Alternating currents, p.1
Alternating Currents, p.1Frederik Pohl
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No copyright 2013 by MadMaxAU eBooks
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The Children of Night
Let the Ants Try
The Tunnel Under the World
What To Do Until the Analyst Comes
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The Children of Night
‘We met before,’ I told Haber. ‘In 1988, when you were running the Des Moines office.’
He beamed and held out his hand. ‘Why, darn it, so we did! I remember now, Odin.’
‘I don’t like to be called Odin.’
‘No? All right. Mr Gunnarsen—’
‘Not “Mr Gunnarsen” either. Just “Gunner”.’
‘That’s right, Gunner; I’d almost forgotten.’
I said, ‘No, you hadn’t forgotten. You never knew my name in Des Moines. You didn’t even know I was alive, because you were too busy losing the state for our client. I pulled you out of that one, just like I’m going to pull you out now.’
The smile was a little cracked, but Haber had been with the company a long time and he wasn’t going to let me throw him. ‘What do you want me to say, Gunner? I’m grateful. Believe me, boy, I know I need help—’
‘And I’m not your boy. Haber, you were a fat cat then, and you’re a fat cat now. All I want from you is, first, a quick look around the shop here and, second, a conference of all department heads, including you, in thirty minutes. So tell your secretary to round them up, and let’s get started on the sightseeing.’
~ * ~
Coming in to Belport on the scatjet I had made a list of things to do. The top item was:
1. Fire Haber.
Still, in my experience that isn’t always the best way to put out a fire. Some warts you remove, some you just let wither away in obscurity. I am not paid by M&B to perform cosmetic surgery on their Habers, only to see that the work the Habers should have done gets accomplished.
As a public-relations branch manager he was a wart, but as a tourist guide he was fine, although he was perspiring. He led me all around the shop. He had taken a storefront on one of the main shopping malls, air-curtain door, windows draped tastefully in grey silk. It looked like the best of four funeral parlours in a run-down neighbourhood. In gilt letters on the window was the name of the game:
MOULTRIE AND BIGELOW
Northern Lake State Division
T. Wilson Haber, Division
‘Public relations,’ he informed me, ‘starts at home. They know we’re here, eh, Gunner?’
‘Reminds me of the Iowa office,’ I said, and he stumbled where there wasn’t even a sill. That was the presidential campaign of ‘88, where Haber had been trying to carry the state for the candidate who had retained us, and those twelve electoral votes came over at the last minute only because we sent Haber to Nassau to rest and I took over from him. I believe Haber’s wife had owned stock in the company.
His Belport layout was pretty good at that, though. Four pry booths, each with a Simplex 9090 and an operator-receptionist in the donor’s waiting room. You can’t tell from appearances, but the donors who were waiting for their interrogation looked like a good representative sample - a good mixture of sexes, ages, conditions of affluence - and with proper attention to weighing he should at least be getting a fair survey of opinions. Integration of the pry-scores was in a readout station in back - I recognized one of the programmers and nodded to him: good man - along with telefax equipment to the major research sources, the Britannica, Library of Congress, newswire services and so on. From the integration room the readout operator could construct a speech, a 3-V commercial, a space ad or anything else, with the research lines to feed him any data he needed, and test its appeal on his subjects. In the front of the building was a taping booth and studio. Everything was small and semi-portable, but good stuff. You could put together a 3-V interview or edit one as well here as you could on the lot in the Home Office.
‘An A-Number One setup, right, Gunner?’ said Haber. ‘Set it up myself to do the job.’
I said, ‘Then why aren’t you doing it?’ He tightened up. The eyes looked smaller and more intelligent, but he didn’t say anything directly. He took my elbow and turned me to the data-processing room.
‘Want you to meet someone,’ he said, opened the door, led me inside and left me.
A tall, slim girl looked up from a typer. ‘Why, hello, Gunner,’ she said. ‘It’s been a long time.’
I said, ‘Hello, Candace.’
Apparently Haber was not quite such a fat cat as he had seemed, for he had clearly found out a little something about my personal life before I showed up in his office. The rest of the list I had scribbled down in the scatjet was:
2. Need ‘big lie’.
3. Investigate Children.
4. Investigate opponents’ proposition.
5. Marry Candace Harmon?
This was a relatively small job for Moultrie & Bigelow, but it was for a very, very big account. It was important to win it. The client was the Arcturan Confederacy.
