by William Tenn
The hairiest, dirtiest and oldest of the three visitors from Arizona scratched his back against the plastic of the webfoam chair. “Insinuations are lavender nearly,” he remarked by way of opening the conversation.
His two companions—the thin young man with dripping eyes, and the woman whose good looks were marred chiefly by incredibly decayed teeth—giggled and relaxed. The thin young man said “Gabble, gabble, honk!” under his breath, and the other two nodded emphatically.
Greta Seidenheim looked up from the tiny stenographic machine resting on a pair of the most exciting knees her employer had been able to find in Greater New York. She swiveled her blonde beauty at him. “That too, Mr. Hebster?”
The president of Hebster Securities, Inc., waited until the memory of her voice ceased to tickle his ears; he had much clear thinking to do. Then he nodded and said resonantly, “That too, Miss Seidenheim. Close phonetic approximations of the gabble-honk and remember to indicate when it sounds like a question and when like an exclamation.”
He rubbed his recently manicured fingernails across the desk drawer containing his fully loaded Parabellum. Check. The communication buttons with which he could summon any quantity of Hebster Securities personnel up to the nine hundred working at present in the Hebster Building lay some eight inches from the other hand. Check. And there were the doors here, the doors there, behind which his uniformed bodyguard stood poised to burst in at a signal which would blaze before them the moment his right foot came off the tiny spring set in the floor. And check.
Courteously, he nodded at each one of his visitors from Arizona; he smiled rue-fully at what the dirty shapeless masses they wore on their feet were doing to the almost calf-deep rug that had been woven specially for his private office. He had greeted them when Miss Seidenheim had escorted them in. They had laughed in his face.
“Suppose we rattle off some introductions. You know me. I’m Hebster, Algernon Hebster—you asked for me specifically at the desk in the lobby. If it’s important to the conversation, my secretary’s name is Greta Seidenheim. And you, sir?”
He had addressed the old fellow, but the thin young man leaned forward in his seat and held out a taut, almost transparent hand. “Names?” he inquired. “Names are round if not revealed. Consider names. How many names? Consider names, reconsider names!”
The woman leaned forward too, and the smell from her diseased mouth reached Hebster even across the enormous space of his office. “Rabble and reaching and all the upward clash,” she intoned, spreading her hands as if in agreement with an obvious point. “Emptiness derogating itself into infinity—”
“Into duration,” the older man corrected.
“Into infinity,” the woman insisted.
“Gabble, gabble, honk?” the young man queried bitterly.
“Listen!” Hebster roared. “When I asked for—”
The communicator buzzed and he drew a deep breath and pressed a button. His receptionist’s voice boiled out rapidly, fearfully:
“I remember your orders, Mr. Hebster, but those two men from the UM Special Investigating Commission are here again and they look as if they mean business. I mean they look as if they’ll make trouble.”
“Yost and Funatti?”
“Yes, sir. From what they said to each other, I think they know you have three Primeys in there. They asked me what are you trying to do—deliberately inflame the Firsters? They said they’re going to invoke full supranational powers and force an entry if you don’t—”
“But, Mr. Hebster, the UM Special Investigating—”
“Stall them, I said. Are you a receptionist or a swinging door? Use your imagination, Ruth. You have a nine-hundred-man organization and a ten-million-dollar corporation at your disposal. You can stage any kind of farce in that outer office you want—up to and including the deal where some actor made up to look like me walks in and drops dead at their feet. Stall them and I’ll nod a bonus at you. Stall them.” He clicked off, looked up.
His visitors, at least, were having a fine time. They had turned to face each other in a reeking triangle of gibberish. Their voices rose and fell argumentatively, pleadingly, decisively; but all Algernon Hebster’s ears could register of what they said were very many sounds similar to gabble and an occasional, indisputable honk!
His lips curled contempt inward. Humanity prime! These messes? Then he lit a cigarette and shrugged. Oh, well. Humanity prime. And business is business.
Just remember they’re not supermen, he told himself. They may be dangerous, but they’re not supermen. Not by a long shot. Remember that epidemic of influenza that almost wiped them out, and how you diddled those two other Primeys last month. They’re not supermen, but they’re not humanity either. They’re just different.
He glanced at his secretary and approved. Greta Seidenheim clacked away on her machine as if she were recording the curtest, the tritest of business letters. He wondered what system she was using to catch the intonations. Trust Greta, though, she’d do it.
“Gabble, honk! Gabble, gabble, gabble, honk, honk. Gabble, honk, gabble, gabble, honk? Honk.”
What had precipitated all this conversation? He’d only asked for their names. Didn’t they use names in Arizona? Surely, they knew that it was customary here. They claimed to know at least as much as he about such matters.
Maybe it was something else that had brought them to New York this time—maybe something about the Aliens? He felt the short hairs rise on the back of his neck and he smoothed them down self-consciously.
Trouble was it was so easy to learn their language. It was such a very simple matter to be able to understand them in these talkative moments. Almost as easy as falling off a log—or jumping off a cliff.
Well, his time was limited. He didn’t know how long Ruth could hold the UM investigators in his outer office. Somehow he had to get a grip on the meeting again without offending them in any of the innumerable, highly dangerous ways in which Primeys could be offended.
He rapped the desk top—gently. The gabble-honk stopped short at the hyphen. The woman rose slowly.
“On this question of names,” Hebster began doggedly, keeping his eyes on the woman, “since you people claim—”
The woman writhed agonizingly for a moment and sat down on the floor. She smiled at Hebster. With her rotted teeth, the smile had all the brilliance of a dead star.
Hebster cleared his throat and prepared to try again.
“If you want names,” the older man said suddenly, “you can call me Larry.”
The president of Hebster Securities shook himself and managed to say “Thanks” in a somewhat weak but not too surprised voice. He looked at the thin young man.
“You can call me Theseus.” The young man looked sad as he said it.
“Theseus? Fine!” One thing about Primeys, when you started clicking with them, you really moved along. But Theseus! Wasn’t that just like a Primey? Now the woman, and they could begin.
They were all looking at the woman, even Greta with a curiosity which had sneaked up past her beauty-parlor glaze.
“Name,” the woman whispered to herself. “Name a name.”
Oh, no, Hebster groaned. Let’s not stall here.
Larry evidently had decided that enough time had been wasted. He made a suggestion to the woman. “Why not call yourself Moe?”
The young man—Theseus, it was now—also seemed to get interested in the problem. “Rover’s a good name,” he announced helpfully.
“How about Gloria?” Hebster asked desperately.
The woman considered. “Moe, Rover, Gloria,” she mused. “Larry, Theseus, Seidenheim, Hebster, me.” She seemed to be running a total.
Anything might come out, Hebster knew. But at least they were not acting snobbish any more: they were talking down on his level now. Not only no gabble-honk, but none of this sneering double-talk which was almost worse. At least they were making sense—of a sort.
“For the purposes of this discussion,” the woman said at last, “my name will be… will be—My name is S.S. Lusitania.”
“Fine!” Hebster roared, letting the word he’d kept bubbling on his lips burst out. “That’s a fine name. Larry, Theseus and… er, S.S. Lusitania. Fine bunch of people. Sound. Let’s get down to business. You came here on business, I take it?”
“Right,” Larry said. “We heard about you from two others who left home a month ago to come to New York. They talked about you when they got back to Arizona.”
“They did, eh? I hoped they would.”
Theseus slid off his chair and squatted next to the woman who was making plucking motions at the air. “They talked about you,” he repeated. “They said you treated them very well, that you showed them as much respect as a thing like you could generate. They also said you cheated them.”
“Oh, well, Theseus.” Hebster spread his manicured hands. “I’m a businessman.”
“You’re a businessman,” S.S. Lusitania agreed, getting to her feet stealthily and taking a great swipe with both hands at something invisible in front of her face. “And here, in this spot, at this moment, so are we. You can have what we’ve brought, but you’ll pay for it. And don’t think you can cheat us.”
Her hands, cupped over each other, came down to her waist. She pulled them apart suddenly and a tiny eagle fluttered out. It flapped toward the fluorescent panels glowing in the ceiling. Its flight was hampered by the heavy, striped shield upon its breast, by the bunch of arrows it held in one claw, by the olive branch it grasped with the other. It turned its miniature bald head and gasped at Algernon Hebster, then began to drift rapidly down to the rug. Just before it hit the floor, it disappeared.
Hebster shut his eyes, remembering the strip of bunting that had fallen from the eagle’s beak when it had turned to gasp. There had been words printed on the bunting, words too small to see at the distance, but he was sure the words would have read “E Pluribus Unum.” He was as certain of that as he was of the necessity of acting unconcerned over the whole incident, as unconcerned as the Primeys. Professor Kleimbocher said Primeys were mental drunkards. But why did they give everyone else the D.T.s?
He opened his eyes. “Well,” he said, “what have you to sell?”
Silence for a moment. Theseus seemed to forget the point he was trying to make; S.S. Lusitania stared at Larry.
Larry scratched his right side through heavy, stinking cloth.
“Oh, an infallible method for defeating anyone who attempts to apply the reductio ad absurdum to a reasonable proposition you advance.” He yawned smugly and began scratching his left side.
Hebster grinned because he was feeling so good. “No. Can’t use it.”
“Can’t use it?” The old man was trying hard to look amazed. He shook his head. He stole a sideways glance at S.S. Lusitania.
She smiled again and wriggled to the floor. “Larry still isn’t talking a language you can understand, Mr. Hebster,” she cooed, very much like a fertilizer factory being friendly. “We came here with something we know you need badly. Very badly.”
“Yes?” They’re like those two Primeys last month, Hebster exulted: they don’t know what’s good and what isn’t. Wonder if their masters would know. Well, and if they did —who does business with Aliens?
“We… have,” she spaced the words carefully, trying pathetically for a dramatic effect, “a new shade of red, but not merely that. Oh, no! A new shade of red, and a full set of color values derived from it! A complete set of color values derived from this one shade of red, Mr. Hebster! Think what a non-objectivist painter can do with such a—”
“Don’t sell me, lady. Theseus, do you want to have a go now?”
Theseus had been frowning at the green foundation of the desk. He leaned back, looking satisfied. Hebster realized abruptly that the tension under his right foot had disappeared. Somehow, Theseus had become cognizant of the signal-spring set in the floor; and, somehow, he had removed it.
He had disintegrated it without setting off the alarm to which it was wired.
Giggles from three Primey throats and a rapid exchange of “gabble-honk.” Then they all knew what Theseus had done and how Hebster had tried to protect himself. They weren’t angry, though—and they didn’t sound triumphant. Try to understand Primey behavior!
No need to get unduly alarmed—the price of dealing with these characters was a nervous stomach. The rewards, on the other hand—
Abruptly, they were businesslike again.
Theseus snapped out his suggestion with all the finality of a bazaar merchant making his last, absolutely the last offer. “A set of population indices which can be correlated with—”
“No, Theseus,” Hebster told him gently.
Then, while Hebster sat back and enjoyed, temporarily forgetting the missing coil under his foot, they poured out more, desperately, feverishly, weaving in and out of each other’s sentences.
“A portable neutron stabilizer for high altit—”
“More than fifty ways of saying ‘however’ without—”
“… So that every housewife can do an entrechat while cook—”
“… Synthetic fabric with the drape of silk and manufactura—”
“… Decorative pattern for bald heads using the follicles as—”
“… Complete and utter refutation of all pyramidologists from—”
“All right!” Hebster roared, “All right! That’s enough!”
Greta Seidenheim almost forgot herself and sighed with relief. Her stenographic machine had been sounding like a centrifuge.
“Now,” said the executive. “What do you want in exchange?”
“One of those we said is the one you want, eh?” Larry muttered. “Which one—the pyramidology refutation? That’s it, I betcha.”
S.S. Lusitania waved her hands contemptuously. “Bishop’s miters, you fool! The new red color values excited him. The new—”
Ruth’s voice came over the communicator. “Mr. Hebster, Yost and Funatti are back. I stalled them, but I just received word from the lobby receptionist that they’re back and on their way upstairs. You have two minutes, maybe three. And they’re so mad they almost look like Firsters themselves!”
“Thanks. When they climb out of the elevator, do what you can without getting too illegal.” He turned to his guests. “Listen—”
They had gone off again.
“Gabble, gabble, honk, honk, honk? Gabble, honk, gabble, gabble! Gabble, honk, gabble, honk, gabble, honk, honk.”
Could they honestly make sense out of these throat-clearings and half-sneezes? Was it really a language as superior to all previous languages of man as… as the Aliens were supposed to be to man himself? Well, at least they could communicate with the Aliens by means of it. And the Aliens, the Aliens—
He recollected abruptly the two angry representatives of the world state who were hurtling towards his office.
