THE MIND GAME
Weller walked slowly and reluctantly down the stairs from Golden's floor; even the inside of this ominous and reeking building seemed a reality preferable to what he was returning to. Maybe Golden is right, he thought. Maybe I should just get into my car and keep driving. Maybe I really can't fight Transformationalism or get into the Institute. Maybe this waiting is the final mind game, one that will go on and on until they reduce me to a basket case like him. Maybe if I get out of their reality, they'll stay out of mine, and maybe that's the best thing I can hope for....
He reached the ground-floor landing, opened the inner door to the vestibule, and stepped inside. He was about to open the outer door when a big man dressed in black suddenly stepped out of the shadows outside to block him.
He whirled and saw that another man in black had materialized inside the building behind him, blocking the inner door as well. He was caught like a rat in a trap.
The man outside the building stepped into the vestibule. He was blond, with thin, angular features and burning blue eyes. He didn't look like any crazed junkie mugger. "Mr. Weller," he said, with grim Los Angeles cop politeness, "you are to come with us." But this was no cop either.
The man inside the building came up beside him. "Relax, Weller," he said in a rough voice tinged with irony. "This isn't a stick up. We're Monitors." This bimbo was dark and swarthy and looked like an ex-boxer gone slightly to fat.
Before Weller could react at all, each of them took him gently by an elbow, and they propelled him numbly outside where a third Monitor was waiting, this one in his forties with a steel-gray crew cut.
"No trouble?" asked the crew cut.
"No trouble, Irv," said the swarthy one. "You're not going to give us any trouble, are you, Weller?"
It had all been done so quickly and smoothly that Weller was only now beginning to experience his own reactions -- fear, anger, but also a numbed acceptance of the fait accompli. "What the fuck is this?" he snarled without very much conviction.
"You know what it is, Weller," Irv said. "Fred Torrez wants to have a little talk with you. You have not been behaving in a very highly evolved manner."
"Relax, Weller," said the swarthy one. "We're not going to drop you in the Pacific. Our directive is to deliver you to Torrez, healthy, and more or less in one piece."
"And if I don't want to see Torrez?"
"Then," said the blond, "we're authorized to coldcock you and drag you there."
"Let's move it along," said Irv, who seemed to be the leader. He stepped in front of Weller and began walking rapidly as the other two, still holding Weller by the elbows, brought him along.
Weller found himself moving with them in a state of almost relaxed resignation. The only other alternative was to get himself a beating, and in a weird way be found that surrendering his will to the inevitable produced a certain release of tension, an incongruously calm floating feeling. Part of him still felt that it was unmanly not to resist, but there was no energy behind it except a certain bloodless guilt at going along so meekly.
They took him around the corner to a big, black, late-model Buick. Irv got in behind the wheel and the other two shoved him into the backseat between them. Inanely Weller remembered that his Triumph was parked in a zone that would get him a ticket or even a tow away tomorrow morning.
"What about my car?" he said. "It's in a morning no-parking zone." It sounded asinine under the circumstances, but it also intruded a homey note of mundane reality into this dreamlike situation which was oddly comforting.
"Give me the keys, and we'll send a man around for it later," the blond said. He laughed. "We wouldn't want you to get towed."
Numbly Weller handed over the keys. He even found himself muttering, "Thanks," as if it were the most natural thing in the world. His mind simply couldn't connect with what was happening; it was all like some dumb gangster movie. He wondered if this were what a prisoner felt like on his way to the electric chair; was that why they never seemed to struggle?
"Uh, my car is --"
"We know where it is," Irv said, "You've been closely monitored for a long time. Did you think you could see a regressive like Golden without us knowing about it?"
Weller sighed. He wondered if on some level he hadn't known this was going to happen, if some part of him hadn't deliberately provoked it. Certainly he was reacting strangely enough, as if this were a fate he had long since accepted.
Irv started the car and eased it out of its parking space. "Oh yeah," he said, "don't forget the mask."
The blond Monitor reached behind him and snatched a white cloth bag off the rear window shelf. "Put it on, Mr. Weller," he said, handing him the bag.
