STARSHIP TROUPERS BOOK IV: THE UNKNOWN GUEST
Chapter One: On to Corona
"The ghost walks!" Barry's voice rang through the steel corridor. "The ghost walks!"
"Ghost?" I tensed, ready to sprint to the rescue—or for the dimmer, to turn up the lights. "What is this, a haunted ship?"
"No, it's payday!" Suzanne was out of her chair and heading for Barry with the sure homing instincts of a starving actor scenting groceries.
Barry stepped into the ship's lounge waving an envelope in one hand and holding a bunch more in the other. The actors let out a cheer and converged on him. Horace tarried just long enough to explain to me, "It's theatrical slang, Ramou. 'The ghost walks' means 'payday'." Then he was off.
Instinct shot me from my armchair, common sense held me in place. After all, where was I going to spend it? Our next port of call? That was Corona Borealis, still weeks away. I thought I could take my time collecting. It wasn't as though I were desperate to pay the landlord or anything. We lived aboard the Cotton Blossom, and all food and drink was provided (usually by the synthesizers in our staterooms), though we did keep the quaint old custom of meeting in the dining room for dinner. After all, shipboard life could get lonely, and even if the people at dinner were the same ones you rehearsed with and performed with, and some of them were your rivals and having a running feud with you, they were still better than hanging out alone. That's also why we gravitated to the lounge—excuse me, “greenroom”—when we didn't have anything else to do, and it was happy hour, the time between rehearsal and dinner.
No rush—I sauntered over to Barry, taking my time following Suzanne, who was always worth watching from the back. From the front, too—here she came, counting bills in her envelope. Sure, Lacey and Prudence are worth watching from behind, too—but Suzanne clicked with me in a way no other girl ever had. Used to click with me, that is. I'd thought it was mutual, and maybe it was, but she seemed to have gone off me of late—way off; she always had that polite look when she noticed me, which she didn't seem to do anywhere nearly as much as she used to, and scarcely said a word. I wondered what I had done wrong. More importantly, I was beginning to wonder what I could do right enough to get her to warm up to me again. I sighed with resignation and turned my gaze to the sex symbol of the older generation.
Marnie was still lovely, though she had to be forty-five if she was a day, and she really had rated as one of the great beauties of her generation, gracing stage and holo in play after play until she retired to a life of extravagance as Valdor Tallendar's mistress. Getting her out of his house was one of the reasons he was underwriting all the expenses of the Star Repertory Company. The other was that our star-hopping rep company of ambitious newcomers and unmarketable veterans was the brainchild of his brother Barry, one of the most famous (unemployable) of our senior members.
"This is real money!" Suzanne's eyes were huge. "Fourteen hundred plus! Your fellow citizens must have really paid us well, Prudence!"
"I suppose they must." The beautiful Puritan maid looked distinctly unhappy. "I don't suppose there will be something for me."
"Considering that you haven't done any acting, I highly doubt it." Marnie gave her the censorious glare reserved by the professional of only modest talents for the complete amateur.
"Perhaps she will, in our next production," said Ogden in an attempt to be encouraging—and forgetting the panic he was sure to evoke in Lacey and Suzanne, who both glared stilettos at Prudence before they caught themselves and returned to studiously counting money as they sat in their armchairs again. I didn't blame them for being worried—Prudence was fantastically beautiful, and in the bloom of youth. You certainly wouldn't expect to find someone so spectacular on a Puritan planet, but accidents do happen.
"Our first payday, and we've only performed twice!" Marnie said with her usual sarcasm. "Well, I suppose I can't complain."
"Why not?" Ogden settled his huge bulk back into his oversized armchair. "You generally do."
"Only because I have to perform with overplaying egocentrics whose acting style never recovered from the English Civil War!"
"I beg your pardon," Ogden said with frosty hauteur. "With the Restoration and Charles II's return to the throne, I returned to the boards!"
"I'm surprised you didn't break them," Marnie purred.
