Liss must have heard him coming up the ramp. She opened the front door before he knocked, and met him with a kiss that on an ordinary day would have broken his bad mood instantly. The best he could do today, though, was to take his hands out of his pockets and give her a weak hug.
“Jack, what’s wrong? You look really depressed.”
He nodded as she led him in. As always, her apartment was a mess: paint spattered the floor, her tools lay everywhere, and something that looked like an incomplete sculpture teetered on three spindly, twisted legs in the middle of the room.
“I finished it this morning,” she said when she saw him looking at it. “Do you like it?”
“It’s nice,” he said. “I lost my job.”
“Jack! Oh no, why?” She caught both his hands and drew him down to the cushions in one corner of the room.
He shrugged. He couldn’t exactly say it was because of her, though indirectly that was so. In the twenty days since he and Liss had met, he’d called in sick seven times, and left work earlier and earlier each day. This morning he had come in late — having stayed up almost all last night — and Mr. Dopnitta had informed him that there was no room in the office for a laggard, no matter how well intentioned.
“I was getting tired of the job anyway,” he said.
Liss sighed and got up to brew tea. “It’s because of me, isn’t it?”
“No! Don’t be ridiculous. It was time for a change. That job doesn’t suit me anymore. It’s too much all of a level.”
She giggled. “Jack, you didn’t used to talk like that.”
He felt his mood unraveling, and grinned back at her. “O.K., maybe you had something to do with it.”
“I’ll consider it a victory. Have you thought about what you’re going to do now?”
“No. I don’t have any money saved. Enough to pay my current bills, and that’s it.”
“You can move in with me,” she said.
“There’s not enough room for two in here.”
“So we’ll rent a bigger place. Maybe something not so fancy. I’m getting tired of these walls, you know? Wouldn’t you like to find a place with a view of trees and hills? A nice country home?”
He took a long look at her walls, and had to admit that he’d grown tired of tract housing. From floor to ceiling, there was nothing to see but houses and a few little patches of community parkland. Like the wall in his room, the development was deserted most of the day, during business hours. A few tiny adults strolled on the ramps, or watched their tinier children climbing on the vines in the parks, but otherwise the neighborhood was dead.
“And how will I make money?”
“You’ll think of something, Jack.”
“That’s easy for you to say. You’ve got your arts grants, but what am I? A paper pusher.”
Jack turned to the wall just behind him, above the cushions, and saw an old man leaning out from the window of his house.
“Were you talking to me?” Jack said.
“Couldn’t help overhearing you two,” said the neighborling.
“Have I introduced you two?” Liss asked. “I’m sorry, Ganly. This is Jack. Jack, Ganly.”
“Pleasure,” Jack said.
“I just thought I’d point out,” Ganly said, “there’s plenty you could do right in this room to earn money. I don’t think most people realize. I’ve been independent since I was your age, and I make good money at it. Enough to retire without any help from the Equalization Board.”
“Maybe stuff like that works at your level,” Jack said, instantly regretting the disparagement in his tone.
“I like that!” Ganly snapped. “Here I come out with a bit of advice, and I get—well, it’ll teach me to butt in.”
“No, no, no!” Liss said, kneeling down by Ganly’s house. “I’m sure Jack didn’t mean anything. He’s not used to thinking on more than three levels at a time.”
“He’s not even doing that!”
Liss gave Jack a withering look. He crouched down next to her.
“Uh, look, I’m sorry if that came out the wrong way. I’m sure you know what you’re talking about.”
Ganly stared at him a moment with a stern expression, then cocked his head and relaxed into a smile. “You listening?”
“Now Jack, this doesn’t require thinking on more than the three levels you’re used to. Just put yourself in my place for a moment, and you’ll know what I mean.”
Jack tried to imagine himself at Ganly’s size, standing in Ganly’s living room. It was easy enough. Ganly’s walls were covered with little houses, just like the houses on Jack’s level; and on the walls of those houses were tinier houses with tinier houses on their walls. It was simple to imagine, because if he looked out Liss’s window, he could see that her house was on the wall of a large room, where Nairla and her husband lived. And Nairla’s house was on the wall of a house that was on a larger wall of a larger house. . . .
“Now think of an old man like me,” Ganly said. “I can’t get around the way I used to, you know. Say I want to rearrange the furniture in my house, or get rid of this old table that’s taking up so much space. Now for me that could be quite a chore—hard on my heart, you get me?”
Jack nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“But for you, now, it’s no big deal to pry the roof off this place and move my furniture around. And if you did that for me, why shouldn’t I pay you scale?”
“You mean . . . pay me what you’d pay some samesize guy?”
