Robert A. Heinlein
I was looking through the foyer at an illuminated fountain, a programmed one; it changed in shapes and colors as I stood there. There was gentle background music, which (possibly) controlled the fountain.
“Janet…who’s your architect?”
“Then I’ll admit it. I’m the architect, Ian is the gadgeteer, Georges controlled the interiors. He is several sorts of an artist and another wing is his studio. And I might as well tell you right now that Betty told me to hide your clothes until Georges paints at least one nude of you.”
“Betty said that? But I’ve never been a model and I must get back to my job.”
“It’s up to us to change your mind. Unless—Are you shy about it? Betty did not think you would be. Georges might settle for the draped figure. At first.”
“No, I’m not shy. Uh, maybe a bit shy about posing; the idea is new to me. Look, can we let it wait? Right now I’m more interested in plumbing than in posing; I haven’t been near any since I left Betty’s flat—I should have stopped at the port.”
“Sorry, dear; I should not have kept you standing here talking about Georges’ painting. My mother taught me years ago that the very first thing to do for a guest is to show her where the bathroom is.”
“My mother taught me the exact same thing,” I fibbed.
“This way.” A hallway opened to the left from the fountain; she led me down it and into a room. “Your room,” she announced, dropping my bag on the bed, “and the bath is through here. You share it with me, as my room is the mirror image of this room, on the other side.”
There was plenty to share—three stalls, each with WC, bidet, and hand tray; a shower big enough for a caucus, with controls I was going to have to ask about; a massage and suntan table; a plunge—or was it a hot tub?—that clearly was planned for loafing in company; twin dressing tables with basins; a terminal; a refrigerator; a bookcase with one shelf for cassettes.
“No leopard?” I said.
“You expected one?”
“Every time I’ve seen this room in the sensies the heroine had a pet leopard with her.”
“Oh. Will you settle for a kitten?”
“Certainly. Are you and Ian cat people?”
“I wouldn’t attempt to keep house without one. In fact just now I can offer you a real bargain in kittens.”
“I wish I could take one. I can’t.”
“Discuss it later. Help yourself to the plumbing. Want a shower before dinner? I intend to grab one; I spent too much time currying Black Beauty and Demon before going to the port, and ran out of time. Did you notice that I whiffed of stable?”
And that is how, by easy stages, I found myself ten or twelve minutes later having my back washed by Georges while Ian washed my front while my hostess washed herself and laughed and offered advice that was ignored. If I were to elaborate, you would see that each step was perfectly logical and that these gentle sybarites did nothing to rush me. Nor was there even the mildest attempt to seduce me, not even a hint that I had already raped (symbolic rape, at least) my host the night before.
Then I shared with them a sybaritic feast in their living room (drawing room, great hall, whatever) in front of a fire that was actually one of Ian’s gadgets. I was dressed in one of Janet’s negligees—Janet’s notion of a dinner-gown negligee would have got her arrested in Christchurch.
But it did not cause a pass from either man. When we reached coffee and brandy, me somewhat blurry from drinks before dinner and wine during dinner, by request I removed that borrowed negligee and Georges posed me five or six ways, took stereos and holos of me in each, while discussing me as if I were a side of beef. I continued to insist that I had to leave tomorrow morning but my protests became feeble and pro forma—Georges paid no attention to them whatever. He said I had “good masses”—maybe this is a compliment; it certainly is not a pass.
But he got some awfully good pictures of me, especially one of me lying sort of flang dang on a low couch with five kittens crawling over my breasts and legs and belly. I asked for that one and it turned out that Georges had the equipment to copy it.
Then Georges took some of Janet and me together, and again I asked for a copy of one of them because we made a beautiful contrast and Georges had a knack for making us look better than we did. But presently I started to yawn and Janet told Georges to stop. I apologized, saying that there was no excuse for me to be sleepy since it was still early evening by the zone where I had started the day.
Janet said pishantosh, that being sleepy had nothing to do with clocks and time zones—gentlemen, we are going to bed. She led me away.
We stopped in that beautiful bath and she put her arms around me. “Marjie, do you want company, or do you want to sleep alone? I know from Betty that you had a busy night last night; possibly you prefer a quiet night alone. Or possibly not. Name it.”
I told her honestly that I did not sleep alone by choice.
“Me, too,” she agreed, “and it’s nice to hear you say so, instead of fiddling around about it and pretending the way some slitches do. Whom do you want in your bed?”
You sweet darling, surely you are entitled to your own husband the night he gets home. “Maybe that should be turned around. Who wants to sleep with me?”
“Why, all of us, I feel certain. Or any two. Or any one. You name it.”
I blinked and wondered how much I had had to drink. “Four in one bed?”
“Do you like that?”
“I’ve never tried it. It sounds jolly but the bed would be awfully crowded, I think.”
“Oh. You haven’t been in my room. A big bed. Because both my husbands often choose to sleep with me…and there is still plenty of room to invite a guest to join us.”
Yes, I had been drinking—two nights in a row and far more than I was used to. “Two husbands? I didn’t know that British Canada had adopted the Australian Plan.”
“British Canada has not; British Canadians have. Or many thousands of us. The gates are locked and it’s nobody’s business. Do you want to try the big bed? If you get sleepy, you can crawl off to your own room—a major reason I planned this suite the way I did. Well, dear?”
“Uh…yes. But I may be self-conscious about it.”
“You’ll get over it. Let’s—”
She was interrupted by a jangly bell at the terminal.
Janet said, “Oh, damn, damn! That almost certainly means that they want Ian at the port—even though he’s just back from a high lift.” She stepped to the terminal, switched it on.
“—cause for alarm. Our border with the Chicago Imperium has been sealed off and refugees are being rounded up. The attack by Québec is more serious but may be an error by a local commander; there has been no declaration of war. State of emergency is now in effect, so stay off the streets, keep calm, and listen on this wavelength for official news and instructions.”
Red Thursday had started.
I suppose everybody has more or less the same picture in mind of Red Thursday and what followed. But to explain me (to me, if that be possible!) I must tell how I saw it, including the bumbling confusion and doubts.
We four did wind up in Janet’s big bed but for company and mutual comfort, not sex. We all had our ears bent for news, our eyes on the terminal’s screen. More or less the same news was repeated again and again—aborted attack from Québec, Chairman of the Chicago Imperium killed in his bed, the border with the Imperium closed, unverified sabotage reports, stay off the streets, remain calm—but no matter how often it was repeated we always all shut up and listened, waiting for some item that would cause the other news items to make sense.
Instead things got worse all night long. By four in the morning we knew that killings and sabotage were all over the globe; by daylight unverified reports were coming in of trouble at Ell-Four, at Tycho Base, at Stationary Station, and (broken-off message) on Ceres. There was no way to guess whether or n
About four, Janet, with some help from me, made sandwiches and served coffee.
I woke up at nine because Georges moved. I found that I was sleeping with my head on his chest and my upper arm clinging to him. Ian was across the bed, lying-sitting propped up against pillows with his eyes still on the screen—but his eyes were closed. Janet was missing—she had gone to my room, crawled into what was nominally my bed.
I found that, by moving very slowly, I could untangle myself and get out of bed without waking Georges. I did so, and slid into the bathroom, where I got rid of used coffee and felt better. I glanced into “my” room, saw my missing hostess. She was awake, waggled her fingers at me, then motioned for me to come in. She moved over and I crawled in with her. She kissed me. “How are the boys?”
“Both still asleep. Or were three minutes ago.”
“Good. They need sleep. Both of them are worriers; I am not. I decided that there was no point in attending Armageddon with my eyes bloodshot, so I came in here. You were asleep, I think.”
“Could have been. I don’t know when I fell asleep. It seemed to me that I heard the same bad news a thousand times. Then I woke up.”
“You haven’t missed anything. I’ve kept the sound turned down but I’ve kept the streamers on screen—they’ve been spelling out the same old sad story. Marjorie, the boys are waiting for the bombs to drop. I don’t think there will be any bombs.”
“I hope you’re right. But why not?”
“Who drops H-bombs on whom? Who is the enemy? All the major power blocs are in trouble, as near as I can tell from the news. But, aside from what seems to have been a stupid mistake by some Québecois general, no military forces have been involved anywhere. Assassinations, fires, explosions, all sorts of sabotage, riots, terrorism of all kinds—but no pattern. It’s not East against West, or Marxists against fascists, or blacks against whites. Marjorie, if anyone sets off missiles, it will mean that the whole world has gone crazy.”
“Doesn’t it look that way now?”
“I don’t think so. The pattern of this is that it has no pattern. The target is everybody. It seems to be aimed at all governments equally.”
“Anarchists?” I suggested.
Ian came in wearing circles under his eyes, a day’s beard, a worried look, and an old bathrobe too short for him. His knees were knobby. “Janet, I can’t reach Betty or Freddie.”
“Were they going back to Sydney?”
“It’s not that. I can’t get through to either Sydney or Auckland. All I get is that damned synthetic computer voice: ‘A-circuit-is-not-available-at-this-moment. Please-try-later-thank-you-for-your-patience.’ You know.”
“Ouch. More sabotage, maybe?”
“Could be. But maybe worse. After that kark, I called traffic control at the port and asked whatinhell was wrong with Winnipeg-Auckland satellite bounce? By pulling rank I eventually got the supervisor. He told me to forget about calls that didn’t get through because they had real trouble. All SBs grounded—because two were sabotaged in space. Winnipeg-Buenos Aires Lift Twenty-nine and Vancouver-London One-oh-one.”
“Total loss, both. No survivors. Pressure fuses, no doubt, as each one blew on leaving atmosphere. Jan, the next time I lift, I’m going to inspect everything myself. Stop the countdown on the most trivial excuse.” He added, “But I can’t guess when that will be. You can’t lift an SB when your comm circuits to reentry port are broken…and the supervisor admitted that they had lost all bounce circuits.”
Janet got out of bed, stood up, kissed him. “Now stop worrying! Stop. At once. Of course you will check everything yourself until they catch the saboteurs. But right now you’ll put it out of your mind because you won’t be called to lift until the comm circuits are restored. So declare a holiday. As for Betty and Freddie, it’s a shame we can’t talk to them but they can take care of themselves and you know it. No doubt they are worrying about us and they shouldn’t, either. I’m just glad it happened while you are at home—instead of halfway around the globe. You’re here and you’re safe and that’s all I care about. We’ll just sit here, snug and happy, until this nonsense is over.”
“I’ve got to go to Vancouver.”
“Man o’ mine, you don’t ‘got’ to do anything, save pay taxes and die. They won’t be putting artifacts into the ships when no ships are lifting.”
“Artifacts,” I blurted and regretted it.
Ian seemed to see me for the first time. “Hi, Marj—morning. Nothing you need fret about—and I’m sorry about this hoop-te-do while you’re our guest. The artifacts Jan mentioned aren’t gadgets; they’re alive. Management has this wild notion that a living artifact designed for piloting can do a better job than a man can do. I’m shop steward for the Winnipeg Section so I’ve got to go fight it. Management-Guild meeting in Vancouver tomorrow.”
“Ian,” Jan said, “phone the General Secretary. It’s silly to go to Vancouver without checking first.”
“But don’t just ask. Urge the SecGen to pressure management to postpone the meeting until the emergency is over. I want you to stay right here and keep me safe from harm.”
“Or vice versa.”
