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Authors: Bob Shaw

Night Walk

BOOK: Night Walk
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by Bob Shaw
Sightless, marooned on a prison
planet, Sam Tallon faces a
desperate odyssey -- to save the
Universe that had disowned him.
Eyeless On Emm Luther . . .
In the prison's secret workshop, Tallon fumbled
for the eyeset Dr. Winfield held out to him. It
would allow him to "see" again -- by receiving
visual signals from others' normal eyes and
beaming them on his own optic nerves.
The device felt like thick-lensed glasses.
Hogarth stood ready to provide the signals.
Tallon licked his lips. "What are the chances,
Winfield shrugged. "We can always try again."
TalIon sighed, lifted the set to his eyes.
Then he screamed.
Light -- fierce and steady.
Pain -- fierce and steady!
Bob Shaw
This Banner Edition is the first publication
in any form of
Night Walk
Published by The Hearst Corporation
959 Eighth Avenue
New York, New York 10019
Copyright © 1967 by Bob Shaw.
Published by arrangement with the author.
All rights reserved, which includes the right
to reproduce this book or portions thereof in
any form whatsoever. For information address
Ted White, 339 49 Street, Brooklyn, New York 11220.
First Banner Printing, September, 1967
Printed in the U.S.A.
A winter night, sharp and frozen, had moved in over New Wittenburg,
pressing down hard on the bitter streets, laying uneven swaths of frost
on the concrete desert of the space terminal.
Tallon leaned against the window of his room, looking out. The long hours
of night lay ahead, and he wondered how he was going to get through. Not
even the possibility of passing through the eighty thousand portals
that led to Earth could ease his depression. He had dozed on top of the
rumpled bedclothes for several hours, and during that time the world
seemed to have died. The hotel felt empty.
He lit a cigarette and exhaled a gentle river of smoke that coursed flatly
along the glass of the window. Little circular areas of condensation
formed on the inside of the glass, centered on droplets that clung to
the outside.
Were they going to come for him?
The question was a dull
ache that had gnawed at him since he made the pickup a week earlier.
Normally the probability of success would have been high, but this time
there were things Tallon did not like. He drew hard on the heady smoke,
making the cigarette crackle faintly. It had been lousy luck, McNulty
having a heart attack just when he did; but it had also been an error on
the part of someone back in the Block. What in hell were they doing,
putting a man into the field without making absolutely certain he
couldn't get sick? McNulty had panicked after his attack and had made an
unorthodox transfer that still shocked Tallon every time he remembered
its clumsiness. He ground the cigarette under his shoe and swore to make
somebody pay for the mistake when he got back to the Block. If he got
back to the Block.
By a conscious effort he denied himself another cigarette. The room
seemed to have grown smaller in the week he had stayed there. Hotels
on Emm Luther were on the bottom of the scale as far as comfort and
amenities went. His room was not inexpensive, yet it contained nothing but
a bed with a smudged headboard, and a few shabby pieces of furniture. A
cobweb waved forlornly from the warm air vent. The walls were a kind of
bureaucrat green -- the color of despair.
Sucking in air through his teeth in a hiss of disgust, Tallon returned
to the window and leaned his forehead on the chill glass. He looked out
across the throbbing lights of the alien city, noting the subtle effect
of the higher gravity in the architecture of the towers and spires --
a reminder that he was far from home.
Eighty thousand portals there were between here and Earth, representing
uncountable millions of light-years; curtains of star systems, layer upon
layer of them, made it impossible to pick out even the loose cluster of
which Sol was a part. Too far; much too far. Loyalties were stretched too
thin over those distances. Earth, the need for new portals, the Block --
at this distance, what did it all mean?
Tallon suddenly realized he was hungry. He switched on a light and
examined himself in the room's single mirror. His straight black hair
was slightly untidy. The long, rather serious face -- which might have
been that of an accountant or a jazz player with a leaning toward theory
-- was shaded with stubble, but he decided it was unlikely to attract
attention. Momentarily and childishly pleased at the thought of eating,
he ran a comb through his hair, turned off the light, and opened the door.
He was stepping out into the corridor when the first smell of danger came
to him. The hotel was quiet. And now that he thought of it, no vehicle had
passed along the normally busy street below his window during the whole
time he had stood there.
Snuffling with panic, wiping his upper lip with the back of his hand,
Tallon went back into his room and edged the window open a little.