This was finally just a bit too much for Weller's sense of reality; this was B-movieland. "You're not serious," he said.
"Put the fucking thing on!" the swarthy Monitor snarled. You're going to Monitor Central, and no one gets to know where that is but us."
"Up yours, Charlie!" Weller said angrily, "Enough is enough!"
Instantly the blond Monitor clamped his forearm under Weller's chin and began choking off his air. The other Monitor cocked his fist inches from Weller's jaw. "You can wear the mask, or I can knock you into the middle of next week," he said. "Your choice."
"Put it on," said the blond, and he tightened his pressure against Weller's windpipe. Choking, and really scared by now, Weller numbly pulled the mask on over his head.
Immediately the pressure on his throat was released. "That's better," a rough voice said. "You'll be much better off if you get it through your head that we mean business and do what you're told."
Trapped in the blind white universe of the mask, Weller found himself sinking back into a floating resigned state of consciousness, lulled by the continuing silence, the swaying and rolling motion of the car, the sense of total discontinuity with the outside world.
How far or where they had driven, Weller found impossible to guess. At times, the car seemed to be climbing -- up into the Hollywood Hills? At other times he seemed to hear the sounds of the ocean -- along the beach? They had been driving maybe twenty or thirty minutes when the car stopped, the engine was turned off, and a voice said: "All right Weller we get out here."
Hands guided him by the elbows along what felt like a gravel path, up a short flight of stairs, through a door, down a hall, up more stairs. down another hall, and through yet another door. Then a brisk deep voice said. "Sit him down, take off the mask, and leave us alone."
Hands pushed him down into a chair and then removed the mask.
Weller found himself blinking in another world of white. As his eyes adjusted, he saw that he was sitting in a tiny room whose walls, ceiling and even floor were painted a shiny, pure white. A harsh overhead fixture bounced right off all the gleaming white surfaces, cruelly punishing his eyes. In front of him was a white Formica desk. Even the intercom and the folder on the desk were white.
Behind the desk, the only visual relief from the white glare was Fred Torrez. His black hair, black suit, black turtleneck, and hard black eyes seemed cleverly chosen to force him into the center of visual attention.
"The truth, Weller." Torrez snapped in a rough yet somehow cultivated voice. "Now. What were you doing consorting with an extreme regressive like Richard Golden?"
Torrez's dark eyes, cunningly amplified by the glaring white stage set, bored into him like lasers of pure void. Understanding the trick was little help, Torrez had knocked him completely off-balance, and Weller had no idea of how to respond, none at all.
"Uh, well, you know about my idea to do some new commercials --"
"Please spare me the insult of low-level evasions," Torrez said Silkily, favoring Weller with the smile of a very intelligent shark. "Assume that I understand you better than you do yourself, and we'll get along." He patted the folder on the desk. "You're all in here for one who has the eyes to read it. We know you think you're our dangerous enemy. You've been congratulating yourself on fooling us into partially accepting your phony conversion with a few stupid acting tricks and the help of Garry Bailor."
"You know about Bailor?
Torrez waved a finger at him like an approving schoolteacher. "We begin to get the picture, eh?" he said. "I told you, didn't I? Assume the Monitors know everything. Assume we know about Maria Steinhardt. Assume we know why. Assume we know why you want so badly to get to the Institute. Assume we're smarter than you are, and we'll both save ourselves a lot of tedium."
"Is Bailor --?
"A Monitor? Dead? Programmed? I'm sure you'd like to know," Torrez said sweetly. His face abruptly hardened and his voice dropped an octave. "But I'm here to ask questions, Weller, not to answer them!" he snarled. "Now why did you do such an obviously stupid thing as have a chat with Richard Golden?"
Reeling, clutching psychically for purchase, Weller sat there like a dummy, unable to concoct a mode of response. What kind of people are these?
"I'll help you, Weller," Torrez said coldly. "I'll lay all your cards faceup on the table for you. You joined the movement to get your wife back. You went to bed with Maria in order to locate her, and in that you have succeeded. Congratulations, Weller."
