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At an exclusive school somewhere outside of Arlington, Virginia, students aren’t taught history, geography, or mathematics—they are taught to persuade. Students learn to use language to manipulate minds, wielding words as weapons. The very best graduate as “poets,” and enter a nameless organization of unknown purpose.
Whip-smart runaway Emily Ruff is making a living from three-card Monte on the streets of San Francisco when she attracts the attention of the organization’s recruiters. Drawn in to their strage world, which is populated by people named Brontë and Eliot, she learns their key rule: That every person can be classified by personality type, his mind segmented and ultimately unlocked by the skilful application of words. For this reason, she must never allow another person to truly know her, lest she herself be coerced. Adapting quickly, Emily becomes the school’s most talented prodigy, until she makes a catastrophic mistake: She falls in love.
Meanwhile, a seemingly innocent man named Wil Parke is brutally ambushed by two men in an airport bathroom. They claim he is the key to a secret war he knows nothing about, that he is an “outlier,” immune to segmentation. Attempting to stay one step ahead of the organization and its mind-bending poets, Wil and his captors seek salvation in the toxically decimated town of Broken Hill, Australia, which, if ancient stories are true, sits above an ancient glyph of frightening power.
A brilliant thriller that traverses very modern questions of privacy, identity, and the rising obsession of data-collection, connecting them to centuries-old ideas about the power of language and coercion, Lexicon is Max Barry’s most ambitious and spellbinding novel yet.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Max Barry is the author of Syrup (1999), Jennifer Government (2003), Company (2006), and Machine Man (2011). He lives in Melbourne, Australia.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
"He's coming around."
"Their eyes always do that."
The world was blurry. There was a pressure in his right eye. He said, Urk.
"It's too late, forget it. Take it out."
"It's not too late. Hold him." A shape grew in his vision. He smelled alcohol and stale urine. "Wil? Can you hear me?"
He reached for his face, to brush away whatever was pressing there.
Fingers closed around his wrist. "Wil, it's important that you not touch your face."
"Why is he conscious?"
"I don't know."
"You fucked something up."
"I didn't. Give me that."
A rustling. He said, Hnnn. Hnnnn.
"Stop moving." He felt breath in his ear, hot and intimate. "There is a needle in your eyeball. Do not move."
He did not move. Something trilled, something electronic. "Ah,shit, shit."
"Two of them, it says. We have to go."
"I'm already in."
"You can't do it while he's conscious. You'll fry his brain."
"I probably won't."
He said, "Pubbaleeese doo nut kill mee."
An unsnapping of clasps. "I'm doing it."
"You can't do it while he's conscious, and we're out of time, and he probably isn't even the guy."
"If you're not helping, move out of the way."
Wil said, "I . . . need . . . to . . . sneeze."
"Sneezing would be a bad move at this point, Wil." Weight descended on his chest. His vision darkened. His eyeball moved slightly.
"This may hurt."
A snick. A low electronic whine. A rail spike drove into his brain.
"You're toasting him."
"You're okay, Wil. You're okay."
"He's . . . aw, he's bleeding from his eye."
"Wil, I need you to answer a few questions. It's important that you answer truthfully. Do you understand?"
No no no—
"First question. Would you describe yourself as more of a dog person or cat person?"
"Come on, Wil. Dog or cat?"
"I can't read this. This is why we don't do it when they're conscious."
"Answer the question. The pain stops when you answer the questions."
Dog! he screamed. Dog please dog!
"Was that dog?"
"Yeah. He tried to say dog."
"Good. Very good. One down. What's your favorite color?"
Something chimed. "Fuck! Oh, fuck me!"
"That can't be right."
"It says it right fucking here!"
Blue! he screamed into silence.
"He responded. You see?"
"Yes, I saw! Who cares? We have to leave. We have to leave."
"Wil, I want you to think of a number between one and a hundred."
"Any number you like. Go on."
I don't know—
"Wolf is coming and you're dicking around with a live probe on the wrong guy. Think about what you're doing."
Four I choose four—
"I saw it."
"That's good, Wil. Only two questions left. Do you love your family?"
Yes no what kind of a—
"He's all over the place."
I don't have—I guess yes I mean yes everybody loves—
"Wait, wait. Okay. I see it. Christ, that's weird."
"One more question. Why did you do it?"
"Simple question, Wil. Why'd you do it?"
Do what do what what what—
"Borderline. As in, borderline on about eight different segments. I'd be guessing."
I don't know what you mean I didn't do anything I swear I've never done anything to anyone except except I once knew a girl—
"Yeah. Yeah, okay."
