© Copyright William Gibson
When Hiro hit the switch, I was dreaming of Paris, dreaming of wet,
dark streets in winter. The pain came oscillating up from the floor of my
skull, exploding behind my eyes in a wall of blue neon; I jackknifed up out
of the mesh hammock, screaming. I always scream; I make a point of it.
Feedback raged in my skull. The pain switch is an auxiliary circuit in the
bonephone implant, patched directly into the pain centers, just the thing
for cutting through a surrogate's barbiturate fog. It took a few seconds for
my life to fall together, icebergs of biography looming through the fog: who
I was, where I was, what I was doing there, who was waking me.
Hiro's voice came crackling into my head through the bone-conduction
implant.- "Damn, Toby. Know what it does to my ears, you scream like that?"
"Know how much I care about your ears, Dr. Nagashima? I care about them
as much as "
"No time for the litany of love, boy. We've got business. But what is
it with these fifty-millivolt spike waves off your temporals, hey? Mixing
something with the downers to give it a little color?"
"Your EEG's screwed, Hiro. You're crazy. I just want my sleep.
. . ." I collapsed into the hammock and tried to pull the darkness over
me, but his voice was still there.
"Sorry, my man, but you're working today. We got a ship back, an hour
ago. Air-lock gang are out there right now, sawing the reaction engine off
so she'll just about fit through the door."
"Who is it?" "Leni Hofmannstahl, Toby, physical chemist, citizen of the
Federal Republic of Germany." He waited until I quit groaning. "It's a
Lovely workaday terminology we've developed out here. He meant a
returning ship with active medical telemetry, contents one (1) body, warm,
psychological status as yet unconfirmed. I shut my eyes and swung there in
"Looks like you're her surrogate, Toby. Her profile syncs with
Taylor's, but he's on leave."
I knew all about Taylor's "leave." He was out in the agricultural
canisters, ripped on amitriptyline, doing aerobic exercises to counter his
latest bout with clinical depression. One of the occupational hazards of
being a surrogate. Taylor and I don't get along. Funny how you usually
don't, if the guy's psychosexual profile is too much like your own.
"Hey, Toby, where are you getting all that dope?" The question was
ritual. "From Charmian?"
"From your mom, Hiro." He knows it's Charmian as well as I do.
"Thanks, Toby. Get up here to the Heavenside elevator in five minutes
or I'll send those Russian nurses down to help you. The male ones."
I just swung there in my hammock and played the game called Toby
Halpert's Place in the Universe. No egotist, I put the sun in the center,
the lumiary, the orb of day. Around it I swung tidy planets, our cozy home
system. But just here, at a fixed point about an eighth of the way out
toward the orbit of Mars, I hung a fat alloy cylinder, like a quarter-scale
model of Tsiolkovsky 1, the Worker's Paradise back at L-5. Tsiolkovsky 1 is
fixed at the liberation point between Earth's gravity and the moon's, but we
need a lightsail to hold us here, twenty tons of aluminum spun into a
hexagon, ten kilometers from side to side. That sail towed us out from Earth
orbit, and now it's our anchor. We use it to tack against the photon stream,
hanging here beside the thing the point, the singularity we call the
The French call it le metro, the subway, and the Russians call it the
river, but subway won't carry the distance, and river, for Americans, can't
carry quite the same loneliness. Call it the Tovyevski Anomaly Coordinates
if you don't mind bringing Olga into it. Olga Tovyevski, Our Lady of
Singularities, Patron Saint of the Highway.
Hiro didn't trust me to get up on my own. Just before the Russian
orderlies came in, he turned the lights on in my cubicle, by remote control,
and let them strobe and stutter for a few seconds before they fell as a
steady glare across the pictures of Saint Olga that Charmian had taped up on
the bulkhead. Dozens of them, her face repeated in newsprint, in magazine
glossy. Our Lady of the Highway.
Lieutenant Colonel Olga Tovyevski, youngest woman of her rank in the
Soviet space effort, was en route to Mars, solo, in a modified Alyut 6. The
modifications allowed her to carry the prototype of a new airscrubber that
was to be tested in the USSR's four-man Martian orbital lab. They could just
as easily have handled the Alyut by remote, from Tsiolkovsky, but Olga
wanted to log mission time. They made sure she kept busy, though; they stuck
her with a series of routine hydrogen-band radio-flare experiments, the tail
end of a lowpriority Soviet-Australian scientific exchange. Olga knew that
her role in the experiments could have been handled by a standard household
timer. But she was a diligent officer; she'd press the buttons at precisely
the correct intervals.
