Authors: James Gunn
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Â Â Â PHOENIX
Â Â Â ASSASSIN
Â Â Â FLIGHT
“A historian is not just a chronicler of what has been,” the Historian said. “The fruit of his labors is a series of terms from which the future can be extrapolated.
“His significant function is not bookkeeping but prediction.”
Swiftly, then, in flowing characters, he began to write:
The greatest empire of them all, spanning the light years, gathering in the stars like a patient fisherman with a golden net.
Eron. Poor, barren planet, mother of greatness. Name of empire.
World after world. Star after star. Build a model. Scale it: one million miles to the inch. An Earth-size planet would not contain it.
But if you had that model and looked closelyâcloser yetâyou would see the stars joined together by a delicately shimmering golden tracery like an iridescent web.
For an empire is communications, and communications is an empire. The fact of the Eron Empire was the Tubes. Each gleaming strand in the vast web was a Tube, a bridge between the stars, over the wide, dark river of space.
The flaming wheel of the sun had passed the apogee of its journey across the sky. It had started down toward its resting place behind the looming mesa when the rider stopped to let the tired buckskin pony drink at a gypsum spring. Buckskin once but no longer; sweat and red dust had blended and dried into another coat.
Caked nostrils dipped into the water and jerked back, surprised. Thirst forced the head back down. The pony drank noisily.
The rider was motionless, but his hard, gray eyes were busy. They swept the hot, cloudless blue sky. No tell-tale shimmer disclosed the presence of an Eron cruiser. The only movement was the lazy wheeling of a black-winged buzzard.
The eyes dropped to the horizon, studied the mesa for a moment, and slowly worked their way back through the wavering desert. The rider turned in the saddle and looked back the way they had come. The pony lifted its head nervously; its legs quivered.
The rider patted the pony's sweating shoulder. “We've lost them, boy,” he whispered dustily. “I think we've lost them.”
He forced the reluctant pony away from the spring and urged it on through the eroded, red-dust desert toward the bare, dead mesa where once the great city of Sunport had raised itself proudly toward the stars.
The rider was tall and deceptively lean. He could move quickly and surely when he had to and his broad, flat shoulders were powerful. From them hung the rags of what had once been a dark-gray uniform. Dust and sweat had stained red the legs of the tattered pants, but the leather boots were still sound.
A canteen hung from the saddlehorn, sloshing musically as the pony plodded toward the mesa, its head low. Around the rider's left shoulder was a cord that hugged a heavy unitron pistol close to his armpit. Its blue barrel was stamped:
Made in Eron.
No one would have called the rider handsome. His face was thin, hard, and immobile; where a month's bluish growth of beard had not protected it, the face was burned almost black. His name was Alan Horn. He was a soldier of fortune.
In all the inhabited galaxy, there were no more than a hundred men who followed Horn's profession. Their business was trouble and how to profit from it and survive. They were strong men, clever men, skillful men. They had to be. All the others were dead.
The red dust rose under Horn and drifted behind, and his narrowed eyes were never still. They searched the sky and the desert in a long, restless arc that always ended behind him.
An hour before dusk he came to the sign.
The rain that had sluiced away the topsoil had spared the granite boulder. From the rusty metal post set into it, a durex oblong hung askew. The centuries had cracked and faded it, but the bastard Eronian which served as a space lingua was still readable.
This area is hereby declared abandoned. It is prohibited for human occupation. All persons hereon will surrender themselves to the Company Resident at the nearest gate. Failure to comply will forfeit all rights of property and person. Notice is hereby given that this area will be opened to licensed hunters.
âPosted in this year of the Eron Company 1046, by order of the General Manager.
Horn spat through sun-blistered lips. For more than two centuries the nomads of this desert had been hunted like wild animals. The desert was wideâthe fences of the nearest occupied area were almost 1,000 kilometers eastward toward the Mississippi Valleyâbut Eron was efficient. Horn had seen one savage on the desert; he had bought the pony from him.
Bought? Well, he had paid for it, although the pistol had been more persuasive than money.
The pony lifted its head and began to shiver. Horn raised himself in the stirrups and looked back. He stood there, silent, unmoving. Then he heard it, too. His back stiffened. He drew in a quick, sharp breath.
The baying of the hounds, distant and terrible. The hunters riding to the music of death.
Horn sank back into the saddle. “They've picked up the scent, boy,” he whispered, “but they've been on our trail before. We got away. We'll do it again.”
But then the pony had been comparatively fresh. Desert muscles, spurred by terror, had pulled them away. Now the weeks of relentless riding were apparent. The pony was gaunt, spiritless. The distant clamor only made him tremble. And behind him they had fresh mounts now, fresh, bell-throated, slavering mounts.
The thought narrowed Horn's eyes. Why were they after him? As a deserter? As a casual prey? Or as a man with a mission who had been hired three hundred light years away? Horn would have given a great deal to know; it could be the knowledge that would save him. He glanced down at the pistol. That would be a surprise for them.
His hand lifted from the saddlehorn to his waist, to the fat belt that encircled it snugly under the trouser band. Hard money, not company scrip. Money as solid as Eron.
What brings a man three hundred light years across the galaxy?
Money? Horn shrugged. To him money was only a means of power over those who valued it. Not everyone did. The nomad would rather have kept the pony. Some things you can't buy.
Horn had told the man that, the man who had whispered in the lightless room on Quarnon Four.
The one altruistic act of Horn's life had just ended in failure, as it was doomed to do. The Cluster had been beaten from the start. But it had fought, and foolishly Horn had volunteered to fight with it. He had shared the fight and the inevitable defeat. Penniless, weaponless, he had gone to meet the man whose message promised money.
The cautious darkness had been a surprise. He had stared into it and decided, suddenly, not to take the job.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
“You can't buy a man with money.”
“Trueâin a few cases. And the others won't stay bought. But what I want to buy is a man's death.”
“Three hundred light years away?”
“The victim will be there for the dedication of the Victory Monument. All the killer has to do is meet him.”
“You make it sound simple. How does the killer do it?”
“That is his problem.”
“It might be done. Eron would have to help.â¦”
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
As the plans tumbled over each other in his mind, Horn had reversed his decision. Why? Had it been the challenge?
It had been impossible from the start, but impossibility depends on acceptance. It is less than absolute when a man refuses to recognize it. The difficulties were great, the odds were greater, but Horn would conquer them. And, having conquered them, be left unsatisfied.
Life holds no kindness for such a man. Any defeat short of death is only a spur; success is empty.
With cold self-analysis, Horn recognized this fact, accepted it, and went on unchanged.
Horn looked back again. The hunters were closer. The baying was clearer. The slanting rays of the sun reddened a cloud of dust.
It was a three-way race with death: Horn, the hunters, and the victim. Horn jabbed his boot-heels sharply into the pony's flanks. It gave a startled leap forward and settled into a tired gallop.
Horn's only chance was to reach the mesa first. Fifteen minutes later, he knew that they would never make it.
He noticed the footprints.
They were fresh in the red dust, close together, uneven. The person had been staggering. With instant decision, Horn turned the pony to follow them.
A few hundred meters farther the dust held the imprint of a man's body. Horn urged the pony forward. The baying behind was loud, but Horn shut it out. Time was growing short. The sun was half a disk sitting on the mesa. Darkness would soon hide the trail, but it wouldn't dull the nostrils that sniffed out the way he had come.
The pony's unshod hooves clattered suddenly on a stretch of rock. The ground had begun to rise. Coming down into the dust again, the pony stumbled. Horn pulled it back to its feet. He strained his eyes through the growing dusk.
There! Horn kicked the pony again. Once more, nobly, it responded. The shadow ahead drew closer, resolved into something forked and weaving. It turned to look behind, opened a mute, shadow mouth, and began to run, stumbling. Close to another stretch of rock, it fell and lay still.
Horn rode well up on the ledge before he let the pony stop. He sat in the saddle for a moment, studying the flat stone table. It was a full hundred meters across. On the mesa side, the table shelved down gently to red dust once more. To the left, it dropped off sharply.
Only then did he look at the man crumpled in the dust. Once he might have been big and strong and proud. Now he was a stick man with blackened skin stretched taut over protruding bones. Nondescript rags hung from his waist.