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Authors: Jack Vance

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The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories

BOOK: The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories
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THE POTTER OF FIRSK AND OTHER STORIES

 

Jack Vance

www.sfgateway.com

Enter the SF Gateway …
 

In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:

‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’

 

Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.

The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.

Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.

Welcome to the SF Gateway.

Planet of the Black Dust
 

About the middle of the dog watch Captain Creed came up on the bridge of the space-freighter
Perseus
. He walked to the forward port and stood gazing at the blood-red star which lay ahead and slightly to the left.

It was a nameless little sun in the tail of the Serpens group, isolated from the usual space routes. The Earth–Rasalague route ran far to one side, the Delta Aquila ran far to the other and the Delta Aquila–Sabik inter-sector service was yet a half light-year further out.

Captain Creed stood watching the small red star, deep in thought—a large man, with a paunch, a bland white face, a careful coal-black beard. His heavy black eyes, underhung with dark circles, were without expression or life. He wore a neat black suit, his boots shone with a high polish, his hands were white and immaculately kept.

Captain Creed was more than mere master of the
Perseus
. In partnership with his brother he owned the European-Arcturus Line—a syndicate impressive to the ear.

The home office, however, was one dingy room in the old Co-Martian Tower in Tran, and the firm’s sole assets consisted, first, of the
Perseus
itself, and second, of the profit anticipated from a cargo of aromatic oils which Captain Creed had taken on consignment from McVann’s Star in Ophiuchus.

The
Perseus
could not be considered the more valuable of the two items. It was an old ship, slow, pitted by meteorites, of little more than 600 tons capacity.

The cargo was another matter—flask upon flask of rare aromatics, essence of syrang blooms, oil of star-poppies, attar of green orchids, musk of crushed mian flies, distillation of McVann’s blue bush—exotic liquids brought in by the bulb-men of McVann’s Star a half ounce at a time. And Captain Creed was highly annoyed when the insurance evaluator permitted but an eighty-million-dollar policy and had argued vehemently to have the figure moved closer to the cargo’s true value.

Now, as he stood on the bridge smoking his cigar, he was joined by the first mate, Blaine, who was tall and thin and, except for a scrub of black hair, egg-bald. Blaine had a long knife-nose, a mouth twisted to a perpetual snarl. He had a quick reckless way of talking that sometimes disconcerted careful Captain Creed.

“They’re all fixed,” he announced. “They’ll go in about ten minutes—” Captain Creed quelled him with a frown and a quick motion of the head, and Blaine saw that they were not alone. Holderlin, second mate and quartermaster, a young man of hard face and cruel blue eyes, stood forward at the helm.

He wore only loose tattered trousers, and the scarlet glare from the star ahead gave a devilish red glow to his body, put a lurid cast on his face. Like two hawks they watched him, and his expression did not entirely reassure them. After a moment Captain Creed spoke smoothly.

“I doubt if you are right, Mr. Blaine. The period of that type of variable star is slower and more even, as I think you’ll find if you check your observations.”

Blaine shot another quick look at Holderlin, then, mumbling indistinguishably, left for the engine room.

Creed presently stepped across the bridge.

“Take her five degrees closer to the star, Mr. Holderlin. We’re somewhat off course, and the gravity will swing us back around.”

Holderlin gave him one look of surprise, then silently obeyed. What nonsense was this? Already the ship was gripped hard by gravity. Did they still hope to beguile him with such slim pretexts? If so they must think him stupid indeed.

Even a child would by now have been warned by the happenings aboard the
Perseus
. First at Porphyry, the space-port on McVann’s Star, Captain Creed had discharged the radioman and the two ship’s mechanics for reasons unexplained.

Not an unusual circumstance, but Captain Creed had neglected to hire replacements. Thus, the only other man aboard beside Captain Creed, Blaine and Holderlin, was Farjoram, the half-mad Callistonian cook.

On several occasions, after Porphyry had been cleared, Holderlin had surprised Blaine and Creed intent at the radio. Later, when he inspected the automatic frequency record, he found no trace of calls.

