Best In the Business


    The kernel of the story comes from an autobiography by H. H. Nininger, "Catch a Falling Star". The themes and development, however, are all influenced by Philip Jose Farmer. Perhaps nobody else will see it but, for me, "Best in the Business" exists in a Farmerian universe: pocket worlds, the ennui of immortals, the hero who never quits. PJF was in the back of my mind from the first sentence.

by
Stephen F. McCann




    I live in a world inside out and upside down. Its spinning holds me closer to it and the maps of it make me dizzy. Because of the bizarre politics of our times, I can't go back to my old world except for short visits. But that's all right. While the curves here are different, the stars are so much brighter, I can always find Orion, and I have made a place for me to belong.

    In 1926 I arranged with Saul, a graduate student of mine to build an old jalopy for our trip to Mexico. He was more mechanically inclined than I and so he put in most of the work and I contributed what money I could. We armor-plated it on the bottom and installed seven forward gears and three reverse gears. This ruggedness was required in order to survive the terrain we would be covering. The car was also quite ugly. But the ugliness was intentional, also; we had heard of the banditos who roamed Northern Mexico and Pancho Villa and his martial exploits were a memory less than ten years old back then. We didn't want to look like we had anything worth stealing.

    We were in search of a new species of pion pine that some of the literature had hinted at, and for me the prospect of finding something new, something rare, was like a lamb chomp in front of a bulldog. I had once waded through the stagnant, dank waters of an oxbow lake near Madison, Wisconsin, to get the seeds of a little known species of water lily. Afterwards, I spent an hour with a cigarette lighter removing the leeches which hung like black tears on my white skin.

    In our first two days, we drove from McPherson, Kansas, to Laredo, Texas. After a lay over of a day, we headed on to the mountain village of Galeana, Mexico. It cost us three days and four bribes before we pulled into the tiny pueblo where the wind always blew cold and the people moved as if in dreams. It was well worth it, though, as we found not only several good samples of the pion pine we were after but also the pots, pans and hammers that would change me from a biology teacher in a small college to a hunter of pieces of the sky.

    Saul and I became curious about the widespread use of various implements by the people of this area. They were crudely fashioned and yet composed of a very high quality steel. We did not expect material of such quality in a region where the most commonly traded commodities were bootleg liquor, despair and venereal disease. After some inquiry, a stay that extended a few weeks longer than we had anticipated, and much consultation over unreliable telephone lines to a geologist friend of mine, we determined that a few thousand years ago, a reasonably-sized, mostly metallic asteroid had fallen in this area and left globs of metal scattered over a ten-square mile area.

    We ended up selling the jalopy to raise enough money to buy unmodified pieces of the asteroid, two hundred pounds of tools, and train tickets for two people carrying considerable cargo. From then on, I was captive to the sky. Meteorites, blackened hunks of exotic alloys and rocks and crystals, became my fascination.

    While Saul went on with his studies in biology, I gradually found myself spending all of my time hunting down meteorites, visitors from space rarer and more precious than any gem on Earth. Even during the Great Depression, I managed to survive by finding, trading, buying and selling them.

    You see, for me, it wasn't simply the gaining of scientific knowledge I loved. There was also the thrill of the hunt. The tracking. The following. The snagging of my prey. Few things could deter me and more than once I received a scolding from my very worried wife after I had driven through a blizzard or had gotten pneumonia after tramping through a cold, muddy field with a metal detector in search of yet another meteorite.

    While I would eventually travel around the world in search of meteorites, I found Kansas and the Great Plains one of the best places to find them. By the time I died in 1979 at the age of 81, Kansas had contributed more meteorite finds per acre than any other region on Earth. This was the result of several factors. One of them was me. I applied the same scientific method I had used as a biologist to the finding of meteorites and, if I may dispense with modesty, I was very, very good at it.

    In fact, within ten years of trading in my professorship in biology, I found myself the world's leading authority on meteorites and owner of the world's largest private collection of them. I was surprised at how little interest geologists and astronomers had in these little visitors from space. That is, until the late 1950's when people began to head into space and they realized that one way to get an idea of what they would find there was to see what had come here.

    By 1968, I was actually something of a celebrity with the scientists at NASA. Jerry Paul, a selenologist and the most doleful, saturnine person I've ever met, even said to me once, "Hal, because of you I sleep better at night knowing how the world will end. Since your work with meteorites has determined the most likely composition of earth grazing asteroids, and we've begun finding more and more of them in our little Earth-Moon backyard, I know it will all end with fire and heat." Well, I was glad I could help Jerry sleep better but, he was as wrong about the world ending as he was about lunar crater formation. He had argued for volcanic origins and I had insisted they were impact craters. I turned out to be right.

    My own ending came soon after that. I fought bladder cancer for two years and finally passed away in 1979. At least I lived long enough to see men walk on the moon. Apparently, my wife, a woman who once whispered into my ear, "Sweet Prince," as I fell asleep in her arms on the sleeping porch one sultry summer's night, did not share my enthusiasm for science's possibilities. When I was revived from my cryogenic suspension a century later, she had opted for a more conventional definition of death. I visited her grave once, once only. It was all I could stand.