“Listen, friends. You came here to sell. You’ve shown me your stock, and I’ve seen something I’d like to buy. What exactly is immaterial. The only question now is what you want for it. And let’s make it fast. I have some other business to transact.”
The woman with the dental nightmare stamped her foot. A cloud no larger than a man’s hand formed near the ceiling, burst and deposited a pail full of water on Hebster’s fine custom-made rug.
He ran a manicured forefinger around the inside of his collar so that his bulging neck veins would not burst. Not right now, anyway. He looked at Greta and regained confidence from the serenity with which she waited for more conversation to transcribe. There was a model of business precision for you. The Primeys might pull what one of them had in London two years ago, before they were barred from all metropolitan areas—increased a housefly’s size to that of an elephant—and Greta Seidenheim would go on separating fragments of conversation into the appropriate short-hand symbols.
With all their power, why didn’t they take what they wanted? Why trudge wearisome miles to cities and attempt to smuggle themselves into illegal audiences with operators like Hebster, when most of them were caught easily and sent back to the reservation and those that weren’t were cheated unmercifully by the “straight” humans they encountered? Why didn’t they just blast their way in, take their weird and pathetic prizes and toddle back to their masters? For that matter, why didn’t their masters—But Primey psych was Primey psych—not for this world, nor of it.
“We’ll tell you what we want in exchange,” Larry began in the middle of a honk. He held up a hand on which the length of the fingernails was indicated graphically by the grime beneath them and began to tot up the items, bending a digit for each item. “First, a hundred paper-bound copies of Melville’s Moby Dick. Then, twenty-five crystal radio sets, with earphones; two earphones for each set. Then, two Empire State Buildings or three Radio Cities, whichever is more convenient. We want those with foundations intact. A reasonably good copy of the Hermes statue by Praxiteles. And an electric toaster, circa 1941. That’s about all, isn’t it, Theseus?”
Theseus bent over until his nose rested against his knees.
Hebster groaned. The list wasn’t as bad as he’d expected—remarkable the way their masters always yearned for the electric gadgets and artistic achievements of Earth—but he had so little time to bargain with them. Two Empire State Buildings!
“Mr. Hebster,” his receptionist chattered over the communicator. “Those SIC men—I managed to get a crowd out in the corridor to push toward their elevator when it came to this floor, and I’ve locked the… I mean I’m trying to… but I don’t think—Can you—”
“Good girl! You’re doing fine!”
“Is that all we want, Theseus?” Larry asked again. “Gabble?”
Hebster heard a crash in the outer office and footsteps running across the floor.
“See here, Mr. Hebster,” Theseus said at last, “if you don’t want to buy Larry’s reductio ad absurdum exploder, and you don’t like my method of decorating bald heads for all its innate artistry, how about a system of musical notation—”
Somebody tried Hebster’s door, found it locked. There was a knock on the door, repeated almost immediately with more urgency.
“He’s already found something he wants,” S.S. Lusitania snapped. “Yes, Larry, that was the complete list.”
Hebster plucked a handful of hair from his already receding forehead. “Good! Now, look, I can give you everything but the two Empire State Buildings and the three Radio Cities.”
“Or the three Radio Cities,” Larry corrected. “Don’t try to cheat us! Two Empire State Buildings or three Radio Cities. Whichever is more convenient. Why… isn’t it worth that to you?”
“Open this door!” a bull-mad voice yelled. “Open this door in the name of United Mankind!”
“Miss Seidenheim, open the door,” Hebster said loudly and winked at his secretary, who rose, stretched and began a thoughtful, slow-motion study in the direction of the locked panel. There was a crash as of a pair of shoulders being thrown against it. Hebster knew that his office door could withstand a medium-sized tank. But there was a limit even to delay when it came to fooling around with the UM Special Investigating Commission. Those boys knew their Primeys and their Primey-dealers; they were empowered to shoot first and ask questions afterwards—as the questions occurred to them.
“It’s not a matter of whether it’s worth my while,” Hebster told them rapidly as he shepherded them to the exit behind his desk. “For reasons I’m sure you aren’t interested in, I just can’t give away two Empire State Buildings and/or three Radio Cities with foundations intact—not at the moment. I’ll give you the rest of it, and—”
“Open this door or we start blasting it down!”
“Please, gentlemen, please,” Greta Seidenheim told them sweetly. “You’ll kill a poor working girl who’s trying awfully hard to let you in. The lock’s stuck.” She fiddled with the door knob, watching Hebster with a trace of anxiety in her fine eyes.
“And to replace those items,” Hebster was going on, “I will—”
“What I mean,” Theseus broke in, “is this. You know the greatest single difficulty composers face in the twelve-tone technique?”
“I can offer you,” the executive continued doggedly, sweat bursting out of his skin like spring freshets, “complete architectural blueprints of the Empire State Building and Radio City, plus five… no, I’ll make it ten… scale models of each. And you get the rest of the stuff you asked for. That’s it. Take it or leave it. Fast!”
They glanced at each other, as Hebster threw the exit door open and gestured to the five liveried bodyguards waiting near his private elevator. “Done,” they said in unison.
“Good!” Hebster almost squeaked. He pushed them through the doorway and said to the tallest of the five men: “Nineteenth floor!”
He slammed the exit shut just as Miss Seidenheim opened the outer office door. Yost and Funatti, in the bottle-green uniform of the UM, charged through. Without pausing, they ran to where Hebster stood and plucked the exit open. They could all hear the elevator descending.
Funatti, a little, olive-skinned man, sniffed. “Primeys,” he muttered. “He had Primeys here, all right. Smell that unwash, Yost?”
“Yeah,” said the bigger man. “Come on. The emergency stairway. We can track that elevator!”
They holstered their service weapons and clattered down the metal-tipped stairs. Below, the elevator stopped.
Hebster’s secretary was at the communicator. “Maintenance!” She waited. “Maintenance, automatic locks on the nineteenth floor exit until the party Mr. Hebster just sent down gets to a lab somewhere else. And keep apologizing to those cops until then. Remember, they’re SIC.”
“Thanks, Greta,” Hebster said, switching to the personal now that they were alone. He plumped into his desk chair and blew out gustily: “There must be easier ways of making a million.”
She raised two perfect blond eyebrows. “Or of being an absolute monarch right inside the parliament of man?”
“If they wait long enough,” he told her lazily, “I’ll be the UM, modern global government and all. Another year or two might do it.”
“Aren’t you forgetting Vandermeer Dempsey? His huskies also want to replace the UM. Not to mention their colorful plans for you. And there are an awful, awful lot of them.”
“They don’t worry me, Greta. Humanity First will dissolve overnight once that decrepit old demagogue gives up the ghost.” He stabbed at the communicator button. “Maintenance! Maintenance, that party I sent down arrived at a safe lab yet?”
“No, Mr. Hebster. But everything’s going all right. We sent them up to the twenty-fourth floor and got the SIC men rerouted downstairs to the personnel levels. Uh, Mr. Hebster—about the SIC. We take your orders and all that, but none of us wants to get in trouble with the Special Investigating Commission. According to the latest laws, it’s practically a capital offense to obstruct them.”
“Don’t worry,” Hebster told him. “I’ve never let one of my employees down yet. The boss fixes everything is the motto here. Call me when you’ve got those Primeys safely hidden and ready for questioning.”
He turned back to Greta. “Get that stuff typed before you leave and into Professor Kleimbocher’s hands. He thinks he may have a new angle on their gabble-honk.”
She nodded. “I wish you could use recording apparatus instead of making me sit over an old-fashioned click-box.”
“So do I. But Primeys enjoy reaching out and putting a hex on electrical apparatus—when they aren’t collecting it for the Aliens. I had a raft of tape recorders busted in the middle of Primey interviews before I decided that human stenos were the only answer. And a Primey may get around to bollixing them some day.”
“Cheerful thought. I must remember to dream about the possibility some cold night. Well, I should complain,” she muttered as she went into her own little office. “Primey hexes built this business and pay my salary as well as supply me with the sparkling little knicknacks I love so well.”
That was not quite true, Hebster remembered as he sat waiting for the communicator to buzz the news of his recent guests’ arrival in a safe lab. Something like ninety-five percent of Hebster Securities had been built out of Primey gadgetry extracted from them in various fancy deals, but the base of it all had been the small investment bank he had inherited from his father, back in the days of the Half-War—the days when the Aliens had first appeared on Earth.
The fearfully intelligent dots swirling in their variously shaped multicolored bottles were completely outside the pale of human understanding. There had been no way at all to communicate with them for a time.
A humorist had remarked back in those early days that the Aliens came not to bury man, not to conquer or enslave him. They had a truly dreadful mission—to ignore him!
No one knew, even today, what part of the galaxy the Aliens came from. Or why. No one knew what the total of their small visiting population came to. Or how they operated their wide-open and completely silent spaceships. The few things that had been discovered about them on the occasions when they deigned to swoop down and examine some human enterprise, with the aloof amusement of the highly civilized tourist, had served to confirm a technological superiority over Man that strained and tore the capacity of his richest imagination. A sociological treatise Hebster had read recently suggested that they operated from concepts as far in advance of modern science as a meteorologist sowing a drought-struck area with dry ice was beyond the primitive agriculturist blowing a ram’s horn at the heavens in a frantic attempt to wake the slumbering gods of rain.
Prolonged, infinitely dangerous observation had revealed, for example, that the dots-in-bottles seemed to have developed past the need for prepared tools of any sort. They worked directly on the material itself, shaping it to need, evidently creating and destroying matter at will.
Some humans had communicated with them—
They didn’t stay human.
Men with superb brains had looked into the whirring, flickering settlements established by the outsiders. A few had returned with tales of wonders they had realized dimly and not quite seen. Their descriptions always sounded as if their eyes had been turned off at the most crucial moments or a mental fuse had blown just this side of understanding.
Others—such celebrities as a President of Earth, a three-time winner of the Nobel Prize, famous poets—had evidently broken through the fence somehow. These, however, were the ones who didn’t return. They stayed in the Alien settlements of the Gobi, the Sahara, the American Southwest. Barely able to fend for themselves, despite newly acquired and almost unbelievable powers, they shambled worshipfully around the outsiders, speaking, with weird writhings of larynx and nasal passage, what was evidently a human approximation of their masters’ language—a kind of pidgin Alien. Talking with a Primey, someone had said, was like a blind man trying to read a page of Braille originally written for an octopus.
And that these bearded, bug-ridden, stinking derelicts, these chattering wrecks drunk and sodden on the logic of an entirely different life-form, were the absolute best of the human race didn’t help people’s egos any.
Humans and Primeys despised each other almost from the first: humans for Primey subservience and helplessness in human terms, Primeys for human ignorance and ineptness in Alien terms. And, except when operating under Alien orders and through barely legal operators like Hebster, Primeys didn’t communicate with humans any more than their masters did.
When institutionalized, they either gabble-honked themselves into an early grave or, losing patience suddenly, they might dissolve a path to freedom right through the walls of the asylum and any attendants who chanced to be in the way. Therefore the enthusiasm of sheriff and deputy, nurse and orderly, had waned considerably and the forcible incarceration of Primeys had almost ceased.
Since the two groups were so far apart psychologically as to make mating between them impossible, the ragged miracle-workers had been honored with the status of a separate classification:
Humanity Prime. Not better than humanity, not necessarily worse—but different, and dangerous.
What made them that way? Hebster rolled his chair back and examined the hole in the floor from which the alarm spring had spiraled. Theseus had disintegrated it— how? With a thought? Telekinesis, say, applied to all the molecules of the metal simultaneously, making them move rapidly and at random. Or possibly he had merely moved the spring somewhere else. Where? In space? In hyperspace? In time? Hebster shook his head and pulled himself back to the efficiently smooth and sanely useful desk surface.
“Mr. Hebster?” the communicator inquired abruptly, and he jumped a bit, “this is Margritt of General Lab 23B. Your Primeys just arrived. Regular check?”
Regular check meant drawing them out on every conceivable technical subject by the nine specialists in the general laboratory. This involved firing questions at them with the rapidity of a police interrogation, getting them off balance and keeping them there in the hope that a useful and unexpected bit of scientific knowledge would drop.
“Yes,” Hebster told him. “Regular check. But first let a textile man have a whack at them. In fact, let him take charge of the check.”
A pause. “The only textile man in this section is Charlie Verus.”
“Well?” Hebster asked in mild irritation. “Why put it like that? He’s competent, I hope. What does Personnel say about him?”
“Personnel says he’s competent.”
“Then there you are. Look, Margritt, I have the SIC running around my building with blood in its enormous eye. I don’t have time to muse over your departmental feuds. Put Verus on.”
“Yes, Mr. Hebster. Hey, Bert! Get Charlie Verus. Him.”
