Leigh Brackett - Eric John Stark 08 - The Book Of Skaith (Omnibus)

By Virginia Rogers,2014-11-14 18:16
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Leigh Brackett - Eric John Stark 08 - The Book Of Skaith (Omnibus)




The Adventures of Eric John Stork





NELSON DOUBLEDAY, INC. Garden City, New York


Previous copyrights:

    The Ginger Star: Copyright ? 1974 by Leigh Brackett Hamilton. A somewhat shorter version of this novel was serialized in the magazine Worlds of IF, Copyright ? 1974 by UPD Publishing Corporation

    The Hounds of Skaith: Copyright ? 1974 by Leigh Brackett Hamilton

    The Reavers of Skaith: Copyright ? 1976 by Leigh Brackett Hamilton

Published by arrangement with Ballantine Books

A Division of Random House

201 East 5o Street

New York, New York 10022

All Rights Reserved

Printed in the United States of America





Guide to Characters and Locale 461





    Stark got his final view of Pax from the tender, going out to the spaceport moon, and that was the best view he had had of it. Pax is the chief habitable planet of Vega. It is also a city, and the proud boast of that hopefully and precariously christened world is that not one single grain of corn grows upon it, nor is one single useful item manufactured.

    The city soars up into the sky. It spreads out over every landmass and swallows up small seas. It burrows underground, level upon level. Large areas of it are especially conditioned and equipped for non-humans. Everything comes into it from the outside. All supplies are shipped to the lunar docks and brought on down by freight tenders. Nothing lives on Pax but bureaucrats, diplomats, and computers.

    Pax is the administrative center of the Galactic Union, a democratic federation of star-worlds flung across half the Milky Way and including, very incidentally, the worlds of little Sol. In this place the millions of problems besetting billions of people inhabiting thousands of diverse planets are reduced to tidy and easily manageable abstractions on tapes, cards, and endless sheets of paper.

A paper world, Stark thought, full of paper people.

    Simon Ashton was not made of paper. Time, and accomplishments in

    planetary administration, had promoted him to a comfortable office at the Ministry of Planetary Affairs and a comfortable apartment in a mile-high building which he need not ever leave, if he did not wish to, except to take one of the moving walkways to work. Still, like many of his colleagues in that Ministry, Ashton had never lost his rawhide, taut-wire energy. He often went into the field, knowing that the problems of actual beings in actual places could not be solved merely by the regurgitation of data from a bank of clacking machines.

    He had gone once too often into the field. He had not come back.

    Stark received that information on one of the un-licked worlds outside the Union, where life was a little more relaxed for people like himself. He was, as the old phrase had it, a wolf's-head-a totally masterless man in a society where everyone respectable belonged to something. He bestowed his allegiance only where he chose, usually for pay. He was a mercenary by trade, and there were enough little wars going on both in and out of the Union, enough remote peoples calling on him for the use of his talents, so that he was able to make a reasonable living doing what he did best.


    He had begun fighting almost before he could stand. Born in a mining colony in Mercury's Twilight Belt, he had fought to live on a planet that did not encourage life; his parents were dead, his foster-parents a tribe of sub-human aboriginals clawing a precarious existence out of the sun-stricken valleys. He had fought, without success, the men who slaughtered those foster-parents and put him in a cage, a snarling curiosity. Later on, he had fought for a different kind of survival, the survival of himself as a man.

    He would never have got past square one-without Simon Ashton.

    He could remember vividly the heat, the raw pain of loss, the confinement of the bars, the men who laughed and tormented him. Then Ashton came, Ashton the wielder of authority, the savior, and that was the beginning of the life of Eric John Stark, as distinguished from N'Chaka, the Man-Without-a-Tribe.

    Now twice-orphaned, Eric/N'Chaka gradually accepted Ashton as his father-in-being. More than that, he accepted Ashton as his friend. The years of his growing-up were associated almost solely with Ashton

    because they had been much alone in the frontier stations to which Ashton was sent. Ashton's kindness, his counsel, his patience, his strength and his affection were stamped indelibly on the fibers of Stark's being. He had gotten even his name through Ashton, who had searched the records of Mercury Metals and Mining to track down his parents.

    And now Simon Ashton was missing, disappeared, on the world of a ginger star somewhere at the back of beyond, out in the Orion Spur. A newly discovered, newly opened world called Skaith that hardly anyone had ever heard of, except at Galactic Center. Skaith was not a member of the Union but there had been a consulate. Someone had called to the Union for help, and Ashton was the man who went to see about it.

    Ashton had, perhaps, exceeded his authority. Even so, his superiors had done their best. But the local powers closed the consulate and refused entrance to officers of the Union. All attempts to discover Ashton's whereabouts, or the reason for his disappearance, had ended at a blank wall.

    Stark caught the first available ship outbound for Galactic center and Pax. Looking for Ashton had become his personal business.

