This Crowded Earth
Chapter 4: Harry Collins--2000

Public Domain

Harry didn’t ask any questions. He just kept his mouth shut and waited. Maybe Dr. Manschoff suspected and maybe he didn’t. Anyway, there was no trouble. Harry figured there wouldn’t be, as long as he stayed in line and went through the proper motions. It was all a matter of pretending to conform, pretending to agree, pretending to believe.

So he watched his step--except in the dreams, and then he was always falling into the yawning abyss.

He kept his nose clean--but in the dreams he smelled the blood and brimstone of the pit.

He managed to retain a cheerful smile at all times--though, in the dreams, he screamed.

Eventually, he even met Myrna. She was the pretty little brunette whom Ritchie had mentioned, and she did her best to console him--only in dreams, when he embraced her, he was embracing a writhing coil of slimy smoke.

It may have been that Harry Collins went a little mad, just having to pretend that he was sane. But he learned the way, and he managed. He saved the madness (or was it the reality?) for the dreams.

Meanwhile he waited and said nothing.

He said nothing when, after three months or so, Myrna was suddenly “transferred” without warning.

He said nothing when, once a week or so, he went in to visit with Dr. Manschoff.

He said nothing when Manschoff volunteered the information that Ritchie had been “transferred” too, or suggested that it would be best to stay on for “further therapy.”

And he said nothing when still a third nurse came his way; a woman who was callid, complaisant, and nauseatingly nymphomaniac.

The important thing was to stay alive. Stay alive and try to learn.

It took him almost an additional year to find out what he wanted to find out. More than eight months passed before he found a way of sneaking out of his room at night, and a way of getting into that Third Unit through a delivery door which was occasionally left open through negligence.

Even then, all he learned was that the female patients did have their living quarters here, along with the members of the staff and--presumably--Dr. Leffingwell. Many of the women were patients rather than nurses, as claimed, and a good number of them were in various stages of pregnancy, but this proved nothing.

Several times Harry debated the possibilities of taking some of the other men in his Unit into his confidence. Then he remembered what had happened to Arnold Ritchie and decided against this course. The risk was too great. He had to continue alone.

It wasn’t until Harry managed to get into Unit Four that he got what he wanted (what he didn’t want) and learned that reality and dreams were one and the same.

There was the night, more than a year after he’d come to the treatment center, when he finally broke into the basement and found the incinerators. And the incinerators led to the operating and delivery chambers, and the delivery chambers led to the laboratory and the laboratory led to the incubators and the incubators led to the nightmare.

In the nightmare Harry found himself looking down at the mistakes and the failures and he recognized them for what they were, and he knew then why the incinerators were kept busy and why the black smoke poured.

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