In the shop the word was that they had been turned down by three or four other PR agencies before we took them on. Nobody said why, exactly, but the reason was perfectly clear. It was just because they were the Arcturan Confederacy. There is nothing in any way illegal or immoral about a public-relations firm representing a foreign account. That is a matter of statute - as most people don’t take the trouble to know: the Smich-Macchioni Act of ‘71. And the courts held that it applied to extra-planetary ‘foreigners’ as well as to Terrestrials in 1985, back when the only ‘intelligent aliens’ were the mummies on Mars. Not that the mummies had ever hired anybody on Earth to do anything for them. But it was Moultrie & Bigelow’s law department that sued for the declaratory judgement, as a matter of fact. Just on the off chance. That’s how M&B operates.
Any public-relations man takes on the colour of his clients in the eyes of some people. That’s the nature of the beast. The same people wouldn’t think of blaming a surgeon because he dissolved a malignancy out of Public Enemy No 1, or even a lawyer for defending him. But when you are in charge of a client’s emotional image, and that image isn’t liked, some of the dislike rubs off on you.
At M&B there is enough in the paycheque at the end of every month so that we don’t mind that. M&B has a reputation for taking on the tough ones - the only surviving American cigarette manufacturer is ours. So is the exiled Castroite government of Cuba, that still thinks it might one day get the State Department to back up its claim for paying off on the bonds it printed for itself. However, for two reasons - as a simple matter of making things easy for ourselves; and because it’s better doctrine - we don’t flaunt our connexion with the unpopular clients. Especially when the job is going badly. One of the surest ways to get a bad public response to PR is to let the public know that some hotshot PR outfit is working on it.
So every last thing Haber had done was wrong.
In this town, it was too late for pry booths and M/R.
I had just five minutes left before the conference, and I spent it in the pry-booth section anyhow. I noticed a tri-D display of our client’s home planet in the reception room, where donors were sitting and waiting their turn. It was very attractive: the wide, calm seas with the vertical air-mount islets jutting out at intervals.
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I turned around and walked out
A layman might not have seen just how many ways Haber had found to go wrong. The whole pry-booth project was probably a mistake anyway. To begin with, to get any good out of pry booths you need depth interviews, way deep-down M/R stuff. And for that you need paid donors, lots of them. And to get them you have to have a panel to pick from.
That means advertising in the papers and on the nets and interviewing twenty people for every one you hire. To get a satisfactory sample in a town the size of Belport you need to hire maybe fifty donors. And that means talking to a thousand people, every one of whom will go home and talk to his wife or her mother or their neighbours.
In a city like Chicago or Saskatoon you can get away with it. With good technique the donor never really knows what he’s being interviewed for, although of course a good newspaperman or private eye can interview a couple of donors and work backward from the sense-impulse stimuli with pretty fair accuracy. But not in Belport, not when we never had a branch here before, not when every living soul in town knew what we were doing because the rezoning ordinance was Topic One over every coffee table. In short, we had tipped our hand completely.
As I say, an amateur might not have spotted that. But Haber was not supposed to be an amateur.
I had just seen the trend-charts, too. The referendum on granting rezoning privileges to our client was going to a vote in less than two weeks. When Haber had opened the branch, sampling showed that it would fail by a four to three vote. Now, a month and a half later, he had worsened the percentage to three to two and going downhill all the way.
Our client would be extremely unhappy - probably was unhappy already, if they had managed to puzzle out the queer terrestrial progress reports we had been sending them.
And this was the kind of client that a flackery didn’t want to have unhappy. I mean, all the others were little-league stuff in comparison. The Arcturan Confederacy was a culture as wealthy and as powerful as all Earth governments combined, and as Arcturans don’t bother with nonsense like national governments or private enterprise, at least not in any way that makes sense to us, this one client was—
As big as every other possible client combined.
They were the ones who decided they needed this base in Belport, and it was up to M&B - and specifically to me, Odin Gunnarsen - to see that they got it.
It was too bad that they had been fighting Earth six months earlier.
In fact, in a technical sense we were still at war. It was only armistice, not a peace, that had called off the H-bomb raids and the fleet engagements.
Like I say. M&B takes on the tough ones!
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Besides Haber, four of the staff looked as though they knew which end was up. Candace Harmon, the pry-integration programmer and two very junior TAs. I took the head chair at the conference table without waiting to see where Haber would want to sit and said, ‘We’ll make this fast, because we’re in trouble here and we don’t have time to be polite. You’re Percy?’ That was the programmer; he nodded. ‘And I didn’t catch your name?’ I said, turning to the next along the table. It was the copy chief, a lanky shave-headed oldster named Tracy Spockman. His assistant, one of the TAs I had had my eye on, turned out to be named Manny Brock.
I had picked easy jobs for all the deadheads, reserving the smart ones for whatever might turn up, so I started with the copy chief. ‘Spockman, we’re opening an Arcturan purchasing agency and you’re it. You should be able to handle this one; if I remember correctly, you ran the Duluth shop for a year.’