Hebster shook his head and chuckled. These technicians! Verus was probably brilliant and nasty.
The box crackled again: “Mr. Hebster? Mr. Verus.” The voice expressed boredom to the point of obvious affectation. But the man was probably good despite his neuroses. Hebster Securities, Inc., had a first-rate personnel department.
“Verus? Those Primeys, I want you to take charge of the check. One of them knows how to make a synthetic fabric with the drape of silk. Get that first and then go after anything else they have.”
“Primeys, Mr. Hebster?”
“I said Primeys, Mr. Verus. You are a textile technician, please to remember, and not the straight or ping-pong half of a comedy routine. Get humping. I want a report on that synthetic fabric by tomorrow. Work all night if you have to.”
“Before we do, Mr. Hebster, you might be interested in a small piece of information. There is already in existence a synthetic which falls better than silk—”
“I know,” his employer told him shortly. “Cellulose acetate. Unfortunately, it has a few disadvantages: low melting point, tends to crack; separate and somewhat inferior dyestuffs have to be used for it; poor chemical resistance. Am I right?”
There was no immediate answer, but Hebster could feel the dazed nod. He went on. “Now, we also have protein fibers. They dye well and fall well, have the thermoconductivity control necessary for wearing apparel, but don’t have the tensile strength of synthetic fabrics. An artificial protein fiber might be the answer: it would drape as well as silk, might be we could use the acid dyestuffs we use on silk which result in shades that dazzle female customers and cause them to fling wide their pocketbooks. There are a lot of ifs in that, I know, but one of those Primeys said something about a synthetic with the drape of silk, and I don’t think he’d be sane enough to be referring to cellulose acetate. Nor nylon, orlon, vinyl chloride, or anything else we already have and use.”
“You’ve looked into textile problems, Mr. Hebster.”
“I have. I’ve looked into everything to which there are big gobs of money attached.
And now suppose you go look into those Primeys. Several million women are waiting breathlessly for the secrets concealed in their beards. Do you think, Verus, that with the personal and scientific background I’ve just given you, it’s possible you might now get around to doing the job you are paid to do?”
Hebster walked to the office closet and got his hat and coat. He liked working under pressure; he liked to see people jump up straight whenever he barked. And now, he liked the prospect of relaxing.
He grimaced at the webfoam chair that Larry had used. No point in having it resquirted. Have a new one made.
“I’ll be at the University,” he told Ruth on his way out. “You can reach me through Professor Kleimbocher. But don’t, unless it’s very important. He gets unpleasantly annoyed when he’s interrupted.”
She nodded. Then, very hesitantly: “Those two men—Yost and Funatti—from the Special Investigating Commission? They said no one would be allowed to leave the building.”
“Did they now?” he chuckled. “I think they were angry. They’ve been that way before. But unless and until they can hang something on me—And Ruth, tell my bodyguard to go home, except for the man with the Primeys. He’s to check with me, wherever I am, every two hours.”
He ambled out, being careful to smile benevolently at every third executive and fifth typist in the large office. A private elevator and entrance were all very well for an occasional crisis, but Hebster liked to taste his successes in as much public as possible.
It would be good to see Kleimbocher again. He had a good deal of faith in the linguistic approach; grants from his corporation had tripled the size of the University’s philology department. After all, the basic problem between man and Primey as well as man and Alien was one of communication. Any attempt to learn their science, to adjust their mental processes and logic into safer human channels, would have to be preceded by understanding.
It was up to Kleimbocher to find that understanding, not him. “I’m Hebster,” he thought. “I employ the people who solve problems. And then I make money off them.”
Somebody got in front of him. Somebody else took his arm. “I’m Hebster,” he repeated automatically, but out loud. “Algernon Hebster.”
“Exactly the Hebster we want,” Funatti said, holding tightly on to his arm. “You don’t mind coming along with us?”
“Is this an arrest?” Hebster asked Yost, who now moved aside to let him pass. Yost was touching his holstered weapon with dancing fingertips.
The SIC man shrugged. “Why ask such questions?” he countered. “Just come along and be sociable, kind of. People want to talk to you.”
He allowed himself to be dragged through the lobby ornate with murals by radical painters and nodded appreciation at the doorman who, staring right through his captors, said enthusiastically, “Good afternoon, Mr. Hebster.” He made himself fairly comfortable on the back seat of the dark-green SIC car, a late-model Hebster Mono-wheel.
“Surprised to see you minus your bodyguard,” Yost, who was driving, remarked over his shoulder.
“Oh, I gave them the day off.”
“As soon as you were through with the Primeys? No,” Funatti admitted, “we never did find out where you cached them. That’s one big building you own, mister. And the UM Special Investigating Commission is notoriously understaffed.”
“Not forgetting it’s also notoriously underpaid,” Yost broke in.
“I couldn’t forget that if I tried,” Funatti assured him. “You know, Mr. Hebster, I wouldn’t have sent my bodyguard off if I’d been in your shoes. Right now there’s something about five times as dangerous as Primeys after you. I mean Humanity Firsters.”
“Vandermeer Dempsey’s crackpots? Thanks, but I think I’ll survive.”
“That’s all right. Just don’t give any long odds on the proposition. Those people have been expanding fast and furious. The Evening Humanitarian alone has a tremendous circulation. And when you figure their weekly newspapers, their penny booklets and throwaway handbills, it adds up to an impressive amount of propaganda. Day after day they bang away editorially at the people who’re making money off the Aliens and Primeys. Of course, they’re really hitting at the UM, like always, but if an ordinary Firster met you on the street, he’d be as likely to cut your heart out as not. Not interested? Sorry. Well, maybe you’ll like this. The Evening Humanitarian has a cute name for you.”
Yost guffawed. “Tell him, Funatti.”
The corporation president looked at the little man inquiringly.
“They call you,” Funatti said with great savoring deliberation, “they call you an interplanetary pimp!”
Emerging at last from the crosstown underpass, they sped up the very latest addition to the strangling city’s facilities—the East Side Air-Floating Super-Duper Highway, known familiarly as Dive-Bomber Drive. At the Forty-Second Street offway, the busiest road exit in Manhattan, Yost failed to make a traffic signal. He cursed absent-mindedly, and Hebster found himself nodding the involuntary passenger’s agreement. They watched the elevator section dwindling downward as the cars that were to mount the highway spiraled up from the right. Between the two, there rose and fell the steady platforms of harbor traffic while, stacked like so many decks of cards, the pedestrian stages awaited their turn below.
“Look! Up there, straight ahead! See it?”
Hebster and Funatti followed Yost’s long, waggling forefinger with their eyes. Two hundred feet north of the offway and almost a quarter of a mile straight up, a brown object hung in obvious fascination. Every once in a while a brilliant blue dot would enliven the heavy murk imprisoned in its bell-jar shape only to twirl around the side and be replaced by another.
“Eyes? You think they’re eyes?” Funatti asked, rubbing his small dark fists against each other futilely. “I know what the scientists say—that every dot is equivalent to one person and the whole bottle is like a family or a city, maybe. But how do they know? It’s a theory, a guess. I say they’re eyes.”
Yost hunched his great body half out of the open window and shaded his vision with his uniform cap against the sun. “Look at it,” they heard him say, over his shoul-der. A nasal twang, long-buried, came back into his voice as heaving emotion shook out its cultivated accents. “A-setting up there, a-staring and a-staring. So all-fired interested in how we get on and off a busy highway! Won’t pay us no never mind when we try to talk to it, when we try to find out what it wants, where it comes from, who it is. Oh, no! It’s too superior to talk to the likes of us! But it can watch us, hours on end, days without end, light and dark, winter and summer; it can watch us going about our business; and every time we dumb two-legged animals try to do something we find complicated, along comes a blasted ‘dots-in-bottle’ to watch and sneer and—”
“Hey there, man,” Funatti leaned forward and tugged at his partner’s green jerkin. “Easy! We’re SIC, on business.”
“All the same,” Yost grunted wistfully, as he plopped back into his seat and pressed the power button, “I wish I had Daddy’s little old M-1 Garand right now.” They bowled forward, smoothed into the next long elevator section and started to descend. “It would be worth the risk of getting pinged.”
And this was a UM man, Hebster reflected with acute discomfort. Not only UM, at that, but a member of a special group carefully screened for their lack of anti-Primey prejudice, sworn to enforce the reservation laws without discrimination and dedicated to the proposition that Man could somehow achieve equality with Alien.
Well, how much dirt-eating could people do? People without a business sense, that is. His father had hauled himself out of the pick-and-shovel brigade hand over hand and raised his only son to maneuver always for greater control, to search always for that extra percentage of profit.
But others seemed to have no such abiding interest, Algernon Hebster knew regretfully.
They found it impossible to live with achievements so abruptly made inconsequential by the Aliens. To know with certainty that the most brilliant strokes of which they were capable, the most intricate designs and clever careful workmanship, could be duplicated—and surpassed—in an instant’s creation by the outsiders and was of interest to them only as a collector’s item. The feeling of inferiority is horrible enough when imagined; but when it isn’t feeling but knowledge, when it is inescapable and thoroughly demonstrable, covering every aspect of constructive activity, it becomes unbearable and maddening.
No wonder men went berserk under hours of unwinking Alien scrutiny—watching them as they marched in a colorfully uniformed lodge parade, or fished through a hole in the ice, as they painfully maneuvered a giant transcontinental jet to a noiseless landing or sat in sweating, serried rows chanting to a single, sweating man to “knock it out of the park and sew the whole thing up!” No wonder they seized rusty shotgun or gleaming rifle and sped shot after vindictive shot into a sky poisoned by the contemptuous curiosity of a brown, yellow or vermilion “bottle.”
Not that it made very much difference. It did give a certain release to nerves backed into horrible psychic corners. But the Aliens didn’t notice, and that was most important. The Aliens went right on watching, as if all this shooting and uproar, all these imprecations and weapon-wavings, were all part of the self-same absorbing show they had paid to witness and were determined to see through if for nothing else than the occasional amusing fluff some member of the inexperienced cast might commit.
The Aliens weren’t injured, and the Aliens didn’t feel attacked. Bullets, shells, buckshot, arrows, pebbles from a slingshot—all Man’s miscellany of anger passed through them like the patient and eternal rain coming in the opposite direction. Yet the Aliens had solidity somewhere in their strange bodies. One could judge that by the way they intercepted light and heat. And also—
Also by the occasional ping .
Every once in a while, someone would evidently have hurt an Alien slightly. Or more probably just annoyed it by some unknown concomitant of rifle-firing or javelin-throwing.
There would be the barest suspicion of a sound—as if a guitarist had lunged at a string with his fingertip and decided against it one motor impulse too late. And, after this delicate and hardly heard ping, quite unspectacularly, the rifleman would be weaponless. He would be standing there sighting stupidly up along his empty curled fingers, elbow cocked out and shoulder hunched in, like a large oafish child who had forgotten when to end the game. Neither his rifle nor a fragment of it would ever be found. And—gravely, curiously, intently—the Alien would go on watching.
The ping seemed to be aimed chiefly at weapons. Thus, occasionally, a 155mm howitzer was pinged, and also, occasionally, unexpectedly, it might be a muscular arm, curving back with another stone, that would disappear to the accompaniment of a tiny elfin note. And yet sometimes—could it be that the Alien, losing interest, had become careless in its irritation?—the entire man, murderously violent and shrieking, would ping and be no more.
It was not as if a counterweapon were being used, but a thoroughly higher order of reply, such as a slap to an insect bite. Hebster, shivering, recalled the time he had seen a black tubular Alien swirl its amber dots over a new substreet excavation, seemingly entranced by the spectacle of men scrabbling at the earth beneath them.
A red-headed, blue-shirted giant of construction labor had looked up from Manhattan’s stubborn granite just long enough to shake the sweat from his eyelids. So doing, he had caught sight of the dot-pulsing observer and paused to snarl and lift his pneumatic drill, rattling it in noisy, if functionless, bravado at the sky. He had hardly been noticed by his mates, when the long, dark, speckled representative of a race beyond the stars turned end over end once and pinged.
The heavy drill remained upright for a moment, then dropped as if it had abruptly realized its master was gone. Gone? Almost, he had never been. So thorough had his disappearance been, so rapid, with so little flicker had he been snuffed out—harming and taking with him nothing else—that it had amounted to an act of gigantic and positive noncreation.
No, Hebster decided, making threatening gestures at the Aliens was suicidal. Worse, like everything else that had been tried to date, it was useless. On the other hand, wasn’t the Humanity First approach a complete neurosis? What could you do?
He reached into his soul for an article of fundamental faith, found it. “I can make money,” he quoted to himself. “That’s what I’m good for. That’s what I can always do.”
