“It is all right,” she assured the little Kuall. “I am aboard for a long time yet, it seems, and whatever will be is at least some break from the routine.”
“Could be more big break, yep yep,” the purser warned her. “Big storm coming up.”
That was unnerving. There were some things that made boredom seem acceptable. “Will it be bad?”
“Could be. Yep yep. We will head right for it, see.”
“You don’t try and go around such things?”
“Not most times, nope nope. Got to keep to route and schedule. But in nontech hex, we like storms, you see. Big wind. Dangerous for crew, but they know how to do their jobs, yep yep. Just stay off outside decks while we’re in the storm and always hold on to something. Faster we go, rougher it gets, but we’ll make speed.”
She made her way back to the upper deck passenger lounge, which was just below her cabin. It had heavy reinforced glass windows all around, and from it you could see what the captain and bridge crew were seeing two decks up in the wheelhouse.
Wally was in there, without his little friends at the moment, and so were two or three other passengers. She was getting to know everybody aboard; there weren’t all that many people, after all, and there was even less to do.
After a couple of days of powered light the lounge looked dark, shadowy, almost sinister, but it was more than adequate for most races, and for her. This was, after all, fairly normal lighting for Ambora, although they were using some tricks with mirrors and such to make the smaller sealed oil lamps as bright as the near torches Amborans tended to favor.
Out ahead she could see the darkness, almost as if the bright dawn was being reversed, turned back into night. It was a natural sight on a clear horizon; she’d seen it many times herself from the Amboran cliffs. Still, she was home when she was on the Amboran cliffs, and could retreat into structures of thick wood or stone. Out here she was aware that the ship was the sole anchor for her existence. Nobody could fly in that stuff, not with those winds and violent downdrafts, and lifeboats would fare poorly if it were rough enough to sink a ship. The purser was right about one thing, though— although there was a clear way around to the south, the captain was heading right for the darkness.
“It is still difficult to not hear and feel the engines,” Wally commented, almost certainly to her, though apparently to nobody in particular. “It had become so much a part of the day-to-day. Good morning, my dear. I hope you slept well.” This was clearly directed toward her.
“As well as I can in this confinement,” she answered. “I was not made for this sort of living.”
“Who was? I suggest that you go to the first-class mess and eat some breakfast now. It is still hot and properly cooked and prepared, but things will be getting rough soon and they will have to put it away or it will go flying. I fear we’ll eat a lot worse until we clear this hex.”
She decided that he had a point, and made her way back to the small restaurant amidships. Normally you could walk in and get what you needed any time of the day or night, but apparently things would be different for a while.
She could feel the tension, both on the part of the passengers in the lounge and even the stewards in the restaurant and other crew that she passed. Clearly this was not going to be an experience they relished.
They were securing almost everything that was loose when she entered, although two of them took some time out to prepare an Amboran sweet cereal for her, garnished with native fruits. Still, everybody was so frantic she wasn’t sure she would have time to eat before things started to happen, and she didn’t want to think of what those things might be.
She thought of Eggy and wondered what these storms were like under the sea. Probably not as bad as up here, she decided. They said that you didn’t have to go far down to be almost completely ignorant that a storm was even raging above. She wouldn’t know; Amborans could manage an emergency float in a pinch, and even do a snatch and grab on fish just below the surface, but the oils in their feathers were not dense enough or insulating enough to allow them to swim.
“I, too, fly,” the creature had told her, but not in the air. What a strange variety of creatures there were in this world.
Before she finished her breakfast, the storm hit, or, more properly, they hit the storm, and things began to lurch. The action, which became rhythmic but unceasing, frightened her, and she saw concern even in the eyes of the stewards, creatures of several races who now rushed to gather up the last loose bowls, plates, bottles, and utensils and get them under either locked bars or netting. They tried to allow her to complete her meal, but she was no longer hungry, and it wasn’t much fun eating, anyway, when most of the time you were trying to keep your bowl and spoon on the table.
As loose goblets and cups began flying, she understood why there was little or no glassware in the restaurant. It was wooden or some sort of artificial substance that was smooth and molded.
