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Harry Collins 1998







From: The Crowded Earth

It took them ten seconds to save Harry from falling, but it took him
over ten weeks to regain his balance.

In fact, well over two months had passed before he could fully realize
just what had happened, or where he was now. They must have noticed
something was wrong with him that morning at the office, because two
supervisors and an exec rushed in and caught him just as he was going
out of the window. And then they had sent him away, sent him here.

"This is fine," he told Dr. Manschoff. "If I'd known how well they
treated you, I'd have gone couch-happy years ago."

Dr. Manschoff's plump face was impassive, but the little laugh-lines
deepened around the edges of his eyes. "Maybe that's why we take such
care not to publicize our recent advances in mental therapy," he said.
"Everybody would want to get into a treatment center, and then where
would we be?"

Harry nodded, staring past the doctor's shoulder, staring out of the
wide window at the broad expanse of rolling countryside beyond.

"I still don't understand, though," he murmured. "How can you possibly
manage to maintain an institution like this, with all the space and
the luxuries? The inmates seem to lead a better life than the adjusted
individuals outside. It's topsy-turvy."

"Perhaps." Dr. Manschoff's fingers formed a pudgy steeple. "But then,
so many things seem to be topsy-turvy nowadays, don't they? Wasn't it
the realization of this fact which precipitated your own recent
difficulties?"

"Almost precipitated me bodily out of that window," Harry admitted,
cheerfully. "And that's another thing. I was sent here, I suppose,
because I'd attempted suicide, gone into shock, temporary amnesia,
something like that."

"Something like that," the doctor echoed, contemplating his steeple.

"But you didn't give me any treatment," Harry continued. "Oh, I was
kept under sedation for a while, I realize that. And you and some of
the other staff-members talked to me. But mainly I just rested in a
nice big room and ate nice big meals."

"So?" The steeple's fleshy spire collapsed.

"So what I want to know is, when does the real treatment start? When
do I go into analysis, or chemotherapy, and all that?"

Dr. Manschoff shrugged. "Do you think you need those things now?"

Harry gazed out at the sunlight beyond the window, half-squinting and
half-frowning. "No, come to think of it, I don't believe I do. I feel
better now than I have in years."

His companion leaned back. "Meaning that for years you felt all wrong.
Because you were constricted, physically, psychically, and
emotionally. You were cramped, squeezed in a vise until the pressure
became intolerable. But now that pressure has been removed. As a
result you no longer suffer, and there is no need to seek escape in
death or denial of identity.

"This radical change of attitude has been brought about here in just a
little more than two months' time. And yet you're asking me when the
'real treatment' begins."

"I guess I've already had the real treatment then, haven't I?"

"That is correct. Prolonged analysis or drastic therapy is
unnecessary. We've merely given you what you seemed to need."

"I'm very grateful," Harry said. "But how can you afford to do it?"

Dr. Manschoff built another temple to an unknown god. He inspected the
architecture critically now as he spoke. "Because your problem is a
rarity," he said.

"Rarity? I'd have thought millions of people would be breaking down
every month. The Naturalists say--"

The doctor nodded wearily. "I know what they say. But let's dismiss
rumors and consider facts. Have you ever read any official report
stating that the number of cases of mental illness ran into the
millions?"

"No, I haven't."

"For that matter, do you happen to know of anyone who was ever sent
to a treatment center such as this?"

"Well, of course, everybody goes in to see the medics for regular
check-ups and this includes an interview with a psych. But if they're
in bad shape he just puts them on extra tranquilizers. I guess
sometimes he reviews their Vocational Apt tests and shifts them over
into different jobs in other areas."

Dr. Manschoff bowed his head in reverence above the steeple, as if
satisfied with the labors he had wrought. "That is roughly correct.
And I believe, if you search your memory, you won't recall even a
mention of a treatment center. This sort of place is virtually
extinct, nowadays. There are still some institutions for those
suffering from functional mental disorders--paresis, senile dementia,
congenital abnormalities. But regular check-ups and preventative
therapy take care of the great majority. We've ceased concentrating on
the result of mental illnesses and learned to attack the causes.

"It's the old yellow fever problem all over again, you see. Once upon
a time, physicians dealt exclusively with treatment of yellow fever
patients. Then they shifted their attention to the source of the
disease. They went after the mosquitoes, drained the swamps, and the
yellow fever problem vanished.

"That's been our approach in recent years. We've developed social
therapy, and so the need for individual therapy has diminished.

"What were the sources of the tensions producing mental disturbances?
Physical and financial insecurity, the threat of war, the aggressive
patterns of a competitive society, the unresolved Oedipus-situation
rooted in the old-style family relationship. These were the swamps
where the mosquitoes buzzed and bit. Most of the swamps have been
dredged, most of the insects exterminated.

"Today we're moving into a social situation where nobody goes hungry,
nobody is jobless or unprovided for, nobody needs to struggle for
status. Vocational Apt determines a man's rightful place and function
in society, and there's no longer the artificial distinction imposed
by race, color or creed. War is a thing of the past. Best of all, the
old-fashioned 'home-life,' with all of its unhealthy emotional ties,
is being replaced by sensible conditioning when a child reaches school
age. The umbilical cord is no longer a permanent leash, a strangler's
noose, or a silver-plated life-line stretching back to the womb."

Harry Collins nodded. "I suppose only the exceptional cases ever need
to go to a treatment center like this."

"Exactly."

"But what makes me one of the exceptions? Is it because of the way
the folks brought me up, in a small town, with all the old-fashioned
books and everything? Is that why I hated confinement and conformity
so much? Is it because of all the years I spent reading? And why--"

Dr. Manschoff stood up. "You tempt me," he said. "You tempt me
strongly. As you can see, I dearly love a lecture--and a captive
audience. But right now, the audience must not remain captive. I
prescribe an immediate dose of freedom."

* * * * *

"You mean I'm to leave here?"

"Is that what you want to do?"

"Frankly, no. Not if it means going back to my job."

"That hasn't been decided upon. We can discuss the problem later, and
perhaps we can go into the answers to those questions you just posed.
But at the moment, I'd suggest you stay with us, though without the
restraint of remaining in your room or in the wards. In other words, I
want you to start going outside again."

"Outside?"

"You'll find several square miles of open country just beyond the
doors here. You're at liberty to wander around and enjoy yourself.
Plenty of fresh air and sunshine--come and go as you wish. I've
already issued instructions which permit you to keep your own hours.
Meals will be available when you desire them."

"You're very kind."

"Nonsense. I'm prescribing what you need. And when the time comes,
we'll arrange to talk again. You know where to find me."

Dr. Manschoff dismantled his steeple and placed a half of the roof in
each trouser-pocket.

And Harry Collins went outdoors.

It was wonderful just to be free and alone--like returning to that
faraway childhood in Wheaton once again. Harry appreciated every
minute of it during the first week of his wandering.

But Harry wasn't a child any more, and after a week he began to wonder
instead of wander.

The grounds around the treatment center were more than spacious; they
seemed absolutely endless. No matter how far he walked during the
course of a day, Harry had never encountered any walls, fences or
artificial barriers; there was nothing to stay his progress but the
natural barriers of high, steeply-slanting precipices which seemed to
rim all sides of a vast valley. Apparently the center itself was set
in the middle of a large canyon--a canyon big enough to contain an
airstrip for helicopter landings. The single paved road leading from
the main buildings terminated at the airstrip, and Harry saw
helicopters arrive and depart from time to time; apparently they
brought in food and supplies.

As for the center itself, it consisted of four large structures, two
of which Harry was familiar with. The largest was made up of
apartments for individual patients, and staffed by nurses and
attendants. Harry's own room was here, on the second floor, and from
the beginning he'd been allowed to roam around the communal halls
below at will.

The second building was obviously administrative--Dr. Manschoff's
private office was situated therein, and presumably the other
staff-members operated out of here.

The other two buildings were apparently inaccessible; not guarded or
policed or even distinguished by signs prohibiting access, but merely
locked and unused. At least, Harry had found the doors locked
when--out of normal curiosity--he had ventured to approach them. Nor
had he ever seen anyone enter or leave the premises. Perhaps these
structures were unnecessary under the present circumstances, and had
been built for future accommodations.

Still, Harry couldn't help wondering.

And now, on this particular afternoon, he sat on the bank of the
little river which ran through the valley, feeling the mid-summer sun
beating down upon his forehead and staring down at the eddying current
with its ripples and reflections.

Ripples and reflections....

Dr. Manschoff had answered his questions well, yet new questions had
arisen.

Most people didn't go crazy any more, the doctor had explained, and so
there were very few treatment centers such as this.

Question: Why were there any at all?

A place like this cost a fortune to staff and maintain. In an age
where living-space and areable acreage was at such a premium, why
waste this vast and fertile expanse? And in a society more and more
openly committed to the policy of promoting the greatest good for the
greatest number, why bother about the fate of an admittedly
insignificant group of mentally disturbed patients?

