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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Tubb E.C

«Prison of Night», E.C Tubb

Chapter One


Kars Gartok was the last to leave, lingering in his cabin until the others had gone, unwilling to engage in useless conversation, to hear again the empty threats and bitter denunciations. Only when the ship was silent did he venture forth to step through the open port and head down the ramp to the field below. It was late in the day, the sun low on the horizon, the air misted with a damp fog which pearled the mesh of the perimeter fence and gave the tall figure standing just beyond the gate a blurred, ethereal quality as if it were the figment of a dream.

But Brother Eldon was no ghost. He waited, dressed in a brown, homespun robe the cowl thrown back despite the chill to reveal a face seamed and creased with age and privation. His feet were bare in open sandals and gnarled hands gripped a bowl of cheap plastic chipped and scarred by usage and time. He lifted it as Gartok approached.

"Of your charity, brother."

Halting Gartok stared at the monk then said, dryly, "Charity? Aren't there fools enough on Hyard without you wanting more?"

"Is to give an act of foolishness?"

"What else?"

"Some would call it an act of virtue, brother."

"To give without hope of reward is the act of a fool," said Gartok, curtly. "A lesson a man in my trade quickly learns."

"As those did who left the ship before you?" Then, before Gartok could answer, the monk added, quietly, "It could be that you have already had your reward. You seem uninjured and you are alive."

"Yes," said Gartok, heavily. "I'm alive."

He was a big man, wide of shoulder and thick of neck, dressed in dark leather trimmed with scarlet, polished patches showing at shoulders and waist where body-armor had rested. His temples bore callouses from the weight of a helmet and his eyes, deep-set and hooded, watched from beneath beetling brows. His hands were broad, the fingers spatulate. The knuckles knobs of bone. His face matched the hands, broad, rough, ridged and seamed with scars. The mouth was a trap, the chin a rock, the nose a predatory beak. He looked what he was-a professional dealer in death.

Watching him as he stood there, the mist dewing the stubble of his cropped head, the monk said, "What happened, brother?"

"We lost."


"What more needs to be said? We were out-gunned, out-manned, out-maneuvered. Eighty-three of a hundred died on Craig. The details? What do they matter?"

"Even so, brother, I would like to know."

For a moment the mercenary hesitated then, shrugging, said, "It's the old story; two men snarling at each other over a strip of land on a world not worth a woman's spit. Each turned to force and hired men. A minor war and dangerous only to those involved. Or so it should have been but accidents happen. And the locals were stubborn and refused to evacuate their villages."

And so they had died in blossoms of flame as shells had burst in crude houses and fragmentation bombs had torn air and flesh with whining shards of metal. An old story and one common on Ilyard where men came to talk and rest and seek employment. Common too on worlds cursed with ambitious rulers who thought of men as pawns to be used in a complicated game.

"Craig," said the monk. "You said that was the name of the world?"

"Yes. One lying on the edge of the Rift. A bleak place of rock and water and cold. A world where the rich burn turf to keep warm and the poor huddle together. But one the wealthier now for the bodies of good men fertilizing the soil."

"But you are not one of them, brother," reminded the monk and lifted his empty bowl a little. "Those who give to the poor often enjoy good fortune."

A direct appeal to the superstition inherent in all gamblers, and what was a mercenary but a man who gambled with his life? Yet the monk felt no pride of achievement as Gartok plunged a hand into a pocket. Trained in the art of psychology it was simple for him to manipulate the emotional triggers which all men carried and to which they could not help but to respond. And the mercenary, like all his breed, must have inner weaknesses, hidden guilts, invisible cracks in his external armor of competence.

As he threw coins into the bowl Gartok said, "It's all I can give, monk. If it isn't enough to buy a blessing at least spare me your curse."

"I curse no one, brother."

"Then you are more saint than man. I curse people often. Captain Blasco who has a taste for killing. The fool who hired us. The swine who-well, never mind. What is done is done and what point to dwell in the past? But you, Brother, have you any news?" Then, as the monk made no reply, "I forgot, you do not trade in war. But at least tell me this-have any persons of consequence and wealth arrived recently? High lords with ambition and money to hire men?" His eyes narrowed as they searched the old face. Like the monk he had a knowledge of psychology but could read nothing. Then a flicker of the eyes gave him a clue. "They have? You do not deny it? Good. Fortune could be smiling on me at last Where are they staying?"

"You can find out where, brother," said the monk. "As you say, I do not trade in war."

*  *  *

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