Richard Kadrey [Metrophage]

You may read these files, copy, distribute them, or print them out and make them into little hats. You may do anything you like with them as long as you do not change them in any way or receive money for them. I've put METROPHAGE and HORSE LATITUDES into free distribution on the Net, but I retain all copyrights to the works. If you have any problems or comments on the works or their distribution, you can email me at: And remember, if you charge anyone money for these files you are the nothing but ambulatory puke, and I hope a passing jet drops a 15 pound radar magnet on your hard drive. Richard Kadrey May 1995 ***************************************************** METROPHAGE: AN INTRODUCTION TO THE ONLINE EDITION METROPHAGE was my first novel. It came out in the U.S. in 1988, and was gone faster than bearclaws at a cop convention. Since it was first published, METROPHAGE has been reprinted in French, German, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Hebrew. Surprisingly, we're still selling rights in various countries around the world. The protagonist of METROPHAGE is Jonny Qabbala, a drug dealer in his early 20s. When I wrote the book, I denied hugely that it was in any way autobiographical. This was, of course, a stinking lie. Aside from the fact I've never shot anyone or used cobra venom as a recreational drug, METROPHAGE is a distillation of everything I'd done, seen, read, heard or thought about up until the time I wrote it, and is as purely autobiographical as anything I'm ever likely to write. Which isn't to say you should read the book literally. Some of what happens in METROPHAGE is straight reportage, and while some of the events in the book happened to me, some of them happened to friends. The things you think are the obvious truths probably aren't. The most ridiculous and unbelievable things are quite possibly true. Plus, the book is full of lies. It's a work of fiction. I made up a lot of it. Yet it remains the psychological story of my life up into my mid- twenties. This is not meant to dazzle anyone with my accomplishments. If you read the book, you'll quickly discover an unflattering truth: Jonny Qabbala is a jerk. He's not evil or stupid or even a bad guy, he's just young and clueless. Jonny finds it difficult to act decisively or take a stand, and when he does either, he's usually wrong. Even when I was writing the book, when I was closer to Jonny's age and temperament, I frequently wanted to crack his skull with the collected works of Iggy Pop (which is another bit of trivia: Iggy is in the book, but I won't tell you what character he plays; if you've ever seen Iggy perform, you'll know). Time passes, though, and I no longer want to slap Jonny around. I'm not so far from Jonny that I can see him as my offspring, but I can easily imagine him as a kid brother. As such, I can forgive him a lot of his faults because as lame as he is, he's usually trying to do the right thing. The ending of METROPHAGE is deliberately open. A lot of people have assumed that I intended to write a sequel. The truth is, I never even considered it. However, I can't help but feel a certain responsibility for Jonny, since I sort of left him in the middle of downtown Nowhere. In order to settle Jonny's fate in my own mind, I've written him into several stories and into one abandoned novel. In the end, I took him out of all of them (and it doesn't get much worse than ending up on the cutting room floor of a book that doesn't even exist). Still, he tries to weasel his way into each book I write, and I always try to find room for him. Sooner or later, he'll land in one of them. I just hope I don't find him behind the counter of some asteroid belt McDonald's asking, You want fries with that?" Richard Kadrey San Francisco, May 1995 ********************************************************************** METROPHAGE by Richard Kadrey Now I lay me down to sleep I hear the sirens in the street All my dreams are made of chrome I have no way to get back home --Tom Waits ONE: The Petrified City A crip by the name of Easy Money ran the HoloWhores down at a place called Carnaby's Pit. At least he had been running them the last time Jonny Qabbala, drug dealer, ex-Committee for Public Health bounty hunter, and self-confessed loser, had paid him a visit. Jonny was hoping that Easy was still working the Pit. He had a present for him from a dead friend. The ugly and untimely murder of Raquin, the chemist, had left an empty spot in the pit of Jonny's stomach. Not just because Raquin had been Jonny's connection (since it was a simple matter for Jonny to get his dope directly from Raquin's boss, the smuggler lord Conover) but over the year or so of their acquaintance Raquin had become, to Jonny, something close to a friend. And close to a friend" was as much as Jonny generally allowed himself to become. It was fear of loss more than any lack of feelings on his part that kept Jonny at a distance from most of the other losers and one-percenters that crowded Los Angeles. Overhead, the moon was a bone-white sickle. Jonny wondered, idly, if the Alpha Rats were watching Los Angeles that night. What would the extraterrestrials think, through a quarter million miles of empty space, when they saw him put a bullet through Easy Money's head? Jonny caught sight of Carnaby's Pit a few blocks away, quartz prisms projecting captured atrocity videos from the Lunar Border Wars. On a flat expanse of wall above the club's entrance, a New Palestine soldier in a vacuum suit was smashing the faceplate of a Mishima Guardsman. The Guardsman's blood bubbled from his helmet, droplets boiling to hard black jewels as the soundtrack from an ancient MGM musical played in the background: I want to be loved by you, by you, and nobody else but you... The words CARNABY'S PIT periodically superimposed themselves over the scene in Kana and Roman characters. Jonny pushed his way through a group of Pemex-U.S. workers negotiating for rice wine at the weekend mercado that covered the street near Fountain Avenue. The air was thick with the scents of animal waste, sweat, roasting meat and hashish. Chickens beat their wings against wire cages while legless vat-grown sheep lay docilely in the butchers' stalls, waiting for their turn on their skewers. Old women in hipils motioned Jonny over, holding up bright bolts of cloth, bootleg computer chips and glittering butterfly knives. Jonny kept shaking his head. No, gracias...Ima ja naku...Nein..." Handsome young Germans, six of them, all in the latest eel-skin cowboy boots and silk overalls (marked with the logo of some European movie studio) lugged portable holo-recorders between the stalls, making another in their endless series of World Link documentaries about the death of street culture. Those quickly-made documentaries and panel discussions about the Alpha Rats (who they were, their intentions, their burden on the economy of the West) seemed to make up the bulk of the Link's broadcasts these days. Jonny swore that if he heard one more learned expert coolly discussing the logic of drug and food rationing, he was going to personally bury fifty kilos of C-4 plastique under the local Link station and make his own contribution to street culture by liberating a few acres of prime urban landscape. At a stall near the back of the place, an old curandera was selling her evil eye potions and a collection of malfunctioning robot sentries: cybernetic goshawks, rottweilers and cougars, simple track and kill devices controlled by a tabletop microwave link. The sentries had been very popular with the nouveau riche toward the end of the previous century, but the animals' electronics and maintenance had proved to be remarkably unreliable. Eventually they passed, like much of the mercado's merchandise, down from the hills, through the rigid social strata of L.A., until they landed in the street, last stop before the junk heap. There by the twitching half-growling animals, the crew set up their lights. Jonny hung around and watched them block out shots. The film makers infuriated him, but in their own way, Jonny knew, they were right. The market was dying. When he had been a boy, Jonny remembered it sprawling over a dozen square blocks. Now it barely managed to occupy two. And most of the merchandise was junk. Chromium paint flaked off the electronic components, revealing ancient rusted works. The hydroponically grown fruits and vegetables grew steadily smaller and more tasteless each season. All that seemed to keep the market going was the communally owned bank of leaking solar batteries. During the rolling brown-outs, they alone kept the tortilla ovens hot, the fluorescents flickering, the videos cranking. Isn't it time you kids were in bed?" Jonny asked, stepping on the toes of a lanky blonde camera man. Sprechen sie 'parasite'?" Huddled in the doorways of clubs and arcades, groups of fingerprint changers, nerve tissue merchants and brain cell thieves regarded the crowd with hollow eyes, as if assessing their worth in cash at every moment. The gangs, too, were out in force that hot night: the Lizard Imperials (snake-skin boots and surgically split tongues), the Zombie Analytics (subcutaneous pixels offering up flickering flesh-images of dead video and rock stars), the anarchist- physician Croakers, the Yakuza Rebels and the Gypsy Titans; even the Naginata Sisters were out, swinging blades and drinking on the corner in front of the Iron Orchid. As Jonny crossed Sunset, a few of the Sisters waved to him. When he waved back, a gust of wind pulled open his tunic, revealing his Futukoro Automatic. The Sisters whooped and laughed at the sight of the weapon, feigning terror. A tall Sister with Maori facial tattoos crooked her finger and began blasting him with an imaginary gun. Coming toward him from the opposite direction was a ring of massive Otoko Niku. Meat Boys-- uniformly ugly acromegalic giants, each easily three meters tall. In the center of the protective ring, an old Yakuza oyabun openly stared and pointed at people. It was rare enough for people to see a pure-blood Japanese in the street that they stopped to stare back, until the Meat Boys cuffed them away. Jonny thought of a word then. Gaijin. Foreigner. Alien. That's me. I'm gaijin, Jonny thought. He could find little comfort in the familiarity of the streets. Jonny realized that by acknowledging his desire to kill Easy Money, he had cut himself off from everybody around him. He walked slower. Twice he almost turned back. A tiny nisei girl tried to sell him a peculiar local variation on sushi-- refried beans and raw tuna wrapped in a corn husk-- commonly known as Salmonella Roll. Jonny declined and ducked into an alley. There, he swallowed two tabs of Desoxyn, hijacked from a Committee warehouse. It was good stuff. Very soon, a tingling began in his finger- tips and moved up his arms, filling him with a pleasantly tense, almost sexual, energy. Beads of sweat broke out on his hands and face, ran down his chest. He thought of Sumi. I might not be back tonight," he had told her before he left the squat they shared. Uno tareja. Got some deliveries to make," he lied. Routine stuff." Then why are you taking that blunderbuss?" Sumi asked, pointing to the Futukoro pistol Jonny had hidden under his tunic. Jonny ignored her question and tried to look very interested in the process of lacing up his steel-tipped boots. Sumi terrified him. Sometimes, in his more callous moments, he considered her a slip-up, his one remaining abandonment to emotional ties. Occasionally, when he felt strong, he would admit to himself that he loved her. I'll be passing through the territories of a dozen gangs tonight and then if I'm lucky I'll be landing in Carnaby's Pit. That's why the blunderbuss, he said. "I should be taking a Committee battalion with me. I bet they'd be thrilled if you called them." I bet you're right." Almond-eyed Sumi stroked his hair with delicate, callused hands. He had met her at the zendo of an old Buddhist nun. The Zen study had not stuck, but Sumi had. Her full name, Sumimasen, meant variously, thank you," I'm sorry," and this never ends." She had been on her own almost as long as Jonny. Along the way, she picked up enough electronics to make her living as a Watt Snatcher; That is: for a fee she would tap right into the government's electric lines under the city and siphon off power for her customers. Jonny got up and Sumi put her arms around him, thrusting her belly at the pistol in his belt. Is that your gun or are you just happy to see me? Sumi asked. She did a whole little act, rolling her eyes and purring in her best vamp voice. But her nervousness was obvious. Jonny bent and kissed the base of her neck, held her long enough to reassure, then longer. He felt her tense up again, under his hands. I'll be back," he said. During the last few months, Jonny had begun to worry about leaving Sumi alone. Officially, the government's power lines did not exist. All the more reason the State would like to wipe the Watt Snatchers out. All the gangs were outlaws, technically. The elements of the equation were simple: its components were the price of survival divided by the risks that survival demanded. And in an age of rationing and manufactured shortages, survival meant the black market. The gangs produced whatever the smuggler lords couldn't bring in. And the pushers sold it on the streets. Jonny had chosen his own brand of survival when he walked away from the Committee for Public Health and threw in with the pushers. It was a simple question of karma. Now he worked the black market, selling any drugs the smuggler lords could supply-- anti-biotics, LSD analogs, beta-endorphins, MDMA, skimming the streets on a razor-sharp high compounded of adrenaline and paranoia. In his more philosophical moments, it seemed to Jonny that they were all engaged in nothing more than some bizarre battle of symbols. What the smuggler lords and gangs provided-- food, power and drugs-- had become the ultimate symbols of control in their world. The Federales could not afford to ease up their rationing of medical treatment, access to public utilities and food distribution. They had learned, long ago, how it easy it was to control vast numbers of people simply by worrying them into submission, keeping them busy hustling to stay alive. Los Angeles, as such, had ceased to exist. L.A., however-- the metaphorical heart and soul of the city-- was alive and kicking. An L.A. of the mind, playground of trade and commerce: the City of Night. Known in the local argot as Last Ass, Lonesome Angels, the Laughing Adder, Los Angeles existed in the rarefied state of many port cities, functioning mainly as a downloading point for a constant stream of data, foreign currency, dope and weapons that flowed onto the continent from all over the world. It was the worst kept secret in the street that half the State Legislature had their fingers deep in the black market pie. Like some fragile species of hothouse orchid, the city existed only as long as it had the politicos backing. Without that, the Committee would be on them like rabid dogs. For the moment, though, the balance was there. Merchandise flowed out and cash flowed in, blood and breath of the city. Jonny understood all this and accepted the tightrope existence. He knew too, that someday the whole thing was going to crash. It was their collective karma. Sooner or later some politico was going to get greedy, try to undercut one of the gangs or simply sell them out for a vote. And the Committee would move in. Jonny knew that this knowledge should make a difference, but it did not. In the alley, the speed came on like an old friend, an electric hum up and down his spine. Suddenly all things were possible. The nervous glare of neon signs and halogen street lamps domed Sunset in a pulsing nimbus of come-on colors. Stepping from the alley, Jonny barely felt his boots on the pavement. Easy Money was as good as dead. There were five or six lepers clustered around the entrance to Carnaby's Pit, begging alms and exhibiting their wounds to those willing to pay for a look. An upturned Stetson on the ground before them held an assortment of coins, crumpled dollar and peso notes and gaily colored pills. Ever since the lepers' numbers had grown too large to ignore, odd rumors had sprung up around them. Many people swore that the Committee was putting something in the water, while others suspected the Arabs. Some blamed the Alpha Rats, claiming they were trying to destroy the Earth with Leprosy Rays from the moon. It was Jonny's opinion that most people were idiots. One leper in a nylon windbreaker was reciting in a low whiskey voice: The streets breathe, ebb and flow like the seas beneath a sodden twilight eye. The sky appears from a maw of rooftops- Dusk streets, dry fountains coax the cemetery stars. Jonny pulled a few Dapsone and tetrahydrocanabinol capsules from his pouch and dropped them into the battered Stetson. The leper who had been reciting, his head and face heavily bandaged, opened his jacket. Thank you, friend," the leper said through broken lips, pointing to his freshest scars. Nodding politely, Jonny left the lepers and stepped down into the Pit. The skyline tilted, angled steeply downward, then up, became a vertical blur of mirrored windows, skyscrapers leading to a hologram star field. Jonny was in the Pit's game parlor, separated from the bar by a dirty lotus print curtain. Around the edges of the room, antique pinball machines beeped and rang prosaically while the air in the center of the parlor burned with the phantom light of hologram games. Crossing the parlor, Jonny was caught in a spray of hot blue laser blasts from Sub-Orbital Commando, showered with fragments of pint-sized galaxies spinning from Vishnu and Shiva's hands. Rat- sized nudes swarmed above his head, frantically groping at each for Fun In Zero G. One angry pinball player threw a glass and it shattered against the far wall. Jonny stepped back as two members of the Pit's own Meat Boys moved smoothly from opposite ends of the room to intercept the shouting man. Goddamit, this machine just ate my last dollar!" screamed the pinball player. He was still screaming as the two beefy monsters grabbed an arm apiece and ushered him through the front doors. They came back alone. Jonny half expected to see them return with the guy's arms. Peace! Can't we have a little peace in here?" mumbled a sweating man lining up Jacqueline Kennedy in the sights of a fiberglass reproduction of a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle. It was Smokefinger, the pickpocket, fat and nervous, jacked into the Date With Destiny game by a length of pencil-thin cable extending from the game console to a 24-prong mini-plug implanted at the base of his skull. Most of the players in the room were jacked into various games by similar plugs. Jonny's stomach fluttered at the sight. Elective surgery, he had decided years before, did not extend to having little platinum bullets permanently jammed into his skull, thank you. He could watch the World Link on a monitor and as for the games, they seemed real enough without skull-plugs. Smokefinger tracked the ghostly hologram of the presidential limousine as crimson numbers flickered in the metallic-blue Dallas sky, reading out his score. Jonny leaned close to pickpocket's ear and said, How's it going, Smoke?" Smokefinger ignored him and continued to move the toy rifle with steady, insect-like concentration. Hey Smoke," said Jonny, waving his fingers before Smokefinger's eyes just as the fat man pulled the trigger. No score. Shit," mumbled the pickpocket, still ignoring Jonny. He had aced the chauffeur. This wasn't going to be any fun at all, Jonny decided. He pushed the release button on the plug at the back of Smokefinger's head. The wire dropped and a spring-loaded coil drew it back inside the game console. What the hell--" yelled Smokefinger, grabbing for his neck. He looked at Jonny dumbly as his eyes slowly re-focused. In a moment, he said, Hey Jonny, que pasa?" Not much," Jonny said. I can't believe you're still playing this game. Haven't you killed everybody in Dallas by now? Smokefinger shrugged. I pop 'em, but they keep coming back." Sweat pooled on the pickpocket's glasses where the rims touched his cheeks. Jonny smiled and looked around the room hoping there was anyone else from whom he might get information. However, in the pastel glare of meteor showers and laser fire, none of the faces looked familiar. You seen Easy Money around?" he asked Smokefinger. I've got to talk to him." Right, talk. You and everybody else." Smokefinger looked back at the empty hologram chamber and cursed. I almost broke my own record, you know, he said. He looked at Jonny accusingly. "No, I ain't seen Easy. Random's tending bar tonight. Maybe you should go talk to him. To tell you the truth, you're distracting me. Smokefinger never took his finger from the trigger of the fiberglass rifle. Jonny pulled some yen coins from his pocket and fed them into the machine. Thanks for all your help, killer," he said. But Smokefinger did not hear him; he was already jacking in. Jonny left Smokefinger, wishing he could find peace as easily as that, and pushed his way into the bar. Jonny always found it a little disconcerting that the main room never seemed to change. He imagined it frozen in time, like a scratched record, repeating the same snatch of lyric over and over again. The usual weekend crowd of small-time smugglers, B actors and bored prostitutes stared from the blue veil of smoke around the bar. The same tired porn played on the big screen for the benefit of those unfortunates not equipped with skull-plugs. Even the band, Taking Tiger Mountain were blasting the same old riffs, stopping half-way through their own Guernica Rising" when the crowd shouted them down. They switched to a desultory Brown Sugar," a song that was out-of-date long before anybody in the club had been born. Dancers undulated under the strobes and sub-sonic mood enhancers as projectors threw holograms of lunar atrocities onto their hot bodies. In fact, the only real difference Jonny could see in the place was the darkness in the HoloWhores bundling booths. Jonny pushed his way through the tightly packed crowd and tried the door to Easy's control room. It was locked, and the bar far too full to force the door. He would have to wait. Feeling relief, and guilt at that relief, Jonny