Riffless laid his personal skimmer over in a roll to right it, reversed jets, and slapped it down on the private use strip at Petersen. He gunned the engines, popped the clutch, and zipped over to the parking bay near the Officers Club. After killing the ignition, he hopped out just before the skimmer skidded to a rough, banging stop against a concrete abutment. In front of the Club, a startled sentry stared at Rifless suspiciously and groped for his power.rifle. Rifless paused, turned back to the dull, ding-pocked vehicle and said, "It's my brakes. They need adjusting." He beelined it inside.
With a wave of his hand he half-acknowledged a broken chorus of greetings from the regular gang and hurried to the bar. He called to Joey, the bartender, a small E.M. in his late forties. Raising an index finger into the ether, Rifless said in somber tones, "Joseph, I am in need.''
Joey smiled and placed a wide glass of reddish liquor, frothy at the brim, in front of Rifless. Rifless put the rim delicately to his lips and in one measured pour slowly quaffed the cinnamon-scented beverage. Life effused his nervous system, his nerve endings popped electric sparks. He lowered the glass to the bar. "Yum, yum."
He tapped the wooden bartop twice with his finger and as Joey filled his glass again, he said, "Did you find the buckets?"
"Yessir. Got 'em out back."
"Excellent, excellent. Remember our signal. I'll let you know when I've found a suitable subject."
"I'll be waiting for it, sir," Joey said, still smiling,
Rifless nodded, then gestured with his head at his glass, empty once again.
"On me," said a voice from behind. Rifless looked back to see Credo sandwiched between two pink girls. Big like all Paralethals, Credo sported the de rigeur, black-satin dress flight suit, neatly trimmed in front and back with four parallel creases, and two more at each flank. Observing his sartorial splendor, Riffless recalled the story he'd heard about Credo's tailor once beading in a set of cuts so that they met errantly, blushingly, at the joint of one leg. Reportedly, Credo had stated calmly his ire at being image-crippled at the knee. Of course, the quaking tailor immediately made the corrective alterations. Then Credo cold-bloodedly kicked apart the couturier's console as an object lesson to get it right the first time.
Just then, the incident made Rifless feel a greater consciousness of his own somewhat worn bodysuit, with its inky satin dulled almost white at the seat and elbows and its creases intersected tangentially by a host of wrinkles. Ah, well, he thought, such is the price of maintaining Corps morale. Staring directly into Credo's eyes, he straightened up, and in a florid half-salute, lifted his newly filled glass to mouth level while saying, "Commander Credo, to the port, hup-hup, thank you very much." He drained the drink. "Mighty right."
"Don't thank me, Captain, thank these lovely ladies here. They each insisted upon buying me a celebration round. But, my limit's one, so you're the lucky fellow ."
"Indeed I am," Rifless said, as he openly ogled the two adoring young women. He reached over and pulled them to him, one arm around each waist. Gazing at them with his tongue lolling loosely, he said to the giggling girls, "Fortunately, I have no limit.” Then to Credo, "And what is the occasion, may I ask, for this our most joyous felicity?"
“I just got back from Topside. Razored two ComFlyers in tandem,...”
Credo permitted himself the airiest filigree of a smile.
Rifless blinked. Two enemy scouts downed with one laser burst, hard to believe, even of the relentless Credo.
“"Nonpareil, Paralethal," said Rifless. "Two in tandem--a match made in heaven. And the Earth is safe again." Two down. Only four billion more to go, he thought. "So, Credo, you got two with one shot. What next, trips?"
Through shining teeth Credo said, "I was lucky. Any fighter jock could have done it."
"Including me? Impossible. To get a single shot off I need at least two targets, one for each eye. Four, if I wear my glasses." He reached back to an unzippered compartment of his suit and whipped out a pair of black lensless eyeglasses with a big plastic nose and false mustache attached,which he quickly put on. The girls bent over in laughter, and Credo's neon smile dropped a few amps.
"Rifless, can we talk?"
"Talk? This isn't it? We're doing something wrong?"
"I mean alone."
"Oh," Riffless shrugged, "Suture yourself, the neurosurgeon said. Ladies."
The two women groaned laughter and started to leave, but Rifless held them tight, saying, "Uh, one moment please," He presented his cheek to the girl on his right, tapping it with a finger. As she leaned over to give him a peck, he swiveled swiftly so that their lips met, plastic nose bumping surprised flesh, "Thanks, doll.” He kissed the other one, then affectionately patted their behinds as they walked away. He turned back to the waiting Credo. Stiffening to attention, he said, "Commander Credo, sir, is this an official review, sir?"
Mildly, Credo said, "Call it some friendly counseling."
"Well, all right then, let's have a friendly drink," He called to Joey, then peered significantly at Credo's dry glass. Credo relaxed his features and motioned to Joey for another. When it arrived, they moved over to a table within shouting distance of the bar. Rifless pushed his fingers through his unkempt, sandy hair and said, "Commence."
"First, I like to see people's faces when I talk to them. Can you take off the glasses?"
"Okay, but I'm warning you, most people beg me to keep them on." He removed the glasses and put them on the table.
"Listen," said Credo, "the Big Picture Boys asked me to talk to you. They told me that you're making them nervous. But, it isn't only them, Rifless. It's the other jocks--me, too, You're beginning to worry us, too,"
Shit, he thought. "How so?"
"We think you've been behaving strangely for the past few months. You've been acting different."
"Why, Commander Credo, I'm behaving like always, I'm misbehaving. I'm acting like always, I'm acting up. I'm a model of Paralethal punctilio, I drink, chase girls, and fly just as fast as ever, maybe even faster than ever."
"Yeah, but you 're doing it by yourself. And, yeah, maybe you are doing more,maybe too much, Especially the drinking."
Dramatically, Rifless stared at Credo and said coldly, "Sir, I know when I've had enough to drink," He pointed a forefinger into the air, "I've had enough to drink when I've had too much," He gazed away.
Credo sighed, shaking his head. "Rifless, I'm trying to do you a favor, I've sean this before, Paralethals who seem to be all right, but they're a little off, too. They start spending a lot of time alone. They drink, they screw around, but somehow they get distracted. They lose
too, they get fuzzy. Sometimes they start seeing things." He slowly shook his head, "They don't last long up there."
"A fate worse than life," Rifless murmured, sipping his drink.