Not that Harry resented his situation; in fact, it was almost too good
to be true.

Question: Was it too good to be true?

Why, come to realize it, he'd seen less than a dozen other patients
during his entire stay here! All of them were male, and all of
them--apparently--were recovering from a condition somewhat similar to
his own. At least, he'd recognized the same reticence and diffidence
when it came to exchanging more than a perfunctory greeting in an
encounter in an outer corridor. At the time, he'd accepted their
unwillingness to communicate; welcomed and understood it because of
his condition. And that in itself wasn't what he questioned now.

But why were there so few patients beside himself? Why were they all
males? And why weren't they roaming the countryside now the way he
was?

So many staff-members and so few patients. So much room and luxury and
freedom, and so little use of it. So little apparent purpose to it
all.

Question: Was there a hidden purpose?

Harry stared down into the ripples and reflections, and the sun was
suddenly intolerably hot, its glare on the water suddenly blinding and
bewildering. He saw his face mirrored on the water's surface, and it
was not the familiar countenance he knew--the features were bloated,
distorted, shimmering and wavering.

Maybe it was starting all over again. Maybe he was getting another one
of those headaches. Maybe he was going to lose control again.

* * * * *

Yes, and maybe he was just imagining things. Sitting here in all this
heat wasn't a good idea.

Why not take a swim?

That seemed reasonable enough. In fact, it seemed like a delightful
distraction. Harry rose and stripped. He entered the water
awkwardly--one didn't dive, not after twenty years of abstinence from
the outdoor life--but he found that he could swim, after a fashion.
The water was cooling, soothing. A few minutes of immersion and Harry
found himself forgetting his speculations. The uneasy feeling had
vanished. Now, when he stared down into the water, he saw his own face
reflected, looking just the way it should. And when he stared up--

He saw her standing there, on the bank.

She was tall, slim, and blonde. Very tall, very slim, and very blonde.

She was also very desirable.

Up until a moment ago, Harry had considered swimming a delightful
distraction. But now--

"How's the water?" she called.

"Fine."

She nodded, smiling down at him.

"Aren't you coming in?" he asked.

"No."

"Then what are you doing here?"

"I was looking for you, Harry."

"You know my name?"

She nodded again. "Dr. Manschoff told me."

"You mean, he sent you here to find me?"

"That's right."

"But I don't understand. If you're not going swimming, then why--I
mean--"

Her smile broadened. "It's just part of the therapy, Harry."

"Part of the therapy?"

"That's right. Part." She giggled. "Don't you think you'd like to
come out of the water now and see what the rest of it might be?"

Harry thought so.

* * * * *

With mounting enthusiasm, he eagerly embraced his treatment and
entered into a state of active cooperation.

It was some time before he ventured to comment on the situation.
"Manschoff is a damned good diagnostician," he murmured. Then he sat
up. "Are you a patient here?"

She shook her head. "Don't ask questions, Harry. Can't you be
satisfied with things as they are?"

"You're just what the doctor ordered, all right." He gazed down at
her. "But don't you even have a name?"

"You can call me Sue."

"Thank you."

He bent to kiss her but she avoided him and rose to her feet. "Got to
go now."

"So soon?"

She nodded and moved towards the bushes above the bank.

"But when will I see you again?"

"Coming swimming tomorrow?"

"Yes."

"Maybe I can get away for more occupational therapy then."

She stooped behind the bushes, and Harry saw a flash of white.

"You are a nurse, aren't you," he muttered. "On the staff, I
suppose. I should have known."

"All right, so I am. What's that got to do with it?"

"And I suppose you were telling the truth when you said Manschoff sent
you here. This is just part of my therapy, isn't it?"

She nodded briefly as she slipped into her uniform. "Does that bother
you, Harry?"

He bit his lip. When he spoke, his voice was low. "Yes, damn it, it
does. I mean, I got the idea--at least, I was hoping--that this wasn't
just a matter of carrying out an assignment on your part."

She looked up at him gravely. "Who said anything about an assignment,
darling?" she murmured. "I volunteered."

And then she was gone.

Then she was gone, and then she came back that night in Harry's
dreams, and then she was at the river the next day and it was better
than the dreams, better than the day before.

Sue told him she had been watching him for weeks now. And she had gone
to Manschoff and suggested it, and she was very glad. And they had to
meet here, out in the open, so as not to complicate the situation or
disturb any of the other patients.

