Authors: Robert Asprin,Peter J. Heck
Tags: #sf, #Fiction, #General, #Space Opera, #Science Fiction, #Life on other planets, #Fantasy fiction, #Robots, #Phule's Company (Fictitious characters), #Phule; Willard (Fictitious character)
"All right, all right," said Reverend Jordan Ayres, rubbing his hands together. He stepped out from behind the podium in the rented ballroom and made a beckoning gesture. "Who's ready to make himself over in the image of the King? Step right up!"
Rev had been particularly successful in winning converts to the Church of the King, his own denomination, from among the rookie legionnaires. This might have been because the older legionnaires were more jaded, or perhaps the new crop saw him as one of their own in the way the veterans didn't. Or it may simply have been the luck of the draw. In any case, the meeting room in the Landoor Plaza Hotel was nearly half full with those who'd come to pay their homage to the King; many local civilians in addition to the legionnaires.
"Uh, Rev-this isn't gonna hurt, is it?" The quavering voice belonged to Roadkill, one of the new recruits who'd joined Phule's Company at the same time as Rev's assignment as the company chaplain.
"Hurt?" Rev scoffed. "Are you gonna worry about whether it hurts? This is one of the deepest mysteries of the faith. If you don't love the King enough to put up with a little bit of hurtin', I'm not a-gonna push you, son. You're not doin' this for me, you're doin' it for yourself-and for him. "
"The King sang about hurtin'," said another of the recruits, Freefall. "He wasn't afraid to walk down Lonely Street..." Her voice carried just enough of a hint of disapproval to suggest that Roadkill was being shortsighted and selfish-that Roadkill's faith might even be open to question.
"He asked us not to be cruel," riposted Roadkill. "Besides, I didn't say I wasn't going to do it. I just want to know ahead of time if it hurts, and you don't know any more about that than I do. The only one here who's gone through with it is Rev, and from what he said, I guess it does hurt."
"It don't hurt all that much, though," said Rev, stepping forward and smiling. Then he cleared his throat and quickly changed the subject. "Besides, there's another choice you all need to make before you go any further-a choice you might not even realize you have."
"Another choice?" Freefall raised her eyebrows. "Isn't it enough for us to give up our own appearance to take on His? A face none of us was born with?"
"That's right, there's still another choice," said Rev. " `Cause even the King had more than one way he looked. Why don't y'all set down and let me show you some holos. There are a few li'l constraints on account of bone structure and all, but even with all that, you've got a bunch of different models to pick from." He motioned toward the seats, and with only a little confusion, the disciples obediently took their places.
"All right," said Rev. "I'm a-gonna show you what y'all's choices are, and then we'll start. It's pretty quick, once we do. And by tomorrow morning, you'll all be livin' testimonials to the power of the King!"
A hush fell over the crowd as Rev picked up the remote control for the holojector.
"Now, here he is when he first started out," said Rev. "This is a good one if you're young and slim. Notice how the sideburns are narrower than mine..."
The audience stared at the holo, rapt. Rev droned on.
My employer's company had achieved a very pleasant modus vivendi on Landoor, its most recent station. The company's original responsibility as a peacekeeping team was quickly modified, as my employer decided to turn his efforts to helping the planet realize its potential as a tourist mecca. After considerable investment of time and money-and no little personal effort-he had achieved success.
The planet's climate was gentle, its people easygoing by nature. And the legionnaires of Omega Company were never too busy to sample the entertainments of two Galaxy-class amusement parks. The officers were also pleased to be free of the corrupting influences to which the troops had been exposed on their previous assignment-not that many of them could have become much more corrupt than they already were. Without much question, Landoor was the healthiest place the company had been.
Relatively speaking, of course..
Sushi stared at his computer, which currently displayed a long list of names-a list that very few eyes other than his had seen. If some of those on the list had known just who was looking at it and why, there would have been interplanetary repercussions. One of those repercussions would undoubtedly have been a serious attempt to liquidate Sushi. Sushi knew this, of course. It didn't bother him. It was just the downside of the gamble he was taking.
Taking over the Yakuza. It had seemed a ridiculous idea when he'd first come up with it, an inspired improvisation to save his hide when the Japanese mob had sent an assassin to punish him for impersonating one of its members. If he'd thought it all the way through when he first came up with it, he might have decided on something less audacious. After all, he already had what was supposed to be a full-time job-although being a legionnaire in Omega Company, even under Captain Jester, was a good bit less demanding than belonging to most military units. But running this conspiracy was more than a full-time job.
The basic idea was simple. He'd invented a phony super family that would unite the families on different worlds, allow them to mediate territorial disputes, and to trade useful information. It was an idea whose time had come a good while back; only the inherent conservatism of the criminal mentality had kept it from coming into being. But he'd done it, essentially with no help from anyone except a few of his own family members who had certain useful knowledge and contacts and had used them to slip him information. And it had worked.
