It wasn't just the blasting headache I had, the kind where you think you might feel better if you either opened your skull and ran a garden hose full of cold water through it or just blew the sucker off with a moderate explosive. No, my melancholy mood went much deeper than the mere physical discomforts caused by an inordinate amount of Toshiban joy juice.
I had a good time during the joy juice - don't get me wrong. Even shuttle pilots of the female persuasion in the poverty zone can still have a very good time, especially if it includes pressure casks of illicit liquor and charming companions of the opposite sex who have been spaceborne just a wee bit too long for anything even remotely normal to happen.
But all good things eventually mutate into boredom or headaches.
I popped a nasal cap and inhaled the drug. I didn't like taking painkillers, even the kind that just ironed out your spasming blood vessels and restored your brain function to at least that of a Martian land mollusk. The headache disappeared instantly, but that lingering feeling of sadness defied the chemicals.
"Hey, Boss!" It was the grating voice of my sometimes co-pilot, Ndoro. His usually silky tones were roughed up with the Toshiban juice and a night of raucous laughter and bawdy songs. He has a lovely voice, but couldn't carry a tune with both hands and a bucket. No matter, he was tall, handsome and dumb enough to fly with me on my old spit and glue rust bucket.
"Boss, I got us a cargo!" His black eyes gleamed in the polished jet of his skin. They didn't gleam with intelligence, just eagerness and excitement.
"Swell," I said, thinking of the previous evening's offers. I coulda carried anything from endangered baby aquatics outta the deep rivers on Mars to cigarettes and nylons for the cribs at Mare Tranq. Yeah, right. "C'mon, Ndoro," I patiently explained. "We don't have a license, remember? We barely have a ship, remember? And whatever offers we get, we can't take because we are grounded, remember?"
Ndoro's handsome face fell. "Oh, yeah."
I sighed. I had been running junk cargo on the "Linda Rae" ever since my father went to the big spaceport in the sky after either a heroic adventure involving pirates and a princess or else getting caught with someone else's wife in the cargo hold of a freighter docked at Mare Tranq. But all good things come to an end, or at least a detour, and the authorities had refused to renew the license on the 'Linda Rae', had stripped me of my own pilot's license and had grounded Ndoro as well. This was more than a little setback. If I didn't think of something fast, our careers - not to mention food supply - would be at an end.
"Look," I said, thinking as fast as I could with most of my brain circuits on hold and the rest getting a busy signal, "why don't we just look around here and see if we can find any work. You're big and strong, Ndoro," I watched his pearly grin flash slowly into full lumens, "and I'll bet we come across something before lunch. So just relax, guy, and go play some games." I tossed him a plastic credit - probably my last - and he took up a position at a gaming station.
The planet was Bethdish and the joint we were in was the Mare Inebrium, although I couldn't remember exactly how we came to be there at the local equivalent of seven in the morning. A charming young lady of truly interesting proportions was polishing glasses at the end of the bar while a couple of various offworlders dozed or passed out or were maybe dead in a booth across the way. I know, I know, "offworlders" isn't politically correct these days, I'm supposed to say "planetarily challenged" or some such rot, especially when I'm part of the same description, the lovely Bethdish not exactly being my homeworld, either. Oh, well.
Max, the bartender from the previous evening, was absent, probably catching a few well-deserved hours of sleep after the wrestling match with that big bulbous thing and those long, boring stories from the scorpion guy. I'll say this for the place, it sure had a mixed clientele.
Anyway, there I was, wide awake and slightly worried about how to get the "Linda Rae" out of the local lockup where the authorities had towed her when this guy walks in and sits down next to me.
I don't usually mind company. Even when it is short, squat and dumpy-looking, with a nose way too big and hair bristling out of its ears, in a pinch I can smile pretty and accept a drink. But when it is also wearing the uniform of a Bethdish Stellar Confiscation Officer, I gotta draw the line. Only since I didn't have two credits to rub together, I didn't have anything to draw a line with, so I forced myself to smile pretty and waited for the drink and inevitable pickup line. Forced myself because this was the guy who had taken my "Linda Rae."
"Hey, Beautiful," he said, loud and hearty in a slighly nasal voice. "Buy you a drink?"
"What, at this hour?" I was dying for a drink.
"Hey, Trixie," he said to the girl at the bar. "Bring us couple of frin juices, the real thing this time."
Jeeze, frin juice. It was sweet, delicious and rare, squeezed from a fruit grown halfway across the galaxy. I was impressed. Maybe things were looking up.
The frin juice arrived and I tried to be cool and sip instead of knocking it back and smacking my lips. The juice was sublime, nourishing, healthy, delicate and I damn near choked trying to drink it like a lady. I looked at the local authority and calculated just how much of what I might owe him for the frin juice experience. I decided it didn't matter and I would pay up - a debt is a debt.
"So, I understand you're in a bit of a tight spot," he said.
As it was a spot of his making, he understood pretty well. I smiled wanly and nodded. "Uh-huh," I agreed.
"Well, maybe I can help you out a bit." I kept on smiling. I figured something like this might happen. It always does.
"Here's the deal, Prettyface. You and your pal take a little something to the other side of this world for me, and I'll square the license thing."
"Huh?" I said with my usual seven a.m. articulation.
"It's a small package," he explained, "but I don't want it going through the usual checkpoints."
"Wait a minute," I said, "you are the usual checkpoint, in case you hadn't noticed. I mean you've got the uniform and everything." Maybe this was a test.
"Look, even I have a private life sometimes." He looked into my eyes with that curious blue-grey look the humanoid Bethdishers have, and I felt my heart melt. Okay, maybe it was another part of my anatomy, but what's the diff?
"Alright, alright, what's the deal?" I could tell by the pinging sound in the corner that Ndoro was having good luck with his spacegame, which was good, since the only replays we could afford were the ones he could rack up himself. And if the nice Stellar Confiscation Officer wanted me to do a little something for him in exchange for our licenses and ship, well, something could be worked out. I didn't even know his name, but in cases like this, that could be a good thing.
"My name is Kraygg," he said, and I winced involuntarily. I didn't want to get personally involved, I just wanted to do business and get my ship back. He reached into a pocket and brought out a little box small enough to fit in the palm of his smooth, six-fingered hand. I like men with six-fingered hands.
"What is it?" I asked. "And where do you want me to take it?" It sat in his hand like a little animal, small, inquisitive, quivering slightly. Wait a minute, it was just a little box, for crying out loud. What was I thinking?
"It's a psibox, and I want you to take it to the D'rhissh city in the sands."
If he had said, "It's a poison spider and I want you to put it down your blouse," I would have had a better reaction to it. Psiboxes were dangerous, illegal. They got inside your mind, into your feelings. They did stuff to you, weird stuff. They were the ultimate drug, the ultimate power, the ultimate destruction. They ate your mind, they warped your personality, they made you . . . do things.
I shook my head. "I don't thinks so," I said.
He looked at me with those Bethdish eyes and I felt the melting again. "C'mon," he pleaded softly, "it would mean so much to me. I could pay you handsomely. I could get you your licenses, your ship back, everything. I could do a lot for you, more than we can talk about here."
I looked at the thing and it looked harmless enough. It sat there on that hairy, long-fingered hand, and I felt his other hand squeeze my jumpsuited thigh gently, persuasively. Images swarmed through my imagination moving like warm liquid.
So no one's ever accused me of having anything of steel, including resolve, determination or thighs. "Okay," I breathed, still locked into his eyes. "I'll do it. I'll do it now."
He smiled and I felt a grin on my own face. At that moment, I would have done anything he asked, anything.
He put the little box on the counter and signaled to Trixie who brought us another round of frin juice. "To success," he toasted, his other hand still squeezing gently, rhythmically. I gulped the juice.
It was almost seven-thirty in the morning and I was considering an encounter with a homely Stellar Confiscation Officer who just offered me one of the creepiest smuggling jobs I ever saw. "Hey, Ndoro," I called out, "wait for me here."
Two days later Ndoro was in the co-pilot's seat and I was wearing the captain's headset and maneuvering the 'Linda Rae' above the shimmering sands of Bethdish's toxic deserts to the coordinates we had been given. Stellar Confiscation Officer Kraygg was a fond memory which occasionally caused me to smile or even grin and the psibox was safely stowed in the secret cargo compartment under my seat. We even had a few spare credits to shop with, and it looked like the psibox thing was going to be a piece of cake.
I was grinning at the controls and deciding what I would buy on the next Toshiba run when I got that prickly feeling in the back of my neck that says something is very wrong, extremely wrong, wronger than you can possibly know.
Ndoro looked over at me and I saw beads of sweat gleaming on his ebony face. "Boss," he whispered, "I feel funny..."
The ship made a sharp nosedive toward the ground and it took all my concentration to pull her up into a glide path on a slow descent. We were still about thirty klicks from the spot where Kraygg wanted us to toss out the box.
Ndoro slumped back in his seat and I could see that he had lost consciousness. I took over his controls as well as my own and hoped our filtration systems were go as we bumped into the poisoned atmosphere of the D'rrish desert.
You know, they always say any landing you walk away from is a good one, but they don't ever take Bethdish into consideration, do they?
I looked out of the little control window and all I could see was the middle of a sandstorm. I knew the temperature out there was something that wouldn't support humanoid life forms, and the swirling air was a mix of poison and D'rrish viruses, the stuff that supported the scorpion-like creatures. They were not only sentient, they were damned intelligent, the diplomats of the universe, but they did live in an area that was strictly off-limits to everyone else.
