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´╗┐Title: $1,000 A Plate
Author: McKenty, Jack
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "$1,000 A Plate" ***

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                            $1,000 A Plate

                            By JACK McKENTY

                          Illustrated by BECK

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                 Galaxy Science Fiction October 1954.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



             When Marsy Gras shot off its skyrockets, Mars
               Observatory gave it the works--fireworks!


Sunset on Mars is a pale, washed out, watery sort of procedure that is
hardly worth looking at. The shadows of the cactus lengthen, the sun
goes down without the slightest hint of color or display and everything
is dark. About once a year there is one cloud that turns pink briefly.
But even the travel books devote more space describing the new sign
adorning the Canal Casino than they do on the sunset.

The night sky is something else again. Each new crop of tourists goes
to bed at sunrise the day after arrival with stiff necks from looking
up all night. The craters of the moons are visible to the naked eye,
and even a cheap pair of opera glasses can pick out the buildings of
the Deimos Space Station.

A typical comment from a sightseer is, "Just think, Fred, we were way
up there only twelve hours ago."

At fairly frequent intervals, the moons eclipse. The local Chamber of
Commerce joins with the gambling casinos to use these occasions as
excuses for a celebration. The "Marsy Gras" includes floats, costumes,
liquor, women, gambling--and finishes off with a display of fireworks
and a stiff note of protest from the nearby Mars Observatory.

       *       *       *       *       *

The day after a particularly noisy, glaring fireworks display, the top
brass at the Observatory called an emergency meeting. The topic was
not a new one, but fresh evidence, in the form of several still-wet
photographic plates, showing out-of-focus skyrocket trails and a galaxy
of first-magnitude aerial cracker explosions was presented.

"I maintain they fire them in our direction on purpose," one scientist
declared.

This was considered to be correct because the other directions around
town were oil refineries and the homes of the casino owners.

"Why don't we just move the Observatory way out in the desert?" a
technician demanded. "It wouldn't be much of a job."

"It would be a tremendous job," said Dr. Morton, the physicist. "If
not for the glare of city lights on Earth, we wouldn't have had to move
our telescopes to the Moon. If not for the gravel falling out of the
sky on the Moon, making it necessary to resurface the reflectors every
week, we wouldn't have had to move to Mars. Viewing conditions here are
just about perfect--except for the immense cost of transporting the
equipment, building materials, workmen, and paying us triple time for
working so far from home. Why, did you ever figure the cost of a single
photographic plate? What with salaries, freight to and from Earth,
maintenance and all the rest, it's enormous!"

"Then why don't we cut down the cost of ruined exposures," asked the
technician, "by moving the Observatory away from town?"

"Because," Dr. Morton explained, "we'd have to bring in crews to tear
the place down, other crews to move it, still more crews to rebuild it.
Not to mention unavoidable breakage and replacement, which involve more
freight from Earth. At $7.97 per pound dead-weight ... well, you figure
it out."

"So we can't move and we can't afford ruined thousand-dollar plates,"
said the scientist who had considered himself a target for the
fireworks. "Then what's the answer?"

The usual suggestion was proposed that a delegation approach the Town
Council to follow up the letter of protest. A search through the past
meetings' minutes showed that this had never accomplished anything up
to date.

A recent arrival to the Observatory mentioned that their combined
brain power should be enough to beat the games and thus force the
casino owners--who were the real offenders--out of business. One of
the scientists, who had already tried that very scheme on a small
scale, reported his results. He proved with his tabulations that,
in this instance, science, in the guise of the law of averages, was
unfortunately against them.

Dr. Morton rose to his feet. The other men listened to his plan, at
first with shocked horror, then with deep interest and finally in wild
exultation. The meeting broke up with most of the members grinning from
ear to ear. "It's lucky Dr. Morton is a physicist," said one of the
directors. "No astronomer would ever have thought of that."

       *       *       *       *       *

A few days later a modest little ad appeared in the weekly publication
"What to do in Marsport." It did not try to compete with any of the
casino ads (all of which featured pretty girls), but it had a unique
heading.

                                 FREE
                        For the First Time Ever
                            Your HOROSCOPE
                          SCIENTIFICALLY CAST
                          by the Staff of the
                        FAMOUS MARS OBSERVATORY
                     Learn your Luck, your Future!
                    Write or call Mars Observatory.
                       No charge. No obligation.

