Was this joy--or a cold coming on? I shifted uneasily on the hospital bed and scratched at an itch on my left hip. Ouch! It was a pimple. My head ached. My throat hurt. I itched. Julia was dead. The police were coming. I was alone. What should I do?
"Nurse!" I shouted at the top of my voice. "Nurse, come here. I want to send a wire. Rush. Urgent. To my aunt, Mrs. Helga Barth, the address is in my wallet. Say, 'Helga. Am desperately ill, repeat, ill. Please come at once. I must have help--from you.'"
She'll come. I know she will. They've got to let her. It was an accident, I swear, and I'm not too old. I'm still in wonderful shape, beautifully kept up.
But I feel awful.
Well--how do you suppose New England would feel today, if suddenly all of its inhabitants died?
By Albert Teichner
Wendell Hart had drifted, rather than plunged, into the underground movement. Later, discussing it with other members of the Savers' Conspiracy, he found they had experienced the same slow, almost casual awakening. His own, though, had come at a more appropriate time, just a few weeks before the Great Ritual Sacrifice.
The Sacrifice took place only once a decade, on High Holy Day at dawn of the spring equinox. For days prior to it joyous throngs of workers helped assemble old vehicles, machine tools and computers in the public squares, crowning each pile with used, disconnected robots. In the evening of the Day they proudly made their private heaps on the neat green lawns of their homes. These traditionally consisted of household utensils, electric heaters, air conditioners and the family servant.
The wealthiest--considered particularly blessed--even had two or three automatic servants beyond the public contribution, which they destroyed in private. Their more average neighbors crowded into their gardens for the awesome festivities. The next morning everyone could return to work, renewed by the knowledge that the Festival of Acute Shortages would be with them for months.
Like everyone else, Wendell had felt his sluggish pulse gaining new life as the time drew nearer.
A cybernetics engineer and machine tender, he was down to ten hours a week of work. Many others in the luxury-gorged economy had even smaller shares of the purposeful activities that remained. At night he dreamed of the slagger moving from house to house as it burned, melted and then evaporated each group of junked labor-blocking devices. He even had glorious daydreams about it. Walking down the park side of his home block, he was liable to lose all contact with the outside world and peer through the mind's eye alone at the climactic destruction.
Why, he sometimes wondered, are all these things so necessary to our resurrection?
Marie had the right answer for him, the one she had learned by rote in early childhood: "All life moves in cycles. Creation and progress must be preceded by destruction. In ancient times that meant we had to destroy each other; but for the past century our inherent need for negative moments has been sublimated--that's the word the news broadcasts use--into proper destruction." His wife smiled. "I'm only giving the moral reason, of course. The practical one's obvious."
Obvious it was, he had to concede. Men needed to work, not out of economic necessity any more but for the sake of work itself. Still a man had to wonder....
He had begun to visit the Public Library Archives, poring over musty references that always led to maddeningly frustrating dead ends. For the past century nothing really informative seemed to have been written on the subject.
"You must have government authorization," the librarian explained when he asked for older references. Which, naturally, made him add a little suspicion to his already large dose of wonder.
"You're tampering with something dangerous," Marie warned. "It would make more sense for you to take long-sleep pills until the work cycle picks up."
"I will get to see those early references," he said through clenched teeth.
All he had needed to say at the library was that his work in sociology required investigation of some twentieth century files. The librarian, a tall, gaunt man, had given him a speculative glance. "Of course, you don't have government clearance.... But we get so few inquiries in sociology that I'm willing to offer a little encouragement." He sighed. "Don't get many inquiries altogether. Most people just can't stand reading. You might be interested to know this--one of the best headings to research in sociology is Conspicuous consumption."
Then it was Wendell's turn to glance speculatively. The older man, around a healthy hundred and twenty-five, had a look of earnest dedication about him that commanded respect as well as confidence.
"Conspicuous consumption? An odd combination of words. Never heard of that before. I will look it up."
The librarian was nervous as he led his visitor into a reference booth. "That's about all the help I can offer. If anything comes up, just ring for me. Burnett's the name. Uh--you won't mention I put you on the file without authorization, I hope."
As soon as he was alone he typed Conspicuous consumption into the query machine.
