On the streets of Hanoi he found himself facing a legless peddler who rode a little wooden cart and called shrilly to every passer-by. Chien slowed, listened, but did not stop; business at the Ministry of Cultural Artifacts cropped into his mind and deflected his attention: it was as if he were alone, and none of those on bicycles and scooters and jet-powered motorcycles remained. And likewise it was as if the legless peddler did not exist.
"Comrade," the peddler called, however, and pursued him on his cart; a helium battery operated the drive and sent the cart scuttling expertly after Chien. "I possess a wide spectrum of time-tested herbal remedies complete with testimonials from thousands of loyal users; advise me of your malady and I can assist."
Chien, pausing, said, "Yes, but I have no malady." Except, he thought, for the chronic one of those employed by the Central Committee, that of career opportunism testing constantly the gates of each official position. Including mine.
"I can cure for example radiation sickness," the peddler chanted, still pursuing him. "Or expand, if necessary, the element of sexual prowess. I can reverse carcinomatous progressions, even the dreaded melanomae, what you would call black cancers." Lifting a tray of bottles, small aluminum cans and assorted powders in plastic jars, the peddler sang, "If a rival persists in trying to usurp your gainful bureaucratic position, I can purvey an ointment which, appearing as a dermal balm, is in actuality a desperately effective toxin. And my prices, comrade, are low. And as a special favor to one so distinguished in bearing as yourself I will accept the postwar inflationary paper dollars reputedly of international exchange but in reality damn near no better than bathroom tissue."
"Go to hell," Chien said, and signaled a passing hover-car taxi; he was already three and one half minutes late for his first appointment of the day, and his various fat-assed superiors at the Ministry would be making quick mental notations -- as would, to an even greater degree, his subordinates.
The peddler said quietly, "But, comrade; you must buy from me."
"Why?" Chien demanded. Indignation.
"Because, comrade, I am a war veteran. I fought in the Colossal Final War of National Liberation with the People's Democratic United Front against the Imperialists; I lost my pedal extremities at the battle of San Francisco." His tone was triumphant, now, and sly. "It is the law. If you refuse to buy wares offered by a veteran you risk a fine and possible jail sentence -- and in addition disgrace."
Wearily, Chien nodded the hovercab on. "Admittedly," he said. "Okay, I must buy from you." He glanced summarily over the meager display of herbal remedies, seeking one at random. "That," he decided, pointing to a paper-wrapped parcel in the rear row.
The peddler laughed. "That, comrade, is a spermatocide, bought by women who for political reasons cannot qualify for The Pill. It would be of shallow use to you, in fact none at all, since you are a gentleman."
"The law," Chien said bitingly, "does not require me to purchase anything useful from you; only that I purchase something. I'll take that." He reached into his padded coat for his billfold, huge with the postwar inflationary bills in which, four times a week, he as a government servant was paid.
"Tell me your problems," the peddler said.
Chien stared at him, appalled by the invasion of privacy -- and done by someone outside the government.
"All right, comrade," the peddler said, seeing his expression. "I will not probe; excuse me. But as a doctor -- an herbal healer -- it is fitting that I know as much as possible." He pondered, his gaunt features somber. "Do you watch television unusually much?" he asked abruptly.
Taken by surprise, Chien said, "Every evening. Except on Friday, when I go to my club to practice the esoteric imported art from the defeated West of steer-roping." It was his only indulgence; other than that he had totally devoted himself to Party activities.
The peddler reached, selected a gray paper packet. "Sixty trade dollars," he stated. "With a full guarantee; if it does not do as promised, return the unused portion for a full and cheery refund."
"And what," Chien said cuttingly, "is it guaranteed to do?"
"It will rest eyes fatigued by the countenance of meaningless official monologues," the peddler said. "A soothing preparation; take it as soon as you find yourself exposed to the usual dry and lengthy sermons which --"
Chien paid the money, accepted the packet, and strode off. Balls, he said to himself. It's a racket, he decided, the ordinance setting up war vets as a privileged class. They prey off us -- we, the younger ones -- like raptors.
Forgotten, the gray packet remained deposited in his coat pocket as he entered the imposing Postwar Ministry of Cultural Artifacts building, and his own considerable stately office, to begin his workday.
A portly, middle-aged Caucasian male, wearing a brown Hong Kong silk suit, double-breasted with vest, waited in his office. With the unfamiliar Caucasian stood his own immediate superior, Ssu-Ma Tso-pin. Tso-pin introduced the two of them in Cantonese, a dialect which he used badly.
"Mr. Tung Chien, this is Mr. Darius Pethel. Mr. Pethel will be headmaster at the new ideological and cultural establishment of didactic character soon to open at San Fernando, California." He added, "Mr. Pethel has had a rich and full lifetime supporting the people's struggle to unseat imperialist-bloc countries via pedagogic media; therefore this high post." They shook hands.
"Tea?" Chien asked the two of them; he pressed the switch of his infrared hibachi and in an instant the water in the highly ornamented ceramic pot -- of Japanese origin -- began to burble. As he seated himself at his desk he saw that trustworthy Miss Hsi had laid out the information poop-sheet (confidential) on Comrade Pethel; he glanced over it; meanwhile pretending to be doing nothing in particular.
"The Absolute Benefactor of the People," Tso-pin said, "has personally met Mr. Pethel and trusts him. This is rare. The school in San Fernando will appear to teach run-of-the-mill Taoist philosophies but will, of course, in actuality maintain for us a channel of communication to the liberal and intellectual youth segment of western U.S. There are many of them still alive, from San Diego to Sacramento; we estimate at least ten thousand. The school will accept two thousand. Enrollment will be mandatory for those we select. Your relationship to Mr. Pethel's programming is grave. Ahem; your tea water is boiling."
"Thank you," Chien murmured, dropping in the bag of Lipton's tea.
Tso-pin continued, "Although Mr. Pethel will supervise the setting up of the courses of instruction presented by the school to its student body, all examination papers will, oddly enough, be relayed here to your office for your own expert, careful, ideological study. In other words, Mr. Chien, you will determine who among the two thousand students is reliable, which are truly responding to the programming and who is not."
"I will now pour my tea," Chien said, doing so ceremoniously.
"What we have to realize," Pethel rumbled in Cantonese even worse than that of Tso-pin, "is that, once having lost the global war to us, the American youth has developed a talent for dissembling." He spoke the last word in English; not understanding it, Chien turned inquiringly to his superior.
"Lying," Tso-pin explained.
Pethel said, "Mouthing the proper slogans for surface appearance, but on the inside believing them false. Test papers by this group will closely resemble those of genuine --"
"You mean that the test papers of two thousand students will be passing through my office?" Chien demanded. He could not believe it. "That's a full-time job in itself; I don't have time for anything remotely resembling that." He was appalled. "To give critical, official approval or denial of the astute variety which you're envisioning --" He gestured. "Screw that," he said, in English.
Blinking at the strong, Western vulgarity, Tso-pin said, "You have a staff. Plus you can requisition several more from the pool; the Ministry's budget, augmented this year, will permit it. And remember: the Absolute Benefactor of the People has hand-picked Mr. Pethel." His tone, now, had become ominous, but only subtly so. Just enough to penetrate Chien's hysteria, and to wither it into submission. At least temporarily. To underline his point, Tso-pin walked to the far end of the office; he stood before the full-length 3-D portrait of the Absolute Benefactor, and after an interval his proximity triggered the tape-transport mounted behind the portrait; the face of the Benefactor moved, and from it came a familiar homily, in more than familiar accents. "Fight for peace, my sons," it intoned gently, firmly.
