AGENT: Do you know about his childhood?
RICHARDSON: About his mother and the man who raped him? It’s in the file.
AGENT: It helps to explain why he—
RICHARDSON: You know what? Even though I can see where his craziness comes from, even though I can see that it isn’t entirely his fault that he is what he is, I can’t dredge up any compassion for him. When I think about all of those girls who ended up in hospitals with their jaws broken and their eyes swollen shut . . . Listen, did any of those girls feel less pain because Salsbury’s evil isn’t entirely his own doing? I’m an old-style liberal when it comes to most things. But this liberal line about compassion for the criminal—that’s ninety percent horseshit. You can only spout that kind of garbage if you and your own family have been lucky enough to avoid animals like Salsbury. If it was up to me, I’d put him on trial for all of those beatings. Then I’d send him away to a cell somewhere, hundreds of miles from the nearest woman.
He put the reports in the folder and returned the folder to the lower right-hand desk drawer.
O Lord, he thought prayerfully, give me the power to undo what damage he’s done in Black River. If this mistake can be remedied, if the field test can be completed properly, then I will be able to feed the drug to both Ernst and Ogden. I’ll be able to program them. I’ve been making preparations. You know that. I’ll be able to program them and convert them to Your holy fellowship. And not just them. The world. There will be no more souls for Satan. Heaven on earth. That’s what it’ll be, Lord. True heaven on earth, all in the shining light of Your love.
Sam read the last line of Salsbury’s article, closed the book, and said, “Jesus!”
“At least now we have some idea of what’s happening in Black River,” Paul said.
“All of that crazy stuff about breaking down the ego, primer drugs, code phrases, achieving total control, bringing contentment to the masses through behavioral modification, the benefits of a subliminally directed society. . .“ Somewhat dazed by Salsbury’s rhetoric, Jenny shook her head as if that would help her to think more clearly. “He sounds like a lunatic. He’s certifiable.”
“He’s a Nazi,” Sam said, “in spirit if not in name. That’s a very special breed of lunatic. A very deadly breed. And there are literally thousands of people like him, hundreds of thousands who would agree with every word he said about the benefits of a ‘subliminally directed society.’”
Thunder exploded with such violence that it sounded as if the bowl of the sky had cracked in two. A fierce gust of wind slammed against the house. The tempo of the rain on the roof and windows picked up to double time.
“Whatever he is,” Paul said, “he’s done exactly what he said could be done. He’s made this insane scheme work. By God, that has to be what’s happening here. It explains everything since the epidemic of night chills and nausea.”
“I still don’t understand why Dad and I weren’t afflicted,” Jenny said. “Salisbury mentions in the article that the subliminal program would not affect illiterates and children who haven’t yet come to terms, however crude, with sex and death. But neither Dad nor I fit into one of those categories.”
“I think I can answer that,” Paul said.
Sam said, “So can I. One thing they teach budding pharmacologists is that no drug affects everyone the same way. On some people, for instance, penicillin has little or no effect. Some people don’t respond well at all to sulfa drugs. I suspect that, for whatever reasons of genes and metabolisms and body chemistries, we’re among the tiny percentage of those who aren’t touched by Salsbury’s drug.”
“And thank God for that,” Jenny said. She hugged herself and shivered.
“There ought to be more adults unaffected,” Paul said. “It’s summertime. People take vacations. Wasn’t anyone out of town during the week when the reservoir was contaminated and the subliminal messages broadcast?”
“When the heavy snows come,” Sam said, “logging operations have to stop. So in the warm months everyone connected with the mill works his butt off to make sure there will be a stockpile of logs to keep the saws going all winter. No one at the mill takes a vacation in the summer, And everyone in town who serves the mill takes his time off in the winter too.”
Paul felt as if he were on a turntable, whirling around and around. His mind spun with the implications of the article that Sam had read. “Mark and Rya and I weren’t affected because we got to town after the contaminant had passed out of the reservoir—and because we didn’t watch whatever television programs or commercials contained the subliminal messages. But virtually everyone else in Black River is now under Salsbury's control.”
They stared at one another.
The storm moaned at the window.
Finally Sam said, “We enjoy the benefits and luxuries provided by modern science—all the while forgetting that the technological revolution, just like the industrial revolution before it, has its dark side.” For several long seconds, with the mantel clock ticking behind him, he studied the cover of the book in his hand. “The more complex a society becomes, the more dependent each part of it becomes on every other part of it, the easier it is for one man, one lunatic or true believer, to destroy it all on a whim. One man working alone can assassinate a chief of state and precipitate major changes in his country’s foreign and domestic policies. They tell us that one man with a degree in biology and a lot of determination can culture more than enough plague bacillus to destroy the world. One man working alone can even build a nuclear bomb. All he needs is a college degree in physics. And the ability to get his hands on a few Pounds of plutonium. Which isn’t so damned hard to do either. He can build a bomb inside a suitcase and wipe out New York
City because. . . Well, hell, why not because he was mugged there, or because he once got a traffic ticket in Manhattan and he doesn't think he deserved it.
“But Salsbury can’t be working alone,” Jenny said.
“I agree with you.”
“The resources needed to perfect and implement the program that he described in his article. . . Why, they would be enormous.”
“A private industry might be able to finance it,” Paul said. “A company as large as AT&T.”
“No,” Sam said. “Too many executives and research people would have to know about it. There would be a leak. It would never get this far without a leak to the press and a major scandal.”
“A single wealthy man could provide what Salsbury needed,” Jenny said. “Someone as rich as Onassis was. Or Hughes.”
Tugging gently on his beard, Sam said, “It’s possible, I suppose. But we’re all avoiding the most logical explanation.”
“That Salsbury is working for the United States government,” Paul said worriedly.
“Exactly,” Sam said. “And if he is working for the government or the CIA or any branch of the military—then we’re finished. Not just the three of us and Rya, but the whole damned country.”
Paul went to the window, wiped away some of the dew, and stared at wind-lashed trees and billowing gray sheets of rain. “Do you think that what’s happening here is happening all over the country?”
“No,” Sam said. “If there were a general takeover in progress, Salsbury wouldn’t be in a backwoods mill town. He’d be at a command post in Washington. Or somewhere else, anywhere else.”
“Then it’s a test. A field test,”
“And that’s maybe a good sign,” Sam said. “The government would run a field test where it already bad tight security. Most likely on an army or air force base. Not here.”
Lightning blasted through the thunderheads; and for an instant the patterns of rain on the window seemed to form faces: Annie’s face, Mark’s face...
Suddenly Paul thought that his wife and son, although they had met quite different deaths, had been killed by the same force. Technology. Science. Annie had gone into the hospital for a simple appendectomy. It hadn’t even been an emergency operation. The anesthesiologist had given her a brand-new-on-the-market-revolutionary-you-couldn’t-ask-for-better anesthetic, something that wasn’t as messy as ether, something that was easier to use (easier for the anesthesiologist) than pentothal. But after the operation she didn’t regain consciousness as she should have done. She slipped, instead, into a coma. She’d had an allergic reaction to the brand-new-on-the-market-revolutionary-you-couldn’t-ask-for-better anesthetic; and it had destroyed a large part of her liver. Fortunately, the doctors told him, the liver was the one organ of the body that could regenerate itself. If they kept her in the intensive care unit, supporting her life processes with machines, the liver would repair itself day by day, until eventually she would be well again. She was in intensive care for five weeks, at which time the doctors fed all of the data from the life-support machines into a Medico computer, and the computer told them that she was well enough to be moved out of intensive care and into a private room. Eleven weeks later, the same computer said she was well enough to go home. She was listless and apathetic—but she agreed that the computer must be right. Two weeks after she came home, she had a relapse and died within forty-eight hours. Sometimes he thought that if he had only been a medical doctor instead of a veterinarian, he might have saved her. But that was pointless masochism. What he could have done was demand that her Original surgery be performed with ether or pentothal, something known to be safe, something that had stood the test of decades. He could have told them to stuff their computer up their collective ass. But he hadn’t done that either. He had trusted in their technology simply because it was technology, because it was all new. Americans were brought up to respect
what was new and progressive—and more often than they wanted to admit, they died for their faith in what was bright and shiny.
