William Ford Gibson
29 - Boxmaker
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The air was as stale, but colder. When they stopped to rest in a cylindrical chamber, where the shaft widened before a triple branching, Marly asked Jones for the flat little work light he wore across his forehead on a gray elastic strap. Holding it in one of the red suit’s gauntlets, she played it over the chamber’s wail. The surface was etched with patterns, microscopically fine lines.”
Marly shuddered. “No.” She passed him the light. “Can you help me out of this, please?” She tapped a gauntlet against the suit’s hard chest. The mirror-domed helmet was fastened to the suit’s waist with a chrome snap-hook.
Jones pulled himself half over the line and did something she couldn’t see. There was a click. “Stretch your arms, over your head,” he said. It was awkward, but finally she floated free, still in the black jeans and white silk blouse she’d worn to that final encounter with Alain. Jones fastened the empty red suit to the line with another of the snap-rings mounted around its waist, and then undid her bulging purse. “You want this? To take with you, I mean? We could leave it here, get it on our way back.”
“No,” she said, “I’ll take it. Give it to me.” She hooked an elbow around the line and fumbled the purse open. Her jacket came out, but so did one of her boots. She managed to get the boot back into the purse, then twisted herself into the jacket.
“End of the line,” he said. “Literal, that is.” He tapped the chromed eyebolt where the line was tied in a sailor’s knot. His voice caught and echoed, somewhere ahead of them, until she imagined she heard other voices whispering behind the round of echo. “We’ll want a bit of light for this,” he said, kicking himself across the shaft and catching a gray metal coffin thing that protruded there. He opened it. She watched his hands move in the bright circle of the work light; his fingers were thin and delicate, but the nails were small and blunt, outlined with black, impacted grime. The letters “CJ” were tattooed in crude blue across the back of his right hand. The sort of tattoo one did oneself, in jail… Now he’d fished out a length of heavy, insulated wire. He squinted into the box, then wedged the wire behind a copper D-connector.
“Got more power than we need, really,” he said, with something akin to a homeowner’s pride. “The solar banks are all still workin’, and they were meant to power the main-frames… Come on, then, lady, we’ll meet the artist you come so far to see…” He kicked off and out, gliding smoothly through the opening, like a swimmer, into the light. Into the thousand drifting things. She saw that the red plastic soles of his frayed shoes had been patched with smears of white silicon caulking.
She had no idea how long she’d been there, when the screen lit and began to flicker. Hours, minutes… She’d already learned to negotiate the chamber, after a fashion, kicking off like Jones from the dome’s concavity. Like Jones. She caught herself on the thing’s folded, jointed arms, pivoted and clung there, watching the swirl of debris. There were dozens of the arms, manipulators, tipped with pliers, hexdrivers, knives, a subminiature circular saw, a dentist’s drill They bristled from the alloy thorax of what must once have been a construction remote, the sort of unmanned, semiautonomous device she knew from childhood videos of the high frontier. But this one was welded into the apex of the dome, its sides fused with the fabric of the Place, and hundreds of cables and optic lines snaked across the geodesics to enter it. Two of the arms, tipped with delicate force-feedback devices, were extended; the soft pads cradled an unfinished box.
A yellowing kid glove, the faceted crystal stopper from some vial of vanished perfume, an armless doll with a face of French porcelain, a fat, gold-fitted black fountain pen, rectangular segments of perf board, the crumpled red and green snake of a silk cravat… Endless, the slow swarm, the spinning things…
“Quite right.” He grinned. “No way to make it go, though. Guess the spirit has to move it, or anyway that’s how old Wig has it. He used to come out here a lot I think the voices are stronger for him here. But lately they’ve been talking to him wherever, it seems like…”
She looked at him through the thicket of manipulators. He was very dirty, very young, with his wide blue eyes under a tangle of brown curls. He wore a stained gray zipsuit, its collar shiny with grime. “You must be mad,” she said with something like admiration in her voice, “you must be totally mad, to stay here…”
She turned her head and saw diagonals of color strobe across the rectangular face of a large screen glued crookedly to the curve of the dome. The screen was occluded, for a second, by the passage of a dressmaker’s dummy, and then the face of Josef Virek filled it, his soft blue eyes glittering behind round lenses.
“That’s one of Wig’s sermon screens,” Jones said, rubbing his face. “Put ‘em up all over the Place, ‘cause he figured one day he’d have people up here to preach to. This geezer’s linked in through Wig’s communication gear, I guess. Who is he?”
“It’s a generated image,” she said. “Ray tracing, texture mapping… She stared as the face smiled out at her from the curve of the dome, beyond the slow-motion hurricane of lost things, minor artifacts of countless lives, tools and toys and gilded buttons.
“I want you to know,” the image said, “that you have fulfilled your contract. My psychoprofile of Marly Krushkhova predicted your response to my gestalt. Broader profiles indicated that your presence in Paris would force Maas to play their hand. Soon, Marly, I will know exactly what it is that you have found. For four years I’ve known something that Maas didn’t know. I’ve known that Mitchell, the man Maas and the world regards as the inventor of the new biochip processes, was being fed the concepts that resulted in his breakthroughs. I added you to an intricate array of factors, Marly, and things came to a most satisfying head. Maas, without understanding what they were doing, surrendered the location of the conceptual source. And you have reached it. Paco will be arriving shortly…”
“And now, Marly, at last I think I shall be free. Free of the four hundred kilograms of rioting cells they wall away behind surgical steel in a Stockholm industrial park. Free, eventually, to inhabit any number of real bodies, Marly Forever.”
“Convince the inhabitants of the cores to admit Paco and his crew, Marly,” Virek said. “I purchased the cores an hour before you departed Orly, from a contractor in Pakistan. A bargain, Marly, a great bargain. Paco will oversee my interests, as usual.”
“Here now,” Jones said, pivoting around a folded manipulator and taking her hand, “what’s so bad about all that? He owns it now, and he said you’d done your bit… I don’t know what old Wig’s good for, except to listen to the voices, but he’s not long for this side anyway Me, I’m as easy for out as not…”
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