Robert A. Heinlein
No picture. Boss’s voice said, “Friday, when will the next major Black Death epidemic occur?”
I answered, “Three years from now. April. Starting in Bombay and spreading worldwide at once. Spreading off planet at first transport.”
“Thank you. Good night.”
I dropped my head to the pillow and went right back to sleep.
I woke up at seven hundred as usual, held still for several moments and thought, while I grew colder and colder—decided that I really had heard from Boss in the night and really had given him that preposterous answer.
So bite the bullet, Friday, and climb the Thirteen Steps. I punched “local one.” “Friday here, Boss. About what I told you in the night. I plead temporary insanity.”
“Nonsense. See me at ten-fifteen.”
I was tempted to spend the next three hours in lotus, chanting my beads. But I have a deep conviction that one should not attend even the End of the World without a good breakfast…and my decision was justified as the special that morning was fresh figs with cream, corned-beef hash with poached eggs, and English muffins with Knott’s Berry Farm orange marmalade. Fresh milk. Colombian high-altitude coffee. That so improved things that I spent an hour trying to find a mathematical relationship between the past history of plague and the date that had popped into my sleep-drenched mind. I did not find one but was beginning to see some shape to the curve when the terminal gave me a three-minute warning I had punched in.
I had refrained from having my hair cut and my neck shaved but otherwise I was ready. I walked in on the tick. “Friday reporting, sir.”
“Sit down. Why Bombay? I would think that Calcutta would be a more likely center.”
“It might have something to do with long-range weather forecasts and the monsoons. Fleas can’t stand hot, dry weather. Eighty percent of a flea’s body mass is water and, if the percentage drops below sixty, the flea dies. So hot, dry weather will stop or prevent an epidemic. But, Boss, the whole thing is nonsense. You woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me a silly question and I gave you a silly answer without really waking up. I probably pulled it out of a dream. I’ve been having nightmares about the Black Death and there really was a bad epidemic that started in Bombay. Eighteen ninety-six and following.”
“Not as bad as the Hong Kong phase of it three years later. Friday, the analytical section of Operations says that the next Black Death epidemic won’t start until a year later than your prediction. And not Bombay. Djakarta and Ho Chi Minh City.”
“That’s preposterous!” I stopped abruptly. “Sorry, sir, I guess I was back in that nightmare. Boss, can’t I study something pleasanter than fleas and rats and Black Death? It’s ruining my sleep.”
“You may. You are through studying plague—”
“—other than to whatever extent your intellectual curiosity causes you to tidy up any loose ends. The matter now goes to Operations for action. But action will be based on your prediction, not on that of the mathematical analysts.”
“I have to say it again. My prediction is nonsense.”
“Friday, your greatest weakness is lack of awareness of your true strength. Wouldn’t we look silly if we depended on the professional analysts but the outbreak was one year earlier, as you predicted? Catastrophe. But to be a year early in taking prophylactic measures does no harm.”
“Are we going to try to stop it?” (People have been fighting rats and fleas throughout history. So far, the rats and fleas are ahead.)
“Heavens, no! In the second place, the contract would be too big for this organization. But in the first place I do not accept contracts that I cannot fulfill; this is one such. In the third place, from the strictest humanitarian viewpoint, any attempt to stop the processes by which overcrowded cities purge themselves is not a kindness. Plague is a nasty death but a quick one. Starvation also is a nasty death…but a very slow one.”
Boss grimaced, then continued. “This organization will limit itself to the problem of keeping Pasteurella pestis from leaving this planet. How will we do this? Answer at once.”
(Ridiculous! Any government public health department, faced with such a question, would set up a blue-ribbon study group, insist on ample research funds, and schedule a reasonable time—five years or more—for orderly scientific investigation.) I answered at once, “Explode them.”
“The space colonies? That seems a drastic solution.”
“No, the fleas. Back during the global wars of the twentieth century somebody discovered that you could kill off fleas and lice by taking them up to high altitude. They explode. About five kilometers as I recall but it can be looked up and checked by experiment. I thought of it because I noticed that Beanstalk Station on Mount Kenya was above the critical altitude—and almost all space traffic these days goes up the Beanstalk. Then there is the simple method of heat and dryness—works but not as fast. But the key to it, Boss, is absolutely no exceptions. Just one case of diplomatic immunity or one VIP allowed to skip the routines and you’ve had it. One lapdog. One gerbil. One shipment of laboratory mice. If it took the pneumonic form, Ell-Five would be a ghost town in a week. Or Luna City.”
“If I did not have other work for you, I would put you in charge. How about rats?”
“I don’t want the job; I’m sick of the subject. Boss, killing a rat is no problem. Stuff it into a sack. Beat the sack with an ax. Then shoot it. Then drown it. Burn the sack with the dead rat in it. Meanwhile its mate has raised another litter of pups and you now have a dozen rats to replace it. Boss, all we’ve ever been able to do with rats is fight them to a draw. We never win. If we let up for a moment the rats pull ahead.” I added sourly, “I think they’re the second team.” This plague assignment had depressed me.
