Read The Merchant's War Online

Authors: Frederik Pohl

The Merchant's War (4 page)

BOOK: The Merchant's War
10Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Do you want to know what kind of crackpots the Venusians are? All right, let me tell you one simple anecdote. You see, they’ve got that huge planet—five times as much land area as the whole planet Earth, you know, because there aren’t any oceans yet. In order to make it into something decent, they’ve been busting their backs for forty years and more trying to make green things grow. But that’s hellishly difficult, because of the kind of planet Venus is. Plants have a tough time. One, there’s not really enough light; two, there’s damn near no water at all; three, it’s way too hot. So to make anything grow at all takes all kinds of technological wizardry and enormous effort. First they had to nuke some tectonic faults to set off volcanos—that’s to bring whatever water vapor there is up out of the core (that’s the way the Earth got its water billions of years ago, they say). Second, they had to cap the volcanos to catch the water vapor. Third, they had to provide something cold enough to condense the vapor to a liquid; that’s the cold end of the Hilsch tubes—you see them on mountaintops all over Venus, big things like one-hole piccolos, with the hot end blasting gases out through the atmosphere to get lost in space and the cold end providing cooling for the cities—and generating a little electricity while they do it. Fourth, they have to pipe that trickle of water to where things are planted, and they have to do it underground so it won’t boil away in the first ten feet. Fifth, they have to have special, genetically tailored plants that can whisk that water up through their stems and leaves before letting it boil away— it’s a miracle they got any of this done, especially considering they don’t have much work force to spare for big projects. There are only about eight hundred thousand Veenies all in all.

And yet—here’s the funny thing—if you take the tram out to Russian Hills, the first thing you see in the park itself is a six-man crew working all around the clock, climbing those ugly sharp rocks with hundred-pound backpacks of plant killer, zapping every green thing they see!

Crazy? Of course it’s crazy. It’s the insanity of Conservationism carried to its lunatic conclusion: the Conservationists want to keep the Venera setting just the way it was when the probe landed. But the lunacy isn’t really surprising. “If Veenies weren’t crazy they would have stayed on the Earth in the first place,” I told Mitzi as we rattled along the tramline. “Look at the dumps they live in!” We were passing through roofed-over suburbs. They were supposed to be high-class residential areas, and yet they were filled with scraggly weeds and pressed-plastic tenements; they didn’t even have Astro-Turf!

It occurred to me that I might be talking a little too loudly. The other passengers, all Veenies, were turning around to look at me. That was no big treat. Veenies are almost all grossly tall—even taller than Mitzi, usually—and they seem to take pride in their fishbelly-white skins. Of course, they never get any sun. But they could use UV lamps like we do—all of us —even Mitzi, who doesn’t need tanning to have that nice velvet-brass skin.

“Watch your mouth,” Mitzi whispered nervously. The Veenie family just in front of us— Daddy, Mommy and four (yes, I said
kids—were half-turning their heads to get a look at us, and their expressions weren’t friendly. Veenies don’t like us much. They think we’re city slickers trying to gobble them up. That’s a laugh, because what have they got worth gobbling? And if we’re taking an interest in their affairs, obviously it’s for their own good—they’re just not intelligent enough to realize it.

Fortunately we had entered the tunnel that goes through the ring of peaks around Russian Hills. Everybody began getting ready to get out. As I started to rise, Mitzi nudged me, and I saw a grossly tall he-Veenie, green eyes and red hair with that ugly dead-white skin, giving me a bad look. I took Mitzi’s hint. I gave the Veenie my sweetest forgive-me-for-my-blunders smile and slipped past him out the door. While I stopped to buy a souvenir booklet, Mitzi was standing behind me, gazing after the man with the traffic-light head. “Look at this,” I said, opening the guide book, but Mitzi wasn’t listening.

“Do you know,” she said, “I think I’ve seen him before. Day before yesterday. When they were demonstrating.”

“Come on, Mitz! There were five hundred Veenies out there!” And so there had been— maybe more—at the time, I could have sworn half of Venus was silently parading around our Embassy with their stupid signs—“No Advertising!” and “Take Your Filth Back Where It Belongs!” I didn’t mind the picketing so much—but, oh, the pathetic amateurishness of their slogan writers! “They’re crazy,” I said —a complicated shorthand that didn’t mean “crazy” for thinking we would use advertising techniques on them, but “crazy” because they were getting upset about it—as though there were any possibility that, given a chance, we wouldn’t.

