Dear Reader-- I’ve deceided to provide you with the first chapter (it’s a short one, but it will orient you to the time and place in which the book begins). Then, I’ve included a piece from the center of the book to give you a feel for the momentum and some of the characters. Enjoy.
Nestled among the stars in the farthest corner of this galaxy lies a small green and blue planet. On its lush, fertile surface is a province called Kamalon.
A monument stands in the town square of the capital city: the wing of a WWII British fighter plane--a Spitfire. Cast in bronze, canted diagonally and buried in the ground, its narrow wingtip points toward the sky above, as if aiming at a distant star. There is a solid gold plaque attached to the wing, near the ground so all who pass can easily read it.
On an exceptionally clear night one can stand by that wing, gaze out into the heavens, and sometimes see the star that warms the planet Earth.
The Lancaster was badly crippled, held aloft by two flagging engines and the prayers of what was left of her crew. Her inboard port engine hung twisted and lifeless from the leading edge of the wing, the blades of its mangled propeller stabbing at the mottled clouds above the bomber. The number-one engine on the starboard wing was feathered and smoking, leaving an oily black trail across the morning sky. There were gaps the size of a man's fist dotting the oil-smeared wings and fuselage. The wind whistled through a wicked line of holes stitched across the plexiglass canopy.
She was the last of a returning squadron, badly mauled by ME109s as the bombers fought their way back from a mission just inside France. Her companions, those that had survived the German fighters and the withering flak over the target, were already home on the ground waiting, watching for her and her crew.
RAF Whittingham was the nearest airfield to the coast and often used by stragglers for emergency landings. The Lancaster wasn't going to make it back to its home base at Woodhill. The lacerated frame and failing engines of the bomber had given all they could. It was here and now, or never.
The bombardier lay askew in his seat in the nose of the plane, head against the shattered glass of the bubble. A red smear marked the passage of the bullet that had ripped open his neck. His eyes stared straight ahead at the approaching runway, heedless of his wounds and the fatigue that had been his constant companion for so many months. As the pilot began his descent for landing, the bombardier issued a soft sigh of resignation and gave up the life he’d held to so tenaciously for the last three hours.
The copilot sat stiffly against his seat, one arm tucked against his chest, the fingers of the other hand clutching the leather of the seat as he fought the pain of his wounds. He had taken flak in his right leg on the bombing run, and a machine gun round from one of the ME109s had caught him in the shoulder. Later, when they were clear of the melee, he had refused the morphine offered by the navigator with a harsh shake of his head. He was the copilot, there was work yet to be done, and looking over at the pilot he knew there was a chance he might be needed.
The pilot's hollowed, bloodshot eyes stared at what was left of the instrument panel as he made his approach. He was doing his best to hold the lumbering bullet-riddled aircraft steady, but the ailerons were getting stiff and uncooperative. A hydraulic line had been severed and the wheel under the port wing was hanging down, creating even more drag. He had trimmed her out as best he could, but he was still almost standing on the left rudder to keep them flying straight and level.
Number-one engine was still on fire. Greedy yellow flames licked over the cowling, eating their way into the wing. The smoke was escaping through the aluminum plates of the upper surface as they warped from the heat. The way the plane was shaking, it wouldn't be long before pieces of the wings started peeling away.
The controls in the pilot's hands were slick and red. The jagged wound in his bicep had sent blood coursing down his inner arm into his hand. It dripped in lethal refrain, puddling on the floorboards, forming slim red rivers as it slipped through the ragged windy holes on the bottom of the plane. One of the rounds that had torn through the cockpit had pierced his calf. The blood from that wound had filled his boot, and it squished as he worked the rudders. This is it, the pilot thought, the unlucky number in the lottery of war. It had been reduced to a race: The plane was nearly out of fuel, he was running out of blood; both he and this bloody old crate were running out of time.
He turned from the controls and did his best to grin at his friend and copilot. "Hang on, Rodney, old boy," he muttered, "I'm taking her in."
Rodney nodded and attempted a smile that was lost to a grimace as he eased himself up in his seat, preparing to assist.
Together they coaxed the other landing wheel down out of its fractured housing, locking both wheels in place. The intercom was gone--shot to hell. There was no way to prepare those still alive in the airplane for a landing.
Squadron Leader Robert Carlson stood on the flight line next to his Spitfire and watched as in the distance the flaps slowly lowered on the ravaged and weary Lancaster. He had picked them up on the far side of the Channel and escorted them to the English coast. He had done what he could. The rest was up to the pilot and God. Anxiously, he ran his fingers through his blond hair, his eyes never leaving the plane.
The Lancaster lumbered across the sky. It lurched and yawed as if controlled by a student pilot, plunging with perilous swiftness toward the runway.
"Get the rest of your bloody flaps down," Carlson whispered. "You're coming in too bloody hot." He didn't know that the hydraulics had given out, and neither man in the cockpit had the strength left to deal with their manual operation.
The pilot, nearing unconsciousness from loss of blood, concentrated solely on fighting the darkness that was closing in around him. Patches of pain-filled gray fog swam before his eyes. He shook his head and put all his effort into the center of the runway.
The plane soared over the threshold and hit the runway hard. It bounced into the air again and canted wildly, coming down a second time on the starboard wing and wheel. The wheel struts hadn't locked properly and the wheel collapsed into the wing, sending the plane skidding sideways down the runway, shredding the wingtip, then wrenching the entire end of the wing away from the outboard engine.
The fire trucks and ambulances were on their way onto the field at the first bounce. The men of the two fighter squadrons that had just landed stood there, frozen to the earth, stone statues whispering advice that would never be heard.
The second wheel of the Lancaster snapped with the sound of breaking bone, and the plane slapped flat on the runway, gouging at the earth with its undercarriage and shedding pieces of its thin aluminum wings and fuselage in a maelstrom of twisted metal.
Hands clenched at his sides in dread, Carlson waited for the plane to buckle and roll, for the explosion he was sure would come. Instead, the aircraft gradually began to slow. Still skidding sideways, the plane lost momentum. After a few more anxious moments, what was left of it jarred itself slowly to a stop. There was a collective sigh from the men on the field as plane finally shuddered to a halt. The ambulances and fire trucks had surrounded the smoking aircraft before the shredded aluminum wings had ceased quivering.
In the cockpit, Flight Lieutenant Miles Clark turned slowly to his copilot and croaked, "Well, they say any one you walk away from--" Then he promptly passed out.
For a moment after the plane stopped all was silent on the flight line, then suddenly the men were cheering, throwing their hats in the air and slapping one another on the back. The successful crash-landing was a remarkable display of good fortune that shouted: if it could happen to them, it could happen to you. And so they cheered.
Those who could, stumbled from the smoking Lancaster. In seconds, rescue crews were in the plane searching for the others. They pulled Miles and his copilot from the controls and carried them out into the clean bright air of the English morning.
As he lay next to Rodney in the ambulance, waiting for word on the rest of the crew, Miles fumbled for a cigarette in the front pocket of his flight jacket. The medics had applied a tourniquet to his arm and taped it to his chest. He managed the pack with his left hand, offering one to Rodney. The attendant lit the cigarettes for the two of them and they smoked in silence, waiting for word on the others.
Moments later, the officer in charge of flight-line rescue delivered the sad news on the bombardier and tail gunner: both were dead, two more names to be added to the grand statistical monument commemorating the senseless brutality of war. The turret gunner amidships was wounded but had survived, as had the nose gunner and the navigator.
Flight Lieutenant Clark thanked the officer, then nodded to the attendant. As the man closed the doors on the lorry, Miles could see the bodies being carried out. He sighed and closed his eyes. In seconds, exhaustion overcame him and sleep wrapped him like a warm blanket. His cigarette fell from his hand.
Vendors were already out on the streets, loudly hawking their wares. The last of Torlok's "pleasure children" had just ceased vending, seeking shelter from sun like garishly attired vampires. Horns honked rancorously, and people shouted greetings and traded insults. Everywhere around them the volume and the movement of people grew as the sun rose, until the city droned like a clangorous nest of ants.
Nowhere could Carlson find the equanimity or composure, the quiet sense of peace shared by the Azrans. Krete was not just another continent; it was another world.
Delana traded the precious stones in her earrings for a handful of Krete coins at a small shop. They bought a couple of meat pies from a vendor and washed them down with a bottle of local beer. The meat was greasy and tough, the beer harsh. Still, it tasted exquisite to Carlson, who had eaten little for days.
They flagged down a public transportation car and paid the driver to take them to a spot near Delana's residence. As they passed through the city Carlson studied the citizenry. The people of Torlok, while varying in size and shape, appeared and acted much the same. All had coarse dark hair, dark eyes, and yellow skin. The one diversity was found in the bright, multicolored clothing of the Kretes, and that was often contingent upon the various religious and social sects to which they belonged.
Liberally added to this potpourri of color and design were the black and gray uniforms of the military, who appeared to believe in little but themselves.
They were exiting the cab about a block from Delana's apartment when they saw a man attaching a poster to a utility pole. Carlson looked at Delana. "You don't think --" When the man left, they casually walked over. There on the poster were their pictures with a reward for information leading to their arrest. Carlson stood staring at the poster. "That's a terrible picture of me. The nose is too bloody long, makes me look like Pinocchio."
"Come, now," she said clearly exasperated with him. "There are some things I need from my dormer. Once we're safely out of the city, ye can scribble a note to Nygol and tell him of yer displeasure."
"So we're planning on trading this wonderland of kind and gentle souls for the country. The last time I was in your countryside, I had a farmer try to shoot me with something that resembled a hand-held cannon. I can hardly wait."
"Believe me, it is safer than the city," she replied. "There are fewer rats."
They had to walk up three flights of stairs to Delana's dormer. Each time they rounded a staircase and a door opened, exposing a face in the gloom of the hallway, they were certain they were recognized, and would be reported.
They moved cautiously up the last flight of stairs. Standing at the entrance to her quarters Delana paused and knocked quietly on the door. "Onar," she whispered, "Onar ..." There was a soft scratching on the other side. Carlson thought to himself, She has a cat! She came back for a bloody cat.
She breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at Carlson. "They have not been here yet, I am certain. Wait here until I tell Onar that ye are acceptable."
"What's the concern?" replied Carlson. "I don't care about a bloody ca--"
She opened the door. There, just inside the threshold, crouched the most frightening creature Carlson had ever seen.
It looked like a cross between a leopard and a very large Rottweiler, with enough teeth to make the average piranha envious. It had sleek black fur and yellow eyes. It wasn't quite as large as the big cats, but its head and shoulders were disproportionately huge, like that of the German dog. Its muzzle was much like that of a dog, with the exception of the three-inch canines protruding from upper and lower jaws. Its paws were more cat-like, with five surgically sharp, retractable talons on each.
When the creature saw Carlson, its ears flattened and it slid forward menacingly, a deep throaty growl emanating from its chest. "It's all right," said Delana, putting a hand on its heavy leather collar. "Friend, he's friend. It's all right."
Reluctantly the creature settled, still staring at the Englishman with those cold, yellow-rimmed eyes.
