Read Count Zero Online

Authors: William Gibson

Count Zero (5 page)

BOOK: Count Zero
12.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The dumpster was overflowing with a varied hash of industrial scrap. Barrytown had its share of gray-legal manufacturers, part of the “shadow economy” the news faces liked to talk about, but Bobby never paid much attention to news faces. Biz. It was all just biz.

Moths strobed crooked orbits around the halogen tube. Bobby watched blankly as three kids, maybe ten at the oldest, scaled the blue wall of the dumpster with a length of dirty white nylon line and a makeshift grapple that might once have been part of a coatrack. When the last one made it over the top, into the mess of plastic scrap, the line was drawn swiftly up. The scrap began to creak and rustle.

Just like me, Bobby thought, I used to do that shit, fill my room up with weird garbage I’d find. One time Ling Warren’s sister found most of somebody’s arm, all wrapped in green plastic and done up with rubber bands.

Marsha-momma’d get these two-hour fits of religion sometimes, come into Bobby’s room and sweep all his best
garbage out and gum some God-awful self-adhesive hologram up over his bed. Maybe Jesus, maybe Hubbard, maybe Virgin Mary, it didn’t much matter to her when the mood was on her. It used to piss Bobby off real good, until one day he was big enough to walk into the front room with a ballpeen hammer and cock it over the Hitachi; you touch my stuff again and I’ll kill your friends, Mom, all of ’em. She never tried it again. But the stick-on holograms had actually had some effect on Bobby, because religion was now something he felt he’d considered and put aside. Basically, the way he figured it, there were just some people around who needed that shit, and he guessed there always had been, but he wasn’t one of them, so he didn’t.

Now one of the dumpster kids popped up and conducted a slit-eyed survey of the immediate area, then ducked out of sight again. There was a clunking, scraping sound. Small white hands tipped a dented alloy canister up and over the edge, lowering it on the nylon line. Good score, Bobby thought; you could take the thing to a metal dealer and get a little for it. They lowered the thing to the pavement, about a meter from the soles of Bobby’s boots; as it touched down, it happened to twist around, showing him the six horned symbol that stood for biohazard. “Hey, fuck,” he said, drawing his feet up reflexively.

One of them slid down the rope and steadied the canister. The other two followed. He saw that they were younger than he’d thought.

“Hey,” Bobby said, “you know that could be some real bad shit? Give you cancer and stuff.”

“Go lick a dog’s ass till it bleeds,” the first kid down the rope advised him, as they flicked their grapple loose, coiled their line, and dragged the canister around the corner of the dumpster and out of sight.

 

He gave it an hour and a half. Time enough: Leon’s was starting to cook.

At least twenty Gothicks postured in the main room, like a herd of baby dinosaurs, their crests of lacquered hair bobbing and twitching. The majority approached the Gothick ideal: tall, lean, muscular, but touched by a certain gaunt restlessness, young athletes in the early stages of consumption. The graveyard pallor was mandatory, and Gothick hair was by definition black. Bobby knew that the few who couldn’t
warp their bodies to fit the subcultural template were best avoided; a short Gothick was trouble, a fat Gothick homicidal.

Now he watched them flexing and glittering in Leon’s like a composite creature, slime mold with a jigsaw surface of dark leather and stainless spikes. Most of them had nearly identical faces, features reworked to match ancient archetypes culled from kino banks. He chose a particularly artful Dean whose hair swayed like the mating display of a nocturnal lizard. “Bro,” Bobby began, uncertain if he’d met this one before.

“My man,” the Dean responded languidly, his left cheek distended by a cud of resin. “The Count, baby”—as an aside to his girl—“Count Zero Interrupt.” Long pale hand with a fresh scab across the back grabbing ass through the girl’s leather skirt. “Count, this is my squeeze.” The Gothick girl regarded Bobby with mild interest but no flash of human recognition whatever, as though she were seeing an ad for a product she’d heard of but had no intention of buying.

Bobby scanned the crowd. A few blank faces, but none he knew. No Two-a-Day. “Say, hey,” he confided, “how you know how it is ’n’ all, I’m lookin’ for this close personal friend, business friend”—and at this the Gothick sagely bobbed his crest—“goes by Two-a-Day. . . .” He paused. The Gothick looked blank, snapping his resin. The girl looked bored, restless. “ ’Wareman,” Bobby added, raising his eyebrows, “black ’wareman.”

“Two-a-Day,” the Gothick said. “Sure. Two-a-Day. Right, babe?” His girl tossed her head and looked away.

“You know ’im?”

“Sure.”

“He here tonight?”

“No,” the Gothick said, and smiled meaninglessly.

Bobby opened his mouth, closed it, forced himself to nod. “Thanks, bro.”

“Anything for my man,” the Gothick said.

 

Another hour, more of the same. Too much white, chalk-pale Gothick white. Flat bright eyes of their girls, their bootheels like ebony needles. He tried to stay out of the simstim room, where Leon was running some kind of weird jungle fuck tape phased you in and out of these different kinda animals, lotta crazed arboreal action up in the trees, which Bobby found a little disorienting. He was hungry
enough now to feel a little spaced, or maybe it was afterburn from whatever it was had happened to him before, but he was starting to have a hard time concentrating, and his thoughts drifted in odd directions. Like who, for instance, had climbed up into those trees full of snakes and wired a pair of those rat things for simstim?

The Gothicks were into it, whoever. They were thrashing and stomping and generally into major tree-rat identification. Leon’s new hit tape, Bobby decided.

Just to his left, but well out of range of the stim, two Project girls stood, their baroque finery in sharp contrast with Gothick monochrome. Long black frock coats opened over tight red vests in silk brocade, the tails of enormous white shirts hanging well beneath their knees. Their dark features were concealed beneath the brims of fedoras pinned and hung with fragments of antique gold: stickpins, charms, teeth, mechanical watches. Bobby watched them covertly; the clothes said they had money, but that someone would make it worth your ass if you tried to go for it. One time Two-a-Day had come down from the Projects in this ice-blue shaved-velour number with diamond buckles at the knees, like maybe he hadn’t had time to change, but Bobby had acted like the ’wareman was dressed in his usual leathers, because he figured a cosmopolitan attitude was crucial in biz.

He tried to imagine going up to them so smooth, just putting it to them: Hey, you ladies surely must know my good friend Mr. Two-a-Day? But they were older than he was, taller, and moved with a dignity he found intimidating. Probably they’d just laugh, but somehow he didn’t want that at all.

What he did want now, and very badly, was food. He touched his credit chip through the denim of his jeans. He’d go across the street and get a sandwich . . . Then he remembered why he was here, and suddenly it didn’t seem very smart to use his chip. If he’d been sussed, after his attempted run, they’d have his chip number by now; using it would spotlight him for anyone tracking him in cyberspace, pick him out in the Barrytown grid like a highway flare in a dark football stadium. He had his cash money, but you couldn’t pay for food with that. It wasn’t actually illegal to have the stuff, it was just that nobody ever did anything legitimate with it. He’d have to find a Gothick with a chip, buy a New Yen’s worth of credit, probably at a vicious discount, then
have the Gothick pay for the food. And what the hell was he supposed to take his change in?

Maybe you’re just spooked, he told himself. He didn’t know for sure that he was being backtracked, and the base he’d tried to crack was legit, or was supposed to be legit. That was why Two-a-Day had told him he didn’t have to worry about black ice. Who’d put lethal feedback programs around a place that leased soft kino porn? The idea had been that he’d bleep out a few hours of digitalized kino, new stuff that hadn’t made it to the bootleg market. It wasn’t the kind of score anybody was liable to kill you for . . .

