Robert A. Heinlein
It looks now as if you won’t be home before I leave—and that is probably just as well because we would just cry on each other and that’s no help.
My job came through but not as expected. Keeping in touch with my former boss paid off; Dr. Krasny called me shortly after I went to bed. He is CO. of a brand-new MASH being set up to serve the Sam Houston Scouts. An expanded Scouts of course; each battalion is cadre for a triangular combat team, a pony brigade. I am not supposed to tell you where we are mounting or where we will go but (burn this printout after you read it!) if you were to go west from Plainview, you might run across us in Los Llanos Estacados, before you reach Portales.
Where are we going? That’s really classified! But if we don’t hit Ascension, some wives will draw a pension. I called Anna and Burt; they are meeting me in El Paso at ten past eighteen
[“1810”? Then Goldie is already in Texas. Oh, dear!]
because Dr. Krasny assured me that they would have jobs, either as combat troops or as auxiliary medical if any hitch develops. There is a job for you, too, my dear one—combat if that’s what you want. Or I’ll rate you medtech-3 and use you myself and upgrade you to master sergeant (medadmin) in nothing flat, as I know your quality and so does Colonel Krasny. It would be good to have all four of us—five, I mean—back together again.
But I’m not trying to twist your arm. I know you have things troubling you about your Canadian friends who disappeared. If you feel that you must stay loose to look for them—bless you and good luck. But if you want to get in a little action with bonus pay, come straight to El Paso. The address is Panhandle Investments, El Paso Division, Field Operations Office, Environmental Factors, Attention John Krasny, Chief Engineer—and don’t laugh; just memorize it and destroy it.
Once this operation is in the news you can reach any of us openly through the Houston office of the Scouts. But in the meantime I am “personnel chief clerk” in “Environmental Factors.”
May a gracious God watch over you and keep you safe from harm.
All my love,
I burned it at once. Then I went to bed. I didn’t feel like eating dinner.
Next morning I went to the Labor Mart, looked up Mr. Fawcett, agent for HyperSpace Lines, and told him that I wanted to sign on as a master-at-arms, unarmed.
The supercilious slob laughed at me. I glanced at his assistant for moral support but she kept her eyes averted. I restrained my temper and said gently, “Would you mind explaining the joke?”
He stopped his raucous cawing and said, “Look, chicken, ‘master’ as in ‘master-at-arms’ designates a male. Although we might be able to hire you as ‘mistress’ in some other department.”
“Your sign says Equal Opportunity Employer. The fine print under it states that ‘waiter’ includes ‘waitress,’ ‘steward’ includes ‘stewardess,’ and so forth. Is that true?”
Fawcett stopped grinning. “Quite true. But it also says: ‘physically able to carry out the normal duties of the position.’ Master-at-arms is a police officer aboard ship. Master-at-arms, unarmed, is a cop who can keep order without having to resort to weapons. He can wade into a fight and arrest the center of the disturbance, barehanded. Obviously you can’t. So don’t give me any quack about taking it to the union.”
“I shan’t. But you didn’t read my brag sheet.”
“Can’t see that it matters. However—” He glanced casually down the page. “Says here you’re a combat courier, whatever that is.”
“That means that when I have a job to do, nobody stops me. If somebody tries too hard, he’s dog meat. A courier goes unarmed. I sometimes carry a laser knife or one-shot tear gas. But I depend on my hands. Note my training.”
He looked it over. “Okay, so you’ve been to a martial-arts school. That still doesn’t mean that you can cope with some big bruiser over a hundred kilos heavier and a head taller than you are. Don’t waste my time, girlie; you couldn’t even arrest me.”
I went over his desk, then turkey-walked him to the door and turned him loose before anyone outside could see. Even his assistant did not see it—she most carefully did not see it.
“There,” I said, “that’s how I do it without hurting anyone. But I want to be tested against your biggest male master-at-arms. I’ll break his arm. Unless you tell me to break his neck.”
“You grabbed me when I wasn’t looking!”
“Of course I did. That’s how to handle a nasty drunk. But you’re looking now, so let’s run through it again. Are you ready? This time I might have to hurt you a little but not much. I won’t break any bones.”
“Stay where you are! This is ridiculous. We don’t hire masters-at-arms merely because they’ve been trained in some Oriental tricks; we hire big men, men so big they carry authority just by their size. They don’t have to fight.”
“Okay,” I said. “Hire me as a plainclothes cop. Put me into an evening dress; call me a dance hostess. When somebody about my size and hopped up on sleet pokes your big cop in his solar plexus and he goes down, I stop pretending to be a lady and go in and rescue him.”
“Our masters-at-arms don’t need to be protected.”
“Maybe. A really big man is usually slow and clumsy. He hardly ever knows much about fighting because he’s never really had to fight. He’s okay to keep order at a card party. Or to handle one drunk. But suppose the Captain really needs help. A riot. A mutiny. Then you need someone who can fight. Me.”
“Leave your application with my assistant. Don’t call us; we’ll call you.”
I went home and thought about where else I could look—or should I go to Texas? I had made the same silly, unpardonable mistake with Mr. Fawcett that I had made with Brian…and Boss would have been ashamed of me. Instead of picking up his challenge I should have insisted on a fair test—but I should never have laid a finger on the man I was asking to hire me. Stupid, Friday, stupid!
It was not losing that job that bothered me; it was losing any chance of getting a spaceside job with HyperSpace Lines. I was going to have to have a job pretty soon to accomplish the sacred duty of seeing to it that Friday eats (let’s face it; I eat like a pig) but it didn’t have to be this job. I had decided to ship out with HyperSpace because one voyage with them would let me size up more than half of the colonized planets in explored space.
While I had made up my mind to migrate as Boss had advised, the idea of picking a planet solely from brochures written by advertising copywriters—with no return-and-exchange privilege—bothered me. I wanted to shop first.
For example: Eden has received more favorable publicity than any other colony in the sky. Hearken to its virtues: A climate much like Southern California over most of its land mass, no dangerous predators, no noxious insects, surface gravity 9 percent less than Earth, oxygen content of air 11 percent higher, metabolic environment compatible with Terran life and soil so rich that two or three bumper crops a year are routine. Scenery delightful no matter where you look. Population today just under ten million.
So what’s the catch? I found out one evening in Luna City through letting a ship’s officer pick me up and take me to dinner. The company placed a high price on Eden from the time it was discovered and touted it as the perfect retirement home. And it is. After the pioneer party had prepared it, nine-tenths of the people who moved there were elderly and wealthy.
The government is a democratic republic but not one like the California Confederacy. To be eligible to vote a person must be seventy Terran years old and a taxpayer (i.e., landowner). Residents from ages twenty to thirty perform public service, and if you think that means waiting on the elderly hand and foot you are utterly right, but it includes also anything else unpleasant that needs to be done and therefore would command high wages if it were not done by conscript labor.
Is any of this in any of the company brochures? Hollow laugh!
I needed to know the unadvertised facts abo
I do hope I grow up before Cheyne-Stokes breathing sets in.
Boss scorned crying over spilt milk quite as much as he despised self-pity. Having killed my chances of being hired by HyperSpace it was time to leave Las Vegas while I was still solvent. If I couldn’t make the Grand Tour myself, there was still a way to get the ungarnished word about colonial planets the way I had acquired the truth about Eden: cultivate ships’ crew members.
The way to do that was by going to the one place where I was sure to find them: Stationary Station, up the Beanstalk. Freighters were not likely to come farther down Earth’s gravity well than to Ell-Four or -Five—that is, to Lunar orbit without the disadvantage of entering Luna’s own gravity well. But passenger ships usually touched at Stationary Station. All of HyperSpace Lines’ giant liners, Dirac, Newton, Forward, and Maxwell, left from there, returned there, received maintenance and chandlery there. Shipstone complex had a branch there (Shipstone Stationary) primarily to sell power to ships and especially these big ships.
Officers and ratings going on leave arrived and left from there; those not on leave might sleep in their ships but they were likely to drink and eat and party a bit in the Station.
I dislike the Beanstalk and I don’t care much for the twenty-four hour Station. Aside from its spectacular and always changing view of Earth it has nothing to offer but high prices and cramped quarters. Its artificial gravity surges uncomfortably and always seems to go out just in time to put soup in your face.
But there are jobs to be had there if you are not fussy. I should be able to support myself there long enough to be sure that I received frank opinions concerning each of the colonized planets from one or more jaundiced spacemen.
It was even possible that I might bypass Fawcett and ship out from there with HyperSpace. Ships are reputed always to sign on a few at the last minute to fill unexpected vacancies. If such a chance opened up, I would not compound my folly—I would not ask for a master-at-arms billet. Waitress, scullery, chambermaid, bath attendant—if the job would swing me around the Grand Tour, I would grab it.
Having thus picked my new home, I looked forward to boarding the same ship, by choice, as a luxury-class passenger, passage paid under the odd terms of my foster father’s will.
I gave notice to the leaseholder of the mousetrap I lived in, then took care of some chores before leaving for Africa. Africa—Would I have to cross via Ascension? Or would SBs be running again? Africa made me think of Goldie, and Anna and Burt, and sweet Doc Krasny. I might reach Africa before they did. Irrelevant as there was only one probable war there now (that I knew of) and I intended to shun that area like the plague.
Plague! I must at once prepare a report on plague for Gloria Tomosawa and for my friends at Ell-Five, Mr. and Mrs. Mortenson. It seemed preposterously unlikely that anything I could say would persuade them or anyone else that a Black Death epidemic was coming in only two and a half years—I hadn’t believed it myself. But, if I could make responsible people uneasy enough so that antirat measures were tightened and health checks at CHI barriers be made more than a meaningless ritual, it might—it just might—save space colonies and Luna.
Unlikely—But I had to try.
The only other thing I had to do was make one more check on my missing friends…then let the matter rest until I came down from Stationary Station or (one may hope!) returned from the Grand Tour. Surely one can call Sydney or Winnipeg or anywhere from Stationary Station…but at much higher cost. I had learned lately that wanting something and being able to pay for it were not the same.
I punched the Tormeys’ Winnipeg call code, resigned to hearing: “The code you have signaled is temporarily out of service at the subscriber’s request.”
What I got was: “Pirates Pizza Palace!”
I muttered, “Sorry, I punched wrong,” and cleared the board. Then I punched again, most carefully—
—and got: “Pirates Pizza Palace!”
This time I said, “I’m sorry to bother you. I’m in Las Vegas Free State and have been trying to reach a friend in Winnipeg—but twice I’ve reached you. I don’t know what I’m doing wrong.”
“What code did you punch?”
I told the friendly voice. “That’s us,” she agreed. “Best giant pizzas in British Canada. But we opened just ten days ago. Maybe your friend used to have this call code?”
I agreed with that, thanked the pleasant voice, and cleared—sat back and thought. Then I punched ANZAC Winnipeg while wishing mightily that this minimum-service terminal could bring in a picture from farther away than Las Vegas itself; in trying to play Pinkerton it helps to watch faces. Once ANZAC’s computer answered, I asked for the operations duty officer, I having become somewhat more sophisticated in how to handle that computer. I told the woman who answered, “I’m Friday Jones, a New Zealand friend of Captain and Mrs. Tormey. I tried to call their home and could not reach them. I wonder if you can help me?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Really? Not even a suggestion?”
“I’m sorry. Captain Tormey resigned. He even cashed in his pension rights. I understand that he’s sold his house, so I assume that he is gone for good. I do know that the only address we have for him is his brother-in-law’s address at the University of Sydney. But we can’t give out addresses.”
I said, “I think you mean Professor Federico Farnese, Biology Department, at the University.”
“That’s right. I see you know it.”
“Yes, Freddie and Betty are old friends; I knew them when they lived in Auckland. Well, I’ll wait till I’m home to call Freddie and that will get me Ian. Thanks for being so helpful.”
“My pleasure. When you talk to Captain Tormey, please tell him that Junior Piloting Officer Pamela Heresford sends her best.”
“I will remember.”
“If you are going home soon, I have good news for you. The semi schedule for Auckland is now fully restored. We’ve run ten days of cargo-only and we are now certain that there is no longer any way our ships can be sabotaged. We are offering a forty percent discount on all fares now, too; we want to get our old friends back.”
I thanked her again but told her that, since I was in Vegas, I expected to leave from Vandenberg, then switched off before I had to improvise more lies.
Again I sat and thought. Now that the SBs were running should I go to Sydney first? There was—or used to be—a weekly trajectory from Cairo to Melbourne, and vice versa. If it was not running it was possible to go by tube and float craft via Singapore, Rangoon, Delhi, Teheran, Cairo, then down to Nairobi—but it would be expensive, long, and uncertain, with squeeze at every move and always the chance of being grounded by some local disturbance. I might wind up in Kenya without money enough to go up the Beanstalk.
A last resort. A desperate one.
I called Auckland, was unsurprised to be told by the computer that Ian’s call code was not operative. I checked to see what time it was in Sydney, then called the university, not doing it the routine way through its admin office but punching straight through to its biology department, a call code I had obtained a month back.
I recognized a familiar Strine accent. “Marjorie Baldwin here, Irene. Still trying to find my lost sheep.”
“My word! Luv, I tried, I did try, to deliver your message. But Professor Freddie never did come back to his office. He’s left us. Gone.”
“Gone? Gone where?”
“You wouldn’t believe how many people would like to know! I’m not even supposed to be telling you this. Somebody cleaned out his desk, there’s no hide nor hair in his flat—gone! I can’t tell you more than that, because nobody knows.”
After that dismaying call I sat still and thought, then called the Winnipeg Werewolves Security Guar
Then I certainly wished for vision as well as sound! He answered, “Look, sister, I can smell a cop even through a terminal. Go back and tell your chief that he got nothing off us last time and he gets nothing off us this time.”
I held my temper and answered quietly, “I am not a cop although I can see why you might think so. I really am in Las Vegas, which you can confirm by calling me back, collect.”
“Very well. Captain Tormey owned a matched pair of black Morgans. Can you tell me who bought them?”
“Copper, get lost.”
Ian had shown excellent judgment: The Werewolves really were loyal to their clients.
If I had plenty of time and money, I might dig up something by going to Winnipeg and/or Sydney and rooting at it myself. If wishes were horses—Forget it, Friday; you are at last totally alone; you’ve lost them.
Do you want to see Goldie badly enough to get involved in a war in East Africa?
But Goldie did not want to stay with you badly enough to stay out of that war—doesn’t that tell you something?
Yes, it tells me something I know but always hate to admit: I always need people more than they need me. It’s your old basic insecurity, Friday, and you know where it comes from and you know what Boss thought about it.
Friday by Robert A. Heinlein / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes