Header by Jim Garrison


Chapter One

 
Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 1
 

It was the kind of weather Curran had only found on Ullusk. Ullusk was the outermost of four planets that circled a medium warm star inside the Lantern of the Lost Worlds, which was a nebula. The heat from the star boiled away the particle cloud for enough distance that a vacuum bubble big enough to hold a small star system formed, surrounded by gray, drab cloud-matter that was usually lighted by electrical disturbances. Lightning of a bright, deep red coursed through the Lantern in storms that took decades to wear themselves down. Something about the star or the vacuum bubble or just the perverseness of the universe attracted the lightning to the edge of the bubble itself so that it played and flashed and shot its crimson arrows across its skin but inside the bubble itself. You could usually see the lightning from the surface of the planet even in the daytime.

Right now it was late at night, and there was a rainstorm. The sky flung down big drops of water that burst on the spaceport tarmac like water balloons. The sky was filled with jagged yellow lightning, entirely local and not in any way connected with the electrical displays off in that particle cloud. Thunder roared across the field like the sound of a great starship taking off, though no starships were doing that on a night light this. Off at the edge of the star system red lightning flared and flashed against the gray expanse of the nebula and the bulk of it was hidden by the rain clouds. But by no means all. Now and again a bright flash of it would burst like a bomb high in the sky, faded red through the rain, and yellow streaks like blood vessels would flash across it.

 

On a night like this, Curran thought, smart people stayed inside their ships and listened to the beat of the water on their hull and the concrete of the landing field.

He, of course, had left his ship and was sitting on one of the hard benches in a tavern at the outskirts of the field, listening to an old acquaintance he didn’t much like try to sell him on a job he didn’t want.

“Not that I know for sure I even need you,” said Captain Meese, lifting his tankard and taking a slow sip of beer.

Curran took an even slower sip, savoring the heft of the tankard. The Drowsing Manticore was old-fashioned, even by the standards of Ullusk, a reflection of its proprietor Frigwig, and therefore the tankards were like small cauldrons. A prudent man could make an evening of one filling of such a flagon. Fortunately for Frigwig’s income, few, if any of the customers of the Drowsing Manticore were prudent.

Meese put his down on the table, producing a satisfying thump. His flushed face had a look of weary anger on it.

“If it was anyone but Carlo Bierce involved,” Meese went on, heavily, “I wouldn’t be concerned. And I shouldn’t be inviting you in, either. But that ship of yours is up to the job, and mine isn’t. Aside from

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 2
 

which, there’s your sword arm, Curran. I trust your sword arm more than I trust that of anyone I’ve been shipping with recently.”

“Trust?” inquired Curran.“We aren’t fishing for compliments, now are we?” Meese gave Curran the courtesy of a quizzical glance and lifted his tankard again. “Okay, okay. You’re the best swordsman I know, with the possible exception of Bierce himself. And you’re good with a pistol, too. But closer to the matter, I trust your sword arm not to put a foot of prime metal into the base of my spine the first time I turn it to you. Does that answer your question?”

“I have so many questions it must answer one,” admitted Curran.

“Oh, I’ve got the answers. Satisfactory answers. And if you want them, all you need do is say you’re in, and –”

“Just one thing,” said Curran. “If you don’t know what you’re after, what really makes it so interesting?”

“Well,” Meese hedged. “I know it by reputation.”

“And you say it’s here, in the nebula?”

“Yes.”

Meese hesitated and Curran made no effort to fill his void for him. After a moment, Meese said, “It’s a map.”

 

“It’s a map, is it?”

“But I know who has it,” said Meese.

“It isn’t your map?”

Meese made a face like he was going to growl, but only picked up his tankard and took another drink. He said, “It was my map.”

“It seems to me,” Curran said, rubbing his chin, “that you had a map that time on Sundrun. How many years in the salt mines would you have gotten that time if I hadn’t been there to save your ass?”

“Don’t remind me about Sundrun –”

“Okay, then. Let’s change the subject to, oh, say Phaffner. Remember the Stephentown Mine fiasco? Seems to me there was a map involved in that one, too.”

