They did not fly, not literally, but they moved quickly and kept up with the wolves. Vernians have not yet evolved to the point of biological resistance to gravity – although certain occultists and award-winning scientists had recently retired to the Havian Mountains to ponder the mystery of flight – but their bodies were buoyant and fit. They were just scarcely out of breath when they came to a clearing in the forest that the wolves evidently considered home base.
Zanzie, Soot Bear and Sister took cover behind a tree with a massive trunk and surveyed the clearing from a safe distance.
The first thing to come to their attention was a sleek, bullet-shaped shuttlecraft, which led to their first conclusion, that there had to be a mother ship with a sizable crew and sophisticated weaponry orbiting the planet.
Zanzie drew the second conclusion. “That’s a Helian ship.”
Soot Bear and Sister exchanged a fleeting, anxious glance. “Are you sure?” they both asked.
Sister’s eyes clouded up. “That would account for the gluttonous nature of the wolves.”
The wolves dropped down on their haunches while their master acknowledged their return with bite-sized treats, after which they hugged the ground and fell into a heavy sleep.
Although there were four Helians in sight, there was no question as to which one of them was master. He had the same urgent, insatiable look of his pets. He was large, not fat so much as aggressively muscular. He was dressed all in leather, from thigh-high boots to a pair of creased gloves to a suede coat with brass trim and buttons. A lordly cape billowed out from his shoulders, a cape that consisted entirely of pelts and furs stitched together into a crude statement of dominance over wild, innocent things. He moved very neatly for someone of his size and his gestures had the quick clip of authority.
He was instructing the other three on the finer points of unloading the shuttlecraft and making camp. From the look of things, the Helians were settling in for a lengthy, well-provisioned stay. They had already erected a spacious tent and now they were rolling out what appeared to be a traveling kitchen on wheels. They produced an astonishing array of stoves and brick ovens, rotisseries and grills, hibachis and waffle irons, kegs, crates and barrels, water tanks, gas tanks, refrigerators, frozen-food lockers and ice-cube machines.
Sister said, “Here is one who does not travel light.” After a moment, she added, “Either that or he’s planning to open up a restaurant.”
“Here?” asked Soot Bear. “Who for? What for?”
Zanzie tried to remember what he knew of the planet Hel and was just scolding himself for not taking instruction in its language, when the master of the proceedings turned suddenly in their direction and shouted, “Halloo! Halloo!”
The Vernians ducked behind the trunk of the tree.
“No, no, that will not do! I have seen you and you have seen me! It would be ludicrous to pretend that we have not!” He stepped forward with his arms held out in a welcoming way. “Greetings! Greetings and good will!”
Zanzie, who was startled to discover that this Helian knew the customary Vernian form of salutation, moved out from behind the tree and gave the customary response. “Greetings. Seek peace and pursue it.”
“That’s right,” said the Helian. “Come along, come away from that tree!”
Soot Bear and Sister showed themselves and regarded the stranger out of cool but curious eyes.
The stranger snapped his heels together and bowed. “I am Rollo Ransom. From the planet Hel.”
Zanzie nodded his head. “I am Zanzibar Vance.”
“Yes, I know. From Verne. We know all about you. The adventures of the Odd Body Vanity Squad are famed throughout the galaxy.”
Sister said, “And well-regarded, I trust.”
“Ah!” Rollo Ransom exclaimed. “This savory morsel must be Sister, who is known for the tender meat of her heart.”
Something hungry in Rollo Ransom’s gaze prompted Zanzie to place one hand on Sister’s shoulder. She took note of the protective gesture and felt a pleasant shiver inside her parts.
Zanzie replied, “She is called Sister, yes.”
“And this, this, must be Soot Bear, the little fellow who put his nose to the ground and tracked the Mad Dog of Troon to its lair!”
Soot Bear was not one to mince words. “Master Rollo,” he said. “You have our Stone.”
“You do. You know you do. Those wolves, they took it.”
“Ah. The Sea-Wolves.” Rollo cast a fond eye toward the snoozing wolves, who looked only a little less terrible in sleep. “I found them running wild on the Tung-Sea moon. You can’t imagine how difficult it was, bringing them to hand. And now they are my darling dears. But look here! Don’t stand on ceremony in the shade of that tree. Come! Come out into the light!”
Soot Bear and Sister glanced at Zanzie, who shook his head. He spoke. “How fortunate, Master Rollo, that you speak our language.”
Rollo’s welcoming smile vanished. Their refusal to come closer annoyed him. “It may be good fortune, my friend, but it is not luck. Long have we studied the ways of Verne.”
