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Показать все книги автора/авторов: Harrison Harry
 

«The Deathworld 3», Harry Harrison

1

Guard Lieutenant Talenc lowered the electronic binoculars and twisted a knob on their controls, turning up the intensity to compensate for the failing light. The glaring white sun dropped behind a thick stratum of clouds, and evening was close, yet the image intensifier in the binoculars presented a harshly clear black-and-white image of the undulating plain. Talenc cursed under his breath and swept the heavy instrument back and forth. Grass, a sea of wind-stirred, frostcoated grass. Nothing.

"I'm sorry, but I didn't see it, sir," the sentry said reluctantly. "It's always just the same out there."

"Well I saw it-and that's good enough. Something moved and I'm going to find out what it is." He lowered the binoculars and glanced at his watch. "An hour and a half until it gets dark, plenty of time. Tell the officer of the day where I've gone."

The sentry opened his mouth to say something, then thought better of it. One did not give advice to Guard Lieutenant Talenc. When the gate in the charged wire fence opened, Talenc swung up his laser rifle, settled the grenade case firmly on his belt, and strode forth-a man secure in his own strength, a one time unarmed-combat champion and veteran of uncounted brawls. Positive that there was nothing in this vacant expanse of plain that he could not take care of.

He had seen a movement, he was sure of that, a flicker of motion that had drawn his eye. It could have been an animal; it could have been anything. His decision to investigate was prompted as much by the boredom of the guard routine as by curiosity. Or duty. He stamped solidly through the crackling grass and turned only once to look back at the wire-girt camp. A handful of low buildings and tents, with the skeleton of the drill tower rising above them, while the clifflike bulk of the spaceship shadowed it all. Talenc was not a sensitive man, yet even he was aware of the minuteness of this lonely encampment, set into the horizon-reaching plains of emptiness. He snorted and turned away. If there was something out here, he was going to kill it.

A hundred meters from the fence there was a slight dip, followed by a rising billow, an irregularity in the ground that could not be seen from the camp. Talenc trudged to the top of the hillock and gaped down at the group of mounted men who were concealed behind it.

He sprang back instantly, but not fast enough. The nearest rider thrust his long lance through Talenc's calf, twisted the barbed point in the wound and dragged him over the edge of the embankment. Talenc pulled up his gun as he fell, but another lance drove it from his hand and pierced his palm, pinning it to the ground. It was all over very quickly, one second, two seconds, and the shock of pain was just striking him when he tried to reach for his radio. A third lance through his wrist pinioned that arm.

Spread-eagled, wounded, and dazed by shock, Guard Lieutenant Talenc opened his mouth to cry aloud, but even this was denied him. The nearest rider leaned over casually and thrust a short saber between Talenc's teeth, deep into the roof of his mouth, and his voice was stilled forever. His leg jerked as he died, rustling a clump of grass, and that was the only sound that marked his passing. The riders gazed down upon him silently, then turned away with complete lack of interest. Their mounts, though they stirred uneasily, were just as silent.

"What is all this about?" the officer of the guard asked, buttoning on his weapon belt.

"It's Lieutenant Talenc, sir. He went out there. Said he saw something, and then went over a rise. I haven't seen him since, maybe ten, fifteen minutes now, and I can't raise him on the radio."

"I don't see how he can get into any trouble out there," the officer said, looking out at the darkening plain. "Still-we had better bring him in. Sergeant." The man stepped forward and saluted. "Take a squad out and find Lieutenant Talenc."

They were professionals, signed on for thirty years with John Company, and they expected only trouble from a newly opened planet. They spread out as skirmishers and moved warily away across the plain.

"Anything wrong?" the metallurgist asked, coming out of the drill hut with an ore sample on a tray.

"I don't know . . ." the officer said, just as the riders swept out of the concealed gully and around both sides of the knoll.

It was shocking. The guardsmen, trained, deadly and well-armed, were overrun and destroyed. Some shots were fired, but the riders swung low on their long-necked mounts, keeping the animals' thick bodies between themselves and the guns. There was the twang of suddenly released bowstrings and the lances dipped and killed. The riders rolled

over the guardsmen and rode on, leaving nine twisted bodies behind them.

"They're coming this way!" the metallurgist shouted, dropping the tray and turning to run. The alarm slren began to shriek and the guards poured out of their tents.

The attackers hit the encampment with the sudden shock of an earthquake. There was no time to prepare for it, and the men near the fence died without lifting their weapons. The attackers' mounts clawed at the ground with pillar-like legs and hurled themselves forward; one moment a distant threat, the next an overwhelming presence. The leader hit the fence, its weight tearing it down even as electricity arced brightly and killed it, its long thick neck crashing to the ground just before the guard officer. He stared at it, horrified, for just an instant before the creature's rider planted an arrow in his eye socket and he died.


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