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.