E.C Tubb - Eye of the Zodiac

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E.C Tubb - Eye of the Zodiac
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Eye of the Zodiac
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E.C Tubb


Eye of the Zodiac

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.

Was Leon Harvey an agent of the Cyclan?

"Earl?"

"Nothing-I was thinking. Where is your home world?"

"Nerth. Not too far from here. I-"

"Nerth?"

"Yes. Earl, is something wrong? Your face-" Dumarest forced himself to relax. It was coincidence, it could be nothing more. A name which held a special association. Nerth, Earth, an accident, surely. Yet hope, never dead, responded to the familiar sound. A lure, perhaps? If Leon was an agent of the Cyclan, he could have offered no greater enticement.

"Earth," said Dumarest. "You said Earth?"

"Earth?" Leon smiled. "Earl, are you crazy? Who the hell would call any planet by that name? No, I said Nerth. It's a quiet world, too quiet for me, I ran as soon as I got the chance. And I'm going to keep on running. Just as soon as I get enough for a passage I'm on my way. Right smack towards the Center. You've been there, Earl?"

"Yes."

"And you'll come with me?"

"Before we can go anywhere," said Dumarest. "We need the money."


* * * * *

They all needed money, the men who worked on the project, contract slaves killing themselves with labor to pay an ever-expanding debt. Men who had accepted an advance, spent money on clothes, drinks, luxury foods. They had tried to recoup by gambling and had lost. They stood in the middle of the hut, watching with envious eyes as others, luckier or more sensible, played with cash they still could call their own.

The lure of easy money, a fortunate win which would enable them to pay off what they owed, accumulate a little more, get a stake with which to beat the system. Some managed it, the majority did not. They would work until they died, the victims of speed-accentuated risks, of haste-compounded errors. Fools who had walked willingly into a trap.

Elg Sonef was not one of them. He was a big man, squat, his face seamed, the knuckles of both hands scarred, the spatulate fingers surprisingly deft as he manipulated the deck of cards. Every hut held one of his kind, the man who ran the game, who used fists and feet to collect and to maintain his monopoly.

"The more you put down the more you pick up," he droned. His voice was harsh, rasping, careless of the exhausted men trying to sleep in the double-tiered bunks. "Come on, lads, why hesitate? The canteen has a new consignment of liquor and you get paid in two days time. A little luck and you could take your pick of the seraglio. Why wait for luxuries?" Cards riffled from his fingers. "Make your bets. Even money on any choice."

The game was high, low, man-in-between, a simple game with simple rules. A cloth was spread on the table divided into three sections, each section with three parts. A card was dealt face up before each of the three main sections and players bet on whether it would be the highest, lowest or, the one between the others in value. Duplicates canceled out the middle. If all values were alike they paid high.

Sonef was playing by his own rules, ignoring relative odds and ensuring that, with all sections covered, he had a high advantage. An advantage increased by his own skillful dealing.

Dumarest watched, a little amused, wondering how the players could have been so gullible. At his side Leon said, wistfully, "Earl, we could double our stake in a few minutes with luck."

"Luck?"

"You think he's cheating?"

Dumarest was certain of it, but it was not his concern. He turned from the cluster of players and moved towards his bunk, thumbing open the small box at the head. The towel was still damp, but if he left it exposed it would be stolen. He threw it into the container and slammed it shut. It would stay that way until the lock recognized the imprint of his thumb.

"It's getting late, Leon. Let's eat."

The canteen was a crude hut filled with tables and benches, staffed with old men and cripples, a scatter of Hyead. Dumarest stepped aside as one came towards him busy with a broom. A thin, stooped figure, dressed in filthy robes tied with knotted string. A ravaged face, peaked, the eyes slotted like those of a goat. Blunt horns rose above a tangle of hair, gray shot with russet. The hands which held the broom were four-fingered claws.

Despised, degenerate, the product of wild mutations, found running like animals in the mountains by the early settlers and now used as servitors.

Cheap labor, working for discarded clothing and scraps of food, kicked, cursed, or ignored by men who were themselves little better than beasts.

Dumarest led the way to the counter, picking carefully at the food, selecting items high in protein and low in bulk. An expensive choice, but one which gave better nutritional value than the steaming chaff bought by the majority.

As they ate Leon said, "Earl, how did you know Sonef was cheating?"

"Did I say he was?"

"No, but was he?"

"You saw the way he dealt, cards face up and using no regular rotation. He was manipulating the bets, letting the low stakes win, taking the high. Once you know how to bottom-deal it's easy."

"Could you do it?"

Dumarest ignored the question. "Tell me about Nerth."

"It's a dump."

"And?"

"It's just a world, Earl. A backwater. Mostly farms, no industries, hardly any cities. Ships are rare. They only call to pick up furs and gems, and deliver tools and instruments. No one with any sense would want to go there."

"And you ran," said Dumarest quietly. "Why?"

