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Authors: William Gibson

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BOOK: Count Zero
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The place was soundproofed; you couldn’t hear the bustle of the fourteenth floor’s stalls at all, only the hum of some kind of air conditioner and the occasional gurgles of the hot-water machine. Tired of the Count’s power plays, Bobby left the coffee cup on the table and crossed to the entranceway, running his hand along an old stuffed velvet rope that was slung between polished brass poles. Careful not to touch the glass doors themselves, he settled himself on a cheap steel stool with a tape-patched leatherette top, beside the coat-check window. A dim bulb burned in the coatroom; you could see a couple of dozen old wooden hangers dangling from steel rods, each one hung with a round yellow hand-numbered tag. He guessed Jammer sat here sometimes to check out the clientele. He didn’t really see why anybody who’d been a shithot cowboy for eight years would want to run a nightclub, but maybe it was sort of a hobby. He guessed you could get a lot of girls, running a nightclub, but he’d assumed you could get a lot anyway if you were rich. And if Jammer had been a top jock for eight years, Bobby figured he had to be rich . . .

He thought about the scene in the matrix, the gray patches and the voices. He shivered. He still didn’t see why it meant Lucas was dead. How could Lucas be dead? Then he remembered that his mother was dead, and somehow that didn’t seem too real either. Jesus. It all got on his nerves. He wished he were outside, on the other side of the doors,
checking out the stalls and the shoppers and the people who worked there . . .

He reached out and drew the velour curtain aside, just wide enough to peer out through the thick old glass, taking in the rainbow jumble of stalls and the characteristic grazing gait of the shoppers. And framed for him, square in the middle of it all, beside a table jammed with surplus analog VOM’s, logic probes, and power conditioners, was the raceless, bone-heavy face of Leon, and the deepset, hideous eyes seemed to look into Bobby’s with an audible click of recognition. And then Leon did something Bobby couldn’t remember ever having seen him do. He smiled.

23
CLOSER

T
HE
JAL
STEWARD
offered her a choice of simstim cassettes: a tour of the Foxton retrospective at the Tate the previous August, a period adventure taped in Ghana
(Ashanti!),
highlights from Bizet’s
Carmen
as viewed from a private box at the Tokyo Opera, or thirty minutes of Tally Isham’s syndicated talk show
Top People.

“Your first shuttle flight, Ms. Ovski?”

Marly nodded. She’d given Paleologos her mother’s maiden name, which had probably been stupid.

The steward smiled understandingly. “A cassette can definitely ease the lift-off. The
Carmen
’s very popular this week. Gorgeous costumes, I understand.”

She shook her head, in no mood for opera. She loathed Foxton, and would have preferred to feel the full force of acceleration rather than live through
Ashanti!
She took the Isham tape by default, as the least of four evils.

The steward checked her seat harness, handed her the cassette and a little throwaway tiara in gray plastic, then moved on. She put the plastic trode set on, jacked it into the seat arm, sighed, and slotted the cassette in the opening beside the jack. The interior of the JAL shuttle vanished in a burst of Aegean blue, and she watched the words TALLY ISHAM’S TOP PEOPLE expand across the cloudless sky in elegant sans-serif capitals.

Tally Isham had been a constant in the stim industry for as long as Marly remembered, an ageless Golden Girl who’d come in on the first wave of the new medium. Now Marly
found herself locked into Tally’s tanned, lithe, tremendously
comfortable
sensorium. Tally Isham glowed, breathed deeply and easily, her elegant bones riding in the embrace of a musculature that seemed never to have known tension. Accessing her stim recordings was like falling into a bath of perfect health, feeling the spring in the star’s high arches and the jut of her breasts against the silky white Egyptian cotton of her simple blouse. She was leaning against a pocked white balustrade above the tiny harbor of a Greek island town, a cascade of flowering trees falling away below her down a hillside built from whitewashed stone and narrow, twisting stairs. A boat sounded in the harbor.

“The tourists are hurrying back to their cruise ship now,” Tally said, and smiled; when she smiled, Marly could feel the smoothness of the star’s white teeth, taste the freshness of her mouth, and the stone of the balustrade was pleasantly rough against her bare forearms. “But one visitor to our island will be staying with us this afternoon, someone I’ve longed to meet, and I’m sure that you’ll be delighted and surprised, as he’s someone who ordinarily shuns major media coverage . . .” She straightened, turned, and smiled into the tanned, smiling face of Josef Virek . . .

