Satisfaction Guaranteed

by Joy Leache

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Interstellar trouble-shooting is the easiest work there is. All you need is brains, energy--and a steno with nice legs!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Andrew Stephens was trying to think of two things at once, and it wasn’t working out. An inspirational message (delivered by Crumbly, president of Planetary Promotions, Inc.) was mixing itself up in his mind with the probable difficulties of his first company assignment.

He hoped he was thinking, and not worrying. Crumbly said worry was fatal in the promotion business. It was fervor, not fret, Crumbly said, that had made Planetary Promotions, Inc., what it was today. And it was work, not worry, that would make it what it was destined to be tomorrow.

Andy Stephens stared at the farthest corner of his office (about four feet from his nose) and sighed. He didn’t have a slogan in his body, let alone on (or off) the top of his head.

His assignment was an easy one, Crumbly had assured him. Planetary Promotions always started new men off with easy ones. Only fair.

Andy squared his narrowish shoulders in as close an imitation of Crumbly’s desk-side manner as he could, and picked up the dope sheet.

It seemed there was a planet, Felix II, somewhere near the edge of nowhere. It wanted to join the Galactic Federation.

A laudable desire, Andy thought, but strictly a political matter, having nothing to do with Planetary Promotions, or Andrew Stephens.

However, it also seemed that a planet had to demonstrate that it would be contributing something to the Federation before it was allowed to join. In other words, Andy thought, you have to have something they want, or they won’t let you in.

A buzzer squawked out of the dun-colored box on his desk. Andy jumped, and flipped the lever.

“The bus to the port will be at the door in seven minutes,” the grim voice of the Lower Office Co-ordinator told him. “A stenographer will meet you on the ship.”

“Thank you, Miss Ellis,” Andy said meekly. He stuffed the dope sheet into his jacket and left the Main Office for Felix II.

“Excuse me,” said a feminine voice. “Are you with Planetary Promotions?”

Andy looked up. A sandy-haired girl with a passable figure and nice legs was looking down at him. “Yes,” he said. “I’m Andy Stephens.”

The girl looked relieved. “I’m Edith Featherpenny from the steno pool,” she said. “I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to find you.”

“Sit down,” Andy invited.

He moved, and Miss Featherpenny moved. Between them, they unsettled a large woman eating an orange. When the juice had been mopped up and the woman apologized to, Miss Featherpenny squeezed in beside Andy.

“Is that the information on the case?” She indicated the dope sheet crumpled under Andy’s arm.

“Yes.” Andy tried to pull it out. “Were you issued one?” He moved his elbow and tried again.

The orange woman glared at him.

Miss Featherpenny shook her head. “Miss Ellis told me you’d tell me everything I needed to know.”

Andy felt obscurely flattered. “It doesn’t look too promising,” he admitted.

Miss Featherpenny glanced at the dope sheet and found a ray of hope. “The Federation only requires that the Felician exports are nearly as valuable as their imports,” she pointed out. “‘Nearly’ is a nice vague, maneuverable word.”

“But,” said Andy, “if the Felicians can’t think of anything to sell, how do they expect me to?”

“Maybe they’re too isolated to know what’s in demand,” Miss Featherpenny comforted him. “It says they won’t authorize ships to land on the planet except by invitation.”

“It might be isolation, I suppose,” Andy doubted. He felt an urge to confide in Miss Featherpenny. She did, after all, look as if there might be something besides fluff in her head.

“Look,” he said. “This is my first assignment, on my fourth job, on my second career. I’ve got to make good. My father is beginning to get impatient.”

Miss Featherpenny’s eyes grew softer. “Fathers are usually more patient than their children think,” she encouraged.

“But,” Andy added morosely, “I have a brother, a salesman with Universal Products. He keeps getting promoted, and I keep getting fired. Dad must be conscious of the contrast.”

“Maybe,” Miss Featherpenny suggested, “your brother’s been lucky. You know, being assigned jobs that were easier than they sound.”

Andy glanced at her to see if he was being humored. He decided he was not, or not much. “I’ve tried to believe that,” he admitted. “Unfortunately, Lloyd keeps proving me wrong. He got his last promotion for selling fancy food products to the Mahridgians.”

Miss Featherpenny had obviously never even heard of Mahridge.

“They have a strong taboo against eating,” Andy explained. “They swallow concentrates to keep alive, but it’s still not quite decent. On Mahridge, it’s the dining room, not the bathroom, that has a door with a lock on it for privacy.

“Is he married?” asked Miss Featherpenny, who didn’t intend to be a steno all her life. “I mean,” she added quickly, “his wife would get anxious about his selling something like that, that could get him put in prison, or killed. How did he do it?”

