THE CARTELS JUNGLE.
By Irving E. Cox, Jr.
It was a world of greedy Dynasts--each contending for the right to pillage and enslave. But one man's valor became a shining shield.
... and he who overcomes an enemy by fraud is as much to be praised as he who does so by force.
Machiavelli, DISCORSI, III, 1531 The captain walked down the ramp carrying a lightweight bag. To a discerning eye, that bag meant only one thing: Max Hunter had quit the service. A spaceman on leave never took personal belongings from his ship, because without a bag he could by-pass the tedious wait for a customs clearance.
From the foot of the ramp a gray-haired port hand called up to Hunter, "So you're really through, Max?"
"I always said, by the time I was twenty-six--"
"Lots of guys think they'll make it. I did once myself. Look at me now. I'm no good in the ships any more, so they bust me back to port hand. It's too damn easy to throw your credits away in the crumb-joints."
"I'm getting married," Hunter replied. "Ann and I worked this out when I joined the service. Now we have the capital to open her clinic--and ninety-six thousand credits, salted away in the Solar First National Fund."
"Every youngster starts out like you did, but something always happens. The girl doesn't wait, maybe. Or he gets to thinking he can pile up credits faster in the company casinos." The old man saluted. "So long, boy. It does my soul good to meet one guy who's getting out of this crazy space racket."
Max Hunter strode along the fenced causeway toward the low, pink-walled municipal building, shimmering in the desert sun. Behind him the repair docks and the launching tubes made a ragged silhouette against the sky.
Hunter felt no romantic inclination to look back. He had always been amused by the insipid, Tri-D space operas. To Hunter it had been a business--a job different from other occupations only because the risks were greater and the bonus scale higher.
Ann would be waiting in the lobby, as she always was when he came in from a flight. But today when they left the field, it would be for keeps. Anticipation made his memory of Ann Saymer suddenly vivid--the caress of her lips, the delicate scent of her hair, her quick smile and the pert upturn of her nose.
Captain Hunter thought of Ann as small and delicate, yet neither term was strictly applicable except subjectively in relation to himself. Hunter towered a good four inches above six feet. His shoulders were broad and powerful, his hips narrow, and his belly flat and hard. He moved with the co-ordination that had become second nature to him after a decade of frontier war. He was the typical spaceman, holding a First in his profession.
As was his privilege, he still wore his captain's uniform--dress boots of black plastic, tight-fitting trousers, and a scarlet jacket bearing the gold insignia of Consolidated Solar Industries.
Hunter entered the municipal building and joined the line of people moving slowly toward the customs booth. Anxiously he scanned the mass of faces in the lobby. Ann Saymer wasn't there.
He felt the keen, knife-edge disappointment, and something else--something he didn't want to put into words. He had sent Ann a micropic telling her when his ship would be in. Of course, there was that commission-job she had taken-- Abruptly he was face to face again with the vague fear that had nagged at his mind for nearly a month. This wasn't like Ann. Always before she had sent him every two or three days a chatty micropic, using the private code they had invented to cut the unit cost of words. But four weeks had now passed since he had last heard from her.
In an attempt at self-assurance, he recalled to mind just how exacting a commission-job could be. Perhaps Ann had been working so hard she had simply not had the time to send him a message.
Not even five minutes to send a micropic?
It didn't occur to him that she might be ill, for preventive medicine had long ago made physical disease a trivial factor in human affairs. A maladjustment then, with commitment to a city clinic? But Ann Saymer held a First in Psychiatry.
Hunter fingered the Saving Fund record in his pocket--the goal he and Ann had worked for so long. Nothing could go wrong now, nothing! He said the words over in his mind as he might have repeated the litany of a prayer, although Max Hunter did not consider himself a religious man.
At sixteen he and Ann Saymer had fallen in love, while they had both been in the last semester of the general school. They could have married then, or they might have registered for the less permanent companionship-union.
In either case, both of them would have had to go to work. Hunter could not have entered the space service, which enrolled only single men and Ann could not have afforded the university.
It hadn't mattered to Hunter. But Ann had possessed enough ambition for them both. She knew she had the ability to earn a First in Psychiatry, and would settle for nothing less. The drive that kept their goal alive was hers. She was determined to establish a clinic of her own. The plan she worked out was very practical--for Ann was in all respects the opposite of an idle dreamer.
Hunter was to join a commercial spacefleet. His bonus credits would accumulate to supply their capital, while he paid her university tuition from his current earnings. After they married, Hunter was to manage the finances of the clinic while Ann became the resident psychiatrist.
Even at sixteen Ann Saymer had very positive ideas about curing mental illness, which was the epidemic sickness of their world. Eight years later, while she was still serving her internship in a city clinic, Ann had invented the tiny machine which, with wry humor, she called an Exorciser.
She had never used the device in the public clinic. If she had, she would have lost the patent, since she had built the Exorciser while she was still serving out her educational apprenticeship in the city clinic.
