneath the great bony crest that sweeps back like a hooked blade from their narrow skulls, their eyes are a hideous red.

Janeel said to me they were sentient. They have a tongue, she said. I have heard their voices, thin keening screeching voices that scrape raw the nerves. I have never learned to speak this tongue, nor did Janeel. Sentient, she said. We would trade with them. Ho, they wanted no part of us or our trade. They knew enough to steal, yes, and that is