Friday, December 7, 2012

Newsmen tortured?: Woolgathering at the Mint

Clearly it was time to back off and look this entire doomed enterprise over from all the angles. Something I normally don't do, especially when my mind has been scrambled by bad acid and a puppeteer armed with a Sinclair molecule chain and a grudge.
Roaming through the halls of the Mint, and then the tunnels of Tweedle-Dee, there was plenty of time to think over What It All Meant, for good or ill.
What the hell were we actually doing out here? What was the meaning of this trip? Was I just roaming through these tunnels and up and down these escalators in some kind of drug frenzy, or had I really come out here to write some kind of Story?
The important thing was to cover the story on its own terms. Leave the other stuff to NEWSWEEK -- at least for now. On my way down the escalator, I saw my old nemesis the NEWSWEEK reporter, hunched into a hyperwave booth, the alligator-woman close by, talking over the line to some robot on the other end, spreading the news -- or lack of it, so far -- throughout Known Space:
"Yes, the racers are sleeping, the 50 Million Stars' prize money is locked in a safe, and it will be a couple more days yet before we know who's the victor at this biggest of all interstellar races...."
And so much for all that. Bored, I circled the hallways of the Mint. Glanced at the front of the asteroid's newssheet, THE DAILY DEE -- the Kzinti were kicking up trouble again. And there was another rash of puzzling suicides on Mount Lookitthat. What's the puzzle? If I'd been stuck there I would've offed myself, too.
Peeked briefly, quietly, back into our suite, where Nessus crouched in the bathtub like some kind of brown, two-headed frog. He filled the whole tub, with parts of his three legs somehow hanging out over the sides. But he had, thankfully, drifted off to a troubled slumber -- kicking and screaming the entire way, no doubt. He was gonna have a helluva headache in the morning....
I decided to just ignore that nightmare in the bathroom. And the earlier one in the main room of our suite. There was a helluva lot of wreckage there that was gonna have to go on our Room Service tab, Ghod help us. And who the hell was gonna pay for that? Not me, baby....
It didn't have to turn out like this. I flashed briefly on making a run for it -- just grabbing the Skydiver and leaving Nessus up to his necks in green water in our suite's bathroom, heading out for parts unknown, Out There, where there were still plenty of mysteries and I wouldn't have to spend every waking moment having to EXPLAIN them to millions of waterheads Back Home....
My life wasn't always like this. Ten years ago, back when I was piloting for Nakamura Lines, I thought I had the universe by the tail and all of Known Space at my fingertips. It was a great time to be alive. There was always some kind of wild craziness going on somewhere. And by Ghod, if I couldn't FIND any, then I'd sure as hell stir some up! Even if I backed away and ran for cover right afterward....
It was the kind of peak that has never come again for me. Shortly after, it all went south and I got sucked into this slimy, degrading journalism gig, a terrible job for any man with more morals than your average pigfucker.
But Back Then was a special time. It might even have Meant Something. Hard to say for sure, even at this late date. But I believe there is a point in each man's life, in each generation, where the talents and skills and sense of humor of all sentient beings combine together in a kind of flash -- when everyone knows they're riding on a wave -- the New Wave, perhaps -- and nothing can stop them, for good or ill.
Every generation, every person, has a moment or a time like that. You never know how long it's gonna last. But for me and those around me, we knew we were IN THE MOMENT, there was a fantastic universal sense that what we were doing was RIGHT, that we were winning. We were riding the crest of a beautiful wave -- we would prevail, without a shot being fired. There was no need to FIGHT -- we'd win because we were right.
Well, maybe I was just young and stupid. I was foolish, maybe -- I did some things I regret. But I sure as hell ENJOYED myself, even if the things I did put me on a path that led directly here.
But go to any viewport in the Mint, and look out into the stars. See all that mist and sparkle out there? Look real close, and you can almost see where that wave we were riding finally broke, and then rolled back....

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Something Wrong With Us? -- Jesus Still Screaming -- Hide the Drugs and the Weapons -- A late Night Lime Run

Something wrong with him, or was it something wrong with us? Or maybe something wrong with this cheapjack asteroid and its hyperthyroidal gamers, up from Wunderland, hoping to make the Big Score they could take home and show to the aristocracy?

Yeah, maybe that was it. But in any case, it was clear that by this late point in the evening Nessus and I were agitated and volatile compounds let loose in the bell jar. Tweedle Dee was the nitro-, and we were the glycerin. A retreat to our room, and a damn quick one, was called for. Then maybe, just maybe, this drug frenzy could end, and I could get straight enough to cope with whatever might happen at dawn.

Nessus and I both knew that in our state, meeting anyone could lead to vicious consequences for everyone involved. Without a word, we snuck back to our room through back-end tunnels and through access hatchways. Suddenly we were standing in front the door to our room. The Mint in its effort to prevent hacking had gone back to the metallic key model, and Nessus had two of them in his hands.

"Try them both first," I said. "if the door is booby-trapped like I think it is, it won't trip on the wrong key."

Nessus grunted and struggled with the first one. His knobbed mouthstalks were tremorless, and his motions were sure; it was just that he couldn't get the goddamned thing into the keyhole.

"Jesus Christ," he said through the keys. "They've changed the locks on us. Goddamnit. We're toast."

"Wait a minute," I said. "Give me that fucking--" and I reached to grab the keys out of his mouth, and they both fell to the floor.

"Now look what you've done!" Nessus roared, and his voice carried through the hallway like thunder. "You rat bastard! You wanted me to try the door first!"

I ignored him--clearly the idiot couldn't see that it was both of us who were in danger from these hotel fascists--and sat down Indian fashion on the hallway carpet, digging through the lush fibers, enchanted by the rich feel of it all, trying to find the keys, which were escaping me for some reason. After a long time I found one, and I looked up happily at Nessus, who was still screaming, Jesus, still screaming.

"You organlegging son of a bitch!" he yelled as I looked up and my mind began to process what he was saying again. "I've been on to you since Jinx! How much did you get for me? 50,000? A hundred?"

Then he saw the key I was holding up, and he grabbed it from me savagely.

"Ha!" he said. "You fucked up, now! Let me open this goddamned thing."

And he did. There was the sound of the key scraping its way into the keyhole, a thud as the bolt retracted, and the door swung backwards from Nessus and me, and we looked into our room, which looked, as best as we could tell, perfectly normal, and absolutely undisturbed.

"Quick," I said, leaping up and over the threshold into the room even before Nessus could enter. "Thank Ghod we made it back in time, before those jackbooted brownshirts got here. Hide the drugs and the weapons, and destroy everything else."

Nessus, once he saw the room, became entranced, stopped his yelling and got with the program. He immediately went for the kit bag, and for our holsters. Then he pulled something else out: the Sinclair molecule chain.

My eyes went wide, I'm sure. "Oh no, you don't." The molecule chain makes a straight razor look like a chisel, cut you clean in half without a drop of blood. Who knows the damage it could do in the knobs of a dangerous Puppeteer in the throes of an acid freakout?

"Nessus, put the molecule chain down," I said, trying to sound calm.

Instead, he swung the button heads through a light shade. It come apart effortlessly, the lamp beheaded without a sound, as the monomelcular wire disassembled the fabric and wire at the atomic level. The only noise save Nessus' cackling was the shade as it hit the carpet. Nessus moved towards the writing desk. He sliced it in thirds in fifteen seconds. Then he grabbed paintings off the wall, stood them up on the floor, and sliced them into thin strips. And then a bookshelf and then the vidscreen, and then he turned to me.

Turn your back on a man, but never on a drug, is what they say. I looked Nessus straight in his eyestalks. "Oh no, you don't. We need some sleep, you freaking psychopath. Put down the molecule chain, and let's get some rest. I wanna get down to the garage in the morning."

"Don't worry about it, Bey," he said, and he sounded almost reasonable. "I don't wanna hurt you."

"I just want to slice your jugular to see what happens."

Sometimes, when insanity shows up, the only thing to do is to split the scene. I backed towards the doorway.

"Alright, you twisted freak, last time I do acid with you. I'm gonna go down to the restaurant and grab some limes for my morning Cuba Libres. Hopefully you'll have calmed down--or just cut yourself to ribbons--by the time I return."