The unsteady murmur of city traffic billowed into the room on the cold
air; and yet nothing was moving in the one thoroughfare immediately below.
Would they go to all that trouble? He pulled his jaw sideways, frowning in
thought, then realized he was deceiving himself by simulating doubt.
For what he had in his memory they would seal off the city, the continent,
the whole planet of Emm Luther.
It's happening to me, he thought, but a wave of irritation submerged his
fear. Why did everybody have to stick so carefully to the rules? Why was
it that if somebody on your side made a mistake, somebody on their side
always chopped you for it? Were they not going to make an exception,
even for Sam Tallon, the center of the universe?
Moving with sudden feverish speed, he locked the door and dragged his
suitcase out of the closet. There was something that should have been
done earlier, and his forehead prickled at the thought of the risk he had
taken by delaying so long. He took his old-style transistor radio from
the case, removed its battery, and went to the mirror. Ducking his head
slightly, Tallon parted the hair on his left temple and worked through
it until he had isolated two silver strands. He raised the battery to
his forehead, and after a moment's hesitation, pressed the gleaming
strands to its terminals.
Eyes opaque with pain, rocking slightly on his feet, Tallon slowly and
clearly recited the information. It took only a few seconds for him to go
through the four groups of digits. When he had finished he reversed the
battery and, with a longer hesitation, made the connection again. This
time it really hurt as the pea-sized capsule implanted in his brain
snapped itself shut, imprisoning a fragment of the living tissue.
He put the battery back in the radio, found the metallic hairs again,
and jerked them from his scalp. Tallon smiled wryly. It had been easier
than he had expected. The Lutherians usually avoided killing people,
partly because it was the planetary government's official creed, but
mainly because their knowledge of hypnotic techniques had advanced far
enough to make it unnecessary. If he was taken, the first thing they
would do would be to use a brain-brush on him to wipe out what he had
learned. But now it would fail. Even if he were to be killed, the Block
would find a sorrowing relative to apply for the return of his body to
Earth, and the pea-sized fragment of his brain would still be alive in
its beautifully engineered cocoon. The Block woud be able to extract
what it wanted to know.
Tallon wondered coolly if, in spite of all the assurances, a tiny frightened
ghost of his own personality would still be there in that dark little cell --
alive and screaming when the electrodes came blindly probing. I'm getting
too pessimistic, he thought. It must be an occupational disease. Who says
I'm going to die?
He took the flat, high-velocity automatic from his pocket and weighed
it in his hand. The Block would expect him to use it, even though Earth
and Emm Luther were not officially at war. When the capsule had been
implanted in his head there had been an unwritten, unspoken clause in the
agreement. With the information locked up tight, preserved independent
of his own life, the Block would rather he got himself killed and shipped
back home than be locked safely away in an escape-proof prison. Nobody had
even hinted at the clause -- he would have quite on the spot if they had;
but it was there just the same. And the best way to get killed would be to
start shooting at members of the E.L.S.P. Tallon unloaded the automatic,
threw it in a drawer, and dropped the clip into the wastebasket.
The strings of digits he had memorized were the coordinates of the new
portal, plus the jump bearing and jump increment involved, which the luck
of the galactic draw had awarded to Emm Luther rather than to Earth. They
represented nothing less than one brand-new Earth-type planet. He, Sam
Tallon, was the possessor of perhaps the most important single secret in
the universe. But he was not going to die for it -- not for anything or
anybody. All he owed the Block was a reasonable attempt at escaping. He
lit a fresh cigarette and sat on the edge of the bed.
Somewhere in the city of New Wittenburg there was a specialist whose name
and address Tallon did not know. The specialist would contact him when
it was safe. His job was to administer the drug pack, the treatment,
which by both physical and psychosomatic means would alter Tallon's
appearance sufficiently to get him through the check-points at the space
terminal. His skin, hair, and eye pigmentation would be changed; the
fingerprint patterns would be altered; even his Bertillon measurements
would be changed -- by drugs that produced tensions and contractions in
the body's musculature and connective tissues.
Tallon had never had the treatment before and was unhappy at the prospect,
but it would be better than sinking out of sight in a Lutherian prison.
If only he could leave the hotel and stay on the loose, the specialist
would find him. The problem was how to get out.
He pulled deeply on his cigarette, almost allowed the smoke to escape from
his mouth, then drew it back into his lungs. The excess made him dizzy. He
lay back on his elbows and tried to assess his chances objectively.