“Those were different. They were swindles.”

Curran nodded. “So they were. And how do I know you aren’t trying the same swindle yet again?” He took a drink, watching Meese over the rim of his tankard.

“I wasn’t the swindler,” Meese said with a snarl. “I was the victim.” He pushed his tankard aside, surely a sign he was at least angry, if

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 3
 

not serious. “I used to own the map. Star chart, really. It was stolen from me and then stolen from the corpse of the man who –”

He stopped talking and glanced around.

The door to the tavern slammed open and at first Curran thought it was the wind. Bright yellow lightning flared in the red-tinted night sky and, almost immediately, thunder rattled the tavern windows, as if the gods were knocking over tables in Valhalla or whatever place it was the locals believed in, here on Ullusk. He suspected that was R’lyeh. Back behind the storm a writhing snake of crimson lightning spanned the sky. It was well out in space from here so it rattled no windows, at least locally. But it was bright enough to give an orange tint to the clouds that was visible even through the storm.

Then the local lightning flashed again and he thought he saw someone standing at the edge of the door. A figure stepped into view. The room grew quiet as most of the dozen or so customers turned to see who it was.

Throughout the place, hands eased with a casualness that was a little too studied, toward assorted weaponry though no one was so foolish as to draw anything – just yet. Curran was pleased to note that one or two of those hands moved toward areas where no weapons, as such, actually showed, revealing no doubt backups the owners would have

 
Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 4
 

preferred not revealing just yet; which was always potentially handy information to have.

One of those who gave away the location of a concealed weapon was Meese. Curran was especially pleased to see that. Tonight they were supposed to be trusting each other, but who knew about tomorrow?

Meese started to say something, then clamped his mouth shut. He leaned back in his chair, with a glance toward Curran.

The newcomer came inside the room and stood to the side of the door where the lightning wouldn’t outline him quite so starkly. He was not a big man. It was hard to tell in the coat he wore, with the hood pulled up like that, but he seemed to be a human, possibly of terrestrial origin – though that was purely speculation on Curran’s part, – rather slender, even slight. Water dripped from his clothes to form a pool on the floor. He wore a rain cloak over spacer’s dark clothing, a short spacer’s sword, and carried some sort of holstered gun, but his hands – which were bare – made no hostile moves, gave away no information of use to a potential enemy.

He was not exactly staring at anyone, but it was obvious he was interested in the group of four Valutans sitting at a table in back, near the large roaring fire that blazed in the tavern’s fireplace. Other than Meese and Curran, the Valutans were the only customers tonight.

 

And they were just as interested in the newcomer.

The wind shifted and the rain blew in through the door. Old Frigwig, a squat gray-furred creature from who knew what world, bustled forward to close the door and offered to take the newcomer’s coat. The newcomer just pointed to a table, neither close to nor far from where the Valutans sat. Curran could tell that Frigwig was not happy with his choice, but he led the man to the table, where he sat in a chair facing the others. Frigwig shuddered and hung the man’s coat on a rack nearby.

“Perhaps,” said Meese, holding his head down, “we would be smart to get out of this place before the dance starts.”

“What?” said Curran. “Didn’t you see how that rain’s coming down, not to mention the lightning? It’s not safe outside even with an energy shield. Besides, maybe I’m in the mood for a dance.”

“We’re here to discuss business, not amusement,” snapped Meese. But he made no move to get out of his chair, which undoubtedly meant that he was well aware how unpleasant it was outside. He shifted around so that while he did not face the newcomer and the men the newcomer was interested in, he could watch them. His pointed ears shifted slightly, and his hand moved restlessly toward a pocket and waited there.

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 5
 

Curran realized he was trying to conceal his face from the newcomer.

Curran lifted up his beer, leaned back in his chair and took a long, deep drink.

Meese glanced at him, watching his face. Meese said, “Oh, my God.”

Curran said, “What?”

“You’re going to buy into this, aren’t you?”

“Buy into what? Nothing’s happened.”

Meese leaned against the table and glared at Curran. “I need to know if you intend to accept my offer.”

“There’s nothing going on.”

“Humor me. Are you in or out?”

“I need more information,” Curran said. “I need to know what it’s a map to.”

“The hell you do. I’ve told you all I’m going to. This map is worth a fortune and I can’t get it back without you.”

 

“Don’t be foolish. Of course you can.”

“There’s no one else I can trust.”

He was speaking in low tones to avoid being overheard, but there was emotion in his tone to match his expression. For a moment Curran thought Meese would pound his fist against the table – or into Curran’s face.

He said, “If I’m the only one you can trust, you’re in really sad shape.”

The men the newcomer had shown such interest in were four Valutans. Technically, they were Earthmen, because supposedly at one time in the distant past their ancestors had claimed quite an empire on the home planet. But that was before the fall of Atlantis, if there had ever been an Atlantis, and if it had ever actually fallen. Like the Hyperboreans, they had fled Earth during prehistoric times and, like the Hyperboreans, ended up on Pasquintain, a small planet in a star system close by the nebula called the Lantern of the Lost Worlds. The Hyperboreans, led by a sorcerer named Haon-Dor, were supposed to have made the trip by means of “witch space” – a sort of dimensional passageway rumored favored in later times by followers of Cthulhu, Azathoth and Nyarlathotep. Though they were bipeds and walked upright, the Valutans were said to have evolved from reptiles – particularly serpents.

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 6
 

Things seemed quiet for now, so Curran said, “I’ll tell you what the stumbling point is. You haven’t actually told me what this map leads to. Just called it Bierce’s treasure.”

“Considering the pirate Bierce is, and how grandly he operates, that would be enough for most men.”

“Most men have never actually met Carlo Bierce,” said Curran. “And lived to talk about it, that is. Another reason you want me in, I suspect.”

“I want you in for your damned ship and that’s all. I’ve already got a partner who met Bierce and lived – well, never mind. But this thing is located where most ships can’t go. The Black Swan, though, is good enough to make the trip and survive it. Only other ships I can think of that could do that are the Tempest, which is nowhere near the nebula just now, and the Therigorn.”

“Now, that’s helpful. I have two points of information you hadn’t provided before,” Curran noted. “Now, if you’d just add what it is that we’re after, I might be able to make a decision.”

“Oh, come on, Curran.”

“I mean it, Meese.”

 

Meese was glaring again. He took a quick drink, put the tankard down, glowered, and said, “May Cthulhu have your guts for galoshes.” He leaned forward and spoke so low that Curran almost couldn’t hear him. “Bierce and a partner stole something and the partner hid it here in the nebula. Lost tech from Agrisiti, possibly. Rumored to be a weapon.”

“And Bierce allowed this to be stolen from him?”

“Better than that. He was double-crossed by his partner. And it happened light years away from here, to hell and gone across the galaxy. He has no idea where it is now or how it got there. But I know who has the map now.”

“How convenient,” said Curran. He added, “You mentioned the ship Therigorn. Did you know it’s Valutan in registry?”

“Yes,” Meese said, sharply. “And there sit some of its crew.” He indicated the four the newcomer showed such interest in.

Almost as if that were a cue, one of the serpent-men, a tall burly sort in faded brown spacer’s coveralls, got up and moved across the room, slowly, watching the newcomer. Curran noted how alert the Valutan was, how intent. His three friends tried to look relaxed and casual and were not very good at it.

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 7
 

Meese looked around at the situation, then back at Curran’s face. “Damn your eyes, Curran,” he said and looked disgusted.

Curran just shrugged.

Meese said, “Well, at least try not to get yourself killed,” and left their table, keeping his head down, moving toward the back of the room, where there was a passageway leading to another door to the outside.

The burly man passed the stranger’s table, heading toward the door, and Curran saw his body tensing for his move.

Then something happened.

The tavern door flew open again to slam against the wall and let in rain that was driven by gale force winds, and someone with it.

Thunder crashed so loud it sounded like one of the great starships taking off on the field outside. The flare of the lightning only added to the illusion. It was quite a dramatic entrance, but then Elge often managed to dramatize her entrances. She stood there, water dripping from the cloak she had thrown back to reveal clothes that Curran regarded as far too snug-fitting on her ripe young Earth-girl figure. She looked round the room, not spotting the corner Curran was in

 

right away.

Frigwig behind the bar, attending to something with his back to the door, didn’t see her enter. But at the sound of the door crashing against the wall, he turned and seeing it open, started on a run. Curran said, “Close the door, Elge, before Old Frightwig hurts himself.”

She glanced over at the barkeep and immediately turned and closed the door. With the wind, it wasn’t easy. But Frigwig was only halfway there by the time she got it shut and there was no more new water in the room than you’d expect if you were an optimist. Frigwig slowed down, a grateful expression on his lumpy, gray-furred face and offered to take her cloak. “No thank you,” said she. “I won’t be that long. I’m just here to get my reprobate guardian and take him back to the ship while he’s still sober. He is still sober, isn’t he?”

The burly serpent-man had come to a stop when the door opened. Now he moved again, pushing against Frigwig and sending him sprawling across the floor.

“Out of my way, you two,” he snarled as he pushed past Elge. Then he turned toward the newcomer.

Curran finished his drink in a quick but careful gulp.

Elge tapped the Valutan on the shoulder and said, “That’s no way to behave, worm face.”

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 8
 

The snake man looked back at her in surprise, and she clipped him hard on the jaw.

 

He fell backwards to the floor and lay there a second, looking up at Elge in astonishment. Elge stood glaring down at him. With some pride, Curran noticed her stance, how well her feet were placed, the way she guarded herself, the spring in her legs. Of course she stood no chance against an opponent that size, unless she pulled a weapon. Curran had no doubt she would, but he doubted she could pull one any faster than the Valutan, not to mention his three friends.

The burly man got to his feet and started toward Elge and she didn’t move.

Curran did. He threw the heavy metal flagon straight at the serpent man. It bounced ringingly off his forehead and he dropped unconscious. Curran caught the flagon on the rebound.

Elge turned and saw him. “Oh, I almost forgot. I need you back at the ship, now. It’s an emergency.”

The other three snakemen were on their feet, their swords drawn. One of them headed toward the newcomer and the other two straight for Curran and Elge.

Curran tossed the flagon to his table and moved to stand next to Elge.

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page9
 

Curran reached out with his left hand and took Elge by the upper arm and pulled her out of his way. His right hand pulled his sword. It was a sword he was famous for, not because of any legends attached to it but because of its notable length. Common knowledge was that aboard a spaceship where the alleyways were narrow and the compartments small, you were at a disadvantage with a long sword. This was why most spacemen who carried swords, which were often preferred to guns aboard starships, carried short ones.

The serpent men bore the triangular bladed short swords with two edges, one of them serrated, for which they were well known. Two of them came toward Curran and the girl behind him. She said, “Sword or pistol?”

“Think of the poor innocent bystanders,” Curran replied, indicating the almost empty room.

“Right. Swords.” She whipped hers out and stood next to him.

At sight of two people facing them with long blades, the snakemen came to a standstill and for an instant it is possible they gaped. They had probably expected something on the order of a spacer’s dirk, the tough thrusting short sword favored by most Terrans. In Curran they faced a long-bladed cut and thrust weapon, superbly balanced, and made of the finest steel; but not having seen it in action yet, they could only guess at that last part. The girl’s weapon was designed to thrust

 

only, but was almost as long as Curran’s blade. It was obvious from the way they stood that they knew how to use them.

Of course the Valutans knew their own weapons, too, and if they were surprised by the length of the blades they faced, they were not intimidated. Elge’s sword especially, so designed for point, not edge, ought to be easy to get inside. One of them tried, right off.

He came away with a startled look on his face and a deep four inch gash on his right forearm that poured blood on Frigwig’s stone floor.

Elge bore in on her opponent and he barely jumped back in time. She pressed her advantage and his face was as much a testament to how sincerely he had underestimated her as the blood that dripped from his wound.

Curran’s opponent had made no such error, but neither was he winning. In a room this size the longer blade was a decided advantage, especially with no customers present, and Curran fought easily and with little effort. In addition to a wicked point, his weapon had two sharp edges and in short order the Valutan was bleeding from a slash in his side, one on his leg, and another on the side of his face.

