Star Bridge

Star Bridge

by Jack Williamson, James Gunn

Paperback(Second Edition)

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Overview

The galaxy's inhabited planets are held together by the repressive Eron Company, the apparent holder of the secret to faster–than–light travel through the Tubes, the network linking the scattered worlds together. Mysterious parties have hired the adventurer Horn to assassinate the company's general manager, Garth Kohlnar. Horn completes his mission, and in the ensuing manhunt encounters Wendre Kohlnar, the daughter and now possibly the heir of the dead man.

Escaping through a transdimensional Tube, Horn finds himself on the planet Eron, a world consumed by the Eron Company. There he encounters a corrupt aristocracy, a brewing power struggle over the succession, a covert revolution, and the mystery of who actually knows the secret of the Tubes.

James Gunn and Jack Williamson's Star Bridge marks the return of a classic, high-concept space opera by two SF Grand Masters

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765335029
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Publication date: 11/11/2014
Edition description: Second Edition
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

JAMES GUNN is the Hugo Award-winning science fiction author of The Joy Makers, The Immortals, and The Listeners, and the coauthor, with Jack Williamson, of the classic epic SF novel Star Bridge. He lives in Lawrence, Kansas.

JACK WILLIAMSON (1908–2006) was born in Arizona in 1908 and sold his first story at the age of twenty. He was the second author to be named a Grand Master of Science Fiction by SFWA and is credited with inventing the terms "terraforming" and "genetic engineering."

Read an Excerpt

1

FORBIDDEN GROUND

The flaming wheel of the sun had passed the apogee of its journey across the sky. It had started down toward its resting place behind the looming mesa when the rider stopped to let the tired buckskin pony drink at a gypsum spring. Buckskin once but no longer; sweat and red dust had blended and dried into another coat.

Caked nostrils dipped into the water and jerked back, surprised. Thirst forced the head back down. The pony drank noisily.

The rider was motionless, but his hard, gray eyes were busy. They swept the hot, cloudless blue sky. No tell-tale shimmer disclosed the presence of an Eron cruiser. The only movement was the lazy wheeling of a black-winged buzzard.

The eyes dropped to the horizon, studied the mesa for a moment, and slowly worked their way back through the wavering desert. The rider turned in the saddle and looked back the way they had come. The pony lifted its head nervously; its legs quivered.

The rider patted the pony’s sweating shoulder. “We’ve lost them, boy,” he whispered dustily. “I think we’ve lost them.”

He forced the reluctant pony away from the spring and urged it on through the eroded, red-dust desert toward the bare, dead mesa where once the great city of Sunport had raised itself proudly toward the stars.

The rider was tall and deceptively lean. He could move quickly and surely when he had to and his broad, flat shoulders were powerful. From them hung the rags of what had once been a dark-gray uniform. Dust and sweat had stained red the legs of the tattered pants, but the leather boots were still sound.

A canteen hung from the saddlehorn, sloshing musically as the pony plodded toward the mesa, its head low. Around the rider’s left shoulder was a cord that hugged a heavy unitron pistol close to his armpit. Its blue barrel was stamped: Made in Eron.

No one would have called the rider handsome. His face was thin, hard, and immobile; where a month’s bluish growth of beard had not protected it, the face was burned almost black. His name was Alan Horn. He was a soldier of fortune.

In all the inhabited galaxy, there were no more than a hundred men who followed Horn’s profession. Their business was trouble and how to profit from it and survive. They were strong men, clever men, skillful men. They had to be. All the others were dead.

The red dust rose under Horn and drifted behind, and his narrowed eyes were never still. They searched the sky and the desert in a long, restless arc that always ended behind him.

An hour before dusk he came to the sign.

The rain that had sluiced away the topsoil had spared the granite boulder. From the rusty metal post set into it, a durex oblong hung askew. The centuries had cracked and faded it, but the bastard Eronian which served as a space lingua was still readable.

WARNING!

Forbidden Ground

This area is hereby declared abandoned. It is prohibited for human occupation. All persons hereon will surrender themselves to the Company Resident at the nearest gate. Failure to comply will forfeit all rights of property and person. Notice is hereby given that this area will be opened to licensed hunters.

—Posted in this year of the Eron Company 1046, by order of the General Manager.

Horn spat through sun-blistered lips. For more than two centuries the nomads of this desert had been hunted like wild animals. The desert was wide—the fences of the nearest occupied area were almost 1,000 kilometers eastward toward the Mississippi Valley—but Eron was efficient. Horn had seen one savage on the desert; he had bought the pony from him.

Bought? Well, he had paid for it, although the pistol had been more persuasive than money.

The pony lifted its head and began to shiver. Horn raised himself in the stirrups and looked back. He stood there, silent, unmoving. Then he heard it, too. His back stiffened. He drew in a quick, sharp breath.

The baying of the hounds, distant and terrible. The hunters riding to the music of death.

Horn sank back into the saddle. “They’ve picked up the scent, boy,” he whispered, “but they’ve been on our trail before. We got away. We’ll do it again.”

