Episode 26 of “Homage to Luxenben”

W

ith five months to go before the referendum was to be held, the scoreboard looked like this. On the one side were the Religious Synod’s drumbeat of religious dogma, Surge’s tyrannical control over its membership, and the industrious employment of Conrad’s roughneck squads whenever the occasion warranted and, as was normally the case, the administration of public safety was lackadaisical. On the other side were the company’s effective field trips, its strategically situated educational centers, and the sympathetic editorial policy of the Semi News which, while nominally neutral, did not hesitate to rail against instances of Surge violence. Thanks to this apparently solid, supportive tripod, in recent weeks the company was slowly gaining ground in its campaign to win over the Semi community, although, it must be said, it was still well behind in the polls.

The first hint I had that one leg of the company’s tripod was crumbling came unexpectedly. Whereas my previous submissions to the Semi News had, without exception, been warmly received, my last article was returned with no more comment than a none-too-friendly rejection slip. Puzzled, I called a friend on the paper’s staff for an explanation of this first rebuff. His only comment, delivered in a hushed tone of voice was, “things are changing around here.” This same friend was, however, willing to meet a few days later at one of the zoo’s less frequented concession stands where, over a cup of coffee, he was more open. He related that it was common knowledge that the Semi News had been a thorn in Surge’s side ever since Conrad took over the organization. Pressure from the Religious Synod had been brought to bear on the paper to mollify its reportage, but, until recently, the editor and his staff refused to budge. Then, it seems, one by one of their more outspoken journalists were roughed up on their way home from the office by thugs who did nothing to hide their Surge affiliation.

Not surprisingly, it did not take long for the word to spread that it was unhealthy to be on the wrong side of the zoo’s political divide. Thus, without any announced change in policy, spreading self-censorship shifted the tenor of its commentary more and more Surgewise. And matters changed for the worse when the paper’s pro-SVI editor realized he had lost control of its content, resigned in disgust, and was replaced by a pliable professor of linguistics selected by the zoo’s Surge-leaning board of directors composed largely of fat cat donors. Within weeks, Conrad’s program of intimidation, coupled with a few targeted firings of writers who had tried to maintain their integrity, had accomplished an abrupt about-face in the Semi New’s orientation. The community’s only press outlet was now firmly in the hands of the Religious Synod. The company’s once solid tripod was reduced to a shaky, two-legged structure.

 

Our more-or-less accidental get together in the dorm’s kitchen seemed more like a wake than the intended conclave. Matilda had found the last issue of the Semi News so irritating that she felt she had to complain to someone and chose me as her dependably sympathetic confidant. I, too, felt like letting off some steam and asked permission to bring Eddie along as a sounding board. He had, I assured her, turned into a confirmed Cartist ever since our trip to the Centre. Matty reluctantly agreed provided I assumed responsibility for the integrity of her pantry.

At first we just hung around glumly in silence. Matilda had plopped down atop the refrigerator, Eddie was sprawled out on cupboard shelf, and I sat humped over at the kitchen table.

The old bird was the first to speak. “I still can’t believe our petition to the board of directors was turned down,” Matty recalled. “Claimed they picked the most qualified managing editor they could find. Recommended by the university chancellor, no less. And the board believed in giving him a free hand on account of freedom of the press and all that malarkey.”

“The company could overrule the board if it wanted to,” said Eddie slipping the wad of betel nut leaves he was chewing on to one side of his mouth. “But it won’t. Too many big donors.”

“The trouble is it’s a one-newspaper zoo. Everybody gets it for nothing and they stupidly swallow whatever they’re fed,” lamented Matilda, her neck hanging languorously down the front of the refrigerator door.

“You can’t blame them too much,” I said. “We all pretend we’re independent thinkers, but, for the most part, all we do is distill what the media’s already put in our heads. Damned few of us arrive at our own convictions even when reality’s staring us in the face.”

“If the community had an ounce of sense, they’d tar and feather Conrad and send him packing out of here. But you’re right. They can’t see what a rat he is. Not when they read that he was given a medal for upholding religious traditions and crap like that.” Matty’s reference to the expression “tar and feather” testified to the depth of her disdain.