The other human had engaged the last Valutan. He was armed with a spacer’s dirk and, though it was not possible for Curran to study his fighting technique while paying attention to his own skin, his

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 10
 

impression was that the fellow was doing all right. Then the fellow actually disarmed his opponent and the Valutan’s sword was clattering on the floor.

Well, thought Curran, I can’t have him showing me up like that, and he slapped upward at his opponent’s blade, knocking it out of his hand and sending it point first into the ceiling. It stuck there, indicating either very soft plaster or a hell of a sharp point.

At almost the same time Elge drove the point of her sword through the fleshy part of her opponent’s thigh, and yanked it free just in time to avoid bending the blade as he fell screaming to the floor. That was something she was very good at.

The fight was over, as Curran knew, and he stepped back and watched to see if the losers knew it also. The small, slender human had stepped back too. The still-groggy snakeman Curran had beaned with his flagon got slowly to his feet, making no effort to reach for his sword. He and one of the others helped Elge’s victim get up and the four of them made for the door.

Curran eased over to his table and picked up the flagon he had thrown, looking it over.

“Damnation,” he said. “Dented. Frightwig, I’m afraid I owe you for a new flagon.”

 

Frigwig said something in his own language, and even though the tone seemed not just conciliatory but actually filled with gratitude, Curran recognized enough of the words to realize his ancestors were not being complimented. He protested, mildly, “I didn’t start it.”

Frigwig patted Curran’s shoulder and adding something about the social habits of Curran’s great-grandmother, moved away, taking the dented tankard with him.

Curran looked around. The slender human was gone. There was money left on his table to pay for his as yet undelivered order.

“Well,” said Elge, sheathing her sword. “That was invigorating. Let’s get back to the ship.”

“Why?” Curran asked.

“There’s somebody there who wants to hire us, that’s why. Fellow named Smith. Not a very likely looking chap. Matter of fact, he looks a little unsavory. Has the same sort of beady eyes you do, actually. But he has a job for us, he says, and I know we need work. Or at least money.”

“Smith?”

“It’s an Earth name, isn’t it? He’s a guy from Earth then. GCs from

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 11
 

Earth are good money just about anywhere in the galaxy. Let’s get back to the ship before he changes his mind and hires somebody else.”

“I was just about to take a job when you brought all this down on our heads,” he said.

“From who? I don’t see anybody here who looks prosperous.”

Curran glanced around. There was no sign of Meese; no surprise there, really. He sighed. Despite his show of reluctance, Meese’s job was an intriguing one – what little he was able to learn of it.

But a client on deck was worth two in a back alley, and if a little brawl could scare Meese off, he was no one to go after something a man like Bierce might have his eye on. “Okay,” said Curran. “Let’s get back to the ship.”

He got his cloak from a hook on the wall, left cash on the table and followed Elge out into the night.

The wind had abated a little, though not the rain, and certainly not the lightning and thunder. Curran pulled his cloak more tightly around him and turned into the narrow street leading back toward the spaceport, Elge beside him.

He said, “What have I told you about leaving the ship alone without a suit of energy armor?”

 

“I don’t see you wearing any,” she pointed out.

“I’m the captain,” he said. “I don’t set examples, I give orders. You obey them.”

“I do? When did that start?”

They walked on.

After several more minutes, as they neared the edge of the field, a dozen shadows detached themselves from the buildings on both sides of the street and moved into Curran and Elge’s way.

Lightning flared so close overhead in the red-tinted sky that the thunder seemed to come simultaneously with it, and in the brief and sudden flare of yellow light Curran saw that the dozen figures were all serpent beings. And on their hands were the distinctive gloves that indicated they had not neglected to bring their energy armor.

CHAPTER TWO

The Valutans formed a semi-circle in the road before the two humans and moved toward them until they were at a slightly greater distance than Curran might reach with his sword from where he stood. There they stopped. One of them, tall and slender, and standing toward the center of the group, stepped half a step forward. No weapon was yet drawn.

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 12
 

More lightning flared, enough to reveal faces even under cowls, and the leader said, “Curran! I might have known.”

“Thess Garlo,” replied Curran. “And what brings you out on a night like this?”

The Valutan starship captain gave a brittle laugh. She was tall, slender and just why a being supposedly evolved from serpents had a figure that lush and apparently mammalian, was a scientific point Curran had never figured out, but one he’d never complain about, either. She said, “I just encountered four of my crew running back toward the field with their tails between their legs and a story of how they’d been bested by two Earthmen and a girl. I couldn’t believe it.”

“That they were bested?” Elge asked.

“No, that they’d admit it. I’m usually more careful than that about the people I hire to work aboard the Therigorn. Damn me, but I had to see for myself who it was. You and Elge. I figured as much, but had to see.”

“I don’t see the four around to identify us,” said Curran.

“In need of medical help, no doubt,” Elge said.

“No,” said Thess Garlo. “Just now they’re receiving the attention of a

 

priest. I suppose I should have given them some slack because of who the two Earthmen and the Earthgirl were, but running a ship like mine requires a tough crew and I find that on occasion nothing helps the evolutionary process like a bit of an example, if you know what I mean.”

“I have my suspicions what you mean,” Curran said. The rain pelted down against his face and lightning flared, brightening the night almost to daylight. The thunder roared like a dragon clearing its throat. He pushed back the left side of his cloak the better to reach his sword.

“About the other human, do you know who he was?” Curran asked.

“Of course I do, but it doesn’t matter.” Thess held up both hands to show that they were empty, except for her gloves. “I gather the fight was fair enough.”

“Three of us against four of them,” said Curran. “What could be fairer than that, except maybe two against twelve.”

“It started when your men tried to surround one lone man,” said Elge. “It wasn’t fair until Curran and I moved in and made it fair.”

“Then you really don’t know who you helped, do you?” said Thess. “Truth is, I suspect Shado could have handled the four of them by

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 13
 

himself.”

“Shado. Is that his name?”

“He’s a dangerous man, Curran,” Thess said. “Especially to make friends with. If I run into him tonight, I won’t be as forgiving and lenient to him as I am with you. Nor will I give him any chances.”

“You make him sound interesting,” said Curran.

“We have no argument, you and I,” said Thess Garlo. “You were right, my men were wrong to start a fight that way – with witnesses and all. Besides, I don’t think anyone in my crew can take you, except for me. And maybe my first officer Finderoth. He’s not here. If you ever do cross me, we will meet with swords, just the two of us. And I will kill you.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

“Which you don’t believe,” said Thess, shaking her head. “You believe you can take me, is that it?”

“Take you in a sword fight? I probably can, you know.” He smiled. “But I was thinking it was more likely I could charm you out of killing me.”

“Well, I hope you never learn differently.” There was a moment of

 

quiet; even the lightning and thunder were still. Then she added, “Let them pass, men. We have no quarrel with them as yet.”

The Valutans moved away and left Curran and Elge alone. Elge gave a snort and said, “You’d slice her gullet faster than she could sneeze.”

“I’ve never heard a snake sneeze,” Curran said. “I know they yawn, but I don’t know if they sneeze.”

“When did you ever see one of them yawn?” Elge asked.

Curran ignored her and resumed walking.

It was not too much farther to the spaceport. But the port itself was enormous, large enough to berth ten good-sized ships at one time. There were half that many in port, including a liner from Pasquintain. The Black Swan was located halfway to the center of the field and the distance to it was farther than the distance they had walked from the Drowsing Manticore. It was an open field. The rain still fell and the lightning flashed and the thunder sounded, and there was no shelter along their way except the hull of a freighter if they chose to skirt close to it.

At last they reached the ship and Curran keyed the airlock with his wrist computer. The great hatch opened and a ramp skittered out for them.

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 14
 

Aboard, they dogged shut the hatch behind them, closing out the storm. They shucked their cloaks and changed their water-logged walking boots for ship’s traction boots. Then they went forward to the ship’s wardroom where Elge promised they would find “Mr. Smith.”

