Friday, p.27
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       Friday, p.27

           Robert A. Heinlein
 

  With the encouragement of his devoted wife Muriel (née Greentree), who went back to work to keep food on the table, young Shipstone resigned from General Atomics and became the most American of myth-heroes, the basement inventor. Seven frustrating and weary years later he had fabricated the first Shipstone by hand. He had found—

  What he had found was a way to pack more kilowatt-hours into a smaller space and a smaller mass than any other engineer had ever dreamed of. To call it an “improved storage battery” (as some early accounts did) is like calling an H-bomb an “improved firecracker.” What he had achieved was the utter destruction of the biggest industry (aside from organized religion) of the western world.

  For what happened next I must draw from the muckraking history and from other independent sources as I just don’t believe the sweetness and light of the company version. Fictionalized speech attributed to Muriel Shipstone:

  “Danny Boy, you are not going to patent the gadget. What would it get you? Seventeen years at the most…and no years at all in three-fourths of the world. If you did patent or try to, Edison, and P. G. and E., and Standard would tie you up with injunctions and law suits and claimed infringements and I don’t know what all. But you said yourself that you could put one of your gadgets in a room with the best research team G.A. has to offer and the best they could do would be to melt it down and the worst would be that they would blow themselves up. You said that. Did you mean it?”

  “Certainly. If they don’t know how I insert the—”

  “Hush! I don’t want to know. And walls have ears. We don’t make any fancy announcements; we simply start manufacturing. Wherever power is cheapest today. Where is that?”

  The muckraking author fairly frothed at the “cruel, heartless monopoly” held by the Shipstone complex over the prime necessities of “all the little people everywhere.” I could not see it that way. What Shipstone and his companies did was to make plentiful and cheap what used to be scarce and dear—this is “cruel” and “heartless”?

  The Shipstone companies do not have a monopoly over energy. They don’t own coal or oil or uranium or water power. They do lease many, many hectares of desert land…but there is far more desert not being cropped for sunshine than the Shipstone trust is using. As for space, it is impossible to intercept even one percent of all the sunshine going to waste inside the orbit of Luna, impossible by a factor of many millions. Do the arithmetic yourself otherwise you’ll never believe the answer.

  So what is their crime?

  Twofold:

  a) The Shipstone companies are guilty of supplying energy to the human race at prices below those of their competitors;

  b) They meanly and undemocratically decline to share their industrial secret of the final assembly stage of a Shipstone.

  This latter is, in the eyes of many people, a capital offense. My terminal dug out many editorials on “the people’s right to know,” others on “the insolence of giant monopolies,” and other displays of righteous indignation.

  The Shipstone complex is mammoth, all right, because they supply cheap power to billions of people who want cheap power and want more of it every year. But it is not a monopoly because they don’t own any power; they just package it and ship it around to wherever people want it. Those billions of customers could bankrupt the Shipstone complex almost overnight by going back to their old ways—burn coal, burn wood, burn oil, “burn” uranium, distribute power through continent-wide stretches of copper and aluminum wires and/or long trains of coal cars and tank cars.

  But no one, so far as my terminal could dig out, wants to go back to the bad old days when the landscape was disfigured in endless ways and the very air was loaded with stinks and carcinogens and soot, and the ignorant were scared silly by nuclear power, and all power was scarce and expensive. No, nobody wants the bad old ways—even the most radical of the complainers want cheap and convenient power…they just want the Shipstone companies to go away and get lost.

  “The people’s right to know”—the people’s right to know what? Daniel Shipstone, having first armed himself with great knowledge of higher mathematics and physics, went down into his basement and patiently suffered seven lean and weary years and thereby learned an applied aspect of natural law that let him construct a Shipstone.

  Any and all of “the people” are free to do as he did—he did not even take out a patent. Natural laws are freely available to everyone equally, including flea-bitten Neanderthals crouching against the cold.

  In this case, the trouble with “the people’s right to know” is that it strongly resembles the “right” of someone to be a concert pianist—but who does not want to practice.

  But I am prejudiced, not being human and never having had any rights.

  Whether you prefer the saccharine company version or the vitriolic muckraker’s version, the basic facts about Daniel Shipstone and the Shipstone complex are well known and beyond argument. What surprised me (shocked me, in fact) was what I learned when I started digging into ownership, management, and direction.

  My first hint came from that basic printout when I saw what companies were listed as Shipstone complex companies but did not have “Shipstone” in their names. When one pauses for a Coke…the deal is with Shipstone!

  Ian had told me that Interworld had ordered the destruction of Acapulco—does this mean that the trustees of Daniel Shipstone’s estate ordered the killing of a quarter of a million innocent people? Can these be the same people who run the best hospital/school for handicapped children in the world? And Sears-Montgomery—hell’s bells, I own some Sears-Montgomery stock myself. Do I share by concatenation some part of the guilt for the murder of Acapulco?

  I programmed the machine to display how the directorates interlocked inside the Shipstone complex, and then what directorships in other companies were held by directors of Shipstone companies—and the results were so startling that I asked the computer to list stock ownership of one percent or more of the voting stock in all Shipstone companies.

  I spent the next three days fiddling with and rearranging and looking for better ways to display the great mass of data that came back in answer to those two questions.

  At the end of that time I wrote out my conclusions:

  a) The Shipstone complex is all one company. It just looks like twenty-eight separate organizations.

  b) The directors and/or stockholders of the Shipstone complex own or control everything of major importance in all the major territorial nations in the solar system.

  c) Shipstone is potentially a planetwide (systemwide?) government. I could not tell from the data whether it acted as such or not as control (if indeed it were exerted) would be through corporations not overtly part of the Shipstone empire.

  d) It scared me.

  Something I had noticed in connection with one Shipstone company (Morgan Associates) caused me to run a search on credit companies and banks. I was unsurprised but depressed to learn that the very company now extending me credit (MasterCard of California) was in effect the same company as the one guaranteeing payment (Ceres and South Africa Acceptances) and that was duplicated right down the line, whether it was Maple Leaf, Visa, Crédit Québec, or what. That is not news; fiscal theorists have been asserting that as long as I can remember. But it struck home when I saw it spelled out in terms of directorates interlocking and ownership shared.

  On impulse I suddenly asked the computer: “Who owns you?”

  I got back: “Null Program.”

  I rephrased it, conforming most carefully to its language. The computer represented by this terminal was a most forgiving machine and very smart; ordinarily it did not mind somewhat informal programming. But there are limits to what one may expect in machine understanding of verbal language; a reflexive question such as this might call for semantic exactness.

  Again: “Null Program.”

  I decided to sneak up on the idea. I asked it the following question, doing it step by step exactly in accordance with
this computer’s language, computer grammar, computer protocol: “What is the ownership of the information-processing network that has terminals throughout British Canada?”

  The answer was displayed and flashed several times before wiping—and it wiped without my order: “Requested data are not in my membanks.”

  That scared me. I knocked off for the day and went swimming and sought out a friend to share a bed with me that night, not waiting to be asked. I wasn’t superhorny, I was superlonely and dern well wanted a warm living body close to mine to “protect” me from an intelligent machine that refused to tell me who (what) it really was.

  During breakfast next morning Boss sent word to me to see him at ten hundred. I reported, somewhat mystified because in my opinion there had not been nearly enough time for me to complete my two assignments: Shipstone, and the marks of a sick culture.

  But when I came in, he handed me a letter, of the old-fashioned sort, sealed into an envelope and physically forwarded, just like junk mail.

  I recognized it, for I had sent it—to Janet and Ian. But I was surprised to see it in Boss’s hands, as the return address on it was phony. I looked and saw that it had been readdressed to a law firm in San Jose, the one that had been my contact to find Boss. “Pixies.”

  “You can hand it back to me and I will send it to Captain Tormey when I know where he is.”

  “Uh, when you know where the Tormeys are, I will write a very different letter. This one is sort of blind.”

  “Commendably so.”

  “You’ve read it?” (Damn it, Boss!)

  “I read everything that is to be forwarded to Captain and Mrs. Tormey—and Dr. Perreault. By their request.”

  “I see.” (Nobody tells me a damn thing!) “I wrote the way I did, phony name and all, because the Winnipeg police might open it.”

  “They undoubtedly did. I think you covered adequately. I regret that I did not inform you that all mail sent to their home would be forwarded to me. If indeed the police are forwarding all of it. Friday, I do not know where the Tormeys are…but I have a contact method that I can use—once. The plan is to use it when the police drop all charges against them. I expected that weeks ago. It has not taken place. From this I conclude that the police in Winnipeg are very much in earnest in their intention of hanging the disappearance of Lieutenant Dickey on the Tormeys as a murder charge. Let me ask you again: Can that body be found?”

  I thought hard, trying to put “worst case” on it. If the police ever moved in on that house, what would they find? “Boss, have the police been inside that house?”

  “Certainly. They searched it the day after the owners departed.”

  “In that case the police had not found the body the morning of the day I reported here. If they found it, or were to find it, since that date, would you know?”

  “I think it probable. My lines of communication into that police headquarters are less than perfect but I pay highest for freshest information.”

  “Do you know what was done with the livestock? Four horses, a cat and five kittens, a pig, maybe other animals?”

  “Friday, where is your intuition leading you?”

  “Boss, I don’t know exactly how that body is hidden. But Janet, Mrs. Tormey, is an architect who specialized in two-tier active defense of buildings. What she did about her animals would tell me whether or not she thought there was the slightest possibility of that body ever being found.”

  Boss made a notation. “We’ll discuss it later. What are the marks of a sick culture?”

  “Boss, fer Gossake! I’m still learning the full shape of the Shipstone complex.”

  “You will never learn its full shape. I gave you two assignments at once so that you could rest your mind with a change of pace. Don’t tell me that you’ve given no thought to the second assignment.”

  “Thought is about all I’ve given to it. I’ve been reading Gibbon and studying the French Revolution. Also Smith’s From the Yalu to the Precipice.”

  “A very doctrinaire treatment. Read also Penn’s The Last Days of the Sweet Land of Liberty.”

  “Yes, sir. I did start making tallies. It is a bad sign when the people of a country stop identifying themselves with the country and start identifying with a group. A racial group. Or a religion. Or a language. Anything, as long as it isn’t the whole population.”

  “A very bad sign. Particularism. It was once considered a Spanish vice but any country can fall sick with it.”

  “I don’t really know Spain. Dominance of males over females seems to be one of the symptoms. I suppose the reverse would be true but I haven’t run across it in any of the history I’ve listened. Why not, Boss?”

  “You tell me. Continue.”

  “So far as I have listened, before a revolution can take place, the population must lose faith in both the police and the courts.”

  “Elementary. Go on.”

  “Well…high taxation is important and so is inflation of the currency and the ratio of the productive to those on the public payroll. But that’s old hat; everybody knows that a country is on the skids when its income and outgo get out of balance and stay that way—even though there are always endless attempts to wish it away by legislation. But I started looking for little signs, what some call silly-season symptoms. For example, did you know that it is against the law here to be naked outside your own home? Even in your own home if anybody can see in?”

  “Rather difficult to enforce, I suspect. What significance do you see in it?”

  “Oh, it isn’t enforced. But it can’t be repealed, either. The Confederacy is loaded with such laws. It seems to me that any law that is not enforced and can’t be enforced weakens all other laws. Boss, did you know that the California Confederacy subsidizes whores?”

  “I had not noticed it. To what end? For their armed forces? For their prison population? Or as a public utility? I confess to some surprise.”

  “Oh, not that way at all! The government pays them to keep their legs crossed. Take it off the market entirely. They are trained, licensed, examined—and stockpiled. Only it doesn’t work. The designated ‘surplus artists’ draw their subsidy checks…then go right ahead peddling tail. When they aren’t supposed to do it even for fun because that hurts the market for the unsubsidized whores. So the hookers’ union, who sponsored the original legislation to support the union scale, is now trying to work out a voucher system to plug up the holes in the subsidy law. And that won’t work either.”

  “Why won’t it work, Friday?”

  “Boss, laws to sweep back the tide never do work; that’s what King Canute was saying. Surely you know that?”

  “I wanted to be sure that you knew it.”

  “I think I’ve been insulted. I ran across a goody. In the California Confederacy it is against the law to refuse credit to a person merely because that person has taken bankruptcy. Credit is a civil right.”

  “I assume that it does not work but what form does noncompliance take?”

  “I have not yet investigated, Boss. But I think a deadbeat would be at a disadvantage in trying to bribe a judge. I want to mention one of the obvious symptoms: Violence. Muggings. Sniping. Arson. Bombing. Terrorism of any sort. Riots of course—but I suspect that little incidents of violence, pecking away at people day after day, damage a culture even more than riots that flare up and then die down. I guess that’s all for now. Oh, conscription and slavery and arbitrary compulsion of all sorts and imprisonment without bail and without speedy trial—but those things are obvious; all the histories list them.”

  “Friday, I think you have missed the most alarming symptom of all.”

  “I have? Are you going to tell me? Or am I going to have to grope around in the dark for it?”

  “Mmm. This once I shall tell you. But go back and search for it. Examine it. Sick cultures show a complex of symptoms such as you have named…but a dying culture invariably exhibits personal rudeness. Bad manners. Lack of consideration for others in minor m
atters. A loss of politeness, of gentle manners, is more significant than is a riot.”

  “Really?”

  “Pfui. I should have forced you to dig it out for yourself; then you would know it. This symptom is especially serious in that an individual displaying it never thinks of it as a sign of ill health but as proof of his/her strength. Look for it. Study it. Friday, it is too late to save this culture—this worldwide culture, not just the freak show here in California. Therefore we must now prepare the monasteries for the coming Dark Age. Electronic records are too fragile; we must again have books, of stable inks and resistant paper. But that may not be enough. The reservoir for the next renaissance may have to come from beyond the sky.” Boss stopped and breathed heavily. “Friday…”

  “Yes, sir?”

  “Memorize this name and address.” His hands moved at his console; the answer appeared on his high screen. I memorized it.

  “Do you have it?”

  “Yes, sir.”

  “Shall I repeat it for check?”

  “No, sir.”

  “You are sure?”

  “Repeat it if you wish, sir.”

  “Mmm. Friday, would you be so kind as to pour a cup of tea for me before you leave? I find that my hands are unsteady today.”

  “My pleasure, sir.”

  XXIV

  Neither Goldie nor Anna showed up next day at breakfast. I ate by myself and consequently fairly quickly; I dawdle over food only when shared with company. This was just as well for I was just standing up, finished, when Anna’s voice came over the speaking system:

  “Attention, please. I have the unhappy duty to announce that during the night our Chairman died. By his wish there will be no memorial service. The body has been cremated. At nine hundred hours, in the large conference room, there will be a meeting to wind up the affairs of the company. Everyone is urged to attend and to be on time.”

  I spent the time until nine o’clock crying. Why? Feeling sorry for myself, I suppose. I’m certain that’s what Boss would think. He didn’t feel sorry for himself, he didn’t feel sorry for me, and he scolded me more than once for self-pity. Self-pity, he said, is the most demoralizing of all vices.

 
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