He sucked on a cal pipe without expression. Well, thanks, Mr Gun—’
‘Well, thanks, but as copy chief—’
‘Manny here should be able to take care of that, if I remember the way you ran the Duluth operation, you’ve probably got things set up so he can step right in.’ And so he probably did. At least, it surely would do no real harm to give somebody else a chance at lousing things up. I handed Spockman the ‘positions wanted’ page from the paper I’d picked up at the scatport and a scrawled list of notes I’d made up on the way in. ‘Hire these girls I’ve marked for your staff, rent an office and get some letters out. You’ll see what I want from the list. Letters to every real estate dealer in town, asking them if they can put together a five thousand acre parcel in the area covered by the zoning referendum. Letter to every general contractor, asking for bids on buildings. Make it separate bids on each - I think there’ll be five buildings altogether. One exoclimatized - so get the air-conditioning, heating, and plumbing contractors to bid, too. Letter to every food wholesaler and major grocery outlet asking if they are interested in bidding on supplying Arcturans with food. Fax Chicago for what the Arcturans fancy, I don’t remember - no meat, I think, but a lot of green vegetables - anyway, find out and include the data in the letters. Electronics manufacturers, office equipment dealers, car and truck agencies - well, the whole list is on that piece of paper. I want every businessman in Belport starting to figure out by tomorrow morning how much profit he might make on an Arcturan base. Got it?’
‘I think so, Mr - Gunner. I was thinking. How about stationery suppliers, attornies, CPAs?’
‘Don’t ask, do it. Now, you down at the end there—’
‘Henry Dane, Gunner.’
‘Henry, what about club outlets in Belport? I mean specialized groups. The Arcturans are hot for navigation, sailing, like that; see what you can do with the motorboat clubs and so on. I noticed in the paper that there’s a flower show at the Armory next Saturday. It’s pretty late, but squeeze in a speaker on Arcturan fungi. We’ll fly in a display. They tell me Arcturans are hot gardeners when they’re home - love all the biological sciences - nice folks, like to dabble.’ I hesitated and looked at my notes. ‘I have something down here about veterans’ groups, but I haven’t got the handle for it. Still, if you can think of an angle, let me know - what’s the matter?’
He was looking doubtful. ‘It’s only that I don’t want to conflict with Candy, Gunner.’
And so, of course, I had to face up to things and turn to Candace Harmon. ‘What’s that, honey?’ I asked.
‘I think Henry means my Arcturan-American Friendship League.’ It turned out that that had been one of Haber’s proudest ideas. I wasn’t surprised. After several weeks and about three thousand dollars it had worked up to a total of forty-one members. How many of those were employees of the M&B branch? ‘Well, all but eight,’ Candace admitted at once. She wasn’t smiling, but she was amused.
‘Don’t worry about it,’ I advised Henry Dane. ‘We’re folding the Arcturan-American Friendship League anyway. Candace won’t have time for it. She’ll be working with me.’
‘Why, fine, Gunner,’ she said. ‘Doing what?’
~ * ~
I almost did marry Candace one time, and every once in a while since I have wished I hadn’t backed away. A very good thing was Candace Harmon.
‘Doing,’ I said, ‘what Gunner says for you to do. Let’s see. First thing, I’ve got five hundred Arcturan domestic animals coming in tomorrow. I haven’t seen them, but they tell me they’re cute, look like kittens, are pretty durable. Figure out some way of getting them distributed fast - maybe a pet shop will sell them for fifty cents each.’
Haber protested, ‘My dear Gunner! The freight alone—’
‘Sure, Haber, they cost about forty dollars apiece just to get them here. Any other questions like that? No? That’s good. I want one in each of five hundred homes by the end of the week, and if I had to pay a hundred dollars to each customer to take them, I’d pay. Next: I want somebody to find me a veteran, preferably disabled, preferably who was actually involved in the bombing of the home planet—’
I laid out a dozen more working lines, an art show of the Arcturan bas-relief stuff that was partly to look at but mostly to feel, a 3-V panel show on Arcturus that we could plant... the whole routine. None of it would do the job, but all of i
‘That’s right,’ said Haber.
‘What’ve you got on him?’ I asked.
I turned to Candace, who said promptly, ‘Forty-one years old, Methodist, married, three kids of his own plus one of the casualties, ran for State Senate last year and lost, but he carried Belport, running opposed to the referendum this year, very big in Junior Chamber of Commerce and VFW—’
‘No. What’ve you got on him?’ I persisted.
Candace said slowly, ‘Gunner, look. This is a nice guy.’
‘Why, I know that, honey. I read his piece in the paper today. So now tell me the dirt that he can’t afford to have come out.’
Alternating Currents by Frederik Pohl / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes