Sample PagesOf course, Rakki went first to meet the apparition. To be seen cowering back, allowing others to take whatever risk was involved would have been unthinkable. He walked slowly up the slope toward where it had stopped, gripping his club resolutely. Gap Teeth and White Head followed him a pace or two behind, and Sims was to one side. Actually, Rakki was more making a show of fortitude to impress his followers watching from among the huts and rocks behindCa wisdom he had learned from Jemmo. White Head's elation on seeing the metal bird, and even a flicker of excitement and maybe hope from Sims, the only other Oldworlder at Joburg, had reassured him that there was probably little to be fearful of. But all the same, Rakki's nature and all of his consciously recollected experiences made him inexorably cautious.
There was something about its form and its lines that evoked an echo from in the distant pastCa fleeting feeling that this was not a totally new experience. He had seen an object vaguely like this before, or maybe an image of one, at some time in that far, forgotten world that now came and went only in odd moments as fragments of faded dreams. The noise it had been making when it appeared at the top of the slope had ceased. It had a heavy, oppressive odor, like the tar marshes, and was colored in red patches separated by white stripes and lines, like the plumage of some brightly feathered birds that sometimes passed through, usually heading north. But instead of having legs, it moved on deformable bags that bulged like skins filled with water, and turned to lay down the same strip of surface again and again along the ground. The body had windows like the openings in the walls of the huts Rakki's people had built, but covered with what looked like sheets of solid water. He guessed it was like the "glass" that he had seen small pieces of in some of the Oldworld articles at the caves. Faces were looking out at them from behind the windows.
"White Head . . . Sims," he said over his shoulder, not taking his eyes off the intruder. "What kind of thing is this?"
"There were metal mules, called trucks, as well as metal birds. That was how they rode," White Head told him.
"Did you ride in them?"
"I never did."
"I rode in trucks sometimes -- when we worked making roads," Sims said. "I never learned to drive one. After the Long Night and the Terror, I forgot much. Seeing this makes me remember things."
"Are these your gods or your devils?" Gap Teeth asked, clutching his spear.
"We have nothing that devils would want," White Head answered.
Parts of the wall on both sides of the truck swung outward to uncover openings. Two figures emerged, halted briefly, and then moved forward. A third appeared behind them but stayed back. Rakki's eyes widened as he looked. The third was carrying a gun. Then, behind him, two females appeared from the "truck." All except one of the females were lightskins, like Shell Eyes Yellow Hair from the caves, and like Bo had been. The female whoa was different was not dark but colored a lighter brown as some of the Swamp People had been. They were all wearing thick Oldworlder-style garments from their necks to their feet, and some had headdresses, in one case attached to the wearer's garment. From somewhere off to one side, Rakki caught a snatch in the wind of the droning sound that told him the gray metal bird had returned.
Keene came around in front of the Scout, and Naarmegen joined him from the other side, while Jorff climbed out with a rifle cradled non-threateningly at port-arms position and took up a watchful position just ahead of the Scout. Ivor remained in the driver's station with a channel open to Serengeti and a couple of the Scout's external cameras trained on the scene. Beth and Maria got out behind Jorff and stayed by the doors. Keene and Naarmegen went forward slowly, Keene with hands on hips, near his automatic, the holster flap open, Naarmegen showing empty hands. The hope was that Naarmegen's earlier life in South Africa might have left him with the smatterings of some kind of speech that they might have in common.
"How are we reading?" Keene checked, speaking to the wrist compad that he was wearing.
"Fine," Ivor's voice replied from the Scout. Then, after a short pause, "Gallian up in the ship says you might be about to make history. He wants to know what it feels like."
"Tell him it's not exactly the uppermost thing on my mind right now," Keene replied.
Four had come up from the huts, all dark skinned. Curiously, the two who appeared youngest were in the center and seemed to be the dominant ones. They were scantily clad in loin coverings made from skins, and ornamented head coverings, both ferocious in appearance, with wild manes of hair, muscular, sinewy limbs, and hefty shoulders in proportion to their relatively small physical size. Keene was unable to guess at their ages. He'd have said the bodies were in their teens, toughened and scarred, but the faces were those of hardened adults. One, he recognized by his headgear as one of the two riders caught in the first view from the probe. He seemed to be the leader and moved with a dragging limp, which from the shape of his leg was caused by a bad break that hadn't been set properly. He was wearing a tattered cape-like garment and wielded as weapon what appeared to be an old machine part or maybe a structural member, with a wicked-looking cross-piece sharpened to an edge. The other, carrying a small hunting bow with an arrow strung and ready, had something like a vest, with armholes, open at the chest, and was making strange grimacing expressions that revealed discolored teeth, many missing.
Of the two older men, one was shrunken and wrinkled with white hair, probably the other rider from the probe's picture, Keene guessed. The last, carrying a stone-tipped spear, was coffee-colored and looked dirty and somehow unkept, even for a place like this, his body emaciated by sickness or maybe simply the stresses of the past years.
And then the Leader, having evidently selected Keene as the principal, leaped forward with a shriek despite his crooked leg, planting himself solidly, his eyes bulging, brandishing the club in menacing motion. Keene was peripherally aware of Naarmegen a few feet away, open-mouthed, momentarily paralyzed. From behind him he registered the click of Jorff thumbing a round into the breech of his rifle.
