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Harry Collins 1997

From: The Crowded Earth

The telescreen lit up promptly at eight a.m. Smiling Brad came on with
his usual greeting. "Good morning--it's a beautiful day in Chicagee!"

Harry Collins rolled over and twitched off the receiver. "This I
doubt," he muttered. He sat up and reached into the closet for his

Visitors--particularly feminine ones--were always exclaiming over the
advantages of Harry's apartment. "So convenient," they would say.
"Everything handy, right within reach. And think of all the extra
steps you save!"

Of course most of them were just being polite and trying to cheer
Harry up. They knew damned well that he wasn't living in one room
through any choice of his own. The Housing Act was something you just
couldn't get around; not in Chicagee these days. A bachelor was
entitled to one room--no more and no less. And even though Harry was
making a speedy buck at the agency, he couldn't hope to beat the

There was only one way to beat them and that was to get married.
Marriage would automatically entitle him to two rooms--if he could
find them someplace.

More than a few of his feminine visitors had hinted at just that, but
Harry didn't respond. Marriage was no solution, the way he figured it.
He knew that he couldn't hope to locate a two-room apartment any
closer than eighty miles away. It was bad enough driving forty miles
to and from work every morning and night without doubling the
distance. If he did find a bigger place, that would mean a three-hour
trip each way on one of the commutrains, and the commutrains were
murder. The Black Hole of Calcutta, on wheels.

But then, everything was murder, Harry reflected, as he stepped from
the toilet to the sink, from the sink to the stove, from the stove to
the table.

Powdered eggs for breakfast. That was murder, too. But it was a fast,
cheap meal, easy to prepare, and the ingredients didn't waste a lot of
storage space. The only trouble was, he hated the way they tasted.
Harry wished he had time to eat his breakfasts in a restaurant. He
could afford the price, but he couldn't afford to wait in line more
than a half-hour or so. His office schedule at the agency started
promptly at ten-thirty. And he didn't get out until three-thirty; it
was a long, hard five-hour day. Sometimes he wished he worked in the
New Philly area, where a four-hour day was the rule. But he supposed
that wouldn't mean any real saving in time, because he'd have to live
further out. What was the population in New Philly now? Something like
63,000,000, wasn't it? Chicagee was much smaller--only 38,000,000,
this year.

This year. Harry shook his head and took a gulp of the Instantea.
Yes, this year the population was 38,000,000, and the boundaries of
the community extended north to what used to be the old Milwaukee and
south past Gary. What would it be like next year, and the year

Lately that question had begun to haunt Harry. He couldn't quite
figure out why. After all, it was none of his business, really. He had
a good job, security, a nice place just two hours from the Loop. He
even drove his own car. What more could he ask?

And why did he have to start the day like this, with a blinding

Harry finished his Instantea and considered the matter. Yes, it was
beginning again, just as it had on almost every morning for the past
month. He'd sit down at the table, eat his usual breakfast, and end up
with a headache. Why?

It wasn't the food; for a while he'd deliberately varied his diet, but
that didn't make any difference. And he'd had his usual monthly
checkup not more than ten days ago, only to be assured there was
nothing wrong with him. Still, the headaches persisted. Every morning,
when he'd sit down and jerk his head to the left like this--

That was it. Jerking his head to the left. It always seemed to trigger
the pain. But why? And where had he picked up this habit of jerking
his head to the left?

Harry didn't know.

He glanced at his watch. It was almost nine, now. High time that he
got started. He reached over to the interapartment video and dialled
the garage downstairs.

"Bill," he said. "Can you bring my car around to Number Three?"

The tiny face in the hand-screen grinned sheepishly. "Mr. Collins,
ain't it? Gee, I'm sorry, Mr. Collins. Night crew took on a new man,
he must have futzed around with the lists, and I can't find your

Harry sighed. "It's one-eight-seven-three-dash-five," he said. "Light
blue Pax, two-seater. Do you want the license number, too?"

"No, just your parking number. I'll recognize it when I see it. But
God only knows what level it's on. That night man really--"

"Never mind," Harry interrupted. "How soon?"

"Twenty minutes or so. Maybe half an hour."

"Half an hour? I'll be late. Hurry it up!"

Harry clicked the video and shook his head. Half an hour! Well, you
had to expect these things if you wanted to be independent and do your
own driving today. If he wanted to work his priority through the
office, he could get his application honored on the I.C. Line within a
month. But the I.C. was just another commutrain, and he couldn't take
it. Standing and swaying for almost two hours, fighting the crowds,
battling his way in and out of the sidewalk escalators. Besides, there
was always the danger of being crushed. He'd seen an old man trampled
to death on a Michigan Boulevard escalator-feeder, and he'd never
forgotten it.

Being afraid was only a partial reason for his reluctance to change.
The worst thing, for Harry, was the thought of all those people; the
forced bodily contact, the awareness of smothered breathing, odors,
and the crushing confinement of flesh against flesh. It was bad enough
in the lines, or on the streets. The commutrain was just too much.

Yet, as a small boy, Harry could remember the day when he'd loved such
trips. Sitting there looking out of the window as the scenery whirled
past--that was always a thrill when you were a little kid. How long
ago had that been? More than twenty years, wasn't it?

Now there weren't any seats, and no windows. Which was just as well,
probably, because the scenery didn't whirl past any more, either.
Instead, there was a stop at every station on the line, and a constant
battle as people jockeyed for position to reach the exit-doors in

No, the car was better.

Harry reached for a container in the cabinet and poured out a couple
of aspirystamines. That ought to help the headache. At least until he
got to the office. Then he could start with the daily quota of
yellowjackets. Meanwhile, getting out on the street might help him,
too. A shame there wasn't a window in this apartment, but then, what
good would it do, really? All he could see through it would be the
next apartment.

He shrugged and picked up his coat. Nine-thirty, time to go
downstairs. Maybe the car would be located sooner than Bill had
promised; after all, he had nine assistants, and not everybody went to
work on this first daylight shift.

Harry walked down the hall and punched the elevator button. He looked
at the indicator, watched the red band move towards the numeral of
this floor, then sweep past it.

"Full up!" he muttered. "Oh, well."

He reached out and touched both sides of the corridor. That was
another thing he disliked; these narrow corridors. Two people could
scarcely squeeze past one another without touching. Of course, it did
save space to build apartments this way, and space was at a premium.
But Harry couldn't get used to it. Now he remembered some of the old
buildings that were still around when he was a little boy--

The headache seemed to be getting worse instead of better. Harry
looked at the indicator above the other elevator entrance. The red
band was crawling upward, passing him to stop on 48. That was the top
floor. Now it was moving down, down; stopping on 47, 46, 45, 44, 43,
and--here it was!

"Stand back, please!" said the tape. Harry did his best to oblige, but
there wasn't much room. A good two dozen of his upstairs neighbors
jammed the compartment. Harry thought he recognized one or two of the
men, but he couldn't be sure. There were so many people, so many
faces. After a while it got so they all seemed to look alike. Yes, and
breathed alike, and felt alike when you were squeezed up against them,
and you were always being squeezed up against them, wherever you went.
And you could smell them, and hear them wheeze and cough, and you went
falling down with them into a bottomless pit where your head began to
throb and throb and it was hard to move away from all that heat and
pressure. It was hard enough just to keep from screaming--

Then the door opened and Harry was catapulted out into the lobby. The
mob behind him pushed and clawed because they were in a hurry; they
were always in a hurry these days, and if you got in their way they'd
trample you down like that old man had been trampled down; there was
no room for one man in a crowd any more.

Harry blinked and shook his head.

He gripped the edge of the wall and clung there in an effort to avoid
being swept out of the lobby completely. His hands were sticky with
perspiration. They slipped off as he slowly inched his way back
through the crush of the mob.

"Wait for me!" he called. "Wait for me, I'm going down!" But his voice
was lost in the maelstrom of sound just as his body was lost in the
maelstrom of motion. Besides, an automatic elevator cannot hear. It is
merely a mechanism that goes up and down, just like the other
mechanisms that go in and out, or around and around, and you get
caught up in them the way a squirrel gets caught in a squirrel-cage
and you race and race, and the best you can hope for is to keep up
with the machinery.

The elevator door clanged shut before Harry could reach it. He waited
for another car to arrive, and this time he stood aside as the crowd
emerged, then darted in behind them.

The car descended to the first garage level, and Harry stood gulping
gratefully in the comparative isolation. There weren't more than ten
people accompanying him.

He emerged on the ramp, gave his number to the attendant, and waved at

Bill in his office. Bill seemed to recognize him; at least he nodded,
briefly. No sense trying to talk--not in this sullen subterranea,
filled with the booming echo of exhausts, the despairing shriek of
brakes. Headlights flickered in the darkness as cars whirled past,
ascending and descending on the loading platforms. The signal systems
winked from the walls, and tires screeched defiance to the warning

Old-fashioned theologians, Harry remembered, used to argue whether
there really was a Hell, and if so, had it been created by God or the
Devil? Too bad they weren't around today to get an answer to their
questions. There was a Hell, and it had been created by General

Harry's temples began to throb. Through blurred eyes, he saw the
attendant beckoning him down the line to a platform marked Check-Out
#3. He stood there with a cluster of others, waiting.

What was the matter with him today, anyway? First the headache, and
now his feet were hurting. Standing around waiting, that's what did
it. This eternal waiting. When he was a kid, the grownups were always
complaining about the long seven-hour work days and how they cut into
their leisure time. Well, maybe they had reason to gripe, but at least
there was some leisure before work began or after it was through.
Now that extra time was consumed in waiting. Standing in line,
standing in crowds, wearing yourself out doing nothing.

Still, this time it wasn't really so bad. Within ten minutes the light
blue Pax rolled up before him. Harry climbed in as the attendant slid
out from behind the wheel and prepared to leave.

Then a fat man appeared, running along the ramp. He gestured wildly
with a plump thumb. Harry nodded briefly, and the fat man hurled
himself into the seat beside him and slammed the door.

They were off. Harry read the signals impatiently, waiting for the
green Go. The moment he saw it he gunned his motor and got the car
up to twenty-two and zipped away.

That's what he liked, that's what he always waited for. Of course it
was dangerous, here in the tunnel system under the garage, but Harry
always got a thrill out of speed. The Pax could do thirty-five or even
forty, probably, on a theoretical open road. Still, twenty-two was
enough to satisfy Harry.

He whizzed up the ramp, turned, headed for the street-level, then
braked and waited for the signal to emerge.

Harsh sunlight pierced the smog and he felt his eyes watering. Now the
street noises assailed his ears; the grinding of gears, the revving of
motors. But at least the total volume was lower, and with the windows
tightly closed against the acrid air, he could hear.

Turning to the fat man beside him he said, "Hello, Frazer. What's the

"Got to get downtown before eleven," the fat man answered. "Board
meeting today, but I forgot about it. Knew I wouldn't have time to
wait for the car, and I was hoping I'd find someone who'd give me a
lift. Lucky for me that you came along when you did."

Harry nodded but did not reply. At the moment he was trying to edge
into the traffic beyond. It flowed, bumper to bumper, in a steady
stream; a stream moving at the uniform and prescribed rate of fifteen
miles per hour. He released his brakes and the Pax nosed forward until
a truck sounded its horn in ominous warning. The noise hurt Harry's
head; he winced and grimaced.

"What's the matter?" asked Frazer.

"Headache," Harry muttered. He menaced a Chevsoto with his bumper.
"Damn it, I thought they didn't allow those big four-passenger jobs on
this arterial during rush hours!" Gradually he managed to turn until
he was in the righthand lane. "There," he said. "We're off."

And so they were, for all of three minutes, with the speed set at
fifteen on autopilot. Then a signal went into action somewhere up
ahead, and the procession halted. Harry flicked his switch. As was
customary, horns sounded indignantly on all sides--a mechanical
protest against a mechanical obstruction. Harry winced again.

"Hangover?" Frazer asked, solicitously. "Try aspirystamine."

Harry shook his head. "No hangover. And I've already taken three,
thanks. Nothing does any good. So I guess it's just up to you."

"Up to me?" Frazer was genuinely puzzled. "What can I do about your

"You're on the Board of City Planners, aren't you?"

"That's right."

"Well, I've got a suggestion for you to give to them. Tell them to
start planning to drop a couple of heavy thermo-nucs on this area.
Clean out twenty or thirty million people. We'd never miss 'em."

Frazer chuckled wryly. "I wish I had a buck for every time I've heard
that suggestion."

"Ever stop to think why you hear it so often? It's because everybody
feels the same way--we can't take being hemmed in like this."

"Well, a bomb wouldn't help. You know that." Frazer pursed his lips.
"Robertson figured out what would happen, with the chain-reaction."

* * * * *

Harry glanced sideways at his companion as the car started forward
once again. "I've always wondered about that," he said. "Seriously, I
mean. Is the story really true, or is it just some more of this
government propaganda you fellows like to hand out?"

Frazer sighed. "It's true, all right. There was a scientist named
Robertson, and he did come up with the thermo-nuc formula, way back in
'75. Proved it, too. Use what he developed and the chain-reaction
would never end. Scientists in other countries tested the theory and
agreed; there was no collusion, it just worked out that way on a
practical basis. Hasn't been a war since--what more proof do you

"Well, couldn't they just use some of the old-fashioned hydrogen

"Be sensible, man! Once a war started, no nation could resist the
temptation to go all-out. Fortunately, everyone realizes that. So we
have peace. Permanent peace."

"I'll take a good war anytime, in preference to this."

"Harry, you don't know what you're talking about. You aren't so young
that you can't remember what it was like in the old days. Everybody
living in fear, waiting for the bombs to fall. People dying of disease
and worried about dying from radiation and fallout. All the
international rivalries, the power-politics, the eternal pressures and
constant crises. Nobody in his right mind would want to go back to
that. We've come a mighty long way in the last twenty years or so."

Harry switched to autopilot and sat back. "Maybe that's the trouble,"
he said. "Maybe we've come too far, too fast. I wasn't kidding about
dropping those thermo-nucs, either. Something has to be done. We
can't go on like this indefinitely. Why doesn't the Board come up with
an answer?"

Frazer shrugged his heavy shoulders. "You think we haven't tried,
aren't trying now? We're aware of the situation as well as you
are--and then some. But there's no easy solution. The population just
keeps growing, that's all. No war to cut it down, contagious diseases
at a minimum, average life-expectancy up to ninety years or better.
Naturally, this results in a problem. But a bomb won't help bring
about any permanent solution. Besides, this isn't a local matter, or
even a national one. It's global. What do you think those summit
meetings are all about?"

"What about birth control?" Harry asked. "Why don't they really get
behind an emigration movement?"

"We can't limit procreation by law. You know that." Frazer peered out
at the swarming streams on the sidewalk levels. "It's more than a
religious or a political question--it's a social one. People want
kids. They can afford them. Besides, the Housing Act is set up so that
having kids is just about the only way you can ever get into larger

"Couldn't they try reverse-psychology? I mean, grant priority to
people who are willing to be sterilized?"

"They tried it, on a limited experimental scale, about three years ago
out on the West Coast."

"I never heard anything about it."

"Damned right you didn't," Frazer replied, grimly. "They kept the
whole project under wraps, and for a good reason. The publicity might
have wrecked the Administration."

"What happened?"

"What do you suppose happened? There were riots. Do you think a man
and his wife and three kids, living in three rooms, liked the idea of
standing by and watching a sterilized couple enjoy a four-room place
with lawn space? Things got pretty ugly, let me tell you. There was a
rumor going around that the country was in the hands of
homosexuals--the churches were up in arms--and if that wasn't bad
enough, we had to face up to the primary problem. There just wasn't,
just isn't, enough space. Not in areas suitable for maintaining a
population. Mountains are still mountains and deserts are still
deserts. Maybe we can put up housing in such regions, but who can live
there? Even with decentralization going full blast, people must live
within reasonable access to their work. No, we're just running out of

Again the car halted on signal. Over the blasting of the horns, Harry
repeated his query about emigration.

Frazer shook his head, but made no attempt to reply until the horns
had quieted and they were under way once more.

"As for emigration, we're just getting some of our own medicine in
return. About eighty years ago, we clamped down and closed the door on
immigrants; established a quota. Now the same quota is being used
against us, and you can't really blame other nations for it. They're
facing worse population increases than we are. Look at the African
Federation, and what's happened there, in spite of all the
wealth! And South America is even worse, in spite of all the
reclamation projects. Fifteen years ago, when they cleared out the
Amazon Basin, they thought they'd have enough room for fifty years to
come. And now look at it--two hundred million, that's the latest
figure we've got."

"So what's the answer?" Harry asked.

"I don't know. If it wasn't for hydroponics and the Ag Culture
controls, we'd be licked right now. As it is, we can still supply
enough food, and the old supply-and-demand takes care of the economy
as a whole. I have no recommendations for an overall solution, or even
a regional one. My job, the Board's job, is regulating housing and
traffic and transportation in Chicagee. That's about all you can
expect us to handle."

Again they jolted to a stop and the horns howled all around them.
Harry sat there until a muscle in the side of his jaw began to twitch.
Suddenly he pounded on the horn with both fists.

"Shut up!" he yelled. "For the love of Heaven, shut up!"

Abruptly he slumped back. "Sorry," he mumbled. "It's my damned
headache. I--I've got to get out of this."

"Job getting you down?"

"No. It's a good job. At least everybody tells me so. Twenty-five
hours a week, three hundred bucks. The car. The room. The telescreen
and liquor and yellowjackets. Plenty of time to kill. Unless it's the
time that's killing me."

"But--what do you want?"

Harry stepped on the accelerator and they inched along. Now the street
widened into eight traffic lanes and the big semis joined the
procession on the edge of the downtown area.

"I want out," Harry said. "Out of this."

"Don't you ever visit the National Preserves?" Frazer asked.

"Sure I do. Fly up every vacation. Take a tame plane to a tame
government resort and catch my quota of two tame fish. Great sport! If
I got married, I'd be entitled to four tame fish. But that's not what
I want. I want what my father used to talk about. I want to drive into
the country, without a permit, mind you; just to drive wherever I
like. I want to see cows and chickens and trees and lakes and sky."

"You sound like a Naturalist."

"Don't sneer. Maybe the Naturalists are right. Maybe we ought to cut
out all this phoney progress and phoney peace that passeth all
understanding. I'm no liberal, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I
think the Naturalists have the only answer."

"But what can you do about it?" Frazer murmured. "Suppose for the
sake of argument that they are right. How can you change things? We
can't just will ourselves to stop growing, and we can't legislate
against biology. More people, in better health, with more free time,
are just bound to have more offspring. It's inevitable, under the
circumstances. And neither you nor I nor anyone has the right to
condemn millions upon millions of others to death through war or

"I know," Harry said. "It's hopeless, I guess. All the same, I want
out." He wet his lips. "Frazer, you're on the Board here. You've got
connections higher up. If I could only get a chance to transfer to Ag
Culture, go on one of those farms as a worker--"

Frazer shook his head. "Sorry, Harry. You know the situation there,
I'm sure. Right now there's roughly ninety million approved
applications on file. Everybody wants to get into Ag Culture."

"But couldn't I just buy some land, get a government contract for

"Have you got the bucks? A minimum forty acres leased from one of the
farm corporations will cost you two hundred thousand at the very
least, not counting equipment." He paused. "Besides, there's
Vocational Apt. What did your tests show?"

"You're right," Harry said. "I'm supposed to be an agency man. An
agency man until I die. Or retire on my pension, at fifty, and sit in
my little room for the next fifty years, turning on the telescreen
every morning to hear some loudmouthed liar tell me it's a beautiful
day in Chicagee. Who knows, maybe by that time we'll have a hundred
billion people enjoying peace and progress and prosperity. All sitting
in little rooms and--"

"Watch out!" Frazer grabbed the wheel. "You nearly hit that truck." He
waited until Harry's face relaxed before relinquishing his grip.
"Harry, you'd better go in for a checkup. It isn't just a headache
with you, is it?"

"You're not fooling," Harry told him. "It isn't just a headache."

He began to think about what it really was, and that helped a
little. It helped him get through the worst part, which was the
downtown traffic and letting Frazer off and listening to Frazer urge
him to see a doctor.

Then he got to the building parking area and let them take his car
away and bury it down in the droning darkness where the horns hooted
and the headlights glared.

Harry climbed the ramp and mingled with the ten-thirty shift on its
way up to the elevators. Eighteen elevators in his building, to serve
eighty floors. Nine of the elevators were express to the fiftieth
floor, three were express to sixty-five. He wanted one of the latter,
and so did the mob. The crushing, clinging mob. They pressed and
panted the way mobs always do; mobs that lynch and torture and dance
around bonfires and guillotines and try to drag you down to trample
you to death because they can't stand you if your name is Harry and
you want to be different.

