For the Wolflord and his Lady In honor of good times and bad puns, cold steel and warm memories; cards on the table and syrupy iced tea; and more than one Vanished Age.

PART ONE
Chapter One

The Room of the Gray Twilight

[In homage to Leigh Brackett and C.L. Moore, with affection and deep apologies.]

e came to the shop wrapped in a dark green cloak, the cowl pulled over his head. Peering inside the fold of the cowl where his face should be you saw shadowy darkness and the dull red glow of the ember that was the end of his cigar. He was not alone. Behind him was a second, smaller figure, also in a cloak of the same color, with a cowl.

He stood in the doorway for a moment, peering around at the cramped and cluttered place. One of the slim, pink predatory women who haunt such places came to him with a brass clanking of the small windchimes that were almost all she wore. He motioned her away as he walked into the store, followed by his friend. He took the cigar from his mouth and you still could not see his face as he said, "Not now, not now. I'm not here for ice cream."

There was something in his voice, the low tone of it that caused her to back away, but for a step or two. Or was it the cloud of rancid smoke that blew forth from his cigar? The back of her hand pressed against her lower lip a moment. With a low, husky voice she said, "Beef jerrrrk-y, maybe? Slurrrp-ee? We have all you could ask for, and more."

The door behind him swung open and a bell tinkled the arrival of someone. He started and his hand slid inside his cloak to his weapon, but he did not pull it.

The new arrival was a lizard man in a red cape with ornate gold trim and a dark, jaunty wide-brimmed hat with a purple feather. With a suggestion of gratitude for the opportunity, the predatory pink woman forgot about the man in the dark green cloak and rushed to the newcomer in a cacophony of windchimes, reciting her mantra of, "Slurrrp-ee? Slurrrp-ee?"

The tall green-cloaked man glanced at the small figure behind him and said, "You wait down here. Come tell me if there's any trouble," and started toward the back of the establishment.

A second predatory woman pressed her hands against his chest and said, "Potato-o chips? Porrk skiins?"

He took her wrists in his own strong grasp and firmly but gently pushed her to one side, moving past her down a narrow aisle that was lined with jars, tin cans and small plastic and paper-wrapped packages. The hem of his green cloak brushed aside cigarette butts and gum wrappers on the floor but he didn't notice. He went through a small doorway in the back and up a narrow, poorly lighted flight of ancient wooden stairs that must have cost a fortune to build even in the old days, considering the rarity of wood-bearing vegetation on this world. The stairs were worn with age and needed paint and repair. At the top he found a door as worn and in need of paint as the stairs, but otherwise sturdy and apparently well maintained. The stranger knocked loudly. He waited a few moments and there was no answer and he knocked again, more loudly. From beyond the closed door a raspy, angry voice said, "Go away!"

Inside the heavy cowl the end of the cigar glowed fiercely. The stranger knocked again. "Open the door, Doc. It's me, Nadir McGuirk."

There were sounds inside and then the rattle of a key in the lock and the door opened on rusty hinges and a small, unhappy looking man peered out of the gray light of the room at the cowled man. "McGuirk! Is it you? Is it really you?"

"It's me, Doc."

"Then get the hell out of here," said the small unhappy looking man. "Who needs any of what you got?"

"Just let me in, will you?"

The man McGuirk called "Doc" hesitated as if he were about to say something, then changed his mind. With a shrug of surrender, he stepped aside and opened the door wider. McGuirk moved through it into the gray twilight beyond and looked around. The room needed attention; the floor needed sweeping and there were cracks in the ceiling; paint was peeling from the walls. The room was bare of furnishings, just a couple of chairs and a table littered with bottles, food wrappers and strewn with crumpled paper on which the scientist had written mathematical symbols in his cramped, unreadable hand. He shut the door behind McGuirk and locked it again. He moved to one of the room's two chairs and sat down, his shoulders slumped, his eyes glaring and troubled as they watched his visitor. He said, "You shouldn't have come, McGuirk. You should have stayed away."

"Captain Shivers needs your help," McGuirk said. "She needs it bad."

The old man stared down at his hands and shook his head. "I haven't any help to give." He sounded weak and hoarse. "I'm finished, McGuirk. Through. I'm a failure."

Across the room there was a door, padlocked. McGuirk looked at it a moment. Then he turned and looked at the old scientist and said, "What the flurp is wrong with you anyway?"

