Vila Restal was bored. He wished that Blake had left him out of the Haderon landing party and, indeed, was at a loss to understand why he had been included in the first place. It was not as if Blake needed any locks picked or safes cracked there didn't appear to be anything on the planet worth locking up in the first place or even any back-up fire power. The natives were friendly, not to say effusive. Vila had not had much contact with official effusiveness during his long and varied criminal career, and he had quickly decided that, if this was a representative sample, he would be quite happy if he never had any more.
Coll Banard, elected leader of the Haderon colony, was a tall, gaunt man with a passion for making speeches, or rather, for making the same speech as often as possible, He had made it at least four times, by Vila's reckoning, since the party from Liberator had teleported down into the sun-drenched main square of this, the only settlement on Haderon. That had been over two hours ago and, during the infrequent interludes when Banard had not been making his speech the conversation had been embarrassingly technical.
At least their stay here ought to be both short and peaceful, the colonists on Haderon being remorselessly democratic and anti-Federation. Not that the Federation's leaders would find that anything but laughable, for Haderon was hardly a threat to them or even desirable property. Seventy standard years ago, prospectors from the independent planet of Pharion had discovered a deposit of a unique super-hard form of diamond on this lifeless, desert world, and a small company had been formed to mine it. Within ten years the mine had petered out and, for some reason that no-one had been able to explain to Vila, prospecting had stopped and never re-started. However, the miners and their families had been unwilling to return to Pharion, which had been in the middle of a squabble with one of its near neighbours that had looked as if it might turn into interstellar war, and they had used the remaining profit from the mine to start making Haderon habitable.
They had prospected for water, and found it locked deep in the rocks far below the planet's surface, but seed, organics and technical equipment had all had to be imported, and a dome raised to equalise the temperature, keep in water vapour, and keep out the dangerously high ultra-violet. Only then could the colonists start manufacturing soil.
Vila had seen the resulting gardens and plantations on his way here to the Civic Building, and had admitted to himself that the Haderon colonists had done a good job of turning everything a variegated green. Not that the settlement was large. The domes covered less than two thousand hectares, which included the buildings of the village, a town only by courtesy title. He had been surprised by the height and thickness of the wall that surrounded the domes, but had been told that it was necessary to stop the sands encroaching on the cultivated land, which might not support the population in luxury, but at least supported it.
There had been talk of terraforming Haderon, Avon had said. The desert sand could be made into good soil and, while the temperature tended towards both daily and seasonal extremes at present, full vegetation cover would help stabilize it. The natural atmosphere was high in oxygen, there was carbon dioxide present, and sufficient water trapped below the surface. On the other hand, the colonists had no hope of raising the capital themselves and were unlikely to find backers for such a long-term project in the uneasy political situation prevailing in the human-occupied portion of the galaxy at least, not at present. Pity. Meanwhile, the colonists could at least comfort themselves that their world was too poor to attract the attention of the Terran Federation.
Blake would not have given it any attention, either, if it had not been for a complex chain of events that had started when Zen had detected a trio of cargo ships under attack, apparently by space pirates. Liberator's abrupt entry into the battle had sent the pirate ships scurrying, but they had not retreated in time to stop her neutron blasters destroying one of them and disabling another.
It had been in the safe in the Captain's cabin of the crippled pirate ship that Vila himself had discovered records that had caused Blake to offer the cargo ships escort to their home world of Pharion, headquarters of a small group of allied but independent worlds known as the Elenian Conclave.
The offer had been accepted with alacrity and, once on Pharion, Blake had been able to present proof to Lawgiver Watterson that the Terran Federation was financing pirate attacks designed to debilitate the Conclave economically, prior to a Federation take-over.
Liberator had remained in orbit around Pharion while Blake, and sometimes Cally, Jenna, or reluctantly Avon, had been closeted with Watterson and his cabinet, advising on how best the Conclave could counter the Federation threat.