After Annie died he became suspicious of technology, of every new wonder that science gave to mankind. He read Paul Ehrlich and other back-to-the-land reformers. Gradually he came to see that the yearly camping trips to Black River could be the beginning of a serious program to free his children from the city, from the ever-growing dangers of the science and technology that the cities represented. The yearly trips became an education for lives they would live in harmony with nature.
But the back-to-the-land advocates were possessed by an impossible dream. He saw that now, saw it as clearly as he had ever seen anything in his life. They were trying to run away from technology—but it moved much faster than they did. There was no land to get back to anymore. The city, its science and technology, the effects of its life-style, had tendrils snaking out into even the most remote mountains and forests.
Furthermore, you ignored the advancements of science at your own peril. His ignorance about anesthetics and the reliability of the Medico computer had cost Annie her life. His ignorance of subliminal advertising and the research being done in that field had, if you wanted to stretch a point, cost Mark his life. The only way to survive in the 1970s and in the decades to follow was to plunge into the fast-moving, supertechnical society, swim with it, learn from it and about it, learn all that you could, and be its equal in any confrontation.
He turned away from the window. “We can’t go to Bexford and call the state police. If our own government is behind Salsbury, if our own leaders want to enslave us, we’ll never win. It’s hopeless. But if it isn’t behind him, if it doesn’t know what he’s achieved, then we don’t dare let it know. Because the moment the military finds out—it’ll appropriate Salsbury’s discoveries; and there are some factions of the military that wouldn’t be opposed to using subliminal programming against us.”
Looking around at the books about Nazism, totalitarianism, and mob psychology, thinking ruefully of what he’d learned
about some men’s lust for power, Sam said, “You’re right. Besides, I’ve been thinking about the problems with the long-distance phone service.”
Paul knew what he meant. “Salsbury’s taken over the telephone exchange.”
“And if he’s done that,” Sam said, “he’s taken other precautions too. He’s probably blockaded the roads and every other route out of town. We couldn’t go to Bexford and tell the state police even if we still wanted to.”
“We’re trapped,” Jenny said quietly.
“For the time being,” Paul said, “that really doesn’t matter. We’ve already decided there’s no place to run anyway. But if he’s not working for the government, if he’s backed by a corporation or a single wealthy man, maybe we’ve got a chance to stop him here in Black River.”
“Stop him . . .“ Sam stared thoughtfully at the floor. “Do you realize what you’re saying? We’d have to get our hands on him, interrogate him—and then kill him. Death is the only thing that will stop a man like that. We’d also have to find out from him who he’s associated with—and kill anyone else who might understand how the drug was made and how the subliminal program was constructed.” He looked up from the floor. “That could mean two murders, three, four, or a dozen.”
“None of us is a killer,” Jenny said.
“Every man’s a potential killer,” Paul said. “When it comes to matters of survival, any man is capable of anything. And this is sure as hell a matter of survival.”
“I killed men in the war,” Sam said.
“So did I,” Paul said. “A different war than yours. But the same act.”
“That was different,” Jenny said.
“That was war,” she said.
“This is war too,” Paul said.
She stared at Paul’s hands, as if imagining them with a knife or a gun or clamped around a man’s throat.
Sensing her thoughts, he raised his hands and studied them
for a moment. On occasion, washing his hands before dinner or after treating a sick animal, he would flash back to the war, back to Southeast Asia. He would hear the guns and see the blood again in his memory. In these almost psychic moments, he was both amazed and dismayed that the same hands were accustomed to mundane and horrible acts, that they could heal or injure, make love or kill, and look no different after the task was done. Codified morality, he thought, was indeed a blessing but also a curse of civilization. A blessing because it permitted men to live in harmony most of the time. A curse because— when the Jaws of nature and especially of human nature made it necessary for a man to wound or kill another man in order to save himself and his family—it spawned remorse and guilt even if the violence was unwanted and unavoidable.