Thursday, March 24, 2016

"I'm Sure He Has Holed Up Somewhere in the Jovian System"

"'X' for Expendable."
By William C. Bailey (John Berryman, 1916-88).
First appearance: Dynamic Science Fiction, December 1952.
Anthologized in Way Out (1963).
Novelette (27 pages).
Online at SFFAudio HERE (PDF).
Parental caution: Strong language and violence.
"There was one way I might be able to retire on my earnings, and with most of my natural health and beauty — that was to come through with a series of big-time capers. If I didn't, that 'expendable' part of my job would find me listed as 'expended' after a while. And this first caper had everything I needed for a good start — and the opposition had everything they needed for finishing me!"
In the aftermath of a nuclear war, humanity has still managed to colonize the Solar System; it's in this setting that an agent for the IPO gets tasked with trying to uncover a cadmium smuggling ring. His problems are exacerbated by his immediate superior, who already knows the agent suspects him of being involved up to his lapels, as well as several dangerous characters who won't balk at murder. The stakes in this game are pretty high:
Somewhere, a group of maniacs was making a wild, irresponsible play for power, somewhere, they had cached a hydrogen-lithium bomb and were desperately attempting to make a plutonium primer for it.
Principal characters:
~ X-3206, the narrator (otherwise unnamed): A not-so-secret agent, self-described as "a big ox, and conditioned to acting expendable."
~ Foran: The big ox's boss.
~ Seeley: In charge of Haverford International, the company that ships cadmium all over the System.
~ Merino: He gives off an air of "ethereal intellectualism, somehow perverted."
~ Golz: Twenty rounds aren't enough.
~ Harding: Agent-in-charge on Europa.
~ Whitehead: Runs a freight line in the Jovian system.
Comment: One gets the feeling that this story might have started out as a Hammett-style PI tale, until the author decided to frame it with a science fiction setting. Between the standard sci-fi elements (in 1952 the author could be excused for assuming Jupiter has a solid surface covered with tundra a thousand miles down) we have such hardboiled interpolations as:

   "A light flared on the door at the end of the corridor. The waiter swooped and whirled in his tracks; his hands did something that I could not follow. I stumbled up against him and saw the undulating glint of a blade in his hand, against my navel. My uvula got a big growth on it. Very big."
   "His voice had the friendliness of a buzz-saw."
   "[He] blinked and looked at me the way the butcher looks at the meat."
   "His scream of pain as I twisted his head was cut short by a queer frangible sound. He went limp."
   "I got the kick of a forger passing his first phoney thousand-credit bill when the Comman-dant okayed my requisition."
   "I let the gun rest on my thigh; it's rude to point."
   "Even hard guys scream, and I screamed bloody murder."

But the author is good with short descriptive passages:

   "Three large couches squatted in the penumbral edges of the room, trying hard to be a pale green in the dimness."
   "Space flight is monotonously silence bordered by the deep uneventful, and except for the drone of the jets, as featureless as a pneumatic-tube ride."
   "The cigar was going when I got there. One big square shoe was tapping a low tattoo on the asphalt tile of the floor and echoing hollowly against the steel of the walls, ceiling and furniture."
   "The launching-pits were dark, hugely vaulted hangars, eerily lit by the merciless brilliance of thinly-scattered mercury-vapor lights. The black steel of the floor and the black, rough-hewn walls drank up the light. It was cold and our breath steamed frostily. The beryllium hulls of spaceships in their launching-racks glinted chillily, reflecting in icy points the distant lamps. The scuffle of our feet on the steel decking made hollow echoes."

Typos: "It seemtd to be"; "The camouflaged done opened its iris"; "the others were inot known"; "when the trudled it away"; several paragraphs on page 59 are completely mangled and almost unintelligible. — Well, Mr. Editor?

- John Berryman used the "William C. Bailey" alias for a limited time, 1951-53; go HERE (the SFE) and HERE (the ISFDb) for more.
- In the story some of the action takes place on Troilus, one of Jupiter's obscure Trojan satellites, described HERE; cadmium, the cause of all of the hurly-burly, is discussed HERE.

The bottom line: "The common curse of mankind—folly and ignorance."

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