Over Rachmael ben Applebaum’s head floated a creditor jet-balloon, and from within its articulation-circuit a flat but handsome, masculine—artificial, however—voice boomed, magnified so that not only Rachmael but everyone else crowding the ped-runnels heard it. The amplification was designed this way; you were singled out and simultaneously exposed; public ridicule, the jeers of the always-present crowds, was brought into play as a force working at you . . . and, Rachmael reflected, for the creditor, free.
“Mr. Applebaum!” The hearty, rich but machine-sponsored voice echoed, rolled and boomed, and a thousand human heads rotated in expectation, glanced up with amused interest, saw the creditor jet-balloon and spied also its target: Rachmael ben Applebaum trying to get from the parking lot where he had left his flapple and into the offices of Lies Incorporated, a distance of only two thousand yards—but enough to make him visible so as to become the creditor balloon’s target.
“Okay,” Rachmael grated, and strode on, not breaking gait; he made for the fluoron-illuminated entrance of the private police agency and did not look up; he pretended—as if this were possible—to ignore a sight which, in the last three years, he had learned to know fully.
“Mr. Applebaum,” the balloon boomed. “As of this Wednesday, November 8, 2014, you owe, as inheritor of your late father’s assets and debts, the sum of four million poscreds to Trails of Hoffman Limited, a major backer in your late father’s—”
“Okay!” Rachmael said violently, halting, peering up in futile anguish . . . the desire to puncture, deflate and bring down the balloon was overwhelming—yet what could he do? By UN ordinance, a creditor could hire such harassment; this was legal.
And the grinning crowd knew it. Saw in this for them a brief but amusing ent-show: entertainment. However, he did not blame them; it was not their fault because they had over the years been trained this way. All the info and edu media, controlled by the “disinterested” UN public affairs bureaus, had tinkered with this facet of modern man’s complex character: his ability to enjoy the suffering of someone else whom he did not even know.
“I cannot,” Rachmael said, “pay. And you know it.” Above, the jet-balloon heard; it had exceeding marvelous aud receptors. But it did not believe him or care if what he said was true; its job was to hound him, not to seek the truth. Standing on the runnel as it automatically carried him along, Rachmael said, as reasonably as possible, “At present I have no funds, because continuously up to now, one by one, I’ve paid off as many of Applebaum Enterprise’s creditors as I can.”
Tauntingly, the mechanical voice from above boomed, “At three sigs on the poscred. Some settling of accounts.”
Rachmael said, “Give me time.”
“Plans, Mr. Applebaum?” The voice twisted with scorn.
After a pause he said, “Yes.” But he did not specify; it depended in part on what he obtained from the private police agency, Lies Incorporated. If that was anything. But over the vidphone at least—he did think he had detected a certain sympathetic resonance from the master proprietor of the police agency, Matson Glazer-Holliday.
Now, in five minutes, in a formal screening-interview with a Lies Incorporated psych-rep, Rachmael would find out—learn just how far the private police agency, which after all had to survive the competition, had to stand up to the UN and the lesser titans of the nine planet system, would go in staking a man who was not merely broke but who owed—owed for the wreckage of an industrial empire which had collapsed, carrying its operator and owner, Maury Applebaum, to his—evidently—voluntary death.
Evidently. A good word, and a big one, like any word pertaining to death. As the runnel, despite the lurking, booming creditor balloon above, carried Rachmael toward the sanctuary of the shifting-color doorway he thought, maybe they can help me there, too.
Because it had just never quite seemed reasonable to him that his father, and god knew he was familiar with his father, would laser himself to death due to economic collapse . . . although admittedly, as subsequent events had proved, that collapse was terminal for Applebaum Enterprise.
“You must pay,” the jet-balloon howled. “Trails of Hoffman insists; your petition of bankruptcy was turned down by the UN courts—you, Mr. Rachmael ben Applebaum, are legally liable for the sum of—”
The voice abruptly vanished as Rachmael crossed the threshold of the private inter-planetary police agency, and the thoroughly soundproof rexeroid door slid shut after him.
“Yes, sir,” the robot receptionist, not jeering but friendly, said to him; what a contrast with the circus outside.
“Miss Holm,” Rachmael said, and heard his voice shake. The creditor balloon had gotten to him; he was trembling and perspiring.
“Syn-cof?” the receptionist asked sympathetically. “Or Martian fnikjuice tea, while you wait?”
Rachmael, getting out a genuine Tampa, Florida Garcia y Vega cigarillo, murmured, “I’ll just sit, thanks.” He lit the cigar, waited. For Miss Freya Holm, whatever or whoever she was—and looked like.
A soft voice said, almost timidly, “Mr. ben Applebaum? I’m Miss Holm. If you’ll come into my office—” She held the door open, and she was perfection; his Garcia y Vega cigarillo dwindled, neglected in the ashtray as he rose to his feet. She, no more than twenty, chitin-black long hair that hung freely down her shoulders, teeth white as the glossy bond of the expensive UN info mags . . . he stared at her, at the small girl in the gold-spray bodice and shorts and sandals, with the single camellia over her left ear, stared and thought, And this is my police protection.
“Sure.” Numbly, he passed her, entered her small, contemporarily furnished office; in one glance he saw artifacts from the extinct cultures of six planets. “But Miss Holm,” he said, then, candidly, “maybe your employers didn’t explain; there’s pressure here. I’ve got one of the most powerful economic syndromes in the Sol system after me. Trails of Hoffman—”
“THL,” Miss Holm said, seating herself at her desk and touching the on of her aud recorder, “is the owner of Dr. Sepp von Einem’s teleportation construct and hence monopolistically has made obsolete the hyper-see liners and freighters of Applebaum Enterprise.” On her desk before her she had a folio, which she consulted. “You see, Mr. Rachmael ben Applebaum—” She glanced up. “I wish to keep you in data-reference distinct from your father, the late Maury Applebaum. So may I call you Rachmael?”
“Y-yes,” he said, nettled by her coolness, her small, firm poise—and the folio which lay before her; long before he had consulted Listening Instructional Educational Services—or, as the pop mind called it in UN-egged-on derision, Lies Incorporated—the police
agency had gathered, with its many data-monitors, the totality of information pertaining to him and to the collapse from abrupt technological obsolescence of the once formidable Applebaum Enterprise. And—
“Your late father,” Freya Holm said, “died evidently at his own instigation. Officially the UN police list it as Selbstmort . . . suicide. We however—” She paused, consulted the folio. “Hmm.”
Rachmael said, “I’m not satisfied, but I’m resigned.” After all, he could not bring back his heavy, red-faced, nearsighted and highly over-taxed father, Selbstmort, in the official German of the UN, or not. “Miss Holm,” he began, but she cut him off, gently.
“Rachmael, the Telpor electronic entity of Dr. Sepp von Einem, researched and paid for, developed in the several inter-plan labs of Trails of Hoffman, could do nothing else than bring chaos to the drayage industry; Theodoric Ferry, who is chairman of the board of THL, must have known this when he financed Dr. von Einem at his Schweinfort labs where the Telpor breakthrough occurred. And yet THL owned—outside of your father’s—the largest single holding of the now-defunct Applebaum Enterprise. Therefore Trails of Hoffman Limited deliberately ruined a corporation which it had major investments in . . . and this has seemed strange to us. And”—she glanced up alertly, tossed back her mass of black hair—”now they hound you for restitution; correct?”
Rachmael nodded mutely.
Quietly, Miss Holm asked, “How long did it take a passenger liner of your father’s corporation to reach Whale’s Mouth with a load of, say, five hundred colonists, plus their personal effects?”
After a tormented pause he said, “We—never even tried. Years. Even at hyper-see.” The girl, across from him, still waited, wanted to hear him say it. “With our flagship transport,” he said, “eighteen years.”
“And with Dr. von Einem’s teleportation instrument—”
“Fifteen minutes,” he said harshly. And Whale’s Mouth, the number IX planet of the Fomalhaut system, was to date the sole planet discovered either by manned or unmanned observers which was truly habitable—truly a second Terra. Eighteen years . . . and even deep-sleep would not help, for such a prolonged period; aging, although slowed down, although consciousness was dimmed, still occurred. Alpha and Prox; that had been all right; that had been short enough. But Fomalhaut, at twenty-four light-years—