With her brown hair drawn back and caught in a net, she must have
looked like some idealized Pravda cameo of the Worker in Space, easily the
most photogenic cosmonaut of either gender. She checked the Alyut's
chronometer again and poised her hand above the buttons that would trigger
the first of her flares. Colonel Tovyevski had no way of knowing that she
was nearing the point in space that would eventually be known as the
As she punched the six-button triggering sequence, the Alyut crossed
those final kilometers and emitted the flare, a sustained burst of radio
energy at 1420 megahertz, broadcast frequency of the hydrogen atom.
Tsiolkovsky's radio telescope was tracking, relaying the signal to
geosynchronous comsats that bounced it down to stations in the southern
Urals and New South Wales. For 3.8 seconds the Alyut's radio~image was
obscured by the afterimage of the flare.
When the afterimage faded from Earth's monitor screens, the Alyut was
In the Urals a middle-aged Georgian technician bit through the stem of
his favorite meerschaum. In New South Wales a young physicist began to slam
the side of his monitor, like an enraged pinball finalist protesting TILT.
The elevator that waited to take me up to Heaven looked like
Hollywood's best shot at a Bauhaus mummy case a narrow, upright sarcophagus
with a clear acrylic lid. Behind it, rows of identical consoles receded like
a textbook illustration of vanishing perspective. The usual crowd of
technicians in yellow paper clown suits were milling purposefully around. I
spotted Hiro in blue denim, his pearl-buttoned cowboy shirt open over a
faded UCLA sweat shirt. Engrossed in the figures cascading down the face of
a monitor screen, he didn't notice me. Neither did anyone else.
So I just stood there and stared up at the ceiling, at the bottom of
the floor of Heaven. It didn't look like much. Our fat cylinder is actually
two cylinders, one inside the other. Down here in the outer one we make our
own "down" with axial rotation are all the more mundane aspects of our
operation: dormitories, cafeterias, the air-lock deck, where we haul in
returning - boats, Communications and Wards, where I'm careful never to go.
Heaven, the inner cylinder, the unlikely green heart of this place, is
the ripe Disney dream of homecoming, the ravenous ear of an
information-hungry global economy. A constant stream of raw data goes
pulsing home to Earth, a flood of rumors, whispers, hints of transgalactic
traffic. I used to lie rigid in my hammock and feel the pressure of all
those data, feel them snaking through the lines I imagined behind the
bulkhead, lines like sinews, strapped and bulging, ready to spasm, ready to
crush me. Then Charmian moved in with me, and after I told her about the
fear, she made magic against it and put up her icons of Saint Olga. And the
pressure receded, fell away.
"Patching you in with a translator, Toby. You may need German this
morning." His voice was sand in my skull, a dry modulation of static.
"On line, Dr. Nagashima," said a BBC voice, clear as ice crystal. "You
do have French, do you, Toby? Hofmannstahl has French and English."
"You stay the hell out of my hair, Hillary. Speak when you're bloody
spoken to, got it?" Her silence became another layer in the complex,
continual sizzle of static. Hiro shot me a dirty look across two dozen
consoles. I grinned.
It was starting to happen: the elation, the adrenaline rush. I could
feel it through the last wisps of barbiturate. A kid with a surfer's smooth,
blond face was helping me into a jump suit. It smelled; it was newold,
carefully battered, soaked with synthetic sweat and customized pheromones.
Both sleeves were plastered from wrist to shoulder with embroidered patches,
mostly corporate logos, subsidiary backers of an imaginary Highway
expedition, with the main backer's much larger trademark stitched across my
shoulders the firm that was supposed to have sent HALPERT, TOBY out to his
rendezvous with the stars. At least my name was real, embroidered in scarlet
nylon capitals just above my heart.
The surfer boy had the kind of standard-issue good looks I associate
with junior partners in the CIA, but his name tape said NEVSKY and repeated
itself in Cyrillic. KGB, then. He was no tsiolnik; he didn't have that
loose-jointed style conferred by twenty years in the L-5 habitat. The kid
was pure Moscow, a polite clipboard ticker who probably knew eight ways to
kill with a rolled newspaper. Now we began the ritual of drugs and pockets;
he tucked a microsyringe; loaded with one of the new euphorohallucinogens,
into the pocket on my left wrist, took a step back, then ticked it off on
his clipboard. The printed outline of a jump-suited surrogate on his special
pad looked like a handgun target. He took a five-gram vial of opium from the
case he wore chained to his waist and found the pocket for that. Tick.
Fourteen pockets. The cocaine was last.
Hiro came over just as the Russian was finishing. "Maybe she has some
hard data, Toby; she's a physical chemist, remember." It was strange to hear
him acoustically, not as bone vibration from the implant.
"Everything's hard up there, Hiro." "Don't I know it?" He was feeling
it, too, that special buzz. We couldn't quite seem to make eye contact.
Before the awkwardness could deepen, he turned and gave one of the yellow
clowns the thumbs up.
Two of them helped me into the Bauhaus coffin and stepped back as the
lid hissed down like a giant's faceplate. I began my ascent to Heaven and
the homecoming of a stranger named Leni Hofmannstahl. A short trip, but it
seems to take forever.
* * *
Olga, who was our first hitchhiker, the first one to stick out her
thumb on the wavelength of hydrogen, made it home in two years. At Tyuratam,
in Kazakhstan, one gray winter morning, they recorded her return on eighteen
centimeters of magnetic tape.
If a religious man one with a background in film technology had been
watching the point in space where her Alyut had vanished two years before,
it might have seemed to him that God had butt-spliced footage of empty space
with footage of Olga's ship. She blipped back into our space-time like some
amateur's atrocious special effect. A week later and they might never have
reached her in time; Earth would have spun on its way and left her drifting
toward the sun. Fifty-three hours after her return, a nervous volunteer
named Kurtz, wearing an armored work suit, climbed through the Alyut's
hatch. He was an East German specialist in space medicine, and American
cigarettes were his secret vice; he wanted one very badly as he negotiated
the air lock, wedged his way past a rectangular mass of airscrubber core,
and chinned his helmet lights. The Alyut, even after two years, seemed to be
full of breathable air. In the twin beams from the massive helmet, he saw
tiny globules of blood and vomit swinging slowly past, swirling in his wake,
as he edged the bulky suit out of the crawlway and entered the command
module. Then he found her.
She was drifting above the navigational display, naked, cramped in a
rigid fetal knot. Her eyes were open, but fixed on something Kurtz would
never see. Her fists were bloody, clenched like stone, and her brown hair,
loose now, drifted around her face like seaweed. Very slowly, very
carefully, he swung himself across the white keyboards of the command
console and secured his suit to the navigational display. She'd gone after
the ship's communications ~gear with her bare hands, he decided. He
deactivated the work suit's right claw; it unfolded automatically, like two
pairs of vicegrip pliers pretending they were a flower. He extended his
hand, still sealed in a pressurized gray surgical glove.
Then, as gently as he could, he pried open the fingers of her left
But when he opened her right fist, something spun free and tumbled in
slow motion a few centimeters from the synthetic quartz of his faceplate. It
looked like a seashell.
Olga came home, but she never came back to life behind those blue eyes.
They tried, of course, but the more they tried, the more tenuous she became,
and, in their hunger to know, they spread her thinner and thinner until she
came, in her martyrdom, to fill whole libraries with frozen aisles of
precious relics. No saint was ever pared so fine; at the Plesetsk
laboratories alone, she was represented by more than two million tissue
slides, racked and numbered in the subbasement of a bomb-proof biological
They had better luck with the seashell. Exobiology suddenly found
itself standing on unnervingly solid ground: one and seven-tenths grams of
highly organized biological information, definitely extraterrestrial. Olga's
seashell generated an entire subbranch of the science, devoted exclusively
to the study of . . . Olga's seashell.
The initial findings on the shell made two things clear. It was the
product of no known terrestrial biosphere, and as there were no other known
biospheres in the solar system, it had come from another star. Olga had
either visited the place of its origin or come into contact, however
distantly, with something that was, or had once been, capable of making the
They sent a Major Grosz out to the Tovyevski Coordinates in a specially
fitted Alyut 9. Another ship followed him. He was on the last of his twenty
hydrogen flares when his ship vanished. They recorded his departure and
waited. Two hundred thirty-four days later he returned. In the meantime they
had probed the area constantly, desperate for anything that might become the
specific anomaly, the irritant around which a theory might grow. There was
nothing: only Grosz's ship, tumbling out of control. He committed suicide
before they could reach him, the Highway's second victim.
