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The Gods of Sagittarius: Chapter Nineteen
Last updated: Friday, April 21, 2017 18:57 EDT
The hatch opened, the ramp lowered, and Tabor and Shenoy began walking down to the ground.
“That must be a Paskapan,” suggested Shenoy, nodding toward the uniformed creature that stood a few feet from the ship. It was tripodal but possessed only two arms, it had two eyes and only one nostril in its flat noseless face, it had coarse hair on its cheeks but none on its head, and when it smiled at them it flashed a set of bright orange teeth.
“Welcome to Cornfield!” it greeted them with a snappy salute.
“Cornwallis IV,” replied Shenoy.
“Whatever,” said the Paskapan with a shrug. It held out a six-fingered hand. “May I have your disembarkation fee, please?”
“I beg your pardon?” said Shenoy, frowning.
“Five credits each,” said the Paskapan.
“But we just paid thirty crugmos to land,” complained Shenoy.
“True,” agreed the Paskapan. “And if you wish to remain in your ship for the duration of your stay, then indeed you owe us nothing further.”
“Forget it,” said Tabor, pulling a ten-credit note out of his pocket and handing it over. “My treat.”
“Thank you,” said the Paskapan.
“You guys move from crugmos to credits pretty damned fast,” continued Tabor.
“If you wish to pay in crugmos that will be perfectly acceptable,” was the reply. “But I can’t do the math.”
“Forget it. Let’s just get this show on the road.”
“Ah! You want a road?” replied the Paskapan. “Then you will need a vehicle. They are available for –”
“Figure of speech,” said Tabor. He looked around at the mostly-empty spaceport. “What now?”
“Now you pass through Customs, of course, and then Pippibwali will be your guide and intermediary.”
“We don’t want a guide,” said Shenoy.
“Certainly you do,” said the Paskapan.
“I have expensive maps of the planet, plus reports from previous expeditions,” said Shenoy. “We really do not need a guide.”
The Paskapan shrugged. “Well, if you think you can afford it . . . ”
“Afford what?” demanded Shenoy.
“Not having a guide.”
“I don’t believe I’m following you,” said Shenoy, frowning.
“You don’t follow me, good sir. You will follow Pippibwali.”
“Let me see if I’ve got this right,” said Shenoy. “It will cost us more to go out alone than with a guide?”
“That is the dumbest thing I ever heard!” growled Shenoy.
“Quite the contrary,” responded the Paskapan. “If I were a visitor, I might well feel the way you do. But as an inhabitant of Cornstalk, I believe in making every effort to achieve full employment.”
Shenoy turned to Tabor. #8220;What do you think, Russ?”
“I think it makes sense that they have three legs,” answered Tabor with a sardonic smile.
“I beg your pardon?”
“It would make sense to any Finn.”
“Ah,” said Shenoy, nodding in agreement. “It would at that.”
“Follow me, please,” said the Paskapan. “We’re wasting time.”
“And time is money, right?” said Tabor.
The Paskapan shot him the equivalent of a smile. “I like that!” he said. “Brilliant, witty, incisive. I think I shall begin using it.”
“Ten credits per usage,” said Tabor.
The smile was replaced by a frown. “You’re assimilating too damned fast,” he growled, leading them to a small building perhaps one hundred yards away.
They entered, and walked up to a counter, where a uniformed Paskapan was awaiting them.
“Welcome to . . . whatever you call this place in your primitive tongue,” he said. “May I see your passports, please?”
Shenoy and Tabor each placed his right hand on the counter.
“I am waiting,” said the Customs officer.
“We’re presenting them, damn it!” snapped Shenoy.
“All I see are your hands.”
“Well, what the hell did you expect to see?” demanded Shenoy. “Our passport chips have been inserted in the back of our hands. This is commonplace all across the galaxy. Surely you have a machine that can read them.”
“Ah!” said the Customs officer. “You want me to activate the machine!”
“If that’s what it takes for us to pass through here and be on our way, then of course I want you to do whatever is necessary!”
“Here it comes,” whispered Tabor to Shenoy.
“It is a very complex machine,” explained the Customs officer, “and uses an inordinate amount of power.”
“How much?” asked Shenoy wearily.
“How much power?” repeated the Customs officer. “Would that be measured in ergs, quapostes, morsimmots, or perhaps in?”
“How much will it cost?”
“Your race uses credits, does it not?”
Tabor resisted an urge to name an ancient currency such as dollars or rubles. “Yeah, credits.”
“Five thousand credits,” said the Customs officer.
“Fuck it!” snapped Tabor. “We’re going home!”
Shenoy turned to him in shock, but Tabor winked at him.
“Just a minute!” said the Customs officer hastily. “I misread the decimal point. The fee is fifty credits.”