A hand closed over his mouth. The pressure in his eyeball intensified, became a sucking. They were pulling out his eyeball. No: It was the needle, withdrawing. He shrieked, possibly. Then the pain was gone. Hands pulled him upward. He couldn't see. He wept for his poor abused eyeball. But it was still there. It was there.
Blurry shapes loomed in fog. "What," Wil said.
"Coarg medicity nighten comense," said the taller shape. "Hop on one foot."
Wil squinted, confused.
"Huh," said the shorter shape. "Maybe it is him."
They filled a sink with water and pushed his face into it. He surfaced, gasping. "Don't soak his clothes," said the tall man.
He was in a restroom. An airport. He had come off the 3:05 p. m. from Chicago, where the aisle seat had been occupied by a large man in a Hawaiian shirt Wil couldn't bear to wake. At first, the restroom had appeared closed for cleaning, but the janitor had removed the sign and Wil had jagged toward it gratefully. He had reached the urinal, unzipped, experienced relief.
The door had opened. A tall man in a beige coat had come in. There were half a dozen free urinals, Wil at one end, but the man chose the one beside him. Moments passed and the tall man did not pee. Wil, emptying at high velocity, felt a twinge of compassion. He had been there. The door had opened again. A second man entered and locked the door.
Wil had put himself back in his pants. He had looked at the man beside him, thinking—this was funny, in retrospect—that whatever was happening here, whatever specific danger was implied by a man entering a public restroom and fucking locking it, at least Wil and the tall man were in it together. At least it was two against one. Then he had realized Shy Bladder Guy's eyes were calm and deep and kind of beautiful, actually, but the key point being calm as in unsurprised, and Shy Bladder Guy had seized his head and propelled him into the wall.
Then the pain, and questions.
"Have to get this blood out of his hair," said the short man. He attacked Wil's face with paper towels. "His eye looks terrible."
"If they get close enough to see his eyes, we have bigger problems."
The tall man was wiping his hands with a small white cloth, giving attention to each finger. He was thin and dark-skinned and Wil was no longer finding his eyes quite so beautiful. He was getting more of a cold, soulless kind of vibe. Like those eyes could watch terrible things and not look away. "So, Wil, you with us? You can walk and talk?"
"Fuck," he said, "orrffff." It didn't come out like he meant. His head felt loose.
"Good," said the tall man. "So here's the deal. We need to get out of this airport in minimum time with minimum fuss. I want your cooperation with that. If I fail to receive it, I'm going to make things bad for you. Not because I have anything against you, particularly, but I need you motivated. Do you understand?"
"I'm not . . ." He searched for the word. Rich? Kidnappable? "Anybody. I'm a carpenter. I make decks. Balconies. Gazebos."
"Yes, that's why we're here, your inimitable work with gazebos. You can forget the act. We know who you are. And they know who you are, and they're here, so let's get the fuck out while we can."
He took a moment to choose his words, because he had the feeling he would get only one more shot at this. "My name is Wil Parke. I'm a carpenter. I have a girlfriend and she's waiting out front to pick me up. I don't know who you think I am, or why you stuck a . . . a thing in my eye, but I'm nobody. I promise you I'm nobody."
The short man had been packing equipment into a brown satchel,and now he slung it around one shoulder and peered into Wil's face. He had thinning hair and anxious brows. Wil might have pegged him for an accountant, ordinarily.
"I tell you what," Wil said. "I'll go into a stall and close the door. Twenty minutes. I'll wait twenty minutes. It'll be like we never met."
The short man glanced at the tall man.
"I'm not the guy," Wil said. "I am not the guy."
"The problem with that little plan, Wil," said the tall man, "is that if you stay here, in twenty minutes you'll be dead. If you go to your girlfriend, who I'm sorry to say you can no longer trust, you'll also be dead. If you do anything other than come with us now, quickly and cooperatively, again, I'm afraid, dead. It may not seem like it, but we are the only people who can save you from that." His eyes searched Wil's. "I can see, though, that you're not finding this very persuasive, so let me switch to a more direct method." He held open his coat. Nestled against his side, nose down in a thigh holster, was a short, wide shotgun. It made no sense, because they were in an airport.
"Come or I will shoot you through the fucking kidneys."
"Yes," Wil said. "Okay, you make a good point. I'll cooperate." The key was to get out of the restroom. The airport was full of security. Once he was out, a push, a yell, some running: This was how he would escape.
"Nope," said the short man.
"No," agreed the tall man. "I see it. Dope him up."