When the towed the Alyut back to Tsiolkovsky, they found that the
elaborate recording gear was blank. All of it was in perfect working order;
none of it had functioned. Grosz was flash-frozen and put on the first
shuttle down to Plesetsk, where bulldozers were already excavating for a new
Three years later, the morning after they lost their seventh cosmonaut,
a telephone rang in Moscow. The caller introduced himself. He was the
director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.
He was authorized, he said, to make a certain offer. Under certain very
specific conditions, the Soviet Union might avail itself of the best minds
in Western psychiatry. It was the understanding of his agency, he continued,
that such help might currently be very welcome.
His Russian was excellent.
The bonephone static was a subliminal sandstorm. The elevator slid up
into its narrow shaft through the floor of Heaven. I counted blue lights at
two-meter intervals. After the fifth light, darkness and cessation.
Hidden in the hollow command console of the dummy Highway boat, I
waited in the elevator like the secret behind the gimmicked bookcase in a
children's mystery story. The boat was a prop, a set piece, like the
Bavarian cottage glued to the plaster alp in some amusement park a nice
touch, but one that wasn't quite necessary. If the returnees accept us at
all, they take us for granted; our cover stories and props don't seem to
make much difference.
"All clear," Hiro said. "No customers hanging around." I reflexively
massaged the scar behind my left ear, where they'd gone in to plant the
bonephone. The side of the dummy console swung open and let in the gray dawn
light of Heaven. The fake boat's interior was familiar and strange at the
same time, like your own apartment when you haven't seen it for a week. One
of those new Brazilian vines had snaked its way across the left vlewport
since my last time up, but that seemed to be the only change in the whole
Big fights over those vines at the biotecture meetings, American
ecologists screaming about possible nitrogen shortfalls. The Russians have
been touchy about biodesign ever since they had to borrow Americans to help
them with the biotic program back at Tslolkovsky 1. Nasty problem with the
rot eating the hydroponic wheat; all that superfine Soviet engineering and
they still couldn't establish a functional ecosystem. Doesn't help that that
initial debacle paved the way for us to be out here with them now. It
irritates them; so they insist on the Brazilian vines, whatever anything
that gives them a chance to argue. But I like those vines: The leaves are
heart-shaped, and if you rub one between your hands, it smells like
I stood at the port and watched the clearing take shape, as reflected
sunlight entered Heaven. Heaven runs Ofl Greenwich Standard; big Mylar
mirrors were swiveling somewhere, out in bright vacuum, on schedule of a
Greenwich Standard dawn. The recorded birdsongs began back in the trees.
Birds have a very hard time in the absence of true gravity. We can't have
real ones, because they go crazy trying to make do with centrifugal force.
The first time you see it, Heaven lives up to its name, lush and cool
and bright, the long grass dappled with wildflowers. It helps if you don't
know that most of the trees are artificial, or the amount of care required
to maintain something like the optimal balance between blue-green algae and
diatom algae in the ponds. Charmian says she expects Bambi to come gamboling
out of the woods, and Hiro claims he knows exactly how many Disney engineers
were sworn to secrecy under the National Security Act.
"We're getting fragments from Hofmannstahl," Hiro said. He might almost
have been talking to himself; the handler-surrogate gestalt was going into
effect, and soon we'd cease to be aware of each other. The adrenaline edge
was tapering off. "Nothing very coherent. `Schone Maschine,' something . . .
`Beautiful machine' ... Hillary thinks she sounds pretty calm, but right out
"Don't tell me about it. No expectations, right? Let's go in loose." I
opened the hatch and took a breath of Heaven's air; it was like cool white
wine. "Where's Charmian?"
He sighed, a soft gust of static. "Charmian should be in Clearing Five,
taking care of a Chilean who's three days home, but she's not, because she
heard you were coming. So she's waiting for you by the carp pond. Stubborn
bitch," he added.
Charmian was flicking pebbles at the Chinese bighead carp. She had a
cluster of white flowers tucked behind one ear, a wilted Marlboro behind the
other. Her feet were bare and muddy, and she'd hacked the legs off her jump
suit at midthigh. Her black hair was drawn back in a ponytail.
