© Copyright Michael Swanwick, William Gibson

     He meant  to  keep on going, right down to Florida. Work passage  on  a
gunrunner, maybe wind up conscripted into some ratass rebel army down in the
war zone. Or maybe, with that ticket  good as long as he didn't stop riding,
he'd just never get off Greyhound's Flying Dutchman. He grinned at his faint
reflection in cold, greasy  glass while the downtown lights of  Norfolk slid
past, the bus swaying on tired  shocks as the driver slung it around a final
corner. They  shuddered to a halt in the terminal lot, concrete lit gray and
harsh like  a prison exercise  yard. But Deke was  watching himself  starve,
maybe in  some snowstorm out  of  Oswego, with his cheek pressed up  against
that same bus window, and seeing his remains swept out at the next stop by a
muttering old man in faded coveralls.  One way or the  other, he decided, it
didn't mean shit to him. Except his legs seemed to  have  died already.  And
the  driver called a twenty-minute  stopover Tidewater Station, Virginia. It
was an  old  cinder-block  building with  two entrances  to each rest  room,
holdover from the previous century.
     Legs  like wood, he made a halfhearted attempt at ghosting the  notions
counter,  but the black  girl  behind  it  was  alert,  guarding the  sparse
contents of  the  old glass case as though her ass depended on it.  Probably
does, Deke thought, turning  away.  Opposite the  washrooms, an open doorway
offered  GAMES,  the word flickering  feebly  in  biofluorescent plastic. He
could see a  crowd of  the  local kickers  clustered  around a  pool  table.
Aimless, his boredom  following him like  a cloud, he stuck his head in. And
saw a biplane, wings no longer  than his thumb, blossom bright orange flame.
Corkscrewing,  trailing  smoke,  it  vanished  the  instant  it  struck  the
green-felt field of the table.
     "Tha's right, Tiny," a kicker bellowed, "you take that sumbitch!"
     "Hey," Deke said. "What's going on?" The nearest kicker was a bean pole
with a  black mesh  Peterbilt cap. "Tiny's defending the Max," he said,  not
taking his eyes from the table.
     "Oh, yeah? What's that?" But even as he asked, he saw it: a blue enamel
medal shaped  like  a Maltese cross, the slogan Pour le Merite divided among
its arms.
     The  Blue Max rested on the edge  of the  table, directly before a vast
and perfectly immobile bulk wedged into a fragile-looking chrome-tube chair.
The man's khaki work shirt would have hung on Deke like the folds of a sail,
but it  bulged  across  that  bloated  torso  so  tautly  that  the  buttons
threatened to tear away at  any  instant. Deke thought  of southern troopers
he'd seen on his  way down; of that  weird,  gut-heavy endotype  balanced on
gangly legs that looked like they'd been borrowed from some other body. Tiny
might look like that  if he stood, but on a larger scale  a forty-inch jeans
inseam that would need  a woven-steel waistband to  support all those pounds
of swollen gut. If Tiny were ever to stand at all for now Deke saw that that
shiny frame  was actually a  wheelchair.  There was  something  disturbingly
childlike about  the man's face,  an appalling  suggestion of youth and even
beauty in features  almost buried in fold and jowl. Embarrassed, Deke looked
away. The other man, the one  standing across the table from Tiny, had bushy
sideburns and a thin mouth. He  seemed to  be trying to push something  with
his eyes, wrinkles of concentration spreading from the corners....
     "You dumbshit or what?" The man with the Peterbilt cap turned, catching
Deke's  Indo proleboy denims, the brass chains at his wrists,  for the first
time. "Why don't you  get your ass lost, fucker. Nobody  wants your  kind in
here." He turned back to the dogfight.
     Bets were being  made, being covered.  The  kickers were producing  the
hard stuff, the  old stuff, libertyheaded dollars  and  Roosevelt dimes from
the stampand-coin  stores, while more cautious  bettors slapped down antique
paper  dollars laminated in clear plastic.  Through the haze  came a trio of
red planes, flying  in  formation.  Fokker D Vhs. The room  fell silent. The
Fokkers banked majestically under the solar orb of a two-hundred-watt bulb.
     The blue Spad  dove out of nowhere. Two  more plunged  from the shadowy
ceiling, following  closely.  The  kickers  swore,  and  one  chuckled.  The
formation  broke wildly. One Fokker dove  almost to the felt, without losing
the  Spad  on  its tail.  Furiously, it  zigged and zagged  across the green
flatlands but to no avail. At last  it pulled  up,  the enemy hard after it,
too  steeply and  stalled, too low to  pull  out  in time. A stack of silver
dimes was scooped up. The Fokkers were outnumbered now. One had two Spads on
its  tail.  A  needle-spray of tracers  tore past  its  cockpit. The  Fokker
slip-turned  right,  banked  into an  Immelmann,  and was  behind one of its
pursuers. It fired, and the biplane fell, tumbling.
     "Way to go, Tiny!" The kickers closed in around the table.
     Deke was frozen with wonder. It felt like being born all over again.
     Frank's Truck Stop was two miles out of town on the Commercial Vehicles
Only route. Deke had  tagged it, out  of idle habit, from the bus on the way
in.  Now he  walked back between the traffic and the  concrete crash guards.
Articulated trucks went slamming past, big eight-segmented jobs, the wash of
air each time threatening to blast him over. CVO stops were easy makes. When
he sauntered into Frank's, there was nobody to doubt that he'd come in off a
big rig, and he was able to browse the gift shop as slowly as  he liked. The
wire rack with the projective wetware wafers was located bet~*en  a stack of
Korean cowboy shirts  and a  display for Fuzz  Buster mudguards.  A pair  of
Oriental dragons  twisted in  the air  over  the  rack,  either  fighting or
fucking, he  couldn't  tell  which.  The  game he wanted was there: a  wafer
labeled SPADS&FOKKERS. It took  him three seconds to  boost it and less time
to  slide  the magnet which  the  cops  in D.C.  hadn't  eveii  bothered  to
confiscate across  the  universal security strip. On the way out, he  lifted
two  programming units  and a little Batang  facilitator-remote  that looked
like an antique hearing aid.
     He chose a highstack  at random and fed  the rental agent the line he'd
used since his welfare rights were yanked. Nobody ever checked up; the state
just counted occupied rooms and paid.
     The cubicle  smelled  faintly of urine, and someone  had  scrawled Hard
Anarchy Liberation Front slogans across the walls. Deke kicked trash out  of
a corner, sat down, back to the wall, and ripped open the wafer pack.
     There was a folded instruction sheet with diagrams of loops, rolls, and
Immelmanns,  a tube  of  saline  paste, aDd a computer  list  of operational
specs. And the wafer itself, white  plastic with a blue biplane and logo  on
one  side,  red  on  the other. He  turned  it over and  over in  his  hand:
SPADS&FOKKERS, FOKKERS&SPADS. Red or blue.  `He fitted the Batang behind his
ear after  coating the inductor surface with  paste,  jacked its  fiberoptic
ribbon  into  the  programmer,  and plugged  the programmer  into  the  wall
current. Then he  slid  the wafer into the  programmer. It was a  cheap set,
Indonesian,  and the base of his skull buzzed uncomfortably as  the  program
ran. But when it was done, a sky-blue Spad darted restlessly through the air
a few inches from his face. It  almost glowed,  it was  so real. It  had the
strange inner life that fanatically detailed museum-grade models often have,
but  it took all  of  his concentration to  keep  it  in  existence.  If his
attention wavered at all, it lost focus, fuzzing into a pathetic blur.
     He practiced until the battery in the earset died, then slumped against
the wall and fell asleep. He dreamed of flying, in a universe that consisted
entirely  of white  clouds and  blue  sky, with no up and down,  and never a
green field to crash into.
     He woke to a rancid  smell of frying krillcakes and winced with hunger.
No cash,  either. Well,  there were  plenty  of student  types in the stack.
Bound to be one who'd like to score a programming unit. He hit the hall with
the  boosted spare. Not far down was a door with a  poster  on it: THERE'S A
HELL OF A GOOD UNIVERSE NEXT DOOR. Under that was a starscape with a cluster
of  multicolored pills,  torn  from  an  ad for some pharmaceutical company,
pasted over an inspirational  shot of the "space colony" that had been under
construction since  before he  was born. LET'S  GO, the poster said, beneath
the collaged hypnotics.
     He  knocked. The door opened, security slides stopping it at a two-inch
slice of girlface. "Yeah?"
     "You're going to think this is stolen." He passed  the programmer  from
hand to hand. "I mean because it's  new, virtual  cherry, and the bar code's
still on it. But listen, I'm not  gonna argue the point. No. I'm  gonna  let
you have it for only like half what you'd pay anywhere else."
     "Hey, wow, really, no  kidding?"  The visible fraction of mouth twisted
into a strange smile.  She extended her  hand, palm up, a  loose fist. Level
with his chin. "Lookahere!"
     There was a hole in her hand, a black tunnel that ran right up her arm.
Two  small  red  lights.  Rat's eyes.  They  scurried  toward  him  growing,
gleaming. Something gray streaked forward and leaped for his face.
     He screamed, throwing hands  up to ward it off. Legs twisting, he fell,
the programmer shattering under him.
     Silicate shards skittered as he thrashed,  clutching his head. Where it
hurt, it hurt it hurt very badly indeed.
     "Oh,  my  God!" Slides unsnapped,  and the girl  was hovering over him.
"Here, listen, come on." She dangled a blue hand towel. "Grab on to this and
I'll pull you up."
     He looked  at her through a wash of tears. Student. That  fed look, the
oversize  sweatshirt, teeth so straight and white they  could be  used as  a
credit  reference. A thin gold chain around one ankle (fuzzed, he  saw, with
baby-fine hair). Choppy  Japanese haircut. Money.  "That sucker was gonna be
my dinner," he said ruefully. He took hold of the towel and let her pull him
     She smiled but  skittishly backed away from him. "Let me make  it up to
you," she said. "You want some food? It was only a projection, okay?"
     He followed her in, wary as an animal entering a trap.
     "Holy  shit," Deke said, "this is real cheese. . . He was sitting on  a
gutsprung sofa, wedged  between a  four-foot teddy bear and a loose stack of
floppies.  The room was ankle-deep in books and clothes and papers.  But the
food  she  magicked  up  Gouda  cheese  and  tinned beef  and  honest-to-God
greenhouse wheat wafers was straight out of the Arabian Nights.
     "Hey," she said. "We know how to treat a proleboy right, huh?" Her name
was  Nance  Bettendorf. She  was seventeen. Both her parents had jobs greedy
buggers and she was an  engineering  major at William and Mary.  She got top
marks except in English. "I guess  you must really have a thing  about rats.
You got some kind of phobia about rats?"
     He glanced  sidelong at  her bed. You  couldn't see it,  really; it was
just a swell in the ground cover. "It's not  like that. It just reminded  me
of something else, is all."
     "Like what?" She squatted in front of him, the big shirt riding high up
one smooth thigh.
     "Well . . .  did you ever see  the "  his voice  involuntarily rose and
rushed past  the  words "Washington Monument? Like at night?  It's got these
two  little red lights  on  top, aviation markers  or something, and  I, and
I..." He started to shake.
     "You're  afraid of the Washington  Monument?" Nance  whooped and rolled
over with laughter, long tanned legs kicking. She was wearing crimson bikini
     "I would die rather than look at it again," he said levelly.
