Chapter 25

“They’re just plain weird,” said Goth, when he’d gone. “Let’s go and sit on the far side over there, away from these people. I need to tell you all the things I’ve seen. And then we need to break out of here.”

“I can’t tell you good it is to have you with us again, Goth,” said the captain, quietly, as they walked around the edge of the compound, keeping under the eave. “I worry. I know. I don’t need to — you’re a hot witch. But I do anyway.”

“Just to keep in practice,” said Goth, with a chuckle. “You know how much trouble you caused me with that whistle, Leewit? I got to explore that whole ant-hill before I could find you. They’re not nice, these Cannibals, but they’re not stupid either. That’s quite a fort.”

“I really don’t like this place,” said the Leewit. “It’s like the whole place is sick, sort of.”

Pausert felt the vague prickle of klatha force. The Leewit was a healer — or would be when she’d grown up. Most of the time she was a little girl, and something of a hooligan. He squeezed her hand. “I think we need to get out. I think we need to go and do some scavenging in among those derelicts in the junkyard, fix the Venture, load these captives up and get out of here, double quick time. Only thing is, how are we going to leave? Egger route? We can’t leave these captives to get eaten, but I am reluctant…”

“We can deal with their communications and even their detection system,” said Goth cheerfully. “I can break them up pretty well without the Leewit — or I can take her in there and let her whistle at them.”

“Let me whistle down the communication system!” said the Leewit gleefully. “That’ll bust up more than just the command post. It’ll bust everything that’s listening in too. Remember? Like we did with Moander!”

Pausert couldn’t help but smile at the thought. “I like it. I like it a lot.”

“Good. Then I think we should go before they start adding the Venture to the scrap pile, after they’ve pulled everything out of her.”

“I hadn’t thought about that,” said Pausert, taken aback. “Well. Up the pole and into the swamp, eh. We can’t leave Vezzarn, but what about the others?”

“We’ll come and fetch them. Mebeckey hasn’t said a word since they took us captive. It’s a bit worrying. He usually talks all the time, and now he’s shut up.”

“Could be fear, I suppose. This place is enough to give me the willies. But what do we do with him?”

“Leave him,” said the Leewit and Goth simultaneously. Obviously something about the fellow prickled both of them too.

Vezzarn had come sauntering over. “What now, Your Wisdoms?” he asked. “I assume Missy Goth is around somewhere. ‘Cause I see you smiling, Captain. That Mebeckey is trying to find out how they decide who gets eaten first.”

“We’re about to make a break,” said Goth, still invisible. “I assume they’re watching this place somehow, and they’ll follow us. Except we’re going back to the Venture before they loot bits of her. The captain thinks we might be able to get a replacement multiplier link out of one of the wrecks.”

“I reckon they must have some kind of spyray tracker on the people in this place,” said Vezzarn. “In my old line of business I had to fool those a few times. I brought a scrambler from the ship. It’s in my boot heel, with the lock-picks and my UW.”

“Okay. Are we going to tell them?” The Leewit jerked her thumb at the other prisoners.

The captain nodded. “I’ll tell them we’ll be back for them. It’s only right. ”

The three prisoners that had been there when they came looked resigned. The tattooed man bit his lip and took a deep breath. “They like you to do that. Expect you to do that. I’m waiting my chance. Leave the kid with me. Or kill her quickly.”

It was the first real sign of emotion Pausert had seen from him. “We’ll be fine. Really. Just be ready when we come back because I plan to blast out of this planet as if my tail was on fire.”

“Almost,” said the one tall thin man, “you make me believe in Patham again. Or in more than his mercy.”

Pausert grinned. “The locals are about to start believing in his seventh hell. The really nasty one.” He turned to the archeologist. “Mebeckey. We’ll be back…”

“Guards! Guar –”

Vezzarn rapped him smartly over the head. “Mister nice guy. Sorry, Captain. I should have been quicker.”

Ta’zara shrugged. “Doesn’t matter. You can shout all you like in here. They never come.”

“Well, then we’d better go anyway.”

The tattooed man from Na’kalauf sighed. “I have never known any of them to come and talk to prisoners. But… anyway, it won’t help you, but good luck.”

Pausert warmed to the man. He must have been though hell, waiting to be eaten. “We do have a few tricks up our sleeves,” he said. “Have faith.”

“It hurts too much to do that,” said Ta’zara.

