Digitally transcribed for the Gardner Francis Fox Adventure Library
He was accepted into the camaraderie of the thieves’ kitchen without question. To the hardened criminals who had been abandoned on Dakkan planet, he was just another face. Than Lear had a need for him, and that was all any of them cared to know.
Carrick tried to resign himself to his lot, but a part of him itched to go back, to fling a challenge into the teeth of the Empire, to rub faces in the hard facts of his own innocence. He knew he could do nothing of the kind; he was fortunate to be alive, to eat the wholesome but monotonously similar canned foods which were his meals, to sleep on a bunk covered with warm blankets. His hope was only a dream, a Grail that shimmered in the mists of impossibility.
He had plenty of time to dream. Every mother’s son of them had time. They were rich with it, but it was all their wealth. A man could lie all day between meals on his bunk and stare at the stone ceiling overhead, if he wanted; but that way led to madness and a quick death before the blast of an implositron-gun in the hand of Than Lear. A man who was a whole man wanted something more than time, some little thing with which to occupy his moments that mounted endlessly to build the hours and the days and the weeks.
Carrick became an assistant to Mai Valoris. Though he had no skill by which to create the miniature masterpieces she fashioned behind the viewing windows, he had an imagination and a knowledge of architecture. He had been on many planets and know a little about each of them; he could make suggestions by which she might make more realistic a bit of background setting or marshlands in the distance or a stretch of desert or the green fringe of underbrush that marked the limits of faraway foothills.
The days passed into weeks.
From the storehouse Carrick brought all the broken shards and remnants he could find, those priceless artifacts which the smugglers had dug up from the sands when they made their hidden storehouse. Poring over them, he sought to visualize the sort of civilization that had lived and died on Dakkan planet. It had been a retarded world, of that he was confident.
Third phase, late Classical, on a par with the old Roman Empire of Earth if there had been no barbarian inroads, if it had reached a level and maintained it, unable to progress, too civilized to retrogress. He guessed that the thing in the Temple—Ylth’yl—had been the anchor holding them to the past. Helpless to throw off its yoke, drained of vitality by its demands, these people had resigned themselves to a living death.
Carrick knew the bite of pity.
When restlessness and he need for action moved him he took a digging spade and went out of the underground chambers in among the ruins and spent days shifting the red sands around, hoping to uncover some new evidence, some forgotten artifact that might help him solve his mystery. Whatever became of Ylth’yl? How did the end come for the people of Dakkan planet? In what strange way were those rites in the Temple completed? A voice in his head held the latter answer but it was nightmare to think on, and he wanted verification of his suspicions before he would admit them.
The men grinned when they saw him walking out with the spade or while he was spending hours in the hot sun, digging, delving under those shrouding red grains after the riddle of the Ylth’yline peoples. Sometimes Mai came along, inspired by his enthusiasm, though she was hard nose enough to believe he only wasted his time.
“You’re just stubborn,” she would say, sitting on a mound of sand and hugging her legs with both arms, resting her chin on bent knees and brooding at him. “You think nothing can hold out against you, once you go after it. Don’t be so pig-headed.”
“I’m not pig-headed,” he grumbled.
He was scared, coldly terrified. Carrick would not admit it to the girl but this alien life form, this Ylth’yl, might still be alive. Somewhere in the stars—waiting. A monstrous leech hungry to fasten onto humankind, to bring men to their knees as if had brought the Dakkans.
The spade was like a toy in his big, strong hands. The sands flew to his fevered digging, only to reveal more sand. Sometimes he seemed frantic, the way he acted, like a dog after a lost bone. A few of the men would stare at him in those times, wondering among themselves if he were coming down with star fever.
Even Than Lear became interested after a while. The big bald man would come and stand on the rim of the pit where Carrick labored, chewing on his lip and scowling, trying to fathom the thought processes of the former space officer. He asked Mai Valoris about him. For answer, she took him to the bedroom view-window and showed him the Temple and the white mist rising from its altar. Than Lear laughed.
“A will o’ the wisp, no more. Maybe he had a nightmare.” The criminal turned away, satisfied.
Then one day he found the broken statuette. It was thrusting up from the sand at a depth of five feet, black with age, with a few flakes of white paint still adhering to it and a hold where a chain might go. An amulet of the god, to be worn about the neck or at the belt of its worshiper. Carrick gave a cry and lifted it into the sunlight, feeling the hairs on his neck rise as they had before at sight of Ylth’yl, knowing an old antagonism, a hostility bred into his flesh and bone.
Even as he clasped the cold metal, he heard the thunder. Thunder? On a day such as this? His eyes went upward to a great silver saucer lowering through the blue vault of empty sky. Carrick gave another cry and felt his heart turn over. A spaceship coming down to him, like the thunderbolt of an ancient god in answer to a prayer! His heart slammed in his rib cage with a wild elation.
The Grail of his dream grew clear and sharp.
Carrick still held the statuette, his fingers wrapped about it, as he came clambering up the sloping sides of his pit. From the entrance to the underground tunnels men and women were coming, laughing and calling out to one another.
The smugglers were here, with food, with liquors. And with news.
The criminals hungered for word of the doings on their home worlds. They would listen enthralled to the minutest shreds of gossip, or rumor, after the smugglers had eaten and were relaxing with syrupol or numbing panthalos. They were running now toward the lowering ship, staying clear of the maelstrom of flying red sand where the gravity plates were letting do and the compress-air vets were taking over.
Carrick stood behind them all, just watching. He filled his eyes with the silver bulk of the mighty spacer, understanding that it was a new model star-ship, complete with gravity plates and solar engines powerful enough to function on just a hint of star shine; he wondered where they had stolen it. Life in a craft like that would be pleasant, its air tinted with scents of pine or balsam, cool and invigorating, its thermal units maintaining a steady temperature. Nothing at all like the old days, when man had traveled through his solar system in clumsy rocket-ships.
The port was opening, a metallic ramp sliding out and downward to the sand. Two men came to the port and stood waving. Each of them held a tall vial of green panthalos. The gathered criminals howled at sight of the forbidden liquor and surged forward.
“They’ll be drunk within the hour,” said Mai Valoris. She stood at his elbow, watching with him. Her eyes gleamed oddly when she looked at Carrick, as if she were holding her breath while waiting for him to make some move. Her heavy yellow hair was braided, hanging over her tight black blouse so that she seemed a Viking maiden in alien garb. As always when Mai stood close to him, Carrick felt his pulse race.
He shrugged casually, “Drunk or sober, it makes no difference to me. I won’t touch the stuff. It robs a man of his wits.”
“Who needs wits on Dakkan planet?” she asked.
He made no answer to that sly remark, contenting himself with watching the criminals move up the ramp and begin unloading the crates. After a while he went and helped them.
A few of the men were already popping plasticorks and standing spraddle-legged, swallowing the green liquor. Panthalos gave a man high dreams, letting him live for a while in a land where there are no laws, where every man is his own god. It opened the gates of the subconscious, Hannes Stryker had once explained to Carrick, and what a man wanted with its help a man had.
If he hungered for power, he ruled a thousand planets in his dreams. If he lusted after women, the beauties of a hundred worlds begged for his attentions. The green liquor was brewed from a fruit of the panthal tree. Theoretically it was prepared only under government supervision—panthalos was administered by medical prescription to ease the pains of surgery or other hospital treatment—but there were outlaw orchards on the Border planets and any number of stills. There were no aftereffects to panthalos and no pain if a man were deprived of it, but its dream life was so vivid, its pleasures so intense, that many men lived only to drink and sleep, forgetting reality for the dream so that their bodies wasted away and they died, still dreaming.
Carrick saw Than Lear watching him; he shouldered two crates and moved down the ramp with them, Mai at his heels. The bald man grinned at Carrick.
“Don’t drink too much of that stuff,” he called from the port where he was lifting four crates in this mighty arms.
“I’ll drink only what you do,” Carrick replied.
At his elbow, Mai said, “It won’t be much, then. Than Lear permits himself a thimbleful, no more. Just enough to become Space Fleet Marshal of the Empire. He fights a thousand battles with panthalos in him, building star worlds, setting himself up as the mightiest spaceman in the Empire.”
“A power complex,” Carrick muttered.
“Or compensation for what he might have been—and wasn’t.”
Carrick did not answer. He was too busy following the others into the tunnels, setting down his crates, going back for others. There would be food and new garments in the hold of the silver star-ship, tapes for tri-dimensional viewing of the latest theatrical presentations, books for those who liked to lose themselves with printed words, electronically animated miniatures that acted out do-it-yourself stage plays in response to punched cards fed into a controller.
Men were singing in the chamber with the star ceiling as the first effects of panthalos made itself felt. Within the hour, they would be slumped limp and sleeping. Carrick heard music and guessed that some of the women of Dakkan planet might be dancing.
Mai said, “It gets a little rough after a while. Everybody lets off steam when the smugglers vane down. You could have fun in there with the others. That redheaded girl—Sakkya—has a thing for you.
Her eyes were impish and Carrick laughed.
“I want to ask the smugglers what they know about that white thing in your window Temple. They get to a lot of worlds. They may have heard something about it.”
“You never give up, do you?”
He ignored her, moving through the star chamber where two of the women were already beginning to divest themselves of clothes. One was dancing on a tabletop being fed panthalos by a man whose eyes were glazed and bloodshot. A broken bottle—emptied of its contents—rolled against his foot as he and Mai threaded a path between the loungichairs. The redheaded Sakkya leered at him but Carrick only winked and slid past her reaching hand.
“Why isn’t Than Lear in there?” he asked the girl as they moved through the tunnel away from the bar chamber.
“Than Lear never drinks anything but water while the smugglers’ ship is grounded. Sometimes a man tries to sneak aboard, to hide himself in the hold, to get back planet side. A lot of us are homesick, Carrick. Not you, maybe—but the others. The ones—”
She hesitated and he chuckled. “Go on, say it. The ones who are normal. Me, I’m not normal—not with this body Stryker gave me. Is that it?”
Mai scowled at him. “Sakkya didn’t appeal to you?”
“Sure she did. So do you. But I have other things on my mind.”
“Like finding out about Ylth’yl.”
She made a sound in her throat that mocked him, but she came after him up onto the red sands where two of the smugglers were standing, savoring the air. An artificial atmosphere, no matter how perfectly controlled, is never the same as the air of a planet. Carrick remembered his own savoring of planets in the past.
The smugglers heard him out on the subject of Ylth’yl but could offer no suggestions. One of them, a hairy Capellan, had been to more than a hundred worlds in his time, he claimed; no such god existed anywhere. Of that he was positive. He would have heard of it.
As they talked, Carrick appeared to stroll aimlessly, but Mai noted that his every turn and twist of direction seemed always to point at the big silver star-ship She came after him like a hound trained to heel, anxious not to put distance between them. Mai Valoris had an idea about Kael Carrick.
He showed the smugglers the little statuette he had found. They stared at it but shook their heads. No, nothing even approximating such a god was known anywhere in space. Mai Valois had come forward at sight of the statuette. She reached for it, examining it closely.
She was about to speak when Carrick stiffened.
Than Lear was standing in the spaceship port, staring down at them. Mai was surprised to see how near the ship they had come. They were less than thirty feet away. In her mind she marveled at Carrick; yet she herself had not realized how well he had succeeded in his plan. Or—did he have a plan? Was she giving him more credit than was his due? He might not—
“You there, Carrick,” called Than Lear. “Chart a different course. You’re too close to the ship.”
Carrick squinted up at the big bald man. His voice was oddly gentle. “Why, chief—what are you doing aboard? I thought you were back in the bar chamber, guzzling panthalos.”
Than Lear scowled blackly. “My post is here when this shop’s vaned down. To make sure no mother’s son tries to steal aboard her.”
Carrick grinned, “If I had a mind to take passage, nobody’d stop me.”
“I would, ” the bald man snapped.
Mai felt the hostility between them, like a charge of ionized air. Carrick was looking up, moving forward slowly. Than Lear was glaring at him, big hands opening and closing. He wanted Kael Carrick alive and unharmed but the man seemed to have a devil in him; he could read the challenge in his eyes as he put a foot on the ramp and lifted up onto it.
“Veer off,” Than Lear growled. “I’ve no wish to hurt you.”
“You talk a lot,” Carrick smiled.
The two smugglers were looking from one man to the other. The Capellan said, ” We should get the captain. He ought to stop this.” The other man only nodded, watching, waiting. By mutual agreement—unspoken—they decided that neither would leave just yet; each had always nurtured a secret with to see Than Lear fight.
The big man was willing to oblige them. He took two steps forward, plucking at his woolen sleeves, rolling them up to bare his forearms. “You talk a bit yourself, Carrick. Come on, if it’s fight you want. Go past me if you can.”
Carrick walked slowly, eyes alert. He had fought men often enough before, though never with this new body of his. Wary of his reactions, of his untested strength, he knew a deep need to satisfy his curiosity. Than Lear had grown up in the same school he had himself, in taverns on one wartime planet or another, wenching, dicing, settling scores with fists in back alleyways. The bald man knew the rules, which said there were no rules between two men with strong wills and hard bodies.
Then Than Lear leaped. He came through the air like an uncoiling panther, big hands spread to seize and clutch. Carrick crouched, pivoted. One hand stabbed out, caught at a wrist. His body turned.
Moving down slope, the bald man had been aided in his lunge by gravity. Now it acted against him. He felt his wrist caught, knew the hard nudge of a shoulder under his ribs, felt the ramp fall away from under his feet. He went flying through the air to thump heavily on the lower section of the ramp and roll off it onto the ground.
Almost instantly he was back on his feet. But he was too late.
Carrick was racing through the port, reaching for the lever controls. Mai Valoris was more than halfway up the ramp, running on flying feet, seeming to skim the bright metal. Than Lear bellowed.
The smugglers stood frozen, mute and dumb.
Than Lear roared, “Carrick, damn your eyes! You tricked me. You didn’t fight fair! I’ll flay you for this. I swear I’ll cut your heart out and—”
He leaped for the ramp but the solar engines were functioning now. The metal ramp lifted, shaking him off, and retracted back into inside the saucer. Than Lear fell into the desert sands and lifted a small red cloud around him. He sneezed. To one side of him the smugglers came awake with the realization of what was happening. One of them drew a thin rod and fired a stream of isotopical radiation at the ship. The deadly brightness hit the silvery hull and splashed in a shower of sparks.
“Get the captain!” shouted the smaller of the smugglers.
The hairy Capellan whirled and ran. Behind him he could hear the whisper of sand under compress-air vents and the muted hum of anti-gravity plates filling with energy. The ship that had been his home for the past half dozen months was lifting off-planet and he was not on it. With an empty, sinking feeling, he realized suddenly that he would have to share the underground tunnels with the criminal exiles of Dakkan planet.
Than Lear was standing, head thrown back, staring upward. A wild madness was in his veins. His great hands rose upward and his fingers curved as if he would grasp the rising star-ship and by sheer strength, draw it down to the red sands on which he stood. His lips mouthed curses until they foamed.
He stood until the ship was at a rim of space, staring wide-eyed, knowing that someday another ship would come, that when it did he would board it and go out among the stars and find Carrick and kill him, slowly and with relish, with his bare hands. The knowledge eased the torment of defeat in the big bald man, but it added the intolerable itch of impatience.
“I’ll wait. I’ll wait. The time will pass, eventually.”
For the first time in many minutes he lowered his head. His neck muscles ached. Than Lear put his hand to them and rubbed slowly.
Mai Valoris leaned against a bulkhead wall and sobbed for breath. Takeoff had been so sudden that her muscles had been caught unprepared. The gravity plates insures a smooth lift, but there was always pressure. She felt as if the blood had been drawn to her feet and only now was beginning once again to circulate throughout her body. The metal wall where her shoulder rested felt strong and sturdy. She enjoyed its pressure and remained against it while her eyes followed Carrick as he move about the control room.
After a while she asked, “Where away?”
He did not look up from the star charts he was running through the viewer. “Hilnoris, in the Capellan system.” He turned his head and stared at her with his gray eyes; something feral, wolf like, flared deep inside them. “They tried me for murder on Hilnoris. They sentenced me to Dakkan planet there.”
“They’ll be waiting to send you back—or to a different planet,” she said slowly.
“They think I’m dead. They’ve written me off.”
“When they see you, they’ll know the truth.”
“They won’t see me,” he told her.
She pushed free of the bulkhead at that and moved across the companionway toward him. There were frosted glass panels between the companionway and the half dozen cabins the star-ship boasted. In one of them she caught a reflection of herself in tight black blouse and cling-pants A ribbon of her braids had loosened; she put fingers to it and began to rework the yellow hair as she came to stand beside Carrick.
Her shadow from the overhead lights fell across the viewing panel. Carrick said, “I had to take off so fast, I didn’t get a fix on our directions. Astro-navigation was never my strong point. Dakkan’s somewhere in the Spican group, I know, but—”
Mai butted his shoulder with a rounded hip. “Move over. You’re all thumbs. I can work the dials a lot better than you.”
Under her hands the sectors firmed, came into focus. The star-ship was a bright do on the bead glass screen moving slowly sun-ward. She reached for a corrective lever and let the mock-up position itself against the larger sector of space that appeared automatically on the wall-screen above their heads.
Carrick read of the tangentials and gauges. He punched a tape, then fed it into the computer.
The ship was gathering speed, moving faster across the screen as the solar engines pumped energy through the gravity plates. There was no sensation of acceleration, there was no sensation at all. The star-ship was a Vendim-Reynal, a new one, maybe two, three years old. Vendim-Reynal made good ships. They furnished Empire with its cruisers and heavy battle-wagons
In three days the ship would be within hailing distance of Hilnoris. Until then it would be moving through the shifting gray mists of hyperspace like a disembodied spirit. It was alone in a universe that existed only as a form of negated energy.
Carrick leaned back in the contour bench and stretched. “Now to take inventory,” he grinned. “We’ll need money, clothes, stuff like that if we’re to make a splash on Hilnoris.”
After an hour he found a strongbox filled with golden karel—each was worth ten Earth dollars at star rate exchange—more than enough to see through an extended stay even on a luxury planet. There were clothes, too, Rigel silks and Arcturan cottons, cloaks of cloth-of-gold and wool, sandals of the finest leathers obtainable.
“Did they smuggle garments, too?” he wondered.
Mai was holding up a jersey blouse of stretching brocade. “They have to be able to come and go in any society. It’s easy to see you never smuggled goods into a star port. They must be ready to bribe or fight, to mix with port-side riff-raff or the elite of planetary society.”
She hooted at him. “Where’ve you been all your life? Don’t you know there are things forbidden to the planets? Panthalos, for one. Cetian women, for another.” She dimpled a sly smile. “Ever seen a Cetian woman, Carrick? No, I suppose not. You’ve always been on military duty, haven’t you? Spaceport wenches, bar-girls, an occasional discontented housewife. Mmmm?”
He laughed and slapped her flank, making her yelp. “All right, you know so much, pick me out some things to wear. I’m a middle-aged trader from the Inland worlds, come to Hilnoris to see the sights. You’re my wife.”
She mock curtsy, but she entered into the spirit of the adventure, selecting drab cling pants and loose, plain shirts for him, wildly glamorous garments for herself. When he protested, she told him that no Inland trader in his right mind would wear anything but sober garments except on a vacation to one of the water worlds. His wife, on the other hand, would be inclined to forget her bourgeois background and let go with both barrels.
“It’s Earth Main Street all over again out here,” she said thoughtfully, pausing in the cabin doorway with her arms filled with clothes. “People are the same wherever you find them. Main Street was only the symbolism for a certain type of human being.”
“Am I to be loud? Brash?”
Her eyes were gleeful. “Just be yourself. Pompous, righteous, down to earth and—”
She fled when he came for her, racing down the corridor on dainty feet. Carrick stood and grinned, fists on his hips. He was glad she had come aboard with him. She knew the star worlds, he did not. Living in a basket two years and after that spending three years in Hannes Stryker’s laboratories on Leonidar did little to improve the social amenities. Carrick decided he was woefully ignorant of the things that mattered.
He supposed Than Lear would have it in for Mai Valoris; well, he might not know much about the way the star worlds wagged, but he could fight for her and would. The thought made him feel better, suddenly, so that he hummed to himself as he dressed in a yellow wool blouse and cling pants of dark brown with golden splashes woven into the material. A sash across his lean middle held a money sack and a holster for a small stun-gun.
He considered the stun-gun a moment. Planets like Hilnoris had severe laws about small arms. They let a man carry a stun-gun because sometimes late at night there was violence on the big city streets. Even the Law Patrols, good as they were, couldn’t cover every square inch of the sprawling star-port cities. Carrick chuckled. His hand was used to the solid weight of an implositron; he wondered if he might convert the stunner into the more lethal weapon.
He wandered into the forward control room and bean examining star charts with an idea of boning up on his rudimentary astro-navigation. He was a fighting man, no pilot or navigator, yet in his years of service he had learned a little about flying a spaceship. The Fleet gave free courses between campaigns, an Carrick had never been a man to sit on his thinking apparatus. Half a dozen hours over the charts and their supplementary texts, and a good deal of it would come back to him. He wished he had been more conscientious scholar.
Mai wandered in wearing a gold bolero over a bare midriff, with golden brocade cling pants. With her thick yellow hair piled in an up-sweep, her eyelids tinted blue and her fingernails frosted with gold , she seemed a walking statue. She posed in the doorway, one hip languidly out-thrust, smiling seductively as he whistled.
“This is a trader’s wife?” he asked at last.
She giggled. “I’ve seen some of them in getups gaudier than this. Besides, can you help it if you married a gorgeous hunk of female?”
“I’m all for it, if it won’t give us away.”
Hips swaying, she came toward him. “You married late in life, after you made your pile. You shopped around for something to show off, understand?” Her eyes were impish. “You got yourself the best looking woman on the Inland planets. I used to be an entertainer Singer, hoofer, like that. You understand?”
She put a hand to the brown hair close cropped over his temple. “We’ll have to gray that hair a little, just enough to make you look distinctive.” She frowned. “You know anything besides warfare that you can talk about in a plotel lobby?”
“I sell weapons to plantation owners who have to keep private little armies against wild animals and the criminal gangs that roam the wilder parts of the outer planets,” he explained.
She nodded. “Sounds all right. Mmm, you’re awfully tanned. Would a weapons trader be that healthy?”
“He would if his wife made him take in one of the water worlds before vaning down on Hilnoris. You’re not exactly pale yourself, you know.”
“Gold does go well with my coloring, doesn’t it?”
This time when he would have clouted her hip she dodged aside and seated herself in the co-pilot’s chair. “Fun’s fun, Carrick, but this is a pretty grim business you’re setting out to do.”
“I’m innocent. I mean to prove it.”
“All right. Maybe we can show the world I didn’t kill Eran Telliver, too—while we’re at it. But first things first. What’s your plan of action?”
“I’m not sure. The trial tape, I guess. It’ll have names, addresses, everything I need.”
“Then you go paying calls on people.”
“With a gun? To get them to talk?”
He shrugged and turned back to his navigation charts to study them. He would be star-hopping a lot, if things went smoothly. Even if they didn’t , he might have to leave a world in a hurry and he wanted to know where he was headed before he got there. The ship was quiet; only the hum of the gravity plates made any sound. He concentrated. After a while he could hear Mai singing softly to herself. She sounded contented.