selections from William Gibson, Burning Chrome (story collection, 1986)
[1.1] I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude. I’m a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I’d had to turn both these twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on a lathe, and then load them myself; I’d had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand-loading cartridges; I’d had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers—all very tricky. But I knew they’d work.
[1.2] The meet was set for the Drome at 2300, but I rode the tube three stops past the closest platform and walked back. Immaculate procedure.
[1.3] I checked myself out in the chrome siding of a coffee kiosk, your basic sharp-faced Caucasoid with a ruff of stiff, dark hair [punk look]. The girls at Under the Knife [cosmetic surgery?] were big on Sony Mao [ironic combination of international e-capitalism and 20c communist icon Chairman Mao], and it was getting harder to keep them from adding the chic suggestion of epicanthic folds [East Asian eyes]. It probably wouldn’t fool Ralfi Face, but it might get me next to his table.
[1.4] The Drome is a single narrow space with a bar down one side and tables along the other, thick with pimps and handlers and an arcane array of dealers. The Magnetic Dog Sisters were on the door that night, and I didn’t relish trying to get out past them if things didn’t work out. They were two meters tall and thin as greyhounds. One was black and the other white, but aside from that they were as nearly identical as cosmetic surgery could make them. They’d been lovers for years and were bad news in a tussle. I was never quite sure which one had originally been male.
[1.5] Ralfi was sitting at his usual table. Owing me a lot of money. I had hundreds of megabytes stashed in my head on an idiot / savant* basis, information I had no conscious access to. Ralfi had left it there. He hadn’t, however, come back for it. Only Ralfi could retrieve the data, with a code phrase of his own invention. I’m not cheap to begin with, but my overtime on storage is astronomical. And Ralfi had been very scarce.[*"idiot savant" = mentally limited but with extraordinary abilities; e.g., Rain Man]
[1.6] Then I’d heard that Ralfi Face wanted to put out a contract on me. So I’d arranged to meet him in the Drome, but I’d arranged it as Edward Bax, clandestine importer*, late of Rio and Peking. [*clandestine importer: i.e., a black-marketer of illegal goods, a frequent occupation in cyberpunk literature]
[1.7] The Drome stank of biz, a metallic tang of nervous tension. Muscle-boys scattered through the crowd were flexing stock parts at one another and trying on thin, cold grins, some of them so lost under superstructures of muscle graft that their outlines weren’t really human.
[1.8] Pardon me. Pardon me, friends. Just Eddie Bax here, Fast Eddie the Importer [narrator Johnny in disguise?], with his professionally nondescript gym bag, and please ignore this slit, just wide enough to admit his right hand.
[1.9] Ralfi wasn’t alone. Eighty kilos of blond California beef perched alertly in the chair next to his, martial arts written all over him.
[1.10] Fast Eddie Bax was in the chair opposite them before the beef’s hands were off the table. "You black belt?" I asked eagerly. He nodded, blue eyes running an automatic scanning pattern between my eyes and my hands. "Me, too," I said. "Got mine here in the bag." And I shoved my hand through the slit and thumbed the safety off. Click. "Double twelve-gauge with the triggers wired together."
[1.11] "That’s a gun," Ralfi said, putting a plump, restraining hand on his boy’s taut blue nylon chest. "Johnny has an antique firearm in his bag." So much for Edward Bax.
[1.12] I guess he’d always been Ralfi Something or Other, but he owed his acquired surname [Face] to a singular vanity. Built something like an overripe pear, he’d worn the once-famous face of Christian White for twenty years—Christian White of the Aryan Reggae Band, Sony Mao to his generation, and final champion of race rock. I’m a whiz at trivia.
[1.13] Christian White: classic pop face with a singer’s high-definition muscles, chiseled cheekbones. Angelic in one light, handsomely depraved in another. But Ralfi’s eyes lived behind that face, and they were small and cold and black.
[1.14] "Please," he said, "let’s work this out like businessmen." His voice was marked by a horrible prehensile [grasping] sincerity, and the corners of his beautiful Christian White mouth were always wet. "Lewis here," nodding in the beefboy’s direction, "is a meatball." Lewis took this impassively, looking like something built from a kit. "You aren’t a meatball, Johnny."
[1.15] "Sure I am, Ralfi, a nice meatball chock-full of implants where you can store your dirty laundry while you go off shopping for people to kill me. From my end of this bag, Ralfi, it looks like you’ve got some explaining to do."
[1.16] "It’s this last batch of product, Johnny." He sighed deeply. "In my role as broker—"
[1.17] "Fence," I corrected.
