"I am not here in my capacity as an officer of the Workingman's Compensation Insurance Corporation," he said carefully. "I am here as a representative of the People's Congress."
Alhamid's face showed a mild surprise which he did not feel. "I'm honored, of course, Mr. Tarnhorst," he said, "but you must understand that I am not an official of the government of Pallas."
Tarnhorst's ascetic face betrayed nothing. "Since you have no unified government out here," he said, "I cannot, of course, presume to deal with you in a governmental capacity. I have spoken to the Governor of Pallas, however, and he assures me that you are the man to speak to."
"If it's about the industrial death rate," Alhamid agreed, "then he's perfectly correct. But if you're here as a governmental representative of Earth, I don't understand--"
"Please, Mr. Alhamid," Tarnhorst interrupted with a touch of irritation in his voice. "This is not my first trip to the Belt, nor my first attempt to deal with the official workings of the Confederated Cities."
Alhamid nodded gently. It was, as a matter of fact, Mr. Tarnhorst's second trip beyond the Martian orbit, the first having taken place some three years before. But the complaint was common enough; Earth, with its strong centralized government, simply could not understand the functioning of the Belt Confederacy. A man like Tarnhorst apparently couldn't distinguish between government and business. Knowing that, Alhamid could confidently predict what the general sense of Tarnhorst's next sentence would be.
"I am well aware," said Tarnhorst, "that the Belt Companies not only have the various governors under their collective thumb, but have thus far prevented the formation of any kind of centralized government. Let us not quibble, Mr. Alhamid; the Belt Companies run the Belt, and that means that I must deal with officials of those companies--such as yourself."
Alhamid felt it necessary to make a mild speech in rebuttal. "I cannot agree with you, Mr. Tarnhorst. I have nothing to do with the government of Pallas or any of the other asteroids. I am neither an elected nor an appointed official of any government. Nor, for that matter, am I an advisor in either an official or unofficial capacity to any government. I do not make the laws designed to keep the peace, nor do I enforce them, except in so far as I am a registered voter and therefore have some voice in those laws in that respect. Nor, again, do I serve any judiciary function in any Belt government, except inasmuch as I may be called upon for jury duty.
"I am a business executive, Mr. Tarnhorst. Nothing more. If you have governmental problems to discuss, then I can't help you, since I'm not authorized to make any decisions for any government."
Edway Tarnhorst closed his eyes and massaged the bridge of his thin nose between thumb and forefinger. "I understand that. I understand that perfectly. But out here, the Companies have taken over certain functions of government, shall we say?"
"Shall we say, rather, that on Earth the government has usurped certain functions which rightfully belong to private enterprise?" Alhamid said gently. "Historically, I think, that is the correct view."
Tarnhorst opened his eyes and smiled. "You may be quite correct. Historically speaking, perhaps, the Earth government has usurped the functions that rightfully belong to kings, dictators, and warlords. To say nothing of local satraps and petty chieftains. Hm-m-m. Perhaps we should return to that? Perhaps we should return to the human suffering that was endemic in those times?"
"You might try it," said Alhamid with a straight face. "Say, one year out of every ten. It would give the people something to look forward to with anticipation and to look back upon with nostalgia." Then he changed his tone. "If you wish to debate theories of government, Mr. Tarnhorst, possibly we could get up a couple of teams. Make a public affair of it. It could be taped and televised here and on Earth, and we could charge royalties on each--"
Peter Danley's blond, blank face became suddenly animated. He looked as though he were trying to suppress a laugh. He almost succeeded. It came out as a cough.
At the same time, Tarnhorst interrupted Alhamid. "You have made your point, Mr. Alhamid," he said in a brittle voice. "Permit me to make mine. I have come to discuss business with you. But, as a member of the Congressional Committee for Industrial Welfare, I am also in search of facts. Proper legislation requires facts, and legislation passed by the Congress will depend to a great extent upon the report on my findings here."
"I understand," said Alhamid. "I'll certainly be happy to provide you with whatever data you want--with the exception of data on industrial processes, of course. That's not mine to give. But anything else--" He gestured with one hand, opening it palm upwards, as though dispensing a gift.
"I'm not interested in industrial secrets," said Tarnhorst, somewhat mollified. "It's a matter of the welfare of your workers. We feel that we should do something to help. As you know, there have been protests from the Worker's Union Safety Control Board and from the Workingman's Compensation Insurance Corporation."