"I'm no fool, Max," she told Hunter. "Why should I give it away? We'll coin credits in our own clinic with that little gadget."
Hunter had no objection to her aggressive selfishness. In fact, the term "selfishness" did not even occur to him. Ann was simply expressing the ethic of their society. He admired her brilliance, her cleverness; and he knew that her Exorciser, properly exploited, would be the touchstone to a fortune.
During one of his furloughs Ann demonstrated what the machine could do. After a minor surgical operation, a fragile filigree of microscopic platinum wires was planted in the cerebral cortex of a patient's skull. From a multi-dialed console Ann verbally transmitted a new personality directly into the maladjusted mind. After twenty minutes she removed the wire grid, and the disorganized personality was whole again, with an adjustment index testing at zero-zero.
"A cure that leaves out the long probe for psychic causes," she said enthusiastically. "In minutes, Max, we'll be able to do what now takes weeks or months. They'll swarm into our clinic."
Hunter reasoned that Ann had taken the commission-job in order to experiment with her machine in a privately-operated clinic. Her internship had ended a month before, and it had been an altogether legal thing for her to do. The fact that she had taken a commission meant she would work for only a specific contract period. And because a commission-job carried a professional classification, Ann had not been compelled to join the union.
Nevertheless the haze of anxiety still lay oppressively over Captain Hunter's mind. No matter what the requirements of Ann's commission may have been, she could have met him at the spaceport. She knew when his ship was due, and had never failed to show up before.
The line of people continued to move steadily toward the customs booth. Hunter stopped at last in front of a counter where a male clerk, wearing on his tunic the identification disc of his U.F.W. union local, typed out the customs forms, took Hunter's thumbprint, and carefully checked his medical certificate.
"You had your last boosters in the Mars station, is that correct?"
"Yes, last January," Hunter replied.
"That gives you an eight months' clearance." The clerk smiled. "Plenty of time for a spaceman's furlough."
"I'm making a permanent separation," Hunter affirmed.
The clerk glanced at him sharply. "Then I'd better issue a temporary health card." He ran a red-tinted, celluloid rectangle through a stamping machine and Hunter pressed his thumbprint upon the signature square. "Can you give me your home address, Captain?"
"I'll be staying at the Roost for a day or so. After that I'm getting married."
"I'll assign your health file to the Los Angeles Clinic then," the clerk said. "You can apply for an official reassignment later, if necessary."
He made a photo-copy of the health card, pushed it into a pneumatic tube and handed the original to Hunter. Then he rolled the customs form back into the typewriter.
"Since you're quitting the service, Captain, I'll have to have additional information for the municipal file. Do you have union affiliation?"
"No. Spacemen aren't required to join the U.F.W."
"If you want to give me a part payment on the initiation fee, I'll be glad to issue--"
"It'll be a long, hard winter before Eric Young gets any of my credits," Hunter said, his eyes narrowing. Considering how Hunter felt about the Union of Free Workers and the labor czar, Eric Young, he thought he had phrased his answer with remarkable restraint.
"Anti-labor," the clerk said, and typed the designation on the form.
"No," Hunter snapped, "and I won't be labeled that. As far as the individual goes, I believe he has every right to organize. No one can stand up against the cartels in any other way. But this exploitation by Young--"
"You either join the U.F.W., or you're against us." The clerk shrugged disinterestedly. "It's all one and the same thing to me, Captain. However, if you expect a job in the city, you'll have to get it through the union." He typed again on the customs form. "According to a new regulation, I'm obliged to classify you as unemployed, and that restricts you to limited areas of Los Angeles as well as--"
"When the hell did they put over a law like that?"
"Two weeks ago, sir. It gives the clinics a closer control over the potentially maladjusted, and it should help ease the pressure--"
"There are no exceptions?"
"The executive classifications, naturally--professionals, and spacemen. That would have included you, Captain Hunter, but you say you've left the service."
Hunter gritted his teeth. It had been like this for as long as he could remember. Whenever he returned from a long flight there was always a new form of regimentation to adjust to. And always for the same reason--to stop the steadily rising incidence of psychotic maladjustment.
"How does the law define an executive?" Hunter asked.
"Job bracket with one of the cartels," the clerk replied. "Or the total credits held on deposit with a recognized fund."
The captain flung his savings book on the counter. The clerk glanced at the balance and X'ed out the last word he had typed on the customs form.
"You qualify, sir--with a thousand credits to spare. I'll give you a city-wide clearance as an executive. But I can only make it temporary. You'll have to check once each week with the U.F.W. office. If your balance drops below ninety-five thousand, you'll be reclassified."
The clerk ran another celluloid card--this time it was blue--through the stamping machine and passed it across to Hunter. Captain Hunter picked up his bag and entered the customs booth, which by that time was empty. The probe lights glowed from the walls and ceiling, efficiently X-raying his bag and his clothing for any prohibited imports. Within seconds the alarm bell clanged and the metal doors banged shut, imprisoning Hunter in the booth.
