by A. L. Haley
Casey Ritter, the guy who never turned down a dare, breathed a prayer to the gods of idiots and spacemen, and headed in toward the great red spot of Jupiter.
Those methane and ammonia planets, take it from me, they're the dead-end of creation, and why the Old Man ever thought them up I'll never know. I never thought I'd mess around any of them, but things can sure happen. A man can get himself backed into a corner in this little old solar system. It just ain't big enough for a gent of scope and talent; and the day the Solar System Customs caught me red-handed smuggling Kooleen crystals in from Mars, I knew I was in that corner, and sewed up tight.
Sure, the crystals are deadly, but I was smuggling them legitimately, in a manner of speaking, for this doctor to experiment with. He wasn't going to sell them for dope. But—and this was the 'but' that was likely to deprive the System of my activities—even experimenting with them was illegal even if it needed to be done; also, I had promised not to rat on him before taking the job.
Well, Casey Ritter may be a lot of things we won't mention, but he doesn't rat on his clients. So there I was, closeted with the ten members of the S.S. Customs Court, getting set to hear the gavel fall and the head man intone the sentence that would take me out of circulation for a long, long time. And instead, blast me, if they didn't foul me with this trip to good old Jupiter.
I didn't get it at first. I'd argued with 'em, but inside I'd been all set for the sentence, and even sort of reconciled to it. I could even hear the words in my mind. But they didn't match what the judge was saying. I stood there gaping like a beached fish while I sorted it out. Then I croaked, "Jupiter! What for? Are you running outa space in stir? Want to choke me to death in chlorine instead?" Being civil to the court didn't seem important just then. Jupiter was worse than the pen, a lot worse. Jupiter was a death sentence.
The senior judge rapped sharply with his gavel. He frowned me down and then nodded at the judge on his right. This bird, a little old hank of dried-up straw, joined his fingertips carefully, cleared his scrawny throat, and told me what for.
"You've no doubt heard tales of the strange population of Jupiter," he said. "Every spaceman has, I am sure. Insect-like creatures who manifestly migrated there from some other system and who inhabit the Red Spot of the planet, floating in some kind of artificial anti-gravity field in the gaseous portion of the atmosphere—"
I snorted. "Aw, hell, judge, that's just one of those screwy fairy tales! How could any—"
The senior judge rapped ferociously, and I skidded to a halt. Our little story teller patiently cleared his skinny throat again. "I assure you it is no fairy tale. We possess well-authenticated photographs of these inhabitants, and if you are prepared to visit them and in some way worm from them the secret of their anti-gravity field, the government stands ready to issue you a full pardon as well as a substantial monetary reward. Your talents, Mr. Ritter, seem, shall we say, eminently suited to the task."
He beamed at me. I looked around. They were all beaming. At me! Suddenly I smelled a rat as big as an elephant. That whole Kooleen caper: Had it been just a trap to lead me straight to this? I hadn't been able to figure how they'd cracked my setup....
At the thought my larynx froze up tight. This was worse than I'd thought. Government men trapping me and then beaming at me. And a full pardon. And a reward. Oh, no! I told myself, it wasn't possible. Not when I already had more counts against me than a cur has fleas. Not unless it was a straight suicide mission!
I feebly massaged my throat. "Pictures?" I whispered. "Show me 'em." Crude, but it was all I could squeeze out.
I squeezed out more when I saw those pictures, though. Those inhabitants were charming, just charming if you like scorpions. Well, a cross between a scorpion and a grasshopper, to be accurate. Floating among that red stuff, they showed up a kind of sickly purple turning to gangrene around the edges.
The bleat of anguish that accompanied my first view of those beauties had taken my voice again. "How big?" I whispered.
He shrugged, trying for nonchalance. "About the size of a man, I believe."
I raised my shrinking head. "Take me to jail!" I said firmly, and collapsed onto my chair.
A crafty-eyed buzzard across the table leaned toward me. "So this is the great Casey Ritter, daredevil of the Solar System!" he sneered. "Never loses a bet, never turns down a dare!"
I shuddered. "You're telling that one! And besides, a man's got to draw the line somewhere. And I'm drawing it right here. Take me to jail!"
They were really stumped. They hadn't expected me to take this attitude at all. No doubt they had it figured that I'd gratefully throw myself into a sea of ammonia among man-size scorpions just for the hell of it. Nuts! After all, in the pen a man can eat and breathe, and a guard won't reach in and nip off an arm or leg while he's got his back turned. How stupid could they get?
