The Paradise Game [Hooded Swan, Book 4]
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by Brian Stableford
Category: Science Fiction
Description: In a galactic culture that extends from quasi-utopian worlds like New Alexandria to the vermin-infested slums of Old Earth, the Star-Pilots are the great heroes of the day, and Grainger has become a legend in his own time. Pharos is paradise--or so it appears. But the champions of commerce want to package and sell the planet, and the conservationists want to stop them. Grainger's employer, Titus Charlot, is enlisted to negotiate a settlement, but the game is rigged. Charlot needs the Star-Pilot's help, but there seems to be nothing he can do--until the planet's ecosystem takes a hand, and "paradise" suddenly turns deadly! Hooded Swan, Book 4.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1974 USA
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [228 KB]
Reading time: 143-201 min.
"The series is the story of star pilot Grainger, who is forced by circumstances, after his own ship is destroyed in a disastrous crash, to accept a job flying a new ship, the Hooded Swan, that is a fusion of human and alien technologies. She is faster and more manoeuvrable than any previous design, but despite the opportunity offered, Grainger resents the fact he is employed simply as a pilot but denied the position of Captain, and cannot resign at any time during his two-year contract without dire financial penalties that he regards as thoroughly unjust. In fact Grainger regards his terms of employment as making him little more than a slave, or at least an indentured servant. However, left little alternative by his financial situation, Grainger takes the job, and carries out a variety of assignments for his new masters, accompanied by the unwelcome alien symbiote sharing his brain." -- Wikipedia
In the course of my long and somewhat arduous career as a galactic parasite I have often had occasion to feel that everybody hated me. Only once, however, have I had the occasion to take particular delight in such a state of affairs. That was on Pharos.
The day we made the drop I wandered into the shanty town that the Caradoc crew had knocked together for their convenience. It was mostly slot-together plastic huts, but the foremen and the managers and organisers had more impressive edifices made of cuprocarbon in order to emphasise the difference in status. As a town, it was a distinctly sloppy job, but no doubt they would get around to turning it into a pathetic imitation of civilised suburbia in due course. The spacefield, of course, was the number one priority, and that was where all the attention was being lavished at the present time.
I strolled around the streets, getting my feet muddy, with no particular purpose in mind, for half an hour or so, simply taking inward note of the layout. The important part--the stores, the bars, and the nerve centre of the operation--was in a crescent to the north, with the social focuses at one end, the administrative buildings at the other, and the commercial element in the middle. Facing the concave arc of the crescent was a solitary hut above whose door someone had scrawled the words NEW ROME. The hut had presumably been supplied and sited by Caradoc, which would also have flown the representative of justice in from the nearest outpost of official law and order. Caradoc had a thriving private police force, naturally enough, which would be much better accommodated in the admin cluster. I didn't bother looking for it.
Feeling in the need of some sustenance after a long flight out from New Alexandria, I went into one of the bars. It was early evening, but Caradoc was taking things easy and only working one shift per day, so it was free time and the place was pretty crowded.
The moment I walked through the door I got the feeling that I was unwelcome. I can't say that every eye in the place was suddenly turned upon me, or that I managed to stop the current of conversation dead in its tracks. But I was noticed. Not only that, but I was obviously expected. Word had gone around that the Hooded Swan had downed and the pilot of the Hooded Swan was very well known to the Caradoc Company. At one time I had been a standing joke, thanks to Axel Cyran's mean streak and a small matter of a large salvage fee. But the matter of the Lost Star and four Caradoc ships that went bang had turned that particular joke sick and sour in no time at all.
How does it feel to be popular? asked the wind.
Don't you know? I countered.
I walked up to the bar, feeling unpopular but cocksure, and asked for something that I could watch being poured out of a branded bottle. It's not that I suspected the barman of harbouring any evil intentions toward me, simply that I didn't want Caradoc's home-brew.
I gave the man a note, made sure he didn't short-change me, and then I turned around slowly to survey the motley contents of the room, like they always do in Western films. Some of them were still looking at me but most of them had apparently decided to ignore me. It was the safest course. I smiled nastily at all and sundry.
This job, I said to the wind, I think I am going to like.
Bastard, said the wind, with implied disgust at the attitude I was taking. Besides, he added, it's not your job. You're only along for the ride this time.
I was only along for the ride on Rhapsody as well, I reminded him. But I sort of got involved.
Well, if you sort of get involved here, said the wind, you could be in trouble. I imagine this lot is boiling with rage about Charlot's being sent in to sort out their nasty little mess, without you interfering as well.
We're being paid to interfere, I pointed out.
Charlot is being paid to interfere, he corrected me. Strictly speaking, the Library is being paid to interfere. You only fly the ship.
Want a bet? I asked him. Charlot's going to need a lot of help sorting this lot out. He's brought Eve with him to monitor, and he's bound to co-opt Nick as an errand boy. He'll find something for me to do. He won't want me sitting around all day while he's paying exorbitant sums for my services. I'm an expert on alien environments, remember.
Just because you've spent most of your life grubbing about in them doesn't make you an expert.
It sure as hell beats education, I told him.
Which was, of course, true. Nothing teaches you aliens better than trying to make a living off them. I hadn't got Lapthorn's touch by any means--Lapthorn had the empathy, he could play it all by ear--but I got by. Low cunning, I guess, and a calculating mind.
I was in fairly high spirits, because this particular job really appealed to me. Not just because it gave me a chance to stroll around Caradoc property kicking Caradoc cats in the knowledge that nobody dared call me any dirty names, but because it seemed like a sound, safe, time-consuming mission. Anything which made the time go by was all right by me. Every day brought me nearer to the time when I'd be my own master again.
Pharos hadn't been on Titus Charlot's agenda, of course--it was just one of those things which tend to crop up now and again. One of the penalties of being one of the most respected and responsible men in the galaxy. Even if he was mad.
In actual fact, it struck me as a slightly dumb move on the part of New Alexandria to stick Charlot with the job of arbitrating in a dispute which involved the Caradoc Company, after the coup he brought off at its expense in the Halcyon Drift, which was less than a year ago. But God and the Librarians--particularly the latter--move in mysterious ways. Maybe New Alexandria had good reason for riling Caradoc.
What had happened on Pharos was that Caradoc had adopted it as part of its big Paradise drive. Its initial survey teams, for one reason and another, had somehow overlooked a few million indigenes, and when the natives wandered out of the forest to watch the Caradoc bulldozers clearing ground, Caradoc had been strangely remiss about amending its official claims. Word finally filtered out despite the publicity blanket, and volunteers from a self-appointed protection agency called Aegis had suddenly started making a big song and dance about it. By the time they flew in a team of investigators and agitators, however, Caradoc had produced what it claimed was an agreement with the natives swearing eternal harmony with Caradoc and all its works. Allegations and counter-allegations soon buried the processes of New Rome in red tape, and New Rome had called in New Alexandria to arbitrate in the dispute. The Library sent Charlot, who was, of course, its number one expert on alien/human understanding. Caradoc's operations were, in the meantime, severely restricted. So here we all were. Four or five hundred Caradoc operatives--crack planet-tamers--kicking their heels and tending their machinery; a dozen assorted Aegis freaks stirring things; one solitary New Rome rep; plus the crew of the Hooded Swan. All very cosy. And could there be a nicer place to sort it all out than Paradise?
From where I was standing, of course, it didn't look at all like Paradise. The inside of a bar is a long way away from anybody's idea of Paradise, except for a few unrehabilitated juicies. I admit to being prejudiced against Caradoc, but I'd far rather have seen anyone else but it in charge of the Paradise racket, if there had to be a Paradise racket in the first place. And I guess there had. It's one of the facts of life.
There was a game of cards going on in one corner of the room, and I wandered over to get a look at it. After all, I was going to have to do something to keep me sane while I was here. As I moved, I drew attention to myself again. People looked to see where I was going and why. I'd never known so many people interested in my movements since some comedian had looted a church on Jimsun, and Lapthorn and I were the number one suspects. (They did eventually catch up with the real culprits.)
As I said, the room was crowded, but the way before me cleared as I crossed the room. I never had to say 'excuse me' once. It's nice when people show you a little consideration, even if you do feel called upon to suspect their motives.
I kibitzed for a while, holding my half-empty glass in my hand without bothering to sip it to the dregs. Nobody was going to offer to buy me another one, and it was expensive stuff. Caradoc made its employees pay for their vices.
They were playing Doc Pepper, which was a good sign, because Doc Pepper is a game with a reasonable modicum of skill attached to it. It testified to the amount of time these boys had to spare, because usually labour camps specialise in games where the money moves faster and the rules are simpler. Company men like to gamble rather than play games, unless they have enough time on their hands that betting pure and simple becomes a bit of a drag, in which case the purists among them will always turn to something with more bark than bite.
They seemed to be pretty orthodox players, which was a pity. It's always easier to take money off people who believe in luck. They didn't offer to let me join in. They didn't even make a nasty comment about kibitzers. They just carried on, looking up at me occasionally with passive expressions.
My eyes wandered toward the door. It was ajar, and there was a face peeping through it. It was pretty dark outside by now, and the face was just a blur. At first I thought it was a woman--a company whore--but then I realised that it was just a little bit too grey. It was an alien. A native. I didn't know much about the natives except that they were humanoid, curious, gullible, and all female. Judging by the silence which fell as other people began to notice the strange presence and eyes fixed themselves upon the crack, none of the Caradoc men knew much more. Somebody leaned over and pushed the door open gently. The native stared in with obvious curiosity. The Caradoc crew stared back, with equally obvious curiosity. I'd thought my entrance was a good one, but it paled into insignificance alongside this new encounter.
'Come on in,' called somebody from the far corner, in a tone of heavily sarcastic welcome. The silence dissolved.
'Step right this way.'
'What'll you have?'
'Wipe your feet.'
The last remark brought forth a laugh. The laugh died as the alien moved forward slowly, coming into the full glare of the electric lights.
Her skin was covered in light grey fur. Her face reminded me of an owl, with huge, large-lidded eyes. The eyelids moved slowly up and down, so that one moment the whole of the eyes were exposed, the next only a half or three-quarters. She had a sort of mane of lighter fur or hair descending down her back from the crown of her head, starting off in between her small, pointed ears. Her arms were thin and short, and she walked with her legs permanently crooked. She was naked, but thick hair covered her loins.
The man who'd pushed the door open now closed it behind her. He didn't have to move in front of it. The gesture was sufficient. She didn't look back. She just carried on looking at the people in the room. I could sense their trying to decide what attitude to adopt. What was company policy? Did my presence make any difference? It was obvious that we were dealing with an unprecedented situation.
There were more than forty people in the room. In forty people, there just had to be one. Usually, there are more. And I knew full well that when the son-of-a-bitch who was going to try something showed up, it was going to have to be me who sided with the alien. Under different circumstances, the company men would probably have kept their own house in order, unless what the Aegis people kept screaming about atrocities had some truth in it, which seemed unlikely to me. But with me there it was all different. I was the outsider, the interfering bastard. They were bound to leave it to me to interfere. They wanted to watch me in action. A bit of good, old-fashioned conflict.
It sure beat Doc Pepper.
For a few moments, the room was preternaturally silent and motionless. Then the self-appointed Caradoc champion stepped out into the limelight. He was built like a bear, but he had a face like a pig. For all I knew he might have an IQ in the one-eighties, but he looked every inch a cretin and I could figure how much he suffered for that. He was a hater. He hated me, and he hated the native--probably all natives, of whatever kind.
He stood up and he put his right foot up onto his chair, and he leaned on his knee.
'Come into town to have a look at us, have you?' he said. It was carefully phrased. He knew full well she didn't understand. He was talking at me.
She turned slightly to stare at him. That was understandable, as he was the only thing that was obviously happening. She stood quite still, apparently completely relaxed. Not the slightest sign of fear.
'I tell you what, honey,' he said, his voice slow and measured, with an edge like a knife 'You come upstairs with me, and I'll really show you something.' As the sentence progressed he began to spit the words out. He was drunk enough to tell himself that he should go ahead and lose control, but he was drunk enough to know exactly what he was doing. He stepped forward from his chair, and walked up to the alien. He put out his hand, and he said: 'My name's Varly.'
And she reached out, and took his hand in hers. For a moment, he seemed shocked, and almost recoiled in horror from the touch. But then he gripped his prejudices in both hands and squeezed her hand, not very hard.
'Step right this way,' he said, with a horrible, lopsided mock-grin all over his face, which was pointed at me so that I could savour the full effect.
There wasn't much point in hesitating any further. After all, I wasn't in any doubt. I reached out sideways and borrowed the card dealer's spare hand. I lifted it up and pressed my drink into it.
'Hold that,' I said. It was just to let them all know that I was on my way. I went forward. I was very glad to see Varly drop the girl's hand as he turned toward me to present me with a head-on view of his vast, and no doubt hairy, chest. If he'd kept hold I might have had problems.
