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Volume 1745b
Presents
Secret Masters of Callisto
By Charles R. Rutledge
Chapters 4 & 5
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Chapter Four

   I released my hold on Prince Kaldar and offered him a hand up. He hesitated for a moment, but then grasped my arm and I pulled him to his feet. Kaldar was a little taller than my 6’ 2”. He had the same golden skin tone as the other Ku-thad, but his hair was a much lighter shade of red, almost blond. He gave me a level, appraising stare, obviously beginning to realize that I was from out of town.

   His sister was speaking to him quickly in Thanatorian. He raised his brows and then said in English, "A rope? You brought a ghastozar down from the sky with a rope?"

   His Thanatorian accent was heavier than Darisha's. I can only describe it by comparing it to a Russian accent. It's a poor example, but that's what it reminded me of. I said,  "I was lucky."

   "Still," he said, "You saved my sister's life. We are all in your debt. I'm sorry I attacked you but when I came through the trees and saw you standing over Darisha, I thought she was in danger."

   "Don't worry about it. I'd probably have thought the same thing."

   “Kaldar, where is mother?” Darisha said. “Is she all right?”

   Kaldar said, “Yes, she’s safe.” He turned around and said something to the guards. One of them disappeared into the trees and returned moments later accompanied by two more guards and the other woman I had glimpsed while prone on the gate. As I said before, both Jon Dark and his princess would be somewhere in their fifties now, but seeing Darloona of Shondakor, I would have never guessed her to be any older then mid thirties.

   Her long, red hair was without a touch of gray, and her form was slender and supple. As she came closer I could see the large, expressive green eyes that had captivated Jandar so. She was truly a beautiful woman. She wore a soft leather tunic, belted at the waist with an ornately wrought metal girdle.

   Darisha hurried to her mother and they embraced. They spoke animatedly, and Darloona’s gaze shifted to me over Darisha’s shoulder. They released each other, then walked arm in arm toward where Kaldar and I stood. Unsure how to greet royalty on Thanator, I bowed from the waist, hands at my side as I would in the dojo.

   Darloona smiled. She said, “My daughter tells me that you saved her life. You have the gratitude of the kingdom of Shondakor. We will render you any help that we can. Darisha also tells me that you are from Earth. It has been very long since anyone from my husband’s world has come to Thanator.”

   (To save the reader time and aggravation, I'll be giving the English version of all conversations from this point on. Kaldar, Darisha, and Darloona could speak English of course. Any other Thanatorian speech was translated for me, sometimes as it was spoken, and sometimes after the fact. I've attempted to present it here as closely as memory and the vagaries of language will allow.)

   I said, “Thank you, your highness. I could use some help. I’m trying to find a young girl who passed through the gate accidentally. As you can probably imagine, I’m very concerned for her safety.”

   “Of course,” Darloona said. “We will make all haste back to Shondakor. My husband, prince Jandar, will be anxious to speak with you and we’ll help in any way that we can.”

   Kaldar said, “The ghastozars seem to have gone, but they may not be far. We don’t want to get caught in the open again. We probably should make our way back to the others along the edge of the Kumala.”

   “But just the edge,” Darloona said. “We aren’t the only hunters about during the migration season. Yathribs know the ways of the vanth as well.”

   “Vanth?” I said.

   “Something like your elk, father tells me,” Darisha explained. “They are highly prized for their meat, but very difficult to catch most of the time. They migrate across the plains of Haratha once each year to their mating grounds in the Black Mountains.”

   “And what is a yathrib?”

   Kaldar answered that one. “Hope you never find out.”

   “The migration season is almost over,” Darisha went on, “And we weren’t having much luck. I suspect now that the presence of the ghastozars probably spooked any vanth that were around. We were preparing to return to Shondakor when one of our scouts saw a body lying on the gate between worlds. Part of our party came to investigate. The others are not far away. The edge of the Kumala makes sort of a point here, like a peninsula of trees. The rest of our party is on the other side.”

   “And we should join them,” Kaldar said.

   I took a few minutes to return to the edge of the trees and find my laundry bag. I also coiled up what was left of my rope. The ghastozar had bitten off about ten feet.

   “We have many fine ropes we can supply you with in Shondakor,” Kaldar said.