"Really, Ogden!" Winston said quickly. "I thought you only pre-dated holovision!"
"I was godfather to the cinema," Ogden proclaimed. "In fact, I helped the Lumiere brothers invent it."
"Really!" Marnie purred. "I thought Edison did that."
"I suspected you were there to watch," Ogden returned.
Barry nodded agreement as he handed me my pay packet. "The brothers were neck-and-neck with Edison and his assistant Dickson. It was a photo-finish.”
The old troupers—excuse me, the mature actors—winced at the pun, but the younger folk only frowned, looking puzzled.
As an engineer, I was quietly smug. I could afford to ask myself, “What are they teaching them these days?” Or, more to the point, not teaching them? I didn’t say it aloud, of course—I would have sounded too much like the veterans.
“The argument still rages as to who stole whose credit,” Winston said.
"Well, they aren't stealing mine." I counted through the stack of Interstellar Trading Credits—what else could you use, when every planet had its own currency? Satisfied with the total, I sat down with the others and asked, "How did Barry get to be a ghost?"
"By demanding sets that were less and less practical," Marnie answered.
Before Barry could get his counter-snipe in, Horace said quickly, "It's a tradition so old that we can only guess at its source, Ramou. Personally, I incline to the view that Shakespeare acted as the treasurer for the King's Men, and since he played the ghost in Hamlet..."
"Stuff and nonsense!" Marnie scoffed. "It's simply because early actors were paid so rarely that they thought the paymaster had died."
"I know how they felt," Suzanne said fervently. She'd been trying to earn a living from acting for several years, long enough to wonder why there was always so much month left at the end of the money—and to know how many, many tables you have to wait between parts.
"Personally," said Winston, "I think it was because the early touring companies were always barely scraping by, so that a pay packet was as rare as a haunting."
"Hauntings, rare in a theater?" Horace turned to our resident villain with a smile. "Don't tell me you've worked in a theater that did not have a ghost residing in it, Winston!"
I frowned, about to protest that ghosts were bunk—but I remembered Horace telling me that all actors are superstitious, so I kept my mouth shut. Hey, it was contagious! Even I never counted the house before a performance, and we'd only faced an audience twice!
"I've never actually seen a ghost," Winston began, and probably would have launched into a regular horror story if Barry had not cut him short, rubbing his hands briskly and saying, "I trust the contents of your packets are satisfactory?"
"Satisfactory." Marnie held hers up in two fingers. "I'm used to a great deal more than this, Barry."
"Well, yes," Winston said, "but Valdor isn't here," which earned him a glare of pure hatred.
Barry said quickly, "Our Lecture on Heads proved quite profitable, thanks to the good citizens of Prudence's home planet. As Marnie remarked on the occasion, we might consider adding Wilde's Salome to our repertory—but not just yet."
"Oh?" Marnie gave him a very jaundiced eye. "You have another play for our consideration?"
Now, even I knew that "consideration" was pushing it. Barry was our producer and executive director, and would have been quite within his rights to simply tell us what the next opus was going to be. In fact, he had, when he formed the company—but now he only said mildly, "There was nothing in our Articles of Incorporation to militate against adding to our repertoire. At the moment, though, I think our focus should be on keeping the productions we have already mounted in good form, and in rehearsing the season to which we are already committed."
"Committed," Ogden mused. "That means 'already having paid royalties for,' doesn't it, Barry?"
"Well, the base fee, at least." Barry took an armchair, joining the circle. "We'll have to pay the additional depending on the audience count, of course."
"I'm sure the licensing agency will have a spotter out here on the frontier planets," Marnie scoffed.
'Why not?" Winston countered. "When you're living hand to mouth, any little extra is appreciated."
"Yes, but they haven't had any performances," Horace reminded him. "No professional companies, no productions, ergo no audiences."
"There might be amateurs," Ogden pointed out.
The discussion went on from there, every older actor having his say—except Charles Publican, of course; Charlie never had much to say unless he was onstage. We young folk only rolled our eyes and waited them out.
