True, Eric realized. And we've got a sick, hypochondriacal, dispirited leader. And Tijuana Fur & Dye Corporation is one of those vast industrial props that maintain that sick leader, that manage just barely to keep the Mole in office. Without such warm, high-placed personal friendships as that of Virgil Ackerman, Gino Molinari would be out or dead or in an old folks' rest home. I know it. And yet – individual life must go on. After all, he reflected, I didn't choose to get entangled in my domestic life, my boxer's clinch with Kathy. And if you think I did or do, it's because you're morbidly young. You've failed to pass from adolescent freedom into the land which I inhabit: married to a woman who is economically, intellectually, and even this, too, even erotically my superior.* * *
Before leaving the building Dr Eric Sweetscent dropped by the Baths, wondering if Bruce Himmel had shown up. He had; there he stood, beside the huge reject-basket full of defective Lazy Brown Dogs.
'Turn them back into groonk,' Jonas said to Himmel, who grinned in his empty, disjointed fashion as the youngest of the Ackermans tossed him one of the defective spheres which rolled off TF&D's assembly lines along with those suitable for wiring into the command guidance structure of interplanetary spacecraft. 'You know,' he said to Eric, 'if you took a dozen of these control syndromes – and not the defective ones but the ones going into shipping cartons for the Army – you'd find that compared with a year ago or even six months ago their reaction time has slowed by several microseconds.'
'By that you mean,' Eric said, 'our quality standards have dropped?'
It seemed impossible. TF&D's product was too vital. The entire network of military operations depended on these head-sized spheres.
'Exactly.' It did not appear to bother Jonas. 'Because we were rejecting too many units. We couldn't show a profit.'
Himmel stammered, 'S-sometimes I wish we were back in the Martian bat guano business.'
Once the corporation had collected the dung of the Martian flap bat, had made its first returns that way and so had been in position to underwrite the greater economic aspects of another non-terrestrial creature, the Martian print amoeba. This august unicellular organism survived by its ability to mimic other life forms – those of its own size, specifically – and although this ability had amused Terran astronauts and UN officials, no one had seen an industrial usage until Virgil Ackerman of bat guano fame had come upon the scene. Within a matter of hours he had presented a print amoeba with one of his'current mistress's expensive furs; the print amoeba had faithfully mimicked it, whereupon, for all intents and purposes, between Virgil and the girl two mink stoles existed. However, the amoeba had at last grown tired of being a fur and had resumed its own form. This conclusion left something to be desired.
The answer, developed over a period of many months, consisted of killing the amoeba during its interval of mimicry and then subjecting the cadaver to a bath of fixing-chemicals which had the capacity to lock the amoeba in that final form; the amoeba did not decay and hence could not later on be distinguished from the original. It was not long before Virgil Ackerman had set up a receiving plant at Tijuana, Mexico, and was accepting shipments of ersatz furs of every variety from his industrial installations on Mars. And almost at once he had broken the natural fur market on Earth.
The war, however, had changed all that.
But, then, what hadn't the war changed? And who had ever thought, when the Pact of Peace was signed with the ally, Lilistar, that things would go so badly? Because according to Lilistar and its Minister Freneksy this was the dominant military power in the galaxy; its enemy, the reegs, was inferior militarily and in every other way and the war would undoubtedly be a short one.
War itself was bad enough, Eric ruminated, but there was nothing quite like a losing war to make one stop and think, to try – futilely – to second-guess one's past decisions – such as the Pact of Peace, to name one example, and an example which currently might have occurred to quite a number of Terrans had they been asked. But these days their opinions were not being solicited by the Mole or by the government of Lilistar itself. In fact it was universally believed – openly noised about at bars as well as in the privacy of living rooms – that even the Mole's opinion was not being asked.
As soon as hostilities with the reegs had begun, Tijuana Fur & Dye had converted from the luxury trade of ersatz fur production to war work, as, of course, had all other industrial enterprises. Supernaturally accurate duplication of rocketship master syndromes, the ruling monad Lazy Brown Dog, was fatalistically natural for the type of operation which TF&D represented; conversion had been painless and rapid. So here now, meditatively, Eric Sweetscent faced this basket of rejects, wondering – as had everyone at one time or another in the corporation – how these sub-standard and yet still quite complex units could be put to some economic advantage. He picked one up and handled it; in terms of weight it resembled a baseball, in terms of size a grapefruit. Evidently nothing could be done with these failures which Himmel had rejected, and he turned to toss the sphere into the maw of the hopper, which would return the fixed plastic into its original organic cellular form.
