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Authors: Frederik Pohl

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BOOK: The Merchant's War
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So we came down from the sky, jolting and slamming; I worried about Mitzi’s healing scars, but she only mumbled and turned over to sleep. Out over the wide ocean, greeny gray with slime—clear across the wide, welcoming North American continent, with its patchwork carpet of cities glowing welcomingly up through the smog—then the sun we had left behind rising again before us as we skidded out over the Atlantic, made our U-turn to spill out the last of our altitude and speed, and touched down finally on the broad runways of New York Shuttleport. Little old New York! The hub the universe spins on! I felt my heart throbbing with pride, and with joy at homecoming … and Mitzi, strapped in beside me, had slept through the whole thing.

She sat up drowsily while we were waiting for the tractor to hook on and tow us to the terminal. She made a face. “Isn’t it great to be back?” I demanded, grinning at her.

She leaned over me to stare out the window. “Sure is,” she said, but her tone was a long way from enthusiastic. “I wish—”

But I never found out what she wished, because she broke out in a fit of furious coughing. “My God!” she gasped. “What’s that stuff?”

“That’s good old New York City air you’re breathing!” I told her. “You’ve been away too long—you’ve forgotten what it’s like!”

“At least they could filter it,” she complained. Well, of course it
was
filtered, but I didn’t bother to correct her. I was too busy getting our stuff out of the overhead racks and lining up to disembark.

It was seven
A.M.
, local time. There weren’t too many people in the terminal yet, which was a plus, but the minus that balanced that in the equation was the lack of baggage handlers. Mitzi trailed sulkily after me to the baggage claim, and there I got a surprise. The surprise’s name was Valentine Dambois, Senior Vice-President and Associate General Manager, pink cheeks, twinkly blue eyes, plump figure jiggling as he hurried across to greet us.

I told myself that I shouldn’t have been surprised—I’d done a good job on Venus, and I’d never doubted that the Agency would treat me kindly when I got back. But not
this
kindly! You didn’t get a star-class executive to welcome you home at that hour of the morning unless you were really
special.
So, full of cheer and great hopes, I stuck out my hand to him. “Great to see you, Val,” I began—

And he went right past me. Right to Mitzi. Val Dambois was a tubby little man, and the fattest thing about him was his face; when he smiled he looked like a Halloween pumpkin. The smile he gave Mitzi was like a pumpkin on the verge of splitting in two. “Mitzi-wits!” he yelled, though he was only two feet away from her and closing fast. “Missed you, sweety-bumps!” He flung his arms around her and stood on tiptoe to give her a big kiss.

She didn’t kiss back. She pulled her head back so the kiss only got as far as her chin. “Hello,” she said—“Val.”

His face fell. For a minute I thought Mitzi had blown every chance of promotion she ever had, but Dambois did a great reconstruction job on his smile. By the time he put it back on his face it was as good as new, and he patted her rump affectionately—but hastily. He stepped back, chuckling. “You sure made yourself a killing,” he said warmly. “I take my hat off to you, Mits!”

I didn’t know what he was talking about, of course. For a minute I didn’t think Mitzi did, either, because a swift shadow clouded her eyes and her jaw tensed, but Dambois was already looking at me. “Missed the boat, I guess,” he said good-naturedly—rueful good nature, that was, with just a slight shading of contempt.

Now, I wasn’t too surprised by the way Dambois greeted Mitzi. There were little bits of gossip here and there about Mitzi and one or two star-level agency executives, Val Dambois included. It meant nothing to me. Hell, it’s a rough course you have to run if you want to get ahead in the advertising business. If you can help yourself along by giving a little joy to the right parties, why not? But she hadn’t said anything to me about a killing. “What are you talking about, Val?” I demanded.

“She didn’t tell you?” He pursed his plump little lips, grinning. “Her damage suit against the tram company. They settled out of court— six megabucks and change—it’s all waiting for her right now in the Agency bank!”

I had to try twice to say it. “Six—Six mill—”

“Six million dollars tax-free and spendable, right on!” he gloated. The man was as pleased as though the money had been his own— maybe he had some idea of making it so. I cleared my throat.

“About this damage suit—” I began, but Mitzi leaned past me to point.

“There, that one’s mine,” she said as the bags began to come off the conveyor. Val leaped forward and, puffing, swung it off and set it beside her.

“What I mean—” I began. Nobody was listening.

Dambois said jovially, slipping a pudgy arm around Mitzi’s waist—as far around as it would go: “Well, that’s the first bag. Probably not more than another twenty or so, eh?”

“No, that’s the only one. I like to travel light,” she said, and moved away from his arm.

