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     © Copyright William Gibson
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     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
confirmed meatshot."
     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
the dark.
     "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
Highway.
     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
Highway.
     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
gone.
     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.
"Hillary "
     "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
hand. Nothing.
     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
complex.
     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
trip.
     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
subbasement.
     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
scene.
     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
cinnamon.
     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
of it."
     "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
focal point.
     "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
cigarette. "Godspeed."
     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,
saints.
     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
time.
     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
arrived.
     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
time.
     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
woman's.
     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
for scraps.
     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.


Популярность: 1, Last-modified: Sun, 26 Aug 2001 18:11:13 GMT