The Pilot and the Bushman
by Sylvia Jacobs
Science Fiction Story: Technological upheavals caused by inventions of our own are bad enough, but this was the ultimate depression, caused by the ultimate alien invention--which no Earthman ever saw!
Tags: Science Fiction Novel-Classic
The Ambassador from Outer Space sprang to his feet, taking Jerry’s extended hand in a firm, warm grasp. Jerry had been prepared for almost anything--a scholarly brontosaurus, perhaps, or an educated squid or giant caterpillar with telepathic powers. But the Ambassador didn’t even have antennae, gills, or green hair. He was a completely normal and even handsome human being.
“Scotch? Cigar?” the Ambassador offered cordially. “How can I help you, Mr. Jergins?”
Studying him, Jerry decided there was something peculiar about this extraterrestrial, after all. He was too perfect. His shave was too close, his skin so unblemished as to suggest wax-works. Every strand of his distinguished iron-gray hair was impeccably placed. The negligent and just-right drape of his clothes covered a body shaped like a Sixth Century B.C. piece of Greek sculpture. No mere human could have looked so unruffled, so utterly groomed, at three o’clock in the afternoon, in a busy office. A race, Jerry wondered, capable of taking any shape at will, in mimicry of the indigenous race of any planet?
“You can help me, but I’m not sure you will,” Jerry said. “The rumor is that you won’t do anything to ease this buyers’ strike you started on Earth.”
The Ambassador smiled. “You’re a man who’s not used to taking no for an answer, I gather. What’s your proposition?”
“I’d like to contact some of the firms on the Federated Planets, show them how I could promote their merchandise on Earth. Earth is already clamoring for their goods. To establish a medium of exchange, we’d have to run simultaneous campaigns, promoting Earth merchandise on other planets.”
“That would be difficult, even for a man of your promotional ability,” the Ambassador said winningly. “You see, Earth is the only planet we’ve yet discovered where advertising--or promotion, to use the broader term--exists as a social and economic force.”
“How in hell can anybody do business without it?” Jerry demanded.
“We don’t do business in the sense you mean. Don’t mistake me,” the Ambassador added hastily, “we don’t have precisely a communal economy, either. Our very well defined sense of ethics in regard to material goods is something I find impossible to describe in any Earth language. It’s quite simple, so simple that you have to grow up with it to understand it. Our whole attitude toward material goods is conditioned by the Matter Repositor.”
“That gadget!” Jerry said bitterly. “It was when you first mentioned it before the U.N. Assembly that all this trouble on Earth started. Everybody and his brother hopes that tomorrow he can buy a Matter Repositor, and never have to buy anything again. I came here mostly to ask you whether it’s really true, that if you have one of those dinguses, you can bring anything you want into your living room.”
“You can. In practice, of course, repositing just anything that took your fancy would produce economic anarchy.”
“Let’s put it this way,” Jerry persisted. “Home appliances were my biggest accounts. Now, when we try to sell a refrigerator, the prospect says she’s saving her cash till Matter Repositors get on the Earth market. She plans to reposit a refrigerator--not from her neighbor’s kitchen, because that would be stealing--but from the factory. If the factory goes bust, people figure the government will have to subsidize building appliances. Now, could she really reposit a refrigerator?”
“She could. But she wouldn’t want to.”
“Why not?” Jerry asked, puzzled.
“If she conceived an illogical and useless desire for food refrigeration, she would simply reposit a block of cold air from, say, the North Pole.”
“Oh, fine!” Jerry said sarcastically. “That would cause more unemployment in the refrigerator industry than repositing them without paying for them! But what do you mean about food refrigeration being illogical and useless?”
“Well, in a storage warehouse, there might be some reason for food preservation. But you don’t need cold or canning. Why not just reposit the bacteria that cause the food to deteriorate? There’s no need to store food in a home equipped with a Matter Repositor. You simply reposit one meal at a time. Fruits and vegetables direct from tree or field. Meat from a slaughterhouse, since it isn’t humane to remove a pound of steak from a live steer. But even this is needless.”
“Why?” Jerry baffledly wanted to know.
“To free the maximum amount of the effort of thinking beings for non-material activities, each consumer can reposit the chemical elements of the food, synthesize his meal on the table. He can even reposit these elements directly into his stomach, or, to by-pass the effort of digestion, into his bloodstream as glycogen and amino acids.”
“So refrigerators would be as dead an item as kerosene lamps in a city wired for electricity,” Jerry agreed unhappily. “Suppose Mrs. Housewife, not needing a refrigerator, reposits a washing machine. The point I’m driving at--is there any practical way to compensate the factory, give it an incentive to produce more washing machines, without dragging in government control?”
“Why should the factory produce more washing machines? Who would want one? The housewife would simply reposit the dirt from her clothes into her flowerbed, without using water and soap. Or, more likely, reposit new clothes with different colors, fabrics, and styles. The Matter Repositor would eliminate textile mills and clothing factories. Earth’s oceans have vast enough quantities of seaweed to eliminate the growing of cotton, wool, or flax. Or, again, you could reposit the chemical elements, either from the soil or from seawater.”
Jerry pondered the extensive implications of these revelations. Finally he said, “What it boils down to is this. All Earth’s bustling material activity, all the logging and construction, the mining and manufacturing, the planting and fishing, the printing and postal service, the great transportation and shipping effort, the cleaning and painting, the sewage disposal, even the bathing and self-adornment, consist, when you analyze them, of one process only--putting something from where you don’t want it to where you do. There’s not one single, solitary Earth invention or service left to advertise!”
“Nothing,” the Ambassador agreed. “Which is exactly why advertising has not developed on the Federated Planets. You’re fortunate that Earth doesn’t have Matter Repositors. You’d be out of a job if it did.”
“Oh, no!” Jerry said. “I could still advertise the gadget to end all gadgets--the Matter Repositor itself. I know other people have asked you this before, but could an Earth company get a franchise to import those machines here, or the license rights to manufacture them?”
“No,” the Ambassador said, briefly and definitely.
“Mr. Ambassador,” Jerry protested, “you’ve gone to a lot of trouble to explain things you must already be tired of explaining to Earthmen, just so I personally could be sure they weren’t merely rumors or misinterpretations. Now that I get down to the real point, you suddenly become blunt and unqualified. Why?”
“Because there’s a very serious question of ethics involved, wherever a more advanced civilization comes in contact with a relatively primitive one. For instance, when the white men came to America, the aborigines were introduced to gunpowder and firewater.”
“So you people are keeping Matter Repositors away from us, like a mama keeping candy away from a baby who’s hollering for it, because it’s not good for him! You’d pass up a chance to name your own price--”
“The very way you phrase that remark indicates the danger. You regard personal gain as the strongest of motives, which means that Matter Repositors would be used for that, even by such unusually intelligent members of your race as yourself.”
“Don’t softsoap me,” Jerry said angrily. “Not after you just got through saying that we Earthlings are nothing but naked savages, compared to the high and mighty super-beings on other planets!”
“I apologize for my phraseology,” the Ambassador said. “With my limited command of your language--”
“Your limited command, nuts! I suppose you supermen enjoy seeing us naked savages squirm. Why talk sanctimoniously about the damage you might do, when you know damn well the damage has already been done? Just the news that something as advanced as the Matter Repositor exists has sent unemployment to a new high, and the stock market to a new low. And you theorize about ethics, while denying us the only cure!” Jerry found himself fighting a nearly irresistible impulse to smash his fist into that too-perfect profile--which, he realized glumly, would only prove the Ambassador’s point about savages.
“Here, here,” the Ambassador said benevolently, “let’s have another drink. Then we’ll see whether I can make it clear to you why the actual importation of Matter Repositors would cause much more trouble on Earth than the announcement of their existence, bad as the effect of that has been. To begin with, I admit I made a very serious error in mentioning the device at all before the U.N. Assembly. I intended merely to explain how I came here without a spaceship. After that, I was flooded with questions; I could no more avoid answering them than I could courteously avoid answering the questions you’ve been asking today.”
“You mean you super-beings actually admit you’re human enough to make mistakes?” Jerry asked, somewhat mollified.
“Of course we make mistakes. We try not to make the same one twice. You see, we once made the mistake of importing Matter Repositors to a planet whose natural resources and social concepts weren’t adequate for the device. That was a long time ago, and they haven’t recovered from the effects yet. Suppose a consignment of ten thousand Matter Repositors arrived on Earth tomorrow. Under your economic system, who would get them?”
“The ten thousand people or corporations who had the most money to pay for them, I guess. Unless government agencies grabbed ‘em.”
“Can you guarantee that of the ten thousand people on Earth who have the most money, not one is unscrupulous?”
“Gosh, no!” Jerry said. “I don’t think there’s any doubt that to stay in business very long, a man or a company has to have a certain amount of business ethics. Nobody can gyp the public indefinitely. But a bank robber might have a lot of cash, or a confidence man, or a cluck with a big inheritance.”
“So, to be generous, let’s assume that 9,999 of your wealthiest persons are so ethical that they would never make any profit at the expense of the general welfare. That leaves us one crook. What would he reposit first?”
“Hmm ... Maybe the gold at Fort Knox.”
“And what effect would that have on Earth’s business?”
“I’m not quite sure,” Jerry admitted. “I’m no shark on monetary theory, just the kind of large-scale salesman who makes mass production possible. But it certainly wouldn’t do the world situation any good.”
“Suppose, next, our crook holds the President of the United States for ransom. Since he doesn’t need money, the ransom price might be laws which would grant him impunity for his crimes. If not, he could have an accomplice reposit him out of jail, or even out of the electric chair, before the switch was pulled.”
“That’s enough! I get the idea!” Jerry exclaimed.
“Wait--there’s a more important point. Suppose a government you consider the wrong government got hold of some of the machines. First, of course, they’d reposit the world stockpile of atomic bombs. Then they’d reposit disease bacteria into the bloodstreams of U.N. troops, officials, and civilian workers, and reposit all the ammunition out of U.N. guns. So long as there is one spark of nationalism left on Earth, so long as any country has an economic and political system they consider better than some other system, Matter Repositors would mean planetary self-destruction. Now do you see why I was blunt and unqualified?”
“I do,” Jerry said solemnly, “And I was a fool to fly off the handle when you called us savages. We are savages, I can see that now. And your people must be pretty damned godlike to be trusted with such an invention!”
“Not at all. To a Micronesian bushman, the pilot who can be trusted with the power and speed of a B-29 seems a veritable god. But the pilot is only an ordinary Joe, very likely no more intelligent than the bushman--he just had a different background. Fighting each other for necessities and luxuries, the process that you people call business competition, has so long been needless to our people that they would no more think of competitive gain than you would do an Indian harvest dance before you signed a contract. They aren’t necessarily more intelligent or more virtuous than your people--they just have a different background.”
“You seem to have devoted a lot of study to the larceny in the Earthman’s soul,” Jerry put in. “What if we stole the secret from you, whether you think it wise to give it to us or not? Suppose somebody swiped the blueprints, or copied a Repositor you brought with you for your own use?”
The Ambassador smiled. “You might try to steal it. That’s why I didn’t bring a Repositor with me, to save you people the trouble of a futile try.”
“Well, the Matter Repositor is a simple device. Any child on the Federated Planets who had an education, say, equivalent to your technical high school education, could build a working model, even without another Repositor to assist him. But Earth’s best technicians couldn’t build one, even with either blueprints or a model to copy.”
“They couldn’t, eh?” Jerry challenged, bristling again. “They managed to split atoms, transmute elements, do a few little tricks like that.”
“I see I’ve been tactless again,” the Ambassador said regretfully. “Just now, you readily conceded that Earthmen are savages morally, but when I seem to cast aspersions on your mechanical ability, it offends your racial vanity. All right, let’s go back to the B-29 pilot and the intelligent bushman. The internal combustion engine that powers the B-29 is a simple device in fundamental principle, isn’t it?”
“Sure,” Jerry said.
“Any high school boy who has taken a course in auto mechanics, who has the requisite machine tools, metals, casting equipment, and fuel, could build a working model of an internal combustion engine, couldn’t he, even without ready-made parts?”
“If he wasn’t all thumbs, he could.”
