Robert A. Heinlein
“Thanks for waiting,” she said with a pleasant smile. “I never miss One Woman’s Woes, especially right now when Mindy Lou is pregnant again and Uncle Ben is being so unreasonable about it. Do you follow the theater, dearie?”
I admitted that I rarely had time for it—my work interfered.
“That’s too bad; it’s very educational. Take Tim—that’s my roommate—won’t look at anything but sports. So he doesn’t have a thought in his head for the finer things in life. Take this crisis in Mindy Lou’s life. Uncle Ben is purely persecuting her because she won’t tell him who did it. Do you think Tim cares? Not Tim! What neither Tim nor Uncle Ben realizes is that she can’t tell because it happened at a precinct caucus. What sign were you born under?”
I should phrase a prepared answer for this question; human persons are always asking it. But when you weren’t born, you tend to shy away from such things. I grabbed a date and threw it at her: “I was born on the twenty-third of April.” That’s Shakespeare’s birthday; it popped into my mind.
“Oho! Have I got a lottery ticket for you!” She shuffled through one of the Maypole decorations, found a ticket, showed me a number. “See that? And you just walked in here and I had it! This is your day!” She detached the ticket. “That’s twenty bruins.”
I offered a BritCan dollar. She answered, “I don’t have change for that.”
“Keep the change for luck.”
She handed me the ticket, took the dollar. “You’re a real sport, dearie. When you collect, stop by and we’ll have a drink together. Mister, have you found one you like?”
“Not yet. I was born on the ninth day of the ninth month of the ninth year of the ninth decade. Can you handle it?”
“Woo woo! What a terrific combo! I can try…and if I can’t, I won’t sell you anything.” She dug through her piles and strings of paper, humming to herself. She ducked her head under the counter, stayed awhile.
She reappeared, red-faced and triumphant, clutching a lottery ticket. “Got it! Look at it, mister! Give a respectful gander.”
We looked: 8109999
“I’m impressed,” Georges said.
“Impressed? You’re rich. There’s your four nines. Now add the odd digits. Nine again. Divide that into the odd digits. Another nine. Add the last four—thirty-six. That’s nine squared, for two more nines, making another four nines. Add all up at once and it’s five nines. Take away the sum and you have four nines again. No matter what you do, you always keep getting your own birthday. What do you want, mister? Dancing girls?”
“How much do I owe you?”
“That’s a pretty special number. You can have any other number on the rack for twenty bruins. But that one—Why don’t you just keep piling money in front of me until I smile?”
“That seems fair. Then if you don’t smile when I think you should, I’ll pick up the money and walk away. No?”
“I may call you back.”
“No. If you won’t offer me a fixed price, I won’t let you spar around about it after I’ve made a fair offer.”
“You’re a tough customer, sport. I—”
Speakers on all sides of us suddenly started blasting “Hail to the Chief,” followed by “The Golden Bear Forever.” The young woman shouted, “Wait! Over soon!” A crowd of people came in from outside, walked straight through the rotunda, and on down the main corridor. I spotted the eagle-feather headdress sticking up in the middle of the clump but this time the Chief Confederate was so tightly surrounded by his parasites that an assassin would have a hard time hitting him.
As it became possible to hear again the lottery saleswoman said, “That was a short one. Less than fifteen minutes ago he went through here heading out. If he was just going down to the corner for a pack of tokes, whyn’t he send somebody instead of going hisself? Bad for business, all that noise. Well, sport, have you figured out how much you’ll pay to get rich?”
“But yes.” Georges took out a three-dollar bill, laid it on the counter. He looked at the woman.
They locked gazes for about twenty seconds, then she said glumly, “I’m smiling. I guess I am.” She picked up the money with one hand, handed Georges the lottery ticket with the other. “I bet I could have sweated you out of another dollar.”
“We’ll never know, will we?”
“Cut for double or nothing?”
“With your cards?” Georges asked gently.
“Sport, you’ll make an old woman out of me. Be elsewhere before I change my mind.”
“Down the corridor on my left.” She added, “Don’t miss the drawing.”
As we walked toward the rest room Georges told me quietly in French that gendarmes had passed behind us while we were dickering, had gone into the rest room, come out, back into the rotunda, and down the main corridor.
I cut him off, speaking also in French—telling him that I knew but this place must be filled with Eyes, Ears—talk later.
I was not snubbing him. Two uniformed guards—not the two with stomach problems—had come in almost on our heels, hurried past us, checked the rest room first—reasonable; an amateur often tries to hide in a public rest room—had come out and hurried past us, then deep into the Palace. Georges had quietly shopped for lottery tickets while guards looking for us had brushed past him, twice. Admirable. Quite professional.
But I had to wait to tell him so. There was a person of indeterminate sex selling tickets to the rest room. I asked her(him) where the powder room was. She (I decided on “she” when closer observation showed that her T-shirt covered either falsies or small milk glands)—she answered scornfully, “You some kind of a nut? Trying to discriminate, huh? I ought to send for a cop.” Then she looked at me more closely. “You’re a foreigner.”
I admitted it.
“Okay. Just don’t talk that way; people don’t like it. We’re democratic here, see?—setters and pointers use the same fireplug. So buy a ticket or quit blocking the turnstyle.”
Georges bought us two tickets. We went in.
On our right was a row of open stalls. Above them floated a holo: THESE FACILITIES ARE PROVIDED FREE FOR YOUR HEALTH AND COMFORT BY THE CALIFORNIA CONFEDERACY—JOHN “WARWHOOP” TUMBRIL, CHIEF CONFEDERATE.
A life-size holo of the Chief floated above it.
Beyond the open stalls were pay stalls with doors; beyond these were doorways fully closed with drapes. On our left was a news-and-notions stand presided over by a person of very determined sex, bull dyke. Georges paused there and surprised me by buying several cosmetics and a flacon of cheap perfume. Then he asked for a ticket to one of the dressing rooms at the far end.
“One ticket?” She looked at him sharply. Georges nodded agreement. She pursed her lips. “Naughty, naughty. No hanky-panky, stud.”
Georges did not answer. A BritCan dollar passed from his hand to hers, vanished. She said very softly, “Don’t take too long. If I buzz the buzzer, get decent fast. Number seven, far right.”
We went to number seven, the farthest dressing room, and entered. Georges closed the drapes, zipped them tight, flushed the water closet, then turned on the cold water and left it running. Speaking again in French, he told me that we were about to change our appearance without using disguises, so, please, my dear, get out of the clothes you are wearing and put on that suit you have in your jumpbag.
He explained in more detail, mixing French and English and continuing to flush the commode from time to time. I was to wear that scandalous Superskin job, more makeup than I usually do, and was to attempt to look like the famous Whore of Babylon or equivalent. “I know that’s not your métier, dear girl, but try.”
“I will attempt to be ‘adequate.’”
“And you plan to wear Janet’s clothes? I don’t think they’ll fit.”
“No, no, I shan’t drag. Just swish.”
“I won’t dress in women’s clothes; I will simply endeavou
“I don’t believe it. All right, let’s try.”
We didn’t do much to me—just that one-piece job with the wet look that had hooked Ian, plus more makeup than I am used to, applied by Georges (he seemed to feel that he knew more about it than I did—he felt that way because he did), plus—once we were outside—that here-it-is-come-and-get-it walk.
Georges used on himself rather more makeup than he had put on me, plus that vile perfume (which he did not ask me to wear), plus at his neck a shocking-orange scarf I had been using-as a belt. He had me fluff his hair and spray it so that it stayed bouffant. That was all…plus a change in manner. He still looked like Georges—but he did not seem like the virile buck who had so wonderfully worn me out the night before.
I repacked my jumpbag and we left. The old moose at the newsstand widened her eyes and caught her breath when she saw me. But she said nothing as a man who had been leaning against the stand straightened up, pointed a finger at Georges, and said, “You. The Chief wants you.” Then he added, almost to himself, “I don’t believe it.”
Georges stopped and gestured helplessly with both hands. “Oh, dear me! Surely there has been some mistake?”
The flunky bit a toothpick he had been sucking and answered, “I think so, too, citizen—but I ain’t going to say so and neither are you. Come along. Not you, sister.”
Georges said, “I positively am not going anywhere without my dear sister! So there!”
That cow said, “Morrie, she can wait here. Sweetie, come around behind here with me and sit down.”
Georges gave me the barest negative shake of his head but I did not need it. If I stayed, either she would take me straight back to that dressing room or I would stuff her into her own trash can. I was betting on me. I will put up with that sort of nonsense in line of duty—she would not have been as unpleasant as Rocky Rockford—but not willingly. If and when I change my luck, it will be with someone I like and respect.
I moved closer to Georges, took his arm. “We have never been separated since Mama on her death bed told me to take care of him.” I added, “So there!” while wondering what that phrase means, if anything. Both of us pouted and looked stubborn.
The man called Morrie looked at me, back at Georges, and sighed. “Hell with it. Tag along, sister. But keep your mouth shut and stay out of the way.”
About six checkpoints later—at each of which an attempt was made to peel me off—we were ushered into the Presence. My first impression of Chief Confederate John Tumbril was that he was taller than I had thought he was. Then I decided that not wearing his headdress might make the difference. My second impression was that he was even homelier than pictures, cartoons, and terminal images showed him to be—and that opinion stayed. Like many another politico before him, Tumbril had turned a distinctive, individual ugliness into a political asset.
(Is homeliness a necessity to a head of state? Looking back through history I cannot find a single handsome man who got very far in politics until we get clear back to Alexander the Great…and he had a head start; his father was a king.)
As may be, “Warwhoop” Tumbril looked like a frog trying to be a toad and just missing.
The Chief cleared his throat. “What’s she doing here?”
Georges said quickly, “Sir, I have a most serious complaint to make! That man—That man”—he pointed at the toothpick chewer—“tried to separate me from my dear sister! He should be reprimanded!”
Tumbril looked at Morrie, looked at me, looked back at his parasite. “Did you do that?”
Morrie asserted that he had not but even if he did, he had done so because he had thought that Tumbril had ordered it but in any case he thought—
“You’re not supposed to think,” Tumbril ruled. “I’ll talk to you later. And why are you leaving her standing? Get a chair! Do I have to do all the thinking around here?”
Once I was seated, the Chief turned his attention back to Georges. “That was a Brave Thing you did earlier today. Yes, sir, a Very Brave Thing. The Great Nation of California is Proud to have raised Sons of Your Caliber. What’s your name?”
Georges gave his name.
“‘Payroll’ is a Proud California Name, Mr. Payroll; one that shines down our Noble History, from the rancheros who threw off the Yoke of Spain to the Brave Patriots who threw off the Yoke of Wall Street. Do you mind if I call you George?”
“Not at all.”
“And you can call me Warwhoop. That’s the Crowning Glory of Our Great Nation, George; All of us are Equal.”
I suddenly said, “Does that apply to artificial people; Chief Tumbril?”
“I was asking about artificial people, like those they make at Berkeley and Davis. Are they equal, too?”
“Uh…little lady, you really shouldn’t interrupt while your elders are speaking. But to answer your question: How can Human Democracy apply to creatures who are Not Human? Would you expect a cat to vote? Or a Ford APV? Speak up.”
“There you are. Everybody is Equal and Everybody has a vote. But you have to draw the line somewhere. Now, shut up, damn it, and don’t interrupt while your betters are talking. George, what you did today—well, if that klutz had actually been making an attack on my life—he wasn’t and don’t you even forget it—you could not have behaved in a manner more becoming to all the Heroic Traditions of Our Great California Confederacy. You Make Me Proud!”
Tumbril stood up and came out from behind his desk, hooked his hands behind him, and paced—and I saw why he had seemed taller here than he had outside.
He used some sort of a highchair or possibly a platform at his desk. When he stood with no fakery, he was about up to my shoulder. He seemed to be thinking aloud as he paced. “George, there is always a place in my official family for a man of your demonstrated courage. Who knows?—the day might come when you would save me from a criminal who seriously intended to harm me. Foreign agitators, I mean; I have nothing to fear from the Stalwart Patriots of California. They all love me for what I have done for them while occupying the Octagon Office. But other countries are jealous of us; they envy our Rich and Free and Democratic lifestyle and sometimes their smoldering hatred erupts in violence.”
He stood with his head bowed for a moment, in reverent adoration of something. “One of the Prices of the Privilege of Serving,” he said solemnly, “but one which, with All Humility, one must pay Gladly. George, tell me, if you were called upon to make the Last Supreme Sacrifice that Your Country’s Chief Executive might live, would you hesitate?”
“It all seems most unlikely,” Georges answered.
“Well, when I vote—not often—I usually vote Réunioniste. But the present Prime Minister is Revanchiste. I doubt that he would have me.”
“What the devil are you talking about?”
“Je suis Québecois, M. le chef d’état. I’m from Montréal.”
Five minutes later we were out on the street again. For some tense moments it seemed that we were going to be hanged or shot or at least locked up forever in their deepest dungeon for the crime of not being Californians. But cooler counsel prevailed when Warwhoop’s leading legal eagle convinced him that it was better to let us go than it was to risk a trial, even one in chambers—the Québecois Consul General might cooperate but buying his whole staff could be horribly expensive.
That was not quite how he put it but he did not know that I was listening, as I had not mentioned enhanced hearing even to Georges. The Chief’s chief counselor whispered something about the trouble we had with that little Mexicana doll after all those other greasers got aholt of the story. We can’t afford another mess like that one. You wanta watch it, Chief, they gotcha by the short ones.
So at last we passed the Palace and went to MasterCard main California office, forty-five minutes late…and lost another ten minutes shucking off our false personae in a rest
Georges looked a lot better without lip paint. He had used water on his hair, too, and slicked it down. I put that noisy scarf into my jumpbag. He said to me, “I guess I was silly, trying to camouflage us this way.”
I glanced around. No one near and the high noise level of plumbing and air conditioning—“Not in my opinion, Georges. I think that in six weeks you could be turned into a real pro.”
“What sort of a pro?”
“Uh, Pinkerton, maybe. Or a—” Someone came in. “Discuss it later. Anyhow, we got two lottery tickets out of it.”
“So we did. When is the drawing on yours?”
I took mine out, looked at it. “Why, it’s today! This very afternoon! Or have I lost track of the date?”
“No,” Georges said, peering at my ticket, “it’s today all right. About an hour from now we had better be near a terminal.”
“No need,” I told him. “I don’t win at cards, I don’t win at dice, I don’t win lotteries. When I buy Cracker Jack, sometimes the box doesn’t have a prize in it.”
“So we’ll watch the terminal anyhow, Cassandra.”
“All right. When is your drawing?”
He took out his ticket; we looked at it. “Why, it’s the same drawing!” I exclaimed. “Now we have much more reason to watch.”
Georges was still looking at his ticket. “Friday. Look at this.” He rubbed his thumb across the printing. The lettering stayed sharp; the serial number smeared heavily. “Well, well! How long did our friend have her head under the counter before she ‘found’ this ticket?”
Friday by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes