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Authors: William Gibson

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BOOK: Count Zero
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“Had to dump that, last night. Jesus.” Lynch shook his head. “They got food and some water.”

Turner put his ear to the hull.

“It’s proofed,” Lynch said.

Turner glanced up at the steel roof above them. The surgery was screened from above by a good ten meters of rusting roof. Sheet steel, and hot enough now to fry an egg. He nodded. That hot rectangle would be a permanent factor in the Maas infrared scan.

 

“Bats,” Webber said, handing him the Smith & Wesson in a black nylon shoulder rig. The dusk was full of sounds that seemed to come from inner space, metallic squeaks and the cackling of bugs, cries of unseen birds. Turner shoved gun and holster into a pocket on the parka. “You wanna piss, go up by that mesquite. But watch out for the thorns.”

“Where are you from?”

“New Mexico,” the woman said, her face like carved wood in the remaining light. She turned and walked away, heading for the angle of walls that sheltered the tarps. He could make out Sutcliffe and a young black man there. They were eating from dull foil envelopes. Ramirez, the on-site console jockey, Jaylene Slide’s partner. Out of Los Angeles.

Turner looked up at the bowl of sky, limitless, the map of stars. Strange how it’s bigger this way, he thought, and from orbit it’s just a gulf, formless, and scale lost all meaning. And tonight he wouldn’t sleep, he knew, and the Big Dipper would whirl round for him and dive for the horizon, pulling its tail with it.

A wave of nausea and dislocation hit him as images from the biosoft dossier swam unbidden through his mind.

8
PARIS

A
NDREA LIVED IN THE
Quartier des Ternes, where her ancient building, like the others in her street, awaited sandblasting by the city’s relentless renovators. Beyond the dark entrance, one of Fuji Electric’s biofluorescent strips glowed dimly above a dilapidated wall of small wooden hutches, some with their slotted doors still intact. Marly knew that postmen had once made daily deposits of mail through those slots; there was something romantic about the idea, although the hutches, with their yellowing business cards announcing the occupations of long-vanished tenants, had always depressed her. The walls of the hallway were stapled with bulging loops of cable and fiber optics, each strand a potential nightmare for some hapless utilities repairman. At the far end, through an open door paneled with dusty pebble glass, was a disused courtyard, its cobbles shiny with damp.

The concierge was sitting in the courtyard as Marly entered the building, on a white plastic crate that had once held bottles of Evian water. He was patiently oiling each link of an old bicycle’s black chain. He glanced up as she began to climb the first flight of stairs, but registered no particular interest.

The stairs were made of marble, worn dull and concave by generations of tenants. Andrea’s apartment was on the fourth floor. Two rooms, kitchen, and bath. Marly had come here when she’d closed her gallery for the last time, when it was no longer possible to sleep in the makeshift bedroom she’d shared with Alain, the little room behind the storeroom. Now
the building brought her depression circling in again, but the feel of her new outfit and the tidy click of her bootheels on marble kept it at a distance. She wore an oversized leather coat a few shades lighter than her handbag, a wool skirt, and a silk blouse from Paris Isetan. She’d had her hair cut that morning on Faubourg St. Honoré, by a Burmese girl with a West German laser pencil; an expensive cut, subtle without being too conservative.

She touched the round plate bolted in the center of Andrea’s door, heard it peep once, softly, as it read the whorls and ridges of her fingertips. “It’s me, Andrea,” she said to the tiny microphone. A series of clanks and tickings as her friend unbolted the door.

Andrea stood there, dripping wet, in the old terry robe. She took in Marly’s new look, then smiled. “Did you get your job, or have you robbed a bank?” Marly stepped in, kissing her friend’s wet cheek. “It feels a bit of both,” she said, and laughed.

“Coffee,” said Andrea, “make us coffee.
Grandes crèmes.
I must rinse my hair. And yours is beautiful . . .” She went into the bathroom and Marly heard a spray of water across porcelain.

“I’ve brought you a present,” Marly said, but Andrea couldn’t hear her. She went into the kitchen and filled the kettle, lit the stove with the old-fashioned spark gun, and began to search the crowded shelves for coffee.

 

“Yes,” Andrea was saying, “I do see it.” She was peering into the hologram of the box Marly had first seen in Virek’s construct of Gaudi’s park. “It’s your sort of thing.” She touched a stud and the Braun’s illusion winked out. Beyond the room’s single window, the sky was stippled with a few wisps of cirrus. “Too grim for me, too serious. Like the things you showed at your gallery. But that can only mean that Herr Virek has chosen well; you will solve his mystery for him. If I were you, considering the wage, I might take my own good time about it.” Andrea wore Marly’s gift, an expensive, beautifully detailed man’s dress shirt, in gray Flemish flannel. It was the sort of thing she liked most, and her delight in it was obvious. It set off her pale hair, and was very nearly the color of her eyes.

“He’s quite horrible, Virek, I think . . .” Marly hesitated.

“Quite likely,” Andrea said, taking another sip of coffee.

“Do you expect anyone that wealthy to be a nice, normal sort?”

“I felt, at one point, that he wasn’t quite human. Felt that very strongly.”

“But he isn’t, Marly. You were talking with a projection, a special effect . . .”

“Still . . .” She made a gesture of helplessness, which immediately made her feel annoyed with herself.

“Still, he is very, very wealthy, and he’s paying you a great deal to do something that you may be uniquely suited to do.” Andrea smiled and readjusted a finely turned charcoal cuff. “You don’t have a great deal of choice, do you?”

“I know. I suppose that’s what’s making me uneasy.”

“Well,” Andrea said, “I thought I might put off telling you a bit longer, but I have something else that may make you feel uneasy. If ‘uneasy’ is the word.”

“Yes?”

“I considered not telling you at all, but I’m sure he’ll get to you eventually. He smells money, I suppose.”

Marly put her empty cup down carefully on the cluttered little rattan table.

“He’s quite acute that way,” Andrea said.

“When?”

“Yesterday. It began, I think, about an hour after you would have had your interview with Virek. He called me at work. He left a message here, with the concierge. If I were to remove the screen program”—she gestured toward the phone—“I think he’d ring within thirty minutes.”

Remembering the concierge’s eyes, the ticking of the bicycle chain.

“He wants to talk, he said,” Andrea said. “Only to talk. Do you want to talk with him, Marly?”

“No,” she said, and her voice was a little girl’s voice, high and ridiculous. Then, “Did he leave a number?” Andrea sighed, slowly shook her head, and then said, “Yes, of course he did.”

9
UP THE PROJECTS

T
HE DARK WAS FULL
of honeycomb patterns the color of blood. Everything was warm. And soft, too, mostly soft.

“What a mess,” one of the angels said, her voice far off but low and rich and very clear.

“We should’ve clipped him out of Leon’s,” the other angel said. “They aren’t gonna like this upstairs.”

“Must’ve had something in this big pocket here, see? They slashed it for him, getting it out.”

“Not all they slashed, sister. Jesus. Here.”

The patterns swung and swam as something moved his head. Cool palm against his cheek.

“Don’t get any on your shirt,” the first angel said.

“Two-a-Day ain’t gonna like this. Why you figure he freaked like that and ran?”

