"Don't act so innocent, Colihan. Your report isn't complete. It should have been ready by now."
"You're not ACTING, Colihan. You're stalling!"
"Then where's your Personnelovac report, Colihan? Eh? Where is it?"
Colihan wrung his hands. "Almost ready, sir," he lied. "Just running it through now, sir."
"Speed it up. Speed it up! Time's a'wastin', boy. You're not afraid, are you, Colihan?"
"Then let's have it. No more delay! Bull by the horns! Expect it in an hour, Colihan. Understand?"
The boss clicked off. Colihan groaned audibly.
"What can I do?" he said to himself. He went to the Brain and shook his fist helplessly at it. "Damn you!" he cursed.
He had to think. He had to THINK!
It was an effort. He jerked about in his swivel chair like a hooked fish. He beat his hands on the desk top. He paced the floor and tore at the roots of his hair. Finally, exhausted, he gave up and flopped ungracefully on the office sofa, abandoning himself to the inevitable.
At that precise moment, the mind being the perverse organ it is, he was struck by an inspiration.
The Maintainovac bore an uneasy resemblance to Colihan's own think-machine. Wilson, the oldest employee of General Products, had been the operator of the maintenance Brain. He had been a nice old duffer, Wilson, always ready to do Colihan a favor. Now that he had been swept out in Colihan's own purge, the Personnel Manager had to deal with a new man named Lockwood.
Lockwood wasn't so easy to deal with.
"Stay out of my files, mister," he said.
Colihan tried to look superior. "I'm the senior around here, Lockwood. Let's not forget that."
"Them files is my responsibility." Lockwood, a burly young man, stationed himself between Colihan and the file case.
"I want to check something. I need the service records of my Brain."
"Where's your Requisition Paper?"
"I haven't got time for that," said Colihan truthfully. "I need it now, you fool."
Lockwood set his face like a Rushmore memorial.
"Be a good fellow, can't you?" Colihan quickly saw that wheedling wasn't the answer.
"All right," he said, starting for the door. "I just wanted to help you."
He opened the door just a crack. Sure enough, Lockwood responded.
"How do you mean, help me?"
"Didn't you know?" Colihan turned to face him. "I'm running through an aptitude check on the Personnelovac. Special department head check. Mr. Moss's orders."
"I was just getting around to yours. But I figured I'd better make sure the Brain was functioning properly." He grew confidential. "You know, that darned machine has been firing everyone lately."
A little rockslide began on Lockwood's stoney face.
"Well ..." he said. "If that's the case--"
"I knew you'd understand," said Colihan very smoothly.
Eagerly, the Personnel Manager collated the records of the Personnelovac. They were far more complex than any employee record, and it took Colihan the better part of an hour.
Any moment he expected to hear the President's angry voice over the inter-com. His anxiety made him fumble, but at last, the job was done.
He slipped the record, marked by a galaxy of pinholes, into the Brain.
"Now we'll see," he said grimly. "Now we'll find out what's eating this monster."
He flipped the switch.
The Personnelovac winked.
It was several minutes before it digested the information in its chamber. Then it chittered.
Colihan held his breath until the BURP came.
The card appeared. It read: "Subject #PV8. Mech. Rat. 9987. Mem. Rat. 9995. Last Per. Vac.
"An. None. Cur. Rat. 100.
"Analysis: Subject operating at maximum efficiency. Equipped to perform at peak level. Is completely honest and does not exhibit bias, prejudice, or sentiment in establishing personnel evaluations. Cumulative increase in mnemonic ability. Analytic ability improving."
Colihan walked slowly over to the Action Chute as he finished reading the card.
"However," it read, "because of mechanistic approach to humanistic evaluation, subject displays inability to incorporate human equation in analytical computation, resulting in technically accurate but humanistically incorrect deductions.
"Recommendation: Fire him."
Colihan dropped the pink card into the chute. In half an hour, the Action wheels of General Products concluded their work, and the Personnelovac had winked for the last time.
By Evelyn E. Smith
Tarb Morfatch had read all the information on Terrestrial customs that was available in the Times morgue before she'd left Fizbus. And all through the journey she'd studied her Brief Introduction to Terrestrial Manners and Mores avidly. Perhaps it was a bit overinspirational in spots, but it had facts in it, too.
So she knew that, since the natives were non-alate, she was not to take wing on Earth. She had, however, forgotten to correlate the knowledge of their winglessness with her own vertical habits. As a result, on leaving the tender that had ferried her down from the Moon, she looked up instead of right and narrowly escaped death at the jaws of a raging groundcar that swerved out onto the field.
She recognized it as a taxi from one of the pictures in the handbook. It was a pity, she thought sadly as she was knocked off her feet, that all those lessons she had so carefully learned were to go to waste.
But it was only the wind of the car's passage that had thrown her down. As she struggled to get up, hampered by her awkward native skirts, the door of the taxi flew open. A tall young man--a Fizbian--burst out, the soft yellowish-green down on his handsome face bristling with fright until each feather stood out separately.
"Miss Morfatch! Are you all right?"
"Just--just a little shaky," she murmured, brushing dirt from her rosy leg feathers. Too young to be Drosmig; too good-looking to be anyone important, she thought glumly. Must be the office boy.