[1.18] "As broker, I’m usually very careful as to sources."
[1.19] "You buy only from those who steal the best. Got it."
[1.20] He sighed again. "I try," he said wearily, "not to buy from fools. This time, I’m afraid, I’ve done that." Third sigh was the cue for Lewis to trigger the neural disruptor [nerve-jammer] they’d taped under my side of the table.
[1.21] I put everything I had into curling the index finger of my right hand, but I no longer seemed to be connected to it. I could feel the metal of the gun and the foam-pad tape I’d wrapped around the stubby grip, but my hands were cool wax, distant and inert. I was hoping Lewis was a true meatball, thick enough to go for the gym bag and snag my rigid trigger finger, but he wasn’t.
[1.22] "We’ve been very worried about you, Johnny. Very worried. You see, that’s Yakuza* property you have there. A fool took it from them, Johnny. A dead fool." [*Yakuza = Japanese mafia]
[1.23] Lewis giggled.
[1.24] It all made sense then, an ugly kind of sense, like bags of wet sand settling around my head. Killing wasn’t Ralfi’s style. Lewis wasn’t even Ralfi’s style. But he’d got himself stuck between the Sons of the Neon Chrysanthemum [Yakuza gang] and something that belonged to them—or, more likely, something of theirs that belonged to someone else.
[1.25] Ralfi, of course, could use the code phrase to throw me into idiot / savant, and I’d spill their hot program without remembering a single quarter tone. For a fence like Ralfi, that would ordinarily have been enough. But not for the Yakuza [Japanese mafia]. The Yakuza would know about Squids [data extractors?], for one thing, and they wouldn’t want to worry about one lifting those dim and permanent traces of their program out of my head. I didn’t know very much about Squids, but I’d heard stories, and I made it a point never to repeat them to my clients. No, the Yakuza wouldn’t like that; it looked too much like evidence. They hadn’t got where they were by leaving evidence around. Or alive.
[1.26] Lewis was grinning. I think he was visualizing a point just behind my forehead and imagining how he could get there the hard way.
[1.27] "Hey," said a low voice, feminine, from somewhere behind my right shoulder, "you cowboys sure aren’t having too lively a time."
[1.28] "Pack it, bitch," Lewis said, his tanned face very still. Ralfi looked blank.
[1.29] "Lighten up. You want to buy some good free base?" She pulled up a chair and quickly sat before either of them could stop her. She was barely inside my fixed field of vision, a thin girl with mirrored glasses, her dark hair cut in a rough shag. She wore black leather, open over a T-shirt slashed diagonally with stripes of red and black. "Eight thou a gram weight."
[1.30] Lewis snorted his exasperation and tried to slap her out of the chair. Somehow he didn’t quite connect, and her hand came up and seemed to brush his wrist as it passed. Bright blood sprayed the table. He was clutching his wrist white-knuckle tight, blood trickling from between his fingers.
[1.31] But hadn’t her hand been empty?
[1.32] He was going to need a tendon stapler. He stood up carefully, without bothering to push his chair back. The chair toppled backward, and he stepped out of my line of sight without a word.
[1.33] "He better get a medic to look at that," she said. "That’s a nasty cut."
[1.34] "You have no idea," said Ralfi, suddenly sounding very tired, "the depths of shit you have just gotten yourself into."
[1.35] "No kidding? Mystery. I get real excited by mysteries. Like why your friend here’s so quiet. Frozen, like. Or what this thing here is for," and she held up the little control unit that she’d somehow taken from Lewis. Ralfi looked ill.
[1.36] "You, ah, want maybe a quarter-million to give me that and take a walk?" A fat hand came up to stroke his pale, lean face nervously.
[1.37] "What I want," she said, snapping her fingers so that the unit spun and glittered, "is work. A job. Your boy hurt his wrist. But a quarter’ll do for a retainer."
[1.38] Ralfi let his breath out explosively and began to laugh, exposing teeth that hadn’t been kept up to the Christian White standard. Then she turned the disruptor off.
[1.39] "Two million," I said.
[1.40] "My kind of man," she said, and laughed. "What’s in the bag?"
[1.41] "A shotgun."
[1.42] "Crude." It might have been a compliment.
[1.43] Ralfi said nothing at all.
[1.44] "Name’s Millions. Molly Millions. [recurring character in Gibson's 80s Sprawl trilogy] You want to get out of here, boss? People are starting to stare." She stood up. She was wearing leather jeans the color of dried blood.
