The planet Daggyboil hung in space, as planets tend to do. It was a muddy brown-green sphere, with extensive grey cloud cover. It looked about as inviting as its name suggested.
Lurk examined his scanner readout thoughtfully.
"I'm getting massive life form readings," he said, "but nothing which registers as a city."
Are we going to land? asked Arty Farty.
"We certainly are," said Lurk. "But I have no idea where. I guess I could just crash-land at random, and trust to the Source that, with an entire planet to choose from, we just happen to land in Yodel's back yard."
Please don't! Arty whistled urgently.
Lurk chuckled. "Don't worry, Arty," said Lurk, "I'm not that silly. If nothing else, I've learned a little patience since we first met."
Arty chose to make no reply to this assertion.
"What do we know about this planet?" asked Lurk.
Arty beeped and whistled. Extensive biosphere, no known settlements.
"One thing's for sure," said Lurk, "there's something alive down there. We'll try a higher resolution with the scanner. If there's any civilisation at all down there, it's got to show up eventually."
He pressed a few buttons, boosting the scanner's effective resolution, and settled back to wait. The planet rolled slowly beneath the orbiting fighter. After twenty minutes, there was a small bleep as the scanners picked up something other than swamp and mud. Lurk tapped a couple of keys on the scanner panel, enhancing the detected structure.
"Looks like a small ... well, spaceport, for want of a better word," he said. "One landing pad, couple of shacks. Nothing else around it, though. Can't see any reason for it to exist. Still, it's our only lead so far; we'll give it a try."
Are you sure this is a good idea, Master Lurk? whistled Arty.
"Nope," said Lurk cheerfully. "But we've come all this way; we can't really leave without at least trying to find this Yodel character."
Arty whistled mournfully.
"Don't worry," said Lurk. "What can possibly go wrong?" Ignoring the extensive list which began to scroll up the translation screen as Arty whistled and beeped urgently, Lurk set the landing coordinates, and circled around to begin his approach. He guided the fighter into the atmosphere, and visibility fell to zero as boiling clouds swallowed everything. He reduced his approach velocity slightly, and the entire craft shuddered as it hit a spot of heavy atmospheric turbulence. Finally they emerged from the clouds, although wisps of fog still swirled around his cockpit. Suddenly a small tower loomed out of the fog before them; Lurk jerked his joystick over, narrowly avoiding the ragged structure. Then the flashing lights of the landing pad beckoned, and Lurk touched down smoothly. The engines whined down to silence as he cut their power.
"You know," he said finally to Arty, "it was a rhetorical question."
Arty fell silent.
Lurk popped the hatch of the cross-wing fighter. His eyes instantly teared up as the malodorous atmosphere rolled in and filled his lungs. It was breathable—but hardly enjoyable. It smelled of a thousand unpleasant things. Top of the list were methane and ammonia, but he detected more than a hint of sulphur too. It smelled like the men's toilets after a hard night of curry and beer.
Lurk coughed, and blinked his eyes to clear them. After a couple of seconds, he began to rummage around in his pockets until he found an old bandanna; he folded it, and tied it across his nose to keep out the worst of the stench.
Arty beeped and whistled, but Lurk could no longer make out the words which scrolled across the readout. He blinked again, trying to clear his eyes.
"If you're saying that coming here was a bad idea," said Lurk, "I'm beginning to agree with you."
As he slowly adjusted to the stench, he became aware of the sound. From every direction it came, rolling in from the swamp on the odiferous air. Crickets, and frogs, and all manner of small croaking critters filled the air with a constant croaking, chirping buzz.
"Well, this is a pleasant place," he said.
Lurk stood and clambered out of the cockpit. As he jumped down the last couple of steps onto the hard surface of the landing pad, he heard a voice from behind him.
"Hey, you can't park there!"
Lurk turned. Standing before him was the stooped figure of a thin old man. He was leaning on a gnarled cane, and he lifted it now to shake it angrily at Lurk. As he did so he lost his balance, and had to hurriedly return the cane to the ground before he fell flat on his face. He twisted his face into a tired old snarl, revealing toothless gums.
"Why not?" asked Lurk.
"That's the main landing pad," said the old man. "You can't park there. What if the supply ship comes."
Lurk looked around the small pad. Its surface was cracked in places, and weeds sprouted everywhere. Creepers crept across it, and small lizards scurried back and forth.
"Well, when is the supply ship due?" asked Lurk.
"Any day now," said the old man testily. He coughed, and something rattled unhealthily in his chest.
"Doesn't look like there's been anything landing here for a long time," said Lurk.
"Maybe," said the old man. "Maybe not. But it could come, any day now, and when it does it won't want to find your ship taking up its space."
"So is there somewhere else I can park?" asked Lurk.
"Can't park here," said the old man. He coughed again, harshly, and spat a slimy mouthful onto the cracked pavement.
"Is there somewhere else I can park?" repeated Lurk.
"Can't park..." The old man's words dissolved into a spasm of coughing. It sounded to Lurk as though he was bringing up what little remained of his lungs.
Alarmed, Lurk closed the gap between them and patted the old man lightly on his bowed back. He could feel the man's ribcage clearly through the thin cloth of his shawl. He gripped his shoulder and did his best to support him as the coughing fit racked his bony old frame. After a while the man began to retch, heaving miserably as he tried to clear the congestion from his throat. Finally he spat a large lump of something onto the ground at his feet. It glistened redly in the dim, filtered light.
"Are you okay?" asked Lurk, feeling stupid even as the words left his mouth. "Can I get you something?"
Gasping for breath and leaning heavily on his stick, the old man waved one scrawny arm vaguely behind him. Lurk looked, and saw the open doorway through which the man had obviously come.
"Wait here," he said. He released the man's shoulder carefully, hesitated a second until he was sure the old guy wasn't going to fall over, then ran for the door. He entered a small room. In one corner was a rickety old chair with a light behind it. Stacked on the chair were several threadbare cushions. Beside the chair was a low table, on which sat a dirty glass, half-full of clear fluid, and several bottles of pills. Lurk grabbed the chair with one hand—it was quite light—and picked up a bottle of pills in the other. He threw the bottle onto the chair, and picked up the glass.
The old man was still standing where he had left him, his bony chest heaving as he struggled to draw each laboured breath. Lurk put the chair down behind him, grabbed the pills off it, and put both the glass and the pill bottle on the uneven floor. Then he took the man's thin arm and helped him to lower himself back onto the seat.
Dropping his cane, the man sank back into the couple of remaining cushions as though exhausted.
Lurk hurriedly opened the bottle and shook a couple of pills into his hand, but the man waved them away and pointed weakly at the glass. Lurk handed it to him; he swilled a mouthful between his gums then leaned to one side and spat. Then he reached for the pills. Taking them from Lurk's hand, he popped them in his mouth, then took another long swig from the glass and swallowed laboriously.
Lurk examined the bottle as he fastened the lid. Whatever the pills were for—they had some long, expensive-looking name—they were twenty years out of date.
The man's breathing slowly eased as he rested. Finally he nodded shakily.
"Thank you, young man," he said. Even speaking those few words seemed to tire him again, and his breath whistled harshly in his throat. He closed his eyes, waiting for his strength to return.
"Any time," said Lurk.
The man's bony old frame began to shake. Alarmed, Lurk placed his hand lightly on his shoulder. It wasn't another coughing fit, however: tears rolled down the man's wrinkled old cheeks, and Lurk realised he was sobbing.
Eventually, he reached up and wiped roughly at his damp cheeks.
"Sorry," he said.
"It's okay," said Lurk.
"It's just that you're the first visitor we've had in a long time, and my only thought was that there wasn't room in that tiny ship for me too. And then I nearly chased you away because you weren't the supply ship."
"It's okay," said Lurk again.
The old man lifted his tired old eyes. They were red and rheumy, and he peered at Lurk closely as though seeing him for the first time.
"You look like a nice chap," he said at last. "Despite the mask."
"Er, thanks," said Lurk. "I try." He pulled the bandanna down from his face and smiled his winning smile.
The old man nodded.
"So, what happened here?" asked Lurk. "How long have you been here without supplies?"
The old man coughed and shook his head. He gestured back to the room. "Let's talk inside," he said. "The air out here rots your lungs..."
The air purifier in the wall rattled and hummed alarmingly, but it managed to filter most of the foulest odours from the air. Some still seeped in through the gaps around the closed door, but it was far more bearable inside than out.
Lurk had locked his cockpit securely—it wouldn't do to come back and find that some other desperate denizen of this dismal dive had stolen his ship—and told Arty to stay put. A swamp planet was no place for an astrobot.
Now, Lurk sat cross-legged on the floor across from the old man's chair, and leaned back against the wall.
"Name's Rivven," said the old man, taking a sip from his refilled glass. "But my mates used to call me Teach, back in the day."
"I'm Lurk," said Lurk.
Rivven nodded. "Well, Lurk, I sure am glad to meet you. Like I said, you're the first visitor to this thriving metropolis of our in a long time. A long time."
"How long have you been here?" asked Lurk.
Rivven shrugged. "We came here, oh, a little over twenty-two standard years ago. We were the advance scouts for a new mining venture. Someone's brilliant idea to extract energy from the atmosphere here, or something like that. There were seven of us originally. Then the damn tagors got Willy and Mayarna, and one night ol' Grumbles just up 'n vanished. Wandered off into the swamp and was never seen again..." Rivven stared through Lurk into the distant past as he dredged up old memories. A tear glimmered at the corner of one eye, but did not fall. He blinked it away.
"So why didn't you leave?" asked Lurk.
"The supply ships came every month," said Rivven. "For three months, they brought vast stockpiles of food for when the full work crews arrived, and drugs to combat the long-term effects of the atmosphere. We've been living off that, and what we've been able to get from the swamp, for over twenty years." He shrugged, and focussed on Lurk's attentive face. "One day, they just stopped coming. Damn supply ships just stopped coming, work crews never came. We waited, of course—at first we thought they were just a little late—but they never showed up."
He coughed, and took another sip from his glass.
"It's like the damn Republic just forgot we were here," he said.
"Ah," said Lurk. "This was a Republic operation?"
"Not officially," said Rivven. "Private sector, I believe, but the Republic were their major backers. If the mining plant had worked out, they would have had a new source of fuel to last them a thousand years." He paused. He'd seen something in Lurk's expression. "Why?"
Lurk shook his head. "The Republic no longer exists," he said sadly.
Rivven stared at him. Slowly he shook his head. "That's not possible," he said at last.
"Senator Palpator declared himself Imperator some twenty-odd years ago," said Lurk. "He swept the Old Republic away, and crushed many of their sympathisers. Now the galaxy is an Imperium, and Palpator rules with an iron fist. That would be why the supply ship stopped coming. There was nobody left who knew to send it."
Rivven closed his eyes.
"Are you okay," asked Lurk.
The old man shook his head wearily. "We waited, and hoped, for so long," he said. "Nobody ever told us. None of them told us."
"None of who?" asked Lurk.
"Oh, we've had a visitor or two, over the years," said Rivven. "Some old hermit landed in the swamp just outside town. We fished him out, but he just wandered off somewhere. We see him occasionally, but he mostly avoids us, and we avoid him." He coughed, and sipped. "Then some crazy man wandered in from the swamps. No-one knows how he got there. Oh, he'll be happy to tell you his story, but it doesn't make sense. A couple of others called by, in the first two or three years—all in small, one-man ships, like yours—but they never told us anything, and they never returned."
"Well, I shall return for you," promised Lurk. "I'm looking for somebody. Once I find him, I'll return to my people, and bring back a rescue ship for everybody who wants to leave."
"Oh, thank you," said Rivven. He sniffed, but tears began to run down his cheeks again. "You don't know how good that sounds. But you're not part of this Imperium? Are you?"
