Read The Space Merchants Online

Authors: Frederik Pohl,C. M. Kornbluth

Tags: #Fantasy, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General, #Adult, #SciFi-Masterwork, #Classics

The Space Merchants (4 page)

BOOK: The Space Merchants
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I took my time answering. I looked at my watch and saw that the return jet was about to leave, so I bent down and turned off the recorder in my briefcase. "You're being lots of help, Jack," I said. * "But I'll need more. And I have to go now. Look, can you come up to New York and work with me for a while? I've got everything you said on tape, but I want visual stuff too. Our artists can work from the pix you brought back, but there must be more. And you're a lot more use than the photographs for what we need." I didn't mention that the artists would be drawing impressions of what Venus
would
look like if it were different from what it was. "How about it?"

Jack leaned back and looked cherubic but, though he made me sweat through a brief recap of the extensive plans his lecture agent had made for the next few weeks, he finally agreed. The Shriners' talk could be canceled, he decided, and the appointments with his ghost writers could be kept as well in New York as in Washington. We made a date for the following day just as the PA system announced that my flight was ready.

"I'll walk you to the plane," Jack offered. He slipped down from the chair and threw a bill on the table for the waiter. We walked together through the narrow aisles of the bar out into the field. Jack grinned and strutted a little at some ohs and ahs that went up as he was recognized. The field was almost dark, and the glow of Washington back-lighted the silhouettes of hovering aircraft. Drifting toward us from the freight terminal was a huge cargo 'copter, a fifty-tonner,its cargo nacelle gleaming in colors as it reflected the lights below. It was no more than fifty feet in the air, and I had to clutch my hat against the downdraft from its whirling vanes.

"Damn-fool bus drivers," Jack grunted, staring up at the 'copter. "They ought to put those things on G.C.A. Just because they're maneuverable those fan-jockeys think they can take them anywhere. If I handled a jet the way they—
Run! Run!"
Suddenly he was yelling at me and pushing at my middle with both his small hands. I goggled at him; it was too sudden and disconnected to make any kind of sense. He lurched at me in a miniature body block and sent me staggering a few steps.

"What the hell—?" I started to complain, but I didn't hear my own words. They were drowned out by a mechanical snapping sound and a flutter in the beat of the rotors and then the loudest crash I had ever heard as the cargo pod of the 'copter hit the concrete a yard from where we stood. It ruptured and spilled cartons of Starrzelius Verily rolled oats. One of the crimson cylinders rolled to my toes and I stupidly picked it up and looked at it.

Overhead the lightened 'copter fluttered up and away, but I didn't see it go.

"For God's sake, get it off them! "Jack was yelling, tugging at me. We had not been alone on the field. From under the buckled aluminum reached an arm holding a briefcase, and through the compound noises in my ears I could hear a bubbling sound of human pain. That was what he meant. Get it off them. I let him pull me to the tangled metal, and we tried to heave it. I got a scratched hand and tore my jacket, and then the airport people got there and brusquely ordered us away.

I don't remember walking there, but by and by I found that I was sitting on someone's suitcase, back against the wall of the terminal, with Jack O'Shea talking excitedly to me. He was cursing the class of cargo 'copter pilots and blackguarding me for standing there like a fool when he'd seen the nacelle clamps opening, and a great deal more that I didn't get. I remember his knocking the red box of breakfast food from my hand impatiently. The psychologists say I am not unusually sensitive or timorous, but I was in a state of shock that lasted until Jack was loading me into my plane.

Later on the hostess told me five people had been caught under the nacelle, and the whole affair seemed to come into focus. But not until we were halfway back to New York. At the time all I remembered, all that seemed important, was Jack's saying over and over, bitterness and anger written on his porcelain face: "Too damn many people, Mitch. Too damn much crowding. I'm with you every inch of the way. We
need
Venus, Mitch, we need the space . . ."

 

three

 

Kathy's apartment, way downtown in Bensonhurst, was not large but it was comfortable. In a homey, sensible way it was beautifully furnished. As who should know better than I? I pressed the button over the label "Dr. Nevin," and smiled at her as she opened the door.

She did not smile back. She said two things: "You're late, Mitch," and, "I thought you were going to call first."

