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       Friday, p.3

           Robert A. Heinlein
slower 1  faster

  “I still want to know where I am. And how. And why. Somewhere underground, surely—but where?”

  “Underground, surely, quite a few meters. ‘Where’ you will be told when you need to know, or at least how to get to and from. That was the shortcoming of our farm—a pleasant place but too many people knew its location. ‘Why’ is obvious. ‘How’ can wait. Report.”

  “Boss, you are the most exasperating man I have ever met.”

  “Long practice. Report.”

  “And your father met your mother at a swing ding. And he didn’t take off his hat.”

  “They met at a Baptist Sunday-school picnic and both of them believed in the Tooth Fairy. Report.”

  “Dirty ears. Snot. The trip to Ell-Five was without incident. I found Mr. Mortenson and delivered to him the contents of my trick bellybutton. Routine was interrupted by a most unusual factor: The space city was experiencing an epidemic of respiratory disorder, etiology unknown, and I contracted it. Mr. Mortenson was most kind; he kept me at home and his wives nursed me with great skill and tender loving care. Boss, I want them compensated.”

  “Noted. Continue.”

  “I was out of my silly head most of the time. That is why I ran a week behind schedule. But once I felt like traveling I was able to leave at once as Mr. Mortenson told me that I was already carrying the item he had for you. How, Boss? My navel pouch again?”

  “Yes and no.”

  “That’s a hell of an answer!”

  “Your artificial pochette was used.”

  “I thought so. Despite the fact that there aren’t supposed to be any nerve endings there, I can feel something—pressure, maybe—when it’s loaded.”

  I pressed on my belly around my navel and tightened my belly muscles. “Hey, it’s empty! You unloaded it?”

  “No. Our antagonists did so.”

  “Then I failed! Oh, God, Boss, this is awful.”

  “No,” he said gently, “you succeeded. In the face of great danger and monumental obstacles you succeeded perfectly.”

  “I did?” (Ever had the Victoria Cross pinned on you?) “Boss, cut the double talk and draw me a diagram.”

  “I will.”

  But maybe I had better draw a diagram first. I have a ’possum pouch, created by plastic surgery, behind my bellybutton. It isn’t large but you can crowd one whale of a lot of microfilm into a space of about one cubic centimeter. You can’t see it because the sphincter valve that serves it holds the navel scar closed. My bellybutton looks normal. Unbiased judges tell me that I have a pretty belly and a sightly navel…which, in some important ways, is better than having a pretty face, which I don’t have.

  The sphincter is a synthetic silicone elastomer that holds the navel tight at all times, even if I am unconscious. This is necessary as there are no nerves there to give voluntary control of contraction and relaxation, such as is possible with the anal, vaginal, and—for some people—throat sphincters. To load the pouch use a dab of K-Y jelly or other nonpetroleum lubricant, and push it in by thumb—no sharp corners, please! To unload it I take the fingers of both hands and pull the artificial sphincter open as much as I can, then press hard with my abdominal muscles—and it pops right out.

  The art of smuggling things in the human body has a long history. The classic ways are in the mouth, in the nasal sinuses, in the stomach, the gut, the rectum, vagina, bladder, eye socket of a missing eye, ear canal, and exotic and not very useful methods using tattoos sometimes covered with hair.

  Every one of the classic ways is known to every customs officer and every special agent public or private the world round, Luna, space cities, other planets, and anywhere men have reached. So forget them. The only classic method that can still beat a pro is the Purloined Letter. But the Purloined Letter is high art indeed and, even when used perfectly, it should be planted on an innocent who can’t give it away under drugs.

  Take a look at the next thousand bellybuttons you encounter socially. Now that my pouch has been compromised, it is possible that one or two will conceal surgically emplaced hideaways like mine. You can expect a spate of them soon, then no more will be emplaced as any novelty in smuggling becomes useless once the word gets around. In the meantime customs officers are going to be poking rude fingers into bellybuttons. I hope a lot of those officers get poked in the eye by angry victims—navels tend to be sensitive and ticklish.

  “Friday, the weak point of that pochette in you has always been that any skillful interrogation—”

  “They were clumsy.”

  “—or rough interrogation using drugs could force you to mention its existence.”

  “Must have been after they shot me with babble juice. I don’t recall mentioning it.”

  “Probably. Or word may have come to them through other channels, as several people know of it—you, me, three nurses, two surgeons, one anesthesiologist, possibly others. Too many. No matter how our antagonists knew, they did remove what you were carrying there. But don’t look glum; what they received was a very long list reduced to microfilm of all the restaurants listed in a 1928 telephone book of the former city of New York. No doubt there is a computer somewhere working on this list right now, attempting to break the code concealed in it…which will take a long time as there is no code concealed in it. A dummy load. Sense-free.”

  “And for this I have to chase all the way to Ell-Five, eat scummy food, get sick on the Beanstalk, and be buggered about by brutal bastards!”

  “Sorry about the last, Friday. But do you think I would risk the life of my most skillful agent on a useless mission?”

  (See why I work for the arrogant bastard? Flattery will get you anywhere.) “Sorry, sir.”

  “Check your appendectomy scar.”

  “Huh?” I reached under the sheet and felt it, then flipped the sheet back and looked at it. “What the hell?”

  “The incision was less than two centimeters and straight through the scar; no muscle tissue was disturbed. The item was withdrawn about twenty-four hours ago by reopening the same incision. With the accelerated repair methods that were used on you I am told that in two more days you will not be able to find the new scar in the old. But I am very glad that the Mortensons took such good care of you as I am sure that the artificial symptoms induced in you to cover what had to be done to you were not pleasant. By the way, there really is a catarrhal-fever epidemic there—fortuitous window dressing.”

  Boss paused. I stubbornly refused to ask him what I was carrying—he would not have told me anyhow. Shortly he added, “You were telling me about your trip home.”

  “The trip down was without incident. Boss, the next time you send me into space I want to go first-class, in an antigrav ship. Not via that silly Indian rope trick.”

  “Engineering analysis shows that a skyhook is safer than any ship. The Quito cable was lost through sabotage, not materiel failure.”


  “I don’t intend to bind the mouths of the kine. You may use antigrav from here on if circumstances and timing permit. This time there were reasons to use the Kenya Beanstalk.”

  “Maybe so, but someone tailed me out of the Beanstalk capsule. As soon as we were alone, I killed him.”

  I paused. Someday, someday, I am going to cause his face to register surprise. I retackled the subject diagonally:

  “Boss, I need a refresher course, with some careful reorientation.”

  “Really? To what end?”

  “My kill reflex is too fast. I don’t discriminate. That bloke hadn’t done anything to rate killing. Surely, he was tailing me. But I should either have shaken him, there or in Nairobi, or, at most, knocked him cold and placed him on ice while I went elsewhere.”

  “We’ll discuss your possible need later. Continue.”

  I told him about the Public Eye and “Belsen’s” quadruple identity and how I had sent them to the four winds, then I outlined my trip home. He checked me. “You did not mention the destruction of that hotel in Nairobi.”

  “Huh? But, Boss, that had nothing to do with me. I was halfway to Mombasa.”

  “My dear Friday, you are too modest. A large number of people and a huge amount of money have gone into trying to keep you from completing your mission, including a last-ditch attempt at our former farm. You may assume, as least hypothesis, that the bombing of the Hilton had as its sole purpose killing you.”

  “Hmm. Boss, apparently you knew that it would be this rough. Couldn’t you have warned me?”

  “Would you have been more alert, more resolute, had I filled your mind with vague warnings of unknown dangers? Woman, you made no mistakes.”

  “The hell I didn’t! Uncle Jim met my capsule when he should not have known the time I would arrive; that should have set off every alarm in my head. The instant I laid eyes on him I should have dived back down the hole and taken any capsule anywhere.”

  “Whereupon it would have become extremely difficult for us to achieve rendezvous, which would have aborted your mission as thoroughly as losing what you carried. My child, if affairs had gone smoothly, Jim would have met you at my behest; you underestimate my intelligence net as well as the effort we put into trying to watch over you. But I did not send Jim to get you because at that moment I was running. Hobbling, to be precise. Hurrying. Trying to escape. I assume that Jim took the ETA message himself—from our man, or that of our antagonists, or possibly from both.”

  “Boss, if I had known it at the time, I would have fed Jim to his horses. I was fond of him. When the time comes, I want to cancel him myself. He’s mine.”

  “Friday, in our profession it is undesirable to hold grudges.”

  “I don’t hold many but Uncle Jim is special. And there is another case I want to handle myself. But I’ll argue with you later. Say, is it true that Uncle Jim used to be a papist priest?”

  Boss almost looked surprised. “Where did you hear that nonsense?”

  “Around and about. Gossip.”

  “‘Human, All Too Human.’ Gossip is a vice. Let me settle it. Prufit was a con man. I met him in prison, where he did something for me, important enough that I made a place for him in our organization. My mistake. My inexcusable mistake, as a con man never stops being a con man; he can’t. But I suffered from a will to believe, a defect of character that I thought I had rooted out. I was mistaken. Continue, please.”

  I told Boss how they had grabbed me. “Five of them, I think. Possibly only four.”

  “Six, I believe. Descriptions.”

  “None, Boss, I was too busy. Well, one. I had one sharp look at him just as I killed him. About a hundred and seventy-five tall, weight around seventy-five or -six. Age near thirty-five. Blondish, smooth-shaven. Slavic. But he was the only one my eye photographed. Because he held still. Involuntarily. As his neck snapped.”

  “Was the other one you killed blond or brunet?”

  “‘Belsen’? Brunet.”

  “No, at the farm. Never mind. You killed two and injured three before they piled enough bodies on you to hold you down by sheer weight. A credit to your instructor, let me add. In escaping, we had not been able to thin them down enough to keep them from taking you…but, in my opinion, you won the battle in which we recaptured you by your having earlier taken out so many of their effectives. Even though you were chained up and unconscious at the time, you won the final fracas. Go on, please.”

  “That about wraps it up, Boss. A gang rape next, followed by interrogation, direct, then under drugs, then under pain.”

  “I’m sorry about the rape, Friday. The usual bonuses. You will find them enhanced as I judge the circumstances to have been unusually offensive.”

  “Oh, not that bad. I’m hardly a twittering virgin. I can recall social occasions that were almost as unpleasant. Except one man. I don’t know his face but I can identify him. I want him! I want him as badly as I want Uncle Jim. Worse, maybe, as I want to punish him a bit before I let him die.”

  “I can only repeat what I said earlier. For us, personal grudges are a mistake. They reduce survival probability.”

  “I’ll risk it for this bucko. Boss, I don’t hold the rape qua rape against him; they were ordered to rape me under the silly theory that it would soften me up for interrogation. But the scum should bathe and he should have his teeth fixed and he should brush them and use a mouthwash. And somebody must tell him that it is not polite to slap a woman with whom he is copulated. I don’t know his face but I know his voice and his odor and his build and his nickname. Rocks or Rocky.”

  “Jeremy Rockford.”

  “Huh? You know him? Where is he?”

  “I once knew him and I recently had one clear look at him, enough to be sure. Requiescat in pace.”

  “Really? Oh, hell. I hope he didn’t die quietly.”

  “He did not die quietly. Friday, I have not told you all that I know—”

  “You never do.”

  “—because I wanted your report first. Their assault on the farm succeeded because Jim Prufit had cut all power just before they hit us. This left us nothing but hand weapons for the few who wear arms at the farm, only bare hands for most of us. I ordered evacuation and most of us escaped through a tunnel prepared and concealed when the house was rebuilt. I am sorry and proud to say that three of our best, the three who were armed when we were hit, elected to play Horatius at the bridge. I know that they died as I kept the tunnel open until I could tell by the sounds that it had been entered by the raiders. Then I blasted it.

  “It took some hours to round up enough people and to mount our counterattack, especially in arranging for enough authorized power vehicles. While we conceivably could have attacked on foot, we had to have at least one APV as ambulance for you.”

  “How did you know I was alive?”

  “The same way I knew that the escape tunnel had been entered and not by our rear guard. Remote pickups. Friday, everything that was done to you and by you, everything you said and was said to you, was monitored and recorded. I was unable to monitor in person—busy preparing the counterattack—but the essential parts were played for me as time permitted. Let me add that I am proud of you.

  “By knowing which pickups recorded what, we knew where they were holding you, the fact that you were cuffed, how many were in the house, where they were, when they settled down, and who stayed awake. By relay to the command APV I knew the situation in the house right to the moment of attack. We hit—They hit, I mean—our people hit. I don’t lead attacks hobbling on these two sticks; I wield the baton. Our people hit the house, were inside, the designated four picked you up—one armed only with a bolt cutter—and all were out in three minutes eleven seconds. Then we set fire to it.”

  “Boss! Your lovely farmhouse?”

  “When a ship is sinking, one does not worry about the dining-room linens. We can never use the farm again. Burning the house destroyed many awkward records and many secret and quasi-secret items of equipment. But, most compelling, burning the house gave us a quick cleanup of the parties who had compromised its secrets. Our cordon was in place before we used incendiaries, then each one was shot as he attempted to come out.

  “That was when I saw your acquaintance Jeremy Rockford. He was burned in the leg as he came out the east door. He stumbled back in, changed his mind and tried again to escape, fell and was trapped. From the sounds he made I can assure you that he did not die quietly.”

  “Ugh. Boss, when I said that I wanted to punish him before I killed him, I didn’t mean anything as horrible as burning him to death.”

  “Had he not behaved like a horse running back into a burning barn, he would have died as the others did…quickly, from laser beam. Shot on sight, for we took no prisoners.”

  “Not even for interrogation?”

  “Not correct doctrine, I so stipulate. But, Friday my dear, you are unaware of the emotional atmosphere. All had heard the tapes, at least of the rape and of your third interrogation, the torture. Our lads and lassies would not have taken prisone
rs even if I had so ordered. But I did not attempt to. I want you to know that you are held in high esteem by your colleagues. Including the many who have never met you and whom you are unlikely ever to meet.”

  Boss reached for his canes, struggled to his feet. “I’m seven minutes over the time your physician told me I could visit. We’ll talk tomorrow. You are to rest now. A nurse will be in to put you to sleep. Sleep and get well.”

  I had a few minutes to myself; I spent them in a warm glow. “High esteem.” When you have never belonged and can never really belong, words like that mean everything. They warmed me so much that I didn’t mind not being human.


  Someday I’m going to win an argument with Boss.

  But don’t hold your breath.

  There were days when I did not lose arguments with him—the days he did not visit me.

  It started with a difference of opinion over how long I was going to have to remain in therapy. I felt ready to go home or back to duty, either one, after four days. While I didn’t want to get into a dockside fight just yet, I could take light duty—or a trip to New Zealand, my first choice. All my hurts were repairing.

  They hadn’t been all that much: lots of burns, four broken ribs, simple fractures left tibia and fibula, multiple compound fractures of the bones of my right foot and three toes of my left, a hairline skull fracture without complications, and (messy but least disabling) somebody had sawed off my right nipple.

  The last item and the burns and the broken toes were all that I recalled; the others must have happened while I was distracted by other matters.

  Boss said, “Friday, you know that it will take at least six weeks to regenerate that missing nipple.”

  “But plastic surgery for a simple cosmetic job would heal in a week. Dr. Krasny told me so.”

  “Young woman, when anyone in this organization is maimed in line of duty, she will be restored as perfectly as therapeutic art can achieve. In addition to that our permanent policy, in your case there is another reason, compelling and sufficient. We each have a moral obligation to conserve and preserve beauty in this world; there is none to waste. You have an unusually comely body; damage to it is deplorable. It must be repaired.”

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