Since the horoscopes being offered were about the only things on Mars
that didn't cost the tourists any money, the response was great. The
recipient of a horoscope found a mimeographed folder which contained
three pages describing the present positions of the planets, where to
look for Earth in the sky, and what science hoped to learn the next
time Mercury was in transit. The fourth page held the kicker. It said
that while the tourist's luck would be better than average at most
of the gambling houses, he would lose consistently if he played at
Harvey's Club.

Within two days the only people playing at Harvey's were the shills.
The following day, the visitors to the observatory included Harvey.

The gambler was welcomed with mingled respect for his money and
contempt for his occupation. He was taken immediately to see Dr.
Morton, who greeted him with a sly smile.

Harvey's conversation was brief and to the point. "How much?" he asked
waving a horoscope under Dr. Morton's nose.

"Just a promise," said the scientist. Harvey said nothing but looked
sullen. "You are on the Town Council," Morton continued. "Now, the next
time the question of tourist entertainment is discussed, we want you to
vote _against_ a fireworks display." He then explained how important
plates had been ruined by skyrocket trails.

Harvey listened with great interest, especially when Dr. Morton flatly
stated that each casino, in turn, would get the same publicity in the
horoscopes.

"The Council members are all for the tourists," Harvey commented, "and
you guys are supposed to be nuts, like all scientists. But I'll do like
you say." He reached into his pocket. "Here's fifty bucks. Use it for
a full page ad this time and do the Desert Sands Casino in your next
horoscope. And say--before I go, can I look through the telescope? I
never seemed to have the time before."

       *       *       *       *       *

At weekly intervals, Dr. Morton "did" the Desert Sands; Frankland's
Paradise; the Martian Gardens; and the Two Moons Club. From each owner
he extracted the same promise--to vote against the fireworks at the
Council meetings.

The technique was settling down to a routine. Each victim came, made
the promise, paid for the following week's ad, named the next casino,
and was taken on a tour of the Observatory. Then disaster struck.

It took the form of an interplanetary telegram from Harvard
Observatory, their parent organization. It read:

     EARTH NEWSPAPERS CARRYING ACCOUNTS OF HOROSCOPES PUBLISHED BY
     YOUR ORGANIZATION VERY UNSCIENTIFIC MUST STOP AT ONCE FIND OTHER
     SOLUTION

     L K BELL DIRECTOR

Dr. Morton was eating alone in the staff dining room when he noticed a
familiar face beside him. "Harvey," he said. "Guess you've come down to
gloat over our misfortune."

"No, Professor," said Harvey. "You've got my promise to help you boys
and I'll stick by you. It's a rotten shame, too. You just about made
it. The rest of the club owners saw the writing on the wall and were
going to cooperate with you when the telegram came. All of us got
contacts in the telegraph office, so they heard about it soon as it
arrived and stayed away."

Dr. Morton said, "Yes, I supposed they would. There's not much we can
do now."

"There are thirteen members on the Council." Harvey continued, "and
you've got five of us. If that telegram had only come one day later--no
more fireworks. But I got an idea."

Dr. Morton pushed aside his empty coffee cup and stood up. "Let's get
out in the fresh air."

The Town Council was adding insult to injury by staging one of the
biggest fireworks displays ever. It consisted of practically all
skyrockets. Dr. Morton expressed wonder at their supply; Harvey
explained that they were made right on Mars. He went on to tell his
idea.

"I was real interested in everything when you took me around the first
time I was here," the gambler said. "The same goes for the other boys
who saw the place. Most of us meant to come out here and look around
sometime, but you people work nights and, us mostly working nights,
too, we never got around to it. How about arranging an exclusive tour
sometime just for the club operators and their help? Then when they see
everything, you could offer to name a star after them or something. If
I hadn't already promised, I'd be willing to promise, just to be able
to point in the sky and say 'That's Harvey's Star.'"

Dr. Morton smiled gently. "That's a wonderful idea," he said, "but I
don't think it would work. Any stars worth looking at with the naked
eye already have names. The only ones we could name after people are
so far away that, it would take an exposure of several hours, just to
see them on a photographic plate. You wouldn't be able to point yours
out at all. Besides, Harvard Observatory wouldn't stand for this idea
either. It would make as much sense to them as you naming a poker chip
after me."

He sighed. "But, in any case, we would like to have all the owners
over some time. It might improve relations somewhat." The two of them
watched a rocket wobble all over the sky before exploding.

