William Ford Gibson
16 - Legba
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He came up fighting with the crocheted comforter, with the half-formed shapes of unknown enemies. With his mother’s murderers. He was in a room he didn’t know, a room that might have been anywhere. Gold plastic gilt frames on a lot of mirrors. Fuzzy scarlet wallpaper. He’d seen Gothicks decorate rooms that way, when they could afford it, but he’d also seen their parents do whole condos in the same style Rhea flung a bundle of clothes down on the temperfoam and shoved her hands in the pockets of a black leather jacket.
The pink and black squares of the comforter were bunched around his waist. He looked down and saw the segmented length of the centipede submerged in a finger-wide track of fresh pink scar tissue. Beauvoir had said that the thing accelerated healing. He touched the bright new tissue with a hesitant fingertip, found it tender but bearable. He looked up at Rhea. “Get your ass up on this,” he said, giving her the finger.
They glared at each other, for a few seconds, over Bobby’s upraised middle finger. Then she laughed “Okay,” she said, “you got a point. I’ll get off your case But pick those clothes up and get ‘em on. Should be something there that fits Lucas is due by here soon to pick you up, and Lucas doesn’t like to be kept waiting.”
“Yeah? Well, he seems like a pretty relaxed guy to me.” He began to sort through the heap of clothing, discarding a black shirt with a paisley pattern printed on it in laundered-out gold, a red satin number with a fringe of white imitation leather down the sleeves, a black sort of leotard thing with panels of some translucent material… “Hey,” he said, “where did you get this stuff? I can’t wear shit like this.”
“It’s my little brother’s,” Rhea said. “From last season, and you better get your white ass dressed before Lucas gets down here. Hey,” she said, “that’s mine,” snatching up the leotard as though he might be about to steal it.
He pulled the black and gold shirt on and fumbled with domed snaps made of black imitation pearl. He found a pair of black jeans, but they proved to be baggy and elaborately pleated, and didn’t seem to have any pockets “This all the pants you got?”
“Jesus,” she said. “I saw the clothes Pye cut off you, man. You aren’t anybody’s idea of a fashion plate. Just get dressed, okay? I don’t want any trouble with Lucas. He may come on all mellow with you, but ‘that just means you got something he wants bad enough to take the trouble. Me, I sure don’t, so Lucas got no compunctions, as far as I’m concerned.”
Bobby found the buttons. It was an elaborate arrangement and he wondered what would happen if he had to piss in a hurry He saw the black nylon thongs beside the slab and shoved his feet into them. “What about Jackie?” he asked, padding to where he could see himself in the gold-framed mirrors. ‘Lucas got any compunctions about her?” He watched her in the mirror, saw something cross her face.
“You hush,” she said, her voice gone low and urgent. “Beauvoir mention anything like that to you, that’s his business. Otherwise, it’s nothing you talk about, understand? There’s things bad enough, you’d wish you were back out there getting your butt carved up.”
“Lucas.” Bobby said, when they were in the elevator, “do you know who it was offed my old lady?” It wasn’t a question he’d planned on asking, but somehow it had come rushing up like a bubble of swamp gas.
Lucas regarded him benignly, his long face smooth and black. His black suit, beautifully cut, looked as though it had been freshly pressed. He carried a stout stick of oiled and polished wood, the grain all swirly black and red, topped with a large knob of polished brass. Finger-long splines of brass ran down from the knob, inlaid smoothly in the cane’s shaft. “No, we do not.” His wide lips formed a straight and very serious line. “That’s something we’d very much like to know…”
Bobby shifted uncomfortably. The elevator made him self-conscious. It was the size of a small bus, and although it wasn’t crowded, he was the only white Black people, he noted, as his eyes shifted restlessly down the thing’s length, didn’t look half dead under fluorescent light, the way white people did.
Three times, in their descent, the elevator came to a halt at some floor and remained there, once for nearly fifteen minutes. The first time this happened, Bobby had looked questioningly at Lucas. “Something in the shaft,” Lucas had said. “What?” “Another elevator.” The elevators were located at the core of the arcology, their shafts bundled together with water mains, sewage lines, huge power cables, and insulated pipes that Bobby assumed were part of the geothermal system that Beauvoir had described. You could see it all whenever the doors opened; everything was exposed, raw, as though the people who built the place had wanted to be able to see exactly how everything worked and what was going where. And everything, every visible surface, was covered with an interlocking net of graffiti, so dense and heavily overlaid that it was almost impossible to pick out any kind of message or symbol.
