The Ambassador

by Sam Merwin

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: All Earth needed was a good stiff dose of common sense, but its rulers preferred to depend on the highly fallible computers instead. As a consequence, interplanetary diplomatic relations were somewhat strained--until a nimble-witted young man from Mars came up with the answer to the "sixty-four dollar" question.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Zalen Lindsay stood on the rostrum in the huge new United Worlds auditorium on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain and looked out at an ocean of eye-glasses. Individually they ranged in hue from the rose-tinted spectacles of the Americans to the dark brown of the Soviet bloc. Their shapes and adornments were legion: round, harlequin, diamond, rhomboid, octagonal, square, oval; rimless, gem-studded, horn-rimmed, floral-rimmed, rimmed in the cases of some of the lady representatives with immense artificial eyelashes.

The total effect, to Lindsay, was of looking at an immense page of printed matter composed entirely of punctuation marks. Unspectacled, he felt like a man from Mars. He was a man from Mars--first Martian Ambassador Plenipotentiary to the Second United Worlds Congress.

He wished he could see some of the eyes behind the protective goggles, for he knew he was making them blink.

He glanced down at the teleprompter in front of him--purely to add effect to a pause, for he had memorized his speech and was delivering it without notes. On it was printed: HEY, BOSS--DON’T FORGET YOU GOT A DINNER DATE WITH THE SEC-GEN TONIGHT.

Lindsay suppressed a smile and said, “In conclusion, I am qualified by the governors of Mars to promise that if we receive another shipment of British hunting boots we shall destroy them immediately upon unloading--and refuse categorically to ship further beryllium to Earth.

“On Mars we raise animals for food, not for sport--we consider human beings as the only fit athletic competition for other humans--and we see small purpose in expending our resources mining beryllium or other metals for payment that is worse than worthless. In short, we will not be a dumping ground for Earth’s surplus goods. I thank you.”

The faint echo of his words came back to him as he stepped down from the rostrum and walked slowly to his solitary seat in the otherwise empty section allotted to representatives of alien planets. Otherwise there was no sound in the huge assemblage.

He felt a tremendous lift of tension, the joyousness of a man who has satisfied a lifelong yearning to toss a brick through a plate-glass window and knows he will be arrested for it and doesn’t care.

There was going to be hell to pay--and Lindsay was honestly looking forward to it. While Secretary General Carlo Bergozza, his dark-green spectacles resembling parenthesis marks on either side of his thin eagle beak, went through the motions of adjourning the Congress for forty-eight hours, Lindsay considered his mission and its purpose.

Earth--a planet whose age-old feuds had been largely vitiated by the increasing rule of computer-judgment--and Mars, the one settled alien planet on which no computer had ever been built, were drifting dangerously apart.

It was, Lindsay thought with a trace of grimness, the same ancient story of the mother country and her overseas colonies, the same basic and seemingly inevitable trend, social and economic, that had led to the revolt of North America against England, three hundred years earlier.

On a far vaster and costlier scale, of course.

Lindsay had been sent to Earth, as his planet’s first representative at the new United Worlds Congress, to see that this trend was halted before it led to irrevocable division. And not by allowing Mars to become a mere feeder and dumping ground for the parent planet.

Well, he had tossed a monkey wrench into the machinery of interplanetary sweetness and light, he thought. Making his way slowly out with the rest of the Congress, he felt like the proverbial bull in the china shop. The others, eyeing him inscrutably through their eye-glasses and over their harness humps, drew aside to let him walk through.

But all around him, in countless national tongues, he heard the whispers, the mutterings--”sending a gladiator”... “looks like a vidar star”... “too young for such grave responsibility”... “no understanding of the basic sensitivities”...

Obviously, he had not won a crushing vote of confidence.

To hell with them, all of them, he thought as someone tapped him on a shoulder. He turned to find du Fresne, the North American Minister of Computation, peering up at him through spectacles that resembled twin scoops of strawberry ice-cream mounted in heavy white-metal rims.

“I’d like a word with you,” he said, speaking English rather than Esperanto. Lindsay nodded politely, thinking that du Fresne looked rather like a Daumier judge with his fashionable humped back and long official robe of office.

