Authors: Andre Norton
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It was like any other caravansary at a space port, not providing quarters for a Veep or some off-planet functionary, but not for a belt as sparsely packed with credits as mine was at that moment either. My fingers twitched and I got a cold chill in my middle every time my thoughts strayed to how flat that belt was at present. But there is such a thing as face, or prestige, whatever name you want to give it, and that I must have now or fail completely. And my aching feet, my depressed spirits told me that I was already at the point where one surrendered hope and waited for the inevitable blow to fall. That blow could only fell me in one direction. I would lose what I had played the biggest gamble of my life to winâa ship now sitting on its tail fins in a field I could have sighted from this hotel had I been a Veep and able to afford one of the crown tower rooms with actual windows.
One may be able to buy a ship but thereafter it sits eating up more and more credits in ground fees, field serviceâmore costs than my innocence would have believed possible a planet month earlier. And one cannot lift off world until he has a qualified pilot at the controls, the which I was not, and the which I had not been able to locate.
It had all sounded so easy in the beginning. My thinking had certainly been clouded when I had plunged into this. Noâbeen plunged! Now I centered my gaze on the door which was the entrance to what I could temporarily call “home,” and I had very unkind thoughts, approaching the dire, about the partner waiting me behind it.
The past year had certainly not been one to soothe my nerves, or lead me to believe that providence smiled sweetly at me. It had begun as usual. I, Murdoc Jern, had been going about my business in the way any roving gem buyer's apprentice would. Not that our lives, mine and my master Vondar Ustle's, had been without exciting incident. But on Tanth, in the spin of a diabolical “sacred” arrow, everything had broken apart as if a laser ray had been used to sever me not only from Vondar but from any peace of mind or body.
When the sacrifice arrow of the green-robed priests had swung to a stop between Vondar and me, we had not feared; off-worlders were not meat to satisfy their demonic master. Only we had been jumped by the tavern crowd, probably only too glad to see a choice which had not included one of them. Vondar had died from a knife thrust and I had been hunted down the byways of that dark city, to claim sanctuary in the hold of another of their grisly godlings. From there I had, I thought, paid my way for escape on a Free Trader.
But I had only taken a wide stride from a stinking morass into a bush fireâsince my rise into space had started me on a series of adventures so wild that, had another recited them to me, I would have thought them the product of fash-smoke breathing, or something he had heard from a story tape.
Suffice it that I was set adrift in space itself, along with a companion whose entrance into my time and space was as weird as his looks. He was born rightly enough, in the proper manner, out of a ship's cat. Only his father was a black stone, or at least several men trained to observe the unusual would state that. Eet and I had been drawn by the zero stoneâthe zero stone! One might well term that the seed of all disorder!
I had seen it first in my father's handsâdull, lifeless, set in a great ring meant to be worn over the bulk of a space glove. It had been found on the body of an alien on an unknown asteroid. And how long dead its suited owner was might be anyone's guessâup to and including a million years on the average planet. That it had a secret, my father knew, and its fascination held him. In fact, he died to keep it as a threatening heritage for me.
It was the zero stone on my own gloved hand which had drawn me, and Eet, through empty space to a drifting derelict which might or might not have been the very ship its dead owner had once known. And from that a lifeboat had taken us to a world of forest and ruins, where, to keep our secret and our lives, we had fought both the Thieves' Guild (which my father must have defied, though he had once been a respected member of its upper circles) and the Patrol.
Eet had found one cache of the zero stones. By chance we both stumbled on another. And that one was weird enough to make a man remember it for the rest of his days, for it had been carefully laid up in a temporary tomb shared by the bodies of more than one species of alien, as if intended to pay their passage home to distant and unknown planets of origin. And we knew part of their secret. Zero stones had the power to boost any energy they contacted, and they would also home on their fellows, activating such in turn. But that the planet we had landed upon by chance was the source of the stones, Eet denied.
We used the caches for bargaining, not with the Guild, but with the Patrol, and we came out of the deal with, credits for a ship of our own, plusâvery sourly givenâclean records and our freedom to go as we willed.
