Illustrations by Mark Fults, posed by Stephanie Walters


MISSION TO MADNESS

By Gerald W. Page and Kenneth Pembroke

(In fond memory of Karl Edward Wagner)

He had studied many worlds and the conclusion he came to was this: they were all of them mad. So he settled – for the time being, at least – in the Lantern of the Lost Worlds, where no one bothered to question such an ordinary thing as madness; and if he faced each day with laughter in his eye and on his lips, it was no smile of condescension, but rather one of constant surprise. For madness, Curran knew, had its rewards – for the active observer.

The problem lay in two facts: the first, that the active observer sometimes had to come into far too close contact with that madness. The second? That if one didn’t come into contact with the madness, one never had any adventures. In many ways his was a frustrating life – especially when you consider the obstinacy of his current shipmates – but it was adventurous. That, and the companionship of his shipmates, was compensation.

He was currently on Ullusk, in the Municipal Port of Sharsfryd, near Angio, the most active of the planet’s commercial centers. It was a bright day, the sun hot overhead, but the sky was gray and grim-seeming. Not an uncommon thing on this planet, for it was inside the Lantern of the Lost Worlds, a nebula noted for its mysteries and dangers. The star that Ullusk orbited burned away the mists for a distance, forming a bubble of nearly perfect vacuum in which its three or four planets had room to carouse in their orbits, while the light of the star was reflected back by the withheld clouds of the Lantern in the form of the most dismal and depressing light that Curran had ever seen.

Curran had dragged an old folding chair made of wood and canvas out of his starship, The Black Swan, and placed it on the scarred, heavy concrete of the landing field. He sat in it, reading a three-day-old newspaper from Pasquintain (and was having a devil of a time with the editor’s whimsical approach to Hyperborean spelling and grammar), when a musical voice about fifteen feet above his head, called out, “Ahoy, Captain. If I’m not mistaken, we’re about to have a visitor.”

He looked back and up and there she was, her hair wrapped in a white towel, a yellow one wrapping her torso, so that her soft white shoulders gleamed in the light of the sun and those legs, those strong, glorious, astonishing legs, were gloriously and astonishingly displayed. She raised her arms to rub her just-washed hair with the white towel and for a moment he thought the yellow one would simply fall away from her, providing any and all in the area with an even more glorious and astonishing display.

“Girl,” he said. “You need to go back inside the ship, and put some clothes on. I recommend those baggy trousers, the faded pink ones with the funny looking blue flowers. And a sweat shirt about four sizes too big.”

In answer she came down the ramp from the airlock and ran up to him. He got out of his folding chair, almost knocking it over. “Didn’t you hear me?” he thundered.

“Of course, I heard you,” she said. “The whole planet heard you, and maybe the people on the next planet over. But what you said was so foolish, Papa, that I knew you couldn’t mean it.”

“Don’t call me ‘Papa,’” Curran said. “I’m not your papa. I’m too young to have an eighteen-year old –”

“Step-papa, then,” said the girl whose name was Elge.

“I’m not that ei—”

“Aren’t you the least bit curious about our visitor? He looks so officious. He’s either here to hire you for some grand adventure in the near future, or put you in jail for some even grander one in the recent past." With a shake of her head she pulled off the white towel, letting her now dry curly, dark brown hair cascade to her shoulders. She clasped the white towel against her body, just below her bosom, which was better because it sort of promised more security for the yellow towel; but worse also because of the way it pushed up that bosom.

Curran gave up and for the first time glanced at the approaching form.

The fellow wore a blue stiff-skirted coat with gold braid at the edges, and lemon yellow pantaloons. He was vaguely human, which was how Curran thought of most of the folks he ran into in the Lantern, including many of those from his native Earth. He was thin and austere, his skin one shade darker gray than the sky, his nose about six inches long and supple like an elephant’s trunk, his ears large and mobile enough to be capable of flapping. He yanked off a soft cap, revealing a hairless, slightly wrinkled gray scalp, and clutched it in both of his hands – which appeared to be ordinary – as he came to a stop in front of Curran.

He’d apparently come a half foot too close because he leaned back six inches from his waist and peered at Curran over the small square-cut lenses of his eyeglasses. He only had two eyes.

“And you would be the space rogue, Curran?” said the visitor.

“I would not,” Curran replied, with vigor. “My name is Curran, but rogue? Sir, I am an honest adventurer, a champion of the downtrodden if the truth be told, and if you are a seeker after my services, that effrontery just added a surcharge to your fee. Assuming your job is grand enough to interest me in the first place.”

“Oh, dear,” said the visitor. “I meant no offense, I assure you.”

“Don’t mind him,” Elge said. “He barks like a tiger but bites like a toothless kitten.”

“Tigers don’t bark --,” Curran started.

“Besides, our funds are running low and we really need the work.”

“Just how long have you been out of the ship, Elge?” asked Curran.

“It’s almost a whole minute,” she said.

“Then you need to get back. In the time you’ve been standing out here chatting, that crewman of mine has undoubtedly been dreaming up some sort of mischief.”

“M’lDeemer? I saw him napping in the pilot’s chair on the bridge not five minutes ago.”

“See?” Curran said. “Dreaming. Go back at once and keep an eye on him. And when he wakes up, find out what he was dreaming. It’s best to be prepared where he’s concerned.”

With a laugh, Elge turned and started up the ramp. “Yes, Papa,” she said as she hurried.

“Don’t call me ‘Papa,’” growled Curran. He turned to the gray-skinned fellow. “I’m not her papa, her real father is –”

But the visitor was too busy watching the gloriously athletic movements of Elge’s rump as she traveled up the steps to the ship. It suggested to Curran that asking her to go back up the ship’s entrance ramp while she was wearing nothing longer than that yellow towel was probably not the best idea. But she vanished into the airlock and Curran judged that now he could arrest his visitor’s attention.

“Her real father was killed on Ollett four months ago. A skirmish with the Fellowship of the Black Cross. I promised him I’d look after her until she came of age.”

“And when will that be?” the visitor asked.

“Three months ago. And your name, sir?”

“I am Obrupt.”

“I have not noticed,” said Curran. “You conceal that fault skillfully.”

“No, no, you misunderstand me. My name is Obrupt.” He took care to emphasize the “O.” “Perhaps you have heard of me? I am an agent for various individuals and business interests on Ullusk. In that capacity, I have a proposition for you. It should be quite profitable, especially after you’ve added that surcharge you were speaking of.”

“You don’t object to the surcharge? That makes it all but pointless.”

“It will be lodged against my client, sir, not me. The greater the amount my client spends for your help, the greater my percentage for arranging the matter.”

“Which is?"

