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Author Topic: Burning Chrome  (Read 2863 times)
PeacefulWarrior
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The best medicine is the display of compassion.


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« on: June 28, 2003, 07:09:47 »

The following is a short story by William Gibson, he who coined the term cyberspace before anyone had really heard of the internet.  The father of the "matrix."  (He should get credit for the matrix movies).  This story was written in the mid to late eighties.  I loved it the first time I read it and continue to find it quite compelling. It's a little long to read at the computer, so you might want to cut and paste it to Word and then print.  

This story is part of a collection of short stories from a book titled "Burning CHrome."  It's sci-fi type lit, cyberpunk if you will...but don't let that dissuade you if you are not into the genre, it's really for everyone.  It even has kind of an out-of-body spin on it.  Enjoy.
_______________________________________________________________

Burning Chrome
By William Gibson


It was hot, the night we burned Chrome. Out in the

malls and plazas, moths were batting themselves to

death against the neon, but in Bobby's loft the only light

came from a monitor screen and the green and red

LEDs on the face of the matrix simulator. I knew every

chip in Bobby's simulator by heart; it looked like your

workaday Ono-Sendai VII. The "Cyberspace Seven,"

but I'd rebuilt it so many time that you'd have had a

hard time finding a square millimeter of factory cir-

cuitry in all that silicon.

   We waited side by side in front of the simulator

console, watching the time display in the screen's lower

left corner.

   "Go for it," I said, when it was time, but Bobby

was already there, leaning forward to drive the Russian

program into its slot with the heel of his hand. He did it

with the tight grace of a kid slamming change into an ar-

cade game, sure of winning and ready to pull down a

string of free games.

A silver tide of phosphenes boiled across my field

of vision as the matrix began to unfold in my head, a

3-D chessboard, infinite and perfectly transparent. The

Russian program seemed to lurch as we entered the grid.

If anyone else had been jacked into that part of the

matrix, he might have seen a surf of flickering shadow

roll out of the little yellow pyramid that represented our

computer. The program was a mimetic weapon, de-

signed to absorb local color and present itself as a crash-

priority override in whatever context it encountered.

   "Congratulations," I heard Bobby say. "We just

became an Eastern Seaboard Fission Authority inspec-

tion probe. . . ." That meant we were clearing fiberoptic

lines with the cybernetic equivalent of a fire siren, but in

the simulation matrix we seemed to rush straight for

Chrome's data base. I couldn't see it yet, but I already

knew those walls were waiting. Walls of shadow, walls

of ice.

   Chrome: her pretty childface smooth as steel, with

eyes that would have been at home on the bottom of

some deep Atlantic trench, cold gray eyes that lived

under terrible pressure. They s~id she cooked her own

cancers for people who crossed her, rococo custom

variations that took years to kill you. They said a lot of

things about Chrome, none of them at all reassuring.

   So I blotted her out with a picture of Rikki. Rikki

kneeling in a shaft of dusty sunlight that slanted into the

loft through a grid of steel and glass: her faded

camouflage fatigues, her translucent rose sandals, the

good line of her bare back as she rummaged through a

nylon gear bag. She looks up, and a half-blond curl falls

to tickle her nose. Smiling, buttoning an old shirt of

Bobby's, frayed khaki cotton drawn across her breasts.

She smiles.

   "Son of a grump," said Bobby, "we just told

Chrome we're an IRS audit and three Supreme Court

subpoenas. ... Hang on to your butt, Jack.~. .

   So long, Rikki. Maybe now I see you never.

   And dark, so dark, in the halls of Chromes s ice.


Bobby was a cowboy, and ice was the nature of his

game, ice from ICE, Intrusion Countermeasures Elec-

tronics. The matrix is an abstract representation of the

relationships between data systems. Legitimate pro-

grammers jack into their employers' sector of the matrix

and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries

representing the corporate data.


   Towers and fields of it ranged in the colorless non-

space of the simulation matrix, the electronic consen-

sus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and

exchange of massive quantities of data. Legitimate pro-

grammers never see the walls of ice they work behind,

the walls of shadow that screen their operations from

others, from industrial-espionage artists and hustlers

like Bobby Quine.

   Bobby was a cowboy. Bobby was a cracksman, a

burglar, casing mankind's extended electronic nervous

system, rustling data and credit in the crowded matrix,

monochrome nonspace where the only stars are dense

concentrations of information, and high above it all

burn corporate galaxies and the cold spiral arms of

military systems.

   Bobby was another one of those young-old faces

you see drinking in the Gentleman Loser, the chic bar

for computer cowboys, rustlers, cybernetic second-story

men. We were partners.

   Bobby Quine and Automatic Jack. Bobby's the

thin, pale dude with the dark glasses, and Jack's the

mean-looking guy with the myoelectric arm. Bobby's

software and Jack's hard; Bobby punches console and

Jack runs down all the little things that can give you an

edge. Or, anyway, that's what the scene watchers in the

Gentleman Loser would've told you, before Bobby de-

cided to burn Chrome. But they also might've told you

that Bobby was losing his edge, slowing down. He was

twenty-eight, Bobby, and that's old for a console

cowboy.

   Both of us were good at what we did, but somehow

that one big score just wouldn't come down for us. I

knew where to go for the right gear, and Bobby had all

his licks down pat. He'd sit back with a white terry

sweatband across his forehead and whip moves on those

keyboards faster than you could follow, punching his

way through some of the fanciest ice in the business, but

that was when something happened that managed to get

him totally wired, and that didn't happen often. Not

highly motivated, Bobby, and I was the kind of guy

who's happy to have the rent covered and a clean shirt

to wear.

   But Bobby had this thing for girls, like they were

his private tarot or something, the way he'd get himself

moving. We never talked about it, but when it started to

look like he was losing his touch that summer, he started

to spend more time in the Gentleman Loser. He'd sit at

a table by the open doors and watch the crowd slide

by, nights when the bugs were at the neon and the air

smelled of perfume and fast food. You could see his

sunglasses scanning those faces as they passed, and he

must have decided that Rikki's was the one he was

waiting for, the wild card and the luck changer. The new

one.


I went to New York to check out the market, to see what

was available in hot software.

   The Finn's place has a defective hologram in the

window, METRO HOLOGRAFIX, over a display of dead

flies wearing fur coats of gray dust. The scrap's waist-

high, inside, drifts of it rising to meet walls that are

barely visible behind nameless junk, behind sagging

pressboard shelves stacked with old skin magazines and

yellow-spined years of National Geographic.

   "You need a gun," said the Finn. He looks like a

recombo DNA project aimed at tailoring people for

high-speed burrowing. "You're in luck. I got the new

Smith and Wesson, the four-oh-eight Tactical. Got this

xenon projector slung under the barrel, see, batteries in

the grip, throw you a twelve-inch high-noon circle in the

pitch dark at fifty yards. The light source is so narrow,

it's almost impossible to spot. It's just like voodoo in a

nightfight."

   I let my arm clunk down on the table and started

the fingers drumming; the servos in the hand began

whining like overworked mosquitoes. I knew that the

Finn really hated the sound.

   "You looking to pawn that?" He prodded the

Duralumin wrist joint with the chewed shaft of a felt-tip

pen. "Maybe get yourself something a little quieter?"

   I kept it up. "I don't need any guns, Finn."

   "Okay," he said, "okay," and I quit drumming.

"I only got this one item, and I don't even know what it

is. He looked unhappy. "I got it off these bridge-and..

tunnel kids from Jersey last week."

   "So when'd you ever buy anything you didn't

know what it was, Finn?"

   "Wise butt." And he passed me a transparent mailer

with something in it that looked like an audio cassette

through the bubble padding. "They had a passport," he

said. "They had credit cards and a watch. And that."

   "They had the contents of somebody's pockets,

you mean."

   He nodded. "The passport was Belgian. It was also

bogus, looked to me, so I put it in the furnace. Put the

cards in with it. The watch was okay, a Porsche, nice

watch."

   It was obviously some kind of plug-in military pro-

gram. Out of the mailer, it looked like the magazine of a

small assault rifle, coated with nonreflective black

plastic. The edges and corners showed bright metal; it

had been knocking around for a while.

"I'll give yo

sake."   u a bargain on it, Jack. For old times'

I had to smile at that. Getting a bargain from the

Finn was like God repealing the law of gravity when you

have to carry a heavy suitcase down ten blocks of air-

port corridor.

   "Looks Russian to me," I said. "Probably the

emergency sewage controls for some Leningrad suburb.

Just what I need."

   "You know," said the Finn. "I got a pair of shoes

older than you are. Sometimes I think you got about as

much class as those yahoos from Jersey. What do you

want me to tell you, it's the keys to the Kremlin? You

figure out what the gosh darn thing is. Me, I just sell the

stuff."

Ibought it.


Bodiless, we swerve into Chrome's castle of ice. And

we're fast, fast. It feels like we're surfing the crest of the

invading program, hanging ten above the seething glitch

systems as they mutate. We're sentient patches of oil

swept along down corridors of shadow.

   Somewhere we have bodies, very far away, in a

crowded loft roofed with steel and glass. Somewhere we

have microseconds, maybe time left to pull out.

   We've crashed her gates disguised as an audit and

three subpoenas, but her defenses are specifically geared

to cope with that kind of official intrusion. Her most

sophisticated ice is structured to fend off warrants,

writs, subpoenas. When we breached the first gate, the

bulk of her data vanished behind core-command ice,

these walls we see as leagues of corridor, mazes of

shadow. Five separate landlines spurted May Day sig-

nals to law firms, but the virus had already taken over

the parameter ice. The glitch systems gobble the distress

calls as our mimetic subprograms scan anything that

hasn't been blanked by core command.

   The Russian program lifts a Tokyo number from

the unscreened data, choosing it for frequency of calls,

average length of calls, the speed with which Chrome

returned those calls.

   "Okay," says Bobby, "we're an incoming scram-

bler call from a pal of hers in Japan. That should help."

