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Authors: Frederik Pohl

The Merchant's War

BOOK: The Merchant's War
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THE

MERCHANTS’

WAR

BY

FREDERIK POHL

A Sequel to

THE SPACE MERCHANTS

by Frederik Pohl & C. M. Kornbluth

ST. MARTIN’S PRESS

NEW YORK

TENNISON TARB

I

The woman was a wimp. Pathetically she had tried to make herself pretty for the interview. It was a waste of time. She was a sallow, sickly-looking little creature, and she licked her lips as she stared around my office. It is not an accident that the walls of the interview office are covered with full-D, full-movement advertising posters for brand-name goods. “Gee,” she sighed, “I’d do just about anything for a slug of good old Coffiest!”

I gave her my most dishonest look of honest bewilderment. I touched her dossier display. “That’s funny. It says here that you warned Venusians that Coffiest was addictive and health threatening.”

“Mr. Tarb, I can explain!”

“And then there’s what it says on your visa application.” I shook my head. “Can this be right? ‘The planet Earth is rotten to the core, raped by vicious advertising campaigns, the citizens mere animals and the property of the rapacious advertising Agencies’?”

She gasped, “How did you get that? They said the visa documents were secret!” I shrugged noncommittally. “But I had to say that. They make you abjure advertising or they won’t let you in,” she wailed.

I maintained my bland expression—seventy-five per cent “I’d like to help you,” twenty-five per cent “But you really are
disgusting. “
The whole performance was old stuff by now. I’d been seeing this wimp’s kind at least once a week for the four years of my tour on Venus, and habit didn’t make them any more attractive. “I know I made a bad mistake, Mr. Tarb,” she whimpered, voice full of sincerity, eyes big and staring out of an emaciated face. Well, the sincerity was fake, although well enough done. But the eyes were terrified. The terror was real, because she surely didn’t want to stay on Venus any more. You could always tell the desperate cases. The emaciation was the tip-off. The medics call it “anorexia ignatua.” It’s what happens when a decent, well-brought-up Terrestrial consumer finds himself in a Veenie store, day after day, and can’t ever figure out what to buy for dinner because he hasn’t had the wise and useful counseling of brand-name advertising to guide him. “So please, I beg you—can’t I have a return visa?” she finished, with what I suppose she thought was a prettily pleading smile.

I winked up at the hologram of Fowler Schocken on the wall. Normally I would have left the creature to stew in the room with the commercials for ten minutes or so while I went off on some pretended errand. But my instincts told me she didn’t need any more softening up—and besides, a little tingle in my glands reminded me that I was not talking only to the wimp.

I let down the hammer; nice-guy time was over. “Elsa Dyckman Hoeniger,” I barked, reading her name off the visa application, “you are a traitor!” The bony jaw dropped in shock. The big eyes started to fill with tears. “According to your dossier you came of good consumer stock. Member of the Junior Copy-smiths as a child. A fine education at G. Washington Hill University in New Haven. A responsible job in Customer Relations with one of the largest credit jewelry chains—and, I see, with a lifetime refund ratio of less than one tenth of one per cent, a record that got you a ‘Superior’ rating in your personnel file! And yet you turned your back on all of it. You denounced the system that gave you birth and defected to this sales-forsaken wasteland!”

“I was misled,” she whimpered, the tears spilling down.

“Of course you were misled,” I snarled, “but you should have had enough common decency to keep that from happening!”

“Oh, please! I’ll—I’ll do anything! Just let me come back home!”

It was the moment of truth. I pursed my lips in silence for a moment. Then, “Anything,” I repeated, as though I had never heard such a word from a chickened-out turncoat before. I let her sob herself dry, peering into my face with fear and despair. When the first touch of hope began to show through, I made my pitch.

“There
might
be a way,” I said. And stopped there.

“Yes, yes! Please!”

I made a production of studying her dossier all over again. “Not right away,” I cautioned at last.

“That’s all right,” she cried eagerly. “I’ll wait—weeks, if I have to!”

I laughed scornfully. “Weeks, eh?” I shook my head. “Elsa,” I said, “I don’t think you’re serious. What you did can’t be paid for in a couple of lousy weeks—or months, either. You’ve got the wrong attitude. Forget what I said. Application denied.” And I stamped her form and handed it back to her with a big red legend that glittered
Refused.

I leaned back and waited for the rest of the performance. It came just the way it always did. First there was shock. Then a searing glare of rage. Then, slowly, she got up and blindly pushed her way out of my office. The scenario never changed, and I was really good at my part.

As soon as the door was closed, I grinned up at Fowler Schocken’s picture and said, “How’d it go?” The picture disappeared. Mitzi Ku grinned back at me.

“First-rate, Tenny,” she called. “Come on down and celebrate.” It was the right answer, and I paused only long enough to stop by the commissary and pick up something to celebrate with.

