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Chapter One

HE WOKE counting seconds, rising through interminable strata of ebony chill to warmth, light and a growing awareness. At thirty-two the eddy currents had warmed him back to normal. At fifty-eight his heart began beating under its own power. At seventy-three the pulmotor ceased helping his lungs. At two hundred and fifteen the lid swung open with a pneumatic hiss.

He lay enjoying the euphoria of resurrection.

It was always the same, this feeling of well-being. Each time he woke there was the surge of gladness that once again he had beaten the odds. His body tingled with life after the long sleep during which it had been given the opportunity to mend minor ills. The waking drugs stimulated his imagination. It was pleasant to lie, eyes closed, lost in the pleasure of the moment.

"You okay?"

The voice was sharp, anxious, breaking into his mood. Dumarest sighed and opened his eyes. The light was too bright. He lifted a hand to shield his face, lowered it as something blocked the glare. Benson stood looking down at him from the foot of the open box. He looked the same as Dumarest remembered, a small man with a puckered face, an elaborate fringe of beard and a slick of black hair, but how much did a man have to age before it showed?

"You made it," said the handler. He sounded pleased. "I didn't expect trouble but for a minute back there you had me worried." He leaned forward, his head blocking more of the light. "You sure that you're okay?"

Dumarest nodded, reluctantly recognizing the need to move. Reaching out, he clamped his hands on the edges of the box and slowly pulled himself upright. His body was as expected, nude, bleached white, the skin tight over prominent bone. Cautiously he flexed his muscles, inflated the barrel of his chest He had lost fat but little else. He was still numb for which he was thankful.

"I haven't lost a one yet," boasted the handler. "That's why you had me worried. I've got a clean score and I want it to stay that way."

It wouldn't, of course. Benson was still fresh at the game. Give him time and he would become less conscientious, more time and he would grow careless, finally he wouldn't give a damn. That's when some of his kind thought it cute to cut the dope and watch some poor devil scream his lungs raw with the agony of restored circulation.

"I'm forgetting," he said. He passed over a cup of brackish water. Dumarest drank it, handed back the cup.

"Thanks." His voice was thin, a little rusty. He swallowed and tried again. This time he sounded more like his normal self. "How about some basic?"

"Coming right up."

Dumarest sat hunched in the box as Benson crossed to the dispenser. He wrapped his arms about his chest, conscious of the cold, the bleakness of the compartment The place resembled a morgue. A chill, blue-lighted cavern, the air tainted with a chemical smell. A low place, shapeless with jutting struts and curved beams, harsh with the unrelieved monotony of unpainted metal.

There was no need for heat in this part of the ship and no intention of providing comfort. Just the bare metal, the ultraviolet lamps washing the naked, coffin-like boxes with their sterilizing glow. Here was where the livestock rode, doped, frozen, ninety per cent dead. Here was the steerage for travelers willing to gamble against the fifteen per cent mortality rate.

Such travel was cheap—its sole virtue.

But something was wrong.

Dumarest sensed it with the caution born of long years of experience. It wasn't the waking. He had gained awareness long before the end of the five-minute waking cycle. It wasn't Benson. It was something else—something which should not be.

He found it after he had moistened the tips of his fingers and rested them lightly against the bare metal of the structure. They tingled with the faint but unmistakable effect of the Erhaft field. The ship was still in space.

And travelers were never revived until after landing.

The Winds of Gath #1 in the Dumarest series E.C. Tubb | The Winds of Gath | * * *