I walked in and sat down. "I was late because I almost got killed and I didn't call because I was late. Does that square us?" She asked the question I wanted her to ask, and I told her how close I had come to death that evening.

Kathy is a beautiful woman with a warm, friendly face, her hair always immaculately done in two tones of blond, her eyes usually smiling. I have spent a great deal of time looking at her, but I never watched more attentively than when I told her about the cargo nacelle near-miss. It was, on the whole, disappointing. She was really concerned for me, beyond doubt. But Kathy's heart opens to a hundred people and I saw nothing in her face to make me feel that she cared more for me than anyone else she had known for years.

So I told her my other big news, the Venus account and my stewardship of it. It was more successful; she was startled and excited and happy, and kissed me in a flurry of good feeling. But when
I
kissed
her,
as I'd been wanting to do for months, she drew away and went to sit on the other side of the room, ostensibly to dial a drink.

"You rate a toast, Mitch," she smiled. "Champagne at the least. Dear Mitch, it's
wonderful
news!"

I seized the chance. "Will you help me celebrate? Really celebrate?"

Her brown eyes were wary. "Um," she said. Then: "Sure I will, Mitch. We'll do the town together—my treat and no arguments about it. The only thing is, I'll have to leave you punctually at 2400. I'm spending the night in the hospital. I've a hysterectomy to do in the morning and I mustn't get to sleep too late. Or too drunk, either."

But she smiled.

Once again I decided not to push my luck too far. "Great," I said, and I wasn't faking. Kathy is a wonderful girl to do the town with. "Let me use your phone?"

By the time we had our drinks I had arranged for tickets to a show, a dinner table, and a reservation for a nightcap afterwards. Kathy looked a little dubious. "It's a pretty crowded program for five hours, Mitch," she said. "My hysterectomy isn't going to like it if my hand shakes." But I talked her out of it. Kathy is more resilient than that. Once she did a complete trepan the morning after we'd spent the entire night screaming out our tempers at each other, and it had gone perfectly.

The dinner, for me, was a failure. I don't pretend to be an epicure who can't stand anything but new protein. I definitely am, however, a guy who gets sore when he pays new-protein prices and gets regenerated-protein merchandise. The texture of the shashlik we both ordered was all right, but you can't hide the taste. I scratched the restaurant off my list then and there, and apologized to Kathy for it. But she laughed it off, and the show afterwards was fine. Hypnotics often give me a headache, but I slipped right into the trance state this time as soon as the film began and was none the worse for it afterwards.

The night club was packed, and the headwaiter had made a mistake in the time for our reservations. We had to wait five minutes in the anteroom, and Kathy shook her head very decisively when I pleaded for an extension on the curfew. But when the headwaiter showed us with the fanciest apologies and bows to our places at the bar and our drinks came, she leaned over and kissed me again. I felt just fine.

"Thanks," she said. "That was a wonderful evening, Mitch. Get promoted often, please. I like it."

I lit a cigarette for her and one for myself, and opened my mouth to say something. I stopped.

Kathy said, "Go ahead, say it."

"Well, I was going to say that we always have fun together."

"I know you were. And I was going to say that I knew what you were leading up to and that the answer still was no."

"I know you were," I said glumly. "Let's get the hell out of here."

She paid the tab and we left, inserting our antisoot plugs as we hit the street. "Cab, sir?" asked the doorman.

"Yes, please," Kathy answered. "A tandem."

He whistled up a two-man pedicab, and Kathy gave the lead boy the hospital's address. "You can come if you like, Mitch," she said, and I climbed in beside her. The doorman gave us a starting push and the cabbies grunted getting up momentum.

Unasked, I put down the top. For a moment it was like our courtship again: the friendly dark, the slight, musty smell of the canvas top, the squeak of the springs. But for a moment only. "Watch that, Mitch," she said warningly.

"Please, Kathy," I said carefully. "Let me say it anyhow. It won't take long." She didn't say no. "We were married eight months ago— all right," I said quickly as she started to speak, "it wasn't an absolute marriage. But we took the interlocutory vows. Do you remember why we did that?"

She said patiently after a moment: "We were in love."