made his way to the bar for a drink and some questions. Random, the bartender, was drying glasses behind a bar constructed of old automobile dashboards. Tall and thin, his skin creased like dead leaves, Random offered Jonny the same half-smile he offered everybody. Jonny ordered an Asahi dark and gin; he put a twenty on the bar. Random set down the beer and slid the bill into his pocket in one smooth motion. The bartender inclined his head toward the dance floor. Necrophiliacs," he said above the roar of the band. They can't stand new music. Like it's deadly to them or something. Bunch of assholes. Random shrugged. Then he looked away, like a blind man, eyes unfocused. They just nuked Kansas City. The Jordanian Re- Unification Army, a New Palestine splinter group. They called the local Net up link. Said Houston's next, he reported. The bartender shook his head. Those boys must really hate cows." Random had a passion for morbid news items and stayed plugged into the Net's data lines constantly, relaying the most worthy bits to his customers. Jonny thought it was one of his most charming qualities. He turned back to Jonny as if anticipating his question. Easy split. Been gone a couple of days now. Left quick, too. Didn't touch his holo stuff. I don't suppose you have any idea where he went?" asked Jonny. I'm afraid he neglected to leave a forwarding address. A shame too, so close to Thanksgiving and all. The band's volume jumped abruptly as they broke from the song into a tense, rhythmic jam. Saint Peter, the guitarist, stood at the edge of the stage between soaring liquid-cooled stacks of Krupp- Verwandlungsinhalt speakers. Eyes squeezed shut, shoulders loose, Saint Peter pumped walls of noise, his myoelectric left-hand racing like a frantic silver spider up and down the fretboard. As he played, a pattern of light glinted off the chrome hand, marking its progress through the air. Then, just as the jam reached its peak, the song died; the porn faded and the lights dimmed. Brown-out," said Random. He casually threw a switch under the bar and the power returned. Tell Sumi gracias for the watts, he said. Jonny nodded. Did you hear that Easy had another Flare Gun Party? he asked. No, who got burned?" Raquin." Random raised an eyebrow in sympathy. Sorry, man," he said. Although, I must admit, I'm not entirely surprised to hear he's been up to something. He took a long hit from a hookah next to the cash register. Looking for Easy Money seems to be the hot new game in town. Last night the crowd was so thick I had 'em line up and take numbers. Of course, Easy's not the only one who seems to have captured the public's imagination. Random smiled at Jonny. "You appear to have developed a bit of celebrity all your own. Me?" Jonny asked guardedly. Who's been asking about me?" Random shrugged. No one I knew." The bartender winked conspiratorially. Come on, boy-o. Whose ankles have you been nipping at? I am pathetically clean." Jonny said. Tell me about them. Anything you can remember. Random stuck two nicotine yellow fingers into his shirt pocket and pulled out a glicene envelope of white powder. Pure as Mother Mary and twice as nice, he said, giving the envelope a light kiss. Interesting lads. They didn't try to pay off in crude cash." He dropped the envelope back into his pocket. Smugglers?" asked Jonny. Could be, only what's a smuggler lord doing shooting for small shit like Easy Money? Or you for that matter. Who knows," Jonny said. He took a long gulp of his drink. Maybe he's decided he's in the wrong business." Hell," said the bartender, everybody in Last Ass's in the wrong business. Random set down the glass he had been cleaning and said, Weather." His eyes shifted. Junior senator on the Atmospheric Management Committee announced they can clean-up the mess left by the Weather Wars. Says they ought to be able to stabilize weather patterns over most of North America in three to five years. Didn't they announce that same program three to five years ago? asked Jonny. At least." And with that, Random gave Jonny the other half of the smile and moved on to other customers. Swirling the dregs of his beer, Jonny turned and studied the noisy crowd moving through the bar. He searched their heads for a sign of goat horns grafted above a thin face, inset with darting, suspicious eyes. Or arms thick with tattooed serpents, like the stigmata of some junky god. Easy Money always stood out in a crowd which, Jonny supposed, was the idea. If Easy was around, he should not be hard to spot. Jonny had met Easy while they were both in the employ of the smuggler lord Conover. This was just after Easy had made a name for himself with his first Flare Gun Party. The party had become something of a legend with the pushers. It went like this: Easy Money, a human parasite with the unerring ability to detect the softest, most vulnerable part of his prey, had acquired a contract to kill the leader of the Los Santos Atomicos gang. Beginning with a philosophy that later became his trademark (like the hourglass on the belly of a spider) Easy reasoned that gang retribution being such a swift and ugly thing, eliminating the entire gang would be less trouble than the removal of any single member. It was well known to those who, like Easy, always kept a metaphorical ear to the ground, that the Los Santos Atomicos gang's particular vice was free-basing cocaine. Easy located their safe-house with information from a rival gang. He also found that the Los Santos Atomicos liked to buy the ether they used to treat the coke, in bulk. They kept big tanks of the stuff hidden under the floor. As he was fond of saying, from there it was easy money. Like some stoned Prometheus, Easy brought fire to the Los Santos Atomicos in the form of a red Navy signal flare which he fired into their lab from the roof of a Catholic mission across the street. The explosion literally ripped the roof off the ether-filled building. The fireball boiled down onto many of the adjoining buildings, igniting them, too. Besides the Los Santos Atomicos, at least a dozen other people, mainly junkies and prostitutes, died in the fires that engulfed the grimy neighborhood. And Easy Money moved up a rung in the hierarchy of the movers and shakers in their little world. Looking back, none of it had seemed important to Jonny at the time. When he heard of the deaths it seemed somehow normal. Just one more senseless act in the long series of senseless acts that made up their lives. However, Raquin's death had moved events from the abstract into a personal affront. He knew Raquin. And he knew Easy had killed him. Jonny would finish Easy Money simply because nobody else would and because the little prick deserved it. Jonny slowed his breathing, counted each intake of breath, centering himself as his roshi had taught him. Visions of horned, tattooed Easy swam before him as he hunted for that savage part of himself he had sought before whenever he had to kill. But the passion was gone, seemed pointless now. The speed had been cut with something unpleasant. It was wearing off already, leaving him feeling numb and stupid. Jonny gulped down the rest of his beer and tried to get into the buzz from the liquor. He wondered if perhaps he had figured things wrong. If the smuggler lords really were after Easy maybe he was not needed, after all. There was always work to do, money to be made. He had to establish a new connection. Something bothered Jonny, though. He could not figure out who, besides the Committee, would be looking for him. Had he trod on someone's toes in the last few days looking for Easy? He could not remember. The bar seemed to tip slightly as Jonny downed his second Asahi and gin. When he wiped a hand across his brow it came away cool and covered in sweat. He left the bar, pushing carelessly through a tight knot of nervous teenagers from the Valley made up to look like they had grafts and implants. Near the restroom, a Zombie Analytic flashed Jonny in quick succession: Marilyn Monroe, Jim Morrison and Aoki Vega. He ignored her. Inside the restroom, Jonny splashed rusty water onto his face. The room stank of human waste, and the paper towel dispenser was empty. On the floor he found half a copy of Twilight of the Gods". The toilet was full of Nietzsche. Jonny dried his hands with the few remaining pages. The water made him feel a little better. However, the come down from the speed had left him jumpy and nervous. When Jonny left the restroom, a hand clamped on his arm. Jonny, how's it going?" asked a short man that Jonny did not recognize. The man's smile was wide and toothy, intended to give the impression that he was a very dangerous character. He wore shades whose lenses were dichromatic holograms depicting some cavern. Where his eyes should have been were twin bottomless pits. That's a good way to lose some teeth or an eye," Jonny said evenly. The little man's smile faded only slightly. He relaxed his grip on Jonny's arm, but did not release him. Sorry Jonny," he said. Look, could I buy you a drink or something? No." Jonny shook off the little man's grip and headed back to the bar to get drunk. But again, strong fingers caught him. Where are you going in such a hurry?" the little man asked. Let's talk. I've got a deal for you." Jonny jammed his elbow into the little man's midsection, spun and pressed the barrel of the Futukoro into the man's throat. If you ever grab me again, I will kill you. Do you understand that? Jonny whispered. The little man released Jonny's arm and stepped back, his hands held in front of his chest, palms out. It's cool," the little man said giddily. It's cool." Jonny pushed the man away roughly and left him chattering to himself. He was sweating again. Jonny went back to the bar and drank cheap fishy-tasting Japanese vodka, thinking as he drank, about how vile it was and how he wished he could afford the good stuff. He put the little man out of his mind. Jonny wondered if he should call Sumi, but that seemed like a bad idea. She would ask questions he did not want to answer. Eventually, his thoughts drifted to Raquin. Jonny wondered what it was like to burn to death. He remembered that someone had once told him that you would not feel anything, that the fire would consume all the oxygen and you would smother before you ever felt the flames. That seemed like small comfort. How much better was it to smother than to burn? Jonny continued drinking straight shots of the fishy vodka until the taste disappeared altogether. Taking six of the shot-glasses, he constructed a little pyramid, but Random took the glasses away and soon Jonny ran out of money. While he was fishing in his pouch for more dope, there was a slight tug on his arm. Somehow, when he turned, Jonny knew the little man would be standing there. His shades were off and he held his hands up as if to ward off a blow. Truce, okay? I did not grab you," the little man said. I just tapped you on the shoulder. Jonny nodded. I could tell you were a quick study. What do you want? The man leaned forward, anxiously. Look Jonny, I didn't want to tell you before-- I'm working for Mister Conover. He sent me to get you. If you don't come back with me, my ass is grass. Sorry to hear that. Tell Mister Conover I'll get in touch with him as soon as I'm through with the deal I'm working on now. I can't do that. He wants you now," said the little man. Hopefully, he added, You know that whatever it is you're working on, Mister Conover will make it worth your while to drop. Jonny shook his head. No thanks; this is personal." The little man leaned closer. You aren't looking for Easy Money, are you? What if I am?" Well, that's great," said the little man. That's the job-- Easy Money copped something that belongs to Mister Conover. And Mister Conover wants you to help him get it back. Jonny nodded, took a piece of ice from someone's empty glass, and rubbed it across his forehead. My problem, friend, is that I know Mister Conover pretty well and I know that he is a professional, Jonny said. "No offense, but why would he send a hard guy like you to get me? The little man looked around, apparently to make sure that nobody was eavesdropping. This really isn't my job," he whispered. Jonny smiled. No shit?" he said. I'm more of a bookkeeper. It's just that Mister Conover's got all his muscle guys out looking for Easy Money, he said. The little man looked at Jonny gravely. You know how it is." Yeah, I know how it is," said Jonny, genuinely amused. He told me that you always hang out at Carnaby's Pit," the little man continued. He made a face as if he had just smelled something foul. To tell you the truth, it's a little bit much for me." Jonny laughed. Sometimes it's a bit much for me, too," he said. The little man smiled; for real, this time. Then you'll come with me? he asked. Jonny shrugged. That stuff about looking for Easy, you weren't just being cute again, were you? "No, all that was true, he said. Good." Then you'll come?" I'm not sure. I hate to beat a point to death, but how do I know you work for Mister Conover? "Oh yeah, said the little man brightening. He reached into his jacket pocket. Mister Conover said to give you this. He handed Jonny a plastic bag containing two gelatinous blue capsules. The manufacturer's markings were Swiss, the capsules NATO issue, banded with an orange warning stripe indicating myotoxins. Jonny had seen the stuff on the Committee. Frosty the Snowman. It was a necrotic, a synthetic variation on pit viper venom that killed by breaking down collagen fibers, effectively dissolving skin and muscle tissue. The NATO variation, he had heard, was constructed with certain open" segments along its DNA chain, allowing the toxin to bind with polypeptides in the victim's collagen and replicate itself there. Rumor had it that Frosty could break down the skin and muscle tissue of a seventy kilo man in just under fourteen hours. It was not the kind of drug that many people would have access to. Jonny stuffed the bag into his pouch. So, I'm convinced," he said. Then you'll come?" Why not," he said. I'm not getting anywhere here." The little man beamed at him. Jonny thought it might be love. By the way, have you got a name?" Jonny asked. Cyrano. Bender Cyrano, like the guy in the old book, you know? Only I haven't got the nose. Cyrano laughed at his own joke. Jonny did not know what the hell Cyrano was talking about, but he smiled so as not to hurt the little man's feelings. When Cyrano extended his hand, Jonny shook it. Nice to meet you, Cyrano. Let's get out of here," said Jonny. When they reached the dirty curtain, Jonny turned and took a last look at the band. They were burning through one of Saint Peter's best tunes, Street Prince." The crowd ignored them, utterly. Random was right, Jonny decided. A bunch of assholes. Outside, the hot night had cooled somewhat. That usually meant that the street people would haunt Sunset Boulevard until dawn, but an uneasy silence had settled upon the street. A scrap of paper, plucked up by the wind, did a careless pirouette before being carried away. A quiet crowd had gathered across the street, watching the club. Jonny took a step back. Cyrano walked on a few steps before he noticed that Jonny was no longer there. What's wrong?" he asked. Jonny was barely six when the first of the Protein Rebellions took place. That was when the citizens of Los Angeles, inspired by uprisings in other cities, rose up and wrecked the Griffith Park Zoo in search of fresh meat. The riots were finally put down, but not until ten days of fighting left the city little more than an open wound. The official body count was something like 10,000 civilian and military dead. The authorities, however, had not been caught entirely unprepared. Many in power had seen what was coming. Plans were pushed forward, timetables scrapped, and those select few, wealthy enough to buy entrance or powerful enough to demand it, began their silent pilgrimages deep into the desert, to government- sponsored havens like New Hope. The rest of the city remained behind with the rest of the solution. The rest of the solution, in this case, was a paramilitary organization known, without apparent irony, as the Committee for Public Health. And several armed members of that organization were waiting for Jonny when he left Carnaby's Pit. Spotlights hit Jonny and Cyrano from across the street. A adolescent, bullhorned voice called, Do not move. You are both under arrest. Jonny dropped to the ground, pulling his gun. Cyrano awkwardly wrestled a Mexican Barretta from his belt and got off one shot before a Futukoro blast ripped into his chest. The little man fell on Jonny, bleeding everywhere, looking horrified. He clutched at the wound, as if by holding it closed, he could keep his life from slipping out. Jonny looked up in time to see the leper in the Spacer uniform peering at him from around the side of the bar. Automatic weapons fire bit into the front of the Pit as the Committee opened up. Shattered glass and concrete showered down on Jonny as he flattened himself on the ground. From behind, the door of the bar burst open and a phalanx of the Pit's Meat Boys emerged, armed to the teeth. Jonny wanted very muchto disappear. Across Sunset, the evening crowds were pinned down in windows and doorways, watching the fire fight. Occasionally, one or two kids wearing gang colors would make a break into the open and run across Sunset, waving and shouting as they reached the other side alive. A young, fat Gypsy Titan started across behind his faster friend. It looked as if the fat boy would make it, when a shot spun him around. He tore at the long scarf knotted about his throat before collapsing between two parked cars. Jonny heard orders barked from somewhere in the dark and the sound of scrambling feet. The Meat Boys were fanning out, covering the entrance of the Pit. No escape that way. Why the hell were the Meat Boys fighting the Committee, Jonny wondered. Must think it's some rogue gang trying to shake them down. Jonny pressed close to the building for cover. Sounds like thunder, breaking glass and splintering wood enclosed him. He tried to crawl behind the Meat Boys, but they were moving all over the street. At the side of the bar, Jonny saw the leper again, giving him the finger with one diseased hand. At that instant, Jonny recognized him. Even with the bandages and the uniform, he knew the leper was Easy Money. Jonny took a shot at him, but Easy ducked behind the building. Again, the door to Carnaby's Pit burst open and Smokefinger came running out. He was screaming what sounded like Motherfuckers" at the top of his lungs. His right arm was a mass of wet red flesh. Running into the street, he was cut to pieces by Committee cross-fire. Jonny made a break for the alley behind the Pit. Moving quickly to a low crouch, he crawled around the perimeter of the building. He almost made it when he felt a terrible kick in his shoulder. Jonny's muscles turned to water. Sometime later, he was not sure how long, Jonny awoke in the alley. He had no idea how he had gotten there. He could still hear occasional bursts of automatic weapons fire. When he tried to stand, Jonny discovered that his whole right side was numb. With his left arm, Jonny grabbed the rim of an overflowing dumpster and pulled himself to his feet. It took him a few seconds to find his balance, but when he did, he started running to exit at the far end of the alley. He almost made it, but somewhere along the way, a boot whipped out of the darkness and sent him sprawling. Oh fuck, Jonny thought. This time he did not get up. TWO: History, Payback, and an Unhappy Reunion in the Belly of the Beast The Greater Southern California Detention Facility: an ant hill; a graveyard; a factory where souls were processed, packaged, and delivered to what some laughingly called justice. At least, many on the inside (guards and prisoners, alike) had heard rumors to that effect. Rumors of the search for justice. Memos were circulated about it. Petitions were signed for it. Statues of Greek goddesses brandishing scales were erected to it. Still, few had seen any sign of it. The prison squatted, blank and huge, by the port in what was left of the old warehouse district. Built on the bones of an old liquid natural gas plant, it had originally been envisioned as the location for the flagship lab of the Pentagon's notorious genetic warfare programs in the late nineteen-nineties. The building had sat unused when the government's war plans ran out of steam and money at the same time. It was not until eighteen months later, with a few billion yen to back it up, that the order came down to pull out the half-finished labs and begin slicing up the old storage tanks, refitting them to form the cell walls within the new facility. The majority of the prison's bulk was hidden, sunk deep into the ancient pig iron waste pits. Lichen-streaked, great solid planes of cracked concrete rose at severe angles to a flat roof studded with sealed cooling ducts and dish antennae. A damp ocean breeze kept the walls of the prison perpetually glistening, the concrete stinking with a thousand dock smells: the ozone residue of synthetic fuels, over-ripe fruit, rusting machinery, dead fish. A common joke was that the average prisoner was doing five to ten while the guards were doing nine to five. They, like the prisoners, were just trying to get by. They were young men mostly, Jonny's age and a little older. Primarily recruits from the Committee for Public Health, at twenty the boys were already considered too old for street duty, burned-out on the Committee's steady diet of speed and anabolic steroids. Two years earlier, with motives as mysterious to himself as anybody else, Jonny had joined the Committee. Indifference and boredom seemed to be his main reasons. A few years as a petty thief and courier for the smugglers left him fast on his feet and quick with a knife and pistol. Still, he remained naive enough to be surprised when it was these same criminal qualities that helped land him a high-paying job with the Committee. After his training, Jonny was assigned to what was called Perimeter Maintenance." The mechanics of the job were not too different from what he had been doing all his life-- meeting with thieves, tracking down warehouses of stolen drugs and food. However, the Committee had little patience with prisoners; they paid him a commission for each smuggler he killed above his quota. Recruits were encouraged to compete. Body counts were posted at Committee headquarters. There were bonuses and prizes to be won at the end of each month. Jonny tried to make the best of it, telling himself how much better it was to be off the streets and on the side of power for a change. But killing for the Committee did not make any more sense than killing for the smugglers. Sometimes, when he was helping load bodies into transports after a raid, Jonny would see a face he recognized: a junky from the Strip, a panhandler, a street musician. More than once, in the hallucinatory haze of the synth-fuels fumes and halogen lamps, he thought he saw his own face among the dead. And he was growing increasingly dependent on the speed. He simply could not let go. The come down was too awful. Without the speed he would begin to think again. Jonny had never known self-loathing before, but there it was. He had sudden bouts of vertigo, mouth ulcers, cramps in his gun hand. He found himself growing more sympathetic to the cause of the smugglers; at least he understood their motives. In the end it simply grew too ugly, the self-deceptions too obvious for him to continue. The manner of his desertion, however, was more complicated. It was generally known that he turned in his uniform, pressed and clean, and picked up the last of his commissions. But he never turned in his pistol. That became significant later when his immediate superior, a one-eyed brute named Cawfly, was found shot through his good eye. And Jonny, barely twenty one, in his inevitable search for the point of least resistance, drifted back to the streets. No longer resisting the flow of events or pretending to chart a course through them, he existed by luck. But that was before; now it seemed even that had deserted him. He awoke, with a small cry, to the stink of vomit and antiseptic in a damp, gray holding cell. As the sound of his cry died away, Jonny rolled onto his side where he was distressed to find that the vomit he smelled was his own. His left hand was resting in a small pool of the stuff. His mouth burned with bile. He lay on a bare aluminum cot frame, his head spinning, wondering where he was. Eventually, he was able to focus on the wall. GAMMA LOVES RAMON and DEZ were scratched there, and THE EXQUISITE CORPSE WILL DRINK THE NEW WINE. Much of the graffiti was in Spanish and Japanese. He was too tired to translate, but he did not need to. He already knew what it said. Fuck you!" or I didn't do it or just "Let me out! The international language of the dispossessed. He grinned; it was almost comforting. Jonny knew where he was now. When he tried to sit up, he found that hisright shoulder was wrapped in gauze and a thermoplastic carapace. For a terrible instant, he panicked, but relaxed when he felt the reassuring bulge of his arm, intact under the cast. Rubbing his injured arm, Jonny tried to figure out who had turned him. It was clearly no coincidence that the Committee had been waiting for him outside Carnaby's Pit. It was possible, he thought, that it had been a routine sweep for all pushers, but that did not seem likely. Deep shit," he said to the empty cell. Extremely deep shit. He was almost asleep when the polarized glass panel on his cell door blinked to the transparent, then darkened. Jonny lay still on the aluminum frame as the cell door scrapped open. He heard whispers-- three or four distinct voices. Annoyance and nervousness. He kept his eyes closed. The door opened further, then closed quickly. The voices stopped. Jonny was aware of somebody standing over him. Is that him?" came a low, adolescent voice. Yeah," I think so, said a different voice. He's a skinny motherfucker. Looks like a chica," came a third, huskier voice. That give you ideas, man?" Yeah-- I'm gonna cut him." Hey, don't-- " Jonny heard the metallic snick of a switchblade opening. He did not move. Touch him and we're muy morto. He's tagged, man." Doesn't look special." I seen his files. Interrogacion especial." Man, I'm not going to kill him," came the husky voice. Just gonna get a knuckle or part of his ear. No!" Who's gonna stop me?" Jonny swung one steel-tipped boot into the gut of a blonde boy and the other onto the floor, screaming like a lunatic, letting his momentum carry him up and toward the door. The other boys fell back without being touched, too surprised to stop him. He almost had the door open before they came to their senses and grabbed him. But he kept moving, biting fingers, kicking shins, not letting them get a good grip. Finally, a boy with some sort of scarring on his hands and neck caught him with a smooth uppercut to the jaw. Jonny went down on his face. The scarred boy rolled him over and dropped onto his chest, bringing the switchblade up level with Jonny's throat. The other boys crowded in behind him, grumbling and shaking their injured hands and legs. Jonny realized that the hands of the boy holding the knife were covered with sores, similar to leprosy lesions. You funny, man?" the boy with the knife demanded. What's your story? Fuck you, la chinga," said Jonny. The boy sliced Jonny's cheek. You're dead, man. I don't care who you are, he said. You haven't got the cojones." You got to stick him, now. He'll tell," said the blonde boy. Jonny twisted around and kicked the blonde boy, again. The boy on his chest punched his throat. What are you doing?" came a new voice. The boys drew back abruptly, staring guiltily at the door. The boy with the knife stood up and glanced at his nervous accomplices, then back at the door. All Jonny could see from the floor was a pair of highly polished boots and a sleeve with lieutenant's stripes. I asked what you were doing," said the lieutenant. The boy with the lesions pointed to Jonny. He was trying to escape. We stopped him. The lieutenant nodded. What were you doing in this cell?" The boy glanced at his friends for support. They would not look at him. I told you, man. He was trying to escape," he said. Don't lie to me." The boys in the back of the cell, the blonde and a tall, Mestizo with bad teeth, stared at the floor. Jonny guessed that they were about sixteen. The boy with the knife looked to be a year or two older. The insignia on his Committee uniform indicated that he was a corporal. That explained it, then. It had all been good, clean fun. An older boy out to show his young friends a good time. The lieutenant made a curt gesture with his hand. Get him up," he said. The two younger boys moved quickly. Slipping their arms under Jonny, they lifted him easily, their steroid thickened muscles hardly straining. Then they set him gentlyon the cot frame and stood against the wall, trying desperately to blend with the peeling paint. The older boy still held the knife, moving it uncertainly from hand to infected hand. The lieutenant faced him. You're all on report, he said. "Return to your duties. I'm telling you, this man tried to escape," the older boy insisted. I understand," said the lieutenant, a flat-nosed young black who, Jonny could now see, was not much older than the boy with the jaw implant. That's how it was in the Committee. They worked mainly with teenage boys. Give them the right stimulants and guns and they would go anywhere, risk everything. Higher ranking boys kept them in line, while desk-bound old men ran the rest of the show. It was cheap and efficient. The Committee never had to pay much in the way of retirement benefits. Get out of here," the lieutenant said. But-- " One more word and you can explain it to the Colonel." That shut the boy up. Reluctantly, he closed the switchblade, tucking it into the top of his boot. While adjusting his uniform, he gave Jonny a quick, accusing glance, and followed his friends out of the cell. So long, guys," called Jonny. Keep in touch." He laughed and nodded to the lieutenant. The young man's identity tag read TAUSSIG. Thanks for your help. I thought I was dog food for sure-- " On your feet, pusher," said Lieutenant Taussig. Jonny took a deep breath and leaned against the wall. You mind if I catch my breath first? he asked. Taussig reached down to examine Jonny's face, turning it this way and that in the light. He did not look pleased. If anybody asks, tell them the anesthetic hadn't quite worn off and you fell on the stairs, the lieutenant said. Why? What do you care about those clowns?" asked Jonny. Just do it." Jonny smiled. Oh, I get it. Afraid someone'll find out you can't handle your troops? Taussig pulled Jonny up by his good arm. Let's go," he said. The lieutenant led Jonny out onto a rusted loading gantry, through a maze of small-bore piping and frozen transfer valves to the floor the old processing plant cum prison. Vague breezes and convection currents kicked up scraps of paper, fluttering them around the pylons of fifty foot cryogenic tanks. The floor sloped; the air cooled. They entered a battered hydro- plunge service lift whose burnished walls reflected the harsh industrial lighting in jagged bolts and loops. As they descended, Jonny noticed that Taussig had punched a button in the Yellow Sector. Jonny was impressed. He had never received clearance to enter any of the restricted areas. When the elevator doors opened, Taussig pushed Jonny to a jerry-rigged desk (a horizontal slab of tank cladding bolted athwart two enormous shock-coils) and handed a sheaf of documents to a pale boy whose eyes seemed to have no pupils at all. The red-faced boy motioned for a couple of pre-pubescent guards to follow them, and walked Jonny and the lieutenant down a short corridor. At the end, he unlocked a scuffed yellow door for them. Inside, it was another world. The light came from incandescent bulbs, a muted non- industrial glow. They stood in a small anteroom whose walls Jonny was sure were real wood, not plasti-form. Between two locked doors at the far end of the room was a low table, in the Kamakura style. On the table was a small bowl holding a single bonsai. Jonny coughed into his fist a couple of times. The sound was flat, swallowed up by the walls like water on sand. Sound-proofed, he thought. Taussig walked to door on the right of the table and leaned over the eyepiece of a portable Haag-Streit retinal scanner. A moment later, a buzzer sounded. Gripping the ornamental brass handle, the lieutenant pushed the door open and motioned Jonny inside. Taussig did not enter. When Jonny turned to look at him, the lieutenant closed the door in his face. What the hell happened to you?" came a familiar, avuncular voice. Jonny faced the room, seeing only a computer terminal on the far side of a mahogany table with four matching chairs drawn up to it. Dragons inset in some lighter wood coiled in battle or play on the table's surface. In the dim light, Jonny could not see the face of the man sitting on the opposite side of the table. But that voice. It made Jonny feel a little sick. I thought they cleaned you up in the infirmary," the man said. Jonny could just make out the silhouette. It gestured for Jonny to take a seat. I tripped on the stairs," Jonny said. The-- uh-- anesthetic." He sat in the chair as he was told. Jonny could see the face now. It smiled at him. The short cropped hair was whiter than he remembered. What's the matter, Gordon? Not even a 'hello' for your old C.O.? The officer, Colonel Brigidio Zamora, set a small pile of crumpled currency next to a collection of pills and Jonny's tagged Futukoro. Captain Zamora--" Jonny began. Colonel." Congratulations," Jonny said. He rubbed his wounded shoulder, reflexively. Look Colonel, you're too late. I know this room and the ride down here were supposed to mind-fuck me, but you blew it. Three of your puppies broke into my cell just now and tried to slice me up. I'm exhausted and my shoulder hurts like hell. Jonny leaned his good elbow on the table. So tell me, Colonel, what kind of deal are you prepared to offer me? For a moment, Zamora did nothing and Jonny found himself wondering if he had chosen the wrong tactic. The Colonel, he remembered, liked to have a good time. In a moment, though, Zamora relaxed, exhaling little bursts of air from his throat. His version of laughter. I tell you, Gordon, you kill me," said the Colonel, with good humor. You beg for it; that's what you do. You beg people to smash you up. No wonder your life's such a mess. What's wrong with my life?" asked Jonny. Well for starters, look where you are." Jonny could not argue with that one. The Colonel, Jonny noticed, had put on some weight. The jacket of his uniform now fit tight across his belly. The creases around his mouth and eyes had taken on the exaggerated depth of cheap statuary. Colonel Zamora did not seem to be aging so much as fossilizing. In his presence, Jonny was always reminded of reptiles, slow, solid beasts of ancient bloodlines, all muscles and teeth. Is that why I'm here?" Jonny asked. You're a social worker now? Gonna fix my life? Zamora shook his head. No, Gordon; you're going to fix mine." What does that mean?" You really have no concept, do you?" Zamora asked. He spoke slowly, as if addressing someone of less than average intelligence. See if you can grasp this: you killed Captain Cawfly-- one of my officers, and then just waltzed away. Do you know how that makes me look? And then you turn up with these smugglers. Selling their drugs; giving them Committee secrets. Working for terrorists, Gordon. I mean, just how much abuse am I supposed to take? Jonny started to say something, then met Zamora's tired gray eyes. Thin ice. The way I figure it, you owe me," said the Colonel. I don't owe you anything," Jonny replied quickly. That seemed to amuse Zamora. See, you're doing it again." Jonny looked around the room impatiently. Look, Colonel, I had enough of this crap when I was in the Committee. That's why I took a walk. Oh, is that the reason?" asked the Colonel. He raised an eyebrow. Just a case of restless youth, was it? No gestures were implied? Giving the finger to me, to the Committee? I didn't even think about it." Well, you should have," said Zamora. Fuck you and your disgrace," blurted Jonny. If you want to deal, fine. If not, charge me with something and let me call my lawyer. For the second time, Jonny made the Colonel laugh. You think I'm going to bother with the courts? I'm not subtle like you, Gordon. You play this my way or you're dead. That's my gesture to you. Bueno," said Jonny. He did not even know any lawyers, but at least he knew where he stood. His throat was dry and raw. Can I get some water? Later," said the Colonel. First, you're going to help me out with some information. What could I tell you that your agents don't already know? Raquin was my connection and he's dead. I know all about Raquin. He worked for the Committee." Jonny stared at the Colonel. He's baiting me, he thought. It worked, though. That's bullshit," Jonny said. Zamora grinned. It's a buyers market, Gordon." You offer him a deal like mine? Play or die?" No," said the Colonel with great satisfaction. He came to us." Balls." Grow up, Gordon. This city is full of troglodytes who'd peddle your ass to some organ broker as soon as look at you. That's what you walked back to. I don't believe you," Jonny told the Colonel. Zamora shrugged. You can believe anything you want. It doesn't change our situation one bit. What I want from you is information about the smuggler lord Conover, said Zamora. He typed something on the computer terminal and activated the room's recording unit. I want you tell me about Conover and his connection to the Alpha Rats. For a moment, relief washed through Jonny like a cleansing wave. Pointing to the pile of pills, he said, Your fingers in the cookie jar, Colonel? Been taking home samples? Zamora gave Jonny a look of absolute disgust. What are you, an animal? I'm giving you a chance to stay alive. How am I supposed to take a question like that seriously?" asked Jonny. I don't know anything about Conover and I sure don't keep tabs on space pirates. You're a liar, Gordon," said the Colonel. Remember? Your friend Raquin worked for me. I have videos of you with all kinds of nasty people, including Conover. Jonny looked away from the Colonel, wondering how long he had been inside the prison. Sumi would be worried by now. All she would hear is that he'd been shot and taken away by the Committee. Sumi, he was afraid, would not survive long on her own. She did not protect herself enough; she left herself too open, was too willing to trust and be wounded. It was that inner calm that had originally attracted Jonny to her. At the moment, though, it merely chilled him. All right, so I know Conover," said Jonny. I move merchandise for him. I help get his trucks though Committee checkpoints, but you know all that, right? As for this Alpha Rat thing, though, that is completely out-to-lunch. Is it? I don't think so." I can't give you what I don't have." No, but you can get it for me." What do you want?" Conover," Zamora said. Oh man," said Jonny, why don't you just ask me to bring to Alpha Rats down here, too? I've got as much chance. You can't just waltz away from this one, Gordon," said the Colonel. This hook-up between Conover and the Alpha Rats makes it too big." Jonny slammed his hand down on the table top. Will you lay-off that 'Gordon' stuff. Nobody calls me that, anymore. Don't tell me what to do, boy. I own you." Jonny leaned back in his chair. Just what is it between you and these spacemen? Colonel Zamora tilted his head back slightly, scrutinizing Jonny. Jonny's fingers lightly traced the pattern of the dragons on the table top. In truth, he wished he had something to give Zamora. Some innocuous bit of information or rumor that might satisfy him. Jonny's head was light. He could not even think of a good lie. Finally, the Colonel nodded. He keyed something on the computer and turned the recorder off. All right, maybe you are that ignorant," Zamora said. Let's try something else. Tell me anything you know about the Alpha Rats. Jonny took a deep breath and let it out slowly. His mind was still sluggish from the drugs they had given him in the infirmary. He found it difficult to concentrate on anything but his anger, which he was eager to show, and his fear, which he was not. Jonny realized then that he was afraid of Colonel Zamora, had always been so. That his fear of Zamora had been another reason he had deserted the Committee. And that this confrontation had been, in a sense, pre- ordained. He had cheated Zamora of something when he ran away. Of what, Jonny was not sure, but he understood that whatever it was, the Colonel had come to claim it. Well?" said Colonel Zamora. The Alpha Rats," he said, Yeah, I saw the news rags. Big ships from deep space, right? They landed on the moon and smashed up all the bases, ours and New Palestine's. Flattened everything. Burned all the techs. And do you have any idea what was going on up there at the time? Jonny tried to remember. It had been at long time ago. Some engineering. Mostly mining and genetic work, right? The Colonel seemed impressed. Right, but there was something else going on, too; something more important, he said. "A war. An economic war between the New Palestine Federation and the Tokyo Alliance. The Arabs have always had the oil, the minerals, the heavy machinery. They've been mining the asteroid belt for decades in those big hydrogen scoop ships. But think-- what does the Tokyo Alliance have? We have software and hardware, sure, but it's the really delicate items: protein-based data storage, genetics, micro-electronics. That's where our strength lies, Gordon. And we lost a big piece of it. You can thank the Alpha Rats that you're in business. A lot of the drugs you people sell illegally were produced on the moon or in those circumlunar labs. You need that environment, sterile conditions you can't get on earth and, above all, weightlessness-- or something close to it-- to produce some of those items. The Arabs control over half the earth's land mass. Africa alone will keep them supplied with raw materials for centuries. Do you see what I'm getting at? Sure, The Tokyo Alliance lost its economic balls when the Alphas moved in on the moon. But I don't see what any of this has to do with me. Jonny opened his eyes wide. "Honest officer, I was nowhere near the moon that day. Zamora ignored him and typed something on the computer keyboard. A rectangle of glass set into the top of the table glowed. Rising from the projection plate, a three-dimensional chaos of fractal points and ice-blue connecting lines flared like a crystalline vascular system. The angles of the hologram filled in with colors, primary, then secondary. Jonny thought he recognized a desert. Look at this," Zamora said. Jonny leaned forward, staring hard at the miniature landscape. What is this?" he asked. Looks like a burned up spring roll." It's a shuttle," said Zamora. The moon bases used them to send samples back to the corporate labs on Earth. We picked that one up in the desert near Anza Borego. Up until a couple of months ago, all the Alpha Rats were doing was broadcasting a steady stream of signals to deep space. Some French tech at Tokyo U thinks to the constellation Pegasus. There's a binary system there called 'Alpheratz'. That's how they got the name. Jonny nodded. I'm thrilled," he said. Anyway, a few months ago, the signals changed. The Alphas started broadcasting to Earth. No shit. To the desert southwest of here. And you know what? asked Zamora, with more than a touch of glee. Somebody broadcast back. Is that rich? Now, we've got some of the best data decryption software available. We've only been to decipher bits and pieces, but what we got, Gordon, it's tasty. Really tasty. Jonny said: All right, so I'm hooked. What was it?" Zamora looked delighted. A deal," he said. A deal. Between your pal Conover and the Alpha Rats. But don't stop listening yet, because it gets better. It seems that you're involved. Christ," said Jonny. You're too much." He got up and walked to the back of the room. Zamora did not seemed very concerned; he just kept smiling. The door, Jonny saw, had a magnetic lock, a device the Committee was very fond of. You could blow the whole wall away and still not get one of those locks to move, he thought. He remained there, though, taking comfort in the small distance he could put between himself and the Colonel. Calm down, Gordon. I said you were involved. I didn't say you were a participant. What's the difference?" Willingness," said Zamora. I tell