Moments later, a flat sled-like craft slipped into view, with half a dozen of the gray creatures on board. They took cover, except for the one gray man who took careful aim with some sort of heavy weapon on the sled.

“I guess there’s not much point to light-shifted images of the ship as jungle foliage, then.” said Goth, disgustedly. “They must have the tubes radiation pin-pointed.”

“More ship coming,” said the Leewit. “Big ‘uns.”

That was an understatement. There were nine of them, discharging a truly impressive number of armed gray men. And now a large armored hover-carrier was sliding above the trees, guns pointed at the Venture.

“We’re getting something on external sound, Captain. Nearly loud enough to make the hull-plates vibrate.”

“What are they saying, Leewit?” asked Pausert.

The littlest witch answered over the intercom, seconds later. “They say we’re for coming out. Or they’re for boiling the mud and pre-cooking us, before they’re for cutting open the hull, and for coming in and eating us. Shall I fry a few of them first?”

The captain sighed. “No. I don’t think we could hold off long enough to take the ship down the Egger route. What if we do a quick Sheewash hop out of here? We can’t get too far — not off-world — because we have a hole in the hull and no real use of the main drive. But it could buy us time.

Goth nodded. “Let’s do it,” she said, reaching into the drawer for the wires.

The carrier above loosed off a bolt of red energy, sizzling the mud. The Leewit replied with a nova gun burst, as the Venture leapt clear of the glutinous steaming muck in a burst of speed that left the charges of the Megair exploding far behind them. A brief second of Sheewash and the captain used the laterals again to set her down in what looked like a glade, several hundred miles away.

“Scary stuff, Captain!” said Goth. “The drive’s not really for use so close to solid objects. We hit the ground or even these soft trees while moving at this speed and it’s going to turn us into jelly.”

“Still, we must have shaken them off. If we can just get a patch on the hull, we can out of here. We’re going to be in sub-radio range of Uldune pretty quick using nothing but the Sheewash. I’d rather not try to take the Venture down the Egger route again.”

“Too clumping right!” said the Leewit. “You aren’t safe doing that. But I could probably do it with Goth.”

“Uh, skipper,” said Vezzarn over the intercom. “There’s mud coming in the hole, and I can’t stop it. I can’t put a patch onto the hull unless we get out of this stuff and we manage to get the surface really, really clean. It’d be best put on from the outside, I reckon.”

Pausert looked out at the viewscreens. They were settling even faster into what he had taken for a meadow. And there was a Megair atmospheric chase craft bearing down on them already. It wasn’t one of those they’d fled earlier, but a larger vessel.

“I don’t think we’re going to get the chance. We’re going to have to abandon ship, I’m afraid.”

“More ships coming, Captain,” warned the Leewit. “They must have a real hot-shot planetary defense system.”

“I guess eating travelers does tend to make people want to come to your planet and exterminate you,” said Pausert wryly. “Now the question is, can we take the Egger route out with the ship holed?”

Goth shook her head. “The hole is not the issue, Captain. It’s –”

“Great Patham!” said the Leewit. “They have some kind of gravity tractor on us. They’re lifting the Venture!”

The ship pulled free of the clinging mud with a resounding plop.

“And now?”

Pausert took a deep breath. “Now we play it by ear. Let’s get ready to go Sheewash — it could be interesting with that tractor on us.”

“Would be possible but exhausting, Captain,” said Goth. “Couple of Karres operatives got caught by a Megair ship. They don’t eat their catch at once. So they had time to teach those Cannibals a lesson or three. We could stall for time ourselves, maybe, long enough to fix the Venture .”

“Are they human, Goth?”

“Hard to say, Captain. If we have it right, they’re humans as humans would have been if things had been a whole lot different.

Pausert took a deep breath. “Okay. Then we play things by ear. If they start to try to cook us, we’ll take them for a Sheewash ride.”

The Venture hit against the large floater with a clang.

The ship began moving off.

“Hopefully they’re taking us somewhere dry,” said Pausert, as they moved through swirling cloud and rain.

“I think that’d have to be off-world,” said Goth.

“Looks like it. In the meanwhile let’s see if we can get some kind of patch on that hole, even if it’s not a perfect seal. If need be, we can all put on pressure suits and then look for a moon to go and repair it.”

“I’ll go, Captain. You stay here and watch ’em.”

For a moment Pausert nearly demurred. But then he realized that if he couldn’t trust her, he couldn’t trust anyone. And she’d grown noticeably, too. For him, she’d only been gone a few weeks. But for her, he’d gathered, something like six months had passed. She’d always been quick to take on responsibility, but this was a new Goth moving out of childhood and becoming his equal. He rather liked it, actually. As Vala, she’d been the one leading him, he reflected, thinking back.


A little later, as the big Megair floater continued to fly with them, now escorted by several atmospheric craft, Goth came on the intercom. “Next time, let’s not set down in the mud,” she said. “It’s patched, captain. It’s not space tight, but it’s the best we can do. We’ll lose pressure. But it shouldn’t be any worse than the door-seal damage from the pirate-imperials fight. We could manage a day or so, for sure. Going to take longer than that to get the mud out of here. It’s sprayed all over.”

“Now all we need is the chance to get away.”

“After our last little hop, I reckon they’ll be quite cautious about that.”

“I could stick my head out the airlock and whistle at them a little,” said the Leewit. Her whistles had shattering effects on solids — and people. “I reckon I could bust that grav-tractor up good. They have resonance crystals in them.”

“Wait until they’re not expecting trouble,” said Goth.

“I’m just a sweet little girl,” said the Leewit cherubically.

“Yeah, but they like them sweet, young and tender. They make better eating.”

A few minutes later, the Megair floater began settling toward a rocky plateau. It was rain-swept and gray-green lit, but for Megair 4 it was probably prime real estate. Nikkeldepain wasn’t as beautiful as Karres, but it was a long step up on this place. You could see, by the instruments, if not through the rain, that a large number of other craft were converging on the landing ground. It was already quite crowded and off on one edge was a testimony to the Megair Cannibals normal piracy — a junkyard of wrecked Empire ships. On the opposite edge, the Megair spaceport was dominated by a squat hill, which was studded with pill-boxes.

“They’ve got at least fifteen different types of space-guns there,” said the Leewit professionally, examining the protruding muzzles — most of which were pointed at the Venture . “I recognize some of them.”

Goth peered with narrowed eyes. “Yeah. This is the Cannibal nest, all right. Furnished with their loot.”

“It’s a good spot for a lair,” said the captain, thoughtfully. “This cluster could be defended quite easily. They’d know where all the rocks are and could put weaponry on the moons. And they could be on any one of twenty planets orbiting five stars. The only way we could get here was with an escort of those Phantom ships. And by all accounts I’ve heard the Cannibals keep their piracy down to attacks on occasional ships. Not like the Agandar.”

“Yes,” said Mebeckey, who had come out of his stateroom and was peering nervously around. “But they’ve been at it for a lot longer, Captain. And with the Agandar, there was at least a chance of ransom. The Megair pirates eat their catch. Is there nothing we can do?”

“We’ll certainly try to do something,” said Pausert.

“If you’d eaten less of my Wintenberry jelly,” said the Leewit, “you’d still be skinny and unappetizing.”

Mebeckey tugged his hair. “How can you be so calm? Don’t you understand? They’re Cannibals.”

“I have the captain and Goth here. We’ve been worse messes,” said the Leewit stoutly.