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The Shaman of Karres: Chapter Five

       Last updated: Monday, March 23, 2020 20:24 EDT

 


 

Captain Pausert found himself up before Judge Amorant — very briefly. The judge wasn’t much interested in keeping them in prison. Unfortunately the prosecutor was not of the same mind. “I see no reason why bail should not be granted,” said the judge, looking at the papers.

“Your Honor, they pose a serious flight risk. They have a spacecraft, and nothing to lose,” said the prosecutor.

The judge sighed. “Bail is granted with the conditional limitation that the prisoners not be permitted to pass though the spaceport air-lock. Bail is set at ten thousand maels. Settle it with the clerk or be returned to jail. Dismissed.”

So they filed out, with Captain Pausert wondering what to do now. They could draw ten thousand maels on the Venture‘s account with the Daal’s Bank. But the Leewit wasn’t going to sit patiently and wait. He could, possibly, use the Egger route, a way of transporting himself outside of space and time, but he didn’t think he could deal with doing so without help and also transporting the other two. And he couldn’t exactly leave them here. He paid the bail to buy time to think about it.

They were met outside the court by a rather grave-faced Chief-Inspector. “I am sorry about that,” said the policewoman awkwardly. “I should have anticipated that the prosecutor would try to stop bail and Judge Amorant would meet them half way. He makes an effort to be seen as fair. The best I can do is to offer to let you use the communicator in my office. Look, the young lady would be entirely free to leave the ship, to come to you. My officer reports he’s done a thorough search, found nothing and he’s desperate to escape another poker game. He wants to know who taught her to play cards.”

Pausert couldn’t help but laugh at the thought of the Leewit fleecing a green policeman. “That would be your fault, Vezzarn,” he said to the old spacer. “He taught both of my nieces.” In turning to look at the old spacer, Pausert noticed something odd — the scarecrow who had been put in the cell with them was also there. He blinked but said nothing about it. “I’ll take you up on your offer of being able to talk to my niece,” was all he said. 

 So the Chief-Inspector took Pausert and Ta’zara up to his office. Vezzarn said: “I’ll just as soon wait out here, Captain. Police offices make me nervous.”   

“They might ask where you learned to play cards,” said the captain, waving. He noticed the scarecrow man was still there. They went in and soon were talking to the Leewit — with a slightly alarmed looking policeman in the background. “Reckon I’ll stay put, so long as I know you’re all right,” she said, firmly, when he’d explained the situation, sounding very like her older sister, and giving Pausert a brief twinge of heart-sore. “But this fellow c’n leave,” she gestured at the policeman, “if you want him to. I’ve gotten all the money he had in his wallet, and I won’t take IOUs.” She looked at the Chief-Inspector. “You should pay him better.”

The captain was getting better at reading the Leewit by now. Good enough at it to figure out that there was something that she wasn’t saying in front of the policeman, and that she wanted him out of the Venture. So he played along. “All right. I suppose so,” he said with a suitable show of reluctance. “You can let him out then.”

“Right, Captain. I’ll be seeing you, soon. You give me a bollem-call, when you get here. Out,” said the Leewit.

“A bollem-call?” asked the Chief Inspector.

She was quick, Pausert thought. “A hunting call from our home world,” he explained, which was true, but didn’t explain just how it worked.

“Well, you’re free to come and use the communicator until the case, Captain,” she said. “I’ll be glad to have my assistant back. Now, you’ll need to find someplace to stay. I gather you have sufficient funds?”

“I guess I’ll need them,” said Pausert.

The Chief-Inspector grimaced. “Yes. The Boromir is good and clean — about the best medium priced of the accommodations. Otherwise the Deward is the most expensive, and there are whole rows of flop-houses along the Airlock-roads. The closer you get to each lock, the more likely you are to get robbed, especially if you’re drunk. I can take you anywhere you want to go, except the spaceport.”

“We’ll find our own way,” said Captain Pausert. “We’ve got time and it’s not like we could go anywhere before the trial.”

“True,” said the Chief-Inspector and let them go on their way.

Outside they found Vezzarn, and the fellow who had been put in their cell. Now Pausert could finally ask him: “What are you doing here?”

