THE MIND GAME
Walking back to the cabin in the warm sunlight, Weller began to wonder whether his war with Transformationalism wasn't in the process of coming to a negotiated peace.
What if I just relax into the part I've been playing? he mused. Annie and I will be together, and maybe if we stop fencing over Transformationalism, we can be human to each other again. I'll have an interesting piece of work to look forward to, with an unlimited budget, and a character like Steinhardt to play around with, and I should be able to come up with something that will turn him on without making me puke. And if I become John's fair-haired boy, maybe I can talk him into producing a feature. They've certainly got the money for it.
I haven't been able to change Annie's head anyway. Changes. That's my real life situation, and it could be a lot worse, so maybe I should just try to keep my consciousness eptified behind it and ride with what's happening for the best I can get out of it.
By the time he got back to the cabin, Weller was feeling almost at peace with himself. What the hell, he thought, what's so terrible about learning to love Big Brother when he's setting himself up as your benefactor, when he could even end up being your friend? What's not to like about that? What have I really been torturing myself over? Why not just relax and enjoy it?
He made himself a cheese and salami sandwich, ate it slowly with a glass of white wine, had another glass afterward on the couch, just sitting there, sipping, and mellowing out as he slowly digested the fact that the life decision had already been made. Looking at it at last from the other side, with the tension of suspense gone, it began to look not so bad after all.
About four o'clock, unexpectedly early, Annie burst into the cabin, dashed across the room, flung herself into his arms as he rose, hugged him lightly, and gave him a short hard kiss. "It's wonderful!" she cried. "Oh, I'm so happy!"
"Huh? Wha --?"
She bounced away from him, but still held both his hands tightly. "I've just been with John," she said. "He's told me all about it. Oh God, I'm so glad all this conflict is over! Ooh, I love you, Jack, and it's been so awful having to report on you and fighting with you. But that's all over now, isn't it?"
Weller paused. He took a breath. He looked at her, beaming at him from the balls of her feet. "Sure it is," he said, feeling a great gasp of tension soaring out of him, an enormous weight lifted off his shoulders and out of his heart. "You and me, babe!" He kissed her. He felt like giggling. He felt like a silly asshole. Goddamn it, Weller, isn't this what you really want? Isn't it what you've wanted all along?
Annie abruptly sat down on the couch, pulling him down beside her. "There's just one little detail to take care of," she said, pulling a sheet of paper out of her handbag and handing it to Weller. "I worked this list out with John, but we'd better go over it first to see if I missed anyone."
Suddenly uneasy, Weller looked over a long list of names of people that he knew -- friends like the Shumways, business acquaintances like Johnny Blaisdell, his agent, his lawyer, his accountant, a long train of out-of-town relatives. "What the hell is this thing?" he said. "It looks like our Christmas-card list. "
Annie nodded. "That's more or less what it is," she said. "Can you think of anyone I've forgotten?"
Weller felt all the dread and tension that he had thought he had just unloaded come back like a sock in the gut. What the hell is this? "Isn't it a little early to be worrying about Christmas cards?"
Annie giggled. "We're not going to send out Christmas cards, silly," she said gaily. "You're going to send out letters or postcards to the people on the list."
"Oh, I know it's going to be a drag writing the same thing a couple of dozen times, but they don't have to be very long, and I'll help you write them. You just have to sign them."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Weller shouted. "What letters? What is this shit?"
Annie looked up at him with innocent perplexity. "Didn't John tell you?"
"Tell me what?"
Annie shrugged. "I guess he didn't," she said. "This is just a security procedure for you to follow. We've worked out a good cover story, so you don't even have to bother yourself about that. What you'll do is tell everyone that you've landed an assignment to set up a state film company in ... uh ... Malawi and we'll be spending the next two years or more in Africa."
Annie continued to speak in a maddeningly robotic tone of absolute sweet reason. "You're going to be staying at the Institute for an indefinite time, so you don't want people to think you've disappeared mysteriously and nose around trying to find you."
"I don't?" Weller said numbly.
"Of course not, Jack," Annie said, as if she were stating something that they both knew was obvious. "And since you're going to be in such a high security level that you won't be able to contact even movement people on the outside, people would start getting suspicious and worrying about you if you just dropped out of sight without a word. With this African cover story, though, everything will seem natural."
Weller stared at her, utterly dumbfounded. He couldn't believe that his own wife was telling him a thing like this, and yet when he thought about it, the logic suddenly seemed inevitable. Electrified fences, guard dogs, security patrols, blackout of contact with the outside world. All the security measures of a concentration camp, so why not the old postcard-home schtick? What an idiot I've been today! The son of a bitch really knows how to rub your nose in it!
