Here even the sun was cold. Its light hurt the eyes as it glittered on the square, sullen blocks of the Dipple. Naill Renfro leaned his forehead against the chill surface of the window, trying not to think-not to remember-to beat down those frightening waves of rage and frustration that brought a choking sensation into his throat these past few days, a stone heaviness to his chest.
This was the Dipple on the planet of Korwar-the last refuge, or rather prison, for the planetless flotsam of a space war. Forced from their home worlds by battle plans none of them had had a voice in framing, they had been herded here years ago. Then, when that war was over, they discovered there was no return. The homes they could remember were gone-either blasted into uninhabitable cinders through direct action, or signed away at conference tables so that other settlers now had "sole rights" there. The Dipple was a place to rot, another kind of death for those planted arbitrarily within its walls. A whole generation of spiritless children was growing up in it, to which this was the only known way of life.
But for those who could remember ...
Naill closed his eyes. Limited space, curved walls, the endless throb of vibrating engines driving a Free Trader along uncharted "roads" of space, exciting glimpses of strange worlds, weird creatures, new peoples-some alien of mind and body, some resembling the small boy who lurked in the background, drinking in avidly all the wonders of a trade meeting ... these he could remember. Then confusion-fear, which formed a cold lump in a small stomach, a sour taste in throat and mouth-lying in the cramped berth space of an escape boat with warm arms about him-the shock of the thrust-away from the ship that had always been his home-the period of drift while a mechanical signal broadcast their plight-the coming of the cruiser to pick them up as the only survivors. Afterwards-the Dipple-for years and years and years-always the Dipple!
But there had been hope that the war would end soon, that when he was big enough, old enough, strong enough, he could sign on a Free Trader, or that they would somehow find credit deposits owed to Duan Renfro and buy passage back to Mehetia. Wild dreams both those hopes had been. The dull, dusty years had wasted them, shown them to be flimsy shadows. There was only the Dipple, and that would go on forever-from it there was no escape. Or, if there was for him, not for her-now.
Naill wanted to cover his ears as well as close his eyes. He could shut out the grayness of the Dipple; he could not shut out now that weary little plaint, half croon, half moan, sounding monotonously from the bed against the far wall. He swung away from the window and came to stand at the side of the bed, forcing himself to look at the woman who lay there.
She-she was nothing but a frail wraith of skin and bones, not Malani.
Naill wanted to beat his fists against the gray wall, to cry out his hurt and rage-yes, and fear-as might a small child. It was choking him. If he could only gather her up, run away from this place of unending harsh light, cold grayness. It had killed Malani, as much as Duan Renfro's death. The ugliness and the hopelessness of the Dipple had withered her.
But instead of giving way to the storm within him, Naill knelt beside the bed, caught those restless, ever-weaving hands in his own, bringing their chill flesh against his thin cheeks.
"Malani-" He called her name softly, hoping against all hope that this time she would respond, know him. Or was it far more kind not to draw her back? Draw her back-Naill sucked in his breath-there was a way for Malani to escape! If he were just sure, overwhelmingly sure that no other road existed ...
Gently he put down her hands, pulled the covering up about her shoulders. Once sure ... He nodded sharply, though Malani could not see that gesture of sudden decision. Then he went swiftly to the door. Three strides down the corridor and he was rapping on another door.
"Oh-it's you, boy!" The impatient frown on the woman's broad face smoothed. "She's worse?"
"I don't know. She won't eat, and the medico ..."
The woman's lips shaped a word she did not say. "He's said she ain't got a chance?"
"For once he's right. She don't want any chance-you gotta face that, boy."
What else had he been doing for the past weeks! Naill's hands were fists against his sides as he fought down a hot response to that roughly kind truth.
"Yes," he returned flatly. "I want to know-how soon ...?"
The woman swept back a loose lock of hair, her eyes grew suddenly bright and hard, locking fast to his in an unasked question. Her tongue showed between her lips, moistened them.
"All right." She closed the door of her own quarters firmly behind her. "All right," she repeated as if assuring herself in some way.
But when she stood beside Malani, she was concerned, her hands careful, even tender. Then she once more drew up the covers, looked to Naill.
"Two days-maybe a little more. If you do it-where's the credits coming from?"
"I'll get them!"
"She-she wouldn't want it that way, boy."
"She'll have it!" He caught up his over-tunic. "You'll stay until I come back?"
The woman nodded. "Stowar is the best. He deals fair-never cuts ..."
"I know!" Naill's impatience made that answer almost explosive.
He hurried down the corridor, the four flights of stairs, out into the open. It was close to midday, there were few here. Those who had been lucky enough to find casual labor for the day were long since gone; the others were in the communal dining hall for the noon meal. But there were still those who had business in certain rooms, furtive business.
Korwar was, except for the Dipple, a pleasure planet. Its native population lived by serving the great and the wealthy of half a hundred solar systems. And in addition to the usual luxuries and pleasures, there were the fashionable vices, forbidden joys fed by smuggled and outlawed merchandise. A man could, if he were able to raise the necessary credits, buy into the Thieves' Guild and become a member of one of those supply lines. But there was also a fringe of small dealers who grabbed at the crumbs the Thieves' captains did not bother to touch.
They lived dangerously and they were recruited from the hopelessly reckless-from the Dipple dregs, such as Stowar. What he sold were pleasures of a kind. Pleasure-or a way of easy dying for a beaten and helpless woman.
Naill faced the pale boy lounging beside a certain doorway, met squarely the narrow eyes in that ratlike face. He said only a name: "Stowar."
The boy jerked a thumb over his shoulders, rapped twice on the door.
"Take it, boot."
Naill pushed open the door. He felt like coughing; the smoke of a hebel stick was thick and cloying. There were four men sitting on cushions about a bros table playing star-and-comet, the click of their counters broken now and then by a grunt of dissatisfaction as some player failed to complete his star.
"What is it?" Stowar's head lifted perhaps two inches. He glanced at Naill, acknowledging his presence with that demand. "Go on-say something-we're all mates here."
One of the players giggled; the other two made no sign they heard, their attention glued to the table.
"You have haluce-how much?" Naill came to the point at once.
"How much do you want?"
Naill had made his calculation on the way over. If Mara Disa could be relied upon, one pack ... no, better two, to be safe.
"Two packs-two hundred credits," Stowar returned. "Stuff's uncut-I give full measure."
Naill nodded. Stowar was honest in his fashion, and you paid for that honesty. Two hundred credits. Well, he hardly expected to have it for less. The stuff was smuggled, of course, brought in from off-world by some crewman who wanted to pick up extra funds and was willing to run the risk of port inspection.
"I'll have it-in an hour."
Stowar nodded. "You do that, and the stuff's yours ... My deal, Gram."
Naill breathed deeply in the open, driving the stink from his lungs. There was no use going back to their own room, turning over their miserable collection of belongings to raise twenty credits-let alone two hundred. He had long ago sold everything worth while to bring in the specialist from the upper city. No, there was only one thing left worth two hundred credits-himself. He began to walk, his pace increasing as he went, as if he must do this swiftly, before his courage failed. He was trotting when he reached that other building set so conveniently and threateningly near the main gate of the Dipple-the Off-Planet Labor Recruiting Station.
There were still worlds, plenty of them, where cheap labor was human labor, not imported machines which required expert maintenance and for which parts had to be imported at ruinous shipping rates. And such places as the Dipple were forcing beds for that labor. A man or woman could sign up, receive "settlement pay," be shipped out in frozen sleep, and then work for freedom-in five years, ten, twenty. On the surface that was a way of escape out of the rot of the Dipple. Only-frozen sleep was chancy: there were those who never awoke on those other worlds. And what awaited those who did was also chancy-arctic worlds, tropical worlds, worlds where men toiled under the lash of nature run wild. To sign was a gamble in which no one but the agency ever won.
Naill came to the selector, closed his eyes for a long moment, and then opened them. When he put his hand to that lever, pulled it down, he would take a step from which there would be no returning-ever.
An hour later he was once more at Stowar's. The star-and-comet game had broken up; he found the smuggler alone. And he was glad that was so as he put down the credit slip.
"Two fifty," Stowar read. From beneath the table he brought a small package. "Two here-and you get fifty credits back. Signed up for off-world?"
"Yes." Naill scooped up the packet, the other credit slip.
"You coulda done different," Stowar observed.
Naill shook his head.
"No? Maybe you're right at that. There're two kinds. All right, you got what you wanted-and it's all prime."
Naill's pace was almost a run as he came back to the home barracks. He hurried up the stairs, down the corridor. Mara Disa looked up as he breathlessly entered.
"The medico was here again-Director sent him."
"What did he say?"
"The same-two days-maybe three ..."
Naill dropped down on the stool by the table. He had believed Mara earlier; this confirmation should not have made that much difference. Now he unrolled the package from Stowar-two small metal tubes. They were worth it-worth selling himself into slavery on an unknown world, worth everything that might come to him in the future ... because of what they held for the dying woman who was his mother.
Haluce-the powder contained in one of those tubes-was given in a cup of hot water. Then Malani Renfro would not lie here in the Dipple; she would be reliving for a precious space of time the happiest day of her life. And if the thin thread that held her to this world had not broken by the time she roused from that sleep, there was the second draught to be sure. She had had to live in terror, defeat, and pain. She would die in happiness.
He looked up to meet Mara's gaze. "I'll give her this." He touched the nearer tube. "If-if there is need-you'll do the other?"
"You won't be here?"
That was the worst-to go and not to know, not to be sure. He tried to answer and it came out of him in a choked cry. Then he mastered himself to say slowly, "I-I ship out tonight ... They've given me two hours ... You-you'll swear to me that you'll be with her ...? See"-he unrolled the slip for fifty credits-"this-take this and swear it!"
"Naill!" There was a spark of heat in her eyes. "All right, boy, I'll swear it. Though we don't have much to do with any of the old gods or spirits here, do we? I'll swear-though you need not ask that. And I'll take this, too-because of Wace. Wace, he's got to get out of here ... not by your road, either!" Her hands tightened convulsively on the credit slip. Naill could almost feel the fierce determination radiating from her. Wace Disa would be free of the Dipple if his mother could fight for him.
"Where did you sign for?" she asked as she went to heat the water container.
"Some world called Janus," he answered. Not that it mattered-it would be a harsh frontier planet very far removed from the Dipple or Korwar, and he did not want to think of the future.
"Janus," Mara repeated. "Never heard of that one. Listen, boy, you ain't ate anything this morning. I got some patter-cakes, made 'em for Wace. He musta got labor today, he ain't come back. Let me-"
"No-I'm shipping out, remember." Naill managed a shadow smile. "Listen, Mara, you see to things-afterwards-won't you?" He looked about the room. Nothing to be taken with him; you didn't carry baggage in a freeze cabin. Again he paused to master his voice. "Anything here you can use-it's yours. Not much left-except ..." He went directly to the box where they had kept their papers, their few valuables.
His mother's name bracelets and the girdle Duan had traded for on Sargol were long since gone. Naill sorted through the papers quickly. Those claim sheets they had never been able to use-might as well destroy them; their identity disks ...
"These go to the Director-afterwards. But there's this." Naill balanced in his hand Duan Renfro's master's ring. "Sell it-and see ... she has flowers ... she loves flowers ... trees ... the growing things ..."
"I'll do it, boy."
Somehow he was certain Mara would. The water was steaming now. Naill measured a portion into a cup, added the powder from the tube. Together they lifted Malani's head, coaxed her to swallow.
Naill again nestled one of the wasted hands against his cheek, but his eyes were for the faint curve of smile on those blue lips. A tinge of happiness spread like a gossamer veil over the jutting of the cheekbones, the sharp angles of chin and jaw. No more moaning-just now and then a whisper of a word or a name. Some he knew, some were strange, out of a past he had not shared. Malani was a girl again, back on her home world of shallow seas beaded with rings and circles of islands, where tall trees rustled in the soft breeze that always came in late spring. Willingly she had traded that for life on a ship, following Duan Renfro out into the reaches of space, marrying a man who had called no world, but a ship, home.
"Be happy." Naill put down her hand.
Excerpted from Janus by Andre Norton Copyright © 2004 by Andre Norton. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.