    So now with my twenty-something body, I live in a giant, spinning Quaker Oats box ( look it up; they were wonderful for breakfast) in space. At first, the irony seemed rather bitter: that I was living in a space station large enough that it held an ocean the size of the Mediterranean. And it was made of the same type of materials that I so long ago had tracked down and bartered for. Material that was no longer quite so precious. Material that was so common here, that the water and the soil and the bricks and the glass and the steel were made from asteroids; and with each breath I took and each morsel of food I ate, it became part of me.

    The "earth" is processed asteroid rubble lining the inside of the cylinder. And if I look up while standing on that lining on an especially clear, cloud-free day, I still feel a slight disorientation seeing not the sun but, a bright shining axle floating like a needle in the blue haze. And, yes, the weather is always wonderful and, yes, one of the first things I missed were thunderstorms. The rare had become common and the common had become rare.

    I remember one day in 1955 when my wife, Stella, had decided to ride with me as I went from farmhouse to farmhouse asking about "queer-looking rocks". I had determined from some old newspaper stories that a meteor had exploded over an area north of Garden City a decade before. I was sure there must be pieces of it scattered over the county and somebody may have picked up one of them.

    After only twenty inquiries we found our prey. I bought an especially fine pallasite with lovely chondrules of olivine packed among its metallic matrix from a friendly, jovial widow with apple cheeks and cumulous hair. (In fact, one chondrule contained such an exceptional crystal of olivine that I later had a jeweler put it into a ring for Stella.) The widow wanted to give the softball-sized rock to us, but I insisted upon paying her a dollar a pound, more than most were paying at that time. I had done much research and interviewing to find that particular piece and since most searches ended in failure, a success such as that was especially sweet. We thanked her and drove a few miles to the West, pulled the truck over to the side of the road and climbed to the top of a hill where a slab of limestone poked through the skin of the earth like some primeval bone. From there, we sat, enjoying the success of our efforts while we ate the lunches that my wife had packed that morning.

    After we had finished eating, I leaned against a tree while Stella lay her head on my shoulder and we watched a summer storm quickly boil up on the western horizon. The wind began to huff and sniff about us like an old hound dog while towering, lightning-lit thunderheads floated above the prairie like paper lanterns. As the storm loomed closer and closer, a wave of gray, frowning clouds seemed about to crash upon us. We entered an almost telepathic sharing of trances where time slowed and the silver, sharp lightning trickled from the sky like tendrils of cold mercury. It wasn't until we began to be pelted with thick drops of rain and tiny hailstones, that we came to our senses and ran down the hill, laughing like lunatics despite the danger, to the pickup truck. It is the happiest moment I can ever remember. It was something I had to find a little bit of again.

    The things that had made me truly happy were gone. My wife lay well past moldering in a lonely grave, and the work I loved so much, was just about the last thing anybody here had any use for. Of course, I'm valuable in that there aren't too many people running around in the twenty-first century who were born in 1898, so I'm quite popular with the historians. But that made me valuable for what I am, not what I do. And I really must be doing something more than taking long walks through the woods or bouncing off the walls in the zero-g at the hub of this Brobdingnagian Campbell’s Soup can (look it up; great stuff for lunch).

    I had decided I would go back to school and see if I could get caught up on a hundred years worth of science when my visit with Deanna changed everything. We were sitting on the balcony of the house I had been given and looking across one of the four minor valleys within one of the continental valleys lining the cylinder. A forest of ever green oaks and maples and sycamores lay before us. An occasional house poked its roof above the canopy and far away, somebody was out joy riding in a dirigible shaped like a sea serpent. We were talking about my first thoughts and opinions during the rise of Hitler when I noticed her necklace.

    "It's a fly in amber," she said as she pulled it over her head and handed it to me.

    "Not one of those nanotechnology knock-offs?" I asked.

    "Oh no, the real thing. It's certified. See there on the back. I paid quite a bit for that little bauble."

    I rubbed a thumb across the smooth, yellowish surface and surveyed the tiny visitor from the past suspended within.

    "Really," I said, "I thought everything was cheap as dirt because you could make everything from dirt."

    "Oh no, oh no. This was made millions of years ago. You can make something that looks just like it. But in a world of more than plenty, the truly genuine and the truly rare, become truly valuable."

    And there it was. I knew what I would do.

    Most people are happy to do as they please and work The Minimum. They're not really needed and it doesn't hurt anything that they spend most of their time at leisure. I, on the other hand, work my tail off. I travel from O'Neill cylinder to O'Neill cylinder, from bustling cities to remote houses, bargaining with museums and dealers. I make trips back to Earth when they let me, and I research the computer and make my calls. And if you want a particular, original, certified fossil from Earth's ancient past, I'm the best in the business and I have the solar system's largest private collection.

    END