“Really. And we know Hel only by reputation. Rumors. A barren planet that remains of interest only to miners and hermits, prospectors who will endure intolerable conditions to dig for its precious metals and social misfits who will travel a billion miles just to be alone.”
“Indeed,” Rollo said with a cold stare. “As you say, rumors.”
Soot Bear asked, “Master Rollo. Aren’t you hot in all those clothes and that nasty cape?”
Rollo’s hearty, congenial smile returned. “I am perishing! I’ll remove them in good time. But come. Come and meet the others and see for yourselves that there is more to our planet than hidey-holes, tunnels and pits!”
Zanzie held his ground. “We shall be glad to meet your companions, Master Rollo, but we prefer to remain where we are.”
“As you wish.”
Rollo whistled to the others. One by one they parted from their labors and stepped forward.
The first to arrive was a stout little fellow with a round body, a round face, huge black bulbous eyes and a head full of hectically curly hair.
“This is Hava Goodyear. The master of my wine cellar and all things sweet.”
The second Helian to arrive was thin, alarmingly so, with hollow, heavy-lidded eyes and greasy hair. A stinker, which bears a strong resemblance to what we on Earth call a cigarette, dangled from his lips.
“Peter Potzanpanz,” said Rollo. “My chef. And this!” Rollo turned almost reverently toward the third member of his entourage. “This is Hildemar. My goddess of the hunt.”
She was slender and tall, almost as tall as Zanzie. She was gorgeous with long, silver-white hair and luminous eyes, dressed in a flowing white tunic that gathered loosely around her knees. She was barefoot, splendid and proud. The Vernians were amazed that a planet as allegedly vulgar as Hel could produce such an imposing creature. In her elegance, her assured and stately grace, she seemed more like one of their own.
The Helians and Vernians made appropriate bowings and noddings of the head for as long as seemed polite and when they were done, Hava Goodyear, Peter Potzanpanz and Hildemar returned to the business of unloading the shuttle.
“Are you impressed?” Rollo asked. “I would never leave home without them. Hava’s glossberry tarts are fit for a king. The culinary stylings of Peter Potzanpanz are legend. And Hildemar. She is a dream. But lethal.”
Sister noted, “She seems different from the rest of you.”
“She is a Hrathgar,” said Rollo. “Not Hahn.”
Soot Bear could not be put off. “Master Rollo. The Stone. Our Stone.”
“What about it?”
“You must give it back.”
“Yes! We are powerless without it!”
“Powerless and quite stupid, apparently. It is folly to draw attention to your weakness in the presence of your enemy.”
Zanzie asked, “Are we enemies, Master Rollo?”
“It would seem that at the very least, you are my prisoners. But let’s not quarrel or quibble. Tonight you shall be my guests! Come to supper, the whole lot of you, if for nothing else than for the sake of good interplanetary relations!”
“But the Stone!” cried Soot Bear.
“Bear,” said Zanzie. “Be still.” He squared his shoulders and addressed their host. “Master Rollo. We shall be honored to dine with you tonight.” And when they had agreed on a time, he said, “Until then. Good will and go well.”
“Seek peace and pursue it!”
The others were just waking up when Zanzie, Soot Bear and Sister returned. They listened in varying states of alarm to what had transpired while they slept. When they had heard everything, they all started talking at once.
“The Helians cannot to be trusted.“
“They are ignorant fools.“
“Oh, this is awful!”
“They eat meat!”
“They believe in God!”
“A cruel and vengeful god!”
“We’ll be stuck here forever. Marooned!”
Gibble Gasser and the King of the Hairy Beans proposed that they storm the Helian camp with whatever means were at hand, with weapons that were readily available, with rocks and the branches of trees and, well, rocks and the branches of trees.
It was true what Soot Bear had said. Without the Philosopher’s Stone, they were helpless. And harmless, too.
Moonchild suggested that they cultivate the Lebreya Tar Prunes and after a period of training, unleash them against the foe.
“But that would take time,” Sister argued, “befriending the beasts. And really, Moonchild, we cannot in good conscience involve the rightful inhabitants of this planet in a cause they can’t possibly comprehend or would find even remotely interesting.”
“No, we cannot,” said Zanzie. “And besides, don’t think for a moment that Rollo Ransom came to this planet without weapons of instantaneous death.”
Maya suggested that they surround the enemy camp and shine. And if the advanced weaponry of the Helians required it, they could accelerate their energy to a degree they had never before attempted. They could shine until their inner essence produced a light that would blind the Helians, literally, and a heat that would melt the flesh from their bones.
