The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xi Part 44

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"I know. Another thing, too. If we send out s.p.a.ceforce, after all the riots--how many Terrans are on this planet? A few thousand, no more. What chance would we have, if it turned into a full-scale rebellion? None at all, unless we wanted to order a ma.s.sacre. Sure, we have bombs and dis-guns and all that.

"But would we dare to use them? And where would we be after that? We're here to keep the pot from boiling over, to keep out of planetary incidents, not push them along to a point where bluff won't work. That's why we've got to pick up Rakhal before this gets out of hand."

I said, "Give me a month. Then you can move in, if you have to. Rakhal can't do much against Terra in that time. And I might be able to keep Rindy out of it."

Magnusson stared at me, hard-eyed. "If you do this against my advice, I won't be able to step in and pull you out of a jam later on, you know. And G.o.d help you if you start up the machines and can't stop them."

I knew that. A month wasn't much. Wolf is forty thousand miles of diameter, at least half unexplored; mountain and forest swarming with nonhuman and semi-human cities where Terrans had never been.



Finding Rakhal, or any one man, would be like picking out one star in the Andromeda nebula. Not impossible. Not quite impossible.

Mack's eyes wandered again to his child's face, deep in the transparent cube. He turned it in his hands. "Okay, Cargill," he said slowly, "so we're all crazy. I'll be crazy too. Try it your way."

CHAPTER FOUR.

By sunset I was ready to leave. I hadn't had any loose ends to tie up in the Trade City, since I'd already disposed of most of my gear before boarding the stars.h.i.+p. I'd never been in better circ.u.mstances to take off for parts unknown.

Mack, still disapproving, had opened the files to me, and I'd spent most of the day in the back rooms of Floor 38, searching Intelligence files to refresh my memory, scanning the pages of my own old reports sent years ago from Shainsa and Daillon. He had sent out one of the nonhumans who worked for us, to buy or acquire somewhere in the Old Town a Dry-towner's outfit and the other things I would wear and carry.

I would have liked to go myself. I felt that I needed the practice. I was only now beginning to realize how much I might have forgotten in the years behind a desk. But until I was ready to make my presence known, no one must know that Race Cargill had not left Wolf on the stars.h.i.+p.

Above all, I must not be seen in the Kharsa until I went there in the Dry-town disguise which had become, years ago, a deep second nature, almost an alternate personality.

About sunset I walked through the clean little streets of the Terran Trade City toward the Magnusson home where Juli was waiting for me.

Most of the men who go into Civil Service of the Empire come from Earth, or from the close-in planets of Proxima and Alpha Centaurus. They go out unmarried, and they stay that way, or marry women native to the planets where they are sent.

But Joanna Magnusson was one of the rare Earth women who had come out with her husband, twenty years ago. There are two kinds of Earthwomen like that. They make their quarterings a little bit of home, or a little bit of h.e.l.l. Joanna had made their house look like a transported corner of Earth.

I never knew quite what to think of the Magnusson household. It seemed to me almost madness to live under a red sun, yet come inside to yellow light, to live on a world with the wild beauty of Wolf and yet live as they might have lived on their home planet. Or maybe I was the one who was out of step. I had done the reprehensible thing they called "going native." Possibly I had done just that, and in absorbing myself into the new world, had lost the ability to fit into the old.

Joanna, a chubby comfortable woman in her forties, opened the door and gave me her hand. "Come in, Race. Juli's expecting you."

"It's good of you." I broke off, unable to express my grat.i.tude. Juli and I had come from Earth--our father had been an officer on the old stars.h.i.+p Landfall when Juli was only a child. He had died in a wreck off Procyon, and Mack Magnusson had found me a place in Intelligence because I spoke four of the Wolf languages and haunted the Kharsa with Rakhal whenever I could get away.

They had also taken Juli into their own home, like a younger sister. They hadn't said much--because they had liked Rakhal--when the breakup came. But that terrible night when Rakhal and I nearly killed each other, and Rakhal came with his face bleeding and took Juli away with him, had hurt them hard. Yet it had made them all the kinder to me.

Joanna said forthrightly, "Nonsense, Race! What else could we do?" She drew me along the hall. "You can talk in here."

I delayed a minute before going through the door she indicated. "How is Juli?"

"Better, I think. I put her to bed in Meta's room, and she slept most of the day. She'll be all right. I'll leave you to talk." Joanna opened the door, and went away.

Juli was awake and dressed, and already some of the terrible frozen horror was gone from her face. She was still tense and devil-ridden, but not hysterical now.

The room, one of the children's bedrooms, wasn't a big one. Even at the top of the Secret Service, a cop doesn't live too well. Not on Terra's Civil Service pay scale. Not, with five youngsters. It looked as if all five of the kids had taken it to pieces, one at a time.

I sat down on a too-low chair and said, "Juli, we haven't much time, I've got to be out of the city before dark. I want to know about Rakhal, what he does, what he's like now. Remember, I haven't seen him for years. Tell me everything--his friends, his amus.e.m.e.nts, everything you know."

"I always thought you knew him better than I did." Juli had a fidgety little way of coiling the links of the chain around her wrists and it made me nervous.

"It's routine, Juli. Police work. Mostly I play by ear, but I try to start out by being methodical."

She answered everything I asked her, but the sum total wasn't much and it wouldn't help much. As I said, it's easy to disappear on Wolf. Juli knew he had been friendly with the new holders of the Great House on Shainsa, but she didn't even know their name.

I heard one of the Magnusson children fly to the street door and return, shouting for her mother. Joanna knocked at the door of the room and came in.

"There's a chak outside who wants to see you, Race."

I nodded. "Probably my fancy dress. Can I change in the back room, Joanna? Will you keep my clothes here till I get back?"

I went to the door and spoke to the furred nonhuman in the sibilant jargon of the Kharsa and he handed me what looked like a bundle of rags. There were hard lumps inside. The chak said softly, "I hear a rumor in the Kharsa, Raiss. Perhaps it will help you. Three men from Shainsa are in the city. They came here to seek a woman who has vanished, and a toymaker. They are returning at sunrise. Perhaps you can arrange to travel in their caravan."

I thanked him and carried the bundle inside. In the empty back room I stripped to the skin and unrolled the bundle. There was a pair of baggy striped breeches, a worn and shabby s.h.i.+rtcloak with capacious pockets, a looped belt with half the gilt rubbed away and the base metal showing through, and a scuffed pair of ankle-boots tied with frayed thongs of different colors. There was a little cl.u.s.ter of amulets and seals. I chose two or three of the commonest kind, and strung them around my neck.

One of the lumps in the bundle was a small jar, holding nothing but the ordinary spices sold in the market, with which the average Dry-towner flavors food. I rubbed some of the powder on my body, put a pinch in the pocket of my s.h.i.+rtcloak, and chewed a few of the buds, wrinkling my nose at the long-unfamiliar pungency.

The second lump was a skean, and unlike the worn and shabby garments, this was brand-new and sharp and bright, and its edge held a razor glint. I tucked it into the clasp of my s.h.i.+rtcloak, a rea.s.suring weight. It was the only weapon I could dare to carry.

The last of the solid objects in the bundle was a flat wooden case, about nine by ten inches. I slid it open. It was divided carefully into sections cus.h.i.+oned with sponge-absorbent plastic, and in them lay tiny slips of gla.s.s, on Wolf as precious as jewels. They were lenses--camera lenses, microscope lenses, even eyegla.s.s lenses. Packed close, there were nearly a hundred of them nested by the shock-absorbent stuff.

They were my excuse for travel to Shainsa. Over and above the necessities of trade, a few items of Terran manufacture--vacuum tubes, transistors, lenses for cameras and binoculars, liquors and finely forged small tools--are literally worth their weight in platinum.

Even in cities where Terrans have never gone, these things bring exorbitant prices, and trading in them is a Dry-town privilege. Rakhal had been a trader, so Juli told me, in fine wire and surgical instruments. Wolf is not a mechanized planet, and has never developed any indigenous industrial system; the psychology of the nonhuman seldom runs to technological advances.

I went down the hallway again to the room where Juli was waiting. Catching a glimpse in a full-length mirror, I was startled. All traces of the Terran civil servant, clumsy and uncomfortable in his ill-fitting clothes, had dropped away. A Dry-towner, rangy and scarred, looked out at me, and it seemed that the expression on his face was one of amazement.

Joanna whirled as I came into the room and visibly paled before, recovering her self-control, she gave a nervous little giggle. "Goodness, Race, I didn't know you!"

Juli whispered, "Yes, I--I remember you better like that. You're--you look so much like--"

The door flew open and Mickey Magnusson scampered into the room, a chubby little boy browned by a Terra-type sunlamp and glowing with health. In his hand he held some sparkling thing that gave off tiny flashes and glints of color.

I gave the kid a grin before I realized that I was disguised anyhow and probably a hideous sight. The little boy backed off, but Joanna put her plump hand on his shoulder, murmuring soothing things.

Mickey toddled toward Juli, holding up the s.h.i.+ning thing in his hands as if to display something very precious and beloved. Juli bent and held out her arms, then her face contracted and she s.n.a.t.c.hed at the plaything.

"Mickey, what's that?"

He thrust it protectively behind his back. "Mine!"

"Mickey, don't be naughty," Joanna chided.

"Please let me see," Juli coaxed, and he brought it out, slowly, still suspicious. It was an angled prism of crystal, star-shaped, set in a frame which could get the star spinning like a solidopic. But it displayed a new and comical face every time it was turned.

Mickey turned it round and round, charmed at being the center of attention. There seemed to be dozens of faces, s.h.i.+fting with each spin of the prism, human and nonhuman, all dim and slightly distorted. My own face, Juli's, Joanna's came out of the crystal surface, not a reflection but a caricature.

A choked sound from Juli made me turn in dismay. She had let herself drop to the floor and was sitting there, white as death, supporting herself with her two hands.

"Race! Find out where he got that--that thing!"

I bent and shook her. "What's the matter with you?" I demanded. She had lapsed into the dazed, sleepwalking horror of this morning. She whispered, "It's not a toy. Rindy had one. Joanna, where did he get it?" She pointed at the s.h.i.+ning thing with an expression of horror which would have been laughable had it been less real, less filled with terror.

Joanna c.o.c.ked her head to one side and wrinkled her forehead, reflectively. "Why, I don't know, now you come to ask me. I thought maybe one of the chaks had given it to Mickey. Bought it in the bazaar, maybe. He loves it. Do get up off the floor, Juli!"

Juli scrambled to her feet. She said, "Rindy had one. It--it terrified me. She would sit and look at it by the hour, and--I told you about it, Race. I threw it out once, and she woke up and screamed. She shrieked for hours and hours and she ran out in the dark and dug for it in the trash pile, where I'd buried it. She went out in the dark, broke all her fingernails, but she dug it out again." She checked herself, staring at Joanna, her eyes wide in appeal.

"Well, dear," said Joanna with mild, rebuking kindness, "you needn't be so upset. I don't think Mickey's so attached to it as all that, and anyhow I'm not going to throw it away." She patted Juli rea.s.suringly on the shoulder, then gave Mickey a little shove toward the door and turned to follow him. "You'll want to talk alone before Race leaves. Good luck, wherever you're going, Race." She held out her hand forthrightly.

"And don't worry about Juli," she added in an undertone. "We'll take good care of her."

When I came back to Juli she was standing by the window, looking through the oddly filtered gla.s.s that dimmed the red sun to orange. "Joanna thinks I'm crazy, Race."

"She thinks you're upset."

"Rindy's an odd child, a real Dry-towner. But it's not my imagination, Race, it's not. There's something--" Suddenly she sobbed aloud again.

"Homesick, Juli?"

"I was, a little, the first years. But I was happy, believe me." She turned her face to me, s.h.i.+ning with tears. "You've got to believe I never regretted it for a minute."

"I'm glad," I said dully. That made it just fine.

"Only that toy--"

"Who knows? It might be a clue to something." The toy had reminded me of something, too, and I tried to remember what it was. I'd seen nonhuman toys in the Kharsa, even bought them for Mack's kids. When a single man is invited frequently to a home with five youngsters, it's about the only way he can repay that hospitality, by bringing the children odd trifles and knicknacks. But I had never seen anything quite like this one, until-- --Until yesterday. The toy-seller they had hunted out of the Kharsa, the one who had fled into the shrine of Nebran and vanished. He had had half a dozen of those prism-and-star sparklers.

I tried to call up a mental picture of the little toy-seller. I didn't have much luck. I'd seen him only in that one swift glance from beneath his hood. "Juli, have you ever seen a little man, like a chak only smaller, twisted, hunchbacked? He sells toys--"

She looked blank. "I don't think so, although there are dwarf chaks in the Polar Cities. But I'm sure I've never seen one."

"It was just an idea." But it was something to think about. A toy-seller had vanished. Rakhal, before disappearing, had smashed all Rindy's toys. And the sight of a plaything of cunningly-cut crystal had sent Juli into hysterics.

"I'd better go before it's too dark," I said. I buckled the final clasp of my s.h.i.+rtcloak, fitted my skean another notch into it, and counted the money Mack had advanced me for expenses. "I want to get into the Kharsa and hunt up the caravan to Shainsa."

"You're going there first?"

"Where else?"

Juli turned, leaning one hand against the wall. She looked frail and ill, years older than she was. Suddenly she flung her thin arms around me, and a link of the chain on her fettered hands struck me hard, as she cried out, "Race, Race, he'll kill you! How can I live with that on my conscience too?"

"You can live with a h.e.l.l of a lot on your conscience." I disengaged her arms firmly from my neck. A link of the chain caught on the clasp of my s.h.i.+rtcloak, and again something snapped inside me. I grasped the chain in my two hands and gave a mighty heave, bracing my foot against the wall. The links snapped asunder. A flying end struck Juli under the eye. I ripped at the seals of the jeweled cuffs, tore them from her arms, find threw the whole a.s.sembly into a corner, where it fell with a clash.

"d.a.m.n it," I roared, "that's over! You're never going to wear those things again!" Maybe after six years in the Dry-towns, Juli was beginning to guess what those six years behind a desk had meant to me.

"Juli, I'll find your Rindy for you, and I'll bring Rakhal in alive. But don't ask more than that. Just alive. And don't ask me how."

He'd be alive when I got through with him. Sure, he'd be alive.

Just.

CHAPTER FIVE.

It was getting dark when I slipped through a side gate, shabby and inconspicuous, into the s.p.a.ceport square. Beyond the yellow lamps, I knew that the old city was beginning to take on life with the falling night. Out of the c.h.i.n.ked pebble-houses, men and woman, human and nonhuman, came forth into the moonlit streets.

If anyone noticed me cross the square, which I doubted, they took me for just another Dry-town vagabond, curious about the world of the strangers from beyond the stars, and who, curiosity satisfied, was drifting back where he belonged. I turned down one of the dark alleys that led away, and soon was walking in the dark.

The Kharsa was not unfamiliar to me as a Terran, but for the last six years I had seen only its daytime face. I doubted if there were a dozen Earthmen in the Old Town tonight, though I saw one in the bazaar, dirty and lurching drunk; one of those who run renegade and homeless between worlds, belonging to neither. This was what I had nearly become.

I went further up the hill with the rising streets. Once I turned, and saw below me the bright-lighted s.p.a.ceport, the black many-windowed loom of the skysc.r.a.per like a patch of alien shadow in the red-violet moonlight. I turned my back on them and walked on.

At the fringe of the thieves market I paused outside a wineshop where Dry-towners were made welcome. A golden nonhuman child murmured something as she pattered by me in the street, and I stopped, gripped by a spasm of stagefright. Had the dialect of Shainsa grown rusty on my tongue? Spies were given short shrift on Wolf, and a mile from the s.p.a.ceport, I might as well have been on one of those moons. There were no s.p.a.ceport shockers at my back now. And someone might remember the tale of an Earthman with a scarred face who had gone to Shainsa in disguise....

I shrugged the s.h.i.+rtcloak around my shoulders, pushed the door and went in. I had remembered that Rakhal was waiting for me. Not beyond this door, but at the end of the trail, behind some other door, somewhere. And we have a byword in Shainsa: A trail without beginning has no end.

Right there I stopped thinking about Juli, Rindy, the Terran Empire, or what Rakhal, who knew too many of Terra's secrets, might do if he had turned renegade. My fingers went up and stroked, musingly, the ridge of scar tissue along my mouth. At that moment I was thinking only of Rakhal, of an unsettled blood-feud, and of my revenge.

Red lamps were burning inside the wineshop, where men reclined on frowsy couches. I stumbled over one of them, found an empty place and let myself sink down on it, arranging myself automatically in the sprawl of Dry-towners indoors. In public they stood, rigid and formal, even to eat and drink. Among themselves, anything less than a loose-limbed sprawl betrayed insulting watchfulness; only a man who fears secret murder keeps himself on guard.

A girl with a tangled rope of hair down her back came toward me. Her hands were unchained, meaning she was a woman of the lowest cla.s.s, not worth safeguarding. Her fur smock was shabby and matted with filth. I sent her for wine. When it came it was surprisingly good, the sweet and treacherous wine of Ardcarran. I sipped it slowly, looking round.

If a caravan for Shainsa were leaving tomorrow, it would be known here. A word dropped that I was returning there would bring me, by ironbound custom, an invitation to travel in their company.

When I sent the woman for wine a second time, a man on a nearby couch got up, and walked over to me.

He was tall even for a Dry-towner, and there was something vaguely familiar about him. He was no riffraff of the Kharsa, either, for his s.h.i.+rtcloak was of rich silk interwoven with metallic threads, and crusted with heavy embroideries. The hilt of his skean was carved from a single green gem. He stood looking down at me for some time before he spoke.

"I never forget a voice, although I cannot bring your face to mind. Have I a duty toward you?"

I had spoken a jargon to the girl, but he addressed me in the lilting, sing-song speech of Shainsa. I made no answer, gesturing him to be seated. On Wolf, formal courtesy requires a series of polite non sequiturs, and while a direct question merely borders on rudeness, a direct answer is the mark of a simpleton.

"A drink?"

"I joined you unasked," he retorted, and summoned the tangle-headed girl. "Bring us better wine than this swill!"

With that word and gesture I recognized him and my teeth clamped hard on my lip. This was the loudmouth who had shown fight in the s.p.a.ceport cafe, and run away before the dark girl with the sign of Nebran sprawled on her breast.

The Golden Age Of Science Fiction Vol Xi Part 44

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