THE FARMER ON THE WALL
I feel so relaxed in the country,” said Jack Greenpeach, putting an arm around his girlfriend Liss. She pulled forward a few inches to free her long red hair and the porch swing began to rock. She leaned closer to him, drawing her feet up onto the cushions, and said, “I know. It’s so peaceful. The crickets sound like a symphony, don’t they? Each one playing a different instrument, the music rising and falling, rising and falling. . .”
Crickets? Jack listened to the night, terrified by the prospect of crickets the size of airplanes. There were no insects anymore, not since all the world had moved onto the levels of the great indoors. Pollination was done by tiny workers gathering pollen grain by grain; they passed their bags to giant workers on the next level up, who carried the pollen to fields in other rooms and handed them back down to other tinies for careful insertion in selected plants. A swarm of bees could have put a whole level out of work in a matter of days. A single locust could devour a wallful of crops, overturning tables and chairs in neighboring houses. It was a scary idea.
“That’s not insects,” Jack said, relieved and amused. “You should be glad of it. That’s Narmon Cate snoring.”
Liss jumped up from the swing and went to the porch rail. Leaning out into the night, she peered downward for several moments. He saw her shoulders fall.
“So it is,” she said. “That’s not nearly so romantic.”
He joined her at the rail. Looking down from the porch, he could see the fields falling away in tiers, like a fuzzy staircase leading down to the floor of Narmon’s room. Out in the midst of the vast enclosure was the slumbering mountainous shape of the giant farmer, Narmon Cate, who had rented them this house on his wall. All the walls of the giant’s main room were formed of grassy earth, tiered fields, neatly trimmed orchards. Here and there a few golden lights burned in the windows of other farmhouses the same size as Jack and Liss’s new place. These were country walls, especially beautiful to Jack and Liss who had lived until recently in a suburban apartment whose walls were infested with tiny tract homes. Their home in turn had been one of a thousand on the suburban wall of another giant—Narmon Cate’s white-collar equivalent. In the suburbs, they had longed for fields and trees; but they hadn’t gambled on a snoring giant.
“Should we wake him up?” Jack wondered aloud, knowing that his voice would never carry to the giant.
“I don’t think that’s such a good idea. You don’t go complaining to your own landlord about his habits. We were lucky to get this house.” She straightened suddenly, glancing at her wristwatch. “Uh oh, Jack, we left the lights on.”
They hurried back inside in time to hear the rising of tiny cries, the faint beating of pots and pans. Their walls were patched like four old quilts with the plots of neighboring farmers. Brussels sprouts the size of pinpoints grew across a good quarter of the far wall, and below the sprout patch was a dilapidated farmhouse whose residents were currently gathered on the porch. The tiny children drummed on kitchenware, an ant-sized infant wailed, but the loudest voice belonged to the goat-bearded elder who had earlier introduced himself as Grampa Treel. A lifetime of shouting at giants had invested his voice with authority while robbing it of strength. His words scraped the air like an unrosined bow drawn across an out-of-tune fiddle.
“Where the hell were you?” he bellowed. “We’re farmers here! We expect to get to sleep at a decent hour. Now that light of yours—” (here he jabbed a finger at Jack’s ceiling) “—is parching our crops. Arc you going to be the one out watering them tomorrow? Are you going to take responsibility for upsetting their light cycle? In other words, are you going to play god in every detail, or will you kindly shut off that damn light before I get out my wrist-rocket and do the honors myself?”
Liss already had her hand on the switch. Before Jack could open his mouth, she turned off the light.
The only illumination remaining in the room fell from the little houses on the farming walls.
“It’s about time,” said Grampa Treel. He turned to his family, snatched a pot from the hands of a granddaughter. “The rest of you get inside. I want to have a few words with our new giants.”
“I’m really sorry,” Jack said. “We didn’t mean any harm.”
Grampa Treel flicked the air with a hand, dismissing Jack’s apology. He settled down in a rocking chair whose runners creaked faintly on the warped boards of the porch. Jack saw a microscopic spark of light and might have dismissed it as a random twinkling of his optic nerve if it hadn’t slowly flared and caught fire in a tangle of tobacco, way down in the bowl of a minuscule corncob pipe. The slightest whiff of cherry cavendish drifted through the room.
“Smoke?” asked Grampa Treel.
“No thanks,” Jack said. “I got out of the habit in the city. None of my neighborlings would put up with it.”
“Thank heavens for that,” said Liss.
“Won’t bother me,” said Grampa Treel. “Not much bothers me, now that you come to it—except screwy light. And giants who play harmonica. Last feller had your place, he was a city type like you. Thought that just by moving in he could call himself a country boy. Bought himself a straw hat, a pair of boots, and worst of all he took up the harmonica. Now I don’t mind when my neighborlings play it on their porches in the summer; it’s no more trouble than a fly humming in your ear. But when it’s a giant right outside your door, wheeping up and down the scale, blowing spit all over everything . . . well, that’s something I can’t abide.”
“I never did want to play harmonica,” Jack said.
“Then there’s hope for you. What brings you to the country?”
“Liss is an artist. She needs peace and quiet to get her work done. We both wanted a change of scene, a new set of walls. I thought I could help out on the farms if anybody needs me.” He flexed his hand, dwarfing the Treels’ front porch. “‘No job too big or too small.’ That’s my motto.”
“Hm,” said Grampa Treel. “Might be I could find some use for a giant. That is, unless Narmon Cate’s got work for you climbing in to ream his pipestems or something like that.”
“Uh, no,” Jack said. “Narmon hasn’t said anything to me about that.”
Treel’s chair stopped rocking. “So tell me, are you an early riser?”
“Sure. I used to work eight to five every day, so I had to get up early. My eyes just pop open around six-thirty.”
“Six-thirty?” The old man found this quite hilarious. “Boy, I wish I could sleep that late.”
Jack bit his tongue. “What time do you get up?”
“We’re up about an hour before light, like I said. And the lights come on at five-thirty this time of year.”
“Five . . .” Jack stared up at the dark ceiling. “. . . thirty?”
“Guess you won’t be sleeping in the main room, hm?”
“No,” said Liss.
“Well, no matter. I had some work needed doing first thing, and there’s a field needs turning, but don’t you worry about it. You just sleep in till those eyes of yours ‘pop’ open. Six-thirty, you said?”
“Uh, no, earlier is fine. I can be up around five-thirty, I guess. I need the work.”
“Good man.” Grampa Treel stood up, increasing his height by a fraction of an inch. “Work is something there’s always plenty of around here. I’ll be getting to bed now. Good night, youngsters.”
Liss pulled Jack onto the porch again. He saw that she was laughing with a hand over her mouth.
“What’s so funny?” he said.
“You. You’re in for it now.”
“I like getting up early. Really. It’s sort of like . . . well, it helps you tune into nature. Even if the light cycle is artificial, it’s still based on the rhythm of the world outside. The world that had a sun and a moon, day and night, indoors and outdoors. The world that was, you know, finite.”
“Those old notions again.” She laughed. “I’m sorry, Jack. I just don’t know if you’re cut out for farming.”
Perturbed, he dropped down in the porch swing and folded his arms.
“Anyway,” he said, “all this was your idea.”
Despite himself, Jack was up before the lights came on. He had slept badly, like a boy awaiting the coming of old Saint Escher, who strode through the infinite levels of scale, visiting all in a single night, rewarding children both giant and small with miraculous gifts. It puzzled Jack that he should be so excited about a day of manual labor—truly, the first in his life. He slipped out of bed without disturbing Liss, then crept into the dark of the main room.
The farming walls looked like fairy trees ablaze with the tiny lights of neighborlings. He leaned close to the Treel residence, hoping to catch the faint clatter of spoons in cereal bowls, the peaceful mooing of vineclimbing milk cows. Instead, he was greeted with a bellow.
“Well, young feller, didn’t expect to see you till midday.”
He jerked back, a hand to his ear, as Grampa Treel came clomping onto the porch. The old man carried a bullhorn so that Jack wouldn’t miss a syllable.
“Don’t just stand there, sonny, let’s get to work.”
Jack closed the door to the bedroom, envying Liss her extended slumber in the warm dark bed. There was a crust of sleep in his eyes, but he was so tired he hadn’t managed to yawn yet. Meanwhile, the ceiling was slowly growing brighter.
Old Grampa Treel was as lively as he’d been the night before. “Good to get an early start,” he was saying as he tromped around on the porch. “Course, we already milked the cows. You wouldn’t have been much use there. They’re delicate things.”
They certainly were. To Jack they resembled fat spotted aphids clinging to shiny green vines that grew in a tangle above and beside the house. A few plaintive mews rose from the herd. He knew that any attempt on his part to milk them would have ended in disaster. “You mind if I have something to eat?” Jack said.
“Eat? Well, I imagine you do need your fuel. A big feller like you. One of your breakfasts could feed all us Treels for a year and a day.”
At that moment, Jack felt a mighty rumbling. Light poured in through the windows from Narmon Cate’s room. The lobe of Cate’s monstrous ear blocked the glow momentarily, then he heard a roar that faintly resembled the end of the world.
The giants were awake.
Narmon commenced to clear his nostrils, gathering floods of mucus in the vast inmost caverns and sunless seas of his skull. His massive door creaked open; then came the sound of a distant cataclysm as he hawked and spat a mighty wad into the room of the giants on whose wall his house was built. To those giants two levels up from Jack, Cate’s phlegm would have been no more objectionable than a fly speck or a flea turd. (There were neither flies nor fleas in the levels, but these old concepts made useful metaphors and refused to die.) Had Narmon turned to spit on his neighborlings’ earthen wall, however, Jack and Liss could have drowned in the stuff.
Jack had lost his appetite for breakfast. He shrugged, tucked in his shirt, and turned back to Grampa Treel. “Where do I start?”
“You got a fork?”
“Sure. You were gonna eat, weren’t you? I imagined you’d have a fork.”
“Yes, I have a fork. But what do I need it for?”
“Like I said last night, the lower tier needs turning—gotta bring up that fertile soil. My tractor’s broke down, but all you’ll need to do is dig it up with a fork.”
Jack went into his kitchen. As he rummaged through unfamiliar drawers in the dark, he accidentally woke the residents of a few houses arranged in and around the cabinets. Without apologizing he went back into the main room and knelt down by the Treels’ farm. Grampa strutted back and forth on the long porch, pointing to the area that needed turning
“A job like that would take us two days,” he said. “Let’s see how long it takes you. Skim off about a foot of soil and just, you know, flip it over.”
“A foot?” Jack said.
Treel cackled. “Oh . . . glad you caught me there. Guess it’d be about a fraction of an inch to you.”
Jack raised the fork and leaned close enough to see tiny stones and the weeds that grew around them. He had just prodded the field with the tines of his fork when a cry went up from elsewhere on the wall
“You better call him off, Treel! That’s a violation of the cross-scale labor laws!”
“Oh, stuff a pipe in it,” Grampa bellowed through his bullhorn. This instrument sounded loud to Jack; it must have been deafening to the Treels’ samesize neighbors. “You go right ahead, Jack.”
Jack sat back and took a look at the walls. All around the Treel place, other tiny farmers had come out of their barns to watch. Expressions of anger were writ large on every minute face.
“You gonna help the rest of us when you’re through there?” cried a relatively tall, plump farmer.
“Well, I . . .” Jack began.
“You’re not paying him,” yelled Grampa Treel. “He’s got plenty of work to do around my place.”
“That’s unfair competition, Treel! You ever stop to think about the samesizes you’re putting out of work? I don’t suppose you happened to arrange this little deal with the Labor Bureau? Is he paying you scale, giant?”
Jack looked to Grampa Treel for direction. The little old man beckoned him close and shouted without benefit of bullhorn: “Ignore them, Jack. You just turn that soil.”
“Are you sure it’s all right?” Jack said.
“Why wouldn’t it be? They’re just jealous I got you first, that’s all. Damn Labor Bureau doesn’t bother with folks like us.”
Jack addressed the general neighboring community: “I’ll be more than happy to help out where I can in this room.”
“No, no, no, no, no!” wailed Grampa Treel. “You work for me!”
“In this room, eh?” said the tall plump farmer. “What about the next room, and the next? Are we supposed to start digging for our neighborlings? You gonna ask your giants to do your dirty work?”
The tone of his voice angered Jack, who gripped his fork anew and was just about to plunge it in the wall when the bedroom door opened and Liss came out, blinking.
