The visiphone chimed when Peri had just gotten into her dinner gown. She peeled it off again and slipped on a casual bathrobe: a wisp of translucence which had set the president of Antarctic Enterprise--or had it been the chairman of the board?--back several thousand dollars. Then she pulled a lock of lion-colored hair down over one eye, checked with a mirror, rumpled it a tiny bit more and wrapped the robe loosely on top and tight around the hips.
After all, some of the men who knew her private number were important.
She undulated to the phone and pressed its Accept. “Hello-o, there,” she said automatically. “So sorry to keep you waiting. I was just taking a bath and--Oh. It’s you.”
Gus Doran’s prawnlike eyes popped at her. “Holy Success,” he whispered in awe. “You sure the wires can carry that much voltage?”
“Well, hurry up with whatever it is,” snapped Peri. “I got a date tonight.”
“I’ll say you do! With a Martian!”
Peri narrowed her silver-blue gaze and looked icily at him. “You must have heard wrong, Gus. He’s the heir apparent of Indonesia, Inc., that’s who, and if you called up to ask for a piece of him, you can just blank right out again. I saw him first!”
Doran’s thin sharp face grinned. “You break that date, Peri. Put it off or something. I got this Martian for you, see?”
“So? Since when has all Mars had as much spending money as one big-time marijuana rancher? Not to mention the heir ap--”
“Sure, sure. But how much are those boys going to spend on any girl, even a high-level type like you? Listen, I need you just for tonight, see? This Martian is strictly from gone. He is here on official business, but he is a yokel and I do mean hayseed. Like he asked me what the Christmas decorations in all the stores were! And here is the solar nexus of it, Peri, kid.”
Doran leaned forward as if to climb out of the screen. “He has got a hundred million dollars expense money, and they are not going to audit his accounts at home. One hundred million good green certificates, legal tender anywhere in the United Protectorates. And he has about as much backbone as a piece of steak alga. Kid, if I did not happen to have experience otherwise with a small nephew, I would say this will be like taking candy from a baby.”
Peri’s peaches-and-cream countenance began to resemble peaches and cream left overnight on Pluto. “Badger?” she asked.
“Sure. You and Sam Wendt handle the routine. I will take the go-between angle, so he will think of me as still his friend, because I have other plans for him too. But if we can’t shake a million out of him for this one night’s work, there is something akilter. And your share of a million is three hundred thirty-three--”
“Is five hundred thousand flat,” said Peri. “Too bad I just got an awful headache and can’t see Mr. Sastro tonight. Where you at, Gus?”
The gravity was not as hard to take as Peter Matheny had expected. Three generations on Mars might lengthen the legs and expand the chest a trifle, but the genes had come from Earth and the organism readjusts. What set him gasping was the air. It weighed like a ton of wool and had apparently sopped up half the Atlantic Ocean. Ears trained to listen through the Martian atmosphere shuddered from the racket conducted by Earth’s. The passport official seemed to bellow at him.
“Pardon me for asking this. The United Protectorates welcome all visitors to Earth and I assure you, sir, an ordinary five-year visa provokes no questions. But since you came on an official courier boat of your planet, Mr. Matheny, regulations force me to ask your business.”
The official patted his comfortable stomach, iridescent in neolon, and chuckled patronizingly. “I am afraid, sir, you won’t find many people who wish to leave. They wouldn’t be able to see the Teamsters Hour on Mars, would they?”
“Oh, we don’t expect immigration,” said Matheny shyly. He was a fairly young man, but small, with a dark-thatched, snub-nosed, gray-eyed head that seemed too large for his slender body. “We learned long ago that no one is interested any more in giving up even second-class citizenship on Earth to live in the Republic. But we only wanted to hire--uh, I mean engage--an, an advisor. We’re not businessmen. We know our export trade hasn’t a chance among all your corporations unless we get some--a five-year contract... ?”
He heard his words trailing off idiotically, and swore at himself.
“Well, good luck.” The official’s tone was skeptical. He stamped the passport and handed it back. “There, now, you are free to travel anywhere in the Protectorates. But I would advise you to leave the capital and get into the sticks--um, I mean the provinces. I am sure there must be tolerably competent sales executives in Russia or Congolese Belgium or such regions. Frankly, sir, I do not believe you can attract anyone out of Newer York.”