"I can't believe what I'm hearing," Weller finally managed to say. "Do you know that the Nazis used to run this same damned number with concentration camp victims? They'd make them write predated postcards just before they shoved them in the ovens. Six weeks later the folks back home would get a card that said, 'Greetings from Scenic Auschwitz, wish you were here.'
"Oh Jack," Annie laughed, "don't be silly. This is serious."
"SERIOUS? Fuckin'-A, it's serious!" Weller shouted. "Jesus Christ. And don't you realize that the Nazis had those postcards sent home so that people could disappear without a warm trail? So they could gas them in ovens and no one would know."
Annie finally lost her infuriating good humor. "You're being infantile, Jack," she said. "Do you really think the movement is planning to kill you?"
"How the hell do I know? If I write those letters, I disappear and pull the hole in after me. They could snuff me or lock me in a cell for the rest of my life, or do anything else they pleased. How can I trust the good intentions of anyone who asks me to trust them that far?"
"Damn it, Jack, won't you ever stop being such a regressive?" Annie snapped. "Won't you ever learn to trust John?"
"Trust John!" Weller shouted. "How much trust do you think this fucking number shows in me?"
Oh, my God! Of course. Schmuck that you are, Weller, to believe that a guy like Steinhardt is going to take you on faith or swallow his own bullshit! This is the acid test, kiddo. You gotta prove your loyalty by putting yourself totally in my power, bucko! No way to con yourself through this one; it's either yes or no. He could all but hear Steinhardt telling it to him.
Weller forced some semblance of calm into his voice. "Don't you see what this is, Annie?" he said. "Damn it, are you totally blind? Goons, electrified fences, guard dogs, and now this. What's it going to take to show you where John's coming from? Gas ovens? Firing squads? Flaming toothpicks under your fingernails?"
Annie's lower lip trembled. Tears welled up in her eyes. "Oh Lord ...," she whispered. "Oh my God ..."
Weller put his arm tenderly around her shoulders. "Yeah, I know," he said. "It's pretty hard when you get your nose rubbed in it."
Annie's whole body began to shake. She began to sob.
"Hey, it's not that bad, babes," Weller cooed, stroking her hair. ''I'm not such a jerk that I walked in here without a ticket out. I can get us out of here. We'll be home soon, and before you know it, this will all be a funny story to tell at parties." He kissed her on the cheek and said with much more confidence than he felt: "It's a promise."
Annie choked back her tears, pulled away from him, and looked at him, dumbfounded. "What... ?"
''I've got 'em by the balls," Weller said, trying to pump as much confidence into his voice as he could muster. "I've got material John can hardly afford to have made public. They'll have to let us go."
Annie's eyes widened. "You're going to blackmail Transformationalism ?"
"You could call it that," Weller said with a certain satisfaction.
Annie shrank away from him in loathing. "After all the transformations you've been through, haven't you learned anything?" she said.
"Haven't you?" Weller snapped back. And as he spoke, he was transported against his will to a cold clear mountaintop where he saw at once that he had lost her.
"Look, it's not too late, Jack," Annie said, her voice now trembling with desperation. "I can forget what I've heard. You've changed, you've grown, you've been transformed, you've been chosen to work personally with John. And you're going to throw all that away? For what? Because you can't let go of an old instantaneous persona that isn't even you anymore?"
But he was seeing her now from an anesthetizing distance, from the other side of the great divide. There she sat, lovingly beckoning him down into the pit. For how long had it really been over between them before this moment of truth had finally forced him to face it? She was his for the taking, but she had become something he did not want to love -- a ghost, a horribly distorted doppelganger of the lost Annie that had once been his. But that woman no longer existed. This was a stranger.
"It's over, Annie," he said. "You and me. Transformationalism. Mind games. All I want now is out."
"Won't you change your mind?" Annie pleaded. She got up off the couch and began pacing in small circles. "Look, all you have to do is sign those cards and letters now," she said. "That's all. I'll even write them for you. You don't have to change what's in your head now, all by yourself. There are processes that can help you. All you have to do is sign those cards, and we'll do the rest."
"That's what I'm afraid of," Weller said. "That's exactly what I'm afraid of."
A strange lassitude of spirit came over him. He had nothing left to love, nothing left to care about, nothing left of the life that had been. Only that pinpoint of consciousness within him that said, "I'm me" -- and would not let itself be snuffed out -- no matter what the cost.
Annie looked down at him with sad but patronizing sympathy. This was another person. This was his Comrade Commissar. "This is the end for us?" she said distantly.
