William Ford Gibson
14 - Night Flight
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It seemed like a long time since he’d been there, but when it clicked in, it was like he’d never left. It was that super-human synchromesh flow that stimulants only approximated. He could only score for it on the site of a major defection, one where he was in command, and then only in the final hours before the actual move.
But it had been a long time; in New Delhi, he’d only been checking out possible escape routes for an executive who wasn’t entirely certain that relocation was what he wanted. If he had been working the edge, that night in Chandni Chauk, maybe he’d have been able to dodge the thing. Probably not, but the edge would’ve told him to try.
Now the edge let him collate the factors he had to deal with at the site, balancing clusters of small problems against sin-gle, larger ones. So far there were a lot of little ones, but no real ballbreakers. Lynch and Webber were starting to get in each other’s hair, so he arranged to keep them apart. His conviction that Lynch was Conroy’s plant, instinctive from the beginning, was stronger now. Instincts sharpened, on the edge; things got witchy. Nathan was having trouble with the lowtech Swedish hand warmers; anything short of an electronic circuit baffled him. Turner put Lynch to work on the hand warmers, fueling and priming them, and let Nathan carry them out, two at a time, and bury them shallowly, at meter intervals, along the two long lines of orange tape.
The microsoft Conroy had sent filled his head with its own universe of constantly shifting factors: airspeed, altitude, attitude, angle of attack, g-forces, headings. The plane’s weapon delivery information was a constant subliminal litany of target designators, bomb fall lines, search circles, range and release cues, weapons counts. Conroy had tagged the microsoft with a simple message outlining the plane’s time of arrival and confirming the arrangement for space for a single passenger
He wondered what Mitchell was doing, feeling. The Maas Biolabs North America facility was carved into the heart of a sheer mesa, a table of rock thrusting from the desert floor. The biosoft dossier had shown Turner the mesa’s face, cut with bright evening windows; it rode about the uplifted arms of a sea of saguaros like the wheelhouse of a giant ship. To Mitchell, it had been prison and fortress, his home for nine years. Somewhere near its core he had perfected the hybridoma techniques that had eluded other researchers for almost a century; working with human cancer cells and a neglected, nearly forgotten model of DNA synthesis, he had produced the immortal hybrid cells that were the basic production tools of the new technology, minute biochemical factories endlessly reproducing the engineered molecules that were linked and built up into biochips. Somewhere in the Maas arcology, Mitchell would be moving through his last hours as their star researcher.
It was the intimacy of the thing that still disturbed him, and perhaps the feeling of fear sprang from that. Certain fragments seemed to have an emotional power entirely out of proportion to their content. Why should a memory of a plain hallway in some dingy Cambridge graduate dormitory fill him with a sense of guilt and self-loathing? Other images, which logically should have carried a degree of feeling, were strangely lacking in affect: Mitchell playing with his baby daughter on an expanse of pale woolen broadloom in a rented house in Geneva, the child laughing, tugging at his hand. Nothing. The man’s life, from Turner’s vantage, seemed marked out by a certain inevitability; he was brilliant, a brilliance that had been detected early on, highly motivated, gifted at the kind of blandly ruthless in-company manipulation required by some-one who aspired to become a top research scientist. If anyone was destined to rise through laboratory-corporate hierarchies, Turner decided, it would be Mitchell.
Turner himself was incapable of meshing with the intensely tribal world of the zaibatsumen, the lifers. He was a perpetual outsider, a rogue factor adrift on the secret seas of inter-corporate politics. No company man would have been capable of taking the initiatives Turner was required to take in the course of an extraction. No company man was capable of Turner’s professionally casual ability to realign his loyalties to fit a change in employers. Or, perhaps, of his unyielding commitment once a contract had been agreed upon. He had drifted into security work in his late teens, ‘when the grim doldrums of the postwar economy were giving way to the impetus of new technologies. He had done well in security, considering his general lack of ambition. He had a ropy, muscular poise that impressed his employer’s clients, and he was bright, very bright. He wore clothes well. He had a way with technology.
Conroy had found him in Mexico, where Turner’s employer had contracted to provide security for a Sense/Net SimStim team who were recording a series of thirty-minute segments in an ongoing jungle adventure series When Conroy arrived, Turner was finishing his arrangements. He’d set up a liaison between Sense/Net and the local government, bribed the town’s top police official, analyzed the hotel’s security system, met the local guides and drivers and had their histories double-checked, arranged for digital voice protection on the SimStim team’s transceivers, established a crisis-management team, and planted seismic sensors around the Sense/Net suite-cluster.
He entered the hotel’s bar, a jungle-garden extension of the lobby, and found a seat by himself at one of the glass-topped tables. A pale man with a shock of white, bleached hair crossed the bar with a drink in each hand. The pale skin was drawn tight across angular features and a high forehead; he wore a neatly pressed military shirt over jeans, and leather sandals.
Turner looked up at the man, who was evidently sober and seemed to have all the confidence in the world. “I don’t think we’ve been introduced,” Turner said, making no move to accept the proffered drink.
“You know,” the man said, the way someone might comment on a team that wasn’t doing particularly well in a given season, “those seismics you’re using really don’t make it. I’ve met people who could walk in there, eat your kids for breakfast, stack the bones in the shower, and stroll out whistling. Those seismics would say it never happened.” He took a sip of his drink. “You get A for effort, though. You know how to do a job.”
“Look, Turner, here’s your leading lady.” The man smiled up at Jane Hamilton, who smiled back, her wide blue eyes clear and perfect, each iris ringed with the minute gold lettering of the Zeiss Ikon logo. Turner froze, caught in a split-second lock of indecision. The star was close, too close, and the pale man was rising - “Nice meeting you, Turner,” he said. “We’ll get together sooner or later. Take my advice about those seismics; back ‘em up with a perimeter of screamers.” And then he turned and walked away, muscles rolling easily beneath the crisp fabric of his tan shirt.
Turner looked at her. She was twenty, four years his junior, and earned roughly nine times his annual salary in a given week She was blonde, her hair cropped short for the series role, deeply tanned, and looked as if she was illuminated from within by sunlamps. The blue eyes were inhumanly perfect optical instruments, grown in vats in Japan. She was both actress and camera, her eyes worth several million New Yen, and in the hierarchy of Sense/Net stars, she barely rated.
“We’re ready to roll the medics,” Webber said. Turner saw that she was wearing fingerless brown leather gloves She’d replaced her sunglasses with clear-glass shooting glasses, and there was a pistol on her hip. “Sutcliffe’s monitoring the perimeter with the remotes. We’ll need everybody else to get the fucker through the brush.”
When they reached the surgery, Turner automatically counted heads. Seven. Ramirez was in the bunker; Sutcliffe was somewhere in the cinderblock maze, monitoring the sentry-remotes. Lynch had a Steiner-Optic laser slung over his right shoulder, a compact model with a folding alloy skeleton stock, integral batteries forming a fat handgrip below the gray titanium housing that served the thing as a barrel. Nathan was wearing a black jumpsuit, black paratrooper boots filmed with pale dust, and had the bulbous ant-eye goggles of an image-amplification rig dangling below his chin on a head strap.
Nathan, Davis,” Webber said, “disconnect the sewage line “ She handed Turner one of the Telefunken ear-bead sets. She’d already removed it from its bubble pack. She put one on herself, peeling the plastic backing from the self-adhesive throat microphone and smoothing it into place on her sunburnt neck.
Lynch drew a pistol-shaped power driver from his belt and ducked beneath surgery. It was swaying now, the suspension creaking softly; the medics were moving inside. Turner heard a brief, high-pitched whine from some piece of internal machinery, and then the chatter of Lynch’s driver as he readied the jacks.
Nathan had his goggles on. Mitchell was coming out in the dark of the moon. The module was heavy, absurdly heavy, and very nearly impossible to steer. “Like balancing a truck on a couple of shopping carts,” Nathan said to himself. Turner’s lower back was giving him trouble. It hadn’t been quite right since New Delhi.