They hate you because you don't like powdered eggs and the telescreen
and a beautiful day in Chicagee. And they stare at you because your
forehead hurts and the muscle in your jaw twitches and they know you
want to scream as you go up, up, up, and try to think why you get a
headache from jerking your head to the left.

Then Harry was at the office door and they said good morning when he
came in, all eighty of the typists in the outer office working their
electronic machines and offering him their electronic smiles,
including the girl he had made electronic love to last Saturday night
and who wanted him to move into a two-room marriage and have children,
lots of children who could enjoy peace and progress and prosperity.

* * * * *

Harry snapped out of it, going down the corridor. Only a few steps
more and he'd be safe in his office, his own private office, almost as
big as his apartment. And there would be liquor, and the yellowjackets
in the drawer. That would help. Then he could get to work.

What was today's assignment? He tried to remember. It was
Wilmer-Klibby, wasn't it? Telescreenads for Wilmer-Klibby, makers of


He opened his office door and then slammed it shut behind him. For a
minute everything blurred, and then he could remember.

Now he knew what caused him to jerk his head, what gave him the
headaches when he did so. Of course. That was it.

When he sat down at the table for breakfast in the morning he turned
his head to the left because he'd always done so, ever since he was a
little boy. A little boy, in what was then Wheaton, sitting at the
breakfast table and looking out of the window. Looking out at summer
sunshine, spring rain, autumn haze, the white wonder of newfallen

He'd never broken himself of the habit. He still looked to the left
every morning, just as he had today. But there was no window any more.
There was only a blank wall. And beyond it, the smog and the clamor
and the crowds.

Window-glass. Wilmer-Klibby had problems. Nobody was buying
window-glass any more. Nobody except the people who put up buildings
like this. There were still windows on the top floors, just like the
window here in his office.

Harry stepped over to it, moving very slowly because of his head. It
hurt to keep his eyes open, but he wanted to stare out of the window.
Up this high you could see above the smog. You could see the sun like
a radiant jewel packed in the cotton cumulus of clouds. If you opened
the window you could feel fresh air against your forehead, you could
breathe it in and breathe out the headache.

But you didn't dare look down. Oh, no, never look down, because then
you'd see the buildings all around you. The buildings below, black and
sooty, their jagged outlines like the stumps of rotten teeth. And they
stretched off in all directions, as far as the eye could attain; row
after row of rotten teeth grinning up from the smog-choked throat of
the streets. From the maw of the city far below came this faint but
endless howling, this screaming of traffic and toil. And you couldn't
help it, you breathed that in too, along with the fresh air, and it
poisoned you and it did more than make your head ache. It made your
heart ache and it made your soul sick, and it made you close your eyes
and your lungs and your brain against it.

Harry reeled, but he knew this was the only way. Close your brain
against it. And then, when you opened your eyes again, maybe you
could see the way things used to be--

It was snowing out and it was a wet snow, the very best kind for
snowballs and making a snowman, and the whole gang would come out
after school.

But there was no school, this was Saturday, and the leaves were russet
and gold and red so that it looked as if all the trees in the world
were on fire. And you could scuff when you walked and pile up fallen
leaves from the grass and roll in them.

And it was swell to roll down the front lawn in summer, just roll
right down to the edge of the sidewalk like it was a big hill and let
Daddy catch you at the bottom, laughing.

Mamma laughed too, and she said, Look, it's springtime, the lilacs
are out, do you want to touch the pretty lilacs, Harry?

And Harry didn't quite understand what she was saying, but he reached
out and they were purple and smelled of rain and soft sweetness and
they were just beyond the window, if he reached a little further he
could touch them--

And then the snow and the leaves and the grass and the lilacs
disappeared, and Harry could see the rotten teeth again, leering and
looming and snapping at him. They were going to bite, they were going
to chew, they were going to devour, and he couldn't stop them,
couldn't stop himself. He was falling into the howling jaws of the

His last conscious effort was a desperate attempt to gulp fresh air
into his lungs before he pinwheeled down. Fresh air was good for

Next: Harry Collins 1998

Previous: The Uses Of Mystery

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