“This is absurd,” Ferine protested. Reluctantly, he found a cup among the littered debris and dipped it into the milk. “A kid’s game!”
The truck has paused to observe them.
“Do it,” O’Neill ordered sharply. “Exactly the way we practiced it.”
The three of them drank quickly from the milk tank, visibly allowing the milk to spill down their chins; there had to be no mistaking what they were doing.
As planned, O’Neill was the first. His face twisting in revulsion, he hurled the cup away and violently spat the milk into the road.
“God’s sake!” he choked.
The other two did the same; stamping and loudly cursing, they kicked over the milk tank and glared accusingly at the truck.
“It’s no good!” Morrison roared.
Curious, the truck came slowly back. Electronic synapses clicked and whirred, responding to the situation; its antenna shot up like a flagpole.
“I think this is it,” O’Neill said, trembling. As the truck watched, he dragged out a second milk tank, unscrewed its lid and tasted the contents. “The same!” he shouted at the truck. “It’s just as bad!”
From the truck popped a metal cylinder. The cylinder dropped at Morrison’s feet; he quickly snatched it up and tore it open.
State Nature of Defect
The instruction sheets listed rows of possible defects, with neat boxes by each; a punch-stick was included to indicate the particular deficiency of the product.
“What’ll I check?” Morrison asked. “Contaminated? Bacterial? Sour? Rancid? Incorrectly labeled? Broken? Crushed? Cracked? Bent? Soiled?”
Thinking rapidly, O’Neill said, “Don’t check any of them. The factory’s undoubtedly ready to test and resample. It’ll make its own analysis and then ignore us.” His face glowed as frantic inspiration came. “Write in that blank at the bottom. It’s an open space for further data.”
O’Neill said, “Write:
the product is thoroughly pizzled.”
“What’s that?” Ferine demanded, baffled.
“Write it! It’s a semantic garble—the factory won’t be able to understand it. Maybe we can jam the works.”
With O’Neill’s pen, Morrison carefully wrote that the milk was pizzled. Shaking his head, he resealed the cylinder and returned it to the truck. The truck swept up the milk tanks and slammed its railing tidily into place. With a shriek of tires, it hurtled off. From its slot, a final cylinder bounced; the truck hurriedly departed, leaving the cylinder lying in the dust.
O’Neill got it open and held up the paper for the others to see.
A Factory Representative
Will Be Sent out.
Be Prepared to Supply Complete Data
on Product Deficiency.
For a moment, the three men were silent. Then Ferine began to giggle. “We did it. We contacted it. We got across.”
“We sure did,” O’Neill agreed. “It never heard of a product being pizzled.”
Cut into the base of the mountains lay the vast metallic cube of the Kansas City factory. Its surface was corroded, pitted with radiation pox, cracked and scarred from the five years of war that had swept over it. Most of the factory was buried subsurface, only its entrance stages visible. The truck was a speck rumbling at high speed toward the expanse of black metal. Presently an opening formed in the uniform surface; the truck plunged into it and disappeared inside. The entrance snapped shut.
“Now the big job remains,” O’Neill said. “Now we have to persuade it to close down operations—to shut itself off.”II
Judith O’Neill served hot black coffee to the people sitting around the living room. Her husband talked while the others listened. O’Neill was as close to being an authority on the autofac system as could still be found.
In his own area, the Chicago region, he had shorted out the protective fence of the local factory long enough to get away with data tapes stored in its posterior brain. The factory, of course, had immediately reconstructed a better type offence. But he had shown that the factories were not infallible.
“The Institute of Applied Cybernetics,” O’Neill explained, “had complete control over the network. Blame the war. Blame the big noise along the lines of communication that wiped out the knowledge we need. In any case, the Institute failed to transmit its information to us, so we can’t transmit our information to the factories—the news that the war is over and we’re ready to resume control of industrial operations.”
“And meanwhile,” Morrison added sourly, “the damn network expands and consumes more of our natural resources all the time.”
