THE PRESERVING MACHINE
TOP STAND-BY JOB
AN HOUR BEFORE his morning program on channel six, ranking news clown Jim Briskin sat in his private office with his production staff, conferring on the report of an unknown and possibly hostile flotilla detected at eight hundred astronomical units from the sun. It was big news, of course. But how should it be presented to his several-billion viewers scattered over three planets and seven moons?
Peggy Jones, his secretary, lit a cigarette and said, "Don't alarm them, Jim-Jam. Do it folksy-style." She leaned back, riffled the dispatches received by their commercial station from Unicephalon 40-D's teletypers.
It had been the homeostatic problem-solving structure Unicephalon 40-D at the White House in Washington D.C. which had detected this possible external enemy; in its capacity as President of the United States it had at once dispatched ships of the line to stand picket duty. The flotilla appeared to be entering from another solar system entirely, but that fact of course would have to be determined by the picket ships.
"Folksy-style," Jim Briskin said glumly. "I grin and say, Hey look, comrades-it's happened at last, the thing we all feared, ha ha." He eyed her. "That'll get baskets full of laughs all over the Earth and Mars but just possibly not on the far-out moons." Because if there were some kind of attack it would be the farther colonists who would be hit first.
"No, they won't be amused," his continuity advisor Ed Fineberg agreed. He, too, looked worried; he had a family on Ganymede.
"Is there any lighter piece of news?" Peggy asked. "By which you could open your program? The sponsor would like that." She passed the armload of news dispatches to Briskin. "See what you can do. Mutant cow obtains voting franchise in court case in Alabama ... you know."
"I know," Briskin agreed as he began to inspect the dispatches. One such as his quaint account-it had touched the hearts of millions-of the mutant blue jay which learned, by great trial and effort, to sew. It had sewn itself and its progeny a nest, one April morning, in Bismarck, North Dakota, in front of the T.V. cameras of Briskin's network.
One piece of news stood out; he knew intuitively, as soon as he saw it, that here he had what he wanted to lighten the dire tone of the day's news. Seeing it, he relaxed. The worlds went on with business as usual, despite this great newsbreak from eight hundred a.u.'s onto
"Look," he said, grinning. "Old Gus Schatz is dead. Finally."
"Who's Gus Schatz?" Peggy asked, puzzled. "That name ... it does sound familiar."
"The union man," Jim Briskin said. "You remember. The stand-by President, sent over to Washington by the union twenty-two years ago. He's dead, and the union-" He tossed her the dispatch; it was lucid and brief. "Now it's sending a new stand-by President over to take Schatz' place. I think I'll interview him. Assuming he can talk."
"That's right," Peggy said. "I keep forgetting. There still is a human stand-by in case Unicephalon fails. Has it ever failed?"
"No," Ed Fineberg said. "And it never will. So we have one more case of union featherbedding. The plague of our society."
"But still," Jim Briskin said, "people would be amused. The home life of the top stand-by in the country ... why the union picked him, what his hobbies are. What this man, whoever he is, plans to do during his term to keep from going mad with boredom. Old Gus learned to bind books; he collected rare old motor magazines and bound them in vellum with gold-stamped lettering."
Both Ed and Peggy nodded in agreement. "Do that," Peggy urged him. "You can make it interesting, Jim-Jam; you can make anything interesting. I'll place a call to the White House, or is the new man there yet?"
"Probably still at union headquarters in Chicago," Ed said. "Try a line there. Government Civil Servants' Union, East Division."
Picking up the phone, Peggy quickly dialed.
At seven o'clock in the morning Maximilian Fischer sleepily heard noises; he lifted his head from the pillow, heard the confusion growing in the kitchen, the landlady's shrill voice, then men's voices which were unfamiliar to him. Groggily, he managed to sit up, shifting his bulk with care. He did not hurry; the doc had said not to overexert, because of the strain on his already-enlarged heart. So he took his time dressing.
Must be after a contribution to one of the funds, Max said to himself. It sounds like some of the fellas. Pretty early, though. He did not feel alarmed. I'm in good standing, he thought firmly. Nuthin to fear.
With care, he buttoned a fine pink and green-striped silk shirt, One of his favorites. Gives me class, he thought as with labored effort he managed to bend far enough to slip on his authentic simulated deerskin pumps. Be ready to meet them on an equality level, he thought as he smoothed his thinning hair before the mirror. If they shake me down too much I'll squawk directly to Pat Noble at the Noo York hiring hall; I mean, I don't have to stand for any stuff, I been in the union too long.
