"Whatever the cause, it's the perfect result," Johnson conceded. "We'll spread it through the net."
"Along with this, I hope." Wendell dumped the contacts on a table top. "It's the smallest size possible. A lot should get by unnoticed. Find cell members who can set up cryotrons with a wide range of instructions to cope with anything in the piles. Some weirdly alive concoctions of 'obsolescent' parts ought to result."
"Some day the world's going to know what you've done for it," said Johnson solemnly.
"That could happen too soon!" Miss Wright's face, honest and open in its horse-like length, broke into a wide grin.
"Amen," said Hart, adding the private hope that Marie, blessed with superior looks, might be able to show as much superior wisdom some day.
The hope was not immediately fulfilled. When he reached home Marie was in a tizzy of excitement. "You're just in time, darling. They just caught three subversives. One of them was a woman," she added as this were compounding an improbability with an impossibility. "They're going to show them."
He gripped his belt tightly. "A woman?"
"That's right. There she is now."
A uniformed officer was gently helping a pale little old woman sit down before the camera, as if she were more an object of pity than of fear. Hart relaxed.
"--caught red-handed with the incriminating papers," shouted an offstage announcer. "Handbills asserting objects declared obsolescent could actually last indefinitely!"
"What do you have to say for yourself?" the officer asked gently. "You must realize, of course, that such irreligious behavior precludes your moving in general society for a long time to come."
"I don't know what came over me," she sobbed in a tired voice. "Curiosity. Yes, curiosity, that's what it was. I saw these sheets of paper in the street and they said we should stop working so hard at compulsory tasks and start working to expand our own interests and personalities."
"Self-contradictory nonsense!" said the voice.
"Yes, I know that. But it made me curious and I took it home to read, and it said our compulsory tasks were artificially manufactured and, if you didn't believe that, look at the pile that reactivated itself the other day." She stopped, reorganizing her thoughts. "Of course, though, that thing in the Plaza was unique, you know. I don't think it could mean a thing ... unless it happened a few times. And the fact is it won't ever happen again."
"Well, that much makes very good sense," said Marie. "You said the same thing, Wendell. I don't think that poor woman knew what she was doing--just a dupe for subversive propaganda."
"--a dupe for subversive propaganda," the announcer was saying.
"See, exactly what I said."
How swiftly the decentralized underground was working! Hart could not tell whether the old woman was an active member or just a passive responder, but it did not matter. She was now spreading the seeds for future doubt across the land.
Two old men were brought in and they mumbled the same disconnected story as their sister.
"We have intensively interrogated these prisoners," boomed the announcer, "and know there is nothing more to the rumored anti-social plot than this stupid chatter. Remain vigilant and you have nothing to fear!"
"You are sentenced to five years isolation from general society," said the officer, in a voice dulcet enough to sell advance orders for replacement products that had not yet been made. "Our intention is to protect you from bad influences. Our hope is that others will take your lesson to heart."
"God bless you," said the woman and her brothers joined in effusive thanks.
"Makes you proud to be a human being," Marie said. "I was getting some stupid doubts myself, dear. I must admit it. But that's all past. I can hardly wait for the Highest Holy Day."
"Neither can I," sighed her husband.
The next day at noon Eric came to him, functioning on the final set of servo instructions that had been installed in him at the factory of his birth eight years before. He shook hands with the two of them and said: "Now I am prepared for death."
Marie was tearful. "I will miss you, Eric. If you were only under five years old your span could be extended."
"Everything that happens is right," Eric said impassively.
He clambered on to the operation table, instinctively knowing which flat surface was for him, and, breaking all his major circuits, gave up the ghost that only man could restore to him.
Hart found his wife's grief easy to bear. The day after tomorrow she would join in the general exultation of High Holy Day, with Eric well forgotten. He methodically began smashing the surface of the limbs and torso; the greater the visible damage, the greater the honor redounding to the sacrifice donor. "This will be our gift to the general pile," he said.
"I thought we could keep him for our garden sacrifice," Marie protested meekly. "Most people do."
"But the other way is the greater sacrifice."
There was no reply, because she knew he spoke for the deeper, more moving custom. But suddenly he began to act depressed himself. "I know we say it every ten years, but Eric was really the best companion we ever had." He gestured toward the table. "I want to sit here with him for a while--alone."
"That's carrying things too far, Wendell. A little grief is proper--but this much is actually morbid."
"It's all within my rights."
She tossed her head petulantly. "Well, I've done my share. I can't stand any more. It makes a person think and get depressed. I don't care what you're going to do. I'm going out to enjoy a Preliminary."
"Can't blame you for that," he nodded.
When she had gone he started to work on new instruction tapes for activating the servo-cryotron. Nothing could be surrendered to chance. Every possible circumstance in the pile had to be anticipated. There had to be instructions for action if Eric was crushed below fifty feet of metal, for assembling any kind of scrambled wiring, for adapting all types of parts in its immediate surroundings, for using these parts to absorb parts further away and for timing the operation to the start of the Highest Rite.
Some tapes had been prepared earlier, so it was possible to put everything in the cryotron box before Marie returned, as well as to attach the tiny contact that would reach out from the box until it reached its first external scrap of wire or metal.
"You poor darling," she pouted. "You missed the most wonderful thing! They demolished a whole thirty-story building!"
His blood, atavistically effected, pulsed faster until his new creed came to grips with his old emotions. "They usually don't bother with buildings for the Rites."
"I know--that's what was so wonderful! The State has decided to make this one the biggest Day of all time. We'll have enough work to fill the whole ten years! Everybody was so happy."
"I'm sure they were." He caught himself in mid-sarcasm and said, "I'm sorry I missed it."
"And I'm sorry I've been so selfishly self-centered." She frowned. "I forgot about it, but there were people in the crowd boasting they had been assigned to fight anti-social movements. I had to boast back that my husband had been honored too."
He tensed. "Oh? What did they say to that?"
"Frankly, they laughed."
"I should think so. The Central Scanner didn't pick up anything except a lot of ineffective propaganda. The sabotage business was all hysteria."
"That's just what they said--the assignments were an empty honor." She coldly considered Eric. "I want to wreck him too."
"I've smashed the insides," he said. "You'd better just work the surface."
"That's all I want to do," she answered, starting to scratch traditional marks all over the dead robot. It gave her a full afternoon of happy, busy labor.
The next day a large open truck came around and the street echoed to the appeal for contributions. Festival spirit was running high everywhere and when the neighborhood crowd saw the young robot porters carry Eric out there was a loud cheer of appreciation.
"My husband decided on a major contribution right away," Marie announced to them.
"It's the least we could do," he said modestly.
Many onlookers, swept away by their example, rushed indoors to bring out additional items of sacrifice. But only two others gave up their robots. The rest clung to them for private Holy Night ceremonies. Soon Eric disappeared under the renewed deluge of egg-beaters and washers.
"The best collection I have seen today," said the inspector accompanying the truck. "You people are to be congratulated for your exceptional patriotism."
"Destroy!" they shouted back joyously. "Make work!"
At dawn the Central Plaza was already crowded and new hordes kept pouring in from outlying areas. Wendell and his wife had been among the first to arrive. They waited, impatient in their separate ways, on the borderline five hundred yards from the ten-story pyre.
Martial music roared from loudspeakers, interrupted by the mellifluous boom of a merchandising announcer: "New product! Better models! One hundred years of High Holy Days! New! New! NEW!"
"Destroy!" came the returning shout. "Make work! Work! Work!"
All the sounds echoed back and forth until baffled away by the open area across the Plaza, where one large structure had already been destroyed. Three others were slated for collapse today.
"The biggest Holy Day ever," a restless old woman said to Marie. "I've seen all nine of them."
"Eric's in there," Marie chatted back, superficially sad, deeply happy.
"Our house robot."
"Imagine that! Did you hear that?" People gathered round them and cheered. The good-natured jostling continued until someone said: "Five minutes to go!"
Wendell checked his watch. Somewhere in the pile at least one element was coming to life, a metal arm reaching out for brother metal to engulf in its cybernetic sweep.
"They're coming!" A line of six shiny new slaggers came rumbling into the open with military precision. They moved along slowly, prolonging the pleasures of anticipation, then broke rank, each seeking its assigned point around the pile of appliances gathered for destruction.
"The latest improved models," said the loudspeakers. "They will first perform fifteen minutes of automatic maneuvers." The military music resumed and each slagger turned, as if circling a coin, in clanking rhythm to it.
"The three hundred and sixty degree turn. Next, making a box on the Plaza floor...."
The voice stopped, appalled.
An avalanche of metal slid down one side of the pile and the crowd gasped. The downward movement viscously slowed; then the metal, suddenly alive with the capacity to defy gravity, circled upward. Jagged limbs started flailing about.
"Disintegrator attack!" screamed the loudspeakers. "Attack!"
The maneuvers stopped. For one brief moment prior to changeover the Plaza was dead still, except for the deafening rumble in the pile. The slaggers broke the spell, rushing full speed toward the pile, evaporator beams working.
One by one they faltered and were sucked into the destructive pyre.
The crowd fell further back. The whole pile came alive like a mineral octopus. Then the squirming thing collapsed, every makeshift circuit irreparably broken and dead. Everything had been happening too fast for any pronounced reaction to accompany it; but now the world went crazy.
"Stand firm!" pleaded the loudspeakers. "We will get reinforcements as soon as celebrations are finished elsewhere."
A barrage of enormous boos came from the disintegrating mob. "Never again! Fakes! It's finished, done for!"
But the breakup down side avenues continued. "I don't understand," Marie shuddered. "Everything's crazy. We've been deceived, Wendell. Who's been deceiving us?"
"Nobody--unless it's ourselves."
"I don't understand that either." Saucer-eyed she watched a great clump of disgruntled people push past. "I have to think!"
Suddenly, as they came around a corner, they were facing Burnett.
Hart tried to disregard him but the group leader would have none of that. He rushed up to Hart. "Good to see a friendly face. Shocking developments!" His face was grim, but tiny wrinkles at the corners of his eyes betrayed an amusement that could only be discovered by those who looked for it.
"Mr. Burnett," he explained to Marie. "A librarian at the main building. Mr. Burnett, my wife Marie."
"I am most happy to meet you, Mrs. Hart. Have you heard the latest?"
"No, Mr. Burnett."
"The same things have been happening everywhere! They announced it on the radio and they're saying it's due to anti-social elements. Shocking!"
She shook her head stubbornly. "I don't know what to think. Maybe we shouldn't be shocked, maybe we should be. I just don't know, Mr. Burnett. I came to enjoy myself and look how it's ended." She bravely held back a sob, "Maybe we'd have been better off if we've never heard about High Holy Days!"
Burnett looked about with feigned apprehension. "You have to be careful what you say. The government says there's even talk--subversive handbills--about trying to rehabilitate some of the stuff in the piles."
"The government ought to keep quiet!" she exploded. "They said this couldn't happen. You can't believe anything they say any more. The people decide and the government will have to listen, that's what I say! And I'm a pretty typical person, not one of your intellectual kind. No criticism of present company intended."
"None taken, Mrs. Hart. Our human future," said Burnett, exchanging a grin with his aide, "remains, as it always has really been. Interesting--to say the least!"