For company he clicked on the truck's radio and tuned for Buster Friendly's aud show, which, Eke the TV version, continued twenty-three unbroken warm hours a day . . . the additional one hour being a religious sign-off, ten minutes of silence, and then a religious sign-on.
" - glad to have you on the show again," Buster Friendly was saying. "Let's see, Amanda; it's been two whole days since we've visited with you. Starting on any new pics, dear?"
"Veil, I vuz goink to do a pic yestooday baht vell, dey vanted me to staht ad seven - "
"Seven A.M.?" Buster Friendly broke in.
"Yess, dot's right, Booster; it vuz seven hey hem!" Amanda Werner laughed her famous laugh, nearly as imitated as Buster's. Amanda Werner and several other beautiful, elegant, conically breasted foreign ladies, from unspecified vaguely defined countries, plus a few bucolic so-called humorists, comprised Buster's perpetual core of repeats. Women like Amanda Werner never made movies, never appeared in plays; they lived out their queer, beautiful lives as guests on Buster's unending show, appearing, Isidore had once calculated, as much as seventy hours a week.
How did Buster Friendly find the time to tape both his aud and vid shows? Isidore wondered. And how did Amanda Werner find time to be a guest every other day, month after month, year after year? How did they keep talking? They never repeated themselves - not so far as he could determine. Their remarks, always witty, always new, weren't rehearsed. Amanda's hair glowed, her eyes glinted, her teeth shone; she never ran down, never became tired, never found herself at a loss as to a clever retort to Buster's bang-bang string of quips, jokes, and sharp observations. The Buster Friendly Show, telecast and broadcast over all Earth via satellite, also poured down on the emigrants of the colony planets. Practice transmissions beamed to Proxima had been attempted, in case human colonization extended that far. Had the Salander 3 reached its destination the travelers aboard would have found the Buster Friendly Show awaiting them. And they would have been glad.
But something about Buster Friendly irritated John Isidore, one specific thing. In subtle, almost inconspicuous ways, Buster ridiculed the empathy boxes. Not once but many times. He was, in fact, doing it right now.
" - no rock nicks on me," Buster prattled away to Amanda Werner. "And if I'm going up the side of a mountain I want a couple of bottles of Budweiser beer along!" The studio audience laughed, and Isidore heard a sprinkling of handclaps. "And I'll reveal my carefully documented expose from up there - that expose coming exactly ten hours from now!"
"Ent me, too, dahiink! " Amanda gushed. "Tek me wit you! I go alonk en ven dey trow a rock et us I protek you! " Again the audience howled, and John Isidore felt baffled and impotent rage seep up into the back of his neck. Why did Buster Friendly always chip away at Mercerism? No one else seemed bothered by it; even the U.N. approved. And the American and Soviet police had publicly stated that Mercerism reduced crime by making citizens more concerned about the plight of their neighbors. Mankind needs more empathy, Titus Corning, the U. N. Secretary General, had declared several times. Maybe Buster is jealous, Isidore conjectured. Sure, that would explain it; he and Wilbur Mercer are in competition. But for what?
Our minds, Isidore decided. They're fighting for control of our psychic selves; the empathy box on one hand, Buster's guffaws and off-the-cuff jibes on the other. I'll have to tell Hannibal Sloat that, he decided. Ask him if it's true; he'll know.
When he had parked his truck on the roof of the Van Ness Pet Hospital he quickly carried the plastic cage containing the inert false cat downstairs to Hannibal Sloat's office. As he entered, Mr. Sloat glanced up from a parts-inventory page, his gray, seamed face rippling like troubled water. Too old to emigrate, Hannibal Sloat, although not a special, was doomed to creep out his remaining life on Earth. The dust, over the years, had eroded him; it had left his features gray, his thoughts gray; it had shrunk him and made his legs spindly and his gait unsteady. He saw the world through glasses literally dense with dust. For some reason Sloat never cleaned his glasses. It was as if he had given up; he had accepted the radioactive dirt and it had begun its job, long ago, of burying him. Already it obscured his sight. In the few years he had remaining it would corrupt his other senses until at last only his bird-screech voice would remain, and then that would expire, too.
"What do you have there?" Mr. Sloat asked.
"A cat with a short in its power supply." Isidore set the cage down on the document-littered desk of his boss.
"Why show it to me?" Sloat demanded. "Take it down in the shop to Milt." However, reflexively, he opened the cage and tugged the false animal out. Once, he had been a repairman. A very good one.
Isidore said, "I think Buster Friendly and Mercerism are fighting for control of our psychic souls."
"If so," Sloat said, examining the cat, "Buster is winning."
"He's winning now," Isidore said, "but ultimately he'll lose."
Sloat lifted his bead, peered at him. "Why?"
"Because Wilbur Mercer is always renewed. He's eternal. At the top of the hill he's struck down; he sinks into the tomb world but then he rises inevitably. And us with him. So we're eternal, too." He felt good, speaking so well; usually around Mr. Sloat he stammered.
Sloat said, "Buster is immortal, like Mercer. There's no difference."
"How can he he? He's a man."
"I don't know," Sloat said. "But it's true. They've never admitted it, of course."
"Is that how come Buster Friendly can do forty-six hours of show a day?"