But Linda had wriggled from his knee and was beating a retreat.
She met her mother at the door. Her mother, who was still wearing her coat and had not even had time to remove her hat, said breathlessly, "Run, along, Linda. Don't get in Mother's way."
Then she said to Matthew, as she lifted her hat from her head and patted her hair back into place, "I've been at Agatha's."
Matthew stared at her censoriously and did not even dignify that piece of information with a grunt as he groped for his newspaper.
Sarah said, as she unbuttoned her coat, "Guess what she said?"
Matthew flattened out his newspaper for reading purposes with a sharp crackle and said, "Don't much care."
Sarah said, "Now, Father-" But she had no time for anger. The news i had to be told and Matthew was the only recipient handy, so she went on, "Agatha's Joe is a policeman, you know, and he says a whole truckload of secret service men came into Bloomington last night."
"They're not after me."
"Don't you see, Father? Secret service agents, and it's almost election time. In Bloomington."
"Maybe they're after a bank robber."
"There hasn't been a bank robbery in town in ages... Father, you're hopeless."
She stalked away.
Nor did Norman Muller receive the news with noticeably greater excitement.
"Now, Sarah, how did Agatha's Joe know they were secret service agents?" he asked calmly. "They wouldn't go around with identification cards pasted on their foreheads."
But by next evening, with November a day old, she could say triumphantly, "It's just everyone in Bloomington that's waiting for someone local to be the voter. The Bloomington News as much as said so on video."
Norman stirred uneasily. He couldn't deny it, and his heart was sinking. If Bloomington was really to be hit by Multivac's lightning, it would mean newspapermen, video shows, tourists, all sorts of-strange upsets. Norman liked the quiet routine of his life, and the distant stir of politics was getting uncomfortably close.
He said, "It's all rumor. Nothing more."
"You wait and see, then. You just wait and see."
As things turned out, there was very little time to wait, for the doorbell rang insistently, and when Norman Muller opened it and said, "Yes?" a tall, grave-faced man said, "Are you Norman Muller?"
Norman said, "Yes," again, but in a strange dying voice. It was not difficult to see from the stranger's bearing that he was one carrying authority, and the nature of his errand suddenly became as inevitably obvious as it had, until the moment before, been unthinkably impossible.
The man presented credentials, stepped into the house, closed the door behind him and said ritualistically, "Mr. Norman Muller, it is necessary for me to inform you on the behalf of the President of the United States that you have been chosen to represent the American electorate on Tuesday, November 4, 2008."
Norman Muller managed, with difficulty, to walk unaided to his chair. He sat there, white-faced and almost insensible, while Sarah brought water, slapped his hands in panic and moaned to her husband between clenched teeth, "Don't be sick, Norman. Don't be sick. They'll pick someone else."
When Norman could manage to talk, he whispered, "I'm sorry, sir."
The secret service agent had removed his coat, unbuttoned his jacket and was sitting at ease on the couch.
"It's all right," he said, and the mark of officialdom seemed to have vanished with the formal announcement and leave him simply a large and rather friendly man. "This is the sixth time I've made the announcement and I've seen all kinds of reactions. Not one of them was the kind you see on the video. You know what I mean? A holy, dedicated look, and a character who says, 'It will be a great privilege to serve my country.' That sort of stuff." The agent laughed comfortingly.
Sarah's accompanying laugh held a trace of shrill hysteria.
The agent said, "Now you're going to have me with you for a while. My name is Phil Handley. I'd appreciate it if you call me Phil. Mr. Muller can't leave the house any more till Election Day. You'll have to inform the department store that he's sick, Mrs. Muller. You can go about your business for a while, but you'll have to agree not to say a word about this. Right, Mrs. Muller?"
Sarah nodded vigorously. "No, sir. Not a word."
"All right. But, Mrs. Muller," Handley looked grave, "we're not kidding now. Go out only if you must and you'll be followed when you do. I'm sorry but that's the way we must operate."
"It won't be obvious. Don't worry. And it's only for two days till the formal announcement to the nation is made. Your daughter-"
"She's in bed," said Sarah hastily.
"Good. She'll have to be told I'm a relative or friend staying with the family. If she does find out the truth, she'll have to be kept in the house. Your father had better stay in the house in any case."
"He won't like that," said Sarah.
"Can't be helped. Now, since you have no others living with you-"
"You know all about us apparently," whispered Norman.
"Quite a bit," agreed Handley. "In any case, those are all my instructions to you for the moment. I'll try to cooperate as much as I can and be as little of a nuisance as possible. The government will pay for my maintenance so I won't be an expense to you. I'll be relieved each night by someone who will sit up in this room, so there will be no problem about sleeping accommodations. Now, Mr. Muller-"
"You can call me Phil," said the agent again. "The purpose of the two-day preliminary before formal announcement is to get you used to your position. We prefer to have you face Multivac in as normal a state of mind as possible. Just relax and try to feel this is all in a day's work. Okay?"
"Okay," said Norman, and then shook his head violently. "But I don't want the responsibility. Why me?"
"All right," said Handley, "let's get that straight to begin with. Multivac weighs all sorts of known factors, billions of them. One factor isn't known, though, and won't be known for a long time. That's the reaction pattern of the human mind. All Americans are subjected to the molding pressure of what other Americans do and say, to the things that are done to him and the things he does to others. Any American can be brought to Multivac to have the bent of his mind surveyed. From that the bent of all other minds in the country can be estimated. Some Americans are better for the purpose than others at some given time, depending upon the happenings of that year. Multivac picked you as most representative this year. Not the smartest, or the strongest, or the luckiest, but just the most representative. Now we don't question Multivac, do we?"
"Couldn't it make a mistake?" asked Norman.
Sarah, who listened impatiently, interrupted to say, "Don't listen to him* sir. He's just nervous, you know. Actually, he's very well read and he always follows politics very closely."
Handley said, "Multivac makes the decisions, Mrs. Muller. It picked your husband."
"But does it know everything?" insisted Norman wildly. "Couldn't it have made a mistake?"
"Yes, it can. There's no point in not being frank. In 1993, a selected Voter died of a stroke two hours before it was time for him to be notified. Multivac didn't predict that; it couldn't. A Voter might be mentally unstable, morally unsuitable, or, for that matter, disloyal. Multivac can't know everything about everybody until he's fed all the data there is. That's why alternate selections are always held in readiness. I don't think we'll be using one this time. You're in good health, Mr. Muller, and you've been carefully investigated. You qualify."
Norman buried his face in his hands and sat motionless.
"By tomorrow morning, sir," said Sarah, "he'll be perfectly all right. He just has to get used to it, that's all."
"Of course," said Handley.
In the privacy of their bedchamber, Sarah Muller expressed herself in other and stronger fashion. The burden of her lecture was, "So get hold of yourself, Norman. You're trying to throw away the chance of a lifetime."
Norman whispered desperately, "It frightens me, Sarah. The whole thing."
"For goodness' sake, why? What's there to it but answering a question or two?"
"The responsibility is too great. I couldn't face it."
"What responsibility? There isn't any. Multivac picked you. It's Multivac's responsibility. Everyone knows that."
Norman sat up in bed in a sudden excess of rebellion and anguish. "Everyone is supposed to know that. But they don't. They-"
"Lower your voice," hissed Sarah icily. "They'll hear you downtown."
"They don't," said Norman, declining quickly to a whisper. "When they talk about the Ridgely administration of 1988, do they say he won them over with pie-in-the-sky promises and racist baloney? No! They talk about the 'goddam MacComber vote,' as though Humphrey MacComber was the only man who had anything to do with it because he faced Multivac. I've said it myself-only now I think the poor guy was just a truck farmer who didn't ask to be picked. Why was it his fault more than anyone else's? Now his name is a curse."
"You're just being childish," said Sarah.
"I'm being sensible. I tell you, Sarah, I won't accept. They can't make me vote if I don't want to. I'll say I'm sick. I'll say-"
But Sarah had had enough. "Now you listen to me," she whispered in a cold fury. "You don't have only yourself to think about. You know what it means to be Voter of the Year. A presidential year at that. It means publicity and fame and, maybe, buckets of money-"
"And then I go back to being a clerk."
"You will not. You'll have a branch managership at the least if you have any brains at all, and you will have, because I'll tell you what to do. You control the kind of publicity if you play your cards right, and you can force Kennell Stores, Inc., into a tight contract and an escalator clause in connection with your salary and a decent pension plan."
"That's not the point in being Voter, Sarah."
"That will be your point. If you don't owe anything to yourself or to me -I'm not asking for myself-you owe something to Linda."
"Well, don't you?" snapped Sarah.
"Yes, dear," murmured Norman.
On November 3, the official announcement was made and it was too late for Norman to back out even if he had been able to find the courage to make the attempt.
Their house was sealed off. Secret service agents made their appearance in the open, blocking off all approach.
At first the telephone rang incessantly, but Philip Handley with an engagingly apologetic smile took all calls. Eventually, the exchange shunted all calls directly to the police station.
Norman imagined that, in that way, he was spared not only the bubbling (and envious?) congratulations of friends, but also the egregious pressure of salesmen scenting a prospect and the designing smoothness of politicians from all over the nation... Perhaps even death threats from the inevitable cranks.
Newspapers were forbidden to enter the house now in order to keep out weighted pressures, and television was gently but firmly disconnected, over Linda's loud protests.
Matthew growled and stayed in his room; Linda, after the first flurry of excitement, sulked and whined because she could not leave the house; Sarah divided her time between preparation of meals for the present and plans for the future; and Norman's depression lived and fed upon itself.
And the morning of Tuesday, November 4, 2008, came at last, and it was Election Day.
It was early breakfast, but only Norman Muller ate, and that mechanically. Even a shower and shave had not succeeded in either restoring him to reality or removing his own conviction that he was as grimy without as he felt grimy within.
Handley's friendly voice did its best to shed some normality over the gray and unfriendly dawn. (The weather prediction had been for a cloudy day with prospects of rain before noon.)
Handley said, "We'll keep this house insulated till Mr. Muller is back, but after that we'll be off your necks." The secret service agent was in full uniform now, including sidearms in heavily brassed holsters.
"You've been no trouble at all, Mr. Handley," simpered Sarah.
Norman drank through two cups of black coffee, wiped his lips with a napkin, stood up and said haggardly, "I'm ready."
Handley stood up, too. "Very well, sir. And thank you, Mrs. Muller, for your very kind hospitality."
The armored car purred down empty streets. They were empty even for that hour of the morning.
Handley indicated that and said, "They always shift traffic away from the line of drive ever since the attempted bombing that nearly ruined the Leverett Election of 'ninety-two."
When the car stopped, Norman was helped out by the always polite Handley into an underground drive whose walls were lined with soldiers at attention.
He was led into a brightly lit room, in which three white-uniformed men greeted him smilingly.
Norman said sharply, "But this is the hospital."
"There's no significance to that," said Handley at once. "It's just that the hospital has the necessary facilities."
"Well, what do I do?"
Handley nodded. One of the three men in white advanced and said, "I'll take over now, agent."
Handley saluted in an offhand manner and left the room.
The man in white said, "Won't you sit down, Mr. Muller? I'm John Paulson, Senior Computer. These are Samson Levine and Peter Dorogobuzh, my assistants."
Norman shook hands numbly all about. Paulson was a man of middle height with a soft face that seemed used to smiling and a very obvious toupee. He wore plastic-rimmed glasses of an old-fashioned cut, and he lit a cigarette as he talked. (Norman refused his offer of one.)
Paulson said, "In the first place, Mr. Muller, I want you to know we are in no hurry. We want you to stay with us all day if necessary, just so that you get used to your surroundings and get over any thought you might have that there is anything unusual in this, anything clinical, if you know what I mean."
"It's all right," said Norman. "I'd just as soon this were over."
"I understand your feelings. Still, we want you to know exactly what's going on. In the first place, Multivac isn't here."
"It isn't?" Somehow through all his depression, he had still looked forward to seeing Multivac. They said it was half a mile long and three stories high, that fifty technicians walked the corridors within its structure continuously. It was one of the wonders of the world.
Paulson smiled. "No. It's not portable, you know. It's located underground, in fact, and very few people know exactly where. You can understand that, since it is our greatest natural resource. Believe me, elections aren't the only things it's used for."
Norman thought he was being deliberately chatty and found himself intrigued all the same. "I thought I'd see it. I'd like to."
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