   Ride `em, cowboy.


Bobby read his future in women; his girls were omens,

changes in the weather, and he'd sit all night in the

Gentleman Loser, waiting for the season to lay a new

face down in front of him like a card.

   I was working late in the loft one night, shaving

down a chip, my arm off and the little waldo jacked

straight into the stump.


   Bobby came in with a girl I hadn't seen before, and

usually I feel a little funny if a stranger sees me working

that way, with those leads clipped to the hard carbon

studs that stick out of my stump. She came right over

and looked at the magnified image on the screen, then

saw the waldo moving under its vacuum-sealed dust

cover. She didn't say anything, just watched. Right

away I had a good feeling about her; it's like that some-

times.

   "Automatic Jack, Rikki. My associate."

   He laughed, put his arm around her waist, some-

thing in his tone letting me know that I'd be spending

the night in a dingy room in a hotel.

   "Hi," she said. Tall, nineteen or maybe twenty,

and she definitely had the goods. With just those few

freckles across the bridge of her nose, and eyes some-

where between dark amber and French coffee. Tight

black jeans rolled to midcalf and a narrow plastic belt

that matched the rose-colored sandals.

   But now when I see her sometimes when I'm trying

to sleep, I see her somewhere out on the edge of all this

sprawl of cities and smoke, and it's like she's a

hologram stuck behind my eyes, in a bright dress she

must've worn once, when I knew her, something that

doesn't quite reach her knees. Bare legs long and

straight. Brown hair, streaked with blond, hoods her

face, blown in a wind from somewhere, and I see her

wave goodbye.

   Bobby was making a show of rooting through a

stack of audio cassettes. "I'm on my way, cowboy," I

said, unclipping the waldo. She watched attentively as I

put my arm back on.

   "Can you fix things?" she asked.

   "Anything, anything you want, Automatic Jack'll

fix it." I snapped my Duralumin fingers for her.

   She took a little simstim deck from her belt and

showed me the broken hinge on the cassette cover.

   "Tomorrow," I said, "no problem."

   And my oh my, I said to myself, sleep pulling me

down the six flights to the street, what'll Bobby's luck

be like with a fortune cookie like that? If his system

worked, we'd be striking it rich any night now. In the

street I grinned and yawned and waved for a cab.


Chrome's castle is dissolving, sheets of ice shadow

flickering and fading, eaten by the glitch systems that

spin out from the Russian program, tumbling away

from our central logic thrust and infecting the fabric of

the ice itself. The glitch systems are cybernetic virus

analogs, self-replicating and voracious. They mutate

constantly, in unison, subverting and absorbing

Chrome's defenses.

   Have we already paralyzed her, or is a bell ringing

somewhere, a red light blinking?. Does she know?


Rikki Wildside, Bobby called her, and for those first

few weeks it must have seemed to her that she had it all,

the whole teeming show spread out for her, sharp and

bright under the neon. She was new to the scene, and

she had all the miles of malls and plazas to prowl, all

the shops and clubs, and Bobby to explain the wild side,

the tricky wiring on the dark underside of things, all the

players and their names and their games. He made her

feel at home.

   "What happened to your arm?" she asked me one

night in the Gentleman Loser, the three of us drinking at

a small table in a corner.

   "Hang-gliding," I said, "accident."

   "Hang-gliding over a wheatfield," said Bobby,

"place called Kiev. Our Jack's just hanging there in the

dark, under a Nightwing parafoil, with fifty kilos of

radar jammed between his legs, and some Russian

moron accidentally burns his arm off with a laser."

   I don't remember how I changed the subject, but I

did.

   I was still telling myself that it wasn't Rikki who

was getting to me, but what Bobby was doing with her.

I'd known him for a long time, since the end of the war,

and I knew he used women as counters in a game,

Bobby Quine versus fortune, versus time and the night

of cities. And Rikki had turned up just when he needed

something to get him going, something to aim for. So

he'd set her up as a symbol for everything he wanted

and couldn't have, everything he'd had and couldn't

keep.

   I didn't like having to listen to him tell me how

much he loved her, and knowing he believed it only

made it worse. He was a past master at the hard fall and

the rapid recovery, and I'd seen it happen a dozen times

before. He might as well have had NEXT printed across

his sunglasses in green Day-Gb capitals, ready to flash

out at the first interesting face that flowed past the

tables in the Gentleman Loser.

   I knew what he did to them. He turned them into

emblems, sigils on the map of his hustler's life, naviga-

tion beacons he could follow through a sea of bars and

neon. What else did he have to steer by? He didn't love

money, in and of itself, not enough to follow its lights.

He wouldn't work for power over other people; he

hated the responsibility it brings. He had some basic

pride in his skill, but that was never enough to keep him

pushing.

   So he made do with women.

   When Rikki showed up, he needed one in the worst

way. He was fading fast, and smart money was already

whispering that the edge was off his game. He needed

that one big score, and soon, because he didn't know

any other kind of life, and all his clocks were set for

hustler's time, calibrated in risk and adrenaline and that

supernal dawn calm that comes when every move's

proved right and a sweet lump of someone else's credit

clicks into your own account.

