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Chapter XXII

            Vincent Harrison was very happy with the happenings in his country of Transantarctica, and well he might be, for things were going well with him. For many weeks now the landmasses had been filled to capacity by the crowds coming from the planets; all the people had rushed to Transantarctica to get land, as they thought, cheap. They found that their hopes were not to be realized. Vincent Harrison knew the situation that existed in every corner of the Earth, and he found this a perfect chance to make money. Prices on lots only big enough to situate a small cabin soared skyward. As even the great barren Antarctic continent neared overpopulation and lots were becoming few and far between, Vincent, ever the shrewd businessman, upped prices still farther; and even then the day came rapidly when there was no more room---anywhere.
            Without a doubt, no one person on the whole of the Earth really knew how crowded it was. In the 20th Century there was a country by the name of Belgium which was considered overpopulated, but in the late 1960s it had approximately 650 people to the square mile, while now, after the Martians and Venusians and Lunites had re-migrated back to Earth, the statistics showed that there were over 800 persons to the square mile, or about three-quarters of an acre per person as an average in all parts of the world.
            The average city-dweller could not comprehend the density of population. The older people remembered when there were parks and plains and fields to break up the populous areas, but now that every sort of plant that ever lived was dead, there was no use for parks or wildlife preserves. What once had been the United States had kept large areas of the country aside for the wildlife, but as soon as the great stands of timber were gone, the animals had to be captured and put in the zoos and the circuses of the country. There were no longer any "secret retreats" to go to when the living in the crowded cities became overbearing. After the forests---and even the dense jungles in the tropics---were no more, the dead, brown timber was either salvaged for building and chemical purposes or burned where it fell. And then, over the burnt and barren ground which once was shaded by immense growths of trees, the people poured into the formerly green areas, and very soon the ground was so covered with homes and factories and schools and churches and halls that a newcomer to Earth could never tell what had been there only a few short years before.
            The people who were too young to remember the trees and plants simply didn't know what they were missing; they looked at pictures of plant life with the same detachment that they were used to when they looked at pictures of a 1925 automobile, a propeller-type airship, or an American buffalo: they just didn't care.
            Even now, at a time when he didn't have any more property to sell, Vincent Harrison was busy. The great icecap which covered his entire domain was slowly but surely melting. Under the great heat and weight of the thousands of square miles of thick rubber matting the ice had very little stability. Reports of breakage in the surface rubber were cascading in an ever-heavier stream onto his desk. Strict laws had been set down as to the limit of tonnage per square acre on the matting. Certain individuals who thought that a few extra tons here and there would not harm anything---they were mistaken. Houses which were over the weight limit occasionally found themselves in perilous positions. After the icecap had melted considerably, the hitherto unseen and sometimes unknown mountaintops broke up through the glaciers. One overweight saloon had to be permanently abandoned when it was found that the section of rubber upon which it rested was suspended over a deep valley with absolutely no bottom support. A few hundred yards on either side the matting rested on towering mountaintops, and it was feared that the possible sharpness of the summits might be sufficient to break through the rubber, throwing every building within a radius of about two miles dangerously off balance.
            Two independent glaciers on opposite sides of one mountain decided to each go a different way, with the result being that the opposing force presented by these glaciers flowing down the side was enough to cause a fracture in the matting on the mountain-top. The residents of a house unfortunately situated on the mountain narrowly missed death.
            One of the children living in the house was disturbed one night, while half-asleep, by mysterious slipping and sliding noises under his bed on the "ground” floor. Suddenly there was a curious ripping sound, and the bed was lifted off the floor by an unseen force. Quickly rolling off the bed, he found that a rock, projecting out of the flooring, had risen into the room and was slowly but relentlessly pushing the bed in the general direction of the ceiling. After rousing the family, he made his way out of the trembling house with what meager possessions they could rescue. In a few minutes’ time the rent in the rubber widened, and the house split apart before their eyes as the ends of the matting slowly descended the mountain with the ice floes.
            Whenever an event like this occurred, the spinners which had originally made the entire polar covering were taken out of storage and immediately transported to the tear, where they tried---sometimes successfully, other times not---to mend the hole by putting a fresh coating of rubber around the protruding hilltop, and then securely attaching the torn edges to the fresh matting.
            In some cases the weight of the dwellings on the rubber which happened to be stretched over two particularly distant mountains was too great for the tensile strength of the matting. One family of six found their house to be settling---but it was only settling on one side, the side toward the as yet undiscovered valley. The dwellers in the center of the valley found the slow descent of their homes somewhat alarming. They noticed that the homes on the east and west appeared to be rising in the air above them. The families near the tops of the hills noticed the change even more, and they quickly began telephoning their friends near the center of the valley. As the downward surge gained momentum, the descent became dizzying to the residents of the center section. Down and down, faster and faster it went, while the people dashed up the steadily steepening hill on every side in every available conveyance. Faster and faster and faster, until, finally, with a taut, resounding snap! a great hole appeared between the mountaintops.
            As the ice melted and left great pockets of nothingness between the hills, small air-vents spaced evenly across the matting gradually let air into the caverns, so that no sucking vacuums which could draw the matting downward would be formed. Now this somewhat compressed air, which had taken many months to fill the hollows in the valleys, shot upward out of the releasing hole. The matting settled slowly, but as more and more air was liberated from the valley, more and lower sank the rubber. The few lucky ones that lived comparatively close to the tops of the mountains attained the ridge, and there they watched their not-so-lucky neighbors.