With full equipment there would have been six possible ways to leave
his room -- the door and window, the two other walls, and the floor and
ceiling -- but, thanks to McNulty, he had been forced to travel without
gear. The E.L.S.P. did not know that, though, which was why they had gone
to the trouble of englobing him. He guessed they were at that minute
covering the street outside, the corridor, and the rooms above, below,
and on each side.
Apart from the useless automatic, he had nothing but a pair of thrust
shoes in extremely doubtful condition. Assuming the others really were
out there and not just a product of his nerves, the situation was about
as hopeless as they come. The only course offering any hope at all was,
as he had originally intended, to walk as calmly as possible toward the
restaurant. A window at the end of the corridor looked out on a different
street. If he got to that, there might be a slight chance.
But this time the door to the corridor refused to open.
Tallon twisted the handle violently and pulled with all his strength,
then remembered the Block had warned him not to exert himself too much
for a few hours after triggering the capsule in his head. He relaxed and
backed away from the door, half expecting it to be blasted open at any
second. He was caught. The only question still remaining was which of
the three E.L.S.P. network executives was handling the operation. The ban
on straightforward liquidation, imposed by the rigid semitheocracy that
prevailed on Emm Luther, had led them to develop idiosyncratic ways of
handling politically dangerous prisoners. The cardex in Tallon's memory
flicked over, unbidden, turning up their names and a summary of what
was likely to happen to him "accidentally while resisting arrest."
There was Kreuger, who liked to immobilize his captives by cutting their
Achilles tendons; there was Cherkassky, who filled them so full of
psychoneuro drugs that they never again had a peaceful night's sleep;
and finally there was Zepperitz. Zepperitz and his methods made the
other two men seem almost benign.
Suddenly appalled by his own stupidity at ever having allowed himself to
be drawn into the intelligence game, Tallon drew a chair into the center
of the room and sat on it. He interlocked his hands behind his back --
a neat, passive bundle -- and waited. The destruction of Tallon as a
political being, begun the first time he had failed to find a recognizable
constellation in Emm Luther's night sky, was complete.
He felt cold, apprehensive, and impossibly ill.
There are roughly eighty thousand portals between Emm Luther and Earth.
To make the journey home you must pass through all of them, regardless of
how afraid you become, regardless of how far you feel body outstripping
soul during the flicker-transits across the distant reaches of the Rim.
Your ship reaches the first portal by diagonally breasting the galactic
drift for almost five days. The portal is relatively close to Emm Luther
at present, but they are separating from each other at a rate of some
four miles a second. This is because the planet and its parent sun are
swimming with the galactic tide, whereas the portal is an imaginary
sphere anchored to a point in the immovable topography of null-space.
If your ship carries good astrogation equipment it may enter the portal
at speed; but should the computers in control have any doubt at all
about their exact location, they may spend days discarding velocity and
maneuvering for position. They know -- and you, sweating in your G-cell,
know too -- that if the ship is not safely inside the portal when the
jump takes place its passengers will never again breathe the soft thick
air of Earth. The alien geometry of null-space will take care of that.
As you wait, with dry throat and icy forehead, for the relays to strike
you pray that some crazy fluke won't cast you up innumerable hopeless
light-years from home. But this is human emotion at work.
Null-space is incomprehensible, but it is not irrational. Provided every
glass and metal organ in the guts of your ship is functioning properly,
you could make a million jumps from A through null-space to B without
the slightest mishap. The difficulties arise because null-space is not
reciprocal. Having reached B, the same jump in the opposite direction
will not return you to A; in fact, it will take you to any random point
in the universe except A. Once that has happened there is nothing for
it but to go on making more and more random leaps. If you keep it up
long enough and are extremely lucky, you may emerge within reach of a
habitable world, but the odds are not good.
In the first century of interstellar exploration Earth alone dispatched
some forty million robot probes, of which less than two hundred chanced
to make their way back. Of that number, exactly eight had found usable
planetary systems. Not one of the handful of manned ships that accidentally
made open-ended jumps was ever seen again -- on Earth, anyway. Some of them
may still be going, carrying the descendants of their original crews,
cosmic Flying Dutchmen glimpsed only by uncomprehending stars as their
destiny of flicker-transits gradually takes them beyond the reach of
human thought.
BOOK: Night Walk
6.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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