Nahuatl’s larger moon pursued the smaller, greenish globe of its companion across a cloudless sky in which the stars made a speckled pattern like the scales of a huge serpent coiled around a black bowl. Ras Hume paused at the border of scented spike-flowers on the top terrace of the Pleasure House to wonder why he thought of serpents. He understood. Mankind’s age-old hatred, brought from his native planet to the distant stars, was evil symbolized by a coil in a twisted, belly-path across the ground. And on Nahuatl, as well as a dozen other worlds, Wass was the serpent.
A night wind was rising, stirring the exotic, half-dozen other worlds’ foliage planted cunningly on the terrace to simulate the mystery of an off-world jungle.
“Hume?” The inquiry seemed to come out of thin air over his head.
“Hume,” he repeated his own name calmly.
A shaft of light brilliant enough to dazzle the eyes struck through the massed vegetation, revealing a path. Hume lingered for a moment, offering a counterstroke of indifference in what he had always known would be a test of wits. Wass was Veep of a shadowy empire, but that was apart from the world in which Ras Hume moved.
He strode deliberately down the corridor illuminated between leaf and blossom walls. A grotesque lump of crystal leered at him from the heart of a tharsala lilly bed. The intricate carving of a devilish nonhuman set of features was a work of alien art. Tendrils of smoke curled from the thing’s flat nostrils, and Hume sniffed the scent of a narcotic he recognized. He smiled. Such measures might soften up the usual civ Wass interviewed here. But a star pilot turned out-hunter was immunized against such mind clouding.
There was a door, the lintel and posts of which had more carving, but this time Terran, Hume thought--old, very old. Perhaps rumor was right, Milfors Wass might be truly native Terran and not second, third, nor fourth generation star stock as most of those who reached Nahuatl were.
The room beyond that elaborately carved entrance was, in contrast, severe. Rust walls were bare of any pattern save an oval disk of cloudy golden shimmer behind the chair at the long table of solid ruby rock from Nahuatl’s poisonous sister planet of Xipe. Without a pause he walked to the chair and seated himself without invitation to wait in the empty room.
That clouded oval might be a com device. Hume refused to look at it after his first glance. This interview was to be person to person. If Wass did not appear within a reasonable length of time he would leave.
And Hume hoped to any unseen watcher he presented the appearance of a man not impressed by stage settings. After all he was now in the seller’s space boots, and it was a seller’s market.
Ras Hume rested his right hand on the table. Against the polished glow of the stone, the substance of it was flesh-tanned brown--a perfect match for his left. And the subtle difference between true flesh and false was no hindrance in the use of those fingers or their strength. Save that it had pushed him out of command of a cargo-cum-liner and hurled him down from the pinnacle of a star pilot. There were bitter brackets about his mouth, set there by that hand as deeply as if carved with a knife.
It had been four years--planet time--since he had lifted the Rigal Rover from the launch pad on Sargon Two. He had suspected it might be a tricky voyage with young Tors Wazalitz, who was a third owner of the Kogan-Bors-Wazalitz line, and a Gratz chewer. But one did not argue with the owners, except when the safety of the ship was concerned. The Rigal Rover had made a crash landing at Alexbut, and a badly injured pilot had brought her in by will, hope and a faith he speedily lost.
He received a plasta-hand, the best the medical center could supply and a pension for life, forced by the public acclaim for a man who had saved ships and lives. Then--the sack because a crazed Tors Wazalitz was dead. They dared not try to stick Hume with a murder charge; the voyage record tapes had been shot straight through to the Patrol Council, and the evidence on those could be neither faked nor tampered with. They could not give him a quick punishment, but they could try to arrange a slow death. The word had gone out that Hume was off pilot boards. They had tried to keep him out of space.
And they might have done it, too, had he been the usual type of pilot, knowing only his trade. But some odd streak of restlessness had always led him to apply for the rim runs, the very first flights to newly opened worlds. Outside of the survey men, there were few qualified pilots of his seniority who possessed such a wide and varied knowledge of the galactic frontiers.
So when he learned that the ships’ boards were irrevocably closed to him, Hume had signed up with the Out-Hunters’ Guild. There was a vast difference between lifting a liner from a launching pad and guiding civ hunters to worlds surveyed and staked out for their trips into the wild. Hume relished the exploration part--he disliked the leading-by-the-hand of nine-tenths of the Guild’s clients.
But if he had not been in the Guild service he would never have made that find on Jumala. That lucky, lucky find! Hume’s plasta-flesh fingers curved, their nails drew across the red surface of the table. And where was Wass? He was about to rise and go when the golden oval on the wall smoked, its substance thinning to a mist as a man stepped through to the floor.
The newcomer was small compared to the former pilot, but he had breadth of shoulder which made the upper part of his torso overbalance his thin hips and legs. He was dressed most conservatively except for a jeweled plaque resting on the tightly stretched gray silk of his upper tunic at heart level. Unlike Hume he wore no visible arms belt, but the other did not doubt that there were a number of devices concealed in that room to counter the efforts of any assassin.
The man from the mirror spoke with a flat, toneless voice. His black hair had been shaven well above his ears, the locks left on top of his skull trained into a kind of bird’s crest. As Hume, his visible areas of flesh were deeply browned, but by nature rather than exposure to space, the pilot guessed. His features were harsh, with a prominent nose, a back-slanting forehead, eyes dark, long and large, with heavy lids.
“Now--” He spread both his hands, palm down and flat on the table, a gesture Hume found himself for some unknown reason copying. “You have a proposition?”
But the pilot was not to be hurried, any more than he was to be influenced by Wass’ stage-settings.
“I have an idea,” he corrected.
“There are many ideas.” Wass leaned back in his chair, but he did not remove his hands from the table. “Perhaps one in a thousand is the kernel of something useful. For the rest, there is no need to trouble a man.”
“Agreed,” Hume returned evenly. “But that one idea in a thousand can also pay off in odds of a million to one, when and if a man has it.”
“And you have such a one?”
“I have such a one.” It was Hume’s role now to impress the other by his unshakable confidence. He had studied all the possibilities. Wass was the right man, perhaps the only partner he could find. But Wass must not know that.
“On Jumala?” Wass returned.
If that stare and statement was intended to rattle Hume it was a wasted shot. To discover that he had just returned from that frontier planet required no ingenuity on the Veep’s part.
“Come, Out-Hunter Hume. We are both busy men, this is no time to play tricks with words and hints. Either you have made a find worth the attention of my organization or you have not. Let me be the judge.”
This was it--the corner of no return. But Wass had his own code. The Veep had established his tight control of his lawless organization by set rules, and one of them was, don’t be greedy. Wass was never greedy, which is why the patrol had never been able to pull him down, and those who dealt with him did not talk. If you had a good thing, and Wass accepted temporary partnership, he kept his side of the bargain rigidly. You did the same--or regretted your stupidity.
“A claimant to the Kogan estate--that good enough for you?”
Wass showed no surprise. “And how would such a claimant be profitable to us?”
Hume appreciated that “us”; he had an in now. “If you supply the claimant, surely you can claim a reward, in more ways than one.”
“True. But one does not produce a claimant out of a Krusha dream. The investigation for any such claim now would be made by a verity lab and no imposture will pass those tests. While a real claimant would not need your help or mine.”
“Depends upon the claimant.”
“One you discovered on Jumala?”
“No.” Hume shook his head slowly. “I found something else on Jumala--an L-B from Largo Drift intact and in good shape. From the evidence now in existence it could have landed there with survivors aboard.”
“And the evidence of such survivors living on--that exists also?”
Hume shrugged, his plasta-flesh fingers flexed slightly. “It has been six planet years, there is a forest where the L-B rests. No, no evidence at present.”
“The Largo Drift,” Wass repeated slowly, “carrying, among others, Gentlefem Tharlee Kogan Brodie.”
“And her son Rynch Brodie, who was at the time of the Largo Drift’s disappearance a boy of fourteen.”
“You have indeed made a find.” Wass gave that simple statement enough emphasis to assure Hume he had won. His one-in-a-thousand idea had been absorbed, was now being examined, amplified, broken down into details he could never have hoped to manage for himself, by the most cunning criminal brain in at least five solar systems.
“Is there any hope of survivors?” Wass attacked the problem straight on.
