Borrowed trailer and a bright sunny morning overlooking the English Channel. Inside, the smell of bacon; outside, the grassy meadow sloping down to the cliff top. Two boys go by, aged fourteen or so, the age when life means everything and nothing; and so they are going to climb down to the beach, two hundred feet below. Suppose they get stuck? So what, someone will come; a passerby with a rope. Firemen, coast guards. The brilliant yellow rubber rescue launch. Helicopters. Ad infinitum, or not? Imagine somebody trapped, really trapped, so that there is no quick rescue -- only a long, tedious, vastly expensive process which is justified on the grounds that a life is being saved, and one human life is worth all the gold in Fort Knox, isn't it? I mean, isn't it?
There were only a few sightseers at this hour, just a dejected handful of gazing ghouls gathered around the fenced-off rectangle of rough scene. A light, drizzling rain sieved through the twilight, fine but penetrating, sufficient to dampen the enthusiasm of the most avid tourist. A camera clicked from time to time, etching on silver bromide the abandoned pit, sunk like a quarry into the hillside and featureless apart from the wooden hut built on top of the shaft. I stood as they stood, elbows resting upon the new fence although, unlike them, I alone had the right to cross the enclosure and enter the hut, if I so wished.
I did not do this. I stayed outside, as though a sightseer. To violate the privacy of the enclosure, to climb down into the pit and enter the shed, would have identified me. The watchers would have regarded me, questioning, as I descended, and one of them would have recognized my face from the newspaper photographs of the last few months.
Then they would blame me, condemn me as the man who had left Ruth Villiers to die. They would watch me climbing back up, and I would see it in their faces. Murderer, their expressions would say.
Yet Ruth Villiers still lived, about fifteen feet beneath that wooden shed...
* * * * *
Some six months ago I was sitting in my office, a reasonably contented man with nothing untoward on my mind. If I remember rightly, my attention that day was engaged by a minor problem concerning the upgrading of a local plumber. Such problems form the basis of my job. They can be solved by using a minimum of common sense allied to a few years' experience. Six months ago I considered my work un-demanding, but six months ago I had not met Ruth Villiers. Now I have still not met the girl face-to-face, and I wish to God I could...
The plumber sat opposite me, cap twisting in his hands involuntarily, as though he were divining water, clad spottily in his working clothes.
"My income for the past year, Mr.---er" -- he glanced at the nameplate on my desk --- "Archer, was one thousand three hundred and seventy Creds. My present Social Value Cred Rating is two thousand three hundred Creds." He looked aggrieved. They always do. It is part of the stock in the trade of my customers, this hangdog look as though they alone are condemned to poverty in a world of affluence.
"You consider that you should be upgraded?" I asked. I knew what he considered, of course, but I enjoyed watching people sweat it out, six months ago.
"Yes," he replied with timid aggression, like a cornered sheep.
I slid his file toward me and opened it, making play of adjusting my bifocals. He was right about his income, at any rate. It was there in black and white. Cr. 1,370, as returned to the Inland Revenue.
Taking my ball-point, I computed the familiar sum:
Earnings entitled -- equals 1 1/2 times gross annual income Equals 1 1/2 times 1,370 . . . . . . . . . Cr. 1,955 Plus Basic Individual Entitlement (Commonly known as "Birthright" . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Cr. 600 ------------- Total Cr. 2,555
Obviously the nervous little plumber had a case. He was due to be elevated two steps, to a Social Value Cred Rating of Cr. 2,500. He must have worked his guts out last year, poor devil, and now he wanted to reap some sort of reward, status-wise.
"I'll look into it," I promised. "We'll let you know. Next!" I pressed a button on the desk ostentatiously, cutting short any possible argument. He walked out backwards as though I were royalty. Instead of the next customer, my clerk Eccles entered, breathless.
"Emergency, Mr. Archer!" he panted. We had emergencies every day, actually, but he never got used to them. He still twittered with panic at the first sign of a claim computation, which was why he was still my clerk, instead of managing a District of his own.
"Send him in," I said calmly, expecting to see some bereaved pensioner who wanted an advance to bury his wife. I frequently get sorrowful relatives touting for handouts, but sorrow is relative -- to quote a private joke between Eccles and me -- and each case is treated strictly on merit. Tears of sorrow will not blind a person to the possibility of a benefit and we generally find that the wetter the cheeks, the more outrageously the Department will be soaked.
