In the middle of the desert, traveller Kino barely has enough strength to carry on. Her sentient motorrad (motorcycle) Hermes suggests that they give up and return to ‘the Master’, but Kino’s mind is made up. She will carry on…
Some time later, Kino and Hermes are well into their journey, and are heading towards a new country with the aid of a month-old map bought from a dealer. Unfortunately, the map appears to be incorrect- there is a cliff in the way that wasn’t marked on the chart. The sceptical Hermes thinks they must have been swindled, but Kino points out that the map is mostly correct- the next country is just across the cliff. Nonetheless, they will need to search out another route.
As they continue on their way, Kino and Hermes are surprised to see the land itself shifting and changing around them; the map was correct after all, it was just that the topography changed in the intervening weeks. Now, as a path opens up, Kino and Hermes are able to make it to the border of the next country. Checking in at the inspection station, Kino is surprised to find that it is fully automated- all she needs to do is enter her name and length of stay to automatically gain access.
Inside the country, there is not a human in sight. Machines run everything from restaurants to hotels, at incredibly cheap prices. After a good meal, Kino rents a surprisingly large and luxurious hotel room, where she uses the evening to polish and practise with her guns.
The next day, Kino and Hermes decide to explore this strangely empty country. There is still no sign of people in the streets, but after looking around a little Kino discovers that there are people living here. For some reason, however, everyone is staying close to their homes, and more than that, everyone is alone, without even their families beside them.
This strange country is beginning to get disconcerting, and Hermes is relieved to think that they will be leaving tomorrow- after all, it is Kino’s rule to only stay in each country three days. Kino agrees that she will continue to stick by that rule; three days is long enough to see a country, but short enough to give them the time to see many different lands. More than that, however, Kino cannot deny that there may be another reason to limit each stay to three days- that way she need never be afraid of settling down in one place and ending her days as a traveller.
On the final day of their stay, Kino drives out to an area known as the Outskirts, the place where she saw the people. Indeed, as she drives past the houses, it becomes clear that people are there, but they all run and hide as soon as they see her. Finally, one man overcomes his initial shock and returns to speak to her. Once he realises that they cannot read each other’s thoughts, he becomes much more welcoming, and even invites Kino inside for a drink.
The man explains that this country is known as the Land of Visible Pain, and proceeds to fill Kino in on how the strange circumstances of this place came to be. Some years ago, this was a prosperous place, with the people living together happily whilst their advanced machines handled many of the day to day chores. However, there was one thing that still caused them dissatisfaction- the inadequacy of verbal communication in expressing one’s true feelings. To that end, scholars used their advanced machines to develop a special liquid that stimulated a previously unused portion of the brain, giving those who drank it telepathic powers.
No one wanted to be left out, and so everyone in the country took their dose of the liquid, and with that, they were all connected. At first, it seemed like a dream come true- without the need for awkward verbalisation, truly meaningful communications were finally possible. In particular, Kino’s host was able to connect with a woman he liked, and both were delighted to find that they shared a mutual love for each other.
In time, though, the novelty of this new form of communication wore off, and the people began to see that being linked so closely with others was not always a good thing. No one could be spared the negative thoughts of others, and even the smallest passing annoyances could escalate into full blown arguments. With the man and his girlfriend, it was their differing hobbies that spelled the beginning of the end for them- neither of them cared much for the other’s pastime, and with their inner thoughts so easily communicated, the tension soon mounted. It was the same for everyone- with pain so visible, no one could ever get a moment’s peace.
In the end, there was only one solution. Just like verbal communication, their telepathy was only effective over a short range. By keeping themselves in solitude and seclusion, each person could gain peace and quiet, at the expense of always having to keep away from others. Thanks to their advanced machines, this way of life could be maintained relatively easily; however, with everyone living apart, no children can be born, and slowly but surely, this land is dying.
Having heard his story, Kino knows that it is time to depart. The man tries to convince her to stay, but as a traveller, Kino is compelled to move on. On the road once more, Kino tells Hermes that when they said goodbye, she thought she could hear the man thinking ‘be safe on your journey’, to which she mentally replied that he shouldn’t worry about her. Although she cannot be sure, Kino hopes that he got her message…