This Crowded Earth
Chapter 9: Eric Donovan--2031

Public Domain

Eric was glad to get to the office and shut the door. Lately he’d had this feeling whenever he went out, this feeling that people were staring at him. It wasn’t just his imagination: they did stare. Every younger person over a yard high got stared at nowadays, as if they were freaks. And it wasn’t just the staring that got him down, either.

Sometimes they muttered and mumbled, and sometimes they called names. Eric didn’t mind stuff like “dirty Naturalist.” That he could understand--once upon a time, way back, everybody who was against the Leff Law was called a Naturalist. And before that it had still another meaning, or so he’d been told. Today, of course, it just meant anyone who was over five feet tall.

No, he could take the ordinary name-calling, all right. But sometimes they said other things. They used words nobody ever uses unless they really hate you, want to kill you. And that was at the bottom of it, Eric knew. They did hate him, they did want to kill him.

Was he a coward? Perhaps. But it wasn’t just Eric’s imagination. You never saw anything about such things on the telescreens, but Naturalists were being killed every day. The older people were still in the majority, but the youngsters were coming up fast. And there were so many more of them. Besides, they were more active, and this created the illusion that there were Yardsticks everywhere.

Eric sat down behind his desk, grinning. Yardsticks. When he was a kid it had been just the other way around. He and the rest of them who didn’t get shots in those early days considered themselves to be the normal ones. And they did the name-calling. Names like “runt” and “half-pint” and “midgie.” But the most common name was the one that stuck--Yardstick. That used to be the worst insult of all.

But now it wasn’t an insult any more. Being taller was the insult. Being a dirty Naturalist or a son-of-a-Naturalist. Times certainly had changed.

Eric glanced at the communicator. Almost noon, and it had not flicked yet. Here he’d been beaming these big offers, you’d think he’d get some response to an expensive beaming program, but no. Maybe that was the trouble--nobody liked big things any more. Everything was small.

He shifted uneasily in his chair. That was one consolation, at least; he still had old-time furniture. Getting to be harder and harder to find stuff that fitted him these days. Seemed like most of the firms making furniture and bedding and household appliances were turning out the small stuff for the younger generation. Cheaper to make, less material, and more demand for it. Government allocated size priorities to the manufacturers.

It was even murder to ride public transportation because of the space-reductions. Eric drove his own jetter. Besides, that way was safer. Crowded into a liner with a gang of Yardsticks, with only a few other Naturalists around, there might be trouble.

Oh, it was getting to be a Yardstick world, and no mistake. Smaller furniture, smaller meals, smaller sizes in clothing, smaller buildings--

That reminded Eric of something and he frowned again. Dammit, why didn’t the communicator flick? He should be getting some kind of inquiries. Hell, he was practically giving the space away!

But there was only silence, as there had been all during this past week. That’s why he let Lorette go. Sweet girl, but there was no work for her here any more. No work, and no pay, either. Besides, the place spooked her. She’d been the one who suggested leaving, really.

“Eric, I’m sorry, but I just can’t take this any more. All alone in this huge building--it’s curling my toes!”

At first he tried to talk her out of it. “Don’t be silly, luscious! There’s Bernstein, down on ten, and Saltonstall above us, and Wallaby and Son on fourteen, I tell you, this place is coming back to life, I can feel it! I’ll beam for tenants next week, you’ll see--”

Actually he’d been talking against his own fear and Lorette must have known it. Anyway, she left. And now he was here alone.

Alone.

Eric didn’t like the sound of that word. Or the absence of sound behind it. Three other tenants in a ninety-story building. Three other tenants in a place that had once held three thousand. Why, fifty years ago, when this place went up, you couldn’t buy a vacancy. Where had the crowds gone to?

He knew the answer, of course. The Leff shots had created the new generation of Yardsticks, and they lived in their own world. Their shrunken, dehydrated world of doll-houses and miniatures. They’d deserted the old-fashioned skyscrapers and cut the big apartment buildings up into tiny cubicles; two could occupy the space formerly reserved for one.

That had been the purpose of the Leff shots in the first place--to put an end to overcrowding and conserve on resources. Well, it had worked out. Worked out too perfectly for people like Eric Donovan. Eric Donovan, rental agent for a building nobody wanted any more; a ninety-storey mausoleum. And nobody could collect rent from ghosts.

Ghosts.

Eric damned near jumped through the ceiling when the door opened and this man walked in. He was tall and towheaded. Eric stared; there was something vaguely familiar about his face. Something about those ears, that was it, those ears. No, it couldn’t be, it wasn’t possible--

Eric stood up and held out his hand. “I’m Donovan,” he said.

The towheaded man smiled and nodded. “Yes, I know. Don’t you remember me?”

“I thought I knew you from someplace. You wouldn’t be--Sam Wolzek?”

The towheaded man’s smile became a broad grin. “That’s not what you were going to say, Eric. You were going to say ‘Handle-head, ‘ weren’t you? Well, go on, say it. I don’t mind. I’ve been called a lot worse things since we were kids together.”

“I can’t believe it,” Eric murmured. “It’s really you! Old Handle-head Wolzek! And after all these years, turning up to rent an office from me. Well, what do you know!”

“I didn’t come here to rent an office.”

“Oh? Then--”

“It was your name that brought me. I recognized it on the beamings.”

“Then this is a social call, eh? Well, that’s good. I don’t get much company these days. Sit down, have a reef.”

Wolzek sat down but refused the smoke. “I know quite a bit about your setup,” he said. “You and your three tenants. It’s tough, Eric.”

“Oh, things could be worse.” Eric forced a laugh. “It isn’t as if my bucks depended on the number of tenants in the building. Government subsidizes this place. I’m sure of a job as long as I live.”

“As long as you live.” Wolzek stared at him in a way he didn’t like. “And just how long do you figure that to be?”

“I’m only twenty-six,” Eric answered. “According to statistics, that gives me maybe another sixty years.”

“Statistics!” Wolzek said it like a dirty word. “Your life-expectancy isn’t determined by statistics any more. I say you don’t have sixty months left. Perhaps not even sixty days.”

“What are you trying to hand me?”

“The truth. And don’t go looking for a silver platter underneath it, either.”

“But I mind my own business. I don’t hurt anybody. Why should I be in any danger?”

“Why does a government subsidy support one rental manager to sit here in this building every day--but ten guards to patrol it every night?”

Eric opened his mouth wide before shaping it for speech. “Who told you that?”

“Like I said, I know the setup.” Wolzek crossed his legs, but he didn’t lean back. “And in case you haven’t guessed it, this is a business call, not a social one.”

Eric sighed. “Might have figured,” he said. “You’re a Naturalist, aren’t you?”

“Of course I am. We all are.”

“Not I.”

“Oh yes--whether you like it or not, you’re a Naturalist, too. As far as the Yardsticks are concerned, everyone over three feet high is a Naturalist. An enemy. Someone to be hated, and destroyed.”

“Think I’d believe that? Sure, I know they don’t like us, and why should they? We eat twice as much, take up twice the space, and I guess when we were kids we gave a lot of them a hard time. Besides, outside of a few exceptions like ourselves, all the younger generation are Yardsticks, with more coming every year. The older people hold the key positions and the power. Of course there’s a lot of friction and resentment. But you know all that.”

“Certainly.” Wolzek nodded. “All that and more. Much more. I know that up until a few years ago, no Yardstick held any public office or government position. Now they’re starting to move in, particularly in Europasia. But there’s so many of them now--adults, in their early twenties--that the pressure is building up. They’re impatient, getting out of hand. They won’t wait until the old folks die off. They want control now. And if they ever manage to get it, we’re finished for good.”

“Impossible!” Eric said.

“Impossible?” Wolzek’s voice was a mocking echo. “You sit here in this tomb and when somebody tells you that the world you know has died, you refuse to believe it. Even though every night, after you sneak home and huddle up inside your room trying not to be noticed, ten guards patrol this place with subatomics, so the Yardstick gangs won’t break in and take over. So they won’t do what they did down south--overrun the office buildings and the factories and break them up, cut them down to size for living quarters.”

“But they were stopped,” Eric objected. “I saw it on the telescreen, the security forces stopped them--”

“Crapola!” Wolzek pronounced the archaicism with studied care. “You saw films. Faked films. Have you ever traveled, Eric? Ever been down south and seen conditions there?”

“Nobody travels nowadays. You know that. Priorities.”

“I travel, Eric. And I know. Security forces don’t suppress anything in the south these days. Because they’re made up of Yardsticks now; that’s right, Yardsticks exclusively. And in a few years that’s the way it will be up here. Did you ever hear about the Chicagee riots?”

“You mean last year, when the Yardsticks tried to take over the synthetic plants at the Stockyards?”

“Tried? They succeeded. The workers ousted management. Over fifty thousand were killed in the revolution--oh, don’t look so shocked, that’s the right word for it!--but the Yardsticks won out in the end.”

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