"How did you find me?" Doc Foots asked, angrily. "Why are you even looking for me, especially in this galaxy? It's not as if we're friends."

"We heard you were here on Chaseryn," McGuirk said. "There's trouble and Captain Shivers said we need the keenest scientific mind we can locate to help us out. Help the whole planet out. I didn't realize you were living in a cheap room over a convenience store."

"Well," said the doctor, with a sigh of relief. "At least some things can be relied on. You're still an idiot. Assuming I could help you -- and your friends -- why would I want to?"

McGuirk undid the clasp of his cloak and tossed the garment on the small table, knocking over an empty, plastic seltzer bottle and sending food wrappers scurrying over the side. He stood revealed as about six and a half feet tall and no ordinary man. He was a mutant. He looked like nothing so much as a very tall green-feathered condor. He clinched an odiferous cigar in one corner of his beak. His watery eyes were bloodshot. His only clothing was a ragged pair of cutoffs and a pair of spats. He had wings instead of arms and talons instead of feet.

He did not look particularly happy, but perhaps he never did.

The doctor did not look particularly happy, either. But he certainly never did. He said, "Not that it matters, now. Not that anything matters. It's all over. My dreams, the ambition."

"Forget about dreams. The things you invented weren't dreams."

"They're finished too," said the doctor, in a bitter tone. "It's all over, McGuirk. I can't do it any more. I'm a failure. I can't invent any longer."

Nadir McGuirk grabbed the scientist by his lapels and hauled him to his feet. He was not particularly rough about it, it was just a gesture. He said, "What are you talking about? You're Dr. Foots, aren't you? What about your disintegrator cannon? What about your patented sock matcher? The perpetual motion churn? They made you a legend, didn't they? When you got down off an elephant, Doc, all the pillow manufacturers went crazy."

The scientist shrugged off the mutant's grasp and turned away. "What do those things matter now?" he said. "Weren't you listening? I've failed. Utterly and completely, McGuirk. I've failed."

"You can't fail, doc." McGuirk was firm, his voice steady and grim. Even the veins in his blood-shot eyeballs were grim. "It's the wrong time for giving up. I need you. Captain Shivers and my crewmates on the Starsnipe need you. This whole crublargle planet needs you."

"But I don't need you," snapped Dr. Foots. "I don't need them, not even this . . . what you said . . . planet. All I need is to be left alone. So go away and leave me alone." He sounded angry and unreasonable, like the old Doctor Foots. In its way, it was encouraging. McGuirk glanced at the padlocked door again.

"What's back there, doc?"

"What do you think is back there?" Foots said, contemptuously.

"Show me."

"It's none of your business, McGuirk."

"Oh yes it is," said the mutant, in a tone Dr. Foots had never heard him use before. He couldn't help but be impressed. In all the times they had met in their various conflicts, McGuirk and his crewmates always seemed like such bunglers to him. For the life of him, he couldn't figure out why they always came out on top. McGuirk said, "Show me what's in that room."

Foots gave up. He shrugged and dragged a long chain out of his pants pocket. On the end of the chain were dozens of keys. He selected one and turned toward the locked door.

"You must have a lot of doors," McGuirk said, eyeing the keys.

"No, just the one," said Dr. Foot. "But last year I invented a key duplicator that didn't use nanotechnology. I guess I got carried away." He put the key into the padlock and opened the door.

He flipped an old-fashioned light switch, swearing as the light came on.

The lab was just as bare as the front room. There were cabinets, all closed, against the walls, and shelves, littered with chemical containers and scraps of equipment; the only other furniture was a table. McGuirk went forward to examine what was on it.

"So," McGuirk said, after a moment. "What you inventing here? Slag?"

Dr. Foots glowered at him. "You have the impertinence of a --"

"No, I mean it," McGuirk said, poking a finger at a blob of melted glass around a metal stand. "What is this? Some kind of light bulb?"

"It's a failure," said the doctor, with great dignity.

"Sure, doc, but what is it?"

"It was supposed to be cold light."

"Cold light? You mean like a lightning bug has?"

Dr. Foots let his jaw clinch, in the old, familiar, angry way. "I assure you it's NOT the same thing," he snarled.