I also meant crazy in the specific context of incompetent copysmithing, and that was what I wanted to show Mitzi. I glanced around the noisy car barn—another was just rattling up toward the switching point for the return trip to Port Kathy. No Veenies were within earshot. “Look here,” I said, opening to the page marked
Facilities—Food and Drink.
It said:

If for any reason you do not want to bring your own refreshments while visiting Russian Hills, some items like hamburgers, hot dogs and soy sandwiches are available in the Venera Lounge. They’re inspected by the Planetary Health Service, but the quality is mediocre. Beer and other drinks can also be purchased, at about twice the cost of the same things in town.

“Pathetic?” I groaned.

She said absently, “Well, they’re honest.”

I raised my eyebrows. What did honesty have to do with moving product? And this place was a copysmith’s dream! They had a captive clientèle, one. They had a theme to hang the copy on, two. And they had customers who were in a holiday mood, ready to buy anything that was for sale, three, and most important of all! All they had to do was call their hot dogs “Genuine Odessa Wurst” and the hamburgers “Komsomol Burgers” to give the consumers an excuse to buy—but instead they talked them right out of it! Consumers didn’t expect to
what advertising promised. They just wanted that one tiny moment of hope before the “Sleep-Tite Super-Soft” mattress stuck a spring into their bottoms and the “Nature-Fresh Golden-Tropical-Fruit Elixir” turned out to taste of tar. “Well,” I said, “we’ve come this far. Let’s go look at their damn space probe.”

Venus was a garbage planet to start out. The air was poison, and too much of it, so the pressure was appalling. The heat boiled everything boilable away. There was nothing growing that was worth talking about when the first Earth ship landed, and fifty years of human colonization hadn’t made it good: just microscopically less awful. The Veenies’ attempts to turn the atmosphere into something a human being could stand weren’t finished, but they’d gone far enough that in some places you could get around without a pressure suit nowadays … though you needed to carry a breathing tank on your back, because there was precious little oxygen.

This part they called the “Venera-Russian Hills Planetary Park”—so the sign at the tram stop said—wasn’t really much worse than the rest of it, no matter how much the Veenie Conservationists patted themselves on the back for retaining its “unspoiled wilderness quality.” I gazed at it through the window, and felt no impulse to get closer.

“Let’s go, Tenn,” Mitzi urged.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” It was nasty enough in the tram station, with the noise of the cars and the Veenies with their giggling brats. Going out of doors meant a whole higher order of nastiness. We’d have to put on the air tanks and sip air from tubes in our mouths, and it would mean even more heat than the interior ovens the Veenies seemed to thrive on. “Maybe we should eat first,” I offered, eyeing the refreshment stand. Under the painted legend “Chefs Recommendation for Today” someone had chalked, “Stay away from the scrambled eggs.”

“Oh, come on, Tenn! You’re always telling me how much you hate Veenie food. I’ll go get us a couple of breathers.”

When you don’t have any choice, go along— that’s the motto of the Tarbs. It has served our family well, for we’ve been members of the advertising profession since the old days of Madison Avenue and the Pepsi-Cola jingle. So I strapped the damn tank on my back and put the damn tube in my mouth and, whispering around the mouthpiece, said, “Into the valley of death, march on!”

Mitzi didn’t laugh. She was in a sort of down mood that whole day, I know—I assumed because I was leaving. So I clapped her on the back and we stumbled down the path to the Venera.

The Venera space probe is a hunk of dead metal, about the size of a pedicab, with spiky rods and dishes sticking out of it. It is not in good shape. Time was when it perched on top of a rocket in snowy Tyuratam and blasted its way across a hundred million miles of space to come blazing down through Venus’s blistering air. It must have made quite a sight, but of course there wasn’t anybody there to see it. After all that trouble and expense it had a working life of a couple of hours. It was long enough for it to radio back some pressure and temperature readings, and transmit a few out-of-focus distorted pictures of the rocks it was sitting on. That was its whole career. Then the poison gases seeped in, and all the circuits and gadgets and gizmos died. I suppose, really, that you’d have to say that the Venera was quite an accomplishment for those old pre-technological days. Those foggy gray camera eyes produced the first look at the surface of Venus that any human being ever had, and when the Veenies stumbled across it, in their first months of colonizing the planet, you would have expected them to want to celebrate it as a triumph, right? Oh, hell, no. The reason the Veenies made such a fuss about this hunk of junk was just more of their weirdness. See, back in those days the Russians were what they called Soviets. I’m not real sure what Soviets were—I always get them mixed up with the Scientologists and the Ghibellines—but I do know that they didn’t believe in—wait for it!—in
That’s right. Profit. They didn’t believe in people making money out of things. And as for profit’s major handmaiden, advertising, well, they just didn’t have any! I know that sounds strange, and when we were taking History I back in college I couldn’t believe it, so I checked it out. It’s true enough. Bar some piddly little things like electric signs boasting about steel production and TV commercials begging the factory hands not to get drunk in working hours, advertising just didn’t exist. But it was almost the same now, with the Veenies, and that’s why they made a shrine out of two tons of scrap metal. The big difference between the Veenies and the Russians is that after a while the Russians smartened up and joined the free confraternity of profit-loving people, while the Veenies tried their best to go the other way.

