Search the Sky
by C. M. Kornbluth and Frederik Pohl:
Ross stood on the traders’ ramp, overlooking the Yards, and the word kept bobbing to the top of his mind.
About all of Halsey’s Planet there was the imperceptible reek of decay. The clean, big, bustling, efficient spaceport only made the sensation stronger. From where he stood on the height of the Ramp, he could see the Yards, the spires of Halsey City ten kilometers away—and the tumble-down gray acres of Ghost Town between.
Ross wrinkled his nose. He wasn’t a man given to brooding, but the scent of decay had saturated his nostrils that morning. He had tossed and turned all the night, wrestling with a decision. And he had got up early, so early that the only thing that made sense was to walk to work.
And that meant walking through Ghost Town. He hadn’t done that in a long time, not since childhood. Ghost Town was a wonderful place to play. “Tag,” “Follow My Fuehrer,” “Senators and President”—all the ancient games took on new life when you could dodge and turn among crumbling ruins, dart down unmarked lanes, gallop through sagging shacks where you might stir out a screeching, unexpected recluse.
But it was clear that—in the fifteen years between childhood games and a troubled man’s walk to work—Ghost Town had grown.
2Everybody knew that! Ask the right specialists, and they’d tell you how much and how fast. An acre a year, a street a month, a block a week, the specialists would twinkle at you, convinced that the acre, street, block was under control, since they could measure it.
Ask the right specialists and they would tell you why it was happening. One answer per specialist, with an ironclad guarantee that there would be no overlapping of replies. “A purely psychological phenomenon, Mr. Ross. A vibration of the pendulum toward greater municipal compactness, a huddling, a mature recognition of the facts of interdependence, basically a step forward….”
“A purely biological phenomenon, Mr. Ross. Falling birth rate due to biochemical deficiency of trace elements processed out of our planetary diet. Fortunately the situation has been recognized in time and my bill before the Chamber will provide….”
“A purely technological problem, Mr. Ross. Maintenance of a sprawling city is inevitably less efficient than that of a compact unit. Inevitably there has been a drift back to the central areas and the convenience of air-conditioned walkways, winterized plazas….”
Yes. It was a purely psychological-biological-technological-educational-demographic problem, and it was basically a step forward.
Ross wondered how many Ghost Towns lay corpselike on the surface of Halsey’s Planet. Decay, he thought. Decay.
But it had nothing to do with his problem, the problem that had kept him awake all the night, the problem that blighted the view before him now.
The trading bell clanged. The day’s work began.
For Ross it might be his last day’s work at the Yards.
He walked slowly from the ramp to the offices of the Oldham Trading Corporation. “Morning, Ross boy,” his breezy young boss greeted him. Charles Oldham IV’s father had always taken a paternal attitude toward his help, and Charles Oldham IV was not going to change anything that 3Daddy had done. He shook Ross’s hand at the door of the suite and apologized because they hadn’t been able to find a new secretary for him yet. They’d been looking for two weeks, but the three applicants they had been able to dredge up had all been hopeless. “It’s the damn Chamber,” said Charles Oldham IV, winsomely gesturing with his hands to show how helpless men of affairs were against the blundering interference of Government. “Damn labor shortage is nothing but a damn artificial scarcity crisis. Daddy saw it; he knew it was coming.”
Ross almost told him he was quitting, but held back. Maybe it was because he didn’t want to spoil Oldham’s day with bad news, right on top of the opening bell. Or maybe it was because, in spite of a sleepless night, he still wasn’t quite sure.
The morning’s work helped him to become sure. It was the same monotonous grind.
Three freighters had arrived at dawn from Halsey’s third moon, but none of them was any affair of his. There was an export shipment of jewelry and watches to be attended to, but the ship was not to take off for another week. It scarcely classified as urgent. Ross worked on the manifests for a couple of hours, stared through his window for an hour, and then it was time for lunch.
Little Marconi hailed him as he passed through the traders’ lounge.
Of all the juniors on the Exchange, Marconi was the one Ross found easiest to take. He was lean and dark where Ross was solid and fair; worse, he stood four ranks above Ross in seniority. But, since Ross worked for Oldham, and Marconi worked for Haarland’s, the difference could be waived in social intercourse.
Ross suspected that, to Marconi as to him, trading was only a job—a dull one, and not a crusade. And he knew that Marconi’s reading was not confined to bills of lading. “Lunch?” asked Marconi. “Sure,” Ross said. And he knew he’d probably spill his secret to the little man from Haarland’s.
The skyroom was crowded—comparatively. All eight of the usual tables were taken; they pushed on into the roped-off 4area by the windows and found a table overlooking the Yards. Marconi blew dust off his chair. “Been a long time since this was used,” he grumbled. “Drink?” He raised his eyebrows when Ross nodded. It made a break; Marconi was the one usually who had a drink with lunch, Ross never touched it.
When the drinks came, each of them said to the other in perfect synchronism: “I’ve got something to tell you.”
They looked startled—then laughed. “Go ahead,” said Ross.
The little man didn’t even argue. Rapturously he drew a photo out of his pocket.
God, thought Ross wearily, Lurline again! He studied the picture with a show of interest. “New snap?” he asked brightly. “Lovely girl——” Then he noticed the inscription: To my fiance, with crates of love. “Well!” he said, “Fiance, is it? Congratulations, Marconi!”
Marconi was almost drooling on the photo. “Next month,” he said happily. “A big, big wedding. For keeps, Ross—for keeps. With children!”
Ross made an expression of polite surprise. “You don’t say!” he said.
“It’s all down in black and white! She agrees to have two children in the first five years—no permissive clause, a straight guarantee. Fifteen hundred annual allowance per child. And, Ross, do you know what? Her lawyer told her right in front of me that she ought to ask for three thousand, and she told him, ‘No, Mr. Turek. I happen to be in love.’ How do you like that, Ross?”
“A girl in a million,” Ross said feebly. His private thoughts were that Marconi had been gaffed and netted like a sugar perch. Lurline was of the Old Landowners, who didn’t own anything much but land these days, and Marconi was an undersized nobody who happened to make a very good living. Sure she happened to be in love. Smartest thing she could be. Of course, promising to have children sounded pretty special; but the papers were full of those things every day. Marconi could reliably be counted on to hang himself. He’d promise her breakfast in bed every third week end, or the maid that he couldn’t possibly find 5on the labor market, and the courts would throw all the promises on both sides out of the contract as a matter of simple equity. But the marriage would stick, all right.
Marconi had himself a final moist, fatuous sigh and returned the photo to his pocket. “And now,” he asked brightly, craning his neck for the waiter, “what’s your news?”
Ross sipped his drink, staring out at the nuzzling freighters in their hemispherical slips. He said abruptly, “I might be on one of those next week. Fallon’s got a purser’s berth open.”