Over a table in the twilight bar du Fresne leaned toward him, nearly upsetting his colafizz with a sleeve of his robe.

“M-mind you,” he said, “this is strictly unofficial, Lindsay, but I have your interests at heart. You’re following trend X.”

“Got me all nicely plotted out on your machine?” said Lindsay.

Du Fresne’s sallow face went white at this pleasantry. As Minister of Computation his entire being was wrapped up in the immensely intricate calculators that forecast all decisions for the huge North American republic. Obviously battling anger, he said, “Don’t laugh at Elsac, Lindsay. It has never been wrong--it can’t be wrong.”

“I’m not laughing,” said Lindsay quietly. “But no one has ever fed me to a computer. So how can you know... ?”

“We have fed it every possible combination of circumstances based upon all the facts of Terro-Martian interhistory,” the Minister of Computation stated firmly. His nose wrinkled and seemed to turn visibly pink at the nostril-edges. He said, “Damn! I’m allergic to computer-ridicule.” He reached for an evapochief, blew his nose.

“Sorry,” said Lindsay, feeling the mild amazement that seemed to accompany all his dealings with Earthfolk. “I wasn’t--”

“I doe you weren’d,” du Fresne said thickly. “Bud de vurry zuggedgeshun of ridicule dudz id.” He removed his strawberry spectacles, produced an eye-cup, removed and dried the contact lenses beneath. After he had replaced them his condition seemed improved.

Lindsay offered him a cigarette, which was refused, and selected one for himself. He said, “What happens if I pursue trend X?”

“You’ll be assassinated,” du Fresne told him nervously. “And the results of such assassination will be disastrous for both planets. Earth will have to go to war.”

“Then why not ship us goods we can use?” Lindsay asked quietly.

Du Fresne looked at him as despairingly as his glasses would permit. He said, “You just don’t understand. Why didn’t your people send someone better attuned to our problems?”

“Perhaps because they felt Mars would be better represented by someone attuned to its own problems,” Lindsay told him. “Don’t tell me your precious computers recommend murder and war.”

“They don’t recommend anything,” said du Fresne. “They merely advise what will happen under given sets of conditions.”

“Perhaps if you used sensible judgment instead of machines to make your decisions you could prevent my assassination,” said Lindsay, finishing his scotch on the rocks. “Who knows?” he added. “You might even be able to prevent an interplanetary war!”

When he left, du Fresne’s nose was again growing red and the Minister of Computation was fumbling for another evapochief.

Riding the escaramp to his office on the one-twentieth floor of the UW building, Lindsay pondered the strange people of the mother planet among whom his assignment was causing him to live. One inch over six feet, he was not outstandingly tall--but he felt tall among them, with their slump harnesses and disfiguring spectacles and the women so hidden beneath their shapeless coveralls and harmopan makeup.

He was not unprepared for the appearance of Earthfolk, of course, but he had not yet adjusted to seeing them constantly around him in such large numbers. To him their deliberate distortion was as shocking as, he supposed wryly, his own unaltered naturalness was to them.

There was still something illogical about the cult of everyday ugliness that had overtaken the mother planet in the last two generations, under the guise of social harmony. It dated back, of course, to the great Dr. Ludmilla Hartwig, psychiatric synthesizer of the final decades of the twentieth century.

It was she who had correctly interpreted the growing distrust of the handsome and the beautiful among the great bulk of the less favored, the intense feelings of inferiority such comely persons aroused. It was from her computer-psychiatry that the answer employed had come: since everyone cannot be beautiful, let all be ugly.

This slogan had sparked the mass use of unneeded spectacles, the distortion harnesses, the harmopan makeup. Now, outside of emergencies, it was as socially unacceptable for a man or woman to reveal a face uncovered in public as it had been, centuries earlier, for a Moslem odalisque to appear unveiled in the bazaar.

There were exceptions, of course--aside from those who were naturally ugly to begin with. Vidar-screen actors and actresses were permitted to reveal beauty when their parts demanded it--which was usually only in villains’ roles. And among men, professional athletes were expected to show their faces and bodies au naturel as a mark of their profession. Among women the professional courtesans--the “models”, not the two-credit whores--displayed their charms on all occasions. Beauty was bad business for lower-caste prostitutes--it made such clients they could promote feel too inferior.