"Ha," Chien said, still perturbed, but concealing it. Possibly one of the Ministry's computers could sort the examination papers; a yes-no-maybe structure could be employed, in conjunction with a pre-analysis of the pattern of ideological correctness -- and incorrectness. The matter could be made routine. Probably.
Darius Pethel said, "I have with me certain material which I would like you to scrutinize, Mr. Chien." He unzipped an unsightly, old-fashioned, plastic briefcase. "Two examination essays," he said as he passed the documents to Chien. "This will tell us if you're qualified." He then glanced at Tso-pin; their gazes met. "I understand," Pethel said, "that if you are successful in this venture you will be made vice-councilor of the Ministry, and His Greatness the Absolute Benefactor of the People will personally confer Kisterigian's medal on you." Both he and Tso-pin smiled in wary unison.
"The Kisterigian medal," Chien echoed; he accepted the examination papers, glanced over them in a show of leisurely indifference. But within him his heart vibrated in ill-concealed tension. "Why these two? By that I mean, what am I looking for, sir?"
"One of them," Pethel said, "is the work of a dedicated progressive, a loyal Party member of thoroughly researched conviction. The other is by a young stilyagi whom we suspect of holding petit-bourgeois imperialist degenerate crypto-ideas. It is up to you, sir, to determine which is which."
Thanks a lot, Chien thought. But, nodding, he read the title of the top paper.
DOCTRINES OF THE ABSOLUTE BENEFACTOR
ANTICIPATED IN THE POETRY OF BAHA AD-DIN ZUHAYR
OF THIRTEENTH-CENTURY ARABIA.
Glancing down the initial pages of the essay, Chien saw a quatrain familiar to him; it was called "Death," and he had known it most of his adult, educated life.
"Powerful," Chien said. "This poem."
"He makes use of the poem," Pethel said, observing Chien's lips moving as he reread the quatrain, "to indicate the age-old wisdom, displayed by the Absolute Benefactor in our current lives, that no individual is safe; everyone is mortal, and only the supra-personal, historically essential cause survives. As it should be. Would you agree with him? With this student, I mean? Or --" Pethel paused. "Is he in fact perhaps satirizing the Absolute Benefactor's promulgations?"
Cagily, Chien said, "Give me a chance to inspect the other paper."
"You need no further information; decide."
Haltingly, Chien said, "I -- I had never thought of this poem that way." He felt irritable. "Anyhow, it isn't by Baha ad-Din Zuhayr; it's part of the Thousand and One Nights anthology. It is, however, thirteenth century; I admit that." He quickly read over the text of the paper accompanying the poem. It appeared to be a routine, uninspired rehash of Party cliches, all of them familiar to him from birth. The blind, imperialist monster who moved down and snuffed out (mixed metaphor) human aspiration, the calculations of the still extant anti-Party group in eastern United States. . . He felt dully bored, and as uninspired as the student's paper. We must persevere, the paper declared. Wipe out the Pentagon remnants in the Catskills, subdue Tennessee and most especially the pocket of die-hard reaction in the red hills of Oklahoma. He sighed.
"I think," Tso-pin said, "we should allow Mr. Chien the opportunity of observing this difficult matter at his leisure." To Chien he said, "You have permission to take them home to your condominium, this evening, and adjudge them on your own time." He bowed, half mockingly, half solicitously. In any case, insult or not, he had gotten Chien off the hook, and for that Chien was grateful.
"You are most kind," he murmured, "to allow me to perform this new and highly stimulating labor on my own time. Mikoyan, were he alive today, would approve." You bastard, he said to himself. Meaning both his superior and the Caucasian Pethel. Handing me a hot potato like this, and on my own time. Obviously the CP U.S.A. is in trouble; its indoctrination academies aren't managing to do their job with the notoriously mulish, eccentric Yank youths. And you've passed that hot potato on and on until it reaches me.
Thanks for nothing, he though acidly.
That evening in his small but well-appointed condominium apartment he read over the other of the two examination papers, this one by a Marion Culper, and discovered that it, too, dealt with poetry. Obviously this was speciously a poetry class, and he felt ill. It had always run against his grain, the use of poetry -- of any art -- for social purposes. Anyhow, comfortable in his special spine-straightening, simulated-leather easy chair, he lit a Cuesta Rey Number One English Market immense corona cigar and began to read.
The writer of the paper, Miss Culper, had selected as her text a portion of a poem of John Dryden, the seventeenth-century English poet, final lines from the well-known "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day."
Well, that's a hell of a thing, Chien thought to himself bitingly. Dryden, we're supposed to believe, anticipated the fall of capitalism? That's what he meant by the "crumbling pageant"? Christ. He leaned over to take hold of his cigar and found that it had gone out. Groping in his pockets for his Japanese-made lighter, he half rose to his feet.
Tweeeeeee! the TV set at the far end of the living room said.
Aha, Chien thought. We're about to be addressed by the Leader. By the Absolute Benefactor of the People, up there in Peking, where he's lived for ninety years now; or is it one hundred? Or, as we sometimes like to think of him, the Ass --
"May the ten thousand blossoms of abject self-assumed poverty flower in your spiritual courtyard," the TV announcer said. With a groan, Chien rose to his feet, bowed the mandatory bow of response; each TV set came equipped with monitoring devices to narrate to the Secpol, the Security Police, whether its owner was bowing and/or watching.
On the screen a clearly defined visage manifested itself, the wide, unlined, healthy features of the one-hundred-and-twenty-year-old leader of CP East, ruler of many -- far too many, Chien reflected. Blah to you, he thought, and reseated himself in his simulated-leather easy chair, now facing the TV screen.
"My thoughts," the Absolute Benefactor said in his rich and slow tones, "are on you, my children. And especially on Mr. Tung Chien of Hanoi, who faces a difficult task ahead, a task to enrich the people of Democratic East, plus the American West Coast. We must think in unison about this noble, dedicated man and the chore which he faces, and I have chosen to take several moments of my time to honor him and encourage him. Are you listening, Mr. Chien?"
"Yes, Your Greatness," Chien said, and pondered to himself the odds against the Party Leader singling him out this particular evening. The odds caused him to feel uncomradely cynicism; it was unconvincing. Probably this transmission was being beamed into his apartment building alone -- or at least to this city. It might also be a lip-synch job, done at Hanoi TV, Incorporated. In any case he was required to listen and watch -- and absorb. He did so, from a lifetime of practice. Outwardly he appeared to be rigidly attentive. Inwardly he was still mulling over the two test papers, wondering which was which; where did devout Party enthusiasm end and sardonic lampoonery begin? Hard to say. . . which of course explained why they had dumped the task in his lap.
Again he groped in his pockets for his lighter -- and found the small gray envelope which the war-veteran peddler had sold him. Gawd, he thought, remembering what it had cost. Money down the drain and what did this herbal remedy do? Nothing. He turned the packet over and saw, on the back, small printed words. Well, he thought, and began to unfold the packet with care. The words had snared him -- as of course they were meant to do.
He read rapidly through the text, ignoring its claims, seeking to find out what he had purchased.
Meanwhile the Absolute Benefactor droned on.
Snuff. The package contained snuff. Countless tiny black grains, like gunpowder, which sent up an interesting aromatic to tickle his nose. The title of the particular blend was Princes Special, he discovered. And very pleasing, he decided. At one time he had taken snuff -- smoking tobacco for a time having been illegal for reasons of health -- back during his student days at Peking U; it had been the fad, especially the amatory mixes prepared in Chungking, made from God knew what. Was this that? Almost any aromatic could be added to snuff, from essence of organe to pulverized baby-crab. . . or so some seemed, especially an English mixture called High Dry Toast which had in itself more or less put an end to his yearning for nasal, inhaled tobacco. On the TV screen the Absolute Benefactor rumbled monotonously on as Chien sniffed cautiously at the powder, read the claims -- it cured everything from being late to work to falling in love with a woman of dubious political background. Interesting. But typical of claims --
His doorbell rang.
Rising, he walked to the door, opened it with full knowledge of what he would find. There, sure enough, stood Mou Kuei, the Building Warden, small and hard-eyed and alert to his task; he had his arm band and metal helmet on, showing that he meant business. "Mr. Chien, comrade Party worker. I received a call from the television authority. You are failing to watch your television screen and are instead fiddling with a packet of doubtful content." He produced a clipboard and ballpoint pen. "Two red marks, and hithertonow you are summarily ordered to repose yourself in a comfortable, stress-free posture before your screen and give the Leader your unexcelled attention. His words, this evening, are directed particularly to you, sir; to you."
"I doubt that," Chien heard himself say.
Blinking, Kuei said, "What do you mean?"
"The Leader rules eight billion comrades. He isn't going to single me out." He felt wrathful; the punctuality of the warden's reprimand irked him.
Kuei said, "But I distinctly heard with my own ears. You were mentioned."
Going over to the TV set, Chien turned the volume up. "But now he's talking about failures in People's India; that's of no relevance to me."
"Whatever the Leader expostulates is relevant." Mou Kuei scratched a mark on his clipboard sheet, bowed formally, turned away. "My call to come up here to confront you with your slackness originated at Central. Obviously they regard your attention as important; I must order you to set in motion your automatic transmission recording circuit and replay the earlier portions of the Leader's speech."
Chien farted. And shut the door.
Back to the TV set, he said to himself. Where our leisure hours are spent. And there lay the two student examination papers; he had that weighing him down, too. And all on my own time, he thought savagely. The hell with them. Up theirs. He strode to the TV set, started to shut it off; at once a red warning light winked on, informing that he did not have permission to shut off the set -- could not in fact end its tirade and image even if he unplugged it. Mandatory speeches, he thought, will kill us all, bury us; if I could be free of the noise of speeches, free of the din of the Party baying as it hounds mankind. . .
There was no known ordinance, however, preventing him from taking snuff while he watched the Leader. So, opening the small gray packet, he shook out a mound of the black granules onto the back of his left hand. He then, professionally, raised his hand to his nostrils and deeply inhaled, drawing the snuff well up into his sinus cavities. Imagine the old superstition, he thought to himself. That the sinus cavities are connected to the brain, and hence an inhalation of snuff directly affects the cerebral cortex. He smiled, seated himself once more, fixed his gaze on the TV screen and the gesticulating individual known so utterly to them all.
The face dwindled away, disappeared. The sound ceased. He faced an emptiness, a vacuum. The screen, white and blank, confronted him and from the speaker a faint hiss sounded.
The frigging snuff, he said to himself. And inhaled greedily at the remainder of the powder on his hand, drawing it up avidly into his nose, his sinuses, and, or so it felt, into his brain; he plunged into the snuff, absorbing it elatedly.
The screen remained blank and then, by degrees, an image once more formed and established itself. It was not the Leader. Not the Absolute Benefactor of the People, in point of fact not a human figure at all.
He faced a dead mechanical construct, made of solid state circuits, of swiveling pseudopodia, lenses and a squawk-box. And the box began, in a droning din, to harangue him.
Staring fixedly, he thought, What is this? Reality? Hallucination, he thought. The peddler came across some of the psychedelic drugs used during the War of Liberation -- he's selling the stuff and I've taken some, taken a whole lot!
Making his way unsteadily to the vidphone, he dialed the Secpol station nearest his building. "I wish to report a pusher of hallucinogenic drugs," he said into the receiver.
"Your name, sir, and conapt location?" Efficient, brisk and impersonal bureaucrat of the police.
He gave them the information, then haltingly made it back to his simulated-leather easy chair, once again to witness the apparition on the TV screen. This is lethal, he said to himself. It must be some preparation developed in Washington, D.C., or London -- stronger and stranger than the LSD-25 which they dumped so effectively into our reservoirs. And I thought it was going to relieve me of the burden of the Leader's speeches. . . this is far worse, this electronic, sputtering, swiveling, metal and plastic monstrosity yammering away -- this is terrifying.
To have to face this the remainder of my life --
It took ten minutes for the Secpol two-man team to come rapping at his door. And by then, in a deteriorating set of stages, the familiar image of the Leader had seeped back into focus on the screen, had supplanted the horrible artificial construct which waved its podia and squalled on and on. He let the two cops in shakily, led them to the table on which he had left the remains of the snuff in its packet.
"Psychedelic toxin," he said thickly. "Of short duration. Absorbed into the bloodstream directly, through nasal capillaries. I'll give you details as to where I got it, from whom, all that." He took a deep shaky breath; the presence of the police was comforting.
Ballpoint pens ready, the two officers waited. And all the time, in the background, the Leader rattled out his endless speech. As he had done a thousand evenings before in the life of Tung Chien. But, he thought, it'll never be the same again, at least not for me. Not after inhaling that near-toxic snuff.
He wondered, Is that what they intended?
It seemed odd to him, thinking of a they. Peculiar -- but somehow correct. For an instant he hesitated, to giving out the details, not telling the police enough to find the man. A peddler, he started to say. I don't know where; can't remember. But he did; he remembered the exact street intersection. So, with unexplainable reluctance, he told them.
"Thank you, comrade Chien." The boss of the team of police carefully gathered up the remaining snuff -- most of it remained -- and placed it in his uniform -- smart, sharp uniform -- pocket. "We'll have it analyzed at the first available moment," the cop said, "and inform you immediately in case counter-medical measures are indicated for you. Some of the old wartime psychedelics were eventually fatal, as you have no doubt read."
"I've read," he agreed. That had been specifically what he had been thinking.
"Good luck and thanks for notifying us," both cops said, and departed. The affair, for all their efficiency, did not seem to shake them; obviously such a complaint was routine.
The lab report came swiftly -- surprisingly so, in view of the vast state bureaucracy. It reached him by vidphone before the Leader had finished his TV speech.
"It's not a hallucinogen," the Secpol lab technician informed him.
"No?" he said, puzzled and, strangely, not relieved. Not at all.
"On the contrary. It's a phenothiazine, which as you doubtless know is anti-hallucinogenic. A strong dose per gram of admixture, but harmless. Might lower your blood pressure or make you sleepy. Probably stolen from a wartime cache of medical supplies. Left by the retreating barbarians. I wouldn't worry."
Pondering, Chien hung up the vidphone in slow motion. And then walked to the window of his conapt -- the window with the fine view of other Hanoi high-rise conapts -- to think.
The doorbell rang. Feeling as if he were in a trance, he crossed the carpeted living room to answer it.