The man grinned disarmingly. “They let me out along ‘o you. So I just follered along. And it’s too late to get back in jail for a sleep now. ‘sides I come down and woke up, and listened to the Judge and that there prosecutor. You ain’t bonded to no-one are you?”

“No,” admitted Pausert. “My ship is sitting on the landing ground outside the spaceport⦔

“Captain!” They were hailed from across the street by someone with a familiar face — Pausert recognized the man as the lean planar-faced fellow, Farnal, whom they’d rescued. He was standing in a group of the freed pirate slaves.

“Hello,” said Pausert, slightly warily.

“Captain,” said the man, hands out in appeal, “is there any chance of taking us as passengers to any other world? These poor souls don’t have access to funds, and if they stay here, they’ll be little more than slaves. I can pay, but⦠not a great deal.” 

“Please, Captain?” said one of the women. “There’s not much work here a decent woman can do, and this place is so expensive. We’ll never get out. I’ve got a family on Marcott.”

Pausert sighed. “Right now I am as stuck as you are, good folk. I’ve been charged with piracy and theft by that fellow Stratel that we rescued with you. I can’t go back to my ship until the case is heard.”

“What?” exclaimed Farnal, “That worm!”

“Pretty good description,” agreed Pausert. “The local police seem sure we’ll get off, but then, they were sure we could go back to the ship too. If we do get off, well, the ship could manage twenty people. It’d be uncomfortable and crowded, but there has to be another Empire world close by where at least you can breathe the air within a week or two.”

Farnal seized his hands. “Captain. You are a good man. I⦠I had no idea what happened here in the Empire. It is more rotten than I believed.”

“Where are you from then?” asked the captain, who knew, but was fishing.

“Iradalia. I was on a mission to investigate the slave trade, particularly the traffic through Karoda.” He almost spat that word out.

Pausert was glad the other rescuers were all talking at once. Karoda and Iradalia!  There was something very odd about that. “How long do have before the case, Captain?” asked someone in the hubbub.

“Four days,” he answered. “I gather we’ve been pushed up the roll.”

“Four days!” The woman who had exclaimed, shivered. There had been a limit to what the crew of the Venture 7333 could do about the rescued people’s clothing — and the slave-takers hadn’t cared. It was easy enough on the ship to turn the heating up but here⦠well, evening was coming on and it was already cooler. They might be in an enclosed dome, but plainly the sun did some of the warming of this environment.

“We will make some kind of plan, Salla,” said the gaunt man, looking worried nonetheless. He’d plainly taken on responsibility for the group. They had neither the money nor mental fortitude to do it for themselves.

Pausert felt sorry for them, but that was the difference between these, and Karres people. Karres witches, with or without klatha skills, would have made their own plans. “You could get arrested, and spend the night in jail,” he suggested. “I gather it’s the best and safest place to sleep around here.”

“And they give you breakfast,” volunteered the scarecrow local. “Just korma porridge, but it don’t cost anything and it is food.”

Their planar-faced leader looked somewhat taken aback. “I have never broken the law⦔

“I think,” said Ta’zara with that gravelly firmness that quelled the other voices, “That you should go into that police station there, and ask for Chief-Inspector Salman. Tell her that someone threatened to harm you if you were to talk about the space rescue. Then she will have to protect you as witnesses.”

 



 

“What?” said the Planar-faced man, looking puzzled.

“I c’n threaten you!” offered the scarecrow, generously.

“And I too,” said Ta’zara. “You are afraid, because I was a threat on the ship. And now you have seen me on the streets.”

“But⦠but you aren’t dangerous. I mean you were just helping to keep order,” said one of the people they’d rescued.”

“But I am dangerous. The most dangerous man you may ever meet,” said Ta’zara calmly. “It is to whom I am dangerous that you do not know. But the police will believe you. They want to. And then you can testify at the case.”

“Let us do this,” said their leader. “I do not like to bend the truth, but I can see that it will serve us all and justice best in the long run.”

So the group of rescued passengers headed toward the police station, which gave Pausert and his companions a chance to move away. “You know, Captain, once that prosecutor gets back to that Stratel fellow, they probably will be looking for witnesses against us. And possibly trying to get us back in jail,” said Vezzarn nervously. “I know the type. It’s how they work, Captain.”