These specialists, the models and gladiators, were something of a race apart, computer-picked in infancy and raised for their professions like Japanese sumo wrestlers. They were scarcely expected to enter the more sensitive realms of the arts, business affairs or government.

It was, Lindsay decided, a hell of a state of affairs.

Nina Beckwith, Lindsay’s Earth-assigned personal secretary, was leaning far back in her tilt-chair with her feet on the desk. Her eyes were squinted behind chartreuse-tinted flat-oval lenses to avoid fumes from a cigarette stuck in a corner of her wide mouth. She had shut off the air-conditioner, opened the picture window and pulled the pants of her coverall far up above her knees to let the warm New Orleans September air wash over her skin.

Lindsay looked at her legs with surprise--it had not occurred to him that Nina owned such a long and shapely pair. He whistled softly through his teeth.

Nina removed her smoke, sighed and made a move to stand up and let her coverall fall back over the exposed limbs. Lindsay said, “Not on my account--please! Those are the first good looking legs I’ve seen since leaving Mars.”

“Watch yourself, boss,” said Nina and indulged in a slow half-smile. Then, putting her feet back on the floor, “You certainly lost a lot of friends and disinfluenced a lot of people down there today. If you’d prepared your speech on the machine I’d have fixed it up for you.”

“Which is exactly why I prepared it in my hot little head,” Lindsay told her. “I wanted to knock some sense into them.”

Nina got out of her chair and snuffed out her cigarette in the disposal tray, then sat on the edge of the desk and poked at the untidy dark-blonde hair she wore in a knot on top of her head. She said, “Night soil! You’ll never knock any sense into that mob.”

Lindsay, who had been thinking wistfully that if Nina would only do something about that hair, the thickness of her middle, and her bilious complexion, she might be fairly good looking, blinked. He said, “Why in hell do you work for them then?”

She shrugged disinterested shoulders, told him, “It’s a job.” She yawned, unabashed, added irrelevantly, “You know, boss, the trouble with you is you look like a gladiator. They won’t take you seriously unless you wear specs and a harness.”

“Over my dead body,” he told her. “What’s wrong with athletes anyway? I play damned good tennis when I get time to practice.”

“Athletes are lousy lovers,” she said. “Your correspondence is on your desk.” She nodded toward it. “Get it signed, will you? I’ve got a dinner date.”

Lindsay restrained an impulse to ask her with what and signed the letters dutifully.

Nina was a spy, of course, or she wouldn’t have the job. In view of his own assignment and the delicacy of Terro-Martian relations at the moment, she must be a good one.

He handed her the letters, noted the slight sway of her thick body as she walked toward the dispatch-chute. A pity, he thought, that the rest of her failed to match the long perfect legs she had so unexpectedly put on display.

“Oh, Miss Beckwith’” he called after her. “You don’t have to list my appointments on the teleprompter when I’m making a speech after this.”

She stopped, cast him an oblique glance over one shoulder and said without much interest, “I didn’t know whether you’d get back here or not--and it wouldn’t do to forget the Secretary General.”

“All right,” he said in resignation. When she had gone he wondered if he should have told her what du Fresne had said about his possible assassination, decided it was just as well he had kept mum. He went up on the roof for a copter.

The dinner was informal. Lindsay and Fernando Anderson, the flamboyant junior senator from New Mexico, were the only guests. They were four at the charming ante bellum mahogany table of the Secretary General’s Natchez mansion. Carlo Bergozza, the Secretary General himself--courteous, with natural as well as harness-stooped shoulders, a trifle vague--and his daughter and official hostess, Maria--vividly brunette and dynamic despite the twist given her body by her harness and the mask of huge triangular spectacles--made up the rest of the party.

The meal was simple, automatically served, well prepared. It consisted of plankton soup with chives in chilled bowls, noisettes of lamb with yeast-truffles and bamboo-grass and, in deference to Lindsay, a dessert of Martian lichenberries. Conversation consisted of routine gambits and responses until the dessert.

Then Senator Anderson removed his diamond-shaped raspberry glasses and said, “You’ll pardon me, but I want to see what our distinguished visitor really looks like. After all, he can see us as we are.”