    The weeks he had spent at Pax had been neither pleasant nor easy. He had had to do a great deal of talking and convincing and, after that, much learning. He was glad to be leaving, impatient to get on with the job.

    The world-city dropped behind him, and he breathed more freely. Presently the enormous intricacies of the lunar spaceport engulfed him, sorted him, tagged him and eventually spewed him into the bowels of a trim little cargo liner which took him about a third of the way to his destination. Three more changes were scheduled after that, progressively downward, into a rickety old tramp-the only sort of ship that served Skaith.

    He endured the voyage, continuing by means of tapes the education into things Skaithian he had begun at Pax. He was not popular among his fellow travelers. His cabin mate complained that he twitched and growled in his sleep like an animal, and there was something in the gaze of his pale eyes that disconcerted them. They called him "the wild man" behind his back and ceased trying to lure him into games, the discussions of schemes for turning a quick profit, or personal reminiscences.

    The tramp trader made several planetfalls along the way. But eventually

    it creaked and rattled out of FTL drive within sight of a solar system lost in the wilderness of the Orion Spur.

    It was the fourth month, by Galactic Arbitrary Time, after Ashton's disappearance.

    Stark destroyed his tapes and collected his few belongings. The rickety trader settled down on the rickety starport at Skeg, the only one on the planet, and discharged its passengers.

Stark was the first man off the ship.

    His papers gave his right name, which meant nothing here, but they did not mention Pax as a point of origin for his flight. They said that he was an Earthman, which he was in a way, and a dealer in rarities, which he was not. At the barrier shed a couple of surly men confiscated his purely defensive stunner-he could have it back, they said, when he left-and searched him and his meager luggage for other weapons. He was then given a terse lecture, in bad Universal, on the rules and regulations governing life in Skeg and was sent on his way with the parting information that all roads out of Skeg except the one leading to the starport were closed to off-worlders. He was not under any circumstances to leave the city.

    He rode the ten miles in a jolting cart, past plantations of tropical fruits, waterlogged paddies where some form of grain was growing lushly, and patches of jungle. Gradually the smell of mud and vegetation was overlaid by a smell of sea water, salty and stagnant. Stark did not like it much.

    When the cart topped a low line of jungled hills, he found that he did not much like the look of the sea, either. Skaith had no moon, so there were no tides to stir it, and there was a milky, greasy sheen to the surface. Skaith's old ginger-colored sun was going down in a senile fury of crimson and molten brass, laying streaks of unhealthy brilliance across the water. The sea seemed a perfect habitat for the creatures who were said to live in it.

    Beside the sea, on the bank of a river, was Skeg. The river had grown thin with age, too weak to do more than trickle through a narrow passage where the silt of centuries had all but closed its mouth. A ruined fortress-tower was set on low cliffs to guard a vanished harbor. But the city itself looked lively enough, with lamps and torches glowing out as the sun sank.

    Presently, Stark saw the first of the Three Ladies, magnificent star-clusters-the ornament of Skaith's night skies-that made it impossible to come by a decent darkness. He glowered at the Lady, admiring her beauty but thinking that she and her sisters could make things very difficult for him.

As though the situation would not be difficult enough.

    The cart eventually came clumping into the town. Skeg was one great open market where almost anything could be bought or sold, and the streets were busy. Shops and stalls were brightly lighted. Vendors with barrows cried their wares. People from all over the Fertile Belt-tall, leather-clad warrior-burghers from the outlying city-states as well as the small silken folk of the tropics-mingled with the off-worlders who came to traffic, exchanging precious foreign items like iron pigs for drugs, or artifacts looted from Skaith's plentiful supply of ruins.

    And of course there were the Farers. Everywhere. A conglomerate of all the races, dressed or undressed in every imaginable fashion, trooping about, lying about, doing whatever happened to occur to them at the moment; the careless itinerant children of the Lords Protector, who neither toiled nor spun, but blew lightly with the winds of the world. Stark noticed some off-worlders among them, drifters who had found the good life here in the warm twilight of a planet where everything went and where, if you belonged to the right groups, everything was free.

    Stark paid off his driver and found lodgings at an inn catering to off-worlders. The room was small but reasonably clean, and the food, when he sampled it, not at all bad.

    In any case, he was not interested in comfort. He was interested in Ashton.

    When he had eaten, he approached the landlord in the common-room of the inn, which was built in the breezy tropical style of Skeg, being mostly windows with reed curtains that rolled down to shut out the rain. It was not raining now, and the sea wind blew through, heavy and damp.

"How do I find the Galactic Union consulate?"

    The landlord stared at him. He was a dark purple in color, with a face of stone and startlingly light, very cold gray eyes.

"The consulate? Didn't you know?"

"Know what?" asked Stark, looking suitably blank.

"There isn't one. Not anymore."

"But I was told-"