Credo grimaced, "Rifless, it's happening to you. Just look at yourself."
"I try to avoid that as much as possible."
"Look at your bodysuit," Credit said, mildly exasperated. "It's a mess, a disgrace. Don't you have another one?"
"I wish I was in it."
Credo sat back. "You‘re slipping, Rifless. Hell, if the Big Picture Boys see it you know it's true. And we worry about how this affects your work, Rifless, we worry about the job you're doing up there."
"Well, hell, so do I," Rifless said with sincerity. He leaned forward and said, "Confidentially, a guy could get killed up there. Of course, it's probably not as bad as what could happen down here. You know," he said, haloing his face with his hands, then spreading the fingers, "Boom!"
Sitting calmly with his legs crossed and one hand resting on the table, Credo said quietly, "That's why we're up there, to prevent that from happening. We Paralethals would all hate to see our reputation, our perfect record, go down the tubes because, let’s say, someone like you, Riffless, allows a few Commie construct shuttles to slip through due to the fact that a haze of booze obscured his vision, slowed his reflexes, bent his judgement."
"Not to worry, Credo. Why, that kind of mistake could cost me my pension, and I'm short, I only have three years to go. Hey, I want America to last for another twenty years at least. Retirement wouldn't be much fun otherwise." He finished his drink and then pivoted to face the bar. "Joey, set 'em up, will you?" He formed a small basket with his hands and arms, twice.
Joey grinned and disappeared.
Rifless turned back to Credo and said, "Listen this has been great and I'd really like to stay longer, but I'm due up Topside in less than an hour."
He stood up. Credo glared. With a rising voice he said, ''What? Wait a minute, you're in no condition to go on patrol."
"Because of a few drinks?" Rifless loudly laughed, "Credo, the damned fighter-scouts do all the work, But look, don’t worry. I’ve got my own special method for detoxifying myself. It's foolproof, you see, and for me that's an important consideration."
He stepped over to the bar where Joey had placed two buckets marked FIRE. By this time some of the other people in the bar had wandered over, attracted by Rifless’ burst of laughter.
"The Military’s amazing, isn't it?" Rifless said, smiling broadly, He pointed at the lettered pails. "Still issuing fire buckets in the 21st century. Well, here goes."
He hiked up one of the buckets above his head and turned it over. A stream of water drenched his head and shoulders, splashed down, and puddled at his feet. He shook his body doglike, which caused the laughing crowd to fall back.
"Brrr!" he said. "Well, that's that, I'm ready." He took a step to leave, then stopped and assumed an exaggeratedly thoughtful pose. "Say, Credo, didn 't you have a drink over your limit? Looks like you could use some detoxifying, too."
Riffless quickly grabbed the other bucket and dashed the contents into the face of Credo who flinched reflexively, shouting, "No!" The bucket spewed hundreds of little scraps of paper onto the Commander, some still floating down around his face as it suffused with blood. The crowd roared their enjoyment while Rifless headed for the club exit. He halted, leaned back to the table and snatched up his nose glasses.
"Gotta have these; they improve my image. Bye now!" He bolted out the door.
After leaving the Base Detox Chamber, Rifless headed over to Flight Prep Quarters to dress for patrol. In seconds he emerged wearing his black polysatin pressure suit with his black patent deathhead hooked under his arm. He sprinted out to the airfield, past scramble-ready fighter-scouts, past a few long-range cruisers and some survival ships that could support five men on recycled wastes for their natural life spans. Rifless didn't give them a thought; long- term retributive measures vis-a-vis preemptive strikes were definitely not part of his action.
He donned his deathhead, climbed aboard his own fighter-scout on the mass-ack pad and secured for takeoff. The mass-ack threw his Superscamp heavenwards and Rifless, pressed immobile into the Jell pads, waited impatiently to reach Topside. Topside was, the big black gameboard where Paralethal jocks could score some big points against the Commie Pinko Rednyks, the Socialist scumbags who threatened the Free World in their fast straight-aheaders built with the sweat and blood of their enslaved working class, right might.
Lore of yesteryear, he mused, fitting for the doggedly dogmatic. For himself, he'd stick to the reality of the past thirteen years, razoring the other side 's endless stream of recon sats, D-ray sats, and most critically, the construct shuttles sent up to build the feared big colony stations.
According to the Big Picture Boys, no big space colonies meant no havens from preemptive strikes on Earth; hence, no preemptive strikes. Fortunately, the shuttles were the easiest of marks for Superscamp sights. In this longest of undeclared wars, none had ever made it past a Paralethal scout and Rifless didn't expect to be that Scamp jockey to let one through now. Mindfulness of the Big Picture, though, sometimes made for wet palms when he spied a foreign shuttle, like looking at a one meter putt to tie up the Masters.
Credo could be right, thought Riffless, it could be time to board that boat bobbing somewhere on the grey murk of the Chesapeake, to sail and drink into oblivion along with the rest of the world for as long as it lasted. But Credo still avidly searched out the other side's ComCommanders, the same s who'd zippered every westside construct barge that'd tried to set up shop. No, Rifless decided, let Credo with his lifer aspirations and the younger jocks go after the toothy ones for glory doctrinaire. He'd just stay careful, do his job, but also continue to avoid confrontation politics. It'd help to keep clear of Credo, too, now that he'd placed himself firmly on the Commander's list of shit.
The Superscamp reached the apex of the mass-ack's push and with Rifless' go-ahead tore off on a long parabola across the faint edge of the atmosphere. With all sensors humming, the fighter-scout rushed along the dark border between the royal blue haze that outlined the arced Earth on the right and the cast of the opalescent moon to the left. In short order, it located and fixed sights on a recon sat. The Scamp fired, razor-lasering the satellite into two neat slices that hung suspended in place for a breath of an instant before they both blipped into a thousand pieces. Rifless’s ship ripped through the remains super-pronto, space debris silently pinging its flanks with pats of success. Aware that they usually paired a D-ray sat with recons, Rifless reminded the Scamp to keep a close lookout for the twin. Soon the scout's sensors picked up the other sat. They closed and lasered.
The Scamp flashed through the burgeoning dust cloud and Rifless ordered it to hug the last of the stratosphere. He liked dipping back deep into the atmosphere where the ship could perform sharp tactical turns and where his stealth devices worked better. That way, nothing on top could predict where he'd power out, giving him the age-old advantage of surprise. The maneuver consumed vast quantities of fuel, but his success ratio nearly justified the expenditure. To perform the stunt, he routinely used the extra fuel mandated by Command Central for contingency moon surveillance. Nothing ever got out that far anymore and besides that, the last thing on Earth he wanted to do was to go to the damned moon.
Just before he uttered the command to go down, the Scamp reported a foreign mass ahead. "More info," Bifless said evenly.
A big one it was, and not in orbit either. Probably a construct shuttle, he thought, as big as that and self-propelled. Maybe not, though. Unconsciously, Rifless wiped the chin of his deathhead.
"Cruise steady, low arc," he ordered.
It appeared, a speck growing. A construct shuttle, all right. He waited for the poor slug to sight him and lay over in its single, pitiful escape maneuver, laughingly called by the Paralethals the "shuttle scuttle." This one didn't scuttle, though, evidently still unaware of·his presence. But, as the Scamp closed he noticed that something didn't look right about the foreign ship. The barge was shuttle-size, no question, but big exhaust snouts stuck out at every angle from its end pieces. Exposed for repairs, maybe, he thought, maybe they'd broken down and couldn’t run. Rifless spoke quietly, as if' fearing he'd scare it away. "Zero in and laser."
One more nanosecond and it'd be all over, he told himself. But in one-half a nanosecond the enemy craft burst ahead with tailpipes flaming and plummeted into the blanket of air. The next fraction of a second saw Earth wrenched out of sight, and Rifless felt his arms and chest slammed back flat into the Jell pads. He grimaced a silent scream through exposed, clenched teeth as the twisting Superscamp crushed his body this way and that, corkscrewing at top G's through the planet's stratosphere. White-eyed, Rifless tried to yell out loud, but the acceleration wouldn't let him. The scout's evasive tactics indicated a rear attack, and he wanted to cry out orders to run, to counter. Today, he thought frantically, I should have retired today. Abruptly the force eased and his stomach jackknifed in time to his surging adrenaline,
"Move it, damn it, counter and pursue." roared Rifless, even as the renewed pressure signaled that the scout of course had already acted. He could see it now on his screen, the same elongated shuttle, accelerating straight out from Earth.
Uh oh, After a moment's speechless observation, he said, "Listen, could that thing have been supported by an enemy higher-flyer? Is that what jumped us?"
The scout informed him that the targeted era had been unsupported, that it had executed a dip and roll in atmosphere to egress into position behind him.
"Great. That's just great," he murmured glumly, facing in his mind the bleak realization ef a Paralethal's blackest spacemare. He'd encountered a new enemy ship, evidently part rapid-transit fighter-scout, part colony-construct shuttle. Worse than that, the hybrid beast raced loosely ahead of him, tauntingly wagging back and forth to effectively elude his laser. He'd done it, he thought darkly, he'd let one get through.
"Can we catch it?" he asked in a barely hopeful voice. The Scamp reported that they could match acceleration but not overtake.
"I was afraid of that. Oh, my poor, poor, ass."
The scout then relayed to him the fact that the enemy's course put it dead on the moon.
"The moon?" Rifless perked up. "The moon. It'll have to swing around it or lose way. We might be able to plot a tighter hyperbola and pick up some speed to catch them inside for a gutshot. They don't call them straight-a-headers for nothing. Call Command Center and request clearance to pursue to the moon. I just might save my butt yet."
Three hours later, amid the looming moon's sickly pallid sheen, Rifless at last conceded to himself that his Scamp couldn't undercut the foreign ship's swing . Now he couldn't even track the big fighter-shuttle because of the obscuring bulk of Earth's first satellite that crowded in on his right.
"I am thoroughly screwed now. Maybe they'll go easy on me, give me a desk job out of pity." But a vision of Credo's heartless face smiling in disgust at his disgraceful performance told him the lie of this hope. "Continue pursuit." They had fuel enough to follow the shuttle all the way around the moon and back to watch it descend safely to Earth. Yet, something could happen to slow them up, a breakdown, maybe. Afterall, he thought, a three-legged horse could win the Kentucky Derby if all the other horses fell down.
The Scamp had completed its circuit of the moon's giant pan when it disclosed that the shuttle had disappeared. He shooked his head hopelessly, "I'm having a bad day.'' It must have landed. But, why? There’s nothing down there but junk. Unless it had broken down. Whatever. "Cruise back, arc low and slow.”
After six hours, the scout pinpointed a disparate mass on the moon's dark side. Relief swept over Rifless. He thought to order an immediate strafing run, but just then it occurred to him that he'd stumbled upon the career opportunity of a military lifetime. He could take this brand new, revolutionary secret enemy spacecraft intact if he ambushed it on the surface. Any of the other Paralethals would jump into hell and back for this chance. Too bad none of them were here.
He ordered the scout down and activated his suit's EVA function. Grabbing his sidepiece, he left the Superscamp and began to work his way toward the site of the enemy ship's hiding place. At first he had difficulty controlling his bounding movements in the low gravity, a discomforting lapse given the gloom of the moon's backside profile. He had to rely upon the Scamp’s instruments to guide him, which hardly lessened his apprehension about being the one surprised. Nonetheless, he set his teeth and pressed on.
The new ship rested on the other side of the wall of a small crater ahead, according to the Scamp's signal. With extreme care, Rifless lowered himself to all fours and painstakingly inched up to the lip of the crater, doing his uttermost not to disturb any of the detritus thrown up and around the well by the tiny meteor that had formed it billions of years ago. At the top, he eased his head above the edge and peeked down to the floor below.
He froze, surprised absolutely in spite of the studied sneakiness of his approach. He could see that the mass below was foreign all right, since it basked in a flood of reddish light cast by a bank of encircling lamps. A flimsy canopy suspended above only casually blocked the spotlights from high cruising vehicles, reinforcing his intuition that nobody seriously cared about hiding this thing. He recognized, too, that the rig on the crater floor was not the long, lean fighter-shuttle he'd chased back here.
Shit!, he mouthed, while also trying to stave off the lugubrious despair rising in him. This is bad news he realized, the worst. Then he thought, perhaps the structure below had some connection to the shuttle. He'd never seen anything like this contraption either. The Scamp confirmed his assessment without adding any data as to the nature of the thing. All sorts of gimcrackery and doodads stuck out of it every which way, pretty much ruling out atmospheric maneuvers or mass-ack propulsion. In fact, it didn't look like any kind of vacuum vehicle, either. So, what was it?
