|Beggars and Choosers
“Nottingham will do just fine,” said the hitchhiker, climbing into the car. Jack shifted road maps, and brochures and blank order forms and tossed them onto the back seat to make room for him. The car’s interior was coming to resemble a recycler’s dream again.
“Where you headed, then?”
“North. Haven’t really decided yet. Nottingham will suit me to be going on with.” He arranged the small pack between his feet and clicked home the seatbelt. Jack accelerated away from the service area, away from the false promise of the lights and the plastic reality of the so-called services, back out onto the motorway. Not much traffic this time of night. Mostly trucks. Jack positioned the car in an empty centre lane and settled the speed at sixty. Fast enough for this old wreck. He flicked a glance at his (unwanted?) guest. Not much more than a boy, really, nineteen, twenty max. Long, dark hair that could have used a comb and probably a wash. Pale, hollow-cheeked sort of face, hint of stubble around the jaw. Wearing what looked like an army surplus greatcoat. Nothing special about him; nothing special except that Jack, who never picked up hitchers, had chosen him to be the exception. “Name’s King,” he told him, already regretting that he couldn’t have picked up a pretty girl. “Jack King.”
“They call me Toby, Jack King. King Jack. What are you king of, Jack? What’s your line?”
“Lingerie. You know the old joke? I travel in ladies’ underwear? It’s a living.”
“Not much of one by the look.”
“These times you take what you can get and glad to get it. You a student, are you?”
“I study.” Toby rummaged in a coat pocket and came up with a packet of cigarettes. “Smoke?”
“Yeah, thanks,” said Jack, pushing home the dashboard lighter. When it was hot Toby lit up for both of them. Jack took his eyes of the road as the boy placed the cigarette between his lips. There was something – transparent? translucent? – about the hand which held it, something unreal. Must be a trick of the light. Or the lack of it.
They smoked in silence, concentrating on the hypnotic unwinding of the road. At length Toby stubbed out his butt in the already overflowing ashtray. “Got business in Nottingham?” he asked.
“Got a list of customers. Potential customers, that’s to say. It’s getting tougher and tougher making sales. There’s no money around any more.”
“Ever think about begging, Jack?”
“Who, me? You must be joking! I’m not that desperate, not yet.”
“You might be surprised. It’s a better living than you’d think.”
Jack was stuck for a reply. Giving a helping ride to a hard-up student was one thing, sharing his car with a beggar quite another. He didn’t consider the matter long for suddenly he found himself plunged into complete darkness, the motorway lights, the lights of the cars and trucks, his own headlights, extinguished in an instant as though a blind had been pulled down.
“What the... “ he hissed, hands clamping against the wheel, eyes desperately seeking a glimmer that was not to be found.
“Relax.” Toby’s voice was cool, soothing. “We’re nearly there.”
The dashboard lights had gone with the rest. Jack tried to reduce speed but with no visual point of reference and no speedometer it was impossible to tell how fast they were going. He attempted to change down, only to find that the shift would not respond. Engine unnaturally loud, the car roared on into the void. “Nearly where?” Jack croaked.
“You’ll see. Not Nottingham, I’m afraid. Not this trip.”
And then Jack had vision again – well, not really vision, not yet, but there was a glow up front, a wash of pale light growing steadily brighter. Slowly the surface of the road became visible. It looked rough and pitted though no shocks were transmitted through the car’s suspension. Whatever it was, it wasn’t asphalt, wasn’t the motorway. Jack turned the wheel. It moved easily under his hands. The car did not deviate one inch from its inexorable course. Trees began to come into view beside the road, a road much narrower than it ought to have been. Although this was – or had been – high summer, the trees were leafless, stark black skeletons twisted into unnatural shapes, arboreal parodies.
Jack looked at his passenger. Why had he not noticed the boy’s eyes before? They shone silver in the half light as no human eyes had ever shone since the dawn of time.
“Where are you taking me?” was the only reply Jack could muster.
“To the land of my people where the whole man is king. For just so long as he stays whole.”