And four or five days ago, while off watch below and supposedly asleep, he had noticed while leaving his tiny compartment that the entrance port to the starboard lifeboat was ajar. He had said nothing, but later, when Blaine and Captain Creed were both asleep, he inspected the lifeboats, port and starboard, to find that the fuel in the starboard lifeboat had been drained except for the slightest trickle and that the radio transmitter had been tampered with.

The port boat was well fueled and provisioned. So Holderlin quietly refueled the starboard boat and thoughtfully stowed away spare fuel.

Now came Blaine’s unwary statement to Captain Creed, and Creed’s peculiar orders to steer toward the star. Holderlin’s tough brown face was unexpressive as he watched Creed’s great bulk by the port, blotting out the sun ahead. But his brain searched through all angles of the situation. For fourteen years of his thirty-three he had roved space and of necessity had learned how to care for Robert Holderlin.

A slight shock shook the hull. Captain Creed turned his head negligently, then once again looked out on space. Holderlin said nothing, but his eyes were very alert.

A few minutes passed, and Blaine came back to the bridge. Holderlin sensed, but did not see the look which passed between Creed and the gaunt mate.

“Ah,” said Captain Creed. “We seem to be close enough. Starboard ten degrees and set her on the gyroscope.”

Holderlin turned the wheel. He could feel the surge of power into the jets, but the ship did not respond.

“She doesn’t answer, sir,” he said.

“What’s this!” cried Captain Creed. “Mr. Blaine! Check the steering jets! The ship does not answer the wheel!”

Creed must dislike too blunt action, thought Holderlin, to insist on such elaborate circumstances—or perhaps they suspected the gun in his pocket. Blaine ran off, and returned in a very short time, a wolfish grin lifting his already contorted lip.

“Steering jets fused, Captain. That cheap lining they put in at Aureolis has given out.”

Captain Creed looked from the furious little sun ahead to Blaine and Holderlin. With his entire fortune at stake, he seemed strangely unperturbed by the prospect of disaster. But then Captain Creed’s white face was always controlled. He gave the order that Holderlin had been expecting.

“Abandon ship!” he said. “Mr. Blaine, despatch the distress signal! Mr. Holderlin, find Farjoram and stand by the starboard lifeboat!”

Holderlin left to find the cook. But he noted as he passed that Blaine, at the transmitter, had not yet flipped down the big red ‘Emergency’ relay.

Presently Captain Creed and Blaine joined Holderlin and the cook on the boat walk.

“Shall I accompany your boat, Captain, or Mr. Blaine’s?” asked Holderlin, as if he had not understood Captain Creed’s previous order, or was challenging it. Blaine looked in sudden alarm at the captain.

“You will take charge of the starboard boat, Mr. Holderlin,” replied the Captain silkily. “I wish Mr. Blaine to accompany me.” He turned to enter the port boat. But Holderlin stepped forward and produced a sheet of paper he had been carrying for several days.

“A moment, if you please, sir. If I am to be in charge of the boat, for the protection of myself and the cook—in the event your boat is lost—will you sign this certification of shipwreck?”

“Neither of us will be lost, Mr. Holderlin,” replied Captain Creed, smoothing his black beard. “Mr. Blaine contacted a patrol cruiser only a hundred million miles away.”

“Nevertheless, sir, I believe the Astronautic Code requires such a document.”

Blaine nudged the captain slyly.

“Well certainly, Mr. Holderlin, we must observe the law,” said Captain Creed, and so signed the certification. Without more ado, he and Blaine entered their lifeboat.

“Take off, Mr. Holderlin!” Captain Creed ordered through the port. “We will wait till you clear.”

Holderlin turned. The cook had disappeared.

“Farjoram!” he cried. “
Farjoram!

Holderlin ran to find him and at last discovered the fuzzy-skinned little Callistonian huddled in his cabin, red eyes bulging in great terror. There was foam at his mouth.

“Come,” said Holderlin gruffly.

The Callistonian babbled in frenzy.

“No, no—I not go in lifeboat. Get away, you go! I stay!”

