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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Tubb E.C
 

«Jack of Swords», E.C Tubb

Chapter One

 

At sunset the sky of Teralde was painted with vibrant swaths of brilliant color; minute crystals of air-borne dust refracting the light so that the entire bowl of the firmament looked as if some cosmic artist had spilled his palette in a profusion of inspired genius. An eye-catching spectacle but one which, for Dumarest, had long ceased to hold charm.

He walked through the streets gilded with dying light, past tall houses fashioned of stone, the windows small, the doors thick and tightly barred. Even the shops were like small fortresses, their wares jealously guarded, reluctantly displayed. The field, as usual, was empty, the barren dirt devoid of the weight of a single vessel. The gate set into the perimeter fence was unmanned, a sure sign that no ship was expected.

"Nothing." The agent, a Hausi, leaned back in his chair. His ebony face, scarred with the caste marks of his guild, was bland. "Ships will arrive eventually, of course, but Teralde is not a commercial world. Only when the beasts have been processed and shipments are available will the traders come. Until then all we can hope for is some tourists."

Luxury vessels carrying jaded dilettantes, the rich and curious with money to burn and time to waste. But Dumarest had no time-unless a ship arrived soon he would be stranded.

He said, "I need work."

"Work?" The Hausi shrugged. "My friend, on Teralde the desire is not enough. You need to own special skills. Your profession?"

"I can do most things which need to be done."

"Of course. Do I reveal doubt?" Yethan Ctonat selected a comfit from an ornamented box and crushed the candied morsel between strong teeth. "But, you understand, I represent my guild. To place a man who cannot perform the skills he claims to own would reflect on my reputation. And demand is small. Are you a master of genetic manipulation? A physician? A veterinarian? I tell you frankly, we have no need of gamblers."

"Do I look a gambler?"

"A man who travels is always that," said the agent smoothly. 'To drift from world to world, never certain of what he will find, what else can such a man be? Especially if he travels Low. The fifteen-percent death rate is a risk none but a gambler would take. And you have traveled Low, have you not?"

To often, riding doped, frozen, and ninety percent dead in caskets designed for the transportation of animals. Cheap travel-all that could be said for it.

"I will not deceive you," said Yethan Ctonat. "As you must have discovered, there is no hope of normal employment on this world. You work for the Owners or for those they tolerate or you do not work at all. And for every vacancy there is a host of applicants." He added, casually, "For a man like you there is only one way to survive on Teralde."

Dumarest was curt. "To fight?"

"You have guessed it. Blood has a universal appeal. If you are interested-" The agent broke off, reaching for another comfit. "It's all I can offer."

And all Dumarest had expected, but the attempt had had to be made. The colors in the sky were fading as he walked through the city and toward the wilderness at the edge of which sprawled the slums. Lowtowns were always the same and in his time he had seen too many of them. Sometimes they were huddles of shacks, tents, and shelters crudely fashioned from whatever materials were at hand; at others as on Teralde, they were simple boxes built of stone and set in neat array. But shacks or buildings the atmosphere was identical.

A miasma compounded of despair and poverty, the reek of a world which held no pride, no hope, nothing but the bleak concentration of the moment, the need to survive yet one more day, one more hour. The refuge of those without work or money. Had they been slaves they would have been fed and clothed, a responsibility to their owners. As it was they formed a pool of cheap labor which cost nothing, the only expense being the warren in which they lived and bred and died.

"Earl!" A man came running toward Dumarest as he entered one of the buildings. "Earl, have you decided?"

Cran Elem was small, thin, his cheeks sunken, the bones prominent. Beneath the rags he wore his wasted flesh and bone gave him the fragility of a child.

Dumarest made no answer, climbing the stairs to the flat roof there to stand and look at the sky. Dusk was thickening and would soon yield to night, the darkness heralded by the glitter of early stars.

Stars like the eyes he had seen too often in the shadows surrounding a ring. The avid, hungry eyes of those eager for the sight of blood and pain. Their coldness was the chill of naked steel, their gleam that of razored edge and point. To fight, to kill and maim, to win the price of a meal so as to live to fight again. He had done it before and would again if all else failed, but there could be a better way.


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