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Something of a salute to the late James H. Schmitz, originally written for the Califur 2.0 Con Book.
by Kay Shapero
(copyright Kay Shapero, 2006)
Located right next to the spaceport, Pytan's Rest was the biggest; indeed the ONLY inn inside Farm Asteroid B4376xs, a typically hollowed and spun construction locally known as Central Garden. Not that they got enough traffic for more than one inn. It was owned by Grayan Pytan and family, and, with the occasional help of a couple of part timers from nearby run by them as well. Mostly "and family", which was to say while Grayan did the cooking and general interacting with the guests, 10 year old Chel did anything else that didn't require heavy lifting. The only other Pytan to hand was Chel's grandfather, Ostein, who limited his activities to relaxing in the garden reading, sipping something cool and asking Chel or Grayan to run errands for him. That and fishing. There was a special fishing lake about a kilometer off, and he would take chair and fish rod and spend all day there.
Ostein was hardly helpless, and, when, after one exceptionally busy day Chel got up the nerve to ask why HE got to sit around and rest, he just laughed. "It's simple, me boy. Y'see, I own the inn outright - sold me ship to pay for it, but I didn't touch any of me other treasures, out there." He waved generally - any direction will do if you want to point to the universe. "Ain't got anybody to leave it to but yer mom and ye, and a'course ye two are in me will... but I could always leave it to the Home for Retired Smugglers or something if I got too annoyed. So 'ts in her interest to keep me happy." He laughed again.
"Treasure?" asked Chel, "Were you a spacebooter, Grandpa?"
"Never ye mind about that, boy, there's plenty a ways to make a bundle out on the spaceways, legal and otherways." And that was all he had to say on the subject.
Or at least all he had to say until the day Ostein opened the door of his room, to see a pile of bed linen with two feet on the other side. Muffled by the pile came the voice of Chel plaintively saying "Mom asked me to make your bed."
"Come in, me boy." Ostein laughed, "just let me put this away." He slipped a folded piece of paper into a blue pouch of the kind ship's papers are stored in, along with an angular force key, opened the old space chest at the foot of his bed and placed it inside. He closed the lid.
Chel dropped the bed linen on the chest and started to strip the bed. "What was that, Grandpa?" he asked.
"Just me old treasure map," replied Ostein. "I like to look at it from time to time and reminisce."
"Wow," said Chel, "Can I look at it?"
Chel made up the bed, then left with the dirty linens, giving Ostein a hopeful smile, which got no response. But from then on whenever he was in the room he would look at the old space chest and wonder about the contents.
It was the other side of his 11th birthday before he got that chance. He had been given a rare afternoon off, and had headed for the lake, not for fishing, which he didn't really care for but it was far enough that nobody would "forget" that he had the time off and order him to do something. Finding an unused skiff, he climbed in and pushed off, gliding past the stands of reed and water lily that bordered the lake, dreamily looking up toward the long thin sun and the hazy patches of farmland beyond it. "Che-ell...." came a distant sound. He drifted into the reeds, hoping it was just a bird.
No such luck - there was a much louder cry of "Che-elll!" and the reeds parted to reveal Lyessa, one of the occasional part-timers who helped when the inn was REALLY busy. From her lofty advantage of 15 years old, she eyed him coolly. "Quit hiding; a ship came in and Grayan wants you to come back and help. We've got three visitors, Outlanders!"
Chel started to protest, then as the last word seeped into his brain hastily started to pole the skiff back to the landing. "Outlanders? What kind? Where they from? What are they doing here? Why.."
Lyessa held up one hand to stem the tide. "I don't know. One of 'em looks like a really big praying mantis and the other two are furry with long tails like cats or foxes or somethin'. Come on, you're missing everything!"
Chel carefully tied up the skiff; one thing you got drilled into you at an early age around here was that you always left things as you found them, then hurried up the path to the inn.
Talk about the back of beyond, thought Myllis, surveying the inn greatroom casually from his position at one of the tables. His tail tip flicked slightly, belying his apparent calm. Saryan grinned at him, teeth carefully hidden. "Are ye sure we haven't wandered into the middle of a historical drama?" she said. "I doubt it," said Kiktri'k from where he stood (not being suited for sitting down) at the third side of the table. "That banner over there is obviously 4th century Sardrin while the ceiling light sticks are pure Mettrick Moderne. One or the other is totally out of period."
Grayan glided up to the table. "May I take your order, gentlefolk?"
