Invisible Encounter and Other Science Fiction Stories
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by J. D. Crayne
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Dazzling science fiction from Asimov's, Amazing Stories, etc. By j. D. Crayne. Hugo and Nebula winner Larry Niven calls J. D. Crayne's S-F, "Dark humor. Funny stuff." This long-awaited collection features all the Cheryl Harbottle stories. A printer gives Cheryl problems in "...and Settle Down With a Good Book." Her search through the internet for family genealogy goes awry in "Of Days Gone By." Cheryl moves to a new home--not on the range but on a Space Station in "No Homelike Place," where she has to get used to low-gravity living, among other things. A robot pet dog is her bane in "Katzenjammer." Non-Harbottle tales include: "A Piece of the Kingdom," wherein a group of criminals conspire to put medical science to illicit uses, but there is more than one slip between their cup and lip. We meet extraterrestrial life in the still largely unexplored solar system of "Invisible Encounter." A daring woman time-travels to get the low-down on whether Bacon really did write the works of Shakespeare. Also includes "The Medal," "Point of View," and her celebrated collaboration with Larry Niven, "Talisman." Cover: Elspeth Fahey.
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: June 2004
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [203 KB]
Reading time: 228-320 min.
(with Larry Niven)
The stranger swung his baggage off his horse's back, patted the animal on the side of the neck, and handed the reins to the stable hand. Old Kasan was rarely interested in people; he barely glanced at the stranger. Sla nted eyes, round face with a yellow tinge...
Kasan led the animal to an empty stall and gave it food and water. Now, the beast was a puzzler. It suffered his ministrations with an air of strained patience. Its tail ended in the kind of brush usually seen on an ass. Kasan fancied that its look was one of tolerant contempt.
''Ah, horse, you underestimate me,'' Kasan said. ''I won't be tending other people's horses forever.'' Horses did not often mock Kasan's daydreams. This one's nicker sounded too much like a snicker. ''It's true! Someday I'll own my own rental stable...'' And Kasan fondled the beast's ears and mane, as if to thank it for listening.
Under its shaggy forelock he felt a hard circular scar.
He told Bayram Ali about it when he went in for lunch. ''It's a unicorn. The horn's been chopped off. What kind of man would be riding a disguised unicorn?''
The innkeeper said, ''Sometimes I wonder why I put up with your stories, Kasan.''
''You can feel the stub yourself!''
''No doubt. At least don't be bothering my guests with such tales.'' And Bayram Ali set a tankard of ale next to Kasan's midday cheese and bread. Kasan opened his mouth to retort, noticed the ale, and kept silent.
And Bayram Ali took counsel with himself.
Strange beasts like the one munching hay in his stable were often found in the company of strange men. The traveler might be a sorcerer, though they were rare these days. More likely he was a magician on his way to Rynildissen. Bayram had seen the man carry two heavy bags up to his room. It would be interesting to know what was in them and if it would be worthwhile to lighten them a little.
Bayram Ali never robbed his guests. It was a point of honor. He preferred to leave the work and any possible danger to a professional. He looked around the crowded common room. It was smoky and odorous with the scents of cooking and human bodies. There was much laughter and spilling of wine. Unfortunately, most of the light-fingered brethren present had hasty tempers and were too quick to pull a knife. Bayram would not have violence in his inn.
Across the room his small, pretty wife, Esme, was struggling to carry a huge frothy pitcher of ale. Two men were pushing and shoving each other for the honor of carrying it for her. Just beyond them, leaning back on a rough bench with her shoulders against the wall, Sparthera was laughing and yelling at the two combatants.
Sparthera. Bayram Ali grinned broadly. The slim young thief was just what he had in mind. She was daring without being reckless, and had no morals to speak of. They had made more than one bargain in the past.
He pushed his way across the room, pausing to grab up the pitcher his wife was carrying and slam it down in front of a customer. He knocked the combatants' heads together, sending them into hysterical laughter, and sent Esme back to the kitchen with a hearty slap on her firm round backside.
The thief laughed up at him. She was finely built and slender, with a tangled mass of tawny hair and high, firm breasts. Her large hazel eyes were set wide over a short, straight nose and full red lips.
''Well, Bayram Ali, have you come over to knock my head against something too?'' She hooked her thumbs in the belt of her leather jerkin and stretched out a pair of lean leather-clad legs.
''No, little thief. I wondered if you had noticed a certain stranger among my guests.''
''Oh?'' She had lost the smile.
Bayram Ali sat down on the bench next to her and lowered his voice. ''A smooth-skinned man from the East, with bulging saddlebags. His name is Sung Ko Ja. Old Kasan says he came riding a unicorn, with the beast's horn cut off to disguise it.''
''A sorcerer!'' Sparthera shook her head firmly. ''No. I'd as soon try to rob the statue of Khulm. I don't want anything to do with sorcerers.''
''Oh, I hardly think he's a sorcerer,'' the innkeeper said soothingly. ''No more than a magician, if that. A sorcerer wouldn't need to disguise anything. This man is trying to avoid drawing attention to himself. He must have something a thief would want, hmm?''
Sparthera frowned and thought for a moment. No need to ask the terms of the bargain. It would be equal shares, and cheating was expected. ''All right. When he comes down to the common room for dinner, or goes out to the privy, let me know. I'll go up and look around his room.''
It was several hours before Sung Ko Ja came back down the stairs. The sun was just setting, and Esme and her buxom daughters were beginning to serve the evening meal. Sparthera was sitting at one of the small tables near the kitchen door. Bayram Ali brushed by her with a pot of stew.
''That's the one,'' he whispered. ''With the slanted eyes. His room is the third on the left.''
Only Sparthera's eyes moved. Around forty, she thought, and distinctly foreign: round of face, but not fat, with old-ivory skin and dark almond eyes and the manner of a lord. He seemed to be settling in for dinner. Good.
Sparthera moved quickly up the stairs and along the hall, counting doors. The third door didn't move when she pushed on the handle. She tried to throw her weight against it and couldn't; somehow she couldn't find her balance.
She went along to the end of the hall where one small window led out onto the first-story roof. Outside, a scant two feet of slippery thatch separated the second-story wall and a drop to the cobblestones in the stable yard.
The sun had set. The afterglow was bright enough to work in ... perhaps not dark enough to hide her. But behind the inn were only fields and those who had been seeding the fields were gone to their suppers. There was nobody to watch Sparthera work her way around to the window of the magician's room.
The narrow opening was covered with oiled paper. She slit it neatly with the tip of the knife she always carried, and reached through. Or tried to. Something blocked her.
She pushed harder. She felt nothing, but her hand wouldn't move.
She swung a fist at the paper window. Her hand stopped jarringly, and this time she felt her own muscles suddenly lock. Her own strength had stopped her swing.
She had no way to fight such magic. Sparthera hung from the roof by her hands and dropped the remaining four feet to the ground. She dusted herself off and reentered the inn through the front.
Sung Ko Ja was still eating his meal of roast fowl, bread, and fruit. Bayram Ali was hovering around with on eye on the magician and the other on the stairs. Sparthera caught his eye.
He joined her. ''Well?''
''I can't get in. There's a spell on the room.''
The innkeeper's face fell; then he shrugged. ''Pity.''
''I want very much to know what that man has that he thinks is so important.'' She bit one finger and considered the ivory-skinned man dining peacefully on the other side of the room.
''He doesn't have the look of the ascetic. What do you think? Would he like a woman to keep him warm on such a cold night?''
''Sparthera, have you considered what you're suggesting? My inn's reputation is important to me. If I offer, you'll ... well. You'd have to do it.''
''The one time I myself made such a suggestion, you nearly cut my throat.''
'That was years ago. I was ... it had been... I'd only just thrown that damned tinker out on his ear. I didn't like men much just then. Besides, this is different. It's business.''
Bayram Ali eyed her doubtfully. She was dressed more like a young boy than a woman. Still, the magician was a foreigner. Probably all of the local women looked odd to him. Bayram shrugged and pushed his way across the room.
Sung Ko Ja looked up.
The innkeeper smiled broadly. ''The wine was good, eh?''
''And the fowl? It was young, tender, was it not? Cooked to a nicety?''
''I ate it. What's on your mind?''
''Oh, noble sir! The night will be cold, and I have a girl. Such a girl! A vision of delight, a morsel of sweetness...''
Sung Ko Ja waved an impatient hand. ''All right. So she is everything you claim she is. How much?''
''Too much. Six.''
Bayram Ali looked stunned, then hurt. ''Sir, you insult this princess among women. Why, only last week she was a virgin. Nine.''
''Eight and a half.''
''Done. And bring me another bottle of wine.'' Sung tossed down the last few drops in his tankard and paid the innkeeper. Sparthera was waiting for him at the foot of the stairs. He looked her over briefly and then started up the stairs, carrying his fresh bottle of wine. ''Well, come on, girl.''
He stopped at the door to his room and made a few quick gestures with his left hand before he pushed it open.
''Why did you do that?'' Sparthera asked in girlish innocence.
''To raise the spell that protects my room. Otherwise I couldn't let you in, my sweet one.'' He laughed softly and burped.
Sparthera stopped in the doorway. ''If you have a spell on this room, does that mean I'll be locked in?''
''No, no. You're free to come and go-as often as you like.'' He chuckled. ''Until the dawn light comes through that window at the end of the hall and relinks the spell.''
She entered. The low bed?hardly more than a pallet?held a straw-filled mattress and bedding woven from the local cotton and wool. There was wood stacked in the small fireplace grate, and flint and steel lay next to a single candle in a holder. The magician's saddlebags were sitting on the floor by the bed.
Sung looked up at the small window where Sparthera had slashed the paper, and frowned. A cold draft was coming through the opening.
''I'll light the fire, shall I?'' Sparthera asked.
She hurried to start a small blaze, while Sung, swaying slightly on his feet, considered the open window. Best that he be distracted. She asked, ''Is it true that you're a magician?''
He smiled. ''There is only one sort of magic I have in mind at the moment.''
Sparthera hid her sudden nervousness behind a smile. ''Ah, but did you bring your wand?''
The flickering firelight threw their shadows on the wall as Sung guided her to the narrow bed. What followed left Sparthera pleasantly surprised. For all his smooth skin and foreign ways, the stranger proved more than equal to other men she'd known. He was considerate ... almost as if she were paying, not he. Even if nothing came of this venture, the evening hadn't been wasted.
Two hours later she was beginning to change her mind. They were sitting up on the straw-filled mattress, sharing the last of the wine. Sparthera was naked; Sung still wore a wide cloth belt. He had opened one of his bags and was showing her a variety of small trinkets. There were birds that chirped when you tightened a spring, a pair of puppets on strings, flowers made of yellow silk, and squares of bright paper that Sung folded to look like bears and fish. He was very drunk, and talkative.
''The immortal Sung and his family rule in the land of the Yellow River, a mountainous land far to the East. I was head of the family for twenty years. Now I have abdicated the throne in favor of my son. But I carried away some magic. Watch: I put a half-twist in this strip of paper, join the ends, and now it has only one side and one edge.''
Sparthera was restless and bored. She had come upstairs expecting to deal with a magician. She had found a cheap toymaker who couldn't hold his wine. She watched his strong, agile fingers twisting a scrap of paper into a bird ... and wondered. His forehead was high and smooth, his face a little too round for her taste, but undeniably good to look on. It was hard to believe that he could be a complete fool. There must be more to him than cheap toys and bragging and a way with women.
He was rummaging in his bag again and she caught a glimpse of gleaming metal.
''What is that? The box?''
"'The pointer. The key to Gar's treasure. A gift to set me on the road.''
''Gar's treasure. What's that?'' It sounded vaguely familiar.
''It's a secret,'' Sung said, and he closed that saddlebag and reached across for the other. And while he was turned away from her, Sparthera pulled a twist of paper from her hair, and opened it, and shook white powder into Sung's half-empty goblet.
She didn't use it all, and it probably wasn't needed. Sung was on his back and snoring a few minutes later, long before the drug could have taken effect. Sparthera watched him for a few cautious minutes more before she reached into the saddlebag.
She drew out a silver box. There were pieces of jade and carnelian set in mountings on the lid and sides.
She was half-afraid that a spell sealed this, too, but it opened easily enough. The inside was lined with faded crimson velvet, and all it held was an elongated teardrop of tarnished bronze. There were tiny silver runes inlaid along the length of the dark metal.
Sparthera picked it up and turned it this way and that. It was thicker than her forefinger and just about as long. A conical hole had been drilled nearly through its underside.
The box was worth something, but was it worth angering a magician? Probably not, she decided reluctantly. And it certainly wasn't worth killing for, not here. Bayram Ali would never allow such a thing. She would have to flee Tarseny's Rest forever, and Sparthera had none of the tourist urge in her.
The same applied to Sung's cloth belt. She had felt the coins in it when they made the two-backed beast, but it was no fortune.
Sung surely ought to be robbed. It would do him good, make him less gullible. But not tonight. Sparthera dropped the pointer in its box, closed it, and was reaching for the saddlebag when she remembered.
Gar had been Kaythill's magician. And Kaythill was a bandit chief who had raided the lands around Rynildissen City a hundred years ago. He had lasted some twenty years, until the King's soldiers caught him traveling alone. Under torture Kaythill had steered them to some of his spoils. The rest? A wagon load of gold and jewels had been stolen by Gar the magician. Kaythill and his men had been scouting the countryside for Gar when the soldiers trapped him.
Of course the King's men searched for Gar. Some vital pieces of military magic were among the missing treasure. There had been rewards posted, soldiers everywhere, rumors ... and Gar's treasure had grown in the telling, had grown into legend, until it reached Sparthera via her father. She had been ... six? It was a wonder she remembered at all.
And this trinket would point the way to Gar's treasure?
Sparthera dressed hurriedly, snatched up the silver box, and left the room. She hesitated in the hall, looking first at her trophy and then back at the door. What would he do when he woke and found the box missing? She had only seen him drunk. A magician sober and looking for lost property might be an entirely different matter.
She pushed at the door. It opened easily. He hadn't lied, then: She could come and go as she pleased?until dawn.
Sparthera hurried down the stairs and out of the inn. It was nearly midnight and there were only a few jovial souls left in the common room. None saw her leave.