'Wait,' Himmel croaked.
Eric and Jonas glanced at him.
'Don't melt it down,' Himmel said. His unsightly body twisted with embarrassment; his arms wound themselves about, the long, knobby fingers writhing. Idiotically, his mouth gaped as he mumbled, 'I – don't do that any more. Anyhow, in terms of raw material that unit's worth only a quarter of a cent. That whole bin's worth only about a dollar.'
'So?' Jonas said. They still have to go back to—'
Himmel mumbled, 'I'll buy it.' He dug into his trouser pocket, straining to find his wallet; it was a long and arduous struggle but at last he produced it.
'Buy it for what?' Jonas demanded.
'I have a schedule arranged,' Himmel said, after an agonized pause. 'I pay a half cent apiece for Lazy Brown Dog rejects, twice what they're worth, so the company's making a profit. So why should anyone object?' His voice rose to a squeak.
Pondering him, Jonas said, 'No one's objecting. I'm just curious as to what you want it for.' He glanced sideways at Eric as if to ask. What do you say about this?
Himmel said, 'Urn, I use them.' With gloom he turned and shambled toward a nearby door. 'But they're all mine because I paid for them in advance out of my salary,' he said over his shoulder as he opened the door. Defensively, his face dark with resentment and with the corrosive traces of deeply etched phobic anxiety, he stood aside.
Within the room – a storeroom, evidently – small carts rolled about on silver-dollar-sized wheels; twenty or more of them, astutely avoiding one another in their zealous activity.
On board each cart Eric saw a Lazy Brown Dog, wired in place and controlling the movements of the cart.
Presently Jonas rubbed the side of his nose, grunted, said, 'What powers them?' Stooping, he managed to snare a cart as it wheeled by his foot; he lifted it up, its wheels still spinning futilely.
'Just a little cheap ten-year A-battery,' Himmel said. 'Costs another half cent.'
'And you built these carts?'
'Yes, Mr Ackerman.' Himmel took the cart from him and set it back on the floor; once more it wheeled industriously off. 'These are the ones too new to let go,' he explained. 'They have to practice.'
'And then,' Jonas said, 'you give them their freedom.'
That's right.' Himmel bobbed his large-domed, almost bald head, his horn-rimmed glasses sliding forward on his nose.
'Why?' Eric said.
Now the crux of the matter had been broached; Himmel turned red, twitched miserably, and yet displayed an obscure, defensive pride. 'Because,' he blurted, 'they deserve it.'
Jonas said, 'But the protoplasm's not alive; it died when the chemical fixing-spray was applied. You know that. From then on it – all of these – is nothing but an electronic circuit, as dead as – well, as a robant.'
With dignity Himmel answered, 'But I consider them alive, Mr Ackerman. And just because they're inferior and incapable of guiding a rocketship in deep space, that doesn't mean they have no right to live out their meager lives. I release them and they wheel around for, I expect, six years or possibly longer; that's enough. That gives them what they're entitled to.'
Turning to Eric, Jonas said, 'If the old man knew about this—'
'Mr Virgil Ackerman knows about this,' Himmel said at once. 'He approves of it.' He amended, 'Or rather, he lets me do it; he knows I'm reimbursing the company. And I build the carts at night, on my own time; I have an assembly line – naturally very primitive, but effective – in my conapt where I live.' He added, 'I work till around one o'clock every night.'
'What do they do after they're released?' Eric asked. 'Just roam the city?'
'God knows,' Himmel said. Obviously that part was not his concern; he had done his job by building the carts and wiring the Lazy Brown Dogs in functioning position. And perhaps he was right; he could hardly accompany each cart, defend it against the hazards of the city.
'You're an artist,' Eric pointed out, not sure if he was amused or revolted or just what. He was not impressed; that much he was sure of: the entire enterprise had a bizarre, zany quality – it was absurd. Himmel ceaselessly at work both here and at his conapt, seeing to it that the factory rejects got their place in the sun ... what next? And this, while everyone else sweated out the folly, the greater, collective absurdity, of a bad war.
