The Year's Best Science Fiction 9

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9th Annual Edition: The Year's Best S-F

Edited by Judith Merril

* * * *

1963 was the year of the first rocket probe to Venus and the year In which Medgar Evers and John F. Kennedy were shot to death in the streets of American cities. A complex new electronic brain began translating Chinese, and the proud new atomic submarine, Thresher, sank with more than two hundred men on board.

By the time you read this, the record on 1964 will be almost or altogether complete—and we may confidently expect even more contradictions and internal frictions: not in any one country, or in any one field of endeavor, or on any particular economic or social level, religious or political grouping, but within almost all such groups, and between many of them.

There has probably never been so much disagreement among respectable people about morals; among educators about schooling and parents about child rearing; among scientists about basic theories or engineers about specific applications, or doctors about the causes, treatment, or diagnosis of anything from the common cold to terminal cancer.

* * * *

And it will not get more settled before it is more upset.

Imaginative literature today is preoccupied—necessarily—with the same stirrings, the same conflicts, visions of greatness and of doom that are acting on the imaginations of philosophers, scientists, teachers, industrial and political leaders, throughout the world.

On the brink of more dramatic physical explorations and discoveries than ever before, we find ourselves facing, first and most urgently, a different kind of great unknown: the nature of cultural man; the odds (no less than life and death) on his ability to coexist with cultures other than his own; or the likelihood that natural man can or will learn to adapt to his own technological culture.

In a forum published last year in Playboy, “1984 and Beyond,” dozen top writers of science fantasy argued the probable future of man. William Tenn concluded a discussion on future social trends by saying:

“Thoreau wrote over a hundred years ago that ‘the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Well, the world has changed fantastically since then, but the mass of men still do. History always repeats itself, but on another step of the spiral. We are a wildly imaginative, inordinately idealistic, incredibly persistent, hopelessly naive, incurably corrupt species, and no matter what we do we always seem to wind up somehow or other in the same position on the tree, except that occasionally it’s a different tree. Tomorrow we’ll be looking for the mechanical bananas in a nickel-plated jungle.”

* * * *


William Tenn

That’s what Ricardo calls me. I don’t know what I am.

Here I am. I’m sitting in my little nine-by-six office. I’m reading notices of Government-surplus sales. I’m trying to decide where lies a possible buck and where lies nothing but more headaches.

So the office door opens. This little guy with a dirty face, wearing a very dirty, very wrinkled Palm Beach suit, he walks into my office, and he coughs a bit and he says:

“Would you be interested in buying a twenty for a five?”

That was it. I mean, that’s all I had to go on.

I looked him over and I said, “Wha-at?”

He shuffled his feet and coughed some more. “A twenty,” he mumbled. “A twenty for a five.”

I made him drop his eyes and stare at his shoes. They were lousy, cracked shoes, lousy and dirty like the rest of him. Every once in a while, his left shoulder hitched up in a kind of tic. “I give you twenty,” he explained to his shoes, “and I buy a five from you with it. I wind up with five, you wind up with twenty.”

“How did you get into the building?”

“I just came in,” he said, a little mixed up.

“You just came in.” I put a nasty, mimicking note in my voice. “Now you just go right back downstairs and come the hell out. There’s a sign in the lobby—no beggars allowed.”

“I’m not begging.” He tugged at the bottom of his jacket. It was like a guy trying to straighten out his slept-in pajamas. “I want to sell you something. A twenty for a five. I give you—”

“You want me to call a cop?”

He looked very scared. “No. Why should you call a cop? I haven’t done anything to make you call a cop!”

“I’ll call a cop in just a second. I’m giving you fair warning. I just phone down to the lobby and they’ll have a cop up here fast. They don’t want beggars in this building. This is a building for business.”

He rubbed his hand against his face, taking a little dirt off, then he rubbed the hand against the lapel of his jacket and left the dirt there. “No deal?” he asked. “A twenty for a five? You buy and sell things. What’s the matter with my deal?”

I picked up the phone.

“All right,” he said, holding up the streaky palm of his hand. “I’ll go. I’ll go.”

“You better. And shut the door behind you.”

“Just in case you change your mind.” He reached into his dirty, wrinkled pants pocket and pulled out a card. “You can get in touch with me here. Almost any time during the day.”

“Blow,” I told him.

He reached over, dropped the card on my desk, on top of all the surplus notices, coughed once or twice, looked at me to see if maybe I was biting. No? No. He trudged out.

I picked the card up between the nails of my thumb and forefinger and started to drop it into the wastebasket.

Then I stopped. A card. It was just so damned out of the ordinary—a slob like that with a card. A card, yet.

For that matter, the whole play was out of the ordinary. I began to be a little sorry I hadn’t let him run through the whole thing. After all, what was he trying to do but give me an offbeat sales pitch? I can always use an offbeat sales pitch. I work out of a small office, I buy and sell, but half my stock is good ideas. I’ll use ideas, even from a bum.

The card was clean and white, except where the smudge from his fingers made a brown blot. Written across it in a kind of ornate handwriting were the words Mr. Ogo Eksar. Under that was the name and the telephone number of a hotel in the Times Square area, not far from my office.

I knew that hotel: not expensive, but not a fleabag either— somewhere just under the middle line.

There was a room number in one corner of the card. I stared at it and I felt kind of funny. I really didn’t know.

Although, come to think of it, why couldn’t a panhandler be registered at a hotel? “Don’t be a snob, Bernie,” I told myself.

Twenty for five. What kind of panhandling pitch would follow it? I couldn’t get it out of my mind!

There was only one thing to do. Ask somebody about it. Ricardo? A big college professor, after all. One of my best contacts.

He’d thrown a lot my way—a tip on the college building program that was worth a painless fifteen hundred, an office-equipment disposal from the United Nations, stuff like that. And any time I had any questions that needed a college education, he was on tap. All for the couple, three hundred, he got out of me in commissions.

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