you, boy, if I was working on a deal of this magnitude I might let you sharpen pencils; hell, I might even use you as a courier, but I sure wouldn't let you near anything important. Therefore, I'm willing to accept that you are not a conscious participant in all this. Thanks." But you've got something I want: access to Conover. If he does have a connection to the Alpha Rats, no matter what the nature of their deal, it can only end up benefiting the Arabs. Jonny leaned against the wall, mindlessly working his fingernails between two strips of paneling. Funny, I never pegged you for a flagwaver, Colonel. I'm not. This is simple economics. What they've got, we want. By the time we found that shuttle, its cargo section had been emptied, Zamora said. "Whatever the deal is, it's already in motion. Jonny smiled at him. You know, I don't believe a word of this." Colonel Zamora glanced at his watch. Well, believe this: As of right now, you have forty eight hours to deliver Conover to me. If you do that, you and I are square. Bullshit me and maybe I'll give you back to those children upstairs. Some of them very vivid imaginations. I imagine they'd start on your eyes. Jonny walked back to the table, working the kinks from his legs. His hands were shaking, so he shoved them into his pockets. If I go along, how soon can I get out of here? he asked. Right now," said Zamora. Do you accept my terms?" Jonny smiled. Colonel, I'm a happy child of the New Rising Sun. No camel jockey's gonna push me around. Zamora narrowed his eyes at Jonny. You should take this more seriously, he said. If I took this anymore seriously, I'd drop dead." Good, consider that your new koan, Gordon." Zamora said. He rose, picked up a leather satchel and pulled Jonny with him to the door. Meditate on it. At least for the next forty eight hours." Colonel Zamora took a flat metallic octagon from his pocket and placed it against the magnetic lock. The door clicked open and Jonny followed him outside. Jonny and Colonel Zamora waited in the lobby of the Yellow Sector for an elevator. Across the plant floor, a recruit with polarized cornea implants was jacked into a construction masterboard, directing a bank of plasma torches. Whacked-out on alkaloid stimulants, he still managed to move a dozen torch-bearing waldoes in a smooth tidal dance, like a clock-work anemone, simultaneously slicing four sides of a gutted fission furnace. That's a neat trick," said Jonny. Zamora nodded. We have to clear away some of this old equipment. We'll be needing the space for new cells soon. Come on, Colonel, no one's recording us now," said Jonny. That stuff you were saying before, you really don't buy all that space pirate crap, do you? Colonel Zamora sighed. Seeing you has depressed me, Gordon. You remind me too much of the sad state of the world. Paranoia. Self- centeredness. All the symptoms of information overload. The World Link's the real enemy. Thirty years ago we didn't have the Link, plugs in our heads. We had to rely solely on videos and the news rags. The Arabs were the enemy and we still had a chance to kick Japan and Mexico in their industrial balls. Now we've got the moon. The Alpha Rats hanging like Damocles' sword over our heads. The Net should never have broken that story. I'm telling you, this city, this country would be a different place if they had kept all that under wraps. It's too strange to assimilate. Too alienating. That kind of information invites paranoia and destroys trust. It's hard to trust, Colonel," said Jonny, when you've got something like the Committee breathing down your neck. Bullshit. In a sane world, our presence wouldn't cause a ripple. As a nation, we've allowed ourselves to behave like animals in a trap, gnawing off our own legs to get out. You wouldn't be trying to win me over by telling me this is some kind of crusade, would you? Of course not," said Zamora. That would be expecting too much of you. The Colonel pushed the elevator button again. The boy directing the waldoes aimed them at the base of the furnace, cutting at the support structure with long, smooth strokes that reminded Jonny of kendo strikes. We're at a crossroads," said Zamora. Do you know that? The next few years will tell the story. Whether we're going to end up another post-colonial back alley like Britain or France or whether we're going to take back the dominance we gave up too easily. To do that, we have to get rid of the Alpha Rats. Until they're gone we can't even start on the Arabs. The Colonel smiled. It all comes down to economics. It always does." A few meters away, a bell rang and elevator doors slid open. Nimble Virtue, a slunk merchant and one of the least trustworthy lords in the city, stepped out. She was leaning heavily on the arm of one of her handsome young nephews." When she spotted Jonny, she gave him a tiny bow, indicating that she had no time to talk. Then she and her young man walked down the corridor, awash in the echoes of insect clicks from the exoskeleton Nimble Virtue wore beneath her kimono. At the end of the corridor, a door hissed open for them and they were gone. A moment later, Jonny found himself being pushed into the elevator car Nimble Virtue had just vacated. He and Zamora rode up in silence. Jonny felt a nasty satisfaction at having caught the Colonel with his snitches down. The look on Nimble Virtue's face had said it all. She had sold Jonny out. Now that I can believe," said Jonny. The Great White Whale would sell her mother for sausage if she thought she could hide the wrinkles. Don't let her concern you." Jonny sniffed the air distastefully. Sorta stank up the joint, didn't she? Zamora backhanded him across his injured shoulder. Something blue and hot exploded in Jonny's eyes, fragments trailing away down some bottomless cavern. He slid down the wall to the floor. Don't even think about going after Nimble Virtue. You haven't got the time, said Zamora. The elevator shuddered to a halt and the doors slid open. Taussig was waiting, a small grin spreading across his face when he saw Jonny on his knees. Help him up," ordered Zamora. The lieutenant pulled Jonny to his feet and walked him from the car. When they caught up with Zamora, the Colonel turned to Taussig and said, Later, you and I are going to talk about what went on in this man's cell. Jonny had the satisfaction of seeing the blood drain from the young lieutenant's face. Zamora lead Jonny out a side exit and left him weak-kneed, standing in an oily puddle. The Colonel removed a Futukoro from his satchel and tossed it behind Jonny. Take that with you. Wouldn't want you getting mugged, now that you're back on duty. I'll be available to you for the next forty- eight hours, Gordon. After that, the deal's off. I'll be seeing you, said the Colonel. The door swung in quietly, hissing as it sealed itself shut. Jonny was alone in the alley. He drew himself up and taking a few drunken steps forward, kicked savagely at the door's heavy riveted face; he pounded it with his good hand. Like hell, you bastard!" he screamed. You can't do this to me!" For a vertiginous second he was insane, turning in frustrated circles, splashing more filth onto his ruined jeans. Finally, panting and lightheaded, Jonny stepped away from the unyielding door, feeling angry for such a stupid waste of energy. He should be on his way out of town. Jonny's gaze slid down the damp walls to the thin fog at the alley's mouth. He stooped awkwardly, protecting his throbbing shoulder, and scooped up the Futukoro. He walked to the infra-red scanner that monitored the alley, took aim and blew it off its mounting. Somewhere, an alarm went off. Jonny hurried away from the place. THREE: The Flight of a non-Euclidean Fly Shit," Jonny mumbled as he stepped on something soft and clinging in the doorway of the abandoned hotel. Then, Shit" again as he recognized the accuracy of his curse. He was somewhere near Exposition Boulevard, out of breath, a few blocks from the old Lockheed rocket bunkers. Ancient booster engines and decaying nose cones displayed their brittle bones behind fences topped with razor wire. Gingerly, Jonny scraped his soiled boot on a cracked stone step and peered from the alcove. Whoever Zamora had following him was being very cagey. Jonny still had not caught sight of the tail, but he knew the man was out there. Zamora would never let him just walk out like that. He had exhausted himself, running for cover and for the sheer joy of running, for the momentary sense of freedom it gave him. Still, he had not been able to spot the tail and that bothered him. Even now, as he watched from the alcove, nothing on the street moved. Except for the doorway-bums shifting restlessly with their chemical dreams. The hot night had remained hot, was giving way to another hot day. Jonny's tunic clung to him like a second skin. He relaxed against the hotel and tried to regain his bearings. His shoulder had begun to throb within a few minutes of leaving the prison. He desperately wanted a drink, a snort, a smoke, anything that would transport him from the pain, the Colonel's obsessions and the old neighborhood in which he was hiding. Writers had been at work on the old buildings with their compressed-air canisters of sulfuric acid, burning their messages, like grim oracles, into the very bodies of the structures. Over the years, the fronts of the abandoned hotels and shops had taken on the texture and feel of old candle wax. In the alcove, Jonny ran his fingers over crumbling letters. DUCK AND COVER. And, ALPHA RATS ARE SCARED OF CATS. On an impulse, Jonny pushed on the hotel door. It scraped across a warped wooden floor and stuck, revealing a bleak interior. Jonny took a tentative step inside. It looked to him as if a bomb had gone off in the lobby. The plaster meat and wooden bones of the place were visible where sections of the wall had caved in or been torn away. An old- fashioned wrought iron elevator lay scattered among blistered Lockheed tail fins and useless landing gear. But, as depressing as the old hotel was to look at, it was the smell of the place that got to Jonny. The deadly stink (ammonia, old cheese, mildew) brought tears to his eyes. But he held his breath and pushed the lobby door closed. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust to the darkness, then, tired and leadfooted, his shoulders bumping into walls that appeared from nowhere, he started up the stairs for the roof. From there everything would be visible, and he reasoned that by leaping from rooftop to rooftop, he could lose whoever was following him. He had not counted on the smell, though. At the first landing, Jonny's eyes were watering; by the second, he was having trouble breathing. Then, on the third floor he abruptly ran out of stairs. There was a door, labeled ROOF, but it was immovable-- crusted shut with age and grime. Jonny put his boot to it, but that only brought a pitiful rain of dust from the sagging ceiling. Outside, he thought, and up the fire escape. Jonny entered one of the guest rooms that opened off the corridor and headed for a window. Inside, the room was large and, empty of furnishings, faintly echoed his steps. A dim rectangle of street light outlined the smashed innards of an old telephone-comsat uplink. The place must have been nice once, he thought, if they could afford to put those in the rooms. In the middle of the floor was an upturned hubcap someone had been using to cook in. Jonny had taken, perhaps, a dozen steps into the room before the smell got to him. It was a physical presence, twisting in his lungs like a tormented animal. His nose ran; he coughed. Holding his arm across his face, he breathed through his mouth. If the Committee had this stuff, they could wipe out the whole city, he thought. When Jonny reached the window, he found it swollen in place from the damp ocean air. Knowing that Zamora's tail would hear it if he broke the glass, he started back into the hotel to look for a pipe or board. Something that would help him pry the window open. A rustle of fabric from the far corner of the room. The flicker of something small and metallic. Jonny took a step forward-- and was in the air, falling, his legs knocked out from under him. He curled up as best he could and came down flat, protecting his shoulder. Goddamit," he yelled as shapes closed in from the gray edges of the room. Get his clothes," came a voice dry and thin as wind. Get his shoes," came another voice. Get him." A stooped figure in rags lumbered up to Jonny and began grabbing at his tunic. Jonny cried out at the sudden pressure on his bleeding shoulder, lashing out with his free arm. Pain exploded in his wrist as something sharp and wet dug into it. Jonny kicked out blindly into the dark, noting with satisfaction a groan as his boot connected. Rolling into a crouch, he propelled himself up into the stomach of the tunic puller. The figure staggered back, wheezing horrid breath. Jonny leaned forward, letting his weight propel him toward the window. But he was knocked back as someone else jumped him. He's going to get out...He'll rat..." Little monster..." Watch his boots..." At the window, he was dragged back by a swarm of dry, reptilian fingers. He screamed. Things like vises and knives, pincers and broken glass cut into his back and arms. Christ, they're biting me, he thought. Jonny managed to loop his leg behind the leg of one of his attackers. Then, pushing forward with all his strength, he heard a window crack and shatter. Suddenly, he and one or two others were on the fire escape. The sudden release of hands and rush of air left him light-headed, but some animal part of his brain moved his arms and legs, pushing him up and away. No one followed. Two flights up the fire escape, Jonny stopped to look at his attackers. They huddled below, cooing and mewing over their injured. Though it was cooler outside, the heat still broiled the streets, baking the old tenements; the whole neighborhood rippled behind waves of desert heat. Yet, the mob were clothed in layer upon layer of cast-off coats, moldering lab smocks and vacuum suits. A fat man in tattered test pilot gear crawled onto the landing and gazed down at the street. His clothes hung from his arms in strips, little more than patches all crudely sewn or wired together. The mass of rags on his thick frame gave him an awkward bear-like appearance, but his eyes burned with a savage clarity. Jonny was already backing up the stairs when the fat man caught sight of him. A scream welled up from the fat man's throat; he bared his yellow teeth. But not real teeth, Jonny knew, just plasti- steel implants, sharpened with care to needle points. In the thin unreal light of the street lamps, the fat man's teeth glowed like a trap. Pirhanas, Jonny thought. A whole gang of them. It had been a stupid mistake, entering the old hotel. It reminded Jonny just how tired he was. The abandoned hotels and apartments that fronted the warehouse district were useless to most gangs, lying just beyond the lights of Committee headquarters. That is why the Pirhanas, septuagenarians mostly, for there were no Pirhanas under sixty, held them. Used for target practice by the younger gangs, lied to and finally abandoned by the government, the old discards and defectives banded together to hold some piece of ground for themselves. Using the few weapons they could find, principally government issued teeth-- filed and set firmly in angry, withered jaws-- they were tolerated because they consumed nothing but the leavings of others. Besides, even in Los Angeles, slaughtering old people in the streets would have been frowned on. As Jonny watched, more Pirhanas began to crawl from the hotel. The fat man started up the fire escape. He carried a sharpened pipe in his hand. Jonny started climbing, too. He vaulted the low wall onto the roof clumsily, and sprawled on his stomach. Gravel dented his cheeks. As Jonny pushed himself up, he saw a thin, but steady stream of blood running from under his chest. The fat man was a few yards away. Jonny started running again. Behind the fat man, more Pirhanas appeared, running like a ragged army of the dead. They waved their pipes and broken bottles wearily, more, it seemed, to remind themselves of the connection they still had to the flesh they inhabited, than to menace Jonny. When he reached the other side of the roof, Jonny looked frantically for a way down. What he found puzzled him more. An entire network of home-made bridges and catwalks, like some outrageous model of the neural pathways of the Pirhana's brains, criss-crossed the roofs, connecting all the buildings within a dozen blocks. Ribbed conduits, old antennae, the rusted drive shafts of decades-dead jet turbines were hammered into the surfaces of the roofs. Secured to these were lengths of rotting rope, pilfered from the docks. Flattened cans of krill, backs of discarded computer terminals and insulation tiles from L5 shuttles filled the gaps between rough planks to form walkways over the street, a hundred feet below. The bridges did not look all that secure, but the Pirhanas were closing in. Jonny stepped onto the closest walkway and hurried across. The support ropes stretched and tightened as things cracked and shifted under his feet. He leaped off onto the adjoining roof. The bridge strained behind him, weighed down by the gang. The fat man was still in front, holding the pipe before him. Jonny moved in circles around the roof, frantic for something to throw. He knew that if he used his gun, Zamora's man would find him and all this would have been for nothing. In the end, he decided that the situation did not cry out for subtlety. Fumbling in the folds of his tunic, he pulled out the sweat- soaked Futukoro and waved it in the face of the fat man, who pulled up short at the sight of the gun. The Pirhanas bunched up behind him, growing silent. That's it!" Jonny shouted. No more games. The first one who moves is meat for the others. It was rubbish and he knew it, but it sometimes worked, as it seemed to be working now. The Pirhanas, including the fat man, remained where they were. They stared at Jonny with empty, feral eyes. Sentiment had always been Jonny's undoing. At heart, all cops are romantic slobs and ex-cops are worse. A terrible wave of sorrow overcame his fear as he backed away from the pathetic group. They were defectives, not unlike the losers and one-percenters that he knew, that he was a part of. Jonny scanned the faces of the crowd, wondering if whatever errant gene that had sent them out here to the wilds was present in his blood. He regarded them with a certain awe. From behind, a brick fell and shattered hollowly. Jonny turned quickly, keeping the gun on the fat man. Dozens of Pirhanas had crowded onto the other roofs, pipes and heavy connecting rods in their hands. Many grinned, showing sharp, stained teeth. Jonny was surrounded. He shuffled to the edge of the roof, turning in slow circles, trying to cover himself in all directions. When Jonny reached the fire escape, the bridges were packed with Pirhanas. When he stepped onto the ladder, a few were moving toward him across the roof. When he was straddling the wall, the fat man threw his pipe and screamed, charging him. Jonny managed to duck the pipe and dropped over the edge of the wall, landing hard on the fire escape platform. He rolled onto his back and pointed his Futukoro. Too late. The Pirhanas were over him, pelting him with pipes and stones. But even under that hail of debris, Jonny could not bring himself to kill any of them. He settled for spraying three sides of the sky with bullets. The Pirhanas fell back, unaware of Jonny's good intentions. With his gun straight up, Jonny squeezed off a few more rounds and clattered down the steps. When he hit the ground, he hung in the shadows, pressing himself tight against the building, waiting for the sounds of pursuit. But there were none. Jonny breathed through his mouth, swallowing great gobs of hot, wet air. He was in a blind alley; at the far end lay a vacant lot dotted with discarded dressing dummies and barbed wire rolls. Jonny remained against the building, feeling it solid against his back. He checked the rounds left in his gun and carefully slid down the wall toward the alley's mouth. He did not stand a chance. A gleeful cry echoed from above. Jonny looked up just in time to see the junk raining down on him: pipes, bottles, jet canopies and electronic components, all the technological refuse of the city. He leaped and rolled, groaning at a sharp pain in his shoulder. The first wave of junk crashed behind him. The second wave caught him in the open with nowhere to hide. Compassion vanished. Hunkering down behind a dressing dummy, he opened fire at the roof, his bullets chewing the head off a sexless stone cherub. Its companions made no comment and the Pirhanas, who knew better than to stand close to the edge, just laughed at him. Jonny remained low in the dirt, cursing himself for not having blown a few of them away when he had the chance. DO NOT MOVE. STAY RIGHT WHERE YOU ARE," commanded a bland, amplified voice. The Committee hovercar roared by suddenly, like an angry metal wasp-- all sleek and deadly-- its belly lights casting angry fingers of brilliance over the empty buildings. Shadows moved like a year of nightmares across deserted storefronts. Dust and grit billowed from the roof into the alley, filling it with smoky phantoms. Jonny coughed, trying to clear his throat. The clamor on the roof picked up as the Pirhanas turned their anger toward the hovercar, pelting it with junk. Jonny took the opportunity to move into the street. His shadow circled him like a nervous cat, then appeared in a dozen places at once-- thin and diffuse. Crouching by a gutted lamp post, Jonny found a sewer grating and gave it a tug. By rocking it back and forth, he worked the grating loose and pulled it free. Peering down to see if the way was clear, a sudden attack of vertigo tilted the street toward the dark hole. Jonny grabbed the lamp post, fighting to keep his balance, and turned back toward the hotel. Overhead, the hovercar was hanging in the air like a patient predator, waiting for an opening. Abruptly, a mechanical whine filled the air. Jonny squeezed his eyes shut and covered his ears as the pacifiers kicked in. The fighting on the roof died away as, much too late, the Pirhanas realized what was happening. They stood as one, staring at the whirling pattern of lights, paralyzed