We Also Walk Dogs, страница 1
“—We Also Walk Dogs”
Robert A. Heinlein
“General services—Miss Cormet speaking!” She addressed the view screen with just the right balance between warm hospitable friendliness and impersonal efficiency. The screen flickered momentarily, then built up a stereo-picture of a dowager, fat and fretful, overdressed and underexercised.
“Oh, my dear,” said the image, “I’m so upset. I wonder if you can help me.”
“I’m sure we can,” Miss Cormet purred as she quickly estimated the cost of the woman’s gown and jewels (if real—she made a mental reservation) and decided that here was a client that could be profitable. “Now tell me your trouble. Your name first, if you please.” She touched a button on the horseshoe desk which enclosed her, a button marked CREDIT DEPARTMENT.
“But it’s all so involved,” the image insisted. “Peter would go and break his hip.” Miss Cormet immediately pressed the button marked MEDICAL. “I’ve told him that polo is dangerous. You’ve no idea, my dear, how a mother suffers. And just at this time, too. It’s so inconvenient—”
“You wish us to attend him? Where is he now?”
“Attend him? Why, how silly! The Memorial Hospital will do that. We’ve endowed them enough, I’m sure. It’s my dinner party I’m worried about. The Principessa will be so annoyed.”
The answer light from the Credit Department was blinking angrily. Miss Cormet headed her off. “Oh, I see. We’ll arrange it for you. Now, your name, please, and your address and present location.”
“But don’t you know my name?”
“One might guess,” Miss Cormet diplomatically evaded, “but General Services always respects the privacy of its clients.”
“Oh, yes, of course. How considerate. I am Mrs Peter van Hogbein Johnson.” Miss Cormet controlled her reaction. No need to consult the Credit Department for this one. But its transparency flashed at once, rating AAA—unlimited. “But I don’t see what you can do,” Mrs Johnson continued. “I can’t be two places at once.”
“General Services likes difficult assignments,” Miss Cormet assured her. “Now—if you will let me have the details . . .”
She wheedled and nudged the woman into giving a fairly coherent story. Her son, Peter III, a slightly shopworn Peter Pan, whose features were familiar to Grace Gormet through years of stereogravure, dressed in every conceivable costume affected by the richly idle in their pastimes, had been so thoughtless as to pick the afternoon before his mother’s most important social function to bung himself up—seriously. Furthermore, he had been so thoughtless as to do so half a continent away from his mater.
Miss Cormet gathered that Mrs Johnson’s technique for keeping her son safely under thumb required that she rush to his bedside at once, and, incidentally, to select his nurses. But her dinner party that evening represented the culmination of months of careful maneuvering. What was she to do?
Miss Cormet reflected to herself that the prosperity of General Services and her own very substantial income was based largely on the stupidity, lack of resourcefulness, and laziness of persons like this silly parasite, as she explained that General Services would see that her party was a smooth, social success while arranging for a portable full-length stereo screen to be installed in her drawing room in order that she might greet her guests and make her explanations while hurrying to her son’s side. Miss Cormet would see that a most adept social manager was placed in charge, one whose own position in society was irreproachable and whose connection with General Services was known to no one. With proper handling the disaster could be turned into a social triumph, enhancing Mrs Johnson’s reputation as a clever hostess and as a devoted mother.
“A sky car will be at your door in twenty minutes,” she added, as she cut in the circuit marked TRANSPORTATION, “to take you to the rocket port. One of our young men will be with it to get additional details from you on the way to the port. A compartment for yourself and a berth for your maid will be reserved on the 16:45 rocket for Newark. You may rest easy now. General Services will do your worrying.”
“Oh, thank you, my dear. You’ve been such a help. You’ve no idea of the responsibilities a person in my position has.”
Miss Cormet cluck-clucked in professional sympathy while deciding that this particular girl was good for still more fees. “You do look exhausted, madame,” she said anxiously. “Should I not have a masseuse accompany you on the trip? Is your health at all delicate? Perhaps a physician would be still better.”
“How thoughtful you are!”
“I’ll send both,” Miss Cormet decided, and switched off, with a faint regret that she had not suggested a specially chartered rocket. Special service, not listed in the master price schedule, was supplied on a cost-plus basis. In cases like this “plus” meant all the traffic would bear.
She switched to EXECUTIVE; an alert-eyed young man filled the screen. “Stand by for transcript, Steve,” she said. “Special service, triple-A. I’ve started the immediate service.”
His eyebrows lifted. “Triple-A—bonuses?”
“Undoubtedly. Give this old battleaxe the works—smoothly. And look—the client’s son is laid up in a hospital. Check on his nurses. If any one of them has even a shred of sex-appeal, fire her out and put a zombie in.”
“Gotcha, kid. Start the transcript.”
She cleared her screen again; the “available-for-service” light in her booth turned automatically to green, then almost at once turned red again and a new figure built up in her screen.
No stupid waster this. Grace Cormet saw a well-kempt man in his middle forties, flat-waisted, shrewd-eyed, hard but urbane. The cape of his formal morning clothes was thrown back with careful casualness. “General Services,” she said. “Miss Cormet speaking.”
“Ah, Miss Cormet,” he began, “I wish to see your chief.”
“Chief of switchboard?”
“No, I wish to see the President of General Services.”
“Will you tell me what it is you wish? Perhaps I can help you.”
“Sorry, but I can’t make explanations. I must see him, at once.”
“And General Services is sorry. Mr Clare is a very busy man; it is impossible to see him without appointment and without explanation.”
“Are you recording?”
“Then please cease doing so.”
Above the console, in sight of the client, she switched off the recorder. Underneath the desk she switched it back on again. General Services was sometimes asked to perform illegal acts; its confidential employees took no chances. He fished something out from the folds of his chemise and held it out to her. The stereo effect made it appear as if he were reaching right out through the screen.
Trained features masked her surprise—it was the sigil of a planetary official, and the color of the badge was green.
“I will arrange it,” she said.
“Very good. Can you meet me and conduct me in from the waiting room? In ten minutes?”
“I will be there, Mister . . . Mister—“ But he had cut off.
Grace Cormet switched to the switchboard chief and called for relief. Then, with her board cut out of service, she removed the spool bearing the clandestine record of the interview, stared at it as if undecided, and after a moment, dipped it into an opening in the top of the desk where a strong magnetic field wiped the unfixed patterns from the soft metal.
A girl entered the booth from the rear. She was blond, decorative, and looked slow and a little dull. She was neither. “Okay, Grace,” she said. “Anything to turn over?”
“No. Clear board.”
“’S matter? Sick?”
“No.” With no further explanation Grace left the booth, went on out p
She took a short cut through the master files room, walked down an alleyway between dozens of chattering punched-card machines, and entered the foyer of that level. A pneumatic lift bounced her up to the level of the President’s office. The President’s receptionist did not stop her, nor, apparently, announce her. But Grace noted that the girl’s hands were busy at the keys of her voder.
Switchboard operators do not walk into the offices of the president of a billion-credit corporation. But General Services was not organized like any other business on the planet. It was a sui generis business in which special training was a commodity to be listed, bought, and sold, but general resourcefulness and a ready wit were all important. In its hierarchy Jay Clare, the president, came first, his handyman, Saunders Francis, stood second, and the couple of dozen operators, of which Grace was one, who took calls on the unlimited switchboard came immediately after. They, and the field operators who handled the most difficult unclassified commissions—one group in fact, for the unlimited switchboard operators and the unlimited field operators swapped places indiscriminately.
After them came the tens of thousands of other employees spread over the planet, from the chief accountant, the head of the legal department, the chief clerk of the master files on down through the local managers. the catalogue operators to the last classified part time employee—stenographers prepared to take dictation when and where ordered, gigolos ready to fill an empty place at a dinner, the man who rented both armadillos and trained fleas.
Grace Cormet walked into Mr Clare’s office. It was the only room in the building not cluttered up with electromechanical recording and communicating equipment. It contained nothing but his desk (bare), a couple of chairs, and a stereo screen, which, when not in use, seemed to be Krantz’ famous painting “The Weeping Buddha’. The original was in fact in the sub-basement, a thousand feet below.
“Hello, Grace,” he greeted her, and shoved a piece of paper at her. “Tell me what you think of that. Sance says it’s lousy.” Saunders Francis turned his mild pop eyes from his chief to Grace Cormet, but neither confirmed nor denied the statement.
Miss Cormet read:
CAN YOU AFFORD IT?
Can You Afford GENERAL SERVICES?
Can You Afford NOT to have General Services ? ? ? ??
In this jet-speed age can you afford to go on wasting time doing your own shopping, paying bills yourself, taking care of your living compartment?
We’ll spank the baby and feed the cat.
We’ll rent you a house and buy your shoes.
We’ll write to your mother-in-law and add up your check stubs.
No job too large; No job too small—and all amazingly Cheap!
Dial H-U-R-R-Y - U-P
P.S. WE ALSO WALK DOGS
“Well?” said Clare.
“Sance is right. It smells.”
“Too logical. Too verbose. No drive.”
“What’s your idea of an ad to catch the marginal market?”
She thought a moment, then borrowed his stylus and wrote:
DO YOU WANT SOMEBODY MURDERED?
(Then don’t call GENERAL SERVICES)
But for any other job dial HURRY-UP - It pays!
P.S. We also walk dogs.
“Mmmm . . . well, maybe,” Mr Clare said cautiously. “We’ll try it. Sance, give this a type B coverage, two weeks, North America, and let me know how it takes.” Francis put it away in his kit, still with no change in his mild expression. “Now as I was saying—“
“Chief,” broke in Grace Cormet. “I made an appointment for you in—“ She glanced at her watchfinger. “—exactly two minutes and forty seconds. Government man.”
“Make him happy and send him away. I’m busy.”
He looked up sharply. Even Francis looked interested. “So?” Clare remarked. “Got the interview transcript with you?”
“I wiped it.”
“You did? Well, perhaps you know best. I like your hunches. Bring him in.”
She nodded thoughtfully and left.
She found her man just entering the public reception room and escorted him past half a dozen gates whose guardians would otherwise have demanded his identity and the nature of his business. When he was seated in Clare’s office, he looked around. “May I speak with you in private, Mr Clare?”
“Mr Francis is my right leg. You’ve already spoken to Miss Cormet.”
“Very well.” He produced the green sigil again and held it out. “No names are necessary just yet. I am sure of your discretion.”
The President of General Services sat up impatiently. “Let’s get down to business. You are Pierre Beaumont, Chief of Protocol. Does the administration want a job done?”
Beaumont was unperturbed by the change in pace. “You know me. Very well. We’ll get down to business. The government may want a job done. In any case our discussion must not be permitted to leak out—”
“All of General Services relations are confidential.”
“This is not confidential; this is secret.” He paused.
“I understand you,” agreed Clare. “Go on.”
“You have an interesting organization here, Mr Clare. I believe it is your boast that you will undertake any commission whatsoever—for a price.”
“If it is legal.”
“Ah, yes, of course. But legal is a word capable of interpretation. I admired the way your company handled the outfitting of the Second Plutonian Expedition. Some of your methods were, ah, ingenious.”
“If you have any criticism of our actions in that case they are best made to our legal department through the usual channels.”
Beaumont pushed a palm in his direction. “Oh, no, Mr Clare—please! You misunderstand me. I was not criticising; I was admiring. Such resource! What a diplomat you would have made!”
“Let’s quit fencing. What do you want?” Mr Beaumont pursed his lips. “Let us suppose that you had to entertain a dozen representatives of each intelligent race in this planetary system and you wanted to make each one of them completely comfortable and happy. Could you do it?”
Clare thought aloud. “Air pressure, humidity, radiation densities, atmosphere, chemistry, temperatures, cultural conditions—those things are all simple. But how about acceleration? We could use a centrifuge for the Jovians, but Martians and Titans—that’s another matter. There is no way to reduce earth-normal gravity. No, you would have to entertain them out in space, or on Luna. That makes it not our pigeon; we never give service beyond the stratosphere.”
Beaumont shook his head. “It won’t be beyond the stratosphere. You may take it as an absolute condition that you are to accomplish your results on the surface of the Earth.”
“Is it the custom of General Services to inquire why a client wants a particular type of service?”
“Quite all right. But you do need more information in order to understand what must be accomplished and why it must be secret. There will be a conference, held on this planet, in the near future—ninety days at the outside. Until the conference is called no suspicion that it is to be held must be allowed to leak out. If the plans for it were to be anticipated in certain quarters, it would be useless to hold the conference at all. I suggest that you think of this conference as a roundtable of leading, ah, scientists of the system, about of th
But Clare interrupted “him. “You appear to have assumed that we will take on this commission. As you have explained it, it would involve us in a ridiculous failure. General Services does not like failures. You know and I know that low-gravity people cannot spend more than a few hours in high gravity without seriously endangering their health. Interplanetary get togethers are always held on a low-gravity planet and always will be.”
“Yes,” answered Beaumont patiently, “they always have been. Do you realize the tremendous diplomatic handicap which Earth and Venus labor under in consequence?”
“I don’t get it.”
“It isn’t necessary that you should. Political psychology is not your concern. Take it for granted that it does and that the Administration is determined that this conference shall take place on Earth.”
“Why not Luna?”
Beaumont shook his head. “Not the same thing at all. Even though we administer it, Luna City is a treaty port. Not the same thing, psychologically.”
Clare shook his head. “Mr Beaumont, I don’t believe that you understand the nature of General Services, even as I fail to appreciate the subtle requirements of diplomacy. We don’t work miracles and we don’t promise to. We are just the handyman of the last century, gone speed-lined and corporate. We are the latter day equivalent of the old servant class, but we are not Aladdin’s genie. We don’t even maintain research laboratories in the scientific sense. We simply make the best possible use of modern advances in communications and organization to do what already can be done.” He waved a hand at the far wall, on which there was cut in intaglio the time-honored trademark of the business—a Scottie dog, pulling against a leash and sniffing at a post. “There is the spirit of the sort of work we do. We walk dogs for people who are too busy to walk ‘em themselves. My grandfather worked his way through college walking dogs. I’m still walking them. I don’t promise miracles, nor monkey with politics.”