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Kleisterman took a zeppelin to Denver, a feeder line to Pueblo, then transferred to a clattering local bus to Santa Fe. The bus was full of displaced Anglos who preferred the life of migrant fieldworker to the Oklahoma refugee camps, a few Cambodians, a few Indians, and a number of the poorer Hispanics, mostly mestizos—unemployables who had hoped that the liberation would mean the fulfillment of all their dreams, but who had instead merely found themselves working for rich Mexican caudillos rather than for millionaire Anglos. Most of the passengers had been across the border to blow their work vouchers in Denver or Carson City, and were now on their way back into Aztlan for another week’s picking. They slouched sullenly in their seats, some passed out from drink or God Food and already snoring, many wrapped in ponchos or old Army blankets against the increasing chill of the evening. They ignored Kleisterman, even though, in spite of his carefully anonymous clothes, he was clearly no field hand—and Kleisterman preferred it that way.

The bus was spavined and old, the seats broken in, the sticky vinyl upholstery smelling of sweat and smoke and ancient piss. A Greyhound logo had been chipped off the side and replaced by VIAJANDO AZTLAN. The bus rattled through the cold prairie night with exquisite slowness, farting and lurching, the transmission groaning and knocking every time the driver shifted gears. The heat didn’t work, or the interior lights, but Kleisterman sat stoically, not moving, as one by one the blaring radios faded and the crying babies quieted, until Kleisterman alone was awake in the chill darkness, his eyes gleaming in the shadows, shifting restlessly, never closing.

At some point during the night, they passed the Frontera Libertad, the Liberty Line, and its largely symbolic chain-link fence, and stopped at a checkpoint. A cyborg looked in, his great blank oval face glowing with sullen heat, like a dull rufous moon; he peered eyelessly at them for a thoughtful moment, then waved them on.

South of the border, in what had once been Colorado, they began to crawl up the long steep approach to the Raton Pass, the bus juttering and moaning like a soul in torment. Kleisterman was being washed by waves of exhaustion now, but in spite of them he slept poorly, fitfully, as he always did. It seemed as if every time his head dropped, his eyes closed, faces would spring to vivid life behind his eyelids, faces he did not want to encounter or consider, and his head would jerk up again, and his eyes would fly open, like suddenly released window shades. As always, he was afraid to dream . . . which only increased the bitter irony of his present mission. So he pinched himself cruelly to stay awake as the old bus inched painfully up and over the high mountain pass, and onto the Colorado Plateau.

At Raton, the bus stopped to take on more methane. The town was dark and seemingly deserted, the only light a dim bulb in the window of a ramshackle building that was being used as a fuel dump. Kleisterman stepped out of the bus and walked away from the circle of light to piss. It was very cold, and the inverted black bowl of sky overhead blazed with a million icy stars, more than Kleisterman had ever seen at once before. There was no sound except for a distant riverine roar of cold wind through the trees on the surrounding hillsides. His piss steamed in the milky starlight. As he watched, one of the stars overhead suddenly, noiselessly, flared into diamond brilliance, a dozen times as bright as it had been, and then faded, guttering, and was gone. Kleisterman knew that somewhere out there a killer satellite had found its prey, out there where the multinationals and the great conglomerates fought their silent and undeclared war, with weapons more obvious than those they usually allowed themselves to use on Earth. The wind shifted, blowing through the high valley now, cutting him to the bone with chill, and bringing with it the howling of wolves, a distant, feral keening that put the hair up along his spine in spite of himself. They were only the distant cousins of dogs, after all; just dogs, talking to one another on the wind. Still, the hairs stayed up.