When they built the Earth Embassy in Courtenay Center—it would be more accurate to say when they dug it—they had to use native labor. It was a treaty rule. On the other hand, the crumbly, fried Venusian rock is easy to dig. So when the first lot of dips moved in, their Marine guard was given double duty for a year. Four hours in smart uniform, standing outside the Embassy lock; another four hours down in the depths of the Embassy, quarrying out extra space and lining it for our War Room. The Veenies never guessed we had it, in spite of the fact that half the Embassy was swarming with Veenie workers during business hours—they weren’t allowed into the dips’ lavatories, and through the end cubicle in each toilet was the secret entrance to what was, primarily, the place where Cultural Attaché Mitsui Ku kept her noncultural records.

When I got there, breathless and balancing the bottle of genuine Earthside drinking whiskey and ice on a tray, Mitzi was patterning data on the wimp into her file. She raised a hand to keep me from interrupting and pointed to a chair, so I mixed a couple of drinks and waited, feeling good.

Mitzi Ku is a brassy lady—starting with her skin color, which is that creamy Oriental tone; and she talks brassy and acts brassy. Just the type I like. She has that startlingly black Oriental hair, but her eyes are blue. She’s as tall as I am, though a lot better built. Take her all in all—as I was always anxious to do—and she was about the best-looking agent-runner we’d ever had in the Embassy. “I wish I weren’t going home,” I offered, as she came to what seemed to be a pause.

“Yeah, Tenny,” she said absently, reaching out for her drink. “Real damn shame.”

“You could rotate, too,” I suggested—not for the first time—and she didn’t even answer. I hadn’t expected her to. She wasn’t going to do that, and I knew why. Mitzi had only eighteen months on Venus, and you don’t get Brownie points from your Agency for anything less than three years hard duty. Quick-trick people don’t really pay their travel expense. I tried a different tack: “Think you can turn her?”

“Her? The wimp? God, yes,” said Mitzi contemptuously. “I watched her leave the Embassy on the closed-circuit. She was breathing flame and fury. She’ll be telling all her friends that Earth’s even rottener than she thought when she defected. Then it’ll begin to hit her. I’ll give her another couple days, then call her in for—let’s see—yeah, to straighten out some credit charge from back on Earth. Then I’ll give her the pitch. She’ll turn.”

I leaned back and enjoyed my drink. “You could say a little more,” I encouraged.

Those blue eyes narrowed alarmingly, but obediently she said, “You did a good job on her, Tenny.”

“More than that even, maybe,” I persisted. “Like, ‘You did a good job on the wimp, Tenny dear, and why don’t we get back together again?’”

The narrowed eyes became a genuine frown —a serious one. “Hell, Tenny! It was great, you and me, but it’s over. I’m reupping and you’re going back, and that’s the end of it.”

I didn’t have the sense to give up. “I’m here for another week,” I pointed out, and she really flared.

“Cut it out, damn it’.”

So I cut it out. And I damned it. Especially I damned Hay Lopez—Jesus Maria Lopez on the books—who was not as handsome as I, or (I hoped) as good in bed as I, but had one big advantage over me. Hay Lopez was staying and I was going home, and so Mitzi was taking thought for the morrow.

“You can be a real pain, Tenny,” she complained. The frown was solid. When Mitzi frowned you knew she was frowning. Even before she frowned, while the tempest was still gathering on the horizon, you could see the clouds, two narrow vertical lines above her nose, between her pencil-thin brows. They meant,
Beware! Storm coming!
And then the blue eyes would freeze, and the lightning would flash—

Or not. This time it was not. “Tenny,” she said, relaxing a bit, “I’ve got an idea about the wimp. Do you suppose we could work her into the Veenie spy system?”

“Why bother?” I grunted. The Veenies just didn’t have the brains to be good spies. They were dregs. Half the crazy Conservationists that emigrated to Venus were going to wish they’d never come within the first six months, and half of those were going to beg to be let back on Earth. I was the one in charge of telling them they didn’t have a prayer—my main title at the Embassy was Deputy Chief of Consular Services. Mitzi was the one who picked them up a little later and turned them into her agents. Her title was Associate Manager of Cultural Relationships, but the main Cultural Relationship she had with the Veenies was a bomb in an airport locker or a fire in a warehouse. Sooner or later the Veenies would wake up to the fact that they couldn’t beat a planet of forty billion people, even if it was a long way off in space. Then they’d be down on their knees begging to be let back into the fellowship of prosperous, civilized humanity. Meanwhile, it was Mitzi’s job to keep them from getting comfortable out in the cold. Or, more accurately—considering what sort of a hellhole their planet was—out in the hot. Spies? We didn’t have to worry about Veenie spies! “—What?” I said, suddenly aware she was still talking.

BOOK: The Merchant's War
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