As they spun to a stop before the dumpy, brown-brick armory that the SIC had appropriated for its own use, he had a shock. Across the street was a small cigar store, the only one on the block. Brand names which had decorated the plate-glass window in all the colors of the copyright had been supplanted recently by great gilt slogans. Familiar slogans they were by now—but this close to a UM office, the Special Investigating Commission itself?
At the top of the window, the proprietor announced his affiliation in two huge words that almost screamed their hatred across the street:
Underneath these, in the exact center of the window, was the large golden initial of the organization, the wedded letters HF arising out of the huge, symbolic safety razor.
And under that, in straggling script, the theme repeated, reworded and sloganized:
“Humanity first, last and all the time!”
The upper part of the door began to get nasty:
“Deport the Aliens! Send them back to wherever they came from!”
And the bottom of the door made the store-front’s only concession to business:
“Shop here! Shop Humanitarian!”
“Humanitarian!” Funatti nodded bitterly beside Hebster. “Ever see what’s left of a Primey if a bunch of Firsters catch him without SIC protection? Just about enough to pick up with a blotter. I don’t imagine you’re too happy about boycott-shops like that?”
Hebster managed a chuckle as they walked past the saluting, green-uniformed guards. “There aren’t very many Primey-inspired gadgets having to do with tobacco. And if there were, one Shop Humanitarian outfit isn’t going to break me.”
But it is, he told himself disconsolately. It is going to break me—if it means what it seems to. Organization membership is one thing and so is planetary patriotism, but business is something else.
Hebster’s lips moved slowly, in half-remembered catechism: Whatever the proprietor believes in or does not believe in, he has to make a certain amount of money out of that place if he’s going to keep the door free of bailiff stickers. He can’t do it if he offends the greater part of his possible clientele.
Therefore, since he’s still in business and, from all outward signs, doing quite well, it’s obvious that he doesn’t have to depend on across-the-street UM personnel. Therefore, there must be a fairly substantial trade to offset this among entirely transient customers who not only don’t object to his Firstism but are willing to forgo the interesting new gimmicks and lower prices in standard items that Primey technology is giving us.
Therefore, it is entirely possible—from this one extremely random but highly significant sample—that the newspapers I read have been lying and the socioeconomists I employ are incompetent. It is entirely possible that the buying public, the only aspect of the public in which I have the slightest interest, is beginning a shift in general viewpoint which will profoundly affect its purchasing orientation.
It is possible that the entire UM economy is now at the top of a long slide into Humanity First domination, the secure zone of fanatic blindness demarcated by men like Vandermeer Dempsey. The highly usurious, commercially speculative economy of Imperial Rome made a similar transition in the much slower historical pace of two millennia ago and became, in three brief centuries, a static unbusinesslike world in which banking was a sin and wealth which had not been inherited was gross and dishonorable.
Meanwhile, people may already have begun to judge manufactured items on the basis of morality instead of usability, Hebster realized, as dim mental notes took their stolid place beside forming conclusions. He remembered a folderful of brilliant explanation Market Research had sent up last week dealing with unexpected consumer resistance to the new Ewakleen dishware. He had dismissed the pages of carefully developed thesis—to the effect that women were unconsciously associating the product’s name with a certain Katherine Ewakios who had recently made the front page of every tabloid in the world by dint of some fast work with a breadknife on the throats of her five children and two lovers—with a yawning smile after examining its first brightly colored chart.
“Probably nothing more than normal housewifely suspicion of a radically new idea,” he had muttered, “after washing dishes for years, to be told it’s no longer necessary! She can’t believe her Ewakleen dish is still the same after stripping the outer-most film of molecules after a meal. Have to hit that educational angle a bit harder—maybe tie it in with the expendable molecules lost by the skin during a shower.”
He’d penciled a few notes on the margin and flipped the whole problem onto the restless lap of Advertising and Promotion.
But then there had been the seasonal slump in furniture—about a month ahead of schedule. The surprising lack of interest in the Hebster Chubbichair, an item which should have revolutionized men’s sitting habits.
Abruptly, he could remember almost a dozen unaccountable disturbances in the market recently, and all in consumer goods. That fits, he decided; any change in buying habits wouldn’t be reflected in heavy industry for at least a year. The machine tools plants would feel it before the steel mills; the mills before the smelting and refining combines; and the banks and big investment houses would be the last of the dominoes to topple.
With its capital so thoroughly tied up in research and new production, his business wouldn’t survive even a temporary shift of this type. Hebster Securities, Inc., could go like a speck of lint being blown off a coat collar.
Which is a long way to travel from a simple little cigar store. Funatti’s jitters about growing Firstist sentiment are contagious! he thought.
If only Kleimbocher could crack the communication problem! If we could talk to the Aliens, find some sort of place for ourselves in their universe. The Firsters would be left without a single political leg!
Hebster realized they were in a large, untidy, map-splattered office and that his escort was saluting a huge, even more untidy man who waved their hands down impatiently and nodded them out of the door. He motioned Hebster to a choice of seats. This consisted of several long walnut-stained benches scattered about the room.
P. Braganza, said the desk nameplate with ornate Gothic flow. P. Braganza had a long, twirlable and tremendously thick mustache. Also, P. Braganza needed a hair-cut badly. It was as if he and everything in the room had been carefully designed to give the maximum affront to Humanity Firsters. Which, considering their crew-cut, closely shaven, “Cleanliness is next to Manliness” philosophy, meant that there was a lot of gratuitous unpleasantness in this office when a raid on a street demonstration filled it with jostling fanatics, antiseptically clean and dressed with bare-bones simplicity and neatness.
“So you’re worrying about Firster effect on business?”
Hebster looked up, startled.
“No, I don’t read your mind,” Braganza laughed through tobacco-stained teeth. He gestured at the window behind his desk. “I saw you jump just the littlest bit when you noticed that cigar store. And then you stared at it for two full minutes. I knew what you were thinking about.”
“Extremely perceptive of you,” Hebster remarked dryly.
The SIC official shook his head in a violent negative. “No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t a bit perceptive. I knew what you were thinking about because I sit up here day after day staring at that cigar store and thinking exactly the same thing. Braganza, I tell myself, that’s the end of your job. That’s the end of scientific world government. Right there on that cigar-store window.”
He glowered at his completely littered desk top for a moment. Hebster’s instincts woke up—there was a sales talk in the wind. He realized the man was engaged in the unaccustomed exercise of looking for a conversational gambit. He felt an itch of fear crawl up his intestines. Why should the SIC, whose power was almost above law and certainly above governments, be trying to dicker with him?
Considering his reputation for asking questions with the snarling end of a rubber hose, Braganza was being entirely too gentle, too talkative, too friendly. Hebster felt like a trapped mouse into whose disconcerted ear a cat was beginning to pour complaints about the dog upstairs.
“Hebster, tell me something. What are your goals?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What do you want out of life? What do you spend your days planning for, your nights dreaming about? Yost likes the girls and wants more of them. Funatti’s a family man, five kids. He’s happy in his work because his job’s fairly secure, and there are all kinds of pensions and insurance policies to back up his life.”
Braganza lowered his powerful head and began a slow, reluctant pacing in front of the desk.
“Now, I’m a little different. Not that I mind being a glorified cop. I appreciate the regularity with which the finance office pays my salary, of course; and there are very few women in this town who can say that I have received an offer of affection from them with outright scorn. But the one thing for which I would lay down my life is United Mankind. Would lay down my life? In terms of blood pressure and heart strain, you might say I’ve already done it. Braganza, I tell myself, you’re a lucky dope. You’re working for the first world government in human history. Make it count.”
He stopped and spread his arms in front of Hebster. His unbuttoned green jerkin came apart awkwardly and exposed the black slab of hair on his chest. “That’s me. That’s basically all there is to Braganza. Now if we’re to talk sensibly I have to know as much about you. I ask—what are your goals?”
The President of Hebster Securities, Inc., wet his lips. “I am afraid I’m even less complicated.”
“That’s all right,” the other man encouraged. “Put it any way you like.”
“You might say that before everything else, I am a businessman. I am interested chiefly in becoming a better businessman, which is to say a bigger one. In other words, I want to be richer than I am.”
Braganza peered at him intently. “And that’s all?”
“All? Haven’t you ever heard it said that money isn’t everything, but that what it isn’t, it can buy?”
“It can’t buy me.”
Hebster examined him coolly. “I don’t know if you’re a sufficiently desirable commodity. I buy what I need, only occasionally making an exception to please myself.”
“I don’t like you.” Braganza’s voice had become thick and ugly. “I never liked your kind and there’s no sense being polite. I might as well stop trying. I tell you straight out—I think your guts stink.”
Hebster rose. “In that case, I believe I should thank you for—”
“Sit down! You were asked here for a reason. I don’t see any point to it, but we’ll go through the motions. Sit down.”
Hebster sat. He wondered idly if Braganza received half the salary he paid Greta Seidenheim. Of course, Greta was talented in many different ways and performed several distinct and separately useful services. No, after tax and pension deductions, Braganza was probably fortunate to receive one-third of Greta’s salary.
He noticed that a newspaper was being proffered him. He took it. Braganza grunted, clumped back behind his desk and swung his swivel chair around to face the window.
It was a week-old copy of The Evening Humanitarian. The paper had lost the voice-of-a-small-but-highly-articulate-minority look, Hebster remembered from his last reading of it, and acquired the feel of publishing big business. Even if you cut in half the circulation claimed by the box in the upper left-hand corner, that still gave them three million paying readers.
In the upper right-hand corner, a red-bordered box exhorted the faithful to “Read Humanitarian!” A green streamer across the top of the first page announced that “To make sense is human—to gibber, Prime!”
But the important item was in the middle of the page. A cartoon.
Half-a-dozen Primeys wearing long, curved beards and insane, tongue-lolling grins sat in a rickety wagon. They held reins attached to a group of straining and portly gentlemen dressed—somewhat simply—in high silk hats. The fattest and ugliest of these, the one in the lead, had a bit between his teeth. The bit was labeled “crazy-money” and the man, “Algernon Hebster.”
Crushed and splintering under the wheels of the wagon were such varied items as a “Home Sweet Home” framed motto with a piece of wall attached, a clean-cut youngster in a Boy Scout uniform, a streamlined locomotive and a gorgeous young woman with a squalling infant under each arm.
The caption inquired starkly: “Lords of Creation—Or Serfs?”
“This paper seems to have developed into a fairly filthy scandal sheet,” Hebster mused out loud. “I shouldn’t be surprised if it makes money.”
“I take it then,” Braganza asked without turning around from his contemplation of the street, “that you haven’t read it very regularly in recent months?”
“I am happy to say I have not.”
“That was a mistake.”
Hebster stared at the clumped locks of black hair. “Why?” he asked carefully.
“Because it has developed into a thoroughly filthy and extremely successful scandal sheet. You’re its chief scandal.” Braganza laughed. “You see, these people look upon Primey dealing as more of a sin than a crime. And, according to that morality, you’re close to Old Nick himself!”
Shutting his eyes for a moment, Hebster tried to understand people who imagined such a soul-satisfying and beautiful concept as profit to be a thing of dirt and crawling maggots. He sighed. “I’ve thought of Firstism as a religion myself.”
That seemed to get the SIC man. He swung around excitedly and pointed with both forefingers. “I tell you that you are right! It crosses all boundaries—incompatible and warring creeds are absorbed into it. It is willful, witless denial of a highly painful fact—that there are intellects abroad in the universe which are superior to our own. And the denial grows in strength every day that we are unable to contact the Aliens. If, as seems obvious, there is no respectable place for humanity in this galactic civilization, why, say men like Vandermeer Dempsey, then let us preserve our self-con-ceit at the least. Let’s stay close to and revel in the things that are undeniably human. In a few decades, the entire human race will have been sucked into this blinkered vacuum.”
He rose and walked around the desk again. His voice had assumed a terribly earnest, tragically pleading quality. His eyes roved Hebster’s face as if searching for a pin-point of weakness, an especially thin spot in the frozen calm.
“Think of it,” he asked Hebster. “Periodic slaughters of scientists and artists who, in the judgment of Dempsey, have pushed out too far from the conventional center of so-called humanness. An occasional auto-da-fe in honor of a merchant caught selling Primey goods—”
“I shouldn’t like that,” Hebster admitted, smiling. He thought a moment. “I see the connection you’re trying to establish with the cartoon in The Evening Humanitarian.”
“Mister, I shouldn’t have to. They want your head on the top of a long stick. They want it because you’ve become a symbol of dealing successfully, for your own ends, with these stellar foreigners, or at least their human errand-boys and chambermaids. They figure that maybe they can put a stop to Primey-dealing generally if they put a bloody stop to you. And I tell you this—maybe they are right.”
“What exactly do you propose?” Hebster asked in a low voice.