It is in the Vernian character to be repulsed by extreme violence and by the images that violence can inspire. Even Gibble Gasser and the King of the Hairy Beans shuddered at the thought of liquefied flesh.
Zanzie asked, “Are you prepared to kill? Besides, in the process, we could burn ourselves out.”
Above all, Vernians love life. For a moment or two, words failed as they imagined overheating their vitals until they were consumed by their own white radiance.
“You,” said the King of the Hairy Beans suddenly. He jumped up and pointed at Zanzibar Vance. “This is your fault, Fancy-Pants Zanzie, all of it. You were not rude enough, you were not forceful with this mentally inferior creature. You had an opportunity to create a first impression and you did not act!”
Zanzie looked bewildered and a bit hurt. “My dear old Bean, what should I have done?”
“You should have established from the very start that we are something to be reckoned with, something to be feared, that we are in control!”
“But we are not in control,” Zanzie replied simply yet firmly. “It would have been absurd for me to pretend that Rollo Ransom does not have the advantage. I would have looked idiotic, not forceful, had I ignored the facts.”
“And they are?”
“One: he speaks our language and seems to know a great deal more about us than we do about him. Two: there is a mother ship somewhere out there, with who knows how many Helians on board. Three: in addition to the Sea-Wolves, Rollo has at his disposal an advanced technology. And four, most daunting of all, he has the Philosopher’s Stone.”
Brother, who had been despondent and silent throughout the entire discussion, finally spoke. “What he does not know is this: the Stone is broken.”
Everyone turned to Brother, vaguely aware that his observation was significant and possibly useful. And yet nobody at that precise moment, not even Brother, could suggest how it might be so.
In the end they all agreed to dress smartly and sit at the Helian table for the purpose of gathering information and acquiring a better understanding of their predicament. And who could deny that after a day and a half of eating only ashcake, a richly seasoned supper would be pleasant beyond description?
They resigned themselves to the fact that they might be stranded for some time and ought to make camp. They wandered about until they found a high dry bank overlooking a large pool of water fed by a stream. They emptied out their travel sacks, set up tents and filled the tents with personal effects, precious books and inflatable pillows and mats, which were as soft and giving as down.
They bathed in the pool and sought respite for their nerves by sitting and chatting in the sun. As the day wore on, some of the Lebreya Tar Prunes crept in for a closer look, not the Long Necks and not the Duke of Prunes, but the Sprinters and two of the Spike Tails. Eventually a family of spotted turtles inched out of the forest for a viewing. They all stared intently at the Odd Body Vanity Squad and, although they maintained their distance, they seemed to understand that the radical new things swimming in their pool posed no threat.
The Vernians made no attempt to approach them, but the peaceable conduct of the wild creatures pleased them very much.
This idyll was briefly shattered by the Sea-Wolves, who catapulted through the forest with crazed, steaming hot eyes on their way to another feeding. As before, they dined exclusively on the tiny four-legged creatures asleep in their burrows, which until this day had been snug and secure. In the distance, from somewhere in the forest, Rollo Ransom’s “darling dears” could be heard foraging in the undergrowth with long fangs and shoveling paws. Once again, hundreds and hundreds of little critters were uprooted for one meal.
With the pandemonium of the slaughter still ringing in their ears, the Odd Body Vanity Squad retired to their tents to dress for dinner.
Gibble Gasser asked, “How do we know that we are not on the menu?”
Brother responded, “My golly, Gbble, don’t you ever get tired of expecting the worst?”
“No. No, I do not.”
The King of the Hairy Beans trimmed his beard. Gibble Gasser applied eyeliner, shadow and mascara to make his pig eyes look bigger. Soot Bear smoothed the calluses on his palms with pumice and selected his favorite brillyball cap. He wore it backwards, as do most Vernians of a certain age. Brother put on his best sandals and robe. Zanzie brushed out his hair and pinned it back into a ponytail with a golden clasp, careful to leave out a little fall of curls in an effort to soften the restless brilliance of his eyes.
Maya dressed in her glossiest tunic and trousers. She accented her hands and feet with bracelets and anklets and spangled her hair with tinsel-shell combs. Moonchild put on a gown of pure white and doused herself in citrus and rainbow perfumes. Sister chose a gown with a full skirt and close-fitting bodice. As she teased ringlets out of her hair, she smiled at the remembrance of how Zanzie had put his good strong hand on her shoulder that day.
When they were washed and scented and splendidly attired, they sat in their tents or alongside the stream and meditated until it was time to go. And when the time came, with their heads held high and with hope in their hearts, they followed Zanzie into the forest to sit at the table of a bellicose, carnivorous, god-fearing thief.
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