The only problem so far was that the entire superfamily consisted of Sushi and his trusty computer, a Legion milspec model, but with lots of custom features installed by Sushi himself. Eventually, he was going to make a mistake, and he just had to hope it wouldn't be a fatal one-especially not to himself. It was probably a shortcoming in a would-be criminal mastermind, but he really didn't want anybody to get hurt if he could avoid it. He didn't even really want to pocket more than a tiny fraction of the Yakuza's income. The whole idea originally had been to keep himself alive, and he'd be perfectly happy if he could continue to achieve that goal over the long term-say, seven or eight decades.
Behind him a door opened, and almost by instinct he blanked the screen. Then a familiar voice said, "Yo, Soosh, Okie tells me Dunes Park has a new coaster. Wanna go give it the test?"
Sushi looked over his shoulder to see Do-Wop standing hipshot in the doorway of their shared room in the Landoor Plaza Hotel. "Maybe tomorrow," said Sushi wearily. "Right now, I'm up to my ears in this project."
"Ahh, c'mon," said Do-Wop. "You've been busting your hump on that stuff all week. Time for a break, man."
"Believe me, I'd love to take one," said Sushi. "But this business of taking over the Yakuza is a lot more work than I expected. It wasn't really that hard to get control, but keeping it is turning out to be real work."
"And your ass is grass if it gets away from you," said Do-Wop, nodding in sympathy.
"Right. I've got the families in the sector around old Earth playing along with me," said Sushi, leaning back in his chair and stretching. "They recognize the need for a larger organization, and they aren't picky about who's running it, as long as it doesn't cut their profits. That's the good part." He paused, then added, "At least there is a good part."
"Can't be all that good if it don't leave you time to goof off," said Do-Wop, sulking. "You're startin' to act like a freakin' officer."
"Who, me? Watch your mouth," said Sushi with an indignant expression. "If I'd wanted to be an officer, I'd have had my father buy me a commission and gone to the academy."
Do-Wop slouched against the doorway and crossed his arms. "All I know is what I see," he said. "You'd think now that we're in the theme park business, we'd get a chance to go on a ride or two. But no. This whole Yazooka thing has you tied up hand and foot."
"Yakuza," corrected Sushi. "Look, I'm sorry. I really have to finish this report, OK? Why don't you get somebody else to go along on the new rides with you this time?"
"Like who?" asked Do-Wop. "Tusk-anini would go along for the ride, but what we gonna talk about while we're waiting on line? He'd just pull out a book and start reading."
"You could take Mahatma or the Gambolts," said Sushi, looking up distractedly.
"Sure, except they'd have to cut out of training, which they wouldn't do. I tell ya, Soosh, this new generation of legionnaires is going straight down the tubes. Ain't a single one of 'em that really appreciates the fine points of goofing off."
Sushi chuckled. "I suppose not," he said with a broad grin. "Remember, back on Haskin's Planet, how we rigged the drinks dispenser in the Plaza Hotel to double as a slot machine? You had to push the button for Diet Prunola to get it to take your bet."
"Yeah," said Do-Wop. "Worked like a charm until Chocolate Harry found the machine and complained to the management when he couldn't get a can of the stuff."
"We should've figured there'd be somebody who'd drink that god-awful junk," said Sushi, finally looking up from the computer and laughing. "But you're right; none of these rookies would ever think up a trick like that. And none of them would set up a holo of themselves when they had to stand guard duty, so it'd look like they were walking their rounds when Lieutenant Armstrong came checking up on them."
"I don't think Armstrong would ever have found out about that one if I hadn't forgot and left the projector running after I was supposed to come off duty," said Do-Wop. "Yeah, those were the days, all right."
Sushi chuckled. "They sure were," he agreed. "We must have been the champion goof-offs of Omega Company-and if that's not world-class, I don't know what is."
Do-Wop laughed and said, "Yeah, we had it down to a science back in the old days." Then a troubling thought came to him, and he frowned. "So what's wrong with us, Soosh? Why aren't we out raising hell like we used to?"
Sushi's expression was dead serious as he answered. "Maybe we're just growing up, Do-Wop."
"Growing up?" Do-Wop scoffed. "No freakin' way." He paused for a moment, then added, "I couldn't look myself in the mirror if I thought I was growing up."
"That's OK," said Sushi, grinning again. "Nobody else can stand to look at you, so there's no reason you should have to, either."
Do-Wop punched him on the biceps and said, "See? You just proved my point. So, don't you think we oughta go check out that new coaster?"
Sushi sighed and turned off the computer. "I guess I'm not going to get any more work done until I agree, am I? OK, then, let's go."
The Omega Company's move to Landoor was not without its complications, primary among them the necessity of vacating the Fat Chance Casino on Lorelei, where the company had become majority stockholders. Leaving such a casino unattended would have been the equivalent of sending engraved invitations to every rustler in the galaxy. Even when the company had been on duty, organized criminal elements had tried to take over the casino. And while their attempts had failed, any sign of weakness would inevitably attract more predators.
My employer's solution was to give the impression that the casino was guarded as closely as ever, with a squad of actors impersonating Legion personnel (and a cadre of trained security personnel for the infrequent cases where real muscle was needed). And that was just the tip of the iceberg.