“Jack? Did I hear voices?”
“Bunch of reactionaries,” he grunted. “Go back to sleep.”
He jabbed the tines deep into the wall.
Grampa Treel screamed, “Hold on!”
Startled, Jack wrenched out the fork and a tiny storm of dirt exploded over his fingers. The field began to crumble away, spilling onto the floor. Squeaks rose up from all the neighborlings. The aphid-cattle mewed in fright as their vines rustled and came undone in the growing avalanche. Tier slid over tier, then suddenly the ramshackle Treel farmhouse began to collapse. The inhabitants dashed for safety, throwing themselves onto sagging vines. Then the house flopped over and fell right through the fields before Jack could do anything to catch it. It crashed to the floor in a shower of splinters and glass.
“My God!” Liss cried. She leaped at the wall in time to rescue young Mrs. Treel and her baby, who were poised at the edge of a dissolving precipice where the nursery had been. She set them down on a safer portion of the wall.
Jack dropped the fork, stumbling backward. As the dirt-slide ceased and the dust settled, Grampa Treel appeared atop a rocky mound that had formed in an instant at the base of the wall. He slapped his shirtfront with his ragged hat, coughing and cursing, then narrowed his eyes and pointed a finger at Jack.
“You damn fool! Look what you did to the family farm!”
“I—I’ll get a broom,” Jack said.
“It’s your own fault, Treel!” cried the tall plump farmer whose fields had survived the catastrophe. “You’re going to jail right along with him!”
“Jail?” Jack whispered. “But . . . but . . .”
He turned to Liss for comfort, for advice, but she had gone to the window and was staring out at the world of the giants, one level up from their own. Jack heard a terrible sound, a bone-freezing, petrifying banshee wail that grew louder and louder until he thought his eardrums would explode—
And then there were thundering knocks on Narmon Cate’s door. They heard the farmer apologizing for the state of his house as he let some giants inside. Jack covered his ears, but he couldn’t block out the giants’ voices: “We got a call from the Labor Bureau. That’s the house; that one right there.”
“That? But they’re new tenants, officer. They seem like cute enough folks anyway.”
“They’re never as cute as they look, Mr. Cate. These are criminal types.”
“Criminals? On my wall?”
“It can happen to anyone. Seems they were setting up to cut across scale labor regulations, doing work that’s zoned for samesizes. One lazy giant can put a whole wallful of skilled low-level workers out of a job. There’s just no way the tinies can compete. Sometimes we have to stop them with force.”
“Go right ahead, officer,” said the giant farmer.
An enormous bloodshot eye pressed up to the window and blinked in at Liss and Jack. The capillaries were as big around as Jack’s arm. Liss put her arms around him. “Jack, I think you’re in trouble. Big trouble.”
“It looks that way.”
Jack shivered and looked at the farming walls. The irate neighborlings showered him with insulting gestures and obscenities: “Go ahead, you big jerk! Take what you’ve got coming!”
After a moment, someone knocked sharply on the door. It sounded too precise to be a giant. Liss opened the door, revealing two samesizes in police uniforms. The giant officer had set them on the porch. One of the cops carried a stunstick; the other held a tiny box decorated with the official infinite-staircase design of the Plenary Police.
“Name?” said the cop with the stunner.
The officer with the box stepped inside, his eyes drawn to the damaged section of farming wall. “There it is,” he said. He knelt down by the recent avalanche and opened his official box. Out of it stepped two tiny officers, diminutive twins of the ones in Jack’s house. With tiny motions, they signaled for Grampa Trecl to descend from his mound. Their voices were too small for Jack to discern, but he had no doubt they were saying something very like what the same-size officer was saying to him:
“You are under arrest for violation of scale statutes and for damaging private and public property. You will accompany us for sentencing.”
Liss wept on his neck. He felt numb, but he couldn’t look away from the two little cops who were leading Grampa Treel back into their box. Once they were inside, the uplevel officer locked the box, picked it up, and tucked it under his arm. The neighboring farmers were cheering all the while.
“I’ll call you as soon as I can,” Jack told Liss.
“Don’t worry, I know a lawyer. We’ll have you out right away.”
He didn’t have the strength to force a smile, but he managed to nod. “I’m sure you will.” He gave her a kiss. “I love you.”