"Er... it's not a death case, Mr. Archer." Eccles corrected me. "It's a real emergency. An accident claim. There's no next of kin, either. Just this lad, says his name's Jack Griffiths. Boyfriend of claimant."
"Oh." I thought for a moment. "Well, you'd better send him in, just the same." It was filthy luck getting an accident claim today, when Forbes was expected at any hour.
Forbes, I must explain, is our Regional Director. His job, which I imagine he enjoys, is to travel about the various Districts within his Region, raising Cain. His favorite pastime is going through the case-files with a magnifying glass, trying to establish that I have wasted public funds through being over-sympathetic.
Perhaps I ought to amplify at this point, as not everyone is familiar with the workings of the Department of Social Value. It goes like this.
Suppose someone is in the hospital, awaiting an expensive operation. The obvious question poses itself: is the patient worth treating, bearing in mind his value to the community? So the hospital sends me a claim based on the estimated cost.
Then I call the National Bank and find that the patient has accumulated savings totaling (say) Cr. 2,000 to date.
And I consult my own punch-card index and find that he has a Social Value Cred Rating of (say) Cr. 1,500.
That person, therefore, is worth Cr. 3,500 to the community. Nothing more; nothing less.
So if the operation costs up to Cr. 3,500, the scalpels will flash and he will be healed, presumably.
But if the operation (including pre- and post-operational care and treatment) is estimated at Cr. 3,501, his flesh will remain uncarved. He can, however, receive lesser treatment and drugs to the value of Cr. 3,500, at which point he will be discharged from the hospital. What he does then is up to him; but assuming he is able to stark work again he must repay the loan of Cr. 1,500 on his Social Value Cred Rating before he can start to accumulate any personal savings again. In repaying this amount, he will be allowed the bare minimum of his wages for living expenses. In fact, he will probably be fed and lodged by his friends, provided they are not caught doing it. Undue Sympathy is a punishable offense, and rightly so, because why should one man secure an unearned advantage over his fellows?
Years ago in the mid-twentieth there was a National Health Service whereby all doctors' and hospital bills were paid by the state. There were other Social Services too, in the nature of Unemployment Benefits, Retirement Pensions, etcetera. In other words, people were actively encouraged to spend time in the hospital or otherwise out of work, and discouraged from saving their retirement.
This unfortunate system remained on the backs of the British for over fifty years, until the population crisis of the early 2000s and the emergence of the Darwinist party of which I am the local Branch Secretary. Opponents of our party might say that we stand for the survival of the fittest, but we prefer to think of the Darwinist system as fair shares for each, according to his ability.
It is a beautifully simple system, ideal in our country, where all property belongs to the state, unlike other less progressive nations I could name. Our only personal possessions are the SVC rating and accumulated savings in the National Bank. Savings revert to the state on Death.
All the same, you can see what I mean about the temptation which might face a weak Valuation Officer on occasions to be over-sympathetic.
Anyway, in came Jack Griffiths, boyfriend of claimant, looking sick.
"What can I do for you, Mr. Griffiths?" I asked formally.
"It's not me..." he stammered. "It's my girlfriend, Ruth. Ruth Villiers. There's been an accident..."
"Oh. Well, strictly speaking, I am only empowered to deal with claimants personally; otherwise we could all spend each other's money, couldn't we? So I'm afraid you'll have to take me to her. You must realize that these things have to be done properly."
"Oh, my God." He looked stricken, poor little sod. I pictured Ruth Villiers in some remote hospital with both legs broken, unable to receive anything but the most basic attention until the formalities had been gone through. It's on occasions like this when I wonder wether the system couldn't be streamlined a little, giving everyone an emergency allowance of (say) Cr. 200.
"Well, where is she?" I asked again.
He bit his lip, hesitating. "You can't see her," he said at last. "There's been a fall at the old Wheal Pentire mine... I think she's OK, but I can't get to her. She would have been up at the face; there's a big chamber there with walls of granite. I can't see that collapsing... But the whole of the entrance is caved in, and she's inside. How can you see her, under that lot?"
* * * * *
That was the beginning of the Ruth Villiers affair, and like most intricate problems in my business it appeared simple at first hearing. All that was required of me was a trip to the Wheal Pentire mine -- an abandoned working near Camborne-Redruth -- a quick, expert assessment of the situation, then a yes or no as to the feasibility of digging out the trapped girl. Obviously I would exercise my discretion in treating the boyfriend as next of kin.
