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Sail the Sea of Stars - chapter 14

 
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 06, 2016 6:18 pm    Post subject: Sail the Sea of Stars - chapter 14 Reply with quote




CHAPTER 14

AIR WARS, WATERFALLS, AND WILD RIDES



"I've been a starship helmsman for eight years," said Samual Kellogg, sitting in another part of the same restaurant. "I've flown aircraft of one sort or another since I was nine years old. But I have never seen a place that seemed this high."



Beth Kellogg smiled while Ee-Eeyok and Yax nodded their big feathered heads. Gumjaw lifted his coffee cup and took a sip as he gazed at the land below through one of the restaurant's many picture windows. The drifting clouds were racing their own shadows in slow-motion, moving over the lakes and streams, easing around the other mountains. It was all being viewed from many miles above. The interior of the mountain-top restaurant was as cozy as an ancient Swiss chalet. Dark wood and indirect lighting blended with the polarized windows to provide an eye-soothing environment.

But the star attraction was the view. You could look across the planet from up here. The land at the far horizon turned to blue and became sky, with the clouds running off into the blurred dividing line between the two.

The journey up to the restaurant had been quite an adventure. The big birds had flown higher and higher until the humans had found it necessary to pull breathing masks out of the saddle pouches. The cold, biting air had numbed their skin. Gumjaw had wondered how the birds could continue to climb through air so thin.

"I still can't get over it. A mountain so high that the birds need help to get to the top."

"It's just a gravity-grid," said Yax. "Without a little weight cancellation no winged creature could make it up here." The feathered giant lifted one huge wing and raised a clawed foot to push the feathers back from a mesh of fine black wires. The gravity grid circled the bird's chest like a net girdle.

"Weight cancellation, eh?" said Gumjaw, eyeing the king-sized plates of broiled meat the two jari-cari were tearing at. "If you guys eat all that then we're gonna need a lot of weight cancellation for the trip back down."

"Haw, haw," Yax said flatly, still eating while his translator spoke (a convenient aspect of the technology). Gumjaw finished his filet-of-something and then held up his empty coffee cup for a steward to see. After the cup had been freshly filled, Gumjaw pulled the tray of condiments over to him and pondered his choices. He decided to adorn the coffee with bitterberry juice and raw bluerose pollen. The result was delicious. The wine produced from bitterberries was too sweet for Gumjaw's taste (thus proving that the name "bitterberry" was somebody's idea of a joke), but the juice was superb as a coffee sweetener. Bluerose pollen was almost pure protein, and Gumjaw figured he'd need it if he was going to get full measure out of this day.

"What time is it?" he said to his companions. Ee-Eeyok lifted a two-yard-long bird foot and glanced down at a silver ankle watch.

"Eleven hundred," the bird said. "Have you two got any plans?"

"I was thinking we could walk back down," Beth said with a lovely innocent smile.

"Don't press your luck," said Yax.

Both of the jari-cari had to lean well over to reach their plates, which were fastened magnetically to the table, and the meat was caught on a hook that stuck up from the middle of the plate. Their curved beaks were tearing and gnawing at the immobile meat, ripping off strips of it. When their beaks were open, Beth and Samuel could see the jari-cari's dry, pink tongues. Yet, somehow the sight was not repulsive. Maybe it was because of the experience they had shared flying up to the restaurant. It had been a good beginning for a friendship. Or maybe it was just because the jari-cari were going to be taking them back down. It would be wise to stay friendly.

"Where's your home world, Yax?" said Beth.

"You mean for my species? It's near the galactic core. The name of the planet, translated into Earth/English/current, is something ridiculous like Great Nest or World Nest," said Yax.. "The name does mean something like that, but it sounds a lot better in our language."

"Let's hear it," said Beth.

"Okay," said Yax's translator. He opened his beak and squawked an ear-piercing series of consonants, ending with four rapid snaps of his hard beak. "Much better, huh?" said the translator around his neck.

"Oh yeah,” said Gumjaw. "Next to Great Nest and World Nest, I like that one the best."

"You think the name Earth is appealing?" said Yax. "Never mind the fact that it means dirt."

"I come from Hinkle's Home," Gunjaw said quietly.

"Ah-ha. I rest my case," said Yax.

"Okay, you two," said Beth. "Let's not start a war over planetary names, shall we?"

"Hey, it's funny you should say that,” said Ee-Eeyok. “Our species once did that very thing. It happened about two thousand years ago. A dispute between two tribes began because of a disagreement over the planet's name."

"You're kidding," said Beth.

"No, I’m serious! Now, please remember that this was a pre-industry, pre-science age, way back before we were much more than just the biggest, smartest, hungriest birds in the sky. Anyway, the two largest tribes each decided that the planet should bare their tribal name. Big honor. I know it sounds silly, but you have to understand that a race of migratory birds tend to feel the same way about their planet as other creatures feel about their national homeland. For us, territorial boundaries are very loosely defined. But these two tribes got ambitious and proud, and they started having territorial disputes and cultural conflicts. They ended up fighting the biggest air war you ever saw."

"How big were these tribes?" said Gunjaw, fascinated by the subject. It occurred to him that this was either the greatest lunch conversation ever . . . or the biggest lie he'd ever heard. Hopefully the former.

"Hmmm . . . I guess each tribe had a population of about six million."

"Six million? That's some tribe, pal.”

"Well, it doesn't seem right to call them nations when the whole population flies south for the winter."

"Ah-ha. I see your point."

"The war was only fought by . . . oh, say three hundred thousands warriors," said Ee-Eeyok. "On each side, I mean."

"Wow," whispered Beth. "Six hundred thousand giant birds, fighting an air war."

"Colorful mental image ain't it?" said Yax.

"Very," said Beth. "Did they have weapons?"

"You mean like guns?" said Ee-Eeyok. "No, but they did have a few of the basic types of weapons. Like, there was one nasty device comprised of a heavy metal ball attached to the end of long braided leather rope, with the other end attached to the middle of a wooden staff about twelve feet long. You hold each end of the staff in your talons – "

"We hold the staff," said Yax. "They couldn't."

"Oh. Right. Okay, the warrior held the staff in both talons, with the rope hanging down while they flew. In combat the warrior would loop and turn and somersault, swinging the ball like crazy. That ball could take your head clean off! The trick is to keep from tangling yourself in the chain — "

"Ourselves — " began Yax.

"Oh, knocked it off!" said Ee-Eeyok. Yax cringed comically, and his brother continued. "Anyway, the warrior had to be careful not to brain himself or wrap the leather rope around his wing. I've heard it's a tricky weapon to use."

"Fascinating," said Beth. "What other weapons did they use?"

"Uh, lemme think — "

"Slit-sticks!" Yax blurted out.

"What?" said Gumjaw. Ee-Eeyok rolled his big yellow-and-black eyes upward and then he waved one folded wing toward Yax.

"Jump right in, know-it-all."

"Thank you, professor." Yax turned to the humans. "A slit-stick was a pole about twenty feet long with a blade on both ends. The warrior held it in his talons, of course, with the talons widely spaced so that he could swing either end at his opponent or jab forward with it. He could slice off a wing or a leg or a head — "

"Hey, enough with the gross details!" said Ee-Eeyok. "We're eating, have you noticed?"

Yax dipped his head quickly and stared down at the table for a moment, clearly embarrassed. "Sorry," he said quietly.

"No problem," said Gumjaw. "Did these flying warriors wear any protection?"

"Like armor?" said Ee-Eeyok. "That wouldn't be too practical, would it? An armored wing is worse than no wing at all!"

"That's an old proverb of ours — " began Yax.

"Whoa, wait a minute!" said Ee-Eeyok. "I never heard any proverb that said — "

"Well, it oughta be!" said Yax defensively.

"No way. I just made it up. Frankly, I think you made up the slit-sticks."

"What? You mean you’ve never heard of a slit-stick?"

"I've certainly never seen one."

"So what? You've never seen a jari-cari warrior either!" said Yax.

"Time out," said Beth in a commanding voice, silencing the two birds. "We're convinced. There really was a war over the name of the planet."

"Yeah, that was silly, wasn't it?" said Ee-Eeyok cheerfully, grateful for the sudden adult supervision.

"Yeah," said Yax. "I'm glad we're not hotheaded like that, now."

"Agreed," said Ee-Eeyok. "Hey, on the way back down we could show you guys some of the aerial combat maneuvers the warriors used. Are you ready to leave, yet?"

The mental image of a wild ride on two giant birds demonstrating crazy combat maneuvers on a full stomach drained the blood from both the Kellogg’s faces. Quickly Gumjaw said, "Oh . . . uh, well, let's have some more coffee first, eh? More coffee, Beth? Great coffee here. Oh, steward!"



__________________ * ___________ * ___________ * ________________



"Check mate in two moves," said Kahu Naking, chief administrator of the Norado community.

"Are you sure?" said Captain North. "Couldn't I block it with my bishop?" He pulled the white bishop from the far corner of the board and blocked Kahu's attacking rook.

"Ah, well are you sure?" Kahu began, but then he trailed off. He had been certain that the bishop could simply be taken, but now he wasn’t so confident. He saw a counter move using Captain North's knight that seemed like a sacrifice, but it would actually leave the captain in a position to attack. So, now Kahu's queen was in jeopardy!

"Is that the same game?" said a voice from across the spacious, open-air living room. Soceel Naking, Kahu's wife, approached the chess players.

"Uh . . . no, darling, we . . . started a new one."

"You promised we could show Danial and Mr. Sinclair the Lake Garden. Carcainon and Aldarrin are waiting."

"Oh. Well, the captain is beaten anyway," said Kahu, waving at the chess board.

"Ha!" said Captain North. "I've been planning this configuration for thirty minutes!"

"Oh my," said Kahu with exaggerated sympathy. "Then it's a pity we can't finish it."

"We can finish it later," said North with equal dramatics, rising to leave with his host and hostess.

"Would you care to put a little wager on the outcome?" said Kahu as they headed for the door.

"Name it."

"The loser cooks dinner."

"I can't cook," said North.

"Then you'd better win!" said Kahu, closing the ornately carved wooden door behind him.

___________ * ___________ * ___________ * ___________



There were trails that wound through the wooded foothills, all the way up to the region where the gray stone cliffs shot up into the sky. The trails lead past countless waterfalls and forest pools, along the edges of minor cliffs (only six hundred feet high) and major chasms (dark cracks in the planet's stone foundation that went down an unknown distance). The higher you went up the trails, the better the view of the valley, the lake, and the G.S.C. Candlelight, perched on the water like a giant duck decoy, constructed by some surrealistic artist with a kinky sense of aerodynamics.



Two humans, riding sentient beings which resembled horses (species name: whylaree) spent the morning exploring the trails. One of the humans was the most beautiful girl on Tason. The other one was me.

About an hour after we had departed from the valley floor on our journey into the foothills, I finally got around got around to asking Danceea about why she had left Tason. The answer was not what I expected.

"I had to," she said as we rode along. "It's the law."

"Seriously? They make you leave? Why?"

"Because Tasonians are aware of the fact that all sentient beings become ungrateful for what they've got, no matter how much they've got, and no matter how hard they try not to become ungrateful."

"I agree. It's one of the great common denominators among sentient life."

"So, when a Tasonian youth reaches a certain age, which of course differs among the various species, he or she — or whatever — must pack up, get off the planet, and reapply for citizenship."

"You’re kidding!"

"Nope. True fact," said Danceea.

"Doesn't that kind of break up the family unit?"

"Less often than you would think. First of all, the children don't have to leave until they’re almost grown. Second, a few of them really want to leave anyway. Tason isn't for everybody, as hard as I find that to believe — "

"Me, too."

"It's true, though. Some of them don't even reapply for citizenship. Others wait until they've traveled around some. Still others get married to someone with a home elsewhere."

"What happens if a Tasonian gets married while they're away and then their reapplication is approved? Does the spouse get free citizenship?" I kept my face as straight as possible.

"No, they don’t. It's funny you should mention that," she said solemnly. She looked thoughtful for a long moment as we continued to ride along. I didn't press her for an explanation of the comment.

We came out into an open area, and the trail ran along the edge of a sheer cliff. I looked down and saw a little stream rushing along at the bottom of it. Like a true gentleman I rode between Danceea and the cliff, gripping the saddle handle rather firmly. Finally, Danceea spoke.

"Remember me telling you about the guy I was engaged to?"

"The one with the mysterious ulterior motive that you would not discuss. Lemme guess. He wanted to live here?"

"Uh-huh. But when his application was rejected, he got very bitter. Then I realized — "

" — That he was a prize fool." I said it with visible sincerity, and Danceea smiled.

"Thanks. You're sweet. But it really made me realize how . . . special Tason is. I mean, sure I had been homesick — you have to stay gone for two years, which is the mandatory waiting period for any citizenship application. That's the law. It's customary to attend school during that time. That way you get in touch with some sort of life-style away from Tason, just in case your application isn't approved." She paused for a moment, staring straight ahead as she rode, thinking about the man who had not been able to come live on Tason with her. I kept silent until she was ready to continue. Finally she did.

"I . . . I was pretty close to that guy . . . or as least I thought I was. And when his application was turned down I could see how it hurt him. I don't think I had ever really faced the idea of not coming back here until I saw how being turned down affected him.”

"Had your own reapplication been approved, yet?"

"Yes. Nearly two years before that. But I had to wait an additional two years to find out if my fiancé could live here."

"You waited two years for this guy?"

"Sure did. I loved him. But when his application was turned down, he changed. Or maybe he just dropped the pretense. I don't know. Anyway, I realized two things. The first thing was that too much of what he felt for me was connected with the idea that he would be living on Tason. And the second thing was that I wanted very badly to come back to Tason. Maybe he just couldn't help being jealous because I had a choice."

"Forgive me for asking this, but . . . would you have stayed with him if he hadn't . . . changed?"

"You mean would I have married him anyway? I’m not sure. And now I'm less certain how well it would have worked out anyway. I really missed this place. I'm really glad to be back."

"Welcome to Tason," I said softly.

"Thank. There's no place like home."

"I'll have to show you that movie sometime."

"What movie?" she said.

"You'll see. It's a classic.” We rode in silence for a few moments, then I said, “Danceea, do you believe in fate?”

She furrowed her brow for a few seconds, then she said, “No, I don’t. We control our own destinies.” Then she cocked her head and said, “What made you asked that?”

I tried to repress a smirk as I said, “Well, you must admit that the odds are against the possibility of our meeting many light years from here and then meeting again when the Candlelight was award a surface leave on Tason.” My smirk grew, and I couldn’t hide it to save my life.

But before I’d even finished speaking, Danceea was smirking too. She giggled a few times and finally said. “That wasn’t fate. That was the direct result of my own female conniving.”

I just stared at her for a long moment, no longer smirking.

She took pity on me and started to explain. “I asked Dr. Carrington to put in a good word with the Alliance Armed Forces for the brave crew of the Candlelight. He’s important enough in galactic scientific circles that the Alliance top brass accepted his suggestion. They agreed that your crew deserved a leave on Tason. And the kindly doctor even convinced the Alliance to send you here, to the Norado community.”

I was stunned. What I had thought was just an amazing bit of luck (too amazing, it turned out) was actually an even more amazing bit of proof that Miss Danceea Aberron had some very strong feelings for a very fortunate lieutenant named Newcastle.

Suddenly I was insufferably pleased with myself. And the fact that the lovely lady had invited me to ride up into this remote region with her gave me some spicy thoughts that suddenly made the saddle less comfortable than it had been a moment ago.

In a brazen effort to explore this new idea, I said, "Hey, ummm . . . I have a confession. Even though you're a grown-up lady and all that, I'm a little surprised that your father let you come up here with me all alone. He strikes me as the Stern Father type."

"He is," she said, smiling in a very coy manner.

"Really? Then why don’t we have a chaperon?"

Suddenly my "horse" stopped dead and turned his head around to gaze up at me.

"What the hell do you think we are, you dummy?" said the whylaree with an air of great exasperation.

"Oh! Sorry, Narahee! You've been quiet for so long I sort of forgot there were four of us here."

"With you two yakkin' nonstop, who could get a word in sideways? Me and Berhera are doin' all the work while you two act like third-year colts going through your first mating season!" Narahee started clopping up the trail again, and I looked at Danceea with raised eyebrows, surprised by the whylaree stallion's grumpy outburst. But Danceea was grinning hugely, and she winked at me as Narahee and I went passed. She leaned down and whispered to Narahee's wife, Berhera. Then the whylaree mare spoke.

"Don't mind my sour husband. He's enough past colthood to be a little jealous of you two. He's become sensitive about his age because his wife is several years younger than he is."

Narahee whirled around so fast I thought I’d be thrown over the cliff.

"Old am I?" said Narahee as he trotted back to Berhera on four nimble hooves. "And who is it that always complains of sore muscles after every trip up into the hills?" The stallion stood muzzle to muzzle with his wife, still speaking through the translator. "And who, my beloved filly, is unable to eat six different kinds of grass because they upset her tummy? Hmmm?"

Berhera spoke in a sweet and loving manner as she said, "I guess this wouldn’t be a good time to tell you, my darling husband, that you've got three more gray hairs in your tail.”

Narahee snorted and then he replied in a low growl, "You seem to spend a lot of time examining my tail!”.

"It's practically a major landmark. Who could miss it?"

"Only because I married a mare who loves to bake oat bread until the pantry is filled with it.”

"Yes, I do. Because my husband is partial to it."

"True enough. Perhaps I have the answer. We should take more hikes up into the hills."

"Not if you want any more fresh oat bread, my loving mate," Berhera replied with sugar-coated sarcasm.

Narahee was huffing and puffing like the Big Bad Wolf. He was silent until his wife dropped a verbal bomb into the discussion.

"Oh, Darling?" said Berhera, her voice turning sweet and seductive.

"Yes, my dearest?" growled Narahee.

"Did I say I didn't like a few gray hairs in my distinguished husband's coat?"

Narahee gave the remark careful thought, then he said, "Why, no! By Jove, you didn't! Perhaps we should agree to drop the matter for now. Lead on, darling. Fillies first. I'm curious to see if your tail has acquired any new gray marks of distinction."

Danceea was in danger of falling out of her saddle. Laughter and good posture don't mix. I realized that we did make an amusing sight. Here we sat, miles from nowhere, listening to our steeds have a lovers' quarrel.

"Only on Tason," I said to Danceea.

"And now you know why I wanted to come back," she said, as hiccups punctuated her laughter.

"I think I do. Uh . . . Narahee, old boy? This nibbling of Berhera's ear you're doing now — is that some kind of non-verbal whylaree communication?"

I yelped and grabbed the saddle handle as Narahee suddenly scrambling backwards and turned us up the trail again. Hastily he said, "Ask me again when you're older, young man!" Danceea and Berhera followed, and after we had gone a few yards I heard them both giggling about something.

I turned around in my saddle and said, "What's so funny, girls?"

"Don't ask," said my trusty steed Narahee in a strained voice, still clopping up the trail ahead of the girls . . . who were laughing even harder now.

"Did you find some more gray hairs?" I said to the girls. Danceea whooped with laughter, while Berhera staggered from side to side as she followed.

"Just turn around and ignore them!" Narahee said curtly. His own stride seemed suddenly awkward.

"Are you walking a little funny, Narahee?" I was extremely puzzled by all this. Behind me, Danceea started singing.

"'Tis the Season to be jolly!"

And suddenly I understood. It was a matter of physiology . . . as it pertained to mating habits. Poor Narahee.

"You should have let the girls go first," I told him sympathetically.

"Terrific chaperons we are, eh?" he muttered, and then he broke into a gallop that put a little distance between us and the girls. And, I suspected, it used up a little excess energy as well.

___________ * ___________ * ___________ * ___________


We climbed up and up, mile after mile, through a landscape that had been lovingly fashioned by the Great Artist, containing all of His best ideas. At one point I looked up at a waterfall that tumbled from the side of a one hundred-foot-deep stone alley. Halfway down the alley the water was caught by a bowl-shaped projection of rock that stuck out from the side of the alley opposite the waterfall. The water then spilled from the bowl and fell into a pool at our feet.

Sometime later I saw a brook that gurgled across a perfect little natural bridge of pure stone which spanned a ten-foot wide crack in Tason's rock foundation. How the bridge had come into being I could not guess, but we used it to splash across the bottomless abyss, while I squeezed my eyes closed so hard that fireworks blazed against the backs of my eyelids.



Finally, when we were nearly to the base of a vertical cliff that soared straight up into the clouds, we came to the crown prince of all waterfalls. It wasn't the biggest, but it was definitely the one that God made after practicing up on all the rest. In fact, this wasn't just a waterfall, it was a water sculpture. The cliff had a concave amphitheater, closely surrounded by an adoring audience of green foliage, all of which served to mute the sunlight in the area to a soft glow. Towards the top of the amphitheater the water emerged from the mouth of a cave, forty feet above the forest floor. The lower lip of the cave was a semicircular shelf of rock along the top of the amphitheater, and the water hung down from it in a smooth sheet, like a curved curtain. Water vines hung from the semicircular shelf, engulfed by the sheet of falling water, draping all the way down to the pool.

Below the shelf, inside the glassy curtain of water, was a pool that extended back into a second cave at ground level. There was no stream leading away from the base of the waterfall, so I knew the water flowed back into the mountain. The ceiling of the lower cave had a hole in it, and through it poured a steady stream of water from the underground stream above, splashing down into the pool within the amphitheater. It was a waterfall inside a cave, hidden by another waterfall that formed a curved water-curtain. The trees were so thick over head that the whole area had a dark, moody look to it.

The whole thing seemed too constructed to be natural, yet too natural to be constructed. I sat atop Narahee and stared at it with the same feeling you would get if you suddenly caught God peeking around a cloud.

"Guess how many people know about this place?" said Danceea. I couldn't take my eyes off the waterfall, so she answered her own question. "You make the fourth, as far as I know. Harahee and Berhera found it while I was away. The chasm we crossed on the way up here cuts off this section of the forest from the rest. These two," she patted Berhera on the neck, "brought a gizmo up here to scan that little natural bridge for cracks. It was solid, so they started coming into the area to look around. The trees are so think overhead I doubt if even the jari-cari have been here."

"The who?" I whipsered, still staring at the water-sculture.

"The big birds."

"Oh, right. Lady, this is . . . really something. Where does the water come from?"

"It condenses on the cliffs, up there in the clouds. There's probably a wide ledge somewhere up there that catches the water as it runs down. The edge turns into a stream, and eventually the water flows into a crack and joins a subterranean stream."

"And it comes out here, just long enough to show off, eh?"

"Exactly. Just to impress lil' ole you.” She waved her hand towards the cave behind the waterfall. “Well . . . shall we go inside?"

I grinned and nodded quickly. The four of us divested ourselves of all garments not essential (like shoes and socks and saddles) and then we approached that wall of shimmering water. We all wadded into the small section of the pool what was outside the waterfall. Danceea and I entered first, parting the curtain of water vines embedded in the falling sheet of clear liquid.

The water was shockingly cold, but I kept telling myself I'd get used to it quickly, even though I didn't believe a word of it. The inner pool was shallow, and the bottom was smooth rock. Once we had passed through the sheet of curved water, the world turned strange. The cave was completely sealed by the curtain of water, and the enclosure not only did things to the light, it also played tricks with the sounds. Splashing noises echoed and reverberated. It was . . . errie and awe inspiring.

"A penny for your thoughts," Danceea said, raising her echoed voice to be heard above the weird sounds of echoed water.

"I was just thinking about all the literature dealing with philosophy and religion that Tason has inspired."

"And now you know why."

"Yep. Now I know."

We wadded about thirty feet into the pool and then turned as our chaperons came through the curtain of water. When seen through the liquid barrier they looked like an impressionistic painting of two horses. As they passed through the waterfall they became a painting-come-to-life, emerging from the canvas, acquiring detail, stepping into reality to shame all imitations. Finally, as they splashed up to us, they became Narahee and Berhera, our two friends. Art inspires reality.

We discovered that the pool was deeper when we went further back into the cave, so we did a little swimming. Narahee, Berhera, Dancee and I paddled around in the cool, dim chamber until the sun outside had climbed to zenith. A brief torrential shower mingled with the waterfall, and for a while it looked like the world as being washed away.

Finally the four of us emerged from the curtain of water, feeling rested and ravenous and chilled to the bone. Danceea had cleverly brought along a change of clothes for both of us in the saddlebags which the whylaree wore, along with two huge towels. She ordered me to hide behind a bush and change. Narhahee guarded me to ensure gentlemanly behavior.

Danceea had changed into a pale blue-green outfit consisting of a simple thin cotton blouse and matching pants, both of which were somewhere between snug and skin-tight . The garments appeared to be cool and comfortable and carefully designed to steal the sanity of a young man who already adored the young lady.

On a flat rock about a dozen yards from the waterfall, we spread out the food we had brought. Lunch consisted of sampler-sized portions of everything from stuffed shrimp to corn waffles with honeysuckle syrup. Narahee and Berhera had honey-glazed oat cakes and huge bowls of salad. When the food was gone (every delicious bite of it), Danceea produced a big self-heating thremos of hot cattail coffee, a beverage that the keeagonka had developed. It was pale amber and it needed no cream. For sweetner we used the last of the honeysuckle syrup. After my first sip I was glad the the thermos was so large.

But the coffee warmed us wonderfully, and it gave me a burst of energy that washed away my increasing starship lag. According to Tasonian local time, I had been awake since 1:00 a.m. Even though I had fourteen more days to enjoy Tason, I was beginning to resent the time I would waste sleeping. There was so much to do!

"Ready to head back down?" said Danceea as we packed away the food containers and put them into the saddle bags. I helped her put the saddles back on our two friends.

"Yes, but reluctantly. This place is going to be tough to top." I pointed at the waterfall. "Even on Tason." We mounted up and let the whylaree navigate us toward the valley.

"You haven't seen anything, yet," said Danceea.

"So you keep saying."

"At dinner this evening you'll think you've wasted your day when you hear what some of the other crewmen have been up to."

"Like what?"

"Any number of things. Air socker with the jari-cari. Races with the doragonka — the big lake swimmers. Cave exploring in a flip-flyer."

"The open cockpit flyer with the internal gravity?"

"Right. Or you can hang glide off the cliffs. Do you like to hunt? The pi will go hunting with you in the lower region beyond the mountain pass. There's a game preserve down there."

"The pi? Which ones are they?"

"In some ways they look a little like over-sized Earth bears."

I stared at her for a moment and blinked in disbelief. "Wait a minute. You mean I can go hunting . . . with a bear?"

"A new twist, huh?"

"Mind-boggling. What would we hunt? Middle-aged men in plaid shirts?"

Her answer was hi-jacked briefly by laughter, then she said, "The prey is bit larger than that. You'd be hunting giant lizards from a planet called Primevil. Elephantcrabs from Confusius. Ecoljuclei from Quick Wind. Now there's a tricky game beast. Ever heard of it?"

"Don't think so."

"Each eclojucleus consists of one legless, armless, completely immobile organism which houses a brain that telepathically controls as many as twelve mobile organisms that resemble — accept they have a pair of skinny arms just ahead of their front legs, sort of like a centaur . . . but with horns. And they don't have brains of their own. But the immobile organism does, and it remains safe in some location, such as in a small cave or among a group of large rocks, to protect it from Quick Wind's sudden three-hundred-mile per hour frontal systems. The gazelle-like mobile organisms are the hands and eyes of the immobile organism which houses the brain. They defend it from predators, groom it on a regular basis, bring it food, feed it, and clean up around it so doesn't sit in its own waste. If some of the mobile organism are blown away by Quick Winds storms, the immobile organism mates with another of its kind and gives birth to new ones."

"So the brain animals come in two sexes?"

"No, they're hermaphrodites. Each of the two creatures in the mating pair will assume a specific gender for the mating act."

"What if they both need new gazelles?” This was getting both kinky and creepy.

"I guess they do it twice — switching sexes after the first act."

“Ah-ha. And they flip a coin to see which one gets to be on top."

Danceea filled the air with musical laughter, and her cheeks turn red in the afternoon sunlight. I thought of a good question that would shift the topic away from alien sex. "What happens when the hunters kill off all the gazelles? I mean, the mobile organisms."

"The brain organism starves to death — or it's eaten by predators. That's why the hunters are prohibited from killing all the mobile organisms. They’re required to leave at least three mobile organisms for each brain organism."

That sounded reasonable, but I suddenly realized it wouldn't be as easy as it sounded. "Wait a minute . . . how do the hunters know who many total gazelles the lazy brain thingie has before they start shooting them?

Danceea looked impressed. "Hey, you really have been paying attention!"

