He went all the way out, floating above thousands of tiny mirrors in an ocean of surveillance.
He plunged into deeper layers where avid machinery was spinning. He felt velvet hands and suctioned fingers slide along him, and he grew cold in the submarine depths.
What did the Design want with him?
The chill passed.
“Better,” he thought, luxuriating in a) dark baronial calm, b) uterine perfection, c) summer childhood bedroom closet.
He was suddenly in the cabin of a private jet. On a table, he saw a team of small glass archangels; a China cup worn yellow; and a framed photo of Al Capone sitting on the toilet in his Palm Springs suite.
And then identity shattered into a thousand pieces. The lights of an enormous city loomed up under him, pulling the fragments down into liquor stores, newspaper racks, dark alleys, hotel rooms.
A news screen stood out in the black sky. A local anchor, her eyes bright with contempt, relayed the story of a man who had just died falling from an escarpment above the Chicago Loop while attempting to set up a sniper’s nest and kill shoppers in the indoor-outdoor Langland Mall.
A boyish blonde field reporter, standing in front of a McDonald’s, was interviewing a witness, an old man who was sitting in a wheelchair and foaming at the mouth and spitting. He doubled over and a siren went off. A security guard appeared with a riot baton and sent a fork of electricity into his crotch, quieting him.
The news screen disappeared.
Identity was now a quiet snowstorm in a deserted wood, falling, falling, falling on the hard earth. Relief.
The dreamer was back in the cabin of the jet. The comfort of burnished yellow-brown lights set high in the cabin walls.
A flight attendant entered with a drink.
She was six feet tall and blonde. That made her a target.
Wealthy and powerful men would seek her out.
Her body was sleek. He examined her left leg from wizardly articulated ankle to thigh, through the slit of her sheath skirt. She strode in heels, one foot placed precisely in front of the other.
She set down the drink on the arm of his chair and looked at her watch.
“We can’t have sex now,” she said. “We’re east of the Rockies.”
“I didn’t realize they had a law,” he said.
“Two hours from now,” she said, “we can negotiate a price.”
“I’m an attorney,” he said.
She pulled a half-sheet out of her jacket pocket and handed it to him.
“Standard,” she said. “Read and sign.”
It stated: “…I am not attempting to elicit information pursuant to an investigation, case, or sentencing option…”
“Just out of curiosity,” he said, “how much protection do you have?”
“Well,” she said, “the LA Mayor has a local contract. He supplies private soldiers when I’m in the city.”
“Have they ever had to go on attack?”
“A Belivar prince once tried to have his men kidnap me between the airport and my hotel. Burton mercs burned them to the ground on Century Boulevard.”
“You’re John Q,” she said. “I know. I’m Carol.”
She held out her hand. He looked at her long fingers. Her nails were short. No polish. He shook her hand. It was cool. It immediately became warm, as if she could make it happen.
She sat down next to him on the arm of his chair.
“Defendant in a federal trafficking case,” she said. “He claims his cartel, Zuma, struck an immunity deal with the CIA. No prosecutions, clean truck routes from Mexico up through LA, all the way to a central distribution hub in Chicago.”
“In return for what?”
“Actionable intell on other Mexican cartels.”
“What do you want from me?”
“Stored documents granting that immunity.”
“Documents? You think they put that kind of thing in writing?”
He closed his eyes.
Now, Bobby Thoms came to him. The Swan, a bar in the Loop.
The place was jammed with lawyers eating breakfast and waiting for the shape-up in the parking lot. Minor cases were assigned by a clerk at the Farofax processing facility.
Q grabbed a stool at the end of the counter and ordered coffee. The bartender poured him a cup and set it down in front of him.
Bobby Thoms. Sitting next to him. In dark soiled clothes, as if he’d stripped them from a corpse in an alley. Pinched face, sunken cheeks. A lawyer’s runner, go-between. Supplier of information.
Bobby moved in close.
“I can get you in to see Judge Hirsch today. His appointment secretary’ll bump the city treasurer for you.”
Q reached into his pocket and pulled out a tight roll of hundreds. Bobby fielded it and slipped it into his pocket.
“What’s up?” Q said.
Bobby nodded. “There are national security implications in this case, John Q. If the shit hits the fan, the president’s administration in Mexico could go down.”
He heard a grinding roar from a long way off.
“Sorry,” Q said. “I can’t help you.”
Bobby frowned. “Why not?”
The roar accelerated. The bar sped down to the size of a dot of blood on a handkerchief.
“Get me to Mosca’s office,” John Q shouted.
Sal Mosca conducted his business in a warehouse in Evanston, a few blocks away from the Registrar-DHS complex.
In the center of the lobby, there was a single desk. Video cameras on the walls caught the action from a dozen angles.
John Q waited in line, and when his turn came, he handed the security guard a copy of his cert card and said he had an appointment with Mr. Mosca.
The guard looked down at his pad, nodded, and handed Q a red slip. Q stuck it to his jacket, walked over to the elevator bank, and waited.
A door opened. A tall slam in a dark suit stood against the back wall. He was holding a blade down at his side. He nodded. Q got in. The guard peeled off the red slip.
They rode up to the 7th floor. The door opened, and two more guards in dark suits stood there. Q stepped out.
One of them frisked him. The other one backed away and watched.
They sandwiched Q and walked him down a seashell curving carpeted hallway to a mesh gate. It slid open and they passed through into a small room. Mosca’s secretary, Jenny, sat behind a table.
“Hello, John Q,” she said.
Q knew her from the county courts, the early days. Cases adjudicated in offices, fines pieced off among the sharers. During the heavy shortages, lawyers took dinners as bribes.
Jenny made a fist and rapped her knuckles once on the table. Q took an envelope out of his inside jacket pocket and placed it in front of her. She picked it up, looked inside, counted the bills, and nodded.
The two security men guided Q across the room to a door. One of them opened it and moved ahead, into Mosca’s office.
Q followed. The other guard shut the door and stood in front of it.
The office was large with no windows. The walls were dull dented metal. The only pieces of furniture were a long white couch and two scarred wooden folding chairs. Bull’s-head Mosca, dressed in his tan suit, sat on the couch. Q stayed standing.
Mosca. Big chest, big belly, cheap shoes. Tired face, but tight skin. He’d been swaddled in the bullrushes of Lake Michigan. Dirty feet running on stones, foster homes, small-time collector/protection money, law school at night, muscled his way into city government as a private conduit for defense lawyers on major felonies.
Mosca frowned. “This case has tricks.”
“Immunity,” Q said.
“Because,” Mosca said, “if it turns out Zuma has a deal with the feds to ship big weight up through Los Angeles into Chicago, and it’s exposed, that torpedoes everybody.”
“But do confirming documents exist?”
“What happened to you?” Mosca said.
“Let’s talk about immunity at a higher level, Sal. Who is immune? How do they arrive at that status?”
Sal leaned back and grinned.
“Well, Q, understand I’m only a low man on the totem pole. I don’t have many details.”
Then Mosca was standing next to me. He took my arm and walked me to the right, into a kitchen that hadn’t been there before. We exited from a side door and climbed a short flight of steps. He opened another door on to the roof.
“The shed,” he said.
In the middle of the roof was a wooden structure.
The padlock was open and hanging from a chain. We stepped inside and Mosca turned on a light. I shut the door. Tools were arranged on shelves. An open cabinet was stacked with brooms and shovels and an old shotgun. We sat down on two rickety chairs.
“John Q,” he said, “immunity travels higher than faith. Because faith’s been misappropriated. Faith is an Atlas holding up the world. And now he’s watching and spying, to make sure it stays intact.”
A canyon opened up under me. Another Earth, like this one. I caught a glimpse and it shut down, closed its mouth.
“Q,” Mosca said, “I’m a bit player. I move a few crumbs here, a few crumbs there…”
“Morris Gold’s office,” I said.
I stepped out of a car. Bobby Thoms, who was driving, also got out. He handed the keys to a parking robot and strolled off toward the American Airlines sports book. I crossed the sidewalk and stopped in front of a cast-iron door. I rang the bell. I was standing under a video camera.
A voice said, “Name, please.”
I held up my cert card.
“Packing any weapons?” the voice said.
“Just a minute.”
They were running a body scan. I waited.
“What case does this pertain to?” the voice said.
“Not a case.”
“Here for a consult.”
The door buzzed. I opened it and walked in.
I was in a pitch-black space.