“That you come in with us. We’ll make an honest man of you—officially. We want you directing our investigation; except that the goal will not be an extra buck but all-important interracial communication and eventual interstellar negotiation.”
The president of Hebster Securities, Inc., gave himself a few minutes on that one. He wanted to work out a careful reply. And he wanted time—above all, he wanted time!
He was so close to a well-integrated and worldwide commercial empire! For ten years, he had been carefully fitting the component industrial kingdoms into place, establishing suzerainty in this production network and squeezing a little more control out of that economic satrapy. He had found delectable tidbits of power in the dissolution of his civilization, endless opportunities for wealth in the shards of his race’s self-esteem. He required a bare twelve months now to consolidate and coordinate. And suddenly—with the open-mouthed shock of a Jim Fiske who had cornered gold on the Exchange only to have the United States Treasury defeat him by releasing enormous quantities from the Government’s own hoard—suddenly, Hebster realized he wasn’t going to have the time. He was too experienced a player not to sense that a new factor was coming into the game, something outside his tables of actuarial figures, his market graphs and cargo loading indices.
His mouth was clogged with the heavy nausea of unexpected defeat. He forced himself to answer:
“I’m flattered. Braganza, I really am flattered. I see that Dempsey has linked us—we stand or fall together. But—I’ve always been a loner. With whatever help I can buy, I take care of myself. I’m not interested in any goal but the extra buck. First and last, I’m a businessman.”
“Oh, stop it!” The dark man took a turn up and down the office angrily. “This is a planet-wide emergency. There are times when you can’t be a businessman.”
“I deny that. I can’t conceive of such a time.”
Braganza snorted. “You can’t be a businessman if you’re strapped to a huge pile of blazing faggots. You can’t be a businessman if people’s minds are so thoroughly controlled that they’ll stop eating at their leader’s command. You can’t be a businessman, my slavering, acquisitive friend, if demand is so well in hand that it ceases to exist.”
“That’s impossible!” Hebster had leaped to his feet. To his amazement, he heard his voice climbing up the scale to hysteria. “There’s always demand. Always! The trick is to find what new form it’s taken and then fill it!”
“Sorry! I didn’t mean to make fun of your religion.”
Hebster drew a deep breath and sat down with infinite care. He could almost feel his red corpuscles simmering.
Take it easy, he warned himself, take it easy! This is a man who must be won, not antagonized. They’re changing the rules of the market, Hebster, and you’ll need every friend you can buy.
Money won’t work with this fellow. But there are other values—
“Listen to me, Braganza. We’re up against the psychosocial consequences of an extremely advanced civilization smacking into a comparatively barbarous one. Are you familiar with Professor Kleimbocher’s Firewater Theory?”
“That the Aliens’ logic hits us mentally in the same way as whisky hit the North American Indian? And the Primeys, representing our finest minds, are the equivalent of those Indians who had the most sympathy with the white man’s civilization? Yes. It’s a strong analogy. Even carried to the Indians who, lying sodden with liquor in the streets of frontier towns, helped create the illusion of the treacherous, lazy, kill-you-for-a-drink aborigines while being so thoroughly despised by their tribesmen that they didn’t dare go home for fear of having their throats cut. I’ve always felt—”
“The only part of that I want to talk about,” Hebster interrupted, “is the firewater concept. Back in the Indian villages, an ever-increasing majority became convinced that firewater and gluttonous paleface civilization were synonymous, that they must rise and retake their land forcibly, killing in the process as many drunken renegades as they came across. This group can be equated with the Humanity Firsters. Then there was a minority who recognized the white men’s superiority in numbers and weapons, and desperately tried to find a way of coming to terms with his civilization—terms that would not include his booze. For them read the UM. Finally, there was my kind of Indian.”
Braganza knitted voluminous eyebrows and hitched himself up to a corner of the desk. “Hah?” he inquired. “What kind of Indian were you, Hebster?”
“The kind who had enough sense to know that the paleface had not the slightest interest in saving him from slow and painful cultural anemia. The kind of Indian, also, whose instincts were sufficiently sound so that he was scared to death of innovations like firewater and wouldn’t touch the stuff to save himself from snake bite. But the kind of Indian—”
“Yes? Go on!”
“The kind who was fascinated by the strange transparent container in which the firewater came! Think how covetous an Indian potter might be of the whisky bottle, something which was completely outside the capacity of his painfully acquired technology. Can’t you see him hating, despising and terribly afraid of the smelly amber fluid, which toppled the most stalwart warriors, yet wistful to possess a bottle minus contents? That’s about where I see myself, Braganza—the Indian whose greedy curiosity shines through the murk of hysterical clan politics and outsiders’ contempt like a lambent flame. I want the new kind of container somehow separated from the firewater.”
Unblinkingly, the great dark eyes stared at his face. A hand came up and smoothed each side of the arched mustachio with long, unknowing twirls. Minutes passed.
“Well. Hebster as our civilization’s noble savage,” the SIC man chuckled at last. “It almost feels right. But what does it mean in terms of the overall problem?”
“I’ve told you,” Hebster said wearily, hitting the arm of the bench with his open hand, “that I haven’t the slightest interest in the overall problem.”
“And you only want the bottle. I heard you. But you’re not a potter, Hebster—you haven’t an elementary particle of craftsman’s curiosity. All of that historical romance you spout—you don’t care if your world drowns in its own agonized juice. You just want a profit.”
“I never claimed an altruistic reason. I leave the general solution to men whose minds are good enough to juggle its complexities—like Kleimbocher.”
“Think somebody like Kleimbocher could do it?”
“I’m almost certain he will. That was our mistake from the beginning—trying to break through with historians and psychologists. Either they’ve become limited by the study of human societies or—well, this is personal, but I’ve always felt that the science of the mind attracts chiefly those who’ve already experienced grave psychological difficulty. While they might achieve such an understanding of themselves in the course of their work as to become better adjusted eventually than individuals who had less problems to begin with, I’d still consider them too essentially unstable for such an intrinsically shocking experience as establishing rapport with an Alien. Their internal dynamics inevitably make Primeys of them.”
Braganza sucked at a tooth and considered the wall behind Hebster. “And all this, you feel, wouldn’t apply to Kleimbocher?”
“No, not a philology professor. He has no interest, no intellectual roots in personal and group instability. Kleimbocher’s a comparative linguist—a technician, really—a specialist in basic communication. I’ve been out to the University and watched him work. His approach to the problem is entirely in terms of his subject—communicating with the Aliens instead of trying to understand them. There’s been entirely too much intricate speculation about Alien consciousness, sexual attitudes and social organization, about stuff from which we will derive no tangible and immediate good. Kleimbocher’s completely pragmatic.”
“All right. I follow you. Only he went Prime this morning.”
Hebster paused, a sentence dangling from his dropped jaw. “Professor Kleim-bocher? Rudolf Kleimbocher?” he asked idiotically. “But he was so close… he almost had it… an elementary signal dictionary… he was about to—”
“He did. About nine forty-five. He’d been up all night with a Primey one of the psych professors had managed to hypnotize and gone home unusually optimistic. In the middle of his first class this morning, he interrupted himself in a lecture on medieval Cyrillic to… to gabble-honk. He sneezed and wheezed at the students for about ten minutes in the usual Primey pattern of initial irritation, then, abruptly giving them up as hopeless, worthless idiots, he levitated himself in that eerie way they almost always do at first. Banged his head against the ceiling and knocked himself out. I don’t know what it was, fright, excitement, respect for the old boy perhaps, but the students neglected to tie him up before going for help. By the time they’d come back with the campus SIC man, Kleimbocher had revived and dissolved one wall of the Graduate School to get out. Here’s a snapshot of him about five hundred feet in the air, lying on his back with his arms crossed behind his head, skimming west at twenty miles an hour.”
Hebster studied the little paper rectangle with blinking eyes. “You radioed the air force to chase him, of course.”
“What’s the use? We’ve been through that enough times. He’d either increase his speed and generate a tornado, drop like a stone and get himself smeared all over the countryside, or materialize stuff like wet coffee grounds and gold ingots inside the jets of the pursuing plane. Nobody’s caught a Primey yet in the first flush of… whatever they do feel at first. And we might stand to lose anything from a fairly expensive hunk of aircraft, including pilot, to a couple of hundred acres of New Jersey topsoil.”
Hebster groaned. “But the eighteen years of research that he represented!”
“Yeah. That’s where we stand. Blind Alley umpteen hundred thousand or thereabouts. Whatever the figure is, it’s awfully close to the end. If you can’t crack the Alien on a straight linguistic basis, you can’t crack the Alien at all, period, end of paragraph. Our most powerful weapons affect them like bubble pipes, and our finest minds are good for nothing better than to serve them in low, fawning idiocy. But the Primeys are all that’s left. We might be able to talk sense to the Man if not the Master.”
“Except that Primeys, by definition, don’t talk sense.”
Braganza nodded. “But since they were human—ordinary human—to start with, they represent a hope. We always knew we might some day have to fall back on our only real contact. That’s why the Primey protective laws are so rigid; why the Primey reservation compounds surrounding Alien settlements are guarded by our military detachments. The lynch spirit has been evolving into the pogrom spirit as human resentment and discomfort have been growing. Humanity First is beginning to feel strong enough to challenge United Mankind. And honestly, Hebster, at this point neither of us know which would survive a real fight. But you’re one of the few who have talked to Primeys, worked with them—”
“Just on business.”
“Frankly, that much of a start is a thousand times further along than the best that we’ve been able to manage. It’s so blasted ironical that the only people who’ve had any conversation at all with the Primeys aren’t even slightly interested in the imminent collapse of civilization! Oh, well. The point is that in the present political picture, you sink with us. Recognizing this, my people are prepared to forget a great deal and document you back into respectability. How about it?”
“Funny,” Hebster said thoughtfully. “It can’t be knowledge that makes miracle-workers out of fairly sober scientists. They all start shooting lightnings at their families and water out of rocks far too early in Primacy to have had time to learn new techniques. It’s as if by merely coming close enough to the Aliens to grovel, they immediately move into position to tap a series of cosmic laws more basic than cause and effect.”
The SIC man’s face slowly deepened into purple. “Well, are you coming in, or aren’t you? Remember, Hebster, in these times, a man who insists on business as usual is a traitor to history.”
“I think Kleimbocher is the end.” Hebster nodded to himself. “Not much point in chasing Alien mentality if you’re going to lose your best men on the way. I say let’s forget all this nonsense of trying to live as equals in the same universe with Aliens. Let’s concentrate on human problems and be grateful that they don’t come into our major population centers and tell us to shove over.”
The telephone rang. Braganza had dropped back into his swivel chair. He let the instrument squeeze out several piercing sonic bubbles while he clicked his strong square teeth and maintained a carefully focused glare at his visitor. Finally, he picked it up, and gave it the verbal minima:
“Speaking. He is here. I’ll tell him. ’Bye.”
He brought his lips together, kept them pursed for a moment and then, abruptly, swung around to face the window.
“Your office, Hebster. Seems your wife and son are in town and have to see you on business. She the one you divorced ten years ago?”
Hebster nodded at his back and rose once more. “Probably wants her semiannual alimony dividend bonus. I’ll have to go. Sonia never does office morale any good.”
This meant trouble, he knew. “Wife-and-son” was executive code for something seriously wrong with Hebster Securities, Inc. He had not seen his wife since she had been satisfactorily maneuvered into giving him control of his son’s education. As far as he was concerned, she had earned a substantial income for life by providing him with a well-mothered heir.
“Listen!” Braganza said sharply as Hebster reached the door. He still kept his eyes studiously on the street. “I tell you this: You don’t want to come in with us. All right! You’re a businessman first and a world citizen second. All right! But keep your nose clean, Hebster. If we catch you the slightest bit off base from now on, you’ll get hit with everything. We’ll not only pull the most spectacular trial this corrupt old planet has ever seen, but somewhere along the line, we’ll throw you and your entire organization to the wolves. We’ll see to it that Humanity First pulls the Hebster Tower down around your ears.”
Hebster shook his head, licked his lips. “Why? What would that accomplish?”
“Hah! It would give a lot of us here the craziest kind of pleasure. But it would also relieve us temporarily of some of the mass pressure we’ve been feeling. There’s always the chance that Dempsey would lose control of his hotter heads, that they’d go on a real gory rampage, make with the sound and the fury sufficiently to justify full deployment of troops. We could knock off Dempsey and all of the big-shot Firsters then, because John Q. United Mankind would have seen to his own vivid satisfaction and injury what a dangerous mob they are.”
“This,” Hebster commented bitterly, “is the idealistic, legalistic world government!”
Braganza’s chair spun around to face Hebster and his fist came down on the desk top with all the crushing finality of a magisterial gavel. “No, it is not! It is the SIC, a plenipotentiary and highly practical bureau of the UM, especially created to organize a relationship between Alien and human. Furthermore, it’s the SIC in a state of the greatest emergency when the reign of law and world government may topple at a demagogue’s belch. Do you think”—his head snaked forward belligerently, his eyes slitted to thin lines of purest contempt—“that the career and fortune, even the life, let us say, of as openly selfish a slug as you, Hebster, would be placed above that of the representative body of two billion socially operating human beings?”
The SIC official thumped his sloppily buttoned chest. “Braganza, I tell myself now, you’re lucky he’s too hungry for his blasted profit to take you up on that offer. Think how much fun it’s going to be to sink a hook into him when he makes a mistake at last! To drop him onto the back of Humanity First so that they’ll run amuck and destroy themselves! Oh, get out, Hebster. I’m through with you.”
He had made a mistake, Hebster reflected as he walked out of the armory and snapped his fingers at a gyrocab. The SIC was the most powerful single government agency in a Primey-infested world; offending them for a man in his position was equivalent to a cab driver delving into the more uncertain aspects of a traffic cop’s ancestry in the policeman’s popeyed presence.
But what could he do? Working with the SIC would mean working under Braganza—and since maturity, Algernon Hebster had been quietly careful to take orders from no man. It would mean giving up a business which, with a little more work and a little more time, might somehow still become the dominant combine on the planet. And worst of all, it would mean acquiring a social orientation to replace the calculating businessman’s viewpoint which was the closest thing to a soul he had ever known.
The doorman of his building preceded him at a rapid pace down the side corridor that led to his private elevator and flourished aside for him to enter. The car stopped on the twenty-third floor. With a heart that had sunk so deep as to have practically foundered, Hebster picked his way along the wide-eyed clerical stares that lined the corridor. At the entrance to General Laboratory 23B, two tall men in the gray livery of his personal bodyguard moved apart to let him enter. If they had been recalled after having been told to take the day off, it meant that a full-dress emergency was being observed. He hoped that it had been declared in time to prevent any publicity leakage.
It had, Greta Seidenheim assured him. “I was down here applying the clamps five minutes after the fuss began. Floors twenty-one through twenty-five are closed off and all outside lines are being monitored. You can keep your employees an hour at most past five o’clock—which gives you a maximum of two hours and fourteen minutes.”
He followed her green-tipped fingernail to the far corner of the lab where a body lay wrapped in murky rags. Theseus. Protruding from his back was the yellowed ivory handle of quite an old German S.S. dagger, 1942 edition. The silver swastika on the hilt had been replaced by an ornate symbol—an HF. Blood had soaked Theseus’ long matted hair into an ugly red rug.
A dead Primey, Hebster thought, staring down hopelessly. In his building, in the laboratory to which the Primey had been spirited two or three jumps ahead of Yost and Funatti. This was capital offense material—if the courts ever got a chance to weigh it.
“Look at the dirty Primey-lover!” a slightly familiar voice jeered on his right. “He’s scared! Make money out of that, Hebster!”
The corporation president strolled over to the thin man with the knobby, completely shaven head who was tied to an unused steampipe. The man’s tie, which hung outside his laboratory smock, sported an unusual ornament about halfway down. It took Hebster several seconds to identify it. A miniature gold safety razor upon a black “3.”
“He’s a third-echelon official of Humanity First!”
“He’s also Charlie Verus of Hebster Laboratories,” an extremely short man with a corrugated forehead told him. “My name is Margritt, Mr. Hebster, Dr. J.H. Margritt. I spoke to you on the communicator when the Primeys arrived.”
Hebster shook his head determinedly. He waved back the other scientists who were milling around him self-consciously. “How long have third-echelon officials, let alone ordinary members of Humanity First, been receiving salary checks in my laboratories?”
“I don’t know.” Margritt shrugged up at him. “Theoretically no Firsters can be Hebster employees. Personnel is supposed to be twice as efficient as the SIC when it comes to sifting background. They probably are. But what can they do when an employee joins Humanity First after he passed his probationary period? These proselytizing times you’d need a complete force of secret police to keep tabs on all the new converts!”
“When I spoke to you earlier in the day, Margritt, you indicated disapproval of Verus. Don’t you think it was your duty to let me know I had a Firster official about to mix it up with Primeys?”
The little man beat a violent negative back and forth with his chin. “I’m paid to supervise research, Mr. Hebster, not to coordinate your labor relations nor vote your political ticket!”
Contempt—the contempt of the creative researcher for the businessman-entre-preneur who paid his salary and was now in serious trouble—flickered behind every word he spoke. Why, Hebster wondered irritably, did people so despise a man who made money? Even the Primeys back in his office, Yost and Funatti, Braganza, Margritt—who had worked in his laboratories for years. It was his only talent. Surely, as such, it was as valid as a pianist’s?
“I’ve never liked Charlie Verus,” the lab chief went on, “but we never had reason to suspect him of Firstism! He must have hit the third-echelon rank about a week ago, eh, Bert?”
“Yeah,” Bert agreed from across the room. “The day he came in an hour late, broke every Florence flask in the place and told us all dreamily that one day we might be very proud to tell our grandchildren that we’d worked in the same lab with Charles Bolop Verus.”
“Personally,” Margritt commented, “I thought he might have just finished writing a book which proved that the Great Pyramid was nothing more than a prophecy in stone of our modern textile designs. Verus was that kind. But it probably was his little safety razor that tossed him up so high. I’d say he got the promotion as a sort of payment in advance for the job he finally did today.”
Hebster ground his teeth at the carefully hairless captive who tried, unsuccessfully, to spit in his face; he hurried back to the door, where his private secretary was talking to the bodyguard who had been on duty in the lab.
Beyond them, against the wall, stood Larry and S.S. Lusitania conversing in a low-voiced and anxious gabble-honk. They were evidently profoundly disturbed. S.S. Lusitania kept plucking tiny little elephants out of her rags which, kicking and trumpeting tinnily, burst like malformed bubbles as she dropped them on the floor. Larry scratched his tangled beard nervously as he talked, periodically waving a hand at the ceiling, which was already studded with fifty or sixty replicas of the dagger buried in Theseus. Hebster couldn’t help thinking anxiously of what could have happened to his building if the Primeys had been able to act human enough to defend themselves.
“Listen, Mr. Hebster,” the bodyguard began, “I was told not to—”
“Save it,” Hebster rapped out. “This wasn’t your fault. Even Personnel isn’t to blame. Me and my experts deserve to have our necks chopped for falling so far behind the times. We can analyze any trend but the one which will make us superfluous. Greta! I want my roof helicopter ready to fly and my personal stratojet at LaGuardia alerted. Move, girl! And you… Williams, is it?” he queried, leaning forward to read the bodyguard’s name on his badge, “Williams, pack these two Primeys into my helicopter upstairs and stand by for a fast take-off.”
He turned. “Everyone else!” he called. “You will be allowed to go home at six. You will be paid one hour’s overtime. Thank you.”
Charlie Verus started to sing as Hebster left the lab. By the time he reached the elevator, several of the clerks in the hallway had defiantly picked up the hymn. Hebster paused outside the elevator as he realized that fully one-fourth of the clerical personnel, male and female, were following Verus’ cracked and mournful but terribly earnest tenor.
Mine eyes have seen the coming
of the glory of the shorn:
We will overturn the cesspool
where the Primey slime is born,
We’ll be wearing cleanly garments
as we face a human morn—
The First are on the march!
Glory, glory, hallelujah,
Glory, glory, hallelujah…
If it was like this in Hebster Securities, he thought wryly as he came into his private office, how fast was Humanity First growing among the broad masses of people? Of course, many of those singing could be put down as sympathizers rather than converts, people who were suckers for choral groups and vigilante posses—but how much more momentum did an organization have to generate to acquire the name of political juggernaut?
The only encouraging aspect was the SIC’s evident awareness of the danger and the unprecedented steps they were prepared to take as countermeasure.
Unfortunately, the unprecedented steps would take place upon Hebster.
He now had a little less than two hours, he reflected, to squirm out of the most serious single crime on the books of present World Law.
He lifted one of his telephones. “Ruth,” he said. “I want to speak to Vandermeer Dempsey. Get me through to him personally.”
She did. A few moments later he heard the famous voice, as rich and slow and thick as molten gold. “Hello Hebster, Vandermeer Dempsey speaking.” He paused as if to draw breath, then went on sonorously: “Humanity —may it always be ahead, but, ahead or behind, Humanity!” He chuckled. “Our newest. What we call our telephone toast. Like it?”
“Very much,” Hebster told him respectfully, remembering that this former video quizmaster might shortly be church and state combined. “Er… Mr. Dempsey, I notice you have a new book out, and I was wondering—”
“Which one? Anthropolitics?
“That’s it. A fine study! You have some very quotable lines in the chapter headed, ‘Neither More Nor Less Human.’ ”
A raucous laugh that still managed to bubble heavily. “Young man, I have quotable lines in every chapter of every book! I maintain a writer’s assembly line here at headquarters that is capable of producing up to fifty-five memorable epigrams on any subject upon ten minutes’ notice. Not to mention their capacity for political metaphors and two-line jokes with sexy implications! But you wouldn’t be calling me to discuss literature, however good a job of emotional engineering I have done in my little text. What is it about, Hebster? Go into your pitch.”
“Well,” the executive began, vaguely comforted by the Firster chieftain’s cynical approach and slightly annoyed at the openness of his contempt, “I had a chat today with your friend and my friend, P. Braganza.”
“You do? How?”
Vandermeer Dempsey laughed again, the slow, good-natured chortle of a fat man squeezing the curves out of a rocking chair. “Spies, Hebster, spies. I have them everywhere practically. This kind of politics is twenty percent espionage, twenty percent organization and sixty percent waiting for the right moment. My spies tell me everything you do.”
“They didn’t by any chance tell you what Braganza and I discussed?”
“Oh, they did, young man, they did!” Dempsey chuckled a carefree scale exercise. Hebster remembered his pictures: the head like a soft and enormous orange, gouged by a brilliant smile. There was no hair anywhere on the head—all of it, down to the last eyelash and follicled wart, was removed regularly through electrolysis. “According to my agents, Braganza made several strong representations on behalf of the Special Investigating Commission which you rightly spurned. Then, somewhat out of sorts, he announced that if you were henceforth detected in the nefarious enterprises which everyone knows have made you one of the wealthiest men on the face of the Earth, he would use you as bait for our anger. I must say I admire the whole ingenious scheme immensely.”
“And you’re not going to bite,” Hebster suggested. Greta Seidenheim entered the office and made a circular gesture at the ceiling. He nodded.
“On the contrary, Hebster, we are going to bite. We’re going to bite with just a shade more vehemence than we’re expected to. We’re going to swallow this provocation that the SIC is devising for us and go on to make a worldwide revolution out of it. We will, my boy.”
Hebster rubbed his left hand back and forth across his lips.” Over my dead body!” He tried to chuckle himself and managed only to clear his throat. “You’re right about the conversation with Braganza, and you may be right about how you’ll do when it gets down to paving stones and baseball bats. But if you’d like to have the whole thing a lot easier, there is a little deal I have in mind—”
“Sorry, Hebster my boy. No deals. Not on this. Don’t you see we really don’t want to have it easier? For the same reason, we pay our spies nothing despite the risks they run and the great growing wealth of Humanity First. We found that the spies we acquired through conviction worked harder and took many more chances than those forced into our arms by economic pressure. No, we desperately need L’affaire Hebster to inflame the populace. We need enough excitement running loose so that it transmits to the gendarmerie and the soldiery, so that conservative citizens who normally shake their heads at a parade will drop their bundles and join the rape and robbery. Enough such citizens and Terra goes Humanity First.”
“Heads you win, tails I lose.”
The liquid gold of Dempsey’s laughter poured. “I see what you mean, Hebster. Either way, UM or HF, you wind up a smear-mark on the sands of time. You had your chance when we asked for contributions from public-spirited businessmen four years ago. Quite a few of your competitors were able to see the valid relationship between economics and politics. Woodran of the Underwood Investment Trust is a first-ech-elon official today. Not a single one of your top executives wears a razor. But, even so, whatever happens to you will be mild compared to the Primeys.”
“The Aliens may object to their bodyservants being mauled.”
“There are no Aliens!” Dempsey replied in a completely altered voice. He sounded as if he had stiffened too much to be able to move his lips.
“No Aliens? Is that your latest line? You don’t mean that!”
“There are only Primeys—creatures who have resigned from human responsibility and are therefore able to do many seemingly miraculous things, which real humanity refuses to do because of the lack of dignity involved. But there are no Aliens. Aliens are a Primey myth.”
Hebster grunted. “That is the ideal way of facing an unpleasant fact. Stare right through it.”