     She stopped laughing then, sat up, studied his  face. White, even teeth
worried at her lower lip, like  she  was dragging  up  sommething she didn't
want to think about. At last she ventured, "Brainlock?"
     "Yeah," he said bitterly. "They  told  me I'd never go back to D.C. And
then the fuckers laughed."
     "What did they get you for?" "I'm a thief." He wasn't about to tell her
that the actual charge was career shoplifting.
     "Lotta old  computer hacks spent their  lives programming machines. And
you  know what? The human brain is not a goddamn bit like a machine, no way.
They  just  don't program the same."  Deke  knew this shrill, desperate rap,
this long,  circular jive that the lonely string  out to  the rare listener;
knew  it  from  a  hundred  cold and  empty nights spent  in  the company of
strangers. Nance was lost in it,  and Deke, nodding and yawning, wondered if
he'd even be able to stay awake when they finally hit that bed of hers.
     "I built that projection I  hit you with myself," she said, hugging her
knees up beneath her chin.  "It's for muggers, you know? I just  happened to
have it on me, and I threw  it at you  `cause I thought it was so funny, you
trying to sell me  that shit  little Indojavanese  programmer."  She hunched
forward and held out her hand  again. "Look  here."  Deke cringed. "No,  no,
it's okay, I swear it, this is different." She opened her hand.
     A single blue flame danced  there, perfect  and  everchanging. "Look at
that,"  she marveled. "Just look.  I programmed  that. It's  not some diddly
little  sevenimage  job  either. It's  a  continuous  two-hour  loop,  seven
thousand, two  hundred  seconds,  never  the  same  twice,  each instant  as
individual as a fucking snowflake!"
     The flame's core was  glacial  crystal,  shards and facets flashing up,
twisting and gone, leaving behind near-subliminal images so bright and sharp
that they cut the  eye.  Deke winced.  People  mostly. Pretty  little  naked
people,  fucking. "How  the  hell  did  you do that?"  She  rose,  bare feet
slipping  on  slick magazines,  and  melodramatically  swept  folds of loose
printout from  a raw  plywood  shelf. He saw a neat row  of small  consoles,
austere  and expensive-looking. Custom  work.  "This is the real stuff I got
here. Image facilitator.  Here's my fast-wipe  module. This  is  a  brainmap
one-to-one  function  analyzer."  She  sang  off the  names like  a  litany.
"Quantum flicker stabilizer. Program splicer. An image assembler..."
     "You need all that to make one iittle flame?" "You betcha.
     This is  all  state of  the art,  professional projective wetware gear.
It's years ahead of anything you've seen."
     "Hey," he said, "you know anything about SPADS & FOKKERS?"
     She laughed. And then, because he sensed the time was right, he reached
out to take her hand.
     "Don't  you  touch  me,  motherfuck, don't  you  ever  touch me!" Nance
screamed,  and her head slammed against  the wall as she recoiled, white and
shaking with terror.
     "Okay!" He threw up his hands. "Okay! I'm nowhere near you. Okay?"
     She cowered from  him. Her eyes were round  and unblinking; tears built
up at the corners, rolled down ashen cheeks. Finally,  she  shook  her head.
"Hey. Deke. Sorry. I should've told you."
     "Told me what?" But he had a creepy feeling.  already knew. The way she
clutched her head. The weakly  spasmodic  way her  hands opened  and closed.
"You got a brainlock, too."
     "Yeah." She closed her eyes.  "It's a chastity lock. My asshole parents
paid  for it. So I  can't stand  to have anybody touch me or even stand  too
close." Eyes opened in blind hate. "I didn't even do anything. Not a fucking
thing. But  they've both got  jobs and  they're so  horny for  me  to have a
career that they can't  piss straight. They're afraid I'd neglect my studies
if  I got, you know, involved in sex and stuff.  The day the brainlock comes
off I am going to fuck the vilest, greasiest, hairiest . .
     She was clutching her head again. Deke jumped up and  rummaged  through
the  medicine cabinet. He found a jar of B-complex vitamins, pocketed  a few
against need, and brought two to Nance, with a  glass of water.  "Here."  He
was careful to keep his distance. "This'lI take the edge off."
     "Yeah, yeah," she said. Then, almost to herself, "You must really think
I'm a jerk."
     The  games room in  the Greyhound  station  was  almost empty.  A lone,
long-jawed  fourteen-year-old  was bent  over a console, maneuvering rainbow
fleets of submarines in the murky grid of the North Atlantic.
     Deke  sauntered in, wearing his  new  kicker drag, and leaned against a
cinder-block  wall  made  smooth  by countless  coats  of green enamel. He'd
washed the dye from his proleboy butch,  boosted jeans and T-shirt from  the
Goodwill,  and found a pair of stompers  in the sauna  locker of a highstack
with cutrate security.
     "Seen Tiny around, friend?" The subs darted like neon guppies.
     "Depends on who's asking." Deke touched the remote behind his left ear.
The Spad snap-rolled over the console, swift and delicate as a dragonfly. It
was beautiful; so  perfect,  so true it  made the room  seem an illusion. He
buzzed  the  grid,  millimeters from  the  glass, taking  advantage  of  the
programmed ground effect.
     The kid didn't even  bother  to  look up. "Jackman's,"  he said.  "Down
Richmond Road, over by the surplus."
     Deke let the Spad fade in midclimb. Jackman's took up most of
     the  third floor of  an  old brick  building. Deke  found  Best Buy War
Surplus first, then a broken neon sign over an unlit lobby. The sidewalk out
front  was littered with another kind  of surplus damaged vets, some of them
dating back to  Indochina. Old men who'd  left their  eyes under  Asian suns
squatted beside twitching boys who'd inhaled mycotoxins  in  Chile. Deke was
glad to have the battered elevator doors sigh shut behind him.
     A  dusty  Dr. Pepper clock at the far side of the  long, spectral  room
told him it was a quarter to eight. Jackman's had been embalmed twenty years
before he was  born, sealed  away behind  a  yellowish film of nicotine,  of
polish and hair oil. Directly beneath the clock, the flat eyes of somebody's
grandpappy's  prize buck regarded Deke from a framed, blown-up snapshot gone
the slick sepia of cockroach wings. There was the click and whisper of pool,
the squeak of  a work boot twisting on linoleum as a player  leaned in for a
shot.  Somewhere  high  above  the  green-shaded  lamps  hung  a  string  of
crepe-paper Christmas  bells faded  to  dead  rose.  Deke  looked  from  one
cluttered wall to the next. No facilitator.
     "Bring one in, should we need it," someone said. He turned, meeting the
mild eyes  of a bald man with  steel-rimmed glasses. "My name's Cline. Bobby
Earl.  You don't look like you shoot  pool, mister."  But  there was nothing
threatening  in  Bobby Earl's  voice or stance. He pinched  the steel frames
from his  nose  and  polished  the thick lenses with  a  fold of tissue.  He
reminded Deke  of  a shop  instructor who'd  patiently tried  to  teach  him
retrograde  biochip installation.  "I'm a gambler,"  he said,  smiling.  His
teeth were white plastic. "I know I don't much look it."
     "I'm  looking  for  Tiny,"  Deke said. "Well,"  replacing  the glasses,
"you're not going to  find him. He's  gone up  to  Bethesda  to let the V.A.
clean his plumbing for him. He wouldn't fly against you any how." "Why not?"
     "Well, because you're not on the circuit or I'd know your face. You any
good?" When  Deke nodded,  Bobby  Earl  called down the length of Jackman's,
"Yo, Clarence! You bring out that facilitator. We got us a flyboy."
     Twenty minutes later, having lost his remote and what cash he had left,
Deke was striding past the bi soldiers of Best Buy.
     "Now you let me tell you, boy," Bobby  Earl had said in a fatherly tone
as, hand on shoulder, he led Deke back to the elevator, "You're not going to
win against a combat vet you listening to  me? I'm not even especially good,
just an old grunt  who was on hype fifteen. maybe twenty times. 01' Tiny, he
was a  pilot.  Spent entire  enlistment hyped to  the  gills.  He's got memb
attenuation real bad . . . you ain't never going to him."
     It was a cool night. But Deke burned with anger and humiliation.
     "Jesus,  that's  crude,"  Nance said as  the  Spad  str mounds  of pink
underwear. Deke, hunched up  on couch, yanked her flashy little Braun remote
from behind his ear.
     "Now don't you get on my case too, Miss richbitch gonna-have-a-job "
     "Hey, lighten up! It's nothing to do with you it's  just tech. That's a
really primitive wafer you got there. I mean, on the street maybe it's fine.
But compared  to the work I  do  at  school, it's  hey. You ought to let  me
rewrite it for you.''
     "Say  what?" "Lemme beef  it  up.  These  suckers are  all  written  in
hexadecimal,  see,  `cause  the  industry  programmers  are  all  washed-out
computer  hacks.  That's  how  they  think.  But  let  me  take  it  to  the
reader-analyzer  at the  department, run a  few changes on it, translate  it
into  a  modern wetlanguage.  Edit  out  all the  redundant  intermediaries.
That'll goose up your  reaction  time,  cut  the  feedback loop in  half. So
you'll fly faster and better. Turn you into a real pro, Ace!" She took a hit
off her bong, then doubled over laughing and choking.
     "Is that legit?" Deke  asked dubiously. "Hey, why  do you  think people
buy gold-wire remotes? For the prestige? Shit. Conductivity's better, cuts a
few nanoseconds off the reaction time. And reaction time is the  name of the
game, kiddo."
     "No," Deke said. "If it were that  easy, people'd already have it. Tiny
Montgomery would have it. He'd have the best."
     "Don't you ever listen?" Nance  set down  the bong; brown water slopped
onto the floor. "The stuff I'm working with is three years ahead of anything
you'll find on the street."
     "No shit," Deke said after a long pause. "I mean, you can do that?"
     It was like graduating from a Model T to a ninety-three Lotus. The Spad
handled like  a dream, responsive to Deke's slightest thought. For  weeks he
played the arcades,  with not a nibble.  He flew against the local teens and
by ones and threes  shot down their  planes. He took chances,  played flash.
And the planes tumbled....
     Until one  day Deke was  tucking his seed money away, and a lanky black
straightened up from  the  wall. He eyed the laminateds in Deke's  hand  and
grinned. A ruby tooth gleamed. "You know," the man  said, "I heard there was
a casper who could fly, going up against the kiddies."
     "Jesus," Deke  said, spreading Danish butter  on a kelp stick. "I wiped
the floor with those spades. They were good, too."
     "That's  nice, honey," Nance  mumbled. She was working  on  her  finals
project, sweating data into a machine.
     "You  know, I think what's happening is I got real talent for this kind
of shit. You know? I mean, the program gives me an edge, but I got the stuff
to  take  advantage of  it. I'm really getting a  rep out there, you  know?"
Impulsively, he snapped on the radio. Scratchy Dixieland brass blared.
     "Hey,"  Nance said. "Do you mind?" "No, I'm just " He  fiddled with the
knobs, came up with some slow, romantic bullshit. "There. Come on, stand up.
Let's dance."
     "Hey, you know I can't " "Sure you  can, sugarcakes."  He threw her the
huge teddy bear and snatched up a patchwork cotton dress from the  floor. He
held  it by the waist and sleeve,  tucking the  collar  under  his  chin. It
smelled of patchouli,  more faintly of sweat. "See, I stand  over  here, you
stand over there. We dance. Get it?"
     Blinking softly, Nance stood and clutched the bear tightly. They danced
then,  slowly, staring into each other's eyes. After a  while, she began  to
cry. But still, she was smiling.
     * * *
     Deke was daydreaming, imagining he was Tiny  Montgomery wired into  his
jumpjet.  Imagined the  machine responding  to his  slightest neural twitch,
reflexes cranked way up, hype flowing steadily into his veins.
     Nance's floor became jungle, her bed a plateau in the Andean foothills,
and  Deke  flew  his  Spad  at  forced  speed, as  if it  were a  full-wired
interactive  combat  machine.  Computerized  hypos  fed  a slow  trickle  of
high-performance  enhancement  melange  into  his  bloodstream. Sensors were
wired  directly  into  his  skull  pulling  a  supersonic  snapturn  in  the
green-blue bowl  of sky over Bolivian  rain forest. Tiny would have felt the
airflow over control surfaces.
     Below, grunts hacked through the jungle with hype-pumps strapped  above
elbows to give them that little extra death-dance fury in  combat, a shot of
liquid hell in a  blue plastic vial. Maybe they got ten minutes' worth in  a
week. But coming in at treetop level, reflexes cranked to the max, flying so
low the ground  troops never spotted you  until  you  were on them, phosgene
agents released, away and gone before they could draw a bead . . . it took a
constant trickle of hype just to maintain.  And the  direct neuron interface
with  the  jumpjet was  a two-way  street. The  onboard  computers monitored
biochemistry and  decided when to open the  sluice gates and give the  human
component a killer jolt of combat edge.
     Dosages like  that  ate you up. Ate  you good  and slow  and  constant,
etching  the  brain surfaces, eroding away the  brain-cell membranes. If you
weren't yanked  from the air promptly enough, you  ended  up with  braincell
attenuation with  reflexes  too  fast  for  your  body to  handle  and  your
fight-or-flight reflexes fucked real good....
     "I  aced it,  proleboy!"  "Hah?"  Deke looked up,  startled,  as  Nance
slammed in, tossing books and bag onto the nearest heap.
     "My finals project I got exempted from exams. The  prof said he'd never
seen anything like it.  Uh, hey,  dim  the lights,  wouldja? The  colors are
weird on my eyes.~~
     He obliged. "So show me. Show me this wunnerful thing."
     "Yeah, okay." She snatched up his  remote, kicked clear  standing space
atop the bed, and struck a pose. A spark flared into flame in  her hand.  It
spread in a quicksilver line  up her arm, around  her  neck, and  it  was  a
snake, with triangular  head and flickering tongue. Molten  colors,  oranges
and  reds.  It slithered between her breasts. "I call it  a  firesnake," she
said proudly.
     Deke leaned close, and she jerked back.  "Sorry. It's like  your flame,
huh?  I mean,  I can see these tiny  little  fuckers in it."  "Sort of." The
firesnake flowed  down her  stomach.  "Next month  I'm  going  to splice two
hundred separate flame programs  together with meld justification in between
to get  the visuals.  Then  I'll tap  the  mind's  body  image  to  make  it
self-orienting. So it can  crawl all  over your body without your  having to
mind it. You could wear it dancing."
     "Maybe I'm dumb. But if  you haven't done the work yet, how  come I can
see it?"
     Nance giggled. "That's the  best  part half the  work  isn't done  yet.
Didn't have the time to assemble the pieces into a unified program. Turn  on
that  radio, huh? I want to dance." She kicked off her shoes. Deke tuned  in
something  gutsy.  Then, at  Nance's  urging,  turned it down,  almost to  a
     "I  scored two hits of hype, see." She was bouncing on the bed, weaving
her  hands  like a Balinese dancer. "Ever  try the stuff? In-credible. Gives
you  like absolute  concentration.  Look  here." She stood en pointe. "Never
done that before."
     "Hype,"  Deke said.  "Last person  I heard of got caught with that shit
got three years in the infantry. How'd you score it?"
     "Cut a  deal with a vet who  was in  grad school. She  bombed  out last
month. Stuff gives me perfect visualization. I  can hold the projection with
my eyes shut. It was a snap assembling the program in my head."
     "On  just two hits, huh?"  "One hit. I'm saving the other. Teach was so
impressed he's sponsoring  me for a job  interview. A  recruiter  from I. G.
Feuchtwaren hits campus in two weeks. That cap is gonna sell him the program
and me. I'm gonna cut out of school two years early, straight into industry,
do not pass jail, do not pay two hundred dollars."
     The  snake curled into  a flaming  tiara. It gave Deke  a  funny-creepy
feeling to think of. Nance walking out of his life.
     "I'm  a witch,"  Nance sang, "a  wetware  witch." She shucked her shirt
over  her head  and sent it  flying. Her  fine, high breasts  moved  freely,
gracefully, as she danced. "I'm gonna make it" now she was singing a current
pop hit "to the . . . top!" Her nipples were small and pink and aroused. The
firesnake licked at them and whipped away.
     "Hey, Nance," Deke said uncomfortably. "Calm down a little, huh?"
     "I'm celebrating!" She hooked a thumb into her shiny gold panties. Fire
swirled around  hand and  crotch.  "I'm the virgin goddess, baby, and I have
the pow-er!" Singing again.
     Deke  looked away. "Gotta go now," he mumbled. Gotta  go  home and jerk
off. He wondered where she'd hidden that second hit. Could be anywhere.
     There was  a protocol to the circuit,  a  tacit order of  deference and
precedence  as elaborate as that of a  Mandarin court. It didn't matter that
Deke was hot, that his  rep was spreading like wildfire. Even a name  flyboy
couldn't  just challenge whom he wished.  He had  to climb the ranks. But if
you flew  every night. If you were always available to  anybody's challenge.
And if you were good. . . well, it was possible to climb fast.
     Deke was one plane up. It was tournament fighting, three planes against
three. Not many spectators, a dozen maybe, but it was a good fight, and they
were  noisy. Deke was immersed in the  manic calm of combat when he realized
suddenly  that  they had fallen silent. Saw  the kickers  stir  and exchange
glances.  Eyes flicked past  him. He heard the elevator doors close. Coolly,
he disposed of the second  of his opponent's  planes,  then  risked  a quick
glance over his shoulder.
     Tiny Montgomery had  just entered  Jackman's. The  wheelchair whispered
across  browning  linoleum,  guided  by tiny  twitches  of  one  imperfectly
paralyzed hand. His expression was stern, blank, calm.
     In that instant, Deke lost two planes. One to deresolution gone to blur
and canceled out by the facilitator and the other because his opponent was a
real fighter. Guy did a barrel roll, killing speed and slipping to the side,
and strafed Deke's biplane  as it shot past.  It went  down in flames. Their
last two planes shared altitude  and  speed, and as they turned,  trying for
position, they naturally fell into a circling pattern.
     The kickers made room  as Tiny wheeled up against the table. Bobby Earl
Cline  trailed after him,  lanky and  casual. Deke and  his opponent  traded
glances  and pulled their machines back from  the  pool  table so they could
hear the man out. Tiny  smiled. His  features were  small, clustered in  the
center of his pale, doughy face. One finger  twitched slightly on the chrome
handrest.  "I  heard about you."  He  looked straight at Deke. His voice was
soft and shockingly sweet, a baby-girl little voice. "I heard you're good."
     Deke nodded  slowly. The smile left Tiny's face. His  soft, fleshy lips
relaxed  into  a  natural pout, as if he were waiting for a kiss. His small,
bright eyes studied Deke without malice. "Let's see what you can do, then."
     Deke lost himself in the cool game of war. And when the enemy went down
in smoke and flame, to explode and vanish against the table, Tiny wordlessly
turned his chair, wheeled it into the elevator, and was gone.
     As Deke was gathering up  his winnings, Bobby Earl  eased up to him and
said, "The man wants to play you.
     "Yeah?"  Deke was nowhere near high enough on the  circuit to challenge
Tiny. "What's the scam?"
     "Man who was coming up from Atlanta tomorrow canceled. 01' Tiny, he was
spoiling to go up against somebody new. So it  looks like  you get your shot
at the Max."
     "Tomorrow? Wednesday? Doesn't give me much prep time."
     Bobby Earl smiled gently. "I don't think that makes no nevermind."
     "How's that, Mr. Cline?" "Boy, you just ain't got the moves, you follow
     Ain't got  no  surprises. You fly just  like some kinda  beginner, only
faster and slicker. You follow what I'm trying to say?"
     "I'm not sure I do. You want to put a little action on that?"
     "Tell you  truthful," Cline  said, "I been  hoping on that." He drew  a
small  black notebook  from his  pocket and licked a  pencil stub. "Give you
five to one. They's nobody gonna give no fairer odds than that."
     He looked at Deke almost sadly. "But Tiny, he's just naturally better'n
you, and that's all she wrote, boy. He  lives for that goddamned game, ain't
got nothing  else. Can't get out of that goddamned chair.  You think you can
best a man who's fighting for his life, you are just lying to yourself."
     Norman Rockwell's portrait of the colonel regarded Deke dispassionately
from the Kentucky Fried across Richmond Road from the coffee  bar. Deke held
his  cup  with hands that were cold  and trembling.  His  skull  hummed with
fatigue. Cline was right, he told the colonel. I can go up against Tiny, but
I  can't  win.  The  colonel  stared  back,  gaze  calm and  level  and  not
particularly  kindly, taking in the  coffee bar  and  Best  Buy and  all his
drag-ass kingdom of Richmond Road. Waiting for Deke to admit to the terrible
thing he had to do.
     "The bitch is planning to leave me anyway," Deke said aloud. Which made
the black countergirl look at him funny, then quickly away.
     "Daddy  called!"  Nance danced into the  apartment,  slamming  the door
behind her. "And you know what? He says if  I  can get this job  and hold it
for  six  months,  he'll have  the brainlock  reversed. Can you  believe it?
Deke?" She hesitated. "You okay?"
     Deke stood. Now that the moment was on him, he felt unreal, like he was
in a movie or  something. "How come you  never  came home last night?" Nance
     The skin  on his face was unnaturally taut, a  parchment mask. "Where'd
you stash the hype, Nance? I need it."
     "Deke," she  said, trying  a tentative  smile  that instantly vanished.
"Deke, that's mine. My hit. I need it. For my interview."
     He  smiled scornfully. "You  got money. You  can always  score  another
     "Not by Friday!  Listen, Deke, this is really  important. My whole life
is riding on this interview. I need that cap. It's all I got!"
     "Baby, you got the fucking world! Take a look around you  six ounces of
blond  Lebanese  hash!  Little  anchovy  fish  in  tins.  Unlimited  medical
coverage, if you need it."  She was backing away from him, stumbling against
the  static  waves of unwashed  bedding and  wrinkled glossy magazines  that
crested  at the foot of  her bed. "Me, I never had a glimmer of any of this.
Never had the  kind of edge it takes to get along. Well, this one time I  am
gonna. There is a match in two hours that I am going to fucking well win. Do
you hear me?" He  was working  himself into  a rage, and  that was  good. He
needed it for what he had to do.
     Nance flung up an arm, palm open, but he was ready for that and slapped
her hand aside, never even catching a glimpse of the dark tunnel, let  alone
those  little  red eyes. Then they were both falling, and he  was on  top of
her,  her breath hot and rapid  in  his face. "Deke! Deke! I need that shit,
Deke, my interview, it's the only. . . I gotta. . . gotta. . ." She  twisted
her face away, crying into the wall. "Please, God, please don't.. ."
     "Where did you stash it?" Pinned against the bed under his body,  Nance
began to spasm, her entire body convulsing in pain and fear.
     "Where is it?" Her  face was  bloodless,  gray corpse flesh, and horror
burned in her eyes. Her lips  squirmed. It  was too  late to stop now;  he'd
crossed over  the  line. Deke  felt revolted and nauseated, all the more  so
because on some unexpected and unwelcome level, he was enjoying this.
     "Where is it, Nance?" And slowly, very gently,  he began to  stroke her
     Deke summoned Jackman's elevator  with a finger that moved as  fast and
straight as a hornet and landed daintily as a butterfly on the  call button.
He was  full of bouncy  energy, and it was all under control. On the way up,
he  whipped  off  his   shades  and  chuckled  at   his  reflection  in  the
finger-smudged  chrome. The blacks of  his eyes were like pinpricks, all but
invisible, and still the world was neon bright.
     Tiny was waiting. The cripple's  mouth turned up at  the corners into a
sweet  smile  as  he took  in Deke's irises, the  exaggerated  calm  of  his
motions, the unsuccessful attempt to mime  an undrugged clumsiness.  "Well,"
he said in that girlish voice, "looks like I have a treat in store for me."
     The Max was  draped  over  one  tube  of  the wheelchair. Deke  took up
position and bowed, not quite mockingly. "Let's fly." As challenger, he flew
defense. He materialized his planes at a conservative altitude, high  enough
to dive, low enough to have warning when Tiny attacked. He waited.
     The crowd tipped him. A fatboy with brilliantined hair looked startled,
a  hollow-eyed   cracker  started  to  smile.  Murmurs  rose.  Eyes  shifted
slow-motion  in  heads frozen by hyped-up reaction  time.  Took maybe  three
nanoseconds to pinpoint the source  of attack. Deke whipped his head up, and
Sonofabitch, he  was  blind! The  Fokkers  were  diving  straight  from  the
two-hundred-watt bulb, and Tiny had  suckered him into staring  right at it.
His  vision whited  out. Deke squeezed  lids tight  over  welling tears  and
frantically  held visualization.  He split  his flight, curving two biplanes
right, one left. Immediately twisting each a  half-turn, then back again. He
had to dodge randomly he couldn't tell where the hostile warbirds were.
     Tiny chuckled. Deke could hear him through the sounds of the crowd, the
cheering and cursing and slapping  down  of  coins  that seemed to syncopate
independent of the ebb and flow of the duel.
     When his vision  returned an instant  later,  a Spad was in  flames and
falling.  Fokkers tailed his  surviving  planes, one on one  and two  on the
other. Three seconds into the game and he was down one.
     Dodging  to keep  Tiny  from  pinning  tracers  on him,  he looped  the
single-pursued plane about and drove the other toward the blind spot between
Tiny and the light bulb.
     Tiny's expression went very calm. The faintest shadow of disappointment
of contempt,  even was swallowed  up by  tranquility.  He tracked the planes
blandly, waiting for Deke to make his turn.
     Then,  just short of the blind spot, Deke shoved his Spad into a drive,
the Fokkers overshooting and banking wildly to either side,  twisting around
to regain position.
     The Spad swooped  down  on the  third Fokker, pulled  into position  by
Deke's other plane. Fire strafed wings  and crimson fuselage. For an instant
nothing happened, and Deke thought he had  a fluke miss. Then the little red
mother veered left and went down, trailing black, oily smoke.
     Tiny frowned,  small lines of displeasure marring the perfection of his
mouth. Deke smiled. One even, and Tiny held position.
     Both  Spads were tailed closely. Deke swung them  wide, and then pulled
them together  from opposite  sides of the table. He drove them straight for
each other, neutralizing Tiny's advantage . .  . neither  could fire without
endangering  his  own planes.  Deke cranked  his  machines up to top  speed,
slamming them at each other's nose.
     An instant before they crashed, Deke sent the planes over and under one
another, opening fire on the Fokkers and twisting away. Tiny was ready. Fire
filled  the  air. Then one blue  and one red plane  soared free, heading  in
opposite directions.  Behind  them, two biplanes  tangled in  midair.  Wings
touched, slewed about, and the planes crumpled. They fell  together,  almost
straight down, to the green felt below.
     Ten seconds in and four planes down.  A  black  vet pursed his lips and
blew softly. Someone else shook his head in disbelief.
     Tiny was sitting  straight and a little forward in his wheelchair, eyes
intense and unblinking,  soft  hands plucking  feebly  at the grips. None of
that amused and  detached bullshit now; his  attention was  riveted  on  the
game. The kickers, the  table, Jackman's itself, might not exist  at all for
him. Bobby  Earl Cline laid a hand on his shoulder; Tiny didn't notice.  The
planes were at opposite ends of the room, laboriously gaining altitude. Deke
jammed his against the ceiling, dim through the smoky haze. He spared Tiny a
quick glance, and  their eyes  locked.  Cold  against cold.  "Let's see your
best," Deke muttered through clenched teeth.
     They drove their planes  together. The hype was  peaking now, and  Deke
could see Tiny's tracers crawling through the air between the planes. He had
to  put his Spad into the line of fire  to get  off a fair burst, then twist
and bank so the  Fokker's bullets would slip by his undercarriage. Tiny  was
every bit as hot, dodging Deke's fire and passing so close to the Spad their
landing gears almost tangled as they passed.
     Deke  was  looping  his  Spad in a  punishingly  tight  turn  when  the
hallucinations hit. The felt writhed and twisted  became the  green  hell of
Bolivian rain forest that Tiny had  flown combat over. The walls receded  to
gray infinity,  and he felt the metal confinement of  a  cybernetic  jumpjet
close in around him.