Vila had enjoyed his time on Pharion, where they had all been treated as heroes, but their time there had been short. The Conclave was preparing its defences and it had been decided that, because of the speed of his ship and the expertise of his personnel, the greatest help Blake could give in the short time he had available was in setting up the outermost of an urgently required net of detector stations between Federation and Conclave space. Watterson had contacted anti-Federation governments in the general area, explaining the situation and asking for help in siting and maintaining those bases. Haderon had been the first of those worlds to offer itself as a base, and that offer had been eagerly accepted.
Which was why Vila was sitting in Banard's office, bored to the teeth. He let his gaze roam over the cloth-covered walls, up and out of a narrow window through which sunlight was gushing. From space, Haderon had been a silver-gilt bauble, completely uniform in colour, but through the window Vila could see jagged-sided, flat-topped mountains of such harlequin hues that they almost dazzled him with their brightness against the pale sky. They looked inimical, and Vila turned away from them in relief to study the men and women seated with him on the low, padded stools that had also been the usual type of seating on Pharion.
Banard was still talking. Letting the voice trickle into his ears but not into his mind, Vila scanned the familiar and unfamiliar faces.
Banard, skin burnt dark and fair hair bleached to whiteness, made a striking figure at the head of the low table, becoming even more startling when he flashed his equally-white teeth in a smile, which he did frequently. His assistant, Salli Rosen, sat next to him; a small woman, brown of skin and hair, but with intelligent grey eyes, which, Vila, felt, were not altogether approving as they rested on Banard.
Blake was opposite her, listening politely to Banard, solid and straightforward-looking as always. He could have made a fortune as a con-man, Vila thought enviously, looking as if he did not know what deceit was, when behind those honest brown eyes lived a brain as devious as any Vila had ever encountered. Pity he really was honest.
Jenna sat between Blake and Banard, her hair glowing a rich gold in contrast with the paleness of the colony leader's, and her remarkable beauty highlighted by Rosen's plainness. The third colonist, Joss Langar, was looking hungrily at her, and Vila felt that it was as well that the conversation was constrained by convention. He could have told Langar that huge bruisers with an abundance of muscle and a paucity of wit were not exactly Jenna's type and, if cornered, she could be brutal. Vila had been ripped by the sharp edge of her tongue often enough to know that Langar wouldn't appreciate the experience. He guessed that Jenna had noticed Langar's frustrated intentions and was determined to go on ignoring them.
Avon had certainly noticed them. Vila had seen his eyes flick over Langar's face and the quick twitch of his lips as he repressed a smile. For the most part though, he watched Banard, and the expression on his keen face suggested that he was not impressed, though he said little. He had scant patience with repetitious fools, and Vila almost hoped that that patience would run out. At least, amid the resulting fireworks, he would stop being bored.
In combination though, as Vila had to admit, Avon, Blake and Jenna made an impressive group, particularly when contrasted with the Haderon colonists. Blake might even have been thinking of that when he made up the landing party.
Except that he included me, Vila thought wryly. He wondered how the others saw him: a slender man, slightly stooped, with thinning brown hair and a narrow, humorous face. Not particularly handsome, though not ugly, either, his was the proverbial face in the crowd. Well, that had been useful, back on Earth, and maybe it would be useful again, but right now it contrasted strongly with the impressive appearances and blazing personalities of his companions.
"But why in the settlement?" Avon asked suddenly, attracting Vila's flagging attention. "Any investigation by the Federation would locate the detector-communicator almost at once. Your privacy laws won't bother their security forces. The Pharion detector-communicator unit is self-contained. All you have to do is to run a check on the power banks every few months. If it was placed in the mountains or the desert there is no chance that the Federation would ever find it."
Banard looked embarrassed, shifting uneasily in his seat. He said, "It just isn't possible."
"Why not?" Jenna questioned. "Avon's right about the Federation "
"Because we'd have to go out there and maintain the thing, that's why!" Langar snarled.