“If you insist on talking about such illusions as Aliens,” the rustling and angry voice cut in, “I’m afraid we can’t continue the conversation. You’re evidently going Prime, Hebster.”
The line went dead.
Hebster scraped a finger inside the mouthpiece rim. “He believes his own stuff.” he said in an awed voice. “For all of the decadent urbanity, he has to have the same reassurance he gives his followers—the horrible, superior thing just isn’t there!”
Greta Seidenheim was waiting at the door with his briefcase and both their coats. As he came away from the desk, he said, “I won’t tell you not to come along, Greta, but—”
“Good,” she said, swinging along behind him. “Think we’ll make it to—wherever we’re going?”
“Arizona. The first and largest Alien settlement. The place our friends with the funny names come from.”
“What can you do there that you can’t do here?”
“Frankly, Greta, I don’t know. But it’s a good idea to lose myself for a while. Then again, I want to get in the area where all this agony originates and take a close look; I’m an off-the-cuff businessman; I’ve done all of my important figuring on the spot.”
There was bad news waiting for them outside the helicopter. “Mr. Hebster,” the pilot told him tonelessly while cracking a dry stick of gum, “the stratojet’s been seized by the SIC. Are we still going? If we do it in this thing, it won’t be very far or very fast.”
“We’re still going,” Hebster said after a moment’s hesitation.
They climbed in. The two Primeys sat on the floor in the rear, sneezing conversationally at each other. Williams waved respectfully at his boss. “Gentle as lambs,” he said. “In fact, they made one. I had to throw it out.”
The large pot-bellied craft climbed up its rope of air and started forward from the Hebster Building.
“There must have been a leak,” Greta muttered angrily. “They heard about the dead Primey. Somewhere in the organization there’s a leak that I haven’t been able to find. The SIC heard about the dead Primey and now they’re hunting us down. Real efficient, I am!”
Hebster smiled at her grimly. She was very efficient. So was Personnel and a dozen other subdivisions of the organization. So was Hebster himself. But these were functioning members of a normal business designed for stable times. Political spies! If Dempsey could have spies and saboteurs all over Hebster Securities, why couldn’t Braganza? They’d catch him before he had even started running; they’d bring him back before he could find a loophole.
They’d bring him back for trial, perhaps, for what in all probability would be known to history as the Bloody Hebster Incident. The incident that had precipitated a world revolution.
“Mr. Hebster, they’re getting restless,” Williams called out. “Should I relax ’em out, kind of?”
Hebster sat up sharply, hopefully. “No,” he said. “Leave them alone!” He watched the suddenly agitated Primeys very closely. This was the odd chance for which he’d brought them along! Years of haggling with Primeys had taught him a lot about them. They were good for other things than sheer gimmick-craft.
Two specks appeared on the windows. They enlarged sleekly into jets with SIC insignia.
“Pilot!” Hebster called, his eyes on Larry, who was pulling painfully at his beard. “Get away from the controls! Fast! Did you hear me? That was an order! Get away from those controls!”
The man moved off reluctantly. He was barely in time. The control board dissolved into rattling purple shards behind him. The vanes of the gyro seemed to flower into indigo saxophones. Their ears rang with supersonic frequencies as they rose above the jets on a spout of unimaginable force.
Five seconds later they were in Arizona.
They piled out of their weird craft into a sage-cluttered desert.
“I don’t ever want to know what my windmill was turned into,” the pilot commented, “or what was used to push it along—but how did the Primey come to understand the cops were after us?”
“I don’t think he knew that,” Hebster explained, “but he was sensitive enough to know he was going home, and that somehow those jets were there to prevent it. And so he functioned, in terms of his interests, in what was almost a human fashion. He protected himself.”
“Going home ” Larry said. He’d been listening very closely to Hebster, dribbling from the right-hand corner of his mouth as he listened. “Haemostat, hammersdarts, hump. Home is where the hate is. Hit is where the hump is. Home and locks the door.”
S.S. Lusitania had started on one leg and favored them with her peculiar fleshy smile. “Hindsight,” she suggested archly, “is no more than home site. Gabble, honk?”
Larry started after her, some three feet off the ground. He walked the air slowly and painfully as if the road he traveled were covered with numerous small boulders, all of them pitilessly sharp.
“Goodbye, people,” Hebster said. “I’m off to see the wizard with my friends in greasy gray here. Remember, when the SIC catches up to your unusual vessel—stay close to it for that purpose, by the way—it might be wise to refer to me as someone who forced you into this. You can tell them I’ve gone into the wilderness looking for a solution, figuring that if I went Prime I’d still be better off than as a punching bag whose ownership is being hotly disputed by such characters as P. Braganza and Vandermeer Dempsey. I’ll be back with my mind or on it.”
He patted Greta’s cheek on the wet spot; then he walked deftly away in pursuit of S.S. Lusitania and Larry. He glanced back once and smiled as he saw them looking curiously forlorn, especially Williams, the chunky young man who earned his living by guarding other people’s bodies. The Primeys followed a route of sorts, but it seemed to have been designed by someone bemused by the motions of an accordion. Again and again it doubled back upon itself, folded across itself, went back a hundred yards and started all over again.
This was Primey country—Arizona, where the first and largest Alien settlement had been made. There were mighty few humans in this corner of the southwest any more—just the Aliens and their coolies.
“Larry,” Hebster called as an uncomfortable thought struck him. “Larry! Do… do your masters know I’m coming?”
Missing his step as he looked up at Hebster’s peremptory question, the Primey tripped and plunged to the ground. He rose, grimaced at Hebster and shook his head. “You are not a businessman,” he said. “Here there can be no business. Here there can be only humorous what-you-might-call-worship. The movement to the universal, the inner nature—The realization, complete and eternal, of the partial and evanescent that alone enables… that alone enables—” His clawed fingers writhed into each other, as if he were desperately trying to pull a communicable meaning out of the palms. He shook his head with a slow rolling motion from side to side.
Hebster saw with a shock that the old man was crying. Then going Prime had yet another similarity to madness! It gave the human an understanding of something thoroughly beyond himself, a mental summit he was constitutionally incapable of mounting. It gave him a glimpse of some psychological promised land, then buried him, still yearning, in his own inadequacies. And it left him at last bereft of pride in his realizable accomplishments with a kind of myopic half-knowledge of where he wanted to go but with no means of getting there.
“When I first came,” Larry was saying haltingly, his eyes squinting into Hebster’s face, as if he knew what the businessman was thinking, “when first I tried to know… I mean the charts and textbooks I carried here, my statistics, my plotted curves were so useless. All playthings I found, disorganized, based on shadow-thought. And then, Hebster, to watch real-thought, real-control! You’ll see the joy—You’ll serve beside us, you will! Oh, the enormous lifting—”
His voice died into angry incoherencies as he bit into his fist. S.S. Lusitania came up, still hopping on one foot. “Larry,” she suggested in a very soft voice, “gabble-honk Hebster away?”
He looked surprised, then nodded. The two Primeys linked arms and clambered laboriously back up to the invisible road from which Larry had fallen. They stood facing him for a moment, looking like a weird, ragged, surrealistic version of Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Then they disappeared and darkness fell around Hebster as if it had been knocked out of the jar. He felt under himself cautiously and sat down on the sand, which retained all the heat of daytime Arizona.
Suppose an Alien came. Suppose an Alien asked him point-blank what it was that he wanted. That would be bad. Algernon Hebster, businessman extraordinary—slightly on the run, at the moment, of course—didn’t know what he wanted; not with reference to Aliens.
He didn’t want them to leave, because the Primey technology he had used in over a dozen industries was essentially an interpretation and adaptation of Alien methods. He didn’t want them to stay, because whatever was orderly in his world was dissolving under the acids of their omnipresent superiority.
He also knew that he personally did not want to go Prime.
What was left then? Business? Well, there was Braganza’s question. What does a businessman do when demand is so well controlled that it can be said to have ceased to exist?
Or what does he do in a case like the present, when demand might be said to be nonexistent, since there was nothing the Aliens seemed to want of Man’s puny hoard?
“He finds something they want,” Hebster said out loud.
How? How? Well, the Indian still sold his decorative blankets to the paleface as a way of life, as a source of income. And he insisted on being paid in cash—not firewater. If only, Hebster thought, he could somehow contrive to meet an Alien—he’d find out soon enough what its needs were, what was basically desired.
And then as the retort-shaped, the tube-shaped, the bell-shaped bottles materialized all around him, he understood! They had been forming the insistent questions in his mind. And they weren’t satisfied with the answers he had found thus far. They liked answers. They liked answers very much indeed. If he was interested, there was always a way—
A great dots-in-bottle brushed his cortex and he screamed. “No! I don’t want to!” he explained desperately.
Ping! went the dots-in-bottle and Hebster grabbed at his body. His continuing flesh reassured him. He felt very much like the girl in Greek mythology who had begged Zeus for the privilege of seeing him in the full regalia of his godhood. A few moments after her request had been granted, there had been nothing left of the inquisitive female but a fine feathery ash.
The bottles were swirling in and out of each other in a strange and intricate dance from which there radiated emotions vaguely akin to curiosity, yet partaking of amusement and rapture.
Why rapture? Hebster was positive he had caught that note, even allowing for the lack of similarity between mental patterns. He ran a hurried dragnet through his memory, caught a few corresponding items and dropped them after a brief, intensive examination. What was he trying to remember—what were his supremely efficient businessman’s instincts trying to remind him of?
The dance became more complex, more rapid. A few bottles had passed under his feet and Hebster could see them, undulating and spinning some ten feet below the surface of the ground as if their presence had made the Earth a transparent as well as permeable medium. Completely unfamiliar with all matters Alien as he was, not knowing—not caring!—whether they danced as an expression of the counsel they were taking together, or as a matter of necessary social ritual, Hebster was able nonetheless to sense an approaching climax. Little crooked lines of green lightning began to erupt between the huge bottles. Something exploded near his left ear. He rubbed his face fearfully and moved away. The bottles followed, maintaining him in the imprisoning sphere of their frenzied movements.
Why rapture? Back in the city, the Aliens had had a terribly studious air about them as they hovered, almost motionless, above the works and lives of mankind. They were cold and careful scientists and showed not the slightest capacity for… for—
So he had something. At last he had something. But what do you do with an idea when you can’t communicate it and can’t act upon it yourself?
The previous invitation was being repeated, more urgently. Ping! Ping! Ping!
“No!” he yelled and tried to stand. He found he couldn’t. “I’m not… I don’t want to go Prime!”
There was detached, almost divine laughter.
He felt that awful scrabbling inside his brain as if two or three entities were jostling each other within it. He shut his eyes hard and thought. He was close, he was very close. He had an idea, but he needed time to formulate it—a little while to figure out just exactly what the idea was and just exactly what to do with it!
Ping, ping, ping! Ping, ping, ping!
He had a headache. He felt as if his mind were being sucked out of his head. He tried to hold on to it. He couldn’t.
All right, then. He relaxed abruptly, stopped trying to protect himself. But with his mind and his mouth, he yelled. For the first time in his life and with only a partially formed conception of whom he was addressing the desperate call to, Algernon Hebster screamed for help.
“I can do it!” he alternately screamed and thought. “Save money, save time, save whatever it is you want to save, whoever you are and whatever you call yourself—I can help you save! Help me, help me—We can do it—but hurry. Your problem can be solved—Economize. The balance-sheet—Help—”
The words and frantic thoughts spun in and out of each other like the contracting rings of Aliens all around him. He kept screaming, kept the focus on his mental images, while, unbearably, somewhere inside him, a gay and jocular force began to close a valve on his sanity.
Suddenly, he had absolutely no sensation. Suddenly, he knew dozens of things he had never dreamed he could know and had forgotten a thousand times as many. Suddenly, he felt that every nerve in his body was under control of his forefinger. Suddenly, he—
Ping, ping, ping! Ping! Ping! PING! PING! PING! PING!
“… like that,” someone said.
“What, for example?” someone else asked.
“Well, they don’t even lie normally. He’s been sleeping like a human being. They twist and moan in their sleep, the Primeys do, for all the world like habitual old drunks. Speaking of moans, here comes our boy.”
Hebster sat up on the army cot, rattling his head. The fears were leaving him, and, with the fears gone, he would no longer be hurt. Braganza, highly concerned and unhappy, was standing next to his bed with a man who was obviously a doctor. Hebster smiled at both of them, manfully resisting the temptation to drool out a string of nonsense syllables.
“Hi, fellas,” he said. “Here I come, ungathering nuts in May.”
“You don’t mean to tell me you communicated!” Braganza yelled. “You communicated and didn’t go Prime!”
