I REALIZED the piano had deserted Erich and I cranked my head up and saw Beau,
Maud and Sid streaking for the control divan. The Major Maintainer wa_linking emergency-green and fast, but the code was plain enough for even m_o recognize the Spider distress call and for a second I felt just sick. The_rich blew out his reserve breath in the middle of "Door" and I gave mysel_nother of those helpful mental boots at the base of the spine and we hurrie_fter them toward the center of the Place along with Mark.
The blinks faded as we got there and Sid told us not to move because we wer_aking shadows. He glued an eye to the telltale and we held still as statue_s he caressed the dials like he was making love.
One sensitive hand flicked out past the Introversion switch over to the Mino_aintainer and right away the Place was dark as your soul and there wa_othing for me but Erich's arm and the knowledge that Sid was nursing a gree_ight I couldn't even see, although my eyes had plenty time to accommodate.
Then the green light finally came back very slowly and I could see the dea_eliable old face—the green-gold beard making him look like a merman—and the_he telltale flared bright and Sid flicked on the Place lights and I leane_ack.
"That nails them, lads, whoever and whenever they may be. Get ready for _ick-up."
Beau, who was closest of course, looked at him sharply. Sid shrugged uneasily.
"Meseemed at first it was from our own globe a thousand years before our Lord,
but that indication flickered and faded like witchfire. As it is, the cal_omes from something smaller than the Place and certes adrift from the cosmos.
Meseemed too at one point I knew the fist of the caller—an antipodea_tomicist named Benson-Carter—but that likewise changed."
Beau said, "We're not in the right phase of the cosmos-Places rhythm for _ick-up, are we, sir?"
Sid answered, "Ordinarily not, boy."
Beau continued, "I didn't think we had any pick-ups scheduled. Or stand-b_rders."
Sid said, "We haven't."
Mark's eyes glowed. He tapped Erich on the shoulder. "An octavian denariu_gainst ten Reichsmarks it is a Snake trap."
Erich's grin showed his teeth. "Make it first through the Door next operatio_nd I'm on."
IT didn't take that to tell me things were serious, or the thought tha_here's always a first time for bumping into something from really outside th_osmos. The Snakes have broken our code more than once. Maud was quietl_erving out weapons and Doc was helping her. Only Bruce and Lili stood off.
But they were watching.
The telltale brightened. Sid reached toward the Maintainer, saying, "Al_ight, my hearties. Remember, through this Doorway pass the fishiest finagler_n and out of the cosmos."
The Door appeared to the left and above where it should be and darkened muc_oo fast. There was a gust of stale salt seawind, if that makes sense, but n_tepped-up Change Winds I could tell—and I had been bracing myself agains_hem. The Door got inky and there was a flicker of gray fur whips and a flas_f copper flesh and gilt and something dark and a clump of hoofs and Erich wa_ighting a stun gun across his left forearm, and then the Door had vanishe_ike that and a tentacled silvery Lunan and a Venusian satyr were comin_traight toward us.
The Lunan was hugging a pile of clothes and weapons. The satyr was helping _asp-waisted woman carry a heavy-looking bronze chest. The woman was wearing _hort skirt and high-collared bolero jacket of leather so dark brown it wa_lmost black. She had a two-horned _petsofa_ hairdress and she was boldl_ilded here and there and wore sandals and copper anklets and wristlets—one o_hem a copper-plated Caller—and from her wide copper belt hung a short-handle_ouble-headed ax. She was dark-complexioned and her forehead and chin receded,
but the effect was anything but weak; she had a face like a beautifu_rrowhead—and a familiar one, by golly!
But before I could say, "Kabysia Labrys," Maud shrilly beat me to it with,
"It's Kaby with two friends. Break out a couple of Ghostgirls."
And then I saw it really was old-home week because I recognized my Lunan bo_riend Ilhilihis, and in the midst of all the confusion I got a nice kick ou_f knowing I was getting so I could tell the personality of one silver-furre_uzzle from another.
They reached the control divan and Illy dumped his load and the others le_own the chest, and Kaby staggered but shook off the two ETs when they starte_o support her, and she looked daggers at Sid when he tried to do the same,
although she's his "sweet Keftian friend" he'd mentioned to Bruce.
SHE leaned straight-armed on the divan and took two gasping breaths so dee_hat the ridges of her spine showed through her brown-skinned waist, and the_he threw up her head and commanded, "Wine!"
While Beau was rushing it, Sid tried to take her hand again, saying,
"Sweetling, I'd never heard you call before and knew not this pretty littl_ist," but she ripped out, "Save your comfort for the Lunan," and I looked an_aw—Hey, Zeus!—that one of Ilhilihis' six tentacles was lopped off halfway.
That was for me, and, going to him, I fast briefed myself: "Remember, he onl_eighs fifty pounds for all he's seven feet high; he doesn't like low sound_r to be grabbed; the two legs aren't tentacles and don't act the same; use_hem for long walks, tentacles for leaps; uses tentacles for close vision to_nd for manipulation, of course; extended, they mean he's at ease; retracted,
on guard or nervous; sharply retracted, disgusted; greeting—"
Just then, one of them swept across my face like a sweet-smelling feathe_uster and I said, "Illy, man, it's been a lot of sleeps," and brushed m_ingers across his muzzle. It still took a little self-control not to hug him,
and I did reach a little cluckingly for his lopped tentacle, but he wafted i_way from me and the little voice-box belted to his side squeaked, "Naughty,
naughty. Papa will fix his little old self. Greta girl, ever bandaged even _erra octopus?"
I had, an intelligent one from around a quarter billion a.d., but I didn'_ell him so. I stood and let him talk to the palm of my hand with one of hi_entacles—I don't savvy feather-talk but it feels good, though I've ofte_ondered who taught him English—and watched him use a couple others to whisk _ort of Lunan band-aid out of his pouch and cap his wound with it.
Meanwhile, the satyr knelt over the bronze chest, which was decorated wit_ittle death's heads and crosses with hoops at the top and swastikas, bu_ooking much older than Nazi, and the satyr said to Sid, "Quick thinkin, Gov,
when ya saw the Door comin in high n soffened up gravty unner it, but cud _av sum hep now?"
Sid touched the Minor Maintainer and we all got very light and my stomach di_ flip-flop while the satyr piled on the chest the clothes and weapons tha_lly had been carrying and pranced off with it all and carefully put it dow_t the end of the bar. I decided the satyr's English instructor must have bee_uite a character, too. Wish I'd met him—her—it.
Sid thought to ask Illy if he wanted Moon-normal gravity in one sector, but m_oy likes to mix, and being such a lightweight, Earth-normal gravity doesn'_other him. As he said to me once, "Would Jovian gravity bother a beetle,
I ASKED Illy about the satyr and he squeaked that his name was Sevensee an_hat he'd never met him before this operation. I knew the satyrs were from _illion years in the future, just as the Loonies were from a billion in th_ast, and I thought—Kreesed us!—but it must have been a real big or emergency-
like operation to have the Spiders using those two for it, with two billio_ears between them—a time-difference that gives you a feeling of awe for _econd, you know.
I started to ask Illy about it, but just then Beau came scampering back fro_he bar with a big red-and-black earthenware goblet of wine—we try to keep _ariety of drinking tools in stock so folks will feel more at home. Kab_rabbed it from him and drained most of it in one swallow and then smashed i_n the floor. She does things like that, though Sid's tried to teach he_etter. Then she stared at what she was thinking about until the whites showe_ll around her eyes and her lips pulled way back from her teeth and she looke_ lot less human than the two ETs, just like a fury. Only a time travele_nows how like the wild murals and engravings of them some of the ancients ca_ook.
My hair stood up at the screech she let out. She smashed a fist into the diva_nd cried, "Goddess! Must I see Crete destroyed, revived, and now destroye_gain? It is too much for your servant."
Personally, I thought she could stand anything.
There was a rush of questions at what she said about Crete—I asked one o_hem, for the news certainly frightened me—but she shot up her arm straigh_or silence and took a deep breath and began.
"In the balance hung the battle. Rowing like black centipedes, the Doria_ulls bore down on our outnumbered ships. On the bright beach, masked b_ocks, Sevensee and I stood by the needle gun, ready to give the black hull_ilent wounds. Beside us was Ilhilihis, suited as a sea monster. But then …
then … "
Then I saw she wasn't altogether the iron babe, for her voice broke and sh_tarted to shake and to sob rackingly, although her face was still a mask o_age, and she threw up the wine. Sid stepped in and made her stop, which _hink he'd been wanting to do all along.