They left via the pole. It had very obviously been put there for just that purpose. Only, unlike the many who must have tried it before them, the four of them did not drop over the wall into the swamp for the hunters.

Instead, they switched on the scrambler and sat against the wall. Goth did a light-shift them to appear like a part of the wall. “I’ve gone to temperature and scent, too, but I don’t know how long I can keep that up,” she said. “It’s a real strain trying to do several shifts at once. I’m not even trying to disguise sound, so be quiet.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said the Leewit. “Everything stinks around here and I’ll soon be as cold as the wall, anyway.”

That was the hardest part. It was cold. The Leewit tried to burrow into the captain, while they sat there keeping still.

And very soon the eager Cannibals were hunting out into the swamp. All Pausert could do was hope that it was even colder and wetter and more miserable out there. It seem hard to believe that it could be.

“Well. It looked like that worked,” said Pausert.

They left together, heading for the spacefield.

“Easier if we go as a bunch of gray-skins,” said Goth, once they were away from the prison-camp. She light-shifted them into a group of the Megair Cannibals. Because she knew the pattern, they were all ones with the collars. Other Megair Cannibals sheered away from them.

“I think we were right,” said Pausert. “Most of the time with these guys, it seems to be might and numbers and rank that work their hierarchy. So as long as we look like a bunch of high lords, the ordinary Cannibals will leave us alone.”

“Makes sense,” said Goth.

“Yeah,” said the Leewit. “Only it’s not quite ‘lord.’ It’s ‘him who kills most’. One finger-bone from every fight.”

Pausert blinked, thinking of the Megair Cannibal who had come to see them. That was a lot of fingers. And yet… he had wanted to know.

They made their way to the Venture. A team of Megair Cannibals were in the process of unbolting the front nova turret.

The Leewit shouted at them.

The effect was quite comical. They stopped and hastily began re-assembling the unit.

“It looks like it worked,” said the captain. “Give them another few minutes and we’ll move the ship.”

Before too long, only a single Cannibal was left in the area, one with a three-finger collar. Since he seemed disinclined to go anywhere, they walked up the gangway. The three-bone collar tried to stop them. The Leewit whistled at him, and he fell over.

“Stunner,” she said. “Works well.”

“You’re supposed to bite off the finger. That’s how you get followers,” said Goth. “But I guess we’ll just haul him inside and lock him in one of the staterooms.”

“I am not biting off his finger!” said the Leewit.

The poor Venture showed some signs of looting. Much of what could be carried away easily, had been. However, it was apparent that they hadn’t yet started on disassembling the ship’s main components. Perhaps they were still trying to work out how it moved so fast.

Outside, night was beginning to fall on Megair 4. The rain, of course, had never stopped falling.

“I think we should go and set fire to their whole nest,” said the Leewit, furiously.

“Certainly the fire-control system. And maybe break the place apart while we’re at it,” said Goth, almost as cross.

“First we’re going across to the dump,” said Pausert, firmly. “I’d rather lift with a vessel that doesn’t just have the Sheewash drive to rely on. We can lock the ship up. Gutting her doesn’t seem to be a rush job for the gray-faces.”

“Leave me here, Skipper,” said Vezzarn. “I’ll get the other units in, and check to see if they’ve damaged anything else. ”

“Better not have,” said Goth, grumpily.

A little later Pausert and the two Karres witches — appearing to be a party twelve strong, left. Vezzarn squeezed the captain’s hand. “If something goes wrong, I know you’ll come and fetch me, Captain. I don’t fancy being someone’s dinner.”

“You’re to old and stringy to be nice eating anyway,” said the Leewit, giving him a hug. “Don’t worry. We got Goth and the captain.”

“And we have her,” said Goth grinning.

And me, said a vatch-voice in their heads.

“Where have you been?” demanded the Leewit. “They’ve been messing with my stuff!”

Looking, said the vatchlet. Big complicated dream this place. Two kinds of dream things here. Sharp hungry kind. And the soft wet ones.

“Everything here is wet!” said Goth. “Anyway, Captain. Let’s go and get on with it. You got an atomic lamp with you? ‘Cause I don’t think the electrics will be working in those old crates.”

Pausert had, and a universal toolkit from a drawer that had miraculously been overlooked.

“You keep the Venture safe for us, Little-bit? Until we come back? Please?” said the Leewit.

Sure. Need someone to play with. And the dreamstuff this place is made of is happy. Not like out there. Nasty things happened there.