The Beast Master

Andre A. Norton

© 1959

For OTIS LOUIS ERNEST

Soldier

Engineer

Collector of Indian Lore

1914-1958

1

“Sir, there is a transport leaving for that sector tomorrow. My papers are in order, are they not? I think I have all the necessary permits and endorsements –”

The young man who wore the green of a Galactic Commando, with the striking addition of a snarling lion’s mask on the breast of his tunic, smiled with gentle detachment at the Commander.

That officer sighed inwardly. Why did they always dump these cases on his desk? He was a conscientious man, and now he was a troubled one. A fourth-generation Sirian colonist and a cosmopolite of mixed races by birth, he secretly believed that no one had fathomed this youngster – not even the psych-medics who had given the boy clearance. The Commander shuffled the papers and glanced down again at the top one, though he did not have to read the information on it, knowing it all by heart.

“Hosteen Storm. Rank: Beast Master. Race: Amerindian. Native planet: Terra of Sol –”

It was that concluding entry that made all the difference. The last desperate thrust of the Xik invaders had left Terra, the mother planet of the Confederacy, a deadly blue, radioactive cinder, and those here at the Separation Centre had to deal with veterans of the forces now homeless –

All the land grants on other worlds, the assistance of every other planet in the Confederacy, would not wipe from the minds of these men the memory of a murdered people, the reality of their own broken lives. Some had gone mad here at the Centre, turning in frantic rage on their allies from the colonial worlds. Or they had used their own deadly weapons on themselves and their fellows. Finally every Terran outfit had been forcibly disarmed. The Commander had witnessed some terrible and some heartbreaking sights here during the past months.

Of course Storm was a special case – as if they weren’t all special cases. There had been only a handful of his kind. Less than fifty, the Commander understood, had qualified for the duty this young man had performed. And of that fifty very few had survived. That combination of unusual traits of mind that produced a true Beast Master was rare, and they had been expendable men in the last frenzied months before the spectacular collapse of the Xik invaders.

“My papers, sir.” Again that reminder, delivered in the same gentle voice.

But the Commander dared not let himself be rushed. Storm had never shown any signs of violence – even when they had taken the chance, as a test, of giving him the package from Terra that had been delivered too late at his base after he had departed for his last mission. In fact, the youngster had cooperated in every way with the personnel of the Centre, helping with others the medics believed could be saved. He had insisted upon retaining his animals. But that had caused no difficulty. The staff had watched him closely for months, prepared for some paralysing stroke of delayed shock – for the outburst they were sure must come. But now the medics had reluctantly agreed they could not deny Storm’s release.

Amerindian, pure blood. Maybe they were different, better able to stand up to such a blow. But in the Commander’s mind a nagging little doubt festered. The boy was too controlled. Suppose they did let him go and there was a bad smash, involving others, later? Suppose – suppose –

“You have chosen to be repatriated on Arzor, I see.” He made conversation, not wanting to dismiss the other.

“Survey records, sir, state that Arzor possesses a climate similar to my native country. The principal occupation is frawn herding. I have been assured by settlement officers that, as a qualified Beast Master, I may safely count on employment there –”

A simple, logical, and satisfactory answer. Why didn’t he like it? The Commander sighed again. A hunch – he couldn’t refuse this Terran his papers just on a hunch. But his hand moved slowly as he pushed the travel permit into the stamper before him. Storm took the slip from him and stood up, smiling aloofly – a smile the Commander was certain neither reached nor warmed his dark eyes.

“Thank you for your assistance, sir. I assure you it is appreciated.” The Terran sketched a salute and left. And the Commander shook his head, still unconvinced that he had done the right thing.

Storm did not pause outside the building. He had been very confident of getting that exit stamp, so confident he had made his preparations in advance. His kit was already in the loading area of the transport. There remained his team, his true companions who did not probe, with the kindest of motives, or try to analyse his actions. It was enough that he was with them, and with them only was he able to feel normal again, not a specimen under clinical observation.

Hosteen Storm of the Dineh – the People, though men of a lighter shade of skin had given another name to his kinsmen, Navajo. They had been horsemen, artists in metal and wool, singers and desert dwellers, with a strong bond tying them to the barren but brightly coloured land in which they had once roamed as nomad hunters, herders, and raiders.

The Terran exile shut away that memory as he came into the storehouse that had been assigned to him for his small, odd command. Storm closed the door, and there was a new alertness in his face.

“Saaaa –” That hiss, which was also a summons, was answered eagerly.

A flapping of wings and talons, which could tear flesh into bloody ribbons, closed on his padded left shoulder as the African Black Eagle that was scouting “eyes’ for Sabotage Group Number Four came to rest, sleek head lowered to draw its beak in swift, slight caress along Storm’s brown cheek.

Paws caught at his breeches as a snorting pair of small warm bodies swarmed up him, treating his body like a tree. Those claws, which uncovered and disrupted enemy installations, caught in the tough fabric of his uniform as he clasped the meerkats in his arms.

Baku, Ho, and Hing – and last of all – Surra. The eagle was majesty and winged might, great-hearted and regal as her falcon tendencies dictated. The meerkats were merry clowns, good-humoured thieves who loved company. But Surra – Surra was an empress who drew homage as her due.

Generations before, her breed had been small, yellow-furred sprites in the sandy wastes of the big deserts. Shy cats, with hairy paws, which kept them from sinking into the soft sand of their hunting grounds, with pricked fox ears and fox-sharp faces, possessing the abnormal hearing that was their greatest gift, almost unknown to mankind, they had lived their hidden lives.

But when the Beast Service had been created – first to provide exploration teams for newly discovered worlds, where the instincts of once wild creatures were a greater aid to mankind than any machine of his own devising – Surra’s ancestors had been studied, crossbred with other types, developed into something far different from their desert roving kin. Surra’s colour was still sand-yellow, her muzzle and ears foxlike, her paws fur sand- shoes. But she was four times the size of her remote forefathers, as large as a puma, and her intelligence was higher even than those who had bred her guessed. Now Storm laid his hand on her head, a caress she graciously permitted.

To the spectator the ex-Commando might be standing impassively, the meerkats clinging to him, his hand resting lightly on Surra’s round skull, the eagle quiet on his shoulder. But an awareness, which was unuttered, unheard speech, linked him with animals and bird. The breadth of that communication could not be assessed outside a “team”, but it forged them into a harmonious whole, which was a weapon if need be, a companionship always.

Baku raised her wide wings, moved restlessly to utter a small croak of protest. She disliked a cage and submitted to such confinement only when it was forced upon her. The thought Storm had given them of more ship travel displeased her. He hastened to supply a mental picture of the world awaiting them – mountains and valleys filled with the freedom of the true wilderness – all he had learned from the records here.

Baku’s wings folded neatly once again. The meerkats chirruped happily to one another. As long as they were

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