Myllis looked back down at the projected menu. "Sunfish for me, with green tea " he said, glancing over at Saryan. "And for me, only with fennis syrup" she said. "Redstrype salad, please, with brennis" said Kiktri'k.
Grayan held up her notepad. "Biocheck, please." Each Outlander leaned over and touched the pad screen with their datasticks. "Thank you." She checked the screen, to make sure nobody had ordered anything inimical to their biosystems, then proceeded back behind the bar to the kitchen.
Chel came in through the side door of the greatroom; the front door was for guests, while it would hardly do to get bogged down in the kitchen before even getting the chance to see their unusual visitors. He looked around. There they were!
Lyessa's description was about right - two of them were a bit taller than Grayan, densely furred in a brown and black brindle pattern, shot with strips of pale gold. One wore a blue and gold kilt, and had a bright red satchel resting by his/her/its place at the table, the other, seated on the other side of the table from Chel's vantage point wore an open-sided tabard like a waterfall in multiple shades of green, with occasional streaks of gold that flashed as the wearer moved. The third was a head taller than the others, and stood with his back to Chel. He/she/it was dark to light green, exoskeletal, and wore nothing other than a pouch slung around... his/her - oh space it! Chel gave up on pronoun guessing and settled on "his" for anybody not obviously female - his middle. Very like a praying mantis. Chel dug through his memory from the school netcasts - the furry ones would be Brisail, and the one in the bright tabard probably female, while the mantid could be one of several species.
Grayan spotted him as she exited the kitchen, and waved him to her. He walked over. "Here," she said, handing him a tray with a heatermug full of tea and two clear glasses on it. "The green tea is for the one in blue, the fennis is for the one in green, and the brennis is for the standing one." She hurried back into the kitchen to fix the food.
Hardly believing his luck, Chel carefully balanced the three drinks on his tray and walked over to the three guests. Fortunately for everybody, his experience in waiting on local customers enabled him to set the drinks down smoothly before the correct recipients without spilling a drop, all without any input from his brain which was firmly fixed on seeing as much as he could of the visitors. His guess about the sexes of the Brisail was probably correct; at least the one in the tabard was more slender and delicate looking than the other, which would match what the schoolcast said about them. He still had no idea what the mantid was, if they even had the same sexes humans or Brisail had. The mantid was the first to pick up his drink, holding it up to the light to watch the subtle patterns of dark and light in the swirling liquid. He extruded a sort of straw from his face to take a sip. "Perfectly mixed. My compliments to the bartender."
"Uh, I'll tell her," said Chel, suddenly realizing that having served the drinks, he had no real excuse for standing here, and departed for the kitchen.
Saryan laughed again, a sound rather like the purring of a large kitten. "I think we just made his year."
Myllis made a face. "I just hope we didn't just waste ours."
"We haven't," said Kiktri'k looking up and across the table from where he stood.
Chel re-emerged from the kitchen, having delivered the message and picked up another tray of drinks, for three fascinated locals sitting at the next table over from the Outland guests. He placed the drinks on the table, then looked up to see the two Brisail push their chairs out slightly to look at the front door. He looked there too.
There stood Ostein, fishing pole and sightly dripping creel in one hand, folding chair in the other. He looked around the room, surveying the house, and spotted the Outlanders. He grinned, started forward and spotted Chel. "Chel! Just take these to the kitchen, will ye?" He held out the creel, rod and chair.
Chel started, picked up the tray he'd delivered the drinks on, and walked over to relieve Ostein of his burden. As he started back for the kitchen, Ostein pulled a chair out from an unoccupied table (not that there were many of those left - word was spreading fast), moved it over to the table with the Outlanders and sat down.
Back in the kitchen, Chel removed the fish from the creel, cleaned them and stored them in the stasis tank, hung creel and fish-pole on their usual hooks by the door, leaned the folding chair against the wall beneath them for the moment, and generally did useful things for the eternity it took for the sunfish and redstrype plates to be finished. By now there were so many customers and orders pouring in that there was no question of Grayan having time to serve, and both Lyessa and Duan, the other part-timer were pressed into service. Chel being the best waiter of them all took the food to the Outlander table.
The conversation at the table was so intense that the Outlanders hardly noticed when the food was put down before them. But Ostein did. He looked up at Chel and grinned at the others. "Hey, mates, let me introduce ye to me grandson, Chel." The Outlanders looked up then. "These're three a the finest spacers I ever shipped with; Saryan (he indicated the Brisail in green) was our pilot, Myllis (the other Brisail) our navigator, Kiktri'k (the mantid) our engineer way back in our early days on the old SunSeeker." The Outlanders nodded gravely to the stunned Chel. "Ok, lad, now bring me a steak sandwich and coffee." Chel blinked, then recovered himself and headed for the kitchen.
"Ye still drink that horrible stuff?" asked Saryan.
"What of it?" asked Ostein. "I see ye still like that sticky fennis stuff. I should think it would be like drinking glue."
"I believe I will stick to brennis," commented Kiktri'k. The darker thread of his drink was now almost completely gone, leaving it pale gold.
"Given that tea and coffee would make ye sick and fennis gum up regions no proper Chennis would mention, I shouldn't wonder," said Saryan.
Myllis simply drank his tea and ate his sunfish, without comment. There would be time for proper discussion later, when fewer eyes were watching and ears listening.
Even the longest run on a restaurant ends eventually, and finally everybody had finished eating, and most had run out of excuses to hang around instead of going home. Even with modern equipment, a farmer gets up early; at last the only people at the inn were the Pytans and their guests, who would be staying overnight.
The two Brisail had taken one room, the Chennis (Chel had finally gotten the chance to check the net) another. They all gathered briefly in Ostein's room, but found it too small, so all three had gathered in the upstairs room taken by the Brisail, followed shortly by Ostein carrying a few bottles of his private stock (from the space chest) , leaving instructions to the rest of the family that nothing more would be required.
Down in the kitchen, with the last of the cooking gear cleaned and put away (Chel didn't think there was a pan in the house that hadn't been used tonight), Chel saw the folding chair which Grayan had completely forgotten, and decided to further demonstrate his responsibility by put it away unasked. The fact that Ostein's room was right under the one with the conversation in it had nothing to do with this, of course.
Chel lugged the chair to Ostein's room, and put it into the closet where his grandfather usually kept it. He listened carefully, but the ceiling soundproofing was working annoyingly well. Maybe if he got closer... He tried standing on Ostein's old space chest, but that didn't work either. He studied the chest; sturdy as all such things were, it was designed to stand equally well on any side or even on end. Carefully upending it, he glanced around the room, and spotted a glass. Picking it up, he climbed carefully up the side of the bed and stood on top of the chest, putting the glass against the ceiling, and his ear to the other end, promptly lost his balance, and fell onto the bed. He froze, half expecting to hear feet pounding down the hall, but nobody came. He put the glass back down as being more of a hindrance than a help and tried it again.
This was better - at least he didn't fall over. He listened carefully, and heard vague whispers.. no, it wasn't the conversation it was the ceiling air duct fan. Drats! He looked around the room from his unfamiliar vantage point. Hmm... maybe the closet ceiling was less insulated? Couldn't hurt.
He climbed back down to the floor, and walked into the closet, opened the fishing chair and stood on it. And at last heard his grandfather's voice saying "I'll admit it's tempting, but I'm afraid I've retired." Other voices said something unintelligible. "Agreed," said his grandfather's voice. "It's certainly the best..." his voice faded out as he moved away from whatever was allowing his voice to come through. Chel listened for several minutes, but finally gave up.
He climbed back down off the chair, stood it back up, and left the closet. Better not leave the space chest on end. He braced himself and carefully lowered it until he had it about three inches from the floor at which point it slipped and landed in its proper place with a thud. Chel was about to sprint from the room when something he'd seen finally worked its way through to his head. The top of the chest had bounced slightly when it hit the floor. He reached out, touched it. Sure enough, the space chest was unlocked.
Chel didn't stop to think - he simply opened the chest, looked inside, spotted the old ship-paper pouch, and pulled it out. He opened it, removed the folded paper and key, closed it again and replaced it in the chest, shoving the contents back to the side to approximate their location before the movement of the chest. He shut the chest, and ran across the hall to his own room, clutching his prize. Turning on his desk lamp, he unfolded the paper.
As a treasure map, it was rather a disappointment - no "walk five paces south from the black oak tree" or "X marks the spot", just a series of paired numbers and letters, on a torn piece of printer paper. The force-key was better; a rough angular piece of metal that when brought into contact with just the right lock would extend narrow force tendrils that would cause the lock to open. There were better security measures, but if you had to lock something up for a long time and release it only to the bearer of the one and only key, it was hard to beat the force-key/lock combination. Chel had started to look up force-keys on the net, when abruptly it hit him just what he had done. If Ostein found out! Better get these back into the chest at once.
