BOOK ONE - DIE!

 

CHAPTER FOUR -  INVICTUS

 

Wiping the sex from their bones, Turp and Broonzy send off the heathers and then, clad in sober daysuits from the Yasrick's closet, shuffle down to Grand Hall of the casino. Broonzy's vice quickly proves to be a certain gaming table where tiny, numbered silvery balls bounce and hover… apparently at the random pulsing of a force field (though certain losers swear there's a midget, hiding under the nufelt, rigging the game in favor of the house).  Balls carom off one another until, now and then, one disappears in a puff of smoke or clatters to the table.  When only one survives, the croupier rakes in the losers' chips,

Turpin frowns.

          "Told you I was no good at table games," he complains. "Let's get out of here, look for a sports window. There's no skill involved at this, at this... everything's random…"

          "You don't think you can lose your money faster at a sports window than at Farwhee?" Broonzy grins, half an hour later.  He's won some, lost some, and Turpin suspects he's slipped a few soys to the dwarf beneath the table.

          "Ain't doin' so well, here…"

          "Your funeral," Broonzy declares, glaring defiantly as he lays down five more five-soy chips on Ball Seven.  Turpin nods.

          "Catch you later, then."  He elbows his way through the casino throng towards the sports windows, stationed by the wall. Screens positioned under the ceiling, depict the Quattledrome on the outskirts of Tao City where tiny jockeys struggle to guide creatures seeming to be part bird, part snake into stalls. On other screens, odds are posted. Turpin picks the longest longshot, pushing five dark chips at the uniformed sports desk chancellor…

          "Six to win," he says, reaching the head of the line…

          "Eighty to one," the chancellor informs him.  Turp nods and the chancellor gives him his receipt - Turpin closes his fist around it, sidles away to a place under one of the distant screens where there's only one other gambler.  He's a little hyde of distinctly rodentine aspect… long whiskers, prominent teeth and big, black, bulging eyes leaping out of a sharp, pale face.  He smiles wanly, but with a certain covetousness that makes Turpin grip his receipt all the harder, wondering what godforsaken mission required the boys in the lab to cook up such an unpleasant genetic cocktail.

          "Enjoy the feel of it while you can!" the ratman mocks, and Turpin can't help glaring back as if to ask if the jim's really talking to him.

          "You're gonna lose. Sorry… I'd have taken Invictus at twenty to one myself, but only if I was there, at Quottledrome, and saw the trainer shoot him up with gus with my own eyes."

          "You're full of rawth!… gus makes a quottle simmer down. Why would any trainer do that, unless he was trying to fix his company?  Or something else, equally jammed..."

          "Watch! Invictus pulls right, and he's a vicious sum'jim. Dromers keep entering 'im because he starts fights, and that's what people come out to see, next to the gambling. You can't tell what he's up to, or what he's been shot full of on a screen…"

          "And you can, at the Drome?  By smell…"

          "Sometimes.  Mostly by what's in 'is eye... how he walks, snaps at trainers.  Maybe I take a walk back of the stables, see something I oughtn't.  You look like a snaker… me, I was born... well, that's beside the point... but folks here tend to call me Rateyes. Can't argue with 'em, can I?"  He extends a clawlike hand and Turpin shakes it, warily.

          "Ordinary Snaker Turpin. Off the cargoship Aegelweiss…"

          "From across the Eagle…"

          "Ursa Majoris. Hauling nishnash… tons of 'em, supposed to come back with frozen meth but the Regents condemned us…

          "Crooked jammers!"

          Rateyes seems to have plenty more to say about the Regency but, at that very instant, the screens rattle with the starting bell and flying serpents lunge out of their gates. Number six starts fast, but begins drifting right, just as Rateyes warned… there is a puff of smoke and a screech as Invictus brushes the force field and rears back, knocking three other slow-starting quottles off their trajectories.  All four begin clawing and biting at each other while their jockeys struggle to stay aloft, grasping the reins with their left hands, slicing at one another with the electroprods in their right. The rest of the field is long gone.

"If it was fighting instead of racing those chancellors took wagers on, your chips would blue. Invictus... he's a mean one, probably killed three, four jocks, crippled a bunch of others besides quottles.  They enter him in order to take out anything that might threaten the stable's real contenders.  And his jock's simple pirate scum..."

In fact, a blow from Turpin's quottlejock's sends a rival sprawling in the dust and Invictus dives upon him with claws and teeth bared, seizing the luckless jim and shaking him as dogs kill rats in the Myelore pits.  Dismounting, the beast’s own rider whales away at the screaming jim impaled on the teeth of Number Six... eighty to one!... with his prod until yellow and black security vans swarm the track to separate the fighting, screaming beasts and toss the limp, bloodied jockey into the back of a hovertruck.  A roan-feathered quott with the silks of the same outfit as the mad Invictus crosses the line two lengths ahead and the gray chips in Turpin's hand dematerialize into a little pile of dust.

'That's why a look behind the track at the Drome's so much better than watchin' screens in some jammin' casino.  Take you there some day, and you can see for yourself…"

          "Why would you do that?" Turpin asks Rateyes, bewildered.

"Dunno, I get these occasional spiezures of benevolence. Doesn't last. You gonna try winning your soys back?" the ratman winks.

Turpin shakes his head.  "I gotta friend…"

          "Get him, I'll stand you both to drinks."

Rateyes opens his fist, and Turpin sees at least a dozen blue chips within, shimmering in the afterglow of validation. With a shrug towards the bar nearest the tables, they push their way back through the gamblers, and Turpin beckons to Broonzy, who doesn't look up until his balls explode. Rateyes motions for service, ignored until he lifts one of the chips between his fingers, at which point a heather in a black vest and white bow tie slows…

          "Win your fortune at the track?" Broonzy sneers.

          "Shaddup! You don't look any better…"

          "That's for me to know, and you to find out," the snaker replies, jaws grinding as if some bovine genes still rise to the phantoms of cud. "Who's Michael Mortimer Mouse, over there?"

          "He's the jim buyin' us drinks."

          "Pleased to make your acquaintance then, Mickey."

Broonzy offers a meaty hand which Rateyes shakes, warily.  The heather returns with cocktail tubes: green, clear and pale blue. They find seats and Turpin's attention is distracted by the loud party at an adjacent table, where a tall, handsome plud lords it over half a dozen hydey flunkies.  Two muscular, apelike hoods watch his back, eyes sweeping the casino for the law, or perhaps creatures outside the law. An elegant lady plud at the arm of one of the crimelord's entourage... thin, avian old gambler... returns Turpin's gaze with a wicked smile.

          "Better look away, Sailor. That's Raf Sihree, tall guy, the jim in charge. He's big in the rackets here, way up."

          "Work at the spaceport?" Broonzy speculates.

          "Nah… jims at the spaceport work for him! Whole jammin' planet's mafia… started out that way, never really changed. An' the ones in uniforms - they're the worst!"

          "I hate a shurt!" Broonzy growls, so near explosion that Turpin places a calming hand over his shoulder.

          "Amen!" Rateyes nods.  "Little buzzard with the arm candy... owns one o' Die's biggest methyards.  An' that gorilla watchin' Raf's backside... one on the left inna green suit, him… Glock… finally gets kicked off the force for too many suspects dead in custody.  Finds work with Sihree like…"

Broonzy interrupts him, snapping his fingers.  Turpin looks up, frowns, points...

          "Look, over there… here comes our Captain."  Turpin's voice drops suddenly, with fear and wonder.  "Looks like he knows these jims…"

          "Tryin' to get your ship out of quarantine?" Rateyes takes a guess.

          "Munson, he don't give a jam."  Broonzy picks up his tube but doesn't drink; instead he twirls it round, slowly, as if seeking some clue within its green depths. "Company means rawth to him. Captain Do-right, he's a demon fighter, you know, sees shapeshifters behind every corner…"

          "Nie short of demons on Die!" their host smiles, lifting tube to lips, nose twitching with delectation...

Munson and Raf Sihree have fallen into an intense conversation; at length, the gangster smiles and slaps the captain on his broad back under its unfamiliar civilian fabric.

"Now this is something I thought I'd never see..." Broonzy admits, "…Munson hangin' with those jims!"

Rateyes favors Turpin with wink.  "Small galaxy!"

Although Turpin has endeavored to make himself small, Captain Munson takes notice of the three drinkers and, with a solemn hand, waves them over to the table.

"Boys! Boys… I want that you come over. Yes!  Two of my boys, Mister Sihree… don't know who this other jim is."

          Raf Sihree has a voice like oil or, Turpin registers, really good khegma.  The expensive stuff.  "Come over," he beckons, "...sit down, take a load off of your feet.  I was telling your Captain here we're no ordinary gang of luses, asked him out to my villa tomorrow afternoon and maybe we can do something about your little problem. Nothin' personal, just a little tiff between corporocracies - shame you got caught in the middle.  Get a taste of old-school Doobydie, too. Why don't you come along.  I want you feelin' comfortable, Cap? Long as these boys ain't... well, peculiar… are you? We'll be having some special entertainment."

          "These boys are alright," Munson assures his host.  "Those two.  I will not vouch for the other."

          Glock, the gorilla-man, chuckles softly.  Rateyes hurriedly passes a card to Turpin.  Eyes downcast, he salutes Ras Sihree warily, gathers his drink and his belongings and backs away.

"Gotta turn my winnings over.  Lucky, today."  He winks in the direction of the cashiers..  "Find yourself in a jam, Snaker, give ol' Rats a call. If I ain't around, Gargareeva knows how to find me - sooner or later."

          Glock at least allows him the dignity of retreat before leaning towards his boss.  "Pathetic dank! Never seen him win a centisoy anywhere he didn't give back… creel, the Drome! Lives in that rawthpile no self-respecting clud-heather would be caught dead workin' out of…"

          "Where's Umbarger?" Broonzy interrupts, rudely.

Munson frowns, turning to Raf and conspicuously snubbing his snaker.  "Our Navigator disapproves of my endeavor…"

"And you…" Turpin can't help blurting out, puzzled.

          "Sometimes what a Captain must do for his vessel is for greater the good."  And, clearly and wordlessly excused, Turpin can't help glancing at the lady, in whom lust and absolute, unrefined horror are inextricably commingled.

"What do you think the Cap's trying to pull?" Turpin wonders, once he and Broonzy are back in the safety of 3227.   "He hates jims like Sihree! If they ain't a clan o'demons outright, that rawthin' pack at least have to be coins, jinglin' in the devil's own pocket."

Broonzy nods, picking up a killgat.  "Won a little.  Made a little trade with a fellow downstairs, deals in protection…"

          "He didn't tell us to carry…" Turpin shivers.

          "Didn't tell us not to…"

 

All the jims on the Baawl knew Sihree's crib.  Not many been out there, but everybody who's heard of it... from a luse, a panger, heathers... those who came back, anyway...  called it the finest villa outside Tao City. Well, next that of Arbatax, and I might just get around to him later, might not.  Raf was of a long line of Sihrees, pirates and traders workin' the outlands, adaptable sorts, so the villa was undomed, though he had air piped in for visitors, or else just let them walk round in apparatus he bought with his revenues.  And any jim as tells you crime won't pay never passed a lifetime on the Baawl, of a night.

 

 

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