THE MIND GAME
Weller sat watching Annie wash the dinner dishes in the little sink from an unsettling cinematic distance. Close-up of her hands moving the sponge across the plates, pull back for a low-angle full shot on her body bent over the sink, emphasizing her silent psychic distance from his camera-eye.
He had to physically blink himself out of this distancing mode, this cinematic paranoia. Either I'm really going nuts, he thought, or this really is a totally paranoid situation.
From the Great Man he heard nothing, but every casual conversation with Annie got immediately steered into the deep waters of Transformationalism, as if Steinhardt were pressuring her to accumulate data. The line of questioning was rather obvious.
What had Steinhardt said to him? What was it like really working with John? What did he think Steinhardt thought of him? What did it feel like to have your consciousness enhanced with prolonged contact with the Font of All Wisdom?
It could all have been covered by the reverent curiosity of a true believer, if it weren't transparently designed to uncover his true feelings about the Great I Am. He sensed that Annie was constantly watching and recording his reactions these past two days -- monitoring him, to coin an odious phrase.
It would have been classical paranoia if Steinhardt hadn't openly told him that was exactly what she was going to be doing. I'm not paranoid, he thought. It's really happening. My wife is willing to spy on me for Transformationalism, and there's no doubt about it.
And what are you loyal to, Weller? he thought. To a wife who doesn't want your loyalty on your terms and won't return it? To a dead-end career that maybe you can never go back to? What the hell is there in your life besides Transformationalism?
He knew that he really only had two alternatives. He could try to blackmail his way out of the Institute with the Master Contact Sheet and hope that he would make it. And hope against everything he knew that she would choose to come with him when push came to shove.
Or he could accept John B. Steinhardt as his personal savior. And keep Annie. And become rich and powerful. And become a different person.
Obviously there was only one logical, Transformational conclusion. Steinhardt had set it up so that a rational man had only one self-interested choice. Gain everything or lose everything was reasonably clear-cut. But he rebelled against that logic. There was no way he could find it in his heart to love Big Brother. At this point he was beginning to wonder whether that made him a hero or a masochist. Perhaps they amounted to much the same thing.
Annie finished the dishes, dried her hands, and walked slowly over to him, thighs rubbing lightly together, blouse undone to the third button, and a come-hither look in her eyes. ''I've got plenty of time before I have to go to tonight's staff meeting," she said, sitting down beside him with a little toss of her hair and a wiggle of her ass.
But Weller was finding it hard to relate to her sexually since she had started interrogating him on the sly. Making love to her was becoming more and more difficult and less and less satisfying. Whenever he made love to her, he felt that a world of eyes was looking on over their shoulders, and two of them were hers.
So once again he pretended to ignore the obvious, and for once did a little sly interrogating of his own. He leaned forward and said, "What happens if I do end up directing John's little project? What happens then?"
Annie angled her body away from him and looked at him in confusion. "What happens then? What do you mean?"
"I mean us," Weller said. "Once it's over, where do we go from there?"
"Over?" Annie said shrilly. "Once what's over?" Her voice suddenly hardened into the commissar's tone he had been hearing for days, and he had neither the heart nor the stomach to confront it.
''I've got to admit this has been good for us," he began cautiously. "But this place is like a hothouse. Sooner or later we've got to return to the real world and pick up the threads of our lives."
Her eyes became distant and impenetrable. "Our old lives are dead," she said. "Old instantaneous personas. We're not those people any more. We can't go back, we can only go on. Can't you see that, Jack?"
"Sure," Weller said sadly, and he really could. "But what we are now are instantaneous personas too. Riding the changes got us here, but some day we're going to have to ride the changes out, or we'll end up becoming dead shells again. There aren't any final destinations. John would say so himself."
"I don't like what I'm hearing, Jack," Annie said in an almost threatening tone. "You're telling me you want us to leave the movement. Isn't that really it?"
Even now, especially now, when a single "yes" would finally bring them to the inevitable confrontation, Weller's courage failed him, and he found himself drawing back from the brink. "No," he said. "Not leave the movement, just have some lives of our own, too. Not turn our backs on Transformationalism, but not let it swallow us whole, either. Some kind of compromise between serving the movement and serving ourselves."
"As far as I'm concerned, serving the movement is serving myself," Annie said coldly. "I don't want to go back to Hollywood ego tripping. I won't. I can't."
"Can't?" Weller snapped. "Don't you think you'd better take a hard second look if leaving here is something you think you can't do? Whatever happened to freedom? Don't you ever miss it?"
"You're just running a cheap word game," Annie said angrily. "I can't leave because I don't want to leave. Freedom is what I have finally found in Transformationalism. Freedom is working for something that transcends your own petty ego, something that takes you outside the limits of your self, that makes you a part of a greater destiny."
Her voice had become that strident commissar speech he had come to know all too well, But suddenly it became soft, personal, and immediate as she touched a palm to his cheek,
"Poor baby," she said, "I don't think you've ever found anything like that for yourself, have you? Not even here, not yet. Oh Jack, wasn't I the same way? We blamed it on the Hollywood system, but even our dreams and ambitions were confined by our own egos. If only we were free to do our things, we'd find what we were looking for, we'd really be creative people, we'd be all right. A movie star and a hotshot feature-film director, right? All we ever thought of was moving up in the Hollywood machine that was grinding us down."
Her eyes brightened, and she began to radiate energy, peace, genuine contentment. "You can't see that till you get out of it," she said. "Not till you find what was missing all along. And I've found that in Transformationalism. I feel whole now. I feel home. This is my life, this is what I was meant to do. I feel it completely. All I need to be totally happy is to have you share it with me."
Weller finally felt the full force of the vast gulf that had opened up between them. He could no longer hold back the knowledge that had been building in him since that very first reunion in Steinhardt's house. He was losing her. Winning her back from Transformationalism had turned into another dead dream. And beyond this terrible pang of impending loss was something that was almost envy. Though the cause might be delusion and Transformationalist programming, she genuinely felt the kind of fulfillment he had always longed for. Where he was empty, she was filled. What she had was something he both loathed and envied, a state of consciousness that might be Steinhardt's conjuring trick, but one that he craved to experience.
I wish I could, he found himself thinking without fully understanding it. If only I could!
"I want to share what you feel too," he said. "But I'm not sure that Transformationalism is something that can get me there."
"It can be, Jack," Annie said, snuggling against him. "All you have to do is let it."
"That's what John says too," Weller said wearily.
"Well, there you are ..."
"And where is that?" Weller sighed.
"Let me show you," she said. "Let me take you home." She put her arms around his neck and kissed him, with as much love and sincerity as he had ever felt.
He kissed her back with the same depth of feeling in his heart, made more poignant by a foreshadow of doom. But their realities didn't seem to connect, it was as if rubber gloves sheathed his whole body, like making love through a condom.
After awhile he let her lead him into the bedroom, and she clutched him fiercely as they made love, as if she wanted to absorb him into herself, into that which filled her. He longed to let himself go, to merge with the woman of his heart, and let that surrender take him where it would.
But something held him separate. He could no more bear to lose himself than he could to lose her. He could not follow her this final mile any more than she could follow him. Their trajectories had diverged. He felt that he had entered the twilight of their life together, that from here on in any time they made love might be the last.
And yet, he thought, as she sighed into his ear, it doesn't have to happen. All I have to do is not make it happen. What is it that I'm clinging to that makes me throw everything else away? I don't even know.
Yet whatever it was, it seemed too precious to let go of. Even if it cost him the death of their love. For surrendering himself to Transformationalisrn for her sake, sweet though the rewards would be, seemed also like a kind of death.
That night, while Annie was attending some staff meeting, there was an unexpected knock on the door. When Weller opened it, John B. Steinhardt was standing in the doorway.
He wore black pants and a white shirt open almost to the navel. With his gut hanging out and his eyes quite bloodshot, he looked like a beery truck driver, and the unopened bottle of Jack Daniels he held by the neck completed the image. By the look and smell of him, he was half shit-faced already.
"Come on outside, bucko. We're going to get drunk together in the moonlight," he said. Weller stared goggle-eyed at this apparition, not knowing what to say to such a proposal.
Steinhardt took hold of him by the bicep and pulled him outside into the clear, fragrant night air. "Kiddo, I've talked with you, I've gone over Annie's reports fifty times, I've watched you in action, and I still can't make up my mind about you," he said. "It has finally occurred to me that maybe the reason is that you're having the same trouble with me. So I said to myself, let's have this out man-to-man. Let's share the old sacrament and get pie-eyed together."
He paused, reached into a pocket, and took out a pint of green fluid. "Better chugalug this eptifier first," he said, handing the bottle to Weller. ''I'm talking about serious drinking."
Automatically Weller found himself choking down the vile stuff as they walked away from the cabin toward the margin of the woods. The idea of getting drunk with Steinhardt held its terrors, but it also intrigued him. In some absolute way he found himself agreeing with Steinhardt that it was the right and manly thing to do, and that made him feel something like affection for the son of a bitch.
"Good a place as any," Steinhardt said, picking out the trunk of a big tree and lowering himself to the ground against it. He uncapped the bottle of bourbon. "Have a slug," he said, handing the bottle up to Weller. ''Take a good big one and wash that crummy taste out of your mouth."
Weller took a long swallow of whiskey and sat down beside Steinhardt. From where they sat halfway up a gentle slope, the bungalows of the Colony were half-hidden in the trees, the guards and fences were invisible, and a bright half-moon cast silvery shadows down into the hollow. The cool night breeze carried no scent of the things of men. They might be anywhere. They might be anyone.
"Have some more," Steinhardt rumbled. "You've got a lot of catching up to do."
Weller shrugged and took another long drink, feeling the warmth of it filling his belly and radiating out toward his fingers and toes. He handed the bottle over to Steinhardt, who took a big gulp, then handed it back with a drink-up motion of his forearm.
Weller took another drink. The moonlight seemed to flow and glow like a river of water. Crickets hummed in his ears.
"What do you really think I am?" Steinhardt said. "A drunken old phony who lucked into something good, right?"
Weller felt a direct circuit opening up between the top of his head and his mouth, bypassing caution and logic. Well, what the fuck? he thought, taking another belt of Dutch courage.
"You got to admit, John, you're not exactly the ideal vision of an ascetic guru," he said.
Steinhardt took the bottle and gulped down a drink. "Fuckin'-A," he said. "I'm a complex son of a bitch."
"Why are you doing this?" Weller asked.
Steinhardt laughed. ''To save the world," he said. ''To make an easy buck. Because it's there. You think I know?"
"I mean why are you getting me drunk?"
Steinhardt handed back the bottle. "Because you've got a bad case of psychic constipation," Steinhardt said. "Think of it as Ex-Lax for the mind."
Weller took another drink. "Yeah?" he said. "Seems to me some people I could mention have verbal diarrhea."
"For sure, laddy-buck," Steinhardt said, snatching away the bottle. He took another drink. "I got onto the booze in the old days. When you have to crank out twenty thousand words a week just to survive, verbal diarrhea is a survival value. And it hasn't done me wrong, now has it? Y'know, I believe I was half shit-faced all the way through Transformational Man. When I discovered Benson Allen's little fan club, I had to read my own damned book just to find out what the hell I had written."
"Did ya like it?" Weller giggled, recovering the bottle.
Steinhardt laughed. He shrugged. "It was what we used to call a good read," he said. "Just between you and me, lad, I wasn't the world's greatest science-fiction writer. Lots of ideas, but sitting down there and typing was torture. Fortunately I could type sixty words a minute even dead drunk."
Somewhere behind the fog that was rolling into the forefront of Weller's mind, he sensed that Steinhardt's drunkenness was focused, that he was taking all this somewhere, that these self-deprecating revelations had a purpose. But he couldn't figure out what it was. Maybe another drink would help.
"What about you, kiddo?" Steinhardt said. "You gonna tell me that you were an ivory-tower aesthete? I mean, directing monkey shows? Did you really think you were doing anything but making a buck as best you knew how?" He winked and snatched back the bottle. "One old hack to another, Jack?"
Weller shrugged. Out here in the woods, his head reeling in the moonlight, all that seemed so far away and unreal, something he could be as detached about as Steinhardt apparently was. "Takes one to know one, I suppose," he admitted.
"Then why won't you come the rest of the way with me?" Steinhardt said.
Steinhardt stood up, leaned against the tree with one hand, and looked down at Weller. ''What you just admitted to me is not something you would have admitted to yourself before you had the benefits of Transformationalism, now is it?" he said. "You're not a hack mentality now any more than I am. I've brought you that far, now haven't I?"
Steinhardt's figure looming above him seemed huge and powerful, ancient and wise, outlined in the moonlight. "I suppose you have," Weller admitted quietly.
"So why not accept the next stage of your evolution like a man?" Steinhardt said. He sat down again and handed Weller the bottle. "I've gotten you off your treadmill to nowhere," he said. "So why don't you let me take you along for the best part of the ride?"
"Onta your treadmill?" Weller blurted boozily.
"I don't notice the ground moving backward under my feet," Steinhardt said, "Which is more than I think you can say for yourself right now, bucko."
"Offa the TV con and onta the Transformationalist con," Weller grunted stonily.
"So you really think it's all a con?" Steinhardt said in a voice gone hard and ominous.
The chirping of the crickets buzzed angrily in Weller's ears. "Fuck this!" he snapped. "Don't you think it's a con, John?"
Steinhardt clapped him on the shoulder. "Yer a kid after me own heart!" He grabbed the bottle and took a long, long swallow.
"Of course, it's a con!" he exclaimed. "It's the best goddamn con in the world! An income in seven figures, a billion dollars worth of capital to play games with. Learjets, Institutes, city townhouses, country retreats, Cuban cigars, and the devout dues-paying worship of millions. You ever hear of a better con?"
"You tell me it's a con, and then you expect me to swallow it?" Weller said thickly.
"Why not?" Steinhardt said. "It's such a good con that I swallowed it myself."
"Huh?" Weller grunted. His head was reeling, the half-hidden rooftops of the bungalows below seemed to flash and shimmer, and Steinhardt's eyes were a silver sheen of reflected moonlight. Words were becoming sounds that were hard to follow logically.
"That's the whole point," Steinhardt said. ''I'm the best advertisement there is for Transformationalism because I knew it was a con when I took over Benson Allen's nut cult of the great me. Where I was coming from, everything in Transformational Man was drunken ravings I tossed off in six weeks for fifteen hundred bucks. I didn't see any potential at all. Harry and Maria had to browbeat me into taking over the movement, and even then the best I hoped for was to get my ass out of debt and get a few months ahead on the rent. "
Steinhardt paused and took another drink. Weller couldn't believe where he was or what he was hearing, though he knew it was only confirmation of what he had always believed. But for John B. Steinhardt to be sitting there, drunk as a skunk, admitting that he was nothing but a sleazo con artist, that was totally unreal.
"But as the changes marched on, strange things began to happen in the old coconut," Steinhardt said. "Suddenly I woke up, and I was the leader of a mass movement, and I was rich, all off this low-grade scam. It put me beyond money, beyond the need to feed my ego; I had all of that I could ever want. So I said to myself: John, what the fuck is going on here?"
Steinhardt stood up and began pacing in small circles in front of Weller, punctuating his words with the bottle, like some bemused old rummy. "So I reread the Word according to me as if I were my own disciple -- all the pamphlets and theories and bullshit encyclicals I had reamed out over the years to keep things going and create more product to sell."
He paused to take a long, rather slobbering drink. "Jesus, I was amazed at my own unsuspected brilliance, I kid you not," Steinhardt said with utter seriousness. "Somehow all this wisdom had come out of some place inside of me without my really even being aware of it. Even Transformational Man reads like the stuff of destiny now. And I had even previously explained that kind of transformation to my followers without realizing it. I couldn't see who I was until I was freed from that science-fiction-hack persona I had been stuck in. I had to become a phony guru to get enough changes between me and that to understand the previous level. And once I saw the process I had put myself through, I couldn't just be a phony guru either, because, goddamn it, the stuff I had used to set up the con was the real thing, and I had proven it on myself."
Steinhardt sat down close beside Weller and grinned at him crookedly. "Can you guess what I did then?" he asked rhetorically.
Weller managed to nod a woozy no.
"I put myself through all the bullshit processes I had invented," Steinhardt said. "I secretly had Benson Allen run them all on me. Partly to find out whether they really worked, partly I had some idea of breaking my writer's block. Well, I didn't break the block, but I found out I didn't want to. I found out that the thing I had become was the optimized me and all I had to do was accept it."
He handed the bottle to Weller, who drained what little was left. "I transformed myself through the Transformational processes I had dreamed up as a con," Steinhardt said. "Drink to that, laddy-buck! Drink to the ultimate self-made man!"
Shakily Weller dropped the empty bottle. The treetops were whirling through a starry sky. His head was roaring with the buzz of the crickets. His mouth could hardly form coherent words. Sweat was breaking out on his forehead. Steinhardt studied his face.
"Hey, you look awful, kiddo," he said. "Better walk you home." He dragged Weller unceremoniously to his feet and steadied him around the shoulder for a moment with a sureness and energy which Weller, in his present condition, found amazing.
"Why ... why ... why are you telling me stuff like this?" he managed to say as they walked slowly toward the cabin, with his knees trembling and swaying as if he were on stilts.
"Because I want you to understand that I came into all this with at least as cynical an attitude as you did," Steinhardt said. "What's more, I don't have to believe that Transformationalism's the real thing to get anything I could ever want out of it. But I believe in it, even knowing a lot more shit than you do about it, sonny boy."
Halfway to the cabin a bubble of anger burst in Weller's reeling brain. He pulled himself away from Steinhardt's support and stood there, weaving, but standing alone on his own two feet. "What about the ripoffs, John?" he said. "What about what you've done to my wife? What about the mind-fucks and the control programs? What about the way you screw up people's lives?"
Oh, my god, Weller thought, after he had heard himself. What have I done?
But Steinhardt laughed, put his arm around his shoulders, and continued helping him back to the cabin, unruffled by anything. "Yeah, that's the bottom line between us, isn't it?" he said. "Somehow you got it in ya head that because I'm offering you the goodies of the world, that ya gotta fork over your soul."
They reached the cabin then, and Weller disengaged himself from Steinhardt and leaned up against the doorframe. His vision was beginning to go cloudy and a bubble of nausea was forming in his gut. "Yeah, well ain't that it?" he gargled.
"What the hell do I want your soul for?" Steinhardt shot back. "What am I gonna do with it, claim it as a tax deduction?"
"You wanna make me someone else ...." Weiler woozed, really beginning to feel sick to his stomach.
"So what?" Steinhardt said. ''I've done that to you already. Whatsa big deal, I do it to myself all the time. It's ongoing change, kid. You can't stop it, you can only try to find the best wave to ride. The one you got off of has already passed."
"I don't want anyone screwing around with my head," Weller said, holding onto the doorframe with both hands now. "It hurts like hell but itsa only one I got. I wanna stay me. "
"Come, kiddo, you're not the old persona you're trying to cling to anymore," Steinhardt said. "You can't be. Too many changes. All you can choose is who you're going to become, there's no return trip tickets on the train we're riding. The Jack you are now is twisting you up in knots trying to hold onto a past that's gone and can't come back."
Weller could only dimly understand what Steinhardt was saying now. Sounds and thoughts were crowded to one corner of his mind by the surging green demand of his guts, by a need to puke that was becoming his most immediate and fondest desire.
"Urrrrr ..." he groaned.
"All you've got to do is let it go," Steinhardt said. "Accept the gifts of destiny. Be a fuckin' Transformational Man. Accept where you are now, and let yourself be what you're becoming. Let it all come out."
Let it all come out? That seemed like an idea of transcendental wisdom for sure at the moment. He was holding back an awful sour gag at the back of his throat. Steinhardt was absolutely right. There was no reason not to puke, no reason to hold it back any further.
"Goddamn it, you're a genius, and I'm an asshole," he groaned. "You're absolutely right, ya are. That's exactly what I'm gonna do right now, let all that stuff go, and get it the hell out of me."
Steinhardt stuck his face in Weller's. The smell of his breath made Weller gag, and he just barely held his gorge down. "Really?" Steinhardt said, blinking eyes as pink as elephants. "You're really ready, kiddo? No shit?"
"No shit," Weller muttered around a suppressed gag that this time seared the back of his throat with acid vomit. "Immediately!"
"Ya, well, we'll have to talk about it tomorrow when we're both sobered up," Steinhardt said. "Yer okay, kiddo!" He slapped Weller on the back, nearly causing him to lose his precarious balance. "But ya sure can't drink with the old master," he said. "You kids got no stamina."
"Uhhhh ..." Weller grunted, half as a reply, and half a visceral reaction. "Gotta go...."
He dashed through the door bent at the waist, staggered into the bathroom falling to his knees, and just managed to get his head over the toilet bowl as horrid sour puke exploded from his throat. Again and again he heaved his guts out, until he felt totally empty, until dry spasms made him clutch his stomach in pain, until nausea subsided into an overwhelming fatigue, an irresistible slide toward black nothingness.
He staggered into the living room half out on his feet, moaned as he felt his legs going out from under him, and just managed to flop facedown across the couch before his consciousness slid into sweet oblivion.
Annie looked narrowly across the breakfast coffee at him and for the third time said, "But what happened, Jack?"
Weller had choked down a big glass of eptifier as soon as she had awakened him in the morning from his stupor on the couch, so his pounding headache had just about subsided and the awful feeling in his gut had more or less faded away -- not, however, to the point where he could face the thought of food with any equanimity. But the black, confused mood in which his mind had awakened would not go away.
"I told you twice, we got utterly shit-faced, and I don't remember what the fuck happened!" he snarled.
"Well, you don't have to snap at me about it!" Annie said. ''I'm not the one that got drunk, puked, and passed out on the couch."
"But you're the one who's interrogating me about it!" Weller said. "That's your goddamn directive, isn't it, my little commissar?"
Annie's face went stony cold. "It has nothing to do with that," she said with exaggerated evenness. "It's strictly personal."
"I find it hard to believe that anything's strictly personal anymore."
"You don't trust me at all anymore, do you?" Annie said more softly.
Weller sighed. He didn't even know what he was arguing with her about. He half suspected that he was really arguing with Steinhardt, or perhaps even another side of his own head. Fact was, he did remember most of what had been said during his drinking bout with Steinhardt. Everything but the very end of it which was a vague green cloud of nausea, puking, and something which had happened between them. Somehow he had woken up with the feeling that he had won, that he had finally convinced Steinhardt of his sincerity. Or that Steinhardt had really won him over in his drunken state, at least to Steinhardt's own drunken satisfaction. He knew that something had happened, that the situation had been altered, but what and how were lost in the memory of a drunken blur.
And when Annie kept asking him about it, he had automatically taken it as a directive from Steinhardt; as if, through her, Steinhardt was trying to find out what he remembered, or maybe even trying to fill in a blank spot in his own memory track. But that was pure paranoia, wasn't it? Annie couldn't have spoken to Steinhardt yet this morning, now could she?
''I'm sorry, Annie," he said. "It's certainly true that you've been up front with me. At least I know where I stand with you."
Annie lifted her coffee cup to her mouth, stared speculatively over the lip. "And where do you imagine that to be?" she asked.
"Second place," Weller said, "to Transformationalism."
Annie looked down into the depths of her coffee.
"Am I wrong?" Weller asked.
Annie remained silent.
"If I'm wrong, I wish to hell you'd tell me so," Weller said. "If I told you I simply couldn't take this shit any more, that I was taking off, that you had to choose between Transformationalism and me right now, what would you do? Tell me you would come with me!" Fuck it! he thought. I've finally said it. We've finally come to the bottom line.
Annie slowly looked up at him. Her lower lip trembled. Her eyes filled with tears. "Is that what you're saying, Jack?" she whispered. "Are you finally issuing your ultimatum?"
"That's not answering my question," Weller said with awful coldness.
"And you really want an answer?" Annie said plaintively. A muffled mourning bell was already peeling in her voice. I've got my answer, Weller thought. Haven't I known it all along?
But why the hell am I doing this? Paused on the brink of the final, irrevocable parting, the end of their marriage, the end of everything he had fought for and sacrificed for and suffered for all these months, Weller drew back again. What am I doing? he thought. I think I've finally won at least this round. I think I've sold myself to Steinhardt, somehow. I've bought time to work on her head, all the time I could ask for. Why the hell did I almost throw it all away?
"No," he said. "You don't have to answer me. I was just running a life scenario on you."
Relief, anger, and then puzzlement chased each other across Annie's face. "Why did you run a number like that on me?" she demanded.
"Because I think that John and I decided that I was going to work with him last night," Weller said. "And before I committed myself to that, I wanted to be able to feel that whither I goest, you goest too. So I could be sure I knew exactly why I was going to stay."
"Do you want me to lie to you?" Annie said quietly.
"No. You couldn't if you tried. I know where we stand."
"Well then," Annie said, suddenly brightening artificially, "then let's forget about it. Why torture ourselves with unreal negative life scenarios? Especially when the real news is so good!"
"You're so sure you know what's real," Weller said. "Maybe you'd like to tell me."
"We've got a life together here," she said. "You're going to work with John. There are no horrible choices to be made. Everything's coming out all right, isn't it? Isn't that what's real?"
Weller sighed. For the time being anyway, maybe that was reality. Certainly, at this moment, he lacked the courage to make it anything else. "Yeah," he said, squeezing her hand and forcing a smile. "I think I'm still hung over is all. Everything is coming up roses."
"Sure it is," she said, leaning over the table and kissing him on the lips. But deep inside him that mourning bell kept peeling, as if the essence of what he was still fighting to keep had already been lost.
Nervously alert, his mind racing with yet another dose of eptifier, Weller ascended the spiral staircase to John B. Steinhardt's domed lair. The summons had not come till noon, and he had had enough time to clear his head and think things through clearly. Steinhardt had displayed his dirty linen to him as if it were a badge of honor. Whether the intimacy it had established between them were real or not, it was obviously what Steinhardt had intended, and Weller had certainly told Steinhardt a thing or two himself. So if Steinhardt had really convinced himself that they had had a meeting of minds, why disabuse him of the notion? All I have to do, Weller decided, is keep my mouth as shut as possible and agree with everything he says. All I've got to do is let him con himself.
Steinhardt was lying in the big hammock in the center of the circular room, wearing only a kind of blue terry-cloth kilt. He unslung himself from the hammock like some ungainly walrus as Weller entered and stood there with his belly hanging out. "How's your head today, kiddo?" he asked brightly. "You were really fried last night."
Steinhardt walked over to the big oak desk at the north side of the room and perched on the edge. Weller dropped himself into a director's chair near the desk. ''I'm more or less okay," he said. "That green goo sure works as a hangover cure."
Steinhardt took a cigar from the humidor on the desk, lighted it, and sent a nauseating puff of smoke in Weller's direction. "No blackouts?" he asked. "You remember everything that happened last night?"
"Clear as a bell," Weller lied forthrightly.
Steinhardt reached out his hand. "Well then, we have a deal, don't we?" he said. "You're going to be my personal director." Weller shook his hand and was able to beam back at him. For this was it, he had won, Steinhardt really trusted him now.
Steinhardt loped heavily toward the bar. "Care to drink to it?" he said.
"Thanks, but no thanks," Weller grunted.
Steinhardt laughed. "Well, then I guess I'll just have to drink your toast too," he said, pouring about four inches of bourbon into a water glass and swilling down half of it with a smack of his lips.
He put down his glass, leaned against the bar, took a puff of his cigar, and became almost professional in tone, changing gears entirely. "Okay, Jack, we'll begin work next Monday. By then I want you to be ready to give me an idea of where you want to shoot your outside footage, how you think the testament should be organized, and I'll be ready to discuss when I do my raving for your cameras. Okay?"
"Okay," Weller said. "Except we really can't talk about when we're going to start shooting until we have a crew lined up."
"Don't worry about that, we'll just pick a date and I'll fly in whatever you say you need."
"Er .... I don't know if Changes Production has good enough people for a project on this level," Weller said speculatively.
Steinhardt shrugged. "You be the judge of that," he said. He laughed and look another gulp of whiskey. "For my immortality, I want nothing but the best, and I'm not going to limit my director to whatever Harry Lazlo has thrown together. You want pros, I will hire you pros. Consider your budget unlimited."
"Great!" Weller said. This might really turn into something after all.
"Well, I've got other fish to fry now," Steinhardt said, walking toward the stairs and ushering Weller along in tow. "You just relax and think until then, Jack, and hang loose."
He held Weller back by the elbow at the top of the stairway. "Just one thing," he said looking straight at Weller. "You do know what you're getting into? I mean, you already know a lot of things that aren't exactly for the masses, kiddo, and working with me on this thing, you figure to learn a lot more. Also, I don't want anyone in the movement who doesn't have to know about this project to get wind of it. The official story will be consistent with what got you here -- we're just making commercials. Got it?"
"Sure, John," Weller said a little nervously. "If that's the way you want it."
"Good," Steinhardt said. "So you understand the need for reasonable security procedures."
"Security procedures?" Weller said uneasily.
"Oh, just standard stuff," Steinhardt said breezily. "Nothing to get excited about. You'll have to remain at the Institute throughout the whole project. No contact with outside parties. And a few other minor details."
He gave Weller a wink and propelled him on his way with a slap of the back. "We want to keep our little project under our hats, don't we, bucko?" he said conspiratorially.
I should be feeling that I've got it made, Weller thought, as he slowly descended to ground level. I have got it made. But something somehow told him that everything had gone too easily, that it was he and not Steinhardt who had just been had. It didn't add up logically, but he couldn't get rid of the feeling.