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9 - The Projects

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Hackeremblem

THE DARK WAS FULL of honeycomb patterns the color of blood. Everything was warm. And soft, ‘too, mostly soft,

“What a mess,” one of the angels said, her voice far off but low and rich and very clear.

“We should’ve clipped him out of Leon’s,” the other angel said. “They aren’t gonna like this upstairs.”

“Must’ve had something in this big pocket here, see? They slashed it for him, getting it out.”

“Not all they slashed, sister. Jesus. Here.”

The patterns swung and swam as something moved his head. Cool palm against his cheek.

“Don’t get any on your shirt,” the first angel said.

“Two-a-Day ain’t gonna like this. Why you figure he freaked like that and ran?”

It pissed him off, because he wanted to sleep. He was asleep, for sure, but somehow Marsha’s jack-dreams were bleeding into his head so that he tumbled through broken sequences of People of Importance. The soap had been running continuously since before he was born, the plot a multiheaded narrative tapeworm that coiled back in to devour itself every few months, then sprouted new heads hungry for tension and thrust. He could see it writhing in its totality, the way Marsha could never see it, an elongated spiral of Sense/Net DNA, cheap brittle ectoplasm spun out to uncounted hungry dreamers. Marsha, now, she had it from the POV of Michele Morgan Magnum, the female lead, hereditary corporate head of Magnum AG. But today’s episode kept veering weirdly away from Michele’s frantically complex romantic entanglements, which Bobby had anyway never bothered to keep track of, and jerking itself into detailed socioarchitectural descriptions of Soleri-style mincome arcologies. Some of the detail, even to Bobby, seemed suspect; he doubted, for in-stance, that there really were entire levels devoted to the sale of ice-blue shaved-velour lounge suites with diamond-buckled knees, or that there were other levels, perpetually dark, inhabited exclusively by starving babies. This last, he seemed to recall, had been an article of faith to Marsha, who regarded the Projects with superstitious horror, as though they were some looming vertical hell to which she might one day be forced to ascend. Other segments of the jack-dream reminded him of the Knowledge channel Sense/Net piped in free with every stim subscription; there were elaborate animated diagrams of the Projects’ interior structure, and droning lectures in voice-over on the life-styles of various types of residents. These, when he was able to focus on them, seemed even less convincing than the flashes of ice-blue velour and feral babies creeping silently through the dark. He watched a cheerful young mother slice pizza with a huge industrial waterknife in the kitchen corner of a spotless one-room An entire wall opened onto a shallow balcony and a rectangle of cartoon-blue sky. The woman was black without being black, it seemed to Bobby, like a very, very dark and youthfully maternal version of one of the porno dolls on the unit in his bedroom. And had, it looked like, the identical small but cartoon-perfect breasts. (At this point, to add to his dull confusion, an astonishingly loud and very unNet voice said, “Now I call that a definite sign of life, Jackie. If the prognosis ain’t lookin’ up yet, at least somethin’ is.”) And then went spinning back into the all-glitz universe of Michele Morgan Magnum, who was desperately struggling to prevent Magnum AG’s takeover by the sinister Shikoku-based Nakamura industrial clan, represented in this case by (plot complication) Michele’s main squeeze for the season, wealthy (but somehow grindingly in need of additional billions) New Soviet boy-politician Vasily Suslov, who looked and dressed remarkably like the Gothicks in Leon’s.

The episode seemed to be reaching some sort of climax - an antique BMW fuel cell conversion had just been strafed by servo-piloted miniature West German helicopters on the street below Covina Concourse Courts, Michele Morgan Magnum was pistol-whipping her treacherous personal secretary with a nickel-plated Nambu, and Suslov, who Bobby was coming increasingly to identify with, was casually preparing to get his ass out of town with a gorgeous female bodyguard who was Japanese but reminded Bobby intensely of another one of the dreamgirls on his holoporn unit - when someone screamed.