Secretary General Bergozza looked briefly shocked. Then his overpowering courtesy came to his rescue and he laid aside his own dark green spectacles. He said, “You know, Lindsay, you remind me a little of an American ambassador to the Court of Saint James a hundred and fifty years ago--I believe his name was Harvey. He refused to wear knee-britches to his own reception. Other times, other customs.”

“I’m sorry if my appearance is bothering people,” said Lindsay, noting that Maria, without her glasses, came close to being a truly pretty young woman. “I’m not trying to disturb them--I merely want them to see me as a true representative of my own world.”

Maria said impulsively, “It isn’t that you bother us--not really. It’s just that you’re a little too good looking. Almost like a gladiator. People aren’t used to it in a statesman.”

“Too good looking--with this busted beak of mine?” Lindsay pressed a finger against his nose, which had been broken in youth by a wild pitch.

Senator Anderson said, “The slight irregularity of your nose is just enough to keep you from being too pretty, Lindsay.” He smiled and added,

“You certainly stirred up a cyclotron with your speech this afternoon. The British are planning a white paper.”

“I merely stated facts as I know them,” said Lindsay.

“They aren’t used to facts--not unless they have been computer-processed,” said the senator. He seemed pleased for some reason, added, “You may have broken some real ice, Lindsay. I’ve been trying for years to work out a way to tell people computers are robbing them of all powers of decision.”

“All they have to do is confine them to mathematical problems and let people decide human ones,” said Lindsay.

The Secretary General cleared his throat. He said, “Without the computers there would be no United Worlds. There would be no world at all, probably.”

It was a rebuke. Carlo Bergozza redonned his spectacles and rose from the table. He said, “If you’ll excuse me I have some business to attend to. I’m sure my daughter will see that you are properly entertained.” He left the room with slow, old-man steps.

Maria said fondly, “Poor darling, he gets so upset. He’ll take a pill and go to sleep. Let’s go to the bathroom, shall we?”

Though outwardly the Secretary General’s mansion was hyper-gingerbread steamboat Gothic, inwardly it was entirely modern in plan. There was a living room, of course, for formal receptions, but as in all normal Earth-dwellings of the period the bathroom was the lived-in chamber.

There and there only did people of the 2070’s permit themselves to relax. This was a logical development of latter-day plumbing and air conditioning and the crowding of apartment and small-house life. Actual lavatory plumbing was concealed, in this instance, by an etched glass screen. Otherwise the room featured comfortable plastic lounge chairs and sofas around a fifteen-foot sunken tub and a small semicircular bar, fully equipped.

On entering Maria unfastened her harness and coverall and stood before them, a sweet-bodied dark-eyed girl in her early twenties, clad in shorts and halter. “Lord!” she exclaimed, pushing dark hair back from her broad low forehead, “It feels good to relax. Zalen, I want to talk to you.”

“Delighted,” said Lindsay, mildly surprised at the use of his Martian first name.

“I’ve got something to tell him first,” said Anderson, unhitching his own harness and emerging as a lean medium-sized man in good condition for his forty years. “I got word just before I flew up here tonight that your life may be in danger, Zalen.”

Lindsay accepted the arrack-fizz Maria handed him, said “That makes warning number two, Senator. Du Fresne talked to me about it this afternoon.”

Maria paled visibly. She said, “It sounds impossible!”

“It backs up the judgment of my own group,” said Senator Anderson. “Du Fresne is just about the smartest computerman we have.” He eyed Lindsay speculatively, added, “You don’t seem much impressed by your danger, Zalen.”

“How can I be?” Lindsay countered. “After all, Earth is supposed to be much further advanced than Mars in civilization. And we have had no political murder on Mars in more than fifty years.”

Maria made a despairing gesture. “Oh, dear!” she exclaimed. “You don’t understand, Zalen. On Mars you have both room and time to settle your political conflicts. And you don’t have computers.”

“We have some pretty sharp rows,” Lindsay told her. “But we don’t have anyone assassinated.” He paused, looked at them both, added, “Do you have many of them here?”

“Not many,” said Anderson. “But there is a growing tendency to go along with computer verdicts, no matter how extreme.”

“And you believe the British computers are giving accurate answers when they recommend the dumping of millions of pairs of utterly useless hunting boots on Mars? Or those rubber shower curtains they unloaded on us two years ago?”

The Senator said, “There is, unfortunately, no question as to the accuracy of computer answers. The trouble seems to lie in some special condition, local to Britain, that effects computers.”

“But if the British computers are wrong, why doesn’t somebody do something about it?” Lindsay asked.

Anderson said, “If it were that simple, Zalen...” His smile was rueful.

“Unfortunately our English friends--or their rulers at any rate--are determined that socialism is the only government suitable to their country. Actually it is nothing of the sort--they can thrive only with a mercantile capitalism under a nominal constitutional monarchy.”

“In that case I still don’t see--” Lindsay began.

“Contrary to what you’re thinking, their leaders are not villains,” Anderson told him. “They are men and women obsessed with an ideal that has hampered them for almost two centuries. And they are incapable of accepting any conclusion counter to their ideals.”

“Even to impoverishing an entire planet?” Lindsay asked.

Anderson shrugged. “A penalty of their insularity,” he replied. “The reason for this little meeting, Zalen, is to explain that not all of us are in favor of supporting Britain and its absurd production bungling at the expense of Mars. A few of us are becoming singularly fed up with the computer neurosis that seems to have this planet in its grip.”

Maria leaned forward, her dark eyes brilliant in their intensity. She said, “Can’t you see, Zalen, that is why we are so concerned with your possible assassination? We fear the whole of Earth is on the lip of a nervous breakdown. Unless the grip of the computers is broken anything might happen. And we’re counting on you, with your fresh viewpoint and prestige, to help us.”

“I was hoping you might be concerned about me,” said Lindsay softly.

“After all, I’m the one who is supposed to be killed.” He watched a sudden flush of embarrassment add charming brilliance to the vividness of the Secretary General’s daughter.

“Of course we’re concerned,” she said defensively. “We’re not really monsters, Zalen.”

“What Maria means,” said Anderson swiftly, “is that if the worst should happen it will go a long way toward making Earth entirely computer-dependent, if du Fresne’s prophecy is fulfilled a lot of people who might go on fighting will simply give up.”

“Just what is your stake in this, Senator?” Lindsay asked.

Anderson said, “I could give you a score of ‘good’ reasons, Zalen. But my real reason is this--I’m damned if I want to see professional politicians become rubber-stamps to a computer. When Sylac was first used officially three decades ago, it looked as if it might be a help. All we had to do was palm off all unpopular decisions on the machine.

“Elsac, however, has proved to be something else,” he went on. “It is making too damned many of our decisions for us--and thanks to our having set Sylac up as a master-brain god we can’t controvert its judgment. When President Giovannini gets his new Giac computer working we might as well shut up shop. And the announcement that Giac is in operation may come at any time now.”

Lindsay studied him, then said, “Your real complaint then, Fernando, is that the computers deprive you of patronage and power.”

“That’s about it,” said the senator from New Mexico. “We’ll be reduced to the level of the political commissars of the Soviet nations. The scientists and symbolic logicians who feed and tend the computers will actually be running the country. And the world.”

“And just where do I come into this?” Lindsay asked.

“You, Zalen, are the last representative of the last sizeable and important human organism that is not dependent upon computer judgment,” said Anderson. “That’s our side of it. From your own side--if you already distrust computer decisions, as in the case of the British hunting boots--you surely don’t want to see them in full control.”

“Hardly,” said Lindsay. “But at the same time I have no desire to be assassinated or to be the cause of an Earth-Mars war.”

“Think it over, Zalen,” said Anderson. “I need hardly tell you that I am not speaking for myself alone.” He got up, put down his glass, bade Maria farewell and left the Martian alone with her.

When he had gone Lindsay looked at the girl, who returned his gaze quite openly for a long moment before her eyes fell away. He said, “Somehow the senator and you seem an odd combination.”

She made no pretense of misunderstanding but said candidly, “Perhaps I am neurotic in my distrust of computers but I cannot help that. Those of us who have any true sensitivity unblunted by the psycho-mechanistics of the era all share this distrust. It is natural, since we are few and weak, that we should seek what allies we can find among the strong.”

“I’ve always heard that politics makes strange bedfellows,” said Lindsay casually.