When I finally wore them down and got to my little cell, I looked around it with a feeling of real coziness. I even patted the walls chummily and snapped a salute at the guard. It makes me grind my molars now to think of it. The way that bunch of stuffed shirts in the S.S.C. made a gold-barred chimpanzee out of me has broken my spirit and turned me into an honest trader. Me, Casey Ritter, slickest slicker in the Solar System, led like a precious infant right where I'd flatly refused to go! In plain English, I underestimated the enemy. Feeling safe and secure in the grip of the good old Iron College, I relaxed.
At this strategic point, the enemy planted a stoolie on me. Not in my cell block. They were too smart for that. But we met at recreation, and his mug seemed familiar, like a wisp of smoke where no smoke has got a right to be; and after awhile I braced him.
I was right. I'd met the shrimp before when I was wound up in an asteroid real estate racket. Pard Hoskins was his alias, and he had the tag of being a real slick operator. We swapped yarns for about a week when we met, and then I asked him what's his rap this trip.
"Oh, a pretty good jolt if they can keep hold of me," he says. "I just made a pass at the Killicut Emeralds, that's all, and got nabbed."
"Oh, no!" I moaned. "What were you trying to do, start a feud between us and Mars?"
He shrugged, but his little black-currant eyes began to sparkle with real passion, the high voltage kind that only a woman in a million, or a million in a bank, can kindle in a guy. "Buddy," he said reverently, "I'd start more than that just to get me mitts on them stones again! Why, you ain't never seen jools till you've seen them! Big as hen's eggs, an even dozen of 'em; and flawless, I'm a-shoutin', not a flaw!" His eyes watered at the memory, yearning like a hound-dog's over a fresh scent.
I couldn't believe it. Those emeralds were in the inner shrine of the super-sacred, super-secret temple of the cavern-dwelling tribe of Killicuts on Mars—the real aborigines. Bleachies, we call them, sort of contemptuously; but those Bleachies are a rough lot when they're mad, and if Pard had really got near those emeralds, he should be nothing but a heap of cleaned bones by now. Either he was the world's champion liar or its bravest son, and either way I took my hat off to him.
"How'd you make the getaway?" I asked, taking him at his word.
He looked loftily past me. "Sorry. Gotta keep that a secret. Likewise where I cached 'em."
"The rocks, stupe."
I hardly heard the cut. "You mean you really did get away with them?" My jaw must've been hanging down a foot, because I'd just been playing along with him, not really believing him, and now all of a sudden I somehow knew that he'd really lifted those emeralds. But how? It was impossible. I'd investigated once myself.
He nodded and then moved casually away. I looked up and saw a guard coming.
That night I turned on my hard prison cot until my bones were so much jelly, trying to figure that steal. The next morning I got up burning with this fever for information, only to find that Pard had got himself put in solitary for mugging a guard, and that really put the heat on me. I chewed my fingernails down to the quick by the time he got out a week later.
By that time he really had me hooked. I'd of sworn he was leveling with me. But he wouldn't tell me how he'd worked the steal. Instead, he opened up on the trade he'd booked for the string. He said, "When I chisel me way outa this squirrel cage, I'm gonna hit fer good old Jupe and sell 'em to Akroida. She's nuts about jools. What that old girl won't give me fer 'em—" He whistled appreciatively, thinking about it.
"Jupiter!" I goggled at him. "Akroida! Who's she?"
He looked at me as if I hadn't yet got out from under the rock where he was sure I'd been born. "Don't you know nothin', butterhead?"
From him I took it. I even waited patiently till the master spoke again. The memory still makes me fry.
"Akroida," he explained in his own sweet time, "is the queen-scorp of them idiotic scorpions that lives on Jupiter. I sold her the Halcyon Diamond that disappeared from the World Museum five years ago, remember?" He winked broadly. "It come from Mars in the first place, you know. Mars! What a place fer jools! Damn desert's lousy with 'em, if it wasn't so much trouble to dig 'em out—" He went off into a dream about the rocks on Mars but I jerked him back.
"You mean those scorpions have really got brains?"
"Brains!" he snorted. "Have they got brains! Why, they're smarter than people! And not ferocious, neither, in spite of how they look, if you just leave 'em alone. That's all they want, just to be left alone. Peace an' quiet, and lots of methane and ammonia and arsenic, that's fer them. Besides, the space suit rig you got to wear, they can't bite you. Akroida's not a bad old girl. Partial to arsenic on her lettuce, so I brought her a hundred pounds of the stuff, an' she went fer that almost like it was diamonds, too. Did I rate around there fer awhile!" He sighed regretfully. "But then I went and made her mad, an' I'm kinda persona non grata there right now. By the time I gnaw outa this here cheese trap, though, I figger she'll be all cooled off and ready fer them emeralds."
I went back to my cot that night, and this time instead of biting my nails, I bit myself. So I faced it. Casey Ritter lost his nerve, and along with it, the chance of a lifetime. A better man than me had already penetrated the Great Red Spot of old Jupiter and come out alive. That thought ate me to the quick, and I began to wonder if it was too late, after all. I could hardly wait for morning to come, so that I could pry more information out of Pard Hoskins.