“Yes,” said Pausert. “They’ll certainly try to arrest Ta’zara. For menaces. You just gave them reason, Ta’zara.”

“But you are planning to get us back onto the ship, Captain,” said Ta’zara, imperturbably. “You and the Leewit.”

The captain shook his head. “I just hope the police don’t read me as well as you do. I was planning to fly off and leave them to it, but maybe I need to re-think this. In the light of something that came up.”

“I know how you call bollems,” said Ta’zara, with just a hint of a smile. “How do you plan to do this, Captain?”

The captain looked at the scarecrow-gatherer, who was in a conversation with Vezzarn — a conversation that involved lots of wild gestures. He seemed very busy with it. “I was going to pay him to lead us around, outside, to the ship.”

 Ta’zara nodded. “He drinks too much, Captain. Also uses some kind of narcotic drug. He may be less than reliable.”

“Yes. But he’s not young. And it is tough out there, I gather. He’s still alive, so he must be quite good at it. And all we have to do is take a walk around the domes. I can get us in to the field with the ship.”

Later, in a small eatery that the gatherer recommended as cheap but good, with prices that made Captain Pausert’s frugal Nikkeldepain upbringing reel. They put this to the gatherer and discovered they were wrong about just walking. The gatherer, whose name it turned out was Nady, just laughed.

“So it can’t be done?” asked the captain, wondering if, with his klatha skills and Vezzarn’s mastery of lock-picking, and Ta’zara being something of a one man army, they could get through the spaceport itself.

“Well now, it’s not that it cain’t be done. You cain’t just walk around. You’d have to go down North Valley, and over Kassarite pass, ‘n down Jagged-Ferd Gorge. And then the port’s got a wall around it, to keep the porpentiles out. I could get you that far. But you cain’t get through the wall, and it’s got detectors along the top.”

“You get us there, we’ll deal with that,” said the captain.

“Oh, I c’n do that. But you’re gu-nna have to kit up. You’ll die in them clothes.”

“How much?” asked Vezzarn. He’d dealt with enough smuggling operations in the past, Pausert knew. He’d be the best to negotiate a deal.

Nady rubbed the side of his long bony red-tipped nose, thoughtfully. “You really reckon you can do it? Well, then. I reckon I c’n do you a deal. Less we talk about here⦔ He looked around warily, “the better. Come on. Let’s get moving.”

So they did, trooping out after him. He seemed in a tearing hurry, suddenly. “We are being followed,” said Ta’zara, quietly.

Nady looked back and swore. “It’s some of that Kranslit Bormgo’s goons.”

“Let us go down this little side walkway,” Ta’zara, calmly, steering him by an elbow.

“But it’s a dead end,” protested Nady.

“Perfect. It will not take long,” said Ta’zara. “Wait.”

Their two followers came around the corner hastily, looking for them. And then, they saw Ta’zara detach himself from the wall he’d been leaning against — between them and the way out. They were big, heavy-set men. One man behind them didn’t seem to worry them that much. One of the two reached for a pocket⦠but his hand never gotten there. The Na’kalauf bodyguard moved so smoothly it was actually deceptive. It didn’t look fast, but he somehow chopped down hard on the reaching forearm, and then literally banged their heads together. As they fell, he reached out to squeeze something in their necks. Squeeze and hold, until he dropped them. “We can leave now,” he said.

“Great Patham!” exclaimed Nady. “I ain’t picking fights with you, broad-feller. Let’s go quick before their friends find ’em.”

So they followed, into a somewhat more seedy area, the apartment blocks going right up to the dome. He led them into one of these. Up flight after flight of stairs, leaving Vezzarn panting, and even the captain breathing a bit harder. Sitting in a command chair kept your wits fit, not your legs. Eventually they stopped at a very ordinary looking door. Their guide knocked on it, a complicated pattern of taps. A voice spoke through the speaker grill. “Who is it?”

“Nady Darrish. I’ve come about the pipes.”

There was a pause. And then the wall behind them swung open — not the door. “This way,” said Nady. “Quick. She don’t keep it open long.”

They went in down a passage and up yet another stair, through what was plainly a blast-door from a space-craft. It swung open as they gotten there to reveal a neat office, as might have belonged to any minor businessman. That was a bit worrying, Pausert thought. It was plain they were dealing with some kind of criminal, and he’d had concluded after his various experiences that the really powerful ones tried not to look it.

