Robert Sheckley

The Skag Castle

I

Within the offices of the AAA Ace Interplanetary Decontamination Service, a gloomy silence reigned. By the faint light that filtered through the dirty windows, Richard Gregor was playing a new form of solitaire. It involved three packs of cards, six jokers, a set of dice, and a slide rule. The game was extremely complicated, maddeningly difficult, and it always came out if you persisted long enough.

His partner, Mike Arnold, had swept his desk clear of its usual clutter of crusty test tubes and unpaid bills, and was now dozing fitfully on its stained surface.

Business couldn't have been worse.

There was a tentative knock on the door.

Quickly Gregor pushed his playing cards, dice, and slide rule into a drawer. Arnold rolled off his desk like a cat and flipped open Volume Two of Terkstiller's Decontamination Modes on X-32 (Omega) Worlds, which he had been using for a pillow.

"Come in," Gregor called out.

The door opened and a girl entered. She was young, slender, dark-haired, and extremely pretty. Her eyes were gray, and they contained a hint of fear. Her lips were unsmiling.

She looked around the unkempt office. "Is this the AAA Ace?" she inquired tentatively.

"It certainly is," Gregor assured her. "Won't you sit down? We always keep the lights off. Much more restful, don't you think?"

And, he thought, quite necessary, since Con Mazda had shut off their power last week for nonpayment of a trifling bill.

"I suppose it is," the girl said, sitting in the cavernous client's chair. She surveyed the office again. "You people are planetary decontaminationists, aren't you? Not taxidermists or undertakers?"

"Don't let the office fool you," Arnold said. "We are the best, and the most reasonable. No planet too big, no asteroid too small."

"Maybe I've come to the right place after all," the girl said with a wan but enchanting smile. "You see, I don't have much money."

Gregor nodded sympathetically. AAA Ace's clients never had much money.

"But I do have a tiny little planet that needs decontaminating," the girl said. "It's the most wonderful place in the whole galaxy. But the job might be dangerous."

"Dangerous?" Arnold asked.

The girl nodded and glanced nervously at the door. "I don't even know if I'm safe here. Are you armed?"

Gregor found a rusty letter opener. Arnold hefted a bronze paperweight cast in the shape of the spaceship Constitution — a beautiful piece of workmanship.

Somewhat relieved, the girl went on. "I'm Myra Branch Ryan. I was on my little planet, minding my own business, when suddenly this Scarb appeared before me, leering horribly—"

"This what?"

"Perhaps I should start at the beginning," Myra Ryan said. "A few months ago my Uncle Jim died and left me a small planet and a Hemstet four spaceship. The planet is Coelle, in the Gelsors system. Uncle Jim bought the planet fifteen years ago for a vacation home. He had just gotten it into shape when he was called away on business. What with one thing and another, he never returned. Naturally I went out there as soon as I could."

Myra's face brightened as she remembered her first impressions.

"Coelle was very small, but perfect. It had a complete air system, the best gravity money can buy, and an artesian well. Uncle Jim had planted several orchards, and berry bushes on the hillsides, and long grass everywhere. There was even a little lake.

"But Coelle's outstanding feature was the Skag Castle. Uncle

Jim hadn't touched this, for the castle was old beyond belief. It was thought to have been built by the Skag Horde, who, according to legend, occupied the universe before the coming of man."

The partners nodded. Everyone had heard of the Skag Horde. A whole literature had sprung up around the scanty evidence of their existence. It was pretty well established that they had been reptile-evolved, and had mastered spaceflight. But legend went further than this. The Skag Horde was supposed to have known the Old Lore, a strange mixture of science and witchcraft. This, according to the legends, gave them powers beyond the conception of man, powers sprung from the evil counterforces of the universe.

Their disappearance, millennia before Homo sapiens descended from the treetops, had never been satisfactorily explained.

"I fell In love with Coelle," Myra continued, "and the old Skag Castle just made it perfect."

"But where does the decontaminating come in?" Gregor asked. "Were there natives on Coelle? Animals? Germs?"

"No, nothing like that," Myra said. "Here's what happened…"

She had been on her planet a week, exploring its groves and orchards, and wandering around the Skag Castle. Then, one evening, sitting in the castle's great library, she sensed something wrong. There was an unearthly stillness in the air, as though the planet were waiting for something to happen. Angrily she tried to shake off the mood. It was just nerves, she told herself. After she put a few more lights in the halls, and changed the blood-red draperies to something gayer…

Then she heard a dull rumbling noise, like the sound of a giant walking. It seemed to come from somewhere in the solid granite upon which the castle rested.

She stood completely still, waiting. The floor vibrated, a vase crept off a table and shattered on the flagstones. And then the Scarb appeared before her, leering horribly.

There was no mistaking it. According to legend, the Scarbs had been the wizard-scientists of the vanished Skag Horde — powerful reptiles dressed in cloaks of gray and purple. The creature that stood before Myra was over nine feet tall, with tiny atrophied wings and a horn growing from its forehead.

The Scarb said, "Earthwoman, go home!"

She almost fainted. The Scarb continued, "Know, rash human, that this planet of Coelle is the ancestral home of the Skag Horde, and this Castle is the original Skag Burrow. Here the spirit of the Skag still lives, through the intervention of Grad, Ieele, and other accursed powers of the universe. Quit this sacred planet at once, foolish human, or I, the Undead Scarb, will exact revenge."

And with that, it vanished.

"What did you do?" Gregor asked.

"Nothing," Myra said with a little laugh. "I just couldn't believe it. I thought I must have had a hallucination, and everything would be all right if I just got control of myself. Twice more that week I heard the underground noises. And then the Scarb appeared again. He said, ‘You have been warned, Earthwoman. Now beware the wrath of the Undead Scarb!' After that, I got out as fast as I could."

Myra sniffed, took out a little handkerchief, and wiped her eyes.

"So you see," she said, "my little planet needs decontaminating. Or possibly exorcising."

"Miss Ryan," Gregor said very gently, "I don't mean to be insulting, but have you—ah—did you ever think of consulting a psychiatrist?"

The girl stood up angrily. "Do you think I'm crazy?"

"Not at all," Gregor said soothingly. "But remember, you yourself spoke of the possibility of hallucination. After all, a deserted planet, an ancient castle, these legends — which, by the way, have very little basis in fact — all would tend to—"

"You're right, of course," Myra said with a strange little smile. "But how do you explain this?" She opened her handbag and spilled three cans of film and a spool of magnetic tape onto Gregor's desk.

"I was able to record some of those hallucinations," she said.

The partners were momentarily speechless.

"Something is going on in that castle," Myra said earnestly. "It calls itself an Undead Scarb. Won't you get rid of it for me?"

Gregor groaned and rubbed his forehead. He hated to refuse anyone as beautiful as Miss Ryan, and they certainly could use the money. But this was not, in all honesty, a job for decontaminators. This looked like a psychic case, and psychic phenomena were notoriously tricky.

"Miss Ryan—" he began, but Arnold broke in.

"We would be delighted to take your case," he said. To Gregor he gave an I'll-explain-later wink.

"Oh, how wonderful!" Myra said. "How soon will you be ready?"

"As a rule," Arnold said, "we need a few weeks' notice. But for you—" He beamed fatuously. "For you, we are going to clear our calendar, postpone all other cases, and begin at once."

Gregor's long, sad face was unhappier than ever. "Perhaps you've forgotten," he told his partner. "Joe the Interstellar Junkman has our spaceship, due to a trifling bill we neglected to pay. I'm sorry, Miss Ryan—"

"Call me Myra," Myra said. "That's all right, my Hemstet four is fueled and ready to go."

"Then we'll leave tonight," Arnold said. "Have no fear, Myra. Your little planet is safe in our hands. We'll radio you as soon as—"

"Radio nothing," Myra said. "I'm going along. I wouldn't miss this for anything."

They arranged for Myra to obtain the clearances and meet them back at the office. As she walked to the door, Arnold said, "By the way, why did you ask if we were armed?"

She was silent for a moment. Then she said, "Since I came back to Terra, something's been following me. Something wearing gray and purple. I'm afraid it might be the Undead Scarb."

She closed the door gently behind her.

As soon as she was gone, Gregor shouted, "Have you gone completely out of your ...

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