$1,000 a Plate

by Jack Mckenty

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: "$1,000 a Plate" takes place on Mars' moon Deimos, at a time when it has been highly commercialized and visitor friendly. The enterpreneurial casino business has arrived to entice the tourist trade to part with their dollars, while research and exploration is taking place via astronomers and their telescopes searching the heavens in Deimos' crystal clear atmosphere. But there is a problem...

Tags: Science Fiction   Futuristic   Fantasy   Novel-Classic  

When Marsy Gras shot off its skyrockets, Mars

Observatory gave it the works--fireworks!

Sunset on Mars is a pale, washed out, watery sort of procedure that is hardly worth looking at. The shadows of the cactus lengthen, the sun goes down without the slightest hint of color or display and everything is dark. About once a year there is one cloud that turns pink briefly. But even the travel books devote more space describing the new sign adorning the Canal Casino than they do on the sunset.

The night sky is something else again. Each new crop of tourists goes to bed at sunrise the day after arrival with stiff necks from looking up all night. The craters of the moons are visible to the naked eye, and even a cheap pair of opera glasses can pick out the buildings of the Deimos Space Station.

A typical comment from a sightseer is, “Just think, Fred, we were way up there only twelve hours ago.”

At fairly frequent intervals, the moons eclipse. The local Chamber of Commerce joins with the gambling casinos to use these occasions as excuses for a celebration. The “Marsy Gras” includes floats, costumes, liquor, women, gambling--and finishes off with a display of fireworks and a stiff note of protest from the nearby Mars Observatory.

The day after a particularly noisy, glaring fireworks display, the top brass at the Observatory called an emergency meeting. The topic was not a new one, but fresh evidence, in the form of several still-wet photographic plates, showing out-of-focus skyrocket trails and a galaxy of first-magnitude aerial cracker explosions was presented.

“I maintain they fire them in our direction on purpose,” one scientist declared.

This was considered to be correct because the other directions around town were oil refineries and the homes of the casino owners.

“Why don’t we just move the Observatory way out in the desert?” a technician demanded. “It wouldn’t be much of a job.”

“It would be a tremendous job,” said Dr. Morton, the physicist. “If not for the glare of city lights on Earth, we wouldn’t have had to move our telescopes to the Moon. If not for the gravel falling out of the sky on the Moon, making it necessary to resurface the reflectors every week, we wouldn’t have had to move to Mars. Viewing conditions here are just about perfect--except for the immense cost of transporting the equipment, building materials, workmen, and paying us triple time for working so far from home. Why, did you ever figure the cost of a single photographic plate? What with salaries, freight to and from Earth, maintenance and all the rest, it’s enormous!”

“Then why don’t we cut down the cost of ruined exposures,” asked the technician, “by moving the Observatory away from town?”

“Because,” Dr. Morton explained, “we’d have to bring in crews to tear the place down, other crews to move it, still more crews to rebuild it. Not to mention unavoidable breakage and replacement, which involve more freight from Earth. At $7.97 per pound dead-weight ... well, you figure it out.”

“So we can’t move and we can’t afford ruined thousand-dollar plates,” said the scientist who had considered himself a target for the fireworks. “Then what’s the answer?”

The usual suggestion was proposed that a delegation approach the Town Council to follow up the letter of protest. A search through the past meetings’ minutes showed that this had never accomplished anything up to date.

A recent arrival to the Observatory mentioned that their combined brain power should be enough to beat the games and thus force the casino owners--who were the real offenders--out of business. One of the scientists, who had already tried that very scheme on a small scale, reported his results. He proved with his tabulations that, in this instance, science, in the guise of the law of averages, was unfortunately against them.

Dr. Morton rose to his feet. The other men listened to his plan, at first with shocked horror, then with deep interest and finally in wild exultation. The meeting broke up with most of the members grinning from ear to ear. “It’s lucky Dr. Morton is a physicist,” said one of the directors. “No astronomer would ever have thought of that.”

A few days later a modest little ad appeared in the weekly publication “What to do in Marsport.” It did not try to compete with any of the casino ads (all of which featured pretty girls), but it had a unique heading.


For the First Time Ever



by the Staff of the


Learn your Luck, your Future!

Write or call Mars Observatory.

No charge. No obligation.

Since the horoscopes being offered were about the only things on Mars that didn’t cost the tourists any money, the response was great. The recipient of a horoscope found a mimeographed folder which contained three pages describing the present positions of the planets, where to look for Earth in the sky, and what science hoped to learn the next time Mercury was in transit. The fourth page held the kicker. It said that while the tourist’s luck would be better than average at most of the gambling houses, he would lose consistently if he played at Harvey’s Club.

Within two days the only people playing at Harvey’s were the shills. The following day, the visitors to the observatory included Harvey.

The gambler was welcomed with mingled respect for his money and contempt for his occupation. He was taken immediately to see Dr. Morton, who greeted him with a sly smile.

Harvey’s conversation was brief and to the point. “How much?” he asked waving a horoscope under Dr. Morton’s nose.

“Just a promise,” said the scientist. Harvey said nothing but looked sullen. “You are on the Town Council,” Morton continued. “Now, the next time the question of tourist entertainment is discussed, we want you to vote against a fireworks display.” He then explained how important plates had been ruined by skyrocket trails.

Harvey listened with great interest, especially when Dr. Morton flatly stated that each casino, in turn, would get the same publicity in the horoscopes.

“The Council members are all for the tourists,” Harvey commented, “and you guys are supposed to be nuts, like all scientists. But I’ll do like you say.” He reached into his pocket. “Here’s fifty bucks. Use it for a full page ad this time and do the Desert Sands Casino in your next horoscope. And say--before I go, can I look through the telescope? I never seemed to have the time before.”

At weekly intervals, Dr. Morton “did” the Desert Sands; Frankland’s Paradise; the Martian Gardens; and the Two Moons Club. From each owner he extracted the same promise--to vote against the fireworks at the Council meetings.

The technique was settling down to a routine. Each victim came, made the promise, paid for the following week’s ad, named the next casino, and was taken on a tour of the Observatory. Then disaster struck.

It took the form of an interplanetary telegram from Harvard Observatory, their parent organization. It read:





Dr. Morton was eating alone in the staff dining room when he noticed a familiar face beside him. “Harvey,” he said. “Guess you’ve come down to gloat over our misfortune.”

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