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Eric Donovan 2031







From: The Crowded Earth

Eric was glad to get to the office and shut the door. Lately he'd had
this feeling whenever he went out, this feeling that people were
staring at him. It wasn't just his imagination: they did stare. Every
younger person over a yard high got stared at nowadays, as if they
were freaks. And it wasn't just the staring that got him down, either.

Sometimes they muttered and mumbled, and sometimes they called names.
Eric didn't mind stuff like "dirty Naturalist." That he could
understand--once upon a time, way back, everybody who was against the
Leff Law was called a Naturalist. And before that it had still another
meaning, or so he'd been told. Today, of course, it just meant anyone
who was over five feet tall.

No, he could take the ordinary name-calling, all right. But sometimes
they said other things. They used words nobody ever uses unless they
really hate you, want to kill you. And that was at the bottom of it,
Eric knew. They did hate him, they did want to kill him.

Was he a coward? Perhaps. But it wasn't just Eric's imagination. You
never saw anything about such things on the telescreens, but
Naturalists were being killed every day. The older people were still
in the majority, but the youngsters were coming up fast. And there
were so many more of them. Besides, they were more active, and this
created the illusion that there were Yardsticks everywhere.

Eric sat down behind his desk, grinning. Yardsticks. When he was a
kid it had been just the other way around. He and the rest of them who
didn't get shots in those early days considered themselves to be the
normal ones. And they did the name-calling. Names like "runt" and
"half-pint" and "midgie." But the most common name was the one that
stuck--Yardstick. That used to be the worst insult of all.

But now it wasn't an insult any more. Being taller was the insult.
Being a dirty Naturalist or a son-of-a-Naturalist. Times certainly had
changed.

Eric glanced at the communicator. Almost noon, and it had not flicked
yet. Here he'd been beaming these big offers, you'd think he'd get
some response to an expensive beaming program, but no. Maybe that was
the trouble--nobody liked big things any more. Everything was small.

He shifted uneasily in his chair. That was one consolation, at least;
he still had old-time furniture. Getting to be harder and harder to
find stuff that fitted him these days. Seemed like most of the firms
making furniture and bedding and household appliances were turning out
the small stuff for the younger generation. Cheaper to make, less
material, and more demand for it. Government allocated size priorities
to the manufacturers.

It was even murder to ride public transportation because of the
space-reductions. Eric drove his own jetter. Besides, that way was
safer. Crowded into a liner with a gang of Yardsticks, with only a few
other Naturalists around, there might be trouble.

Oh, it was getting to be a Yardstick world, and no mistake. Smaller
furniture, smaller meals, smaller sizes in clothing, smaller
buildings--

That reminded Eric of something and he frowned again. Dammit, why
didn't the communicator flick? He should be getting some kind of
inquiries. Hell, he was practically giving the space away!

But there was only silence, as there had been all during this past
week. That's why he let Lorette go. Sweet girl, but there was no work
for her here any more. No work, and no pay, either. Besides, the place
spooked her. She'd been the one who suggested leaving, really.

"Eric, I'm sorry, but I just can't take this any more. All alone in
this huge building--it's curling my toes!"

At first he tried to talk her out of it. "Don't be silly, luscious!
There's Bernstein, down on ten, and Saltonstall above us, and Wallaby
and Son on fourteen, I tell you, this place is coming back to life, I
can feel it! I'll beam for tenants next week, you'll see--"

Actually he'd been talking against his own fear and Lorette must have
known it. Anyway, she left. And now he was here alone.

Alone.

Eric didn't like the sound of that word. Or the absence of sound
behind it. Three other tenants in a ninety-story building. Three other
tenants in a place that had once held three thousand. Why, fifty years
ago, when this place went up, you couldn't buy a vacancy. Where had
the crowds gone to?

He knew the answer, of course. The Leff shots had created the new
generation of Yardsticks, and they lived in their own world. Their
shrunken, dehydrated world of doll-houses and miniatures. They'd
deserted the old-fashioned skyscrapers and cut the big apartment
buildings up into tiny cubicles; two could occupy the space formerly
reserved for one.

That had been the purpose of the Leff shots in the first place--to put
an end to overcrowding and conserve on resources. Well, it had worked
out. Worked out too perfectly for people like Eric Donovan. Eric
Donovan, rental agent for a building nobody wanted any more; a
ninety-storey mausoleum. And nobody could collect rent from ghosts.

Ghosts.

Eric damned near jumped through the ceiling when the door opened and
this man walked in. He was tall and towheaded. Eric stared; there was
something vaguely familiar about his face. Something about those ears,
that was it, those ears. No, it couldn't be, it wasn't possible--

Eric stood up and held out his hand. "I'm Donovan," he said.

The towheaded man smiled and nodded. "Yes, I know. Don't you remember
me?"

"I thought I knew you from someplace. You wouldn't be--Sam Wolzek?"

The towheaded man's smile became a broad grin. "That's not what you
were going to say, Eric. You were going to say 'Handle-head,' weren't
you? Well, go on, say it. I don't mind. I've been called a lot worse
things since we were kids together."

"I can't believe it," Eric murmured. "It's really you! Old Handle-head
Wolzek! And after all these years, turning up to rent an office from
me. Well, what do you know!"

"I didn't come here to rent an office."

"Oh? Then--"

"It was your name that brought me. I recognized it on the beamings."

"Then this is a social call, eh? Well, that's good. I don't get much
company these days. Sit down, have a reef."

Wolzek sat down but refused the smoke. "I know quite a bit about your
setup," he said. "You and your three tenants. It's tough, Eric."

"Oh, things could be worse." Eric forced a laugh. "It isn't as if my
bucks depended on the number of tenants in the building. Government
subsidizes this place. I'm sure of a job as long as I live."

"As long as you live." Wolzek stared at him in a way he didn't like.
"And just how long do you figure that to be?"

"I'm only twenty-six," Eric answered. "According to statistics, that
gives me maybe another sixty years."

"Statistics!" Wolzek said it like a dirty word. "Your life-expectancy
isn't determined by statistics any more. I say you don't have sixty
months left. Perhaps not even sixty days."

"What are you trying to hand me?"

"The truth. And don't go looking for a silver platter underneath it,
either."

"But I mind my own business. I don't hurt anybody. Why should I be in
any danger?"

"Why does a government subsidy support one rental manager to sit here
in this building every day--but ten guards to patrol it every night?"

Eric opened his mouth wide before shaping it for speech. "Who told you
that?"

"Like I said, I know the setup." Wolzek crossed his legs, but he
didn't lean back. "And in case you haven't guessed it, this is a
business call, not a social one."

Eric sighed. "Might have figured," he said. "You're a Naturalist,
aren't you?"

"Of course I am. We all are."

"Not I."

"Oh yes--whether you like it or not, you're a Naturalist, too. As far
as the Yardsticks are concerned, everyone over three feet high is a
Naturalist. An enemy. Someone to be hated, and destroyed."

"Think I'd believe that? Sure, I know they don't like us, and why
should they? We eat twice as much, take up twice the space, and I
guess when we were kids we gave a lot of them a hard time. Besides,
outside of a few exceptions like ourselves, all the younger generation
are Yardsticks, with more coming every year. The older people hold
the key positions and the power. Of course there's a lot of friction
and resentment. But you know all that."

"Certainly." Wolzek nodded. "All that and more. Much more. I know that
up until a few years ago, no Yardstick held any public office or
government position. Now they're starting to move in, particularly in
Europasia. But there's so many of them now--adults, in their early
twenties--that the pressure is building up. They're impatient, getting
out of hand. They won't wait until the old folks die off. They want
control now. And if they ever manage to get it, we're finished for
good."

"Impossible!" Eric said.

"Impossible?" Wolzek's voice was a mocking echo. "You sit here in this
tomb and when somebody tells you that the world you know has died, you
refuse to believe it. Even though every night, after you sneak home
and huddle up inside your room trying not to be noticed, ten guards
patrol this place with subatomics, so the Yardstick gangs won't break
in and take over. So they won't do what they did down south--overrun
the office buildings and the factories and break them up, cut them
down to size for living quarters."

"But they were stopped," Eric objected. "I saw it on the telescreen,
the security forces stopped them--"

"Crapola!" Wolzek pronounced the archaicism with studied care. "You
saw films. Faked films. Have you ever traveled, Eric? Ever been down
south and seen conditions there?"

"Nobody travels nowadays. You know that. Priorities."

"I travel, Eric. And I know. Security forces don't suppress anything
in the south these days. Because they're made up of Yardsticks now;
that's right, Yardsticks exclusively. And in a few years that's the
way it will be up here. Did you ever hear about the Chicagee riots?"

"You mean last year, when the Yardsticks tried to take over the
synthetic plants at the Stockyards?"

"Tried? They succeeded. The workers ousted management. Over fifty
thousand were killed in the revolution--oh, don't look so shocked,
that's the right word for it!--but the Yardsticks won out in the end."

"But the telescreen showed--"

"Damn the telescreen! I know because I happened to be there when it
happened. And if you had been there, you and a few million other
ostriches who sit with your heads buried in telescreens, maybe we
could have stopped them."

"I don't believe it. I can't!"

"All right. Think back. That was last year. And since the first of
this year, what's happened to the standard size meat-ration?"

"They cut it in half," Eric admitted. "But that's because of Ag
shortages, according to the telescreen reports--" He stood up,
gulping. "Look here, I'm not going to listen to any more of this kind
of talk. By rights, I ought to turn your name in."

"Go ahead." Wolzek waved his hand. "It's happened before. I was
reported when I blasted the Yardsticks who shot my father down when he
tried to land his jet in a southern field. I was reported when they
killed Annette."

"Annette?"

"You remember that name, don't you, Eric? Your first girl, wasn't she?
Well, I'm the guy who married her. Yes, and I'm the guy who talked her
into having a baby without the benefit of Leff shots. Sure, it's
illegal, and only a few of us ever try it any more, but we both agreed
that we wanted it that way. A real, life-sized, normal baby. Or
abnormal, according to the Yardsticks and the stupid government.

"It was a dirty scum of a government doctor who let her die on the
table when he discovered the child weighed seven pounds. That's when I
really woke up, Eric. That's when I knew there was going to be only
one decision to make in the future--kill or be killed."

"Annette. She died, you say?"

Wolzek moved over and put his hand on Eric's shoulder. "You never
married, did you, Eric? I think I know why. It's because you felt the
way I did about it. You wanted a regular kid, not a Yardstick. Only
you didn't quite have the guts to try and beat the law. Well, you'll
need guts now, because it's getting to the point where the law can't
protect you any more. The government is made up of old men, and
they're afraid to take action. In a few years they'll be pushed out of
office all over the world. We'll have Yardstick government then, all
the way, and Yardstick law. And that means they'll cut us down to
size."

"But what can you--we--do about it?"

"Plenty. There's still a little time. If we Naturalists can only get
together, stop being just a name and become an organized force, maybe
the ending will be different. We've got to try, in any case."

"The Yardsticks are human beings, just like us," Eric said, slowly.
"We can't just declare war on them, wipe them out. It's not their
fault they were born that way."

Wolzek nodded. "I know. Nothing is anybody's fault, really. This whole
business began in good faith. Leffingwell and some of the other
geniuses saw a problem and offered what they sincerely believed was a
solution."

"But it didn't work," Eric murmured.

"Wrong. It worked only too well. That's the trouble. Sure, we
eliminated our difficulties on the physical level. In less than thirty
years we've reached a point where there's no longer any danger of
overcrowding or starvation. But the psychological factor is something
we can't cope with. We thought we'd ended war and the possibilities of
war a long time ago. But it isn't foreign enemies we must fear today.
We've created a nation divided into Davids and Goliaths--and David and
Goliath are always enemies."

"David killed Goliath," Eric said. "Does that mean we're going to
die?"

"Only if we're as stupid as Goliath was. Only if we wear our
telescreens like invincible armor and pay no attention to the
slingshot in David's hands."

Eric lit a reef. "All right," he said. "You don't have to lecture. I'm
willing to join. But I'm no Goliath, really. I never had a fight in my
life. What could I do to help?"

"You're a rental agent. You have the keys to this building. The guards
don't bother you by day, do they? You come and go as you please. That
means you can get into the cellars. You can help us move the stuff
down there. And we'll take care of the guards some night, after that."

"I don't understand."

The friendly pressure on Eric's shoulder became a fierce grip. "You
don't have to understand. All you do is let us plant the stuff in the
cellars and let us get rid of the guards afterwards in our own way.
The Yardsticks will do the rest."

"You mean, take over the building when it's not protected?"

"Of course. They'll take it over completely, once they see there's no
opposition. And they'll remodel it to suit themselves, and within a
month there'll be ten thousand Yardsticks sitting in this place."

"The government will never stand still for that."

"Wake up! It's happening all over, all the time, and nothing is being
done to prevent it. Security is too weak and officials are too timid
to risk open warfare. So the Yardsticks win, and I'm going to see that
they win this place."

"But how will that help us?"

"You don't see it yet, do you? And neither will the Yardsticks. Until,
some fine day three or four months from now, we get around to what
will be planted in the cellars. Somebody will throw a switch, miles
away, and--boom!"

"Wolzek, you couldn't--"

"It's coming. Not only here, but in fifty other places. We've got to
fight fire with fire, Eric. It's our only chance. Bring this thing out
into the open. Make the government realize this is war. Civil war.
That's the only way to force them to take real action. We can't do it
any other way; it's illegal to organize politically, and petitions do
no good. We can't get a hearing. Well, they'll have to listen to the
explosions."

"I just don't know--"

"Maybe you're the one who should have married Annette after all."
Wolzek's voice was cold. "Maybe you could have watched her, watched
her scream and beg and die, and never wanted to move a muscle to do
anything about it afterwards. Maybe you're the model citizen, Eric;
you and the thousands of others who are standing by and letting the
Yardsticks chop us down, one by one. They say in Nature it's the
survival of the fittest. Well, perhaps you're not fit to survive."

Eric wasn't listening. "She screamed," he said. "You heard her
scream?"

Wolzek nodded. "I can still hear her. I'll always hear her."

"Yes." Eric blinked abruptly. "When do we start?"

Wolzek smiled at him. It was a pretty good smile for a man who can
always hear screaming. "I knew I could count on you," he murmured.
"Nothing like old friends."

"Funny, isn't it?" Eric tried to match his smile. "The way things work
out. You and I being kids together. You marrying my girl. And then, us
meeting up again this way."

"Yes," said Wolzek, and he wasn't smiling now. "I guess it's a small
world."





Next: Harry Collins 2032

Previous: Harry Collins 2029



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