“Right, they’re not getting the other side of the story. You’d think the paper would at least try to keep up appearances. It wouldn’t kill them to print something favorable about Cartism once in a while,” Eddie muttered.

“Or at least print the company’s schedule of bus tours. They used to do that all the time. Not anymore,” said Matty.

“Why should they? They’ve no competition?” I said.

A pause followed. Everyone, it seemed, had said his piece and we were no closer to a solution to the company’s predicament. Until, that is, Eddie jumped from his chair onto the floor, his tail thumping solidly upon it. “Stelzer, you’re a genius!” he exclaimed.

Matty twisted her head in my direction. “He doesn’t look like one to me.”

“Me either,” I agreed.

 

“Like you said,” Eddie blurted out, “the News needs competition. That’s the answer. Let’s give them some!” In his excitement, the little beast overshot his paper-cup spittoon leaving a mess on the floor.

“How?” I asked. “You got a printing press hidden behind all those food cartons in your place?”

“No, but there’s got to be one around here someplace,” Eddie replied.

“There is,” Matty practically screeched as she landed heavily on the table. “And I know where. During the strike, you know, I was living in the zoo’s administration building so I could take off from the roof. Well, I kept passing their print shop on my way up there. It’s where they produce all the zoo’s literature.”

“Do you think they’ll let us use it?” Eddie asked.

“They better. I risked my neck for them. Flying around low like that trying to spot Conrad’s goons. So they owe me. Besides the company ought to jump at the chance to get its message out.”

“Won’t the Board of Directors complain?” I asked.

“Freedom of the press, you know,” Matty exclaimed happily. “We’ll be in business in no time.”

“I’ll do the reporting,” declared Eddie.

“I’ll do the writing,” I said.

“And I’ll do the delivery,” Matty squawked more loudly than the dimensions of the kitchen called for. “All we need is a name.”

Several suggestions went back and forth before we agreed on one. Then I made for the cabinet where I knew Matty kept her modest cellar, Eddie brought down some glasses and a cork screw, and Matty, under the influence of our sudden esprit des corps, uncomplainingly went to fish a mop from out of the broom closet.

A few preliminaries out of the way, and the next thing I knew there we stood, glasses raised on high, and toasting, “The Three Gazetteers.”

 

The next five months were the busiest, and in many ways, the happiest time of my life. The Garden Gazette, as our new paper was called, pumped out one panegyric after another in praise of Cartism. We lauded its focus on the welfare of its congregants, its practical application to everyday affairs, and its contribution to a Green environment. Meanwhile, we threw the book at the opposition. Every one of their lies was exposed; every exaggeration, corrected; and every purposeful omission, revealed. Based on the theme, “what has Surge done for you lately?” we hammered at the organization’s real agenda. Based on a report by a reputable accountant, we proved convincingly that Surge owed its funding and its loyalty, not to the Semi community as it pretended, but to the Religious Synod.

Having a smaller staff than the News, we had to work smarter. Eddie supplemented his extensive network of informants with inside information smuggled out by Plotsker, our invaluable double agent. I worked long hours sifting through the information that flowed into the newsroom, hammering out stories just in time to stuff them into Matilda’s satchel before she flew it to the company’s print shop. There the stories were scanned and automatically printed out on the shop’s advanced presses before being handed back to the old bird in neatly packed bundles for delivery to SVI’s educational centers for distribution. Days end left me exhausted but nonetheless exhilarated and ready to begin anew on the morrow.

What kept me going was the steady improvement in the company’s fortunes. The burgeoning list of Semis signing up for its tours, the increase in the number of its study groups, and the growing resentment of Surge’s excesses all contributed to our sense of purpose. The conviction that we were on the right side—good battling evil, as it were—made up for the long hours and hard work. And slowly, but surely, the poll results gradually confirmed what we all felt instinctively: we would ultimately prevail.

 

I became so inured to the secrecy surrounding Neuman’s activities in Product Development that I studiously avoided raising the subject at our irregular lunch get-togethers. The only thing I found about his job was that it paid well enough for him to select the zoo’s classiest restaurant and always pick up the bill—a complete reversal in our respective fortunes since we first met. He was always of good cheer and obviously well content with both his professional and private lives. The latter I witnessed whenever Rosanne invited me to dinner at the pleasant apartment they occupied overlooking one of the garden’s many copses. Like as not, Samuels would show up at these dinners as well. I did my best to amuse them with the incidents I picked up at the newsroom and Samuels had his own store of mishaps within the Research Campus to relate, none of which, of course, shed any light whatsoever on the nature of his duties there. I gathered the good rabbi was acting as Neuman’s assistant in one way or another—a function I had difficulty imagining given my knowledge of his finite practical skills. All in all, these evenings—helped along with the bottle of wine the three of us shared under Rosanne’s watchful eye—were an enjoyable break from my routine and I always looked forward to them.

Regretfully, from my standpoint, Rosanne’s home-cooked meals came temporarily to an end a few weeks before she gave birth, but resumed again a couple of months after when we were joined at the table by the healthy, perfectly normal Neu and Man Kennelston who were already beginning to demonstrate the sibling fussing that was the bane of Full parents. For all the trouble they caused, the youngsters did have the felicitous effect of restoring relations between the couple and Rosanne’s parents who now leaned over backwards to embrace their son-in-law as a Full- fledged member of the family.

 

I gave up wondering during the run-up to the election why the company held back introducing Missionary Neuman to the Semi community as part of their campaign strategy. In any case, as SVI’s bandwagon rolled along, the matter became mute. According to the polls, Cartism was picking up all the strength needed without the boy’s public debut. One favorable factor was the backlash to Surge’s heavy-handed methods to which Gazette gave full coverage. In addition, I was gratified to see that copies of my translation of the Red Book, stacked on the educational centers’ counters, had to be constantly replenished—an indication that they too were contributing to SVI’s campaign.

Confirmation that we had finally pulled ahead in the polls—albeit by a narrow margin—came just a week ahead of the referendum itself. The good tidings sent Eddie hopping about the newsroom and Matilda fluttering above. Not only was the news a good omen in itself, we were certain that it would tilt even more undecideds our way.

Election Day provided a welcome holiday for the staff of the Gazette and the hard-working volunteers who had joined us in the past couple of months. The unexpectedly large turnout added to our confidence in victory and, for the first time in weeks, I could truly relax. After voting, I corralled Matilda into joining me for a second picnic on the lake where my adventures on this planet began. And, as before, generous quantities of picnic favorites led to a refreshing afternoon nap.

That evening, after voting hours, the company sponsored a post-election party to which those of us on the Gazette were invited in appreciation for our contribution to the campaign. In accordance with Luxan law, no partial results were made public, but if I had any doubts as to the success of the campaign, I had only to observe the Fulls who I knew were studiously monitoring exit polls. They were, it seemed, uniformly optimistic.

I was repeatedly slapped on the back and plied with drinks, But as agreeable as these gestures were at first, they became over effusive as the party wore on, so I excused myself on the grounds that the morrow was to be a big day and I wanted to be fit to enjoy it.

 

Company annual meetings were typically bland affairs that even reporters’ lively imaginations had difficulty turning into interesting copy. The ownership of Luxan corporations was largely in the hands of its employees who were naturally current with company affairs, meetings or no. Thus these annual get-togethers were largely ritualistic, morale-boosting affairs in which the firm’s workers, their family members, the company’s suppliers, and other stakeholders gathered to reaffirm their commitment to the firm and foster a sense of business community. So it was that under normal circumstances, no one in attendance expected to hear anything newsworthy. But not this time.

As far as I was concerned, the high point of Space Venture’s Annual Meeting would be, of course, the announcement of the referendum’s official results. Moreover, I believed the meeting would be an opportune time for the company to introduce their new Cartist missionary. I could hardly wait to congratulate Neuman on his accession to this important, presumably well-paying responsibility.

