Panic roused him--the black imp of panic that lived under the garish rug of this unfamiliar room and crawled out at dawn to nudge him awake and stare from the blank space to his left where Tillie’s gray head should have been.
His fists clenched in anger--at himself. He’d never been the sort to make allowance for his own weakness and didn’t propose to begin doing so now, at age eighty-six. Tillie’d been killed in that crash well over a year ago and it was time he got used to his widowerhood and quit searching for her every morning.
But even after he gave himself the bawling out, orientation came slowly. The surroundings looked so strange. No matter what he told himself it was hard to believe that he was indeed Fred Lubway, mechanical engineer, and had a right to be in this single bed, alone in this house his Tillie had never seen.
The right to be there was all wrong. He disliked the house and hated all its furnishings.
The cybernetic cooker in the kitchen; the magnetically-suspended divans in the living room; the three-dimensional color broadcasts he could so readily project to any wall or ceiling; the solartropic machinery that would turn any face of the pentagonal house into the sun or the shade or the breeze; the lift that would raise the entire building a hundred feet into the air to give him a wider view and more privacy--all left him dissatisfied.
They were new. None had been shared with Tillie. He used them only to the extent required by law to fulfill his duty as a consumer.
“You must change your home because of the change in your family composition,” the Ration Board’s bright young female had explained, right after Tillie’s funeral. “Your present furnishings are obsolete. You must replace them.”
“And if I don’t?” He’d been truculent.
“I doubt we’d have to invoke the penalties for criminal underconsumption,” she’d explained airily. “There are plenty of other possible courses of action. Maybe we’d just get a decision that you’re prematurely senile and unable to care for yourself. Then you’d go to a home for the aged where they’d help you consume--with forced feedings and such.”
So here he was, in this home-of-his-own that seemed to belong to someone else. Well, at least he wasn’t senile, even if he did move a little slowly, now, getting out of bed. He’d warm up soon. All by himself. With no one’s help.
And as far as these newfangled gadgets in the bathroom were concerned, he could follow any well-written set of directions. He’d scalded himself that time only because the printed instructions were so confusing.
He took a cold shower this time.
When the airtowel had finished blowing and he was half dry--not wholly dry because the machine wasn’t adapted to people who took ice-cold showers--he went in to the clothing machine. He punched the same few holes in its tape that he put there every day, stood in the right place, and in due course emerged with his long, rawboned frame covered by magenta tights having an excessively baggy seat.
He knew the costume was neither pretty nor fashionable and that its design, having been wholly within his control when he punched the tape, revealed both his taste and his mood. He didn’t care; there was no one in the world whom he wanted to impress.
He looked in the dressing room mirror not to inspect the tights but to examine his face and see if it needed shaving. Too late he remembered that twenty years had elapsed since the permanent depilatories were first invented and ten since he’d used one and stopped having to shave.
There were too many changes like that in this gadget-mad world; too many new ways of doing old things. Life had no stability.
He stalked into the kitchen wishing he could skip breakfast--anger always unsettled his stomach. But everyone was required to eat at least three meals a day. The vast machine-records system that kept track of each person’s consumption would reveal to the Ration Board any failure to use his share of food, so he dialed Breakfast Number Three--tomato juice, toast, and coffee.
The signal-panel flashed “Under-Eating” and he knew the state machine-records system had advised his cybernetic cooker to increase the amount of his consumption. Chin in hands, he sat hopelessly at the kitchen table awaiting his meal, and in due course was served prunes, waffles, bacon, eggs, toast, and tea--none of which he liked, except for toast.
He ate dutifully nevertheless, telling himself he wasn’t afraid of the ration-cops who were always suspecting him of underconsumption because he was the tall skinny type and never got fat like most people, but that he ate what the cooker had given him because his father had been unemployed for a long time during the depression seventy-five years before, so he’d never been able to bring himself to throw food away.
Failure to consume had in the old days been called “overproduction” and by any name it was bad. So was war--he’d read enough about war to be glad that form of consumption had finally been abolished.
Still it was a duty and not a pleasure to eat so much, and a relief to get up and put the dirty dishes into the disposal machine and go up topside to his gyro.
Disgustingly, he had a long wait before departure. After climbing into the gyro and transmitting his flight plan, he had to sit seething for all of fifteen minutes before the Mount Diablo Flight Control Center deigned to lift his remote-controlled gyro into the air. And when the signal came, ascent was so awkwardly abrupt it made his ears pop.
He couldn’t even complain. The Center was mechanical, and unequipped to hear complaints.
It routed him straight down the San Joaquin Valley--a beautiful sight from fifteen thousand feet, but over-familiar. He fell asleep and awakened only when unexpectedly brought down at Bakersfield Field.
Above his instrument panel the printing-receiver said “Routine Check of Equipment and Documents. Not Over Five Minutes’ Delay.”
But it could take longer. And tardiness was subject to official punishments as a form of unproductiveness. He called George Harding at the plant.
Harding apparently had been expecting the call. His round bluff face wore a scowl of annoyance.
“Don’t you ever watch the newscasts?” he demanded angrily. “They began this ‘Routine Check’ you’re in at five this morning, and were broadcasting pictures of the resulting traffic jam by six. If you’d filed a flight plan for Santa Barbara and come on down the coast you’d have avoided all this.”
“I’m not required to listen to newscasts,” Fred replied tartly. “I own the requisite number of receivers and--”
“Now, listen, Fred,” Harding interrupted. “We need you down here so hurry up!”
Fred heard him switch off and sat for a moment trembling with rage. But he ended by grinning wryly. Everyone was in the same boat, of course. For the most part, people avoided thinking about it. But he could now see himself as if from above, spending his life flitting back and forth between home and plant, plant and home; wracking his brain to devise labor-saving machines while at the plant, then rushing home to struggle with the need to consume their tremendous output.
Was he a man? Or was he a caged squirrel racing in an exercise-wheel, running himself ragged and with great effort producing absolutely nothing?
He wasn’t going to do it any longer, by golly! He was going to--
“Good morning!” A chubby young man in the pea-green uniform of a ration-cop opened the door and climbed uninvited into the cockpit. “May I check the up-to-dateness of your ship’s equipment, please?”
Fred didn’t answer. He didn’t have to. The young officer was already in the manual pilot’s seat, checking the secondary controls.
In swift routine he tried motor and instruments, and took the craft briefly aloft. Down again, he demanded Fred’s papers.
The licenses that pertained to the gyro were in order, but there was trouble over Fred’s personal documents: his ration-book contained far too few sales-validations.
“You’re not doing your share of consuming, Oldtimer,” the young cop said mildly. “Look at all these unused food allotments! Want to cause a depression?”
“Man, if you don’t eat more than this, we’ll have mass starvation!”
“I know the slogans.”
“Yes, but do you know the penalties? Forced feeding, compulsory consumption--do you think they’re fun?”
“Well, you can file your flight plan and go, but if you don’t spend those tickets before their expiration dates, Mister, you’ll have cause to regret it.”
With a special pencil, he sense-marked the card’s margins.
Fred felt that each stroke of the pencil was a black mark against him. He watched in apprehensive silence.