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       Friday, p.30

           Robert A. Heinlein
slower 1  faster

  This I understood. I had been so indignant at that filthy notion that for a moment I had ceased to think like a courier.

  We crossed the border into Vegas Free State at Dry Lake; the capsule stopped just long enough for Confederacy exit stamps. Each of us used an alternate passport with the standard squeeze folded inside—no trouble. And no entrance stamp as the Free State doesn’t bother with CHI; they welcome any solvent visitor.

  Ten minutes later we checked into the Dunes, with much the same accommodations we had had in San Jose save that this was described as an “orgy suite.” I could not see why. A mirror on the ceiling and aspirin and Alka-Seltzer in the bath are not enough to justify that designation; my doxyology instructor would have laughed in scorn. However I suppose that most of the marks would not have had the advantages of advanced instruction—I’ve been told that most people don’t have any formal training. I’ve often wondered who teaches them. Their parents? Is that rigid incest taboo among human persons actually a taboo against talking about it but not against doing it?

  Someday I hope to find out such things but I’ve never known anybody I could ask. Maybe Janet will tell me. Someday…

  We arranged to meet for dinner, then Burt and Anna went to the lounge and/or casino while Goldie and I went out to the Industrial Park. Burt intended to job-hunt but expressed an intention of raising a little hell before settling down. Anna said nothing but I think she wanted to savor the fleshpots before taking up the life of a grandmother-in-residence. Only Goldie was dead-serious about job-hunting that day. I intended to find a job, yes—but I had some thinking to do first.

  I was probably—almost certainly—going to out-migrate. Boss thought I should and that was reason enough. But besides that, the study he had started me on concerning the symptoms of decay in cultures had focused my mind on things I had long known but never analyzed. I’ve never been critical of the cultures I’ve lived in or traveled through—please understand that an artificial person is a permanent stranger wherever she is, no matter how long she stays. No country could ever be mine so why think about it?

  But when I did study it, I saw that this old planet is in sorry shape. New Zealand is a pretty good place and so is British Canada, but even those two countries showed major signs of decay. Yet those two are the best of the lot.

  But let’s not rush things. Changing planets is something a person doesn’t do twice—unless she is fabulously wealthy, and I was not. I was subsidized for one out-migration…so I had better by a durn sight pick the right planet because no mistakes were going to be corrected after I left the window.

  Besides—Well, where was Janet?

  Boss had had a contact address or a call code. Not me!

  Boss had had an ear in the Winnipeg police HQ. Not me!

  Boss had had his own Pinkerton net over the whole planet. Not me!

  I could try to phone them from time to time. I would. I could check with ANZAC and the University of Manitoba. I would. I could check that Auckland code and also the biodep of the University of Sydney. I would.

  If none of those worked, what more could I do? I could go to Sydney and try to sweet-talk somebody out of Professor Farnese’s home address or sabbatical address or whatever. But that would not be cheap and I had suddenly been forced to realize that travel I had taken for granted in the past would now be difficult and perhaps impossible. A trip to New South Wales before semiballistics started to run again would be very expensive. It could be done—by tube and by float and by going three-fourths the way around the world…but it would be neither easy nor cheap.

  Perhaps I could sign on as a ship’s doxy out of San Francisco for Down Under. That would be cheap and easy…but time-consuming even if I shipped in a Shipstone-powered tanker out of Watsonville. A sail-powered freighter? Well, no.

  Maybe I had better hire a Pinkerton in Sydney. What did they charge? Could I afford it?

  It took less than thirty-six hours from Boss’s death for me to bump my nose into the fact that I had never learned the true value of a gram.

  Consider this: Up to then my life had had just three modes of economy:

  a) On a mission I had spent whatever it took.

  b) At Christchurch I spent some but not much—mainly presents for the family.

  c) At the farm, at the next HQ, then still later at Pajaro Sands, I didn’t spend any money, hardly. Room and board were in my contract. I did not drink or gamble. If Anita had not been bleeding me, I would have accumulated a tidy sum.

  I had led a sheltered life and had never really learned about money.

