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?

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