Too late! He heard Ostein's familiar tread out in the hall. Followed by a quieter step Chel didn't recognize; presumably one of the guests. The steps stopped, and there was the sound of an opening door. Voices, almost intelligible.
Chel cracked the door and peeked out. Ostein's room was small, not much bigger than the ship's cabin it was designed to resemble, and the door was wide open so he could see the entire room with the exception of the closet. Ostein stood before his bed, facing Myllis. "I'm sorry," he said, "But believe me, ye don't want that map."
"It is only accident that ye have it and we do not. We offered ye a fair share but apparently ye aren't interested. Fine; it does ye no good here and it would do yer old shipmates a great deal of it. Yes, we want that map."
Ostein shrugged, reached down and opened the chest, removing the blue ship-papers pouch. "Ye can still change yer mind."
Myllis reached over for the pouch. In doing so, his right hand was revealed clutching a needler, pointed at Ostein!
Chel gasped, faintly.
Kiktri'k came into view, reached into the room, and took the pouch from Myllis, opened it. "Empty," he said.
"Care to try that again?" asked Myllis "I can wait as long as ye can."
Ostein sounded genuinely surprised. "I assure ye that's where I keep it. If it's not there, I don't know where it is."
"But I believe I do," a third voice joined the conversation. Chel's door opened abruptly, and a furred hand reached in to grab him and haul him out of the room, the papers and key still in his hand. "Now then, lad," asked Saryan. "Would ye rather have a list of numbers and a useless key or yer grandfather?" Shivering, Chel held out the items. "Wise choice," said Saryan. She held tightly to his arm.
Myllis backed slowly out of the room, needler still on Ostein. "We will take the lad with us until we're away, then return him to ye. Just to make sure."
"Leave the boy," said Ostein. "Ye can have the map with me blessing."
"That we will, and ye'll get him back soon enough. Now, where's the quickest exit. Remember what could happen if anybody sees us."
"Try the kitchen. Chel and I always go out that way when we go fishing. He's quite a fisherman, if I do say meself. Cooks 'em up real well, too."
Huh? Chel wasn't that bad at cooking, but he was a rotten fisherman, and didn't care who knew it. What was Ostein talking about?
Chel was dragged down the hall with the three Outlanders, and off to the kitchen. The lights were off, leaving no light in the room save what leaked in from outside, where the moon-setting was at half level tonight. Just enough to reveal stacks of pans and...
OH! Suddenly Chel caught Ostein's hint. As they exited the door, he reached out for the fish-pole with his free hand and swung it across the nearest stack, which fell with a resounding CRASH! Plates and pans went spinning across the floor, as Chel wrenched free from the startled Saryan's grip, and fled back out through the door. Right past Ostein, who was carrying a large flashlight in one hand and an equally large blaster pistol in the other. He shone the flashlight at the Outlanders.
"Get out of me house!" Ostein roared. "Take yer map and get off of me world right now before I fire!"
The three Outlanders recovered their balance and fled through the other door, into the night.
Chel jumped up. "I'll call the spaceport and tell them to stop those pirates."
"Ye'll do nothing of the kind," said Ostein. "Let them go. They were honorable shipmates once, regardless of what they are now. They can yet find their way back. I'll give 'em the chance."
"But the map! Your treasure!"
"Lad, lad, d'ye really think I would trust me treasure to anything so obvious and fragile as that? That's not what the map leads to. The SunSeeker did her share of salvage work, and we used that asteroid for storage of things of value that couldn't be immediately sold, but never for more than a year or two. And long after that trio left her, we cleaned out the vault once and for all, and each took a share and went our ways. That's how I got the ship I sold to buy this place. Naw, lad, I seriously doubt there's anything there now but the vault and the lock. Those force locks last for generations. And knowing the skipper, I'll bet there's a nasty trap waiting for anybody who doesn't know what to do besides turn the key. I did try to warn them."
"Where is your treasure, then?" asked Chel.
"Oh, it's in a very safe place indeed. No pirate will ever be stealing it, I assure ye. Now, me lad, I think there's been enough excitement for one night. Come back with me and I'll show ye the rest of the contents of me space chest, and then ye can go to bed."
With Chel safely tucked away, Ostein called the spaceport, and made sure the three Outlanders had departed. With luck they might make it clear to others of their ilk that he no longer had that map and key. He sat down on his bunk and chuckled, faintly. Yes, his treasure was safe indeed - most of it spent wisely on wine, women and song as fast as he made it, the rest to buy his ship, and ultimately, that ship on his family. What greater treasure could a man want?