My eyes locked with Varly's and I walked right up to him. His eyes gleamed as he poured willpower into the staring match. Then I turned away, to face the native. I took the hand that Varly had dropped, and I propelled her gently toward the door. Unostentatiously, I inserted myself between her and the big man. The guy who'd closed the door didn't move a muscle. His eyes were fixed on my face but I didn't spare him a glance. I opened the door, and she stepped through it without a moment's hesitation.
Then she turned around, just as I dropped her hand again.
'Go home,' I said, before I could stop myself because it was a silly thing to say and would spoil my big act.
She just stood there, looking at me out of her big eyes. It suddenly struck me how silly the whole thing was. I'd been through it all before, almost to the letter. Grainger, knight-errant. I shudder to think of all the advice I used to give Lapthorn about just such occasions.
I pointed in the direction that I thought would take her out of the town in the minimum possible time. She didn't move: I flapped my hand, suddenly feeling that it might not work. Finally, she began to back away. I watched her until she turned her back on me, twenty yards down the street, and then walked on, still unhurried and unworried. A couple of company men passed her on the street. They looked, but they didn't touch. I figured she'd be safe enough, and I turned back inside.
Varly was waiting for me. He hadn't stood rooted to the spot, like an idiot. He'd come up behind me, quietly. He was breathing down my neck, waiting for me to turn around and look up into his ugly face. When I did, I was quite calm, and showed no surprise. I hadn't heard him, but I knew he was there because of the smell.
There wasn't room for me to close the door. All he had to do was push, and I'd be out in the dark street, all set up for pulverising. He had about five inches height and a good kilo and a half in hand of me. He was big.
But first he wanted to insult me.
'Damned slug-lover,' he said.
I could almost have laughed at the ineptitude of it. But it was deliberately crude and ridiculous. His idea of the etiquette of the situation was that bestial coarseness was called for rather than oratorical elegance. After all, come morning he was going to have to explain to his superiors that he was blind drunk and didn't even know what he was doing, let alone who he was doing it to.
I wished that I was near enough to the lintel to be able to lean back on it with some semblance of casualness. But my position demanded that I stand on my own two feet. I waited for him to carry on. There was more yet.
'I'm gonna kill you...,' he began. There was a lot more, but I didn't bother to listen to it. Instead, I picked out his eyes with mine, and I used his abusive interlude to re-institute the staring match I'd abandoned earlier. He finished up with some comment to the effect that '...you better protect your hands because it's them that you'll be crawlin' home on. I'm gonna break your legs.'
'No you won't,' I said, without moving a muscle.
The comment made him hesitate. He realised that I was staring at him, and suddenly he couldn't meet the stare. He almost hit me then, but he'd lost his stride. I think he felt a wave of genuine drunkenness then, because he seemed very uncertain. Doubt washed all over his pig-like features.
I just kept on staring, feeling fairly sure by now that he wasn't going to hit me. His fight-starting rhythm had broken down. The fake drunken stupor which--a few moments before--had been his excuse now became his refuge. With a slurred curse, he dropped his head and lurched forward. He shoved me sideways with a savage sweep of his arm that was half a punch, and staggered out into the night.
The blow sent me sideways into the lintel and I paralysed my arm temporarily jabbing my elbow into the edge of the door, but I didn't let the pain show. After all, I had my dignity to think of.
I heard Varly's voice drifting back from the middle distance, saying 'damned slugs' or something similar. I hoped fervently that he didn't run into any, though by now he would have forced himself into drunken oblivion.
Nobody said anything to me as I walked back to the Doc Pepper game. They all eased themselves back into the pattern of existence they'd been following before the alien made her entrance.
My drink was sitting on the card table. The dealer didn't look up when I retrieved it.
I looked around at the men standing nearest to me, until one actually permitted me to catch his eye. I raised my drink to him, slightly. He did likewise.
'I know when I'm not wanted,' I said to him quietly, draining my glass. 'But I usually stick around anyway.' The latter sentence I muttered, almost under my breath, but I think he caught the implication. My exit wasn't nearly as impressive as my entrance.
It was a warm night. Naturally.
What a welcome, I commented inwardly.
You were looking for it, said the wind. Don't kid yourself that happened to you. You were just crazy to throw your weight about. You knew they couldn't afford to start trouble.
Thanks a lot, I said. I wish I knew everything too.