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The Last Master, Page 2

Gordon R. Dickson

  “Now wait a minute,” said Ett. “I may be on basic allowance, but I own an oceangoing sloop—”

  “My dear Mr. Ho,” said the physician—there was a slight turn at the corner of her mouth—“if you owned a forty-meter yacht you might have trouble meeting the costs of such an operation. Do you realize what’s involved here? Not merely the mechanical requirements, which amount to the use of a small hospital in themselves—but the fees for a team of six to ten physicians and technicians, each one an expert in some particular area, from anaesthesiology to terminal states—plus subordinate medical personnel.”

  “How much?”

  “There’s no way to tell.”

  “Give me an outside figure.”

  “There is no outside figure,” she answered. “I’ll make a guess at a minimum for you, if you like—three hundred thousand Gross World Product units.”

  Ett looked at her across the empty expanse of the desk. He had worked for six years, more or less steadily, while living at a bare subsistence level, to buy the Pixie, as his sloop was named. She was worth at most fifteen thousand GWP units, and his citizen’s basic allowance was under a hundred units a month.

  “So you see, Mr. Ho,” said the physician, after a silence. “You see how it is.”

  But Ett had not yet seen…

  The official assumption that nothing could be done for Wally finished the work that the news of his death had begun. Something had penetrated his protective façade and, reaching deep into him, had set loose the buried, unyielding self that had always been there.

  Through the break in the shell of his outer being had erupted the flames of those ancient, grim fires of decision inherited from his great-grandfather. From hidden volcanic depths had come the antagonism he had spent twenty-four years denying. He had done his best to leave the world alone; but it had chosen to seek him out, with this destruction of his brother. Now, that world must be made to repair the damage it had done, and in the same unsparing, equal measure in which it had meted out its consequences to Wally.

  This full reaction had not come upon Ett in one leap. It had only begun to grow as he had started checking on what the physician had told him, about the practical impossibilities of Wally’s revival. His first awareness that, if anything, she had been understating the problems of returning Wally to life had come from a Mr. Lehon Wessel, the local underofficial of the World Bank, in Hilo, to whom Ett had gone to arrange financing for the medical costs of the revivification.

  “I’m afraid it’s a problem,” said Lehon Wessel. He was a thick-bodied, long-legged man in his late thirties, with hair bleached and skin burned red by the sun. His voice was soft and regretful. “Your assets and your income simply don’t suggest the means to support the expense of your brother’s operation.”

  “I know that,” said Ett impatiently. “I knew that before I came in here. But aren’t there compassionate grants or special funds from the World Economic Council that could help me out or that I could borrow from?”

  Lehon Wessel smiled sadly.

  “Of course there are,” he answered. “But it’s a complicated matter, getting monetary support from them. And to be frank with you, Mr. Ho, in your case any effort like that would be wasted from the start. Such funds are intended for the exceptional situation and the exceptional individual.

  “If it’s not an exceptional case to have a man commit suicide because of a bad reaction to RIV, what is?” demanded Ett. “That bad a reaction’s an exception all by itself. It’s as uncommon as the freak good one that makes an R-Master. And how many R-Masters are there? One in a few tens of millions of the people who try RIV.”

  “Of course,” said Lehon Wessel.

  “Well?” said Ett. “Can I apply for the funds, or can’t I?”

  “You can fill out an application,” said Wessel.

  He gave Ett a thick sheaf of printout forms to be filled in. Ett took them back with him to the hotel where he was staying and discovered that he was required to be an expert not only on his own personal history, but on Wally’s. He called up Wessel to protest.

  “What is this?” demanded Ett. “Ninety-nine percent of this information’s already available in Wally’s files and mine, in the Council’s central data bank!”

  “Of course,” said Wessel. “But regulations require the applicant make out these forms. I’m sorry.”

  So Ett laboriously filled out the forms and returned them to the appropriate offices. After a wait of nearly two weeks, he was called in by a man who was Wessel’s immediate superior.

