The only sound on Saturday night. I can hear my wrist watch. She’s in the next room. Sitting on the floor. Her back against the wall. I can hear her heart beat with my stethoscope. I hold it against the peeling wallpaper.
Is she reading or just sitting? Meditating on darkness. Or listening to neutrinos.
It’s midnight. I take notes. Time is everything. Time is the paint on the wall. The dust in the corner. The weight from above. They told me this at the Conservatory. In the Master Class. Before I received my credentials. The power of deceit.
The hotel room telephone rings. I pick up. The receiver’s filthy. The filth of drifters. There’s a dog barking a block away. I see the window’s open. How did that happen?
“What do you know?”
It’s a stranger’s voice. But I know he’s calling from Central. Asking him to identify himself would be foolish. Against training. No one else knows I’m here. I can hear the keys of a telex machine striking endlessly in the background. Cyphers. Broken codes. Absences of code. Pleas of innocence. Broken bones in sealed rooms.
“She’s sitting still,” I say. “She has been for hours. Her heart is beating. But there’s no activity.”
“We need more than that.”
“That’s all there is.”
The Central stranger goes silent on the line. An ardent pause. The telex machine continues. Memoranda. Surveillances. Realities obliterated.
“That’s not my assignment.”
More silence. Then….
“Perhaps your assignment has changed,” says the voice. “Perhaps now you open her door. Make something happen. Accuse her. Take the initiative. Arrest her on a lie. Truth is a luxury we can’t afford, anyway. It’s a flimsy thing. It takes time to descend from on high. Through the atmospheric resistance. To fall upon someone’s desktop. Only to be ruined by more robust falsehoods.”
Now I’m silent. It’s almost poetic. The textbooks were poetic, too. The poetics of indoctrination. Never deviate from the poetry of State.
“You still there?” the stranger says.
“Time is everything,” he says.
The mantra. The mandatory salute. Demanding a prompt duplicate reply.
“Time is everything,” I say.
There is a click at the end of the line. Central has disengaged. I am alone again. With her in the next room. I check my weapon. It’s unnecessary. She’s alone, defenseless. That’s why I’m here. Central prefers an easy target. Budgets are best met engaging easy targets.
The hallway has been reduced to a narrow trail through decades of refuse. I shine my torch ahead. There are rats here. Brave as agents. Standing on their haunches. Sniffing. They look away and squabble.
Her room is number 607. I try the doorknob. Locked. I knock. Hold my ear to the door. Nothing. I knock again. Ear to the door. Nothing.
“Open, please. It’s Central.”
“I’ll force the door. Please open up.”
I step back and kick. The bottom of my foot. My heel at the bolt. The wood cracks. I kick again and it gives way. Inside it’s dark. The entire city is blacked out. Only my hotel room has electricity and a functioning telephone. Central has arranged it.
I shine my torch in the area I assume she occupies. She’s there, looking at me. Her face is dark and round. Hair black with grey streaks, tied back. Eyes brown. She sits on the floor. Back against the wall. She’s wearing jeans and a tee-shirt.
“Identify yourself,” I say.
“You’re just a boy,” she says. “I can tell, even in the dark.”
I’m quiet for a moment in the doorway. Then I repeat myself. “Please identify.”
She takes a hero from a pack and lights it, inhales.
“Smoking is forbidden.”
“So shoot me,” she says. Her accent is difficult to place. Pakistani? “I never thought they’d send a boy. Did they tell you who I am?”
I was briefed before I left Central. Subject is Rachel Kalpar. I watched her smoke. She blows a smoke ring.
“You’re a writer,” I say.
“That what they told you?”
“You have to come with me.” I say. “I have a car on the street.”
She smokes on, and says, “On what grounds?”
I stop. There is no warrant. No judicial order. Paperwork is problematic when denying a person’s existence.
“And where will we go in your car on the street?”
She has a venerable air, even sitting on the floor smoking. She makes Bullshit sound like a hypothesis.
“You don’t even know why you’re here,” she says. “But let me tell you. You’re a recent graduate of the Conservatory. This is your first assignment. They told you to observe and report on a female subject in a derelict hotel room.”
“Yes,” I say, almost involuntarily.
“But then you got a phone call in your room, on one of the only functioning telephones in the city.”
She pauses for emphasis. I say nothing.
“An anonymous caller,” she continues, “from Central. He tells you your mission has changed, and tells you what to do next. So, now you’re here asking me to go with you, but you don’t know where.” She taps cigarette ash onto the floor next to her.
“Don’t you see?” she says. “It’s an initiation. Your assignment will change again before the night is out, perhaps several times. But in the end, we’ll be alone together in an abandoned field on the outskirts of the city where you’ll follow an order inconsistent with your textbook training. You’ll fire a bullet into the general area of my cerebellum, causing fatal brain trauma and hemorrhaging. And in order to confirm you’ve completed the assignment, you’ll do as instructed and remove one of my eyes for later biometric verification. And when it’s done, you’ll be one of them. No escaping.”
“Impossible,” I say, but am suddenly unsure.
“Not impossible. Compliance was encoded into your basal ganglia during your training. And there’s a part of your unconscious that knows it. It will surface eventually and may even drive you mad. That’s a quirk in the encoding process that was put there by the developer, like a computer virus.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m the developer.” She lights another hero.
“Because they don’t need me anymore. They never liked me much anyway. I started out believing in pure science. Never interested in commerce or politics. But after the purges, I was one of the only people still alive who could do the neuro-programming. Until now.”
I quietly evaluate. Time is everything. I sense an adrenaline reaction, but can’t trace its cause.
“Maybe it’s not such a bad thing,” she says, “to die tonight. This confounding itch to live, in spite of everything, it’s exhausting.”
“You’re not going to die tonight,” I say. I still believe it.
She says, “You’ve heard of Lisbon, of course.”
“Lisbon is a myth.” The word alone makes my belly churn. Scripture could be written, but hasn’t. People have disappeared after saying its name.
“That’s what they’ll have told you. But I assure you it’s real. And I guess that’s why they’ve finally tracked me down and sent you.”
“The State would have never allowed it to exist.”
“Don’t be a fool,” she says, smiling. “It belongs to the State, or it did. It’s the State’s delinquent runaway child. The State sponsored it and chose its victims. I wrote it. With two other programmers. We were just teenagers at the time. It was meant to be set loose on the Pious Eastern Bloc. To scuttle their uranium enrichment programs. But after it did, it got into the wild. It mutates flawlessly. It destroys its targets without being detected. And everything is its target. It’s mutating now and beginning to infiltrate pre-digital analogue systems.”
She looks to her left, out of the window, onto the lightless nighttime city.
“You may be old enough to remember when the city was lit up at night,” she says. “Lisbon ended that. Worldwide. No more electrical grids. No more energy extraction or refinement. No distribution networks. No hospitals. No law enforcement. No mass communications. Technology is dead. Lisbon killed it. The virus is so entrenched, so cryptographically perfect, that they can’t find it to quarantine or kill it. It’s woven into the macrocosm. The leaves of trees. Fish in the sea. The clouds. The air we breathe. Put a finger to your throat. Feel the pulse. There it is. That’s the Lisbon virus. Maybe that’s why they call it a myth.”
“You’re wrong,” I say. She has to be.
The phone rings in the adjacent room. My room. The only working telephone for tens of square miles. She pulls on her cigarette and exhales.
“Change of plans,” she says.
I leave her and go to my room. The phone rings like a toothache. I answer.
It’s the familiar voice of the stranger, calling from Central. The telex machine rattles in the background.
“She’s in her room smoking,” I say.
“Is she compliant?”
“Compliant? In what way? I haven’t asked her to do anything yet.”
There is silence on the line again. The invincible weapon of absolute authority.
“Take her to your car.”
“There will be instructions in the glove box.”
I hesitate, then say, “Does she die tonight?”
“Time is everything.”
I hesitate again. Fully aware that this much hesitation is lethal. No textbook says so. It is never mentioned in a lecture. It is simply assumed. It is supposed. It is resolutely rumoured. One never returns from so much hesitation, to tell his story.
“Time is everything,” I finally reply, expecting to hear the distant click of a receiver returned to its cradle. But I do not. And I dare not ring-off first. Another unwritten rule.
“Complete your assignment as instructed,” says the stranger.
Then there is the click of his receiver. I hang up also. And look out of the window at the black void of the city. The window is no longer open. I look around for someone. I hear a footstep in the hall. I run out. There is no one. I go into 607. My eyes take time adjusting to the darkness. I see the red glow at the end of a hero illuminate the area round Rachel Kalpar. It’s amazing how bright.
“Instructions in the glove box?” she says.
“But now you’re conflicted. You feel almost defiant.”
She’s reading my mind. If what she says is true, then she’s reading her own book.
“We can drive away,” I say. “In the opposite direction. Away from the abandoned field. I don’t need to read the instructions in the glove box.”
I stop for a moment.
“Is that the quirk in the encoding process talking?” I ask. “Or is it me?”
“I hear only you speaking.”
“I feel sick,” I say.
I run out into the hall and vomit. I fall to the floor. I remember convulsions. My teeth grinding. My body tightening into a ball.
When I come to, the lights are on in the hall. They’re blinding. A man in a black suit crouches next to me, checking my pulse. Another shines a penlight into each of my eyes. I reach for my gun. It’s gone.
“Normal,” one of them says. “He’ll survive.”
“That’s a funny way to put it,” says the other, and they both laugh.
“That’s enough,” says Rachel Kalpar, dismissing the two of them. She stands over me, blocking a ceiling light. “You’re a failed experiment,” she says. “A disappointment.”
“I don’t understand,” Is say.
“Understanding’s a luxury,” Kalpar says, and walks away.