Return to Tom Maddox.Net
First published by Tor Books, 1992
Everything is destined to reappear as simulation.
Jean Baudrillard, America
On a rainy morning in Seattle, Gonzales was ready for the egg. A week ago he had returned from Myanmar, the country once known as Burma, and now, after two days of drugs and fasting, he was prepared: he had become an alien, at home in a distant landscape.
His brain was filled with blossoms of fire, their spread white flesh torched to yellow, the center of a burning world. On the dark stained oak door, angel wings danced in blue flame, their faces beatific in the cold fire. Staring at the animated carved figures, Gonzales thought, the fire is in my eyes, in my brain.
He pushed down the s-curved brass handle and stepped through to the hallway, his split-toed shoes of soft cotton and rope scuffing without noise across floors of bleached oak. Through the open door at the hallway's end, morning's light through stained glass made abstract patterns of crimson and buttery yellow. Inside the room, a blue monitor console stood against the far wall, SenTrax corporate sunburst glowing on its face; in the center of the room was the egg, split hemispheres of chromed steel, cracked and waiting. One half-egg was filled with beige tubes and snakes of optic cable, the other half with hard dark plastic lying slack against the shell.
Gonzales rubbed his hands across his eyes, then pulled his hair back into a long hank and slipped a circle of elastic over it. He reached to his waist and grabbed the bottom hem of his navy blue t-shirt and pulled the shirt over his head. Dropping it to the floor, he kicked off his shoes, stepped out of baggy tan pants and loose white cotton underpants and stood naked, his pale skin gleaming with a light coat of sweat. His skin felt hot, eyes grainy, stomach sore.
He stepped up and into a chrome half-egg, then shivered and lay back as body-warmth liquid bled into the slack plastic, which began to balloon underneath him. He took hold of finger-thick cables and pushed their junction ends home into the sockets set in the back of his neck. As the egg continued to fill, he fit a mask over his face, felt its edges seal, and inhaled. Catheters moved toward his crotch, iv needles toward the crooks of both arms. The egg shut closed on him and liquid spilled into its interior.
He floated in silence, waiting, breathing slowly and deeply as elation punched through the chaotic mix of emotions generated by drugs, meditation, and the egg. No matter that he was going to relive his own terror, this was what moved him: access to the many-worlds of human experience—travel through space, time, and probability all in one.
Virtual realities were everywhere—virtual vacations, sex, superstardom, you name it—but compared to the egg, they were just high-res videogames or stage magic. VRs used a variety of tricks to simulate physical presence, but the sensorium could be fooled only to a certain degree, and when you inhabited a VR, you were conscious of it, so sustaining its illusion depended on willing suspension of disbelief. With the egg, however, you got total involvement through all sensory modalities—the worlds were so compelling that people waking from them often seemed lost in the waking world, as if it were a dream.
A needle punched into a membrane set in one of the neural cables and injected a neuropeptide mix. Gonzales was transported.
It was the final day of Gonzales's three week stay in Pagan, the town in central Myanmar where the government had moved its records decades earlier, in the wake of ethnic rioting in Yangon. He sat with Grossback, the Division Head of SenTrax Myanmar, at a central rosewood table in the main conference room. The table's work stations, embedded oblongs of glass, lay dark and silent in front of them.
Gonzales had come to Myanmar to do an information audit. The local SenTrax group supplied the Federated State of Myanmar with its primary information utilities: all its records of personnel and materiel, and all transactions among them. A month earlier, SenTrax Myanmar's reports had triggered "look-see" alarms in the home company's passive auditing programs, and Gonzales and his memex had been sent to look more closely at the raw data.
So for twenty straight days Gonzales and the memex had explored data structures and their contents, testing nominal functional relationships against reality. Wherever there were movements of information, money, equipment or personnel, there were records, and the two followed. They searched cash trails, matched purchase orders to services and materiel, verified voucher signatures with personnel records, cross-checked the personnel records themselves against government databases, and traced the backgrounds and movements of the people they represented; they read contracts and back-chased to their bid and acquisition; they verified daily transaction logs.
Hard, slogging work, all patience and detail, and so far it had shown nothing but the usual inefficiencies—Grossback didn't run a particularly taut operation, but, as of the moment, he didn't seem to have a corrupt one. However, neither he nor SenTrax Myanmar was cleared yet; Gonzales's final report would come later, after he and the memex had analyzed the records at their leisure.
Gonzales stretched and rubbed his eyes. As usual at the end of short-term, intensive gigs like this, he felt tired, washed-out, eager to go. He said to Grossback, "I've got a company plane out of here late this afternoon to Bangkok. I'll connect with whatever commercial flight's available there."
Grossback smiled, obviously glad Gonzales was leaving. Grossback was a slight man, of mixed German and Thai descent; he had a light brown complexion, black hair, and delicate features. He wore politically correct clothing in the old-fashioned Burmese style: a dark skirt called a longyi, a white cotton shirt.
During Gonzales's time there, Grossback had dealt with him coldly and correctly from behind a mask of corporate protocol and clenched teeth. Fair enough, Gonzales had thought: the man's operation was suspect, and him along with it. Anyway, people resented these outside intrusions almost every time; representing Internal Affairs, Gonzales answered only to his division head, F.L. Traynor, and SenTrax Board, and that made almost everyone nervous.
"You leaving out of Myaung U Airport?" Grossback asked.
"No, I've asked for a pick-up south of town." Like anyone else who could arrange it, he was not going to fly out of Pagan's official airport, where partisan groups had several times brought down aircraft. Surely Grossback knew that.
Grossback asked, "What will your report say?"
Surprised, Gonzales said, "You know I can't tell you anything about that." Even mentioning the matter constituted an embarrassment, not to mention a reportable violation of corporate protocol. The man was either stupid or desperate.
"You haven't found anything," Grossback said.
What was his problem? Gonzales said, "I have a year's data to examine before I can make an assessment."
"You won't tell me what the preliminary report will look like," Grossback said. His face had gone cold.
"No," said Gonzales. He stood and said, "I have to finish packing." For the moment, he just wanted to get out before Grossback did something irretrievable, like threatening him or offering a bribe. "Goodbye," Gonzales said. The other man said nothing as Gonzales left the room.
Gonzales returned to the Thiripyitsaya Hotel, a collection of low bungalows fabricated from bamboo and ferro-concrete that stood above the Irrawady River. The rooms were afflicted by Myanmar's tattered version of Asian tourist decor: lacquered bamboo on the walls, along with leaping dragon holos, black teak dresser, tables, chairs, and bed frame, ceiling fans that had wandered in from the twentieth century—just to give your average citizen that rush of the Exotic East, Gonzales figured. However, the hotel had been rebuilt less than a decade before, so, by local standards, Gonzales had luxury: working climatizer, microwave, and refrigerator.
Of course, many nights the air conditioner didn't work, and Gonzales lay sweaty and semi-conscious through hot, humid nights then was greeted just after dawn by lizards fanning their ruby neck flaps and doing push ups.
He had gotten up several of those mornings and walked the cart paths that threaded the plains around Pagan, passing among the temples and pagodas as the sun rose and turned the morning mist into a huge veil of luminous pink, with the towers sticking up like fairy castles. Everywhere around Pagan were the temples, thousands of them, young and flourishing when William the Conqueror was king. Now, quick-fab structures housing government agencies nested among thousand year old pagodas, some in near perfect condition, like Thatbyinnu Temple, myriad others no more than ruins and forgotten names. You gained merit by building pagodas, not by keeping up those built by someone long dead.
Like some other Southeast Asian countries, Myanmar still was trying to recover from late-twentieth century politics; in Myanmar's case, its decades-long bout with round-robin military dictatorships and the chaos that came in their wake. And as was so often the case in politically wobbly countries, it still restricted access to the worldnet; through various kinds of governments, its leaders had found the prospect of free information flow unacceptable. Ka-band antennas were expensive, their use licensed by permits almost impossible to get. As a result, Gonzales and the memex had been like meat eaters stranded among vegetarians, unable to get their nourishment.
He'd taken down the memex that morning. Its functions dormant, it lay nestled inside one of his two fiber and aluminum shock-cases, ready for transport. The other case held memory boxes containing SenTrax Myanmar group's records.
When they got home, Gonzales would tell the memex the latest news about Grossback, how the man had cracked at the last moment. Gonzales was sure the m-i would think what he did—Grossback was dog dirty and scared they would find it.
At the edge of a sandy field south of Pagan, Gonzales waited for his plane. Gonzales wore his usual international traveller's mufti, a tan gabardine two-piece suit over an open-collared white linen shirt, dark brown slipover shoes. His hair was gathered back into a ponytail held together by a silver ring made from lizard figures joined head-to-tail. Next to him sat a soft brown leather bag and the two shock-cases.
In front of him a pagoda climbed in a series of steeples to a gilded and jeweled umbrella top, pointing to heaven. On its steps, beside the huge paw of a stone lion, a monk sat in full lotus, his face shadowed by the animal rising massive and lumpy and mock fierce above him. The lion's flanks were dyed orange by sunset, its lips stained the color of dried blood. The minutes passed, and the monk's voice droned, his face in shadow.
"Come tour the temples of ancient Pagan," a voice said. "Shwezigon, Ananda, Thatbyinnu—"
"Go away," Gonzales said to the tour cart that had rolled up behind him. It would hold two dozen or so passengers in eight rows of narrow wooden benches but was now empty—almost all the tourists would have joined the crush on the terraces of Thatbyinnu, where they could watch the sun set over the temple plain.
"Last tour of the day," the cart said. "Very cheap, also very good exchange rate offered as courtesy to visitors."
It wanted to exchange kyats for dollars or yen: in Myanmar, even the machines worked the black market. "No thanks."
"Extremely good rate, sir."
"Fuck off," Gonzales said. "Or I'll report you as defective." The cart whirred as it moved away.
Gonzales watched a young monk eyeing him from the other side of the road, ready to come across and beg for pencils or money. Gonzales caught the monk's eye and shook his head. The monk shrugged and walked on, his orange robe billowing.
Where the hell was his plane? Soon hunter flares would cut into the new moon's dark, and government drones would scurry around the edges of the shadows like huge mutant bats. Upcountry Myanmar trembled on the edge of chaos, beset by a multi-ethnic mix of Karens, Kachins, and Shans in various political postures, all fierce, all contemptuous of the central government. They fought with whatever was at hand, from sharpened stick to backpack missile, and they only quit when they died.
A high-pitched wail built quickly until it filled the air. Within seconds a silver swing-wing, an ungainly thing, each huge rectangular wing loaded with a bulbous, oversized engine pod, came low over the dark mass of forest. Its running lights flashing red and yellow, the swing-wing slewed to a stop above the field, wings tilting to the perpendicular and engine sound dropping into the bass. Its spots picked out a ten-meter circle of white light that the aircraft dropped into, blowing clouds of sand that swept over Gonzales in a whirlwind. The inverted fans' roar dropped to a whisper, and with a creak the plane kneeled on its gear, placing the cockpit almost on the ground. Gonzales picked up his bags and walked toward the plane. A ladder unfolded with a hydraulic hiss, and Gonzales stepped up and into the plane's bubble.
"Mikhail Gonzales?" the pilot asked. His multi-function flight glasses were tilted back on his forehead, where their mirrored ovoid lenses made a blank second pair of eyes; a thin strand of black fiberoptic cable trailed from their rim. Beneath the glasses, his thin face was brown and seamed—no cosmetic work for this guy, Gonzales thought. The man wore a throwaway "tropical" shirt with dancing pink flamingos on a navy blue background.
"That's me," Gonzales said. He gestured with the shock-case in his right hand, and the pilot toggled a switch that opened the luggage locker. Gonzales put his bags into the steel compartment and watched as the safety net pulled tight against the bags and the compartment door closed. He took a seat in the first of eight empty rows behind the pilot. Cushions sighed beneath him, and from the seatback in front of him a feminine voice said, "You should engage your harness. If you need instructions, please say so now."
Gonzales snapped closed the trapezoidal catch where shoulder and lap belts connected, then stretched against the harness, feeling the sweat dry on his skin in the plane's cool interior. "Thank you," said the voice.
The pilot was speaking to Myaung U Airport traffic control as the plane lifted into twilight over the city. The soft white glow from the dome light vanished, then there were only the last moments of orange sunlight coming through the bubble.
The temple plain was spread out beneath, all murk and shadow, with the temple and pagoda spires reaching up toward the light, white stucco and gold tinted red and orange.
"Man, that's a beautiful sight," the pilot said.
"You're right," Gonzales said. It was, but he'd seen it before, and besides, it had already been a long day.
The pilot flipped his glasses down, and the plane banked left and headed south along the river. Gonzales lay back in his seat and tried to relax.
They flew above black water, following the Irrawady River until they crossed an international flyway to Bangkok. Dozing in the interior darkness, Gonzales was almost asleep when he heard the pilot say, "Shit, somebody's here. Partisan attack group, probably—no recognition codes. Must be flying ultralights—our radar didn't see them. We've got an image now, though."
"Any problem?" Gonzales asked.
"Just coming for a look. They don't bother foreign charters." And he pointed to their transponder message flashing above the primary displays:
THIS INTERNATIONAL FLIGHT IS NON-MILITARY.
IT CLAIMS RIGHT OF PASSAGE
UNDER U.N. ACT OF 2020.
It would keep on repeating until they crossed into Thai airspace.
The flight computer display lit bright red with COLLISION WARNING, and a Klaxon howl filled the plane's interior. The pilot said, "Fuck, they launched!" The swing-wing's turbines screamed full out as the plane's computer took command, and the pilot's hands gripped his yoke, not guiding, just hanging on.
Gonzales's straps pulled tight as the plane tumbled and fell, corkscrewed, looped, climbed again—smart metal fish evading fiery harpoons. Explosions blossomed in the dark, quick asymmetrical bursts of flame followed immediately by hard thumping sounds and shock waves that knocked the swing-wing as it followed its chaotic path through the night.
Then an aircraft appeared, flaring in fire that surged around it, its pilot in blazing outline—a stick figure with arms thrown to the sky in the instant before pilot and aircraft disintegrated in flame.
Their own flight went steady and level, and control returned to the pilot's yoke. Gonzales's shocked retinas sparkled as the night returned to blackness. "Collision averted," the plane's computer said. "Time in red zone, six point eight nine seconds."
"What the hell?" Gonzales said. "What happened?"
"Holy Jesus motherfucker," the pilot said.
Gonzales sat gripping his seat, chilled by the blast of cold air from the plane's air conditioner onto his sweat-soaked shirt. He glanced down to his lap: no, he hadn't pissed himself. Really, everything happened too quickly for him to get that scared.
A Mitsubishi-McDonnell "Loup Garou" warplane dived in front of them and circled in slow motion. Like the ultralights it was cast in matte black, but with a massive fuselage. It turned a slow barrel roll as it circled them, lazy predator looping fat, slow prey, then turned on brilliant floods that played across their canopy.
The pilot and Gonzales both froze in the glare.
Then the Loup Garou's black cockpit did a reverse-fade; behind the transparent shell Gonzales saw the mirror-visored pilot, twin cables running from the base of his neck. The Loup Garou's wings slid forward into reverse-sweep, and it stood on its tail and disappeared.
Gonzales strained against his taut harness.
"Assholes!" the pilot screamed.
"Who was that?" Gonzales asked, his voice thin and shaking. "What do you mean?"
"The Myanmar Air Force," the pilot said, his voice tight, face red beneath the flight glasses' mirrors. "They set us up, the pricks. They used us to troll for a guerrilla flight." The pilot flipped up his glasses and stared with pointless intensity out the cockpit window, as if he could see through the blackness. "And waited," he said. "Waited till they had the whole flight." The pilot swiveled around abruptly and faced Gonzales, his features distorted into a mad and angry caricature of the man who had welcomed Gonzales ninety minutes before. "Do you know how fucking close we came?" he asked.
No, Gonzales shook his head. No.
"Milliseconds, man. Fucking milliseconds. Close enough to touch," the pilot said. He swiveled his seat to face forward, and Gonzales heard its locking mechanism click as he settled back into his own seat, fear and shame spraying a wild neurochemical mix inside his brain—
Gonzales had never felt things like this before—death down his spine and up his gut, up his throat and nose, as close as his skin; death with a bad smell burning, burning
As the morning passed, the sun moved away from the stained glass, and the room's interior went to gloom. Only monitor lights remained lit, steady rows of green above flickering columns of numbers on the light blue face of the monitor panel.
A housekeeping robot, a pod the size of a large goose, worked slowly across the floor, nuzzled into the room's corners, then left the room, its motion tentacles beneath it making a sound like wind through dry grass.
The cockpit display flashed as landing codes fed through the flight computer, then the swing-wing locked into the Bangkok landing grid and began its slide down an invisible pipe. They went to touchdown guided by electronic hands.
The pilot turned to Gonzales as they descended and said, "I'll have to file a report on the attack. But you're lucky—if we had landed in Myanmar, government investigators would have been on you like white on rice, and you could forget about leaving for days, maybe weeks. You're okay now: by the time they process the report and ask the Thais to hold you, you'll be gone."
At the moment, the last thing Gonzales wanted to do was spend any time in Myanmar. "I'll get out as quickly as I can," he said.
Now that it was all over, he could feel the Fear climbing in him like the onset of a dangerous drug. Trying to calm himself, he thought, really, nothing happened, except you got the shit scared out of you, that's all.
As the swing-wing settled on the pad, Gonzales stood and went to pick up his luggage from the open baggage hold. The pilot sat watching as the plane went through its shutdown procedures.
Do something, Gonzales said to himself, feeling panic mount. He pulled the memex's case out of the hold and said, "I want a copy of your flight records."
"I can't do that."
"You can. I'm working with Internal Affairs, and I was almost killed while flying in your aircraft."
"So was I, man."
"Indeed. But I need this data. Later, IA will go the full official route and pick everything up, but I need it now. A quick dump into my machine here, that's all it will take. I'll give you authorization and receipt." Gonzales waited, keeping the pressure on by his insistent gaze and posture.
The pilot said, "Okay, that ought to cover my ass."
Gonzales slid the shock-case next to the pilot's seat, kneeled and opened the lid. "Are you recording?" he asked the pilot.
The man nodded and said, "Always."
"That's what I thought. All right, then: for the record, this is Mikhail Mikhailovitch Gonzales, senior employee of Internal Affairs Division, SenTrax. I am acquiring flight records of this aircraft to assist in my investigation of certain events that occurred during its most recent flight." He looked at the pilot. "That should do it," he said.
He pulled out a data lead from the case and snapped it into the access plug on the instrument panel. Lights flashed across the panel as data began to spool into the quiescent memex. The panel gonged softly to signal transfer was complete, and Gonzales unplugged the lead and closed the case. "Thanks," he said to the pilot, who sat staring out the cockpit bubble.
Gonzales stood and patted the case and thought to himself, hey, memex, got a surprise for you when you wake up. He felt much better.
A carry-slide hauled Gonzales a mile or so through a brightly-lit tunnel with baby blue plastic and plaster walls marked with signs in half a dozen languages promising swift retribution for vandalism. Red and green virus graffiti smeared everything, signs included, and as Gonzales watched, messages in Thai and Burmese transmuted, and new stick figures emerged with dialogue balloons saying god knows what. A lone phrase in red paint read in English, HEROIN ALPHA DEVIL FLOWER. Shattered boxes of black fibroid or coarse sprays of multi-wire cable marked where surveillance cameras had been.
Grey floor-to-ceiling steel shutters blocked the narrow portal to International Arrivals and Departures. Faceless holoscan robots—dark, wheeled cubes with carbon-fiber armor and tentacles and spiked sensor antennas—worked the crowd, antennas swiveling.
All around were Asian travelers, dark-suited men and women: Japanese, Chinese, Malaysians, Indonesians, Thai. They spread out from Asia's "dragons," world centers of research and manufacturing, taking their low margins and hard sell to Europe and the Americas, where consumption had become a way of life. Everywhere Gonzales traveled, it seemed, he found them: cadres armed with technical and scientific prowess and fueled by persistent ambition.
They formed the steel core of much of the world's prosperity. The United States and the dragons lived in uneasy symbiosis: the Asians had a hundred ways of making sure the American economy didn't just roll over and die and take the prime North American consumer market with it. Whether Japanese, Koreans, Taiwanese, Hong Kong Chinese-Canadians—they bought some corporations and merged with others, and Americans ended up working for General Motors Fanuc, Chrysler Mitsubishi, or Daewoo-DEC, and with their paychecks they bought Japanese memexes, Korean autos, Malaysian robotics.
Shutter blades cranked open with a quick scream of metal, and Gonzales stepped inside. An Egyptian guard in a white headdress, blue-and-white checked headband, and gray U.N. drag cross-checked his i.d., gave a quick, meaningless smile—teeth white and perfect under a black moustache—and waved him on.
Southeast Asian Faction Customs waited in the form of a small Thai woman in a brown uniform with indecipherable scrawls across yellow badges. Her features were pleasant and impassive; she wore her black hair pulled tightly back and held with a clear plastic comb. She stood behind a gray metal table; on the floor next to it was a two-meter high general purpose scanner, its controls, screens, and read-outs hidden under a black cloth hood. Dirty green walls wore erratically-spaced signs in a dozen languages, detailing in small type the many categories of contraband.
The woman motioned for him to sit in the upright chair in front of the table, then for him to put his clothes bag and cases on the table.
She spoke, and the translator box at her waist echoed in clear, neuter machine English: "Your person has been scanned and cleared." She put the soft brown bag into the mouth of the scanner, and the machine vetted the bag with a quiet beep. The woman slid it back to Gonzales.
She spoke again, and the translator said, "Please open these cases" as she pointed toward the two shock-cases. For each, Gonzales screened the access panel with his left hand and tapped in the entry codes with his right. The case lids lifted with a soft sigh. Inside the cases, monitor and diagnostic lights flashed above rows of memory modules, heavy solids of black plastic the size of a small safety deposit box.
Gonzales saw she was holding a copy of the Data Declaration Form the memex had filled out in Myanmar and transmitted to both Myanmar and Thai governments. She looked into one of the cases and pointed to a row of red-tagged and sealed memory modules.
The translator's words followed behind hers and said, "These modules we must hold to verify that they contain no contraband information."
"Myanmar customs did so. These are SenTrax corporate records."
"Perhaps they are. We have not cleared them."
"If you wish, I will give you the access protocols. I have nothing to hide, but the modules are important to my work."
She smiled. "I do not have proper equipment. They must be examined by authorities in the city." The translator's tones accurately reflected her lack of concern.
Gonzales sensed the onset of severe bureaucratic intransigence. For whatever occult reasons, this woman had decided to fuck him around, and the harder he pushed, the worse things would be. Give it up, then. He said, "I assume they will be returned to me as soon as possible."
"Certainly. After careful examination. Though it is unlikely that the examination can be completed before your departure." She slid the case off her desk and to the floor behind it. She was smiling again, a satisfied bureaucrat's smile. She turned back to her console, Gonzales's case already a thing of the past. She looked up to see him still standing there and said, "How else can I help you?"
The machine-world began to disperse, turning to fog, and as it did, banks of low-watt incandescents lit up around the room's perimeter, and the patterns of console lights went through a series of rapid permutations as Gonzales was brought to a waking state. The room's lights had been full up for an hour when the desynching series was complete and the egg began to split.
Inside the egg Gonzales lay pale, nude, near-comatose, machine-connected: a new millennium Snow White. A flesh-colored catheter led from his water-shrunken genitals, transparent iv feeds from both forearms. White sealant and anti-irritant paste had clotted around the tubes from throat and mouth. The sharp ozone smell of the paste was all over him.
An autogurney had rolled next to the egg, and its hands, shining chrome claws, began disconnecting tubes and leads. Then it worked with hands and black flexible arms the thickness of a stout rope to lift Gonzales from the egg and onto its own surface.
Gonzales woke up in his own bedroom and began to whimper. "It's okay," the memex whispered through the room's speaker. "It's okay."
Some time later Gonzales awoke again, lay in gloom and considered his condition. Some nausea, legs weak, but no apparent loss of gross motor control, no immediate parapsychological effects (disorientations, amnesias, synesthesias)
Gonzales got up and went to the bathroom, stood amid white tile, polished aluminum and mirrors and said, "Warm shower." Water hissed, and the shower stall door swung open. The water ran down his skin and the sweat and paste rolled off his body.
The next morning, Gonzales stood looking out his front window, down Capital Hill to the city and the bay. After a full night's sleep, he felt recovered from the egg. "Halfway down the hill stood a row of Contempo high-rises—half a dozen shapes in the mist, their sides laced with optic fiber in patterns of red, blue, white, and yellow.
From the wallscreen behind him, a voice said, "The Fine Arts Network, showing today only: the legendary 'Rothschild AdsOriginals and Copies,' a Euro/Com Production from the Cannes Festival; also showing, NipponAuto's 'Ecstasy for Many Kilometers.'"
"Cycle," Gonzales said. He turned to watch as the screen split into windows, showing eight at a time in a random access search. In the screen's upper-right corner, the Headline Service cycled what it considered important: worsening social collapse in England; another series of politico-economic triumphs for The Two Koreas. And the Ecostate Summaries: ozone hole 2 over the Antarctic conforming to predicted self-repair curve, hole 3 obstinately holding steady; CO2 portions unstable, ozone reaching for an ugly part of the graph; temperature fluctuations continuing to evade best predictions
Why call it news? wondered Gonzales. Call it olds. Christ, this stuff had been going on forever it seemed
He said, "Memex, what do you think about the attack?"
"A bad business," said the memex. "We are lucky to have survived." It seemed a bit subdued in the aftermath of the trip in the egg, as though it, too, had come close to dying. Gonzales didn't know how it experienced such things, given its limited sensory modalities and, he presumed, lack of a fear of death.
"What's happening in the real world?" Gonzales asked.
"Your mother left a message for you. Do you want to look at it now?"
"Might as well."
On the screen she lay back in a lawn chair, her face hidden behind a sun mask, her mono-bikinied body a rich brown. She sat up and said, "Still in Myanmar, huh, sweetie? When are you coming back? I'd love to talk, but I just won't pay those rates."
She removed her sun mask. She had dark skin and good bones; her face was nearly unlined, though her skin had the faint parchment quality of age. Her small breasts sagged very little. Body and face, she appeared an athletic fifty year old who had perhaps seen too much sun. She would turn eighty-seven next month.
Since Gonzales's father had died in a flash flu epidemic while the two were visiting Naples, his mother had turned her energies and interests to maintaining her health and appearance. Half the year she spent in Cozumel's Regeneration Villas, where tissue transplants and genetic retailoring kept her young. The rest of the time she occupied an entire floor of a low-res condo on Florida's decaying Gold Coast, just north of Ciudad de Miami. Top dollar, but she could afford it.
She and his father had been charter members of the gerontocracy, that ever-expanding league of the rich and old who vied with the young for their society's resources. The young had the strength and energy of youth; the old had wealth, power and cunning. No contest: kids under thirty often stated their main life's goal as "living until I am old enough to enjoy it."
Gonzales's mother draped a blue-and-white print cottonrobe over her shoulders and said, "Call me. I'll be home in a week or so. Be well."
Their talks, her taped messages—both usually made him feel baffled and angry—but today her self-absorption pricked sharper than usual. I almost died, he wanted to tell her, they almost killed me, mother.
But he was far away from her, as far as Seattle was from Miami. And whose fault is that? a small voice asked. He had chosen to come here, as distant Southern Florida as he could get and remain in the continental United States. Sometimes he felt he'd come a bit too far. In Florida, people cooled down with alcohol in iced drinks; here, they warmed their chilly selves with strong coffee. Gonzales often felt lost among the glum and health-conscious Northerners and craved the Hispanic sensuality and demonstrativeness of Southern Florida.
Still, how he hated the world he'd grown up in. He had seen the movers, dealers, and players since he was a child, and in all of them he had felt the same obsessive grasping at money and land and power and had heard the same childish voices, wanting more more more. At his parents' parties, he remembered dark Southern Florida faces—sun-burned whites, blacks, Hispanics; men with heavy gold jewelry, trailing clouds of expensive cologne, and women with stiff hair and pushed-up breasts whose laughter made brittle footnotes to the men's loud voices. He'd fled all that as instinctively as a child yanks its hand from a fire.
Both there and here he stood in an alien land, no more at home at one end of the country than the other.
"No reply," Gonzales said.
The next day Gonzales sat in the solarium, where he lounged among black lacquer and etched glass while thoughts of death gnawed at the edges of his torpor. He filled a bronze pipe with small green sensemilla leaves and holed up in a haze of smoke and drank tea.
The late afternoon light through the windows went to pure Seattle Gray, the color of ennui and unemphatic despair, and his solitude became oppressive. He needed company, he thought, and wondered what it would be like to have a cat. Then he thought about the truth of it, how often he would be gone and the cat left to itself and the house's machines. "Here kitty kitty," the cleaning robot would say, and the memex would want veterinary programs and a diagnostic link fuck it, they all could live without a cat.
Then a hunger kick came on him, and he decided to make taboulleh. "You are not taking care of business," the memex said to Gonzales as he stood chopping mint leaves, green onions and tomato, squeezing lemon and stirring in bulgur wheat with the patience of the deeply-stoned.
"True," Gonzales said. "I'm in no hurry."
"Why not? Since your return from Asia, you have not been productive."
"I'm going to die, my friend." The smells of lemon and mint drifted up to him, and he inhaled them deeply. He said, "Today, mañana, some day for sure and I'm still trying to understand what that means to me now. To be productive, that is fine, but to come to terms with my own mortality I think that is better." The taboulleh was finished. It was beautiful; he wanted to rub his face in it.
Not long after he finished eating, a package arrived from Thailand. Inside layers of foam and strapping were the memory modules the Thais had taken. When he plugged the modules into the memex, they showed empty: zeroed, ready to be used again.
Gonzales stood looking at the racked modules in the memex closet. I can't fucking believe it, he thought. In effect, the audit had been cancelled out. Whatever data he or anyone else collected at this point from SenTrax Myanmar would be essentially useless, Grossback having been given time to cook the data if he needed to do so. A fatal indeterminacy had settled on the whole affair.
Grossback, you bastard, thought Gonzales. If you arranged for the Thais to grab these boxes, maybe you are smarter and meaner than I thought.
"Shit," Gonzales said.
"Is there anything I can do?" the memex asked.
"Nothing I can think of."
From the background of jungle plants and pastel walls and the signature pieces of curved silver, HeyMex recognized the latest incarnation of the Beverly Rodeo Hotel's public lounge. Mister Jones preferred ostentation, even in simulacra.
HeyMex settled into a sling chair made of bright chrome and stuffed chocolate-brown leather. HeyMex wore the usual baggy pants and jacket of black cotton, a crumpled white linen shirt; was smooth-faced and had close-cropped hair.
A figure shimmered into being in the chair opposite: silver suit and red metal-laced shirt brilliant under lights; black-framed glasses with dark lenses; greased hair combed straight back, a little black goatee and moustache.
"Mister Jones," HeyMex said.
The other figure took a long, slow drag off a brown cigarette. "HeyMex," it said. "What can I do for you?"
"It's Gonzales. Since we got back from Myanmar, he's been passive, hasn't been taking care of business."
"Post-trauma response—give him some time, he'll be okay."
"No, he doesn't need time. He needs work. Have you got something?"
"Maybe. I haven't run a personnel search—he might not fit the exact profile."
"Never mind that. Give it to Gonzales. He needs it."
"If you say so. You'll hear something official later today."
The world went translucent, then turned to smoke, and Mister Jones disappeared back into his identity as Traynor's Advisor, HeyMex into his as Gonzales's memex.
(Ask yourself why the two machines chose this elaborate masquerade, or why no one knew these sorts of things were happening. However, as to the who? and the why? there can be no question. These are the new players, and these are their games.
So welcome to the new millennium.)
When Gonzales returned home, he found a message from Traynor: "Will arrange for transportation tomorrow morning, five a.m., from Northern Seattle Airtrack to my estate. Be prepared for immediate work. Pack the memex and twenty-two kilos personal luggage."
"Shit," Gonzales said. "We just got home. Twenty-two kilos, huh? That means we'll be going where do you think?"
The memex said, "Somewhere in orbit."
The airport limo held its spot in a locked sequence of a dozen vehicles moving away from the city at two hundred kilometers an hour. Seattle's northern suburbs showed as patches of light behind shifting mist and steady-falling rain. Overhead, cargo blimps flying toward Vancouver moved through the clouds like great cold water fish.
Gonzales got a quick view of a square where white and yellow searchlights played across a concrete landscape, and a gangling assemblage of pipe and wire stepped crab-wise as it sprayed a brick wall: a graffiti robot, a machine built and set loose to scrawl messages to the world at large. Gonzales could only read GENT OF CHAN
With a sigh from its turbines, the limo slowed to exit into North Seattle Airtrack, then turned into the private field access road. A wire gate opened in front of them as it received the codes the limo sent. Near the SenTrax hangar waited a swing-wing exactly like the one that had taken Gonzales from Pagan to Bangkok. Gonzales climbed into the plane, placed his bag and the memex's shock-cases into the plane's baggage locker, seated himself, and pulled his shoulder harness tight.
The swing-wing rose into clouds and fog. After a while, the blank whiteness out the windows and steady noise of the swing-wing's engines lulled Gonzales into a light sleep that lasted until the ascending scream of engine noise told him they were landing.
As the plane tilted, Gonzales saw the blue sheet of Lake Tahoe stretching away to the south, then a patch of green lawn on the water's edge that grew bigger as the swing-wing made its final approach to Traynor's estate.
From his six years' work with Internal Affairs, the past two as independent auditor, Gonzales knew quite a bit about Frederick Lewis Traynor, his boss. Traynor had wealth sufficient for even the most extravagant tastes—it was his family's, and he had known nothing else—but power whose smallest touch could shape lives, imprint stone, that he longed for. From his position as head of Internal Affairs, one of SenTrax's most powerful divisions, he plotted ascent to the SenTrax Board; he wanted to be one of the twenty people who had moved beyond negotiation and compromise, whose desires were reality, whims action.
In fact, Traynor had already achieved a level of eminence that is privileged, when it wishes, not to exist. His house and land occupied a chunk of the North Shore of Lake Tahoe where there had once been two casino-hotels and a section of state highway. The hotels had been demolished, the highway diverted. The grounds were now surrounded by a four-meter high fence of slatted black steel—alarmed, hot-wired, and robot-patrolled. The estate showed on no map or record of purchase, ownership or taxation; neither did the man himself.
When Gonzales stepped out of the plane onto a great expanse of green lawn, Traynor waited to meet him. He was short and pudgy, and his skin was pale. His sparse hair lay limp in dark curls on his skull. On his feet were soft black slippers, and he wore an embroidered silk robe—green and blue and white and red, with rearing dragons across back and front. He thought of himself as Byronic—eccentric and interesting, afflicted by genius—but to Gonzales and many others he appeared simply petulant and self-indulgent.
Traynor stretched his arms wide and said, "Mikhail," giving the name three syllables, saying it right, then took Gonzales in a brief hug. Traynor then stood back and looked at him and said, "You don't look too bad."
"Is that why you brought me here, to look at me?"
Traynor shrugged. "For that, maybe, and to talk to you about your next job. Besides, I like you."
Gonzales supposed that Traynor did like him, in his peculiar boss's and rich man's way. Particularly, he seemed to like the fact that Gonzales wasn't awed by the outward and visible manifestations of his money and power.
"Good breeding," Traynor had said to him once. "That's your secret: patrician and plebian blood mixed." Mikhail Mikhailovitch Gonzales was of mixed blood indeed; among others, Russian Jews and Hispanics from Los Angeles on his mother's side, Blacks from Chicago and Cubans from Miami on his father's. Among his family background were slaves and field workers and bourgeois counter-revolutionaries, along with the odd artist and smuggler and con man.
However, whatever his breeding or experience, he had to put up with lots of cheerful, condescending bullshit from Traynor, as he had to put up with Traynor in general, because the man was rich and powerful and the boss, and neither of them ever forgot it.
The two walked toward the house that stood facing the lake at the lawn's far border, a Stately Home an idealized eighteenth-century English architect might have built for an equally idealized and indulgent patron. Off a golden domed center stood three wings of creamy stone, the whole in restrained neo-Palladian with no modern excesses of material, no foamed colored concrete and composites, just the tan and creamy sandstone and rose marble speaking wealth and taste.
They climbed up marble stairs and passed into the house and under a looming interior dome that soared high above the central rotunda where the house's three wings joined. They walked down a hallway of dark wainscoting below cream walls and ceiling.
Gonzales caught glimpses of side rooms through open doorways as they passed. One room appeared to front upon a night filled with swirling nebulae and a million stars, the next on sunshine and dazzling snows. Still another contained nothing but white walls, floors of polished marble and a five-meter hand centered motionless in mid-air—index finger extended, other three fingers curled against the palm, thumb erect on top like the hammer of a make-believe gun.
Mahogany doors parted in front of the two men, and they passed into the library. Its dark-paneled walls gave away nothing: even close up, the books might have been holo-fronts, might have been real. Flat data entry modules were laid into mahogany side tables that stood next to red leather easy chairs and maroon velour couches.
"Sit down, Mikhail," Traynor said.
Gonzales could feel the silence heavy and somber among the dark invocations of another time, leather and furnishings conjuring up men's clubs, smoking rooms, the somber whispers of deals going down.
Traynor's eyes lost focus as he went rapt, listening to his voice within. Even if he hadn't been aware of Traynor's dependence on his Advisor, Gonzales would have known what was happening. Traynor, higher up in the executive food chain than anyone else of Gonzales's acquaintance, needed permanent real-time access to the information, advice, and general emotional support his Advisor supplied, so Traynor was wired with a bone-set transceiver just under his left ear. Wherever he went, his Advisor's voice went with him, through cellular networks and satellite links.
Traynor finally looked up and said, "Look, I want you to get focused on a job you're going to do for me. Can you do that?" Gonzales shrugged. Traynor said, "You're upset and angry—you were attacked, almost killed—I know that. But look: you work for Internal Affairs, it's an occupational hazard. You and your machine poked hard at this man's operation, and you spooked him, so he did something stupid."
"And I want to make him pay for it."
"You play along with me on this one, and maybe you'll be able to. But later—now I've got other work for you."
"Okay, I'll do it." Gonzales knew he had to play along: it was his only chance to even things up with Grossback. Play now, pay back later.
"Good," Traynor said. "How much do you know about Halo City and Aleph?"
"The city was put together by a multi-national consortium. SenTrax has a data monopoly, employs a large-scale m-i to administer the city. That's about all I know."
The wallscreen at one end lit up with a glyph in hard black:
The voice of Traynor's Advisor spoke through a ceiling speaker; it said, "The sign you are looking at is the original emblem of the Aleph system when it was built by SenTrax. In Cantor's notation, it represents the first of the transfinite numbers—denoting the infinite set of integers and fractions, or natural numbers. Aleph is also the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and the name of a story——"
"Get on with it," Traynor said.
"The system was constructed at Athena Station, in geosynchronous orbit, where it supervised the construction of the Orbital Energy Grid, and later was transported to Halo City, at L5, where it serves as the primary agent of data interpretation, logistical planning, and administration."
Gonzales said, "Seems odd to have a project the size and importance of Halo administered by an obsolete m-i."
"It would be so if Aleph were obsolete," answered the Advisor. "However, this is not the case. The machine we refer to as Aleph, has capabilities superior to any existing m-i."
Gonzales looked at Traynor, who held up a hand, indicating have patience, and said, "Next series."
On the screen came a pan shot across a weightless space where a man floated, encased in a transparent plastic bubble. He was naked, and his limbs were shrunken and twisted. He had tubes in his nose, mouth, ears, penis, and anus, metal cups over his eyes. Two thick cables connected to junctions at the back of his neck.
The Advisor said, "This man's name is Jerry Chapman. He suffers from severe neural damage, the results of a toxin transmitted through seafood contaminated with toxic waste. Though most motor and sensory functions are disabled, he is not comatose. In fact, he appears to retain all intellectual function. Note the neural interface sockets: they are the key to what follows."
"He's at Halo?" Gonzales asked.
"Yes," the Advisor said. "He was taken there from Earth."
"Very special treatment," Gonzales said.
"The group at Halo has been looking for such an opportunity," the Advisor said. "To explore long-term Aleph-interface."
Traynor said, "In fact, Chapman's relations with Aleph go back to the machine's early days."
The Advisor said, "When he and Aleph worked with Doctor Diana Heywood, who at the time was employed by SenTrax at Athena Station. She was blind at that time."
"Even in this deck, Doctor Heywood's the joker," Traynor said. "She was involved with Aleph at the time, and later she and lived with Chapman, on Earth. She was released by SenTrax for unauthorized use of the Aleph system, but we've brought her back into our employ. She's going to Halo, where she will assist Aleph in an attempt to keep this man alive."
"Alive?" Gonzales asked, gesturing toward the hulk on the screen. "There doesn't seem much point." As he understood these things, given the man's condition, withdrawal processing should have started, SenTrax as medical guardians making application to the Federal Medical Courts for permission to cease support.
The Advisor said, "Aleph believes it can keep him alive in machine-space. There are special problems, as you can imagine, among them the need to have love, friendship I do not understand these matters well, but Aleph has communicated to me that the next weeks are critical for the patient."
Traynor said, "However, using Doctor Heywood presents its own problems."
"She left SenTrax years ago," the Advisor said. "In somewhat strained circumstances."
Traynor said, "So she has no reason to be loyal to the company." He paused. "And we have no reason to trust her."
Gonzales said, "I presume this is where I enter in?"
"Yes," Traynor said. "I want you to accompany her. You will represent me and, indirectly, SenTrax Board." Gonzales raised his eyebrows, and Traynor laughed. "Yes, I am representing the board on this one, unofficially—they see this treatment as being of enormous interest but wish to have a certain insulation between them and these matters, given that certain tricky legal issues will have to be skirted."
"Or trampled on," said Gonzales.
"As you wish," said Traynor. "The important point is this: from the board's point-of-view, Doctor Heywood cannot be trusted.
Gonzales said, "So you need a spy, and I'm it."
The Advisor said, "You represent properly vested interests in a situation where they would not otherwise be adequately represented."
Gonzales said, "That's a good one, 'represent properly vested interests.' I'll try to remember it. Okay, I'll do my best." He turned to face Traynor and said, "To get you on the board." Traynor laughed. Gonzales asked, "How long will this thing take?"
"Not too long," Traynor said.
The Advisor said, "Once Chapman's state has been stabilized—"
"Or he dies," Traynor said.
"Highly probable," said the Advisor. "Once he is stable—alive or dead—your job will be finished."
Traynor said, "But until then, your job is to let me know what's happening. You'll be in machine-space along with them, and you'll see what they're doing."
"Fine," Gonzales said. "So what do I do now?"
"You fly to Berkeley and talk to Doctor Heywood," Traynor said. "Introduce yourself. Make a friend."
Gonzales arrived at Berkeley Aeroport, a collection of cracked cement pads at the edge of the water, by mid-afternoon. He stepped out of the swing-wing into blazing sunshine. Across the bay, the Golden Gate and Alcatraz Island danced in the glare; the water glittered so intensely his sunglasses went nearly black.
A Truesdale rental waited for him in the parking lot. He stuck a SenTrax i.d./credit chip into its door slot, and the door retracted into its frame with a muted hiss. The Truesdale's windows had opaqued against the dazzle, and its passive a/c had been working, so the dark brown velvet seat was cool to the touch when Gonzales slid across it.
"Do you wish to drive, Mister Gonzales?" the car asked.
Gonzales said, "Not really. You know where we're going?"
"Yes, I have that address."
"Then you take it."
Diana Heywood lived in the Berkeley hills, in a Maybeck house more than a century old. The car drove Gonzales through streets that wound their way up the hillside, then stopped in front of a house whose redwood-shingled bulk loomed over Gonzales's head as he stood on the sidewalk. Sun glinted off the lozenged panes of its bay window.
Her door answered his knock by saying she was a few blocks away, at the Rose Gardens. The door said, "It is a civic project: volunteers are rebuilding the garden, which has fallen into disuse. Many of the local—"
"Thank you," Gonzales said.
He told the Truesdale where he was going and set off on foot in the direction the memex had indicated. To his left hand, streets and homes sloped down toward the bay; to his right, they climbed up the steep hillside.
Gonzales came to a hand-lettered sign in green poster paint on white board that read:
BERKELEY ROSE GARDENS RECLAMATION PROJECT
He looked down to where broken redwood lattices fanned out along terraced pathways threaded with a clumsy patchwork of green pvc irrigation pipes. Halfway down stood a cracked and peeling trellis of white-painted wood with bushes dangling from its gaps. Next to the trellis, a small gardener robot, a green plastic-coated block on miniature tractor wheels, extended a delicate arm of shining coiled steel ending in a ten-fingered fibroid hand. The hand closed, and a dark red rose came away from its bush. Clutching the blossom, the little robot wheeled away.
Gonzales walked down the inclined pathway, his feet crunching on gravel, past the bushes and their labels stating often improbable names: Dortmunds with red, papery petals, large Garden Parties flamboyant in white and yellow, Montezumas, Martin Frobishers, and Mighty Mouses. He stopped and inhaled the strong perfume of purple Intrigue. In the recombinant section, Halos, blossoms in careful rainbow stripes, had grown immense. Giant psychedelic grids, only vaguely rose-shaped, they pushed everything else aside. Gonzales put his nose above a pink blossom on a nameless bush; the rose smelled like peppermint candy.
He recognized the woman at the bottom of the path from dossier pictures Traynor had shown him. Diana Heywood wore a culotte dress of white cotton that exposed her shoulders, wrapped tightly about her waist, split to cover her thighs. Small and slender, she had close-cut dark hair, streaked with grey. No age in her skin; fine, sculpted features. She wore glasses as opaque as Gonzales's own.
She held out the thorny stem of a dark-red rose. "Would you like a flower?" she asked. Sun across her face erased her features.
"Thanks," he said as he took the flower gingerly, aware of its thorns.
She said, "Who are you, and what do you want?"
"My name is Mikhail Gonzales, and I want to talk to you. I'll be working with you at Halo."
She said, "Will you?" Her back to him, she knelt and snipped away a greenish tangle of vine and thorn. The clippers choked on a clump of grass. She freed them, then threw them to the ground, where they stuck point-first, buzzed for a moment, then stopped. She looked over her shoulder at him and said, "I've been waiting for someone like you to show up—the company's lad, the one who keeps watch on me and poor old Jerry, to make sure we don't do anything unauthorized."
She stood and strode away from him, up the hill, her angry steps kicking dirt off the stones. She stopped and turned to face him. "Come on, Mister Gonzales," she said.
Cautiously holding the thorny stem, he followed her up the path.
Diana Heywood and Gonzales sat drinking tea. He said, "I'm the outside observer, yes—the spy, if you want—but I don't think we're at odds. They're asking you to do one job, me to do another, but I don't see where our jobs conflict." She turned to look at him; one eye was blue, the other green.
She said, "When Sentrax called me last week, that was the first time I'd heard from them since they got rid of me years ago. Not that they treated me badly, not by their standards. When they fired me, years ago, they didn't just turn me loose, they paid me well they're so prudent—it was like oiling and wrapping a tool before you put it away, because you might need it again. Now they've found a use for me and unwrapped me and put me to work, but I know they don't trust me. And of course I don't trust them." She stood up. She said, "Come on, I'll show you what this all means to me."
She led Gonzales into the next room, where their entry triggered the lighting systems. Silk walls the color of pale champagne were broken with floor-to-ceiling rosewood bookcases; teak-framed sling chairs and matching tables stood together under a multi-armed chrome lamp stand.
She stopped in front of a 1:6 scale hologram of a thin-featured man, apparently ill at ease at being holoed; hands in pockets, shoulders hunched, eyes not centered on the lens.
"That's Jerry," she said, pointing to the hologram. "He's what this is all about, so far as I'm concerned. He's been terribly injured, and Aleph thinks something can be done for him, and as unlikely as that seems, given the extent of his injuries, I will help as best I can." She looked at him, her face giving nothing away, and said, "Are we leaving tomorrow morning?"
"Well, then, I'd better get ready, hadn't I? Where are you staying?"
"I thought I'd get a hotel room."
"No need. You can sleep here. I'll finish packing, and we'll go out to eat."
Diana Heywood and Gonzales sat high in the Berkeley Hills, looking onto the vast conurbations spread out beneath them. To their right, the carpet of lights stretched away as far as they could see, to Vallejo and beyond. In front of them lay Berkeley, the dark mass of the bay, then the clustered lights of Sausalito and Tiburon against the hills. Oakland was to their left, reaching out to the Bay Bridge; and beyond the bridge, San Francisco and the peninsula. Connecting all, streams of automobiles moved in the symmetry of autodrive.
Gonzales's mouth still tingled from the hot chilies in the Thai food, and he had a buzz from the wine. They had eaten at a restaurant on the North Side, and afterward Diana Heywood guided the Truesdale up the winding road to an overlook near Tilden Park.
As minutes passed, the streets and highways and municipalities disappeared into semiotic abstraction these millions of human beings all gathered here for purposes one could only guess at—some conscious, most not, no more than a beaver's assembly of its structures of mud and wood.
A robot blimp passed across their line of sight. Beneath it, a sailboat hung upside down. It swayed from lines that connected its inverted keel to the blimp's featureless gondola. Lights on the side of the blimp read EAST BAY YACHT OUTFITTERS.
Diana Heywood said, "I know you people have your own agendas, and that's fine—that's the nature of the beast—but if you complicate these matters because of corporate politics, I will become very difficult."
Gonzales said, "I have no intention of being a problem."
"Well," she said. "Maybe you won't be." She turned to him. "But remember this: you're just doing your job, but the stakes are higher for me. Aleph, Jerry, and I—we've known each other for years, and I've got unfinished business up there. Also, I want to get back in the game."
"I don't understand."
"Sure you do, Mister Gonzales. You're in the game, have been for years, I'd guess. Unless I'm seriously mistaken, it's what you live for." She laughed when he said nothing. "Well, I've done other things, and for a long time I've been out of the game, but I'm ready for a change. Silly SenTrax bastards—manipulating me with their calls, sending you oh yeah, you're part of it, you remind me of Jerry years ago, if you don't know that."
"No, I didn't."
"It doesn't matter. Their machinations don't matter. They want to convince me to come to Halo?" She laughed. "My past is there, when I was blind and Aleph and I were linked to one another in ways you can't imagine and I found a lover I'd wish to find again. Come to Halo? I'd climb a rope to get there."
Gonzales had flown into McAuliffe Station once before, though he'd never taken an orbital flight. In the high Nevada desert, the station stayed busy night and day. Heavy shuttles composed the main traffic: wide white saucers that lifted off on ordinary rockets, then climbed away with sounds like bombs exploding when orbital lasers lit the hydrogen in their tanks. Flights in transit to Orbital Monitor & Defense Command stations were marked with small American flags and golden DoD insignia. Cargo for them went aboard in blank-faced pallets loaded behind opaque, machinepatrolled fences half a mile from the main terminal across empty desert.
From Traynor's briefing, Gonzales knew a few other things. Civilian flights fed the hungry settlements aloft: Athena Station, Halo City, the Moon's bases. All the settlements had learned the difficult tactics of recycling, discovery and hoarding. Water and oxygen stayed rare, while with processes slow and expensive and dangerous, metals of all sorts could be cracked out of soil so barren that to call it ore was a joke. And though water and metals had been found lodged in asteroids transported into trans-Earth orbit, Earth's bounty stood close and remained richer and more desirable than anything found in huge piles of crushed lunar soil or wandering frozen rock.
Standing at a v-phone booth in the hotel lobby, Gonzales made his farewell calls. His mother's message tape on the phone screen said, "Glad to hear you're back from Myanmar, dear, but you'll have to call back in a few days. I'm in treatment now. I'll be looking good the next time you call."
"End of call," Gonzales said. He pulled his card from the slot.
Atop a sand-colored blockhouse next to the launch pad, yellow luminescent letters read TIME 23:40:00 and TIME TO LAUNCH 35:00 when a voice said, "Please board. There will be one additional notice in five minutes. Board now."
Gonzales and Diana Heywood walked across the pad together, down the center of a walkway outlined in blinking red lights. Robotrucks scurried away, their electric engines whining. Faces hidden behind breather muzzles, men and women in bright orange stood atop red, wheeled platform consoles of girder and wire mesh and directed final pre-launch activities.
The white saucer stood on its fragile-seeming burn cradle, a spider's web of blackened metal. The saucer presented a smooth surface to the heat and stress of escape and re-entry. Intermittent surges of venting propellant surrounded it with steam.
A HICOG guard stood at the entrance glideway. He verified each of them with a quick wave of an identity wand across their badges, then passed them on through the search scanner. The glideway lifted them silently into the saucer's interior.
The hotel lounge stood halfway up the cliff. Its fifty meter wide window of thick glass belled out and up so that onlookers had a good view of the launch and ensuing climb.
"One minute to launch," a loudspeaker said. The hundred or so people in the lounge, most of them friends and relatives of saucer passengers, had already taken up places by the window bell.
The screen on a side wall counted down with gold numerals that flashed from small to large, traditional celebration both sentimental and ironic:
ZERO!!! And everyone cheered the saucer lifting from the center of billowing clouds of smoke, rising very slowly out of floodlights, then their breath caught at the size and beauty of it, trembling into night sky.
Up and up as they watched, until they saw the ignition flash, and the boom that came to them from five thousand feet shuddered the entire cliff and them with it.
"I've got orbital lock," the primary onboard computer said. Five others calculated and confirmed its control sequences. Technically, Ground Control McAuliffe or Athena Station Flight Operations could preempt control, but, practically, decision and control took place within milli-second or less windows of possibility, and so the onboard computers had to be adequate to all occasions.
Never deactivated, the ship's half-dozen computers practiced even when not flying, playing through ghastly and unlikely scenarios of mechanical failure, human insanity, "acts of god" in which the ship was struck by lightning, spun by tornado funnel, hurricane, blizzard. Each computer believed itself best, but there was little to choose among them.
"Confirm go state," Athena Station said. "You are past abort or bail."
"We are ready, Athena," the computer said.
"So come to me, then," Athena Station said, and the ship began to climb the beam of coherent light that reached up thirty thousand miles, to the first station of its journey.
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