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«Eye of the Zodiac», E.C Tubb

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Was Leon Harvey an agent of the Cyclan?

"Earl?"

"Nothing-I was thinking. Where is your home world?"

"Nerth. Not too far from here. I-"

"Nerth?"

"Yes. Earl, is something wrong? Your face-" Dumarest forced himself to relax. It was coincidence, it could be nothing more. A name which held a special association. Nerth, Earth, an accident, surely. Yet hope, never dead, responded to the familiar sound. A lure, perhaps? If Leon was an agent of the Cyclan, he could have offered no greater enticement.

"Earth," said Dumarest. "You said Earth?"

"Earth?" Leon smiled. "Earl, are you crazy? Who the hell would call any planet by that name? No, I said Nerth. It's a quiet world, too quiet for me, I ran as soon as I got the chance. And I'm going to keep on running. Just as soon as I get enough for a passage I'm on my way. Right smack towards the Center. You've been there, Earl?"

"Yes."

"And you'll come with me?"

"Before we can go anywhere," said Dumarest. "We need the money."

 

*  *  *

* *

They all needed money, the men who worked on the project, contract slaves killing themselves with labor to pay an ever-expanding debt. Men who had accepted an advance, spent money on clothes, drinks, luxury foods. They had tried to recoup by gambling and had lost. They stood in the middle of the hut, watching with envious eyes as others, luckier or more sensible, played with cash they still could call their own.

The lure of easy money, a fortunate win which would enable them to pay off what they owed, accumulate a little more, get a stake with which to beat the system. Some managed it, the majority did not. They would work until they died, the victims of speed-accentuated risks, of haste-compounded errors. Fools who had walked willingly into a trap.

Elg Sonef was not one of them. He was a big man, squat, his face seamed, the knuckles of both hands scarred, the spatulate fingers surprisingly deft as he manipulated the deck of cards. Every hut held one of his kind, the man who ran the game, who used fists and feet to collect and to maintain his monopoly.

"The more you put down the more you pick up," he droned. His voice was harsh, rasping, careless of the exhausted men trying to sleep in the double-tiered bunks. "Come on, lads, why hesitate? The canteen has a new consignment of liquor and you get paid in two days time. A little luck and you could take your pick of the seraglio. Why wait for luxuries?" Cards riffled from his fingers. "Make your bets. Even money on any choice."

The game was high, low, man-in-between, a simple game with simple rules. A cloth was spread on the table divided into three sections, each section with three parts. A card was dealt face up before each of the three main sections and players bet on whether it would be the highest, lowest or, the one between the others in value. Duplicates canceled out the middle. If all values were alike they paid high.

Sonef was playing by his own rules, ignoring relative odds and ensuring that, with all sections covered, he had a high advantage. An advantage increased by his own skillful dealing.

Dumarest watched, a little amused, wondering how the players could have been so gullible. At his side Leon said, wistfully, "Earl, we could double our stake in a few minutes with luck."

"Luck?"

"You think he's cheating?"

Dumarest was certain of it, but it was not his concern. He turned from the cluster of players and moved towards his bunk, thumbing open the small box at the head. The towel was still damp, but if he left it exposed it would be stolen. He threw it into the container and slammed it shut. It would stay that way until the lock recognized the imprint of his thumb.

"It's getting late, Leon. Let's eat."

The canteen was a crude hut filled with tables and benches, staffed with old men and cripples, a scatter of Hyead. Dumarest stepped aside as one came towards him busy with a broom. A thin, stooped figure, dressed in filthy robes tied with knotted string. A ravaged face, peaked, the eyes slotted like those of a goat. Blunt horns rose above a tangle of hair, gray shot with russet. The hands which held the broom were four-fingered claws.

Despised, degenerate, the product of wild mutations, found running like animals in the mountains by the early settlers and now used as servitors.

Cheap labor, working for discarded clothing and scraps of food, kicked, cursed, or ignored by men who were themselves little better than beasts.


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