From the other room a voice bawled, "Fischer-get your clothes on and come out. We got a job for you and it begins today."
A job, Max thought with mixed feelings; he did not know whether to be glad or sorry. For over a year now he had been drawing from the union fund, as were most of his friends. Well what do you know. Cripes, he thought; suppose it's a hard fob, like maybe I got to bend over all the time or move around. He felt anger. What a dirty deal. I mean, who do they think they are? Opening the door, he faced them. "Listen," he began, but one of the union officials cut him off.
"Pack your things, Fischer. Gus Schatz kicked the bucket and you got to go down to Washington D.C. and take over the number one stand-by; we want you there before they abolish the position or something and we have to go out On strike or go to court. Mainly, we want to get someone right in clean and easy with no trouble; you understand? Make the transition so smooth that no one hardly takes notice."
At once, Max said, "What's it pay?"
Witheringly, the union official said, "You got no decision to make in this; you're picked. You want your freeloader fund-money cut off? You want to have to get out at your age and look for work?"
"Aw come on," Max protested. "I can pick up the phone and dial Pat Noble-"
The union officials were grabbing up objects here and there in the apartment. "We'll help you pack. Pat wants you in the White House by ten o'clock this morning."
"Pat!" Max echoed. He had been sold out.
The union officials, dragging suitcases from the closet, grinned.
Shortly, they were on their way across the flatlands of the Midwest by monorail. Moodily, Maximilian Fischer watched the countryside flash past; he said nothing to the officials flanking him, preferring to mull the matter over and over in his mind. What could he recall about the number one stand-by job? It began at 8:00 A.M.-he recalled reading that. And there always were a lot of tourists flocking through the White House to catch a glimpse of Unicephalon 40-D, especially the school kids ... and he disliked kids because they always jeered at him due to his weight. Cripes, he'd have a million of them filing by, because he had to be on the premises. By law, he had to be within a hundred yards of Unicephalon 40-D at all times, day and night, or was it fifty yards? Anyhow it practically was right on top, so if the homeostatic problem-solving system failed- Maybe I better bone up on this, he decided. Take a TV educational course on government administration, just in case.
To the union official on his right, Max asked, ''Listen, goodmember, do I have any powers in this job you guys got me? I mean, can I --"
"It's a union job like every other union job," the official answered wearily. "You sit. You stand by. Have you been out of work that long, you don't remember?" He laughed, nudging his companion. "Listen, Fischer here wants to know what authority the job entails." Now both men laughed. "I tell you what, Fischer," the official drawled. "When you're all set up there in the White House, when you got your chair and bed and made all your arrangements for meals and laundry and TV viewing time, why don't you amble over to Unicephalon 40-D and just sort of whine around there, you know, scratch and whine, until it notices you."
"Layoff," Max muttered.
"And then," the official continued, "you sort of say, Hey Unicephalon, listen. I'm your buddy. How about a little 'I scratch your back, you scratch mine.' You pass an ordinance for me-"
"But what can he do in exchange?" the other union official asked.
"Amuse it. He can tell it the story of his life, how he rose out of poverty and obscurity and educated himself by watching TV seven days a week until finally, guess what, he rose all the way to the top; he got the job-" The official snickered. "Of stand-by President."
Maximilian, flushing, said nothing; he stared woodenly out of the monorail window.
When they reached Washington D.C. and the White House, Maximilian Fischer was shown a little room. It had belonged to Gus, and although the faded old motor magazines had been cleared out, a few prints remained tacked on the walls: a 1963 Volvo S-122, a 1957 Peugeot 403 and other antique classics of a bygone age. And, On a bookcase, Max saw a hand-carved plastic model of a 1950 Studebaker Starlight coupe, with each detail perfect.
"He was making that when he croaked," one of the union officials said as he set down Max's suitcase. "He could tell you any fact there is about those old pre-turbine cars-any useless bit of car knowledge."
"You got any idea what you're going to do?" the official asked him.
"Aw hell," Max said, "how could r decide so soon? Give me time." Moodily, he picked up the Studebaker Starlight coupe and examined its underside. The desire to smash the model car came to him; he put the car down, then, turned away.
"Make a rubber band ball," the official said.
"What?" Max said. "The stand-by before Gus. Louis somebody-or-other ... he collected rubber bands, made a huge ball, big as a house, by the time he died. I forget his name, but the rubber band ball is at the Smithsonian now."
There was a stir in the hallway. A White House receptionist, a middle-aged woman severely dressed, put her head in the room and said, "Mr. President, there's a TV news clown here to interview you. Please try to finish with him as quickly as possible because we have quite a few tours passing through the building today and some may want to look at you."
"Okay," Max said. He turned to face the TV news clown. It was Jim-Jam Briskin, he saw, the ranking clown just now. ''You want to see me?" he asked Briskin haltingly. "I mean, you're sure it's me you want to interview?" He could not imagine what Briskin could find of interest about him. Holding out his hand he added, "This is my room, but these model cars and pics aren't mine; they were Gus'. I can't tell you nuthin about them."
On Briskin's head the familiar flaming-red clown wig glowed, giving him in real life the same bizarre cast that the TV cameras picked up so well. He was older, however, than the TV image indicated, but he had the friendly, natural smile that everyone looked for: it was his badge of informality, a really nice guy, even-tempered but with a caustic wit when occasion demanded. Briskin was the sort of man who ... well, Max thought, the sort of fella you'd like to see marry into your family.
They shook hands. Briskin said, "You're on camera, Mr. Max Fischer. Or rather, Mr. President, I should say. This is Jim-Jam talking. For our literally billions of viewers located in every niche and comer of this far-flung solar system of ours, let me ask you this. How does it feel sir, to know that if Unicephalon 40-D should fail, even momentarily, you would be catapulted. into the most important post that has ever fallen onto the shoulders of a human being, that of actual, not merely stand-by, President of the United States? Does it worry you at night?" He smiled. Behind him the camera technicians swung their mobile lenses back and forth; lights burned Max's eyes and he felt the heat beginning to make him sweat under his arms and on his neck and upper lip. "What emotions grip you at this instant?" Briskin asked. "As you stand on the threshold of this new task for perhaps the balance of your life? What thoughts run through your mind, now that you're actually here in the White House?"
After a pause, Max said, "It's-a big responsibility." And then he realized, he saw, that Briskin was laughing at him, laughing silently as he stood there. Because it was all a gag Briskin was pulling. Out in the planets and moons his audiences knew it, too; they knew Jim-Jam's humor.
"You're a large man, Mr. Fischer," Briskin said. "If I may say so, a stout man. Do you get much exercise? I ask this because with your new job you pretty well will be confined to this room, and I wondered what change in your life this would bring about."
"Well," Max said, "I feel of course that a Government employee should always be at his post. Yes, what you say is true; I have to be right here day and night, but that doesn't bother me. I'm prepared for it."
"Tell me," Jim Briskin said, "do you-" And then he ceased. Turning to the video technicians behind him he said in an odd voice, "We're off the air."
A man wearing headphones squeezed forward past the cameras. "On the monitor, listen." He hurriedly handed the headphones to Briskin. "We've been pre-empted by Unicephalon; it's broadcasting a news bulletin."
Briskin held the phones to his ear. His face writhed and he said, "Those ships at eight hundred a.u.'s. They are hostile, it says." He glanced up sharply at his technicians, the red clown's wig sliding askew. "They've begun to attack."
Within the following twenty-four hours the aliens had managed not only to penetrate the Sol System but also to knock out Unicephalon 40-D.
News of this reached Maximilian Fischer in an indirect manner as he sat in the White House cafeteria having his supper.
"Mr. Maximilian Fischer?"
"Yeah," Max said, glancing up at the group of Secret Servicemen who had surrounded his table.
"You're President of the United States."
"Naw," Max said, "I'm the stand-by President; that's different."
The Secret Serviceman said, "Unicephalon 40-D is out of commission for perhaps as long as a month. So according to the amended Constitution, you're President and also Commander-in- Chief of the armed forces. We're here to guard you." The Secret Serviceman grinned ludicrously. Max grinned back. "Do you understand?" the Secret Serviceman asked. ''I mean, does it penetrate?"
"Sure," Max said. Now he understood the buzz of conversation he had overheard while waiting in the cafeteria line with his tray. It explained why White House personnel had looked at him strangely. He set down his coffee cup, wiped his mouth with his napkin, slowly and deliberately, pretended to be absorbed in solemn thought. But actually his mind was empty.
"We've been told," the Secret Serviceman said, "that you're needed at once at the National Security Council bunker. They want your participation in finalization of strategy deliberations."