“Or vice versa,” she agreed. “But I’ll faint in your arms if necessary. What would you like for breakfast? Don’t make it too complex or I’ll invoke your standing commitment.”
I wasn’t really listening as the word artifact had triggered me. I had been thinking of Ian—of all of them, really, here and Down Under—as being so civilized and sophisticated that they would regard my sort as just as good as humans.
And now I hear that Ian is committed to representing his guild in a labor-management fight to keep my sort from competing with humans.
(What would you have us do, Ian? Cut our throats? We didn’t ask to be produced any more than you asked to be born. We may not be human but we share the age-old fate of humans; we are strangers in a world we never made.)
“Uh, sorry, I was woolgathering. What did you say, Jan?”
“I asked what you wanted for breakfast, dear.”
“Uh, doesn’t matter; I eat anything that is standing still or even moving slowly. May I come with you and help? Please?”
“I was hoping you would offer. Because Ian isn’t much use in a kitchen despite his commitment.”
“I’m a damned good cook!”
“Yes, dear. Ian gave me a commitment in writing that he would always cook any meal if I so requested. And he does; he hasn’t tried to slide out of it. But I have to be just awfully hungry to invoke it.”
“Marj, don’t listen to her.”
I still don’t know whether or not Ian can cook, but Janet certainly can (and so can Georges, as I learned later). Janet served us—with help around the edges from me—with light and fluffy mild Cheddar omelettes surrounded by thin, tender pancakes rolled up Continental style with powdered sugar and jam, and garnished with well drained bacon. Plus orange juice from freshly squeezed oranges—hand-squeezed, not ground to a pulp by machinery. Plus drip coffee made from freshly ground beans.
(New Zealand food is beautiful but New Zealand cooking practically isn’t cooking at all.)
Georges showed up with the exact timing of a cat—Mama Cat in this case, who arrived following Georges ahead of him. Kittens were then excluded by Janet’s edict because she was too busy to keep from stepping on kittens. Janet also decreed that the news would be turned off while we ate and that the emergency would not be a subject of conversation at the table. This suited me as these strange and grim events had pounded on my mind since they started, even during sleep. As Janet pointed out in handing down this ruling, only an H-bomb was likely to penetrate our
I enjoyed it…and so did Mama Cat, who patrolled our feet counterclockwise and informed each of us when it was that person’s turn to supply a bit of bacon—I think she got most of it.
After I cleared the breakfast dishes (salvaged rather than recycled; Janet was old-fashioned in spots) and Janet made another pot of coffee, she turned the news on again and we settled back to watch it and discuss it—in the kitchen rather than the grand room we had used for dinner, the kitchen being their de facto living room. Janet had what is called a “peasant kitchen” although no peasant ever had it so good: a big fireplace, a round table for family eating furnished with so-called captain’s chairs, big comfortable lounging chairs, plenty of floor space and no traffic problems because the cooking took place at the end opposite the comforts. The kittens were allowed back in, ending their protests, and in they came all tails at attention. I picked up one, a fluffy white with big black spots; its buzz was bigger than it was. It was clear that Mama Cat’s love life had not been limited by a stud book; no two kittens were alike.
Most of the news was a rehash but there was a new development in the Imperium:
Democrats were being rounded up, sentenced by drumhead courts-martial (provost’s tribunals, they were called) and executed on the spot—laser, gunfire, sonic, hangings. I exerted tight mind control to let me watch. They were sentencing them down to the age of fourteen—we saw one family in which both parents, themselves condemned, were insisting that their son was only twelve.
The President of the court, an Imperial Police corporal, ended the argument by drawing his side arm, shooting the boy, and then ordering his squad to finish off the parents and the boy’s older sister.
Ian flicked off the picture, shifted to voiceover streamers, and turned the sound down. “I’ve seen all of that I want to see,” he growled. “I think that whoever has power there now that the old Chairman is dead is liquidating everybody on their suspects list.”
Friday by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes