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Authors: Jack Vance

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BOOK: The Five Gold Bands
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The woman’s voice said, “Did you let him out some secret way?”

“No,” said the doctor. “There is a door into the cellar and out into the street that no one very much knows about but I did not take him to it. He simply walked out the door and closed it.”

The woman said thoughtfully, “He has not been seen to leave.”

“Then—” the doctor started. Paddy pulled himself out of the closet, slid open Ramadh Singh’s door, slipped out into the hall, stepped to Dr. Tallogg’s door, slid it ajar an inch. The drab waiting room was empty. Voices came from the inner room.

The door slid quietly open. Paddy slipped in like a dark dream.

He had no weapon—he must go carefully. He stepped across the room, saw a shoulder in gray-green fabric, a hip in dark green. On the hip hung a pouch. If she carried a weapon it would lie in this pouch.

Paddy stepped through the door, threw an arm around the woman’s throat, dipped into her pouch with his right hand. He pulled out an ion gun, pointed it at the doctor.

The doctor had his own weapon in his hand. He held it as if it were very hot, as if he were not sure where to aim it.

Paddy said, “Put down that gun!” in a voice like an iron bell. “Put it down, I say!”

The doctor peered at him with almost comical indecision. Paddy heaved the struggling woman forward, reached, took the gun from Tallogg’s numb fingers. He shoved it inside his jumper. The woman sprang clear, turned, faced Paddy, her mouth parted, eyes wide with black wide pupils staring.

“Quiet!” warned Paddy. “I’m a desperate man. I’ll shoot if you drive me to it.”

“What do you want?” asked Tallogg quietly. He now bore himself with the indifference of a man condemned.

Paddy grinned, a wide toothy grin. “First, doctor, you will conduct me and this lady to the street through your secret way.”

The woman stiffened, began to speak, then halted, watching Paddy in frowning calculation.

The doctor said, “Perhaps I will, perhaps I won’t.” He nodded wearily at the ion gun. “You intend to shoot me anyway.”

Paddy shrugged. “I won’t shoot. We’ll sit here and talk. Faith, I’m a great talker. I’ll tell you of the Grand Rally at Skibbereen, I’ll talk by the hour of Fionn and Diarmuid. Then there’s Miletus and the old heroes.” He looked brightly at the doctor. “Now what do you say to that?”

The doctor’s mouth had drooped. He said forlornly, “I suppose I lose nothing by taking you out.”

Paddy turned to the woman. “And I’ll ask you to take me to your boat.”

She said, “Now listen to me, Paddy Blackthorn.”

He took stock of her. She was younger than he had expected and a great deal smaller. There were few inches more than five feet of her and she was slim to boot. She had a small face, short dark hair clinging close to her head. Except for lustrous dark eyes Paddy thought her rather plain, hardly feminine. His taste was for the long-limbed brown-haired girls of Maeve, laughing light-headed girls.

“I hate killing,” muttered Paddy. “Lucky for you it is that I harm never so much as a fly unless first it stings me. Now as for you, walk quiet and calm and there’ll be no great harm done to you. But mind—no tricks!”

He motioned to the doctor. “Lead.”

The doctor said sourly, “Did I understand you to say that you don’t intend to shoot me?”

Paddy snorted. “You understand nothing. Get moving.”

The doctor spread out his hands helplessly. “I merely wanted to state that if we are to leave I wish to take along the antidote to the ordeal poison I gave the young woman. If I don’t have hers she won’t give me mine.”

Paddy said, “Give it to me.”

The doctor hesitated, eyeing the girl doubtfully.

“If I don’t get it I’ll sit here till you fall sideways from the poison.”

The doctor shuffled to the drawer, tossed Paddy an envelope.

Paddy looked at the girl. “Now yours.”

Without a word she tossed him a vial. The doctor’s eyes hungrily followed the arc of the flight, riveted on Paddy’s arm as he pocketed the drugs.

“Now move,” said Paddy blithely. “You’re both under death sentences, like me in the brick jail at Akhabats. Except I was an honest thief. You two are traitors to your old Mother Earth.”