The woman sitting at the desk didn’t look at all criminal. Her age was hard to guess, but it was somewhere between thirty and fifty. She was perfectly made-up, neat hair, good clothing but not too revealing. She had the kind of face which said to a smart gambler: do not play cards with me. And behind her stood another Na’kalauf warrior, plainly her bodyguard. Neither the man nor Ta’zara gave any sign of recognizing or even acknowledging the other.

“Ah. The spaceship captain and his associates. Well done, Nady,” said the woman.

“And you are?” asked Pausert.

“I am Me’a,” she said with just a hint of a wry smile. “Don’t cross me, or you will regret it.”

“I actually don’t want to cross you at all. I just want out of this dome and back to my ship,” said the captain.

“And I want to know exactly what is going on,” she answered. “So perhaps if you help me, I can try help you. Although I am not sure even I can get you through the spaceport locks.”

“They was talkin’ about going around outside,” said Nady. “Seemed to think they could get through the wall.”

She looked at them. “That would be worth doing, if you could get back into your ship once you were there. We’ve thought about it.”

“Why haven’t you done it?” asked the captain. He was sure now that he’d landed up right among the smugglers. That could be tricky, as he really didn’t need the police regarding him as a prime suspect after all. She was undoubtedly dangerous, and she had a bodyguard who was also a Na’kalauf warrior.

She shrugged. “Most ships are not allowed to remain long. Daytime landings only. And the perimeter wall has heat and sound sensors in it, so cutters and explosives cannot be used. They used to have infrared scanners on the field, but the system broke down — and they hadn’t ever had an incident, so they didn’t bother to replace it.” She grimaced slightly. “We keep a close eye on what they have. There are easier ways for small volumes. They would not work well on people⦠Captain Pausert.”

Pausert wondered if he should try a klatha cocoon on her, or the bodyguard. “How did you know that?” he said as calmly as he could.

 



 

        “Sub-radio, a coded narrow-beam. When your ship landed and I obtained a picture of her, details of the crew and vid image of you and Ta’zara. I sent the details through to my employer, Sedmon of the Six Lives. He guessed Karres would become involved, and he warned me to give you my fullest cooperation.”

        “Oh.” That made a kind of sense. Uldune was still heavily involved in smuggling, even if it had — at least for now — withdrawn from piracy. And it seemed this was a very lucrative trade. “You may not believe this, but we really are here by the purest accident.”

        “You are quite correct,” said the woman. “I would not believe you. But you may tell me anyway. Let me have drinks brought. Sit down, make yourselves comfortable.” She looked at Nady. “I think you can remain too. You may be needed, and you know the consequences of not keeping your mouth shut.”

        So the captain and Vezzarn sat down on the comfortable chairs. Nady perched uneasily on the edge of another. Ta’zara remained standing — as did her bodyguard, impassive, aloof⦠and watching. Pausert noticed her flickering glance at her own guard, and the tiniest shake of his head. A side door opened and a servitor brought Lepti liquor for Pausert, a fruit drink that Pausert had seen the Na’kalauf bodyguard drink before, as well as something that plainly pleased Nady. A platter of various nuts and small salted biscuits was set on the table. Lepti⦠which was his favorite liquor. They were all too well informed, thought Pausert. But at least it was very unlikely that Sedmon of the Six Lives would move against Karres. The witches disquieted the hexaperson into a degree of good behavior.

        A strange lithe little head popped out of Nady’s collar. It made a curious growling chirrup.

        The woman sighed, pursed her lips and shook her head. “You have one of those too, do you? Get it some Tar-fish, Palank.” The servitor nodded and returned in a few minutes with some little cubes of fishy smelling something. The creature appeared again and almost seemed to flow out of the top of Nady’s shirt. He stroked its mauve fur as it moved. At first Pausert assumed it didn’t have legs — but something was definitely moving under the fur. It moved as if it were gliding just above the ground, across to the platter, snatched up two pieces of the fish in its beakish maw and returned equally silently to Nady’s shirt collar, to disappear again. Nobody else seemed to find that unusual. The servitor took the rest of the cubes away, which was a good thing, because they were more than just a little smelly.