Then Holderlin remembered a tale which had gone the rounds of how this Farjoram and eight others had drifted in a lifeboat for four months through the Phenesian Blackness. When at last they had been picked up, there was only Farjoram among the picked bones of his fellows. So now even Holderlin shuddered.

“Hurry!” came Captain Creed’s call. “We are almost into the sun!”

“Come!” said Holderlin roughly. “They’ll kill you if you don’t.”

For answer the Callistonian whipped out a long knife and spasmodically stabbed himself in the throat. He fell at Holderlin’s feet. Holderlin returned alone.

“Where’s Farjoram?” queried Creed sharply.

“He killed himself, sir. With a knife.”

“Humph,” murmured Creed. “Well, take off alone then. The rendezvous is at a hundred million miles on the line between this star and Delta Aquila.”

“Right, sir,” said Holderlin. Without further words he sealed himself in the boat and took off.

The sun was close, but not too close. It would have pulled an unfueled lifeboat to doom, but it was not so near as to prevent another ship from approaching the
Perseus
, shackling into the fore and aft chocks and towing it off to safety.

Holderlin used his blasts for a few seconds, then cut them, as if his fuel were exhausted. Presently, as he drifted away from the
Perseus
, apparently helpless in the red star’s gravity, he saw the port boat break clear and speed, not out toward Delta Aquila, but back along the blast-track.

Holderlin drifted quietly a few minutes, in the event that Captain Creed or Blaine were watching him through glasses. But there was little time to waste. The ship lying astern would presently draw alongside and, after transferring the precious cargo, would let the
Perseus
hurtle into the scarlet sun.

Holderlin had different plans. He assured himself that the certificate signed by Captain Creed was safe—then, judging the interval to be adequate, started his blasts and whisked himself back to the
Perseus
.

He brought the bow of the lifeboat against the
Perseus
’ forward tow ring, then slipped into his air-suit, clambered out into space and shackled the two together. Then, back in the lifeboat, he eased open the throttle and nudged the bow of the
Perseus
to a safe position of space.

He pushed himself across the emptiness, this time to the
Perseus
’ entrance port and, shedding his space-suit, ran up to the bridge. He sent out a detector wave, and the almost instant contact bell told him the other ship stood close—too close for flight to the only refuge he could think of—the lone planet of the red star.

He picked up this ship in the teleview. It was a long black vessel with high-straked bow, great thick-ribbed tubes and a bridge built smooth into the hull. Holderlin instantly recognized the type—a class of fast heavily-armed ships designed for the Scorpio–Sagittarius frontier run, built by the Belisarius Corporation of Earth.

Two years before he had shipped aboard one of the same class, and he recollected an incident of that voyage. Out past Fomalhaut, they were engaged in a running battle with a war-sphere of the Clantlalan system, and there had been a lucky shot into the main generator which had put them out of action.

Only the arrival of three Earth cruisers had staved off capture and slavery. Holderlin recollected the exact details of that lucky shot. The bolt had struck amidships, just forward of the lower drive-jet. It had broken into the hull through a small drain, the Achilles’ heel of the heavy armor.

So Holderlin watched and waited as the sleek black vessel cruised close. The shuttle dangling against the
Perseus
’ bow was turned partly away in the shadow, and was, he hoped, not too conspicuous.

But the ship came easing up with an insolent leisure, and there seemed to be no suspicion aboard. Holderlin’s hard face creased in a grin as he sighted along the
Perseus
’ ancient needle beam.

The encounter was of dream-like simplicity. Like a tremendous black shark, the ship drifted over him, her little black drain drawing the sights of his needle-beam like a magnet.

He pulled the trigger and laughed aloud as a great hole opened where the drain had once been. As before, the lights died, the driving beams cut off, all evidence of life vanished, and the black ship rolled sluggishly in recoil from the blast, a great helpless hulk.

Holderlin ran to the bank of jet controls. He could consider himself safe now, for at least a few hours, when, with luck, he would be so well concealed that the black ship could seek in vain. And if those aboard were not able to rig up an auxiliary generator quickly, they themselves might be forced to take to their lifeboats—for the red star glowed close ahead.

BOOK: The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories
9.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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