Alhamid nodded. "I know. The insurance company is complaining about the high rate of claims for deaths. They've threatened to raise our premium rates."
"Considering the expense, don't you, as a businessman, think that a fair thing to do?"
"No," Alhamid said. "I have pointed out to them that the total amount of the claims is far less per capita than, for instance, the Steel Construction Workers' Union of Earth. Granted, there are more death claims, but these are more than compensated for by the fact that the claims for disability and hospitalization are almost negligible."
"That's another thing we don't understand," Tarnhorst said carefully. "It appears that not only are the safety precautions insufficient, but the post-accident care is ... er ... inefficient."
"I assure you that what post-accident care there is," Alhamid said, "is quite efficient. But there is a high mortality rate because of the very nature of the job. Do you know anything about anchor-placing, Mr. Tarnhorst?"
"Very little," Tarnhorst admitted. "That is one of the things I am here to get information on. You used the phrase 'what post-accident care there is'--just how do you mean that?"
"Mr. Tarnhorst, when a man is out in space, completely surrounded by a hard vacuum, any accident is very likely to be fatal. On Earth, if a man sticks his thumb in a punch press, he loses his thumb. Out here, if a man's thumb is crushed off while he's in space, he loses his air and his life long before he can bleed to death. Anything that disables a man in space is deadly ninety-nine times out of a hundred.
"I can give you a parallel case. In the early days of oil drilling, wells occasionally caught fire. One of the ways to put them out was to literally blow them out with a charge of nitroglycerine. Naturally, the nitroglycerine had to be transported from where it was made to where it was to be used. Sensibly enough, it was not transported in tank-car lots; it was carried in small special containers by a single man in an automobile, who used the back roads and avoided traffic and stayed away from thickly populated areas--which was possible in those days. In many places these carriers were required to paint their cars red, and have the words Danger Nitroglycerine painted on the vehicle in yellow.
"Now, the interesting thing about that situation is that, whereas insurance companies in those days were reluctant to give policies to those men, even at astronomical premium rates, disability insurance cost practically nothing--provided the insured would allow the insertion of a clause that restricted the covered period to those times when he was actually engaged in transporting nitroglycerine. You can see why."
"I am not familiar with explosives," Tarnhorst said. "I take it that the substance is ... er ... easily detonated?"
"That's right," said Alhamid. "It's not only sensitive, but it's unreliable. You might actually drop a jar of the stuff and do nothing but shatter the jar. Another jar, apparently exactly similar, might go off because it got jiggled by a seismic wave from a passing truck half a mile away. But the latter was a great deal more likely than the former."
"Very well," said Tarnhorst after a moment, "I accept that analogy. I'd like to know more about the work itself. What does the job entail, exactly? What safety precautions are taken?"
It required the better part of three hours to explain exactly what an anchor setter did and how he did it--and what safety precautions were being taken. Through it all, Peter Danley just sat there, listening, saying nothing.
Finally, Edway Tarnhorst said: "Well, thank you very much for your information, Mr. Alhamid. I'd like to think this over. May I see you in the morning?"
"Certainly, sir. You're welcome at any time."
"Thank you." The two Earthmen rose from their seats--Tarnhorst carefully, Danley with the ease of long practice. "Would nine in the morning be convenient?"
"Quite convenient. I'll expect you."
Danley glided over to the door and held it open for Tarnhorst. He was wearing magnetic glide-shoes, the standard footwear of the Belt, which had three ball-bearings in the forward part of the sole, allowing the foot to move smoothly in any direction, while the rubber heel could be brought down to act as a brake when necessary. He didn't handle them with the adeptness of a Belt man, but he wasn't too awkward. Tarnhorst was wearing plain magnetic-soled boots--the lift-'em-up-and-lay-'em-down type. He had no intention of having his dignity compromised by shoes that might treacherously scoot out from under him.
As soon as the door had closed behind them, Georges Alhamid picked up the telephone on his desk and punched a number.
When a woman's voice answered at the other end, he said: "Miss Lehman, this is Mr. Alhamid. I'd like to speak to the governor." There was a pause. Then: "George? Larry here."