Bobby had never heard anyone scream that way, and there was something horribly familiar about the voice. But before he could start to worry about it, those blood-red honeycombs came swirling in again and made him miss the end of People of Importance. Still, some part of him thought, as red went to black, he could always ask Marsha how it came out.

“Open your eyes, man. That’s it. Light too bright for you?”

It was, but it didn’t change White, white, he remembered his head exploding years away, pure white grenade in that cool-wind desert dark. His eyes were open, but he couldn’t see. Just white.

“Now, I’d leave you down, ordinarily, boy in your condition, but the people paying me for this say get a jump on, so I’m wakin’ you up before I’m done. You wonderin’ why you can’t see shit, right? Just light, that’s all you can see, that’s right. What we got here is a neural cutout. Now, between you and me, this thing come out of a sex shop, but there’s no reason not to use it in medicine if we want to. And we do want to, because you’re still hurtin’ bad, and anyway, it keeps you still while I get on with it.” The voice was calm and methodical. “Now, your big problem, that was your back, but I took care of that with a stapler and a few feet of claw You don’t get any plastic work here, you understand, but the honeys’ll think those scars are real Interesting. What I’m doin’ now is I’m cleanin’ this one on your chest, then I’ll zip a little claw down that and we’re all done, except you better move easy for a couple of days or you’ll pull a staple. I got a couple of derms on you, and I’ll stick on a few more. Meantime, I’m going to click your sensorium up to audio and full visual so you can get into being here. Don’t mind the blood; it’s all yours but there isn’t any more comin’.”

White curdled to gray cloud, objects taking form with the slow deliberation of a dust vision. He was flat against a padded ceiling, staring straight down at a blood-stained white doll that had no head at all, only a greenish blue surgical lamp that seemed to sprout from its shoulders. A black man in a stained green smock was spraying something yellow into a shallow gash that ran diagonally from just above the doll’s pelvic bone to just below its left nipple. He knew the man was black because his head was bare, bare and shaven, slick with sweat: his hands were covered in tight green gloves and all that Bobby could see of him was the gleaming crown of his head. There were pink and blue dermadisks stuck to the skin on either side of the doll’s neck. The edges of the wound seemed to have been painted with something that looked like chocolate syrup, and the yellow spray made a hissing sound as it escaped from its little silver tube.

Then Bobby got the picture, and the universe reversed itself sickeningly. The lamp was suspended from the ceiling, the ceiling was mirrored, and he was the doll. He seemed to snap back on a long elastic cord, back through the red honey-combs, to the dream room where the black girl sliced pizza for her children. The waterknife made no sound at all, microscopic grit suspended in a needle-stream of high speed water. The thing was intended to cut glass and alloy, Bobby knew, not to slice microwaved pizza, and he wanted to scream at her because he was terrified she’d take off her thumb without even feeling it.

But he couldn’t scream, couldn’t move or make a sound at all. She lovingly sliced the last piece, toed the kickplate that shut the knife down, transferred the sliced pizza to a plain white ceramic platter, then turned toward the rectangle of blue beyond the balcony, where her children were - no, Bobby said, way down in himself, no way. Because the things that wheeled and plunged for her weren’t hang-gliding kids, but babies, the monstrous babies of Marsha’s dream, and the tattered wings a confusion of pink bone, metal, patched taut membranes of scrap plastic… He saw their teeth…

“Whoa,” said the black man, “lost you for a second. Not for long, you understand, just maybe a New York minute…” His hand, in the mirrors overhead, took a flat spool of blue transparent plastic from the bloody cloth beside Bobby’s ribs. Delicately, with thumb and forefinger, he drew out a length of some sort of brown, beaded plastic. Minute points of light flashed along its edges and seemed to quiver and shift. “Claw,” he said, and with his other hand thumbed some sort of integral cutter in the sealed blue spool. Now the length of beaded stuff swung free and began to writhe. “Good shit,” he said, bringing the thing into Bobby’s line of sight. “New. What they use in Chiba now.” It was brown, headless, each bead a body segment, each segment edged with pale shining legs. Then, with a conjurer’s flick of his green-gloved wrists, he lay the centipede down the length of the open wound and pinched delicately at the final segment, the one nearest Bobby’s face. As the segment came away. it withdrew a glittering black thread that had served the thing as a nervous system, and as that went, each set of claws locked shut in turn, zipping the slash tight as a new leather jacket.

“Now, you see,” said the black man, mopping the last of the brown syrup away with a wet white pad, “that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

His entrance to Two-a-Day’s apartment wasn’t anything like the way he’d so often imagined it. To begin with, he’d never imagined being wheeled in in a wheelchair that some-one had appropriated from St. Mary’s Maternity - the name and a serial number neatly laser-etched on the dull chrome of the left armrest. The woman who was wheeling him would have fitted neatly enough into one of his fantasies; her name was Jackie, one of the two Project girls he’d seen at Leon’s, and, he’d come to understand, one of his two angels. The wheelchair was silent as it glided across the scabrous gray wall-to-wall of the apartment’s narrow entranceway, but the gold bangles on Jackie’s fedora tinkled cheerfully as she pushed him along.

And he’d never imagined that Two-a-Day’s place would be quite this large, or that it would be full of trees.

Pye, the doctor, who’d been careful to explain that he wasn’t a doctor, just someone who “helped out sometimes,” had settled back on a torn barstool in his makeshift surgery, peeled off his bloody green gloves, lit a menthol cigarette, and solemnly advised Bobby to take it real easy for the next week or so. Minutes later, Jackie and Rhea, the other angel, had wrestled him into a pair of wrinkled black pajamas that looked like something out of a very cheap ninja kino, deposited him in the wheelchair, and set out for the central stem of elevators at the arcology’s core. Thanks to an additional three derms from Pye’s store of drugs, one of them charged with a good two thousand mikes of endorphin analog, Bobby was alert and feeling no pain.

“Where’s my stuff,” he protested, as they rolled him out into a corridor grown perilously narrow with decades of retrofitted ducts and plumbing. “Where’s my clothes and my deck and everything?”

“Your clothes, hon, such as they were, are taped up in a plastic bag waiting for Pye to shitcan ‘em. Pye had to cut ‘em off you on the slab, and they weren’t but bloody rags to begin with. If your deck was in your jacket, down the back, I’d say the boys who chopped you out got it. Damn near got you in the process. And you ruined my Sally Stanley shirt, you little shithead.” Angel Rhea didn’t seem too friendly.

“Oh,” Bobby said, as they rounded a corner, “right. Well, did you happen to find a screwdriver in there? Or a credit chip?”

“No chip, baby. But if the screwdriver’s the one with the two hundred and ten New ones screwed into the handle, that’s the price of my new shirt…”

Two-a-Day didn’t look as though he was particularly glad to see Bobby. In fact, it almost seemed as if he didn’t see him at all. Looked straight through him to Jackie and Rhea, and showed his teeth in a smile that was all nerves and sleep-lack. They wheeled Bobby close enough that he saw how yellow Two-a-Day’s eyeballs looked, almost orange in the pinky-purple glow of the gro-light tubes that seemed to dangle at random from the ceiling. “What took you bitches?” the wareman asked, but there was no anger in his voice, only bone weariness and something else, something Bobby couldn’t identify at first.

“Pye,” Jackie said, swaggering past the wheelchair to take a package of Chinese cigarettes from the enormous wooden slab that served Two-a-Day as a coffee table. “He’s a perfectionist, ol’ Pye.”

“Learned that in vet school,” Rhea added, for Bobby’s benefit, “‘cept usually he’s too wasted, nobody’d let him work on a dog…”

“So,” Two-a-Day said, and finally let his eyes rest on Bobby, “you gonna make it.” And his eyes were so cold, so tired and clinical, so far removed from the hustling manic bullshitter’s act that Bobby had taken for the man’s personality, that Bobby could only lower his own eyes, face burning, and lock his gaze on the table.

Nearly three meters long and slightly over a meter wide, it was strapped together from timbers thicker than Bobby’s thigh. It must have been in the water once, he thought; sections still retained the bleached silvery patina of driftwood, like the log he remembered playing beside a long time ago in Atlantic City. But it hadn’t seen water for a long time, and the top was a dense mosaic of candle drippings, wine stains, oddly shaped overspray marks in matte black enamel, and the dark burns left by hundreds of cigarettes. It was so crowded with food, garbage, and gadgets that it looked as though some street vendor had set up to unload hardware, then decided to have dinner. There were half-eaten pizzas - krill balls in red sauce, and Bobby’s stomach began to churn - beside cascading stacks of software, smudged glasses with cigarettes crushed out in purple wine dregs, a pink styrene tray with neat rows of stale-looking canapés, open and unopened cans of beer, an antique Gerber combat dagger that lay unsheathed on a flat block of polished marble, at least three pistols, and perhaps two dozen pieces of cryptic-looking console gear, the kind of cowboy equipment that ordinarily would have made Bobby’s mouth water.

Now his mouth was watering for a slice of cold krill pizza, but his hunger was nothing in the face of his abrupt humiliation at seeing that Two-a-Day just didn’t care. Not that Bobby had thought of him as a friend, exactly, but he’d definitely had something invested in the idea that Two-a-Day saw him as someone, somebody with talent and initiative and a chance of getting out of Barrytown. But Two-a-Day’s eyes told him he was nobody in particular, and a wilson at that…

“Look here, my man,” someone said, not Two-a-Day, and Bobby looked up. Two other men flanked Two-a-Day on the fat chrome and leather couch, both of them black. The one who’d spoken wore a gray robe of some kind and antique plastic-framed glasses. The frames were square and oversized and seemed to lack lenses. The other man’s shoulders were twice as wide as Two-a-Day’s, but he wore the kind of plain black two-piece suit you saw on Japanese businessmen in kinos. His spotless white French cuffs were closed with bright rectangles of gold microcircuitry. “It’s a shame we can’t let you have some downtime to heal up,” the first man said, “but we have a bad problem here.” He paused, removed his glasses, and massaged the bridge of his nose. “We require your help.”

“Shit,” Two-a-Day said He leaned forward, took a Chinese cigarette from the pack on the table, lit it with a dull pewter skull the size of a large lemon, then reached for a glass of wine. The man with the glasses extended a lean brown forefinger and touched Two-a-Day’s wrist. Two-a-Day released the glass and sat back, his face carefully blank. The man smiled at Bobby. “Count Zero,” he said, “they tell us that’s your handle.”

“That’s right,” Bobby managed, though it came out as a kind of croak.

“We need to know about the Virgin, Count.” The man waited.

Bobby blinked at him.

“Vyéj Mirak” - and the glasses went back on - ‘Our Lady, Virgin of Miracles. We know her’ - and he made a sign with his left hand- ‘as Ezili Freda.”

Bobby became aware of the fact that his mouth was open, so he closed it. The three dark faces waited. Jackie and Rhea were gone, but he hadn’t seen them leave. A kind of panic took him then, and he glanced frantically around at the strange forest of stunted trees that surrounded them. The gro-light tubes slanted at every angle, in any direction, pink-purple jackstraws suspended in a green space of leaves. No walls You couldn’t see a wall at all. The couch and the battered table sat in a sort of clearing, with a floor of raw concrete.

“We know she came to you,” the big man said, crossing his legs carefully. He adjusted a perfect trouser-crease, and a gold cufflink winked at Bobby. “We know, you understand?”

“Two-a-Day tells me it was your first run,” the other man said. “That the truth?”

Bobby nodded.

“Then you are chosen of Legba,” the man said, again removing the empty frames,” to have met Vyéj Mirak.” He smiled.

Bobby’s mouth was open again.

“Legba,” the man said, “master of roads and pathways, the loa of communication…”

Two-a-Day ground his cigarette out on the scarred wood, and Bobby saw that his hand was shaking.


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