Torrez cocked his head and grimaced sardonically in response to Weller's surprised reaction. "What do I have to say to convince you that you're not on our level?" he said. "That you concocted this little scheme to use John in commercials in order to penetrate the Institute and recapture your wife, and you used Maria to bypass me in order to reach him with your bait? Face it, Weller, we read you like a psychomap."
"You seem to know all the answers, so why bother asking questions?" Weller managed to grunt silently.
"Because a visit to Richard Golden was definitely not in your program," Torrez said. "A piece of moronic counterproductivity. Too self-destructive to be credible. The only possible explanation within your life scenario is that you went to Golden for blackmail material with which to pry your wife out of the Institute. And all I want to know from you is what you imagined that blackmail material could be?"
He doesn't know! Weller's mind suddenly snapped into sharp focus. Torrez doesn't know about my having a copy of the Master Contact Sheet and he doesn't know about the fail-safe mail drops. That's what he's looking for, but for once he doesn't know what it is. It's my only edge. I've got to keep it from him.
"What makes you assume an unevolved schmuck like me was thinking that far ahead?" he said.
Torrez glared at him. "Are you going to tell me that you're just riding the changes? Or that this stupid commercial business is sincere?"
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you."
"Try me, Weller," Torrez said harshly. '"You might be pleasantly surprised."
Oh God, what I need now is a super piece of misdirection! Weller thought desperately. I need space to think. I don't know what the hell I'm doing. I've got to get him off onto something else.
"It's John," he said off the top of his head.
"John? What's John?" Torrez was authentically puzzled. Definitely derailed for an instant. Weller reached deep within himself, let a half-recognized truth pop into his consciousness, and molded the ultimate piece of acting of his career around it -- craft informed by a certain spontaneous authenticity.
"Okay, I admit it all," he said with convincing lameness. "Everything you said is true except for one item. I really am sincere about wanting to make those commercials ... or at least I'm sincere about using them as an excuse to meet John."
"Why do you want to meet John?" Torrez asked, with what seemed for the first time like a flicker of human interest.
"Because Transformationalism is John Steinhardt. Look at all that's happened to me. I'm not the same person anymore. I don't know exactly who I am. Is Tranformationalism making me a zombie or eptifying my mind? What is John? That's the answer I'm looking for, that decides everything. John is Transformationalism, and without knowing him, I know nothing."
Weller stared into Torrez's eyes with flashing sincerity. "You know the man," he crooned enviously. "You know the true reality. You must understand what I'm saying."
A veil of dreamy wistfulness seemed to fog Torrez's hard, logical eyes. "So you are driven to comprehend the fullness of John B. Steinhardt," he said softly. '"Yes, I think I can believe that. But you're a fool to think that's possible, that your consciousness can contain a complete image of John's reality. Madre Mia, I tried for years, and what I finally learned was I've been very lucky to find the favor of a greater man than I."
"You expect me to swallow that? A man like you, in your position? That's the official line, Torrez, what you tell the suckers. That kind of bullshit is why I have to meet John myself. I just don't buy you as a worshiper of the Great I Am."
Torrez laughed with unexpected sincerity. "You think you know me because you've talked to me a few minutes? Maybe you do. But how much of me is John's creation? How much really is left of the dumb little punk he found leading a street gang all those years ago ...? I look back on what that kid was and I look at me now ... " He shrugged. "And you still don't believe that John is something neither of us will ever fully understand?" he said sarcastically.
Weller saw that the mask had slipped, if only for a moment, revealing a flash of Torrez's human reality; whether Torrez had crafted this or not, Weller was convinced. Fred Torrez worships Steinhardt. I believe it. One step from the top, and he sincerely worships the man. It mesmerized Weller with a kind of secondhand awe.
"A nice piece of misdirection, Weller!" Torrez cracked, snapping back into his previous mode, back behind the mask.
"You don't believe I'm sincere?"
"Do you?" Torrez said with a thin smile, '"Think about it. Of course, I believe you. Who could've gone through what you've gone through and not be obsessed with the question of John's ultimate personality? You just realized that yourself, didn't you? You started out misdirecting me with a piece of stage business, but as you spoke, you were realizing that it was the truth."
Weller broke out into a cold sweat. Is this guy fucking telepathic? Or am I really as transparent as all that?"
"And now I've raised your consciousness another level by pointing it out to you, haven't I?" Torrez said, with the first slight hint of smugness. "But that doesn't mean that the old program don't persist. You're still running one that says penetrate the Institute, reprogram your wife, and blackmail your way out with something from Golden. And I hope all this has convinced you that you're not leaving here until you tell me what that something is."
As Torrez glared darkly at him out of the white glare, it seemed to Weller he was really nervous about something, that he was under some kind of pressure, that he was projecting certain vibrations of frustration. He knows about everything but the fact that I've got copies of the Master Contact Sheet in mail drops, that maybe I do have a way out of the Institute if I get there. But he thinks it's something I was trying to get from Golden, not something I've already got secured! And this whole interrogation is based on that error! All I've got to do is convince him that he's right ...
Which means that this is some kind of security check ... Which means that word has already come down from Steinhardt! Weller suddenly realized. And the word is yes! I'm going to the Institute if I can convince this guy that I'll be powerless once I get there. All I have to do is feed him something credible along the lines he wants to hear. He's on the spot as much as I am.
"All right, you win," Weller sighed. "I thought it would be better to take a little insurance with me, and I had been told that Golden was the world's expert on Transformationalism. But when I got there.... Well, I guess you know, don't you? The guy is crazy. Hypnotic telephones. Kennedy assassinations --"
"And cancer rays from the Capital Records Tower," Torrez said. "So you're going to tell me that Golden's files were such a rat's nest of paranoia, credible data, and whatever lies between that none of it seemed useable."
Weller's face fell, for that was exactly the line he was going to take.
"Let's not waste time here while I browbeat you into admitting that there was something there you thought you could use against us," Torrez snapped. "Let's be civilized adults and agree to consider that process completed, shall we? So what was it?"
Stick as close to the truth as you can and still lie, Weller told himself. It's the only possible way to get anything past this guy. "All right, all right," he whined, with a petulant show of resignation. "So he had this big file on Transformationalism's corporate connections . .. from his investigative reporting days, sound stuff that seemed credible ... but ..."
"But what?" Torrez's attention seemed to have narrowed to a tight point of focus.
He believes that, Weller thought. All I have to do now is convince him I don't have it, that I'd have no leverage over them when I get to the Institute.
"But he wouldn't let it out of his hands long enough for me to copy it," Weller said. "Your boys grabbed me as I came out the door, so I couldn't have it hidden anywhere. So all you have to do to prove I'm telling the truth is search me."
Torrez leaned back in his chair and studied Weller for a long moment while Weller held his breath. It would work, I am clean. I've turned his own logic in on him.
''Very well, Weller," Torrez finally said. "We'll search you all right, and I'm sure we'll come up with nothing. I'm sure you still have some strong regressive programs running, but it really doesn't matter any more. From here on in, you're under total Monitor control."
He smiled his shark smile at Weller. "Because you're getting what you wanted. Tomorrow morning we're flying you to the Institute." He pressed a button on his intercom. "Send Irv in for Mr. Weller," he said. "Standard Institute security procedure."
Weller had only a short moment to savor his triumph. Then the three men who had snatched him entered the interrogation room. "Good luck, Weller," Torrez said. "But then, you've already had it." He nodded to the guards.
''This way," said Irv. The other two pulled Weller to his feet by the elbows, hustled him down a featureless white hallway, up two flights of stairs, and into a small green cell containing only a john and a Spartan cot.
"Strip," said Irv.
"Take your clothes off, Weller. Standard security procedure. We'll go through them and return them to you in the morning."
Woodenly Weller took off his shoes, socks, trousers, and shirt and handed them to the blond Monitor.
''The shorts too," said Irv. "Don't be bashful."
"What's the matter? You think I've got a gun in my shorts?"
"Just do it!" snarled Irv.
Weller sighed, then stepped out of his shorts, handed them over, and stood there naked, vulnerable, depersonalized.
"Now lean your hands against the wall and spread your legs."
"What the fuck --"
"Help him!" snapped Irv.
The other two Monitors each grabbed one of Weller's wrists and slammed his palms up against the wall, while Irv spread his legs by kicking his left foot to the side. Then he bent down and examined Weller's rectum. "Okay, he's clean. You can release him."
Weller came off the wall boiling with fury and outraged dignity. But the three Monitors standing shoulder to shoulder in front of him instantly brought home the total powerlessness of his position, the futility of even making some smartass remark, which he couldn't come up with anyway.
"Okay," said Irv. "Sweet dreams."
Suddenly, as if on cue, each of the other two grabbed one of his arms and whipped them behind his back in a double half nelson. Irv pulled a hypodermic out of his jacket pocket and jabbed it painfully into the pit of Weller's right elbow.
Weller felt the sharp needle pain, then a pins-and-needles pressure traveling up his arm, then a rubbery feeling in his knees, a soft fuzziness intruding upon his sensorium.
Irv withdrew the needle, and the other two released his arms. Weller stood there for a long moment, boiling with fury, shaking with fear. He took two hesitant steps forward. His head began to whirl, his vision doubling, then tripling, and then his knees began to turn to Jell-O.
"Onto the bed," said a distant voice.
Arms eased him backward onto the cot just as his legs went out from under him. Everything seemed to be moving in slow motion through a clear but viscous fluid. "Son ... of ... a ... bitch ..." he heard his own voice mutter thickly as his leadened eyelids drooped toward unconsciousness.
The last thing he heard before the blackness closed in was the heavy click of the door lock.
Weller drifted up from inky dreamless sleep along a line of sparks that seemed to be traveling slowly down his right arm across his shoulder up his neck and into his head, where it expanded into a dull ballooning throb. He opened gummy eyelids to see vague towering black shapes against a sea of green. He rubbed his eyes, trying to gather his scattered thoughts as his vision slowly came back into focus.
He was lying naked on a cot in a small green room. His body felt strangely detached from his mind, heavy with a luxuriant lassitude. His thoughts seemed to be coming very slowly, and somehow no cerebral event seemed to have any real import. He was somewhere in something called Monitor Central. He had been drugged. He was going to the Institute. He had met Fred Torrez. He dimly realized that wild emotions should be coursing through him, but nothing seemed important. No thought was more than a random image flitting across the surface of his mind. Nothing seemed to associate itself with anything else.
The three Monitors who had brought him here were standing over his cot. One of them held a pile of clothes. Another held two empty hypodermics. All three of them were studying him. Why did they bother? He was an inert pile of putty. What possible interest could he have for anyone?
"He's awake," said one of the figures in black. "Lets get him up and dressed."
Hands gripped Weller's arms and lifted. He seemed to float effortlessly up off the cot like a big helium-filled balloon. Nothing seemed to take any effort at all. How warm and peaceful it all was!
"Come on, Weller. Let's get dressed."
Clothes seemed to slip onto his body of their own accord, like live slithering things. No effort was required of him. All he had to do was float in the warm viscous air and everything would be taken care of. Wasn't that nice? Wasn't that better than ... than ... whatever ... ?
Something was fitted over his head and now he was in the middle of a fluffy white cloud, just drifting along peacefully. It was much nicer than the green room and the black figures, much more soothing, far more relaxing. He was abstractly aware that hands were gripping his arms, holding him up, guiding him along through the cloud. Or rather holding him down to keep him from drifting away into the stratosphere, for his feet seemed to be skipping featherlight over some level surface. And if they weren't holding him down, why then he would probably bounce slowly away like a big, silly beach ball.
Bounce, bounce, bounce, slowly down some stairs, losing altitude, though his head remained in the nice white cloud. Across another surface, down more stairs, another level.... He lost count. It began to seem as if he had been doing this for a very long time -- years, maybe -- as if it might continue forever. Forever? What was that? The concept seemed illusive. It had something to do with watches and hourglasses, but there were neither watches nor hourglasses up here in the clouds....
Then he found himself sitting on a soft bench, with the presence of a body on either side of him. A roar and a whir, and the bench started to move. It must be a car. I must be sitting in a car. We're going for a ride. Isn't that nice?
For a long time or for a short time, at any rate definitely for some period of time, the car floated along, speeding up, leaning around curves, slowing down, stopping now and again, while Weller drifted peacefully in fluffy whiteness. The various motions of the car made him feel a little strange, as if there were a heavy balloon inside him, filled, perhaps, with water instead of air, so that it moved around more sluggishly with the motion of the car than the rest of him, wallowing and surging.
Finally the car stopped, and the engine sound died away. Hands guided Weller out of the car and onto his feet. Then the mask was taken off his head, and he was momentarily blinded by painful bright lights.
Still half-blinded he was guided across another level surface, and by the time his eyes cleared, he was standing at the entrance ramp to a small, sleek jet aircraft with two engines at the tail, all silvery and shining in the bright smoggy sunlight.
"An airplane ride?" he said, his mouth all cottony. "Where are we going?"
The three black figures ignored the sounds that were coming out of his mouth, and they guided him up the ramp. The inside of the airplane was like a nice little living room: brown leather armchairs, some of them beside little airplane windows, others arranged around a small wooden table; wooden paneling, and a navy-blue carpet.
The three black figures guided him to one of the chairs around the table. But Weller couldn't see out a window.
"Could I have a window seat?" Weller asked politely. "They're not all taken, so could I have one, please."
"Oh, for crying out --"
"Let the man have his window seat," said the one with the steel-colored hair. "Maybe it'll keep him quiet. They told us not to give him another shot unless we really had to."
The nice man helped Weller to his feet and guided him to a soft window seat in the middle of the cabin. His body melted into the buttery cushions and seemed to fade away, so that only his eyes were left, looking out the window across a concrete runway and a field of parched grass at a tiny control tower shimmering through the gray-blue smog, far, far in the distance. Hands fastened his seat belt to keep his body from floating up out of the seat, which would make it hard for him to look out the window. They were taking good care of him. They thought of everything.
Then he heard a sudden loud roar which went on and on and on. And then the plane began to move along the ground, so slowly you could hardly tell it was happening if you weren't looking out your window, if you didn't see the control tower disappearing as the plane swung around.
The plane moved along the taxiway just like a car driving down the freeway, only much slower, as if it were creeping through rush-hour traffic, though there didn't seem to be anything else in sight. There were even white lines and symbols painted on the concrete, just like a highway.
Then the plane stopped. It pivoted like a cannon being aimed. The sound got much louder and it started to vibrate like some great beast straining at its leash. Suddenly the plane was moving again, faster and faster and faster, and then Weller felt something kick the back of his seat even as he melted further into it; there was a sudden, sharp, floating feeling that made the water balloon inside his body slosh and gurgle sending strange and not very pleasant waves through the clear Jell-O of his flesh.
He looked out the window and saw the ground dropping away, then tilting crazily to the right, becoming smaller and smaller and smaller. Far below he could see thousands of little toy buildings, and even little tiny toy cars moving along a toy highway. Then the world outside the window became a soft white fog for a time, just as it had been when the black figures were leading him along into the car.
When the fog cleared, Weller saw nothing but bright blue sky above and a carpet of white wool below stretching from horizon to horizon as far as he could see. It was very beautiful, and it was so incredibly peaceful, just like the white hazy feeling in his mind. just like the fluffy softness of his body melting into the seat, as featureless and undisturbed as his clear blue empty consciousness. I could drift here forever, he thought. Maybe I will. Wouldn't that be nice? His eyelids grew sensuously heavy. After awhile he couldn't tell whether his eyes were open or closed. Not that it mattered.