Finally Ogden said, "We might consider something in the public domain..."
"You mean so old that it would bore any halfway lively audience to tears?" Marnie said in a withering tone.
"Classics are always worth considering," Barry said, "but I think we might wish to consult the catalogues. If you would join me in the conference room?"
He stood, and all the senior members stood with him, just as Merlo came in. "You missed all the talk about ghosts," I told him with regret.
"Probably heard them all already," he said, "especially the one the theater manager just told me."
"The manager of the theater we’re booked into on Corona Borealis?” Barry was suddenly all business again. “What story?”
“He says the theater is haunted.”
Everybody relaxed. “Is that all?” Marnie demanded.
I stared from one to another. The theater came complete with a ghost, and they didn’t care?
"He says it isn't just this theater” Merlo explained. “The whole planet is haunted."
That brought a bit of an uproar. When it settled, I managed to be heard. "How do you haunt a whole planet?"
"When it's made of silicon," Merlo answered. "Seems some of the geodes are natural memory crystals."
"Memory crystals?" Marnie asked with a frown.
"You mean like they used in early computers?" I asked.
Merlo nodded. "If somebody feels a strong enough emotion near one, it stores the pattern. Anyone of a similar personality can wake that memory and replay it—sort of."
We looked around at each other, wondering whose personality was like the ghost's. If it was Larry, we were in for big trouble.
On the other hand, if it was Suzanne, we were in for a magical experience.
"Can't we just remove the crystal?" Marnie asked.
Merlo shook his head. "They're in the bedrock all over the planet."
"How does anybody get anything done?" Ogden demanded.
"The manager says you get used to it," Merlo explained. "They're just illusions, after all—recorded memories. They can't hurt you."
Everyone was silent again, with furtive glances at one another. I guessed I wasn't the only one whose memories really could hurt.
"All the more reason for a cocktail." Ogden struggled out of his chair. "If I'm going to have to spend the next week listening to some defunct person's woes, I will definitely need a drink."
Somehow, Suzanne and I managed to sit on either side of him—close. Close enough to intercept his glass if he tried anything stronger than a tonic and gin. That’s a touch of gin and a lot of tonic.
Over cocktails, the elders of the clan managed to forget about ghost stories and have another bout of singing. Okay, so maybe it started with "The Ghost's High Noon" and "The Unfortunate Miss Bailey," but they got out of the supernatural songs quickly enough and went back to working their way through the Broadway canon. All in all, it was a much more cheerful group who finally sought their cabins.
* * *
To keep in practice in case we needed it again, we ran the first act of Macbeth the next morning. We didn't call it that, of course—not in a theater, or even in the Cotton Blossom's rehearsal hall (which had been its cargo hold); we just said, "The Scottish play." We still had to say the lead character's name out loud, of course, many times; maybe that's why the curse holds the tradition that the Scottish play has never been performed without at least one casualty, and sometimes a fatality. I’ve heard that most actors put it down to depicting a man seduced into dedicating himself to bloody murder. Being an engineer, of course, I put it down to too much swordplay with brittle prop weapons. Still, the act ran smoothly, even though nobody put much heart into it—only a runthrough, after all. Then we went upstairs to the dining hall— “the mess,” Merlo informed us—and ate the fruits of a good day’s work (and of the food synthesizers).
As we were finishing dinner, Barry tapped his glass for attention and stood up. We finished our current sentences and quieted. We younger folk more or less assumed we were going to find out which play we’d be rehearsing next. Not that we were exactly on the edges of our chairs with suspense, though. Barry had virtually told us the title.
“Friends,” he said, “I would like to announce our next production, which should be no surprise…
…since it was in your contracts—Immortal Love; the only question was when we would present it.”
“Might as well get it out of the way,” Marnie said with an overdone sigh—from which, I concluded, there wasn’t much of a part for her. Turned out I was wrong—she was the center of the show, and all she had to do was memorize the lines, then be herself—N.A.R., “No Acting Required.”
Barry finished the announcement. “We will begin rehearsal for Immortal Love, here at nine a.m. Now let us pass around the bottle and toast its success."
They did, then toasted our captain Gavin McLeod for getting us off Terra one step ahead of the sheriff, toasted our ship the Cotton Blossom, and about that time I began to realize we weren't going to be blocking the fight scene that night, after all. Then Ogden rumbled in his deepest basso,
"Ein, zwei, drei, fier,
Lift your stein and drink your beer!"
The rest of the seniors echoed him, and if they raised brandy glasses rather than steins, nobody really minded—except maybe Suzanne, whose gaze met mine, in unspoken acknowledgement that we had taken a wise precaution filling Ogden’s stein with non-alcoholic beer. She only gave me a glance, though, then turned away, deliberately giving her attention to the warbling seniors, who were off into the score of The Student Prince, following the drinking song with "Gaudeamus Igitur," the oldest of the genre, then moving up the decades to "To Keep My Love Alive" and "The Quest." None of us young folk made a bolt for the door, though—we all knew we were getting for free a concert that would have cost top dollar on any planet's surface. I mean, they may never have formally rehearsed these numbers, but those old folk were good!
Of course, Marty and Larry and Lacey and Suzanne were no slouches themselves. They joined in when the older contingent, started in on "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" and kept on going all the way through Sondheim and Andrew Lloyd Webber, then broke into the Twenty-Second Century with Garry Pekin and Leah Darby, though there weren't too many other composer-lyricists from that era who were worth singing. The Twenty-Third and Twenty-Fourth were pretty rich, though, and the geriatric generation were beginning to yawn before we came anywhere near our own epoch. One final toast, then goodnights all around, and we floated off to bed feeling more like a company than we had in ages.
* * *
We assembled for readthrough the next morning, very much the worse for wear, some wearing dark glasses and all popping aspirin and washing it down with black coffee. Barry read off the cast list, and Prudence looked pleasantly surprised when he told her she would portray Vera. She murmured a "thank you" while Lacey and Suzanne bowed their heads, biting their lips to keep from laughing or looking triumphant—they knew that Vera only has twenty lines. It’s a fairly good part, though, until the ghost of Arlene starts raging at her halfway through the first scene, accusing her of stealing her husband Arnold and her house—in fact, everything but her wardrobe. When Vera tries to claim Arnold for the world of the living, Arlene turns into an absolute fury and strikes her with a ghostly blow that sends her into a coma for the rest of the script. Barry probably thought he was giving her a good chance for practicing in front of an audience without jeopardizing the whole play, but the other women seemed to think she was getting what she deserved—which was probably true, though maybe not the way they had in mind. Prudence was quite content to sit through the bulk of the play listening to the others with a smile of innocent delight on that lovely face, then coming in for her handful of lines. In fact, she took it so well that Lacey and Suzanne were beginning to look a little guilty and, at the end of the rehearsal, swept her up for a cascade of chitchat about the finer points of stage make-up. Prudence listened, wide-eyed and glowing, but I had a bad feeling about it all. I knew Prudence was shrewd and a lot more intelligent than she let show, and I wondered what kind of unpleasant surprise she was planning.
To take my mind off it, I turned to Gavin McLeod. Merlo had apparently decided to give our captain a break—Merlo was First Officer, officially, which meant he could sit on the bridge watching the sensors so McLeod could enjoy some company. He sat there looking self-righteous, the only one who hadn't been drinking—which was a laugh and a half, since he was a planetside alcoholic who somehow managed to become a teetotaler when he was in space (they're doing such wonderful things with medicines these days). He was listening to my mentor, so I waited while Horace finished a chat with Barry about the symbolism of Arlene's vanishment and Vera's awakening. When they were done, I asked McLeod, "This planet we're going to—it's called 'Gemma,' right?"
Gavin smiled, glad to see I was interested. "That’s right—the brightest star in the Northern Crown, Corona Borealis. That makes it the biggest jewel in the crown.”