But somebody had tried. And something else had happened. Something entirely else. He trudged back up the stairs again, out of Leon’s. He knew there was a lot he didn’t know about the matrix, but he’d never heard of anything that weird . . . You got ghost stories, sure, and hotdoggers who swore they’d seen things in cyberspace, but he had them figured for wilsons who jacked in dusted; you could hallucinate in the matrix as easily as anywhere else . . .

Maybe that’s what happened, he thought. The voice was just part of dying, being flat-lined, some crazy bullshit your brain threw up to make you feel better, and something had happened back at the source, maybe a brownout in their part of the grid, so the ice had lost its hold on his nervous system.

Maybe. But he didn’t know. Didn’t know the turf. His ignorance had started to dig into him recently, because it kept him from making the moves he needed to make. He hadn’t ever much thought about it before, but he didn’t really know that much about anything in particular. In fact, up until he’d started hotdogging, he’d felt like he knew about as much as he needed to. And that was what the Gothicks were like, and that was why the Gothicks would stay here and burn themselves down on dust, or get chopped out by Kasuals, and the process of attrition would produce the percentage of them who’d somehow become the next wave of childbearing, condo-buying Barrytowners, and the whole thing could go round again.

He was like a kid who’d grown up beside an ocean, taking it as much for granted as he took the sky, but knowing nothing of currents, shipping routes, or the ins and outs of weather. He’d used decks in school, toys that shuttled you through the infinite reaches of that space that wasn’t space, mankind’s unthinkably complex consensual hallucination, the
matrix, cyberspace, where the great corporate hotcores burned like neon novas, data so dense you suffered sensory overload if you tried to apprehend more than the merest outline.

But since he’d started hotdogging, he had some idea of how precious little he knew about how anything worked, and not just in the matrix. It spilled over, somehow, and he’d started to wonder, wonder and think. How Barrytown worked, what kept his mother going, why Gothicks and Kasuals invested all that energy in trying to kill each other off. Or why Two-a-Day was black and lived up in the Projects, and what made that different.

As he walked, he kept up his search for the dealer. White faces, more white faces. His stomach had started to make a certain amount of noise; he thought about the fresh package of wheat cutlets in the fridge at home, fry ’em up with some soy and crack a pack of krill wafers. . . .

Passing the kiosk again, he checked the Coke clock. Marsha was home for sure, deep in the labyrinthine complexities of
People of Importance,
whose female protagonist’s life she’d shared through a socket for almost twenty years. The
Asahi Shimbun
fax was still rolling down behind its little window, and he stepped closer in time to see the first report of the bombing of A Block, Level 3, Covina Concourse Courts, Barrytown, New Jersey. . . .

Then it was gone, past, and there was a story about the formal funeral of the Cleveland Yakusa boss. Strictly trad. They all carried black umbrellas.

He’d lived all his life in 503, A Block.

That enormous thing, leaning in, to stomp Marsha Newmark and her Hitachi flat. And of course it had been meant for him.

“There’s somebody doesn’t mess around,” he heard himself say.

“Hey! My man! Count! You dusted, bro? Hey! Where you headin’!”

The eyes of two Deans twisting to follow him in the course of his headlong panic.

7
THE MALL

C
ONROY SWUNG THE
blue Fokker off the eroded ribbon of prewar highway and throttled down. The long rooster tail of pale dust that had followed them from Needles began to settle; the hovercraft sank into its inflated apron bag as they came to a halt.

“Here’s the venue, Turner.”

“What hit it?” Rectangular expanse of concrete spreading to uneven walls of weathered cinderblock.

“Economics,” Conroy said. “Before the war. They never finished it. Ten klicks west of here and there’s whole subdivisions, just pavement grids, no houses, nothing.”

“How big a site team?”

“Nine, not counting you. And the medics.”

“What medics?”

“Hosaka’s. Maas is biologicals, right? No telling how they might have our boy kinked. So Hosaka’s built a regular little neurosurgery and staffed it with three hotshots. Two of them are company men, the third’s a Korean who knows black medicine from both ends. The medical pod’s in that long one there”—he pointed—“gotta partial section of roof.”

“How’d you get it on site?”

“Brought it from Tucson inside a tanker. Faked a breakdown. Got it out, rolled it in. Took all hands. Maybe three minutes.”

“Maas,” Turner said.

“Sure.” Conroy killed the engines. “Chance you take,” he said in the abrupt silence. “Maybe they missed it. Our guy
in the tanker sat there and bitched to his dispatcher in Tucson on the CB, all about his shit-eating heat exchanger and how long it was going to take to fix it. Figure they picked that up. You think of a better way to do it?”

“No. Given that the client wants the thing on the site. But we’re sitting here now in the middle of their recon footprint . . .”

“Sweetheart”—and Conroy snorted—“maybe we just stopped for a screw. Break up our trip to Tucson, right? It’s that kind of place. People stop here to piss, you know?” He checked his black Porsche watch. “I’m due there in an hour, get a copter back to the coast.”

“The rig?”

“No. Your fucking jet. Figured I handle that myself.”

“Good.”

“I’d go for a Dornier System ground-effect plane myself. Have it wait down the road until we see Mitchell heading in. It could get here by the time the medics clean him up; we toss him in and take off for the Sonora border . . .”

“At subsonic speeds,” Turner said. “No way. You’re on your way to California to buy me that jump jet. Our boy’s going out of here in a multimission combat aircraft that’s barely even obsolete.”

“You got a pilot in mind?”

“Me,” Turner said, and tapped the socket behind his ear. “It’s a fully integrated interactive system. They’ll sell you the interface software and I’ll jack straight in.”

“Didn’t know you could fly.”

“I can’t. You don’t need hands-on to haul ass for Mexico City.”

“Still the wild boy, Turner? You know the rumor’s that somebody blew your dick off, back there in New Delhi?” Conroy swung around to face him, his grin cold and clean.

Turner dug the parka from behind the seat and took out the pistol and the box of ammunition. He was stuffing the parka back again when Conroy said, “Keep it. It gets cold as hell here, at night.”

Turner reached for the canopy latch, and Conroy revved the engines. The hovercraft rose a few centimeters, swaying slightly as Turner popped the canopy and climbed out. White-out sun and air like hot velvet. He took his Mexican sunglasses from the pocket of the blue work shirt and put them on. He wore white deck shoes and a pair of tropical combat
fatigues. The box of explosive shells went into one of the thigh pockets on the fatigues. He kept the gun in his right hand, the parka bundled under his left arm. “Head for the long building,” Conroy said, over the engine. “They’re expecting you.”

He jumped down into the furnace glow of desert noon as Conroy revved the Fokker again and edged it back to the highway. He watched as it sped east, its receding image distorted through wrinkles of rising heat.

When it was gone, there was no sound at all, no movement. He turned, facing the ruin. Something small and stone-gray darted between two rocks.

Perhaps eighty meters from the highway the jagged walls began. The expanse between had once been a parking lot.

Five steps forward and he stopped. He heard the sea, surf pounding, soft explosions as breakers fell. The gun was in his hand, too large, too real, its metal warming in the sun.

No sea, no sea, he told himself, can’t hear it. He walked on, the deck shoes slipping in drifts of ancient window glass seasoned with brown and green shards of bottle. There were rusted discs that had been bottle caps, flattened rectangles that had been aluminum cans. Insects whirred up from low clumps of dry brush.

Over. Done with. This place. No time.

He stopped again, straining forward, as though he sought something that would help him name the thing that was rising in him. Something hollow . . .

The mall was doubly dead. The beach hotel in Mexico had lived once, at least for a season . . .

Beyond the parking lot, the sunlit cinderblock, cheap and soulless, waiting.

 

He found them crouched in the narrow strip of shade provided by a length of gray wall. Three of them; he smelled the coffee before he saw them, the fire-blackened enamel pot balanced precariously on the tiny Primus cooker. He was meant to smell it, of course; they were expecting him. Otherwise, he’d have found the ruin empty, and then, somehow, very quietly and almost naturally, he would have died.

Two men, a woman; cracked, dusty boots out of Texas, denim so shiny with grease that it would probably be waterproof. The men were bearded, their uncut hair bound up in sun-bleached topknots with lengths of rawhide, the woman’s
hair center-parted and pulled back tight from a seamed, wind-burnt face. An ancient BMW motorcycle was propped against the wall, flecked chrome and battered paintwork daubed with airbrush blobs of tan and gray desert camo.

He released the Smith & Wesson’s grip, letting it pivot around his index finger, so that the barrel pointed up and back.

“Turner,” one of the men said, rising, cheap metal flashing from his teeth. “Sutcliffe.” Trace of an accent, probably Australian.

“Point team?” He looked at the other two.

“Point,” Sutcliffe said, and probed his mouth with a tanned thumb and forefinger, coming away with a yellowed, steel-capped prostho. His own teeth were white and perfectly even. “You took Chauvet from IBM for Mitsu,” he said, “and they say you took Semenov out of Tomsk.”

“Is that a question?”

“I was security for IBM Marrakech when you blew the hotel.”

Turner met the man’s eyes. They were blue, calm, very bright. “Is that a problem for you?”

“No fear,” Sutcliffe said. “Just to say I’ve seen you work.” He snapped the prostho back in place. “Lynch”—nodding toward the other man—“and Webber”—toward the woman.

“Run it down to me,” Turner said, and lowered himself into the scrap of shade. He squatted on his haunches, still holding the gun.

“We came in three days ago,” Webber said, “on two bikes. We arranged for one of them to snap its crankshaft, in case we had to make an excuse for camping here. There’s a sparse transient population, gypsy bikers and cultists. Lynch walked an optics spool six kilos east and tapped into a phone . . .”

“Private?”

“Pay,” Lynch said.

“We sent out a test squirt,” the woman continued. “If it hadn’t worked, you’d know it.”

Turner nodded. “Incoming traffic?”

“Nothing. It’s strictly for the big show, whatever that is.” She raised her eyebrows.

“It’s a defection.”

“Bit obvious, that,” Sutcliffe said, settling himself beside
Webber, his back to the wall. “Though the general tone of the operation so far suggests that we hirelings aren’t likely to even know who we’re extracting. True, Mr. Turner? Or will we be able to read about it in the fax?”

Turner ignored him. “Go on, Webber.”

“After our landline was in place, the rest of the crew filtered in, one or two at a time. The last one in primed us for the tankful of Japs.”

“That was raw,” Sutcliffe said, “bit too far up front.”

“You think it might have blown us?” Turner asked.

Sutcliffe shrugged. “Could be, could be no. We hopped it pretty quick. Damned lucky we’d the roof to tuck it under.”

“What about the passengers?”

“They only come out at night,” Webber said. “And they know we’ll kill them if they try to get more than five meters away from the thing.”

Turner glanced at Sutcliffe.

“Conroy’s orders,” the man said.

“Conroy’s orders don’t count now,” Turner said. “But that one holds. What are these people like?”

“Medicals,” Lynch said, “bent medicals.”

“You got it,” Turner said. “What about the rest of the crew?”

“We rigged some shade with mimetic tarps. They sleep in shifts. There’s not enough water and we can’t risk much in the way of cooking.” Sutcliffe reached for the coffeepot. “We have sentries in place and we run periodic checks on the integrity of the landline.” He splashed black coffee into a plastic mug that looked as though it had been chewed by a dog. “So when do we do our dance, Mr. Turner?”

“I want to see your tank of pet medics. I want to see a command post. You haven’t said anything about a command post.”

“All set,” Lynch said.

“Fine. Here.” Turner passed Webber the revolver. “See if you can find me some sort of rig for this. Now I want Lynch to show me these medics.”

 

“He thought it would be you,” Lynch said, scrambling effortlessly up a low incline of rubble. Turner followed. “You’ve got quite a rep.” The younger man glanced back at him from beneath a fringe of dirty, sun-streaked hair.

“Too much of one,” Turner said. “Any is too much. You
worked with him before? Marrakech?” Lynch ducked sideways through a gap in the cinderblock, and Turner was close behind. The desert plants smelled of tar; they stung and grabbed if you brushed them. Through a vacant, rectangular opening intended for a window, Turner glimpsed pink mountaintops; then Lynch was loping down a slope of gravel.

“Sure, I worked for him before,” Lynch said, pausing at the base of the slide. An ancient-looking leather belt rode low on his hips, its heavy buckle a tarnished silver death’s-head with a dorsal crest of blunt, pyramidal spikes. “Marrakech— that was before my time.”

“Connie, too, Lynch?”

“How’s that?”

“Conroy. You work for him before? More to the point— are you working for him now?” Turner came slowly, deliberately down the gravel as he spoke; it crunched and slid beneath his deck shoes, uneasy footing. He could see the delicate little fletcher holstered beneath Lynch’s denim vest.

Lynch licked dry lips, held his ground. “That’s Sut’s contact. I haven’t met him.”

“Conroy has this problem, Lynch. Can’t delegate responsibility. He likes to have his own man from the start, someone to watch the watchers. Always. You the one, Lynch?”

Lynch shook his head, the absolute minimum of movement required to convey the negative. Turner was close enough to smell his sweat above the tarry odor of the desert plants.

“I’ve seen Conroy blow two extractions that way,” Turner said. “Lizards and broken glass, Lynch? You feel like dying here?” Turner raised his fist in front of Lynch’s face and slowly extended the index finger, pointing straight up. “We’re in their footprint. If a plant of Conroy’s bleeps the least fucking pulse out of here, they’ll be on to us.”

“If they aren’t already.”

“That’s right.”

“Sut’s your man,” Lynch said. “Not me, and I can’t see it being Webber.” Black-rimmed, broken nails came up to scratch abstractedly at his beard. “Now, did you get me back here exclusively for this little talk, or do you still wanna see our canful of Japs?”

“Let’s see it.”

Lynch. Lynch was the one.

Once, in Mexico, years before, Turner had chartered a portable vacation module, solar-powered and French-built, its seven-meter body like a wingless housefly sculpted in polished alloy, its eyes twin hemispheres of tinted, photosensitive plastic; he sat behind them as an aged twin-prop Russian cargo lifter lumbered down the coast with the module in its jaws, barely clearing the crowns of the tallest palms. Deposited on a remote beach of black sand, Turner spent three days of pampered solitude in the narrow, teak-lined cabin, microwaving food from the freezer and showering, frugally but regularly, in cool fresh water. The module’s rectangular banks of cells would swivel, tracking the sun, and he’d learned to tell time by their position.

Hosaka’s portable neurosurgery resembled an eyeless version of that French module, perhaps two meters longer and painted a dull brown. Sections of perforated angle iron had been freshly braised at intervals along the lower half of the hull, and supported simple spring suspensions for ten fat, heavily nubbed red rubber bicycle tires.

“They’re asleep,” Lynch said. “It bobs around when they move, so you can tell. We’ll have the wheels off when the time comes, but for now we like being able to keep track of them.”

Turner walked slowly around the brown pod, noting the glossy black sewage tube that ran to a small rectangular tank nearby.

BOOK: Count Zero
12.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Mystery at Skeleton Point by Gertrude Chandler Warner
Shift by Chris Dolley
Amos Goes Bananas by Gary Paulsen
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
The Maiden’s Tale by Margaret Frazer
Moloka'i by Alan Brennert