This Crowded Earth
Chapter 12: Littlejohn--2065
The helicopter landed on the roof, and the attendants wheeled it over to one side. They propped the ladder up, and Littlejohn descended slowly, panting.
They had a coasterchair waiting and he sank into it, grateful for the rest. Hardy fellows, these attendants, but then they were almost three feet tall. More stamina, that was the secret. Common stock, of course, but they served a purpose. Somebody had to carry out orders.
When they wheeled the coasterchair into the elevator, Littlejohn descended. The elevator halted on the first floor and he breathed a sigh of relief. Great heights always made him faint and dizzy, and even a short helicopter trip took its toll--the mere thought of soaring two hundred feet above the ground was enough to paralyze him.
But this journey was vital. Thurmon was waiting for him.
Yes, Thurmon was waiting for him here in the council chamber. The coasterchair rolled forward into the room and again Littlejohn felt a twinge of apprehension. The room was vast--too big for comfort. It must be all of fifty feet long, and over ten feet in height. How could Thurmon stand it, working here?
But he had to endure it, Littlejohn reminded himself. He was head of the council.
Thurmon was lying on the couch when Littlejohn rolled in, but he sat up and smiled.
“I greet you,” he said.
“I greet you,” Littlejohn answered. “No, don’t bother to stay seated. Surely we don’t need to be ceremonious.”
Thurmon pricked up his ears at the sound of the unfamiliar word. He wasn’t the scholarly type, like Littlejohn. But he appreciated Littlejohn’s learning and knew he was important to the council. They needed scholars these days, and antiquarians too. One has to look to the past when rebuilding a world.
“You sent for me?” Littlejohn asked. The question was purely rhetorical, but he wanted to break the silence. Thurmon looked troubled as he replied.
“Yes. It is a matter of confidence between us.”
“So be it. You may speak in trust.”
Thurmon eyed the door. “Come nearer,” he said.
Littlejohn pressed a lever and rolled up to the couchside. Thurmon’s eyes peered at him through the thick contact lenses. Littlejohn noted the deep wrinkles around his mouth, but without surprise. After all, Thurmon was an old man--he must be over thirty.
“I have been thinking,” Thurmon said, abruptly. “We have failed.”
Thurmon nodded. “Need I explain? You have been close to the council for many years. You have seen what we’ve attempted, ever since the close of the Naturalist wars.”
“A magnificent effort,” Littlejohn answered politely. “In less than thirty years an entire new world has risen from the ruins of the old. Civilization has been restored, snatched from the very brink of a barbarism that threatened to engulf us.”
“Nonsense,” Thurmon murmured.
“Sheer nonsense, Littlejohn. You’re talking like a pedant.”
“But I am a pedant.” Littlejohn nodded. “And it’s true. When the Naturalists were exterminated, this nation and other nations were literally destroyed. Worse than physical destruction was the threat of mental and moral collapse. But the Yardstick councils arose to take over. The concept of small government came into being and saved us. We began to rebuild on a sensible scale, with local, limited control. The little community arose--”
“Spare me the history lesson,” said Thurmon, dryly. “We rebuilt, yes. We survived. In a sense, perhaps, we even made certain advances. There is no longer any economic rivalry, no social distinctions, no external pressure. I think I can safely assume that the danger of future warfare is forever banished. The balance of power is no longer a factor. The balance of Nature has been partially restored. And only one problem remains to plague mankind.”
“What is that?”
“We face extinction,” Thurmon said.
“But that’s not true,” Littlejohn interrupted. “Look at history and--”
“Look at us.” Thurmon sighed. “You needn’t bother with history. The answer is written in our faces, in our own bodies. I’ve searched the past very little, compared to your scholarship, but enough to know that things were different in the old days. The Naturalists, whatever else they might have been, were strong men. They walked freely in the land, they lived lustily and long.
“Do you know what our average life-expectancy is today, Littlejohn? A shade under forty years. And that only if one is fortunate enough to lead a sheltered existence, as we do. In the mines, in the fields, in the radioactive areas, they die before the age of thirty.”
Littlejohn leaned forward. “Schuyler touches on just that point in his Psychology of Time,” he said, eagerly. “He posits the relationship between size and duration. Time is relative, you know. Our lives, short as they may be in terms of comparative chronology, nevertheless have a subjective span equal to that of the Naturalists in their heyday.”
“Nonsense,” Thurman said, again. “Did you think that is what concerns me--whether or not we feel that our lives are long or short?”
“I’m talking about the basic elements essential to survival. I’m talking about strength, stamina, endurance, the ability to function. That’s what we’re losing, along with the normal span of years. The world is soft and flabby. Yardstick children, they tell us, were healthy at first. But their children are weaker. And their grandchildren, weaker still. The effect of the wars, the ravages of radiation and malnutrition, have taken a terrible toll. The world is soft and flabby today. People can’t walk any more, let alone run. We find it difficult to lift and bend and work--”
“But we won’t have to worry about such matters for long,” Littlejohn hazarded. “Think of what’s being done in robotics. Those recent experiments seem to prove--”
“I know.” Thurmon nodded. “We can create robots, no doubt. We have a limited amount of raw materials to allocate to the project, and if we can perfect automatons they’ll function quite adequately. Virtually indestructible, too, I understand. I imagine they’ll still be able to operate efficiently a hundred or more years from now--if only they learn to oil and repair one another. Because by that time, the human race will be gone.”
“Come now, it isn’t that serious--”
“Oh, but it is!” Thurmon raised himself again, with an effort. “Your study of history should have taught you one thing, if nothing else. The tempo is quickening. While it took mankind thousands of years to move from the bow and arrow to the rifle, it took only a few hundred to move from the rifle to the thermonuclear weapon. It took ages before men mastered flight, and then in two generations they developed satellites; in three, they reached the moon and Mars.”
“But we’re talking about physical development.”
“I know. And physically, the human race altered just as drastically in an equally short span of time. As recently as the nineteenth century, the incidence of disease was a thousandfold greater than it is now. Life was short then. In the twentieth century disease lessened and life-expectancy doubled, in certain areas. Height and weight increased perceptibly with every passing decade. Then came Leffingwell and his injections. Height, weight, life-expectancy have fallen perceptibly every decade since then. The war merely hastened the process.”
“You appear to have devoted a great deal of time to this question,” Littlejohn observed.
“I have,” answered the older man. “And it is not a question. It is a fact. The one fact that confronts us all. If we proceed along our present path, we face certain extinction in a very short time. The strain is weakening constantly, the vitality is draining away. We sought to defeat Nature--but the Naturalists were right, in their way.”
“And the solution?”
Thurmon was silent for a long moment. Then, “I have none,” he said.
“You have consulted the medical authorities?”
“Naturally. And experiments have been made. Physical conditioning, systems of exercise, experimentation in chemotherapy are still being undertaken. There’s no lack of volunteers, but a great lack of results. No, the answer does not lie in that direction.”
“But what else is there?”
“That is what I had hoped you might tell me,” Thurmon said. “You are a scholar. You know the past. You speak often of the lessons of history--”
Littlejohn was nodding, but not in agreement. He was trying to comprehend. For suddenly the conviction came to him clearly; Thurmon was right. It was happening, had happened, right under their smug noses. The world was weakening. It was slowing down, and the race is only to the swift.
He cursed himself for his habit of thinking in platitudes and quotations, but long years of study had unfitted him for less prosaic phraseology. If he could only be practical.
“Thurmon,” he said. “There is a way. A way so obvious, we’ve all overlooked it--passed right over it.”
“And that is--?”
“Stop the Leffingwell injections!”
“I know what you’ll say. There have been genetic mutations. Very true, but such mutations can’t be universal. A certain percentage of offspring will be sound, capable of attaining full growth. And we don’t have the population-problem to cope with any more. There’s room for people again. So why not try it? Stop the injections and allow babies to be born as they were before.” Littlejohn hesitated before adding a final word, but he knew he had to add it; he knew it now. “Normally,” he said.
Thurmon nodded. “So that is your answer.”
“Yes. I--I think it will work.”