She gave a quick chuckle, then she said, "To make sure the hunters know the total number of gazelle-like attendants each brain organism has, the hunters have to go through a very elaborate procedure."

She had my attention, but not my full understanding, so I said, "Okay, how elaborate?"

Danceea held my gaze for a full five seconds with mischief in her eyes, then she said quietly, "The word very means a lot."

Well, there was certainly no arguing with that, so I said, "Indeed it does. But exactly what do they do?"

Obviously she wanted me to asked for details, and her face lit up like a little girl who knew her friends were waiting in the living room to shout "Surprise!" on her birthday.

"The hunters must track at least one of the gazelle things back to the brain that controls it. Then the hunters make threatening gestures near the brain creature so that it calls in all its gazelle servants to defend it. After the hunters are sure they know the total number of mobile organisms it has, they kill the legal number — making sure it still has at least three to take care of it."

“Wow, when you said very elaborate, you weren’t kidding!” However, it occurred to me that the odds were still stacked heavily in favor of the humans with the big rifles. "So, these guys end up gunning down all the loyal gazelles who show up to defend their fearless leader." I paused for effect. "I'm sorry, but this still seems like shooting fish in a barrel. After all, these poor creatures are just like helpless gazelles, right?"

"Well, yes . . . and no. These helpless gazelles are absolutely fearless, and they fight as a team. Eclojuclei aren't sentient, but they are very cunning. The gazelle servants are completely brainless, and therefore they don't have any survival instinct. They're directed by the immobile organism with the brain, which only cares about its own survival."

I was beginning to get it. "These lovely gazelles keep fighting until they're all dead?"

"If you keep attacking, they'll keep defending."

I just sat there with my mouth open for a moment, rocking in the saddle as we rode along, then I said, "So, what do the hunters do? They can't just kill 'em all without breaking the law. How do they get away from the last three creatures which they have to leave alive? Run like crazy?"

Danceea was enjoying my confusion. She just grinned and nodded.

I knew I hadn't solved the problem yet. She was waiting for me to figure out the last piece of the puzzle. Hunters were not supposed to just shoot their prey and then leave the carcasses there to rot.

"So how do the hunters collect the animals they've killed?"

"Very carefully." Danceea's smile grew wider.

"Right." I knew I was still missing something. I was clearly annoyed, but I was trying to hide it. "Could you please be more specific?"

"The hunters and their companion, the pi — "

"The big bears?"

"Yes. The hunters and the pi also have to work as a team. They have to split up while they're being chased. Then whoever isn't pursued by the gazelle creatures goes back and collects the dead trophy animals."

That made sense, but there was one more crazy possibility. "What if the ecju—clo—clea . . . "

"Eclojucleus."

"Yeah, those guys. What if the brain creature splits up it's gazelle to pursue all the hunters?"

"It can happen." She was clearly impressed by the way I was thinking of all the possibilities. Meanwhile, I was desperately hoping no other curveballs were coming my way. Unfortunately, the worst was yet to come, and Danceea was enjoying every minute of it. Smiling like the Mona Lisa, Danceea said, "Sometimes the hunters will threaten the brain part of the creature so that all the hunters will be chased off by the gazelle creatures before the hunters actually kill any of them."

I thought that over for a second . . . and then I decided to wave the white flag.

"Damn, I give up. What happens next?"

"The hunters know they're being chased by all the mobile organisms that serve the brain part of the creature, so they can kill off their limit before the creatures break off they're chase." Danceea was watching me closely. I didn't want to look dumb . . . but I couldn't think of any way to avoid it.

"Wait a minute. You mean . . . in order to hunt this crazy critter, the hunters have to find one-or-more of the gazelle creatures, track them back to the boss brain guy, threaten the lazy thing, and then count the number of gazelles that show up to defend it."

Danceea just smiled and nodded. She wasn't giving me a bit of help. I pressed on.

"The gazelles chase the hunters, who eventually turn around and kill their limit."

"Bravo," said Danceea, grinning like the proud parents of the school spelling bee winner. "Quite a challenge, huh?"

"Too tough for me. I'll pass. If it's gonna be hard and dangerous, I'll just stick to stuff that's safe, easy, and fun."

"Oh really?" she said as we continued to riding along. "You mean stuff like canal boarding?" She wore an impish grin that set off little alarms in my head.

"What's canal boarding?"

"Funny you should ask." Her grin broadened. "Notice those long, flat objects in yon rack just ahead of us?"

We were approaching a shaded pond by the trail. On the nearest bank was a rectangular framework of metal rods that served as a rack for a dozen objects that were literally the last thing I expected to see out here in the middle of the forest.

Surf boards.

"These, I take it, are the channel boards?"

"Canal boards, and yes, they are. Help me with our friend’s saddles. We'll get a flyer to pick up this stuff later."

She dismounted and went to work removing Berhera's saddle and saddle bags, so I dismounted and started doing the same for Narahee. As I did, I whispered to the whylaree stallion.

"Narahee, my friend, I have a rather obvious question to ask. If we're leaving your saddles here, how are we going to get down to the valley?"

"Well . . . safely, I hope," he whispered back. "I'm fairly certain you'll get down without being injured if you'll just hang on tight, learn how to guide the board, crouch low on the turns, duck for all the branches, and lay down flat through the rapids."

"Oh dear lord . . . I'm sorry I asked," I said dismally.

"They usually are," he said with a sigh.

"Why are we taking off your saddles?"

"So that Berhera and I can keep up with you two."

"Keep up? Wonderful." I was thinking about what his remark could mean in terms of speed. Meanwhile, Danceea made a pile of the gear and then went over to the rack, where she extracted one of the canal boards.

"See that little canal running down the hill?" She was pointing at a four-foot wide stream at one end of the pond. Upon closer examination I noticed that it had a very consistent width. My eyes followed the little water-filled groove as it wound its way smoothly around trees and rocks, curving back and forth down the hill until it disappeared into the forest.

"I assume that this is the canal for which the boards are made."

"Quite correct," she said, tossing her board into the little pond, which was fed by a natural brook at the high end. The canal (or what little of it I could see) had been cut without altering the surrounding landscape. It was a perfectly uniform little brook, filled to the brim, wandering through the forest in gentle curves, never too steep and never widening out into a slow-moving pool. The slope of the land was gentle, so the water was moving at the about the speed of a fast walk.

Danceea quickly took off her shoes and socks. She tossed them into the pile of gear and waded out into the pool, then she laid belly-down on her board. After I too was barefooted I pulled a board out of the rack and walked out into the water. The board was so light that when I laid down on it my weight barely affected the way it floated.

"I'll go first," said Danceea. "If you fall off, holler and I'll stop. Watch out for the tree branches. I've grown fond of your face and I’d hate to see it filled with splinters. When the canal gets really steep, lie down guickly."

"If it get's really, really steep, can I just run along next it?"

She laughed and arched one eyebrow as she said, "Barefooted?"

"Ah-ha. Okay, I'll lie down and hug the board." I heard a little quaver in my voice, which annoyed me.

"Good idea," Danceea giggled at my manly terror. "There will be small ponds from time to time so we can rest. Sometimes the canal crosses a field, so it will be very straight and easy to ride. Are you ready?"

"If I should happen to ride the whole way lying down, it's just because I hate to show off."