After half an hour of climbing around the Venera I’d had about enough. The place was full of Veenie tourists, and I can get real tired of drinking my air out of a soda straw. So while Mitzi was bent over, her lips moving as she tried to make out the Cyrillic script on the nameplate, I reached behind me to the relief valve on my oxygen tank and gave it a little twist. It made a shrill squeal as the gas poured out, but I took a fit of coughing at that moment, and, anyway, the scream of the Hilsch tubes on the hills all around us drowned out most minor sounds. Then I nudged her.

“Oh, damn it all to hell, look at this!” I cried, and showed her my oxygen gauge. It was way down into the yellow, almost touching the red danger zone—I’d cut it a little finer than I intended. “Damn Veenies sold me a half-empty tank! Well,” I said, tone reeking with resignation, “I’m sorry about this, but I’m going to have to get back inside the station. Then maybe we should think about heading home.”

Mitzi gave me a funny look. She didn’t say anything, just turned and started back up the slope. I had no doubt that she had checked the tank gauge when she paid for it, but it wasn’t likely she would be
she had. To take the sting out of it, while we were trudging back I caught up with her, took the tube out of my mouth and suggested, “How about a drink in the lounge before we catch the tram?” It’s true that I can’t stand Veenie food—it’s the C0
in the air, it makes things grow real fast, and besides the Veenies eat everything fresh, so you never get that good flash-frozen tang. But liquor is liquor, anywhere in the solar system! And besides, eighteen months of dating Mitzi had taught me that she was always a lot more fun with a couple of drinks in her. She brightened right away, and as soon as we’d ditched the tanks—I persuaded her not to make a fuss about the light load in mine—we headed for the stairs to the lounge.

The tram station was typical Veenie construction—it wouldn’t have passed muster for a Consumer-level comfort station back home. No vending machines, no games, no educational displays of new products and services. It was hollowed out of the solid rock, and about all they’d done to beautify it was to slap some paint on the walls and plant some flowers and things. The tramline came in through a tunnel at one end. They’d blasted and dug a space for the tram platforms and a waiting room and things like that. They hadn’t wanted to spoil the capital-N-Natural capital-B-Beauty of the park, see, so they hid the station inside the hill.

The worst thing about it, I thought at first, was the noise. When a tram barreled into that hard-surfaced echo chamber it was like demolition day in a scrap-iron plant. I almost changed my mind about the drink, but I didn’t want to disappoint Mitzi. Then, when we got settled in at a table in the upper-deck lounge, I found out what was even worse. “Look at this,” I said in disgust, turning the menu card so we could both read it. It was more of that sickening Veenie “candor,” of course:

All cocktails are canned premixes, and they taste like it.

The red wine is corky and not a good year. The white is a little better.

If you want anything to eat you’d do better to go downstairs and bring it up for yourself—otherwise there’s a $2 service charge.

Mitzi shrugged. “It’s their planet,” she said, determined to have a good time, and craned her neck to peer out the window. And that was another thing. So as not to spoil the looks from outside they had artfully hidden the windows in clefts in the rock. From outside it was maybe a good idea; but from inside you couldn’t see out without straining, and what’s the use of an observation window you can’t see out of?

BOOK: The Merchant's War
10Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

Godless And Free by Pat Condell
Fiddlesticks by Beverly Lewis
Wrong Kind of Love by Nichol-Louise Andrews
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
1001 Dark Nights by Lorelei James
If Today Be Sweet by Thrity Umrigar
The Cold Light of Day by Michael Carroll