   It was time for him to make his bundle and get out;

so Rikki got set up higher and farther away than any

of the others ever had, even though and I felt like

screaming it at him she was right there, alive, totally

real, human, hungry, resilient, bored, beautiful, ex-

cited, all the things she was. .

   Then he went out one afternoon, about a week

before I made the trip to New York to see Finn. Went

out and left us there in the loft, waiting for a thunder-

storm. Half the skylight was shadowed by a dome

they'd never finished, and the other half showed sky,

black and blue with clouds. I was s~andsng by the bench,

looking up at that sky, stupid with the hot afternoon,

the humidity, and she touched me, touched my

shoulder, the half-inch border of taut pink scar that the

arm doesn't cover. Anybody else ever touched me there,

they went on to the shoulder, the neck....

   But she didn't do that. Her nails were lacquered

black, not pointed, but tapered oblongs, the lacquer

only a shade darker than the carbon-fiber laminate that

sheathes my arm. And her hknd went down the arm,

black nails tracing a weld in the laminate, down to the

black anodized elbow joint, out to the wrist, her hand

soft-knuckled as a child's, fingers spreading to lock over

mine, her palm against the perforated Duralumin.

   Her other palm came up to brush across the feed-

back pads, and it rained all afternoon, raindrops drum-

ming on the steel and soot-stained glass above Bobby's

bed.


Ice walls flick away like supersonic butterflies made of

shade. Beyond them, the matrix's illusion of infinite

space. It's like watching a tape of a prefab building

going up; only the tape's reversed and run at high speed,

and these walls are torn wings.

   Trying to remind myself that this place and the

gulfs beyond are only representations, that we aren't

"in" Chrome's computer, but interfaced with it, while

the matrix simulator in Bobby's loft generates this illu-

sion . . . The core data begin to emerge, exposed,

vulnerable.... This is the far side of ice, the view of the

matrix I've never seen before, the view that fifteen

million legitimate console operators see daily and take

for granted.

   The core data tower around us like vertical freight

trains, color-coded for access. Bright primaries, im-

possibly bright in that transparent void, linked by

countless horizontals in nursery blues and pinks.

   But ice still shadows something at the center of it

all: the heart of all Chrome's expensive darkness, the

very heart..


It was late afternoon when I got back from my shopping

expedition to New York. Not much sun through the

skylight, but an ice pattern glowed on Bobby's monitor

screen, a 2-D graphic representation of someone's com-

puter defenses, lines of neon woven like an Art Deco

prayer rug. I turned the console off, and the screen went

completely dark.

   Rikki's things were spread across my workbench,

nylon bags spilling clothes and makeup, a pair of bright

red cowboy boots, audio cassettes, glossy Japanese

magazines about simstim stars. I stacked it all under the

bench and then took my arm off, forgetting that the

program I'd brought from the Finn was in the right-

hand pocket of my jacket, so that I had to fumble it out

left-handed and then get it into the padded jaws of the

jeweler's vise.

   The waldo looks like an old audio turntable, the

kind that played disc records, with the vise set up under

a transparent dust cover. The arm itself is just over a

centimeter long, swinging out on what would've been

the tone arm on one of those turntables. But I don't

look at that when I've clipped the leads to my stump; I

look at the scope, because that's my arm there in black

and white, magnification 40 x.

   I ran a tool check and picked up the laser. It felt a

little heavy; so I scaled my weight-sensor input down to

a quarter-kilo per gram and got to work. At 40 x the side

of the program looked like a trailer truck.

   It took eight hours to crack: three hours with the

waldo and the laser and four dozen taps, two hours on

the phone to a contact in Colorado, and three hours to

run down a lexicon disc that could translate eight-year.

old technical Russian.

   Then Cyrillic alphanumerics started reeling dowi

the monitor, twisting themselves into English halfwa

down. There were a lot of gaps, where the lexicon rai

up against specialized military acronyms in the readou

I'd bought from my man in Colorado, but it did give m

some idea of what I'd bought from the Finn.

   I felt like a punk who'd gone out to buy a switch.

blade and come home with a small neutron bomb.

   Screwed again, I thought. What good's a neutro~

bomb in a streetfight? The thing under the dust covei

was right out of my league. I didn't even know where to

unload it, where to look for a buyer. Someone had, but

he was dead, someone with a Porsche watch and a fake

Belgian passport, but I'd never tried to move in those

circles. The Finn's muggers from the `burbs had knocked

over someone who had some highly arcane connections.

   The program in the jeweler's vise was a Russian

military icebreaker, a killer-virus program.

   It was dawn when Bobby came in alone. I'd fallen

asleep with a bag of takeout sandwiches in my lap.

   "You want to eat?" I asked him, not really awake,

holding out my sandwiches. I'd been dreaming of the

program, of its waves of hungry glitch systems and

mimetic subprograms; in the dream it was an animal of

some kind, shapeless and flowing.