Now what? he asked himself. What regulation had he violated this time? In his mind he inventoried the contents of his bag. It contained only a handful of personal belongings, and the tools of trade which he had needed as a captain of a fighting ship. Everything was legitimate and above-board. Hunter hadn't even brought Ann a souvenir from the frontier.
After a time, the booth door swung open. A senior inspector, carrying a blaster, crowded into the cubicle.
"Open your bag!" The inspector commanded, motioning with his weapon.
Hunter saw that the blaster dial was set to fire the death charge, not the weaker dispersal charge which produced only an hour's paralysis.
Hunter thumbed the photocell lock. It responded to the individual pattern of his thumbprint, and the bag fell open. The inspector picked up the worn blaster which lay under Hunter's shipboard uniform.
"Smuggling firearms, Captain, is a violation of the city code. The fine is--"
"Smuggling?" Hunter exploded. "That blaster was registered to me nine years ago." He snapped open his wallet.
The inspector frowned over the registration form, biting indecisively at his lower lip.
"That was issued before my time," he alibied. "I'll have to check the regulations. It may take a while."
He left the booth. He was gone for a quarter of an hour. When he returned, both metal doors snapped open. "Your permit is valid, Captain Hunter," the inspector admitted. "Unrestricted registrations like yours have not been issued for the past five years. That's why the probe was not adjusted to the special conditions which apply in your case. Your permit is revocable if you are committed for maladjustment."
Hunter grinned. "I wouldn't count on that. My adjustment index is zero-zero."
"A paragon, Captain." The voice was dry and biting. "But you may find conditions on the Earth a little trying. You haven't had a chance to get really well-acquainted with your own world since you were a kid of sixteen."
Hunter's customs clearance had taken more than an hour. Before he left the municipal building, he made a quick tour of the lobby, searching again for Ann Saymer. Satisfied that she had not come, he put in a call from a public tele-booth to Ann's apartment residence. After a moment, Mrs. Ames' face came into sharp focus on the screen, the light coalescing about her hair.
A warm, motherly widow of nearly eighty, Mrs. Ames had been the residence's owner for a decade, and had taken a great deal of vicarious pleasure in Ann's romance with the captain. "It's so different," she said once to Hunter, "your faith in each other, the way you work together for a goal you both want. If the rest of us could only learn to have some honest affection for each other. But, there, I'm an old woman, living too much in the past."
As soon as Hunter saw her face on the screen, he knew that something was wrong. She was tense and nervous, tied in the emotional knots of an anxiety neurosis. And Mrs. Ames was not the woman to fall easy victim to mental illness. If Hunter had been guessing the odds, he would have put her adjustment index on a par with his own.
"I haven't seen Ann for a month," she told him.
"Where is she? My last micropic from her said something about a commission-job--"
"She's all right, Max. Did you join the U.F.W.?"
"I'll be damned if I will."
Why had she asked him that? Her question seemed totally unrelated to her reassurance as to Ann--another clear symptom of her emotional unbalance.
"About Ann, Mrs. Ames," he persisted. "Do you know what clinic gave her the commission?"
Mrs. Ames stared at him in surprise. "Ann didn't tell you in her micropic?"
"We use a personal code," he explained. "That makes a certain type of communication extremely difficult."
"I didn't see her, Max. After she took the commission some men came for her things. They brought me a note from Ann, but it didn't tell me where she was. It just authorized the men to move out her belongings."
"Is the work outside of Los Angeles? Do you know that much?"
"At first I guessed--" She broke off, biting her lip, and her face twisted in an agony of intense feeling. "No, Max, an old woman's guesses won't help. I can't tell you any more about it."
"I'll come out and see you this afternoon, Mrs. Ames," he promised, "after I check in at the Roost. I want to look at that note you had from Ann."
Captain Hunter left the municipal building and stood on the transit platform. It was blazing hot in the noon sun, and he considered chartering an autojet to the city, as he always had before. But though a jet was faster than the monorail it was also more expensive. Acutely mindful that he had left the service and would earn no more juicy credit bonuses, he took the monorail instead.
He had only a ten-minute wait before a crowded car screamed to a stop at the port station. Hunter went aboard, along with four passengers from recent inbound flights--laboring class tourists returning from vacations on one of the planetoid resorts. Since a majority of the people who passed through the spaceport were executives or professionals, they used the autojets.
Hunter's uniform set him apart. A spaceman was expected to live high, to throw away credits like the glamor heroes on the Tri-D space dramas.
The monorail car was crowded, primarily with afternoon-shift workers on their way to the industrial area. They all wore on their tunics the discs of the Union of Free Workers. The four tourists who went aboard at the spaceport with Hunter pulled out their U.F.W. badges and pinned them on. They belonged. Hunter didn't.
He found an empty chair at the rear of the car, beside a gaudily attired woman, whose union disc proclaimed her a member of Local 47, the Recreational Companion Union. What miracles we perform, Hunter thought, with a judicial selection of innocuous words!