Lurk hesitated. "No," he said at last, "I'm not. There are those of us who—disagree, shall we say?—with the Imperium's methods. I'd really rather not say more, but I can promise you and your friends safe passage to a civilised port."
Rivven nodded. "That's good enough for me," he said. "So, who is this person you're looking for? Although I really doubt you'll find him here."
"I'm looking for a ... teacher, of sorts, called Yodel."
"Yodel," mused Rivven. "Sorry, can't say I know the name. And I'm the only teacher around these parts. Used to be, leastways."
"What about this 'crazy man'?" asked Lurk. "The person who sent me here was often called crazy back on my home planet; perhaps it's him."
"Hope not, for your sake," said Rivven. He shook his head. "You'll find him in the tavern down the street, most of the time. But you're unlikely to learn anything from him. His brain was pickled when he wandered in here, and he's been drowning it in alcohol ever since. Don't know what he'll do when he finally drinks the place dry."
"Well, thanks for your time," said Lurk. "I'll go and talk to him, anyway."
"Stay for dinner, please," said Rivven. "It's not much, but it's edible—and besides, it's almost night out there. There's lots of unpleasant critters living in the swamps, and they mostly come out at night. Mostly. They'll come right into town, too—but then, there's not much to stop 'em."
Lurk looked out the grime-streaked window. The light was fading rapidly from the sky.
"Uh, thanks," he said. "I'd be happy to stay for dinner."
The following morning, after a breakfast that had been almost as unpalatable as the dinner the night before, Lurk stepped out onto the single main street of the tiny shanty town. He was draped in a waterproof poncho that Rivven had insisted he take, and he was glad of it. A fine drizzle of water drifted slowly downwards from the gloomy sky. It was more than fog, but not quite rain. It misted against his face and made his skin tingle.
He pulled his bandanna up around his nose, and looked around through watering eyes. Each end of the street led to the swamp which covered the entire planet. Twisted trees fought for space, and creepers sheathed every tree in an inescapable grip of death. It looked impassable.
Several buildings lined the street. Nobody else was visible. Rivven had explained that they very rarely left their chosen living quarters any more; there was nothing worth saying to their neighbours that hadn't already been said a hundred times. He might expect a visitor or two later in the day, if anybody had heard Lurk's ship arrive—but even that was unlikely. With the doors sealed, the hum of the air purifiers, and the ceaseless roar of the life in the swamp, very little could attract their attention.
Lurk turned right and headed down the street towards the tavern at the far end.
The street itself was little more than a muddy track. Lurk stepped carefully, and avoided the worst of the water-filled potholes. He felt a shiver run up his spine at the realisation that some of those potholes were actually fresh impressions left by the large, clawed foot of something heavy. Nervously, he eyed the swamp at the end of the street. Nothing moved.
He pushed open the door of the tavern, and it creaked loudly. He stood in the doorway, dripping water onto the floor.
"Hello," he called.
There was no reply.
Shaking off the poncho, he removed it and hung it on a hook beside the door. There were a couple of similar ponchos already hanging there; one seemed to be caked in dried mud, and looked as though it hadn't been moved in years.
He stepped into the dim room and closed the door behind him. It creaked again.
"Is anybody there?" he called. He unclipped a small lamp from his belt and turned it on; its light pushed back the crowding shadows. He looked around the room. There were several tables scattered through the place; most of the chairs, however, had been stacked untidily against the far wall. A bar ran along another wall, and a couple of stools sat in front of it. The shelves behind it were empty. There had once been a mirror there too, but it had been smashed; all that remained were a few shards on the corners, reflecting the light of his lamp back at him.
"Hello," he called again.
Lurk was heading for the archway which led through to the back room when he heard a noise behind him. His hand dropped to the light rapier which hung from his belt, and he spun around.
"Hello?" he said.
"Whadda you want?" slurred a voice. A head appeared from behind the bar, and blinked at Lurk with bleary, sleep-filled eyes.
Lurk gazed at the figure with dismay. If this was the Jubbly master upon whom he had pinned all his hopes, the Rebellion was doomed.
"I'm, uh, looking for someone," he said at last.
"Found someone, you have, I would say," said the figure. He cackled wildly for a moment, then belched, then suddenly disappeared behind the bar again. Lurk heard the sound of retching.
"Uh, yeah," he said. The retching sounds ceased and silence fell. Lurk waited, but nothing more happened.
"Hello?" he said again.
"Hello what?" said the voice. The man suddenly sprang to his feet, popping up from behind the bar like some nightmarish, hung-over version of a child's toy. "Whadda you want? Oh, it's you again."
"I, uh, never left," said Lurk.
"So whadda you want?" said the man. He was quite a large man, and might even have been muscular once. A grizzled beard, matted with various lumps and chunks which Lurk had no wish to identify, hid his chin. His clothing was a strange assortment of leathers and furs. "No wait," he said as Lurk opened his mouth to speak. "I'm getting a feeling that, that..." He held his hand to his forehead and mimed fierce concentration. "That you're looking for someone," he said at last.
"Yes, I'm looking for someone."
"Found someone, you have, eh?"
"Yes," said Lurk. "I think we've already been through this."
"Oh," said the man. "Well, who are you looking for, eh? Who are you looking for?" The man staggered around the end of the bar and slumped down onto one of the remaining stools.
Lurk stepped cautiously closer, and sat down on one of the other stools. He placed the lamp on the bar between them.
The man belched again, blinked owlishly, then peered more closely at Lurk. He looked at the lamp. Suddenly he reached out and grabbed it.
"Hey," said Lurk, the old whine creeping back into his voice, "that's mine!" He reached for it, but the other man jerked it back out of his grasp.
"Mine now," he said petulantly, "or help you I will not."
"What makes you think I want your help?" said Lurk, but he sighed and gave up on the lamp. "I don't even know what I'm doing here. Wasting my time, I guess."
"So," said the old drunk, "who do you seek?"
"I'm looking for a mighty warrior," said Lurk.
The man snorted. "I was a mighty warrior, once," he said. "At least that's what they said about me. Bards wrote songs about my exploits, fair maidens—and more than a few experienced strumpets—swooned in my arms. But let me tell you, lad: wars do not make one great. Mostly wars make one dead. You survive them, you're a mighty warrior." He coughed, and shrugged wearily. "Makes sense to someone, I guess."
"I don't suppose you're a Jubbly knight, are you?" asked Lurk.
"A Jubbly? Yodel! You seek Yodel!"
Lurk stared at him in disbelief. "You know Yodel?" he asked.
"Oh yes," said the man. "Take you to him, I will."
"Uh, I don't suppose," asked Lurk cautiously, "that you are actually Yodel, and you're just being coy?"
"Nope," said the man, "not me. My name is Boldaar; there's no wizard's blood in me!"
"Oh thank the gods," muttered Lurk.
"What was that?" The man scowled at him.
"Nothing important," said Lurk. "So, uh, Rivven tells me you weren't part of his little group?"
"Rivven, huh? So, you've got a ship, I take it?"
"Maybe," said Lurk cautiously.
"Of course you've got a ship; how else would you get here?"
"There's only room in it for one, I'm afraid," said Lurk. "But I promise I shall send back a rescue ship as soon as I get out of here."
"That's what they all say," muttered Boldaar.
"But how did you get here?" asked Lurk.
"Got dumped here," said Boldaar. He scowled at the memory. "Someone I trusted dumped me in the swamp. There I was, in a battle for my life against a giant snake, and he just up and left, abandoned me to my fate. I always figured he'd come back sometime, but he never did."
"So you don't have a ship?" asked Lurk.
"Would I still be here if I did?" snarled Boldaar. "I was stuck, wandering through this endless darn swamp, with only the bugs for company. The bugs, and the snakes, and the tagors, and a thousand other hungry beasties, all wanting to make a meal out of me. Hadn't been for the Minnow I'd be long dead."
"The Minnow?" asked Lurk.
"Yeah. That was the name of the supply ship. The CSS Minnow. I heard it landing—on its final trip here, unfortunately. The sound led me here to the town, but by the time I crawled in out of the swamp, half dead and delirious, it was too late. It had already left. Never came back again, neither..."
"I see," said Lurk.
"But if you've got a ship," said the aging warrior, "I can finally get out of this hellhole."
"Uh," said Lurk, "but there's only room for one person on my ship, remember."
"Oh yes," said the man, "but that's okay." He winked. "Won't be a problem, if you know what I mean?"
Lurk stared at him.
"Are you saying you'll take it anyway?"
"What, no," said the man. "Did I say that? Did I say that out loud? Twenty years of this awful stench, that's what it is, drives you crazy. I have no inner monologue any more; spent far too long talking to myself."
"Uh, right," said Lurk.
"So anyway, how about I take you to see Yodel?" said Boldaar. "I'll take you out into the swamp, to his decrepit old hut, and leave you with him. Then I can come back and steal your ship. If that old bastard Rivven hasn't already taken it, that is."
Lurk blinked. "Uh, right," he said. "Excuse me a moment, will you? I'll be right back."
Lurk wandered outside with a feigned air of casual indifference. As soon as the door banged closed behind him he plucked his comm from his belt.
"Arty Farty, are you there?"
Arty bleeped, then launched into a frantic tirade of beeps and whistles.
"Whoa, slow down, I don't understand," said Lurk. "One beep for yes, two for no: is there a problem?"
"Somebody trying to break into the ship?"
"Have they had any luck so far?"
Well, that was something to be thankful for, at least.
Beep beep beep.
"Three beeps? What the hell is three beeps?" asked Lurk. He thought for a second. "Are you worried that he might get in soon?"
"Okay. Has he damaged you or the ship at all?"
"Okay, Arty, I want you to start the engines. Once the man gets clear, I want you to take the ship into a stable geostationary orbit over this location. Do you understand?"
"If I need you, I'll contact you. Until then, switch to minimum power consumption mode and wait for my signal. Okay?"
Lurk watched the dismal skies over the landing pad. Through the persistent drizzle, the shape of his Cross-Wing fighter rising into the air was almost invisible, and the sound of its engines was lost to the continual drone from the swamp.
One less problem to worry about, he thought. He returned the comm to its place on his belt, and pushed the door to the tavern open again. It creaked loudly, as before.
Boldaar was nowhere to be seen.
"Hello," called Lurk, but there was no reply. He glanced behind the bar, in case the old drunkard had returned to his earlier resting place, but there was no sign of him.
Shrugging back into the wet poncho, Lurk exited the tavern. He wandered back up the street to the landing pad. As he entered through the outer door, he heard the sounds of a heated argument coming from within. He stepped through the open inner door, out onto the empty landing pad. Rivven stood there, yelling abuse at Boldaar.
Both men stopped as they became aware of Lurk's presence. They looked at him sheepishly.
"I just came down to, uh, protect your ship," said Boldaar, eyes downcast.
"I'm sure you did," said Lurk calmly.
"It just took off, all by itself," said Rivven. "I never even touched it, honest." He held a large spanner in one hand; slowly he moved that hand behind his back, out of sight.
"I sent it into orbit," said Lurk. "I may be here a little while, and I wouldn't want it to take any damage from this atmosphere."
"That's fair enough," said Rivven.
"Jolly good idea," added Boldaar.
"So now," said Lurk, "can you take me to see Yodel, please?"
Boldaar frowned suspiciously. "What do you want with him, anyway? 'Cos he's a friend of mine. Sorta. He's cool, for a wizard."
"He's a friend of mine, too," said Lurk. "Well, a friend of a friend anyway. I have been sent to find him, to train with him."
Boldaar coughed. Then he glanced skyward before meeting Lurk's gaze. "Yeah sure, I'll take you to him."