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On the green planet that circled the youngest herder's star, the forest stretched like a great park over much of the land. Ancient trails led through it, but these days no one except Boy Jaim ever bothered to travel far upon them. Why walk, people said, when it is so easy to fly above it all? But to Boy Jaim—he was looked upon as something of a savage—the forest was a place of endless mystery, and he managed to spend more time in it than at home.
Because he spoke the language of the wild, and knew every creature for miles around, it came as a great shock, one morning, suddenly to discover that the forest had turned unfriendly.
When it happened, he was returning from the edge of a desert area called the Barrens, where he had been exploring. Behind him, floating at the end of a short line, was an air sled loaded with camping gear. A small white dog, one of the few dogs left on the planet, trotted watchfully ahead, on the alert for prankish squirrels who liked to tease them by throwing nuts. Boy Jaim, this morning, was paying no attention to his surroundings. His mind was still on the Barrens and some of the odd things he had found; he did not realize anything was wrong until the dog stopped and gave a low growl of warning.
The youth halted in surprise. He had long outgrown the first part of his name, which had been added when he was small to distinguish him from his father. But though Big Jaim was dead now, the tall son was still Boy Jaim to everyone, and no one thought of changing it.
"What's the matter, Doubtful?" he asked.
The dog stood with head raised, his sharp nose quivering. "Don't know," he replied, speaking with a muttered flow of sounds that few but Boy Jaim himself could have understood. "Too quiet. The birds have stopped singing."
"What of it? The birds can't sing all the time."
"But something's wrong," Doubtful insisted. "Gives me a queer feeling."
Frowning, though still unworried, Boy Jaim stood listening while he studied the surrounding woods. The trail they were following had once been a highway, but that was millenniums ago in the day of the wheel. Now great trees covered the ages-old gash through the land, and there remained only a winding path kept open by the hooves of deer. On either side the woods stretched open and park-like into the distance, with an occasional grassy glade where the sunlight slanted down and the forest dwellers came to feed and play.
Turning, he felt sunlight on his bare shoulders, and he realized they'd reached the edge of such a glade. It was one he remembered well. Days ago, when they'd passed through here, the place had been alive with happy creatures. This morning it was strangely empty.
Then his heart gave a sudden twist as he glimpsed, in the distance, the fleeing forms of several deer. The last one halted a moment and looked back, almost regretfully it seemed. It was a white doe.
The white doe was an old friend.
"Wait!" he called, holding out his hands. "What's the matter? Wait! ..."
The doe's only response was to whirl about and vanish with the others.
Incredulous, Boy Jaim stood blinking at the silent forest. Never, never in all his life, had anything run from him except in play. Why should the deer flee now—especially the white doe? What had happened to the other creatures? Always there'd been squirrels about, full of devilment, and small inquisitive black bears who liked to meet him on the trail, to gossip a bit and beg for a honeycake. But not one had appeared this morning.
"I can't understand it," he muttered to Doubtful. "What's got into everything?"
The dog rolled his big amber eyes, looking uneasily from one side to the other. "It's something in the air. Can't you feel it?"
Suddenly Boy Jaim shivered. It was almost as if an icy wind had blown through the forest, destroying all that was warm and good. Only, there wasn't even a breeze this morning, and the day was so balmy he hadn't bothered to put on his jacket. Yet the coldness was here, and in it lay a blackness that was almost—was it evil?
He closed his eyes and sent his thoughts reaching out, searching. Now he stood motionless for long seconds, a thin, brown, and intense young figure, man-tall despite his youth, with black hair bushing from under the brightness of his cap. All his clothing, from his green-tasseled cap to his short sturdy brown boots, was from material designed and woven by his cousin, L'Mara, on the looms at home.
His exploring thoughts told him only that the source of what he felt was nowhere near. He began to wonder if evil was the right name for it. From the few books he'd read of the dim past, when man had overrun the planet, there had been evil aplenty. But all that was long ago. Incredibly long ago. Man had changed a lot since those times. Now his numbers were few, and neither man nor beast had harmed each other for ages.
What could have happened here today?
"Come on," he said abruptly. "Let's go see Grumble. She'll tell us what's wrong."
Doubtful gave a small grunt of disagreement, but said nothing till they neared the great hollow tree that Grumble and her cub used for a den. Then he held back, muttering, "Careful. She may be feeling mean."
"Aw, she's just fussy because she has a cub. She's still the friendliest bear around here."
"You'll see. Don't forget the honeycakes."
He reached into the air sled and got out the remaining cakes he'd saved especially for Grumble's cub. He'd given it some last week, and promised it more when he returned.
He did not immediately see Grumble after he called out a greeting, but the cub appeared farther down the trail and stood looking at him uncertainly. In its bright, beady little eyes was a curious new mixture of wonder and fear.
Boy Jaim was startled and not a little upset by the cub's strange manner. It had never stayed away from him before. He stooped and held out a honeycake. The cub eyed it wistfully, but refused to come closer.
"What's wrong, Fuzzy?" he pleaded. "You're not really afraid of me, are you? Surely you know I'd never hurt you!"
"You might," the cub replied tremulously, its churning thoughts saying more than it could express in sound.
"But why?" he exclaimed, astounded. "You don't believe that, do you?"
"Yes. You're a man-thing."
"But man-things are your friends!"
"No. Man-things are bad."
"Who told you that?" he demanded.
"Oh, it was big, big! And shining! Didn't you see it when—"
They were interrupted by Grumble, who charged suddenly from the trees beyond the den. She slapped the cub and sent it squealing away, and then knocked the offered cakes from Boy Jaim's hand. Her warning snarl told him he was no longer welcome there.
He retreated from her, shocked and trembling, and fled down the trail.
It was long minutes before he calmed enough to think carefully over what had happened and attempt to understand it. But it was all so new in his experience, and so incredible, that none of it made sense.
He realized now that it wasn't just the deer and Grumble and her cub who had turned from him. It was everything in this part of the forest. He was aware of hidden creatures watching him, suspicious and distrustful. They no longer wanted anything to do with him—and it was all because he was a man-thing.
"Why?" he cried to Doubtful. "What have they got against man?"
"I wouldn't know," the dog mumbled worriedly. "My kind has always thought very highly of your kind. But something has been through here ..."
"Something big and bright-colored that frightened all the creatures and changed how they think. What can it be?"
"Can't figure that one."
"But didn't you smell something strange back there?"
"Thought I did once. It was way off, and faint."
"What was it like?"
"Too faint to tell. Just a whiff of wild."
"Wild? Everything around here is wild."
"Not like that," Doubtful said uneasily. "What I whiffed was wild wild, like nothing I'd ever want to meet. So maybe I didn't really whiff anything. I hope not."
"You whiffed something," Boy Jaim said. "Something very big and very bad—because that's the kind of something that came through here. But what was it?"
"Why ask me? There's no such creature. Except when I dream. I've always dreamed and whiffed things that don't exist. Maybe we've both been dreaming."
"It would make better sense. Only, Grumble wasn't dreaming. Nor was her cub." Boy Jaim halted and shook his head.
They had reached the edge of a deep stream that ran swift and clear between high rocky banks lined with immense trees. The trail forked here, with each fork going to distant spots that could be safely forded. In ancient times a bridge had spanned the foaming rush of water directly ahead, but the only sign of it now was a stained patch of rock where steel beams might once have been anchored.
He had planned to camp near here and catch fish for their lunch—a practice rather looked down upon now that man had outgrown his early urge for meat—but he had lost all desire for food. For the first time he was beginning to feel fear. The only large creatures on the planet—except the whales in the sea—were the bears, the deer, and the goats. Grumble herself was the biggest thing around, and even she wasn't very big.
Could the forest have been visited by a phantom?
He was almost willing to believe it, because poor Doubtful, who had terrible racial memories, was always dreaming about such things. Doubtful would often mutter and moan in his sleep, and wake up trembling to say that some horror had been after him. Something flesh-eating out of the past.
With a start, Boy Jaim realized that Doubtful was trembling now, and that the hair on the back of his neck was standing up straight.
"Hey, what's the matter?" he whispered.
"I whiff it again!" the dog told him. "And it's really wild wild. I mean bad."
"Is the thing close?"
"Don't think so—but it's been past here. Last night, maybe, or early this morning."
Doubtful moved hesitantly forward, then began working his way down around the rocks to a strip of sand at the water's edge. Abruptly he stiffened, and a low growl came from his throat.
With the air sled bobbing behind him on its line, Boy Jaim hastened down beside the dog. Now he could make out what the projecting rocks had hidden. His eyes widened. He gasped.
In the narrow strip of sand, clearly defined, was one impossibly large footprint pointing toward the river. A portion of a second print was still visible at the water's edge. By their shape a bear might have made them—but surely so monstrous a bear had never existed. Yet before him was the evidence of the prints. They were real.
"Great thunder above!" he whispered, awed.
He looked carefully around for prints leading out of the water. Seeing none, he realized the creature must have crossed the river here. He shook his head in amazement. Only a beast of incredible size and strength would have dared this dangerous stretch.
Where was the thing going?