Our ship was Eet's suggestion. Eet, a creature I could crush in my two hands (sometimes I thought that solution was an excellent one for me), had an invisible presence which towered higher than any Veep I had ever met. In part, his feline mother had shaped him, though I sometimes speculated as to whether his physical appearance did not continue to change subtly. He was furred, though his tail carried only a ridge of that covering down it. But his feet were bare-skinned and his forepaws were small hands which he could use to purposes which proved them more akin to my palms and fingers than a feline's paws. His ears were small and set close to his head, his body elongated and sinuous.
But it was his mind, not the body he informed me had been “made” for him, which counted. Not only was he telepathic, but the knowledge which abode in his memory, and which he gave me in bits and pieces, must have rivaled the lore of the famed Zacathan libraries, which are crammed with centuries of learning.
Whoâor whatâEet was he would never say. But that I would ever be free of him again I greatly doubted. I could resent his calm dictatorship, which steered me on occasion, but there was a fascination (I sometimes speculated as to whether this was deliberately used to entangle me, but if it was a trap it had been very skillfully constructed) which kept me his partner. He had told me many times our companionship was needful, that I provided one part, he the other, to make a greater whole. And I had to admit that it was through him we had come out of our brush with Patrol and Guild as well as we hadâwith a zero stone still in our possession.
For it was Eet's intention, which I could share at more optimistic times, to search out the source of the stones. Some small things I had noted on the unknown planet of the caches made me sure that Eet knew more about the unknown civilization or confederation which had first used the stones than he had told me. And he was right in that the man who had the secret of their source could name his own priceâalways providing he could manage to market that secret without winding up knifed, burned, or disintegrated in some messy fashion before he could sell it properly.
We had found a ship in a break-down yard maintained by a Salarik who knew bargaining as even my late master (whom I had heretofore thought unbeatable) did not. I will admit at once that without Eet I would not have lasted ten planet minutes against such skill and would have issued forth owning the most battered junk the alien had sitting lopsidedly on rusting fins. But the Salariki are feline-ancestered, and perhaps Eet's cat mother gave him special insight into the other's mind. The result was we emerged with a useful ship.
It was old, it had been through changes of registry many times, but it was, Eet insisted, sound. And it was small enough for the planet hopping we had in mind. Also, it was, when Eet finished bargaining, within the price we could pay, which in the end included its being serviced for space and moved to the port ready for take-off.
But there it had sat through far too many days, lacking a pilot. Eet might have qualified had he inhabited a body humanoid enough to master the controls. I had never yet come to the end of any branch of knowledge in my companion, who might evade a direct answer to be sure, but whose supreme confidence always led me to believe that he
have the correct one.
It was now a simple problem: We had a ship but no pilot. We were piling up rental on the field and we could not lift. And we were very close to the end of that small sum we had left after we paid for the ship. Such gems as remained in my belt were not enough to do more than pay for a couple more days' reckoning at the caravansary, if I could find a buyer. And that was another worry to tug at my mind.
As Vondar's assistant and apprentice, I had met many of the major gem buyers on scores of planets. But it was to Ustle that they opened their doors and gave confidence. When I dealt on my own I might find the prospect bleak, unless I drifted into what was so often the downfall of the ambitious, the fringes of the black market which dealt in stolen gems or those with dubious pasts. And there I would come face to face with the Guild, a prospect which was enough to warn me off even more than a desire to keep my record clean.
I had not found a pilot. Resolutely now I pushed my worries back into the immediate channel. Deal with one thing at a time, and that, the one facing you. We had to have a pilot to lift, and we
to lift soon, very soon, or lose the ship before making a single venture into space with her.
None of the reputable hiring agencies had available a man who would be willingâat our wagesâto ship out on what would seem a desperate venture, the more so when I could not offer any voyage bond. This left the rejects, men black-listed by major lines, written off agency books for some mistake or crime. And to find such a one I must go down into the Off-port, that part of the city where even the Patrol and local police went on sufferance and in couples, where the Guild ruled. To call attention to myself there was asking for a disagreeable futureâkidnaping, mind scanning, all the other illegal ways of gaining my knowledge. The Guild had a long and accurate memory.