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«Earth is Heaven», E.C Tubb

 

Chapter One

 

With a jerk he was awake, sweating from dreams of blood and death and remembered pain. The walls of the cabin seemed to swirl in the faint glow of artificial dawn, then it was over and Dumarest sat on the edge.of his bunk, sucking air into his lungs, conscious of the sweat dewing face and naked torso. The product of nightmare born of fatigue induced by too many watches maintained too long.

And yet?

He leaned back to rest his shoulders against the bulkhead, aware of the metal, the bunk on which he sat, the ship in which they were contained. It enclosed him like a thing alive, the pulse of the engine transmitted by hull and stanchions emitting a whispering susurration which hung like a fading ghost echo in the air. Beneath his questing fingers he felt the reassuring tingle which told of the Erhaft field in being. The ship, wrapped in its cocoon, was still hurtling between the stars. It made a sealed world of warmth and security against the hostile environment of the void.

Yet something was wrong.

Dumarest sensed it as he looked around the cabin; the familiar tension which warned of impending danger. A prickling of the skin and an unease which he had learned never to ignore. He rose, reaching for his clothing, donning pants, boots and tunic to stand tall in neutral grey. From beneath his pillow he lifted his knife, steel flashing as he thrust the nine inches of curved and pointed steel into his right boot. Here, in his cabin on his own ship, he should be safe, but old habits died hard.

Ysanne reared upright as he opened her door, arms lifting, lips parted in a smile.

"Earl! How nice of you to come. How did you guess I'd been hoping you'd join me?" Her smiled changed into a frown as she saw his expression. "Trouble?"

"Maybe. I don't know."

"The field?" She touched the bulkhead, repeating his earlier test, registering her relief at what she found. "It's still active. We aren't drifting, thank God. So what's the matter?"

"I can't tell. It's just a feeling I have." Dumarest looked at the woman, at her hair, her face, the smooth contours of her body bared by the fallen cover. Looked and saw nothing but the specialist she was. "Join Andre and make a check. I'll be with Jed."

Craig didn't move as Dumarest entered the engine room. The engineer sat slumped before his console, a bottle standing to one side, a vial containing tablets close to his hand. A broad man, no longer young, rust-colored hair cropped to form a helmet over his skull. The scar tissue ruining his face gleamed with reflected light. "Jed?"

"I wasn't asleep!" Craig reared as Dumarest touched his shoulder. "I was just easing my head-the damn thing aches like fury."

Dumarest said nothing, noting the sweat dewing the man's face, the rapidity of his breathing. Lifting the bottle he tasted the contents, finding water sweetened and laced with citrus. The tablets were to ease pain.

He said, "I want a complete check of all installations. Start with the generator."

"It's sweet." Craig gestured at the panel. "See? Every light in the green. No variation to speak of. Which is just as it should be. It's a new unit, Earl. And I supervised the installation myself."

The truth and checks proved its efficiency. As they did the power supply, the monitors, the governors and relays, the servo-mechanisms.

Batrun called from the control room. "Ysanne told me of your fears, Earl. Have you found anything wrong?"

"Not as yet, Andre. You?"

"All is functioning as it should be. Maybe you had a nightmare. Ysanne-" Her voice took over from the captain's. "All clear as far as I can make out, Earl. But we're getting close to the Chandorah. We'll have to change course if we hope to avoid it." She added, musingly, "Maybe that's what your hunch is all about. The Chandorah's trouble enough for any ship. You knew it was close and it could have played on your mind."

Maybe, but Dumarest didn't think so. He said, "How's your head?"

"It feels heavy. Why?"

"Andre?"

"A slight ache. Pills will cure it."

The pills should have cured the engineer's, but even as Dumarest turned from the intercom he saw the man help himself to more. Headaches-his own temples had begun to throb, lassitude, excessive warmth-why had he been so blind?


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