I traded for ’em. That’s the truth, more or less. Traded with Corlaniola — Corlea for short — the shrimpy little Tarchi guy. He’s about two thirds my height, face like a cross between a monkey and a rat. Rat Monkey, I called him, but not to his face.
Corlea plays both sides. His people are stuck here on Hunting World 12 — aka Edge of Nowhere — and are sometimes tracked down by the cursed Hunters for sport. But he also helps the Kaark who run the hunts. He ferries supplies from Junk City to this world. I think the Kaark hold his people hostage to get him to do stuff for them. So he’s involved in the evil hunting of the Earth people who have been dragged here. For this I can never forgive him.
He’s always looking for a deal, an edge, an angle. He’s a sharp trader, and loves taking advantage. He’s a treasure hunter. Yeah, like me.
So naturally we got to know each other when I was on Junk City. I can’t say we were friends, but we were drawn to each other. We play the same games.
I let slip that I knew where a big treasure was hidden on 12. I’d cut him in on it if he’d help me retrieve it. I had no way to get any treasure off that world by myself, and he had access to the supply ships to and from Junk City. But it was going to cost him, and we hadn’t set the terms yet.
Anyway, he dropped me off on 12 — or Edge World as it was later called — on the Eastern Plain, and I hoofed it on in to Mothertown. (I didn’t want him to know where Mothertown was located exactly.) Took me two days moving fast on foot. I’d previously been shown where the treasure was buried, but hadn’t actually seen it. The ladies who live there hadn’t really seen it either, but they knew it was there. And that it was protected by ghosts. And it was taboo for them to go there. Since I didn’t believe in ghosts or taboos, I was able to sneak up there later and take a look-see.
Heh heh heh. Ahh, it wasn’t what I expected. No gold and diamonds and rubies. Alas, not that kind of treasure. But I wasn’t about to tell that to Corlea until I could get the best trade from him nailed down.
He and I had arranged a way to meet up again back in the Eastern Plain, in a way that the Hunters were unlikely to notice. I’m trying to make a long story short, so I won’t go into all the details. But we did manage to rendezvous. He had a trade to offer me. And it sure wasn’t what I expected either.
I saw a power cart on the horizon and hid in a gully. No idea if it was Corlea or a bunch of hunters. As it approached, I saw it was him, but there were a couple of others in the cart also. Who? I scrambled up over the edge so he could see me.
“My friend,” he greeted me, “I am pleased to find you alive, in health, and good spirits.”
I nodded assent. “Who are your companions?” I asked. Two beings, wrapped in ragged robes, looked like they might be Earth people.
“My friend, I have a deal for you. A worthy trade.”
When he was excited, he spoke Fedi in these long rambling sentences I could hardly follow. “I obtained these two females of your world and I needed to get them off Junk City but here I am and I thought you might be interested in having them since I know you like to save your world kin.” He pulled back the head scarf of one of them, revealing a young woman. Not bad looking beneath the grime and fear.
“Well, I would like for them to be saved but I am not going to be much of a savior.”
“I thought you might like to buy them from me.”
“Buy them?” I gave him a roaring frown. “You know I cannot own people of my own race.”
“A trade then.”
“I’m not in the market for anybody that I have to take care of. I’m having trouble taking care of myself.”
“I’d like to find an agreeable bargain that we could come to.”
“I can’t imagine what it would be.”
“If it’s not you, I will have to trade them to somebody else. I can’t take care of them.”
I figured that meant they would end up with the Kaark Hunt Runners. I didn’t think Corlea would do that but I never knew with him. So I said, “What kind of deal do you have in mind?”
“I would be glad to give you these two females, but what do you have for me in return?”
“Nothing at all. In fact, if you wanted to hire me to take these women, you would have to give me enough rations to feed them while we are on the road.”
“You are going to the settlement where all the females live. You could probably offload them when you get there.”
“That’s several days walk, and besides I have nothing to offer you in return.”
“Perhaps you do. There’s something I would like and I think it might be a fair trade for these two fine females.”
“What might that be?”
“I need shelter and I understand that they have shelter but they are not likely to acquiesce to somebody of my world asking them to take me in. So I would like you to arrange for me to be able to stay there on the belief that there’s safety in numbers and particularly we know that there’s a tough winter coming up and having a shelter will help us survive. Also then I still want a share of that treasure we’re going to find.”
“Oh yes, the treasure.” I was beginning to suspect that I wasn’t going to get a big price for my non-existent treasure. “Regarding the shelter at the settlement, it’s not mine to promise. But I would see what I could do for you in any case. I wouldn’t have to take these females for that to happen.”
“I appreciate that my friend, however, I would really like you to take them and I will be glad to give you rations for them. And some weapons also. The reason I need to offload them is because I am going to be searching for some kin of my own who are lost, reported to be in the woods to the south of here and I would very much like a place to bring them for safety, so it’s just not for me.”
I looked at this forlorn guy. The big deal maker down on his luck. What poor fortune hunters he and I are. “All right, Corlea, it’s done. Look, between the hunters and the winters, we’re all likely to be dead before long. Even so, we must do what we can. But I need better weapons than these. If I can’t defend myself, I’ll get killed, and then I won’t be able to help you get shelter.”
“I am sorry, my friend, these daggers are all I have to offer.” He handed them to me. Then he reached into his pack. “Here is one small power hand gun, fully loaded.”
I nodded thanks. Corlea and I had been speaking in Fedi, which these women apparently didn’t understand. They just sat there as we negotiated their fates. As he uncovered them and motioned them off the cart, I was surprised to see their hands were tied. He cut the cord connecting their hands and pushed them gently toward me.
“I rely on you, my friend, to explain our actions to them. I must be going.” He threw packages on the ground, hopefully rations, and drove off, leaving me standing there with two unknown Earth women. I must admit, I was tempted to just leave them standing there and take off. This had been a total bust.
I sighed and looked at them. Dirty and terrified. “Do you ladies speak English? Do you have names?”
“I speak English,” the taller one said. The other one looked piercingly at me but said nothing.
“Well, me and that other guy just traded, and I ended up with you two.”
She looked at me with fear, then overtaken by hot anger. “You cannot own us, you son of a bitch!”
“Look honey, we’re not on Earth any more . . .”
“Don’t call me honey!”
“As I said, we are a long ways from Earth. I suggest that you just come along with me and maybe we will survive a little longer.”
“I’m not sure that surviving is even worthwhile.”
“Suit yourself on that, but I’m headed that direction” I said, pointing east, “and I’m taking the food and weapons with me.”
“How much did you pay for us?” she asked.
I had to suppress my smart-ass desire to say ‘Pay for you? He paid me to take you off his hands,’ but I didn’t say that. “Did you see any money change hands? Hey what’s the matter with her? Cat got her tongue?” The shorter one just stood there glowering at me.
“She only speaks French. I speak a little French so I can communicate with her.”
“Well, in this world, you better learn to speak Fedi.”
“I’m trying. Are you going to sell us to the Hunters?”
“No, no, I wouldn’t do that. What’s your name?”
“Uh . . ..”
“Well, forgot your name, eh? So, where are you from?”
“Australia. Adelaide. I’m not using my real name here. I need a new name.
“Alright, an Ozzie, I’m calling you Oz. How about her? Frenchy?”
They both just scowled at me.
“What we’re trying to do is survive,” I said. “If we are attacked, what we have to do is fight. Can you translate for her? Okay, you ever use any weapons? I’ve got some nice daggers here. Can you ask her?”
“She’s a singer.”
“Good, we’ll sing ’em to death. Now we could well be attacked and when we are, either we get killed, or we get taken prisoner and then killed later, or we prevail and stay out on our own, we stay free.”
Frenchy said, “Stay free.”
“Good, she does know a little English. All right Frenchy, your name is now Free.”
“And sir, what is your name?”
“Oh, I’m Lucky. Can’t you tell? Lucky Buck.”
“Where are you from?”
“I’m from all over. I grew up in Montana, but lived mostly in California.”
The first day we were either silent or we squabbled. I preferred silence. We walked eastward across the plain. We made sure we kept watered up at every stream.
At night we found a thicket of underbrush we could crawl into. We had to hide not only from the damned hunters, but also from local beasties that were not averse to eating the likes of us. Our rations were thin, and I didn’t know how many days it would take us to get to Mothertown. So we needed to hunt. I saw a jackhopper. If we stood still, the stupid thing kept edging closer to us. When it got just about close enough for me to pick it off with the pistol, a flying predator (not sure these things are birds or what) swooped down and snatched the hopper. So we lost our meal.
The second day when we paused, I gave them lessons in defending themselves using the daggers from Corlea. That was smart, because on the third day out our luck came to an end. I saw another power wagon moving our way. Bigger than Corlea’s.
“We got to skedaddle,” I yelled. “Get down in that gully, so they don’t see us.” But too late. The wagon turned and headed our way.
“All right ladies, here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ve been showing you how to use the daggers.” I handed them each a slim, efficient blade. “Now you’re going to get a chance. Keep ’em hidden, hold them under your robe in your hand, ready to use. You want to act helpless and out of it so they won’t immediately attack you. When they get close enough, like when you can smell their stinking breath, take your daggers out and stab ’em upward in the gut, like this. Uhhhnngg! Then twist. Grab their weapons. It might work, because they don’t really want to kill us right away. They want to play with us first, like a cat with a mouse.
This is the only chance we have, and we have a very small chance of surviving. Let’s see what we can do. Here they come. Get ready. If we don’t make it, it’s been nice knowing you.”
The power wagon driven by the damn Hunters roared up at high speed, weaving back and forth, raising a cloud of dust. We ran for cover. I stepped behind a small tree. Oz and Free tried to get behind a boulder, but it didn’t offer much concealment. The wagon skidded to a sideways stop, throwing up gravel and dust. Four hunters leapt out, growling and hissing, waving weapons. Was I going to let a display like this frighten me? You bet. I was scared shitless!
Two of the hunters — the ones called bulbheads — ran toward the women, each brandishing something that looked like a cattle prod. They hissed and shrieked and ran back and forth, trying to intimidate the women into running. Oz and Free hunkered down and didn’t run, but backed up to each other. Kept their hands under their robes, hopefully clutching the daggers.
The other two hunters were short and stocky, with faces like a cross between a lizard and monkey. One stayed by the wagon, with its long gun in hand. The other howled and roared and rushed at me swinging a broad scimitar. It took a mighty cut at my head, and I barely ducked out of the way.
Suddenly Free burst out singing Ode to Joy at the top of her voice. Everybody — even me — stopped dead in their tracks for a second. As she sang, she took off her robe and threw it over the prod of the hunter menacing her. Her singing distracted the two bulbheads just long enough for Oz to grab the prod of the one with her left hand and drive her dagger into its midsection with her right. It fell uttering a metallic-sounding gurgle.
I fired my pistol directly into the face of lizard man as I saw Oz feint away from the remaining bulbhead. Free stepped up behind it and stabbed it in the side, then Oz stabbed it in the groin. It collapsed with a groan.
I rushed at the wagon as the last hunter fumbled with the long gun. Just as it raised the gun to fire, I shot it in the chest. I turned in time to see Oz slitting the throats of the two downed hunters. I did the same with the two I had shot.
It was short and very bloody.
This left the driver. A little guy, shorter than Corlea, jumped off the wagon and ran a short distance away from me, then crouched down on the ground and put his hands over his face. He was about the size of a chimpanzee, large head, round body, long spindly legs and arms. I ran after him, ready to shoot. He was on the ground on hands and knees. He turned his face toward me and said in clear Fedi, “I deserve to die. Before you kill me, may I say my goodbyes to my family back on my home world?”
“Sure, but make it fast,” I said, pointing my pistol at the back of his head. He spoke to them, looking around him, as if his family was circled around. “I miss you and I love you. I apologize for the bad choices I have made. When I die, they will take care of you.” Then he looked at me, awaiting death.
“Perhaps you don’t really want to die,” I said. “Suppose I would spare you. What would you offer me in exchange for your life?”
He looked at me for a moment. I could see his inner wheels turning. “I will tell you everything I know about these evil butchers. It may help you. For example, the hunters disabled the trackers on the wagon, because they were not supposed to be hunting this far east.” He looked at me pleadingly. “You may keep me alive as long as you think I am useful. My life belongs to you. I am Aodl of Kend.”
“All right, get up. I won’t kill you yet,” I said, just as Oz and Free came running over, carrying all the weapons of the hunters.
“Son of a bitch, we’re alive!” I whooped. “And we’re not walking any more.” I patted the power wagon. “This little guy says we won’t be tracked. These hunters turned off the tracker in the wagon.“
“Sang them to death!” announced Free in English, giggling at my earlier mockery of her skill.
I had to smile. “The mark of a warrior is the ability to use whatever weapon you have.”
We stripped off their uniforms and equipment, then dragged their bodies into a deep crevasse. The big flying beasts would come and finish them off, leaving no trace. The women could squeeze into the bulbhead uniforms, and I urged them to do so, as disgusting as they seemed with knife cuts and bloodstains and the stink of killers. Better than the rags they’d been wearing. Then we hopped aboard the wagon and continued east, with Aodl giving me driving instructions.
“You are such an aggravating, arrogant son of a bitch! I despise you, but thank you for keeping us alive.” From Oz, that was a real compliment.
“I didn’t keep you alive, we all kept us alive. We’re a team. You two are warriors. Hopefully someday you’ll come to see my better side.” I gave her a big shit-eating grin.
We drove till after dark, then dug into the provisions of the hunters. Not tasty, but filling. Oz and Free removed the bulbhead uniforms and washed them as best they could in a stream, and laid them on over bushes to dry. We slept beneath the wagon, taking turns keeping watch. There were times in my life when sleeping in the open with two attractive, unclothed women would have aroused strong desires. But it was not this night. Besides, Oz slept with a cattle prod by her right hand.
In the morning I decided I’d have to trust them with the weapons, so we did some target practice getting used to the guns. The little guy, Aodl, gave us some excellent tips on using them.
After we’d been through battle together and survived, the conversation among us opened up a bit. As we rolled across the eastern plain in the relative luxury of the power wagon, we had the time to get to know each other.
Who were these two women? I’ll let them tell their own stories, but here’s a preview. Oz was a women’s self-defense instructor in Adelaide, and fancied herself as an archeologist. She divorced her CPA husband to volunteer for this space odyssey. Free was a young musician in Paris and ran away from home because her parents didn’t support her musical aspirations. Both ended up on Junk City rather than 12, and that’s an interesting story in itself. Plus why they then had to come to 12.
Oz is tall, auburn hair, light freckles, grey eyes. Raises her eyebrow while thinking. Free is shorter, blondish, blue eyes. Purses her lips while thinking. Both have volatile tempers, as you may have noticed. They looked like their hair had been cut by a hedge trimmer, and they had been dressed in rags. Yet another story.
Aodl had his story also. I was surprised to learn he was from the same world as Corlea — called Kend. In fact he knew Corlea. Didn’t like him. Apparently there are three races of people on Kend. None liked the others, and they had all been intimidated by the Kaark into helping the Hunters. The third type of Kendi were big gorilla-sized guys who were the foot soldiers and enforcers for the Kaark. I had seen them but didn’t realize they were from Kend. What amazed me most was that Aodl was the lead pilot for the Kaark command ship that oversaw the hunt on this world. He was totally willing to switch sides and betray their secrets, because he hated them, he’d be assumed to be dead, and if he returned they’d kill him anyway.
As we continued east, the terrain got hillier, more trees. We came up a ridge and spotted ahead somebody watching us. “Oh shit, more of these guys?” I said. “We better stay out in the open till we figure out who they are. Hunters won’t be expecting the likes of us in a power wagon. Keep your guns out of sight, but ready.”
I soon saw they were humans. We had arrived at Mothertown. I shouted at them in English. A phalanx of them stood their ground with arrows pointed at us. Their bows looked home made but effective. I held my hands out and yelled at them, “We come in peace.” Famous last words, right?
One person approached and asked us to explain ourselves, and how we happened to be travelling in one of the hunters’ wagons. I suggested that Oz speak with her — woman to woman. Then she returned to her group for a powwow.
Finally they invited us into their compound. “Please join us for a simple meal,” said one whose name, she said, was Whiplash. This was indeed welcome. We shared the hunters’ rations into the mix. We all brought each other up to date on what was happening. Nobody had any good news. It seemed that our existence was in a holding pattern. Then we’d die.
I had been here just a year earlier and I was surprised how few women I recognized. “Winters take a heavy toll on us,” I was told. “But new people, all escapees, keep arriving here.”
The Grandmother — the old woman who ruled this compound — was an imposing figure. Like a Mother Superior. After we had eaten, she rose to speak. “Mr. Lucky, we are grateful for the assistance you gave us last year. You are welcome to leave the two women companions with us. But as you know, our rules say, no men. And no aliens.”
“We are all aliens here,” I protested. But she was immovable on this.
I signaled to Oz and Free, “Let’s go over here and talk.” We sat on a nearby log. “You are welcome to stay here. I know you have a certain antagonism toward me. You don’t want to be bossed around. You keep saying I have no claim on you. And I have resisted admitting that. Just out of pure cussedness, I admit. So now, you are welcome to stay here with these women, and that proves I have no claim on you.”
“What are you going to do?” Oz asked me.
“Haven’t decided. But that doesn’t matter to you. I’m looking for treasure.”
Oz pulled Free aside and they talked for some time, gesticulating wildly. They then edged back toward me, and Oz said, “As much of a son of a bitch as you are, we would rather stay with you, under your protection, than join with these women.” I just burst out laughing and so did Oz. So did Free, even though she wasn’t sure what was said.
I turned to Free and said, “Your companion here has said you would prefer to stay with me rather than with these women. I would like to check if that’s true.” Oz interpreted. Free nodded her head emphatically that she would prefer staying with Oz and me.
“All right! The team stays together.” I held out my right hand, and each of them put their hand on mine. I turned back to the group around the table. “Grandmother, Oz and Free have opted to stay with me. We will find our own shelter.”
She looked at us like we had just chosen to commit suicide. Maybe we had.
After a bit more conversation, I asked, “I have a question for you, Grandmother. What is the extent of your village?”
“Only that which we use. These structures behind us, and the gardens below.”
“I understand. Then we will establish our own compound in structures up the hill,” I said, pointing. She wasn’t happy about this, but I didn’t ask her permission, I just announced it.
“Oh, and by the way, I will invite in some others I know who need winter shelter and safety in numbers. But we will stake out our settlement up the hill, and not interfere with you any more than you want. On the other hand, we will be glad to cooperate with Mothertown in all things.”
Grandmother was a tough cookie, but she let herself be out-negotiated on this matter. She had one final demand. “You must get rid of that vehicle. It will draw them to us and they will kill us.”
I shook my head firmly. “All the tracking mechanisms have been disabled. We will keep it hidden. It is much too valuable a tool for us to abandon it. It is full of materials that we need, not only weapons, but also medical supplies, cooking supplies, cloth, uniforms, bedding, and hand tools. And power for lighting and weapons. We will get very good use of it.”
So that is how Oz and Free and I got together. I guess as soon as I got off my high horse and admitted that they could do what they wanted to do, they were happy to stay with me. And I was happy to have them. If they had decided to stay in Mothertown, I would have been very sad. It took quite awhile after that for romance to develop, but we were a team. As different as we are, something clicked with us. A singer, a self-defense expert, and a shiftless fortune hunter. Who knew?
One thing: It never occurred to any of us that I would choose one and not the other. We were a threesome from the git go.
We selected the best cube half way up the hillside for our domicile. We three moved into the upper level and Aodl stayed below. In the adjoining cube, we broke a hole large enough for the power wagon, so it had a garage.
When Corlea arrived with his kindred, I would be able to fulfill my side of the bargain. Then I could show him this so-called hidden treasure. And we could have a good laugh.
I already had my treasure.