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His luck started running out when the blip of a ship approaching in normal drive showed up on the probe-screen. It was outside the dust, coming along the edge of the river in the stars. It would surely come close enough for its probes to spot him, even in the dust.

There were no alternatives. If the ship was one of the Varnan hunters, they would destroy him. If it was from anyplace but Varna, they would be his enemies the moment they identified his Starwolf craft. And they would identify it as such at first glance, for no world anywhere had ships like the hated Varnan ships.

He had to go deeper into hiding and there was only one place for that, and that was the denser drift. He took his little ship deeper into the dust-stream.

The whispering and ticking on the hull became louder. The larger particles outside so blurred his probe-rays that he lost track of the ship outside the dust. Similarly, they would lose track of him. Chane cut his drive and sat motionless. There was nothing to do but wait.

He did not have to wait long.

When it came, it was no more than a slight quiver that he could hardly feel. But all his instruments went out.

Chane turned. One look was enough. A bit of drift no bigger than a marble had holed the hull and had wrecked his drive-unit and converter. He was in a dead ship, and nothing he could do would make it live again. He could not even broadcast a call.

He looked at the now-blank screen, and though he could not now see the images of the stars he seemed again to hear their mocking whisper.

Let it go, Starwolf . . . .

Chane's shoulders sagged. Maybe it was as well this way. What future would there be for him anyway, in a galaxy where every man would be his enemy?

Sitting slumped there, in a kind of numb daze, he thought how strange it was that he should end up this way. He had always thought that it would come in a sudden blaze of battle, in some swift swooping raid across the stars. That was the end most Starwolves came to, if they went out too many times from Varna.

He had never dreamed that he would die in this slow, dull, leaden fashion, just sitting and waiting, waiting in a dead ship until his oxygen ran out.

A feeling of revulsion grew slowly in Chane's weary mind. There must be some better end for him than this, some last effort he could make, no matter how hopeless.

He tried to think it out. The only possible source of help was the ship just outside the dust-river. If he could signal them and they came to his aid, one of two things would happen: they could be the Varnans hunting him, and they would kill him; or they could be men of some other world and as soon as they saw his Starwolf ship, they would be his deadly enemies.

But what if his ship was not here? Then, they would accept him as an Earthman, for that was what he was by pure descent even though he had never seen Earth.

Chane looked back at the wrecked drive-unit and converter. They were dead, but the power-chamber that supplied energy to the converter was intact. He thought he saw a way . . . .

It was a gamble, and he hated to bet his life on it. Yet it was better than just sitting here and dying. But he knew that he had to make his bet quickly, or he would not even have this gambling chance.

He began, slowly and clumsily, to take apart some of the instruments on the board. It was difficult work, with gloved hands, and it was even more difficult to reassemble some of the parts into the mechanism he needed. When he finished, he had a small timing-device that he hoped would work.

Chane went back to the power-chamber and began to hook his timing-device to it. He had to work fast, and his task involved bending and crouching in a very confined space, and he felt the wound in his side tearing at him like a vulture. Tears of pain blurred his vision.

Cry, he told himself. How they'd love to know that you died crying!

The blur went away and he forced his nerveless fingers, ignoring the pain.

When he had finished his task, he cracked the lock open and took all four of the impellers from the spacesuit rack. He went back then to the power-chamber and turned on his crude timing-device.

Then Chane went out of the ship like a scared cat, two impellers in each hand driving him out amid the stars.

He hurtled away from the little craft, with the stars doing a crazy dance around him. He had gone into a spin but there was no time to right that. There was only one thing important and that was to get as far away as possible before his timing-gadget shorted the energy chamber and destroyed the ship. Chane counted seconds in his mind as the glittering starry hosts went round and round him.

The stars paled for a moment as a white nova seemed to flare in his eyes. It went out and he was in blind darkness. But he was living. He had got far enough before the power-chamber let go and destroyed his ship.

He turned off his impellers and drifted. The men in the ship outside the dust-river should have seen that flare. They might or might not come into the dust to investigate. And if they did, they might or might not be the Varnans who wanted his life.

He swam alone in the infinite, with stars above him and below him and all around him.

He wondered if anyone had ever been so alone. His parents had been dead for years, killed by the heavy gravitation of Varna. His friends on Varna were friends no longer but hunters eager to kill him. He had always thought of himself as Varnan and now he knew that he had been wrong.

No family, no friends, no country, no world . . . and not even a ship. Just a suit and a few hours of oxygen and a hostile universe around him.

But he was still a Starwolf, and if he had to die he would die like one . . . .

The grand and glittering backdrop of the cluster stars revolved slowly around him. To check his rotation might take power from the impellers that he would later need. And this way he could scan all the starfields as he turned.

But nothing moved in them, nothing at all.

Time went by. The lordly suns had been here for a long while and they were in no hurry to see the man die.

On what seemed to him his ten-millionth rotation, his eye caught something. A star winked.

He looked again, but the star was serene and steady. Were his eyes betraying him? Chane thought it likely, but he would push his bet all the way. He used his impellers to urge him in the direction of that star.

Within minutes, he knew that his eyes had not erred. For another star winked briefly as something occluded it. He strained his eyes, but it was hard to see, for the dark veils were closing around him again. The wound in his side, strained by his exertions, had opened again and he felt that his life was running out of it.

His vision cleared and he saw a black blot growing against the starfields, a blot that grew to the outline of a ship. It was not Varnan; the ships of Varna were small and needle-like. This ship had the silhouette of a Class Sixteen or Twenty and had the odd eyebrow bridge that was characteristic of the ships of old Earth. It was barely moving, coming his way.

Chane tried to formulate in his mind what story to tell to keep them from suspecting the truth about him. The darkness closed in on him but he fought it off, and flashed his impellers on and off as a signal.

He never knew how much later it was that he found the ship beside him and its airlock opening like a black mouth. He made a final effort and moved clumsily into it, and then he gave up fighting and the blackness took him.

* * *

He awoke later feeling surprisingly good. He discovered why when he found that he lay in a ship-bunk with a healamp glowing against his side. Already the wound looked dry and half-healed.

Chane looked around. The bunk-room was small. A bulb glowed in the metal ceiling, and he felt the drone and vibration of a ship in normal drive. Then he saw that a man was sitting on the edge of the opposite bunk, watching him.

The man got up and came over to him. He was older than Chane, a good bit older, and he had an oddly unfinished look about his hands and face and figure, as though he had been roughly carved out of rock by an unskilled sculptor. His short hair was graying a little and he had a long, horse-like face with eyes of no particular color.

"You cut it pretty fine," he said.

"I did," said Chane.

"Will you tell me what the devil a wounded Earthman is doing floating around in Corvus Cluster?" asked the other. He added, as an afterthought, "I'm John Dilullo."

Chane's eyes strayed to the stun-gun the Earthman wore belted around his coverall. "You're mercenaries, aren't you?"

Dilullo nodded. "We are. But you haven't answered my question."

Chane's mind raced. He would have to be careful. The Mercs were known all over the galaxy as a tough lot. A very high proportion of them were Earthmen, and there was a reason for this.

Earth, long ago, had pioneered the interstellar drive that opened up the galaxy. Yet, for all that, Earth was a poor planet. It was poor because all the other planets of its system were uninhabitable, with ferociously hostile conditions and only a few scant mineral resources. Compared to the great star-systems with many rich, peopled worlds, Earth was a poverty-stricken planet.

So Earth's chief export was men. Skilled spacemen, technicians, and fighters streamed out from old Earth to many parts of the galaxy. And the mercenaries from Earth were among the toughest.

"My name's Morgan Chane," he said. "Meteor-prospector, operating out of Alto Two. I went too deep into the damned drift and my ship was holed. One fragment caught me in the side, and others hit my drive. I saw my power-chamber was going to blow, and I just managed to get into my suit and get out of there in time."

He added, "I needn't say that I'm glad you saw the flare and came along."

Dilullo nodded. "Well, I've only one more question for now . . . ." He was turning away as he spoke. Then he suddenly whirled back around, his hand grabbing out the weapon at his belt.

Chane came out of the bunk like a flying shadow. His tigerish leap took him across the wide space between them at preternatural speed, and with his left hand he wrested away the weapon while his right hand cracked Dilullo's face. Dilullo went sprawling to the deck.

Chane aimed at him. "Is there any reason why I shouldn't use this on you?"

Dilullo fingered his bleeding lip and looked up and said, "No particular reason, except that there's no charge in it."

Chane smiled grimly. Then, as his fingers tightened on the butt of the weapon, his smile faded. There was no charge-magazine in it.

"That was a test," said Dilullo, getting stiffly to his feet. "When you were unconscious, and I fixed that healamp on you, I felt your musculature. I'd already heard that Varnan ships were raiding toward this cluster. I knew you weren't a Varnan . . . you could shave off the fine fur and all that but you couldn't change the shape of your head. But all the same, you had the muscles of a Starwolf.

"Then," Dilullo said, "I remembered rumors I'd heard from the out-worlds, about an Earthman who raided with the Varnans and was one of them. I hadn't believed them, no one believed them, for the Varnans, from a heavy planet, have such strength and speed no Earthman could keep up with them. But you could, and right now you proved it. You're a Starwolf."

Chane said nothing. His eyes looked past the other man to the closed door.

"Do me the credit," said Dilullo, "of believing that I wouldn't come down here without first making sure you couldn't do what you're thinking of doing."

Chane looked into the colorless eyes, and believed.

"All right," he said. "So now?"

"I'm curious," said Dilullo, sitting down in a bunk. "About many things. About you, in particular." He waited.

Chane tossed him the useless weapon, and sat down. He thought for a moment, and Dilullo suggested mildly, "Just the truth."

"I thought I knew the truth, until now," Chane said. "I thought I was a Varnan. I was born on Varna . . . my parents were missionaries from Earth who were going to reform the wicked Varnan ways. Of course the heavy gravitation soon killed them, and it nearly killed me, but it didn't, quite, and I grew up with the Varnans and thought I was one of them."

He could not keep the bitterness out of his voice. Dilullo, watching him narrowly, said nothing.

"Then the Varnans hit Shandor Five, and I was one of them when they did it. But there was a quarrel there about the loot, and when I struck Ssander he tried to kill me. I killed him instead, and the others turned on me. I barely got away alive."

He added, after a moment, "I can't go back to Varna now. 'Damned Earthpawn!' Ssander called me. Me, as Varnan as he was in everything but blood. But I can't go back." He sat silent, brooding.

Dilullo said, "You've plundered and robbed and you've doubtlessly killed, along with those you ran with. But do you have any remorse about that? No. The only thing you're sorry about is that they threw you out of the pack. By God, you're a true Starwolf!"

Chane made no answer to that. After a moment, Dilullo went on, "We—my men and I—have come here to Corvus Cluster because we've been hired to do a job. A rather dangerous job."


Dilullo's eyes measured him. "As you say, you're a Varnan in everything but blood. You know every Starwolf trick there is, and that's a lot. I could use you on this job."

Chane smiled. "The offer is flattering . . . . No."

"Better think about it," said Dilullo. "And think of this—my men would kill you instantly if I told them you're a Starwolf."

Chane said, "And you'll tell them, unless I sign up with you?"

It was Dilullo's turn to smile. "Other people besides Varnans can be ruthless." He added, "Anyway, you haven't got anyplace to go, have you?"

"No," said Chane, and his face darkened. "No."

After a moment he asked, "What makes you think you could trust me?"

Dilullo stood up. "Trust a Starwolf? Do you think I'm crazy? I trust only the fact that you know you'll die if I tell about you."

Chane looked up at him. "Suppose something happened to you so you couldn't tell?"

"That," said Dilullo, "would be unfortunate . . . . for you. I'd see to it that, in that case, your little secret automatically became known."

There was a silence. Then Chane asked, "What's the job?"

"It's a risky job," said Dilullo, "and the more people who know about it ahead of time, the riskier it'll be. Just assume for now that you're going to gamble your neck and will very likely lose it."

"That wouldn't grieve you too much, would it?" Chane said.

Dilullo shrugged. "I'll tell you how it is, Chane. When a Starwolf gets killed, they declare a holiday on all decent worlds."

Chane smiled. "At least we understand each other."

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