"Okay, okay," snapped McGuirk. "I didn't mean it like a glubnarbin insult. Cold light's a great idea. Imagine a light bulb that didn't generate any heat. It would be revolutionary. Think of all the things it could do!"

"Oh?" said Dr. Foots, as if this were a new idea. "Such as what?"

"All kinds of things," McGuirk said. Small vertical furrows appeared between his eyes. "Just think about it. It would be, well, cold."

"Is that good?" asked the doctor.

"Good! Well, of course it's good. People need stuff like this. They'd beat a path to your door."

"Too late," Dr. Foots said with a sigh. "I already invented a better mouse trap."

"But cold light would be so -- so -- beneficial."

"I hadn't thought about that," the scientist admitted. "To me it's always been about the pure science. That's what matters." He peered at McGuirk, one bushy eyebrow raised quizzically. "And it would be beneficial because?"

"Well, think of all the things you could do with cold light," McGuirk said. "It could be used in, uh -- Well, you could, that is, oh! You could make little bitty cold light bulbs and put them in refrigerators, where everything's got to be cold."

"You could?" A small vertical furrow appeared between Dr. Foots' eyes. It was much more serious than those that had appeared between McGuirk's eyes. "Hmmmmm. You could, at that," he said after a moment. Then he sighed and his thoughtful expression slipped into one of glum dejection. "If only it had worked."

"Wait a minute," McGuirk said. "I don't get this. If you hadn't done any thinking about all the uses you could put this invention to, why were you working on it?"

Dr. Foots shrugged his shoulders and said, "Didn't I just tell you about the pure science?" He shrugged his shoulders again. There was never any point in arguing with McGuirk. "It was the challenge. Cold light would waste no energy in heat. Much of the energy of an ordinary light bulb is generated not as light but as heat."

"Forgly dublimps," McGuirk swore. "That explains why light bulbs are so hot. That's a fantastic discovery in and of itself. Isn't it?"

Doctor Foots cleared his throat and said, with a dubious tone, "Well, one might put it that way. My goal was -- for that matter still is to create a light bulb so energy efficient that it will generate only light. You will not hear any hum or buzz, and most especially you would feel no heat. Instead all that energy -- now wasted -- would radiate as light."

"See? That sounds really, really great," McGuirk said.

"Such a bulb would obviously use less energy," the scientist said. "And be cheaper, therefore, to use."

"That's brilliant, Doc," McGuirk said. "But tell me what your theory was? How was this thing supposed to work?"

"My theory was simplicity itself," Foots said. "I noticed during my preliminary study of the common old-fashioned light bulb, that the longer you left one on, the hotter it got."

"Wow!" said McGuirk. "What an insight!"

"I began to wonder," said the doctor, intensely, "what would happen if you left the bulb on indefinitely and let it get hotter and hotter. Would it reach a point where it would get no hotter? If it did, what would happen then? I found it hard to believe it would level off. My knowledge of science told me that the temperature would have to change. I thought it likely that it would at that point simply get cooler. So I conducted an experiment."

"That's the blubnardbin most scientific insight I think I ever heard of," McGuirk said in amazement. "So what happened?"

"You see what happened on that table before you," the professor snarled sadly. "It reached the temperature limit as I thought, but the experiment failed. In order to work, my idea demands that the bulb stay on a bit longer than this one did."

"You mean to tell me," McGuirk said suspiciously, "that it went out?"

"Actually," answered the professor. "It, uh, melted."

"Melted," repeated McGuirk, thoughtfully.

"And thus my effort to invent a cold light bulb failed."

"It melted," McGuirk whispered, again in amazement, peering closely at the glass blob. Then he stood up to his full six and a half feet of height. "Doc, I don't think so. I think you succeeded."

"What?" said Doctor Foots.

"Look at this thing." McGuirk prodded the slagheap on the experimentation table. "Have you actually touched it, Doc? It's not generating any heat. It's cold!"

"What!"

"Yeah, yeah," McGuirk said excitedly. "Touch it for yourself. See? No heat. And I sure don't hear any buzzing, so it isn't wasting a lot of power in sound, either. That dial over there. What is that?"

"An energy meter so I can measure the amount of energy used to run the bulb. You'll notice it shows no energy reading whatsoever."

McGuirk clasped Doctor Foots with his wings. "Professor, you are a klajnarbin genius, that's what you are. Don't you see what you've done?"

