Thursday, March 6, 2014

The Demolished Man part 6: Demolition

Ben Reich is on top of the worlds. He has eliminated his biggest business rival, Craye D'Courtney, and is in a position to absorb D'Courtney's company; he has waged an intricate chess game against the telepathic detective investigating the crime; and he has just learned that he has won:  the police have closed the case against him.

Oh yes, he still has a few problems: he still has nightmares about a menacing Man With No Face And there's the small issue of somebody trying to kill him. But all that pales before the realization that he is finally in the clear.

Ben Reich has gotten away with murder.

Lincoln Powell, 1st Class Esper and Prefect of the Police Psychotic Division has persuaded the Esper Guild Council to hold an emergency meeting. Although he does not have enough Objective (that is, non-psionic) Evidence to build a court case, he knows that Reich is guilty of murder. What's more, he has come to the realization that Reich not just a murderer, but a threat to the Esper community, and to humanity as a whole.

We have already seen that Reich has been simultaneously supporting a smear campaign to stir up anti-Esper feelings in the non-Esper populations as well as financially backing the League of Esper Patriots, a self-interested splinter group opposed to some of the Esper Guild's policies. Either of these by themselves could severely damage the Guild as a political entity and the Esper community as a whole. But the danger Reich poses goes beyond that.

Reich is about to become a Galactic focal point ... A crucial link between the positive past and the potential future. Powell argues. Reich has the money, power and force of personality to shape the pattern of human culture. And he is a sociopath.
Look at Reich's position in time and space. Will not his beliefs become the world's belief? Will not his reality become the world's reality? Is he not, in his critical position of power, energy, and intellect, a sure road to utter destruction?
To stop Reich, Powell proposes a measure called Mass Cathexis, a dangerous technique which has never been successfully accomplished. Guild President T'sung is reluctant to authorize the attempt. "You're too valuable to be destroyed, Powell." But Powell is willing to take the risk. The fate of humanity may hang in the balance. He insists on a vote, and the Guild grants his request.

Powell returns home and tells Mary Noyes what he's resolved to do. "There's a chance it won't kill me. Oh ... One reminder. Lab wants a brain autopsy soon as I'm dead ... if I die." But before he goes, he needs to see Barbara one last time.

Barbara D'Courtney has almost completed the regression therapy the doctors instituted to heal the psychic trauma of witnessing her father's murder. As her subconscious has been slowly recovering, Her conscious mind was regressed to that of an infant and allowed to develop back to maturity. Her mind is currently that of an adolescent and is trying to come to grips with her feelings about Powell. "Do you feel like a father to me? Because I don't feel like a daughter to you."

Complicating the matter further, Powell is in love with her. He's been trying to avoid having to deal with this situation; that was a big reason why he recruited his friend Mary to help babysit. Now there's no more avoiding it.

Mary telepathically urges him to admit the truth. "She's a woman and she's in love with you. You're in love with her. Please, Linc, give yourself a chance." Powell reminds her that the Guild won't allow him to marry a normal; the best he can offer Barbara -- provided he survives -- is an extramarital affair. "She'll settle for that. She'll be grateful to settle for that. Ask me. I know." Mary also loves Powell and would have liked to marry him; but as much as he likes her, Powell would not consent to a loveless marriage. Now Mary pleads with him to consider a marriageless love, for Barbara's sake.

Except that Powell expects to die very shortly. Despite his bravado, he knows his chances of surviving the Mass Cathexis are very slim. He doesn't want to leave Barbara with "Nothing but a half a memory of half a love."

Next to his telepathic talent, Powell's greatest asset is his ability to lie with the utmost sincerity; the part of his personality he calls "Dishonest Abe". And so he does. "Baby! Baby! Baby! What makes you think I'm in love with you that way? I'm not. I've never been."

"No!" Barbara bursts into tears. "Your face is lying. It's ... It's hateful! ... Oh go away. Why don't you go away?"

Mary takes Barbara off in a cab to the Hospital. As he watches them leave, he senses the Mass Cathaxis beginning. As he requested, every esper in the city is feeding their latent psychic energy into his brain.
The energy came in torrents now. From each Esper in the city, a trickle of latent power that merged into a stream, a river, a swirling sea of Mass Cathexis directed toward Powell, tuned to Powell. He opened all blocks and absorbed it all. His nervous system superheterodyned and screamed and a turbine in his mind wirled faster and faster with a mounting intolerable whine. 
...So Powell fought to absorb that fearful torrent, to Capitalize that latent energy, to Cathectize and direct it toward the Demolition of Reich before it was too late, too late, too late, too late, too late...
Reich wakes up from another dream. Not a nightmare this time, a strange dream full of mathematical symbols and commands; a dream so compelling that in waking up he feels like he has fallen asleep again; that the dream was the reality.

Duffy Wyg& is with him, the blonde flirt who wrote the deathless "Tenser, Said the Tensor" jingle. She found him lying unconscious in front of the police station and brought him home. "How could I pass up the opportunity? It's the only way I can get you into my bed."

Reich is starting to get a handle on his thoughts again. Where was he? Yes, he was on top of the world. "Drunk? Sure, I'm drunk... Why shouldn't I be drunk? I've licked D'Courtney. I've licked Powell. I'm forty years old. I've got sixty years of owning the whole world ahead of me. Yes, Duffy ... the whole damned world!" He goes into a joyous, intoxicated rant. "How'd you like to start a dynasty with me, Duffy?" He's going to take over D'Courtney's company; then he'll take over all the other smaller corporations. He'll devour them all. He throws open the window and shouts at the city skyline.
"You out there!" Reich roared. "Can you hear me? All of you... sleeping and dreaming. You'll dream my dreams from now on! You'll --"
Then he notices. There are no stars in the sky.

"Where are the stars?" he demands. "Where are the what?" Duffy replies. She doesn't know what he's talking about.

He runs into the street and looks up in the sky. He can see the moon, a brilliant point of light which must be Mars, and another one which must be Jupiter. But when he asks people on passing by where the stars went, they act like he's crazy. The sky's always looked like that.

A friendly cabbie suggests that maybe he just imagined that there used to be stars in the sky, and recommends visiting the Kingston Hospital. Reich tries to get a grip on himself. He has been under a lot of stress... "Maybe... Maybe you're right." He regains his confidence. "What the hell do I care about the stars! ... I've got the world!"

He goes to his office and calls a meeting. He announces that he intends to commence the acquisition of D'Courtney Cartel's holdings on Mars. His staff look at him like he has two heads. They've never heard of the cartel, or of Mars.

He goes to the company's records. The files contain no reference to any other planets. He goes to Wikipedia; (okay, not Wikipedia, but a computerized library database) and asks about the universe. The computer tells him that the Universe consists of the Earth and the Sun. But what about the planets? "There is the earth," the computer answers. And the moon? "There is no moon."
"Reich took a deep trembling breath. "We'll try it again. Go back to the sun." 
The sun appeared again in the crystal. "The sun is the largest collection of matter known to astronomers," the canned voice began. Suddenly it stopped. Click-pause-click. The picture of the sun began to fade slowly. The voice spoke. "There is no sun."
Now Reich is growing frantic. Bit by bit, his world is disappearing. He tries to buy tickets to Paris. There is no Paris. He goes to the police, but they've never heard of D'Courtney or Powell or anything. He goes to Maria Beaumont's home, the place where he committed the murder, but he sees nothing but barren desolation where the mansion once stood. Piece by piece, reality slips away from him until there is only Reich...

...and the Man With No Face.

And at last, he looks deeply into that face which he has been fleeing from for so long and sees... his own.

And D'Courtney's.

Both faces, merged together, blending into one.

It is his father.

The man tells Reich that it has all been a test. The entire universe of his experience has been an illusion, a puzzle for him to solve, a Cosmic Game. Which he lost.
"I conquered it. I owned it."
"And you failed to solve it. We'll never know that the solution is, but it's not theft, terror, hatred, lust, murder, rapine. You failed , and it's all been abolished, disbanded..."
For him it ends, and there is nothing.


Reich and Powell are found the next morning; Reich curled up in a fetal position and Powell gripping on to him, barely alive. He survived the Mass Cathexis. As the Guild's best esper doctors take care of Powell, Reich is taken to Kingston Hospital.

A week later, Powell is feeling well enough to visit his boss, the Police Commissioner. Reich has been tried, found guilty and scheduled for Demolition. Old Man Mose, the Prosecuting Computer, was right all along. Reich's motive in killing D'Courtney never was profit. D'Courtney was secretly Reich's father. That's why D'Courtney had terrible feelings of unresolved guilt; not about his daughter, but about his unacknowledged son. That's why D'Courtney truly did want to reconcile with Reich. Subconsciously, Reich knew this and hated his father for it. That was why he wanted to kill D'Courtney. And yet, a part of his self-conscious rebelled against his murderous impulses. That was who the Man With No Name really was; Reich's own conscience. And when Reich succeeded in killing his father, his subconscious tried to punish himself by planting the bombs while Reich was asleep. Reich's true motivations were so deeply buried, that he could not even admit them to himself.   That was why he misinterpreted D'Courtney's coded message.

The only way Powell could get to that truth was to create an intensely realistic illusion in Reich's mind and strip it down, layer by layer, until there was nothing left but Reich and his guilt; The Man With No Face.

The Commissioner is impressed. "You've done a phenomenal job, Powell. Really phenomenal. ... It must be a wonderful thing to be an Esper."
Powell paused at the door and looked at Crabbe. "Would you be happy to live your life in a hospital, Commissioner?" 
"A hospital?" 
"That's where we live ... All of us. In the psychiatric ward. Without escape ... without refuge. Be grateful you're not a peeper, sir. Be grateful that you only see the outward man. Be grateful that you never see the passions, the hatreds, the jealousies, the malice, the sickness ... Be grateful you rarely see the frightening truth in people. The world will be a wonderful place when everyone's a peeper and everyone's adjusted ... But until then, be grateful you're blind."
He goes to visit Barbara at the hospital. She's an adult now; her treatment is complete and her inner and outer minds are once again in synch. She still loves him. She's aware that he can never marry her, but she doesn't care. She's willing to settle for being his mistress. My, how they tiptoe around this! But she's willing.

Powell laughs, and tells her she won't have to settle for anything. He reminds her of the night of the murder, when she came to her father because she heard him calling out to her. Except her father was incapable of calling! He was sick and had advanced throat cancer; he could barely whisper. Barbara must have sensed his desperate thoughts telepathically. She is a latent peeper, and therefore Powell is free to marry her. Okay, this seems like an awfully convenient happy ending; but Bester did plant the clues ahead of time: her actions on the night of the murder; the intensity of the shock she experienced; her ability to recognize when Powell was lying to her.

While he is at the hospital, Powell runs into Reich one last time; a screaming, twitching mockery of a human. He is undergoing Demolition. His brain is slowly being chemically erased, much as Powell did with the illusion of the stars, until it is a blank slate. The process is a long one; the doctor supervising him says he will be ready for rebirth in a year. This is the punishment the State metes against its worst offenders; horrifying an ghastly. And yet...
"Three or four hundred years ago, cops used to catch people like Reich just to kill them. Capital punishment, they called it." 
"You're kidding." 
"Scout's honor." 
"But it doesn't make sense. If a man's got the talent and the guts to buck society, he's obviously above average. You want to hold on to him. You straighten him out and turn him into a plus value. Why throw him away? Do that enough and all you've got left are the sheep." 
"I don't know. Maybe in those days they wanted sheep."
I still find Reich's rehabilitation to be disturbing. Is it really better than the alternative? I'm just not comfortable with the State having the power to erase a man's mind like that. But maybe, if Powell's dream came true and everybody was a peeper, it would bring a level of transparency to government that would actually make it trustworthy.

If I had written the novel, I think I'd be tempted to end it with Reich in a straitjacket, sitting in a padded cell and humming "Tenser, said the tensor..." But despite the Demolition, despite the terrifying identity-loss Reich must endure, Bester's view of this world is on the whole optimistic.

The line Powell fed the Commissioner earlier about peepers being trapped in the psycho ward, was another of Dishonest Abe's lies, calculated to gain the Commissioners sympathy and ease some of the tension between the two men. Now as he gives Reich a small gift and receives in return a confused glimpse of thanks in Reich's chaotic mind, Powell reacts with joy.

"Listen," he cried in exaltation. "Listen, normals! You must learn what it is. You must learn how it is. You must tear the barriers down. You must tear the veils away. We see the truth you cannot see ... That there is noting in man but love and faith, courage and kindness, generosity and sacrifice. All else is only the barrier of your blindness. One day we'll all be mind to mind and heart to heart..."

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