We'd met for the first time at a party out in one of the welding shops,
drunken voices clanging in the hollow of the alloy sphere, homemade vodka in
zero gravity. Someone had a bag of water for a chaser, squeezed out a double
handful, and flipped it expertly into a rolling, floppy ball of surface
tension. Old jokes about passing water. But I'm graceless in zero g. I put
my hand through it when it came my way. Shook a thousand silvery little
balls from my hair, batting at them, tumbling, and the woman beside me was
laughing, turning slow somersaults, long, thin girl with black hair. She
wore those baggy drawstring pants that tourists take home from Tsiolkovsky
and a faded NASA T-shirt three sizes too big. A minute later she was telling
me about hang-gliding with the teen tsiolniki and about how proud they'd
been of the weak pot they grew in one of the corn canisters. I didn't
realize she was another surrogate until Hiro clicked in to tell us the party
was over. She moved in with me a week later.
"A minute, okay?" Hiro gritted his teeth, a horrible sound. "One. Uno."
Then he was gone, off the circuit entirely, maybe not even listening.
"How's tricks in Clearing Five?" I squatted beside her and found some
pebbles of my own.
"Not so hot. I had to get away from him for a while, shot him up with
hypnotics. My translator told me you were on your way up."~ She has the kind
of Texas accent that makes ice sound like ass.
"Thought you spoke Spanish. Guy's Chilean, isn't he?" I tossed one of
my pebbles into the pond.
"I speak Mexican. The culture vultures said he wouldn t like my accent.
Good thing, too. I can't follow him when he talks fast." One of her pebbles
followed mine, rings spreading on the surface as it sank. "Which is
constantly," she added. A bighead swam over to see whether her pebble was
good to eat. "He isn't going to make it." She wasn't looking at me. Her tone
was perfectly neutral. "Little Jorge is definitely not making it.''
I chose the flattest of my pebbles and tried to skip it across the
pond, but it sank. The less I knew about Chilean Jorge, the better. I knew
he was a live one, one of the ten percent. Our DOA count runs at twenty
percent. Suicide. Seventy percent of the meatshots are automatic candidates
for Wards: the diaper cases, mumblers, totally gone. Charmian and I are
surrogates for that final ten percent.
If the first ones to come back had only returned with seashells, I
doubt that Heaven would be out here.
Heaven was built after a dead Frenchman returned with a
twelve-centimeter ring of magnetically coded steel locked in his cold hand,
black parody of the lucky kid who wins the free ride on the merry-go-round.
We may never find out where or how he got it, but that ring was the Rosetta
stone for cancer. So now it's cargo cult time for the human race. We can
pick things up out there that we might not stumble across in research in a
thousand years. Charmian says we're like those poor suckers on thier island,
who spend all thier time building landing strips to make the big silver
birds come back. Charmian says that contact with "superior" civilizations is
something you don't wish on your worst enemy.
"Ever wonder how they thought this scam up, Toby?" She was squinting
into the sunlight, east, down the length of our cylindrical country,
horizonless and green. "They must've had all the heavies in, the shrink
elite, scattered down a long slab of genuine imitation rosewood, standard
Pentagon issue. Each one got a clean notepad and a brand-new pencil,
specially sharpened for the occasion. Everybody was there: Freudians,
Jungians, Adlerians, Skinner rat men, you name it. And every one of those
bastards knew in his heart that it was time to play his best hand. As a
profession, not just as representatives of a given faction. There they are,
Western psychiatry incarnate. And nothing's happening! People are popping
back off the Highway dead, or else they come back drooling, singing nursery
rhymes. The live ones last about three days, won't say a goddamned thing,
then shoot themselves or go catatonic." She took a small flashlight from her
belt and casually cracked its plastic shell, extracting the parabolic
reflector. "Kremlin's screaming. CIA's going nuts. And worst of all, the
multinationals who want to back the show are getting cold feet. `Dead
spacemen? No data? No deal, friends.' So they're getting nervous, all those
supershrinks, until some flake, some grinning weirdo from Berkeley maybe, he
says," and her drawl sank to parody stoned mellowness, " `Like, hey, why
don't we just put these people into a real nice place with a lotta good dope
and somebody they can really relate to, hey?' " She laughed, shook her head.
She was using the reflector to light her cigarette, concentrating the
sunlight. They don't give us matchs; fires screw up the oxygen carbon
dioxide balance. A tiny curl of gray smoke twisted away from the white-hot
"Okay," Hiro said, "that's your minute." I checked my watch; it was
more like three minutes.
"Good luck, baby," she said softly, pretending to be intent on her
The promise of pain. It's there each time. You know what will happen,
but you don't know when, or exactly how. You try to hold on to them; you
rock them in the dark. But if you brace for the pain, you can't function.
