Michael Swanwick, William Gibson. Dogfight
© 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
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
"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.
"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
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
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
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.
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.