Disfigured in the wars that destroyed his planet, Nik Kolherne lives a shadow existence in the sprawling refugee ghetto of the Dipple. He wears a mask to cover his scars and dreams about another country under an unfettered blue sky and a warm sun. But a chance encounter gives him the opportunity for a new face—and a new life. All he has to do is impersonate a young boy’s fantasy hero.
So what if Nik is now allied with the Thieves’ Guild, a subversive outlaw group that seeks their prey on loosely held frontier worlds? A kid all alone in the world could use an ally. His mission is to lure Vandy Naudhin i’Akrama, the young son of a powerful warlord, from his high-security villa and deliver him to the Guild so they can access critical information locked in his brain. But when Nik and Vandy are shipped off to Dis, a burned-out wasteland of a planet, Nik realizes he’s a pawn in a spiraling web of political intrigue and intergalactic evil that threatens both their lives.
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About the Author
For well over a half century, Andre Norton was one of the most popular science fiction and fantasy authors in the world. With series such as Time Traders, Solar Queen, Forerunner, Beast Master, Crosstime, and Janus, as well as many standalone novels, her tales of adventure have drawn countless readers to science fiction. Her fantasy novels, including the bestselling Witch World series, her Magic series, and many other unrelated novels, have been popular with readers for decades. Lauded as a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, she is the recipient of a Life Achievement Award from the World Fantasy Convention. An Ohio native, Norton lived for many years in Winter Park, Florida, and died in March 2005 at her home in Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
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Night of Masks
By Andre Norton
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Outside, the day was as gray as the wall behind Nik Kolherne, where he hunched under the arch of roof well above his head. The steady drizzle of rain was as depressing as those thoughts he could not push out of his mind, even by the most determined effort. His thin-fingered hands moved restlessly, smoothing the front of the worn and colorless jump coat that hung in folds about his thin chest and shoulders. The damp had him shivering, but he made no move to seek shelter through the door immediately behind him.
There was shelter inside but nothing else in the big barracks of the Dipple. Those without family ties held no more rights than the tentative possession of a bunk, and that only as long as they could defend it, should one of their fellows in misfortune take a liking to it.
Nik's right hand came up in a gesture now so much a part of him that he was no longer aware when he made it. Without actually touching his face, his palm covered chin and nose, masking all that lay below his large, penetratingly brilliant blue-green eyes. He hugged the wall of the entranceway, giving good room to two men splashing in from the yard. Neither noticed him as they pushed into the barracks.
Moke Varn and Brin Peake. In the world of the Dipple, they were solid citizens of a sort. Or should one correct that? Nik, his hand mask still upheld, searched for a proper term to cover the activities and standing of Moke Varn and Brin Peake.
Maybe not solid citizens in the sense used by the free world beyond the Dipple gates. But at least they had power, and their standing within these walls was firmly based. And since it was undoubtedly true that the Dipple would continue to be Nik's complete world, its terms of reference must be the ones used in evaluating his fellow unfortunates — not that either Moke or Brin considered himself unfortunate.
Once there had been no Dipple; once there had been no war. Once — once a little boy had been someone different, very different. His blue-green eyes held a shadow as Nik stared dully into the slanting lines of rain. But there had been the war, and all the dispossessed flotsam had been swept up and thrown into the refuse heaps of the Dipples on many planets — to rot forgotten, as if they were not people at all but statistics and footnotes in some little-read history book of a time the free worlds were now working hard to forget. The war had ended in an exhausted tie, but hate lingered, smoldering under the surface of the here and now, a hate that —
This time Nik's fingers closed tight against his face. His stomach heaved in a retching spasm. The furrows of scarred skin were harsh under his touch. He had a mask all right, one out of nightmares and one he could never put aside. Ten years ago a freighter spacer had been temporarily turned into an escape ship for a small colony on a frontier world lying within enemy-patrolled territory. That freighter had been pursued by the enemy and had crashed on a barren moon.
How in the name of the Spirit had Nik survived that disaster anyway? Why had a child with a torn and burned face continued to live when all those about him had mercifully died? Then — out of nowhere — had come rescue, men in space armor tramping into the small area of the ship where Nik had cowered almost witless. After their coming, there was a jumble of impressions cloaked with delirium and pain, the terror of the unknown. Finally, there had been the hospital here at the Dipple on Korwar. Then — just the Dipple in which he was always alone.
He dreamed — yes, sometimes he dreamed of a country under another sky with a different tint and a warmer sun. But was that a real memory or just a dream? He could remember only such small bits after the crash. His sole link with that other world was the identity disk they had found on him — Nik Kolherne, a name combined with symbols that had not made sense to any authority here. At first, he had asked questions of his fellow internees until their reaction to his gargoyle face had driven him into a solitary life and to the reading tapes.
To a tape, it did not matter that Nik was only human-seeming from eye level to the top of his head with its tight curls of wiry hair the color of burnished jet. So he had fled into the world of the mind, soaking up materials upon which his imagination fed, so that he was able to lead another life — one he could summon up at need, perhaps as vivid as that a haluce drinker knew.
Sometimes nowadays Nik was more aware of that other life than he was of the Dipple, though a ripple of disquiet came like a half-heard warning now and then to disturb his dreaming. But he pressed that down, strove to rout it utterly. He had his dream world, and in it he was free! He clung to it passionately.
The need to return to his fantasy now drove him forth into the rain, and he scuttled from the barracks to the next building, the supply warehouse. The bored guard at the door did not see Nik flit by — he was an expert at finding hiding places. Seconds later he reached his latest one, a tiny opening through which he could squeeze, to wriggle up on some crates and lie on a ragged bit of blanket.
Nik stretched out. The layer of stuff beneath his sharp shoulder blades was not thick, but he was oblivious to the discomfort. The drum of rain on the roof not too far above him was soothing, and he closed his eyes, ready to plunge into his dream.
"— has to be right — all a one-time blast-off —"
Those words had no part in the fantasy Nik was creating. In themselves, they were only a minor disturbance, but something in the voice brought Nik's eyes open, made him listen.
"No move until we are sure —"
"And while we're sittin' on our fins waitin' for a take-off, the whole deal can turn sour — into a real bad burn-off —"
Nik hitched around on his pad and began a worm's progress to the end of the box from which he should be able to view the speakers. There was no light in the gloom below. The meeting had all the aspects of a private one. Of course, there were a good many undercurrents in the Dipple. This was not the first time Nik had been on the fringe of secrets or learned what could prove dangerous should his knowledge be discovered by others.
"I repeat — in this there can be no chances — not in the groundwork. It's too big to allow any off-course work. Do you understand that?"
Stowar! Nik could see the two figures below only as shadows among other shadows, but that one voice he knew. Stowar was big here in the Dipple — a king shark to such small predators as Moke and Brin. If a man could raise the price to buy into the Thieves' Guild and so open a door out of this rat hole, Stowar was the negotiator who carried out the deal. Stowar had things to sell, too — haluce and other drugs. He had contacts, they said clear up the Veeps of the half world on Korwar and even off-world, too.
Nik shivered. To eavesdrop on one of Stowar's little deals could be very dangerous. He dug his nails into the surface of the box on which he lay and tried to still his breathing, not daring to withdraw for fear they could hear his movements.
"All right — so no chances." The other sounded impatient and not a bit overawed by Stowar. "But that course's been plotted twice — an' each time it cost us a fistful. If we have to go to Margan again, he'll up the price on us. He's no fool, and he'll do a little thinking on his own."
"There are ways of dealing with Margan —"
"Yeah, and those wouldn't be healthy either. Meddle with Margan and you'll have the Brethren down with blasters out, ready to do some cookin'! Don't you planet crawlers ever forget that Margan is our man, and we'll cut in for him. We need Margan; he's the best course man in the business. This trick of yours is just one trip as far as the Brethren see it."
The Brethren! Nik's mind was wholly freed of the mist of fantasy now. Stowar could well have contacts with the Brethren — the space-borne section of the Thieves' Guild who sought their prey on loosely held frontier worlds. That meant this deal could be very big. Though Stowar might head the lawless element in the Dipple, to the Guild itself he was a small operator to whom the real Veeps threw the small crumbs.
"Commendable comment. But our friend here is right on one point. This is no time to come in for a two-fin landing, Bouvay —"
A third man down there! Nik tried to pick out his shadow, but he must be standing, out of sight, in the crack between the crate on which Nik himself perched and its fellow.
Stowar had been easy for Nik to identify because, seemingly indifferent to Nik's disfigurement, he had, from time to time, given the boy small tasks, Nik's only means of earning a credit or two to finance the purchase of new tapes.
"All right. But a third run with Margan will be suspicious — maybe make real trouble."
"We are duly warned," agreed the unknown in the crack. "You say we have five more days?"
"Five more days for this course. Then you wait three planet months before you can try again."
"So be it. We'll just have to wait it out."
"But —" Stowar began an instant protest.
"Five days — to find our man, to set up the whole plan? It can't be done. I've tried some so-called impossible things in my time, orbited in on one or two of them, too. But short of going into stass and taking all of Korwar with us, we're going to have to pass on this run and wait out those three months."
"And in the meantime" — Stowar's voice soared — "we can see i'Inad made some change to spoil everything. I say — much better make it a straight snatch —"
"Which is completely impossible," came a chill retort. "They have the ultimate in security. The pattern can't be broken by us except by the setup Heriharz has worked out. You yourself were urging caution just a moment ago, friend."
"Caution, reasonable caution, certainly. But every delay gives i'Inad a chance to counter us —"
There was a soft laugh from the dark alley. "Seems an impasse, doesn't it? But I have faith in the stars, Stowar. We'll either turn up our key or —"
"Or have to write it all off. Some tricks you can't pull ever. This is a dead rocket if I ever saw one."
"Your commander doesn't agree with you, Bouvay, but it's your privilege to cry off if you want."
Only a mutter replied to that. Nik tensed. That voice out of the dark carried a note of confidence rarely heard here. The diction was smooth, the tone authoritative. This was no Dipple dweller. Everyone knew that the Guild had their undercover men in the Planet Guard, among the port authorities, with the spacer crews. This man could well be one of them.
"Three months —" That was Stowar, but this time there was a resigned note in his voice. "And at the end of three months — if we have not found the right man?"
"Then we make some other decision. But FC says we will."
Some one of his listeners snorted. "Then why'n green blazes don't that tame machine tell us where to find him? Maybe he ain't on Korwar. Ever think of that?"
"The probabilities, according to FC, are that he is. Look about you, man — what's in a Dipple?"
"A bunch of dim beats as has had it!" returned Bouvay promptly.
"According to your estimation, yes. But on the other hand, right between these walls we have a big cross section of galactic races and types. When they swept up refugees and deportees and dropped them down here, there wasn't any sorting. We have inhabitants from forty worlds, survivors of ship disasters, a mixture such as you won't find anyplace else."
"Except in another Dipple," cut in Stowar.
"Just so. And where is the nearest other Dipple? On Kali, a good six-month flight from here. How long have we been sifting the stock right in front of us? About one month. FC says the probabilities are he is here; we just have to find him. And because you haven't turned up the proper combination yet, Stowar, is no reason that such a person does not exist."
"I know." The Dipple man sounded more confident. "You're right. If there's such a man, we ought to have him here. There's a mix as will turn up about anything. The only thing they've in common is that they all look human."
"That's the only factor he has to have," commented the unknown. "Our man has to register human or he can't get by the spy line. So, we practice patience and —"
Nik was startled. The speaker had stopped, almost in mid word. All Nik caught thereafter was a sharp hiss. The shadows that were Stowar and Bouvay had frozen. Nik listened. His mouth was dry, his heart beginning to sharpen its beat. Somehow he could sense a wariness, an alerting. Had they discovered him? But how could they —?
He cried out, tried to jerk free, kicking out with one foot, but the hold on his right ankle remained firm. It was as if his whole right leg was glued to the top of the crate. Then the power in the left suddenly failed. That leg lay beside the right, both now immovable. Thoroughly frightened, Nik tried to lever his half-dead body up by using his arms, only to have them fail him in turn. He was pinned to the surface under him as if he had never had any power to move.
Then he did move, but not by his own will. Stiff in his invisible bonds, his whole body rose from the crate and slid out over the open space where the men he had spied upon stood waiting for him. Shaking with a fear he could only control to the point of not screaming his terror aloud, Nik sank down, helpless to defend himself against any action they chose to take.
Nik was still descending when that fist snapped out of the general gloom and connected against his cheekbone with force enough to scramble his senses. He was aware dazedly of another blow. And then there was only darkness until light beat into him, and he tried to raise his hands to shield his eyes, blinded by the full glare of a torch.
"— you're away off orbit —"
"I don't think so. Look, man; just use your eyes for once!"
A painful grip on Nik's hair jerked his head closer to the light. He closed his eyes.
"Who is he, Stowar?"
"Just what Bouvay called him — a stack rat. Gives most of the people horrors, so he keeps out of sight."
"Sure — look at his face! Enough to turn your insides straight out of you! What do you mean about his being any good to us? Give him a blast and let it go at that. Put him outta his misery. He can't enjoy life lookin' like that."
"His face —" The voice from behind the torch sounded speculative. "That doesn't matter too much. What is important is that he's about the right size and age — or looks it anyway. It's just possible we have what we want. If he goes, there'll be no one to ask questions — he won't be missed."
"I don't believe you can use him!" Bouvay was emphatic.
"You don't have to. But I believe in luck, Bouvay, and it may be that Lady Luck is pushing comets across the board to us right now! Gyna can do wonders with raw material."
"Anyway, we'll have to do something with him." That was Stowar once more. "Stow him in the box there, and I'll send a couple of the boys to take him to my place. How long does this tie of yours last?"
"Not much longer, unless I want to burn out the unit."
"Fair enough. I'll just take care of that problem."
The last words Nik heard were those from Bouvay. For the second time he was struck and sagged back into the dark from which the torchlight had momentarily dragged him.
He was lying on a hard surface — the blanket must have been dragged from under him on the crate. And this was the first time he had come out of a dream with a badly aching head. Dream? But this had not been one of his visits to his secret world at all! Nik found thinking a shaky process, and the feeling of nausea, which, oddly enough, seemed located more in his painful head than his middle, swooped down into the proper section of his anatomy as he tried to move.
The patchwork of recent memories began to fit into a real pattern. He lay with closed eyes and forced himself to make those memories whole. The warehouse — and the three who met there — Stowar! Nik's suddenly tensing muscles hurt. He had been caught listening to some private plan of Stowar's!
Now he tried to make his ears serve to inform him on his present surroundings. He was lying on a hard surface — that much he already knew — but before he opened his eyes and so perhaps gave away his return to consciousness, he wanted to learn everything else he could.
There was a sound — a murmur that might be the rise and fall of voices from a distance. Now that he had himself in hand, Nik could use his nose, too. The faintly sweet smell — that was only one thing, Canbia wine. Just one inhabitant of the Dipple could afford Canbia — Stowar — so he was now in Stowar's quarters.
Excerpted from Night of Masks by Andre Norton. Copyright © 1964 Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Good plot with well developed characters.