So Harry naturally asked her about the other patients, and the whole
general setup, and she said Dr. Manschoff would answer all those
questions in due time. But right now, with only an hour or so to
spare, was he going to spend it all asking for information? Matters
were accordingly adjusted to their mutual satisfaction, and it was on
that basis that they continued their almost daily meetings for some
time.

The next few months were perhaps the happiest Harry had ever known.
The whole interval took on a dreamlike quality--idealized,
romanticized, yet basically sensual. There is probably such a dream
buried deep within the psyche of every man, Harry reflected, but to
few is it ever given to realize its reality. His early questioning
attitude gave way to a mood of mere acceptance and enjoyment. This was
the primitive drama, the very essence of the male-female relationship;
Adam and Eve in the Garden. Why waste time seeking the Tree of
Knowledge?

And it wasn't until summer passed that Harry even thought about the
Serpent.

One afternoon, as he sat waiting for Sue on the river bank, he heard a
sudden movement in the brush behind him.

"Darling?" he called, eagerly.

"Please, you don't know me that well." The deep masculine voice
carried overtones of amusement.

Flushing, Harry turned to confront the intruder. He was a short,
stocky, middle-aged man whose bristling gray crewcut almost matched
the neutral shades of his gray orderly's uniform.

"Expecting someone else, were you?" the man muttered. "Well, I'll get
out of your way."

"That's not necessary. I was really just daydreaming, I guess. I don't
know what made me think--" Harry felt his flush deepen, and he lowered
his eyes and his voice as he tried to improvise some excuse.

"You're a lousy liar," the man said, stepping forward and seating
himself on the bank next to Harry. "But it doesn't really matter. I
don't think your girl friend is going to show up today, anyway."

"What do you mean? What do you know about--"

"I mean just what I said," the man told him. "And I know everything I
need to know, about you and about her and about the situation in
general. That's why I'm here, Collins."

He paused, watching the play of emotions in Harry's eyes.

"I know what you're thinking right now," the gray-haired man
continued. "At first you wondered how I knew your name. Then you
realized that if I was on the staff in the wards I'd naturally be able
to identify the patients. Now it occurs to you that you've never seen
me in the wards, so you're speculating as to whether or not I'm
working out of the administration offices with that psychiatric no
good Manschoff. But if I were, I wouldn't be calling him names, would
I? Which means you're really getting confused, aren't you, Collins?
Good!"

* * * * *

The man chuckled, but there was neither mockery, malice, nor genuine
mirth in the sound. And his eyes were sober, intent.

"Who are you?" Harry asked. "What are you doing here?"

"The name is Ritchie, Arnold Ritchie. At least, that's the name they
know me by around here, and you can call me that. As to what I'm
doing, it's a long story. Let's just say that right now I'm here to
give you a little advanced therapy."

"Then Manschoff did send you?"

The chuckle came again, and Ritchie shook his head. "He did not. And
if he even suspected I was here, there'd be hell to pay."

"Then what do you want with me?"

"It isn't a question of what I want. It's a question of what you
need. Which is, like I said, advanced therapy. The sort that dear old
kindly permissive Father-Image Manschoff doesn't intend you to get."

Harry stood up. "What's this all about?"

Ritchie rose with him, smiling for the first time. "I'm glad you asked
that question, Collins. It's about time you did, you know. Everything
has been so carefully planned to keep you from asking it. But you
were beginning to wonder just a bit anyway, weren't you?"

"I don't see what you're driving at."

"You don't see what anyone is driving at, Collins. You've been blinded
by a spectacular display of kindness, misdirected by self-indulgence.
I told you I knew everything I needed to know about you, and I do. Now
I'm going to ask you to remember these things for yourself; the things
you've avoided considering all this while.

"I'm going to ask you to remember that you're twenty-eight years old,
and that for almost seven years you were an agency man and a good one.
You worked hard, you did a conscientious job, you stayed in line,
obeyed the rules, never rebelled. Am I correct in my summary of the
situation?"

"Yes, I guess so."

"So what was your reward for all this unceasing effort and eternal
conformity? A one-room apartment and a one-week vacation, once a year.
Count your blessings, Collins. Am I right?"

"Right."

"Then what happened? Finally you flipped, didn't you? Tried to take a
header out of the window. You chucked your job, chucked your
responsibilities, chucked your future and attempted to chuck yourself
away. Am I still right?"

"Yes."

"Good enough. And now we come to the interesting part of the story.
Seven years of being a good little boy got you nothing but the promise
of present and future frustration. Seven seconds of madness, of
attempted self-destruction, brought you here. And as a reward for
bucking the system, the system itself has provided you with a life of
luxury and leisure--full permission to come and go as you please, live
in spacious ease, indulge in the gratification of every appetite, free
of responsibility or restraint. Is that true?"

"I suppose so."

"All right. Now, let me ask you the question you asked me. What's it
all about?"

Ritchie put his hand on Harry's shoulder. "Tell me that, Collins. Why
do you suppose you've received such treatment? As long as you stayed
in line, nobody gave a damn for your comfort or welfare. Then, when
you committed the cardinal sin of our present-day society--when you
rebelled--everything was handed to you on a silver platter. Does that
make sense?"

"But it's therapy. Dr. Manschoff said--"

"Look, Collins. Millions of people flip every year. Millions more
attempt suicide. How many of them end up in a place like this?"

"They don't, though. That's just Naturalist propaganda. Dr. Manschoff
said--"

"Dr. Manschoff said! I know what he said, all right. And you
believed him, because you wanted to believe him. You wanted the
reassurance he could offer you--the feeling of being unique and
important. So you didn't ask him any questions, you didn't ask any
questions of yourself. Such as why anybody would consider an
insignificant little agency man, without friends, family or
connections, worth the trouble of rehabilitating at all, let alone
amidst such elaborate and expensive surroundings. Why, men like you
are a dime a dozen these days--Vocational Apt can push a few buttons
and come up with half a million replacements to take over your job.
You aren't important to society, Collins. You aren't important to
anyone at all, besides yourself. And yet you got the red-carpet
treatment. It's about time somebody yanked that carpet out from under
you. What's it all about?"

Harry blinked. "Look here, I don't see why this is any of your
business. Besides, to tell the truth, I'm expecting--"

"I know who you're expecting, but I've already told you she won't be
here. Because she's expecting."

"What--?"

"It's high time you learned the facts of life, Collins. Yes, the
well-known facts of life--the ones about the birds and the bees, and
barefoot boys and blondes, too. Your little friend Sue is going to
have a souvenir."

"I don't believe it! I'm going to ask Dr. Manschoff."

"Sure you are. You'll ask Manschoff and he'll deny it. And so you'll
tell him about me. You'll say you met somebody in the woods
today--either a lunatic or a Naturalist spy who infiltrated here under
false pretenses. And Manschoff will reassure you. He'll reassure you
just long enough to get his hands on me. Then he'll take care of both
of us."

"Are you insinuating--"

"Hell, no! I'm telling you!" Ritchie put his hand down suddenly, and
his voice calmed. "Ever wonder about those other two big buildings on
the premises here, Collins? Well, I can tell you about one of them,
because that's where I work. You might call it an experimental
laboratory if you like. Sometime later on I'll describe it to you. But
right now it's the other building that's important; the building with
the big chimney. That's a kind of an incinerator, Collins--a place
where the mistakes go up in smoke, at night, when there's nobody to
see. A place where you and I will go up in smoke, if you're fool
enough to tell Manschoff about this."

"You're lying."

"I wish to God I was, for both our sakes! But I can prove what I'm
saying. You can prove it, for yourself."

"How?"

"Pretend this meeting never occurred. Pretend that you just spent the
afternoon here, waiting for a girl who never showed up. Then do
exactly what you would do under those circumstances. Go in to see Dr.
Manschoff and ask him where Sue is, tell him you were worried because
she'd promised to meet you and then didn't appear.

"I can tell you right now what he'll tell you. He'll say that Sue has
been transferred to another treatment center, that she knew about it
for several weeks but didn't want to upset you with the news of her
departure. So she decided to just slip away. And Manschoff will tell
you not to be unhappy. It just so happens that he knows of another
nurse who has had her eye on you--a very pretty little brunette named
Myrna. In fact, if you go down to the river tomorrow, you'll find her
waiting for you there."

"What if I refuse?"

Ritchie shrugged. "Why should you refuse? It's all fun and games,
isn't it? Up to now you haven't asked any questions about what was
going on, and it would look very strange if you started at this late
date. I strongly advise you to cooperate. If not, everything is likely
to--quite literally--go up in smoke."

Harry Collins frowned. "All right, suppose I do what you say, and
Manschoff gives me the answers you predict. This still doesn't prove
that he'd be lying or that you're telling me the truth."

"Wouldn't it indicate as much, though?"

"Perhaps. But on the other hand, it could merely mean that you know
Sue has been transferred, and that Dr. Manschoff intends to turn me
over to a substitute. It doesn't necessarily imply anything sinister."

"In other words, you're insisting on a clincher, is that it?"

"Yes."

"All right." Ritchie sighed heavily. "You asked for it." He reached
into the left-hand upper pocket of the gray uniform and brought out a
small, stiff square of glossy paper.

"What's that?" Harry asked. He reached for the paper, but Ritchie drew
his hand back.

"Look at it over my shoulder," he said. "I don't want any
fingerprints. Hell of a risky business just smuggling it out of the
files--no telling how well they check up on this material."

* * * * *

Harry circled behind the smaller man. He squinted down. "Hard to
read."

"Sure. It's a photostat. I made it myself, this morning; that's my
department. Read carefully now. You'll see it's a transcript of the
lab report. Susan Pulver, that's her name, isn't it? After due
examination and upon completion of preliminary tests, hereby found to
be in the second month of pregnancy. Putative father, Harry
Collins--that's you, see your name? And here's the rest of the
record."

"Yes, let me see it. What's all this about inoculation series? And who
is this Dr. Leffingwell?" Harry bent closer, but Ritchie closed his
hand around the photostat and pocketed it again.

"Never mind that, now. I'll tell you later. The important thing is, do
you believe me?"

"I believe Sue is pregnant, yes."

"That's enough. Enough for you to do what I've asked you to. Go to
Manschoff and make inquiries. See what he tells you. Don't make a
scene, and for God's sake don't mention my name. Just confirm my story
for yourself. Then I'll give you further details."

"But when will I see you?"

"Tomorrow afternoon, if you like. Right here."

"You said he'd be sending another girl--"

Ritchie nodded. "So I did. And so he'll say. I suggest you beg to be
excused for the moment. Tell him it will take a while for you to get
over the shock of losing Sue this way."

"I won't be lying," Harry murmured.

"I know. And I'm sorry. Believe me, I am." Ritchie sighed again. "But
you'll just have to trust me from now on."

"Trust you? When you haven't even explained what this is all about?"

"You've had your shock-therapy for today. Come back for another
treatment tomorrow."

And then Ritchie was gone, the gray uniform melting away into the gray
shadows of the shrubbery above the bank.

A short time later, Harry made his own way back to the center in the
gathering twilight. The dusk was gray, too. Everything seemed gray
now.

So was Harry Collins' face, when he emerged from his interview with
Dr. Manschoff that evening. And it was still pallid the next afternoon
when he came down to the river bank and waited for Ritchie to
reappear.

The little man emerged from the bushes. He stared at Harry's drawn
countenance and nodded slowly.

"I was right, eh?" he muttered.

"It looks that way. But I can't understand what's going on. If this
isn't just a treatment center, if they're not really interested in my
welfare, then what am I doing here?"

"You're taking part in an experiment. This, my friend, is a
laboratory. And you are a nice, healthy guinea pig."

"But that doesn't make sense. I haven't been experimented on. They've
let me do as I please."

"Exactly. And what do guinea pigs excel at? Breeding."

"You mean this whole thing was rigged up just so that Sue and I
would--?"

"Please, let's not be so egocentric, shall we? After all, you're not
the only male patient in this place. There are a dozen others
wandering around loose. Some of them have their favorite caves, others
have discovered little bypaths, but all of them seem to have located
ideal trysting-places. Whereupon, of course, the volunteer nurses have
located them."

"Are you telling me the same situation exists with each of the
others?"

"Isn't it fairly obvious? You've shown no inclination to become
friendly with the rest of the patients here, and none of them have
made any overtures to you. That's because everyone has his own little
secret, his own private arrangement. And so all of you go around
fooling everybody else, and all of you are being fooled. I'll give
credit to Manschoff and his staff on that point--he's certainly
mastered the principles of practical psychology."

"But you talked about breeding. With our present overpopulation
problem, why in the world do they deliberately encourage the birth of
more children?"

"Very well put. 'Why in the world' indeed! In order to answer that,
you'd better take a good look at the world."

Arnold Ritchie seated himself on the grass, pulled out a pipe, and
then replaced it hastily. "Better not smoke," he murmured. "Be awkward
if we attracted any attention and were found together."

* * * * *

Harry stared at him. "You are a Naturalist, aren't you?"

"I'm a reporter, by profession."

"Which network?"

"No network. Newzines. There are still a few in print, you know."

"I know. But I can't afford them."

"There aren't many left who can, or who even feel the need of reading
them. Nevertheless, mavericks like myself still cling to the ancient
and honorable practices of the Fourth Estate. One of which is
ferreting out the inside story, the news behind the news."