"Hey, don’t worry! You'll do great. Heck, if you can ride old Narahee, you can ride anything."

From the edge of the pond, the whylaree stallion exploded with mock outrage.

"Old Narahee? Why you knock-kneed little colt! I'll show you who’s old!"

Narahee took off down the hill, paralleling the canal, followed by his galloping wife. Danceea squealed with glee and paddled so hard across the pond that I got drenched as I tried to flow her. I visualized the three of them leaving me far behind, so I desperately tried to catch up. Danceea's board eased into the mouth of the little canal and picked up speed. She was ten yards ahead of me by the time I reached the canal.

Narahee and Berhera were showing off by leaping back and forth over the canal as they zig-zagged ahead of Danceea, but once she got up to full speed the two whylaree were just able to keep up. The banks of the canal were smooth and grass-covered, but if the board dragged along them it diminished the speed. So I practiced leaning left and right, keeping the board in the middle of the four-foot-wide canal as it snaked around trees and rocks and bushes, looping through the dense forest.

Although Danceea and I weren't going more than twenty miles an hour, it seemed faster because of the claustrophobic landscape that flashed by, as well as the frequent curves in the canal. The curves were usually gentle, but the tight ones were so perfectly banked that the overall result was a general smoothness which was exhilarating. The rushing water carried us along, rolling down hills and through small gullies, weaving around huge trees. There were actually branches that had to be ducked, but they were usually so small that a collision would not have caused much more than a lump on the forehead and a dunk in the water.

But then it occurred to me that if I fell off my board it would just keep going until the canal ended!

Several minutes later I was reminded of why this wasn't true. We rode down a steep slope and burst from the forest as we shot out onto the surface of another small pond. Narahee and Berhera were galloping along the grassy bank like two frisky colts, kicking up their back legs with uncontrolled energy and playfully biting at each other.

Ahead of me, Danceea stood up on her board with casual ease, drifting across the sunlit pond, her wet brunette hair plastered back against her head. Her thin, soaking-wet blouse and form-fitting pants clung to her body, and the sunlight glistened off the wet fabric like a layer of thin glass that hugged her body.

She looked back over her shoulder with dark, flashing eyes, her smile seeming to reflect more light than the sun actually gave it. The look in her eyes was challenging and joyful, flirtatious and proud. She turned to ride backwards, facing me, still utterly relaxed. Her hands were hanging at her side. She turned them palm up and waved her fingers upward, urging me to stand. During the ride I had promoted myself from a prone position to a kneeling one. Now I cautiously stood up as the board slowed and drifted along in Danceea's wake. The whylarees ignored us, lost in their own joyful awareness of each other. They reared up face to face and pawed the air with their hooves in mock battle. They raced along side by side, bumping and nudging, rubbing their muzzles together with obvious affection. It made me yearn to have four hooved feet and a flapping mane of long, brick red hair.

Standing was far easier than I had expected, and Danceea applauded briefly, chuckling with approval. Then she turned around as her board neared the continuation of the canal. The instant she turned her back, I knelt and paddled furiously, closing the gap between us. When she reached the mouth of the canal I was only three yards behind her. Her board entered the rushing water and pulled away, but I was quick to follow, and when she turned to glance back at me I saw her surprise at my nearness. She grinned and turned to crouch with her feet planted wide, skillfully keeping the board dead center in the canal. I stood up carefully and imitated her stance, ducking the tree limbs that tried to swipe my face off, leaning from side to side as we raced along, waving my arms wildly to keep my balance. I was a clumsy comic version of Danceea elegant grace.

I suddenly realized that this section of the canal was running faster than the section above the pond. The curves were still gentle, and the ride was still a soaring series of rolls and dips and turns, but the speed of the rushing water was gauged to challenge my newly acquired skills. If I didn't tilt the board on the curves, it would rub the bank and try to throw me off. If I leaned to far in my efforts to guide it, I would lose my balance and fall. It was necessary to study the curves as I approached them, estimating how much I would have to lean over.

When I saw Danceea quickly lay belly down on her board, I did the same. An instant later she reached a long, steep incline where the canal narrowed to almost the width of the boards, The sides were flanked by up-sloping banks of grass. We shot down the incline at a breath-taking speed. At the bottom of the slope it gently leveled off, and the canal widened to four feet again. The canal cut straight across a flat field of tall grass. Though our speed was considerable, the lack of reference points on the open field made it seem greatly diminished. I stood up when Danceea did, and we cruised serenely across this level expanse of green, which swayed in the gently breeze like waves on the ocean. The illusion was stunning and completely appropriate two people riding surf boards across a sea of grass.

Suddenly I heard a thunder of hooves behind me. Narahee and Berhera shot by, one on each side, and went charged ahead at a maniacal gallop, following two narrow paths which flacked the canal. When they passed Danceea, they each started switching sides, leaping the canal back and forth, still going full tilt.

I knew that Norado valley was off to my right, but it was hidden by the wall of trees a hundred yards away on the side of the field. However, to my left a gray wall of stone loomed up from behind the forest, and it kept on going until it narrowed to a pillar of rock that split the drifting clouds. I almost fell off my board as I tilted my head back to gaze up at that impossible tower.

"Watch out!" called out Danceea asI nearly ran into her. She had steered her board up onto the bank, and I barely had time to do the same. When the point of my board slid up onto the grass and skidded to a stop, I was sent stumbling forward, pin-wheeling past Danceea as she pulled her board up onto dry land. I nearly collided with the two whylarees as they came galloping up, wadding through the waist-deep greenery. Danceea was pulling my board up when I walked back to her.

"Rest stop?" said I.

"Right. Hey, you're doing good! I didn't expect you to keep standing when we hit the second run back there."

"Well, I nearly ate a few tree limbs, but it wasn't too hard. Girl, this is fun! Who thought up this wild idea, anyway?"

"Don't know. Narahee, do you remember?"

"At the risk of showing my age," said the Tasonian, “it was first proposed by a whylaree of the Rysalaccan community about thirty years ago. Here in Norado the work was done mostly by whylaree and koocathus. It took about half a year just to plan all the canals."

"Koocathus . . . which ones are they?"

"Insect-like creatures, six to ten feet long," said Berhera.

"A lot like a praying mantis?" I said. "Only fatter?"

"I wouldn't know," said Berhera. Neither did either of the others, so I described the Tasonians I'd seen on the ship-to-shore ramp that morning.



"That's the one," said Narahee. "Man, those guys just love to build things. You should have seen them in diving gear, working with the aquatic folks to build the Lake Garden.

So, then the Tasonians had to describe the Lake Garden to me. I was beginning t understand Danceea's remark about the things that the other crewmen would be enjoying. Fifteen days in a place like this could become a legend in a man's memory. I was suddenly very happy for Chief Alex Sandusky. Returning to Tason for a second visit would be a dream come true.

_________________
____________
Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?


Last edited by Bud Brewster on Mon May 07, 2018 1:34 pm; edited 6 times in total
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Bud Brewster
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PostPosted: Tue Dec 06, 2016 6:29 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

CHAPTER 14 — conclusion

"What a nightmare," mumbled Chief Alex Sandusky.

Down in the Lake Garden, sitting at a poker table and thinking dark thoughts, Alex gazed at a lonely sight. He was staring at this last five poker chips — the red ones, worth a lousy five credits each. Chief Alex Sandusky was worth exactly twenty-five credits, and this fact was gnawing at this nerves.