        “So,” said Me’a. “Tell me what brings you to Cinderby’s World?

        So Pausert did, minus one or two details about the klatha use. She noticed, he’d bet.

        At the end of it all, she nodded slowly. “So: petty vengeance for not treating him like nobility. And taking it out on an available target, even though you weren’t the one who did it to him. That’s Stratel all over. And insurance fraud. Well, well, well. The Daal will be pleased about that. We had not successfully re-insured those cargos.”

        “Uldune insures them?” asked the captain, faintly surprised.

        She gave a small snort. “Of course. Banking is not the only form of robbery. And who better? We can often recover the goods, at a fraction of the cost of replacement. I think we will shortly be talking with some of Bormgo’s employees. I suppose the crisis has forced his hand into piracy.”

        “What crisis?” There was that prickle again. Something important had just been said.

        “The shortage of catalyst granules. The Imperials think that the Consortium — Stratel, Bormgo Wenerside and Ratneurt — are hoarding to control the price. They have done in the past. That is why they’ve sent some of their top enforcement officials here.”

        “But there just ain’t much out there,” said Nady. “They don’t believe it, but it’s true. They ain’t producing. Used ter be you could follow a tumble-flower for a week and so long as the porpentiles didn’t get you, you had a pouch-full. Now it could take you a month. Every now and again yer get a good one, but it just ain’t like it uster be.”

        “The records we’ve been able to steal show the industry has been in a slow decline for centuries — but it’s only been in the last twenty years that it has really gone down fast, and the price of catalyst granules up through the roof. The gatherers used to work within sight of the spaceport. Now they’re going more than fifty times that distance, to the end of the Mount Lofty range and further.”

        “And there ain’t nothing out there. Just a chance to get onto the tumbleflowers coming in first,” said Nady.

        “So these tumbleflowers, don’t you get them in other places?”

        “Oh, yes. Planetary surveys show them as occurring just about anywhere. They’re very scattered, though. They tend to concentrate here because the mountains make an enormous wind-funnel. Early records of the spaceport record them piling in the thousands against the dome. Of course when the wind drops they walk away.”

        “I see,” said the captain, who really didn’t. “Anyway. Can you help us get back to our ship? I really need to talk to⦠ah, someone on board.”

        “Goth, or someone referred to as ‘the Leewit’,” said Me’a, knowledgably.

        Pausert scowled at her. He really could use Goth here. “Yes. The Leewit.”

        “Respect will be given,” rumbled Ta’zara.

        “I wouldn’t dream of doing otherwise to one of the Wisdoms,” replied Me’a, using the Uldune term for the witches of Karres. “If you think you can get into the ship by going outside the dome, I am very pleased to help. I’ll have rebreathers found for you. Nady here will be your guide. I will send one of my men.”

        “Strictly speaking,” said Vezzarn, “we work for the same boss. I used to work on the Jalreen jewel route. So the Daal has someone along, anyway. You see to that Bormgo’s goons. They already tried to track us.”

        “They did?” said Me’a, her chin rising, eyes narrowing.

        “Ta’zara dealt with them in one of your side streets,” said Vezzarn.

        “27th walkway,” supplied Nady.

        “I shall follow that up.” She pushed her chair away from the desk, and, as the bodyguard stepped forward to open the door for her, Pausert realized it was a wheeled chair, and she needed it because she had no legs. “I will take myself, Pa’leto,” she said. “I know you would like to speak with your kinsman.”

        The bodyguard nodded. “Yes, my lady. But first I will see you safe, check the office and then return.”

        She sighed. “Bodyguards. I used to believe I that gave the orders.”

        A little later he returned with two other men, who wore the signs of the savage outside weather, carrying a crate. “Rebreathers, goggles, nose-plugs and cold-weather gear,” he said. “The boys will fit you out.” Then he bowed to Ta’zara, held out his hands flat palms out. Ta’zara bowed back and pressed his palms against his. “Kinsman,” he said. It was always hard to tell with Ta’zara, but his voice sounded thickened, gruff.

        They spoke in their own language. Pausert hadn’t picked up more than about three words. But he did get the “La’gaiff” part, and the fact that big tears were flowing down both men’s faces, as he got kitted out for the harsh outside world. Then Me’a’s bodyguard left, and Ta’zara silently let the locals fit him out as well.