Dambois looked up at her reproachfully. “You’ve changed a lot,” he complained. “I think you even got taller.”

“Comes from being on a lighter planet.” That was a joke, of course. Venus is only minutely smaller than the Earth. But I didn’t laugh, because I was puzzling over why it was that Mitzi had got herself a whopping chunk of change and I hadn’t—then that was driven out of my mind as I saw what was coming down the conveyor.

“Aw,
shit,”
I cried. It was the bag I had marked Delicate Handling—the steamer trunk, with sturdy sides and a double lock. They hadn’t been enough to save it. The trunk looked as if somebody had run one of the spacecraft tractors over a corner of it. One side was squashed like a fallen soufflé, and it was leaking an aromatic slop of liquor, colognes, toothpaste and god-knows-what. Naturally I had put all the breakables in it.

“What a mess,” Dambois complained. He tsked impatiently a couple of times and glanced at his watch. “I was going to offer you a lift,” he said, “but really—that stuff in my car would smell it up for weeks—and I suppose you’ve got other bags—”

I knew my lines. “Go ahead,” I said glumly. “I’ll take a taxi.” I watched them go, wondering a lot about why I hadn’t been allowed to get in on the damage suit, but actually wondering even more just then whether I should hightail it for the baggage claim office or wait for the rest of my stuff.

I made the wrong decision. I decided to wait. After the last visible bag had long since been removed and the conveyor had stopped running I realized I had a problem.

When I reported the problem the superintendent in charge of denying all responsibility for anything, ever, told me that he’d check out the missing pieces, if I wanted him to, while I filled out the claim forms, if I thought that was worthwhile—although it looked a lot to him, he said, as though the damage to my case was old stuff.

He had plenty of time to check, because there was plenty to fill out. When I turned in the claims he kept me waiting only another half-hour or so. I called the Agency to say I’d be delayed. It didn’t seem to worry them. They gave me the address of the housing they’d lined up for me, told me to settle in and said I wasn’t expected until tomorrow morning anyway. It is nice to be missed. Then the claims superintendent reported that the rest of my bags seemed to have gone either to Paris or Rio de Janeiro, and in neither case was I likely to see them for a while.

So, bagless, I joined the glum queue waiting for the next city subline.

Half an hour later, finally at the head of the line, I realized I hadn’t changed any Veenie currency and so I didn’t have enough cash for the fare—found a cash machine, punched in my I.D., got a bodiless voice cooing, “I am deeply sorry, sir or madam, but this Kwik-Check One-Stop Anytime cash dispenser terminal is temporarily out of service. Please consult map for nearest alternate location.” But when I looked around the booth there wasn’t any map. Welcome home, Tenn!

II

New York, New York. What a wonderful town! All my fretful annoyances were submerged, even the one about why Mitzi cut me out of the gravy train. Ten years didn’t seem to have changed the tall buildings that disappeared into the gray, flaky air. The
cold,
gray, flaky air. It had gone winter again; there were patches of dirty snow in corners, and an occasional consumer furtively scooping them up to take home to avoid the freshwater tax. After Venus, it was heaven! I gawked like a Wichita tourist at the Big Apple. I walked liked one, too, bumping into scurrying pedestrians, and things worse than pedestrians. My traffic skills were gone. After the years on Venus I just wasn’t used to civilized ways. There was a twelve-pusher pedibus here, three cabs competing for one gap in the flow there, pedestrians leaping desperately between the vehicles all over—the streets were jammed, the sidewalks were packed, every building pumped a few hundred more people in and out as I passed—oh, it was marvelous! For me, I mean. For the people I was bumping into or tripped or made dodge around me, it might not have been so delightful, I suppose. I didn’t care! They yelled after me, and I don’t doubt what they yelled were insults, but I was floating in sooty, choky, chilly bliss. Advertising slogans flickered in liquid-crystal display on every wall, the newest ones bright as sunrise, the older ones muddied and finally buried by graffiti. Samplers stood along the curbs to pass out free hits of Glee-Smoke and Coffiest, and discount coupons for a thousand products. There were hologram images in the smoggy air of miraculous kitchen appliances and fantastically exotic three-day tours, and sales jingles ringing from everywhere—I was
home.
I loved it! But it was, admittedly, a little difficult to make my way through the streets, and when I saw a miraculously clear stretch of sidewalk I took it.

