John Grimes, owner of the deep space pinnace Little Sister, could not be too fussy about who he carried. Fenalla Pruin, the muckraking reporter, was always going to be trouble. They need the boomerang throwing abilities of two sexy dancers from New Alice to get them out of trouble.
Release date: January 28, 2016
Publisher: Audible Studios
Print pages: 320
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A. Bertram Chandler
Grimes did not like Fenella Pruin.
Their de jure relationship was that of charterer’s representative and Owner-Master of the vessel under charter. Their de facto relationship was that of employer and servant. Grimes, bound by the terms of the charter party did as he was told and Miss Pruin did the telling. He did not like it. She, most obviously, did.
It was a charter that he would never have accepted had he not been so desperately in need of money. But he had been grounded on Bronsonia with port dues mounting steadily, with heavy fines still to pay and with the salvage award in respect of the obsolescent, renamed Epsilon Class freighter Bronson Star still being haggled over by the lawyers. The other Bronson Star, a newspaper, had come to his financial rescue. This Bronson Star was a sensational rag which also owned trivi stations and the like. Although its sales on its home planet were not small it derived the bulk of its considerable income from syndicated material. It had earned, over the years, a reputation as the galaxy’s premier muckraker. It employed a highly efficient team of scavengers; the material that they gathered was, after processing, syndicated to every world with a human population and to quite a few planets whose inhabitants, although non-human, enjoyed salacity.
Chief of the muckrakers was Fenella Pruin. Normally she followed her long nose to savoury (in a perverted sense of the word) dirt by taking passage to likely places in regular spaceliners. But now and again she had found it impossible to get away, at extremely short notice, from worlds upon which she had endeared herself to prominent citizens by her snooping. On occasion she has been considerably roughed up. Twice she had been jailed on trumped up charges and her extrication from prison had been expensive to her employers back on Bronsonia. (She hadn’t been murdered yet—but, Grimes often thought during the voyage, there has to be a first time for everything.)
So The Bronson Star had chartered Grimes’ deep space pinnace Little Sister. They were, to a certain extent, killing two birds with one stone. Not only would their Miss Pruin be taken to where she wished to go—and whisked away therefrom as soon as things got sticky—but Grimes’ own name would help to sell the material garnered by the notorious news hen. He, too, had achieved a certain notoriety which might well be of value to others if not to himself.
Miss Pruin was travelling under a nom de guerre. According to the documentation provided by her employers—and they had done a very thorough job—she was Prunella Fenn, a spinster schoolteacher whose life had been changed when her loving pupils gave her, as birthday present, a ticket in the annual super lottery, the Bronson Bonanza. Fantastically she had won the astronomical first prize. According to news items in specially printed issues of The Bronson Star—which had been placed aboard Little Sister before lift off—the sudden influx of great wealth had gone to the fictitious Miss Fenn’s head. She had started to make up for lost time. From prim schoolmarm she had made the transition to good time girl. Finding Bronsonia too dull for her—and that wouldn’t have been hard, thought Grimes sourly, as he read the spurious press reports so as to acquaint himself with his passenger’s cover story—she had charted Little Sister for a galactic tour, with a first stop at New Venusberg.
He looked at the photographs accompanying some of the newspaper articles. There was one of himself among them. The famous Captain John Grimes … he read. That photographer had made him look all pipe and ears. The famous Captain John Grimes, hero of the Discovery mutiny and of the Bronson Star affair, whose fabulous golden spaceyacht Little Sister has been chartered by lucky lady Prunella Fenn …
Then there was lucky lady Prunella Fenn herself, labelled “the golden schoolmarm.” The photographer had flattered her. (Probably it had been more than his job was worth to do otherwise). The portrait was of a slim, darkhaired (before making changes to her appearance Fenella Pruin had been carroty) with slightly protrusive (another attempt at disguise) front teeth, with rather too much nose (although that organ was thin and almost aristocratic) and rather too little chin. She looked like an intelligent ferret, although a quite attractive one. She looked far more attractive in the photograph than she was in actuality.
She interrupted his studies by yelling in her shrill soprano, “Grimes, what about a drink? After all the money I’ve paid to charter this tub of yours I’m entitled to some pretence of service!”
All the money you’ve paid! thought Grimes resentfully. Nonetheless he got up from his seat, went aft into the tiny galley, busied himself with bottles and glasses. He did not have to ask her what she wished. Her taste in potables never changed. He put a small ice cube into a large glass which he filled with brandy. He decided that it would be bad manners—not that she ever worried about manners—to let her drink alone. His choice was pink gin—heavy on the liquor, very easy on the ice. Normally he drank very little alcohol while in space but Fenella Pruin—correction: Prunella Fenn—was driving him to it.
She was curled up in an inflatable easy chair in front of the playmaster. She had brought a large supply of her own spools with her. Her tastes ran to what Grimes thought of as boring porn. In the screen an actor and actress made up to resemble (vaguely) Hindu deities had gotten themselves into an intricate tangle of organs and slowly writhing limbs. The really boring part was the commentary, couched in allegedly poetic language.
She took her drink from him without thanks, downed half of it in one gulp. Grimes sipped from his, but not slowly. She swallowed the rest of her brandy, indicated that she needed a refill. He got one for her. In the screen the heterosexual lovers were replaced by two naked, teen-aged girls. The accompanying commentary was no improvement on what had gone before.
Emboldened by gin Grimes asked, “Don’t you think that we might have some of my spools for a change? I’ve some good adventure stories …”
“No,” she said. “I’m paying and I’m entitled to watch the entertainment that I like.”
“I suppose,” said Grimes, “that it is an acceptable substitute for the real thing.”
She turned away from the playmaster to look at him. Her eyes, magnified by black-rimmed spectacles that she wore, seemed enormous. Her wide, scarlet mouth distracted his attention from her sharp nose. Viewed through an alcoholic haze she was beginning to look definitely attractive.
She said, “I thought you’d never get around to it. Here I’ve been, cooped up in this flying sardine can, with an allegedly virile, rough and tough spaceman, and nothing, but nothing, has happened to me. Yet.” She grinned. “My bunk or yours?”
“Mine,” said Grimes.
She unfolded herself from her chair, all two meters of her. She touched the sealseams at the shoulders of her gown. It fell around her feet. Under it she was wearing nothing. As so often is the case with slender women her figure looked much fuller when she was naked than when clothed. Grimes got out of his shorts and shirt with fumbling haste. By the time that he was stripped she was already stretched out on his bunk on the starboard side of the cabin. He joined her.
And at the touch of her flesh all his desire faded.
She pushed him off her and he fell to the deck.
She got off the bunk and stood over him, sneering.
“A big, tough spaceman! And just because those obscene animals you carried in this ship on your last voyage tried to castrate you you’re acting like a pussy-panicked pansy!”
She knew about that, thought Grimes. His killing of the beasts, valuable cargo, had landed him in a fine mess of financial and legal problems, had led to his being grounded on Bronsonia and his accepting the job of shipkeeping aboard Bronson Star. But she didn’t know of his traumatic experiences aboard the skyjacked freighter on her return voyage. That was his secret, his alone, and always would be.
She snarled wordlessly, went back to her chair, resumed her interrupted viewing of the pornographic programme. She did not bother to dress. Her hand, Grimes noticed, was resting on her lap, her fingers moving. But if she did not wish privacy he most certainly did.
He got unsteadily to his feet, arranged the folding screens that would shut off his bunk and a little space around it from the rest of the cabin.
Then he tried, miserably, to sleep.
LITTLE SISTER came to New Venusberg.
Grimes had heard, of course, of the fabulous pleasure planet but this was his first time there. Oddly enough it was also Fenella Pruin’s first time on this world. The General Manager of Bronson Star Enterprises, however, had spent a few days on New Venusberg as part of a Trans-Galactic Clippers cruise. Although on holiday he had kept his eyes skinned and his ears flapping. He had gained the impression that there was something unsavoury—something even more unsavoury than was to be expected in a holiday resort of this nature—going on. He had decided that an investigation might well pay off and that Fenella Pruin would be ideally qualified to make it. She was known, of course, by her name and the likenesses of her that accompanied her syndicated material but it was unlikely that anybody would penetrate her disguise or her cover story. To the Venusbergers she would be no more—and no less—than a fortuitously rich bitch, ripe for the plucking.
Little Sister came to New Venusberg.
Grimes was not sorry that the voyage was over. Neither, she told him, was she. She sat with him in the control cab as he eased the pinnace down to Port Aphrodite. Among her many other faults she was a back seat driver. She took him to task for evincing interest in the chalk giantess that, viewed from the air, was a huge advertisement for the major entertainment for sale on New Venusberg. Cut out from the green turf she was, although the two white hillocks that were her breasts, the oval blue ponds that were her eyes must have been artificial. There was golden hair on the head and above the jointure of the thighs (a flowering creeper, Grimes later discovered) and her nipples (marked by a sort of lichen) were pink.
“If you were as interested in me as you seem to be in that thing,” said Ms. Pruin, “you might be some use.”
“I’m getting my bearings,” said Grimes.
“If you can’t see the spaceport apron and the marker beacons from here,” she said, “you should have your eyes examined. Come to that, you’ve other organs that need attention.”
Grimes made a major production of filling and lighting his pipe.
“Must you smoke that vile thing, stinking the ship out?”
Since she herself smoked thin, black cheroots that had the cloying scent of cheap incense Grimes considered her censure unjustified and said so. A snarling match ensued, terminated by a voice from Port Aphrodite Aerospace Control.
“Control to Little Sister. May I remind you that your berth is marked by the three scarlet flashers? It is not, repeat not, between the White Lady’s legs.” There was a tolerant chuckle from the speaker of the NST transceiver. “Of course, Captain, I realise that you’re in a hurry, but even so …”
“Little Sister to Control,” said Grimes. “Just admiring your scenery.”
“You’ll find much more to admire once you’re down,” Control told him.
“And if you can do any more than just admire it,” whispered Fenella Pruin viciously, “I, for one, shall be surprised.”
“Shut up!” almost shouted Grimes.
“What was that, Little Sister!” demanded Aerospace Control.
“I was just talking to my passenger,” said Grimes.
He applied lateral thrust, bringing the golden pinnace directly over the triangle of beacons, vividly bright in spite of the brilliance of the morning sun. He wondered, not for the first time, why Port Captains love to berth incoming vessels in a cramped huddle when there are hectares of spaceport apron vacant. But there was no ground level wind and Little Sister would fit in easily between what looked like one of the bigger TG Clippers and what was obviously a Shaara vessel; they were the only spacefaring people whose ships were almost featureless cones with a domed top. Fenella Pruin asked, “Shaara? Here!”
“But they’re arthropods.”
“And they have their vices. Almost human ones. Alcoholism. Gambling. Voyeurism …”
“You’d know, of course.”
Grimes did know. Not so long before he and his then passenger, the attractive Tamara Haverstock, had been captured by a Shaara Rogue Queen, held prisoner, in humiliating circumstances, aboard the arthropod’s ship.
All he said, however, was, “Let me get on with the piloting, will you?”
Little Sister fell slowly, but not too slowly. Grimes dropped her neatly between the two towering hulks. (He could have come down almost to ground level well clear of them and then made a lateral final approach but he couldn’t resist showing off.) He saw duty officers watching from control room viewports, waved to them nonchalantly. The underskids kissed the concrete.
The inertial drive—a clangourous cacophony to those outside but reduced by sonic insulation to a mere, irritable grumble inside the hull—fell silent as Grimes switched it off.
“We’re here,” he said unnecessarily.
“Do you expect me to give you a medal?” she asked.
The port officials came out to Little Sister, riding in a large, purple, gold-trimmed ground car. Normally junior officers of the departments concerned would have completed the clearing inwards formalities—initiated by Carlotti deep space radio fourteen days prior to arrival—but although space yachts were not uncommon visitors to New Venusberg golden ones most certainly were. What she lacked in size Little Sister made up for in intrinsic value.
So there was the Chief Collector of Customs in person, accompanied by two micro-skirted, transparently shirted junior customs officers. There was the Port Doctor; there was no need for him actually to sight the clean Bill of Health from Bronsonia—a formality usually carried out by Customs—but Grimes was being given VIP treatment. There was the Port Captain—and his visit was purely social.
Grimes produced refreshments. (The last batch of Scotch that he had cajoled out of the autochef would almost have passed for the real thing and as he had decanted it into bottles with genuine labels he did not think that anybody would know the difference.) He, Prunella Fenn (he must remember always to call her that) and the three men sat around one table in the main cabin while the two Customs girls went through the ship’s papers at another.
The Port Captain divided his attention between the ersatz Scotch and Grimes’ passenger. He was a big, florid man with a cockatoo crest of white hair, with protuberant, slightly bloodshot (to begin with) blue eyes, a ruddy, bulbous nose and a paunch that his elaborately gold braided white uniform could not minimise. He looked more like the doorman of a brothel than a spaceman, thought Grimes. (But the Port Captain on a world such as Venusberg was little more than the doorman of a brothel.)
The Port Doctor—even though he, too, was dressed in gold-trimmed white—looked like an undertaker. He did not divide his attention but was interested only in the whisky. He picked up the bottle, studied the label, put it down again. He lifted his glass, sipped, raised his heavy black eyebrows, then sipped again. He was the first person ready for a refill.
The Collector of Customs was interested most of all in the financial side of things. What was the actual value of Little Sister? What was the possibility of various solid gold fittings being stolen and sold ashore during her stay in Port Aphrodite? What security arrangements was Grimes implementing?
Unwisely Grimes said that he was prepared to use arms, if necessary, to protect his property and was sternly told that the ship’s laser and projectile pistols must be placed under Customs seal and that the two laser cannon—Shaara weapons that had been fitted while Little Sister was temporarily under the command of the Rogue Queen—must be dismantled.
But Grimes was not to worry, the Collector told him. A guard would be on duty at his ramp throughout. (Grimes did worry. He knew who would have to pay for that guard. According to the charter party the charterers would pay all normal port charges and the wages of an armed guard could be—almost certainly would be—argued not to be a normal port charge.)
Finally Prunella Fenn got a little unsteadily to her feet.
“I’m off,” she announced. “Jock’s going to show me a good time …”
Jock? wondered Grimes.
The Port Captain levered himself upright, his hands on the table.
“I’m ready, Prue. . .
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