“All in a Week’s Work”, story 1
By Hannah Christensen
“Sweet Solitude, come in. Space Rover Bonny calling for Sweet Solitude.”
Still no answer came from the radio. Captain Philip pushed himself back in his chair.
“No one’s manning the communication center again?”
Captain Philip glanced back to see Ervin Wist’hle casually leaning against the entryway to the bridge, a steaming mug in his hands. Though not unusually tall, Ervin was long in limb and always looked relaxed, even in an emergency. While he never let his hair casually get shaggy, it did fall naturally into an unkempt pattern. His dusky gray uniform sported mild wrinkles and a few small grease spots, despite the protective mechanic’s covers he wore in the engine room.
“I thought this was you sleep period,” the Captain said.
“Mr. Drudgeon here claims I get more rest at the board than in my chamber, so I thought joining you might be beneficial to myself,” Ervin said, nonchalantly waved the mug at the figure solidly settled in the co-pilot’s place.
“I would swear I’ve seen him send and receive radio transmissions in his,” Dunstan Drudgeon said.
“Legitimate ones?” Captain Philip asked, glancing over with a glint of humor under his straight, low eyebrows.
“Standard protocol, exchange of ship information, answering distress calls. Once we were entering stage three of an emergency rescue before he woke up.”
“Opened my eyes,” Protested Ervin. “Radios can be manned just as well with closed eyes as open. I know where all the controls are.”
“That’s what he claims, but once he sprawls out and closes his eyes, he doesn’t respond to thing I say unless it’s official business. I think he’s programmed himself to respond to target phrases.”
Dunstan gave his theory with gravity. His droopy mustache lent his face a wistful seriousness. The rest of his hair was cropped short and neat in keeping with the impeccable presentation of his Space Rover uniform. Only the badge, transferred from uniform to uniform over the years, was shabby, and Dunstan displayed it with great pride on his stout chest. The faded, slightly fraying badge had been with Dunstan since he had joined the Space Rovers at the tender age of eleven.
“You were probably reading another manual to him, and he decided to ignore you,” said Captain Philip.
“Reaffirm my co-ordinates for landing on Sweet Solitude,” said Captain Philip, turning his brown head back toward his part of the board. The shooting star captain’s pin gleamed on his collar.
“North Port?” asked Dunstan, glancing at the board in front of him.
“It’s closer. I don’t think Beach Port is any more likely to answer a second call.”
“Probably not,” agreed Dunstan. “More often than not port is abandoned when we arrive here.”
“Oh, well, they probably don’t realize we’re here to greet,” said Ervin.
“They should,” said Dunstan forcefully. “We send reports of when we’re coming plenty in advance. The radio technicians are just a lazy bunch.”
“Maybe they never got the message,” Ervin suggested, sipping.
“Now that I wouldn’t be surprised over,” Dunstan said, slamming his big fist into the arm of his chair. “With all the time they spend loafing around with the vacationers, I’m surprised the whole planet hasn’t been taken over by space pirates!”
In truth, Sweet Solitude was too far off from any route of trade or other travel to make it a worthwhile pirate lurk. Its isolation was part of what made the planet perfect for relaxation. A haven for the overworked or recuperating, some of the inhabitants could well have been undercover, but it was no pirate base. The planet sprawled out in lush forests and grasslands and shallow seas. Free from poison, germs, severe weather, and dangerously large beasts, the face of the planet seemed to call irresistibly. One was just as likely to find a radio operator wandering through a copse of trees as attending his post. So powerful was the lackadaisical call of the outdoors that without the Space Rovers, the entire population of Sweet Solitude might easily have wasted away in peace.
When making their rounds in the area, keeping an eye out for trouble or distress calls, the Bonny brought any supplies needed. Successful radio contact was spotty, so at times Captain Philip had to guess what spare parts or other items might be required.
“I suppose I had better go get some shut eye before we land,” Ervin said wistfully, swirling the contents of this cup.
“You’ve been port side the last two times we’ve docked,” pointed out Captain Philip, sliding a black lever down.
“And with the length of this run, I want to request port side duties for next time, too. Dunstan never tires of ship life, but I don’t want him letting little stowaways in while his nose is stuck in the newest operating system manual. I figure I should take the watch duty this time.”
Dunstan snorted, “Urbanite.”
“You know, I wouldn’t have to worry about it so much if we kept a cat to intimidate the pests – ”
“Cats,” said Captain Philip with disgust. “I will not allow a whisker – one whisker! to come anywhere near my ship.”
“I suppose I’d better get some sleep, then,” sighed Ervin. He dashed the last of his drink off and moseyed away.
The port official seemed mildly surprised to see them as he ambled over from the outskirts of the base.
“It is about that time, isn’t it?” he said. His navy uniform lay half opened on him, exposing his pale gray under tunic.
“Didn’t you receive our message?” asked Captain Philip, frowning.
“Well, we’ve been having some problems with the tower. The repairman thinks it has to do with wiring. He’s not sure where, but since we ran out of supplies, it hasn’t really mattered. Now that you’re her, I can go route him out of the archipelago.”
“You ran out of supplies? How long have you been in need?” queried the Captain.
“Oh, we’re fine in the food and medical department,” the officer assured him. “There’s just been a large call for repairs lately But we haven’t been missing anything we can’t live without.”
He easily led the captain and Dunstan over to the main food storage unit. Shelves there were down to the normal level, Captain Philip noticed as the three hauled boxes in from the Bonny. When the neat metallic shelves were refilled with neat piles of crates, they moved on to check the repair warehouse.
“Hmm,” remarked Dunstan, nosing an empty resistor box with his boot toe. “I don’t know how many of these we have on board.”
“We could spare some wire, anyhow,” said the Captain. “You seem to be low on most of your gauges.”
“You wouldn’t believe how sharp gumpy teeth are,” answered Sweet Solitude’s Galaxy League representative, trying to pull the sliding metal door closed after them. The button only made the door shiver. It slowly started to bump close. He finished the job in one last yank, scooping a lumpy lizard creature out of the way with his foot. The lizard ran in circles, hissing and fluttering twin amber tongues, then scurried under the cover of some brush, the shadows quickly hiding even its bright purple speckles.
“Are the gumpies becoming a nuisance?” asked Captain Philip.
“What? No, no,” answered the official with a wave of his hand. “They’re still as friendly and winsome as ever. They’ve just no sense in their cavorting and seem to have recently taken notice of electrical things. You can’t really blame the little fellows for wanting to play with their new toys.”
Dunstan glanced skeptically up at a gumpy perched on the roof. It shyly returned the look with huge, bluish-purple eyes framed in a golden mane. All four silky, mobile feet were gathered beneath its body. The feet were notable in that, where one would expect toes, the soft, furry flesh took on the form of mere rounded pads. These four appendages were muscular and flexible enough to do as much as if they had sported opposable toes instead.
“They’re part of what makes Sweet Solitude so perfect,” continued the port official. “Animal companionship. You don’t even need to feed them, though many people do. You need to be careful there, though. There’s no telling what will make one sick.”
“Oh, the joy,” muttered Dunstan.
“That’s one nice thing about space travel,” Captain Philip told him “I can enjoy the animals on planet, and then when they start to get annoying or make a mess, I realize that, unfortunately, it’s time for me to be leaving. Then I have to say goodbye and leave the animals to their lucky owners. It’s so tragic.”
“Captain,” he said, “I’ll back you all the way about no cats on board. Star ships have done fine without them since I was no bigger than the pop of an airlock, and it wouldn’t do to go starting bad habits now.”
Retrieving supplies ended up taking longer than necessary. Ervin had set up his campaign against invasion and considered every entrance and exit a breech of security.
“At least use the airlock,” he pleaded.
“The air here is fine,” retorted Captain Philip.
“I know, but at least that way you can see the little varmints when they try to infiltrate and shoot them down in their tracks.”
Captain Philip frowned.
“Firearms are forbidden on areas of refuge,” he said.
“It’s not exactly a firearm, and our ship is under attack! Already one of those hairy monsters has been picking around near the control center, and if I can’t get it to understand it’s not welcome, I will blast it through the head!”
“I don’t think we have anything to worry about here,” muttered Dunstan to the Captain with a smile.
“Nothing to worry about?” exclaimed Ervin. “We’re being invaded by destructive vermin and you say we have nothing to worry about? Are you planning on postponing our retreat so you can -”
Ervin cut himself off with an offended cry and dashed off around the ship. Captain Philip and Dunstan used the opportunity to continue unloading supplies. Soon, bundles of spare parts and vacuum sealed perishables were out and lined up orderly.
“If your mechanic can’t handle the repair, our crewman Wist’hle can be of assistance,” Captain Philip told the port master while shouldering a pack of vacuum sealed goods.
“Thank you. I should be able to find him, but it may take some time. Are you sure you can spare your crewman? He looks busy.”
“He’s watching gumpies. Use him if you need to.”
“He’s going to love you for that,” Dunstan growled as they headed out.
“Yes, that’s one of the privileges of being captain,” Captain Philip replied. “I am privileged to the unconditional adoration of my crew.”
Dunstan grunted, and started to calculate how many watches Ervin would neglect to remember to brew enough coffee for anyone else to have a mug. The amount of gumpies showing up at the Bonny while he was busy would probably prove to be an integral factor to that equation.
Sprinkled throughout Sweet Solitude were stations equipped with everyday supplies such as food and first aid items. The bases took care of anything else, such as off-planet communication and repairs.
“If it were almost anyplace else, I would file a complaint for having to hand deliver supplies to all the outposts. North Port should be able to handle that,” said Dunstan.
“It does give us a chance to inconspicuously look around,” Captain Philip said.
“Just in case someone would take us for tourists in uniform,” said Dunstan.
“They’d be more likely to take us for deserters. Actually, that wouldn’t be a bad mistake,” the Captain added thoughtfully. “Any troublemakers would be more likely to take us into their confidence.”
The Captain puckered his lips in a thoughtful, upward expression which masked the twinkle in his eye.
“I can just see it. Space Rovers infiltrate bandits and bring them to justice. Yes. I like it.”
Dunstan answered in his usual straight forward way.
“If there are any bandits here, they’re probably so busy vacationing we couldn’t tell them from the rest.”
“My nose could,” said Captain Philip. “It’s gone through the very best training.”
“Is that what they teach in officer’s school,” countered Dunstan. “I wondered.”
Captain Philip looked down at his boots.
“This sounds like an excellent reason to go barefoot. It would completely throw any lawbreakers off guard. “
“I’m sure ‘except in situations where it hinders duty’ does not include delivering supplies cross-country,” Dunstan replied almost sternly.
“If any bandits get away because of this, I’m holding you responsible,” the Captain said, stretching his legs and picking up the pace.
Supply distribution took several days. The paths were easy, but meandering. The pair of Space Rovers met few people, but who they did meet were friendly.
“Supplies!” beamed one elderly woman, probably seeking relief from arthritis. “I don’t suppose you received my order for new sewing scissors, did you?”
Captain Philip frowned to himself as he checked the list. Sewing scissors did not sound familiar.
“I used my palm beamer to send the request in to base, but the beamer has not been working properly, and I didn’t know if the request had made it through.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am, next time -” began Captain Philip.
“Oh, no, no, no, I’m sure it’s my fault,” she said, flapping her hand in protest. “Sometimes I let Prilly play with it – down-powered, of course.”
The captain glanced at the gumpy behind her. It cheerfully sported metallic ribbon woven through its mane. A disgruntled looking lizard was cradled in its flexible paws. Captain Philip purposefully set his face in a flat, non-committal expression.
“She is just fascinated with my palm beamer, and I can’t say no. She loves it almost as much as her little cachtemon.”
“Cachtemon. See, she’s holding it right now. The little lizards are everywhere. It’s so sweet how she has a little pet of her own. Why, every time she gets some food, she offers some to it first, not that it accepts the food, of course.”
Captain Philip looked back over at the gumpy. The cachtemon flailed, trying to get free, but the gumpy’s paws pulled closer, the tight membrane showcasing the lizard’s every move. Just as the lizard seemed to give up the fight, the gumpy expanded its grip to let the cachtemon plop down into the now baglike paws. The cachtemon used the opportunity to spring away, hissing and clicking as it disappeared into the foliage. The gumpy wistfully watched it go.
Captain Philip decided if they were to make their own escape, it should start soon.
He helped Dunstan refurbished supplies in the picturesque cottage storehouse smothered in flowers amidst a continuous outpour of words. Slowly he headed back along the trail, making non-committal comments where necessary. The woman would not be left easily; she matched their steps and kept the words flowing. She had no end of topics: weather, soil PH, a new garden plot, gumpy habits, a neighbor who left after her shower broke down again, local vegetation. Captain Philip finally resorted to asking for the best directions for his next stop.
Mostly, though, inhabitants were content to exchange a few comments or share a meal, and let the Space Rovers go on their way. One thing seemed common everywhere: technological breakdowns.
“It’s as though there were a plague spreading among the electronics,” Captain Philip said to Dunstan.
They were hiking along the edge of a pink bluff, on the last leg of the trip. Below, the sea cuddled peacefully against the rocky shore.
“I’ve been sleeping with all my gear tucked in front with me, where it’s safe,” Dunstan said.
“Yes, I’ve noticed,” the Captain said. “Every once in a while, I hear a strange buzz coming from your direction. At first I thought it was you snoring, but then I heard a beep, and I realized, that can’t be Dunstan.”
“I do my best not to sleep on top of it,” Dunstan said, pushing aside a branch with long, curly leaves. The path now curved inland under the cover of trees. “Even with top-of-the-line quality, it pays to be careful.”
Captain Philip never did reply, because just then the path turned enough to reveal a cozy resting niche. Instead of the regular bench or hammock, a grill nested here, too unassuming to boast of the gleam along its lid.
The Captain paused as they drew abreast to run his hand along the grill.
“Do you care to have lunch early?” he asked.
Dunstan eyed the grill over his mustache.
“I’d prefer it to hiking all the way back here when there isn’t a grill up the trail.”
“We’re not backtracking.”
“Says the man who spent most of a week rigging up a grill in the engine room.”
Dunstan lowered his pack to the ground with a thump.
“It seemed like such a good idea,” said Captain Philip, slipping his backpack off to set next to Dunstan’s. “If only engine smoke didn’t taste so horrible. My stomach had nightmares for weeks.”
“I don’t know why Ervin didn’t chase you off sooner.”
Dunstan stretched his arms out and flexed his muscles.
“No, he was having too much fun tinkering with it. I had to change everything before I started work on it every time just so I would know what I was doing.”
The Captain unlaced his boots and pulled his feet free, peeling the socks away. Shoving the footwear to the side, he started pulling items from his backpack, looking for grill worthy entrees.
Dunstan lowered wiry eyebrows.
“You’re cooking my food with bare feet?”
“That would be interesting. I’ve never tried to grill with my feet before.”
Dunstan stood unmoved.
“I’m officially off duty now,“ Captain Philip added, pulling out a satisfying selection of meat. “Go check the food storage here and see if it needs to be restocked while the food cooks. And bring some pepper sauce if there is any.”
“Regulations have their reasons, you know,” said Dunstan, but clumped off to investigate the cupboard.
The little cabinet was subtly placed in a thicket to the side of the clearing. The weather-tight container was covered in woven local wood. It opened to reveal not orderly rows of jars of seasonings and condiments, but a sticky mess of broken glass. Almost a dozen sparkling cachtemon eyes glared back at Dunstan.
“Everything’s going to pot,” Dunstan grumbled. He started working the cupboard free to look for the lizard’s entry point, but cachtemons lunged at his fingers. Dunstan repressed a start and flicked the lizards away. One managed to cling for a while longer with stubborn jaw power, but Dunstan firmly whacked it against a nearby trunk.
“If Sweet Solitude had any poisonous beasts, I know who’d they be,” Dunstan rumbled to himself as he bent to examine the hole. The wooden shell at least bore clear marks of chewing.
Dunstan eyed the regathered toothless lizards suspiciously. They all crouched in the area the cupboard had rested, hissing and flicking their tongues. Dunstan removed what he needed for the repair from his backpack and promptly sealed it up again. The job went quickly. When it came time to replace the storage box, resistance met him.
Cachtemons jumped and clicked and spit, resisting the advance of the box. More and more purple spotted lizards joined the group. Soon the trees began to rustle.
“Dunstan,” said Captain Philip, having his fire where it should be, “It’s a shame-”
That was when he turned around.
Two gumpies had appeared, one clinging to Dunstan’s neck and trying to rip at his hair, the other clinging to his legs. Cachtemons had swarmed up and hung all about him, one even dangling from him mustache.
The captain sat back and laughed.
“You would think that tranquilizer guns would be legalized here by now,” Dunstan managed after prying gumpy legs from around his throat.
“This is where they need cats,” said Captain Philip. “Say,” he added, stroking his chin. “This could be the place to banish all the cats. Every time we found a cat we could send it over here. I like the idea. I like it.”
Dunstan shook himself, sending a few cachtemons flying.
“I can rig up an electrical shocker,” offered Captain Philip.
“I’m going to need some type of help.”
Captain Philip flipped open his pack and took out a high beam portable light and an analyzer probe. With a few thoughtful screws, tugs and twists, a device was jury-rigged. Captain Philip frowned at it and made one more adjustment before heading toward his crew member. He reached the rod from the analyzer towards the top gumpy, but just then Dunstan stumbled. The rod connected fully with his cheek.
Dunstan roared and pulled back.
Both gumpies fled, though whether from startlement or conducted pain was impossible to tell. Captain Philip aimed a few prods at the cachtemons, but most of them missed.
“How did you get to be a Space Rover with such lousy aim?” Roared Dunstan.
“I would do much better if I weren’t pitted against another Space Rover,” he replied evenly. “You keep dodging me.”
“I wish I were dodging you!”
Another lizard fell stunned to the ground Dunstan seized the one on his mustache and hauled it out into the vegetation. Soon the rest were dispersed as well.
“Now guard my back while I return this thing,” said Dunstan.
He thumped it to the ground and secured it in a matter of moments.
“Does it need refills?” the Captain asked.
“It needs to be cleaned up, but I’ll let someone else do that this time.
Dunstan briskly clapped his hands along the sides of his trousers.
The Captain laughed again.
“Those must have been some horrible lizards to keep you from finishing a job,” he said.
Dunstan glared at the rod wired into the portable high beam light.
“You should have kept one of them. Then we could find out what cachtemon tastes like,” Captain Philip told him.
Dunstan stumped over to his pack and sat.
“This had better be all the excitement on this trip,” he said.
Dunstan almost got his wish.
One stop had a resident who seemed to think the Space Rovers had come to move in.
“Nights are the worst,” he whispered confidentially. “Even the stars whisper together in groups, but there’s nobody here. Harlow found a ship that could hear, and called them to take him home.”
The man’s round eyes peered intensely at the two travelers.
He looked like he could have been left behind when rich vacationers rallied in protest against the mentally ill sharing their planetary sanctuary. Captain Philip nodded politely and tried again to take a subtle step towards the path. This was promising to be another over-wordy stop. The man reached out and wrapped his clammy hand around Captain Philip’s arm.
“His allergies were acting up. The drug companies never heard him, and his nose was always red. His eyes, too. And they always dripped…”
Captain Philip’s gaze inadvertently slipped away from the speaker’s face. A movement in the background caught his eye. A gumpy was doing his business in the nearby garden much like a cat would. It looked at him with mildly curious eyes.
A cachtemon rushed up, hissing, to the gumpy. The gumpy uncertainly began to back away, then hesitated to finish the burying process. The cachtemon flung itself forward, and the gumpy scurried off.
“P.H.! P.H.! That’s my P.H.!”
The damp hand abandoned the Captain’s arm as its owner rushed toward the garden.
“Leave my P.H. alone!”
He grabbed up a shovel and started flailing it at the lizard.
The two Space Rovers decided to make an exit while chaos covered their tracks.
Beach Port’s officer on duty beamed when Captain Philip and Dunstan walked up.
“Supplies at North Port are ready for you to pick up,” the Captain cordially announced.
“Oh, good,” she said. “I was hoping you were about due. I don’t suppose you brought any mushrooms?”
“No,” replied the Captain, frowning thoughtfully. “We brought spores on our last run. Did they not catch on?”
“Oh, yes, they came up just fine. There are patches of soil around here just perfect for fungus. The wildlife wouldn’t let them alone, though.”
She brushed the air with her hands as though to brush the matter off.
“Ah, well, that’s one more step toward immunity to disappointment, I’m sure,” she said wryly. “A more important matter are three passengers heading home. You see,” she added apologetically, “It seems their assets have been frozen. Possibly because of a lapse of communication, but that’s rather hard to tell right now. We were hoping you would have room for passengers. At least give them a chance to straighten out matters.”
She smiled hopefully.
“Three passengers,” Dunstan said flatly.
“We can look into it,” replied Captain Philip. “They should at least be able to use our communication station.”
“Excellent! But let’s not stand about talking business all day. Come sit down. I’ll bring out something to drink, and you can tell me all about your trip.”
Relaxing on the beach enjoying a purple and green sunset turned out to feel refreshingly guilt free. The time was spent learning about affairs on Sweet Solitude and passing on news from the surrounding galaxies. Dunstan even relaxed enough to only sigh at the recounting of his trial at lunch, and added the latter strange affair.
Their listener was touched by mirth. She looked down into the depths of her fizzy fruit juice as the bubbles of laughter evened out.
“Cachtemons do tend to be … territorial. There are patches of land they prefer, and they don’t relinquish their claim. It doesn’t matter if you build there, or try to garden, or anything. They always get in, too.” She glanced up, a quirk on her mouth. “Marsh bile is the only thing that seems to stop them, and even that they cross by riding on gumpies.”
“Marsh bile?” asked Dunstan.
“Oh, that’s farther in, away from most the paths and residences,” their hostess explained. “It does have a peculiar odor, and stains permanently. Some very pretty flowers grow among the marshes, though.”
Captain Philip leaned his head back. Some thoughts were settling and ready to click into place together. He closed his eyes to give them a better chance.
Ervin glanced down as his shipmates approached.
“Go make sure none of those lizards are escaping,” he said.
“I must have missed his promotion,” Dunstan said, sadly shaking his head. “Here I’ve been, not even dreaming he’s become a commanding officer.”
“If the commanding officers take it into their heads to assign the watchman as civilian assistant, he can just take on security himself,” snapped Ervin.
“Like catching wildlife.”
“I swear they have a conspiracy to overrun our ship,” said Ervin, shaking his wire cutters. “The furry ones keep getting their paws in the trap, and to let them out always seems to free two or three lizards.”
“Where are your traps, exactly?” asked the Captain.
“Close to the Bonny, mostly. There’s one over by the storage shed, too.”
“Dunstan,” said Captain Philip, pleased, “I believe our solution is in the making.”
“You didn’t let any pests escape, did you?” Ervin checked as he returned from the last sweep of soil evaluation. The analyzer hung casually from his hand.
“If you keep up your bellyaching, the Captain will probably hole you up inside to help him get through all the red tape,” warned Dunstan.
“Oh, red tape’s nothing,” Ervin asserted casually. “You just need to find the loophole.”
Dunstan eyed the swinging analyzer, making sure the rod stayed clear of him.
“I’ve always said,” Captain Philip commented, stepping outside, “The best thing to do with a loophole is hang the people who strung all the red tape. But we do have the go-ahead to start.”
Building small islands from aboriginal material took the better part of two very full days. After that the newly placed soil had to be enriched and its PH balanced. Gumpy waste played an essential part. That left the last, key step.
Carrying cages of cachtemons did not prove to be easy. If a finger came too near, it was attacked by tightly hinged jaws. A lizard or two would occasionally crash furiously about in a cage before throwing itself back down in a grouchy heap. Dunstan came up with the method of putting a cage on either end of a pole and carrying the pole across one’s shoulders. This worked reasonably well until the thicker undergrowth.
“Maybe we should wait until whatever it is purple spotted lizards like to eat grows,” said Ervin. “I don’t want to go to all this trouble just for them to turn their grumpy little noses up at our work.”
“I will not tolerate insubordination in the ranks, Wist’hle,” Captain Philip warned. Even Sweet Solitude had midges, and most of them seemed to prefer the vicinity of his head. That day only one Galaxy League officer showed up to help.
When the four came to the marsh bile, Ervin wrinkled his nose as though contemplating more insubordinate complaints. No brush hindered the cages there. Only murk pulled at legs and feet. Captain Philip led the way, his footwear abandoned behind him.
Cages swung wildly. Grunts punctuated the slurps and smacks of muck.
“Careful,” Dunstan said, but the volunteer officer swung too wide trying to pull his foot up. Two cages collided; one came open while the other crashed into the muck. The cachtemons caught in the sinking mud exploded into frantic action.
“That’s one way to get rid of them,” Ervin commented cheerily. “We should have thought of that sooner. Do you think they’re melting? They could be from all the fuss they’re making.”
“Don’t you care about doing anything the right way?” Dunstan ejaculated, hurling a cachteman at Ervin. The opened cage had been his, and he was again hung with lizards.
The thrown cachtemon missed, hitting Captain Philip in his broad chest instead. He looked down as the lizard fell into the marsh bile, then picked it up by the tail before it could climb onto him.
After a bit more squelching, the four arrived on dry ground. Dunstan plucked off the rest of the offenders, flinging them to the ground. The cachtemons seemed far from pleased with their new home. Hissing and clicking, they darted about, always retreating from the marshy shore.
“They had better be grateful,” declared Dunstan, giving himself a last brush down to make sure he was free of the pests.
“Ah, well, what did you expect?”
Ervin flopped down on the ground.
“At least the bile didn’t eat the Captain’s feet away down to bones. How are your feet, Captain? Feeling the abuse?”
“Glad to be free,” Captain Philip answered, grinning. He glanced about. The lizards still had time to settle down and notice they now had run of an area of land ideal to their food conditions and free of human encroachment. Free except for those temporarily present, of course.
“They aren’t exactly smart little buggers,” Ervin said, following his gaze.
“They’re smart enough to entice the gumpies to wage a war of espionage,” Captain Philip pointed out.
“Yes, but if your theory’s correct, the gumpies have always been under their reptilian claws, fetching and ferrying and fertilizing.”
Ervin frowned in annoyance at the cachtemon that seemed to be glaring him in the face.
“What are you looking at?” demanded Ervin.
The cachtemon hissed and flicked its double tongue. Ervin sat bolt upright, his hands going to his face.
“Yowch! My eye! Keep your tongue out of my eye!”
The cachtemon redoubled its efforts, encouraged. A few others scurried over to help.
“What is your problem?” protested Ervin, heading back to the marsh. “You don’t even like this ground.”
“I think they’ve changed their minds,” Captain Philip said.
The whole compliment of North Port’s employees gathered to see off the Bonny and her crew.
“Thank you,” repeated the port master yet again. “I really think this should clear things up.”
“No problem,” Captain Philip said, stepping for the air lock. “It’s all in a week’s work.”
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