Two hours later I stood at the mine entrance with Jack Griffiths, both of us in heavy overcoats with collars turned up against the binding wind, over the years, hat sculptured the stunted trees into streamlined teardrop forms. I often wondered why those old miners chose such desolate situations for their pits, and whenever I see those broken chimneys which punctuate the bleak countryside I can imagine the craggy Cornish men scratching the grudging earth for tin with masochistic enjoyment.
Wheal Pentire was small as such mines go. The entrance was indicated by the rotting remains of a shed and a rusty narrow-gauge track with ran up to the abrupt hillside and terminated at a heap of tumbled boulders.
"We were larking about," Griffiths explained tensely, staring fascinated at the rock-face. "We're often been in there before; right up as far as the old face halfway through the hill. Anyway, Ruth ran in there and I went in after her. I heard her laughing, way ahead of me, just before I ran into the prop..."
He went on to describe it; how the pit-prop, rotten with years, had shifted and began to crumble. A few stones pattering from the roof had become a roaring collapse in a matter of seconds and he had just made it outside. His voice was bitter, and I sensed a degree of self-condemnation. He felt that there was something he should have done, something more than just saving his own skin and going for help. It was useless telling him that his actions had been the only ones possible in the circumstances; he was intent on blaming himself.
Anyway, there was the fall, and somewhere in the middle of the hill was Ruth Villiers, possibly unhurt and approximately two hundred yards from the mine entrance. The cave-in looked extensive; I could see a depression in the rising shale of the barren hillside, running for some distance and marking the course of the collapse until it merged with the general rise of the broken ground.
Griffiths was regarding me wide-eyed, awaiting the opinion which could mean the life or death of his girlfriend. "Can you do anything?" he asked at last.
I had already consulted the Social Value Register and found that Ruth had a rating of Cr. 1,200. She was only seventeen and worked as a Grade VI in the South-Western Agricultural Center, so her income was just Cr. 400 per annum. This gave her an Earnings Entitlement of (1 1/2) Cr. 600, plus Basic Individual Entitlement of Cr. 600.
Cr. 1,200. It could be done, just.
"I'll have to get a surveyor in," I told Griffiths. "But it seems to me that if we brought in a GEX 2/6R excavator and took out a pit about there" -- I pointed to a spot about fifty yards beyond the apparent limit of the cave-in -- "we could break into the tunnel from the side, without bringing down any more of the roof... Assuming she's save, is there plenty of air?"
"I think so. The tunnel opens out into quite a big chamber near the face."
"She'll have to go hungry for a while. We won't be able to sink a preliminary shaft, not on Cr. 1,200. Has she got any savings?"
"Oh, yes," he said eagerly. "We were saving up to get married. She's got a balance of about Cr. 300 at the National Bank."
"Good. That's Cr. 1,500 altogether. I think we should be able to manage on that," I said, feeling like God. "We'll go back, now, and I'll work out the figures."
"How soon before we get her out?" he asked anxiously, staring at the hillside.
"About three days, I should think," I replied confidently. "She'll be hungry, but that's the least of our worries."
Symptomatic of our times? Yes. The thought of a terrified girl trapped underground for three days worried me not one bit. After all, I didn't know her; to me she was just a number on the Register. So the number was temporarily missing underground? Never mind; there was every chance of it reappearing again, thus balancing the books. Griffiths looked at me strangely, but then he was not a Valuation Officer. I deal with cases like this all the time.
* * * * *
Back at the office, I settled down with the manual of plant rates. I find this type of work very interesting; it's one of the few instances when there is scope for initiative in my job.
Anyway, the initial figures were soon out and I had an unpleasant surprise. They were way over the top:
RUTH VILLIERS -- ESTIMATED COST SHEET Surveyor's fees 75 Hire of GEX 2/6R at Cr. 13 per hour. 72 hours (say) 936 Wages of operators -- 3 shifts including night bonus and traveling fees 200 Transport of GEX 2/6R to and from site 260 Accommodation and food of operators 10 Flood-lights and electricity for night working 20 Incidentals 50 ----------- 1,551
Griffith's face was dull with shock when I showed him the cost sheet. "I thought you said it could be done," he muttered, accusing. "I thought you said Cr. 1,500 would be enough." He ran down the sheet with a slender finger which shook a little. "Incidentals Cr. 50?" he queried. "What's that, for Christ's sake? Your rake-off?"
I fought to contain a rising tide of annoyance. "My services are provided free by the State," I informed him shortly. "Incidentals cover a number of things and Cr. 50 may be a conservative estimate. Basically, you need that sort of money to pay the men extra above the standard rate, so they'll get on with the job. There are other expenses, of course; but that's the main item. Gratuities."
"What!" Griffiths was white-faced. "Are you saying that you have to tip the buggers to work hard, when there's a girl's life at stake?"
"Well, yes... Look here, Griffiths," I said kindly, "you've got to see it their way. They don't know your girl from Eve. To them, she's just another job, and when that job's done, well, they might be on idle pay. So they tend to spin it out a bit. It's cheaper to give them an unofficial bonus and charge it to incidentals than it would be to have to hire the excavator for another day."
"Christ." Griffiths was shivering; he sat opposite me across the desk, looking lost. This sort of thing was new to him; he had no experience of the careful negotiations inherent in labor relations.
He was looking so wretched, in fact, that I began to feel genuinely sorry for him. "There's still a chance," I said gently, "if you're prepared to take it."
"We do without the surveyor. We just hire the men and the excavator, and start to dig. I've got a plan here" -- I pulled out a yellowed sheet of paper -- "of the old workings. I think we can take a chance on it and dig here." I had already marked the possible starting place. "In fact, we've got to take this chance. It's the only one you've got. This way, the maximum cost should be about Cr. 1,476. Provided we don't strike any snags, we should be OK."
"Cutting it fine, even then." Griffiths was nibbling his fingernails.
"I realize that." I folded up the plan. "Can I take it you agree? There's a lot to get organized."
"OK." He got to his feet.
"See you at the site tomorrow," I said.
* * * * *
He showed me a photograph of her, of the two of them together, taken while they were on holiday three months previously. Ruth Villiers was an insignificant-looking girl; mousy hair, pale complexion, weak features. It was a full-length shot and my chief impression was that she looked the sort of girl who might have trouble in childbirth. You see this type of woman a lot, these days; despite Darwinism and encouragement for the fittest. It's a though Nature, jealous of the success of humanity in other directions, is trying to foul things up biologically.
I didn't say anything, though. Griffiths looked at the photograph for a long time before replacing it in his battered wallet. We both stood silent for a while, stamping our feet and waiting for the excavator to arrive.
It was a misty morning of late autumn and the scene looked particularly desolate: the crumbling, barren shale hillside, the stunted trees almost bereft of leaves, the rusty overgrown rails disappearing under the menacing mountain of rubble. The sky merged into the damp hills and the air was harsh and moist.
The place had a weird atmosphere; you could imagine, vividly, the old miners coughing their tubercular way to the face, grimy hands gripping sodden packets of Cornish pasties. It's said that they used to make the pasties of pilchards, wrapping the fish in a bone-hard casing of pastry of such durability that the food could be dropped down a fifty-foot shaft without shattering. Nowadays they make pasties for the tourists, of minced algae-meat clad in starchate, and I daresay the taste is no worse.
A rumbling from the valley announced the arrival of the excavator; soon we could see it, a huge yellow-tracked vehicle winding its laborious way along the misty lane, on the back of a low-loader, swaying top-heavy. The truck pulled up and the driver descended from the cab to join us, flicking his cigarette to the ground in a damp sizzle.
"Where you want it?" he asked tersely.
I pointed up the hillside and he pursued his lips. "Tricky, that," he said. "They overbalance easily, do these excavators. I'm not sure Jeff can take her up there. No, I don't like the look of that all."
A van pulled up and a succession of men climbed out, stretching their limbs.
"Jeff!" Our companion called across.
"'Ullo." A large, potbellied man in blue overalls lumbered toward us.
"Gent says you've got to take it up there."
"Oh?" Jeff scratched his head. "Well, I don't like the looks of that. Tricky stuff, shale. Start sliding on that lot and she'll be over before you can say knife. Don't stand a chance, if that happens. If she rolls, the cab crashes like a matchbox."