It started grinding out long bibliographical sheets as well as cross-references to Obsolescence, Natural; Obsolescence, Technological; Obsolescence, Planned, plus even odder items such as Waste-making, Art of and Production, Stimulated velocity of. How did such disparate subjects tie in with each other?
By the end of the afternoon he began to see, if only dimly, to what the unending stream of words on the viewer pointed.
For centuries ruling classes had made a habit of conspicuously wasting goods and services that were necessities for the mass of men. It was the final and highest symbol of social power. By the time of Louis XIV the phenomenon had reached its first peak. The second came in the twentieth century when mass production permitted millions to devote their lives to the acquisition and waste of non-essentials. Hart's twenty-second century sensibilities were repelled by the examples given. He shuddered at the thought of such anti-social behavior.
But a parallel development was more appealingly positive in its implications. As the technological revolution speeded up, devices were superseded as soon as produced. The whole last half of the 1900's was filled with instances where the drawing board kept outstripping the assembly line.
Hart remembered this last change from early school days but the later, final development was completely new and shocking to him. Advertising had pressured more and more people to replace goods before they wore out with other goods that were, essentially, no improvement on their predecessors! Eventually just the word "NEW" was enough to trigger buying panics.
There had been growing awareness of what was happening, even sporadic resistance to it by such varied ideologies as Conservative Thrift, Asocial Beatnikism and Radical Inquiry. But, strangely enough, very few people had cared. Indeed, anything that diminished consumption was viewed as dangerously subversive.
"And rightly so!" was his first, instinctive reaction. His second, reasoned one, though, was less certain.
The contradiction started to give him a headache. He hurried from the scanning room, overtaxed eyes blinking at the rediscovery of daylight.
Burnett walked him to the door. "Not feeling well?" he inquired.
"I'll be all right. I just need a few days real work." He stopped. "No, that's not why. I'm confused. I've been reading crazy things about obsolescence. They used to have strange reasons for it. Why, some people even said replacements were not always improvements and were unnecessary!"
Burnett could not completely hide his pleasure. "You've been getting into rather deep stuff."
"True. True. Come back tomorrow and read some more."
"Maybe I will." But he was happy to get away from the library building.
Marie was horrified when he told her that evening about his studies. "Don't go back there," she pleaded. "It's dangerous. It's subversive! How could people say such awful things? You remember that Mr. Johnson around the corner? He seemed such a nice man, too, until they arrested him without giving a reason ... and how messed up he was when he got out last year. I'll bet that kind of talk explains the whole thing. It's crazy. Everyone knows items start wearing out and they have to be replaced."
"I realise that, honey, but it's interesting to speculate. Don't we have guaranteed freedom of thought?"
She threw up her hands as if dealing with a child. "Naturally we have freedom of thought. But you should have the right thoughts, shouldn't you? Wendell, promise me you won't go back to that library."
"Reading's a very risky thing anyway." Her eyes were saucer-round with fright. "Please, darling. Promise."
"Sure, you're right, honey. I promise."
He meant it when he said it. But that night, tossing from side to side, he felt less certain. In the morning, as he went out, Marie asked him where he was going.
"I want to observe the preparations for the Preliminary Rites."
"Now that," she grinned, "is what I call healthy thinking."
For a while he did stand around the Central Plaza along with thousands of other idlers, watching the robot dump trucks assemble the piles of discarded equipment. The crowd cheered loudly as an enormous crane was knocked over on its side.
"There's fifty millions worth out there!" a bystander exulted. "It's going to be the biggest Preliminary I've ever seen."
"It certainly will be!" he said, catching a little of the other man's enthusiasm despite his previous doubts.
Preliminary Rites were part of the emotion-stoking that preceded the Highest Holy Day. Each Rite was greater and more destructive than those that had gone before. As tokens of happy loyalty, viewers threw hats and watches and stickpins onto the pile just prior to the entry of the slaggers. What better way could be found for each man to manifest his common humanity?
After a while doubt started assailing him again, and Hart found himself returning almost against his will to the Library Building. Burnett greeted him cordially. "To-day's visit is completely legal," he said. "Anyone doing olden time research is automatically authorized if he has been here before."
"I hope my thought can be as legal," Hart blurted out. "Well--that was just a joke."
