Did Jory know about the beef he had this morning with Rogers? Come to think of it, Ernie didn't know there was going to be a layoff. Was Jory just needling him?
He looked around the cafeteria again. The tables on the edges of the floor were deserted and empty. To Ernie's eyes it suddenly looked as if the men who were eating had purposely gathered so they could be close together. They sat with their backs hunched, turned on the empty spaces behind them.
Even the noise, compared to the usual din of the cafeteria, seemed to be different. It echoed and fell flat. Ernie didn't like it. He felt funny. The overly familiar cafeteria had suddenly become strange.
A feeling began to grow in him that, somehow, the cafeteria was wrong. "It ... looks funny," he said.
Jory became alert. "What looks funny?"
"I don't know ... the room."
"What's wrong with the room?" Jory bent over. His eyes were intent, but his voice stayed low. He spoke with great care.
"I ... don't know. It looks funny. Empty. Older. No, wait--" And the feeling was gone. Ernie shook his head. It was the old, crowded and not too clean cafeteria, again.
He turned to Jory. "Well, they better not! I was out of work six months on the last layoff." He paused and marshaled a last, telling argument: "I can't afford it!"
Jory laughed. "Take it easy. I said there might be one. Lots of things might happen. Hell, the world itself might come to an end."
Ernie said grumpily, "I don't like 'mights'. Why can't they leave a man alone and let him do his work? Why do they gotta--"
Jory stood up and grinned. "Come on, Ernie. What do you need money for? I mean, other than to keep up the payments on your TV?"
Ernie rose. "Don't be such a guy," he grumbled. "We better get back. If I come in late from lunch, I've had it."
It was a quarter of a mile across the plant yard to where they worked. They walked in silence for the first few yards. Ernie thought his own thoughts and listened to the sound of their feet on the gravel.
Presently, Jory said, "Ernie, you watch the fights. Do you remember back when they had the Rico-Marsetti bout?"
Ernie still felt irritable. "Hell, yes, I remember. It was just two weeks ago. You make it sound like it happened six months back."
"How well do you remember it?"
"Well enough. That bum Marsetti cost me ten bucks when he dived in the sixth. He was the two-to-one favorite."
"He didn't dive."
"Yeah? You ask him?"
"No. I read the papers. He was pretty scrambled up ... in the head, I mean ... for quite a while after they brought him back to his dressing room."
"Maybe he was that way all along. Maybe they just then noticed it."
Jory laughed. "Don't get cynical, Ernie. It's a sign of old age. No. Marsetti was really out of his head. He kept going through the last round ... you know, in his mind. He did it perfect, thirty or forty times, just up to the knockout." Then he stopped and went through the whole round again.
"The doctors that examined him said that it happened because he ran into something he couldn't face."
Ernie said sourly, "Yeah. Rico's left fist."
"Maybe. But it gave me an idea."
"Yeah. The idea is this: Could the world get knocked out that way? Suppose it did. Suppose everybody ran into something they couldn't take. Would they just run in a closed circle? Would they take a single day, like Marsetti took the sixth round, and just repeat it over and over again?"
Ernie scowled and stopped. They were outside the plant door. "Boy," he said, "you are a bug, ain't you? What are you trying to give me?"
"Just an idea, Ernie."
The suspicion that Jory was needling him came back. "Well, I don't like it," Ernie said scornfully. "In fact, I think it's nuts." He paused to think of something else to say, then shrugged and turned. "I'll see you later. I got to get in to work."
And now here he was, Ernie thought, sitting in his own room with Jory's face looking at him out of the blue screen.
The whole day has been nuts, Ernie told himself.
"Hello, Ernie," Jory's voice repeated tiredly. "Hello, Ernie.... Hello, Ernie--"
Ernie threw his beer can on the floor. Foam spewed out and soaked the rug. "All right," Ernie bellowed, "All right--Hello!"
Jory stopped. He put his hand to his head and looked excited. He was wearing earphones, Ernie saw.
"Ernie!" Jory said. "Do you see me?" He looked blindly out of the screen.
In his rage, Ernie nearly kicked in the face of the set. "Yes, I see you! What are you trying to pull?"
Jory turned excitedly to someone beside him, but off the screen. "I've got him," he said quickly. "He's awake." He turned and faced Ernie.
"Look, Ernie, I can't see you but we've got a microphone in your room. I can hear every word you say. Now sit down for a minute and let me explain."
"You'd better," Ernie said ominously.
"Are you sitting?"
"Yeah, I'm sitting. Get on with it."
"I've been on your screen every night for the past week, Ernie. We took over the station. And we've been broadcasting to you on all channels for the past week."
Ernie shook his head. "You're nuts," he mumbled.
"It's true, Ernie."
"But--" A thought struck him. "Hey, are other people getting this on their sets?"
"Everyone in the city, Ernie. But they aren't seeing it. As far as we can tell they think they're watching their usual programs. Everyone is in a trance, Ernie. They just go through the same motions over and over. It was the same with the engineers here. We just pushed them aside. They're tied up now. We're keeping them under drugs. We had to do that. When they were loose they just tried to get back at the controls. But that was all, they never really saw us."
Ernie shook his head again. "Wait a minute. Let me get my head clear--O.K., now you say everybody is in some kind of trance. Why?"
"I tried to make you see it today. The world is stuck. It's stuck in this God-forsaken one day! We don't know why. Some of us--just a few--have known it all along. But even we can't remember what caused it."
"You mean it's happening everywhere?"
"Yes. Or not happening, I guess you'd say. We're not getting reports from overseas ... not any that are any different from the first Wednesday. So it must be the same over there. It's the whole world, Ernie."
"Wait a minute. Let me think." After a moment, he got up, went into the kitchen and got another beer.
"O.K., I'm ready," he said as he came back. "Now, why did you guys pick me? How many of you are there?"
"Just a handful ... no more than twenty. We're scattered all across the country. We picked you because you're a test case, Ernie. One of us is a psychologist.
"He says you're a common denominator. If we could break you out of it, then we could get through to a whole cross section of people."
Ernie grunted and sipped his beer. "A common denominator, huh? Thanks, pal. You mentioned drugs. I guess you can go anywhere? Just walk past people and never be seen?"
Ernie laughed scornfully. "You've got a good deal. Why louse it up? What do you stand to gain?"
Jory shook his head. "You're wrong, Ernie. For one thing, everything is slowly running down. Miners go to the same part of the mine each day and send out nothing but empty cars. The same thing is happening all across the country, in farms, in factories, in hospitals--"
Ernie got up. "Keep talking," he said.
"Hospitals are hideous these days, Ernie. Don't go near a surgeon. All he can do are the same operations he performed on the first Wednesday. If you're the wrong height, the wrong weight, or just there at the wrong time, he'll cut you to pieces.
"Homes burn to the ground. And nobody tries to get out of them. The fire department is no good. It's stuck in that first Wednesday.
"We broke off broadcasting last night. We had to fight an apartment house fire. There are only three of us here in the city. We didn't save anyone. What could we do? We were lucky that we kept it from spreading.
"We need help, Ernie. We need it badly--"
Absently, Ernie said, "Yeah, I see that all right." He kept pacing.
"I don't know if I can make you understand how important you are right now, Ernie. With you helping, we can isolate the thing that triggered you out of this. We can use it as a technique on whole groups of people. The world will begin moving again. At last, things will begin to change."
"Yeah--" Ernie stopped and looked at the rug beside his dresser. He had found what he had been looking for. He picked the microphone up.
And pulled loose the wires.
From the television, Jory screamed. "Ernie, listen to me--"
Ernie turned off the set.
He sat on his bed and continued to think while he finished the can of beer. When he had it all thought out he smiled. He felt very happy. He could stop being afraid. Afraid of anything. His foreman, his job. All of it.
He wasn't interested in walking into banks and carrying off sackfuls of money. What was the sense to that? He couldn't spend it anyway.
Besides, he had something that was better.
All his life there had been too many bright guys with too many bright ideas. And the bright ideas got put into practice and then things changed. They could never leave a guy alone and just let him do his job. They always had to throw in the unexpected.
But this time, nothing was going to change.
He chuckled and turned out the light.
THE HAPPY MAN.
By Gerald W. Page
More's "Utopia" was isolated-- cut off--from the dreary world outside. All Utopias are....
Nelson saw the girl at the same time she saw him. He had just rounded an outcropping of rock about ten miles from the East Coast Mausoleum. They were facing each other, poised defensively, eyes alertly on each other, about twenty feet apart. She was blond and lean with the conditioning of outdoor life, almost to the point of thinness. And although not really beautiful, she was attractive and young, probably not yet twenty. Her features were even and smooth, her hair wild about her face. She wore a light blouse and faded brown shorts made from a coarse homespun material. Nelson had not expected to run into anyone and apparently, neither had she. They stood staring at each other for a long time; how long, Nelson was unable to decide, later.
A little foolishly, Nelson realized that something would have to be done by one of them. "I'm Hal Nelson," he said. It had been a long time since he had last spoken; his voice sounded strange in the wilderness. The girl moved tensely, but did not come any closer to him. Her eyes stayed fixed on him and he knew that her ears were straining for any sound that might warn her of a trap.
Nelson started to take a step, then checked himself, cursing himself for his eager blundering. The girl stepped back once, quickly, like an animal uncertain if it had been threatened. Nelson stepped back, slowly, and spoke again. "I'm a waker, like you. You can tell by my rags." It was true enough, but the girl only frowned. Her alertness did not relax.
"I've been one for ten or twelve years. I escaped from a Commune in Tannerville when I was in my senior year. They never even got me into one of the coffins. As I said, I'm a waker." He spoke slowly, gently and he hoped soothingly. "You don't have to be afraid of me. Now tell me who you are."
The girl pushed a lock of almost yellow hair from her eyes with the back of her hand, but it was her only show of carelessness. She was strong and light. She was considerably smaller than he and could probably handle herself as well as he in this country. The landscape was thick with bushes, conifers and rocks. She would have no trouble in getting away from him if he scared her; and he would scare her with almost any sudden movement. It had been too long for Nelson to keep track of when he had been accompanied by others and he hungered for companionship; especially for a woman. The patrol that had captured Sammy and Jeanne and the old man, Gardner, had also gotten Edna and almost had gotten him. The fact that the girl was alone now more than likely meant that she had no one either. They needed each other. Nelson did not want to scare her off.
So he sat down on the ground with his back to a large rock and rummaged in his pack to find a can.
"You hungry?" he asked looking up at her. He couldn't be sure at the distance, but he thought that her eyes were brown. Brown, and huge; like a colt's. He held the can out where she could see it. She repeated the gesture of a while ago to brush back that same lock of almost yellow hair, but there was a change in her face which he could see even twenty feet away, and another, more subtle change about her which he had to sense. "You're hungry, all right, aren't you?" he said. He almost tossed her the can, but realized in time that she would run. He considered for a moment and then held it out to her. She focused her eyes on the can and for a moment Nelson might have been able to reach her before she turned and ran; but he had better sense than to try.
Instead, he watched the play of conflicting desires about the girl's face and body. He could see the uncertainty and indecision in the girl's nearly imperceptible movement. But she did not come.
Well, at least she didn't run, either; and Nelson could claim to having broken ahead some in stirring up any indecision at all. He found the can's release and pressed it with his thumb. There was a hiss as the seal came loose and an odor of cooked food as the contents sizzled with warmth. Nelson looked up at the girl and smiled.
It could have been wishful thinking, but it seemed to him that she was a step or two closer than she had been before he had taken his eyes off her to open the can. He couldn't be sure. He smelled the food for her benefit and told her, "It's pork and beans." He held it out to her again. "I stole it from a patrol warehouse a few weeks back. It sure does smell good, doesn't it? You like the smell of that, don't you?" But she still wasn't convinced that this wasn't a patrol stunt to get hands on her and haul her back to a mausoleum. He couldn't blame her. He slowly pushed himself to his feet and walked to a spot about ten feet from where he had been, and still about twenty feet from her, and put the can carefully on the ground. He went back and seated himself against the same rock to wait for her to make up her mind.