A communication device. Or maybe a mining combine, he thought, to supply their new shuttle with material for colony construction. Sure, why hide it any better since nobody came to the moon anymore? Except for the brilliant Captain Rifless, of course. It dawned upon him then that if his guess was right, their new fighter-shuttle might still be lurking above, cloaked by equally sophisticated stealth gear. It might be out there, waiting for the only Westside fighter-jock who knew of its existence--waiting for him. He lifted his eyes and gazed through the top of his deathhead, seeing nothing. Time to go.
A motion to the right of the contraption in the crater caused him to slap at his sidepiece, which shifted him two meters left and raised a cloud of moondust overhead that plainly marked his position for anyone looking. Cursing silently, he hastily drew his handgun and pointed it in the direction of the movement in the crater. Oblivious to Rifless watching from above, a tiny, indistinct figure busied itself with some indiscernible task to the right of the strange machinery.
A midget, thought Rifless. The other side's recruiting their covert personnel from circuses--the better to keep low profiles? Whatever, Rifless thought, this guy could be my ticket past the shuttle upstairs. Making sure that the agent provocateur below remained preoccupied, Rifless cautiously dropped behind the crater's rim and crept around to put the queer apparatus between himself and its operator. Then, with discretion nonpareil he eased himself over the edge and slipped down to the gizmo at the base of the pit. Peering around the side of the strange equipment, he was relieved to see just outside the border of lights the silhouette of the short party in question, apparently still working intently, his back to his gear.
Rifless composed himself, then whirled out from behind the mechanism. He pulled down on the small operative with his power gun and started to say through his head radio, "All right, Comrade, stand and deliver, . . .?"
Turning around into the light, the figure that faced Rifless was small indeed, no more than four feet tall. But, instead of wearing a ComCommander's slick, gun-metal colored EVA suit, this pudgy little character wore plaid baggy pants held far above his waist and ankles by broad, gaily hued suspenders; a crazy polka-dot patterned shirt and an equally wild, floppy bowtie; a long, quilt-patched, wide-lapeled jacket that reached to his knees but bulged at the buttons. Instead of a steel-grey skullshell, he sported a porkpie hat way too small for his big, round, fleshy head, and he wore glasses with bottle bottom lenses and brassy wire rims, On his feet, dingy, tattered spats and large, flapping shoes with bulbous toes had replaced the sleek, cat-leather shitkickers favored by ComCommanders. In a daze, Rifless continued his inventory, noting finally an obviously artificial carnation made of some kind of linen drooping out of one lapel. But not one razor-sharp cut could Rifless find in his search for any familiar, identifying feature of a deadly ComCommander higher-flyer.
Unconsciously, Rifless allowed the barrel of his weapon to drop slightly, and the strange dwarf in front of him beamed a broad, crooked smile from an askew mouth and said boldly, “Well, for heaven’sth sake, what a pleasant surpristhe! Hello, hello, I'm delighted to see you. This is wonderful, y'know " H!e finished with a scaling, sing-song laugh verging upon giddiness, “a-hoo-hoo-hoo." As he laughed , the tiny, rotund man placed his hands above his breast and tapped his fingertips together in time to each "hoo."
Rifless stared hard, and hard again as he tried and failed to find a place for this incongruous gnome in the natural order of things. I need more detox, he said to himself, either that or a stiff drink.
The outlandishly dressed character continued to speak at a rapid-fire rate. "They never told me that I'd meet a real live Eoithling on this job, y'know. This is simply amazthing, y'see." He spoke with a weird urban accent and some sort of a lisp that Rifless couldn 't place, a thickness of the tongue that subtly distorted an occasional “s.”
"Of course, I'm not very well prepared to receive guests, y'understand, I'm a little weak on the protocol. Just a moment, please."
He turned away and down furtively, then back to face Rifless with his arms spread wide before him. From each ear protruded a raw carrot. Rifless blinked, speechless, stupefied again.
"Well?" said the dwarfish character, "Aren't you going to ask me why do I have carrots in my ears?"
"Why do you have carrots in your ears," Rifless roted.
"They were out of bananas."
Observing Rifless's almost horrific bewilderment, the minute man raised a hand to tap his fingers against his jawline, saying, "Hmm, that didn't go quite right, your timing's way off, y'see. Let 's try something else-- we don't get many Eoithlings up on this moon, y'know."
He waited expectantly, critically squinting over his large, lumpy nose at Rifless, who said nothing, his face a blank.
"Oh, my, my, my, this isn't woiking out right at all. You're supposed to say, 'At these prices, I don't wonder," or, "At these prices you won't get many more.' No, no, this is ridiculousth, you look very uncomfortable. You mind if I make a phone call?"
He reached deep into a spacious pocket of his long coat and pulled out an archaic telecommunications device which Rifless recognized as looking like something he'd seen in a museum in a twentieth century exhibit. The dwarfish character dialed and as he waited, said to Rifless over the covered receiver, "This is all so unexpected, y'see."
Unexpected. Closing his eyes and lifting his head Earthwards, Rifless cried out mockingly inside his head, Credo, how did you tap into my dreams? But, there couldn 't have been time enough to set this up. Or, he wondered, viewing anew the tiny creature before him, is this a scheme of the other side's, a kind of psycho-gambit to confound interlopers? Unlikely, but possible, he thought. He noted as he took in the midget's vibrantly loud outfit once again, the scene certainly bore the East's telltale subtle imprint. No, he realized, this isn't the style typical of either side, too oddball and not military at all. "Something's wrong, here," he murmured, "definitely whacko ."
"My sentimentsth exactly," the puny guy said, pocketing his phone. "Y'know, for one of the Universe's most gifted organisthms, you really haven't been very funny."
"Funny? I'm not trying to be funny."
"Obviousthly. This is all very confusing, y'know. You haven’t acted at all like I would've expected, y'see, not sidesplitting at all. Why, you don't even look like an Eoithling, no stylish pantaloons, no chick sportsth coat, not even a snappy chapeau--where are your nose glassesth, for heaven'sth sake?"
"I left them back in the Scamp." He could have kicked himself as soon as he realized what he'd said.
"Oh. Well, that's something I supposth. But why wear all black? What's funny about a black suit? Don't you have another?" As deja vu rippled through Rifless, the miniature man posed a finger at his lips, then said, "Maybe you're dressed for black humor, maybe?"
