The People Trap

Robert Sheckley

The People Trap

and other pitfalls, snares, devices and delusions, as well as two sniggles and a contrivance

Robert Sheckley's first science fiction and fantasy stories were published in 1951 while he was still at the University of New York. In 1952, after working for six months as an X-ray technician in an aircraft plant, he became a full-time writer. His books include Immortality Inc., Journey Beyond Tomorrow, The Same to You Doubled and Mindswap.

Born in 1928, Robert Sheckley was brought up in New Jersey. He lives with his wife in New York and has a great lust for travelling — when not on a trip, he is always planning the next one.

The People Trap

1

It was Land Race Day — a time of vaunting hope and unrelieved tragedy, a day which epitomized the unhappy twenty-first century. Steve Baxter had tried to reach the starting line early, like the other contestants, but had miscalculated the amount of time he would require. Now he was in trouble. His Participant's B" had got him through the outer, exocrowd without incident. But neither badge nor brawn could be relied upon to carry a man through the obdurate inner core of humanity which made up the endo-crowd.

Baxter estimated this inner mass at 8.7 density — not far from the pandemic level. A flash-point might occur at any moment, despite the fact that the authorities had just aero-soled the endocrowd with tranquillizers. Given enough time, a man might circle around them; but Baxter had only six minutes before the race began.

Despite the risk, he pushed his way directly into their ranks. On his face he wore a fixed smile — absolutely essential when dealing with a high-density human configuration. He could see the starting line now, a raised dais in Jersey City's Glebe Park. The other contestants were already there. Another twenty yards, Steve thought; if only the brutes don't stampede!

But deep within the corecrowd he still had to penetrate the final nuclear mob. This was composed of bulky, slack-jawed men with unfocused eyes — agglutinating hystero-philiacs, in the jargon of the pandemiologists. Jammed together sardine fashion, reacting as a single organism, these men were incapable of anything but blind resistance and irrational fury towards anything that tried to penetrate their ranks.

Steve hesitated for a moment. The nuclear mob, more dangerous than the fabled water buffaloes of antiquity, glared at him, their nostrils flared, their heavy feet shuffling ominously.

Without allowing himself time to think, Baxter plunged into their midst. He felt blows on his back and shoulders and heard the terrifying urrr of a maddened endomob. Shapeless bodies jammed against him, suffocating him, relentlessly pressing closer and closer.

Then, providentially, the authorities turned on the Muzak. This ancient and mysterious music, which for over a century had pacified the most intractable berserkers, did not fail now. The endomob was decibelled into a temporary immobility, and Steve Baxter clawed his way through to the starting line.

The chief judge had already begun to read the Prospectus. Every contestant and most of the spectators, knew this document by heart. Nevertheless, by law the terms had to be stated.

"Gentlemen," the judge read, "you are here assembled to take part in a race for the acquisition of public-domain lands. You fifty fortunate men have been chosen by public lottery from fifty million registrants in the South Westchester region. The race will proceed from this point to the registration line at the Land Office in Times Square, New York — an adjusted approximate mean distance of 5.7 statute miles. You contestants are permitted to take any route; to travel on the surface, above, or below ground. The only requirement is that you finish in person, substitutes not being permitted. The first ten finalists—"

The crowd became deathly still.

"— will receive one acre of unencumbered land complete with house and farming implements. And each finalist will also be granted free Government transportation to his freehold, for himself and for his immediate family. And this aforesaid acre shall be his to have and to hold, free and clear, perpetually unalienable, as long as the sun shines and water flows, for him and his heirs, even unto the third generation!"

The crowd sighed when they heard this. Not a man among them had never seen an unencumbered acre, much less dreamed of possessing one. An acre of land entirely for yourself and your family, an acre which you didn't have to share with anyone — well, it was simply beyond the wildest fantasy.

"Be it further noted," the judge went on, "the Government accepts no responsibility for deaths incurred during this contest. I am obliged to point out that the unweighted average mortality rate for Land Races is approximately 68.9 per cent. Any contestant who so wishes may withdraw now without prejudice."

The judge waited, and for a moment Steve Baxter considered dropping the whole suicidal idea. Surely he and Adele and the kids and Aunt Flo and Uncle George could continue to get by somehow in their cosy one-room apartment in Larchmont's Fred Allen Memorial Median Income Housing Cluster. After all, he was no man of action, no muscled bravo or hairy-fisted brawler. He was a systems-deformation consultant, and a good one. And he was also a mild-mannered ectomorph with stringy muscles and a distinct shortness of breath. Why in God's name should he thrust himself into the perils of darkest New York, most notorious of the Jungle Cities?

"Better give it up, Steve," a voice said, uncannily echoing his thoughts.

Baxter turned and saw Edward Freihoff St John, his wealthy and obnoxious neighbour from Larchmont. St John, tall and elegant and whipcord-strong from his days on the paddle-ball courts. St John, with his smooth, saturnine good looks, whose hooded eyes were too frequently turned towards Adele's blonde loveliness.

"You'll never make it, Stevie baby," St John said.

"That is possible," Baxter said evenly. "But you, I suppose, will make it?"

St John winked and laid a forefinger alongside his nose in a knowing gesture. For weeks he had been hinting about the special information he had purchased from a venal Land Race comptroller. This information would vastly improve his chances of traversing Manhattan Borough — the densest and most dangerous urban concentration in the world.

"Stay out of it, Stevie baby," St John said in his peculiar rasping voice. "Stay out, and I'll make it worth your while. Whaddaya say, sweetie pie?"

Baxter shook his head. He did not consider himself a courageous man; but he would rather die than take a favour from St John. And in any event, he could not go on as before. Under last month's Codicil to the Extended Families Domicile Act, Steve was now legally obliged to take in three unmarried cousins and a widowed aunt, whose one-room sub-basement apartment in the Lake Placid industrial complex had been wiped out by the new Albany-Montreal Tunnel.

Even with anti-shock injections, ten persons in one room was too much. He simply had to win a piece of land!

"I'm staying," Baxter said quietly.

"OK, sucker," St John said, a frown marring his hard, sardonic face. "But remember, I warned you."

The chief judge called out, "Gentlemen, on your marks!"

The contestants fell silent. They toed the starting line with slitted eyes and compressed mouths.

"Get ready!"

A hundred sets of leg muscles bunched as fifty determined men leaned forward.

"Go!"

And the race was on!

A blare of supersonics temporarily paralysed the surrounding mob. The contestants squirmed through their immobile ranks and sprinted over and around the long lines of stalled automobiles. Then they fanned out, but tended mainly to the east, towards the Hudson River and the evil-visaged city that lay on its far shore, half concealed in its sooty cloak of unburned hydrocarbons.

Only Steve Baxter had not turned to the east.

Alone among the contestants, he had swung north, towards the George Washington Bridge and Bear Mountain City. His mouth was tight, and he moved like a man in a dream.

In distant Larchmont, Adele Baxter was watching the race on television. Involuntarily, she gasped. Her eight-year-old son Tommy cried, "Mom, Mom, he's going north to the bridge! But it's closed this month. He can't get through that way!"

"Don't worry, darling," Adele said. "Your father knows what he's doing."

She spoke with an assurance she did not feel. And, as the figure of her husband was lost in the crowds, she settled back to wait — and to pray. Did Steve know what he was doing? Or had he panicked under pressure?

2

The seeds of the problem had been sewn in the twentieth century; but the terrible harvest was reaped a hundred years later. After uncounted millennia of slow increase, the population of the world suddenly exploded, doubled, and doubled again. With disease checked and food supplies assured, death rates continued to fall as birthrates rose. Caught in a nightmare geometric progression, the ranks of humanity swelled like runaway cancers.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse, those ancient policemen, could no longer be relied upon to maintain order. Pestilence an ...

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