“OKAY, HONEY! LET’S SKEDADDLE OUT OF HERE!”
“Did you manage to get inside the Trading Centre, Jive?”
“Yes – finally! Goddamn it all!”
“Have you completed everything you came here to do?”
“You bet your sweet ass – if you had one! After what I’ve been through I’ve had more than I can take of this damn dicey planet.”
“Yes, you told me – how you thought you were trapped inside the approach tunnel and lost the loading-clip to your stun gun!”
“Fine! Now let’s just get off this half-baked mud-ball! On the double!”
Fromway jabbed the sensor for the main airlock.
The inner door hissed closed and he swivelled his seat round to face the forward view-screen, looking askance at Honey’s sensory module.
“You think I’m paranoid, don’t you!”
“No, just jumpy. Not to mention more than a tad grumpy, too!”
“What d’you expect, picking on things I do and scaring all hell out of me about what might happen? You got me so nerved up that I overreacted out there!”
“I’m only alerting you to the possible consequences of your actions, Jive.”
The chiding tone in Honey’s soft, matronly contralto began to irk him.
“Right! Now let’s just move it, Honey – or by Grok, I’ll switch off your speech circuit and put the damn Lucy on pilot-manual till we’re clear of this dump!”
“Impulse engines engaged. Warp drive on standby.”
The Lucindra Leo hummed into life and there was a soft shuddering as the freighter left the ground. Fromway saw the deep blue cloudless skies of Samandra turn black and the stars appear as they left the atmosphere behind.
He sighed and felt in a pocket of the special self-regulating suit he’d donned for the tropical climate of Samandra.
His hand closed around the stun gun, feeling for the loading clip that he thought he’d lost in the approach tunnel to the Trading Centre. He ran his fingers across the ridged edge, remembering how he’d recovered it.
In his mind, Fromway was back there in the tunnel on the slow moving walkway. Despite the heat in the glare of the sunshine outside, it was almost chilly in the tunnel. He recalled how he began to suspect he was being followed and trapped by strange beings he’d encountered on the rampway ascent outside: Fourteen robed and hooded individuals of some obscure religious order and a nine-foot blue blob that rolled along on a shiny black globe at its base.
They bugged him so much that he had begun to think of them as, Blobby and the robeys.
He became so overwrought with foreboding, that at one intersection, he whipped out his stun gun with a speed that surprised him. He turned the corner abruptly with it levelled to find – no one there!
At another intersection, he remembered turning and seeing something huge and ovoid flowing through the shadows behind him. At that same moment, a troop of robed and hooded figures turned the corner of the intersection ahead.
That was when he reached for his stun gun and discovered he no longer had the loading clip. Uh oh! I’m in deep Grok now! Without thinking, Fromway jumped onto the opposite walkway and began sprinting back the way he’d come, straight past the huge ovoid only metres behind.
As he went tearing past, Fromway noticed it wasn’t Blobby the nine-foot blue blob tailing him at all, but some other huge creature. He had to stop and step off the slow moving walkway at the next intersection to catch his breath.
It was the place he’d withdrawn his stun gun earlier and as he stood there, hands on knees panting for breath, he saw something glinting on the ground at the side of the inward-moving walkway. It was the loading clip. Grok’s blessings! Joyfully, he picked it up and clipped it into the barrel of his gun. Then he turned to face the hooded robeys when they arrived.
Fromway was back on the inward walkway now: walking forward, stun gun in pocket, ready to draw – or fire it through the pocket, he didn’t care which by this time. At the next intersection, the robeys appeared: all fourteen of them, two abreast in two lines of seven. Despite the chill in the air, he was bathed in sweat that was now rapidly cooling. Warmed air-jets from his suit lining automatically set about redressing the situation.
The robeys walked forward silently, hoods covering their faces, hands folded in front and hidden in the sleeves of their robes. And they just walked on past, without a word or a single sign of recognition.
Fromway stopped and turned to watch their retreating backs as they disappeared from sight at the intersection he himself had passed only moments ago. And he just stood there as if transfixed, staring back stupidly with his eyes unfocussed for quite some time.
Sweet Grok – They can’t be the same robeys I met earlier, Fromway realized as he eventually resumed walking. There’s a hell of a lot of that creepy creed wandering about outside. They must all go about in fourteens.
He snapped out of his reverie with a shiver, to see that the Lucindra was now well clear of Samandra’s system – with Magrifan, its parent sun, no more than a large bright star to the rear.
“Right! Honey! Give me a star chart showing a thirty parsec sweep of the immediate surrounding area, will you?”
“What are you looking for, Jive? I thought we were going to pick up those dispatches for Choolera!”
“Not yet, Honey. There’s no schedule on that job yet and I still badly need a proper break.”
“You’re making a detour specifically for chasing women!”
“For an enhanced piece of machinery, you do a damn lot of assuming, Honey!”
“This piece of machinery happens to know you very well – probably better than you do yourself. My very programme, with female personality and name, is testament.”
“That may be, but just remember this, Honey – I can always switch you off and call up the goddamn chart manually.”
The star chart sprang onto the screen. A red dot sat at its centre.
“Good girl! Now – Can you highlight all stars with inhabited systems?”
Two-dozen stars in scattered locations amongst hundreds increased their luminosity dramatically.
“So – which one’s have terrestrial type planets around them?”
Eleven of the highlighted stars turned Yellow.
A message appeared: Spectral type – G2-G4 Yellow Dwarf.
“And which of those have humans?”
Seven of the yellow ones turned green.
“Okay! Where are we?”
“We’re the red dot at the centre.”
“Give me a breakdown of the greens please, Honey.”
Names appeared next to each green star.
- Gabrinoth Minor
- Orgifomlops Beta
Fromway chose the nearest star, Dzuba.
The names of its inhabited planets flicked on in order of distance from their primary – those inhabited by humans were underlined.
|STAR NAME: INHABITED PLANETS planets inhabited by humans|
|DZUBA Shadlucinar Mogadosabron|
“Both inhabited by humans. Hmm!”
A message appeared beneath each planet saying, click here twice for details.
Fromway selected Shadlucinar first.