   He brushed the bag aside on his way to the console,

punched a function key. The screen lit with the intricate

pattern I'd seen there that afternoon. I rubbed sleep

from my eyes with my left hand, one thing I can't do

with my right. I'd fallen asleep trying to decide whether

to tell him about the program. Maybe I should try to sell

it alone, keep the money, go somewhere new, ask Rikki

to go with me.

   "Whose is it?" I asked.

   He stood there in a black cotton jump suit, an old

leather jacket thrown over his shoulders like a cape. He

hadn't shaved for a few days, and his face looked thin-

ner than usual.

   "It's Chrome's," he said.

   My arm convulsed, started clicking, fear translated

to the myoclectrics through the carbon studs. I spilled

the sandwiches; limp sprouts, and bright yellow dairy-

produce slices on the unswept wooden floor.

   "You're stone crazy," I said.

   "No," he said, "you think she rumbled it? No

way. We'd be dead already. I locked on to her through a

triple-blind rental system in Mombasa and an Algerian

comsat. She knew somebody was having a look-see, but

she couldn't trace it."

   If Chrome had traced the pass Bobby had made at

her ice, we were good as dead. But he was probably

right, or she'd have had me blown away on my way

back from New York. "Why her, Bobby? Just give me

one reason...

   Chrome: I'd seen her maybe half a dozen times in

the Gentleman Loser. Maybe she was slumming, or

checking out the human condition, a condition she

didn't exactly aspire to. A sweet little heart-shaped face

framing the nastiest pair of eyes you ever saw. She'd

looked fourteen for as long as anyone could remember,

hyped out of anything like a normal metabolism on

some massive program of serums and hormones. She

was as ugly a customer as the street ever produced, but

she didn't belong to the street anymore. She was one of

the Boys, Chrome, a member in good standing of the

local Mob subsidiary. Word was, she'd gotten started as

a dealer, back when synthetic pituitary hormones were

still proscribed. But she hadn't had to move hormones

for a long time. Now she owned the House of Blue

Lights.

   "You're flat-out crazy, Quine. You give me one

sane reason for having that stuff on your screen. You

ought to dump it, and I mean now.

   "Talk in the Loser," he said, shrugging out of the

leather jacket. "Black Myron and Crow Jane. Jane,

she's up on all the sex lines, claims she knows where

the money goes. So she's arguing with Myron that

Chrome's the controlling interest in the Blue Lights, not

just some figurehead for the Boys."

   " `The Boys,' Bobby," I said. "That's the opera-

tive word there. You still capable of seeing that? We

don't mess with the Boys, remember? That's why we're

still walking around."

   "That's why we're still poor, partner." He settled

back into the swivel chair in front of the console, un-

zipped his jump suit, and scratched his skinny white

chest. "But maybe not for much longer."

   "I think maybe this partnership just got itself per-

manently dissolved."

   Then he grinned at me. Tjie grin was truly crazy,

feral and focused, and I knew that right then he really

didn't give a excrement about dying.

   ``Look,'' I said, ``I've got some money left, you

know? Why don't you take it and get the tube to Miami,

catch a hopper to Montego Bay. You need a rest, man.

You've got to get your act together."

   "My act, Jack," he said, punching something on

the keyboard, "never has been this together before."

The neon prayer rug on the screen shivered and woke as

an animation program cut in, ice lines weaving with

hypnotic frequency, a living mandala. Bobby kept

punching, and the movement slowed; the pattern re-

solved itself, grew slightly less complex, became an

alternation between two distant configurations. A first-

class piece of work, and I hadn't thought he was still

that good. "Now," he said, "there, see it? Wait. There.

There again. And there. Easy to miss. That's it. Cuts in

every hour and twenty minutes with a squirt transmis-

sion to their comsat. We could live for a year on what

~he pays them weekly in negative interest."

   "Whose comsat?"

   "Zurich. Her bankers. That's her bankbook, Jack.

That's where the money goes. Crow Jane was right."

I stood there. My arm forgot to click.

   "So how'd you do in New York, partner? You get

anything that'll help me cut ice? We're going to need

whatever we can get.~~

   I kept my eyes on his, forced myself not to look in

the direction of the waldo, the jeweler's vise. The Rus-

sian program was there, under the dust cover.

   Wild cards, luck changers.

   "Where's Rikki?" I asked him, crossing to the con-

sole, pretending to study the alternating patterns on the

screen.

   "Friends of hers," he shrugged, "kids, they're all

into simstim." He smiled absently. "I'm going to do it

for her, man."

   "I'm going out to think about this, Bobby. You

want me to come back, you keep your hands off the

board."

   "I'm doing it for her," he said as the door closed

behind me. "You know lam."


And down now, down, the program a roller coaster

through this fraying maze of shadow walls, gray

cathedral spaces between the bright towers. Headlong

speed.

   Black ice. Dont think about it. Black ice.

   Too many stories in the Gentleman Loser; black ice

is a part of the mythology. Ice that kills. Illegal, but

then aren't we all? Some kind of neural-feedback

weapon, and you connect with it only once. Like some

hideous Word that eats the mind from the inside out.