Obrupt leaned back again; it seemed to be a habit, if not a characteristic of his species. He looked both ways as if searching for signs they were being spied upon. That finished, he peered again at Curran and said, “Perhaps it would be better if we chatted our business matters aboard your ship, sir, where we could enjoy more privacy.”

Sentences like that always meant more money. With buoyant feelings, Curran ushered Obrupt up the ramp and into his ship and back to a cabin, not too cluttered, which he pretended was his office.

2

After the conference was completed, prices agreed upon, and Obrupt safely off the ship, Curran went forward to the bridge where he found Elge, now dressed in form-fitting brown trousers with a yellow stripe up each leg, a short red blouse tied casually just below her cleavage, and two crossed gun belts fully stocked with ammunition for the two pistols weighting down the holsters that hung from the belts. There was also a knife in a scabbard and probably at least one other knife concealed in one of her boots. He had told her time and again in the past four months that she should not go about armed all the time. For one thing it discouraged young men from asking her out on dates. But she no more heeded him on that, than any other subject, even though he made it a point to set a good example whenever possible. Hadn’t he interviewed Obrupt totally unarmed except for a single small flat shocker concealed on his person? (And that knife in his boot?)

M’lDeemer was on the bridge also, sitting quietly in the co-pilot’s chair, short legs dangling above the floor, hands folded politely in what would be his lap if he had one, so as to show that he was behaving himself as Curran so often had to order him to do. The look on his short snout was supposed to be a smile, Curran knew, though it more closely resembled a smirk.

“Well,” Elge asked. “Does it promise to be an exciting mission?”

“Don’t they all?” Curran said, rubbing his goatee and realizing, by the stubble on his face above it that he had not shaved today. “Are either of you familiar with a planet named Minchmont?”

The smile dropped from Elge’s lovely countenance to be replaced by a look of astonishment. “Minchmont? You’ve undertaken to voyage to Minchmont?”

“I was hoping one of you could tell me about it. All I know is that it’s here in the Lantern somewhere –”

“Maybe it’s the planet where R’lyeh lies,” said M’lDeemer excitedly. “Long have I sought that place – ”

“R’lyeh isn’t on a planet. It’s on something else, entirely,” Elge said.

“I’ve heard it’s on Earth,” Curran said.

“I’ve heard that too,” said M’lDeemer, somewhat crestfallen. His crests were a set of handsome dorsal fins on his rump. “I’ve heard it’s in the specific ocean, but I’m not sure which specific ocean. Earth does have more than one, doesn’t it?”

“It does indeed,” said Curran. “Seven, if I recall my geography. But since we’re going to Minchmont and R’lyeh isn’t on Minchmont, we can ignore all that. You seemed surprised when I named Minchmont, Elge. Are you familiar with the place?”

“It’s the home of one of the Wizard Lords,” she said. “Casingrim. Are you sure we want to go anywhere near him?”

“Casingrim? Oh.” Curran had not realized that. The Wizard Lords were a handful of powerful arch mages living in the Lantern, ruthlessly pursuing their individual researches and private whims. None of them quite matched the power of that most independent of sorcerers, Mesrick Dwaln, or that most insane of star witches, Aelon; or even of the most wondrous Meriem Abd Al-Azred, who spent as much time out of the Lantern as in it, and who was said to be the High Priestess of Cthulhu. But Casingrim had his reputation and it was not for being warm and cuddly.

“He had a library?” Curran asked, suspicion dawning in him.

“I’ve heard it’s the best collection of the Hideous Books in the Lantern,” Elge said. “Which is quite an accomplishment when you think of it. Just what is it we’ve been hired for?”

“To take someone there.”

“Why?”

“Which reminds me,” Curran said, less reminded of anything than desirous of changing the subject. “Do any of our astrogation charts show Minchmont?”

“Perhaps it is near R’lyeh,” said M’lDeemer.

“We don’t have any charts showing R’lyeh,” said Curran.

“I know!” bleated M’lDeemer, despondently. “I have spent hours pouring over our charts and I have never found R’lyeh on any of them. Or Minchmont, either.”

Elge was at the armillary, calling up a location search. “It’s not here,” she said. “Our passenger might be in for a hard time getting there if he doesn’t bring a map.”

“Fortunately, he has,” said a new voice. Curran spun around toward the newcomer in the entranceway to the bridge. “Or she has, rather.”

She was holding up a chip, which she passed over to Elge, who took it and glowered at it suspiciously.

“You can see it easier if you shunt that gizmo into the armillary there, child.” She glanced at Curran. “I take it you’d be the captain of this here zoomer?”

“Uh, yes.”

“Apologies for busting in like this, captain. I ain’t forgot my manners, not really, but I came up to the airlock and there weren’t nobody there, even though I asked permission to come on board three times, maybe four. So I sort of took the liberty, if you understand my drift.”

“Then you’d be Obrupt’s client?”

“Obrupt. Kind of skinny galoot, got a schnoz like a ephalunt?”

“That’s the one.”

“Well I’ll be damned,” Elge said at the armillary.

“Language, Child,” said Curran.

She was pointing at the globe in front of her. “It’s that blue dot there.”

Curran took a look. “Not that far from here.”

“Ain’t the distance we need to worry about,” the newcomer said. “By the way, you can call me Sadie.”

“Sadie? Just Sadie?”

“Well, you can call me Joe, if you like. Or even Ray. But you doesn’t need to call me Johnson, if you get my drift.”

She was a small woman with black hair and a narrow face that would have been prettier, Curran supposed, were it not for the squint in her eye.

“You know,” said Curran, “you look familiar.”

“Oh, I have that sort of face, that’s all. We’ve not met. It’s not like I’d be apt to forget the likes of you. Not that I haven’t heard of you. The old space fox, Curran. But we ain’t never been face to face as it were.”

“Obrupt said nothing about you being a, er, lady,” Curran said.

“Now, why should he? What difference does it make? Aside from which, I slipped him an extra pair of tenners, don’t you know, to lie about it if necessary. I’m Sadie the Ladie, after all, and I have need to conceal my actions from certain, uh, rivals”

“Sadie the Ladie?” Curran said. “Of course! I know where I’ve seen your face before. On handbills. You’re Sadie the Ladie, the pirate. There’s rewards out on you.”

“Piker’s stuff,” Sadie insisted. “None of them amount to more than a few pennies. Not worth the expense of feeding me while they holds me in jail.”

“Most jails on Ullusk don’t feed their prisoners,” M’lDeemer said, brightly.

Sadie ignored him. “Aside from which, I’m reformed, if you know my meaning. Reformed as a Deacon. I got the religion.”

“I have religion also,” said M’lDeemer. “I worship Cthulhu! I --.”

