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«The Five Gold Bands», Jack Vance

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В© 1953

CAST OF CHARACTERS

Paddy BlackthornTo find the secret of the space-drive, he touched off the biggest manhunt in galactic history.

 

Fay BursillThis Earth agent had a job to do, but she didn't know it would involve the wildest spaceship ride of all.

 

The ShaulsThese clever creatures had captured Paddy once. Now they would try again, and this time he wouldn't escape alive.

 

Dr. TalloggHe held the key to the interplanetary hunt-and to several planets' futures.

 

The BadausTheir most exalted ancestor was an Earthman, the race they now despised. But they had an altogether too warm an interest in the Earth women.

 

Zhri Khainga Now Son of Koto, he wanted the ultimate power, and he had no scruples about how he'd get it.

I

The tunnel ran through layers of red and gray sandstone cemented with silica-tough digging even with the patent grab-compactor. Twice Paddy Blackthorn had broken into old wells, once into a forgotten graveyard. Archaeologists would have chewed their fingernails to see Paddy crunching aside the ancient bones with his machine. Three hundred yards of tunnel and the last six feet were the worst-two yards of feather-delicate explosive, layers of steel, copper, durible, concrete, films of guard circuits.

Edging between the pockets of explosive, melting out the steel, leaching the concrete with acid, tenderly shorting across the alarm circuits, Paddy finally pierced the last layer of durible and pushed up the composition flooring.

He hauled himself up into the most secret spot of the known universe, played his flash around the room.

Drab concrete walls, dark floor-then the light glinted on ranks of metal tubes. "Doesn't that make a pretty sight, now," Paddy murmured raptly.

He moved-the light picked out a cubical frame supporting complexities of glass and wire, placket and durible, metal and manicloid.

"There it is!" said Paddy, his eyes lambent with triumph. "Now if only I could pull it back out the tunnel, then wouldn't I lord it over the high and mighty!… But no, that's a sweet dream; I'll content myself with mere riches. First to see if it'll curl out the blue flame…"

He stepped gingerly around the mechanism, peering into the interior. "Where's the button that says 'Push'… There's no clues-ah, here!" And Paddy advanced on the control panel. It was divided into five segments, each of which bore three dials calibrated from 0 to 1,000 and, below, the corresponding control knobs. Paddy inspected the panel for a moment, then turned back to the machine.

"There's the socket," he muttered, "and here's one of the pretty bright tubes to fit… Now I throw the switches-and if she's set on the right readings, then I'm the most fortunate man ever out of Skibbereen, County Cork. So-I'll try her out." On each of the five panels he flung home the switches and stood back, playing his light expectantly on the metal tube.

Nothing happened. There was no quiver of energy, no flicker of sky-blue light whirling into a core down the center of the tube.

"Sacred heart!" muttered Paddy. "Is it that I've tunnelled all this time for the joy of it? Och, there's one of three things the matter. The power's disconnected or there's a master switch yet to be thrown. Or third and worst the dials are at their wrong settings." He rubbed at his chin. "Never say die, it's the power. There's none coming into the entire gargus." He turned his light around the room. "Now there's the power leads and they run into that little antechamber."

He peered through the arch. "Here's the master switch and just as I told all who had ears to listen it's open. Now-I'll close it and then we'll see… Whisht a while. First am I safe? I'll stand behind this bar-block and push home with this bit of pipe. Then I'll go in and play those dials like Biddy on the bobbins."

He pushed. In the other room fifteen tongues of purple flame curled frantically out of the metal tube, lashed at the walls, fused the machinery, flung masonry at the bar-block, made chaos in a circle a hundred feet wide.

When the Kudthu guards probed the wreckage Paddy was struggling feebly behind the dented bar-block, a tangle of copper tubing across his legs.

Akhabats' jail was a citadel of old brown brick, hugging the top of Jailhouse Hill like a scab on a sore thumb. Dust and the dull texture of the bricks gave the illusion of ruins, baking to rubble in the heat of Prosperus. Actually, the walls stood thick, cool, firm. Below to the south lay the dingy town. To the north were the Akhabats spaceyards. Beyond stretched the plain, flat and blue as mildew-as far as the eye could reach.

The Kudthu jailer woke Paddy by running horny fingers along the bars. "Earther, wake up."

Paddy arose, feeling his throat "No need to break a man's sleep for a hanging. I'd be here in the morning."

"Come, no talk," rumbled the jailer, a manlike creature eight feet tall with rough gray skin, eyes like blue satin pincushions where a true man's cheeks would have been.


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