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Authors: Frederik Pohl

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BOOK: The Merchant's War
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“They’re up to something, Tenny,” she said. “Last time I went to Port Kathy my hotel room was searched.”

“Forget it,” I said positively. “Listen. What shall we do with the time I’ve got left?”

The twin creases above her nose flickered for a moment, then waned again. “Well,” she said, “what’ve you got in mind?”

“A little trip,” I offered. “The shuttle’s at the PPC now, so I’ll have to go up there for the prisoner bargaining—I thought you might want to come along—”

“Aw, Tenny,” she said earnestly, “you have the
worst
ideas! Why would I want to go there?” It was true that the Polar Penal Colony wasn’t high on Venus’s list of tourist attractions—not that there was anything else on the list to speak of, either, Venus being what it is.

“Anyway the shuttle’s coming here next, and I’ll be up to my ears. Thanks. But no.” She hesitated. “Still, it’s a pity you didn’t see the real Venus.”

“The real Venus?” It was my turn to scoff. The heat of real Venus would melt the fillings in your teeth if you ever exposed yourself to it —even around the cities, where there’s been substantial climate modification, the temperature is still awful and the air is poison gas outside the enclosures. You want to know what the “real” Venus was like? Look in an old-fashioned coal furnace after the fire’s gone out but it’s still too hot to touch.

“I don’t mean the badlands,” she said quickly. “What about Russian Hills, though? You’ve never been to see the Venera spacecraft, and it’s only an hour away—I mean, if we wanted to spend a day together.”

“Fine!” I could think of better things to do on a day together, but was willing to settle for any offer. “Today?”

“Hell, no, Tenny, where’s your mind? It’s their Day of Planetary Mourning. All recreational things will be shut down.”

“When, then?” I pressed, but she only shrugged. I didn’t want the frown lines to set in again, so I changed the subject. “What are you going to offer her?”

She looked startled. “Who? Oh, you mean the renegade. The usual thing, I guess. I’ll get five years as an agent out of her, then we’ll repatriate her—though only if she’s done a good job.”

I said, “Maybe you don’t have to go that high. I was watching her closely, and she’s prime. How about if you just give her PX privileges once a month? Once she gets in the store and gets some of those good old Earth brand names she’ll do anything you want.”

Mitzi finished her drink and put the glass back on the tray, looking at me in a peculiar way. “Tenny,” she said, half-laughing, halfshaking her head, “I’m going to miss you when you rotate. You know what I think sometimes, like when I can’t get to sleep right away? I think maybe, looked at in a certain way, it’s not such a morally good thing I do, turning ordinary citizens into spies and saboteurs—”

“Now, wait a minute!” I snapped. There are some things you don’t say even as a joke. But she held up her hand.

“And then I look at you,” she said, “and I see that, viewed in a certain way, compared to you I’m practically a saint. Now get out of here and let me get back to work, will you?”

So I got, wondering whether I’d gained or lost by that little discussion. But at least we had a sort of date, and I had an idea for improving on it.

The Day of Planetary Mourning was one of the nastiest of the Venusian holidays. It was the anniversary of the death of that old bastard Mitchell Courtenay. So naturally the Vee-nie clerical help and porters took the day off, and I had to get my own coffee-sub to take to the second-floor lounge. From there I had a good look at the “celebrations” outside the Embassy.

Your basic Veenie is a troglodyte, which is to say a cave dweller, which is to say that, Hilsch tubes or none, they’re a long way from blowing off all the nasty gases that stink up their air. I admit they’ve made progress. You can go outdoors in a thermal suit and air-pack if you want to, at least in the suburbs around the cities—personally, I seldom wanted to. But even there the air is still poison. So the Veenies picked out the steepest, deepest valleys on the planet’s cracked and craggy surface and roofed them over. Long and narrow and winding, your typical Veenie city is what Mitzi calls an “eel’s lair”. But your typical Veenie city isn’t anywhere near being a real city, of course. The biggest of them is maybe a pitiful hundred thousand people, and that’s only when pumped full of tourists on one of their disgusting national holidays. Imagine celebrating the traitor Mitch Courtenay! Of course, the Veenies don’t know the inside story of Mitch Courtenay the way I do. My grand-mom’s dad was Hamilton Harns, a senior vice-president at Fowler Schocken Associates, the very Agency that Courtenay had betrayed and disgraced. When I was little, Grandmom used to tell how her father had spotted Courtenay for a troublemaker at once—Courtenay had even fired him, and a bunch of other loyal, sales-fearing executives in the San Diego branch, to cover up his wickedness. Of course, the Veenies are so crazy they’d call that a victory for right and justice.