With my hands in the air, I carefully backed towards the doorway. Nessus watched me go, and he looked almost sad as I left the room and shut the door, which had been open the entire time.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Drug frenzy and massive panic at the Venus Venus

The Venus Venus is crammed full of gambling tables, just like all the other casinos, but beyond that it's like a replay of decadent Ancient Rome -- all too-much-food and Acres of soft-focus bare flesh and pastel orgies, and it's NOT for Big Kids. Only serious gamblers or serious sensualists show up here.
We were both, of course, or at least we liked to THINK we were.
Here's the picture: Above the frenzied action of the gambling tables, hanging from the ceiling, the Four Flying Karamazov Brothers vied with the Six Nymphet Sisters and a couple live wolverines in an attempt to distract the gamblers so they wouldn't realize how many of their hard-earned Stars they were actually LOSING. The House was raking it in.
This madness went on and on, but nobody seemed to notice much. The gambling continued 24/7 on the main floor, and the trapeze action never ended. Meanwhile, on the upstairs balconies, ignorant tourists were being fleeced in every conceivable kind of bizaare schuck ever invented to separate a guy from his legal tender.
All kinds of funhouse-type booths: Shoot the pasties off the nipples of a 10-foot-tall policewoman in less-than-half a uniform (half of her was LEGS that went on FOREVER) and win a giant cotton-candy goat.
Or step right up in front of this fantastic machine, sir, and for only 1 Star your likeness will appear, 200 meters tall, on the face of a giant hyperwave screen orbiting around Tweedle-Dee once an hour. Add another Star and record a voice message.
"Say whatever you want, fella, they'll hear you, don't worry about that! Remember, you'll be 200 feet tall!"
Good Ghod. I could see myself lying in bed back at the Mint, half-asleep and staring idly out the viewport, when suddenly some vicious Nazi drunkard appears 200 feet tall in the midnight sky screaming gibberish at the world: "No more trickle-down economics! ... I did NOT have sex with that woman!...."
I will be closing the drapes tonight. A vision like that could send a drug fiend careening around the room like a ping-pong ball. Hallucinations are bad enough. But after awhile you learn how to deal with things like seeing your dead grandmother crawling up your leg with a knife clenched between her teeth. Most acid fanciers can handle that sort of thing.
But NOBODY can handle that other trip -- the possibility that any moron with 2 Stars can walk into the Venus Venus and suddenly appear in the sky over Tweedle-Dee 12 times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head.... No, this is not a good place for mind-twisting drugz. Reality itself is too twisted here.

Good mescaline comes on slow. The first hour is all waiting. Then about halfway through the second hour you start cursing the creep that burned you, because NOTHING is happening....
...And then ZANG! Fiendish intensity, strange glows and vibrations ... a very heavy gig in a place like the Venus Venus.
"I hate to say this," my attorney said as we sat down at the Centrifuge Bar on the second level, "but this place is getting to me. I think I'm getting The Fear."
"Bullshit," I said mildly. "We came out here to discover what's left of Humanity's Dream in Known Space, and now that we're right in the absolute vortex of it you want to quit." I grabbed one of his long, serpent-like necks and squeezed gently. "You must realize," I said, "that we've found the main nerve."
"I know," he said. "That's what gives me The Fear."
The ether was wearing off, the acid was long gone, but the mescaline was running strong. We were sitting at a small gold-topped table, orbiting speedily around the bartender.
"Look over there," I told Nessus mildly. "Two women fucking a Bandersnatch." Nothing seemed to phase me. Had to be the mescaline.
"Please," he said, "don't TELL me these things. Not now." He signaled the waitress for two more Wild Turkeys -- both for himself, no doubt. "This is my last drink," he said. "How much money can you lend me?"
"Not much," I said. "Why? And what about that Twenty I gave you at the Gaga concert?"
"Never mind that," he said, "I have to go. I have to get off this asteroid. Now."
"Calm down," I said. "You'll be straight in a few hours."
"No," Nessus said. "This is serious."
"Osama bin Laden was serious," I said. "Al-Qaeda was serious. And you know what happened to THEM."
"Don't fuck around with me!" he shouted. "Another hour in this place and I'm gonna kill somebody."
I could see he was On The Edge -- that fearful intensity that comes at the peak of a mescaline seizure.
"OK, easy, easy," I said. "I'll lend you some money. Let's get out of here and see how much we have left."
"Can we make it?" he said.
"Well, that depends on how many people we fuck with between here and the door. You want to leave quietly?"
"I want to leave FAST."
"OK," I said. "Let's pay this bill and get up very slowly. We're both out of our heads. This is going to be a LONG walk."
I shouted at the waitress for a bill. She came over, looking bored, and my attorney stood up. He was a little wobbly, his necks waving all around.
"Come on, Doc, let's go downstairs and gamble." I got Nessus as far as the edge of the bar, the side of the Centrifuge's capsule, but he refused to step off until it stopped circling.
"It won't stop," I said. "It's NEVER going to stop."
"Will it at least SLOW DOWN a little bit?" he asked.
I stepped off and turned around to wait for him, but he wouldn't move... and before I could reach out and pull him off, the centrifuge slowly but steadily carried him away. "Don't move!" I shouted. "You'll come back around!"
His eyes were staring blindly ahead, squinting in fear and confusion. But he didn't move a muscle until he'd completed a full circle.
I waited until Nessus was almost in front of me, then I reached out to grab him -- but he jumped back and went around the circle again. This made me very nervous. I felt on the verge of a freakout. I could only imagine what Nessus was feeling.
And the bartender seemed to be watching us....
I jumped back onto the centrifuge and hurried around the bar, approaching my attorney on his blind side -- and when we came to the right spot I pushed him off. He staggered out onto the second floor and uttered a hellish scream as he lost his balance and went down thrashing into the crowd, rolling like a log, then back up again in a flash, looking for somebody to kick.
I approached him with my hands in the air, trying to smile. "You fell," I said. "Let's go."
By this time, people WERE watching us. But the fool wouldn't move, and I knew what would happen if I grabbed him.
"OK, you stay here and go to jail," I said. "I'm leaving."
I started walking fast toward the escalators, ignoring him. That finally moved him.
"Did you SEE that?" he said. "Some sonofakzin kicked me in the back!"
"Probably the bartender," I said. "He'd been wanting to stomp you for awhile, I think."
"Good Ghod! Let's get out of here! Where's that elevator?"
"Don't you go NEAR that elevator -- that's just what they WANT us to do, trap us in a steel box and take us down to the basement." I looked over my shoulder, but nobody was following us.
"Don't run," I said. "They'd love an excuse to shoot us."
Nessus nodded, seeming to understand. We walked fast along the huge midway -- shooting galleries, tattoo parlors, money-changers, cotton candy booths, orgy cubicles, the usual -- then out through a bank of glass doors, out into Tweedle-Dee's main tunnels again.
I was exhausted, coming down from the mescaline rush. "You lead," I told Nessus. "Find us some light and quiet where we can count what's left of our money. I think there's something wrong with me."

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

The Prepared and the Ill-Equipped . . . The Inscrutable Bandersnatch . . . Balsa Playing Cards and Grapefruit Juice

The bouncers, convinced by now that whatever it may have been that was driving the behavior of this frantic Puppeteer and this deranged albino, it wasn't the officially sanctioned spirits of their establishment, moved towards us as we ran towards the banks of turnstiles. They appeared to have us trapped for a moment, then the two of us--tapping into similar reservoirs of the Drug Power--catapulted ourselves over the 'stiles, while the tuxedoed doormen struggled with the one-way mechanisms. Seeing the few seconds we'd bought, I fished in my pocket for some hundredth-star coins, and tossed them in the air where they caught the thousand neon lights and flashed like Chinese sparklers in the smoky air.

"A little something for you! Thanks for the show, boys!" I shouted, and then we ran for the doors with everything the drugs could provide, cackling like chickens at feeding time.

We got into the tunnels, took a few turns, found a maintenance access tunnel, and finally collapsed against the a generator, consumed by laughter and cheapjack hallucinations.

I went for the kit bag, and soaked yet another towelette with ether, huffing deeply, and passed it to Nessus, who did the same.

"Totally ill-equipped," I slurred in between my laughter, as the ether miasma spread through the dim tunnelway.

"They have," laughed Nessus, "no means to deal with psychos at our level."

"None whatsoever," I agreed, and could say no more, lost in more laughter, barely able to breathe.

Finally, I caught my breath and pulled out the hash pipe. "So then," I asked as I sparked the thing up, "what shall it be? The Dunes? The Circus Circus? I hear they've got a captive Bandersnatch."

Nessus' eyes lit up at the end of their stalks. "Captive?"

I shrugged. "Well, you know, it's kind of agreed to the arrangement."

He grabbed the pipe from me and took a long hit. "Agreed? What the fuck is that about? Why would a sentient creature agree to be put on display for a bunch of drunken mongoloids on a rock 30 light years from home?"

I threw my hands up, annoyed by the questioning. "Shit, Nessus, who fucking knows Bandersnatch logic. Why the fuck do they allow themselves to be hunted on Jinx? They're twisted fucking aliens."

"Ah shit," he said, "never mind that. It's too deranged even for us. Let's just go to the Venus Venus, we can play poker and get loaded on Wild Turkey, let these drugs fade slowly."

It sounded to me like a plan. I grabbed the pipe from Nessus' mouth, and stood up as steadily as I could. "At any rate, we need to get out of here. Those neanderthal doormen are probably still combing the tunnels for us, and I'm sick of this ether stink."

Nessus arose, and, grabbing each other for support, we stumbled back towards the main halls as well as the sick drug allowed.

* * * * * * * * * * *
The Venus Venus is what all our public places would look like if the Kzin had won the First War. The proprietors have built massive dioramas in homage to Burroughs' Amtor, complete with tropical biota, and massive algae-stoked pools stocked with hyper-adapted fish brought in from Plateau. The whole thing is kept sweltering, 90 degrees fahrenheit and 90% humidity. Everyone inside is half-frantic from the climate, and it keeps the clientele drinking better than some half-assed bowl of salted peanuts.

Nessus and I sat down at a poker table. They were using cards made of balsa, I saw. I guess even plastic-coated decks became soaked with perspiration. The ether was for the most part gone, and the mescaline, too, leaving just the hash. I ordered Wild Turkey with grapefruit juice; for better or for ill, Nessus made the determination to skip the juice.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Trapped in a fucking time capsule....