There was a certain coolness in Andy’s voice. “He took a lead from the dope peddlers. He converted the adolescent Mahridgians first. It’s all right to eat on Mahridge now.”

Miss Featherpenny diplomatized. “I don’t think that’s ethical. Convincing people to do what they think is wrong.”

Andy was still suspicious. He said, “Ethical or not, he got the promotion.”

They stood at the edge of the only launching pad on Felix II, and surveyed the landscape. Thirty feet away, there was a barnsized stone building with a weedy roof. Aside from some rounded blue hills in the distance, and a Felician leaning against the building, there was not much to detain the eye.

Miss Featherpenny giggled softly in surprise. “He looks like a leprechaun,” she said. “The sheet didn’t say that.”

“Tourist trade,” Andy breathed, his eyes gleaming with the solution of his problem.

Since the two-foot-tall welcoming committee showed no signs of moving, they started toward him.

“My name,” Andy said in Galactic, “is Andrew Stephens. I’m here from Planetary Promotions.”

“I know,” the Felician muttered ungraciously. “I came out from town to meet you. My name is Blahrog. Who’s this?”

“My steno, Miss Featherpenny.”

“Urk.” Obviously Blahrog had never heard the term “steno” and was interpreting it freely. “I’m in charge of our admission to the Federation. That means I’m in charge of you.” He eyed Andy unenthusiastically. “You haven’t had much experience with this kind of thing, have you?”

Andy had a wild rush of hope. If the Felician government rejected him as a representative, he could go home without a failure on his record, and pray for a simpler assignment. Even P. P. didn’t consider an agent responsible for the unpredictable whims of aliens.

“No, I haven’t,” he replied cheerfully. “I was hoping maybe you had.”

Miss Featherpenny, who hadn’t read the contract, gasped.

Blahrog, who had read the contract, replied, “I haven’t. Let’s get on into town where we can discuss the possibilities in comfort.”

They set out, walking unequally through the thick white dust that passed for paving on Felix II.

“Don’t you use ground cars?” Miss Featherpenny choked at the end of the first half-mile.

“Don’t have technology,” Blahrog growled, stumping grimly along. “The Everking has a car, but he doesn’t use it much. No fuel.”

As he walked, Andy composed a speech on the merits of the tourist business, to be delivered to the Everking.

Miss Featherpenny grew visibly more depressed with each mile. She uttered an involuntary cry when the guard of the city gate appeared with a slender mug in each hand.

“Felician ladies don’t drink,” Blahrog said gruffly.

“I can fetch you a glass of water,” the guard offered, without enthusiasm.

“Thank you,” said Miss Featherpenny, with an attempt at sincerity.

The contents of his mug made Andy choke. “Tastes something like cider,” he gasped.

Blahrog downed his without a wink. “It’s customary to give a guest a mug of Throatduster as a sign of gratitude because he walked so far in the dust.”

“In this dust,” Miss Featherpenny murmured to her second glass of water, “any distance is far.”

“Thoughtful custom,” Andy said quickly. “Could you export the beverage?”

“Sell Throatduster?” Blahrog was indignant. “It would be a breach of hospitality. Besides, Felix II can’t produce enough second-rate stuff, let alone first-rate. Sometimes, in a bad year, we have to greet guests with water.”

“What a pity,” said Miss Featherpenny.

She became increasingly unsympathetic as Andy swallowed another Throatduster at the door of the Palace (a one-story building similar to a small barn), and yet another in the presence of the Everking (an eighteen-inch Felician with a beard-warmed paunch).

Andy watched the Everking dim and blur on his wooden throne. Swaying slightly, he muttered, “I wonder what proof this stuff is?”

“In short, Mr. Stephens,” Blahrog was translating, “we cannot think of a single product which we could sell. Have you any immediate suggestions?”

Blahrog’s expression indicated that he ought to say something, but Andy couldn’t think of a thing, except that he didn’t need any more Throatduster. “No,” he said firmly, if faintly. “Thank you very much, but no.” He passed out cold.

“I’m afraid the journey was too much for him,” Miss Featherpenny put in.

“Ah, yes,” Blahrog translated for the Everking. “Throatduster has that effect on some life forms. Perhaps he had better retire, and discuss the situation more fully tomorrow.”

The Everking motioned to a pair of stout-looking guards (thirty inches tall, at least). They towed Miss Featherpenny’s immediate superior out of the royal presence.

“They will show him to his room,” Blahrog explained.

The Everking let loose a quick stream of Felician.

“Would you,” Blahrog addressed Miss Featherpenny, “enjoy meeting my daughter? The Everking suggests it, since our affairs could hardly be of interest to you.”

“I’d be very pleased.” The words were not empty ones. Edith Featherpenny’s education in coping with men had not extended to Felician males. Blahrog frightened her with a feeling of superior and incomprehensible intelligence.

Hrom, although seventeen inches tall and weighing perhaps eleven pounds, was definitely feminine and comprehensible.

“Why don’t women drink Throatduster?” Miss Featherpenny asked, on the strength of a two-hour acquaintance.

“The men grow the grain here,” Hrom explained, “and it’s theirs as long as it’s in the fields. However, we consider harvesting women’s work. We also make the Throatduster. Then we sell it to the men. We don’t drink because it is uneconomical.”

“Does everyone grow his own grain?”

“Not any more. Town women have other sources of dress money. The custom started that way, that’s all.”

“If you’ll forgive my saying so,” Miss Featherpenny remarked, “that dress you are wearing must have taken a big chunk out of your pocket.”

Hrom sighed. “In my mother’s time, I would have thought nothing of it. Now, one such gown is all I can afford.”

“I would have thought your father was one of the wealthier men on Felix II,” Miss Featherpenny remarked.

“He is the wealthiest,” Hrom said. “The richest man is always Minister of Finance. It’s only reasonable.” Her tone changed. “We’re all poor now, since the tourist industry failed. It took every dnot we had to pay for the contract.”

Invisible antennae shot from Miss Featherpenny’s forehead. “You must be quite sure that Planetary Promotions won’t fail you.” She tried her best to sound casual.

Hrom smiled faintly. “Have another of these seed cakes,” she said.

“Thank you. They are delicious.” Miss Featherpenny took one, regardless of calories. “Of course, there is the guarantee clause: ‘Double your money back.’”

Hrom busily fluffed a cushion. “One must have some insurance,” she said, having her turn at sounding casual. “Tell me, are they wearing large or small hats on Earth this season?”

Miss Featherpenny conceded defeat. “It’s all bonnets for summer,” she said.

Her first impulse was to tell Andy that she thought the Felicians had bought the guarantee clause, not the contract. It died at her first sight of the morning-after Andy. The situation must be pretty desperate, she rationalized, when the wealthiest girl on the planet has only one dress. This is probably their last chance.

Andy tried to conceal his headache by being brisk and efficient. “Have you considered your natural resources?”

Blahrog, slow and shrewdly inefficient, said, “We mine soft coal. Enough for our own fires and to spare.”

“No one within a hundred light-years of Felix II uses coal for fuel anymore,” Andy said gently. “Do you have enough for the plastic industries?”

“We have four freighters surplus every season.” Blahrog was evidently banking heavily on the coal.

Andy wondered if coal were the only surplus on Felix II. “What are you doing with your surplus at present?” he inquired tactfully, hoping that Blahrog would realize, without being told, the impossibility of supporting the population of Felix II on four freighters of soft coal.

“We store it up,” was the crafty answer, “and sell it to the synthetics plants on Darius IV when the Ionian miners go on strike.”

“How long since the Ionians struck?” If this economic event occurred regularly, the coal surplus could assist in meeting the Federation’s requirements.

“Twenty seasons or so.” Blahrog’s tone was off-handed, but his eyes slid guiltily toward Andy and away again.

Andy sighed. “Any other resources?”

They went quickly through minerals, agricultural products and animal skins; established that Felicians could not teleport, levitate or read minds. They were technologically uneducated, and had no industry on the factory-system level.

“It is coal or nothing, Mr. Stephens,” Blahrog said with finality. “Isn’t there some way to make the Federation believe that our coal is superior to other coal, and worth more?”

“Do you, perchance, own a sizable proportion of Felician coal reserves?”

Blahrog nodded, guilty looking again.

“Well, forget it. There isn’t enough.”

The Everking, who had been holding Andy’s translator to his ear in silence, burst into speech.

“His Foreverness says,” Blahrog remarked cannily, “that it appears impossible for Felix II to join the Federation.”

“We aren’t through yet,” Andy said quickly. “What about the tourist industry? If you’d allow visitors and advertise a little...”

“No,” the Everking shouted, in Galactic.

“We tried that during the last reign,” Blahrog said. “It didn’t work.”

“You’re pretty far off the shipping lanes, I’ll admit,” Andy said, “but surely you could attract enough tourists from somewhere to show a profit.”

“We showed a profit,” Blahrog said morosely.

He translated a remark of the Everking’s. “We made money hand over fist.”

“Then why did you quit?” Andy was baffled. “Why did you restrict the planet?”