Resignedly, I reached in my pocket and drew out Ruth Villiers' National Bank card and punch. Jeff produced his own card with alacrity. I punched Cr. 2 on his receipts side and he punched a similar amount on Ruth's payments side.
The first incidental has been incurred.
Griffiths was watching: as soon as the men had shambled back to the excavator he spoke.
"What's to stop me paying Cr. 500 into her account, to be on the safe side?" he asked, like so many before him. They must take us for fools.
Once again I explained. "As soon as the Claim is notified, the account is frozen. The only item which can be credited to a frozen account is arrears of wages genuinely earned to a maximum of one week. Just that one item, nothing more. Otherwise the system would be meaningless, don't you see? Any relative could pay money into the claimant's account and say it was the repayment of an old loan, or something."
"I suppose so," said Griffiths heavily.
"I could tell you some stories," I went on, warming to my pet subject. "It's amazing the way some people try to get around the law. I had a case once..."
"Look," interrupted Griffiths suddenly. His fists were clenched white. "I'm not interested in any of your bloody stories! What's more, I'm sick of the way you seem to treat this whole business as an academic exercise. Don't you realize there's a girl under there? A human being, like you and me? She's trapped under there, and all you can think of is the interesting technical ramifications! For God's sake, haven't you any pity?" He was obviously overwrought.
"Take it easy." I laid a hand on his shoulder. "I realize it's your girl down there, and I'm sorry. I had a claimant die in the hospital yesterday, and I'm sorry about that too. Since the Social Valuation Act came in, over nine thousand people have died, who, before 2012, might have been saved. I'm sorry about them. But it's for the general good. Starving Chinese are dying like flies and I'm sorry for them. But perhaps that's for the general good too. Now, how sorry can you get? You've got to learn to accept these things."
"I suppose so," muttered Griffiths after a pause. He didn't agree with me, really. He just didn't want to antagonize the one person who might be able to help.
A black sedan drew up behind the workmen's van and a neatly dressed man got out. He picked his way through the loose shale toward us.
"Press," he announced concisely, producing a card. "I understand there's a young girl trapped under there."
"That's right," Griffiths said eagerly. I could see what he was thinking. This man might, through his paper, wield some influence. Perhaps he could drum up public sympathy, causing such an outcry that some sort of official grant would be forthcoming. Griffiths went on to describe the situation but I could have told him he was wasting his time. Once you made one grant, everybody would be queuing up, and the system would collapse.
"Thanks," said the man from the National Daily eventually, folding his notebook and slipping it smoothly into his pocket. "Now. Do you mind if I take a photograph?" He was a very polite reporter. He took a photograph of Griffiths looking sick, the background a pile of rubble.
"Good," he said. "Now what about the your girl, Ruth? You don't happen to have a snapshot of her I could use, I suppose?"
"Certainly." Griffiths produced his photo, handing it over.
The newspaperman examined it closely, tilting it at different angles, covering parts of it with his hand, whistling tunelessly under his breath. "Yes," he said at last, handing it back. "Yes. I'll let you know if I need it. Actually, I'm not sure if I shall be able to use this story at all. It lacks... er... interest. No meat in it. Quite possibly a wasted journey. I'm afraid... Ah, well." He shuffled his feet, extended his hand to each of us in turn. "I'd better be getting back." He left.
"What was all that about?" asked Griffiths, vaguely annoyed by the man's abrupt departure.
"You heard what he said. He's not interested. I don't think it matters. A newspaper story would have made things worse, bringing sightseers along, getting in the way."
His reply was drowned by a sudden roar from the excavator. It moved forward, tilted, and ran off the low-loader to the stony ground. Turning, tracks screaming, it churned away up the shale slope. Jeff gazing down at us from the high cab.
Work had commenced.
* * * * *
I departed at about five o'clock that afternoon, leaving Griffiths standing in the drizzling rain watching the men rig the arc-lights. I went home. I didn't feel up to calling at the office; in short, I was dead beat. There was something about the situation... the callousness of the workmen at the site, the motive of the reporter, the general attitude of everyone, including myself, which had stirred me up during the day, twisting my guts until I was hating them all, me most of all. I couldn't forget that plain little teen-ager buried under the hillside.