Like an epileptic spasm that goes on and on until there's

nothing left at all...

   And we're diving for the floor of Chrome's shadow

castle.

   Trying to brace myself for the sudden stopping of

breath, a sickness and final slackening of the nerves.

Fear of that cold Word waiting, down there in the dark.


I went out and looked for Rikki, found her in a cafe

with a boy with Sendai eyes, half-healed suture lines

radiating from his bruised sockets. She had a glossy

brochure spread open on the table, Tally Isham smiling

up from a dozen photographs, the Girl with the Zeiss

Ikon Eyes.

   Her little simstim deck was one of the things I'd

stacked under my bench the night before, the one I'd

fixed for her the day after I'd first seen her. She spent

hours jacked into that unit, the contact band across her

forehead like a gray plastic tiara. Tally Isham was her

favorite, and with the contact band on, she was gone,

off somewhere in the recorded sensorium of simstim s

biggest star. Simulated stimuli: the world all the in-

teresting parts, anyway as perceived by Tally Isham.

Tally raced a black Fokker ground-effect plane across

Arizona mesa tops. Tally dived the Truk Island pre-

serves. Tally partied with the superrich on private Greek

islands, heartbreaking purity of those tiny white

seaports at dawn.

   Actually she looked a lot like Tally, same coloring

and cheekbones. I thought Rikki's mouth was stronger.

More sass. She didn't want to be Tally Isham, but she

coveted the job. That was her ambition, to be in sim-

stim. Bobby just laughed it off. She talked to me about

it, though. "I-Iow'd I look with a pair of these?" she'd

ask, holding a full-page headshot, Tally Isham's blue

Zeiss Ikons lined up with her own amber-brown. She'd

had her corneas done twice, but she still wasn't 20-20; so

she wanted Ikons. Brand of the stars. Very expensive.

   "You still window-shopping for eyes?" I asked as I

sat down.

   "Tiger just got some," she said. She looked tired, I

thought.

   Tiger was so pleased with his Sendais that he

couldn't help smiling, but I doubted whether he'd have

smiled otherwise. He had the kind of uniform good

looks you get after your seventh trip to the surgical

boutique; he'd probably spend the rest of his life look-

ing vaguely like each new season's media front-runner;

not too obvious a copy, but nothing too original, either.

   "Sendai, right?" I smiled back.

   He nodded. I watched as he tried to take me in with

his idea of a professional simstim glance. He was pre-

tending that he was recording. I thought he spent too

long on my arm. "They'll be great on peripherals when

the muscles heal," he said, and I saw how carefully he

reached for his double espresso. Sendai eyes are

notorious for depth-perception defects and warranty

hassles, among other things.

   ``Tiger's leaving for Hollywood tomorrow.~~

   "Then maybe Chiba City, right?" I smiled at him.

He didn't smile back. "Got an offer, Tiger? Know an

agent?"

   "Just checking it out," he said quietly. Then he got

up and left. He said a quick goodbye to Rikki, but not

to me.

   "That kid's optic nerves may start to deteriorate in-

side six months. You know that, Rikki? Those Sendais

are illegal in England, Denmark, lots of places. You

can't replace nerves."

   "Hey, Jack, no lectures." She stole one of my

croissants and nibbled at the top of one of its horns.

   "I thought I was your adviser, kid."

   "Yeah. Well, Tiger's not too swift, but everybody

knows about Sendais. They're all he can afford. So he's

taking a chance. If he gets work, he can replace them."

   "With these?" I tapped the Zeiss Ikon brochure.

"Lot of money, Rikki. You know better than to take a

gamble like that."

   She nodded. "I want Ikons."

   "If you're going up to Bobby's, tell him to sit tight

until he hears from ~

   "Sure. It's business?"

   "Business," I said. But it was craziness.

   I drank my coffee, and she ate both my croissants.

Then I walked her down to Bobby's. I made fifteen

calls, each one from a different pay phone.

   Business. Bad craziness.

   All in all, it took us six weeks to set the burn up, six

weeks of Bobby telling me how much he loved her. I

worked even harder, trying to get away from that.

   Most of it was phone calls. My fifteen initial and

very oblique inquiries each seemed to breed fifteen

more. I was looking for a certain service Bobby and I

both imagined as a requisite part of the world's clande-

stine economy, but which probably never had more than

five customers at a time. It would be one that never

advertised.

   We were looking for the world's heaviest fence, for

a non-aligned money laundry capable of dry-cleaning a

megabuck online cash transfer and then forgetting

about it.

   All those calls were a wasted finally, because it was

the Finn who put me on to what we needed. I'd gone up

to New York to buy a new blackbox rig, because we

were going broke paying for all those calls.

   I put the problem to him as hypothetically as possi-

ble.

   "Macao," he said.

   "Macao?"

   "The Long Hum family. Stockbrokers."

   He even had the number. You want a fence, ask

another fence.

   The Long Hum people were so oblique that they

made my idea of a subtle approach look like a tactical

nuke-out. Bobby had to make two shuttle runs to Hong

Kong to get the deal straight. We were running out of

capital, and fast. I still don't know why I decided to go

along with it in the first place; I was scared of Chrome,

and I'd never been all that hot to get rich.

   I tried telling myself that it was a good idea to burn

the House of Blue Lights because the place was a creep

joint, but I just couldn't buy it. I didn't like the Blue

Lights, because I'd spent a supr'~mely depressing eve-

ning there once, but that was no excuse for going after

Chrome. Actually I halfway assumed we were going to

die in the attempt. Even with that killer program, the

odds weren't exactly in our favor.

   Bobby was lost in writing the set of commands we

were going to plug into the dead center of Chrome's

computer. That was going to be my job, because Bobby

was going to have his hands full trying to keep the Rus-

sian program from going straight for the kill. It was too

complex for us to rewrite, and so he was going to try to

hold it back for the two seconds I needed.

   I made a deal with a streetfighter named Miles. He

was going to follow Rikki the night of the burn, keep

her in sight, and phone me at a certain time. If I wasn't

there, or didn't answer in just a certain way, I'd told

him to grab her and put her on the first tube out. I gave

him an envelope to give her, money and a note.

   Bobby really hadn't thought about that, much,

how things would go for her if we blew it. He just kept

telling me he loved her, where they were going to go

together, how they'd spend the money.

   "Buy her a pair of Ikons first, man. That's what

she wants. She's serious about that simstim scene."

   "Hey," he said, looking up from the keyboard,

"she won't need to work. We're going to make it, Jack.

She's my luck. She won't ever have to work again."

   "Your luck," I said. I wasn't happy. I couldn't

remember when I had been happy. "You seen your luok

   around lately?"

   He hadn't, but neither had I. We'd both been too

busy.

   I missed her. Missing her reminded me of my one

night in the House of Blue Lights, because I'd gone

there out of missing someone else. I'd gotten drunk to

begin with, then I'd started hitting Vasopressin inhalers.

If your main squeeze has just decided to walk out on

you, booze and Vasopressin are the ultimate in

masochistic pharmacology; the juice makes you

maudlin and the Vasopressin makes you remember, I

mean really remember. Clinically they use the stuff to

counter senile amnesia, but the street finds its own uses

for things. So I'd bought myself an ultraintense replay

of a bad affair; trouble is, you get the bad with the

good. Go gunning for transports of animal ecstasy and

you get what you said, too, and what she said to that,

how she walked away and never looked back.

   I don't remember deciding to go to the Blue Lights,

or how I got there, hushed corridors and this really

tacky decorative waterfall trickling somewhere, or

maybe just a hologram of one. I had a lot of money that

night; somebody had given Bobby a big roll for opening

a three-second window in someone else's ice.

   I don't think the crew on the door liked my looks,

but I guess my money was okay.

   I had more to drink there when I'd done what I

went there for. Then I made some crack to the barman

about closet necrophiliacs, and that didn't go down too

well. Then this very large character insisted on calling

me War Hero, which I didn't like. I think I showed him

some tricks with the arm, before the lights went out, and

I woke up two days later in a basic sleeping module

somewhere else. A cheap place, not even room to hang

    yourself. And I sat there on that narrow foam slab and

cried.

    Some things are worse than being alone. But the

thing they sell in the House of Blue Lights is so popular

that it's almost legal.


At the heart of darkness, the still center, the glitch sys-

tems shred the dark with whirlwinds of light, translu-

cent razors spinning away from us; we hang in the

center of a silent slow-motion explosion, ice fragments

falling away forever, and Bobby's voice comes in across

light-years of electronic void illusion

"Burn the grump down. I can't hold the thing

back "

   The Russian program, rising through towers of

data, blotting out the playroom colors. And I plug

Bobby's homemade command package into the center

of Chrome's cold heart. The squirt transmission cuts in,

a pulse of condensed information that shoots straight

up, past the thickening tower of darkness, the Russian

   188


program, while Bobby struggles to control that crucial

second. An unformed arm of shadow twitches from the

towering dark, too late.

   We've done it.

   The matrix folds itself around me like an origami

trick.

   And the loft smells of sweat and burning circuitry.

   I thought I heard Chrome scream, a raw metal

sound, but I couldn't have.


Bobby was laughing, tears in his eyes. The elapsed-time

figure in the corner of the monitor read 07:24:05. The

burn had taken a little under eight minutes.

   And I saw that the Russian program had melted in

its slot.

   We'd given the bulk of Chrome's ZOrich account to

a dozen world charities. There was too much there to

move, and we knew we had to break her, burn her

straight down, or she might come after us. We took less

than ten percent for ourselves and shot it through the

Long Hum setup in Macao. They took sixty percent of

that for themselves and kicked what was left back to us

through the most convoluted sector of the Hong Kong

exchange. It took an hour before our money started to

reach the two accounts we'd opened in Zurich.

   I watched zeros pile up behind a meaningless figure

on the monitor. I was rich.

