Lighter in bank balance and heavier in heart, I led the way to the gantry elevator and thence into the welcoming airlock of the Rose of Rifuti. My Angelina smiled, then laughed aloud when she heard the distant squeals and grunts of a porcuswine herd. My bucolic youth down on the farm flashed before my eye—with concomitant black depression. I had fled the agrarian cesspit of Bit ‘O Heaven for a successful—and happy—life of crime. Now I felt myself retrogressing through time, returning to a life-choking farming fate that I thought I had left far behind me. I went down the entrance corridor, staggering under a dark cloud of gloom.
I was jarred back to the present by sudden loud squealing that assaulted my ears—accompanied by shouts of pain and picturesque cursing. More crashing and the sound of mighty hoofbeats sounded down the corridor. Then, squealing and grunting, a porcuswine thundered around a bend in the corridor and galloped towards us.
Angelina, no coward, gave a little shriek at the sight. Who could blame her?
One tonne of outraged boar rushed directly at us. Sharp tushes sprayed saliva, tiny red eyes glared.
Sudden death was but meters away.
Salvation rose reluctantly from the dark depths of my memory and I heard my voice, calm and relaxed, gently beguiling in a swinish way.
“Sooo-eee…sooo-eee….here swine, swine swine!”
With skidding hooves a tonne of outraged pork skidded to a halt before me. Sinister red eyes rolled up to look at me; the razor teeth chomped and drooled. I reached out, gently lifting the creature’s meter-long quills with my left hand, reached under with my right and scratched vigorously behind the beast’s ears.
It shivered with pleasure and burbled happily.
Angelina clapped her hands with joy.
“A humble childhood skill that proved most useful,” I said, scratching away to the accompaniment of blissful swinish grunting.
Crisis averted I became aware of a tumult of shouting—plus some screaming—that grew louder. Then two of the crewmen came into view, running towards us carrying a stretcher with a recumbent figure. Close behind them a galloping crowd of angry farmers, waving pitchforks and clubs—very much like the last scene in a vampire film. Leading them, his face red with rage, was the normally placid Elmo.
“And iffen he comes on this deck again he won’t leave it alive!”
The subject of his wrath appeared to be Captain Rifuti himself. He moaned theatrically as he was carried past, clutching with his good hand to his obviously broken arm.
“We caught him sneaking into the sty deck!” Elmo stopped and smiled down at the happy boar, then got in a quick quill-scratch of his own. “Gnasher here knocked the Cap’n over. Was going to eat him if we hadn’t got there in time. Swineknapping, that’s what it was—he was after one of our porcuswinelets! And we know WHY!” Even Angelina joined in with the horrified gasps.
“You mean he…wanted to…?”
“That’s right, Miz Angelina.” He nodded grimly and everyone gasped again. Except me; it was a little too hypocritical since I did enjoy my breakfast bacon now and then.
Angelina’s horror turned quickly to cold anger. Unhappily aimed at me since I was the nearest target.
“Well former farmer DiGriz—what you mean to do about this?” Her tone of voice lowered the air temperature by ten degrees. I groped for an answer.
“Well—first I’ll turn this fine tonne of porcuswine over to his owners. And then I’ll take care of the rapacious Rifuti.”
“And what will that cataclysmic action be?”
I looked around, then whispered “I’ll tell you in private since there are other ladies present.” Desperately buying some time—since my mind was emphatically empty of any inspiration. “Stay with Elmo and I’ll find you later. I don’t want you to see what happens next for I am mighty in my wrath!”
I shouted the last, turned and stamped down the corridor after the miscreant.
But what could I possibly do? Rifuti had paid quite a price already for his attempt to supplement the ship’s undoubtedly rotten rations. Plus—I had a lot more important things to think about besides his failed swineknapping. This little contretemps had already cost me a small fortune with no end in sight.
I was on the bridge deck now with most official name plates on the doors in some ancient language—from the captain’s home world presumably. UFFICIALE, CAPITANO, COMUNICAZIONE and OBITORIO.
I didn’t want to see the capitano just yet, but the entrance next to his held more promise—since it sounded very much like the Esperanto komunikoj. I knocked and opened the door.
Lights flickered on a U-shaped control board, a speaker crackled with static.
“We’re closed,” the man at the control console said, not glancing up from the 3D comic he was reading; a tiny scream rose from its pages. “Open at fifteen-hundred.”
“I want to send a warpdrive interstellargram—and pay cash.”
The scream was cut off in mid-gurgle as he slammed the magazine shut and spun about in his chair.
“We’re open. What you got?”
The lure of lucre, the call of cash—it never failed. I had been mulling my problem over and the answer seemed obvious. Money means banks and banks means bankers. And my son James was now a most successful banker. I scratched out a brief cry for help.
I soon had my answer and sent a return communication answering his relevant questions. The operator’s eyes glowed warmly as the cash-on-the line pile of credits grew.
“Will the captain see any of this?” I asked.
“You just out of the funny farm?” he sneered. Hard to do when you are biting down on a silver credit: it joined the others in the desk drawer.
My wallet contained just dust when the last communication from James arrived.
