THAT’S REALLY ODD!
Everything seems sort of laid-back.
Yet I feel so incredibly tense! Why?
Fromway looked down into the gardens – many levels below.
Sweet heavens, what a diabolically sheer drop!
Leaning out over the padded handrail of the ascending ramp, he gazed through the shimmering haze of the safety-field – which, it was claimed, would hold him motionless in mid-air should he slip and fall.
No need to worry, then! But I don’t fancy testing it out! Makes me feel uneasy just looking down.
Great Griff almighty! Just look at that view!
Fromway looked out across Moochar Starport. In the background, rows and rows of assorted spacecraft, like toy models all gleaming in the sunlight, seemed to stretch away into the fuzzy distance forever.
Great crowds of assorted figures, some moving and some stationary thronged the network of suspended rampways and terraced concourses around him. He studied them raptly as they milled around. He hadn’t been amongst so many beings for a long time.
Perhaps that’s why I feel so damn tense – the unknown crowds around me. Been in space too long – cooped-up in the Lucy! And just look at them all!
Aliens! Humans! Wait a minute! Fromway craned his neck, scanning the moving crowds for the telltale shapes of human females. Droves of robed and hooded figures walked about or drifted around on air-vehicles.
There were masses of assorted beings, many of them humanoid in appearance.
But which are the women? Come to that – which are the humans?
There were all sorts of forms: some, graceful and shapely – some, lordly, godlike, seraphic, cherubic – others, grotesque, hideous, scary – some, quite bizarre, some, side-splittingly comical and some, just utterly preposterous.
But from afar and with the virtual anonymity that each type of protection or adornment afforded, Fromway had difficulty distinguishing species from species – let alone gender.
Beneath the summery glare, it was like one huge dazzlingly colourful masquerade ball. Eyes shaded beneath the brim of his white Stetson and the dark blue of glare-bans; Fromway was practically in disguise himself.
You can’t tell what’s what – let alone, who’s who – something quite deadly could easily be prowling nearby, cloaked in this sea of ambiguity.
In the noonday heat, something touched Fromway’s skin like a sudden chill breeze. He flinched. But it was just a squirt of cooling air from the special lining of his tropical-suit, keeping him from overheating in the merciless rays that Magrifan poured down out of a cloudless, cobalt sky.
He hoisted himself back over the handrail and leaned his back against it, hands in pockets. But it’s so peaceful here, he thought.
The skies are clear and blue. The gardens below are in fragrant bloom, filling the air with their rich scents – ornamental fountains are cascading – and everyone’s going calmly about their business.
It’s Honey that’s got me all twitchy and paranoid. I should never have named her Honey. Her? Sweet heavens! What in warp-space am I talking about? She is just a goddamn piece of computerised machinery!
Fromway’s pocketed hand clutched the matrix containing the Lucy’s dormant super-brain, the object that ran Fromway’s freight-cruiser. The mechanism that he had enhanced with a female personality chip, to talk to him and keep him company on the long trips between the stars.
That renegade piece of expensive shipboard equipment that seemed to have developed a goddamn bloody mind of its own, he thought, and had started moralizing and disapproving of his affairs, telling him he was taking too many risks. Risks, indeed! When you’re a red-blooded human male alone in space, you’ve got to put your ass on the line for a bit of skirt now and again.
He had threatened to depersonalize Honey, but She had just laughed at him in that purring matronly contralto She had developed. “Go ahead”, Honey had replied, “and then just see to whom you can turn for advice and guidance!”
Dammit all! She knows I won’t do that. She knows I need someone, all alone in the emptiness of space.
Well, Honey’s asleep, the Lucy’s in storage and here I am, at the edge of Human Space on a terrestrial-type world I’ve never seen before. But heard so much about. Samandra! The Trader’s Paradise, they call it!
And, I’m incognito in the middle of an ascending ramp-way, with bags of room all around.
Fromway squinted down at the tops of cascading fountains and fruiting palms.
And there’s a fair old drop to the gardens below. What if I fell – and the safety-field failed? No! Don’t even think about it!
He saw that there were about two-hundred-metres of sloping ramp, spanning a vertical climb of perhaps fifty-metres upwards before he could reach one of the many entrances circling the great dome of Samandra’s Trading Centre.
He could start walking for the remainder of the ascent, doubling the leisurely speed of the covered rollers beneath his feet.
But I chose a slow moving ramp just so I could enjoy the view and collect my thoughts. Besides, there were several clusters of robed figures spaced at intervals ahead of him. He felt it would be too much hassle pushing past.
No hurry! Calm down! Take it easy! No need to blow a fuse! Just relax!
The nearest cluster of robed figures had halted their slow march forward and were now bunched up and blocking the ramp less than three metres ahead. Several of them, faces hidden within the overlap of huge dark hoods, were half-turned and staring his way. They quickly turned their heads when he looked directly at them.
That’s damn peculiar, thought Fromway – those robeys weren’t nearly that close before. He shrugged. I could easily step back a few paces if I wanted. The ramp’s empty behind me for at least twenty metres, anyway.
Glancing behind, Fromway saw a rubbery blue ovoid of elephantine size, blocking the rampway’s width no more than about four metres to his rear. He flinched in alarm. Where in hell did that thing spring from? Did it just float here from somewhere? But why – this ramp is for pedestrians – why would a floater bother with it? There are plenty of other more suitable resting places to alight!
The huge blue blob rolled smoothly upwards about another couple of metres. Fromway tightened his fingers around the little stunner in his pocket, eyeing the blob with alarm. Its face was hidden inside the glossy black of a helmet perched like a short fat piece of salami on its humpy form.
Is that a helmet? Or is that its head? How can you tell, when something’s just a big blue blob with no arms or legs?
Frozen with alarm, Fromway eyed the blob expectantly, but it had stopped moving and was sitting or standing silently, barely two metres down-ramp. Fromway jerked his head back and glanced up-ramp, noting that the clutch of robed figures were also presently motionless with their backs to him.
Goddamn it to hell! Is this some frigging trap I’ve allowed myself to fall into?
Fromway was now leaning sideways against the rail, which afforded him the opportunity to glance up or down ramp with ease.
Another couple of minutes and this section of ramp will reach the top, he realized. His thoughts raced through his head.
Will I find this clutch of robeys waiting to pounce while old blobby cuts off my only retreat? Surely they won’t want any foul play seen in public. If they’re out for my blood, they can manoeuvre me into one of the tunnelled entrances to the Trading centre at the top of this ramp. Then I’ll be easy meat!
Of course, I can jump over the railing and fall into that protection-field right now. Though I don’t fancy that option at all. But even so, my assailants might pick me off in mid-air with concealed weapons. If they don’t, I’ll still probably have to be rescued by some goddamn local authority.
The whole incident and the attention it draws would alert anyone who’s after my blood and they’ll just be waiting for me afterwards. Almighty Griff, I’d be looking over my shoulder constantly, not knowing when and where the next attack will be coming from. Though – if it comes to it, I could fight this out here and now. Demobilize my friggin’ assailants with my stun gun.
Sliding with his back to the rail, Fromway inched slowly forward till he was midway between the blob and the robed figures – or blobby and the robeys, as he’d come to think of them. One hand on his pocketed weapon; he continued inching his way closer to the robed figures. Their backs were still turned but he eyed them cautiously.
A few metres from the top now and the robeys are stepping off the rampway. One of them turned its head, presenting a dark, faceless cowl front.
Taking a deep breath of the scented air rising up from the gardens below, Fromway poised himself for action. He kept his back against the railing, ready to use it as a pivot.
That way, he could raise his legs in the air and lash out with them, while spraying a wide-angled dose of instant paralysis at his assailants.
Now at the top, Fromway felt momentary relief when he saw the robed figures slowly retreating backs several metres ahead. Except for one of them. It had halted mid-pace and turned again, facing him.
A covered arm was raised high, the flared sleeve slipping and catching at the wrist, revealing bone-white skin and a deeply wrinkled palm to the searing sunlight of Samandra.
“Greetings, stranger.” An ancient-sounding voice of indeterminate gender issued from lips still hidden within the hood. The words were uttered in a very archaic form of galactic. Despite its whispery quality, the voice had a strength that carried clearly. What the – it’s talking to me now!
Fromway had stepped off the ramp and well clear of its exit. With his pocketed stun gun pressing outwards against his jacket-lining, finger on the firing-stud, he glanced back towards the ramp’s exit, then back at the robed figure.
Got to find a clear exit, he thought. Cautiously, he circled around so that the robed figure was now between him and the ramp’s exit.
“My comrades and I, had feared you might fall when you were leaning so dangerously across the rail,” said the ancient, faceless robed spokesman, turning again to confront Fromway. Fromway opened his mouth to reply but nothing came out.
“Though there is a safety-field, we still sought to save you from the shock of an abrupt and unpleasant descent into it.”
The other robed figures had now paused and turned, standing and listening while their comrade spoke on. Their faces were vague shadowy shapes peering out from their hoods. Fromway repositioned himself so that he could observe the ramp exit and the robed figures and their spokesman in one glance.
“But then you straightened up,” the robed spokesman continued, taking a pace forward while Fromway stepped back a pace. Just keep your distance, robey, he thought. I don’t trust weird strangers on first encounters. Another step forward by the robed spokesman. Fromway took another step back.
“We are cosmotheists, my brethren and I – on a never-ending pilgrimage through God’s vast realms,” said the robed spokesman. “Wherever we go, we hope to impart some harmony to any disturbed souls we may encounter – as yours appears to be. I do pray that – “
Uh–oh! Now here comes old blobby! The robed spokesman turned to face the ramp’s exit as the blue blob rolled gently into sight and came to a silent rest to one side of the exit. It stood nearly three metres tall, the gleaming black sausage atop its armless shoulders now rotating ponderously from side to side.
Fromway realised he was now very close to one of the arched entrances that tunnelled in to the heart of the Trading Centre. His retreat was now quite unobstructed. Even so, he began inching backwards very slowly.
“I believe it was also the intention of this gentle being to save you from falling. Is that not so?” said the cosmotheist spokesman. He inclined his cowled head towards the blue blob and made some sort of hand sign.
“That is correct,” replied the blob, extending a long pseudo appendage in a similar gesture and then retracting it. A faint light had sprung to life within its gleaming black sausage. It oscillated in time with a pleasantly musical feminine voice, speaking modern galactic.
“And now, if you will please excuse me,” it chimed, “I have much business to attend to within.” Lifting blue flanks that revealed a black sphere at its base, the blob rolled towards an archway.
“Go with cosmic blessings of peace and love, O noble stranger,” said the cosmotheist spokesman to its departing form. He raised a flared sleeve.
“Go with cosmic blessings of peace and love,” chorused the other thirteen robed cosmotheists, turning in unison to the blob and raising their right arms in salute.
There was a briefly raised pseudo appendage and a wordless, musically tinkling reply and then the blob’s immense form was swallowed within the huge span of the nearest archway. It flowed away smoothly and with surprising speed and grace.
Fromway watched it depart, then shook his head and faced the robed spokesman dazedly. An arm still raised, it also turned to depart.
“Go with cosmic blessings of peace and love,” it called out to Fromway in chorus with its comrades.
Finding himself still unable to speak, Fromway lifted an arm mechanically and watched all fourteen robed figures disappear through an archway to the left of the one the blob had chosen.
Griff, what a weird bunch of religious nuts, he thought as he stood for nearly a minute reorienting himself, right hand still gripping his pocketed stun gun.
He realized now, that he was shaking. Taking a deep breath, he mopped a brow beaded with perspiration that had begun to trickle into his eye.
Slowly, he began moving diagonally across the approach apron, selecting an archway far to the right of those the blob and the robeys had taken.
Within the archway, an automated floorway took him along one side of a long, high-vaulted passage curving gradually from sight ahead. An antiquated method of overhead lighting threw monstrous shadows against the walls, lending the two-way pedestrian thoroughfare an eerie, subterranean aspect.
The compound reverberations of voices and footfalls reinforced the effect.
Occasionally, other pedestrians passed by on the opposite floorway, mostly in pairs or small groups, the muted sounds of their conversations drifting across to him. It seemed that nobody wanted to travel alone in this place or raise their voices above a murmur. Fromway could see why – it was a goddamn eerie place to be in.
Peculiar rhythmic throbbing sounds that Fromway took at first to be the labouring machinery of some antiquated form of air-conditioning, turned out to be a street musician, busking in the shadows near an intersection.
It squatted low and froglike, straddled across the pillion of a gourd-like object, many spindly limbs flicking over luminous sensors that winked through the spectrum alternately.
Fromway lobbed a few galcreds into the glassy filaments fringing the gourd in a shimmering web of spinning whorls. His coins hung suspended a moment before sinking into invisibility within the collecting-field.
The busker bubbled its thanks from a set of inflating voice sacs, its wide, thin-lipped mouth curved in a gargoyle-like grin, heavy-lidded eyes popping open like a bullfrog’s catching flies.
Grok’s blood! What a dreadful friggin dirge! Not my sort of thing! Guess the poor old pop-eyed critter’s gotta make a living. The throbbing rapidly receded as Fromway passed the next intersection.
This section of the tunnel was darker. Fromway glanced upward and saw that several of the lights placed at intervals in the roof were not functioning.
Goddamn bloody vandalism everywhere you go, he thought – or poor friggin maintenance. There were wide, dark recesses in the walls where someone could easily lurk and launch a surprise attack on some hapless victim.
His mind flew back to the recent events outside. The next section was fully lit, though the lighting was still antiquated and murky by modern standards. It seems I may have misjudged that situation outside, thought Fromway, while the grotesque shadows of unfamiliar forms loomed and retreated on the walls at either side.
This damn tunnel gives me the utter creeps. Why in Griff’s name do the Samandrans have to devise such a dodgy approach for pedestrians to their Trading Centre? Are they deliberately aiming to get people robbed and murdered? The entire setup simply encourages muggers and assassins. The rampway wasn’t a whole lot better.
Fromway started walking, doubling his forward motion.
He peered ahead at the immense shadows advancing from the opposite direction, trying to identify the small figures that made them while they were still some distance away.
He jerked his head across his shoulder each time a new shadow reared from behind, head swivelling slowly forward again to study the passer-by warily.
Several passing pedestrians eyed him back, equally suspiciously. He turned his jacket collar up because he suddenly felt chilly. He realized now, just how much cooler it was in these gloomy tunnels.
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!
Grimly he continued on his way. His hands were jammed down tight in his jacket pockets now, one clutching Honey and the other, his stun gun. Suddenly the curving passageways seemed clear of the two-way pedestrian flow and Fromway began to slowly relax.
That’s damn funny; it seems almost too quiet now. He tensed again. There was something approaching to his rear. Great almighty Griff! What’s that?
He glanced over his shoulder. There was something large and ovoid looming from the shadows behind. Uh, oh! Then he heard soft footfalls coming from somewhere out of sight.
And as they rounded a curved intersection ahead – a party of robed and hooded figures came padding quietly into view.
Fromway’s right forefinger curled down around the stock of his stun gun. Something about it felt wrong. The trigger had retracted!
Oh no! Now what?
Then he realised what it was as the fingers of both his hands scrabbled in a mad search through all of his pockets.
Goddamn it all! Where the hell is that damn loading-clip?
See PART TWO of the STARFREIGHTER TRILOGY: SEDUCTION to continue reading this Saga
Dave Draper 2014