But then the pony had been comparatively fresh. Desert muscles, spurred by terror, had pulled them away. Now the weeks of relentless riding were apparent. The pony was gaunt, spiritless. The distant clamor only made him tremble. And behind him they had fresh mounts now, fresh, bell-throated, slavering mounts.

The thought narrowed Horn’s eyes. Why were they after him? As a deserter? As a casual prey? Or as a man with a mission who had been hired three hundred light years away? Horn would have given a great deal to know; it could be the knowledge that would save him. He glanced down at the pistol. That would be a surprise for them.

His hand lifted from the saddlehorn to his waist, to the fat belt that encircled it snugly under the trouser band. Hard money, not company scrip. Money as solid as Eron.

What brings a man three hundred light years across the galaxy? Money? Horn shrugged. To him money was only a means of power over those who valued it. Not everyone did. The nomad would rather have kept the pony. Some things you can’t buy.

Horn had told the man that, the man who had whispered in the lightless room on Quarnon Four.

The one altruistic act of Horn’s life had just ended in failure, as it was doomed to do. The Cluster had been beaten from the start. But it had fought, and foolishly Horn had volunteered to fight with it. He had shared the fight and the inevitable defeat. Penniless, weaponless, he had gone to meet the man whose message promised money.

The cautious darkness had been a surprise. He had stared into it and decided, suddenly, not to take the job.

*   *   *

“You can’t buy a man with money.”

“True—in a few cases. And the others won’t stay bought. But what I want to buy is a man’s death.”

“Three hundred light years away?”

“The victim will be there for the dedication of the Victory Monument. All the killer has to do is meet him.”

“You make it sound simple. How does the killer do it?”

“That is his problem.”

“It might be done. Eron would have to help.…”

*   *   *

As the plans tumbled over each other in his mind, Horn had reversed his decision. Why? Had it been the challenge?

It had been impossible from the start, but impossibility depends on acceptance. It is less than absolute when a man refuses to recognize it. The difficulties were great, the odds were greater, but Horn would conquer them. And, having conquered them, be left unsatisfied.

Life holds no kindness for such a man. Any defeat short of death is only a spur; success is empty.

With cold self-analysis, Horn recognized this fact, accepted it, and went on unchanged.

Horn looked back again. The hunters were closer. The baying was clearer. The slanting rays of the sun reddened a cloud of dust.

It was a three-way race with death: Horn, the hunters, and the victim. Horn jabbed his boot-heels sharply into the pony’s flanks. It gave a startled leap forward and settled into a tired gallop.

Horn’s only chance was to reach the mesa first. Fifteen minutes later, he knew that they would never make it.

He noticed the footprints.

They were fresh in the red dust, close together, uneven. The person had been staggering. With instant decision, Horn turned the pony to follow them.

A few hundred meters farther the dust held the imprint of a man’s body. Horn urged the pony forward. The baying behind was loud, but Horn shut it out. Time was growing short. The sun was half a disk sitting on the mesa. Darkness would soon hide the trail, but it wouldn’t dull the nostrils that sniffed out the way he had come.

The pony’s unshod hooves clattered suddenly on a stretch of rock. The ground had begun to rise. Coming down into the dust again, the pony stumbled. Horn pulled it back to its feet. He strained his eyes through the growing dusk.

There! Horn kicked the pony again. Once more, nobly, it responded. The shadow ahead drew closer, resolved into something forked and weaving. It turned to look behind, opened a mute, shadow mouth, and began to run, stumbling. Close to another stretch of rock, it fell and lay still.

Horn rode well up on the ledge before he let the pony stop. He sat in the saddle for a moment, studying the flat stone table. It was a full hundred meters across. On the mesa side, the table shelved down gently to red dust once more. To the left, it dropped off sharply.

Only then did he look at the man crumpled in the dust. Once he might have been big and strong and proud. Now he was a stick man with blackened skin stretched taut over protruding bones. Nondescript rags hung from his waist.

Horn waited patiently. The man levered himself up on an elbow and raised his head. Red-rimmed eyes, swollen almost shut, peered hopelessly at Horn, blinked, and widened a little. Surprise and relief were in them.

A-roo! The hounds were close.

The man’s mouth opened and shut silently. His tongue was black and swollen. His throat tightened and relaxed and tightened again as he tried to speak. At last he forced out a thin thread of sound.

“Water! For mercy’s sake, water!”

Horn dropped off the pony and unhooked the canteen from the saddlehorn. He walked to the edge of the rock and held it out to the man in the dust. He shook it. The water tinkled.

The man whimpered. He dragged himself forward on his elbows. Horn shook the canteen again. The man moved faster, but the few meters to the rock diminished with painful slowness.

“Come on, man,” Horn said impatiently. He looked over the man’s head, back across the desert. The dust cloud was rising higher. “Here’s water. Hurry!”

The man hurried. Grunting, grimacing, he crawled toward the canteen, his half-blind eyes fixed on it unmoving. He crawled up on the rock, one hand reaching.

Horn stooped instantly, lifted him, tilted the canteen to his lips. The man’s throat worked convulsively. Water spilled over his chin and ran down his chest.

“That’s enough,” Horn said, taking the canteen away. “Not too much all at once. Better?”

The man nodded with dumb gratitude.

A-Roo!

Horn glanced up. “They’re getting closer,” he said. “You can’t walk, and I can’t leave you here for the hounds. We’ll have to ride double. Think you can hang on?”

The man nodded eagerly. “Shouldn’t—let you—do this,” he panted. “Go on. Leave me. Thanks—for drink.”

“Forget it!” Horn snapped. He helped the man stand, steadied him by the pony, and lifted the man’s left foot into the stirrup. He shoved. Although the body was light, it was all dead weight. Getting it balanced in the saddle was an act of skill.

AROO! Horn could distinguish the different voices blended into the call. He wrapped the man’s hands around the saddlehorn. “Hang on!” he said. The hands clenched, whitened.

The man turned his terrified eyes down toward Horn. “Don’t—let them—get me,” he pleaded in a toneless whisper.

“YI-I-I-I!” Horn yelled shrilly.

SPLAT-T-T! His palm exploded against the pony’s rump. The pony jumped forward. The man reeled drunkenly in the saddle. He turned his head and stared back with eyes that were suddenly, bitterly wise. Horn watched the swaying rider. His jaw muscles tightened.

The pony ran down the stone ramp into the dust; the man clung desperately. Horn turned then and reached the rock edge to the left in four giant strides. He dived, lit in the dust doubled up, rolled once, and was still.

A-ROO! A last time, and then no more. They were too close now, too intent upon the prey to break the silence of the kill.

Horn heard the swift, soft padding of dust-muffled paws. He huddled close to the rock, watching the red dust lift over the edge, higher, thicker, nearer. As the hounds reached the rock, the sound became sharper. Nails clicked. Horn closed his eyes and listened.

The rhythm was broken. One hound had slowed. Horn reached toward the pistol.

And then a sharp command. The slowing paws picked up the pace. Dust and distance muffled them again.

Horn risked a quick glimpse over the meter-high ledge. They were gone, their attention all for the fleeing rider ahead.

Horn shivered. There they were, the terrible hunting dogs of Eron. Mutated to the size of horses, they could carry a man for loping hours; their giant jaws could drag down anything that moved. Four-footed terror.

And on their backs, shouting them in to the kill, the golden-skinned merchant princes of Eron, reddish-gold hair gleaming in the dusk. Mutants, also, it was said. More dreadful, certainly, than their mounts.

They closed in. The fleeing man turned in the saddle and clawed at his waist.

The pack was only a hundred meters behind when Horn saw something glint dully. Instinct drew his head down. A muffled sound of impact was followed by a screaming shriek of metal on stone. The bullet whistled far into the desert, propelled by the pistol’s miniature unitronic field.

A pistol, Horn thought. Where did that stick man get a pistol?

Horn peered over the edge again. One dog was down, a leg crumpled under it, but its mouth was snarling with thwarted desire. Its rider lay stunned in the dust. The rest closed in, undeterred. Their prey, his last strength thrown into the one effort, clung hopelessly to the saddlehorn with both hands, his face turned back to look at death.

There was no sound now. There was only the silent pantomime of death being acted before Horn’s eyes. The closest hound tilted its head, jaws gaping. The jaws closed. Within them was the pony’s hind quarter.

The pony reared, feet pawing the sky in frantic terror and sudden pain, tossing the rider high into the air. As it reared, its feet were drawn out from under it. As it fell, it was torn apart.

The man never hit the ground. Savage jaws were waiting for him as he came down flailing the air with arms that no amount of fear-spurred desire could turn into wings.

Poor buckskin, Horn thought, and burrowed deeper into the red dust.

Copyright © 1955 by Jack Williamson and James E. Gunn

Table of Contents

Contents

TITLE PAGE,
COPYRIGHT NOTICE,
PROLOGUE,
1. FORBIDDEN GROUND,
2. BLOOD MONEY,
3. THE NARROW BRIDGE,
4. PHOENIX,
5. ASSASSIN,
6. FLIGHT,
7. THE DARK ROAD,
8. OUT OF CHAOS ...,
9. SPIDERWEB,
10. THE HOLLOW WORLD,
11. THE TURNING TIDE,
12. STALEMATE,
13. THE IRON STEPPES,
14. THE MASTER SWITCH,
15. DEATH IS THE DOOR,
16. THE KEY,
17. LIVING SYMBOL,
18. WAR,
19. DANGER BELOW,
20. PRIME MOVER,
21. CHALLENGE,
EPILOGUE,
AFTERWORD,
TOR BOOKS BY JACK WILLIAMSON AND JAMES GUNN,
PRAISE FOR THE AUTHORS,
ABOUT THE AUTHORS,
COPYRIGHT,

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