   Then the phone rang. It was Miles. I almost blew

the code phrase.

   "Hey, Jack, man, I dunno what's it all about,

with this girl of yours? Kinda funny thing here..."

   "What? Tell me."

   "I been on her, like you said, tight but out of sight.

She goes to the Loser, hangs out, then she gets a tube.

Goes to the House of Blue Lights "

   "She what?"

   "Side door. Employees only. No way I could get

past their security."

   "Is she there now?"


   "No, man, I just lost her. It's insane down here,

like the Blue Lights just shut down, looks like for good,

seven kinds of alarms going off, everybody running, the

heat out in riot gear. . . . Now there's all this stuff going

on, insurance guys, real-estate types, vans with munici-

pal plates....

   "Miles, where'd she go?"

   "Lost her, Jack."

   "Look, Miles, you keep the money in the envelope,

right?"

   "You serious? Hey, I'm real sorry. I "

Ihung up.

   "Wait'll we tell her," Bobby was saying, rubbing a

towel across his bare chest.

   "You tell her yourself, co,wboy. I'm going for a

walk."

   So I went out into the night and the neon and let the

crowd pull me along, walking blind, willing myself to be

just a segment of that mass organism, just one more

drifting chip of consciousness under the geodesics. I

didn't think, just put one foot in front of another, but

after a while I did think, and it all made sense. She'd

needed the money.

   I thought about Chrome, too. That we'd killed her,

murdered her, as surely as if we'd slit her throat. The

night that carried me along through the malls and plazas

would be hunting her now, and she had nowhere to go.

How many enemies would she have in this crowd alone?

How many would move, now they weren't held back by

fear of her money? We'd taken her for everything she

had. She was back on the street again. I doubted she'd

live till dawn.

   Finally I remembered the cafe, the one where I'd

met Tiger.

   Her sunglasses told the whole story, huge black

shades with a telltale smudge of fleshtone paintstick in

the corner of one lens. "Hi, Rikki," I said, and I was

ready when she took them off.

   Blue, Tally Isham blue. The clear trademark blue

they're famous for, ZEISS IKON ringing each iris in tiny

capitals, the letters suspended there like flecks of gold.

   "They're beautiful," I said. Paintstick covered the

bruising. No scars with work that good. "You made

some money."

   "Yeah, I did." Then she shivered. "But I won't

make any more, not that way."

   ``I think that place is out of business.~~

   "Oh." Nothing moved in her face then. The new

blue eyes were still and very deep.

   "It doesn't matter. Bobby's waiting for you. We

just pulled down a big score."

   "No. I've got to go. I guess he won't understand,

but I've got to go."

   I nodded, watching the arm swing up to take her

hand; it didn't seem to be part of me at all, but she held

on to it like it was.

   "I've got a one-way ticket to Hollywood. Tiger

knows some people I can stay with. Maybe I'll even get

to Chiba City."

   She was right about Bobby. I went back with her.

He didn't understand. But she'd already served her pur-

pose, for Bobby, and I wanted to tell her not to hurt for

him, because I could see that she did. He wouldn't even

come out into the hallway after she had packed her

bags. I put the bags down and kissed her and messed up

the paintstick, and something came up inside me the

way the killer program had risen above Chrome's data.

A sudden stopping of the breath, in a place where no

word is. But she had a plane to catch.

   Bobby was slumped in the swivel chair in front of

his monitor, looking at his string of zeros. He had his

shades on, and I knew he'd be in the Gentleman Loser

by nightfall, checking out the weather, anxious for a

sign, someone to tell him what his new life would be

like. I couldn't see it being very different. More com-

fortable, but he'd always be waiting for that next card

to fall.

   I tried not to imagine her in the House of Blue

Lights, working three-hour shifts in an approximation

of REM sleep, while her body and a bundle of condi-

tioned reflexes took care of business. The customers

never got to complain that she was faking it, because

those were real orgasms. But she felt them, if she felt

them at all, as faint silver flares somewhere out on the

edge of sleep. Yeah, it's so popular, it's almost legal.

The customers are torn between needing someone and

wanting to be alone at the same time, which has prob-

ably always been the name of that particular game, even

before we had the neuroelectronics to enable them to

have it both ways.

   I picked up the phone and punched the number for

her airline. I gave them her real name, her flight num-

ber. "She's changing that," I said, "to Chiba City.

Thatright. Japan." I thumbed' my credit card into the

slot and punched my ID code. "First class." Distant

hum as they scanned my credit records. "Make that a

return ticket."

   But I guess she cashed the return fare, or else

didn't need it, because she hasn't come back. And

sometimes late at night I'll pass a window with posters

of simstim stars, all those beautiful, identical eyes star-

ing back at me out of faces that are nearly as identical,

and sometimes the eyes are hers, but none of the faces

are, none of them ever are, and I see her far out on the

edge of all this sprawl of night and cities, and then she

waves goodbye.



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Page last modified on Friday, June 27, 2000.
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We shall not cease from our exploration, and at the end of all our exploring, we shall arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.
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---------------
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