I wondered at the time why the elderly man I pushed aside getting to the sidewalk gave me such a strange look. “Watch it, buster!” he called. He was waving at a signpost, but of course it was graffiti-covered. I wasn’t in a mood to worry about some minor civil ordinance. I walked past—

And WOWP a blast of sound shook my skull and FLOOP a great supernova flare of light burned my eyes, and I went staggering and reeling as tiny, tiny elf voices shouted like needles in my ears
Mokie-Koke, Mokie-Koke, MokieMokieMokie-Koke!
And went on doing it, with variations, for what seemed like a hundred years or more. Stenches smote my nose. Subsonic shivers shook my body. And— a couple of centuries later—while my ears were still ringing and my eyes still stinging with that awful blast of sound and light, I picked myself up from where I lay sprawled on the ground.

“I warned ya,” yelled the little old man from a safe distance.

It hadn’t been centuries at all. He was still standing there, still with the same peculiar expression—half-eagerness, half-pity. “I warned ya! Ya wooden listen, but I warned ya!”

He was still waving at the signpost, so I staggered closer and blearily managed to decipher the legend under the graffiti:

Warning!

COMMERCIAL ZONE

Enter at Own Risk

Evidently there had been some changes while I was away, after all. The man reached cautiously past the sign and tugged me away. He wasn’t all that old, I realized; mostly he was
used.
“What’s a ‘Mokie-Koke’?” I asked.

He said promptly, “Mokie-Koke is a refreshing, taste-tingling blend of the finest chocolate-type flavoring, synthetic coffee extract and selected cocaine analogues. You want some?” I did. “You got money on you?” I had —a little, anyway—the change left over from the cash dispenser I’d finally located. “Would you tip me one if I showed you where to score some?” he wheedled.

Well, who needed him for that? But I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the woebegone little guy, so I let him lead me around the corner. There was a vending machine, just like all the other Mokie-Koke machines I’d been seeing all along, on the Moon, in the spaceport, along the city streets. “Don’t fool with the singles,” he advised anxiously. “Go for the six-pack, okay?” And when I gave him the first bottle out of the batch he pulled the tab and raised it to his lips and swigged it down where he stood. Then he exhaled loudly. “Name’s Ernie, mister,” he said. “Welcome to the club!”

I had been drinking my own Mokie-Koke curiously. It seemed pleasant enough, but nothing special, so that I wondered what the fuss was all about. “What club are you talking about?” I asked, opening another bottle out of curiosity.

“You been campbelled. You shoulda listened,” he said virtuously, “but, say, long as you didn’t, you mind if I walk along with you wherever you’re going?”

Poor old guy! I felt so sorry for him that I split the six-pack as we headed for the address the Agency had given me. Three shots apiece. He thanked me with tears in his eyes but, all the same, out of the second six-pack I only gave him one.

The Agency had done well by me. When we got to my new home I shook Ernie off and hurried in. It was a new sea-condo just towed in from the Persian Gulf—former oil tanker—nearly a hundred square feet of floor space with kitchen privileges just for me, and it was about as convenient to the Agency building as you could hope, moored right off Kip’s Bay, only three ships out into the river.

Of course, the bad side was what it cost. All the savings I’d accumulated on Venus went to the down payment, and I had to sign a mortgage for three years’ pay. But that wasn’t so bad. I’d served the Agency well on Venus. There was little doubt in my mind that I was due for a raise—not only a raise, but a promotion—not only a promotion, but maybe a corner office! Altogether I was well satisfied with the world (not counting a couple little questions that nagged at my mind, like that damned lawsuit I hadn’t been invited to join) as I relished a Mokie-Koke and gazed around my new domain.

But to work! There was so much to do! Until they located my bags, if that ever happened, I needed clothes and food and all the other necessities of life. So I spent the rest of the day shopping and lugging packages back to the sea-condo, and by dinner time I was just about settled in. Picture of G. Washington Hill over the foldaway bed. Picture of Fowler Schocken on the hideaway bureau. Clothes in one place, toilet stuff in my personal locked cabinet in the bath—it took all day, and it was tiring, too, because the heat was on full blast in my room and there didn’t seem to be any way to turn it off. I had a Moke and sat down to think it over, enjoying the spaciousness and the quiet luxury. There was a special condo-only band on the vid, and I watched it reel off the many attractions available to us lucky tenants. The condo had its own pool, with seating for six at a time, and a driving range. I made a note to sign up for that as soon as I got my own cue. The future looked bright. I dialed back to the pool—gallons and gallons of sparkling pure water, nearly armpit deep—and sentimental thoughts began to steal into my mind; me and Mitzi side by side in the pool … me and Mitzi sharing the big foldout bed … me and Mitzi — But even if Mitzi decided after all to share my life, with six megabucks of her own to throw around she’d probably want to share it in some fancier place than even the sea-condo …

BOOK: The Merchant's War
13.94Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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