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       Friday, p.16

           Robert A. Heinlein

  I was awakened the third or fourth time by a lovely odor; Georges was unloading the dumb waiter. “You have twenty-one seconds to get in and out of the bath,” he said, “as soup is on. You had a proper breakfast in the middle of the night, so you are going to have a most improper brunch.”

  I suppose it is improper to have fresh Dungeness crab for breakfast but I’m in favor of it. It was preceded by sliced banana with cream on cornflakes, which strikes me as breakfasty, and was accompanied by toasted rusks and a tossed green salad. I then tapered off with chicory coffee laced with a pony of Korbel champagne brandy. Georges is a loving lecher and a hearty gourmand and a gourmet chef and a gentle healer who can make an artificial person believe that she is human, or, if not, that it doesn’t matter.

  Query: Why are all three of that family so slender? I am certain that they do not diet and do not take masochistic exercise. A therapist once told me that all the exercise any person needs could be had in bed. Could that be it?

  The above is the good news. The bad news—

  The International Corridor was closed. It was possible to reach Deseret by changing at Portland, but there was no guarantee that the SLC-Omaha-Gary tube would be open. The only major international route running capsules regularly seemed to be San Diego—Dallas—Vicksburg—Atlanta. San Diego was no problem as the San Jose tube was open from Bellingham to La Jolla. But Vicksburg is not Chicago Imperium; it is simply a river port from which a person with cash and persistence might reach the Imperium.

  I tried to call Boss. After forty minutes I felt about synthetic voices the way humans feel about my sort of people. Who thought up this idea of programming “politeness” into computers? To hear a machine voice say “Thank you for waiting” may be soothing the first time, but three times in a row reminds you that it is phony, and forty minutes of such stalls without even once hearing a living voice can try the patience of a guru.

  I never did get that terminal to admit that it was not possible to phone into the Imperium. That confounded digital disaster was not programmed to say no; it was programmed to be polite. It would have been a relief if, after a certain number of futile tries, it had been programmed to say, “Buzz off, sister; you’ve had it.”

  I then tried to call the Bellingham post office to inquire about mail service into the Imperium—honest-to-goodness words on paper, paid for as a parcel, not a facsimile or mailgram or anything electronic.

  I got a cheerful lecture on doing your Christmas mailing early. With Christmas half a year away this seemed less than urgent.

  I tried again. I got scolded about zip codes.

  I tried a third time and got Macy’s customer service department and a voice: “All our friendly helpers are busy at the moment thankyouforwaiting.”

  I didn’t wait.

  I didn’t want to phone or to send a letter anyhow; I wanted to report to Boss in person. For that I needed cash. That offensively polite terminal admitted that the local office of MasterCard was in the Bellingham main office of TransAmerica Corporation. So I punched the signal and got a sweet voice—recorded, not synthesized—saying: “Thank you for calling MasterCard. In the interests of efficiency and maximum savings to our millions of satisfied customers all of our California Confederacy district offices have been consolidated with the home office at San Jose. For speedy service please use the toll-free signal on the back of your MasterCard card.” The sweet voice gave way to the opening bars of “Trees.” I shut it off quickly.

  My MasterCard card, issued in Saint Louis, did not have on it that San Jose toll-free signal, but only the signal of the Imperial Bank of Saint Louis. So I tried that number, not very hopefully.

  I got Punch-a-Prayer.

  While I was being taught humility by a computer, Georges was reading the Olympic edition of the Los Angeles Times and waiting for me to quit fiddling. I gave up and asked, “Georges, what’s in the morning paper on the emergency?”

  “What emergency?”

  “Huh? I mean, Excuse me?”

  “Friday my love, the only emergency mentioned in this newspaper is a warning by the Sierra Club concerning the threat to the endangered species Rhus diversiloba. A picketing demonstration against Dow Chemical is planned. Otherwise all is quiet on the western front.”

  I wrinkled my forehead to stimulate my memory. “Georges, I don’t know much about California politics—”

  “My dear, no one knows much about California politics, including California politicians.”