“I get the feeling,” Judith said, “that if I stamped hard enough, I’d fall right down into a factory tunnel. They must have mines everywhere by now.”
“Isn’t there some limiting injunction?” Ferine asked nervously. “Were they set up to expand indefinitely?”
“Each factory is limited to its own operational area,” O’Neill said, “but the network itself is unbounded. It can go on scooping up our resources forever. The Institute decided it gets top priority; we mere people come second.”
“Will there be
left for us?” Morrison wanted to know.
“Not unless we can stop the network’s operations. It’s already used up half a dozen basic minerals. Its search teams are out all the time, from every factory, looking everywhere for some last scrap to drag home.”
“What would happen if tunnels from two factories crossed each other?”
O’Neill shrugged. “Normally, that won’t happen. Each factory has its own special section of our planet, its own private cut of the pie for its exclusive use.”
“Well, they’re raw material-tropic; as long as there’s anything left, they’ll hunt it down.” O’Neill pondered the idea with growing interest. “It’s something to consider. I suppose as things get scarcer—”
He stopped talking. A figure had come into the room; it stood silently by the door, surveying them all.
In the dull shadows, the figure looked almost human. For a brief moment, O’Neill thought it was a settlement latecomer. Then, as it moved forward, he realized that it was only quasi-human: a functional upright biped chassis, with data-receptors mounted at the top, effectors and proprioceptors mounted in a downward worm that ended in floor-grippers. Its resemblance to a human being was testimony to nature’s efficiency; no sentimental imitation was intended.
The factory representative had arrived.
It began without preamble. “This is a data-collecting machine capable of communicating on an oral basis. It contains both broadcasting and receiving apparatus and can integrate facts relevant to its line of inquiry.”
The voice was pleasant, confident. Obviously it was a tape, recorded by some Institute technician before the war. Coming from the quasi-human shape, it sounded grotesque; O’Neill could vividly imagine the dead young man whose cheerful voice now issued from the mechanical mouth of this upright construction of steel and wiring.
“One word of caution,” the pleasant voice continued. “It is fruitless to consider this receptor human and to engage it in discussions for which it is not equipped. Although purposeful, it is not capable of conceptual thought; it can only reassemble material already available to it.”
The optimistic voice clicked out and a second voice came on. It resembled the first, but now there were no intonations or personal mannerisms. The machine was utilizing the dead man’s phonetic speech-pattern for its own communication.
“Analysis of the rejected product,” it stated, “shows no foreign elements or noticeable deterioration. The product meets the continual testing-standards employed throughout the network. Rejection is therefore on a basis outside the test area; standards not available to the network are being employed.”
“That’s right,” O’Neill agreed. Weighing his words with care, he continued, “We found the milk substandard. We want nothing to do with it. We insist on more careful output.”
The machine responded presently. “The semantic content of the term ‘pizzled’ is unfamiliar to the network. It does not exist in the taped vocabulary. Can you present a factual analysis of the milk in terms of specific elements present or absent?”
“No,” O’Neill said warily; the game he was playing was intricate and dangerous. “ ‘Fizzled’ is an overall term. It can’t be reduced to chemical constituents.”
“What does ‘pizzled’ signify?” the machine asked. “Can you define it in terms of alternate semantic symbols?”
O’Neill hesitated. The representative had to be steered from its special inquiry to more general regions, to the ultimate problem of closing down the network. If he could pry it open at any point, get the theoretical discussion started…
“ ‘Pizzled,’ ” he stated, “means the condition of a product that is manufactured when no need exists. It indicates the rejection of objects on the grounds that they are no longer wanted.”
The representative said, “Network analysis shows a need of high-grade pasteurized milk-substitute in this area. There is no alternate source; the network controls all the synthetic mammary-type equipment in existence.” It added, “Original taped instructions describe milk as an essential to human diet.”
O’Neill was being outwitted; the machine was returning the discussion to the specific. “We’ve decided,” he said desperately, “that we don’t
any more milk. We’d prefer to go without it, at least until we can locate cows.”
“That is contrary to the network tapes,” the representative objected. “There are no cows. All milk is produced synthetically.”
“Then we’ll produce it synthetically ourselves,” Morrison broke in impatiently. “Why can’t we take over the machines? My God, we’re not children! We can run our own lives!”
The factory representative moved toward the door. “Until such time as your community finds other sources of milk supply, the network will continue to supply you. Analytical and evaluating apparatus will remain in this area, conducting the customary random sampling.”
Ferine shouted futilely, “How can we find other sources? You have the whole setup! You’re running the whole show!” Following after it, he bellowed, “You say we’re not ready to run things—you claim we’re not capable. How do you know? You don’t give us a chance! We’ll never have a chance!”
O’Neill was petrified. The machine was leaving; its one-track mind had completely triumphed.
“Look,” he said hoarsely, blocking its way. “We want you to shut down, understand. We want to take over your equipment and run it ourselves. The war’s over with. Damn it, you’re not needed anymore!”
The factory representative paused briefly at the door. “The inoperative cycle,” it said, “is not geared to begin until network production merely duplicates outside production. There is at this time, according to our continual sampling, no outside production. Therefore network production continues.” Without warning, Morrison swung the steel pipe in his hand. It slashed against the machine’s shoulder and burst through the elaborate network of sensory apparatus that made up its chest. The tank of receptors shattered; bits of glass, wiring and minute parts showered everywhere.
“It’s a paradox!” Morrison yelled. “A word game—a semantic game they’re pulling on us. The Cyberneticists have it rigged.” He raised the pipe and again brought it down savagely on the unprotesting machine. “They’ve got us hamstrung. We’re completely helpless.”
The room was in uproar. “It’s the only way,” Ferine gasped as he pushed past O’Neill. “We’ll have to destroy them—it’s the network or us.” Grabbing down a lamp, he hurled it in the “face” of the factory representative. The lamp and the intricate surface of plastic burst; Ferine waded in, groping blindly for the machine. Now all the people in the room were closing furiously around the upright cylinder, their impotent resentment boiling over. The machine sank down and disappeared as they dragged it to the floor.
Trembling, O’Neill turned away. His wife caught hold of his arm and led him to the side of the room.
“The idiots,” he said dejectedly. “They can’t destroy it; they’ll only teach it to build more defenses. They’re making the whole problem worse.”
Into the living room rolled a network repair team. Expertly, the mechanical units detached themselves from the half-track mother-bug and scurried toward the mound of struggling humans. They slid between people and rapidly burrowed. A moment later, the inert carcass of the factory representative was dragged into the hopper of the mother-bug. Parts were collected, torn remnants gathered up and carried off. The plastic strut and gear was located. Then the units restationed themselves on the bug and the team departed.
Through the open door came a second factory representative, an exact duplicate of the first. And outside in the hall stood two more upright machines. The settlement had been combed at random by a corps of representatives. Like a horde of ants, the mobile data-collecting machines had filtered through the town until, by chance, one of them had come across O’Neill.
“Destruction of network mobile data-gathering equipment is detrimental to best human interests,” the factory representative informed the roomful of people. “Raw material intake is at a dangerously low ebb; what basic materials still exist should be utilized in the manufacture of consumer commodities.”
O’Neill and the machine stood facing each other.
“Oh?” O’Neill said softly. “That’s interesting. I wonder what you’re lowest on—and what you’d really be willing to fight for.”
Helicopter rotors whined tinnily above O’Neill’s head; he ignored them and peered through the cabin window at the ground not far below.
Slag and ruins stretched everywhere. Weeds poked their way up, sickly stalks among which insects scuttled. Here and there, rat colonies were visible: matted hovels constructed of bone and rubble. Radiation had mutated the rats, along with most insects and animals. A little farther, O’Neill identified a squadron of birds pursuing a ground squirrel. The squirrel dived into a carefully prepared crack in the surface of slag and the birds turned, thwarted.