Expertise was the most valuable commodity, and one man aimed to corner the market!
|"Why the glum face, kiddo?" William Hargrove leaned across the back seat of the limousine to slap Philip van Eyck on the knee. "You're now so far ahead of the game you're practically out of the running! Ahead!" His three chins wobbled as he chuckled over the word. "That's a good one!"
But the lean young economist seated next to him remained grave as he watched the concrete canyons of downtown Manhattan slide by. The day was dark and damp, and the foot traffic that shuffled along under the lowering sky was wrapped in gray overcoats and hats.
"Ahead!" Hargrove repeated with a grin. "As in, 'a head.' Brains. Brain trust. Whatsamatter, kiddo?" He chucked van Eyck in the side. "Smart guy like you should pick up on—"
"I'm not in a mood for levity," van Eyck snapped back.
"What? Why not! You ought to be in a mood to celebrate! Simon Madsen only recruits the best for his brain trust. And you'll only be number fifteen!"
But Van Eyck only sank lower into the plush seat and pointed out the window.
"One of fifteen," he mused as he eyed the line of hunched figures they were driving past. "Meanwhile, out there, nearly eight in ten are unemployed. Of course," he added after a moment's thought, "the actual rate in this neighborhood is likely lower." He reached for his slide ruler, found he wasn't carrying it, and put his hand back in his lap. "In a business district like this the employed would be overrepresented in any sampling."
"Oh, so that's what's biting you." Harwood's mouth twisted into a satiric smile. "Guilt at being picked for the best job in the world when most don't even have—"
"Don't be ridiculous," van Eyck retorted. "Employment—or the lack of it—is not a moral question. Even in individual cases it is merely the granular residue of the curve that describes the overall rate of labor. Which itself is merely a matter of the most rational and efficient disposition of resources. So as an economy shifts from human to mechanical labor, naturally the demand for the former will fall, making it redundant."
"Naturally," Harwood agreed. His tone turned very dry. "And it was the most rational and efficient disposition of resources that put Simon Madsen atop a mattress stuffed with hundreds of billions of dollars, while those poor saps out there—"
Van Eyck frowned at Harwood. "I thought you were Mr. Madsen's publicity officer."
"You're not talking like one."
"And you're not talking like the practical-minded economist that Mr. Madsen just hired for his brain trust."
Van Eyck grunted and went back to scrutinizing the gray-clad crowds on the sidewalk.
Is it guilt I'm feeling? he wondered. Guilt at not being made redundant, like so many others, by the inexorable drive toward technological progress?
No. He shook his head. It mustn't be guilt, because it mustn't be a moral question. It was simply a matter of efficiency and necessity. And the world still needed men like him, who had brains to think and not merely hands to work and stomachs to—
His own stomach lurched.
Maybe it is guilt, he thought glumly. Maybe this appointment has really made me see the disconnect between my situation and theirs.
It was another twenty minutes before they reached the Madsen Building, that two-hundred-story spire from which Simon Madsen governed the affairs of hundreds of thousands of men and the politics of several countries. A private ramp carried the limousine up to a small garage on the twelfth floor, from which a private elevator then carried the two men up to the one-hundred-and-ninety-eighth floor. Harwood led van Eyck into a wide conference room whose landscape windows looked east over Manhattan toward the sea. The room was furnished sparely with a dark, clean-lined table and chrome-and-leather chairs. Van Eyck nodded approvingly over it. Like Madsen's own corporation, it was lean and rational.
It was another five minutes before a door at the far end of the room opened, and Simon Madsen came in.
He was a small man with skin the color of old papyrus and bright, unwinking eyes. There was no smile in them as he nodded at his newest recruit. "Mr. van Eyck," he said. His voice was a soft rasp. "Welcome aboard."
"Thank you, sir."
Madsen glanced over at Harwood. "That will be all," he said. Harwood bowed his head and retreated from the room.
"A good man," Madsen murmured to van Eyck. "But his presence wasn't necessary. In fact, I will be dismissing him shortly."
"He's redundant, now that you're set to join my brain trust."
Van Eyck blinked. "I'm an economist, Mr. Madsen, not a public relations man."
"Public relations is a matter of persuasion." Madsen put his hands behind his back. "Getting people to see reason. That will be your job. You already made a great opening with your book. 'The Rationality of Specialized Labor'." He seemed to savor the words.
Van Eyck's frown deepened. It was an academic book, not a popular one.
"I was especially taken," Madsen continued, "with your argument that the parts of a machine are more important than the whole, for it is the parts that execute the particular tasks. If I need to grasp something, as you said in your book, I need only the functional equivalent of hands." He flexed his own fingers. "Nothing else need be asked for."
"That wasn't exactly my point," van Eyck said.
"It wasn't? But you yourself drew the implication. Where machines are now our hands, and automobiles our feet, the only part of a man that we need—" Madsen tapped his temple. "Is his brain. So if our hand offends us—"
He broke off, then gestured van Eyck to follow him into another room, and thence into an elevator. When its doors opened again, they stepped out into a sterile white corridor.
"Here." Madsen took a white gown from a peg on the wall. "And these." He handed van Eyck a surgical mask and gloves, then donned some of his own.
"Where are we going?" Van Eyck's words were muffled by the mask.
"To meet your colleagues." Madsen pulled open a heavy door.
The walls, ceiling, and floor o f the room beyond were entirely composed of brushed metal. Tall glass vats rested on pedestal-like tables; each was connected by wires to a teletype machine.
Floating in each bubbling vat was a human brain.
"What's this?" van Eyck croaked when he found his voice.
"My brain trust. The greatest scientists and planners in the world. Thank you for accepting my offer to join them."
Another door opened, and two more men in gowns entered, pushing a gurney. Their eyes locked onto van Eyck.
"You're not serious," the economist gasped.
"Please don't be irrational, Mr. van Eyck," said Madsen. He gestured to the surgeons. "Not when the rational part of you is the only part I need."
Prompt: "The Brain Thief"