  But I can do simple arithmetic without using a terminal. I had paid in cash my share at Cabaña Hyatt. I used my credit card for my fare to the Free State but jotted down the cost. I noted the daily rate at the Dunes and kept track of other costs, whether card or cash or on the hotel bill.

  I could see at once that room and board in first-class hotels would very shortly use up every gram I owned even if I spent zero, nit, swabo, nothing, on travel, clothes, luxuries, friends, emergencies. Q.E.D. I must either get a job or ship out on a one-way colonizing trip.

  I acquired a horrid suspicion that Boss had been paying me a lot more than I was worth. Oh, I’m a good courier, none better—but what’s the going rate on couriers?

  I could sign up as a private, then (I was fairly sure) make sergeant in a hurry. That did not really appeal to me but it might be where I would wind up. Vanity isn’t one of my faults; for most civilian jobs I am unskilled labor—I know it.

  Something else was pulling me, something else was pushing me. I didn’t want to go alone to a strange planet. It scared me. I had lost my Ennzedd family (if indeed I ever had them), Boss had died, and I felt like Chicken Little when the sky was falling, my true friends among my colleagues had gone to the four winds—except these three and they were leaving quickly—and I had managed to lose Georges and Janet and Ian.

  Even with Las Vegas giddy around me I felt as alone as Robinson Crusoe.

  I wanted Janet and Ian and Georges to out-migrate with me. Then I would not be afraid. Then I could smile all the way.

  Besides—The Black Death. Plague was coming.

  Yes, yes, I had told Boss that my midnight prediction was nonsense. But he had told me that his analytical section had predicted the same thing, in four years instead of three. (Small comfort!)

  I was forced to take my own prediction seriously. I must warn Ian and Janet and Georges.

  I did not expect to frighten them with it—I don’t think you can scare those three. But I did want to say, “If you won’t migrate, at least take my warning seriously to the extent of staying out of big cities. If inoculation becomes available, get it. But heed this warning.”

  The Industrial Park is on the road to Hoover Dam; the Labor Mart is there. Vegas does not permit APVs inside the city but there are slidewalks everywhere and one runs out to Industrial Park. To go beyond there, to the dam or to Boulder City, there is an APV commuter line. I planned to use it as Shipstone Death Valley leases a stretch of desert between East Las Vegas and Boulder City for a charging station and I wanted to see it to supplement my study.

  Could the Shipstone complex be the corporation state behind Red Thursday? I could see no reason for it. But it had to be a power rich enough to blanket the globe and reach all the way out to Ceres in a single night. There were not many such. Could it be a superrich man or group of men? Again, not many possibilities. With Boss dead I probably never would know. I used to slang him—but he was the one I turned to when I didn’t understand something. I had not known how much I leaned on him until his support was taken away.

  The Labor Mart is a large covered mall, with everything from fancy offices of the Wall Street Journal to scouts who have their offices in their hats and never sit down and seldom stop talking. There are signs everywhere and people everywhere and it reminds me of Vicksburg river town but it smells better.

  The military and quasi-military free companies cluster together at the east
end. Goldie went from one to the other and I went with her. She left her name and a copy of her brag sheet with each one. We had stopped in town to get her brag sheet printed and she had arranged a mail drop with a public secretary, and she had induced me to pay for a mail and telephonic accommodation address, too. “Friday, if we are here more than a day or two, I’m moving out of the Dunes. You noticed the room tariff, did you not? It’s a nice place but they sell you the bed all over again each day. I can’t afford it. Maybe you can but—”

  “I can’t.”

  So I established an address of sorts, and sent my brain a memo to tell Gloria Tomosawa. I paid a year’s fee in advance—and discovered that it gave me an odd feeling of security. It was not even a little grass shack…but it was a base, an address, that would not wash away.

  Goldie did not sign up that afternoon but did not seem disappointed. She said to me, “No war going on now, that’s all. But peace never lasts more than a month or two. Then they’ll start hiring again and my name will be on file. Meanwhile I’ll list with the city registry and work substitute jobs. One thing about the bedpan business, Friday; a nurse never starves. The current emergency shortage of nurses has been going on for more than a century and won’t let up soon.”

  The second recruiter she called on—representative of Royer’s Rectifiers, Caesar’s Column, and the Grim Reapers, all crack outfits, worldwide reputations—turned to me after Goldie had made her statement. “How about you? Are you an RN, too?”

  “No,” I said, “I’m a combat courier.”

  “Not much call for that. Today most outfits use express mail if a terminal won’t serve.”

  I found myself somewhat piqued—Boss has warned me against that. “I’m elite,” I replied. “I go anywhere…and what I carry gets there when the mail is shut down. Such as the late Emergency.”

  “That’s true,” said Goldie. “She’s not exaggerating.”

  “There still isn’t much call for your talents. Can you do anything else?”

  (I should not boast!) “What’s your best weapon? I’ll duel you with it, either contest rules, or blood. Phone your widow and we’ll do it.”

  “My, you’re a sparky little slitch! You remind me of a fox terrier I once had. Look, dear, I can’t play games with you; I have to keep this office open. Now tell me the truth and I’ll put your name on file.”

  “Sorry, chief. I shouldn’t have sounded off. All right, I’m an elite courier. If I carry it, it gets there and my fees are high. Or my salary if I’m hired as a specialist staff officer. As for the rest, of course I have to be the best, bare-handed or with weapons, because what I carry must go through. You can list me as a DI if you wish—barehanded or any weapon. But I’m not interested in combat unless the pay is high. I prefer courier duty.”

  He made notes. “All right. Don’t get your hopes up. The hairy characters I work for aren’t likely to use couriers other than battlefield couriers—”

  “I’m that, too. What I carry gets through.”

  “Or you get killed.” He grinned. “They’re more likely to use a superdog. Look, sweetheart, a corporate has more need for your sort of messenger than does a military. Why don’t you leave your name with each of the multinationals? All the big ones are represented here. And they’ve got more money. Lots more money.”

  I thanked him and we left. At Goldie’s urging I stopped in at the local branch post office and made printouts of my own brag sheet. I was going to ease off on the required salary, being sure that Boss had favored me—but Goldie wouldn’t let me. “Raise it! This is your best chance. Outfits that need you will either pay without a quiver, or will at least call you and try to dicker. But cut your price? Look, dear, nobody buys at a fire sale if they can afford the best.”

  I dropped one at each multinational. I didn’t really expect any nibbles but if anyone wanted the world’s best courier, they could study my qualifications.

  When the offices started to close, we slid back to the hotel to keep our dinner date, and found both Anna and Burt just a leetle tipsy. Not drunk, just happy and a touch too deliberate in their movements.

  Burt struck a pose and declaimed, “Ladies! Look at me and admire! I am a great man—”

  “You’re swacked.”

  “That, too, Friday, m’love. But you see before you wup! the man who banked the broke at Monte Carlo. I’m a genius, a blinkin’, true-blue, authentic, f’nanchal genius. You may touch me.”

  I had been planning to touch him, later that night. Now I wondered. “Anna, did Burt break the bank?”

  “No, but he certainly bent it.” She stopped to belch carefully, covering up. “’Scuse me. We dropped a little here, then went over to the Flamingo to change our luck. Got there just before post time for the third at Santa Anita and Burt put a superbuck on the nose of a little mare with his mother’s name—a long shot and she romped home. So here is a wheel right outside the track room and Burt put his winnings on double zero—”

  “He was drunk,” Goldie stated.

  “I am genius!”

  “Both. Double zero hit, and Burt put this enormous stack on black and hit, and left it there and hit, and moved it to red and hit—and the croupier sent for the pit boss. Burt wanted to go for broke but the pit boss limited him to five kilobucks.”

  “Peasants. Gestapo. Hired menials. Not a gentleman sportsman in their entire casino. I took my patronage elsewhere.”

  “And lost it all,” said Goldie.

  “Goldie m’old frien’, you do not show proper respec’.”

  “He might have lost it all,” agreed Annie, “but I saw to it that he followed the pit boss’s advice. With six of the casino’s sheriffs around us we went straight to their casino’s office of the Lucky Strike State Bank and deposited it. Otherwise I would not have let him leave. Imagine carrying a half a megabuck from the Flamingo to the Dunes in cash. He wouldn’t have lived to cross the street.”

  “Preposterous! Vegas has less violent crime ’nany other city North Amer’ca. Anna, m’true love, you are a bossy, notional woman. A henpecker. I shall not marry you even when you fall on your knees at Fremont ’n’ Main ’n’ beg me to. Instead I shall take your shoes away from you and beat you and feed you on crusts.”

  “Yes, dear. You can put your own shoes on now because you are going to feed all three of us. On crusts of caviar and truffles.”

  “And champagne. But not because you are henpeckering me. Ladies. Friday, Goldie, my true loves—will you help me celebrate my f’nanchal genius? With libations and pheasant under glass and gorgeous show girls in fancy hats?”

  “Yes,” I answered.

  “Yes before you change your mind. Anna, did you say ‘half a megabuck’?”

  “Burt. Show them.”

  Burt produced a new bankbook, let us look at it while he buffed his nails on his stomach and looked smug. Bk504,000. Over half a million in the only hard currency in North America. Uh, slightly over thirty-one kilos of fine gold. No, I wouldn’t want to carry that much across the street, either—not in bullion. Not without a wheelbarrow. It would mass almost half as much as I do. A bankbook is more convenient.

  Yes, I would drink Burt’s champagne.

  Which we did, in the theater at the Stardust. Burt knew how much cumshaw to give the captain of waiters to get us ringsides (or paid too much, I don’t know which) and we sopped up champagne and had a lovely dinner centered around Cornish game hen but billed as squab and the show girls were young and pretty and cheerful and healthy and smelled freshly bathed. And they had show boys with stuffed codpieces for us women to look at, only I didn’t, not much, because they didn’t smell right and I got the feeling that they were more interested in each other than they were in women. Their business, of course, but on the whole I preferred the show girls.

  And they had a swell magician who plucked live pigeons out of the air the way most magicians pluck coins. I love magicians and never understand how they do it and I watch them with my mouth hanging open.

>   This one did something that had to involve a pact with the Devil. At one point he had one of the show girls replace his pretty assistant. His assistant was not overdressed but the show girl was wearing shoes at one end and a hat at the other and just a smile in between.

  The magician started taking pigeons from her.

  I don’t believe what I saw. There isn’t that much room and it would tickle. So it didn’t happen.

  But I’m planning on going back to watch it from a different angle. It simply can’t be true.

  When we got back to the Dunes, Goldie wanted to catch the lounge show but Anna wanted to go to bed. So I agreed to sit with Goldie. Burt said to save him a seat as he would be right back after he took Anna up.

  Only he didn’t. When we went up I was unsurprised to find the door to the other room closed; before dinner my nose had warned me that it was unlikely that Burt would soothe my nerves two nights in a row. Their business and I had no kick coming. Burt had done nobly by me when I really needed it.

  I thought perhaps Goldie would have her nose out of joint but she didn’t seem to. We simply went to bed, giggled over the impossibility of where he got those pigeons, and went to sleep. Goldie was snoring gently as I dropped off.

  Again I was awakened by Anna but this morning she was not looking sober; she was radiant. “Good morning, darlings! Pee and brush your teeth; breakfast will be up in two jounces. Burt is just getting out of the bath, so don’t dally.”

  Along toward the second cup of coffee Burt said, “Well, dear?”

  Anna said, “Shall I?”

  “Go ahead, hon.”

  “All right. Goldie, Friday—We hope you can spare us some time this morning because we both love you both and want you to be with us. We’re getting married this morning.”

  Goldie and I put on fine exhibitions of utter astonishment and great pleasure, along with jumping up and kissing each of them. In my case the pleasure was sincere; the surprise was faked. With Goldie I thought that it might have been reversed. I kept my suspicions to myself.

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