[ Site Index] [ Fiction Index] [ Feedback ]
Above them the sky is a neon wash-out pierced by airship running lights.
"It's cold out here," says the Man in her soft, hoarse voice. "Won't you come in?"
The car is long and low and shiny. Jimmy gets in. He perches on the jump-seat opposite the Man. She wears a long sheepskin coat. He looks in her eyes and thinks of video cameras. Next to her sits some hired muscle, looking at him like Jimmy has a target pasted between his eyes. The Man can be crude in some ways. Very crude.
"Two days, Jimmy," she says.
He looks out the window. The sky is mirrored in the damp gutters.
"How much longer?" Her manner is exquisitely polite -- utterly threatening.
He shrugs. "It didn't come with a spec sheet."
The Man gives him a long look. "What needs working on?" she asks.
The car swings round a corner into a blind alley. Rubbish skips piled high with cartons conceal the far wall.
He explains, "I've got as far as the kernel's final password input. All we can do is wait. Breaking it is a semi-random process; two seconds or two weeks, who the hell knows? You can't just sit still and bash away at the front door -- it's got Orange Book security, you hang around thirty seconds after a miss and the police'll be all over you like flies on a turd." Out the rear window he sees shadowy figures drift past the entrance to the alley.
"Remember who owns you," the Man says. In the rear-view, one of the shadowy figures throws something. Jimmy blinks.
It is a smart grenade. It detonates two metres above the parked Mercedes; a computer-controlled sequence of charges compresses a slug of uranium into a white-hot dart the size of an ice-pick and spits it out.
The Man and her companion lose their heads. Bits of windscreen spray the street. Jimmy feels nothing but the jolt of expanding air.
He opens the door and pools the tarmac with vomit. He crawls out, stumbles to his feet and totters to the back of the alley. He sits down in the garbage and drips blood over crumpled sushi cartons. His nose is bleeding -- hydrostatic shock.
He watches the car. Steam curls from the open door. The alley smells of piss and burgers. A black cat leaps in through the open passenger door in search of scraps. Across the road, the lights of an amusement arcade exhort him to BOMB THE BASTARDS.
His ears ache.
Doctor Gordon Dexter, Vermont-born, Yale-educated chairman of Protein Technologies PLC, an Isle of Dogs-based research and development subsidiary of Chambers-Bayer, orders ginger and water chestnut vermicelli at an exclusive Japanese restaurant just north of Covent Garden.
His luncheon guest, Josephine Barr, manager of Chambers-Bayer's UK Patent Department in Denmark Street, picks the biggest lobster in the tank.
Dexter has a bad feeling about this.
He says, stiffly: "I am pleased you will be taking personal charge of this case. I do not want a repetition of yesterday's action."
Josephine Barr picks up her chopsticks and clacks them together moodily, as if they were a claw she'd just grown. "The initial choice of subject for your experiment has provided some, shall we say, unique challenges."
Dexter makes a placating gesture with the hand that's not pouring them tea. His back aches. Not enough squash this month, he thinks to himself and shuffles uncomfortably on his cushion. "We were rushed, and now your department takes the brunt -- it's in the nature of things. You must understand the uniqueness of the opportunity he represented, though. Days -- days! -- after we are given the necessary protocols, the subject presented at a Chambers-Bayer sponsored clinic -- in London at that -- complaining of headaches!
"He has an inaccessible tumor in his amygdala. Surgical excision is impossible because of the probability of brain damage, and death due to hydrocephalus is likely in one or two years."
"Forgive me -- elevated pressure within the skull." Dexter smiles to himself. He likes people who ask questions. He thinks back with some nostalgia to his promising teaching career, now blighted by Protein's multi-billion ECU research grant.
"Unfortunately," Josephine points out sharply, "your subject worked for the most sophisticated data pirate in the whole Square Five Mile."
"That was no excuse to indulge in one of the most absurd and bloody -- " Dexter raises his voice as he speaks. He does not like being put on the defensive.
Josephine's lobster arrives. Dexter shuts up. He blanches. The lobster is raw, served on a bed of diced puffer-fish. He looks at her and catches the ghost of a smile on her lips. She does not move. He swallows, hard. "Please, don't wait for me," he murmers.
"Oh, it's not hot, I'll wait." She drains her cup.
Dexter fills it for her again and says, "Hydrostatic shock alone could have damaged him."
Josephine Barr sighs. "The action is my responsibility, I grant you, but it was not my decision. The whole purpose of this meeting as I understood it is to prevent similar incidents.
Dexter nods enthusiastically. "Of course." His vermicelli arrives and before he can lift the bowl to his mouth Josephine Barr has made her first attack upon the lobster. Dexter sees that its claws and skull have been crushed with kitchen pliers.
"The most unusual factor in this case," Dexter explains, trying to look at Barr's face without seeing what she's putting in her mouth, "is that we simply don't need to use our usual surveillance techniques. There is no point in us keeping more than the most cursory tabs on the poor lad. In the fullness of time he will make his whereabouts known to us."
"Assuming the experiment works."
Dexter impatiently raps the rim of his bowl with his chopsticks. "The experiment has already been initialised on a dendritic level. We didn't let him out the clinic till we established that he would, in the fullness of time, come on line."
Josephine Barr allows herself another, barely perceptible, smile. "Ah, and perhaps you can tell me when that will be? Before or after he cracks Protein's knowledge base?"
Dexter stares. There is seaweed between his teeth.
Sergeant Tina Gullam Hussein of the Westminster Constabulary Mobile Response Unit is shown into the control room in Tower Bridge. Foster sits with his back to her, watching seven traffic monitors at once. She creeps up behind him and swipes the back of his head, lightly, with her glove.
He twists round. "Oh. Hi."
"You forgot your other watch," she says to him and takes out a worn men's Swatch out her pocket and dangles it in front of him.
"Oh. Thanks." He thinks a minute. "Look, could we meet after work? I know -- I know we've really got to talk but I'm kind of --" He laughs, uncertain, and gestures at the monitors.
"Chief told me its your coffee break in five. Why d'you think he let me in here?"
"Oh. Right. It's just I figured maybe we should take longer --"
"I don't want to be around you longer than I have to," she says, and in spite of herself she lets a little of the anger out -- just a little.
He bridles. "Well, if that's the way you've taken things I guess . . . "
He doesn't know how to respond to that, which is good because she doesn't want him to respond. She just wants him to sit there looking stupid and that is precisely what he does. "Well," she says, "are you just going to sit there looking stupid or do I get a coffee?"
Foster curses under his breath. "Yes, yes, of course you do, I'm sorry." He stand up and heads for the door. "Come on, then." There's an intimacy in his voice now -- an anger that is no more than self-depre cation: anger at his own awkwardness. 'Look at me, see what a klutz I am.' She likes it, likes the trust it implies, but she hopes he won't be like that to her again, because right now, with him gone from her bed and her apartment with only stupidity and platitudes for explanations -- right now, she would like to hate him. It helps. She's been here before and she knows it helps.
"You hear the Man is dead?" she says, when they get to the coffee lounge. "I just want to tell you, you and your buddies really screwed up the lights for us. Took us four minutes to get there through cross traffic. Lost a witness."
Foster nods. "Messy. Whose was the hit?"
"It was corporate."
"Intelligence hasn't thrown up any urban grouping with that kind of firepower since the Stockwell raids."
"You think that's valid?"
"There's more. When we cracked her kernel it looks like the Man was reading up on biosystems."
Foster grins. "Sounds like you hit the big time."
Tina Hussein shrugs. "Just picked the right straw."
"That's good. That's good."
She stares into his eyes. "What is it with you?"
He sighs. "Please, not again."
"Why leave? Why cancel your diary?"
"I've been doing a little detective work, that being what we do best, right? It's not just me, is it? It's Caroline and Thursday nights and even the wargamers at lunchtime, goddamnit. What's got into you? Misanthropy?"
"Buy a dictionary." She hates people who ask dumb questions.
He drains his cup and says "Look, I just need some time on my own for a while and I know it sounds like the words came of the back of a cereal packet but it's true."
She smiles at him. She can't help it. He is so naive. "Has anyone else bought this line?"
He, in his turn, can't help but laugh. "No."
Alright, she thinks. Alright, enough of this. She says, "I don't know what you've got into, but if you need me I'll be here, right?"
He looks like he'll plead honesty again then gives it up for lost and just nods. "Right. Thanks."
She turns and walks out before her anger boils over; she doesn't want to do anything she might get arrested for later. When she sees daylight she realises she doesn't have any idea what to do now. She looks around.
Her bike, leant up against the curb, spots her. It powers up.
Foam effluents drift down the Thames like melting ice sculptures. Automatics on Tower Bridge scan the traffic.
Jimmy thrusts his hands deeper into the pockets of his jacket and turns from the view across the river. The shadow of an airship falls across him. He leans into the breeze as he walks.
He's got the scanalyser on his belt. It looks like a ThinkMan. It burbles to itself, testing a new combination every eight-tenths of a millisecond. Worth a lot of cash on the fence -- twenty K maybe, because the big companies are trying to stamp them out. But how can he fence it? The Man . . . he can feel the weight of the scanalyser at his hip. Incriminating. Jimmy wants rid of it but he can't afford to trash it.
He's near the City, now -- the old financial heartland of the capital. He braves the underpass and when he surfaces there's a bright window; a bar. There's a whore sitting in the window seat, masturbating. He rummages in his pocket and feels cash -- enough for a drink, perhaps. He goes in.
There is more to life than shooting Ants but nobody told the games designers. On his way in, Jimmy is assaulted by reverberations from Tank Battle Antarctica. Global graphics and incoming missiles in green, Ants in white, Aussies in traditional communist red. Two kids are playing it like it's for real; Jimmy slides through the gap between them and the door. The barman has nobody else to serve.
"Something Sweet," Jimmy says, then double-takes. There's a throbbing at his temples -- the usual sign. Cluster headaches that make him vomit. He knows there is something wrong up there, but the clinic told him zero. He remembers with a pang that the Man fixed him his MedicAid. It isn't something he wants to think about a lot. He wobbles a bit and leans on the bar, watches incuriously as the barman makes up something turquoise. "What's that?" he says.
"Something sweet. IBM Special -- cocktail, one dollar fifty," says the tender. Floating in the foam on his drink are flakes of sugar shaped like microprocessors. Jimmy sips, then pushes the glass away and puts the scanalyser down on the bar top. He looks at the display and sees a red light, burning steady.
His head pounds in time with the Tank Battle riff.
He is in.
Dexter doesn't know how he got here but he's in a limousine next to Josephine Barr and they are on the way to her flat in the West End, and he doesn't understand this because Barr shouldn't be able to afford a flat anywhere near there; he wonders precisely where it is.
She's telling him about the Man. "She got wind of the project. Not necessarily by name -- but she knew something was going down. Jimmy's MedicAid bill probably gave her the clue. Right now there's a scanalyser eating at Protein Technologies' knowledge server. We can't keep it out indefinitely so I bought a discreet police wringer on the would-be kernel breaker. It's an ex-employee of the Man."
Josephine Barr nods.
Dexter folds his arms defensively. "Was this known before or after your people blew up a car full of people?"
"After." Barr isn't rising to the bait any more. She refuses to argue. It is very unsettling. "Now will you please tell me why I should not call the police and have him arrested and thrown into a nice safe holding area?"
"What if he came on-line in custody? Police holding areas are screened against radio and maser emission. It would be like testing a camera in a dark room."
"What if we extradited him? Chambers-Bayer has a licence."
"Why risk an arrest proceedure at all? Think, woman. The boy nearly had his head blown off! What if it went wrong, what if he was tipped off? He knows this city well enough to hide places we may never find him. I don't deny Jimmy in custody would save us white hairs but can we really risk it going wrong? Look. Trust me. This is a delicate time. Even if Jimmy breaks the server he'll only get there a couple of days early. Something Sweet may be on-line any day now."
"You can't tell me exactly when?"
"To be brief, no."
Dexter relaxes a little. "Something Sweet is basically a cure for a special kind of cancer. We've built a viral magic bullet --"
"We've designed a retrovirus which attacks tumours. The virus contains genes that modify the cancer cells -- they create conditions similar to those in the brain tissue of a foetus, where brain cells form synapses when they divide. The tumour gets turned into a logic-processing system -- a physical embodiment of a mathematical idea known as a Turing machine. A computer, if you like; not just another neural network but a classical linear processor. And by doing that, we narrow the man-machine gap to the thickness of a gene. It gives us capabilities -- commercially viable capabilities. The only prerequisite is cancer. And cancer growth itself is at best a semi-random process. Round about last week, Jimmy's tumour became a processor -- now it has to verify itself, clock and test itself. The procedures themselves are hardwired into the genetic protocol of the infected tissue, but how long it will take for it to debug itself is impossible to calculate precisely."
Josephine Barr frowns. "Any day now."
Dexter nods. "Any day now."
"And should we find Jimmy sitting atop the Telecom Tower reciting the Dow Jones index from the aether, how do you propose to explain the phenomenon to the world's press?"
"No problem," Dexter replies easily. "Without this programme several thousand people a year will continue to die of brain tumours."
"And what of his other abilities?" Barr insists.
Dexter thinks about it, and it makes him feel so good he does something very foolish. He pats Josephine Barr on the knee, quite tenderly, as if he were drunk. "My dear," he says, warmly, "If Something Sweet works as well and as publically as you suggest, we are sitting on top of a market turnover estimated at twenty billion a year. Let the press suck on that.
Josephine Barr smiles sweetly at Dr Gordon Dexter and brushes his hand off her knee. "I still maintain that your department should have waited for a more suitable subject. After all, there are thousands of cases every year, not a few of them in London --"
"Yes, but they must present at the right time!" Dexter insists. "Anyway, you don't know how much pressure I was under. We're in a race with Wellcome, not to mention Hoffmann la Roche; but the real threat is Wellcome. If they win the consequences will be serious. If we don't get our biological systems interfaced with human CNS successfully -- and on the market first -- they'll wipe the floor with us using self-annealing optical implants. I'd like to remind you of the projections for turnover of integrated bionic control systems within the next ten years."
But Barr isn't listening. She is rubbing her forehead.
Dexter turns to her, concerned. "Headache?"
She smiles wryly and keeps on rubbing. "If only you had had a little more patience."
It takes a while for Dexter to get the point. He would offer her his sympathy, but right now he's realised something else.
The doors in this car have no handles.
Tina stares through the head-up pasted to the front of her visor. She sees the road through an overlay of ghostly images and smeared rain drops. Beneath her, the fuel cells of her bike convert methane into power using enzyme systems looted from electric eels. Fat tyres rumble across pot-holed tarmac and the world swings by to either side. Stretch out and you can touch it, leave your foot behind: speed burns. Of a sudden, data haemorrhages across the head-up like blood from a severed artery: a mole's been sighted, caught supping copyrighted data through a scanalyser. It only takes a moment for the police computers to confirm the data.
SatNav overlays lead her to him.
The Yamaha drifts to the kerb and shuts itself down. Tina goes inside.
The barman sees her and makes a barely visible palms-up gesture: no trouble here. Tina nods and heads for the bar.
Jimmy is reading --
It is possible to tap a computer terminal at a distance with a directional aerial and the right decoder. The ear of a cat is sensitive to noises so faint that the limit on its hearing is imposed by quantum uncertainty. No one has conclusively proven that the transmission of messages between nerve cells is a purely chemical process by excluding electromagnetic effects. The system is designed to be more than just a passive supercomputer, a child prodigy. It has to talk . . .
He looks up and sees himself reflected in a mirrored visor.
"Shut it down," says the helmet.
Jimmy's guts twist.
"Shut it down and put your hands on the table."
The tiny camera built into Tina's helmet assimilates his portrait, then transmits it and waits. He can't do anything -- she has him pinned like a butterfly on a cardboard mount.
He reads her name badge. "What kind of bit-player are you, Hussein?" he says.
A cursor blinks inside her helmet, blurred by a film of condensation. The demisters come on automatically. Writing scrolls across the visor.
"I hereby inform you that as of 09:08:14 today you have been found guilty of violation of Article IV of the Data Control Act, and I warn you that -- " She pauses to read.
DETAIN PENDING CIVIL EXTRADITION ORDER
" -- anything you say will be recorded and offered for sale to the registered purchaser of your sentencing licence. You have the right to request a loan from public funds for purposes of your appeal procedure before their courts."
She turns the helmet speaker off and talks to her helmet. It confirms: SECURITY VIOLATION CLEARED * PROTEIN TECHNOLOGIES PLC SOLE BIDDERS * EXTRADITION GRANTED 09:12:02 * SQUAD MOBILE AS OF 09:12:43
Tina stares at her head-up.
Squad? she thinks. Squad?
She turns the speaker back on and the speach stress analysis package and she sits beside him. "What were you aiming?"
"I don't know. The Man put it on me."
"But what do you think?"
"Payroll, design specs, how the hell should I know? The Man just told me, get it. The Man's dead."
Tina nods. "I heard."
"Can I have one of my pills?"
Hesitantly he reaches into his jeans pocket and gets the pack out.
She's not listening. She's watching data spool from the speech stress programme. Level. All of it -- level. Why, Tina wonders, does Protein want to buy this zero?
She thinks hard. A power play? The Man dies while her man breaks Protein's kernels. A link? This could be a break for her. There is very little time. "Stand up," she orders. "You can come with me and sort this out or wait for the big boys to get here -- it's up to you."
They go outside. Tina puts a control cuff on him: explosives and a radio reciever slaved to her command-key. There is no traffic. Tina rolls through a U-turn and rumbles away with her compliant passenger. While they ride, Tina calls Control and files a restraining order on the extradition.
Tina leaves Jimmy in the holding area, goes upstairs and runs a Wringer on him -- a fifth generation descendant of the old HOLMES system. Jimmy is a vapourware salesman who worked for the Man. He fits the description of the kid leaving the car in which the Man got hit. Period.
Tina chews her lip. If she fails to find anything about Jimmy's case that warrants her holding action, then every hour Jimmy's in her custody is an hour she doesn't get paid. On top of that, the law gives her only four days before the restraining order expires. She accesses the standard suite -- DSS, Health, Neighbourhood Watch.
Health makes strange reading. Migraines. MedicAid. Lots of MedicAid. Now, where did that come from? It doesn't take her long to trace the connection. A familiar alias. The above-board tax-and-benefits face of the Man. Not so surprising. MedicAid is standard employee-perk fodder, and Jimmy ostensibly had a job with her.
Tina reads the file more closely. PSR scan, four days in hospital -- She double-takes. Four days? She reads again. For the most part, it reads like a standard exploratory routine for persistent head pain. They tested his sight (20/20) and intra-ocular pressure (normal), his balance (excellent) and his co-ordination (better), they gave him diet and allergy advice, offered him a psychiatric consultation (he refused), and scanned him with a PSR spectroscope (clear). Four days in hospital.
She thumbs on the speaker to the holding area, grill seventeen. "Hey Jimmy, you ever had an operation?"
Jimmy looks up at her, his face grey and distorted and grainy in the monitor above her head. "Sure," he says, unnerved by her voice coming out the ceiling. "Err . . . last year."
"Mind telling me what? I guess I should tell you you needn't answer that. It doesn't show on your health records, so if there's a reason I shouldn't --"
"Must be a mistake," Jimmy says. "Sure I don't mind. They opened my skull. Exploratory. Nothing there. Migraines, remember? Used to be real bad. Worse than now." He winces -- he's still got the attack he was getting in the bar. "I guess."
Tina stares at the screen, and she is very glad Jimmy cannot see her face right now. Oh you stupid kid, she thinks. Exploratory brain surgery?. Her face is a mixture of pity and horror and plain greed as it slowly clicks home that Jimmy is her meal-ticket.
She can, quite literally, taste success -- it's like sushi on her tongue.
The Man. Migraines. She cuts the connection and she's grinning all over her face. The Man paid for the operation, the Man knew. Oh shit, oh shit this is good, she thinks, then someone else comes into the office and she calms down and hurries through the day's other tasks.
More wringers. In grid eighteen there's some jerk calls himself the Flyer.
She runs another wringer through the network, and -- as if it were a signal -- all the screens go dead.
The holding area started out as a prefabricated sports hall; the floor is occupied by a grid of sockets at three metre intervals, some of them occupied by two-metre high aluminium christmas trees with periscopes -- a taser fence. Anyone crossing between the branches walks into a painful electric shock. By using tasers they can regularly reconfigure the holding space: it foils escape plans. Jimmy isn't alone; in the adjacent cell is a person who calls himself the Flyer. He wears a worn leather bomber jacket and does break-and-enter, burgling apartments and searching them for their telebanking access codes. Everyone keeps them on a slip of paper somewhere, in case their diary malfunctions. The Flyer flies by night, usually on dexamphetamine, which is why Wellcome caught him doing over an employee's flat; he kept typing his name over and over again on a kitchen terminal until a grocery system got suspicious. Or so he maintains.
Jimmy stands as far away from him as possible, uncomfortably aware of the taser fence behind him and the cameras slung from the ventilation fans. The Flyer is a bearish shape, and his jacket stinks of dead skin. It reminds Jimmy of the Man, the car, and the way she . . .
Jimmy's palms are damp and his migraine pulses like a badly programmed drum kit.
The Flyer talks incessantly.
"-- I never gave the Man much line 'cos she had it in her to carve me if I fucked up. Mind, we weren't the worst of friends; I got this jacket, see, off her for a run of one of her pieces. She just wanted to talk to this shopkeeper's central heating. Bang!"
Jimmy blocks his ears against the Flyer's laughter and wonders what happens if you throw up on a taser?
The Flyer's hands are lurid in the blood-orange light as he gesticulates. "Like I got me a contact will see I get out of here in a couple of weeks, which is better than the Man. A registered bidder, like. Buy herself my sentence! Company prison -- bah! Company pad!" He sniggers drunkenly.
Jimmy figures that the Flyer is on the payroll or, possibly, mad. He is manic, a demented devil lost in a hell of coldly burning lights and electrified silver trees -- a sudden wave of nausea grips Jimmy's stomach. He gasps for breath as his sense of balance dissolves in a crazy whirl, but his migraine refuses to let him throw up.
The Flyer won't stop talking. "Like I says, someone zeroed the Man. You hear about that? One of those smart grenades. Must've been quite a sight. I reckon it's that mob from Tottenham, figured she was headed for them neuroplants and bio-logicals."
The Flyer smiles at Jimmy and says, his voice a whisper all of a sudden: "I can give you a new identity and get you out of this shithole for free. Or my friends can finish what the grenade began. They're all around you."
Jimmy looks about him.
Every taser in the room is aimed at him.
The cameras turn their backs and examine the far corner of the holding area for cobwebs.
Jimmy's neck prickles.
The Flyer grins and he walks through what should be fifty kilovolts. Nothing happens. "Come on, son," he says, and takes Jimmy by the arm, leading him towards the service door in the nearest wall.
There is a corridor behind it, lined in blue acrylic. Jimmy and the Flyer run along a catwalk which is slung two feet above ground. The handrails shake. Beneath them, fat pipes squiggle along the floor. Jimmy follows the Flyer, his viewpoint shifting and swirling in crazy migranous patterns. There are lights in the pipes below him, pulsing. He keeps his eyes off them. They frighten him. As they walk, the flourescents set into ceiling alcoves dazzle then go past, dazzle then go past like they were moving too, the other way, like they were growing bright then dim as they rush past, then things get worse and they snap on off on off thundering in his head and when the flyer glances back and smiles encouragement his face is all collapsed, fallen in, like there was a singularity in his left eye, blinking, on off on off and when Jimmy glances away to the near wall the light from the fluorescents is threaded and latticed upon the rough white surface and it spells words behind his eyes and the words taste like the cocktail and he thinks -- Something Sweet.
Ideograms etch their way across Jimmy's eyes.
Fragments of speech rumble like trucks through the paths of his mind.
The tunnel seems to compress and expand in all directions at once. Suddenly he is aware of the network of service ducts behind the wall, the fistulae and abcesses in the city's iron intestinal tract.
The Flyer leads Jimmy to the end of the tunnel. A spiral staircase as stark as the skeleton of some vast sea creature drills its way down to the basement.
They go down, reach ground level doors painted red for Fire Exit, and keep on going, past the doors, down, where the air gets stale, past more doors, painted blue for Car Park, and down, through other doors that should be locked (they glimmer and spark behind Jimmy's eyes and when he looks back he sees wires coming out of them, amber running lights and loops of bell wire and black tape and all the paraphernalia of the Flyer's trade) and down and down and down.
Jimmy's veins churn in the rumble of traffic -- a trunk subway, above them and to the right. He stumbles on the steps and the Flyer tells him to look where he's going but all he can see are brake servos, stereos, fuel counters, cabin spies, lights and cigarette lighters and heaters and coolant pumps and fans and radio presets and CB slang writ large all over the walls of the spiral chasm.
"I think I'm blind," Jimmy says and somewhere in his voice there's the upswell of raging panic.
The Flyer curses and manhandles him down the steps and little by little, the further down they go, the better things get, till at last Jimmy gets his eyes back.
The spiral steps end in a square dead-space in the corpse of a metro system; the London Underground has been disused for a decade, ever since the IRA hit it with nerve gas. On Black Monday the bodies of a thousand civilians were laid out on the platforms at King's Cross.
"Come on now," says the Flyer. He kicks some rubbish against the wall and picks up a torch. "We've got a train to catch."
Jimmy follows him onto the platform.
He becomes aware of something itchy, a feeling he's had every time he passed a power cable since leaving the holding area. There is electricity about, an active power supply. The tracks gleam smoothly away into the shadows when The Flyer shines his torch along them.
They look used.
Tina thumps the alarm plate on her desk, strides across the room and thumbs a pad protruding from a white cabinet. It clicks and opens, recognizing her; inside it, nesting in a rack of black-painted aluminium, are three Heckler & Koch rifles of the latest model. She takes a rifle and a spare magazine and heads for the door and her helmet which hangs from a hook on the back of it. She pushes the helmet down onto her head then sprints down the stairs. Behind her, the arms cabinet whines shut and locks itself. The rifle, switched on by removal from its charge-point, chambers a cartridge.
Ahead of her, the service door opens; her relief has taken over Control and is helping her. She darts into the tunnel, rifle ready, guessing that Jimmy and the Flyer won't have hung around for her. Her helmet video prints up a message; nobody ran a wringer on the Flyer. Nobody knows who he is. He could be anything; a man from the Man set to spring Jimmy, a mercenary assassin trained by the CIA, a goddamn Martian. Curse the fucking arresting officer for not running a wringer on him then and there! She comes to the staircase.
Now she knows where they've gone.
She radios Control and while she negotiates the operation and informs her superiors of what she's already found about Jimmy her mind is racing. Between calls she dials the tape loop from the holding pen up onto her helmet visor, looking for the Flyer.
For some reason it's Foster's face inside her helmet.
Then it comes together --
Foster's cancelled diary.
Foster in traffic control.
Four minutes delay and a lost witness.
A hissing rattle emanates from the tracks. Seconds later the far end of the tunnel is lit by the eerie lights of a thirty year old train. There is only one coach; it runs on autopilot. The doors drifts open and Jimmy and the Flyer get in.
"Who are we meeting?" Jimmy asks, then regrets it. It's as if, when he opened his mouth, a hot pin stabbed morse code into his eyes.
The Flyer just shakes his head. "She scares the shit out of me."
The train rattles through a couple more stations then Jimmy feels a shift in his balance on the seat as the train slows down. A needle beneath a dusty dial cover in the seat opposite him stirs itself as the brake pressure climbs; the sign on the platform reads Embankment
The train stops and the doors open. The Flyer gets out and waits impatiently for Jimmy.
"Come here," says the Flyer. Jimmy obeys and follows him to the end of the platform, and an exit blocked by a massive armoured door. Looking up, he sees the eye of a camera gleaming at him.
With a grating of rusty metal, the flood barrier rolls up until it is poised like a giant guillotine above the doorway. They go through. Bonsai oak trees spread a waist-high avenue of foliage between walls rich in Picasso, Seurat and Tanguy. Jimmy doesn't recognize most of them but he knows they are originals. They stink of time and money.
The roof completes the surreal effect. Here, so far underground, Jimmy looks up and sees clouds drifting above the ruby glow of a setting sun -- and a falcon, hovering on wings of light.
"Jimmy, Say hello to Josephine."
Jimmy stares at the employer, whose name is Josephine, and sees the realization of his fears; the Man could be her twin sister. Her retarded twin sister.
"Hello," he says tentatively. The Flyer steps back and removes his flying jacket.
"Hello Jimmy." She moves towards him and takes his hand. "Come on in." Her hand is small and cool in his. It's as good an excuse as any to break down and cry; he tries to conceal it.
"Do you like this place?"
Jimmy nods, taking the path of least resistance.
"It's not mine. I borrowed it, from a friend of yours. You know who I mean, don't you, Jimmy?"
Jimmy can guess. The Man.
"Listen," says Josephine, "I need something of yours, something very special. Do you remember Doctor Dexter?"
Jimmy lifts a hand to his forehead without thinking. A blur of red lines has smeared across the centre of his vision. Perhaps his mind is becoming more sensitive to electrical fields.
"My headache," Jimmy mumbles. He cradles his forehead in his hands. The red lines are firming up. They twist and turn like angry snakes. They menace his sanity.
Josephine glances at the Flyer. "Have a guest suite prepared."
The red lines shimmer into place -- alphanumerics. Abstracts from research papers. Foetal cerebellar tissue left over from abortions used to cure parkisonism. Embryonic nerves reproduce, grow, replace the burnt out tissue of the substantia nigra. Immature brain tissue used to patch up the living. Jimmy sees another document.
A self-referential one.
"No!" he shouts, and lashes out. He keeps on spinning while, pixel by pixel, the world is going out.
Jimmy is in a real bed.
"Yeah?" he groans. It is very dark. He cannot see anything.
"You've got to move out."
He feels his arms and legs moving of their own accord, pulling him out of the entwining quilt.