Feet crunching gravel, Kleisterman went back to the bus and climbed aboard, found his iron-hard seat again in the darkness. In spite of the truly bitter cold, the air inside the bus was thick and stale, heavy with sleep, exhaled breath, spilled wine, sweat, the smell of cigarette smoke and marijuana and garlic. He huddled in his overcoat, shivering, and wondered whose satellite or station had just been lost, and if any of his old colleagues had had anything to do with the planning or execution of the strike. Possibly. Probably, even. Once again, he had to fight sleep, in spite of the cold. Once he turned his head and looked out of the window, and Melissa was there in the burnished silver moonlight, standing alongside the bus, staring up at him, and he knew that he had failed to stay awake, and jerked himself up out of sleep and into the close, stuffy darkness of the bus once again. Stillness. The other passengers tossed and murmured and farted. The moon had come out, a fat pale moon wading through a boiling river of smoky clouds, but Melissa was gone. Had not been there. Would not ever be anywhere anymore. Kleisterman found himself nodding again and pressed his face against the cold window glass, fighting it off. He would not dream. Not now. Not yet.

The bus sat unmoving in the silent town for an hour, two hours, three, for no reason Kleisterman could ascertain, and then the driver appeared again, from who knows where, climbed aboard muttering and swearing, slammed the door, twisted the engine into noisy, coughing life.

They rattled on through the night, winding down slowly out of the mountains, stopping here and there at small villages and communes to discharge passengers, the hung-over field hands climbing wordlessly from the bus and disappearing like spirits into the darkness, Kleisterman sleeping in split-second dozes. He woke from one such doze to see that the windows had turned red, red as though washed with new blood, and thought that he still slept; but it was the dawn, coming up from the broken badlands to the east, and they went down through the blood-red dawn to Santa Fe.

Kleisterman climbed stiffly down from the bus at Santa Fe. The sun had not yet warmed the air. It was still cold. The streets were filled with watery grey light, through which half-perceived figures moved with the stiff precision of early risers on a brisk morning. Kleisterman found a shabby cafe a block away from the bus station, ordered huevos rancheros and a bowl of green chili, was served the food by a sullen old Anglo woman wearing a faded Grateful Dead T-shirt. Unusually for Santa Fe, the food was terrible, tasting of rancid grease and ashes. Kleisterman spooned it up anyway, mechanically, taking it medicinally almost. As fuel. How long had it been since he’d really enjoyed a meal? All food seemed to taste dreadful to him these days. How long since he’d really had a full night’s sleep? His hand shook as he spooned beet sugar into his bitter chicory coffee. He’d always been a tall, thin, bony man, but the reflection the inside of the cafe’s window showed him was gaunt, emaciated, almost cadaverous. He’d lost a lot of weight. This could not go on . . . Grimly he checked through his preparations once again. This time he’d been very careful about being traced. He’d made his contacts with exquisite care. There should be no trouble.

He left the cafe. The light had become bluer, the shadows oil-black and sharp, the sky clear and cerulean. The sun was not yet high, but the streets were already full of people. Mexican soldiers were everywhere, of course, in their comic-opera uniforms, so absurdly ornate that it was difficult to tell a private from a general. Touring Swedish nationals, each with the scarlet King’s Mark tattoo on the right cheek, indicating that they were above most local law. Gangs of skinny Cambodian kids on skateboards whizzed by, threading their way expertly through the crowds, calling to one another in machine-gun-fast bursts of Spanish. A flat-faced Indian leaned from a storefront and swore at them in Vietnamese, shaking his fist. Two chimeras displayed for Kleisterman, inflating their hoods and hissing in playful malice, then sliding aside as he continued to walk toward them unperturbed. This was the kind of unregulated, wide-open town where he could find what he needed, out on the fringes, in the interstices of the worldwide networks, where things would not be watched so closely as elsewhere—no longer part of the United States but not really well integrated into Old Mexico either, with a limited official presence of the multinationals, but plenty of black-market money circulating anyway.

He crossed the plaza, with its ancient Palace of the Governors, which had seen first Spanish, then Anglo, now Mexican conquerors come and go. There were slate-grey thunderheads looming over the peaks of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, which in turn loomed over the town. There was a New Town being built to the southeast, on the far side of the mostly dry Santa Fe River, a megastructure of bizarre geometric shapes, all terraces and tetrahedrons; but here in the Old Town the buildings were still made of adobe or mock adobe, colored white or salmon or peach. He threaded a maze of little alleyways and enclosed courtyards on the far side of the plaza, the noise of the plaza fading away behind, and came at last to a narrow building of sun-faded adobe that displayed a small brass plaque that read DR. AU-CONSULTATIONS.

Trembling a little, Kleisterman climbed a dusty stairwell to a third-floor office at the back of a long, dim hallway. Dr. Au turned out to be one of those slender, ageless Oriental men of indeterminate nationality who might have been fifty or eighty. Spare, neat, dry, phlegmatic. The name was Chinese, but Kleisterman suspected that he might actually be Vietnamese, as his English held the slightest trace of a French accent. He had a sad, compassionate face, and hard eyes. An open, unscreened window looked out through the thick adobe wall to an enclosed courtyard with a cactus garden below. The furniture was nondescript, well-used, and the carpet dusty and threadbare, but an exquisite hologram of Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi moved and glittered in muted colors on the bare white walls, and the tastefully discreet ankh earring in the doctor’s left earlobe might well have been real silver. There was no receptionist—just a desk with a complex of office terminals, a few faded armchairs, and Dr. Au.

Kleisterman could feel his heart pounding and his vision blurring as he and Dr. Au engaged in an intricate pavane of hints and innuendo and things not quite said, code words and phrases being mentioned in passing with artful casualness, contacts named, references mentioned and discussed. Dr. Au moved with immense wariness and delicacy, at every stage ready to instantly disengage, always phrasing things so that there was a completely innocent interpretation that could be given his words, while Kleisterman was washed by alternate waves of impatience, fear, rage, despair, muddy black exhaustion, ennui. At last, however, they reached a point beyond which it would no longer be possible to keep up the pretense that Kleisterman had come here for some legal purpose, a point beyond which both men could not proceed without committing themselves. Dr. Au sighed, made a fatalistic gesture, and said, “Well, then, Mr.”—glancing at the card on his desk—“Ramirez, what can I do for you?”

Terror rose up in Kleisterman then. Almost, almost, he got up and fled. But he mastered himself. And as he pushed instinctual fear down, guilt and self-hate and anger rose, black and bristling and strong. None of this had reached his face.

“I want you to destroy me,” Kleisterman said calmly.

Dr. Au looked first surprised, then wary—reassessing the situation for signs of potential entrapment—then, after a pause, almost regretful. “I must say, this is somewhat out of our line. We’re usually asked to supply illicit fantasies, clandestine perversions, occasionally a spot of nonconsensual behavior modification.” He looked at Kleisterman with curiosity. “Have you thought about this? Do you really mean what you say?”

Kleisterman was as cool as ice now, although his hands still trembled. “Yes, I mean it. I used to be in the business; I used to be an operator myself, so I can assure you that I understand the implications perfectly. I want to die. I want you to kill me. But that’s not all. Oh, no.” Kleisterman leaned forward, his gaunt face intense. His voice rose. “I want you to destroy me. I want you to make me suffer. You’re an operator, an adept, you know what I mean. Not just pain; anybody can do that. I want you to make me pay.” Kleisterman slumped back in his chair, made a tired gesture. “I know you can do it; I know you’ve done it. I know you are discreet. And when you’re done with me, a hundred years subjective from now, you can get rid of my body, discreetly, and no one will ever know what happened to me. It will be as if I had never existed.” His voice roughened. “As if I had never been born. Would to God I had not been.”

Dr. Au made a noncommittal noise, tapped his fingers together thoughtfully. His face was tired and sad, as though in his life he had been made to see more deeply than he cared to into the human soul. His eyes glittered with interest. After a polite pause, he said, “You must be quite certain of this, for later there will be no turning back. Are you sure you won’t reconsider?”