            The thin, frayed edges of rubber right near the hole flapped lazily back and forth in the conflicting currents of wind, throwing anything or anybody that was close to the edge down into the valley far below. With a ponderously slow movement the matting settled into the spaces formerly occupied by the air. The slope of the hollow became perilous. Residents who had been considered lucky to have a car were now found to be doomed. As the ascent from the hole became steeper, the car-wheels could no longer get the traction needed to hold the heavy cars to the slope. One by one the vehicles began slowly, and then more quickly, to skid down the incline. Soon the brakes would not hold, and the cars plummeted toward the dark, yawning, flapping hole.
            The pedestrians found the ascent much easier, for they could lean close against the rubber and dig into its slightly resilient surface with their toes and knees and elbows for traction.
            One motorist, apparently seeing the success of the people on foot, decided that it would be a better risk to attempt the climb that way. A car door flew open, and a form hurtled out of the doorway onto the perilously steep rubber roadway. Unfortunately, he landed on his back, and, instead of instantly gripping the rubber as he had planned, he started to roll down the steep incline. Wildly flailing the air with his arms and legs, he tried desperately to gain a hold. For a moment he managed to stop, and with his head downward, on his stomach, he clung to the rubber with his limbs outstretched and his forehead forced up against the moving matting.
            A long while passed, and still he dared not move. Slowly, very slowly, he put his arm down at his side, secured as good a grip as he could with his fingertips, and started to swing around so his head would be above his feet. He was on his side, and his torso was in the air, supported by his arm behind him---when his hand slipped out from under him, and once again he rolled sideways, faster and faster, down the hill. Just as he reached the lip of the hole, another strong gust of wind rushed out. With as much ease as one could catapult a splinter of wood off a fingernail, the rubber snapped in the wind, and he was thrown off into the air. A shrill, faraway scream reached the ears of the horrified onlookers as he disappeared into the blackness of the valley.
            Many, many reports of these and similar happenings reached the already cluttered desk of Vincent Harrison. He was beginning to see the time when he would regret the many things that he had done. For example, he was already in trouble with the government---he was sure of it. Hundreds of lives had been lost on his rubber matting so far, and as the ice level got lower and lower there was more danger of mishap. A few days earlier some government men had come out to his main office on Transantarctica and asked for a piece of the rubber matting for test purposes. Although he had tried very hard to assure them that it was not the fault of the rubber, but the fault of the tremendous stresses put on it, he was overruled by the demands of the government officials.
            Right at this second he could imagine the government scientists probing into the contents of the matting, and analyzing its strength. He knew now that he should not have been so prematurely avaricious as to put inferior products into the matting. How should he know that it would affect the quality in such a serious way. For the comparatively small profit that he made from the substitution of cheaper materials in the matting, he would be ruined: and after he had worked so hard to make the staggering profits that he did on the sale of his vast Antarctic Empire. And Empire it was, too, with Vincent Harrison as undisputed Emperor, landowner, and lawmaker. As his power grew, so did his desire for power, until it seemed to his self-assured mind that no one could stop him from doing anything that he desired. Head of his own monarchy, the light taxes he put on about a billion inhabitants of Antarctica came directly into his own pocket. He started dreaming about his vast fortunes, then jerked back into reality as he read a telegram placed on his desk by one of his secretaries. A committee was coming to see him about the disasters in his country, sent by the Congress of Worlds.
            He hadn't expected such opposition. He had imagined they would make a calm visit to him, and simply tell him that he should incorporate better materials into the complex matting. When the delegation entered his office, he knew that it was worse than he expected. Vincent Harrison didn't have a very good reputation, and the investigation committee had looked for the worst, and had found it. After the preliminary courtesies were over, the head of the committee put the facts to him bluntly, hoping to startle Harrison into a misstep.
            "You haven't much to be proud of, Mr. Harrison," Senator Fletcher, the committee chairman began. "You are being prosecuted in several lawsuits, three governments are on your neck on sabotage charges, you owe three years' back taxes to the government of the United States, which, in case you have forgotten, is still theoretically in command in this country although actually you have set up a veritable dictatorship here. And now it comes to the point where you have defaulted in a matter of human life."
            The Senator put his papers down and leaned across Harrison's desk. "Do you know that you have killed five hundred people for about as many hundred-dollar bills?"
            Vincent Harrison paled, then reddened angrily and rose from his seat. "How have you the gall to accuse me of such an inhuman act? Ask my---the citizens of this country. I'm noted for my generosity; I collect lower taxes than practically any other country in the world."
            Senator Fletcher smiled and leaned even farther over the desk. "Has it slipped you mind that the money YOU collected should go to the World Treasury? As for your generosity in the case of the matting, it seems your---shall we say gifts?---presents to a certain Mr. Cowles didn't strike him as being enough to keep him quiet." He paused as Mr. Harrison groped for a choice word. "He told us---everything!"
            Vincent Harrison found his voice with a bellow of rage. His hands flailed the air undecidedly for a moment, then reached for the pistol in his pocket. "Get out," he screamed, and shot into the air above the heads of the delegates. "Get out before I KILL you."
            Remaining poised, the Senator said calmly, "We'll leave now, but you'll hear from us again." No frown or expression of surprise wrinkled Senator Fletcher's forehead as he zipped up the papers in his briefcase, tucked it under his arm, and reached for his hat. "Good-day, Mr. Harrison."
            "What are you going to do?" Harrison asked, his pistol-hand trembling. The Senator started to follow his committee as it left the room, placing his hat on his head with great deliberateness. "Come back here, or I'll shoot." His left hand clenched and unclenched.
            Senator Fletcher reached for the doorknob and turned toward Harrison. "Good day, Mr. Harrison," he repeated, smiling.
            Vincent Harrison snorted with disgust as the bullet marred the unwrinkled expanse of Senator Fletcher's forehead.