Weller stood to meet her gaze levelly. "Unless you change your mind. Unless you'll come with me."
She reached out to him, pulled her hand back. "Oh, Jack ..." She started, fluttered around the room like a trapped bird, shaking her head and muttering to herself.
"Oh God, I don't know... I mean maybe ... maybe there's a way ... maybe this doesn't have to be...." A wave of indecision passed across her face. She stopped in front of him and studied his face with an unreadable expression. "Look, I've got to think. I've got to be alone by myself for a while. I'm going to take a little walk. You wait here, okay?"
She started for the door, but Weller caught her by the elbow. "Wait for what?" he said. "For you to come back with a squad of Monitors?"
She turned and looked at him coldly. "Do you really believe I'd do that?" she said.
"I find it hard to believe you wouldn't," Weller said sadly.
"You think I'm going to rush off to get the Monitors to stop you from escaping, is that it? But you can't escape, Jack. There's no way out of here. The Institute is surrounded by --"
"I know, I know, a double electrified fence, guard dogs, and a fucking free-fire zone!" Weller snapped. It was true. She was right. There was no way to physically escape from the Institute, and even if there were, the long arm of the Monitors would reach out to grab him wherever he was. It didn't matter if she got the Monitors now, or if he surrendered to them himself. There was only one avenue of escape from Transformationalism, and that was with his mind, not his feet. I've got to do what I've planned to do all along and use my insurance to talk my way free. And the way through was John B. Steinhardt.
Weller looked at Annie speculatively, and though he was totally conscious of the process, he started to direct. From where he was now, she was one more Transformationalist, she was part of the enemy, she had to be ... dealt with. "Don't get the Monitors, Annie," he said. "Get John."
Annie blinked, then her mouth creased in a tiny ghost of a smile. "That's what I was really going to do," she said.
"I figured you would," Weller lied. Now that he thought about it, though, he should have seen it. He shouldn't have let his loathing for what she had become make him underestimate her like that. Who else could decide this issue? Who else would she run to when she runs away from me?
"John will know what to do," Annie said, opening the cottage door. "John will sync our optimum life scenarios together again."
"John is the answer, John is the way," Weller chanted sarcastically.
"You'll see," she said, as she closed the door behind her. "John will know what to do."
"And if he doesn't, I'll tell him!" Weller answered after she had gone.
"What's this crap about refusing to carry out a simple life directive? What's this shit about blackmail threats? Why are you breaking the poor lass's heart, you cadly bounder?"
John B. Steinhardt, in all his worldly glory, stormed into the cabin with his mouth already going at cruising speed, and by the look of him, with a bit of a glow already on. Oiled to a sheen with suntan lotion, he wore only red satin swimming trunks and a black beach towel thrown around his shoulders like a cloak. He was still clutching a half-consumed mint julep as if summoned directly from his poolside pleasures, and Weller did not suppose it was his first of the day.
Annie trailed behind him like Lois Lane after some ungodly barroom parody of Superman.
"Fuck a duck, kiddo, what's wrong with you? I thought we had everything straightened out," Steinhardt said, collapsing into a chair.
How long Weller had rehearsed this confrontation in his mind and how blank he had become, now that he was faced with doing the whole scene in one perfect take! He had tried to rehearse it again in his mind while Annie went to fetch the Great I Am, but he couldn't come up with any scenario. He was going to have to improvise, he was going to have to be himself.
"That's right, Jack, isn't it?" Annie said, sitting down on the couch at the opposite corner, completing yet another angle of this twisted triangle. "You and John were going to work together."
"Are going to work together, Annie," Steinhardt declared expansively. He gave Weller a peculiar look. "Surely we're evolved enough to clear up a minor misunderstanding about a standard security procedure," he said. "And that's all this existential crisis is all about, isn't it?" There seemed to be a definite edge of threat to his voice.
Is this his way of inviting me to let him forget about any blackmail threat for the sake of my own health? Weller wondered. Does that mean he'd rather not deal with it?
"Yeah, this is an existential crisis about a standard security procedure, John," Weller said. "You've got too many standard security procedures. But when you borrow one from the Nazis, even an unevolved type like me gets the point."
Annie shrank away from him in horror. Steinhardt gave him a look of what seemed like genuine hurt. "Come on, laddy-buck," he said, I've got to maintain security. This isn't a concentration camp, is it? It's more like the Manhattan Project. We're developing the atomic age of the mind here. We can't risk letting just anyone get ahold of what we have."
"Pardon me for being dense," Weller said dryly, "but why not? If you're supposed to be liberating minds, why don't you give all this wonderful benign knowledge to the world? That's what you'd be doing if you were what you pretend to be, John."
