The Pirates of Ersatz-Twenty-Two
Thal, the purple-cloaked man, had brought two shaggy-haired animals around to the door of the warehouse. Hoddan later learned that they were horses. He was frenziedly in the act of mounting one of them. As he climbed up, small bright metal disks cascaded from a pocket. He tried to stop the flow of money as he got feverishly into the saddle.
From the gable-roofed small town a mob of some thirty mounted men plunged toward the landing grid. They wore garments of yellow and blue and magenta. They waved large-bladed knives and made bloodthirsty noises. Thal saw them and bolted, riding one horse and towing the other by a lead rope. It happened that his line of retreat passed by where Hoddan stood.
Hoddan held up his hand. Thal reined in.
“Mount!” he cried hoarsely. “Mount and ride!”
Hoddan passed up the chemical–powder–gun. Thal seized it frantically.”Hurry!” he panted. “Don Loris would have my throat cut if I deserted you! Mount and ride!”
Hoddan painstakingly fastened his bag to the saddle of the lead horse. He unfastened the lead rope. He’d noticed that Thal pulled in the leather reins to stop the horse. He’d seen that he kicked it furiously to urge it on. He deduced that one steered the animal by pulling on one strap or the other. He climbed clumsily to a seat.
There was a howl from the racing, mounted men. They waved their knives and yelled in zestful anticipation of murder.
Hoddan pulled on a rein. His horse turned obediently. He kicked it. The animal broke into a run toward the rushing mob. The jolting motion amazed Hoddan. One could not shoot straight while being shaken up like this! He dragged back on the reins. The horse stopped.
“Come!” yelled Thal despairingly. “This way! Quick!”
Hoddan got out a stun-pistol. Sitting erect, frowning a little in his concentration, he began to take pot-shots at the charging small horde.
Three of them got close enough to be blistered when stun-pistol bolts hit them. Others toppled from their saddles at distances ranging from one hundred yards to twenty. A good dozen, however, saw what was happening in time to swerve their mounts and hightail it away. But there were eighteen luridly-tinted heaps of garments on the ground inside the landing grid. Two or three of them squirmed and swore. Hoddan had partly missed, on them. He heard the chemical weapon booming thunderously. Now that victory was won, Thal was shooting valorously. Hoddan held up his hand for cease fire. Thal rode up beside him, not quite believing what he’d seen.”Wonderful!” he said shakily. “Wonderful! Don Loris will be pleased! He will give me gifts for my help to you! This is a great fight! We will be great men, after this!”
“Then let’s go and brag,” said Hoddan.
Thal was shocked.
“You need me,” he said commiseratingly. “It is fortunate that Don Loris chose me to fight beside you!”
He sent his horse trotting toward the mostly unconscious men on the ground. He alighted. Hoddan saw him happily and publicly pick the pockets of the stun-gun’s victims. He came back, beaming and now swaggering in his saddle.
“We will be famous!” he said zestfully. “Two against thirty, and some ran away!” He gloated. “And it was a good haul! We share, of course, because we are companions.”
“Is it the custom,” asked Hoddan mildly, “to loot defenseless men?”
“But of course!” said Thal. “How else can a gentleman live, if he has no chieftain to give him presents? You defeated them, so of course you take their possessions!”
“Ah, yes,” said Hoddan. “To be sure!”
He rode on. The road was a mere horse track. Presently it was less than that. He saw a frowning, battlemented stronghold away off to the left. Thal openly hoped that somebody would come from that castle and try to charge them toll for riding over their lord’s land. After Hoddan had knocked them over with the stun-pistol, Thal would add to the heavy weight of coins already in his possession.
It did not look promising, in a way. But just before sunset, Hoddan saw three tiny bright lights flash across the sky from west to east. They moved in formation and at identical speeds. Hoddan knew a spaceship in orbit when he saw one. He bristled, and muttered under his breath.”What’s that?” asked Thal. “What did you say?”
“I said,” said Hoddan dourly, “that I’ve got to do something about Walden. When they get an idea in their heads….”