Auras.ca - Download the EBook AurasInformational Site Network Informational
Privacy
   Home - Science Fiction Stories - Western Stories


Harry Collins 2029







From: The Crowded Earth

The guards at Stark Falls were under strict orders not to talk. Each
prisoner here was exercised alone in a courtyard runway, and meals
were served in the cells. The cells were comfortable enough, and while
there were no telescreens, books were available--genuine, old-style
books which must have been preserved from libraries dismantled fifty
years ago or more. Harry Collins found no titles dated later than
1975. Every day or so an attendant wheeled around a cart piled high
with the dusty volumes. Harry read to pass the time.

At first he kept anticipating his trial, but after a while he almost
forgot about that possibility. And it was well over a year before he
got a chance to tell his story to anyone.

When his opportunity came, his audience did not consist of judge or
jury, doctor, lawyer or penologist. He spoke only to Richard Wade, a
fellow-prisoner who had been thrust into the adjoining cell on the
evening of October 11th, 2013.

Harry spoke haltingly at first, but as he progressed the words came
more easily, and emotion lent its own eloquence. His unseen auditor on
the other side of the wall did not interrupt or question him; it was
enough, for Harry, that there was someone to listen at last.

"So it wasn't a bit like I'd expected," he concluded. "No trial, no
publicity. I've never seen Leffingwell again, nor Manschoff. Nobody
questioned me. By the time I recovered consciousness, I was here in
prison. Buried alive."

Richard Wade spoke slowly, for the first time. "You're lucky. They
might have shot you down on the spot."

"That's just what bothers me," Harry told him. "Why didn't they kill
me? Why lock me up incommunicado this way? There aren't many prisons
left these days, with food and space at such a premium."

"There are no prisons left at all--officially," Wade said. "Just as
there are no longer any cemeteries. But important people are still
given private burials and their remains secretly preserved. All a
matter of influence."

"I've no influence. I'm not important. Wouldn't you think they'd
consider it risky to keep me alive, under the circumstances? If
there'd ever be an investigation--"

"Who would investigate? Not the government, surely."

"But suppose there's a political turnover. Suppose Congress want to
make capital of the situation?"

"There is no Congress."

Harry gasped. "No Congress?"

"As of last month. It was dissolved. Henceforth we are governed by the
Cabinet, with authority delegated to department heads."

"But that's preposterous! Nobody'd stand still for something like
that!"

"They did stand still, most of them. After a year of careful
preparation--of wholesale exposes of Congressional graft and
corruption and inefficiency. Turned out that Congress was the villain
all along; the Senators and Representatives had finagled
tariff-barriers and restrictive trade-agreements which kept our food
supply down. They were opposing international federation. In plain
language, people were sold a bill of goods--get rid of Congress and
you'll have more food. That did it."

"But you'd think the politicians themselves would realize they were
cutting their own throats! The state legislatures and the governors--"

"Legislatures were dissolved by the same agreement," Wade went on.
"There are no states any more; just governmental districts. Based upon
sensible considerations of area and population. This isn't the
old-time expanding economy based on obsolescence and conspicuous
consumption. The primary problem at the moment is sheer survival. In
a way, the move makes sense. Old-fashioned political machinery
couldn't cope with the situation; there's no time for debate when
instantaneous decisions are necessary to national welfare. You've
heard how civil liberties were suspended during the old wars. Well,
there's a war on right now; a war against hunger, a war against the
forces of fecundity. In another dozen years or so, when the Leff shot
generation is fullgrown and a lot of the elderly have died off, the
tensions will ease. Meanwhile, quick action is necessary. Arbitrary
action."

"But you're defending dictatorship!"

Richard Wade made a sound which is usually accompanied by a derisive
shrug. "Am I? Well, I didn't when I was outside. And that's why I'm
here now."

Harry Collins cleared his throat. "What did you do?"

"If you refer to my profession, I was a scripter. If you refer to my
alleged criminal activity, I made the error of thinking the way you
do, and the worse error of attempting to inject such attitudes in my
scripts. Seems that when Congress was formally dissolved, there was
some notion of preparing a timely show--a sort of historical review of
the body, using old film clips. What my superiors had in mind was a
comedy of errors; a cavalcade of mistakes and misdeeds showing just
why we were better off without supporting a political sideshow. Well,
I carried out the assignment and edited the films, but when I drafted
a rough commentary, I made the mistake of taking both a pro and con
slant. Nothing like that ever reached the telescreens, of course, but
what I did was promptly noted. They came for me at once and hustled me
off here. I didn't get a hearing or a trial, either."