"Don't be a prick," Steinhardt said more harshly. "You know as well as I do that what we have would not exactly be benign in the hands of the current holders of worldly power. They'd just use it to sell dogfood to cat owners on TV and elect themselves to office. Universal Transformational knowledge is only benign in the hands of Transformational men. Before we can safely give it to the world, we have to create a Transformational world to give it to."
''The ends justify the means, right?" Weller said. "Pardon me for being so 1968, John, but you're talking like a fascist pig."
"Fascist pig!" Steinhardt exclaimed in wounded outrage. "I'm liberating the world from its frozen cultural matrices, its programmed consciousness, and you have the nerve to call me a fascist pig!''
''That's ridiculously awful, Jack!" Annie echoed.
"You're just replacing old programming with new programming of your own!"' Weller said angrily. ''That's what every fascist-in-liberator's-clothing says!"
Steinhardt leaned back into his chair, took a sip of his warming drink, and regarded Weller evenly and coolly. "I think I'm getting pissed off, bucko," he said. "I think I'm really getting pissed off."
"So am I," Weller said evenly, giving him a cold, level stare back. ''That's why I want out of here. I look at what you've done to Annie and to me and to dozens of people I've met since I found out you existed, and I just wish I didn't have to know there was any such thing as Transformationalism. I don't care how much you like me, I don't care what you can do for me, I think what you're doing sucks, and I just want no part of it, okay."
Annie goggled at him in horror, bolted from the couch, and perched herself on a chair across the room, clarifying the true geometry of the situation, even as he had finally made his rock-bottom feeling clear to both of them for the first time. And perhaps to himself as well.
''You don't want me for an enemy, Jack." Steinhardt said with more coldness than Weller had believed him capable of.
"You're right. I don't." Weller said. "I might if I thought I could do anything about you, but I know that I can't. You've taken my wife, you've pauperized me, you've cost me my job, you've messed with my mind, but you've also convinced me that you're too big for me to try to think about revenge. It's all too much for me, John. Just let me go."
Steinhardt took a sip of his drink. Annie exchanged glances with him as if pleading for Weller's boon. Steinhardt sighed, shrugged, frowned, shook his head. "Aw, come on, don't make me feel like a bad guy," he said unhappily. "You know I can't let you go. You know too much. I've unburdened the secrets of my soul to you. You've fucked my wife. And you're my favorite experiment. How can I give up on you? You're right, I've fucked you over, okay? So how can I leave you in this shape? I owe it to you to get you and Annie together, to eptify your messed-up mind, and to make you healthy, wealthy, famous, and wise."
"I don't want any of that, John. I just want out. I'd rather we shook hands on it, but I'll force you if I have to."
Weller held his breath as Steinhardt tapped his fingers on the lip of his glass. Now the cards were on the table and the final hand was about to be played.
"You're really going to try this blackmail thing on me?" Steinhardt finally said. "You're really going to reduce it to that level?"
"Only if I have to. If you'd just agree to let each other alone, the subject would never have to come up."
"The way you feel, it already is the subject," Steinhardt snapped. "How can I let you go after you've just spent so much energy convincing me you're a dangerous man with plenty of motivation for revenge?"
Weller's stomach sank. Oh my God, I didn't see that angle at all, he thought dismally. I just let my big mouth run off. "I ... I didn't mean that at all ... ," he stammered lamely. "I mean, I'm not an enemy of the movement. I don't want to end up like Richard Golden. I just want to live my own life and let you live yours."
Annie's mouth twisted into a moue of distaste, "You're groveling, Jack, it's disgusting," she said.
"If that's all it is," Steinhardt said shrewdly. He studied Weller. "How am I supposed to believe this live-and-let-live declaration from someone who admits he's ready to blackmail me? And from someone who's got some pretty good ammunition. I mean, Torrez is the expert, but it seems to me that Los Angeles's corporate Master Contact Sheet might really be potentially damaging. I'm supposed to trust you not to use it?"
"You know?" Waller gasped.
Steinhardt laughed. "You think the Monitors didn't search your house the night they grabbed you in Golden's apartment house? You think they didn't find it?"
"But ... but if you knew, they why did you let me get this far, all the way to the Institute?"
Steinhardt took a drink, set the glass down, and floated up out of his chair. "Where better to isolate a maximum security risk?" he said.
Weller found himself scrabbling desperately for mental purchase. "But ... but working on the film with you, getting drunk together, all the little games ...," he said. "You knew where I was coming from, and you played them anyway? Like a cat with a mouse!"
"You sell yourself short, laddy-buck," Steinhardt said, pacing the room ponderously. "And you sell me short too. All of that was sincere. I told you you were my favorite experiment, ever since you started screwing around with my wife. You've got balls, and you've got brains, and that's what I like even when it's fighting against me. You're a lad after me own heart, which is now breaking because you're forcing me to deal with you like the stupid regressive blackmailer you're determined to be."
"Please, Jack, listen to him," Annie begged. "You don't know what you're saying. You're throwing the best thing in your life away."
Steinhardt perched heavily on the far end of the couch. "She's right, you know," he said. "But aside from that, think of what you're trying to convince me of. That you've got information so damaging to Transformationalism that we'll agree to leave you alone for fear that you'll make it public if we don't. Isn't that right?"
"That's just about the size of it," Weller said woodenly, dazed by the way Steinhardt had pulled the rug out from under him.
"Well, isn't that an even better argument for fitting you with cement overshoes and taking you for a long walk on a short pier?" Steinhardt said, putting mocking menace into his voice, or perhaps making a very serious threat in a mocking way.
But whatever Steinhardt's true intent, he had suddenly given Weller something to cling to, he had revealed that the Great I Am knew everything in his hand but his high hole card. He doesn't know that killing me would just cause the Master Contact Sheet to go out to the whole wide world as a general press release in the worst possible circumstance! He doesn't know about the fail-safe mail drops.
"That's just what my little security procedure is meant to prevent, John," he said somewhat smugly. "I've multiple packets of press releases and letters to the authorities in secure mail drops. With instructions to drop them all in the mail unless they hear word to the contrary from me at short intervals. And the latest interval is almost up. If you don't release me or if anything should ever happen to me, the shit will hit the fan."
Steinhardt goggled at him. He seemed genuinely taken aback. "I'm supposed to believe that?" he said uncertainly. "How do I know it's not a bluff?"
"The only way you can find out is to call me on it." Weller said. "And neither of us would like the results of that, John."
Annie, who had shrunk back into herself during all this, now bolted from her chair, wringing her hands and looking pleadingly at Steinhardt. "I don't want to hear any more of this, John," she said desperately. ''It's too awful. I can't stand watching this happen."
"I can understand that," Steinhardt said. "Why don't you just leave it to me?"
Annie nodded woodenly and started toward the door. She hesitated, looked back at Weller. "Jack, unless John can help you, this is the end, this is --"
"We've already said good-bye, Annie," Weller said softly.
Annie nibbled at her lower lip, sobbed once, and sighed. "I guess we have," she said. And then she was gone.
"Jesus," Steinhardt groaned. "On top of everything I had to witness that scene. You're making me feel awful. What a mess! What am I supposed to do?"
"Why don't you just give in and admit I've got you beat?" Weller said.
"Who says you've got me beat?" Steinhardt said distractedly. "When Fred Torrez tells me you can get away with it, I'll believe you can get away with it. Security matters I leave to security experts. But man to man, Jack, what am I supposed to do to eptify my own consciousness in this situation?"
Steinhardt rose to his feet and began pacing again, his shoulders hunched forward under the towel he wore as a cloak; he seemed smaller, older, more human. "Look, kiddo, I'm not a monster. I messed up your life. I admit it. All I ever wanted to do was give you Transformational consciousness and reunite you with your old lady in eternal bliss and successfully find some way to bring creative people into Transformationalism without blowing out their lights. So what I've got now is a failed experiment and a guy who I've really hurt threatening to blackmail me in a way I cannot afford. How do I do what's right?"
"What do you think is right, John?" Weller said.
Steinhardt stood before him, threw up his arms, and suddenly grew expansive again. "What's right is I make up for what I've done!" he said. "I watch over you for the rest of your life like a guardian angel. I use my manifold connections to put your career on its feet. I prove to you that I'm sorry by never-ending good deeds. I win your forgiveness and successfully complete my experiment --"
Steinhardt stopped dead in mid-sentence. "Wait a minute!" he said. He sat down in his chair, swallowed down the remains of his drink. "I think I just heard me give myself an idea of cosmic significance," he said slowly. "Why not? Maybe that's the way to bring people like you into Transformationalism. Leave their minds alone until they're ready for the final transformation. Win their willing loyalty by being a benefactor, a facilitator, a lucky leprechaun patron of the arts."
He smiled benignly at Weller. "That's the life scenario I have in mind for you, bucko," he said. "Let you live your life and strew posies in your path to make up for what I've done and to prove to you that I really am the Way." He frowned. "I'd do it too, really I would, but --"
Steinhardt leaned forward, looked at him, and shrugged. "But you're a security problem," he said. "I mean, if you wouldn't trust me far enough to sign a few letters and postcards, why should I trust you to keep quiet about what you know?"
"How about my word on it?" Weller suggested quietly.
Steinhardt seemed to think that over seriously.
"How about because you believe I'm not dumb enough to want to end up like Richard Golden?" Weller said.
That seemed to sink in too.
"The risk you take by letting me go isn't as great as the risk you take that those press releases will go out if you don't," Weller suggested.
"I'd need a full Monitor analysis to be sure of that," Steinhardt muttered unconcernedly to himself. He seemed to have reached some decision.
Steinhardt beamed at Weller warmly now. "I'll do it, bucko," he said, "I'll do what's right if I can." He cocked his head, shrugged sardonically. "But I'm not taking any chances with my own ass. You're still a security problem. One that's too complicated for me to figure out without a lot more to drink."
He stood up, walked over to Weller, and shooed him to his feet. "Let's go," he said.
"To see Fred Torrez," Steinhardt said. "For technical problems I call in my technical experts. The deal is this, laddy-buck. I'm going to sit you in a room with Fred and listen to you convince him that the minimal-risk scenario is to let you go. If you can get Fred to admit that in my presence, I'll fly you back to L.A. first-class on my Learjet half an hour later." He clapped Weller around the shoulders and half dragged him out the door.
"But Torrez doesn't consider me exactly one of his favorite people," Weller complained.
Steinhardt winked at him. "For sure," he said. "That's why I'm willing to rely on his judgment. If you can convince him against his emotional bias, I'll know I've found the optimal scenario."
"And if I don't?"
"If Fred persuades me to hand you over to the Monitors, why then, I'll be persuaded to hand you over to the Monitors, won't I?" Steinhardt said. He laughed. "Out of habit, if nothing more, that's what he'll be trying to persuade me to do. If he succeeds, then you're in his tender hands. It should be quite a contest."
Seeing the outraged look on Weller's face, he stopped short and turned Weller around to face him, nose to red-veined nose.
"Be a man, Jack," he said. "Think of it as a chance to prove yourself worthy of my beneficence. A chance to really show what you can do."
He slapped Weller on the back and gave him a bloodshot stage wink. "I'll be rooting for you, kiddo," he said.
Steinhardt rushed Weller over to Institute Central at a waddling near trot, then left him to cool his heels in what seemed to amount to a cozy little cell while he went off to fetch Fred Torrez. No glaring white walls and bright lights here, just a matched set of brown leather couch and chairs, walnut incidental tables, soft pastel yellow walls, and a thick navy-blue carpet. Given an assortment of magazines on a table, it could've been a dentist's waiting room. Given Weller's state of trepidation, he might as well have been waiting for a session of particularly unpleasant dental surgery.
While he waited for Steinhardt to return with the Monitor chief, Weller tried to dope out a coherent strategy for the upcoming final confrontation without much success. He knew that he had aroused Torrez's ire at least twice in the past -- once by using Maria Steinhardt, and again after the Monitors had snatched him at Golden's place. Both times directives from John had prevented Torrez from doing his nastiest; first by allowing Maria to prevent Weller from being dealt with as a regressive after he had directly defied a Monitor life directive, and then by bringing him to the Institute after he was caught hobnobbing with a superregressive like Golden. Could he count on Steinhardt's support again, or had all of that been a scenario designed to inflame Torrez against him with this scene ultimately in mind? With Steinhardt, who could tell?
And what am I supposed to try to do here? Weller wondered in something of a daze. Convince Torrez that I'm really harmless? Or convince him that there's no way he can prevent those press packets from being released if they don't let me go? It seemed that Steinhardt had set it up so he had to do both simultaneously. And that seemed a contradiction in terms. Convince Torrez that a harmless nerd has Transformationalism by the balls? How the fuck am I supposed to do that?
Steinhardt returned fortified not only with a glowering Fred Torrez but with a fresh bottle of bourbon. He had thrown on a pale blue tennis outfit though his skin still glistened from suntan lotion, and he was carrying a clean-looking glass. Did that mean he intended this to be a little more civilized?
Steinhardt ushered the tense-looking Torrez to a chair opposite the couch on which Weller was sitting and took a position himself in a chair with a convenient end table, equi-distant from both of them, poured himself a drink, and slapped the bottle down on the table like a judge's gavel calling the court to order. Was that some kind of statement too? Weller wondered. Or have I really reached an eptified state of paranoia?
"Now Fred here has been fully briefed on the details," Steinhardt told him, "so Fred will conduct this proceeding while I watch the show and get soused. " He took a long drink to establish his intention and nodded to Torrez. "Over to you, Torquemada," he said.