[1.45] And I saw for the first time that the mirrored lenses were surgical inlays, the silver rising smoothly from her high cheekbones, sealing her eyes in their sockets. I saw my new face twinned there.
[1.46] "I’m Johnny," I said. "We’re taking Mr. Face with us."
[2.1] He [Japanese assassin] was outside, waiting. Looking like your standard tourist tech, in plastic zoris [Japanese sandals] and a silly Hawaiian shirt printed with blowups of his firm’s most popular micro-processor; a mild little guy, the kind most likely to wind up drunk on sake in a bar that puts out miniature rice crackers with seaweed garnish. He looked like the kind who sing the corporate anthem and cry, who shake hands endlessly with the bartender. And the pimps and the dealers would leave him alone, pegging him as innately conservative. Not up for much, and careful with his credit when he was.
[2.2] The way I figured it later, they must have amputated part of his left thumb, somewhere behind the first joint, replacing it with a prosthetic tip, and cored the stump, fitting it with a spool and socket molded from one of the Ono-Sendai diamond analogs. Then they’d carefully wound the spool with three meters of monomolecular filament. [implant motif continues]
[2.3] Molly got into some kind of exchange with the Magnetic Dog Sisters, giving me a chance to usher Ralfi through the door with the gym bag pressed lightly against the base of his spine. She seemed to know them. I heard the black one laugh.
[2.4] I glanced up, out of some passing reflex, maybe because I’ve never got used to it, to the soaring arcs of light and the shadows of the geodesics above them. Maybe that saved me.
[2.5] Ralfi kept walking, but I don’t think he was trying to escape. I think he’d already given up. Probably he already had an idea of what we were up against.
[2.6] I looked back down in time to see him explode.
[2.7] Playback on full recall shows Ralfi stepping forward as the little tech sidles out of nowhere, smiling. Just a suggestion of a bow, and his left thumb falls off. It’s a conjuring trick. The thumb hangs suspended. Mirrors? Wires? And Ralfi stops, his back to us, dark crescents of sweat under the armpits of his pale summer suit. He knows. He must have known. And then the joke-shop thumbtip, heavy as lead, arcs out in a lightning, yo-yo trick, and the invisible thread connecting it to the killer’s hand passes laterally through Ralfi’s skull, just above his eyebrows, whips up, and descends, slicing the pear-shaped torso diagonally from shoulder to rib cage. Cuts so fine that no blood flows until synapses misfire and the first tremors surrender the body to gravity. [the razor-like filament cuts Ralfi's body like a Samurai blade]
[2.8] Ralfi tumbled apart in a pink cloud of fluids, the three mismatched sections rolling forward onto the tiled pavement. In total silence.
[2.9] I brought the gym bag up, and my hand convulsed. The recoil nearly broke my wrist. [<kick from shotgun firing]
[3.1] It must have been raining; ribbons of water cascaded from a ruptured geodesic [dome] and spattered on the tile behind us. We crouched in the narrow gap between a surgical boutique and an antique shop. She’d just edged one mirrored eye around the corner to report a single Volks module in front of the Drome, red lights flashing. They were sweeping Ralfi up. Asking questions.
[3.2] I was covered in scorched white fluff. The tennis socks. The gym bag was a ragged plastic cuff around my wrist. "I don’t see how the hell I missed him."
[3.3] " ‘Cause he’s fast, so fast." She hugged her knees and rocked back and forth on her bootheels. "His nervous system’s jacked up. He’s factory custom." She grinned and gave a little squeal of delight. "I’m gonna get that boy. Tonight. He’s the best, number one, top dollar, state of the art."
[3.4] "What you’re going to get, for this boy’s two million, is my ass out of here. Your boyfriend back there was mostly grown in a vat in Chiba City [Japanese seaport]. He’s a Yakuza assassin."
[3.5] "Chiba. Yeah. See, Molly’s been Chiba, too." And she showed me her hands, fingers slightly spread. Her fingers were slender, tapered, very white against the polished burgundy nails. Ten blades snicked straight out from their recesses beneath her nails, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel.
[4.1] I’d never spent much time in Nighttown. Nobody there had anything to pay me to remember, and most of them had a lot they paid regularly to forget. Generations of sharpshooters had chipped away at the neon until the maintenance crews gave up. Even at noon the arcs were soot-black against faintest pearl.
[4.2] Where do you go when the world’s wealthiest criminal order is feeling for you with calm, distant fingers? Where do you hide from the Yakuza, so powerful that it owns comsats [communications satellites] and at least three [space] shuttles? The Yakuza is a true multinational, like ITT and Ono-Sendai. Fifty years before I was born the Yakuza had already absorbed the Triads [Chinese gangs], the Mafia, the Union Corse [Corsican mafia].
[4.3] Molly had an answer: you hide in the Pit, in the lowest circle [allusion to Dante], where any outside influence generates swift, concentric ripples of raw menace. You hide in Nighttown. Better yet, you hide above Nighttown, because the Pit’s inverted, and the bottom of its bowl touches the sky, the sky that Nighttown never sees, sweating under its own firmament of acrylic resin, up where the Lo Teks crouch in the dark like gargoyles [analogy], black-market cigarettes dangling from their lips.
[4.4] She had another answer, too.
[4.5] "So you’re locked up good and tight, Johnny-san? No way to get that program without the password?" She led me into the shadows that waited beyond the bright tube platform. The concrete walls were overlaid with graffiti, years of them twisting into a single metascrawl of rage and frustration.
[4.6] "The stored data are fed in through a modified series of microsurgical contra-autism prostheses." I reeled off a numb version of my standard sales pitch. "Client’s code is stored in a special chip; barring Squids, which we in the trade don’t like to talk about, there’s no way to recover your phrase. Can’t drug it out, cut it out, torture it. I don’t know it, never did."
[4.7] "Squids? Crawly things with arms?" We emerged into a deserted street market. Shadowy figures watched us from across a makeshift square littered with fish heads and rotting fruit.
[The paragraphs above and below exemplify "cyberpunk" by combining the punk street experience with high-tech cybernetics.]
[4.8] "Superconducting quantum interference detectors. Used them in the war to find submarines, suss out enemy cyber systems."
[4.9] "Yeah? Navy stuff? From the war? Squid’ll read that chip of yours?" She’d stopped walking, and I felt her eyes on me behind those twin mirrors.
[4.10] "Even the primitive models could measure a magnetic field a billionth the strength of geomagnetic force; it’s like pulling a whisper out of a cheering stadium." [Gibson's artistry of simile and metaphor!]
[4.11] "Cops can do that already, with parabolic microphones and lasers."
[4.12] "But your data’s still secure." Pride in profession. "No government’ll let their cops have Squids, not even the security heavies. Too much chance of interdepartmental funnies; they’re too likely to watergate you."
[4.13] "Navy stuff," she said, and her grin gleamed in the shadows. "Navy stuff. I got a friend down here who was in the navy, name’s Jones. I think you’d better meet him. He’s a junkie, though. So we’ll have to take him something.
[4.14] "A junkie?"
[4.15] "A dolphin."
[5.1] He was more than a dolphin, but from another dolphin’s point of view he might have seemed like something less. I watched him swirling sluggishly in his galvanized tank. Water slopped over the side, wetting my shoes. He was surplus from the last war. A cyborg.
[5.2] He rose out of the water, showing us the crusted plates along his sides, a kind of visual pun, his grace nearly lost under articulated armor, clumsy and prehistoric. Twin deformities on either side of his skull had been engineered to house sensor units. Silver lesions gleamed on exposed sections of his gray-white hide.
[5.3] Molly whistled. Jones thrashed his tall, and more water cascaded down the side of the tank.
[5.4] "What is this place?" I peered at vague shapes in the dark, rusting chain link and things under tarps. Above the tank hung a clumsy wooden framework, crossed and recrossed by rows of dusty Christmas lights.
[5.5] "Funland. Zoo and carnival rides. ‘Talk with the War Whale.’ All that. Some whale Jones is . . . ."
[5.6] Jones reared again and fixed me with a sad and ancient eye.
[5.7] "How’s he talk?" Suddenly I was anxious to go.
[5.8] "That’s the catch. Say ‘hi,’ Jones."
[5.9] And all the bulbs lit simultaneously. They were flashing red, white, and blue.
[5.10] "Good with symbols, see, but the code’s restricted. In the navy they had him wired into an audiovisual display." She drew the narrow package from a jacket pocket. "Pure shit, Jones. Want it?" He froze in the water and started to sink. I felt a strange panic, remembering that he wasn’t a fish, that he could drown. "We want the key to Johnny’s hank, Jones. We want it fast." [Another reason the literati admire Gibson: he understands how language works as a symbolic code, and constantly interfaces human and computer language--or dolphin-speak.]
[5.11] The lights flickered, died.
[5.12] "Go for it, Jones!"