It seemed like a Good Idea at the time. We wandered through Tweedle-Dee's casinos, fucked to the gills, giving all the doormen and pit-bosses a good laugh. But somehow it got Boring. We needed something new, Something Different, something with some king-hell CRANK to it, to take these terrible drugz to the Next Level.

Wandering past the pleasure cubicles and the hypno-ads for slippery green snake-women (available RIGHT NOW!), suddenly Nessus and I came upon giant posters for some kind of live-action show featuring stage stars from the distant past, re-animated for a new century's pleasure.

"I don't know about YOUR culture," I told my attorney, "but in my line of work it's important to be Hip!"

"Mine too," Nessus said dubiously. "But who are THESE creatures?"

On the hypno-displays before us was some unbelievably, ghostly-white ... woman(?), draped in a jerked-pork ... dress(?), looking as if she were crawling out of some sort of slimy, womb-like shell. Next to her was some slightly-shaggy-brown-haired, antiseptic, cleaner-than-clean Teen Idol, yet to even sprout facial hair -- about as threatening as a big, floppy puppy dog.

They were billed as "Lady Gaga" and "Justin Bieber" -- supposed Big Names from the early 21st Century, re-heated and jolted back to life for the amusement of a whole New Age....

"Hmmm," Nessus hmmed. "Something about these two is familiar.... What do ya think?"

"I think," I said, eyeing him impatiently, "Why should I pay-out my hard-earned stars to watch a fucking corpse?"

"Because that's what this place is ALL ABOUT," he said. "Pushing the limit! Look, why are we out here? To entertain ourselves or to DO THE JOB?"

"The job, of course," I replied. But maybe he was Right -- maybe it was time for A Break. Just forget the whole damned thing for awhile.

We'd been wandering in circles through Tweedle-Dee's casinos and tunnels. We'd weaved through the lower levels of the Mint, the Dunes, the Hacienda, the Circus-Circus, the Las Venus Venus.... All the while, Nessus combed through the pages of Tweedle-Dee's daily newssheet, THE DAILY 'DEE, looking for something Interesting, Something Different, to relieve the stress of the stupefyingly boring "race" we'd come here to cover. He turned the pages with one mouth while he held the fax with the other, occasionally regaling me with various "couldn't-miss" attractions....

"How 'bout Nickel Nick's Slot Arcade?" he asked. "Hot slots ... sounds heavy. Hmmm, 29-cent hot dogs...? Bey, what's a hot dog? It couldn't possibly be...."

Suddenly there were people screaming at us, something about how we couldn't just STAND there, we were blockin' the hypno-displays. And that's how we ended up in front of the Gaga/Bieber show.

Maybe it was the yelling, maybe it was the drugs, but that's when Nessus snapped.

He was up to the admission window in a flash, waving a bill. "I want in!" he shouted. "I'm an old friend of Gaga's! I used to ROMP with her!"

For a moment I thought he'd blown it.... Then one of the doormen reached out for the bill, saying: "OK, OK sir, I'll take care of it sir!"

"Holy shit!" I said as we stumbled through the lobby. "They almost had us there! That was quick thinking!"

"What did you expect?" Nessus said. "I AM your attorney. ...And by the way, you owe me five bucks, and I want it right now."

I shrugged and gave him a bill. This garish purple, deep-orlon-carpeted lobby seemed like the wrong place to be haggling over $5 bribes for doormen. The surroundings were evocative of those Old School entertainers of the past who wouldn't even bother CARRYING a bill as small as $5. This was Tiger Woods' territory. Kobe Bryant's. Richard Nixon's. The lobby fairly reeked of high-grade formica and plastic palm trees -- it was clearly a high-class refuge for Big Spenders.

We approached the Grand Ballroom full of confidence -- but they wouldn't let us in. No seats left. We were too late, said some sort of short, Italian-penguin hybrid creature in a wine-colored tuxedo. The house was already full -- no seats left at ANY price. Besides, if they let us in, they'd be breaking fire-safety regulations.

"Fuck seats," said my attorney. "We're old friends of Gaga's. We're damn well going in."

The tux-creature continued jabbering about fire regulations, but my attorney refused to listen. Finally, after a lot of noise, the tux-man let us in for nothing -- provided we would stand quietly in the back and not smoke.

We promised, but the moment we got inside we lost control. The tension had been too great.

Up on stage, the unbelievably white and skinny Gaga was prancing unsteadily, jerking spasmodically in front of a garish big band, while she yelped out some dimly-familiar Olde song....

"You could be my lucky star...."

"Jesus creeping shit!" shouted my attorney. "We've wandered into a fucking time capsule!"

That was it. Heavy hands grabbed our shoulders. I jammed the hash pipe back into my pocket just in time. We were dragged across the lobby and held against the front door by half a dozen goons. In the background, we could hear the ghostly-white singer continuing to squawk out that old song, which maybe somehow DID fit in to a new century....

"Shine your heavenly body tonight...."

"OK, get lost," croaked the tux-man. "We're giving you guys a break. If Gaga has friends like YOU, she's even worse off than I thought."

"Oh yeah? We'll see about this," my attorney shouted as we ran away. "I'll talk to Gaga! You'll be croaked, all of you! You paranoid scum!"

Friday, October 26, 2012

Notetaking . . . Long Odds at the Casino . . . More Fucking Ether

Notes, indeed. I've learned to make them, for times when inconstant memory might fail, or at least distort. Those who haven't dug the scenes I have wonder what's up with the long albino speedfreak whose 2 AM pockets are stuffed with scribbled-on cocktail napkins and whose cashless wallet is crammed full of indecipherable index cards, but fuck them. These people are clueless fools. I've learned to make notes out of long, learned habit.

Sometimes the notes are all I have after ten days without sleep . . . or ten hours without respite from the heavy-duty pain. I look at the chronograph, and find a three-day hole where my memory had been, and at those times, I'm glad I take the notes.

Back when I was working for Nakamura, I ran across a fellow who had come out to the Serpent casinos, and won something like twenty thousand stars playing baccarat. Hell, maybe it was at The Mint. He was on his way back out when I met him, and the first rush hadn't passed yet. He spent the trip in our finest stateroom, and on the arms of some very fine-looking prostitutes. We bought each other some drinks, and I noted his name, having, you know, the feeling that I'd be seeing him again.

And I did. Three weeks later, I ran into him again, once more, on the way out. This time, he'd won fifteen thousand. But he spent most of that second trip alone in his stateroom, more comfortable, I suppose, jerking off than padding some hooker's bank account.

The third time I saw him, he was traveling coach with the businessmen. He'd won a few hundred, but his eyes were shallow in their sockets, and I bought him a shot of scotch in a plastic cup, best I could do when I spied him on line at the beer stand on the fifth deck. I caught a word with him edgewise, and he told me never again. He'd been sixty thousand down, and the casino toughs were circling, white suits and black eyes, when he made two longshot bets he didn't even know the house would take, and they somehow came through.

"They knew me from the time before, Bey," is what he said to me. "They figured I musta had what I won. Not hardly. That shit was gone. I had a good time on your ship, then I paid off my mortgages. Bought a 60-inch vidscreen. I dunno, maybe they thought I was Wunderland aristocracy or something. I live in an apartment on Canyon. If they'd looked at my bank statements they'd have never let me lay that bet . . . . Never again, man, never again."

It was the last time I saw him. Later on I heard that one of the casinos had contacted him on Canyon and offered to fly him in, put him up in one of their hotels. He took the bait and lost 85 grand. Three weeks later, a janitor sweeping the tunnels found him in his waiter's uniform with his head kicked in, and the eyes scooped out from his shallow sockets, only the jagged splinters of skull sitting where they'd once been.

The Swarm is a lot like Wunderland that way: if you're aristocracy and you're bleeding money out your bunghole, they'll make the world your oyster, and put some cocktail sauce on besides. More than glad to pretend it's all about you. But if you're hanging on til next payday, you get stomped.

Some coke-addled Wunderland genius had dreamed up the Treatymaker once upon a time, and now Canyon has a scar running across its face 30 miles long and 12 deep. Thousands of Kzinti sleep for a thousand years.

You don't fuck with these people. They have the sideways beards and the funny accents to make you think otherwise, but you just don't.

Well, shit. At least their drug laws are lax.