"Jesus!" whispered Carlson from the doorway, not the least bit committed to coming in. "What in Christ's name is that?"
"That is Onar, my pet," she replied with complete equanimity as Onar rubbed his head against her leg. "He is a specially-bred creature for the protection of the palace family. He is a genetic hybrid of feline and canine and is called a vexen." She reached down and scratched the monster's ears, and he made a sound like a roomful of contented cats. "Nygol has several of them. He gave me this one as a gift and, I suppose, to protect his interests. They are extremely intelligent and more loyal than anyone I have met here."
"What exactly are we supposed to do," asked Carlson incredulously, "take him with us?"
"Aye. In truth and indeed. He has belonged to me since he was a bantling. He is mine and I am his."
"This is just bloody wonderful." declared Carlson, still standing in the doorway. "You don't think we'll look too conspicuous, do you, dragging a small saber-toothed tiger down the bloody street with us?"
She looked at him, a small, hard glint in her eyes. "He is mine and I am his."
Carlson suddenly realized that this was one of those women with whom he was not going to win very many arguments. It was a rare thing, and slightly intriguing. "Oh, well," he said. "I’ve always wanted a pet, though I'd hoped for something a tad smaller and perhaps with a few less teeth." He grinned. "I suppose you have a plan that will spirit the three of us out of here, right?"
"As it is, I do indeed," she said. "Now take off that hat and come here. I'm going to dye yer hair."
Twenty minutes later the metamorphosis was complete and Carlson now looked like a passable Krete. He still hurt all over and wanted to sleep for a week, but he held on.
They sat at Delana’s small kitchen table, drinking tea she had brewed while she dyed his hair. "I feel we should seek the coast," the girl said. "Mayhaps we could find a fishing vessel or a craft that's made for the pleasure of the wind. I have saved some coins for such a time as this. We could purchase the provisions we require and steal a craft if need be."
"I may have a better idea," said Carlson. "How far away is the closest airfield, where civilian and military aircraft would be kept?"
She thought for a moment. "It would be the nest at Konar, just outside the city. It has been a nest for birds belonging to the people of the city, but lately there have been a few of the military's blackbirds there, in anticipation of ye and yer friends." She knew where he was going without all the words. "Could ye fly one of their craft?"
"They've got rudders, ailerons, and wings. If I can start it, I can fly it." He leaned forward, putting his hands on the table anxiously. "If we could steal a plane, we'd be home in a blink! We wouldn't be at the mercy of the elements, floating in a bloody cork for a week or two. We'd be back in time for tea."
She nodded, digesting the idea. "Aye, 'tis risky, though it could be done. So be it. 'Tis the chance we'll take." She stood. "Now I must gather a few things that we will need--a few coins, identification--then we must leave quickly."
While they were discussing their plans, a black vehicle pulled slowly to the curb and parked a block away. Four large men exited. They checked their weapons, Krete’s conventional magazine-fed pistols, tucked them in their chest holsters and moved out.
As Delana busied herself, Carlson bucked up as much courage as he could and attempted to make friends with Onar. The Englishman sat in one of the plain but comfortable chairs in the main room. The big cat-like creature lay on the floor between him and Delana, in the sleeping quarters.
"Wouldn't you be quite a surprise for the local cat burglar?" Carlson muttered. Extending his arm and reluctantly opening his hand he coaxed, "Here boy; come on, big fellow." Onar just sat there staring at him with those cold yellow eyes. Carlson decided to settle for compromise; he hadn't exactly made friends, but he still had his arm.
Delana had just emerged from the other room, a small carryall in hand. "I think I have all we need, Let us--" At that moment the door burst inward with a crash. In the doorway stood a large, grim-faced man with a pistol in his hand. He started to step in, raising the gun. That was as far as he got.
In one lightning-swift movement, as fluid as quicksilver, Onar leapt. Carlson had never seen anything that big move that fast. Onar covered the fifteen feet between him and the man in a single bound. Two hundred pounds of snarling claws and teeth hit the gunman in the chest and knocked him back out the door into his companions, bowling them over as well.
The intruder’s weapon discharged into the nearest wall as Onar buried the four-inch talons of his front paws into the man's shoulders. The force of the attack carried the man and beast across the small hallway, slamming the man against the far wall. In the same motion the vexen pulled his hindquarters up and dug his rear claws into the fellow's abdomen, ripping downward. With one swift thrust of his haunches, he opened up the gunman from sternum to genitals, splattering the man's intestines across the floor like a gutted chicken.
Carlson had read about the leopards of Africa using the same method of killing, but nothing could have prepared him for the shock of witnessing it. It was the single most terrifying thing he had ever seen.
The man shrieked, gurgling and high-pitched. His eyes rolled back in his head, and he was dead before he hit the floor.
Onar never missed a beat. He was off the trembling body and had his jaws buried in the second man's throat before the fellow could stagger to his feet. With one blood-spattering wrench of his great head, he tore the life from the second of Nygol's henchmen.
The third man had been granted a fraction longer to recover. Still on his knees, not five feet away, he raised his gun and fired point blank at Onar's head. At the roar of the pistol, the vexen staggered, his knees buckled, and he collapsed. The man scrambled to his feet and stumbled backward against the wall, away from the terrifying creature that lay at his feet.
Blood ran from the gash in the back of the vexen’s head, but its huge chest still rose and fell. Gun clutched in trembling hands, the fellow aimed at the animal on the floor as he slid along the wall toward the doorway of the dormer, instinctively thinking to put a door between him and the monster that had just ripped life and breath from his two comrades. He was so absolutely unnerved by the ferocity of the vexen's attack that he had, for the moment, forgotten about Carlson and Delana. As the man backed through the door, the Englishman was up and moving at him.
Unfortunately, Carlson had only managed a few steps before the man spun around, slamming the door closed and swinging the gun toward him. Carlson stopped. The last of the gunmen leaned his back against the door, sweating, eyes bulging, chest heaving.
He pointed the shaking gun at the Englishman. "Move again, skyman, and I swear by Nagath's eyes I'll kill ye here and now!" Nervously, he jerked the pistol in Delana's direction. "Ye! harlot! Over by him, with haste!"
There were no locks left on the door; they had been shattered on entry. The man stood tightly pressed against the door, as if to contain the terrible creature on the other side.
Slowly Delana moved over to Carlson, the man following her with his pistol. At that moment they heard a soft rustling in the hallway. The man's eyes went wide, and he stood dead still, head cocked, listening. The movement ceased. Sweat was running down the sides of his face, his breath coming in ragged little gasps. He reached up quickly and wiped the perspiration from his forehead with his free hand, glancing rapidly around the room at window and door as if seeking escape. He took a deep breath and attempted to get control. "Now," he said, "we are going to quit this place." Motioning the gun at Carlson, he said, "Ye will do as I say or I will kill the girl. Do ye--" There was a gently rap on the door, a soft scratching.
"Could be the mailman," said Carlson, "or the Fish and Chips delivery." The terror was rising in the man's eyes like mercury in a hot thermometer. With just a touch of a malicious smile, Carlson shrugged his shoulders. "Or it could be--" All at once the door crashed inward, splintered, and ripped off its hinges. The gunman went careening across the room as if he'd been shot from a cannon, hands out, gun flying from his grasp.
There on top of the shattered door stood the vexen, merciless yellow eyes fastened on the man across the floor. The vexen’s ears laid back against his skull, the fur on his back bristled, matted with blood. As the man stumbled to his feet near a large window, the animal tensed and sprang. The fellow had just enough time to utter a short shriek and throw his hands up, before both man and animal went flying through the third-story window in a shower of glass.
Delana cried out, she and Carlson rushed to the window and looked down. The man lay below in the alley, dead of any number of causes, not the least of which being Onar. There was no sign of the vexen.
"Come on!" said Carlson, grabbing the girl's arm. "We've got to get out of here."
She hesitated, turning to the window, "But Onar--"
"Trust me, Onar can take care of himself. We'll worry about him when we get out of here. Now come!"
They stepped over the broken door, avoiding the blood and the bodies in the hall, and hurried down the stairs. On the way out, Carlson reached down and snatched one of the pistols off the floor, sticking it in his belt at the small of his back.
The driver for Nygol's Security Enforcement Team had waited by the car below. When he heard the gunshots and the screams he radioed for assistance, drew his pistol, and moved toward the building.
As Carlson and Delana rushed down the stairs they could hear the wail of sirens. No one stuck their head out the doors around them this time.
They had reached the last flight of stairs and were headed toward the open doorway of the building when the driver stepped out of the shadows of the foyer. He stood between them and the doorway, smiling smugly. "Now where be ye goin' in such haste?" he asked, gun pointed at Carlson's chest.
"Dental appointment," said the Englishman.
The man looked puzzled for a moment. "Where be my comrades?"
"They're upstairs. One's waiting in the alley."
The man just stood there, a confident smirk on his face. "And they just let ye walk away with nay so much as a query or question, eh?"
"They had more pressing concerns."
"Well," said the fellow, "whatever the case be with them, ye be going with me now."
Carlson noticed the shadow growing on the wall behind and to the left of the man. "You know, old chap," he said, "I'm not much of a betting man, but I'd wager you're wrong on this one."
A moment later, silent as death, Onar appeared in the doorway behind the driver. His ears flattened and he leaped ...
Delana took the car keys from the man's body and the three of them headed toward the only official vehicle on the block. Carlson figured the vexen had earned his keep. Delana had checked Onar's wound in the hallway as the creature rubbed up against her affectionately. Carlson watched from a respectable distance.
The bullet had struck the vexen's thick skull and ricochetted off, tearing a sizable gash and knocking him unconscious for a moment or two. Onar had lost a little blood, but other than that he seemed well enough.
Delana drove, with Carlson sitting next to her. Onar got the back seat. As they pulled out onto the street, the big creature stuck his head over the seat between the two of them, making that sound like a roomful of contented cats again. It was all Carlson could do to keep from crawling under the seat. "Reminds me of the joke about what you feed a four-hundred-pound canary," muttered the Englishman, pressed against the door.
"What is a canary" asked the girl.
“A bird--you know; feathers, wings.”
“Ah, a very big flumer. What do you feed it?”
"Anything he wants."
They had just turned at the end of the block when half a dozen Security Enforcement cars screeched around the far corner and skidded to a halt in front of Delana's building. "Tough luck, chaps," said Carlson, looking back out the side window.
For the next few minutes they drove through the narrow sidestreets, trying to stay off the boulevards in their stolen government car. When they hit a straightaway, Delana spoke. "For us to depart this city with the most haste, we must pass through the Lower Boroughs. It is the impoverished district. The streets there are worse than these and far more perilous. In that domain larceny and mayhem is the way of life."
Carlson nodded. "The only thing worse than a cage full of crowded rats is a cage full of crowded, hungry rats. Nonetheless, I don't see that we have any choice. We can't be dallying about in the city in a stolen government car. They'll soon have it figured out and be on us."
"So be it," she said as she turned the car south, towards the spirals of smoke and the gutted buildings in the distance.
Half an hour later they were traveling along the filth-strewn side streets of the Lower Boroughs. The sky was darkening, threatening rain. Ponderous charcoal billows spread across the heavens, lending an even more ominous atmosphere to their journey through the legions of the destitute.
Around them a tapestry of despondence, poverty, and simmering violence wove itself in somber colors of gray and brown and black. Old men and women huddled in doorways staring out with hopeless indifference. Pleasure children, some barely into puberty, lounged against wall and post like petulant sirens, hailing those who passed with honeyed words, responding to rebuke with angry gestures. Groups of young men swaggered down the street, exchanging banter with the harlots, moving with restless, angry energy: violence looking for expression.
Everywhere large drums burned with whatever could be found for fuel. Stony-eyed, ragged people stood in desperate silence, hands to the flames, taking what comfort could be found from the warmth. Children darted in and out of alleyways, imitating the posture and language of the street people, like wolfcubs learning the ways of the pack. Above it all, from melodacos in window and alleyway could be heard the harsh Krete music: monolithic rhythms, relentless, angry tempos accompanied by cadenced lyrics with little melody.
In this part of town they had tried to stay with a main thoroughfare, but the road in front of them had deteriorated into almost impassable ruts. They were forced onto a narrow cobblestone side road that ran parallel to the main street.
They had been traveling cautiously along the detour for a few minutes when suddenly there was a hissing sound, and the right front of the car canted downward, followed by a continuous slapping.
"Jesus." exclaimed Carlson, "of all places to get a flat tire." Delana stopped the car and Carlson got out, closing his door and crouching by the deflated tire. Protruding from the hard rubber was a flat six-inch piece of metal laced with two-inch needle spikes. Carlson jerked it out, examining it. In the meantime Delana had exited the car and come around to look as well. Carlson glanced up at her. "We didn't have a flat. We were given a flat."
"Aye and right ye are," growled a voice from behind them. They turned to see a group of rough-looking men and women emerging from the shadows of the alleyway next to them.
The group spread out in semi-circle, cold-eyed souls with violence etched in the hard lines on their faces. Most of them carried a weapon of some sort; clubs, knives. The man in the middle carried a small boomer. He was tall and thin with greasy hair and flat, dead eyes. He had a cold smile displaying teeth that had suffered from neglect and poor diet. He was a man with a mortgaged soul and he didn't care.
He smiled, slick and wicked, anything but friendly. "Now what be ye doin' travelin' through the likes of this place in one of our Lord's carts? Ye look not like Nygol's men to me." His eyes slid over Delana with lascivious gleam. "And ye, dear heart, are nay a Nygol's man fer sure!" There were mirthless snickers from the men around him as he stepped forward, bringing the boomer casually down to his side.
The Englishman quickly glanced up and down the street. No help was to be found there. On the contrary, those few souls who had been outside had since vanished.
The man took another step and the circle closed in with him. Carlson pulled the gun he'd taken earlier. Everyone stopped. Carlson pointed it at the fellow in the center. "That's close enough," he said evenly. "Now, why don't you all just go on about your business? We'll fix our tire and do the same."
No one moved. "Why don't ye give me the boomer," the leader said, "and mayhaps we'll let ye walk away. If ye lay the boomer down." His black eyes glittered with cold confidence. "It's the best deal ye're going to get this day, sir. If I was ye, I'd take it."
Carlson's eyes went hard. He'd been pushed around, beaten up, and chased ever since he'd set foot in the godforsaken country. He'd had enough. "I'm gonna say this just once more--"
"What are ye going ta do, shoot us all?" interrupted the man. "Ye haven't enough shot." He took another step forward.
"That's true," said Carlson as he pulled the trigger. At the report of the weapon the fellow staggered backward, looking down at the red hole that had just appeared in his chest, an absolutely astounded look on his face. His legs buckled and he dropped to his knees, mouth working without sound, eyes still displaying his amazement. He attempted to raise his weapon and Carlson shot him again, knocking him backwards onto the cobblestones.
The leader lay sprawled in the street, still twitching in death when Carlson stepped forward. "He's right. I can't shoot you all, but I'll bloody well shoot the hell out of most of you before it's said and done. Now who's the next spokesman for your little gathering? Don't be bashful; I've got lots of bullets." Carlson stepped forward again, and the circle stepped back as one.
Suddenly, from the side a brave soul shouted, "Rush him! Let's have him!" Before anyone could come to any decisions, Carlson turned and shot the fellow in the forehead. At that point, the group’s enthusiasm dampened considerably. The rest sought retreat, stumbling backward, turning to run. Carlson was angry now, pissed off at the entire Krete race. He moved forward and fired the gun into the air, turning it into a rout. Unfortunately, caught in the fervor of the moment, he let one of them fall behind and to the left of him. One with a sling.
He saw a blurring movement at the periphery of his vision . He turned a fraction too late; the rock caught him in the temple. His head snapped back and he collapsed like a puppet whose strings had been cut, Delana's scream of warning still ringing in his ears.
In a flash, the two men nearest the girl moved in at her. She could have run; instead she dove for the weapon at Carlson's side. She turned, still on her knees next to the Englishman, and shot the closest man in the stomach. The other, a large brutish creature with thick, almost flat features, swept in and kicked the gun from her grasp, backhanding her hard enough to knock her out. He scooped her up and threw her over his shoulder.
"This one's mine!" he said viciously, turning to the others. "Any arguments?" No one contested him. He grunted with satisfaction. "Ye can have him and the cart," he growled, motioning to Carlson. With that he shifted the girl on his shoulder and trotted off down the alleyway. Those who were left looked at one another, then back to the man and the car. Slowly they moved in, like vultures after a lion kill.
Carlson lay perhaps a dozen feet from the back door of the car. One of them moved in and snatched up the gun. Another, a woman, though from the looks of her you'd say she kept the secret as best she could, knelt by the Englishman, drawing a knife. She grabbed Carlson by the hair and pulled his head back, exposing his throat.
No one could see inside the police car, as it was designed like a small van with no rear or side windows.
One member of the gang, anxious to see what treasures might wait in the car, stepped by the woman and opened the back door. Onar hit him like a fur-covered freight train, bowling him backward into the woman kneeling by Carlson.
The party pretty much broke up completely. With the shouts and the screams of their comrades echoing through the street, the remaining survivors of the luckless gang sprinted down the road with the enthusiasm of a track and field team.
There had been one other witness to the performance. A pair of curious eyes had watched with interest from under the manhole cover down the alleyway, though in truth, most of the interest was directed at Delana.
The big man lumbered down the alley with the girl on his shoulder. He paid little attention to the manhole cover coming up on his right. Just as he reached the manhole, the lid flew back and a slender arm stuck a stick between his feet. With a surprised grunt the man went flying, dropping Delana, trying to get his hands up to brace his fall. It was close, but his head beat his hands to the cobblestone street by a split second. He bounced once and skidded to a halt, unmoving. In the next instant a small man with wild hair and excited eyes popped out of the manhole like a demented jack-in-the-box. A minute later the alleyway was empty but for one large, inert body.
Carlson awoke to pressure on his chest and the sensation of wet sandpaper being rubbed across his face. He opened his eyes and gasped as Onar, one paw on Carlson's sternum, licked him again. The Englishman thought he was going to faint, wished he could faint.
"Easy boy, easy now," he stammered. "Nice, er, whatever you are," he muttered as he slid out from underneath the big animal. Sitting up, he winced and gingerly fingered the goose-egg on his temple. Looking around him, Carlson saw that three more bodies had been added to the count. It was obvious from the condition of a couple that Onar had participated somewhere along the line.
Suddenly it struck him: Delana; Delana was gone! He staggered to his feet, still a little dizzy, glancing around one more time. He looked down at the vexen. "Where is she, Onar, where's Delana? Show me, Onar!" He remembered Delana telling him that Onar was one of a new species of vexens, specifically bred for the understanding of commands, that he was every bit as intelligent as a young child. He hoped she was right.
"Come on, Onar, where'd she go? Show me." The animal looked up at him with those inscrutable yellow eyes. "Delana!" he whispered again. Abruptly the vexen turned and trotted off toward the alley. It stopped about thirty feet out and swung around to look at Carlson, then turned and moved off. The Englishman followed.
It wasn't long before they came to the unconscious man and the manhole cover. Onar sniffed around the hole and pawed at the cover. He circled it once more and hissed, scratching at it. He looked up at Carlson and hissed again.
"That's it? That's where she went, isn't it, old boy?" declared Carlson, more at ease with the big creature.
Carlson popped the cover off and looked down. The vexen moved in and gently edged him back, crouched forward into the hole and leapt down into the darkness. There was a splash of water as the animal landed, then silence. A moment later the vexen hissed impatiently.
"All right, all right, I'm coming. Jesus, now I'm taking orders from a bloody cat," he muttered as he turned and moved down the ladder. Reaching the bottom, he realized the inky darkness was diffused slightly by the glow of an oil lamp, perhaps a hundred yards down the tunnel. Onar rubbed against his leg impatiently and moved off toward the light, on a small concrete walkway just above the turbid water of the tunnel. Again Carlson followed.
Delana opened her eyes. She was lying on an old mattress. Above her she could see several large pipes extending across the ceiling, disappearing into the walls of the room. She turned her head slowly, feeling the soreness in her jaw and neck. The room was small, the walls made of concrete striped with weathered stains of moisture and rust from the pipes above. A single open doorway led out to the darkness beyond. The air had a rank, musky smell, heavy with moisture like a slough. Somewhere she thought she could hear the gentle movement of water.
She propped herself up on one elbow and looked around. An oil lamp flickered on a battered old table in one corner. The flame danced, casting shadows about the dim room, revealing the strangest of living quarters.
All around her lay a collage of mismatched knickknacks: pieces of fine china and balls of twine, costume jewelry and children's toys. Expensive porcelain statues collected dust on broken wooden crates; boxes of crackers and candy wrappers were scattered everywhere. Several pictures adorned the walls, two of them hanging upside down. At least a dozen purses were piled in one corner, and clothes and shoes lay in heaps. Everything was strewn about with the haphazardness of a child's playroom.
It looked as if a bomb had gone off at a yard sale. Delana could hear the twitter of scathers as they rustled in the boxes and the paper.
As she started to sit up, she saw a movement in the shadows of the far corner. Something or someone had been crouching there, watching her. The specter stood up, moving out of the gloom toward her. She gasped, scooting back against the wall.
"Not to worry, pretty pretty, not to worry. It's only Chalee, only Chalee." whined a high, almost moronic voice, intonation and volume rising and falling on every third or fourth word with a singsong effect. "Chalee is a bery simple soul, innocent as a child; has da mind of a child he has, yes, he has." The creature danced hesitantly out of the shadows, babbling a steady stream, head bobbing up and down affirming every word. "Not to worry, not to worry, Chalee nebber hurt ye, nebber, nebber. Chalee help ye; escape ye from mean, motherless soul. Nasty man, nasty man."
Calming down slightly, Delana studied the apparition in front of her. He was a skinny little fellow with a small crooked smile that appeared and disappeared nervously as he chattered. His long, disheveled hair framed an angular, pale yellow face with a scraggly beard. His eyes were bright black pools filled with animation, yet strangely distant, lacking the ebb and flow of logic. There was no aggression in those dark orbs. On the contrary, it was more of a simple complacency, the guilelessness of a child. It was difficult to tell his age; with the hair and the beard and the dirt, but Delana guessed him to be no more than thirty. He was dressed in a shirt and pants that had probably been quite expensive. They were also at least two sizes too big for him, in sore need of a washing and perhaps a delousing.
The creature edged up a little closer, hesitant but curious, still prattling on with nervous entreaty. "Ye be goodly fine now, ye be plenty safe. Nobody here 'cept old Chalee and he a harmless soul, innocent as a child." The specter bounced over a few feet and picked up a small porcelain statuette, holding it out to her. "Ye want a present? Chalee hab lots of presents." He paused and a fleeting, nervous smile crossed his face. "Chalee finds lots of things--" Then he brightened again. "Da finder is da owner! Dat's what Chalee says! Da finder is da owner!"
Watching him, Delana leaned back against the wall, pulling her knees up against her chest and wrapping her arms around them. Relaxing somewhat, she looked at him. "Who are ye? Where are we?"
"I be Chalee! Dis be Chalee's home!" he declared proudly. He smiled, a small sparkle of wit brightening his eyes. "We be in da 'tunnels of ploop'!"
She looked around at the pipes, the circular wheels for the gate valves, the old gauges. That pervading musty smell caught her nostrils again. "We're in the waste passages under the city."
"Rightly, rightly," smiled Chalee, nodding his head like a cupie doll with palsy, "da passages, da tunnels of ploop! Chalee know ebery blessed one. Chalee got a boat, Chalee nabigate bery good! Chalee trabel eberywhere in da tunnels of ploop. He sneak out at night, when all dem nasty persons up dere been all sleepin'." He paused, eyes averted. "And den Chalee finds things."
"How did I get here, Chalee?" she asked.
"Chalee carry ye." he replied, then with a slight frown, he added, "Chalee carry ye mostly, he have to drag ye some, cause ye bery heaby for a pretty pretty!"
She grinned. "My indeed, don't ye flatter a girl, Chalee." Delana, no longer afraid, studied the little man. In those artless eyes of his dwelt the sad knowledge that the intellect of others lay just beyond his grasp. He was intelligent enough to recognize that he was lacking and this ignorance did not provide bliss. This circumstance however, did not stop Chalee from doing the best he could with what he had.
"Did you really find all these things, Chalee?" Delana asked, "Come on now, tell me the truth."
Chalee's face reddened and he looked down as he shuffled his feet. "Verily, verily, Chalee is a stinkin' thief." he stammered, flustered. "Just a stinkin', stealin' thief. He knows it, he can't help hisself. He got da mind of a child, he does. He hardly know any better. He be a bery simple soul," he said seriously, shaking his head. "Bery simple." He sighed dejectedly, "Chalee be a lonely, innocent soul, yes, he is."
He dropped down, squatting on his haunches, and stared at the ground. "Chalee be a cast-em-out. Nobody want Chalee, dey trow rocks at him, dey chase him and kick him. No good for nothin', dey say. Eberbody say Chalee got ploop for brains." He looked up. "Dey say when Chalee around, things disappear. Imagine dat," he said with a crooked smile. So anyhow, Chalee go hide in da tunnels of ploop and find dis bery nice place." He paused, counting on his fingers. "Dat be a bery long time ago, many, many, many changes of da tiny moon. Now Chalee got new home and got little furry tailers for friends. Sometimes Chalee eats his friends, but it's okay, 'cause Chalee nebber run out of little furry tailers."
Finally Delana asked cautiously, "Why did ye bring me here, Chalee?"
The little man looked at her, perplexed. "Chalee don't 'xactly know." He shrugged. "Get ye away from nasty motherless soul. Chalee think if he help ye, maybe ye be Chalee's friend." He looked up at her, concerned. "Chalee not doin' nothin' nasty, Chalee not tryin' to steal ye!" He stood up again, agitated, apologetic, waving his hands. "Oh nay, nebber nebber nebber! Chalee learn his lesson about stealin' libbin' things. Oh yeah, Chalee already learned his lesson.
"Once Chalee find a bery pretty wooly bleater, all cobered with soft, white, curly hairs and little black nose. Chalee find him at da edge of da city munching little grasses, out by da place where the zoomers are. Zoom zoom zoom, dey fly in da air." He made motions with his hands of flying airplanes, and immediately had Delana's attention.
"Anyways, Chalee decide he gonna take da bleater home wif him, so he hab a friend. Chalee get da bleater to da ploop tunnel hole, but da bleater too stinkin' fat and it get stuck in da hole. Chalee in da hole pullin' on da legs and da bleater yellin' blah, blah, blah, kickin' an' squirmin'. Up on top, a truck comin'. Truck don' see bleater, bleater don' see truck, Chalee down in da hole, don' see nothin' but curly hairs and dingleberries hangin' off bleater's butt. Boom! Truck hit bleater. Da bleater go flyin' out da hole like it got wings. Chalee, holdin' onto legs, gets jerked up and bangs his head so hard he hear bells in his simple mind for two changes of da tiny moon." He paused, shaking his index finger upward. "Dat was mean old Chatah God punishing Chalee for stealin' libbin' thing. Chalee not steal libbin' thing no more!"
Delana couldn't help but chuckle. At the end Chalee just smiled sheepishly.
"Well, Chalee," she said, "I want to thank ye for rescuing me, but I really can't stay here. I was traveling with a friend, and I have to find out what happened--"
Almost on cue, Onar rounded the corner. Those cold yellow eyes fastened on the little man across the room; his ears flattened.
"No! No, Onar," the girl cried as the vexen tensed for the attack.
At the sight of the vexen, Chalee screamed like a teenaged girl, stumbling backward into the wall so hard he almost knocked himself out. Throwing his hands across his face he yelled, "Don' let it eat me! Please, please! Don' let snarly biter eat poor Chalee!"
The animal glided forward menacingly, teeth bared, hackles up. Delana leapt off the bed and yelled again, "Stop! Onar, no!" The vexen took one more step and roared angrily. It was all too much for Chalee. The crotch of his pants darkened with stain, his eyes rolled back, and he passed out.
Carlson came bolting around the corner, surprise and relief flooding his eyes as he saw the girl.
"Robert!" she cried, "ye're safe."
He moved forward and took her hands. "You're all right?"
"Aye, that I am," she said with relief, liking the way his hands felt in hers, liking what she saw in his eyes.
For just a moment they stared at each other, and in that instant, something containing that first undeniable flicker of emotion danced across their gazes like an electric spark between terminals.
"God, I can't believe I found you," whispered Carlson, still holding her hands.
"How, how did ye manage it?" she stammered, glancing up toward the surface.
"Onar," he replied, reluctantly breaking her gaze, pointing to the vexen. "He tracked you."
Carlson looked over at Chalee, who lay crumpled against the wall. "Who, or what, is that?"
She smiled. "That is the owner of this fine dwelling. Evidently he saved me from the situation up there. How did ye--"
"I'm not quite sure, but I think Onar had a lot to do with it. I woke up with him standing on my chest licking me."
"My my, he has taken to ye, hasn't he?" she replied, smiling.
Chalee moaned and his eyes fluttered open. The first thing he saw was the vexen standing in front of him. He squeezed his eyes closed again and mumbled, "Bad sleep story, terrible bad sleep story, Chalee gonna wake up bery quick now."
Delana moved over and put her hand on Onar's collar. "It's all right Chalee. It's not a sleep vision, but he won't hurt ye."
Slowly the little fellow opened one eye, then the other, and moaned fearfully. Still holding the vexen, Delana turned to Carlson. "Chalee says he has a boat, and that he's been to the airnest outside the city, using the tunnels."
The Englishman grinned. "Now wouldn't that be a stroke of luck."
He walked over and knelt by Chalee, extending his hand. "I'm Robert. Glad to meet you, Charlie."
Chalee flinched when Carlson put his hand out, then cautiously took it with both of his, palm down. "Chalee, not Charlie," he said hesitantly.
Carlson smiled. "All right, Chalee, I'm sorry. Tell me, Chalee, you have a boat?"
"Yeah, yeah," replied the little man, "bery bery nice boat, Chalee make!"
"Can you find your way to the nest, where the airplanes are?"
Chalee looked puzzled. "Erplanes?"
"Zoomers," said Delana from behind them, "he calls them zoomers."
Chalee brightened. "Ye wanna go see the zoomers? Chalee likes zoomers."
"Can you find the place with the zoomers? Can you take us there?"
"Oh yeah, yeah. Bery easy, bery easy," replied Chalee, nodding vigorously. Then he paused, peeking around Carlson nervously. "Dat snarly biter won't eat Chalee?"
"No, you'll be just fine."
Chalee smiled. "Ye want a present? Chalee hab lots of presents!"
Chalee had built a remarkably seaworthy flat-bottom boat with a handful of stolen tools and some pilfered wood . The water in the tunnels was never more than eighteen inches deep. Chalee's boat was twelve feet long, had a four-foot beam and drew only six inches of water. Chalee also had one more surprise for Carlson.
After speaking with the fellow for a while, it was apparent that he spent a lot of time in other people's houses, having an almost “idiot savant” talent for opening locks of any sort. As they prepared to leave, the Englishman asked Chalee if, in his travels, he had ever found a gun, a boomer.
Chalee nodded. "Yeah, yeah, Chalee sneak into a bery big house on far away side of town. Big ol' man lay in bed, snorin' and gruntin' like a fat rooter. On table next to him is boomer. Chalee bery scared, so he put it in his bag and leabe bery quick."
The little man walked over to a battered chest, opening it and rummaging around for a few moments. "Here! Here's boomer!" he declared, pulling out one of the new, hand-held Loton guns. Delana gasped, and even Carlson stepped back.
“It was a military officer’s,” whispered Delana.”You can tell by the insignia on the handle.”
Chalee pointed it at the wall next to Carlson and pulled the trigger. Carlson dove to the side and Delana yelled at Chalee. Nothing happened. "It broken," said Chalee with an apologetic smile. "Bery sorry to scare you, but it broken." Again he pulled the trigger.
"Chalee," Carlson said evenly, "put the gun down. Just put it on the floor, now." The little fellow recognized the serious tone and complied.
Carlson went over and picked the gun up. He examined it for a moment, finding what he thought was the safety catch, and switched it to the opposite position. He looked up. "You both stay here for a moment. I'll be right back."
He walked out the door, into the tunnel, pointed the pistol at the far wall and pulled the trigger.
There was that bright blue flash, and a six-inch section of concrete on the opposite wall exploded into dust and fragments.
"Not broken, Chalee," he muttered with a satisfied smile, "not broken at all."
Chalee generously produced a loaf of thick-crusted bread and what appeared to be some gamy-smelling but tasty cheese he had been saving, and after a quick meal they headed out into the bowels of the city, navigating into the gloom of the tunnels of ploop.