"So what're we in for?" I asked. "I mean, New Venus was a company planet with a little dry land in oceans of petroleum derivatives, and Prudence's home planet was a morass of Puritans—so what gives with Gemma?"
Gavin grinned. “Nothing much, youngster. If you do MacB—”
Marnie gave him a gimlet glare.
"—uh, the Scottish play,” Gavin said, “you won't even have to reblock the swordfights too much."
"How come?" I asked. "What's it made of—foam?"
"No, dirt," Gavin said. "Sand, I should say. It's very low in all other elements, especially the heavier ones. The people nicknamed the planet ‘Sandrock.’” He turned to Horace. "In fact, I should tell Merlo to break out the fortune in his workshop—iron’s precious here."
"You mean we could use nails and screws instead of money?" I asked.
Horace smiled. "Don't let your enthusiasm carry you away, Ramou."
Gavin nodded. "That’s right—use nails for money, and their paper currency is backed with iron."
Horace frowned. "We shan't make much of a profit there."
"Only if you let them pay you in steel," Gavin answered. "Take your ticket money in circuit boards, now, and you'll make a huge profit at your next port of call; they make the best computer parts in the Sphere." He meant the Terran Sphere, the globe of occupied planets around old Earth.
"So it's another company town?" I asked.
"Not at all," Gavin said. "Bunch of rugged individualists, really—farmers and hunters, who spend their winters making computer parts. They’re so cussedly independent that it was all they could do to band together into cooperatives to build their factories."
I frowned. "Doesn't sound like the greatest place to put on a play."
"Expect it will be, though," Gavin said. "When you spend six months out of the year stuck out in the country with your nearest neighbor a mile away, you get to looking for excuses to get together with other folk."
The light dawned. "And 3DT epics don't give you any reason."
"When you can watch 'em at home as easy as anywhere else?" Gavin grinned. "Who'd go to the trouble of going into town?"
"In fact, Gemma is rather famous in the theatrical community," Horace told me. "It's the only planet on which the high schools give their artists as much glory as their athletes."
Gavin nodded. "Even built a real first-class theater."
"At least, it was first-class a hundred years ago," Horace amended.
I frowned. “What’s it like now?”
“Oh my! It’s been decades.” Horace sighed. “I guess we’ll have to wait and see."
* * *
The Sandrockers' theater was still pretty good. Okay, it didn't have a scenic control board, but its lighting control computer was first-class—no wonder, Sandrock being the source of the Sphere's best parts. The stage was sixty feet wide and forty deep, with a full servomech fly system—as I said, no scene-control board.
"But there's plenty of power to plug it in." Merlo nodded at the receptacles in the wall of the tech booth.
I looked around at an amazingly spacious room, twelve feet deep and thirty wide with a two-foot-deep counter underneath the huge expanse of soundproof window. I could identify the lighting console, the audio board, and the 3DT console with its tanks. "Why six cameras?" I asked Merlo.
"They probably set four cameras around the action to catch all three sides," Merlo answered, "fixed positions, I’d guess, then mount the other two on the shoulders of a couple of high-school kids who have orders to look for a list of close-ups on individual lines."
I frowned. "Why shoot close-ups when you can just isolate them from the master disk later?"
"When you know which lines you want tight shots for, it's easier and quicker to record them in the first place," Merlo told me.
"But you only see one side of the person!"
"Sure, but that guides the editing system to pick out the whole image from the master."
"Speaking of editing..." I looked around the room, frowning. "I don't see a console for it."
"Probably a separate booth somewhere," Merlo said. "Why take up space in here when you don't use it until after the show?"
That made sense. I turned to look out over the banks of seats. "Weird, seeing the audience on only one side of the actors—and what's with the giant picture frame at the end of the house? They supposed to see the actors inside it, like a painting come to life?"
"Exactly," Merlo said. "It's useful for period pieces—anything from the Seventieth Century to the Twenty-First. They close it up with a curtain to hide the set from the audience before and after each act."