The girl standing there, in a tan raincoat with a babushka over her dark, shiny, and very long hair, said in a timid little voice, "Um, Comrade Chien? Tung Chien? Of the Ministry of -- "
He let her in, reflexively, and shut the door after her. "You've been monitoring my vidphone," he told her; it was a shot in darkness, but something in him, an unvoiced certitude, told him that she had.
"Did -- they take the rest of the snuff?" She glanced about. "Oh, I hope not; it's so hard to get these days,"
"Snuff," he said, "is easy to get. Phenothiazine isn't. Is that what you mean?"
The girl raised her head, studied him with large, moon-darkened eyes. "Yes. Mr. Chien --" She hesitated, obviously as uncertain as the Secpol cops had been assured. "Tell me what you saw; it's of great importance for us to be certain."
"I had a choice?" he said acutely.
"Y-yes, very much so. That's what confuses us; that's what is not as we planned. We don't understand it; it fits nobody's theory." Her eyes even darker and deeper, she said, "Was it the aquatic horror shape? The thing with slime and teeth, the extraterrestrial life form? Please tell me; we have to know." She breathed irregularly, with effort, the tan raincoat rising and falling; he found himself watching its rhythm.
"A machine," he said.
"Oh!" She ducked her head, nodding vigorously. "Yes, I understand; a mechanical organism in no way resembling a human. Not a simulacrum, or something constructed to resemble a man."
He said, "This did not look like a man." He added to himself, And it failed -- did not try -- to talk like a man.
"You understand that it was not a hallucination."
"I've been officially told that what I took was a phenothiazine. That's all I know." He said as little as possible; he did not want to talk but to hear. Hear what the girl had to say.
"Well, Mr. Chien --" She took a deep, unstable breath. "If it was not a hallucination, then what was it? What does that leave? What is called 'extra-consciousness' -- could that be it?"
He did not answer; turning his back, he leisurely picked up the two student test papers, glanced over them, ignoring her. Waiting for her next attempt.
At his shoulder, she appeared, smelling of spring rain, smelling of sweetness and agitation, beautiful in the way she smelled, and looked, and, he thought, speaks. So different from the harsh plateau speech patterns we hear on the TV -- have heard since I was a baby.
"Some of them," she said huskily, "who take the stelazine -- it was stelazine you got, Mr. Chien -- see one apparition, some another. But distinct categories have emerged; there is not an infinite variety. Some see what you saw; we call it the Clanker. Some the aquatic horror; that's the Gulper. And then there's the Bird, and the Climbing Tube, and --" She broke off. "But other reactions tell you very little. Tell us very little." She hesitated, then plunged on. "Now that this has happened to you, Mr. Chien, we would like you to join our gathering. Join your particular group, those who see what you see. Group Red. We want to know what it really is, and --" She gestured with tapered, wax smooth fingers. "It can't be all those manifestations." Her tone was poignant, naively so. He felt his caution relax -- a trifle.
He said, "What do you see? You in particular?"
"I'm a part of Group Yellow. I see -- a storm. A whining, vicious whirlwind. That roots everything up, crushes condominium apartments built to last a century." She smiled wanly. "The Crusher. Twelve groups in all, Mr. Chien. Twelve absolutely different experiments, all from the same phenothiazines, all of the Leader as he speaks over TV. As it speaks, rather." She smiled up at him, lashes long -- probably protracted artificially -- and gaze engaging, even trusting. As if she thought he knew something or could do something.
"I should make a citizen's arrest of you," he said presently.
"There is no law, not about this. We studied Soviet judicial writings before we -- found people to distribute the stelazine. We don't have much of it; we have to be very careful whom we give it to. It seemed to us that you constituted a likely choice. . . a well-known, postwar, dedicated young career man on his way up." From his fingers she took the examination papers. "They're having you pol-read?" she asked.
" 'Pol-read'?" He did not know the term.
"Study something said or written to see if it fits the Party's current world view. You in the hierarchy merely call it 'read,' don't you?" Again she smiled. "When you rise one step higher, up with Mr. Tso-pin, you will know that expression." She added somberly, "And with Mr. Pethel. He's very far up. Mr. Chien, there is no ideological school in San Fernando; these are forged exam papers, designed to read back to them a thorough analysis of your political ideology. And have you been able to distinguish which paper is orthodox and which is heretical?" Her voice was pixielike, taunting with amused malice. "Choose the wrong one and your budding career stops dead, cold, in its tracks. Choose the proper one --"
"Do you know which is which?" he demanded.
"Yes." She nodded soberly. "We have listening devices in Mr. Tso-pin's inner offices; we monitored his conversation with Mr. Pethel -- who is not Mr. Pethel but the Higher Secpol Inspector Judd Craine. You have probably heard mention of him; he acted as chief assistant to Judge Vorlawsky at the '98 war-crimes trial in Zurich."
With difficulty he said, "I -- see." Well, that explained that.
The girl said, "My name is Tanya Lee."
He said nothing; he merely nodded, too stunned for any cerebration.
"Technically, I am a minor clerk," Miss Lee said, "at your Ministry. You have never run into me, however, that I can at least recall. We try to hold posts wherever we can. As far up as possible. My own boss --"
"Should you be telling me this?" he gestured at the TV set, which remained on. "Aren't they picking this up?"
Tanya Lee said, "We introduced a noise factor in the reception of both vid and aud material from this apartment building; it will take them almost an hour to locate the sheathing. So we have" -- she examined the tiny wrist-watch on her slender wrist -- "fifteen more minutes. And still be safe."
"Tell me," he said, "which paper is orthodox."
"Is that what you care about? Really?"
"What," he said, "should I care about?"
"Don't you see, Mr. Chien? You've learned something. The Leader is not the Leader; he is something else, but we can't tell what. Not yet. Mr. Chien, when all due respect, have you ever had your drinking water analyzed? I know it sounds paranoiac, but have you?"
"No," he said. "Of course not." Knowing what she was going to say.
Miss Lee said briskly, "Our tests show that it's saturated with hallucinogens. It is, has been, will continue to be. Not the ones used during the war; not the disorientating ones, but a synthetic quasi-ergot derivative called Datrox-3. You drink it here in the building from the time you get up; you drink it in restaurants and other apartments that you visit. You drink it at the Ministry; it's all piped from a central, common source." Her tone was bleak and ferocious. "We solved that problem; we knew, as soon as we discovered it, that any good phenothiazine would counter it. What we did not know, of course, was this -- a variety of authentic experiences; that makes no sense, rationally. It's the hallucination which should differ from person to person, and the reality experience which should be ubiquitous -- it's all turned around. We can't even construct an ad hoc theory which accounts for that, and God knows we've tried. Twelve mutually exclusive hallucinations -- that would be easily understood. But not one hallucination and twelve realities." She ceased talking then, and studied the two test papers, her forehead wrinkling. "The one with the Arabic poem is orthodox," she stated. "If you tell them that they'll trust you and give you a higher post. You'll be another notch up in the hierarchy of Party officialdom." Smiling -- her teeth were perfect and lovely -- she finished, "Look what you received back for your investment this morning. Your career is underwritten for a time. And by us."
He said, "I don't believe you." Instinctively, his caution operated within him, always, the caution of a lifetime lived among the hatchet men of the Hanoi branch of the CP East. They knew an infinitude of ways by which to ax a rival out of contention -- some of which he himself had employed; some of which he had seen done to himself and to others. This could be a novel way, one unfamiliar to him. It could always be.