My notes remind me that Nessus and I wandered through the myriad levels of Tweedle-Dee on Saturday night. The casinos loved us: we were amped on more of that mescaline, and every 75 minutes or so we'd sneak into a gold-filligreed bathroom and huff up another towelette of ether. Then we'd spastically stumble into the hallways, laughing our asses off at some diamond-encrusted mescaline-vision or the other. Lord knows what they thought of Nessus; I must have seemed like a king-hell drunk just let loose from Big D to them. The only thing I was missing was the cowboy hat and the sunburn. Every time we stumbled into some half-ass revue, the ushers were more than happy to shovel my ass into a seat when it seemed like it'd lost its way.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

A glimpse of the media inaction

Back at the bar, the correspondent from NEWSWEEK nodded sympathetically and screamed at the bartender: "Senzamann whaddeeneedz! Ya got nnneee percocet? Why'm I talkin like this? Is it the pregnazone? Just shoot me in the head!"
The NEWSWEEK correspondent was an old running buddy, former editor and long-time rival of mine, a burned-out old case named George Kunkle. He'd been a high-roller once, interviewed some Big Names, been sort of a Name himself among the media.
But now he was just a shadow of his former self, hiding in the bar, groping a low-slung frog-eyed brunette that might have been his wife, babbling into a double Scotch. The hyperwave megazine he worked for had once been a Media Power, but like George himself, that had been a long, long time ago. It was a big galaxy -- so much news to keep up with, so little time.
"All these deadlines," George was mumbling. "Bad craziness...."
He was losing his grip on the bar, slowly sinking to his knees, but still speaking with some semblance of authority.
"This is a Magic Moment In Sport!" he shouted, his eyeglasses steaming-up. "It may never come again!" Then his voice seemed to break. "...I once covered the Triple Crown," he sobbed. "University Of Iowa wrestling -- 5-time national collegiate champions! I once covered the freaking Dallas Cowboys! But they were nothing like this."
The frog-eyed brunette clawed feverishly at his belt. "Stand up!" she pleaded. "George, you drunken bastard, just STAND UP! You'd be a very handsome man if you'd just stand UP!"
He laughed distractedly. "Listen, madam," he snapped. "I'm damn near intolerably handsome down here where I'm at. You'd go CRAZY if I stood up."
The woman kept pulling at him. She'd been mooning at his elbows for over two hours, and now she was going to make her move. But the NEWSWEEK man wanted no part of it. He slumped deeper into his crouch.
I turned away. It was too horrible to watch. We were, after all, the absolute cream of the galaxy's Working Press. And we were gathered here for a very special assignment: To cover the 4th Annual Mint 400K. And when it comes to things like this, you don't fool around....
But now -- even before the spectacle was well and truly underway -- there were already signs that we might be losing control of the situation. Here we were, hunkered down in some greasy bar in a concrete blockhouse/gambling casino called The Mint, and with the race just starting, we were already dangerously disorganized.
True, there was the bar's 200-inch hyperwave monitor over which to keep tabs on the race action itself -- not likely we were going to miss much there. But it was time, I felt, for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene. The race was definitely underway -- I had witnessed the start. Of that I was fairly sure.
But what now? Follow the racers in the Skydiver? Cause the inevitable wreck out on the course and see how these speed freaks handled THAT? Hitch a ride with one of the teams and get a terrifying up-close Personal View from the Front Line?
It was time, I felt, to get grounded. To ponder this rotten assignment and figure out how to cope with it. That fool Lasorda -- our photographer -- insisted on Total Coverage. I figured I'd let HIM hitch a ride with the racers, let HIS bodily fluids get splattered at 100G all over Known Space.
Meanwhile, I planned to take up a semi-permanent perch here in the bar, where I began to think heavily, drink heavily, and make many heavy notes....

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Dawn, or What Passes For It . . . Switching from Gin to Vodka . . . Realization

Tweedle Dee spent 2-1/2 years rotating once around its pappy Centauri A, and spun on its axis like a potato on a skewer about twice an hour. So "dawn" doesn't mean all that much at the Mint, especially if you've spent your supposed sleeping time wandering through the casinos searching for people who might refill your glass with tonic, limes or gin, depending on what was necessary at the moment.

The casinos are always lit, will always be lit if the savage gangster money that runs the place has its way, but they do raise and lower the lights in the halls every twelve hours, just to make it homey for the rich Flatlanders beginning their known space tours in the Alpha C system.

Thank God for that; it was time to switch my gin to vodka and my tonic to orange juice. The mescaline had fueled my haunts through the casinos, and it was still there, racing through my blood as the phosphorus lamps in the industrial garage redoubled their efforts when the clocks hit six.

Centauri A remained its eternal six-degree disc of lemon out there on the surface, but let's call it dawn, to keep it simple.

Racers don't speak like starship captains. When I worked for Nakamura, 3/4 of my job--that performed under hyperdrive--was making myself available to the passengers, making small talk with bored industrialists, drinking with those less moneyed, porking the disaffected wives and courtesans when that made sense. A captain needed to be seen, and understood.

These racers, though, have their own patois, and I could hardly comprehend. The garage was full of urgent chatter, mechanics making last-minute adjustments to their cherished hyperdrives, calling for tools and hardware, pilots stretching themselves, trying to find their internal focus, and their lackeys running about, mumbling to themselves, and shouting at cohorts while pursuing this or that widget needed by the men they worked for. I wandered through the vast garage in my phenethylamine-alcohol hysteria, saying little except "excuse me", when it was necessary, but drinking the scene in greedily, the bustle, the 5-ton trolleys rolling along their I beams high above, the clanking of pneumatic tools against drive cases, the nearly unintelligible talk, all very very satisfying to my brain as it tried to fractalize everything around me. The floor looked bautiful, BRIGHT, spiderweb geometric patterns running through the concrete, pulsing, flowing.

I had no idea where Nessus was.

Suddenly I flailed, falling to the floor. And I landed on top of . . . someone. We untangled, and both of us rose shakily.

A man in a ratty leather jacket confronted me. "Watch what the fuck you're doing, man!"

My wits, still focussed on the tetrahedral patterns I'd seen in the concrete floor, had split the scene.

"Whaaa . . .?"

The man took two steps towards me, I'm taller than he is of course, but he's muuuch wider, the chains hanging from his beltloops rattling, his boots loud enough on the hard floor to be heard over the noise swirling through the room.

"Listen," I stammered. "I'm sorry . . ."-- and took a shot at something--"it's the drugs. This mescaline is dazzling, fucks me up every time . . ." I tried to summon the wherewithall for a fight. I'm not going to be stomped by some filthy rabid neanderthal, is what I told myself, not when the Fabulous Mint 400 is about to commence. Not when there was an Important Story to Cover.

The man smiled. "Yeah, I've had a few of them mesc trips, I know how ya feel."

I worked up my best smile. "Thanks," I said, and meant it, sloping forehead or no.

I extended my hand. "Dr. Gonzo, from We Made It."

The neanderthal took it. "Johnson, from Wunderland." We took back our hands and a second passed.

"How about this race?" he asked, and went on. "I never miss it. Been coming out here for 23 years now. I ride a bike myself, but I'll watch a race of just about anything. Racing starships, goddamn! Gets my blood going! The missus hates it when I up and disappear for a week each year, but screw her, I slap her around and she shuts up, you know? Starships! Goddamn!"

"Yeah," I said, considering carefully what to say to this fan. "I'm with the press, been called in to cover this race. We lost our photographer, some bloodthirsty fools stomped him in the hotel hallways, but we're not going to let that stop us in our quest for Full Coverage. Starships! Goddamn!"

The biker whistled, then turned feral again in a split-second. "Yeah, well, you watch where the fuck you're going next time."

I thought about fighting again, but he had already wandered off. I could hear him mumbling about spaceship hulls and pretty lights as he got lost in the crowd.

Finally at about half past seven, four lackeys activated some hydraulics and a long track of rails emerged from the floor of the garage. Some others rolled an emerald-colored ship with a # 2 hull onto the tracks. Most of the chattering stopped and people began to move towards the back of the huge industrial space. The ship began to roll along its track, and it engaged with a large hydraulic seal at the far end of the room. A huge door beyond it rolled upward and the stars peeked out from behind. There was a loud whoosh as the ship engaged with, and pushed through the hydraulic seal. Shortly thereafter a small yellow flame flashed from the ass end of the #2 hull, and the first ship rocketed forward off the track into the Centauran sea. Two minutes later there was a large white flash, and the ship was gone, disappeared from this space and into the one that obtains under hyperdrive.

I was pushed hard from my back. My knees buckled and I nearly fell. That Wunderland biker, again! Reconsidered with his walnut-sized lizard brain, and come back to attack me! Adrenalin flowed, and I turned around, ready to fight . . . and instead saw Nessus.

"Hey Cap'n," he chortled. "How about that? Where'd they go? Or, where are they going?"

"Nessus," I said, getting a premonition of the exhaustion that would be mine all mine once the drugs and the alcohol wore off. "If you'd read the press kit, you'd know that the race is to the vulcan .2 AU out from Centauri A and back, 400 times." I scowled, all of a sudden annoyed with things. "But, then, I guess, being a lawyer, you're not in the practice of reading much."

The pilots and mechanics and lackeys around us moved forward to their pits again; the next ship would not launch for 20 minutes, and there were things that could be done. Nessus and I walked with the crowd.

"So, basically," he said, "we watch this 30 times."

"No, we don't. We watch one more, and then head for the hotel bar."

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Hideous music and the sound of many guns....

So, we needed to get out of the suite. But....
"Where's the ship?" I asked Nessus.
"We gave it to somebody at valet parking," he said. "I have the ticket in my briefcase."
"What's the number? I'll call down and have them fire it up, get it ready."
"Good idea," he said. But he couldn't find the ticket.
"Well, then we're fucked," I said. "We'll never convince them to give us the ship back without that ticket."
He thought for a moment, then picked up the phone and asked for the garage.
"This is Doctor Gonzo in Room 850," he said in smooth unEarthlytones. "I seem to have lost my parking stub for that transparent GP ship I left with you. But I'd like the ship ready to go in 30 minutes. We'd like to take a brief tour around your little world, here. Would that be possible? ... What? ... Oh, OK. That's fine."
He hung up and reached for the hash pipe. "No problem," he said. "That man remembers my faces."
"That's great," I said. "They'll probably have a big net waiting for us when we show up."
"Schaeffer," Nessus moaned, "as your attorney, I advise you not to worry about ME."

Moments after we picked up the ship, my attorney went into a drug coma and almost ran us head-on into a cave wall before I could bring the ship back under control. I propped him up in the passenger seat and took the helm myself.
I was feeling fine, extremely sharp. And this was a great place to be.
Tweedle-Dee was a hollowed-out asteroid, a sort of playground for the rich and famous, some 40 levels descending through the rock's interior, all sorts of just-barely-legal debauchery available if you had enough stars to pay for it.
Behind safetyplex there were tamer, more "respectable" tourists touring the interplanetary malls. And through the huge interior avenues we idled, ships all around us carrying beings of all races -- all talking non-stop.
I wanted to hear what they were saying. All of them. But this was not the sort of place where you wanted to cruise through "downtown" pointing a bazooka-shaped high-intensity microphone at total strangers. Some of them would definitely not take it kindly.
So. Turn up the hyperwave radio. Cruise along Main Street on a Saturday night, just two good old boys out enjoying the sights. This is what it's all about.
Here you could have your future told by a Knowitall computer, if you felt brave enough. They'd been scientifically proven to be 90-percent accurate in their forecasts. There was everything here from interplanetary-stakes gambling to dome-shaped pleasure domes to rooms full of blinding and deafening music-and-light shows, to little private cubicles offering a few minutes of sensual delight with slippery green snake girls. There were definitely some Good Times to be had here. I thought I'd relax and drink it all in.... No reason to hurry....
When suddenly -- Great Gods, what is this terrible music coming over the radio?!
"Get yer motor runnin', head out on the highway, lookin' for adventure, and whatever comes our way...."
Where did they FIND this shit? Some gravel-voiced singer gargling while someone else stabbed at a wheezy old pipe-organ? My Ghod!
No, I can't be hearing this! It must be the drugz! I glanced over at my attorney, but he was staring out the viewscreen up at the ceiling, and I could see that his brain was occupied Elsewhere. Good thing he couldn't hear the music -- it would have sent him into some kind of racist frenzy.
Mercifully, the song ended. But my mood was already shattered. And then the fiendish cactus juice took over. I plunged into a subhuman funk ... And then suddenly we were swooping out of control, DOWN, to the lowest of the low levels, the vast hold/parking garage where ships from all over Known Space were parked awaiting the start of the annual Mint 400K.
The hold was enormous, impossible to see the opposite end, and it was full of ships of all descriptions, some bristling with weapons, others looking like delicate insects carved from gossamer. And off in the left-hand corner closest to us, a sloppily hand-scrawled sign told us we'd arrived at The Mint Gun Club.
That would explain the sound of weapons fire reverberating from the distance. I set the Skydiver down and checked Nessus's pulse. His hearts were pumping fitfully, and he was still breathing. That would have to do. I left him in his coma and slipped outside.
Of course, The Mint GUN CLUB! The high-priced fanatics that followed events like the Mint 400K weren't going to let anything get in the way of their target practice. Along with the gun-wielders, there were hundreds of motorsports types milling around the area, signing-in for tomorrow's race, checking out each other's ships, idly sipping cool beers.
And right in the middle of this, oblivious to everything except the saucer-shaped targets that flew out of a squat blockhouse further back toward the corner, the weapons fans kept firing without missing a beat. From a distance I could see humans and other beings armed with stunners and screechguns, disintegrators and ... could I be seeing things? ... possibly some illegal ancient tnuctipun weapons of Ghod only knew what sort.
Well, why not? I thought. The shooting provided a certain rhythm -- a bassline, if you will -- to the high-pitched chaos of the race scene. I bought a beer and watched the racers and their ships check in. Some of these rides looked scary-fast. Then I started thinking....
Maybe I should enter the Skydiver in the competition! Sign-up my attorney as the driver, then send him out to the starting line with his heads full of ether and acid. Serve 'em right! How would they handle it?
Nobody would dare go out on the course with a driver that crazy. He'd send her into a flat spin on the first turn, take out half a dozen other ships along the way... a real Kamikaze trip.
"What's the entry fee?" I asked the desk-man.
"Two hundred fifty K," he said.
"Ghods!" I said, shocked. "What if I told you we had a Quantum II hyperdrive?"
He stared up at me, saying nothing, not friendly. He was wearing a stunner on his belt.
"Forget it," I added hastily. "My driver's sick anyway."
His eyes narrowed. "Your driver ain't the only one sick around here, buddy."
The man was getting ugly, but suddenly his eyes switched away, staring at something else....
My attorney, no longer wearing his sunglasses or his Hawaiian shirt -- a very crazy-looking creature, half-naked and breathing heavily.
"What's the trouble here?" he asked the desk-man. "This man is my client. Are you prepared to go to court?"
I grabbed one of his necks and spun him around. "Never mind," I said. "It's the Quantum II. They won't accept it."
"WAIT a minute," he said. "What do you MEAN they won't ACCEPT it? Have you made a DEAL with these pigs?"
"Certainly not," I said. "But you notice they're all armed. We're the only creatures here without guns. Can't you hear that SHOOTING over there?"
He paused, listened for an instant, then suddenly began running for the ship. "You cocksuckers!" he screamed over his shoulder. "We'll be back!"
By the time we got the Skydiver up and back into the asteroid's passageways, he was finally able to talk.
"Ghods! How did we get mixed up with that gang of psychotic bigots?! Let's get the fuck out of here! Those scumbags were gonna try to KILL us!"

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Mescaline, Grapefruit and Kzinti

"The kit bag," I said.

He kept one eye on me while rooting around in the bag with his other eyestalk. Then it emerged from the bag gripping a pill bottle. He deftly opened it with his lips, popped the bottle in the air, swallowed two pills while it was airborne, then caught the bottle, closing it with the cap he'd held in his other mouth. Fucking around, showing off.

He cackled. "Maybe you should swallow only one of these. That acid's still working on you. Your human brains are so fragile."

He flipped the bottle in the air again and batted it in my direction. I caught it and considered the thing before putting it down. Maybe later. Instead I sat down on the bed and rolled a cigarette with my toes, began smoking it the same way.

Nessus looked at himself the way he does when he's incredulous. "Freak," he said. I almost popped a mescaline cap right then and there just to spite him. Instead, through a deep drag on the tabac stick, I smiled and said, "And you're my attorney. What's that say about you?"

Nessus had had enough of the give and take.

"Never mind that," he said, and opened his laptop, a 3-D news broadcast expanding into the empty space of our suite. Some clown had found a Tnuctip stasis box, but blundered into some Kzinti, who had in their own deft way turned the situation into a full-blown interstellar incident. The human newscaster breathlessly speculated on the possibilty of a fifth Man-Kzin War.

"Turn that shit off," I said testily. "If I wanted to hear some hyperventilating lunatic babbling about improbable future events inspired by the Book of Revelations, I'd hyperwave Ausfaller. Or my ex-wife."

Nessus nodded, leaned over and typed a url into his machine. "You're right. I find most humans so distastefully excitable."

"Present company excepted, of course."

I stubbed my tabac stick into an ashtray, exhaled the last of its smoke, and took a long look at Nessus, unsure whether Nessus was pulling one of my lengthy legs or not.

I opened the pilljar and downed one of the mescaline caps, after all. "You're one inscrutable son of a bitch, Nessus."

I grabbed a grapefruit from the kit bag and started slicing it up. The last thing I needed with a shifty-eyed Puppeteer needling me was to be taken down by mescaline-induced nausea. I needed to be at full strength.

And besides, now that we'd settled in, we needed to get moving. The race would begin in less than fifteen hours and we needed to get down to the lowest levels of the tunneled-out dwarf planet, where thirty ships and thirty race teams were headquartered.

Some few journalists, we knew, were going to actually ride with one of the race teams, but Nessus and I had no such plans. We were going to camp out at the hotel bar and follow the race on the hotel's 200 inch monitor. Before that, though, it was probably a good idea to speak with some of the racers.

And like I said, we had about fifteen hours for that.

"Grab the recorder, two quarts of rum, and a half-ounce. I'll grab another grapefruit and a notebook. Too bad we don't have a photographer . . . ."

Nessus and I looked at each other in sudden realization and began to laugh like we hadn't laughed in days.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Rude vibes and wasted work: A normal night at the Mint

We FINALLY got into the suite, and my attorney was immediately on the phone to room service, ordering four scalded sailcats, four bowls of razor-edged saw-salad, a gallon of Romulan ale and nine fresh grapefruits.

"Vitamin C!" he explained. "We'll need all we can get."

I agreed. By this time the drink was beginning to cut the acid and my hallucinations were down to a tolerable level. The room service waiter had a vaguely reptilian cast to his features, but I was no longer seeing huge pterodactyls swooping through the hotel's corridors, gliding effortlessly over vast pools of fresh blood.

My only problem now was a gigantic neon sign outside our window, blocking our view of space but in some ways providing an even more fascinating picture -- millions of colored balls of light running around a very complicated track, strange symbols & filligree, giving off a loud, hypnotic, mesmerizing hummmm....

"Look outside," I said.

"Why?" my attorney asked, puzzled.

"There's a big ... machine in the sky," I tried to explain, "...some kind of ... electric snake ... coming straight at us."
"Well, shoot it!" he said.

"Not yet," I said. "I want to study its habits."

He walked over to a corner and began pulling on a chain to close the drapes.

"Look," he said, the metallic chain links in his mouth adding a slight ringing tinge to his words, "you've got to stop all this talk about snakes and leeches and lizards and all that stuff. It's making me sick."

"Don't worry," I said.

"WORRY? Ghods, I almost went crazy down there in the bar. They'll never let us back in that place again -- not after your scene at the press table."

"What scene? ... Oh, you mean with the gila monsters? Oh, yeah, sorry about that. Bad craziness...."

"You goat-sucking bastard!" he shouted. "I left you alone for THREE MINUTES! You scared the SHIT out of those people! Waving that goddamned marlin spike around and yelling about reptiles! What the hell? You're lucky I came back in time! They were ready to call the cops! I said you were only drunk and that I was taking you up to your room for a cold shower. Hell, the only reason they gave us the press passes was to get YOU the hell out of there!"

Nessus finished lowering the drapes and began pacing around the suite nervously. "Ghods, that scene straightened me right OUT! I MUST have some drugs! What have you done with the mescaline?!"

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Skydiver Nears the Mint Hotel

Flotsam on the Fucking Cosmic Sea

"Alright, alright," I heard myself say, as if I were listening to myself at the end of a very long hallway. "Don't curl up into a ball on me. I . . . need you active and alert. Try to be less of a Puppeteer and more of a . . . reality-anchor. An anchor is what I need you to be. Bee bee bee. No bees! Reptiles! The reptiles, they're forming sides . . . some sort of battle, I don't understand . . . ."

I felt a blow to my back, or to my thigh, or to my foot, a shock that radiated wetly through the flexible rubber sheet that my body had become. I turned around in confusion, adrenalin flowing, and Nessus had kicked me!

"What the hell are you doing, you insane excuse for a goat?"

"Trying to keep you focused on reality instead of on the gory monster movie playing in your head."

Strangely enough, it made a queer sort of sense to me. Some lunatic rat bastard had drugged me! I'd make the motherfucker pay later, but for now, it was important to Fight the Drug.

For some reason.

A degree of clarity had returned at least briefly, and the leathery-skinned behemoths had receded, though Lord only knew how long that would last. I looked down at the industrial carpet, relieved.

"OK. Now, you need to know I went and saw Lasorda upstairs."

"who's Lasorda?" The room began to spin again, and it seemed like waves of reptile blood were rolling back in.

"He claims to be our photographer, but we don't have a photographer, do we?"

I tried to think. "No! Why would we need a photographer? I'm a starship pilot on sabbatical, travelling under the assumed name of Dr. Gonzo. And you're an attorney."

"That's what I thought," Nessus said. "I told him how we had Ausfaller's number, and he cracked up, went to pieces right in front of me. By the time I kicked him into the hallway, he was begging me not to hyperwave his editor. Or his mother."

"I bet you kicked him," I said. There was again a nasty red tide frothing at my feet. "Does he know we have Sinclair Molecule Chain?"

"No. But I told him we had a Quantum II hyperdrive, and it scared the shit out of him."

"I'm glad to hear it. A two-faced cockroach like that deserves no mercy from you." I looked toward the elevators, across the roiling reptilian battlefield. "What about our room?" I asked, frantic. "What about our godamned golf shoes? We're exposed smack dab in the middle of theropod no-mans-land. We'll be torn to pieces! How many have they killed already?"

I pointed to a circle of gila monsters across the bloody lizard combat zone, poisonous drool flowing from the edges of their terrible angular mouths and dripping into the crimson muck below. "They've spotted us. We're toast, Nessus. Flotsam on the fucking cosmic sea. The cosmic seaaaaa. . . ."

Nessus' eye stalks turned toward each other in dismay. He looked back at me. "It's the acid, Bey. Repeat after me: the acid. A-C-I-D. Pull yourself together, Shaeffer. Find yourself a mid-grade stimulant. That's the press table. That's where you go to sign in for your credentials. You handle that, and I'll get the room."

Monday, October 1, 2012

Kill the body and the head will die!

...When we finally got into the Mint, my attorney was unable to cope artfully with the registration procedure. We were forced to stand in line with all the others -- aliens from a dozen different worlds, all here for the big race, and for some sort of interplanetary pharmaceutical convention -- an event that sounded like it would be right up our alley. I quickly scribbled a note about this event on my pad for a reminder -- which, when called up later, screamed KILL THE BODY AND THE HEAD WILL DIE! for no known reason....

But standing in this line, under Tweedle-Dee's 1/5th-Earth gravity, proved to be extremely difficult under the circumstances. I kept telling myself: "Be quiet, be calm, say nothing. Speak only when spoken to: Name, rank and press affiliation, that's all. Nothing else. Ignore these terrible drugs, pretend nothing's happening... ah... uh...."

There is no way to express the terror I felt when I finally lunged up to the clerk-creature's desk and began babbling. All my well-rehearsed lines fell apart under that creature's stoney glare.

"Well, HELLO there," I said suavely. "My name is ... ah ... Raoul Duke ... yes, ON THE LIST, that's for sure -- free lunch, final wisdom, total coverage, why not?"

The creature behind the desk -- who might once have been a woman -- seemed to have ... eyeballs bubbling up out of her head, floating over us like dialogue balloons from some old cartoon. Was it the drugs, or was this how she(?) really looked? And was I ... levitating ... or was it just the damned lack of gravity?

"Uh.... I have my attorney with me," I continued, heedless of her many eyeballs pivoting toward me warily, in unison, to get a better look, "and I realize of course that HIS name is not on the list, but we MUST have a suite, and actually this creature is my DRIVER. ...Yes, just check the list and you'll see. Don't worry. What's the score here? What's next?"

The woman never blinked ... any of her eyes. "Your room's not ready yet," she said in tones of ringing crystal. "But there's someone looking for you...."

"No!" I shouted. "Why?! We haven't DONE anything yet!" My legs felt rubbery -- damned gravity! I gripped the desk and sagged toward her as she handed out an envelope -- but I refused to accept it. The woman's face was changing -- swelling, pulsing, horrible green jowls and fangs jutting out -- the face of a Moray Eel.

I lunged backwards into my attorney, who reached out to take the note. "I'll handle this," he said to the Moray woman. "This man has a bad heart, but I have plenty of medicine. My name is Doctor Gonzo. Prepare our suite at once, we'll be in the bar."

The Moray woman shrugged as he led me away. In a place full of bedrock crazies, nobody even NOTICES an acid freak. We struggled through the jammed lobby and found two stools at the equally crowded bar. My attorney eventually ordered two Cuba libres with beer and mescal on the side, then opened the envelope.
"Who's this guy Lasorda?" he asked. "He's waiting for us in a room on the 12th floor."

Lasorda? I couldn't remember. The name rang a bell, but I couldn't concentrate. Terrible things were happening all around us. Right next to me a huge reptile was gnawing on a woman's neck. The carpet was a blood-soaked sponge -- impossible to walk on it, no footing at all.

"Order some golf shoes," I mumbled, "otherwise we'll never get out of this place alive. You notice these lizards don't have any trouble moving around in this muck -- that's because they've got CLAWS on their feet."

"Lizards?" my attorney said. "If you think we're in trouble NOW, wait 'til you see what's happening in the elevators...."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

My Own Experienced Hands

We climbed over the pressure seals and re-entered the Skydiver. The translucent docking tube collapsed back toward the ship, the seals kicked back in, and we were ready to move again.
"I'll take the helm," I told Nessus. "These parts of space aren't friendly to your kind."
He just cackled and grabbed for the kit-bag with its illicit pharmacoepia. I looked at the ship's chronometer. Deadline for registration at the Mint Hotel on the dwarf planet was in 75 minutes. It was just barely possible--or not possible at all.
"Bad deal," I barked, as I moved the fusion engines to maximum. "The kid was a deranged, unsafe lunatic and the stop was a hopeless waste of time. We'll never get to the Mint in time now. We're gonna have to pay for our room! It's a plot to unman and defraud me, you yellowbellied goat! You're working for Ausfaller! Admit it, you backstabbing cockroach! Or I'll bring them your body on an antigrav gurney! In six different pieces!"
Nessus did the wise thing and ignored me, and instead used his left tendril to crack an amyl nitrate under his right. The right eye sagged noticeably before the tendril disappeared back into the kit-bag. When it emerged, it was sandwiched around a sheet of blotter acid.
"Break this into six pieces, you cheapjack hominid." I grabbed the sheet out of its mouth instantly, before the situation could deteriorate. Puppeteers on acid were notoriously volatile. Better that these drugs were in my own stable and experienced hands.
I did indeed split the sheet into sixths, and quickly gobbled one of the sections. Nessus cackled again. "As your attorney, I advise you to--chase that LSD with a shot of tequila."
I haven't gotten as far as I have in this universe by ignoring the considered opinions of the professionals around me. Hell, I did two shots.
Then I sagged back into the acceleration couch and watched Tweedle-Dee our dwarf planet destination grow larger and larger in front of us, the neon lights of the Mint and the Thunderbird and the Stage Tree slowly becoming visible and then dancing spastically for me.
The hyperwave console lit up, and I grabbed the handset. "Skydiver clear to park," it said. "Registration ends in three minutes. Would you like us to sign in for you?"
I looked over at Nessus, who was resolutely refusing not to melt into shiny slag the shape of an amphibious reptile.
"We're here," I said.

Monday, September 24, 2012

A certain crisis of confidence....

But of course all of that was just background. I was still vaguely haunted by The Kid's remark about never having ridden in "a genuine General Products transparent hull" ship before. Here's this poor gap-toothed Okie geek living in a galaxy teeming with ships of all shapes and sizes, and he thinks ours (loaded as it is with potions, lotions, notions, powders and smokes of all descriptions, not to mention bristling with as much weaponry and firepower as I could force in) was some reason to get excited.
And he might have been right about all that. But clearly he couldn't see that our adventure, our trip, was Something Different and really WORTH getting excited about. It was a classic affirmation of everything Right and True and Decent in Men scattered across all of Known Space, wherever they might be. It was a gross, physical salute to the fantastic POSSIBILITIES of life's potential in our galaxy -- but only for those with True Grit. And we were chock full of that..
My attorney understood this concept -- despite his racial handicap. But The Kid was not an easy person to reach. He SAID he understood, but I could see in his eyes that he didn't. He was lying to me. And he was quickly moving away, eyeing the airlock nervously, perhaps hoping to push us back through it.
Suddenly my attorney slumped over, a moan escaping from one of his mouths. "My hearts," he groaned. "Where's The Medicine?".
"The Medicine?" I croaked. "Ah, yes ... well, it's back on our ship." The Kid seemed petrified. I moved quickly to ease his worries. "Don't worry," I said. "My attorney has a heart condition -- angina pectoris. I thought that was some kinda constellation, but ... I have the cure for what ails him back on our ship, if we could just...." I began moving toward the airlock, an arm looped around one of Nessus's necks. This didn't help.
"Turn up the fucking music!" he screamed. "My heart feels like an alligator! Volume! Clarity! Bass! We must have bass! What's wrong with us?! Are we all OLD LADIES?!".
"Yeezus, pay no attention to this swine," I told The Kid. "He can't really handle The Medicine. Actually, we're BOTH Doctors of Journalism and we're on our way to cover the biggest story of our generation." And then I began laughing.....
My attorney hunched around to face The Kid. "The truth is," he said, "we're heading out to croak a spineless swine named Ausfaller. We've known his shifty type for years and he's recently become a real major pain in the ass. And you know what that means, right?" .
I wanted to shut him off, but we were both helpless with laughter. What the fuck were we both DOING out here in this desert, when we both had bad hearts? .
"Ausfaller has cashed his check!" my attorney snarled. "We're gonna rip his lungs out!" .
"And eat them!" I blurted. "That bastard won't get away with this! What's going on in this galaxy when a scumsucker like that can sandbag a doctor of journalism?!".
Nobody answered. My attorney was still slumped over, moving shakily toward the airlock and the tube back to the Skydiver. The Kid was behind us, gently but persistently herding us toward the airlock. .
"Thanks for the offer of a lift," he was saying. "Thanks a LOT! I LIKE you guys, REALLY! But don't worry about ME! I think I'm gonna stay out here for awhile longer! I'm really starting to LIKE the quiet!".
And with that he slammed the airlock door shut behind us and dogged it tight. The lock cycled through, and we began crawling slowly, shakily, back over to our ship. And the sooner we got there, the better. .
"Good riddance," mumbled my attorney as we made our unsteady way through the tube. "We had a real freak on our hands. That boy made me nervous. And did you see his EYES?!"

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Puppeteers and Other Gutless Swine

Perhaps so, but there was no reason to lie to the kid about Nessus, or the Mint 400.

The stolen starship, on the other hand . . . . It was imperative that we get our stories straight for the kid, critical that we not slip up, goddamnit.

Look at it that way, and there was no reason at all for him to know the facts, none at all.

No reason for him to know about the regional president of General Products back around Procyon, no reason to know about Ausfaller, and certainly no reason to know about the hazy and unfortunately illegal details behind our use of the Skydiver.

I'd been at home on We Made It, and shopping for a coconut bong during one of my occasional lucid moments when the puppeteer accosted me. I stood in the aisle, admiring its dainty walk, listening to its hooves click on the carbonate flooring as it approached me.

"You are Beowulf Shaeffer," it said when it arrived, mellifluous contralto rising and falling on top of the baritone stoner music playing in the shop. "Former pilot for Nakamura Lines."

I took a bow, gave each of its eyes a Shaka sign, thumb and little fingers extended, middle fingers curled down. Crashlanders don't surf--you're probably not too surprised to hear that--but we pick things up, here and there.

"You would be interested in a high-paying job."

I considered the alien. The best description--and the most persistent for me when I'm stoned to the bejesus belt--is of a sinister voodoo-vision, a beheaded goat reanimated, and perched on, by a pair of cyclopsean snake gods rearing to strike. And never mind the three legs. I understand why a lot of people are spooked by the Puppeteers, I really do. I myself am nothing but comfortable around them.

Of course I don't trust the bastards, but that's a different story. In this sad and strange galaxy of ours, you walk the streets of Earth and allow yourself to be beholden to a Puppeteer only at your own great risk.

"It is possible I'd be interested, depending on who you are, what you have to offer, and how I'm feeling" is what I said to him.

"There is no higher ranking representative of General Products in this area of K-space than myself. Please follow me," he said.

Well. I laid down the kachi I'd been considering, fished in my pocket for a tab of MDMA, swallowed it, then followed him, exactly as he'd asked.

The regional president cantered over to the store's old-fashioned transfer booth. We got in, and he dialed. The rest of our conversation took place in the hotel bar at the Canis Minor, 65 levels below the surface. Digitally altered video of summerstorms cycled through on a huge screen to our sides. There was no music, just the chattering of bluehairs. The X kicked in and I was loving everybody in sight: the puppeteer who was trying to screw me and/or get me killed, the hereditary rich, the Jinxian barkeep, the three offduty security by the VR gamebank.

I chased three mezcals with three Budweisers as we spoke.

Basically, there was this radio-quiet neutron star that had wandered into Known Space, and a couple people working for GP had kicked off when visiting. Something about their having dropped into a hyperbolic orbit with a focal length of one mile. I listened to--and noted to my dataspace in the cloud--more details, which I won't bore you with just yet. But the offer was clear to me: the fucking Puppeteer wanted me to go and find the cause of death.

It didn't sound appealing at all until he told me I could build my own ship.

"Perhaps," I said to him with the ecstasy stars in my eyes and the mezcal burn in my throat. "I'd need cash for drugs, and video equipment, and an ultra-high fidelity audio system. High-powered laser weapons, conventional ones, and a few nukes. And you must know that good Terran liquor is an absolute necessity for me." I sighed.

"But if you can provide these, then perhaps."

* * * * * * * * * *

The Puppeteer gave me 24 hours to give him an answer.

My eight years in starship piloting, and my ten months in the much more dangerous profession of journalism, have lent me an extensive array of contacts throughout known space. In addition to sourcing the drugs and the audio-video equipment, I spent those 24 hours tapping into those contacts to find out whether there was any chance in hell of surviving the trip to this quark star, or whatever this acid-crazed God-dream was.

Deep within my compound--heavily fortified even by Crashlander standards--I made my arrangements. I had speed-addled college students on six planets working on it, and the answers--crosschecked and corroborated--came in quick.

Not a fucking chance. Tidal forces kill the pilot in every scenario. Every goddamned one.

My course of action was clear. I got on the horn with General Products, told the human secretary I'd hold while she fetched the regional president, then informed the twisted, cloven-hooved freak I'd do it.

* * * * * * * * * *

15 minutes later, my phone chirped, and caller ID showed Sigmund Ausfaller on line one. I'd run into him before. Special agent for ARM based on We Made It. I knew the why, but not the what.

I clicked onto the line. "What is it, you hyperthyroidal, shifty-eyed son of a bitch?"

"Always a pleasure, Shaeffer."

"Really? Either I've been treating you too nicely, or you've got some kinks I hadn't heard about."

"I just got a call from someone midlevel at General Products."

I'd figured. "Let me guess, you're in the market for a Quantum II yacht. It's about time you had some fun. Shit, you can visit each of your whores on three worlds, all in the same night."

The bastard choked for a second. "That's great. Make your jokes, Shaeffer, but listen to me: there'll be a bomb onboard whatever narco-wagon you end up having built. "

Jesus Christ, a bomb. The gutless, devious swine.

"We'll set it off, Shaeffer. We'll set it off if you go anywhere but to BVS-1 in that drugrunning hotrod I know you're imagining. I'll be happy to set it off. Overjoyed. Out of my fucking skull with glee. Words cannot express . . . ."

"Alright, alright," I screamed, just to get him to shut the fuck up already. "Alright. You wound me, Sigmund. Whyever would you think that I wouldn't fulfill my contract with GP?"

He started giving me a list, and I hung up on him.

But began chuckling thereafter, and it wasn't just the nitrous.

What, the fucker didn't think I knew any explosives people?

Monday, September 17, 2012

But that would be Wrong....

"Man, this is the way to travel," said my attorney. He leaned over to turn the volume up on the S&M Satellite Radio, humming along with the rhythm section and kind of moaning along with the ancient words: "Teenagers scare the living shit out of me...." Where do they FIND this shit?

Teenagers? I thought. Is that all you're worried about, you poor fool? Wait 'til you start seeing those bandersnatchi....

I could barely hear the radio, as I was slumped over on the far edge of my seat, grappling with a disc player turned all the way up, some ancient zonk band squalling "You CAN'T always GET what you WA-AHNT...." It was the only disc we had, so we played it constantly, over and over, as a sort of demented counterpoint to the radio. And also to maintain our rhythm during the flight. A constant speed is good for fuel consumption -- and for some reason that seemed Important at the time. Indeed, on a trip like this one MUST be careful about fuel consumption. Avoid those sudden bursts of acceleration that force blood to the back of the brain....

My attorney noticed the derelict ship long before I did. He fired the retros and we moved slowly up alongside the huge, white, silent hulk -- a menace to navigation, so glaringly out of place here in a disused corner of the spacelanes, a sort of desert we'd previously been cruising speedily through.

We looked her over -- it seemed like all the lights were off, nobody was home, and we were getting ready to set off again ... when suddenly through a viewport we spotted a blonde-haired big-eared Okie kid in a transparent bubble-helmet. He waved at us and stuck out his thumb, a face like a moray eel splitting into a gap-toothed grin.

"Let's give this boy a lift," Nessus said, and before I could mount any argument he was already snaking a tube over to the hulk's nearest airlock.

"Uh, I'm not so sure about this," I said. This "desert" we were smack in the middle of was the last known location of the infamous Romney Family, and everybody knows what happened to THEM.... But the puppeteer was already moving for the door.
Shakily, we scrambled through the tube and met the Okie at his airlock.

"Wow, hi guys!" he said. "Thanks for stoppin' to get me! I've never ridden in a transparent General Products ship before!"

"Is that right?" I said, wondering where the hell this kid was from. "Well, then I guess you're about ready, eh?"

"Yeah, I figured I was gonna be stuck out here FOREVER," he said. "Uh ... nothing personal, but what's that SMELL...?"

"Never mind that," said my attorney. "We're your friends. We're not like the others. Why don't you tell us what the hell happened here?"

"Well, I don't rightly know," the kid said. "When I went to sleep my shipmates were all OK and everything seemed normal...."

"Some kind of freakout? Cannibalism? Some kind of blood orgy, is that it?" Nessus asked.

"Well, uh...." the kid faltered.

Oh L. Ron, I thought, he's gone around the bend. "No more of that kind of talk," I said, "or I'll put the leeches on you. This isn't freaking EVENT HORIZON, pull yourself together." Nessus grinned at me, seemed to understand.

But I was already wondering: How long can we MAINTAIN? How long 'til we just start jabbering at the boy? What will he think then? What kind of grim connections will he make when my attorney starts screaming about bandersnatchi and giant purple cosmic squids writhing around the ship?

Only thing to do then will be cycle him out the airlock -- minus his helmet. Because it goes without saying that we can't turn him loose -- he'd just report us to some outback nazi neanderthal police department that would hunt us down like dogs. And that would be Wrong....

Hubbard! Did I just SAY that? Or was I just THINKING it? Was I talking? Did they hear me? I glanced over at my attorney, but he seemed oblivious -- as always.
Maybe I'd better have a chat with this boy, I thought. Perhaps if I EXPLAIN things he'll rest easier.

"Look, never mind all that," I said, flashing a big fine smile. "There's one thing you should probably understand. I want you to have all the background." I slapped Nessus across his broad back. "This ... uh, creature here is my attorney. We're on a mission of grave danger and importance. This ... creature isn't just some dingbat I picked up by accident. Shit, LOOK at him! He doesn't LOOK like you or me, right? That's because he's a foreigner! I think he's probably Samoan! But that doesn't matter, does it? We're not gonna get all RACIAL now, are we?"

"Oh, HELL no," the boy said.

"I didn't think so," I said. "Because in spite of his race, this ... thing is extremely valuable to me." I glanced at my attorney, but his mind seemed to be someplace else. In camaraderie and a show of solidarity, I slapped him across the back again. This time it registered. He didn't like it.
"Keep your fucking hands off my necks!" my attorney screamed.

The kid looked like he was ready to jump ship and take his chances.

"Hey, guys, look, it's OK, really," he said. "Thanks for the offer of a ride and everything, but I think maybe I'll...."

Our vibrations were indeed getting nasty -- but why? I was puzzled, frustrated. Was there no clear communication possible between us? Was it the fucking ether? Had we deteriorated to the level of DUMB BEASTS?

Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Most Helpless Man

But the only thing that worried me was the tasp implanted in my attorney's head, and I knew the bastard had it. I've collected drugs and liquor across fifteen worlds in known space, and on a few more beyond it. I'm personally familiar with barbiturates, analgesics, tranquilizers, hallucinogens, opiates, alkaloids, cannabis, the active salvinorins, psychostimulants, inhalants, and a couple more known only to Trinoc science, whose names wouldn't mean anything here. . . . A collection of the chemicals I have known and loved would fill a room at the Institute of Knowledge back on Jinx. I'm familiar with self-induced depravity; and I'm completely comfortable with it.

But the wire scares me. Even the tasp. I'll make my own day, thank you very much. Tanj it, the only things I want messing with my pleasure centers are the site antagonists I've recently ingested. I'm good with transfer booths, with stepping disks, with stasis fields, and with the goddamned Quantum II hyperdrive, but there is something unnatural about the direct electrical stimulation of my brain--or of anyone else's. There is nothing more helpless and irresponsible than a wirehead. And the fact that Nessus can turn me into one, even briefly, on some hash-addled or ecstasy-trip whim of his makes me as nervous as a kdatlyno downrange from an ARM with a sonar jammer.

Beyond the needed services he performs for me as my attorney, Nessus is a completely twisted individual, crazy as a Kzin telepath. I like that very much in a sentient. But I'd have to watch the cowardly bastard as well as the drugs permit.

Ah well, no need to worry about that right now. More important was taking the edge off these goddamned alkaloids. I wet a handkerchief with a dab of ether, then did it again for good measure, and took a nice long huff. Within ten minutes, my muscles turned to delicious whipped butter and the interior of the Skydiver resounded with that wonderful buzzing. I smiled as best as my nearly-disconnected facial muscles could manage. Should those fucking bandersnatchi return, I'll be much more relaxed in their presence. . . .

Thursday, September 13, 2012

When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro ... for good or ill

It was almost noon on the ship's chronometer, and we still had more than a hundred light years to go. They would be tough miles. Very soon, I knew, we would both be completely fried. But there was no going back, and no time to rest. We would have to ride it out.

Media registration for the "mega-intergalactic" Mint 400K was already underway, and we had to get there by 1600 (our time) to claim our soundproof suite. A fashionable Cyclops megazine in New New York had taken care of the reservations, along with this huge, transparent General Dynamics hull we'd just rented.... And I was, after all, a professional journo, so I had an obligation TO COVER THE STORY, for good or ill.

The idiot editors at the megazine had also foolishly fronted me 300,000 credits, most of which was already spent on extremely dangerous substances of various sorts. The inside of the ship looked like some kind of narcotics lab. We had all the usual smokes, pills, fluids & powders -- anything my puppeteer attorney could drink, smoke, sniff, snort, shoot, eat or rub into his belly -- plus a few things intended strictly for me: Mysterious, tantalizing multi-colored multiple-level beverages ordered straight from the Draco Tavern.

Plus, if all else failed, we had a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, sidewayers, screamers, laughers, mixmasters, scramblers ... just LOOKING at this shit was exhausting.

All this stuff had been picked up the night before in a frenzy of high-speed scrambling. We picked up everything we could get our hands on. Not that we NEEDED all that for the trip, not that it was all strictly NECESSARY ... but, well, ... once you lock into a serious multi-spectrum-drug connection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

And we -- or at least I -- was notorious for pushing tendencies as far as was humanly possible....

Monday, September 10, 2012

We were somewhere around the Serpent Swarm at the edge of the Wunderland system when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like "I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe we should switch to autopilot . . . ." And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the space outside our transparent hull was full of what looked like huge bandersnatchi, all throbbing and creeping peristaltically and respiring wetly around the ship, which had dropped into plain space just about the time I had ingested these terrible, terrible alkaloids. And a voice was screaming, "Holy Jesus, what are these goddamn Slaver relics?

Then it was quiet again. My puppeteer attorney had taken his sash off, and was mixing a Singapore Sling in one of his mouths, stirring it with a swizzle stick held in the other. "What the hell are you yelling about?" he muttered, staring out towards the crimson disc of Centauri B. "Never mind," I said. "It's your turn to pilot. And give me a beer. I'm starting to turn red." I powered down the fusion drive and turned the Skydiver about. No point mentioning those bandersnatchi, I thought. The poor cowardly bastard will see them soon enough.