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The Haunting of Haderon

By Lillian Sheperd
Page 2 of 20

      "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{\160}-"

      "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."

      "Voices?"

      "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 avoiding 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..."

      

      

      


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