Procrustes (story)

Procrustes (story)

"Procrustes" is an English language science fiction short story written in 1994 by Larry Niven. It is the sixth in the series of stories about crashlander Beowulf Shaeffer. The short story was originally published in "Crashlander", Larry Niven, New York: Ballantine, 1994, pp. 160-207 (ISBN 0-345-38168-8).

Plot summary

Beowulf Shaeffer, half-dreaming, fitfully remembers events leading up to the moment he is shot with an ARM punchgun, a weapon best described as a large-caliber handgun. The recent events, and his memories leading up to them keep replaying in his head, and Shaeffer realizes that he must be inside Carlos Wu’s special autodoc, and he must be terribly damaged.

When he finally awakens, Shaeffer learns he’s been in the autodoc for four months and eleven days. He crawls out of the autodoc, feeling out of balance, and found himself on the same deserted island they had all landed on. But where was everybody? Moving to the center of the island, which is a shallow cone, he finds the corpse of a tall, headless man in the depression. It doesn’t surprise him. It can't be Carlos or Sharrol Janss or Feather Filip, and who’s left? Shaeffer takes the boots, pants and jacket, the latter torn front and back by a large hole through it. He finds a knife, a ration brick, and some sunblock and tannin pills in the pockets of the jacket. He barely manages to climb out of the cone’s depression then heads back to the autodoc to fix his ruined skin and feet; the yellow sun of Fafnir has ravaged his albino skin and the coral of the island has torn his feet.

Falling asleep, Shaeffer dreams of the events leading up to him reawakening in the autodoc the first time. Sharrol and he had gone to a party held at Carlos’s home in the Great Barrier Reef. There they met Feather Filip. The party was to feature recreational sex interspaced with small dinner dishes, tapas. Once there, Carlos tells them that Feather is an ARM, part of the United Nations police. After a few hours of eating and sex, Feather activates a shield to keep them from being spied upon and gets down to business, knowing that anyone who’d been watching would expect that Feather had something too kinky in mind to share over surveillance tapes. Carlos worries that the ARM will care what they’re saying, but Feather says they’ll dismisses it as “Feather coming down after a long week.”

Carlos and Feather intend to leave Earth, for keeps. They want to go as a group, four adults and two children, to match the profile of a family on Fafnir that has fallen on hard times. They will provide the family, the Graynors, with transportation to Wunderland and funding once they are there, and under their name Carlos, Feather, Bey and Sharrol and the kids Tanya and Louis will continue on to Home as Shashters (residents of Fafnir's one continent, Shasht). Sharrol is annoyed; she and Carlos had talked this over extensively, years before. Sharrol has Flatland Phobia; she can’t leave Earth. Carlos knows that. They have an answer for that: Sharrol, Tanya and Louis will travel in cold sleep to Fafnir, then again on to Home. Both Carlos and Feather have their reasons for going. Carlos is tired of the ARM supervising his every move. Feather is about to retire and knows she will never be let off-planet and the United Nations will never approve a “schiz” (a paranoid schizophrenic) having babies. Feather also tells Shaeffer the UN will never let him off Earth again; he knows too much about the Core explosion, the puppeteers and Kdatlyno, and Julian Forward’s work. Carlos told Feather he wanted to offer them the chance to come along, but they do need a pilot, and Shaeffer fills that need. They talk it around until Bey and Sharrol are convinced.

Shaeffer and Feather Filip go to Mars to retrieve the ship they will use to land on Fafnir after traveling there in the hyperdrive ship "Boy George". It is a stealth lander, Fourth Man-Kzin War vintage, and the ARM thinks it’s going to the Smithsonian Luna to serve as a display as the ship that Sinbad Jabar landed on Kzinhome to invade and distroy the Patriarch’s harem. Shaeffer reads up on life and lifestyle on Fafnir; it has a 22-hour day, and the locals there take things at their own pace. No one hurries anywhere. They wrestled Carlos’s massive autodoc into the lander, put Sharrol into the intensive care cavity to sleep throughout the trip, put Tanya and Louis in the cold sleep box together, and take off in "Boy George" for the three-week trip to Fafnir with Shaeffer piloting and Feather and Carlos as crew. Shaeffer remembered it was an uncomfortable trip; Feather kept giving him looks, and he kept avoiding her until the night before they got to Fafnir, when she turned up between his sleeping plates. Shaeffer was randy and so was she, but the next day she was all business as they deviously exited "Boy George" behind Fafnir’s moon in the lander while "Boy George" traveled on alone, passing too close to an ARM base on an asteroid that Feather wasn’t suppose to know about (but did) then changing course hastily and flying off in the direction of another ex-Kzinti world, Hrooshpithtcha, to throw off their scent.

In the lander, Shaeffer found a small island with no one around and used the belly jets to burn out the lamplighter nest in it, then sank the lander into the melting center with inches to spare. In the morning, when dawn gave them enough light, they inflated the boat, then Feather and Carlos used the gravity lift to put the freezebox with Tanya and Louis in it into the boat. Feather brought the lift to the ‘doc and they were moving it toward the boat when Feather called his name. Shaeffer turned and blam. Now, four months later, Shaeffer figures out that Feather didn’t just want off Earth, she wanted Carlos as well. But Carlos wanted Sharrol, and his children, and Sharrol wouldn’t leave earth without Beowulf. After they’d gotten here, he knew, his usefulness to Feather was over. So she’d shot him, to prove that she could and would take life, if necessary. But Shaeffer remembered seeing, just after he was shot, Carlos leaping into the boat, his reflexes like a jackrabbit. What had happened after that?

Hiding the autodoc using the gravity lift to move it into the sea at low tide. He would still be able to use it unless the next emergency came at high tide, when it was covered with water. For the next week Shaeffer lives off the land (actually the sea), scooping up sunbunnies and finding clutches of eggs from a flying thing that had mated with another in the crater at the island’s center. Finally, on the eighth night, he sees lights near the horizon. Using mag-specs from the pockets of the jacket, Shaeffer sees that it’s a boat, not moving. Sending up flares (also from the jacket) Shaeffer then begins to swim toward the boat. He wants to leave the island behind, the further away the better; no one should know that’s where he, and Carlos’s autodoc, had been for the past week.

The owners of the boat were brother and sister Wilhelmin and Toranaga; their boat was the "Gullfish". They had both been recently separated from their mates, and were enjoying a certain freedom. They replaced his torn jacket with a new one from a locker onboard their boat, let him clean out the pockets of all items, then tossed the torn jacket into the locker. Shaeffer presented himself as Persial January Herbert, an identity he had assumed as part of setting up accounts on Fafnir and Home using money given to him by his oldest friend on Earth, Elephant, whom the puppeteers had owed for the indemnity on his General Products hull, destroyed by antimatter in the Fast Protosun system, and Elephant owed Shaeffer for getting him out of that system alive. Shaeffer gives Wil and Tor a story of having lost his wife, Milcenta, in a boating accident, being rescued himself then trying to find her but becoming depressed and drinking. When a torpedo ray hits his boat, Persial gives up and starts swimming. He then decides she might still be alive under a different name. Searching the records of Fafnir from their caller, searching for either Sharrol or Feather, he finds Milcenta (Sharrol) alive and rescued but not Feather. The tradition on Fafnir when rescued is to give your rescuers a life gift, a present expressing your value as perceived by yourself.

Twelve days after being picked up, they arrived at Booty Island. At the hotel Shaeffer used the styler and his room’s caller to check for Sharrol after establishing his identity as Martin Wallace Graynor. It found that Sharrol had been using autodocs, but had never made her way to Shasht, the continent, to find Carlos or Tanya or Louis. Bey thought she might be mad with grief over losing him. Using a transfer booth to travel to Shasht, Shaeffer visit Outbound Enterprises, the iceliner company they were using to travel to Home, and established himself with them Martin Graynor. He was four months late because he’d been shipwrecked. His husband, John Graynor (Carlos) and their children Tween and Nathan (Tanya and Louis) had gone on to Home, but neither Milcenta nor Adelaide (Sharrol or Feather) had shown up either. However, John had left a message for Adelaide. Shaeffer persuaded the clerk to read it then show it to him, so that he could know (as Martin) whether Milcenta was dead or not.

Shaeffer alters a transfer booth card to let him go on a random walk: you flick from booth to booth in a local area every second and a half or so. There is a chance he’ll come across Feather rather than Sharrol, but he decides to risk it. Sharrol has probably taken a job somewhere in Pacifica, since she hasn’t gone on to Home and hasn’t moved to Shasht. At Solarico Omni, he finds Sharrol. They are the same height. At first she is terrified of him and points Feather’s punchgun at him, an object she keeps in a case for quick access. Keeping himself between her and a kzin cop (there are still Kzin on Fafnir, running the fishing industry, and working in law enforcement) Bey tries to calm her fears. She recounts waking up on Fafnir, with everything feeling wrong: the light, the gravity, and Earth so far away. And then a sonic boom and Shaeffer falling to the ground as Feather pointed that horrible weapon at him. Carlos had jumped into the boat and roared away, and Feather screamed after him. And Shaeffer looked dead to her. Sharrol jumped on Feather’s back and cut her throat. Feather was a trained ARM but she never took Sharrol seriously. That was her last mistake.

Bey and Sharrol tape messages for their benefactors: Wil and Tor in Bey’s case and the crew of "Hand of Allah" in Sharrol’s case. They present them with life gifts: Bey gives Wil and Tor silverware service for a dozen, Sharrol gives the crew of "Hand of Allah" red meat and vegetables. Wil and Tor have undoubtedly turned in the torn jacket to Fafnir police but they'll never know if he was a murderer; Shaeffer had presented a plausible reason for the tears in his jacket, and there was just no evidence otherwise. They then tape a message for Carlos (as John Graynor) with Ms. Machti, the Outbound Enterprises desk clerk, in mind as well, letting him know that Milcenta was safe and hinting that Adelaide was out of the picture. They plan to stay on Fafnir for a while; being underwater is second nature for Sharrol and just like being underground for Bey, if he doesn’t look out a window. Sharrol isn’t ready to travel again, not for a while. Maybe never, but time would tell.

ee also

*"Neutron Star", the first story in the Beowulf Shaeffer series
*"At the Core", the second story in the series
*"Flatlander", the third story in the series
*"Grendel", the fourth story in the series
*"The Borderland of Sol", the fifth story in the series
*"Ghost", the framing story in the collection "Crashlander"
*"Fly By Night (Niven)", the seventh story in the series, written after "Crashlander"

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