"Pondance, if you weren't sitting there stark naked I'd insist on looking up your sleeves," said Sandusky. He stirred the five chips slowly with his index finger and silently wished they would mate and raise large families, sometime in then next few minutes.

"You've just had a run of bad luck," said Horace Biggs, whose pile of chips was fat and healthy and rich with the colors that signified higher denominations — although less so than the pile in front of Pondance. The game had been going on for several hours. So noboby argued when Horace added. "Let's take a break, gentlemen."

"Good idea," said Seearay, whose modest cash reserves were about equal to Ja's. Clydelo, Fernie Mann, and Sid McWilliams were taking their turns by the pool, discussing females, beer, and sports. At the table the human card players got up to freshen their beverages while the keeagonka slid backwards down the slick ramps behind their pedestals until they splashed into the crowded little pool. Sandusky punched up a fruit drink from the snack machine. At his request the machine added an antacid for this troubled stomach.

"Relax, Chief," said Horace, joining Sandusky. "I think your luck is gonna change."

"Too bad my money will run out before that happens." Sandusky's tone was low and bitter. "Horace, you've admitted that you aren't a great poker player, yet you seem to be holding your own against Pondance the Bandit. I can't figure out why I'm doing so bad."

"You're not doing so bad, Alex. Pondance is just doing better. And I'm not really doing all that good, if the truth were known. You see, I've got a secret," said Horace with a quite air of conspiracy.

Sandusky looked unimpressed. "I'd give you five credits for your secret, Horace — but then I’d be out of the game in quicker."

"You can owe me. Here's the secret. Those fish have got a good poker face, right? I found that out even before the game started, while we were walking through the garden, remember? Seearay had me believing he could smell the flowers."

"I remember," said Sandusky. He was wondering just where the hell the conversation was going. "So, what?"

"So I started watching these guys. I watched 'em like a hungry cat with a strong interest in what the goldfish are up to."

Sandusky took a long draw on his beverage just to give Horace a moment to milk the situation a bit longer, because Alex was convinced that Horace was pulling his leg. When he lowered his glass, he wiped his mouth on the back of his large knobby hand, burped loud and on purpose, and then said, "So, Horace . . . just what are the goldfish up to?"

Horace was wearing a Cheshire cat smile that certainly didn't bode well for the aforementioned fish. "Pondance has a tell, just like a human poker player. And I know what it is."

Sandusky finally lost his patience, but he kept his voice low, in spite of his anger. "You're telling me that this card shark has a tell and I've missed it this whole time? All these hours we've been playing?"

Horace nodded, his smile now just a faint memory of it's former self while he waited for Sandusky to make all the wrong guesses. Predictably, Sandusky dove right in.

"He can't tug on his ear, 'cause he's got no ears."

"Right."

"He can't chew his lip for the same reason."

"Correct." Horace's smile was slowly widening.

"He can't sweat, he can't have facial ticks, and he can't give his hand away with a bobbing Adam's apple from swallowing when he’s tense." Sandusky was tired of the game and right on the naked edge of giving Horace's bushy beard a firm pull just to see if it was real.

"My goodness. You've certainly given the matter careful thought." Horace said, chuckling softly. "And yet . . . the answer was right under your nose . . . and right on the keeagonka's back."

That made no sense at all, and Sandusky focused a hot glare at Horace that should have singed his eyebrows. Horace decided not to press his luck any further.

"Okay. So here's the pay-off. Whenever Pondance is bluffin' . . . whenever he's got zilch and he's fakin' us with big raises and big talk . . . his spiny dorsal fin folds back."

Sandusky stood there without moving, without blinking, and without a drop of blood in his face. Then a red flush crawled up his neck and didn't stop until it got to his hair line. Horace watched the whole show with great pleasure.

Finally, Sandusky asked a question. "Why would it do that?"

"I think it's a reflex. Pondance isn't doing it consciously. Maybe it's a fighting reflex, something the keeagonka body does to give a predator less to chomp on. But take my word for it — when that fin goes down, so will the fish. Just push."

Horace turned and walked back to the poker table just as Seearay called out from the nearby pool. "Hey, guys! Ready to give it another go?"

Sandusky turned around to face the pool, and his poker face slammed down over any and all expressions. He looked completely relaxed, mildly amused, and slightly bored.

"Lead me to the slaughter, boys," said Sandusky. "It's just a friendly game."

"That's the spirit," said Seearay. He submerged for a moment and then shot up the slick, wet, incline to his tableside pedestal. Pondance and Ja did the same. When the players were settled around the table and the antes were in the pot, Sandusky shuffled the deck and dealt the hands. When he eased his own hand open he was barely able to maintain his look of passive resignation. He was looking at two bullets and the two ladies, with a three of clubs doing nothing to help the situation. Still, not too bad. Here goes nothing.

The action passed around the table with no openers. Horace took three cards, Ja took two, Pondance took two, and Seearay too one. Sandusky threw out his three of clubs and dealt himself one card from the deck. He got a three of hearts, which may have been a bad omen, but he didn't let it scare him. Calm and cool and bored. Last hand for old Alex. Show some sympathy, boys. Don't raise.

Horace opened with a single five-credit chip and never glanced at Sandusky. Ja met it, and so did Pondance. When the action got to Seearay, the keeagonka took a moment to debate his play.

"Lemme see, lemme see," mumbled Seearay. "Uh . . . okay, I'll see the five, and . . . raise it five." The bony black fingers at the end of the stick-thin arm tossed two modest chips into the pot. Sandusky made himself smile to compensate for his mounting inner tension. He wondered if everybody was keeping the betting small out of pity for him. The idea rankled him.

"Boy oh boy," said Sandusky with cheerful indifference. "I'm just barely hanging on, ain't I? Well, I might as well go down swingin'." He tossed two more of his remaining chips into the pot, which left him with just two. Ten credits total. When they were gone, it was goodnight, Irene.

Horace gave his shipmate a quick glance that meant absolutely nothing to anyone at the table except Sandusky — but Horace quietly folded, and that spoke volumes.

Ja elected to stay in the game, so he met the meager raise. Now it was back to Pondance, whose spiny black dorsal was up and unwavering.

"Well, Chief," said Pondance. "I guess this is it. You can save your money for the next hand or you can loose it now. I'm gonna meet that five credit raise . . . and raise it ten more." Clink, clink, clink.

Sandusky's jaw flexed, but he kept smiling, though the look in his eyes would have reminded an Earth dolphin of an angry baracuda. Apparently Pondance wanted Sandusky's last two chips. That's what poker was all about — winning with clever strategies.

Or maybe . . . maybe Pondance was trying to make everybody think he had a winning hand. If Pondance had simply raised the bet higher than Sandusky could afford, the other players would know that Pondance didn't have any faith in his own hand.

Just as Sandusky thought of that possibility, the keeagonka's spinal dorsal fin folded back. Sandusky fought silently to maintain his own poker face.

"Reckon I'll just fold," said Seearay, tossing is hand down. Pondance's doral partially unfolded.

Now it was Sandusky's turn. If he could win this hand he would be staked for the next few if the betting stayed low. More importantly, however, was the fact that he'd be armed with the knowledge of Pondance's Achilles dorsal. But if he didn't win this hand he could spend the next few years listening to the crew pass around the story of Sandusky's Last Stand.

