Thank you, Jheebs. You may clear the table now. Everything was done to perfection, as usual. I think we shall be ready for dessert in, say, twenty minutes or so. This splendid pinot secco should keep us happily occupied until then.Jheebs? Why, yes, he is quite a useful fellow. Couldn't do without him. Also quite unique, you know, only one of his kind on Hildred's Planet. Jheebs and I go back quite a few years now. How I came to be associated with him is one of those stories so absurd, so riddled with improbable events, even I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't been there.
I well remember how it all started that evening at Uncle Grump's. A pleasant, clear early summer's evening much like this, with the lights of Ilnestrom just starting to come on as they are now, all strings of white, amber, gold against the deep blue of the western horizon. Very spectacular. And if you think the view from here is wonderful you should see it from Uncle Grump's penthouse.
In point of fact, you can see the penthouse itself if you'll look towards the southwest. There, that cluster of lights crowning the tallest building in the financial district. My Great Aunt Eldora and her husband Euphonius Grumpitz still reside there. It suits Uncle Grumps' self-image as top of the financial food chain. Fancies himself a mercantile bird of prey, perched there, waiting to swoop down on the fiscal mice below. That's where the whole story started. I'd been invited to one of those intimate family dinners that so often are the preludes to great events, usually of a disastrous nature. Invited is perhaps not entirely the correct term. Commanded to attend is a tad closer to the truth. I'd opened my front door a few days earlier to find one of Uncle Grump's servots waiting there, its outstretched metal claw proffering an engraved invitation addressed to Dunstan Malvern. No casual messages left on the discom for Uncle Grump. Undoubtedly the feed from the vid-unit in the machine's teapot dome was being duly recorded to ensure that I couldn't deny receiving the invitation. Uncle Grump is always very careful about such details.
You might gather from my tone that I was a less than eager guest that night and you would be quite right. Before this particular evening I hadn't had much contact with my great-aunt and uncle for several years you see, not since my advancing age had cured my Tantie Eldora's serious case of guardianship over me. If anyone was happier than myself at the termination of that relationship it was Euphonius Grumpitz. Uncle Grump and I had never exactly hit it off well. The less seen of me the better, was Uncle Grump's opinion. And then, for no apparent reason, here comes an invitation to a quiet family dinner at home. As the missionary to the cannibals said, it's rather difficult to enjoy the main course when you're not certain whether or not you'll be the dessert.
On their parts, the host and hostess proceeded as if nothing unusual were up. The food was excellent, as you would expect from the kitchen of two of the richest people on the planet. We made the usual small talk. By we I mean primarily Tantie Eldora with occasional assistance from myself. Uncle Grump maintained his usual habit of not engaging in small talk and as far as he's ever been concerned all conversation with me qualifies as small talk.
Courses came and were duly consumed. Dessert was served, though by that time my stomach was churning such that it could have been cold, stale oatmeal for all the enjoyment I derived. Ultimately, while the servots cleared up, we adjourned with the final wine selection to Uncle Grump's study, where I wandered out onto the balcony and pretended to calmly observe the view. I could hear murmurs behind me. Uncle Grump and Tantie Eldora were speaking in low tones, the sort reserved for when the children aren't supposed to hear. Whatever was in the works was getting a final going over before the fatal moment. Then there were footsteps behind me, Tantie Eldora's footsteps. The moment was at hand.
"Duncie, your Uncle Euphonius has something to say to you. Now, I know that you and he don't often see eye to eye, but please, as a favor to your dear old Tantie, listen to him. It's for your own good, you know."
Amazing, the seemingly infinite variability of the human voice. I've known Tantie Eldora, when employing the full resources of her substantial physique, to rattle china several counties over. But tonight, to hear her, the softly maternal, good-wifely tone in her voice, you would never suspect that she was one of the few people on the planet who was a match for Uncle Grump. The marriage between them was by some described as a marriage of convenience. That was wrong. It was more a marriage of necessity. Before joining forces they had been conducting their own private Armageddon in the battle for control of a commercial concern. It threatened to degenerate into the worst sort of scorched earth combat until, in a dual flash of insight brought on by exhaustion, they decided to join forces.
