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Authors: Jack Vance

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The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories (11 page)

BOOK: The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories
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“You don’t sound very assured.”

“Well—I have a stratagem in mind which will save a great deal of time.”

“Yes?” Boek said, with heavy sarcasm, drumming his fingers.

“I would like you to have Mayor—ah, Juju?…call a meeting this afternoon of the city officials. The city hall would be a satisfactory place. And at the meeting we will discuss McInch.”

As they plowed through the dust to the city hall, Boek snapped, “This seems a little melodramatic.”

“Possibly, possibly,” said Magnus Ridolph. “Possibly dangerous also.”

Boek hesitated in midstride. “Are you sure—”

“Nothing is a certainty,” said Magnus Ridolph. “Not even the continued rotation of this planet on its axis. And the least predictable phenomenon I know of is the duration of life.”

Boek looked straight ahead, said nothing.

They entered the city hall, paused in the ante-room a moment to let their eyes adapt to the dimness. Ahead of them to right and left, bulks of different masses and shapes began to form, splotched here and there by the rays of red and blue which entered through the matting.

“The garbage collector is here,” said Magnus Ridolph behind his hand to Boek. “I can smell him.”

They had advanced into the central room. The Mayor had been pacing solemnly back and forth, red fez perched slantwise, in the center of a rough circle formed by the Golespod garbage collector, the multipede postmaster, Joe Bertrand the fire-chief, the Tau Gemini warehouse manager, and the amphibian Chief of Police.

“Gentlemen,” said Magnus Ridolph, “I won’t take up much of your time. As you all know, I have been investigating that entity known as McInch.”

There was a movement about the room—a twinkling of the multipede postmaster’s legs, a quiver on the police-chief’s rubbery hide, a twist of the Mayor’s neck. There were slight nervous sounds—a soft hiss from the skatelike Golespod, the Negro fire-chief clearing his throat.

The warehouse manager—the antlike creature of Tau Gemini—spoke in his toneless voice. “Exactly why are we here? Make your purpose clear.”

Magnus Ridolph serenely stroked his beard, glanced from creature to creature. “I have learned McInch’s identity. I have estimated the sum he costs Sclerotto every day. I can prove that this creature is a murderer, or at the very least that he attempted to murder me. Yes, me—Magnus Ridolph!” and Magnus Ridolph stood stiff and stern as he spoke.

Again there was the guarded movement, the near-silent eddy of sound, as each of the creatures took itself into the familiar places of its own brain.

Magnus Ridolph said gravely, “As the governing body of the community I would value your advice on what course of action I should follow. Mr. Mayor, have you a suggestion?”

The Yellowbird wove its neck in a series of quick darts and plunges, piped a shrill series of excited unintelligible tones. The head came to a stand-still, the purple eye stared craftily at Magnus Ridolph. “McInch might kill us all.”

Boek cleared his throat, muttered uncomfortably, “Do you think it’s a good idea for us to…”

Fire-chief Joe Bertrand said, “I’m sick of all this pussyfooting. We have a jail. We have a legal code. Let’s judge McInch by what he’s done. If he’s a thief, put him in jail. If he’s a murderer, and if he can take mental surgery, let’s give it to him. If he can’t, let’s execute him!”

Magnus Ridolph nodded. “I can prove McInch is a thief. Several years in jail might prove a salutary experience. You have a clean sanitary jail, with germicidal air-filters, compulsory bathing, pure, sanitary food—”

“Why do you emphasize the wholesomeness of the jail?” buzzed the warehouse manager.

“Because McInch will be exposed to it,” said Magnus Ridolph solemnly. “He’ll be vaccinated and immunized, and live in a completely germ-free environment. And this will hurt McInch more than death. Now—” and he looked at the metal-tense figures around him “—who is McInch?”

The garbage collector reared amazingly erect, leaning far back, revealing its pale under-body, its double row of pale short legs. It writhed, hunched. “Duck!” yelled Boek as the Golespod spat a stinking wash of liquid to all quarters of the room. From the depths of its body came a rumbling voice. “Now all die, all die…”

“Quiet!” said Magnus Ridolph sharply. “Quiet everyone! Mayor, quiet please!”

The Yellowbird’s crazed piping diminished. “There is no danger for anyone,” said Magnus Ridolph, coolly wiping his face, eyes upon the Golespod, who still reared back. “An ultra-sonic vibrator below the floor, a Hechtmann irradiator in the ceiling have been operating ever since we entered the room. The bacteria in McInch’s serum were dead as soon as they left his mouth, if not before.”

The Golespod hissed, lowered himself, plunged for the door, little legs pumping like pistons. The chief of police lunged like a porpoise from a wave, landed on the Golespod’s flat writhing back. His clawed flippers hooked in the flesh, tore. The Golespod screamed, turned on its back, scraped the amphibian between its legs, folded itself around him, squeezed. Joe Bertrand sprang forward, kicking at the milk-blue eye. The Portmar centipede rippled into the mêlée, and with each of his slender feet seized one of the Golespod’s, strained to pull them aside from the constricted chief of police. The Mayor hopped up through the hole in the ceiling, hopped back with a skewer, stabbed, stabbed, stabbed…

Boek staggered out to the car. Magnus Ridolph, throwing his stinking white and blue tunic into a ditch, joined him.

Boek clung to the wheel, his pink face clabbered.

“They—they tore him to pieces,” he whispered.

“An unnerving spectacle,” said Magnus Ridolph, testing his clotted beard. “A sordid adventure in every respect.”

Boek turned a round accusing eye at him. “I believe you planned it like that!”

Magnus Ridolph said, gently, “My friend, may I suggest that we return to the Mission and bathe ourselves? I believe clean clothes would help restore our perspectives.”

A sober Klemmer Boek sat across from Magnus Ridolph at the dinner table, a Klemmer Boek who barely looked at his food. Magnus Ridolph ate fastidiously, though substantially. Once again he wore crisp linen, and his white beard was soft, expertly trimmed.

“But how,” blurted Boek, “did you know the garbage collector was McInch?”

“A simple process,” said Magnus Ridolph, gesturing with his fork. “A perfectly straightforward sequence of logic; a framework of theory, the consulting of references—”

“Yes, yes, yes,” muttered Boek. “Logic this, intelligence that…”

Magnus Ridolph’s mouth twitched slightly. “Here, in the concrete, is my chain of thought. McInch is a grafter, a thief, stealing large sums of money. What does he do with his loot? Nothing very conspicuous, otherwise his identity would be common knowledge. Assuming that McInch spent some or all of his money—an assumption by no means sure—I considered each of the civic officials, the most likely suspects, from the viewpoint of one of his own race.

“There was Joe Bertrand, the fire-chief. By this test, he was innocent. He lived frugally in an uncongenial environment.

“I considered the Mayor. What was a Yellowbird’s definition of delight? I found it would include a field of a certain type of flower, the scent of which drugs and exalts the Yellowbirds. Nothing of this sort was evident on Sclerotto. The Mayor, in his own eyes, lived a meager life.

“Next the warehouse manager, the Tau Gemini ant-creature. The wants of these individuals are very modest. The words ‘luxury’ and ‘leisure’ have no equivalents in their language. If for this reason alone I was tempted to drop him. I learned from the postmaster that he purchased a number of books every month—these were his only conspicuous indulgence—but their value was commensurate with his salary. Temporarily, at least, I dismissed the warehouse manager.

“The chief of police—a decisive case. By nature he is an amphibian, accustomed to a diet of mollusks. His planet is marshy and dank. Contrast all this to his life here on Sclerotto. A wonder he is able to survive.

“I wondered about the postmaster—the multipede from Portmar’s Planet. His concept of luxury is a deep tank of warm oil, massage by little animals captured and trained for that purpose. This treatment bleaches the skin to a sandy beige. The postmaster’s skin is horny and brick-red, a sign of poverty and neglect.

“Consider the garbage collector. The human reaction to his way of life is disgust, contempt. We cannot believe that a creature wallowing in filth possesses subtle discriminations. However, I knew that the Golespods possess an internal sense of the most delicate precision. They exist by ingesting organic matter, allowing it to ferment under the action of bacteria in a series of stomachs, and the ensuing alcohol they oxidize for energy.

“Now the composition or quality of the organic raw materials is of no concern to the Golespod—garbage, protein waste, carrion, it’s all one, just as we ignore slight variations in the air we breathe. They derive their enjoyment not from these raw materials, but from the internal products—and to these ends, the variety and blends of bacteria in their stomachs is all-important.

“Over the course of thousands of years, the Golespods have become bacteriologists of an extremely high order. They have isolated millions of various types, created new strains, each invoking in them a different sensual response. The most prized strains are difficult to isolate and hence are expensive.

“When I learned this, I knew that the garbage collector was McInch. In his own mind he was in a supremely enviable position—surrounded by unlimited quantities of organic materials, able to afford the rarest, most enticing blends of bacteria.

“I learned from the postmaster that the Golespod indeed received a small parcel from every incoming mail-ship—these of course the bacteria he imported from his home planet, some fantastically expensive.”

Magnus Ridolph leaned back now, sipped his coffee, watching his wan host over the rim. Boek stirred. “How—how did he kill the two investigators then?” he asked. “And you said he tried to kill you.”

“Do you recall how he spat at me yesterday? When I returned to the Mission I examined the stain under your microscope. It was a thick blanket of dead bacteria. I could not identify them, but luckily my precautions had killed them.” He sipped his coffee, puffed his cigar. “Now, as for my fee, I believe you received instructions in that connection.”

Boek rose heavily, walked to his desk, returned with a check.

“Thank you,” said Magnus Ridolph, gazing at the figure. He tapped his fingers musingly on the table. “So Sclerotto City finds itself without a garbage collector…”

Boek scowled. “And no prospect of finding one. The city’ll stink worse than ever.”

Magnus Ridolph had been languidly stroking his beard, gazing thoughtfully into space. “No…I fancy that the profit would hardly repay the effort.”

“How’s that?” inquired Boek, blinking.

Magnus Ridolph roused himself from his reverie, dispassionately considered Boek, who was chewing his fingernails.

“Your dilemma aroused a train of thought.”


“In order to make money,” said Magnus Ridolph, “you must provide something that someone is willing to pay for. A self-evident statement? Not so. A surprising number of people are occupied selling objects and services no one wants. Very few are successful.”

“Yes,” said Boek patiently. “What’s that got to do with collecting garbage? Do you want the job? If you do, say so, and I’ll recommend you to the Mayor.”

Magnus Ridolph turned him a glance of mild reproach. “It occurred to me that 1012 Aurigae teems with Golespods any one of whom would pay for the privilege of filling the job.” He sighed, shook his head. “The profit of a single transaction would hardly justify the effort…A Commonwealth-wide employment service? It might be a venture of considerable profit.”


My brain, otherwise a sound instrument, has a serious defect—a hypertrophied lobe of curiosity.

—Magnus Ridolph


The afternoon breeze off Irremedial Ocean ruffling his beard, yellow Naos-light burnishing the side of his face, Magnus Ridolph gazed glumly across his newly-acquired plantation. So far, so good; in fact, too good to be true.

He shook his head, frowned. All Blantham’s representations had been corroborated by the evidence of his own eyes: three thousand acres of prime ticholama, ready for harvest; a small cottage, native-style, but furnished adequately; the ocean at his doorstep, the mountains in his backyard. Why had the price been so low?

“Is it possible,” mused Magnus Ridolph, “that Blantham is the philanthropist his acts suggest? Or does the ointment conceal a fly?” And Magnus Ridolph pulled at his beard with petulant fingers.