A door opened. On the other side of it was a world of stunted color and muted sound, as if something was stuck in Wil's ears, and eyes, and possibly brain. He shook his head to clear it, but the world grew dark and angry and would not stay upright. The world did not like to be shaken. He understood that now. He wouldn't shake it again. He felt his feet sliding away from him on silent roller skates and reached for a wall for support. The wall cursed and dug its fingers into his arm, and was probably not a wall. It was probably a person.
"You gave him too much," said the person.
"Safe than sorry," said another person. They were bad persons, Wil recalled. They were kidnapping him. He felt angry about this, although in a technical kind of way, like taking a stand on principle. He tried to reel in his roller skate feet.
"Jesus," muttered a person, the tall one with calm eyes. Wil didn't like this person. He'd forgotten why. No. It was the kidnapping. "Walk."
He walked, resentfully. There were important facts in his brain but he couldn't find them. Everything was moving. A stream of airport people broke around him. Everyone going somewhere. Wil had been going somewhere. Meeting someone. To his left, a bird twittered. Or a phone. The short man squinted at a screen. "Rain."
"Domestic Arrivals. Right ahead." Wil found this idea amusing: rain in the terminal. "Do we know a Rain?"
"Yeah. Girl. New."
"Shit," said the short man. "I hate shooting girls."
"You get used to it," said the tall man.
A young couple passed, gripping hands. Lovers. The concept seemed familiar. "This way," said the tall man, steering Wil into a bookstore. He came face-to-face with a shelf that said NEW RELEASES. Wil's feet kept skating and he put out a hand to catch himself and felt a sharp pain.
"Possibly nothing," murmured the tall man, "or possibly Rain, passing behind us now, in a blue summer dress."
In glossy covers, a reflection skipped by. Wil was trying to figure out what had stabbed him. It was a loose wire in the NEW RELEASES sign. The interesting thing was that being stabbed had helped to clear the fog in his head.
"Busiest part of any store, always the new releases," said the tall man. "That's what attracts people. Not the best. The new. Why is that, Wil, do you think?"
Wil pricked himself with the wire. He was too tentative, could hardly feel it, and so tried again, harder. This time a blade of pain swept through his mind. He remembered needles and questions. His girlfriend, Cecilia, was out front in a white SUV. She would be in a two-minute parking bay; they had arranged that carefully. He was late, because of these guys.
"I think we're good," said the short man.
"Make sure." The short man moved away. "All right, Wil," said the tall man. "In a few moments, we're going to cross the hall and walk down some stairs. There will be a little circumnavigating of passenger jets, then we'll board a nice, comfortable twelve-seater. There will be snacks. Drinks, if you're thirsty." The tall man glanced at him. "Still with me?"
Wil grabbed the man's face. He had no plan for what to do next, so wound up just hanging on to the guy's head and staggering backward until he tripped over a cardboard display. The two of them went down in a tangle of beige coat and scattered books. Run, Wil thought, and yes, that was a solid idea. He found his feet and ran for the exit. In the glass he saw a wild-eyed man and realized it was him. He heard yelps and alarmed voices, possibly the tall man getting up, who had a shotgun, Wil recalled now, a shotgun, which was not the kind of thing you would think could slip your memory.
He stumbled out into an ocean of bright frightened faces and open mouths. It was hard to remember what he was doing. His legs threatened treachery but the motion was good, helping to clear his head. He saw escalators and forged toward them. His back sang with potential shotgun impacts, but the airport people were being very good about moving out of his way, practically throwing themselves aside, for which he was grateful. He reached the escalators but his roller skate feet kept going and he fell flat on his back. The ceiling moved slowly by. The tiles up there were filthy. They were seriously disgusting.
He sat up, remembering Cecilia. Also the shotgun. And, now he thought about it, how about some security? Where were they? Because it was an airport. It was an airport. He grabbed the handrail, intending to pull himself up to look for security, but his knees went in opposite directions and he tumbled down the rest of the way. Body parts telegraphed complaints from faraway places. He rose. Sweat ran into his eyes. Because the head fog wasn't confusing enough; he needed blurred vision. But he could see light, which meant exit, which meant Cecilia, so he ran on. Someone shouted. The light grew. Frigid air burst around him as if he'd plunged into a mountain lake and he sucked it into his lungs. Snow, he saw. It was snowing. Flakes like tiny stars.
"Help, guy with gun," he said to a man who looked like a cop but on reflection was probably directing cabs. Orange buses. Parking bays. The two-minute spaces were just a little farther. He a...
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