[The following is a portion of A SONG CALLED YOUTH, Eclipse. It was first published in the 1980s by Warner books. Much of this section was also in a short story called The Incorporated that appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine. It occurred to me as I prepared it for a new edition that it could have inspired some of the movie ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. A little too close in spots. Whatever. Anyway, I do think that it's one of the most prescient things I wrote. The specific-area memory erasure has recently come true; the little flying spybird device has come true; the banking kiosks have come true. We don't have the cool holograms yet however. But I do think we're on the brink of having Technicki. Other aspects, political aspects, also seem prescient. The particular style of corporatism seems to be coming true...So--this works as a short story. But it's also part of the novel...I haven't had time to perfectly format the paragraphing...]
His name was James Kessler, and he was walking east on Fourteenth Street, looking for something. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for. He was walking through a misty November rain. The street was almost deserted. He was looking for something, something, the brutally colorless word something hung heavily in his mind like an empty frame.
What he thought he wanted was to get in, out of the weather. Walking in rain made him feel naked, somehow. And acid rain, he thought, could make you naked, if you wore the kind of syn-threads that reacted with the acids.
Up ahead the eternal neon butterfly of a Budweiser sign glowed sultry orange-red and blue; the same design since sometime in the twentieth century. He angled across the sidewalk, pitted concrete the color of dead skin, hurrying toward the sign, toward the haven of a bar. The rain was already beginning to sting. He closed his eyes against it, afraid it would burn his corneas.
He pushed through the smudge-bruised door into the bar. The bartender glanced up, nodded to himself, and reached under the counter for a towel; he passed the towel across to Kessler. The towel was treated with acid-absorbents; it helped immediately.
“Get any in your eyes?” the bartender asked with no real concern.
“No, I don’t think so.” He handed the towel back. “Thanks.” The tired-faced men drinking at the bar hardly glanced at Kessler. He was unremarkable: round-faced, with short black hair streaked blue-white to denote his work in video editing; large friendly brown eyes, soft red mouth pinched now with worry; a standard printout grey-blue suit.
The bartender said something else, but it didn’t register. Kessler was staring at the glowing green lozenge of a credit transferal kiosk in the back of the dim, old-fashioned bar. He crossed to it and stepped in; the door hissed shut behind him. The small TV screen on the front of the phone lit up, and its electronic letters asked him, “Do you want Call or Entry?”
What did he want? Why had he come to the kiosk? He wasn’t sure. But it felt right. A wave of reassurance had come over him…Ask it what your balance is, a soundless voice whispered to him. Again he felt a wave of reassurance. But he thought: Something’s out of place…
He knew his mind as a man knows his cluttered desk; he knows when someone has moved something on his desk–or in his mind. And someone had.
He punched ENTRY and it asked him his account number and entry pin. He punched the digits in, then told it he wanted to see his bank balance. It told him to wait. Numbers appeared on the screen.
He stared at it. He punched for error check and confirmation.
The bank’s computer insisted that he had 760,000 newbux in his bank account.
There should be only 4,000.
Something was missing from his memory; something had been added to his bank account.
They tampered with me, he thought, and then they paid me for it.
He requested the name of the depositor. The screen told him: Unrecorded.
Julie. Talk to Julie. There was just no one else he discussed his projects with till they were patented and on-line. No one. His wife had to know.
Julie. He could taste her name in his mouth. Her name tasted like bile.
Julie had been home only a few minutes, Kessler decided, as he closed the door behind him. Her coat was draped over the back of the couch, off-white on off-white. She liked things off-white or gray or powder blue, and that’s how the place was decorated. Kessler liked rich, earthy colors, but she considered them vulgar, so that was that.
She was bent down to the minifridge behind the breakfast bar. She stood up, a frosted bottle of Stolichnaya in her hand. “Hi, Jimmy.”
She almost never called him Jimmy.
Julie came out with a vodka straight-up and a twist of lime for each of them. He’d learned to like vodka. She padded across the powder-blue rug in bare feet, small feet sexy in sheer hose; she was tall and slender and long-necked. Her hair was the yellow of split pine, cut short as a small boy’s, and parted on the side. She was English and looked it; her eyes were immaculate blue crystals. She wore her silk-lined, coarse-fiber, off-white dress suit. She looked more natural in her suits than in anything else. She had “casuals’ to wear at home, but somehow she never wore them. Maybe because that would be a concession to home life, would almost be a betrayal of the corporation family she belonged to. Like having children. What was it she said about having children? If you don’t mind, I’ll continue to resist the programming of my biological computer. When DNA talks, I don’t listen. I don’t like being pushed into something by a molecule. He took off his coat, hung it up, and sat down beside her on the couch. The vodka, chilled with no ice, waited for him on the glass coffee table. He took a drink and said, “There’s seven hundred and sixty thousand newbux in my bank account.” He looked at her. “What did they take?”
Her eyes went a little glassy. “Seven hundred and sixty thousand? Computer error.”
“You know it’s not.” He took another sip. The Stoly’s was syrupy thick from being kept in the freezer. “What did you tell Worldtalk?”
“Are you accusing me of something?” She said it with her icy Vassar incredulousness then, like, I can’t believe anyone could be so painfully unsophisticated.
“I’m accusing Worldtalk. And…you’re theirs. They do as they like with you, Julie. If Worldtalk says it’s not team-playing to have kids, you don’t have kids. If Worldtalk says listen for anything that might be useful, you listen. Even at home. You know, you wouldn’t have had to quit your job—I can understand you wanting to have a career. We could have had the kid with a surrogate or an artificial womb. Gotten a nanny. They don’t want employees, at Worldtalk, they want to own you…’
“It’s childish to go over and over this. Worldtalk has nothing to do with my decision not to have children. I worked eight years—”
“I know it by rote: you worked night years to be assistant Second Vice Prez in the country’s biggest PR and advertising outfit. You tell me having children is demeaning! Eight years licking Grimwald’s boots—that’s demeaning! Going to Worldtalk’s Family Sessions for hours at a time–”
She stood up, arms rigid at her sides. “Well, why not! Corporation families last.”
“A “corporate family’ isn’t a real family. They’re using you. Look what they got you to do! To me!”
“You got some seven hundred thousand newbux. That’s more than you would ever have made on any of your harebrained schemes. If you worked for one of the big companies you’d be making decent money in the first place. You insist on being freelance, so you’re left out in the cold, and you should be grateful for what they—” She snipped the sentence in two with a brisk sibilance and turned away.
“So we’ve dropped the pretenses now. You’re saying I should be grateful for the money Worldtalk gave me. Julie—what did they take from my memory?”
“I don’t know! You didn’t tell me what you were working on and–anyway I don’t believe they took anything. I—goddamnit.” She went to the bathroom to pointedly take her Restem, making a lot of noise opening the prescription bottle so he’d hear and know it was his fault she had to take a tranquilizer.
Kessler was in a bar with his attorney, Bascomb. Herman Bascomb was drunk, and drugged. The disorder of his mind seemed splashed onto the room around him: the dancers, the lights, the holograms that made it look, in the smoky dimness, as if someone was there dancing beside you who wasn’t. A touristy couple on the dance floor stopped and stared at another couple: horned, half-human, half-reptile, she with her tongue darting from between rouged lips; he with baroque fillips of fire flicking from his flattened nostrils. The touristy couple laughed off their embarrassment when the DJ turned off the holo and the demon couple vanished.
Bascomb chuckled and sucked some of his cocaine fizz through a straw that lit up with miniature advertisements when it was used, lettering flickering luminous green up and down its length. Bascomb was young, tanned, and preppie; he wore an iridescent Japanese Action Suit.
Sitting beside him, Kessler squirmed on his barstool and ordered another scotch. He was’t comfortable with Bascomb like this. Kessler was used to seeing Bascomb in his office, a neat component of Featherstone, Pestlestein, and Bascomb, Attorneys at Law, friendly but not too friendly, intense but controlled.
My own fault, Kessler told himself; chase the guy down when he’s off work, hassle his wife till she tells me where he hangs out, find out things I don’t want to know. Like the fact that he’s bisexual and flirting with the waiter.
The bar was circular, rotating slowly through the club, leaving the dance floor behind now to arrive at the cruising rooms. As they talked it turned slowly past flesh-pink holographic porn squirmings and edged into the soft music lounge. Each room had its own idiosyncratic darkness, shot through with the abstracted glamour of the candy-apple-red and hot-pink and electric-blue neon running up the corners to zigzag the ceiling like a time-lapse photo of nighttime traffic. The kitschy design was another annoyance for Kessler.