They could hear the pelting of raindrops on the skin of the Black Swan, even inside the ship. As they moved down the passage toward the wardroom, Elge moved ahead, so that she went into the wardroom first.

There were two people in the room. One was the ship’s other crewmember, Brug. The other person was a slender man; from behind he gave almost the impression of being slight. Elge said, “Mr. Smith, this is Captain Curran. Captain Curran, this is –”

The visitor turned around and beamed at Curran. “You can dispense with the introductions, my dear. They are simply not necessary. Hello, Christophe.”

“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Curran. “If it isn’t my old friend,” – he gave the word a certain unpleasant emphasis – “Carlo Bierce.”

“That’s Carlo Bierce?” asked Elge, eyes wide with amazement.

“Yes it is,” said Curran.

“Then who the hell is Christophe?”

 

A peal of thunder rattled the starship’s bones and the rain slapped its skin as if demanding attention.

It was warm, inside, even cozy. Curran eased himself into a chair facing Bierce and shook his head slowly. “I never thought to see you again,” he said. “You’ve changed man, you’ve got less hair and five new pounds to your beltline. What sort of bloody hell brings you all the way to the Lantern of Lost Worlds?” He said it just the way he would have if he hadn’t any idea.

Bierce’s left eyebrow rose up and his right eye squinted. He leaned forward and, in a hushed, unbelieving tone said, “You mean you’ve not told the lass who you are?”

“I’m not a boastful man, Carlo.”

“Like bloody hell, you’re not. I used to get so sick of listening to you relive the time you took down Absarka and his crew. I can’t believe you never told a ripe looking young peach like this one that you’re Le Grand Christophe.”

“What!” said Elge. “You? Le Grand Christophe? I don’t believe it!”

“You must have known,” said Curran, snappishly. “You’ve seen my signature.”

“You always sign your name C. Curran,’” she said. “I thought the ‘c’

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 15
 

stood for Clifford or Carmine. Or maybe you just signed your name with a stutter.”

“Which brings me to the point,” said Bierce, “that I have no idea who you are, girl. You aren’t Christophe’s niece or granddaughter, now, are you?” As he said that, he gave a sly wink.

“What kind of question is that? I’m not his niece and I’m much too old to be his granddaughter,” she said, glaring at the pirate. She glanced at Curran. “I am too old to be your granddaughter, aren’t I?”

“You certainly are. Why don’t you go get our guest and me something to drink,” said he.

“Brug can do that.”

The small white and tan crewman was already pushing himself out of his chair when Curran said, “Please, Elge. You play hostess so much better than Brug does.”

Brug said, “She does?”

“Of course not,” Curran assured him.

“Make up your mind, why don’t you?” Elge said. For a moment it looked as if she might say more, but she merely curtsied demurely and said, “As you wish, grandpapa,” and left the room.

“And don’t forget something for Brug,” Curran called after her. If she said anything to that, it was masked by another peal of thunder.

 

Bierce laughed softly.

Curran said, “I’m her guardian, nothing more. She and her parents were aboard a starship that was attacked by a pirate who worked for the Fellowship of the Black Cross. I didn’t get there in time to save her family, but I did save her. And I’ve no desire to see her get mixed up with the likes of you.”

Bierce pressed his right hand against his chest and said, “It never entered my mind, Christophe. Though she’s certainly a lovely girl, what with that thick black hair and that, uh, intriguingly ripe figure. I hope I didn’t spoil anything by telling her you were once a pirate.”

Curran was not smiling. “She would have found out sometime.”

“Of course you were never much of a pirate,” Bierce said. “Your heart was never in it. You never even killed anyone except in self defense. And I suppose when you took down that skullard Absarka you more or less set yourself out as a do-gooder.”

“I never felt anyone had any complaint against me for killing him,” Curran agreed. “I half expected a thank-you note from his mother.”

Elge came back with a tray and four bottles. Curran noticed her hair was brushed and dry. She handed the bottles around to the three men and kept one for herself. She sat down in the other chair and crossed her legs and waited for the conversation to resume.

Curran sighed and resumed it.
Part Two

Planetary Stories
Crimson Lightning
Page 16