Promised Land [Hooded Swan, Book 3]
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by Brian Stableford
Category: Science Fiction
Description: In a galactic culture that extends from quasi-Utopian worlds like new Rome to vermin-infested slums like Old Earth, the Star-Pilots are the great heroes of the day, and Grainger has become a legend in his own time, flying the revolutionary ship, Hooded Swan. The rain forest of Chao Phrya seems a more hospitable place than the Halcyon Drift or the underground world of Rhapsody, scenes of Grainger's previous adventures. But the colonists of the jungle planet are crazed and the indigenous population enigmatic; and Grainger must must undertake a mission that requires a lengthy journey on foot through the dense forest. His quest seems awkward, hazardous, and doomed to failure--and that's before the giant spiders make their appearance!
Hooded Swan, Book 3.
eBook Publisher: Wildside Press, 1974 USA
eBookwise Release Date: May 2011
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [224 KB]
Reading time: 142-199 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
New Alexandria is not the ideal world for an uncultured slob to be stranded on. It's not so much that its population consists almost entirely of bespectacled bibliophiles who are deeply into the philosophy of civilisation and temperance, but rather the fact that those inhabitants who do not fit into this category feel somehow ashamed of the fact. Everybody on New Alexandria apologises too much. Everywhere you go you can find intellectual lightweights soldiering on under a burden of ersatz education and carefully fashionable good taste.
Personally, I wouldn't mind it so much if they were all getting a big kick out of it, but the glumness which lies just beneath the hypocrisy really puts my back up. Every time I went out to have a drink in Corinth I got edgy. I usually had to take Nick or Johnny along with me in case my sorrows ended up drowning me instead of vice versa.
I had a lot of spare time to fill in on New Alexandria after the Rhapsody business, and Corinth was the nerve centre of Charlot's theatre of operations. Charlot had a lot of work to catch up on following the Rhapsody catastrophe. I think his pride had been a little bit hurt by the outcome of that affair--not a single one of the famed wonder-worms had survived the rigours of contact with humanity, and yet another agent of destruction was temporarily lost to galactic society. Ripped off from their cosy little cave, the worms had shown a healthy interest for a matter of days, and then decided the whole thing wasn't worth it, curled up their metaphorical toes and retired gracefully into protoplasmic goo. Who could blame them? Not me, that's for sure. I was secretly gleeful. Secretly, because it would have been less than diplomatic to gloat while Charlot was in a bad mood.
In any case, my name was mud. Charlot had elected to believe that at least some part of the blame for the whole mess was mine. The sad fate of his prize specimens had soured any sympathy which might have lingered on from the moment when we had stood together facing the wrong end of Bayon Alpart's powergun. Charlot's answer to the bad mood, apparently, was to throw himself wholeheartedly into his work and forget all about his wonderful little toy, the Hooded Swan. I was left kicking my heels, but Nick and Eve had other jobs to do back on Earth, where the number two supership (the Sister Swan) was having her teething troubles. They took Johnny back with them a couple of times, as consultant engineer, but because this baby really was going to be Eve's ship, they had no use for me. I wished her well of her new opportunity. It can't have been much fun for her to have lost her first ship to me at the last moment--especially such a ship as the Hooded Swan, and to such a cynical reprobate as myself. I wasn't much interested in the sister ship, anyhow. My attachment to the Hooded Swan was personal, and I couldn't help but think of the Sister Swan as a rival.
There was nothing for me to do but bum around in Corinth, alone or with whoever was available. I didn't get particularly bored. Every minute of the two years which I owed Charlot that didn't involve me putting my neck into some version of the lion's mouth was profit as far as I was concerned. I was perfectly content to kick my heels forever--until freedom day, anyway. My debt to the Caradoc Company was being discharged at about thirty a day, which was damn good money for no work.
I knew it couldn't last, of course. Charlot would inevitably get around to thinking up some small favour I could do him, and it would probably have a nasty touch to it, just to pay me back for the imagined wrongs I'd perpetrated on Rhapsody and in the Halcyon Drift. Every day I expected to be presented with some crazy commission for hunting up irrelevant information in some hellhole, or asked to go and break some record.
The waiting got to Johnny, while he was actually around. So much so that he wasn't really very good company. I lived in hope that months of constant association with yours truly must inevitably result in some kind of intellectual contamination, and that he might gradually get less eager and more sane. But no results were showing up as yet. The kid had an imaginary bomb up his backside and he couldn't sit still without suffering all kinds of psychosomatic disorders. This led me to seek company elsewhere, and I developed an acquaintance with a policeman named Denton who never seemed to have any work to do. He was one of these guys with a penchant for hanging around, easy to talk to and at least part of the way to being a thoroughly good bloke. My checkered past hadn't really been conducive to my forming beautiful relationships with the representatives of the law, but at this point in time I had a crystal-clear conscience, and fraternisation seemed almost natural.
Once or twice, though, I couldn't help feeling the urge to get clean away from the whole Corinth scene. I wasn't restless, just a little claustrophobic. One bad day while Nick was on Earth and Eve was somewhere else entirely, Johnny started talking about gambling. I tried to explain to him that nobody but an idiot would play cards with New Alexandrians, but he couldn't grasp my point. It isn't that they cheat, of course, but they have a keen sense of probability and they don't know how to play anything badly. Gambling is an exercise in separating fools from their money, and the only fool abroad in Corinth just then was Johnny Socoro himself. But he couldn't accept that. He kept talking about luck, and if there's one thing I can't stand it's some ingenue giving me lectures on runs of luck and the inadequacies of logic.
I borrowed one of Charlot's fleet of staff cars and lit out for the hills. Theoretically, I was supposed to check with Charlot before leaving the neighbourhood, but of course I didn't bother. By similar theory, I didn't have any right to appropriate the car. But I've never been a devout believer in sticking too close to the approved mode of behaviour. People don't expect it of me--everybody knows that I'm thoroughly bloody-minded. I have a reputation to keep up.
It was late spring, and the weather was just turning beautiful. I'm no romantic but I can appreciate the look of greenery and the delicacy of flowers, especially after I've been given a hard time. And I had. For two years and more.
The car was a Lamoine 77 and rode with just a hint of vibe even when she was cruising. I like a car which lets me know I'm travelling--who wants to labour under the delusion that he's sitting in a baby carriage? I pushed her along at one-forty, which was just beyond her most comfortable speed. I like to push. And what the hell--it wasn't my car.
I liked the country, and I figured after a couple of hours that I'd like it a lot more if I forgot about the road. Roads are boring. I cut to eighty and moved her out into the open, and then amused myself bouncing bushes and hurdling hills for a while. It felt really good to bowl along, with the wheel in my left hand and the gearshift in my right. I was deliberately rough with the stick. I guess I was joyriding like a kid, but it beat drift-diving and warren-crawling as a way of spending time. You can stand a little self-indulgence occasionally, I figure. Also, I was staying sober and getting a clean, fresh kind of high out of the wind and the sun and the smell.
There were miles and miles of open parkland. Once I'd lost the road it was easy not to find it again. New Alexandria is a garden world--clean cities and tidy, inoffensive countryside. Very carefully planned to look virgin, like a whore with a strong streak of vanity. They'd subjected the hills to artistic cosmetic landscaping. The New Alexandrian character demands that a sticky finger be intruded into every possible pie.
Evening began to creep up, and it felt truly pleasant. I'm not too fond of brightness, and the gentle grey of twilight always turns me on a lot more than the glare of noonday. The airstream grew cold around me, but I didn't put the hood up, or even the screen. It was doing me no harm.
I wasn't really thinking about turning for home--the idea of night driving seemed attractive--when the sky began to darken. In fact, I wasn't really thinking about anything at all. I was at peace with existence, which is somewhere I don't often find myself. I wasn't even trying to remember how long it had been since I'd enjoyed leisure time so much, and I guess my old friend the whispering wind was luxuriating in the feeling as well, because he never said a word.
Then I saw the girl.
She was running, and the moment I saw her I knew that she wasn't inspired by the joys of spring. There was someone after her. I couldn't see them at first, because there was a hill in the way. I put my foot on the brake to slow up while I put my mind back into gear and considered the situation.
There were two men chasing her. They didn't seem to be in anywhere near the hurry she was in. I couldn't read anything into their faces or their manner, but it was a long way in dim light. The idea of rapists on New Alexandria struck me as being pretty incongruous, but I couldn't immediately think of any other reason why a girl should be fleeing two men.
Well, said the wind.
Well, do something.
I'm going to, I assured him. No rush. She's got a good fifty yards in hand and they aren't even trying to peg it back. They're letting her run herself into the ground.
All of which was sweetly reasonable. No charging forward for Grainger. This was the kind of thing I'd learned not to rush into. I've never been a great fan of the hero who is always on the lookout for damsels in distress. The idea of knight errantry is wholly repulsive to my pragmatic and ungentlemanly character.
The girl saw me, but she didn't instantly recognise me as a godsend. Rather the reverse, in fact, because she swung aside so that she was running diagonally away from both me and her persecutors. This struck me as being an illogical move. I could overtake her in ten seconds flat and she must have known that. Apparently, she was scared of everybody and suffering from panic. This impression served to reinforce my theory that her pursuers intended her no good.
I eased off the brake and let the Lamoine ooze forward at a fast dawdle. The two men saw me as well. They, apparently, adopted a more rational approach to life. They knew that I had the key card. One of them stopped altogether and the other slowed from a jogtrot to an amble and began waving to me. Nobody seemed to think that I was on the side of the angels, despite my hesitancy about rushing in like a fool.
I resolved to give everybody a shock. I swung the car to head for the two men, and stamped on the jerk stud. The Lamoine went four feet up into the air on a quick blast, and shot forward in a long arc at seventy-five climbing toward a hundred. She bounced on air billows all the way, swayed like a haunted drunkard and screamed.
They decided that I wasn't very friendly, and ducked. I missed them both by yards--which was perhaps fortunate as murder is a priori evidence of carelessness and a lack of diplomacy--but to hear them howl you'd have thought there were only millimetres to spare.
I U-turned and gentled her back to a smooth flow at the regulation four inches above the grassblades. The girl was looking back over her shoulder, and she didn't seem too reassured by my cavalier treatment of the bogeymen. I realised that she was very scared indeed. She didn't stop running. It never occurred to me then that she might be ten times as scared of me as she was of them, but this was, in fact, not unlikely.
I reined in beside her.
'It's okay!' I yelled--though there was really no need to shout. 'I'm on your side.'
She shied away and I curved through the air after her.
'Save it, kid,' I called. 'Calm down and let's talk it over. Don't worry about them.'
She twisted her body to get a good look over her shoulder at my face. The contortion proved too much for the stability of her headlong flight and she fell over. By the time she was fit to get up, I was out of the Lamoine and beside her. Now she was finally convinced that she was caught, she thought better of bolting again, and allowed herself to collapse back on to the ground, panting fit to burst and beginning to cry.
She was small and thin. She wasn't human but she was very humanoid. I wasn't familiar with her racial characteristics. I had never encountered one of her kind before. Her skin was golden-brown and looked moist. Her eyes were big and orange. Her hands seemed to be very contortive--her fingers were tentacular and retractable. Beneath her clothing there looked to be some kind of ridge pattern on her back. She had no hair.
'It's okay,' I told her, much more gently this time. I wondered whether she spoke any English at all. But I didn't know what other language to try, and I didn't feel like doing a quick run through all the reassuring noises in my repertoire.
The other two were up on their feet again and coming fast. I wondered whether I ought to try and get the girl into the car and flit away into the gathering night, as I was outnumbered. But I decided that she might start an embarrassing struggle, so I elected to wait. Besides which, they were only medium-sized New Alexandrians and I prided myself that as a nasty and brutal outworlder I could probably scare them unconscious if I snarled. I'm not big and hard by any means, but I could put on a convincing act for such as these.
'Well,' I said, as they pulled up a few yards away and looked at me balefully, 'what do you want?'
One of them--a black-haired man with pale skin and gold-rimmed spectacles--waved a manicured fingernail at the Lamoine. 'That's one of our cars,' he said, as if expecting an explanation.
'You could have killed us, you crazy bastard,' said the other--a more typical and more commendable reaction, I thought.
'So?' I said, to both of them.
'It's that pilot,' said the second man. He was a typical nondescript New Alexandrian intellectual second-class citizen. A menial. A hireling. He was pale-brown and small-featured. I didn't know him from Adam, but my notoriety on the planet, and in Corinth particularly, permitted me to be recognised by a great many of the local peasantry.
'My name,' I said to him coldly, 'is Grainger.' I deliberately loaded my voice with loathing.
'We only want to take her back,' said the pale-skinned man.
'He doesn't know about the colony,' supplied the other.
'Well tell him then,' said the man with the spectacles, 'if he's such a good friend of yours.' He was annoyed.
'I don't know what you must think about this,' began the man who had recognised me, 'but we certainly didn't mean the girl any harm.'
'Well now,' I said, 'what do you reckon?' I addressed myself to the girl. She just crouched there, showing no inclination to rise, but her eyes flickered back and forth from them to me. I couldn't read a thing from her expression. Alien faces are almost always opaque, no matter how human they appear. It takes a long time before you can learn to read them.
'She doesn't speak English,' said the Caucasian.
'My name's Tyler,' said the other, touching the pale man on the arm to bid him be silent while he tried a little tact. 'I work for Titus Charlot.'
'So do I,' I said. 'He doesn't send me out to terrorise little girls.'
'The girl's part of a colony of aliens that Charlot is looking after. She got out tonight and decided to take a run around. She's only a child, she doesn't know any English, and people back at the colony were worried about her. We came out to find her, but she ran away from us. We should have brought a couple of the Anacaona with us, but it didn't occur to us at the time. We don't want to hurt her. We only want to take her home. Do you think that you could give us a lift back to the colony in the car?'
