“Would you being here have anything to do with the fact this is the best ship in the nebula?” he asked Bierce.
“Oh, come on now, Christophe. It’s a good ship, but is it really on a par with the Tempest?”
Curran almost snarled his answer. “Of course it is. It’s better. Besides, just at the moment, the Tempest is outside the nebula. On Klystra, I believe.”
“There’s still the Therigorn,” said Bierce. “Don’t tell me it’s off planet. I saw it on my way here.”
“Yes. It’s practically old home week on Ullusk, isn’t it?”
Bierce nodded. “You know how vultures like to gather around a fresh corpse.”
“Whose fresh corpse?”
“Their own, if I have any say-so. Who else of the old group is here?”
“Old group?” said Elge. “What old group?”
“Why, the Corsairs of the Rift, of course,” said Bierce. He might have said more but Curran cut him off with a single word.
“Meese,” he said quietly.
“Meese?” said Elge, leaning forward and all but glaring at Curran. “Meese is a pirate, too?”
“Was,” said Bierce. “He and Christophe turned saintly more years ago than I like to think of. Though I suspect Meese reformed mostly due to arm-twisting by Granddad, here. His heart never seemed in it, if you know what I mean. I remained faithful to the brotherhood, however. But those two didn’t. Nor Thess Garlo, come to that. I suppose when you get right down to it, piracy is just too old fashioned. I probably ought to find myself something else to earn a living at.”
“Well, I’m not at all surprised to learn Thess Garlo was a pirate,” Elge said. “But Meese – he seems so damned ordinary. Just another short-fused freighter captain, is all. But to find out he buckled swash with the Corsairs of the Rift, back in the old days –”
“What old days?” asked Curran.
“I mean, he’s just a short, pudgy space captain. He’s got grease under his fingernails, for gosh sake.”
“It wasn’t that long ago, and it isn’t as if we were out there forever. Just a couple seasons out on the rift,” said Curran.
“I can’t imagine him raiding some young colony world, or throwing people out his airlock,” said Elge. “He’s sweet, loveable old Meese, for crying out loud.”
“And you can imagine me throwing people out of airlocks?”
“You’re always talking about it, Papa,” she said.
“Papa,” said Bierce as if he were jotting something down in a note book.
“I do not. I mean, well, not often.” His voice rose. “And I’ve never done it.”
Bierce said, “Now wait a minute, I heard about one time –”
“Who asked you? Whatever you heard didn’t happen, so just stay out of this. I never spaced anybody.”
“If you say so, Papa,” said Elge.
“Don’t call me ‘Papa.’”
Bierce cleared his throat and they both glared at him.
“I hate to interrupt a family scene, especially so charming a one, but I think we’ve been sidetracked,” he said. “I mean, I’m not here just on a social call.”
Curran was still glaring. “Just why are you here, anyway?”
“To hire your ship. And you too, if I absolutely have to.”
“To do what?”
“Recover some treasure?”
“The same, uh, treasure Meese is after?”
“I suppose it is,” Bierce said, grimly. “What’s going on with Meese, anyway?”
Curran laughed without much humor. “I can’t very well work for both of you, can I?”
“I wasn’t suggesting I hire you,” Bierce said. “At least not if that means actually paying you something. I’m all but broke, Christophe. I was thinking more along the lines of a partnership.”
“Meese has already talked to me about a job.”
“Couldn’t you tell him you got a better offer?”
“At this point it would be like stabbing him in the back.”
“Oh.” Bierce rubbed his chin thoughtfully a moment. “Well, even I have to admit that’s one thing you never did.”
“I’m glad there’s one thing you wouldn’t stoop to,” said Elge.
Curran, too busy glaring at Bierce, ignored her.
“Then what about this,” Bierce said after a moment. “What if I went out and struck up a deal with Meese. Would you form a
partnership with me and Meese if we were together?”
“You and Meese? Oh, I really want to see that.”
Bierce stood up. “Then see it you shall. Where can I find him?”
“I haven’t the slightest idea.”
“He was at the Drowsing Manticore,” said Elge. “But he bugged out when the fight started.”
“Who was fighting?”
“We were,” said Elge. “With a quartet of Valutans.”
“They’re all dead now,” Curran said.
“Of course. What else? I don’t suppose Meese has a ship in port.”
“He rode in as a passenger, on that liner from Pasquintain” Curran said. “I just met with him tonight and have no idea how to get in touch with him. He wants to hire my ship,” Curran added pointedly.
“So you’re working for him?”
“He agreed to pay us. I assume he’ll get in touch.”
“Then you aren’t working for him. I mean, you haven’t signed any
agreement or anything.”
“He’s offered money.”
“How crass of him,” Bierce said.
“You could stand to be a little crass yourself.”
Bierce stood up but he made no move to leave. He started pacing, not easy in the narrow confines of the wardroom, and rubbed the back of his head. After a moment he stopped and looked back at Curran.
“I can see I’m going to have to tell you the truth.”
“God, maybe you have reformed.”
Bierce sat back down. “Don’t expect me to make a habit of it. I’m only doing this out of respect. Respect and the memory of those rare adventures you and I used to share.”
“When I almost threw you out the airlock?”
“You never really did that, you know. Though I do remember going out on the hull in a spacesuit once and finding the airlock secured from the inside when I came back.”
“What times we had, what fun,” said Curran.
“I can’t get over it,” said Elge. “Were you really Le Grande Christophe?”
Both men ignored her. Bierce leaned forward and spoke in conspiratorial tones. “Look, Christophe. I know where there’s a treasure. Back about a year ago, out on the rift, my partner and I found some wreckage. A pirate ship. Guidry’s old Carnivale. Guidry and his crew were dead, but the ship itself was packed with stuff. Agrisiti technology. Apparently they’d found a derelict or an abandoned station, something, and filled their holds with the best they had room for. It’s worth a fortune.”
“What killed Old Scar Face John?”
“Well, you know …”
“I do not know. What killed him? And his crew?”
“Well, it’s difficult to say …”
Bierce shrugged. “It might have been the technology.”
“It might have?”
“Let me go on with my story. I sent my partner with the loot and instructions to hide it somewhere safe. Someplace where no one would ever think to look for it. Here in the Lantern of the Lost Worlds.”
“Who was your partner?” Elge asked.
She had been so uncharacteristically quiet that Curran had almost forgotten she was there. Now Bierce glanced at her and from the way he studied her – noting the shortness of Elge’s skirt and the crossed legs under it – Curran suspected Bierce had not forgotten about her at all. He decided he wanted no part of this deal, either Bierce’s version or Meese’s.
Bierce seemed to remember he’d been asked a question and said, “My partner? No one you would know.”
“Tell us anyway,” she said.
With a hurt look, Bierce turned to Curran. “That poor girl is starting to talk like you, now.”
“It’s a valid question.”
“All right, he’s a Valutan. His name is Finderoth.”
“That’s impossible,” said Elge.
“Is it?” asked Bierce. “What makes it impossible?”
“We know the skullard, for one thing,” Elge said. “He’s first
officer of the Therigorn.”
“The Valutan vessel at the eastern edge of the spacep—”
“I know what the Therigorn is,” Bierce snapped. “And I happen to know he joined the crew not half a year ago.”
Curran nodded. “True enough. Why didn’t he give you a copy of the map?”
“Who says he didn’t.”
“Then let me see it.”
“I never said he gave me one, either” Bierce said, quickly. “Actually, we sort of had a falling out before he left the Rift.”
“So he brought the wreck here and you have no idea where it’s hidden.”
“I’m not sure I’d use those exact words.”
“And you had to come to me for help in stealing his map from him.”
“It’s not exactly stealing. And I’m here alone.”
Curran almost laughed. “If you hadn’t betrayed every partner you ever had, maybe one of them would have stood by you. Of course with your
personality it’s unlikely.”
“So,” Elge said. “How did you betray Finderoth?”
“You know,” said Bierce, with a display of offended dignity, “sometimes I’m the one who gets betrayed.”
“What does that mean?” asked Elge, all wide-eyed. “That you and Finderoth stabbed each other in the back simultaneously?”
Curran was beginning to enjoy the direction the conversation was going in; it was always fun to watch Bierce squirm and if there was one thing Curran was sure of, it was that Elge could make any man squirm. But at that moment there was a buzzing noise and an indicator light on the warning board flicked on.
“What’s that?” asked Bierce.
“Somebody’s asking to be let in.”
