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Title: Man's Best Friend
Author: Smith, Evelyn E.
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 "Man's Best Friend" ***

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                           Man's Best Friend

                          By EVELYN E. SMITH

                       Illustrated by MEL HUNTER

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                  Galaxy Science Fiction April 1955.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]



              Sometimes a job comes after the man ... and
               this one came after Gervase like a tiger!


The annunciator aroused Gervase from pleasant semi-slumber. He knew the
interruption was his own fault for not having turned off the device,
but he so seldom had a visitor that he could hardly be blamed for his
forgetfulness. Frowning, he pressed the viewer button. A round, red
face appeared on the screen. "May I be the first to congratulate you,
Mr. Schnee?" it said.

"You may, indeed," Gervase replied. "But for what?"

"You haven't heard the news? Good, then I'm the first. I imagine I
got a head-start on the others because of my superior facilities for
locating you. Your address wasn't given; these pronouncements do tend
to be a bit vague. Matter of tradition, I suppose."

"I haven't heard any news for days," Gervase said, uncomfortably
conscious that he was apologizing. "I've been listening to my
sound-tapes and--and meditating," he added defiantly. "Wait a minute;
I'll let you in."

He struggled with the door-stud, but the door refused to open. The
autobursar must have neglected to pay the door bill--probably because
Gervase had failed to put enough money into it. But his allowance was
limited and sound-tapes, not to speak of meditators, were so expensive.

Sighing, Gervase got up and opened the door manually. The individual
outside was short and stout and dressed, unfortunately, in the uniform
of an upper-echelon salesman. Gervase had been caught! Still, he
reminded himself, no one could force him to buy anything. He was a free
citizen.

"Well, come in if you must," he said grudgingly. "I suppose the big
news is that I'm the lucky householder to whom the Little Gem Room
Expander will first be offered."

"Nothing of the sort!" the man replied indignantly.

At this point, Gervase noticed with surprise that the other wore a
jeweled merchant-prince's badge. Apparently this was one of those
consumer reaction tests in which executives themselves participated to
check on their employees.

       *       *       *       *       *

The man remembered to smile. "The Prognosticator has just given
its fortnightly Prognostication. You, Mr. Schnee, are going to be
our new Ruler." He seized the young man's limp hand and shook it
enthusiastically. "And I'm sure you'll be a splendid one, too."

Gervase accepted a pale green cheroot from the dispenser. It shook in
his lips. "And what's to become of the old Ruler?"

"You're scheduled to dispose of him sometime this month. Now, Mr.
Schnee," the man went on briskly, "allow me to introduce myself. I am
Bedrich Florea, vice president of the Florea Munitions and Container
Corporation." He extracted a gleaming weapon from his brief case and
offered it to Gervase. The young man recoiled. "If you will only agree
to shoot Overlord Kipp with a Florea Semper Fidelis Gun," the executive
continued, "my corporation will be happy to place a substantial amount
of credits at your disposal in any bank you choose. Six billion, to be
exact. Now if you'll just sign here on the dotted line...." He held out
a stylus temptingly.

"Nonsense!" Gervase backed away.

"Even a Ruler can use money. Bribery for government officials, bread
and circuses for the people--oh, money's a very useful commodity, Mr.
Schnee. Shall we say seven billion?"

"I don't doubt that money is useful," Gervase replied, thinking
wistfully of seven billion credits. "But when I said 'nonsense,' I
meant the Prognosticator. The whole thing's a lot of--well, nonsense.
A whole planet of supposedly intelligent people listening to what's
nothing more, really, than an oracle! A machine can't read the future.
It's impossible."

Florea's eyes bulged. "Mr. Schnee, that's sacrilege! You
can't--confound it, sir, you can't talk that way about The Machine.
After all," he added in a more placatory manner, "let's look at this
reasonably. Machines can and do answer all the problems of our daily
life, so why shouldn't a superior machine be able to tell the future?"

"If you ask me," Gervase all but sneered, "behind the wires and
gimmicks and whatnots in The Machine, there's a secret room in which a
half-mad, half-intoxicated old priestess sits delivering her Delphic
pronouncements. Might as well have an aboveboard oracle and be done
with it."

"Now, now, Mr. Schnee--" the executive smiled with obvious
effort--"even our Ruler shouldn't flout the Authority of Machinery. Of
course, it's all right when you're alone with friends, like me, but in
public--"

The annunciator sounded again. An eager face appeared on the screen.
"Mr. Schnee," an equally eager voice said, "I'm from the _Daily
Disseminator_. How does it feel to be Ruler Prognosticate?"

There was the sound of a scuffle. His face disappeared, to be replaced
by two others. "Mr. Schnee, will you tell us in your very own words--"

As Gervase clicked off the interviewer, the vidiphone blinked. Gervase
lifted the receiver. The face of Overlord Kipp himself came into view,
pale but composed. "I understand you're the young man who is destined
to dispose of me and take my place?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Gervase paled also. "Honestly, Your Honorship, I haven't the slightest
inten--"

"You'll make it quick and painless, won't you? And it really would be
very decent of you to give me the exact day and hour of my--er--demise
so I won't have to sit around waiting."

"But, really--"

"You don't look like a hard-hearted chap. As a matter of fact, I would
say, offhand, that you had a kind face."

"Well, thank you, but--"

"I do wish you'd stop shilly-shallying and name the day. By the way,
have you anything on for tomorrow?"

"I didn't have anything special planned--"

"Splendid! Suppose you come over to the Palace around one o'clock or
so. We can have a bite of lunch and discuss the matter together. After
all, I think you'll agree that I have been a reasonably good Ruler
and so I have the right to die with dignity." He looked pleadingly at
Gervase.

"Oh, absolutely," the young man said in haste. "No question of it. I
think it's a very good idea to have a chat about it first. Awkward
to--dispose of someone you haven't met previously."

The dictator gave him a wan smile. "Thank you, Mr. Schnee. I hope
you'll find your successor as cooperative as yourself."

The screen darkened.

"Hmmm," Gervase mused. He took a lavender cheroot, forgetting he still
held the lime one. "I wonder whether he wants me to make an appointment
so he'll have a band of counter-assassins ready to kill me, saving him
the expense of a stand-by guard. He is noted for his thriftiness, you
know. Perhaps I just shouldn't show up at all."

"He wouldn't dream of doing anything of the sort," Florea said
austerely. "Overlord Kipp knows what is due to his position. He has
a sense of duty and responsibility which, unfortunately, seems to be
lacking in his successor ... if you'll excuse my speaking frankly," he
added in haste. "I am, of course, considerably older than you and so I
feel--"

"It's quite all right," Gervase reassured him. "You may speak freely."

"Furthermore," Florea continued, "if he had you killed, the people
would probably give him a painful and lingering death for attempting to
interfere with the course of destiny.... There, I hear them now!"

And they could indeed hear the sound of voices raised in song--so many
and so loud that they penetrated the soundproofing of the walls. "The
_polloi_ are coming to hail their new Leader," Florea beamed.

"Well, I'm not going to do it!" Gervase declared. "They can't make me
kill him and take over and that's flat. I'm not the administrative
type--never have been."

       *       *       *       *       *

Florea took a cheroot of his own out of a platinum portable. "In that
case, the people probably will kill _you_ for attempting to interfere
with fate."

"But I wouldn't have done anything!" Gervase protested.

"There are sins of omission as well as commission. Come now, it's true
a Ruler's life expectancy isn't very long--at least it hasn't been for
the last few reigns--but it's longer than yours will be if you refuse
to fulfill your destiny."

"I wouldn't make a fit Ruler," Gervase said desperately. "Consider my
origins. I wouldn't tell this to anyone but you--I'm illegitimate. I
don't even know who my father is."

The other man smiled again. "It's a wise child who knows his own
father. And some of the most celebrated leaders in history have been
illegitimate. Look at William the Conqueror."

Gervase turned on the historiscope, dialed 1066 A.D., looked,
shuddered, and turned it off. "I don't think that's much of a
recommendation!"

"You see," Florea told him encouragingly, "almost anybody can be a
leader. The important thing is that he be _destined_ for leadership."

"But I'm no good! Everybody says so. I've never done a thing in my
life. My aged mother has had to work to support me."