"Oh, I can recognize a joke when I hear one, my friend."
Hart went to his booth, feeling the man's eyes measuring him more intently than ever. It was almost a welcome relief to start reading the reference scanner once more.
But not for long. As the wider pattern unfolded, his anxiety state intensified.
It was becoming perfectly obvious that many, many replacements used to be made long before they were needed. And it was still true. I should not be thinking such thoughts, he told himself, I should be outside in the Plaza, being normal and human.
But he could see how it had come about, step by step. First there had been pressure from the ruling echelons, many of whose members only maintained their status through excessive production. Then, much more important, there had been the willful blindness of the masses who wanted to keep their cozy, familiar treadmills going.
He slammed down the off button and went out to the librarian's desk. "Do people want to work all the time," he said, "for the sake of work alone?"
He immediately regretted the question. But Burnett did not seem to mind. "You've only stated the positive reason, Mr. Hart. The negative one could be stronger--the fear of what they would have to do if they did not have to work much over a long period."
"What would it mean?"
"Why, they would have to start thinking! Most people don't mind thought if it's concentrated in a narrow range. But if they have to think in a broad range to keep boredom away--no, that's too high a price for most of them! They avoid it when they can. And under present circumstances they can." He stopped. "Of course that's a purely hypothetical fiction I'm constructing."
Hart shook his head. "It sounds awfully real to be purely--" He, too, caught himself up. "Of course, you're only positing a fiction."
Burnett started putting his desk papers away. "I'm leaving now. The Preliminary begins soon. Want to come?"
The man's face was stolidly blank except for his brown eyes which burned like a zealot's. Fascinated by them, Hart agreed. It would be best to return anyway. Some of the bystanders had looked too curiously at him when he had left. Who would willingly leave a Rite when it was approaching its climax?
The Plaza was now thronged and the sacrificial pile towered over a hundred feet in the cleared center area. Then, as the first collective Ah! arose, a giant slagger lumbered in from the east, the direction prescribed for such commencements. Long polarity arms glided smoothly out of the central mechanism and reached the length for Total Destruction.
"That's the automatic setting," parents explained to their children.
"When?" the children demanded eagerly.
"Any moment now."
Then the unforeseen occurred.
There was a rumbling from inside the pile and a huge jagged patchwork of metal shot out, smashing both arms. The slagger teetered, swaying more and more violently from side to side until it collapsed on its side. The rumbling grew. And then the pile, like a mechanical cancer, ripped the slagger apart and then absorbed it.
The panicking crowd fell back. Somewhere a child began crying, provoking more hubbub. "Sabotage!" people were crying. "Let's get away!"
Nothing like this had ever happened before. But Hart knew instantly what had caused it. Some high-level servo mechanisms had not been thoroughly disconnected. They had repaired their damages, then imposed their patterns on the material at hand.
A second slagger came rushing into the square. It discharged immediately; and the pile finally collapsed and disintegrated as it was supposed to.
The crowd was too shocked to feel the triumph it had come for, but Hart could not share their horror. Burnett eyed him. "Better look indignant," he said. "They'll be out for blood. Somebody must have sabotaged the setup."
"Catch the culprits!" he shouted, joining the crowd around him. "Stop anti-social acts!"
"Stop anti-social acts!" roared Burnett; and, in a whisper: "Hart, let's get out of here."
As they pushed their way through the milling crowd, a loudspeaker boomed out: "Return home in peace. The instincts of the people are good. Healthy destruction forever! The criminals will be tracked down ... if they exist."
"A terrible thing, friend," a woman said to them.
"Terrible, friend," Burnett agreed. "Smash the anti-social elements without mercy!"
Three children were clustered together, crying. "I wanted to set the right example for them," said the father to anyone who would listen. "They'll never get over this!"
Hart tried to console them. "Next week is High Holy Day," he said, but the bawling only increased.
The two men finally reached a side avenue where the crowd was thinner. "Come with me," Burnett ordered, "I want you to meet some people."
He sounded as if he were instituting military discipline but Hart, still dazed, willingly followed. "It wasn't such a terrible thing," he said, listening to the distant uproar. "Why don't they shut up!"
"They will--eventually." Burnett marched straight ahead and looked fixedly in the same direction.