Robert A. Heinlein
He chatted of other matters until we each had finished one cup. I refilled his cup, did not myself take another; he resumed business. “Friday, you changed names and credit cards so many times that we were always one jump behind you. We might not have traced you to Vicksburg had not your progress suggested something about your plan. Although it is not my practice to interfere with an agent no matter how closely he is being watched, I might have decided to head you off from going up the river—knowing that that expedition was doomed—”
“Boss, what was that expedition? I never believed the song and dance.”
“A coup d’état. A clumsy one. The Imperium has had three Chairmen in two weeks…and the current one is no better and no more likely to survive. Friday, a well-run tyranny is a better base for my work than is any form of free government. But a well-run tyranny is almost as scarce as an efficient democracy. To resume—you got away from us in Vicksburg because you moved without hesitation. You were aboard that comic-opera troopship and gone before our Vicksburg agent knew that you had signed up. I was vexed with him. So much so that I have not yet disciplined him. I must wait.”
“No reason to discipline him, Boss. I moved fast. Unless he breathed down my neck—which I notice and always take steps—he could not have kept up with me.”
“Yes, yes, I know your techniques. But I think that you will agree that I was understandably annoyed when it was reported to me that our man in Vicksburg actually had you physically in sight…and twenty-four hours later he reports you dead.”
“Maybe, maybe not. A man got too close on my heels coming into Nairobi earlier this year—breathed down my neck and it was his last breath. If you have me shadowed again, better warn your agents.”
“I do not ordinarily use a shadow on you, Friday. With you, point checks work better. Fortunately for all of us you did not stay dead. While the terminals of my contact agents in Saint Louis have all been tapped by the government, I still get some use from them. When you attempted to report in, three times and never got caught, I heard of it at once and deduced that it had to be you, then knew it with certainty when you reached Fargo.”
“Who in Fargo? The paper artist?”
Boss pretended not to hear. “Friday, I must get back to work. Complete your report. Make it brief.”
“Yes, sir. I left that excursion boat when we entered the Imperium, proceeded to Saint Louis, found your contact call codes trapped, left, visited Fargo as you noted, crossed into British Canada twenty-six klicks east of Pembina, crossed to Vancouver and down to Bellingham today, then reported to you here.”
“Any novel aspects of professional interest?”
“At your convenience tape a detailed report for staff analysis. Feel free to suppress facts not yours to disclose. I will send for you some time in the next two or three weeks. You start school tomorrow morning. Oh-nine hundred.”
“Don’t grunt; it is not pleasing in a young woman. Friday, your work has been satisfactory but it is time you entered on your true profession. Your true profession at this stage, perhaps I should say. You are woefully ignorant. We will change that. Nine o’clock tomorrow.”
“Yes, sir.” (Ignorant, huh? Arrogant old bastard. Gosh, I was glad to see him. But that wheelchair fretted me.)
Pajaro Sands used to be a resort seaside hotel. It’s a nowhere place on Monterey Bay outside a nowhere city, Watsonville. Watsonville is one of the great oil export ports of the world and has all the charm of cold pancakes with no syrup. The nearest excitement is in the casinos and bawdy houses of Carmel, fifty kilometers away. But I don’t gamble and am not interested in sex for hire, even the exotic sorts to be had in California… Not many from Boss’s headquarters patronized Carmel as it was too far away to go by horse other than for a weekend, there was no direct capsule, and, while California is liberal in authorizing power vehicles, Boss did not release his APVs for anything but business.
The big excitements for us at Pajaro Sands were the natural attractions that caused it to be built, surf and sand and sunshine.
I enjoyed surfboarding until I became skilled at it. Then it bored me. I usually sunned a bit each day and swam a little and stared out at the big tankers suckling at the oil moles and noted with amusement that the watchstander aboard each ship often was staring back, with binoculars.
There was no reason for any of us to be bored as we had full individual terminal service. People are so used to the computer net today that it is easy to forget what a window to the world it can be—and I include myself. One can grow so canalized in using a terminal only in certain ways—paying bills, making telephonic calls, listening to news bulletins—that one can neglect its richer uses. If a subscriber is willing to pay for the service, almost anything can be done at a terminal that can be done out of bed.
Live music? I could punch in a concert going on live in Berkeley this evening, but a concert given ten years ago in London, its conductor long dead, is just as “live,” just as immediate, as any listed on today’s program. Electrons don’t care. Once data of any sort go into the net, time is frozen. All that is necessary is to remember that all the endless riches of the past are available any time you punch for them.
Boss sent me to school at a computer terminal and I had far richer opportunities than any enjoyed by a student at Oxford or the Sorbonne or Heidelberg in any earlier year.
At first it did not seem to me that I was going to school. At breakfast the first day I was told to report to the head librarian. He was a fatherly old dear, Professor Perry, whom I had met first during basic training. He seemed harried—understandably, as Boss’s library was probably the bulkiest and most complex thing shipped from the Imperium to Pajaro Sands. Professor Perry undoubtedly had weeks of work ahead before everything would be straightened out—and in the meantime all Boss would expect would be utter perfection. The work was not made easier by Boss’s eccentric insistence on paper books for much of his library rather than cassettes or microfiche or disks.
When I reported to him, Perry looked bothered, then pointed to a console over in one corner. “Miss Friday, why don’t you sit down over there?”
“What am I to do?”
“Eh? That’s hard to say. No doubt we’ll be told. Um, I’m awfully busy now and terribly understaffed. Why don’t you just get acquainted with the equipment by studying anything you wish?”
There wasn’t anything special about the equipment except that there were extra keys giving direct access to several major libraries such as Harvard’s and the Washington Library of the Atlantic Union and the British Museum without going through a human or network linkup—plus the unique resource of direct access to Boss’s library, the one right beside me. I could even read his bound paper books if I wanted to, on my terminal’s screen, turning the pages from the keyboard and never taking the volume out of its nitrogen environment.
That morning I was speed-searching the index of the Tulane University library (one of the best in the Lone Star Republic), looking for history of Old Vicksburg, when I stumbled onto a cross-reference to spectral types of stars and found myself hooked. I don’t recall why there was such a cross-referral but these do occur for the most unlikely reasons.
I was still reading about the evolution of stars when Professor Perry suggested that we go to lunch.
We did but I made some notes first about types of mathematics I wanted to study. Astrophysics is fascinating—but you have to talk the language.
That afternoon I got back to Old Vicksburg and was footnoted to Show Boat, a musical play concerning that era—and then spent the rest of the day looking at and listening to Broadway musical plays from the happy days before the North American Federation fell to pieces. Why can’t they write music like that today? Those people must have had fun! I certainly did—I played Show Boat, The Student Prince, and My Fair Lady one after the other an
Next day I resolved to stick to serious study of professional subjects in which I was weak, because I felt sure that once my tutors (whoever they were) assigned my curriculum, I would have no time at all for my own choices—earlier training in Boss’s outfit had taught me the need for a twenty-six-hour day. But at breakfast my friend Anna asked me, “Friday, what can you tell me about the influence of Louis Onze on French lyric poetry?”
I blinked at her. “Is there a prize? Louis Onze sounds like a cheese to me. The only French verse I can recall is ‘Mademoiselle from Armentières.’ If that qualifies.”
“Professor Perry said that you are the person to ask.”
“He’s pulling your leg.” When I reached the library Papa Perry looked up from his console. I said, “Good morning. Anna said that you had told her to ask me about the effect of Louis the Eleventh on French verse.”
“Yes, yes, of course. Would you mind not bothering me now? This bit of programming is very tricky.” He looked back down and closed me out of his world.
Frustrated and irritated I punched up Louis XI. Two hours later I came up for air. I had not learned anything about poetry—so far as I could tell the Spider King had never even rhymed ton con with c’est bon or ever been a patron of the art. But I learned a lot about politics in the fifteenth century. Violent. Made the little scrapes I had been in seem like kiddie quarrels in the crèche.
I spent the rest of the day punching up French lyric verse since 1450. Good in spots. French is suited to lyric poetry, more so than is English—it takes an Edgar Allan Poe to wring beauty consistently out of the dissonances of English. German is unsuited to lyricism, so much so that translations fall sweeter on the ear than do the German originals. This is no fault of Goethe or Heine; it is a defect of an ugly language. Spanish is so musical that a soap-powder commercial in Spanish is more pleasing to the ear than the best free verse in English—the Spanish language is so beautiful that much of its poetry sounds best if the listener does not understand the meaning.
I never did find out what effect, if any, Louis XI had on verse.
One morning I found “my” console occupied. I looked inquiringly at the head librarian. Again he looked harried. “Yes, yes, we’re quite crowded today. Um, Miss Friday, why not use the terminal in your room? It has the same additional controls and, if you need to consult me, you can do so even more quickly than you can here. Just punch local seven and your signature code and I’ll instruct the computer to give you priority. Satisfactory?”
“Just fine,” I agreed. I enjoyed the warm camaraderie of the library study room but in my own room I could take off my clothes without feeling that I was annoying Papa Perry. “What should I study today?”
“Goodness. Isn’t there some subject you are interested in that merits further listening? I dislike disturbing Number One.”
I went to my room and went on with French history since Louis Onze and that led me to the new colonies across the Atlantic and that led me into economics and that took me to Adam Smith and from there to political science. I concluded that Aristotle had had his good days but that Plato was a pretentious fraud and that led to my being called three times by the dining room with the last call including a recorded message that any later arrival would mean nothing but cold night-rations and a live message from Goldie threatening to drag me down by my hair.
So I rushed down, barefooted and still zipping into a jump suit. Anna asked what I had been doing that was so urgent I would forget to eat. “Most unFridayish.” She and Goldie and I usually ate together, with or without male company—residents at HQ were a club, a fraternity, a noisy family, and some two dozen of them were “kissing friends” of mine.
“Improving my brain,” I said. “You are looking at the World’s Greatest Authority.”
“Authority on what?” Goldie asked.
“Anything. Just ask me. The easy ones I answer at once; the hardest ones I’ll answer tomorrow.”
“Prove it,” said Anna. “How many angels can sit on the point of a needle?”
