"The thing could have gobbled up the city if there hadn't been a second slagger!" said a lone passerby.
"Nonsense," Burnett muttered under his breath. "You know that, Hart. Any self-regulating mechanism reaches a check limit sooner than that."
"It has to."
They turned into a large building and went up to the fiftieth floor. "My apartment," said Burnett as he opened the door.
There were about fifteen people in the large living room. They rose, smiling, to greet their host. "Let's save the self-congratulations for later," snapped Burnett. "These were merely our own preliminaries. We're not out of the woods yet. This, ladies and gentlemen, is our newest recruit. He has seen the light. I have fed him basic data and I'm sure we're not making a mistake with him."
Hart was about to demand what was going on when a short man with eyes as intense as Burnett's proposed a toast to "the fiasco in the Plaza." Everyone joined in and he did not have to ask.
"Burnett, I don't quite understand why I am here but aren't you taking a chance with me?"
"Not at all. I've followed your reactions since your first visit to the library. Others here have also--when you were completely unaware of being observed. The gradual shift in viewpoint is familiar to us. We've all been through it. The really important point is that you no longer like the kind of world into which you were born."
"That's true, but no one can change it."
"We are changing it," said a thin-faced young woman. "I work in a servo lab and--."
"Miss Wright, time enough for that later," interrupted Burnett. "What we must know now, Mr. Hart, is how much you're willing to do for your new-found convictions? It will be more work than you've ever dreamed possible."
He felt as exhilarated as he did in the months after High Holy Day. "I'm down to under ten hours labor a week. I'd do anything for your group if I could get more work."
Burnett gave him a hearty handshake of congratulation ... but was frowning as he did so. "You're doing the right thing--for the wrong reason. Every member of this group could tell you why. Miss Wright, since you feel like talking, explain the matter."
"Certainly. Mr. Hart, we are engaged in an activity of so-called subversion for a positive reason, not merely to avoid insufficient work load. Your reason shows you are still being moved by the values that you despise. We want to cut the work-production load on people. We want them to face the problem of leisure, not flee it."
"There's a heart-warming paradox here," Burnett explained. "Every excess eventually undermines itself. Everybody in the movement starts by wanting to act for their beliefs because work appears so attractive for its own sake. I was that way, too, until I studied the dead art of philosophy."
"Well--" Hart sat down, deeply troubled. "Look, I deplore destroying equipment that is still perfectly useful as much as any of you do. But there is a problem. If the destruction were stopped there would be so much leisure people would rot from boredom."
Burnett pounced eagerly on the argument. "Instead they're rotting from artificial work. Boredom is a temporary, if recurring phenomenon of living, not a permanent one. If most men face the difficulty of empty time long enough they find new problems with which to fill that time. That's where philosophy showed me the way. None of its fundamental mysteries can ever be solved but, as you pit yourself against them, your experience and capacity for being alive grows."
"Very nice," Hart grinned, "wanting all men to be philosophers. They never have been."
"You shouldn't have brought him here," growled the short man. "He's not one of us. Now we have a real mess."
"Johnson, I'm leader of this group!" Burnett exploded. "Credit me with a little understanding. All right, Hart, what you say is true. But why? Because most men have always worked too hard to achieve the fruits of curiosity."
"I hate to keep being a spoil-sport, but what does that prove? Some men who had to work as hard as the rest have been interested in things beyond the end of their nose."
They all groaned their disapproval.
"A good point, Hart, but it doesn't prove what you think. It just shows that a minority enjoy innate capacities and environmental variations that make the transition to philosopher easier."
"And you haven't proven anything about the incurious majority."
"This does, though: whenever there was a favorable period the majority who could, as you put it, see beyond the ends of their noses increased. Our era is just the opposite. We are trapped in a vicious circle. Those noses are usually so close to the grindstone that men are afraid to raise their heads. We are breaking that circle!"
"It's a terribly important thing to aim for, Burnett, but--" He brought up another doubt and somebody else answered it immediately.
For the next half hour, as one uncertainty was expressed after another, everybody joined in the answers until inexorable logic forced his surrender.
"All right," he conceded, "I will do anything I can--not to make work for myself, but to help mankind rise above it."
Except for a brief, triumphant glance in Johnson's direction, Burnett gave no further attention to what had happened and plunged immediately into practical matters.
To halt the blind worship of work, the Rites had first to be discredited. And to discredit the Rites, the awe inspired by their infallible performance had to be weakened. The sabotage of the Preliminary had been the first local step in that direction. There had been a few similar, if smaller, episodes, executed by other groups, but they had received as little publicity as possible.
"Johnson, you pulled one so big this time that they can't hide it. Twenty thousand witnesses! When it comes to getting things done you're the best we have!"