Against that backdrop Himmel did not look so ludicrous. It was the times. Madness haunted the atmosphere itself, from the Mole on down to this quality-control functionary who was clearly disturbed in the clinical, psychiatric sense.
Walking off down the hall with Jonas Ackerman, Eric said, 'He's a pook.' That was the most powerful term for aberrance in currency.
'Obviously,' Jonas said, with a gesture of dismissal. 'But this gives me a new insight into old Virgil, the fact that he'd tolerate this and certainly not because it gives him a profit – that's not it. Frankly I'm glad. I thought Virgil was more hard-boiled; I'd have expected him to bounce this poor nurt right out of here, into a slave-labor gang on its way to Lilistar. God, what a fate that would be. Himmel is lucky.'
'How do you think it'll end?' Eric asked. 'You think the Mole will sign a separate treaty with the reegs and bail us out of this and leave the 'Starmen to fight it alone – which is what they deserve?'
'He can't,' Jonas said flatly. 'Freneksy's secret police would swoop down on us here on Terra and make mincemeat out of him. Kick him out of office and replace him overnight with someone more militant. Someone who likes the job of prosecuting the war.'
'But they can't do that,' Eric said. 'He's our elected leader, not theirs.' He knew, however, that despite these legal considerations Jonas was right. Jonas was merely appraising their ally realistically, facing the facts.
'Our best bet,' Jonas said, 'is simply to lose. Slowly, inevitably, as we're doing.' He lowered his voice to a rasping whisper. 'I hate to talk defeatist talk—'
Jonas said, 'Eric, it's the only way out, even if we have to look forward to a century of occupation by the reegs as our punishment for picking the wrong ally in the wrong war at the wrong time. Our very virtuous first venture into interplanetary militarism, and how we picked it – how the Mole picked it.' He grimaced.
'And we picked the Mole,' Eric reminded him. So the responsibility, ultimately, came back to them.
Ahead, a slight, leaflike figure, dry and weightless, drifted all at once toward them, calling in a thin, shrill voice, 'Jonas! And you, too, Sweetscent – time to get started for the trip to Wash-35.' Virgil Ackerman's tone was faintly peevish, that of a mother bird at her task; in his advanced age Virgil had become almost hermaphroditic, a blend of man and woman into one sexless, juiceless, and yet vital entity.TWO
Opening the ancient, empty Camel cigarettes package, Virgil Ackerman said as he flattened its surfaces, 'Hits, cracks, taps, or pops. Which do you take, Sweetscent?'
Taps,' Eric said.
The old man peered at the marking stamped on the inside glued bottom fold of the now two-dimensional package. 'It's cracks. I get to cork you on the arm – thirty-two times.' He ritualistically tapped Eric on the shoulder, smiling gleefully, his natural-style ivory teeth pale and full of animated luster. 'Far be it from me to injure you, doctor; after all, I might need a new liver any moment now... I had a bad few hours last night after I went to bed and I think – but check me on this – it was due to toxemia once again. I felt loggy.'
In the seat beside Virgil Ackerman, Dr Eric Sweetscent said, 'How late were you up and what did you do?'
'Well, doctor, there was this girl.' Virgil grinned mischievously at Harvey, Jonas, Ralf and Phyllis Ackerman, those members of the family who sat around him in his thin, tapered interplan ship as it sped from Terra toward Wash-35 on Mars. 'Need I say more?'
His great-grandniece, Phyllis, said severely, 'Oh Christ, you're too old. Your heart'll give out again right in the middle. And then what'll she – whoever she is – think? It's undignified to die during you know what.' She eyed Virgil reprovingly.
Virgil screeched, Then the dead man's control in my right fist, carried for such emergencies, would summon Dr Sweet-scent here, and he'd dash in and right there on the spot, without removing me, he'd take out that bad, collapsed old heart and stick in a brand new one, and I'd—' He giggled, then patted away the saliva from his lower lip and chin with a folded linen handkerchief from his breast coat pocket, 'I'd continue.' His paper-thin flesh glowed and beneath it his bones, the outline of his skull, fine and clearly distinguishable, quivered with delight and the joy of tantalizing them; they had no entree into this world of his, the private life which he, because of his privileged position, enjoyed even now during the days of privation which the war had brought on.