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Authors: John Brunner

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The Ladder in the Sky

BOOK: The Ladder in the Sky
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Table of Contents

THE LADDER IN THE SKY

JOHN BRUNNER

In THE LADDER IN THE SKY, a starving youth, trapped in poverty and with no hope of escape, is taken prisoner and offered up in an actual "deal with the devil,"--servitude for a year and a day in return for helping a resistance group free their imprisoned planetary leader. When he returns to consciousness, he is told that the devil has taken up residence inside him. At first, he thinks nothing is changed and he can take advantage of the situation but some upsetting surprises are in store for him. With an SF setting and a fantasy premise, this is one of Brunner's best hybrids of action, magic, technology and suspense.

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

eISBN: 978-1-61756-953-1

Copyright © 1962 by John Brunner

Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.

www.ereads.com

I

To the haughty, speeding by with their hands heavy with rings and their heavily made-up women at their sides, the Dyasthala was a barely noticed interlude between the spaceport and the high-built modern quarter climbing up the green-fledged hills. By day the beams of the harsh sun slanted down into it, picking at the crumbled walls, the heaps of refuse, the cracked and mud-smeared paving, like the fingers of an idiot scratching his sores. Then the boldest of them sometimes ventured down the broadest of the alleys, escorted by a pack of bullies and followed by yelling beggar-children, and then went home and washed away the clinging odor in a tub of perfumed water, so that they could boast about it later. But never at night. In the Berak tongue, Dyasthala meant “a place to walk warily”—and it was.

Kazan knew that. He had lived all his eighteen years in the Dyasthala, and even now, tonight, he was afraid against his will as he picked his way down alleys not far from the overpass carrying the highway. There was no moon to spy lurkers in shadow tonight, and the darkness was so thick it seemed to oppress his ears as well as his eyes, numbing them. He had eaten nothing since yesterday, but if he had had two coppers to rub together he would have spent them on a flaring, resinous torch even before the bowl of broth and the hunk of bread he kept imagining.

Cautious, keeping an even distance from the walls on either side, he moved almost as silently as a ghost. But not quite.

Later, he told himself that being hungry must have made him lightheaded, for otherwise he would never have gone walking alone at midnight. But for the first few instants after he was set upon, he thought nothing at all, because his attacker, whoever he was, went first for his throat, and with expert fingers strangled him to momentary unconsciousness.

Indeed, it was so cleverly done that it was like a showman’s trick, like the lowering and raising of the curtain before a stage to hide the mechanics of an illusion. One moment he was automatically clawing at the hands about his throat, trying to force a cry past their choking grip; the next he knew, he was sprawled on the ground, gazing up into the yellow glare of a handlight, his hands cuffed and his ankles hobbled.

His throat hurt abominably. Anyway, he could think of nothing to say. He kept silent.

Standing over him, holding the handlight, was a stout man of middle age with a melancholy expression. He wore an old, but once very expensive robe, the hem soiled with mud. He studied Kazan thoughtfully for a long moment.

At last he said, “Get him on his feet.”

Kazan felt himself seized by his collar and his belt, and hoisted to a vertical position as impersonally as a tent pole being set up. With his ankles hobbled as they were, he had to give up any idea of trying to run.

As he swung through the air, he caught a glimpse of the man who had actually attacked him. He was a brawny bully with a battered metal helmet on his shaven skull and a power-gun thrust in his belt. Kazan’s heart gave a lurch. Whose hands had he fallen into, in the name of the wyrds? In the Dyasthala you didn’t show a power-gun—not unless you were the law and there were ten of you marching together in broad daylight. A power-gun was a fortune you could hold in one hand, and nine out of ten of the people of the Dyasthala would kill you to take it away.

The stout man raised the handlight to the level of his shoulder and looked Kazan up and down. Kazan topped the bully by half a head, but the bully matched Kazan in height and was much heavier. If you lived in the Dyasthala you stayed thin; in all his life Kazan had had so few square meals he could practically recall them individually. He was lean, like a predator in a country of little game; his eyes and teeth were sharp like a predator’s, and his fair hair was chopped crudely short so that in a fight his adversary could not get a hold on it. His shirt he had stolen from a clothman on the other side of the overpass, but since to wear a new garment in the Dyasthala was to invite its theft he had smeared it with dust and torn one of the sleeves off. His jeans of supple leather had come from a man dying in a doorway. He also possessed a belt, hose and boots which he was wearing.

“What’s your name?” the stout man said.

Kazan didn’t answer. The bully slapped him on the side of the head—not too hard, just by way of encouragement. But the stout man scowled.

“Hego!” he snapped. “Let him make up his own mind!”

The bully chuckled as if at some unknown joke, but let his hand fall. Again the stout man put his question.

“Kazan,” came the reluctant answer.

“Just Kazan? Son of—?”

“Just Kazan.” His throat was very painful. He tried not to have to swallow, but he was shaking from head to foot with ill-defined terror, and sourness kept rising in his mouth.

“How old are you or don’t you know?” the stout man went on.

“About eighteen, I guess,” Kazan muttered. He had come to a tentative conclusion about the stout man’s interest in him, and if he was right then co-operation would probably be worth a warm bed and a couple of square meals, and perhaps some cash afterwards. You didn’t learn to be squeamish in the Dyasthala; you took what came along, or you died.

“All right, he’ll do,” the stout man said abruptly. “Hego, get him moving.”

A jab in the small of the back which almost put him back on the ground sent Kazan stumbling down the alley in the wake of the yellow handlight.

The new lords of Berak had laid the overpass ruler-straight across the slums, a roadway resting on a twelve-foot wall. If houses got in the way, they knocked them down. On one side of this barrier things had become worse and worse, even in Kazan’s lifetime. On the other side, the one closer to the spaceport, the spacecrew and tourist trade had brought a hesitant advance of prosperity.

By day there were guards at the four tunnels piercing the wall, and by night heavy steel grills were locked over the entrances, connected to noisy alarms. Someone like Kazan, with neither documents nor a job to guarantee him, could only reach the far side by scurrying illegally across the overpass and running the risk of being scythed down by the traffic. He had done that, of course. There was nothing in the Dyasthala worth stealing.

But the stout man had a key to one of the steel grills, and they passed under the road without challenge, hearing the transmitted vibration of the late-night vehicles echo eerily about them. Once they were through, Kazan concentrated on memorizing the route they were taking, in case he was abandoned on this side. The streets were still alley-broad, except where houses had collapsed and the ruins had been swept away instead of being repaired, but there was some lighting and the paving was in good repair.

They headed in the direction of the spaceport, meeting almost no one, although they passed several taverns from which singing and laughter could be heard. At last they turned off into a pitch-dark courtyard where the stout man had to use his handlight again, and halted before the door of a house whose windows showed no light at all.

The stout man knocked; the bully Hego closed one large hand on Kazan’s upper arm as though suspecting he might miraculously break his hobble and flee.

Shortly the door creaked fractionally open, and a whisper came from the darkness inside.

“Yarco?”

“Are you expecting anyone else?” the stout man said humorously, also in a whisper.

“Fool!” the speaker at the door hissed. “Come in quickly!”

The door opened fully. There was a high step in front of it; Kazan almost fell because his hobble prevented him from mounting it, but Hego steadied him and pushed him inside. The door shut.

Like most houses Kazan knew, the ground floor of this one was open from wall to wall. The ceiling was supported on square pillars, the bases of which were low, padded plinths serving as seats. On one of these plinths a man sat, dressed in black, with a small black skullcap above his very pale face. There was no one else present except the person who had opened the door to them. As he was pushed inside, Kazan had seen by Yarco’s handlight that this person was wrapped in a ground-length cloak with a concealing hood.

“Sit him down,” a sharp voice said.

A woman’s voice? Kazan snapped his head round.

The cloak was gone, tossed aside; the unsexed whisper had given place to a rich voice with a ring of authority, and she was beautiful. She was between the stout man and Kazan in height and moved with the grace of a wild animal. Her hair was long and black, her face oval but slightly hollow-cheeked so that her cheekbones seemed to be underlining her bright, fierce-burning eyes. Her mouth was finely shaped and showed red even in the dimness. She wore a smock-dress such as any servant might wear, but she carried it like a princess’s gown.

Kazan found himself gaping. But he had no chance to speak; he was thrust towards a seat and firmly settled on it by Hego, who took up a position beside him, watchful.

“Put the light on him, Yarco!” the woman said. “You—conjurer! Will he do?”

The man in black shrugged, studying Kazan. “Who is he?”

“He’s named Kazan.” The stout man answered off-handedly. “Aged eighteen or so. I picked him up in the Dyasthala.”

“Does he yet know why?”

“What difference does it make?” the woman cut in. “In the Dyasthala there’s no one but cutthroats and thieves.”

“Still, perhaps he should be asked if he will accept his task,” the man in black said.

“Ohhh!” For a moment Kazan thought she was going to refuse point-blank; then, however, she turned to face him, lifting her hand to her breast.

“Do you know me?” she said.

Kazan shook his head.

“I’m the Lady Bryda. At least you’ve heard of me!”

That—yes! Kazan was taken aback, but he controlled his face
.
He gave
a cautious nod. From her disgusted expression he thought that she had probably expected him to make some obeisance, but that was another thing people of the Dyasthala never learned.

Richly sarcastic, she went on, “And has it also come to your notice that this country of Berak is ruled by foreigners? That the rightful governor, Prince Luth, is held a captive?”

Kazan returned her gaze boldly. He said, “I have heard so, but in the Dyasthala it has made little difference. We are treated the same as before.”

He thought for a moment she was going to hit him in the face, but the dry voice of the man in black cut in.

“He shows spirit,” he said. “That’s good.”

Bryda relaxed a little, breathing hard. A look that might have been a sneer on a less noble countenance came and went. She said, “Well then, you’ve been brought here to aid the prince if it can be done. If you’re willing, it will mean for you release from the Dyasthala and chances of advancement that you’ve never dreamed of.”

“In the Dyasthala,” Kazan said stonily, “you don’t dream.”

Bryda stamped her foot and turned away. “I thought it would be useless to speak to the blockhead,” she said. “I’ll have no more time wasted. Conjurer, get to it!”

The man in black shrugged and picked up something which had been leaning against the plinth beside him. A ring, Kazan saw, perhaps two feet wide. No, much wider or else in some cunning way made to expand, for when the man in black laid it down on the floor it was as large as he was tall.

He settled it flat and returned to his seat. “Darkness,” he said in a bored tone.

Yarco put out the handlight. A curious noise came to Kazan’s ears; after a moment he identified it as the chattering of Hego’s teeth. He was distracted from his own strange plight for a moment by amusement at Hego’s, so that he could not tell whether the conjurer had done anything or whether the thing had happened by itself.

But a bluish glow now emanated from the ring on the floor, revealing Bryda’s face ghastly gray as she leaned forward, and Yarco’s also, set and serious, and the conjurer’s impassive.

And within the ring, where moments before there had been the bare planks of the floor, a shape that moved, and opened eyes glowing like coals,
spoke.

BOOK: The Ladder in the Sky
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