and helpless. Jonny decided that it was time to find the Croakers. He slid quietly into the sewer and pulled the grating closed. The sewers were the lichen-slicked relics of another time, a means of concealment as old as revolution itself. The Croakers took to them soon after the shoot-on-sight orders became official policy with the Committee. The Croakers were outlaws, anarchists and physicians mainly, treating diseases that officially did not exist or could not be diagnosed without authority of the local medical boards. Their roots extended back to the early days of the century when the first doctors went underground, destroying the records of patients with AIDS and certain new strains of hepatitis, treating these patients (the new untouchable" caste) in the black clinics hastily thrown together with whatever those original rebels could carry with them. Other doctors, mostly young ones back from the Lunar Border Wars, frustrated by the impenetrable bureaucracy and government seizures of their patient records, joined them. It took only a few years for the medical community to split into two distinct camps: those doctors who remained above ground, working with the powers that be, and those who walked away from all that, joining the other gangs of Los Angeles in constructing their own micro-society beyond the boundaries of conventional law. Jonny had been a supplier and occasional courier to the Croakers and he liked them, despite their revolutionary prosel- ytizing. He cringed when one of them called him brother," but he felt a silly pride at being associated with them. That was also why he remained suspicious of them. To be otherwise would demand a response that he was not prepared to give, was still not sure of. It implied certain ties, a common heritage, and that made him nervous. The sewers, laced within the body of the city, were the corroded veins of a sick addict, shut down from age and abuse. The only things that moved in them were alien, looking for a way out. Jonny stood at the bottom of a ladder of steel rungs embedded in a stone wall. Knee deep in black water, the floor sucked at his legs. The air was thick with stagnancy; corrupt, buzzing with mosquitoes. They tickled his face, covering his eyes and hands. They stung him until he swung out blindly at the curtain of pests, fighting back an overpowering sense of his own death. But death was not it, not exactly. It was more a formless sense of great anxiety, a feeling that he had done something terribly wrong and that if he could just remember what it was and fix it, everything would be all right. Jonny knew a little about the layout of the sewers, but he did not know the location of the Croakers' secret tunnels. Since all directions were the same in the dark, he started moving straight ahead, into a faint, sticky breeze. Very soon, Jonny realized that he was no longer moving through absolute darkness. He could see the mosquitoes. They seemed to be crawling over a flat two-dimensional background; a trick of the strange light that seemed to fill the tunnel. The lichen on the walls were glowing a weak green. When he ran his fingers over the damp stones of the wall, he left a black trail where the lichen peeled off. His fingers glowed with the little plants. Jonny walked on, his legs sluggish in the oozing mess of the floors. But he was still moving without direction. Light-headed, he lost track of the hours in the endless branches and sub-branches of the tunnels. The water rarely moved above mid-thigh, but a few times he had to turn back from tunnels when the water reached his chest and threatened to go higher. Along the way, Jonny scratched messages on the walls. Crude serpents, ready to strike; he wrote his name in big block letters and some obscenities concerning the relationship of Committee boys and their mothers. He drew the outline of his hands and eyes with wings. He stumbled more as exhaustion crept into his muscles, loosening them at the joints. For a time, he walked with his eyes closed, mechanically trailing his fingers along the wall to keep his direction. Was it for hours or minutes? When Jonny opened his eyes again, he staggered back, nearly fell. Jesus Christ," he said. Slogans, names, and drawings were scrawled over every inch of the walls and arched ceiling of the tunnel. They screamed down at Jonny from all directions, black shimmering lightly above green. It looked like the last record of some tribe or group mind which had blasted itself, intact, onto the walls. The words seemed to hang in space around him. LIFE WITHOUT DEAD TIMES SOCIETY IS A CARNIVOROUS FLOWER I AM HERE BY THE WILL OF THE PEOPLE AND WILL NOT LEAVE UNTIL I GET MY RAINCOAT BACK BEAUTY MUST BE CONVULSIVE OR IT WILL NOT BE AT ALL SKID THE KID WAS HERE! SURREALISM AU SERVICE DE LA REVOLUTION Humpbacked shadows skittered along the pipes near the ceiling. Rats, huge and dangerous. Jonny pulled his gun and fired at them. Rats had caused him enough trouble for one night. He watched as a couple of them skittered to a wall a few meters ahead, and squeezed into a small opening near the floor. As each rat disappeared, its coat was illuminated for a second by a flash of white light. Jonny went to the wall, knelt, and pressed his face to the crack. A steady stream of cooler air. Running his hand around the edge of the hole, he realizedthat the wall was false, not stone at all, but some sort of cast polymeric resin. Digging in his heels, Jonny pulled at the opening. And the wall slid out a few centimeters, stuck, then opened wider, trailing scabrous fingers of adhesive. Light exploded into the sewer. White and agonizingly bright, the light burned Jonny's eyes. But he did not care. It was beautiful. He squinted into it, trying to locate its source, but he had to turn away, finally, when he thought he would go blind. It was several minutes before he could look into the luminous cavern without flinching. But when he did, Jonny knew he was safe. Still, it was a strange sight in the squalor of the sewer. The transparent plastic bubble-- clean, and brightly lit--glowed like a dream, filling the tunnel before him. Through a haze of condensation, Jonny could just make out the hydroponic racks that lined the walls along both sides of the tunnel. Yage vines trailed onto the floor; aloe vera, psilicybe mexicana, and other medicinals grew there in abundance. By pressing his face up to the thick plastic membrane, Jonny could see the other end of the tunnel where the plastic was tucked neatly around a weathered access hatch. Jonny stamped his right foot down sharply, at an angle, so that the heel of his boot snapped off with a click. Balancing against the bubble wall, afraid somehow of moving too far away, he felt along the bottom of his boot until he found the hilt of the hidden knife. Then tugging at the blade, which slid bright and clean from his hollow sole, he rammed it into the bubble. Sliding the blade down, he made a single, neat incision in the membrane wall. Then he pushed through the tight aperture, into a warm, musky chamber which pulsed with the regular beating of a pump. He replaced the knife and snapped the heel back on his boot. There was a smell of life and order in the tunnel that revived him. When Jonny reached the access hatch, he gripped the big metal handle and turning it, was rewarded with a reassuring rumbling inside the walls as bolts drew back. After that, the door swung open effortlessly. Jonny stepped into the darkened room and felt along the walls for a door. He went blind in the apex of multiple cones of light, ghostly afterimages tracking his retinas. Someone grabbed his sleeve and pulled him forward. Jonny could just discern the outlines of Futukoros and crossbows pointed at him from beyond the light. He started to say something, but the air, which had seemed so pleasant a moment before, suddenly went bad. The room tilted back and forth, wobbling, as his vertigo returned. Then he was on his face on the floor. Here we go again," he said. Something moved in front of Jonny's nose. A Burnett crossbow pistol lowered and a woman-- small, but well muscled, the planes of her face smooth, as if carved from cool black marble-- took a step toward him. The woman's name was Ice. She knelt in front of Jonny and squinted at him. In a moment, her scowl softened to an expression of embarrassed recognition. She reached out and touched his filthy face. Jonny? Oh, my god," she said quietly. We heard you'd been shot. He smiled then, too, partly with affection and partly with surprise. He kissed her cool hand. Not to worry, he said. "The pain stopped soon after I died. The next few hours existed only in fragments. Physical sensations. Later, Jonny remembered lying on the floor, wondering distantly if he was going to be sick. He remembered hands moving over him. Objects had taken on a fragile, crystalline quality. Things dripped into his arms through haloed tubes. Ice moved into view occasionally and tried to speak to him. But Jonny was off floating where there was no pain and no need to run. Then there was only the dark. Jonny awoke on a futon, naked, his arms wrapped in clean bandages. He moved his hands, but only after a considerable effort of will. They slid from under cool sheets as if being manipulated from far away. He felt numb and dizzy, but somehow peaceful. He was in a little room stacked high with milky injection-molded cases and styrofoam packing modules. It did not look at all like part of a hospital. It's not. I'm just borrowing it," said Ice, as she slid a dark arm around Jonny's chest, pulling him closer. Jonny remembered Ice's unnerving talent for verbalizing his thoughts. Ice," he said, rolling to face her. For an ex-cop you've got big feet. You set off every alarm in the place. Ice, Jonny, and Sumi: the three of them had formed a solid union for a time in the disintegrating city. Then suddenly, Ice had disappeared, leaving only a short, lame note. Jonny recalled the first terrible days after she had gone. He and Sumi walked on razor blades. Each was aware that neither had been to blame for Ice's disappearance, yet each secretly sensed that they were the one responsible. It was days before Jonny could bear to let Sumi out of his sight. The terror of being alone overwhelmed him. Sumi had been no different. They trailed each other from room to room like absurd puppies, only dimly aware of what they were doing. Seeing Ice now, lying next to her, Jonny ran his hands over the contours of her body. She had changed in subtle ways. There was a new, pleasant firmness to her hips and legs. And her arms were thicker, more muscular, which Jonny was sure pleased her. Her grin still possessed the openness which contradicted her usual detached expression. His fingers traced the old post-operative scar where she had received a black market liver. I didn't recognize when you when you came crashing into the storeroom tonight. Then, when I heard your voice I couldn't believe it was you, she said. Jonny's throat was dry when he tried to speak. I didn't know that you'd be here. That you were a Croaker, he said. Ice nodded. I've been here a few months now." She shrugged. Sometimes, I'm not even sure why. Groucho recruited me. Do you know him? He's great. He plans a lot of the raids and holds the group together. I'll introduce you tomorrow. He helps keeps the ghosts away. The ghosts had been with Ice for as long as Jonny had known her. They were an image she toyed with, but he knew that to her the ghosts of memory were real. Ice had been working as a prostitute at the Zone Deluxe when Sumi introduced them. Before that, Ice had farmed-out her body to the Boys of Tangier gang, allowing herself to be infected with specific viruses. The gang would then purchase her infected blood, which they used to produce various immunotoxins. These they sold on the street or to the smuggler lords. While infected with a mutant strain of hepatitis, Ice's liver gave out. The Boys of Tangier gave her a new one, but when they demanded payment, Ice revealed that she was broke. The Boys sold her to the owners of the Zone Deluxe, a pair of identical albino twins who called themselves the Tundra Brothers. Jonny called in some favors with a smuggler who specialized in stolen corporate data and brought out the Brothers' interest in Ice with the access codes for the Tokyo Stock Exchange. It was sweet deal all the way around. Jonny knew the Tundra Brothers were not particularly smart. Using the codes, the Brothers made themselves rich in a week. They descended into a kind of madness then, like a tape player stuck on fast forward, spiraling on a terminal party high, manipulating stock prices. By the end of the second week, the Brother's bank accounts rivaled the big corporate fortunes of the oldest families of Tokyo. It took another week for the Yakuza to find them. After that, the Tundra Brothers and the Zone Deluxe were relegated to that specialized branch of urban mythology embracing everything from the merely foolish to the truly insane. But Ice was out by then. Why did you go?" asked Jonny. I don't know," Ice answered quickly, as if she had anticipated the question. She closed her eyes. I really don't." Too many ghosts," said Jonny. Ice lay down on the futon and rested her head on Jonny's chest. She opened her eyes, but would not look at him. I'm better here," she said. I know who I am. There's a structure to reality. She tugged at her short, curly hair. "Things tend to stay in focus. Yeah, I understand," Jonny said. He looked around the room, gnawing the inside of his cheek nervously. Among the packing material, clothes and books had been tossed at random. Ice and Jonny had been the slobs in their menage- a-trois. Sumi was the only one who cared for a clean house. He was glad to see that, at least, that had not changed. We could all use a little structure," he said. He looked back at Ice and watched her rubbing her eyes sleepily. It was at times like this when Jonny was reminded of just how small she was. Of how much strength it took for her just to push back the void each day. I'll leave, if you want. I can sleep in the ward, he said. No," said Ice, looking troubled. Please stay. How's Sumi?" I don't know. That's part of why I'm here. I have to get out of Los Angeles. Zamora's after me. We have to get Sumi before he finds the house in Silver Lake. We will," Ice said, but not now. Tomorrow, when Groucho gets back. Jonny nodded wearily and lay his head down on the pillow. Ice leaned over and kissed him. Opening her lips, she invited his tongue into the warmth of her mouth. His hands roamed her body, found the tail of her shirt, and slid up to cup her small breasts. They moved together for some time until, suddenly exhausted, Jonny's head began to spin. But they kept their arms around each other, as if one of them might be swept away at any moment. You shouldn't have run off like that," Jonny said. I know," Ice whispered. Now go to sleep." He turned to her, groggily. We have to get Sumi." We will, don't worry." Jonny rolled onto his side. He felt her arm encircle him. Too many ghosts," he said. He felt her nod. Too many goddam ghosts." FOUR: Premonition of Civil War During the last few hours of night, Jonny was caught in a series of violent, fevered dreams in which he was being pursued by things he could not see. The end of each dream was the same: he would stumble or feel his legs lock like rusting machinery, leaving him stranded and helpless. Then something would grab him and he would be jolted awake by a phosphorous dream-flash that snapped his eyes open. He would lie in the dark room staring at the ceiling as vague pains stirred just behind his eyes. In a few minutes he would drift back to sleep. For a time he would float peacefully on a sea of nothingness, but then the dreams would start again. There was a woman, all in white, running down Hollywood Boulevard, her hair and dress in flames. Long rows of chrome beetles moving over damp brickwork. A man in the back of a pedicab. Mirror shades, cheap plastic poncho. From the cab, he points a gun at Jonny. It is all deliriously slow. There is no sound, only the muzzle flash and the heat of impact. Jonny, wake up, goddamit!" called Ice. You're gonna pull your stitches out. Jonny awoke at the sound of her voice. Her face was right above his, thin lines of tension spreading out radially from the corners of her eyes. Jesus, what a ride," he said, his voice hoarse with sleep. How long have I been out?" Almost twenty hours," said Ice. She settled down next to him on the futon. She was wearing baggy fatigue pants and a tank top with the faded picture of some Japanese pop singer. I was starting to get worried. You barely twitched in all that time, then all of a sudden you're moaning and rolling around like you're trying to hogtie a Meat Boy. Did it look like I made it?" Ice smiled. You were massacred." Typical," replied Jonny. The room they were in was small. Seeing that brought back images of the previous night. He remembered the Piranhas, his trek through the sewers, Zamora's threats. His arms were still bandaged, his right shoulder itched fiercely in a clear plastic induction cast, healing in its weak electrical field. Looking around, Jonny saw rough walls, gray limestone papered with yellowing layers of ancient subway schedules and anti-Arab propaganda. Hexagonal panels of radio-luminescent plastic lit cases of medical supplies and electronic gear stacked ceiling-high against two walls. No windows," Jonny said. We're still underground." Give that man a cigar," said Ice. She picked up a styrofoam tray from a crate littered with drug ampoules. The smell of frijoles and rice assaulted Jonny. Breakfast, babe. Quieres?" He groaned and pulled the sheets up over his face. Take it away. I'll never eat again. Come on, you've got to get your strength back." Forget it. You're going to have to feed me with needles. I think something slept in my mouth. Ice set the tray down, ad Jonny reached out and took her arm, pulling her on top of him. Careful to avoid his bandages, she slid her arms under his shoulders, grinding her crotch into his. The scent of her body transported him; they were home, in their own bed in Hollywood. He could sense Sumi's presence nearby. Then a second later, the hallucination was gone. Still kissing, Jonny experienced a terrific urge to bite Ice's tongue. You know I'm still pissed at you," he said. I know," said Ice. And I don't buy that 'I don't know why I left' crap, either." But I don't know why. It's all twisted around in my head." Ice sat up, pushing a few beaded corn-rows of hair from her face. I just knew I had to move. Get away. From what?" From everything. From my life. And that meant you and Sumi. That's comforting." Part of it was living in this city. Nothing's real here. It was getting to me. Was getting to you, too. Jonny put a hand on Ice's cheek and turned her head, forcing her to look at him. What do you mean?" We were dying," she said quietly, almost whispering. I watched you staring out the window night after night like you were working on some puzzle, trying to put it together in your mind. Sumi fiddling with her circuit boards. We were all together, but we might as well have been on different continents. Jonny shrugged. Let's face it, we have to keep a little detached in our work to stay sane. Sometimes that spills over. But we can fix that. But there's more than that," said Ice. Have you ever heard of the Spectacle? No." It's a political theory. Groucho talks about it. He's kind of our leader around here. Says the Spectacle is the way the government keeps control. It sets up these mysterious and complex systems like restrictions on medical service, the Committee, it makes the Arabs and the Alpha Rats into icons of evil. That way, it keeps us isolated and makes us feel like we don't have any control over our own lives. And you think the three of us got eaten up by the Spectacle?" Yeah," said Ice. Do you understand what I'm saying? " As Jonny he sat up, Ice rolled off his lap and lay down beside him. I understand it's all very easy to argue in the abstract," he said. Talking politics is a good way to avoid what really hurts." Ice looked at her hands, lines of tension deepening around her eyes. I was sick," she said. I didn't love you. I didn't love Sumi. I was hollow and dead and there was nothing inside me but dust and dry bones. I don't think you want to understand. That's not true." Jonny reached under her shirt and rubbed the small of her back. We're back together; that's what counts. We'll get Sumi and work the rest of it out. For what it's worth, I'm sorry," Ice said. So am I. I wish I'd seen you needed help back at the old place. Ice smiling guardedly, and rested her hand on his stomach. Under her fingers, Jonny became aware of the steady rhythm of his own breathing. He groped for something to say to ease the tension, but nothing came to him. We kept your stupid Samba tapes," he offered finally. That made her laugh. Jonny broke up, too, and they lay on the futon giggling like idiots until she pulled him to her. He bent to her breasts, pulling her shirt off over her head, finding her penny-colored nipples with his tongue. Ice arched her back, tugging off her pants and tossing them away, cupping his testicles on the return motion. She pushed Jonny onto his back, rubbing herself along the shaft of his erect penis. When she lowered herself upon him, he held her for a moment, struck again by a cold deja vu, needing to confirm for himself the reality of her presence, the flesh that held him. She gave a little grunt as he entered her; her face eased of tension for the first time since he had woken. They moved slowly at first, drawing out each thrust (damp friction), the motion resolving itself at the moment of greatest tension, and beginning again. He came quickly, unexpectedly, and she, a moment later. They lay there, clinging to each other damply, unwilling and unable to do anything else. Jonny traced the outline of her shoulder blades with his fingers. She closed her eyes, her feathery breath coming cool across his chest. Later he asked, So what do we do about getting Sumi?" Ice sat up, wiping sweat from her eyes. We talk to Groucho and see if he has any ideas. You called him 'your leader'? I didn't think anarquistas had leaders. Every group has leaders," Ice said evenly. What the Croakers shun are rulers. Shun. Jesus, you really are one of them, aren't you?" I really am," she said somewhat wickedly. What would your poor mother think?" My mama was a Hollywood whore and so was yours." Ice rolled off the bed onto her feet and clapped her hands. Come on, you have to move around or you're going to get stiff. When Jonny stood up, he caught his reflection in the aluminum housing of a portable CT scanner. I look like a goddam mummy," he said. You look fine. Let's see how you walk." Standing, Jonny found his balance shot by the combination of long sleep and drugs. With his arm around Ice's shoulder, he made it around the room a few times, his legs feeling stronger with each circuit. However, he was aware of not yet thinking straight. There was something he had to do. Twenty hours sleep was a long time. How long had he wandered in the sewers? What time is it?" he asked. About four in the afternoon." said Ice, glancing at her watch. What day?" Wednesday." Jonny concentrated, trying to force the fog from his brain. He counted backwards; the numbers stumbled by. Eventually, the answer seemed right, or at least close enough. Six hours," he said. Six hours what?" In six hours Colonel Zamora declares open season on me." Ice handed him a set of green nylon overalls with the Pemex logo stenciled on the back. Under the breast pocket was a small hole surrounded by a suggestive rust-colored stain. Welcome to the club," she said. Ice lead him through three levels of absolute darkness, through crawl spaces damp with leakage from underground pipes, up frozen escalators and an elevator shaft where they stood on a section of heavy wire mesh barely a half-meter square and were lifted slowly by a retrofit electric dumb waiter. At the top of the shaft Jonny was engulfed in stars. A three hundred and sixty degree panorama of open space swung slowly around him, illuminating the tile walls with solar flares and star fire. It was like nothing he had ever seen sober. He said, I'm seeing this, right? This isn't just brain damage or something? Don't worry," said Ice. Some lunatic dragged a Zeiss projector from the planetarium and reassembled it down here. We got it hooked to a satellite dish top-side. Pulls down signals from some old NASA probe. You know, Jonny... Ice took his hand and lead him to the edge of a subway platform, then down onto the tracks. ...things get a little strange here sometimes. I mean, we're all dedicated anarquistas, but we're also artists. Some of us more than others. You an artist, too?" asked Jonny. Ice shrugged. Only where stars marked her face could Jonny see her, her dark features blending evenly with the black of space. I'm not a painter or a sculptor, if that's what you mean. Art here means more than that. It's a way of looking at the world;a state of mind. I just don't want you to make any quick judgments about these people. You afraid I might not like your revolution?" You work very hard at being cynical, I know that. But what we're doing down here means something. It's not just revolution we're after. It's political alchemy. What does that mean?" We're out to change the world." Jonny scratched at his injured shoulder. Sounds great," he said. Just hope I have the shoes to go with it." As they moved beyond the star fields, they were plunged back into darkness. Ice pulled Jonny to one side of the tracks and said, Don't step on any wires. Some of 'em are dummies. Cables hooked up to vacuum alarms. Jonny was impressed with the sureness of Ice's moves in the dark tunnels. Whatever she had been doing with the Croakers for the last year had revitalized her. Jonny thought back on the last months he and Ice and Sumi had lived together. It was just as Ice described it. Stasis. The long, slow surrender of emotions to habit. Things could be different now, he thought. He reached for her shoulder in the darkness, and felt her hand close around his. Up ahead, there was light on the tracks. This is it," said Ice evenly. But Jonny could see she was trying to contain her excitement. Your gonna love this. We're right on the edge of the clinic. Voices echoed around the edges of the tunnel, blending to become a single voice whispering in a language Jonny could not understand. As they approached the light, the sound deepened, was joined by the astringent smell of disinfectants. Jonny followed Ice up a short flight of particle board stairs to the flat expanse of a subway platform. A group of Croakers, techs, by the look of them, were lounging, smoking and talking, on a stack of brushed aluminum packing cases. A couple of the women waved to Ice from their perch. Recognize the place? It's the old financial district metro line," Ice said. I've seen photos. But I thought the Committee dynamited these tunnels during the Protein Rebellion. They closed off the ends and a lot of the service tunnels, but squatters were living down here for years. Jonny followed Ice through a maze of maintenance shops sectioned off with ruined vending machines and lozenges of graffiti- covered fiberglass. Croaker techs bent over fiber optic bundles and circuit boards in a jumble of disassembled diagnostic devices (Haag- Streit electron microscopes, magnetic resonance imagers, a video micrographer) nodding and shouting polyglot advice. Further on, Ice lead him through a workshop where rusting M-16's and AK-47's were retooled and fit with computer-aided sighting mechanisms. There was a surgery, cool lights glinting off delicate instruments. Silent children stood to the side of one table, studying a man's open abdomen through an enormous Fresnel lens. A legless woman surgeon, suspended in a harness from a webwork of runners attached to the ceiling, described the tying off of an artery in rapid- fire Spanish. Older children translated into English and Japanese for the younger ones. We're also a teaching hospital," said Ice. She nodded gravely toward the children. If things don't work out, they'll be the next generation of Croakers. Jonny leaned against a wall covered in stylized biomorphic landscapes of L.A., done in watery browns and grays. This is really-- impressive, he said. Someone had painted the Capital Records building to resemble the bleached skeleton of some prehistoric whale. The HOLLYWOOD sign, all driftwood and jellyfish. He shook his head numbly. The place is quiet now," said Ice. Rumor has it that the Committee's gearing up for a big push. We've been getting almost double our usual patient-load. How do you get them down here?" Same way you got here: through the sewers. Most people make a less spectacular entrance, though. I sure hope so," said Jonny. He rubbed his sore shoulder, wondering if he could score some endorphins. Tell me, you getting many leprosy cases down here? I'm moving Dapsone and Rifampin like cotton candy at the circus. Ice crooked a finger at Jonny and lead him through a poured concrete arch studded with vacuum tubes and plastic children's toys. At the end of a short service corridor they entered a lab. Inside, Ice keyed in a number sequence on a Zijin Chinese PC hooked to a bank of video monitors. Three screens lit up with multi-colored snow, which gradually dissipated when Ice punched the monitor housing with the side of her fist. On one screen, a couple of Croakers in moonsuits were taking blood from a woman's arm. Fingering the PC's joystick, Jonny moved the picture in tighter on the woman's face. There were marks there. Seamless and discolored lepromatous lesions. Another screen showed the same room from a different angle. There were about a dozen other people, smoking and reading on cots. All had lesions similar to the first woman. Jonny let out a long breath. What's with the quarantine?" he asked. Ice entered another code on the Zijin and more monitors lit up. It seemed like a good idea. Most of the lepers we've seen have been carrying a weird new strain of the disease. It seems to be viral. Jonny squinted slightly at the monitors. On one screen, a Croaker was moving from cot to cot, using a scalpel to scrape tissue samples from each leper's arm, while a second Croaker took the samples and sealed them in a plastic case marked with an orange biohazard trefoil. Viral leprosy? Never heard of it," Jonny said. Neither had we," said Ice. She pointed to a monitor where amber alphanumerics scrolled up a line at a time. We cross-checked all our exam data with the Merck software and came up empty. The symptoms match all the known strains of leprosy-- skin macules, epidermal tumors, lesions of the peripheral nerves, loss of feeling in the limbs-- but the little bugger that causes it is some kind of mutant-voodoo-patch job. It's also killing people. How?" asked Jonny. Secondary infection. In the latter stages, patients tend to develop high fevers and brain lesions. The pathology could be meningitis. There it is, said Ice. She nodded to a screen at the upper right. Jonny looked up. The monitor displayed a time-lapse video micrograph of the leprosy virus, surrounded by numbers and biodata graphs. As he watched, the virus inserted its genetic material into the nucleus of a cell. Within seconds, the virus was cloning itself, filling the cell with ghostly larvae until the walls burst, scattering parasites into the blood stream. The virus's shape, the polyhedral head, cylindrical sheath and jointed fibers that attached it to the cell wall, reminded Jonny of pictures he had seen of twentieth century lunar landing modules. But the proportions of this module were all wrong. Jesus, the head on that thing's huge," he said. But it's just a bacteriophage. Nothing weird about that. That's what everybody says," replied a different voice. Jonny turned and saw a boy wearing the body portion of a moon suit. In one hand, the boy carried the suit's head covering; in the other, a small case marked with a biohazard sticker. Ice, you teasing the guests, again? he asked. The boy's face was luminously white, his head, hairless and smooth. Jonny recognized the look. He was a Zombie Analytic. As the Zombie shed the rest of his protective gear, depositing it in a gray metal hamper, Ice went to him and kissed him lightly on the lips. She looked back and said, Jonny, meet Skid the Kid." The Kid held out one thin, white hand to Jonny and they shook. Closer now, Jonny could see that the boy was no more than sixteen, and thin to the point of anorexia. He wore a tight see-through shirt and black drawstring pants. The archetypal Zombie, Jonny thought. However, there were dark patches on the boy's scalp and hands where the subcutaneous pixels had burned out or been destroyed. He obviously had not had any serious maintenance in months. Actually, we've met already," Skid said. I was in the stomping party that found you in the greenhouse. Yeah? Those must be your footprints on the back of my skull." Skid laughed. Wouldn't be at all surprised." Over his features, he flashed a boxer's face, sweaty and bruised. Croakers rule, okay! Eat the dead! Totally badass. A second later, his own face was back. 'Course, I also helped carry you up to the clinic, so maybe it all balances out, right? Jonny smiled. Sure. Someday if I have to beat on you, I'll drive you to the farmacia. No problem. He was put-off by the Kid. It was almost a cellular thing. Most Zombie Analytics Jonny had known had worked too hard at being ingratiating, going straight for the hard- sell. No doubt it was some habit left over from their early days in the flesh trade. And it was not helped by the fact it cost each Zombie a small fortune to maintain their electronics. Still, knowing the time and expense they took to have their skin dermatoned off and underlayed with pixel strips, Jonny found it difficult to work up much sympathy. But Skid the Kid kept on smiling. Ice tells me you used to be a cop. No," said Jonny. I was in the Committee for Public Health. Completely different organization. What's the difference?" The Committee knows what they're doing. And cops can't call in an air strike. Skid the Kid laughed again, and clapped his hands in delight. What's a Zombie doing working with the Croakers? You moonlighting or something? asked Jonny. There's lots of Zombies down here," Ice cut-in. We've got Naginata Sisters on security and the Bosozukos help with vehicle maintenance. The Funky Gurus pretty much run the armory on their own. We're a mongrel group. Everybody's welcome. Jonny nodded curtly. He sensed a set-up. Sounds like a great set-up. Think I'll pass, though. We weren't trying to recruit you," said Ice quickly. But she frowned so fiercely, Jonny could tell she was lying. And probably disappointed. Hoping to steer things back to neutral ground, he said, So tell me more about this virus. Ice sighed. Not much more to tell. We don't know what the hell it is or where it came from. It looks like a phage, but it only attacks cells, like a virus. If we catch the infection early, we can slow it down with interferon or interlukin IV. But the virus mutates in a few days, and we're back where we started. She opened and closer her hands in frustration. We're just a clinic, you know? We patch people up and send 'em home. We're not set-up to do goddam research. Skid leaned back against the computer console, fingers busy in his breast pocket. He pulled out a crumpled pack of Beedees, broke off the filter and lit one up. The burning rope-smell of cheap Indian tobacco filled the room. We've got scouts out, keeping tabs on how the military handles things. Also, we're watching traffic in and out of New Hope. Figure those assholes'll have access to any new vaccines before they hit the street. Sounds reasonable," said Jonny. He watched the monitors over Skid's shoulder. They were cycling through a programmed surveillance routine, displaying a series of grainy views of the Croakers' underground lair. The greenhouse, with its newly patched bubble. Machine shops. A young Mestizo girl leading a group of patients to the surface. The surgery. The children. Listen, I'm sorry if I'm a little of jumpy, Jonny said. "Truth is, I'm hurting and nervous and probably still a little punch drunk. You guys-- this set- up-- it's a lot to take in at once, you know? You have a talent for pissing people off," said Ice. But it was a small reprove, pouting and indulgent. You'll be all right though, officer. Definitely all right. I sense star quality here," Skid said. He puffed at the Beedee and smiled broadly. You gonna want to see Groucho? Yeah, is he back yet?" asked Ice. About an hour ago." Aces," Ice replied. She draped an arm across Jonny's shoulders. Looks like you get an audience with the most wanted man in California. Sounds like fun," said Jonny. He is." Skid the Kid raised his eyebrows. Yeah, like the riddle of the Sphinx. Jonny followed Ice and Skid past empty and subterranean shop fronts. Each deserted glass facade presented him with a different and more bizarre tableau. He remembered that Ice had said they were all artists down here. He supposed that had something to do with the strange windows. Behind one, an animated hologram, something like a Mandala or a printed circuit, showed men and women experiencing all fifty-eight versions of the Tantric afterlife. Another seemed to hold a shooting gallery. A vacuumed-suited mannequin was mounted on a revolving wheel of fortune, animal and machine fetishes dangling from its arms and neck. Jonny's legs shook with the sub- sonic rumbling of traffic overhead. He thought of ghost trains moving through the metro tunnels on endless runs, the passengers turning to dust as they held onto the overhead straps. His reflection in a window startled him, and he hurried to catch up with the others. Nice architecture you got down here," Jonny said. I dig the style. Early Nervous Breakdown, right? They walked through an empty lobby, behind a semi-circular wall of frosted glass, into the old metro line security complex. Ice knocked on a door of cheap oak veneer and ushered Jonny through. The smell of sandalwood incense was strong. The room (Actually two rooms; Jonny could see where the sheet rock had been cut away, leaving a ragged white fringe.), was large and mostly empty. It contained an electronic wall map of the metro system, a small lacquered shrine to Shakyamuni, some cheap reproductions of surrealist artwork and a slight, dark-skinned man with the smooth, functional musculature of a dancer. A blur of gray metal sliced the air above man's head. When he opened his hand, the chain end of a kusairagama flew, curling itself, snake-like, around a bare wall beam. Then, fluid and savage, he started forward, twisting, kicking and feinting, until he ripped the sickle portion of the weapon across the beam at eye level. He stepped back and exhaled once. Then he turned and grinned, acknowledging Jonny and the others for the first time. I see our guest has returned from the dead," he said, unwrapping the chain from the scarred beam. Jonny noticed that the other beams bore similar scars. You look good in Croaker banderas, Jonny. Course, you better not let la Migra see you dressed like that. They'll have your ass over the border and chained to some Tijuana work-gang faster than you can say 'green card.' Tossing the kusairagama aside, he crossed the room with the same liquid grace he had displayed while on the attack. His eyes were small and dark, but quick, missing nothing. He wore his hair slicked back, chollo-style, and had cross-hatched tattoos extending from his shoulders to his wrists, the mark of a particular Iban warrior-priest class. A gold earring, a Caduceus, dangled from his left lobe. As he shook Jonny's hand, he said, The name's Groucho, by the way. Please come in. The anarchist went to a foam rubber mattress set in a corner of the room, and pulled on a black mesh t-shirt. On a cheap plastic folding table lay a crumbling volume of Rimbaud. Near it was an old fashioned metronome with a photo of an eye clipped to the pendulum. Jonny wondered if it was some kind of joke. Do you like our set-up?" asked Groucho. I'm sure these two have been keeping you busy. That's good. Boredom and lack of purpose are the chief problems of our age. Don't you agree, Jonny? Jonny, who was still trying to figure out the metronome joke, was caught off guard. What? Oh yeah, sure. Boredom and getting shot in the head. Groucho brought over a couple of canvas chairs, and sat down, smiling in a manner that Jonny found unsettling. The anarchist possessed a certain relaxed grace, an unaffected air, that was riveting. It was impossible to take your eyes off him. But violence is the choice we've made, isn't it?" Groucho said. We accept the uncertainties, our lives revolve around them. As Croakers, we don't kill because we want to. As a Buddhist, it goes against all my principles. But the act of ridding ourselves of the Committee brings death with it. That's why we run these clinics. It's partly revolution, but, frankly, it's part penance, too. When you take life, you are also obligated to try and save it. He shrugged. "And speaking of payback, please accept my thanks, for blowing away that pig, Lieutenant Cawfly. This last bit, Groucho spoke with more venom than the first. Did somebody buy a billboard about that or something?" Jonny asked. He shook his head. I was a lot younger then. I don't even know if I'd do it now. But I can tell you it wasn't for anybody's liberation but my own. Independent thought and action are essential for a good anarchist, said Groucho. Jonny slammed his fist onto the table. Don't call me that! I'm no anarquista and I wouldn't have come here if I thought I was going to get campaign speeches. Jonny looked at Ice hoping for support, but she was reading Rimbaud over Skid's shoulder. Abandoning me to the lions, Jonny thought. Groucho leaned forward, pointing his finger at Jonny. No monkeys are soldiers, all monkeys are mischievous, i.e. Some mischievous creatures are not soldiers, he said. "Jonny, you're a dealer-- You help to undermine a corrupt system. You subvert it and that is a basic function of a revolutionary. The anarchist grinned wider and held up his hands to indicate that he knew he was moving too fast. Lightly, he rose from his chair and went to a battered desk, where he pulled a bottle of red wine from a file drawer. The sight of the liquor made Jonny groan. His thought was that he would like to have the whole thing for himself, to leave these people and their strange art, their talk of politics and death, and get lost in the sweet oblivion of ethanol madness. On the other hand, his stomach turned to acid mush at the mere thought of alcohol. While he tried to sort out which impulse was stronger, his psychic desires or his physical needs, he gazed at the art reproductions above his head. When Groucho returned, (Ice and Skid, trailing behind) he said: Do you like the surrealists? They were a remarkable twentieth century art movement. The first artists to genuinely comprehend the modern age. They applied principles of both psychology and physics to their work, attempting to unite the conscious and unconscious in a single gesture. But more than that, they were the ultimate revolutionaries, questioning everything that was known or knowable. To Jonny, the Ernsts and the Dalis could have been snapshots from an only slightly depraved tour book of Los Angeles. The empty architecture that Groucho identified as Chirico's standard made him think of crumbling freeway overpasses and stretches of Hollywood in those few hours after sunset, before the gangs took possession of them for the night. The Tanguy reproductions reminded him of the mural of Los Angeles on the train platform. Someone had copied his style very accurately. Groucho passed around fluted black champagne glasses, then opening the bottle, poured wine for all. The anarchist raised his glass as in a toast, but he did not drink. Instead, he went back to his chair, his eyes distant. Jonny felt relief when Ice sat beside him on the thin foam mattress. Forgive me if I seem to be pushing things," said Groucho. I know about your run-in with Zamora. In fact, I may know more about old Pere Ubu's motives than you. How did you escape? I didn't. Zamora let me go," Jonny replied, sniffing the tart wine. His stomach won the battle over his brain. He set the down glass down beside his foot. Yes, that makes sense in light of everything else." Groucho nodded, off somewhere. In light of what?" The anarchist frowned, rolling the crystal glass between his palms. Things are afoot, Jonny. I don't know the specifics yet. There are layers that are still hidden to me. Did you know that we've been trying to contact you, but couldn't because