Gargoyle 9cover drawing by Ashby Northpublication date 3/23/1978
I don’t believe in fortune-telling but it still makes sense to hedge your
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
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
He’d be a fine help.
Anyway, me and old Uey see us through. Shape on the screen, growing .
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.
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."