"Why did you?" snapped Leon. "What started you on the move?" Immediately he was contrite. "I'm sorry, I guess that's none of my business. Let's just say that I was bored."

"A young man," said Dumarest. "You had a family, a home?"

"If you can call it that, yes." Leon stared down at his plate, then seemed to come to a decision. "I belonged to a commune, Earl. It lay well back in the hills and was as isolated as you could get. Maybe I'm a freak of some kind, but I couldn't accept what they had planned for me. The tests, the ritual, the arranged marriage, the duties." His laugh was bitter. "The duties. Can you guess what they would have been? Just guarding a lot of old records. A Keeper of the Shrine. In twenty years, maybe, I'd have made assistant Guardian. In fifty, I might have even become the Head. Fifty years of dusting, brooding, worshiping-I couldn't face it, I had to run."

"How?"

"I-does it matter?"

A boy, twisted, unsettled according to his fellows, a rebel, a failure. Someone who would have planned, waited and stolen when the time came. Something of value which would have been sold to gain the initial passage money-an old story and a familiar one. Only the name held an unusual connotation. Nerth.

"You spoke of records. What were they?"

"Books, papers, I don't know." Leon shrugged at Dumarest's expression. "I never saw them. They are held sacred. A load of superstitious rubbish, of course, but there it is. Once a year we had a ceremony and everyone congregated, and chanted and acted like a bunch of fools. I'm well out of it."

Coincidence or design? If the latter, then the boy was a good actor, if he were the boy he appeared to be. A question which would have to be resolved and soon. A decision made-and if he guessed wrong then his life would be at stake.

Dumarest leaned back, studying the young face, the eyes. Would the Cyclan have been so obvious? The name, the talk of ancient records, a secret to be found, an answer to be gained perhaps. The answer for which he had searched for so long.

Nerth… New Earth… Earth-there had to be a connection.

"Earl?" Leon had become aware of the scrutiny. "Is anything wrong?"

"No." Dumarest rose to his feet. "We'd better get moving. I'll join you at the hut."

"Why not go together?"

Dumarest made no answer, crossing to a vending machine, waiting until the other had gone before filling his pocket with bars of candy.


* * * * *

As usual, Nyther was in a foul mood. He stood behind his desk in the guard hut, a big man with a craggy face and hard, unrelenting eyes. His shoulders strained at the fabric of his uniform, a bolstered laser heavy at his waist. He nodded as Dumarest entered and crossed to a table to collect his equipment.

To Leon he said, "You looked peaked, boy. I'm not sure you can handle the job."

"I can handle it."

"Maybe, but I'm putting you under Nygas. If you want to quit, now's the time."

A threat and a warning. Nygas was noted for his ferocity. Men who slept on duty under his command woke up screaming with shattered bones.

"I'm not quitting."

"Then get out of here." As the boy left Nyther said to Dumarest, "I'm putting you on free-patrol, Earl. Work the southeastern sector. It means an increase and a double bonus if you catch anyone stealing. I've had a gutful of losses and it has to stop."

"More lights would help."

"More lights, more men and more equipment," agreed Nyther bleakly. "Given the money, there's always an answer. But we haven't got the money so it's no use dreaming about it. Just stay alert, keep moving, summon help if you think you need it, and remember the bonus."

Outside night had fallen, the area illuminated by floodlights set on pylons, swaths of brilliance cut by paths of shadow, the face of the workings a blaze of eye-bright glare. Men moved about it like ants, machines throbbing, diggers, loaders, trucks, making an endless snarl.

Dumarest turned, heading towards his position, moving in shadow and noting everything he saw.

A group of men arguing, on the edge of a fight, ready to kick and pummel.

A crane, the load swinging dangerously, carelessly held.

An overseer, yelling, his arms flailing to accentuate his orders.

And, everywhere, the signs of haste and urgency, the traces of poverty and neglect.

Of men, never of machines. The Zur-Sekulich Combine took care of their own.

The roar from the workings died a little, fading to a grating susurration as Dumarest neared the edge of the construction site. Stores and supplies stood in neat array, crates piled high, lashed and sealed, standing until needed. The ground was rough, bristling with rocks, laced with small cracks which could trap a foot and break an ankle. The pylons were fewer, the shadows wider.

Passing the last of the crates Dumarest halted, his body silhouetted against the light. For a long moment he stood clearly visible to anyone who might be watching from the surrounding darkness, then he moved to one side and rested his back against a crate.

There were ways to guard a depot and of them all, the Zur-Sekulich had chosen the most inefficient. There should have been infra-red detectors set in an unbroken ring about the area, men with light-amplifying devices on continual watch, rafts with sensors to spot any movement in the darkness. There should have been a close-mesh fence twenty feet high with special areas for the stores.

All things which cost money. Men and equipment which were unproductive and therefore undesirable. It was cheaper to use men, to send them out and, if they should be killed, where was the loss?


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