I See a Man Sitting on a Chair, and the Chair Is Biting His Leg
by Robert Sheckley and Harlan Ellison
Behind him lay the gray Azores, behind the Gates of Hercules; the sky above, the goo below.
“Screwin’ goo! Screwin’ goo!” Pareti yelled at the fading afternoon sunlight. It came up garbled, around the stump of cigar, and it lacked the vigor Pareti usually brought to the curse, because it was nearly shift’s end, and he was exhausted. The first time he had yelled it had been three years before, when he had signed up to work in the goo fields as a harvester. He had yelled it when he’d first seen the mucous gray plankton mutation spotting this area of the Atlantic. Like leprosy on the cool blue body of the sea.
“Screwin’ goo,” he murmured. It was ritual now. It kept him company in the punt. Just him, alone there: Joe Pareti and his dying voice. And the ghostly gray-white goo.
He caught the moving flash of grayout of the corner of his eye, light reflecting in the Eskimo-slit glasses. He wheeled the punt around expertly. The goo was extruding again. A grayish-pale tentacle rose above the ocean’s surface; it looked like an elephant’s trunk. Skimming smoothly toward it, Pareti unconsciously gauged his distance: five feet from it, right arm tensed, out comes the net—the strange net on its pole, that resembled nothing so much as the butterfly nets used by the Indians of Patzcuaro—and with a side-arm softball pitch of a motion he scooped it up, writhing.
The goo wriggled and twisted, flailed at the meshes, sucked toothlessly up the aluminum handle. Pareti estimated the chunk at five pounds, even as he brought it inboard and dumped it into the lazarette. It was heavy for so small a fragment.
As the goo fell toward it, the lazarette dilated and compressed air shut the lid down with a sucking sound on the tentacle. Then the iris closed over the lid.
The goo had touched him on the glove. Pareti decided it was too much trouble to disinfect immediately. He swiped absently at his thinning sun-bleached hair, falling over his eyes, and wheeled the punt around again.
He was about two miles from the TexasTower.
He was fifty miles out into the Atlantic.
He was off the coast of Hatteras, in Diamond Shoals.
He was at 35° latitude, 75° west longitude.
He was well into the goo fields.
He was exhausted. Shift’s end.
He began working his way back.
The sea was flat, and a long, steady swell rolled back toward the TexasTower. There was no wind, and the sun shone hard and diamond as it had ever since the Third World War, brighter than it had ever shone before. It was almost perfect harvesting weather, at five hundred and thirty dollars a shift.
Off to his left a ten-square-yard film of goo lay like a delicate tracery of gray, almost invisible against the ocean. He altered course and expertly collected it. It offered no fight at all. Stretched too thin.
He continued toward the TexasTower, gathering goo as he skimmed. He rarely encountered the same shape twice. The largest chunk he collected was disguised as a cyprus stump. (Stupid goo, he thought, who ever saw a cyprus stump growing fifty miles out?) The smallest was a copy of a baby seal. Cadaverously gray and eyeless. Pareti gathered each piece quickly, without hesitation: he had an uncanny aptitude for recognizing goo in any of its shapes, and a flawless harvesting technique that was infinitely more refined and eloquent than the methods used by the Company-trained harvesters. He was the dancer with natural rhythm, the painter who had never taken a lesson, the instinctive tracker. It had been the impetus that had led him here to the goo fields when he had graduated Summa Cum from the Multiversity, rather than into industry or one of the cattle-prod think-factories. Everything he had learned, all the education he had gotten; of what use was it in a clogged choking jamcrowded world of twenty-seven billion overcrowded people, all scrabbling for the most demeaning jobs? Anyone could get an education, a few less got their degrees, even less got their gold seals, and a handful—like Joe Pareti—came out the other end of the Multiversity slide-trough with a degree, a doctorate, a gold seal and the double—a rating. And none of it was worth his natural instinct for goo harvesting.
At the speed he harvested, he could earn more than a projects engineer.
After twelve hours of shift, out on the glare-frosted sea, even that satisfaction was dulled by exhaustion. He only wanted to hit the bunk in his stateroom. And sleep. And sleep. He threw the soggy cigar stub into the sea.
The structure loomed up before him. It was traditionally called a TexasTower, yet it bore no resemblance to the original offshore drilling rigs of pre-Third War America. It looked, instead, like an articulated coral reef or the skeleton of some inconceivable aluminum whale.
The TexasTower was a problem in definition. It could be moved, therefore it was a ship: it could be fastened irrevocably to the ocean bottom, therefore it was an island. Above the surface there was a cat’s cradle network of pipes: feeder tubes into which the goo was fed by the harvesters (as Pareti now fed his load, hooking the lazarette’s collapsible tube nozzle onto the monel metal hardware of the TexasTower’s feeder tube, feeling the tube pulse as the pneumatic suction was applied, sucking the goo out of the punt’s storage bins), pipe racks to moor the punts, more pipes to support the radar mast.
There was a pair of cylindrical pipes that gaped open like howitzers. The entry ports. Below the waterline, like an iceberg, the TexasTower spread and extended itself, with collapsible sections that could be extended or folded away as depth and necessity demanded. Here in Diamond Shoals, several dozen of the lowest levels had been folded inoperative.
It was shapeless, ungainly, slow-moving, impossible to sink in a hurricane, more ponderous than a galleon. As a ship, it was unquestionably the worst design in nautical history; but as a factory, it was a marvel.
Pareti climbed out of the mooring complex, carrying his net-pole, and entered the nearest entry port. He went through the decontamination and storage locks, and was puffed inside the TexasTower proper. Swinging down the winding aluminum staircase, he heard voices rising from below. It was Mercier, about to go on-shift, and Peggy Flinn, who had been on sick call for the last three days with her period. The two harvesters were arguing.
“They’re processing it out at fifty-six dollars a ton,” Peggy was saying, her voice rising. Apparently they had been at it for some time. They were discussing harvester bonuses.
“Before or after it fragments?” Mercier demanded.
“Now you know damn well that’s after-frag weight,” she snapped back. “Which means every ton we snag out here gets tanked through and comes up somewhere around forty or forty-one tons after radiation. We’re getting bonus money on Tower weight, not frag weight!”
Pareti had heard it a million times before in his three years on the goo fields. The goo was sent back to the cracking and radiation plants when the bins were full. Subjected to the various patented techniques of the master processing companies the goo multiplied itself molecule for molecule, fragmented, grew, expanded, swelled, and yielded forty times its own original weight of goo. Which was then “killed” and reprocessed as the basic artificial foodstuff of a population diet long-since a stranger to steaks and eggs and carrots and coffee. The Third War had been a terrible tragedy in that it had killed off enormous quantities of everything except people.
The goo was ground up, reprocessed, purified, vitamin-supplemented, colored, scented, accented, individually packaged under a host of brand names—VitaGram; Savor; Deelish; Gratifood; Sweetmeat; Quench-Caffé; Family Treatall—and marketed to twenty-seven billion open and waiting mouths. Merely add thrice-reprocessed water and serve.