From the standpoint of SVI’s employees, much hung on the company’s financial projections. Responding to the analysts’ concerns as to whether or not it would stay afloat, the company was expected to offer a new strategy for restoring its financial viability and an eventual return to its former profitability.

More interestingly, rumors had circulated over the last few months that the company would reveal at the meeting a more radical solution to its financial dilemma, the nature of which varied all over the map. The ever-helpful tabloid press authoritatively predicted SVI’s discovery of a hitherto unknown, fabulously wealthy planet whose population was so large that it, in itself, had the potential of once again making SVI’s export operations profitable. A second possibility was the invention of some radically new means of propulsion that would enable SVI’s fleet to economically extend its range and thus greatly increase the number of planets with which the company could trade. And, for those who doubted both these dramatic breakthroughs, there was the more mundane prospect of the company reorienting itself from an interplanetary trader to a domestic, consumer-based operator of a chain of thematic entertainment centers in which a wait-staff of Semis would add an exotic note.

What nearly everyone did agree upon was that there was definitely something unusual afloat. Leaks coming out of SVI described increasingly frequent closed-door conferences of department heads, a number of reassignments of key personnel, and unexplained large budget allocations attributed to nothing more specific than “development.”

One piece of good news was the preannouncement that, owing to the expected makeup of its audience, the company had decided that its proceedings would be conducted monophonically. Taken together, then, all these promised events pointed to an auspicious—not to say, exhilarating—day. Given the favorable trajectory of my stay on Luxenben thus far, I had every expectation of a continuation of the same. It was a contented camper who snuggled within his bedclothes that evening.

*    *    *

Excitement was in the air for Matty, Eddie, me and many other zoo inmates as we headed to the depot where a fleet of chartered buses were on hand to take us to Ventureland’s performance hall, the only nearby venue with the requisite capacity for SVI’s event. Despite the crowd, we suffered no long delay getting to the prearranged meeting place where we were to join Neuman’s party.

The three of us had arranged to join Neuman, his bride, and Rabbi Samuels before the meeting so that we could all be seated together. Needless to say, we were keen on finally learning what they’d been up to all these months and didn’t want to chance losing them in the crowd. So as soon as we arrived at the hall, we hurried over to the fountain in front of the building that had been agreed upon as our meeting place. Because of the event’s advance publicity, I assumed good seating would disappear quickly and therefore suggested that we meet at least an hour before the scheduled start at ten o’clock. Neuman, however, was more sanguine and insisted—rather too stubbornly, I thought—that we not inconvenience ourselves unnecessarily. Fifteen minutes lead time was sufficient, he said, and, rather than argue, I agreed with his arrangements.

As it turned out, Neuman did not even live up to the inadequate schedule he had insisted on. Minutes went by while my two companions and I watched in frustration as the crowds piled in ahead of us and presumably appropriated whatever decent seating was left on the inside. With Matty hopping up and down impatiently and Eddie tearing into his last bagel with the ferocity of a killer white, I feared they might bolt, but, in the nick of time, Neuman’s breezy salutation rang out above the water fountain’s splashings and his tardy group emerged from the mist.

“Sorry we’re late. Getting the babies out of the house is an operation and a half.”

Matty, fearful that prolonged salutations were imminent, bounded ahead toward the hall and, cognizant of the time, the rest of us followed her lead without another word being said. Inside the building, I anxiously started casting around for a place to sit in what were the rapidly filling back rows, but the girls gently took me by the arm and urged us all forward down the aisle. I would have resisted what was obviously a futile and time-consuming search had anyone else taken the initiative, but submitting to the girls’ leadership was a different story. Given the opportunity, I would have followed those two bewitching half-smiles to hell and back.

Rosanne’s intent became clear a few moments later when she ushered Matty, Eddie, and me into four excellent seats in the reserved area and took the last remaining one for herself. Apparently, the girl had used her connections at Research to hold these for us. Meanwhile Neuman and Samuels hurried off to the left, saying that their reserved seats were elsewhere. Before I had a chance to ask why, given the four-two breakdown, she and Neuman had not elected to sit together, Rosanne anticipated the question.

“The two idiots made their arrangements separately,” Anne said. I expected her to amplify her explanation, but her expression suggested that she intended to let the matter drop. Then, for whatever reason, both girls fell uncharacteristically silent. Turning my attention to the hall, I noticed that both ends of the stage were dominated by a large video screen. The space between them was largely filled by a long, draped table broken, in the center, by a lectern that bore, not unexpectedly, a prominent SVI emblem. Behind the divided table stood a row of chairs on each side and behind them, the proscenium curtain.

Just before the meeting began, a number of dignitaries filed in to take their seats behind the table—company officials on one side and the Religious Synod’s council members on the other. At first I was taken aback by the prominence given the defeated party, but then accredited it to good sportsmanship. After all, the face-saving gesture cost the company nothing and might lead to less contentious adjustments ahead.

 

Leopold Hampton, the chairman of Space Ventures, Inc., needed no introduction to this audience. Generous applause greeted his brisk entrance from the left wing. Upon reaching the lectern, he displayed restrained smiles while slowly oscillating both heads back and forth across the crowd as if to maximize his intake of approbation.

I had seen Hampton on TV, of course, but my proximity to the stage permitted a more detailed study. The word “distinguished” would do the gentleman an injustice. Besides the usual characteristics one might expect of an archetypal chief executive—tall; perfectly groomed grey-hair; comfortably erect posture; and weathered, but still handsome features. Like a contemporary knight in serge armor, his clothing radiated a metallic sheen. As he prepared to speak, bits of light intermittently glinted off his alloy-framed eyeglasses, off the silver buttons of his blazer, off his chain-linked watch­band, even off the tip ends of his shoelaces. Indeed, his entire ensemble—pointed shirt collars, a spiked breast-pocket kerchief, knife-edged pant creases, and razor-sharp shirt cuffs—conveyed, or at least attempted to convey, a character of indomitable strength.

Personally, I was unimpressed and was suddenly struck with a vague, inexplicable sense that this meeting was not going to live up to all my expectations.

 

After introducing the panel members on either side of the lectern, Hampton went right to the issue that was on everyone’s mind.

“Fellow SVIers and friends, as you all know, for last year or so we have been locked in a dispute with the gentlemen here from the Religious Synod over religious matters. After a hard fought campaign, we believed we had won over a majority of our inmate-guests to our cause. And we took the large election-day turnout as confirmation of that assumption. My friends, we were wrong. What the long lines in front of the voting booths confirmed was the success of Surge’s efficient get-out-the-vote network.

Turning his back momentarily on his audience, Hampton faced the Synod and declared, “Gentlemen, please stand and give the audience an opportunity to join me in congratulating you.”

Hampton’s polite clapping was, for the first few moments, the only one heard, but as the Religious Synod arose, scattered, if unenthusiastic, applause broke out among the shocked company employees and prevented a public relations disaster. Then as the synod members sat down again, Hampton resumed speaking.

“Under the referendum’s terms, all the privileges the Religious Synod originally enjoyed and were later denied, in part or in whole, will be fully restored. They will have free access to the chapel and company meeting rooms will be made available to them upon one-day’s notice. In short, the religious freedom they so effectively advocated will prevail.

“Next, let me take this opportunity to thank the many volunteers who worked so diligently on behalf of something they strongly believe in, Cartism. I assure you, your efforts were not wasted. We have you to thank for the many more Cartists among the Semi community than when the campaign began. And, I am confident, their numbers will continue to grow. Space Ventures intends to participate vigorously in the new climate of religious freedom that our Surge friends here have brought about. We will continue to man our educational centers, conduct our tours, and see to it that Cartism’s adherents have an opportunity to worship at the Shrine at specified times.

“Now I must confess that SVI, in its hubris, had intended, upon winning the election, to build on its momentum by announcing the appointment of a missionary to spearhead the Cartist movement. We therefore selected a candidate for such a leadership role early on and have trained him for his new assignment over the last several months. Although the timing of the announcement is not quite as auspicious as we had hoped, it is as important as ever to Cartism’s long term prospects. He will have his work cut out for him but we’re confident we have the right person to do the job. So without further ado…”

With Hampton on the verge of introducing this personage, I exchanged a knowing glance at Eddie and mimicked his stance of forepaws extended in readiness to clap. Not a moment would lapse between Neuman’s appearance on stage and the burst of applause emanating from our section of the audience.

“I give you our new missionary, Mr.ChingChee Olumogoboo from the Planet Plutune. Please stand, sir.”

 

Eddie dropped his uplifted paws and immediately put them to work diving into his pockets for two trail mix bars which he hurriedly unwrapped and stuffed in his mouth. There would be, I realized, no further exchange of glances for some time. His eyes were tightly shut as he munched away.

I could have kicked myself for having had such a narrow view of the company’s undertakings. It was unrealistic to believe that Research would put all its eggs in one basket. There could have been a half dozen candidates for the top missionary job, and Neuman’s breakdown must have kicked him out of the running early in the game. Obviously the satisfaction the boy expressed about his job must have been based on some sort of acolyte’s position. No wonder Rosanne seemed dispirited. All this was a reminder of her husband’s failure to head the missionary effort.

The applause for Mr. Olumogoobo—or whatever his name was—died down after he left the stage, and Hampton called for a ten-minute break to give his audience time to catch their breaths and digest what they had just heard. He urged everyone to return to their seats promptly so the meeting could proceed to the next items on the agenda.

Having been hit with two dispiriting surprises in quick succession, I was in no mood to sit through the rest of the meeting which I pictured as winding down to a reading of minutes, election of officers, and other such dreary company matters. But when I let Ros know of my intention to duck out while the going was good, she laid a restraining hand on my shoulder and shook her head.

Leopold Hampton was still on stage when the meeting resumed. SVI’s chairman began his next topic by summarizing SVI’s financial dilemma in much the same terms he had used in his appearance on television. It was common knowledge that the company’s shrinking planetary marketplace had taken its toll on both foreign sales and profits. What was not common knowledge was the alacrity with which the company responded to this decline. As soon as the downturn was identified, a secret exploratory committee of the company’s best people was put under Dr. Metzingham’s direction and given the task of developing a strategy to counter the reversal in the company’s fortunes. Hampton was delighted to report that, in accomplishing their assignment, the committee came up with an idea that has the potential of not only restoring the company to profitability, but of rocketing it ahead of where it had been.

“Metz, tell these nice people about this exciting development.” Surrendering the lectern to his subordinate, Hampton appeared inexorably well pleased with himself given the shellacking his company had suffered in the referendum.

 

Despite being overweight—full paunch and round faces–Metz made it briskly to the lectern and eagerly began:

“Exciting, indeed. But before I announce the news, I’ll have to give you a little background first. Let’s go back forty-seven years. You all know what happened to Herculus and how Luxenben became dichotomania’s handmaiden in leading her to destruction. How today Herculus is no more than a big, barren, radioactive rock rolling through space gathering dust. And how our government, fearing a repetition of this disaster, clamped down on all trade with planets that did not already have in place a stable, peaceable international political system.

“What probably only a few of you older folks will recall—it’s been such a dead issue for so many years—is that later on, after so many trading companies went bankrupt, the government finally owned up the fact that it had overregulated. Not for the first time, I’m sure. So, to soften the blow, it offered an impressive sum—$100 million dollars, to be exact—as an award to the first company that demonstrated it could restructure a non-qualifying planet into a qualifying one—that is to say, take a planet screwed up by a hodgepodge of competing countries and, by utilizing Cartism’s unifying power, turn it into a customer with whom we could safely trade. The idea was that if any company were to succeed, then its approach could be used as a model for other companies to replicate. That way the marketplace of acceptable planets would gradually expand and the trading industry be restored to health.

“But good intentions on the part of governments do not always translate into good results. What killed this idea was a provision added at the last moment by an excess of caution. The government required that no planet be experimented upon unless it was already in the throes of dichotomax. In other words, the government wanted to be sure that nothing a trading company did to intervene in the planet’s affairs could worsen its condition. What it amounted to was a huge stumbling block to the $100 million award. However tempting the money, simply catching a planet in just that brief transitory phase let alone converting it to Cartism was simply too daunting a task. Might as well find a needle in a haystack. No trading company took up the challenge. The award, while technically still on the books, was, for all practical purposes, shelved and pretty much forgotten about.”

“So much for the past. What of that exciting future Mr. Hampton talked about?” Metz continued. “When I first met with my committee some five years ago, I told them that we needed were innovative ideas. Standard austerity measures, staff cutbacks, etc. had been tried but had not closed the gap. I encouraged them to bring up any options that came into their heads no matter how seemingly farfetched.

“Thank heaven, Arthur Venacci, our hard-slugging vice-president of sales, took me at my word.

“Arthur, please stand up. How about a hand for one SVIer who has his heads on his shoulders?”

The audience was, of course, happy to oblige.

“Authur’s outlandish idea was to resurrect the government’s long dormant award, somehow overcome its challenges, and pocket the $100 million. Naturally, the committee was originally skeptical but, as we looked into it further over the next several days, it appeared that its difficulties might now be manageable. In the ensuing decades since the award was first announced, scanning capabilities had advanced tenfold. With some dedicated reengineering by SVI’s own workshops, it should be possible to equip our spaceships with the ability to detect a planet’s state of dichotomania remotely thus eliminating costly and time-consuming landings on site. In addition, SVI, alone among the trading companies, had experience in converting a large population of Semi nonbelievers—the essential step to planetary stability demanded by the government’s award rules.

“Since the committee’s initial conference, I am happy to say that the obstacles blocking our way to the prize have been largely cleared. Progress has been made on both the technological and ideological fronts. The perfected scanning devices have already proved their worth and…”

At this juncture, the applause, that broke out from a few members in the audience forged broad smiles on Metz’s round faces. Laughingly, he continued, “Yes, my friends, I can tell by the expression on many of your faces that you are ahead of me. The referendum had two purposes. One overt, that has led to an outcome we would not have preferred. One hidden, I am delighted to say, has led to an extremely gratifying result. The mass conversion of a population over time does not require that a majority subscribe to the alternative religion presented to it. What it requires is that its youthful cohort subscribes to it in increasing numbers with each generation. And, in this regard, the referendum, exceeded our expectations. Between the ages of eighteen and thirty, seventy-three percent of our inmate-guests voted for Cartism! We are now confident that we can institute Cartism on any foreign planet under the most adverse conditions. So you see, my friends, we lost the battle, but we won the war!

“Another piece of very good news is that we have been able to maintain our agenda’s confidentiality. By delaying its public exposure until today, we are assured several years head start in what is now certain to be a race to the award. Any premature leak could have enabled our competition to piggyback on our development and keep pace with us at a fraction of our research cost.”

By this point, Metz was practically shouting. “SVIers, we now have the tools we need to mount a full scale assault on the $100 million prize. As of today, we are shifting from planning to full-throttle activation!” Then both his arms shot up and both his voices simultaneously rang out to greet the thirty-foot-wide banner that unfurled from the proscenium. “Friends and fellow workers,” he cried out, “this is the dawn of a new era for Space Ventures, Inc.! I give you Project Seedfaith!”

This pronouncement was greeted by the wildest outbreak of applause yet. One could almost feel the audience square their shoulders and push back into their seats Sunday-congregation-style. This was what they had come for. Space Ventures, Inc. was on the move. Better times lay ahead.

But this was not what I had come for and I suppose my face showed it. Eddie regarded me curiously, but all I could do was nod to the two empty seats on stage and silently groan. Rosanne also noted my distress. The sweet girl took my hand and squeezed it sympathetically. But no smiles. Just two beautiful, tear-stained faces.

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