"Then you're not working for the Naturalists."

"Of course I am. I'm working for them and for everybody else who has
an interest in learning the truth." Ritchie paused. "By the way, you
keep using that term as if it were some kind of dirty word. Just what
does it mean? What is a Naturalist, in your book?"

"Why, a radical thinker, of course. An opponent of government
policies, of progress. One who believes we're running out of living
space, using up the last of our natural resources."

"What do you suppose motivates Naturalists, really?"

"Well, they can't stand the pressures of daily living, or the
prospects of a future when we'll be still more hemmed in."

Ritchie nodded. "Any more than you could, a few months ago, when you
tried to commit suicide. Wouldn't you say that you were thinking
like a Naturalist then?"

Harry grimaced. "I suppose so."

"Don't feel ashamed. You saw the situation clearly, just as the
so-called Naturalists do. And just as the government does. Only the
government can't dare admit it--hence the secrecy behind this
project."

"A hush-hush government plan to stimulate further breeding? I still
don't see--"

"Look at the world," Ritchie repeated. "Look at it realistically.
What's the situation at present? Population close to six billion, and
rising fast. There was a leveling-off period in the Sixties, and then
it started to climb again. No wars, no disease to cut it down. The
development of synthetic foods, the use of algae and fungi, rules out
famine as a limiting factor. Increased harnessing of atomic power has
done away with widespread poverty, so there's no economic deterrent to
propagation. Neither church nor state dares set up a legal
prohibition. So here we are, at the millennium. In place of
international tension we've substituted internal tension. In place of
thermonuclear explosion, we have a population explosion."

"You make it look pretty grim."

"I'm just talking about today. What happens ten years from now, when
we hit a population-level of ten billion? What happens when we reach
twenty billion, fifty billion, a hundred? Don't talk to me about more
substitutes, more synthetics, new ways of conserving top-soil. There
just isn't going to be room for everyone!"

"Then what's the answer?"

"That's what the government wants to know. Believe me, they've done a
lot of searching; most of it sub rosa. And then along came this man
Leffingwell, with his solution. That's just what it is, of
course--an endocrinological solution, for direct injection."

"Leffingwell? The Dr. Leffingwell whose name was on that photostat?
What's he got to do with all this?"

"He's boss of this project," Ritchie said. "He's the one who persuaded
them to set up a breeding-center. You're his guinea pig."

"But why all the secrecy?"

"That's what I wanted to know. That's why I scurried around, pulled
strings to get a lab technician's job here. It wasn't easy, believe
me. The whole deal is being kept strictly under wraps until
Leffingwell's experiments prove out. They realized right away that it
would be fatal to use volunteers for the experiments--they'd be bound
to talk, there'd be leaks. And of course, they anticipated some
awkward results at first, until the technique is refined and
perfected. Well, they were right on that score. I've seen some of
their failures." Ritchie shuddered. "Any volunteer--any military man,
government employee or even a so-called dedicated scientist who broke
away would spread enough rumors about what was going on to kill the
entire project. That's why they decided to use mental patients for
subjects. God knows, they had millions to choose from, but they were
very particular. You're a rare specimen, Collins."

"How so?"

"Because you happen to fit all their specifications. You're young, in
good physical condition. Unlike ninety percent of the population, you
don't even wear contact lenses, do you? And your aberration was
temporary, easily removed by removing you from the tension-sources
which created it. You have no family ties, no close friends, to
question your absence. That's why you were chosen--one of the two
hundred."

"Two hundred? But there's only a dozen others here now."

"A dozen males, yes. You're forgetting the females. Must be about
fifty or sixty in the other building."

"But if you're talking about someone like Sue, she's a nurse--"

Ritchie shook his head. "That's what she was told to say. Actually,
she's a patient, too. They're all patients. Twelve men and sixty
women, at the moment. Originally, about thirty men and a hundred and
seventy women."

"What happened to the others?"

"I told you there were some failures. Many of the women died in
childbirth. Some of them survived, but found out about the
results--and the results, up until now, haven't been perfect. A few of
the men found out, too. Well, they have only one method of dealing
with failures here. They dispose of them. I told you about that
chimney, didn't I?"

"You mean they killed the offspring, killed those who found out about
them?"

Ritchie shrugged.

"But what are they actually doing? Who is this Dr. Leffingwell?
What's it all about?"

"I think I can answer those questions for you."

Harry wheeled at the sound of the familiar voice.