Turner released his wheel and straightened up. The bats were out in force tonight, flickering things against the bowl of desert starlight. There were bats in Mexico, in the jungle, fruit bats that slept in the trees that overhung the suite-cluster where the Sense/Net crew slept. Turner had climbed those trees, had strung the overhanging limbs with taut lengths of molecular monofilament, meters of invisible razor waiting for an unwary intruder. But Jane and the others had died anyway, blown away on a hillside in the mountains near Acapulco. Trouble with a labor union, someone said later, but nothing was ever determined, really, other than the fact of the primitive claymore charge, its placement and the position from which it had been detonated. Turner had climbed the hill himself, his clothes filmed with blood, and seen the nest of crushed undergrowth where the killers had waited, the knife switch and the corroded automobile battery. He found the butts of hand-rolled cigarettes and the cap from a bottle of Bohemia beer, bright and new.
The series had to be canceled, and the crisis-management team did yeoman duty, arranging the removal of bodies and the repatriation of the surviving members of the cast and crew. Turner was on the last plane out, and after eight Scotches in the lounge of the Acapulco airport, he’d wandered blindly out into the central ticketing area and encountered a man named Buschel, an executive tech from Sense/Net’s Los Angeles complex. Buschel was pale beneath an L.A. tan, his seersucker suit limp with sweat. He was carrying a plain aluminum case, like a camera case, its sides dull with condensation. Turner stared at the man, stared at the sweating case, with its red and white warning decals and lengthy labels explaining the precautions required in the transportation of materials in cryogenic storage.
“Christ,” Buschel said, noticing him “Turner. I’m sorry, man. Came down this morning. Ugly fucking business “ He took a sodden handkerchief from his jacket pocket and wiped his face. “Ugly job. I’ve never had to do one of these, be-fore…”
“Damn it, Turner,” the man jerking free, the handle of the case clutched in both hands now. “They weren’t damaged. Only some minor abrasion on one of the corneas. They belong to the Net. It was in her contract, Turner.”
And he’d turned away, his guts knotted tight around eight glasses of straight Scotch, and fought the nausea. And he’d continued to fight it, held it off for nine years, until, in his flight from the Dutchman, all the memory of it had come down on him, had fallen on him in London, in Heathrow, and he’d leaned forward, without pausing in his progress down yet another corridor, and vomited into a blue plastic waste canister.
Davis was in charge of the squirt gear, their sole nonmatrix link with Hosaka. Nathan was Mr. Fix-it. Lynch was rolling the last of the bicycle wheels away into the brush beyond the parking lot. Webber and Compton were kneeling beside the module, attaching the line that linked the Hosaka surgeons with the Sony biomonitor in the command post. With the wheels removed, lowered and leveled on four jacks, the portable neurosurgery reminded Turner once again of the French vacation module. That had been a much later trip, four years after Conroy had recruited him in Los Angeles.
“Right,” Turner said, and drew the gun, depressing the stud that activated the xenon projector. The first tight-beam flash of noon-bright xenon light found a twisted saguaro, its needles like tufts of gray fur in the pitiless illumination. The second lit up the spiked skull on Lynch’s belt, framed it in a sharp-edged circle The sound of the shot and the sound of the bullet detonating on impact were indistinguishable, waves of concussion rolling out in invisible, ever-widening rings, out into the flat dark land like thunder.
In the first few seconds after, there was no sound at all, even the bats and bugs silenced, waiting. Webber had thrown herself flat in the scrub, and somehow he sensed her there, now, knew that her gun would be out, held dead steady in those brown, capable hands. He had no idea where Compton was. Then Sutcliffe’s voice, over the ear-bead, scratching at him from his brainpan: “Turner. What was that?”
Sutcliffe’s voice in his head, and then Ramirez: “We got your transportation. Eighty klicks and closing… Every-thing else looks clear. There’s a blimp twenty klicks south-southwest, Jaylene says, unmanned cargo and it’s right on schedule. Nothing else. What the fuck’s Sut yelling about? Nathan says he heard a shot” Ramirez was jacked in. most of his sensorium taken up with the input from the Maas-Neotek deck. “Nathan’s ready with the first squirt…”
And then the Jet was on them, black shadow, incredibly low, coming in without lights. There was a flare of blow-back jets as the thing executed a landing that would have killed a human pilot, and then a weird creaking as it readjusted its articulated carbon-fiber airframe. Turner could make out the green reflected glow of instrumentation in the curve of the plastic canopy.
