E.C Tubb

THE RETURN

(Dumarest of Terra – 32)

Chapter One


At first the place seemed of limitless dimensions; a vast cavern housing crouching monsters attended by murmuring shadows the whole slashed with vivid beams of light which held trapped and glowing stars. Then, as eyes adjusted to the relative dimness, things took on a hard reality. The light was from the sun shining through transparencies set in the curved roof, the stars were drifting motes of dust, the monsters heaps of crates, bundles, bales, the murmuring shadows buyers, sellers, agents, porters, watchful guards. Things to be expected in any high-security warehouse and, while larger than most, that on Arpagus followed a common pattern.

"There!" Lozano Polletin lifted a hand, a finger pointing. "The cargo. Just as I told you."

He moved towards it, aggressive, assertive, a man past middle-age, of medium build, his lined, cynical face dewed with sweat. His clothing was not ostentatious but the rings he wore hinted at his wealth. An entrepreneur who operated with a shrewd appreciation of relative values. A gambler who had lost more than he could afford.

"Two hundred units." He halted beside the pile and rested his hand against it. "Individually packed and direct from the Matsuki-Taru. Sealed, branded, tested, guaranteed. A fortune."

Dumarest studied the heap aware of others sharing his interest; a checker, a guard, some porters slowing their progress towards a dealer who snapped his fingers with impatience. Behind him an inspector hovered in anticipation of a fee-bearing summons. To his right a flash of brightness became a woman wearing metallic fabrics, her hair a helmet of russet flecked with gold. One who vanished into the shadows as Dumarest returned his attention to the cargo.

A potential fortune as Polletin had claimed and he had the chance to share it. An opportunity it would be foolish to miss; the man had clear title and had been blunt over his need for a partner. The cargo was as he claimed. "What about transportation?"

"That's all arranged. I've worked with Minton before and he's willing to extend credit. Twenty percent over the normal rates payable before leaving the point of destination. Worth it considering the circumstances. Any other captain would insist on cash in advance or a share of the cargo."

"When do you expect him?"

"Tomorrow. He's due to arrive before noon. We can be cleared, loaded and away before dark." Polletin stared at his rings. Small shimmers of reflected light blazed from the gems set in the heavy metal bands, dying as he moved his hands. "It's just as I told you. A golden opportunity. Do we have a deal?"

His tone hadn't changed but there was an added tension in his stance and the shimmer of his rings had betrayed the nervous quiver of his hands. In the casino they had done the same and now he played with an exposed hand.

Dumarest looked at the stacked cartons, waiting, letting the tension build. "I'm interested, Lozano, but I'm not happy with the cut."

"It's a fair one. I've paid two-thirds of the cost. Give me the other third and you get forty percent of the profit." Impatiently he added, "Damn it, Earl, I've done all the work and made all the arrangements. You'd be a fool to turn me down. Why throw away a fortune?"

"Make it fifty and we have a deal."

For a long moment the entrepreneur made no reply, his eyes as hard and as bright as the stones in his rings as he calculated alternatives. Then, shrugging, he said, "You strike a hard bargain, but I can't blame you for that. I'd do the same.

I've no choice and you know it. Fifty percent it is. The money?"

"After I've checked what I'm buying."

The inspector came forward at Polletin's signal, and waited for Dumarest to make his choice. A crate picked at random from within the pile, handed down by porters, opened by Dumarest as they withdrew. Inside lay a compact mechanism, one which opened like a flower beneath Polletin's hands to stand higher than he was tall, the glistening petals forming a round, concave mirror six feet in diameter.

"A solar power unit," he said. "One of the finest. Completely automatic in operation. Just set it up, aim it at the sun and the inbuilt computer does the rest. The power output is high and the demand will be higher. Baldar is a harsh world and the farmers need all the help they can get. This will be their weapon against famine, drought and storm. Provide energy to use for pumps, drills and transport. It's a weapon they can't refuse."

"Is it one they can pay for?"

"Telwigcan. He's the local factor and our buyer. He'll issue them out on a low monthly rental. The farmers will snap them up and think themselves lucky to get them. They'll increase production and borrow to buy extra seed and stuff. They won't be able to meet the payments, of course, farmers have no cash, and the debt will be set against the harvest. When it comes in he'll collect twice over. First he'll cut the value of the harvest because of the increased yield. Then he'll raise the unit rental."