“If Homo sapiens doesn’t make it—he keeps trying to kill himself off—there are the rats, ready to take over.”
“Piffle. Soft-headed nonsense. Friday, you overstress the human will to die. We have had the means to commit racial suicide for generations now and those means are and have been in many hands. We have not done so. In the second place, to replace us, rats would have to grow enormously larger skulls, develop bodies to support them, learn to walk on two feet, develop their front paws into delicate manipulative organs—and grow more cortex to control all this. To replace man another breed must become man. Bah. Forget it. Before we leave the subject of plague, what conclusions did you reach concerning the conspiracy theory?”
“The notion is silly. You specified sixth, fourteenth, and seventeenth centuries…and that means sailing ships or caravans and no knowledge of bacteriology. So here we have the sinister Dr. Fu Manchu in his hideaway raising a million rats and the rats are infested with fleas—easy. Rats and fleas are infected with the bacillus—possible even without theory. But how does he hit his target city? By ship? In a few days all the million rats will be dead and so would be the crew. Even harder to do it overland. To make such a conspiracy work in those centuries would require modern science and a largish time machine. Boss, who thought up that silly question?”
“I thought it had your skid to it. Why?”
“It caused you to study the subject with a much wider approach than you otherwise would have given it, did it not?”
“Uh…” I had spent much more time studying relevant political history than I had spent studying the disease itself. “I suppose so.”
“You know so.”
“Well, yes. Boss, there ain’t no such animal as a well-documented conspiracy. Or sometimes too well documented but the documents contradict each other. If a conspiracy happened quite some time ago, a generation or longer, it becomes impossible to establish the truth. Have you ever heard of a man named John F. Kennedy?”
“Yes. Chief of state in the middle twentieth century of the Federation then occupying the land between Canada—British Canada and Québec—and the Kingdom of Mexico. He was assassina
“That’s the man. Killed in front of hundreds of witnesses and every aspect, before, during, and after, heavily documented. All that mountain of evidence adds up to is this: Nobody knows who shot him, how many shot him, how many times he was shot, who did it, why it was done, and who was involved in the conspiracy if there was a conspiracy. It isn’t even possible to say whether the murder plot was foreign or domestic. Boss, if it is impossible to untangle one that recent and that thoroughly investigated, what chance is there of figuring out the details of the conspiracy that did in Gaius Iulius Caesar? Or Guy Fawkes and the Gunpowder Plot? All that can truthfully be said is that the people who come out on top write the official versions found in the history books, history that is no more honest than is autobiography.”
“Friday, autobiography is usually honest.”
“Huh! Boss, what have you been smoking?”
“That will do. Autobiography is usually honest but it is never truthful.”
“I missed a turn.”
“Think about it. Friday, I can’t spend more time on you today; you chatter too much and change the subject. Hold your tongue while I say some things. You are now permanently on staff work. You are getting older; no doubt your reflexes are a touch slower. I will not again risk you in field work—”
“I’m not complaining!”
“Pipe down. —But you must not get swivel-chair spread. Spend less time at the console, more time in exercise; the day will come when your enhanced reflexes will again save your life. And possibly the lives of others. In the meantime give thought to the day when you will have to shape your life unassisted. You should leave this planet; for you there is nothing here. The Balkanization of North America ended the last chance of reversing the decay of the Renaissance Civilization. So you should think about off-planet possibilities not only in the solar system but elsewhere—planets ranging from extremely primitive to well developed. Investigate for each the cost and the advantages of migrating there. You will need money; do you want my agents to collect the money of which you were cheated in New Zealand?”
“How did you know I was cheated?”
“Come, come! We are not children.”
“Uh, may I think about it?”
“Yes. Concerning your ex-migration: I recommend that you not move to the planet Olympia. Otherwise I have no specific advice other than to migrate. When I was younger, I thought I could change this world. Now I no longer think so but for emotional reasons I must keep on fighting a holding action. But you are young and, because of your unique heritage, your emotional ties to this planet and to this portion of humanity are not great. I could not mention this until you shuffled off your sentimental connection in New Zealand—”
“I didn’t ‘shuffle’ it off; I was kicked out on my arse!”
“So. While you are deciding, look up Benjamin Franklin’s parable of the whistle, then tell me—no, ask yourself—whether or not you paid too much for your whistle. Enough of that—Two assignments for you: Study the Shipstone corporate complex, including its interlocks outside the complex. Second, the next time I see you I want you to tell me precisely how to spot a sick culture. That’s all.”
Boss turned his attention to his console, so I stood up. But I was not ready to accept so abrupt a dismissal as I had had no opportunity to ask important questions. “Boss. Don’t I have any duties? Just random study that goes nowhere?”