The doctor led them along the sour-smelling hall, slowly, hoping for interruption. Paddy said pleasantly, “And if there’s trouble, Doc, I’ll smash these bottles down on the floor.” The doctor’s gait lengthened. He opened a narrow door, led them down a flight of damp stones heavy with a musty reek of some nameless Spade-Ace mold.

Two flights down and the stairs opened into the basement below the clothing store, a long low room dug into the ground, lit by antique glow-tubes. Old cases, dusty furniture cast tall black shadows—junk brought across the mindless miles of space to rot and moulder in a basement.

Quietly, sedately, they moved through the basement, forming strange silhouettes against the higgledy-piggledy background. Paddy grinned. They didn’t dare attack, they didn’t dare run. He had them in a double grip with the gun and the poison.

The doctor glanced at his watch. “Fifteen minutes,” he said thickly. “Then the antidote does us no more good.” He looked at Paddy with hot eyes, waiting for Paddy to answer.

Paddy motioned silently. The doctor turned, stepped up on a bench, heaved at a slanting door. It swung up and out, letting a slender shaft of white light into the basement. The doctor looked right, left, motioned with a plump arm.

“Come on up, all’s clear.”

He stepped on up, the woman followed nimbly and then came Paddy, cautiously. They stood at the bottom of a light well, between two buildings, with a slit two feet wide running out to the street.

Paddy said to the girl, “Where is the space-boat?”

“North of town on the dust-flat.”

“Let’s go.”

They sidled from between the buildings out into a dark street. The doctor turned to the right, led them among the dismal mud huts of the Asmasian quarter. At a square of light he paused, looked at his watch.

“Ten minutes.” He turned to Paddy. “Did you hear me? Ten minutes!”

Paddy waved him on. The doctor turned and they continued out into the open country in back of the town—a region of open sewers, fields packed with unwanted refuse from a thousand stolen ships. Here and there stood the shack of some creature with habits too disgusting to be tolerated even by the tolerant men of Eleanor.

They came out on a plain of white volcanic dust, dark-gray in the planet-spangled night of Spade-Ace, and the town of Eleanor was at their backs—a low unsightly blotch spotted with white and yellow lights.

Paddy searched across the field for the dark shape of the boat. He turned a stormy glance at the woman. The doctor peered at his watch. “About a minute…”

The woman’s voice glistened with triumph. “I have a spaceboat. It’s not here. It’s at the main field. You’re bluffing, Paddy Blackthorn. You want my space-boat more than I want my life. Now
I’m
making the terms. You’ve got to go along with me or else kill me.”

“And kill you I will,” growled Paddy, pulling out his gun.

“And kill yourself at the same time. Langtry agents are pouring into Eleanor by the boatload. They know you’re here. They’ll get you inside of four hours. You can’t hide and you can’t get away. I’m your only chance. Cooperate with me, and we both win—and Earth wins. Refuse and we both die—and Earth loses because before they kill you they’ll get what they want from you.”

Paddy stood limp, angry. “Ah, you scheming, hag-woman, you’ve got me like Cuchulin’s goat. You still have the audacity to claim you serve Earth?”

She smiled in the darkness. “You don’t believe me? You’ve never heard of the Earth Agency?”

The doctor whined, “The antidotes! Hurry, man, or we’ll be dead!”

“Come here,” growled Paddy. He grabbed the woman, felt for scars that might be left by an amputated skin-flap. “No, you’re no Shaul. And sure you’re no Eagle, no Badau. You’re not white enough for a Koton—not to mention the eyes—and you’re not yellow enough for a Loristanese. Of course,” he grumbled, “there’s a little profit in wondering about your race—you might be selling out to any of them.”

The woman said, “I work for Earth Agency. It’s your last chance. Give me the antidote—or I’ll die and you’ll die and the Langtry worlds will lord it over the universe for the rest of time. There’ll never come another chance like this, Paddy Blackthorn.”


Quick!
” cried the doctor. “
Quick!
I can feel the—”

Paddy contemptuously tossed them the antidotes. “Go on then. Save your miserable lives, and let me be.” He turned on his heel, strode off across the powdery dust.

The woman’s voice came to his back. “Wait a minute, Paddy Blackthorn. Don’t you want to leave Spade-Ace?”

Paddy said no word, paced on, blind with rage.

Her voice came to him, “I have a space-boat!” She came running up beside him, panted, “We’ll take the secret of the drive to Earth.”

Paddy slowed his stride, halted, looked down into her wide dark eyes. He turned, went back to where the doctor stood forlornly. Paddy grasped the doctor by the shoulders.

“Look now, Tallogg. You have your half million that you got selling me out. Buy yourself a boat this very night—this very hour. Leave the planet. If you make it to Earth you can sell the boat and be a rich man. Do you hear?”

“Yes,” said Tallogg dully. His shoulders hung as if under a yoke.

“Then go,” said Paddy. “And if you love old Earth don’t return to your office. Don’t go there at all.”

The doctor muttered something indistinguishable, became a blot in the gray murk. He was gone.

Paddy looked after him. “Better should I have burnt a hole in him and so saved us much concern for the future.”

The woman said, “Never mind that. Let’s go and we’ll head for Earth.”

“Very well.” Paddy sighed. “It’s not as I had planned it.”

“Be glad you’re alive,” she said. “Now let’s go.”

By a back route they walked to the space-field, quietly crossed to her boat at the far end. Paddy looked at the boat doubtfully from end to end.

“Those are crowded quarters for the pair of us, I’m thinking. Now maybe a decent respectable girl wouldn’t care to—”

She snapped, “Never mind that, Paddy Blackthorn. You keep your distance, I’ll keep mine—and my reputation can look after itself.”

“Yerra,” muttered Paddy, “and who’d want to touch such a spit-cat and plain to boot? Well then—into the boat with you and may the best man of us win.”

As she opened the port the beam of light fell on them. A man’s voice said hoarsely, “Just a minute, just a minute.”

Paddy put his hand on the girl’s back, shoved her in, started after her. “Come back here,” said the dark shape and the voice was louder. “I’ll shoot!”

Paddy turned, aimed at the light with Dr. Tallogg’s gun. His beam struck square. In the spatter of orange and purple flames from the shorted powerpack, Paddy glimpsed the man’s face—the narrow-faced narrow-eyed man who had been leaning against the hangar when Paddy dropped down to the spacefield. His face was convulsed by pain, surprise, hate, by the shock of the beam. The lamp guttered into a red flicker, died—and the dark shape seemed to slump.

“Quick!” hissed the girl. “There’ll be more.”

Paddy jumped in. She sealed the port, ran to the pilot’s seat, pulled back the power-arm—and the boat rose into the ash-gray sky of Spade-Ace.

V

They rose from the field into the glare of the eight suns strewn around the sky at various distances.

“Watch the field,” said the girl, “through the telescope.”

Paddy watched. “There’s a couple boats taking off.”

“Spies.” She crouched in the bucket seat, aimed the boat’s nose at one of the spots of black space showing between the jostle of the suns, planets, planetoids. “Here we go.”

Paddy jerked forward. “Hey—that’s dangerous, woman! There’s lots of stuff out there!”

He quieted because already the Thieves’ Cluster was far behind. For a second, two seconds, they flew—then she cut off the power. A relay clicked, the space-drive bar snapped back. Thieves’ Cluster was a lambent blot astern.

She turned the nose another direction, repeated the maneuver. Thieves’ Cluster was a bright spot. Once again, off at an odd angle—off with the drive and they were coasting out in inter-star isolation.

The girl left the controls, went to the communicator. Paddy watched her suspiciously. “And now what might you be doing?”

“I’m calling the Agency—on coded space-wave.” She snapped a switch, tuned down a piercing whistle that rang through the room. She set five dials, and now a voice said: “EA…EA…EA…

The girl spoke into the mesh. “Fay Bursill, 59206… Fay Bursill, 59206.”