Some of the stewards were more sure-footed than others. Some were clearly at home in a surface of rough water, or just seemed built to stick to whatever they were standing on.
Now, holding onto the table, she wondered how she was going to make it anywhere more comfortable, even to the lounge. She wasn’t one of those who stuck to things, and her tough feet and claws occasionally lost their footing even when sailing was smooth.
One of the stewards, a creature that seemed more like a walking plant than an animal—with leafy arms and a head like a pastel blue and pink head of cabbage—was one of the stick-to-the-floor types, and he approached her.
“Take my arm,” it invited her. “I will make certain you get to the walking rope. Can you manage from there?”
She wasn’t sure, but said, “Yes. Thank you.”
The “arm” was covered with little leafy smaller arms and ended in a “hand” of three rubbery, long fingers. The creature’s grip, though, was surprisingly strong, and its footing as steady as a rock. She pulled herself up, depending on its grip, and allowed it to pull her to the bulkhead and the thick guide rope. She used her free hand to grab the rope, then said, “All right! You can let go now!”
“Use both of your hands and grip hard,” the steward warned, guiding her other hand to the rope and ensuring that she had a two-handed grip before releasing her.
She immediately saw what it meant by the suggestion.
She had never before been moving in so many directions at once, not even in the air. The ship didn’t just rock back and forth, it also simultaneously moved side to side, and at the end of one sequence of motion it seemed to literally twist, first one way and then the other.
She made her way forward, slipping once but catching herself on the rope before she fell, and nervously made her way forward, out of the restaurant doorway, and across the common area and stairwells, toward the lounge. As she passed this area, she could look out of the sliding doors, but wasn’t sure it had been a good idea. Although it was still early morning, it was pitch-black out there, broken by dramatic flashes of lightning. Some of the sounds she’d assumed in the restaurant were ship noises, she now realized were thunder. She couldn’t help but wonder about the poor crew on those masts, and hoped they’d all found some shelter before the ship entered this terrible environment.
Getting into the lounge not only didn’t help, the row of rectangular windows provided a frightening panorama that was a terrible dark gray, with lightning all around and rain beating against the windows. Worse, though, was that she could see the bow of the ship stretched out in front and below her, and the gigantic waves breaking over it, some, it seemed, as high as this upper deck!
The raging sea would roll over and the entire bow would dip and then vanish under the water, followed by that funny twisting motion, and then, almost miraculously, the bow would rise back out of the depths to repeat the sequence. It was dramatic, and scary. Each time, it seemed as if the bow would never rise back up, and if it didn’t, they were going down, and fast.
It was the greatest test of faith she’d ever undergone, because she was completely helpless; she could do nothing to make it stop.
Jaysu was surprised to find nobody else in the lounge area. They were probably all riding it out in their cabins, she thought, since there was little you could do but be frightened in such conditions.
She wondered about the crew, who apparently took this as just another part of the job. How many times did they go through this in a month, a year, whatever? Was it ever routine?
“Quite a magnificent sight, is it not?” a familiar voice commented above and behind her. She jumped, turned, and saw Wally rise from a flat deck area between two types of seating in the back.
“Oh—I’m sorry,” she responded. “I didn’t realize anyone was here.”
“Racial habit, I’m afraid. We’re natural lurkers,” the giant spider commented.
“I expected more passengers here,” she told him.
“Most land passengers are busily giving their breakfasts back to nature,” he told her. “The others have pretty well anchored themselves in. My two associates are all right but rather small, and they found themselves unable to stand erect under these conditions and so have battened themselves down, as it were. I suspect that your stomach and general balance are also all right, being a flier.”
She hadn’t thought of that. Of course, the action of the ship, while alien, wasn’t as extreme as some flying maneuvers she did routinely, and she always knew where the ground was. “Yes, but it does not mean that I can stand on hard, polished wood in this movement,” she replied. “In the air it is I who control the movements, and I am not subject to traction.”
The spider seemed to think a moment, then approached her confidently. A creature of this size who still walked up walls and across ceilings did not have any problems getting around under these conditions. A leg reached under and into some natural pouch, then brought out a glistening strand of what seemed to be rope of smooth, translucent color. He put out the leg and offered the rope to her.
“Please—take this. It is a natural substance my people make, but it is strong as steel and it is, well, sticky without being wet. Take a seat in the center here, which is the point where you will sense the least movement, and just put this around your lap and secure it to the bottom of the seat. It will hold you, and the seats are bolted down. You can peel it off slowly from anywhere or anything, but if there is a sudden jerk, it will hold a boulder. Go ahead—take it. It won’t hurt you.”
She didn’t trust the spider, but on the other hand, he seemed to be telling the truth and just being helpful. She took his offering, pulling it to her. Now, for the first time, she saw that the legs, all of them, ended in what looked like mittens.
She studied the ropelike substance. “This is your webbing?”
“In an evolutionary sense, yes,” he admitted. “But we don’t build webs. As far as I can tell, we never did. Still, it comes from the same source as a spider’s web, and we use it very much like ropes, vines, whatever. A bunch of it gets made every day whether we need it or not, and we actually sell the stuff as a trade good for uses just like this. It keeps its properties for quite some time, although, of course, like everything else, you can use it too much. My gift. In fact, if you give me one end of the coil back, I’ll go over to one of these backless chairs and hold it taut so you can make it.”
The stuff had an odd feel, almost like it was trying to grab you, and using it hand over hand to go toward the great spider, it seemed she was climbing a web to her doom. But Wally, as usual, was as good as his word, even helping fasten her to the seat.
It helped. “I fear I’m still looking out at that scene,” she told him. “I feel we’ll go down every time I see the bow vanish.” Even so, she felt more comfortable secured to the seat.
The noise was also unnerving. Not the storm outside— save for the thunder claps, which were dulled by the tight insulation and triple-thick bulletproof window materials—but rather the groans, shudders, and moans of the ship itself, punctuated now and then by the sound of things smashing against bulkheads.
“You seem to enjoy the storm, Mr. Wally,” she commented to the spider. “Is your race one that swims?”
He chuckled. “No. If we go, I go, I’m afraid, but I’m not all that concerned. While it’s not unheard of, these ships are built for this sort of thing, and this crew is highly experienced. And, while I must say I’ve never been on a ship through a storm like this before, I’ve been in much more dangerous and less comfortable spots in my long life. I rather enjoy viewing the wonders of nature, really, so long as I am warm and dry and looking out.”
“It seems a huge storm,” she noted. “I mean, we have thunderstorms, some of them quite fierce, but they are generally local affairs. They blow and roar like this, it is true, but they are soon gone. This one just seems to go on and on and on.”
“It does,” he agreed. “I believe this may be more than a mere storm. I heard one of the crew refer to it as a tropical storm, and another as a typhoon. These appear to be much larger and meaner storms than the ones you or I are used to. It is a wonder to me that they can sail in this, but apparently they have a way to do it. As I say, experience. Experience and thousands of years of clever engineering design.”
It did seem to go on for a terrible length of time, but then, as suddenly as they had come upon it, it died down, even stopped, and for a brief moment there was even a bit of sun.
They could hear the shouts of crew all over, but they didn’t sound happy.
The purser rushed in, saw her, and said, “Thought somebody might be up here. Yep yep. Everybody all right?”
“Yes, we’re fine,” she assured him.
“If you want to get to your cabin, go fast,” the purser told them. “This is the middle of the storm. All quiet, still. But we’ll hit the other storm wall in about ten minutes. After that, it’s back to the wind and waves for another couple hours.”
She thought it might be a good idea, tried to get up and found herself held tight.
“Oh, sorry, let me help,” Wally commented, reaching over, putting a leg under the chair and pulling. “Here. Take this. You may find it useful. We will talk later, after we are through this mess.”
“Yes, perhaps we will,” she replied, unnerved at just how well tied down she’d been without realizing it.
She made her way back to the doors, then out onto the deck. It was a strange feeling, this “middle” of the storm. She could see it, all around her, and certainly forward, yet it was almost as if they were becalmed, with the sun peeking through the strange, spiral cloud shapes above.
She also saw that the crew was busy hauling down some very torn-up sail and putting up some others. She knew that those sails were made of the kind of stuff you couldn’t tear, and to see them now in this condition was more sobering than watching the bow sink and rise.
She hurried to her cabin, not wanting to be caught when they hit that storm again, and made it barely in time.
The embedded log in the box of sand provided sufficient grip and comfort for her when it started again. Alone, inside her cabin, for once she felt not claustrophobic, but safe.
She decided that the best way to spend the rest of the day was in prayer and meditation, if she could hear herself think over the racket that began again outside.
core was less than impressed by their highly fanciful and imaginative report. Not, however, to the point of accepting a word of it, even if it was just the kind of plot Core might have come up with.
“Proof!” Core shot back in a memo sent via the Zone Gate courier system to Ari and Ming at the consular office in Yabbo. “Get proof, get knocked up, or proceed to Sanafe, or any combination of same, your choice.”
She has a definite lack of personal charm, Ming noted. Do you suppose she’s taking her own advice? After all, Core has exactly the same situation under those decrees that we do.
I hadn ‘t thought of that, but you’re right, Ari replied. Hmmm . . . Makes you wonder what would happen if she did get “knocked up,” as it is so quaintly put. Who would want to have sex with somebody who spent the last century as a computer?
I’m not so sure, considering your dear, departed uncle’s perversions. They were all in those memory banks, take it from me. If Core’s got any of those routines still in her memories, then I fear for the man who tries it, not for her.
That doesn ‘t help us here, though, Ari pointed out. So, we either have to produce a body in a case or get the hell out of here.
I vote for visiting Sanafe myself. We’ll never get a chance to open one of those things, not with that kind of guard around, and I didn’t see any way in. It was like they were sealed in by machine. If so, they probably will take some kind of gadget, a kind of frozen coffin can opener, to get them out. I, for one, am not anxious to tangle with that general, not yet.
Ari felt disappointed, but had to agree with her. Even though he was as convinced as she of the contents of those boxes, there was simply no way to prove anything to Core’s satisfaction with just the two of them, and a good chance they’d be caught if they kept going back and forth.
Still, the whole concept of mailing an invasion army to the staging area had to be unique in the annals of warfare, and it sure was a warning that they were dealing with some diabolical minds on the other side.
Sanafe was due north of Yabbo, and thus roughly two hundred kilometers distant. Still, Core had been prescient enough to send along some international credit units with the note so they could buy their transportation some of the way, maybe all the way. The thing was, they hadn’t any idea what Sanafe was like.
“Nontech, my dear. Strictly muscle power,” Vice Consul Mitchuk told them. “They don’t socialize much, and there are no consulates there, or much of anything else for that matter. They’re large carnivores, organized into family-based clans as I understand it, and they don’t even like each other very much, let alone foreigners. It is unlikely they would kill a Kalindan, since we’re next door and could cause some ugliness for them if they did anything to one of ours, but they might frighten, threaten, or extort.”
“What sort of weapons might we get around here that would work there, on those people, if need be?” Ming asked him.
Mitchuk shrugged. “Hard to say. Spring-loaded harpoons are effective in nontech environments, but I don’t know where you’d buy them anywhere in this region. My advice to you would be to not go. Settle here, obey the decrees, and wait for things to happen.”
She shook her head. “Sorry, sir. You’ve been a real dear, but we have our orders, so to speak. Something is going to happen there, and maybe soon, and we are supposed to be on hand. There are Chalidangers right here, and that can’t be a coincidence.”
“Chalidangers? Here? Are you certain?” The consul seemed surprised and upset by the news.
“Oh, yes. Take it from me. That black dome down there may claim it’s part of the Panayan consulate, but it’s not. It’s Chalidang, and it’s got some very high-ranking officers living in it. We’ve seen them.”
“You—You’ve seen them? Where? And who is this ‘we’ you speak of?”
“Oh, just a figure of speech. But, yes, we’ve been down there and we’ve spotted them, as much as they try and keep out of sight and inside their bunker.”
“Do you think this has anything to do with a move against Kalinda?” he asked, sounding concerned.
“I’m not sure. It doesn’t seem nearly enough if they go against us. No, I really can’t say. Core believes it has something to do with Sanafe, which is why I was directed to go there. You see now why I haven’t been able to, well, consummate the directive. If I got pregnant now, well, it would really limit my movements after a while.”
Mitchuk looked crestfallen at that. Still, he sighed and said, “Well, please, if you are bent upon leaving, then you must be my guest for one last dinner. Please!”
“Well, I—” What do you think?
What the hell. Why not give him one last shot? At least we’ll get a decent dinner before we have to go back to eating that crud outside.
The dinner was the best the consulate had to offer, and that was saying something for a Kalindan palate; the intoxicants were of the highest quality and age, the sweets delectable. By the time they finished, even Ari was feeling guilty that they hadn’t given Mitchuk much encouragement for all that he’d done, or, in this case, overdone. They were tipsy at the end of it, and stuffed like a lobster, and they found coordination difficult. Mitchuk kindly offered them one of the smaller rooms in the consulate for the night so they wouldn’t have to navigate, and they quickly took him up on it and accepted his assistance in getting there.
Ming’s head was spinning, and since it was also Ari’s head, she knew she had no advantage, but she did have some experience in this. I think we’ve been snoggered, she managed, as they settled in for sleep.
Huh? What do you mean?
Mitty isn’t even high, that’s what. I got a bad feeling about— But that was all either of them managed before passing out.
It was a mostly very deep, dreamless sleep, but there were moments when they dreamed that others were there, that things were being done to them, but as quickly as these sensations arose, they lapsed back into the near comatose blackness.
It was impossible to say how long they slept, but it was a big shock to see where they were when they woke up.
It was like emerging from a warm, totally dark tunnel into slowly increasing sound and light. It was not without its sudden but brief waves of nausea, each one of which jolted them more awake, but in a state that made them mostly want to go back to sleep.
They felt awful, and there was no need to convey this concept to the other. They tried to turn a bit and get more comfortable, but something was preventing it. Slowly the eyes opened to see nothing but a blur at first, but things slowly came into focus, broken now by sounds so loud and irritating that they pounded into their head like hammers.
“I do believe our guest is waking up,” a silky smooth deep voice commented. “Or should I say ‘guests’?”
They managed to focus on the speaker, and suddenly all the discomforts of the hangover became totally irrelevant.
They found they were on the bottom level of the dark dome, and were being eyed with some amusement by a very large and very menacing-looking Chalidanger.
“Please don’t try and struggle too much,” the Chalidanger said to them. “We had to put some restraints on you because we thought you might be reluctant to accept our sincere hospitality.”
“Mitchuk,” Ming almost spat back in disgust. “The horny little fink sold us out.”
“On the contrary,” their host responded. “Citizen Mitchuk sold himself a very long time ago. Selling you out wasn’t an option; he has long been one of us. Do you think we could have operated here so effectively for so long without ensuring that we had far more friends around than neutrals, and no enemies we couldn’t control?”
“Some control. You drug us and kidnap us.”
“Oh, come now! I’m assured that the food and intoxicants were of such a high quality that if you tried to order it all back home you couldn’t possibly afford it. If you’ve got to be drugged and rolled, as it were, there are far worse ways to do it. Just a little extra juice in one of the stronger intoxicants was enough to put you under for almost thirty hours.”
“Why the fancy stuff, then? Why not just kill us and be done with it?”
The Chalidanger seemed amused by the question. “And you were supposed to be great agents back in your own universe! If we take you out here, after your report, the forces opposing us would descend in such force and skill that all these months of preparation would be dissolved in the water and of no value. No, I don’t want you dead. In fact, I want you to be our guest for a while. This is going to come to a head shortly, and you wanted to find out what we were up to and where we were going to go anyway, didn’t you? So why skulk and suffer in a hostile and primitive land when you can simply come along and watch?”