Curran glanced at her, showing no surprise or fear, because he had none. There was a growing something in him that was like numbness and made him very calm. He didn’t even seem to notice her weapon.
“You must be very strong,” he said, “to have hauled Finderoth’s body up on that gibbet.”
“It’s not as hard as it looks,” she said. “The rope’s on a pulley. Of course it’s not on a winch, so I guess there was some strength involved.”
“Her?” said Meese. “It was her who hanged Finderoth?”
“He was going to betray her,” said Curran.
“The bastard was planning a mutiny,” she said.
“All by himself?”
“No. Those four fools you fought with in the tavern were in on it with him. That’s the real reason I had them executed.”
“You see?” said Curran to Meese. “It’s not as complicated as it seems. All the threads are laying themselves out in neat explanations
and it’s only taken a short few hours.”
“It’s taken most of a night I could have spent in a warm bed,” said Meese.
“The rest of your crew is dead,” Curran told Thess. “You’ll find them inside there.”
“That’s all right. I was feeling the need to replace most of them.”
“Hire your new crew early,” he said. “It’ll take most of tomorrow to clean up the mess in your ship. You might never get the smell out. Do you know where Elge is?”
“No wonder the threads of this thing are laying themselves out so neatly,” said Meese. “Everybody else seems to know more about what’s going on than we do.”
She smiled but there was no humor in it. “I went looking for Finderoth and he tried to kill me. He didn’t do a very good job of it. I did a better one. Then I went looking for you. I spotted Shado watching your ship and I saw Bierce come out of the ship with the girl. He started off across the field with her and Shado followed them. I followed Shado.”
“Then Shado lied to us,” Meese said.
“If that surprises you,” she said, “I feel sorry for you. Bierce took the girl to a tool shed and locked her in it. Then he went off somewhere. I stuck with Shado and he came back to your ship. Presently so did you. I’ve been watching you ever since, for lack of any better plan.”
Curran considered things somberly. Shado, of course, whether or not he’d ever been a ranger, wasn’t one now. It was likely that he had gotten wind of what Finderoth had, the same as Meese, and was trying to cut himself in. All there was to this thing was a pack of greedy bastards trying to cut themselves in on some other greedy bastard’s better luck.
“Then he didn’t hurt her?” Curran asked.
“Not that I could tell. But it’s dark and close inside that shed and with this rain pounding away on the thing’s roof, it must be like Chinese water torture.”
“Put away your gun and take us there.”
“I thought you’d never bark the command,” she said. She holstered the gun, turned and went down the ramp to the dark pavement.
Curran walked behind her. They headed off into the rain swept night
across the field.
Meese was walking beside him. “I still don’t get it. Why would Bierce take the girl? He could have just knocked her out and left her with Brug.”
To die when the monster came on board the ship, Curran thought; which gave him a reason to be grateful to Bierce, though it wouldn’t help Bierce much when he caught up with him.
“He kept her alive because I have something he wanted, and knew I’d trade her for,” said Curran. “A ship the astrogation chip would work with.”
They walked on quietly for a few minutes. The rain fell and the wind plastered their cloaks against their bodies, but for a while there was no lightning or thunder close by. Curran didn’t think that would last long.
Abruptly up ahead of them there was a flare of light, followed by another. “That wasn’t lightning,” Thess said, yanking her gun out of its holster.
She broke into a run and Curran came after her, his own gun gripped
tight in his hand.
Now there was lightning right above them and thunder roared close, as if the sky were caving in. In the flare of yellow light Curran saw the shed, and someone lying very still on the ground in front of it.
The door to the shed was open. Shado came out, his arm around the waist of Elge who struggled but wasn’t strong enough to break his grasp. As he got closer Curran could hear her swearing like a spaceman at Shado.
“Don’t come any closer,” Shado said, firing his weapon. The blast went wide.
“Let her go,” Thess said.
“Finders keepers,” Shado said. “Unless somebody wants to propose a deal.”
Curran stopped. “A deal for what?”
“I’ll trade the girl for your cooperation.”
“Cooperation in what?”
“Helping me get the astrogation chip and then taking me to where the Agrisiti wreck is hidden.”
Thess had stopped also. In low tones she said to Curran, “Don’t trust him.”
“I won’t,” he said. “But I might not have a choice.”
There was a body on the dark, wet pavement and in the next flash of lightning, Curran saw that it was Bierce, staring up at the sky with sightless eyes. The blast mark on his chest was plainly visible.
