He was the only living thing on an otherwise dead planet.
Carrick stood with his head tilted back, watching the silver monster that was the intergalactic cruiser Starshine of Spica lift off-planet. Vaguely he was aware of the little breeze that stirred the fine red dust of the desert around his ankles. It was a lonely wind, whispering softly in his ears as if in welcome.
The cruiser did not take long to abandon him.
Within nano-seconds it was gone, winking out of norm-space with the telltale purple flash that showed where it drove into hyper-gear. Carrick felt the breath hiss in his throat at sight of that quick flare. Until now—until this instant of his abrupt loneliness—he had not really believed that he would be left alone to eke out what existence he might on a world where he was the only known intelligence.
"Llar damn them," he growled.
His eyes closed. He was not a religious man but he wanted to pray, to whisper petitions to whatever God it was who governed the lives of men. His knees were weak and where his guts should be there was only aching emptiness.
A breeze moved across the world and the red dust stirred to coat his calves and knees. The planet was dead and empty, so ancient that its mountains had long since eroded to level deserts where only the wind roamed. For the first time—in many centuries, a man stood on Dakkan planet. A lonely man, a frightened man, a man who would not stay alive for long where there was no food and probably no water.
His eyes touched the yellow sky, slipped down to the curving horizon dancing with the heat waves in the far distance. He let his gaze assess that horizon, seeing only yellow sky and red desert. There was nothing else here, no ruins even, that might tell of an old and forgotten race of beings.
They had chosen well.
There was to be no escape for Carrick the killer, who had deprived the human race of its ancient dream of a Promised Land. With a protonigun he had blasted all their hopes and longings, the prophecies of their seers, their logicians. Carrick the killer!
Kill him in revenge, for what he did.
Ah, but—not swiftly! No, no. Slowly, slowly.
As they did with all their hardened criminals, they would put him on an empty planet—there were many of them in the Empire—without water and without food—so that he might live a little while, a day or maybe two if he were a tough man.
Carrick was tough. Oh, yes. None came tougher than Carrick. It was because of his very toughness that Stryker had chosen him for his bionic transplants, his molecular genetics.
Give me one man, one wreck of a human being, and let me make him over into something approximating what he had once been. This was his challenge. Stryker was the genius of the Empire, its acknowledged brain. Or maybe it would be better to say the Empire had its many geniuses—but only one Hannes Stryker.
Carrick had been in base hospital, shattered and broken as a result of the last great battle with the Vrallen, those alien life forms that inhabited the planets around the star-sun Beta Crucis.
It had been his space squadron that had driven through the deutro-ray netting behind which the Vrallen had fancied themselves so secure. Countering rays had nullified the disintegrating power of the deutro-rays as a score of warp-fast cruisers, Captain Carrick in command, had penetrated that lethal barrier. Two of those cruisers had managed to land; the others were bloody bits of wreckage orbiting the planet.
Carrick and his crews had rigged their spanking new implositron guns, another Hannes Stryker invention—coil-barrel weapons that put a thin vacuum about the Vrallen life forms, causing the pressure in their lungs to burst—and let fly with them. Stryker had the brain to invent them, Carrick had had the military know—how to make them function.
He made the implositrons work, all right.
With his hard hands on the controls of one, his voice lashing the hands of his men to fire the others, he turned the Vrallen to drifting motes of dead energy. He obliterated them. Ah, but the cost! Every life but three was lost.
Two of the men they found wandering on the shattered Vrallen world were mad. Carrick alone was sane, but there was so little left of him, all bloody shreds and chunks of flesh and broken bones from the imploding Vrallen creatures releasing their terrible energy, that the medicos simply shook their heads.
Carrick was alive in a basket when Stryker came for him.
"I can give you back your body," he had said.
Carrick could not talk, but he could hear. It was just about all he could do. Scarcely a muscle in his body worked. When Stryker asked him to blink if he wanted him to try, Carrick blinked. Llar, how he blinked.