They walked from the cafeteria to the elevator.
"Strategy policy," Max said, as they descended. "I got a few opinions about that. I guess it's time to deal harshly with these alien ships, don't you agree?" The Secret Servicemen nodded. "Yes, we got to show we're not afraid," Max said. "Sure, we'll get finalization; we'll blast the buggers."
The Secret Servicemen laughed good-naturedly.
Pleased, Max nudged the leader of the group. "I think we're pretty goddam strong; I mean, the U.S.A. has got teeth."
''You tell 'em, Max," One of the Secret Servicemen said, and they all laughed aloud, Max included.
As they stepped from the elevator they were stopped by a tall, well-dressed man who said urgently, "Mr. President, I'm Jonathan Kirk, White House press secretary; I think before you go in there to confer with the NSC people you should address the nation in this hour of gravest peril. The public wants to see what their new leader is like." He held out several sheets of paper. ''Here's a statement drawn up by the Political Advisory Board; it codifies your-"
"Nits," Max said, handing it back without looking at it. "I'm the President, not you. I don't even know you. Kirk? Burke? Shirk? Never heard of you. Show me the microphone and I'll make my own speech. Or get me Pat Noble; maybe he's got some ideas." And then he remembered that Pat had sold him out in the first place; Pat had gotten him into this. "Not him either," Max said. "Just give me the microphone."
"This is a time of crisis," Kirk grated.
"Sure," Max said, "so leave me alone; you keep out of my way and I'll keep out of yours. Ain't that right?" He slapped Kirk good- naturedly on the hack. "And we'll both be better off."
A group of people with portable TV cameras and lighting appeared, and among them Max saw Jim-Jam Briskin, in the middle, with his staff.
"Hey, Jim-Jam," he yelled. "Look, I'm President now!"
Stolidly, Jim Briskin came toward him.
"I'm not going to be winding no hall of string," Max said. "Or making model boats, nuthin like that." He shook hands warmly with Briskin. "I thank you," Max said. "For your congratulations."
"Congratulations," Briskin said, then, in a low voice.
"Thanks," Max said, squeezing the man's hand until the knuckles creaked. "Of course, sooner or later they'll get that noisebox patched up and I'll just be stand-by again. But-" He grinned gleefully around at all of them; the corridor was full of people now, from TV to White House staff members to Army officers and Secret Servicemen, all kinds of people.
Briskin said, "You have a big task, Mr. Fischer."
"Yeah," Max agreed.
Something in Briskin's eyes said: And I wonder if you can handle it. I wonder if you're the man to hold such power.
"Sure I can do it," Max declared, into Briskin's microphone, for all the vast audience to hear.
"Possibly you can," Jim Briskin said, and on his face was dubiousness.
"Hey, you don't like me any more," Max said. "How come?"
Briskin said nothing, but his eyes flickered.
"Listen," Max said, "I'm President now; I can close down your silly network-I can send FBI men in any time I want. For your information I'm firing the Attorney General right now, whatever his name is, and putting in a man I know, a man I can trust."
Briskin said, "I see." And now he looked less dubious; conviction, of a sort which Max could not fathom, began to appear instead. "Yes," Jim Briskin said, "you have the authority to order that, don't you? If you're really President... ."
"Watch out," Max said. "You're nothing compared to me, Briskin, even if you do have that great big audience." Then, turning his back on the cameras, he strode through the open door, into the NSC bunker.
Hours later, in the early morning, down in the National Security Council subsurface bunker, Maximilian Fischer listened sleepily to the TV set in the background as it yammered out the latest news. By now, intelligence sources had plotted the arrival of thirty more alien ships in the Sol System. It was believed that seventy in all had entered. Each was being continually tracked.
But that was not enough, Max knew. Sooner or later he would have to give the order to attack the alien ships. He hesitated. After all, who were they? Nobody at CIA knew. How strong were they? Not known either. And-would the attack be successful?
And then there were domestic problems. Unicephalon had continually tinkered with the economy, priming it when necessary, cutting taxes, lowering interest rates ... that had ceased with the problem-solver's destruction. Jeez, Max thought dismally. What do I know about unemployment? I mean, how can I tell what factories to reopen and where?
He turned to General Tompkins, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who sat beside him examining a report on the scrambling of the tactical defensive ships protecting Earth. ''They got all them ships distributed right?" he asked Tompkins.
"Yes, Mr. President," General Tompkins answered.
Max winced. But the general did not seem to have spoken ironically; his tone had been respectful. "Okay," Max murmured. "Glad to hear that. And you got all that missile cloud up so there're no leaks, like you let in that ship to blast Unicephalon. I don't want that to happen again."
"We're under Defcon one," General Tompkins said. "Full war footing, as of six o'clock, our time."
"How about those strategic ships?" That, he had learned, was the euphemism for their offensive strike-force.
"We can mount an attack at any time," General Tompkins said, glancing down the long table to obtain the assenting nods of his co- workers. "We can take care of each of the seventy invaders now within our system."
With a groan, Max said, "Anybody got any bicarb?" The whole business depressed him. What a lot of work and sweat, he thought. All this goddam agitation-why don't the buggers just leave our system? I mean, do we have to get into a war? No telling what their home system will do in retaliation; you never can tell about unhuman life forms-they're unreliable.
"That's what bothers me," he said aloud. "Retaliation." He sighed.
General Tompkins said, "Negotiation with them evidently is impossible."
"Go ahead, then," Max said. "Go give it to them." He looked about for the bicarb.
"I think you're making a wise choice," General Tompkins said, and, across the table, the civilian advisors nodded in agreement.
"Here's an odd piece of news," one of the advisors said to Max. He held out a teletype dispatch. "James Briskin has just filed a writ of mandamus against you in a Federal Court in California, claiming you're not legally President because you didn't run for office."
"You mean because I didn't get voted in?" Max said. "Just because of that?"
"Yes sir. Briskin is asking the Federal Courts to rule on this, and meanwhile he has announced his own candidacy."
"Briskin claims not only that you must run for office and be voted in, but you must run against him. And with his popularity he evidently feels-"
"Aw nuts," Max said in despair. "How do you like that."
There was silence in the bunker.
"Well anyhow," Max said, "ifs all decided; you military fellas go ahead and knock out those alien ships. And meanwhile-" He decided there and then. "We'll put economic pressure on Jim-Jam's sponsors, that Reinlander beer and Calbest Electronics, to get him not to run."
The men at the long table nodded. Papers rattled as briefcases were put away; the meeting-temporarily-was at an end.
He's got an unfair advantage, Max said to himself. How can I run when it's not equal, him a famous TV personality and me not? That's not right; I can't allow that.
Jim-Jam can run, he decided, but it won't do him any good. He's not going to beat me because he's not going to be alive that long.
A week before the election, Telscan, the interplanetary public-opinion sampling agency, published its latest findings. Reading them, Maximilian Fischer felt more gloomy than ever.
"Look at this," he said to his cousin Leon Lait, the lawyer whom he had recently made Attorney General. He tossed the report to him.
His own showing of course was negligible. In the election, Briskin would easily, and most definitely, win.
"Why is that?" Lait asked. Like Max, he was a large, paunchy man who for years now had held a stand-by job; he was not used to physical activity of any sort and his new position was proving difficult for him. However, out of family loyalty to Max, he remained. "Is that because he's got all those TV stations?" he asked, sipping from his can of beer.
Max said cuttingly, "Naw, it's because his navel glows in the dark. Of course it's because of his TV stations, you jerk-he's got them pounding away night and day, creatin' an image." He paused, moodily. "He's a clown. It's that red wig; it's fine for a newscaster, but not for a President." Too morose to speak, he lapsed into silence.
And worse was to follow.
At 9:00 P.M. that night, Jim-Jam Briskin began a seventy-two hour marathon TV program over all his stations, a great final drive to bring his popularity over the top and insure his victory.
In his special bedroom at the White House, Max Fischer sat with a tray of food before him, in bed, gloomily facing the TV set.
That Briskin, he thought furiously for the millionth time. "Look," he said to his cousin; the Attorney General sat in the easy chair across from him. "There's the nert now." He pointed to the TV screen.
Leon Lait, munching on his cheeseburger, said, "It's abominable."
''You know where he's broadcasting from? Way out in deep space, out past Pluto. At their furthest-out transmitter, which your FBI guys will never in a million years manage to get to."
"They will," Leon assured him. "I told them they have to get him-the President, my cousin, personally says so."
"But they won't get him for a while," Max said. "Leon, you're just too damn slow. I'll tell you something. I got a ship of the line out there, the Dwight D. Eisenhower. It's all ready to lay an egg on them, you know, a big bang, just as soon as I pass on the word."
"And I hate to," Max said.
The telecast had begun to pick up momentum already. Here came the Spotlights, and sauntering out onto the stage pretty Peggy Jones, wearing a glittery bare-shoulder gown, her hair radiant. Now we get a top-flight striptease, Max realized, by a real fine-looking girl. Even he sat up and took notice. Well, maybe not a true striptease, but certainly the opposition, Briskin and his staff, had sex working for them, here. Across the room his cousin the Attorney General had stopped munching his cheeseburger; the noise came to a halt, then picked up slowly once more.
On the screen, Peggy sang:
It's Jim-Jam, for whom I am,
"Oh god," Max groaned. And yet, the way she delivered it, with every part of her slim, long body ... it was okay. "I guess I got to inform the Dwight D. Eisenhower to go ahead," he said, watching.
"If you say so, Max," Leon said. "I assure you, I'll rule that you acted legally; don't worry none about that."
"Gimme the red phone," Max said. "That's the armored connection that only the Commander-in-Chief uses for top-secret instructions. Not bad, huh?" He accepted the phone from the Attorney General. "I'm calling General Tompkins and he'll relay the order to the ship. Too bad, Briskin," he added, with one last look at the screen. "But it's your own fault; you didn't have to do what you did, opposing me and all."
The girl in the silvery dress had gone, now, and Jim-Jam Brisken had appeared in her place. Momentarily, Max lowered the phone to watch.
"Hi, beloved comrades," Briskin said, raising his hands for silence; the canned applause -- Max knew that no audience existed in that remote spot-lowered, then rose again. Briskin grinned amiably, waiting for it to die.
"It's a fake," Max grunted. "Fake audience. They're smart, him and his staff. His rating's already way up."
"Right, Max," the Attorney Genetal agreed. "I noticed that."
"Comtades," Jim Briskin was saying soberly on the TV screen, "as you may know, originally President Maximilian Fischer and I got along very well."
His hand on the red phone, Max thought to himself that what Jim-Jam said was true.
"Where we broke," Briskin continued, "was over the issue of force -- of the use of naked, raw power. To Max Fischer, the office of President is merely a machine, an instrument, which he can use as an extension of his own desires, to fulfill his own needs. I honestly believe that in many respects his aims are good; he is trying to carry out Unicephalon's fine policies. But as to the means. That's a different matter."
Max said, "Listen to him, Leon." And he thought, No matter what he says I'm going to keep on; nobody is going to stand in my way, because it's my duty; it's the job of the office, and if you got to be President like I am you'd do it, too.
"Even the President," Briskin was saying, "must obey the law; he doesn't stand outside it, however powerful he is." He was silent for a moment and then he said slowly, ''I know that at this moment the FBI, under direct orders from Max Fischer's appointee, Leon Lait, is attempting to close down these stations, to still my voice. Here again Max Fischer is making use of power, of the police agency, for his own ends, making it an extension-"
Max picked up the red phone. At once a voice said from it, ·Yes, Mr. President. This is General Tompkins' C of C."
"What's that?" Max said.
"Chief of Communications, Army 600-1000, sir. Aboard the Dwight D. Eisenhower, accepting relay through. the transmitter at the Pluto Station."
"Oh yeah," Max said, nodding. "Listen, you fellas stand by, you understand? Be ready to receive instructions." He put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone. "Leon," he said to his cousin, who had now finished his cheeseburger and was starting on a strawberry shake. "How can I do it? I mean, Briskin is telling the truth."
Leon said, "Give Tompkins the word." He belched, then tapped himself on the chest with the side of his fist. "Pardon me."
On the screen Jim Briskin said, "I think very possibly I'm risking my life to speak to you, because this we must face: we have a President who would not mind employing murder to obtain his objectives. This is the political tactic of a tyranny, and that's what we're seeing, a tyranny coming into existence in our society, replacing the rational, disinterested rule of the homeostatic problem-solving Unicephalon 40-D which was designed, built and put into operation by some of the finest minds we have ever seen, minds dedicated to the preservation of all that's worthy in our tradition. And the transformation from this to a one-man tyranny is melancholy, to say the least."
Quietly, Max said, "Now I can't go ahead."
"Why not?" Leon said.
"Didn't you hear him? He's talking about me. I'm the tyrant he has reference to. Keerist." Max hung up the red phone. "I waited too long."
"I don't see that," Leon said. "Why can't you go ahead, Max?"
"It's hard for me to say it," Max said, ''but-well, hell, it would prove he's right." I know he's right anyhow, Max thought. But do they know it? Does the public know it? I can't let them find out about me, he realized. They should look up to their President, respect him. Honor him. No wonder I show up so bad in the Telscan poll. No wonder Jim Briskin decided to run against me the moment he heard I was in office. They really do know about me; they sense it, sense that Jim-Jam is speaking the truth. I'm just not Presidential caliber.
I'm not fit, he thought, to hold this office.
"Listen, Leon," he said, "I'm going to give it to that Briskin anyhow and then step down. It'll be my last official act." Once more he picked up the red phone. "I'm going to order them to wipe out Briskin and then someone else can be President. Any one the people want. Even Pat Noble or you; I don't care." He jiggled the phone. "Hey, C. of C.," he said loudly. "Come on, answer." To his cousin he said, "Leave me some of that shake; it's actually half mine."
"Sure, Max," Leon said loyally.
"Isn't no one there?" Max said into the phone. He waited. The phone remained dead. "Something's gone wrong," he said to Leon. "Communications have busted down. It must be those aliens again."
And then he saw the TV screen. It was blank.
"What's happening?" Max said. "What are they doing to me? Who's doing it?" He looked around, frightened. "I don't get it."
Leon stoically drank the milkshake, shrugging to show that he had no answer. But his beefy face had paled.
"It's too late," Max said. "For some reason it's just too late." Slowly, he hung up the phone. "I've got enemies, Leon, more powerful than you or me. And I don't even know who they are." He sat in silence, before the dark, soundless TV screen. Waiting.
The speaker of the TV set said abruptly, "Pseudo-autonomic news bulletin. Stand by, please." Then again there was silence.
Jim Briskin, glancing at Ed Fineberg and Peggy, waited.
"Comrade citizens of the United States," the flat, unmodulated voice from the TV speaker said, all at once. "The interregnum is over, the situation has returned to normal." As it spoke, words appeared on the monitor screen, a ribbon of printed tape passing slowly across, before the TV cameras in Washington D.C. Unicephalon 40-D had spliced itself into the co-ax in its usual fashion; it had pre-empted the program in progress: that was its traditional right
The voice was the synthetic verbalizing-organ of the homeostatic structure itself.
"The election campaign is nullified," Unicephalon 40-D said. "That is item one. The stand-by President Maximilian Fischer is canceled out; that is item two. Item three: we are at war with the aliens who have invaded our system. Item four: James Briskin, who has been speaking to you-"
This is it, Briskin realized.
In his earphones the impersonal, plateau-like voice continued, "Item four: James Briskin, who has been speaking to you on these facilities, is hereby ordered to cease and desist, and a writ of mandamus is issued forthwith requiring him to show just cause why he should be free to pursue any further political activity. In the public interest we instruct him to become politically silent."
Grinning starkly at Peggy and Ed Fineberg, Briskin said, "That's it. It's over. I'm to politically shut up."
"You can fight it in the courts," Peggy said at once. "You can take it all the way up to the Supreme Court; they've set aside decisions of Unicephalon in the past." She put her hand on his shoulder, but he moved away. "Or do you want to fight it?"
"At least I'm not canceled out," Briskin said. He felt tired. "I'm glad to see that machine back in operation," he said, to reassure Peggy. "It means a return to stability. That we can use."
"What'll you do, Jim-Jam?" Ed asked. "Go back to Reinlander beer and Calbest Electronics and try to get your old job back?"
"No," Briskin murmured. Certainly not that. But-he could not really become politically silent; he could not do what the problem-solver said. It simply was not biologically possible for him; sooner or later he would begin to talk again, for better or worse. And, he thought, I'll bet Max can't do what it says either ... neither of us can.
Maybe, he thought, I'll answer the writ of mandamus; maybe I'll contest it. A counter suit ... I'll sue Unicephalon 40-D in a court of law. Jim-Jam Briskin the plaintiff, Unicephalon 40-D the defendant. He smiled. I'll need a good lawyer for that. Someone quite a bit better than Max Fischer's top legal mind, cousin Leon Lait.
Going to the closet of the small studio in which they had been broadcasting, he got his coat and began to put it on. A long trip lay ahead of them back to Earth from this remote spot, and he wanted to get started.
Peggy, following after him, said, "You're not going back on the air at all? Not even to finish the program?"
"No," he said.
"But Unicephalon will be cutting back out again, and what'll that leave? Just dead air. That's not right, is it, Jim? Just to walk out like this ... I can't believe you'd do it, it's not like you."
He halted at the door of the studio. "You heard what it said. The instructions it handed out to me."
"Nobody leaves dead air going," Peggy said. "It's a vacuum, Jim, the thing nature abhors. And if you don't fill it, someone else will. Look, Unicephalon is going back off right now." She pointed at the TV monitor. The ribbon of words had ceased; once more the screen was dark, empty of motion and light. "It's your responsibility," Peggy said, "and you know it."
"Are we back on the air?" he asked Ed.
"Yes. It's definitely out of the circuit, at least for a while." Ed gestured toward the vacant stage on which the TV cameras and lights focused. He said nothing more; he did not have to.
With his coat still on, Jim Briskin walked that way. Hands in his pockets he stepped back into the range of the cameras, smiled and said, "I think, beloved comrades, the interruption is over. For the time being, anyhow. So ... let's continue."
The noise of canned applause-manipulated by Ed Fineberg swelled up, and Jim Briskin raised his hands and signaled the non· existent studio audience for silence.
"Does any of you know a good lawyer?" Jim-Jam asked caustically. "And if you do, phone US and tell us right away-before the FBI finally manages to reach us out here."
In his bedroom at the White House, as Unicephalon's message ended, Maximilian Fischer turned to his cousin Leon and said, "Well, I'm out of office."
"Yeah, Max," Leon said heavily. "I guess you are."
"And you, too," Max pointed out. "It's going to be a clean sweep; you can count on that. Canceled." He gritted his teeth. "That's sort of insulting. Couldn't it have said retired?"
"I guess that's just its way of expressing itself," Leon said. "Don't get upset, Max; remember your heart trouble. You still got the job of stand-by, and that's the top stand-by position there is, Stand-by President of the United States, I want to remind you. And now you've got all this worry and effort off your back; you're lucky."
"I wonder if I'm allowed to finish this meal," Max said, picking at the food in the tray before him. His appetite, now that he was retired, began almost at once to improve; he selected a chicken salad sandwich and took a big bite from it. "It's still mine," he decided, his mouth full. "I still get to live here and eat regularly -right?"
"Right," Leon agreed, his legal mind active. "That's in the contract the union signed with Congress; remember back to that? We didn't go out on strike for nothing."
"Those were the days," Max said. He finished the chicken salad sandwich and returned to the eggnog. It felt good not to have to make big decisions; he let out a long, heartfelt sigh and settled back into the pile of pillows propping him up.
But then he thought, In some respects I sort of enjoyed making decisions. I mean, it was- He searched for the thought. It was different from being a stand-by or drawing unemployment. It had-
Satisfaction, he thought. That's what it gave me. Like I was accomplishing something. He missed that already; he felt suddenly hollow, as if things had all at once become purposeless.
"Leon," he said, "I could have gone on as President another whole month. And enjoyed the job. You know what I mean?"
"Yeah, I guess I get your meaning," Leon mumbled.
"No, you don't," Max said.
"I'm trying, Max," his cousin said. "Honest."
With bitterness, Max said, "I shouldn't have had them go ahead and let those engineer-fellas patch up that Unicephalon; I should have buried the project, at least for a while. For maybe another six months."
"Too late to think about that now," Leon said.
Is it? Max asked himself. You know, something could happen to Unicephalon 40-D. An accident.
He pondered that as he ate a piece of green-apple pie with a wide slice of longhorn cheese. A number of persons whom he knew could pull off such tasks ... and did so, now and then.
A big, nearly-fatal accident, he thought. Late some night, when everyone's asleep and it's just me and it awake here in the White House. I mean, let's face it; the aliens showed us how.
"Look, Jim-Jam Briskin's back on the air," Leon said, gesturing at the TV set. Sure enough, there was the famous, familiar red wig, and Briskin was saying something witty and yet profound, something that made one stop to ponder. "Hey listen," Leon said. "He's poking fun at the FBI; can you imagine him doing that now? He's not scared of anything."
"Don't bother me," Max said. "I'm thinking." He reached over and carefully turned the sound of the TV set off.
For thoughts such as he was having he wanted no distractions.
Top Stand-By Job: Copyright © 1963 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Co., Inc. From Amazing, October 1963 (as Stand-By).