Authors: Andre Norton
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Space Opera, #Adventure, #General
by Andre Norton
Time Traders II
Darkness & Dawn
Gods & Androids
Masks of the Outcasts
From the Sea to the Stars
Search for the Star Stones
The Game of Stars and Comets
The Forerunner Factor
THE FORERUNNER FACTOR
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Forerunner copyright © 1981 by Andre Norton. Forerunner: The Second Venture copyright © 1985 by Andre Norton.
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form
A Baen Books Original
Baen Publishing Enterprises
P.O. Box 1403
Riverdale, NY 10471
Cover art by Tom Kidd
First Baen paperback printing, March 2012
Distributed by Simon & Schuster
1230 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10020
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The forerunner factor / by Andre Norton.
"A Baen Books original"--T.p. verso
ISBN 978-1-4516-3808-0 (trade pb)
Printed in the United States of America
10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1
Kuxortal had always been—any trader would have sworn by his guild oath to that. No one had the need to dig deep into the mouldering wet-season, dry-season records (many layers of which had long since become dust, and dust of dust) to know that. The sprawling city stood on its own past, now well above the sea wharves and river landings, raised high on the mount of its own beginnings as men had tirelessly built on the ruins of other men’s warehouses and dwellings, adding to the height of that mountain as the past leveled the holdings of their forebears.
The city had already been immeasurably old when the first needle ships of the space farers, those merchants of the stars who sewed together world upon world with their own trading ventures, had set down upon the plain beyond.
Kuxortal was old, but it did not die. Its citizens had become an incredible mixture of races—sometimes of species—or mutations and new beginnings of life forms springing out of old. Kuxortal had been favored ages ago by the fact that it had come to birth at the meeting of the river Kux, which drew upon the trade of a full continent, wafting boats and rafts to the western sea, with that same sea. The harbor was a safe one even during the worst of the wet-season gales. Its natural protections added to by the ingenuity of generations of men who knew all the perils of sea and wind, of gale and raider attack.
Once more, it was favored when the starmen came seeking not only trade, but an open port where those who dealt in commodities which they dared not be subject to strict legal inspection might buy and sell in complete freedom—once the proper dues had been paid to the Guilds of the city. Now it had been well over tens of double seasons that rocket fire had scorched the plain beyond the town, and no one any longer marveled at the sight of an alien on the crooked streets which sometimes formed a deadly maze for the unwary.
For where there are traders and their riches, there are also predators. They also had their Guild, their standing in the hierarchy of Kuxortal, it being an old belief that if a man did not guard his own possessions, then he well deserved to lose them. Thus, wily thieves and private guardsmen fought small secret battles, and the peacemen of the Guild kept safe by the rigor of their instant and bloody justice only those streets, those courtyard homes, those trading depots which paid peace tax.
Just as there were thieves to prey upon the riches of Kuxortal, so were there also the small traders, those who lived like ver-rats in a grainery where there was no winged and clawed zorsal to go a-hunting, aided by dark-piercing eyesight. These, too, bought and sold, and perhaps some of them dreamed of making the big sale, the big find in the drift of strange merchandise, which would give them a chance to rise to greater profits.
Simsa was Burrow-wise enough not to dream big dreams—at least not enough to cloud the here and now.
She understood her very lowly place in the general scheme of life where she was near as small as a gamlin and certainly as agile as those furred creatures who were used by the Lovers-of-the-dark in their own raiding parties. She had no people as kin—being, as she had known as far back as any child learns of the world about, one of those strange mixtures of blood and breed which added to the general difference of Kuxortal. Also knowing that her very strangeness made her vulnerable, and so disguising that strangeness as best she could.
She had been fetcher and errand runner for Ferwar—until the mists of the riverside burrow bit so far into Old One’s crippled bones that her body at last gave up its spirit essence. Simsa it had been who dragged that light, twisted body down to the under holes and heaped over it there the cover stones. Ferwar had had no kin, and was somewhat shunned even by the Burrow dwellers, for she was learned in strange ways—some of which might be profitable, others hinting of danger.
That Simsa was blood kin to herself Ferwar had denied. However, it was true that she never beat the child with her staff, much as she lashed out with an acid and biting tongue; also, she passed on to Simsa much which would have surprised even a Guild Lord had one known where or what lived in the Burrows beneath his own palace-of-plenty.
The Burrowers were perhaps the least and lowliest of Kuxortal dwellers. They scooped out their dwellings from the mass of former buildings, sometimes being lucky enough to break into a cellar or a passage which could have been a long forgotten street, roofed over by buildings fallen during some raider assault before the dawn of time. Things could be found in Burrows, things worth trading, especially to the Starmen, who seemed to take a perverse interest in broken bits which meant nothing to any denizen of Kuxortal. So such finds were close-held secrets and even among the Burrowers there were strongly defended treasure houses.
Simsa had her talents. Her agility had served her many times. Over and over, she practiced ever with her lean body the twists, turns, and certain grips which Ferwar’s hands, cramped even as they were by the painful crippling, had patiently shown her. As a Burrower, she was small, though two seasons after the death of Ferwar, she had suddenly shot up like a well-watered thrum vine. It was in that same season that she had changed her style of drab clothing, for Ferwar had been emphatic with certain warnings for the future. The loose smock she had always worn over breeches, which had left her legs free for running and dodging, was not laid aside. However, under it she had wound a strip of stout chir cloth tightly about her body from waist up, constraining her breasts to give her still a childish flatness. That was a precaution she need only take with strangers—to those who know her, her own natural weapons made her untouchable.
Simsa’s skin was black, a deep bluish-black; in night darkness she could pad through any street which had no large number of lamps with a spirit’s invisibility. On the other hand, her hair, which she now wore confined and covered with another length of cloth, was pure silver light, as were her brows and lashes. Those, she disguised with sooty fingers rubbed on a fire pot before she ventured out as she did, reveling in her ability to conceal herself.
She had her own form of steady livelihood, one begun when she had found a broken-winged zorsal fluttering out its life on a waterside rubbish heap—those mounds often provided unexpected finds for Ferwar. The zorsal had tried to bite—its sharp-edged jaws were strong enough to take a finger off a full-grown man. Simsa had not stretched forth any hand at first, had only squatted down beside the injured creature, crooning to it in a small guttural sound which came from far down in her throat and which she had never made before; at that moment, it had just come to her naturally as fit and right.
As the zorsal’s first hissing and snapping subsided, and it settled down to watch her with huge, round, night-seeing eyes, the girl had perceived that it was a female, its furred body heavy with young. Perhaps it had broken out of some warehouse cage, striving to find a place in freedom in which to nest and bear its coming brood.
Though Simsa had had no reason in her short life to trust or show any liking for another living creature (her bond with Ferwar being one of respect, awe and more than a little straight wariness), she sensed now within her a reaching out for another living thing which was perhaps as lost as she from any kin-tie. As she crooned, she at last advanced a hand, was able to touch fingertips to the soft down which covered the zorsal’s back, felt even there the fast pound of the flyer’s heart. After long moments, the girl had been able to pick up the hurt creature, which nestled against her, giving Simsa a feeling such as she had never experienced before.
Zorsals were prized for ridding dwellings and storage places of larger vermin. She had seen them sold for solid sums in the markets and realized that she could now seek out the owner of this stray and perhaps claim a reward. Instead, she took it back to the Burrow, where Ferwar looked at it but said nothing at all. Simsa, prepared to defend her actions, had been left oddly at a loss.
The zorsal littered within a night of her discovery of it.
She had bound up its injured wing as best she could, but feared that her tending was so awkward it might remain a cripple. Ferwar had drawn her aching body away from the mat place to watch the girl’s struggle, finally grunting as she brought out of her jealously guarded supplies some salve which smelled oddly fresh and clean in a cave-room never touched by light of day.
There were two young males. Simsa had been right in her fear concerning the complete recovery of the mother. On the other hand, the adult creature was surprisingly intelligent, in its own fashion, and after its cubs were weaned, it became Simsa’s companion in her own night prowlings. Its eyesight was far keener than that of any human—even one trained as Simsa was, and it could communicate with a series of soft clicks which followed a pattern her own lips and throat could echo, so Simsa learned from it a small vocabulary of sounds which meant danger, hunger, others on the prowl, and the like.
In turn, the zorsal trained its own young. Then Simsa, after a careful study of the market rented—did
sell—the two to Gathar, a warehouse commander who had dealings with the Burrower people from time to time, and was rated by them as never taking more than half of any profit. She paid her charges visits at regular intervals, not only checking on their care, but also continuing to impress upon them her own personality. When she went forth on most nights, the parent (whom she named Zass from a sound which it uttered when striving to attract her attention) rode on her shoulder, she having fitted a pad there as protection between the strong talons of the hunter and her own flesh.