It was almost full light and figures lined the road now. None of them were whole, that was for sure. Some were missing hands or limbs, others were imprisoned behind empty eye sockets, still others gnarled, like the trees, into postures nature never intended. Arms and hands and stumps reached out towards the car in supplication. And now there were buildings, single-storey, black and windowless. Smoke rising sluggish from a chimney forced Jack to notice how cold it had become.
The road narrowed still further and the buildings pressed in upon them; the car, without Jack’s assistance, began to slow. They emerged into a wide, open square and stopped. All at once the car was surrounded, rocked to and fro under a press of bodies. Jack saw hideous sores and facial deformations, faces with no lips, faces with only holes where noses should have been, faces with wild, extravagant, many-coloured growths. All were dressed in rags, but while some were recognisably modern rags some were remnants of uniforms and gowns that had not been worn for centuries and some were no more than scraps of animal skin. These men and women made no sound as they pushed and jostled at the car and those with the equipment for it smiled a mockery of welcome. A noxious smell began to seep inside. Fresh blood. Stale pus. Ancient rot.
Jack turned one last time to the hitchhiker and recoiled. Toby’s face was crossed and slashed about with livid scars through which the silver eyes flashed messages of madness. The greatcoat had changed to a sky blue colour and a tarnished gold epaulette clung to one shoulder. The coat was riddled with holes, holes charred and blackened at the edges, so many holes the material seemed a grotesque variety of lace. From the right sleeve where a hand should have been there protruded a varnished wooden stump. In its centre had been set a six-inch blade. The awful daylight caressed its edges into flame.
“Don’t be afraid, Jack,” said Toby, the voice wet and rotten from the toothless mouth. “We who are ruined love you healthy ones. We love you so much we want you all to join us... “
Once upon a time the wicked Baron Dandrof lived with his beautiful daughter Eldera in a huge, dark mansion on the planet Alfataxa 3. Dandrof survived and prospered by grinding the faces of the poor Alfataxans and appropriating the profits of the mines in which they worked. He guarded Eldera’s honour jealously, not that this was any great problem for there was a distinct shortage of men on Alfataxa 3.
Until one day a tourist arrived, one Rippingill Slowmajor III (and last). Dandrof’s planet was not on the regular tourist itineraries because its only hotel consistently failed to improve its standards of cleanliness beyond those of a hippopotamus wallow. However, Rip, as he was known to his intimates, was a moderately wealthy young man who wished to include some of the more obscure locations in his galactic tour.
He met Eldera in the hotel disco and it was love at first sight. Eldera was so frustrated that she was ready to fall in love with anything vaguely human and ‘vaguely human’ was a good description of Rip. For him she was the most beautiful girl in the disco. Indeed, she was the only girl in the disco, the other occupants all having three legs and green fur. Nor is Alfataxan music pleasing to the human ear. Its effect is rather similar to that produced by loud barking on a cat. In fact it closely resembles loud barking. Still, Rip and Eldera discovered that love will find a way and you can dance to almost anything if you put your groin to it.
“I love you,” Rip whispered in her ear.
“I love you too,” she whispered back.
“Wait till your father finds out!” bawled her robot chaperone.
“Oh dear,” said Eldera. “He will have you boiled in the oil made from the fragrant root of the grommox tree.”“Or worse,” the chaperone added, a wisp of yellow smoke curling ominously from the cooling vent at the top of its pointed little head. It was a cheap Alfataxan model and unpredictable in its circuitry.
“I will behave honourably!” exclaimed Rip, who was a bit of a fool and failed tp realise that this was not precisely what his lady love had in mind. Nevertheless the road of honour, once taken, led him the next day to the drear and dingy mansion to ask Dandrof for Eldera’s hand in marriage.
“Only her hand?” the Baron replied. “Don’t you want the rest of her as well?” He laughed, a wet, unpleasant sound like somebody mashing frogs with a trowel. “No, don’t answer that! Just my little joke. Well, let us see. Are you a Grand Inquisitor? Or a Majestic Impossible Panjandrum? Or a High Celestial Potentate with vast territories and a staggering income?”
“Sir, I am none of those things. But I am a moderately wealthy young man. My father owns the snakeburger concession for the whole of Gannex Minor.”“Oh dear me no, that will never do,” said Dandrof, reminding himself to lay in a stock of fragrant grommox oil. “You must pass a test. First I require you to bring a tooth from the mouth of a VanHouten’s alligator.”
Rip blanched, as well he might. He had heard of VanHouten’s alligator. The beasts were rare, which was hardly astonishing for they grew to thirty feet long, had razor sharp teeth and claws and attacked all other living creatures on sight, including, especially during the mating season, each other.
“If I bring you the tooth, will you promise to let me marry Eldera?”
“I will promise to give it my most favourable consideration.”
With this Rip was foolish enough to be satisfied, failing to suspect that Dandrof never considered anything favourably unless it promised a substantial monetary return. He equipped himself with as much food and weaponry as he could comfortably carry and set off on the three-day march to Dead Growling Swamp where it was rumoured that an alligator was at large.
They found one another as though it had been predestined. Rip had hardly been inside the swamp an hour and it had been tough going cutting his way through the shacklevine with a laser knife and trying to maintain a footing amid the fetid mud and bubbling black water. From a pool in front of him a mighty scaled head emerged and a mouth opened to reveal what he was seeking in rather more abundance than he cared for.
“RRRRRAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRR!” said the alligator.
“Good afternoon,” said Rip, reaching for his blaster. It was fortunate that he never needed to use it; it would only have angered the reptile.
“Dentist!” the alligator cried and Rip was surprised to find that it spoke perfectly comprehensible Galactic Standard, albeit with a some what unrefined accent.
“You’re a dentist?” he asked.
“No of course not, wretch! I’ve got toothache I NEEEEEEEEEEEED a dentist!”
Now Rip had spent a good many summer holidays on his uncle’s wagga farm and the principles of veterinary science, including dentistry, were well known to him. It was true that a VanHouten’s alligator is a good deal larger than a wagga but he was confident that it was only a difference of scale.
“I can help you,” he said. “Which tooth is it?”
“The thirty-fourth from the front on the left. My left, that is. Hurry up – it’s agony!”
Rip reached into his pack for tools. “This will hurt,” he warned.
“It hurts now!” wailed the alligator. Not a pretty sound.
The operation necessitated Rip’s placing the whole of his head and part of his upper body inside the alligator’s mouth. Hurriedly he located the offending tooth and jiggled it. A low moan escaped the throat of the beast together with a blast of foul swampbreath. Rip thought his hour had come. Having ascertained that his head was still attached to his shoulders and that the tooth moved quite freely, he reached into the mouth with his pincers. It was going to be important to do this in one take. He gripped firmly with the pincers and hurled himself backwards. The breeze of reflexively closing jaws was too close for comfort and he fell awkwardly into the stinking shallows but he was safe. And he had the tooth!
“UUUUUURRRGH!” said the alligator, a sound of deep satisfaction. “It feels better already. Get up, Terran! Let it not be said that we kings of the swamp are without gratitude. Up on my back and I will carry you to dry land.”
And so it did. And so it was that three days later Rip found himself, befouled and bespattered but bold and boisterous, once more inside Dandrof’s dire, depressing mansion speaking with the owner thereof. Eldera was not present, having been confined to her quarters by an attack of Lustig’s Itch.
“Aha! Oho!” exclaimed Dandrof. “Well, young man, this is undoubtedly a tooth of VanHouten’s alligator, if a somewhat decayed specimen. You have carried out the test I set you and I, too, have fulfilled my side. I have given your proposal the most favourable consideration I can manage.”
Then he went ahead and had Rip boiled in the oil made from the fragrant root of the grommox tree.
Eldera mourned for a full three days before a passing trader introduced her to the sexual satisfactions which may be obtained from the simple purchase of a Grandacian slime mould.