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Authors: Anne Mccaffrey

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BOOK: Third Watch
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Besides the vendors, there were entertainers of all sorts. Jugglers juggled everything from balls to small dogs. Mimes who surely had to be of nonhuman stock struck poses and seemed to morph into exaggerated, cartoon imitations of audience members. Dancers shuffled, twirled, leaped, and tapped. Although some of them wore the same kind of street clothes and shipsuits favored by the vendors, others wore bright, if somewhat tattered, costumes, spangled with tarnished embellishments. You had to get pretty close to see the tatters and tarnish though. From a distance they looked splendid. At least Khorii thought so. Ariin snickered and said she saw where Akasa had got her start. Grimalkin was most attracted to the dancers, some of whom wore very little clothing of any sort. Pircifir had obviously been here many times, and strode purposefully through the crowds, ignoring the strange and tantalizing displays, shows, and foods all around them.

Khorii didn’t see any litters of kittens, but there were talking dogs, counting horses, and camels who could spit at a target and hit it dead center many feet away. The crowds gave that corral a wide berth.

Tall and striking as Pircifir and Grimalkin were, had she not been able to read their thought patterns, she’d have lost them in the crowd. Grimalkin occasionally did a protective check on her but was mostly enjoying himself. Pircifir seemed to have specific objectives.

Ariin tried to keep up with him as well.
“He’s the one who will find the aliens they make houses from,”
she told Khorii.
“Not you or your overgrown kitty cat. You may be tagging along to sightsee, but I happen to have a mission.”

“Let me know when you accomplish it, so I can be sure and take the credit then,”
Khorii told her tartly.
“I wouldn’t want to disappoint you, after all.”

They were both surprised when they fetched up unexpectedly behind Pircifir as he stopped to talk to a man standing in front of gaudy signs displaying all manner of alien life-forms. “Hurry, hurry, hurry,” the man’s recording blared over his dialogue with Pircifir, “see the beautiful humanoid symbiont bonding with the serpent—she slithers, she shakes, she rolls in the belly of the snake.” The picture behind him showed a female wearing very little. Whether Grimalkin’s interest was aroused by that or by the fact that the female was depicted as being within the body of an enormously long and convoluted reptile, Khorii was unsure. The face of the snake had a faintly humanoid look to it, too, she thought.

“Of all the things to take an interest in,”
Ariin fumed. Then,
“Oh, I see now.”

“What?”
Khorii asked. Although the market was exciting, she found the sensory overload was giving her a ferocious headache.
“Could you please touch your horn to my head?”
she asked. To her surprise, her sister did as she asked at once.

“Look there. Remind you of anything?”

“The incredible morphing tunnel, ladies and gentlemen. It is what it eats! It slinks on its belly or walks on its feet. It crawls, it rolls, it climbs and dives. It changes colors and shapes in the twinkle of an eye. Hurry, hurry, hurry.”

“You see it, don’t you, Pircifir? That’s it, right?” Ariin asked, tugging at the sleeve of his shipsuit.

Pircifir smiled. “Three tickets, please.”

He took the tickets, tore them, and turned to give them to the girls. The barker gaped. “How much for the unicorn twins?” he asked. “Can they do tricks?”

“You’d be surprised,” Pircifir told him with a wink. “But they’re not for sale. “

“Maybe you’ll change your mind when you’ve seen the show,” the man said, with a bow and an expansive wave to the wonders beyond the ticket booth.

Khorii heard Grimalkin growl low in his throat as he joined them and demanded a fourth ticket. He was trying to protect her, she realized, her and Ariin both, and seemed to think he had to be both Khiindi and Elviiz for her. It was sweet, but she didn’t know if she’d trust him if he took a fancy to the lady symbiont in the snake’s belly.

She and Ariin headed for the section of the tent marked with the poster of the incredible morphing tunnel, but Pircifir strolled toward the lady symbiont’s section.

“But—”
Ariin protested.

Grimalkin caught it and whispered to both girls, “Shhh, mustn’t tip our hands by seeming too interested in any particular thing.”

The huge snake was sleeping and had to be prodded awake by a bored man reading something colorful and flimsy. It writhed and coiled, its head and upper body rising several feet above the floor of its cage as it swayed back and forth. Its eyes were quite beautiful, slanted gold and not slitted, but with wide pupils, and regarded them sadly from under a fringed hood.

“Where’s the lady?” Grimalkin asked the man. Another prod, the snake hissed more in pain than anger, and the coils spread to reveal what Khorii saw at once was not a lady at all but a growth of some sort that was vaguely shaped like the torso and head of a human. She felt the snake’s pain and realized the growth was probably killing it.

She had done so much healing in the past
ghaanye
that it was almost automatic for her. Khorii stepped forward. She couldn’t hiss. Her vocal cords were not capable of producing the sound. But she projected calming, shushing thoughts to the serpent, and it lay back down again, still uncoiled.

Grimalkin grabbed her by the hood of her shipsuit as if trying to pick up a kitten. “Khorii, don’t! That’s a dangerous creature!”

“It’s okay,” she told him. “She knows I’m trying to help her. She won’t hurt me.”

Grimalkin held on to her arm, forcing her to listen while he related an ancient folktale about a lady who had saved a serpent’s life when it was freezing to death, on the condition that the dying reptile refrain from biting her. “So the lady put the snake inside her coat next to her heart and warmed it on her breast. It recovered and she was pleased until the moment she felt the fangs sink into her skin. ‘But I saved your life and you promised not to bite!’ she protested with her dying breath. ‘Why did you kill me?’ ‘Because I’m a snake,’ the serpent replied. ‘so don’t whine. You knew I was a snake when you picked me up.’”

“If she bites me, Ariin can heal me, or you can take me back before this happened, okay? But she’s in a lot of pain,” Khorii told him softly.

Grimalkin released her. Pircifir looked on with interest as she stepped forward again.

“Bring your hurt to me,”
she told the snake.
“Press that part of you to the bars and I will heal you.”

The bored-looking keeper roused himself, but Pircifir planted himself between the man and the serpent.

The snake shifted, her scales rippling as she coiled herself so that the outer coils filled the back of the cage while her head and the coil containing the lump pressed against the bars. She regarded Khorii with a tragic expression, which Khorii hoped did not mean that the snake regretted that as soon as it was healed it would, as in the story, be compelled by its serpentine nature to bite her. While Khorii was fairly certain that the measures she’d outlined to Grimalkin would save her life, she also thought being bitten by something that size would hurt a lot.

The coil pulsed slowly. It was dry and smooth except for the irregular lump, where the scales poked up along it. Some of them had rubbed off, revealing dark, ichor-filled sores.

Shushing the serpent again with her mind, Khorii motioned it to press farther forward. When it was close enough, she dipped her head to touch the lump with her horn. The snake hissed again, and Khorii assured it that she was not going to poke or prod the tumor with her sharp-looking horn, but that it would make the hurt go away.

She felt the snake’s head swaying above her and was startled momentarily when a drop of something wet fell past her nose and sizzled on the street just beside her foot. Glancing up, she saw the fangs protruding slightly from the snake’s mouth, venom dripping. A few feet away, she heard Grimalkin hiss in surprise, and she held out her hand to him, warning him not to come any closer.

Khorii knew the secretion of the venom had been involuntary, and the snake rippled with what could have been apology. She touched the tumor with her horn while the snake concentrated on trying to refrain from dripping venom.

She felt the tumor begin to uncoil its wadded cells inside the snake’s body as it began to disintegrate, then she realized why the serpent looked so sad. This was not a real tumor, but the calcified bodies of the snake’s young that she had ingested before she was captured. Instead of reabsorbing into her body normally, they had congealed in a lump, then grown hard and putrid inside her and sickened her.

Khorii jumped back as the snake’s mouth yawned. Grimalkin grabbed her shoulders, Ariin her arm. But when the serpent opened its mouth wide, it was to let out a terrible belch of the worst imaginable stink as its body finished digesting the mass, and the coil became smooth again.

The snake wound its long body in a tight coil and regarded Khorii with those beautiful eyes again. Then it slowly dipped its head, as if bowing in appreciation of what the young Linyaari had done for it. And all during this time, the man who was supposed to be tending the snake watched the entire event with his mouth hanging open. Then, when the snake belched, he fainted dead away.