“Because of the way we happen to look.”

“Like leprechauns,” Miss Featherpenny explained. “And Hrom looks exactly like a little Christmas fairy.”

Blahrog winced. “The tourists found us amusing. We weren’t real to them. It became difficult for us to seem real to ourselves. Most of my generation couldn’t grow up. The birth rate dropped. We closed the planet to keep the race alive. That’s all there is to it.”

“Surely,” Andy protested, “if you handled it differently...”

“Tourists,” Blahrog translated for the Everking, “are out of the question.”

“I remember hearing about an intelligent life form that resembled teddy bears,” Miss Featherpenny said thoughtfully. “Everybody loved them on sight.”

“What happened to them?” Blahrog asked with interest.

“They became extinct.”

Andy glared at her. How could he accomplish anything with a stupid steno butting in? She looked away, guilty.

“It’s such a simple solution,” he said. “It fits your situation perfectly.”

“That’s what we thought, until we tried it,” Blahrog said, grinning sidelong at Miss Featherpenny.

“If you won’t try tourists,” Andy snapped at both of them, “I don’t see exactly what you can do.”

“Maybe you didn’t cover everything in the special abilities list,” Miss Featherpenny suggested softly.

Andy glared at her again. “All right, Blahrog. Can you think of anything you can do that most other species can’t?”

Blahrog looked at the floor and considered. “We can walk a long way without getting tired,” he offered.

Andy sighed, and wrote “Endurance?” on his scratch pad. It was scarcely saleable. “Is there anything else? Anything you know how to make? Besides Throatduster.”

“We make good shoes,” Blahrog said hopefully. “The tourists used to buy lots of them.”

“Hum,” Andy cogitated. “Here we have something for which a market already exists. If we can expand the market and the production facilities...” He nailed Blahrog with a finger, in conscious imitation of Crumbly. “How many pairs of shoes can Felix II produce in a single season?”

“If the reserves were called in to the Cobbler’s Guild, it would be almost half the manpower of the planet...” Blahrog paused, doing mental arithmetic. “Four and a half million pairs, more or less.” He sounded as though he were surprised.

“That ought to do it,” Andy said gleefully.

“But where will we find that many pairs of feet?” Blahrog asked.

“There are eight million times that many pairs of feet in the Federation,” Andy said. “Leave the advertising to Planetary Promotions.”

“It seems sort of poetic,” Miss Featherpenny romanced. “Leprechauns are supposed to be cobblers.”

Blahrog snorted.

Andy turned and addressed her from the full distance between a promoter third class and a girl from the steno pool. “Miss Featherpenny, I will ask for your opinion when I want it.”

Miss Featherpenny answered from her side of the gulf. “Yes, sir.”

Andy had always despised rank-pullers. He turned to Blahrog “I’ll have to send the dope back to the Home Office so they can put it through the computer and send me the ad-intensity index.”

Blahrog looked a polite enquiry.

“That will tell us how effective the ad campaign will have to be to make a go of this. What’s the fastest way to send a message to Earth?”

“Radiogram the satellite station,” Blahrog answered. “They’ll relay it to the next ship within range, and the ship will relay it to the next planet it nears with the radiogram facilities to send it to Earth.”

“How long will it take to get an answer?” Andy asked.

“About twelve days.”

They didn’t stare at the sky while they waited for the answer.

Blahrog called the members of the Cobbler’s Guild together, and delivered a series of lectures on their importance to the future of Felix II.

Foreseeing a return to political and economic power, the reserve members dusted off their lasts and aprons and got back into practice. For the first time in nearly thirty seasons, the applications for apprenticeship were too numerous to handle. New life showed on their faces.

The Master Cobblers (including the Everking and Blahrog) worked around the clock, fabricating plastic lasts. Miss Featherpenny and Hrom dug pictures and descriptions of the various types of Galactic feet that habitually or occasionally wore shoes out of old periodicals, located by members of the newly-organized ladies’ auxiliary.

Felix II was humming, if not absolutely singing, with industry and good humor. Some of it rubbed off on Andy. He relented toward Miss Featherpenny to the extent of presenting her with a pair of Felician shoes, fabricated by the Everking. They were of the sensible walking variety, and not Miss Featherpenny’s style. Nevertheless, she was extremely pleased with the gift. Like all Felician shoes, they fit her perfectly.

The Everking, backed by his Debators and ministers, issued public thanks to one Andrew Stephens, restorer of hope, and propagator of economic equality. The ladies’ auxiliary gave a tea in Miss Featherpenny’s honor. They were both showered with gifts from a grateful and admiring populace.

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