“The religion I was thinking of is somewhat of a different nature,” Sadie said. “But more to the point, this job I’m offering you is safe, easy and this is the point I was trying to be more to, profitable.”

“And we still don’t know what it is, do we?” Curran said. He sat on the corner of the charting desk and said, “Does it involve Casingrim’s library?”

Sadie’s smile intensified. “So you’ve heard of that have you? Oh, that’s some library. The finest collection, so they tell me, of Hideous Books in this entire nebula. He’s got your Necronomicon, your Book of Iod, your Book of Eibon. He’s got a recording of Triknikium reciting the stuff he memorized, and that would have to be several thousand years old, don’t you know, because it’s supposed to be the original Triknikium. Among his books you’re going to find the Grael Skaith and the Mysteries of the Worm and so on and so forth. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of them weren’t autographed.”

“And which one of them are we supposed to steal?” asked Curran.

She gave him a scowl. “You got a suspicious mind, you have, Captain Curran.” She sniffed piously. “You’re forgetting I got the religion these days. I’m not stealing anything and neither are you, at least not at my behest. You’re taking me to Minchmont for the purpose of selling Casingrim something.” “Selling?” Curran asked, surprise in his voice. Nay, shock almost. “What could you possibly have to sell one of the Arch Mages?”

She leaned forward and her eyes glittered at Curran. “Why,” she said grandly, “nothing less than the Book of Elders itself.”

She fell silent, waiting for the shock to set in.

Curran said, “I never heard of it.”

Now, that took Sadie aback. She stood up, the look on her face a mixture of astonishment and disappointment. “You’re breaking my heart, Cap’n Curran,” she said. She gave forth a great sigh. “Not that it’s a surprise you’ve not heard of it. Many haven’t. It’s not as well known as the Mad Arab’s work. Or Eibon’s, or John Dee’s, or a lot of others I could name if I had their names further in my mouth than the tip of my tongue just now. But here’s the point. It’s one of the Hideous Books. And it’s one of the few Casingrim doesn’t already own.”

Well, that put a different light on it. A different light, indeed. Curran took a moment to sort things out before speaking. “And you’re sure this is all legal?”

“If it’s not legal, then that girl’s flat-chested,” Sadie said, pointing at Elge.

“Hey,” Elge said. “Leave my chest out of this.”

“Dearie,” said Sadie. “The only thing your chest is out of is those clothes you’re wearing. If it bothers you, then you might take the example of a more modest maiden such as meself.”

Curran was not of the opinion that Sadie’s costume was any more modest than Elge’s, but that wasn’t the direction he wanted the conversation to take. He said, “Let’s get back to the real topic. You’re sure you came by this book or whatever it is, legally?”

“Well,” she said, drawing the word out. “It’s legal on some planets, don’t you know. I’m no lawyer, which is actually a point in my favor, now I think of it. I got the book and if there’s some question about my right to it, those same doubts apply to anyone who has the ambition to take it away from me.”

“And just who is trying?”

“There’s lots, believe me, who wants that book. The Lustrum, for one. But they’ll not try anything too dishonest and they won’t come into the Lantern of Lost Worlds, at least not openly. I’m not sure they know I got it.”

“I’m only interested in those who might be less scrupulous than that,” Curran said.

“Oh, well that does open up the floodgates a bit. The High Priestess of Cthulhu might want the book. I had a sort of indirect run in with her a few months back and it ended up spoiling her efforts to assassinate that witch, Aelon. Not that that was my fault. But I don’t think she wants the book that much; she’s already got a copy, maybe two. No, now I ponder the matter somewhat, I’m of the opinion we might have a bit more problem with this fellow Immis, whom you’ve probably not heard of.”

“Tall fellow? Enough like a snake to be Valusian? Commander in the Fellowship of the Black Cross?”

Sadie’s eyes grew large. “Then you do know the scudder.”

“Yes,” said Curran.

“He killed my father,” Elge said, quietly.

“I don’t think this is the kind of job we want to get involved with,” said Curran.

“Well, I’m involved in it,” said Elge, firmly. “Whether you are or not. Any enemy of Immis is a friend of mine, even if she is a prude.”

“And what’s wrong with being a prude?” screeched Sadie. “Oh, hold on, maybe I’m getting a bit carried away here. Does that mean you’re in?”

“It does.”

“And what about you, Cap’n? You willing to let this overly healthy young thing bounce around through the Lantern with the likes of me and no other?”

“I’ll go, too,” said M’lDeemer. “I bet your book shows where R’lyeh is!”

“Well, Curran?”

“I’m not letting an innocent like Elge wander around this hellhole with just the likes of you as companion,” he said. “Not to mention mentor. So I suppose I’m in.”

Sadie clapped her hands. “That’s what I like to hear, Cap’n. So show me where to stow me duffle and let’s lift gravs, as they used to say back in the old days. Once we get aloft, I say we celebrate. Open up the stores and just party. On account of we might not be able to party much later, and besides I understand you have a lovely assortment of wines and

spirits aboard this little vessel of yours.”

3

The bridge of the Black Swan was pretty much it when it came to running the ship. There was a bucket for the skipper to recline in. It was on a swivel base that could be locked in place or not as the circumstances demanded. On either side and to the back there were auxiliary screens and monitors, controls and doodads. Sitting there, Curran could monitor the ship’s engines, position, life support functions and fire weapons if he had to. Oh, and he could fly the blamed thing, too.

Elge and M’lDeemer were supposed to be crewmembers, but he hadn’t had crewmembers when he took them aboard and he didn’t particularly need them now. At least not to run the ship.

He had found M’lDeemer on a planet where the population had just been wiped out in some manner and as near as he could tell, the fellow was the last of his species, the Iplings. How they had been wiped out, Curran wasn’t sure, but M’lDeemer had said it was all his fault. A young priest of Cthulhu (and prior to that, Ezindont), M’lDeemer claimed Nyarlathotep had talked him into worshipping Hastur, and that in revenge for losing his worshippers among the Iplings, Cthulhu had sent an army of minions to destroy the populace. Having learned his lesson, M’lDeemer was now once again a devout Cthulhuvian, intent on finding R’lyeh and offering himself as a sacrifice to his god. Or better yet, a prophet.

As a crewmember, M’lDeemer didn’t seem any more skilled than he apparently had been as a priest. But Curran had learned that if he only gave him menial jobs, he could be relied upon; and if he watched the young Ipling closely, he sometimes didn’t get in too much trouble.

As for Elge, Curran had learned there was no way to keep her from getting into trouble if she really wanted to get into it. She was an excellent crewmember, fully as capable as he was of flying the ship. But she was a young woman, free to make up her own mind and he had no doubt that she would soon find a reason – probably some harebrained young scamp who wouldn’t come anywhere near to understanding how lucky he was – and she would quit the ship. Her motto, she often reminded him, was, “I will if I want to.”

So he pretty much kept the idea in his head that he would soon be flying the Black Swan by himself again. Wasn’t the ship designed for that?

The celebration Sadie the Ladie wanted was never held. The stores were safe and the ship’s spirits under seal. Sadie was disappointed, but she had no real argument when he pointed out that the proper time for celebration was when you’d done something that warranted celebrating. Besides, she seemed to recall there might be a jug or two of killdevil in her luggage, now she thought of it. She went off to verify her memory.

The Black Swan took a curving orbit toward the edge of the nebula, though their destination was certainly in the nebula’s center. It was just that the only courses the armillary would plot for them to this destination took a long, roundabout seeming route. Since the situation regarding dimensions and quantum physics in the Lantern was nothing if not eclectic – actually it was aberrant – there was no point arguing with the computer.

After six hours, though, Elge took over and Curran ambled back to the ship’s small galley to help himself to a sandwich and a small bottle of stout. He found M’lDeemer there, curled up asleep on a bench in the corner.

Sadie was there also, and wide awake, nursing her bottle and staring raptly into nothingness. She looked up as he came in and said, “How do, skipper? We getting close to our port of call?”

“I think another four or five hours,” he said, checking out the cold box. He found mustard and cheese and a loaf of bread and started making his sandwich.

“I wouldn’t expect that if I were you. Old Casingrim’s gonna know about us before we gets too close to him, if you takes my heading. I wager he’ll have a question or two for us before much longer.”

Curran had had much the same thought, and he wasn’t sure whether or not to be comfortable with it. By reputation, the Arch Mages could be prickly. Of course Casingrim didn’t have the reputation for downright unfriendliness that, for example, the nebula witch Aelon had. But he was just about as powerful as any human you could name; and if he wanted to he could make things truly uncomfortable for anyone. Curran’s plan of approach to the great sorcerer included the strong hope of finding him in a good mood. But there was no way to tell until you got there.

He was fully armed now, even to the rapier he wore at his hip. Sadie scowled at it. “Isn’t that a bit more sword than is useful on board a ship?”

“Not in my hands,” he said.

“Maybe not but it would be in mine,” she said. “I prefer something more practical. It’s close in a ship, the alleyways narrow, the bulkheads at your elbows. Something a mite shorter than that pig sticker for me. Something like, say, a good, old-fashioned cutlass.” She slapped her open palm on the sword she was wearing.

“Just how did you acquire this book we’re trying to sell?” he asked.

“What’s that?” she said. “How did I acquire The Book of Elders? Why, honestly, of course. I found it sitting amongst the penny dreadfuls at half a Galactic Credit in a small second-hand bookstore on Pasquintain. The owner of the store itself was utterly ignorant of what it had. And me in no likely mood to share the history of it, to tell the truth. So I suppose there was a sort of hinkiness to the transaction, but it was it that set the price, not me.”

Curran bit in to his sandwich, chewed slowly, washed it down with a swig of stout and then said, “And you expect me to believe that story?”

“You’re telling me it doesn’t have the ring of truth to it?”

“Something like that.”

“Hmmmm. Then I’d best work on it. I wouldn’t want that reaction from Casingrim.”

“What reaction do you want from him?”

“Why, I’d like a set-down with him to haggle a fair price, that's all.”

He saw he wasn’t going to get anything too useful out of her.

To tell the truth, he wasn’t sure what he was looking for from her. He supposed she could be telling the truth but if he read her character correctly, he didn’t think it very likely. He finished his sandwich and stout without any further conversation and left the galley.

M’lDeemer’s head rose up and he blinked heavily as he looked around. "Was that the captain?” he asked. “Was he looking for me?”

“He saw you if he was,” she said. She corked her bottle and set it on the table. “Your name’s M’lDeemer, is it? Where you from?”

“I am an Ipling,” M’lDeemer said, sitting up.

“Are ye now?” she said, thoughtfully. “Seems I’ve heard something about Iplings. I thought ya was extinct.”

“We are,” M’lDeemer said, brightly. “All but me. I am not extinct at all.”

“So it appears.”

“A few years ago the minions of Cthulhu came and swarmed in the skies above my world for we were worshipping Hastur, not dread Cthulhu. All my people were torn limb from limb and the pieces scattered over the whole world. It stinked very bad.”

“You don’t look torn limb from limb.”

“Oh, I’m not. I ran into our communal burrow and hid and while many Iplings did that, I alone was not found by the minions of dread Cthulhu. Likely that is because as I hid shivering in the utmost lowest tunnel of our burrow, I decided that henceforth I would only worship Cthulhu.”

“And now you wander around the Lantern of the Lost Worlds, a-looking for R’lyeh.” She scowled. “It seems to me that if your whole species was wiped out by Cthulhu, you’d kind of want to put off a meeting like that.”

“Oh, no! I must tell Lord Cthulhu that I am his devoted worshiper.”

“And a thing like that’s worth waking up a thing like that?”

“I am very devoted,” said M’lDeemer with a great show of humility.

“If you say so,” said Sadie. She uncapped the bottle and took another swig. “So you really want to find R’lyeh, does ya?”

“Oh, yes,” M’lDeemer said brightly. “It would be wonderful if you could help me.”

“Oh, would it now?” She capped the bottle again. “Well, now, you know I’ve traveled all over this nebula. I been on most of the worlds in it.”

“Oh R’lyeh?” he asked hopefully.

“Oh, no, never on R’lyeh. I always steer wide of R’lyeh, I do.”

M’lDeemer heaved a great sigh. His feet, dangling from the chair, swung back and forth. “I steer wide of it, too, though I do not want to.”

“Well, it might just get easier for the both of us, me to steer wide of the place, and you to go there. Because it might be that I intend to have a chart soon in my hands that shows exactly where R’lyeh is. What do you say to that, young Ipling?”

M’lDeemer’s whole attitude changed. He sat up, shoulders hunched, head craning forward, eyes narrowed. “I would say,” said he, “that I must ask a question. What do you want M’lDeemer to do for you, Pirate Sadie?”

“Plenty, when the time comes,” she said. “As for now, this is just our little secret, yours and mine. But –”

There was a short buzz over the annunciator and then Curran’s voice. “Suggest you get up here, Sadie. You too, M’lDeemer. We’ve been hailed and not by any Wizard Lord.”

“Be right with you,” said Sadie.

“Pirates!” said M’lDeemer. “Action stations!” He slid from his chair and started for the door.

“Not so fast,” said Sadie. She stopped him by grabbing one of his handsome dorsal fins. He yelped and, rubbing his abused flank, stared at her with astonished eyes.

“I don’t think it’s pirates so much as serpents, if you takes my drift,” said Sadie. “But since you’re working for me now, I got a special assignment for you, so to speak. Very special.”

4

Curran glared at the screen. It showed a ship, not two hundred meters from their own. Seen through the haze of the nebula it was indistinct but there was no mistaking the ensign of the black cross on that ship’s nose.

“I say we blow them to atoms,” Elge said in a matter-of-fact tone.

“They outgun us by a considerable margin,” Curran pointed out. “They’ve got shields. And detectors. If we started up the weapons generators, they’d detect the power increase and blow us up first.”

“Seems to me there’s a lot to be said for good, old-fashioned mechanical catapults,” she said.

“She’s got a point, skipper,” said Sadie coming onto the bridge and peering at the screens. “Uh oh,” she added.

A face flashed onto the communicator plate. It was set into a bullet-shaped head. There was no hair but the thin mustache that ran the length of the upper lip. The skin was mottled and the eyes were small and dark and mean.

“Power down, Curran,” said the face. “You’re about to be boarded.”

“Well, well, well,” said Sadie. “If it isn’t the boss worm himself.”

Curran said, “What is it you want, Immis?”

“What I want, Curran, is what I see over your left shoulder there.”

“He means me, I think,” said Sadie.

“Shall I toss her out a convenient airlock?” asked Curran.

“Hey!”

“No. I want that privilege for myself. I’m coming aboard.”

“I keep a clean ship,” said Curran. “I’d rather you stayed off her.”

“I can blow a hole in your hull or you can open an airlock. Either way I come in. It’s your choice, Curran.”

The screen went dead. Curran said, “Isn’t anyone going to call me ‘Captain’ today?”

“If you let him board the ship, when he’s got what he wants he’ll toss us all out the old airlock,” said Sadie. “Aside from which, how do you plan to keep that young she-cat over there from trying to assassinate that snake lord soon’s she within reach of him?”

“We have no choice. He can fire his weapons before I can fire mine.”

“He’s launching a boat,” said Elge.

Curran heard the tightness in her voice. He said, “You don’t plan on trying anything grand and foolish, now, do you?”

“You mean am I going to get us all killed, is that what you’re asking?” She sighed. “Not this time. I’ll be good, Papa.”

“I think he prefers Step Papa, dearie,” said Sadie.

“Actually, I prefer neither one,” Curran said.

Sadie said, “You know when he gets here he’s going to gloat and walk around all puffed up like the adder he is and take what he wants and then kill us all. You got any contingency plan?”

“I’m working on it. But to tell you the truth it’s pretty hazy at this point.”

“When things get hazy, I recommend crazy,” said Sadie. “Suppose you leave everything in the wily and capable hands of Sadie the Ladie.”

“You’ve got a plan?”

“I wouldn’t call it that, exactly. More of a hope. But a sound one. I’d advise you to hang onto your sword if you can.”

The lifeboat docked at the main airlock and Curran and the others on the bridge watched the gauges that showed the airlock cycling and, finally, the inner hatch coming open. The snake was on board.

Immis came onto the bridge and Curran felt Elge, close by him, grow tense with her hatred of the monster. He was accompanied by two guards, one of them so tall he had to stoop as he came through the door, the other one built for speed and, possibly climbing. Immis tried to smile and it came out a sneer.

“I don’t think this is how you people envisioned meeting me again, is it?” he said.

He was wearing the uniform of his legion with the emblem of the black cross and serpent. It was bedecked with ribbons and metals and other decorations, which was not common among the Fellowship, but that was the sort of person Immis was. At his side he wore a sword as long as the one Curran carried.

“I have a man searching your ship,” he said. “And I would take it as a favor if you people would place your weapons on the charting table there.”

Curran unbuckled his belt with the gun and the sword and tossed it on the table. Sadie removed a small pistol from its concealment and laid it down carefully, along with her cutlass.

Elge unfastened both her belts and handed over the guns, the knife, the ammunition. “All your weapons, please,” said Immis.

She bent down gracefully and removed a knife from her right boot, then one from her left. She placed them on the table.

Curran decided not to wait for Immis’s order and removed his own boot knife and added it to the pile.

“There,” he said. “Does that make you happy?”

“Quite happy,” said Immis.

“That might not last,” said Sadie. “You been watching the armillary by chance?”

“What are you raving about now, Sadie?”

“I guess you haven’t. Then take a look at your ship in the screen, there.”

Curran could see the screen. It showed the ship and nothing more. Immis laughed. “I see –”

The flare momentarily outlined the ship starkly in the haze. Then the ship came apart and the parts flew every which way. “Oooh, there’s gonna be one hard rain in a few minutes,” Sadie said. “Shields up!” and she slapped the deflector button.

“What did you do to my ship!” screamed Immis. He would have torn his hair if he had any.

His guards responded in a more practical way. They leveled their weapons.

But both Elge and Curran were quicker. Curran scooped up one of the guns from the charting table and blasted the tall guard in the middle of the chest. Elge took the speed out of the other one with a blast to the stomach. Both dropped without firing any weapons.

Immis stood there between the smoldering corpses of his two guards and yanked his sword from its scabbard. But he did nothing else. There was a dazed look on his face and his mouth hung open and Elge and Curran held guns on him. There was a muffled thud as some bit of his ship hit the shields of the Black Swan and caromed off harmlessly into space.

“How did you – how did you,” was all Immis could manage to sputter.

“Well,” said Curran. “I’d love to tell you but I haven’t the foggiest notion of what happened.”

“Yep,” said Sadie. “With all due respect for Captain Curran’s legendary sneakiness, to say nothing of his truly magical skill with a raygun – him and the young she-cat – I really think the credit for all this should go to me."

“There’s another ship on the screen,” Elge said.

“That’s my ship,” Sadie said. “The Royal Pain, she’s known as and currently commanded by my first mate, a gentleman known to you as Obrupt.”

“Then he isn’t your agent,” said Curran.

“Not by the hair on my chinnie-chin-chin,” said Sadie. “I’m afraid you been had, skipper. It was all a plot to lure you in as a decoy.”

M’lDeemer peered into the room and looked around. He had two guns in his hands. “I hope nobody minds,” he said. “I saw this stranger searching your quarters, Captain Curran. I killed him.”

“That was good,” Curran said. Then to Sadie, “Decoy for what?”

“The snake,” she said, pointing her thumb at Immis. “You see, I took possession of a couple things from him a few weeks back and he’s sort of resented my initiative, if you know what I mean. He had this astrogation chip that shows where Minchmont is. I’m headed there and since I don’t know where the place is, I thought it would be a useful something to have ownership of. The other thing was a sigil. The sigil was the big thing. It renders the person who’s carrying it immune from the magic of the Wizard Lords. That way I can sneak up on Casingrim because he can’t detect me coming.”

“That’s quite a sigil,” Elge said.

“Oh, I don’t think it would work on Mesrick Dwaln or Aelon, and maybe not on Cas Malygris. But on small fry like Casingrim? Dish of pudding.”

“And I take it,” Curran said, “That we’re nowhere close to Minchmont.

“Nope,” said Sadie. “I’m afraid the navigation chip I handed you was faked up by a close associate of mine. It said ‘Minchmont,’ but it showed the main base of the Fellowship of the Black Cross. Or at least Immis’s main base. I figured he’d recognize your ship and figure you were coming after him for what he did to the girl’s daddy. And he’d personally come out here for a look-see. You see, he was the fly in my ointment.”

She smiled smugly. “Owning the chart that showed Minchmont and the sigil that would protect me from Casingrim, I figured his treasures were just ripe for my taking. But there was Immis to think about. He knew enough of what I was planning to do to intercept me when I tried it. And he also knew what I had in my possession since I’d taken them from him. So I had to get him out of the way – which it seems I just have.”

“Not quite,” Curran said. “It seems to me there’s a hitch in your plan. You’re aboard my ship. Your crewmembers aren’t likely to blow this ship up with you aboard it. And we’re armed and you aren’t.”

“Oh, that. I took care of that part, too.”

M’lDeemer came all the way into the room. He walked straight up to Curran and pointed his two guns at Curran and Elge.

“Drop your gun, Captain Curran, sir,” said M’lDeemer.

“I sort of promised to make him one of me crew. I also promised to take him to R’lyeh. Or as close as I intend ever going to the place. I’ll give him the means of finding his own way from there.”

5

As she slipped through the airlock hatch on her way off the ship, Sadie the Ladie said, “Thanks for all the guns. I’m leaving you your swords so you and Immis can carve each other into giblets if you’re of a mind.”

Then she closed the hatch and sealed it, leaving Curran, Elge and Immis to think their unflattering thoughts about her.

“She has a point,” said Immis. And lunged at Curran.

Curran’s own sword seemed barely to move yet it caught Immis’s blade and deftly redirected it so that it went off to the side. Immis fell forward.

Elge slammed something against Immis’s skull and Curran stepped aside just to let him drop unmolested to the floor.

“I thought they took all your weapons,” Curran said.

“They asked me to give over my guns,” she said. “Nobody mentioned anything about blackjacks.”

She bent down, tossed Immis’s sword out of reach and then, using her knife, cut a strip out of his pants leg to tie his hands with. “Where’ll we keep him?”

“They’ll be through with the airlock in a couple of minutes,” he said. “What are you talking about, keeping him? I thought you wanted him dead.”

“That was when he wasn’t useful. Now he’s the only one of us knows where Minchmont is.” She finished with the tying and despite her speed, it looked a pretty good knot to Curran. As she stood up again, she added, “Of course once we get there he won’t be useful any more.”

“I swear, child, you’re as blood thirsty as a tick.”

“Maybe that’s so about the blood thirsty part, Captain,” she said, looking him straight in the eye. “But I think it’s time you stopped calling me ‘child.’”

The remark caught him off-guard, but it wasn’t entirely unexpected. Not when he thought about it. He said, “That’s a good point. I’ll try not to do it again.”

When the airlock recycled, they threw open the hatch and dragged Immis into it. He was showing no sign of coming to. Curran didn’t think his skull was damaged much, but he didn’t go to the trouble of giving him a close examination because he really didn’t care.

They set the controls so the airlock couldn’t be opened from the inside without the default password and left Immis to his own company.

As a parting gift, Sadie had ordered M’lDeemer to render the ship inoperable and he had done his usual superb job. Even so, it took them close to an hour to put all the parts back where they belonged. After that they collected all the weapons M’lDeemer hadn’t known about. They put a third of them in Curran’s cabin, a third in Elge’s and the rest in the weapons locker the pirates had cleaned out. Elge suggested dumping the two dead Fellowship members in the ship’s recyclers, but Curran ordered them ejected through the garbage tubes.

Then they went back and opened the airlock.

They found Immis standing up, hands still tied. He looked like a man who wasn’t very happy about the fact his skull had been cracked with a blackjack.

He said, “Are you going to toss me out the airlock now?”

“We wish,” said Curran. He sighed. “Actually, you are going to get out of this airlock, but you get to choose which door you go through.”

“That’s something.”

“You’ve got something we want, Immis. The location of Minchmont.”

Immis’s eyebrows arched upward. “Are you suggesting a truce?”

“It’s not like you have a crew to help you out any more. Or a ship.”

“I have an organization.”

“Somewhere you do. Not on this ship,” said Elge.

“Besides, I may not know a lot about the Fellowship of the Black Cross,” said Curran. “But every military or quasi-military organization I do know about takes a really dim view of officers who lose their whole commands, not to mention expensive ships – and live to tell about it.”

Elge added, “The way I hear it the guys who run the Fellowship are real bastards, too.”

“Elge!”

“I meant to say ‘martinets.’”

“Tyrants would be a better word,” said Curran. “So. What do you say, Immis?”

“I say exactly what you would say in my shoes,” said Immis, though the mottled skin seemed somewhat more mottled than before. “A truce, then.”

“A truce,” said Curran. “Until we get our hands on Sadie.”

“I can’t wait,” said Elge. She wasn’t exactly staring at his throat and running her thumb along the edge of her knife’s blade, mind you. But there was a certain look in her eye.

Later, after Immis had helped them plot a course and they were safely on their way – Immis locked in a cabin for the time being – she said to Curran, “So we lost M’lDeemer and gained Immis to replace him. Did we trade up or down?”

“I don’t know this M’lDeemer chap,” said a voice neither of them had ever heard before. “But I’m familiar with a man named Immis. If it’s the same one, I’m afraid you’ve gotten the bad part of that deal.”

They whirled in astonishment, the two of them, and there at the rear of the bridge they got their first sight of Casingrim.

Curran did not know for certain it was Casingrim, of course. For a moment he considered that somehow the pirates who had boarded the Black Swan under Sadie’s command had left someone behind. But a look told him this was no pirate. What told him it was Casingrim, he could not say.

Imposingly dressed the newcomer was, in brilliant red robes with blue and gold trim along the hem. The robe was open on a blue silk shirt that covered an impressive belly. The loose trousers were yellow and the pointed-toe slippers green.

His features were not much. He was human, probably Hyperborean from Pasquintain. Pale with limp, sparse hair cut short. It might be blonde, it might be gray – Curran thought gray the most likely. The pale brown eyes were vague and seemed unfocused; this Casingrim was not, apparently, one for nailing you with a burning gaze. His eyes roved and wandered, barely looking at the people in the room – after he had taken in Elge, of course. His nose was large, his chin receding like his hairline.

Curran thought it best to establish the newcomer’s identity for the record. In a tentative voice he said, “Casingrim?”

“Who else?” the wizard said. He found a chair and sat down, leaning forward. “Now, what goes on here?”

“We’re just a peaceful –”

“Sir, you are voyaging toward the planet Minchmont, where I live. How is that peaceful?”

“It’s a sight-seeing trip,” said Curran. He found a chair and sat down facing Casingrim.

“We’re pursuing pirates,” Elge added.

“Pirates?”

“Sadie the Ladie,” Elge said. “They’re headed for Minchmont.”

“We think they plan to raid the place.”

“Think!” said Elge. “We know they plan it.”

“I detected you,” said Casingrim. “I didn’t detect any pirates.”

“They have a thing,” Elge said.

“A sigil,” Curran explained. “It protects them from being detected by you.”

“The Sigil of Deserom?” said Casingrim. “Don’t be silly. Where’d a common pirate find a thing like the Sigil of Deserom? I’ve not seen one in years.” He paused, then added, “Of course, I can’t see the fool thing, that’s the magic of it.”

“She told us she stole it from Immis,” Curran said.

“Immis? How in blazes did he get the Sigil? Wait, don’t tell me. It makes sense now I think of it. About six years ago he raided a small town on Klystra where I was once told the Sigil had ended up. I never actually believed the story or checked up on it. One hears so many stories.” He looked up at Curran. “You don’t suppose there was any truth to it?”

“We know the pirates think there is,” Curran said.

“By the stars, this is bad,” said Casingrim, rubbing his weak chin. “I suppose that buys you some time. I mean I don't want to blow your ship to atoms until I've at least cleared up this sigil thing.”

“At the least we need to get to Minchmont,” said Curran. “We know they’re headed there. They have a few hours head start.”

“Head starts are not a problem,” Casingrim said vaguely, still rubbing his chin. “I can get us there in minutes. But the whole thing – I need to talk with this Immis.”

“I’ll go get him,” Elge said. She moved past the men and left the bridge.

“Remarkably charming girl,” said Casingrim, gazing after her as she bustled away from them. “Inspiringly healthy-looking.” He turned back toward Curran. “How did you become involved in all this if you aren’t one of the pirates?”

“Sadie hired us to take her to Minchmont. It was a ruse to lure Immis into a trap. She said she had a copy of The Book of Elders to sell to you.”

“The Book of Elders! Ah! I’d give anything to own it. Lor Fennel, bless him, has one. The only one of the Hideous Books he has that I don’t except all those Nova Text fragments, and I don’t collect those. They’re not really books, you know. Well, they are, but in a different way. He offered to copy The Book of Elders for me but you know, a copy just isn’t the same thing as owning one.”

From somewhere back in the ship came Elge’s voice. She was yelling very loudly and very profanely.

“My word,” said Casingrim. “Where does a young lady learn such language as that?”

But Curran had leapt from his chair and was out the door, already, sword in hand. He rushed back to the cabin Immis had been locked in.

The door was wide open. He stepped into the room cautiously. There was no sign of Immis.

There was no sign of Elge, either.

6

He looked around the room. Something was scrawled on the walls – no, not scrawled; drawn neatly, in some sort of green ink. It hurt his eyes to look at the designs. He went closer for a better look.

“Be careful of that,” said Casingrim, in the doorway.

“Immis is gone. Either he took Elge or she went to get him back. We need to search the ship.”

“Oh, they’re off the ship by now.” Casingrim came into the room and examined the markings on the walls.

“Where the hell did that green ink come from?” Curran said.

“It’s not ink. It’s blood, Immis’s blood, and not even dry yet.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Witch space,” said Casingrim. “This Immis is more knowledgeable than I supposed. The Fellowship doesn’t go in for things like this.”

“Like what?”

“Witch space is used by some of the acolytes of the Great Old Ones. These designs set up a sort of geometric connection with certain dimensions. They permit travel through space and even time under certain conditions. Very popular with worshipers of Nyarlathotep and Azathoth.”

“Then Immis – and Elge – could be anywhere,” Curran said.

“Yes, that’s true, I suppose. But I think I know where Immis took her. Would you like to go after them?”

“Of course I would,” Curran said.

Casingrim grabbed him by the elbow. “Then let’s go. Oh. Try not to get sick. I just had these robes cleaned.”

Before he could agree – or protest, for that matter – Curran found himself dragged toward the corner of the room toward which the strange designs on the wall seemed to converge. His stomach was already doing flip-flops and he was strangely disoriented but Casingrim seemed to be doing fine.

And then they were Elsewhere.

It made no sense, even less sense when you actually experienced the thing, but no longer were they on the ship. They were in a sort of violet haze and there was a feeling of falling and rising at the same time; of moving in every direction at once. Curran felt as if things were staring at him, hungry dangerous things, waiting for the opportunity to pounce.

And then they were somewhere else and it was a ship. A starship.

But it was not the Black Swan.

“Royal Pain,” said Curran.

“Well, witch space is not a pleasant experience the first time you try it,” said Casingrim. “But I’m not sure I’d call it that.”

“No, no,” said Curran. “It’s the name of Sadie’s ship. I’ll bet we’re on the Royal Pain.”

“Oh.”

They were in a passageway. From somewhere up ahead Curran suddenly heard Elge’s voice. She was saying, “Keep your hands to yourself you lowlife son of a bitch!”

“There’s my girl,” said Curran. He started toward the sound.

He turned a corner and there they were. Elge’s hands were tied behind her back with what looked like the same strip of cloth she had cut from Immis’s pants legs to tie him up with. He had her by the upper arm and was trying to drag her forward. Curran called his name.

Immis made a sound like a growl and shoved the girl hard against the wall. She yelped with pain and fell to the deck. Immis lunged at Curran with his sword.

“Those swords are too long to be practical on a spaceship, aren’t they?” Casingrim said.

“Shut up,” Curran said, and deftly parried Immis’s blade. Immis drew back and feinted. Curran let him.

They stood facing each other, watching for an opportunity, neither moving unnecessarily. Immis said, “The girl won’t coldcock me from behind this time.”