I knew the minute Kraygg gave me the coordinates that he wanted me to drop the box into D'rrish territory. I had no idea what the thing would do to the D'rrish, maybe disrupt them completely, start a war or something. And I knew that such a thing was forbidden. I knew it, but it didn't matter. At the time, it didn't matter. Nothing but Kraygg mattered.
However, after a crash into the D'rrish compound thirty klicks from the Sacred City, I was having second thoughts. You ever see a big scorpion? I mean one six feet tall with sharp legs and a whiplike tail with a stinger the size of your nightmares on it? You ever see an armed contingent of them coming toward your beat-up spacecraft? I thought not.
I glanced at Ndoro's peaceful face and was thankful that he would be spared the horror. I genuinely liked my handsome, less-than-swift co-pilot. I was gonna miss him. Hell, it looked like I was soon gonna miss everything.
The scraping and clanging at the hatch was insistent, and I knew that a breach would cause me to breathe the air and the D'rrish viruses and that would be that. I would be choked on a soufflé of expanding viral tendrils in my nose, throat, everywhere. I guess I did the heroic thing and passed out myself.
"Welcome," the thing said, its translator box giving it a distinguished and cultured sound. It wore the ribbon sash of an intergalactic ambassador and its tail sprang back and forth like a nervous cat's. The claws were drawn in as far as possible.
I was lying on a divan covered in purple silk in a great hall. A tube up my nose fed me oxygen, and my other nostril was sealed. I looked around. The ceiling was exquisite, coffered in black and gold and the walls were hung with swaths of draperies. Ndoro was snoring loudly through his tube on another divan, and on yet a third, a giant scorpion lay on its stomach, its legs falling over the sides and its strange insectoid face looking at me, first with one eye, then another. The reclining D'rrish was decorated with small flashing jewels on its head and thorax.
"Welcome," the upright one repeated, "and thank you for delivering the psibox. I am Kazsh-ak. We were afraid Kraygg-rhieashh would not be able to find anyone to do it. We applaud your courage, Pilot-rhieashh." The thing used the formal suffix reserved for royalty, heads of state and one's mother.
"Huh?" I said in my usual fit of eloquence.
"Honored guest," the reclining D'rrish spoke in a soft and feminine voice, "accept our deepest thanks. We know how the humanoid races have tried to keep the psiboxes to themselves, to the detriment of intergalactic peace. The power of the box is very great over humanoids, but as you may know, it has no such power over us." Her tail made a switching motion and I saw that the stinger tip was also bejeweled. "With another box safe in our keeping, the treaty discussions may move forward without interference to the humanoid delegates."
I tried to digest this bit of news. Wouldn't you know it, the boxes only worked on people. Who woulda thought?
The sashed D'rrish with the cultured voice-box paced rapidly back and forth, agitated. "My Queen," he said in his own language, which sounded something like a cross between a cricket chirping and a wooden barrel breaking up, "we must assure the visitors."
"Yes, yes," the Queen said impatiently. "I am sure they have figured it out. You never give them credit for intelligence, the way I do." She turned an eye to me. "My esteemed Father wishes me to assure you that the D'rrish virus will not harm you. We administered an inoculant as soon as the Imperial Guard hatched you from your conveyance. And the air you are absorbing is the same as your usual mix."
Oh, good. I hadn't even given it a thought, figuring we would just die a hero's death. Well, a D'rrish hero's death.
I was treated to more nice words, then I expressed a wish to go home. The prospect of a scorpion banquet or whatever other honors they had in mind didn't really thrill me, but I tried to be as nice as I knew how.
Ndoro didn't wake up until we were back on the 'Linda Rae' and I released the fumigant that would destroy all the D'rrish virus. He didn't know that we had done a good thing, and I decided to let his conscience rest rather than overburdening it with that kind of information.
But I couldn't help thinking about Kraygg. What was in this for him? It was dangerous for him to intercept psiboxes - the kind of people who traded in that stuff were dirty, dangerous and unpredictable. Well, more so than me and Ndoro, I mean. And for him to risk everything by sending them to the D'rrish. He could lose his job and everything. I didn't get it.
I didn't get it until later that night, in the Mare Inebrium where I had gone to celebrate the return of my ship, my career and my life, not to mention the psibox, which I wisely didn't mention. I was sitting at the bar as Trixie kept the Zombie Cocktails coming, picking and choosing which space rat or offworld pile of neurons and gasoline I was going to accept drinks from.
I thought about Kraygg, and how for someone not all that attractive - repulsive, in fact - I sure had found him irresistable for a couple of days. Suddenly I knew exactly why he was in the psibox game as dangerous as it was. I sighed. It was along way to go for a date, but you know, some guys will do anything.
Kate Thornton lives in Pasadena where she writes science fiction and mysteries when she is not busily engaged in other nameless pursuits. She would be delighted to hear from you at email@example.com and invites you to visit her website at http://www.sff.net/people/katethornton
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