BE THERE SOONEST WITH SINGH.
I was broke so would have to wait until soonest to see who or what this was.
“Come back any time!” the operator chuckled. My snarl and the slamming door his only answer. I was now in the right mood to see the captain. I threw open the door of his cabin and was instantly cheered.
He was screaming and writhing on the top of a hard desk while green-clad demons held onto his limbs and tortured him. I did not interrupt. Particularly when I saw that they were medics who were setting his broken bones. Reducing his fracture—a most painful procedure.
Once the cast was in place the needles came out and I interrupted.
“Pain killers, yes—but I want him conscious to answer a few questions.”
“Why?” the doctor asked, his occupation now revealed by the stethoscope around his neck.
“Because I must ask him and find out some most important facts.”
As I spoke I groped through all my pockets until, fortuitously I found a single, coin, dredged it out and passed it over.
“A hundred credits donation for the charity of your choice for your assistance in this important matter.”
“Thank you. For the Children’s Aid Society. Plus I didn’t really appreciate some of the curses he laid on us. A pain killer and a stimulant.”
Needles flashed. Then they bundled up their equipment and were gone. The red-eyed Rifuti turned his wrath on me but I got in a snarled pre-emptive strike before he could speak.
“You’re in big trouble, Rifuti. The police are on the way to charge you with attempted swinicide, assault and battery, kidnapping, grievous bodily harm and barratry.” He gurgled incoherently, but I drove on mercilessly.
“But you are lucky that I am here to save you. I will have the police drop the charges. I will pay all the debts of your passengers, both two and four legged. I while pay all port charges accrued here. And—wait for it!—I will pay a fair price to buy this decrepit excuse for a spaceship.”
He gurgled again and his eyeballs bulged at this last and I nodded and smiled benignly.
“Because if you don’t agree you will be dead within twenty-four hours.” I husked this in a venom-dripping voice.
His face turned dark with anger and he opened his mouth to speak. Then bulged his eyes even bulgier and gasped.
Because a scalpel had appeared in my hand—liberated from the doctor’s bag—and was rock-steady just millimeters before his eyes. With a quick flip it neatly punctured the tip of his prominent nose and was still again—with a glistening drop of blood on its tip.
“Say yes…” I whispered.
I stayed silent, cold, counting upon his undoubtedly dicey history to put the frighteners on him.
“Yes…” he whispered back.
The scalpel vanished and I stepped back. “I’ll be back to you with my offer. Of course if you talk to anyone about this you won’t live until morning.”
I exited. I didn’t know if my threat would work or not. If he did complain to the authorities I would see to it that he was sneered at— and a lot of official charges would be dropped on him. At the very least my nebulous threats could only help the financial negotiations to come. I returned happily to face my dear wife. As I strolled I was already embroidering and improving on the story of my success.
I tracked Angelina down to the messhall where she was having a bucolic tea with the lady farmers from Bit ‘O Heaven. The men had been dismissed as redundant and sent back to work. Angelina smiled when I gave her a thumbs up sign and a big nod. She bit daintily into a wurflecake and slipped a bit to Pinky who—just as daintily—snuffled it down.
“Ladies—” I called out, “If I might have your attention. The forces of evil laid low, the captain—very painfully—bandaged and repaired. And made to see the light.”
“And which light would that be?’ Angelina asked.
I smiled and bowed to my attentive female audience.
“All debts will be paid. These kind people, and their porcine charges, will find a new home on a sunlit paradise planet. The good guys win!”
I pumped my fist over my head in a victory salute in answer to their joyous cries of happiness. Angelina started to speak but I beat her to it.
“Not only that but our good son James is on his way here at this very moment—to handle the finances and mechanics of the agreement!”
“Jim—you don’t mean it?”
“I do my love—I most certainly do!”
She leaned over and gave me a most inspiring buss on my cheek, radiant with joy, while the audience applauded. But, happily, she did not lean so far over that she could see that the fingers of both my hands were crossed behind my back.
Oh let it happen, oh powers that rule the odds of seeing that white lies come true.
Oh please let it happen—or Slippery Jim diGriz is really in the deep, deep cagle.
Angelina’s brow furrowed with thought. With good reasons—my pep talk had more holes in it than a truo cheese. I chuckled and turned away, speaking over my shoulder.
“Sorry—no time for tea. James asked me to do an inventory of the ship for him. I’ll be back soonest.”
If I had a conscience I would be staggering under the weight of all my white lies. But I had happily laid that burden down when I opted for a life of crime.
But I did want to see what shape the ship was in. I started my survey on the bridge deck and worked my way down to the engine room. With each noisome compartment entered, each scuffed door opened, my depression grew. Firstly—no one seemed to be on duty. None of the stations were manned; lights were turned low or burnt out. Filth everywhere. The Rose of Rifuti was a spacegoing slum. It was only when I reached the dorm deck that I found any trace of the crew. I pushed open the door labeled TRESPASSERS WILL BE SHOT and fought my way in against a miasma of old food, stale sweat and dope fumes. I kicked my through the discarded trays and crushed drink containers, to reach the bunk where a scruffy man lay smoking a green joint and listening to a scratchy recording of some coal-mining and steel-mill music. I knocked the music player to the deck and crushed it under my boot heel. The unshaven music lover looked up and snarled an oath.
Drop dead stupid! My temper, by this time was only held in place by a slender thread—cracked. In an instant I dragged him from the bunk by the collar of his soiled jumpsuit, shook him teeth-rattlingly, cursed a mighty oath and—if this wasn’t enough—the scalpel, appeared—large before his popping eyes.
“Take a breath and you’re a dead man,” I growled with the voice of doom.
Only when his face began to grow blue with incipient cyanosis did I hurl him, gasping for breath, back onto his bunk.
I glared around at the terrified men who lolled on the other sordid bunks.
“Now hear this! I have just bought this ruin of a spaceship and am the new owner. You will obey my orders or—” My wrist twitched and the scalpel sped the length of the room and thudded into a distant pillow—a scant millimeter from the shocked face of a crewman.
I spun on my heel, dropped into a karate killing position and glared at the now terrorized crewmen. “Anyone disagree with that…?”
Of course none of them did. Nostrils flaring I turned slowly, facing them down one by one. Stalked the length of the bunkroom and retrieved my scalpel.
“My name is James diGriz. You may call me master—LET’S HEAR IT!”
“Yes…master…” the ragged response came.
“Good. I will now inspect the rest of the ship and will return in precisely one hour. By that time you will have cleared up this swinesty, washed and shaved, be prepared to be loyal crewmen—or die…”
The last words were spoken so coldly that they breathed a mutual moan and swayed like trees in the wind. On this high note I exited and continued my depressing inspection of the specious spacer.
The engine room was last and the unoiled door hinges squealed like all the others. The shouted voice rattled off my eardrums.
“You are a mechanical moron! Don’t you know which end of a screwdriver goes into the slot of a screw? Come closer and I will demonstrate on your…”
There was a pained shriek and a crewman fled by me, followed by a veritable hail of screwdrivers. His pained moans died away down the corridor; I nodded approval; at least someone was working on this garbage scow.
He was gray-haired and as solidly built as one of his engines, bent over the guts of one of them, probing in the recesses behind an open panel. As I approached I heard him mutter imprecations.
And I understood them! A language I had learned painfully on a very painful planet. Cliaand.
“Well done, oh mighty engineer, very well done!” I said in the same tongue. He straightened, spun about, jaw-dropping.
“You are speaking Cliaand…” he said.
“I’m glad you noticed.”
Then his eyes widened and he pointed a greasy finger at me.
“And I know you—you were the pilot of my ship during the Final War. In fact I even remember your name—Lieutenant Vaska Hulja.”
“What a memory! Whereas I have completely forgotten yours.”
“Stramm, Lieutenant Hulja.”
“Lieutenant Hulja is gone with the war! My name is Jim. It is a pleasure, good Stramm. I was indeed your pilot. And, sadly, your saboteur. Let me apologize at last for blowing up your fine engines.”
He waved away the words and smiled broadly. “I should thank you, Jim. Ended the war and got me out of the navy and back to work as a civilian.” His smile turned swiftly to a depressed frown. “Not your fault that I signed on to this bucket of rusty bolts.”
“Soon to change,” I said and shook his oily hand, then wiped my hand on the rag he passed over. “You’ll never guess who the new owner is.”
“Make my day! It isn’t…you…?”
I lowered my head and nodded slowly. He chortled with joy and we pumped a greasy handshake again.
“Can I ask you a few questions about this ship?”
His smile vanished and he growled deep in his throat. “Ask—but you won’t like the answers.”
“I agree in advance.”
“The captain’s a crook and a smuggler. The crew are alcoholic villains. They were only hired because by interplanetary law a crew this size is required. They do nothing. Their work is done by robotic controls which are slowly deteriorating. I’m surprised we made planetfall at all. I’ve already quit this job. But I want to adjust the atomic generator before it goes into meltdown. My engines are sound—but nothing else on the ship is. All patched up and jury-rigged and decaying while you watch. I’ve already quit and I have sabotaged the engines. I’ll put them right—when I get my overdue salary. Welcome, Jim, welcome to the Rose of Rifuti.”
I sighed a tremulous sigh. “I had a feeling that’s what you would say, oh honest engineer Stramm. At least things can’t get worse.”
Even as I spoke these words aloud my mother’s oft-repeated dictum whispered in my ear.
Bite your tongue.
Firmly superstitious, she believed you were tempting fate to say this. Ha-ha—so much for superstition…
There was a crash as the door burst open and Elmo staggered in, red-faced and clutching his chest.
“Jim…” he gasped. “Come quick! The worst has happened!”
He drew in a tortured breath and spoke in a doom-laden voice.
“They are here now—hundreds maybe!” Shouted aloud dark with despair.
“Men with guns! They want to kill all the porcuswine!!”
(c) Harry Harrison, 2009
To be continued… You can find out what happens to Slippery Jim and his ship-load of porcuswine in The Stainless Steel Rat Returns! published by Tor in Summer 2010.