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.
The meet was set for the Drome at 2300, but I
rode the tube three stops past the closest platform and walked back.
I checked myself out in the chrome siding of a
coffee kiosk, your basic sharp-faced Caucasoid with a ruff of stiff, dark
hair. The girls at Under the Knife were big on Sony Mao, and it was
getting harder to keep them from adding the chic suggestion of epicanthic
folds. It probably wouldn’t fool Ralfi Face, but it might get me next to
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.
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
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
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
Pardon me. Pardon me, friends. Just Eddie Bax
here, Fast Eddie the Importer, with his professionally nondescript gym
bag, and please ignore this slit, just wide enough to admit his right hand.
Ralfi wasn’t alone. Eighty kilos of blond
California beef perched alertly in the chair next to his, martial arts
written all over him.
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
"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.
I guess he’d always been Ralfi Something or
Other, but he owed his acquired surname 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.
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.
"Please," he said, "let’s work
this out like businessmen." His voice was marked by a horrible
prehensile 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,
"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."
"It’s this last batch of product,
Johnny." He sighed deeply. "In my role as broker –"
"Fence," I corrected.
"As broker, I’m usually very careful as to
"You buy only from those who steal the best.
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 they’d taped under my side of the table.
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.
"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."
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 and something that belonged to
them – or, more likely, something of theirs that belonged to someone
else. 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. The Yakuza would know about Squids, 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.
Lewis was grinning. I think he was visualizing a
point just behind my forehead and imagining how he could get there the
"Hey," said a low voice, feminine, from
somewhere behind my right shoulder, "you cowboys sure aren’t having
too lively a time."
"Pack it, bitch," Lewis said, his
tanned face very still. Ralfi looked blank.
"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."
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.
But hadn’t her hand been empty?
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.
"He better get a medic to look at that,"
she said. "That’s a nasty cut."
"You have no idea," said Ralfi,
suddenly sounding very tired, "the depths of shit you have just
gotten yourself into."
"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.
"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.
"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."
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.
"Two million," I said.
"My kind of man," she said, and laughed.
"What’s in the bag?"
"Crude." It might have been a
Ralfi said nothing at all.
"Name’s Millions. Molly Millions. 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.
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
"I’m Johnny," I said. "We’re
taking Mr. Face with us."
He was outside, waiting. Looking like your standard
tourist tech, in plastic zoris 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
I looked back down in time to see him explode.
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.
Ralfi tumbled apart in a pink cloud of fluids,
the three mismatched sections rolling forward onto the tiled pavement. In
I brought the gym bag up, and my hand convulsed.
The recoil nearly broke my wrist.
It must have been raining; ribbons of water cascaded
from a ruptured geodesic 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.
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."
" ‘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."
"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. He’s a Yakuza assassin."
"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.
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.
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 and at least three
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,
the Mafia, the Union Corse.
Molly had an answer: you hide in the Pit, in the
lowest circle, 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, black-market cigarettes dangling from their lips.
She had another answer, too.
"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.
"The stored data are fed in through a
modified series of microsurgical contraautism 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."
"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.
"Superconducting quantum interference
detectors. Used them in the war to find submarines, suss out enemy cyber
"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.
"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."
"Cops can do that already, with parabolic
microphones and lasers."
"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."
"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."
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.
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.
Molly whistled. Jones thrashed his tall, and more
water cascaded down the side of the tank.
"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.
"Funland. Zoo and carnival rides. ‘Talk
with the War Whale.’ All that. Some whale Jones is . . . ."
Jones reared again and fixed me with a sad and
"How’s he talk?" Suddenly I was
anxious to go.
"That’s the catch. Say ‘hi,’
And all the bulbs lit simultaneously. They were
flashing red, white, and blue.
"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."
The lights flickered, died.
"Go for it, Jones!"
Blue bulbs, cruciform.
"Pure! It’s clean. Come on,
White sodium glare washed
her features, stark monochrome, shadows elevating from her cheekbones.
The arms of the red
swastika were twisted in her silver glasses. "Give it to him," I
said. "We’ve got it."
Ralfi Face. No imagination.
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.
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
"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?"
"The war," she said. "They all
were. Navy did it. How else you get ‘em working for you? "
"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 –"
"Waste my time and you won’t profile at
all," said Molly, leaning across his scarred plastic desk to prod him
with her forefinger.
"So maybe you want to buy your microwaves
somewhere else?" He was a tough kid, behind his Mao-job. A
Nighttowner by birth, probably.
Her hand blurred down the front of his jacket,
completely severing a lapel without even rumpling the fabric.
"So we got a deal or not?"
"Deal," he said, staring at his ruined
lapel with what he must have hoped was only polite interest. "Deal."
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?"
"Shoot," I said, punching the RECORD
studs of the two decks simultaneously.
"Christian White," she recited,
"and his Aryan Reggae Band."
Faithful Ralfi, a fan to his dying day.
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
I sat and sang dead Ralfi’s stolen program for
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
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
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.
"Who’s Lo Tek?"
"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. "Lo
Teks, they’d think that shotgun trick of yours was effete."
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.
" ‘S okay," Molly said, her hand
brushing my shoulder. "It’s just Dog. Hey, Dog."
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.
"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. "Bein’ followed, you."
Far off, down in Nighttown, a water vendor cried
"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.
"Kill the fuckin’ light!"
She snapped it off.
"How come the one who’s followin’
you’s got no light?"
"Doesn’t need it. That one’s bad news,
Dog. Your sentries give him a tumble, they’ll come home in easy-to-carry
"This a friend friend, Moll?" He
sounded uneasy. I heard his feet shift on the worn plywood.
"No. But he’s mine. And this one,"
slapping my shoulder, "he’s a friend. Got that?"
"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.
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 and ugly tourist shirt, bland and unhurried. How was he tracking us?
"Good, " said Molly. "He smells us."
"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
"I’ve done you a lot of favors, man. I
want that floor. And I want the music."
"You’re not Lo Tek . . . ."
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.
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.
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 . . .
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.
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.
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?
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
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 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.
So I followed Dog and Molly through Lo Tek heaven,
jury-rigged and jerry-built from scraps that even Nighttown didn’t want.
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 suspended
above the Floor.
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.
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
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.
And then I noticed just how quiet the Lo Teks had
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.
I looked for Molly Millions, but she was gone.
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
Molly hit the Floor, moving.
The Floor screamed.
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.
A drumbeat began, electronic, like an amplified
heart, steady as a metronome.
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
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.
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.
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 of
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
I decided to stay up here. 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.
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, and I’ll live with my own memories and
nobody else’s, the way other people do. But not for a while.
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.
It’s educational, too. With Jones to help me
figure things out, I’m getting to be the most technical boy in town.