“Sure, why not? The work’s worth it to me.” Ganly tapped his forehead with a finger. “There’re plenty of people would agree with that. But whoever thinks of it? Bah—they’re wrapped up on their own level, that’s what it is. Easier to get a desk job and talk to samesizes all day. Now for me, I’d rather get a different perspective on things—the little guy’s point of view, if you know what I mean.”
“That’s a great idea,” Jack said.
“And it works both ways. There’re things you can do for the giants that they can’t do for themselves, and they’ll pay you handsomely to do it—because for them, it’s the tiny work they have trouble with. It’s worth a lot to have someone who knows his way around the inside of a radio.”
“That wouldn’t be me,” Jack said. “I can’t even load a mechanical pencil.”
“Now there are a few guys,” said Ganly, “who act as agents, go-betweens. They make deals not among three or five levels, but among seven, nine, eleven—“
“The Plenary Council is a chair organization,” Liss said. “Its connections run upscale and down for as far as we can tell. I had a job last year working for a giant thirteen levels up. He needed someone to rearrange particles in a microscopic art exhibit. To him they were particles, anyway; to me it was like—well, rearranging furniture. And some of those particles had downscale people on them, working out the most fantastic, intricate textures. . . .”
“I’m not an artist,” Jack said.
“You don’t need to be!” Ganly cried. “There’s plenty of practical work needing to be done. And if you’re thinking of moving to the country—well, farmers can always use an extra hand to dig irrigation ditches, put in fences, bring in the crops.”
“What about the upscale on a farm?” Jack asked. “I’m not so sure I’d want to live with enormous bugs and rats.”
“You’re stuck in outphase thinking,” Liss said. “It’s not like that at all. We all grew up hearing stories about giant insects—houseflies that kidnap children—but it’s folklore, artifacts from the race memory. Those are things from another dimension; they don’t affect us here.”
“I don’t know,” Ganly said. “You hear stories. . . .”
“That’s all they are. Our minds are still ruled by those artifacts. It’s just like you were saying, Ganly. We go on paying samesizes to do work that giants could do easily. We go on building farm machinery to do a job a giant can do with his little finger. I mean, can you believe there’s still a market for tweezers when any neighborling can pick up tiny things for us? We should be living totally different kinds of lives—there should have been some sort of revolution long, long ago. But people cling to the old ways.”
“They’re recalcitrant, every last one of them,” Ganly said. “Down to the smallest, up to the largest.”
Jack said, “But if you made some kind of basic change on your level, don’t you think it could have a reaction that went both ways at once? Say if one level threw out farm machinery completely and relied on giants. Don’t you think those giants would get the idea and throw out their machinery? And the neighborlings of the rebel level would do likewise. Right up and down the line, you’d have a sweeping revolution. The potential’s there.”
“Oh, definitely,” said Ganly. “The potential is infinite. The problem is people your own size. Try telling them to change their ways—to throw out their machines and hire someone from another level. It’s tough! They’d rather put their money in the pocket of a samesize than a neighborling or a giant. It gets distressing.”
Liss put her hands on her hips and stood up facing the wall, considering all those houses and ramps and parks. “What if I decided to paint all the houses in colors that I liked? Who’d stop me?”
“Giants would stop you,” Ganly said. “Don’t be ridiculous. The law applies to all levels equally.”
“And what if I went out and painted on my wall, ‘Giants revolt!’ Or something like that, in huge letters.”
“Depends on your giant. I once had a neighborling used to hang big swear words out his windows—boy, that burned me up! I had kids at the time. I couldn’t touch him, though, legally. The law always protects the little guy. It took a movement of samesizes to get the guy evicted. His neighbors got upset once my kids learned the words and started shouting them at the top of their lungs.”
Liss shook her head, frowning. “Now I’m depressed. It makes me feel like . . . well, what good is this sculpture, for instance? It’ll never change anything. I could throw it out the door, and to Nairla it would just be a scrap of junk to sweep up.”
Ganly smiled ruefully. “Or you could take one of those pieces of scrap you chipped away and give it to me, and I could put it in my living room and call it art. Next week your scraps could be all the rage on my level.”
There was a light tap on the window. Jack glanced up to see a giant finger at the glass, and beyond it an even larger eye. Liss opened the door.
“Hi, Nairla,” she called. “I didn’t hear you come in.”
“Jack’s home early?” said the giant woman. “Or did he call in sick again?”
“I got fired,” Jack yelled.
“Fired?” Nairla said. “Isn’t that terrible? What are you going to do?”
“I’m not sure yet. Keep me in mind if you need any detail work done.”
Nairla tried to hide her expression, but her face was like an immense beacon where emotions were concerned. She obviously thought him insane.
“Don’t you think that’s a wee bit … humiliating?”
* * *