Marly tore the set from her forehead, and the white plastic of the JAL shuttle seemed to slam into place all around her. Warning signs were blinking on the console overhead, and she could feel a vibration that seemed to gradually rise in pitch . . .

Virek? She looked at the trode set. “Well,” she said, “I suppose you
are
a top person . . .”

“I beg your pardon?” The Japanese student beside her bobbed in his harness in a strange little approximation of a bow. “You are in some difficulty with your stim?”

“No, no,” she said. “Excuse me.” She slid the set on again and the interior of the shuttle dissolved in a buzz of sensory static, a jarring mélange of sensations that abruptly gave way to the calm grace of Tally Isham, who had taken Virek’s cool, firm hand and was smiling into his soft blue eyes. Virek smiled back, his teeth very white. “Delighted to be here, Tally,” he said, and Marly let herself sink into the reality of the tape, accepting Tally’s recorded sensory input as her own. Stim was a medium she ordinarily avoided, something in her personality conflicting with the required degree of passivity.

Virek wore a soft white shirt, cotton duck trousers rolled to just below the knee, and very plain brown leather sandals. His hand still in hers, Tally returned to the balustrade. “I’m sure,” she said, “that there are many things our audience—”

The sea was gone. An irregular plain covered in a green-black growth like lichen spread out to the horizon, broken by the silhouettes of the neo-Gothic spires of Gaudí’s church of the Sagrada Familia. The edge of the world was lost in a low bright mist, and a sound like drowned bells tolled in across the plain. . . .

“You have an audience of one, today,” Virek said, and looked at Tally Isham through his round, rimless glasses. “Hello, Marly.”

Marly struggled to reach the trodes, but her arms were made of stone. G-force, the shuttle lifting off from its concrete pad . . . He’d trapped her here . . .

“I understand,” said Tally, smiling, leaning back against the balustrade, her elbows on warm rough stone. “What a lovely idea. Your Marly, Herr Virek, must be a lucky girl indeed . . .” And it came to her, to Marly, that this wasn’t Sense/Net’s Tally Isham, but a part of Virek’s construct, a programmed point of view worked up from years of
Top People,
and that now there was no choice, no way out, except to accept it, to listen, to give Virek her attention. The fact of his having caught her here, pinned her here this way, told her that her intuition had been correct: The machine, the structure, was there, was real. Virek’s money was a sort of universal solvent, dissolving barriers to his will . . .

“I’m sorry,” he said, “to learn that you are upset. Paco tells me that you are fleeing from us, but I prefer to see it as the drive of an artist toward her goal. You have sensed, I think, something of the nature of my gestalt, and it has frightened you. As well it should. This cassette was prepared an hour before your shuttle was scheduled to lift off from Orly. We know your destination, of course, but I have no intention of following you. You are doing your job, Marly. I only regret that we were unable to prevent the death of your friend Alain, but we now know the identity of his killers and their employers . . .”

Tally Isham’s eyes were Marly’s eyes now, and they were locked with Virek’s, a blue energy burning there.

“Alain was murdered by the hired agents of Maas Biolabs,” he continued, “and it was Maas who provided him with the
coordinates of your current destination, Maas who gave him the hologram you saw. My relationship with Maas Biolabs has been ambivalent, to say the least. Two years ago a subsidiary of mine attempted to buy them out. The sum involved would have affected the entire global economy. They refused. Paco has determined that Alain died because they discovered that he was attempting to market the information they had provided, market it to third parties . . .” He frowned. “Exceedingly foolish, because he was utterly ignorant of the nature of the product he was offering . . .”

How like Alain, she thought, and felt a wave of pity. Seeing him curled there on the hideous carpet, his spine outlined beneath the green fabric of his jacket . . .

“You should know, I think, that my search for our boxmaker involves more than art, Marly.” He removed his glasses and polished them in a fold of his white shirt; she found something obscene in the calculated humanity of the gesture. “I have reason to believe that the maker of these artifacts is in some position to offer me freedom, Marly. I am not a well man.” He replaced the glasses, settling the fine gold earpieces carefully. “When I last requested a remote visual of the vat I inhabit in Stockholm, I was shown a thing like three truck trailers, lashed in a dripping net of support lines . . . If I were able to leave that, Marly, or rather, to leave the riot of cells it contains . . . Well”—he smiled his famous smile again—“what wouldn’t I pay?”

And Tally-Marly’s eyes swung to take in the expanse of dark lichen and the distant towers of the misplaced cathedral . . .

 

“You lost consciousness,” the steward was saying, his fingers moving across her neck. “It isn’t uncommon, and our onboard medical computers tell us you’re in excellent health. However, we’ve applied a dermadisk to counteract the adaptation syndrome you might experience prior to docking.” His hand left her neck.


