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IV

The Thieves' Cluster was a group of eight suns in the Perseian Limbo which had picked up a jostling swarm of dark stars, planets, planetoids, asteroids, meteorites, and general debris. Here was end-haven for the lost men of all worlds. Among the hundred thousand satellites a man could dodge a low-boat like a rabbit ducking a dog in a mile of blackberry thicket.

If he cared nothing for the life of the settled planets, if he had money to pay for his stores, if he could protect himself, then he could live his life among the jostling little worlds with small fear of civilized justice.

There was no law in the Thieves' Cluster except at Eleanor on the central planet Spade-Ace. Here a government of sorts existed-an order of men forced to cooperate by fear and despair, a society of the antisocial. The executive committee of the government was the Blue-nose Gang, after Blue-nose Pete, mayor of Eleanor.

At Eleanor the strictest law in the universe was enforced. If a man could win to the Eleanor space-field he could sleep in an alley with his loot on his chest and when he awoke his gold would be there. The apparatus was clumsy and harsh but if a man violated the law of Eleanor the Gang would have his life.

Paddy slipped through the crush of flaming suns and bright worlds without hindrance, fell against the swampy side of Spade-Ace, leveled off, flew screaming a few miles above the reed-covered morass. A ridge of black rock rose at the horizon. He crossed it and below him was Eleanor, a spatter of white and brown at the base of the mountain.

He dropped to the field beside the alteration docks, where a Badau double-monitor lay half-dismantled.

He jumped out of the domed boat, ran across the field to the line of ships at the boundary. At a hydrant he flung himself down, turned on the water, drank, drank, drank.

An Earther lounging nearby, a tall dark man with narrow yellow eyes, watched him curiously. "Run out of water, Red?"

Paddy pulled himself to his feet, ran his wet hands across his face.

"Faith, I've eaten shrimp preserved in sweet syrup now it's four days and vile fare it is, believe me, after the third bite."

"Sounds rough," said the tall dark man. He nodded at,the boat. "Nice rig you're flying. Planning to sell or holding on to her?"

Paddy leaned against the hangar. "Perhaps you'd spare a cigarette? Thanks." He blow out a great puff of smoke. "Now as to the ship, as I am without funds, I think she'll have to be sold. What might a boat like that bring?"

The Earther squinted reflectively. "A hundred thousand, maybe a little more. Say a hundred thirty."

Paddy rubbed his face, already red-bearded. "Hmmm. The drive alone is worth a million on Earth."

"This ain't Earth, Red."

"If what I hear of prices here in the cluster is so, that'll feed me about a month."

The Earther laughed. "Not quite that bad. Depends on what kind of service you like. The Casino Lodge up Napoleon Street is high. If you want something cheaper, try the Bowsprit, down Pickpocket Alley. It's clean but not too stylish."

Paddy thanked the man gravely. "And perhaps you can tell me the best place to sell the boat because in truth I haven't a cent in my pocket."

The tall man pointed across the field. "If you want a quick deal to go in that door with the yellow glass. Tell the Canope girl you want to talk to Ike."

Paddy drove a hard bargain, eloquently describing the luxury, the comfort, the appointments of the spaceboat.

"-the former property of one of the highest lords of Shaul! Like his private boudoir! Marvellous, my friend Ike, and the anti-gravs over-powered so that you never know when you leave the ground…"

He left the space-field with a hundred and forty-five thousand marks in assorted notes-yellow, blue and blue-green. He turned his face toward the central part of town, passed through a district of warehouses, second-hand shops, rooming-houses. Then, climbing a slight rise, he came to the quarter of the restaurants, taverns, bordellos.

Farther up the hill were the concrete and glass hotels, catering to exiles and regular visitors-smugglers, black-birders, ship-stealers, spies. The city was crowded, the streets filled with sauntering men of all races and variants-first-stage types like the Canopes, Maeves, Dyoks, varying in only a few details, then along the metamorphological gamut. The Shauls and Kotons, Labirites and Green-Rassins and then the Alpheratz Eagles, gaunt, sharp, bony as herons, the elfin Asmasians, the fat butter-yellow Loristanese.