   I said, “I have a sentimental attachment to this one.”

   “As do I,” said Darisha.

   Kaldar laughed. “Let’s be on our way. It’s not long until nightfall.”

   I wondered how he could tell. The light hadn’t changed as far as I could see. Callisto is far too distant from Earth’s sun to receive any direct sunlight. An envelope of glowing, golden vapor illuminates the world, providing light and heat. From the books I’d learned that night comes suddenly, with no twilight. Apparently the glowing effect stops for a certain period each day.

   Jon Dark never found any explanation for the envelope, nor any of the other seeming impossibilities, such as the earthlike gravity. The moon wasn’t large enough to have that sort of gravitational pull.  Callisto should have been a floating, frozen chunk of rock and methane snow. It had been easier to handle the breaches of the laws of physics when I had considered Lin Carter’s books to be imaginative works of fiction. Faced with them in real life, I couldn’t help wondering how all of it worked.

   Those were my thoughts as I followed the Ku-thad warriors along the verge of the Grand Kumala. We walked steadily for about half an hour, the guards using their swords like machetes to clear a path. Darisha walked beside me. I got the feeling that she had many questions she wanted ask me, but she seemed to sense that I was deep in thought, trying to get a grasp on my situation.  Kaldar chatted quietly with his mother. Occasionally I would catch a glimpse of some odd creature scurrying through the scarlet foliage, but for the most part, our trek was uneventful.

   We came out of the trees at the top of a gentle slope. The leaves and vines of the jungle were so thick that I hadn’t been able to see what awaited us. Below us a group of Ku-thad were gathered around some small tents and what looked to be portable tables and chairs. The luxury equipment of a royal party out for a day of hunting. But that wasn’t what caught and held my attention, for the party stood in the shadow of one of the great sky galleons of Callisto.

   It hung there like some something from a dream, massive and impossible. A ship, looking more like a Spanish galleon than anything else, complete with a gilded figurehead and ornamental scrollwork along the prow. It was tethered to the ground at several points with thick lines. From the center of the craft sprouted two huge, ribbed, bat-like wings. It’s one thing to read about such a thing, but quite another to actually see it.

   Apparently noting my amazement, Darisha said, “Father tells me you have many flying machines on Earth, but nothing like our sky ships.”

   I nodded. “Yes we have planes of all sorts, but it’s a bit of a jolt to see something that looks like it should be moored in a harbor hanging in the sky.”

   I suppose I should have expected it. I’m not sure exactly how far the gate between worlds is from the city of Shondakor, but I should have realized it was too far to ride on thaptor back in a day’s time.  Carter’s maps weren’t to scale by any stretch of the imagination but they did show considerable distance between the gate and the city. Obviously the hunting expedition would travel to the plains of Haratha in one of the flying ships.

  I could feel the eyes of the second half of the hunting party upon me as we descended the slope. My hair is brown and flecked with gray, not as startling to the Thanatorians as Jon Dark’s blond curls, but my eyes are quite blue, and I’m sure my clothing seemed odd to them. I began to wish I’d at least taken the time to change into one of my un-ripped t-shirts.

   Kaldar played his roll of future monarch well, stepping in and introducing me to the civilian party members, explaining that I was indeed a visitor from another world and that I didn’t speak the language. I smiled and nodded my head a lot as various members of the Shondakorian court greeted me enthusiastically.

   The guards began taking down the tents and disassembling the tables. These were packed into large baskets that were then reeled up to the ship. While that was being done, the members of the hunting party ascended to the galleon using rope ladders and an even larger basket that served as an elevator for the less nimble.

   When my turn came, I scrambled up the rope ladder and realized a childhood dream by stepping onto the deck of a flying ship. I remembered reading that while the sky ships appeared to be made of wood, they were actually constructed, to a large degree, of molded pieces of treated paper. The paper was soaked in some type of glue and molded on forms to make a sort of organic fiberglass. The support beams, masts and other parts of the ship were of wood, but the majority of the hull was made of incredibly light and durable paper.

   The lower part of the ship and the double hulls were then pumped full of a lifting gas similar to helium or hydrogen. This made the ships almost weightless. The huge bat wings actually flapped up and down to propel the ship like something from the sketchbooks of Da Vinci. The wings had originally been powered by cogs and wheels turned by slaves, but in one of the later books, Renegade of Callisto I think, Jon Dark mentions that he had succeeded in creating a workable combustion engine for the sky ships.

   I leaned on the rail of the ship and looked down at the vast reaches of the Grand Kumala. Was Althea Quinn down there somewhere? The events of the day didn’t give me much hope for her survival if so. My narrow escape from the ghastozar had brought home to me the reality of just how dangerous a place Thanator was. I’d almost been killed within hours of my arrival, and it was going on two weeks since Althea had fallen into the gate.

    “Thinking of your friend?” Darisha said from my left. She had walked up while I was lost in thought.

   I said, “I wonder if I’m making a mistake by flying off to Shondakor. If Althea is still alive she’s probably not that far from the gate. It’s unlikely she ran into another hunting party.”

   Darisha shook her head. “You could do little good searching here on your own, Charles. The Grand Kumala covers thousands of miles. I’m sure that father will loan you men and ships to aid in your search. You’ll be doing your friend the most good by coming to Shondakor.”

   “I hope you’re right, Darisha.”

   I felt a low rumble move through the decks of the ship. The engine being started I assumed. Crew members scrambled about, making things secure and casting off lines. The sky ship began to rise. Despite my fears for Althea I have to admit that a thrill ran through me.

   “Darisha, what’s the name of this ship?”

   “This is the Avenger. She’s one of the older ships in the navy. We use her mostly for outings and leisure travel. We have faster scout ships now.”

   “The Avenger is one of the ships that flew over the edge of the world to rescue your father from the mind wizards, isn’t it?”

   “Yes it is. However did you know?”

   “I’ve read the collected journals that Jandar sent back to Earth.”

   She smiled. “He’ll be pleased to know that. He lost contact with Price Lankar some time ago when the gate stopped opening. Do you know Lankar?”

   “Not exactly,” I said. “But I feel he and I are friends just the same.”

   Kaldar came striding across the deck carrying two heavy cloaks. He handed one to me, and the other to his sister. “It gets cold once we’ve gained altitude,” he said.

   I thanked him and threw the cloak around my shoulders. The Avenger was moving quickly now and I could see the great wings rising and falling. The light began to fade and within a matter of moments we were in darkness.

   The sudden onrush of nighttime was disorienting and more than a little disturbing. Still my spirits were good. I was on Callisto and I had a plan. I stood on the deck of a flying ship, looking into the wind with my cloak billowing behind me like a character from a Burroughs novel, which in many ways I suppose I was. Far below the trackless miles of the huge jungle sped past in the darkness.


Chapter Five

   Things went to hell not long after nightfall. I was standing at the forward railing, gaping in amazement as the planet Jupiter rose on the horizon. I’d already been impressed and a little disconcerted by the three moons I could see from the deck. Watching the rise of a vast, multicolor sphere made me forget all about the moons. Jupiter was an unbelievably large, glowing globe, banded with stripes of red and brown and ochre. The eye was an angry red splotch, bordered by orange and brown swirls.

   Neither Kaldar nor Darisha seemed overly impressed, but then I suppose even the most spectacular thing becomes commonplace if you see it every night. As I watched the giant planet fill the horizon, a young Ku-thad officer came running up from the forward cabin.

   "Prince, Kaldar!" the officer said. "The lookout reports there is a light below us in the jungle, off the port bow."

   Kaldar looked over at me. I said, "It's unlikely Althea would be this deep into the jungle, but I can't let any chance slip by."

   "Of course," Kaldar said. Then to the officer, "Have the helmsman bring us about. We'll have a closer look."

   We crossed to the opposite deck and looked over the rail. I could see a bright, bluish light a little behind us. It didn't look to be a campfire. It looked artificial in fact, but as far as I knew, electric lights were unknown on Thanator. The Avenger made a slow, wide turn and we started back toward the light.

   As we approached, the light began to glow brighter, losing the bluish tint and becoming pure white. A moment later, a coruscating beam of intense energy
lanced upward. It struck the wing on the port side and the ribbed structure exploded in a dazzling ball of fire. The Avenger lurched to one side and the deck tilted violently. Caught off guard, I stumbled down the slanted deck and collided with the rail, missing falling overboard by the narrowest of margins.

   The Ku-thad officer who had brought us the news of the light wasn't as fortunate. He tumbled over the rail and fell screaming to the jungle floor several thousand feet below. I heard another scream and then Darisha went hurtling past me. I   managed to grasp her around the waist and drag her back to the deck.

   The single wing of the Avenger was still flapping and the craft spun in a slow, dizzying circle. That spinning motion was all that saved us from the next attack. A second burst of energy blazed past the stricken Avenger, passing so close that I could feel the heat from the beam.

   Darisha said, "The lifting gas is extremely flammable! If that beam pierces the hull, the entire ship will go up in flames!"

   Kaldar said, "With one wing damaged we’re stuck here going in circles. A perfect target.  We have to cut the engine and expel the lifting gas. We'll sink to the jungle but it's the only way we can get below the range of that weapon."

   "We'd better hurry," I said. "What's left of the wing is still on fire. It won't take it that long to reach the hull."

   "I'll make my way to the engine. There's a valve in the forward cabin that can be used to release the gas. Do you think you can reach it, Charles?"

   "I'll reach it," I said. "Can you describe it so I'll know what I'm looking for?"

   Darisha said, "Just go, Kaldar. I'll show him where the valve is."

   Kaldar gave a curt nod and began to edge away from us along the tilted deck.

   "Come on," Darisha said, slipping from the crook of my arm. "We'll have to climb."

   The slope of the deck was like the pitch of a steep roof. We could crawl up it, but the scarcity of handholds and the spinning motion of the ship didn’t help. I could feel my heart beating hard, not from exertion so much as from the knowledge that we were sitting ducks.

   A third beam of energy lit the night sky and the upper half of the Avenger’s figurehead was cut away. Bits of wood and treated paper rained across us.  The hull shook and pitched. I lost my footing and almost slid back down the deck, but Darisha grabbed my shoulder and helped me regain my balance.

   “Thanks,” I said.

   She grinned. “You’ve saved my life twice today. Glad I could help you a little as well.”

   I said, “They’ve got the range, whoever they are. We’ve got to get out of the path of that weapon.”

   I reached the door to the forward cabin and grabbing the frame, pulled myself up and through. I reached back down and helped Darisha inside. The cabin was of course tilted at a crazy angle and we had to walk partly on the floor and partly on one wall. Darisha showed me to a large brass wheel that had spokes rather like those of an old fashion ship’s wheel.

   I grabbed the spokes and pulled hard. The wheel spun smoothly and I could hear a loud hiss as the lifting gas began to escape. I hoped the point of release was a long way from the burning wing. If the gas ignited, it was all over for us.

   “We did it,” Darisha said, breathing hard. “And the engine has stopped as well. Kaldar made it.”

   I stuck my head out of the cabin door. Without the engine the Avenger was adrift. A stiff wind was pushing us away from where we’d first seen the light. We were descending as well and the next energy blast was a good distance above and behind us. I could also see two Ku-thad balanced precariously on the port rail, dousing the flames on the remains of the wing.

   I wondered if I should close the valve, but decided that we’d better get as low as we could until we were farther away. I had no idea at what sort of angle the energy weapon could fire or of how far whoever was behind it could track us. There had been no mention of any technology capable of that sort of weapon in any of the Callisto books. Not even the mind wizards had possessed anything like that.

   Kaldar scrambled through the tilted doorway into the cabin. He said, "We're sinking fast, but we'd best let the lifting gas continue to drain. The ship can't stay aloft now and the steady drain should allow us to make a safe descent. But we'd better get below decks and get braced. It's still likely to be a rough landing."

   Darisha and I followed Kaldar down a companionway to the lower levels of the ship. Darloona met us at the bottom of the stairs and Kaldar gave her a brief explanation of what had occurred.

   "You've no idea what sort of weapon attacked us, then?" Darloona asked.

   "I've never seen anything like it," Kaldar said. "It was like lightning or a bolt of fire."

   "Or something like the gate," Darisha added. "A beam of force, but destructive."