“Thanks,” said Matheny, “but, you see, I--we need--that is ... Oh, well. Thanks. Good-by.”
He backed out of the office.
A dropshaft deposited him on a walkway. The crowd, a rainbow of men in pajamas and robes, women in Neo-Sino dresses and goldleaf hats, swept him against the rail. For a moment, squashed to the wire, he stared a hundred feet down at the river of automobiles. Phobos! he thought wildly. _If the barrier gives, I’ll be sliced in two by a dorsal fin before I hit the pavement!_
The August twilight wrapped him in heat and stickiness. He could see neither stars nor even moon through the city’s blaze. The forest of multi-colored towers, cataracting half a mile skyward across more acreage than his eyes reached, was impressive and all that, but--he used to stroll out in the rock garden behind his cottage and smoke a pipe in company with Orion. On summer evenings, that is, when the temperature wasn’t too far below zero.
Why did they tap me for this job? he asked himself in a surge of homesickness. What the hell is the Martian Embassy here for?
He, Peter Matheny, was no more than a peaceful professor of sociodynamics at Devil’s Kettle University. Of course, he had advised his government before now--in fact, the Red Ankh Society had been his idea--but still he was at ease only with his books and his chess and his mineral collection, a faculty poker party on Tenthday night and an occasional trip to Swindletown--
My God, thought Matheny, _here I am, one solitary outlander in the greatest commercial empire the human race has ever seen, and I’m supposed to find my planet a con man!_
He began walking, disconsolately, at random. His lizardskin shirt and black culottes drew glances, but derisive ones: their cut was forty years out of date. He should find himself a hotel, he thought drearily, but he wasn’t tired; the spaceport would pneumo his baggage to him whenever he did check in. The few Martians who had been to Earth had gone into ecstasies over the automation which put any service you could name on a twenty-four-hour basis. But it would be a long time before Mars had such machines. If ever.
The city roared at him.
He fumbled after his pipe. Of course, he told himself, _that’s why the Embassy can’t act. I may find it advisable to go outside the law. Please, sir, where can I contact the underworld?_
He wished gambling were legal on Earth. The Constitution of the Martian Republic forbade sumptuary and moral legislation; quite apart from the rambunctious individualism which that document formulated, the article was a practical necessity. Life was bleak enough on the deserts, without being denied the pleasure of trying to bottom-deal some friend who was happily trying to mark the cards. Matheny would have found a few spins of roulette soothing: it was always an intellectual challenge to work out the system by which the management operated a wheel. But more, he would have been among people he understood.
The frightful thing about the Earthman was the way he seemed to exist only in organized masses. A gypsy snake oil peddler, plodding his syrtosaur wagon across Martian sands, just didn’t have a prayer against, say, the Grant, Harding & Adams Public Relations Agency.
Matheny puffed smoke and looked around. His feet ached from the weight on them. Where could a man sit down? It was hard to make out any individual sign through all that flimmering neon. His eye fell on one that was distinguished by relative austerity.
THE CHURCH OF CHOICE
Enter, Play, Pray
That would do. He took an upward slideramp through several hundred feet of altitude, stepped past an aurora curtain, and found himself in a marble lobby next to an inspirational newsstand.
“Ah, brother, welcome,” said a red-haired usherette in demure black leotards. “The peace that passeth all understanding be with you. The restaurant is right up those stairs.”
“I--I’m not hungry,” stammered Matheny. “I just wanted to sit in--”
“To your left, sir.”
The Martian crossed the lobby. His pipe went out in the breeze from an animated angel. Organ music sighed through an open doorway. The series of rooms beyond was dim, Gothic, interminable.
“Get your chips right here, sir,” said the girl in the booth.
“Hm?” said Matheny.
She explained. He bought a few hundred-dollar tokens, dropped a fifty-buck coin down a slot marked CONTRIBUTIONS, and sipped the martini he got back while he strolled around studying the games. He stopped, frowned. Bingo? No, he didn’t want to bother learning something new. He decided that the roulette wheels were either honest or too deep for him. He’d have to relax with a crap game instead.
He had been standing at the table for some time before the rest of the congregation really noticed him. Then it was with awe. The first few passes he had made were unsuccessful. Earth gravity threw him off. But when he got the rhythm of it, he tossed a row of sevens. It was a customary form of challenge on Mars. Here, though, they simply pushed chips toward him. He missed a throw, as anyone would at home: simple courtesy. The next time around, he threw for a seven just to get the feel. He got a seven. The dice had not been substituted on him.
“I say!” he exclaimed. He looked up into eyes and eyes, all around the green table. “I’m sorry. I guess I don’t know your rules.”
“You did all right, brother,” said a middle-aged lady with an obviously surgical bodice.
“But--I mean--when do we start actually playing? What happened to the cocked dice?”
The lady drew herself up and jutted an indignant brow at him. “Sir! This is a church!”
“Oh--I see--excuse me, I, I, I--” Matheny backed out of the crowd, shuddering. He looked around for some place to hide his burning ears.
“You forgot your chips, pal,” said a voice.
“Oh. Thanks. Thanks ever so much. I, I, that is--” Matheny cursed his knotting tongue. _Damn it, just because they’re so much more sophisticated than I, do I have to talk like a leaky boiler?_
The helpful Earthman was not tall. He was dark and chisel-faced and sleekly pomaded, dapper in blue pajamas with a red zigzag, a sleighbell cloak and curly-toed slippers.
“You’re from Mars, aren’t you?” he asked in the friendliest tone Matheny had yet heard.
“Yes. Yes, I am. M-my name’s Peter Matheny. I, I--” He stuck out his hand to shake and chips rolled over the floor. “Damn! Oh, excuse me, I forgot this was a church. Never mind the chips. No, please. I just want to g-g-get the hell out of here.”
“Good idea. How about a drink? I know a bar downshaft.”
Matheny sighed. “A drink is what I need the very most.”
“My name’s Doran. Gus Doran. Call me Gus.”
They walked back to the deaconette’s booth and Matheny cashed what remained of his winnings.
“I don’t want to--I mean if you’re busy tonight, Mr. Doran--”
“Nah. I am not doing one thing in particular. Besides, I have never met a Martian. I am very interested.”
“There aren’t many of us on Earth,” agreed Matheny. “Just a small embassy staff and an occasional like me.”
“I should think you would do a lot of traveling here. The old mother planet and so on.”
“We can’t afford it,” said Matheny. “What with gravitation and distance, such voyages are much too expensive for us to make them for pleasure. Not to mention our dollar shortage.” As they entered the shaft, he added wistfully: “You Earth people have that kind of money, at least in your more prosperous brackets. Why don’t you send a few tourists to us?”
“I always wanted to,” said Doran. “I would like to see the what they call City of Time, and so on. As a matter of fact, I have given my girl one of those Old Martian rings last Ike’s Birthday and she was just gazoo about it. A jewel dug out of the City of Time, like, made a million years ago by a, uh, extinct race ... I tell you, she appreciated me for it!” He winked and nudged.
“Oh,” said Matheny.
He felt a certain guilt. Doran was too pleasant a little man to deserve--
“Of course,” Matheny said ritually, “I agree with all the archeologists it’s a crime to sell such scientifically priceless artifacts, but what can we do? We must live, and the tourist trade is almost nonexistent.”
“Trouble with it is, I hear Mars is not so comfortable,” said Doran. “I mean, do not get me wrong, I don’t want to insult you or anything, but people come back saying you have given the planet just barely enough air to keep a man alive. And there are no cities, just little towns and villages and ranches out in the bush. I mean you are being pioneers and making a new nation and all that, but people paying half a megabuck for their ticket expect some comfort and, uh, you know.”
“I do know,” said Matheny. “But we’re poor--a handful of people trying to make a world of dust and sand and scrub thorn into fields and woods and seas. We can’t do it without substantial help from Earth, equipment and supplies--which can only be paid for in Earth dollars--and we can’t export enough to Earth to earn those dollars.”
By that time, they were entering the Paul Bunyan Knotty Pine Bar & Grill, on the 73rd Level. Matheny’s jaw clanked down.
“Whassa matter?” asked Doran. “Ain’t you ever seen a ecdysiastic technician before?”
“Uh, yes, but--well, not in a 3-D image under ten magnifications.”
Matheny followed Doran past a sign announcing that this show was for purely artistic purposes, into a booth. There a soundproof curtain reduced the noise level enough so they could talk in normal voices.
“What’ll you have?” asked Doran. “It’s on me.”
“Oh, I couldn’t let you. I mean--”
“Nonsense. Welcome to Earth! Care for a thyle and vermouth?”
Matheny shuddered. “Good Lord, no!”
“Huh? But they make thyle right on Mars, don’t they?”
“Yes. And it all goes to Earth and sells at 2000 dollars a fifth. But you don’t think we’d drink it, do you? I mean--well, I imagine it doesn’t absolutely ruin vermouth. But we don’t see those Earthside commercials about how sophisticated people like it so much.”
“Well, I’ll be a socialist creeper!” Doran’s face split in a grin. “You know, all my life I’ve hated the stuff and never dared admit it!” He raised a hand. “Don’t worry, I won’t blabbo. But I am wondering, if you control the thyle industry and sell all those relics at fancy prices, why do you call yourselves poor?”
“Because we are,” said Matheny. “By the time the shipping costs have been paid on a bottle, and the Earth wholesaler and jobber and sales engineer and so on, down to the retailer, have taken their percentage, and the advertising agency has been paid, and about fifty separate Earth taxes--there’s very little profit going back to the distillery on Mars. The same principle is what’s strangling us on everything. Old Martian artifacts aren’t really rare, for instance, but freight charges and the middlemen here put them out of the mass market.”
“Have you not got some other business?”
“Well, we do sell a lot of color slides, postcards, baggage labels and so on to people who like to act cosmopolitan, and I understand our travel posters are quite popular as wall decoration. But all that has to be printed on Earth, and the printer and distributor keep most of the money. We’ve sold some books and show tapes, of course, but only one has been really successful--I Was a Slave Girl on Mars.
“Our most prominent novelist was co-opted to ghostwrite that one. Again, though, local income taxes took most of the money; authors never have been protected the way a businessman is. We do make a high percentage of profit on those little certificates you see around--you know, the title deeds to one square inch of Mars--but expressed absolutely, in dollars, it doesn’t amount to much when we start shopping for bulldozers and thermonuclear power plants.”
“How about postage stamps?” inquired Doran. “Philately is a big business, I have heard.”
“It was our mainstay,” admitted Matheny, “but it’s been overworked. Martian stamps are a drug on the market. What we’d like to operate is a sweepstakes, but the anti-gambling laws on Earth forbid that.”
Doran whistled. “I got to give your people credit for enterprise, anyway!” He fingered his mustache. “Uh, pardon me, but have you tried to, well, attract capital from Earth?”
“Of course,” said Matheny bitterly. “We offer the most liberal concessions in the Solar System. Any little mining company or transport firm or--or anybody--who wanted to come and actually invest a few dollars in Mars--why, we’d probably give him the President’s daughter as security. No, the Minister of Ecology has a better-looking one. But who’s interested? We haven’t a thing that Earth hasn’t got more of. We’re only the descendants of a few scientists, a few political malcontents, oddballs who happen to prefer elbow room and a bill of liberties to the incorporated state--what could General Nucleonics hope to get from Mars?”
“I see. Well, what are you having to drink?”
“Beer,” said Matheny without hesitation.
“Huh? Look, pal, this is on me.”
“The only beer on Mars comes forty million miles, with interplanetary freight charges tacked on,” said Matheny. “Heineken’s!”
Doran shrugged, dialed the dispenser and fed it coins.
“This is a real interesting talk, Pete,” he said. “You are being very frank with me. I like a man that is frank.”
Matheny shrugged. “I haven’t told you anything that isn’t known to every economist.”
_Of course I haven’t. I’ve not so much as mentioned the Red Ankh, for instance. But, in principle, I have told him the truth, told him of our need; for even the secret operations do not yield us enough._
The beer arrived. Matheny engulfed himself in it. Doran sipped at a whiskey sour and unobtrusively set another full bottle in front of the Martian.
“Ahhh!” said Matheny. “Bless you, my friend.”
“But now you must let me buy you one.”
“That is not necessary. After all,” said Doran with great tact, “with the situation as you have been describing--”
“Oh, we’re not that poor! My expense allowance assumes I will entertain quite a bit.”
Doran’s brows lifted a few minutes of arc. “You’re here on business, then?”
“Yes. I told you we haven’t any tourists. I was sent to hire a business manager for the Martian export trade.”
“What’s wrong with your own people? I mean, Pete, it is not your fault there are so many rackets--uh, taxes--and middlemen and agencies and et cetera. That is just the way Earth is set up these days.”
Matheny’s finger stabbed in the general direction of Doran’s pajama top. “Exactly. And who set it up that way? Earthmen. We Martians are babes in the desert. What chance do we have to earn dollars on the scale we need them, in competition with corporations which could buy and sell our whole planet before breakfast? Why, we couldn’t afford three seconds of commercial time on a Lullaby Pillow ‘cast. What we need, what we have to hire, is an executive who knows Earth, who’s an Earthman himself. Let him tell us what will appeal to your people, and how to dodge the tax bite and--and--well, you see how it goes, that sort of, uh, thing.”
Matheny felt his eloquence running down and grabbed for the second bottle of beer.
“But where do I start?” he asked plaintively, for his loneliness smote him anew. “I’m just a college professor at home. How would I even get to see--”
“It might be arranged,” said Doran in a thoughtful tone. “It just might. How much could you pay this fellow?”
“A hundred megabucks a year, if he’ll sign a five-year contract. That’s Earth years, mind you.”
“I’m sorry to tell you this, Pete,” said Doran, “but while that is not bad money, it is not what a high-powered sales scientist gets in Newer York. Plus his retirement benefits, which he would lose if he quit where he is now at. And I am sure he would not want to settle on Mars permanently.”
“I could offer a certain amount of, uh, lagniappe,” said Matheny. “That is, well, I can draw up to a hundred megabucks myself for, uh, expenses and, well ... let me buy you a drink!”
Doran’s black eyes frogged at him. “You might at that,” said the Earthman very softly. “Yes, you might at that.”
Matheny found himself warming. Gus Doran was an authentic bobber. A hell of a swell chap. He explained modestly that he was a free-lance business consultant and it was barely possible that he could arrange some contacts...
“No, no, no commission, all done in the interest of interplanetary friendship ... well, anyhow, let’s not talk business now. If you have got to stick to beer, Pete, make it a chaser to akvavit. What is akvavit? Well, I will just take and show you.”
A hell of a good bloke. He knew some very funny stories, too, and he laughed at Matheny’s, though they were probably too rustic for a big-city taste like his.
“What I really want,” said Matheny, “what I really want--I mean what Mars really needs, get me?--is a confidence man.”
“The best and slickest one on Earth, to operate a world-size con game for us and make us some real money.”
“Con man? Oh. A slipstring.”
“A con by any other name,” said Matheny, pouring down an akvavit.
Doran squinted through cigarette smoke. “You are interesting me strangely, my friend. Say on.”
“No.” Matheny realized his head was a bit smoky. The walls of the booth seemed odd, somehow. They were just leatheroid walls, but they had an odd quality.
“No, sorry, Gus,” he said. “I spoke too much.”
“Okay. Forget it. I do not like a man that pries. But look, let’s bomb out of here, how about it? Go have a little fun.”
“By all means.” Matheny disposed of his last beer. “I could use some gaiety.”
“You have come to the right town then. But let us get you a hotel room first and some more up-to-date clothes.”
“Allez,” said Matheny. “If I don’t mean allons, or maybe alors.”
The drop down to cab-ramp level and the short ride afterward sobered him; the room rate at the Jupiter-Astoria sobered him still more.
Oh, well, he thought, _if I succeed in this job, no one at home will quibble._
And the chamber to which he and Doran were shown was spectacular enough, with a pneumo direct to the bar and a full-wall transparency to show the vertical incandescence of the towers.
“Whoof!” Matheny sat down. The chair slithered sensuously about his contours. He jumped. “What the dusty hell--Oh.” He tried to grin, but his face burned. “I see.”
“That is a sexy type of furniture, all right,” agreed Doran. He lowered himself into another chair, cocked his feet on the 3-D and waved a cigarette. “Which speaking of, what say we get some girls? It is not too late to catch them at home. A date here will usually start around 2100 hours earliest.”
“You know. Dames. Like a certain blonde warhead with twin radar and swivel mounting, and she just loves exotics. Such as you.”
“Me?” Matheny heard his voice climb to a schoolboy squeak. “Me? Exotic? Why, I’m just a little college professor. I g-g-g, that is--” His tongue got stuck on his palate. He pulled it loose and moistened uncertain lips.
“You are from Mars. Okay? So you fought bushcats barehanded in an abandoned canal.”
“What’s a bushcat? And we don’t have canals. The evaporation rate--”