The Commons Room of the Third Building of City One was a large affair, whose three bare metal walls enclosed more space than any other single living-quarters room in the Building; but the presence of the fourth wall made it seem tiny. That wall was nearly all window, a non-shatterable clear plastic immensely superior to that laboratory material, glass. It displayed a single unbroken sweep of forty feet, and it looked down on the forests of Fruyling’s World from a height of sixteen stories. Men new to the Third Building usually sat with their backs to that enormous window, and even the eldest inhabitants usually placed their chairs somehow out of line with it, and looked instead at the walls, at their companions, or at their own hands.
Fruyling’s World was disturbing, and not only because of the choking profusion of forest that always seemed to threaten the isolated clusters of human residence. A man could get used to forests. But at any moment, looking down or out across the gray-green vegetation, that man might catch sight of a native—an Elder, perhaps heading slowly out toward the Birth Huts hidden in the lashing trees, or a group of Small Ones being herded into the Third Building itself for their training. It was hard, perhaps impossible, to get used to that: when you had to see the natives you steeled yourself for the job. When you didn’t have to see them you counted yourself lucky and called yourself relaxed.
It wasn’t that the natives were hideous, either. Their very name had been given to them by men in a kind of affectionate mockery, since they weren’t advanced enough even to have such a group-name of their own as “the people.” They were called Alberts, after a half-forgotten character in a mistily-remembered comic strip dating back before space travel, before the true beginnings of Confederation history. If you ignored the single, Cyclopean eye, the rather musty smell and a few other even more minor details, they looked rather like two-legged alligators four feet tall, green as jewels, with hopeful grins on their faces and an awkward, waddling walk like a penguin’s. Seen without preconceptions they might have been called cute.
But no man on Fruyling’s World could see the Alberts without preconceptions. They were not Alberts: they were slaves, as the men were masters. And slavery, named and accepted, has traditionally been harder on the master than the slave.
John Dodd, twenty-seven years old, master, part of the third generation, arranged his chair carefully so that it faced the door of the Commons Room, letting the light from the great window illumine the back of his head. He clasped his hands in his lap in a single, nervous gesture, never noticing that the light gave him a faint saintlike halo about his feathery hair. His companion took another chair, set it at right angles to Dodd’s and gave it long and thoughtful consideration, as if the act of sitting down were something new and untried.
“It’s good to be off-duty,” Dodd said violently. “Good. Not to have to see them—not to have to think about them until tomorrow.”
The standing man, shorter than Dodd and built heavily, actually turned and looked out at the window. “And then tomorrow what do you do?” he asked. “Give up your job? You’re just letting the thing get you, Johnny.”
“I’d give up my job in twenty seconds if I thought it would do any good,” Dodd said. He shook his head. “I give up a job here in the Buildings, and then what do I do? Go out and starve in the jungle? Nobody’s done it, nobody’s ever done it.”
“Well?” the squat man said. “Is that an excuse?”
Dodd sighed. “Those who work get fed,” he said. “And housed. And clothed. And—God help us—entertained, by 3D tapes older than our fathers are. If a man didn’t work he’d get—cast out. Cut off.”
“There’s more than 3D tapes,” the squat man said, and grinned.
“Sure.” Dodd’s voice was tired. “But think about it for a minute, Albin. Do you know what we’ve got here?”
“We’ve got a nice, smooth setup,” Albin said. “No worries, no fights, a job to do and a place to do it in, time to relax, time to have fun. It’s okay.”
There was a little silence. Dodd’s voice seemed more distant. “Marxian economics,” he said. “Perfect Marxian economics, on a world that would make old Karl spin in his grave like an electron.”
“I guess so,” Albin said. “History’s not my field. But—given the setup, what else could there be? What other choice have you got?”
“I don’t know.” Again a silence. Dodd’s hands unclasped: he made a gesture as if he were sweeping something away from his face. “There ought to be something else. Even on Earth, even before the Confederation, there were conscientious objectors.”
“History again,” Albin said. He walked a few steps toward the window. “Anyhow, that was for war.”
“I don’t know,” Dodd said. His hands went back into his lap, and his eyes closed. He spoke, now, like a man in a dream. “There used to be all kinds of jobs. I guess there still are, in the Confederation. On Earth. Back home where none of us have ever been.” He repeated the words like an echo: “Back home.” In the silence nothing interrupted him: behind his head light poured in from the giant window. “A man could choose his own job,” he went on, in the same tone. “He could be a factory-worker or a professor or a truck-driver or a musician or—a lot of jobs. A man didn’t have to work at one, whether he wanted to or not.”
“All right,” Albin said. “Okay. So suppose you had your choice. Suppose every job in every damn history you’ve ever heard of was open to you. Just what would you pick? Make a choice. Go ahead, make—”
“It isn’t funny, Albin,” Dodd said woodenly. “It isn’t a game.”
“Okay, it isn’t,” Albin said. “So make it a game. Just for a minute. Think over all the jobs you can and make a choice. You don’t like being here, do you? You don’t like working with the Alberts. So where would you like to be? What would you like to do?” He came back to the chair, his eyes on Dodd, and sat suddenly down, his elbows on his knees and his chin cupped in his hands, facing Dodd like a gnome out of pre-history. “Go on,” he said. “Make a choice.”
“Okay,” Dodd said without opening his eyes. His voice became more distant, dreamlike. “Okay,” he said again. “I—there isn’t one job, but maybe a kind of job. Something to do with growing things.” There was a pause. “I’d like to work somewhere growing things. I’d like to work with plants. They’re all right, plants. They don’t make you feel anything.” The voice stopped.
“Plants?” Albin hooted gigantically. “Good God, think about it! You’re stuck on a planet that’s over seventy per cent plant life—trees and weeds and jungles all over the land and even mats of green stuff covering the oceans and riding on the rivers—a planet that’s just about nothing but plants, a king-sized hothouse for every kind of leaf and blade and flower and fruit you could ever dream up—”
“It’s not the same,” Dodd said.
“You,” Albin said, “are out of your head. So if you’re crazy for plants, so grow them in your spare time. If you’ve got a window in your room you can put up a window-box. If not, something else. Me, I think it’s damn silly: with the plants all around here, what’s the sense of growing more? But if you like it, God knows Fruyling’s World is ready to provide it for you.”
“As a hobby,” Dodd said flatly.
“Well, then, a hobby,” Albin said. “If you’re interested in it.”
“Interested.” The word was like an echo. A silence fell. Albin’s eyes studied Dodd, the thin face and the play of light on the hair. After a while he shrugged.
“So it isn’t plants,” he said. “It isn’t any more than the Alberts and working with them. You want to do anything to get away from them—anything that won’t remind you you have to go back.”
“Sure,” Dodd said. “Sure I do. So do all of us.”