Out of Space

A Tale of Sfstory by Dave Menendez

Part 5: Trapped

Marjoram liked to watch the progress bar during off-planet data transfer. It didn’t serve any real purpose, as the connection lasted only a few seconds but involved enough incoming data that their computers could not decode it in real-time. All the exciting stuff (if one defined “exciting” loosely enough) happened later, once processing had gotten to the point where the system could point out anything interesting in the flood. She had configured her display to list the ten items the system currently thought were most interesting, and watched them change as it worked through the data.

That didn’t serve any purpose either, but it let her feel like she was doing something other than waiting for their machines to do the work for them.

Normally, the list fluctuated quite a bit, gradually becoming more stable as more of the data were analyzed. Marjoram glanced through the top for anything that needed immediate attention, and then went to bed. The next day she would spend a few hours cataloging before presenting a report at the noon meeting.

The alert caught her by surprise. Even Sage seemed surprised, in that she almost reacted.

“What was that?”

“The system found something it thinks I need to see immediately, before it has time to finish analysis,” explained Marjoram, who was already calling the message up. She read the first line and blinked. “Lord Ganush is coming?”

Sage checked her watch and nodded. “Does it say when he expects to arrive?”

“A few days from now. Apparently, they’re trying to avoid something.”

“Probably space heroes. Will anyone else be accompanying him?”

“Uh, an auditor.” She scanned through the memo. “‘Lefty’?”

Sage nodded. “Excellent. I will inform the Director in the morning. Has the analysis discovered anything else?”

“Uh… there’s a half-price sale at… Instant Monkeys On-line?” That had to be a hoax.

“Tempting, but what would we feed them?” Seeing Marjoram’s strange look, Sage coughed. “Perhaps our budget problems have over-sensitized me to bargains.” She stood. “Tell me the rest tomorrow. Oh, and find out whether Oregano’s had any progress retrieving our guests.”

“It’s a big planet,” said Marjoram. “It might take a while to find them.”

“Rosemary and Thyme will be back soon. If Oregano hasn’t found them by then, we’ll send reinforcements.”

“Right.” Marjoram watched her boss leave and mentally added another reason to her list of why she was glad not to be one of the escaped ‘guests’.

Man, I’m glad we survived that one! That was the sort of thing Horlun was looking forward to saying, once their survival became a matter of fact, not speculation. (If it didn’t, he looked forward to not saying much at all.) The lookout tower above the camp was not a small place, but neither was it particularly suited to running away from things. Horlun, Anme, and Fondao implemented an ad-hoc plan to attack the folded-paper-like Alpha Origami while minimizing their chances for injury or death. It involved Horlun and Anme distracting the monster by running away, while Fondao tried to sneak up and spear it with his sharpened meterstick.

Horlun suspected it was a sub-optimal plan, but circumstances had forced them to improvise.

The Alpha was getting too close to Anme. While she scrambled onto the stone railing surrounding the lookout, Horlun feinted to draw the creature’s attention. Unfortunately, it was beginning to understand that Horlun and Anme lacked any real capacity to injure it, and their feints were becoming less effective. Still, Horlun had no desire to see his girlfriend forced over the side of the building, so he moved closer, hoping the Alpha would pick him as an easier target. It was one of those tactics where you weren’t quite sure which outcome was better, but the heat of conflict filled him with the overwhelming desire to do something, and becoming a target certainly qualified as decisive, if foolish, action.

Surprisingly, the Alpha didn’t take the bait. Instead, it just stared at him, as though it couldn’t believe anyone could be so stupid as to rush it unarmed. Horlun kicked it in the head, although the head had moved off-center by the time his foot got there. The head twisted backward at an unhealthy-looking angle and the creature actually backed off a bit.

Horlun, flush with victory and hubris, moved forward to strike again while the origami was refolding its neck. This proved to be something the beast was expecting, and it slashed at his side, throwing him into a nearby wall and ruining his shirt with its paper claws.

Sober reality suddenly reasserted itself in Horlun’s mind: a big, powerful, nigh-indestructible creature was advancing on him and he had just pissed it off.

“Crap,” quoth the freelance writer. He raised his fists, hoping that the time the Alpha spent tearing them to pieces before reaching his more vital organs would be enough for the others to counterattack.

