When Maggots Wag Their Tails

Steve Sneyd

I don't believe in fortune-telling but it still makes sense to hedge your bets.

And Madame Pomfreeti was so handy, with her portable dome illegally parked just a few yards outside the gate to Moonbase.

So, already drunk enough to be prepared for takeoff on any normal mission, I let the nagging unease that had spoiled this last night of leave drag me into her parlor, seeing as I still had a few minutes till check-in.

She greeted me like an old friend. Went through the age-old spiel that led me to pay her in advance without anything so vulgar as talk of money. Talked to the simvoice holocrystal, mumblingly, and without letting me hear any of the replies other than a faint grasshopper chirp.

And she shook me rigid by offering me my money back.

Even staggering as a Venusian rock-gobbler (it's only in the kids' serials that us lads on Farscout take off sober--they don't even bother to frisk us any more, just hope we'll sober up before the autolaunch patterns run out and we have to think, and if they don't, just add us to the mounting "missing in action" roll of what they call "Honor"--the grey bastards), even in that state, I knew things had to be bad in my stars.

Madame Pomfreeti was notoriously as greedy as 10 Moonbase whores put together, and that's saying something.

"Go on, you can tell me, my guts can take it," I said. She just snuffled, oddly, dryly what most people would've taken for artiassisted breathing or the more subtle for laughter--but which I realized with an even colder sense of shock was tears.

I pleaded, wheedled, offered a bribe of double the fee. All she'd admit, vouchsafe, before the screech of the prelaunch siren told me I was late already, was that the comet in the sky was wagging its tail like a dog. Its wagging came because it was due to be fed--the implication, which she never stated, was that the food was us.

I laughed as if I meant it, tossed her a good-luck ring I'd grown to hate (from the job on Serion that at the time seemed a triumph of gallantry and now to my wiser, older self seemed just one more mug's job, honest men opening a safe door so the thieves of Interstar Corp. could rob a whole world blind). Rushed to the gates, my faceplate grey with the sweat of haste and dizzy-making, held-in-too-long vomit (tradition is you never spew except in front of a fellow Farscout, lowers our image, shit) and got aboard the United Earth so quick that BaseComm had no time to make his prepared speech of complaint at my lateness.

United Earth--"Unutterable Excrement" we called her, a model two decades out-of-date, but the grey bastard wouldn't spend money as long as they could find fools like us crazy enough to take her up.

Edlin, boy of the crew, still hipped on the excitement of it all, wanted to tell me all about some new incredible gymnastic bit he'd picked up on the Street of Seven Delights in sunny downtown Lunaburg.

Gret, our greying engineer, just wanted me to shut Edlin up so he could sleep his own skinful off.

I activated the Shipcom, pressed on override for what I hoped would be the noisiest takeoff we'd ever made, just to, blow the ears off the shit rat desk jockey of a Base Comm and his team of brown-tongued satellites.

Grabbed a random handful of knockout pills from my emergency reserve, disguised as a 3-D mockup of the Union Stone at Thule, in case creepy VIPs or nosy bloody brass ever crept on board. And flaked out as soon as my head hit the Pilot Seat.

The dreams were awful: dead bones bestriding whole galaxies, leering down at me like decaying children blocking the only escape from a tomb. And wolves with leather wings, and Madame Pornfreeti with snot down to her waist, and worms up her open invitation. And BaseComm saying he had fallen in love with me, his breath thick with the smell of an advanced case of Martian noserash. You'd have had the same yourself, if you've ever been unfortunate enough to drink within a light-year of Moonbase and its amateur paradise distillers. I surfaced, head splitting (perhaps I'd picked the wrong pills), to the alarm crying havoc.

The chart showed us still three days from the end of autolaunch, three days before the grey bastards' idiot security system was supposed to spew our "sealed orders" at us, three days before I was supposed to have to think again.

I slammed the "Shut off alarm" button. Blessed hush descended, and, as far as the little threads systematically tightening my eyebrows permitted, I looked around to see what could have set the damn thing off.

Edlin still lay like a baby, mouth fish-wide behind his helmet. The poor kid must have been to far gone in dreams of his new baby dreamboat to take it off when United Earth's stinking atmo embraced us. Certainly, the suithand on the fly of his space armour showed where his thoughts were. Gret had gone to sleep on his much-embraced copy of Trout Streams of North America. When you work three in a team for months on end, you soon learn not to make jokes about quirks like that; or if you can't resist comment, at least smile when you speak. There are plenty of permanent orbiting corpses out beyond the edge of any investigation, plausibly written off in logbooks, that long ago would have learned better if they had been given time to learn. Right, crew O.K., or as near as they ever were.

Instruments, all smiles. No problem there. United Earth might be a bitch, but she seemed no bitchier than usual. And the all-vital airtight signal was Aces, O.K. Right, it must be outside in the Great Nothing, whatever had upset the digestion of old Uey's sensors and set her screeching "Rape Murder Help Whose that dame I saw you with last night you can't do that to my darling baby."

The star chart showed us neat and clean in the middle of the Great Dark, nearly as far from Sol as from Prox, and no help from either if we blew it.

Check the ports.

What they never show you ground lice on the thriller serials is that the bastard ports always give you a view that is blurred to crap and gone--like a beautiful woman's face, gone, really old. Sure, in theory the things are indestructible. In practice, Sod's Law makes sure they stain and warp and frost--but never quite enough so that the pennypinchers safe at Accounts Department could ever come up with a replacement.

Port 1--black blank with twinkles--Ditto 2, and 3, and 4, and 5, and 6, and 7, and 8, till I thought I was looking at an endless series of Negro minstrels with white-washed eyes and teeth in one of those old "Know the Culture of Your Planet" orientation things they put us on when there is no mission to perform and they're scared stiff of some investigation team spotting the fact that we're happily doing nothing.

Two ports to go--9, something, rub futilely at glass, adding no clarity. Anyway, something huge hung between us and the view of nowhere in particular and all its loathsomely picturesque stars.

Right, monitors out.

Buttons away, and off into space would be whizzing the guideline, the minijetter, and, sat on them like a hunch on a hunchback, the pickup camera.

Blur there too, at first. I cursed, then got the focus.

Gret muttered behind me, "Whazzat . . . no, 28 kilos, took me two hours to land her . . . freefall fishing . . . you can't describe mumble mumble challenge."

He'd be a fine help.

Anyway, me and old Uey see us through. Shape on the screen, growing . . .

Protuberance.

Jagged, like giant icicles; part of . . . what whole . . . ?

Must be drifting relative, or maybe the pickup camera was self-maneuvering, or Uey moving it (the bitch always thought she new best).

Another protuberance. More icicley things, not gleaming like metal in faint startshine. No, more matt--furry, hairy, I don't know. Some of those women in Lunaburg have animal hair transplants in places I needn't name, just to be a bit more unusual to us jaded spacefarers and heroes of romance, you name it, I'll spew on it. Anyway, like that.)

Dogged, what was that? Reached for control, get camera back, further back. Get a whole view.

A shit-ratting eye, faceted. Christ, the bastard must be half a kilometer from side to side. Basecrap, and it was turning, turning, following us with its gaze . . . .

Something blurred at the camera, camera moved, vast confusing motion blur. Things like huge wings, more legs, giant body, some kind of goddamn. . . . "Dog-god, Edlin, Gret, wake up! A giant bloody wasp or something, Christ! It had to be bad for me to go so far back into my chauvinist childhood before the Earth Union for a swear word strong enough to meet my feelings. Blur, crunch, poor old camera eye gone, blank. I missed it now that it was dead, like a pet. Uey's alarm bell started again. (I didn't blame it, I would have screamed myself if I wasn't in command.) Five Kilometers long if it was a goddamn centimeter . . . dogged . . . it turned slowly, even through the blurred port it was a vast menace, shrinking as it turned head on. Twin eyes now huge, swelling, approaching the port.

I pressed evasive action buttons madly.

While some irrelevant factor of my mind spun up a too-late answer.

Comet that wagged its tail like a dog--Burnham 1960-11, waybackwhen--curiosity of pre-flight era . . . .

Wasps wag their tails like dogs when stinging . . . .

How had the bastard gotten so BIG!

Gret and Edlin awake now, shrieking along with me inarticulate encouragement to the computer control as it dived, swirled, whirled the ship in random patterns, while against all logic the view of that creature, framed now in one port, now another, now several, now many, closed closed closed on us. "Come on Uey, come on old bitch, come on beauty, come on baby, you can do it, lovely, come on, come on, COME ON!"

Wasp, dog, comet . . . what in common? Crazy men's mind, yeah, that must be it, some bastard, some grey bastard who hated us had bred this thing to waylay us and our ship.

"Like a maggot to a fish," Gret said reflectively, as the huge shape grew horribly, spreading like a sore all across our view.

I was tempted to shout at him, "You and your goddamn shit-ratter fish, you old wreck!

Restrained myself, clenching hands on edge of control panel, wondering against all logic if really those dogged holo-hokum thrillers were really right and a human being like me could just maneuver a bit faster and crazier and better at space-wasp-nightmare-beating than old Uey . . . . And Edlin shouted, "Come on, girl, ride, ride, I'll pay you double if you stay astride," as if he was back in Lunaburg under the one who had her eye on his last pay.

And the two things clicked.

And I knew answer . . . .

And pressed one last button and said, very softly, into a depression like a dimple on the panel, a private modification of my own, "Commander, Gret and Edlin and I are dead--dead in your wasp--and she has laid us in your bones as eggs and we will be with you forevermore."

And looked out the port again.

And laughed out loud.

The creature was gone as if it had never been there.

Back at base, BaseComm, if I knew him, would be desperately torn between covering his tracks for what he'd done and seeking a psychiatrist or drug merchant for some totally hallucinatory or oblivious mental balm. Fair enough, I hadn't known he would have tapped a direct simultaneous beam into Uey's port and remote camera transmits, to feed it illusions.

But he hadn't known I'd planted a reverse-direction beam receiver, equally simul over light-years' galore, onto his uniform.

Honors even.

As for poor old bitch Uey, well she was past it. How could you blame her for believing in a nightmare dream?

Pomfreeti--the bait to get me in the mood--well, she had, old businesswoman, at least tried to give me my money back, so her conscience must've pricked a bit over backing up BaseComm's trick.

So, BaseComm tried to take us for a ride, or me, mainly, seeing's I'd so often gotten unceremoniously under his hide. And Gret and Edlin had clued me in, plus my own subconscious. Now we had a mission to do, a world to win or lose, for Interstar and all the other greedy creeps.

"Wagons roll," I said, and set another of my modifications to work. The shipboard still that shouldn't have been there, either. Uey would oblige; she loved me. As for BaseComm, to

dream up a trick like this he must be human, not just one of the grey bastards like I'd thought.

As for whether (when I got back) I'd hire one of the gentle maidens of Lunaburg to poison him with some slow imperceptible bane, or better still--cheaper, less dangerous, in the long run more painful--to just laugh at him in the full swing of his oafish delights, well, that'd depend how I felt when and if we all got back.

After all, I knew now he was one of us, not one of them.

A spaceman, not Earth scum.

And until then . . . .

Well, we had three days to whoop till orders came. Three days to find BaseComm's override tapline and blow it out, or alter it to my own use (a bird in the hand, perhaps) and three days to make Uey drunk as us, and three days to drink to wasps that never werem. . . .

"To wasps." Dutifully Gret echoes, "To wasps," gaze already straying to his scaly book of dreams. "To wasps," Edlin echoes, eyes turning inward already onto Lunaburg flesh.

Both are still puzzled, but they won't ask what I did. They trust me, you see. Like Uey, they would trust me anywhere, to any task.

Nevertheless, since the time is not ripe, I keep my next toast to myself, smiling as nice as pie at both of them:

"And to the day we stop biting Earth's enemies." Gret, Edlin, now faintly puzzled why I laughed so uncontrollably much, so much I nearly choked on the fiery draught, "and bite overripe Earth instead . . . Drink, lads . . . drink to the starmen's final joke."

 

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