He shivered as he studied the silent forest across the river. It had never looked forbidding before. Now it was a place of darkness and fear. But home lay in that direction. On foot, home was more than a day's journey ahead, though it could be reached in an hour or so by using the air sled.
Suddenly he drew the sled to him and motioned to Doubtful. "Get aboard. The hike's over."
"We flying home?"
He nodded and snapped a safety line around Doubtful's small white body. "But not until we've located that—that beast. We've got to find it first, and learn all we can about it."
Doubtful rolled his amber eyes unhappily. "I was afraid of that. Don't I meet phantoms enough in my sleep?"
As they rose and flew slowly across the river, he was suddenly thankful that his uncle, Andru, and the others had insisted that he take an air sled on the trip.
The day he mentioned going to the Barrens again, Andru had looked at him curiously a moment, then turned away with a little shake of his long gray head. It was the sort of reaction that everyone had when he spoke of going to the place. A visit to the Barrens was part of one's education, but one always went with a group, with someone like Emmon the Elder along to explain what was known of it. For most people one visit was enough. As for returning to it, alone ...
"I suppose it's in your blood," Andru told him. "Wanting to do the things you do. Just like Big Jaim. Well, this time I'd suggest you take one of the larger sleds—"
"But I planned to go on foot, sir."
"On foot! Good heavens, why make it so hard for yourself?"
"Well, you miss things by flying over them," he explained. "I want to follow one of the old trails all the way and see what I can locate."
"But that will take weeks. How can you carry your camping equipment and enough extra food—"
"I wouldn't bother with carrying food, except some cakes for the bears. I'd rather live off the land."
"Oh," said Andru, who would have starved in the woods, even though he was one of the leading thinkers in the Five Communities. "Tell me, what in the world do you eat? Roots and things?"
Boy Jaim glanced across the room at his small cousin, L'Mara, who was busy at one of the looms. Suddenly uncomfortable, he said, "Well, you can find lots of wild food this time of the year. The plums and berries are getting ripe, and what with the mushrooms and asparagus—"
"Fish eater!" said L'Mara, so distinctly that for a moment it seemed she'd spoken aloud. His ears burned. Then he realized she was merely teasing him with a thought, for her lips hadn't moved. With her big bright eyes, her coloring and quick movements, she reminded him of a mischievous little squirrel, or maybe a chipmunk.
"You've eaten it too—and liked it!" he flung back at her silently, and marveled at the fact that they were the only ones in the family who could communicate like this. Usually, if a person had the ability—and it was not uncommon in the Five Communities—everyone closely related to him would also have it to some degree. But Andru didn't have even a touch of it, nor did Tira, his wife. His own parents hadn't had it—a lack that probably had cost them their lives, for when they failed to return from a trip years ago, no one knew what had happened or where to search for them.
L'Mara, intent on her weaving, said, "I ate it only to please you, and I think it's horrid. It made me feel almost like a cannibal."
He knew she was still teasing by the impish look on her face, but before he could think of a retort, her mother, Tira, came in with a basket of new yarn for the other loom. She was a striking woman, with long, shining hair that was almost the color of gold. No one else in the Five Communities had hair that color. L'Mara's hair was bronze.
"Boy Jaim," Tira said. "What's this about walking to the Barrens?"
When he explained, she said, "Now you're just being silly. If you want to walk part of the way to that awful place, then walk—but at least tow a small sled to carry things. After all, as long as a sled floats, it's weightless, no matter what you pile on it. Suppose you found something there you wanted to bring home?"
Andru snorted. "He won't find anything worth keeping. The inhabitants of that place were demented. Absolutely demented."
L'Mara said silently, "I think Father's wrong, at least partly, and that you could really find something wonderful if you look in the right spot. Please, bring me a present."
Her request decided him. He compromised finally on one of the smallest sleds; it had just enough power in its antigravity unit to lift Doubtful and himself and carry all their equipment. The next morning, before he left, L'Mara gave him his new cap. Though she was still a child, she was the best designer and weaver in their community, and the cap she had made was a marvel of patterning. Around its wide green band was an intricate design of leaping fish. She managed to present it to him without a flicker of a smile.
With the safety belt fastened around his waist, Boy Jaim lay flat on the air sled and peered over the bow at the forest below. The river was well behind them now and they were moving slowly southward, just above the treetops. The sled, he knew, was overloaded with the things he had found, and it was a heavy drain on the solar batteries to keep so much weight aloft. If the sunlight lasted, the batteries should recharge. It was disturbing, though, to see the mounting clouds drifting toward them from the east. The sled was too small to be caught in stormy weather.
Excerpted from The Golden Enemy by Alexander Key. Copyright © 1969 Alexander Key. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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