“It goes somewhere. Yes, you have duties. First, to study. Second, to be awakened in the middle of the night—or stopped in the hallway—to answer silly questions.”
“What do you want? Angels and trumpets?”
“Well…a job title, maybe. I used to be a courier. What am I now? Court jester?”
“Friday, you are developing a bureaucratic mind. ‘Job title’ indeed! Very well. You are staff intuitive analyst, reporting to me only. But the title carries an injunction: You are forbidden to discuss anything more serious than a card game with any member of the analytical section of the general staff. Sleep with them if you wish—I know that you do, in two cases—but limit your conversation to the veriest trivia.”
“Boss, I could wish that you spent less time under my bed!”
“Only enough to protect the organization. Friday, you are well aware that the absence of Eyes and Ears today simply means that they are concealed. Be assured that I am shameless about protecting the organization.”
“You are shameless, unlimited. Boss, answer me one more question. Who is behind Red Thursday? The third wave sort of fizzled; will there be a fourth? What’s it all about?”
“Study it yourself. If I told you, you would not know; you simply would have been told. Study it thoroughly and some night—when you are sleeping alone—I will ask you. You will answer and then you will know.”
“Fer Gossake. Do you always know when I’m sleeping alone?”
“Always.” He added, “Dismissed,” and turned away.
As I left the sanctum sanctorum I ran into Goldie coming in. I was feeling grouchy and simply nodded. Not sore at Goldie. Boss! Damn him. Supercilious, arrogant voyeur! I went to my room and got to work, so that I could stop fuming.
First I punched for the names and addresses of all the Shipstone corporations. While these were printing I called for histories of the complex. The computer named two, an official company history combined with a biography of Daniel Shipstone, and an unofficial history footnoted “muckrake.” Then the machine suggested several other sources.
I told the terminal to print out both books and I asked it for printouts of other sources if four thousand words or less, summarized if not. Then I looked over the corporations list:
Daniel Shipstone Estate, Inc.
Muriel Shipstone Memorial
Shipstone Deep Water
Shipstone Unlimited, Ltd.
Shipstone Death Valley
Coca-Cola Holding Company
Billy Shipstone School for
Interworld Transport Corporation
Jack and the Beanstalk, Pty.
Wolf Creek Pass Nature Preserve
Año Nuevo Wild Life Refuge
Out-Systems Colonial Shipstone
Visual Arts Museum
I looked at this list with easily controlled enthusiasm. I had known that the Shipstone trust had to be big—who does not have half a dozen Shipstones within easy reach, not counting the big one in your basement or foundation? But now it seemed to me that studying this monster would be a lifetime career. I was not that much interested in Shipstones.
I was nibbling around the edges when Goldie stopped by and told me that it was time to put on the nosebag. “And I have instructions to see to it that you do not spend more than eight hours a day at your terminal and you are to take a full weekend every week.”
“Ah so. Tyrannical old bastard.”
We started for the refectory. “Friday…”
“You are finding the Master grumpy and sometimes difficult.”
“Correction. He is always difficult.”
“Mmm, yes. But what you may not know is that he is in constant pain.” She added, “He can no longer take drugs to control it.”
We walked in silence while I chewed and swallowed that one. “Goldie? What is wrong with him?”
“Nothing, really. I
“How old is he?”
“I don’t know. From things I have heard I know that he is over a hundred. How much over I can’t guess.”
“Oh, no! Goldie, when I went to work for him, he could not have been more than seventy. Oh, he used canes but he was very spry. He moved as fast then as anyone.”
“Well…it’s not important. But you might remember that he hurts. If he is rude to you, it is pain talking. He thinks highly of you.”
“What makes you think so?”
“Ah… I’ve talked too much about my patient. Let’s eat.”
In studying the Shipstone corporate complex I did not attempt to study Shipstones. The way—the only way—to study Shipstones would be to go back to school, get a Ph.D. in physics, add on some intense postdoctoral study in both solid state and plasma, get a job with one of the Shipstone companies and so impress them with your loyalty and your brilliance that you are at long last part of the inner circle controlling fabrication and quality.
Since that involves about twenty years that I should have started back in my teens, I assumed that Boss did not intend me to take that route.
So let me quote from the official or propaganda history:
Prometheus, a Brief Biography and Short Account of the Unparalleled Discoveries of Daniel Thomas Shipstone, BS., MA., Ph.D., LL.D., L.H.D., and of the Benevolent System He Founded.
—thus young Daniel Shipstone saw at once that the problem was not a shortage of energy but lay in the transporting of energy. Energy is everywhere—in sunlight, in wind, in mountain streams, in temperature gradients of all sorts wherever found, in coal, in fossil oil, in radioactive ores, in green growing things. Especially in ocean depths and in outer space energy is free for the taking in amounts lavish beyond all human comprehension.
Those who spoke of “energy scarcity” and of “conserving energy” simply did not understand the situation. The sky was “raining soup”; what was needed was a bucket in which to carry it.
Friday by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes