Chapter 8
Author: Charles Billings

"It ain't unusual."
-T. Jones

    And we continued to stand there, as three bedraggled Deveels, as the logging wagon went right on by us.

   "Hey! Hey!" Aahz shouted. "Are you gonna stop for us or what?!"

   Apparently not, I thought, as the wagon took one of the roads away from us and disappeared from view.

   "I don't believe this!" Aahz raged. "Did you see that?! The driver didn't even look at us! Just right on by! No conscience! Nothing!"

   "Aahz," I tried to interject.

   "Three people out in the middle of nowhere! Where's the consideration in this God forsaken place? No wonder everyone in this place has that pinched uncomfortable look! With natives like these, who couldn't help becoming a psychopath?"

   He came down the road, walking back toward me.

   "I'll tell you, now I'm ready. Three more days of this and I'll be primed to kill someone."

   It didn't seem as if I'd be able to get him to stop ranting, so I fell back on my old reliable. Without worrying about what the two of them would think, I started crying. Without shame, without pity, and without hope, I just stood there as tears streamed down my cheeks. Aahz noticed and his expression changed from one of disgust to one I couldn't recognize at all.

   "What the hell is wrong with you?!" he foamed. "There's no time for blubbering! Sheese! I've known people who were going into battle to be killed for sure who had more composure than you. How'd you ever manage to get where you are when you fall to pieces over something this stupid?!"

   Apparently it wasn't as reliable as I had anticipated. I dried my eyes and looked back at him. He was still foaming, probably about how the animals in this dimension didn't quite appeal to him, but I decided to take the initiative.

   "Um, Aahz?" I said.

   He went on.

   "Aahz!" I yelled.

   "Just a minute!" he yelled back. "I'm not through!"

   "I think-" Brockhurst began, in a vain attempt to get Aahz under control.

   "Oh, so now you're thinking, Imp? I'll tell you something, we're better off with you not thinking. It was you who got us into this mess in the first place. So do us all a favor and just stop thinking. Just stop now, or..."

   "I think maybe we should-" Brockhurst continued undaunted.

   "Or maybe I'll prime myself on you," Aahz finished.

   Brockhurst shrugged, cowed into silence. He looked over at me, and I just rolled my eyes at him. We walked over to the side of the road and sat down.

   Two hours later, we still sat there. Aahz had been on quite a roll, but I'll admit that I had no problems with the fall foliage, so maybe his frustrations were making him stretch a little.

   "And another thing," Aahz yelled at the trees, "the bathroom facilities here are just absolutely atrocious. Reminds me of the Caicos: three weeks with stalls like that and we'll all be lucky if we don't start sprouting a fungus!"

   He turned toward us and took a deep breath. For a moment I thought he was hyperventilating again, but apparently he really was finished.

   "Okay, let's go."

   "Where?" I asked.

   "Isn't it obvious?" he retorted.

   I rolled my eyes.

   "Skeeve," he began with intense solemnity, "when are you going to start thinking for yourself? That wagon was going somewhere, probably back to town since he was fully loaded. That and the wagon was full with finished products, so he's dropping that off to be shipped. Let's go."

   So we walked down the road where the wagon had gone.

   After a few more hours, the road started heading up at a steep angle. This seemed to make Aahz happy.

   "Yes, yes, I remember that we came over a mountain range. This makes perfect sense. At least we're going in the right direction."

   Although this did lend me some comfort, I wasn't that pleased. The road was very steep. After about an hour, we came out of the trees, along a ridge, where we could see the expanse of the valley below us. At this point the road had gotten very muddy from last night's rain. We continued on, as the road got increasingly precarious along the ridge. Finally, as the road went around a curve above a very steep precipice, Aahz stopped and looked up the face of the cliff above us.

   "Hmm," he mumbled. "This could be rather nasty, especially with the rain."

   He walked a little forward, with Brockhurst and me trailing after him. Aahz looked up the cliff again and looked down into the void.

   "This really isn't safe," he said. "No loud noises."

   "How'd the wagon get around it, then?" I countered.

   "It doesn't matter how it did, kid," Aahz shot back. "That doesn't make it any safer for us. Here, let me see how firm this is."

   With that, he raised his foot and stomped on the road. We looked at his foot dumbly, and he smiled at us.

   "Okay, this should be safe."

   With that, the road fell out from under us.

Chapter 8 Drawing

   I was immediately disoriented as I fell with the road, but I got my bearings and flew above the carnage. My friends, however, were not so lucky.

   "Aahz!" I shouted, but I couldn't see either one of them. I cast desperately about as ton after tons of rock, mud and trees slid down into the valley. It was useless. I couldn't see either one of them. I closed my eyes and tried to find them from their auras, but that didn't work, either, as both of them had lost any aura they might have had when their powers were stripped from them.

   Finally, the last few stones trailed along after the worst was done, and as swiftly as it had started, the avalanche was over. I looked in vain for a place to land, but I realized that I would have to fly down to the valley, well over a thousand feet below the ridge where the road had been. Seeing no other option, I descended.

   On the way down, I heard the unmistakable sound of Aahz shouting at me.

   "Hey kid!" he yelled, heedless of his own safety. "Over here!"

   Not wanting him to yell any more, I searched the ground for him, and sure enough, there he was, half buried, gesticulating wildly at me, about two thirds of the way down the slide. I flew down and landed near him.

   "Well," he continued, "isn't this a revolting development?"

   "Where's Brockhurst?" I asked.

   "How should I know? Kid, we've just had half a mountain fall on us."

   He began to pull himself out from under the dirt and boulders that constituted his living tomb, so to speak. "No, kid, I don't need any help whatsoever, and yes, I'm perfectly fine."

   "Are you?" I asked.

   "No!" he yelled, almost bringing the other half down on us. I went over to him and helped unearth him. He limped away from me and sat down on a boulder that seemed stable enough, all things considered.

   "I dinged my knee," he winced. "But I think it just got hit funny. I managed to relocate my shoulders waiting for you as you pulled your Tinkerbell trick. Quick thinking, by the way, kid."

   "Thanks," I said, taken aback. "Are you going to be all right?"

   "Of course I am," he said swiftly. "We Pervects aren't fragile little things, you know. I can still walk. We only need to get back to the road."

   "But we have to find Brockhurst!" I said.

   "Forget him. He's worm food, or whatever little animals this Godforsaken dimension has for those sorts of things, which isn't such a bad thing, really," Aahz said brusquely. "The imp was starting to annoy me, and he was, after all, working on the other side."

   By now I had completely forgotten whose side I was on, so I just accepted this statement. I looked at the mud and rock slide around us and thought about Brockhurst. He was my friend. I remember hiring him on Deva; how pitiful he was, and how that pitifulness so much resembled my own. Suddenly, I missed him terribly. Now that he was gone, I felt as if I didn't have a hope in the world.

   "Oh no," Aahz broke in, "you're not going to start crying again. No way, kid. I can't see how anyone could have any respect for you when you turn all Patty Schroeder on us whenever things turn bad. If you let that tear slip, kid, I'll really give you something to cry about. I'll beat you senseless."

   And so that was that.

   After getting back on stable ground, we shacked up for the night again before starting the next morning. The road was pretty easy going after we got over the ridge, as it was all downhill. Late in the afternoon we pulled into town, unsure of what we were supposed to be doing. Fortunately or un, we discovered Gus waiting for us at our hotel's lobby, solving that problem for the time being. We explained what we had found out to him, with his look becoming more ironically stony as we finished.

   "Brockhurst was misinformed," he said sagely. "The Devan Executive Branch was overhauled recently, but Ginghe was one of the unappointed hierarchy, which means he kept his job. The Financial News was rather clear about that, and Brockhurst doesn't read the News anyway. Someone who undoubtedly thought that he wouldn't know the difference told him that, and he bought it."

   "So you mean the deal's still on?" Aahz asked. And that was it again, as he jumped about the room.

   "Aahz! Aahz! Aahz!" Gus shouted at him. "Sit down! That's not all!"

   Aahz calmed down at once at this, and sat back down next to me. He was, however, still grinning as his right foot twitched unconsciously.

   "What I was about to say is that there's nothing going on at the textile mill I visited."

   "What do you mean?" Aahz asked.

   "I mean there was no labor problem there whatsoever, either that or the saboteurs have such a tight grip on everyone that there's absolutely no indication that anything's up, and believe me, I tried my hardest to shake something from them. None of the people Dierack mentioned were there, even the people he assured me were employees. Something really suspicious is going on. Either that or the Deveels have already cleared that plant out, but I didn't see any evidence of that, either. Dierack would have told us that. I've only got one lead, and it's not too hot."

   "What's that?"

   "One of the guys at the mill, an off-worlder, said he had a cousin working in the gas mines on Chirosovo just in passing. The papers mentioned something about gas mines on Chirosovo being another hot spot. This one guy I'm fairly certain has no contacts to the saboteurs, because he's so genuinely dumb he couldn't spell 'dog' if you spotted him the D and the G. But that's all I have to go on."

   "I don't trust Dierack," Aahz said.

   "And neither do I," Gus responded, "but it's what we've got to go on so far." He huffed and looked away. "You know, they could be setting us up to get killed, but the only problem is, if they're playing straight, if we start going against them, they'll want us killed. I say we head on out to Chirosovo and try to get a better handle on this before we decide what Ginghe and the gang's really holding for us."

   "What about Tananda and Chumley?" I asked.

   "Still no word, but they should be all right. Let's just leave them a note, a simple one, that we're searching for more information on Chirosovo. That'll work without alerting anyone of our suspicions."

   Aahz rubbed his hands reflexively. "Chirosovo," he said, looking a bit austere. "Hope you can scrounge up some warm clothes, kid, 'cause this isn't going to be pretty."

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Text Charles Billings, 1998
Drawing Robert M. Cook, 1998