Just outside, the giant cop was waiting with an upscale version of the police box that now contained Grampa Treel. The officers led Jack inside, strapped him into a seat, and then secured themselves. Soon they were swinging through space. Muttering like thunder rumbled above them as the giant cops debated whether to stop for doughnuts. When Jack’s stomach growled, he gave thanks that he hadn’t eaten breakfast. This was worse than any carnival ride.
They took his clothes and dropped him naked into a tall glass jar capped with a perforated lid. The jar sat on a shelf along with dozens of others. From this vantage, Jack could look out at a vast ledge crowded with giant officials going about their titanic yet tedious business. That ledge opened onto an even greater one where the giants two levels up were also busy at their work. And that ledge was a mere recess in yet another ledge, where thrice-large giants moved like mountains, their features scarcely discernible. And beyond those were dark slow blurs, the grumble of a hive, inconceivable bulks like planets clipping past each other in vast gulfs of artificial light.
Above the racks of jars, Jack could just make out a small alcove where neighborling officials were hard at work: it was the ledge within this ledge, with ledges within ledges within it. Thus the halls of criminal justice continued in either direction, perhaps to infinity. He wondered if somewhere in that infinity, someone just like him had unwittingly committed a crime like his own and waited now in a jar resembling this one, but astronomically tinier or microscopically more huge. If so, would that fellow’s emotions be any greater or lesser than Jack’s? Did scale apply to human feelings?
Someone rapped on the wall of the jar next to Jack’s. He looked up and saw a pale samesize looking in at him. The voice scarcely carried: “What’re you in for?”
Jack shrugged. He didn’t feel like talking.
“I’m a murderer,” the fellow said, pulling at his hair. “You like that? Murder! All I did was scrape my walls, stamped out those filthy little buggers that’re always yelling at me day in, day out, to clean up this mess, take a shower, bugging me, bugging me, know what I mean? And they call that murder? Those things aren’t even human, know what I mean? They’re roaches. Germs. Give me some insecticide. . . .”
Jack moved to the far side of his space. The jar was bad but the company was worse.
He wasn’t sure how long he had waited when a giant lifted the lid of his jar, dropped in a pair of gray overalls, and then carried him away. He scarcely had time to dress before the jar came down none too gently on a vast tabletop scored with pencil lines and littered with office desks. Liss and a man in a business suit were waiting for him.
“Jack!” Liss cried. She ran up and put her hands on the glass. Her blue eyes were full of tears. “Jack, I brought Tyler Mashaine. He’s your lawyer now.”
The man gave Jack a nod. “Good evening, Mr. Greenpeach. I’ve studied your case and spoken through intermediaries to citizen Treel and several witnesses of this morning’s event. I think the best we can do is ask for a minimum period of confinement, a moderate fine, and a period of probation in keeping with your past record as a person of honest character. I’ll stress the fact that you were ignorant of cross-scale labor regulations when you went into business for the farmers.”
“You know the laws, I guess,” Jack said with a shrug. Mashaine grimaced. “Well, I know better than to cross scale without a permit.”
Jack blushed. “What exactly did I do, Mr. Mashaine?”
Mashaine crossed his arms and looked down at Jack’s bare feet. “Mr. Greenpeach, our society, our very environment, is based on principles of strict order. The integrity of scale, perfect compression, relativity . . . these are fundamental. When we came to the levels, we traded a disorderly world for a realm engineered from pure thought. Unfortunately, when we made the transition, human nature remained basically unchanged. We must conform to logical rules if we wish to exist here; even a minor functional infraction can greatly affect the purity of form. But our nature is sloppy. We evolved in a sloppy locale. We can be taught to obey—well, to fear and then obey—the laws necessary to our safety and sanity. I believe the judge will rule that you do not have a proper respect for the principles of proportion and must therefore submit to them for a time not to exceed, say, ninety days.”
“Ninety days?” Jack cried.
“I’ll visit you every one of them,” Liss promised.
“That could be difficult, Liss,” said Mashaine. “I’m afraid Mr. Greenpeach will have to cross scale. There’s no getting around that. It’s one of the ways the penal system has of enforcing conformation to scalar law. Form following function, you understand. It’s also, more broadly, a security precaution.”