"That's right," I said. "I loved you and you loved me. And we both had our work to think about, and we knew that sometimes it made us a little hard to get along with. So we made it interim. It had a year to run before we had to decide whether to make it permanent." I touched her hand and she didn't move it away. "Kathy dear, don't you think we knew what we were doing then? Can't we—at least—give it the year's trial? There are still four months to go. Let's try it. If the year ends and you don't want to file your certificate— well, at least I won't be able to say you didn't give me a chance. As for me, I don't have to wait. My certificate's on file now and I won't change."

We passed a street light and I saw her lips twisted into an expression I couldn't quite read. "Oh, damn it all, Mitch," she said unhappily, "I
know
you won't change. That's what makes it all so terrible. Must I sit here and call you names to convince you that it's hopeless? Do I have to tell you that you're an ill-tempered, contriving Machiavellian, selfish pig of a man to live with? I used to think you were a sweet guy, Mitch. An idealist who cared for principles and ethics instead of money. I had every reason to think so. You told me so yourself, very convincingly. You were very plausible about my work too. You boned up on medicine, you came to watch me operate three times a week, you told all our friends while I was sitting right in the room listening to you how proud you were to be married to a surgeon. It took me three months to find out what you meant by that. Anybody could marry a girl who'd be a housewife. But it took a Mitchell Courtenay to marry a first-class rated surgeon and
make
her a housewife." Her voice was tremulous. "I couldn't take it, Mitch. I never will be able to. Not the arguments, the sulkiness, and the ever-and-ever fighting. I'm a doctor. Sometimes a life depends on me. If I'm all torn up inside from battling with my husband, that life isn't safe, Mitch. Can't you see that?"

Something that sounded like a sob.

I asked quietly: "Kathy, don't you still love me?"

She was absolutely quiet for a long moment. Then she laughed wildly and very briefly. "Here's the hospital, Mitch," she said. "It's midnight."

I threw back the top and we climbed out. "Wait," I said to the lead boy, and walked with her to the door. She wouldn't kiss me good night and she wouldn't make a date to see me again. I stood in the lobby for twenty minutes to make sure she was really staying there that night, and then got into the cab to go to the nearest shuttle station. I was in a vile mood. It wasn't helped any when the lead boy asked innocently after I had paid him off: "Say, mister, what does Mac—Machiavellian mean?"

"Spanish for 'mind your own God-damned business,'" I told him evenly. On the shuttle I wondered sourly how rich I'd have to be before I could buy privacy.

My temper was no better when I arrived at the office next morning. It took all Hester's tact to keep me from biting her head off in the first few minutes, and it was by the grace of God that there was not a Board meeting. After I'd got my mail and the overnight accumulation of interoffice memos, Hester intelligently disappeared for a while. When she came back she brought me a cup of coffee—authentic, plantation-grown coffee. "The matron in the ladies' room brews it on the sly," she explained. "Usually she won't let us take it out because she's afraid of the Coffiest team. But now that you're star class—"

I thanked her and gave her Jack O'Shea's tape to put through channels. Then I went to work.

First came the matter of the sampling area, and a headache with Matt Runstead. He's Market Research, and I had to work with and through him. But he didn't show any inclination to work with me. I put a map of southern California in the projector, while Matt and two of his faceless helpers boredly sprinkled cigarette ashes on my floor.

With the pointer I outlined the test areas and controls: "San Diego through Tijuana; half the communities around L.A. and the lower tip of Monterey. Those will be controls. The rest of Cal-Mexico from L.A. down we'll use for tests. You'll have to be on the scene, I guess, Matt; I'd recommend our Diego offices as headquarters. Turner's in charge there and he's a good man."

Runstead grunted. "Not a flake of snow from year's end to year's end. Couldn't sell an overcoat there if you threw in a slave girl as a premium. For God's sake, man, why don't you leave market research to somebody who knows something about it? Don't you see how climate nulls your sigma?"

The younger of his stamped-out-of-tin assistants started to back the boss up, but I cut him off. Runstead had to be consulted on test areas—it was his job. But Venus was my project and I was going to run it. I said, sounding just a little nasty: "Regional and world income, age, density of population, health, psyche-friction, age-group distribution and mortality causes and rates are seven-place sigmas, Matt. Cal-Mex was designed personally by God Himself as a perfect testing area. In a tiny universe of less than a hundred million it duplicates every important segment of North America. I will not change my project and we are going to stick to the area I indicated." I bore down on the word "my."

BOOK: The Space Merchants
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