Philip kindred dick — stand-by
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 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 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 Bismark, North Dakota, in front of the TV 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 news-break from eight hundred AUs out.
“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’s 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.