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´╗┐Title: Skin Game
Author: Fritch, Charles E., 1927-
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Skin Game" ***

This book is indexed by ISYS Web Indexing system to allow the reader find any word or number within the document.



    _Working on the theory that you can skin a sucker in space as well
    as on Earth, the con team of Harding and Sheckly operated furtively
    but profitably among natives of the outer planets. That is--until
    there was a question of turnabout being fair play in a world where
    natives took their skinning literally!_


SKIN GAME

By Charles E. Fritch

Illustrated by Kelly Freas


"People are basically alike," Harding said democratically. He sat idly
against the strawlike matting of the hut wall and reached for a native
fruit in a nearby bowl. "They're all suckers, even the smartest of them;
in fact, the ones who think they're the smartest generally wind up to be
the dumbest." Carefully, he bit into the fruit which resembled an orange
and, mouth full, nodded approvingly. "Say, these aren't bad. Try one."

Sheckly shook his head, determined to avoid as many aspects of this
culture as he could. "But these aren't people," he reminded, not happy
with the thought. "They're lizards."

Harding shrugged and settled back, his grinning features ruddy in the
flaring torchlight. "Humanoids have no monopoly on suckerhood. When it
comes to that, we're all brothers under the skin, no matter what
color or how hard the skin may be." He sighed, contemplating the
harvest-to-be. "No, Sheckly, it'll be like taking candy from a baby.
We'll be out of here with our pockets bulging before the Space Patrol
can bat an eyelash in this direction."

Unconvinced, Sheckly stared glumly through the open doorway of the hut
into the warm humid night, where a fire flared in the darkness and long
shadows danced and slithered around it.

"It's not the Space Patrol I'm worried about," he said, after a while.
"I don't mind fleecing humanoids--" he shivered, grimacing--"but
lizards!"

Harding laughed. "Their riches are as good as anybody else's. The
trouble with you, Sheckly, you're too chicken-hearted. If it weren't for
me, you'd still be small-timing back on Earth. It takes imagination to
get along these days."

Sheckly grunted, for he had no ready answer to deny this truth. While he
didn't like the reference to his inability to get along in the world
without Harding's help, the man was right about other things. It did
take imagination, all right, mixed with a generous supply of plain
ordinary guts; that, plus an eye focused unfalteringly on the good old
credit sign.

He certainly could not get along without Harding's timing. The man knew
just when Patrol Ships would be at certain spots, knew their schedules
for visiting these small otherworlds, and always he was several steps
ahead of them. They went into a planet, their rocket ship loaded with
gambling devices--cards, dice, roulette wheels, and other cultural
refinements--and set up shop which could be folded at a moment's notice
if necessary. Natives seemed almost eager to be skinned of their riches,
and he and Harding happily obliged them.

"Listen to them out there," Harding marveled, leaning forward to hear
the sharp scrapings that represented music. "They must be having some
kind of ceremony."

Sheckly nodded, shivering slightly, though the air was hot and humid. He
wished again, as he often had in the past, he could have some of
Harding's assurance, some of that unrelenting optimism that insisted
everything would turn out favorably. But he didn't like these strange
primitive worlds, he didn't trust them or their inhabitants. The
lizard-people had seemed friendly enough, but by looking at a strange
reptile you couldn't tell how far it would jump. When the Earth ship
landed, the creatures had come slithering to them with all but a brass
band, welcoming the Earthlings with the hissings that composed their
language. One of them--the official interpreter, he proclaimed
himself--knew a peculiarly good brand of English, and welcomed them in a
more satisfactory manner, but still Sheckly didn't like it. Harding had
called him chicken-hearted, and he felt a certain amount of justified
indignance at the description. Cautious would be a better word, he
decided.

       *       *       *       *       *

These people appeared friendly to the Earthlings, but so did the
Earthlings give the appearance of friendliness to the natives; that was
proof in itself that you couldn't trust actions to indicate purpose. But
even more than that, their basic alienness troubled Sheckly more than he
dared admit aloud. Differences in skin color and modified body shapes
were one thing, but when a race was on a completely different
evolutionary track it was a time for caution. These were a different
people, on a different planet under a different star. Their customs
were strange, how strange he could yet only guess, though he preferred
not to. This ceremony now, for example, what did it mean? A rite for
some serpent god perhaps. A dance in honor of the Earthmen's arrival. Or
it might just as easily be a preliminary to a feast at which the
visitors would be the main course.

"I just wish we knew more about the creatures," he complained, trying to
shove that last thought from his mind.

Harding looked annoyed, as he drew his attention from the alien music
which had fascinated him. "Stop worrying, will you? They're probably
among the friendliest creatures in the universe, even if they do look
like serpents out of Eden. And the friendly ones rate A-1 on my
sucker-list."

Sheckly shuddered and cast an annoyed glance into the night. "How can
anybody concentrate with that infernal racket going on out there? Don't
they ever sleep?"

"Patience," Harding advised calmly, "is a noble virtue. Ah, here comes
our interpreter."

Sheckly started involuntarily, as a scaley head thrust itself into the
hut. The serpentman had a long sharp knife gleaming in one hand.
"Pardon, sirs," the head said slurringly, as a forked tongue sorted over
the unfamiliar syllables. "The leader wishes to know will you join us?"

"No, thanks," Sheckly said, staring at the knife.

Harding said, "We should join them. We don't want to offend these
creatures, and if we're real friendly we might make out better."

"_You_ go out then. I'm going to see if I can get some sleep."

Harding shrugged, his glance making it plain he knew Sheckly lacked
nerve more than sleep. To the serpentman he said, "Tell your leader my
companion is tired from our long journey and would rest now. However, I
will be happy to join you."

"Yesss," the serpent head hissed and withdrew.

"Boy, will I be glad to get out of here," Sheckly muttered.

"Sometimes I wonder why I ever teamed up with a pansy like you,
Sheckly," Harding said harshly, a disgusted look on his face. "There are
times when I regret it." He turned and walked from the hut.

Sheckly stared bitterly after him. He felt no anger at the denunciation,
only a plaguing irritableness, an annoyance with both Harding and
himself. He should have gone out there with Harding, if only to show the
man that he was not afraid, that he was no coward. And yet, as he sat
there listening to the strange sounds creeping across the warm dampness,
he made no move to rise, and he knew he would not.

Grunting disgustedly, Sheckly stretched out on the floor matting and
tried to think of other things. He stared at the orange-flaring torch
and contemplated putting it out, but the sounds from the outside drifted
in upon him and changed his mind. After a while, he closed his eyes and
dozed.

       *       *       *       *       *

He woke suddenly and sat upright, a cold sweat making him tremble.
What had wakened him? he wondered. He had the vague notion that someone
had screamed, yet he wasn't sure. In the faltering torchlight, he could
see Harding had not returned. He listened intently to the noises
outside, the scraping, the hissing, the slithering. No screams came.

[Illustration]

I'm not going to stay here, he told himself. I'll leave tomorrow, I
don't care what Harding says. I'll go crazy if I have to spend another
night like this. Exhausted, he fell asleep.

Morning came, and the alien sun slanted orange rays through the cabin
doorway. Sheckly opened his eyes and stared at the thatched roof. The
torch had burned out, but it was no longer needed for light. Thank
goodness for morning, he thought. Morning brought a temporary sanity to
this world, and after the madness of the night it was a reprieve he
welcomed gladly. He had not opposed Harding till now, but desperation
was a strong incentive to rebellion. When Harding returned-- Startled,
he considered the thought. _When_ Harding returned?

He sat up and stared around him. Harding was not in sight. Panic came,
and he leaped up, blood racing, as though to defend himself against
invisible enemies. Perhaps he'd gotten up early, Sheckly thought. But
suppose he hadn't returned? Suppose--

He jumped, as the interpreter entered the hut behind him. "The Leader
wishes you to join him for eating," the serpentman said.

"No," Sheckly said hastily. They weren't going to make a meal out of
him. "No, thanks. Look, I've got to leave your planet. Leave,
understand? Right away."

"The leader wishes you to join him," the creature repeated. This time
the sword crept into his hands.

Sheckly stared at the sword, and his heart leaped. He thought there was
a tinge of red on the blade's edge. Mentally, he shook his head. No, it
was his imagination again. Just imagination. Still, the drawn sword
clearly indicated that the invitation was not to be refused.

"All right," he said weakly. "All right, in a few minutes."

"Now," the other said.

"Okay, now," the Earthling agreed listlessly. "Where is my companion?"

"You will see him," the creature promised.

Sheckly breathed a sigh of relief at that. Harding was probably all
right then. It made him feel better, though it would make the task of
leaving much harder.

       *       *       *       *       *

They had arrived at twilight the previous day, so they hadn't the
opportunity to see the village in its entirety. They hadn't missed much,
Sheckly realized as he walked along, for the grouped huts were
unimpressive, looking somewhat like a primitive African village back on
Earth. But the Earthling would have preferred the most primitive Earth
native to these serpents. In the distance, the slim nose of the rocket
ship pointed the way to freedom, and Sheckly looked longingly at it.

At one end of the village was a small mountain of what appeared to be
plastic clothing, milkily translucent--which was strange, since these
creatures wore no clothing. The Earthling wondered at this but did not
ask about it. Other thoughts more important troubled him.

"In here," the interpreter told him, stopping before the largest hut.

Hesitating briefly, Sheckly entered and the creature followed him in.
Seated on the floor were the leader and his mate and several smaller
reptiles that evidently were the children. Between them lay several
bowls of food. Sheckly grimaced and turned hastily away as he saw small
crawling insects in one bowl.

"Sit down," the interpreter directed.

Harding was not in evidence. "Where is my companion?" he asked.

The interpreter conferred briefly with the leader, then told Sheckly,
"He could not come. Sit down--eat."

Sheckly sat down, but he didn't feel like eating. He wondered _why_
Harding could not come. At a sudden thought, he said, "I have rations on
my ship--"

"Eat," the interpreter said, gripping his sword.

Sheckly nodded weakly and reached out for the bowl of fruit, taking one
that resembled that which Harding had eaten the previous night. It
wasn't bad. The leader stuffed a fistful of squirming insects in his
mouth and offered the bowl to Sheckly, who shook his head as politely as
he could and indicated the fruit in his hand.

Fortunately, the serpentman did not insist on his taking anything other
than fruit, so the meal passed without physical discomfort.

When they were through, the leader hissed several syllables to the
interpreter, who said, "The leader wishes to see your games. You will
set them up now."

Sheckly ran his tongue over dry lips. "They're in the ship," he said,
and eagerness crept into his voice. "I'll have to get them." Once inside
the ship, he'd never come back. He'd slam the airlock door and bolt it
and then blast off as fast as he could get the motors going, Harding or
no Harding. He got up.

"We will help you," the interpreter said.

"No. I can do it myself."

"We will help you," the interpreter insisted firmly. His eyes bored into
the Earthling, as though daring him to refuse again.

Sheckly's mouth felt dry once more. "Where's Harding?" he demanded.
"Where's the other Earth man? What have you done with him?"

The interpreter looked at the leader, who nodded. The interpreter said
gravely, "It is too bad. It is the season for the shedding of skins. At
the shedding feast last night--"

"The shedding of skins!" Sheckly said, remembering the pile he'd seen at
one corner of the village; "those translucent things were your cast-off
skins." He recalled that some reptiles back on Earth had regular seasons
of shedding. That intelligent creatures should do it made him feel
slightly sick.

"Your friend joined us last night," the serpentman went on. "But he
could not shed properly, so--"

Sheckly felt his blood turn to ice.

"--so we helped him."

"You _what_?"

"We helped him out of his skin," the serpentman went on calmly. "We try
to help those who are friends with us. Your friend had trouble getting
his skin off, but with our help--"

"No!" the Earthling cried, trying to reject the thought.

The full realization of what had happened struck him at once. Despite
himself, he could picture Harding struggling, trying to convince these
creatures that Earthlings don't shed their skins. His struggles must
have convinced them only that he was having trouble shedding, so they
"helped him." They had come to skin the natives, but the reverse was
happening--only literally.

"Where--where is he?" he asked finally, though he knew it didn't really
matter.

"We will take you to him," the interpreter said.

"No," Sheckly cried. "No, I--I'd rather not."

The serpentman nodded. "As you wish. He does not look pretty. I hope
that tonight you do not have as much trouble."

Sheckly's eyes went wide. "What do you mean?"

"In your shedding," the serpentman explained. "We will try to help you
all we can, of course."

"Of course," the Earthling agreed weakly, licking cottony lips. He
wondered how he could just stand there so apparently calm, instead of
letting out a shriek and running as fast as he could for the rocket
ship. He decided it was some sort of paralysis, the shock of finding
himself in the middle of something so alien his mind told him it
couldn't possibly be.

       *       *       *       *       *

Knees wobbling, Sheckly went to the door and out into the morning. That
he had gotten that far surprised him pleasantly. The tall rocket ship
was in a clearing several yards beyond the edge of the village. He
headed for it. He thought of running, but his legs felt like rubber, his
blood like ice. He walked past the pile of drying skins on the ground
without looking at them, and he was followed by the interpreter and
several others whom the serpentman had motioned to join them. Except for
their swords, they had no weapons, he noticed. Poor Harding, he thought,
and wondered if the Earthling's skin were somewhere in the pile; he felt
sick, thinking about it.

"You'd better stay outside the ship," he suggested testily. "I'll lower
the equipment to you."

"I will go aboard with you," the serpentman said.

"But--"

"I will go aboard with you."

Sheckly shrugged, but he hardly felt complacent. He felt as though a
giant icy hand held onto his spine with a firm paralyzing grip. He
trembled visibly. Got to think, he told himself desperately, got to plan
this out. But fear jumbled his thoughts, and he could only think of
Harding back in the village minus his skin, and of what was going to
happen that night if all went as these creatures planned.

The second thought was the more terrifying, and when they were within a
hundred feet of the rocket ship, Sheckly broke into a frantic run.

"Stop," the interpreter cried.

Sheckly had no intentions of stopping. His glands told him to run, and
he ran. He ran as fast as he could and didn't look back. He imagined the
serpentman was on his heels, knife poised, and he ran even faster. He
reached the rocket ship and went up the ladder, scrambling, missing his
foothold, pulling himself up with clutching hands. He threw himself
through the airlock and slammed the massive door behind him.

He ran through the metal corridors to the control room. They must be on
the ladder, he thought, prying at the airlock with their metal swords.
He pressed switches, slammed down on the throttle, and the sweet music
of the rockets came and pressed him into his seat.

He looked down at the planet dwindling into space below him and he
laughed hysterically, thinking of the narrow escape he'd had. No more
planets for him, no more trying to skin anyone.

       *       *       *       *       *

"There it goes," the Space Patrolman said, watching the rocket rise.

Harding trembled with helpless rage. "That blasted fool Sheckly'll lead
you right to the money, too," he complained.

"That's the way we planned it," the Patrolman smiled. "I must compliment
our native friends on their fine acting. Your pal took off like a scared
rabbit."

"Yeah," Harding grimaced, clenching his fists as though wishing he had
someone's neck in them.

"Don't blame your friend too much," the Patrolman advised. "Whether you
realize it or not, the fact that you were consciously avoiding our
schedules caused you to follow a pattern in your visits to these
outerspace planets; we just figured a bit ahead of you and posted hidden
patrols on all the inhabited planets in this sector, knowing that sooner
or later you'd land on one of them. We spotted your ship last night and
hurried over by 'copter so we wouldn't be seen."

"Forget the synopsis," Harding growled. "You walked in when these
blasted lizards were making believe they were going to skin me alive.
They didn't have to act so realistic about it."

"You're wrong about one thing," the Patrolman said. "The act didn't
start until after we arrived to direct it."

Harding looked at him, puzzled. "What do you mean by that?"

"We arrived, as the books say, just in time," the Patrolman told him.
"They _weren't_ making believe." He offered a bowl of fruit to his
prisoner. "We'll be here for another hour yet. Eat something."

Weakly, Harding shook his head no. He sat down, suddenly pale at what
the officer had said.

He didn't feel very hungry.

                                                           ... THE END



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _If: Worlds of Science Fiction_ May
    1954. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S.
    copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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