Where the equator crossed the eastern shoreline of a continent men
called Centralia, Thursday Landing was founded. Though fertile by
Diomedean standards, the country had few permanent residents. Rather,
migration brought tides of travelers, northward and southward
alternately, to their ancestral breeding grounds. At first, once the
sharpest edge was off their sexual appetites, they had been glad to hunt
and harvest those things the newcomers wanted from the wilderness, in
exchange for portable trade goods. Later this business grew more
systematized and extensive, especially after a large contingent of
Drak’ho moved to these parts. Descending, Flandry saw a fair-sized town.
Most was man-built, blocky interconnected ferrocrete structures to
preserve a human-suitable environment from monstrous rains and slow but
ponderous winds. He glimpsed a park, vivid green beneath a vitryl dome,
brightened by lamps that imitated Sol. Farther out, widely spaced in
cultivated fields, stood native houses: tall and narrow, multiply
balconied, graceful of line and hue, meant less to resist weather then
to accept it, yielding enough to remain whole. Watercraft, ranging from
boats to floating communities, crowded the harbor as wings did the sky.
Yet Flandry felt bleakness, as if the cold outside had reached in to
enfold him. Beyond the fluorescents, half the world he saw was land,
hills, meadows, dwarfish woods, dim in purple and black twilight, and
half was bloodily glimmering ocean. For the sun stood barely above the
northern horizon, amidst sulfur-colored clouds. At this place and season
there was never true day or honest night.
Are you getting terracentric in your dotage? he gibed at himself. Here’s
a perfectly amiable place for beings who belong in it.
His mood would not go away. Nevertheless it does feel unreal somehow, a
scene from a bad dream. The whole mission has been like that. Everything
shadowy, tangled, unstable, nothing what it seems to be … nor anybody
who doesn’t carry secrets within secrets …
Myself included. He straightened in the pilot chair. Well, that’s what
I’m paid for. I suppose these blue devils of mine come mainly from guilt
about Kossara, fear of what may happen to her. O God Who is also unreal,
a mask we put on emptiness, be gentle to her. She has been hurt so much.
Ground Control addressed him, in Anglic though not from a human mouth.
He responded, and set Hooligan down on the spacefield as directed. The
prospect of action heartened him. Since I can’t trust the Almighty not
to soldier on the job, let me start my share now.
He had slipped back into space from Lannach, then returned openly. The
sentinel robots detected him, and an officer in a warship demanded
identification before granting clearance, at a distance from the planet
which showed a thoroughness seldom encountered around fifth-rate outpost
worlds. No doubt alarm about prospective rebellion and infiltration had
caused security to be tightened. Without the orbital information he
possessed, not even a vessel as begimmicked as his could have neared
The image of the portmaster appeared in a comscreen. “Welcome, sir,” he
said. “Am I correct that you are alone? The Imperial resident has been
notified of your coming and invites you to be his house guest during
your stay. If you will tell me where your accommodation lock
is–frankly, I have never seen a model quite like yours–a car will be
there for you in a few minutes.”
He was an autochthon, a handsome creature by any standards. The size of
a short man, he stood on backward-bending, talon-footed legs.
Brown-furred, the slim body ran out in a broad tail which ended in a
fleshy rudder; at its middle, arms and hands were curiously anthropoid;
above a massive chest, a long neck bore a round head–high, ridged brow,
golden eyes with nictitating membranes, blunt-nosed black-muzzled face
with fangs and whiskers suggestive of a cat, no external ears but a
crest of muscle on top of the skull. From his upper shoulders grew the
bat wings, their six-meter span now folded. He wore a belt to support a
pouch, a brassard of authority, and, yes, a crucifix.
I’d better stay in character from the beginning. “Many thanks, my dear
chap,” Flandry replied in his most affected manner. “I say, could you