'She doesn't know what she's doing,' murmured the other man.
'This colony,' I said. 'I suppose it's really a research establishment?'
'It's not a bloody concentration camp,' said Tyler. He seemed to be quite offended by the idea. 'These people aren't experimental animals. They're working with Charlot. They're scientists.'
'And you're atomic physicists?' I suggested.
'We're administrative staff. We keep the bloody project going. There are problems, you know, maintaining colonies of offworlders. Or do you always reach for your gun whenever you see an alien? Never met one outside its natural environment before?'
The sneer was so totally unwarranted that I got quite angry about it. The pale man looked a bit disgusted, as he had every right to be after Tyler's unspoken demand to be allowed to handle things.
'Where is this colony?' I snapped.
'Couple of miles back,' said Tyler.
'She gave you a good run, then.'
'Look,' said Tyler, losing his patience visibly. 'There was no harm in the kid taking a walk. But we can't let her wander around out here on her own. We have to look after these people. Lanning and me--we're supposed to see that things run smoothly. Charlot'll have our heads if there's any trouble at the colony, especially if it involves the child. Sure she's scared. But that isn't our fault. We're only doing our job and we haven't time to fool around. Now, we don't want to hurt her, we only want to get her home. If you don't want to give us a lift, fine, but will you please stand out of my way so I can get on with doing what I'm paid to do.'
'Does she want to go with you?' I stalled.
'None of us can ask her, can we?' said the other man--presumably Lanning. 'We don't speak her language.'
'You're in charge of running the colony and you don't speak her language?' I said incredulously.
'They all speak English,' said Tyler. 'Except some of the kids. Hell, man, you know what kids are like. They like to give a bit of trouble. Well, okay, nobody's going to turn her over their knee, unless her daddy does it. But she has to go home. I'm taking her back, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it.'
He stepped forward, and I didn't budge an inch.
Mr Tyler would never have won prizes for diplomacy. Quite the reverse. But he didn't have it in him to force his own way. He was just as tall and heavy and muscular as I was, but he hadn't had the practice. He wasn't a fighter. A bully perhaps, but not a fighter.
'Look,' said Lanning, as Tyler and I stood toe to toe sizing each other up. 'There's no sense to all this. I mean, look at us. We aren't thugs. We aren't rapists.'
I looked at him, as he so kindly invited me to. He was right. He wasn't a thug. It didn't endear him to me, though. They obviously weren't the type any man would hire to do his dirty work for him, so they were probably absolutely on the level. But they'd stirred me up somewhat, and I'm naturally stubborn anyhow.
'You can check with Charlot back at the camp,' said the pale man. 'We've got a call circuit with priority. He'll tell you it's all okay.'
That decided me. I didn't want to be brought on the carpet before Charlot so he could tell me off while Lanning and Tyler had a quiet chortle.
'I don't think I want to give you boys a lift,' I said.
'What about the girl?' said Tyler, in a low voice.
'That's different,' I said. 'I don't mind helping out a lady.'
They couldn't think of anything to say.
'I came out for a pleasure cruise,' I said pensively. 'I guess the young lady must have stepped out to sample the evening air for similar reasons. You morons are spoiling her good time. You can reassure everyone back at the camp that she's in good hands, and I'll have her home within a couple of hours.'
'You can't do that,' said Lanning.
'Watch me,' I said.
He was already taking a caller out of his pocket. He was going to report me to someone at the colony, who would presumably use their priority circuit to alert Charlot. But I was too late changing my mind. I'd already declared my intentions. Perhaps I shouldn't interfere. But I wanted to, and I had.
'Now just you wait a minute,' said Tyler, who had not yet recognised the inevitable.
'Did you speak?' I said pleasantly, looking him in the eyes and smiling. I hope I looked really evil. He backed off a step, pleasing me immensely in the process.
'There's no need for that,' said Lanning. 'You just do what you want to, Mr Grainger. We'll tell everybody concerned that the girl is safe with you. Everything will be fine.'
'That's right,' I said, ignoring his sarcasm. 'Everything will be fine.'
I offered a hand to the girl. She'd calmed down a lot while we three were acting out our little farce. I think she'd gathered that I wasn't in total harmony with her oppressors. She watched Lanning and Tyler turn away. I reached out a hand to her, and she let me help her up. That's a language anyone can understand. I ushered her gently into the front passenger seat of the Lamoine. I took my time moving around into the driver's seat. Tyler was watching me from a few yards away. Lanning was talking rapidly into the caller.
Before I started the car again, I paused and looked around at the deepening night. I drew an appreciative breath and used my face to try and indicate my enjoyment to the girl. Then I smiled.
She smiled back. She was obviously used to the company of humans. She knew what I meant.
After all, I thought, even Titus Charlot smiles.