Tabor turned his back and took two steps toward the door. “And for your inconvenience, this one time the fee is five credits.”
Tabor smiled, waited until he could present a straight face again, then turned around, walked back to the counter, and laid a five-credit note on it.
“You look so honest we’ll forego passport inspection and all other formalities,” announced the Customs officer. “Just pass right through that doorway, and you’ll find your guide waiting on the other side of it.”
“Thank you,” said Shenoy, heading forward the doorway. “And as for the five-credit fee, don’t worry. Our lips are sealed.”
Shenoy nodded. “Absolutely.”
“I could sell you sold antiseptic balm that is almost guaranteed to unseal them for just twenty credits.”
“Some other time,” said Tabor, taking Shenoy by the arm and leading him through the doorway.
A Paskapan was awaiting them, and immediately gave them a salute.
Well, at least his hand’s not out reaching for money, thought Tabor.
“Greetings, honored sirs,” said the Paskapan. “I am Pippibwali.”
“I’m Tabor, and this gentleman is Sir Rupert.”
“It will be my pleasure to show you around Corncob,” said Pippibwali.
“Last time you mentioned it, it was Cornfield,” said Tabor.
“And we explained that it was Cornwallis IV. But why don’t we call it what your people call it?”
“That’s very considerate of you,” answered Pippibwali, “but of course you couldn’t pronounce it.”
“Very well,” said the Paskapan. “It is Bort.”
“Bort?” repeated Tabor with a frown.
“Oh, very good, sir!”
“You must not think very much of us if you thought we couldn’t pronounce a word like Bort.”
“It’s Bord, sir.”
“I could have sworn you said Bort,” replied Tabor.
“I did,” replied Pippibwali.
“It changes a lot,” answered Pippibwali. “Linguistic evolution in action, you might say.”
“You might say it,” said Tabor.
“I just did.”
“All right. We’re here to see certain parts of Bord.”
“It’s Born now, sir,” replied Pippibwali.
Tabor resisted the urge to take a swing at the Paskapan. “Just for convenience we’re going to continue referring to it as Bort.”
“If you insist, sir, but ”
“And if you tell me there’s a charge for calling it Bort, I will cut your heart out and happily pay that penalty instead.”
“Bort it is, sir!” said Pippibwali hastily. “Bort it is.”
“Thanks, Pippi,” said Tabor. “I’m glad to see we understand each other.”
“If you think my name is Pippi, we do not understand each other as well as you think, sir.”
“We’ll live with the inconvenience,” said Tabor. “Now, we’re going to need lodgings tonight before setting out.”
“Certainly, sir. I know just the place.”
“And I would be very annoyed if I were to find out that you received a fee for recommending this particular lodging over all others.” He shot Pippi a humorless smile. “Do we understand each other?”
“Absolutely,” replied the Paskapan. “But I want you to know that I am not responsible for some of our trifling little rules and regulations.”
“We’ll take that into consideration,” said Tabor. “Now let’s get to our lodging.”
“Certainly, sir,” said Pippi. Then: “Do you sleep burrowed in the ground?”
“Hanging upside down?”
“Certainly not,” said Shenoy.
“Well, then, perhaps . . . ”
“Wouldn’t it save time if you just asked us?” said Tabor.
“A splendid suggestion, sir!” said Pippi. “What accommodation would you find most copasetic?”
“You know what a bed is?”
“I believe so, sir.”
“Describe it for me, so I’ll know we’re on the same page.”
“We’re on the street, sir,” replied Pippi.
“Just do it!” snapped Tabor.
The Paskapan described a bed.
“Very close,” said Tabor. “But they’re on a stand, not on the floor. Am I going to have to describe a bathroom to you?”
“A room for bathing?” suggested Pippi.
“Never mind,” interjected Shenoy. He turned to Tabor. “If they’ve got beds, they’ve got bathrooms or the equivalent, and I’d like to get there before morning.”
“Okay, Pippi,” said Tabor. “Lead the way.”
They proceeded down the street, that seemed to twist and curve for no discernable reason, and after they’d passed some two dozen buildings, including a few with no doors or windows, they stopped at what looked like a farmhouse out of ancient America’s Midwest.
“Here we are, sirs,” announced Pippi. “You will register at the desk in the front, and I shall be on call all night.”
“Let me guess,” said Tabor. “You never sleep.”
“Not so, sir,” said Pippi. “I sleep whenever I’m not employed.”
The three of them entered the house, and Pippi stood aside while the two men approached the desk.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome!” enthused the Paskapan behind the desk. “We shall do everything within our power to make your stay on Budaline enjoyable.”
Shenoy frowned. “Budaline?”
“Oh, dear, I’ve made a mistake.” The Paskapan innkeeper peered intently at him. “Shamoran? No, that’s not right.” He leaned forward until his face was just inches from Shenoy’s. “Ah!” he cried happily. “You’re humans! Welcome to Cornwell!”
“Thank you,” said Shenoy, who saw no sense in correcting him.
“And how long will you be staying with us?”
“With the hotel? Just tonight.”
“All right,” said the Paskapan. He touched a hidden button, which was followed by a whirring sound, and suddenly a printed piece of paper appeared on the desk, followed by eleven more.
“What is this?” asked Shenoy.
“Why, your guest registration form, of course.”
“I know it seems incomplete,” apologized the innkeeper, “but you’re only staying one night. If you were here for longer, we would of course be more thorough.”
“All right, all right,” muttered Shenoy. “Show us to our room and I’ll fill it out there.”
“I can’t do that, sir. You might be aliens. I need the form first.”
“We are aliens, goddammit!”
“I mean, undesirable aliens,” replied the Paskapan.
Tabor snarled. “You want undesirable aliens, just try to keep us down here for the length of time it takes to fill your fucking form out!”
“On the other hand,” said the Paskapan quickly, “we’re all friends here, are we not, so surely it can’t hurt to bend one little regulation.”
“You’ve no idea how much it might hurt not to bend it,” said Tabor.
“Down the hall, third room on the left,” said the innkeeper.
“And you’ll want a key.”
Tabor stuck out his hand. “Let’s have it.”
“Would you prefer a paper, glass, or cheap metal one, sir?” said the Paskapan.
“What’s the difference?”
“The paper one is half a credit, the glass one is half a credit, and the cheap metal one is ten credits.” He paused. “I would recommend the cheap metal one. The paper one tends to tear on first use, and I can’t recall the glass one ever not shattering when turned in the lock.”
“May I ask a question?” said Shenoy.
“Most certainly, sir.”
“Have you ever had a repeat customer?”
“Not to my knowledge,” admitted the innkeeper. “But I’ve only worked here for seventeen years.”
“Before we pay for a key, I want to make sure it works,” said Tabor. “Show us.”
“That’s a most unusual request,” said the Paskapan. “I don’t know . . . ”
“If you don’t demonstrate it, I’ll assume that the key doesn’t work and report you to the authorities.”
The Paskapan shrugged. “Very well, sir. We certainly don’t need to trouble the authorities.”
“They’re probably too busy counting their money,” muttered Tabor under his breath as the innkeeper came out from behind his counter and led them down the corridor. He paused before the third door on the left, inserted the key, a musical note chimed, and the door swung open.
“Okay, it works,” said Tabor.
“Will there be anything else, sir?”
“Yeah,” said Tabor. “Close the door.”
The innkeeper shot him a puzzled look. “Close it?”
The innkeeper shrugged, reached a hand out, and pulled the door shut.
“Now open it again.”
“Certainly,” said the innkeeper. “But you can do it yourself, sir. It’s not locked.” He reached out and opened the door.
“Very good,” said Tabor. “I’m quite impressed. This seems like an ideal place to spend the night.”
“Fine,” said the Paskapan. “Now, if I may trouble you for ten credits, I will turn the key over to you and return to my station.”
“Not necessary,” said Tabor.
“I beg your pardon?”
“Keep the key. You’ve got an honest face. I have boundless faith in this place and the integrity of the staff.”
“But this is unheard-of!” protested the innkeeper.
“Shall I say it louder?”
“No one has ever refused a key before!”
“Oh, I’m sure we’ll be safe even with the door unlocked,” said Tabor. R#8220;And if anyone dares to enter our room while we’re in it” — he waved his large fist in front of the innkeeper’s face — “you just tell us how Paskapans dispose of their dead and we’ll be happy to lend a hand.”
“Yes, sir. Very good, sir. As you wish, sir.”
“And tell Pippi to be waiting for us an hour after sunrise.”
“Uh . . . I am unfamiliar with that measurement. How long is that in local time, sir?”
Tabor smiled at him. “You and Pippi will have all night to figure it out.”
“Yes, sir. One something after sunrise.”
“Good,” said Tabor, opening the door. “We don’t wish to be disturbed before then.”
“Absolutely, sir!” said the innkeeper. Suddenly his complexion darkened several shades. “I mean, absolutely not, sir!” he shouted as he turned and ran back to his desk.
Shenoy followed Tabor into the room and shut the door behind them.
“What do you think?” asked the older man.
“I think the Old Ones and their artifacts had better be as valuable as you hope they are,” replied Tabor grimly. “This expedition has already cost the life of your assistant Basil and we can only hope that Andrea survived whatever stuck her down.”
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