  “—but I do seem to recall reports on the news of maybe a dozen major assassinations in the Confederacy. Was that all a hoax?” Thinking back and figuring time zones—how long? Thirty-five hours?

  “I find obituaries of several prominent ladies and gentlemen who were mentioned in the news night before last…but they are not listed as assassinated. One is an ‘accidental gunshot wound.’ Another died after a ‘lingering illness.’ Another was a victim in an ‘unexplained crash’ of a private APV and the Confederacy Attorney General has ordered an investigation. But I seem to recall that the Attorney General herself was assassinated.”

  “Georges, what is going on?”

  “Friday, I do not know. But I suggest that it might be hazardous to inquire too closely.”

  “Uh, I’m not going to inquire; I’m not political and never have been. I’m going to move over into the Imperium as fast as possible. But to do that—since the border is closed no matter what the L.A. Times says—I need cash. I hate to bleed Janet through using her Visa card. Maybe I can use my own but I must go to San Jose to have any luck with it; they are being stuffy. Do you want to go to San Jose with me? Or back to Jan and Ian?”

  “Sweet lady, all my worldly goods are at your feet. But show me the way to San Jose. Why do you balk at taking me into the Imperium? Is it not possible that your employer has use for my talents? I cannot now return to Manitoba for reasons we both know.”

  “Georges, it is not that I balk at taking you with me but the border is closed…which may force me to do a Dracula and flow through a crack. Or some unreasonable facsimile. I’m trained for that but I can do it only alone—you’re in the profession; you can see that. Moreover, while we don’t know what the conditions are inside the Imperium, the news shows that things are rough. Once inside, I may have to be very fast on my feet just to stay alive. And I’m trained for that, too.”

  “And you are enhanced and I am not. Yes, I can see.”

  “Georges! Dear, I do not mean to hurt your feelings. Look, once I have reported in, I will call you. Here, or at your home, or wherever you say. If it is safe for you to cross the border, I will know it then.” (Georges ask Boss for a job? Impossible! Or was it? Boss might have use for an experienced genetic engineer. When it came right down to it, I had no idea of Boss’s needs aside from that one small piece I worked in.) “Are you serious in wanting to see my boss about a job? Uh, what shall I tell him?”

  Georges gave his gentle half-smile that he uses to cover his thoughts the way I use my passport-picture face. “How can I know? All I know about your employer is that you are reluctant to talk about him and that he can afford to use one such as yourself as a messenger. But, Friday, I may appreciate even more sharply than you do how much capital investment must have gone into your design, your nurture, and your training…and therefore what a price your employer must have paid for your indentures—”

  “I’m not indentured. I’m a Free Person.”

  “Then it cost him even more. Which leads to conjectures. Never mind, dear; I’ll stop guessing. Am I serious? A man can wonder mightily what lies beyond the range. I’ll supply you with my curriculum vitae; if it contains anything of interest to your employer, no doubt he’ll let me know. Now about money: You need not worry about ‘bleeding’ Janet; money doesn’t mean anything to her. But I am most willing to supply you with whatever cash you need using my own credit—and I have already established that my credit cards are honored here despite any political troubles. I used Crédit Québec to
pay for our midnight breakfast, I punched into this inn with American Express, then used Maple Leaf to pay for our brunch. So I have three valid cards and all match my ID.” He grinned at me. “So bleed me, dear girl.”

  “But I don’t want to bleed you any more than I want to bleed Janet. Look, we can try my card at San Jose; if that does not work, I’ll happily borrow from you…and I can punch you the money as soon as I report in.” (Or would Georges be willing to pull a swindle with Lieutenant Dickey’s credit card for me?—damnably difficult for a woman to get cash with a man’s card. Paying for something by sticking a card into a slot is one thing; using a card to draw cash money is a kettle of fish of another color.)

  “Why do you speak of repayment? When I am forever in your debt?”

  I chose to be obtuse. “Do you truly feel that you owe me something? Just for last night?”

  “Yes. You were adequate.”

  I gasped. “Oh!”

  He answered, unsmiling: “Would you rather I had said inadequate?”

  I refrained from gasping. “Georges. Take off your clothes. I am going to take you back to bed, then kill you, slowly. At the end I am going to squeeze you and break your back in three places. ‘Adequate.’ ‘Inadequate.’”

  He grinned and started unzipping.

  I said, “Oh, stop that and kiss me! Then we are going to San Jose. ‘Inadequate.’ Which was I?”

  It takes almost as long to go from Bellingham to San Jose as it does to go from Winnipeg to Vancouver but this trip we had seats. We emerged above ground at fourteen-fifteen. I looked around with interest, never having visited the Confederacy capital before.

  The thing I first noticed was the amazing number of APVs bouncing like fleas all over the place and most of them taxicabs. I know of no other modern city that permits its air space to be infested to this extent. The streets were loaded with hansom cabs, too, and there were slidewalks bordering every street; nevertheless these power-drive pests were everywhere, like bicycles in Canton.

  The second thing I noticed was the feel of San Jose. It was not a city. I now understood that classic description: “A thousand villages in search of a city.”

  San Jose does not seem to have any justification save politics. But California gets more out of politics than any other country I know of—utter unashamed and uninhibited democracy. You run into democracy in many places—New Zealand uses it in an attenuated form. But only in California will you find the clear-quill, raw-gum, two-hundred-proof, undiluted democracy. The voting age starts when a citizen is tall enough to pull the lever without being steadied by her nurse, and registrars are reluctant to disenfranchise a citizen short of a sworn cremation certificate.

  I did not fully appreciate that last until I saw, in an election news story, that the corpsicles at Prehoda Pines Patience Park constituted three precincts all voting through preregistered proxies. (“Death, be not proud!”)

  I will not try to pass judgment as I was a grown woman before I encountered democracy even in its milder, nonmalignant form. Democracy is probably all right used in sparing amounts. The British Canadians use a dilute form and they seem to do all right. But only in California is everyone drunk on it all the time. There does not seem to be a day when there is not an election somewhere in California, and, for any one precinct, there is (so I was told) an election of some sort about once a month.

  I suppose they can afford it. They have a mellow climate from British Canada to the Mexican Kingdom and much of the richest farm land on Earth. Their second favorite sport (sex) costs almost nothing in its raw form; like marijuana it is freely available everywhere. This leaves time and energy for the true California sport: gathering and yabbering about politics.

  They elect everybody, from precinct parasite to the Chief Confederate (“The Chief”). But they unelect them almost as fast. For example the Chief is supposed to serve one six-year term. But, of the last nine chiefs, only two served a full six years; the others were recalled except that one who was lynched. In many cases an official has not yet been sworn in when the first recall petition is being circulated.

  But Californians do not limit themselves to electing, recalling, indicting, and (sometimes) lynching their swarms of officials; they also legislate directly. Every election has on the ballot more proposed laws than candidates. The provincial and national representatives show some restraint—I have been assured that the typical California legislator will withdraw a bill if you can prove to her that pi can’t equal three no matter how many vote to make it so. But grassroots legislation (“the initiative”) has no such limitation.

  For example three years ago a grassroots economist noticed that college graduates earned, on the average, about 30 percent more than their fellow citizens who lacked bachelor’s degrees. Such an undemocratic condition is anathema to the California Dream, so, with great speed, an initiative was qualified for the next election, the measure passed, and all California high-school graduates and/or California citizens attaining eighteen years were henceforth awarded bachelor’s degrees. A grandfather clause backdated this benefit eight years.

  This measure worked beautifully; the holder of a bachelor’s degree no longer had any undemocratic advantage. At the next election the grandfather clause was expanded to cover the last twenty years and there is a strong movement to extend this boon to all citizens.

  Vox populi, vox Dei. I can’t see anything wrong with it. This benevolent measure costs nothing and makes everyone (but a few soreheads) happier.

  About fifteen o’clock Georges and I were sliding along the south side of the National Plaza in front of the Chief’s Palace, headed for the main offices of MasterCard. Georges was telling me that he saw nothing wrong with my having asked to stop at a Burger King for a snack in lieu of luncheon—that, in his opinion, the giant burger, properly prepared from top sirloin substitute and the chocolate malt made with a minimum of chalk, constitutes California’s only contribution to international haute cuisine.

  I was agreeing with him while burping gently. A group of women and men, a dozen to twenty, were moving down the grand steps in front of the Palace and Georges had started to swing off to avoid them when I noticed the eagle-feather headdress on a little man in the middle of the group, spotted the much-photographed face under it, and checked Georges with one hand.

  And caught something out of the corner of my eye: a figure coming out from behind a pillar at the top of the steps.

  It triggered me. I pushed the Chief down flat to the steps, knocking a couple of his staff aside to do it, then bounded up to that pillar.

  I didn’t kill the man who had lurked behind that pillar; I merely broke the arm he had his gun in, then kicked him sort of high when he tried to run. I hadn’t been hurried the way I had been the day before. After reducing the target the Chief Confederate made (really, he should not wear that distinctive headdress), I had had time to realize that the assassin, if taken alive, might be a clue to the gang behind these senseless killings.

  But I did not have time to realize what else I had done until two Capital police seized my arms. I then did realize it and felt glum indeed, thinking about the scorn there would be in Boss’s voice when I had to admit that I had allowed myself to be publicly arrested. For a split moment I seriously considered disengaging and hiding behind the horizon—not impossible as one police officer clearly had high blood pressure and the other was an older man wearing frame spectacles.

  Too late. If I ran now using full overdrive, I could almost certainly get away and, in a square or two, mingle with the crowd and be gone. But these bumblers would possibly burn half a dozen bystanders in trying to wing me. Not professional! Why hadn’t this palace guard protected their chief instead of leaving it up to me? A lurker behind pillars fer Gossake!—nothing like that had happened since the assassination of Huey Long.

  Why hadn’t I minded my own business and let the killer burn down the Chief Confederate in his silly hat? Because I have been trained for defensive warfare only, that’s why
, and consequently I fight by reflex. I don’t have any interest in fighting, don’t like it—it just happens.

  I did not then have time to consider the advisability of minding my own business because Georges was minding mine. Georges speaks unaccented (if somewhat stilted) BritCan English; now he was sputtering incoherently in French and trying to peel those two praetorians off me.

  The one with the spectacles let go my left arm in an effort to deal with Georges so I jabbed him with my elbow just under his sternum. He whooshed and went down. The other was still holding on to my right arm, so I jabbed him in the same spot with the first three fingers of my left hand, whereupon he whooshed and laid himself across his mate, and both vomited.

  All this happened much faster than it takes to tell it—i.e., the cows grabbed me, Georges intervened, I was free. Two seconds? Whatever it was, the assassin had disappeared, his gun with him.

  I was about to disappear, too, with Georges even if I had to carry him, when I realized that Georges had made up my mind for me. He had me by my right elbow and had me firmly pointed toward the main entrance of the Palace just beyond that row of pillars. As we stepped into the rotunda he let go my elbow while saying softly, “Slow march, my darling—quietly, quietly. Take my arm.”

  I took his arm. The rotunda was fairly crowded but there was no excitement, nothing at all to suggest an attempt had just been made a few meters away to kill the nation’s chief executive. Concession booths rimming the rotunda were busy, especially the off-track betting windows. Just to our left a young woman was selling lottery tickets—or available to sell them I should say, as she had no customers just then and was watching a detergent drama on her terminal.

  Georges turned us and halted us at her booth. Without looking up she said, “Station break coming up. Be with you then. Shop around. Be my guest.”

  There were festoons of lottery tickets around the booth. Georges started examining them, so I pretended a deep interest, too. We stretched the time; presently the commercials started, the young woman punched down the sound and turned to us.

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