Elge had stopped cursing, but she still struggled in Shado’s grasp. Curran thought about all the things he could say to Shado to save Elge’s life and none of them sounded convincing to him.
There was light enough to see her face by and her eyes were flashing with anger, but also with fear. She stopped struggling, evidently realizing Shado was too strong for her.
“The girl was Bierce’s ace in the hole,” Shado said. “Having her made it possible to force you to turn over your ship and your crew to him. Now I have her. I’ll let her go but the terms are that you give me your word to put your ship at my disposal.”
“What good is the ship without the astrogation chip?” Meese asked.
“We have that here, too,” said Shado.
“What?” Meese said. “You don’t have it, Shado. Do you?”
Curran sighed. “Not him. Shado’s figured out who hanged Finderoth.”
Thess half turned and looked at him. Meese said, “What?”
“If Finderoth had the chip,” Curran said, “it stands to reason that whoever hanged him got her hands on it. Is that how you figure it Thess?”
“That’s how I figure it,” she said.
Shado said nothing. He just held tight to Elge and watched them.
Thess said, “I’ll do what I can to help you save her, but that doesn’t include turning the chip over to Shado.”
“Again, I might not have a choice,” Curran said, watching the darkness behind Shado.
“Then let’s just stall a few seconds and let this play out,” she said.
“Let what play out,” said Meese, with annoyance.
Curran said, “There’s something moving in the shadows behind them.”
He was thinking, I can’t let that thing near Elge.
“I’ve got some cover, you don’t,” said Shado, tightening his grip on
Elge. “If you don’t do what I say, I’ll just shoot the three of you down, and then the girl. It won’t be easy, but I can manage your ship by myself if I have to.”
Curran holstered his gun and took two steps forward. “It’s a deal. Just let go of Elge.”
“Shado, give it up,” said Thess. “You can’t kill all four of us.”
As if that were its cue, the thing came out of the darkness behind Shado and up to him, quite calmly.
It must have made a sound. Shado looked around and saw it and yelled. His gun fire and the blast struck the monster full on the chest but the creature didn’t seem to notice. Shado let go of Elge and she sprawled onto the hard pavement.
The creature reached down and grabbed Shado by the ankle.
It lifted him high off the ground and he hung there, upside down, held by one leg, struggling.
Then the creature caught his other leg and ripped him into two parts, showering blood down on Elge.
Then the creature tossed the two parts of Shado aside and reached down for Elge.
She tried to scramble to her feet but she slipped on Shado’s blood and fell hard on the pavement. The monster’s arm slid around her waist
and it lifted her up off the ground and held her poised there.
“Oh, good lord,” Thess said. She took two steps back, which brought her two steps closer to Curran.
He said, “Give me the chip.”
She looked at him. “Are you crazy?”
“I am if I have to be,” he told her. “Give me the chip.”
His sword was in his hand. He had not even realized when he drew it. With a deft movement he slapped her pistol out away from her and then slid the point lightly across her throat so that a trickle of blood began pouring.
“I’d give him the chip if I were you,” said Meese.
“Curran,” she said hoarsely.
The monster, holding the limp form of Elge, watched with large, blank eyes.
“Give me the chip,” he said calmly.
“Curran …,” she repeated.
He yelled, “Now!”
Her hand was shaking. She reached in under her rain cloak and from
somewhere produced the chip. She held it out to him.
He took it away from her and forgot all about her. He sheathed his sword and holding out his left hand, with the chip on it, went to the beast.
The beast waited calmly. In its eyes Curran could sense intelligence and perhaps an alien sort of humor. The beast peered at his hand for a moment, then reached out with great delicacy and took the chip.
It let go of Elge and she slid forward, falling into Curran’s arms. She threw her arms tightly around his neck and held on for dear life as if afraid she would slip out of his grasp and be swallowed by the ground.
The beast watched all this and then turned away and walked into the darkness.
Elge breathed heavily, her breaths almost but not quite verging into sobs, and he continued holding her while she made herself calm down.
A great flash of lightning filled the sky and Curran saw the alien ship across the field, though there was no sign of the alien.
Darkness came again and there was no roar of a star drive, no earthquake of a ship’s takeoff. Yet, seconds later, when there was another flash of lightning, the ship was no longer there.
They walked back toward the ship, holding each other until Curran realized he was being supported by her as much as he was holding her up.
They let go of each other and side by side, walked back to their ship.