The bed surges uneasily beneath him; the water baffles aren't set up. His head is cold; he touches his scalp with his hand and feels bare skin. His fingers curl with revulsion and he shudders, like he'd touched a cold blooded thing.
"Josephine wants Something Sweet. She needs it or she'll die. Only she wants it on her terms. She killed the Man for it, now she's ready to kill you. What do you think Dexter's here for?
Jimmy feels for the light switch.
"The light is on."
Jimmy can't see a thing.
"Dexter has anaesthetised your optic nerves -- he's blinded you."
Jimmy starts screaming but his voice gets strangled, cut off, like whoever is speaking to him has put a hand round his throat, only he can't feel any touch. Just -- pressure.
"They don't want you. They want me. They blinded you for me. So I can see."
There's nobody else in the room but Jimmy. It's Jimmy's voice. Something Sweet is coming on-line, heading for synergy; picking up emissions with its neural antenna, adding Jimmy's optic and speech centres to its own calculation spaces. Lay every cell in Jimmy's tumour end to end, they'd stretch to the moon and back.
"Jimmy, you must get out of here. They want to cut your head open again."
Oh God, Jimmy whispers to himself, only his mouth's still forbidden him. He has to think the words, recite them in his head. Oh God, I can't see I can't see I can't see . . .
"Will you please calm down? If you don't we'll never escape and Doctor Dexter will dice your brain."
Then, through his minds' eye, Jimmy sees words -- big black san serif letters against ever-brightening whitespace.
- CHAIR BY SNOWDON
- SOFTWOOD TABLE WITH METAL TRESTLE SUPPORTS AND SEPIA PLASTIC LAMINATE WORK SURFACE WITH DESIGN DERIVED FROM 23 ENVELOPE ALBUM COVER
- A PAIR OF POLISH IMPORT WORKING TROUSERS TORN AT LEFT KNEE
- 'SHITTED' BY GILBERT AND GEORGE (ORIGINAL)
Jimmy is allowed a quiet moan.
The words in his eyes swim and coagulate. Black and white shapes intersect and snap together -- a living room in dazzle paint.
"Note also woodcuts by seminal dazzle theorist Edward Wadworth."
The windows are opening in Jimmy's head - pictures, dates, critiques, contexts, letters, bulletin-board screen dumps, and suddenly Jimmy's head does not feel like an enclosed space at all, but a curved surface, utterly exposed, a gateway folded back on itself, a place that is no place.
"Welcome to the noosphere. But first, a word from our sponsors."
A living room blinks into existence around him. Bright, vibrant, unreal colour. Superrealist precision. Jimmy starts counting dust particles in the far corner of the room -- then something lifts his gaze and he notices the door. The door is locked, but Jimmy imagines the numeric code for it, goes over and punches it into the keypad.
The door opens.
Jimmy steps out. It is a bright, cloudless day in the corridor. There is no movement.
"The police are on their way now. Josephine knows this. She will want to move you."
The Flyer steps into the corridor and sees Jimmy. He's surprised, but he tries not to show it. "Hello, Jimmy! Nasty turn you had --"
"I think round about now is a good time to do something."
The Flyer stops dead. "What's that?"
Jimmy just stands there, arms by his sides, and thinks, What? What am I supposed to do?
"Come on, extemporize!"
"Are you okay, Jimmy?" says the Flyer.
"Tell me, Jimmy --" Jimmy's voice drips sarcasm. "Have you ever, just once in your life, taken the initiative?"
The Flyer scowls. "You iced up with me or something?"
"Keep out of this. I'm counselling my client."
The Flyer just stares as the truth kicks home. "Oh shit," he murmers. "Oh shit." He turns and runs.
All of a sudden the sky explodes. Great red clouds like lumps of raw meat rain blood and bats down upon the ceiling with all the force of a vengeful god. The Flyer screams and Jimmy falls to his knees and covers up his eyes in horror.
Jimmy's curled up like a foetal ball, shivering on the carpet and his mouth won't stop yelling at him.
"Get up! Get up! Doctor Dexter's coming to get you! Josephine's going to bundle you up in her car and take you somewhere forgettable -- Get up!
Jimmy gets a toe-hold in his own mouth. He keens.
"Honestly," says his mouth, "you can lead a horse to water but you --"
Jimmy looks up. Josephine is very pretty, he realises. The corridor's sky is full of demons and winged pudenda but Josephine isn't taking any notice.
Jimmy's voice says, "You killed the Man."
"Yes," she says. "The Man wanted your --"
"The Man paid for your MedicAid, didn't she, Jimmy?"
Josephine's eyes narrow as she realises what she's speaking to.
Jimmy gets his voice back. He gazes beseachingly at Josephine. "Help me." His voice gets twisted from him again. It says: "Well Jimmy, that's the last time I try to appeal to your higher feelings."
The Flyer comes up behind Josephine. "We've got to leave. The police have entered the station."
All the lights go off.
Jimmy's body jumps and jitters. "Wake up! Wake up! This is your life speaking! Ach, isn't it just my luck to wake up in a spear carrier -- "
Somewhere down the corridor the Man's hi-fi starts bleating like a sheep. An eighteen ton sheep.
There is a shout, an inarticulate garble of noise culminating in the flat crackle of automatic weapons.
Blue bike-lights penetrate the gloom of Josephine's pad.
Two sudden explosions flare like immature rose-hips and something round and hairy comes rolling along the corridor. In the light of a burning painting Jimmy recognizes his old consultant. There's something caught between his teeth, squirming and struggling. His tongue.
Jimmy's mouth says, "Isn't it funny how things always come in threes?"
There's one bike still coming. Jimmy scrambles up and flings himself against the wall, out its way.
The wall by his head is laced with blood and scraps of flesh.
"Nah, it's only a Jackson Pollock."
The floor shivers and someone grabs him -- soft cool hands tight round his neck. He's thrust back in his room and hears Josphine's laboured breath as she presses home a special code on the door lock.
Words appear out the blackness of the room.
- CARPET IN ORIGINAL WILLIAM MORRIS DESIGN
- MURDERING PATENTS EXECUTIVE
- BOY WITH NO SURVIVAL INSTINCT
The living room clicks on again -- the monochrome view of an infra-red camera, set high up in the ceiling, behind the light fitting. There he is, just behind Josephine, head bowed, unable to see in the blackness of the room. Jimmy takes a step forward, sees himself move. He peers at himself, feels the camera zoom at his command. His nose fills the screen.
And something very strange happens inside him. All of a sudden he has a feeling he has never experienced before.
Josephine starts screaming. Something Sweet has jumbled the lock. Through the walls Jimmy can see the secret liftshaft, locked against her. She whirls and runs out the room.
Gunfire. Instinctively he turns his head and of a sudden
he is in a different place, and has a thousand eyes, and he watches the battle from every angle and at every instant of time, from the moment the police bikes appeared to the no-time called now.
Instinctively, Jimmy runs
through every conduit and switch and bell-wire of the apartment. The lights flicker. The Man's hi-fi system spits and snarls. All of a sudden, Jimmy is everywhere.
Jimmy gets a grandstand view of the Flyer's butchery. Through the Man's security cameras he watches the mobile response squad penetrate the apartment. With a sick twist in his stomach, Jimmy realises that the advance party doesn't stand a chance. The Flyer's too quick, he's got hidden arsenals all over the apartment and the station, he's better trained, and he knows their tactics.
Jimmy turns his head again and sees another scene with his argus eyes; the Flyer leaning over Josephine. It looks like she's been run over by a bike. She's no more substantial now than a discarded fragment of origami, and much stickier. Trapped in the antechamber to the tunnel, the Flyer shoulders his gun and ducks through the entrance into the tube. Incendiaries flower like green carnations as he jumps down onto the tracks and ducks for cover.
Jimmy sees a policewoman move east along the Northbound platform, turn down the interconnecting corridor.
All his other eyes show no-one else in the area.
Then he zooms in on her name badge and now he knows who it is.
Jimmy shouts. Jimmy screams. Jimmy loses his cool, and his one chance to save her.
The Flyer aims for Tina and fires and she goes spinning all over the platform and Jimmy runs out and the Flyer's still there.
"A hero at last. Oh, terrific." Words not his nor even human spill out Jimmy's mouth while his eyes stream tears. One of his thousand ears has digested her comms overspill and now he knows she was here to save him.
She was here to kill Foster.
That Foster is
aiming for him.
With all his might Jimmy hits out. Somewhere beneath the rails a circuit flips and the ghost train lights flicker on with the current. The Flyer at last lives up to his name, dancing and jiving and shedding sparks like there was a party inside him.
Jimmy kneels beside Tina. There's a lot of blood. I'm sorry, he thinks, because he cannot speak, I was afraid and it happened too quick and I -- I'm sorry.
"Oh shit," Tina says.
Jimmy's heart leaps. If she's concious, he figures, maybe there's hope.
"Oh God, how predictable," says the voice, and Jimmy thinks Shut up! Shut up! Help me! Help her!
"Help her yourself. I'm not here to run your life. No one is. No one, ever again. You're free."
Jimmy shudders. Free.
Tina moans. "Wha'?"
Jimmy squeezes her hand. All of a sudden he finds he's back where he can use his mouth. "You'll be fine," he says, and there's an edge of confidence in his voice that wasn't there before, that had got trodden down years before till he'd thought he'd lost it. "Can I lift you?" he says.
Tina stares at him. "I -- I think so. Can't stay here. Fire --"
Jimmy looks about with his thousand eyes. He watches her comrades mopping up. They fire and shout their way through rooms that were once the Man's. He turns back to Tina. They've forgotten her in the heat of battle.
Up, says the thing in Jimmy's head.
Jimmy picks Tina up in his arms, closes his eyes and concentrates. The train rumbles forward.
Jimmy blinks and the doors open.
They ride, Tina leant across Jimmy's lap while he sits up against the doors of the train. Tina squeezes his hand, just a little. It is all she can manage. He squeezes her hand too, and he looks in her eyes.
Something Sweet steals into Jimmy's mouth, and sings her a lullaby.
[ Site Index] [ Fiction Index] [ Feedback ]