Bascomb turned on his stool to look at the porn and the live copulation; his mouth was open in a lax smile. Kessler looked over his shoulder. Again in the dimness the holos were nearly indistinguishable from the real article; a drunken swinger tried to fondle a woman with four breasts, only to walk through her, discovering her unreal. “Do we have to talk here?” Kessler asked, turning back to the bar.
Bascomb ignored the question and returned to an earlier one. “The bottom line, Jim, is that you are a nobody. Now, if you were, say a Nobel-Prize-winning professor at Stanford, we might be able to get you your day in court, we might get a grand jury to investigate the people at Worldtalk…” Bascomb was talking without looking away from the intermingling porn and people. “But as it is you’re a mildly successful video editor who makes a hobby of working up a lot of rather ingenuous media theories. Every day some crank or someone looking for attention announces a Great Idea has been stolen from their brains, and ninety-nine percent of the time they turn out to be paranoids or liars or both. I’m not saying you’re a paranoid or a liar. I believe you. I’m just saying I’m probably the only one who will.”
“But I have the seven hundred sixty thousand NB…that shouldn’t be there. That out to be proof of something.”
“Did you request the name of the depositor?”
“Then how are you going to prove a connection?”
“I don’t know. But I know an idea was stolen from me. I want it back, Bascomb. And I can’t work it up again on my own from scratch—they took all my notes, files, recent research, everything that could lead me back to it.”
“Sucks.” Bascomb said sympathetically. They had rotated into the lounge; people on couches watched videos and conversed softly. Sometimes they were talking to holos; you knew when you were talking to a holo because they said outrageous things. They were programmed that way to ease the choking boredom of lounge-bar conversation. “I want it back, Bascomb.” Kessler repeated, his knuckles white on the rim of the bar.
Bascomb shrugged and said, “You haven’t been in this country long; maybe you don’t know how it works. First off, you have to understand that…” He paused to sip from his cocaine fizz; he became more animated almost instantly, chattering on: “You have to understand that you can’t get it back the way it was taken. Whoever it was probably came in while you were asleep. Which adds credence to your theory that Julie was involved. She waits up or pretends to sleep, lets them in, they gas you to keep you out, shoot you up with the receptivity drug. They’ve got microsurgicals in the big box they’ve brought with them, right? They look at the screen they’ve set up that translates your impulses into a code they can understand. They get some dream free-association maybe. But that tells them they’re “on-line’ in your brain. Then they put a request to the brain, fed into it in the form of neurohormonal transmitter molecules they manufacture in their box—”
“How do you know so much about this?” Kessler asked, unable to keep the edge of suspicion out of his voice.
“We get a case like yours once or twice a year. I did a lot of research on it. The ACLU has a small library on the subject. It really gets their goat. We didn’t win those cases, by the way; they’re tough to prove…” He paused to sip his fizz, his eyes sparkling and dilated. Kessler was annoyed by Bascomb’s treating his case like a conversation piece.
“Let’s get back to what happened to me.”
“Okay, uh—so they made a request to the biological computer we call a brain, right? They asked it what it knew about whatever it was they wanted to take from you, and your brain automatically begins to think about it and sends signals to the cortex of the temporal lobes or to the hippocampus; they “ride’ the electrochemical signals back to the place where the information is stored. They use tracer molecules that attach themselves to the chemical signals. When they reach the hippocampus or the temporal lobes, the tracer molecules act as enzymes to command the brain to simply unravel that particular chemical code. They break it down on the molecular level. They extract some things connected to it, and the chain of ideas that led to it, but they don’t take so much they make you an idiot because they probably want your wife to cooperate and to stay with Worldtalk. You might not be close but she’s doesn’t need the guilt. Anyway, the brain chemistry is such that you can ask the brain a question with neurohumoral transmitter molecules, but you can’t imprint on the memory, in an orderly way. You can feed in experiences, things which seem to be happening now—you can even implant them ready-made so they crop up at a given stimulus—but you can’t feed in ready-made memories. Probably that’s “cause memories are holographic, involving complexes of cell groups, Like you can pull a thread to unravel a coat fairly easily but you can’t ravel it back up so easily…Look at that exquisite creature over there, she’s lovely, isn’t she? Like to do some imprinting on her. I wonder if she’s real. Uh, anyway…You can’t put it back in. They take out, selectively, any memory of anything that might make you suspect they tampered with you, but lots of people begin to suspect anyway, because when they free associate over familiar pathways of the brain and then come to a gap—well, it’s jarring. But they can’t prove anything.”
“Okay, so maybe it can’t be put back by direct feed-in to the memory. But it could be relearned through ordinary induction. Reading.”
“Yeah. I guess it would be better than nothing. But you still have to find out who took it. Even if it turns up as someone else’s project—proves nothing. They could have come up with it the same way you did. And you should ask yourself this: Why did they take it? Was it simply for profit or was it for another reason? The bigger corporations have a network of agents. Their sole job is to search out people with development ideas that could be dangerous to the status quo. They try to extract the ideas from the guy’s before they are copyrighted or patented or published in papers or discussed in public. They take the idea from you, maybe plant some mental inhibitors to keep you from working your way back to it again. If you came up with an idea that was really dangerous to the status quo, Jimmy, they might go farther than a simple erasing next time. Because they play hardball. If you keep pushing to get it back, they just might arrange for you to turn up dead. Accidents happen.”
But riding the elevator up to his apartment, trying to come to terms with it, Kessler realized it wasn’t death that scared him. What chilled him was thinking about his wife.
Julie had waited till he’d slept. Had, perhaps, watched the clock on the bedside table. Had gotten out of bed at the appointed hour and padded to the door and ever-so-quietly opened it for the man carrying the black box…
And she had done it simply because Worldtalk had asked her to. Worldtalk was her husband, her children, her parents. Perhaps most of all her dreadful parents.
And maybe in the long run what had happened to him, Kessler thought–as the elevator reached his floor–was that the Dissolve Depression had done its work on him. For decades the social structures that created nuclear families, that kept families whole and together, had eroded, had finally broken down completely. Broken homes made broken homes made broken homes. The big corporations, meanwhile, consumed the little ones, and, becoming then unmanageably big, looked for ways to stabilize themselves. They chose the proven success of the Japanese system: the corporation as an extension of the family. You inculcate your workers with a fanatic sense of loyalty and belonging. You personalize everything. And they go along with that–or lose their jobs. So maybe it started with the Dissolve Depression. Jobs were more precious than ever. Jobs were life. So you embraced the new corporation as home and family system. The breakdown of the traditional family structures reinforced the process. And you put your employer above your true family. You let its agents in to destroy your husband’s new career…
And here we are, he thought, as he walked into the apartment.
There she is, making us both a drink, so we can once more become cordial strangers sharing a convenient apartment and a convenient sex life.
“Aren’t you coming to bed?” she called from the bedroom.
He sat on the couch, holding his glass up beside his ear, shaking it just enough so he could listen to the tinkle of the ice cubes. The sound made him feel good and he wondered why. It made him visualize wind chimes of frosted glass…his mother’s wind chimes. His mother standing on the front porch, smiling absently, watching him play, and now and then she would reach up and tinkle the wind chimes with her finger…He swallowed another tot of vodka to smear over the chalky scratch of loneliness.
“You really ought to get some sleep, Jimmy.” There was just a faint note of strain in her voice.
He was scared to go in there.
This is stupid, he thought. I don’t know for sure it was her. She hadn’t exactly admitted it. “That was just a hypothetical,” she’d said later.
He forced himself to put the glass down, to stand, to walk to the bedroom, to do it all as if he weren’t forcing himself through the membranes of his mistrust.
He stood in the doorway and looked at her for a moment. She was wearing her silk lingerie. She was lying with her back to him. He could see her face reflected in the window across from her. Her eyes were open wide. In them he saw determination and self-disgust, and then he knew she had contacted them, told them that he knew. And the strangers were going to do it to him again. They would come and take out more this time–his conversation with her about the money, his talk with Bascomb, his misgivings. They would take away the hush money they had paid him since he had shown he was unwilling to accept it without pushing to get back what he had lost…
Go along with it, he told himself.
That would be the intelligent solution. Let them do it. Sweet nepenthe. The pain and the fear and the anger would go with the memories. And he would have his relationship with his wife back. Such as it was.
He thought about it for a moment. She turned to look at him.
“No.” he said finally. “No, we don’t have enough between us to make it worthwhile. No. Tell them I said next they’ll have to try and kill me.”
She stared at him. Then she lay back and looked at the ceiling.
He closed the bedroom door softly behind him and went to the closet for his coat.
They hadn’t taken the money yet. It was still there in his account. He had gone to an all-night credit kiosk, sealed himself in, and now he looked at the figure, $NB 760,000, and felt a kind of glow. He punched for the telephone and called Charlie Chesterton.
The screen asked him, “You want visual?”
“No.” he told it, “not yet.”
“Sap?” came Charlie’s voice. “Huzatun wushant”
Wake Charlie out of a sound sleep, and he’d talk technicki. What’s happenin’? Who’s that and what do you want?
“Talk standard with me, Charlie. It’s—”
“Hey, my neggo! Kessler, what’s happening, man! Hey, how come no visual?”
“I didn’t know what you were doing. I’m ever discreet.” He punched for visual and a small TV image of Charlie appeared below the phone’s keyboard. Charlie wore a triple-Mohawk, each fin a different color, each color significant; red in the middle for Technicki Radical Unionist; blue on the right for his profession, video tech; green on the left of his neighborhood, New Brooklyn–an artificial island. He grinned, showing front teeth imprinted with his initials in gold, another tacky technicki fad. And Charlie wore a picture T-shirt that showed a movie: Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, now moving through the flood scene.
“You went to sleep wearing your movie T-shirt, you oughta turn it off, wear out the batteries.”
“Recharges from sunlight.” Charlie said. “You call me to talk about my sleeping habits?”
“Need your help. Right now, I need the contact numbers for the Shanghai bank that takes transferals under anonymity…”
“I told you, man, that’s like, the border of legality, and maybe over it. You understand that first, right?”
“Okay, neggo. Fuck it. Set your screen to record…But for the record this is on you, I ain’t doing any such transferral…”
Bascomb’s office was too warm; Bascomb had a problem with his circulation. The walls were a milky yellow that seemed to quicken the heat somehow. Bascomb sat behind the blond-wood desk, wearing a stenciled-on three-piece suit, smiling a smile of polite bafflement. Kessler sat across from him, feeling he was on some kind of treadmill, because Bascomb just kept saying, “I really am quite sure no such meeting took place between you and me, Kessler.” He chuckled. “I know the club very well, and I’m sure I’d remember if I’d been there that night. Haven’t been there for a month.”
“You weren’t enthusiastic about it, but you told me you’d take the case.” But the words were ashes in Kessler’s mouth. He knew what had happened, because there was not even the faintest trace of duplicity or nervousness on Bascomb’s face. Bascomb really didn’t remember. “So you won’t represent me on this?” Kessler went on.
“We really have no experience with brain tampering—”
“That’s funny, your saying that. Considering you obviously just had first hand experience, pal.”
Naturally, Bascomb gave him that oh-no-don’t-tell-me-you’re-into-that-conspiracy-shit look.
Kessler went on: “And I could get the files that prove you have dealt with the issue in court. But they’d only…” He shook his head. Despair was something he could smell and taste and feel, like acid rain. “They’d tamper with you again. Just to make their point.”
He walked out of the office, hurrying, thinking, They’ll have the place under surveillance. But no one stopped him outside.
Charlie was off on one of his amateur analyses, and there was nothing Kessler could do, he had to listen, because Charlie was covering for him.
“…I mean,” Charlie was saying, “now your average technicki speaks Standard English like an infant, am I right, and can’t read except command codes, and learned it all from vidteaching, and he’s trained to do this and that and to fix this and that, but he’s like, socially inhibited from rising in the ranks because the economic elite speaks standard real good and reads standard alphabet—”
“If they really want to, they can learn what they need to, like you did.” Kessler said irritably. He was standing at the window, looking out at the empty, glossy ceramic streets. The artificial island was a boro-annex of Brooklyn anchored in the harbor. It looked almost deserted at this hour. Everyone had either gone into the city, or home to TV, or to a tavern. The floating boros were notoriously dull. The compact flo-boro housing, squat and rounded off at the corners like a row of molars, stood in silence, a few windows glowing like computer monitors against the night.
But they could be watching me, Kessler thought. A hundred ways they could be watching me and I’d see nothing.
He turned, stepped away from the window. Charlie was pacing, arms clasped behind him, head bent, playing the part of the young, boldly theorizing radical. “I mean, I’ve got some contacts on the space Colony, up on FirStep, and they’re getting into some radical shit there—and what is FirStep, man, it’s a microcosm of society’s class issues…”
The apartment was crowded with irregular shelves of books and boxes of software and cassettes and compact disks; Charlie had hung a forest of silk scarves in the Three Colors, obscuring the details like multicolor smoke. “And in Europe—that shit’s getting serious—”
“Yeah, wars are serious, Charlie.”
“I don’t mean the fucking war, neggo. I mean the side effect. Chegdou, you know what’s happening in Europe, man? The SA is taking over! And it’s all being manufactured over here. Fascism, a fait accompli.”
Kessler groaned. “Fascism! Don’t give me that leftist catch-all cliché. It’s bullshit.”
“How can you say that after what’s happened to you?”
“What’s happened to me is business as usual. It’s not really political.”
“Business as usual is the very definition of politics in a world where corporate identity is more global every second. And anyway—you didn’t used to be so negative about this shit. Maybe they cut some of your political ideas, neggo. I mean: How do you know? You don’t remember—” He grinned. “Remember?”
Kessler shrugged. He felt like throwing in the towel, giving Worldtalk the fight. Maybe Julie was right.
“If you’d just talk to this guy I want you to talk to, man.”
“I don’t need any lectures from any more knee-jerk leftist theorists who’d probably give their right eye to be the rich and corrupt men they whine about.”
“You’re doing a devil’s-advocate thing now, Jimmy. You trying to talk yourself into giving up?”
Charlie looked at him, then went back to pacing, talking, pacing. “This guy I want you to meet—he’s not like that. He’s only in town a week. He’s not an armchair theorist. He’s not really a…what…I don’t think he’s a leftist exactly. I mean, he came here to get some financial support for the European resistance, and he had to run the blockade to do it, almost got his ass blown out of the water. His name’s Steinfeld, or that’s what he goes by, he used to be—what’s the matter?”
A warning chill; and Kessler had turned, abruptly looked out the window. Three stories down she was a powder-blue keyhole-shape against the faint petroleum filminess of the street. She paused, looking at the numbers.
She might have guessed where he was, he told himself. She had met Charlie; heard him talk about Charlie. She might have looked Charlie’s address up in the ref disk. She went to the front door. The apartment’s bell chimed and he went to the screen. “It’s your wife.” he said. “You want me to tell her you went overseas? Japan?”
“Let her in.”
“Are you kidding, man? You are, right? She was the one who—”
“Just let her in.” There was a poisoned cocktail of emotions fizzing in him: a relief at seeing her, shaken in with something that buzzed like a smoke alarm, and it wasn’t till she was at the door that he realized the sensation was terror. And then she was standing in the doorway, against the light of the hallway. She looked beautiful. The light behind her abruptly cut—sensing that no one was now in the hall—and suddenly she stood framed in darkness. The buzzing fizzed up and overwhelmed the relief. His mouth was dry.
Looking disgustedly at Kessler, Charlie shut the door.
Kessler stared at her. Her eyes flickered, her mouth opened, and shut, and she shook her head. She looked drained.
And Kessler knew.
“They sent you. They told you where to find me,” he said.
“They—want the money back.” she said. “They want you to come with me.”
He shook his head. “I put the money where they can’t get it—only because it’s part of my proof. Don’t you get sick of being puppeted?”
She looked out the window. Her face was blank. “You don’t understand.”
“Do you know why they do it, why they train you with that Americanized Japanese job-conditioning? To save themselves money. For one thing, it eliminates unions. You don’t insist on much in the way of benefits. Stuff like that.”
“They have their reasons, sure. Mostly efficiency.”
“What’s the slogan? Efficiency is friendship.”
She looked embarrassed. “That’s not—” She shrugged. “A corporate family is just as valid as any other. It’s something you couldn’t understand. I—I’ll lose my job, Jimmy. If you don’t come.” She said lose my job the way Kessler would have said lose my life.
Kessler said, “I’ll think about going with you if you tell me what it was…what it was they took.”
“They—took it from me, too.”
“I don’t believe that. I never believed it. I think they left it intact in you, so you could watch to see if I stumbled on it again. I think you really loved them trusting you. Worldtalk is Mommy and Daddy, and Mommy and Daddy trusted you…”
Her mouth twisted with resentment. “You prick.” She shook her head. “I can’t tell you…”
“Yeah, you can. You have to. Otherwise Charlie and me are going out the back way and we’re going to cause endless trouble for Worldtalk. And I know you, Julie. I’d know if you were making it up. So tell me what it was–what it really was.”
She sighed. “I only know what you told me. You pointed out that PR companies manipulate the media for their clients without the public knowing it most of the time. They use their connections and channels to plant information or disinformation in news-sheet articles, on newsvid, in movies, in political speeches. So…” She paused and took a shaky breath, then went on wearily. “So they’re manipulating people, and the public gets a distorted view of what’s going on because of the special interests. You worked up a computer video-editing system that sensed probable examples of, uh, I think the phrases you used were, like, “implanted information’ or “special-interest distortions.” So they could be weeded out. You called it the Media Alarm System.” She let out a long breath. “I didn’t know they’d go so far—I thought they’d buy out your system. In a way they did. I had to mention it at Worldtalk. If I didn’t I would’ve been…disloyal.” She said disloyal wincing, knowing what he would think.
But it was Charlie who said it: “What about loyalty to Jim Kessler?”
Her hand fluttered a dismissal. “It doesn’t matter at this point whether it was wrong or right. It’s too late. They know…Jimmy, are you coming with me?”
Kessler was thinking about the Media Alarm System. It didn’t sound familiar—but it sounded right. He said, slowly, “No. You can help me. If you testify, we can beat them.”
“Jimmy, if I thought they—No, no. I—” She broke off, staring at his waist. “Don’t be stupid. That’s not—” She took a step back and put her hand in her purse.
Kessler and Charlie looked at each other, traded puzzlement. When Kessler looked back at Julie, she had a gun in her hand. It was a small blue-metal pistol, its barrel tiny as a pencil, and that tiny barrel meant it fired explosive bullets. They had given it to her.
“Do you know what that gun will do, girl?” Charlie was saying. “Those little explosive bullets will splash him all over the wall.” His voice shook. He took a step toward her.
She pressed back against the door and said, “Charlie, if you come any closer to me, I’ll shoot him.” Charlie stopped. The room seemed to keen ultrasonically with imminence. She went on, the words coming out in a rush: “Why don’t you ask him what that thing in his hand would do to me, Charlie. Shall we? Ask him that. Jimmy has the same kind of gun. With the same goddamn bullets.” Her voice was too high; she was breathing fast, her knuckles white on the gun.
Kessler looked down at himself. His arms were hanging at his sides, his hands empty.
“Lower the gun, Julie, and we can talk.” Charlie said gently.
“I’ll lower mine when he lowers his,” she said hoarsely.
“He isn’t holding a gun.” Charlie said, blinking.
She was staring at a space about three feet in front of Kessler’s chest. She was seeing the gun there. He wanted to say, Julie, they tampered with you. He could only croak, “Julie…”
She shouted, “Don’t!” and raised the gun. And then everything was moving: Kessler threw himself down. Charlie jumped at her, and the wall behind Kessler jumped outward toward the street.
Two hot metal hands clapped Kessler’s head between them, and he shouted with pain and thought he was dead. But it was only a noise, the noise of the wall exploding outward. Chips of wall pattered down; smoke sucked out through the four-foot hole in the wall into the winter night.
Kessler got up, shaky, his ears ringing. He looked around and saw Charlie straddling Julie. He had the gun in his hand and she was face-down, sobbing.
“Gogido,” Charlie said, lapsing into technicki, his face white.
“Get off her.” Kessler said. Charlie moved off her, stood up beside her. “Julie, look at me.” Kessler said softly. She tilted her head back, an expression of dignified defiance trembling precariously on her face. Then her eyes widened, and she looked at his hips. She was seeing him holding a gun there. “I don’t have a gun, Julie. They put that into you. Now I’m going to get a gun…Give me the gun, Charlie;” Without taking his eyes off her, he put his hand out. Charlie hesitated, then laid the gun in Kessler’s open palm. She blinked, then narrowed her eyes.
“So now you’ve got two guns.” She shrugged.
He shook his head. “Get up.” Mechanically, she stood up. “Now go over there to Charlie’s bed. He’s got black bed sheets. You see them? Take one off. Just pull it off and bring it over here.” She started to say something, anger lines punctuating her mouth, and he said quickly, “Don’t talk yet. Do it!”She went to the bed, pulled the black satin sheet off, jerking it petulantly, and dragged it over to him. Charlie gaped and muttered about cops, but Kessler had a kind of furious calm on him then, and he knew what he was going to do; and if it didn’t work, then he’d let the acid rain bleach his bones white as a warning to other travelers come to this poisoned well
–this woman. He said, “Now tear up the bedsheet—sorry, man, I’ll replace it—and make a blindfold. Good. Right. Now tie it over my eyes. Use the tape on the table to make the blindfold light-proof.”
Moving in slow motion, she blindfolded him. Darkness whispered down around him: She taped it thoroughly in place. “Now am I still pointing two guns at you?”
“Yes.” But there was uncertainty in her voice.
“Now take a step to one side. No, take several steps, very softly, move around a lot.” The soft sounds of her movement. Her gasp. “Is the gun following you around the room?”
“Yes. Yes. One of them.”
“But how is that possible? I can’t see you! And why is only the one gun moving—the one you saw first? And why did I let you blindfold me if I’m ready and willing to shoot you?”
“You look weird like that,” Charlie said. “Ridiculous and scary.”
“Shut up, Charlie, will you? Answer me, Julie! I can’t see you! How can I follow you with two guns?”
“I don’t know!”
“Take the guns from my hands! Shoot me! Do it!” She made a short hissing sound and took the gun from his hand, and he braced to die. But she pulled the blindfold from him and looked at him.
Looked into his eyes.
She let the gun drop to the floor. Kessler said, softly, “You see now? They did it to you. You, one of the ‘family’. The corporate ‘family’ means just exactly nothing to them.”
She looked at his hands. “No gun.” Dreamily. “Gun’s gone. Everything’s different.”
Siren warblings. Coming closer.
She sank to her knees. “Just exactly nothing to them,” she said. “Just exactly nothing.” Her face crumpled. She looked as if she’d fallen into herself; as if some inner scaffolding had been kicked out of place.
Sirens and lights whirled together outside. A chrome fluttering in the smoky gap where the wall had been blown outward: a police surveillance bird. It looked like a bird, hovering in place with its oversized aluminum hummingbird’s wings; but instead of a head it had a small camera lens. A transmitted voice droned from the grid on its silvery belly: “This is the police. You are now being observed and taped. Do not attempt to leave. The front door has been breached. Police officers will arrive in seconds to take your statements. Repeat—”
“Oh, I heard you,” Julie said in a hollow voice. “I’ll make a statement all right. I’ve got a lot to tell you. Oh, yeah.” She laughed sadly. “I’ll make a statement.”
Kessler bent down and touched her arm. “Hey…I…”
She drew back from him. “Don’t touch me. Just don’t! You love to be right! I’m going to tell them what you want me to. Just don’t touch me.”
But he stayed with her. He and Charlie stood looking at the blue smoke drifting out of the ragged hole in the wall, at the mechanical, camera-eyed bird looking back at them.
He stayed with her, as he always would, and they listened for the footsteps outside the door.
“Why should we leave when we don’t know who it was who bailed us out?” Julie asked.
She sat hunched over, hollow-eyed. She seemed to be holding on, in some way.
Kessler nodded “It could be Worldtalk’s people, Charlie.”
Charlie shook his head. “I saw the guy in the outer office. He’s one of ours.”
“Yours, Charlie.” Kessler said. “Not mine.”
They were in Detective Bixby’s office, sitting wearily in the plastic chairs across from Bixby’s gray metal desk. The overhead light buzzed, maybe holding a conversation with the console screen on the right of the desk, which hummed faintly to itself. The screen was turned to face away from them. On the walls, shelves were piled high with software, cassettes, sheaves of printouts, photos. The walls were the grimed, dull green such places usually are. Bixby had left them to confer with the detectives in the new Cerebro-kidnapping Department–the department that handled illegal extractions. The door was locked, and they were alone.
“At least here we’re protected.” Julie said, digging her nails into her palms.
Charlie shook his head again. “I called Seventeen, he said Worldtalk could still get at us in here.”
“Who the hell is Seventeen?” Kessler snapped. He was tired and irritable.
“My NR contact—”
He broke off, staring at the desk. The console was rotating on a turntable built into the desk top, its screen turning to face them. Bixby’s round, florid face nearly filled the screen.
“’S’okay.” Bixby said. “CK’s taking your case. Your video statements are filed, and your bail is paid. That’ll be refunded soon as we get the owner of the building to drop the charges on the blown-out wall. Should be no problem. If you want protective custody—maybe not a bad idea—talk to the desk sergeant. Door’s unlocked.” As he said it they heard a click, and the door swung inward a few inches. They were free to go. “Good luck.” Bixby said. His face vanished from the screen.
“Come on.” Charlie said. “Let’s do this fast before the fucking door changes its mind.”