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Dare to Go A-Hunting by Andre Norton
It was warm, too warm for one of the room's inhabitants. However, it was probably discourteous to remark upon the heat though a round drop of sweat gathered just below one of his slightly slanted eyes to trickle down his cheek. There was a small rustle when he shifted position on the uncushioned stool which supported him an uncomfortable height from a floor of tiles matched in brilliant color to form patterns which he could only glance at or it made his eyes ache. That his host not only accepted all this as natural, but took comfort in it was one of those irritating situations which had filled Farree's life for some time.
He had seen aliens a-plenty during his bad time in that sleazy portside district, the Limits, which formed his earliest memories. However, such strangers in their own homes were something he was now only being introduced to by the full swing of fate's finger crystal.
"Hot" Togger's thought, always pitched so high that his own sense could hardly understand, came testily. Farree's jerkin heaved and wrinkled as the smux crawled out into the open to gaze up into his face with stalked eyes.
"Soooo—it is hot, little one?" Not a thought this time but words uttered with a hissing intonation. At a goodly distance down the room a third inhabitant arose, the extended talons on his webbed and scaled feet scraping across the stone pattern on the floor. "Courtesy is all very well, my little friends, but allow me also the privilege of displaying it." A yellow scaled arm, banded at both wrist and above the elbow with well-worn cuffs of an iron-hard wood, reached out to the wall and flipped a switch.
There was no sound of any winds, yet there blew across the room now a swift breeze, tepidly warm to be sure, but at least better than the slow baking heat it disturbed. He who had summoned that now came threading a path between small tables and large—all piled with learning tapes and scan plates in boxes. Farree gave a, he hoped, concealed sigh of relief. Those folds draped across his shoulders, extending down his back so that their edges swept the floor, rose in turn. He did not flourish the wings in full display—he needed more room for that—but at least he could give them a stretch.
The tall old alien watched Farree almost eagerly. He had swept a whole cascade of scan plate boxes to the floor and seated himself with a little grunt and some rubbing of one scaled and plated knee.
Then he leaned forward, setting the palms of his hands on both knees. Farree did not know how long Zacanthans continued to inherit this plane of existence (which was how they referred to life and death) but he was sure that Grand Hist-Technneer Zoror was indeed a long-time master of that skill which, as with all his species, centered upon the collection of information about oddities in a well-spread galaxy– especially the history of such new races as were introduced from time to time into the records of exploration. They were indeed long-lived, these lizardlike people, but even the oldest of them often asserted that he was only beginning his labors.
"Soooo—" Once more Zoror made a hissing of the word. "You wish now that this old man of scales would come directly to the point and tell you what you are and from whence you have come." The Zacanthan nodded so that the pleated frill of skin which lay about the back of his head and shoulders unfolded into a fan like some large ornamental collar.
"It is not easy, you know," Zoror continued. "We cannot walk to the records and say 'Tell me who is this winged one? From what earth and people did he spring?' These," he again flung out an arm to gesture at the unwieldy piles of tapes and spools fencing them both in, "these are records of voyages, many, many voyages, also contributed by men who tell strange tales, sometimes merely out of their own imagination, but other times bearing a truth which—if the Ever Mighty is helpful—can be traced about this far!" He held up a hand to display a thumb and forefinger with a space between them maybe as big as one of Togger's second claws.
"There—there was nothing then?" Farree had curbed his patience all morning, ever since all he could remember had been fed into the read-all of the big computer. His scant store of information had been recorded to match mixtures of still dubious details.
"No, I do not say that.. There are stories of such as you. Those come from the bards of Loel, the Rememberers of Garth, the Dance-think of Udolf. Stories, mind you, garnered on more than a hundred planets. But—it remains that they are stories without concrete proof. Those who retell them gather details on this world or that. But the strongest of all—those come from Terra—"
"Terra? But that is but a tale, too." Farree did not try to hide his disappointment.
"Not so—" Zoror's neck frill fluttered as he shook his head. "However, there is something common to all the worlds from which the clearest and most detailed of these stories come. Those were the planets first colonized by people from Terra. Yes, most certainly there was a Terra. It bred several races, in all of which there was one abiding gift, that of curiosity. Terrans were not the first explorers of the space dark, yet they spread farther in leas time than many of those who came before. And with them they brought, as we all do, tales which were old and yet part of their lives."
Farree's face creased in a frown. Zoror, for all his learning, was apt to tell stories, too. Ordinarily Farree would have listened with interest. However, what he wanted now was truths, even if they afforded only a very thin thread to trace. "These from Terra—they were certainly not like me." He put up a hand to touch the edge of one wing ...