“Actually,” said Pausert, “we might learn a thing or two from those incidents. In the meantime, I suggest you get some rain-gear and warm clothing. It’s both cold and wet out there. Goth — a word in your ear. You too, Leewit. Off you go, Mebeckey. I know I gave you one of those allweather cloaks I had left over.”

When the xeno-archeologist had gone, Pausert closed the door. “I still don’t trust him as far as I can throw him. He has a bad habit of sneaking about. I think we want to keep the Karres stuff under our hats. He’s already seen a bit too much, with you arriving. Goth, if you and the Leewit go no-shape…”

“Won’t work, Captain. We need to talk to them, and the Leewit is the only one who can do that for you.”

The smaller blond witch nodded. “But you go no-shape, Goth. We’ll tell that old snoop you’ve gone again.”

Pausert nodded. “A secret ace in the hole. That’s good. And don’t forget old Vezzarn. He’s a good lock-tickler. Now get yourselves some warm gear.” The captain pointed at the readout on the control panel. “It really is cold and miserable out there.”

“And they’re trying talk to us again, Captain,” said Goth. “On the communicator screen.” Goth abruptly wasn’t there. “I’ll get you both something warm and waterproof,” said a voice from midair.

The face staring out of the screen was lean, gray-skinned, red-eyed and feral-looking. When it spoke, its teeth showed. They were distinctly filed into points. The speech came across to the captain as a series of guttural croaks, and an odd set of clicks and a sibilant whistle. But Pausert was not surprised when the Leewit answered in the same fashion.

“They say we’re for coming out and behaving ourselves. Guns are locked on to us. If they have to come and fetch us, we’re for eating alive. If we behave and answer their questions they’ll let us die first. I said we weren’t for eating.”

The speaker appeared to be having trouble swallowing that one. It took it a good few moments before it spoke.

“It says all life is food. What shall I tell it?”

“Say we’ll give it indigestion,” said Pausert. “Tell it would be very wise to help us fix the damage it did to our ship and let us go.”

There was a longer pause. Then another burst of croaks and clicks. “It wants to know how we know the holy language. And it says we’re for coming out now because they will start opening the ship up with lasers if we don’t. What do we do, Captain?”

Pausert took a deep breath. “Go out, I reckon. If they open up with those space-cannon, they can cut the old Venture’s hull open like paper.”

“And then?”

“I wish I knew. But we’ll work it out. We have to,” said Pausert with a confidence he did not feel. He could protect them all with the klatha force cocoon that he’d learned to make, except he’d also have to remain at liberty to free them later. But it was plain the Megair Cannibals wanted them alive at least at the moment. They wanted to ask them questions. Well, Pausert had a few himself. And he still had a few tricks up his sleeve. His gambler’s instinct said that going out of the Venture was dangerous, but less dangerous than staying here would be. “Tell them we’re coming. Tell them the ship is booby trapped, and to leave it alone. And then let’s go.”

So they collected the very nervous Mebeckey, and the less nervous Vezzarn. “What about the other young lady?” asked Mebeckey.

“Gone back where she came from,” said Pausert.

“Ah.” Mebeckey looked relieved for a minute. “They’ll find her. We should have fought.”

“You leave the decisions to me,” said Pausert, aware that something invisible had taken his hand. He gave it a brief squeeze. And he relled the baby vatch. Well, it would probably enjoy them being eaten. After all it described people by taste. He had a feeling that that didn’t mean quite the same thing to vatches, though.

They opened the airlock and lowered the gang-way. Megair 4 was, if anything, more bleak and miserable in reality than it was on the viewscreens. That was quite an achievement, Pausert thought. The gray-skinned Cannibal squad that came across to the Venture at a dogtrot seemed unperturbed by it. Other than small leather loincloths and belts plainly intended for the weaponry that dangled from it, they wore nothing but a layer of wetness. They didn’t even seem to notice being wet, let alone the chill breeze. The bulbous things in their hands were plainly guns of some sort, Pausert decided.

The lead gray-face spoke in their odd code of croaks.

“What did he say? Come this way, we have a nice fire and hot drinks, while we fix your ship?” said Pausert, with an attempt at a smile.

“He said ‘Meat, walk or be butchered’, ” said the Leewit

“Nice people, the Megair Cannibals,” said Pausert sardonically.

“Yeah. Can I whistle at him? Just a little? I’ve got one you can’t actually hear. Does some neat stuff.”

“Save it for whoever sent him.”

The Leewit wrapped her hand in his other one. He had a Karres witch on both sides, now. “You have some pretty good ideas sometimes, Captain,” she said.

Escorted by the gray squad of Megair Cannibals, they walked across towards the pill-box studded hill. As they got closer, the squad leader gave a whistle of his own. A complicated one. It might have been less destructive than the Leewit’s, but it did make two massive doors set into the front of the hill slide open. They walked forward into the dim green-lit passage. “Cheerful looking place, isn’t it, Captain,” said Vezzarn, his sharp little eyes darting about, taking in details.

The walls were a polished stone, smooth, but with regular panels of intricate carvings to shoulder height. Above that, the constructors seemed to have run out of patience and just roughly hewed it. “I’m surprised they don’t try and market it as a vacation destination,” said Pausert as they came to a halt in front of yet another massive door. The leader of the squad whistled again, with a slightly different series of notes.

That door opened. Inside, on couches that looked as if they might be carved from stone, lounged several of the gray skinned ones — only these all wore collars of leather, ornamented with hanging bits of bone, spreading out onto their chests.

The escort licked their sharp teeth and bowed their heads respectfully.

The croak and whistle ensued.

“He says the meat has been brought for the masters of devouring,” whispered the Leewit. “He says the little one is for his share.”

“If he tries you can do as much whistling as you please,” said the captain quietly.

One of those who lounged about looked rather like the one who had spoken to them earlier. He grunted something curtly that was plainly a dismissal.

The squad leader paused briefly and snarled. And then hastily turned away, backed off to the doorway, and waited.

The high Megair Cannibals stared at them, red-eyed and unblinking. Then one of them spoke imperiously.

“What’s he say?” asked the captain.

“He says they have waited to capture one of us kind for a long time. We’re for answering questions. He wants to know: Why are we keeping them from their prey?”


The Megair Cannibal leader let loose with another collection of grunts and whistles and a small shriek.

“He says they’re for examining our ship and finding out how we cannot be shot. He says he’s for driving us out of the Megair cluster. He says we’re for talking, spilling all our secrets. He says they’re for destroying us.”

Pausert rubbed his forehead. “Great Patham! Has he ever got the wrong end of the stick. They must think we’re the one of the Phantoms. Tell him that, please.”

The Leewit let loose with her own collection of grunts, whistles and shrieks. And got a reply that Pausert guessed the content of by the tone, even before the Leewit translated.

“He’s not for believing us,” said the Leewit. “He says put us the fattening pens. They’re for examining the ship and finding our secret. And for dining on one of us tonight. Alive.”