Edmond Hamilton: Stark and the Star Kings

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    Stark and the Star Kings
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STARK AND THE STAR KINGS

Leigh Brackett and Edmond Hamilton

Authors' introduction to

"Stark and the Star Kings"

Twenty-six-and-a-half years ago, when we got married, we thought collaboration would be an easy and delightful thing. We could, we thought, begin now to turn out twice as many stories with half the effort.

We tried it.

Once.

Hamilton had to know the whole plot right to the last line before he began. Brackett was only interested in the opening. In short, our methods of working were diametrically opposed, and in order to keep peace in the family we made a firm decision that each one should stick to his/her own typewriter.

Over the years we find our working methods have changed. Hamilton no longer has to have a complete outline on paper. Brackett generally has one in her head. Ideas and style have changed as well. So we decided to try it again and see what happened, being in general agreement on basic concepts, and utilizing our own favorite characters.

So here is our first, one and only, true, authentic collaboration.

-Leigh Brackett

Edmond Hamilton 

The great Rift Valley runs southeast just below the equator, a stupendous gash across the dry brown belly of Mars. Two and a half thousand miles it runs in length, and as much as twenty thousand feet in depth, and all that enormous emptiness is packed and brimming over with the myths and superstitions of more thousands of years than even the Martians can count.

Along the nighted floor of the valley, Eric John Stark went alone.

The summons had been for him alone. It had reached him unexpectedly in the gritty chill of a Dryland camp. A voice of power had spoken in his mind. A quiet voice, as compelling as death.

"Oh, N'Chaka," the voice had said. "Man-Without-a-Tribe. The Lord of the Third Bend bids you come."

All Mars knew that the one who called himself Lord of the Third Bend had laired for many lifetimes in the hidden depths of the Great Rift Valley . Human? No one could say. Even the Ramas, those nearly-immortal Martians with whom Stark had once done battle in the dead city of Sinharat , had known nothing about him. But they feared his strength.

Stark had thought about it for perhaps an hour, watching red dust blow across a time-eaten land made weird and unfamiliar by the strangely diminished sunlight.

It was odd that the summons should come now. It was odd that the Lord of the Third Bend should know enough about him to call him by that name that few men knew and fewer still ever used; not his true patronymic but his first-name, given him by the sub-human tribe that had reared him. It was odd, in fact, that the Lord of the Third Bend should call him by any name, at any time, as though he might have need of him.

Perhaps he did.

And in any case, it was not often that one was invited into the presence of Legend.

So Stark was riding his scaly beast through the perpetual night of the valley, toward the Third Bend. Although that voice of power had not spoken again in his mind, he had known exactly how to reach his destination.

He was approaching it now.

Far ahead, to the right, a little light showed. The rays were as feeble as though strangled at birth, but the light was there. It grew slowly brighter, shifting in his view as the beast changed direction. They were rounding the Third Bend.

The ruddy glow of light strengthened, contracting from a vague glow into a discrete point.

The beast shied suddenly. It turned its ungainly head and hissed, staring through the darkness to the left.

"And now what?" Stark asked it, his hand going to the weapon at his belt.

He could see nothing. But it seemed to him that he heard a faint sound as of laughter, and not in a human voice.

He took his hand away from his weapon. Stark did not doubt that the Lord of the Third Bend had servants, and there was no reason that the servants need be human.

Stark cuffed his mount and rode on, looking neither to right nor left. He had been invited here, and he was damned if he would show fear.

The beast padded on reluctantly, and the far-off witch-laughter drifted through the darkness, now louder and again soft and far away. The point of ruddy light ahead expanded and became an upright rectangle, partly veiled by mists that seemed to curl through it from beyond.

The glowing rectangle was a great open door, with a light beyond it. The door was in the side of a building whose shape and dimensions were unguessable in the shrouding darkness. Stark got the impression of a huge sombre citadel going up into the perpetual night of the abyss and showing only this one opening.

He rode up to the portal and dismounted, and went through into the curling mists beyond. He could see nothing of whatever hall or cavern he had entered, but there was a feeling of space, of largeness.

He stopped and waited.

For a time there was no sound at all. Then, from somewhere in the mist, whispered the sweet and evil laughter that was not quite human.

Stark said to it, "Tell your master that N'Chaka awaits his pleasure."

There were hidden titterings and scurryings that seemed to circle upon themselves, and then that quiet compelling voice he remembered spoke to him. He was not sure for a moment whether he heard it with his ears or with his mind. Perhaps both. It said,

"I am here, N'Chaka."

"Then show yourself," said Stark. "I bargain with no one whose face I cannot see."

No one appeared, and the voice said with infinite softness, "Bargain? Was there mention of bargaining? Does the knife in one's hand bargain with its owner?"

"This knife does," said Stark. "You must have need of me or you would not have brought me here. If you have need of me, you will not destroy out of mere annoyance. Therefore show yourself, and let us talk."

"Here in my remoteness," said the voice, "the winds have told me much of the Earthman with two names who is not of Earth. It appears that what I heard was true."

There came a sound of sandals upon the stone. The mists rolled back. The Lord of the Third Bend stood before Stark.

He was a young man, dressed in the very old High Martian costume of a toga-like garment whose ends brushed the floor. His smooth face was incredibly handsome.

"You may call me Aarl," he said. "It was my man-name once, long ago."

Stark felt the hairs lift on the back of his neck. The eyes in that young face were as black as space, as old, and as deep. They were eyes of knowledge and strength beyond anything human, eyes to steal a man's soul and drown it. They frightened him. He felt that if he looked full into them he would be shattered like flawed glass. Yet he was too proud to glance away. He said,

"Am I to understand that you have existed in this shape for all these ages?"

"I have had many shapes," said Aarl. "The outward semblance is only illusion."

"Perhaps for you," said Stark. "Mine is somewhat more integral. Well. I have come far and I am tired, hungry, and thirsty. Are wizards above the laws of hospitality?"

"Not this one," said Aarl. "Come with me."

They began walking through what Stark took, from the echoes, to be a high-roofed hall of some length. There was no more sound from the unseen servitors.

The mists drew farther back. Now Stark could see walls of dark stone that went up to a great height. Upon them were designs of fire, shining arabesques that constantly moved and changed shape. Something about them bothered Stark. After a moment he realised that the fiery designs were corroded, tarnished, like the sunlight of upper Mars.

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