“That’s an easy one. Measure the angels’ arses. Measure the point of the needle. Divide A into B. The numerical answer is left as an exercise for the student.”
“Smart-aleck. What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
“Even easier. Switch on a recorder, using any nearby terminal. Clap with one hand. Play back the result.”
“You try her, Goldie. She’s been eating meat.”
“What is the population of San Jose?”
“Ah, that’s a hard one! I’ll report tomorrow.”
This fiddling went on for over a month before it filtered through my skull that someone (Boss, of course) was in fact trying to force me to become “the World’s Greatest Authority.”
At one time there really was a man known as “the World’s Greatest Authority.” I ran across him in trying to nail down one of the many silly questions that kept coming at me from odd sources. Like this: Set your terminal to “research.” Punch parameters in succession “North American culture,” “English-speaking,” “mid-twentieth century,” “comedians,” “the World’s Greatest Authority.” The answer you can expect is “Professor Irwin Corey.” You’ll find his routines timeless humor.
Meanwhile I was being force-fed, like a Strasbourg goose.
Nevertheless it was a very happy time. Often, as often as not, one of my true friends would invite me to share a bed. I don’t recall ever refusing. Rendezvous would usually be arranged during afternoon sunbathing and the prospect added a tingle to the sensuous pleasure of lying in the sun. Because everyone at HQ was so civilized—sweet through and through—it was possible to answer, “Sorry, Terence asked me first. Tomorrow maybe? No? Okay, sometime soon”—and have no hurt feelings. One of the shortcomings of the S-group I used to belong to was that such arrangements were negotiated among the males under some protocol that was never explained to me but was not free from tension.
The silly questions speeded up. I found myself just getting acquainted with the details of Ming ceramics when a message showed up in my terminal saying that someone in staff wanted to know the relationships between men’s beards, women’s skirts, and the price of gold. I had ceased to wonder at silly questions; around Boss anything can happen. But this one seemed supersilly. Why should there be any relationship? Men’s beards did not interest me; they tickle and often are dirty. As for women’s skirts, I knew even less. I have almost never worn skirts. Skirted costumes can be pretty but they aren’t practical for travel and could have gotten me killed three or four times—and when you’re home, what’s wrong with skin? Or as near as local custom permits.
But I had learned not to ignore questions merely because they were obvious nonsense; I tackled this one by calling up all the data I could, including punching out some most unlikely association chains. I then told the machine to tabulate all retrieved data by categories.
Durned if I didn’t begin to find connections!
As more data accumulated I found that the only way I could see all of it was to tell the computer to plot and display a three-dimensional graph—and that looked so promising that I told it to convert to holographic in color. Beautiful! I did not know why these three variables fitted together but they did. I spent the rest of that day changing scales, X versus Y versus Z in various combinations—magnifying, shrinking, rotating, looking for minor cycloid relations under the obvious gross ones…and noticed a shallow double sinusoidal hump that kept showing up as I rotated the holo—and suddenly, for no reason I can assign, I decided to subtract the double sunspot curve.
Eureka! As precise and necessary as a Ming vase! Before dinnertime I had the equation, just one line that encompassed all the silly data I had spent five days dragging out of the terminal. I punched the chief of staff’s call and recorded that one-line equation, plus definitions of variables. I added no comment, no discussion; I wanted to force the faceless joker to ask for my opinio
I got the same answer back—i.e., none.
I fiddled for most of a day, waiting, and proving to myself that I could retrieve a group picture from any year and, through looking only at male faces and female legs, make close guesses concerning the price of gold (falling or rising), the time of that picture relative to the double sunspot cycle, and—shortly and most surprising—whether the political structure was falling apart or consolidating.
My terminal chimed. No face. No pat on the back. Just a displayed message: “Operations requests soonest depth analysis of possibility that plague epidemics of sixth, fourteenth, and seventeenth centuries resulted from political conspiracy.”
Fooey! I had wandered into a funny farm and was locked up with the inmates.
Oh, well! The question was so complex that I might be left alone a long time while I studied it. That suited me; I had grown addicted to the possibilities of a terminal of a major computer hooked into a world research net—I felt like Little Jack Horner.
I started by listing as many subjects as possible by free association: plague, epidemiology, fleas, rats, Daniel Defoe, Isaac Newton, conspiracies, Guy Fawkes, Freemasonry, Illuminati, OTO, Rosicrucians, Kennedy, Oswald, John Wilkes Booth, Pearl Harbor, Green Bowlers, Spanish influenza, pest control, etc.
In three days my list of possibly related subjects was ten times as long.
In a week I knew that one lifetime was not nearly long enough to study in depth all of my list. But I had been told to tackle the subject so I started in—but I placed my own meaning on “soonest”—i.e., I would study conscientiously at least fifty hours per week but when and how I wished and with no cramming or rawhiding…unless somebody came along and explained to me why I should work harder or differently.
This went on for weeks.
I was wakened in the middle of the night by my terminal—override alarm; I had shut it off as usual when I went to bed (alone, I don’t recall why). I answered sleepily, “All right, all right! Speak up, and it had better be good.”
Friday by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes