“Have you lost your wits?”
“Good! No, excellent! My lost wits against yours. Oh yes, you know, don’t you, Chokki? You know, and you are there each time. I see you, I know it is you. But this time—oh, this time little Chokki, I engulf you. Or ‘incorporate.’ Is that a better word?”
“You are mad,” said Chokki, softly. He rose and strode toward the front T6-screen. Kagami followed at his back, his hands waving drunkenly in the air.
“The attacking line, Mr. Chokki! Look out! Here it is—no, there! Now in back of you! Behind you! All about you, ripping into your flesh with pointed politic and gesture, attacking you for what you are, for what you are not, for what you can never be! Do you see it? All around you? Look, my one little stone!”
Chokki touched the T6-screen and it parted, then he turned slowly to Kagami, standing at the threshold. His composure had not been broken, his face was manicured beautifully, like the Agean windflowers in the garden, yet expressionless. His poise caused Kagami to suddenly step back.
Softly, he said, “One stone holds infinite power, Kagami san. One stone may change the outcome of a game. Malicious play extends folly. Good day.”
The small Nipponese stepped through the T6-screen and was gone. Kagami stood in the immense entryway, holding a snifter filled with expensive liquor in a trembling hand.
The train lumbered through the darkness like a huge slug, crawling past mountains and rivers and plateaus. The box-car vibrated and Samuel Kagami rocked in the corner.
“Damn. Aren’t you finished yet?”
“Sorry,” said the thin man who knelt by the safe, working the dials in the flashing half-light from the car door. “I can’t get that last number, it won’t open.”
“Get the conductor then. Get somebody!” At Kagami’s command, the thin man and the heavy-set fellow named Mayor disappeared into the adjoining car. Kagami found a cigarette in the pocket of his black satin vest and lit it, breathing the smoke through his nostrils and releasing it in a dragon flare. He listened to the even, measured sounds of the locomotive pounding track across the Great Divide. The car smelled musty and a chill wind lashed through the cracks in the floorboards, swinging the oil lantern that hung by the door and sparking Kagami’s cigarette.
Samuel Kagami was not interested in the contents of the safe. He was interested in the last number.
The two men reappeared holding a frail old gentleman by the arms. The latter did not appear nervous, a grey shoot of hair slicked across his balding scalp, a natty suit and bow tie. “The ticket-taker,” announced Mayor.
“Open it,” said Kagami in a rush of smoke.
The ticket-taker shook his head.
Kagami smiled, curling and uncurling his fist. Doesn’t he think he’s just something? thought Kagami. He slammed the old ticket-taker against the wall of the boxcar, and the small fellow smacked against the wood then slid down the wall and sat on the floor. He adjusted his wire-rimmed spectacles which sat crookedly on the bridge of his nose.
“I said open it.”
The ticket-taker slowly moved his head from left to right.
Stalling. Blind moves. A field mouse roaring at a cobra. Kagami enjoyed the ticket-taker’s resistance; it added an extra dimension to the conquest. He brought his foot up neatly in a large arc, directing his boot into the old man’s face.
The spectacles shattered in the ticket-taker’s eyes, filling them with blood. The dull thud of cartilage breaking and the sharp crack of the glass lenses filled the car.
Samuel Kagami thought of his empire, his kingdom. He envisioned a pebble lodged in its bright machinery, then, with a whirr and a click, the machinery grinding to a halt.
“Tell me,” he said.
The ticket-taker sat very still.
Kagami forced his boot into the man’s groin. Now, in the flickering of lantern light, he noticed just how old the man looked; his outfit a remnant of older, perhaps better days, his thinning hair attempting to deny the inevitable baldness of his liver-spotted pate. Were these meager wrappings meant to evoke sympathy? Compassion?
Kagami shifted his weight to his left leg and ground the old man’s testes between his heel and the floorboards. He felt a popping as he pushed.
“You want to die?”
The ticket-taker spoke in spasmed breaths; his words, though, were calm and precise, as if unscathed by physical pain. His mouth, a crescent filled with frothy scarlet, opened slightly. “Nothing to lose,” whispered the ticket-taker.