there was a tail on you for the last few weeks? I had no idea." I thought not. Then old Ubu catches you and releases you a few hours later. Nimble Virtue turned you, by the way. I know. I saw her at detention center." Ice chuckled. I hope you shook that old bitch up. She's playing finger for Zamora, sucking up to old bastard. Got Easy Money working for her now, too. The slime leading the slime," said Jonny. Exactly," said Groucho. Over the anarchist's shoulder, Skid flashed Nimble Virtue's ravaged face. He stuck a finger up his nose, making a great production out of examining what he found there. He pulled his ears, rolled his eyes back in his sockets. A very un-Zombie thing to do. Jonny laughed in spite of himself. I understand that Easy Money's sticky fingers have gotten him in deep shit with Conover, Groucho said. "Did you hear that the Colonel is getting political heat from Sacramento about the smuggler lords? I believe he's getting set for a big move against them. There's talk that the Army's trying to get it together and take the moon back from the Alpha Rats. And somewhere in the middle of all this, you fit in, Jonny. Your name is all over town. Someone even mentioned Arabs. Jonny rubbed at his sore shoulder. To Groucho, he said, Look, if this is some simple trick to get me to join your army, you can forget it. The Colonel picked me up because he's trying to queer some deal of Conover's. Groucho sipped his wine. He stared at the floor. I doubt that. If anything, Zamora's trying to angle himself in for a piece of the action. That's why his move against the lords is so important. Not only will it satisfy the politicians, but if it succeeds, it will force the lords to deal with him directly. And that's what we're waiting for-- when Zamora makes his move so do we. An all out attack on the Committee. Jonny nodded. Something prickled along his spine as he realized that the anarchist was completely sincere. Jonny smiled and shivered at the same time. He thought of war. Why exactly did you come here?" asked Groucho. I need to get out town," Jonny said. You've just said I'm being watched. That means I can't use any of my normal contacts. I heard that the Croakers have some smuggling routes that'll get me out onto the desert. Groucho smiled and opened his hands. I'd love to help you, Jonny. You're center stage in fat Ubu's carnival. Whatever we can do to trip him up if fine by me. There's one more thing," Jonny said. I have to get Sumi, the woman I live with. I won't leave the city without her. That might be more difficult," said Groucho. He ran a finger around the rim of his glass, producing a clear, high ringing tone. The Committee must know where you live by now. I don't think so. If they did, why would they pay Nimble Virtue to tip them that I was at the Pit? Wouldn't it be better to surprise me at home? Not necessarily," said Ice. They probably assumed we'd booby-trapped the apartment, so you'd be easier to pick off in the street. Jonny looked at Groucho. Your mind is made up?" asked the anarchist. I won't go without her." You're loyalty's commendable. Ice, what do you think?" Sumi means a lot to me, too, Groucho," Ice said. I don't like the idea of leaving her out there alone. She's not equipped to deal with that kind of craziness. Ice sat with her legs bent. Jonny looped an arm around one of her knees. It was just like old times. The two of them taking care of Sumi. That was assuming, he reminded himself. that Sumi was all right. That no one had gotten to her yet. What's your answer?" Jonny asked. Groucho leaned back in his plastic folding chair, pointed to the wall over Jonny's head. You see those photos, Jonny?" he asked quietly. The one on the right is from the uprising in Paris, nineteen sixty eight. The other is the Spanish war against the fascists, in thirty seven. Yet here we are, over a hundred years later, in a mad city in a sick century fighting exactly the same battles they fought. Isolated, alienated, bored and drugged beyond caring. We're the trained dogs of the Spectacle. Zamora whistles, and we jump through his hoops. The Committee is the Spectacle's ultimate tool. It's devoured our lives, all art, our dignity. But existence is not predicated on the whim of politicians. The anarchist took a sip of wine. "A hundred and fifty years ago the surrealists proclaimed themselves the revolt of the spirit. The spark in the wind, seeking the powder keg. The anarchist nodded in satisfaction. So, we'll get your friend and we'll get you out of town and, with any luck at all, we'll humiliate fat King Ubu in the process. How does that sound? Jonny smiled at the anarchist, he just could not resist. Yeah, but what if you get caught? Ice began to recite, and Skid joined in: Well, then, rent me a tomb, whitewashed and outlined in cement- Far, far underground. Jonny frowned and fingered the musty volume of poetry. Rimbaud, right? Terrific. By the way, where'd that wine go?" FIVE: The Rescue of Sumimasen An acid rain, the sins of the fathers, blew down hard and cold, etching obscure messages into the faces of the graceless old buildings. A few blocks to the south, beyond the fifty-story torus housing Lockheed's business offices, carbon arcs burned a pure white nimbus of light into the fat, menacing clouds. Pemex-U.S. was out there somewhere, Jonny knew. Exxon; Krupp International. And Sony-- a flat black silicon sphere, almost invisible at night, like a hole punched in the sky. Wilshire Boulevard. Hushed evening crowds hurried by. Business men, anonymous in their Gucci snake skin goggles and respirators. Groups of giggling teenage girls in matching state school ponchos. A stoned young boy, shirtless chest aglow with bio-luminescent tattoos, kicked up wings of water on a skateboard. When Ice reached Jonny's side, the boy circled once in the street, gave them the finger, and took off. Ice laughed once. Don't say it," said Jonny. She laughed again. I don't have to, doll. It's plain as day. That's your lean and hungry youth just skated by. Jonny shook his head. I was never that skinny," he said. A great knot of tension was uncoiling in his chest. He kicked at some weeds sprouting through a crack in the pavement. Outside again, in the street, a cold wind blowing stinking sulfur rain. There was a siren fading somewhere, far off. He was home. It felt great. Where to?" he asked. Ice nodded up the street, started that way and Jonny followed. He could see Groucho and Skid a few meters ahead. They had left the old subway terminal perhaps twenty minutes before. Jonny had been surprised at how easily they reached the surface, cutting through sewers and abandoned underground shopping malls full of rotting acoustical tiles and dismembered mannequins. They had emerged in the back of a heavy equipment warehouse surrounded by the smell of rust and slow leaking canisters of toluene. Jonny had been the first one out the door. The first one into the rain. Ice had given him a belted Army raincoat before they left the clinic. Now, walking with her, he used one hand to hold the collar of the coat closed; he kept the other hand in his pocket, around the textured plastic grip of his Futukoro. Three extra clips clicked against each other in his pocket. Across from a storage yard full of PVC piping, Groucho and Skid were in animated conversation with an albino. Jonny followed Ice through the flooded street, over to where the men were talking. The albino was seated sideways in the cab of an armored Mercedes van, a squat double-axled monstrosity with thick wire mesh bolted over the windows and grubby scales of titanium alloy welded to the body. Jonny thought the vehicle looked something like the chimeric offspring of a half-track and a rhinoceros. He was admiring its extraordinary and single-minded ugliness when Groucho called him over. Jonny, I want you to meet our driver, Man Ray. He runs with the Funky Gurus, said the anarchist. Man Ray, the albino, gave Jonny a slight nod and Jonny responded in kind. Then added a quick upward movement with two fingers of his right hand, drawing the fingers across his lips horizontally, running through a rapid series of similar gestures-- a terse street distillation of Amerslan and gang recognition codes. Obviously surprised, Man Ray gave him the answering gesture. Jonny knew the Gurus well. They were all insane, he had decided years before, but pleasantly so. They called themselves combat artists, insisted on fighting with weapons of their own devising. Their greatest pleasure came in staging absurd and bloody raids on rival gangs. There was always a theme; sometimes it was eating utensils, sometimes patterns of light and color. For the Gurus, style always counted more than the damage done, but the damage was usually considerable. Man Ray wore what appeared to be home-made polypyrrole body armor, cut kendo-style, and red high-top sneakers. A gold obi around his waist was studded with throwing darts, shurikens and other small glittering things Jonny did not recognize. Like many of the Gurus, Man Ray was not a true albino; his features were negroid, but his face was burned the palest of pinks, shading to yellow behind his ears. Traditionally, the Gurus were recruited from workers at the Daimyo Corporation's hellish zero G foundries orbiting the moon. Constant exposure to low-level radiation often burned out the melanin-producing cells in the worker's skin. Thanks for the wheels," Jonny said. I owe you." Man Ray smiled. He had no teeth, just stained porcelain implants running along his upper and lower jaws, like twins walls. You don't owe me nothin'. Blood's my muse. Flesh is my canvas," Man Ray said. I wouldn't miss a run." He looked at Jonny, grinning slyly. Groucho here's been telling me how you're a great appreciator of art, a true fan of beauty. Here--, he said, plucking something from his sash. This is new." Jonny accepted the object, turning it over in his hands. It was a perfect silver rose, about half the size of a natural one, its edges rimmed with hot gold from the sodium street lights. Man Ray pointed to the storage yard. Over the top," he said. Jonny looked at him once, glanced at Ice. He shrugged and threw the rose over the collapsing hurricane fence that surrounded the pipes. There was silence, then a rush of air; the street was lit by an explosion of white flame that leapt ten meters into the air. In seconds, the blaze became a shaft of churning light, burning down to a sizzling white mass of flame and molten piping. Jonny turned to Man Ray who said, Le fleurs du mal." Fuck that," said Jonny. That was a phosphorous grenade." Everybody's a critic," Man Ray told Groucho. The Croaker stepped into the passenger side of the van, Skid behind him. Jonny got into the back, hunkering down next to Ice. Man Ray gunned the van's big methanol engine and turned north onto La Cienega toward Hollywood. The Funky Guru thumbed on a short wave scanner, tuned to the Committee's frequencies, and plugged in a sound chip. The metallic voice of Committee dispatchers was overlaid with music-- Taking Tiger Mountain doing an up-tempo version of Saint James Infirmary, Saint Peter taking the lead vocals. As I passed Saint James Infirmary I saw my sweetheart there, All stretched out on a table, So pale, so cold, so fair As I passed Saint James Infirmary-- As the van rumbled crossed Beverly Boulevard, Jonny was suddenly aware of being very cold. He shivered against the jellied glycerin padding the walls of the van, clenching his teeth to keep them from chattering. His right shoulder was almost numb; before leaving the clinic, Ice had placed a xylocaine transdermal patch under the induction cast. The Committee's last wave of raids had left endorphins in short supply, she had explained. Now she was staring out one of the van's armored windows, frowning to herself. Your optimism's contagious," Jonny told her. Ice gave him a weak smile and asked, What're you going to do when we get Sumi? I thought you understood that," he said. Gonna get the hell of here. Groucho said he'd check his contacts in the south. Maybe head down to Mexico. Why? Ice wiped away a small island of fog her breath had left on the window. They passed a truck unloading a cargo of black market meat. Boneless pig heads hung limply from the back, like masks from some awful theater. What if Sumi doesn't want to leave?" she asked. That's her decision," Jonny said. She can do what she wants." His voice was harder than he had intended. The possibility that Sumi might choose to stay behind had not occurred to him. He did not want to battle with Ice for Sumi's loyalty. He had, after all, stayed with her when Ice took off. But Ice and Sumi had been lovers on and off before Jonny had known either of them. No comfort there. You won't stay?" Ice asked. I can't." Why not?" Because the Colonel wants to use my balls for an ashtray," Jonny replied. Because Easy Money knows I'm looking for him and that means he's looking for me. And because I don't believe any of this anarquista wetdream bullshit. Nothing changes-- it never does. One bunch loses power, another comes in. So what? There's new faces to hate, new guns to run from. But nothing real ever changes. Maybe we can help that," she said. We're talking about the Committee here," Jonny said. They'll eat your faces off. When we get Sumi, I'm gone. I wish you wouldn't." What do you want from me?" Ice fixed Jonny with a look that he could not quite read. Anger, frustration, fear, they were all there. What?" he said. You never make it easy, do you?" she asked. Maybe I just want us all to be together again. The three of us. Why does she have to bring this up now, Jonny wondered. He had been thinking along similar lines all along, the three of them together again. But with Zamora and Easy Money gunning for him, it seemed impossible. Ice, he knew, would not see it that way. Her love came in broader strokes, great passions, grand gestures. That's why she's a good Croaker, he thought. That's why she ran away. I want the same thing you do, he whispered. "But not here. I can't leave," said Ice. I can't stay." They were on Sunset now, rolling past crowds hanging around the bars and theaters. A restaurant shaped like Kukulcan's pyramid at Chichen Itza, outlined in bright neon. Jonny's face grew hot. Don't ask me to prove myself, okay? I'm not the one who took the big walk, he said. Almost without sound, Ice moved to the front of the van. She sat on the floor behind Groucho. Jonny tried to look out the window, but found himself watching Ice's reflection as she rocked with the gentle motion of the van. He felt alone, hardly human-- he could have been an insect observing the Croakers and the lone Guru from the ceiling. Jonny was about to speak when Ice pointed at something and said, Pull over there." Man Ray turned up a side street near the World Link substation, shielding the van from Sunset behind a stand of towering date palms. The Guru killed the engine, reached up and flicked on an overhead light. Groucho turned to Jonny, his face soft and ghostly in the dim light. Let's make this fast," he said. Jonny nodded. We're going in the back way," he said. Man Ray duck-walked past Jonny to the rear of the van and removed one of the side panels, jellied glycerin rolling in sluggish waves. From a storage area, he removed a Medusa, something like an electrified cat o' nine tails, and some smaller gear, pistols and bolos, which he handed to the Croakers. Over the Guru's shoulder, Jonny could see a whole rack of colorful and oddly outfitted weapons. See anything you like? Man Ray asked. I'm fine," said Jonny. Man Ray looked disappointed You got this bad prosaic streak, you know? The rain had given way to wind-driven mist. Ice moved ahead of them in a loping trot, Skid doggedly at her side. Jonny did not try to catch up, preferring to let her cope with the ghosts in her own way. Twisted winds whipped the mist into tiny vortices in the lee of an enormous tent-like structure. One hundred meters high and covering almost sixty square blocks, a perverse relic, it was the single still-standing structure from the Los Angeles-Tokyo Exposition, held to celebratethe one hundredth anniversary of the transistor. It was a series of tents, really, two hundred and eighty of them, each half an acre of Teflon-coated fiberglass, all mildewed and leaking badly. Beneath the tents were three life-size thermoplast and concrete reconstructions that had comprised the Golden Age of Hollywood Pavilion: Robin Hood's castle, sporting a peeling metallic caricature that might once have resembled Errol Flynn; the Emerald City from The Wizard of Oz," and the Babylonian temple from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance." Jonny lived in the last of these reconstructions, as did two thousand other people. At a service port near the bottom of a support pylon, Jonny pried a ten key pad away from its housing. Sumi had set the pad there loosely, with a gummy brown adhesive, after instructing him how to short out the locking mechanism. With a thunk, the port slid open and the five of them entered, climbing quickly up a spiral staircase to a slimy platform at the top. Jonny shorted out a second pad and a moment later, they were out onto the translucent surface of the tent itself. Jonny motioned for them to spread out, to keep the tent fabric from sagging under their weight. Above their heads, suspended in slings and plastic bubbles were the lost tribes of Los Angeles. Any permanent or semi-permanent structure in the city was an invitation to squatters. In the years since its construction, the Hollywood Pavilion had served as home to thousands of local down- and-outers, illegals from Mexico and Jamaica, indentured workers from Thailand and the Ukraine. A few of those one-percenters, the ones who had found the life below too confining or too desperate, had moved to the open spaces above the tents themselves, wandering like nomads across the billowing fiberglass dunes. Years later, tribes hunted, whole societies had sprung up with their own customs and languages. Jonny watched Man Ray and Skid taking it all in, eyeing the delicate habitats with a combination of fascination and nervousness. Groucho waved happily to the fleeting figures shadowing them along the cables. On the dripping wires were hung tribal banners, crude Catholic shrines, prayer flags marked with curious symbols resembling Mayan, Nepalese and parts of schematic diagrams, cabalistic cries for help directed at any god or gods who might be listening. Jonny felt in control here. He was gripped by a strange combination of tension and elation. His mind raced. He found himself staring at the moon as it appeared from behind a cloud bank. He thought of the Alpha Rats. Again, he wondered if somewhere on that airless surface they were watching all this, noting it for some future inquiry. He had the sudden urge to meet them, to somehow explain things to them. At that same moment, he thought of Sumi down below, unaware of his and Ice's presence. His senses expanded outward until they encompassed the whole of the saddle-backed landscape. This is right, he thought; it was good to be moving again. He felt as if he had regained some lost part of himself. He broke ranks and scrambled to the crest of a corner dune. Its peak was a circular anchorage, open to the structure below. Quickly, he uncoiled lengths of nylon rope attached to the cement anchor and let them drop. Ice caught up with him, releasing other lines. She still would not look at him, but Jonny knew she was feeling a high similar to his. Climbing clumsily in his cast, he made it over the rim and dropped with Ice to a ledge beside a Babylonian elephant deity, its chicken wire frame visible through the cracked concrete. The others dropped down a moment later. A tangle of echoing voices from below made it impossible to hear; Jonny signed for them to follow him inside. They moved through a series of packed gray rooms, dusty storage areas for the concession stands that had filled the pavilion during the expo. They entered a clearing; around them, half-empty crates trailed shreds of Taiwanese gun catalogs (improvised packing material) to rows of ceiling-high shelves crowded with miniature cowboy and samurai figures, still new in their plastic wrappers. Skid picked up souvenirs as he walked along: Hollywood Boulevard sealed in a water filled-lucite bubble; when he shook it, plastic snow settled over the buildings; paper jackets emblazoned with the Rising Sun; candy in the shape of silicon chips. Except for a layer of dust, most of the merchandise seemed to have changed very little over the years. Wall-sized holograms of Uncle Sam and Disney characters, dreams figures of an extinct culture, were carefully sealed in bubble pack and duct tape, waiting for their owners to return from other errands. They came to a flight of stairs. Jonny lead them down a couple of levels, then up one, careful to keep to the deserted areas of the structure. They saw yellow signs in a dozen languages warning them not to smoke, pointing out fire exits and giving long and detailed explanations of local hygiene laws. From below drifted the smell of bodies pressed close together, cooking fires, mildew and something else, the almost metallic scent of nervous action. Strange insect odors of commerce, shady deals, strictly off-the-record meetings. They came upon a young girl kneeling in the corridor, bathed in the blue light of an ancient portable television, tying off with a hachimaka. When she saw them, the girl gathered up her works and took off. She left the television, which was slowly rolling a dead channel of snow. At the junction of four corridors, Ice signed for Jonny to take the rear entrance of the apartment, while she took Skid and Groucho to check out the front. Jonny gave her the acknowledging sign and with Man Ray, started down the corridor to his right. Half-way down, they entered a room of immense asbestos-wrapped standing pipes. Help me get this up," whispered Jonny, indicating a textured metal plate in the floor. We're right above the apartment." The two of them stooped, worked their fingers under the plate and lifted it free. Jonny went feet-first into the hole, kicking out the plastic louvers of a false ventilating duct, and dropped to the floor of the apartment. A moment later, he heard Man Ray hit the floor behind him. The room was dark, the air dead and hot; it clung to Jonny, bitter with the fumes of charred synthetics. A mass of broken