This Crowded Earth
Chapter 6: Harry Collins--2012
Harry crouched behind the boulders, propping the rifle up between the rocks, and adjusted the telescopic sights. The distant doorway sprang into sharp focus. Grunting with satisfaction, he settled down to his vigil. The rifle-barrel had been dulled down against detection by reflection, and Harry’s dark glasses protected him against the glare of the morning sun. He might have to wait several hours now, but he didn’t care. It had taken him twelve years to come this far, and he was willing to wait a little while longer.
Twelve years. Was it really that long?
A mirror might have answered him; a mirror might have shown him the harsh features of a man of forty-two. But Harry needed no mirror. He could remember the past dozen years only too easily--though they had not been easy years.
Surviving the river was only the beginning. Animal strength carried him through that ordeal. But he emerged from the river as an animal; a wounded animal, crawling through the brush and arroyo outside the southern Colorado canyon.
And it was animal cunning which preserved him. He’d wandered several days until he encountered Emil Grizek and his outfit. By that time he was half-starved and completely delirious. It took a month until he was up and around again.
But Emil and the boys had nursed him through. They took turns caring for him in the bunkhouse; their methods were crude but efficient and Harry was grateful. Best of all, they asked no questions. Harry’s status was that of a hunted fugitive, without a Vocational Apt record or rating. The authorities or any prospective employers would inquire into these things, but Emil Grizek never seemed curious. By the time Harry was up and around again, he’d been accepted as one of the bunch. He told them his name was Harry Sanders, and that was enough.
Two months after they found him, he’d signed on with Emil Grizek and found a new role in life.
Harry Collins, advertising copywriter, had become Harry Sanders, working cowhand.
There was surprisingly little difficulty. Grizek had absentee employers who weren’t interested in their foreman’s methods, just as long as he recruited his own wranglers for the Bar B Ranch. Nobody demanded to see Apt cards or insisted on making out formal work-reports, and the pay was in cash. Cowhands were hard to come by these days, and it was an unspoken premise that the men taking on such jobs would be vagrants, migratory workers, fugitives from justice and injustice. A generation or so ago they might have become tramps--but the last of the hoboes had vanished along with the last of the freight trains. Once the derelicts haunted the canyons of the big cities; today there was no place for them there, so they fled to the canyons of the west. Harry had found himself a new niche, and no questions asked.
Oddly enough, he fitted in. The outdoor life agreed with him, and in a matter of months he was a passable cowpoke; within a year he was one of Grizek’s top hands.
He learned to ride a bucking jeep with the best of them, and he could spot, single out, and stun a steer in forty seconds flat; then use his electronic brander on it and have the critter back on its feet in just under a minute.
Work was no problem, and neither was recreation. The bunkhouse offered crude but adequate facilities for living; old-fashioned air-conditioning and an antique infra-red broiler seemed good enough for roughing it, and Cookie at least turned out real man-sized meals. Eating genuine beef and honest-to-goodness baked bread was a treat, and so was having the luxury of all that space in the sleeping quarters. Harry thrived on it.
And some of the other hands were interesting companions. True, they were renegades and mavericks, but they were each of them unique and individual, and Harry enjoyed listening to them fan the breeze during the long nights.
There was Big Phil, who was pushing sixty now. But you’d never know it, not unless you got him to talking about the old days when he’d been a boy in Detroit. His daddy had been one of the last of the Union Men, back in the days of what they used to call the Organized Labor Movement. He could tell you about wage-hour agreements and the Railroad Brotherhood and contract negotiations almost as if he knew of these things through personal experience. He even remembered the Democratic Party. Phil got out when the government took over and set up Vocational Apt and Industrial Supervision; that’s when he drifted west.
Tom Lowery’s family had been military; he claimed to have been a member of the last graduating class ever to leave West Point. When the armament race ended, his prospects of a career vanished, and he settled down as a guard at Canaveral. Finally, he’d headed for the open country.
Bassett was the scholar of the outfit. He could sit around and quote old-time book-authors by the hour--classic writers like Prather and Spillane. In another age he might have been a college professor or even a football coach; he had an aptitude for the arts.
And there was Lobo, the misogynist, who had fled a wife and eleven children back in Monterey; and Januzki, who used to be mixed up with one of those odd religious cults out on the Coast. He bragged he’d been one of the Big Daddy-Os in the Beat Generationists, and he argued with Bassett about some old-time evangelist named Kerouac.
