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DEPARTMENT 17
by Scott M. Azmus

Acquisitions' Editor Gerald Trezise spun from the half-octagon console and its fading fractal interface. The intercom buzzed again.

"What?"

"You've got a live one coming in. ETA fifteen seconds."

"Stall him."

Trezise toggled controls beneath his desk's littered expanse. Office walls and filing cabinets slid out of their recesses and pivoted into place. The lights shifted from red to daylight yellow. He jammed on gloves and picked up a pen, just as his door swung open.

The man was short and raggedly balding. He would have been taller, but his head hung and his shoulders drooped as if in permanent dejection. He scuffed a shoe against the back of his leg and slouched forward.

"Um, hello. I'm Jon-Philip Raghem. Have you read my submission?"

"I'd prefer to conduct all business through the postal system."

"I was in town..."

Trezise leaned across his desk. "Business?"

Raghem squinted around at the lacquered paneling. "Hostage to Another Truth'? Did you read it?"

Trezise studied the man carefully. He had read the story. It was masterful. Such a pity. "I regret that your manuscript does not meet our present editorial requirements--"

"What's wrong with it?"

Trezise pulled a limp sheaf of twenty pound bond from a red-tabbed folder. The tab read, "Monitor closely."

"Relax. Your story moves well, but the underlying premise doesn't wash. The idea that aliens are sampling the slush piles of the publishing industry--"

"Just science fiction."

"--is ludicrous. I admit I find your conjecture intriguing. However -- and I must be blunt -- I've seen something similar elsewhere."

"My ideas are my own!"

"Absolutely, absolutely...I'm just saying this is old stuff. This kind of speculation went out in the early Seventies."

He shuffled to Raghem's cover letter, thumbed down the margin, and flicked the page. "Here it is. 'The alien intelligence web reads unpublished stories for comparison with actual events or advanced technology. If correlation is low, the story gets to the real editors. If high, it is rejected.'"

"Or the manuscript completely disappears. Sometimes the author does, too. I can document--"

"Mister Raghem, don't you see how implausible this sounds? Our subscribers won't read past the first few lines. Why, these aliens would have to have hundreds of editors in their employ. They would have to have rejection slips from every publisher...."

Raghem laced his fingers and pressed them under his chin. "But this is really happening."

"Exotic Press is a fiction house, Mister Raghem."

Raghem's lips curled with his frown. "I guess I should have listened to my writing instructor. She tried to warn me that no matter how interesting the truth is, if it's not logical, no one will publish it."

"I'm glad to hear you say that. I notice in your cover letter that you also write children's stories?"

"A few."

"Good, good. Perhaps you should stick to that."

"No. I don't care if I get a hundred rejections. I'm going to keep writing science fiction, no matter what."

Trezise flashed his front row of bright, angular teeth. "Perhaps I have been somewhat hasty. Your writing does show some promise." He pressed the thin manuscript back into the folder. "But, next time, please wait for our reply before visiting."

"Don't call us; we'll call you. Right?"

"Precisely."

"Well, I'd sure appreciate a second look." Raghem rubbed a hand down his face and reluctantly -- obviously very reluctantly -- backed toward the door. "Farewell, Mister Trezise."

"Good-bye."

The door sealed and the lights dimmed to a cool red. Trezise tabbed his intercom. "No luck. I couldn't talk him into changing genres. Pick him up. Make it neat. Usual routine."

"Family, too? His wife proofreads his stuff."

Trezise glanced at the cover letter again. "Yes, dammit. I suppose so."

He silenced the intercom and lifted the latest issue of Galaxy. He studied the cover -- a reasonably accurate depiction of his homeworld -- and hurled the magazine at the wall.

"Damn! Not again." He yanked off a glove and strummed his three spidery, tuft knuckled digits. "I've got to get funding for more reinforcements!"

--SCOTT M. AZMUS


 
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