“A doorbell?” Bierce said, astonished. “You have doorbells on this spaceship?”
“Uncle Curran likes to call it an intruder alarm but you’re right, it’s a doorbell.”
“Just go and answer it,” snapped Curran and Elge got up and started back toward the airlock. He suddenly realized who it might be and caught her arm as she passed him.
“No,” he said. “You better stay here and help Brug watch our guest. I’ll go find out what sort of idiot is out on a night like this.”
When he reached the airlock, the pounding of the rain on the hull was so loud it almost drowned out the hatch buzzer. He thumbed the screen. Sure enough, the image showed Meese, huddling against the pounding storm, his thumb pressed against the alarm. Curran swore under his breath and pulled the hatch release.
“What brings you here,” he asked.
“Let me inside, I’m getting soaked out here.”
“You’re way past soaked,” Curran said, stepping aside. “Try not to drip on my deck.”
The rain roared behind Meese as he shoved his way into the airlock. Curran thumbed the hatch control and let the door close. Meese stood shivering, looking around.
“A ship like this, I bet it has a well stocked bar.”
“You haven’t answered my question.”
“Oh, come on. Isn’t it obvious? I want to finish our conversation.”
Curran said, “Okay then. Just how much are you prepared to pay me?”
“Couldn’t we discuss details sitting down near a large tankard?”
Curran shook his head. “How much, Meese.”
Meese scratched himself just below his left ear. “Actually, I was thinking more along the lines of a partnership.”
“In the Drowsing Manticore it sounded more like you were offering me wages.”
“You jumped to conclusions, Christophe. Actually, I’m being very generous. Why, with the value of whatever it is that map leads to, a percentage is sure to bring you five times what you’d make on a straight salary.”
“Percentage, huh? Then you’re broke too, I take it?”
“Oh, come on. You know me better than that. If you want to go with some petty little stipend of bodyguard wages, that’s fine with me. But with the percentage you’d be guaranteed ten times that – Uh, too?”
“Are you broke?” Meese asked.
“Let’s leave my finances out of it. I got another offer. Also a percentage.”
The way Meese said, “Who from?” suggested he already knew.
“Who else? Your old pal Bierce.”
Meese closed his eyes and groaned. “You’re not fool enough to go into partnership with him, are you?”
“I just wanted to hear what he had to say. He might tell me a something that you were trying to conceal.”
“And what did he tell you?”
“Just that you lied. Never mind the details.”
Meese glowered and poked his forefinger at Curran’s shoulder. “I’m not the one who’s lying.”
“I’ll give you this, I don’t think you’re the only one,” Curran said.
“Maybe you’d like some proof?”
“Now, I would like some proof.”
Meese cast his eyes toward the rest of the ship. “I take it Bierce is on board right now, which is why I was deprived of a warm drink on such a night as this.”
“That’s pretty much it. Where’s that proof you were talking about?”
“Get your rain cloak.”
“You’re sure this isn’t just another of your games?”
“Just get your rain gear, all right?”
Curran shrugged and opened a locker. He took out his cloak, still wet from before, and an extra which he handed to Meese.
“I’m already soaked, but thanks just the same,” Meese said, putting it on.
They went outside the ship into the still heavy rain and lightning tore the sky in half for a blistering moment, followed by heavy thunder. Meese started away from the ship, across the landing field.
Meese bent into the rain and for several minutes led Curran toward the edge of the field then turned, following parallel for a while before stopping. He turned toward Curran and just glared at him.
“Where’s the proof?” Curran asked.
“Off there,” Meese said, pointing into the darkness.
“I can’t see anything.”
“Just wait a few seconds,” Meese said.
The rain pounded against them like the fists of a fretful child and it was far too dark to see anything. And then a flash of lightning lit the field.
And Curran gaped and stared.
“That’s right,” Meese said. “A ship. It wasn’t there before the rain started.”
“I didn’t hear anything land,” Curran said. “Not a thing.”
“Well,” said Meese, “I suppose if it comes to that it could have landed and the rain and thunder kept us from hearing it.”
“That would be an awful quiet ship,” said Curran.
“But what kind of madness would drive anyone to land a ship in this sort of weather? Plus there’s that other thing. You’ve never seen a ship like that, have you?”
Curran shook his head. “I only got a brief look during that flash of lightning, but I’m pretty sure I never have.”
“Neither have I, and I bet no one else has, either, in this part of the galaxy.” The rain pelted him like hailstones and he seemed not to notice. “Let’s get back to the Swan.”
He started back and Curran had to move lively to keep up with him. He said, “Haven’t you forgotten about Bierce?”
“Not likely. It’s time he was confronted on this one.”
They were walking along the edge of the port.
It was one of the quaint local customs that along the edge of the port, at irregular points the locals had planted gibbets. Tall, narrow structures, crudely built of native wood, where the locals would occasionally hang some extra-planetary miscreant as an example to other off-worlders.
Lightning flared and ahead of them Curran saw one of the structures and from it dangled a recent victim, swinging in the rain.
Meese stopped, his mouth gaping.
Curran looked back at him. “What is it?” Then he glanced back at the gibbet. “Did you know him?”
The body spun on the end of the rope and as Curran moved for a closer look, he stumbled on something.
On the pavement he saw a man’s arm, bloody and torn at the shoulder. He looked up again and realized the hanged man’s right sleeve hung empty.
“Yes,” Meese stuttered. “I know him. So do you. His name is Finderoth.”
“Finderoth? From the Therigorn?”
“God, yes.” Curran felt Meese’s hand close on his arm. “Let’s get out of here. Let’s get out of here now. Finderoth is the man who had that map I wanted.”
“I need some answers,” Curran said. “I mean it, Meese.”
“I know you do,” Meese said, pulling away. “But let’s get away from here, first.”
He turned and ran off vaguely in the direction of the Black Swan. Curran followed after him.
They stopped under the scant shelter of a cargo hauler and Curran waited while Meese stopped gasping from their run. In the next flare of lightning, Curran got a look at Meese’s face and had never seen as much terror and anger on it before.
“No more putting it off, Meese. Tell me.”
“No more putting it off,” Meese said. “I lied. I never had the map.”
“Then Finderoth was your partner?”
“I never had a partner. He was with Bierce.”
“Bierce couldn’t have done that to Finderoth or anyone else.”
Meese nodded his head. “He would have wanted to. Finderoth double-crossed him.” He closed his eyes. “Look, it isn’t a map, not really. It’s a navigation chip, but not one like I’ve ever seen before. Maybe you have.”
“I think it was. It’s supposed to show where an Agrisiti ship is hidden. That’s what they found – what Guidry had. It was taken out in the Rift, its crew killed by Guidry’s pirates. The ship was brought here and hidden, somewhere in the nebula. They killed Guidry hoping for a map but all they found was that chip. The navigation chip will take you to it – but its Agrisiti technology, like the hidden ship. Not every ship has the equipment to use it.”
“Any Agrisiti ship can, of course,” Curran said. “Or any ship with hybrid tech from Agrisiti and any other technology.”
“That’s right. Guidry must have had some kind of Agrisiti astrogation device hidden safely away so he could find it. Or else he knew exactly where to look and the chip was for his crew. The technology on that hidden ship would be worth a fortune, but the only three ships that ever come into this nebula that could make use of that navigation chip or whatever it is are the Tempest, Therigorn and the Black Swan.
“Finderoth got himself a berth aboard the Therigorn, so that he could use its astrogation tech to locate the stolen ship.”
“Was Thess Garlo in on the deal?”
“I doubt it. Finderoth told me once he had a friend on Therigorn who would help him, but I don’t think it was Thess. She’s pretty rigid in her ways.”
“She’s a pirate like us. She wouldn’t like being played for a fool, not by Finderoth.”
“You think she killed him?”
“She might be up to hanging him,” Curran said. “But I don’t see her ripping his arm off like that.”
“You sure it wasn’t just cut off?”
“I got a really good look at it in the glare of that lightning,” Curran said. “I’m sure it wasn’t cut off.”
The rain pounded against the hauler and against them and Meese’s shaking was calmed down a little now. Through the clouds they could see the red glare of lightning streaks far out in space, but there had been no lightning here for several minutes, just the glare of the lights that edged the spaceport. Curran thought of the taste of Frigwig’s beer and the friendly weight of his tankards, and wished that he had never left the warmth of the Drowsing Manticore.
“Let’s get back to the ship before somebody misses me,” he said.
“Oh, you’ve been missed by now, if I know Bierce. You should be worrying about what he’s been up to.”
They made their way back to the Black Swan and came up to it from the other side to where the airlock was. It stood big and black against the stormy, lambent sky. Lightning flared ahead of them occasionally but it seemed more distant now, and wasn’t as bright as before. It limned the ship in a way that made it look edged in phosphorous. The cold rain that pelted them, though, was as hard and spiteful as before.
They rounded the ship and Curran saw that the airlock hatch was open to the rain.
He knew he had left it closed.
Meese knew that also. He stopped dead in his tracks. Curran eased his gun out of his holster and moved rapidly toward the open hatch and went up the ladder as cautiously as he felt like.
The inner hatch was open too. He moved into the passage, sensing that Meese was behind him, but not bothering to glance back at him. He went to the upper deck where the wardroom was.
As he reached the door his heart stopped. There was blood everywhere, blood and bits and pieces of what had been a living thing when last he saw it.
His heart thumped like a jackhammer in his throat but he moved into the place for a better look. Brug was dead, torn into a dozen pieces and thrown helter-skelter about the cabin. Other than that, there was surprisingly little damage. A glass had been broken and one of the chairs torn from the fixtures that held it to the floor and pushed aside.
There was no sign of Elge, no indication she had even been here when this had happened. No sign of Bierce, either.
But it was a big ship.
“Check back the way we came,” he told Meese. “Look in every cabin, every locker. Tell me if you find either one of them.”
“Yes sir,” Meese said. His voice quivered.
Curran went forward.
On the control deck Curran scanned the ship but saw no indication of any living things except himself and Meese.
Oh, God. If anything had happened to Elge because of this, he would kill someone. Maybe several some ones.
It took a while to search the ship. In addition to all the usual hiding places, the Black Swan was fitted out with several cleverly designed hiding places into which Elge might have crawled to hide or save her life. But after as thorough a search as he could manage quickly with Meese’s aid, Curran was unable to find her.
So she wasn’t on the ship.
He hoped that meant she was still alive.
But even if she was, that didn’t mean she was in good shape or by any means safe.
He went back to the airlock and realized he had left it open. Wind carried rain through the hatch onto the deck, and lightning, once again close by, flared with the brightness of search lights. Thunder rattled the whole world.
And someone stood inside the hatch waiting for him.
Lightning flashed again, filling the airlock with light and Curran saw that it was the man named Shado, whom he and Elge had fought beside earlier in the evening.
But they were not fighting side by side now. Shado held a gun and it was trained on Curran.
“I’m not in the mood for games,” Curran said. “Use that or put it up.”
Shado took a moment, then said, “I’ll put it away if you don’t mind.”
When Shado had his weapon holstered, he said, “I’m sorry. I wasn’t quite sure who – or what – might be in here.”
He was soaking wet which told Curran he had probably not been in the ship very long. He still wore his rain cloak.
“I want to know what your part in all this is,” Curran said.
“Don’t fence with him, Shado,” said Meese. “There’s been two murders. And the girl Elge is missing. This is serious, now.”
He came into the airlock the way Curran had moments before.
“Do you know where Elge is?” Curran demanded.
“Why are you here?”
“I know something about her disappearance,” he said. “I’ve been watching your ship.”
Shado said, “I saw Bierce come out of the ship with the girl. He had her by the arm. She looked reluctant to go with him.”
“And you didn’t follow them?” Curran said. It was an accusation.
“I started to. But I heard a noise. It was not any noise I’d ever heard before, so I hid myself in some shadows. I saw something come up to the ship and open the airlock and go in.”
“What sort of something?” said Curran.
“Like nothing I’d ever seen. I’m not sure what it was. Big, dark. A few minutes after it went inside I heard someone scream. The screams stopped quickly.”
Curran felt suddenly cold.
Shado said, “After a while the thing came out and I watched it move away into the night. I can’t tell you which way it went, and I sure didn’t follow it. I went into your ship and saw your crewmember was dead. There wasn’t anything I could do for him so I went back out and waited to see what would happen next.”
“You didn’t try to find Bierce or whatever it was that killed Brug?”
“I don’t have any idea where to look for Bierce and whether you believe it or not, I don’t think that creature is our big problem. But I’m pretty sure where to find it, if you really want to.”
“The Therigorn,” said Curran. “That’s right.”
“The Therigorn?” said Meese. “How do you figure that?”
“There are only two ships on this field that can use the astrogation chip,” Curran said.
“Oh,” said Meese.
“It’s starting to make sense now. You finally told me the truth, didn’t you Meese. When you said you were trying to steal the chip. Did you know that Finderoth was the one had it?”
“It was either him or Bierce. I didn’t know which.”
“Of course not.” Curran looked at Shado. “And you?”
“He’s just another thief, like me,” said Meese. “I don’t think he was in with Finderoth or Bierce.”
“I don’t think he’s a thief, either,” Curran said.
“No, I’m not. I’ve been posing as a thief to get a line on the chip. I’m –”
“We don’t have time for talk,” Curran said.
“You’re right,” Shado said. “We need to get to the Therigorn.”
He was out through the hatch even as he spoke, and Curran was right behind him.
Thunder grumbled in the sky around them and lightning glared and exploded. They walked across the field toward the looming shadow of the Therigorn and Curran was cold again but barely noticed. In his mind he saw Elge’s face, her eyes watching him. But her image said nothing to tell him where she was.
The screams rose up out of the night and fought against the noise of the wind and rain and then stopped abruptly. Curran broke into a run, but slowed down some distance from the Therigorn.
He was close enough now to tell the ship’s airlock was open, however.
And something came out of it.
It was tall, half again Curran’s height, and had a mane like a Terran lion. Even it the dark it radiated muscularity and strength. Its legs were bent and shaped like the hind legs of an animal, but it walked upright
in a crouching, shambling gait. It had two arms, long even for its body. And in one of its hands it carried something.
Then lightning flared and for a moment Curran could see it plainly. It was every bit as muscular and powerful as it had seemed to be. Its face was more reptilian than feline, and when it opened its mouth he could see rows of white, razor teeth.
The thing it carried in one hand was a leg, a human leg, and it raised it to its mouth and bit off some of it to eat.
It looked around but if it saw them it didn’t care. It tossed the leg away and moved off in another direction.
The lightning died away and shadows rose up all around. The creature, whatever it was, disappeared among them.
“Good God,” said Meese, in a hoarse whisper. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Neither had Curran but he said nothing.
He went to the ramp leading into Therigorn’s airlock and went inside the ship.
They found blood everywhere and parts of several men. Curran didn’t attempt to keep count. He was satisfied the creature had accounted for the entire crew.
Meese did not go inside with him. He found him waiting in the airlock, shaking, and his eyes large with fear. “What part has that thing got in all this? It isn’t Agrisiti. I mean, I never saw an Agrisiti, but I don’t think they look like that.”
“I never saw one of those things, but I know there are two or three life forms that the Agrisiti employ to do work for them,” Curran said. “They do jobs that require contact with lesser species like us. This must be one of them.”
“So, you’re saying the Agrisiti sent the thing to kill all of us?”
“Just to get the chip so it can find the hidden ship. The killing us is just a bonus.”
Meese shook his head back and forth. “I’m finished with the life, Christophe. I’m reforming.”
“As soon as this is over?”
“No, right now.” He stood up, supporting himself against the wall at his back. “No, sir, no more piracy and swindling for me. From now on, when you see Toby Meese, you’ll be looking at an honest man. I’m too old for all this blood and violence.”
“Where’s Shado?” Curran asked.
Meese said, “He went in with you, came out a few seconds later, said there was nothing to find on this ship and took off somewheres.”
“Did you see which way he went?”
“In all this rain and darkness? I didn’t even bother.”
Lightning flared outside the ship and thunder rattled its hull.
“What do we do now?” Meese asked. “I mean, we have all this information, but what do we really know? That some monster is running around killing people?”
“We know Elge’s missing and we have to find her,” Curran said. “And we know that monster isn’t hanging people.”
Meese gave him a puzzled look. Then understanding dawned and he said, “No, I don’t guess it is. Not if it’s tearing them limb from limb. Someone else killed Finderoth. Who? And for that matter, so what? It doesn’t give us anything useful, does it?”
“It tells us something,” Curran said. “I think it would be very useful to know who killed Finderoth. But the main thing is to find Elge.”
“I might be able to help you there.”
It was Thess Garlo. She was standing in the airlock hatch and had a gun in her hand.