Paddy ate a slow meal at an Earth-style restaurant, then crossed the street to a barber shop, where he bought a shave and a haircut. At a clothing store he dressed himself in clean underclothes, a somber blue jumper, soft boots.

The proprietress was an ancient Loristanese woman, whose youthful yellow had darkened to a horse-chestnut color. As paddy paid, he leaned confidentially across the counter, winked.

"And where might I find a good beauty shop, my knowledgeable charmer?"

The old woman gave him his change and the directions together. "Upstairs and down the hall. The doctor gives you a new face as easy as I change your clothes."

Upstairs walked Paddy, down a long corridor broken by a line of cheap wooden doors, each door bearing a name-plate: Galtee Stowage-Chiutt Explosive Supply-Pretagni and Dha, Loristanese Financial Consultants-Ramadh Singh, Funeral Consultant and Insurance, Corpses Buried anywhere-Dr. Ira Tallogg, Dermatologist.

Three hours later Paddy was a different man. His hair was black with Optichrome B. No longer was his nose broken. Instead it resembled the nose Paddy had worn during his youth. Even his fingers had been capped with new prints and his tongue had been slightly stitched, changing his voice and altering the pattern of the surface.

Paddy surveyed the new man in the full-length mirror. Behind him the doctor stood silently-a fat neatly-shaved Earther with a sour expression.

Paddy turned. "How much, doctor?"

"Five thousand marks."

As Paddy counted out the money it came as a sudden sharp discovery that the doctor was the sole link between the old and the new. He said, "How much for the operation and how much for keeping your mouth shut?"

The doctor said, "All of it either way. I don't talk. I get asked plenty. There's more spies in Eleanor than there is in Novo Mundo. All I need to do is talk once and I'm done. The Blue-nose Gang would get me inside the day."

Paddy studied his new profile. "Would you talk for a million marks and a free ride to Earth?"

The doctor replied warily, "Hard to say. Nobody's ever offered it to me."

Paddy tilted his head, looked down at his nose at the foreshortened reflection. The doctor connected the red-headed fugitive from Akhabats and the dark man from nowhere like the equal sign of an equation. As he had pointed out, Eleanor swarmed with spies.

Now if he, Paddy Blackthorn, were the Executive Intelligencer on one of the Langtry worlds he would station a man at the Eleanor space-field-maybe leaning against the hangar. A man landing a ship with a crystal dome would set many wheels in motion.

They would know he had bought a blue jumper before he appeared again on the streets. They might learn that he had visited the doctor. So far his new appearance was unknown. He was still nameless. So long as he was unknown and nameless he was safe in the crowds of the wordless gray men coming and going.

The doctor was the link. He would be approached, questioned, offered enormous bribes, an all-embracing pardon for past sins.

"Doc," said Paddy gently, "do you have a back door out of here?"

The doctor looked up from putting away his tools. "Fire escape down the rear," he said shortly.

It would be watched, thought Paddy. He eyed the doctor speculatively. He could trust nobody. What was a million, ten million, a hundred million marks, one way or the other, either to himself or the Langtry worlds? The wealth of the universe, the cycle of empire was clasped to his wrist.

He should kill the doctor. He should but he could not. The doctor read the thought in his eyes, drew back, read the dismissal, relaxed. Others had looked at him with the same expression and for that reason he carried a gun in his pocket.

Paddy went to the window, looked out, into a drab back alley. Across the street was a blank wall, streaked with grime, raddled with a native red fungus.

Paddy felt trapped. They knew where he was. Any minute he could expect a bullet in his head or kidnaping and the nerve-suit-a lifetime in the nerve-suit. His flesh crawled. It was a mistake, landing on Spade-Ace. As soon as he had set foot on the planet, his presence had been reported. Langtry agents would be converging like hounds on a fox.

And yet he had to land sometime, somewhere. Paddy thought of the shrimps in syrup, grimaced. No water, no food-Earth would have been little, if any, better. He would have been extradited from Earth almost as soon as he landed and his story laughed off by a bribed magistrate; He turned back from the window, surveyed the dim little room with its settee and spindly blue lethe-plant, the operating table and racks of instruments, cabinets full of bottles. The walls were cheap spray-wood, the ceiling the same.

Paddy turned to the door. "Now I'm going, doc, and never forget-I'll know if you spill and you'll sore regret it."

The doctor seemed to take no offense, having heard the same threat from each of his patients. He nodded matter-of-factly and Paddy took his leave. The door latched behind him.

Paddy looked up and down the empty corridor. It smelled of sour varnish, of corners full of dust. Next door to the doctor was the office of Ramadh Singh, Funeral Consultant. Paddy laid his ear to the glass panel in the door. It was late in the afternoon. The office seemed to be empty. Paddy tried the door-locked.

Again he looked up and down the corridor. On Earth there would be no hesitation. On Spade-Ace a card cheat was hung head downward, his ankles nailed to a high beam. A burglar was shot on apprehension.

Paddy muttered, "The lure of gold is leading me to the edge of crime." Setting his shoulder to the glass he heaved. The glass bent out of the molding. Paddy reached in, snapped the latch, slid open the door, entered.

The office was a mere cubicle, equipped with a desk, a table displaying miniature coffins and urns at various prices, a small mnemiphot, a battered screen. On the wall hung a calendar and a group photograph of a family standing in front of a small frame cottage, evidently on Earth.

Paddy crossed the room, put his ear to the partition. On the other side he could hear a scrape of motion-the doctor setting his office to rights.

To Paddy's right was a little closet. He looked in, saw a tank of mist-cleaner, a medicine closet built into the partition. Opening the door of the medicine closet and pulling out Ramadh Singh's various unguents, incenses, lotions, Paddy had only a thin layer of spraywood between himself and the doctor's office.

Now, thought Paddy, we'll see, we'll see. If I've been followed, presently they'll be curious and come on up to see where I am. If they come up and question the doctor I'll know the worst, and be prepared.

He heard voices, bent his ear to the cabinet. The doctor had a patient-a rough voice like an Asmasian. He was suffering from heat-rash and the doctor gave him a package of sal-negative. Another patient, suffering from ionic burns, was treated.

There was a wait of twenty minutes, then another patient, then another twenty minutes-and now a fresh new voice with a different timbre. Paddy cocked his ear. The voice was feminine, full of soft round overtones. The woman asked, "Are you Dr. Tallogg?"

There was a pause. Paddy pictured the doctor's slow sour scrutiny. "That's right."

"Dr. Tallogg," said the woman's voice, "you know that your brother, Dr. Clement Tallogg, is looking for you?"

There was a long silence. Finally, in a dim muffled voice, "I have no brother. What do you want?"

"I want to pay you five hundred thousand marks. That's half a million marks." She paused to let the figure sink in. "I want to take you back to Paris. We can leave in fifteen minutes. When we arrive you'll find that your brother is no longer interested in your whereabouts, that a certain set of books has been found. I can arrange all this. All I want in return is some information."

Another long pause and Paddy's eyes narrowed. Sweat poured down his ribs. What temptation to put before a man! Home, wealth, the sweet milk of friendship-how could he resist? He would not resist.

"What kind of information?" came the low dim voice.

"A tall red-haired man about thirty years old entered the building, came to your office. He has not been seen to leave. Very probably you have altered his appearance, possibly provided him with an unobtrusive route to the streets. What I want is an exact description of this man, his new appearance, his new coordinates and what you know of his future plans."

The silence was of a full minute's duration and Paddy held his breath.

"Show me the money."

There was a soft thud, a click, a slap. "Right there."

"And-the other matters?"

"You'll have to accept my word."

The doctor made a soft sound of scornful rejection.

Silence.

"Here," said the doctor. "Swallow this."

Hesitation.

"What is it?"

"It's one of the Asmasian ordeal drugs. If an antidote is taken inside of half an hour no harm of any sort will result. If not you will die in some pain. When you put me aboard this boat I'll give you the antidote."

The woman laughed. "By a curious coincidence I likewise carry with me a quantity of the ordeal poison. If you will take my dose I'll take yours-and we're both protected."

"Fair enough."

There were sounds, a click, another. Then the doctor's voice came, deliberate, slow, detached.

"The red-headed man now is very dark-a Mediterranean type. Here-this is what the prototype looks like. He resembles this very closely. You may keep it. He wears a blue jumper, soft boots. He speaks with a slight accent of some sort-I can't quite place it.

"I know nothing of his past, or his future plans. His fingerprints"-a pause, a rustle of papers-"this is the set I gave him. He left my office about an hour or an hour and a half ago. Where he went I have no idea."

The woman's voice said, "Did you let him out some secret way?"

"No," said the doctor. "There is a door into the cellar and out into the street that no one very much knows about but I did not take him to it. He simply walked out the door and closed it."

The woman said thoughtfully, "He has not been seen to leave."

"Then-" the doctor started. Paddy pulled himself out of the closet, slid open Ramadh Singh's door, slipped out into the hall, stepped to Dr. Tallogg's door, slid it ajar an inch. The drab waiting room was empty. Voices came from the inner room.

The door slid quietly open. Paddy slipped in like a dark dream.

He had no weapon-he must go carefully. He stepped across the room, saw a shoulder in gray-green fabric, a hip in dark green. On the hip hung a pouch. If she carried a weapon it would lie in this pouch.

Paddy stepped through the door, threw an arm around the woman's throat, dipped into her pouch with his right hand. He pulled out an ion gun, pointed it at the doctor.

The doctor had his own weapon in his hand. He held it as if it were very hot, as if he were not sure where to aim it.

Paddy said, "Put down that gun!" in a voice like an iron bell. "Put it down, I say!"

The doctor peered at him with almost comical indecision. Paddy heaved the struggling woman forward, reached, took the gun from Tallogg's numb fingers. He shoved it inside his jumper. The woman sprang clear, turned, faced Paddy, her mouth parted, eyes wide with black wide pupils staring.

"Quiet!" warned Paddy. "I'm a desperate man. I'll shoot if you drive me to it."

"What do you want?" asked Tallogg quietly. He now bore himself with the indifference of a man condemned.

Paddy grinned, a wide toothy grin. "First, doctor, you will conduct me and this lady to the street through your secret way."

The woman stiffened, began to speak, then halted, watching Paddy in frowning calculation.

The doctor said, "Perhaps I will, perhaps I won't." He nodded wearily at the ion gun. "You intend to shoot me anyway."

Paddy shrugged. "I won't shoot. We'll sit here and talk. Faith, I'm a great talker. I'll tell you of the Grand Rally at Skibbereen, I'll talk by the hour of Fionn and Diarmuid. Then there's Miletus and the old heroes." He looked brightly at the doctor. "Now what do you say to that?"

The doctor's mouth had drooped. He said forlornly, "I suppose I lose nothing by taking you out."

Paddy turned to the woman. "And I'll ask you to take me to your boat."

She said, "Now listen to me, Paddy Blackthorn."

He took stock of her. She was younger than he had expected and a great deal smaller. There were few inches more than five feet of her and she was slim to boot. She had a small face, short dark hair clinging close to her head. Except for lustrous dark eyes Paddy thought her rather plain, hardly feminine. His taste was for the long-limbed brown-haired girls of Maeve, laughing light-headed girls.

"I hate killing," muttered Paddy. "Lucky for you it is that I harm never so much as a fly unless first it stings me. Now as for you, walk quiet and calm and there'll be no great harm done to you. But mind-no tricks!"

He motioned to the doctor. "Lead."

The doctor said sourly, "Did I understand you to say that you don't intend to shoot me?"

Paddy snorted. "You understand nothing. Get moving."

The doctor spread out his hands helplessly. "I merely wanted to state that if we are to leave I wish to take along the antidote to the ordeal poison I gave the young woman. If I don't have hers she won't give me mine."

Paddy said, "Give it to me."

The doctor hesitated, eyeing the girl doubtfully.

"If I don't get it I'll sit here till you fall sideways from the poison."

The doctor shuffled to the drawer, tossed Paddy an envelope.

Paddy looked at the girl. "Now yours."

Without a word she tossed him a vial. The doctor's eyes hungrily followed the arc of the flight, riveted on Paddy's arm as he pocketed the drugs.

"Now move," said Paddy blithely. "You're both under death sentences, like me in the brick jail at Akhabats. Except I was an honest thief. You two are traitors to your old Mother Earth."

The doctor led them along the sour-smelling hall, slowly, hoping for interruption. Paddy said pleasantly, "And if there's trouble, Doc, I'll smash these bottles down on the floor." The doctor's gait lengthened. He opened a narrow door, led them down a flight of damp stones heavy with a musty reek of some nameless Spade-Ace mold.

Two flights down and the stairs opened into the basement below the clothing store, a long low room dug into the ground, lit by antique glow-tubes. Old cases, dusty furniture cast tall black shadows-junk brought across the mindless miles of space to rot and moulder in a basement.

Quietly, sedately, they moved through the basement, forming strange silhouettes against the higgledy-piggledy background. Paddy grinned. They didn't dare attack, they didn't dare run. He had them in a double grip with the gun and the poison.

The doctor glanced at his watch. "Fifteen minutes," he said thickly. "Then the antidote does us no more good." He looked at Paddy with hot eyes, waiting for Paddy to answer.

Paddy motioned silently. The doctor turned, stepped up on a bench, heaved at a slanting door. It swung up and out, letting a slender shaft of white light into the basement. The doctor looked right, left, motioned with a plump arm.

"Come on up, all's clear."

He stepped on up, the woman followed nimbly and then came Paddy, cautiously. They stood at the bottom of a light well, between two buildings, with a slit two feet wide running out to the street.

Paddy said to the girl, "Where is the space-boat?"

"North of town on the dust-flat."

"Let's go."

They sidled from between the buildings out into a dark street. The doctor turned to the right, led them among the dismal mud huts of the Asmasian quarter. At a square of light he paused, looked at his watch.

"Ten minutes." He turned to Paddy. "Did you hear me? Ten minutes!"

Paddy waved him on. The doctor turned and they continued out into the open country in back of the town-a region of open sewers, fields packed with unwanted refuse from a thousand stolen ships. Here and there stood the shack of some creature with habits too disgusting to be tolerated even by the tolerant men of Eleanor.

They came out on a plain of white volcanic dust, dark-gray in the planet-spangled night of Spade-Ace, and the town of Eleanor was at their backs-a low unsightly blotch spotted with white and yellow lights.

Paddy searched across the field for the dark shape of the boat. He turned a stormy glance at the woman. The doctor peered at his watch. "About a minute…"

The woman's voice glistened with triumph. "I have a spaceboat. It's not here. It's at the main field. You're bluffing, Paddy Blackthorn. You want my space-boat more than I want my life. Now I'm making the terms. You've got to go along with me or else kill me."

"And kill you I will," growled Paddy, pulling out his gun.

"And kill yourself at the same time. Langtry agents are pouring into Eleanor by the boatload. They know you're here. They'll get you inside of four hours. You can't hide and you can't get away. I'm your only chance. Cooperate with me, and we both win-and Earth wins. Refuse and we both die-and Earth loses because before they kill you they'll get what they want from you."

Paddy stood limp, angry. "Ah, you scheming, hag-woman, you've got me like Cuchulin's goat. You still have the audacity to claim you serve Earth?"

She smiled in the darkness. "You don't believe me? You've never heard of the Earth Agency?"

The doctor whined, "The antidotes! Hurry, man, or we'll be dead!"

"Come here," growled Paddy. He grabbed the woman, felt for scars that might be left by an amputated skin-flap. "No, you're no Shaul. And sure you're no Eagle, no Badau. You're not white enough for a Koton-not to mention the eyes-and you're not yellow enough for a Loristanese. Of course," he grumbled, "there's a little profit in wondering about your race-you might be selling out to any of them."

The woman said, "I work for Earth Agency. It's your last chance. Give me the antidote-or I'll die and you'll die and the Langtry worlds will lord it over the universe for the rest of time. There'll never come another chance like this, Paddy Blackthorn."

"Quick!" cried the doctor. "Quick! I can feel the-"

Paddy contemptuously tossed them the antidotes. "Go on then. Save your miserable lives, and let me be." He turned on his heel, strode off across the powdery dust.

The woman's voice came to his back. "Wait a minute, Paddy Blackthorn. Don't you want to leave Spade-Ace?"

Paddy said no word, paced on, blind with rage.

Her voice came to him, "I have a space-boat!" She came running up beside him, panted, "We'll take the secret of the drive to Earth."

Paddy slowed his stride, halted, looked down into her wide dark eyes. He turned, went back to where the doctor stood forlornly. Paddy grasped the doctor by the shoulders.

"Look now, Tallogg. You have your half million that you got selling me out. Buy yourself a boat this very night-this very hour. Leave the planet. If you make it to Earth you can sell the boat and be a rich man. Do you hear?"

"Yes," said Tallogg dully. His shoulders hung as if under a yoke.

"Then go," said Paddy. "And if you love old Earth don't return to your office. Don't go there at all."

The doctor muttered something indistinguishable, became a blot in the gray murk. He was gone.

Paddy looked after him. "Better should I have burnt a hole in him and so saved us much concern for the future."

The woman said, "Never mind that. Let's go and we'll head for Earth."

"Very well." Paddy sighed. "It's not as I had planned it."

"Be glad you're alive," she said. "Now let's go."

By a back route they walked to the space-field, quietly crossed to her boat at the far end. Paddy looked at the boat doubtfully from end to end.

"Those are crowded quarters for the pair of us, I'm thinking. Now maybe a decent respectable girl wouldn't care to-"

She snapped, "Never mind that, Paddy Blackthorn. You keep your distance, I'll keep mine-and my reputation can look after itself."

"Yerra," muttered Paddy, "and who'd want to touch such a spit-cat and plain to boot? Well then-into the boat with you and may the best man of us win."

As she opened the port the beam of light fell on them. A man's voice said hoarsely, "Just a minute, just a minute."

Paddy put his hand on the girl's back, shoved her in, started after her. "Come back here," said the dark shape and the voice was louder. "I'll shoot!"

Paddy turned, aimed at the light with Dr. Tallogg's gun. His beam struck square. In the spatter of orange and purple flames from the shorted powerpack, Paddy glimpsed the man's face-the narrow-faced narrow-eyed man who had been leaning against the hangar when Paddy dropped down to the spacefield. His face was convulsed by pain, surprise, hate, by the shock of the beam. The lamp guttered into a red flicker, died-and the dark shape seemed to slump.

"Quick!" hissed the girl. "There'll be more."

Paddy jumped in. She sealed the port, ran to the pilot's seat, pulled back the power-arm-and the boat rose into the ash-gray sky of Spade-Ace.


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