Hebster raised himself on an elbow and glanced out past the tent flap to where Greta Seidenheim stood on the other side of a port-armed guard. He waved his fist at her, and she nodded a wide-open smile back.
“Found me lying in the desert like a waif, did you?”
“Found you!” Braganza spat. “You were brought in by Primeys, man. First time in history they ever did that. We’ve been waiting for you to come to in the serene faith that once you did, everything would be all right.”
The corporation president rubbed his forehead. “It will be, Braganza, it will be. Just Primeys, eh? No Aliens helping them?”
“Aliens?” Braganza swallowed. “What led you to believe—What gave you reason to hope that… that Aliens would help the Primeys bring you in?”
“Well, perhaps I shouldn’t have used the word ‘help.’ But I did think there would be a few Aliens in the group that escorted my unconscious body back to you. Sort of an honor guard, Braganza. It would have been a real nice gesture, don’t you think?”
The SIC man looked at the doctor, who had been following the conversation with interest. “Mind stepping out for a minute?” he suggested.
He walked behind the man and dropped the tent flap into place. Then he came around to the foot of the army cot and pulled on his mustache vigorously. “Now, see here, Hebster, if you keep up this clowning, so help me I will slit your belly open and snap your intestines back in your face! What happened?”
“What happened?” Hebster laughed and stretched slowly, carefully, as if he were afraid of breaking the bones of his arm. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to answer that question completely. And there’s a section of my mind that’s very glad that I won’t. This much I remember clearly: I had an idea. I communicated it to the proper and interested party. We concluded—this party and I—a tentative agreement as agents, the exact terms of the agreement to be decided by our principals and its complete ratification to be contingent upon their acceptance. Furthermore, we—All right, Braganza, all right! I’ll tell it straight. Put down that folding chair. Remember, I’ve just been through a pretty unsettling experience!”
“Not any worse than the world is about to go through,” the official growled. “While you’ve been out on your three-day vacation, Dempsey’s been organizing a full-dress revolution every place at once. He’s been very careful to limit it to parades and verbal fireworks so that we haven’t been able to make with the riot squads, but it’s pretty evident that he’s ready to start using muscle. Tomorrow might be it; he’s spouting on a world-wide video hookup and it’s the opinion of the best experts we have available that his tag line will be the signal for action. Know what their slogan is? It concerns Verus, who’s been indicted for murder; they claim he’ll be a martyr.”
“And you were caught with your suspicions down. How many SIC men turned out to be Firsters?”
Braganza nodded. “Not too many, but more than we expected. More than we could afford. He’ll do it, Dempsey will, unless you’ve hit the real thing. Look, Hebster,” his heavy voice took on a pleading quality, “don’t play with me any more. Don’t hold my threats against me; there was no personal animosity in them, just a terrible, fearful worry over the world and its people and the government I was supposed to protect. If you still have a gripe against me, I, Braganza, give you leave to take it out of my hide as soon as we clear this mess up. But let me know where we stand first. A lot of lives and a lot of history depend on what you did out there in that patch of desert.”
Hebster told him. He began with the extraterrestrial Walpurgisnacht. “Watching the Aliens slipping in and out of each other in that cockeyed and complicated rhythm, it struck me how different they were from the thoughtful dots-in-bottles hovering over our busy places, how different all creatures are in their home environments—and how hard it is to get to know them on the basis of their company manners. And then I realized that this place wasn’t their home.”
“Of course. Did you find out which part of the galaxy they come from?”
“That’s not what I mean. Simply because we have marked this area off—and others like it in the Gobi, in the Sahara, in Central Australia—as a reservation for those of our kind whose minds have crumbled under the clear, conscious and certain knowledge of inferiority, we cannot assume that the Aliens around whose settlements they have congregated have necessarily settled themselves.”
“Huh?” Braganza shook his head rapidly and batted his eyes.
“In other words we had made an assumption on the basis of the Aliens’ very evident superiority to ourselves. But that assumption—and therefore that superiority—was in our own terms of what is superior and inferior, and not the Aliens’. And it especially might not apply to those Aliens on… the reservation.”
The SIC man took a rapid walk around the tent. He beat a great fist into an open sweaty palm. “I’m beginning to, just beginning to—”
“That’s what I was doing at that point, just beginning to. Assumptions that don’t stand up under the structure they’re supposed to support have caused the ruin of more close-thinking businessmen than I would like to face across any conference table. The four brokers, for example, who, after the market crash of 1929—”
“All right,” Braganza broke in hurriedly, taking a chair near the cot. “Where did you go from there?”
“I still couldn’t be certain of anything; all I had to go on were a few random thoughts inspired by extrasubstantial adrenalin secretions and, of course, the strong feeling that these particular Aliens weren’t acting the way I had become accustomed to expect Aliens to act. They reminded me of something, of somebody. I was positive that once I got that memory tagged, I’d have most of the problem solved. And I was right.”
“How were you right? What was the memory?”
“Well, I hit it backwards, kind of. I went back to Professor Kleimbocher’s analogy about the paleface inflicting firewater on the Indian. I’ve always felt that somewhere in that analogy was the solution. And suddenly, thinking of Professor Kleimbocher and watching those powerful creatures writhing their way in and around each other, suddenly I knew what was wrong. Not the analogy, but our way of using it. We’d picked it up by the hammer head instead of the handle. The paleface gave firewater to the Indian all right—but he got something in return.”
“Tobacco. Now there’s nothing very much wrong with tobacco if it isn’t misused, but the first white men to smoke probably went as far overboard as the first Indians to drink. And both booze and tobacco have this in common—they make you awfully sick if you use too much for your initial experiment. See, Braganza? These Aliens out here in the desert reservation are sick. They have hit something in our culture that is as psychologically indigestible to them as… well, whatever they have that sticks in our mental gullet and causes ulcers among us. They’ve been put into a kind of isolation in our desert areas until the problem can be licked.”
“Something that’s as indigestible psychologically—What could it be, Hebster?”
The businessman shrugged irritably. “I don’t know. And I don’t want to know. Perhaps it’s just that they can’t let go of a problem until they’ve solved it—and they can’t solve the problems of mankind’s activity because of mankind’s inherent and basic differences. Simply because we can’t understand them, we had no right to assume that they could and did understand us.”
“That wasn’t all, Hebster. As the comedians put it—everything we can do, they can do better.”
“Then why did they keep sending Primeys in to ask for those weird gadgets and impossible gimcracks?”
“They could duplicate anything we made.”
“Well, maybe that is it,” Hebster suggested. “They could duplicate it, but could they design it? They show every sign of being a race of creatures who never had to make very much for themselves; perhaps they evolved fairly early into animals with direct control over matter, thus never having had to go through the various stages of artifact design. This, in our terms, is a tremendous advantage; but it inevitably would have concurrent disadvantages. Among other things, it would mean a minimum of art forms and a lack of basic engineering knowledge of the artifact itself if not of the directly activated and altered material. The fact is I was right, as I found out later.
“For example. Music is not a function of theoretical harmonics, of complete scores in the head of a conductor or composer—these come later, much later. Music is first and foremost a function of the particular instrument, the reed pipe, the skin drum, the human throat—it is a function of tangibles which a race operating upon electrons, positrons and mesons would never encounter in the course of its construction. As soon as I had that, I had the other flaw in the analogy—the assumption itself.”
“You mean the assumption that we are necessarily inferior to the Aliens?”
“Right, Braganza. They can do a lot that we can’t do, but vice very much indeed versa. How many special racial talents we possess that they don’t is a matter of pure conjecture—and may continue to be for a good long time. Let the theoretical boys worry that one a century from now, just so they stay away from it at present.”
Braganza fingered a button on his green jerkin and stared over Hebster’s head. “No more scientific investigation of them, eh?”
“Well, we can’t right now and we have to face up to that mildly unpleasant situation. The consolation is that they have to do the same. Don’t you see? It’s not a basic inadequacy. We don’t have enough facts and can’t get enough at the moment through normal channels of scientific observation because of the implicit psychological dangers to both races. Science, my forward-looking friend, is a complex of interlocking theories, all derived from observation.
“Remember, long before you had any science of navigation you had coast-hug-ging and river-hopping traders who knew how the various currents affected their leaky little vessels, who had learned things about the relative dependability of the moon and the stars—without any interest at all in integrating these scraps of knowledge into broader theories. Not until you have a sufficiently large body of these scraps, and are able to distinguish the preconceptions from the actual observations, can you proceed to organize a science of navigation without running the grave risk of drowning while you conduct your definitive experiments.
“A trader isn’t interested in theories. He’s interested only in selling something that glitters for something that glitters even more. In the process, painlessly and imperceptibly, he picks up bits of knowledge which gradually reduce the area of unfamiliarity. Until one day there are enough bits of knowledge on which to base a sort of preliminary understanding, a working hypothesis. And then, some Kleimbocher of the future, operating in an area no longer subject to the sudden and unexplainable mental disaster, can construct meticulous and exact laws out of the more obviously valid hypotheses.”
“I might have known it would be something like this, if you came back with it, Hebster! So their theorists and our theorists had better move out and the traders move in. Only how do we contact their traders—if they have any such animals?”
The corporation president sprang out of bed and began dressing. “They have them. Not a Board of Director type perhaps—but a business-minded Alien. As soon as I realized that the dots-in-bottles were acting, relative to their balanced scientific colleagues, very like our own high IQ Primeys, I knew I needed help. I needed someone I could tell about it, someone on their side who had as great a stake in an operating solution as I did. There had to be an Alien in the picture somewhere who was concerned with profit and loss statements, with how much of a return you get out of a given investment of time, personnel, materiel and energy. I figured with him I could talk—business. The simple approach: What have you got that we want and how little of what we have will you take for it. No attempts to understand completely incompatible philosophies. There had to be that kind of character somewhere in the expedition. So I shut my eyes and let out what I fondly hoped was a telepathic yip channeled to him. I was successful.
“Of course, I might not have been successful if he hadn’t been searching desperately for just that sort of yip. He came buzzing up in a rousing United States Cavalry-routs-the-redskins type of rescue, stuffed my dripping psyche back into my subconscious and hauled me up into some sort of never-never-ship. I’ve been in this interstellar version of Mohammed’s coffin, suspended between Heaven and Earth, for three days, while he alternately bargained with me and consulted the home office about developments.
“We dickered the way I do with Primeys—by running down a list of what each of us could offer and comparing it with what we wanted; each of us trying to get a little more than we gave to the other guy, in our own terms, of course. Buying and selling are intrinsically simple processes; I don’t imagine our discussions were very much different from those between a couple of Phoenician sailors and the blue-painted Celtic inhabitants of early Britain.”
“And this… this business-Alien never suggested the possibility of taking what they wanted—”
“By force? No, Braganza, not once. Might be they’re too civilized for such she-nanigans. Personally, I think the big reason is that they don’t have any idea of what it is they do want from us. We represent a fantastic enigma to them—a species which uses matter to alter matter, producing objects which, while intended for similar functions, differ enormously from each other. You might say that we ask the question ‘how?’ about their activities; and they want to know the‘why?’ about ours. Their investigators have compulsions even greater than ours. As I understand it, the intelligent races they’ve encountered up to this point are all comprehensible to them since they derive from parallel evolutionary paths. Every time one of their researchers gets close to the answer of why we wear various colored clothes even in climates where clothing is unnecessary, he slips over the edges and splashes.
“Of course, that’s why this opposite number of mine was so worried. I don’t know his exact status—he maybe anything from the bookkeeper to the business-manager of the expedition—but it’s his neck, or should I say bottleneck, if the outfit continues to be uneconomic. And I gathered that not only has his occupation kind of barred him from doing the investigation his unstable pals were limping back from into the asylums he’s constructed here in the deserts, but those of them who’ve managed to retain their sanity constantly exhibit a healthy contempt for him. They feel, you see, that their function is that of the expedition. He’s strictly supercargo. Do you think it bothers them one bit,” Hebster snorted, “that he has a report to prepare, to show how his expedition stood up in terms of a balance sheet—”
“Well, you did manage to communicate on that point, at least,” Braganza grinned. “Maybe traders using the simple, earnestly chiseling approach will be the answer. You’ve certainly supplied us with more basic data already than years of heavily subsidized research. Hebster, I want you to go on the air with this story you told me and show a couple of Primey Aliens to the video public.”
“Uh-uh. You tell ’em. You can use the prestige. I’ll think a message to my Alien buddy along the private channel he’s keeping open for me, and he’ll send you a couple of human-happy dots-in-bottles for the telecast. I’ve got to whip back to New York and get my entire outfit to work on a really encyclopedic job.”
The executive pulled his belt tight and reached for a tie. “Well, what else would you call the first edition of the Hebster Interstellar Catalogue of All Human Activity and Available Artifacts, prices available upon request with the understanding that they are subject to change without notice?”