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I shrugged uncomfortably. "I don't believe in magic."

"Nor do I," she answered, "the way you put it. I believe in what is."

"That's what I mean, Star. I don't believe in hocus-pocus. What happened to Igli—I mean, ‘what appeared to happen to Igli'—could not have happened because it would violate the law of conservation of mass-energy. There must be some other explanation."

She was politely silent.

So I brought to bear the sturdy common sense of ignorance and prejudice. "Look, Star, I'm not going to believe the impossible simply because I was there. A natural law is a natural law. You have to admit that."

We rode a few rods before she answered, "May it please milord Hero, the world is not what we wish it to be. It is what it is. No, I have over-assumed. Perhaps it is indeed what we wish it to be. Either way, it is what it is. Le voila! Behold it, self-demonstrating. Das Ding an sich. Bite it. It is. Ai-je raison? Do I speak truly?"

"That's what I was saying! The universe is what it is and can't be changed by jiggery-pokery. It works by exact rules, like a machine." (I hesitated, remembering a car we had had that was a hypochondriac. It would "fall sick," then "get well" as soon as a mechanic tried to touch it.) I went on firmly, "Natural law never takes a holiday. The invariability of natural law is the cornerstone of science."

"So it is."

"Well?" I demanded.

"So much the worse for science."

"But—" I shut up and rode in huffy silence.

Presently a slender hand touched my forearm, caressed it. "Such a strong sword arm," she said softly. "Milord Hero, may I explain?"

"Talk ahead," I said. "If you can sell me, you can convert the Pope to Mormonism. I'm stubborn."

"Would I have picked you out of hundreds of billions to be my champion were you not?"

" ‘Hundreds of billions?' You mean millions, don't you?"

"Hear me, milord. Indulge me. Let us be Socratic. I'll frame the trick questions and you make the stupid answers—and we'll learn who shaved the barber. Then it will be your turn and I'll be the silly stooge. Okay?"

"All right, put a nickel in."

"Very well. Question: Are the customs at house Doral the customs you used at home?"

"What? You know they aren't. I've never been so flabbergasted since the time the preacher's daughter took me up into the steeple to show me the Holy Ghost." I chuckled sheepishly. "I'd be blushing yet but I've burned out my fuses."

"Yet the basic difference between Nevian customs and yours lies in only one postulate. Milord, there axe worlds in which males kill females as soon as eggs are laid—and others in which females eat males even as they are being fructified—like that black widow you made cousin to me."

"I didn't mean that, Star."

"I was not offended, my love. An insult is like a drink; it affects one only if accepted. And pride is too heavy baggage for my journey; I have none. Oscar, would you find such worlds stranger than this one?"

"You're talking about spiders or some such. Not people."

"I speak of people, the dominant race of each its world. Highly civilized."


"You will not say ‘ugh' when you see them. They are so different from us that their home life cannot matter to us. Contrariwise, this planet is very like your Earth—yet your customs would shock old Jocko out of song. Darling, your world has a custom unique in the Universes. That is, the Twenty Universes known to me, out of thousands or millions or googols of universes. In the known Twenty Universes only Earth has this astounding custom."

"Do you mean "War"?"

"Oh, no! Most worlds have warfare. This planet Nevia is one of the few where lolling is retail, rather than wholesale. Here there be Heroes, killing is done with passion. This is a world of love and slaughter, both with gay abandon. No, I mean something much more shocking. Can you guess?"

"Uh...television commercials?"

"Close in spirit, but wide of the mark. You have an expression ‘the oldest profession.' Here—and in all other known worlds—it isn't even the youngest. Nobody has heard of it and wouldn't believe it if he did. We few who visit Earth don't talk about it. Not that it would matter; most people don't believe travelers' tales."

"Star, are you telling me that there is no prostitution elsewhere in the Universe?"

"The Universes, my darling. None."

"You know," I said thoughtfully, "that's going to be a shock to my first sergeant. None at all?"

"I mean," she said bluntly, "that whoring seems to have been invented by Earth people and no others—and the idea would shock old Jocko into impotence. He's a straitlaced moralist."

"I'll be damned! We must be a bunch of slobs."

"I did not mean to offend, Oscar; I was reciting facts. But this oddity of Earth is not odd in its own context. Any commodity is certain to be sold—bought, sold, leased, rented, bartered, traded, discounted, price-stabilized, inflated, bootlegged, and legislated—and a woman's ‘commodity' as it was called on Earth in franker days is no exception. The only wonder is the wild notion of thinking of it as a commodity. Why, it so surprised me that once I even—Never mind. Anything can be made a commodity. Someday I will show you cultures living in spaces, not on planets—nor on fundaments of any sort; not all universes have planets—cultures where the breath of life is sold like a kilo of butter in Provence. Other places so crowded that the privilege of staying alive is subject to tax—and delinquents are killed out of hand by the Department of Eternal Revenue and neighbors not only do not interfere, they are pleased."

"Good God! Why?"

"They solved death, milord, and most of them won't emigrate despite endless roomier planets. But we were speaking of Earth. Not only is whoring unknown elsewhere, but its permutations are unknown—dower, bridal price, alimony, separate maintenance, all the variations that color all Earth's institutions—every custom related even remotely to the incredible notion that what all women have an endless supply of is nevertheless merchandise, to be hoarded and auctioned."

Ars Longa gave a snort of disgust. No, I don't think she understood. She understands some Nevian but Star spoke English; Nevian lacks the vocabulary.

"Even your secondary customs," she went on, "are shaped by this unique institution. Clothing—you've noticed that there is no real difference here in how the two sexes dress. I'm in tights this morning and you are in shorts but had it been the other way around no one would have noticed."

"The hell they wouldn't! Your tights wouldn't fit me."

"They stretch. And body shyness, which is an aspect of sex-specialized clothing. Here nakedness is as unnoteworthy as on that pretty little island where I found you. All hairless peoples sometimes wear clothing and all peoples no matter how hirsute wear ornaments—but nakedness taboo is found only where flesh is merchandise to be packaged or displayed...that is to say, on Earth. It parallels ‘Don't pinch the grapefruit' and putting false bottoms in berry boxes. If something is never haggled over, there is no need to make a mystery of it."

"So if we get rid of clothes we get rid of prostitution?"

"Heavens, no! You've got it backwards." She frowned. "I don't see how Earth could ever get rid of whoring; it's too much a part of everything you do."

"Star, you've got your facts wrong. There is almost no prostitution in America."

She looked startled. "Really? But—Isn't ‘alimony' an American word? And ‘gold digger'? And ‘coming-out party'?"

"Yes, but prostitution has almost died out. Hell, I wouldn't know how to go about finding a whorehouse even in an Army town. I'm not saying that you don't wind up in the nay. But it's not commercialized. Star, even with an American girl who is well-known to be an easy make-out, if you offered her five bucks—or twenty—it's ten to one she would slap your face."