[5.13] Blue bulbs, cruciform. [symbol]
[5.15] "Pure! It’s clean. Come on, Jones."
[5.16] White sodium glare washed her features, stark monochrome, shadows elevating from her cheekbones.
[5.17] The arms of the red swastika [symbol] were twisted in her silver glasses. "Give it [heroin?] to him," I said. "We’ve got it."* [*"it" = password to Johnny's programmed memory]
[5.18] Ralfi Face. No imagination.
[5.19] Jones heaved half his armored bulk over the edge of his tank, and I thought the metal would give way. Molly stabbed him overhand with the Syrette, driving the needle between two plates. Propellant hissed. Patterns of light exploded, spasming across the frame and then fading to black.
[5.20] We left him drifting, rolling languorously in the dark water. Maybe he was dreaming of his war in the Pacific, of the cyber mines he’d swept, nosing gently into their circuitry with the Squid he’d used to pick Ralfi’s pathetic password from the chip buried in my head.
[5.21] "I can see them slipping up when he was de-mobbed*, letting him out of the navy with that gear intact, but how does a cybernetic dolphin get wired to smack?" [*de-mobbed = demobilized, or released from active military service]
[5.22] "The war," she said. "They all were. Navy did it. How else you get ‘em working for you? "
[6.1] "I’m not sure this profiles as good business," the pirate said, angling for better money. "Target specs on a comsat* that isn’t in the book—" [*comsat = communications satellite]
[6.2] "Waste my time and you won’t profile at all," said Molly, leaning across his scarred plastic desk to prod him with her forefinger.
[6.3] "So maybe you want to buy your microwaves somewhere else?" He was a tough kid, behind his Mao-job. A Nighttowner by birth, probably.
[6.4] Her hand blurred down the front of his jacket, completely severing a lapel without even rumpling the fabric.
[6.5] "So we got a deal or not?"
[6.6] "Deal," he said, staring at his ruined lapel with what he must have hoped was only polite interest. "Deal."
[6.7] While I checked the two recorders we’d bought, she extracted the slip of paper I’d given her from the zippered wrist pocket of her jacket. She unfolded it and read silently, moving her lips. She shrugged. "This is it?"
[6.8] "Shoot," I said, punching the RECORD studs of the two decks simultaneously.
[6.9] "Christian White," she recited, "and his Aryan Reggae Band."
[6.10] Faithful Ralfi, a fan to his dying day.
[6.11] Transition to idiot / savant mode is always less abrupt than I expect it to be. The pirate broadcaster’s front was a failing travel agency in a pastel cube that boasted a desk, three chairs, and a faded poster of a Swiss orbital spa. A pair of toy birds with blown-glass bodies and tin legs were sipping monotonously from a Styrofoam cup of water on a ledge beside Molly’s shoulder. As I phased into mode, they accelerated gradually until their Day-Glo-feathered crowns became solid arcs of color. The LEDs that told seconds on the plastic wall clock had become meaningless pulsing grids, and Molly and the Mao-faced boy grew hazy, their arms blurring occasionally in insect-quick ghosts of gesture. And then it all faded to cool gray static and an endless tone poem in an artificial language.
[6.12] I sat and sang dead Ralfi’s stolen program for three hours.
[7.1] The mall runs forty kilometers from end to end, a ragged overlap of Fuller domes roofing what was once a suburban artery. If they turn off the arcs on a clear day, a gray approximation of sunlight filters through layers of acrylic, a view like the prison sketches of Giovanni Piranesi. The three southernmost kilometers roof Nighttown. Nighttown pays no taxes, no utilities. The neon arcs are dead, and the geodesics [domes] have been smoked black by decades of cooking fires. In the nearly total darkness of a Nighttown noon, who notices a few dozen mad children lost in the rafters?
[7.2] We’d been climbing for two hours, up concrete stairs and steel ladders with perforated rungs, past abandoned gantries and dust-covered tools. We’d started in what looked like a disused maintenance yard, stacked with triangular roofing segments. Everything there had been covered with that same uniform layer of spraybomb graffiti: gang names, initials, dates back to the turn of the century. The graffiti followed us up, gradually thinning until a single name was repeated at intervals. LO TEK. In dripping black capitals.
[7.3] "Who’s Lo Tek?"
[7.4] "Not us, boss." She climbed a shivering aluminum ladder and vanished through a hole in a sheet of corrugated plastic. " ‘Low technique, low technology.’ " The plastic muffled her voice. I followed her up, nursing my aching wrist.
[7.5] "Lo Teks, they’d think that shotgun trick of yours was effete."
