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Written by Alan Dean Foster
Illustrated by Milivoj Ćeran
"You stupid idiot, you've killed us!"
Arik looked over at his new wife. "I love you too."
They sat on opposite sides of the cave. It was not much of a cave. At its highest the ceiling barely allowed him enough room to stand, and it could not have been more than six or seven meters wide. But compared to the frozen, howling wilderness outside it might as well have been the Garden of Eden. Strange fungal growths carpeted the surface of the interior with a subdued cerulean radiance while coiled flowerless scrubs no higher than a man's knee clustered as close to the bubbling central pool as possible. Twitching yellow-brown tendrils hung from the ceiling, reaching toward the heat. While individual specimens occasionally emitted a soft whistle, without pulling one free from its perch and taking it apart Arik was unable to tell if they were plant or animal. Jen refused to touch them.
One of several thermal springs that dotted the tiny island on which the cave was located, the hot pool was what was keeping the two humans as well as the exotic flora alive. While certain specialized growths like pika-pina and the much larger pika-pedan flourished out on the bare frozen oceans of Tran-ky-ky, rarer flora like the orange fiesin were restricted to locales where the ice world's internal heat reached the surface. The cloud of steam generated by one such thermal vent was what had initially drawn him and Jen to the island. A sister spring was also the cause of their present predicament.
Sitting back against the wall of the cave with his knees drawn up to his chest and his bare hands extended toward the life-preserving warmth of the bubbling spring, Arik reflected that their present desperate situation was not wholly his fault. The Tran who had rented them the small native iceboat should have provided more detailed advice about the possible dangers to be encountered out on the frozen ocean. Or perhaps he had, and Arik's translator had failed to interpret everything. The latter was not an impossibility. Not on a world that had only recently applied for associate Commonwealth membership, where the sale and use of advanced technology was still forbidden to the local sentients, and where along with so much else the study of the strongly guttural native language was still in its infancy.
Jen looked across at him. Having slipped out of the cheap daysuit, she was sitting nearly naked next to the pool. She would gladly have immersed herself if not for the fact that even at the edges its surface temperature was close to boiling.
Some choice they had, he mused. Poach in the pool inside the cave or freeze in the air outside it.
"We're not dead yet." He tried to reassure her.
"Might as well be." She was chewing on a fingernail. Because of the hot spring the air inside the cave was warm enough for them to remove their protective daysuits. Outside—outside was another matter entirely. Another world, in every sense of the word. Tran-ky-ky's vast oceans were frozen solid to varying but usually considerable depths, exposed earth crackled and snapped beneath one's boots, a gust of wind sent sharp pain racing through exposed eyes, and on a more intimate note the moisture in a person's nose caused the hairs to freeze almost instantly on contact with the air.
They had arrived as passengers on a wide-ranging interstellar transport, intending to visit this new outpost of the Commonwealth only for the couple of days the KK-drive craft spent off-loading cargo. When it reentered space plus on its way to the next system, they would go with it. It was a journey as unorthodox as it was costly. Interstellar travel was too expensive and time-consuming to allow people to journey lazily from system to system. Citizens traveled from point to point with very definite destinations in mind.
The atypical postwedding journey was a present from their respective families, each of whom happened to be quite wealthy. All the credit in the Commonwealth, however, had not prevented the new couple's rented iceboat from sinking.
How was he to have known that a subsurface fumarole had melted and weakened the ice close to the island where they had decided to come ashore? Or that anything called a "boat" would promptly sink when exposed to open water? In retrospect, of course, it all made perfect if disheartening sense. Designed to skim across the frozen sea on runners chiseled from solid marblelike stone, the craft had been built to skate, not to float. Why would anyone on Tran-ky-ky build something capable of floating when there was no open water for it to float upon? It was solid ice everywhere, solid ice all the time. Even if the material of which the iceboat had been fashioned had been sufficiently buoyant, the craft still would have been dragged down by the weight of its stone runners.
They had set out for the day trip from the outpost of Brass Monkey. Located not far north of the planetary equator, it was the headquarters of the sole humanx settlement on the planet. Journey farther north, they had been told, and the climate made functioning difficult for even those humans equipped with modern arctic gear. Far to the east lay the enormous volcano whose Tran name translated as The-Place-Where-the-Earth's-Blood-Burns. According to the small but steadily expanding information file on Tran-ky-ky, between the volcano and the mountainous lands of Arsudun where Brass Monkey was located lay a multitude of small islands. Some of these were home to distinctive biological environments abounding with endemic species, many of which had yet to be identified and scientifically described. The island on which they currently found themselves marooned was one such outpost of unique indigenous biological diversity.
He estimated that it was just past noon local time. He had to estimate because their communicators had gone down with the iceboat. He chose not to try to guess the temperature outside the cave. When they had arrived at the island his communicator had declared that the temperature was minus twenty-one centigrade with a wind chill double, possibly triple that. Cold enough to kill. Tonight it would drop to that point. Tomorrow morning—tomorrow it might not matter. Like everything else they had brought with them, their self-heating meals had gone down with the iceboat. Having been raised in a privileged family where only the quality and never the quantity of the food he had eaten had ever been in question he had no idea how long a person could survive sans nourishment. Even in the semiprotected environment of the cave.
Of course, if the spring that supplied the hot pool turned out to be inconsistent and chose to stop bubbling for awhile, the heat it provided would be quickly sucked from the small cavern. They would die swiftly and without having to worry about food.
"Visit some of the Commonwealth's most exotic locations before we settle down on Earth, you said. Experience the hard-to-see worlds while we're still young enough to do so in comfort, you said."
Muttering under her breath, Jen moved her feet closer to the bubbling pool. She wished she could ease her legs into the boiling water. Arik felt it was too risky. Reluctantly, she agreed with him. If the temperature rose suddenly she ran a real risk of being scalded. She had to settle for scooping her hands quickly in and out of the water and splashing her face and body.
"I didn't hear any violent objections from you when the trip was being organized," he shot back.
"I had this, in retrospect, unreasonable expectation that you might know what you were doing." One hand gestured in the direction of the cave opening. Outside, the wind sang subzero. "You could at least have had the sense to bring along our gear pack when we got off the boat."
Said gear pack, which held all their food, drinks, chemical reaction space heater, and most important of all any means of communicating with civilization, had gone down with the iceboat when it had fallen through the thin pane of ice that had been undermined by the hidden fumarole. At least they had water, though they dared not drink directly from the effervescent pool. It reeked of sulfur and other minerals. For all they knew, it was rich in dissolved arsenic. So they grabbed snow from outside the cave entrance and held it in their hands just above the hot mineral water until it melted.
They did not even have a cup, he reflected morosely.
"I didn't see you carrying anything off the boat when we came ashore," he reminded her accusingly.
"I didn't think we'd be here more than ten or fifteen minutes," she countered unhappily. "Half an hour at most."
He saw no point in arguing further. Mutual accusations accomplished nothing. Half an hour maximum. That had been the plan. It was no one's fault, certainly not his, that the subheated ice had given way beneath the modest weight of their iceboat. If they had been traveling airborne, now, in a proper skimmer . . . But the use of such advanced technology outside the boundaries of the station was forbidden.
He'd had no trouble navigating the simple single-sail iceboat. An experienced open-water sailor, he had found the native rigging not so very different from that of a small sailing vessel back home. The native Tran had been using multiple permutations of such craft for centuries. He and Jen had even had the opportunity to take a tour of its most recent elaboration, the massive icerigger Slanderscree that had been tied up in the harbor.
"Someone will find us," he assured her more gently. "We were supposed to have been back late yesterday afternoon. The native who rented us the iceboat will have informed the proper authorities."
Using spread fingers, she brushed out her shoulder-length blonde hair. Rich and beautiful, he thought as he looked at her. If someone did not find them today, by tomorrow she might be rich and dead. She would certainly make the more attractive corpse of the two.
"It's one thing for the people at the station to be informed that we're missing," she muttered unhappily. "It's another for someone to find us."
Rising, he walked around the small pool and sat down close to her. Her anger had moderated sufficiently so that this time she did not object. "Emergency position locators are designed to keep operating under severe conditions. Even submerged in ice water it could still be functioning."
"Unless harsh chemicals from the hot vent corroded it as soon as it sank."
Now why did she have to go and point that out, he asked himself? If their personal communicators and the locator that had been on the iceboat had failed, then no one would know where they were. While they had not traveled all that many kilometers from Brass Monkey, they had not sailed in a straight line. As tourists, they had taken their time and wandered around. They would be difficult to track even if the original angle of their departure had been observed and noted.
Unlike Jen, he had stayed dressed. Looking down, he checked the weather seals at wrists and ankles. The daysuit was designed to keep an individual comfortable while outside even in Tran-ky-ky's climate. But the chemicals in the fabric that combined to generate heat when the suit was put on were intended to last no more than a couple of days. In contrast, a fully powered cold climate survival suit of the type worn by the scientists at the outpost would use a combination of solar, chemical, cell, and the body's own internal heat to keep a traveler warm indefinitely.
But why would anyone need one of the bulkier, more expensive survival suits just to go out for a midday jaunt? A simpler, cheaper, disposable daysuit would serve perfectly well.
For a day.
He started to shiver. "We're going to have to risk bathing in a shallow part of the pool. Near the far edge." He nodded. "The water temperature is tolerable there."
"We'll step in together." He revised his suggestion.
"Not a chance, Arik. If you suddenly start to cook, I need to be able to pull you out. And vice versa when it's my turn." She eyed him evenly. "And don't say anything to me about how romantic a mutual dip would be. I'm not in the mood."
Their present situation was not, he decided, what was generally meant when a relationship was described as blowing hot and cold. He edged over until he was sitting up against her. His left arm went around her shoulder.
"Look, I'm sorry, okay? The information file on this world said the oceans here never melt. Nothing was said about keeping an eye out for liquid water in the vicinity of volcanic activity." He hugged her. This time she leaned into him instead of away, which was encouraging. Or maybe she was just looking for a little extra warmth.
"We're going to die," she reiterated glumly. "Married less than two months and I'm going to die."
"Someone will find us. They must have started searching this morning, even in this weather, and—"
As if in direct response to his encouraging words a shape appeared outside the entrance to the cave. Springing to his feet and bending over to avoid bumping into the low ceiling, he started excitedly forward.
"See, I told you!" he called back to the equally excited Jen. "Everything'll be all right now. Hey!" Slipping his gloves back on and resealing them to the wrists of the daysuit he started forward while waving his hands. "Hey, we're in here! We're okay!" Behind him, Jen was hastily climbing into her own suit.
The shape stopped and turned to look at him. It was a big man. No, he quickly corrected himself, it was bigger than a man. Its ventral side narrowed to a sharp V-shape where bone had fused to form a solid keel. A pair of legs on either side resembled hairy flippers that terminated in downward-curving double spikes. There was no neck. Jutting out from the stout cylindrical body, the tapering head terminated in a wide, flat mouth suitable for snatching things off the ice. The jaws were filled with curved, hooklike teeth that pointed in all directions, designed to impale and hold squirming, fast-moving prey. Protected by double transparent eyelids, both pale green eyes focused avidly on Arik.
Behind him Jen inhaled sharply. Neither of them had any idea what the creature was. They did not remember it from the very limited guide. Evolved to live and thrive on naked ice, Tran-ky-ky's fauna was as exotic as its flora. From the look of it, this particular carnivore probably traveled by lying on its skatelike keel bone and pulling itself forward by jamming its cramponish flipper-spikes into the ice. That it could also drag itself forward on solid ground was self-evident from the way it now began to pull itself into the cave. It was likely, Arik decided as he retreated, that the menacing beast was not nearly as agile on land as it was out on the open ice.
It was, however, plenty big enough to completely block the only exit.
As it shoved its head farther into the cave opening it emitted a deep, reverberant moan that sounded more like the cry of something giving birth subsequent to a delayed pregnancy than it did a predatory challenge.
"Do something!" Jen yelled as she hurriedly resealed her gloves.
Keeping one eye on the lurching, advancing predator, Arik searched the cave as he continued to back up. They had no weapons. What would anyone need with weapons on a one-day sightseeing trip? It was a moot regret. Even if they had brought one along it would have gone down on the iceboat with the rest of their equipment.
Jen picked up a rock and threw it. It produced a reverberant thunk as it struck the intruder, the same kind of dull sound she had heard when she had once been forced to slap an over-amorous dolphin.
The stone bounced off the carnivore exactly as if it had hit a hunk of solid rubber. Hacking up another eager moan, the creature continued to drag itself deeper into the cave. Its bulk scoured gravel and rock dust from the walls. There was no possible way they could get around it.
"Keep the pool between it and us!" Arik had retreated to join Jen and take her hand. He squeezed it firmly and she replied in kind. "It's adapted to permanent cold, so it might avoid the hot water. If it comes at us from the left, we go right. If it comes right, we make a run for it around the other side of the pool."
"Great," she commented dryly. "Then what?"
Then—they would be outside, he realized. In their failing daysuits. Could the creature run them down? And if so, would it start to consume them before they froze and died?
Arching back its head, the intruder bellowed sharply. It was a completely different sound from the enthusiastic moaning it had been emitting thus far. The source of the cry soon became apparent.
First one spear, then a second, then two more struck the animal from behind, the sharp points driving deeply into the thickly insulated flesh. As the beleaguered creature roared and bellowed in pain it rocked back and forth against the walls of the cave. Stone shards and ice crystals broke loose. The creature's dying cacophony was awful to hear. A dust cloud of pulverized rock filled the cavity that housed the pool, causing both humans to break out coughing.
It took twenty minutes for the embattled carnivore to die. Then all was silent except for the hot spring's persistent bubbling and the whine of the wind outside.
Waving dust away from his face, Arik advanced cautiously toward the exit. Something he could not see was pulling the now deceased beast backwards and out of the cave. He strained for a better look.
"It's okay," he told Jen. "I can count spears sticking out of it." His heart leaped. "It has to be the natives. We're saved!"
There were half a dozen of them; tall, densely furred, dressed in heavy, well-made clothing fashioned of wind-breaking leathers and the cured skins of lesser fauna. Large furry ears stuck out from the sides of their heads while oval catlike eyes gazed into the wind from behind double lids. Two of them boasted beards that blended without a break into the fur that covered their elongated faces. The membranous dan that formed wind-catching wings hung limp from wrists to waists.
Sharp knives emerged from scabbards and flashed in the brilliant sunlight as they began to cut up the dead carnivore. Sunlight glinted off the extended, backward curving claws on their feet. Called chiv, these remarkable evolutionary adaptations allowed the Tran to skate on their bare feet across the endless expanses of ice.
Arik was so relieved to see them that when he hurried outside he did not even bother to snap down his protective face shield. "Hello, hello! O'Morion, are we glad to see you! We've been stuck here for—"
The fist that struck him was as unyielding as it was unexpected. When his momentarily blurred vision cleared again it was to reveal two of the natives standing over him, swords drawn. Piercing eyes that were feline yet alien bored into his own. He ignored the chill that was creeping over his face.
"Hey, what's the idea? What . . . ?" He started to rise.
One of the Tran put a foot on his chest and shoved. Gently, or the triple razor-sharp chiv on the bottom of his foot would have sliced into the human's daysuit. The pair of armed locals began chattering animatedly among themselves. Though Arik knew nothing of the local language, the tone of the natives' conversation did not strike him as cordial.
Looking to his right he saw that two more of them were dragging Jen out of the cave. She'd had the foresight to flip down her face shield. Behind her the remaining pair of Tran continued to work on the carcass of the dead predator.
"Keep calm," he called to her. He thought frantically back to what he had read of this world. Despite its recent application for associate Commonwealth membership, many of the natives of Tran-ky-ky still lived in a semifeudal society. It was said that there still remained a number to be convinced of the benefits of Commonwealth membership. Not all had voted in favor of it.
Could it be, he found himself thinking uneasily, that those who had landed on the island might just possibly fall into the latter social group?
With only primitive blades at their disposal two of them were rapidly reducing the remains of the dead carnivore to chops, steaks, and the equivalent of local cuts. Steam rose from the gaping, disemboweled corpse. Would he and Jen be next?
After cleaning his blade in the snow and then wiping it dry against his gray jerkin, the tallest Tran scabbarded it and walked over to gaze down at the humans. As the alien approached, Jen stepped slightly behind her husband where he lay on the ground. They eyed the natives warily. After inspecting them both, the knife wielder focused yellow eyes on Arik. At a gesture, the Tran with a foot on the human's chest stepped back and allowed him to stand.
"I hight Signur Draz-hode." Though he sounded as if he was talking with a mouthful of molasses, the Tran's terranglo was quite intelligible. With a clawed hand he indicated his companions. As he raised his arm, his right dan unfurled like half a translucent cape "We are kurgals of the Virin Clan." Leaning forward, he studied the two humans more closely. "Though you have not the look of invaders, that does not absolve you."
"Invaders?" Behind her face shield, Jen blinked. "We're not invaders."
"We're tourists," Arik added helpfully.
"'Tourists'?" The Virin Signur Draz-hode's command of terranglo was not perfect.
"Visitors," Jen explained. "Sightseers. Casual travelers who are here for only a day to see some of your unique world. To enjoy its ice oceans and snow-covered mountains, its plant and animal life." Maintaining a smile, she nodded in the direction of the gutted, steaming carcass nearby. "Like that."
Straightening, Draz-hode turned into the wind to eye the corpse. Fully adapted to the unrelenting climate, he needed no face shield. "A sodj? There is nothing unique about a sodj. Even in taste it is ordinary. But it was the best we could find on this hunting journey." He looked back at her. "Until now."
"Until . . . ?" She swallowed hard. "You're—you're going to eat us?"
It took a moment for the Tran to dissolve the human words in his mind. When he finally did, he howled with laughter. At least, Arik assumed it was laughter. It certainly was a howl. When the Tran translated for his hunting companions, they promptly mimicked his vocalization. To Arik it sounded like a chorus of tenors warming up for a concert by engaging in a coughing contest.
Eventually Draz-hode recovered sufficiently to regard the female human once more. "We might—later. For now, we have the sodj. You are invaders. You come to our world and turn everything upside town. You insist we make a government not of peoples and clans but of all mixed together without regard to history or honor. You trample tradition under your soft, chiv-less feet!"
"We don't," Jen argued as forcefully as she dared. "We don't trample anything. We're not politicians. We're just tourists."
"You'll be better off as citizens of the Commonwealth," Arik could not resist saying. "You'll have modern conveniences, medicine, technology, exposure to the arts and culture of other races—"
Draz-hode interrupted him roughly. "Who asked for the things of which you speak? Not I. Not the Virin. Yet your allies and our traditional enemies try to force them upon us. So be it. The Virin can adapt to new circumstances without foregoing the old. You wish to see some of our 'unique' world? You will be given that opportunity." He added something in the guttural yet attractive local tongue.
His companions came forward. Using cord woven from strips of pika-pedan they secured the prisoners' arms behind their backs. One of the natives automatically started to furl the dan he expected to see running from Arik's waist up to his arm before remembering that humans did not possess the tough membrane that allowed the Tran to speed across the ice with only the wind at their backs to propel them.
"What are you going to do with us?" a worried Arik asked their captor.
Draz-hode did not hesitate. "Ransom. It is an old and venerable custom among our kind. We will find out if it operates similarly among your people." He exposed sharp teeth. "Call it cultural exchange."
"We've traveled here on our own," Jen put in. "It would take a long time to work out the details of such a trade."
Walking up to the female human, Draz-hode bent forward so that his face was close to hers. For a second time, he showed his teeth. "In that eventuality we will find out how you taste. If it turns out that you are not worth money, you will still be valuable as food."
As he and Jen were marched down the uneven slope toward the waiting iceboat Arik noted that their captors did not bind their legs. There was no need. If they did somehow manage to escape they could not possibly walk all the way back to Brass Monkey. They could not walk, period. Unlike the Tran whose razor-sharp chiv protruded from the undersides of their feet, the boots he and Jen were wearing would find them slipping and sliding all over the ice if they tried to hike more than a few meters.
Their captors' iceboat was considerably bigger than his and Jen's day rental. It had a higher mast, a crude bowsprit equipped with a foresheet, a pika-pedan railing, and a much larger central cabin. Essentially an arrowhead-shaped raft mounted on runners of cut and polished stone, it also featured a pointed stern to which a fourth runner was attached. Unlike the three forward runners that were fixed in position, the one aft was attached to a tiller that served to steer the craft.
With proportionately longer arms than a human, the lean and muscular Virin had no trouble hauling their prisoners up onto the open raft. Once all were aboard, the single square sail was let out. As soon as the boat cleared the lee of the island and encountered a steady breeze it began to rapidly pick up speed.
"Don't worry," Arik whispered to his new wife. "One of the search parties will find us."
She glared moodily back at him. "First, you're assuming there are search parties out looking for us. Second, you're assuming at least one of them will have some idea where to look. Third, at the speed we're making now we'll soon be far from any hypothetical area where any hypothetical search party might choose to hypothetically search. Fourth, you're an idiot."
Lying on his side on the rough-hewn deck of the iceboat, hands bound behind him, he pondered her reaction. "Do you want a divorce?"