 

It pissed him off, because he wanted to sleep. He
was
asleep, for sure, but somehow Marsha’s jack-dreams were bleeding into his head so that he tumbled through broken sequences of
People of Importance.
The soap had been running continuously since before he was born, the plot a multiheaded narrative tapeworm that coiled back in to devour itself every few months, then sprouted new heads hungry for tension and thrust. He could see it writhing in its totality, the way Marsha could never see it, an elongated spiral of Sense/Net DNA, cheap brittle ectoplasm spun out to uncounted hungry dreamers. Marsha, now, she had it from the POV of Michele Morgan Magnum, the female lead, hereditary
corporate head of Magnum AG. But today’s episode kept veering weirdly away from Michele’s frantically complex romantic entanglements, which Bobby had anyway never bothered to keep track of, and jerking itself into detailed socioarchitectural descriptions of Soleri-style mincome arcologies. Some of the detail, even to Bobby, seemed suspect; he doubted, for instance, that there really were entire levels devoted to the sale of ice-blue shaved-velour lounge suites with diamond-buckled knees, or that there were other levels, perpetually dark, inhabited exclusively by starving babies. This last, he seemed to recall, had been an article of faith to Marsha, who regarded the Projects with superstitious horror, as though they were some looming vertical hell to which she might one day be forced to ascend. Other segments of the jack-dream reminded him of the Knowledge channel Sense/Net piped in free with every stim subscription; there were elaborate animated diagrams of the Projects’ interior structure, and droning lectures in voice-over on the life-styles of various types of residents. These, when he was able to focus on them, seemed even less convincing than the flashes of ice-blue velour and feral babies creeping silently through the dark. He watched a cheerful young mother slice pizza with a huge industrial waterknife in the kitchen corner of a spotless one-room. An entire wall opened onto a shallow balcony and a rectangle of cartoon-blue sky. The woman was black without being black, it seemed to Bobby, like a very, very dark and youthfully maternal version of one of the porno dolls on the unit in his bedroom. And had, it looked like, the identical small but cartoon-perfect breasts. (At this point, to add to his dull confusion, an astonishingly loud and very unNet voice said, “Now I call
that
a definite sign of life, Jackie. If the prognosis ain’t lookin’ up yet, at least somethin’ is.”) And then went spinning back into the all-glitz universe of Michele Morgan Magnum, who was desperately struggling to prevent Magnum AG’s takeover by the sinister Shikoku-based Nakamura industrial clan, represented in this case by (plot complication) Michele’s main squeeze for the season, wealthy (but somehow grindingly in need of additional billions) New Soviet boy-politician Vasily Suslov, who looked and dressed remarkably like the Gothicks in Leon’s.

The episode seemed to be reaching some sort of climax—an antique BMW fuel-cell conversion had just been strafed by servo-piloted miniature West German helicopters on the street
below Covina Concourse Courts, Michele Morgan Magnum was pistol-whipping her treacherous personal secretary with a nickel-plated Nambu, and Suslov, who Bobby was coming increasingly to identify with, was casually preparing to get his ass out of town with a gorgeous female bodyguard who was Japanese but reminded Bobby intensely of another one of the dreamgirls on his holoporn unit—when someone screamed.

Bobby had never heard anyone scream that way, and there was something horribly familiar about the voice. But before he could start to worry about it, those blood-red honeycombs came swirling in again and made him miss the end of
People of Importance.
Still, some part of him thought, as red went to black, he could always ask Marsha how it came out.

 

“Open your eyes, man. That’s it. Light too bright for you?”

It was, but it didn’t change. White, white, he remembered his head exploding years away, pure white grenade in that cool-wind desert dark. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see. Just white.

“Now, I’d leave you down, ordinarily, boy in your condition, but the people paying me for this say get a jump on, so I’m wakin’ you up before I’m done. You wonderin’ why you can’t see shit, right? Just light, that’s all you can see, that’s right. What we got here is a neural cutout. Now, between you and me, this thing come out of a sex shop, but there’s no reason not to use it in medicine if we want to. And we do want to, because you’re still hurtin’ bad, and anyway, it keeps you still while I get on with it.” The voice was calm and methodical. “Now, your big problem, that was your back, but I took care of that with a stapler and a few feet of claw. You don’t get any plastic work here, you understand, but the honeys’ll think those scars are real interesting. What I’m doin’ now is I’m cleanin’ this one on your chest, then I’ll zip a little claw down
that
and we’re all done, except you better move easy for a couple of days or you’ll pull a staple. I got a couple of derms on you, and I’ll stick on a few more. Meantime, I’m going to click your sensorium up to audio and full visual so you can get into being here. Don’t mind the blood; it’s all yours but there isn’t any more comin’.”