A chunk of stone shingle sailed in from Anme’s direction, stricking the origami on the leg and harming it not at all. Nonetheless, it glanced over at her out of principle, as the one rock might be a prelude to other, larger rocks, and Horlun took advantage of its distraction to put a few more meters between them. The Alpha noticed this, too, and turned its attention back to its earlier prey, in case the retreating was part of some devious attack plan.

This byplay actually distracted it long enough for Fondao to sneak up from behind holding his spear over his head. One sharp downstroke later, and the Alpha was immobilized.

The three sapients shared a sigh of relief. The Alpha busied itself with clawing at the ground and trying to dislodge the spear.

“So,” asked Horlun, “will that kill it?”

“Not fatal,” said Fondao, drawing a phial from his silvery labcoat. “For now we sedate.”

Horlun left the survivalist scientist to his work and joined Anme by the side of the lookout. The struggle below had improved considerably since the last time he had checked. There were only two Alphas left chasing Roy, for example, although the sarcastic Terran was looking a bit tired. Jen and Dr Zlakvr trailed behind, waiting for an opportune moment to strike. Elsewhere, Orliss appeared to be wrestling one of the paper-like creatures, although it wasn’t clear whether his opponent was still conscious. Surely, a hostile Alpha would not have cooperated enough for the unlicensed hero to pull off a back-breaker—although the fact that origami had no backbones to break made the move questionable to begin with.

“I think we’re winning,” said Anme.

“Yay, team,” agreed Horlun.

“Should we give them some support?”

Horlun glanced back at Fondao, who was sitting next to the now-motionless Alpha and wiping his forhead. “We could cut that thing into pom-poms and cheer them on.”

“Perhaps we could just sit down for a while.”

Even Fondao felt that was a good idea.

“Man, I’m glad we survived that one.”

The assembled scientists, technicians, and marooned space travellers mumbled their collective agreement. Their low-key reaction to such a glorious victory might have been surprising, except that everyone was obviously very tired.

“Oh man,” said Roy, who was slowly running in place. “I am exhausted.”

“Why don’t you sit down?” asked Jen.

“You’re not supposed to do that after you’ve been running a lot. I’m not sure why, but it’s one of the few things I remember from gym class.” He slowed to a walk. “I am so glad that’s over with.”

“Running away all the time does take a toll,” observed Anme casually.

Roy’s expression darkened, but Jen quickly changed the subject before he could retaliate. “Were there any injuries?”

Everyone there seemed reasonably fine. A few sore muscles, perhaps, and some minor bruises and scrapes, but nothing serious. Considering that all their opponents had been incapacitated, this was a stunningly one-sided outcome.

“Long will this day be remembered,” declared Orliss. “Particularly as I can probably use it in my thesis. To have orchestrated such a successful defense against evil is more than most students can claim to have accomplished.” He laughed, happy to be alive or thinking of how he had out-shone his classmates. It was hard to tell.

Dr Zlakvr and Tangyfruit returned to the group. They had been making sure that the sedated Alphas would no longer pose a threat to their safety, which sounded less cold-blooded than just saying they had been out killing the wounded. “Nine dead Alphas,” said Zlakvr. “We got them all.”

“Unless a few hung back in the woods to regroup for later,” said Roy.

There was a long silence.

“Nine dead Alphas,” repeated Zlakvr.

The double-secret safe house was inferior to the secret camp in all ways but one: It had a door which could be closed. This is a tremendous advantage in a defensive structure, and there are circumstances, such as an attack by crazed origami, where it outweighs other issues such as cleanliness, spaciousness, cheerfulness, and general not-being-a-basement-with-only-one-exit-ness.

Somehow, Knapsack was able to transform the cramped, inadequately ventilated and lit space into a grand assembly hall through sheer force of will. “You have done well,” he declared, joining pretty much everyone else who had expressed an opinion. “Tonight we will feast in your honor.”

“Isn’t it a bit late?” asked Orliss. “We all ate before sunset, anyway.”

“Yes, I meant tomorrow night. Which is actually later today, because it’s past midnight. For now, I recommend sleep.”

That suggestion met with near-unanimous approval, and it wasn’t long before Horlun found himself lying on his thin, uncomfortable emergency mattress staring up at the dimly-lit ceiling. This is so unfair, he thought frustratedly. His body was so very tired after the battle, but he couldn’t sleep. And of course, there’s nothing so futile as trying harder to sleep. He rolled back onto his stomache, in case that would bring sleep this time.

“Can’t sleep?” asked Anme, whose bedding was adjacent to his.

He nodded. “I think I’m still wired after all the excitement.”

“Ironic, isn’t it? You’re not alone, though. Jen’s the only one of us who’s getting any sleep right now. I think Roy and Orliss wandered off to get some water or something.”

“I didn’t see Roy in the double-secret kitchen,” said Orliss a shade too loudly.

Horlun jumped and was suddenly fully awake. “Quiet,” he whispered. “You’ll wake everyone else up.”

“Sorry,” said Orliss at a more reasonable volume. He kneeled down near Anme and Horlun, careful not to spill the mug he was holding. “I was just saying that if Roy went to get water, we must have missed each other.”

“Well, you keep us informed about that,” said Anme.

“What are you drinking?” asked Horlun. It certainly didn’t smell like water, in that it smelled like anything at all.

“Behin,” said Orliss happily. “I haven’t had a cup this fresh since we left Foobarh. Apparently it grows in the wild around here.”

Horlun furrowed his brow. “You are aware that most people drink behin when they’re trying to avoid sleep.”

“Oh. Yeah. It’s just that they were brewing a pot and it smelled so good…. But there is the whole sleep thing, isn’t there.” He stood. “Perhaps I should go locate Roy. He may have gotten lost or been waylaid by ruffians.”

“In a safe house?”

“It could happen. Heroes always expect unexpected things to happen.” He paused. “The trick, as I understand it, is knowing which unexpected thing to expect. Care to come along?”

Horlun thought about it. “Might as well,” he said, rising to his feet. “Anme?”

“No thanks. My experience is that lying in bed is more conducive to sleep than wandering around looking for things.”

“That is your loss,” declared Orliss. “Or gain, perhaps, if you do get some sleep. But for me, I feel very awake now for some reason.” He took a sip of his behin. “Perhaps my heroic instincts warn me of some evil which I must forgo sleep to thwart.”

Horlun considered the mug in his cousin’s hand and the sincerity in his voice and decided not to press the point.

“So far,” said Horlun, “the major themes in this part of our vacation seem to be Roy wandering off and extensive underground complexes.”

“There’s only been two of each,” noted Orliss. “That’s coincidence. Three is a theme.”

“I thought three was a conspiracy.”

“It can be more than one thing.”

They had started their search in the secret safe house’s secret kitchen, since Roy had reportedly gone there and Orliss had noticed an exit that didn’t go back to the rest of the secret basement. Its door was slightly ajar, too, so they figured they might as well see what was beyond it. That lead to a dark hallway that someone had been through recently, judging by the faint trail of footprints in the dust. Horlun wasn’t entirely convinced that the person had been Roy, but Orliss argued very strongly for finding out one way or another. Eventually, they came to a heavily-reinforced door made of some unfamiliar metal that blended surprisingly well with the stone walls. On it was an ominous-looking sign containing what looked like warnings in several different scripts, possibly even in different languages. Only one was even partially familiar, using characters Horlun knew in ways he couldn’t quite understand:

He had asked Orliss what it meant, but the student hero was only slightly less baffled. It looks like a warning, he had said, but I can’t read any of these scripts. Although…. He tapped a pair of complex ideographs near the top. This looks familar.

Orliss wasn’t about to let an ancient, warning-encrusted door stand in their way—especially when it was slightly open and there were footprints in the dust going inside. They pulled the door open without too much trouble and discovered a narrow vertical shaft with a ladder on the far wall. Leaning in, Horlun saw that it lead down for several stories. There was a soft white light at the bottom, which faded and brightened in a slow, regular cycle between dim and less dim.

“Do you think Roy would have gone down there?” Horlun asked. “In the middle of the night without telling anyone? He’s usually more cautious than that.”

“Someone went down there,” declared Orliss, “that means there’s a reason to be down there. Plus, a shaft leading down from the basement of an ancient building can’t help but lead to something interesting. I’m hoping for something so valuable the ancients dug all this to keep it safe.”

Horlun nodded, resigned to the extension of their exploratory mission. “Is that likely?”

“It’s either that or something they feared so much they built all this to hide it.” He reached over to the ladder on the far side of the shaft. “Let’s go.”

Like its door, the shaft was made of a metal neither could identify, prompting Orliss to reflect regretfully on the heroic metallurgy class he had put off for a later semester. The rungs featured a non-slip surface that let them move quickly without fear of accidentally falling to their deaths. Even so, it was a while before they reached the bottom. The shaft turned out to be set in a notch in the side of a large, rounded tunnel. The slow throbbing glow came from a narrow band of white, almost transluscent metal halfway up the walls, which were themselves made of the same substance as the shaft. Judging by the glowing strips in the wall, they could tell that the tunnel extended quite a distance in both directions, and that it was curved, as though they stood near the inner edge of a vast tubular ring.

Neither of them had any clue as to what this place was about—Horlun was momentarily concerned that it might be a particle accelerator, but Orliss explained that they generally didn’t have access shafts set back in notches—but Horlun could tell that his cousin was excited to have found a genuine Mystery in the ancient city. “Maybe we should get the others,” he said, but Horlun dissuaded him, pointing out that they were probably asleep, and maybe they could wait until the morning to explore this further.

Orliss agreed to the first point, at least, and they set out, following the now-fainter trail of footprints. They encountered branch corridors at irregular intervals, eventually following one along the inner wall with a decidedly downward slant to it. This eventually reached a hexagonal chamber at what was probably the center of the circle. Three of the walls held entrances to tunnels leading up, while a fourth held a tunnel heading further down. In the center of the chamber was a shallow pit surrounding a column of the softly glowing metal. Abandoning the trail, they moved closer to check it out and found that it was etched with a pattern of interlocking penguins. Around its base were more illegible messages, such as pfh33r 0|_|r m4d 5|<1llz, which appeared multiple times.

“I remember!” said Orliss suddenly.

Horlun waited for a few cycles of the pulsating lights before asking what he was talking about.

“Those two characters on the door. I saw them in a seminar about avoiding danger in ancient underground complexes. No one’s quite sure what they mean literally, but you only ever see them on signs that say ‘No admittance’ or ‘Authorized personnel only’. That sort of thing.”

“I see. So what sort of advice did you get about wandering around ancient, forbidden tunnels when you’re half-exhausted?”

Orliss looked at him, concerned. “If you’re tired, maybe you should have some of my behin. You’ll want to be alert if we run into any traps.”

The footprints naturally led to the downward tunnel, which quickly began to curve to the left. Eventually, Horlun realized that it was shaped like a corkscrew, and he wondered just how far down its builders felt they needed to go. For a while, Orliss chanted the traditional prayer of subterranean descent: “Down, down, into the earth, down, down…,” but eventually he got bored and stopped, leaving them with the silence of the tunnels.

“If this turns out not to be Roy’s trail, I’m going to be very annoyed,” Horlun announced. “And if it does turn out to be Roy’s trail, I may have to slap him for wandering off so far.”

“It has been some distance,” Orliss agreed. “But that doesn’t mean Roy has no good reason to be here, assuming I am not incorrect about the nature of these footprints.”

Ahead of them, the tunnel curved more sharply to the left, and suddenly they found themselves in another hexagonal chamber. Here, the walls were tiled with interlocking penguins made of the milky metal, save for the far wall, which featured an elaborate doorway that didn’t appear to lead anywhere. In front of the doorway, standing in the shadows cast by the two halves of the open door, was Roy.

“Ah, I was indeed not incorrect,” said Orliss.

Horlun ignored that and called the Terran’s name. There was no reaction. Puzzled, the two walked closer. Beyond the doorway was yet another tunnel, although this one was different from the ones they had seen so far. In particular, it ended suddenly after a few meters in an irregular wall of rock. Horlun had once seen a stone rod which had been shattered by pulling on its ends. The end of the tunnel reminded him of the end of the rod, only this time the rod was made of the absence of stone. Also, it was a lot bigger. [@@ does this make any sense?]

“Roy?” Horlun asked, waving his fingers in the Terran’s face. “Are you there?”

“You’re standing right in front of him,” Orliss pointed out.

“Yeah, but I meant… never mind.” He snapped his fingers in Roy’s face a few times, and was about to poke him in the forehead when he noticed some signs of life. Gradually, as though he were travelling some great distance, Roy returned to consciousness.

“Oh,” he said. “Horlun.” He blinked. “Trouble sleeping?”

“Actually, we were wondering where you were.”

“Ah. I guess you know that now.”