Behind her, the hatch in the side of the surgery module popped open, framing a masked figure in a green paper contamination suit. The light from inside was blue-white, brilliant, it threw a distorted shadow of the suited medic out through the thin cloud of dust that hung above the lot in the wake of the Jet’s landing. “Close it!” Webber shouted. “Not yet!”
As the door swung down, shutting out the light, they both heard the ultralight’s engine. After the roar of the jet, it seemed no more than the hum of a dragonfly, a drone that stuttered and faded as they listened. “He’s out of fuel,” Webber said. “But he’s close.”
The tiny plane whispered past them, a dark delta against the stars They could hear something flapping in the wind of its silent passage, perhaps one of Mitchell’s pants legs. You’re up there, Turner thought, all alone, in the warmest clothes you own, wearing a pair of infrared goggles you built for yourself, and you’re looking for a pair of dotted lines picked out for you in hand warmers. “You crazy fucker,” he said, his heart filling with a strange admiration, “you really wanted out bad.”
Then the first flare went up, with a festive little pop. and the magnesium glare began its slow white parachute ride to the desert floor. Almost immediately, there were two more, and the long rattle of automatic fire from the west end of the mall. He was peripherally aware of Webber stumbling through the brush, in the direction of the bunker, but his eyes were fixed on the wheeling ultralight, on its gay orange and blue fabric wings, and the goggled figure hunched there in the open metal framework above the fragile tripod landing gear Mitchell.
The lot was bright as a football field, under the drifting flares. The ultralight banked and turned with a lazy grace that made Turner want to scream. A line of tracers hosed out in a white arc from beyond the site perimeter. Missed.
The flares. The light. Mitchell couldn’t use the goggles now, couldn’t see the infrared glow of the hand warmers. He was bringing it in wide of the strip. The nose wheel caught in something and the ultralight cartwheeled, crumpling, torn butterfly, and then lay down in its own white cloud of dust.
The flash of the explosion seemed to reach him an instant before the sound, throwing his shadow before him across the pale brush. The concussion picked him up and threw him down, and as he fell, he saw the broken surgery module in a ball of yellow flame and knew that Webber had used her antitank rocket Then he was up again, moving, running, the gun in his hand.
He reached the wreckage of Mitchell’s ultralight as the first flare died. Another one arced out of nowhere and blossomed overhead. The sound of firing was continuous now. He scram-bled over a twisted sheet of rusted tin and found the sprawled figure of the pilot, head and face concealed by a makeshift helmet and a clumsy-looking goggle rig. The goggles were fastened to the helmet with dull silver strips of gaffer tape The twisted limbs were padded in layers of dark clothing.
Turner watched his hands claw at the tape, tear at the infrared goggles; his hands were distant creatures, pale undersea things that lived a life of their own far down at the bottom of some unthinkable Pacific trench, and he watched as they tore frantically at tape, goggles, helmet. Until it all came away, and the long brown hair, limp with sweat, fell across the girl’s white face, smearing the thin trickle of dark blood that ran from one nostril, and her eyes opened, revealing empty whites, and he was tugging her up, somehow, into a fireman’s carry, and reeling in what he hoped was the direction of the jet.
He felt the second explosion through the soles of his deck shoes, and saw the idiot grin on the lump of plastique that sat on Ramirez’s cyberspace deck. There was no flash, only sound and the sting of concussion through the concrete of the lot.
And then he was in the cockpit, breathing the new-car smell of long-chain monomers, the familiar scent of newly minted technology, and the girl was behind him, an awkward doll sprawled in the embrace of the g-web that Conroy had paid a San Diego arms dealer to install behind the pilot’s web. The plane was quivering, a live thing, and as he squirmed deeper into his own web, he fumbled for the interface cable, found it, ripped the microsoft from his socket, and slid the cable-jack home.
Knowledge lit him like an arcade game, and he surged forward with the plane-ness of the jet, feeling the flexible airframe reshape itself for jump-off as the canopy whined smoothly down on its servos. The g-web ballooned around him, locking his limbs rigid, the gun still in his hand. “Go, motherfucker.” But the jet already knew, and g-force crushed him down into the dark.
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