A mass of information came up on screen.
|Shadlucinar:||137M km (85M m) from primary|
|Rotational-period:||9 hrs 36 mins|
|Diameter:||11.950 km (7425 m)|
|Global climate:||humid Eocene-tropical and sub-tropical|
|Geophysical conditions:||frequent tectonic-movement with active volcanoes and earthquakes near plate-margins|
|Natural vegetation areas:|
|Wildlife:||abundant indigenous predatory ocean and land flora and fauna|
Scrolling down rapidly, Fromway skipped a host of other data he had no wish to plough through. He noted along the way with a shudder that Shadlucinar’s main exports included some powerful toxins and venoms, and that a range of heavy armaments and devices and some pretty dangerous drugs featured strongly amongst its imports.
He shook his head and sighed.
“What a Goddamn hellhole! Who in their right mind would ever want to go there?” He double-clicked hurriedly on the next planet.
|Mogadosabron:||209M km (129M m) from primary|
|Rotational-period:||24 hrs 48 min|
|Diameter:||10.790 km (6704 m)|
|Polar caps:||modest – landlocked at both poles|
|Global climate:||sub-polar, alpine and temperate|
|Seasons:||warm summers with regular moderate to light rainfall and cold winters with moderate snowfall|
|Natural vegetation areas:|
Fromway froze the slowly scrolling flow of data.
“Now that looks a damn sight better! And there’s a much higher percentage of humans, too. What’re the seasons like down there, I wonder?”
He selected seasons. Current seasonal conditions: high summer in northern hemisphere – mid-winter in southern hemisphere.
“Blow me comatose! That’ll do the trick. Right – set course for Mogadosabron, Honey.”
“Are you absolutely sure, Jive? Shouldn’t you wash your mouth out first?”
“Sure I should! And I’ll even switch you off right now and stick you in the goddamn matrix until this trip is over, if you insist, sweetie-pie!”
“Setting course now, Jive.”
“How long will it take to get there?”
“At present speed, about twelve hours. Engage warp drive?”
“No – stay on impulse. I need some friggin sleep. Call me in eight, sweetie balls.”
“Get knotted!” Fromway exited to his private cabin.
“Hand Jive?” The chiding tones were almost shrill and metallic. Fromway turned briefly at the sound. “Too tired,” he slurred lethargically. Eleven-and-a-half hours later, he was back in his pilot-seat with the Lucindra approaching Mogadosabron.
“We’re being hailed by the Mogadosabrons, Jive.”
“What! Blow me sideways, we’re still five-million kilometres out from them!”
“We’ve just passed one of their outer surveillance-satellites. They’re asking for identification.”
“Stick my goddamn ID chip in the slot and send it to them, then, Honey.”
“They’re confirming receipt of ID and telling us to proceed ahead and enter orbit around Mogadosabron until hailed again.”
“Fine! Go ahead, Honey.”
“The Mogadosabrons are hailing us again and asking to speak to you personally, Jive – on full visual.”
“For Gribble’s sake! Okay, on screen, Honey. But split view, so I’ve still got the damn planet below in sight.”
An elderly male human with white hair appeared on screen. His face bore a sober unreadable expression.
“I am Amador Kulasavar of the Mogadosabron department of visas and immigration control. Would you please state the purpose of your visit here, Captain Fromway? Is it for trading purposes?”
A strange flicker crossed Kualsavar’s features as he uttered the last two words. It didn’t go unnoticed by Fromway, who interpreted it as possible disapproval.
He shook his head. “A brief vacation, actually – as a tourist.”
Kulasavar glanced at another screen.
“And how long do you intend to stay?”
“Mm – few days – maybe a week. I want to visit the northern hemisphere, where I understand it’s summertime now. And I’d like to be somewhere where there’s some quality entertainment and reasonable hotel facilities.”
“In that case, please forward your passport, Captain Fromway.”
Kulasavar’s face vanished from the screen, replaced by some sort of logo and a transmission frequency for sending the passport. With a touch of unease, Fromway sent his passport to the coordinates stated, which instantly beamed down to the surface of Mogadosabron. Feeling vulnerable, he waited tensely.
Four minutes later, his passport returned, stamped with a visa for a ten-day visit and trading sanctions should he require them, the latter coming as a surprise to Fromway. The logo and transmission frequency flashed off-screen, replaced by landing instructions on a guide beam to Mogad City Starport .
“For a minute, I thought there might be some unnecessary hassle,” said Fromway, with a sigh of relief. “Must’ve been the Captain bit on my ID chip that did the trick – a handy leftover from my days as a freight-pilot in Starfleet’s merchant service.” He looked pointedly at Honey’s sensory module.
“Didn’t say a word, Jive. Though I might add that tourism and entertainment are their largest industries and you are visiting as a tourist wanting to be entertained. No doubt Kulasavar accessed and studied your details during your brief interview with him and deemed you a viable enough prospect.”
“Right, but he’s also given me trading rights, Honey! Now let’s make landfall!”
The Lucindra descended through a thin layer of cloud, straight into the night side of Mogadosabron, following the invisible path of the guidance beam. Lights twinkled in little clusters from inhabited districts in the darkness.
Half an orbit later, the Lucindra was flying over an ocean in full daylight. A school of huge sea denizens made a long white trail in the blue waters.
Swooping in towards land, Fromway spotted an immense pier jutting out into the ocean from a crescent harbour. Sea craft bobbed all round it and derricks lined its length.
A town reared up behind harbour and beyond, lay the interior of Mogadosabron’s northern continent. Then they were skimming above land. Field after field of undulating, cultivated terrain sped by below, laced in a network of roadways with little towns and villages dotted here and there.
The cultivated fields gave way to fields of livestock, then to meadow and woodland, then to heath and prairie and finally to an immense desert and a vast mountain range.
Craters, long since eroded – pockmarked the desert – the remains of ancient meteor strikes. A winding pipeline ran throughout, clusters of igloo-like structures around it every five kilometres or so. Pylons intersected the pipeline twice and at one point, a vast array of towering windmills pointed heavenwards, their blades turning leisurely.
As the Lucindra flew over the mountains beyond the desert, Fromway saw the spires and domes of Mogad City in the distance, and to one side of the city was the Starport; with rows and rows of spacecraft, all gleaming in the sunlight.
“So you’re going to put me in that little matrix in your pocket as usual, while you go gallivanting, Jive!”
“You sound more like a real-live, nagging human woman than an enhanced machine. Anyway, it’s not you I’m storing in the goddamn matrix, but the little chip containing the terabytes of software making up your entire program.”
“Same thing, Jive.”
“For the love of Griff, Honey. Would you rather be left here, where anyone can steal you if they break in while I’m away, or do you think I ought to put you in storage somewhere else, like some goddamn locked security box?”
“Either way, if anything happens to you, I’m locked in stasis indefinitely.”
“If something happens to me and you’re in a security box, you’ll go to my next of kin or the goddamn Federation Government. If you’re stolen, some light-fingered bugger will have a brand-new ship’s supercomputer, buckshee.”
“If you leave me here active, I can seal the Lucindra against break-ins and initiate defence-systems that will thwart any sort of invasion or theft.”
“I lock-up ship and set alarms and defences, any friggin’ way.”
“But they’re not infallible. Whereas, I can change parameters constantly, adjusting to each new development as it may arise.”
“Alright, Honey. I’ll leave you here active and keep a radio link with you.”
“Be careful, Jive.”
“I’ve got my stun gun – and two spare loading clips.”
“You say that as if it’s the answer to everything.”
“Well, for Grok’s sake, it is if anyone attacks me.”
“Not if you’ve got your back turned, or are fast asleep or otherwise off-guard.”
“Okay, Honey. Smartass! I’ll be on my guard.”
Fromway made a last minute check of all the items he needed, stuffing them into a shoulder-bag, then jabbed the airlock door-open sensor and departed. Every Starport Fromway had ever visited was chock-full of beings from dozens of worlds across Federation space and this one was no exception.
Mogad Starport was a bustle of activity, even though there were no craft currently arriving or departing.
Freight was continually ferried in or out by large silent vehicles and hauled up and down the ramps of various craft.
Fromway strolled out through the main gates and onto the moving walkway that led into the city, happy not to be on business for once. Local police patrolled the streets and walkways in pairs, humans and non-humans in red and black uniforms, phasers in belted holsters. Patrol cars prowled the streets and hovered through the air traffic.
He visited the Mogad Exchange Bureau, changing sufficient galcreds for local currency and all the chips and plastic he’d need. In the Central Information Centre, he booked a computer and conducted a speedy visual tour of the entire city, looking for hotels, restaurants and entertainments. Everything in the centre was top-flight and expensive. The outer rim with its cafés, guesthouses and cheaper entertainment facilities was the place for him.
He then caught a cross-town monorail to Westside, which had looked more appealing to him than all the other outer-rim districts he’d seen on his computerized video-tour.
Fromway alighted in Westside Avenue, a tree-lined double-carriageway with a central grass strip where two-headed streetlamps towered. An array of colourful shop-fronts, cafés, wine-bars and entertainment arcades with their awnings raised, lined each side of the street. He realized he was hungry and began peering in through the glass fronts of several cafés and found himself wandering in to one of them called, The Spaceman’s Retreat.
It was a quaint, cosy little self-service establishment. Old-fashioned lamps cast their mellow electric-bulb light on ancient hand-paintings set at intervals around the walls. There were no noisy videos, virtuals or games machines and there was soft music conducive to the appetite, gently played from concealed speakers. A wizened old double-hunchbacked humanoid waited behind the food counter. Fromway ordered a meal and a cup of coffee and just as he was receiving it, a voice at his shoulder spoke to him.
“Hello, pal. You’re fresh from offworld, aren’t you?”
“What the – “ Fromway turned to see a middle-aged human with a pleasantly smiling face that seemed to hold a perpetually haunted expression. A funny, neatly trimmed little moustache adorned his upper lip.
The word, Hitler, popped suddenly into Fromway’s mind; a name from an old history disc he’d studied, though the facial image that went with the name was much harsher and completely at odds with this man’s mild-mannered stance.
Fromway noted with some astonishment, that in addition to the peculiar little Hitlerian moustache, the man was wearing extremely antiquated clothing.
“Don’t mean to be rude,” said the stranger, “but I can tell straight away.”
“Eh? Oh, yes, that’s right. I’m a freight captain, just visiting,” said Fromway, feeling a little befuddled.
The stranger then introduced himself by name, but it was such an unfamiliar sounding name and mumbled so indistinctly that Fromway missed it. All he did catch was Frank – something – Hodge – something-or-other. Just like the man’s clothes, the name sounded as though it came straight out of some museum.
“What?” Fromway said, but the man didn’t seem to hear him. Seating himself in front of his steaming coffee cup, he waved Fromway into the seat opposite him on the little round table. Fromway sat down and began tucking voraciously into his meal, while the stranger chatted to him. The man had obviously already finished his meal and got up for a second cup of coffee; an empty plate with crumbs and a stained cup still lingered his side of the table.
“I was an offworlder once, myself – been here nearly twenty years now. Standard years, that is. A Mogadosian year is five hundred and forty-three days – and a day here is twenty-four hours and forty-eight minutes. That’s hardly more than a day back on Earth, where I was born – seven hundred-odd years ago. It’s alright, I’m not that old,” he said chuckling at Fromway’s astonished expression.
“I was one of the first batch of people put in cryogenic storage in the late twentieth century; had a terminal condition. Woke up centuries later to find they could cure what I had. So here I am, living again and grateful for it – cost me a packet to go under deep freeze, though. But I’m younger now than when I went into storage. I was seventy-eight, then; but I’m more like a man of fifty-odd, now – biologically – and ageing more slowly than I did before storage. It’s due to the treatment I had when I came out of storage.” The stranger paused and looked around the little café appraisingly, and then he continued.
“I’ve adjusted pretty well to living out of my time and home world – though I’ve never got used to the styles of clothes in this era. People live a few more decades now and stay younger for longer – and they haven’t got the diseases and problems we had; they’ve got an entirely new set, especially on other worlds. Parts of Mogad City are more like districts of old Earth than Earth is itself these days – so I’m more comfortable here.”
The stranger pulled a large museum-piece smoking pipe from a pocket of his crumpled, baggy jacket and began filling it with shredded brown leaves from a pouch that looked as if it had been made of animal hide. Fromway gazed at the procedure in amazement, completely stunned by this strange man.