Dr. Manschoff beamed down at him from the top of the river bank.
"Don't be alarmed," he said. "I wasn't following you with any intent
to eavesdrop. I was merely concerned about him." His eyes flickered as
he directed his gaze past Harry's shoulder, and Harry turned again to
look at Arnold Ritchie.

* * * * *

The little man was no longer standing and he was no longer alone. Two
attendants now supported him, one on either side, and Ritchie himself
sagged against their grip with eyes closed. A hypodermic needle in one
attendant's hand indicated the reason for Ritchie's sudden collapse.

"Merely a heavy sedative," Dr. Manschoff murmured. "We came prepared,
in expectation of just such an emergency." He nodded at his
companions. "Better take him back now," he said. "I'll look in on him
this evening, when he comes out of it."

"Sorry about all this," Manschoff continued, sitting down next to
Harry as the orderlies lifted Ritchie's inert form and carried him up
the slanting slope. "It's entirely my fault. I misjudged my
patient--never should have permitted him such a degree of freedom.
Obviously, he's not ready for it yet. I do hope he didn't upset you in
any way."

"No. He seemed quite"--Harry hesitated, then went on
hastily--"logical."

"Indeed he is." Dr. Manschoff smiled. "Paranoid delusions, as they
used to call them, can often be rationalized most convincingly. And
from what little I heard, he was doing an excellent job, wasn't he?"

"Well--"

"I know." A slight sigh erased the smile. "Leffingwell and I are mad
scientists, conducting biological experiments on human guinea pigs.
We've assembled patients for breeding purposes and the government is
secretly subsidizing us. Also, we incinerate our victims--again, with
full governmental permission. All very logical, isn't it?"

"I didn't mean that," Harry told him. "It's just that he said Sue was
pregnant and he was hinting things."

"Said?" Manschoff stood up. "Hinted? I'm surprised he didn't go
further than that. Just today, we discovered he'd been using the
office facilities--he had a sort of probationary position, as you may
have guessed, helping out the staff in administration--to provide
tangible proof of his artistic creations. He was writing out 'official
reports' and then photostating them. Apparently he intended to
circulate the results as 'evidence' to support his delusions. Look,
here's a sample."

Dr. Manschoff passed a square of glossy paper to Harry, who scanned it
quickly. It was another laboratory report similar to the one Ritchie
had shown him, but containing a different set of names.

"No telling how long this sort of thing has been going on," Manschoff
said. "He may have made dozens. Naturally, the moment we discovered
it, we realized prompt action was necessary. He'll need special
attention."

"But what's wrong with him?"

"It's a long story. He was a reporter at one time--he may have told
you that. The death of his wife precipitated a severe trauma and
brought him to our attention. Actually, I'm not at liberty to say any
more regarding his case; you understand, I'm sure."

"Then you're telling me that everything he had to say was a product of
his imagination?"

"No, don't misunderstand. It would be more correct to state that he
merely distorted reality. For example, there is a Dr. Leffingwell on
the staff here; he is a diagnostician and has nothing to do with
psychotherapy per se. And he has charge of the hospital ward in Unit
Three, the third building you may have noticed behind Administration.
That's where the nurses maintain residence, of course. Incidentally,
when any nurses take on a--special assignment, as it were, such as
yours, Leffingwell does examine and treat them. There's a new oral
contraception technique he's evolved which may be quite efficacious.
But I'd hardly call it an example of sinister experimentation under
the circumstances, would you?"

Harry shook his head. "About Ritchie, though," he said. "What will
happen to him?"

"I can't offer any prognosis. In view of my recent error in judgment
concerning him, it's hard to say how he'll respond to further
treatment. But rest assured that I'll do my best for his case. Chances
are you'll be seeing him again before very long."

Dr. Manschoff glanced at his watch. "Shall we go back now?" he
suggested. "Supper will be served soon."

The two men toiled up the bank.

Harry discovered that the doctor was right about supper. It was being
served as he returned to his room. But the predictions concerning
Ritchie didn't work out quite as well.

It was after supper--indeed, quite some hours afterwards, while Harry
sat at his window and stared sleeplessly out into the night--that he
noted the thick, greasy spirals of black smoke rising suddenly from
the chimney of the Third Unit building. And the sight may have
prepared him for the failure of Dr. Manschoff's prophecy regarding his
disturbed patient.

Harry never asked any questions, and no explanations were ever
forthcoming.

But from that evening onward, nobody ever saw Arnold Ritchie again.





Next: President Winthrop 1999

Previous: Harry Collins 1997



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