"I've done nothing."

"But you have! You sure haven't failed."

"But -- but -- but. . ."

"Look, there's no heat, no sound, is there?"

"Well, no."

McGuirk hopped around excitedly. "Of course not. You've created a light bulb that's so efficient it doesn't give off anything to hear or feel. So why in the vlarsgrubbin sklub should it give off anything you can see? It's absolutely perfect! Just look at that meter? What could be more efficient in terms of energy usage than zero expenditure?"

"But -- but -- but," sputtered the professor.

"Think it over," said McGuirk. "You're a ploobin genius."

"I am?"

"That's your invention, isn't it?"

"It is?"

"Isn't it?"

"Oh, well, when you put it like that, I guess. Er, yes."

"So, ya mligging genius, what do you have to say for yourself?"

"Oh, my god," said Foots. Then he jumped in the air, kicked his heels together and yelled, "Eureka!"

McGuirk's first reaction was to say "You don't smell so good yourself," but he decided it was smarter to hold his tongue.

Chapter 2

Dueling with Difficulty


s they returned to the front room and McGuirk snatched his cloak off the table, Foots said, "This makes me so mad! To think I wasted so much time feeling sorry for myself."

"There's no time for that now," McGuirk said.

"When any idiot could have explained it to me!"

McGuirk cleared his throat and said, quietly. "Well, I don't know about that, doctor. But what I do know is time's a-wasting and -- what's that?"

There was a crashing sound from the back. McGuirk looked back through the laboratory door and saw a litter of plaster on the floor. Figures were dropping into the room through a hole in the ceiling that hadn't been there before. McGuirk grabbed the doctor and started propelling him toward the front door.

"What's going on?" Foots yelped.

"Don't ask, you don't want to know, and I don't have the time. Just get down the stairs."

McGuirk reached past Foots and threw the door open. He pushed the scientist out of the room and darted after him. He slammed the door shut behind him. They started down, rapidly, and when something slammed against the door, they moved even more rapidly. They reached the bottom, hurried through the door and locked it.

In the store, everything seemed normal. McGuirk's small companion, Urgus, was standing at the front, watching the street. The lizard man was seated happily on the counter, legs crossed. He sipped a pistachio slurpy through a straw. The small, pink predatory women flittered around the premises making wind chime noises. One of them spotted McGuirk and rushed to him, holding up a tub of rancid cottage cheese. "Currrds, fine gentle-critter? Whey?"

McGuirk ignored her. "Urgus!" he snapped. "See anything?"

"The road's all clear," snapped the space kid in the dark green cloak and cowl.

McGuirk said, "Well, they're breaking in upstairs. As soon as they figure out how to operate a doorknob, they'll be down here."

"They'll never figure that doorknob out," said Dr. Foots with a fiendish cackle. "I invented it, myself."

The small pink woman was back. Her windchimes chimed excitedly as she held out a jar of peanut butter. "Crrrunchy or smooooth, beeg guy?"

"Lady, I don't have the time for this," McGuirk said. He slid his hands under her arms and lifted her up to move her to one side. She gasped with panic.

"Sirrah!" cried a loud voice. "Unhand that damsel this moment!"

McGuirk put her down, half in surprise and half because she was heavier than she looked.

By the counter near the front door, the red-caped lizard man was standing, his mouth curved in a debonair smile, a sword in his hand. "You varlet, no one manhandles a lady while I'm around! No one!"

"Sorry, pal," McGuirk said. "I was just lifting her aside. I need to blow this joint and I didn't want to run over her."

"Nevertheless," said the lizard man. "You touched her without asking permission."

"An oversight," McGuirk said. He reached up to snatch his hat off, then realized he wasn't wearing one. Doing as well as he could without cap in hand, he turned to the small predatory woman and said, "I'm dreadful sorry, ma'am, but there's a glabhebin emergency on and I need to go away. I'm sorry as all gosh darn if I scared you any."

The predatory woman blinked at him uncomprehendingly.

The reptilian sheathed his sword and said, "Ah, I can see you are the true gentleman, in spite of your, shall we say, rough manners? I trust my misjudgment of your intentions has not led to any harsh feelings. . .?"

"Not a blubcanner one," McGuirk said. "Say, it's always a pleasure to pass the time of day with a true lizard-type gallant, but I have to run -"

The tall being in the red cloak drew back, his eyes bugging with rage. "What is that you say, sir? What is that? You call me -- You dare to call me, St. John St. George, a lizard?" He said the last word with an emphasis on the last syllable. "Sacred small blue cow, the very insult of it! I am a dragon, sirrah, a dragon by all the sacred bones on all the planets in all the star systems in all the little blue galaxies in all the sevagrams. I am none other than St. John St. George, and you have insulted me in a way I can never forgive! Sirrah, draw your weapon."

To demonstrate, St. George whipped his sword back out of its scabbard.

"Look," said McGuirk. "I just don't have the gorprackin time for this --"

The point of St. George's sword flicked dangerously close to McGuirk's beak and knocked his cigar from its corner perch.

"All right, that does it!" McGuirk yelled. "Now ya made me mad!"

He threw back his cloak and snatched his weapon from the sheath at his side. He grasped the thing's handle in both hands and pulled it back over his shoulder.

"Zounds!" zounded St. George. "And what is that?"

"A baseball bat," McGuirk said. And swung.

Nimbly, the dragon leaped back just in time to avoid being blasted out of the park. He said, "You must indeed be a creature of great wealth to own so much genuine wood on this planet. But a mere stick of wood, even genuine wood, is no match for a rapier in the hands of a master swordsdragon such as St. John St. George!"

The scurrying feet behind McGuirk were a familiar sound. Urgus said, "I'm right here, Unca First Officer McGuirk, sir. How can I help?"

"You can find my cigar for me," McGuirk said. "I feel naked without it in my beak."

This time the point of the sword flicked just under McGuirk's beak, parting the fastenings of his dark green cloak. It fell to the floor, covering young Urgus.

McGuirk couldn't afford to pay any attention to Urgus, not that he was so inclined at the moment. He swung the bat again with all his might. St. George jumped back but the bat slapped his sword aside. "Zounds!" he said. "That is a formidable weapon, my fine feathered friend! And I salute you for your skill with it. I shall regret it muchly when I skewer you like so much budgerigar shish kabob."

"Don't forget the onions and tomatoes," McGuirk snarled.

There was a loud sound from above, as of the splintering of synthetic wood. "Uh oh," said Doctor Foots. "I think they figured out the doorknob."

"You hold them off, I'm busy," groused McGuirk, parrying a thrust of the dragon's sword with his bat. He heard dozens of feet scrambling down the stairs but he didn't dare look back. St. George took a swipe at McGuirk's feet and McGuirk leaped into the air just in time to avoid being cut.

He could hear the clatter of his enemies at the door between the stairway and the shop. He was busy hoping the door was stronger than the one at the top when he heard it splinter.

The gang that scrambled into the store stopped at the sight of McGuirk. Their leader shouted with joy and said something that might have been the word "Attack!" in their own language, if they were sufficiently advanced to have one.

St. John St. George nimbly leaped forward thrusting his sword at McGuirk who avoided puncture by adopting a movement that might have been admired by a matador. St. George laughed with joy, pulled back and prepared to thrust again. Something prodded McGuirk in the back.

McGuirk glanced back and saw two of the small Ninja-garbed attackers who had been hounding him for days. They were standing on his cloak, on either side of a squirming lump that appeared to be Urgus. One of them poked McGuirk with the barrel of a gun.

Suddenly from deep within the folds of the fallen cloak there issued a loud cry and the squirming lump propelled itself upward with great force, toppling the two small newcomers and sending them rolling among the aisles of the store.

McGuirk whipped the cloak off the young spacekid who was sitting on the floor. Urgus reached under himself and pulled out a smoking, smoldering object. "I found your cigar," he told McGuirk.

It was battered but McGuirk didn't mind. He shoved it back in his beak and puffed it angrily back into shape.

"Sirrah!" snarled the dragon behind him. "Have you forgotten we are dueling?"

"Don't bug me about it," McGuirk said. "Bug him." He let the cloak drop back to the floor and pointed back toward the shattered door and the narrow staircase beyond it.

A tall figure was standing there. It wore a brown cloak. The cowl was thrown back to show it's narrow orange head, with the large, green eyes and thin, cynical lips. On its head was a cap denoting its rank as a captain of the Zarwellian Syndicate. It raised its hand and pointed at McGuirk, then snarled at its minions but a single word. The word was, "Kill!"

The dragon took a step forward, which put him beside McGuirk, looked straight at the Zarwellian and said, "Sirrah! How rude of you! Can you not tell that I am busy killing this feathered one? The rules of the duel, to say naught of the code of your everyday gentleman, demand that you must wait until I am through with him."

The Zarwellian again raised his hand and pointed. He said, in his grim, deep voice, "Kill both of them. Oh. And the little guy, too."

"Kill both of us!" shouted St. George. "How dare you! It is a level of impertinence beyond mere measure. It is impertinence of a cosmic scale." Rapidly, he added an aside to McGuirk. "Will you forgive me, my fine Mr. First Officer McGuirk, if I pause in our combat to dispatch these interlopers before returning to my gentlemanly duty of assassinating you?"

"Make yourself to florbin home," McGuirk said reasonably.

"It will take but a moment," said St. George, with great relish. "I will dispatch with dispatch!"

And the relish with which he attacked the newcomers was even greater.

Thrust! Parry! Riposte! St. George's sword wove silver confusion between the aisles of canned goods and stale cookies; aye, silver confusion and drab, green death. The latter because the small, evil minions who served as the Zarwellian ninjas had blood of a very uninteresting color.

McGuirk stared aghast at the speed and agility St. George exhibited, until, of a sudden, as quickly as it had begun, it was over, except that one small, ninja-masked head was still rolling. Arching one eyebrow with pride, St. George gave McGuirk a glance and said, "Sirrah, am I not a pretty swordsdragon?"

McGuirk placed the end of his baseball bat on the floor and leaned on it like a walking stick. "That's pretty vlujjin good, all right."

"You flatter me beyond resuscitation, friend McGuirk. But, as I recall, before we were so rudely interrupted, there was business at hand between us."

"All well and good," said McGuirk, without moving. "But before you return to your efforts at my assassinating, what are you going to do about him? His name, by the way and in case you give a florb's scruggle, is Masil Durwist and he works for a guy named Ras Dather."

"Who are you talking about?" St. George asked. "I have never heard of either of these presumed scoundrels."

McGuirk pointed nonchalantly behind him. St. George glanced back. There, the tall brown-robed Zarwellian captain was holding a particularly ugly discumbobulator, aimed straight at the swordsdragon.

McGuirk did not wait for St. George to reply. "Urgus!" he said. "The pickle jar, there, if you please."

Urgus picked up a large and particularly solid looking pickle jar from a lower shelf and threw it up into the air with both hands. With lightning speed, McGuirk cocked back the bat and swung. He caught the jar a solid swat and it flew in a line drive, catching the captain in the midriff.

The Zarwellian captain went oof and the discumbobulator flew out of his hands, going off in a shower of sparks and colored smoke. It blew a hole in the right side wall of the building.

The clatter of little feet upstairs suggested to McGuirk that more minions were arriving. He said to St. George, "If it's all right with you, I'd just as soon put off our own personal blood bath till a more propitious time. We need to vacate these premises right now."

"It would seem that at this moment discretion outvotes valor," agreed the swordsdragon, sliding his blade under McGuirk's cloak, still on the floor, and throwing it to the mutant.

"Much obliged," McGuirk said. Then, louder, "Urgus, Doc Foots. Let's vamoose!"

"I can't leave yet," Foots groused. "I forgot to bring any equipment."

"You can't go back upstairs," McGuirk said. "And we can't stay down here, much longer."

"Even so," Foots snarled, "there's stuff I need." He rushed over to a small display of chewing gum and hurriedly began stuffing his pockets. "McGuirk!" he shouted. "Right behind you. Toss me a bundle of that stuff."

McGuirk looked around and saw what was behind him: baling wire. Of course! He picked up a couple of rolls, tossed one to Foots, and stuffed the other in his own pocket. "We got batteries and stuff in the shuttle boat," McGuirk said. Foots headed toward the street and McGuirk tossed crumpled bills onto the counter.

Sputtering in fury, Masil Durwist got to his feet, waving his arm in the air. His timing was still off, for at that exact moment the rest of his minions clambered down the stairs and ran over him. Urgus rushed through the door to the street. Moving backward, their weapons ready, McGuirk and St. George headed toward the door behind the young spacekid. At the sight of the armed men, the ninja guys hesitated. "If you will do me the honor, of going first through the door," said St. George, "I will take great pleasure in the hacking to so many small pieces of any of these annoying creatures as storm after us."

"No need to ask me twice," McGuirk said. He darted out of the store.

On the street, he hesitated and looked around. The street seemed clear. Foots and Urgus were standing close by, Urgus with his sword drawn, and Foots glaring ferociously. "You know," he said, "I've wanted to blow that place to smithereens ever since I moved in."

"Not today, Doc," McGuirk said. "There's innocent people in there."

"Obviously, you never ate one of their liverwurst sandwiches," he said.

There was a sudden clatter from inside the store and a cloud of dust and food-wrappers came through the open door. After a moment the noise ended and a moment later the dust began to settle. St. George, cleaning his blade on a handy moist towelette, stepped gingerly over a corpse in the doorway and slid his sword into its scabbard. He doffed his hat and held it over his heart as he glanced back at the store. "It would probably be the custom to say some of the words over those poor scoundrels, but I feel as if it is enough that I have let my sword speak for me."

"My sentiment exactly," said McGuirk. And arm in wing, they began walking casually down the street.

Chapter 3

The Pale Moons Gather

he day was dying. The planet's weak primary was setting in the hills to the west of the city. A sprinkling of moons could be seen, already bright above the eastern horizon. A smattering of ghostlier pale moons speckled the fading sky overhead, casting sufficient light to give the city the illusion of an overcast day. Even so, lights were already on here and there throughout Preadus, showing through windows in the heavy stone walls of the buildings that had stood here since those days when the edge of the sea had lapped against the city's southern wall. McGuirk led his companions along a twisting, narrow street that headed in its uncertain way toward the southeastern corner of the wall and the Gate of the Four Lost Kings.

"The moons," said St. John St. George, "they look so beautiful. I do not think I have ever seen so many of them in the sky at once."

"What's that?" Foots snarled. He glowered up at the sky. "Oh. Those things. Well, get used to it. There should be a lot more in the sky over the next few days. It's a big astronomical event on this planet. Happens every few thousand years or so."

"And it makes gliding into orbit around this flurpmarrin planet a major pain in the tailfeathers," McGuirk said. "We had to slide into a landing pattern by coming along the planet's forward orbit. Even so, I thought we'd collide with something at least a dozen times."

"They are a navigational hazard, even today," agreed Foots. "The gravitational effect of so many bodies in so small a space -- relatively speaking -- makes the orbits of many of the smaller moons erratic and all but unpredictable, to say the least. Especially with all the uncharted subspace disturbances and spatial fluctuations going on around here. Any starship that approaches this planet runs a certain amount of risk."

"Not with Captain Shivers flying the Starsnipe," Urgus said. His voice was oddly different, the usual enthusiasm replaced with something else -- defiance, maybe. "Why, she's best pilot in the known universe."

"And I was the co-pilot, don't forget," McGuirk said.

"You were?" Foots asked.

"I sure was."

Dr. Foots shuddered. "Urgus," he told the young spacekid. "You don't have any idea how lucky you really are."

The street broadened and slanted downhill toward the gate.

"That name of yours," McGuirk said to St. George. "I don't think I've ever heard it before."

"Of course not," said the swordsdragon. "I am too afflicted with modesty."

"So how do you spell it? With an 'e' like in 'engine?'"

"It's spelled S-a-i-n-t -- "

"No, no," McGuirk said. "I'm talking about your first name."

"And I am spelling it," insisted St. George. "S-a-i-n-t J-o-h-n." "That doesn't spell 'sinjin,'" McGuirk said. "It spells Saint John."

"Frog of a little blue ladybug!" St. George howled. "Do you say I do not know how to spell my own name?"

"No, no, no way," McGuirk said. "If I said a thing like that you might whip out that pig sticker of yours again and we need to put some distance between us and those Zerwellian's before we resume the festivities. I'm just saying it's a funny way to pronounce Saint John."

"Funny? How can it be funny?" St. George asked, all aghast. "It is the right way to pronounce it, is it not?"

"I suppose," McGuirk said. "But if that's the case, why isn't your last name pronounced 'sinjor?'"

"That," said the swordsdragon with great dignity, "would be simply ridiculous."