"Must be one whale of a curtain!"
"They call it an act drape." Merlo scanned the counter. "Should be a control button for it around here somewhere..."
"So where does the stage manager sit?"
"Just offstage, as he always does. Remember, Ramou, he has to be able to talk to the actors person-to-person if anything goes wrong—or even be able to fill in if someone gets sick in the middle of a performance."
I shuddered. "As long as I'm not stage managing when it happens!"
"Can't—you're in the cast in this one, remember?"
I frowned. "But we're not doing Mac… uh, the Scottish play here!"
"No, just Immortal Love—and you're the butler." Merlo frowned. "Didn't anybody tell you?"
I tried not to let the irritation show as we gathered for rehearsal. I'd really been looking forward to operating the ghost. Knowing Merlo was going to do it took some of the fun out of setting up the projectors for it.
"Well, then!" Barry stood up from his director's table in the fifth row and rubbed his hands together briskly. "Let's begin then, shall we?"
"Curtain up," Horace said, smiling beside him. "I thought I'd never say that again."
"If we have a proscenium, why not use it?" Barry asked.
"Because it separates the actors from the audience, puts a huge psychic distance between us," Marnie snapped.
Barry didn't hear her, of course, since she was in the offstage space behind the proscenium—the "wings," Horace had told me they were called.
Marnie turned to me with an accusing glare. "Couldn't you have rigged some sort of forestage out into the house? I hate having my audience so far away from me!"
I began to see why Valdor had dumped her—her real love affair was with her audience. What must she have been like to live with, when she had retired from the stage to immerse herself in the luxury of his mansion and wallow in opulent shops with his money? Probably savage with depression and not knowing why she wasn't happy.
"They do have a forestage," I told her. "Merlo says it would be easy to set up."
"Then why don't you use it!"
"Barry said not to."
"Barry!" she said with loathing. "We'll have to see about that."
"He said something about it covering up a hundred paying seats," I said helpfully, "and about this play being written for proscenium."
"Yes, the invisible fourth wall," she said scathingly. "I suspect it's the ticket revenue from the hundred seats that's affecting the purity of his artistic judgment."
Charles leaned over from the stage manager's desk to say helpfully, "That was your cue."
Marnie bolted through the doorway and onto the stage, crying, "What a ghastly day, darlings! Not a single shoe would fit!"
"You could have checked your catalogue-screen before you left." Winston couldn't quite hide the relief in his voice; I wondered if he'd been frantically thinking up a line to cover a missed entrance.
"What, and take all the adventure out of it?" Marnie answered.
"You might have enjoyed it more if you had taken Leticia along," Horace said.
"I would have been glad to have come, Mother," Prudence said demurely.
I glanced at the backstage monitor—a flat screen, to save space. Prudence had delivered the line so that it sounded natural, but she was still undeniably Prudence, not even trying to be Letitia. On the other hand, if she looked as good onstage as she did on the monitor, that wasn't exactly a handicap—and we all knew how much better in person.
"Who said I didn't enjoy it?" Marnie snapped.
Someone moaned onstage, a feminine voice. Charles looked up from the stage manager's script, frowning. It was way too early for Lacey's entrance as the ghost. I glanced at the screen, and sure enough, there it was, a feminine figure drifting out from the proscenium pillar, draped in a gauzy version of a shroud. It didn't look like Lacey, of course—completely computer-generated—and the voice had been processed out of all resemblance to hers as the ghost's moan turned into words. "Go back! Go away! Quit this place!"
"Go back yourself!" Marnie leaped to her feet. "Can't you even wait for your cue, silly girl? And you, Merlo!" She whirled to look out over the empty seats to the tech booth behind them. "What amateurish impulse let you bring that effect on so early?"
"I'm not doing it!" Merlo's voice drifted down to us, quavering a little.
On the screen, Marnie turned pale. Then, as one, all the actors onstage turned to stare at the ghost as it drifted toward Prudence. She screamed and backed away.