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Zero K(7)
Don DeLillo

“Zurich,” he said.

“Then three people boarded, man, two women. The older woman smiled at me. I tried to hear what they were saying.”

“They were speaking Portuguese.”

He was enjoying this, straight-faced, slumped in the chair, his remarks directed toward the ceiling.

“They talked but did not eat. I had a snack, or maybe that was later, in the next stage. We landed and they got off and somebody came aboard and led me onto the tarmac to another plane. He was a baldheaded guy about seven feet tall wearing a dark suit and a large silver medallion on a chain around his neck.”

“You were in Minsk.”

“Minsk,” I said.

“Which is in Belarus.”

“I don’t think anybody stamped my passport. The plane was different from the original.”

“Rusjet charter.”

“Smaller, fewer amenities, no other passengers. Belarus,” I said.

“You flew southeast from there.”

“I was drowsy, stupefied, half-dead. I’m not sure whether the next stage was stop or nonstop. I’m not sure how many stages in the entire trip. I slept, dreamt, hallucinated.”

“What were you doing in Boston?”

“My girlfriend lives there.”

“You and your girlfriends never seem to live in the same city. Why is that?”

“It makes time more precious.”

“Very different here,” he said.

“I know. I’ve learned this. There is no time.”

“Or time is so overwhelming that we don’t feel it pass in the same way.”

“You hide from it.”

“We defer to it,” he said.

It was my turn to slump in the chair. I wanted a cigarette. I’d stopped smoking twice and wanted to start and stop again. I envisioned it as a lifelong cycle.

“Do I ask the question or do I accept the situation passively? I want to know the rules.”

“What’s the question?”

“Where are we?” I said.

He nodded slowly, examining the matter. Then he laughed.

“The nearest city of any size is across the border, called Bishkek. It’s the capital of Kyrgyzstan. Then there’s Almaty, bigger, more distant, in Kazakhstan. But Almaty is not the capital. It used to be the capital. The capital is now Astana, which has gold skyscrapers and indoor shopping malls where people lounge on sand beaches before plunging into wave pools. Once you know the local names and how to spell them, you’ll feel less detached.”

“I won’t be here that long.”

“True,” he said. “But there’s a change in the estimate concerning Artis. They expect it to happen one day later.”

“I thought the timing was extremely precise.”

“You don’t have to stay. She’ll understand.”

“I’ll stay. Of course I’ll stay.”

“Even under the most detailed guidance, the body tends to influence certain decisions.”

“Is she dying naturally or is the last breath being induced?”

“You understand there’s something beyond the last breath. You understand this is only the preface to something larger, to what is next.”

“It seems very businesslike.”

“It will be very gentle in fact.”

“Gentle.”

“It will be quick, safe and painless.”

“Safe,” I said.

“They need it to happen in complete synchronization with the methods they’ve been fine-tuning. Best suited to her body, her illness. She could live weeks longer, yes, but to what end?”

He was leaning forward now, elbows on the desk.

I said, “Why here?”

“There are laboratories and tech centers in two other countries. This is the base, central command.”

“But why so isolated? Why not Switzerland? Why not a suburb of Houston?”

“This is what we want, this separation. We have what is needed. Durable energy sources and strong mechanized systems. Blast walls and fortified floors. Structural redundancy. Fire safety. Security patrols, land and air. Elaborate cyberdefense. And so on.”

Structural redundancy. He liked saying that. He opened a drawer in the desk, then held up a bottle of Irish whiskey. He pointed to a tray that held two glasses and I went across the room to get it. Back at the desk I inspected the glasses, looking for infiltrations of sand and grit.

“People in offices here. Hidden away. What are they doing?”

“They’re making the future. A new idea of the future. Different from the others.”

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