Europe After the Rains,
” she said, “Max Ernst. The lichen . . .”

The man stared down at her, his face alert now and expressing professional concern. “Excuse me? Could you repeat that?”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “A dream . . . Are we there yet, at the terminal?”

“Another hour,” he said.

Japan Air’s orbital terminus was a white toroid studded with domes and ringed with the dark-rimmed oval openings of docking bays. The terminal above Marly’s g-web—though
above
had temporarily lost its usual meaning—displayed an exquisitely drafted animation of the torus in rotation, while a series of voices—in seven languages—announced that the passengers on board JAL’s Shuttle 580, Orly Terminus I, would be taxied to the terminal at the earliest opportunity. JAL offered apologies for the delay, which was due to routine repairs underway in seven of the twelve bays . . .

Marly cringed in her g-web, seeing the invisible hand of Virek in everything now. No, she thought, there must be a way. I want out of it, she told herself, I want a few hours as a free agent, and then I’ll be done with him . . . Good-bye, Herr Virek, I return to the land of the living, as poor Alain never will, Alain who died because I took your job. She blinked her eyes when the first tear came, then stared wide-eyed as a child at the minute floating spherelet the tear had become . . .

And Maas, she wondered, who were they? Virek claimed that they had murdered Alain, that Alain had been working for them. She had vague recollections of stories in the media, something to do with the newest generation of computers, some ominous-sounding process in which immortal hybrid cancers spewed out tailored molecules that became units of circuitry. She remembered, now, that Paco had said that the screen of his modular telephone was a Maas product . . .

 

The interior of the JAL toroid was so bland, so unremarkable, so utterly like any crowded airport, that she felt like laughing. There was the same scent of perfume, human tension, and heavily conditioned air, and the same background hum of conversation. The point-eight gravity would have made it easier to carry a suitcase, but she only had her black purse. Now she took her tickets from one of its zippered inner pockets and checked the number of her connecting shuttle against the columns of numbers arrayed on the nearest wall screen.

Two hours to departure. Whatever Virek might say, she was sure that his machine was already busy, infiltrating the shuttle’s crew or roster of passengers, the substitutions
lubricated by a film of money . . . There would be last-minute illnesses, changes in plans, accidents . . .

Slinging the purse over her shoulder, she marched off across the concave floor of white ceramic as though she actually knew where she was going, or had some sort of plan, but knowing, with each step she took, that she didn’t.

Those soft blue eyes haunted her.

“Damn you,” she said, and a jowly Russian businessman in a dark Ginza suit sniffed and raised his newsfax, blocking her out of his world.

 

“So I told the bitch, see, you gotta get those opto-isolators
and
the breakout boxes out to
Sweet Jane
or I’ll glue your ass to the bulkhead with gasket paste. . . .” Raucous female laughter and Marly glanced up from her sushi tray. The three women sat two empty tables away, their own table thick with beer cans and stacks of styrofoam trays smeared with brown soy sauce. One of them belched loudly and took a long pull at her beer. “So how’d she take it, Rez?” This was somehow the cue for another, longer burst of laughter, and the woman who’d first attracted Marly’s attention put her head down in her arms and laughed until her shoulders shook. Marly stared dully at the trio, wondering what they were. Now the laughter had subsided and the first woman sat up, wiping tears from her eyes. They were all quite drunk, Marly decided, young and loud and rough-looking. The first woman was slight and sharp-faced, with wide gray eyes above a thin straight nose. Her hair was some impossible shade of silver, clipped short like a schoolboy’s, and she wore an oversized canvas vest or sleeveless jacket covered entirely in bulging pockets, studs, and rectangular strips of Velcro. The garment hung open, revealing, from Marly’s angle, a small round breast sheathed in what seemed to be a bra of fine pink and black mesh. The other two were older and heavier, the muscles of their bare arms defined sharply in the seemingly sourceless light of the terminal cafeteria.

The first woman shrugged, her shoulders moving inside the big vest. “Not that she’ll do it,” she said.

The second woman laughed again, but not as heartily, and consulted a chronometer riveted on a wide leather wristband. “Me for off,” she said. “Gotta Zion run, then eight pods of algae for the Swedes.” Then shoved her chair back from the
table, stood up, and Marly read the embroidered patch centered across the shoulders of her black leather vest.

 

O’GRADY - WAJIMA

 

THE EDITH S.

 

INTERORBITAL HAULING

BOOK: Count Zero
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