It was obvious that he had committed a faux pas. Maria’s blush returned and her expression froze. Lindsay cursed himself for a fool. With the development of all sorts of pneumatic resting devices the word bed had become not only obsolete but definitely distasteful in well-bred Tellurian circles. Its use was as decried as was that of the word bloody in Victorian England.

She said angrily, “I assure you, Mr. Lindsay, that Senator Anderson and I have never...” Voice and anger faded alike as she apparently realized that Lindsay had not intended insult.

He let her mix a second drink for both of them. Then, standing close to her and noting the smooth perfection of her creamy white skin, “I wonder if your father knows that he is nourishing a subversive in his family.”

She said with a trace of impatience, “Oh, poor papa never sees the trees for the forest.”

“You’re a damned unhappy girl, aren’t you?” he asked her. He didn’t need an answer, but realized she wanted to talk about it.

She said, her eyes shining suspiciously, “You’re right, of course, I’m very unhappy--constricted in behavior by my father’s position, unable to say aloud what I really think, how I really feel. Sometimes I think I must be living in some Gothic poet’s dream of loneliness.”

“Contrary to the beliefs of most psychiatrists,” said Lindsay, half-touched, half-appalled by Maria’s intensity, “we are all of us alone.”

“Somehow I knew you’d understand!” she exclaimed, without taking her dark eyes from his. “I’m not allowed to date gladiators, of course. You’re the only man I’ve ever been with who was not afraid to look as he is.”

“You’d better come to Mars,” he suggested, shying away a little from the high voltage the Secretary General’s daughter seemed to be generating.

“I can assure you you’d have a chance to reveal the charms nature gave you without shame.”

She laughed with a sudden change of spirits. “It’s at least a half hour since dinner. Let’s take a dip.” She tossed back her lustrous dark hair with a shake of her head and her hands went to the clasp of her halter, a moment later to that of her shorts. “Come on,” she called, extending her arms to expose her exciting young body before him. “The water will cool us off.”

It didn’t work out that way, of course. Lindsay was barely in the tub-pool before Maria’s arms were about his neck, her body close against his, her lips thrusting upward toward his own. For a moment he felt panic, said, “Hey! What if somebody comes? Your father--”

“Silly! Nobody will,” she replied, laughing softly.

His last rational thought for quite awhile was, Oh well--I’m hardly in a position to get the Secretary General’s daughter angry.

False dawn was spreading its dim fanlight over the eastern horizon as he coptered back to his official quarters in the city. Trying to restore some order to thoughts and emotions thoroughly disrupted by the unexpected events of the evening, he wondered a little just what he had got himself into.

Mars, of course, was scarcely a Puritan planet, populated as it was by the hardiest and most adventurous members of the human race, of all races. But there had been something almost psychopathic about Maria’s passion. It had been far too intense to have been generated solely through regard for him.

The girl had made love to him simply to relieve her own inner tensions, he thought wryly. Lacking a man she could love, walled in by the high officialdom of her father’s lofty position, she had turned to him in the same way she turned to the anti-computer movement--as a way of feeling less lonely for a while. Still, it had been sweet--if a little frightening in retrospect.

And it had been a little decadent too.

With the copter on autopilot he lit a cigarette and forced his thoughts away from the girl. He wondered if the Governors of Mars were sufficiently in key with the current feelings of Earthfolk to understand fully how deep the repercussions from his speech might go. He wondered if they had considered fully the possibility of interplanetary war.

True, Mars was undoubtedly better equipped to defend itself against such attack than was Earth. Like the mother planet it had its share of robot rockets capable of launching a counterattack. And thanks to the comparative sparseness and decentralization of its population it was far less vulnerable to attack.

But war between the planets would be destructive of far more than cities and the people that lived in them. It would mean inevitably a breakdown of the entire fabric of civilized humanity--a tenuous fabric, true, but all that existed to maintain man.

And an isolated Mars, even if self-sufficient, would be a sorry substitute for a red planet that was part of the United Worlds. It would mean a setback of generations, perhaps centuries.

He began to feel a new understanding of the importance of his mission. With understanding came something akin to fear lest he should not be able to accomplish it without disaster. It was going to be his job to inaugurate some sort of therapy for Earth’s illness. It was, in effect, one man against a planet.

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