“All right. Now suppose the B-29 is grounded in the jungle. The bushman is examining the engine. He’s just as intelligent as the pilot, remember, but his environment hasn’t produced an oil well, let alone a refinery. He has never seen a lathe or a micrometer. He has no mine, no smelter. He can’t copy that B-29 engine by whittling wood or chipping stone, even if he’s a born mechanical genius, and he can’t run it on seawater. So he says the plane flies by magic. Put him in the pilot seat, and you’ll admit it’s practically inevitable that he’ll crash.”
“Why do you take so much trouble to explain things?” Jerry asked wryly. “I should have my head examined for not understanding it in the first place.”
“Let’s say I’m feebly trying to make amends for what my unfortunate slip of the tongue has done to your business.”
“You’ve brought me around to your way of thinking, Mr. Ambassador,” Jerry said, recovering enough to carry the ball. “But it would be impossible to sell the public on the idea that they shouldn’t have Repositors because they’re too hot to handle. Statistics on auto accidents never convinced anybody that he didn’t want a nice, shiny, new car. Nobody thinks he personally will get killed in traffic--he’s too smart. You can’t convince a youngster he doesn’t want candy before dinner; he thinks he knows better than his parents. But you can hide the candy, while putting an appetizing meal on the table.”
“Yes, except that I regrettably didn’t hide the fact that the Matter Repositor exists.”
“You sure didn’t. And it puts you on a spot, doesn’t it? I don’t imagine it will be much fun for you to report to your government that one ill-considered remark, made shortly after your arrival, upset Earth’s economy.”
For the first time, the Ambassador’s suavity was ruffled. Sweat stood out on his noble forehead. “I’ve been hoping the bad-effects would die down before I have to report,” he confessed.
“They won’t die down by themselves. You know damned well they’re getting worse and worse, as word-of-mouth advertising about the Matter Repositor spreads.” Jerry leaned closer. “But you and I can get rid of those bad effects.”
“Well, I’ll tell you. When I came to see you, I was pretty sure you’d turn me down cold on importing Matter Repositors. But I had an ace up my sleeve. I hoped you would admit that the reason you’ve been stalling on selling Earth any Repositors is that you don’t really have a practical one. I thought maybe rumors of the Repositor’s powers had been vastly exaggerated. If you admitted that, I intended to publicize it to the limit. A campaign to convince Earthmen that you’d been kidding them would work, because it plays on John Q. Public’s conviction that he’s pretty smart, too smart to believe all this gab about a gadget he’s never seen. With your denial to back me up, I could put it across. It would be a lifesaving shot in the arm for Earth business.”
“You mean,” the Ambassador said reflectively, “that if I call myself a liar--if I actually become a liar in so doing--I can patch up the damage I’ve done? That puts me in a difficult ethical position.”
“Not as difficult as the one you’re in now. If it will make it easier for you, I can word your denial in a face-saving way, and have it ready for your signature Tuesday. You have a remarkable command of colloquial English, but even a diplomat using his native tongue can’t juggle the connotations and inferences like an advertising man.”
“It’s very kind of you to offer your professional skill in my behalf. I think I should pay you a fee for the copy.”
“Skip it,” Jerry said generously, fingering the nickel and two pennies in his pocket. “A small token of my appreciation for the patience you’ve shown. What time Tuesday?”
“Say two o’clock?”
“Fine. But before I spend my time on this, you’re not going to make the same deal with somebody else, are you?”
“Deal? Did I make a deal?”
“What I mean, nobody else has approached you with the idea that Earth business would get back to normal if you would deny that a practical Matter Repositor exists? You’d say I have exclusive rights to the idea?”
“Nobody has,” the Ambassador said, “and I agree to give you exclusive rights.”
“Good! With your signed denial, I can raise the loot. I think the N.A.M. will go for it. The campaign will have to be well-financed, you see; the amount of space the news columns will give to your denial may be as much as they gave to your original statement, but that alone won’t do the job. It’s much harder to kill a notion that has penetrated the public mind than it is to implant one.”
The Ambassador indulged in a chuckle. “I’m beginning to see daylight. My signed denial in your hands becomes a salable piece of merchandise, worth far more than I would pay you for a few lines of copy. Well, more power to you! Would it be out of place for me to contribute some of the funds for publicizing this denial?”
“How much?” Jerry asked practically.
“Well,” the Ambassador explained, “I’ve had nothing reposited that I could avoid. But since your planet has a monetary exchange, I had to pay for my office help, lodging, and so on. Synthesizing coinage would have been counterfeiting, which is against your laws, so I merely had a moderate amount of uncoined gold reposited, and I sell it on the regular Earth market as I need funds. Gold has no particular value on the Federated Planets, of course. I could get whatever you need, so long as it isn’t enough to disrupt the economy any more than--well, than I have already. Let’s limit ourselves to an amount that could be accounted for by an unusually good year in mining.”
“Sold!” Jerry said happily. “I think I can struggle along on a million a month retainer. Plus the usual fifteen per cent on advertising space and printing, of course; I’ll have an estimate on that for you Tuesday. Since you can finance the whole campaign yourself, we’ll leave the N.A.M. out of it. That way I can spare you the humiliation of signing an outright denial. All you have to do from now on is to keep mum. Don’t even admit that you’re the angel financing this campaign; that would make it look phony. I’ll assign you three personal public-relations men, on twenty-four-hour shift. All your public remarks are to screen through them.”
“But how can I conceal my identity when I’m sponsoring the campaign?” the Ambassador objected.
“That’s easy. The ostensible sponsor will be a dummy organization called--um--the Consumers Fact Finding Board. Nobody but me needs to know who signs the checks.”
“How long will this campaign continue?”
“I figure it’ll take about six months to sell the public this particular bill of goods. Once we get business revived, the best thing is never to mention the words Matter Repositor again, not even to deny its existence. The ultimate goal is to make people forget they ever heard of such a gadget. The more convincing I make it, the quicker I’ll work myself out of a job.”
“I should think you’d make it last as long as possible; that’s why I asked you for a time-limit. Do you want to work yourself out of a job?”
“You bet I do! Then I can start selling a bigger item, launch a longer-term promotion, one that will last till Earth gets civilized, till I don’t have anything more to sell. From what you say, that will take a lot longer than I’ll live.”
“It may be none of my business, but what is this big item you propose to sell next?” the Ambassador asked, curiously.
“Earth,” Jerry said.
The Ambassador looked confused. “I’m afraid I don’t understand.”
“Didn’t you just get through telling me, in effect, that any of your people who came to Earth could have all the money they wanted to spend? Well, I’m going to run advertising copy on the Federated Planets, and get them to come here and spend it.”
“But I also told you that advertising is unknown on the Federated Planets!” the Ambassador protested.
“All the better. Your people, then, will have less sales resistance than an audience of Earth kindergarten kids, who have had spot commercials dinned into their ears since birth. The only problem is space and time.”
“The Matter Repositor has effectively solved the problems of space and time.”
“No, I mean space and time as an advertising man uses those terms. Newspaper and magazine space, radio and TV time. Do you have any newspapers out there?”
“We have very little you would classify as news. No wars, no stock market, no crime, no epidemics, no political mudslinging, few accidents. But we do have information bulletins, of course.”
“Fine! Besides that million a month retainer, I want an exclusive contract to run advertising copy in the information bulletins on the Federated Planets.”
“This is completely unprecedented!”
“You want to get out of this mess you’re in, don’t you? I’m the boy who can get you out, and that’s my price.”
“You drive a hard bargain, Mr. Jergins. Very well, I’ll arrange it. But I’m getting you the contract only because I’m certain your excursion idea won’t work. Oh, I know Earth men want to visit the Federated Planets; I’ve had plenty of requests. I’ve had to explain repeatedly that we must hold to our announced policy of no ambassador from Earth, and no exchange students, until Earth has completed a few more steps in the development of her civilization. But surely none of our people will come to Earth, aside from a few students of comparative civilizations. Our general public can view samples of your national costumes, automobiles, and so on, in the museums. I can’t see why they should want to come here, while Earth is still in a primitive and dangerous stage.”
“You can’t, eh? Well, you might be surprised, Mr. Ambassador, you might be surprised. For the time being, just picture yourself as the pilot of that B-29, grounded on a primitive little island in space. You’ve met a poor, ignorant bushman. He couldn’t reproduce your plane to save his neck. He can’t manufacture a single gadget you’d want to buy. Nevertheless, you’re about to see a demonstration of a few tricks of survival that your super-civilized race has forgotten--or, rather, never knew. I think you’ll cook up into a right tasty dish.”
Four days later, the Better Business Bureau of Oskaloosa, Iowa, nabbed a questionable character who had accepted deposits from local businessmen, in return for elaborately printed but worthless contracts to deliver Matter Repositors.
The warning flash crossed similar warnings from New Orleans, Reno, Milwaukee, and the Borough of Queens, with a particularly hysterical note injected by Los Angeles, where the populace had proved most susceptible to the bogus agents. The news of a national ring of confidence artists, capitalizing on people’s desire for Matter Repositors, ran in all papers, of course. The editors as yet hadn’t the faintest idea that they were printing carefully engineered publicity.
Before he even got his space contracts lined up, Jerry had accomplished quite a feat. He had fixed things so that, if the Ambassador from Outer Space himself had changed his mind, and imported a cargo of genuine Matter Repositors, he would have had some trouble convincing people he wasn’t a crook.
In a record two weeks, the campaign proper was ready to roll. It was long on white space, and the copy was so short that, after glancing at it a few times, you found that you had involuntarily committed it to memory. In the center of blank pages in all major metropolitan newspapers appeared a small want-ad, stating that the Consumers Fact Finding Board had deposited with a New York bank the sum of one million dollars in cash, after taxes, which would be paid to any person, terrestrial or extraterrestrial, who could produce a Matter Repositor capable of repositing an object weighing two pounds a distance of ten feet.
The offer was repeated daily for a month, and from the second day forward, there was a large, red overprint, looking like a crayon scrawl, which said, “No Takers to Date who Can Deliver the Goods!”
The idea was pounded into the public mind by carcards, billboards, direct mail, and annoying telephone solicitors, who got subscribers out of bathtub and bed to ask them whether they had a Matter Repositor around the house they wanted to sell for a million dollars. Skywriters by day and illuminated blimps by night made sure the literate could not escape the message. Radio and TV singing and cartoon commercials took care of the illiterate.
No conclusions were drawn in the copy. Each “prospect” was left with the comfortable feeling that his own superior intellect and powers of deduction had supplied the answer. No Matter Repositor turned up for sale, so everyone was sure there was no such thing. The whole campaign, like other advertising campaigns before it, depended on what people failed to consider. They neglected to realize that a million dollars would be a joke to the owner of a Matter Repositor, who could reposit all the wealth on Earth, including the million in the New York bank, but would have no use for money, since he could reposit usable goods. The magic phrase “a million dollars” was a worldwide symbol for all desirable material things. It would have been almost heresy to reflect that even that much cash had no actual value.
As Jerry promised, the Ambassador didn’t have to issue an official denial. His chief public relations man quite truthfully admitted to reporters that the Ambassador had no Matter Repositor in his possession, a dispatch carried by all wire services, and snickered at by clever columnists.
In basements and garages, persons of good, bad, and indifferent mechanical ability strove to earn the million. The U.S. patent office was inundated with models and drawings of unworkable devices. One of the Duke University subjects tried to patent his ability to influence the fall of dice mentally.
During the next session of the Congress, Jerry’s crack lobbyists raised a great howl about the shameful congestion in the Patent Office, not mentioning, of course, that they were employed by the man who had created the congestion, by offering a million dollars for a device he knew no Earthman could build.
Another dummy organization, dubbed the Inventors Protective League, sponsored a bill to amend the act relating to perpetual motion machines. It passed, with an emergency clause, and, thereafter, devices purporting to reposit matter were not entitled to letters of patent.
This just about clinched the deal, for the vast majority of people, who had never watched laws enacted, assumed that if something was in the law, there must be a good reason for it, unless, of course, it was anything like prohibition.
A name band revived “The Thing,” leaving the drumbeats out of the vocal refrain, and substituting, “Get out of here with that Matter Repositor, before I call a cop!” Within six months, radio and TV comedians had worn out the joke. Even Goofy, My Friend Irma, Mrs. Ace, and Gracie Allen were too sophisticated to believe in Matter Repositors. Gags about them dropped to the same low level as those about Brooklyn and joke-stealing comics.
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