Uncharted Stars, page 1
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It was like any other caravansary at a space port, not providing quarters for a Veep or some off-planet functionary, but not for a belt as sparsely packed with credits as mine was at that moment either. My fingers twitched and I got a cold chill in my middle every time my thoughts strayed to how flat that belt was at present. But there is such a thing as face, or prestige, whatever name you want to give it, and that I must have now or fail completely. And my aching feet, my depressed spirits told me that I was already at the point where one surrendered hope and waited for the inevitable blow to fall. That blow could only fell me in one direction. I would lose what I had played the biggest gamble of my life to win—a ship now sitting on its tail fins in a field I could have sighted from this hotel had I been a Veep and able to afford one of the crown tower rooms with actual windows.
One may be able to buy a ship but thereafter it sits eating up more and more credits in ground fees, field service—more costs than my innocence would have believed possible a planet month earlier. And one cannot lift off world until he has a qualified pilot at the controls, the which I was not, and the which I had not been able to locate.
It had all sounded so easy in the beginning. My thinking had certainly been clouded when I had plunged into this. No—been plunged! Now I centered my gaze on the door which was the entrance to what I could temporarily call “home,” and I had very unkind thoughts, approaching the dire, about the partner waiting me behind it.
The past year had certainly not been one to soothe my nerves, or lead me to believe that providence smiled sweetly at me. It had begun as usual. I, Murdoc Jern, had been going about my business in the way any roving gem buyer’s apprentice would. Not that our lives, mine and my master Vondar Ustle’s, had been without exciting incident. But on Tanth, in the spin of a diabolical “sacred” arrow, everything had broken apart as if a laser ray had been used to sever me not only from Vondar but from any peace of mind or body.
When the sacrifice arrow of the green-robed priests had swung to a stop between Vondar and me, we had not feared; off-worlders were not meat to satisfy their demonic master. Only we had been jumped by the tavern crowd, probably only too glad to see a choice which had not included one of them. Vondar had died from a knife thrust and I had been hunted down the byways of that dark city, to claim sanctuary in the hold of another of their grisly godlings. From there I had, I thought, paid my way for escape on a Free Trader.
But I had only taken a wide stride from a stinking morass into a bush fire—since my rise into space had started me on a series of adventures so wild that, had another recited them to me, I would have thought them the product of fash-smoke breathing, or something he had heard from a story tape.
Suffice it that I was set adrift in space itself, along with a companion whose entrance into my time and space was as weird as his looks. He was born rightly enough, in the proper manner, out of a ship’s cat. Only his father was a black stone, or at least several men trained to observe the unusual would state that. Eet and I had been drawn by the zero stone—the zero stone! One might well term that the seed of all disorder!
I had seen it first in my father’s hands—dull, lifeless, set in a great ring meant to be worn over the bulk of a space glove. It had been found on the body of an alien on an unknown asteroid. And how long dead its suited owner was might be anyone’s guess—up to and including a million years on the average planet. That it had a secret, my father knew, and its fascination held him. In fact, he died to keep it as a threatening heritage for me.
It was the zero stone on my own gloved hand which had drawn me, and Eet, through empty space to a drifting derelict which might or might not have been the very ship its dead owner had once known. And from that a lifeboat had taken us to a world of forest and ruins, where, to keep our secret and our lives, we had fought both the Thieves’ Guild (which my father must have defied, though he had once been a respected member of its upper circles) and the Patrol.
Eet had found one cache of the zero stones. By chance we both stumbled on another. And that one was weird enough to make a man remember it for the rest of his days, for it had been carefully laid up in a temporary tomb shared by the bodies of more than one species of alien, as if intended to pay their passage home to distant and unknown planets of origin. And we knew part of their secret. Zero stones had the power to boost any energy they contacted, and they would also home on their fellows, activating such in turn. But that the planet we had landed upon by chance was the source of the stones, Eet denied.
We used the caches for bargaining, not with the Guild, but with the Patrol, and we came out of the deal with, credits for a ship of our own, plus—very sourly given—clean records and our freedom to go as we willed.
Our ship was Eet’s suggestion. Eet, a creature I could crush in my two hands (sometimes I thought that solution was an excellent one for me), had an invisible presence which towered higher than any Veep I had ever met. In part, his feline mother had shaped him, though I sometimes speculated as to whether his physical appearance did not continue to change subtly. He was furred, though his tail carried only a ridge of that covering down it. But his feet were bare-skinned and his forepaws were small hands which he could use to purposes which proved them more akin to my palms and fingers than a feline’s paws. His ears were small and set close to his head, his body elongated and sinuous.
But it was his mind, not the body he informed me had been “made” for him, which counted. Not only was he telepathic, but the knowledge which abode in his memory, and which he gave me in bits and pieces, must have rivaled the lore of the famed Zacathan libraries, which are crammed with centuries of learning.
Who—or what—Eet was he would never say. But that I would ever be free of him again I greatly doubted. I could resent his calm dictatorship, which steered me on occasion, but there was a fascination (I sometimes speculated as to whether this was deliberately used to entangle me, but if it was a trap it had been very skillfully constructed) which kept me his partner. He had told me many times our companionship was needful, that I provided one part, he the other, to make a greater whole. And I had to admit that it was through him we had come out of our brush with Patrol and Guild as well as we had—with a zero stone still in our possession.
For it was Eet’s intention, which I could share at more optimistic times, to search out the source of the stones. Some small things I had noted on the unknown planet of the caches made me sure that Eet knew more about the unknown civilization or confederation which had first used the stones than he had told me. And he was right in that the man who had the secret of their source could name his own price—always providing he could manage to market that secret without winding up knifed, burned, or disintegrated in some messy fashion before he could sell it properly.
We had found a ship in a break-down yard maintained by a Salarik who knew bargaining as even my late master (whom I had heretofore thought unbeatable) did not. I will admit at once that without Eet I would not have lasted ten planet minutes against such skill and would have issued forth owning the most battered junk the alien had sitting lopsidedly on rusting fins. But the Salariki are feline-ancestered, and perhaps Eet’s cat mother gave him special insight into the other’s mind. The result was we emerged with a useful ship.
It was old, it had been through changes of registry many times, but it was, Eet insisted, sound. And it was small enough for the planet hopping we had in
But there it had sat through far too many days, lacking a pilot. Eet might have qualified had he inhabited a body humanoid enough to master the controls. I had never yet come to the end of any branch of knowledge in my companion, who might evade a direct answer to be sure, but whose supreme confidence always led me to believe that he did have the correct one.
It was now a simple problem: We had a ship but no pilot. We were piling up rental on the field and we could not lift. And we were very close to the end of that small sum we had left after we paid for the ship. Such gems as remained in my belt were not enough to do more than pay for a couple more days’ reckoning at the caravansary, if I could find a buyer. And that was another worry to tug at my mind.
As Vondar’s assistant and apprentice, I had met many of the major gem buyers on scores of planets. But it was to Ustle that they opened their doors and gave confidence. When I dealt on my own I might find the prospect bleak, unless I drifted into what was so often the downfall of the ambitious, the fringes of the black market which dealt in stolen gems or those with dubious pasts. And there I would come face to face with the Guild, a prospect which was enough to warn me off even more than a desire to keep my record clean.
I had not found a pilot. Resolutely now I pushed my worries back into the immediate channel. Deal with one thing at a time, and that, the one facing you. We had to have a pilot to lift, and we had to lift soon, very soon, or lose the ship before making a single venture into space with her.
None of the reputable hiring agencies had available a man who would be willing—at our wages—to ship out on what would seem a desperate venture, the more so when I could not offer any voyage bond. This left the rejects, men black-listed by major lines, written off agency books for some mistake or crime. And to find such a one I must go down into the Off-port, that part of the city where even the Patrol and local police went on sufferance and in couples, where the Guild ruled. To call attention to myself there was asking for a disagreeable future—kidnaping, mind scanning, all the other illegal ways of gaining my knowledge. The Guild had a long and accurate memory.
There was a third course. I could throw up everything—turn on my heel and walk away from the door I was about to activate by thumb pressure on personal seal, take a position in one of the gem shops (if I could find one), forget Eet’s wild dream. Even throw the stone in my belt into the nearest disposal to remove the last temptation. In fact, become as ordinary and law-abiding a citizen as I could.
I was greatly tempted. But I was enough of a Jern not to yield. Instead I set thumb to the door and at the same time beamed a thought before me in greeting. As far as I knew, the seals in any caravansary, once set to individual thumbprints, could not be fooled. But there can always be a first time and the Guild is notorious for buying up or otherwise acquiring new methods of achieving results which even the Patrol does not suspect have been discovered. If we had been traced here, then there just might be a reception committee waiting beyond. So I tried mind-touch with Eet for reassurance.
What I got kept me standing where I was, thumb to doorplate, bewildered, then suspicious. Eet was there. I received enough to be sure of that. We had been mind-coupled long enough for even tenuous linkage to be clear to my poorer human senses. But now Eet was withdrawn, concentrating elsewhere. My fumbling attempts to communicate failed.
Only it was not preoccupation with danger, no warn-off. I pressed my thumb down and watched the door roll back into the wall, intent on what lay beyond.
The room was small, not the cubby of a freeze-class traveler, but certainly not the space of a Veep suite. The various fixtures were wall-folded. And now the room was unusually empty, for apparently Eet had sent every chair, as well as the table, desk, and bed back into the walls, leaving the carpeted floor bare, a single bracket light going.
A circle of dazzling radiance was cast by that (I noted at once that it had been set on the highest frequency and a small portion of my mind began calculating how many minutes of that overpower would be added to our bill). Then I saw what was set squarely under it and I was really startled.
As was true of all port caravansaries, this one catered to tourists as well as business travelers. In the lobby was a shop—charging astronomical prices—where one could buy a souvenir or at least a present for one’s future host or some member of the family. Most of it was, as always, a parade of eye-catching local handicrafts to prove one had been on Theba, with odds and ends of exotic imports from other planets to attract the attention of the less sophisticated traveler.
There were always in such shops replicas of the native fauna, in miniature for the most part. Some were carved as art, others wrought in furs or fabrics to create a very close likeness of the original, often life-size for smaller beasts, birds, or what-is-its.
What sat now in the full beam of the lamp was a stuffed pookha. It was native to Theba. I had lingered by a pet shop (intrigued in spite of my worries) only that morning to watch three live pookhas. And I could well understand their appeal. They were, even in the stuffed state, luxury items of the first class.
This one was not much larger than Eet when he drew his long thin body together in a hunched position, but it was of a far different shape, being chubby and plump and with the instant appeal to my species that all its kind possess. Its plushy fur was a light green-gray with a faint mottling which gave it the appearance of the watered brocade woven on Astrudia. Its fore-paws were bluntly rounded pads, unclawed, though it was well provided with teeth, which in live pookhas were used for crushing their food—tich leaves. The head was round with no visible ears, but between the points where ears might normally be, from one side of that skull-ball to the other, there stood erect a broad mane of whisker growth fanning out in fine display. The eyes were very large and green, of a shade several tints darker than its fur. It was life-size and very handsome—also very, very expensive. And how it had come here I did not have the slightest idea. I would have moved forward to examine it more closely but a sharp crack of thought from Eet froze me where I stood. It was not a concrete message but a warning not to interfere.
Interfere in what? I looked from the stuffed pookha to my roommate. Though I had been through much with Eet and had thought I had learned not to be surprised at any action of my alien companion, he now succeeded very well in startling me.
He was, as I had seen, hunched on the floor just beyond the circle of intense light cast by the lamp. And he was staring as intently at the toy as if he had been watching the advance of some enemy.
Only Eet was no longer entirely Eet. His slim, almost reptilian body was not only hunched into a contracted position but actually appeared to have become plumper and shorter, aping most grotesquely the outward contours of the pookha. In addition, his dark fur had lightened, held a greenish sheen.
Totally bewildered, yet fascinated by what was occurring before my unbelieving eyes, I watched him turn into a pookha, altering his limbs, head shape, color, and all the rest. Then he shuffled into the light and squatted by the toy to face me. His thought rang loudly in my head.
“You are that one.” I pointed a finger, but I could not be sure. To the last raised whisker of crest, the last tuft of soft greenish fur, Eet was twin to the toy he had copied.
“Close your eyes!” His order came so quickly I obeyed without question.
A little irritated, I immediately opened them again, to confront once more two pookhas. I guessed his intent, that I should again choose between them. But to my closest survey there was no difference between the toy and Eet, who had settled without any visible signs of life into the same posture. I put out my hand at last and lifted the nearest, to discover I had the model. And I felt Eet’s satisfaction and amusement.
“Why?” I demanded.
“I am unique.” Was there a trace
“But how did you do this?”
He sat back on his haunches. I had gone down on my knees to see him the closer, once more setting the toy beside him and looking from one to the other for some small difference, though I could see none.
“It is a matter of mind.” He seemed impatient. “How little you know. Your species is shut into a shell of your own contriving, and I see little signs of your struggling to break out of it.” This did not answer my question very well. I still refused to accept the fact that Eet, in spite of all he had been able to do in the past, could think himself into a pookha.
He caught my train of thought easily enough. “Think myself into a hallucination of a pookha,” he corrected in that superior manner I found irking.
“Hallucination!” Now that I could believe. I had never seen it done with such skill and exactitude, but there were aliens who dealt in such illusions with great effect and I had heard enough factual tales of such to believe that it could be done, and that one receptive to such influences and patterns could be made to see as they willed. Was it because I had so long companied Eet and at times been under his domination that I was so deceived now? Or would the illusion he had spun hold for others also?
“For whom and as long as I wish,” he snapped in reply to my unasked question. “Tactile illusion as well—feel!” He thrust forth a furred forelimb, which I touched. Under my fingers it was little different from the toy, except that it had life and was not just fur laid over stuffing.
“Yes.” I sat back on my heels, convinced. Eet was right, as so often he was—often enough to irritate a less logical being such as I. In his own form Eet was strange enough to be noticed, even in a space port, where there is always a coming and going of aliens and unusual pets. He could furnish a clue to our stay here. I had never underrated the Guild or their spy system.
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