Most of my attention was on my drink when the nasal whine of Elmo’s voice cut through the dark thoughts of my coming fiscal failure.
“The captain said what?” I broke in.
“Just that we was longer getting here than he thought so we owe him eighteen-thousand an’ thirteen credits. He ain’t letting any more critters – human or swine – offen the ship until we pay up…”
“That’s called kidnapping – and pignapping – and is against the law,” I growled. Cheered to have a target for my growing anger. “The name of this miscreant?”
“Rifuti. His first name is Cap’n. Cap’n Rifuti.”
“And the ship is called…?”
“Rose of Rifuti.”
“Don’t you think it’s past time we paid the captain a visit?” Angelina said. She smiled down at the snoring Pinky – but the chill of death was in her words as she thought of the crooked captain.
“We shall – but in some style,” I said, turning to the viewscreen and punching in a number. The screen instantly lit up with image of a robot – apparently constructed out of groundcar parts.
“Moolaplenty Motors at your service Sire diGriz – how may we aid you this lovely summer’s day?” it said in sultry soprano voice.
“A rental. Your best eight-seat vehicle…”
“A Rolls-Sabertooth, gold-plated, satellite guided with real diamond headlights. It will be in your drive in…thirty-six seconds. Your first day’s rental has been debited to your account. Have a good one.”
“We leave,” I announced. Leaning over and scratching Pinky under her earquills. She grunted happily, stretched, climbed to her trotters and gave herself a good rustling shake.
The groundcar was waiting for us, humming with barely restrained power; the robot chauffer nodded and smiled mechanically. The albedo was so high, with the sun glinting off the gold plating, that I had to squint against the glare. I handed Angelina into her seat, waited until the porcuswinette curled up at her feet, and joined her. After Elmo clambered aboard I pressed the pearl-studded GO button on the armrest.
“To the spaceport.”
“Arrival time three-minutes and twelve seconds, Sire Jim and noble passengers.” The robot chauffer had obviously not looked too closely at Elmo. “And welcome as well to their pet dog…errr..cat…pszip..” It’s voice chuntered to a halt, its computational software undoubtedly unacquainted with porcuswine.
For a few moments I was cheered by the gold-and-diamond luxury; then deeply depressed when I thought of the coming assault on my bank balance.
Moolaplenty was a holiday world and catered to the very rich and even richer. The glint of the diamond headlights drew a salute from the spaceport gate guard as that portal swung wide.
“We’re going to the Rose of Rifuti,” I said. His nostrils flared at the name; unflared when I slipped a gold cinque coin into his tip pocket.
“You jest, sire.”
“Alas – it is our destination.”
“If it is, I suggest that you stay upwind. Row nine, pad sixty-nine.”
The carputer beeped as the driver heard the location and we surged forward.
While all about me the riders smiled, laughed, grunted porcinely – I was struck down and immersed in the darkness of gloom. I hated the fact that Elmo had ever been born and grown up to invade my happiness. I was cheered that Angelina was cheered – but I had the depressing feeling that all was not going too well.
I was right. Our magic motor stopped, the doors swung open – and we must have been downwind because a certain effluvia crept over us. The eau de barnyard flashed me back to my youth.
“Porcuswine…” I muttered darkly.
“Not the most welcome reception, “Angelina said, frowning at the spacer.
An understatement if there ever was one. Each of the landing fins of the battered, rusted spaceship was attached to a thick chain, which in turn was bolted to the ground. A heavy chainlink fence circled the pad. There was a single large gate in the fence, that was just closing behind an official looking vehicle. A dozen armed guards scowled at our arrival while a grizzled sergeant stepped forward and jerked his thumb over his shoulder.
“No visitors. All enquiries at the guardhouse.”
“But that car just went in!”
“Officials only. They’re an inspection team from Customs and Quarantine.”
“Understandable. Now sergeant – would you be kind enough to do me a favor? See that this donation reaches the Old Sergeants’ Rest Home and Bar.”
The thousand credit note vanished as swiftly as it had appeared. It tempered our conversation.
“The ship’s quarantined. Just those medical officers allowed inside now.”
But it wasn’t quite working out that way. A gangway had been run out from the lower spacelock. The officials had just started up it when loud cries and a fearful squealing sounded from the open lock. An instant later there was a thunderous pounding as a black horde of quill-shaking, galloping porcuswine poured out of the ship. The officials dived for safety as the stampede swept by. The thundering herd headed for the gate which was now closed and locked. The lead boars snorted with porcine rage and turned, leading the pack around the circumference of the fence.
Then, waving shovels and prods, the angry farmers poured down the gangway and ran after them in hot pursuit. Round and round the fenced enclosure they rushed. I leaned back against our groundcar and beamed happily.
“Beautiful!” I said. Angelina frowned at me.
“The swinelets might get hurt…”
“Never! The sows are the best mothers in the known universe!”
Eventually the great beasts tired of their circular performance and were hurried back aboard the ship. I resisted the urge to clap in appreciation of the performance. The sergeant waited until the clatter of hooves had died away and considered his litany of woe.
“Quarantined with good reason, I would say sir. In addition to these sanitary problems there are financial ones. Landing fees, rubbish removal and site-rental charges have not been paid. If you wait here I’ll send for an officer to give you the gen.”
Then he moved like a striking adder. Kicking the gate open, grabbing the yiping Elmo by the collar and hurling him though it, hauled a squealing Pinky by the leash right after him. The gate slammed shut behind him and he dusted off his hands.
“This guy and that thing got out before the quarantine came down. Somebody is in very bad trouble.”
I sighed tremulously and suspected that that person would surely turn out to be me. I dug deep into my wallet again. All I could ahead see was my bank balance spiraling downwards, ever downwards. I also saw that one of the guards was hauling Elmo and the loudly protesting Pinky to the spacer. They went up the elevator in the access gantry. Their arrival in the ship provoked almost instant results. Short moments later a uniformed figure emerged and retraced their footsteps.
As he came towards me I saw the wrinkled uniform, battered cap and even more battered, unshaven face. I turned away from the sergeant and looked coldly at the approaching figure . This repellant creature had to be Captain Rifuti.
“I want to talk to you!” he shouted.
“Shut up,” I suggested. “I’m the only chance you have of getting out of this mess. I talk and you answer? Understand?” My patience was wearing thin.
His face was twisted and dark with anger. He took a deep breath and, before he could say anything, I made a preemptive strike.
“Sergeant – this officer appears to have violated quarantine procedures. He is commander of an unsafe ship, has kidnapped his passengers, as well as committing a number of other crimes. Can you put him behind bars – at once?”
“Good as done.” He reached out then stopped; no moron the sergeant and he quickly twigged as to what was going on, then added in a growling voice, “Unless he shuts his cakehole and follows your instructions.” For punctuation he grabbed the protesting captain and gave him a quick shake that rattled the teeth in his head.
Crooked he certainly was – but stupid he was not. His face darkened and I thought he was going to burst a blood vessel. “What you want?” he asked, albeit with great reluctance.
“Slightly better. You have told your passengers that they have additional fees to pay. You will produce records justifying these payments. Only then will I pay these and the spaceport charges that you have incurred. After that we will discuss what is going to be your next port of call, to which you will transport your passengers and their cargo…” This last was a feeble attempt to get rid of my friends and neighbors – not to mention their porcine companions.
“No way! I gotta contract that says I bring ‘em here and here they stay!”
“We’ll see what the quarantine authorities have to say about that.” Grasping for straws, aren’t you Jim?
Some time later – and a good deal lighter in the bank account – I sat in the Base Commander’s office sipping at a very fair domestic brandy that he had been kind enough to open for us. And the Mayor’s first assistant who had joined us. They smiled – as well they might with all my money in their coffers – but they were firm.
Elmo’s pilgrims and their quilly creatures were not welcome on the holiday world of Moolaplenty. This was a vacation planet for tourists – as well as home for well-heeled residents like me. And all the food was imported. Not a single farm or tilled field sullied the well-manicured countryside. Dreadfully sorry – but this policy was entrenched in their constitution, pinned down in the law books, inviolate and unchangeable. We are desolated, Sire Jim – but do have another bit of brandy the Base Commander smarmed. With no reluctance whatsoever I accepted. All I could see was gloom and unhappiness and a prevailing blackness in my future.
Blackness – the color of porcuswine quills…
To be continued…
(c) Harry Harrison, 2009
Note: The Stainless Steel Rat Returns will be published by Tor in 2010