Kleisterman made an impatient, despairing gesture. “I could have put a bullet in my head at any time, but that means nothing. It’s not enough, not nearly enough. There must be retribution. There must be restitution. I must be made to pay for what I have done. Only this way can I find solace.”

“Even so . . .” Dr. Au said, doubtfully.

Kleisterman held up his hand. Moving with slow deliberation, he reached into an inner pocket, produced a coded credit strip. “All my assets,” he said, “and they are considerable.” He held the credit slip up for display, then proffered it to Dr. Au. “I want you to destroy me,” he said.

Dr. Au sighed. He looked left, he looked right, he looked down, he looked up. His face was suffused with dull embarrassment. But he took the credit strip.

Dr. Au ushered Kleisterman politely into an adjacent room, stood by with sad patience while Kleisterman removed his clothing. At a touch, a large metal egg rose from the floor, opened like a five-petaled flower, extruded a narrow metal bench or shelf. Dr. Au gestured brusquely; Kleisterman lay down on the bench, wincing at the touch of cold metal on his naked skin. Dr. Au leaned close over him, his face remote now and his movements briskly efficient, as though to get it all over with quickly. He taped soft cloth pads first over Kleisterman’s left eye, then over his right. There was a feeling of motion, and Kleisterman knew that the metal shelf was sliding back into the machine, which would be retracting around it, the petals closing tight to form a featureless steel egg, with him inside.

Darkness. Silence.

At first, Kleisterman was aware of a sense of enclosure, was aware of the feel of the metal under his back, could even stir a little, move his fingers impatiently. But then his skin began to prickle over every inch of his body, as feathery probes made contact with his nerve endings, and, as the prickling began to fade, with it went all other sensation. He could no longer feel his body, no longer move; no longer wanted to move. He didn’t have a body anymore. There was nothing. Not even darkness, not even silence. Nothing. Nonexistence.

Kleisterman floated in the void, waiting for the torment to begin.

This kind of machine had many names—simulator, dream machine, iron maiden, imager, shadow box. It fed coded impulses through the subject’s nerves, directly into the brain. With it, the operator could make the subject experience anything. Pain, of course. Any amount of pain. With a simulator, you could torture someone to death again and again, for years of subjective time, without doing them any actual physical harm—not much comfort for the subject in that, though, since to them the experience would be indistinguishable from objective reality. Of course, the most expert operators scorned this sort of thing as hopelessly crude, lacking in all finesse. Not artistic. Pain was only one key that could be played. There were many others. The subject had no secrets, and, with access to the subject’s deepest longings and most hidden fears, the skilled operator, the artisan, the clever craftsman, could devise cunning scenarios much more effective than pain.

Kleisterman had been such an operator, one of the best, admired by his colleagues for his subtlety and ingenuity and skill. He had clandestinely “processed” thousands of subjects for his multinational, and had never felt a qualm, until suddenly one day, for no particular reason, he began to sicken. After Donaldson, Ramaswamy, and Kole, three especially difficult and unpleasant jobs, he had sickened further, and, for the first time in his life, began to have difficulty sleeping and, when he did sleep, began to have unquiet dreams. Then Melissa had somehow become the target of corporate malice, and had been sent to him for his ministrations. By rights, he should have declined the job, since he knew Melissa, and had even had a brief affair with her once, years before. But he had had his professional pride. He did not turn down the job. And somewhere deep in her mind, he had found himself, an ennobled and idealized version of himself as he had never been, and he realized that while for him their affair had been unimportant, for her it had been much more intensely charged—that, in fact, she had loved him deeply, and still did.

This discovery brought out the very worst in him, and in a fever of sick excitement, he created scenario after scenario for her, life after life, each scenario working some variation on the theme of her love for him; and each time, “his” treatment of her in the scenario became worse, his betrayal of her uglier and more humiliating, the pain and shame and anguish he visited on her more severe. He turned the universe against her in grotesque ways, too, so that in one life she died in a car wreck on the way to her own wedding, and in another life she died slowly and messily of cancer, and in another she was hideously disfigured in a fire, and in another she had a stroke and lingered on for years as a semi-aware paralytic in a squalid nursing home, and so on. Each life began to color the next, not with specific memories of other existences, but with a dark emotional residue, an unspoken, instinctual conviction that life was drab and bitter and harsh, with nothing to look forward to but defeat and misery and pain, that the dice were stacked hopelessly against you—as, in fact, they were. Then, tiring of subtlety, irresistibly tempted to put aside his own aesthetic precepts, he began to hit her, in the scenarios—at first just slapping her around in drunken rages, then beating her severely enough to put her in the hospital. Then, in one scenario, he picked up a knife.

Several lifetimes subjective later, the heart in her physical body finally gave out, and she died in a way that was no more real to her than the dozens of times she’d died before, but which put her at last beyond his reach. He had been dismayed to discover that in the deepest recesses of her mind, below the fear and hate and bitterness and grief, she loved him still, even at the last. He switched off the machine, and he awoke, as from a fever dream, as though he had been possessed by a demon of perversity that had only now been exorcised, to find himself alone in his soundproofed cubicle with the simulator and Melissa’s cooling body. He betrayed the corporation on his next assignment, freeing the subject rather than “processing” him, and from then on he had been on the run. He had found that he could successfully hide from the multinational. Hiding from himself had proved more difficult.

Light exploded in his head. It took a second for his vision to adjust, and to realize that the patch over his left eye had been removed. Dr. Au leaned in over him again, filling his field of vision like a god, and this time Kleisterman felt the painful yank of tape against his skin as Dr. Au ripped the other eye patch free. More light. Kleisterman blinked, disoriented and confused. He was out of the machine. Dr. Au was tugging at him, getting him to sit up. Dr. Au was saying something, but it was a blare of noise, harsh and hurtful to the ears. He pawed at Kleisterman again, and Kleisterman shook him off. Kleisterman sat, head down, on the edge of the metal bench until his senses readjusted to the world again, and his mind cleared. His skin prickled as sensation returned.

Dr. Au tugged at Kleisterman’s arm. “A red security flag came up on your credit account,” Dr. Au said. His voice was anxious, and his face was pinched with fear. “There was a security probe; I barely avoided it. You must leave. I want you out of here right away.”

Kleisterman stared at him. “But you agreed—” he said thickly.

“I want nothing to do with you, Mr. Ramirez,” Dr. Au said apprehensively. “Here, take your clothes, get dressed. You have some very ruthless forces opposed to you, Mr. Ramirez. I want nothing to do with them, either. No trouble. Leave now. Take your business elsewhere.”

Slowly, Kleisterman dressed, manipulating the clothes with stiff, clumsy fingers while Dr. Au hovered anxiously. The office was filled with watery grey light that seemed painfully bright after the darkness inside the simulator. Dust motes danced in suspension in the light, and a fly hopped along the adobe edge of the open window before darting outside again. A dog was barking out there somewhere, a flat, faraway sound, and a warm breeze puffed in for a second to ruffle his hair and bring him the smell of pine and juniper. He was perceiving every smallest detail with exquisite clarity.

Kleisterman pushed wordlessly by Dr. Au, walked through the outer office and out into the dusty hallway beyond. The floor was scuffed, grime between the tiles, and there were peeling water stains on the ceiling. A smell of cooking food came up the stairwell. This is real, Kleisterman told himself fiercely. This is real, this is really happening, this is the real world. The multinational boys aren’t subtle enough for this; they wouldn’t be satisfied with just denying me solace. Letting me go on. They’re not that subtle.

Are they? Are they?

Kleisterman went down the narrow stairs. He dragged his fist against the rough adobe wall until his knuckles bled, but he couldn’t convince himself that any of it was real.

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