“So do the biologists,” Thurmon told him. “A generation of normal infants, reared to maturity, would restore mankind to its former stature, in every sense of the word. And now, knowing the lessons of the past, we could prepare for the change to come. We could rebuild the world for them to live in, rebuild it psychically as well as physically. We’d plan to eliminate the rivalry between the large and the small, the strong and the weak. It wouldn’t be difficult because there’s plenty for all. There’d be no trouble as there was in the old days. We’ve learned to be psychologically flexible.”
Littlejohn smiled. “Then that is the solution?” he asked.
“Yes. Eliminating the Leffingwell injections will give us a good proportion of normal children again. But where do we find the normal women to bear them?“
Thurmon sighed, then reached over and placed a scroll in the scanner. “I have already gone into that question with research technicians,” he said. “And I have the figures here.” He switched on the scanner and began to read.
“The average nubile female, aged thirteen to twenty-one, is two feet, ten inches high and weighs forty-eight pounds.” Thurmon flicked the switch again and peered up. “I don’t think I’ll bother with pelvic measurements,” he said. “You can already see that giving birth to a six or seven-pound infant is a physical impossibility under the circumstances. It cannot be done.”
“But surely there must be some larger females! Perhaps a system of selective breeding, on a gradual basis--”
“You’re talking in terms of generations. We haven’t got that much time.” Thurmon shook his head. “No, we’re stopped right here. We can’t get normal babies without normal women, and the only normal women are those who began life as normal babies.”
“Which comes first?” Littlejohn murmured. “The chicken or the egg?”
“Nothing. Just an old saying. From history.”
Thurmon frowned. “Apparently, then, that’s all you can offer in your professional capacity as an historian. Just some old sayings.” He sighed. “Too bad you don’t know some old prayers. Because we need them now.”
He bowed his head, signifying the end of the interview.
Littlejohn rolled out of the room.
His ‘copter took him back to his own dwelling, back across the rooftops of New Chicagee. Ordinarily, Littlejohn avoided looking down. He dreaded heights, and the immensity of the city itself was somehow appalling. But now he gazed upon the capital and center of civilization with a certain morbid affection.
New Chicagee had risen on the ashes of the old, after the war’s end. Use of thermo-nucs had been limited, fortunately, so radioactivity did not linger, and the vast craters hollowed out by ordinary warheads had been partially filled by rubble and debris. Artificial fill had done the rest of the job, so that now New Chicagee was merely a flat prairie as it must have been hundreds of years ago--a flat prairie on which the city had been resurrected. There were almost fifty thousand people here in the capital; the largest congregation of population on the entire continent. They had built well and surely this time, built for the security and certainty of centuries to come.
Littlejohn sighed. It was hard to accept the fact that they had been wrong; that all this would end in nothingness. They had eliminated war, eliminated disease, eliminated famine, eliminated social inequality, injustice, disorders external and internal--and in so doing, they had eliminated themselves.
The sun was setting in the west, and long shadows crept over the city below. Yes, the sun was setting and the shadows were gathering, the night was coming to claim its own. Darkness was falling, eternal darkness.
It was quite dark by the time Littlejohn’s ‘copter landed on the rooftop of his own dwelling; so dark, in fact, that for a moment he didn’t see the strange vehicle already standing there. Not until he had settled into his coasterchair did he notice the presence of the other ‘copter, and then it was too late. Too late to do anything except sit and stare as the gigantic shadow loomed out of the night, silhouetted against the sky.
The shadow shambled forward, and Littlejohn gaped, gaped in terror at the titanic figure. He opened his mouth to speak, but words did not form; there were no words to form, for how does one address an apparition?
Instead, it was the apparition which spoke.
“I have been waiting for you,” it said.
“I want to talk to you.” The voice was deep, menacing.
Littlejohn shifted in his coasterchair. There was nowhere to go, no escape. He gazed up at the shadow. Finally he summoned a response. “Shall we go inside?” he asked.
The figure shook its head. “Where? Down into that dollhouse of yours? It isn’t big enough. I’ve already been there. What I have to say can be said right here.”
“W-who are you?”