The giant mantis stood before them in the darkness.
“What’s your purpose in visiting the Powhatan Shipyards?” The insect’s voice was a deep bass.
“We wish to hire a ship,” said Diotima Gearheart.
“Planetary or Extraplanetary?”
“There are none available.”
“We’re prepared to wait.”
The mantis twisted his head in an arc. “Waiting facilities here are both wretched and exorbitantly expensive. We can issue you a notifier so you can return whence you came, and you will be alerted when an opportunity arises.” It extended a claw, and on it was a large glistening, dripping larva, slowly twisting in the dark.
“Thanks, but we’ll take our chances," said the lynx.
The mantis gave a narrow-shouldered shrug. “You were warned.” It turned and looked at the heterogeneous company. When it came to Terence and Jeanette Ransom, it stopped, and a chitter escaped its mandibles.
“Builders. You’re bringing Builders into the Shipyards.”
“Actually, we’re not. We’re--” Jeanette started, but Diotima cut her off.
“And what if we have? Are we suddenly not welcome then?”
“That’s not it,” replied the mantis. “It’s just that you have to sign a separate ledger. Come with me.”
“We will not be separated,” said Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone, his paw moving to the pommel of his longsword.
“Then all of you, if you must. But it’s a small office.”
This turned out to be true, with the additional factor that the mantis did not turn on a light. It did something, and then said, “Request your presence, sire, at the front gate. Then it did nothing else.
Jeanette had been remembering, ever since Diotima told her about the disappearance of the Builders of the shipyards tens of thousands of years ago, that she and her father were at least a thousand years in her own past--provided that had any meaning whatsoever. But it was at least a good argument that the mantis here would at best be a distant ancestor of the mantis-princess of Haven. So maybe she should stop creeping out.
Senhor Capoeira, as the minutes stretched on, said conversationally, “So let me guess: You’ve been assigned night duty at the front gate because you’re basically nocturnal, and they can save on the lighting bill?”
“That, and my attitude towards authority,” boomed the mantis.
It would have been enough time to nap and wake up again, when the door opened and a light came on. The spectacle of the cramped office was revealed, and a long-legged wading bird--maybe a spoonbill--came in. It spoke to the mantis. “What is it?”
“This group includes Builders.”
“I can see that.”
“They have to sign into the log, and that has to be witnessed by a supervisor.”
“Very well then, get on with it.”
“I would, except I have no idea where the logbook is. Haven’t used it since I was assigned duty here.”
“And you expect me--wait. Try looking behind the fire extinguisher.”
The mantis extracted a book from behind something that didn’t in the least look like a fire extinguisher, and opened it up on the narrow desk. It then pulled a pen from a receptacle on the desk and poked it in a dark blue transparent bottle that Jeanette could tell had a live squid in it. It handed the pen to her father. “Sign here.”
Terence did so, and handed the pen to Jeanette. This was the first time Jeanette had ever handled anything like a fountain pen, and while she tried to handle it like a fiber-tip, it skritched and blobbed and was unreadable. When she looked at the previous entries, though, she didn’t feel so bad.
“Now the rest of you in the next column over. You birds can use the pen, or dip your beaks in the well.” When all that was done, the spoonbill spread out one wing, and a shower of beautiful sparklies fell onto the page.
“By signing this, you Builders agree to relinquish any and all claims to ownership of the Powhatan Shipyards, and agree to abide by the established regulations, whether or not they are consistent with any original customs or laws. Is that understood? Fine. Now, one million crowns, please.”
Diotima was in the early stages of exploding, when Lord Silvertyger Elphinstone put a fire-opal the size of his very large thumb on the desk. “Y-you realize we can’t make change for this…” the spoonbill stammered.
“I realize it,” the tiger said.
Diotima said, “We are here to hire an extraplanetary ship, and are prepared to wait until a suitable one arrives.”
The spoonbill said, “You will be disappointed in the quality of the accommodations here. The facilities are mainly for out-of-work or stranded sailors waiting for the next ship. We can offer you a notifier…”
“No need for that. Thank you very much.” The lynx said.
The accommodations turned out to be a squat unlovely building without so much as a sign or a decoration. It might have been a storage shed or a worker’s barracks, but at least it seemed to be in good repair.
“My takeaway from all that is that this establishment is not owned by the yards, and they would rather it not made any money,” said Capoeira.
“They might not be wrong, however,” said Dr. Ransom.
Diotima was looking up at Lord Elphinstone. “You realize that a million crowns is the equivalent of a small gold coin, don’t you?”
“It’s a matter of indifference to me,” said the tiger.
“That fire-opal is enough to make them think it would be a good idea to roll us.”
Lord Elphinstone showed his teeth in a grin, “It would certainly liven up an otherwise boring journey. Sir Amadis kept all the dragon action for himself.”
Jennifer was fascinated by the yards. It bore some resemblance to the railroad yards of Haven, but that was probably because it was a big industrial site. The moon was up now, and the tracks were shining and the cranes were magnificently tall. The ship on its side sparked with workers welding or cutting, and further away the immense ships were outlined against the night sky and the sea. It was powerful--neither good nor evil, though maybe good in the balance.
They entered the hotel (for lack of a better name) and Jeanette’s judgment was that it could have been a lot worse. It resembled two ugly motels smashed on top of each other, and the bartenter of the front room was also the desk clerk. He was another wading bird, which seemed to establish a pattern. They took rooms--fifteen million crowns for all of them--and found them spare but clean.
Jennifer joined Grandmère on a back balcony that faced the ocean. “What are you feeling, child?” The orangutan asked.
“Well, you know, space is something special back home. We’re just beginning to go out into it for real, so people are excited about it in a different way from magic and dragons and castles. We even have a different name for the stories--science fiction instead of fantasy. So I’m thinking this might be very different.”
“Look--!” Said Grandmère Hutan.
In a part of the sky far from the moon, there was a fuzzy irregular ball of white. “That looks like the ship I saw before. No, I wasn’t lying. It might be--probably is--headed here, though it seems to be very far away. Our sojourn here might be short.”
Jeanette stared. Very little could be made out, but it was something other than a star.
“It might even be here by tomorrow, so you’d best get a good sleep.”
She got up a few hours later, and went out again to the balcony, and caught her breath. Three berths to the south, there was a ship--the ship--floating at dock. It had masts all around its hull, and there were ghostly sails between the masts. The mass of the ship was dark, but there were ridges of light all over it--and the light was leaking out in clouds of stardust as the ship slowly settled down.
She had to see it, promising herself that she wouldn’t get too close. She snuck out of the hotel and advanced carefully towards the ship, Finally, when the masts were very tall in front of her and she could make out windows on the hull, she hid behind a bunch of barrels.
There were carvings on the ship--but it was hard to say what he hull was made out of. It certainly wasn’t wood, nor did it seem to be metal.
She debated with herself whether she should risk getting closer, when a voice behind her said, “So who’s the little spy then?”