The curious thing about them was that, where Uncle Grump lived for the battle, devoting most waking hours to waging financial war, Tantie Eldora seemed almost to stumble into great victories by accident, or by engineering her triumphs with the most ad hoc of strategies. Most of her time was spent pursuing one or another passion of the moment. Only occasionally did she venture into the lists to tilt with the merchant-knights. But when she did the results were almost always disastrous to her opponents. Many have suggested that the union of Euphonious Grumpitz and Eldora Picquet was a matter of destiny, the inevitable joining of two complementary spirits, the strengths and weaknesses of one interlocking nicely with the other. The truth is probably that fear and greed played the greatest roles in bringing the loving couple together. I personally have long suspected that a good bit of Uncle Grump's incentive in the arrangement was fear of what Eldora might do if she ever turned her full attention to business while on her part Tantie Eldora had a firm appreciation of the value of being able to enlist Uncle Grump's resources in her various crusades.
Tantie Eldora gave me a light pat on the shoulder and left. I deduced that there would be no seconds on the wine, since she took my glass with her. Uncle Grump remained standing at the far side of the study. I could see his reflection in the glass, could see the bare, polished dome and the sweeping white bow wave of mustache that seemed to be trying to compensate for the absence of its relatives above. It was something of a trademark of his, that mustache and the accompanying nose. If the mustache believed in doing things up with panache, billowing and sweeping and threatening to outflank his ears, the nose was equally determined to hold up its end of the business, making up in enthusiasm what it lacked in style. It was one of those noses that takes off with rather too much velocity and then realizes with a start that continuing on the current heading will carry it off about a meter or so further than any nose has gone before and thus it makes a series of mid-course over-corrections before making a last swoop and heading for home.
I stood there for what seemed a week or so, wishing I had some more wine, if only to give my hands something to do in holding the glass. He stood there, almost as far away as he could get while still being in the same room, occasionally sipping some of his wine. I worked out light, inoffensive comments I could toss out to get a conversation going, discarding each in turn as having too many controversial possibilities. Finally he spoke.
"Dunce," he said.
"Yes, Uncle?" I said, turning to meet my fate.
"Dunstan, we have to have a talk."
I thought I could see the cords in his gaunt neck working, the chin bobbing slightly, the hollow cheeks puffing just faintly, as if he were rejecting utterances at the last possible millisecond, countermanding orders just as the troops were about to go over the top.
"Excellent dinner, Uncle," I said, deciding to take the initiative and cut my way through. "Glad to see Maurice hasn't lost his touch, or his sense of smell or whatever it is that enables him to knock off these incredible dinners. And the wine! Just fanta..."
"Dunstan!" he said with a certain tone and volume that said he was breaking the lease on the initiative and moving back in. "I think you and I are both aware that I did not invite you here for dinner merely to get your opinion of Maurice's abilities and the quality of my cellar. Actually, if it weren't for Eldora's insistence you wouldn't be here at all! Ever!"
Thank you, dear Tantie Eldora. Quite a match, Eldora and Euphonius. Born within a week of each other and cursed by the name faddists who for several years running had popularized the concept of giving all children of a year names beginning with the same letter. That fad had mercifully died out early, but not before considerable damage had been done.
"Well, then perhaps I should express my thanks to my dear great-aunt and then perhaps I should be on my..."
"Dunstan!" he said yet again. For someone who'd never professed any joy at hearing my name, he was using it freely this night. "At your aunt's insistence I have invited you here to discuss your future, a subject upon which I suspect she's expended considerably more thought than you have!"
"Well, Uncle, I've always subscribed to the theory that the truly wonderful thing about the future is that it's always ahead of us and there is, therefore, no sense in unnecessarily mucking up the present with it." You would think that someday I'd learn that levity is wasted on Uncle Grump. Not yet.
"And that is precisely the attitude that has your aunt so upset. And, as your uncle, by marriage only, may God be thanked, that upsets me as well."
A lovely sentiment, simply put. One that would have touched my heart, if I hadn't known my great-aunt and her husband well enough to be more than somewhat suspicious. Now, if Uncle Grump was upset because Aunt Eldora was upset it could mean any of several things and possibly a combination of several things. That Tantie Eldora was upset was quite plausible. Perhaps my welfare was the current passion of the moment. Such had happened before, and been followed by extended periods when Nephew Dunstan was about equal in significance in her life with a small lichen clinging to a frigid cliff face on the uttermost southerly fringe of Soucon. Such is Tantie Eldora. That Uncle Grump was upset because his dear wife was upset was also plausible. More likely, Uncle Grump was upset because once Tantie Eldora fastened upon a subject to brood about she could hold on to it with all the tenacity of the carnivorous Darkwater Sound barnacle. Until she achieved a resolution of the problem, or her attention shifted to another, more pressing matter, those around her were going to have a devil of a time getting anything done. I sought to reassure him.
"Well, Uncle, I am certainly most grateful for this demonstration of concern on my behalf, but I really think it's needless. I'm really doing quite adequately. Perhaps not splendidly, but I am content and I see no great disasters looming ahead. So please convey my thanks to Tantie Eldora and tell her please not to worry on my behalf."
"Dunstan, I've pulled your records."
There are a number of phrases a fellow could happily go through life without hearing uttered. Things like "We find the defendant guilty on all counts" or "Dear, I seem to be a little late". The simple phrase "I've pulled your records" ranks right up there in its power to cast dark shadows over one's immediate future.
"What do you mean, 'pulled' my records?" I said, attempting to put a strong tone of outrage in my voice in a last ditch, forlorn hope effort to regain the initiative. "There are laws, after all. Privacy laws, Uncle. Personal privacy has been the very cornerstone, the holiest of holy principles since well before we bid goodbye to the ancient home world. One does not simply punch up a few numbers on the old discom and ferret out all the secrets of a fellow citizen. I am a citizen in good standing, of legal age and entitled to conduct my life as I see fit without interference. It's not done, can't be done, shouldn't be done!"
"It can if one is the spouse of the former legal guardian of the citizen in question and files a suit for disclosure in the public interest. Eldora's status as guardian, even though terminated by your attaining your majority, still retains certain legal rights and obligations pertaining to your welfare and conduct. You should be grateful your great-aunt bothers herself to look out for you, especially since your parents abandoned you."
"Well, now, that's not entirely correct you know. They didn't abandon me."
"They parked you in a boarding school and went off to run about naked on a pile of sand in the Equatorials! That doesn't fit my concept of proper parenthood!"
"They were operating a plantation on one of the islands. There were no schools, in fact no other people there, so boarding school was a necessity. As for running around naked, I understand it's quite hot there, and, with only machines about the island, clothes hardly make a lot of sense, now, do they?"
Something in Uncle Grump's expression told me that he deeply regretted my failure to be in residence when a freak hurricane took a lovely, verdant island and made a barren sandbar of it overnight, sweeping away everyone and everything that had been there the day before.
"Be that as it may, the subject we're here to discuss is your future. And based on your accomplishments to date I wouldn't bet a counterfeit demi-furt on your prospects for a successful, prosperous future."
"Oh, I hadn't thought I've done so bad. I've had my ups and downs so far, but as they say, adversity is an excellent teacher."
"And I doubt you've paid any more attention to it than to any other teacher you've had. How many higher schools have you attended?"
"Well, I'll have to think. Now if you include the time I spent..."
"Twenty-three. Nearly two dozen colleges, universities, institutes, academies and technical schools. You've tried all three continents and you've yet to come back with a degree, a diploma, a certificate of completion. I doubt you've even collected a single certificate of adequate attendance! By God, from most of them all you've received is a notice never to bother applying for re-admission!"
"Well, what are grades and certificates anyway? Mere marks on paper! That's all! They don't indicate what one's learned in reality. Just because I've never bothered myself to satisfy the petty details of the educational bureaucracy..."
"The Free School of Stadonpoort has no bureaucracy, no tests, no structure. Damn near haven't any teachers from what I've heard, nor even a curriculum. Self-guided, they call it. You were bounced out of there even! No one's ever been tossed out of that poor excuse for a school, though their so-called degree's been tossed out often enough. Never, never in history has anyone spent so much time in colleges and universities and what not and accomplished so little. According to your records, after you were dismissed from number twenty-three you applied to fifteen more institutions. None of them even bothered to respond to your application."
"But Uncle, if you think about it, what's most important in higher education is not the accumulation of odd, marginally useful facts but the accumulation of friends, making acquaintances. Hooking into networks. Meeting people who can help you out further down the line."
"I've done some investigation there, too. Some useful friends you've acquired! The Dunfey brothers? There's a useful lot. Parents couldn't even follow the minimum rules of responsible procreation. Had to pop out twice the standard number of off-spring without bothering to acquire the proper permits, so each one's Birthright was cut in half. Might as well have hamstrung them at birth. And the Giffen boy you think so highly of. Keep company with him long enough and you'll end up sharing a cell in a social rehabilitation center with him."
This line was obviously going in an undesirable direction, and quickly. I tried to change tack again.
"Well, actually, by the time I left Stadonpoort I'd pretty well determined that my talents did not lie within the realms of academe. So it was really no loss my not going on to other schools, you see."
"And where do your talents lie? Business, perhaps?"
"I have been rather dabbling, looking for the proper niche, as it were."
"Are you aware, that in the entire history of civilization on this planet, from the inception of the Social Capitalist system four hundred and fifty-three years ago, no one has ever failed to successfully complete his or her statutory period of labor service? You're expecting to find a niche, as you put it, where in five years you were unable to perform acceptably in any simple assignment given you?"