  “Come now, Mr. Ho,” said the superior, leaning forward confidentially across his desk. He was a lean, smooth man with neatly trimmed brown hair and a smile that seemed to go and come on cue. “You surely don’t want to try to push through these requests for funds? I’m not here to discourage anyone, of course, but in your own interest I’ve got to tell you that your chances of success with this just aren’t there. Assistance from these sources is reserved only for those obviously deserving.”

  “My brother isn’t deserving?” Ett stared at him. “It was in an effort to make himself more useful to the world that he had the bad reaction from the RIV that led to his suicide.”

  “Oh, of course—your brother!” said the other man. “But it isn’t your brother who’s the applicant here. It’s you. And to be frank, Mr. Ho, nothing in your life record shows any promise that you’d ever be able to repay, or justify a free grant of the amount of EC funds you’re after.”

  “What about Wally’s value, once he’s revived?”

  “But we don’t know that he’ll be of any value, Mr. Ho.” He picked up a paper from the far side of his desk and glanced over it. “The medical opinion I’ve got here is very doubtful of returning him to any kind of useful state in mind and body. Of course, he’d still be deserving, except that he’s presently in an effectively noncitizenship state.”

  “Then suppose I apply in his name?” said Ett.

  The man looked up in something resembling a state of shock.

  “Oh, you can’t do that!” he said. “Not as long as your relationship’s close enough to make you responsible. A sibling or a parent automatically becomes guardian for anyone in a cryogenic state where revival is possible. As guardian, you have to apply for aid on your own values as a citizen, not on those of your ward.”

  “All right,” said Ett. “Then I so apply.”

  The other sighed.

  “If you insist,” he said. “I’ll put these applications of yours through. But I must warn you not to expect very fruitful results. Why don’t you talk to your ombudsman, or ombudswoman?”

  “I will,” said Ett.

  And he did.

  For the forecast he had been given turned out to be quite correct. His application was turned down. So he found himself an ombudsman, one of those individuals who were supposed to help the ordinary citizen in his tangles with official red tape. But the ombudsman was, it seemed, as pessimistic as everyone else had been.

  “We can appeal, of course,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be doing my duty to you if I didn’t tell you you’ve got damn-all chance…”

  So they appealed.

  They appealed to the Regional Authority, and were turned down. They appealed again to a review board, and were again turned down. Finally they flew to Kansas City to appeal before the Northwest Quadrant Court. Their appeal was denied. As they left the building, Ett asked the ombudsman about the next step.

  “We can go on,” said the ombudsman. “We can keep this up for years, if you like—there are plenty of boards and courts and authorities and so on. There are just no end of appeals and requests for review you can make.”

  He paused as they climbed into an autocab for the ride back to the airport.

  “But I have to tell you,” he said, leaning back as the cab moved off and loosening a tight cuff of his court dress, “you could grow old at this, still getting nowhere. Ett, the problem’s with you, not with the regulations. You’ve never shown
them any potential social worth. You’re like a man without a credit rating trying to borrow from a lending institution. Take my advice. Give up. Or—”

  The ombudsman hesitated.

  “Or what?” prompted Ett.

  The man sighed.

  “Or go out right now, find yourself an occupation, and start working your way up in the active ranks of society,” he said. “Maybe in five years, or ten, you’ll have climbed to a position of social usefulness where they’ll listen to your request for funds. Meanwhile, since he’s in cryogenic suspension, the time won’t mean a thing to your brother.”

  Ett looked at the other man, a bland expression on his face.

  “But you don’t really think I’ll do that?” he said.

  The ombudsman shook his head.

  “No, of course not,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t point it out to you as a course that’s open to you.”

  “I’m obliged to you,” said Ett. “Because as a matter of fact that’s exactly what I’m planning to do.” He turned his head away from the startled ombudsman. “And I might even make it in less than five or ten years.”

  “You mustn’t get your hopes up,” the other said.

  “It’s not hope I’m thinking of dealing in,” replied Ett.

  When their plane landed back in Hawaii, Ett left the man. Actually, in the back of his mind he had been making his plans for some weeks now. It had become clear to him some time ago that if he was going to win over the masters of the red-tape jungle in which he—and Wally—were trapped, he must at least pretend to join their game. The bureaucracy owned the ballgame, and would fight him to the death unless he played their game by their rules. And if he did play the game with them, he was sure that he would win—because they, being what they all were, were absolutely bound to play by the rules—whereas he had certain advantages that he would not hesitate to use against them.

  As a very young boy, he had become aware that those who let their abilities show were pressured to use them. In his struggle to control his fiery temper and hide that inner self that wanted to fight every opposing force, it seemed to him that the best thing to do was hide himself from that pressure, too, as he hid from all else. And so even in primary school he had learned to keep his score on tests well below what it might have been if he had wanted to do his best. Wally, on the other hand, had not held back; Wally had consistently made good scores—though not near the genius level, to be sure. Secretly, Ett knew himself to be a good deal more than his brother’s mental equal, but he had successfully hidden much of that from the records of the world about them.

  Now, that restraint would pay off. It gave him a secret edge to play with in this game with a bureaucracy that seemed to hold all the cards. He had foreseen the ombudsman’s suggestion and waited for the other to make it. Now, as if trapped by it, he would proceed to take the same RIV injection that had ruined Wally. It was a gamble, admittedly, but the odds were all on his side. The chance of two disastrous results from that drug in the same family must be statistically so tiny as to approach nonexistence. For the rest, the kind of a small loss or gain in I.Q. that more commonly took place would be unimportant. A small loss would not matter much; a small gain would be all to the good.

  The point was that by taking the drug he would certify to the red-tape society his determination to make something of himself in its own terms. In addition, by showing a good slice of his hitherto hidden ability after his treatment, he could claim that he’d undergone a rise in intellectual capacity from the drug, a claim no one could dispute. That would allay suspicion about his sudden blossoming; and with that much to go on, plus bluff when necessary, simple hard work and a grim determination to take any means to power should move him swiftly up the work-ladder.

  In the end, he would get what he wanted for Wally, from this system that valued position so highly…

  “—Mr. Ho!”

  It was Carwell talking. Ett had almost forgotten he was still in the RIV clinic, waiting for signs of effect from the drug.

  “How do you feel?” Carwell asked. “All right?”

  Ett nodded.

  “Well, then,” said the physician. “The immediate period when reaction might be expected has passed. Let’s get you back to the preparation room.”

  He reached out and touched the table controls near Ett’s head. The grav table rose slightly into the air and floated out the way it had come, the door to the corridor opening automatically before it. The supports behind and around Ett’s head and neck fell back, leaving him free to move his head again.

  “I’ll come with you, of course,” said Dr. Carwell.

  He followed the programmed path of the table’s motive machinery, back to the preparation room, where Ett’s clothes waited for him, neatly on hangers.

  “You still feel exactly the same?” Carwell asked.

  “That’s right,” said Ett.

  “You can get up and dress, then,” said the physician. He watched as Ett did so, asking twice again if Ett felt a reaction of any sort.

  “I thought,” said Ett, as he pressed shut the closure slit on his shirtfront and prepared to leave the room, “you didn’t expect anything like that so soon?”

  “No physical reaction, of course,” said Carwell. “Probably never. But you might be noticing some mental alterations—anything at all, including mild hallucinations.”

  Ett walked out. Dr. Carwell went with him, stripping off the gown and dropping it in a laundry cart as they walked, along with his mask and cap. They both headed down a short stretch of white corridor toward the lobby of the clinic.

  “Not even those,” said Ett. He looked sideways at Carwell, who was fully as tall as he was and must weigh over a hundred and thirty kilos. “It’s not taking?”

  “Too early to say that,” Carwell answered. “It’s only a large percentage, not all, of our patients who show a reaction during the first few minutes after treatment. In fact, you must have been told by whoever talked to you before I did that there’s no telling. Reaction can come any time, up to several weeks later, gradually or suddenly, any way. It can even come in more than one increment.”

  “It seems to me,” said Ett, “I heard that strong positive reactions usually come suddenly, and soon.”

  “A majority of them, a majority of them,” said Dr. Carwell. They were approaching the admitting desk, and the physician spoke to the receptionist on duty there. “Mr. Ho’s chart, please. I’ll sign him out.”

  He turned to the white-clad male attendant standing by the desk.

  “Looks like we won’t need you, after all, Tom,” he said. “Mr. Ho has had a fine, uneventful response to treatment. Wait. On second thought, you’d better just walk with him to his vehicle, to make sure.”

  He turned back to Ett and offered his hand.

  “Well, Mr. Ho,” he said, as they shook, “you’d better take it easy physically for the next twenty-four hours, just on general principles. Call us right away, of course, if you feel any unusual sensations, mental or physical. And check back with me three days from now, at this time. Say one p.m., Thursday?”

  Ett nodded, and turned.

  “You really don’t need to come out with me,” he said to Tom. “I can find my way to an autocar by myself.”

  “No trouble,” said the attendant. “And it’s regulations. When you come back on Thursday, check in with the lobby desk here and ask for me—Tom Janus. I’ll come get you then, too.”

  He led the way to the front of the lobby and the transparent glass doors there parted before them.

  “See you Thursday, then,” Tom said.

  “Yes, thanks,” answered Ett, and stepped out to the autocar rank. Settled in one of the vehicles, he told it to take him to the Dancing Waters Hotel, and then sat back against the cushions as it pulled away from the clinic. He would rather have returned to stay on board the Pixie as he normally did, for reasons of his own preferences as well as his finances; but the conditions under which RIV w
as given required he spend the next three days in a nearby hotel where the rooms had been equipped to monitor his physical state at all times, and this was one expense which the public grant that paid for the treatment did not cover.

  The cost of the hotel was a relatively large expense in terms of Ett’s meager savings; but it could not be helped. In any case, cost was beside the point now that he was committed. He stood leaning on the railing of the little balcony attached to his minisuite, watching the sunlight slanting across the green island landscape.

  Pixie would have to be sold. There was no other way to raise a fund of immediately available credit in the amount he might need to help him rise in the world; and it was almost a foregone conclusion that somewhere along the way a situation would crop up in which a chunk of credit, instantly available to him, would make possible a leap up that would not be available to him otherwise. The decision to sell the boat was like a decision to part with a living creature; but the hard determination now let loose inside him overrode the pain of parting with her the same way he could trust it to override all other pains that might stand between him and his goal. The loss of Pixie, in fact, now functioned in him as a reinforcement to his commitment, a price that, once paid, must guarantee delivery—and would guarantee his determination.

  The sun extinguished itself, with tropical swiftness, before he left the balcony. He turned from it and went down to eat in the hotel’s busiest dining room.


  During the next two days he stayed in his room, mostly studying data received over an open phone connection to the local library computers—data on the larger intercontinental consortiums of expediters. These organizations were the largest in the world not directly under control of the bureaucracy itself; and they existed because they served to provide flexible, human interfacing between individuals and the machinery of the bureaucracy itself. In brief, they trained and supplied specialists, from technicians like the woman who had arranged his taking of the RIV treatment in the clinic he had just left, to the highest-priced consultants and ombudsworkers—individuals who found their function midway between citizens like himself and the direct employees of the bureaucracy, such as Dr. Carwell, or the attendant, Tom Janus. Each such consortium of expediters, of course, had its own organizational machinery, and it was possible, within such structures, to climb to a fairly high executive rank.