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       Cronos, p.24

           Robert Silverberg
 

  There was really no need for Pomrath to have gone to the machine. Telephone lines linked every apartment with any computer to which there should be public access. He could phone to learn of his status; and in any event if there had been some upward twitch in his job profile, the machine would have been in contact with him by this time. He preferred to get out of the house, though. He knew the job machine’s answer in advance, so this was merely a ritual, one of the many sustaining rituals that enabled him to cope with the numbing fact that he was a wholly useless human being.

  Subfloor scanners hummed as Pomrath stepped into the building. He was checked, monitored, and identified. If he had been on one of the registers of known anarchists, he would not have been permitted to cross the threshold. Clamps emerging from the marble floor would painlessly have secured his limbs until he could be disarmed and removed from the premises. Pomrath meant no harm to the job machine, however. He harbored hostilities, but they were directed against the universe in general. He was too intelligent a man to waste his wrath on computers.

  The benevolent faces of Benjamin Danton and Peter Kloofman beamed down on him from the lofty reaches of the geodesic dome. Giant tridim simulacra dangled from the gleaming struts of the huge building. Danton managed to look severe even while he was smiling; Kloofman, who was reputed to be a man of great humanitarian warmth, was a more inviting figure. Pomrath remembered a time about twenty years ago when the public representatives of theHigh Government had constituted a triumvirate, with Kloofman and two others whose names he had begun to forget. Then one day Danton had appeared and the pictures of the other two were taken down. Doubtless one day Kloofman and Danton both would vanish, and there would be two—or three—or four new faces on the public buildings. Pomrath did not concern himself too deeply with changes in the personnel of the High Government. Like most people, he had some fundamental doubts about the existence of Kloofman and Danton. There was good reason to believe that the computers were running the whole show, and had been for at least a century now. Yet he did not fail to nod his head reverently to the tridims as he entered the job machine building. For all he knew, Danton might actually be watching him out of the cold eyes of that big simulacrum.

  The place was crowded. Pomrath walked to the center of the marble floor, and stood for a moment enjoying the buzz and clamor of the machine. To his left was Bank Red, for job transfers. Pomrath had no dealings there; you needed to have a job before you could start negotiating for a transfer. Straight ahead of him was Bank Green, for members of the hard-core unemployed like himself. To his right was Bank Blue, where new members of the labor force filed applications for work. Each of the three banks had a long line in wait. Kids to the right; a bunch of eager-beaver Class Tens to the left, looking for advancement; straight ahead, the dismal legions of the jobless. Pomrath joined the line at Bank Green.

  It moved swiftly. No one spoke to him. Wrapped in a cocoon of privacy in the midst of this crowd, Pomrath wondered, as he often did, where his life had been derailed. He had a high I.Q., he knew. Good reflexes. Determination and ambition and flexibility. Why, he could have been Class Eight by now, if the breaks had gone his way.

  They hadn’t. They never would. He had trained as amedical technician, thinking that illness was a constant even in a well-ordered world, and so there would always be a job for him. Unfortunately, many other young men of his generation had arrived at the same conclusion. As in the arthropod races, Pomrath thought. You picked your favorite lobster with care, judging his abilities and aggressiveness with all the shrewdness at your command. The factors were there to be assessed. The trouble was a lot of other men were just as shrewd as you; if you could isolate a really superior racer, so could they, and the odds had a way of being 11-10 or worse when you got your bet down. If you won, you were just about breaking even. The secret was to find the 50-to-1 shot who could win. But if he could win, he would not carry such fat odds. The universe, thought Pomrath, is not unfair; it simply is not interested.

  He had backed the sure thing, and so his reward had been correspondingly slim: a few weeks of work, many months of unemployment. Pomrath was a good technician. He had his skills, and they were at least the equal of those of a genuine doctor of a few centuries ago. Today, real doctors—there weren’t many of them—rated Class Three, just below the lower echelon of the High Government. Pomrath, though, as a mere technician, was bogged down in Class Fourteen and all the attendant discomforts, and the only way he could gain slope on the rating curve was to add to his work-experience rating, but there was no work. Or not very much.

  What irony, he thought. Joe Quellen, with no skills at all, is a big-deal Class Seven. Private apartment, no less. And here I am twice as far down the curve. But Quellen was a member of the government—not the High Government, of course, not the policy-making group, just the government— and so Quellen had to have status. They had to put Quellenin one of the higher classes simply so he’d be able to enforce his authority. Pomrath chewed at a ragged fingernail and wondered why he had not had the good sense to think of going into government service.

  Then he answered himself: the odds were even worse there. Quellen had had luck. Maybe a little ability too, Pomrath conceded grudgingly. If I had gone into government instead of becoming a medic, I’d probably be a Class Fourteen clerk today, with regular work but no other advantages that I don’t have at the present. The universe is not unfair. But it can be terribly consistent sometimes.

  Pomrath was at the head of the line, now.

  He was confronted by a blank aluminum plate, some two feet square, in the center of whose shiny surface was mounted a circular scanning shield made of pebbled glass. The shield glowed green and Pomrath clasped his hand over it in the old, familiar ritual.

  It was not necessary to talk to the job machine. The job machine knew why Pomrath had come, and who he was, and what fate was in store for him. Nevertheless, Pomrath said in his deep, husky voice, “How about a little work, maybe?” and punched the activating stud.

  He got his answer speedily.

  Something in the wall behind the shiny aluminum plate made a whirring, chittering sound. Probably strictly for effect, Pomrath thought. To make the prolets believe that that machine is really doing something. A little slot opened in the plate and a minislip came rolling out. Pomrath ripped it off and studied it without much interest.

  It bore his name, his job classification rating, and the rest of the identifying gibberish that had accreted to him in his journey through the world. Below that in neat block letters was the verdict:

  EMPLOYMENT PROGNOSIS CURRENTLY UNFAVORABLE. WE WILL INFORM YOU AS OPPORTUNITIES FOR GAINFUL EMPLOY DEVELOP. WE URGE PATIENCE AND UNDERSTANDING. TEMPORARY PRESSURES PREVENT THE ATTAINMENT OF THE HIGH GOVERNMENT’S FULL EMPLOYMENT QUOTA.

  “Too bad,” Pomrath murmured. “My sympathy to the High Government.”

  He placed the minislip in the disposal slot and turned away, shouldering a path through the swarm of emotionless men waiting to get their share of the bad news. So much for the visit to the job machine.

  “What time is it?” he asked.

  “Half past sixteen,” said his earwatch.

  “I think I’ll drop in at my friendly sniffer palace. Do you think that’s a good idea?”

  The earwatch wasn’t programmed for such responses. For twice the money, you could get one that would really talk to you, would tell you things other than the time.

  Pomrath did not think he rated such a luxury in these troubled times. He was also not so hungry for companionship that he yearned for the conversation of an earwatch. Still, he knew, there were those who took consolation from such things.

  He stepped outside, into the pale sunlight of the spring afternoon.

  The sniffer palace he particularly favored was four blocks away. There were plenty of them, dozens within a ten-block radius of the job-machine building, but Pomrath always went to the same one. Why not? They dispensed the same poisons at each one, so the only commo
dity that distinguished one from the next was personal service. Even anunemployed Class Fourteen likes to know that he’s a valued regular client of something, if only a sniffer palace.

  Pomrath walked quickly. The streets were crowded; pedestrianism was in fashion again lately. The short, heavyset Pomrath had little patience for the obstacles in his way. In fifteen minutes he was at the sniffer palace. It was on the fortieth underlevel of a commercial tank building; by law, all such places of illusion-peddling had to be underground, so that impressionable children at street level would not be prematurely corrupted. Pomrath entered the tank and took the express drop-shaft. With great dignity he descended five hundred feet. The tank had eighty levels, terminating in an undertract that linked it to several adjoining buildings, but Pomrath had never been down that deep to see. He left such subterranean adventures to the members of the High Government, and had no wish to come face to face with Danton somewhere in the depths of the earth.

  The sniffer palace had gaudy, somewhat defective argon lights out front. Most such establishments were allmechanical, but this one had human attendants. That was why Pomrath liked it. He walked in, and there was good old Jerry just within the door, scanning him out of authentic, bloodshot human eyes.

  “Norm. Good to see.”

  “I’m not so sure about that. Business?”

  “Lousy. Have a mask.”

  “Glad to,” Pomrath said. “The wife? You got her pregnant yet?”

  The plump man behind the counter smiled. “Would I do a crazy thing like that? In Class Fourteen, do I need a house full of kids? I took the Sterility Pledge, Norm. You forget that?”

  “I guess I did,” Pomrath said. “Well, okay. There are times I wish I’d done the same. Give me the mask.”

  “What are you sniffing?”

  “Butyl mercaptan,” he said at random.

  “Come off it. You know we don’t—”

  “Pyruvic acid, then. With a jolt of lactate dehydrogenase 5 as a spike.”

  Pomrath drew laughter, but it was mechanical, the laughter of an entrepreneur humoring a valued if slightly embittered customer. “Here, Norm. Stop contaminating my brain and take this. And sweet dreams. You got couch nine, and you owe me a piece and a half.”

  Taking the mask, Pomrath dropped a few coins into the fleshy palm and retreated to a vacant couch. He kicked his shoes off. He stretched out. He clasped the mask to his face and inhaled. A harmless pastime, a mild hallucinatory gas, a quick illusion to enliven the day. As he went under, Pomrath felt electrodes sliding into place against his skull. To serve as wardens for his alpha rhythms, was the official explanation; if his illusion got too violent, he could be awakened by the management before he did some harm to himself.

  Pomrath had heard that the electrodes served another, more sinister purpose: to record the hallucinations, to tape them for the benefit of Class Two millionaires who liked the vicarious kick of sitting inside a prolet’s mind for a while. Pomrath had asked Jerry about that, but Jerry denied it. As well he might do. It hardly mattered, Pomrath thought, if the sniffer palace chose to peddle second-hand hallucinations. They were free to loot his alphas, if they cared to. So long as he got some decent entertainment for his piece and a half, his proprietary interests ended there.

  He went under.

  Abruptly he was Class Two, the occupant of a villa on an artificial island in the Mediterranean. Wearing nothing but a strip of green cloth about his waist, he lay restfully on a fat pneumochair at the edge of the sea. A girl paddledback and forth in the crystal water, her tanned skin gleaming when she broke the surface. She smiled at him. Pomrath acknowledged her with a negligent wave of his hand. She looked quite lovely in the water, he told himself.

  He was viceroy for interpersonal relations in Moslem East, a nicé soft Class Two sinecure that involved nothing more than an occasional visit to Mecca and a few conferences each winter in Cairo. He had a pleasant home near Fargo, North Dakota, and a decent apartment in the New York zone of Appalachia, and of course this island in the Mediterranean. He firmly expected to reach Class One in the next personnel kickover of the High Government. Danton consulted with him frequently. Kloofman had invited him to dinner several times down on Level One Hundred. They had discussed wines. Kloofman was something of a connoisseur; he and Pomrath had spent a splendid evening analyzing the virtues of a Chambertin that the synthesizers had produced back in ’74. That was a good year, ’74. Especially for the bigger Burgundies.

  Helaine crawled up out of the water and stood incandescently bare before him, her tanned, full-blown body shimmering in the warm sunlight.

  “Darling, why didn’t you come swimming?” she asked.

  “I was thinking. Very delicate plans.”

  “You know that that gives you a headache! Isn’t there a government to do the thinking for you?”

  “Underlings like your brother Joe? Don’t be foolish, love. There’s the government, and there’s the High Government, and the two are quite distinct. I have my responsibilities. I have to sit here and think.”

  “What are you thinking about?”

  “Helping Kloofman assassinate Danton.”

  “Really, love? But I thought you were in the Danton faction!”

  Pomrath smiled. “I was. Kloofman, though, is a connoisseur of fine wines. He tempted me. Do you know what he’s devised for Danton? It’s magnificent. An autonomic laser programmed to put a beam through him at the exact moment when he—”

  “Don’t tell me,” Helaine said. “I might give away the secret!” She turned, presenting her back to him. Pomrath let his eyes rove up and down the succulent voluptuousness of her. She had never looked more delightful, he thought. He wondered if he should participate in Kloofman’s assassination scheme. Danton might reward him well for information. It was worth further thought.

  The butler came rolling out of the villa and planted itself on four stubby telescoping legs beside Pomrath’s lounge chair. Pomrath regarded the gray metal box with affection. What could be better than a homeostatic butler, programmed to its master’s cycle of alcohol consumption?

  “A filtered rum,” Pomrath said.

  He accepted the drink, which was extended toward him by a spidery arm of crosshatched titanium fibers. He sipped it. A hundred yards off shore, the sea abruptly began to bubble and boil, as though something monstrous were churning upward from the depths. A vast corkscrew-shaped nose broke the surface. A metal kraken, paying a visit.

  Pomrath gestured in the defense-motion, and instantly the guardian cells of the island threw up a picket fense of evenly spaced copper wire, each strand eight feet high and a sixteenth of an inch thick. The defense screen glowed between the strands.

  The kraken lumbered toward the shore. It did not challenge the defensive screen. Rearing twenty feet out of the water, the bulky grayish-green object cast a long shadow across Pomrath and Helaine. It had large yellow eyes. A lid opened in the tubular skull, and a panel slid forward, out ofwhich a human figure descended. So the kraken was merely a means of transportation, Pomrath observed. He recognized the figure who was coming ashore, and ordered the screen to drop.

  It was Danton.

  Cold eyes, sharply beaked nose, thin lips, swarthy skin betokening a more than usually mixed ancestry: Danton. As he stepped ashore, the Class One potentate nodded courteously to the nude Helaine and held both palms out to the apprehensive Pomrath. Pomrath tapped the butler’s control panel; the metal box scuttled off to fetch a pneumochair for the newcomer. Danton settled into it. Pomrath procured a drink for him. Danton thanked him kindly. Helaine sprawled out on her belly to sunbathe.

  Danton said quietly, “About Kloofman, now. The time has come—”

  Pomrath woke, the taste of old rags in his mouth.

  It was always like that, he thought sadly. Just as the hallucination got really exciting, the effect wore off. Now and then, experimentally, he had paid for a double-strength jolt so he could enjoy the fantasy longer. Even then, though, the mid-halluc
ination interruption was the rule. TO BE CONTINUED, the mask always said, ringing down the curtain. But what did he expect? A neatly rounded episode, beginning, middle, climax, resolution? Since when did the universe work that way? He elbowed up from the couch and headed back to the front desk to drop off the mask.

  “You have a good one, Norm?” Jerry asked.

  “Terrific,” Pomrath said. “I was demoted to Class Twenty and put in maximum confinement. Then they found work for me as assistant to a sanitation robot. I was the one who worked the squeegee. After that I started to get cancer of the inner ear, and—”

  “Hey, don’t fool me. You got a dream like that here?”

  “Sure,” said Pomrath. “Not bad for a piece and a half, was it? Some fun!”

  “You got a hell of a sense of humor, Norm. I don’t know, a guy like you, where you think up the jokes.”

  Pomrath smiled thinly. “It’s a gift from heaven. I don’t question a thing like that. It comes to you out of the blue, like cancer of the inner ear. See you, Jerry.”

  He walked out and took the shaft to the top of the tank. It was late, close to dinnertime. He was in the mood for walking, but he knew Helaine would bend the walls if he dawdled like that on the way home, so he made for the nearest quickboat ramp. As he approached it, Pomrath saw a seedy figure coming toward him at a rapid clip. Pomrath tensed. I’m ready for anything, he thought. Just let him try some funny stuff.

  “Read this,” the man said, and jammed a crumpled minislip into Pomrath’s hand.

  Pomrath unfolded the tough, yellowish synthetic fiber. The message was simple, printed in purple letters right in the center of the slip:

 
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