Alhamid leaned back comfortably against the wall. "I just saw your guests, Larry. I spent damn near three hours explaining why it was necessary to put anchors in rocks, how it was done, and why it was dangerous."
"Did you convince him? Tarnhorst, I mean."
"I doubt it. Oh, I don't mean he thinks I'm lying or anything like that. He's too sharp for that. But he is convinced that we're negligent, that we're a bunch of barbarians who care nothing about human life."
"You've got to unconvince him, George," the governor said worriedly. "The Belt still isn't self-sufficient enough to be able to afford an Earth embargo. They can hold out longer than we can."
"I know," Alhamid said. "Give us another generation, and we can tell the World Welfare State where to head in--but right now, things are touchy, and you and I are in the big fat middle of it." He paused, rubbing thoughtfully at his lean blade of a nose with a bony forefinger. "Larry, what did you think of that blond nonentity Tarnhorst brought with him?"
"He's not a nonentity," the governor objected gently. "He just looks it. He's Tarnhorst's 'expert' on space industry, if you want my opinion. Did he say much of anything while he was with you?"
"Same here. I have a feeling that his job is to evaluate every word you say and report his evaluation to Tarnhorst. You'll have to be careful."
"I agree," Alhamid said. "But he complicates things. I have a feeling that if I tell Tarnhorst a straight story he'll believe it. He seems to be a pretty shrewd judge. But Danley just might be the case of the man who is dangerous because of his little learning. He obviously knows a devil of a lot more about operations in space than Tarnhorst does, and he's evidently a hand-picked man, so that Tarnhorst will value his opinion. But it's evident that Danley doesn't know anything about space by our standards. Put him out on a boat as an anchor man, and he'd be lucky if he set a single anchor."
"Well, there's not much chance of that. How do you mean, he's dangerous?"
"I'll give you a f'rinstance. Suppose you've got a complex circuit using alternatic current, and you're trying to explain to a reasonably intelligent man how it works and what it does. If he doesn't know anything about electricity, he mightn't understand the explanation, but he'll believe that you're telling him the truth even if he doesn't understand it. But if he knows the basic theory of direct currents, you're likely to find yourself in trouble because he'll know just enough to see that what you're telling him doesn't jibe with what he already knows. Volts times amperes equal watts, as far as he's concerned, and the term 'power factor' does nothing but confuse him. He knows that copper is a conductor, so he can't see how a current could be cut off by a choke coil. He knows that a current can't pass through an insulator, so a condenser obviously can't be what you say it is. Mentally, he tags you as a liar, and he begins to try to dig in to see how your gadget really works."
"Hm-m-m. I see what you mean. Bad." He snorted. "Blast Earthmen, anyway! Have you ever been there?"
"Earth? Nope. By careful self-restraint, I've managed to forego that pleasure so far, Larry. Why?"
"Brrr! It's the feel of the place that I can't stand. I don't mean the constant high-gee; I take my daily exercise spin in the centrifuge just like anyone else, and you soon get used to the steady pull on Earth. I mean the constant, oppressive psychic tension, if you see what I mean. The feeling that everyone hates and distrusts everyone else. The curious impression of fear underneath every word and action.
"I'm older than you are, George, and I've lived with a kind of fear all my life--just as you and everyone else in the Belt has. A single mistake can kill out here, and the fear that it will be some fool who makes a mistake that will kill hundreds is always with us. We've learned to live with that kind of fear; we've learned to take steps to prevent any idiot from throwing the wrong switch that would shut down a power plant or open an air lock at the wrong time.
"But the fear on Earth is different. It's the fear that everyone else is out to get you, the fear that someone will stick a figurative knife in your back and reduce you to the basic subsistence level. And that fear is solidly based, believe me. The only way to climb up from basic subsistence is to climb over everyone else, to knock aside those in your way, to get rid of whoever is occupying the position you want. And once you get there, the only way you can hold your position is to make sure that nobody below you gets too big for his britches. The rule is: Pull down those above you, hold down those below you.
"I've seen it, George. The big cities are packed with people whose sole ambition in life is to badger their local welfare worker out of another check--they need new clothes, they need a new bed, they need a new table, they need more food for the new baby, they need this, they need that. All they ever do is need! But, of course, they're far to aristocratic to work.
"Those who do have ambition have to become politicians--in the worst sense of the word. They have to gain some measure of control over the dispersal of largesse to the mob; they have to get themselves into a position where they can give away other people's money, so that they can get their cut, too.
"And even then, the man who gets to be a big shot doesn't dare show it. Take a look at Tarnhorst. He's probably one of the best of a bad lot. He has his fingers in a lot of business pies which make him money, and he's in a high enough position in the government to enable him to keep some of his money. But his clothing is only a little bit better than the average, just as the man who is on basic subsistence wears clothes that are only a little bit worse than the average. That diamond ring of his is a real diamond, but you can buy imitations that can't be told from the real thing except by an expert, so his diamond doesn't offend anyone by being ostentatious. And it's unfaceted, to eliminate offensive flash.
"All the color has gone out of life on Earth, George. Women held out longer than men did, but now no man or woman would be caught wearing a bright-colored suit. You don't see any reds or yellows or blues or greens or oranges--only grays and browns and black.
"It's not for me, George. I'd much rather live in fear of the few fools who might pull a stupid trick that would kill me than live in the constant fear of everyone around me, who all want to destroy me deliberately."
"I know what you mean," said Alhamid, "but I think you've put the wrong label on what you're calling 'fear'; there's a difference between fear and having a healthy respect for something that is dangerous but not malignant. That vacuum out there isn't out to 'get' anybody. The only people it kills are the fools who have no respect for it and the neurotics who think that it wants to murder them. You're neither, and I know it."
The governor laughed. "That's the advantage we have over Earthmen, George. We went through the same school of hard knocks together--all of us. And we know how we stack up against each other."
"True," Alhamid said darkly, "but how long will that hold if Tarnhorst closes the school down?"
"That's what you've got to prevent," said the governor flatly. "If you need help, yell."
"I will," Alhamid said. "Very loudly." He hung up, wishing he knew what Tarnhorst--and Danley--had in mind.
"The trouble with these people, Danley," said Edway Tarnhorst, "is that they have no respect whatever for human dignity. They have a tendency to overlook the basic rights of the individual."
"They're certainly--different," Peter Danley said.
Tarnhorst juggled himself up and down on the easy-chair in which he was seated, as though he could hardly believe that he had weight again. He hated low gee. It made him feel awkward and undignified. The only thing that reminded him that this was not "real" gravity was the faint, but all-pervasive hum of the huge engines that drove the big centrifuge. The rooms had cost more, but they were well worth it, as far as Tarnhorst was concerned.
"How do you mean, 'different'?" he asked almost absently, settling himself comfortably into the cushions.
"I don't know exactly. There's a hardness, a toughness--I can't quite put my finger on it, but it's in the way they act, the way they talk."
"Surely you'd noticed that before?" Tarnhorst asked in mild surprise. "You've met these Belt men on Luna."
"And their women," Danley said with a nod. "But the impact is somewhat more pronounced on their own home ground--seeing them en masse."
"Their women!" Tarnhorst said, caught by the phrase. "Fah! Bright-colored birds! Giggling children! And no more morals than a common house-cat!"
"Oh, they're not as bad as all that," Danley objected. "Their clothing is a little bright, I'll admit, and they laugh and kid around a lot, but I wouldn't say that their morals were any worse than those of a girl from New York or London."
"Arrogance is the word," said Tarnhorst. "Arrogance. Like the way that Alhamid kept standing all the time we were talking, towering over us that way."
"Just habit," Danley said. "When you don't weigh more than six or seven pounds, there's not much point in sitting down. Besides, it leaves them on their feet in case of emergency."
"He could have sat down out of politeness," Tarnhorst said. "But no. They try to put on an air of superiority that is offensive to human dignity." He leaned back in his chair, stretched out his legs, and crossed his ankles. "However, attitude itself needn't concern us until it translates itself into anti-social behavior. What cannot be tolerated is this callous attitude toward the dignity and well-being of the workers out here. What did you think of Alhamid's explanation of this anchor-setting business?"
Danley hesitated. "It sounded straightforward enough, as far as it went."
"You think he's concealing something, then?"
"I don't know. I don't have all the information." He frowned, putting furrows between his almost invisible blond brows. "I know that neither government business nor insurance business are my specialty, but I would like to know a little more about the background before I render any decision."
"Hm-m-m. Well." Tarnhorst frowned in thought for a moment, then came to a decision. "I can't give you the detailed data, of course; that would be a violation of the People's Mutual Welfare Code. But I can give you the general story."
"I just want to know what sort of thing to look for," Danley said.
"Certainly. Certainly. Well." Tarnhorst paused to collect his thoughts, then launched into his speech. "It has now been over eighty years since the first colonists came out here to the Belt. At first, the ties with Earth were quite strong, naturally. Only a few actually intended to stay out there the rest of their lives; most of them intended to make themselves a nice little nest egg, come back home, and retire. At the same time, the World State was slowly evolving from its original loosely tied group of independent nations toward what it is today.
"The people who came out here were mostly misfits, sociologically speaking." He smiled sardonically. "They haven't changed much.
"At any rate, as I said, they were strongly tied to Earth. There was the matter of food, air, and equipment, all of which had to be shipped out from Earth to begin with. Only the tremendous supply of metal--almost free for the taking--made such a venture commercially possible. Within twenty-five years, however, the various industrial concerns that managed the Belt mining had become self-supporting. The robot scoopers which are used to mine methane and ammonia from Jupiter's atmosphere gave them plenty of organic raw material. Now they grow plants of all kinds and even raise food animals.
"They began, as every misfit does, to complain about the taxes the government put on their incomes. The government, in my opinion, made an error back then. They wanted to keep people out in the Belt, since the mines on Earth were not only rapidly being depleted, but the mining sites were needed for living space. Besides, asteroid metals were cheaper than metals mined on Earth. To induce the colonists to remain in the Belt, no income tax was levied; the income tax was replaced by an eighty per cent tax on the savings accumulated when the colonist returned to Earth to retire.
"They resented even that. It was explained to them that the asteroids were, after all, natural resources, and that they had no moral right to make a large profit and deprive others of their fair share of the income from a natural resource, but they insisted that they had earned it and had a right to keep it.
"In other words, the then government bribed them to stay out here, and the bribe was more effective than they had intended."
"So they stayed out here and kept their money," Danley said.
"Exactly. At that time, if you will recall, there was a great deal of agitation against colonialism--there had been for a long time, as a matter of fact. That agitation was directed against certain industrialist robber-baron nations who had enslaved the populace of parts of Asia and Africa solely to produce wealth, and not for the benefit of the people themselves. But the Belt operators took advantage of the anticolonialism of the times and declared that the Belt cities were, and by right ought to be, free and independent political entities. It was a ridiculous assumption, of course, but since the various Belt cities were, at that time, under the nominal control of three or four of the larger nations, the political picture required that they be allowed to declare themselves independent. It was not anticipated at the time that they would be so resistant toward the World Government."
He smiled slightly. "Of course, by refusing to send representatives to the People's Congress, they have, in effect, cut themselves off from any voice in human government."
Then he shrugged. "At the moment, that is neither here nor there. What interests us at the moment is the death rate curve of the anchor-sinkers or whatever they are. Did you know that it is practically impossible for anyone to get a job out there in the Belt unless he has had experience in the anchor-setting field?"
"No," Danley admitted.
"It's true. For every other job, they want only men with space experience. And by 'space experience' they mean anchor-setting, because that's the only job a man can get without previous space experience. They spend six months in a special school, learning to do the work, according to our friend, Mr. Georges Alhamid. Then they are sent out to set anchors. Small ones, at first, in rocks only a few meters in diameter--then larger ones. After a year or so at that kind of work, they can apply for more lucrative positions.
"I see nothing intrinsically wrong in that, I will admit, but the indications are that the schooling, which should have been getting more efficient over the years, has evidently been getting more lax. The death rate has gone up."
"Just a minute," Danley interrupted. "Do you mean that a man has to have what they call 'space experience' before he can get any kind of job?"
Tarnhorst shook his head and was pleased to find that no nausea resulted. "No, of course not. Clerical jobs, teaching jobs, and the like don't require that sort of training. But there's very little chance for advancement unless you're one of the elite. A physician, for example, wouldn't have many patients unless he had had 'space experience'; he wouldn't be allowed to own or drive a space boat, and he wouldn't be allowed to go anywhere near what are called 'critical areas'--such as air locks, power plants, or heavy industry installations."
"It sounds to me as though they have a very strong union," said Danley.