"Time enough that you stood on your two feet, my boy!" the businessman
said, clapping the youth upon the shoulder. "And remember, destiny must
take its course."

He flung open the door. A cheering crowd stood outside. "My friends,
allow me to introduce you to your new Ruler--Gervase Schnee!"

A hoarse shout of approval went up.

"He is planning to assassinate Overlord Kipp with a Florea Semper
Fidelis Gun. Florea Semper Fidelis Guns retail from c2.98 for the
Peasant's Pistol all the way up to c1089.56 for the Super Deluxe
Conspirator's Model, but each is the best obtainable for the price. Mr.
Schnee, of course, will use the Super Deluxe model."

There were more cries, cheers and shouts.

"Thank you for your--for your confidence and support," Gervase said
brokenly. "I only hope I prove worthy of them."

Gervase lunched with Overlord Kipp the next day and was not
assassinated. The disposal was set for the coming Tuesday and announced
to the public. Gervase was so nervous, he couldn't sleep the night
before. When, early in the morning, he finally did manage to doze off,
he was awakened by the encouraging telegrams that kept pouring in.

At nine, he finally got up and dressed himself in the immaculate
black-and-silver assassin's uniform that had been custom-made for him
without charge by an eminent tailor. He was in no mood for breakfast,
so he went outside to the handsome black-and-silver limousine that
had been presented to him by a thoughtful industrialist. As he emerged
from his door, a brass band struck up the national anthem and the
crowd waiting outside broke into cheers suitably restrained to fit the
melancholy occasion.

       *       *       *       *       *

Gervase bowed wanly left and right as he got into the car. His two
hired assistants, dressed in the customary black cloak and hood of the
body-remover, were, he noticed, already seated beside the chauffeur.
They did not turn their heads as Gervase entered, but preserved the
traditional impassivity of their calling.

The band started to play a funeral march as the car moved slowly down
the boulevard. Stands had been put up all along the route and he was
greeted by subdued cheering and applause from crowds neatly arranged
according to rank. Little children of all classes rushed out into the
street to present him with bouquets of flowers.

The television cameras joined him en route and followed him all the way
to the Palace. On the steps, Bedrich Florea awaited him, magnificently
garbed in full executive uniform, his jewels flashing in the clear
sunlight.

"Allow me to load your Super Deluxe Conspirator's Florea Semper Fidelis
Gun for you, Overlord Prognosticate," he announced in a ringing voice,
as he turned his profile toward the cameras.

"It's already loaded," Gervase said, nervously clutching the gun in his
pocket.

"Permit me to check it then." Florea put out an eager hand.

Gervase executed a deft chassé in the opposite direction. "It's
perfectly all right, I tell you! No one," he added in a burst of
inspiration, "would have any difficulty in loading a Florea Semper
Fidelis Gun."

"That's right," the baffled munitions magnate admitted, falling back
reluctantly. "Whether you buy the Peasant's or the Conspirator's Model,
both have the same smooth free-loading mechanism...."

"Out of the way, Executive," a cameraman said, unceremoniously sweeping
Florea aside as Gervase paced into the Palace, followed by his two
black-robed henchmen, carrying an elaborate, gold-mounted stretcher
between them.

"Candy, popcorn, hashish, yoghurt!" yelled a strident voice behind
them. "Buy your refreshments here!"

Overlord Kipp stood beside his desk, dressed in his finest
uniform--which was, however, virtually invisible, it was so bedecked
with glittering and sparkling medals and decorations. Gervase waited
patiently while the soon-to-be-disposed-of Ruler made a speech pointing
out the numerous benefits and improvements his reign had brought to
the people. It was rather a long speech and Gervase's nose began to
itch. He would have liked to scratch it, but the cameras were pointing
directly at him. Life as Ruler, he saw, was going to be a long series
of similar repressions. He sighed. But what could he do? Nobody could
go against the Prognostications.

Finally the speech was finished. "Good-by and good luck, Overlord
Schnee," Kipp said. He stood, waiting.

Gervase fired. There was a loud report. Kipp crumpled to the ground.

Gervase hurled the Florea Semper Fidelis Gun to the desk. "Everyone
will now please leave," he ordered in calm but firm tones, "while the
removers take over."

"Why can't we televise the removal?" a daring cameraman asked.
"Something new."

       *       *       *       *       *

There was a shocked silence and then a babble of indignant voices.
Gervase held up a weary hand. The voices stopped.

"That sort of thing just isn't done," he told the cameraman with an
Olympian smile. "Please leave as quickly as possible--all of you. I
might want to meditate."

They scuttled out backward, the cameras still grinding. Gervase pressed
the studs that shut and bolted the door.

"Whew!" said Overlord Kipp, sitting up. "I didn't think I'd be able to
stand that much longer. You're a good shot, Schnee--that blank stung
like crazy. And in a very tender spot, I might add."

"No time for chatting," Gervase said nervously. "We've got to get this
over in a hurry. Now comes the part when your friends will have to look
like real removers. I hope they can give it that professional touch."

"We are real removers in a sense," said one of the black-robed figures.
"At least, both of us have participated in removals before." They
dropped their hoods.

Gervase's mouth hung open. "Why, you're Overlord Moorhouse!" he said to
one. "And I've seen pictures of you!" he told the other. "You're the
one that came before him--Shinnick. You died before I was born--that
is, you were supposed to have died. Both of you were. Moorhouse
killed--was supposed to have killed you."

Ex-Overlord Shinnick smiled. "We're not precisely dead--only retired,
you might say. In a way, anonymity is the same as death. And Overlords
Moorhouse and Kipp--" he bowed toward them--"both had kind hearts,
like yourself. The Prognosticator didn't say we had to be killed--just
disposed of, as Kipp undoubtedly pointed out to you in your little talk
together."

"Sorry I couldn't tell you the truth," Kipp apologized as he dusted off
his uniform, "but you might have changed your mind and given us away."

"We've formed a sort of little club of dead Overlords," Shinnick
elucidated. "After all, we're the only ones with whom we can associate
safely--no danger of any one of us betraying the others."

"We're looking forward to the day when you join us, Overlord Schnee,"
Moorhouse put in eagerly, "assuming that your successor is of as
generous a nature as we, of course. Do you play bridge by any chance?"

"You'd better hurry." Gervase worriedly changed the subject as he
noticed the time on the wall chronometer. "If the four of us are
discovered, the mob would tear us all to pieces."

"Right you are," said ex-Overlord Shinnick. "Get on the stretcher,
Kipp. Bad enough we're going to have to carry you out; at least don't
expect us to lift you up."

Kipp obediently assumed a recumbent posture: Shinnick and Moorhouse
covered him with a black cloth and were preparing to march out when
Gervase recollected himself and halted them. "Wait a moment--you'd
better take off those medals first, Kipp. They come with the job."

"Grave-robber," said Kipp, reluctantly sitting up on his catafalque and
unfastening the jeweled decorations.

       *       *       *       *       *

When the little procession had left, Gervase pressed a stud on the desk
marked _Secretary_. A panel in the wall opened and a timorous-looking
man virtually fell into the room. "Y-yes, Your Honorship?"

"The Prognosticator is right here in the Palace, isn't it?" Gervase
asked, in a tone that would have been authoritative if his voice hadn't
cracked right in the middle of _Palace_.

"Y-yes, Your Honorship."

"Lead me to it immediately."

"Su-certainly, Your Honorship."

As they left the room, Gervase picked the Florea Semper Fidelis Gun
off the desk. It was too valuable a piece of property to leave lying
around. The Palace was full of sticky-fingered civil servants.

They passed through room after room containing bank after bank of
computing machines, each more complicated in appearance than the last.
Hordes of officials in the garb of hereditary scientist or technician
bowed low as the new Ruler passed. The machines, of course, operated
and repaired themselves automatically; nonetheless, they needed a good
many attendants as befitted their exalted status.

Gervase and his guide finally came to the room where the Prognosticator
itself was enshrined. The apartment was twenty stories high and a
hundred meters wide, but it was none too large for all the flashing
lights and spinning dials and buzzing relays and levers and cables
which jammed it. The hundreds of first-rank scientists who waited upon
the Machine stopped their tasks of dusting and polishing to greet the
new Usurper with deferent acclaim.

"Leave me," he ordered, gesturing with the gun toward the door. "I
would be alone with the Prognosticator."

"Certainly, Your Honorship. Certainly. Your wishes are our commands."

They backed out.

"You, too," Gervase told the secretary who had guided him.

"Y-yes, Your Honorship." The man skittered off.

When they had all gone, Gervase approached a small, unobtrusive door
marked _Danger--No Admittance_. Dust lay thick on the sill, for it was
seldom opened.

Gervase took a tiny, intricate piece of metal from his pocket and
fitted it into the lock. Something inside clicked. The door swung open.

Beyond, a narrow flight of steps spiraled downward. Gervase descended
them unhesitatingly until he came to another small door. This one was
simply marked _Private_. He knocked on it.

"Aah, go butter your earlobes!" a cracked voice called from within.
"Can't you read, you dumb cluck?"

"It's me, Gervase!" He pounded on the door with the butt of his gun.
"Open up!"

       *       *       *       *       *

The door swung open creakily. Through the gloom inside, there could be
dimly seen antique furnishings in a poor state of preservation and a
still more imperfect state of cleanliness. An outmodedly streamlined
twentieth-century typewriting machine was set on a costly metal stand
with one caster missing. The flaps of the table were open--one held a
chipped teapot, the other a dusty crystal ball and a dog-eared pack of
Gypsy cards. Behind all this was a rare old psychoanalyst's couch,
ripped open here and there and showing the original stuffing.

Reclining on the couch was an incredibly old woman wearing a quaint
costume of a bygone era--long scarlet silk skirt, yellow blouse, great
golden hoops swinging in her ears. She was sipping something out of a
teacup, but it didn't smell like tea, at least not like tea alone. The
ancient reek of gin pervaded and overpowered the general mustiness.

"Hello, son!" the old woman said, waving the cup at Gervase. "'Bout
time you came to pay your old mother a visit." She cackled. "I kind of
thought something like this would stir you up!"

       *       *       *       *       *

"Mother," Gervase said reproachfully, "you know you shouldn't have done
it."

"What did I do?" she asked, assuming a ludicrous posture of innocence.

"You fixed the Prognostications, that's what you did. Although why you
had to pick on me--"

"Aah, I got tired of supporting you! You're a big boy--it's about time
you earned your own living. Besides, I thought it'd be a good idea to
elect a sympathetic administration. Sympathetic to me, that is. Palace
needs a new ventilating system. Air in here's terrible. Smells as if
something'd died and they were too stingy to give it a decent burial."

"But why didn't you use the Prognosticator to get new ventilation put
in?" Gervase asked. "Seems to me you could have foretold everyone in
the Palace would suffocate or something if it wasn't done."

"They'd have got around it, same way you got around killing Kipp."

Gervase blushed.

"You can't fool me!" she cackled gleefully. "I know everything that
goes on around this place and a lot that doesn't." She reached over
and tapped his knee. "But you'll pay attention to the Prognosticator,
boy. Don't you try to weasel out of what it says by looking for double
meanings. Time you Overlords learned that when the Prognosticator says
something, it means it."

"Yes, Mother," he said.

"I'd hate to have to give orders to have my own boy disposed of. The
last three disposals weren't so bad, but sometimes those things can
turn out real messy."

"Yes, Mother."

She drank gustily from her teacup. "Maybe blood is thicker than
water ... but not much."

"Yes, Mother."

"And why shouldn't you listen to my Prognostications?" she demanded
irritably, slamming her teacup down on the table so hard that the
typewriter skipped. "Just because they're dolled up a little doesn't
mean they're not true. Don't I have a crystal ball? Don't I have a
Gypsy tarot pack? Don't I have tea leaves--best tea money can buy, too?"

"Yes, Mother."

"So?" She looked at him expectantly. "What are you going to do?"

Gervase took a deep breath and drew himself up. "I'm going to have the
ventilating system attended to right away."

"That's my boy," she said fondly, draining another cup of tea and
peering at the leaves. "I can see everything's going to work out
fine--just fine."





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