The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories (4 page)

BOOK: The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories
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All Shipments Suspended until Further Notice

 

Letting out his breath harshly, O’Neill handed the paper over to Ferine. “No more consumer goods,” he said ironically, a nervous grin twitching across his face. “The network’s going on a wartime footing.”
“Then we did it?” Morrison asked haltingly.
“That’s right,” O’Neill said. Now that the conflict had been sparked, he felt a growing, frigid terror. “Pittsburgh and Detroit are in it to the finish. It’s too late for us to change our minds, now—they’re lining up allies.”
IV
Cool morning sunlight lay across the ruined plain of black metallic ash. The ash smoldered a dull, unhealthy red; it was still warm.
“Watch your step,” O’Neill cautioned. Grabbing hold of his wife’s arm, he led her from the rusty, sagging truck, up onto the top of a pile of strewn concrete blocks, the scattered remains of a pillbox installation. Earl Ferine followed, making his way carefully, hesitantly.
Behind them, the dilapidated settlement lay spread out, a disorderly checkerboard of houses, buildings and streets. Since the autofac network had closed down its supply and maintenance, the human settlements had fallen into semibarbarism. The commodities that remained were broken and only partly usable. It had been over a year since the last mobile factory truck had appeared, loaded with food, tools, clothing and repair parts. From the flat expanse of dark concrete and metal at the foot of the mountains, nothing had emerged in their direction.
Their wish had been granted—they were cut off, detached from the network.
On their own.
Around the settlement grew ragged fields of wheat and tattered stalks of sun-baked vegetables. Crude handmade tools had been distributed, primitive artifacts hammered out with great labor by the various settlements. The settlements were linked only by horsedrawn carts and by the slow stutter of the telegraph key.
They had managed to keep their organization, though. Goods and services were exchanged on a slow, steady basis. Basic commodities were produced and distributed. The clothing that O’Neill and his wife and Earl Ferine wore was coarse and unbleached, but sturdy. And they had managed to convert a few of the trucks from gasoline to wood.
“Here we are,” O’Neill said. “We can see from here.”
“Is it worth it?” Judith asked, exhausted. Bending down, she plucked aimlessly at her shoe, trying to dig a pebble from the soft hide sole. “It’s a long way to come, to see something we’ve seen every day for thirteen months.”
“True,” O’Neill admitted, his hand briefly resting on his wife’s limp shoulder. “But this may be the last. And that’s what we want to see.”
In the gray sky above them, a swift circling dot of opaque black moved. High, remote, the dot spun and darted, following an intricate and wary course. Gradually, its gyrations moved it toward the mountains and the bleak expanse of bomb-rubbled structure sunk in their base.
“San Francisco,” O’Neill explained. “One of those long-range hawk projectiles, all the way from the West Coast.”
“And you think it’s the last?” Ferine asked.
“It’s the only one we’ve seen this month.” O’Neill seated himself and began sprinkling dried bits of tobacco into a trench of brown paper. “And we used to see hundreds.”
“Maybe they have something better,” Judith suggested. She found a smooth rock and tiredly seated herself. “Could it be?”
Her husband smiled ironically. “No. They don’t have anything better.”
The three of them were tensely silent. Above them, the circling dot of black drew closer. There was no sign of activity from the flat surface of metal and concrete; the Kansas City factory remained inert, totally unresponsive. A few billows of warm ash drifted across it and one end was partly submerged in rubble. The factory had taken numerous direct hits. Across the plain, the furrows of its subsurface tunnels lay exposed, clogged with debris and the dark, water-seeking tendrils of tough vines.
“Those damn vines,” Ferine grumbled, picking at an old sore on his unshaven chin. “They’re taking over the world.”
Here and there around the factory, the demolished ruin of a mobile extension rusted in the morning dew. Carts, trucks, search-bugs, factory representatives, weapons carriers, guns, supply trains, subsurface projectiles, indiscriminate parts of machinery mixed and fused together in shapeless piles. Some had been destroyed returning to the factory; others had been contacted as they emerged, fully loaded, heavy with equipment. The factory itself—what remained of it—seemed to have settled more deeply into the earth. Its upper surface was barely visible, almost lost in drifting ash.
In four days, there had been no known activity, no visible movement of any sort.
“It’s dead,” Ferine said. “You can see it’s dead.”
O’Neill didn’t answer. Squatting down, he made himself comfortable and prepared to wait. In his own mind, he was sure that some fragment of automation remained in the eroded factory. Time would tell. He examined his wrist-watch; it was eight thirty. In the old days, the factory would be starting its daily routine. Processions of trucks and varied mobile units would be coming to the surface, loaded with supplies, to begin their expeditions to the human settlement.
Off to the right, something stirred. He quickly turned his attention to it.
A single battered ore-gathering cart was creeping clumsily toward the factory. One last damaged mobile unit trying to complete its task. The cart was virtually empty; a few meager scraps of metal lay strewn in its hold. A scavenger… the metal was sections ripped from destroyed equipment encountered on the way. Feebly, like a blind metallic insect, the cart approached the factory. Its progress was incredibly jerky. Every now and then, it halted, bucked and quivered, and wandered aimlessly off the path.
“Control is bad,” Judith said, with a touch of horror in her voice. “The factory’s having trouble guiding it back.”
Yes, he had seen that. Around New York, the factory had lost its high-frequency transmitter completely. Its mobile units had floundered in crazy gyrations, racing in random circles, crashing against rocks and trees, sliding into gullies, overturning, finally unwinding and becoming reluctantly inanimate.
The ore cart reached the edge of the ruined plain and halted briefly. Above it, the dot of black still circled the sky. For a time, the cart remained frozen.
“The factory’s trying to decide,” Ferine said. “It needs the material, but it’s afraid of that hawk up there.”
The factory debated and nothing stirred. Then the ore cart again resumed its unsteady crawl. It left the tangle of vines and started out across the blasted open plain. Painfully, with infinite caution, it headed toward the slab of dark concrete and metal at the base of the mountains.
The hawk stopped circling.
“Get down!” O’Neill said sharply. “They’ve got those rigged with the new bombs.”
His wife and Perine crouched down beside him and the three of them peered warily at the plain and the metal insect crawling laboriously across it. In the sky, the hawk swept in a straight line until it hung directly over the cart. Then, without a sound or warning, it came down in a straight dive. Hands to her face, Judith shrieked, “I can’t watch! It’s awful! Like wild animals!”
“It’s not after the cart,” O’Neill grated.
As the airborne projectile dropped, the cart put on a burst of desperate speed. It raced noisily toward the factory, clanking and rattling, trying in a last futile attempt to reach safely. Forgetting the menace above, the frantically eager factory opened up and guided its mobile unit directly inside. And the hawk had what it wanted.
Before the barrier could close, the hawk swooped down in a long glide parallel with the ground. As the cart disappeared into the depths of the factory, the hawk shot after it, a swift shimmer of metal that hurtled past the clanking cart. Suddenly aware, the factory snapped the barrier shut. Grotesquely, the cart struggled; it was caught fast in the half-closed entrance.
But whether it freed itself didn’t matter. There was a dull rumbling stir. The ground moved, billowed, then settled back. A deep shock wave passed beneath the three watching human beings. From the factory rose a single column of black smoke. The surface of concrete split like a dried pod; it shriveled and broke, and dribbled shattered bits of itself in a shower of ruin. The smoke hung for a while, drifting aimlessly away with the morning wind.
The factory was a fused, gutted wreck. It had been penetrated and destroyed.
O’Neill got stiffly to his feet. “That’s all. All over with. We’ve got what we set out after—we’ve destroyed the autofac network.” He glanced at Perine. “Or was that what we were after?”
They looked toward the settlement that lay behind them. Little remained of the orderly rows of houses and streets of the previous years. Without the network, the settlement had rapidly decayed. The original prosperous neatness had dissipated; the settlement was shabby, ill-kept.
“Of course,” Perine said haltingly. “Once we get into the factories and start setting up our own assembly lines…”
“Is there anything left?” Judith inquired.
“There must be something left. My God, there were levels going down miles!”
“Some of those bombs they developed toward the end were awfully big,” Judith pointed out. “Better than anything we had in our war.”
“Remember that camp we saw? The ruins-squatters?”
“I wasn’t along,” Perine said.
“They were like wild animals. Eating roots and larvae. Sharpening rocks, tanning hides. Savagery, bestiality.”
“But that’s what people like that want,” Perine answered defensively
“Do they? Do we want this?” O’Neill indicated the straggling settlement. “Is this what we set out looking for, that day we collected the tungsten? Or that day we told the factory truck its milk was—” He couldn’t remember the word.
“Pizzled,” Judith supplied.
“Come on,” O’Neill said. “Let’s get started. Let’s see what’s left of that factory—left for us.”

 

They approached the ruined factory late in the afternoon. Four trucks rumbled shakily up to the rim of the gutted pit and halted, motors steaming, tailpipes dripping. Wary and alert, workmen scrambled down and stepped gingerly across the hot ash.
“Maybe it’s too soon,” one of them objected.
O’Neill had no intention of waiting. “Come on,” he ordered. Grabbing up a flashlight, he stepped down into the crater.
The sheltered hull of the Kansas City factory lay directly ahead. In its gutted mouth, the ore cart still hung caught, but it was no longer struggling. Beyond the cart was an ominous pool of gloom. O’Neill flashed his light through the entrance; the tangled, jagged remains of upright supports were visible.
“We want to get down deep,” he said to Morrison, who prowled cautiously beside him. “If there’s anything left, it’s at the bottom.”
Morrison grunted. “Those boring moles from Atlanta got most of the deep layers.”
“Until the others got their mines sunk.” O’Neill stepped carefully through the sagging entrance, climbed a heap of debris that had been tossed against the slit from inside, and found himself within the factory—an expanse of confused wreckage, without pattern or meaning.
“Entropy,” Morrison breathed, oppressed. “The thing it always hated. The thing it was built to fight. Random particles everywhere. No purpose to it.”
“Down underneath,” O’Neill said stubbornly, “we may find some sealed enclaves. I know they got so they were dividing up into autonomous sections, trying to preserve repair units intact, to re-form the composite factory.”
“The moles got most of them, too,” Morrison observed, but he lumbered after O’Neill.
Behind them, the workmen came slowly. A section of wreckage shifted ominously and a shower of hot fragments cascaded down.
“You men get back to the trucks,” O’Neill said. “No sense endangering any more of us than we have to. If Morrison and I don’t come back, forget us—don’t risk sending a rescue party.” As they left, he pointed out to Morrison a descending ramp still partially intact. “Let’s get below.”
Silently, the two men passed one dead level after another. Endless miles of dark ruin stretched out, without sound or activity. The vague shapes of darkened machinery, unmoving belts and conveyer equipment were partially visible, and the partially completed husks of war projectiles, bent and twisted by the final blast.
“We can salvage some of that,” O’Neill said, but he didn’t actually believe it. The machinery was fused, shapeless. Everything in the factory had run together, molten slag without form or use. “Once we get it to the surface ...”
“We can’t,” Morrison contradicted bitterly. “We don’t have hoists or winches.” He kicked at a heap of charred supplies that had stopped along its broken belt and spilled halfway across the ramp.
“It seemed like a good idea at the time,” O’Neill said as the two of them continued past vacant levels of machines. “But now that I look back, I’m not so sure.”
They had penetrated a long way into the factory. The final level lap spread out ahead of them. O’Neill flashed the light here and there, trying to locate undestroyed sections, portions of the assembly process still intact.
It was Morrison who felt it first. He suddenly dropped to his hands and knees; heavy body pressed against the floor, he lay listening, face hard, eyes wide. “For God’s sake—”
“What is it?” O’Neill cried. Then he, too, felt it. Beneath them, a faint, insistent vibration hummed through the floor, a steady hum of activity. They had been wrong; the hawk had not been totally successful. Below, in a deeper level, the factory was still alive. Closed, limited operations still went on.
“On its own,” O’Neill muttered, searching for an extension of the descent lift. “Autonomous activity, set to continue after the rest is gone. How do we get down?”
BOOK: The Minority Report and Other Classic Stories
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