The Embassy is located on the city’s main drag, O’Shea Boulevard, and of course on a day like this the Veenies were busy at their favorite sport—demonstrations. There were signs saying
No advertising!
and signs saying
Earthmen go home!
The usual stuff. I was amused to see the morning’s wimp appear, wrench a banner from a tall man with red hair and green eyes and go marching and shouting slogans back and forth in front of the Embassy. Right on schedule. The fever in the wimp was rising, and when it fell she would be weak and unresisting.

The lounge began to fill with senior staff for the eleven o’clock briefing session, and one of the first to arrive was my roommate and rival, Hay Lopez. I jumped up and got his coffee-sub for him, and he looked at me with suspicion. Hay and I were not friends. We shared a duplex suite: I had the top berth. There were real good reasons for us not to like each other. I could imagine how he had felt, all those months, listening to Mitzi and me in the bunk above. I didn’t have to imagine, really, since I had come to know what it was like to hear sounds from below.

But there was a way of dealing with Hay Lopez, because he had a black mark on his record. He had fouled up somehow when he was a Junior Media Director at his Agency. So naturally they furloughed him to the military for nearly a year, on reservation duty, trying to bring the Port Barrow Eskimos up to civilized standards. I didn’t know exactly what he’d done. But Hay didn’t know I didn’t know, and so a couple of judicious hints had kept him worried. He ran scared anyway, trying to erase that old blot, working harder than anybody else in the Embassy. What he didn’t want was another tour of duty north of the Arctic Circle; after the sea-ice and the tundra, he was the only one among us who never complained about the Venusian climate. So, “Hay,” I said, “I’m going to miss the old place when I get back to the Agency.”

That doubled the suspicion in his eyes, because he knew that was a lie. What he didn’t know was why I was telling it. “We’ll miss you, too, Tenny,” he lied back. “Got any idea what you’ll be assigned to?”

That was the opening I wanted. “I’m thinking of putting in for Personnel,” I lied. “I think it’s a natural, don’t you? Because the first thing they’ll want is updates on performance here— say,” I said, as though suddenly remembering, “we’re from the same Agency! You and me and Mitzi. Well, I’ll have a lot to say about you two! Real star-class performers, both of you.” Of course, if Lopez thought it over he’d realize the last thing I’d put in for—or get—would be Personnel, because my whole training was Copy and Production. But I only said Hay was hard-working, I never said he was smart; and before he knew what was happening I’d got his promise to take over my Polar Penal Colony trip for me—“to break in in case he got the assignment when I left.” I left him puzzling it out and went over to join a conversation about the kinds of cars we’d owned back on Earth.

The Embassy had a hundred and eight on the duty roster—the Veenies were always after us to cut the number in half, but the Ambassador fought them off. He knew what those extra sixty people were there for—of course, so did the Veenies. I was maybe tenth or eleventh in the hierarchy, both because of my consular duties and my side assignment as Morale Officer. This meant that I was the one who selected commercials for the in-house TV circuits and—well—kept an eye on the other hundred and seven for Conservationist leanings. That didn’t take much of my time, though. We were a hand-picked crew. More than half of us were former Agency personnel, and even the consumers were a respectable bunch, for consumers. If anything, some of the young ones were
too
loyal. There’d been incidents. A couple of the Marine guards, just weeks before, had got a little too much pop-skull into them and flashed eye-resonating commercials at three of the natives with their hand weapons. The Veenies were not amused, and we’d had to put the Marines under house arrest for deportation. They weren’t present now, of course; the eleven o’clock briefing was only for us twenty-five or so seniors. I made sure there was a place next to me when Mitzi came in, late as usual; she glanced at Hay Lopez, sulking by the window, then shrugged and sat down to join the conversation.

“Morning, Mitzi,” grunted the Protocol Chief, just in front of us, and went right on: “I used to have a Puff Adder, too, but pumping with your hands that way you can’t get the acceleration—”

“You can if you put the muscle in it, Roger,” I told him. “And, see, half the time you’re stuck in traffic anyway, right? So one hand’s plenty for propulsion. You’ve got the other free for, well, signaling or something.”

“Signaling,” he said, staring at me. “How long have you been driving, Tenny?” And the Chief Code Clerk leaned past Mitzi to put in: “You ought to try a Viper, with that lightweight direct drive. No pedals, just put your foot down on the roadway and push. Talk about get-up-and-go!”

Roger looked at her scornfully. “Yeah, and what about braking? You can fracture your leg in an emergency stop. No, I say the foot pedal and chain drive is the only way to go—” His expression changed. “Here they come,” he grunted, and turned around to face front as the heavyweights came in.

The Ambassador is a really imposing man, Media back on Earth, with that pepper-and-salt curly hair and that solid, humorous, dark-complected face. He wasn’t from our Agency, as it happened—the big ones took turns naming the top people, and it hadn’t been our turn —but I could respect him as a craftsman. And he knew how to run a meeting. First order of business was the Political Officer, fluttering anxiously over one more of the crises that plagued his days. “We’ve had another note from the Veenies,” he said, wringing his hands. “It’s about Hyperion. They claim we’re violating basic human rights by not allowing the gas miners freedom to choose their own communications media—you know what that means.”

We did, and there were instant mutters of “What nerve!”

“Typical Veenie arrogance!” The helium-3 miners on the moon Hyperion only amounted to about five thousand people, and as a market they’d never be missed. But it was a matter of principle to keep them well supplied with advertising—one Venus in the Solar System was enough.

The Ambassador was having none of it. “Reject the note,” he rapped frostily. “It’s none of their damned business, and you shouldn’t have let them hand it to you in the first place, Howard.”

“But how could I know until I read it?” wailed the Political Officer, and the Ambassador gave him the I’ll-see-you-later look before relaxing into a smile.

“As you all know,” he said, “the Earth ship has been orbiting for ten days now, should be sending the shuttle down here any time. I’ve been in touch with the captain, and there’s good news and bad. The good news is they’ve got some fine stuff for us—a troop of ethnic dancers, disco and Black Bottom, as cultural exchange, Mitzi, you’ll be in charge of them, of course. They’ve also got ten metric tons of supplies—Coffiest, ReelMeet, tapes of the latest commercials, all the goodies you’ve all been waiting for!” General expressions of joy and satisfaction. I took the opportunity to reach out for Mitzi’s hand, and she didn’t withdraw it. The Ambassador went on: “That’s the good news. The bad news is, as you all know, when the shuttle takes off she’ll be taking with her one of our favorite members of our happy family here. We’ll say good-by to him in a better way the night before he leaves —but meanwhile, Tennison Tarb, would you like to stand up so we can show you how much we’re going to miss you?”

Well, I hadn’t expected it. It was one of the great moments of my life. There is no applause like the plaudits of your peers, and they gave it unstintingly—even Hay Lopez, though he was frowning as he clapped.

I don’t know what I said, but when it was over and I was back in my chair I was surprised to find I didn’t have to reach out for Mitzi’s hand again. She had taken mine.

In the afterglow I leaned over to whisper in her ear, meaning to tell her that I’d fobbed the Polar Penal Colony trip off on Hay, and so we could have the whole suite to ourselves that night. It didn’t get said. She shook her head, smiling, because the Ambassador had sneaked the new commercial tapes down early in the diplomatic pouch, and of course we all wanted to be quiet while we watched them.

It never did get said. I sat there, dumb and happy, with my arm over Mitzi’s shoulder, and it didn’t even strike me as worrisome when I noticed Hay’s eye on us, glum and resentful—not until he edged his way over to the Ambassador and began whispering in his ear as soon as the films were over. And then it was too late. The son of a gun had thought it through. As soon as the lights went up he came grinning and nodding toward us, all cheer and good-fellowship, and I knew what he was going to say: “Hell, Tenny boy! The damnedest thing! I can’t take that PPC sortie for you. Big huddle with the Ambassador tomorrow—know you’ll understand how it is— hell of a thing to make you do in your last days here—”

I didn’t listen to the rest of it. He was right. It was a hell of a thing to make me do, and I did understand. I understood real well that night, fretfully trying to pillow my head on the uncomfortable seat-back of the supersonic flight to the Polar Penal Colony. It would have been a lot easier to get my head comfortable if I hadn’t been so dismally sure that I knew exactly where Hay Lopez was pillowing his.

BOOK: The Merchant's War
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