The little man grinned. "But you're the one who knows how to pick recruits and organize our concepts. This is how it worked. I re-fed the emptied cryotron memory box of a robot discard with patterns to deal with anything it was likely to encounter in a destruction pile. I kept the absolute-freeze mechanism in working order, but developed a shield that would hide its activity from the best pile detector." He spread a large tissue schematic out on the floor and they all gathered around it to study the details. "Now, the important thing was to have an external element that could resume contact with a wider circuit, which could in turn start meshing with the whole robot mechanism and then through that mechanism into the pile. This little lever made the contact at a pre-fed time."
Miss Wright was enthusiastic. "That contact is half the size of any I've been able to make. It's crucially important," she added to Hart. "A large contact can look suspicious."
While others took miniphotos of the schematic, Hart studied the contact carefully. "I think I can reduce its size by another fifty per cent. Alloys are one of my specialties--when I get a chance to work at them."
"That would be ideal," said Burnett. "Then we could set up many more discarded robots without risk. How long will it take?"
"I can rough it out right now." He scribbled down the necessary formulas and everyone photographed that too.
"Maximum security is now in effect," announced Burnett. "You will destroy your copies as soon as you have transferred them to edible base copies. At the first hint of danger you will consume them. Use home enlargers for study. In no case are you to make permanent blowups that would be difficult to destroy quickly." He considered them sternly. "Remember, you are running a great risk. You're not only opposing the will of the state but the present will of the vast majority of citizens."
"If there are as many other underground groups as you indicate," said Hart, "they should have this information."
"We get it to them," answered Burnett. "I'm going on health leave from my job."
"And what will be your excuse?" Wright demanded anxiously.
"Nervous shock," smiled their leader. "After all, I did see today's events in the Plaza."
When Hart reached home his wife was waiting for him. "Why did you take so long, Wendell. I was worried sick. The radio says anti-socials are turning wild servos loose. How could human beings do such a thing?"
"I was there. I saw it all happen." He frowned. "The crowd was so dense I couldn't get away."
"But what happened? The way the news was broadcast I couldn't understand anything."
He described the situation in great detail and awaited Marie's reaction. It was even more encouraging than he had hoped for. "I understand less than before! How could anything reactivate that rubble? They put everything over five years old into the piles, and the stuff's supposed to be decrepit already. You'd almost think we were destroying wealth before its time, because if those disabled mechanisms reactivate--" She came to a dead halt. "That's madness! Oh, I wish High Holy Day were here already so I could get back to work and stop this empty thinking!"
Her honest face was more painfully distorted than he had ever seen it before, even during the universal pre-Rite doldrums. "Only a few more days to go," he consoled. "Don't worry, honey. Everything's going to be all right. Now I'd like to be alone in the study for a while. I've been through an exhausting time."
"Aren't you going to eat?"
The last word triggered the entry of Eric, the domestic robot, pushing the dinner cart ahead of him. "No food to-night," Hart insisted. The shining metal head nodded its assent and the cart was wheeled out.
"That's not a very humane thing to do," she scolded. "Eric's not going to be serving many more meals--"
"Good grief, Marie, just leave me alone for a while, will you?" He slammed the study door shut, warning himself to display less nervousness in the future as he listened to her pacing outside. Then she went away.
The projector gave him a good-sized wall image to consider. He spent most of the night calculating where he could place tiny self-activators in the "obsolescent" robots that were to be donated by his plant. Then he set up the instruction tapes to make the miniature contacts. Production then would be a simple job, only taking a few minutes, and during a working day there were always many periods longer than that when he was alone on the production floor.
But thinking the matter out without computers was much more difficult. Human beings ordinarily filled their time on a lower abstracting level.
When he unlocked the study door in the morning he was startled to see Marie bustling down the corridor, pushing the food service cart herself. That did not make sense, especially considering last night's statement about Eric.
"I thought you'd want breakfast early," she coughed.
"You didn't have to bother, honey. Eric could have done it."
If she had been prying, the cart might have been a prop to take up as soon as he came out. On the other hand, what could she in her technical ignorance make of such matters anyway?
It was best not to rouse any deeper suspicions by openly noticing her wifely nosiness. At breakfast they pretended nothing had happened, devoting the time to mutually disapproved cousins, but all day long he kept wondering whether ignorant knowledge couldn't be as dangerous as the knowing kind.
The next morning, after a long sleep, he went to the factory for the first of his semi-weekly work periods.
He sat before a huge console, surveying scores of dials, at the end of a machine that was over five hundred yards long. Today it was turning out glass paper the color of watered blood, made only for Ritual publications, packing it in sheets and dispatching them in automatic trucks; but the machine could be adjusted to everything from metal sheeting to plastic felts. At the far end sat another man, diminished by distance, busily tending more dials that could really take care of themselves.