"Nice. "

"That's why he'll be eager to buy. He simply can't lose. In a few years he'll own the land and farmers both. " Polletin sounded envious. "Well, that's his good luck, but it helps us. All we need do is to screw him for as much as we can get – and make sure we get it. "

"Two men, " said Dumarest. "I guess we can't count on Minton and his crew. You and me against Telwig and how many others? Suppose he tries to take without paying? "

"He'll get nothing he can use. " Polletin dug into a pocket and produced a small cylinder. "This is the heart of the unit. A crystalline alloy key which controls the computer. Without it the thing is useless." He tossed it into the air, caught it as it fell. "Our insurance. We don't hand over the keys until both we and the money are safe. "

Nights were kind on Arpagus. Soft breezes from the hills dispelled the lingering heat of the day and spread the scent of scattered herbs. At dusk lanterns blazed into life on roofs and walls; things of beauty which threw vivid patches of vibrant color over the paths and buildings. Warm hues which made a pleasant contrast to the shimmering glow of starlight which silvered the terrain with a nacreous sheen. A combination which created the illusion of space, brightness and warm, safe comfort.

One Dumarest could appreciate as he walked down the narrow street which led towards the landing field. He felt exhilarated, too wakeful for sleep, too impatient to sit idle as the hours dragged by. The exhilaration was that of a gambler who, staking all, knew he was certain to win. The deal with Polletin was safe enough; the cargo would not be released without the authorization in his pocket and in a few hours they would be on their way to turn it into cash. The money, once gained, could be safeguarded and even if Telwig didn't buy others would. There was no way he could lose. The only thing in doubt was the extent of his profit.

The street widened as it rose to open into a small, oval clearing holding a bench, the statue of a woman, a fountain which threw a tinted spray. Flowers scented the air with a sickly perfume. Halting, he looked at the town.

It lay before him, a mass of warm patches and silver glow; mansions of the wealthy flanked by smaller dwellings, dwarfed by the soaring bulk of the hotel and the cathedral-like grandeur of the casino, the whole slashed with streets, roads, and narrow lanes. The casino was to be expected; on Arpagus gambling was a way of life. The hotel catered to transients; merchants, traders and speculators who dealt in cargos and stocks, futures and commodities. Gamblers little different from those who courted fortune in the casino.

"My lord?" A woman stepped from behind the statue, tall, robed, a cowl masking her hair, shadowing her face. Ruby light turned her into a figure of flame. "My lord!"

She cringed, one hand rising in futile defense, the cowl falling back to reveal hair looped and curled in an elaborate coiffure, the warm oval of her face. One ageless beneath a mask of paint but her eyes held naked terror at what she saw; a man, grey clothing tinged with red, the knife in his hand a crimson icicle aimed at her throat. His face was the killing mask of a beast.

"No! Please, no! I -"

His hand clamped over her mouth to silence her scream as the knife fell away from her throat to be sheathed in his boot. A mistake, one he had realized almost too late; the woman was a harlot plying her trade. A harmless creature turned into a figure of menace by the ruby light, the robe she wore, the loose cowl which protected her elaborate coiffure.

Dumarest said, quickly, "I mean you no harm. You startled me. Please do not scream." As he freed her mouth he added, "I apologize for my rudeness."

She said nothing, breasts heaving as she drew air into her lungs, eyes searching his face with fading anxiety. Then, shrugging, she smiled.

"No need for that, my lord. How could I object to such an impulsive lover?"

A woman knowledgeable of men and the devil which rode within them. One resuming her trade, already dismissing the fury he had displayed, the knife, the threat of the blade at her throat as a symptom of his need. Passion often wore a bizarre and terrifying face.

"Here." Dumarest produced a coin and pressed it into her hand. "Accept this as recompense."

"For your lack of interest?"

"For the urgent business which demands my attention elsewhere." Smiling he closed her fingers over the metal. "Good fortune attend you."

"You are gracious. I regret your departure. May the goddess favor your life and enterprises."

Empty words born of his charity but it was better to receive a blessing than a curse. Dumarest moved on, the wash of ruby light falling behind him, the soaring facade of the hotel becoming a brighter hue among others. Polletin was lost in drunken slumber, dreaming of profits to come and the ruin he had so barely avoided. Someone who had chosen a bad partner and had been left with a contract to be met or a ruinous penalty to be paid. But was the man what he seemed? Could he be the agent of a relentless enemy?