A minute passed, the voice changed. “Go ahead, Fay.”

“I’ve got Paddy Blackthorn here in the boat.”


Good work
, Fay!” There was exultation in the voice. “Where are you?”

“Oh—roughly Aries 3500 or 4000. Shall I come home?”

“Lord no, keep away. There’s a net of ships around the system almost nose to nose and they’re searching every hull that comes near. You’d never make it. But here’s what you can do. Have Paddy—”

The voice changed to an ululating howl that jarred their teeth, clawed at their inner ears. “Turn him off!” yelled Paddy. “He’s talking nonsense!”

Fay flung the switch. The silence was like salve.

“Jammed,” said Fay grimly. “They’re on the frequency.”

Paddy blinked dubiously. “Did they hear what you said?”

She shook her head. “I don’t see how they could. The code is changed every week. And it’s easy to jam the message.”

Paddy said, “We’d better get out of here fast. They might have us spotted.”

Fay threw on the power. She sat silently, face intent, mouth curved down at the comers. Serious creature, thought Paddy. Odd, fey—that was her name, Fay. Paddy decided it suited her.

She said frowning, “There’s no place for us to go now. They’ll be watching every port.”

“If we could only have ducked out of Eleanor without being caught at it,” muttered Paddy. “Then they wouldn’t have known where I was.”

“Unless they caught the doctor. And in any event they wouldn’t be taking any chances.” She looked at him with eyes half-challenging, half-wistful. “Now—may I see it, this space-drive formula that’s making so much trouble for me? Maybe we can broadcast it to Earth on the code frequency— or we can find a dead little world and hide it.”

Paddy laughed. “Young lady—Miss Bursill—whatever your name—I have no secret to the space—drive.”


What!
” Her eyes burnt even larger in her small face. They why all the turmoil? You
must
have it.”

Paddy yawned. “The five Sons trusted no one. Not even their successors, the new Sons, know what it is I’ve got. No one in the universe knows—except me.”

“Well, what is it?” she asked crossly. “Or do you intend to be mysterious?”

Paddy said blandly, “No indeed. I’m surely not the type. Well, for one thing, it’s not any directions on how to mix up space-drive. It’s a key and four little slips of parchment. And all that’s on them are a set of addresses.”

She stared at him and plain or not, thought Paddy, she had very lovely eyes, bright and intelligent, and her features weren’t as pinched as he first thought but almost chiseled— delicate. Indeed, thought Paddy, he had seen worse-looking wenches. But this one—she was too pale and set, too sexless for his tastes.

“May I see them?” she asked politely.

And why not, thought Paddy. He unsnapped the band.

She stared. “You’re carrying them around your wrist?”

“Where else?” demanded Paddy with asperity. “I never intended to be kidnaped and transported by a black imp of a female.”

She took the bits of parchment and the key. The first was written in the Pherasic script, which Paddy had been unable to read.

She scrutinized it and he saw her lips moving. “Och, then you can read that heathen scribble?”

“Certainly I can read it. It says: ‘28.3063 degrees north, 190.9995 degrees west. Under the Sacred Sign.’ ” She laughed. “It’s like a treasure hunt. But why should they write directions down like this?”

Paddy shrugged. “For each other, I gather. In case one of them got killed, then the others would know where the records were hid.”

Fay said thoughtfully, “We’re not far from Alpheratz.”

Paddy stared aghast. “They’d draw and quarter me! They’d wear out their nerve-suits! They’d—”

She said coolly,” We could be tourists from Earth, making the Langtry Line. Alpheratz A, back into Pegasus for Scheat, down Andromeda—Ddhil, Almach, Mirach. There’s thousands of others doing the same thing. A honeymoon couple, that’s what we’d be. It’s the last place they’d be looking for you. You’d never be safer.”

“Not much,” said Paddy energetically. “I want to get back to Earth with my life and there I’ll sell these bits to whomever wants to buy.”

She looked at him disgustedly. “Paddy Blackthorn—
I’m
running this ship. We settled that once.”