“You mean, they think I’d try to escape? I’m not a hardened criminal, Mr. Mashaine. I’m—I’m—this is small-time stuff!”
“I know you wouldn’t try anything, Mr. Green- peach, but the courts are very consistent on this matter. There were problems in the past—on Earth, I suppose—with overcrowding, and this has proved to be the most effective way of using space while stretching penal resources.”
“Crossing scale,” Jack repeated. It was a possibility he had never considered. I he’d spent all his life on one level He was meant to be this size.
Liss stared at him, stunned, her fingers tangled in her golden red hair. “This doesn’t change anything, Jack. Between us, I mean.”
He tried to smile. “I didn’t mean it when I said this was all your idea. I mean, it wasn’t your fault. I was stupid.”
“Nice meeting you, Mr. Greenpeach,” said Tyler Mashaine. “Let’s hope this is the last time you need my services.”
Liss blew him a kiss. They whisked him away in his jar, and for a time he sat on a shelf. Later, the expected news was delivered by a frowning giant: he’d received ninety days’ confinement, a thousand-dollar fine, a year’s probation.
His term began the moment he crossed scale.
They shook him out of the jar and into the center of a small, round stage. He was bathed in sapphire light for five minutes. When it faded, the dimensions of the stage had increased by incredible proportions. What had once been no broader than his shoulders now seemed an endless plain. As he surveyed the featureless wasteland, a shadow fell from the sky, an endless pole tipped with a huge fleecy pad. It poked the plain beside him and swept gently in his direction. Jack fled, overcome by pointless terror, the panic of a fly that sees the swatter falling. The fleecy pad brushed him from behind, like a huge hand caressing him from head to toe. Apparently it was impregnated with a dry adhesive to which he found himself completely glued. This was a good thing, for the pad-tipped pole lifted him straight into the sky for what seemed like miles. He soon wearied of screaming. Besides, he was allergic to the adhesive. By the time they set him down and gently scraped him onto a floor, he was limp with exhaustion. He found himself in a cell whose dimensions nearly approached his own. The walls were bare, devoid of neighborlings, and the cell had no ceiling. There was no reason anyone his size would want to clamber out. He would only be squashed or otherwise exterminated by inconceivably monstrous wardens.
Twice a day, a samesize guard checked to make sure that he had food and water. The bed and other furniture were all a bit too small, which convinced him that the downscaling had not been entirely precise. In the mornings he was allowed to stretch in a corridor between other cells. There was nothing to see except the roofless cubical buildings. There was no one to talk to, no human face aside from the warden’s. After a while he realized that he missed having neighborlings—tiny lives to watch, tiny miseries to share or sympathize with, tiny problems he could be grateful weren’t his own. He’d never really appreciated them before. Now he was smaller by far than his neighborlings. He’d have been a speck under their shoes, small enough to inhabit the dustmotes that fell through their long afternoons.
Loneliness propelled him into a strange kind of trance, a numbed isolation that left him lying on his back day after day, staring up at the blurry sky with his arms crossed behind his head for a pillow on the undersized bed. Time passed differently here: it went very slowly. After a while he forgot the life he’d left behind. Even in his dreams he had always been here. He was adrift, cut free from anything familiar.
And then, perhaps a month into his term, he began to notice inexplicable repetitions in the sky. Each day around lunchtime there would come a self-similar formation of clouds, or what he had thought were clouds until their regularity caught hold of his curiosity and began to rouse him from torpid no-thoughts. Clouds never repeated from day to day. Clouds weren’t always, always tinted with the same hues of pink and blue, or accompanied by vast atmospheric streamers of hazy reddish gold that defied meteorological explanation.
He stared and stared, thoughts brightening, slowly emerging from his trance to puzzle out this strange natural phenomenon, spirit quickening day by day until at last he realized what it was.
Who it was.
Each day at noon, as she had promised, Liss came to visit him.
* * *
“Love Comes to the Middleman” copyright 1987 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Mathenauts: Tales of Mathematical Wonder, edited by Rudy Rucker (1987).
“Middleman’s Rent” copyright 1988 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1988.
“The Farmer on the Wall” copyright 1989 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Synergy 4, edited by George Zebrowski (1989).