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«Eye of the Zodiac», E.C Tubb

Chapter One

 

At night the sound was that of a monster, a feral roar which rose to the skies and was carried on the wind, a hungry growling interspersed with staccato explosions which thickened the air and left an acrid taint. At day the monster was revealed as a conglomeration of men and machines which tore into the flank of a mountain, delving deep, gutting ancient stone and pulverizing rock for the sake of the metal it contained.

A dual operation, the metal helping to pay for the pass and tunnel which would link inhabited areas, a passage which would rob the sea and sky of expensive and dangerous transport.

One day it would be completed-but Dumarest had no intention of seeing it. Already he had stayed on Tradum too long.

He stood by the door of the hut which housed fifty men, looking towards the west, seeing the fabulous glory of the sunset. Swaths of red and orange, pink and gold, streamers of purple and emerald caught and reflected by the mist of scudding cloud so that he seemed to be looking upward at the surface of some incredible ocean.

A relaxing sight, something to ease the fatigue born of eight hours continuous labor. Now he faced another shift as an extra night-guard. Hard work but added pay. Soon, he would have enough.

"Earl?" He turned as someone called. "You out there, Earl?"

Leon Harvey, young, thin, his face old before its time. He stepped from the hut, bunking, a towel over his arm. His face brightened as he saw Dumarest.

"You should have woken me," he accused. "You know how Nyther is-once late on the job and you lose it."

"That could be a good thing."

"Why?" Stung, his pride touched, the youngster bridled. "Don't you think I can take it?"

"Can you?"

"Sure I can. I'm tired, true, but I'll get over it. It just takes getting used to. Anyway, I need the money."

Wanted, not needed, a difference Dumarest recognized if the other did not. He made no comment, stepping to where a trough stood beneath a line of faucets, stripping and standing beneath one, water laving his head and body as he twisted a control.

Cold water piped from a mountain stream, numbing but refreshing, causing goose pimples to rise on his skin, the chill accentuating the pallor of the thin lines of old scars which marred his torso.

Shivering, his lips blue, Leon hastily rubbed himself down,

"You're tough, Earl," he said enviously. "That water's close to freezing."

Dumarest reached for his towel. In many ways Leon was a nuisance, but he could recognize the youngster's need, even be a little amused by his claim to affinity. He too had traveled, a few trips to nearby worlds, but it was more than that which had won his tolerance. The boy was star-crazed, filled with the yearning for adventure, unable to see dirt and squalor for what it really was. One day, perhaps, he would learn.

"Earl-"

"You talk too much."

"How else am I to learn." Leon watched as Dumarest dressed, wearing pants, sturdy knee-boots, a tunic long in the sleeves and fitting high around the throat. The gray plastic was scuffed in several places, the glint of buried mesh showing, metallic protection against the thrust of a knife, the rip of a claw. Reflected light from the setting sun winked from the nine-inch blade which Dumarest carefully wiped before slipping it into his right boot.

"Earl!"

"What now?"

"When we get the money-when I get it-can I go with you?"

"No."

"Why not? We could travel together. I could help you, maybe, and-why not, Earl?"

Too many reasons, none of which the youngster would understand. His very desire for companionship showed how unfitted he was to follow the way he had chosen. A man traveled faster alone. It was easier to get one berth than two. And two men would be easier to spot than one.

Dumarest said, "Forget it, Leon."

"Why? Is someone after you? Is that it, Earl? Are you in danger of some kind?"

A guess-or perhaps a comment too shrewd for comfort. Certainly too near the truth. Dumarest looked at the young face, the haggardness it revealed, the fatigue. Medical science could have made him appear younger, intensive training taught him a part to play, rewards offered and promises made. There could be a thousand like him scattered on worlds in this sector, placed where a destitute traveler would look for work, waiting, watchful, doing nothing until the time came to report to their masters.


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