“Och,” cried Paddy, “it’s no source of wonder that you’ve never married. God pity the man who gets such a witch. No man would have you with your insistent ways.”

Fay smiled wryly. “No? Are you so sure, Paddy Blackthorn?”

Paddy said, “Well, it’s sure that I, for one, would never have the taste for the black-headed pint of spite that you are. I’d be drinking whiskey to ease my soul by night and by day.”

She sneered. “We’re both of us suited then. And now— Alpheratz A.

From Alpheratz A to Alpheratz B the stream of boats was like a caravan of ants—bringing pods, fibers, sheets, crystallized wood, fruit, meal, pollen, oil, plant-pearls, a thousand other products of B’s miraculous vegetation to the windy gray world A, returning with agricultural equipment and supplies for the jungle workers.

Into this swarm of space-craft Paddy and Fay merged their boat unnoticed.

They dropped toward the bright side of the planet. Fay asked Paddy, “Ever been here before?”

“No, my travels never brought me this far north. And from the looks of the planet, I’d as lief be back on Akhabats. If it’s as dry there at least it’s a planet with blue water.” Paddy gestured at the telescopic projection on the screen. “Now just what might that ocean consist of? Maybe it’s mud?”

Fay said, “It’s not water. It’s something like a gas. It has all the properties of a gas except that it won’t mix with air. It’s heavier and settles out in the low places like water or fog —and the air rests on top.”

“Indeed, now—and is it poison?”

She turned him a side-glance. “If you fall in you smother, because there’s no oxygen.”

“Then that will be a fine place to leave our boat. And chance being good, we might find it another time.”

“We’d better stick to our first plan. “We’ll be less conspicuous.”

“And suppose they recognize Paddy Blackthorn and his black-headed mistress—ah, now, don’t take me wrong. That’s just what they’d be calling you and no thanks to them either way. But now, supposing they do that and set out after us, then wouldn’t it be a fine thing to jump into the ocean and soar off under their long skinny noses?”

She said with a sigh, “We’ll compromise. We’ll hide it so that it’s accessible. But we’ll go back to it only if we can’t get a regular tourist packet to Badau. Assuming, of course, that we’re successful here.”

Paddy went to the chart of the planet. “That location is right on the lip of the cliff—North Cape, it’s called, on Kolkhorit Island.”

She said doubtfully, “I think your interpolations are slack. I got a point just off the cliff.”

Paddy laughed. “Won’t that be just like a woman? Her navigation sets us out in the ocean. You’ll see that I’m right,” he promised her. “We’ll find what we’re looking for on the edge of the cliff.”

She shook her head. “The point’s off the edge of the cliff.” She glanced at him sidewise with raised eyebrows. “What’s the matter?”

“You’re too authoritative to suit the blood of one of the Skibbereen Blackthorns. We’re a proud clan.”

She smiled. “They’ll never hear about it unless you tell them. And I’m only giving orders because I’m more efficient and smarter than you are.”


Hah!
” cried Paddy. “Now then, you’re as vain as the Shaul jailer that did the cube roots in his head, and an arrogant cur he was, and he’s still nursing the bruise I gave him. I’ll do the same for you, my black-headed minx, if you’re not less bothersome with your orders.”

She made a mock obeisance. “Lead on, Sultan. Take it from here. You’re the boss. Let’s see how you handle it.”

“Well,” Paddy rubbed his chin, “at least we’ll talk things over a bit and there won’t be these lordly decisions. Here’s my idea—we’ll drop low over that gas ocean and make for the shore. Well find a bit of quiet beach near the cliff, we’ll drop down, seal our ship, get out and see what’s to be done.”

“Good enough,” said Fay. “Let’s go.”

The gas ocean showed a queer roiling surface like slow-boiling water. In color it was the dirty yellow of oily smoke and the yellow light of Alpheratz penetrated only a few feet into the depths. From time to time the wind would scoop up a tall yellow tongue, lift it high, blow it over backwards.

Paddy brought the boat down almost to the surface, steered cautiously toward the lavender-blue bulk of Kolkhorit Island. The finger of the North Cape suddenly appeared through the haze with the sharp-cut silhouette of the cliff at the tip.

Paddy changed course and the cape loomed swiftly over them—a rocky tumble of porphyry, pegmatite, granite. He cut the power, the boat drifted close to shore. Below them appeared a small table, rimmed by walls of shadowed gray rock and almost awash in the seethe of brown gas. Paddy dropped the boat into the most secluded corner and five minutes later they stood on the barren windy rock with the ship sealed.

Paddy walked to the edge of the table, peered into the fog below. “Strange stuff.” He turned. “Let’s go.”

They climbed up over the rocks and after a hundred yards scrambling across loose gravel, came out on a well-paved path. Fay clutched Paddy’s sleeve.

“A couple of Eagles—there in the rocks. I hope they didn’t see us land.”

The Eagles hopped solemnly up to the path, man-creatures seven feet tall with leathery hide stretched tight over sharp bones, narrow skulls with jutting noses, little red eyes, foot-long crests of orange hair. They bore pouches bulging with red gelatinous globes like jelly-fish.

Paddy watched them advancing with truculent eyes. “A more curious race was never bred. They’ll want to know all about us. Ah, these planets are like cuckoo’s eggs in a wren’s nest and to think that Earth once spent her best on them.”

He nodded to the Eagles. “Good morning, friend Eagles,” he said in a syrupy voice. “And how’s your bulb-picking today?”

“Good enough.” They look around the horizon. “Where’s the little air-boat?”

“Air-boat? Ah, yes. It flew very swiftly to the east and out of sight in a twinkling.”

The Eagles examined Paddy and Fay with sharp interest. “And what are you doing here along the shore?”

“Well now—” Began Paddy. Fay interrupted him. “We’re tourists walking up to the top of the North Cape. Could you tell us the best way?”

The Eagle motioned. “Just follow the path. It will lead into the Sunset Road. You’re Earthers?” He spat slyly to the side.

“That we are—and as good as the best of you.”

“Better,” said Fay softly.

“What’s your business on Alpheratz A?”

“Och, but we’re fond of your lovely landscape, your marvelous cities. There’s never sights like these on old Earth. Truth to tell, we’re tourists, out to see the wonders of the universe.”

The Eagles made a noise like “
Rrrrrrr.
” Without further words they both set off down the path, muttering to each other.

Paddy and Fay watching covertly, saw them pause, gesture along the horizon, point toward the rocks. But finally the continued along the path.

Fay said, “They were only a hundred yards from where you insisted on leaving the boat. It’s just blind luck they didn’t climb the rocks.”

Paddy threw up his arms. “Like all women she will never miss the opportunity to crow at honest error. Lucky the day when I last see her skinny posterior walking away.”

Fay’s eyebrows rose. “Skinny? It’s not either.”

“Humph,” said Paddy. “You don’t get hams from a chicken.”

“For my size it’s just right,” said Fay. “I’ve even had it pinched—once or twice.”

Paddy made a face. “Faith, it’s a sordid life you female agents live.”

She cocked her head. “Perhaps not so sordid as you might think. And if you’ve finished deriding my figure and slandering my morals, we’ll be off.”

Paddy shook his head wonderingly, had no more to say. They turned their backs to the ocean of turbid gas, climbed the path the two Eagles had pointed out.

They gained a rocky meadow, passed a small village. Here they saw a central obelisk topped by a whirling-bladed fetish, concentric circles of conical houses, a long raised platform for the Pherasic pavanne-like dancing. A dozen Eagles, standing in a solemn group near a half-unpacked crate of machinery, looked like odd hybrids of man and stick-insect.

Fay said dreamily as they walked, “Isn’t it a marvel, Paddy? When man first landed here he was man. In two generations the tall skinny ones predominated, in four the skull formation had begun. And now look at them. And to think that in spite of their appearance they’re men. They can breed with true men and the same goes for the Asmasians, the Canopes, the Shauls—”

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