     But Deke had done his homework. He was expecting the hallucinations and
knew he could deal with them. The military would  never  pass on a drug that
couldn't  be fought through.  Spad  and Fokker looped into another  pass. He
could read  the tensions in Tiny Montgomery's face, the  echoes of combat in
deep  jungle  sky.  They  drove their  planes  together, feeling the torqued
tensions that fed straight from instrumentation to hindbrain, the adrenaline
pumps kicking in behind the armpits, the cold, fast freedom of airflow  over
jetskin mingling with the smells of hot metal  and  fear sweat. Tracers tore
past his face, and he pulled back, seeing the Spad zoom by the Fokker again,
both untouched. The kickers  were  just going ape, waving hats  and stomping
feet, acting like God's own fools. Deke locked glances with Tiny again.
     Malice  rose  up in  him,  and  though his every  nerve was taut as the
carbon-crystal  whiskers  that  kept  the  jumpjets from  falling  apart  in
superman  turns over the Andes, he counterfeited a casual smile and  winked,
jerking his head slightly to one side, as if to say "Lookahere."
     Tiny glanced to  the side. It was only for a fraction of a  second, but
that was enough.  Deke pulled  as fast and  tight an Immelmann right on  the
edge of theoretical tolerance as had  ever been seen on  the circuit, and he
was hanging on Tiny's tail.
     Let's see  you  get  out of  this one, sucker. Tiny  rammed  his  plane
straight  down at the green, and Deke  followed  after. He held his fire. He
had Tiny where he wanted him.
     Running. Just  like  he'd  been on  his  every combat mission. High  on
exhilaration and hype, maybe, but running scared. They were down to the felt
now,  flying  treetop-level.  Break, Deke thought, and jacked up the  speed.
Peripherally, he could  see Bobby Earl Cline,  and there was a funny look on
the man's face. A pleading kind of look. Tiny's composure was shot; his face
was twisted and tormented.
     Now Tiny panicked and dove his plane in among  the crowd. The  biplanes
looped and twisted between the kickers. Some jerked back involuntarily,  and
others laughingly  swatted at  them  with their hands. But  there  was a hot
glint of  terror  in Tiny's eyes that  spoke of  an  eternity  of  fear  and
confinement, two edges sawing away at each other endlessly. .
     The fear was death in the air, the confinement a locking away in metal,
first of  the aircraft,  then  of the chair. Deke  could read  it all in his
face: Combat was  the only out Tiny had had, and he'd taken it every  chance
he got. Until some anonymous nationalista  with an antique SAM tore  him out
of  that blue-green Bolivian sky and  slammed  him straight down to Richmond
Road and Jackman's and the smiling killer boy  he faced  this  one last time
across the faded cloth.
     Deke rocked up on his toes, face burning with that million-dollar smile
that was the trademark of the drug that had already fried Tiny before anyone
ever  bothered to blow him out  of the  sky  in a hot  tangle  of  metal and
mangled flesh. It all came together then. He saw  that flying  was  all that
held Tiny together. That daily brush of  fingertips  against death, and then
rising  up  from the  metal  coffin, alive  again.  He'd  been holding  back
collapse by  sheer  force of will. Break that willpower, and mortality would
come pouring out and drown him. Tiny would lean over and throw up in his own
     And Deke drove it home....  There was a  moment  of  stunned silence as
Tiny's last plane vanished in a flash of light. "I did  it," Deke whispered.
Then, louder, "Son of a bitch, I did it!"
     Across  the  table  from  him, Tiny twisted in his chair,  arms jerking
spastically; his head lolled over on  one shoulder.  Behind him,  Bobby Earl
Cline stared straight at Deke, his eyes hot coals.
     The gambler snatched up the Max and wrapped its  ribbon around a  stack
of  laminateds.  Without  warning,  he  flung  the  bundle  at Deke's  face.
Effortlessly, casually, Deke plucked it from the air.
     For  an instant, then, it looked like the  gambler would  come  at him,
right across the pool table. He  was  stopped by a tug on his sleeve. "Bobby
Earl,"  Tiny  whispered, his voice choking with humiliation, "you  gotta get
me... out of here. "
     Stiffly, angrily, Cline wheeled his friend  around, and then away, into
shadow. Deke threw  back  his head  and laughed.  By  God,  he felt good! He
stuffed the Max into a shirt pocket, where it hung cold and heavy. The money
he crammed into his jeans. Man, he had to jump  with it, his triumph leaping
up through him like a wild thing, fine and strong as the flanks of a buck in
the deep woods he'd  seen  from a Greyhound once, and for this one moment it
seemed that everything was worth it somehow, all the pain  and  misery  he'd
gone through to finally win.
     But Jackman's  was  silent. Nobody  cheered. Nobody  crowded around  to
congratulate him. He sobered, and silent, hostile faces swam into focus. Not
one of these kickers was  on his  side. They radiated contempt, even hatred.
For an  interminably  drawn-out  moment  the  air  trembled  with  potential
violence . .  . and then someone turned to  the side,  hawked up phlegm, and
spat on the floor. The crowd  broke up, muttering, one by one  drifting into
the darkness.
     Deke didn't move. A muscle in one leg began to twitch, harbinger of the
coming hype  crash. The top of his  head felt numb, and  there was an  awful
taste in his mouth. For a second he had  to  hang on to  the table with both
hands to keep from falling down forever, into the living shadow beneath him,
as he hung impaled by the prize buck's  dead eyes in the photo under the Dr.
Pepper clock.
     A little adrenaline would pull him out of this. He needed to celebrate.
To  get drunk  or stoned and  talk it  up, going over  the victory time  and
again, contradicting  himself, making  up  details, laughing and bragging. A
starry old night like this called for big talk.
     But  standing there with all  of  Jackman's  silent and vast  and empty
around him, he realized suddenly that he had nobody left to tell it to.
     Nobody at all.

Популярность: 26, Last-modified: Sun, 26 Aug 2001 18:11:04 GMT