Le conte du vendeur d'indulgence...nouvelle cyberpunk que j'ai relu des milliers de fois quand j'étais ado

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Le conte du vendeur d'indulgence...nouvelle cyberpunk que j'ai relu des milliers de fois quand j'étais ado

Message par AshesInTheWind le Sam 28 Fév - 21:13

The Pardoner’s Tale
 by Robert Silverberg

 
 
      “Key Sixteen, Housing Omicron Kappa, aleph sub-one,” I said to the software on duty at the Alhambra gate of the Los Angeles Wall.
 
      Software isn’t generally suspicious. This wasn’t even very smart software. It was working off some great biochips—I could feel them jigging and pulsing as the electron stream flowed through them—but the software itself was just a kludge. Typical gatekeeper stuff.
 
      I stood waiting as the picoseconds went ticking away by the millions.
 
      “Name, please,” the gatekeeper said finally.
 
      “John Doe. Beta Pi Upsilon 104324x.”
 
      The gate opened. I walked into Los Angeles.
 
      As easy as Beta Pi.
* * *
      The wall that encircles L.A. is a hundred, a hundred fifty feet thick. Its gates are more like tunnels. When you consider that the wall runs completely around the L.A. basin from the San Gabriel Valley to the San Fernando Valley and then over the mountains and down the coast and back the far side past Long Beach, and that it’s at least sixty feet high and all that distance deep, you can begin to appreciate the mass of it. Think of the phenomenal expenditure of human energy that went into building it—muscle and sweat, sweat and muscle. I think about that a lot.
 
      I suppose the walls around our cities were put there mostly as symbols. They highlight the distinction between city and country-side, between citizen and uncitizen, between control and chaos, just as city walls did five thousand years ago. But mainly they serve to remind us that we are all slaves nowadays. You can’t ignore the walls. You can’t pretend they aren’t there. We made you build them, is what they say, and don’t you ever forget that. All the same, Chicago doesn’t have a wall sixty feet high and a hundred fifty feet deep. Houston doesn’t. Phoenix doesn’t. They make do with less. But L.A. is the main city. I suppose the Los Angeles wall is a statement: I am the Big Cheese. I am the Ham What Am.
 
      The walls aren’t there because the Entities are afraid of attack. They know how invulnerable they are. We know it too. They just wanted to decorate their capital with something a little special. What the hell, it isn’t their sweat that goes into building the walls. It’s ours. Not mine personally, of course. But ours.
 
      I saw a few Entities walking around just inside the wall, preoccupied as usual with God knows what and paying no attention to the humans in the vicinity. These were low-caste ones, the kind with the luminous orange spots along their sides. I gave them plenty of room. They have a way sometimes of picking a human up with those long elastic tongues, like a frog snapping up a fly, and letting him dangle in mid-air while they study him with those saucer-sized yellow eyes. I don’t care for that. You don’t get hurt, but it isn’t agreeable to be dangled in mid-air by something that looks like a fifteen-foot-high purple squid standing on the tips of its tentacles. Happened to me once in St. Louis, long ago, and I’m in no hurry to have it happen again.
 
      The first thing I did when I was inside L.A. was find me a car. On Valley Boulevard about two blocks in from the wall I saw a ’31 Toshiba El Dorado that looked good to me, and I matched frequencies with its lock and slipped inside and took about ninety seconds to reprogram its drive control to my personal metabolic cues. The previous owner must have been fat as a hippo and probably diabetic: her glycogen index was absurd and her phosphines were wild.
 
      Not a bad car, a little slow in the shift but what can you expect, considering the last time any cars were manufactured on this planet was the year 2034.
 
      “Pershing Square,” I told it.
 
      It had nice capacity, maybe 60 megabytes. It turned south right away and found the old freeway and drove off toward downtown. I figured I’d set up shop in the middle of things, work two or three pardons to keep my edge sharp, get myself a hotel room, a meal, maybe hire some companionship. And then think about the next move. It was winter, a nice time to be in L.A. That golden sun, those warm breezes coming down the canyons.
 
      I hadn’t been out on the Coast in years. Working Florida mainly, Texas, sometimes Arizona. I hate the cold. I hadn’t been in L.A. since ’36. A long time to stay away, but maybe I’d been staying away deliberately. I wasn’t sure. That last L.A. trip had left bad-tasting memories. There had been a woman who wanted a pardon and I sold her a stiff. You have to stiff the customers now and then or else you start looking too good, which can be dangerous; but she was young and pretty and full of hope and I could have stiffed the next one instead of her, only I didn’t. Sometimes I’ve felt bad, thinking back over that. Maybe that’s what had kept me away from L.A. all this time.
 
      A couple of miles east of the big downtown interchange traffic began backing up. Maybe an accident ahead, maybe a roadblock. I told the Toshiba to get off the freeway.
 
      Slipping through roadblocks is scary and calls for a lot of hard work. I knew that I probably could fool any kind of software at a roadblock and certainly any human cop, but why bother if you don’t have to?
 
      I asked the car where I was.
 
      The screen lit up. Alameda near Banning, it said. A long walk to Pershing Square, looked like. I had the car drop me at Spring Street and went the rest of the way on foot. “Pick me up at 1830 hours,” I told it. “Corner of—umm—Sixth and Hill.” It went away to park itself and I headed for the Square to peddle some pardons.
* * *
      It isn’t hard for a good pardoner to find buyers. You can see it in their eyes: the tightly controlled anger, the smoldering resentment. And something else, something intangible, a certain sense of having a shred or two of inner integrity left, that tells you right away, Here’s somebody willing to risk a lot to regain some measure of freedom. I was in business within fifteen minutes.
 
      The first one was an aging surfer sort, barrel chest and that sun-bleached look. The Entities haven’t allowed surfing for ten, fifteen years—they’ve got their plankton seines just off shore from Santa Barbara to San Diego, gulping in the marine nutrients they have to have, and any beach boy who tried to take a whack at the waves out there would be chewed right up. But this guy must have been one hell of a performer in his day. The way he moved through the park, making little balancing moves as if he needed to compensate for the irregularities of the earth’s rotation, you could see how he would have been in the water. Sat down next to me, began working on his lunch. Thick forearms, gnarled hands. A wall-laborer. Muscles knotting in his cheeks: the anger, forever simmering just below boil.
 
      I got him talking, after a while. A surfer, yes. Lost in the far-away and gone. He began sighing to me about legendary beaches where the waves were tubes and they came pumping end to end. “Trestle Beach,” he murmured. “That’s north of San Onofre. You had to sneak through Camp Pendleton. Sometimes the Marines would open fire, just warning shots. Or Hollister Ranch, up by Santa Barbara.” His blue eyes got misty. “Huntington Beach. Oxnard. I got everywhere, man.” He flexed his huge fingers. “Now these fucking Entity hodads own the shore. Can you believe it? They own it. And I’m pulling wall, my second time around, seven days a week next ten years.”
 
      “Ten?” I said. “That’s a shitty deal.”
 
      “You know anyone who doesn’t have a shitty deal?”
 
      “Some,” I said. “They buy out.”
 
      “Yeah.”
 
      “It can be done.”
 
      A careful look. You never know who might be a borgmann. Those stinking collaborators are everywhere.
 
      “Can it?”
 
      “All it takes is money,” I said.
 
      “And a pardoner.”
 
      “That’s right.”
 
      “One you can trust.”
 
      I shrugged. “You’ve got to go on faith, man.”
 
      “Yeah,” 
 
he said. Then, after a while: “I heard of a guy, he bought a three-year pardon and wall passage thrown in. Went up north, caught a krill trawler, wound up in Australia, on the Reef. Nobody’s ever going to find him there. He’s out of the system. Right out of the fucking system. What do you think that cost?”
 
 
 
      “About twenty grand,” I said.
 
      “Hey, that’s a sharp guess!”
 
      “No guess.”
 
      “Oh?” Another careful look. “You don’t sound local.”
 
      “I’m not. Just visiting.”
 
      “That’s still the price? Twenty grand?”
 
      “I can’t do anything about supplying krill trawlers. You’d be on your own once you were outside the wall.”
 
      “Twenty grand just to get through the wall?”
 
      “And a seven-year labor exemption.”
 
      “I pulled ten,” he said.
 
      “I can’t get you ten. It’s not in the configuration, you follow? But seven would work. You could get so far, in seven, that they’d lose you. You could goddamned swim to Australia. Come in low, below Sydney, no seines there.”
 
      “You know a hell of a lot.”
 
      “My business to know,” I said. “You want me to run an asset check on you?”
 
      “I’m worth seventeen five. Fifteen hundred real, the rest collat. What can I get for seventeen five?”
 
      “Just what I said. Through the wall, and seven years’ exemption.”
 
      “A bargain rate, hey?”
 
      “I take what I can get,” I said. “Give me your wrist. And don’t worry. This part is read-only.”
 
      I keyed his data implant and patched mine in. He had fifteen hundred in the bank and a collateral rating of sixteen thou, exactly as he claimed. We eyed each other very carefully now. As I said, you never know who the borgmanns are.
 
      “You can do it right here in the park?” he asked.
 
      “You bet. Lean back, close your eyes, make like you’re snoozing in the sun. The deal is that I take a thousand of the cash now and you transfer five thou of the collateral bucks to me, straight labor-debenture deal. When you get through the wall I get the other five hundred cash and five thou more on sweat security. The rest you pay off at three thou a year plus interest, wherever you are, quarterly key-ins. I’ll program the whole thing, including beep reminders on payment dates. It’s up to you to make your travel arrangements, remember. I can do pardons and wall transits but I’m not a goddamned travel agent. Are we on?”
 
      He put his head back and closed his eyes.
 
      “Go ahead,” he said.
 
      It was fingertip stuff, straight circuit emulation, my standard hack. I picked up all his identification codes, carried them into central, found his records. He seemed real, nothing more or less than he had claimed. Sure enough, he had drawn a lulu of a labor tax, ten years on the wall. I wrote him a pardon good for the first seven of that. Had to leave the final three on the books, purely technical reasons, but the computers weren’t going to be able to find him by then. I gave him a wall-transit pass, too, which meant writing in a new skills class for him, programmer third grade. He didn’t think like a programmer and he didn’t look like a programmer but the wall software wasn’t going to figure that out. Now I had made him a member of the human elite, the relative handful of us who are free to go in and out of the walled cities as we wish. In return for these little favors I signed over his entire life savings to various accounts of mine, payable as arranged, part now, part later. He wasn’t worth a nickel any more, but he was a free man. That’s not such a terrible trade-off.
 
      Oh, and the pardon was a valid one. I had decided not to write any stiffs while I was in Los Angeles. A kind of sentimental atonement, you might say, for the job I had done on that woman all those years back.
 
      You absolutely have to write stiffs once in a while, you understand. So that you don’t look too good, so that you don’t give the Entities reason to hunt you down. Just as you have to ration the number of pardons you do. I didn’t have to be writing pardons at all, of course. I could have just authorized the system to pay me so much a year, fifty thou, a hundred, and taken it easy forever. But where’s the challenge in that?
 
      So I write pardons, but no more than I need to cover my expenses, and I deliberately fudge some of them up, making myself look as incompetent as the rest so the Entities don’t have a reason to begin trying to track the identifying marks of my work. My conscience hasn’t been too sore about that. It’s a matter of survival, after all. And most other pardoners are out-and-out frauds, you know. At least with me you stand a better than even chance of getting what you’re paying for.
 
* * *
 
      The next one was a tiny Japanese woman, the classic style, sleek, fragile, doll-like. Crying in big wild gulps that I thought might break her in half, while a gray-haired older man in a shabby business suit—her grandfather, you’d guess—was trying to comfort her. Public crying is a good indicator of Entity trouble. “Maybe I can help,” I said, and they were both so distraught that they didn’t even bother to be suspicious.
 
      He was her father-in-law, not her grandfather. The husband was dead, killed by burglars the year before. There were two small kids. Now she had received her new labor-tax ticket. She had been afraid they were going to send her out to work on the wall, which of course wasn’t likely to happen: the assignments are pretty random, but they usually aren’t crazy, and what use would a 90-pound girl be in hauling stone blocks around? The father-in-law had some friends who were in the know, and they managed to bring up the hidden encoding on her ticket. The computers hadn’t sent her to the wall, no. They had sent her to Area Five. And they had given her a TTD classification.
 
      “The wall would have been better,” the old man said. “They’d see, right away, she wasn’t strong enough for heavy work, and they’d find something else, something she could do. But Area Five? Who ever comes back from that?”
 
      “You know what Area Five is?” I said.
 
      “The medical experiment place. And this mark here, TTD. I know what that stands for too.”
 
      She began to moan again. I couldn’t blame her. TTD means Test To Destruction. The Entities want to find out how much work we can really do, and they feel that the only reliable way to discover that is to put us through tests that show where the physical limits are.
 
      “I will die,” she wailed. “My babies! My babies!”
 
      “Do you know what a pardoner is?” I asked the father-in-law.
 
      A quick excited response: sharp intake of breath, eyes going bright, head nodding vehemently. Just as quickly the excitement faded, giving way to bleakness, helplessness, despair.
 
      “They all cheat you,” he said.
 
      “Not all.”
 
      “Who can say? They take your money, they give you nothing.”
 
      “You know that isn’t true. Everybody can tell you stories of pardons that came through.”
 
      “Maybe. Maybe,” the old man said. The woman sobbed quietly. “You know of such a person?”
 
      “For three thousand dollars,” I said, “I can take the TTD off her ticket. For five I can write an exemption from service good until her children are in high school.”
 
      Sentimental me. A fifty percent discount, and I hadn’t even run an asset check. For all I knew the father-in-law was a millionaire. But no, he’d have been off cutting a pardon for her, then, and not sitting around like this in Pershing Square.
 
      He gave me a long, deep, appraising look. Peasant shrewdness coming to the surface.
 
      “How can we be sure of that?” he asked.
 
 
 
      I might have told him that I was the king of my profession, the best of all pardoners, a genius hacker with the truly magic touch, who could slip into any computer ever designed and make it dance to my tune. 
 
Which would have been nothing more than the truth. But all I said was that he’d have to make up his own mind, that I couldn’t offer any affidavits or guarantees, that I was available if he wanted me and otherwise it was all the same to me if she preferred to stick with her TTD ticket. They went off and conferred for a couple of minutes. When they came back, he silently rolled up his sleeve and presented his implant to me. I keyed his credit balance: thirty thou or so, not bad. I transferred eight of it to my accounts, half to Seattle, the rest to Los Angeles. Then I took her wrist, which was about two of my fingers thick, and got into her implant and wrote her the pardon that would save her life. Just to be certain, I ran a double validation check on it. It’s always possible to stiff a customer unintentionally, though I’ve never done it. But I didn’t want this particular one to be my first.
 
 
 
      “Go on,” I said. “Home. Your kids are waiting for their lunch.”
 
      Her eyes glowed. “If I could only thank you somehow—”
 
      “I’ve already banked my fee. Go. If you ever see me again, don’t say hello.”
 
      “This will work?” the old man asked.
 
      “You say you have friends who know things. Wait seven days, then tell the data bank that she’s lost her ticket. When you get the new one, ask your pals to decode it for you. You’ll see. It’ll be all right.”
 
      I don’t think he believed me. I think he was more than half sure I had swindled him out of one fourth of his life’s savings, and I could see the hatred in his eyes. But that was his problem. In a week he’d find out that I really had saved his daughter-in-law’s life, and then he’d rush down to the Square to tell me how sorry he was that he had had such terrible feelings toward me. Only by then I’d be somewhere else, far away.
 
      They shuffled out the east side of the park, pausing a couple of times to peer over their shoulders at me as if they thought I was going to transform them into pillars of salt the moment their backs were turned. Then they were gone.
 
      I’d earned enough now to get me through the week I planned to spend in L.A. But I stuck around anyway, hoping for a little more. My mistake.
 
      This one was Mr. Invisible, the sort of man you’d never notice in a crowd, gray on gray, thinning hair, mild bland apologetic smile. But his eyes had a shine. I forget whether he started talking first to me, or me to him, but pretty soon we were jockeying around trying to find out things about each other. He told me he was from Silver Lake. I gave him a blank look. How in hell am I supposed to know all the zillion L.A. neighborhoods? Said that he had come down here to see someone at the big government HQ on Figueroa Street. All right: probably an appeals case. I sensed a customer.
 
      Then he wanted to know where I was from. Santa Monica? West L.A.? Something in my accent, I guess. “I’m a traveling man,” I said. “Hate to stay in one place.” True enough. I need to hack or I go crazy; if I did all my hacking in just one city I’d be virtually begging them to slap a trace on me sooner or later and that would be the end. I didn’t tell him any of that. “Came in from Utah last night. Wyoming before that.” Not true, either one. “Maybe on to New York, next.” He looked at me as if I’d said I was planning a voyage to the moon. People out here, they don’t go east a lot. These days most people don’t go anywhere.
 
      Now he knew that I had wall-transit clearance, or else that I had some way of getting it when I wanted it. That was what he was looking to find out. In no time at all we were down to basics.
 
      He said he had drawn a new ticket, six years at the salt-field reclamation site out back of Mono Lake. People die like mayflies out there. What he wanted was a transfer to something softer, like Operations & Maintenance, and it had to be within the walls, preferably in one of the districts out by the ocean where the air is cool and clear. I quoted him a price and he accepted without a quiver.
 
      “Let’s have your wrist,” I said.
 
* * *
 
      He held out his right hand, palm upward. His implant access was a pale yellow plaque, mounted in the usual place but rounder than the standard kind and of a slightly smoother texture. I didn’t see any great significance in that. As I had done maybe a thousand times before, I put my own arm over his, wrist to wrist, access to access. Our biocomputers made contact and instantly I knew that I was in trouble.
 
      Human beings have been carrying biochip-based computers in their bodies for the last forty or fifty years or so—long before the Entity invasion, anyway—but for most people it’s just something they take for granted, like the vaccination mark on their thighs. They use them for the things they’re meant to be used for, and don’t give them a thought beyond that. The biocomputer’s just a commonplace tool for them, like a fork, like a shovel. You have to have the hacker sort of mentality to be willing to turn your biocomputer into something more. That’s why, when the Entities came and took us over and made us build walls around our cities, most people reacted just like sheep, letting themselves be herded inside and politely staying there. The only ones who can move around freely now—because we know how to manipulate the mainframes through which the Entities rule us—are the hackers. And there aren’t many of us. I could tell right away that I had hooked myself on to one now.
 
      The moment we were in contact, he came at me like a storm.
 
      The strength of his signal let me know I was up against something special, and that I’d been hustled. He hadn’t been trying to buy a pardon at all. What he was looking for was a duel. Mr. Macho behind the bland smile, out to show the new boy in town a few of his tricks.
 
      No hacker had ever mastered me in a one-on-one anywhere. Not ever. I felt sorry for him, but not much.
 
      He shot me a bunch of stuff, cryptic but easy, just by way of finding out my parameters. I caught it and stored it and laid an interrupt on him and took over the dialog. My turn to test him. I wanted him to begin to see who he was fooling around with. But just as I began to execute he put an interrupt on me. That was a new experience. I stared at him with some respect.
 
      Usually any hacker anywhere will recognize my signal in the first thirty seconds, and that’ll be enough to finish the interchange. He’ll know that there’s no point in continuing. But this guy either wasn’t able to identify me or just didn’t care, and he came right back with his interrupt. Amazing. So was the stuff he began laying on me next.
 
      He went right to work, really trying to scramble my architecture. Reams of stuff came flying at me up in the heavy megabyte zone.
 
      —jspike. dbltag. nslice. dzcnt.
 
      I gave it right back to him, twice as hard.
 
      maxfrq. minpau. spktot. jspike.
 
      He didn’t mind at all.
 
      —maxdz. spktim. falter. nslice.
 
      —frqsum. eburst.
 
      —iburst.
 
      —prebst.
 
      —nobrst.
 
      Mexican standoff. He was still smiling. Not even a trace of sweat on his forehead. Something eerie about him, something new and strange. This is some kind of borgmann hacker, I realized suddenly. He must be working for the Entities, roving the city, looking to make trouble for freelancers like me. Good as he was, and he was plenty good, I despised him. A hacker who had become a borgmann—now, that was truly disgusting. I wanted to short him. I wanted to burn him out, now. I had never hated anyone so much in my life.
 
      I couldn’t do a thing with him.
 
      I was baffled. I was the Data King, I was the Megabyte Monster. All my life I had floated back and forth across a world in chains, picking every lock I came across. And now this nobody was tying me in knots. Whatever I gave him, he parried; and what came back from him was getting increasingly bizarre. He was working with an algorithm I had never seen before and was having serious trouble solving. After a little while I couldn’t even figure out what he was doing to me, let alone what I was going to do to cancel it. It was getting so I could barely execute. He was forcing me inexorably toward a wetware crash.
 
      “Who are you?” I yelled.
 
 
 
      He laughed in my face.
 
And kept pouring it on. He was threatening the integrity of my implant, going at me down on the microcosmic level, attacking the molecules themselves. Fiddling around with electron shells, reversing charges and mucking up valences, clogging my gates, turning my circuits to soup. The computer that is implanted in my brain is nothing but a lot of organic chemistry, after all. So is my brain. If he kept this up the computer would go and the brain would follow, and I’d spend the rest of my life in the bibble-bibble academy.
 
      This wasn’t a sporting contest. This was murder.
 
      I reached for the reserves, throwing up all the defensive blockages I could invent. Things I had never had to use in my life, but they were there when I needed them, and they did slow him down. For a moment I was able to halt his ballbreaking onslaught and even push him back. And give myself the breathing space to set up a few offensive combinations of my own. But before I could get them running, he shut me down once more and started to drive me toward crashville all over again. He was unbelievable.
 
      I blocked him. He came back again. I hit him hard and he threw the punch into some other neural channel altogether and it went fizzling away.
 
      I hit him again. Again he blocked it.
 
      Then he hit me and I went reeling and staggering, and managed to get myself together when I was about three nanoseconds from the edge of the abyss.
 
      I began to set up a new combination. But even as I did it, I was reading the tone of his data, and what I was getting was absolute cool confidence. He was waiting for me. He was ready for anything I could throw. He was in that realm beyond mere self-confidence into utter certainty.
 
      What it was coming down to was this. I was able to keep him from ruining me, but only just barely, and I wasn’t able to lay a glove on him at all. And he seemed to have infinite resources behind him. I didn’t worry him. He was tireless. He didn’t appear to degrade at all. He just took all I could give and kept throwing new stuff at me, coming at me from six sides at once.
 
      Now I understood for the first time what it must have felt like for all the hackers I had beaten. Some of them must have felt pretty cocky, I suppose, until they ran into me. It costs more to lose when you think you’re good. When you know you’re good. People like that, when they lose, they have to reprogram their whole sense of their relation to the universe.
 
      I had two choices. I could go on fighting until he wore me down and crashed me. Or I could give up right now. In the end everything comes down to yes or no, on or off, one or zero, doesn’t it?
 
      I took a deep breath. I was staring straight into chaos.
 
      “All right,” I said. “I’m beaten. I quit.”
 
      I wrenched my wrist free of his, trembled, swayed, went toppling down on the ground.
 
      A minute later five cops jumped me and trussed me up like a turkey and hauled me away, with my implant arm sticking out of the package and a security lock wrapped around my wrist, as if they were afraid I was going to start pulling data right out of the air.
 
* * *
 
      Where they took me was Figueroa Street, the big black marble ninety-story job that is the home of the puppet city government. I didn’t give a damn. I was numb. They could have put me in the sewer and I wouldn’t have cared. I wasn’t damaged—the automatic circuit check was still running and it came up green—but the humiliation was so intense that I felt crashed. I felt destroyed. The only thing I wanted to know was the name of the hacker who had done it to me.
 
      The Figueroa Street building has ceilings about twenty feet high everywhere, so that there’ll be room for Entities to move around. Voices reverberate in those vast open spaces like echoes in a cavern. The cops sat me down in a hallway, still all wrapped up, and kept me there for a long time. Blurred sounds went lalloping up and down the passage. I wanted to hide from them. My brain felt raw. I had taken one hell of a pounding.
 
      Now and then a couple of towering Entities would come rumbling through the hall, tiptoeing on their tentacles in that weirdly dainty way of theirs. With them came a little entourage of humans whom they ignored entirely, as they always do. They know that we’re intelligent but they just don’t care to talk to us. They let their computers do that, via the Borgmann interface, and may his signal degrade forever for having sold us out. Not that they wouldn’t have conquered us anyway, but Borgmann made it ever so much easier for them to push us around by showing them how to connect our little biocomputers to their huge mainframes. I bet he was very proud of himself, too: just wanted to see if his gadget would work, and to hell with the fact that he was selling us into eternal bondage.
 
      Nobody has ever figured out why the Entities are here or what they want from us. They simply came, that’s all. Saw. Conquered. Rearranged us. Put us to work doing godawful unfathomable tasks, Like a bad dream.
 
      And there wasn’t any way we could defend ourselves against them. Didn’t seem that way to us at first—we were cocky, we were going to wage guerilla war and wipe them out—but we learned fast how wrong we were, and we are theirs for keeps. There’s nobody left with anything close to freedom except the handful of hackers like me; and, as I’ve explained, we’re not dopey enough to try any serious sort of counterattack. It’s a big enough triumph for us just to be able to dodge around from one city to another without having to get authorization.
 
      Looked like all that was finished for me, now. Right then I didn’t give a damn. I was still trying to integrate the notion that I had been beaten; I didn’t have capacity left over to work on a program for the new life I would be leading now.
 
      “Is this the pardoner, over here?” someone said.
 
      “That one, yeah.”
 
      “She wants to see him now.”
 
      “You think we should fix him up a little first?”
 
      “She said now.”
 
      A hand at my shoulder, rocking me gently. “Up, fellow. It’s interview time. Don’t make a mess or you’ll get hurt.”
 
      I let them shuffle me down the hall and through a gigantic doorway and into an immense office with a ceiling high enough to give an Entity all the room it would want. I didn’t say a word. There weren’t any Entities in the office, just a woman in a black robe, sitting behind a wide desk at the far end. It looked like a toy desk in that colossal room. She looked like a toy woman. The cops left me alone with her. Trussed up like that, I wasn’t any risk.
 
      “Are you John Doe?” she asked.
 
      I was halfway across the room, studying my shoes. “What do you think?” I said.
 
      “That’s the name you gave upon entry to the city.”
 
      “I give lots of names. John Smith, Richard Roe, Joe Blow. It doesn’t matter much to the gate software what name I give.”
 
      “Because you’ve gimmicked the gate?” She paused. “I should tell you, this is a court of inquiry.”
 
      “You already know everything I could tell you. Your borgmann hacker’s been swimming around in my brain.”
 
      “Please,” she said. “This’ll be easier if you cooperate. The accusation is illegal entry, illegal seizure of a vehicle, and illegal interfacing activity, specifically, selling pardons. Do you have a statement?”
 
      “No.”
 
      “You deny that you’re a pardoner?”
 
      “I don’t deny, I don’t affirm. What’s the goddamned use.”
 
      “Look up at me,” she said.
 
      “That’s a lot of effort.”
 
      “Look up,” she said. There was an odd edge on her voice. “Whether you’re a pardoner or not isn’t the issue. We know you’re a pardoner. I know you’re a pardoner.” And she called me by a name I hadn’t used in a very long time. Not since ’36, as a matter of fact.
 
 
 
      I looked at her. Stared. Had trouble believing I was seeing what I saw. Felt a rush of memories come flooding up. Did some mental editing work on her face, taking out some lines here, subtracting a little flesh in a few places, adding 
 
 
some in others. Stripping away the years.
 
 
      “Yes,” she said. “I’m who you think I am.”
 
      I gaped. This was worse than what the hacker had done to me. But there was no way to run from it.
 
      “You work for them?” I asked.
 
      “The pardon you sold me wasn’t any good. You knew that, didn’t you? I had someone waiting for me in San Diego, but when I tried to get through the wall they stopped me just like that, and dragged me away screaming. I could have killed you. I would have gone to San Diego and then we would have tried to make it to Hawaii in his boat.”
 
      “I didn’t know about the guy in San Diego,” I said.
 
      “Why should you? It wasn’t your business. You took my money, you were supposed to get me my pardon. That was the deal.”
 
      Her eyes were gray with golden sparkles in them. I had trouble looking into them.
 
      “You still want to kill me?” I asked. “Are you planning to kill me now?”
 
      “No and no.” She used my old name again. “I can’t tell you how astounded I was, when they brought you in here. A pardoner, they said. John Doe. Pardoners, that’s my department. They bring all of them to me. I used to wonder years ago if they’d ever bring you in, but after a while I figured, no, not a chance, he’s probably a million miles away, he’ll never come back this way again. And then they brought in this John Doe, and I saw your face.”
 
      “Do you think you could manage to believe,” I said, “that I’ve felt guilty for what I did to you ever since? You don’t have to believe it. But it’s the truth.”
 
      “I’m sure it’s been unending agony for you.”
 
      “I mean it. Please. I’ve stiffed a lot of people, yes, and sometimes I’ve regretted it and sometimes I haven’t, but you were one that I regretted. You’re the one I’ve regretted most. This is the absolute truth.”
 
      She considered that. I couldn’t tell whether she believed it even for a fraction of a second, but I could see that she was considering it.
 
      “Why did you do it?” she asked after a bit.
 
      “I stiff people because I don’t want to seem too perfect,” I told her. “You deliver a pardon every single time, word gets around, people start talking, you start to become legendary. And then you’re known everywhere and sooner or later the Entities get hold of you, and that’s that. So I always make sure to write a lot of stiffs. I tell people I’ll do my best, but there aren’t any guarantees, and sometimes it doesn’t work.”
 
      “You deliberately cheated me.”
 
      “Yes.”
 
      “I thought you did. You seemed so cool, so professional. So perfect. I was sure the pardon would be valid. I couldn’t see how it would miss. And then I got to the wall and they grabbed me. So I thought, that bastard sold me out. He was too good just to have flubbed it up.” Her tone was calm but the anger was still in her eyes. “Couldn’t you have stiffed the next one? Why did it have to be me?”
 
      I looked at her for a long time.
 
      “Because I loved you,” I said.
 
      “Shit,” she said. “You didn’t even know me. I was just some stranger who had hired you.”
 
      “That’s just it. There I was full of all kinds of crazy instant lunatic fantasies about you, all of a sudden ready to turn my nice orderly life upside down for you, and all you could see was somebody you had hired to do a job. I didn’t know about the guy from San Diego. All I knew was I saw you and I wanted you. You don’t think that’s love? Well, call it something else, then, whatever you want. I never let myself feel it before. It isn’t smart, I thought, it ties you down, the risks are too big. And then I saw you and I talked to you a little and I thought something could be happening between us and things started to change inside me, and I thought, Yeah, yeah, go with it this time, let it happen, this may make everything different. And you stood there not seeing it, not even beginning to notice, just jabbering on and on about how important the pardon was for you. So I stiffed you. And afterwards I thought, Jesus, I ruined that girl’s life and it was just because I got myself into a snit, and that was a fucking petty thing to have done. So I’ve been sorry ever since. You don’t have to believe that. I didn’t know about San Diego. That makes it even worse for me.” She didn’t say anything all this time, and the silence felt enormous. So after a moment I said, “Tell me one thing, at least. That guy who wrecked me in Pershing Square: who was he?”
 
      “He wasn’t anybody,” she said.
 
      “What does that mean?”
 
      “He isn’t a who. He’s a what. It’s an android, a mobile anti-pardoner unit, plugged right into the big Entity mainframe in Culver City. Something new that we have going around town.”
 
      “Oh,” I said. “Oh.”
 
      “The report is that you gave it one hell of a workout.”
 
      “It gave me one too. Turned my brain half to mush.”
 
      “You were trying to drink the sea through a straw. For a while it looked like you were really going to do it, too. You’re one goddamned hacker, you know that?”
 
      “Why did you go to work for them?” I said.
 
      She shrugged. “Everybody works for them. Except people like you. You took everything I had and didn’t give me my pardon. So what was I supposed to do?”
 
      “I see.”
 
      “It’s not such a bad job. At least I’m not out there on the wall. Or being sent off for TTD.”
 
      “No,” I said. “It’s probably not so bad. If you don’t mind working in a room with such a high ceiling. Is that what’s going to happen to me? Sent off for TTD?”
 
      “Don’t be stupid. You’re too valuable.”
 
      “To whom?”
 
      “The system always needs upgrading. You know it better than anyone alive. You’ll work for us.”
 
      “You think I’m going to turn borgmann?” I said, amazed.
 
      “It beats TTD,” she said.
 
      I fell silent again. I was thinking that she couldn’t possibly be serious, that they’d be fools to trust me in any kind of responsible position. And even bigger fools to let me near their computer.
 
      “All right,” I said. “I’ll do it. On one condition.”
 
      “You really have balls, don’t you?”
 
      “Let me have a rematch with that android of yours. I need to check something out. And afterward we can discuss what kind of work I’d be best suited for here. Okay?”
 
      “You know you aren’t in any position to lay down conditions.”
 
      “Sure I am. What I do with computers is a unique art. You can’t make me do it against my will. You can’t make me do anything against my will.”
 
      She thought about that. “What good is a rematch?”
 
      “Nobody ever beat me before. I want a second try.”
 
      “You know it’ll be worse for you than before.”
 
      “Let me find that out.”
 
      “But what’s the point?”
 
      “Get me your android and I’ll show you the point,” I said.
* * *
      She went along with it. Maybe it was curiosity, maybe it was something else, but she patched herself into the computer net and pretty soon they brought in the android I had encountered in the park, or maybe another one with the same face. It looked me over pleasantly, without the slightest sign of interest.
 
      Someone came in and took the security lock off my wrist and left again. She gave the android its instructions and it held out its wrist to me and we made contact. And I jumped right in.
 
      I was raw and wobbly and pretty damned battered, still, but I knew what I needed to do and I knew I had to do 
it fast. The thing was to ignore the android completely—it was just a terminal, it was just a unit—and go for what lay behind it. So I bypassed the android’s own identity program, which was clever but shallow. I went right around it while the android was still setting up its combinations, dived underneath, got myself instantly from the unit level to the mainframe level and gave the master Culver City computer a hearty handshake.
 
 
      Jesus, that felt good!
 
      All that power, all those millions of megabytes squatting there, and I was plugged right into it. Of course I felt like a mouse hitchhiking on the back of an elephant. That was all right. I might be a mouse but that mouse was getting a tremendous ride. I hung on tight and went soaring along on the hurricane winds of that colossal machine.
 
      And as I soared, I ripped out chunks of it by the double handful and tossed them to the breeze.
 
      It didn’t even notice for a good tenth of a second. That’s how big it was. There I was, tearing great blocks of data out of its gut, joyously ripping and rending. And it didn’t even know it, because even the most magnificent computer ever assembled is still stuck with operating at the speed of light, and when the best you can do is 186,000 miles a second it can take quite a while for the alarm to travel the full distance down all your neural channels. That thing was huge. Mouse riding on elephant, did I say? Amoeba piggybacking on brontosaurus, was more like it.
 
      God knows how much damage I was able to do. But of course the alarm circuitry did cut in eventually. Internal gates came clanging down and all sensitive areas were sealed away and I was shrugged off with the greatest of ease. There was no sense staying around waiting to get trapped, so I pulled myself free.
 
      I had found out what I needed to know. Where the defenses were, how they worked. This time the computer had kicked me out, but it wouldn’t be able to, the next. Whenever I wanted, I could go in there and smash whatever I felt like.
 
      The android crumpled to the carpet. It was nothing but an empty husk now.
 
      Lights were flashing on the office wall.
 
      She looked at me, appalled. “What did you do?”
 
      “I beat your android,” I said. “It wasn’t all that hard, once I knew the scoop.”
 
      “You damaged the main computer.”
 
      “Not really. Not much. I just gave it a little tickle. It was surprised, seeing me get access in there, that’s all.”
 
      “I think you really damaged it.”
 
      “Why would I want to do that?”
 
      “The question ought to be why you haven’t done it already. Why you haven’t gone in there and crashed the hell out of their programs.”
 
      “You think I could do something like that?”
 
      She studied me. “I think maybe you could, yes.”
 
      “Well, maybe so. Or maybe not. But I’m not a crusader, you know. I like my life the way it is. I move around, I do as I please. It’s a quiet life. I don’t start revolutions. When I need to gimmick things, I gimmick them just enough, and no more. And the Entities don’t even know I exist. If I stick my finger in their eye, they’ll cut my finger off. So I haven’t done it.”
 
      “But now you might,” she said.
 
      I began to get uncomfortable. “I don’t follow you,” I said, although I was beginning to think that I did.
 
      “You don’t like risk. You don’t like being conspicuous. But if we take your freedom away, if we tie you down in L.A. and put you to work, what the hell would you have to lose? You’d go right in there. You’d gimmick things but good.” She was silent for a time. “Yes,” she said. “You really would. I see it now, that you have the capability and that you could be put in a position where you’d be willing to use it. And then you’d screw everything up for all of us, wouldn’t you?”
 
      “What?”
 
      “You’d fix the Entities, sure. You’d do such a job on their computer that they’d have to scrap it and start all over again. Isn’t that so?”
 
      She was on to me, all right.
 
      “But I’m not going to give you the chance. I’m not crazy. There isn’t going to be any revolution and I’m not going to be its heroine and you aren’t the type to be a hero. I understand you now. It isn’t safe to fool around with you. Because if anybody did, you’d take your little revenge, and you wouldn’t care what you brought down on everybody else’s head. You could ruin their computer but then they’d come down on us and they’d make things twice as hard for us as they already are, and you wouldn’t care. We’d all suffer, but you wouldn’t care. No. My life isn’t so terrible that I need you to turn it upside down for me. You’ve already done it to me once. I don’t need it again.”
 
      She looked at me steadily and all the anger seemed to be gone from her and there was only contempt left.
 
      After a little she said, “Can you go in there again and gimmick things so that there’s no record of your arrest today?”
 
      “Yeah. Yeah, I could do that.”
 
      “Do it, then. And then get going. Get the hell out of here, fast.”
 
      “Are you serious?”
 
      “You think I’m not?”
 
      I shook my head. I understood. And I knew that I had won and I had lost, both at the same time.
 
      She made an impatient gesture, a shoo-fly gesture.
 
      I nodded. I felt very very small.
 
      “I just want to say—all that stuff about how much I regretted the thing I did to you back then—it was true. Every word of it.”
 
      “It probably was,” she said. “Look, do your gimmicking and edit yourself out and then I want you to start moving. Out of the building. Out of the city. Okay? Do it real fast.”
 
      I hunted around for something else to say and couldn’t find it. Quit while you’re ahead, I thought. She gave me her wrist and I did the interface with her. As my implant access touched hers she shuddered a little. It wasn’t much of a shudder but I noticed it. I felt it, all right. I think I’m going to feel it every time I stiff anyone, ever again. Any time I even think of stiffing anyone.
 
      I went in and found the John Doe arrest entry and got rid of it, and then I searched out her civil service file and promoted her up two grades and doubled her pay. Not much of an atonement. But what the hell, there wasn’t much I could do. Then I cleaned up my traces behind me and exited the program.
 
      “All right,” I said. “It’s done.”
 
      “Fine,” she said, and rang for her cops.
* * *
      They apologized for the case of mistaken identity and let me out of the building and turned me loose on Figueroa Street. It was late afternoon and the street was getting dark and the air was cool. Even in Los Angeles winter is winter, of a sort. I went to a street access and summoned the Toshiba from wherever it had parked itself and it came driving up, five or ten minutes later, and I told it to take me north. The going was slow, rush-hour stuff, but that was okay. We came to the wall at the Sylmar gate, fifty miles or so out of town. The gate asked me my name. “Richard Roe,” I said. “Beta Pi Upsilon 104324x. Destination San Francisco.”
 
      It rains a lot in San Francisco in the winter. Still, it’s a pretty town. I would have preferred Los Angeles that time of year, but what the hell. Nobody gets all his first choices all the time.
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AshesInTheWind
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