After a while the man went out for a break. Hart ran a hundred yards to a section that was not working. He snapped it into the alloy supply and fed in the tape. In a minute, several dozen tiny contacts came down a chute. He pocketed them and disconnected the section just before his fellow worker reappeared.
The man walked down the floor to him, looking curious.
"Anything the matter?" he asked, hopeful for some break in routine.
"No, just felt like a walk."
"Know what you mean--I feel restless too. Too bad this plant's only two years old. Boy, wouldn't she make a great disintegration!" He grinned, slapping a fender affectionately.
Hart joined in the joke. "Gives us something to look forward to in ten years."
"A good way to look at things," said the other man.
At home he locked the contacts in a desk drawer. Tomorrow he would deliver most of them to Burnett's apartment.
But the next morning an emergency letter came from his group leader, warning him not to appear there. I am going completely underground. I think they may suspect my activities. The dispersion plan must go into effect. You know how to reach Johnson and Wright and they each in turn can get to two others. Good luck!
He had just put the letter in his pocket when Eric announced the arrival of a Rituals Inspector.
The man had nervous close-set eyes and seemed embarrassed by his need to make such a visit. Hart took the offensive as his best defense. "I don't understand this, Inspector," he protested. "You people should be busy with High Holy preparations. Are you losing your taste for work?"
"Now, now, Mr. Hart, that's a very unkind remark. I dislike this nonsense as much as anyone." His square jaw chewed into each word as he opened his scanning box. "It's the anti-social sabotage."
"Do you mean to say I am under suspicion?" Marie was now loitering in the doorway, worse luck.
"Oh, no. Nothing so insulting. This is strictly impersonal. The Scanning Center has picked apartments at complete random and we're to make spot checks."
The eye at one end of the box blinked wickedly, waiting for an information feed. "Now, sir, if you'll pardon me, I'll just take the records from one of those desk drawers--any drawer--and put them in the box." Hart slid open a drawer. "No, sir, I think I'll try the next one. It's regulation not to accept suggestions."
With a hand made deft by practise he scooped out all the sheets and tapes and put them in the box. The scanner's fingers rapidly sorted them past the eye. Hart exhaled, relieved that an innocuous drawer had been selected, and the inspector handed back the material to him. "Well, Inspector, that's that."
"Not quite." The Inspector selected another drawer at the other end of the desk and dumped everything before the scanner. His examination was speeding up and that was not good; he would have time to take more sample readings.
"Now if you'll empty your left pocket--"
"Oh, this is too much!" Marie exploded. "My husband struggles all night on secret work, studying to find ways to stop the anti-socials, and you treat him like one of them!"
"You're working on the problem?" the Inspector said respectfully. "What are you doing?"
Frying pan to fire. Hart preferred the pan and pulled open a drawer. "It's too complicated, too much time needed to explain!"
The Inspector glanced at his watch. "I'm falling behind schedule." He closed up his box. "Sorry, but I have to leave. Heavy time sheet today."
As soon as he was gone, Hart breathed easier. Nothing incriminating would be fed into the Central Scanner.
Marie became apologetic. "I'm sorry I said it, Wendell, but I couldn't keep quiet. All I did last night was peek in once or twice."
He shrugged. "I'm just on a minor project."
"Every bit counts." She shook her head. "Only you have to wonder--I mean, don't think I'm treasoning, but while I was shopping an hour ago a lot of women said you have to think--how come all that obsolescent junk could work so well, after being thoroughly wrecked, too? You almost wonder whether some of it was too good for disintegration."
Wendell pretended to be shocked. "Just a fluke of circumstance. If something like that happened again you'd be right to wonder. But it could not ever happen again."
"Don't get me wrong, Wendell. None of the women attacked anything. It was more like what you just said. They said if it happened again, then you'd have to wonder. But of course it couldn't happen again."
How well the tables had turned! Not only had Marie's ignorant knowledge proven helpful but she had now given him a positive idea also.
When he met Wright and Johnson at the latter's apartment that evening he explained it to them. "We can propagate 'dangerous' thoughts and yet appear completely loyal. We can set up the reaction to next High Holy Day."
"How?" demanded Johnson. "That's having your cake and eating it."
"Nothing's impossible in the human mind," Wright said. "Let's listen."
"Here's the point. Wherever you go there will be people tsk-tsking about the Preliminary fiasco. Just reassure them, say it meant nothing at all by itself. If it ever happened again, then there would be room for doubt but, of course, it could not happen again!"
Wright smiled. "That's almost feminine in its subtlety."
He smiled back. "My wife inspired it. Don't get nervous--it was unconscious, sheerly by accident."