Gods of Sagittarius – Snippet 34
“They should pay us to sleep on those goddamned beds!” growled Tabor as the sun hit him in the eyes through the shadeless window. “Hey, Rupert — get up.”
“Who could sleep?” replied Shenoy, drying his face with what passed for a towel as he emerged from what passed for a bathroom.
“Got a question,” said Tabor, who’d slept above the covers in his clothes, and began pulling on his boots. “The Old Ones were bright enough to master space travel, right?”
“Possibly not the way we do it — in ships and such,” answered Shenoy. “But yes.”
“And they mastered magic?”
“I think that yes, they did.”
“So one could say that they were reasonably bright?” persisted Tabor.
“Then what the hell did they come to Cornwallis for?” said Tabor. “Or, having come, why didn’t they turn right around and leave?”
“That’s what we’ve come to find out.”
“Well, if and when you find them on this godforsaken dirtball, I’ve got some questions of my own to ask them.”
“Finish your ablutions and let’s be on our way,” said Shenoy. “I’m anxious to see what’s out there.”
“More anxious than I am to wash in the brown gritty stuff that passes for water in our sink,” said Tabor, walking to the door. “Let’s go.”
They walked back to the main room, where the same Paskapan was at the desk.
“Don’t you ever sleep?” asked Shenoy.
“Not on these beds,” answered the innkeeper with a look of distaste. “I’ll sleep when I go home at midday.”
“First intelligent thing I’ve heard since we landed,” muttered Tabor.
Pippibwali was waiting for them just outside the building, which Tabor refused to think of as a hotel.
“I trust you slept well,” he said.
Tabor merely glared at him.
“As well as could be expected,” replied Shenoy. “And now we’re ready to proceed with our mission. You’ll want the coordinates of our destination, of course.”
“Of course,” agreed Pippibwali.
Shenoy rattled them off to him.
“That’s eight hundred and fifty qubisks from here,” said Pippibwali. “We’ll need to rent or purchase transportation.”
“Get a translation first,” said Tabor. “On this world, a qubisk is as likely to be a meter or even an inch as a mile.”
“I heard that,” said Pippibwali.
“I wasn’t trying to hide it from you.”
“A qubisk is one-point-zero-three-seven-nine-four kilometers,” said the Paskapan. “Approximately.”
“Approximately?” said Tabor, frowning.
“Give or take,” answered Pippibwali.
“How do you suggest we get there?”
“We shall rent a skimmer.”
“Which is?” persisted Tabor.
“An airborne vehicle which skims approximately a meter above the surface, making for a very smooth ride.” He offered the Paskapan version of a smile. “I have anticipated your need and have reserved one for our use.”
“How much?” said Tabor suspiciously.
“Just one. We’ll all fit on it.”
“I said how much, not how many?”
“Ah!” replied Pippibwali. “I have even had them translate the price into your primitive and confusing economic system. It will come to four thousand eight hundred and twelve credits.” Then he added: “Each way.”
“I think not,” said Tabor before Shenoy could reply.
“You’d prefer to walk?”
“Certainly not,” said Tabor.
“Then what — ?”
“You will carry us for two thousand, four hundred and six credits each. Both ways.”
“That’s out of the question! I am only flesh and blood!” Pippi paused. “And muscle, and green blood cells, and enamel on my teeth, and — ”
“Okay, if you can’t accommodate us, you can’t accommodate us,” said Tabor.
“Good,” said Pippi, relaxing. “I’m glad that’s over.”
“It certainly is,” said Tabor. “You’re fired. Where do we get another guide?”
“Uh . . . let’s not be hasty, good sirs,” said Pippi quickly.
“I’m not being hasty,” said Tabor. “I’ve thought about it all night, and I knew that if you charged us an exorbitant amount and then refused to carry us, I’d have to replace you.” He smiled. “I hope this won’t leave too big a blot on your record.”
“Let me speak to the sled owner,” said Pippi. “The nerve of that scum, charging so much for a little two-hour trip! I’ll talk him down to an acceptable price, you can be sure of that!”
“I already am,” said Tabor. “Sure of that, I mean.”
The Paskapan stalked off to the center of the town and returned five minutes later.
“It’s all settled,” he announced. “One thousand credits each way.” He held out his hand. “Payable now.”
Tabor shook his head. “Payable when we return. What if he only gave us enough fuel to get there? What if you plan to take the sled back and leave us stranded there?”
“Me?” said Pippi in shocked tones. “You cut me to the . . . well, to whatever people cut other people to. I am shocked that you should think such a thing!”
“Surprised, anyway, I’ll wager,” said Tabor. “Now get the sled and let’s be on our way.”
Pippi seemed about say something, thought better of it, and stalked off. He was back shortly, sitting aboard an open sled that hovered perhaps thirty inches above the ground.
“Ready to go,” he announced. “All aboard.” Then: “I actually don’t know what it means, but the last humans to ride on one of these said that and it sounded vigorous and positive.”
“We’ll get aboard,” said Tabor, slinging their luggage onto the back of it, “but lower it to ground level so my friend doesn’t have to climb up onto it.”
The sled lowered, Tabor helped Shenoy on, then got on himself.
“Has this thing got protective shields to protect us from the wind?” asked Shenoy.
“I’d like to get there as fast as we can, without the wind blinding me,” continued Shenoy. “Put them up, please.”
“Or we may have to deduct fifty percent of the price for our discomfort,” added Tabor.
“Done,” said Pippi, hitting a control and raising the shields. He turned to Tabor. “I don’t like you very much.”
“Well, darn,” said Tabor. “I’ll just have to live with it.”
They rode in silence for the next ninety minutes. Shenoy spent the time studying his notes on his pocket computer, while Tabor watched the totally uninteresting, even banal, landscape and wondered why the hell anyone, god or man, would want to spend one minute on this world.
There was a village perhaps every fifty miles, almost no traffic between villages, no lakes or oceans, mountains or valleys, splashes of color or repositories of wildlife.
Tabor closed his eyes to rest them, and was suddenly being shaken awake by Shenoy.
“What is it?” he asked.
“You fell asleep for more than an hour. We’re almost there.”
Tabor looked out and saw they were approaching a city that was every bit as nondescript as the one they had left in the morning.
“This is the place?” he said.
“Almost,” replied Pippi.
“Let me guess,” said Tabor. “We have to land here and get permission — let me amend that: buy permission — to go to the location my friend needs to see.”
“I do believe you’re starting to adjust to our economic system,” said Pippi.
“Let me ask a question,” said Tabor. “Does your world even have an economy that doesn’t involve fleecing visitors?”
“Fleecing?” repeated Pippi with an amused smile. “You don’t even have any fleece.”
“My mistake,” said Tabor with a heavy layer of sardonicism that was lost on the Paskapan. “Well, let’s see whoever we have to see and get it over with.”
They landed in the middle of the city — a small town or large village, actually — and Pippi led them to the largest building. They entered, walked past a number of Paskapans seated at desks working on primitive computers, and finally came to a small office. The door slid into a wall, allowing them to enter, and they found themselves standing before a long table, behind which sat five Paskapans. One was much shorter and more angular than the others, and of a somewhat richer color, and Tabor assumed he’d met his first female of the species. Always, he added mentally, assuming it possessed two or more sexes.
“Yes?” said the one seated in the middle.
“These immigrants wish — ” began Pippi.
“We are not immigrants,” interrupted Tabor.
“You’re certainly not natives,” said the Paskapan.
“We are scientists, here to study the ruins of the city of Malthos,” said Shenoy.
“Never heard of it,” said the Paskapan.
“You wouldn’t have,” replied Shenoy. “It was created millennia ago, and was not native to your world.”
“Ah, the ancient city in the desert to the east of us!” said another Paskapan.
“And you really think there’s something of interest out there?” said the first Paskapan.
“I think there may be,” answered Shenoy.
“And of value?”
“Value is a very elastic word,” interjected Tabor when he saw their faces alight with sudden interest. “What may be valuable to a starving person may be all but valueless to one who’s just eaten.”
“Even the sated person must eventually eat again,” said the first Paskapan. “This is most interesting.”
“Anyway,” concluded Shenoy, “we seek your permission to examine the grounds and the buildings.”
“The buildings?” said a third Paskapan.
Shenoy nodded. “Indeed, I need to examine everything.”
“Well, we might as well get started. Bakkamidi here” — he indicated the small, angular Paskapan — “will give you the necessary forms to fill out for exploring the area. Then, when you’ve completed those — it shouldn’t take more than a day — you’ll require all the essential permission slips for whatever else you think you might wish to do when you reach the site. And of course you’ll need both an immigrant’s and an explorer’s license for your vehicle, and . . . ”
He droned on for another ten minutes, and since there was nothing to do but comply with the rules and regulations Shenoy spent the next three days filling out forms while Tabor spent the time pulling every trick and threat he could think of to lower the exorbitant fees.
Finally, on the morning of their fourth day in the area, they climbed aboard the sled. Pippibwali wasn’t licensed to pilot it in this jurisdiction, and instead Bakkamidi sat at the controls. They sped across the landscape for about fifteen minutes and then landed next to what appeared to be a brand new village made of angular quartz walls and roofs.
“We’re in the wrong place,” said Shenoy, walking slowly around one of the buildings…
“This is the exact location you asked for,” said Bakkamidi.
“But this village can’t be twenty years old!” protested Shenoy.
“Fourteen,” she corrected him.
“But I’m looking for an ancient town filled with alien artifacts!”
“Then why did you take us here?”
“These are the coordinates you gave us,” replied Bakkamidi.
“But . . . but you’ve torn everything down and built over it. That’s . . . that’s . . .”
He was about to say “sacrilege,” but Bakkamidi merely smiled and said, “Yes, that’s progress.”
“That’s outrageous!” yelled Shenoy. “You’ve destroyed something more important than your whole insignificant world! What a bunch of total idiots!”
He kept screaming, and suddenly he found himself surrounded by half a dozen uniformed Paskapans, each with a glowing tag hanging around their necks that Tabor assumed marked them as police.
“What’s the trouble?” asked one of them.
“He seems to be having an emotional episode,” replied Bakkamidi. “Calm him down.”
Tabor quickly saw that their notion of calming someone down was pretty much the same as his notion of beating the crap out of him. They came after Shenoy with clubs and something that looked like the Paskapan equivalent of brass knuckles.
The first to reach Shenoy cracked him alongside the head, and blood spurted out, almost blinding the scientist.
“That’s enough!” said Tabor ominously.
When the policeman began swinging the club again, Tabor blocked him and shoved him aside, then decked the two Paskapans who tried to intervene. He reached back for the club swinger and spun him around until they were facing each other.
“Don’t you know that hurts?” he growled, throwing a punch that knocked the Paskapan down and out. He turned to Shenoy. “Are you okay, Rupert?”
Shenoy stared at him, eyes wide open, peering through the stream of blood coming down from his forehead. “Duck, Russ!” he yelled.
That was the last thing Tabor heard before he collapsed onto the ground.