“You never were up here before, were you, Bobby?” Lucas asked as the doors jolted shut once again and they were on their way down. Bobby shook his head. “That’s too bad,” Lucas said. “Understandable, certainly, but kind of a shame Two-a-Day tells me you haven’t been too keen on sitting around Barrytown. That true?”
“I guess that’s understandable, too. You seem to me to be a young man of some imagination and initiative Would you agree?” Lucas spun the cane’s bright brass head against his pink palm and looked at Bobby steadily.
“I guess so I can’t stand the place. Lately I’ve kind of been noticing how, well, nothing ever happens, you know? I mean, things happen, but it’s always the same stuff, over and fucking over, like it’s all a rerun, every summer like the last one…” His voice trailed off, uncertain what Lucas would think of him.
Can’t be true, Bobby thought, but nodded anyway, Rhea’s warning in the back of his head. Lucas was no more threatening than Beauvoir, but his bulk alone was a caution. And Bobby was working on a new theory of personal deportment; he didn’t quite have the whole thing yet, but part of it involved the idea that people who were genuinely dangerous might not need to exhibit the fact at all, and that the ability to conceal a threat made them even more dangerous. This ran directly opposite to the rule around Big Playground, where kids who had no real clout whatever went to great pains to advertise their chrome-studded rabidity. Which probably did them some good, at least in terms of the local action. But Lucas was very clearly nothing to do with local action.
The elevator door shuddered open, and Lucas was moving, shooing Bobby in front of him like a child They stepped out into a tiled foyer that seemed to stretch forever, past kiosks and cloth-draped stalls and people squatting beside blankets with things spread out on them. “But not to linger,” Lucas said, giving Bobby a very gentle shove with one large hand when Bobby paused in front of stacks of jumbled software. “You are on your way to the Sprawl, my man, and you are going in a manner that befits a count.”
Lucas’s car was an amazing stretch of gold-flecked black bodywork and mirror-finished brass, studded with a collection of baroque gadgets whose purpose Bobby only had time to guess at. One of the things was a dish antenna, he decided, but it looked more like one of those Aztec calendar wheels, and then he was inside, Lucas letting the wide door clunk gently shut behind them. The windows were tinted so dark, it looked like nighttime outside, a bustling nighttime where the Projects’ crowds went about their noonday business The interior of the vehicle was a single large compartment padded with bright rugs and pale leather cushions, although there seemed to be no particular place to sit. No steering wheel either, the dash was a padded expanse of leather unbroken by controls of any kind. He looked at Lucas, who was loosening his black tie. “How do you drive it?”
“Because,” Lucas said, pausing for another sip of cold white wine, “that’s how long it’s taking us. Ahmed has all the factory options, including a first-rate counter-surveillance system. On the road, rolling, Ahmed provides a remarkable degree of privacy, more than I’m ordinarily willing to pay for in New York. Ahmed, you get the feeling anybody’s trying to get to us, listen in or anything?”
“Okay, okay,” Lucas said. “Fine. Never mind You see? Ahmed got more on those Tacs than they got on us.” He wiped his hands on a thick white linen napkin and took a gold toothpick from his jacket pocket.
“Right,” Lucas said, bringing the gold toothpick into play again. “And while we are here, securely screened by the good Ahmed, it’s time we have a talk. Brother Beauvoir has already told you a little about us, I think What do you think, Bobby. about what he’s told you?”
“I mean, it’s your business, what you wanna buy, I mean, believe, right? But one minute Beauvoir’s talking biz, street tech, like I never heard before, and the next he’s talking mambos and ghosts and snakes and, and…”
“No. Never mind metaphor, then. When Beauvoir or I talk to you about the ba and their horses, as we call those few the ba choose to ride, you should pretend that we are talking two languages at once. One of them, you already understand. That’s the language of street tech, as you call it. We may be using different words, but we’re talking tech. Maybe we call something Ougou Feray that you might call an icebreaker, you understand? But at the same time, with the same words, we are talking about other things, and that you don’t understand. You don’t need to.” He put his toothpick away.
“Certainly. Think of Jackie as a deck, Bobby, a cyberspace deck, a very pretty one with nice ankles.” Lucas grinned and Bobby blushed. “Think of Danbala, who some people call the snake, as a program. Say as an icebreaker. Danbala slots into the Jackie deck, Jackie cuts ice. That’s all.”
The Rolls came to a silent, silken halt and Lucas stood, buttoning his suit coat. “Ahmed attracts too much attention.” He picked up his cane, and the door made a soft chunking sound as it unlocked itself.
Bobby climbed down behind him, into the unmistakable signature smell of the Sprawl, a rich amalgam of stale subway exhalations, ancient soot, and the carcinogenic tang of fresh plastics, all of it shot through with the carbon edge of illicit fossil fuels. High overhead, in the reflected glare of arc lamps, one of the unfinished Fuller domes shut out two thirds of the salmon-pink evening sky, its ragged edge like broken gray honeycomb. The Sprawl’s patchwork of domes tended to generate inadvertent microclimates; there were areas of a few city blocks where a fine drizzle of condensation fell continually from the soot-stained geodesics, and sections of high dome famous for displays of static-discharge, a peculiarly urban variety of lightning. There was a stiff wind blowing, as Bobby followed Lucas down the street, a warm, gritty breeze that probably had something to do with pressure shifts in the Sprawl-long subway system.
“Remember what I told you,” Lucas said, his eyes nar-rowed against the grit. “The man is far more than he seems. Even if he were nothing more than what he seems, you would owe him a degree of respect. If you want to be a cowboy, you’re about to meet a landmark in the trade.”
Bobby grimaced, then nodded. Shit. He kept blowing it. Here he was with a major operator, up to his neck in some amazing kind of biz, and he kept acting like a wilson. Operator. That was the word for Lucas, and for Beauvoir, too, and that voodoo talk was Just some game they ran on people, he’d decided. In the Rolls, Lucas had launched into some strange extended number about Legba, who he said was the ba of communication, “the master of roads and pathways,” all about how the man he was taking Bobby to meet was a favorite of Legba’s. When Bobby asked if the man was another oungan, Lucas said no; he said the man had walked with Legba all his life, so close that he’d never known the ba was there at all, like it was just a part of him, his shadow. And this was the man, Lucas had said, who’d sold them the software that Two-a-Day had rented to Bobby…
Lucas rounded a corner and stopped, Bobby close behind. They stood in front of a blackened brownstone whose windows had been sealed decades before with sheets of corrugated steel. Part of the ground floor had once been a shop of some kind, its cracked display windows opaque with grime. The door, between the blind windows, had been reinforced with the same steel that sealed the windows of the upper floors, and Bobby thought he could make out some sort of sign behind the window to his left, discarded neon script tilted diagonally in the gloom. Lucas just stood there, facing the doorway, his face expressionless, the tip of his cane planted neatly on the sidewalk and his large hands one atop the other on the brass knob. “First thing that you learn,” he said, with the tone of a man reciting a proverb, “is that you always gotta wait…”
The door swung ten centimeters on well-oiled hinges and seemed to catch on something. An eye regarded them, un-blinking, suspended there in that crack of dust and dark, and at first it seemed to Bobby that it must be the eye of some large animal, the iris a strange shade of brownish yellow, and the whites, mottled and shot through with red, the lower lid gaping redder still below. “Hoodoo man,” said the invisible face the eye belonged to, then, “hoodoo man and some little lump of shit. Jesus…” There was an awful, gurgling sound, as of antique phlegm being drawn up from hidden recesses, and then the man spat. “Well, move it, Lucas.” There was another grating sound and the door swung inward on the dark. “I’m a busy man…” This last from a meter away, receding, as though the eye’s owner were scurrying from the light admitted by the open door.
Lucas stepped through, Bobby on his heels, Bobby feeling the door swing smoothly shut behind him. The sudden dark-ness brought the hairs on his forearms up. It felt alive, that dark, cluttered and dense and somehow sentient.
Then a match flared and some sort of pressure lamp hissed and spat as the gas in its mantle ignited. Bobby could only gape at the face beyond the lantern, where the bloodshot yellow eye waited with its mate in what Bobby would very much have liked to believe was a mask of some kind.
“You wanna know,” the face said, revealing large flat yellow teeth, “I was on my way out to find something to eat.” He looked to Bobby as though he could survive on a diet of moldering carpet, or burrow patiently through the brown wood pulp of the damp-swollen books stacked shoulder-high on either side of the tunnel where they stood. “Who’s the little shit, Lucas?”
“You know, Finn, Beauvoir and I are experiencing difficulties with something we acquired from you in good faith.” Lucas extended his cane and prodded delicately at a dangerous-looking overhang of crumbling paperbacks.
“So,” the Finn said. “You got problems Funny thing, Lucas, funny fucking thing.” His cheeks were grayish, seamed with deep diagonal creases. “I got some problems, too, three of ‘em. I didn’t have ‘em, this morning. I guess that’s just the way life is, sometimes “ He put the hissing lantern down on a gutted steel filing cabinet and fished a bent, unfiltered cigarette from a side pocket of something that might once have been a tweed jacket. “My three problems, they’re upstairs. Maybe you wanna have a look at them…” He struck a wooden match on the base of the lantern and lit his cigarette. The pungent reek of black Cuban tobacco gathered in the air between them.
“You know,” the Finn said, stepping over the first of the bodies, “I been at this location ‘a long time. Everybody knows me. They know I’m here You buy from the Finn, you know who you’re buying from. And I stand behind my product, every time…”
Bobby was staring down at the upturned face of the dead man, at the eyes gone dull. There was something wrong with the shape of the torso, wrong with the way it lay there in the black clothes. Japanese face, no expression, dead eyes.
“And all that time,” the Finn continued, “you know how many people ever dumb enough to try to get in here to take me off? None’ Not one, not till this morning, and I get fucking three already. Well,” he shot Bobby a hostile glance, “that’s not counting the odd little lump of shit, I guess, but…” He shrugged.
“You know,” said the Finn, after listening to the story of Bobby’s abortive cyberspace run, “that’s some weird shit out there.’ He slowly shook his narrow, strangely elongated head. “Didn’t used to be this way.” He looked at Lucas. “You people know, don’t you?”
They were seated around a square white table in a white room on the ground floor, behind the junk-clogged storefront. The floor was scuffed hospital tile, molded in a nonslip pattern, and the walls broad slabs of dingy white plastic concealing dense layers of antibugging circuitry. Compared to the storefront, the white room seemed surgically clean. Several alloy tripods bristling with sensors and scanning gear stood around the table like abstract sculpture.
“Not you, pisshead,” the Finn said wearily. “Him. Big hoodoo man. He knows. Knows it’s not the same. Hasn’t been, not for a long time. I been in the trade forever. Way back. Before the war, before there was any matrix, or anyway before people knew there was one.” He was looking at Bobby now. ‘I got a pair of shoes older than you are, so what the fuck should I expect you to know? There were cowboys ever since there were computers. They built the first computers to crack German ice. Right? Codebreakers. So there was ice before computers, you wanna look at it that way “ He lit his fifteenth cigarette of the evening, and smoke began to fill the white room.
“Lucas knows, yeah. The last seven, eight years, there’s been funny stuff out there, out on the console cowboy circuit. The new jockeys, they make deals with things, don’t they. Lucas? Yeah, you bet I know; they still need the hard and the soft, and they still gotta be faster than snakes on ice, but all of ‘em, all the ones who really know how to cut it, they got allies, don’t they, Lucas?”
Sure, it’s just a tailored hallucination we all agreed to have, cyberspace, but anybody who jacks in knows, fucking knows it’s a whole universe. And every year it gets a little more crowded, sounds like…”
“Sure. Maybe you believe it. But I’m old enough to remember when it wasn’t like that. Ten years ago, you went in the Gentleman Loser and tried telling any of the top jocks you talked with ghosts in the matrix, they’d have figured you were crazy.”
“Stupid? Shit, no, he was smart as hell.” The Finn stubbed his cigarette out in a cracked ceramic Campari ashtray. lust a total fuck-up, was all He worked with the Dixie Flatline once The bloodshot yellow eyes grew distant.
Lucas nodded. “I take your point. But at the same time, I put one to you.” He held the toothpick out toward the Finn like a toy dagger. “The real reason you’re willing to sit here and bullshit is that you think those three stiffs upstairs have something to do with the icebreaker you sold us. And you sat up and took special notice when Bobby told you about his mother’s condo getting wiped, didn’t you?”
The red-rimmed yellow eyes blinked. “They were all tooled up,” he said, “ready for a hit, but one of ‘em had some other things. Things for asking questions “ His nicotine-stained fingers, almost the color of cockroach wings, came up to slowly massage his short upper lip. “I got it off Wigan Ludgate,” he said, “the Wig.”
How it was, the Finn began, and to Bobby it was all infinitely absorbing, even better than listening to Beauvoir and Lucas, Wigan Ludgate had had five years as a top jock, which is a decent run for a cyberspace cowboy. Five years tends to find a cowboy either rich or braindead, or else financing a stable of younger cracksmen and strictly into the managerial side. The Wig, in his first heat of youth and glory, had stormed off on an extended pass through the rather sparsely occupied sectors of the matrix representing those geographical areas which had once been known as the Third World.
Silicon doesn’t wear out; microchips were effectively immortal. The Wig took notice of the fact. Like every other child of his age, however, he knew that silicon became obsolete, which was worse than wearing out; this fact was a grim and accepted constant for the Wig, like death or taxes, and in fact he was usually more worried about his gear falling behind the state of the art than he was about death (he was twenty-two) or taxes (he didn’t file, although he paid a Singapore money laundry a yearly percentage that was roughly equivalent to the income tax he would have been required to pay if he’d declared his gross). The Wig reasoned that all that obsolete silicon had to be going somewhere. Where it was going, he learned, was into any number of very poor places struggling along with nascent industrial bases. Nations so benighted that the concept of nation was still taken seriously. The Wig punched himself through a couple of African back-waters and felt like a shark cruising a swimming pool thick with caviar. Not that any one of those tasty tiny eggs amounted to much, but you could just open wide and scoop, and it was easy and filling and it added up. The Wig worked the Africans for a week, incidentally bringing about the collapse of at least three governments and causing untold human suffering. At the end of his week, fat with the cream of several million laughably tiny bank accounts, he retired. As he was going out, the locusts were coming in; other people had gotten the African idea.
The Wig sat on the beach at Cannes for two years, ingesting only the most expensive designer drugs and periodically flicking on a tiny Hosaka television to study the bloated bodies of dead Africans with a strange and curiously innocent intensity. At some point, no one could quite say where or when or why, it began to be noted that the Wig had gone over the edge. Specifically, the Finn said, the Wig had become convinced that God lived in cyberspace, or perhaps that cyberspace was God, or some new manifestation of same. The Wig’s ventures into theology tended to be marked by major paradigm shifts, true leaps of faith. The Finn had some idea of what the Wig was about in those days; shortly after his conversion to his new and singular faith, Wigan Ludgate had returned to the Sprawl and embarked on an epic if somewhat random voyage of cybernetic discovery. Being a former console jockey, he knew where to go for the very best in what the Finn called the hard and the soft. The Finn provided the Wig with all manner of both, as the Wig was still a rich man. The Wig explained to the Finn that his technique of mystical exploration involved projecting his consciousness into blank, unstructured sectors of the matrix and waiting. To the man’s credit, the Finn said, he never actually claimed to have met God, although he did maintain that he had on several occasions sensed His presence moving upon the face of the grid. In due course, the Wig ran out of money.
“But then he turned up one day,” the Finn said, “crazy as a shithouse rat. He was a pale little fucker anyway, but now he wore all this African shit, beads and bones and every-thing.” Bobby let go of the Finn’s narrative long enough to wonder how anyone who looked like the Finn could describe somebody as a pale little fucker, then glanced over at Lucas, whose face was dead grim. Then it occurred to Bobby that Lucas might take the Africa stuff personally, sort of. But the Finn was continuing his story.
“He had a lot of stuff he wanted to sell. Decks, peripherals, software. It was all a couple of years old, but it was top gear, so I gave him a price on it. I noticed he’d had a socket implant, and he kept this one sliver of microsoft jacked behind his ear. What’s the soft? It’s blank, he says. He’s sitting right where you are now, kid, and he says to me, it’s blank and it’s the voice of God, and I live forever in His white hum, or some shit like that. So I think, Christ, the Wig’s gone but good now, and there he is counting up the money I’d given him for about the fifth time. Wig, I said, time’s money but tell me what you intend to do now? Because I was curious. Known the guy years, in a business way Finn, he says, I gotta get up the gravity well, God’s up there. I mean, he says, He’s everywhere but there’s too much static down here, it obscures His face. Right, I say… you got it. So I show him the door and that’s it. Never saw him again.”
“Except, about a year later, a guy turns up, high-orbit rigger down the well on a leave, and he’s got some good software for sale. Not great, but interesting. He says it’s from the Wig. Well, maybe the Wig’s a freak, and long out of the game, but he can still spot the good shit. So I buy it. That was maybe ten years ago, right? And every year or so, some guy would turn up with something. ‘The Wig told me I should offer you this.’ And usually I’d buy it. It was never anything special, but it was okay. Never the same guy bring-ing it, either.”
“Yeah, mainly, except for these weird sculpture things. I’d forgotten that. I figured the Wig made ‘em. First time a guy came in with one of those, I bought the ‘ware he had, then said what the fuck do you call that? Wig said you might be interested, the guy said. Tell him he’s crazy, I said. The guy laughed. Well, you keep it, he says I’m not carrying the Goddamn thing back up with me. I mean, it was about the size of a deck, this thing, just a bunch of garbage and shit, stuck together in a box… So I pushed it behind this Coke crate fulla scrap iron, and forgot it, except old Smith - he’s a colleague of mine in those days, dealt mostly art and collectibles - she sees it and wants it. So we do some dipshit deal. Any more of these, Finn, he says, get ‘em. There’s assholes uptown go for this kind of shit. So the next time a guy turned up from the Wig, I bought the sculpture thing, too, and traded it to Smith. But it was never much money for any of it.. The Finn shrugged. “Not until last month, anyway. Some kid came in with what you bought. It was from the Wig. Listen. he says, this is biosoft and its a breaker. Wig says it’s worth a lot. I put a scan on it and it looked right. I thought it looked interesting, you know? Your partner Beauvoir thought it looked pretty interesting, too. I bought it. Beauvoir bought it off me. End of story.” The Finn dragged out a cigarette, this one broken, bent double. “Shit,” he said He pulled a faded pack of cigarette papers from the same pocket and extracted one of the fragile pink leaves, rolling it tightly around the broken cigarette, a sort of splint. When he licked the glue, Bobby caught a glimpse of a very pointed gray-pink tongue.
“Lucas, I haven’t got the slightest fucking clue. In orbit somewhere. And modestly, if the kind of money he was getting out of me meant anything to him. You know, I hear there’s places up there where you don’t need money, if you fit into the economy, so maybe a little goes a long way. Don’t ask me, though, I’m agoraphobic.” He smiled nastily at Bobby, who was trying to get the image of that tongue out of his mind. “You know,” he said, squinting at Lucas, “it was about that time that I started hearing about weird shit happening in the matrix.”
“Keep the fuck out of this,” the Finn said, still looking at Lucas. “That was before you guys turned up, the new hoodoo team. I knew this street samurai got a job working for a Special Forces type made the Wig look flat fucking normal. Her and this cowboy they’d scraped up out of Chiba, they were on to something like that. Maybe they found it. Istanbul was the last I saw of ‘em. Heard she lived in London, once, a few years ago. Who the fuck knows? Seven, eight years.” The Finn suddenly seemed tired, and old, very old. He looked to Bobby like a big, mummified rat animated by springs and hidden wires. He took a wristwatch with a cracked face and a single greasy leather strap from his pocket and consulted it. “Jesus. Well, that’s all you get from me. Lucas. I’ve got some friends from an organ bank coming by in twenty minutes to talk a little biz.”
“Hey,” the Finn said, reading the expression on his face, “organ banks are great for getting rid of things. I’m paying them. Those motherless assholes upstairs, they don’t have too much left in the way of organs…” And the Finn laughed
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