"But why didn't they execute you? Or--" Harry hesitated--"is that what
you expect?"

"Why didn't they execute you?" Wade shot back. He was silent for a
moment before continuing. "No, I don't expect anything like that, now.
They'd have done it on the spot if they intended to do so at all. No,
I've got another idea about people like you and myself. And about some
of the Congressmen and Senators who dropped out of sight, too. I think
we're being stockpiled."

"Stockpiled?"

"It's all part of a plan. Give me a little time to think. We can talk
again, later." Wade chuckled once more. "Looks as if there'll be ample
opportunity in the future."

And there was. In the months ahead, Harry spoke frequently with his
friend behind the wall. He never saw him--prisoners at Stark Falls
were exercised separately, and there was no group assembly or
recreation. Surprisingly adequate meals were served in surprisingly
comfortable cells. In the matter of necessities, Harry had no
complaints. And now that he had someone to talk to, the time seemed to
go more swiftly.

He learned a great deal about Richard Wade during the next few years.
Mostly, Wade liked to reminisce about the old days. He talked about
working for the networks--the commercial networks, privately owned,
which flourished before the government took over communications media
in the '80s.

"That's where you got your start, eh?" Harry asked.

"Lord, no, boy! I'm a lot more ancient than you think. Why, I'm
pushing sixty-five. Born in 1940. That's right, during World War II. I
can almost remember the atomic bomb, and I sure as hell remember the
sputniks. It was a crazy period, let me tell you. The pessimists
worried about the Russians blowing us up, and the optimists were sure
we had a glorious future in the conquest of space. Ever hear that old
fable about the blind men examining an elephant? Well, that's the way
most people were; each of them groping around and trying to determine
the exact shape of things to come. A few of us even made a little
money from it for a while, writing science fiction. That's how I got
my start."

"You were a writer?"

"Sold my first story when I was eighteen or so. Kept on writing off
and on for almost twenty years. Of course, Robertson's thermo-nuc
formula came along in '75, and after that everything went to pot. It
knocked out the chances of future war, but it also knocked out the
interest in speculation or escape-fiction. So I moved over into
television for a while, and stayed with it. But the old science
fiction was fun while it lasted. Ever read any of it?"

"No," Harry admitted. "That was all before my time. Tell me,
though--did any of it make sense? I mean, did some of those writers
foresee what was really going to happen?"

"There were plenty of penny prophets and nickel Nostradamuses," Wade
told him. "But as I said, most of them were assuming war with the
Communists or a new era of space travel. Since Communism collapsed and
space flight was just an expensive journey to a dead end and dead
worlds, it follows that the majority of fictional futures were founded
on fallacies. And all the rest of the extrapolations dealt with
superficial social manifestations.

"For example, they wrote about civilizations dominated by advertising
and mass-motivation techniques. It's true that during my childhood
this seemed to be a logical trend--but once demand exceeded supply,
the whole mechanism of stimulating demand, which was advertising's
chief function, bogged down. And mass-motivation techniques, today,
are dedicated almost entirely to maintaining minimum resistance to a
system insuring our survival.

"Another popular idea was based on the notion of an expanding
matriarchy--a gerontomatriarchy, rather, in which older women would
take control. In an age when women outlived men by a number of years,
this seemed possible. Now, of course, shortened working hours and
medical advances have equalized the life-span. And since private
property has become less and less of a factor in dominating our
collective destinies, it hardly matters whether the male or the female
has the upper hand.

"Then there was the common theory that technological advances would
result in a push-button society, where automatons would do all the
work. And so they might--if we had an unlimited supply of raw
materials to produce robots, and unlimited power-sources to activate
them. As we now realize, atomic power cannot be utilized on a minute
scale.

"Last, but not least, there was the concept of a medically-orientated
system, with particular emphasis on psychotherapy, neurosurgery, and
parapsychology. The world was going to be run by telepaths, psychosis
eliminated by brainwashing, intellect developed by hypnotic
suggestion. It sounded great--but the conquest of physical disease has
occupied the medical profession almost exclusively.

"No, what they all seemed to overlook, with only a few exceptions, was
the population problem. You can't run a world through advertising when
there are so many people that there aren't enough goods to go around
anyway. You can't turn it over to big business when big government has
virtually absorbed all of the commercial and industrial functions,
just to cope with an ever-growing demand. A matriarchy loses its
meaning when the individual family unit changes character, under the
stress of an increasing population-pressure which eliminates the
old-fashioned home, family circle, and social pattern. And the more we
must conserve dwindling natural resources for people, the less we can
expend on experimentation with robots and machinery. As for the
psychologist-dominated society, there are just too many patients and
not enough physicians. I don't have to remind you that the military
caste lost its chance of control when war disappeared, and that
religion is losing ground every day. Class-lines are vanishing, and
racial distinctions will be going next. The old idea of a World
Federation is becoming more and more practical. Once the political
barriers are down, miscegenation will finish the job. But nobody
seemed to foresee this particular future. They all made the mistake of
worrying about the hydrogen-bomb instead of the sperm-bomb."

Harry nodded thoughtfully, although Wade couldn't see his response.
"But isn't it true that there's a little bit of each of these concepts
in our actual situation today?" he asked. "I mean, government and
business are virtually one and the same, and they do use propaganda
techniques to control all media. As for scientific research, look at
how we've rebuilt our cities and developed synthetics for food and
fuel and clothing and shelter. When it comes to medicine, there's
Leffingwell and his inoculations. Isn't that all along the lines of
your early science fiction?"

"Where's your Underground?" Richard Wade demanded.

"My what?"

"Your Underground," Wade repeated. "Hell, every science fiction yarn
about a future society had its Underground! That was the whole gimmick
in the plot. The hero was a conformist who tangled with the social
order--come to think of it, that's what you did, years ago. Only
instead of becoming an impotent victim of the system, he'd meet up
with the Underground Movement. Not some sourball like your friend
Ritchie, who tried to operate on his own hook, without real plans or
system, but a complete sub rosa organization, bent on starting a
revolution and taking over. There'd be wise old priests and wise old
crooks and wise old officers and wise old officials, all playing a
double game and planning a coup. Spies all over the place, get me?
And in no time at all, our hero would be playing tag with the top
figures in the government. That's how it worked out in all the
stories.

"But what happens in real life? What happened to you, for example? You
fell for a series of stupid tricks, stupidly perpetrated--because the
people in power are people, and not the kind of synthetic
super-intellects dreamed up by frustrated fiction-fabricators. You
found out that the logical candidates to constitute an Underground
were the Naturalists; again, they were just ordinary individuals with
no genius for organization. As for coming in contact with key figures,
you were actually on hand when Leffingwell completed his experiments.
And you came back, years later, to hunt him down. Very much in the
heroic tradition, I admit. But you never saw the man except through
the telescopic sights of your rifle. That was the end of it. No
modern-day Machiavelli has hauled you in to play cat-and-mouse games
with you, and no futuristic Freud has bothered to wash your brain or
soft-soap your subconscious. You just aren't that important, Collins."

"But they put me in a special prison. Why?"

"Who knows? They put me here, too."

"You said something once, about stockpiling us. What did you mean?"

"Well, it was just an old science fiction idea, I suppose. I'll tell
you about it tomorrow, eh?"

And so the matter--and Harry Collins--rested for the night.

The next day Richard Wade was gone.

Harry called to him and there was no answer. And he cried out and he
cursed and he paced his cell and he walked alone in the courtyard and
he begged the impassive guards for information, and he sweated and he
talked to himself and he counted the days and he lost count of the
days.

Then, all at once, there was another prisoner in the adjacent cell,
and his name was William Chang, and he was a biologist. He was
reticent about the crime he had committed, but quite voluble about the
crimes committed by others in the world outside. Much of what he said,
about genes and chromosomes and recessive characteristics and
mutation, seemed incomprehensible to Harry. But in their talks, one
thing emerged clearly enough--Chang was concerned for the future of
the race. "Leffingwell should have waited," he said. "It's the
second generation that will be important. As I tried to tell my
people--"

"Is that why you're here?"

Chang sighed. "I suppose so. They wouldn't listen, of course.
Overpopulation has always been the curse of Asia, and this seemed to
be such an obvious solution. But who knows? The time may come when
they need men like myself."

"So you were stockpiled too."

"What's that?"

Harry told him about Richard Wade's remarks, and together they tried
to puzzle out the theory behind them.

But not for long. Because once again Harry Collins awoke in the
morning to find the adjoining cell empty, and once again he was alone
for a long time.

At last a new neighbor came. His name was Lars Neilstrom. Neilstrom
talked to him of ships and shoes and sealing-wax and the thousand and
one things men will discuss in their loneliness and frustration,
including--inevitably--their reasons for being here.

Neilstrom had been an instructor under Vocational Apt, and he was at a
loss to explain his presence at Stark Falls. When Harry spoke of the
stockpiling theory, his fellow-prisoner demurred. "It's more like
Kafka than science fiction," he said. "But then, I don't suppose
you've ever read any Kafka."

"Yes, I have," Harry told him. "Since I came here I've done nothing
but read old books. Lately they've been giving me microscans. I've
been studying up on biology and genetics; talking to Chang got me
interested. In fact, I'm really going in for self-education. There's
nothing else to do."

"Self-education! That's the only method left nowadays." Neilstrom
sounded bitter. "I don't know what's going to become of our heritage
of knowledge in the future. I'm not speaking of technological skill;
so-called scientific information is carefully preserved. But the
humanities are virtually lost. The concept of the well-rounded
individual is forgotten. And when I think of the crisis to come--"

"What crisis?"

"A new generation is growing up. Ten or fifteen years from now we'll
have succeeded in erasing political and racial and religious
divisions. But there'll be a new and more dangerous differentiation; a
physical one. What do you think will happen when half the world is
around six feet tall and the other half under three?"

"I can't imagine."

"Well, I can. The trouble is, most people don't realize what the
problem will be. Things have moved too swiftly. Why, there were more
changes in the last hundred years than in the previous thousand! And
the rate of acceleration increases. Up until now, we've been concerned
about too rapid technological development. But what we have to worry
about is social development."

"Most people have been conditioned to conform."

"Yes. That's our job in Vocational Apt. But the system only works when
there's a single standard of conformity. In a few years there'll be a
double one, based on size. What then?"

Harry wanted some time to consider the matter, but the question was
never answered. Because Lars Neilstrom went away in the night, as had
his predecessors before him. And in succeeding interludes, Harry came
to know a half-dozen other transient occupants of the cell next to
his. They came from all over, and they had many things to discuss, but
always there was the problem of why they were there--and the memory
of Richard Wade's premise concerning stockpiling.

There came a time when the memory of Richard Wade merged with the
memory of Arnold Ritchie. The past was a dim montage of life at the
agency and the treatment center and the ranch, a recollection of lying
on the river bank with women in attitudes of opisthotonos or of lying
against the boulders with a rifle.

Somewhere there was an image of a child's wide eyes and a voice
saying, "My name is Harry Collins." But that seemed very far away.
What was real was the cell and the years of talking and reading the
microscans and trying to find a pattern.

Harry found himself describing it all to a newcomer who said his name
was Austin--a soft-voiced man who became a resident of the next cell
one day in 2029. And eventually he came to Wade's theory.

"Maybe there were a few wiser heads who foresaw a coming crisis," he
concluded. "Maybe they anticipated a time when they might need a few
nonconformists. People like ourselves who haven't been passive or
persuaded. Maybe we're the government's insurance policy. If an
emergency arises, we'll be freed."

"And then what would you do?" Austin asked, softly. "You're against
the system, aren't you?"

"Yes. But I'm for survival." Harry Collins spoke slowly,
thoughtfully. "You see, I've learned something through the years of
study and contact here. Rebellion is not the answer."

"You hated Leffingwell."

"Yes, I did, until I realized that all this was inevitable.
Leffingwell is not a villain and neither is any given individual, in
or out of government. Our road to hell has been paved with only the
very best of intentions. Killing the engineers and contractors will
not get us off that road, and we're all on it together. We'll have to
find a way of changing the direction of our journey. The young people
will be too anxious to merely rush blindly ahead. Most of my
generation will be sheeplike, moving as part of the herd, because of
their conditioning. Only we old-time rebels will be capable of
plotting a course. A course for all of us."

"What about your son?" Austin asked.

"I'm thinking of him," Harry Collins answered. "Of him, and of all the
others. Maybe he does not need me. Maybe none of them need me. Maybe
it's all an illusion. But if the time ever comes, I'll be ready. And
meanwhile, I can hope."

"The time has come," Austin said, gently.

And then he was standing, miraculously enough, outside his cell and
before the door to Harry's cell, and the door was opening. And once
again Harry stared into the wide eyes he remembered so well--the same
wide eyes, set in the face of a fullgrown man. A fullgrown man, three
feet tall. He stood up, shakily, as the man held out his hand and
said, "Hello, Father."

"But I don't understand--"

"I've waited a long time for this moment. I had to talk to you, find
out how you really felt, so that I'd be sure. Now you're ready to join
us."

"What's happening? What do you want with me?"

"We'll talk later." Harry's son smiled. "Right now, I'm taking you
home."





Next: Eric Donovan 2031

Previous: Michael Cavendish 2027



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 442