The Killing Machine

The Killing Machine (1964) is a science fiction novel by American writer Jack Vance, the second in his "Demon Princes" series, in which Kirth Gersen, having brought arch-villain Malagate the Woe to justice, sets his sights on Kokor Hekkus, another of the Demon Princes.[1] The name Kokor Hekkus, which means "killing machine" in the language of the planet Thamber, does not refer to Hekkus's own predilection for homicide, but to his fondness for horrific and murderous devices, including the giant robotic executioner that first gained him his nickname.

The Killing Machine
First edition cover of The Killing Machine
AuthorJack Vance
Cover artistRichard M. Powers
CountryUnited States
SeriesDemon Princes
GenreScience fiction
PublisherBerkley Books
Publication date
Media typePrint (Paperback)
Preceded byStar King 
Followed byThe Palace of Love 

Plot summary

To hone his skills, Gersen spends time as a "weasel", a police spy in the lawless Beyond. He is sent to disrupt a meeting between a known criminal named Billy Windle and a Mr Hoskins, with license to kill if necessary. Hoskins is killed, though not by Gersen, who recovers two torn pieces of paper that were being exchanged. One paper provides information on how to become a “hormagaunt,” an undying monster that steals children and lives on the mythical planet Thamber, and the other paper contains technical specifications that Gersen does not understand.

Gersen is made aware that Billy Windle was Kokor Hekkus. He then learns that Hekkus is masterminding a series of kidnappings. The victims are taken to Interchange, a planet in the Beyond, where exchanges between kidnappers and ransomers are facilitated. Gersen learns that the latest victims are the children of Duschane Audmar, a high-ranking Fellow of the powerful Institute, who must remain aloof under all circumstances. Gersen convinces him to finance a fact-finding mission to learn more of Hekkus's activities and to ransom the children.[2]

Gersen learns that Hekkus accumulates funds to ransom a young woman named Alusz Iphigenia Eperje-Tokay who claims to be from Thamber; she fled her homeworld when Hekkus became interested in her and settled on Interchange as her only refuge, since even he would not dare interfere with the organization. She had set her ransom at 10 billion SVU. Hekkus is raising the sum by kidnapping the loved ones of the Oikumene's hundred wealthiest citizens, ransoming them for a hundred million apiece.

Gersen also meets Myron Patch, an engineer from Krokinole. Patch had built Hekkus a walking “fort” in the form of a dnazd, a many-legged monster native to Thamber; but when Hekkus was dissatisfied with the result, Patch refused to refund the money already paid, and was kidnapped and shipped to Interchange to recover the sum. Gersen ransoms him as well as the Audmar children, and temporarily takes a controlling interest in his engineering company.

He determines to lure Hekkus within his reach, and has ideas how to correct the faults in the dnazd's walking mechanism. Gersen demands more money from Hekkus's agent Seuman Otwal for the alterations, but when it is time to deliver the completed fort, Gersen is captured and ordered to repay the money; when he cannot, he is dispatched to Interchange.

While there, Gersen sees an old newspaper article that identifies Mr Hoskins as a senior bank official. He recalls the cryptic fragment of paper he recovered earlier and surmises that it describes marks used to authenticate banknotes. He forges enough money to free himself and returns with more forged currency to ransom Alusz Iphigenia. She receives a bank draft for the ransom (minus Interchange's fee), which Gersen promptly exchanges for real currency – the ransoms so far accumulated by Kokor Hekkus. He gloats to Alusz Iphigenia that his counterfeits were made with bleach, and would soon become obviously worthless; Interchange is ruined, and Kokor Hekkus's kidnappings have been for nothing. Since she is uninterested in the money, Gersen becomes fabulously wealthy.

Gersen hopes that Alusz Iphigenia will be able to guide him to Thamber. She has no knowledge of astrogation but is able to complete a nursery rhyme that allows Gersen to deduce the planet's location.

Thamber is home to a quasi-medieval culture with barbarian tribes into whose hands Gersen and Alusz Iphigenia fall. He fights the leader of a war-band to save her from sexual slavery, and they accompany the warriors to Kokor Hekkus's castle. There the barbarians easily defeat Hekkus's foot soldiers, but then Patch's mechanical dnazd appears and the barbarians flee in panic before it. Gersen, however, had foreseen the possibility of facing Patch's creation and had installed an Achilles heel. He disables the war machine and takes its crew prisoner, in the process noting that one of the men aboard, Franz Paderbush, resembles Seuman Otwal and also Billy Windle, in height and build.

He takes the fort to the castle of Sion Trumble, who was once Alusz Iphigenia's fiancé. Trumble offers the services of a friend who knows Kokor Hekkus, but the man denies that he is Paderbush. Gersen has his suspicions and allows his prisoner to escape, but then forces his way into Trumble's private quarters. There he finds Paderbush in the process of transforming himself into Trumble, for they are one and the same, and both are alter-egos of Kokor Hekkus. Hekkus has no face, having concealed his hideous un-face beneath a series of masks. Gersen identifies himself, reminds Hekkus of the Mount Pleasant raid in which his home was destroyed and nearly all of his family killed, and kills him. He then returns to the Oikumene accompanied by Alusz Iphigenia, promising to send ships to bring Thamber back into contact with the rest of humanity.


  1. Underwood, Tim; Chuck Miller (1980). Jack Vance. New York: Taplinger Publishing Company. p. 228. ISBN 0-8008-4295-2.
  2. Review: The Killing Machine by Jack Vance | Tales from the Bookworm's Lair
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