The odds were against it. The game had been honest and while it was possible for a skilled gambler to manipulate the other players he doubted if Polletin had the skill. The man had been desperate to win enough to meet his obligation. Losing, it had been natural for him to approach the winner with his proposition. One Dumarest had accepted. A bargain now struck and sealed.

Irritably he shook his head, exhilaration gone, concern taking its place. The harlot had startled him more than she could have guessed. The scarlet of her robe and the cowl which had shadowed her face had created the illusion of a cyber and he had reacted without conscious thought imagining an enemy where none existed. A danger which was unlikely to exist. The Cyclan could have no interest in Arpagus and must now be convinced that he was dead. Yet nothing was certain and the wildest coincidences could happen. If a cyber was on the planet he needed to take precautions to save his life and money. On this world if he lost one the other would be short.

The field lay on the edge of town, lights tracing the high perimeter fence, hazed as it winked from mesh and barbs. The warehouse loomed close to one side, the turret at the end of the building ready to hurl destruction at any attempting to violate its contents. Two other towers were set at intervals at the far side of the field both equally armed. Dumarest headed towards the nearest, frowning as he neared the structure. The tower was too silent, too lifeless. Men should have been on watch quick to challenge his approach but he closed the distance between himself and the tower without question.

Three steps from the door his foot hit something soft and he stumbled and almost fell. Stooping he touched the obstruction, feeling hair, ears, bared fangs. In the silver starlight he saw the body of a large dog stretched on the ground.

A guard dog now dead. From the throat rose the tufted feathers of a dart.

"Guards!" Dumarest sent his boot thudding against the door. "Guards! Guards – answer me, damn you!"

The building remained silent and he turned, tense, aware of danger. Dirt plumed beneath his boots as he ran towards the other tower. The field was empty. Those on watch, dulled by the lack of action, could have grown careless in the conduct of their duties. Even now they could be dozing, drinking, indifferent to his approach.

Someone was before him.

He saw the glint as he neared the tower; brightness which vanished to glow again as he veered from his path in a transient glimmer of reflected light. A sheen which he had seen before and he slowed, moving silently towards it. The glint moved in turn and he heard the rasp of shoes against soil. One repeated as he ran silently towards the noise, the metallic sheen of remembered garments, the woman who wore them.

One who wore a pad resting over her nose and mouth.

She turned as he reached her, rearing back as he tore the pad from her face and threw it to one side. An acrid scent caught at his nostrils and smarted his eyes then it had gone and he was fighting for his life.

She attacked without hesitation, metal blades lancing at his eyes from the stabbing tips of her fingers. Speed alone saved him. The blades passed over his lowered head stabbing again at his neck and slashing at his face. He heard the rasp as they tore at the fabric of his blouse, the grate as they met the protective mesh buried beneath. Before she could strike again he slammed the heel of his hand against her chest between and above her breasts. She staggered back, chest heaving, fighting for breath. Before she could regain her balance, he straightened, arms sweeping aside the threat of the sharp steel wedded to her nails.

"Use those again and I'll break your arms!"

"Bastard!" Panting, she glared her hate. "Why did you interfere?"

She gave him no time to answer, one hand dropping to her waist, lifting with the bulk of a laser. Dumarest smashed it aside before it could level, gripped it, twisted it from her hand. For a moment they stood dangerously close and he could smell the aroma of her perfume, feel the warm, feminine heat of her body. Then he threw the gun after the pad and stepped back, hands lifted in wary defense.

"Fast." She stared at him, eyes wide beneath arching brows, the helmet of her hair silvered by starlight and the glow from the field. She lifted one hand and pressed it where he had struck. A blow which should have rendered her helpless. The woman was far stronger than she seemed. "Too damned fast." Wincing she added, "You hurt me."

"You asked for it."

"Maybe. What happens now?"

"I take you to the guards."

"Why? What's the complaint? That I wouldn't let you rape me?" Her voice thickened a little as she edged closer. "Is that what this is all about? You saw me and desired me and came after me to get what you wanted? Well, you know what they say. To the victor the spoils. You certainly won. So?"

The offer of her body; a weapon as deadly as the laser, the blades fitted to her nails. A man lost in passion was vulnerable. To accept would be to commit suicide.