To her surprise, he didn't help her up. Probably it would violate some native taboo if he did, she deduced. The handbook hadn't mentioned anything that seemed to apply, but, after all, a little book like that couldn't cover everything.
She could see the young man was embarrassed--his emerald crest was waving to and fro.
"I'm Stet Zarnon," he introduced himself awkwardly.
The Managing Editor! The handsome young employer of her girlish dreams! But perhaps he had a wife on Fizbus--no, the Grand Editor made a point of hiring people without families to use as a pretext for expensive vacations on the Home Planet.
As she opened her mouth to say something brilliantly witty, to show she was no ordinary female but a creature of spirit and fire and intelligence, a sudden cacophony of shrill cries and explosions arose, accompanied by bursts of light. Her feathers stood erect and she clung to her employer with both feathered legs.
"If these are the friendly diplomatic relations Earth and Fizbus are supposed to be enjoying," she said, "I'm not enjoying them one bit!"
"They're only taking pictures of you with native equipment," he explained, pulling away from her. What was the matter with him? "You're the first Fizbian woman ever to come to Terra, you know."
She certainly did know--and, what was more, she had made the semi-finals for Miss Fizbus only the year before. Perhaps he had some Terrestrial malady he didn't want her to catch. Or could it be that in the four years he had spent in voluntary exile on this planet, he had come to prefer the native females? Now it was her turn to shrink from him.
He was conversing rapidly in Terran with the chattering natives who milled about them. Although Tarb had been an honors student in Terran back at school, she found herself unable to understand more than an occasional word of what they said. Then she remembered that they were not at the world capital, Ottawa, but another community, New York. Undoubtedly they were all speaking some provincial dialect peculiar to the locality.
And nobody at all booed in appreciation, although, she told herself sternly, she really couldn't have expected them to. Standards of beauty were different in different solar systems. At least they were picking up as souvenirs some of the feathers she'd shed in her tumble, which showed they took an interest.
Stet turned back to her. "These are fellow-members of the press."
She was able to catch enough of what he said next in Terran to understand that she was being formally introduced to the aboriginal journalists. Although you could never call the natives attractive, with their squat figures and curiously atrophied vestigial wings--arms, she reminded herself--they were very Fizboid in appearance and, with their winglessness cloaked, could have creditably passed for singed Fizbians.
Moreover, they seemed friendly; at any rate, the sounds they uttered were welcoming. She began to make the three ritual entrechats, but Stat stopped her. "Just smile at them; that'll be enough."
It didn't seem like enough, but he was the boss.
"Thank the stars we're through with that," he sighed, as they finally were able to escape their confreres and get into the taxi. "I suppose," he added, wriggling inside the clumsy Terrestrial jacket which, cut to fit over his wings, did nothing either to improve his figure or to make him look like a native, "it was as much of an ordeal for you as for me."
"Well, I am a little bewildered by it all," Tarb admitted, settling herself as comfortably as possible on the seat cushions.
"No, don't do that!" he cried. "Here people don't crouch on seats. They sit," he explained in a kindlier tone. "Like this."
"You mean I have to bend myself in that clumsy way?"
He nodded. "In public, at least."
"But it's so hard on the wings. I'm losing feathers foot over claw."
"Yes, but you could...." He stopped. "Well, anyhow, remember we have to comply with local customs. You see, the Terrestrials have those things called arms instead of legs. That is, they have legs, but they use them only for walking."
She sighed. "I'd read about the arms, but I had no idea the natives would be so--so primitive as to actually use them."
"Considering they had no wings, it was very clever of them to make use of the vestigial appendages," he said hotly. "If you take their physical limitations into account, they've done a marvelous job with their little planet. They can't fly; they have very little sense of balance; their vision is exceedingly poor--yet, in spite of all that, they have achieved a quite remarkable degree of civilization." He gestured toward the horizontal building arrangements visible through the window. "Why, you could almost call those streets. As a matter of fact, the natives do."
At the moment, she could take an interest in Terrestrial civilization only as it affected her personally. "But I'll be able to relax in the office, won't I?"
"To a certain extent," he replied cautiously. "You see, we have to use a good deal of native help because--well, our facilities are limited...."
"Oh," she said.
Then she remembered that she was on Terra at least partly to demonstrate the pluck of Fizbian femininity. Back on Fizbus, most of the Times executives had been dead set against having a woman sent out as Drosmig's assistant. But Grupe, the Grand Editor, had overruled them. "Time we broke with tradition," he had said. He'd felt she could do the job, and, by the stars, she would justify his faith in her!
"Sounds like rather a lark," she said hollowly.
Stet brightened. "That's the girl!" His eyes, she noticed, were emerald shading into turquoise, like his crest. "I certainly hope you'll like it here. Very wise of Grupe to send a woman instead of a man, after all. Women," he went on quickly, "are so much better at working up the human interest angle. And Drosmig is out of commission most of the time, so it's you who'll actually be in charge of 'Helpfully Yours.'"
She herself in charge of the column that had achieved interstellar fame in three short years! Basically, it had been designed to give guidance, advice and, if necessary, comfort to those Fizbians who found themselves living on Terra, for the Fizbus Times had stood for public service from time immemorial. As Grupe had put it, "We don't run this paper for ourselves, Tarb, but for our readers. And the same applies to our Terrestrial edition."