Chapter 6

G
rimalkin and Pircifir did not actually stick around for the snake’s complete recovery. The keeper who had been in charge of stimulating the snake was still passed out, either from fright or the stench of the belch. The visitors thought it best not to revive him. The stench followed them into the next exhibit, the incredible morphing tunnel.

The interior of the tent was bare—no cage, no keeper, not even a flutter in the sides of the tent. The fabric was stretched incredibly smooth and tight, from the slightly raised floor to the conical ceiling.

“Where is it?” Pircifir asked.

“Hurry, hurry, hurry, step right up and see if the floor comes away on your boot,” Ariin suggested.

He gave her a quizzical look as she set her boot deliberately on the material raising the floor of the tent up off the street. Her foot came away with a sucking sound and she held the sole up to show him that it was covered with a sticky mucus. “You’re looking at the tunnel’s first trick. It’s become the tent’s entire interior.”

“How do you know that?” Pircifir asked her.

“It’s a time thing, brother,” Grimalkin told him.

From behind them came a low, self-satisfied chuckle, and they turned to see the barker. “You didn’t go inside,” he chided them.

“It would eat us,” Khorii said.

“Don’t be silly, little girl. It’s perfectly safe.” He brushed past them and stepped inside. “Too close for you? How about a window right—here?” With a stick, he drew a domed shape on the side of the “tent,” crisscrossing it with marks. The marks sucked in the material between them so that it stood in ridges. At first, the film left between the ridges was opaque, but gradually it became transparent, and Khorii saw a spitting camel walking past, led by his trainer.

“A higher ceiling? Watch!” He swished the stick in a circle above his head, and the cone lengthened, then, as the swishes became broader, widened again until the ceiling was approximately a meter higher. “Perhaps you’d be happier in a dome?” he asked, and ran around the room, his coattails flapping as he poked and swished at the wall until it spread into a dome shape.

“A castle?” Grimalkin asked.

“A small one, maybe,” the man said. “This is just a small tunnel, after all. I’d have to feed it a lot more tents and cages to have enough to make something larger. But it has lots of bigger brothers and sisters where it comes from.”

“Where would that be?” Grimalkin asked.

“A trade secret, my hairy friend. A trade secret.”

“What if we wished to place a custom order?” Pircifir asked.

“I’m a showman, not a merchant,” the man said. “I search the universe for these wonders, but they come from a great distance, and I’ve no intention of going back there.”

Pircifir named quite a hefty sum, but the man said, “You have little insight into the soul of an artist like myself, sir. My assistant told me that your little friend here ruined the symbiont effect of my serpent, and now you wish me to disclose the secret source of my other act. I couldn’t possibly consider that without a truly intriguing and appealing replacement—such as the unicorn girls there.”

“We’re not—” Khorii began, but Pircifir crooked his finger to Grimalkin and called him over.

“You can’t sell us,” Khorii protested.

Grimalkin reached back to pat her arm reassuringly, and she caught his warning glance and a flicker of eye movement in the direction of the barker. Tuning in, she wasn’t surprised to find that the showman had more than simple bargaining on his mind.

“Once I have those twins caged, I can move them far away before their owners discover that I’ve told them to look in the wrong sector instead of the one where the tunnels were actually found. Maybe I can go back to their planet and get some more and do a really classy act, unicorn princesses in a castle tower kind of thing. Ought to be a big draw, along with these girls making stuff like the snake’s tumor disappear.”

“Did you also catch the real location of the tunnel planet as he thought about it?”
Khorii asked Ariin.

“Yes, but I have no intention of telling those two until we’re back safe aboard the ship. I don’t want to be on display again.”

“We might be able to come to an agreement,” Pircifir said. “But you have to throw in your current specimen as well. These girls are quite extraordinary.”

“No way,” the man said. “I need that specimen. I’ll take one of them for revealing the location where you can get your own, and the other one in payment for ruining my snake act. That’s the best I can do.”

“Very well,” Pircifir said. “Your loss. Come along, girls.”

The showman shrugged shoulders unusually broad and muscular for someone of his otherwise-slight build. He smiled philosophically and waved at them, trying to make them think this was the last they’d see of him.

BOOK: Third Watch
9.42Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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