“Tobacco,” said the stranger. “An old habit from Earth – in my time. Nobbled from a small portion of large shipments bound for Shadlucinar. Even the natural-born natives use it there – but I hear they eat it mixed with something poisonous that crawls about there in the jungles.” The stranger wrinkled his nose in distaste. “Dreadful place: All murk and swamp and jungle – like something out of a Jurassic nightmare, with horrible beasties and plants to match.” Still filling his pipe, the stranger paused in thoughtful silence awhile.
“I’ve seen and heard of lots of strange things since I’ve been here on Mogadosabron,” said the man. “None stranger than the secret ones who were here before all us offworlders.”
“The aboriginal Mogadosabrons, you mean?” The stranger shook his head.
“Nope – they’re another breed entirely – bit odd and a trifle thick, but quite harmless critters, really – and friendly, too. No – there’s another breed. Where they originally came from, nobody knows! They were here from early times in aboriginal history, but they weren’t born here, intruders from elsewhere. One of them aboriginal wallahs told me this. Shansee, he called them; the hidden ones.“ The stranger paused to light the pipe he’d just been filling.
Flame reared up from the man’s antiquated lighter, was drawn into the bowl as he sucked, and then died down as clouds of smoke belched upwards to the ceiling.
“Watch out for the hidden ones,” said the stranger, leaning forward in his seat. “They come out at night and wait around for your signal.”
“That’s right. They blend in with the crowd, you see – playing tricks with the light and with your mind.” The stranger’s gaze fell upon one of the ancient hand paintings on the wall nearby.
“See that face in the portrait there?” he said, pointing. “You don’t really know what’s lurking behind it.”
Fromway looked at the painting indicated. It was of a woman with dark hair and pale skin, and some peculiar sort of hinted smile hovering secretively around the corners of her lips and eyes.
There was a printed title beneath the painting: The Mona Lisa 1504-5 Leonardo da Vinci [1452-1519] La Giaconda smile.
“They hide their true identity behind an eye-catching façade. If you happen to come across one of them and show some sign of interest, it will set out to entice you and if it succeeds – It’ll wait for you to call it – and if you do –“
The stranger broke off at this point, staring into the contents of his coffee cup as if something too dreadful to contemplate was lurking in its depths. Fromway gazed at the man in bemusement.
He seemed to be telling his tale as if it was established fact, but it sounded more like the airy substance of fairytale and myth as far as Fromway was concerned.
The archaic electric clock on the wall ticked by another twenty seconds – and still the stranger did not speak. Then he looked up from the depths of his coffee cup.
“If you call it, it’ll come and get you,” he said, breaking his self-absorbed silence at last. He looked up at Fromway as if beseeching an answer. Seething with suspense under the man’s gaze, Fromway felt compelled to reply.
“Goddamn it, man – and then what?”
The man shrugged and spread both hands, lifting his eyebrows expressively. “Who knows?” he said. “The people that call them just disappear afterwards. If you come across one of them and realize it, remember what I told you and steer clear. If not – well, you can’t say Frank L Hodgekinson didn’t warn you.”
Fromway made an exaggerated show of looking at the archaic clock on the wall. “Galaxies aboil! Is that the time?” He rose from his seat. “I’ve got some friggin’ business to settle. Well, thanks for your company and the – er -entertainment, Frank. Grok be with you.” He left the table and hurried out of the quaint little café.
“Who’s this Gr – “ began Frank Hodgekinson, but Fromway was already out of the door.
I always seem to meet the goddamn oddballs, thought Fromway as he entered the thoroughfare outside – though I don’t doubt he is from the twentieth-century. It was sunset already. Fromway could see the sky turning orange and yellow above the rooftops across the street. The double-headed streetlamps in the middle of the carriageway were flickering into pale pink life.
Lights on the vehicles of ground and air traffic suddenly flicked on one-by-one, like fireflies lighting up in series, as a fully-lit patrol car drifted into view at roof-level.
Guess I’d better find myself a room in some friggin’ guesthouse, Fromway decided, feeling in his inside pocket for the list he’d made earlier in the day. Standing under the awning of a little novelties and gadgets shop whose window lights had sprung on as he approached, he perused the list.
There were half-a-dozen guesthouses scattered about in the street he was already in – Westside Avenue. But the Avenue was so long and curved that Fromway could see none of the guesthouses from where he stood.
Situated around the junction of Sunset and Green further out, was another group of guesthouses. He could see the approach to Sunset Avenue on the opposite side of the street and a little to the left of where he stood.
He hailed a passing hover cab. The cab drifted down to the kerbside and the passenger door slid open. “Sunset and Green,” said Fromway, stepping inside and seating himself. The door slid to behind him.
“Please insert your Mogatrans card and select your required destination,” said a cultured voice all around the cab’s interior. “Well, blow me comatose, you shameless hussy! It’s an automated, self-drive cab.”
Fromway hadn’t been in one for ages.
“Please insert your Mogatrans card and select your – ”
Fromway jabbed the silence key. “Shut the goddamn hell up! Tinpot asshole!”
Instructions began appearing on screen. The same set – scrolling down continuously:
Please insert mogatrans card in right-hand slot and key in destination, then press enter. if you need assistance, press h# for help or sΩ for search. Please insert –
Fromway did so, adding a few heavily spiced expletives for good measure and the cab lifted into the air. By the time he reached the junction of Sunset and Green, the sun had set and stars were appearing in the deepening sky. A coin-sized pale-green moon was rising near the western horizon and another smaller, creamy-orange one, far above to its left.
The junction of Sunset and Green was virtually at the edge of town, with feathery looking native trees ascending in scattered clumps towards the hills beyond. Between the stands of trees, strange wispy bushes that looked like hairy beach balls rolled restlessly back and forth in the soft breeze that now came in from the north.
A faint mist had begun to form at ground level, creeping along and lending the scene a ghostly aspect in the pale moonlight. Fromway instructed the hover cab to wait for his return as he got out.
He booked an upstairs room in a guesthouse called Feathertree View; paid in advance for a night’s lodging, collected his keys, locked his shoulder-bag in a closet in his room and got straight back into the hover cab, dressed in his favourite blue lounge suit and heading in the direction he’d just arrived from.
In the hover cab, his pocketed radiophone beeped. It was Honey.
“Just business, Jive. You’ve received a request to relay a consignment of artifacts to Kersilia Blue for the MDIA – the Mogadosabron Department-of-Indigenous-Antiquities – when you leave.”
“Well, blow me sideways. Okay, Honey. Put it on hold. Anything else?”
“No other business offers. No problems in or outside the Lucindra.”
“Good. Contact me if anything urgent comes up. Got lodgings for the night, but I doubt I’ll sleep there – just a locker address. Heading back to town for some entertainment – at last. I’ll contact you if the need arises.”
“Just be careful, Jive.”
Fromway’s other hand closed around the stun gun in his jacket pocket.
“Goddamn it, don’t start that again – I’ll be alright, Honey.”
He thumbed the radiophone’s end-call and returned it to his pocket. The hover cab had arrived at the Great Western Boulevard, Fromway’s destination.
He disembarked and the cab lifted off again. Other hover cabs floated up and down street at various levels, following traffic regulations relayed continuously to their on-board computers. At one level, a hover bus service operated both sides of the boulevard. Escalators from street level led up to platforms accessing the hover buses.
Down street, the double-pipeline of the monorail came shooting out of the north above the rooftops, curving at right angles across the boulevard.
The great pylons supporting it at each juncture, housed the lifts and stairways of exit and entry points.
At street level, the Boulevard was packed, end-to-end with entertainments of countless descriptions. The whole thoroughfare was ablaze with colourful lights and exotic sounds.
Strange beings accosted Fromway in bizarre shopping malls and in souvenir and amusement arcades as he made his way briskly through them, searching for the right diversion to suit his mood and taste. Hands rammed firmly in the pockets of his shiny blue suit jacket, one of them resting reassuringly on his stun gun, he ignored them all.
“Souvenirs! Souvenirs!” Something to remember your visit to Mogad City!”
“Genuine artifacts of ancient Mogadosian culture!”
“Aboriginal wine! Vinest vintage in the galaxy!”
“Zumding for de liddle laydee. A precious gemstone from de Mogad desert, zet in gold-plated iridium.”
“You want guide for tour of city? Take you to women, human or non-human, who do anything you want – or boys, or animals, if you prefer – androids – inanimate fetish objects. Whatever!”
“Heey, heeyoomun! You wanda berssonal podyguard? Thiss can pee a tangerouss bart of the ssittee, dravelling aloone.”
“Psst. Wanna get high on the good stuff, baby? Mainline on duhrglsproog? Dream in droxinin?” Do sex on zhurmfetula? Forget it on zarnquotl? Be someone or something else on metaphrene?”
Fromway made no reply to any of it. He told not one among them to go mount themselves, jump off a high cliff, get lost or go to hell. That was real restraint on his part.
At one intersection his reflection bounced back at him from a multitude of angles on the façade of a place called, the hall of a thousand mirrors: A tall slim human in early middle-age, dark hair and deep-set green eyes peering stolidly from a strong-featured, pale-skinned face set in self-contained resolution.
He walked onward. There were wine bars and stores galore. There was an area with casinos and bustling amusement arcades – another with circuses and menageries with exotic beasts. And freak shows, displaying malformed or mutated humans and humanoids.
Fromway wondered if some of the freaks on display were cosmetically or genetically engineered; although many of the beings in the wandering crowds, human or otherwise, looked just as freakish.
There were strikingly handsome beings as well as freaks, tall and lordly and godlike – and some stunningly beautiful women of various species. He was seeking only the human women but, one humanoid woman in particular caught his eye.
Almighty Griff! She was so elegant, yet so incredibly voluptuous and alarmingly alluring. Sleek and shapely and full-bodied – and she seemed to flow along rather than walk – her long, shimmering gossamer dress, following every contour as she moved yet not revealing any detail beneath.
Her skin was a delicate pale blue-green and her long flowing hair, whose highlights reflected a kaleidoscope of colourful illumination from shops and stalls all around, was deepest burgundy. Her face was far too finely sculpted and perfectly formed to have belonged to a human being, and held an exotic, elusive, elfin-like quality.
But the eyes were the most striking of her features – almond-shaped and wondrously lashed, with large orbs that were limpid golden pools of mysterious depth – pleasurably hypnotic and totally captivating.
Fromway caught a few fleeting glimpses of her and paused, his breath held. For one moment, her eyes met his – something like a signal seemed to pass between them – and then she was gone, swallowed up by the milling crowd. Fromway stepped up his pace, heading in the direction he last saw her go.
His quest took him through a terraced garden of ornate foaming fountains, with tall, elegant shrubs in fragrant blossom and huge hanging baskets of dazzling, perfumed floral displays.
He thought he caught a tantalizing glimpse of her silhouette through gaps in the foliage, flowing between the shops in a narrow alleyway ahead and turning a corner.
Fromway headed up the alley and turned the same corner, but there was no sight of her anywhere beyond. He was in another, broader alley, that led towards a single exit point. It curved out of sight ahead. Lurid neon-lit signs were flashing and leading the way on.
He hurried up ahead, following the curve of the alley and out into another. The lurid lights and signs ushered his progress forward. And suddenly, he was passing through a series of utterly garish arcades and brothel houses, with provocatively posturing figures of all description and gender, scantily clad or naked, lurking insidiously in doorways and peering devilishly and lasciviously out through windows.
Several of them beckoned to Fromway as he passed by. Another called out to him with sounds like warbling birdsong. One of the arcades was so gaudily stocked with bizarre advertisements and displays that Fromway was stunned.
“Hey! You!” Fromway turned in the direction of the hissing voice. “Yes, you – big guy!”
In the porch of an open doorway stood a demonic-looking green humanoid, no more than a metre high, with glowing red eyes and curved horns on his head.
A malevolent grin spread across his features as he pulled a long robe apart at the front and revealed an erect penis that reached up to his chest. Fromway gaped in amazement.
“Want some of this?” said the little green creature making rapid pelvic thrusts.
“Grok no! You goddamn little freak,” said Fromway. “And I wouldn’t even if it had been cured, grilled and garnished properly first! I’m just not partial to cooked phallus. Personally, I’d go for something strictly female – but not for any culinary purposes.”
“Hetero bastard,” hissed the creature. “Cowardly, creeping, human spawn!”
Fromway whipped out his stun gun from his jacket pocket and pointed it.
“By Grok, gremlin! You can shove that grubby little gobhole right up your dodgy green jacksy, where it belongs. And ram that overgrown slab of salami up there while you’re at it. In other words, go screw your goddamn self.”
He levelled the stun gun between the creature’s eyes and thumbed the setting to low-degree nerve-inflame. The creature jerked convulsively and turned a paler shade of green. His huge penis deflated rapidly with a rasping hiss to become a shrunken bag at his crutch. With a little popping sound, it slipped forward from a small bump, revealing beneath, a tiny flaccid green penis atop a saggy blue scrotum.
“Fraud!” said Fromway with a snort of amusement. “Goddammit, what an utter sham!”
His shoulders shook with mirth. The little green creature’s eyes flared bright crimson and his lips parted in a snarling fit, revealing nasty looking needle-sharp teeth.
Fromway retreated backwards hastily as the creature launched an alarmingly acrid and stinging spray of spittle up at him.
Wiping his face with his free hand and gagging at the stench, Fromway turned and hurried away. At the next corner, he turned to face the creature as it screamed out at him. It had dragged a charred apelike skeleton out from its porch and was holding it up by the nape and pointing to it.
“See this, human?” it spat. “This is what you will become if I ever see you again.”
“Grok’s blood, you’ve damn well asked for this”, snarled Fromway.
He took aim and fired his stun gun on a more powerful setting.
His shot caught the creature square on one shoulder. It spun round, writhing in pain, face contorted, but not a sound escaped its gaping mouth. Foam and spittle trickled down the long pointed chin while the needle-sharp teeth gnashed in silent torment.
Straight to the nervous system like a quick-acting poison, thought Fromway. Paralyses the vocal chords but leaves the respiratory system free to breathe.
Wiping his face and hands with sterilized cleaning tissues from a sealed pack in his pocket, Fromway glanced around, but there was nobody else in this secluded section of alleyway. Haven’t seen one goddamn law officer since I entered this grisly red light area – not a single patrol car in the boulevard either, yet they were thronging the city-centre like flies round dead meat. Where’s the way out of this goddamn maze of hell?
Looking for an exit point, Fromway turned a corner and found himself in a narrow darkened alleyway. The dim red light from a sunken doorway to one side instantly drew his attention. He peered inward and flinched as a lurking figure moved forward from the shadows. Griff preserve us, not again, he thought, his hand closing round the pocketed stun gun.
A dramatically sensual humanoid woman stepped into view. A massive melony cleavage loomed from dark satin. Thick, ropy locks of purple hair hung around the cleavage. Huge dark eyes in gleaming whites, fringed with spidery lashes, leered up fiendishly at Fromway.
He gasped involuntarily as she stepped out in front of him. Great swollen glossy lips of deep purple in a face of glistening gold formed a rubbery circular movement as she spoke.
“Looking for something to ab-so-lootely blow your mind?” she cooed.
She pursed her pneumatic lips in a grotesquely provocative fashion and they stretched and extended till they became an implausibly long wide funnel nearly a foot long. A ring of large blunt yellow teeth migrated from the back of the funnel, and slid forwards. Then a long dark tongue reared out sensuously from between them and writhed about like a fat little hungry snake.
The purple locks of hair swirled around her shoulders with a peculiar hissing sound and an acrid musk-laden odour rose up into Fromway’s nostrils. He choked and pushing the woman aside, hurried off up the alley. “Goddamn you – get lost – you creepy freak!”
Great gobbling scaly horrors! I’m chasing moonbeams and finding grisly gremlins instead.
Fromway slowed his pace and gave up the idea of his quest for the enchanting humanoid woman. After all, I’m human and she’s not, he thought – but then, there have been plenty of unions between the two before.
At length, feeling drained, he found himself in some vast enclosed thoroughfare, with intersections containing theatres and arenas, dance halls and discos, video palaces and holo-suites, and cabarets and music concerts.
Something in the atmosphere of this place drew him in. Something had caught his attention: A flash, a glimpse, something subliminal. Before he knew it, Fromway had wandered in to one of the establishments and bought a ticket.
At first, he thought he was in some vast amphitheatre, with the night sky showing above, then he realised it wasn’t Mogadosabron’s sky and that he was in an enclosed holo-suite. There was a huge yellow moon near a horizon fringed with spiky looking trees, etching their outlines into the lower face of the moon.
Chirpings and trilling sounds echoed all around and the scent of fresh soil and musky foliage reached his nostrils. There was a snuffling sound nearby and something rustled in the undergrowth. Fromway felt in his jacket pocket for the comforting shape of his stun gun. His hand closed around it. He was quite close to the horizon and walked forward up a short grassy bank.
As he topped the rise and descended the far bank, a completely different vista presented itself and the sky above seemed to shift and change. There was now no moon or spiky trees, no chirping or trilling sounds, no snuffling or rustling – just the sweet scent of grass and stars twinkling gently above. Music played and there was movement ahead.
On the far side of a small lake reflecting the shifting coloured lights from a large bowl-shaped stage beyond, dancers swayed in rhythm to the band playing on the platform behind.
Fromway moved forward and found himself amongst a mixed gathering in front of the lake, watching the band and the dancers. The cup-like pads of water lilies, their flowers closed up for the night, floated on the surface of the water. Clumps of reed and sedge clung to the banks at either side.
On the grassy area in front of the water, were little round tables with candles in decorative lanterns alight upon them and people sitting, chatting, and eating and drinking – and to one side, was a lighted kiosk vending food and drink. A tall blue-skinned humanoid stood serving customers.
Fromway strolled up and selected a dish of some aromatic spiced grill and a cocktail. “How much?” he asked.
“Ovry ting include in prais of ticket,” said the humanoid, waving him away with a seven-fingered blue hand. Fromway found an empty table near the lakeside and seated himself, watching the entertainment ahead. Then he caught his breath and gasped silently in astonishment.
Great Griff on high!
One of the dancers, just metres away across the lake and the gently stirring bulrushes, was the exotic humanoid woman he had been chasing through the malls of the boulevard. His eyes were riveted upon her as she swayed back and forth gracefully.
Suddenly, her eyes were looking right into his, as if there were no distance separating them at all. As if she knew him well.
Fromway felt taken off-guard as she held his gaze, but he could not look away.
His breath held still in his breast and a rush of pulsing excitement flooded through him. All at once, her face became hazy and wavered from view, then Fromway realised that she was no longer gazing into his eyes.
He shook his head and looked again to see the mist of dry ice rising from the lake. The dancing woman had vanished. The other dancers were vague shapes moving slowly from sight beyond the misty veil of evaporating dry ice.
When the mist cleared, Fromway saw that the dancers were no longer there and the music was shifting to another theme. Shaken and with a feeling of being left hanging, he rose from the table, leaving his food half-finished and wandered aimlessly through the crowd.
At the fringes of the gathering, Fromway mooched through a grove of trees and shrubs where other loners and a few couples occasionally strayed back and forth. Some of the other wanderers were holding out some object in one hand at arms length and looking intently at it as they walked along. It looked almost like a peculiar local custom. Fromway gazed at them in wonderment.
He stopped by a gnarled tree-stump and sat down, taking an inhalant tube of mild stimulant from an inner pocket. Something moving with a flowing motion at the corner of his eye made him turn. There was a moving figure just disappearing behind a clump of shrubbery.
Without thinking at first, Fromway started following in the direction the flowing movement had taken, then stopped, when a familiar-looking figure appeared on the far side of the shrubs and turned to look at him.
It was the dancing humanoid woman. She paused and gazed his way while he stood frozen in his tracks. Then she turned and moved on.
Goddamn it all! Fromway decided to find the exit and leave.
Back at the lakeside, he asked a tall, thin human male the way out.
“Use the exit guide on your ticket, buddy,” said the man.
Fromway pulled the plastic card from his pocket and looked at it.
“Touch that indentation there,” said the man, pointing. Fromway pressed it and the card lit up like a small screen saying, options, in bold capitals.
“Now press options.” Fromway did so and a printed list appeared. “And now press, exit.” Fromway pressed exit and a flashing green arrow lit up.
“Well, blow me,” said Fromway in astonishment.
“No thanks, buddy. Not that way inclined. Now, hold the card up in front of you. When you start walking, the arrow turns in the direction you wanna go.”
Now Fromway understood why those other customers were wandering around like zombies gazing intently at their outstretched hands.
At the exit, a strange, ethereal octopoid with huge luminous eyes floated up to Fromway and asked in a gargling hiss for his plastic ticket.
Fromway held the ticket out. The three-fingered tip of a flexible tendril resembling an elephant’s trunk, gently removed it from his hand.
“Theng kyoo, sorr,” hissed the octopoid, and floated off to a lighted kiosk.
Outside the holo-suite, Fromway immediately felt that strange sensation he’d first sensed in the atmosphere of this area. He thought he heard a soft murmur, almost as if it were in his head.
A flowing movement near the corner of a nearby theatre caught his attention and he glanced that way, to see a shadowy form disappearing from sight. He walked on, back the way he’d first come, towards the main thoroughfare of the Great Western Boulevard.
It can be very odd retracing your steps in reverse order along a route you’ve only travelled for the first time, thought Fromway. Things often look quite different reversed – but after a few false turns, he eventually found himself back at his starting point in the main boulevard.
Several times along the way, he detected a flowing movement to one side or ahead that looked familiar, but was gone before he had chance to identify it. It was nearing midnight and Fromway decided he’d had enough of the goddamn Great Western Boulevard.
He hailed a hover cab back to Sunset and Green. Turning off the Boulevard around Shuppavoo Circus into Theezeldor Way, Fromway noticed another hover cab now travelling abreast of his in the offside air lane.
He glanced across at the cab, wondering why it didn’t overtake his; both air lanes were quite clear ahead.
The other cab’s interior lights were dimmed down but stray shafts from the streetlights illuminated the passenger intermittently and he could see her clearly in those intervals.
Sweet Grok alive! It was the humanoid woman: she who had become the focal point of his whole evening in the Boulevard.
In the backwash of street lighting, her skin looked almost white and her hair, in shadow, appeared jet-black. She half-turned in her seat, looking his way and for an instant, it seemed as though there was the suggestion of some secretive smile on her face.
Fromway’s mind suddenly flashed back to the ancient painting of the Mona Lisa he’d seen in the quaint little café earlier.
Though the expressions were virtually identical at that moment, the humanoid woman’s flawless, elfin-like face was utterly different.
He had only seen the woman’s face for a moment and then her cab’s interior was in darkness again.
They were approaching the next junction and her cab flew ahead. Fromway’s cab turned left at Westside Plaza and down the Sulivar Freeway, with no sight of another air vehicle ahead.
Something was niggling at the back of Fromway’s mind, but he couldn’t identify what it was. He had the feeling he should contact Honey, telling her he was going back to the guesthouse. I’ll call her when I’m there, he decided.
“Meanwhile, back at the spaceport,” said a deep rumbling voice in the reception of the Feathertree guesthouse addressing the clerk at the desk, “they are trying to get into this freighter before the pilot returns.”
The speaker was a heavy-set, barrel-chested humanoid from Dufeldifia He turned round and smiled toothily at Fromway as he entered the reception.
Something along the lines of, built like a brick shithouse, flashed through Fromway’s mind; a phrase he’d found perusing some old lexicon-disc somewhere.
The Dufeldifian also reminded Fromway vaguely of creatures called gorillas, that he’d seen once in a history-video of Earth as it was centuries earlier. Except the Dufeldifian wore some sort of uniform, and the short thick head hair and beard framing the shiny blue-black of his face, was deep purple.
His black ears resembled small downy bird-wings, pointy-tipped and poised for flight. His eyes were black slits in clear jade, like those of a cat – though the slits were horizontal, rather than vertical.
“What goddamn freighter is this?” asked Fromway, suddenly alarmed.
“Oh, some old Bahrlossian tug, just out from Shadlucinar. They think it contains some highly dangerous illegal drugs produced on Shadlucinar, that the pilot has a buyer for in Mogad City. Why do you ask? Are you a freighter pilot?” Fromway nodded, then frowned at the light that suddenly glinted in the Dufeldifian’s eyes as the black slits dilated.
“Well, you do not look like a Bahrlossian,” said the Dufeldifian, squinting up into Fromway’s green eyes searchingly, ”though that does not mean that you could not be working for them or have purchased one of their old tugs.”
“I’m not and I didn’t,” snapped Fromway, scowling down at the Dufeldifian. “Wouldn’t work for the dirty drokkers if they begged me, slimy bunch of chlorine-breathers! I work strictly for myself and never carry dodgy goods!
Not knowingly, anyway. If I ever found I was, I’d jettison them straight into the heart of the nearest star! I check all my clients as carefully as possible. My freighter’s ex-merchant Starfleet, anyway – and I sometimes still subcontract for them.”
“So, you are an ex-Starfleet freighter pilot!”
“That’s right,” said Fromway, appraising the Dufeldifian’s dark green uniform, with its shiny gold buttons. ”And you?”
“A security guard for Mogad City’s, Westside branch of the Federation Bank,” replied the Dufeldifian. “The same authority that you were employed by as a merchant Starfleet pilot, since Starfleet is a division of the Federation.”
The bulky Dufeldifian then smartly saluted Fromway and gave a rumbling chuckle, deep in his throat. “Geherdz of a geezehnxta, group together, eh?”
“Too damn right,” said Fromway, ascending the stairway to his guestroom and returning the Dufeldifian’s salute. “Grok’s blessings. Goodnight.”
“Who is this Grok?” the Dufeldifian asked.
A hand resting on his pocketed radiophone, Fromway stopped halfway up the stairway. “Uh? Oh, just someone I wish existed, but don’t believe does. Found the name in a Culture disc called, ‘The Book of Alien Deities’. Amongst others, I use the name as an all-purpose comforter and expletive.”
Inside his guestroom, as Fromway closed the door behind him, a momentary sensation of something calling from a distance flashed through his mind. He was about to touch the light sensor and lock the door, when moonlight flooding in through a gap in the curtains drew his attention.
Intrigued by a glimpse of the view outside, he moved over to the window and pulled the curtains wider for a better view.
His room was at the rear of the guesthouse and faced the hills at the edge of town. A lawn sloped gently downwards with a pathway winding through flowerbeds and shrubs.
Beyond the shrubs, the nearest hillside began and the whole scene changed from one of conventional garden cultivation, to that of some unknown, untouched, ethereal native wilderness.
The hillside climbed to a horizon lined with soft distant hills and a night sky filled with bright stars. There was only one moon now and it had risen high, bathing the hills with a silvery, shifting haze as the ground-clinging mist eddied slowly along in some gentle breeze.
The delicate feathery trees stood still and silent, oblivious to the mist creeping around their roots; while strange wispy bushes rolled back and forth between them, like restless balls of animated fluff devouring something unseen on the ground.
Fromway gazed out awhile, entranced by the strangeness. At the corner of his eye, he noticed there was a glass-fronted door set at the right-hand side of the window with a key in it. It led out to a veranda with a gap in the railings where steps led down in to the garden below.
He unlocked the door and pulled it inward a touch. A fresh breeze and the scent of garden blooms wafted in to the room. And something else – a soft sound – a murmuring sound – almost in his head that made him look up suddenly and out. Fromway could see nothing on the hillside that could have made such a sound.
He stepped out on to the veranda and looked down in to the garden and there, there at one side of the lawn, where the garden to the next guesthouse along to the left began, he saw movement – a flowing movement – a graceful form flowing down through the next-door garden, its back to him.
The figure turned slightly and Fromway could now see the face. He let out a gasp of surprise that cut right through the night air and the figure stopped abruptly and turned to look up at him.
Grok alive! It was the humanoid woman.
She drifted towards him across the lawn. Then she melted into deep shadows cast by the veranda and shrubbery beneath it and reappeared at the top of the steps in front of him, her eyes looking straight into his, those limpid golden pools that had captivated him the moment he first saw her.
“You called,” she said, her voice a golden song. “You called me.” Then she moved towards Fromway, pushing him gently backwards through the doorway into his guestroom.
In a daze and utterly speechless, Fromway found himself standing by his bed in the moonlight, while the humanoid woman held him gently at arm’s length by the shoulders.
She slipped off his jacket and tossed it lightly aside, pushing him down on to the bed and gazing deeply into his eyes with a tiny, secretive smile pulling at the corners of her sensuous lips and her almond-shaped eyes.
How many times had Fromway fantasized something like this and here it was all happening, yet somehow, it felt more unreal than any strange dream.
Then the delicate blue-green of her skin, and the long flowing hair of deepest burgundy with its highlights of flame and gold, and the wondrously lashed limpid golden pools of mysterious depth, began to blur and melt as she started leaning her face towards his.
Jigger me, how very odd, thought Fromway distantly, as though he were an observer; it’s just like an elusive fantasy, slipping away from you before you have chance to reach the climax.
And there’s that tiny, hinted, secretive smile.
The portrait of the Mona Lisa flashed through Fromway’s mind, and Frank Hodgekinson’s haunted face and fragments of his warning tale.
A chill of foreboding coursed through Fromway.
Blood sucking demons in hell!
Should have listened! Should have called Honey! Told her about tonight’!
Goddamn it all!
In a sudden panic, he tried reaching for his stun gun, but found himself unable to move.
Besides, it was in his jacket pocket and his jacket was now on a chair, several feet away from the bed.
Sweet Grok, help me!
Though he felt weak and drained of all voluntary movement and energy, he was now being held down by a strength many times that of any woman’s and more like that of some powerful beast’s.
Oh, no! No, no, no – Please – No!
And in that instant as she reached down with her great gaping fanged mouth for his neck, Fromway saw the humanoid woman as she really was – and if he wasn’t completely paralysed and voiceless at that moment, he would have screamed.
See PART THREE of THE STARFREIGHTER TRILOGY: STARBIZ to conclude this Science Fiction Saga
Dave Draper 2014