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«Deathworld», Harry Harrison

1

With a gentle sigh the service tube dropped a message capsule into the receiving cup. The attention bell chimed once and was silent. Jason dinAlt stared at the harmless capsule as though it were a ticking bomb.

Something was going wrong. He felt a hard knot of tension form inside of him. This was no routine service memo or hotel communication, but a sealed personal message. Yet he knew no one on this planet, having arrived by spacer less than eight hours earlier. Since even his name was new-dating back to the last time he had changed ships— there could be no personal messages. Yet here one was.

Stripping the seal with his thumbnail, he took the top off. The recorder in the pencil-sized capsule gave the taped voice a tinny sound, with no clues as to the speaker.

"Kerk Pyrrus would like to see Jason dinAlt. I'm waiting in the lobby."

It was wrong, yet it couldn't be avoided. Chances were that the man was harmless. A salesman perhaps, or a case of mistaken identity. Nevertheless Jason carefully positioned his gun behind a pillow on the couch, with the safety off. There was no way to predict how these things would turn out. He signaled the desk to send the visitor up. When the door opened, Jason was slumped down on a corner of the couch, sipping from a tall glass.

A retired wrestler. That was Jason's first thought when the man came through the door. Kerk Pyrrus was a grey-haired rock of a man, his body apparently chiseled out of flat slabs of muscle. His grey clothes were so conservative they were almost a uniform. Strapped to his forearm was a rugged and much-worn holster, a gun muzzle peering blankly from it.

"You're dinAh the gambler," the stranger said bluntly. "I have a proposition for you."

Jason looked across the top of his glass, letting his mind play with the probabilities. This was either the police or the competition-and

he wanted nothing to do with either. He had to know a lot more before he became involved in any deals.

"Sorry, friend," Jason smiled. "But you have the wrong party. Like to oblige, but my gambling always seems to help the casinos more than myself. So you see. . ."

"Let's not play games with each other," Kerk broke in with a chesty rumble. "You're dinAh and you're Bohel as well. If you want more names, I'll mention Mahaut's Planet, the Nebula Casino and plenty more. I have a proposition that will benefit both of us, and you had better listen to it."

None of the names caused the slightest change in Jason's half-smile. But his body was tensely alert. This musciebound stranger knew things he had no right to know. It was time to change the subject.

"That's quite a gun you have there," Jason said. "But guns make me nervous. I'd appreciate it if you took it off."

Kerk scowled down at the gun, as if he were seeing it for the first time. "No, I never take it off." He seemed mildly annoyed by the suggestion.

The testing period was over. Jason needed the upper hand if he was to get out of this one alive. As he leaned forward to put his drink on the table, his other hand fell naturally behind the pillow. He was touching the gun butt when he said, "I'm afraid I'll have to insist. I always feel a little uncomfortable around people who are armed." He kept talldng to distract attention while he pulled out his gun. Fast and smooth.

He could have been moving in slow motion for all the difference it made. Kerk Pyrrus stood dead still while the gun came out, while it swung in his direction. Not until the very last instant did he act. When he did, the motion wasn't visible. First his gun was in the armholster-then it was aimed between Jason's eyes. It was an ugly, heavy weapon with a pitted front orifice that showed plenty of use.

Jason knew if he swung his own weapon up a fraction of an inch more he would be dead. He dropped his arm carefully, angry at himself for trying to substitute violence for thought. Kerk flipped his own gun back into the holster with the same ease he had drawn it.

"Enough of that now," Kerk said. "Let's get down to business."

Jason reached out and downed a large mouthful from his glass, bridling his temper. He was fast with a gun-his life had depended on it more than once-and this was the first time he had ever been outdrawn. It was the offhand, unimportant manner it had been done that irritated him.

"I'm not prepared to do business," he said acidly. "I've come to Cassylia for a vacation, get away from work."

"Let's not fool each other, dinAh," Kerk said impatiently. "You've never worked at an honest job in your entire life. You're a professional gambler and that's why I'm here to see you."


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