White curdled to gray cloud, objects taking form with the slow deliberation of a dust vision. He was flat against a padded ceiling, staring straight down at a blood-stained white
doll that had no head at all, only a greenish blue surgical lamp that seemed to sprout from its shoulders. A black man in a stained green smock was spraying something yellow into a shallow gash that ran diagonally from just above the doll’s pelvic bone to just below its left nipple. He knew the man was black because his head was bare, bare and shaven, slick with sweat; his hands were covered in tight green gloves and all that Bobby could see of him was the gleaming crown of his head. There were pink and blue dermadisks stuck to the skin on either side of the doll’s neck. The edges of the wound seemed to have been painted with something that looked like chocolate syrup, and the yellow spray made a hissing sound as it escaped from its little silver tube.

Then Bobby got the picture, and the universe reversed itself sickeningly. The lamp was suspended from the ceiling, the ceiling was mirrored, and he was the doll. He seemed to snap back on a long elastic cord, back through the red honeycombs, to the dream room where the black girl sliced pizza for her children. The waterknife made no sound at all, microscopic grit suspended in a needle-stream of high-speed water. The thing was intended to cut glass and alloy, Bobby knew, not to slice microwaved pizza, and he wanted to scream at her because he was terrified she’d take off her thumb without even feeling it.

But he couldn’t scream, couldn’t move or make a sound at all. She lovingly sliced the last piece, toed the kickplate that shut the knife down, transferred the sliced pizza to a plain white ceramic platter, then turned toward the rectangle of blue beyond the balcony, where her children were—no, Bobby said, way down in himself,
no
way. Because the things that wheeled and plunged for her weren’t hang-gliding kids, but babies, the monstrous babies of Marsha’s dream, and the tattered wings a confusion of pink bone, metal, patched taut membranes of scrap plastic . . . He saw their teeth . . .

“Whoa,” said the black man, “lost you for a second. Not for long, you understand, just maybe a New York minute . . .” His hand, in the mirrors overhead, took a flat spool of blue transparent plastic from the bloody cloth beside Bobby’s ribs. Delicately, with thumb and forefinger, he drew out a length of some sort of brown, beaded plastic. Minute points of light flashed along its edges and seemed to quiver and shift. “Claw,” he said, and with his other hand thumbed some sort of integral cutter in the sealed blue spool. Now the length of
beaded stuff swung free and began to writhe. “Good shit,” he said, bringing the thing into Bobby’s line of sight. “New. What they use in Chiba now.” It was brown, headless, each bead a body segment, each segment edged with pale shining legs. Then, with a conjurer’s flick of his green-gloved wrists, he lay the centipede down the length of the open wound and pinched delicately at the final segment, the one nearest Bobby’s face. As the segment came away, it withdrew a glittering black thread that had served the thing as a nervous system, and as that went, each set of claws locked shut in turn, zipping the slash tight as a new leather jacket.

“Now, you see,” said the black man, mopping the last of the brown syrup away with a wet white pad, “that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

 

His entrance to Two-a-Day’s apartment wasn’t anything like the way he’d so often imagined it. To begin with, he’d never imagined being wheeled in in a wheelchair that someone had appropriated from St. Mary’s Maternity—the name and a serial number neatly laser-etched on the dull chrome of the left armrest. The woman who was wheeling him would have fitted neatly enough into one of his fantasies; her name was Jackie, one of the two Project girls he’d seen at Leon’s, and, he’d come to understand, one of his two angels. The wheelchair was silent as it glided across the scabrous gray wall-to-wall of the apartment’s narrow entranceway, but the gold bangles on Jackie’s fedora tinkled cheerfully as she pushed him along.

