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       Skin Game, p.1

           Charles E. Fritch
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Skin Game

  Produced by Greg Weeks, Stephen Blundell and the OnlineDistributed Proofreading Team at

  _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!_


  By Charles E. Fritch

  Illustrated by Kelly Freas

  "People are basically alike," Harding said democratically. He sat idlyagainst the strawlike matting of the hut wall and reached for a nativefruit 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 bethe dumbest." Carefully, he bit into the fruit which resembled an orangeand, mouth full, nodded approvingly. "Say, these aren't bad. Try one."

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

  Harding shrugged and settled back, his grinning features ruddy in theflaring torchlight. "Humanoids have no monopoly on suckerhood. When itcomes to that, we're all brothers under the skin, no matter whatcolor or how hard the skin may be." He sighed, contemplating theharvest-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 Patrolcan bat an eyelash in this direction."

  Unconvinced, Sheckly stared glumly through the open doorway of the hutinto the warm humid night, where a fire flared in the darkness and longshadows 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--"butlizards!"

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

  Sheckly grunted, for he had no ready answer to deny this truth. While hedidn't like the reference to his inability to get along in the worldwithout Harding's help, the man was right about other things. It didtake imagination, all right, mixed with a generous supply of plainordinary guts; that, plus an eye focused unfalteringly on the good oldcredit sign.

  He certainly could not get along without Harding's timing. The man knewjust when Patrol Ships would be at certain spots, knew their schedulesfor visiting these small otherworlds, and always he was several stepsahead of them. They went into a planet, their rocket ship loaded withgambling devices--cards, dice, roulette wheels, and other culturalrefinements--and set up shop which could be folded at a moment's noticeif 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 hearthe sharp scrapings that represented music. "They must be having somekind of ceremony."

  Sheckly nodded, shivering slightly, though the air was hot and humid. Hewished again, as he often had in the past, he could have some ofHarding's assurance, some of that unrelenting optimism that insistedeverything would turn out favorably. But he didn't like these strangeprimitive worlds, he didn't trust them or their inhabitants. Thelizard-people had seemed friendly enough, but by looking at a strangereptile you couldn't tell how far it would jump. When the Earth shiplanded, the creatures had come slithering to them with all but a brassband, welcoming the Earthlings with the hissings that composed theirlanguage. One of them--the official interpreter, he proclaimedhimself--knew a peculiarly good brand of English, and welcomed them in amore satisfactory manner, but still Sheckly didn't like it. Harding hadcalled him chicken-hearted, and he felt a certain amount of justifiedindignance at the description. Cautious would be a better word, hedecided.

  * * * * *

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

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

  Harding looked annoyed, as he drew his attention from the alien musicwhich had fascinated him. "Stop worrying, will you? They're probablyamong the friendliest creatures in the universe, even if they do looklike serpents out of Eden. And the friendly ones rate A-1 on mysucker-list."

  Sheckly shuddered and cast an annoyed glance into the night. "How cananybody concentrate with that infernal racket going on out there? Don'tthey ever sleep?"

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

  Sheckly started involuntarily, as a scaley head thrust itself into thehut. The serpentman had a long sharp knife gleaming in one hand."Pardon, sirs," the head said slurringly, as a forked tongue sorted overthe 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 thesecreatures, 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 lackednerve more than sleep. To the serpentman he said, "Tell your leader mycompanion is tired from our long journey and would rest now. However, Iwill 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 aretimes 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 andhimself. He should have gone out there with Harding, if only to show theman that he was not afraid, that he was no coward. And yet, as he satthere 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 andtried to think of other things. He stared at the orange-flaring torchand contemplated putting it out, but the sounds from the outside driftedin upon him and changed his mind. After a while, he closed his eyes anddozed.

  * * * * *

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

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

  Morning came, and the alien sun slanted orange rays through the cabindoorway. Sheckly opened his eyes and stared at the thatched roof. Thetorch had burned out, bu
t it was no longer needed for light. Thankgoodness for morning, he thought. Morning brought a temporary sanity tothis world, and after the madness of the night it was a reprieve hewelcomed gladly. He had not opposed Harding till now, but desperationwas 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 againstinvisible enemies. Perhaps he'd gotten up early, Sheckly thought. Butsuppose he hadn't returned? Suppose--

  He jumped, as the interpreter entered the hut behind him. "The Leaderwishes you to join him for
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