"Five hours work. Three times a year." No-one could have mistaken the contempt in Avon's voice.
"Three times a year is three times too many, with the desert-haunts lurking out there, waiting to kill you "
"Desert haunts?" Avon stared at Langar as if he couldn't believe he had heard him correctly then, after a few moments, he flung back his head and roared with laughter. Vila winced. Avon could flay you with that laugh.
Langar's face grew crimson. He leaned forward, half out of his seat. "Why you little "
"Langar!" Banard's sharp voice brought his associate to heel. Then he went on, in a placating tone, "Avon, you may think it's funny, but to my people it's a terror that has to be lived with. I don't know if the things we call the desert-haunts are supernatural or not; what I do know is that they kill."
"I thought that there were no life-forms on this planet," said Blake, trying to ease the unsought tension.
"You're right," said Rosen. "This is a dead world. It has always been a dead world."
On this point, Avon disagreed. "I doubt that. An oxygen atmosphere doesn't form without life, not on this type of planet. From the lack of even viral life-forms, I would suggest that, sometime in the far past, this planet has been sterilized. The presence of dust-diamonds in the sands bears that out and adds to the likelihood that this world once sustained life, as does the fact that there is water in the rocks, even if there is none on the surface or in the atmosphere. However, there is certainly no life now."
"Except here," Banard corrected, his eyes gleaming. "I thought we'd brought life to this world for the first time but, if you're right, Avon, then what we've done is to bring life back to where it belongs. You've seen our gardens, our fields and our hothouses. Bring water, bacteria and humus here and the desert will grow anything. Someday this whole world will be a garden paradise."
"With or without the permission of these 'desert-haunts'?" Avon asked sardonically.
Banard shook his head, and Vila's respect for him increased a little at the way he kept his temper. "You haven't walked out into the desert and heard the voices, Avon, so it's easy for you to mock us but there isn't a man, woman or child on this planet who hasn't heard them, even here in the settlement."
"Like a chorus from hell, Blake."
"What do they say?" Vila asked, with a delicious shiver. He didn't really believe Banard, but it was a nicely scary story.
"Nothing that makes sense. Just hostile sounds... words... terrifying..."
"Voices can't harm you," said Jenna.
"If it was just the voices, I might even agree with you, but they're only the beginning. The haunts kill, Even an aircar, in daylight, isn't safe. At night, alone, or on foot, nothing lives."
"And just how many people have you lost... in the past year, for example?" Avon questioned.
"In the past year? None. Our people know better than to leave the domes except when we extend cultivation. Then we work in large groups, by day, until a dome is extended or a new one raised. No-one is ever alone but, even then, we've had our losses."
"Deserts are dangerous places," said Avon. "Particularly deserts with no water at all and with a climate as hostile as this planet's. You've never come to terms with your deserts, so immediately any of your people venture into them, they're vulnerable. Survival takes both knowledge and experience and it is plain that you deny yourselves both."
"What about the voices? Explain those, if you can," Langar challenged.
Avon shrugged. "The wind, the shifting sand, and a lot of imagination. Desert winds are notorious for sounding like voices and many dangerous places give a feeling of lurking evil. The way you appear to have built up this legend, I'd be a lot more surprised if there were any of your people that didn't hear voices."
Langar looked as if he wanted to force Avon's words back down his throat and Vila wondered if he ought to warn him that, in a fight, Avon didn't play by any rules. Perhaps not. Langar was big enough to take care of himself. "Don't you think you'd hear them, little man?" the colonist hissed. "Why don't you go out there and find out for yourself what it's like to face the haunts. You'd soon sing a different song."
Blake decided to interpose. With a smile, he said, "It's plain you don't know Avon, Langar. Anyway, he hasn't got time to take you up on your offer. He and Jenna are going to assemble the detcom unit, and if you're all quite sure you want to take the risk of having it here in your settlement then they'd better get to work. If you'll just show us your communications room, we'll start teleporting it down."
Banard looked relieved. "Fine." He rose to his feet and the whole group rose with him. "I'll take you there. Meanwhile, the hospitality of Haderon is yours. We aren't exactly sophisticated, but I hope you'll find something to amuse you during your stay."
"Thank you." Blake turned to his crew. "I don't think we'd better have more than three people planetside at any one time. I'm going back to the Liberator to supervise teleporting the equipment. Vila, do you want to stay?"
"Might as well," Vila said quickly. It was one way of avoid being asked to hump equipment around Liberator.
"Well, if I want you back I'll call you on your communicator."
"I'll show you around," Langar offered, his bad temper apparently dissipated. It was plainly the sort that flared up and died away equally quickly.
"Thanks. Let's get out of here and let this lot get on with it."
As the door opened for them, Langar said, "Being from Earth, I guess you'll find us a bit dull. What little action there is takes place at the Olive Tree Bar. Drinking, eating... a little music... dancing... cards, go, chess... that sort of thing."
Vila's ears had pricked up at the word 'cards' but his face did not so much as twitch. "I could do with a drink. The rest of it sounds pretty good too, though I'm no chess master and it's over a year since I touched a pack of cards."
Langar began to look eager. "You do play, though?"
"Depends on the game."
"Calamakory. Stud. Atananian whist. Some friends of mine have an Elo school going most days after the first work shift We've just got time for a meal before they come in."
"Elo's a good game, but do you want an outsider in the pool? Especially one who isn't sure he remembers all the rules?"
Langar grinned. "Of course. Come on. I'll introduce you to the guys..."
Avon winced as he straightened and rubbed an aching shoulder muscle. He looked questioningly at Jenna, who was leaning against the side of a dilapidated sub-beam transceiver, and asked, "Finished?"
Jenna pushed both hands up through her hair, then shook it back into place. "Yes. Yes, I'm through. Do we have anything more to do?"
"Just the test runs; the installation's complete. We won't both be needed for the tests. I'll run them. You go back to the Liberator."
Jenna gave him a look in which astonishment and suspicion were equally mingled. "Why?"
"You're tired enough to start making mistakes. I'm not, and if I can clear the check list quickly we can speed up our departure from this somewhat unattractive planet."
Jenna straightened at once. "What makes you think I'm tired?" she demanded.
'The fact that it took you twenty minutes to install the CK relays when it should have taken you five."
Jenna glared at him. She knew better than to think that he spoke out of concern for her. He was trying to annoy her, knowing how she hated any hint that she might be at a disadvantage to anyone, mentally, emotionally or physically, It was one of the ways in which they were alike. He had succeeded in annoying her, too, mainly by being right. If she let him see that, she knew, he would have won this round in their personal battle, so, with an effort; she transformed the glare into a smile of cloying sweetness, stifled her instinctive angry retort and, though it took all the willpower she had, said gently, "Why, thank you, Avon. I didn't realise that you worried about me. It's nice to know that you care." She began to think that she was overdoing it, and finished quickly, "I'll leave you to it, then. I wanted to talk to Blake, anyway." She backed hurriedly out of the room, not sure that she could keep a straight-face for the time it would take to call Liberator for teleport.
Avon tapped his fingers on the edge of the detector-communicator control panel. He had the feeling that he had come off rather the worse in this particular exchange. Well, at least Jenna had gone. She was a skilled technician and did not often get in his way, but he had always preferred to work alone.
Now, he had better finish these tests. He and Jenna had checked each section as it was installed, but that was no guarantee that the detcom would function correctly as a unit.
He knocked on the main switch with the side of his hand, and watched as the indicators began to register. Well, at least power was flowing to all parts of the system, Detectors on... and there was the large, clear contact that was Liberator in orbit above the planet. Good. He widened the scan.
Nothing at one LY. He'd try two...
Gan found Vila in the middle of a garden, surrounded by trees, flowers, and an unhappy little group of colonists, who looked somewhat the worse for drink. Vila, on the other hand, looked both happy and sober, though there was a half-full glass containing a pale yellow liquid on the tray-arm of his seat. On the table in front of him was a large heap of Federation credits, Pharion dollars, Janatarian menels and a great deal of miscellaneous coinage that Gan did not recognise. Nor did he recognise the card game that Vila and the colonists were playing, though they appeared to be using the ninety-three card Triaton pack and the game involved half a dozen 'spare' hands placed upwards ln the centre of the table, besides those held concealed by the players. What Gan did recognise was the air of gloom that hung, like the scent of flowers, in the air around the colonists. Anyone who played cards for money with Vila developed it.
Ducking under a tree branch, Gan stood behind Vila and watched the hand played out, becoming no wiser as to the rules. Surprisingly, Vila didn't win the pot, but he didn't lose anything, either.
Gan had been sure that Vila could not have noticed him but, as the cards were being replaced in the shuffler, Vila said, "I think I'll give the next few hands a miss. I'd like to have a few words with my friend here."
A couple of the players suddenly developed ugly expressions. "Getting out while you're still ahead, you mean?" questioned one of them, nastily.
Vila laughed. "I'll leave my winnings at the bar for safe-keeping, if you like, until I get a chance to extract the rest of your cash."
This seemed to reassure the colonists. One of them yawned and admitted, "It's about time we all went to bed, anyway. You'd better join us, Vila, if you want to be awake this evening. We had thought of holding a special celebration for you people."
"With a forty-four hour day, I suppose it's best to sleep at the hottest time," said Gan, who was interested.
"Right, We have work-shifts from eight to fifteen, then from twenty-nine to thirty-seven hours. It's different during the winter, of course. Then we have to use all the daylight we can get."
While Langar was making his explanation to Gan, Vila had gathered up his loot and sauntered over to the bar. The card school began to break up, and Gan sat down to wait for Vila. The Olive Tree Bar was unlike any he had ever seen before, but he found it pleasant, even if the cool greenery seemed an odd setting for the card players and it was odd to smell the heavy scents of honeysuckle and rasarium in the air, rather than those of alcohol, betenine and other narcotics. Within a few moments Vila came back, his step jaunty and his grin stretching from ear to ear. "Suckers," he told Gan. Then, "Just be around this evening. The sight of you'll make some of 'em think twice about trying to snatch back their losses."
Gan had never seen Vila display such self-confidence, and it occurred to him that this bar, despite the flowers, was much more Vila's natural environment than the Liberator or most of the planets they had visited. Suddenly, in a situation he understood in a place that posed no threat to him, he was completely assured.
"What if they find out you're cheating?" Gan asked, amused.
"Cheating? With this lot, I don't need to cheat. It's as easy as picking a pin lock." He took up his drink, gulped it down, and pulled a face. "Awful stuff. It'll rot my insides. What're you doing down here anyway, Gan? I didn't think that Blake was going to allow more than three people off the ship at any one time."
"He isn't. Jenna's back on board. Avon's finishing up by himself. Blake and Cally say that they don't want to explore, so I teleported down. Interesting, is it?"
"A nice place to visit, but I wouldn't want to live here."
"I doubt that the locals'll let you, after you get through with them."
Vila chuckled, "If there were any dancing girls they'd be through to your right, but there aren't. In the evening, we've been threatened by amateur turns. Avoidable, I think. Don't let them palm off any mutal on you; it's a local brew that takes a lifetime to get used to, and even then it isn't worth it."
"I won't. Aren't you staying, Vila?"
"I've been sitting here for six hours, on and off, and sitting down for too long can be bad for you, you know. Maybe I'll go and have a word with Avon."
"Torment him, you mean?"
"Patience is good for the soul," Vila said gleefully. "At least, it's good for Avon's."
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