The Pirates of Ersatz-Fourty-Nine

The Pirates of Ersatz-Fourty-Nine

Absolutely nothing happened. Hoddan unstrapped himself from the pilot’s seat, examined his surroundings thoughtfully, and turned off the vision apparatus. He went back and examined the feeding arrangements of the boat. He’d had nothing to eat since breakfast in this same time-zone. The food in store was extremely easy to prepare and not especially appetizing. He ate with great deliberation, continuing to make plans which linked the necessities of the emigrants from Colin to his relationship to the government of Walden, the brief visit he’d made to Krim, the ship the emigrants would lend him and his unpopularity with Don Loris on Darth. He also thought very respectfully about his grandfather’s opinions on many subjects, including space-piracy. Hoddan found himself much more in agreement with his grandfather than he’d believed possible.

Outside the boat, birds which had dived to ground and cowered there during the boat’s descent now flew about again, their terror forgotten. Horses which had galloped wildly in their pastures, or kicked in panic in the castle stalls, returned to their oats and hay.

And there were human reactions. Don Loris had been in an excessively fretful state of mind since the conclusion of his deal with the pair from Walden. Hoddan had estimated that he ought to get a half-million credits for Hoddan delivered to Derec and the Waldenian police. He’d been unable to get the police official–Derec merely sat miserably by and said nothing–to promise more than half so much. But he’d closed the deal and sent for Hoddan–and Hoddan was gone.Now the landing of this spaceboat roused a lively uneasiness in Don Loris. It might be new bargainers for Hoddan. It might be anything. Hoddan had said he had a secret. This might be it. Don Loris vexedly tried to contrive some useful skulduggery without the information to base it on.

Fani looked at the spaceboat with bright eyes. Thal was back at the castle. He’d told her of Hoddan riding up to the spaceboat near another chieftain’s castle, entering it, and that then it had taken to the skies in an aura of flames and smoke and thunder. Fani hoped that he might have returned here in it. But she worried while she waited for him to do something.

Hoddan did nothing. The spaceboat gave no sign of life.

The sun set, and the sky twinkled with darting lights which flew toward the west and vanished. Twilight followed, and more lights flashed across the heavens as if pursuing the sun. Fani had learned to associate three and then nine such lights with spacecraft, but she could not dream of a fleet of hundreds. She dismissed the lights from her mind, being much more concerned with Hoddan. He would be in as bad a fix as ever if he came out of the boat.

Twilight remained, a fairy half-light in which all things looked much more charming than they really were. And Don Loris, reduced to peevish sputtering by pure mystery, summoned Thal to him. It should be remembered that Don Loris knew nothing of the disappearance of the spaceboat from his neighbor’s land. He knew nothing of Thal’s journey with Hoddan. But he did remember that Hoddan had seemed unworried at breakfast and explained his calm by saying that he had a secret. The feudal chieftain worried lest this spaceboat be it.”Thal,” said Don Loris peevishly, sitting beside the great fireplace in the enormous, draughty hall, “you know this Bron Hoddan better than anybody else.”

Thal breathed heavily. He turned pale.

“Where is he?” demanded Don Loris.

“I don’t know,” said Thal. It was true. So far as he was concerned, Hoddan had vanished into the sky.

“What does he plan to do?” demanded Don Loris.

“I don’t know,” said Thal helplessly.

“Where does that … that thing outside the castle come from?”

“I don’t know,” said Thal.

Don Loris drummed on the arm of his intricately carved chair.

“I don’t like people who don’t know things!” he said fretfully. “There must be somebody in that–thing. Why don’t they show themselves? What are they here for? Why did they come down–especially here? Because of Bron Hoddan?”

“I don’t know,” said Thal humbly.

“Then go find out!” snapped Don Loris. “Take a reasonable guard with you. The thing must have a door. Knock on it and ask who’s inside and why they came here. Tell them I sent you to ask.”

Thal saluted. With his teeth tending to chatter, he gathered a half-dozen of his fellows and went tramping out the castle gate. Some of the half dozen had been involved in the rescue of the Lady Fani from Ghek. They were still in a happy mood because of the plunder they’d brought back. It was much more than a mere retainer could usually hope for in a year.

“What’s this all about, Thal?” demanded one of them as Thal arranged them in two lines to make a proper military appearance, spears dressed upright and garrison-shields on their left arms.”Frrrrd _harch!_” barked Thal, and they swung into motion. “Two, three, four, _Hup_, two, three, four. _Hup_, two, three–” The cadence was established.

Thal said gloomily, “Don Loris said to find out who landed that thing out yonder. And he keeps asking me about Bron Hoddan, too.”

He strode in step with the others. The seven men made an impressively soldierly group, tramping away from the castle wall.

“What happened to him?” asked a rear-file man. He marched on, eyes front, chest out, spear-shaft swinging splendidly in time with his marching. “That lad has a nose for loot! Don’t take it himself, though. If he set up in business as a chieftain, now–“

“_Hup_, two, three, four,” muttered Thal. “_Hup_, two, three–“

“Don Loris’ a hard chieftain,” growled the right-hand man in the second file. “Plenty of grub and beer, but no fighting and no loot. I didn’t get to go with you characters the other day, but what you brought back–“

“Wasn’t half of what was there,” mourned a front-file man. “Wasn’t half! Those pistols he issued got shot out and we had to get outta there fast!… Hm-m-m…. Here’s this thing, Thal. What do we do with it?”

“Hrrrmp, _halt!_” barked Thal. He stared at the motionless, seemingly lifeless, shapeless spaceboat. He’d seen one like it earlier today. That one spouted fire and went up out of sight. He was wary of this one. He grumbled: “Those pipes in the back of it–steer clear of ’em. They spit fire. No door on this side. Don Loris said knock on the door. We go around the front. Frrrrd _harch!_ two, three, four, _hup_, two, three, four. Left turn here and mind those rocks. Don Loris’d give us hell if somebody fell down. Left turn again, _Hup_, two, three, four–“

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