But I didn't see Pard for a few days. And then, a week later, a group of lifers made a break that didn't jell, and the whole bunch was locked up in the blockhouse, the special building reserved for escapees. Pard Hoskins was in the bunch. He'd never get out of there, and he knew it. So did I.
For three more days I worked down my knuckles, my nails being gone, while I sat around all hunched up, wondering feverishly if Pard would make a deal about those emeralds. Then I broke down and sent out a letter to the S.S.C.
The Big Sneer of the conference table promptly dropped in on me, friendly as a bottle of strychnine. But for a lad headed for Jupiter that was good training, so I sneered right back at him, explained the caper, and we both paid a visit to Pard. In two days the deal was made and the caper set up. There were a few bits of info that Pard had to shell out, like where the emeralds were, and how to communicate with those scorpions, and how he'd made Akroida mad.
"I put on a yeller slicker," he confessed sadly. "That there ammonia mist was eatin' into the finish on my spacesuit, so I draped this here slicker around me to sorta fancy up the rig before goin' in to an audience with the old rip." He shook his head slowly. "The kid that took me in was colorblind, so I didn't have no warning at all. I found out that them scorpions can't stand yeller. It just plain drives them nuts! Thought they'd chaw me up and spit me out into the chlorine before I could get outa the damn thing. If my colorblind pal hadn't helped me, they'd of done it, too. And Akroida claimed I done it a-purpose to upset her."
Then he winked at me. "But then I got off in a corner and cooked up some perfume that drives them nuts the other way; sorta frantic with ecstasy, like the book says. Didn't have a chance to try it on Akroida, though. She wouldn't give me another audience. It's in the stuff they cleaned outa me room: a poiple bottle with a bright green stopper."
He ruminated a few minutes. "Tell you what, chump. Make them shell out with a green an' poiple spacesuit—them's the real Jupiter colors—an' put just a touch o' that there perfume on the outside of it. Akroida'll do anything fer you if she just gets a whiff. Just anything! But remember, don't use but a drop. It's real powerful."
Real powerful, said the man. What an understatement! But the day I was set adrift in that sea of frozen ammonia clouds mixed with nice cozy methane gas I sure prayed for it to be powerful, and I clutched that tiny bottle like that boy Aladdin clutching his little old lamp.
I'd had a lot of cooperation getting that far. An Earth patrol had slipped down onto the Red Desert of Mars and picked up the Killicut Emeralds from where Pard Hoskins had cached them; and safe out in space again, we had pored over that string of green headlights practically slobbering. But the Big Sneer of the S.S.C., the fellow that had got me into this caper, was right there to take the joy out of it all and to remind me that this was public service, strictly.
"These—" he had proclaimed with a disdainful flourish, like a placer miner pointing to a batch of fool's gold—"These jewels are as nothing, Ritter, compared with the value of the secret you are to buy with them. And be assured that if you're man enough to effect the trade—" He paused, his long nose twitching cynically—"IF you succeed, your reward will be triple what you could get for them in any market. Added to which, IF you succeed, you will be a free man."
That twitch of the nose riled me no little. "I ain't failed yet!" I snarled at him. "Just you wait till I do, feller!" I slipped the string of emeralds back into its little safe. "Instead of sniping at me, why don't you get that brain busy and set our rendezvous?"
With that we got down to business and fixed a meeting point out on Jupiter's farthest moon; then they took me in to the edge of Jupiter's ice-cloud and turned me loose in a peanut of a space boat with old Jupe looming ahead bigger than all outdoors and the Red Spot dead ahead. I patted my pretty enameled suit, which was a study in paris green and passionate purple.
I patted the three hundred pounds of arsenic crystals for Akroida and anyone else I might have to bribe. I anxiously examined my suit's air and water containers and the heating unit that would keep them in their proper state. I had already gone over the space boat. Yeah, I was as nervous as a cat with new kittens. Feeling again for my little bottle of horrid stench, I breathed a prayer to the god of idiots and spacemen, and headed in. The big ship was long gone, and I felt like a mighty small and naked microbe diving into the Pacific Ocean.
That famous Red Spot was that big, too. It kept expanding until the whole universe was a fierce, raw luminous red. Out beyond it at first there had been fringes of snow-white frozen ammonia, but now it was all dyed redder than Mars. Then I took the plunge right into it. Surprise! The stuff was plants! Plants as big as meadows, bright red, floating around in those clouds of frozen ammonia like seaweed! Then I noticed that the ammonia around them wasn't frozen any more and peeked at the outside thermometer I couldn't believe it. It was above zero. Then I forgot about the temperature because it dawned on me that I was lost. I couldn't see a thing but drifting ammonia fog and those tangles of red floating plants like little islands all around. Cutting down the motor, I eased along.
But my green boat must have showed up like a lighthouse in all that red, because it wasn't long until I spotted a purple and green hopper-scorp traveling straight toward me, sort of rowing along with a pair of stubby wings. He didn't seem to be making much effort, even though he was climbing vertically up from the planet. In fact, he didn't seem to be climbing at all but just going along horizontally. There just wasn't any up or down in that crazy place. It must be that anti-grav field, I concluded. The air was getting different, too, now that I was further in. I'm no chemist, and I couldn't have gotten out there to experiment if I had been, but those plants were certainly doing something to that ammonia and methane. The fog thinned, for one thing, and the temperature rose to nearly forty.
Meanwhile the hopper-scorp reached the ship. Hastily I squirted some of my Scorpion-Come-Hither lure on the chest of my spacesuit, opened the lock, and popped out, brave as could be. Face to face with that thing, though, I nearly lost my grip on the handle. In fact, I'd have fainted dead away right there if Pard Hoskins hadn't been there already and lived. If that little shrimp could do it, I could, too.
I braced up and tapped out the greeting Pard had taught me. My fiendish-looking opponent tapped right back, inquiring why the hell I was back so soon when I knew that Akroida was all set to carve me into steaks for just any meal. But the tone was friendly and even intimate—or rather, the taps were. There was even a rather warm expression discernible in the thing's eyes, so I took heart and decided to ignore the ferocious features surrounding those eyes. After all, the poor sinner's map was made of shell, and he wasn't responsible for its expression.
I tapped back very politely that he must be mistaking me for someone else. "I've never been here before, and so I've never met the charming lady," I informed him. "However, I have something very special in the way of jewels—not with me, naturally—and the rumor is that she might be interested."
He reared back at that, and reaching up, plucked his right eye out of the socket and reeled it out to the end of a two-foot tentacle, and then he examined me with it just like an old-time earl with one of those things they called monocles. Pard hadn't warned me about those removable eyes, for reasons best known to himself. I still wake up screaming....
Anyway, when that thing pulled out its eye and held it toward me, I backed up against the side of the ship like I'd been half-electrocuted. Then I gagged. But I could still remember that I had to live in that suit for awhile, so I held on. Then that monstrosity reeled in the eye, and I gagged again.
My actions didn't bother him a bit. "Jewels, did you say?" he tapped out thoughtfully, just like an ordinary business man, and I managed to tap out yes. He drifted closer; close enough to get a whiff....
A shudder of ecstasy stiffened him. His head and eyes rolled with it, and he wafted closer still. Right there I began to harbor a premonition that there might be such a thing as being too popular in Scorpdom, but I thrust this sneak-thief idea back into limbo.
Taking advantage of his condition, I boldly tapped out, "How's about taking me on a guided tour through this red spinach patch to Akroida, old pal?" Or words to that effect.
He lolled his hideous cranium practically on my shoulder. "Anything! Just anything you desire, my dearest friend."
I tried to back off from him a bit, but the ship stopped me. "I'm Casey Ritter. What's your label, chum?"
"Attaboy," he ticked coyly.
"Attaboy?" Things blurred around me. It couldn't be. It was just plain nuts. Then I got a glimmer through my paralyzed gray matter. "Who named you that?"
He simpered. "My dear friend, Pard Hoskins."
I breathed again. How simple could I get? He'd already mistaken me for Pard, hadn't he? Then I remembered something else. "How come you aren't mad at him? Don't you hate yellow, too?"
He hung his silly head. "I fear I am colorblind," he confessed sadly.
Right there I forgave him for pulling that eye on me. He was the guide I needed, the one who had got Pard out alive. I almost hugged him. "Lead off, old pal," I sang out, and then had to tap it. "I'll follow in my boat."
Well, I'd met the first of the brood and was still alive. Not only alive but loved and cherished, thanks to Pard's inventiveness and to a kindly fate which had sent Pard's old pal my way. A great man, Pard Hoskins. How had he made friends with the brute in the first place?
Being once more inside my spaceboat, I raised my helmet, which was like one of those head-pieces they used to put on suits of armor instead of the usual plastic bubble. And it was rigged out with phony antennae and mandibles and other embellishments calculated to interest my hosts. Whether it interested them or not, it was plenty uncomfortable for me.
Peeking out the porthole I saw that my guide was fidgeting and looking over his shoulder at my ship, so I eased in the controls and edge after him. To my surprise a vapor shot out of a box that I had taken for a natural lump on his back, and he darted away from me. I opened the throttle and tore after him among the immense red blobs that were now beginning to be patterned with dozens of green-and-purple scorpions, all busy filling huge baskets with buds and tendrils, no doubt.
Other scorpions oared and floated about in twos and threes in a free and peaceable manner that almost made me forget that I was scared to death of them, and they stared at my boat with only a mild interest that would have taught manners to most of my fellow citizens of Earth.
It wasn't until we had covered some two hundred miles of this that something began to loom out of the mist, and I forgot the playboys and the field workers. It loomed higher and higher. Then we burst out into a clearing several miles in diameter, and I saw the structure clearly. It was red, like everything else in this screwy place, and could only have been built out of compressed blocks of the red plant.
In shape it was a perfect octagon. It hung poised in the center of the cleared space, suspended on nothing. It had to be at least a mile in diameter, and its sides were pierced with thousands of openings through which its nightmare occupants appeared and disappeared, drifting in and out like they had all the time in the world. I stared until my eyeballs felt paralyzed.
Pard was right again. These critters had brains. And my S.S.C. persecutor was right, too. That anti-grav secret was worth more than any string of rocks in the system, including the Killicut Emeralds.
Then I swallowed hard. Attaboy was leading me straight across to a window. Closing my helmet, my fingers fumbled badly. My brain was fumbling, too. "Zero hour, chump!" it told me, and I shuddered. Picking up the first hundred pounds of the arsenic, I wobbled over to the airlock.
That palace was like nothing on earth. Naturally, you'll say, it's on Jupiter. But I mean it was even queerer than that. It was like no building on any planet at all. And, in fact, it wasn't on a planet; it was floating up there only two hundred miles in from the raw edge of space.
In that building everything stayed right where it was put. If it was put twelve or fifty feet up off the floor, it stayed there. Not that there wasn't gravity. There was plenty of gravity to suit me—just right, in fact—and still they had furniture sitting around in the air as solid as if on a floor. Which was fine for flying hopper-scorps, but what about Casey Ritter, who hadn't cultivated even a feather?
Attaboy, however, had the answers for everything. Towing me from the airlock to the window ledge, he again sniffed that delectable odor on my chest, caressed me with his front pair of legs while I manfully endured, and then without warning tossed me onto his back above the little box and flew off with me along a tunnel with luminous red walls.
We finally came to the central hall of the palace, and at the sight of all that space dropping away, I clutched at his shell and nearly dropped the arsenic. But he didn't have any brakes I could grab, so he just flew out into mid-air in a room that could have swallowed a city block, skyscrapers and all. It was like a mammoth red cavern, and it glowed like the inside of a red light.
No wonder those scorpions like green and purple. What a relief from all that red!
A patch in the middle of the hall became a floating platform holding up a divan twenty feet square covered with stuff as green as new spring grass, and in the center of this reclined Akroida. It had to be. Who else could look like that? No one, believe me, boys and girls, no one!
Our little Akroida was a pure and peculiarly violent purple—not a green edge anywhere. She was even more purple than my fancy enameled space suit, and she was big enough to comfortably fill most of that twenty-foot couch. To my shrinking eyes right then she looked as big as a ten-ton cannon and twice as mean and dangerous. She was idly nipping here and there as though she was just itching to take a hunk out of somebody, and the way the servants were edging away out around her, I could see they didn't want to get in range. I didn't blame them a bit. Under the vicious sag of her Roman nose, her mandibles kept grinding, shaking the jewels that were hung all over her repulsive carcass, and making the Halcyon Diamond on her chest blaze like a bonfire.
Attaboy dumped me onto a floating cushion where I lay clutching and shuddering away from her and from the void all around me, and went across to her alone with the arsenic.
Akroida rose up sort of languidly on an elbow that was all stripped bone and sharp as a needle. She pulled an eyeball out about a yard and scanned Attaboy and the box. He closed in to the couch all hunched over, ducked his head humbly half-a-dozen times, and pushed the box over beside her. Akroida eased her eyeball back, opened the box and sniffed, and then turned to Attaboy with a full-blown Satanic grin. I could hear her question reverberate away over where I was.
"Who from?" asked Akroida.
That conversation was telegraphed to me blow by blow by the actions of those hopper-scorps. I didn't need their particular brand of Morse Code at all.
"Who from?" Attaboy cringed lower and blushed a purple all-over blush. "Dear lady, it is from an interspace trader who possesses some truly remarkable jewels," he confessed coyly.
Akroida toyed with the Halcyon Diamond and ignored the bait. "His name?" she demanded. And when he told her, with a bad stutter in his code, she reared up higher on her skinny elbow and glared in my direction. "Casey Ritter? Never heard of him. Where's he from?"
Well, after all, she wasn't blind. He had to confess. "I—uh—the stones were so amazing, Royal Akroida, that I didn't pay much attention to the—uh—trader. He does seem to resemble an—ah—earthman." He ducked his head and fearfully waited.
A sort of jerking quiver ran through Akroida. She reared up even higher. Her mean Roman nose twitched. "An earthman? Like Pard Hoskins?"
Attaboy shrank smaller and smaller. He could only nod dumbly.
The storm broke, all right. That old dame let out a scream like a maddened stallion and began to thrash around and flail her couch with that dragon's tail of hers.
I began to quake all over. My nice little jail, I thought frantically. My cozy little cell. Those dear sweet guards. I'd left them all to be eaten alive by that purple devil. Why didn't I bat my silly brains out on my cell wall when this idea first sneaked in? Marooned on that damned hassock a hundred feet above the floor I began to think, and fast.
"Bring him here!" roared Akroida, tapping it out so fast it sounded like gunfire. She gnashed her mandibles and glared until I started shriveling. "Bring him here! He'll dare to come around and insult me, will he? I'll flail him limb from limb and chew his bones to shreds! I'll bite him into chunks! I'll.... Bring him here!"
She made a furious lunge at Attaboy. Trembling and blanching to a muddy lavender, he got out of there and scrambled over to me with big tears rolling down his stiff shell cheeks. Why the poor purple sap, I thought, he really cares! These things really have feelings! I looked at him with new respect and even a little affection.
"Look, kid," I admonished, trying to keep my fingers from shaking as I tapped. "Just don't worry about a thing. I still think I can handle this. Just take me across slow and easy, and we'll hope for the best."
With a mournful sigh he picked me up, tossed me onto his shoulder, and as per instructions, drifted over to the floating platform.
All I had was the little bottle of Pard's scorp-scent. "This had better be good!" I confided to the image of Pard Hoskins, which somehow managed to get between me and that raging she-dragon on the couch. "This had sure better be good, son!"
I waited until Akroida was leaning forward practically gnashing her mandibles in my face while her front pair of legs grabbed and pawed for me. She was too fat and bulky to jump at me, or I'd have been a dead planet-bo right there. But I had to take the chance. There wasn't a drop of perfume to waste. At the last moment I lifted that precious little bottle and squirted the stuff right in her face.
Her mandibles flew open and stayed there. Slowly her front legs dropped; a film of ecstasy formed over those wild glittering eyes. She sank back and began to croon. Yes, croon! My helmet vibrated with it.
Then her long skinny front legs made beckoning motions to me. Frosts of romance! She wanted me to share her couch!
Attaboy didn't ask if I was willing. Delightedly he dumped me beside her. And then, having inhaled some of that perfume himself and not being able to tear himself away, he forgot all about etiquette and curled up beside us to bask some more in those luscious mists.
What's more revolting than a hopper-scorp in a tantrum? I'll tell you, chums: a hopper-scorp in the throes of infatuation! Especially when the hopper-scorp in question is Akroida. For one thing, she's so big. And for another, she's so unmentionably thorough. She was infatuated from the spike on her repulsive forehead down to the devilish sting on her tail. With me!
I tried to tell her it was Attaboy she must love, not me. She merely wallowed her hideous head, as big as a bucket, in my suffering lap, clattering it against my enameled space suit; she rolled her horrible eyes while her whole monstrosity of a body twitched and quivered with emotion. I tried to turn the conversation to the emeralds. She wasn't even interested. We hadn't needed the emeralds at all; we'd only needed Pard's special concoction. Furtively, behind the horseplay, I began to plan to salvage those emeralds for myself.
That stuff must have been making me delirious, too.
I don't know how long that blood-curdling love scene went on. That awful she-scorp picked me up and rocked me while I scraped diamonds and rubies along my visor and chest. She signalled servants who were hovering on all sides taking in the show, and they rushed to bring tidbits that I had to hide behind cushions because I couldn't open my helmet in that atmosphere. Then the servants, getting whiffs of that cursed perfume, would snuggle up with us, until there wasn't elbow room on that big couch. Akroida would churn her tail around and knock them all off so that she could cuddle me better. Then she got the idea of singing to me. And my air was running out.
Finally, while I still had a bit of air left, the jag began to wear off, and Akroida slumped over and went to sleep holding me tenderly against her breast-shell. The moment I felt her grip relax, I wiggled out of there. Attaboy was fast asleep too. Desperately I decided that I could row through the air if those scorps could. Grabbing Attaboy's arm, I stepped off into nothing. Sure enough, the anti-grav worked for me, too. Sweating with the thought of what would have been left of Casey Ritter if it hadn't, I sort of swam away from there, towing my guide. Out at the boat, I anchored him outside the airlock and crawled inside. I'm not ashamed to admit that I got out of my helmet, gasped in some good old oxygen, and collapsed. What a day!
When the time rolled around for my next visit to Akroida, I decided to play it cool and careful. I was fortified with a snooze, a slug of Scotch, and a meal, but I still wasn't busting out with courage. I made a mental note to be damn cautious about that perfume. Maybe it was necessary to overdo it that first time, with her shouting for my blood, but that was all past I hoped.
I sprayed just a tiny bit on my suit, calculated to soothe and lure but not to excite. I wanted no more cuddling with Akroida, please! Then with my pal Attaboy, I stiffened my backbone and plunged out into that poison gas they call atmosphere. I let Attaboy ferry me. He was very hazy about our return trip from Akroida's chamber, so I decided to leave him ignorant. No use to let even him know I could locomote the scorpion way. I might need to make a getaway, and surprise might be of the very essence.
But I didn't need to worry. Old Akroida had slept off her jag, and right away I found out that she wasn't queen-scorp for nothing. The old girl was real canny. She made Attaboy park me on a hassock just within tapping distance, and sat there holding her head in a way that made me soften with sympathy, knowing just how she felt. Many's the time.... Yes, sir, poor old Ak was nursing a real, ten-karat hangover. She waved a claw so feebly it didn't even stir those ropes of jewels hung all over her. "Casey Ritter," she tapped. "What did you do to me?"
All to myself, inside my hard-shell suit, I began to laugh; but it was no laughing matter, because she was beginning to regain her strength. She pointed a claw at me, and it was quite a bit steadier than the wave had been. "You did something!" she accused, and very intelligently, too, for a body that had never before had a hangover. "What was it?"
I didn't like the tone of that, and began tapping out a hasty denial. "Not intentionally, noble queen, believe me! I simply brought you that exquisite perfume as a gift from an admirer of yours whom I met on my way here. I had no idea how strong it was. I should have tested it first on your servant here." I pointed to Attaboy. "I can see that we need to thin it some, but it's wonderful, isn't it, now?"
She didn't even flutter an antenna at this coyness. "Earthman," she tapped out sternly, "you want something. Earthmen always bring trouble, and they always want something! No Earthman brings presents to Akroida from simple friendship. Tell me what you're after, Casey Ritter!"
I sighed. "O.K., noble queen. I just wanted to calm you down so I could talk to you. I didn't have any idea that perfume would affect you that way. I just thought you'd like it, and then you'd be pleasant and we could talk."
She snorted like an old war horse, but that hurt her head. After a minute of clutching it, she groaned, and then tapped carefully, "I'm calm now. You can talk. What do you want?"
"Fine," I tapped out heartily. "I want to make a trade with you."
Her lack of enthusiasm would have chilled a wooden Indian. But I figured that the time had come to get on with it, regardless. She just wasn't going to stall, or let me, either.
"Ah, yes, a trade!" was all she said, but she gave it a nasty twist.
I plunge. "I want to swap your anti-gravity secret for a string of the most magnificent emeralds you ever dreamed of, Akroida. Why, they'd make that batch you're wearing look like little glass beads! You'll have to see them to—"
She didn't let me finish. A sort of high-pitched cackle of amazement issued from her bony jaws; but then she floored me by changing the subject completely, I thought. That was just my little error. A man can sure miss the boat when dealing with these foreign races. She began to ask me questions about the Earth, and was she interested! She even forgot about her hangover. And she completely ignored the emeralds. You'd have thought I hadn't even mentioned the things.
This went on for about an hour, and then all of a sudden she leaned back on her paris-green cushions, inhaled a pinch of arsenic, and began to chuckle a sort of brassy chuckle that sent shivers down my back. The chuckles got bigger and bigger until she busted out into a full-size horse laugh that would have jangled the chandelier if there'd been one to jangle.
Her head bounced back and forth on her skinny neck, and the Halcyon Diamond bounced around on her chest like a loose headlight. All her jewels began to bounce and jangle. Droves of servants swarmed around to peek, while Attaboy just floated there with his mouth wide open. I nudged him. "What's so funny?" I asked, but he only shook his head dumfounded.
That awful laughing was sure giving me the creeping jeevies, and it wasn't until she finally tapered off in a series of snorts and giggles that I began to breathe again. I braced myself for what might come next. But talk about unpredictable females! Human or scorpion, they're all the same. She floored me again.
"It's a deal, Casey Ritter!" She tapped out the words with relish. "Fair and open, straight across the board. Those emeralds for our anti-gravity plans and formulae."
I was stunned. A statement like that after that laugh! And she hadn't even seen the emeralds. You couldn't tell old horse trader Ritter that there wasn't something phony. But she just snickered at my expression and waved to the servants who were still hovering around. It took a dozen of them to hoist her up.
With me following on Attaboy, we flew down a serpentine hallway for half a mile until we came to a room even bigger than her audience chamber, only this one was filled with machinery suspended in the air just like the furniture was up above. It was big machinery, too, but it didn't seem to matter.
Akroida waved a feeler at it all. "Just to show you that I'm not holding anything back," she tapped out. "Here it all is, and there on the wall are the plans and descriptions."
Attaboy flew me over, and I stared at them. They were a real neat job, and the mathematics were the same old math we use on Earth, or I was even more of a sucker than I thought I was. I shook the old bean to clear it, but I still couldn't get a glimmer about the caper she was staging. But I could still hear that laugh....
Well, the rest is history, as the books say. With me still not believing a word of it, we made the trade, fair and open, as Akroida had said. She even let me stand by while her scorps copied the plans, and then I checked and rechecked a dozen times. Not a phony mark anywhere. When I handed over the emeralds, she cooed in rapture. A thing like that coo? Well, she did.
Akroida didn't hardly know I was going. She just waved me, her lover-for-a-day, carelessly away and went on stroking those beauties, while the hopper-scorps hovered around in such crowds that Attaboy and I had to elbow our way out of there. As a parting gift, out at the edge of that hellish Red Spot, I reached out of the lock and handed Attaboy the little bottle with what was left of the perfume.
"Here you are, pal," I tapped. "This'll promote you to Court Lover number one. Kiss the old girl for me."
Back on Earth I was still trancing around feeling the air with my fingers and pinching myself here and there just to make sure I had really got out of that inferno all in one piece, when they hauled me out to the airport to present me with my ship. They even made a ceremony of it and gave me a medal for distinguished service to Mankind. And who do you think presented the medal?
I looked at the dapper little figure waltzing over all togged out in the S.S.C. uniform, and then I did a double take. It was no other than my old pal of the Iron College, perfume-manufacturer for hopper-scorps, Pard Hoskins. He came over and clapped me on the back, but I didn't feel a thing. I was paralyzed.
So I'd been taken for a ride right from the start. So they'd outsmarted me all the way: out-fought and out-figured me, and even planted a stoolie on me and made me like it.
I didn't hear a word they said, nor even notice when they pinned the medal on. When they got through with me, I just crawled into my beautiful new ship like it was an old tin can and headed out. I didn't even care right then if I landed back in Akroida's bony lap. I'd have stuck my head in her mandibles and told her, "Chew it up, Ak. It's just a cabbage, anyway."
But a funny thing happened. Out there, mooning along all alone in the dark with not a soul in a million miles, I heard Akroida laughing. It was a horrible sound, a kind of metallic neighing and snorting, but pretty soon I began laughing, too. I didn't know what the joke was, but all of a sudden I knew I'd find out some day. It did me a lot of good. I braced up and went on to Venus, where I made some real good trades. I didn't try any more capers, though. I was all capered out.
It wasn't until a year later, in a joint on Mars, that I ran into Pard Hoskins again. I gave him the old frost, but he only grinned sort of sad and touched me for some of that filthy Martian beer. He looked real seedy.
"What's the matter?" I asked, as sarcastic as I could manage. "They sending you over the road again to nab another sucker?"
He shook his head, and sighed into his beer. "I got fired, Casey," he confessed. "Over that there Killicut caper. Those plans—I might of known." He shook his head again like a tired old man.
A shiver ran over me. "Here it comes," I thought.
"What about those plans?" I asked. "Weren't they all O.K.?"
He sighed again. "Nope. Oh, the plans was O.K. They was strictly bona fide. Only they won't work on Earth. I told 'em about that anti-grav in the first place. Then I almost caused an inter-world incident stealin' the Killicut Emeralds. And now the damn thing won't work on Earth!" He set to chewing his lip and staring into his beer.
I took him by his scrawny shoulder and shook. "Why won't it work?" I yelled. "I knew there was something, the way she laughed! Why won't it work?"
He stared dully at me. "Laugh, did she? Well, she sure had the last laugh. It won't work in our atmosphere; just on a chlorine or methane planet. It works like the poles of a battery. That Great Red Spot is just the negative pole. All those there plants change the atmosphere just enough to make it a strong negative field. Then all they have to do is counter-balance that with enough positive, and there they are. It works like anti-gravity, only it ain't. Only we ain't got an atmosphere we can work that way. Cripes! So she laughed!" His hoarse voice stopped and he stared bitterly at the wall. Then he cussed for two minutes without stopping. He took a big swig of that rotten beer. "I'll bet she's laughing herself fat, the old rip!"
Well, I hope she is. In the dead of night sometimes I can hear her; and pretty soon I'm laughing, too....
End of Jupiter's Joke by A. L. Haley