Now Naos slipped into Irremedial Ocean and lime-green evening flowed like syrup down out of the badlands which formed the northern boundary of the plantation. Magnus Ridolph half-turned in the doorway, glanced within. Chook, his dwarfish servant, was sweeping out the kitchen, grunting softly with each stroke of the broom. Magnus Ridolph stepped out into the green twilight, strolled down past the copter landing to the first of the knee-high ticholama bushes.

He froze in his tracks, cocked his head.

,” in a yelping chorus, wild and strange, drifted from across the field. Magnus Ridolph strained, squinted through the dusk. He could not be sure…It seemed that a tumult of dark shapes came boiling down from the badlands, vague sprawling things. Olive-green darkness settled across the land. Magnus Ridolph turned on his heel, stalked back to the cottage.

Magnus Ridolph had been resting quietly in his hotel—the Piedmont Inn of New Napoli, on Naos V—with no slightest inclination toward or prospect of an agricultural life. Then Blantham knocked and Magnus Ridolph opened the door.

Blantham’s appearance in itself was enough to excite interest. He was of early middle-age, of medium height, plump at the waist, wide at the hips, narrow at the shoulders. His forehead was pale and narrow, with eyes set fish-like, wide apart under the temples, the skin between them taut, barely dented by the bridge of his nose. He had wide jowls, a sparse black mustache, a fine white skin, the cheeks meshed, however, with minute pink lines.

He wore loose maroon corduroy trousers, in the ‘Praesepe Ranger’ style, a turquoise blouse with a diamond clasp, a dark blue cape, and beside Magnus Ridolph’s simple white and blue tunic he appeared somewhat overripe.

Magnus Ridolph blinked, like a delicate and urbane owl. “Ah, yes?”

“I’m Blantham,” said his visitor bluffly. “Gerard Blantham. We haven’t met before.”

Watching under his fine white eyebrows, Magnus Ridolph gestured courteously. “I believe not. Will you come in, have a seat?”

Blantham stepped into the room, flung back his cape. “Thank you,” he said. He seated himself on the edge of a chair, extended a case. “Cigarette?”

“Thank you.” Magnus Ridolph gravely helped himself. He inhaled, frowned, took the cigarette from his lips, examined it.

“Excuse me,” said Blantham, producing a lighter. “I sometimes forget. I never smoke self-igniters; I can detect the flavor of the chemical instantly, and it annoys me.”

“Unfortunate,” said Magnus Ridolph, after his cigarette was aglow. “My senses are not so precisely adjusted, and I find them extremely convenient. Now, what can I do for you?”

Blantham hitched at his trousers. “I understand,” he said looking archly upward, “that you’re interested in sound investment.”

“To a certain extent,” said Magnus Ridolph, inspecting Blantham through the smoke of his cigarette. “What have you to offer?”

“This.” Blantham reached in his pocket, produced a small white box. Magnus Ridolph, snapping back the top, found within a cluster of inch-long purple tubes, twisting and curling away from a central node. They were glossy, flexible, and interspersed with long pink fibers. He shook his head politely.

“I’m afraid I can’t identify the object.”

“It’s ticholama,” said Blantham. “Resilian in its natural state.”

“Indeed!” and Magnus Ridolph examined the purple cluster with new interest.

“Each of those tubes,” said Blantham, “is built of countless spirals of resilian molecules, each running the entire length of the tube. That’s the property, naturally, which gives resilian its tremendous elasticity and tensile strength.”

Magnus Ridolph touched the tubes, which quivered under his fingers. “And?”

Blantham paused impressively. “I’m selling an entire plantation, three thousand acres of prime ticholama ready to harvest.”

Magnus Ridolph blinked, handed back the box. “Indeed?” He rubbed his beard thoughtfully. “The holding is evidently on Naos Six.”

“Correct, sir. The only location which supports the growth of the ticholama.”

“And what is your price?”

“A hundred and thirty thousand munits.”

Magnus Ridolph continued to pull at his beard. “Is that a bargain? I know little of agriculture in general, ticholama in specific.”

Blantham moved his head solemnly. “It’s a giveaway. An acre produces a ton of ticholama. The selling price, delivered at Starport, is fifty-two munits a ton, current quotation. Freight, including all handling, runs about 21 munits a ton. And harvesting costs you about eight munits a ton. Expenses twenty-nine munits a ton, net profits, twenty-three munits a ton. On three thousand acres that’s sixty-nine thousand munits. Next year you’ve paid the land off, and after that you’re enjoying sheer profit.”

Magnus Ridolph eyed his visitor with new interest, the hyper-developed lobe in his brain making its influence felt. Was it possible that Blantham intended to play him—Magnus Ridolph—for a sucker? Could he conceivably be so optimistic, so ill-advised? “Your proposition,” said Magnus Ridolph aloud, “sounds almost too good to be true.”

Blantham blinked, stretching the skin across his nose even tauter. “Well, you see I own another thirty-five hundred acres. The plantation I’m offering for sale is half the Hourglass Peninsula, the half against the mainland. Taking care of the seaward half keeps me more than busy.

“And then, frankly, I need money quick. I had a judgment against me—copter crash, my young son driving. My wife’s eyes went bad. I had to pay for an expensive graft. Wasn’t covered by Med service, worse luck. And then my daughter’s away at school on Earth—St. Brigida’s, London. Terrible expense all around. I simply need quick money.”

Magnus Ridolph stared keenly at the man from beneath shaggy brows, and nodded. “I see,” he said. “You certainly have suffered an unfortunate succession of events. One hundred thirty thousand munits. A reasonable figure, if conditions are as you state?”

“They are indeed,” was Blantham’s emphatic reply.

“The ticholama is not all of first quality?” inquired Magnus Ridolph.

“On the contrary,” declared Blantham. “Every plant is in prime condition.”

” Magnus Ridolph chewed his lower lip. “I assume there are no living quarters.”

Blantham chortled, his lips rounded to a curious red O. “I forgot to mention the cottage. A fine little place, native-style, of course, but in A-One condition. Absolutely livable. I believe I have a photograph. Yes, here it is.”

Magnus Ridolph took the paper, saw a long building of gray and green slate—convex-gabled, with concave end-walls, a row of Gothic-arch openings. The field behind stretched rich purple out to the first crags of the badlands.

“Behind you’ll see part of the plantation,” said Blantham. “Notice the color? Deep dark purple—the best.”

,” said Magnus Ridolph. “Well, I’d have to furnish the cottage. That would run into considerable money.”

Blantham smilingly shook his head. “Not unless you’re the most sybaritic of sybarites. But I must guard against misrepresentation. The cottage is primitive in some respects. There is no telescreen, no germicide, no autolume. The power plant is small, there’s no cold cell, no laundromat. And unless you fly out a rado-cooker, you’d have to cook in pots over heating elements.”

Magnus Ridolph frowned, glanced sharply at Blantham. “I’d naturally hire a servant. The water? What arrangements, if any, exist?”

“An excellent still. Two hundred gallons a day.”

“That certainly seems adequate,” said Magnus Ridolph. He returned to the photograph. “What is this?” He indicated a patch in the field where one of the spurs from the badlands entered the field.

Blantham examined the photograph. “I really can’t say. Evidently a small area where the soil is poor. It seems to be minor in extent.”

Magnus Ridolph studied the photograph a minute longer, returned it. “You paint an arresting picture. I admit the possibility of doubling my principal almost immediately is one which I encounter rarely. If you’ll tick off your address on my transview, I’ll notify you tomorrow of my decision.”

Blantham rose. “I’ve a suite right here in the hotel, Mr. Ridolph. You can call me any time. I imagine that the further you look into my proposition, the more attractive you’ll find it.”

To Magnus Ridolph’s puzzlement, Blantham’s prediction was correct. When he mentioned the matter to Sam Quien, a friend in the brokerage business, Quien whistled, shook his head.

“Sounds like a steal. I’ll contract right now for the entire crop.”

Magnus Ridolph next obtained a quotation on freight rates from Naos VI to Starport, and frowned when the rate proved a half munit less per ton than Blantham’s estimate. By the laws of logic, somewhere there must be a flaw in the bargain. But where?

In the Labor Office he approached a window behind which stood a Fomalhaut V Rhodopian. “Suppose I want to harvest a field of ticholama on Naos Six,” said Magnus Ridolph. “What would be my procedure?”

The Rhodopian bobbed his head as he spoke. “You make arrangements on Naos Six,” he lisped. “In Garswan. Contractor, he fix all harvest. Very cheap, on Naos Six. Contractor he use many pickers, very cheap.”

“I see,” said Magnus Ridolph. “Thank you.”

He slowly returned to the hotel. At the mnemiphot in the reading room he verified Blantham’s statement that an acre of land yielded a ton of ticholama, which, when processed and the binding gums dissolved, yielded about five hundred pounds of resilian. He found further that the demand for resilian exceeded by far the supply.

He returned to his room, lay down on his bed, considered an hour. At last he stood up, called Blantham on the transview. “Mr. Blantham, I’ve provisionally decided to accept your offer.”

“Good, good!” came Blantham’s voice.

“Naturally, before finally consummating the sale, I wish to inspect the property.”

“Of course,” came the hearty response. “An interplanet ship leaves day after tomorrow. Will that suit you?”

“Very well indeed,” was Magnus Ridolph’s reply…

Blantham pointed. “That’s your plantation, there ahead, the entire first half of the peninsula. Mine is the second half, just over that cliff.”

Magnus Ridolph said nothing, peered through the copter window. Below them the badlands—arid crags, crevasses, rock-jumble—fell astern, and they flew out over Hourglass Peninsula. Beyond lay Irremedial Ocean, streaked and mottled red, blue, green, yellow by vast colonies of colored plankton.

They put down at the cottage. Magnus Ridolph alighted, walked to the edge of the field, bent over. The plants were thick, luxuriant, amply covered with clusters of purple tubes. Magnus Ridolph straightened, looked sidelong at Blantham, who had come up behind him.

“Beautiful, isn’t it?” said Blantham mildly.

Magnus Ridolph was forced to agree. Everything was beautiful. Blantham’s title was clear, so Magnus Ridolph had verified in Garswan. The harvester agreed to a figure of eight munits a ton, the work to begin immediately after he had finished Blantham’s field. In short, the property at the price seemed an excellent buy. And yet—

Magnus Ridolph took another look across the field. “That patch of poor soil seems larger than it appeared in the photograph.”

Blantham made a deprecatory noise in his nose. “I can hardly see how that is possible.”

Magnus Ridolph stood quietly a moment, the nostrils of his long distinguished nose slightly distended. Abruptly he pulled out his checkbook. “Your check, sir.”

“Thank you. I have the deed and the release in my pocket. I’ll just sign it and the property’s yours.”

Blantham politely took his leave in the copter and Magnus Ridolph was left on the plantation in the gathering dusk. And then—the wild yelling from across the field, the vaguely seen shapes, pelting against the afterglow. Magnus Ridolph returned into the cottage.

He looked into the kitchen, to become acquainted with his servant Chook, a barrel-shaped anthropoid from the Garswan Highlands. Chook had gray lumpy skin, boneless rope-like arms, eyes round and bottle-green, a mouth hidden somewhere behind flabby folds of skin. Magnus Ridolph found him standing with head cocked to the distant yelping.

“Ah, Chook,” said Magnus Ridolph. “What have you prepared for our dinner?”

BOOK: The Potter of Firsk and Other Stories
5.67Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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