Rifless shook his head briskly and waved his gun in an impatient gesture, "Wait a minute, hold it for just one minute. I have no idea what you're talking about. Would you mind explaining to me just who you are, where you come from, and what the hell you're doing up here on the dark side of the moon?" Then, almost as an afterthought, "You're not an Eastern Bloc agent?"
"Coitainly not." He drew himself up to his full four feet and puffed out his chest. "I 'm--," and Rifless missed it, "from--," and again Rifless couldn't make out the name, " in a solar system in what you call the Sthculptor Galaxy, y'see. I'm a commissioned rep for the Aceth Universal Exhibitory Company, Inc., assigned to deliver, assemble, and fine-tune one Model 49A Simplexth Planetary Stasisth Transom on the satellite of the third planet of the G2V star system--that's Eoith, y'know--to resolve the focus of preservation components on the same said planet until such time as the aforementioned preservation process is successthfully initiated."
While eyeing the little runt, Rifless admitted to himself that even though he didn't understand a bit of it, he didn't like the sound of what he was hearing. This munchkin in his daffy clothes and with his flyaway wings for hair unsettled him, caused him a sense of malaise.
"I still don’t get you."
The tiny being said, "I'm here to set up an intergalactic sight," he patted the weird mechanism next to him, "this stasisth transom, y'see, which will allow the Aceth Company to zero in and freeze-dry your planet just as soon as I can get the last bugs out."
With that he turned away and started to fiddle with the strange machinery.
Freeze-dry our planet? Earth? Rifless stared for an instant, then said, "You're nuts, twisted."
"Yes, but don't the suit fit nice?" The dwarf performed a hasty pirouette that ended with him sitting splay-legged on the crater floor, bouncing lightly up and down amid puffs of moondust.
Rifless rolled his eyes and shouted, "Now cut that out!"
The diminutive creature picked himself up, put his hands on his hips, and said, "Well!" With elevated nose, he marched back to his equipment.
Cold sweat began to trickle down Rifless' back as he suddenly comprehended that the clown suit the little goof was so proud of displayed no recognizable EVA elements, and also that he talked freely in vacuum without a discernable radio. Could it be? If so, then what about this stasis thingamajig? He better tread easy, here.
"Uh, listen, could you run that by me again about freeze-drying Eoith--Earth. I mean, you can't be serious."
Peering through some sort of eyepiece on the elaborate rig, the elfin being said, "I'm poifectly seriousth. Too bad you are, too." He backed away, pausing to examine Rifless critically again,"Aceth won't be at all happy about this development, y’know." He took off his glasses and began to wipe them with a multihued handkerchief, first one thick lens, then the other.
"What do you mean?" said Rifless. "Look, why would anyone want to freeze the Earth even if they could?"
"Don't be ridiculousth, of course we can," He continued to polish his glasses, now pulling the linen back and forth through the suddenly vacant eye holes of the frames. "The reason is simple. Aceth wants to preserve all of your planet's marvelous artifactsth and the remnantsth of your unique contribution to the Universth," He raised his glasses over his head for a final inspection, frowned, lowered them to his lapel, and squirted water from his flower onto the lenses, intact again. The water failed to freeze or even bead. Instead, it dripped and splashed off of the glassy specs.
Rifless' knees jellied. "Contribution," he uttered faintly, "what contribution?"
"Don't be silly, coitainly you know? Why, your breathtaking insight into the woikings of life and nature, y'see, your unparalleled perspective on the driving forces of the Costhmosth, y'understand, and your commanding overview of the ruling paradigm of the Universth, all distilled into a single formula, the simple truth manifested by your poifect microcosthmic societal model, also expressed in one simple sentenceth, and I quote, y'know, ‘The world's a funny place.'"
Rifless'brow creased furiously. What? That's the ruling paradigm of the Universe? It's absurd!"
"Exactly. Y'know, f'or a moment there I thought you might be a slow study. You Eoithlings have mastered the Universal sense of the absurd. Astonishing that it originated on such a jerkwater little planet, y'know. Now, everybody recognizesth you as the funniest organisthms in the entire known Universe--after we all developed a sense of humor, that is."
"We're funny," droned Rifless.
"Absolutely hilariousth! The situations, the characterizations, everything, just everything you do sends us into fall-down, roll-around laughter, pealsth and pealsth of the stuff." The petite alien fell down and rolled around as he howled his a-hoo-hoo-hoo signature. He stood up abruptly, propped an elbow on Rifless's gun arm and said straightfaced, "You're very droll y'know ."
Rifless disencumbered his arm while thinking, This yahoo's spent too much time in space without a dome. Maybe he's omnipotent, but some of his jets are misfiring, too. And here he is, talking about putting Earth on ice. So, now what? He gazed at the absurdly attired figure and racked his brain for a way to go, some sort of an approach. At length, he asked, "How did you find out about us?"
The pint-size party stepped back and spread his arms in a "Ta-da!" gesture, "Radio and TV, Rerun after rerun. That’s why I speak your language so poifectly, y'see. It's also why I've been able to represent myself so accurately according to your most sophisticated styles. My appearance has been carefully fashioned after that of some of your greatest statesthmen, the ones we followed most faithfully on your broadcaststh."
Frowning, Rifless said somewhat disdainfully, "You're not dressed anything like Earth's leaders. You don't look like the President, or the Premier, even the People's Chairman."
"Coitainly not, why look like mere pantagrueliststh? Though, they're simply wonderful, too, y'know. Yet, many intergalactic viewers like your monologuesth better, your popesth and prophetsth, your gurus', the World Council of Choiches, I poisonally prefer burlesthque. The simple invention of it, procreation with not one sexth or a thousand, but just two sexesth, both rational except when they're together, and the endless hysterical predicaments they get into, all leading to the madcap sight gags themselves-- they leave me in stitches, the best skits in the Universth!" He sang his falsetto laugh, wiping a few tears away at the end. "But, none compare to your most profound philosophers, supreme role models for us like Bert Lahr, Ed Wynn, Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Red Skelton, and others seen on such great forums of ethicsth as "Your Show of Shows."
Glumly, Rifless said, "I think you've been watching some really old programs."