“No evidence even of there being any passengers when the L-B planeted. Those are automatic and released a certain number of seconds after an accident alarm. For what it’s worth the hatch of this one was open. It could have brought in survivors. But I was on Jumala for three months with a full Guild crew and we found no sign of any castaways.”
“So you propose--?”
“On the basis of my report Jumala has been put up for a safari choice. The L-B could well be innocently discovered by a client. Every one knows the story with the case dragging through the Ten Sector-Terran Courts now. Gentlefem Brodie and her son might not have been news ten years ago. Now, with a third of the Kogan-Bors-Wazalitz control going to them, any find linked with the Largo Drift would gain full galactic coverage.”
“You have a choice of survivor? The Gentlefem?”
Hume shook his head. “The boy. He was bright, according to the stories since, and he would have the survival manual from the ship to study. He could have grown up in the wilds of an unopened planet. To use a woman is too tricky.”
“You are entirely right. But we shall require an extremely clever imposter.”
“I think not.” Hume’s cool glance met Wass’. “We only need a youth of the proper general physical description and the use of a conditioner.”
Wass’ expression did not change, there was no sign that Hume’s hint had struck home. But when he replied there was a slight change in the monotone of his voice.
“You seem to know a great deal.”
“I am a man who listens,” Hume replied, “and I do not always discount rumor as mere fantasy.”
“That is true. As one of the guild you would be interested in the root of fact beneath the plant of fiction,” Wass acknowledged. “You appear to have done some planning on your own.”
“I have waited and watched for just such an opportunity as this,” Hume answered.
“Ah, yes. The Kogan-Bors-Wazalitz combine incurred your displeasure. I see you are also a man who does not forget easily. And that, too, I understand. It is a foible of my own, Out-Hunter. I neither forget nor forgive my enemies, though I may seem to do so and time separates them from their past deeds for a space.”
Hume accepted that warning--both must keep any bargain. Wass was silent for a moment, as if to leave time for the thought to root itself, then he spoke again.
“A youth with the proper physical qualifications. Have you any such in mind?”
“I think so.” Hume was short.
“He will need certain memories; those take time to tape.”
“Those dealing with Jumala, I can supply.”
“Yes. You will have to provide a tape beginning with his arrival on that world. For such family material as is necessary I shall have ready. An interesting project, even apart from its value to us. This is one to intrigue experts.”
Expert psycho-techs--Wass had them. Men who had slipped over the border of the law, had entered Wass’ organization and prospered there. There were some techs crooked enough to enjoy such a project for its own sake, indulging in forbidden experimentation. For a moment, but only for a moment, something in Hume jibbed at the intent of carrying through his plan. Then he shrugged that tinge aside.
“How soon do you wish to move?”
“How long will preparation take?” Hume asked in return, for the second time battling a taste of concern.
“Three months, maybe four. There’s research to be done and tapes to be made.”
“It will be six months probably before the Guild sets up a safari for Jumala.”
Wass smiled. “That need not worry us. When the time comes for a safari, there shall also be clients, impeccable clients, asking for it to be planned.”
There would be, too, Hume knew. Wass’ influence reached into places where the Veep himself was totally unknown. Yes, he could count on an excellent, well above suspicion, set of clients to discover Rynch Brodie when the time came.
“I can deliver the boy tonight, or early tomorrow morning. Where?”
“You are sure of your selection?”
“He fulfills the requirements, the right age, general appearance. A boy who will not be missed, who has no kin, no ties, and who will drop out of sight without any questions to be asked.”
“Very well. Get him at once. Deliver him here.”
Wass swept one hand across the table surface. On the red of the stone there glowed for seconds an address. Hume noted it, nodded. It was one in the center of the port town, one which could be visited at an odd hour without exciting any curiosity. He rose.
“He will be there.”
“Tomorrow, at your convenience,” Wass added, “you will come to this place.” Again the palm moved and a second address showed on the table.
“There you will begin your tape for our use. It may take several sessions.”
“I’m ready. I still have the long report to make to the Guild, so the material is still available on my note tapes.”
“Excellent. Out-Hunter Hume, I salute a new colleague.” At last Wass’ right hand came up from the table. “May we both have luck equal to our industry.”
“Luck to equal our desires,” Hume corrected him.
“A very telling phrase, Out-Hunter. Luck to equal our desires. Yes, let us both deserve that.”