As my eyes adjusted, the lights slowly rose to dim. I was inside a wire cage.
The same disembodied voice said, “Where did you attend law school?”
“University of Michigan.”
“Your thesis adviser’s name?”
“Professor Morris Gold.”
“And the title of the thesis?”
“Currents in Pre-Trial Hearings.”
The grid in front of me clicked and moved from left to right. I stepped through.
I was standing in a foyer. The carpet under my shoes was thick.
A tall heavy-set man appeared from my right. “Go,” he said. He opened a door and we were facing an open elevator. He motioned and I stepped in ahead of him. He followed and the door closed. We ascended silently for a few seconds. The elevator came to a smooth stop. The door opened. A short man in a very expensive dark suit stood there. His head was clean shaven and he wore a pair of sunglasses high on his forehead.
“They’re for the light,” Morris said. “I have a condition.” He stuck out a meaty paw and I shook it. He smiled.
I walked with him down a hallway into a corner office.
Floor-to-ceiling windows. His two-ton oak desk sat in the center of the room. There were hunting prints and paintings of horses and cottages on blue walls.
He didn’t offer me a seat. I stood. He stood.
“John Q,” he said. “Are you trying to stir up trouble because you’re in transit? Because you were scooped up? Nothing worse than a sore loser. What can I do for you after all this time?”
His eyes were cold.
I framed my question. “Is a deity in on the fix?” I said.
“You want to know the theoretical upper limit on immunity?” he said. “I’ve worked cases where the issue was raised. The courts have always blurred distinctions.”
“You have wide experience in these cases?” I said.
Gold walked back behind his desk and sat down.
“You tell people,” he said, “they’re committing heresy, they buy it, depending who’s doing public relations for you.”
“But what is it actually?” I said.
“Listen,” Gold said. “You were a smart boy in law school. Now you’re loitering.”
“It’s probably a fetish on my part. A little tour of old friends.”
He laughed. “Sentimental journey, right? Did you know the configuration of the Surveillance State is an Atlas holding up the world? When you really see the whole architecture? And the documents you’re looking for are probably hidden, along with at least a million other docs, inside a bead of sweat on Atlas’ forehead.”
“Then I guess I want him,” I said.
A sheet of slow lightning swam up my legs and infiltrated my spine. It nuzzled and burned, on the way up, each bone.
At the top of the channel, I reached out and removed the top of Morris’ skull. It came away clean and out rolled a small creek of dusty tears.
I was standing in a courtroom open to the sky. I was behind the prosecution table.
And there was a giant standing before me.
I was facing him in the dock. His head was barely visible, an imprint behind a cloudbank. He was radiating nothing. He was a no one.
I was already searching for my opening.
Translating incomprehensible text into silent sounds, rehearsing them.
I began talking, suddenly believing every syllable would break open a wound in his cartilage and penetrate to organs.
Every case I’d ever tried had been a symptom, and every verdict a palliative. This one was the kernel.
I spoke and I heard a sound of upper crashing, at long, long distance.
A slow fall.
There was a crowd in the courtroom.
Could I wake up in my office on Michigan Avenue and realize I was still handling cases in superior court, that I was late for an arraignment, that I was defending a Zuma trafficker out of Mexico City…
I waited. I stood and waited.
The silent depersonalized giant standing before me…the exemplar of no-dream.
Nobody. Nobody at all. Just a clock on the wall wound up to eat time.
I heard the long faraway crashing sound again.
…if we begin to speak words that are alive, there would be no machine that could interpret our meaning.
…I was back in the cabin of the jet. With Carol.
She was still sitting on the edge of the chair.
“So, John Q,” she said. “Are you in transit because you died, or are you dreaming?”
“This is what I did on my summer vacation,” I said.
“All right,” she said. “Let’s negotiate a price.”
“Who won the election?” I said.
“I’m your wife,” she said. “We’re on Air Force One.”
I looked out the window. We were coming in over Washington. The Monument and the Capitol Dome and the White House were lit up.
“How long can I play this out?” I said.
She shrugged. “Hard to say. We’re in a scene-shifter locale. Things change. You have a speech to give, before the King.”
“He and his cartel people just moved into the White House. They’re shipping big weight out of the Rose Garden. No more cover stories.”
The Proposition in Astral Locale 27-B reprinted here with permission of the author.