[7.6] An hour later I dragged myself up through another hole, this one sawed crookedly in a sagging sheet of plywood, and met my first Lo Tek.
[7.7] " ‘S okay," Molly said, her hand brushing my shoulder. "It’s just Dog. Hey, Dog."
[7.8] In the narrow beam of her taped flash, he regarded us with his one eye and slowly extruded a thick length of grayish tongue, licking huge canines. I wondered how they wrote off tooth-bud transplants from Dobermans as low technology. Immunosuppressives don’t exactly grow on trees.
[7.9] "Moll." Dental augmentation impeded his speech. A string of saliva dangled from his twisted lower lip. "Heard ya comin’. Long time." He might have been fifteen, but the fangs and a bright mosaic of scars combined with the gaping socket to present a mask of total bestiality. It had taken time and a certain kind of creativity to assemble that face, and his posture told me he enjoyed living behind it. He wore a pair of decaying jeans, black with grime and shiny along the creases. His chest and feet were bare. He did something with his mouth that approximated a grin.
[7.10] "Bein’ followed, you."
[7.11] Far off, down in Nighttown, a water vendor cried his trade.
[7.12] "Strings jumping, Dog?" She swung her flash to the side, and I saw thin cords tied to eyebolts, cords that ran to the edge and vanished.
[7.13] "Kill the fuckin’ light!"
[7.14] She snapped it off.
[7.15] "How come the one who’s followin’ you’s got no light?"
[7.16] "Doesn’t need it. That one’s bad news, Dog. Your sentries give him a tumble, they’ll come home in easy-to-carry sections. "
[7.17] "This a friend friend, Moll?" He sounded uneasy. I heard his feet shift on the worn plywood.
[7.18] "No. But he’s mine. And this one," slapping my shoulder, "he’s a friend. Got that?"
[7.19] "Sure," he said, without much enthusiasm, padding to the platform’s edge, where the eyebolts were. He began to pluck out some kind of message on the taut cords.
[7.20] Nighttown spread beneath us like a toy village for rats; tiny windows showed candlelight, with only a few harsh, bright squares lit by battery lanterns and carbide lamps. I imagined the old men at their endless games of dominoes, under warm, fat drops of water that fell from wet wash hung out on poles between the plywood shanties. Then I tried to imagine him climbing patiently up through the darkness in his zoris [Japanese sandals] and ugly tourist shirt, bland and unhurried. How was he tracking us?
[7.21] "Good, " said Molly. "He smells us."
[7.22] "Smoke?" Dog dragged a crumpled pack from his pocket and prized out a flattened cigarette. I squinted at the trademark while he lit it for me with a kitchen match. Yiheyuan filters. Beijing Cigarette Factory. I decided that the Lo Teks were black marketeers. Dog and Molly went back to their argument, which seemed to revolve around Molly’s desire to use some particular piece of Lo Tek real estate.
[7.23] "I’ve done you a lot of favors, man. I want that floor. And I want the music."
[7.24] "You’re not Lo Tek . . . ."
[7.25] This must have been going on for the better part of a twisted kilometer, Dog leading us along swaying catwalks and up rope ladders. The Lo Teks leech their webs and huddling places to the city’s fabric with thick gobs of epoxy and sleep above the abyss in mesh hammocks. Their country is so attenuated that in places it consists of little more than holds for hands and feet, sawed into geodesic struts.
[7.26] The Killing Floor, she called it. Scrambling after her, my new Eddie Bax shoes slipping on worn metal and damp plywood, I wondered how it could be any more lethal than the rest of the territory. At the same time I sensed that Dog’s protests were ritual and that she already expected to get whatever it was she wanted.
[7.27] Somewhere beneath us, Jones would be circling his tank, feeling the first twinges of junk sickness. The police would be boring the Drome regulars with questions about Ralfi. What did he do? Who was he with before he stepped outside? And the Yakuza would be settling its ghostly bulk over the city’s data banks, probing for faint images of me reflected in numbered accounts, securities transactions, bills for utilities. We’re an information economy. They teach you that in school. What they don’t tell you is that it’s impossible to move, to live, to operate at any level without leaving traces, bits, seemingly meaningless fragments of personal information. Fragments that can be retrieved, amplified . . .
[7.28] But by now the pirate would have shuttled our message into line for blackbox transmission to the Yakuza comsat. A simple message: Call off the dogs or we wideband your program.
[7.29] The program. I had no idea what it contained. I still don’t. I only sing the song, with zero comprehension. It was probably research data, the Yakuza being given to advanced forms of industrial espionage. A genteel business, stealing from Ono-Sendai as a matter of course and politely holding their data for ransom, threatening to blunt the conglomerate’s research edge by making the product public.
[7.30] But why couldn’t any number play? Wouldn’t they be happier with something to sell back to Ono-Sendai, happier than they’d be with one dead Johnny from Memory Lane?
[7.31] Their program was on its way to an address in Sydney, to a place that held letters for clients and didn’t ask questions once you’d paid a small retainer. Fourth-class surface mail. I’d erased most of the other copy and recorded our message in the resulting gap, leaving just enough of the program to identify it as the real thing.
[7.32] My wrist hurt. I wanted to stop, to lie down, to sleep. I knew that I’d lose my grip and fall soon, knew that the sharp black shoes I’d bought for my evening as Eddie Bax would lose their purchase and carry me down to Nighttown. But he [Japanese assassin] rose in my mind like a cheap religious hologram, glowing, the enlarged chip on his Hawaiian shirt looming like a reconnaissance shot of some doomed urban nucleus. [apocalypse!]
[7.33] So I followed Dog and Molly through Lo Tek heaven, jury-rigged and jerry-built from scraps that even Nighttown didn’t want.
[7.34] The Killing Floor was eight meters on a side. A giant had threaded steel cable back and forth through a junkyard and drawn it all taut. It creaked when it moved, and it moved constantly, swaying and bucking as the gathering Lo Teks arranged themselves on the shelf of plywood surrounding it. The wood was silver with age, polished with long use and deeply etched with initials, threats, declarations of passion. This was suspended from a separate set of cables, which lost themselves in darkness beyond the raw white glare of the two ancient floods [floodlights] suspended above the Floor.
[7.35] A girl with teeth like Dog’s hit the Floor on all fours. Her breasts were tattooed with indigo spirals. Then she was across the Floor, laughing, grappling with a boy who was drinking dark liquid from a liter flask.
[7.36] Lo Tek fashion ran to scars and tattoos. And teeth. The electricity they were tapping to light the Killing Floor seemed to be an exception to their overall aesthetic, made in the name of . . . ritual, sport, art? I didn’t know, but I could see that the Floor was something special. It had the look of having been assembled over generations.
[7.37] I held the useless shotgun under my jacket. Its hardness and heft were comforting, even though I had no more shells. And it came to me that I had no idea at all of what was really happening, or of what was supposed to happen. And that was the nature of my game, because I’d spent most of my life as a blind receptacle to be filled with other people’s knowledge and then drained, spouting synthetic languages I’d never understand. A very technical boy. Sure.
[7.38] And then I noticed just how quiet the Lo Teks had become.
[7.39] He was there, at the edge of the light, taking in the Killing Floor and the gallery of silent Lo Teks with a tourist’s calm. And as our eyes met for the first time with mutual recognition, a memory clicked into place for me, of Paris, and the long Mercedes electrics gliding through the rain to Notre Dame; mobile greenhouses, Japanese faces behind the glass, and a hundred Nikons rising in blind phototropism, flowers of steel and crystal. Behind his eyes, as they found me, those same shutters whirring.
[7.40] I looked for Molly Millions, but she was gone.
[7.41] The Lo Teks parted to let him step up onto the bench. He bowed, smiling, and stepped smoothly out of his sandals, leaving them side by side, perfectly aligned, and then he stepped down onto the Killing Floor. He came for me, across that shifting trampoline of scrap, as easily as any tourist padding across synthetic pile in any featureless hotel.
[7.42] Molly hit the Floor, moving.
[7.43] The Floor screamed.
[7.44] It was miked and amplified, with pickups riding the four fat coil springs at the corners and contact mikes taped at random to rusting machine fragments. Somewhere the Lo Teks had an amp and a synthesizer, and now I made out the shapes of speakers overhead, above the cruel white floods [floodlights].
[7.45] A drumbeat began, electronic, like an amplified heart, steady as a metronome.
[7.46] She’d removed her leather jacket and boots; her T-shirt was sleeveless, faint telltales of Chiba City circuitry traced along her thin arms. Her leather jeans gleamed under the floods. She began to dance.
[7.47] She flexed her knees, white feet tensed on a flattened gas tank, and the Killing Floor began to heave in response. The sound it made was like a world ending, like the wires that hold heaven snapping and coiling across the sky. [apocalypse]
[7.48] He rode with it, for a few heartbeats, and then he moved, judging the movement of the Floor perfectly, like a man stepping from one flat stone to another in an ornamental garden.