"Let's go back inside," said the physicist. "Maybe we can arrange that
tour for Sunday."

       *       *       *       *       *

Sunday afternoon the visitors, presumably softened up by what one of
the chemists thought were martinis, were seated in the lecture hall
listening to Dr. Morton's concluding remarks.

"One of the technicians is working on a gadget with a photocell that
closes the shutter on the film when a rocket goes up," Dr. Morton was
saying. "It should cut down the exposure time a great deal. Right
now, every night may be significant. If the plates from any one night
are spoiled, we may not be able to duplicate them for a Martian year.
Mankind is preparing the first trip to another star, and the work of
Mars Observatory is necessary to insure the success of that trip. You
gentlemen are rightly the leaders of Mars, and so it is up to you to
decide whether or not that success will be possible." He sat down to a
smattering of applause.

The visitors, except Harvey, then left.

"It didn't go over, Professor," said Harvey.

"I know," said Dr. Morton. "That washes out that plan." He turned to
the gambler. "You're the only person I can trust with this," he said.
"How would you like to help me make some fireworks?"

       *       *       *       *       *

One week later the two men had everything ready. That night, as quietly
as possible, they moved to a position behind a fence near the skyrocket
launching racks. Dr. Morton was carrying a compass, a flashlight, and a
small clinometer; Harvey was struggling with two large skyrockets. He
whispered, "What if we miss or they go off too soon, or something?"

"Nonsense, Harvey," said Dr. Morton. He busied himself with the
flashlight and compass, and carefully aimed one of the rockets. "You
forget I am a physicist." He then aimed the other rocket and checked
elevation with the clinometer. "The fuels are standard, and I worked
out the trajectories on the computer. Ready with your match? These are
going to explode in the canal, and get everybody in the Canal Casino
all wet." He peeked over the fence, to see how the regular display was
doing. "Here comes their finale. Ready, set, light!"

Covered by the launching of the last of the official display, their two
rockets arced up and away. One of them did explode in the canal, and
most of the Casino's patrons did get wet. But the other wobbled off to
the right, landed on the roof of Harvey's bachelor home and burned it
to the ground.

       *       *       *       *       *

Dr. Morton sat numbly in front of his typewriter, staring at a letter.
He couldn't seem to find the right words for what he wished to say. He
tried to derive inspiration from a glossy photograph lying on the table
beside him. It had what looked like another skyrocket trail on it.

Before he could answer it, the door opened and Harvey walked in,
accompanied by two men with muscles. "I haven't seen you since the
accident, Professor," he said.

"I've been trying to write you a letter," said Dr. Morton, "to tell you
how sorry I am about what happened. And I also have to thank you for
getting that law against fireworks through the Council. I am extremely
sorry it took your house burning down to convince them."

"I keep my promises," said Harvey. One of the men with muscles turned
the radio on, loud.

"We're trying to get up a collection among the staff to help pay for
your losses," said Dr. Morton, "but the director suggested a more
permanent kind of remembrance." He picked up the photograph. "This will
be one of the brightest objects in the sky, in a few months. It won't
be back again for thousands of years, but it will be around for a good
while. We've just discovered it, and it is our privilege to call it
'Harvey's Comet.'"

"That's nice," said Harvey. The first of the two men went around
pulling down blinds; the other went into the bathroom and starting
filling the tub.

"Well," said the physicist, looking tired and old, "I guess there's
nothing more I can say."

"Oh, yes, there is, Professor," said Harvey, with a sudden grin on his
face. He turned to his muscle men. "You two guys cut out the comedy and
bring it in, now."

The two men followed his instructions.

"You see, Professor," the gambler continued, "I took a beating on the
house, but the other club boys chipped in and made up all my losses.
So, I don't need your money at all. Besides, I have two things to thank
_you_ for. First, I heard about the comet from one of your men, and
it's the nicest thing anybody's ever done for me." One of his men came
back with what looked like a round candy box. "Second, that fire was
the best publicity stunt I could get. It made the papers back on Earth
and all the new tourists are packing into the Harvey Club. Even the
other operators are playing my tables. That's why I want you to have
this."

He handed Dr. Morton the box. It read "Harvey's Club" in the center,
and "Doctor Morton's Poker Chip" around the edge. Across the bottom, it
said "Five Thousand."

"That's dollars in it, Professor," said Harvey. "Don't spend it all in
one place."





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