The Pirates of Ersatz-Thirty-Five
The direction of motion through the night now changed. The long line of horses moved in deepest darkness, lessened only by the light of many stars. Even so, in time one’s eyes grew accustomed and it was a glamorous spectacle–twenty-eight beasts moving through dark defiles and over steep passes among the rugged, ragged hills. From any one spot they seemed at once to swagger and to slink, swaying as they moved on and vanished into obscurity. The small wild things in the night paused affrightedly in their scurryings until they had gone far away.
Fani said in a soft voice:
“This is nice!”
“What’s nice about it?” demanded Hoddan.
“Riding like this,” said Fani enthusiastically, “with men who have fought for me to guard me in the darkness, with the leader who has rescued me by my side, underneath the stars– It’s a delicious feeling!”
“You’re used to riding horseback,” said Hoddan dourly.He rode on, while mountains stabbed skyward and the pass they followed wound this way and that and he knew that it was a very roundabout way indeed. And he had unpleasing prospects to make it seem less satisfying, even, than it would have been otherwise.
But they came, at last, to a narrow defile which opened out before them and there were no more mountains ahead, but only foothills. And there, far and far away, they could see the sky as vaguely brighter. As they went on, indeed, a glory of red and golden colorings appeared at the horizon.
And out of that magnificence three bright lights suddenly darted. In strict V-formation, they flashed from the sunrise toward the west. They went overhead, more brilliant than the brightest stars, and when partway down to the horizon they suddenly winked out.
“What on Earth are they?” demanded Fani. “I never saw anything like that before!”
“They’re spaceships in orbit,” said Hoddan. He was as astounded as the girl, but for a different reason. “I thought they’d be landed by now!”
It changed everything. He could not see what the change amounted to, but change there was. For one thing–
“We’re going to the spaceport,” he told Thal curtly. “We’ll recharge our stun-pistols there. I thought those ships had landed. They haven’t. Now we’ll see if we can keep them aloft! How far to the landing grid?”
“You insisted,” complained Thal, “that we not go back to Don Loris’ castle by the way we left it. There are only so many passes through the hills. The only other one is very long. We are only four miles–“”Then we head there right now!” snapped Hoddan. “And we step up the speed!”
He barked commands to his followers. Thal, puzzled but in dread of acid comment from Fani, bustled up and down the line of men, insisting on a faster pace. And the members of the cavalcade had not pushed these animals as they had their first. Even the lead horses, loaded with loot, managed to get up to a respectable ambling trot. The sunrise proceeded. Dew upon the straggly grass became visible. Separate drops appeared as gems upon the grass blades, and then began gradually to vanish as the sun’s disk showed itself. Then the angular metal framework of the landing grid rose dark against the sunrise sky.