"No!" he snapped over his shoulder; at the same time, his mind raced. He knew that the demonstration was to intimidate, a bid to assert rank; but what to do about it? He wasn't about try and make a point by trading blows with the local head-cracking champion -- and quite possibly come the worst out of it.
"Lan, turn around!" Beth's voice came through the compad. "Slowly. Go for the unexpected."
Something in Keene's subconscious saw what she was getting at before he did. Overriding the inner pandemonium of rushing adrenaline, he forced his face into an expression of contempt, folded his arms on his chest, and turned his back. Jorff was standing frozen with his rifle at the ready. Beth and Maria were still farther back. For an instant it seemed to Keene that the rest of reality was a movie that had seized up. And then he became aware of a rushing noise and whine, getting louder.
Somebody -- either the remote operator back at Serengeti, or it could have been Ivor in the Scout, patching in local control -- had kept abreast of the situation and was diving the probe at them. Keene turned his head and saw it swooping in, motor at full power and an audio tone beamed through the on-board speaker for effect. He raised his head commandingly, as if it had been he who summoned it. A cry of fear and scuffling noises came from behind him, and screams from the huts below. The probe whooshed overhead, passing low enough for its slipstream to dislodge the hood of Keene's work jacket. Something hit it, disintegrating with a sharp cracking sound; the probe lifted away in a climbing turn, but it engine note had changed and it seemed to be laboring. Still, it cleared the rocks above and disappeared over the line of the rocky ridge at the top of the slope.
Keene turned back in a way that he hoped was majestic enough, to find the mulatto on the ground, gibbering, the old man holding his hands protectively over his head, and the bowman with missing teeth some yards away, seemingly looking sheepish, his bow empty. He looked as if he had started to run away after firing his arrow, and then checked himself.
The Leader, however, still stood where he had been, upright and defiant, his eyes blazing. His expression seemed to be saying, I did not bend!
But there was more too. Understanding and respect. Acceptance. He and Keene had passed each other's tests. Now they could treat as equals with dignity, each before his own kind. So how would a professional diplomat play it from here? Keene asked himself. He found he had no idea. Then let's just be the engineer, he decided.
Unfolding his arms, he relaxed his features into a hint of a grin and extended an open palm. The Leader looked down at it uncertainly. Keene moved it a few inches closer, nodding in encouragement. The Leader warily released one of his own hands from the handle of the club and raised it until they touched lightly. The tension slackened. Somebody applauded from back near the Scout. Cheering voices at Serengeti base came from the compad on Keene's arm. The others from the Scout started to come forward, but halted when Beth spoke again, cautioning them. "Hold back, people. This is his domain. Wait to be invited. His pride and dignity are everything."
Keene withdrew his hand and waited impassively. The Leader remained facing him until his entourage had reformed. Then, seemingly needing to regain some face lost as a result of their poor showing, he pointed first at Keene, then Naarmegen, making his gestures slow and wide to be visible from below, then indicated the settlement, beckoned to them, and turned to begin leading the way. Beth spoke from Keene's compad. "Don't concede too easily, Lan. He'll take it as weakness. Bargain with him." Keene held up a hand. The Leader stopped and turned awkwardly back on his crooked leg. Keene pointed back at Jorff, still standing halfway between them and the Scout, and then motioned down toward the huts, indicating that Jorff was to go too. The two stood for several seconds, reading each other's faces. Then the Leader nodded curtly and waved for Jorff to follow.
The inhabitants watched in awe, some shrinking back, as the three newcomers were brought down to the cluster of huts and shelters. Keene and the others were shown prized trophies that included some implements carved from wood, a metal jerry can now used to hold water, and a number of garments reworked from recognizable pieces of clothing that had seen better days. They were given morsels of meat and a vegetable preparation to sample -- as it turned out, not too bad. Keene caught Naarmegen's eye, conveying that they ought to reciprocate, and inviting suggestions. After a moment of pondering, Naarmegen unclipped the sheath and knife from his belt, and passed it to Keene, who with great ceremony making it plain to all that this was a great honor, presented it to the Leader -- whose name they had established by this time, was Rakki. The watchers were suitably impressed. Rakki, whose status had thus been acknowledged before all, beamed his delight, attaching the sheath to his own belt and permitting his clan to come forward and touch the blade wonderingly. To show his magnanimity in return, he made signs that the rest of Keene's party could bring the Scout down to the settlement. His settlement. Rakki's.
As soon as Keene got a moment he raised his compad and called Ivor, who was still in the truck. "Was that you who did that?"
"It was. You needed a miracle."
"Oh. Is that how they work?'
"The Lord works in strange ways, Doctor."
"How's the probe?"
"Serengeti says the compressor fan might be a bit chewed. I put it down over the ridge until someone can get out to look at it."
Beth moved over toward Keene as the others arrived. "That was quick thinking, Beth," he complimented. "You read the situation exactly right. I guess we've got Gallian to thank for making sure we had a professional psychologist along on the team."
"Not really," she told him. "I just took a course of psychiatric nursing training when I was a student."
"So which part of it taught you about human nature like that? I'm intrigued."
"None." She hesitated. "It was something I saw a long time ago in a Tarzan movie."