And he’d never imagined that Two-a-Day’s place would be quite this large, or that it would be full of trees.

Pye, the doctor, who’d been careful to explain that he
wasn’t
a doctor, just someone who “helped out sometimes,” had settled back on a torn barstool in his makeshift surgery, peeled off his bloody green gloves, lit a menthol cigarette, and solemnly advised Bobby to take it real easy for the next week or so. Minutes later, Jackie and Rhea, the other angel, had wrestled him into a pair of wrinkled black pajamas that looked like something out of a very cheap ninja kino, deposited him in the wheelchair, and set out for the central stem of elevators at the arcology’s core. Thanks to an additional three derms from Pye’s store of drugs, one of them charged with a good two thousand mikes of endorphin analog, Bobby was alert and feeling no pain.

“Where’s my stuff,” he protested, as they rolled him out into a corridor grown perilously narrow with decades of retrofitted ducts and plumbing. “Where’s my clothes and my deck and everything?”

“Your clothes, hon, such as they were, are taped up in a plastic bag waiting for Pye to shitcan ’em. Pye had to cut ’em off you on the slab, and they weren’t but bloody rags to begin with. If your deck was in your jacket, down the back, I’d say the boys who chopped you out got it. Damn near got you in the process. And you
ruined
my Sally Stanley shirt, you little shithead.” Angel Rhea didn’t seem too friendly.

“Oh,” Bobby said, as they rounded a corner, “right. Well, did you happen to find a screwdriver in there? Or a credit chip?”

“No chip, baby. But if the screwdriver’s the one with the two hundred and ten New ones screwed into the handle, that’s the price of my new shirt . . .”

 

Two-a-Day didn’t look as though he was particularly glad to see Bobby. In fact, it almost seemed as if he didn’t see him at all. Looked straight through him to Jackie and Rhea, and showed his teeth in a smile that was all nerves and sleep-lack. They wheeled Bobby close enough that he saw how yellow Two-a-Day’s eyeballs looked, almost orange in the pinky-purple glow of the gro-light tubes that seemed to dangle at random from the ceiling. “What took you bitches?” the ’wareman asked, but there was no anger in his voice, only bone weariness and something else, something Bobby couldn’t identify at first.

“Pye,” Jackie said, swaggering past the wheelchair to take a package of Chinese cigarettes from the enormous wooden slab that served Two-a-Day as a coffee table. “He’s a perfectionist, ol’ Pye.”

“Learned that in vet school,” Rhea added, for Bobby’s benefit, “ ’cept usually he’s too wasted, nobody’d let him work on a dog . . .”

“So,” Two-a-Day said, and finally let his eyes rest on Bobby, “you gonna make it.” And his eyes were so cold, so tired and clinical, so far removed from the hustling manic bullshitter’s act that Bobby had taken for the man’s personality, that Bobby could only lower his own eyes, face burning, and lock his gaze on the table.

Nearly three meters long and slightly over a meter wide, it
was strapped together from timbers thicker than Bobby’s thigh. It must have been in the water once, he thought; sections still retained the bleached silvery patina of driftwood, like the log he remembered playing beside a long time ago in Atlantic City. But it hadn’t seen water for a long time, and the top was a dense mosaic of candle drippings, wine stains, oddly shaped overspray marks in matte black enamel, and the dark burns left by hundreds of cigarettes. It was so crowded with food, garbage, and gadgets that it looked as though some street vendor had set up to unload hardware, then decided to have dinner. There were half-eaten pizzas—krill balls in red sauce, and Bobby’s stomach began to churn—beside cascading stacks of software, smudged glasses with cigarettes crushed out in purple wine dregs, a pink styrene tray with neat rows of stale-looking canapés, open and unopened cans of beer, an antique Gerber combat dagger that lay unsheathed on a flat block of polished marble, at least three pistols, and perhaps two dozen pieces of cryptic-looking console gear, the kind of cowboy equipment that ordinarily would have made Bobby’s mouth water.

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