The Shaman of Karres – Snippet 17

Once they got up to the ridge line the full blast of the night wind nearly froze him again. But at least they were walking downhill now, and Nady was using a small atomic light to show the stark terrain. Suddenly he stopped dead. “Back up slowly,” he said. “There’s a porpentile by the trail.”

Pausert stared but couldn’t see anything. “Where?” he asked as they retreated.

Nady pointed. “Just there. Look. The rock is too smooth. The edge is wrong.”

Pausert still couldn’t see anything and said so. “Wait until we’re a bit higher,” said Nady. “I’ll show yer. We want to shift him anyway.”

They retreated back up the path some more, and then Nady picked up a flat piece of rock, and said: “Watch.” He held up the light, and tossed the rock to land on a sheet of slab-rock, much like any of other hundreds of sheets of slab-rock, downslope…. And the sheet moved, undulating in a curious up-and-down movement. It seemed to swim across the scree, then settled down in a new spot and became something that looked like a rock once more. “I bin doing this forty years now, and there are times when I don’t see them. But they don’t always attack.”

“Is it hurt?” asked Vezzarn.

“Nah. Can’t hurt ’em. Not even an ordinary blaster does much to them. Makes a hole — but it doesn’t stop ’em. Takes a mining laser or heavy mounted blaster. They’re nothing more than rock themselves. They just don’t like to have rocks on top of them. “

“Why are they so camouflaged? What do they hunt?” asked Ta’zara.

“Gatherers,” said Nady with a sort of morbid delight. “They’ll smother yer if they gets a chance.”

“Do they eat people?” asked Vezzarn, plainly horrified.

“Nah. Jus’ kill ’em. And yet, sometimes they won’t do nothing to yer.”

“Just how do you get away?”  Pausert was wishing he’d paid more attention to Nady’s instructions, back in the cell.

“Keep yer distance. You can out-climb ’em, but yer can’t outrun ’em. And if they gets yer, the trick is breaking the seal. An’ you gotta keep your re-breather under your arm like this… they etch anything metal. They suck down around you. If you c’n breathe, they ain’t gonna suffocate you. They just gets tired and move on.”

“Just how long until that happens?” asked Ta’zara.

“’bout three days with a small ‘un. Could be a week or more for one of the big boys. Yer die then anyway, ’cause they ain’t light and anyways yer cain’t last without drinking.”

“So… if someone put rocks on top of them, would they move?” asked the captain.

“Nope. Not if they pounced a gatherer. Best thing is to spot ’em and not get under them. They like the sun-slopes. They’re thick there. Yer only find them movin’ across the shade.”

That seemed very odd to Pausert. Perhaps the creatures ate metals? Why else would they bother with something that wasn’t from their world, which they couldn’t eat? Still, he was glad they had a guide. They walked on down the track. It led to a very crude airlock that led into the mountainside.

“We’ll rest up here. Got to do the gorge in the daytime,” said Nady.

So they went in and found themselves in a cave, lit by glow-globes. It was rank with the smell of unwashed gatherers — several of whom were in the various grottoes off the main chamber. “Nady. How yer going? What you got there? New bonders?” asked one, not bothering to get up.

“Job fer Me’a,” explained Nady.

No one asked further questions, after that. One thing that Pausert noticed was that there were several of the sleek fluffy creatures around, moving with that graceful gliding gait, that made it almost look like they flowed across the ground. They must be some kind of gatherer pet, he concluded.

The next morning they left and began walking up the pass. The views were magnificent, with the jagged mountains almost seeming to reach into the heavens. Far below they could see the domes, below the cliff-wall that stopped this being a short walk. When they stopped for a breather, Pausert asked, huffing and panting through his re-breather, why they couldn’t have walked the other way along the valley to the spaceport.

“There’s a cliff there too. Just a little ‘un. But it’s a closed area. The concession-holders have their store caves in that cliff. And the valley down there is fuller of porpentiles than bubbles in beer. They use flyers to get to the caves.”

“Store caves?” prompted the captain.

“Yes, Stratel, Bormgo, Wenerside and Ratneurt each have part of the caves.” Nady couldn’t spit through his re-breather- but sounded like he wanted to. “They hold back when the demand ain’t high, to keep the price up. Funny, we don’t see any of it.”

They’d seen tumbleflowers in the distance — Nady pointed them out — one being tracked by a gatherer, and another just rolling along. “That one ain’t shedding,” he explained. A little later they had to dive off the path as two of the tumbleflowers came bouncing down the hill. They were basically a ball of flexible spikes that had a pink florets sprouting along the shafts — about twice the size of a man. The end of each shaft branched into little springy tips, letting them bounce hither and thither. “Dry un’s,” said their guide disparagingly. “Big un’s don’t shed much. Down in the valley you’ll see hundreds like this.”

Cinderby’s World plainly had much shorter days and although it did not take them that long to get to the top of the pass, the sun was already on its way down when they entered the gorge on the far slope. It was a narrow, awkward and steep descent, with no real path.

“It ain’t much used. Too steep for tumbleflowers,” explained Nady. And then he gave a crow of delight, dropped to his knees, took a tiny pan and brush from his pouch and carefully brushed up little green crystals into a little oiled leather bag, which he tied closed very carefully. “You’re me lucky charm!” he said, beaming around the rebreather.

“That’s your catalyst?”

“That’s her. That’s a lucky break. Musta been one of the big ones, fell in here. They shed a bit now and again.”

He was so busy looking around for more, that Ta’zara asked him if he was still looking for porpentiles. “Not in here. Too shady. Oh yes!” He spotted some more of the crystals. It took a little longer to get down the next section, with him hunting hopefully, but as they rounded the next bend — relatively close to the end of the gorge, where they could see the mouth of the gorge — was the tumbleflower, half way up a small cliff. “Is it stuck… or broken?” asked Pausert.

“Nah. It’s climbing out. See. It has little suckers on the ends of its branches. They do it when they get stuck. It’s just not fast. And they don’t get busted. Thems as tough as hull-metal. You see ’em bounce after falling over a cliff and just go on rolling. By tomorrow it’ll be out of here.”

They skirted past, and with Nady no longer looking for the green crystals, they got to the end of the gorge quite quickly. From the end of it they could see the wall of the spaceport’s landing apron, and the nose of the Venture 7333, sticking out above it, gleaming in the setting sun.

“Come dark and I’ll see if I can make us a hole,” said the captain, looking at his ship. It would be nice to get into her and get on their way, but there were a few things to sort out here first.

“Ain’t going to be that easy,” said Nady… but it was. The captain slipped over to the wall with Ta’zara, leaving the other two in the gorge mouth, and used his klatha cocoon skill, projecting it into the wall opposite the Venture. Ta’zara pushed on it and a disk of wall popped out. They waited. No alarms sounded, no searchlight beams penetrated the night, and so they called the others and went through. On the other side the captain and Ta’zara put the plug back in, leaving no sign of their entry.

Once they got to the Venture, the captain went along to one of her tubes and began tapping out a repetitive rhythm with a rock — the stamping sound used to call the curious black mountain-bollems to come closer and look.  

The Leewit dropped a ladder from the hold door — and they climbed up into the welcome shelter of their ship.