        Dressed up, Pausert was sweating. And they would still have to go down all those stairs to get to the street to walk to an airlock, he thought. That, however, was where he was wrong. They actually went up one more flight of stairs and onto the roof, almost flush with the dome⦠and there was an airlock. It was already night, and, barring a little starlight — there was no moon — outside the dome it was pitch black. The airlock was open and there were large coils of rope inside. Obviously the smugglers didn’t bother with hiding their cargo into and out of the domes. Pausert said so. Nady shook his head. “Not all of it. Got to keep the airlock cops busy.”

        One by one they were lowered down into the reaching darkness, the wind plucking at them. Soon they were out on the surface of Cinderby’s World. Pausert no longer thought he was in danger of being too hot. He wished for an extra layer, already. As soon as they were all on the ground, the ropes were hauled up, and they were alone out there in the night. Nady tied a rope between them and they set off, stumbling through the dark, upward, the only sound, their rebreathers. Pausert stopped being cold.

 



 

        Once they got up to the ridge line the full blast of the night wind nearly froze him again. But at least they were walking downhill now, and Nady was using a small atomic light to show the stark terrain. Suddenly he stopped dead. “Back up slowly,” he said. “There’s a porpentile by the trail.”

        Pausert stared but couldn’t see anything. “Where?” he asked as they retreated.

        Nady pointed. “Just there. Look. The rock is too smooth. The edge is wrong.”

        Pausert still couldn’t see anything and said so. “Wait until we’re a bit higher,” said Nady. “I’ll show yer. We want to shift him anyway.”

        They retreated back up the path some more, and then Nady picked up a flat piece of rock, and said: “Watch.” He held up the light, and tossed the rock to land on a sheet of slab-rock, much like any of other hundreds of sheets of slab-rock, downslopeâ¦. And the sheet moved, undulating in a curious up-and-down movement. It seemed to swim across the scree, then settled down in a new spot and became something that looked like a rock once more. “I bin doing this forty years now, and there are times when I don’t see them. But they don’t always attack.”

        “Is it hurt?” asked Vezzarn.

        “Nah. Can’t hurt ’em. Not even an ordinary blaster does much to them. Makes a hole — but it doesn’t stop ’em. Takes a mining laser or heavy mounted blaster. They’re nothing more than rock themselves. They just don’t like to have rocks on top of them. “

        “Why are they so camouflaged? What do they hunt?” asked Ta’zara.

        “Gatherers,” said Nady with a sort of morbid delight. “They’ll smother yer if they gets a chance.”

        “Do they eat people?” asked Vezzarn, plainly horrified.

        “Nah. Jus’ kill ’em. And yet, sometimes they won’t do nothing to yer.”

        “Just how do you get away?”  Pausert was wishing he’d paid more attention to Nady’s instructions, back in the cell.

        “Keep yer distance. You can out-climb ’em, but yer can’t outrun ’em. And if they gets yer, the trick is breaking the seal. An’ you gotta keep your re-breather under your arm like this⦠they etch anything metal. They suck down around you. If you c’n breathe, they ain’t gonna suffocate you. They just gets tired and move on.”

        “Just how long until that happens?” asked Ta’zara.

        “’bout three days with a small ‘un. Could be a week or more for one of the big boys. Yer die then anyway, ’cause they ain’t light and anyways yer cain’t last without drinking.”

        “So⦠if someone put rocks on top of them, would they move?” asked the captain.

        “Nope. Not if they pounced a gatherer. Best thing is to spot ’em and not get under them. They like the sun-slopes. They’re thick there. Yer only find them movin’ across the shade.”

        That seemed very odd to Pausert. Perhaps the creatures ate metals? Why else would they bother with something that wasn’t from their world, which they couldn’t eat? Still, he was glad they had a guide. They walked on down the track. It led to a very crude airlock that led into the mountainside.

        “We’ll rest up here. Got to do the gorge in the daytime,” said Nady.

        So they went in and found themselves in a cave, lit by glow-globes. It was rank with the smell of unwashed gatherers — several of whom were in the various grottoes off the main chamber. “Nady. How yer going? What you got there? New bonders?” asked one, not bothering to get up.

        “Job fer Me’a,” explained Nady.

        No one asked further questions, after that. One thing that Pausert noticed was that there were several of the sleek fluffy creatures around, moving with that graceful gliding gait, that made it almost look like they flowed across the ground. They must be some kind of gatherer pet, he concluded.

        The next morning they left and began walking up the pass. The views were magnificent, with the jagged mountains almost seeming to reach into the heavens. Far below they could see the domes, below the cliff-wall that stopped this being a short walk. When they stopped for a breather, Pausert asked, huffing and panting through his re-breather, why they couldn’t have walked the other way along the valley to the spaceport.

        “There’s a cliff there too. Just a little ‘un. But it’s a closed area. The concession-holders have their store caves in that cliff. And the valley down there is fuller of porpentiles than bubbles in beer. They use flyers to get to the caves.”

        “Store caves?” prompted the captain.

        “Yes, Stratel, Bormgo, Wenerside and Ratneurt each have part of the caves.” Nady couldn’t spit through his re-breather- but sounded like he wanted to. “They hold back when the demand ain’t high, to keep the price up. Funny, we don’t see any of it.”

        They’d seen tumbleflowers in the distance — Nady pointed them out — one being tracked by a gatherer, and another just rolling along. “That one ain’t shedding,” he explained. A little later they had to dive off the path as two of the tumbleflowers came bouncing down the hill. They were basically a ball of flexible spikes that had a pink florets sprouting along the shafts — about twice the size of a man. The end of each shaft branched into little springy tips, letting them bounce hither and thither. “Dry un’s,” said their guide disparagingly. “Big un’s don’t shed much. Down in the valley you’ll see hundreds like this.”

        Cinderby’s World plainly had much shorter days and although it did not take them that long to get to the top of the pass, the sun was already on its way down when they entered the gorge on the far slope. It was a narrow, awkward and steep descent, with no real path.

        “It ain’t much used. Too steep for tumbleflowers,” explained Nady. And then he gave a crow of delight, dropped to his knees, took a tiny pan and brush from his pouch and carefully brushed up little green crystals into a little oiled leather bag, which he tied closed very carefully. “You’re me lucky charm!” he said, beaming around the rebreather.

        “That’s your catalyst?”

        “That’s her. That’s a lucky break. Musta been one of the big ones, fell in here. They shed a bit now and again.”

        He was so busy looking around for more, that Ta’zara asked him if he was still looking for porpentiles. “Not in here. Too shady. Oh yes!” He spotted some more of the crystals. It took a little longer to get down the next section, with him hunting hopefully, but as they rounded the next bend — relatively close to the end of the gorge, where they could see the mouth of the gorge — was the tumbleflower, half way up a small cliff. “Is it stuck⦠or broken?” asked Pausert.

        “Nah. It’s climbing out. See. It has little suckers on the ends of its branches. They do it when they get stuck. It’s just not fast. And they don’t get busted. Thems as tough as hull-metal. You see ’em bounce after falling over a cliff and just go on rolling. By tomorrow it’ll be out of here.”

        They skirted past, and with Nady no longer looking for the green crystals, they got to the end of the gorge quite quickly. From the end of it they could see the wall of the spaceport’s landing apron, and the nose of the Venture 7333, sticking out above it, gleaming in the setting sun.

        “Come dark and I’ll see if I can make us a hole,” said the captain, looking at his ship. It would be nice to get into her and get on their way, but there were a few things to sort out here first.

        “Ain’t going to be that easy,” said Nady⦠but it was. The captain slipped over to the wall with Ta’zara, leaving the other two in the gorge mouth, and used his klatha cocoon skill, projecting it into the wall opposite the Venture. Ta’zara pushed on it and a disk of wall popped out. They waited. No alarms sounded, no searchlight beams penetrated the night, and so they called the others and went through. On the other side the captain and Ta’zara put the plug back in, leaving no sign of their entry.

        Once they got to the Venture, the captain went along to one of her tubes and began tapping out a repetitive rhythm with a rock — the stamping sound used to call the curious black mountain-bollems to come closer and look.  

        The Leewit dropped a ladder from the hold door — and they climbed up into the welcome shelter of their ship.


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