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The Icerigger Trilogy
By Alan Dean Foster
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1974 Alan Dean Foster
All rights reserved.
The man in the Antares bar-lounge didn't quite bang his head on the curved star-ceiling on this, his fourth attempt. Or maybe it was his fifth. This failure came as a disappointment to a number of the luxurious lounge's more vocal occupants.
When standing erect—a rare happenstance, of late—the fellow stood just under two meters tall. A haberdasher worth his salt would have estimated his mass at about two hundred kilos. This not counting the booze he'd been putting away at a prodigious rate. That he'd even managed to come close to the roof of the lounge and its simulacrum Terran sky was due in part to his considerable stature.
Starting from the far end of the lounge he'd make a mad elephant sprint toward the bar, leap onto the polished maplewood counter, and soar ceilingward from that deep-grained launch pad. A reach, stretch, grab, and down he'd come in a spectacular displacement of plastic bottles, glasses, and swizzle sticks. Whereupon he'd fight off the angry flailings of the robot bartender, now on the verge of electron psychosis, stagger between the tables, and try again.
Now he struggled to his feet, downed another slug of whatever it was he was currently drinking, and stumbled toward his launch point. His elegantly clad, youngish cheering section spurred him along. Among this group, the sporting blood was up. Bets continued to be exchanged. Would he finally kill himself by falling on his swozzled skull this fifth (or sixth) time? Or would he simply knock himself out by successfully cracking it against the roof?
Three-dimensional cumulus clouds, fat and fleecy, drifted across the dome. For all their apparent reality they were only clever projections on treated duralloy. Still, while this kangaroo-brother's head was clearly solid bone, in any conjunction of the two the gentle clouds would surely win out.
There was a stir at the back of the room. Bobbing like emerald corks among the laughing, applauding gamblers and the outraged but intrigued patrons were the first mate and two sub-engineers of the Antares. For the last fifteen minutes their prime objective in life had been to bring down this galloping, great, aged simian with as little damage to self and company property as possible. So far their efforts had come to zilch. And they were beginning to draw a few laughs themselves.
Now the first mate, who was an educated man and spent most of his work time planning overdrive maneuvers and juggling the grav field of a small artificial sun-mass, didn't think it was even a tiny bit funny. Matter of fact, he was just about fed up.
There was no point in re-checking the book, though. Company regs specifically forbade shooting a paying passenger, no matter how obnoxious. Other methods had so far met with abject failure. One of the sub-engineers had already taken a steel-like straight-arming from the hurtling acrobat. He wiped his lower lip and considered braining the anthropoid sot with a chair. He could always plead temporary insanity. Pension or no pension.
"Spread out, boys, here he comes again."
Waving a half-filled bottle of Uriah's Heep and howling at the top of his astonishing lungs, the incipient Icarus started at the bar again, picking up speed with each step. With agility amazing for one so old and so soused, the man soared high and gained the top of the bar in a single bound.
Up he went, up, up, an arm outstretched for the ceiling. Barely he missed one of the floating pseudo-clouds. There followed a satisfying and by now familiar crash from the other side of the bar. Plasticine jugs and unbreakable glass joined in a rainbow-colored fountain and bounced to the floor. Money changed hands in the crowd.
After a lingering pause, the first mate decided on a new course. He would try reason. Besides, the fellow hadn't gotten up yet. Perhaps he'd gone and croaked himself. That would save everyone a lot of trouble.
Gesturing to the sub-engineers, he tiptoed up to the badly scuffed maplewood and peered cautiously over the top.
No such luck.
True, the fellow was momentarily incapacitated, having entangled himself in the now completely inoperable mechbar. But he was snorting and mumbling with dismaying energy.
"Sir, I appeal to your moral sense. Public drunkenness is bad enough. Eliminating our evening bar business, not to mention the bar, is worse. But your refusal to heed the admonitions of a ship's crew in free space is insulting. What have we done to offend you?"
After a short search in the region of the floor, the man seemed to find his feet. Staggering more or less upright, he put two huge fists on the bar and leaned forward.
"Offend me? OFFEND ME!"
The mate shrank from that spiritual effluvia and tactfully turned his head to one side. It was pure self-defense. Surely they could put the man away! He was obviously flammable and constituted a real danger to the ship.
The eyes waggled until they came to rest on the bottle gripped tightly in one paw. He drained half the remainder.
"Offend me!" he blurted again. "Listen, you unmentionable hazard to navigation, that piddle-pot swine over there," and he jabbed a great knobby finger in the direction of an especially smug-looking young gambler, "that piece of plith-seed laid claim to a greater knowledge of posigravity than I. Than me. ME! Can you fancy that?"
"I'm not sure," the mate replied. He was experiencing some difficulty in following the other's train of thought. Maybe the local change in the atmosphere had something to do with it. The two sub-engineers were edging around to one side of the bar. If he could keep this creature talking ...