He smiled grimly now, remembering.
His eyes touched his body, the body Stryker had given him. It was tall and lean and tough—it would live a long time, even on Dakkan planet—and a masterpiece of bionic biology. His eyes filmed with moisture. He had loved Stryker! As much as one man can love another, as a dog loves its master, he had loved him.
These hard brown hands, Stryker had given him. This deep chest and lean, hard belly, long legs tight with muscles, wide shoulders, craggily handsome face, all had been the gift of Stryker. Kill him? Llar damn them all.
He was innocent. He had been framed.
Carrick kicked at the dust. How trite it sounded, even to his ears, which were almost the only part of him still left. Empire had given him a trial. There had been a witness to identify him—a little man named Pratt whom he hated now with all his soul for the lies he had told—and a clever prosecutor who had dreamed up a motive.
A motive! Harsh laughter scratched his throat.
Kill Stryker, for the few gold credicoins he kept in his strongbox? When Stryker had promised to make him rich and famous? Stryker had a secret, a big, top-drawer project, that only he knew about. Even Carrick, who worked with him, was ignorant of it. It concerned all people, everywhere, that much he knew. Stryker had gone on talking about Nirvana and Valhalla and the Promised Land, as if those old pre-space concepts still held, out here among the stars.
Somebody else had known about the secret, though. And had killed to get it.
He was walking through the red desert dust almost without thinking. He had to do something; he could not stand motionless for long, not this new Carrick. And so he walked, easily and with long, loping strides that ate at the distance.
As he walked, he moved his eyes along the horizon, hoping that somehow and in some manner, an official had goofed, had put him down on a world where men once had lived, where there might be cold spring water and something to eat. All he saw was flat red sand and the yellow sky.
Carrick walked on...
Night came slowly on Dakkan planet, which had eleven moons.
A man saw the moons first, three of them playing follow-the-leader like pallid golden discs where Spican sunshine caught them. They traveled swiftly across the sky and drew a pall of dusk behind them. The yellow sky was shot with red, then a deep blue that blended slowly into black. The stars came out and looked down at him from their remote distances. Then came more moons, blazing silver on the ebony velvet of night.
Carrick sat down. He had found a jagged bit of rock with a flat top and he rested. His throat was dry and his tongue burned for water. They had fed him well on Starshine of Spica, the last meal of the condemned man, so he could go a long time without food; it was the lack of water that would do him in.
If he had been in better spirits he might have enjoyed the barbaric beauty of the Dakkan night. The moons were glorious. The stars were savagely bright. Even the red desert seemed softer, more subdued with silvery opalescence.
The rock under him grew hard after a while and he slipped of it onto the sand and lay there with his hands behind his head, staring upward. Will I die like this without a chance to avenge Stryker? He cared little about himself. Stryker had given him only borrowed time; the real Kael Carrick had died back there on Avralla when the Vrallen imploded. All this extra time was so much frosting on his cake of life.
Ah, but Stryker! His death meant a good man gone—uselessly and without any cause other than some man's greed. He wondered which of Stryker's friends had done it or had hired a man to do the job.
His eyes closed, his eyelids too heavy to prop open any longer by will power alone. So sleep, you poor bastard. Sleep and maybe if luck is with you, the death Stryker held off for so long will come, silently and mercifully in the night.
The hot sun woke him, burning through his eyelids.
He rolled over, rising to his elbows and shaking his head. His tongue was beginning to swell. Desert heat could evaporate the water from a man's body in a matter of hours. It had been close to sundown yesterday; today he faced the full fury of Spica, twenty-four hundred times more luminous than Sol of old mother Earth so far away. Ordinarily such heat would bake him dry in a few hours. He wondered if his bionically transplanted body would endure it, even now. How much of a miracle-worker could Hannes Stryker be? There was only one way to find out. He got to his feet. There was a great weariness in him, suddenly, as though a part of him longed for the death his body might deny him for a long time to come.