The tourist shuttle came to a stop in front of the Fat Chance Casino, disembarking a small crowd of sophonts of assorted shapes, sizes, and colors, with luggage to match. One thing they had in common: All were comparatively affluent. Otherwise, they could not have afforded the spaceship fare to the orbiting pleasure colony of Lorelei, the gambling center of the galaxy. Lorelei was in the business of separating tourists from their money, and it frowned on tourists who had no money to be separated from. This batch, being fresh off the ship and therefore presumably flush, was greeted at the door with the broadest of smiles.
A casino manager, dressed in an outfit that somehow gave the impression of style and sophistication while still remaining unmistakably a uniform, addressed the group. "Welcome to the Fat Chance, gentlebeings!" she said warmly. "You've chosen the friendliest destination on Lorelei, and we want all our guests to enjoy every minute of their stay with us. So, relax, put aside any worries you might have, and get ready for a great time. If you'd like to get to your rooms right away, please step into the hotel lobby to your left, where our clerks will register you and make you feel at home."
She stepped back and gestured toward the elegant doors behind her, modeled after those of a famous resort on old Earth, and continued. "For those who'd prefer to get started having fun, you can step into the casino lobby to your right or go directly ahead to one of our Galaxy-class restaurants. Our staff will take care of your luggage, and if you'd like to have it checked into your rooms, simply give me a copy of your registration letter, and we'll have it done for you while you enjoy yourself. We'll bring your room key to you. Does anyone have any questions?"
A pink-faced human in a shirt that looked as if it glowed in the dark raised his hand and said gloomily, "I don't know about anybody else, but I'm not letting my luggage out of my sight. My brother went to New Baltimore on a vacation last year, and they stole his suitcase right out of the taxi-while it was moving!"
"Oh, Henry!" said the thin woman standing next to him. "This is the Fat Chance. Nobody would dare try something like that here. After all, the guards are from the Space Legion!" She pointed to the casino entrance, flanked by two black-uniformed figures. Both looked trim, fit, and alert.
"That's right, ma'am," said the casino manager brightly. "And not just any Space Legion company-we have Phule's Company standing guard here. And as you may have heard, the legionnaires are all casino stockholders. It's not just a job to them. It's to their personal benefit to see that all of our guests have a safe, enjoyable experience-and come to visit us again."
"And lose plenty of our money," grumbled Henry. "Well, it won't work this time. I've got a way to beat the house, and the Fat Chance is going to be the proving ground for my system!"
"That's the spirit," said a new voice. The crowd of tourists turned and saw an enthusiastic young man dressed in a Legion officer's uniform. He was slim and energetic, with a smile that radiated sincerity. "If there's one casino on Lorelei to test a system at, this is the one! For starters, we won't throw you out if you start winning with it, the way some other houses will."
"Captain Jester!" said the casino employee.
"I was just on my way back to the office from a lunch date," said the smiling figure. "Heard this guest's comment and thought I'd made sure he knew our policy. Carry on, Miss Shadwell, I'm sure you're doing a fine job." He turned to the guests and said, "Welcome to the Fat Chance. If there's any trouble, my office door is always open." He smiled, sketched a bow, and hurried off.
"That's Willard Phule," said one guest to a neighbor, a discreet hand muffling his words. "The munitions heir-richer than the mint, and cleaning up at the casino business, too, I hear."
"What's with the uniform?" said the other.
"Oh, he's gone and joined the Space Legion," said the first man with a chuckle. "I hear tell the Legion will never be the same."
"That's the truth," said Miss Shadwell, smiling. "Nor will the Fat Chance Casino-as you'll see when you get to the tables. Now, if there's anyone who'd like to take advantage of our express registration, I'll take your information here..." She pulled out a pocket computer and smiled. The tourists obediently got in line, smiling back at her.
But two figures watched the captain's exit with narrowed eyes, then looked at each other and nodded.
First Sergeant Brandy looked at the line of legionnaires with some satisfaction. The new recruits had begun to shape up much more effectively than she'd have been willing to bet a few short months ago. She certainly hadn't had much to work with in the way of raw material-always excepting the Gambolts, those catlike aliens who were reputed to be, as a species, the finest hand-to-hand fighters in the known Galaxy. Her three Gambolts-Dukes, Rube, and Garbo-had lived up to that image, without much doubt. Their natural ability had been evident from the day they'd arrived. Even if they'd made no progress at all in their training, they'd have been among the finest troops she'd ever seen.
The rest of the new troops hadn't done too badly, either, and she took that as a personal accomplishment. They'd begun as the usual mix of rebels and rejects that enlisted in the Space Legion. Headquarters had culled out any who showed signs of competence and sent the rest to Omega Company. Brandy didn't mind that; years with the Omega Mob had conditioned her to expect nothing better. But somehow this group had managed to rise above expectations. Now she was beginning to think they had the makings of a pretty good unit.
"OK, listen up," she said. "Today we're going to be working on a river assault simulation. How many people here have any experience with small boats?" This exercise was in response to a near fiasco late last summer, when a native guide ran a boat intentionally aground, spilling the legionnaires aboard it into the water, then easily capturing them. The captain hadn't been happy to learn of that debacle. Thus today's exercise...