Authors: Andre Norton
EARLY BIRD BOOKS
FRESH EBOOK DEALS, DELIVERED DAILY
BE THE FIRST TO KNOWâ
NEW DEALS HATCH EVERY DAY!
Tikil was really three cities loosely bound together, two properly recognized on the maps of Korwar's northern continent, the third a soreârather than a scarâof war, still unhealed. To the north and west Tikil was an exotic bloom on a planet that had harbored wealth almost from the year of its first settlement. To the east, fronting on the spaceport, was the part of Tikil in which lay the warehouses, shops, and establishments of the thousands of businesses necessary for the smooth running of a pleasure city, this exotic bloom where three-quarters of the elite of a galactic sector gathered to indulge their whims and play.
To the south was the Dipple, a collection of utilitarian, stark, unattractive housing. To live there was a badge of inferiority. A man from the Dipple had three choices for a cloudy future. He could try to exist without subcitizenship and a work permit, haunting the Casual Labor Center to compete with too many of his fellows for the very limited crumbs of employment; he could somehow raise the stiff entrance fee and buy his way into the strictly illegal but flourishing and perilous Thieves' Guild; or he could sign on as contract labor and be shipped off world in deep freeze with no beforehand knowledge of his destination or work.
The War of the Two Sectors had been fought to a stalemate five years ago. Afterwards, the two leading powers had shared out the spoilsâ“spheres of influence.” Several major and once richer planets had to be written off entirely, since worlds reduced to cinders on which no human being dared land were not attractive property. But a fringe of frontier worlds had passed into the grasp of one or the other of the major powersâthe Confederation or the Council. As a result, the citizens of several small nations suddenly found themselves homeless.
At the outbreak of the war ten years earlier, there had been forced evacuations from such frontier worlds; pioneers had been removed from their lands so that military outposts and masked solar batteries could be placed in their stead. In this fashion, the Dipple had been set up on Korwar, far back from the fighting line. During the first fervor of patriotism the Dipple dwellers met with good will. But later, when their home worlds were ruined or traded away across the conference tables, there was resentment, and on some planets there were organized moves to get rid of these rootless inhabitants.
Now, before dawn in Tikil, men from the Dipple leaned their bowed shoulders against the outer wall of the Casual Labor Center or squatted on their heels before the door that marked the meeting place between the haves and the have-nots.
Troy Horan watched the pale gold in the morning sky deepen. Too late to mark stars now. He tried to remember the sky over Nordenâand had again one of those sharp picture flashes of recollection.
A silver bowl arching above a waving plain of grass, grass that was pale green, mauve, and silver all at once, changing as the wind rippled it. He knew the warmth of a sun always half veiled in rainbow haze, felt the play of muscles as the animal he perched upon as a small boy, rather than bestrode, broke into a rocking canter. That was one of his last memories of Norden. They had been out “riding track,” cutting a wide circle about the grazing herd of tupan to check that none of the animals had drifted toward the quicksands near the river.
It had been that same morning that the Council ships had cut out of the sky, burning portions of the plain to charred earth and slag with their tailbursts. Within three days Troy and his people had left Norden for Korwarâthree Horans, a small clan among all the others. But not three for long. His fatherâbig body, laughing voice, quiet steady eyes, a pair of hands that did everything well, a man who was able to establish a strange bond of sympathy with any animalâhad put on a trooper's tunic and vanished into the maw of a transport. Lang Horan had not returned.
After that the Big Cough had hit the Dipple, leaving only Troy Horan, a lanky adolescent who inherited skills and desires for which there was no need on Korwar. He also possessed a stubborn, almost fierce independence, which had so far kept him either from signing on as contract labor or from the temptation offered by the Guild. Troy Horan was a loner; he did not take orders well. And since his mother's death, he had no close attachments in the Dipple. There were few left there now who had come from Norden. The men had volunteered as troopers, and, for some reason, their families had been particularly susceptible to the Cough.
The door that was their gate to the day's future slid back. Men stood away from the wall, got up. Mechanically Troy made a brushing gesture down the length of his thin torso, though nothing would restore a vestige of trimness to his clothing.
Spacer's breeches, fifth-hand, clean enough but with their sky blue now a neutral, dusty gray; spacer's boots, a little wide for his narrow feet, the magnetic insets clicking as he walked; an upper tunic that was hardly more than a sleeveless jerkin, all in contrast to the single piece of his old life that he wore pulled tight about his flat middle. That wide belt of a Norden rider was well oiled, every one of its silver studs polished and free of tarnish. Those studs formed a design that was Troy's only heritage. If he ever rode the grass plains again, with tupan galloping aheadâwell, those tupan might bear that same pattern on their cream-white hides. Lang Horan had been Range Master and Brand Owner.
Because he was young, tough, and stubborn, Troy was well to the fore of the line at the mechanical assigner. He watched with alert jealousy as three men ahead ran toward the stamper, assured of workâthe mark on their wrists giving them the freedom of the city, if only for a day. Then he was facing that featureless, impersonal mike himself.
“Horan, class two, Norden, lawful workâ” The same old formula he uttered there day after day. He stood, his feet a little apart, balancing as if the machine were an opponent ready for battle. Under his breath he counted five quickly, and a tiny hope was born. Since he had not been rejected at once, the assignor
have some request that might be matched by his meager qualifications.
The five he had counted doubled into ten before the assigner asked a question: “Knowledge of animals?”
“That of a Norden herd riderâ” Troy stretched the truth to a very thin band, but his small hope was growing fast.
The assigner meditated. Troy, through his excitement, felt the impatience of the men behind him. Yet the length of time the machine was taking was so promisingâ
“Employed.” Troy gave a small gasp of relief. “Time of employmentâindefinite. EmployerâKossi Kyger, first level, Sixth Square. Report there at once.”
The plates in his boot soles beat a rataplan as he hurried to the stamper, thrust his hand into the slot, and felt that instant of heat that set the work mark on his tanned wrist.
“First level, Sixth Square,” he repeated aloud, not because it was so necessary to impress his memory, but for the pure pleasure of being able to claim a work address.
Sixth Square lay on the outer fringe of the business district, which meant that Kyger was engaged in one of the upper-bracket luxury trades. Rather surprising that such a merchant would have need for a C.L.C. hireling. The maintenance force and highly trained salesmen of those shops were usually of the full-citizen class. And why animals? Horan swung on one of the fast-moving roll walks, his temporarily tattooed wrist held in plain sight across his wide belt to prevent questions from any patroller.
Because it was early, the roll walks were not crowded, and few private flitters held the air lanes overhead. Most of the shutters were still in place across the display fronts of the shops. It would be midday before the tourists from the pleasure hotels and the shoppers from the villas would move into town. On Korwar, shopping was a fashionable form of amusement, and the treasures of half the galaxy were pouring into Tilcil, the result of stepped-up production after the war.
Troy changed to another roll walk. The farther westward he went, the more conspicuous he became. Not that clothing was standardized here, but the material, no matter how fantastically cut and pieced together, was always rich. And the elaborate hair arrangements of the men who shared the roller with Troy, their jeweled wristbands, neck chains, and citizens' belt knives, took on a uniformity in which his own close-cropped yellow hair, his weaponless belt, his too-thin, fine-boned face were very noticeable. Twice a patroller stirred at a check point and then relaxed again at the sight of the stamp on the boy's bony wrist.
Sixth Square was one of the areas of carefully tended vegetation intended by the city planners to break the structure pattern of the district. Troy jumped from the roller and went to the map on a side pillar.
“Kyger,” he said into the mike.
“Kyger's,” the finder announced. “Gentle Homos, Gentle Femsâvisit Kyger's, where the living treasures of a thousand worlds are paraded before you! See and hear the Lumian talking fish, the dofuld, the priceless Phaxian change-coatâthe only one of its kind known to be in captivity alive. Follow the light, Gentle Homo, Gentle Fem, to Kyger'sâmerchant dealer in extraordinary pets!”
A small spark, which had glowed into life on the wall below the map, loosed itself and now danced through the air ahead, blinking with a gem flash. A pet shop! The inquiry about animal knowledge was now explained. But Troy lost some of his zest. The thin story he had told the assigner was now thinner, to the point of being full of holes. He was ten years out of Norden, ten years away from any contact with animals at all. Yet Troy clung to one hope. The assigner had sent him, and the machine was supposed to be always right in its selection.
He looked about him. The massed foliage of the center square was a riot of luxuriant vegetation, which combined plants and shrubs from half-a-dozen worlds into a pattern of growingâred-green, yellow-green, blue-green, silverâAnd he began to long with every fiber of his semistarved body that he would be the one Kyger wanted, even for just one day.