"But Uncle! I was credited with completion. I wouldn't have been granted control of my Birthright Account if I hadn't."
"That was the result of an oversight by the Founders. I researched it personally. When the Founders established the system, it was inconceivable to them that anyone not a certifiable mental dysfunctional could fail to perform competently in at least one minor, menial function. They neglected to write in any procedure for dealing with someone like you. Did you know there was serious discussion within the Administration of withholding your Birthright? But Legal Branch discovered that there was no basis for such an action in the Charter and they had to give it to you."
"Actually, I think there were some misunderstandings in my assignments. Personal conflicts and such..."
"Misunderstandings? Your performance reports read like a biblical plague on the economy!"
"Now Uncle Grump, I realize that a little hyperbole livens up the conversation, adds a bit of color and what not, but you're really going much too far."
"Should I mention the shellfish farm incident, out in the Brimly Broads? A simple enough assignment. Really it was. Just make sure the feeding machines, which virtually never break down, keep scattering feed on schedule and be sure the predator fences, which are computer monitored at that, stay intact. But could you cope with that?"
"Have you ever been out on the Broads at high summer, Uncle? Only time it ever gets really pleasant, you know. Offshore winds push the fogs back out to sea, keep the insects at bay. Temperature just perfect to enjoy a tall glass of punch..."
"The mudsharks went into a feeding frenzy of a sort never seen before..."
"Most amazing to watch. Never forget the sight. Only wish I'd had a camera to record it. They all got in through that one tiny hole in the fence. Cartilaginous bodies, you know. They can squeeze through the most incredibly small gaps. I understand they've developed much better fences as a result of that incident, so you see it wasn't a total..."
"The price of crevys went up astronomically over the entire east coast. Some varieties of mollusks were entirely off the market for months! And let's not forget your excursion into construction. A simple task, monitoring the cobblestone layers in Old Town Freibourg. The machines were all pre-programmed. Thousands spent in research to duplicate fourteenth century cobbled streets. All you had to do was watch the monitor for errors which never happen. But could you do that? No, you had to re-program the machines."
"I was merely trying for a more aesthetically pleasing effect."
"You got an effect, all right. The patterns you created induced dizziness and nausea in three out of five people walking down the street. Two hundred meters of paving had to be ripped up and re-done."
"Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time."
"Just like the good idea you had at the syntha-chic plant. Reprogramming the synthetic chicken breast production line to produce cultured protein, not in the shape of chicken breasts, but in the form of genitalia. Wonderful! Obscene entrees! Just what were you thinking there?"
"Well, the Neoteric Dionysians were scheduled to have their great triennial fertility festival and orgy. It seemed like an excellent marketing ploy to me. If management had only acted on my plan..."
"Which they didn't. But that didn't stop you from carrying on with it, without even checking that the lot was consigned to the right religious order. And of course it's not your fault that the auto-chef at the Chapterhouse of the Order of Albigenses was not programmed to check the physical appearance of synthetic chicken breasts. The elders were not amused when they saw their Poulet Mistral. The entire chapter spent better than a month undergoing purification rituals.
"And that fiasco should have been a warning to me when you went into your religious phase. I said to your Aunt, 'He's finally found himself. He's flopped at business, so it should seem obvious. A career in religion. That's the traditional route for those who can't do anything useful'. But I was wrong, wasn't I? There are one hundred and forty-seven major and minor churches, sects and cults, in the most generally accepted delineation of them. You had to get involved with The Crack-Pots!"
"Pardon me, Uncle, but in most of society it's not considered polite to refer to the Society of Saint Theophilus of the Vessel That Was Broken and Then Made Whole Again as 'The Crack-Pots'".
"Whatever they're called, you're lucky you weren't brought up on charges for creating a public disturbance. It would have been the first time in the history of the order that The Crack-Pots ever filed such a charge instead of having it filed against them!"
Here I must admit, in all candor, that my attraction to the Theophilans was less a love of their dogma than of a particular blonde, blue-eyed adherent. Unfortunately, the public conception of Theophilan religious practices is not entirely correct, and I was as misguided as the average citizen. How was I to know that when the high priest shouted "Get thee naked before the sight of the Lord", he meant that in a spiritual rather than a physical sense.
"And where are you now? No profession, much less hope of a job of any sort. You blithely took full charge of your Birthright Account at the first opportunity and in less than five years you've frittered it away."
"I'll admit to some unfortunate investment decisions. Frittered is not perhaps an entirely accurate term. My circumstances are somewhat straitened at the moment but with a bit of belt tightening..."
"Straitened? Have you any idea just how much you have left?"
"Well, ah, as of my last statement of account, ah..."
"Now if you include..."
"Joint fund and commercial paper fund shares with an income potential of no more than seven hundred furts a year. Ready exchange account containing two hundred and seventeen furts, fifty-three rappen as of two o'clock this afternoon. Idon't doubt you've managed to run that down some since then.
"Do you know what the accounts of your year-mates, left in the hands of competent managers, produce on average? Anywhere from twenty to twenty-fivet housand furts a year. Not a fortune by any means but more than adequate for a judicious person to live a modest but comfortable life without ever having to lift a finger to bring in additional income.
"And what of you? I've run a projection, based on the pattern of spending you've established. I give you not more than thirty days before you've had to liquidate the rest of your account and piddled it all away. And given your affinity for beverages I dare say piddled is the most appropriate verb to describe the process. And then what? Very simply put, your creditors will file complaints, the courts will judge you insolvent, non-self-supporting and, considering your record, incapable of self-support. You'll be placed on the Subsistence List and being judged sound of body and not, technically at least, mentally impaired they'll find some useful employment for you, something too insignificant to justify applying a machine to."
Under most circumstances I have little trouble framing a suitable response for Uncle Grump. Years of verbal sparring have developed in me a capacity for quick if not always effective or wise retorts to him. This image, though, of being something akin to the man who cleans up after the machine that cleans up after the horses in a parade did rather disturb me such that I could think of nothing to say.
Throughout my boyhood, when schoolmates gathered to share sordid tales of the adult world, stories had circulated of what happened to those unfortunates who failed to make it in the life beyond school. There were still places left in the world, out in the far western reaches of Westcon and the frigid expanses of Soucon, that had never been settled due to inhospitable climates and terrains. But there were projects underway to reclaim them. Projects that were run by some of the brightest and most adventurous of scientists and engineers. At the highest levels, of course. Down at the grunt and groan level, out in the swamps and deserts and on the frigid mountain sides, there were never enough people willing to serve in the most isolated work sites doing the mundane things. So the brute force, fetch and carry positions on those projects were largely staffed by those judged unfit or undeserving to live within the comfortable cocoon of society. At the age of twelve or so the thought of the dangers of climate, beast and the unknown was daunting even if tinged with a certain amount of juvenile romanticism. At nearing thirty the thought of living far removed from decent food and drink, not to mention stimulating social intercourse, was utterly paralyzing and completely abhorrent.
I could see that Uncle Grump was savoring this apparently mortal blow that he had inflicted. For once I could think of absolutely nothing to say. As hard as it was to admit, he was right. I'd been doing a pretty effective job of deluding myself. Of course, I had known that my finances were in a perilous state but I'd had minor successes before, when the accounts had actually risen. But after each minor rise there had always been another dramatic plummet. The thought that it would eventually plummet to the very rock bottom I had managed to suppress with the hope that something would come up. That hope was gone now. The Malvern fortunes were embarking upon their final plummet, nosing over into the classic death spiral.
Uncle Grump savored his victory for several long minutes. Then he spoke again.
"For reasons I will never understand, your great-aunt harbors feeling of warmth for you such that the fate I've described disturbs her deeply. Therefore I have utilized certain business contacts, called in some favors, to obtain a job for you."
He reached into his dinner jacket and withdrew a small, off-white business card. He extended it towards me, making no move to close the distance between us, not even extending his arm its full length. I of course approached as a supplicant. In my state of mind at that point I would have gladly dropped to hands and knees and groveled in front of him in return for this lifesaver he was offering.
"This is the business card of the person you are to see. The address is there. You are to be there at eight o'clock tomorrow morning. The pay is not, I understand, munificent, but it is quite adequate for a bachelor to live on and the work is not notably difficult. I have it on good authority that this is a position eminently suited to your talents. I was only able to obtain it by expending considerable personal influence. If you manage to bungle this one you'll not only end up on the Sub List, you'll have caused me to waste influence and I am not accustomed to wasting influence any more than I am money. Is that understood?"
"Clearly, Uncle, quite clearly. And thank you. I believe I'm on the threshold of..."
"I suggest that you be on the threshold of my door and well on your way home to get a good night's rest. You realize that this is without a doubt the last chance you'll ever get? I sincerely hope you surprise me."
With that Uncle Grump escorted me out to the door, where Tantie Eldora was waiting. I tucked the card safely away, said my good-byes to Tantie Eldora, thanking her perhaps too effusively, took the Grumpitz's private elevator to ground level and stepped out into the pleasant evening air.Go to Chapter 2