VIII. To the Moon
The mates went about their business, the dwarf played through the combinations of the five pieces, and the wood elf, the high elf, the time tech and the sea captain frolicked below decks. Presently the sounds of frolic subsided and all Arkmar could hear was a buzzing chant—and a distant and increasing roar, as of cubic miles of water in motion. The actions of the crew too became stylized, ritualized. One by one they opted to retreat to the galley and left the deck to Arkmar.
Presently he felt someone nearby and he looked up. The captain was standing a couple of paces behind him, also looking out to sea. He was dressed in his working pants and boots, but no shirt; a formless black cap held down the mess the ladies had made of his hair.
“Captain,” said Arkmar, startled out of his reverie. He picked himself up.
When the dwarf was standing, facing Captain Alkwadir, the captain finally looked at him, as if he had just noticed him. “My good dwarf,” said Ali, “would you care to help me with something?”
“Certainly, my captain,” said Arkmar. But something out to sea ahead of him caught his attention: then he noticed far off but huge a line of pillars rising from the sea. Arkmar wrinkled his forehead looking at them: no, these were not the pillars rising from the sea that he knew of. He turned and the captain smiled.
“I could do this by myself, or I could get Ferd,” he said apologetically. “But Ferd might become superstitious, and I do not know I wouldn’t become just a little superstitious if I was all by myself.” The captain led Arkmar to the wheelhouse, and there showed him just how to put his hands on the wheel at “ten and eleven.” The captain took hold at one and two. Then they pulled back, not suddenly, but steadily and with all their weight. The wheel did not come loose; in fact, Arkmar wasn’t sure anything had happened at first, but there was a subtle shift in something basic about the situation, and then he noticed, looking forward, that the prow was framed by stars, not the distant unending sea.
The roar reached a maximum, and then diminished slowly.
“Keep pulling, good dwarf,” said Ali, “until we’re aimed just below the curve of the moon.”
“Got that,” said Arkmar, releasing a breath and grabbing another one.
They kept pulling for a while. The prow edged up, star by star. After a couple of minutes, Ali said, “So you travel with Ryel?”
“It hasn’t been that long, actually,” said Arkmar. “I first met her at Dylath-leen, in fact.”
“And if I may ask,” Ali began, and then he took a breath with effort.
“What? What we’re up to? I don’t know if I can say. You understand, right?” (Grunt.)
“Oh yes. I understand that. It’s just,” and Ali took a big breath, “keep pulling, almost there! It’s just that, well, I don’t know about you, but aren’t you a bit nervous?” Arkmar laughed and kept pulling. “I mean,” said Ali, “this high elf—!”
“Ah, yes, I wondered what you thought about her. But, if I may say,” grunt, “you’ve just spent the past six hours, um, getting all intimate and lowering all your shields and raising your curtains and what have you, and do you not now know her at heart? I’m told that is how it works.”
“Ah, well,” said the captain, and then he laughed a little, “I am but a mortal, and she is of the high kindred. It’s about all I can do to see through to the heart of Elena, and she is my woman, so she has had many chances to, as you say, see through all my shields and so on.”
“Ryel? Do you see through to her soul?”
“Don’t, uh, make me laugh,” said Ali. “Ah, that should be sufficient. Let up, dwarf.”
“So,” said Arkmar, facing Alkwadir, “you do not know what we’re up to.”
“No. Do you?”
“Ah. Excellent question.” Arkmar looked around, then said, in a low voice, “Do you know what the Seventeen Pieces are?”
“I’ve heard of them. Elena has spoken of them. It was something she encountered in her studies for her test. You know she just passed the, uh—?”
“Time tech test, I know. Well, we seem to be searching for Pieces.”
Alkwadir looked at him for some moments, then asked, softly, “Who is we?”
“Ah, another excellent question. Ryel was hired by someone. I do not know who. I think she does not know the entire extent of the ones who hired her, she does not really know who stands behind whoever gave her the quest.”
“But it matters, does it not? It matters greatly, because these things are—!”
“I know, I know,” said Arkmar, holding up a hand. “And she knows. She is no fool.” They looked around and saw nothing to distract themselves from the conversation. Arkmar said, in an even lower voice, “So, the high elf? Do you think she is on, as they say, the level?”
“I do not know,” said Ali, as if pondering again. “There is something unsteady about her, and yet she does have strength, and Ryel certainly has some power over her, I do not understand it.”
“And all the sex hasn’t—?”
“Well, as to that,” said Alkwadir, “the helm seems steady, and it is a long journey, so yes, I think I should go back and study a little more.”
So Arkmar took a walk around the deck, gazing at the stars. He stood at the bow and watched the moon get closer, and then he returned to the wheelhouse. He gazed up and to the right, standing with his hands at ten and two, doing absolutely nothing to the wheel as the Storm Queen ran swift over the seas of space toward its lunar destination.
He had heard a lot about the Moon. He spent some effort hoping, planning, not to meet another ship on its way back from there. The people there, who were hardly people at all, were served by transport conducted by other people who were also hardly people at all, and residents as well as the merchant marine supplying them were said to have peculiar beliefs, peculiar rituals and especially disturbing tastes. It made the sound of frolic that was resuming below deck (Ryel’s voice let out a long happy sigh, then burst in a giggle; the male voice and several of the female ones cried out to the Valar) seem sort of innocent.
Arkmar stepped away from the wheel and took a position on the starboard rail. He gazed out into the depths of space. He had heard things about the space around Dream World too. And now, for the first time, he peered into those depths, those voids between the veils of stars. The tiny lights spread across the sky, a populous city in all directions, busy but immeasurably remote; yet in an infinite number of directions, the eye met no obstacle, but fell into the deeps and never hit bottom.
And somewhere in all that distance, somewhere, lay the end and center of everything, where He whose Name is not spoken, certainly not by any sensible dwarf or elf or gnome, lounged in the Ultimate Throne, reading off the fate of all things while the blind, stupid Other Gods danced with a horrid sluggish careless vehemence to the noise of insane flutes and timpani. Arkmar was reasonably sure there would be a banjo or two in there. He wanted to laugh at the image, but he knew the image too well: it was in the back of all of his less pleasant dreams, as if they were the house band at the Bar of the Doomed, and it was just a little too awful to be laughed at.
And it was their messenger who was Nyarlathotep, the Crawling Chaos, the One who Carried the Word. And the Moon was the first place the Word got Carried to.
“And we’re going there,” said Arkmar aloud, strolling back to the wheel. He put his hands at ten and two and blew air out through his beard. “Yup. Because there’s a Piece there. Piece Number Six. Yup. Nothing to worry about there. Not at all.”
Arkmar had dozed off when Ryel sat down next to him. She had to shake his knee to wake him up: she was now somewhat dressed, at any rate, in her black pants and a sort of elvish undershirt. It wasn’t morning, but it took him a moment to realize it wouldn’t be morning. The Moon was a bit larger before them, but they weren’t about to glide into its black seas.
“Want to talk?” she asked.
“What? Yes, of course. Obviously. Here?”
She was sitting cross-legged on the deck, and she looked around. They could see Ferd at the helm. “It should be okay,” she said, “come sit right next to me.”
“So we can lay the stupid things out in front of us and see what we’ve got without polluting the minds of the crew with their existence.”
“So we can—? Oh, I get it. You’re not worried we might lose one over the side?”
“The Aether would just throw it back on board,” said Ryel. “No, really. But let’s not go trying it, okay? Now come on, let’s see them.”
Arkmar, sitting right next to her, gave her a long look. “Ryel, you think this is safe? Ryel, how many of these people on board with us are trying to get this thing too? The high elf? The time tech?”
She gave him back his look. “Of course they both want it. We know the high elf does. Think what the, uh, time tech could do with something like this: she might know a bunch of stuff she could use it for. Maybe the captain does too. Maybe there’s a plant or two among the crew. Maybe we should be surprised if there isn’t.”
“At least Thaeron’s off our trail,” said the dwarf. “At least for now.”
“Yeah,” said Ryel, “we won’t see him on the Moon. Good move getting him arrested. He won’t be able to get out the way I did. They’ll have learned. Those gnomes are clever.”
“Thank you,” said Arkmar, “I agree. But there are other operatives one might be concerned about, and then there are the ones we don’t even know of. And then there’s the question of whoever hired you.”
“Yes. There’s that question. Don’t think I haven’t been thinking about it.”
“And then,” he added, “there’s the question of who might be waiting there for us, on the, um, Moon. Because you know what sort of thing lives there, and you know whom they serve.”
“I know we’re in Crawling Chaos country,” said the elf. “Look, Arkmar, there’s problems. There’s issues. There’s all kinds of stuff we have basically no plan for. What then are we supposed to do? Take the five we got and go home? Sell them at a flea market?”
“Well, let me put it this way,” Arkmar tried. “Suppose we get six. Then do you contact whomever and try to sell them? Or do you have to get all seventeen? I mean, that doesn’t even make sense, if we have seventeen pieces, we’re God, right? They have to be getting them off you before that. They ought to be getting them off you before you even get to six.”
Ryel looked off into the sea of stars. “We wouldn’t be God, but your point is well taken. Okay, so I guess I should tell you what I know about my buyers.”
“That would be excellent.”
“Well, there are certain Elves and High Humans,” said Ryel. “That’s what I know about. I was contacted by a member of the Eldar—you understand Eldar?”
“Are they, like, elder members of your race?”
“Ha ha, nope. No Eldar in Hartwell or wherever it is you grew up in?”
“No,” said Arkmar patiently, “we have elders in Hartway, but we do not to my knowledge have Eldar. Are they some sort of elf kindred?”
“They’re part of the high race of my home world,” she explained. “They’re supposed to be wise and magical and stuff, but they’re also descended from the biggest hotheads you would ever see among the Elves. I’m trying to paint you a picture here: I would automatically trust most of these people but at the same time I would consider at some point the question of what they want to do with the pieces. I mean, I know what they did with the Silmarils, and it could have been handled better, that’s all I’ll say.”
“Consider at some point? What point would that be?”
“Right now, you big baby. Get those things out and let’s look at them while we debate the proper course.”
So after one more look around and behind by both of them, Arkmar took out the five pieces they had do far: the short cylinder they had gotten off the icky priest in Dylath, the L shaped tube from the fish people, the F with the silvery extra cylinder from the court house in Baharna, the X with the wing nut valve from the eye of the face on Ngranek, and the three-tube corner piece from Quadruun. He started idly trying to put them together various ways. This way, that way: it seemed to be the sort of operation his big fingers were best at.
“Six is enough to do something,” Arkmar recited without looking up.
“So six is when we have to develop some kind of protocol for how to deal with the inevitable questions,” said Ryel.
“Uh, yeah. Or, rather, before six, and this is the last time we have that’s before six, or before we both get squashed like the bugs we are.”
“How about this,” she went on. “Whatever happens, we make sure we know what it can do before we let anyone have it for any price.”
“And if we don’t know who we’re giving it to?”
“Well, we have to know who we’re giving it to.”
“Ryel,” said the dwarf, “do you trust—?” But he didn’t know which name to put next.
She looked at him for a minute. Then she said, without moving her eyes, “No.” She looked away and back. “No, I don’t. So there’s that.”
“But you trust me, for some reason?”
“Yeah. Odd that,” said Ryel. “And for some reason you trust me. Why would you ever do that, knowing what you know now?”
“You have to trust someone. You just seem a good bet.”
Arkmar was exhausted from all the talk and all the waiting. He had no clear idea how long they had been sailing the skies by now. How long did it take to get to the Moon? He’d never been. So after a little more vague discussion, he gathered up the pieces and put them back in his pack. He pulled out the curious coin they had picked up.
“It’s a token,” said Ryel.
“A token. To get past something. You put it in a slot or something. It’s not a normal coin. It’s more like this,” she went on, placing the key on the deck, the coppery key she had gotten from the icky priest.
“Something to get you in someplace,” said Arkmar. “How do you know?”
“Get you in someplace, huh, dwarf?” said Aridel, coming up behind. The pieces were put away already: Arkmar held up the coin as if it were all they’d been talking about. Aridel waved for it and he tossed it to her. She caught it with one hand. “Say,” she said, “this thing has a magic charge to it. Palladium-osmium-rhenium sort of thing?”
“Osmium-rhenium,” said Arkmar. “Classic P group metals. Possibly even some gold in the alloy. It would be the cheaper part.”
“Can I keep it?” asked Aridel.
“Nope. Toss it back.”
“Oh, not very friendly,” said Aridel. “That’s fine. I came to chat with Ryel.”
“I was tired anyway,” said Arkmar, pocketing the coin. “I’m worn out with chat: I want some action. Nighty night, elf girlies.”
“He’s really on the level?” Aridel asked as she sat in Arkmar’s spot.
“More than you’ll ever be,” said Ryel.
“Hey,” said Aridel, “we made love.”
“Doesn’t work on me,” said Ryel. “I make love with all sorts of people.”
“But if you want it to work on me,” said Aridel, “you have to pretend it works on you.” She refilled her pipe and lit it. “Now what’s the key for?”
“Unlocking your chastity belt,” said Ryel, who was feeling attracted again.
“I never bother to lock it,” said Aridel, as they leaned toward each other and kissed. And giggled. And kissed again, this way, then that, then with feeling.
A little later, in the full light of the oncoming twice-size moon, Ryel lay naked on the bow deck. Elena came up on deck, looking recently bathed, wearing what was either a blue mini-dress or a blue shirt that was kind of long, and nothing for pants. She had enough jewelry, including the jeweled wrench on a platinum necklace. She strode over to the rail and stood leaning. Ryel got up, picking up her bathrobe from nearby and putting it on, open in front. She came and stood by Elena. They too chatted, but to no particular effect.
“Ship ahoy,” shouted Ferd from up the mast.
“You’re shitting me,” said Ryel. “Arkwad, this is your fault. You wanted action. You had to open your big fat mouth.”
“Two ships,” cried another mate from the stern. “Two black sloops coming fast!”
“We can’t outrun them,” said Elena, after a brief scan of the starry seas behind them. “If they want to fight, we’re going to fight.”
“Crap,” said Ryel. “This is not good news. Ali! Arkmar! Aridel! Someone go find the Three A’s. Tell them there’s a game on.”
The two black sloops came on, outpacing the Storm Queen with ease. Alkwadir and Arkmar hit the deck at almost the same time from different hatches, just as the sloops, moving up together, got close enough to throw hooked ropes over the rails. The crew of the Storm Queen, twenty or so, shouted last instructions and encouragement to each other, brandishing their sabers and belaying pins. Arkmar hefted his heavy sword.
“Nice piece,” said Ali, next to him.
“Yours too,” said Arkmar, giving Ali’s cutlass the once over. “Gnomish make, I think? They make them sharp.”
“Yes,” said the captain, “but you have to keep them in condition or they go dull.”
“So there’s some good in this,” said the dwarf.
The first assault from the two sloops came on either side of the stern. Half a dozen curiously waddling sailors leapt across the starry abyss, across the five foot gap between the ships, and a half dozen more leapt behind them, on each side. They were toad-like but also slug-like, they were bigger than most of the men (or elves or dwarves) and their flowing cloaks seemed to cover a quite effective armor: they bore the crew backward, slaying several and throwing their bodies, one still screaming, over the side to plummet into the void.
But as the two salients joined, they came up against Ferd and Ali and Arkmar, and they ground to a halt. Elena tried a spell but found it ineffective: so she grabbed a cutlass from a fallen sailor and took up between her husband and the dwarf. Ryel, up the rigging, had discarded her bathrobe, and now wore only her quiver. She stood on the boom and fired into the open neck of a toad-slug, and it went backwards, with her arrow, and over the rail. It fell screaming into the void as well, and then another followed it, Ryel’s second arrow finding the hole in a ring of its chain mail under its cloak, and piercing whatever it had for a heart. Then a third went over with her arrow in its face. Their bizarre croaking screams did not last long, amidst a faint but cosmic wriggling whir: the worms of space’s emptiness, not as empty as one might hope, were already gathering for their feast.
Still the things came on. One bore Ferd down, and Arkmar and another mate had to fight to drag him free, bleeding profusely. Elena pushed forward to slay one toad, and two more almost got her down: Ali waded in and they fought side by side, but now they were both in danger of encirclement. Ryel tried to draw a bead on their foes, but they were either too entangled with the good guys or too blocked by mast and sail for a decent shot.
Then the toad things were giving ground themselves. Commotion was breaking out behind them: surely half a dozen new crew had woken up or joined up and now threw themselves into the fray. But it was only Aridel, though her moves were so swift she might have been half a dozen humans. One of the toad-slugs went down, its hideous head knocked sideways by a High Elven foot, then another fell to a vicious cutlass sweep, then another went down to a bold thrust. Now it was the invaders giving ground, and Ali and Arkmar and Ryel and Elena on the offensive.
“Careful,” shouted Arkmar. “Watch yourselves. Could be a trap.”
The toad-slugs growled and attacked up and down the line—then fell back, still growling. Many of them turned to Aridel, who was in their midst dancing and slaying: or, she was surrounded, and they were merely containing her. With a silent signal, the toad-slugs on one side threw a black net over her and those on the other pulled it down. Then they charged in, as she tried to hack the netting: it had some sorcery on it, however, and the best she could do was knock down some of her captors. For that’s what they seemed to be: they dragged her to the sloop off the port stern and cast off, while still the last of their complement leapt across from the Storm Queen. The toads from the other ship fought a quick retreat and leapt onto their own sloop, casting off and dropping back fast.
“We lost four, Captain,” said the second mate, an Amazon named Alta, a wiry blonde a mere six foot three and 220 pounds. “There’s at least ten—no, eleven of them dead, it’s, uh, kinda hard to tell.”
“We have to get her back,” said Ali. “Don’t you think so, Ryel?”
“Yes. Yes, we have to get her back,” said Ryel.
“Especially since,” said Arkmar, “she had my bag over her shoulder as they dragged her away.”
The dead were cleaned up: the remaining toad slugs dumped over the side, the men, and one woman, set in boxes and put below deck for better disposal back on the planet. Then the remaining principals, Ryel, Arkmar, Elena, Captain Alkwadir and the first mate Ferd, held a summit in the captain’s mess.
“I’m sorry, it’s a bit of a mess in here,” said Alkwadir.
“Hon,” said Elena, “this is kinda serious.”
“Sorry.” He rummaged through a cabinet and came out with a bottle of brandy. It looked quite fancy, but he uncorked it and took a swig and handed it on to Arkmar, who took a swig himself, grinned at the bottle and passed it to Ryel. “I thought we fought them off as well as we could,” the captain said. “They came up on us fast.”
“We fought well,” said Arkmar. “Even Miss Time Tech proved excellent with a saber.”
“Thank you,” said Elena. “I learned it all from my man. And from bar fights on Velakron.”
“They could have taken us out,” said Ryel. “Why didn’t they? Because they got what they wanted.”
“They wanted Aridel,” said Arkmar. “One hopes, right? I mean, they obviously didn’t want any of us.”
“So,” Elena went on, “what will they do to her?”
“Don’t make me laugh,” said Ryel. “This is all Aridel’s idea.”
“What? But she was fighting!”
“She wasn’t killing them,” said Ferd. “She’d whack them and they’d go down on their own. There were no dead on that side.”
Elena looked shocked. Arkmar was also shocked. “I slept right through her coming in and taking my bag,” he said. “I didn’t even notice. It was hanging by the bed.”
“She’s a pretty talented wizard,” said Ryel, “and it helps that she doesn’t have a non-lying bone in her body. I bet she threw a spell on you.”
“That makes me feel one percent better,” said Arkmar. “But it’s still bad. All that work, and she makes off with it.”
“All that work?” Ryel repeated. “Weren’t you paying attention? She has five Pieces. There’s a sixth one on the Moon. Which we are soon going to arrive at. What can she do with six pieces?” She looked at Elena.
“Well,” said the time tech, “bear in mind that she had me totally fooled, but yeah, she can crank out a spell or two from that contraption if she figures out how.”
“What kind of spell?” asked Ryel.
“Oh,” said Elena, “could be a hold or a sleep or something. Could absorb damage, then release it in a lightning bolt. Could make an Opening. But the really dangerous thing is that some might know you are using it. Some who are attuned to such, um, vibrations, emanations. Some who you do not want to attract.”
“That’s not the real danger,” said Arkmar.
“What is?” asked Ryel.
“That she will pass it all on to her marketing department,” said Arkmar. “Her, we could steal back from. But once she sells it—!”
“And who would she sell it to?” asked Ali.
“Starts with an N,” said Ryel, “crawls. Is chaotic.”
“He’s hardly the only possible buyer,” said Arkmar, “but any buyer she finds will have plenty of security.” He shuddered. “One place I know the pieces could end up is that monastery on the plateau of Leng, and that is a place that I never want to see the inside of. And I suppose that to be true of all the other places they could end up.”
“And then,” said Elena, “there are the other Pieces, the ones you don’t have. We have no idea how many other thieves are selling to this guy with the N who crawls and is chaotic. Six is pretty bad. Eight or ten would be worse, much worse.”
“I’m concerned about seventeen, actually,” said Ryel.
“So what’s the plan?” asked Ali. “We’re in, definitely, if we can help. Storm Queen is in.” He looked at Ferd, who grinned, raised his eyebrows, nodded and laughed; Ferd then grimaced with the pain from his bandaged head and shoulder wounds. “It seems some of us are looking forward to it,” Ali added.
“Not forward to it, exactly,” said Ferd. “It’s just, life’s got to be interesting, huh?”
“Yeah,” said Ryel. “Freaking interesting. Just love it.”
“You got a plan?” the big first mate asked.
“Oh, the start of one,” replied Ryel. “Enough to go on.”