display | more...

"Start this car back up and let's get back to the Space Slug," I say to Ramon.

We're standing outside the Red Barracuda. The people who survived the breaking of the Ringworld manged to patch the break closed and installed a proper door, but either they stripped this room bare to do it or the place never had much in the way of loose material in the first place. My limited experience with ringworlds is that they try to re-create the surface conditions of their axel planet closely, but this place is bare metal where we are. Maybe all the trees and dirt got blasted out into space when the ringworld was broken?

I step away from the car and my foot comes down on something soft. I look down. The material under my feet is green and shiny in the lights of the car, like metal, yet it feels as springy as loose soil. I look up at the few tall structures in the area. In the dim light they're hard to make out, but their shape hews more closely to that of a tree trunk than to a support column. 

"Let's think of it this way," says Ramon. "If Captain Bones is as evil as you say, do we want to tangle with him?" He looks around the room. "I think I'd rather deal with this creepiness than with him. If he's the same guy I had to get past to get out of that cell...I don't want to remember the things I had to promise him. Whatever kinks you have, they're nothing compared to -- "

"Let's think of it this way," says Aristede. "If Captain Bones is as evil as Robin says, Sword Lesbian is already in a position to deal with him. He can fight off one sword, but six?"

"Let's think of it this way," says Klunk. Her electric stumps cast the only other light in this place. "If Captain Bones is as evil as we think, then Sword Lesbian will probably need our help to get out of there, because she's one person with a Clown Car against an entire ship's crew of about one million."

"Let's  think of it this way," says Bonci. "I think we shouldn't be talking so loudly about leaving this place."

"What do you know about this place?" I say.

"Look." Clarity points towards one of the tree-like structures.

In the dim shadows, I cannot see it for certain, but it looks as though the structure has eight more protrusions than it did a second ago. And they are longer than I thought a second ago. They are moving, slowly, like someone unfolding their legs after sitting curled up for a while.

The protrustions reach the ground, and the structure lifts up. And, one by one, eight shiny hemispheres appear on the trunk.

Eyes.

The creature walks on its long, long legs toward us. Hesitantly at first, as if walking for the first time in days. Then faster. Within a second it is charging toward the lights of the car.

"Barracuda," says Aristede, "Maximum shields!"

The resulting bubble of the shield causes the car to leap a few feet into the air and everyone around the car besides Klunk to stumble backward as their feet are lifted slightly off the ground. Which puts us UNDER the car, not a good place to be if the shields come down. The angry creature is smacking two of its limbs against the shields. No idea if they'll hold.

"I thought there would be more of these people," said Claret. "There were plenty last time we were here. What happened?"

"Curiosity!" says the creature trying to kill us. "Eight curious spiders, who wanteed to see who the trespassers were on the last soil we had left! Shot down by a face I recognized! Well this time, Captain Bones, I'm not letting you get away! You will have to kill me before you can leave!"

"Now just hold your dang horses," I say. "Why do you think I'm Captain Bones?"

"You're tall enough."

"Is that it?"

"You're broad enough."

"Do you see very well?"

"Nnnnnnnmaybe. Ah, but you're trying to trick me, Captain Bones! It won't work!" 

"We're not here to slaughter anyone," says Ramon. "Star's honest truth."

"Then why did you come?"

"Well, Captain Bones sent us to -- "

The spider begins to pound on the shield again.

"Not a smart thing to mention," says Aristede. "Spider! Do you have a name?"

"Why should I tell you anything when you consort with a planetary-scale murderer?"

"The name of this spider is Hansdelbrook," says Bonci. "Hansdelbrook, do you remember my voice?"

"Bonci?" says the spider, settling down. "I never thought you would return. Why are you working for a Planetary-scale murderer?"

"Long story," says Bonci. "First I want to hear more about what happened here. There were tens of thousands of Ringworld Spiders in this sector, even after the ring was broken. Where are the rest?"

"You know we're a curious and a restless people, Bonci. You couldn't have expected more than half of us to stay in this sector. When the ring was broken, most decided to do what they'd been planning to do, and explore the parts of the ring that have gone dark over the millenia. You know how it is with this place, civilization waxes and wanes, well, everyone said they wanted civilization to wax again. And I haven't heard from them since. As for my friends, we decided to stay behind to keep things running...and then a tall, broad figure with a bunch of friends showed up, Myersbriggs and everyone else wanted to get a closer look at them, and got shot. That left me alone. Where did you go after you left here? What did you do?"

"That's a discussion best left for another time," says Yellow Hair. 

"Maybe we did some dumb things," says Claret.

"The current situation with the Separatist alliance isn't our fault," says Rosy Quartz.

"Not this time, eh? Maybe that's for the better. But why did you come back here?"

"I suppose I should have asked for the full details myself," I say. "But Captain Bones wants us to fly around being a prop, and Bonci wants to send out a broadcast first. Something about this being the place of lowest population in case we get attacked? Somehow the Student Loan Company is able to track the Barracuda and we can't figure out how."

"The Barracuda," says Hansdelbrook. "You have a Barracuda?"

"It's my pride and joy," says Ramon. 

"Hemispherical combustion chambers?"

"You betcha."

"Manual transmission?"

"When we're not flying by keyboard," says Aristede.

"Made in 1970?"

"The one and only," says Klunk.

"And you think the Student Loan Company needs a damn tracking device to find you guys," says Hansdelbrook. "You're flying a literally legendary vehicle and you think people aren't blasting the news every populated place you land? The car IS the tracking device!"

"If you're suggesting I give up my beloved Barracuda," says Aristede, Ramon, and Klunk in unison.

"No," says Hansdelbrook. "But you're lucky I'm alone here, or else someone would be on the broadcast array right now screaming the news to the galaxy. Apparently the Student Loan Company is offering a slight rebate on interest rates for everyone who gets a picture with themselves and the Barracuda in the shot."

"Hey," says Bonci, "If you've got a broadcast array working, why haven't you heard back from the rest of your fellow spiders?"

"They're either neglectful or dead," says Handelbrook. "I'm about to go find out. But you want to know how to work the array, right?"

"We knew how to work it last time," says Yellow Hair.

"It's been years, you realize. We updated the software. I will have to show you the new features. Ah, but you will have to lower the shields first."

"We're kind of all stuck right under the car," says Aristede. "I can't lower the shields without squishing us, unless I turn on the car's afterburners, which will fry us."

Hansdelbrook rears back two legs and thrusts them straight at the shields. The shields break in a flash of green light. In the next instant, the Barracuda is perched on two outstretched bone-white spider legs, suspended over us like it weighs little.

Either Hansdelbrook had managed to wear down the shields after all, or they'd been holding back this entire time.

And if Captain Bones had a crew with enough firepower to take down a bunch of these creatures...

"We really have to get going back to the Space Slug," I say. "You know what? I'm not interested in a broadcast. I'm not interested in anything this Captain Bones tells us to do. We're going to get Sword Lesbian and the City of Carla Marli out of there and then we're going to figure out what to do because I have just about had it with this entire secession war business and we haven't even figured out how to pay off our student loans yet. Ramon, set a course for the Space Slug. We've got business to take care of. Resistance kids -- "

"I want to help get Sword Lesbian out of there," says Claret. "She's cool."

"I'm good here," says Bonci.

"You really ought to stay here," says Ramon. "Much as I love the Barracuda, trouble seems to follow the car. We'll catch up with you later, alright?"

The adults pile into the car, and we mosey out of the Ringworld, back toward a figure who we no longer trust.