|Author:||Philip K. Dick
Ace Books, 1960
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Objective, unbiased and hyperrational, the Vulcan 3 should have been the perfect ruler. The omnipotent computer dictates policy that is in the best interests of all citizens-or at least, that is the idea. But when the machine, whose rule evolved out of chaos and war, begins to lose control of the “Healer” movement of religious fanatics and the mysterious force behing their rebellion, all Hell breaks loose.
Written in 1960, Philip K. Dick’s paranoid novel imagines a totalitarian state in which hammer-headed robots terrorize citizens and freedom is an absurd joke. William Barrios, the morally conflicted hero, may be the only person who can prevent the battle for control from destroying the world-if, that is, he can decide which side he’s on.
Arthur Pitt was conscious of the mob as soon as he left the Unity office and started across the street. He stopped at the corner by his car and lit a cigarette. Unlocking the car, he studied the mob, holding his briefcase tightly.
There were fifty or sixty of them: people of the town, workers and small businessmen, petty clerks with steel-rimmed glasses. Mechanics and truckdrivers, farmers, housewives, a white-aproned grocer. The usual-lower middle-class, always the same.
Pitt slid into his car, and snapping on the dashboard mike, called his highest ranking superior, the South American Director. They were moving fast, now, filling up the street and surging silently toward him. They had, no doubt, identified him by his
T-class clothes-white shirt and tie, gray suit, felt hat. Briefcase. The shine of his black shoes. The pencil beam gleaming in the breast pocket of his coat. He unclipped the gold tube and held it ready. "Emergency," he said.
"Director Taubmann here," the dashboard speaker said. "Where are you?" The remote, official voice, so far up above him.
"Still in Cedar Groves, Alabama. There's a mob forming around me. I suppose they have the roads blocked. Looks like the whole town."
Off to one side, on the curb, stood an old man with a massive head and short-cropped hair. Standing quietly in his drab brown robe, a knotted rope around his waist, sandals on his feet. "One," Pitt said.
"Try to get a scan for Vulcan 3."
"I'll try." The mob was all around the car now. Pitt could hear their hands, plucking and feeling at the car, exploring it carefully and with calm efficiency. He leaned back and double-locked the doors. The windows were rolled up; the hood was down tight. He snapped on the motor which activated the defense assembly built into the car. Beneath and around him the system hummed as its feedback elements searched for any weak links in the car's armor.
On the curb, the man in brown had not moved. He stood with a few others, people in ordinary street clothing. Pitt pulled the scanner out and lifted it up.
A rock at once hit the side of the car, below the window. The car shuddered; in his hands the scanner danced. A second rock hit directly against the window, sending a web of cracks rippling across it.
Pitt dropped the scanner. "I'm going to need help. They mean business."
"There's a crew already on the way. Try to get a better scan of him. We didn't get it well."
"Of course you didn't," Pitt said in anger. "They saw the thing in my hand and they deliberately let those rocks fly." One of the rear windows had cracked; hands groped blindly into the car. "I've got to get out of here, Taubmann." Pitt grinned bleakly as he saw, out of the corner of his eye, the car's assembly attempting to repair the broken window-attempting and failing. As new plastiglass foamed up, the alien hands grasped and wadded it aside.
"Don't get panicky," the tinny dashboard voice told him.
"Keep the old-brain down?" Pitt released the brake. The car moved forward a few feet and stopped dead. The motor died into silence, and with it, the car's defense system; the hum ceased.
Cold fear slid through Pitt's stomach. He gave up trying to find the scanner; with shaking fingers he lifted out his pencil beam. Four or five men were astride the hood, cutting off his view; others were on the cab above his head. A sudden shuddering roar: they were cutting through the roof with a heat drill.
"How long?" Pitt muttered thickly. "I'm stalled. They must have got some sort of interference plasma going-it conked everything out."
"They'll be along any minute," the placid, metallic voice said, lacking fear, so remote from him and his situation. The organization voice. Profound and mature, away from the scene of danger.
"They better hurry." The car shuddered as a whole barrage of rocks hit. The car tipped ominously; they were lifting it up on one side, trying to overturn it. Both back windows were out. A man's hand reached for the door release.
Pitt burned the hand to ash with his pencil beam. The stump frantically withdrew. "I got one."
"If you could scan some of them for us . . . "
More hands appeared. The interior of the car was sweltering; the heat drill was almost through. "I hate to do this." Pitt turned his pencil beam on his briefcase until there was nothing left. Hastily, he dissolved the contents of his pockets, everything in the glove compartment, his identification papers, and finally he burned his wallet. As the plastic bubbled away to black ooze, he saw, for an instant, a photograph of his wife . . . and then the picture was gone.
"Here they come," he said softly, as the whole side of the car crumpled with a hoarse groan and slid aside under the pressure of the drill.
"Try to hang on, Pitt. The crew should be there almost any-"
Abruptly the speaker went dead. Hands caught him, throwing him back against the seat. His coat ripped, his tie was pulled off. He screamed. A rock crashed into his face; the pencil beam fell to the floor. A broken bottle cut across his eyes and mouth. His scream bubbled into choked silence. The bodies scrambled over him. He sank down, lost in the clutching mass of warm-smelling humanity.
On the car's dashboard, a covert scanner, disguised as a cigar lighter, recorded the immediate scene; it continued to function. Pitt had not known about it; the device had come with the car supplied to him by his superiors. Now, from the mass of struggling people, a hand reached, expertly groped at the dashboard-tugged once, with great precision, at a cable. The covert scanner ceased functioning. Like Pitt, it had come to the end of its span.
Far off down the highway the sirens of the police crew shrieked mournfully.
The same expert hand withdrew. And was gone, back into the mass . . . once more mingled.
William Barris examined the photo carefully, once more comparing it with the second of scanning tape. On his desk his coffee cooled into muddy scum, forgotten among his papers. The Unity Building rang and vibrated with the sounds of endless calculators, statistics machines, vidphones, teletypes, and the innumerable electric typewriters of the minor clerks. Officials moved expertly back and forth in the labyrinth of offices, the countless cells in which T-class personnel worked. Three young secretaries, their high heels striking sharply, hurried past his desk, on their way back from their coffee break. Normally he would have taken notice of them, especially the slim blonde in the pink wool sweater, but today he did not; he was not even aware that they had passed.
"This face is unusual," Barris murmured. "Look at his eyes and the heavy ridge over the brows."
"Phrenology," Taubmann said indifferently. His plump, well-scrubbed features showed his boredom; he noticed the secretaries, even if Barris did not.
Barris threw down the photo. "No wonder they get so many followers. With organizers like that-" Again he peered at the tiny fragment of scanning tape; this was the only part that had been clear at all. Was it the same man? He could not be sure. Only a blur, a shape without features. At last he handed the photo back to Taubmann. "What's his name?"
"Father Fields." In a leisurely fashion, Taubmann thumbed through his file. "Fifty-nine years old. Trade: electrician. Top-grade turret-wiring expert. One of the best during the war. Born in Macon, Georgia, 1970. Joined the Healers two years ago, at the beginning. One of the founders, if you can believe the informants involved here. Spent two months in the Atlanta Psychological Correction Labs."
Barris said, "That long?" He was amazed; for most men it took perhaps a week. Sanity came quickly at such an advanced lab-they had all the equipment he knew of, and some he had only glimpsed in passing. Every time he visited the place he had a deep sense of dread, in spite of his absolute immunity, the sworn sanctity that his position brought him.
"He escaped," Taubmann said. "Disappeared." He raised his head to meet Barris' gaze. "Without treatment."
"Two months there, and no treatments?"
"He was ill," Taubmann said with a faint, mocking smile. "An injury, and then a chronic blood condition. Then something from wartime radiation. He stalled-and then one day he was gone. Took one of these self-contained air-conditioning units off the wall and reworked it. With a spoon and a toothpick. Of course, no one knows what he made out of it; he took his results through the wall and yard and fence with him. All we had for our inspection were the leftover parts, the ones he didn't use." Taubmann returned the photo to the file. Pointing at the second of scanning tape he said, "If that's the same man, it's the first time we've heard anything about him since then."
"Did you know Pitt?"
"A little. Nice, rather naive young fellow. Devoted to his job. Family man. Applied for field duty because he wanted the extra monthly bonus. Made it possible for his wife to furnish her living room with Early New England oak furniture." Taubmann got to his feet. "The call is out for Father Fields. But of course it's been out for months."
"Too bad the police showed up late," Barris said. "Always a few minutes late." He studied Taubmann. Both of them, technically, were equals, and it was policy for equals in the organization to respect one another. But he had never been too fond of Taubmann; it seemed to him that the man was too concerned with his own status. Not interested in Unity for theoretical reasons....
Copyright © 1960 by Philip K. Dick
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