“You should be grateful she did it before,” Curran said. “It’s all that kept you alive.”

He moved his blade quickly and Immis countered. There was the ring of steel on steel in the narrow passageway and then they were engaged. Immis pressed forward, forcing Curran to fall back two steps.

“My only regret,” said Immis, “is that your death will be so quick. I’d love to drag it out but there just isn’t time for that.”

“What you should be regretting is that you haven’t had more practice and training,” Curran said. “You telegraph your moves.”

And with that he tapped Immis’s blade, parried a lunge, and drove his point into Immis’s chest.

Immis looked down in astonishment at the sword blade that was driven through him. Curran yanked the blade free and something green and not very pleasant looking spilled out across the Valusian’s uniform jersey. Immis sputtered and then fell dead to the floor.

“My word,” said Casingrim. “That was amazing. I always thought that for a narrow space like this, a cutlass was an advantage.”

“Skill is always the real advantage,” said Curran.

Elge was struggling to her feet. Curran exhibited yet another aspect of his skill by slicing the strip of cloth her hands were tied with. It fell away and she started to rub her wrists vigorously. “How did you guys get here?”

“Same way you did,” Curran said.

“What’s the ruckus back here?”

At the sound of the new voice, Curran turned and saw Sadie the Ladie coming from the forward part of the ship. “Oops!” she said. She started to turn and run back where she came from.

Elge picked up Immis’s sword and started after her.

“What’s happening?” Casingrim said. “What’s got the girl so excited?”

Curran followed after Elge and the fleeing pirate.

Sadie reached the end of the passage. The door was closed. She turned around and faced Elge, a look of real panic on her face. “Can’t we do a little negotiating here?” she said.

Elge pointed her sword at Sadie’s throat. “You seem to think a cutlass is a better weapon than a sword like this,” she said. “I’ll let you draw yours and we’ll see who bleeds more.”

“Now, lass, young Sadie’s not one for violence if she can avoid it.” She was speaking rapidly, a decidedly desperate edge to her voice. “She has a peace-loving heart, she does. You could learn a lot from her, you know. How to tone down the violence, love your fellow person and such like philosophies.”

“Draw your sword, Sadie.”

Sadie just gulped.

Elge moved forward, the point of the blade flicked toward Sadie’s throat. But instead of drawing blood, it hooked on the chain of the sigil around the pirate’s neck and jerked it over her head. The sigil fell at Casingrim’s feet.

“Oh, my,” said the wizard. “It is the Sigil of Deserom. No wonder I couldn’t see her.”

“Well you can see me now,” said Sadie desperately. “And you see before you a peaceable and delicate flower of maidenhood, of whom no malice should be felt. A poor lost lamb, as it were.”

“Lamb to the slaughter, you mean,” said Elge.

The door behind Sadie opened. With obvious relief she jumped backwards through it.

Something came down hard on her head.

Sadie looked every bit as astonished for just the briefest moment as Immis had with the sword blade through him. Then she slumped to the floor and lay there, a peaceable and delicate flower, and a very unconscious one.

M’lDeemer was standing there with one of Elge’s blackjacks in his hand. He held it out to her. “I found this in your cabin, back on the Black Swan,” he said. “I thought you might like it back.”

"I’ve got others,” she said. “But thanks.”

They went into the bridge and M’lDeemer sat down in a chair, his short legs dangling and swinging above the deck.

Curran said, “Whose side are you on now?”

“Oh,” said the Ipling. “I was always on your side. I was just waiting for my opportunity to hit Lady Sadie over the head.”

“And it took you all this time to find it?” said Curran.

“Where’s the rest of the crew?” Elge asked.

“There is no crew. Just Lady Sadie, myself and long-nosed Obrupt.”

“Then where’s Obrupt?” Curran asked.

“Oh, he’s back there somewhere,” M’lDeemer said, pointing vaguely toward the rest of the ship. He looked very innocent sitting there.

“Let’s go look for him,” said Curran. “You,” he told M’lDeemer. “Don’t you so much as get out of that chair.”

They went back and checked the ship but could find no sign of Obrupt. The aft lifeboat bay was secure and the boat locked down. It didn’t occur to them that the ship also had a forward lifeboat bay until they heard the unmistakable sounds of the boat launching.

Curran led the way back to the bridge. Sadie was no longer lying in the floor. M’lDeemer, however, was peacefully seated, legs swinging back and forth, in the chair they had left him in.

“Where’s Sadie?” Curran snarled at the Ipling.

“Obrupt came and woke her up. They left.”

“Left! Where did they go? Why didn’t you stop them?”

“You told me to stay in this chair,” said M’lDeemer. “I think they went into the maintenance access well.”

“I suspect the forward lifeboat bay is reached through the maintenance well,” Curran said. He sat down heavily in the chair next to M’lDeemer.

“You seem to be taking this rather badly,” said Casingrim.

“I was hoping there was some sort of reward out for Sadie. I need the money. I’m broke. Right now I don’t have enough to pay the docking fees at any commercial spaceport even here in the Lantern.”

“Oh. But you have two spaceships, don’t you?” asked Casingrim. “I’m a witness that you captured this ship from a pirate who was in the process of using it to commit a raid on a planet.”

“I suppose so,” Curran said. “But that doesn’t help me. It’ll take months if not years for my claim to go through the courts and I can’t sell it until I have a clear title.”

Casingrim was rubbing his chin again. “Actually, we’re near enough to Minchmont that I suppose I’m the closest thing there is to a court. I say the ship is yours.”

“What?”

“Moreover, I want to buy it from you. And especially I want to buy the sigil and the navigational chip from you. If you hang onto them, scoundrels from all over the nebula will be trying to steal them. And if one of them is successful, I’ll have problems. It seems more practical for me to own them.” He reached into his robes and pulled out a pouch. He hefted it; it had a good heft to it. “I think I can give you an adequate payment here and now.”

“Will you take M’lDeemer, too?” asked Elge.

“Him?” Casingrim looked at the young Ipling who was trying to appear even more innocent than before. “In that case, my price won’t be quite as high. But – will this be adequate?” He pulled an amount out of his wallet and placed it in Curran’s hand.

Curran stared at it. Without even bothering to count it, he said, “That’s more than enough.”

“Fine,” said Casingrim. He got to his feet. “Come along, you two. I’ve got to get you back to your own ship.”

“Sir?” said M’lDeemer.

Casingrim stopped at the door and looked back at him. “I need you to watch my new ship,” he said. “If you need to, you can even get out of your chair.”

“Will you come back for me?” asked M’lDeemer.

“Oh, of course I will,” said Casingrim, leaving the bridge. “I’m almost certain to remember a thing like that.” ###### Part Two