The sand rustled around his feet. It blew in little swirls, like tiny tornadoes where the winds caught and lifted it. They were gentle winds. Larger gusts would flagellate the planet with biting, cutting red death motes. Time enough to worry about one of those when it happened.
The day slipped by. The minutes and the hours came and went and the sun roasted his flesh to the color of mahogany, but he did not die. If anything, he seemed to gather strength. Flowers gather strength from sunlight—had Stryker turned him into a walking plant?
He chuckled. If he could live on sunlight—but he needed water! His throat was raw and parched. His tongue was close to twice its normal size. There were certain types of cacti which would give water if you chewed their pulps, but here on Dakkan planet no plant life existed.
No life at all, except himself.
Loneliness was more than a word to him, now. It had weight and substance. It pressed against his body and it made a hollow purr in his ears. The sands at his feet whispered of their bitterness, of the race that had lived on Dakkan planet and then died away. Carrick shouted and listened but there was no echo to his voice, you need mountains for an echo and there were no mountains on this world.
Only red sand.
Then after a while—
Carrick blinked. He squinted through the noontime haze. A storm was brewing on the horizon to the west. A thick haze was rising and blowing straight toward him, red and ominous in the sunlight. It was coming fast, so fast that he knew the edge of surprise.
Carrick stopped walking and waited.
His lungs needed air; he didn't fool himself about that. He might live off sunlight for a little while but air was required by his body and if that storm should prevent his breathing—
"A sand sled," he said thickly, through swollen lips.
It came swiftly on compressed air, a foot above the sand and the fury of its cushioning air made the sand roll and lift behind it. Twin jets drove it at close to three hundred miles an hour. There was a glassine dome and a chrome body that made it shine in the sunlight with a prismatic splendor. His eyes picked it out of the haze and red sand and examined it closely.
One of the latest models, his numbed mind told him. On Dakkan planet? Carrick felt the urge to pinch himself, and grinned.
"I hope to hell it has water on it," he mumbled.
The sander slowed some distance away. It lifted to let its vanes emerge and then it began to crawl. Now Carrick could see that a girl was handling its wheel. He caught a glimpse of a pixie face and heavy yellow hair piled high.
She braked to a stop ten feet away and let the sled settle to the ground, waiting for the sand to cease its furious churning. She slid back the glassine hood and waved a hand at him.
"Hi. You're Carrick, aren't you?"
He nodded. She was a Starsian, one of those mixtures of human and almost-alien who only within the last century or so had been accorded citizenship privileges by the Empire. She was lovely, with that thick yellow hair pushed up on her head to show slightly pointed ears, and with a red bow of a mouth that looked hungry for kisses. Faintly slanted eyes that were green with yellow tints stared at him curiously.
"I didn't think you'd be alive," she said honestly, sliding a shapely leg out of the sander. She wore a tight black bolero and pants that fitted her body from the waist down as might a second skin. There were gold flecks in the bolero and narrow gold stripes in the black pants. Her tanned face and yellow hair lifting up out of all that darkness made her seem a lovely, elfin flower. Her mouth was full and strongly curved.
There was an odd curiosity in her eyes. "Why are you? Alive, that is? In this heat all the juices should be baked out of you. I hurried but the sled's compass went screwy. I'd have been here last night, a little after sunset, but the compass setting needed adjusting. I had to come a long way during the night to make up for it."
He shrugged. "I don't know why. I'm alive, that's all."
She seemed glad of that, and turned to gesture at the sled. "I have water inside, kept cold electronically. And food, warm in an infra-red broiler."
He went after her, telling himself to drink slowly, but when he stood beside the sled with the frosted carafe in his hands and the cold water sliding down his throat, it took a definite effort of will to stop. He ate ravenously, feeling the ache in his belly gather into a knot, wolfing the thin steaks.
She watched him with a faint smile, leaning against one of the stubby wings that let the sled fly at the height of twenty feet on occasion. As he ate he studied her, and began to wonder why it had been that he had not until now been interested in a woman. Maybe Stryker was to get the credit—or blame—for that, too.
When their eyes met, she held her stare, coolly. Her eyes revealed that she found him attractive. After he had eaten he took a long pull at the carafe, almost emptying it.
"I'm human again," he told her when he lowered the flask, "not just an animal knowing it's going to die. It makes a difference. I want to hear about you, now. Where you came from, who you are, why Empire doesn't know about your being here on Dakkan."
He climbed into the sled at her gesture, waited while she slid in beside him and drew the hood closed. This close beside her, he grew more aware of her as a woman, of her slim legs and the faint perfume haze in which she moved.
She handled the sander with cool competence, as well as he could have done himself. In seconds she had it up to two hundred, a minute later, to three hundred miles an hour. She flipped over the radamatic controls and leaned back.
"The name's Mai. Mai Valoris. I'm just what you are—a criminal condemned to die." His surprise made her mouth twist into the caricature of a smile. "I was put away to keep my mouth shut."
"On Dakkan planet?"
"I'm here, which ought to be answer enough; but maybe you don't know the setup. You're no professional criminal. Ordinarily you'd have been put into a Rehabilitation Center, given the full medical and psychiatric treatment. You ever heard of Than Lear?"
"Mmmm, not sure. Something about a space liner robbery, or a number of them. They caught up with him, two, three years ago."
"He was condemned to die alone on a lifeless planet too. Than Lear had a lot of money stashed away. He pulled strings and got sent here. The authorities give a man a month to live without food and water on Dakkan. Then they assume he's dead and open it up for some other poor devil. Like you, like me. Only—they aren't dead."
Carrick pondered over her words. "Smugglers?"
"Some men will do anything for money. Than Lear pays well for the services he gets. A ship comes here once a month, bringing food and water and some other luxuries. One is due a little later in the week. Than Lear operates out of Thalikar—it's just a pile of ruins but to us loners it's home—and gets his share of half a dozen ingeniously conceived space-robs. He plans them to the last detail. He's a genius at it."
"How many more of you are there?"
"Sixteen, all told. Ten men, half a dozen women."
"Nice," he commented wryly. She flushed and put her hands on the half-wheel, moving the rudder a notch to eastward. She said stonily, "At least we're alive. We didn't die because some diktor or merchant prince back on our home planets couldn't do business with us."
"Easy, easy. You saved my life. I'm not—"
"Don't waste your thanks on me. Than Lear sent me. He has some idea that you never killed Stryker, that you were railroaded because the Empire wanted a scapegoat."
"It's true, but—how could he know about it?"
"Than Lear pays to know, one way or another. This makes an ideal hideout for him. Officially, he died two years ago, a month after they set him down on these sands. Oh, once in a while he gets the urge to go back star-side and see the sights but he goes in a good disguise. Nobody recognizes him."
"It's a wonder to me any of you stay."
Her red lips pursed thoughtfully. "It has its points Dakkan planet. You can do about what you want. Me, I paint a little. Always wanted to, never had the chance. In the star worlds, I was a model. I wore the latest Empire designs, the exotic stuff because I'm Starsian. It paid well but too many men got the idea my morals were as loose as some of the clothes I wore. One of them had connections. He set up an apartment with a dead man in it and me drunk on tykel with the murder weapon in my hand, when I wouldn't go along with him."
"You should have gone to Rehabilitation."
"I said he had connections," she snapped.
They were silent for a little while. Carrick found his eyes drawn to the flat red sands over which the sledder whisked on a foot of concentrated air. Behind them the sands rolled crazily; ahead, there was only desert and yellow sky. It was like floating. There was merely a muted whisper to it, then it grew boring.
He turned back to Mai Valoris. "Than Lear isn't any philanthropist. He must want something out of me, if he sent you to save my life. What is it?"
"The Promised Land. The Elysium Fields. Utopia. You name it, Carrick—and it's what Than Lear wants. He has some crazy notion you can give him the universe."