That poem Hiro quotes, Teach us to care and not to care.
We're like intelligent houseflies wandering through an international
airport; some of us actually manage to blunder onto flights to London or
Rio, maybe even survive the trip and make it back. "Hey," say the other
flies, "what's happening on the other side of that door? What do they know
that we don't?" At the edge of the Highway every human language unravels in
your hands except, perhaps, the language of the shaman, of the cabalist, the
language of the mystic intent on mapping hierarchies of demons, angels,
But the Highway is governed by rules, and we've learned a few of them.
That gives us something to cling to.
Rule One: One entity per ride; no teams, no couples.
Rule Two: No artificial intelligences; whatever's Out there won't stop
for~a smart machine, at least not the kind we know how to build.
Rule Three: Recording instruments are a waste of space; they always
come back blank.
Dozens of new schools of physics have sprung up in Saint Olga's wake,
ever more bizarre and more elegant heresies, each one hoping to shoulder its
way to the inside track. One by one, they all fall down. In the whispering
quiet of Heaven's nights, you imagine you can hear the paradigms shatter,
shards of theory tinkling into brilliant dust as the lifework of some
corporate think tank is reduced to the tersest historical footnote, and all
in the time it takes your damaged traveler to mutter some fragment in the
dark. not Flies in an airport, hitching rides. Flies are advised to ask too
many questions; flies are advised not to try for the Big Picture. Repeated
attempts in that direction invariably lead to the slow, relentless flowering
of paranoia, your mind projecting huge, dark patterns on the walls of night,
patterns that have a way of solidifying, becoming madness, becoming
religion. Smart flies stick with Black Box theory; Black Box is the
sanctioned metaphor, the Highway remaining x in every sane equation. We
aren't supposed to worry about what the Highway is, or who put it there.
Instead, we concentrate on what we put into the Box and what we get back out
of it. There are things we send down the Highway (a woman named Olga, her
ship, so many more who've followed) and things that come to us (a madwoman,
a seashell, artifacts, fragments of alien technologies). The Black Box
theorists assure us that our primary concern is to optimize this exchange.
We're out here to see that our species gets its money's worth. Still,
certain things become increasingly evident; one of them is that we aren't
the only flies who've found their way into an airport. We've collected
artifacts from at least half a dozen wildly divergent cultures. "More
hicks," Charmian calls them. We're like pack rats in the hold of a
freighter, trading little pretties with rats from other ports. Dreaming of
the bright lights, the big city.
Keep it simple, a matter of In and Out. Leni Hofmannstahl: Out.
We staged the homecoming of Leni Hofmannstahl in Clearing Three, also
known as Elysium. I crouched in a stand of meticulous reproductions of young
vine maples and studied her ship. It had originally looked like a wingless
dragonfly, a slender, ten-meter abdomen housing the reaction engine. Now,
with the engine removed, it looked like a matte-white pupa, larval eye
bulges stuffed with the traditional useless array of sensors and probes. It
lay on a gentle rise in the center of the clearing, a specially designed
hillock sc~slpted to support a variety of vessel formats. The newer boats
are smaller, like Grand Prix washing machines, minimalist pods with no
pretense to being exploratory vessels. Modules for meatshots.
"I don't like it," Hiro said. "I don't like this one. It doesn't feel
right. . . ." He might have been taiking to himself; he might almost have
been me talking to myself, which meant the handler-surrogate gestalt was
almost operational. Locked into my role, I'm no longer the point man for
Heaven's hungry ear, a specialized probe radio-linked with an even more
specialized psychiatrist; when the gestalt clicks, Hiro and I meld into
something else, something we can never admit to each other, not when it
isn't happening. Our relationship would give a classical Freudian
nightmares. But I knew that he was right; something felt terribly wrong this
The clearing was roughly circular. It had to be; it was actually a
fifteen-meter round cut through the floor of Heaven, a circular elevator
disguised as an Alpine minimeadow. They'd sawed Leni's engine off, hauled
her boat into the outer cylinder, lowered the clearing to the air-lock deck,
then lifted her to Heaven on a giant pie plate landscaped with grass and
wildflowers. They'd blanked her sensors with broadcast overrides and sealed
her ports and hatch; Heaven is supposed to be a surprise to the newly
I found myself wondering whether Charmian was back with Jorge yet.
Maybe she'd be cooking something for him, one of the fish we "catch" as
they're released into our hands from cages on the pool bottoms. I imagined
the smell of frying fish, closed my eyes, and imagined Charmian wading in
the shallow water, bright drops beading on her thighs, long-legged girl in a
fishpond in Heaven.
"Move, Toby! In now!" My skull rang with the volume; training and the
gestalt reflex already had me halfway across the clearing. "Goddamn,
goddamn, goddamn. . . ." Hiro's mantra, and I knew it had managed to go all
wrong, then. Hillary the translator was a shrill undertone, BBC ice cracking
as she rattled something out at top speed, something about anatomical
charts. Hiro must have used the remotes to unseal the hatch, but he didn't
wait for it to unscrew itself. He triggered six explosive bolts built into
the hull and blew the whole hatch mechanism out intact. It barely missed me.
I had instinctively swerved out of its way. Then I was scrambling up the
boat's smooth side, grabbing for the honeycomb struts just inside the
entranceway; the hatch mechanism had taken the alloy ladder with it.
And I froze there, crouching in the smell of plastique from the bolts,
because that was when the Fear found me, really found me, for the first
I'd felt it before, the Fear, but only the fringes, the least edge. Now
it was vast, the very hollow of night, an emptiness cold and implacable. It
was last words, deep space, every long goodbye in the history of our
species. It made me cringe, whining. I was shaking, groveling, crying. They
lecture us on it, warn us, try to explain it away as a kind of temporary
agoraphobia endemic to our work. But we know what it is; surrogates know and
handlers can't. No explanation has ever even come close.
It's the Fear. It's the long finger of Big Night, the darkness that
feeds the muttering damned to the gentle white maw of Wards. Olga knew it
first, Saint Olga. She tried to hide us from it, clawing at her radio gear,
bloodying her hands to destroy her ship's broadcast capacity, praying Earth
would lose her, let her die....
Hiro was frantic, but he must have understood, and he knew what to do.
He hit me with the pain switch. Hard. Over and over, like a cattle
prod. He drove me into the boat. He drove me through the Fear.
Beyond the Fear, there was ~ room. Silence, and a stranger's smell, a
The cramped module was worn, almost homelike, the tired plastic of the
acceleration couch patched with peeling strips of silver tape. But it all
seemed to mold itself around an absence. She wasn't there. Then I saw the
insane frieze of ballpoint scratchings, crabbed symbols, thousands of tiny,
crooked oblongs locking and overlapping. Thumb-smudged, pathetic, it covered
most of the rear bulkhead. Hiro was static, whispering, pleading. Find her,
Toby, now, please, Toby, find her, find her, find I found her in the
surgical bay, a narrow alcove off the crawlway. Above her, the Schone
Maschine, the surgical manipulator, glittering, its bright, thin arms neatly
folded, chromed limbs of a spider crab, tipped with hemostats, forceps,
laser scalpel. Hiliary was hysterical, half-lost on some faint channel,
something about the anatomy of the human arm, the tendons, the arteries,
basic taxonomy. Hillary was screaming.
There was no blood at all. The manipulator is a clean machine, able to
do a no-mess job in zero g, vacuuming the blood away. She'd died just before
Hiro had blown the hatch, her right arm spread out across the white plastic
work surface like a medieval drawing, flayed, muscles and other tissues
tacked out in a neat symmetrical display, held with a dozen stainless-steel
dissecting pins. She bled to death. A surgical manipulator is carefully
programmed against suicides, but it can double as a robot dissector,
preparing biologicals for storage.
She'd found a way to fool it. You usually can, with machines, given
time. She'd had eight years.
She lay there in a collapsible framework, a thing like the fossil
skeleton of a dentist's chair; through it, I could see the faded embroidery
across the back of her jump suit, the trademark of a West German electronics
conglomerate. I tried to tell her. I said, "Please, you're dead. Forgive us,
we came to try to help, Hiro and I. Understand? He knows you, see, Hiro,
he's here in my head. He's read your dossier, your sexual profile, your
favorite colors; he knows your childhood fears, first lover, name of a
teacher you liked. And I've got just the right pheromOne5~ and I'm a walking
arsenal of drugs, something here you're bound to like. And we can lie, Hiro
and I; we're ace liars. Please. You've got to see. Perfect strangers, but
Hiro and I, for you, we make up the perfect stranger, Leni."
She was a small woman, blond, her smooth, straight hair streaked with
premature gray. I touched her hair, once, and went out into the clearing. As
I stood there, the long grass shuddered, the wildflowers began to shake, and
we began our descent, the boat centered on its landscaped round of elevator.
The clearing slid down out of Heaven, and the sunlight was lost in the glare
of huge vapor arcs that threw hard shadows across the broad deck of the air
lock. Figures in red suits, running. A red Dinky Toy did a U-turn on fat
rubber wheels, getting out of our way. Nevsky, the KGB surfer, was waiting
at the foot of the gangway that they wheeled to the edge of the clearing. I
didn't see him until I reached the bottom.
"I must take the drugs now, Mr. Halpert." I stood there, swaying,
blinking tears from my eyes. He reached out to steady me. I wondered whether
he even knew why he was down here in the lock deck, a yellow suit in red
territory. But he probably didn't mind; he didn't seem to mind anything very
much; he had his clipboard ready.
"I must take them, Mr. Halpert." I stripped out of the suit, bundled
it, and handed it to him. He stuffed it into a plastic Ziploc, put the
Ziploc in a case manacled to his left wrist, and spun the combination.
"Don't take them all at once, kid," I said. Then I fainted.
Late that night Charmian brought a special kind of darkness down to my
cubicle, individual doses sealed in heavy foil. It was nothing like the
darkness of Big Night, that sentient, hunting dark that waits to drag the
hitchhikers down to Wards, that dark that incubates the Fear. It was a
darkness like the shadows moving in the back seat of your parents' car, on a
rainy night when you'.re five years old, warm and secure. Charmian's a lot
slicker that I am when it comes to getting past the clipboard tickers, the
ones like Nevsky. I didn't ask her why she was back from Heaven, or what had
happened to Jorge. She didn't ask me anything about Leni.
Hiro was gone, off the air entirely. I'd seen him at the debriefing
that afternoon; as usual, our eyes didn't meet. It didn't matter. I knew
he'd be back. It had been business as usual, really. A bad day in Heaven,
but it's never easy. It's hard when you feel the Fear for the first time,
but I've always known it was there, waiting. They talked about Leni's
diagrams and about her ballpoint sketches of molecular chains that shift on
command. Molecules that can function as switches, logic elements, even a
kind of wiring, built up in layers into a single very large molecule, a very
small computer. We'll probably never know what she met out there; we'll
probably never know the details of the transaction. We might be sorry if we
ever found out. We aren't the only hinterland tribe, the only ones looking
Damn Leni, damn that Frenchman, damn all the ones who bring things
home, who bring cancer cures, seashells, things without names who keep us
here waiting, who fill Wards, who bring us the Fear. But cling to this dark,
warm and close, to Charmian's slow breathing, to the rhythm of the sea. You
get high enough out here; you'll hear the sea, deep down behind the constant
conch-shell static of the bonephone. It's something we carry with us, no
matter how far from home.
Charmian stirred beside me, muttered a stranger's name, the name of
some broken traveler long gone down to Wards. She holds the current record;
she kept a man alive for two weeks, until he put his eyes out with his
thumbs. She screamed all the way down, broke her nails on the elevator's
plastic lid. Then they sedated her.
We both have the drive, though, that special need, that freak dynamic
that lets us keep going back to Heaven. We both got it the same way, lay out
there in our little boats for weeks, waiting for the Highway to take us. And
when our last flare was gone, we were hauled back here by tugs. Some people
just aren't taken, and nobody knows why. And you'll never get a second
chance. They say it's too expensive, but what they really mean, as they eye
the bandages on your wrists, is that now you're too valuable, too much use
to them as a potential surrogate. Don't worry about the suicide attempt,
they'll tell you; happens all the time. Perfectly understandable: feeling of
profound rejection. But I'd wanted to go, wanted it so bad. Charmian, too.
She tried with pills. But they worked on us, twisted us a little, aligned
our drives, planted the bonephones, paired us with handlers.
Olga must have known, must have seen it all, somehow~ she was trying to
keep us from finding our way out there, where she'd been. She knew that if
we found her, we'd have to go. Even now, knowing what I know, I still want
to go. I never will. But we can swing here in this dark that towers way
above us, Charmian's hand in mind. Between our palms the drug's torn foil
wrapper. And Saint Olga smiles out at us from the walls; you can feel her,
all those prints from the same publicity shot, torn and taped across the
walls of night, her white smile, forever.
William Gibson. Hinterlands
Популярность: 75, Last-modified: Sun, 26 Aug 2001 18:11:13 GMT