Best of all, though, Harry liked talking to Nick Kendrick. Nick’s hobby was music, and he treasured his second-hand stereophonic unit and collection of tapes. He too was a classicist in his way, and there was many a long winter night when Harry sat there listening to ancient folk songs. The quaint atonalities of progressive jazz and the childishly frantic rhythms of “cool sounds” were somehow soothing and reassuring in their reminder of a simple heritage from a simpler age.
But above all, these men were wranglers, and they took a peculiar pride in the traditions of their own calling. There wasn’t a one of them who wouldn’t spend hours mulling over the lore of the range and the prairie. They knew the Great Names from the Great Days--Eugene Autry, Wyatt Earp, the legendary Thomas Mix, Dale Robertson, Paladin, and all the others; men who rode actual horses in the era when the West was really an untamed frontier.
And like the cowboys they were, they maintained the customs of other days. Every few months they rode a bucking helicopter into some raw western town--Las Vegas, or Reno, or even over to Palm Springs--to drink recklessly in the cocktail lounges, gamble wildly at the slots, or “go down the line” with some telescreen model on location for outdoor ad-backgrounds. There were still half a dozen such sin-cities scattered throughout the west; even the government acknowledged the need of lonely men to blow off steam. And though Ag Culture officially disapproved of the whole cowhand system, and talked grimly of setting up new and more efficient methods for training personnel and handling the cattle ranges, nothing was ever done. Perhaps the authorities knew that it was a hopeless task; only the outcasts and iconoclasts had the temperament necessary to survive such loneliness under an open sky. City-dwelling conformists just could not endure the monotony.
But even Emil Grizek’s hands marvelled at the way Harry lived. He never joined them in their disorderly descent upon the scarlet cities of the plain, and most of the time he didn’t even seem to watch the telescreen. If anything, he deliberately avoided all possible contact with civilization.
Since he never volunteered any information about his own past, they privately concluded that he was just a psychopathic personality.
“Strong regressive and seclusive tendencies,” Bassett explained, solemnly.
“Sure,” Nick Kendrick nodded, wisely. “You mean a Mouldy Fig, like.”
“Creeping Meatball,” muttered cultist Januzki. Not being religious fanatics, the others didn’t understand the reference. But gradually they came to accept Harry’s isolationist ways as the norm--at least, for him. And since he never quarreled, never exhibited any signs of dissatisfaction, he was left to his own pattern.
Thus it was all the more surprising when that pattern was rudely and abruptly shattered.
Harry remembered the occasion well. It was the day the Leff Law was officially upheld by the Supremist Courts. The whole business came over the telescreens and there was no way of avoiding it--you couldn’t avoid it, because everybody was talking about it and everybody was watching.
“Now what do you think?” Emil Grizek demanded. “Any woman wants a baby, she’s got to have those shots. They say kids shrink down into nothing. Weigh less than two pounds when they’re born, and never grow up to be any bigger than midgets. You ask me, the whole thing’s plumb loco, to say nothing of psychotic.”
“I dunno.” This from Big Phil. “Reckon they just about have to do something, the way cities are filling up and all. Tell me every spot in the country, except for the plains states here, is busting at the seams. Same in Europe, Africa, South America. Running out of space, running out of food, all over the world. This man Leffingwell figures on cutting down on size so’s to keep the whole shebang going.”
“But why couldn’t it be done on a voluntary basis?” Bassett demanded. “These arbitrary rulings are bound to result in frustrations. And can you imagine what will happen to the individual family constellations? Take a couple that already has two youngsters, as of now. Suppose the wife submits to the inoculations for her next child and it’s born with a size-mutation. How in the world will that child survive as a midget in a family of giants? There’ll be untold damage to the personality--”
“We’ve heard all those arguments,” Tom Lowery cut in. “The Naturalists have been handing out that line for years. What happens to the new generation of kids, how do we know they won’t be mentally defective, how can they adjust, by what right does the government interfere with private lives, personal religious beliefs; all that sort of thing. For over ten years now the debate’s been going on. And meanwhile, time is running out. Space is running out. Food is running out. It isn’t a question of individual choice any longer--it’s a question of group survival. I say the Courts are right. We have to go according to law. And back the law up with force of arms if necessary.”
“We get the message,” Januzki agreed. “But something tells me there’ll be trouble. Most folks need a midget like they need a monkey on their backs.”
“It’s a gasser, pardners,” said Nick Kendrick. “Naturalists don’t dig this. They’ll fight it all along the line. Everybody’s gonna be all shook up.”
“It is still a good idea,” Lobo insisted. “This Dr. Leffingwell, he has made the tests. For years he has given injections and no harm has come. The children are healthy, they survive. They learn in special schools--”
“How do you know?” Bassett demanded. “Maybe it’s all a lot of motivationalist propaganda.”
“We have seen them on the telescreens, no?”
“They could be faking the whole thing.”
“But Leffingwell, he has offered the shots to other governments beside our own. The whole world will adopt them--”
“What if some countries don’t? What if our kids become midgets and the Asiatics refuse the inoculations?”
“They won’t. They need room even more than we do.”
“No sense arguing,” Emil Grizek concluded. “It’s the law. You know that. And if you don’t like it, join the Naturalists.” He chuckled. “But better hurry. Something tells me there won’t be any Naturalists around after a couple of years. Now that there’s a Leff Law, the government isn’t likely to stand for too much criticism.” He turned to Harry. “What do you think?” he asked.
Harry shrugged. “No comment,” he said.
But the next day he went to Grizek and demanded his pay in full.
“Leaving?” Grizek muttered. “I don’t understand. You’ve been with us almost five years. Where you going, what you intend to do? What’s got into you all of a sudden?”
“Time for a change,” Harry told him. “I’ve been saving my money.”
“Don’t I know it? Never touched a penny in all this time.” Grizek ran a hand across his chin. “Say, if it’s a raise you’re looking for, I can--”
“No, thanks. It’s not that. I’ve money enough.”
“So you have. Around eighteen, twenty thousand, I reckon, what with the bonuses.” Emil Grizek sighed. “Well, if you insist, that’s the way it’s got to be, I suppose. When you plan on taking off?”
“Just as soon as there’s a ‘copter available.”
“Got one going up to Colorado Springs tomorrow morning for the mail. I can get you aboard, give you a check--”
“I’ll want my money in cash.”
“Well, now, that isn’t so easy. Have to send up for a special draft. Take a week or so.”
“I can wait.”
“All right. And think it over. Maybe you’ll decide to change your mind.”
But Harry didn’t change his mind. And ten days later he rode a ‘copter into town, his money-belt strapped beneath his safety-belt.
From Colorado Springs he jetted to Kancity, and from Kancity to Memphisee. As long as he had money, nobody asked any questions. He holed up in cheap airtels and waited for developments.
It wasn’t easy to accustom himself to urbanization again. He had been away from cities for over seven years now, and it might well have been seven centuries. The overpopulation problem was appalling. The outlawing of private automotive vehicles had helped, and the clearing of the airlanes served a purpose; the widespread increase in the use of atomic power cut the smog somewhat. But the synthetic food was frightful, the crowding intolerable, and the welter of rules and regulations attending the performance of even the simplest human activity past all his comprehension. Ration cards were in universal use for almost everything; fortunately for Harry, the black market accepted cash with no embarrassing inquiries. He found that he could survive.
But Harry’s interest was not in survival; he was bent upon destruction. Surely the Naturalists would be organized and planning a way!
Back in ‘98, of course, they’d been merely an articulate minority without formal unity--an abstract, amorphous group akin to the “Liberals” of previous generations. A Naturalist could be a Catholic priest, a Unitarian layman, an atheist factory hand, a government employee, a housewife with strong prejudices against governmental controls, a wealthy man who deplored the dangers of growing industrialization, an Ag Culture worker who dreaded the dwindling of individual rights, an educator who feared widespread employment of social psychology, or almost anyone who opposed the concept of Mass Man, Mass-Motivated. Naturalists had never formed a single class, a single political party.
Surely, however, the enactment of the Leffingwell Law would have united them! Harry knew there was strong opposition, not only on the higher levels but amongst the general population. People would be afraid of the inoculations; theologians would condemn the process; economic interests, real-estate owners and transportation magnates and manufacturers would sense the threat here. They’d sponsor and they’d subsidize their spokesmen and the Naturalists would evolve into an efficient body of opposition.
So Harry hoped, and so he thought, until he came out into the cities; came out into the cities and realized that the very magnitude of Mass Man mitigated against any attempt to organize him, except as a creature who labored and consumed. Organization springs from discussion, and discussion from thought--but who can think in chaos, discuss in delirium, organize in a vacuum? And the common citizen, Harry realized, had seemingly lost the capacity for group action. He remembered his own existence years ago--either he was lost in a crowd or he was alone, at home. Firm friendships were rare, and family units survived on the flimsiest of foundations. It took too much time and effort just to follow the rules, follow the traffic, follow the incessant routines governing even the simplest life-pattern in the teeming cities. For leisure there was the telescreen and the yellowjackets, and serious problems could be referred to the psych in routine check-ups. Everybody seemed lost in the crowd these days.