"Tonight," Miss Lee said, "in the speech the Leader singled you out. Didn't this strike you as strange? You, of all people? A minor officeholder in a meager ministry --"
"Admitted," he said. "It struck me that way; yes."
"That was legitimate. His Greatness is grooming an elite cadre of younger men, postwar men, he hopes will infuse new life into the hidebound, moribund hierarchy of old fogies and Party hacks. His Greatness singled you out for the same reason that we singled you out; if pursued properly, your career could lead you all the way to the top. At least for a time. . . as we know. That's how it goes."
He thought: So virtually everyone has faith in me. Except myself; and certainly not after this, the experience with the anti-hallucinatory snuff. It had shaken years of confidence, and no doubt rightly so. However, he was beginning to regain his poise; he felt it seeping back, a little at first, then with a rush.
Going to the vidphone, he lifted the receiver and began, for the second time that night, to dial the number of the Hanoi Security Police.
"Turning me in," Miss Lee said, "would be the second most regressive decision you could make. I'll tell them that you brought me here to bribe me; you thought, because of my job at the Ministry, I would know which examination paper to select."
He said, "And what would be my first most regressive decision?"
"Not taking a further dose of phenothiazine," Miss Lee said evenly.
Hanging up the phone, Tung Chien thought to himself, I don't understand what's happening to me. Two forces, the Party and His Greatness on one hand -- this girl with her alleged group on the other. One wants me to rise as far as possible in the Party hierarchy; the other -- What did Tanya Lee want? Underneath the words, inside the membrane of an almost trivial contempt for the Party, the Leader, the ethical standards of the People's Democratic United Front -- what was she after in regard to him?
He said curiously, "Are you anti-Party?"
"But -- " He gestured. "That's all there is: Party and anti-Party. You must be Party, then." Bewildered, he stared at her; with composure she returned the stare. "You have an organization," he said, "and you meet. What do you intend to destroy? The regular function of government? Are you like the treasonable college students of the United States during the Vietnam War who stopped troop trains, demonstrated --"
Wearily Miss Lee said, "It wasn't like that. But forget it; that's not the issue. What we want to know is this: who or what is leading us? We must penetrate far enough to enlist someone, some rising young Party theoretician, who could conceivably be invited to a tete-a-tete with the Leader -- you see?" Her voice lifted; she consulted her watch, obviously anxious to get away: the fifteen minutes were almost up. "Very few persons actually see the Leader, as you know. I mean really see him."
"Seclusion," he said. "Due to his advanced age."
"We have hope," Miss Lee said, "that if you pass the phony test which they have arranged for you -- and with my help you have -- you will be invited to one of the stag parties which the Leader has from time to time, which of course the papers don't report. Now do you see?" Her voice rose shrilly, in a frenzy of despair. "Then we would know; if you could go in there under the influence of the anti-hallucinogenic drug, could see him face to face as he actually is --"
Thinking aloud, he said, "And end my career of public service. If not my life."
"You owe us something," Tanya Lee snapped, her cheeks white. "If I hadn't told you which exam paper to choose you would have picked the wrong one and your dedicated public-service career would be over anyhow; you would have failed -- failed at a test you didn't even realize you were taking!"
He said mildly, "I had a fifty-fifty chance."
"No." She shook her head fiercely. "The heretical one is faked up with a lot of Party jargon; they deliberately constructed the two texts to trap you. They wanted you to fail!"
Once more he examined the two papers, feeling confused. Was she right? Possibly. Probably. It rang true, knowing the Party functionaries as he did, and Tso-pin, his superior, in particular. He felt weary then. Defeated. After a time he said to the girl, "What you're trying to get out of me is a quid pro quo. You did something for me -- you got, or claim you got, the answer to this Party inquiry. But you've already done your part. What's to keep me from tossing you out of here on your head? I don't have to do a goddamn thing." He heard his voice, toneless, sounding the poverty of empathic emotionality so usual in Party circles.
Miss Lee said, "There will be other tests, as you continue to ascend. And we will monitor for you with them too." She was calm, at ease; obviously she had foreseen his reaction.
"How long do I have to think it over?" he said.
"I'm leaving now. We're in no rush; you're not about to receive an invitation to the Leader's Yangtze River villa in the next week or even month." Going to the door, opening it, she paused. "As you're given covert rating tests we'll be in contact, supplying the answers -- so you'll see one or more of us on those occasions. Probably it won't be me; it'll be that disabled war veteran who'll sell you the correct response sheets as you leave the Ministry building." She smiled a brief, snuffed-out-candle smile. "But one of these days, no doubt unexpectedly, you'll get an ornate, official, very formal invitation to the villa, and when you go you'll be heavily sedated with stelazine. . . possibly our last dose of our dwindling supply. Good night." The door shut after her; she had gone.
My God, he thought. They can blackmail me. For what I've done. And she didn't even bother to mention it; in view of what they're involved with it was not worth mentioning.
But blackmail for what? He had already told the Secpol squad that he had been given a drug which had proved to be a phenothiazine. Then they know, he realized. They'll watch me; they're alert. Technically, I haven't broken a law, but -- they'll be watching, all right.
However, they always watched anyhow. He relaxed slightly, thinking that. He had, over the years, become virtually accustomed to it, as had everyone.
I will see the Absolute Benefactor of the People as he is, he said to himself. Which possibly no one else had done. What will it be? Which of the subclasses of non-hallucination? Classes which I do not even know about... a view which may totally overthrow me. How am I going to be able to get through the evening, to keep my poise, if it's like the shape I saw on the TV screen? The Crusher, the Clanker, the Bird, the Climbing Tube, the Gulper -- or worse.
He wondered what some of the other views consisted of. . . and then gave up that line of speculation; it was unprofitable. And too anxiety-inducing.
The next morning Mr. Tso-pin and Mr. Darius Pethel met him in his office, both of them calm but expectant. Wordlessly, he handed them one of the two "exam papers." The orthodox one, with its short and heart-smothering Arabian poem.
"This one," Chien said tightly, "is the product of a dedicated Party member or candidate for membership. The other --" He slapped the remaining sheets. "Reactionary garbage." He felt anger. "In spite of a superficial --"
"All right, Mr. Chien," Pethel said, nodding. "We don't have to explore each and every ramification; your analysis is correct. You heard the mention regarding you in the Leader's speech last night on TV?"
"I certainly did," Chien said.
"So you have undoubtedly inferred," Pethel said, "that there is a good deal involved in what we are attempting, here. The leader has his eye on you; that's clear. As a matter of fact, he has communicated to myself regarding you." He opened his bulging briefcase and rummaged. "Lost the goddamn thing. Anyhow --" He glanced at Tso-pin, who nodded slightly. "His Greatness would like to have you appear for dinner at the Yangtze River Ranch next Thursday night. Mrs. Fletcher in particular appreciates --"
Chien said, " 'Mrs. Fletcher'? Who is 'Mrs. Fletcher'?"
After a pause Tso-pin said dryly, "The Absolute Benefactor's wife. His name -- which you of course had never heard -- is Thomas Fletcher."
"He's a Caucasian," Pethel explained. "Originally from the New Zealand Communist Party; he participated in the difficult takeover there. This news is not in the strict sense secret, but on the other hand it hasn't been noised about." He hesitated, toying with his watch chain. "Probably it would be better if you forgot about that. Of course, as soon as you meet him, see him face to face, you'll realize that, realize that he's a Cauc. As I am. As many of us are."
"Race," Tso-pin pointed out, "has nothing to do with loyalty to the leader and the Party. As witness Mr. Pethel, here."
But His Greatness, Chien thought, jolted. He did not appear, on the TV screen, to be Occidental. "On TV --" he began.
"The image," Tso-pin interrupted, "is subjected to a variegated assortment of skillful refinements. For ideological purposes. Most persons holding higher offices are aware of this." He eyed Chien with hard criticism.
So everyone agrees, Chien thought. What we see every night is not real. The question is, How unreal? Partially? Or -- completely?
"I will be prepared," he said tautly. And he thought, There has been a slip-up. They weren't prepared for me -- the people that Tanya Lee represents -- to gain entry so soon. Where's the anti-hallucinogen? Can they get it to me or not? Probably not on such short notice.
He felt, strangely, relief. He would be going into the presence of His Greatness in a position to see him as a human being, see him as he -- and everybody else -- saw him on TV. It would be a most stimulating and cheerful dinner party, with some of the most influential Party members in Asia. I think we can do without the phenothiazine, he said to himself. And his sense of relief grew.
"Here it is, finally," Pethel said suddenly, producing a white envelope from his briefcase. "Your card of admission. You will be flown by Sino-rocket to the Leader's villa Thursday morning; there the protocol officer will brief you on your expected behavior. It will be formal dress, white tie and tails, but the atmosphere will be cordial. There are always a great number of toasts." He added, "I have attended two such stag get-togethers. Mr. Tso-pin" -- he smiled creakily -- "has not been honored in such a fashion. But, as they say, all things come to him who waits. Ben Franklin said that."
Tso-pin said, "It has come for Mr. Chien rather prematurely, I would say." He shrugged philosophically. "But my opinion has never at any time been asked."
"One thing," Pethel said to Chien. "It is possible that when you see His Greatness in person you will be in some regards disappointed. Be alert that you do not let this make itself apparent, if you should so feel. We have, always, tended -- been trained -- to regard him as more than a man. But at table he is" -- he gestured -- "a forked radish. In certain respects like ourselves. He may for instance indulge in moderately human oral-aggressive and -passive activity; he possibly may tell an off-color joke or drink too much. . . To be candid, no one ever knows in advance how these things will work out, but they do generally hold forth until late the following morning. So it would be wise to accept the dosage of amphetamines which the protocol officer will offer you."
"Oh?" Chien said. This was news to him, and interesting.
"For stamina. And to balance the liquor. His greatness has amazing staying power; he often is still on his feet and raring to go after everyone else has collapsed."
"A remarkable man," Tso-pin chimed in. "I think his -- indulgences only show that he is a fine fellow. And fully in the round; he is like the ideal Renaissance man; as, for example, Lorenzo de' Medici."
"That does come to mind," Pethel said; he studied Chien with such intensity that some of last night's chill returned. Am I being led into one trap after another? Chien wondered. That girl -- was she in fact an agent of the Secpol probing me, trying to ferret out a disloyal, anti-Party streak in me?
I think, he decided, I will make sure that the legless peddler of herbal remedies does not snare me when I leave work; I'll take a totally different route back to my conapt.
He was successful. That day he avoided the peddler, and the same the next, and so on until Thursday.
On Thursday morning the peddler scooted from beneath a parked truck and blocked his way, confronting him.
"My medication?" the peddler demanded. "It helped? I know it did; the formula goes back to the Sung Dynasty -- I can tell it did. Right?"
Chien said, "Let me go."
"Would you be kind enough to answer?" The tone was not the expected, customary whining of a street peddler operating in a marginal fashion, and that tone came across to Chien; he heard loud and clear. . . as the Imperialist puppet troops of long ago phrased.
"I know what you gave me," Chien said. "And I don't want any more. If I change my mind I can pick it up at a pharmacy. Thanks." He started on, but the cart, with the legless occupant, pursued him.
"Miss Lee was talking to me," the peddler said loudly.
"Hmmm," Chien said, and automatically increased his pace; he spotted a hovercab and began signaling for it.
"It's tonight you're going to the stag dinner at the Yangtze River villa," the peddler said, panting for breath in his effort to keep up. "Take the medication -- now!" He held out a flat packet, imploringly. "Please, Party Member Chien; for your own sake, for all of us. So we can tell what it is we're up against. Good Lord, it may be non-Terran; that's our most basic fear. Don't you understand, Chien? What's your goddamn career compared with that? If we can't find out --"
The cab bumped to a halt on the pavement; its doors slid open. Chien started to board it.
The packet sailed past him, landed on the entrance sill of the cab, then slid onto the floor, damp from earlier rain.
"Please," the peddler said. "And it won't cost you anything; today it's free. Just take it, use it before the stag dinner. And don't use the amphetamines; they're a thalamic stimulant, contraindicated whenever an adrenal suppressant such as a phenothiazine is --"
The door of the cab closed after Chien. He seated himself.
"Where to, comrade?" the robot drive-mechanism inquired.
He gave the ident tag number of his conapt.
"That halfwit of a peddler managed to infiltrate his seedy wares into my clean interior," the cab said. "Notice; it reposes by your foot."
He saw the packet -- no more than an ordinary-looking envelope. I guess, he thought, this is how drugs come to you; all of a sudden they're there. For a moment he sat, and then he picked it up.
As before, there was a written enclosure above and beyond the medication, but this time, he saw, it was hand-written. A feminine script -- from Miss Lee:
We were surprised at the suddenness. But thank heaven we were ready. Where were you Tuesday and Wednesday? Anyhow, here it is, and good luck. I will approach you later in the week; I don't want you to try to find me.
He ignited the note, burned it up in the cab's disposal ashtray.
And kept the dark granules.
All this time, he thought. Hallucinogens in our water supply. Year after year. Decades. And not in wartime but in peacetime. And not to the enemy camp but here in our own. The evil bastards, he said to himself. Maybe I ought to take this; maybe I ought to find out what he or it is and let Tanya's group know.
I will, he decided. And -- he was curious.
A bad emotion, he knew. Curiosity was, especially in Party activities, often a terminal state careerwise.
A state which, at the moment, gripped him thoroughly. He wondered if it would last through the evening, if, when it came right down to it, he would actually take the inhalant.
Time would tell. Tell that and everything else. We are blooming flowers, he thought, on the plain, which he picks. As the Arabic poem had put it. He tried to remember the rest of the poem but could not.
That probably was just as well.
The villa protocol officer, a Japanese named Kimo Okubara, tall and husky, obviously a quondam wrestler, surveyed him with innate hostility, even after he presented his engraved invitation and had successfully managed to prove his identity.
"Surprise you bother to come," Okubara muttered. "Why not stay home and watch on TV? Nobody miss you. We got along fine without you up to right now.
Chien said tightly, "I've already watched on TV." And anyhow the stag dinners were rarely televised; they were too bawdy.
Okubara's crew double-checked him for weapons, including the possibility of an anal suppository, and then gave him his clothes back. They did not find the phenothiazine, however. Because he had already taken it. The effects of such a drug, he knew, lasted approximately four hours; that would be more than enough. And, as Tanya had said, it was a major dose; he felt sluggish and inept and dizzy, and his tongue moved in spasms of pseudo-Parkinsonism -- an unpleasant side effect which he had failed to anticipate.
A girl, nude from the waist up, with long coppery hair down her shoulders and back, walked by. Interesting.
Coming the other way, a girl nude from the bottom up made her appearance. Interesting, too. Both girls looked vacant and bored, and totally self-possessed.
"You go in like that too," Okubara informed Chien.
Startled, Chien said, "I understood white tie and tails."
"Joke," Okubara said. "At your expense. Only girls wear nude; you even get so you enjoy, unless you homosexual."
Well, Chien thought, I guess I had better like it. He wandered on with the other guests -- they, like him, wore white tie and tails, or, if women, floor-length gowns -- and felt ill at ease, despite the tranquilizing effect of the stelazine. Why am I here? he asked himself. The ambiguity of his situation did not escape him. He was here to advance his career in the Party apparatus, to obtain the intimate and personal nod of approval from His Greatness. . . and in addition he was here to decipher His Greatness as a fraud; he did not know what variety of fraud, but there it was: fraud against the Party, against all the peace-loving democratic peoples of Terra. Ironic, he thought. And continued to mingle.
A girl with small, bright, illuminated breasts approached him for a match; he absent-mindedly got out his lighter. "What makes your breasts glow?" he asked her. "Radioactive injections?"
She shrugged, said nothing, passed on, leaving him alone. Evidently he had responded in the incorrect way.
Maybe it's a wartime mutation, he pondered.
"Drink, sir." A servant graciously held out a tray; he accepted a martini -- which was the current fad among the higher Party classes in People's China -- and sipped the ice-cold dry flavor. Good English gin, he said to himself. Or possibly the original Holland compound; juniper or whatever they added. Not bad. He strolled on, feeling better; in actuality he found the atmosphere here a pleasant one. The people here were self-assured; they had been successful and now they could relax. It evidently was a myth that proximity to His Greatness produced neurotic anxiety: he saw no evidence here, at least, and felt little himself.
A heavy-set elderly man, bald, halted him by the simple means of holding his drink glass against Chien's chest. "That frably little one who asked you for a match," the elderly man said, and sniggered. "The quig with the Christmas-tree breasts -- that was a boy, in drag." He giggled. "You have to be cautious around here."
"Where, if anywhere," Chien said, "do I find authentic women? In white ties and tails?"
"Darn near," the elderly man said, and departed with a throng of hyperactive guests, leaving Chien alone with his martini.
A handsome, tall woman, well dressed, standing near Chien, suddenly put her hand on his arm; he felt her fingers tense and she said, "Here he comes. His Greatness. This is the first time for me; I'm a little scared. Does my hair look all right?"
"Fine," Chien said reflexively, and followed her gaze, seeking a glimpse -- his first -- of the Absolute Benefactor.
What crossed the room toward the table in the center was not a man.
And it was not, Chien realized, a mechanical construct either; it was not what he had seen on TV. That evidently was simply a device for speechmaking, as Mussolini had once used an artificial arm to salute long and tedious processions.
God, he thought, and felt ill. Was this what Tanya Lee had called the "aquatic horror" shape? It had no shape. Nor pseudopodia, either flesh or metal. It was, in a sense, not there at all; when he managed to look directly at it, the shape vanished; he saw through it, saw the people on the far side -- but not it. Yet if he turned his head, caught it out of a sidelong glance, he could determine its boundaries.
It was terrible; it blasted him with its awareness. As it moved it drained the life from each person in turn; it ate the people who had assembled, passed on, ate again, ate more with an endless appetite. It hated; he felt its hate. It loathed; he felt its loathing for everyone present -- in fact he shared its loathing. All at once he and everyone else in the big villa were each a twisted slug, and over the fallen slug carcasses the creature savored, lingered, but all the time coming directly toward him -- or was that an illusion? If this is a hallucination, Chien thought, it is the worst I have ever had; if it is not, then it is evil reality; it's an evil thing that kills and injures. He saw the trail of stepped-on, mashed men and women remnants behind it; he saw them trying to reassemble, to operate their crippled bodies; he heard them attempting speech.
I know who you are, Tung Chien thought to himself. You, the supreme head of the worldwide Party structure. You, who destroy whatever living object you touch; I see that Arabic poem, the searching for the flowers of life to eat them -- I see you astride the plain which to you is Earth, plain without hills, without valleys. You go anywhere, appear any time, devour anything; you engineer life and then guzzle it, and you enjoy that.
"Mr. Chien," the voice said, but it came from inside his head, not from the mouthless spirit that fashioned itself directly before him. "It is good to meet you again. You know nothing. Go away. I have no interest in you. Why should I care about slime? Slime; I am mired in it, I must excrete it, and I choose to. I could break you; I can break even myself. Sharp stones are under me; I spread sharp pointed things upon the mire. I make the hiding places, the deep places, boil like a pot; to me the sea is like a lot of ointment. The flakes of my flesh are joined to everything. You are me. I am you. It makes no difference, just as it makes no difference whether the creature with ignited breasts is a girl or boy; you could learn to enjoy either." It laughed.
He could not believe it was speaking to him; he could not imagine -- it was too terrible -- that it had picked him out.
"I have picked everybody out," it said. "No one is too small, each falls and dies and I am there to watch. I don't need to do anything but watch; it is automatic; it was arranged that way." And then it ceased talking to him; it disjoined itself. But he still saw it; he felt its manifold presence. It was a globe which hung in the room, with fifty thousand eyes, a million eyes -- billions: an eye for each living thing as it waited for each thing to fall, and then stepped on the living thing as it lay in a broken state. Because of this it had created the things, and he knew; he understood. What had seemed in the Arabic poem to be death was not death but God; or rather God was death, it was one force, one hunter, one cannibal thing, and it missed again and again but, having all eternity, it could afford to miss. Both poems, he realized; the Dryden one too. The crumbling; that is our world and you are doing it. Warping it to come out that way; bending us.
But at least, he thought, I still have my dignity. With dignity he set down his drink glass, turned, walked toward the doors of the room. He passed through the doors. He walked down a long carpeted hall. A villa servant dressed in purple opened a door for him; he found himself standing out in the night darkness, on a veranda, alone.
It had followed after him. Or it had already been here before him; yes, it had been expecting. It was not really through with him.
"Here I go," he said, and made a dive for the railing; it was six stories down, and there below gleamed the river and death, not what the Arabic poem had seen.
As he tumbled over, it put an extension of itself on his shoulder.
"Why?" he said. But, in fact, he paused. Wondering. Not understanding, not at all.
"Don't fall on my account," it said. He could not see it because it had moved behind him. But the piece of it on his shoulder -- it had begun to look like a human hand. And then it laughed.
"What's funny?" he demanded, as he teetered on the railing, held back by its pseudo-hand.
"You're doing my task for me," it said. "You aren't waiting; don't have time to wait? I'll select you out from among the others; you don't need to speed the process up."
"What if I do?" he said. "Out of revulsion for you?"
It laughed. And didn't answer.
"You won't even say," he said.
Again no answer. He started to slide back, onto the veranda. And at once the pressure of its pseudo-hand lifted.
"You founded the Party?" he asked.
"I founded everything. I founded the anti-Party and the Party that isn't a Party, and those who are for it and those who are against, those that you call Yankee Imperialists, those in the camp of reaction, and so on endlessly. I founded it all. As if they were blades of grass."
"And you're here to enjoy it?" he said.
"What I want," it said, "is for you to see me, as I am, as you have seen me, and then trust me."
"What?" he said, quavering. "Trust you to what?"
It said, "Do you believe in me?"
"Yes," he said. "I can see you."
"Then go back to your job at the Ministry. Tell Tanya Lee that you saw an overworked, overweight, elderly man who drinks too much and likes to pinch girls' rear ends."
"Oh, Christ," he said.
"As you live on, unable to stop, I will torment you," it said. "I will deprive you, item by item, of everything you possess or want. And then when you are crushed to death I will unfold a mystery."
"What's the mystery?"
"The dead shall live, the living die. I kill what lives; I save what has died. And I will tell you this: there are things worse than I. But you won't meet them because by then I will have killed you. Now walk back into the dining room and prepare for dinner. Don't question what I'm doing; I did it long before there was a Tung Chien and I will do it long after."
He hit it as hard as he could.
And experienced violent pain in his head.
And darkness, with the sense of falling.
After that, darkness again. He thought, I will get you. I will see that you die too. That you suffer; you're going to suffer, just like us, exactly in every way we do. I'll nail you; I swear to God I'll nail you up somewhere. And it will hurt. As much as I hurt now.
He shut his eyes.
Roughly, he was shaken. And heard Mr. Kimo Okubara's voice. "Get to your feet, common drunk. Come on!"
Without opening his eyes he said, "Get me a cab."
"Cab already waiting. You go home. Disgrace. Make a violent scene out of yourself."
Getting shakily to his feet, he opened his eyes and examined himself. Our leader whom we follow, he thought, is the One True God. And the enemy whom we fight and have fought is God too. They are right; he is everywhere. But I didn't understand what that meant. Staring at the protocol officer, he thought, You are God too. So there is no getting away, probably not even by jumping. As I started, instinctively, to do. He shuddered.
"Mix drinks with drugs," Okubara said witheringly. "Ruin career. I see it happen many times. Get lost."
Unsteadily, he walked toward the great central door of the Yangtze River villa; two servants, dressed like medieval knights, with crested plumes, ceremoniously opened the door for him and one of them said, "Good night, sir."
"Up yours," Chien said, and passed out into the night.
At a quarter to three in the morning, as he sat sleepless in the living room of his conapt, smoking one Cuesta Rey Astoria after another, a knock sounded at the door.
When he opened it he found himself facing Tanya Lee in her trenchcoat, her face pinched with cold. Her eyes blazed, questioningly.
"Don't look at me like that," he said roughly. His cigar had gone out; he relit it. "I've been looked at enough," he said.
"You saw it," she said.
She seated herself on the arm of the couch and after a time she said, "Want to tell me about it?"
"Go as far from here as possible," he said. "Go a long way." And then he remembered: no way was long enough. He remembered reading that too. "Forget it," he said; rising to his feet, he walked clumsily into the kitchen to start up the coffee.
Following after him, Tanya said, "Was -- it that bad?"
"We can't win," he said. "You can't win; I don't mean me. I'm not in this; I just wanted to do my job at the Ministry and forget it. Forget the whole damned thing."
"Is it non-terrestrial?"
"Yes." He nodded.
"Is it hostile to us?"
"Yes," he said. "No. Both. Mostly hostile."
"Then we have to --"
"Go home," he said, "and go to bed." He looked her over carefully; he had sat a long time and he had done a great deal of thinking. About a lot of things. "Are you married?" he said.
"No. Not now. I used to be."
He said, "Stay with me tonight. The rest of tonight, anyhow. Until the sun comes up." He added, "The night part is awful."
"I'll stay," Tanya said, unbuckling the belt of her raincoat, "but I have to have some answers."
"What did Dryden mean," Chien said, "about music untuning the sky? I don't get that. What does music do to the sky?"
"All the celestial order of the universe ends," she said as she hung her raincoat up in the closet of the bedroom; under it she wore an orange striped sweater and stretch-pants.
He said, "And that's bad?"
Pausing, she reflected. "I don't know. I guess so."
"It's a lot of power," he said, "to assign to music."
"Well, you know that old Pythagorean business about the 'music of the spheres.' " Matter-of-factly she seated herself on the bed and removed her slipperlike shoes.
"Do you believe in that?" he said. "Or do you believe in God?"
" 'God'!" She laughed. "That went out with the donkey steam engine. What are you talking about? God, or god?" She came over close beside him, peering into his face.
"Don't look at me so closely," he said sharply drawing back. "I don't ever want to be looked at again." He moved away, irritably.
"I think," Tanya said, "that if there is a God He has very little interest in human affairs. That's my theory, anyhow. I mean, He doesn't seem to care if evil triumphs or people or animals get hurt and die. I frankly don't see Him anywhere around. And the Party has always denied any form of --"
"Did you ever see Him?" he asked. "When you were a child?"
"Oh, sure, as a child. But I also believed --"
"Did it ever occur to you," Chien said, "that good and evil are names for the same thing? That God could be both good and evil at the same time?"
"I'll fix you a drink," Tanya said, and padded barefoot into the kitchen.
Chien said, "The Crusher. The Clanker. The Gulper and the Bird and the Climbing Tube -- plus other names, forms, I don't know. I had a hallucination. At the stag dinner. A big one. A terrible one."
"But the stelazine --"
"It brought on a worse one," he said.
"Is there any way," Tanya said somberly, "that we can fight this thing you saw? This apparition you call a hallucination but which very obviously was not?"
He said, "Believe in it."
"What will that do?"
"Nothing," he said wearily. "Nothing at all. I'm tired; I don't want a drink -- let's just go to bed."
"Okay." She padded back into the bedroom, began pulling her striped sweater over her head. "We'll discuss it more thoroughly later."
"A hallucination," Chien said, "is merciful. I wish I had it; I want mine back. I want to be before your peddler got me with that phenothiazine."
"Just come to bed. It'll be toasty. All warm and nice."
He removed his tie, his shirt -- and saw, on his right shoulder, the mark, the stigma, which it had left when it stopped him from jumping. Livid marks which looked as if they would never go away. He put his pajama top on then; it hid the marks.
"Anyhow," Tanya said as he got into the bed beside her, "your career is immeasurably advanced. Aren't you glad about that?"
"Sure," he said, nodding sightlessly in the darkness. "Very glad."
"Come over against me," Tanya said, putting her arms around him. "And forget everything else. At least for now."
He tugged her against him then, doing what she asked and what he wanted to do. She was neat; she was swiftly active; she was successful and she did her part. They did not bother to speak until at last she said, "Oh!" And then she relaxed.
"I wish," he said, "that we could go on forever."
"We did," Tanya said. "It's outside of time; it's boundless, like an ocean. It's the way we were in Cambrian times, before we migrated up onto the land; it's the ancient primary waters. This is the only time we get to go back, when this is done. That's why it means so much. And in those days we weren't separate; it was like a big jelly, like those blobs that float up on the beach."
"Float up," he said, "and are left there to die."
"Could you get me a towel?" Tanya asked. "Or a washcloth? I need it."
He padded into the bathroom for a towel. There -- he was naked now -- he once more saw his shoulder, saw where it had seized hold of him and held on, dragged him back, possibly to toy with him a little more.
The marks, unaccountably, were bleeding.
He sponged the blood away. More oozed forth at once and, seeing that, he wondered how much time he had left. Probably only hours.
Returning to bed, he said, "Could you continue?"
"Sure. If you have any energy left; it's up to you." She lay gazing up at him unwinkingly, barely visible in the dim nocturnal light.
"I have," he said. And hugged her to him.