Horlun glanced at his cousin, who shrugged. “Yeah,” he told Roy. “Now we’re just curious about why you’re down here.”

“I’m wondering that myself.” He scratched his head. “I know I had a reason for coming down here, but I seem to have forgotten it.”

“I’d suggest we look around, but I think we’d just end up with more questions. Why don’t we go back and get some rest? We still have that key learnings thing tomorrow.”

Roy nodded. “Not to mention trying to find some way off this planet. Orliss?”

The student hero was examining the walls of the truncated tunnel. “This is so cool,” he enthused. “Check this out, it’s recursive.”


The walls, the ceiling, and the edges of the floor were covered with grooves in a pattern of fantastic complexity vaguely resembling circuitry. A closer look revealed that the walls of the grooves were themselves etched with smaller grooves in an even more complex pattern. If he squinted, Horlun could just make out a hint of grooves on the walls of the smaller grooves.

“We should ask if one of Knapsack’s people has a nanoscope,” Orliss said. Who knows how many levels there are?”

“Does it matter?” asked Roy.

“Aren’t you curious?”

“Well… yes, but I’m more curious about things like what’s up with this tunnel, and who built all this, and how come the lights still work after all these centuries. And right now, if you took me to an oracle and told me I could ask only one question, I wouldn’t ask any of those.”

“What would you ask?”

“‘How do we get off this planet?’”

Orliss nodded. “I shall keep that in mind, in case we do encounter an oracle.”

“If we do, it’ll probably be underground,” said Horlun. “And involve a lot of walking. And speaking of which, why don’t we head back?”

The return trip was, naturally, mostly uphill, and Horlun was exhausted by the time they reached the vertical shaft up to the basement. Somehow, he found the energy to make the climb up. No one saw them reenter the kitchen and close the door to the rest of the basement behind them. Roy and Orliss helped Horlun back to his bedding before heading to their own spots. He shifted a bit, trying to find a comfortable position. Next to him, he could hear Anme’s regular breathing.

He rolled onto his back and stared at the ceiling.

This is so unfair.

Horlun was back on Foobarh, talking with a girl he hadn’t seen since elementary school. Neither of them had aged, and she was wearing a penguin costume, but everything seemed normal until she grabbed his shoulder and started shaking.

“Wake up. We need to talk.”

It was funny how much her voice sounded like Jen’s. She was even starting to look like Jen. Horlun closed his eyes, and when he opened them again he was back on Tangerine.

“Were you dreaming?”

“I think so, but….” He looked around the small partitioned area he, Anme, and Orliss had spent the night in, noticing that Orliss and Dr Knapsack were both present. “What’s going on? Is it time for the meeting?”

Jen shook her head. “That’s over. We tried to get you up for it, but you were really dead to the world. Dr Knapsack has some suggestions for our next move, and we figured you’d want to be a part of it.”

“Thanks,” said Horlun to the renegade manager. “I’d get up to shake your hand, but I seem to be missing my clothes.”

“Anme figured we should take advantage of the laundry while we were here,” Orliss explained. “It should be finished by lunchtime.”

That explained why Jen was wearing one of those silvery labcoats, but Orliss appeared to have one of his usual outfits. “What about you?”

“I keep a change of clothes in my wallet.”

“Oh.” That probably did make sense, but an explanation could wait for later. “Where are Anme and Roy?”

The look the others exchanged told him all he needed to know. Despite that, Orliss elaborated. “During the key learnings session, Anme characterized Roy’s performance at the ambush as cowardly. Roy objected, and, well, eventually one of them used Captains Kirk and Picard as an analogy, and that got a lot of the staff here involved. After that, we didn’t make much progress.”

“It was unfortunate,” Knapsack agreed. “And confusing. I reviewed the minutes, and I’m still not sure who was arguing what side.”

“I guess it’s nice to have some normalcy again,” said Horlun. Sadly, the comment was only partly sarcastic. “So what is our next move?”

“You’re welcome to stay with us, of course,” said Knapsack. “As you have seen, there are many hazards here on Tangerine, from predators to the Sonar Men. Your violence skills would be a great asset for us, and we can provide you with food, shelter, and laundry services.”

“I would not object to joining your merry band of outlaws,” replied Orliss, “but we should not so easily forsooth our quest to leave the planet.”


“To leave or abandon.” He frowned. “Or it might have been ‘forsake’. I don’t have my notes handy. But whatever the word is, it describes an action regarding our quest which we must for the present eschew. Our goal is to return to space and our lives therein.”

“We can’t help you ourselves,” said Knapsack. “If we had a way off of Tangerine, we would have taken it long ago. But there are rumors among the natives that might lead you to the help you seek. There is a village downstream of here where the people speak of a man called Thaumaturge. Supposedly, he knows much that is hidden and has eerie powers and the like. He might be able to help or at least be an interesting conversationalist.”

“Well,” said Jen after a moment’s thought, “it’s a direction. I suppose even a bad direction is better than no direction.”

“I don’t know if that’s always true,” said Horlun, “but I guess we can’t get into too much worse a situation by following this one.” He turned to Knapsack. “Where would we find this Thaumaturge?”

“The Mountains of Suffering, I believe,” said Knapsack. “The villagers would know more. If you plan to seek Thaumaturge, we can give you some supplies and advice and show you back to your boat.

“But first: lunch.”

The renegade researchers’ crack kitchen squad had produced enough box lunches for the five travellers to take extras for dinner. This was a great gift, given their limited supply of emergency rations. More helpful, from a long-term perspective was the lecture on what native plants and animals were edible. While it was heartening to think that they might not die of starvation during their quest, Horlun couldn’t help but be discouraged by the suggestion that leaving the planet might take a considerable amount of time.

After returning to the boat, they exchanged wishes for good fortune with Tangyfruit and Fondao, and slowly skimmed back into the river.

“How’s our fuel supply?” asked Jen.

“We haven’t run out so far,” replied Orliss. “All the indicators on the status display seem positive.”

“Which one of them is the fuel gauge?”

“I’m not sure yet.” Seeing Jen’s concerned expression (and guessing the reactions of Roy, Anme, and Horlun), he continued. “The Sonar Men probably have it fully fueled or charged or whatever at all times, and I’m sure it has enough range for our purposes. Don’t worry about it.”

To Horlun’s immense relief, the universe chose to forego the obvious opportunity for cheap irony. He tried to find a comfortable position and watched the forest glide by. Somewhere out there, hidden by the nearest treetops and possibly behind him, were the Mountains of Suffering. Since they were planning to go there, Horlun was hoping the name was a bit of local color, and not an attempt at literal description. He had never liked mountain climbing.

At least, he assumed he didn’t. He had never really tried. But the idea certainly didn’t appeal.

“You’re shuddering,” said Anme.

“Just thinking about mountains and suffering.”

“Sounds like a lovely tourist spot,” said Roy. “We should go somewhere like that.”

“Perhaps we could after we find Thaumaturge,” offered Orliss. “We’ll be on a bit of a schedule, though. Semester break will be over soon.”

Roy leaned over to Horlun. “Was that sarcasm or cluelessness?”

“Maybe the lack of sleep is getting to him,” suggested Horlun.

It took a while, but eventually Orliss agreed to let Jen pilot the boat.

[@@ possible adventure with rapids/waterfall?]

They reached the village before lunch, which surprised Horlun as he was expecting to arrive after he had lost hope entirely, which was probably still a few days off. It was just after a curve in the river, and the thickness of the forest meant that none of them had seen it coming. Thus, the villagers’ first view of the travellers included Orliss scratching his nose in an undignified manner. Even so, the sight of the five gliding towards the village’s dock in their stolen skimmer successfully instilled a sense of awe in the locals. Or possibly fear, which is usually a pretty good substitute.

Unlike the abandoned city where the renegade scientists lived, the village was recent and decidedly low-tech. It was arranged in a roughly circular fashion, with a great central field bordered on two-thirds of its circumference by huts. The remainder faced the river and the village’s primitve wharf. Behind the first row of huts were others, arranged concentrically as far as Horlun could see—which wasn’t very far, since the huts blocked his view of anything past the first two or three rings.

The central field, which Horlun was tempted to call a “square”, even though it clearly wasn’t, was filled with people. Generic bipeds, in fact, of the same body plan as himself and the other travellers. Perhaps a bit darker-skinned, but that hardly counted as a great difference between people. They didn’t even have bumpy foreheads. It was disappointing.

Upon their arrival, virtually all activity in the circle had ceased. Even the children had stopped playing their game of Run Around Chasing Each Other. All eyes were on them, which meant everyone saw Jen flub the landing and hit a sandbar a good two meters from the shoreline.

