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The enormous cream-colored building that housed Ashton Trading was not too near the starport. It stood by itself in a wide space, in impressive aloofness. There was a big park for cars and fliers behind it, and a landscaped approach in front. Dilullo put coins in his auto-taxi and went inside, to an equally impressive interior of golden marble from a far starworld.

Officials, clerks, secretaries, bright of face and neatly dressed, came and went in quiet efficiency. They made Dilullo feel that his drab, belted coverall was distinctly out of place. But when a lift took him to the topmost level of offices, his reception was courtesy itself.

A rather exquisite young man offered a chair which Dilullo declined, and went into the inner offices. Looking around, Dilullo saw heads of girls and men looking at him from their desks. He heard the word "Merc".

Glamor, that's what I've got, thought Dilullo sourly. I'm a Merc, an adventurer, somebody to look at.

The hell of it was that he had once felt that way about it, when he was a very young man. He could have gone into interstellar trade and made money like the men who worked for the Ashtons, but that was too tame. He would be a Merc and people would look up to him.

And now here he was, middle-aged and worn around the edges, standing figuratively if not literally with hat in hand hoping for a good job from the traders he had once despised.

"Mr. Dilullo? This way, please."

He was ushered deferentially into a very big office whose wide windows looked out far across the starport quarter to the towers and docks and ships of the port itself.

Dilullo had his mental hackles up. He had had business with tycoons before and he did not like the type. He took James Ashton's proffered hand without enthusiasm.

"Thank you for coming, Mr. Dilullo," said Ashton. "I feel lucky that you are available."

Ashton, he conceded, did not look like a tycoon. He looked like a graying scholar of middle age, with a good face and friendly eyes and a certain awkwardness of manner.

Dilullo said bluntly, "Mr. Ashton, your secretary who contacted me said you had a job you'd like me to undertake. What job?"

And he thought, Whatever it is, it's something real mean. Ashton Trading doesn't need Mercs for anything that isn't.

Ashton took from a drawer a photograph which he handed over, a picture of a man some years younger than himself but with a strong resemblance.

"That's Randall Ashton, my brother. I want you to find him."

Dilullo looked up at him. "Find him? You mean you have no idea where he is?"

"I know where he is, in a general way," said Ashton. "He's in the Closed Worlds."

"The Closed Worlds?" Dilullo frowned. "I don't think I . . . wait a minute. Isn't there a star out beyond Perseus Arm with a triplet of planets . . .?"

Ashton nodded. "The star Allubane. It has three planets—the Closed Worlds."

Dilullo's frown deepened. "Now I remember. A queer, isolated little system where they don't like visitors and kick out any who come. If you don't mind my asking, what the devil took your brother there?"

Ashton leaned back. "That takes a little explanation, Mr. Dilullo. But first let me say that while I know Randall is in the Closed Worlds, I don't know where he is in them, and I don't know whether he's alive or dead. It would be your job to find him and bring him back if he's living."

"Why do you need Mercs for that?" Dilullo asked skeptically. "Your firm has got hundreds of starships, thousands of good men working for you."

"Traders," said Ashton. "Not fighters. To get in and out of the Closed Worlds is going to be dangerous."

"But Government . . ."

"The Terran Government can't do a thing," Ashton answered. "It would be interfering with an independent starworld if it did. And the messages it sent to Allubane have just not been answered."

He spread out his hands. "You see now why I thought of the Mercs. They—and you in particular, Mr. Dilullo—have successfully performed some highly dangerous tasks. I've heard a great deal about you chaps."

"The Closed Worlds," muttered Dilullo. "I've heard something more about that system. It was a long time ago."

* * *

Yes, it was a long time ago. It was on my third Merc job, when I was young and proud as the devil of being a Merc. On Arcturus Two, and we'd just finished a job and made money. We felt good, and I sat there with the rest of them in the hot, steamy night, drinking the liquor that was far too strong for me, looking as casual as though I'd done this for a lifetime, listening to old Donahue talk.

Old Donahue? My God, I'm older now than Donahue was then, and where's it all gone—the youth and the careless moneyand the friends? The little white night-bats they called iggin kept darting in and out under the smoky lights, and I drank and looked as though it was all nothing to me—not the strange smells nor the sounds nor the slithery women who brought us drink, and all the time I was bursting with pride, I, the poor boy from Brindisi who had grabbed himself a handful of stars.

What was it Donahue said about Allubane? "They've got something big there. Something so big they won't let anyone in lest it be taken away from them. They booted our behinds out of there as soon as we landed. Something damned big, there in the Closed Worlds."

* * *

"This business," Ashton was saying, "has been in our family for four generations. My father wanted to make sure it stayed that way. When Randall and I were youngsters, he sent us out—as ordinary crewmen, mind you—on a whole lot of star-trading voyages. It was supposed to teach us the business from the ground up."

Ashton shook his head. "With me, it worked. I learned, and I liked the business. I've been with it ever since. But with Randall, it turned out differently. He got fascinated by all the exotic, alien peoples he met on far starworlds. So fascinated that, despite my father's objections, he went back to university and took up extra-terrestrial anthropology. He's a first class expert in the field now."

"Is that what he's doing out at Allubane?" asked Dilullo.

Ashton nodded. "Randall had already made several field trips. Of course, having all the money he needs, he could afford to fit up his small outfits in the finest style. And on one of those trips he heard of some big scientific mystery in the Closed Worlds."

"Exactly what?"

"I don't know," Ashton said. "He wouldn't tell me, or anyone else. He said it was so fantastic that nobody would believe him until he brought back proof. For all I know, he may have been on a wild-goose chase.

"Anyway, he went. He got four specialists together, took a small cruiser and crew from the firm—you understand, he's a full partner—and out he went to Allubane. He hasn't come back."

Ashton paused. "Well, that's it. Not a word from him for five months. I don't know what he's doing there, but I want to know, and I'm willing to pay a Merc party to go out and find him. There may be big trouble or no trouble at all. Just find him."

"What if we find him dead?" asked Dilullo.

"In that case, I'll want you to bring back legal proof of his death."

"I see."

Ashton said, "You don't see. Get that look off your face. I love my brother and I want him safe. But if he is dead, I've got to know it—I can't run a big business when nobody knows whether the co-owner of the business is alive or dead."

Dilullo said soberly, "Mr. Ashton, I would like to apologize for what I just implied."

Ashton nodded. "It's understandable. Business men, if they're successful, are supposed to be a combination of wolf and shark. But Randall's a fine man, and I'm worried about him."

He reached into his desk and brought out a folder which he handed to Dilullo. "I've had prepared all that's known about Allubane's worlds. Our company's pretty well briefed on most starworlds, but even so, it's scanty. I assume you'd like to study this before making a decision about taking the job."

Dilullo nodded, and took the folder. He started to rise, saying, "I'll take this and read it."

"Read it now," said Ashton. "That is, you have the time. Nothing is more important to me right now than Randall."

Dilullo was surprised. He picked up the folder and began to read the pages in it, while Ashton worked quietly with his papers.

Dilullo's long face got longer, as he read. This is a sour one, he thought. It's no good, no good at all. Turn it down.

And have them say that John Dilullo's getting too old for the tough jobs?

He read the material through, then went back and read some parts of it again, and then slowly closed the folder.

Ashton looked up, and Dilullo said slowly, "Mr. Ashton, this would be a nasty job. I hope you'll believe that I'm not saying that so I can run the price up on you."

Ashton nodded. "I believe you. I couldn't hold this chair if I couldn't size up men. Go ahead."

"I'll give you my honest opinion," said Dilullo. "I think your brother's dead."

He tapped the folder. "Look at what you have here. There's the fact that these people of Arkuu, the main one of the three planets of Allubane, won't have strangers on their worlds. Anybody lands there, they run them right out. It's been that way since starships first landed there.

"All right," Dilullo continued. "Your brother went there months ago. If the Arkuuns had run him out, you'd have heard from him long ago. But you didn't. Yet this record shows they've never let a living stranger stay there. The obvious conclusion is that he's dead."

Ashton had a sadness in his face as he said, "I'm afraid you have logic on your side. But I can't just accept logic, with my brother out there, perhaps needing help badly. I've got to find out."

He went on. "I read all that material. I realize the danger involved. All I can do is say that I'll pay well for the risk. All your expenses, and five hundred thousand Earth dollars fee if you bring back Randall or definite information as to his fate."

And, Dilullo thought, a Merc leader's share is one-fifth, and the ship-owner's share a fifth, and the rest share alike. That's a hundred thousand and that's the big, beautiful house above Brindisi that I've wanted all my life.

He said, "That's an awful lot of money."

"It's Ashton Trading money," said Ashton. "Which means it's Randall's as much as mine. Maybe it can help him. What about it, Dilullo?"

Dilullo thought, but not for very long. He could see the house, the white walls and the portico, the flaming flowers spilling down the slope in front of it.

"I'll take on the job," he said. "But I'm not the only one, remember. I have to get a bunch of Mercs to go with me, and I've got to show them this material. I never led men into danger without warning them. I don't know if I can convince them, even for that money."

Ashton stood up. "Fair enough. I'll have the contracts drawn up, in the hopes that you can."

Dilullo hesitated a split second, not knowing whether or not he should offer to shake hands with as important a man as this one, but Ashton simply stuck out his hand.

All the way back to the hotel Dilullo kept thinking about a hundred thousand dollars. He clung to the thought because he had a growing feeling in his bones that he had taken on a job that was just too big and tough for Mercs.

Chane was waiting in the hotel room.

"What about the job?" he asked.

"It's a sweet one," said Dilullo. "It's big, and the money's real big. All I have to do is convince a dozen Mercs to lose all their good sense and go with me."

He told Chane. Chane stiffened, and an odd look came into his dark face.


"Yes. It's a star in the Perseus Arm and it has three planets."

"I know where it is," said Chane. He began to laugh a little. "So much for Varna law. I'm going to Allubane."

Dilullo stared. "What's this? Do you know anything about the Closed Worlds?"

"Not much," said Chane. "But years ago they heard on Varna that there was something big, something terrific, guarded by the people of that planet Arkuu, so a raiding Varnan squadron went there."

"What did they find?"

Chane shook his head. "They didn't say, not to anybody except the Council. They came back with nothing at all. But then the Council decreed that no Varnans were ever to go back to Allubane—that it was too dangerous a place."

Dilullo simply stared at him in silence until the impact of Chane's words really hit him.

If the Starwolves, who feared neither man nor God nor devil, were afraid of something at Allubane, that something had to be big and dangerous.

"Ah, you would come up with something like this," he said. "If this gets around, I'll never be able to sign a Merc for this mission. Do me a favor, will you, Chane? Go away somewhere, for a little while."


"You said once you'd like to see where your parents come from on Earth. It's a place in Wales, you said. You can get there quick."

Chane considered. "I think I will. I don't much like this place."

"And Chane," said Dilullo. "Don't come back till I call you. You almost Jonahed the last job; I'm damned if I'll have you Jonah this one."

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