It was bad, this sensation which could only be described as sympathy, and I tried to expunge it from my mind. It could lose me my job, turn me into one of the faceless thousands I see every morning riding the conveyor to the Southwestern Industrial Center. I could become like Griffiths, a machine operator on Cr. 800 p.a. Doris wouldn't like that; she was very conscious of social rating. I remember an occasion when we had to ride the conveyor during the rush hour, due to minor trouble with the car. I can see Doris' face now, that frozen look as she stood swaying to the motion, surrounded by the workers in their overalls. She was withdrawn, mentally huddled within herself as though by so doing she could minimize the effect of physical contact with the masses. I may appear to be standing with them, she seemed to be saying, but spiritually I am elsewhere, way above them.
And quite true, when her husband, me, brings home Cr. 4,000 per annum. Her spirit can afford to live it up. All men are created equal, they say, and they prove it by the Basic Individual Entitlement of Cr. 600. But then, as time passes, Nature takes its course and the pushers get to the top. Like me. Whereas Griffiths and his ugly little girlfriend stay behind, unable to rise from the viscous masses. And why not? Because they are no longer equal. The have proved themselves inferior. This is Darwinism.
It's a good system. The only fair system.
So that night I went out and got drunk and when I got back I was sick, and Doris became unpleasant about it. I told her to go to hell; loudly, so that the neighbors would hear. The people in the next apartment have a Social Credit Rating of a mere Cr. 1,500; God knows how they can afford the place.
* * * * *
All next day I sat in my office wondering how things were going at the site. No sign of Forbes, and just as well. I could do without the tension occasioned by a full-scale examination of the books.
* * * * *
The day after, about one o'clock, I could stand it no longer. I told Eccles I was going out; and went, before he could start twittering about all the appointments he had arranged for that afternoon. I took the car to the site.
As I climbed out of the car -- it was not raining, thank heavens -- I could see the long figure of Griffiths standing disconsolate on the hillside, a huge chunk of which had been bitten out by the tyrannosaurus jaws of the excavator. He was gazing into the pit, the bottom of which I could not see from my present position. The scene was curiously silent, the excavator motionless. It appeared that operations had temporarily halted and I imagined the workmen had deemed it time to claim further incidental expenses. I made my way up the slope.
"What's going on?" I asked Griffiths.
His expression was blank; he looked at me blindly, unfocused, then his gaze returned to the pit.
The men were leaning against the grounded jaws of the excavator, smoking. They looked up as I scrambled down toward them.
"You've got troubles," one of them said flatly, the cigarette at his lip twitching in time to the words.
"Oh, for Christ's sake..." I looked around seeking some explanation of their inactivity, and failing. They were waiting for me to ask them. "What's the difficulty?" I asked.
Not replying, the man Jeff took up a crowbar and tapped the ground graphically, with a ringing sound. I bent down and brushed the loose shale aside with my palm.
They had struck a stratum of solid granite.
Avoiding the stricken look from Griffiths as I climbed back out of the pit, I made my way down the hillside to the car.
Seating myself, I tried to think constructively, but all I could accomplish was self-condemnation. This was my fault. True. I couldn't have known that the granite was there; but it was I who had dispensed with the advice of a surveyor on the grounds of expense. I had made a mistake, one which had probably cost Ruth Villiers her life... always assuming she was alive at present. And she quite possibly was alive, perfectly safe in that granite chamber which Griffiths had originally told me about and which I, in my anxiety to cut costs, had forgotten.
I sat there for a while. I cold see the others, Griffiths now joined by the workmen, standing on the edge of the pit and gazing down the hill at me, waiting for a decision as to the next step...
OK. So I would make the decision. The frustrations of the past few days had built up to a knot of fire in my stomach; I suddenly found that I was shaking. I flung open the car door.
There was a field telephone at the pit connected by a temporary cable to the excavation gang's headquarters in the village. I would use that to order, on my own authority, a mechanical rock-breaker and team. I would stall the Credit Requisition when it passed through my office and, by the time the delay was discovered, Ruth Villiers would be free.
Then I would face the music and the loss of my job, and the abrupt fall in my Social Credit Rating as they forced me to repay the credit I had, in effect, stolen. For everything must be in balance, that is the System...
Well, sod the System.
I was half walking, half running back up the hill when a shout from behind caused me to stop and look back. Another car had drawn up; the driver was waving to me urgently. The passenger door opened.
Forbes stepped out.
He climbed toward me briskly, bowler-hatted, bespectacled, thin face lined with many years of seeking out discrepancies.
"I hear you've been having some difficulty up here," he said, looking at me keenly and sizing up in practical fashion my distraught appearance. He had seen this sort of thing before. "You weren't thinking of doing anything foolish, were you? No... No..." He smiled thinly. "Of course you weren't. You're a careful man, Archer. A man after my own heart. Now. What seems to be the trouble?"
"As I see it, the position is this."
Forbes was talking in that verbose civil-servanty way he has -- I wonder if I talk like that? -- and we were all grouped around listening, while he indicated his computations with a delicately held ball-point.
"Miss Villiers, provided she is still alive, has Cr. 400 left to her name, which is obviously insufficient for financing an endeavor to break through this granite. Hire of mobile breaker for one day, with crew, Cr. 500." He tapped the figures again. "And it is not permitted to hire such expensive equipment for a period less than a day, even if you could get through in that time."
"So?" I asked, deferential. How much did Forbes really suspect? Could he possibly know that I came near to exhibiting Undue Sympathy?
"There is one course open to us now, and one only." He spoke gravely, looking at Griffiths.
"Yes?" Griffiths was eager for some hope, any hope.
"We must utilize the remaining Cr. 400 in the best possible way, which is firstly to sink a shaft through to the chamber for air and food. This, I estimate, will cost all of Cr. 200 even with the high-speed mobile drill I propose using."
"Which leaves Cr. 200. For food."
He stopped talking and no one else started. We were all, I think, working it out. Ruth Villiers was unable to earn money while she was down there. So when the Cr. 200 was finished, so was she.
Griffiths spoke at last, huskily. "But Cr. 200... that's food for about... seven or eight months. So what you mean is, she just stays down there, buried alive until her food runs out! For God's sake, you can't mean that! Where's your humanity?" He clutched Forbes sleeve.
Forbes stood still for a while and I felt that this was, for once, a job which he was not enjoying.
Then he disengaged himself from Griffiths's grasp. "Well," he replied calmly, "that's the System. It's not Humanity's fault that your girl got herself trapped down there, is it?" He paused, and I like to think that his next words were meant in all sincerity.
"If I were you, I would pray that she strikes gold."
He walked away, and soon his car was moving off down the lane to the village.
"Christ..." Griffiths was gazing after the receding vehicle. "So that's the sort of man that runs things. Mr. Archer" -- his voice shook -- "isn't there anything we can do? Isn't there any hope at all?" His eyes kept drifting away, up to the hill where the excavator stood motionless. "Can't you tell the men to carry on?"
"There's no point," I replied quietly. "They'll never get through with that machine, not if they tried for a month."
"It's not right!" he burst out. "Not for the sake of a few lousy Credits. What good is that to anyone? You could spare the money, so could I, if we were allowed to. The System is all wrong!"
"The System's OK," I said. "It's just that, now and then, we get situations arising where our judgment is clouded by personal involvement. Look at those men up there." I gestured toward the workmen packing their tools and preparing the excavator for departure. "They don't care, because they don't know your girlfriend."
"But surely it's not right that they don't care?"
"Let's forget that. Look at it this way. The economists have worked out exactly how much this country is worth, and have estimated its future worth with reasonable accuracy. Now the country consists of people, and it's only right that the people should have a fair share in all this wealth. Right?"
"I suppose so."
"And when I say a fair share, I mean just that. Every person gets no more, no less than this entitlement. Now suppose you had five people dying in the hospital because each of them needed twenty Credits more for an operation. Would you split an unforeseen Cr. 100 up between them, and save all five, or would you use it to rescue Ruth?"
"Your way, they all die. Six altogether." Griffiths spoke bitterly. I wasn't getting through to him.
"Yes, but look at it from the point of view of the country as a whole." I continued determinedly. "Once, years ago, we used to have a problem. Only the rich could afford heart transplants, and the rich were usually old, or they wouldn't need the operation. So they were able to spend Cr. 10,000 on an operation which prolonged their life say five years. That money would have paid for fifty kidney transplants and saved the lives of fifty young, useful people."
"This can't happen now, because nobody can get that rich, not since the Abolition of Personal Property Act of 2009. So now, nobody gets hearts transplants. But very few die of diseased kidneys. Now wouldn't you say that the people, as a whole, have benefited from this?"