   I said, "You may have something there. It seemed like a laser or a particle beam of some sort." Three faces looked at me blankly. "Um…we'll save that explanation for later."

   Kaldar said, "Everyone should go to their cabins and get into the storm riggings. I'll alert the rest of the crew and the nobles."

   "You can go to the royal cabin with us, Charles. You can use father's storm rigging," Darisha said.

   I had no idea what that meant, but I followed Darisha and her mother down the corridor to their cabin. The cabin was smaller than the term “royal” would lead one to believe, but space and weight were at a premium on the sky ships. Storm rigging turned out to be a network of flexible straps that could be fitted over a bunk to keep the occupants from being thrown about in bad weather.

   “What are these things made of?” I said, examining one of the thin but very strong cords. “It almost feels like nylon.”

   “Those are made from Ximchak webs,” Darloona told me.

   Ximchak were the giant spiders that lived in certain portions of the Grand Kumala. I’d read about them recently in Lankar of Callisto. They were low on my list of indigenous fauna I wanted to see on Thanator. I’m not overly afraid of spiders but I didn’t care to meet one that was the size of a large dog.

   Darisha showed me how to fit the storm rigging over myself once I was in the bunk. Kaldar returned and took his place in his own rigging.

   “It won’t be long,” the prince said. “I made a final look over the side before coming back. The ground is coming up fast.”

   I’m sure Kaldar was right and it wasn’t more than a few minutes before we landed, but it seemed a long time indeed. With no windows and no way to be ready for the impact, all I could do was hang onto the rigging and wait. We hit the treetops first, or that’s what I deduced. There was a sudden bumping and jostling over an uneven surface.

   The next several minutes were nerve racking as the ship settled among the trees, sliding and falling, then dropping as punctures in the hull released whatever was left of the lifting gas. A fairly large limb came thrusting through the hull into the cabin, narrowly missing Darisha.

   Finally the ship stopped moving for a long enough time that we decided it was probably safe to get out of the storm rigging. Kaldar and I freed ourselves and then made our way along the companionway to the upper deck. The ship was sitting fairly level so it was an easier climb this time. We were on the ground. I’d been concerned that we might have been hung up in the thick jungle canopy, but we’d been fortunate enough to come down in a relatively clear area.

   The Avenger was a mess. Even in the darkness I could see where trees had forced their way through the hull at numerous points. The second wing was mangled and half torn from the hull. She wouldn’t fly again.

   Kaldar said, “I’d better check on the nobles and the crew. With that many tree limbs through the ship someone could be hurt.”

   I said, “I’ll stay up here for now.”

   “Don’t leave the deck, Charles. The Kumala is no place to go wandering at night.”

   I could believe him. The jungle was alive with as many exotic sounds as the one I’d left behind on Earth. Thinking of that made me suddenly remember why I’d come to Callisto. I was supposed to find Althea Quinn and now I was lost myself. This wasn’t turning out to be a very successful rescue mission.

   Darisha came out of the companionway and joined me on the deck.  She leaned on the rail and said, “One of the nobles, a man named Lentros, was killed in the fall. Impaled by a tree limb. That almost happened to me.”

   I said, “I’m sorry, Darisha. I’m feeling responsible here. I’m pretty sure we were fired upon because we approached that light and that was for my benefit.”

   “Not at all, Charles. Kaldar would probably have gone to investigate in any case. Someone could have been lost in the Kumala.”

   “Like we are.”

   “Yes. But we’re more fortunate then most. By dawn every ship in the Shondakorian Sky Navy will be out looking for us. They know our flight path. It may take a day or two but they’ll find us.”

   My next thought must have shown on my face because Darisha said, “Charles? What’s wrong?”

   “I’ve got to find Kaldar,” I said, already heading for the companionway.

   Darisha trailed after me. “What’s the matter?”

   “The sky ships,” I said. “You’re right. They will come looking for us. But we didn’t drift that far from the light, Darisha. Any ship that comes this way will be heading directly into the path of that energy weapon.”

Secret Masters of Callisto by Charles R. Rutledge

Intro & Ch. 1
Ch. 2 & 3
Ch. 4 & 5
Ch. 6 & 7
Ch. 8 & 9
Ch. 10 & 11



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