"You may consider this a form of life analysis, Weller," Torrez said smoothly. But there was an extreme undertone of tension in his voice and a petulant annoyance in his expression that Weller sensed was partly directed at the forbidden target of Steinhardt himself. How is Steinhardt using this to run a number on Torrez? he found himself wondering. For suddenly it began to seem obvious that he was.
''I've been directed by John to recommend one of two alternative scenarios," Torrez continued. "Either you are to be terminated as a regressive and a severe security risk, or you are to be permitted to blackmail Transformationalism into letting you go free." He favored Weller with a vulpine smile. "Perhaps you can guess where my sympathies lie?" he said.
"Now, now, Fred," Steinhardt chided. "Do remember whose balls-up got us into this pickle."
Torrez flushed. So that's it! Weller thought. Sure, if I really do have a working fail-safe system for distributing the Master Contact Sheet to the press and the authorities, it means that the Monitors and Torrez let down the movement by not finding it out. In a way Torrez is on the carpet here too, and I'm interrogating him for John. He began to glimpse some light at the end of the tunnel.
"That's right, Torrez," Weller said. "You've got to certify me a liar to prove that you didn't screw up your job, don't you?"
"Well put, laddy-buck!" Steinhardt said.
Torrez glared at Weller.
"And you'd better put your feelings aside and be right this time, because either way, if you're wrong, you really put Transformationalism in the shits," Weller said, bearing in on Torrez to Steinhardt's open amusement.
"Fortunately emotions and logic sync perfectly in this instance, Weller," Torrez finally said, maintaining his control with a visible effort. "Because the question isn't whether you're telling the truth but simply whether you're more dangerous to Transformationalism alive than dead."
"Two points!" Steinhardt said.
Torrez smiled. "If you are terminated, your dangerous knowledge is terminated with you," he said. "Whereas if we let you go, you'll always be a threat. I don't really think this decision is going to be all that hard to make. Do you?"
"You're forgetting that if you don't let me go, the Master Contact Sheet will certainly be made public in a few days," Weller said.
"A long assumption, Weller," Torrez said. "First I must assume that you're telling the truth about these secure mail drops in the absence of corroborating reports, and secondly you assume that even if you do have redundant mail drops set up, we can't extract the locations from you and recover the material before it can be mailed."
"After which, you can safely terminate me?"
"As you suggest ...," Torrez said smoothly.
"Well, then you've just admitted that I have no percentage in talking, haven't you?" Weller said. ''I'm terminated either way."
"We have very swift and advanced ways of extracting information against your will," Torrez said, somewhat melo-dramatically.
"No doubt," Weller said. "But even if I told you who my mail drops were, you still wouldn't be able to do anything about it. I set it up that way." It was true. Wally Bruner's office was a fortress of security, what with all the borderline legal cases he handled. My agent keeps his files in a safe because he's paranoid about industrial espionage. Bob Shumway is nobody's schmuck. And Uncle Bill is a gun nut. No way they could stop all the packets from getting through with only a few days to work in.
"But then if that's true, you'll always be a threat if we let you go," Torrez said. "Technically speaking, we're confronted with the same problem whether we terminate you or not, even if you're telling the truth. So we have no advantage in not terminating you."
Steinhardt laughed. "I love it!" he cried. "It's the sport of kings!"
"But that's not true," Weller said uneasily. "If you let me go, nothing will happen. Because I'm offering you a fair deal, Torrez. As long as you leave me alone, I leave you alone."
Torrez snickered. "No doubt you'll even give your word on it," he said.
"That's right," Weller said coolly.
"Well, your word isn't good enough, Weller," Torrez said. "The risk is still immeasurable."
"Well, what about Richard Golden?" Weller said off the top of his head.
Torrez looked confused, and even Steinhardt seemed taken aback, which however, only seemed to intensify his interest and somehow amuse him.
"Sure, Golden has a thousand times the damaging material on Transformationalism that I do, yet you leave him alone." Weller said.
"You've met Golden," Torrez said. "Does he seem like someone who isn't being monitored, a free spirit?" It was meant to be menacing, but from the look on Steinhardt's face, it seemed as if Torrez was also trying to justify another unresolved mess to John.
"He's still alive," Weller said.
"Only because he'd be a bigger nuisance dead, maybe generating another round of investigations."
"Well, there you are. Let me go, and it's the exact same situation. It's the same situation already. I'm more potential trouble to you dead than alive. It's as simple as that."
Torrez seemed to unwind a notch. "Perhaps it is," he said. "We could handle you the way we handled Richard Golden." He smiled. He leaned back. "That's my recommendation, John," he said. "The same life scenario we worked out for Golden-type regressives."
He laughed. He beamed at Weller. "You'll like that, Weller," he said. "You'll be a free man. Just like Richard Golden. Afraid of your telephone, papering your windows with tinfoil, raving like a lunatic, and perhaps ultimately certifiable. There's your fair deal, Weller. You'll be an unemployable, discredited, raving paranoiac, but you'll be alive, and you'll be harmless. Congratulate yourself, Weller. You talked me into it."
Shuddering, but drawing courage from the horror of his predicament, Weller stared across the room at Steinhardt, the ultimate arbiter of his fate, who was grinning like an asshole as he poured himself another in an endless procession of drinks. I'm pissed off at this drunken fraudulent egomaniac! Weller decided. Terrified, but pissed off too.
"That's not what you promised me, John," he said indignantly. "You said if I convinced Torrez here to recommend that you let me go, you'd put me on your Learjet for the Coast and do nothing but sprinkle my paths with posies for the rest of my life. Or are you too swacked to remember what the fuck you said from one drink to the next?"
Steinhardt suddenly seemed to snap into sharp focus, his vision clear as a clean glass lens as he stared Weller down. "I remember everything I've said back to the World Science-Fiction Convention of 1956," Steinhardt informed him with amusement. "What I might have meant at the time is a different story."
"Be a man, you sot!" Weller snarled, infuriated by Steinhardt's welching evasion. "Live up to your word, John. Or are you willing to admit to yourself in front of Torrez here that your word means nothing?"
Torrez cringed at this, he glanced back and forth between Weller and Steinhardt, not knowing how he was supposed to react. Steinhardt glowered indignantly for a moment. He frowned. He smiled. He took a drink, stood up, and orated at Weller.
"You're right, laddy-buck," he said, "and I'll take it like a man. I'll show you that John B. Steinhardt has a sense of honor. I'll do exactly as I promised." Pacing, he turned to Torrez. "Life directive, Jack Weller, effective immediately. Jack Weller is to be flown to Los Angeles on my private jet and released. Upon good behavior, he is to be treated as a friend of Transformationalism."
''What!'' Torrez finally exploded. "You're releasing this dangerous regressive and making him your pet?"
Steinhardt held up his hand for peace. "Upon good behavior," he said, "which is to be verified by monthly Monitor updates submitted to me. If he deviates from his part of the bargain, further disposition of his case will be at your discretion."
Torrez subsided; grievously disappointed and even shamed, but given an obsession for watching Weller for a hoped-for sign of regression that he could fester over for life. As John no doubt intends, Weller thought. Now I've got a lucky leprechaun and a bloodhound on my trail for the rest of my life to make sure I'm a good boy.
"You understand the scenario, Jack?" Steinhardt asked.
"Perfectly," Weller said. "I intend to give you no cause to ever notice me again. I hope you'll do likewise. I know you'll be watching, but please let me live in ignorant bliss."
Steinhardt laughed. He clapped Weller on the back. "Bliss, I promise you, laddy-buck. It will always be yours for the taking."
He look sip of bourbon and shrugged sardonically as he started toward the door. "Ignorance, however," he said, "you'll have to handle on your own."
As Weller stood at the foot of the embarkation ramp between two Monitor guards, waiting apparently for some luggage to arrive, a golf cart careened madly out of the woods at the edge of the landing field and made for the plane. On it were two suitcases, a driver, and Annie.
The cart pulled up in front of the Learjet. The driver started loading the suitcases onto the plane. The two guards moved to a discrete distance. Annie stood before him radiating a strange calm.
"I thought we had already said good-bye," Weller said. "Several times."
"But we never got it right," Annie said. "I don't want to remember leaving you all wounded and hurt. And hating me. I want you to understand that it can't be you and me anymore -- not because I don't love you but because I feel happy and fulfilled now, and I can't lose that feeling or I'll die. I only hope you find your way to feeling like that someday, love. I'm sorry you're leaving yourself behind."
There was love, real love, in her heart, and Weller could not deny that to himself. But it was coming out all mixed in with Transformationalist programming. It was touching, it was horrifying; it was over, it was dead.
"Aud I'm feeling sorry for you, Annie," he said. "And that's no way to say good-bye either. So let's just agree that we're not the same people we once were and leave it at that. Two people loved each other once, and now they're gone."
"Thank you," Annie whispered. She touched his cheek for an instant and then darted away toward the woods.
Weller watched her recede in the distance for a long moment; then he turned his back on everything and boarded his getaway flight to the Coast.