Griffiths seemed calmer now. "What you have told me is quite logical," he said slowly. "There's just one thing, though..."
"Why don't you like the System?"
"But I do. I still say the System is the finest in the world."
And I was still saying it to myself, six hours later, doggedly, as the mobile probe withdrew its drill and the voice of Ruth Villiers drifted up to us from the depths.
* * * * *
Yes, that was six months ago almost to the day. The story appeared in the National Daily, of course; it was too good to miss. The girl was different, however. The sad-eyed waif with beautiful, regular features who twisted the nation's heartstrings from the pages of the paper was a far cry from Griffith's lumpy girlfriend.
That's what brought the sightseers, of course. Even now, after all the time, those dismal, rain-coated figures around the fence were imagining the girl of the press photograph down there, and thinking what a shame it was that a lovely girl like that should be wasted. And how they would like to rescue her, Lancelot-like, and take her away from the dreary pit, telling her it would be all right now and, soothing her with words and actions, carry her off to bed...
I wanted to should at them, to shake them by the shoulders and yell into their avid faces: She's ugly! She's got a wart on the side of her nose and she stinks because she hasn't washed for six months! You understand that? Now! Does it make any difference?
Griffiths was emerging from the shed; he'd been bringing her liquid food twice a day, spending all his spare time talking to her down the narrow, polythene-lined shaft.
He didn't speak much to me, now. He had become furtive, and would rarely tell me what they talked about over the hours. I don't know why I wanted to know: I think i had an almighty guilt complex about the whole affair and wished to share in it as much as possible, as though by so doing I might dilute the individual grief...
Griffiths was hurrying toward me, scrambling up the pit side, fingers scrabbling in the shale. Something was wrong.
I vaulted the fence and slid down toward him, skinning my hands on the loose rock in my haste. We met abruptly on the steep slope and clung together, breathless and tottering.
"What's the trouble?" I gasped.
"She won't speak. She's been bad, today, and now she won't speak to me. I heard her, she made a queer noise, but she wouldn't say anything!" His eyes were dilated with fear.
Seconds later I was standing in the gloom of the shed, calling down the tube which served Ruth Villiers for ventilation, communication and supplies.
I put my ear to the tube, listening hard. I could hear faint scuffling noises as though she was shifting about; but she didn't speak.
"Ruth!" I called again. "Are you all right?"
There were as sudden, complete silence from below. Griffiths was bending close to me, face averted and strained, trying himself to catch some faint sound from the tube. The interior of the shed smelled damp and musty, and on the table beside the stand which supported the tube was a half empty milk bottle. The top quarter-inch of the milk had turned a viscous yellow and particles of sour solid adhered to the inside of the neck. A cup stood on the table also, stained in the ocher ring below the rim and containing a brown puddle of old, cold tea.
Clear and distinct from the tube came the unmistakable cry of a newborn baby.
* * * * *
I've called for the breaking team and they should be here within the hour. I hope to have Ruth Villiers and the baby aboveground in about six hours, so nobody can say that the Department doesn't move fast, when occasion demands.
Griffiths is beside himself with delight, crooning down the tube to his new daughter, planning the future -- not forgetting the wedding -- with Ruth. I wonder wether he knew of her condition, all along? Or wether she never told him, for fear that he would shirk any responsibility and clear out, leaving her completely alone? I don't know. There are depths to Griffiths that I will never be able to sound. But one thing I do know -- and I can see it in his face now, as he talks down the tube -- here is a man utterly in love, and with a girl at whom I myself would not look twice. It takes all sorts.
And just as well, too. The System may proclaim for the sake of economics that we are all basically equal but with individual capabilities of varying social value, but I wonder wether there aren't things -- emotions, relationships, even love -- which are incapable of being measured in terms of Credits.
Don't take me for a revolutionary. The last few hours have shown the System in an extremely good light, which I trust the National Daily will not be slow to publicize. My own faith, which I admit was shaken at one time, has been restored by the wonderfully logical way in which the System coped with the final sequence of events.
Because in that moment of birth in the underground cavern, one person became two: Ruth Villiers, with her virtually exhausted Social Credit Rating...
And her daughter, with a Basic Individual Entitlement -- Birthright -- of Cr. 600. More than enough to hire a team of breakers.
Surely, now, nobody can criticize the System. Not even the National Daily.
Not even me.