"Sexactusly," the man said, then belched. "So we are engaged in a scientific experiment to settle the matter once and fer all. You ain't one of them anti-empiricists, is you, bub?"
"Good lord, no," the mate admitted truthfully enough.
"Yeh. Well, we calculated a bit of the ship's field, see? An' according to my calculations, I ought to be able to touch the roof, there."
"That one over our heads?"
"Yeh, that's the one. You ain't so stupid as you look, matey. Now you unnerstand what I'm doing, eh?"
"Of course." The sub-engineers were not quite in position yet. "Still, while I'm sure you know your computations, that young chap you pointed out is the son of a well-known yachtsman and something of an interplanetary sprinter himself. He just might know what he's talking about."
He stared across at the exploding shock of white hair, a virgin corona; at the great hooked beak of a nose, chin like a hatchet-head, oil-black eyes under break-wave brows, and the gold ring in the right ear. The hair on the man's bare arms, though, was blond. And there were fewer wrinkles in that tanned face than you would suppose at first glance. The ones that were there, though, were really canyon wrinkles, genuine gully-gapers. No question but that the nose had come first, like Bergerac's, and the face had been constructed around it, bits and scraps sewn on here and there. The wrinkles fell neatly in place, like seams in leather.
"I'm not sure, however," continued the mate, "who you are." And the court will want to know, too, he thought
For a moment he thought the other might be having an attack. Still clenching the bottle in one hand, the man shook his fist at the first mate and at the whole lounge in general.
"By the Heavenly Hosts and the whole Horse's Head, I'm Skua September, be who! In the manner of men and all other beings I can out-drink, out-fight, out-fly, out-sleep, out-eat, out-whore, out-run, out-talk, out-shout and out-love any man in this end of the Spiral Arm!"
September seemed more than willing to continue this catalogue of dubious attributes till the millennium. The tirade, however, was interrupted by a belch of such brontosaurian proportions that it momentarily rattled everyone in the lounge.
At that point the two lesser ratings both hit him from behind and the resultant menage à trois crashed to the floor in front of the bar. One of them snatched up a bottle full of mould-gold something or other and hefted it over his head. But the first mate extended a restraining arm.
"No need, Evers. He's out cold."
There was silence for the first time in quite a while. It was broken by a single pair of hands, clapping politely. The mate turned to the yachtsman's son, who was applauding them all ... whether respectfully or sardonically, he couldn't tell.
"Bravo," trilled the playboy.
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mus musculus.
The sentiment was proper but the subject inappropriate, thought Ethan Frome Fortune as he moseyed toward the rear of the passenger's blister. Mice and rats had not been able to handle the exigencies of interstellar flight. Oh, they could get on board shuttles and from there to a ship, and they'd been a problem at first.
Then someone got the bright idea of turning off the posigrav field for half an hour in the passenger sections. One man with a net swam around collecting the badly befuddled vermin and that was sufficient for pest control till next port of call.
It was just as well, Ethan mused wryly. If said rodentia had been able to make the adaptation, the company might have stuck him with mousetraps to peddle.
As a moderately successful luxury goods salesman for the House of Malaika, his stock ran more to jeweled knick-knacks, perfumes, and intricately wrought, expensively priced mechanical gadgetry. Jeweled mousetraps would not be a prime seller.
He passed a small observation port, paused to look at the planet pirouetting heavily below. Such ports were less frequent at this rearmost end of the passenger's compartment, but then, so were passengers. He was tired of idiot small talk and there were no bulk sales to be made with this bunch.
Most of Tran-ky-ky still swam in darkness. Probably coincidence that nightside happened to fall on the ship as it orbited in sleep period. Ethan seemed to be the only non-crew member up and about.
Tomorrow, slim as chances for business seemed from the tapes, he'd take the shuttle down. That would mean enduring the usual gaggle of tourists. Oh well, shoving was all a part of existence, no matter which law you indexed it under.
Tran-ky-ky was a figurative whistle-stop on the Antares' run. The giant interstellar transport would remain a day or two in the planet's vicinity. Most of that time would be spent transferring down cargo for the single humanx outpost on the forbidding surface.
The fact that the outpost was Terranglo-named didn't necessarily mean the world had been discovered by humans. It could have been a mixed crew or all thranx. The former seemed more likely, though. No tidy-minded thranx would be likely to name a Commonwealth outpost "Brass Monkey." Besides, the heat-loving insects would consider the globe beneath a choice slice of icy hell.
What little of the planet sat in sunlight formed a bright, almost painfully white crescent at its edge. Mestaped information on the dark sphere floated to the surface of his mind.
Tran-ky-ky lay on the fringes of humanx settlement and was a recently discovered world. Among other more significant things, that made it fresh territory for eager types like himself. However, it was not classified as a potential colony.
While humans could live on it, as they did after a fashion in Brass Monkey, it was far from hospitable. No New Riviera, this! Besides, it was classed 4-B. That meant it was inhabited by a native race of fair intellectual potential living at a pre-steam level of technology and probably lower.
Topographically, the planet boasted a few small continents, large islands, really, and thousands of small ones. Some were reasonably level, like Brass Monkey's Arsudun, others precipitous and tectonic in origin. All lay scattered about the planet's shallow seas, which were permanently frozen to depths as great as three kilometers in some places and barely ten meters in others.
Gravity .92 T-standard, day about twenty ts hours, distance from sun—too much. This charming resort world, he thought sardonically, reached a positively balmy three degrees centigrade at the equator. A heat wave in Brass Monkey. Temp averaged around minus fifteen and dropped to an absurd minus ninety some nights.
Moving away from the equator, things began to get chilly.
Oh yes, a charming stopover on our tour of the frayed, flayed edges of civilization, yes! Other salesmen were assigned tours of territories like the twin pleasure worlds of Balthazzar and Beersheba, or even Terra itself. Ethan Fortune? Always his back to the warm inner worlds of the Commonwealth, always his profit margin poking hesitantly, narrowly, thinly, among empty places in strange spaces. Nuts!
Oh, there were some minor compensations. For example, he made a very good living.
And he was still the insane side of thirty. Doubtless any day now someone in the home office would take note of his incredible, astonishing record under impossible conditions. Then maybe he'd be handed something better suited to his exceptional talents. Like marketing jewelust lingerie to the famed ecdysiasts of Loser's World, or to freshly-minted debutantes on New Paris.
He blinked, turned from the almost hypnotic white sickle, and tried to concentrate on more prosaic considerations. Like how he was going to explain the workings of an Asandus portable deluxe catalytic heater to the locals. Mestape gave him a working knowledge of the language—he always prepared for each new world as thoroughly as possible—but offered little in the way of crucial tidbits like local customs and trading nuances. Tran-ky-ky was too new for recordings to be available on anything but basic facts. Anthropological studies would have to come later. So his range would be limited.
At least he had one item he should be able to unload completely on the natives. The Asandus line was made on Amropolous and was a marvel of power and miniaturization. One of the pocket-sized heaters could maintain a fair-sized room at sunbathing temperature even in trannish climate. Since the natives were adapted to extreme cold, an Asandus ought to last almost indefinitely. Just keep the heat up to zero and let grandpaw and the kiddies luxuriate.
Without some such device, and with winds up to 300k producing a really ridiculous chill factor, a human caught unprotected on the surface of Tran-ky-ky for even a few minutes would be good for nothing but snow sculpture afterward.
Come to think of it, there'd probably be a few humans in the settlement who'd be glad of a little luxury heater they could pack along in their scooters. They couldn't see his class of merchandise too often out here. Now if he could only keep his hands from shaking while he set the burner up ...
His mind was already well into a sales pitch of heroic proportions when he turned the corner to the personal baggage area and came upon a tableau that was all very wrong.
Five humans were clustered around a lifeboat port. Said port was open. Very, very wrong. Had a lifeboat drill begun while he'd had a lapse of deafness? He could hear his heart beating. Well, ears fine, but message from eyes still wrongo.
Ah yes, it was definitely the eyes. Two of the men were waving lasers about with drunken nonchalance.
One of the gun-wielders, a short ferret-faced chap with a bad case of the digifits, kept his laser more or less focused on an older man attempting to put up a bold front. That worthy was clad in an exquisitely cut suit of snappy emeraldine laid over a ruffled shirt of deep azure. To the left of this nattily-attired sexagenarian, a mousey-looking little guy was eyeing the gun almost as if he was considering tackling its owner.
The other gunman was a huge chunk of brown with flat face, rainbow-hued teeth, and formidable biceps. Right now he was trying to control his laser and subdue a package of squalling, scratching femininity that was apparently human. Apparently, because it seemed to have eight legs and twelve arms, all pinwheeling at once. The curses that issued from somewhere within the bundle, though, were undeniably Terranglo.
Ethan caught a few and blushed. Her handler was cursing also, a basso profundo—or profano—counterpoint to the girl. Ethan wondered what she looked like. She was moving so much he couldn't tell.
His attention was drawn back to weasel-face, who was talking to the older man.
"I'm not going to tell you again, du Kane! You want us to knock you out?" The hand holding the beamer was shaking slightly. "Get in that boat, now!" A nervous glance at one wrist. Both gunmen ignored their other prisoner.
"Well, now, I don't know ... I'd like to oblige you, but it's so hard to remember what the right thing to do is, anymore. Maybe I'd better wait ..."
Excerpted from The Icerigger Trilogy by Alan Dean Foster. Copyright © 1974 Alan Dean Foster. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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