He put his left elbow on the table and planted his chin on his palm while he gave Pondance a dead level gaze. "I guess I'm hooked, huh?" He picked up his last two chips and tossed them into the pot.

Pondance's dorsal folded down flush with his back, even though he casually pushed his loose cards around on the table with one finger. Meanwhile, Ja decided to meet the raise. The moment of truth had arrived.

"My hand isn't much, but I backed it anyway," said Ja, tossing down a pair of kings, a pair of deuces, and a ten of hearts as the odd-man-out.

"I got that beat," said Sandusky, laying down his matched sets of aces and queens. Then he turned to Pondance. "Let's see 'em, Bandit."

The keeagonka paused for a moment, then he flipped his cards over, one at a time. A deuce of clubs, a nine of hearts, a five of hearts, a king of spades, and a five of spades.

"That's it?" said Sandusky. "A pair of fives? You raised twice with a pair of fives?"

Pondance put his hand over the area between his eyes, pretending to hide his embarrassment. "I figured I had you guys conditioned."

"You did," said Horace. "Heck, I even had Sandusky beat." He flipped his cards over, showing three sevens. Sandusky reached out and pulled in the modest pot, marveling at how abundant it looked after staring at a bare table.

"Don't despair, Horace," said Sandusky, extracting a five-credit chip from his winnings and sliding them towards the bearded giant. "Here's that five I owe you."

___________ * ___________ * ___________ * __________

Danceea and I rode the canal boards all the way down to the lake. Our whylaree chaperones had not even tried to keep up with us during the last section of the canal, which had been the most rigorous. It was riddled with banked curves, bizarre obstacles, and steep inclines. The last obstacle had involved a clever bit of showmanship. A fat padded bar, bright orange to make it highly visible, stretched across the canal, three feet above the water, forcing us to quickly lay belly-down on the boards.

Seconds later the canal had gone right through a huge hollow log — which explained why the orange bar had been strategically placed to make board riders lay down before they got to the log. Riders who failed to lay down would collide with the padded bar and be knocked off their boards, instead of slamming painfully into the chest-high upper rim of the log.

When we shot out the other end of the log we found ourselves on the brink of the steepest incline of them all. The canal plunged downward for two hundred feet, but it was by no means straight. It snaked back and forth with curves so sharply bent that we rounded them tilted completely sideways, both of us screaming our lungs out all the way down.

The canal ended at the lake with a level section three feet above the water’s surface. We whizzed out over the water at a fearsome velocity. The boards slapped down like speed boats, and we didn't slow to a stop until we were several hundred feet from shore.

Dancee and I paddled to the bank slowly, trading stories in adrenaline-soaked voices about which section of the canal had come closest to spilling us off our boards. Danceea confessed that the hollow log obstacle and the looping final decent had surprised her as much as it had me. It had been added to the course while she was away. Considering the fact that she hadn't been on a canal board in four years, I had great respect for the skill she had shown.

By the time we reached shore it was three o'clock in the afternoon, and I was beginning to yawn and blink and stagger noticeably. Danceea diagnosed my condition as First Day Fatigue. According to ship's time, it was now eight in the evening, and I had been up awake for eleven hours. My day had included whylaree riding, swimming, canal boarding, and on kamikaze dive from a stellacruiser's wing.

I was exhausted.

“No arguments, now. You’ll be in poor shape for dinner if you don’t get some rest.” Danceea took my arm firmly in both hands, partly out of affection and partly because I might trip over my weary feet and break something she was fond of. “While you catch a nap, I’ll get a flyer and take the boards back up to were we left our gear.”

(Yawn) “If you say so, dear.” I stumbled and staggered as we made our way along the winding walkway constructed of gray stone slabs. The walkway wandered among the residential homes and various public buildings of the Norado community. Unique forms of architecture had been employed, often with the obvious intention of blending the buildings with the land itself. Gardens would meander up gently sloping walls to cover a house.

One of the buildings used artificial gravity to make a swimming pool do the same trick. It sloped up one side of the structure, over the roof, and down the other side. Looking at the inverted U-shape of he water’s surface was both fascinating and disconcerting. I wondered what it would be like to get up each morning and swim a few laps back and forth over the house.

We passed by a tree of impossible size, its branches covering several acres of shaded ground. I asked Danceea how such a tree could support its own weight.

"We help it," she said. "See the suspended net of fine black wire, just under the lowest branches?"

My sleep-bleary eyes located the net, supported by thin rods that were sunk into the ground. The net was as wide as the tree's spreading branches, and it was suspended eight feet above the ground, presumably so that pedestrians could stroll beneath the tree.

"A gravity grid?"

"Right. The tree's branches are kept almost weightless to relieve the strain. See the larger poles going up into the branches? They support a house that's built up among the leaves."

"You're kidding."

"Want to go over and look?"

"I'm too tired. I'll take your word for it. You mean somebody lives up there in zero gravity?"

"Nope. The house has its own internal gravity. The tree does not physically touch either the house or its supports."

"Amazing."

“Now guess who lives up there,” Danceea was smirking and flirting and looking adorably pleased with herself.

“Uh . . . (yawn) . . . I give up.”

“A family of jari-cari, naturally.”

“Ah-ha, the big birds. Of course.”

“Yep. They land and take off from the roof.”

“Now I’ve seen (yawn) everything.”

“Hey, you ain’t seen — “

“ — nothing yet, I know. Please, just put me to bed, girl.”

“If you can say that without blushing, you are tired!”

Fifteen minutes later I was tucked into a large and heavenly soft bed in my guest quarters at the Aberron home while Danceea flew back to the pond in the foothills where our gear had been left. My bedroom was spacious and appealing, a room of pale wood with indirect lighting and numerous works of art on the wall. Several of the paintings were signed by Danceea’s mother, Aldarrin. The bed was wide and low and incredibly comfortable, so much so that my inspection of the room lasted about two whole minutes before my eyes folded closed and my weary consciousness dropped down into Tason’s rocky core. It was a deep and total sleep, the result of a tired body and worn-out sensory inputs.

Tason was an emotional feast . . . and I had overeaten.

____________________________________


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Is there no man on Earth who has the wisdom and innocence of a child?


Last edited by Bud Brewster on Mon May 07, 2018 11:17 am; edited 3 times in total
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Gord Green
Galactic Ambassador


Joined: 06 Oct 2014
Posts: 1528
Location: Buffalo, NY

PostPosted: Wed Dec 07, 2016 10:26 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

It felt like a wonderful visit to Paradise!
Seperately, the interludes were all entertaining and told well.

The only thing missing was conflict. Perhaps an interjection between interludes of just how dangerous the Universe away from Tason really was or hints that this Paradise was not as perfect as it seems would fit.

Or, if Tason WAS all it seemed to be there was some kind of outside threat.

Or, you've already thought of that and have another path ahead.

I suspect the latter.

Nice job.....I'm really warming up to the characters.
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Bud Brewster
Galactic Fleet Admiral (site admin)


Joined: 14 Dec 2013
Posts: 8874
Location: North Carolina

PostPosted: Mon May 07, 2018 10:35 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

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Excellent jon of "Thinking like a writer", Gord! Cool

You'll be happy to hear that your last suggestion will prove to be the correct one. Hang in there, the best is yet to come!

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