BOOK ONE - DIE!
CHAPTER ONE - ARRIVAL
And this is the pain that is in the becoming...
The belly of the snake's a coil that's been said to stretch away - as if towards infinity - by the pioneers who rode without protection and returned. Only a few, and all maddened some way or another by the journey... changed! It shines white, blinding with quantum light... the quight... a bumpy, slithery corridor into Otherness that even now, occasionally, proves a one-way ticket (a situation not lost on the small crew of the transportship Aegelweiss). White and swirling cyan spirals buffet the crew... Turpin and Broonzy, Umbarger and Captain Munson, strapped securely into their pods... masked against the bright, blindfolded, necks and limbs fettered to prevent any inconvenient movement as might shake Aegelweiss against the border of the snake. A mishap that's shredded transports without number, fightercraft, too, even great, blimplike passenger vessels... everyone knows the story of that stimstar with the enormous appendage as wiggled so violently that the ship veered and bumped the snake, allowing gravity to stretch out crew and passengers like taffy. Apocryphal, but... newsplasma full of grisly accidents every dia. Quight catastrophes, victims torn and twisted - hammered like processed tin or pressed into shapes as mock every law of Relativity.
Turpin squeezes his eyes even more tightly shut, but the quight is relentless; it drills through his skull, into his brain... and he knows that, unmanacled, he'd be unable to prevent himself from moving, scratching at the ferocious itching and, so, expose himself to unimaginable forces of time and gravity that will elongate a man to string or press him down to the size of a pebble... stretching out the duration of agony to a near-approximation of infinity.
The Antedispersal prophets of Hellfire and eternal torment... Dante, Prometheus and old Jonathan Edwards... they would certainly have smiled at the rapacity of the snakes. But it is no God who has set such opportunity for mayhem and terror into being but His bastard heir, Science.
There is a soft, barely audible POP and pressure escapes the snakers' sinus cavities like a retreating tide... Turpin blinks, moves his thumb to release himself from the confines of the pod and sneezes. On the transport's rear monitor, the flaming aurora of a white ring rapidly recedes... the forward view, mounted to simulate a window out onto the universe, displays a cluster of three stars locked in a complicated, yet precise orbital dance... the red giant Dhubaaht, yellow Ankhubaaht and the dwarf Yamsu (the cluster that comprises Vespertilio 52 on starmaps, usually shortened, in the vernacular, to Doobeedoo). One of the smaller screens, magnified, is fixed upon a gaseous, green planet; three others, having been damaged in the transit, show only a variegated, hissing snow.
Munson slaps the monitor console but merely manages to excite the whirring, hissing noise into dangerous, antic frenzy. "Rawth!" he curses in a precise, almost erudite Terran... the Captain, at first glance, seems plud (that is, one of the pureblooded homo-saps, unamalgamated with Terran animal strains grafted onto the human genomes over more than five centuries). Only his height and closer scrutiny reveals the discreet tracings around his mouth and ears... aspects of lion and, Turpin suspects, walrus. His apelike navigator, Umbarger, frees himself from the pod and approaches, sweating and sputtering, shaking his shaggy head... beyond the green giant, a smaller, orange globe with dark polar blotches emerges, the sole inhabited planet. It has a formal name, Dubankyaia (but, a consequence of cultural nostalgia at Regency Headquarters, it's simply known as Doobydie... Die, for short). Between these planets looms a field of flaming, soiled advertisements hawking ointments, credit cards and beer, and Munson grunts at the ignobility of it all.
Umbarger grasps the vocodor, clears his throat. "Tao City Spaceport, this is Aegelweiss. Come in! Come in, tower…" A violent spasm of static replies... Umbarger slaps the console with a hairy palm; Munson strikes it with his closed fist. The static squeals, fades... one of the monitors even clears up, a little...
"Tao City tower, anyone receiving?
"Affirmative!" replies a bureaucratic voice - synthesized, simulated. Not a chance of identifying regionality or pedigree of digitized speakers. Turpin shakes his head, his sinuses throbbing with the sudden vacancy of realspace. He takes a tentative step away from the pod...
"Tao City to vessel, identify yourself..."
"This... uhhh..." begins the Navigator...
"Can't just slap at it, Bum. Got to beat the demon," Munson argues, "knock the jammin' wickedness out of it."
"If you say so, Cap'n..."
going on, up there," the digitized voice demands to know. "This is
Umbarger slaps the console again. "If we don't respond, they might shoot!"
Munson balls his fist, striking the console twice, thrice and the static flees in a squealing rout. "This is the Transporter Aegelweiss," Umbarger repeats, "commercial identification M-twenty four, P-fifty six, twenty two...
"Uh... did you say T, as in Tango-fifty six?" the automatonic groundling interrupts.
"Negative!" Umberger spits back. "P... as in Penis... P-fifty six, twenty two."
"Copy, Aegelweiss, M-twenty four,
P... as in Pony... fifty six, twenty two. Uh... we have traffic, and then there's
weather. I can clear you for oh-six
hours thirteen, soytime. Return notification at oh-six hours for
approach instructions," orders the
"Roger." Umbarger kills the comline and sets the vocorder down, out of breath. "Forty minutes to touchdown. I'm out of shape. Take a soyweek to get my feet back under me again."
Munson breathes heavily, leonine aspects now prominent in the flaring of his nostrils. The Captain looks to Turpin, then Broonzy... still tangled, somehow, in the pod harnassing... and gives his head a shake. On the second monitor, a crimson geyser of sparks seems to pour from the seemingly empty sky into a tiny, dark speck, a dark cylinder, and Turpin edges closer to the console...
"Be ready for touchdown by six-oh-five, and that means having all of your papers in order," Munson warns his crew. "Don't want you clowns stumblin' round, knocking into each other five minutes before touchdown like a jammin' Cygnese fire drill... what the jam are you looking at, Turpin?"
Broonzy has finally sloughed off the clinging harness... stumbles, does an awkward little dance across the floor and raises his long, mournful face to the bank of monitors. The taurine and equine aspects are visibly pronounced there, but his legs lack the grace of the latter or power of the former; he slaps a heavy, callused hand down over Turpin's shoulder.
"Never seen a jammin' neon cache bein' worked before?"
Umbarger turns with a cough. "What do you think they put in all those jammin' signs out there, tellin' you what sort of toothpaste to buy, which Regency cards to use. Strawberry jelly?"
"I like strawberry jelly," Broonzy objects, causing the Captain to slap his forehead, barely remembering to retract his claws.
"Idiot snakers the Company allows the Guild to send me..."
"Turpin wasn't that bad," Umbarger shrugs, "for... what was it, boy, your second mission? Third? He can manage a few simple subroutines, and he can get from there to here without falling over his own feet, most times..."
Broonzy's barrel-chest heaves under the light blue fabric of his scrubs, with the insignia of an ordinary snaker, second-class. "That have somethin' to do wit' me?"
"Maybe," Umbarger allows...
"Maybe I see you," Broonzy replies, "down below."
"Maybe you do."
"Papers!" Munson reminds his navigator and the snaker before difficulties escalate; he wouldn't be the first transport commander busted down because the boarding officers walked in on a blood-flowing, slip-sliding brawl. "Mess up your forms and the Company will hold back your credits."
"You get what you pay for," Umbarger sneers.
"Ain't that the truth?" the Captain thinks, but finds it providential not to vent his opinion of the snakers, so close to touchdown. And something else has crossed his mind, too, an ancient shadow... "Demonios!"
Turpin finds a partially cleared spot on a shelf jutting out from the galley to spread out his landing documents - there are a few smears of nutropaste and what seems to be dried ale, most certainly left by Broonze. The plasma is smart and interactive, but there's a bug in the programming... when Turpin fills in his times, the figures start to blink and the self-correcting mechanisms flicker out. Big, blue smears are streaking across everything when he throws down his styl, gathers the plasma sheets up to his chest and scurries towards the foredeck. Umbarger has begun retracting the thick shields that protect the deck windows from space junk and dust that can be deadly, even when microscopic... the revealed vista's a gauntlet of advertising flame, proselytizations for Kreml Elixirs, moodboxes by Guillant and Klown World streaking through the holosphere, just as suddenly, gone.
Aegelweiss touches down as a feather over a featherbed - "ugly, red rock!" is Umbarger's only remark to Turp and Broonzy - a sort-of apology for their mandatory confinement in their pods, depriving them of a view of landing. And then they are on the ground, and the hurrying season is at hand.