"You really are an idiot," she snapped. "Or maybe just a man. I know that you love me, really and for certain. I'd rather be married to an idiot who I know truly loves me than a genius who thinks of me as little more than an ornament to his own brilliance. Or," she added, "just because I'm beautiful and rich."
"I'm rich, too," he protested.
"Lot of good it does us now," she ruminated. "Both of our families have the means to ransom us. That won't matter because it's likely we'll freeze to death before the necessary arrangements can be made." It was not necessary for her to see the color-coded heat-sensitive readout that was part of the fabric of her daysuit's left arm to know that the integrated chemical reaction that kept the suit warm would have run the last of its reactive course by morning. Then they would find themselves clad in suits that kept out the wind but not the bitter cold. If the temperature hovered a few degrees below freezing they might still be able to survive.
This, however, was Tran-ky-ky—not some comfortable ski resort on one of the developed worlds. Native clothing—a lot of native clothing—would certainly help. How distant lay the abode of the Virin? Could they get there before they froze?
By evening they were far from the little island of the hot springs—and presumably also well beyond the area likely to be checked by any wandering search parties. Within the failing suits a cold-induced lethargy had begun to take hold. In this reduced state of awareness they were barely able to appreciate the stunning sunset as Tran-ky-ky's star, warm and bright as Earth's but more distant, began to set in a sky as stridently blue as cornflower sapphire. The glare of sunlight ricocheting off the surface of the ice ocean forced them to look away.
Leastwise it did until one of their captors left his position abaft and walked forward to the starboard railing. Halting there he squinted into the distance, toward the setting sun, before letting out a roar that made even the two humans jump. In response, his comrades flew into a frenzy of action. Racing back to the stern, Draz-hode joined the steersman in leaning hard on the tiller. The iceboat heeled over dangerously, its starboard runner actually rising up off the ice. Running to that side, two of the crew grabbed pika-pina ropes and heeled out, lending their weight to the ascending side of the craft. Slowly, gradually, the runner in the air dropped down until it once more was in contact with the ice.
The rest of the crew was racing to break out a second triangular sail. It was not quite a spinnaker, but it did allow the iceboat to put on additional speed. The sturdy craft was traveling with the wind nearly full behind it now. Draz-hode's intent was clearly to make speed as opposed to maintaining his original course. The reason for this soon became apparent.
They were being chased by a mountain—and a forested one at that.
Arik could see Jen's eyes widen behind her face shield. He wondered if she could see his. Were they as reflective of the shock he was feeling at the sight of what was bearing down on them? The alarm evident in the actions and expressions of their captors was hardly a consolation. If those sailing the iceboat died, so would their involuntary passengers.
One of the reasons he and Jen had come to Tran-ky-ky was to observe the local wildlife—but not like this.
Closing on the fleeing iceboat was an enormous lump of ivory-hued flesh. Slashes of gray and pale blue streaked its deeply ribbed flanks. What at a distance had appeared to be trees turned out to be wind-blown growths of another kind. Evolution had caused a dozen or so huge fins to grow wider, higher, and thinner. No longer required by nature to push water, they now caught air like so many macrobiotic blades. The monster had no limbs. It had no eyes or ears. What it did have was a dozen or more integral "sails" protruding from its back and sides. Also a cavernous mouth large and dark enough to swallow the fleeing iceboat whole.
Projecting forward and out from the top of the blunt-headed alien atrocity was a distinctive fleshy organ the size of a bus and the color of an irritated blister. Eyeing the bizarre growth, Arik found himself wondering how the creature could locate prey without eyes to see, ears to hear, or nostrils to smell. What senses were left?
This was Tran-ky-ky, he reminded himself. Where everything was frozen solid except for isolated areas of volcanism and—living, organic beings. Not being versed in the tenets of exobiology he could not be certain, but it seemed to him a reasonable assumption the massive protuberance that dominated the head of the oncoming creature might have evolved to detect the heat given off by living things.
Ironically, while the energetic kurgal of Virin were radiating heat like mad, the predator might not be able to sense either him or Jen because their body heat was bottled within their daysuits. Under different circumstances, it might utterly ignore them.
Despite the best efforts of Draz-hode and his crew the gap continued to close between the fleeing iceboat and that enormous mouth. It seemed impossible that something so massive, florid, and alien could travel so fast. What on earth—or rather on ice—enabled it to do so? It was not until it was almost upon them that the fading daylight allowed him to make out the layer of glistening liquid that bubbled and frothed around the creature's underside.
He remembered what little he and Jen had been able to learn about Tran-ky-ky's remarkable fauna. The key to survival of many species was the presence in their blood of highly evolved complex glycoproteins. These naturally occurring organic antifreezes kept the bodily fluids of everything from the lowliest ice-burrower to the Tran themselves from freezing when temperatures dropped precipitously. He could now see for himself that when exuded from special organs located in the monster's underside, they could also be employed for purposes of lubrication. The monster produced and secreted a glycoproteinetic fluid that provided a continuously replenished low-friction liquid cushion between itself and the ice. Or at least it did so when it needed to make speed to capture food.
Some predators relied on venom to snare their prey, others on natural glues, others on extensible tongues or claws. This was the first he had seen that relied on slime.
Realizing that despite their best efforts they were about to be overtaken, two of the crew disappeared into the central cabin. They reemerged moments later bearing armfuls of spears. Arik could not imagine the metal-tipped shafts having much effect against the looming monster. He wished only that his and Jen's hands were not bound. Not that it really mattered. Even if the creature did not eat them, even if it smashed the iceboat but subsequently ignored them, they would be marooned out on the vastness of the open ice ocean, unable to walk to a destination even if one happened to be in sight.
Then, abruptly and unexpectedly, the gargantuan predator veered off to the right. Spears in hand, the two Tran looked on in bewildered silence as the predator pulled up next to them. It made no move to swallow, crush, or otherwise attack the iceboat. Holding onto the tiller for dear life, Draz-hode and his steersman maintained their present course. They did not want to do anything to startle or disturb the speeding hulk that had inexplicably drawn harmlessly alongside. In any case, changing course would have meant losing wind and therefore sacrificing speed.
The monster began to drift away to port. On board the iceboat the baffled but relieved Tran allowed themselves to relax ever so slightly. It was then that the giant landed in their midst.
Gray beard flying in the wind, face shield flipped up in defiance of the elements, he had leaped from behind one of the monster's stiff-spined sails with a pistol clasped in his massive left hand. Shod in boots and not fur, his enormous feet were devoid of ice-cutting chiv. Spears flew and swords were drawn. The iceboat was crewed by six warriors of the Virin, bold and true. In such close quarters the single modern weapon brandished by the arriving apparition did not enjoy the advantage it would have held at a distance.
On the other hand, Arik saw as he did his best to stay out of the way, the new arrival was taller even than the Tran, and far more stout. The man stood well over two meters tall and must have weighed close to two hundred kilos. This explained how he was able to pick up one warrior and throw him into a pair of his companions as easily as Arik would have tossed a ball.
One of the walloped was the steersman, who had remained at his post. Struck senseless, he fell forward onto the tiller. The iceboat promptly heeled hard over to starboard. With the remaining Virin occupied in trying to swarm the giant there was no one to haul out on the lines. The iceboat's starboard runner came up, up off the ice. Arik felt himself loosing his balance, falling, and rolling helplessly down the now sharply tilting deck. Somewhere nearby, Jen screamed.
Darkness arrived before the sun had time to set.
* * *
A light that was bright teased his consciousness back to wakefulness. Faintly, Arik remembered that a bright light was what dead people supposedly saw before they passed into nothingness or onward to another plane of existence. As his vision cleared he saw that the light was coming from a fire. That was probably not what dying people saw, he decided. Optimism restored, he sat up.
He was sitting on a piece of flat woody material. An unmoving Jen lay on another alongside him. As he cried out, a voice that was ridiculously deep but not ponderous addressed him from the other side of the crackling blaze.
"Take it easy, young feller-me-lad. She ain't dead. Dreaming maybe, but not dead."
Placing his hands on his spouse, Arik was able to reassure himself that the words spoke the truth. He was further persuaded when she began to moan softly. At that point he thought it might be expeditious to have a closer look at the source of the voice.
Seated on the far side of the fire, the giant who had leaped from the back of the monster onto the deck of the iceboat fed another piece of that shattered craft into the blaze. Moonglow highlighted the rest of the nearby wreckage. The spectral pile of splintered pika-pedan glittered with ice crystals. Of the monster that had chased them down there was no sign.
"September," the big man rumbled around a mouthful of food.
"Actually," Arik replied as he tried to get comfortable on the rough board that elevated his backside above the treacherous ice, "I think it's still July."
The giant let out a snort. "No, feller-me-lad—I'm September. You can call me Skua. Don't know why I should let you, though. By rights you at least owe me proper formalities."
"We owe you everything, I should think, Mr. Sep—Skua. You saved our lives."
"I've gone and saved your behinds," the big man grunted through his flaring gray beard. Barely detectible beneath overhanging brows, his eyes were as blue as the sky of Tran-ky-ky. "As to your lives, those remain hanging in the balance unless we can get you back to Brass Monkey before you freeze. Tomorrow we'll know if it's all one way or all the other."
Jen blinked and sat up sharply. Arik was delighted to see that the integrity of her daysuit had not been compromised and that she appeared to be unhurt. As for himself, he was bruised from head to toe, but nothing seemed to be broken. Hugging Jen tightly to him as she put both hands to her head, he looked back at the giant.
"You sound upset," he ventured.
"Upset?" Arik thought the big man's gaze was going to cut right through him. "'Pon my word, young feller-me-lad, you've no notion of what you've cost me, do you?"
Arik swallowed. Had they been saved from the Virin of kurgal only to find themselves in the hands of a madman of their own species? "Whatever it is, sir, my wife and I will do our best to make it up to you if you'll just help us to get back to the outpost."
"Bollocks and botheration!" the giant snapped. "What I should have done was left the both of you fools to ice cube yourselves out here. You've cost me time, is what you've cost me. How d'you expect to pay that back?" He turned suddenly wistful. "I was all set to take transport away on the same ship that brought you here. Now I expect it has vacated orbit and gone on its merry changeover way."
"No it hasn't." Returned to full awareness once more, Jen spoke up.
The giant glanced over at her. "No offense, young lass, but I don't see any KK-drive vessel out this way flouting its schedule on my behalf."
"Not your behalf, sir. On ours." She favored Arik with an unexpectedly affectionate look. "My new idiot husband and I are not particularly important people, but we do come from families of some importance. I don't think the ship will leave without us, or at least not until our deaths should be confirmed."
Skua September glared at her. "I'm afraid you have a disproportionately elevated opinion of yourself, young miss. It's been my humble experience that starships don't hang around waiting on tardy passengers. No matter who their daddy is."
Daring to raise her face shield, she flashed blue eyes of her own at him. "I don't like to think that wealth makes me arrogant. Just realistic."
Arik stepped back into the conversation. "We might anyway have a few days before the ship's captain feels he has to depart. How soon can you get us back to the station?"
September considered. "I'll do my best, young feller-me-lad. Out of personal interest as much for your sake. I didn't come out here with the intention of returning with a block of honeymooning ice in tow." He smiled. "Yes, I know about that. I just wouldn't hold out hope that you'll be leaving this paradise quite as soon as you'd like."
"Whatever happens, we're in your debt, Skua."
"Your goddamn debt's got nothing to do with it. The sooner we get back, the better the chance I have of making that ship."
"If you don't mind my asking," Arik began as he started to shiver uncontrollably, "how did you find us? And that creature you were riding . . . ?"
Rising, the giant disappeared into the darkness. When he returned he was carrying an armful of rough-hewn Tran clothing. "Here, put these on as best you can over those failing daysuits. You'll find the native attire surprisingly insulating." Sitting back down beside the fire, he used a Tran knife to slice off another chunk of charred meat and shove it into his mouth. Melting grease dribbled off his lips to stain his beard.
"When you didn't check back in to your accommodations last night or return your rented iceboat, Ms. Stanhope—she's the resident Commonwealth commissioner for Tran-ky-ky—sent out a couple of skimmers to look for you. By law and Church edict that kind of technology is not supposed to travel beyond Brass Monkey until this world's application for associate membership has been vetted and approved. Given the circumstances, she decided to allow an exception so a proper search could be conducted. Since she has less than half a dozen operatives assigned to her staff, the commissioner also asked for Tran and human volunteers to join the search.
"Unsurprisingly, the local Tran have no interest in wasting time looking for a couple of humans dim-witted enough to lose themselves out on the ice. Those more noble Tran who might have taken the time aren't around right now. They're back home north of here in Arsudun. Needless to say, no humans volunteered—they're not dumber than the natives. However you don't get to be a Resident Commissioner, even for an ends-of-the-galaxy iceball like Tran-ky-ky, unless you know how to manipulate hearts and minds. A few of my friends and I have invested quite a bit of time and energy in helping the locals reach the point where they qualify to apply for associate membership in the Commonwealth. Commissioner Stanhope, the old dear, bluntly pointed out that the deaths of an attractive young couple such as yourselves following so soon upon such a submission would reflect badly on the formal application." He spat to one side. "Politics!"
"So she appealed to your sense of honor," Jen remarked.
"'Pon my word she did. Fortunately for you, that was not all she relied upon. Other words were spoken. 'Reward' being among them, I decided it was worth burning a day or two looking for you.
"Having spent some time on this world and acquired an understanding of certain of its ways, I managed to track your wandering iceboat's tracks to a hot spring island. There I found evidence pointing to the recent visit of a clandestine native hunting party. Also human spoor, but no sign of your rented craft or you. Knowing what I do about the Tran, I came to some assumptions. Iceboat tracks leading straightaway from Arsudun and not just from the island confirmed my suspicions.
"That presented a new problem. I knew that no matter how fast and low I came up in a modern skimmer on you and your new friends, they would have ample time to put knives to your throats before I could be certain of taking all of them out, or even talking to them. I was at a bit of a loss how to proceed until I came across the solitary tarqan.
"Now, a tarqan's dangerous when it's on the move, but not so much when it's feeding. I managed to sneak up on that one. Adept Tran can pretty well steer them where they want them to go by applying heat to certain areas of their body. I had some chemical instant heat paks in the skimmer's supply locker. They did the job. I knew the hunting party that had taken you would respond defensively to an approach by a tarqan, but they wouldn't connect its presence to you or to a rescue attempt. In the fading daylight I was able to draw close without being seen. After that I was able to get in among them before they had time to realize what was happening.
"I would've preferred to stay on the tarqan and pick them off from a distance, but I knew that before I could get them all," he concluded as casually as if describing a day's excursion in a park, "they would have had plenty of time to cut off your heads."
He bit back down into whatever it was that he had cooked over the fire. Arik's stomach chose that moment to say hello and, by the way, he was starving, and could he perhaps do something about it? Jen was undoubtedly no better off.
"Could I ask you . . ." He indicated the hunk of well-seared flesh. It smelled wonderful. "Jen and I haven't had anything to eat since yesterday." He tried hard not to salivate, knowing that if he did so dripping saliva would freeze hard to his lower lip and chin.
"Bless my soul, I've forgotten my manners." From the lump he was chewing on, September promptly carved off slices of cooked flesh for both of them.
Arik bit hungrily into his. Next to him Jen was chowing down with an enthusiasm that was anything but ladylike. With a flavor that was somewhere between pork and undercooked beef, the blackened flesh was delicious.
"I'm surprised that you would have room in your backpack for raw meat," he observed, "though on second thought I suppose keeping it frozen isn't a problem here."
"It ain't frozen, feller-me-lad," September informed him casually. "It's fresh."
"Fresh?" Jen stared at the giant, her slab of seared flesh halfway to her lips. "Fresh what? Some local food?"
"In a manner of speaking, young lass." September nodded in the direction of the destroyed Virin iceboat. "In a difficult situation on a world like this one makes use of whatever is available. Not just here on Tran-ky-ky. I've been in awkward circumstances before and if there's one thing I've learned in the course of a tolerably long lifetime, it's that meat is meat."
Rising slightly from his sitting position, Arik was able to get a better look at what lay just beyond the fire. Along with the giant's pack and pistol he was able to make out a larger, more irregular object. It was the corpse of the Virin commander Draz-hode.
It had been neatly and very professionally butchered.
Slowly, he removed a half-chewed piece of meat from his mouth. In the flickering light from the fire it looked exactly like any other piece of cooked meat. Next to him, Jen had not so much as paused in her voracious masticating despite September's matter-of-fact identification of what it was that she was consuming.
This is not impossible, he admonished himself sternly. All you had to do was turn off your brain while leaving your digestive system running. Slipping the meat back between his lips he resumed chewing while simultaneously doing his best to stop thinking. His stomach thanked him.
To help take his mind off the fact that he was violating two and possible four of the principle canons of contemporary civilized behavior, he confronted the giant with a question that had been bothering him for a while now.
"Why are we sitting here eating in the dark and the cold like this? Why haven't you signaled your skimmer to come fetch us and take us back to the station?"
By way of reply September unfastened one of his sturdy survival suit's external pockets. Removing a small handful of electronics, he tossed them across the fire. Arik had to drop his deviant steak to make the catch. Still, several of the pieces missed his fingers to scatter on the ice. Too many pieces, he thought with sudden unease.
"This component is broken," he murmured as he and Jen studied the debris.
September nodded. "Sure can't fool you, young feller-me-lad. During the dust-up, that module took the full force of a blow from a Tran battle-axe. The flat side of the axe, fortunately. Only bruised me, but it sure made a mess of my communicator."
Jen gaped at him. "So we're marooned again? Except that now there's three of us, and we're that much farther from Brass Monkey?"
"It is a bit of a hike back, yes." Setting his food aside, September reached behind him and hauled his backpack into the firelight. From its depths he withdrew a pair of enormous ice skates. The blades were not stone, and had been fashioned out of duralloy or some similar metal.
"Local government issue. Wish I'd had them with me a year ago." Illustrating how they fit, he slipped one over the integrated right boot of his survival suit. Wiggling it caused the triple blades to catch the light of the fire. It dawned on Arik that the skate's design had been modeled after a Tran foot.
"Special coating baked onto the blades reduces friction to next to nothing," September told them proudly. "You can make pretty good time with a pair of these. And with this." Digging into the pack once more he pulled out a thin sheet of carboflex. A contiguous seal was visible along the edge.
"This attaches to a survival suit. Fits in a roll over your arms and across your back. Mimics Tran dan." Extending both long arms out to his sides he made slightly awkward flapping motions. "Catches the wind and propels you across the ice. Just like one of the natives."
"Clever." Jen eyed the commodious pack. "Where's ours?"
"Well now, lass, that does present a bit of a problem. This is emergency gear. It's intended to allow someone who knows what they're doing to maybe make it back to civilization in the event of a complete skimmer or iceboat breakdown. I'm afraid I only have the one set, for me."
The newlyweds exchanged a glance. "Then what are we to do?" Arik asked. "Wait here for you to return with your skimmer?"
"Hardly. There are enough fancy ice sculptures in Brass Monkey without adding the two of you to the gallery. You're coming with me."
"How?" Jen considered their rescuer's size. "Can you carry us?"
"Not while trying to stay upright on the ice while maneuvering artificial dan. But in the course of the past year I've gotten pretty good at improvising."
The flat ice-skid the big man threw together from the wreckage of the Virin iceboat was uncomfortable and fragile. At any moment Arik expected it to come apart under him and Jen. Salvaged pika-pedan ropes attached it to September's waist. With his arms held outspread and the artificial dan attached at wrist, arms, sides and waist, he could both pull the sled and catch the ubiquitous wind.
Though they started out slow, soon the three of them were all but flying across the ice. Buried beneath appropriated Tran clothing and eyeing September through his protective face mask, Arik wondered how long the giant could keep his arms extended straight out to the sides. Long enough, it developed, for the skid's two recumbent passengers to feel more bumps and jolts than they had before in their lives.
By the time they reached the small cold spire of an island where September had parked his skimmer, the both of them were sore from head to heel. Though their rented daysuits had by now chemically redlined, the layers of Tran fur and leather taken from their dead abductors had kept them from freezing. Aching and exhausted, they stumbled gratefully into the waiting warmth of the skimmer's interior. With the inadequate pilot's seat groaning beneath his weight, September set a course back to the Commonwealth outpost.
There they discovered that the giant had been right about something else. Commercial KK-drive ships did not linger on behalf of passengers who missed their assigned shuttle. Not even on behalf of rich ones. The next starship was not due to visit Tran-ky-ky for a month. Until then the newlyweds would have to listen like everyone else to their rescuer grumble and complain as he stalked the heated halls of the station. They would have to endure this just as they would have to endure surroundings that were considerably less appealing than those they had planned to enjoy on the balance of their travels. At least, however, they were alive and had each other.
Even if it was for as frigid a honeymoon as any two citizens of the Commonwealth had ever experienced.
* * *
Alan Dean Foster is the author of many novels and short stories. “Chilling” is a story in Alan Dean Foster’s Tran-ky-ky setting. The novels in that setting are Icerigger, Mission to Moulokin and The Deluge Drivers.