Virtual light, p.1
Virtual Light, p.1Part #1 of Bridge series by William Gibson
William Gibson is the award-winning author of Neuromancer; Mona Lisa Overdrive; The Difference Engine, with Bruce Sterling; Burning Chrome, a collection of short stories; Idoru; and All Tomorrow’s Parties. He lives in Vancouver, Canada.
Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England
First published in the USA by Bantam Spectra 1993
First published in Great Britain by Viking 1993
Published in Penguin Books 1994
Copyright © William Gibson, 1993
All rights reserved
The moral right of the author has been asserted
Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
1: The luminous flesh of giants
2: Cruising with gunhead
3: Not a nice party
4: Career opportunities
5: Hay problemas
6: The bridge
7: See you do okay
8: Morning after
9: When diplomacy fails
10: The modern dance
11: Pulling tags
12: Eye movement
15: In 1015
17: The trap
20: The big empty
21: Cognitive dissidents
23: Gone and done it
24: Song of the central pier
25: Without a paddle
26: Colored people
27: After the storm
29: Dead mall
30: Carnival of souls
31: Driver side
34: Punching out of paradise
35: The republic of desire
36: Notebook (2)
37: Century city
38: Miracle mile
39: Celebration on a gray day
To Gary Gaetano Bandiera,
major dude, our friend
1 The luminous flesh of giants
The courier presses his forehead against layers of glass, argon, high-impact plastic. He watches a gunship traverse the city’s middle distance like a hunting wasp, death slung beneath its thorax in a smooth black pod.
Hours earlier, missiles have fallen in a northern suburb; seventy-three dead, the kill as yet unclaimed. But here the mirrored ziggurats down Lázaro Cárdenas flow with the luminous flesh of giants, shunting out the night’s barrage of dreams to the waiting avenidas—business as usual, world without end.
The air beyond the window touches each source of light with a faint hepatic corona, a tint of jaundice edging imperceptibly into brownish translucence. Fine dry flakes of fecal snow, billowing in from the sewage flats, have lodged in the lens of night.
Closing his eyes, he centers himself in the background hiss of climate-control. He imagines himself in Tokyo, this room in some new wing of the old Imperial. He sees himself in the streets of Chiyoda-ku, beneath the sighing trains. Red paper lanterns line a narrow lane.
He opens his eyes.
Mexico City is still there.
The eight empty bottles, plastic miniatures, are carefully aligned with the edge of the coffee table: a Japanese vodka, Come Back Salmon, its name more irritating than its lingering aftertaste.
On the screen above the console, the ptichka await him, all in a creamy frieze. When he takes up the remote, their high sharp cheekbones twist in the space behind his eyes. Their young men, invariably entering from behind, wear black leather gloves. Slavic faces, calling up unwanted fragments of a childhood: the reek of a black canal, steel racketing steel beneath a swaying train, the high old ceilings of an apartment overlooking a frozen park.
Twenty-eight peripheral images frame the Russians in their earnest coupling; he glimpses figures carried from the smoke-blackened car-deck of an Asian ferry.
He opens another of the little bottles.
Now the ptichka, their heads bobbing like well-oiled machines, swallow their arrogant, self-absorbed boyfriends. The camera angles recall the ardor of Soviet industrial cinema.
His gaze strays to NHK Weather. A low-pressure front is crossing Kansas. Next to it, an eerily calm Islamic downlink ceaselessly reiterates the name of God in a fractal-based calligraphy.
He drinks the vodka.
He watches television.
After midnight, at the intersection of Liverpool and Florencia, he stares out at the Zona Rosa from the back of a white Lada, a nanopore Swiss respirator chafing his freshly shaven chin.
And every passing face is masked, mouths and nostrils concealed behind filters. Some, honoring the Day of the Dead, resemble the silver-beaded jaws of grinning sugar-skulls. Whatever form they take, their manufacturers all make the same dubious, obliquely comforting claims about viroids.
He’s thought to escape the sameness, perhaps discover something of beauty or passing interest, but here there are only masked faces, his fear, the lights.
An ancient American car comes creeping through the turn, out of Avenida Chapultepec, gouts of carbon pulsing from beneath a dangling bumper. A dusty rind of cola-colored resin and shattered mirror seals its every surface; only the windshield is exposed, and this is black and glossy, opaque as a blob of ink, reminding him of the gunship’s lethal pod. He feels the fear begin to accrete, seamlessly, senselessly, with absolute conviction, around this carnival ghost, the Cadillac, this oil-burning relic in its spectral robe of smudged mosaic silver. Why is it allowed to add its filth to the already impossible air? Who sits inside, behind the black windshield?
Trembling, he watches the thing pass.
‘That car…’ He finds himself leaning forward, compulsively addressing the broad brown neck of the driver, whose massive ear lobes somehow recall reproduction pottery offered on the hotel’s shopping channel.
‘El coche,’ says the driver, who wears no mask, and turning, now seems to notice the courier for the first time. The courier sees the mirrored Cadillac flare, once, and briefly, with the reflected ruby of a nightclub’s laser, then gone.
The driver is staring at him.
He tells the driver to return to the hotel.
He comes awake from a dream of metal voices, down the vaulted concourses of some European airport, distant figures glimpsed in mute rituals of departure.
Darkness. The hiss of climate-control.
The touch of cot
He becomes aware of an inner balance, a rare equilibrium. It is all he knows of peace.
And, yes, the glasses are here, tucked beside his telephone. He draws them out, opening the ear pieces with a guilty pleasure that has somehow endured since Prague.
Very nearly a decade he has loved her, though he doesn’t think of it in those terms. But he has never bought another piece of software and the black plastic frames have started to lose their sheen. The label on the cassette is unreadable now, sueded white with his touch in the night. So many rooms like this one.
He has long since come to prefer her in silence. He no longer inserts the yellowing audio beads. He has learned to provide his own, whispering to her as he fast-forwards through the clumsy titles and up the moonlit ragged hillscape of a place that is neither Hollywood nor Rio, but some soft-focus digital approximation of both.
She is waiting for him, always, in the white house up the canyon road. The candles. The wine. The jet-beaded dress against the matte perfection of her skin, such whiteness, the black beads drawn smooth and cool as a snake’s belly up her tensed thigh.
Far away, beneath cotton sheets, his hands move.
Later, drifting toward sleep of a different texture, the phone beneath his pillow chimes softly and only once.
‘Confirming your reservation to San Francisco,’ someone says, either a woman or a machine. He touches a key, recording the flight number, says goodnight, and closes his eyes on the tenuous light sifting from the dark borders of the drapes.
Her white arms enfold him. Her blondness eternal.
2 Cruising with gunhead
IntenSecure had their wagons detailed every three shifts. They used this big specialty car wash off Colby; twenty coats of hand-rubbed Wet Honey Sienna and you didn’t let it get too shabby.
That one November evening the Republic of Desire put an end to his career in armed response, Berry Rydell had arrived there a little early.
He liked the way it smelled inside. They had this pink stuff they put through the power-washers to get the road film off, and the smell reminded him of a summer job he’d had in Knoxville, his last year in school. They’d been putting condos into the shell of this big old Safeway out on Jefferson Davis. The architects wanted the cinder block walls stripped just this one certain way, mostly gray showing through but some old pink Safeway paint left in the little dips and crannies. They were from Memphis and they wore black suits and white cotton shirts. The shirts had obviously cost more than the suits, or at least as much, and they never wore ties or undid the top button. Rydell had figured that that was a way for architects to dress; now he lived in L.A., he knew it was true. He’d overheard one of them explaining to the foreman that what they were doing was exposing the integrity of the material’s passage through time. He thought that was probably bullshit, but he sort of liked the sound of it anyway; like what happened to old people on television.
But what it really amounted to was getting most of this shitty old paint off thousands and thousands of square feet of equally shitty cinder block, and you did it with an oscillating spray-head on the end of a long stainless handle. If you thought the foreman wasn’t looking, you could aim it at another kid, twist out a thirty-foot rooster tail of stinging rainbow, and wash all his sunblock off. Rydell and his friends all wore this Australian stuff that came in serious colors, so you could see where you had and hadn’t put it. Had to get your right distance on it, though, ’cause up close those heads could take the chrome off a bumper. Rydell and Buddy Crigger both got fired for doing that, finally, and then they walked across Jeff Davis to a beer joint and Rydell wound up spending the night with this girl from Key West, the first time he’d ever slept beside a woman.
Now here he was in Los Angeles, driving a six-wheeled Hotspur Hussar with twenty coats of hand-rubbed lacquer. The Hussar was an armored Land Rover that could do a hundred and forty on a straightaway, assuming you could find one open and had the time to accelerate. Hernandez, his shift super, said you couldn’t trust an Englishman to build anything much bigger than a hat, not if you wanted it to work when you needed it; he said IntenSecure should’ve bought Israeli or at least Brazilian, and who needed Ralph Lauren to design a tank anyway?
Rydell didn’t know about that, but that paint job was definitely trying too hard. He thought they probably wanted people to think of those big brown United Parcel trucks, and at the same time they maybe hoped it would look sort of like something you’d see in an Episcopal church. Not too much gilt on the logo. Sort of restrained.
The people who worked in the car wash were mostly Mongolian immigrants, recent ones who had trouble getting better jobs. They did this crazy throat-singing thing while they worked, and he liked to hear that. He couldn’t figure out how they did it; sounded like tree-frogs, but like it was two sounds at once.
Now they were buffing the rows of chromed nubs down the sides. Those had been meant to support electric crowd-control grids and were just chromed for looks. The riot-wagons in Knoxville had been electrified, but with this drip-system that kept them wet, which was a lot nastier.
‘Sign here,’ said the crew boss, this quiet black kid named Anderson. He was a medical student, days, and he always looked like he was about two nights short of sleep.
Rydell took the pad and the light-pen and signed the signature-plate. Anderson handed Rydell the keys.
‘You ought to get you some rest,’ Rydell said. Anderson grinned, wanly. Rydell walked over to Gunhead, deactivating the door alarm.
Somebody had written that inside, ‘GUNHEAD,’ in green marker on the panel above the windshield. The name stuck, but mostly because Sublett liked it. Sublett was Texan, a refugee from some weird trailer-camp video-sect. He said his mother had been getting ready to deed his ass to the church, whatever that meant.
Sublett wasn’t too anxious to talk about it, but Rydell had gotten the idea that these people figured video was the Lord’s preferred means of communicating, the screen itself a kind of perpetually burning bush. ‘He’s in the de-tails,’ Sublett had said once. ‘You gotta watch for Him close.’ Whatever form this worship had taken, it was evident that Sublett had absorbed more television than anyone Rydell had ever met, mostly old movies on channels that never ran anything but. Sublett said Gunhead was the name of a robot tank in a Japanese monster movie. Hernandez thought Sublett had written the name on there himself. Sublett denied it. Hernandez said take it off. Sublett ignored him. It was still there, but Rydell knew Sublett was too law-abiding to commit any vandalism, and anyway the ink in the marker might’ve killed him.
Sublett had bad allergies. He went into shock from various kinds of cleaners and solvents, so you couldn’t get him to come into the car wash at all, ever. The allergies made him light sensitive, too, so he had to wear these mirrored contacts. What with the black IntenSecure uniform and his dry blond hair, the contacts made him look like some kind of Klan-assed Nazi robot. Which could get kind of complicated in the wrong store on Sunset, say three in the morning and all you really wanted was some mineral water and a Coke. But Rydell was always glad to have him on shift, because he was as determinedly nonviolent a rentacop as you were likely to find. And he probably wasn’t even crazy. Both of which were definite pluses for Rydell. As Hernandez was fond of pointing out, SoCal had stricter regulations for who could or couldn’t be a hairdresser.
Like Rydell, a lot of IntenSecure’s response people were former police officers of some kind, some were even ex-LAPD, and if the company’s rules about not carrying personal weapons on duty were any indication, his co-workers were expected to turn up packing all manner of hardware. There were metal detectors on the staff-room doors and Hernandez usually had a drawer full of push-daggers, nunchuks, stun-guns, knucks, boot-knives, and whatever else the detecto
The Glocks were standard police issue, at least twenty years old, that IntenSecure bought by the truckload from PDs that could afford to upgrade to caseless ammunition. If you did it by the book, you kept the Glocks in their plastic holsters, and kept the holsters Velcroed to the wagon’s central console. When you answered a call, you pulled a holstered pistol off the console and stuck it on the patch provided on your uniform. That was the only time you were supposed to be out of the wagon with a gun on, when you were actually responding.
The chunkers weren’t even guns, not legally anyway, but a ten-second burst at close range would chew somebody’s face off. They were Israeli riot-control devices, air-powered, that fired one-inch cubes of recycled rubber. They looked like the result of a forced union between a bullpup assault rifle and an industrial staple gun, except they were made out of this bright yellow plastic. When you pulled the trigger, those chunks came out in a solid stream. If you got really good with one, you could shoot around corners; just kind of bounce them off a convenient surface. Up close, they’d eventually cut a sheet of plywood in half, if you kept on shooting, and they left major bruises out to about thirty yards. The theory was, you didn’t always encounter that many armed intruders, and a chunker was a lot less likely to injure the client or the client’s property. If you did encounter an armed intruder, you had the Glock. Although the intruder was probably running caseless through a floating breech—not part of the theory. Nor was it part of the theory that seriously tooled-up intruders tended to be tightened on dancer, and were thereby both inhumanly fast and clinically psychotic.
There had been a lot of dancer in Knoxville, and some of it had gotten Rydell suspended. He’d crawled into an apartment where a machinist named Kenneth Turvey was holding his girlfriend, two little kids, and demanding to speak to the president. Turvey was white, skinny, hadn’t bathed in a month, and had the Last Supper tattooed on his chest. It was a very fresh tattoo; it hadn’t even scabbed over. Through a film of drying blood, Rydell could see that Jesus didn’t have any face. Neither did any of the Apostles.
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