There were no guards at the Gate of the Four Lost Kings. For one thing, it had been centuries since Praedus had been important enough to have any reason to fear attack. For another, it was just too far away from other cities to make attacking it any fun. McGuirk was grateful, nonetheless. The last several days had been hard enough and the next several promised more of the same.

Civilization on the planet Chaseryn was old. Centuries ago Praedus had been a seaport where ships from all over the world came with their cargoes of exotic wares, spices, foods and passengers. The kings of Praedus had been kings of commerce. But the kings were gone and the commerce was gone. Even the sea was gone. Only the city remained, a mute, worn stone testament to the past, a headstone to the future. It was a place of ghosts. This whole planet was a place of ghosts.

In its time the land on which the city stood had been a promontory where stone and iron fortresses had stared down at the harbor. Praedus had been reached by a well-traveled road that skirted the edge of the Granini Sea. Now the road ran along the edge of a cliff that rose some distance above the bottom of the sea where, at this edge, it began a steep slope downward.

"And for how long have you been pursued by these, how you say, Zerliwogs?" asked St. George.

"Zarwellians," McGuirk corrected. "They're a small-time sort of crime syndicate, or so they think of themselves. More like a fraternal order of rat mucous, if you ask me." He puffed furiously on his cigar which now emitted furious balls of rose-tinted gray smoke. "They're strictly small-time, restricted to this galaxy only."

"And their evil plan is to conquer the whole galaxy and rule it," Urgus said.

"Zounds!" said St. George. "You called them small-time, yet they intend to rule this entire galaxy?"

"It's not that big a galaxy," McGuirk reminded him.

"Psah!" groused Foots. "M-33 1/3 in Andromeda. This galaxy missed being mapped centuries ago on Earth because it's hidden behind M-33. For years, before anyone visited it, there was serious debate as to whether it was a galaxy or a meteor swarm. The damned thing only has five stars." He was thoughtful a moment, then added, "Of course that looks pretty good in a Baedeker."

"Is that why you came here?" McGuirk asked. "You saw it in a guide book?"

"Might as well have been," Foots said. He heaved a sigh. "I came here to get away from it all. After that contretemps over my experiment with Epsilon Crudnow XII -- "

"Wait a minute," interrupted St. George. "Epsilon Crudnow XII? I thought that star system only had eleven planets -- "

"Well, yes," Foots said. "Now. Well, anyway, to make a long story short, I came here in the hope I'd be left alone."

"Especially by the Epsilon Crudnow authorities," McGuirk said.

"And who finds me? Nadir McGuirk and his sawed-off sidekick, that's who. What's with that, anyway?"

"We need help."

"I'm a scientist, not a psychiatrist," Foots snarled.

"We need to find Captain Shivers," said Urgus. "We need to find her fast."

"That doesn't sound right," Foots said. "Aren't you two the ones who're usually hiding, and she the one who's looking?"

McGuirk clamped his beak tightly around his stogie and said, "Things have changed."

They reached the place where the road curved away from the one-time seacoast, and made its way inland down into a declivity that was too shallow to be called a valley, and where brown, dry-looking grass began to grow here and there in spiky clusters.

McGuirk said, "You might as well know, Doc, Captain Shivers sent us to find you. She said you might be the only person who could get us out of a jam. Actually, this whole galaxy's in the boysenberry, and she said to find you and get you back to Samil --"

"Samil? That's Ras Dather's bailiwick, isn't it?" Foots said. "You mentioned him before." He gave McGuirk a strange look, one that was even stranger than what McGuirk was used to.

"You had a run-in with Dather?" McGuirk asked.

"What?" said Foots. "That small time Killer Kane? He's not worth my attention."

"He's not so small time any more," McGuirk said. "He's lucked into something big. It has something to do with the moons, though don't ask me to explain it."

"If you don't explain it," said Foots, rather too logically, "how will I have any idea what you're talking about?"

McGuirk took a long drag on his stogie and let the smoke out of his beak in a forbidding-looking cloud. "You know," he said after a thoughtful moment, "when you say it that way, it seems so xagglin simple, even I can't think of a way around it."

"I never said you weren't capable of an occasional lucid episode," Foots said. "Why not share your insights with us newcomers?"

"Okay," McGuirk said. "Let's start at the beginning."

"And where would that be?"

McGuirk said, "The dark, star-studded night."

Click HERE for Part Two