He who has nothing to lose cannot be beaten.
Another hollow platitude from the mouths of the victors. Yet, for the first time, Kagami felt the awesome might of complete surrender, the carefully maintained power of the ticket-taker’s position. Kagami could kill him, or the old man would accept any amount of his beating, but because he held to nothing, the ticket-taker could not be threatened, pressed, taken.
Kagami felt fear, as all about him the machine slowed.
One stone, Kagami san, may change the outcome of a game.
Impossible. Kagami had brought to bear a network of holdings so grand that nothing might stop their momentous hurtling toward destiny once they were set into play. Why then did he feel such fright? Why, if the force of this monolith could not be restrained, did he find himself shivering now, staring deep into the eyes of a straw-boned old man?
Blood streaked down the ticket-taker’s face like tears. He mumbled.
“What?” said Kagami.
The ticket-taker said nothing. Your move. He had heard it clearly enough. It did not bear repeating. Kagami lowered himself to the floor of the box-car and brought his face close to the old man’s. His eyes, filmed by a red sauce, held Kagami’s unblinkingly.
“It’s right to 23, isn’t it, Chokki?”
The ticket-taker’s lips parted slowly, so slowly that Kagami ached to speed their parting, to reach his hand into the old man’s gullet and extract the answer which was rightfully his.
The ticket-taker opened his mouth, coughed, and spat two teeth into Kagami’s face.
Kagami jumped backward. “Damn you!” He pulled his pistol from his gunbelt and held it level to the ticket-taker’s skull. “Now tell me!” Kagami steadied himself on his knees, holding the gun outstretched with both hands. “Now!” The veins and arteries in his neck swelled and throbbed, his skin painted with violet.
“Sammy, don’t kill him, boy. He’s the only one’s got the combination.”
Bad lines from a bad script. Kagami ignored the clamor of the men and instead focused all his energies into the barrel of his gun. He held the ticket-taker’s gaze and knew that soon, very soon, the bad actors would disappear, begone, there would remain that which always remained: the immovable object and the irresistible force.
But this time the object would yield! It had to!
Kagami cocked, the pistol and heard his own breathing, out of control, his heart pounding in his ears. Or was it the train?
“Chokki, I don’t want to. Please. What is it?”
His extended arms began to shake, he could not hold the pistol straight anymore and the box-car began to swirl.
The deafening noise of the train and his heart did not hide this fact: the ticket-taker was laughing.
“Chokki!” Malicous play.
Kagami pulled the trigger. His arms recoiled in futile protest. He watched the bullet crawl, painstakingly slowly, across the vast space between himself and the ticket-taker, a space which spanned one meter and three thousand years. The ticker-taker’s skull separated as if in slow motion, a dream-jar unwinding at the top, the lid splattered against the box-car walls, small parts of bone and flesh suspended in perpetual ballet, swirling, turning, airborne spinners.
Suddenly, the car was quiet.
“Chokki?” Kagami whispered.
He stared at the ticket-taker’s body for a very long time, then slowly, he began to weep. He crawled forward, pulling a leg behind a leg, knee to floor, crawling across that great abyss which lay between himself and the corpse, until he reached the body and hugged himself to the bloodied coat and held and stroked the lifeless hand which he did not need to see to know it wore a single-banded, golden ring.
He pressed himself tightly against the used body, squeezing against its chest, mingling his sorrow with blood and bone, pushing and pushing so that laughter might buoy his heart and one day he might still float free.
And in the night, beyond the slow rumble of the train, empires were falling, vaster than one might imagine.
“Are you serious?—do you really believe that a machine thinks?”
I got no immediate reply; Moxon was apparently intent upon the coals in the grate, touching them deftly here and there with the fire-poker till they signified a sense of his attention by a brighter glow. For several weeks I had been observing in him a growing habit of delay in answering even the most trivial of commonplace questions. His air, however, was that of preoccupation rather than deliberation: one might have said that he had “something on his mind.”