[7.49] He pulled the tip from his thumb with the grace of a man at ease with social gesture and flung it at her. Under the floods, the filament was a refracting thread of rainbow. She threw herself flat and rolled, jackknifing up as the molecule whipped past, steel claws snapping into the light in what must have been an automatic rictus [reflex?] of defence.
[7.50] The drum pulse quickened, and she bounced with it, her dark hair wild around the blank silver lenses, her mouth thin, lips taut with concentration. The Killing Floor boomed and roared, and the Lo Teks were screaming their excitement.
[7.51] He retracted the filament to a whirling meter-wide circle of ghostly polychrome and spun it in front of him, thumbless hand held level with his sternum. A shield.
[7.52] And Molly seemed to let something go, something inside, and that was the real start of her mad-dog dance. She jumped, twisting, lunging sideways, landing with both feet on an alloy engine block wired directly to one of the coil springs. I cupped my hands over my ears and knelt in a vertigo of sound, thinking Floor and benches were on their way down, down to Nighttown, and I saw us tearing through the shanties, the wet wash, exploding on the tiles like rotten fruit. But the cables held, and the Killing Floor rose and fell like a crazy metal sea. And Molly danced on it.
[7.53] And at the end, just before he made his final cast with the filament, I saw something in his face, an expression that didn’t seem to belong there. It wasn’t fear and it wasn’t anger. I think it was disbelief, stunned incomprehension mingled with pure aesthetic revulsion at what he was seeing, hearing—at what was happening to him. He retracted the whirling filament, the ghost disk shrinking to the size of a dinner plate as he whipped his arm above his head and brought it down, the thumbtip curving out for Molly like a live thing.
[7.54] The Floor carried her down, the molecule passing just above her head; the Floor whiplashed, lifting him into the path of the taut molecule. It should have passed harmlessly over his head and been withdrawn into its diamond-hard socket. It took his hand off just behind the wrist. There was a gap in the Floor in front of him, and he went through it like a diver, with a strange deliberate grace, a defeated kamikaze on his way down to Nighttown. Partly, I think, he took the dive to buy himself a few seconds of the dignity of silence. She’d killed him with culture shock.
[7.55] The Lo Teks roared, but someone shut the amplifier off, and Molly rode the Killing Floor into silence, hanging on now, her face white and blank, until the pitching slowed and there was only a faint pinging of tortured metal and the grating of rust on rust.
[7.56] We searched the Floor for the severed hand, but we never found it. All we found was a graceful curve in one piece of rusted steel, where the molecule went through. Its edge was bright as new chrome.
[8.1] We never learned whether the Yakuza had accepted our terms, or even whether they got our message. As far as I know, their program is still waiting for Eddie Bax on a shelf in the back room of a gift shop on the third level of Sydney Central-5. Probably they sold the original back to Ono-Sendai months ago. But maybe they did get the pirate’s broadcast, because nobody’s come looking for me yet, and it’s been nearly a year. If they do come, they’ll have a long climb up through the dark, past Dog’s sentries, and I don’t look much like Eddie Bax these days. I let Molly take care of that, with a local anesthetic. And my new teeth have almost grown in.
[8.2] I decided to stay up here [upper reaches of Nighttown w/ Lo Teks]. When I looked out across the Killing Floor, before he came, I saw how hollow I was. And I knew I was sick of being a bucket. So now I climb down and visit Jones, almost every night. We’re partners now, Jones and I, and Molly Millions, too. Molly handles our business in the Drome. Jones is still in Funland, but he has a bigger tank, with fresh seawater trucked in once a week. And he has his junk, when he needs it. He still talks to the kids with his frame of lights, but be talks to me on a new display unit in a shed that I rent there, a better unit than the one he used in the navy.
[8.3] And we’re all making good money, better money than I made before, because Jones’s Squid can read the traces of anything that anyone ever stored in me, and he gives it to me on the display unit in languages I can understand. So we’re learning a lot about all my former clients. And one day I’ll have a surgeon dig all the silicon out of my amygdalae [brain nuclei controlling memory], and I’ll live with my own memories and nobody else’s, the way other people do. But not for a while.
[8.4] In the meantime it’s really okay up here, way up in the dark, smoking a Chinese filtertip and listening to the condensation that drips from the geodesics. Real quiet up here—unless a pair of Lo Teks decide to dance on the Killing Floor.
[8.5] It’s educational, too. With Jones to help me figure things out, I’m getting to be the most technical boy in town.