The miniature clown put a finger to his mouth, "That very well could be. Costhmic interruptions do distort reception sometimes, which could tell a world about your unorthodoxth appearance, y'know. Well, as soon as you Eoithlings perform your grand finale, your greatest joke, and Aceth can open up its planetary exhibitory, we can update all of our shticks. Though, we may not want to update them too much," he finished, gazing pointedly somehow down his big nose up at Rifless.
"You're going to freeze the Earth to make it into a museum," said Rifless. He tried to clap a hand to his brow and only managed to bang his gun off of his deathhead, causing a great clanging din within. "This," he continued, "after we perform our greatest joke. And what might that be, if I might ask, nine billion people slipping on banana peels all at once?"
"That's good, y'know, very good, but hardly as devastatingly funny as destroying your own planet with a nuclear exchange. Now, that's a boffo finish. Too bad you can only do it once."
"What!" cried Rifless, eyes popping white.
"Pleasth, there's no need to shout. Aceth Marketing has projected that, due to your irrepressthible atavistic and aggressthive tendencies, plus an arsenal that could make star systems, you human beings are about to blow your planet up. So, under the Intergalactic Salvage Act, Aceth has poichased the rights to Eoith so that when you let go with the big ones, we can preserve your world, y’ understand, before you destroy all of your wonderful little things. The payoff for Aceth, naturally will come from bringing in tourists to see your lovely crazy planet."
Riflees again felt unsteady on his pins. He sat down on the surface of the crater and put his hands over his head. "My God!" he breathed.
"It's all poifectly legal, y'know, sanctioned by the Intergalactic Commerceth Commission. Aoeth operated completely within ethical bounds--well, maybe there was a little jockeying for position in the grey area to beat out Triple A, but that goes without saying, y’see. Everyone looks the other way in such matters.'
Rifless crouched, understanding too well that Earth's future may have been reduced to two scenarios, exhibition or incineration. He tried to shake loose from the dread looming around him. This little drip could be wrong, he had to be wrong. He wasn't a god, for God's sake, you could tell that just by looking at him. "Listen," Rifless said, "couldn't your marketing people be mistaken about this? I mean, we've maintained a stabilized situation for thirteen years, now. We have peace."
“I've hoid it called that.No, the marketing analysts are always right. Besides, Triple A's prognostications produced the same results, as did a dozen other outfits. You should be proud, y'know, Eoith's a very hot property. Our exoculturalists figured it out just in time, y’see. Irony was the most difficult form of your humor to understand. Ironic, isn't it?" He let loose another barrage of cacophonous, high-pitched laughter.
Rifiess winced in his misery. Drearily he said, "How soon is this supposed to happen?"
The tiny alien pulled an outsize pocket watch from his pants, looked at it, and said, "Oh, it could be anytime now, a year or a day," He put the watch up to his ear, listened, then shook it. "Y 'know, I dropped this watch on the crater floor recently and it stopped. Of course, I didn't expect it to fall all the way through to the bright side, y’'know. A-hoo!"
Anytime now, a year or a day, Rifless repeated silently. He jumped to his feet and nearly soared over the crest of the moonhole. After he 'd regained his footing, he said, "Isn't there any way we can prevent this from happening? Couldn't you go down and explain to the leaders of both sides just what's at stake, what you've predicted?"
"For heaven'sth sake, don't be ridiculousth! That would ruin everything. Aceth only has a one-year option on your planet as it is. Fad's come and go, y'see. Besides, now that I've met you, I know it wouldn't woik."
"Well, why not?" Rifless cried out.
"Who on Eoith would believe me?" The miniscule popinjay again twirled around to display his finery.
"I get your point. But, you convinced me. You could show yourself as you really are. I mean, before you started watching television."
"Out of the question! I refuse to regressth. Also, you people are too comical, you'd simply want to go to war with us."
“No, we're a peaceful people. We're not really warlike."
"Don't be silly, of course you are. After all, y'know, you're the ones about to obliterate yourselves, not us. And you all look alike. I hateto think what you'd do to me if you saw me like I really am.”
Rifless narrowed his eyes, saying,"What do you mean, you're like some kind of lizard or something?"
"I'm the same as you only different. Listen, this has been thrilling, y’understand, but I must get back to woik. The big boom could happen anytime,now, and if I don't have the transom lined up correctly. Aceth could lose the entire exhibit, y'see, and there goes my bonusth. Then the joke'd be on me. A hoo-hoo-hoo!"
The dinky character pranced back to the eyepiece of his machine. Rifless hastened as best as he could over the powdery grey-white basalt to his side. "Wait!" he called out, "you don't know what you're doing!" He searched his mind frantically for an argument to convince the little jerk to stop this madness, knowing full well that pleas for things like itty-bitty children, baby birds, pretty flowers, or his boat, goddamn it, wouldn't do it. Cold, specious logic must prevail, he decided.
"Look at it this way," he said. "If you freeze the Earth, that'll be the end of it. No more funny stuff, no one-liners, no puns, no pratfalls, no more burlesque. And this way you won't even get to see our greatest joke, our big boom. Let Earth be and you'll have the best of both worlds, the continuing human comedy plus the ever-existing possibility of witnessing our grand finale. That hanging over our heads is a joke in itself."
The alien said, "Outside of some splendid colors, y'know, nuclear annihilation isn't much fun. It's the idea of your good -humored self destruction that slays us, y'understand . How could you ever top that? No, y'know, your humor might be growing too refined, vibrating too fast to be seen moving at all." He looked up at Rifless again, "That could explain your odd behavior, y'see. I know there must be something funny about you. I'm just missinthg it ,"
Rifless would've torn his hair out if be could've gotten past his deathhead. "Buddy, I hate to be the one to tell you, but we aren't at all like you think we are. We're completely different. Most of us are not even remotely funny."
"I've noticed," replied the small creature, peeping through the scope again,
"And it’ll be a cold day in hell," Rifless declared, "when we blow ourselves up just to make guys like you laugh."
The alien jerked up, grinning, "That was wonderful, y'know. How did you do that? "
"Time that so poifectly."
''What are you talking about?"
"You making the remark about not blowing yourselves up just as I spotted more of your war vehicles through the transom. Simply amazthing, y'know."
Rifless swept the tiny comic out of the way and looked through the eyepiece. His heart thundered. In the space above the arc of the moon he saw it, big and cylindrical, too big to be a simple station, too regular to be an asteroid. In spite of its disguising blue-black hue, without doubt it was what he 'd learned to fear most in his life, a big colony station. The impossible had happened, the unthinkable had become possible. Probable, to the little twerp next to him.
The pieces all fell into place for him, now. He'd chased a new Eastside scout to the moon's backside, all right. But he'd lost it because the shuttle had continued on to the new colony station, which must be camouflaged, hidden from surveillance sats by the volume of the moon. Meanwhile, he'd stumbled upon this dopey alien shrimp and his goofy preserving machine. A year or a day, he thought gloomily. He wondered if the little twit knew how close the big finale could be now? With razor-sharp clarity, Rifless realized that he had to get back to Base to warn them all of what was in store for the Earth. He'd need proof, though, and the best available was the tiny goon himself.
He swallowed hard,thinking, the little runt must have powers beyond imagining. No matter, he'd have to try for the sake of the home planet. Perhaps the squirt's savoir faire had made him careless, unprepared for an attack by a lowly human. That was the lowly human’'s only chance, he thought. Still clinging to the transom for stability, Rifless spun around and leveled his power gun once again.
"Mister, it pains me greatly to have to do this, but I have no choice. Get 'em up."
The alien held still for an instant, then began to giggle. Rifless said, "Laugh all you want, sport, but start walking. I'm taking you back Homeside."'
The dinky man began to laugh fully now, saying, "Good, y'know, pricelessth."
"What, are you completely nuts? If you don't get a move on, I'm going to blast you."
The alien fell down and began rolling around in silent, helpless laughter.
"Goddamn it!" Rifiess lurched for him, and the wee fellow rolled just out of reach. Rifless made another stab and another, but every time the tiny creature seemed to squirm somehow just out of his grasp, like a fish loose in a boat.
Rifless stepped back in chagrin. He knew he couldn't shoot the little drip, that would be the end of his star witness. He also realized that he couldn't stay much longer, but that he couldn't leave the alien here to finish setting up his gear either. Finally, he decided. He began to stalk up the side of the crater.
"Wait," the alien called after him, gasping for breath between bouts of laughter, "Don't go. I understand now, y'see. I recognizthe your routine, now--deadpan!" He collapsed in hilarity again.
At the top of the crater, Rifless turned, kneeled, braced his gun arm, and fired six rounds into the stasis transom. He waited until he saw plumes of smoke puff up from the mechanism, then he quickly rolled down the outside slope of the rim. He bounded back as fast as he could to the Scamp, thinking as he leaped that the alien couldn't freeze the Earth now until he fixed his equipment. That might give Base enough time to send personnel up with more effective means of corralling the slippery squirt. Meanwhile, Rifless bore heavily the knowledge that the Earth again faced extinction, the last joke, without even the alien 's repulsive alternative of preservation left, thanks to himself. A year or a day, he thought. He hoped to God it was more like a year.
The journey back to Earth lasted forever, though no more time than usual had elapsed on the read out. Finally, he ordered the Scamp onto the approach vector down to Home Base. To his surprise, a flight of fighter scouts intercepted him and escorted him down to the runway. When he emerged from his Superscamp, he found a cordon of Paralethal troopers encircling his craft. Base Commander General Steelton headed them up with Credo at his elbow.
"Paralethal Captain Rifless, you're under arrest for flight in an unauthorized area without proper clearance."
During interrogation, he discovered that the Scamp had never received clearance from Command Center. Repeatedly and repeatedly, he told them his story, and again and again they asked him what he'd been doing on the dark side of the moon. He pleaded with them to check his flyer's tapes for proof, but they simply ignored him. They'd confined him in the nearest building to the runway, a service shack. So sensitive was the nature of his crime that they feared putting him in the brig where he could talk to others.
For the nth time they demanded his story, and he ran through it almost mechanically. As he addressed their stony, disbelieving faces, again telling them of a wildly-dressed alien dwarf with a lisping, East Coast urban accent whose every other sentence led into a terribly corny old joke, the story grew more absurd in his own mind. The only part of it that grabbed his inquisitors’ interest came from his mention of the colony. Steelton and the interrogator exchanged the barest of glances, which meant the world to Rifless. But then the questioning resumed without further reference to the Station. Finally, they left him alone.
The little punk was right, he realized, they never would have believed him to be an alien. They only wanted to hear about their own obsessions, deadly space colonies and all the rest. He was the only one, he knew now, who ever would have believed in the alien. And here he was, locked away while the Earth turned toward what could be its last night.
He had to get out. He had to get a ship and bring that alien back, shoot him if he had to. Biologists would confirm his story. Then they would believe him, and only then would they consider an end to this insanity. He'd take the next guard, he decided, and bolt out to steal a ship. The next guard, come what may.
Credo walked in and sat down on the cot they'd brought into the little shack. He wore his black satin flight suit and carried his deathhead tucked under one arm. He leaned back and propped a boot against the wall. Rolling his helmet from one hand to the other over his hard belly, he said, "Rifless, you ass. What the hell were you doing up on the moon?"
"Credo, I've told the truth. All they have to do is go up and take a look. I'm positive that the little guy's still there, I crippled his machine, I swear it's so, right might!"
"Yeah, right might," Credo said, still playing with his headgear.
Rifless sat down next to the supine Credo and said, "Credo, you could do it. You could convince the Big Picture Boys to send someone up to look for the alien. Or if they won't buy that, to look for the colony yourself. I don't care what excuse you use. I’m asking you to help, Credo, and not for my sake, I know better than to ask for myself. The world's at stake, Credo, do it for the world."
Credo eyed Rifless with unveiled contempt. "For the world," he said acidly. "Oh, they're going to send someone up to look, Rifless, not to worry about that. They're sending me. But not to look for any alien or the colony."
"I don't get you," Rifless said warily.
'We know the colony's out there," Credo said calmly, "because it's ours. The colony's our very own," He waited for what he thought would be stunning news to sink in. "And you stumbled on to it. Figure you to think it was the Reds'," he sighed, "as if they could muster up the technology to build and hide such a sophisticated structure. The ship you chased is ours, too, Rifless. Couldn't you even have figured that out?"
Mortified, Rifless said, "What difference does it make who built the damn thing? The balance is gone, now. When the East finds out, they'll pull the trigger, just like we would. Then, we'll all be screwed. And I fixed it so the little alien dude can't stop it even if it did mean the deep freeze."
Credo shook his head pityingly, "Don't you have any faith in America? We're going to win this thing, Rifless. We 're on our way, mighty right about that."
Rifless slumped forward on the bunk, wringing his hands between his knees,
''Now , this so-called alien is another matter, old buddy. "
The timbre of Credo's voice had changed to one heavy with lethality, and Rifless tensed slightly, newly alert.
"Of course, we hardly believe there's an alien up there. I mean, really, you should've been able to put together a better story than that, No, the prevailing theory is that who or whatever's up there is pink, Rifless, and that you are, too."
"Geniuses," Rifless muttered, "you guys are all geniuses."
"Maybe, maybe not," Credo nodded, sitting up now with his helmet propped on his knee, "Whatever, the feeling is that the claptrap shown on your Scamp's moon tapes is some sort of surveillance device, maybe a transmitter, too. Naturally, the Big Picture Boys can't be sure just what it is, so I'm going up to check it out. I've been given a long-range cruiser so I can hang around for as long as it takes to see who comes up after it next. Still, we'd all like to know why you were there in the first place. To pick up the goods, maybe, the proof of the colony's existence?"
Rifless remained motionless, his sight fixed upon his feet.
“C'mon, Rifless, hup-hup to the port. For old times sake, tell me, what should I look out for up there?"
Rifless stared coldly at Credo, then said, "Look out for a pigmy alien, Credo, with floppy shoes on his feet and carrots in his ears,"
Credo frowned, then stood up and sneered, "I knew you were stupid, Rifless, but not this stupid. Tell me, when did the Reds turn you? No answer, huh? Well, let me leave you with one last thought. If I don't find this rig out there, then our people will know that the Eastern Bloc know. And our people won't wait around for them to push the button first, Rifless. So, you better hope I find it and its videos, too, or you can spend the rest of your miserable life thinking of how you cost us the peace, Rifless, you alone."
He turned to leave and Rifless began to stand, suddenly bolting upright with his forearms crossed in front. He hit the bottom of Credo's deathhead, sending the top of it into his chin. Credo started to drop and Rifless guided him to a silent landing on the cot. He grabbed the helmet and bashed Credo in the head three times. He wiped the blood off of the black plastic shell with a sheet from the bunk and quickly exchanged clothing with the limp man. After rolling Credo on the bed so that he faced the wall, he then slipped on the deathhead and pounded on the door for the guard to let him out.
No one stopped him as he made his way to the long-range cruiser posed on the mass-ack pad. He climbed in, secured his harness, and signaled for lift-off. Even as he felt the crush of acceleration, he heard the alarms' shrill sounds through his communication channel. When he reached Topside, General Steelton spoke to him.
"Captain Rifless, I order you to return to Base to face charges. All corridors to the Eastern Bloc are guarded. You cannot escape. Return now or risk worldwide consequences,"
Rifless switched off the channel. Let them guard the corridors to the East, he was going to the moon to find and bring back that runt alien. He just hoped he could get there in time.
An hour and a half out, his ship rang another alert, a different kind. Rifless drew breath and held still as though he never meant to expel air again. He released his breath with a whoosh and ordered the ship to display a simulation of Earth, including vector enhancement. Unwillingly, he recognized the telltale cluster of light points rising in each hemisphere, thousands from each side, crossing paths, some flashing to signify the impact of interception, but most of them plunging down to their opposites' quarters. Eventually, the lines crisscrossing on the screen formed little ribboned bows that neatly packaged the Earth.
Rifless howled his horror in anticipation of the series of pure white flashes that would pock the Earth on his screen, simulating the complete destruction of the home planet. He'd blundered utterly, he realized, he 'd brought on the catastrophe and he'd failed miserably to bring the alien around in any useful way. Shamelessly, he wailed his misery knowing that he had brought about Earth's end.
His wailing became a droning moan as puzzlement usurped his grief. No white flashes had appeared on his screen. Earth seemed to float placidly as always. He asked the ship for a live view of the planet. All seemed peaceful on the blue orb. He then requested a picture of the world at the time of the missile strikes. Again, the blue ball appeared and, though of course he couldn't see the missiles themselves at this distance, he waited expectantly for the nuclear flashes, which should've been easy to spot. Nothing changed, except for a subtle wavering on the screen, a slight distortion.
His hands lay flat on the console in front of him. He knew, now. The alien had been able to put his stasis machine back together in time after all, if it ever really had been out of commission. Earth was a frozen museum and all her people were artifacts. Perhaps he alone was the only remaining conscious person, unless the colony somehow had eluded suspended animation. He would go there and present his case. He had plenty of proof to offer this time that he'd been telling the truth all along.
Four days later, Rifless ordered the ship to dig a hole big enough to house it in the side of the crater where the alien stasis transom rested. Once finished, he maneuvered the cruiser inside, with its weapons facing the crazy structure of the transom. Then he covered the entrance with moon dust, doing his best to match the texture of the surrounding wall. He crawled into a small tunnel he'd left to the ship filling it in behind him. He positioned himself at the console to wait.
The colony had been frozen, too. He'd walked among the people amid their belongings, all caught in stride by the alien paralysis. After admitting to himself that no one else was awake, he 'd returned to the crater to force the alien to restore Earth to normal. But, only the machine occupied the floor. It was then that he'd decided to hide in the wall.
One of them would have to show up, he insisted to himself, to service the machine or dust the museum before the flow of tourists started up. It was just a matter of time, and the cruiser could support him for the rest of his life. When an alien did arrive, he'd persuade him to compromise, to restore Earth to normal, maybe turn it into some kind of zoo. Not a perfect solution, he knew, but it was a lot better than the new status quo. If the little creep refused, then he’d kill him. All he had to do was wait and watch, watch and wait, right might.
Consoled by his resolve, Rifless barred daydreams from his mind of white canvas sails over deep blue water. Instead, he stared unfalteringly at the ship's screen, which reflected back his expression of immutable starkness and fear glazed over.
In space throughout the Local Group Cluster, a psionic billboard emitted the following directional:
ACETH EXHIBITORY COMPANY, INC.
The Comedic Spectacular EOITH:
The Origin of Humor in the Universe
Now the Greatest Planetary Exhibit Ever
SPECIAL GRAND OPENING DISPLAY!
The Straight Man in the Moon :
Alive and Animated
Book now, offer limited to visitors for first sixty years.
Paid for by the Aceth Exhibitory Co., y'know.