“Good enough,” said Roy cheefully. “We can walk to the shore from here.”

“If you prefer, I could toss you,” offered Jen.

To Anme’s dismay, Roy declined. Jen threw their craft into reverse and slid over to an empty part of the low pier.

“Someone’s coming,” warned Anme. Indeed, one of the locals was walking their way with a purposeful air. Like everyone else in the village, he wore a simple loincloth, but the fanciness of his beaded necklace suggested that he was Important. Or at least flamboyant.

“I’ll handle this,” said Orliss, preparing to step onto the pier.

“Hold on,” said Roy. “Let’s not get out of the boat until we know what’s going on. That pier could be sacred or cursed or boobytrapped or something.”

“Fine,” said Orliss, although he didn’t sound too thrilled by the suggestion.

The presumably important person finally reached the pier. He stood at its end and carefully looked over the boat for a moment. After a moment, he spoke. “Stangers! What business do you have here?” Suddenly suspicious, he added: “Are you sorcerors?”

“No, simply travellers,” said Orliss.

A wave of whispers spread across the circle, leaving looks of relief in its wake. Translations, probably. In a place like this, one couldn’t expect everyone to learn the trade language.

“Then you are welcome here,” said the flamboyantly important person. “Come, and we will show you our hospital.”

“Show us their what?” whispered Roy.

“He probably meant ‘hospitality’,” explained Horlun. On reflection, it was actually something of a surprise that they spoke the trade language at all, given their isolation, but this was undoubtedly the influence of the Sonar Men.

The circle was larger than it had looked from the boat, and it took longer than Horlun had expected to reach the center. Not that it mattered, as he wasn’t in any particular hurry. In fact, it gave him more opportunities to observe the locals, although they did not seem to appreciate the attention. In fact, there was a definate air of tension surrounding them.

“They’re just nervous because we’re foreigners,” Orliss assured him, when Horlun mentioned this to him. “Once we explain that we’re just passing through, I’m sure they’ll be relieved.”

“I’m more concerned with the way all the women and children are leaving,” said Roy. Horlun had noticed that their part of the circle was disproportionately male and adult, but he had attributed it to the fear of outsiders. Now, though, he was beginning to notice the weapons many of those nearby were carrying. Defense? Or something more sinister?

“Does anyone else feel like we’re walking into a trap?” asked Jen quietly.

“Don’t be absurd,” said Orliss, making a shushing gesture. “This is well within the bounds of expected behavior for people like this.” He paused. “But try not to make any threatening moves.”

“We are here,” said the important person, having reached a spot of ground near the center of the circle largely indistinguishable from any other part of the circle. He was handed a decorated spear which he thrust, point up, into the dirt. “Travellers!” he said grandly. Then, with a hint of nervousness: “You aren’t sorcerors, right?”

“You have nothing to fear from us,” assured Orliss.

Abruptly, they were surrounded by a circle of spears. “That is a considerable relief,” said the important person.

“What is this?” demanded Jen.

“We have taken you prisoner,” explained their host. “I thought that was rather obvious.”

“Yes, but why?” As she spoke, Jen moved her hand towards the gun in her shoulder holster in what she probably thought was a subtle, unobtrusive fashion.

“The sky people demand it, and if we disobey, their wrath will be terrible.”

“How so?” asked Horlun, who figured that the longer he kept them talking, the longer he avoided getting poked with a spear or whatever it was the villagers had planned.

“We didn’t ask for details.” To Jen, he added, “Please keep your hands where we can see them.”

“Okay,” said Jen as she whipped out her gun. “Can you see this?” Unfortunately, one of the villagers proved swifter, and her action-movie-style pre-violence quip gave him enough time to shoot a dart into her neck. “Ow!” said Jen, pulling out the dart. She blinked twice, and collapsed.

The circle of spears shrank, forcing the travellers closer together. One of the men near Horlun underscored the local balance of power by jabbing him with his spear.

“Perhaps we’ll get to see that hospital after all,” commented Roy quietly.

“She was foolish,” declared the lead villager, “but the poison will not kill her. If you try to escape, we will fight with spear and sword. Because we don’t have a lot of those darts.”

“Who are these sky people?” demanded Anme. “What right do they have to make you attack strangers like this?’

“You will meet them soon enough.”

[@@ teasers]