furniture lay scattered across the floor, blistered seat backs and pressboard chair legs forming the ribs of some skinned animal. Small appliances seemed to have been thrown into a pile and methodically smashed. Jonny had trouble identifying individual objects, he could make out a coffee grinder and a small microwave oven; the rest of it was unrecognizable, beaten beyond recognition. Someone had placed duct tape over the room's only window. To hide what they were doing, he thought. The tape was peeling off now, the pavilion's floods cutting the far wall into neat diagonal segments, alternating bands of light and dark. Pills and diskettes crunched beneath their feet, giving off a sour reek of spoiled hormonal extracts; an Indian throw rug was gummy with half-dissolved capsules of vasopressin and prolactin. There did not seem to be much in the room that was not burned or broken. They followed a trail of books and Sumi's gutted electronic gear (fused circuits glowing like raw opals) down the hall to the bedroom. In the small chamber, the arson-smell was stronger. Man Ray thumbed on a small squeeze light attached to his obi. The bed had been torched. Shredded clothes were scattered over the floor, and Freon slurred the wall from a refrigeration unit, now slag, that Jonny had hidden to store perishable drugs, and the occasional blackmarket kidney or lung for a client. A scraping. From the living room. Both men had their weapons up and out, Jonny leaning into the hall, anxious for something to shoot. In the far room, Ice and the others were silently surveying the wreckage on the floor. Back here," Jonny called. They came back, huddling dumbly in the doorway. Ice performed a slow motion sleepwalk through the bedroom, stopping occasionally to finger a piece of clothing, a crushed circuit board, vials of pills. Man Ray's light fixed her in a wedge of sudden color. She turned to Jonny. Her tool belt is gone," Ice said. That's good," said Groucho hopefully. Then there's a chance Sumi got away. Jonny leaned against the wall, sliding down into a crouch. And maybe they just took it with them for evidence. Prove she's a Watt Snatcher. From the corner of his eye, Jonny saw Skid, shifting his weight nervously from foot to foot. Maybe we shouldn't stay here," said the Kid quietly. Ice stood up, holding a small prayer wheel; its half-melted copper cap squeaked as she spun it. Either way, Sumi's long gone," she said. Turn off that damned light." Man Ray put the squeeze light back on his sash. Jonny remained on his haunches; Ice kicked her way through the clothes and half-melted lumps of cheap plastic furniture, and nudged him with her boot. Looks like it's just you and me for now, cowboy," she said. Jonny looked up at her. I'm going to kill someone for this, you know. Ice nodded, smiled. Well, don't forget to leave something for me, she said. This is payback from Zamora," said Jonny. Groucho cleared his throat. I think Skid was right a moment ago, he said. "Perhaps we ought to leave. If Pere Ubu's involved, he may have left sentries behind. Jonny pulled himself from the floor, looking the room over one more time, pressing the image in his brain for later. When he might need the anger. Okay," he said, we came in the back, we go out the front. Good crowds for cover. They left the apartment. Skid abandoned his coat and walked point in his Zombie gear: an innocent hustler in search of the night's mark. They saw no Committee boys on the way out. The main courtyard of the Babylonian temple was stifling in the overheated illumination coming from tiered ranks of klieg lamps. Dozens of made-up, costumed extras milled around, Valley kids mostly, speaking in hushed cathedral tones. The movie set reminded Jonny of something-- an immense surgery, the light giving people and objects a look of startling precision and sterility. Okay kids, Ms. Vega's going to make her walk in a minute," came a man's flat nasal voice from a P.A. What we need here is lots of clapping and cheering. But no whistling. You want to whistle, go see kick-boxing. This brought shrill waves of high-pitched whistling from the temple's squatters who were massed just behind a police line around the set. The extras were costumed in cleaned-up Hollywood versions of squatter gear, much too clean and well-fed, thought Jonny. Very funny. Get to your positions, kids." Jonny and the others joined the general flow of the crowd, threading their way through the back of the set, following a line of dancers in sequined parodies of Lunar Commando vacuum-suits. Jonny was not particularly surprised by the presence of the film crew; it was not the first time he and the other squatters had been forced from their digs by a some local production company. Aoki Vega was one of the Link's most popular musical-porn stars. The irony of the situation, Jonny thought, was that the Link was going to turn around and sell the broadcast of Vega's performance to the same squatters they had displaced, presenting them with an expensive ad glittering souvenir of their powerlessness. The dancers Jonny and the others were following seemed to be headed to a partitioned area at the far end of the pavilion near a semicircle of honeywagons and generator trucks. Skid was walking on his toes, trying to see over the line of extras waiting to cheer the star. A bank of stadium-sized video projectors displayed views of the set from several different angles. As he pushed his way through the extras, Jonny became aware of a certain unnerving sameness about them, as if they had all been weaned from the same shallow gene pool. Caucasian faces were blandly orientalized; nisei kids snapping their fingers to unheard pop tunes, their hair bleached and skin darkened with biologics to some bizarre ideal of southern California chic. They could have been from anywhere, nowhere. A gag postcard about sex appeal and beaches. I know you. You're the producer, right?" said someone nearby. Jonny turned to her. She wore a loose jacket of woven aluminum filament, plated gold. Her face held the same assembly line features as the others. Only her eyes were memorable. She wore diffraction grating contacts; her eyes were spiraling rainbows. We met at Marty's party in Laurel Canyon," she said brightly. You're Mister Radoslav, right?" It was obvious to Jonny that the woman was stoned. She might as easily have thought he was the Pope. Jonny, still moving, glanced over at the police line, then fixed her with the most radiant smile he could muster. Please keep your voice down," he said. No one's supposed to know I'm here. He put his arm around Skid. "This is my associate, Mister Kidd. My pleasure," the woman said, extending a bronzed hand. She and Skid shook, the Kid mumbled an incoherent pleasantry. Tell me, is there somewhere we can go and talk, Ms.--?" Jonny began. Viebecke," she said. But everybody calls me Becky." Becky, of course. Is there anywhere we can speak privately, Becky? Perhaps discuss an audition? Sure," she said. The extra's trailer is probably empty now." The look she gave Jonny was infused with such hunger and lust that, for a moment, he considered cutting right then and there and taking his chances with the police. Something glided by. Jonny looked up. A long articulated arm supporting a German video-cam was hovering a few meters overhead; a half-dozen lenses rotated, pulling to focus on them. His face and Skid's were splashed across the dozen enormous video screens. The trailer sounds fine," he said. Ice and the others were waiting beside a two-story boom crane that reminded him of an orange praying mantis. He introduced the others to Becky who clung to his arm, looking disappointed when she saw Ice. Then she smiled, the Hollywood optimism bubbling forth. Oh wow, are you guys actors, too?" she crooned. How'd you guess?" asked Ice, flashing her teeth. We're casting a new feature right now," said Jonny. Looking for fresh, interesting faces. Becky giggled and led them to a group of trailers behind the honeywagon. The chemical smells of processed fish and beef analogs permeated the place. Becky went inside before them, holding up a hand to indicate that they should wait there. The sound of raised voices came from beyond the door. Jonny looked at Ice. She shook her head slowly. A moment later, a young woman came storming out of the trailer. She resembled Becky so strongly, that for an instant, Jonny thought it was the actress in a new set of clothes. But the new woman just glared at them and stalked off. You can come in now," Becky called from the doorway. They went inside. The trailer was long and narrow, smelling faintly of perfume and sweat, with rows of lighted mirrors on one side, benches and hooks heavy with clothes on the other. Sun lamps and video monitors were crowded at opposite ends of the room. Jonny and the others went immediately to the clothes, and started pawing through them. Becky perched on a table by the mirrors, holding her head rigid, favoring them with her best side. What are you guys doing?" she asked at last. Costumes," said Jonny. Gotta know what young people are wearing these days. Becky lit a joint, puffed, and rose from her perch, trying to keep up a merry front. Man Ray found a hound's tooth overcoat that fit over his body armor; Ice put on a white toreador jacket, trimmed with gold beads. When Becky lay a hand on Jonny's arm she was radiating nervousness, but her face remained a smiling mask. Looking at her, Jonny felt an obscure sorrow. He wondered if she had any other facial expressions buried somewhere under all that bargain basement surgery. Is there anything youwant to ask me?" she purred. Yeah, there much security down at this end of the set? Becky looked at him blankly, like a deranged puppy. She screamed: Hey! You aren't the producer!" We're criminals," said Jonny. Desperate, armed criminals." Becky fell back drunkenly and cowered in a far corner of the trailer, whimpering and mumbling Oh wow," like a mantra. They had their new clothes on in a few seconds, (Groucho in a Mexican Air Force jacket studded with medals, Skid in a black leather jumpsuit and Chinese revivalist Mao cap) and started out the door. Jonny went to Becky to attempt a quick apology. She was still in the corner, struck dumb with drugs and fear, and when she thrust a chair at him, he could not tell if she wanted to give it to him or hit him with it. He just backed away slowly saying, I'm sorry, Becky. But it's our asses. Outside, the P.A. was blaring, Okay kids, let's really hear it." They moved to the very back of the set, smiling at the techs, just another group of extras waiting for their call, and started out between two grinding generator rigs. Behind them they heard the trailer door burst open and a shrill, hysterical voice. He's not the producer! He's just a goddam thief! Security moved in quickly on the screaming actress. By the Babylon set, music started, drowning out Becky's voice. Someone called out for them to stop. But Jonny and the rest were running then, out of the pavilion and across the wet street. Near the van, Jonny sneaked a look over his shoulder, and saw a couple of overweight film company rent-a-cops in pursuit. He almost laughed. Spinning on the balls of his feet, he brought his Futukoro up level with the rent-a-cops' heaving chests. The nearest one saw him, momentarily misplaced his center of gravity, and went down in a puddle like an overstuffed sack. His partner did a little tap dance, hands thrust over his head, and started back toward the bright lights of the pavilion. Jonny ran on to the van, arriving there just in time to see Skid hit the street under the hulked black back of a uniform. Ice went down on top of them. The bright flicker of her knife blade, and she and Skid were up. Groucho caught another uniform, whipping his bolo like a garrote, pinning the uniform's upraised arm to his throat, before dispatching him with a kick to the solar plexus. Very weird for rent-a-cops, thought Jonny. A couple of Futukoro rounds slammed into the scarred armor on the side of the van. Very fucking weird. One of the uniforms scrambled by, illuminated by the flickering green florescence of a street lamp. Oh shit," Jonny said. He ducked and ran, hoping the Committee boys had not spotted him. Man Ray was already behind the wheel of the van, gunning the engine. Ice and Groucho had their guns out, and were giving Jonny covering fire. The three jumped in the back. Skid, however, remained outside, in maniacal pursuit of the Committee boy who had attacked him. Man Ray ground the van into gear, accelerating past the Kid. Jonny held onto one of Groucho's arms as he leaned out the back. The anarchist snared the Kid and they dragged him by his sleeves for a block or so before Ice got hold of his collar and pulled him inside. A hovercar skimmed down low over the van, burning lights, manic shadows; hot fists of turbine wash forced them back from the door. Man Ray jammed through the gears. He took two corners, nearly overturning the van on one, but the hovercar just hung there. Then it veered suddenly off to the left. It seemed for a moment that they had lost it, but it dropped down a few feet in front of them, barely skimming over the puddles. Man Ray stood on the brakes, sending the van wiggling down the street like a speared fish. When he regained control, the Guru ran them through a parking lot off Vine and out onto Melrose. Gripping the doorframe, Jonny and the others shot at the turbine vanes on the underside of the hovercar with Man Ray's custom ammo. Pink and silver spheres impacted the polycarbonate surface; blue firework dragons pawed at the landing gear, before being sucked up through the intake ports. Skid pushed past them, and threw some of Man Ray's roses, knife-fashion, at the low flying car. They exploded behind the van, blistering asphalt and palm trees. Let there be light!" yelled Man Ray. He cranked up the short wave scanner, making adjustments to his own broadcasting unit. Listen'a that dumb fuck," he said. Thinks he's calling us in. I got that boy jammed so hard, surprised he knows which end holds the mike. The hovercar let loose then with a burst of automatic weapons fire that hammered down on the roof of the van like a phospho- rescent avalanche, blue sparks dancing around the edges of the door. Jonny and the others fell back. Man Ray steered them onto Wilshire Boulevard, dodging slow-moving low riders and pedicabs. Jonny leaned up to the driver seat. How far are we from the underground? he yelled. Almost there," Man Ray said. He had slipped on a high-domed crash helmet. Can we take more of that fire?" The Guru grinned through high-impact plastic. Don't insult me. The glass donut of Lockheed's office tower was glowing just a few blocks ahead. The Guru steered the van onto a side street, trying to lose their tail before heading for the clinic. The hovercar hung implacably above them. We're really eating it," Man Ray said. There's no major turn- offs and the underground's just ahead. Any suggestions? I got one," said Ice. She pulled one of the Croakers' Kalashnikov rifles, retrofit with an M-79 grenade launcher, from the weapons bin. The van was running fast down a side street between long rows of grimed and decaying old geodesic greenhouses, some forgotten experiment in urban self-sufficiency. Wind tearing at her corn-rows, Ice sighted in on the hovercar, tracking the subtle, massive glide of the machine as it positioned itself for another attack. When she did not fire, Jonny was tempted to pull her away from the door. Then, just as he was reaching for her, she pulled the trigger, sending the burning M-79 bolt at the aft section of the car. The explosion, when the shell hit, blew out windows in one old greenhouse dome, peppering the van with dead vegetation and fragments of glass. Black smoke and guttering light above them. The hovercar tried to rise, but its remaining engine clipped a transformer tower, flipping the car onto its back. It hung there for a moment, as if undecided what to do. Finally, in what looked like an attempt to right itself, it slammed through a greenhouse roof, emerging from the far side in flames. Brace yourselves!" screamed Man Ray. He wrenched the steering wheel left, sending the van broadside into the hovercar just as it skidded to the ground in front of them. The first thing Jonny was aware of was the constant blaring of a horn; then came shadows, flickering over his eyelids in frozen micro-second silhouettes; then a thick wetness on his face, across his chest and arms. He opened his eyes. Glycerin. It was everywhere, thick puddles massing on the floor and slopping out the back, ruptured padding going limp on the walls. He crawled to the open door and dropped a couple of unexpected feet to the pavement. The vehicle was resting at a severe angle, its three left wheels spinning in the air. He walked on some stranger's legs; they refused to work together. Around the side of the van he found the mangled hovercar, a skeletal mass of crumpled alloys and scorched plastic, two feeble red lights rotating out of synch; the fuselage had twisted itself thoroughly into the undercarriage of the van, merging with it. Symbiotic junk. A sleeve grazed his face, electric jolt sending Jonny down to his knees. Man Ray danced past him, his Medusa out and swinging over his head. Charged lashes flowered sparks as they touched, gilding the air above the Guru's head with spinning galaxies, ghostly landscapes of exploding stars, playing cards, cometary butterflies. He was easily holding three Committee boys at bay. There was an enormous stained-porcelain smile plastered across his face. Even groggy, Jonny could read it: Total fulfillment. Man Ray was in his element, writing sonnets with his weapons; the image of the artist at work. The Guru froze and held out his arms, crystal geckos skittering from his sleeves. Light-footed, quick-tongued, they leaped to the ground at the Committee boys' feet, exploding into billowing, lavender clouds of CS gas. Jonny fell back on the van, coughing, eyes filling with tears, and saw Man Ray emerge from the cloud a moment later. Somewhere along the way, the Guru had slipped a respirator on under his kendo helmet. A Committee boy grabbed him and was jolted off by the electrical charge of the polypyrrole armor. Then someone was pulling Jonny away, around to the back of the ruined van. It was Skid, blood ruining the white perfection of his teeth, rimming his lips. The hand he used to hold Jonny was glowing, pixels throbbing nervously, but offering no image. He was shouting something. We're fucked! They've blown it! We're on our own, man!" The Kid started to pull again, but Jonny shifted his weight and held him in place. What are you talking about? Where's Ice?" The Kid pointed with his gun. Pinned down with Groucho. It's the Committee, man. They've blown the clinic! Jonny pushed the Kid aside and ran between the rows of greenhouses. A block away, he could see a dozen of the Committee's meat wagons forming an armored barrier around the warehouse he and the others had left earlier that evening. Force men were leading a few cuffed Croakers to the wagons. There were bodies, Committee boys and anarchists, lying in the flood-lit parking lot. Ice and Groucho were there, pinned-down in an alley off to the right, meters apart, unable to reach the cover of the greenhouses. See? We're fucked!" Skid shrilled. They found the clinic!" Jonny watched as Ice and Groucho tried to make a run for it, shooting into the air to cover each other. The Committee boys laughed at them from the roof, cat and mousing them, letting them get a few meters out, then forcing them back against the warehouse under a curtain of bullets. If we lay down some fire on that roof, they could make it," Jonny told Skid. Watch them. I need a weapon." He crawled away, then sprinted to the van. Weapons and ammunition were scattered on the ground behind the van's open door. Some of Man Ray's clockwork constructions had been activated; they crawled absently off into the shadows where they popped and flared. The Guru was nowhere in sight. Jonny grabbed a Futukoro and, as he fished for a clip in the glycerin flooded bin, paused for a moment to take a couple of deep, even breaths. His hands were shaking. He closed his eyes, tried to will himself calm. Nothing but ruins, he thought. Seeing Ice pinned down had snapped something inside him. He thought of Sumi. He could not lose them both in one night. A high-pitched animal scream. Jonny ran back to the warehouse in time to see Skid zig-zagging into the open, his pixels wild, a slight figure crawling with pastel geometrics and snapping death's heads. As the Kid ran, he shot wildly at the roof of the adjoining warehouse, forcing the Committee boys back. Ice, Jonny realized, had been caught between the buildings, unable to get out of the line of fire. Now, under Skid's cover, she made it to a greenhouse on the far side, Groucho right on her heels. They turned to give the Kid covering fire, but he seemed confused; unwilling to be pinned at the warehouse wall as they had been, he sprinted back toward Jonny. He got about ten meters when a shot caught him from behind, punching a wet hole in his chest. The Kid spun around stiffly, firing the last of his clip into the pavement. Skid!" Ice screamed. The Kid was on his back, half-conscious, crawling with snakes and phosphenes. A file dump, Jonny realized. All the images in his software were bubbling up at once, out of control. The arm Skid held up strobed madly: the arm of a woman, a reptile, an industrial robot; crimson spiders webbed him; amber alphanumerics scrolled up his twisted face; Brando, Lee, Bowie, Vega; his system was looping, the faces flickering by faster and faster, merging into one meta-fantasy face, colorless, all colors, fading at the same instant it formed. Skid sat up, looked around wildly and laughed. A single bright flash of binary, and he slumped to the ground. The Kid lay still and dark. By the meat wagons, a loudspeaker clicked on: MY GOD, IS THAT YOU, GORDON? NICE TO SEE YOU, ASSHOLE. WHAT HAPPENED TO OUR DEAL? came Zamora's voice. "YOU FUCKED ME, GORDON, BUT I DIDN'T THINK YOU WERE STUPID. I CUT YOU LOOSE AND YOU RUN RIGHT INTO THE ARMS OF CRIMINALS; TERRORISTS, FOR CHRISSAKE. It was a game, Jonny knew. Could the Colonel make him mad enough to do something stupid? Jonny tried to force the sound of Colonel Zamora's voice from his brain; he conjured up visions of clawing the man's eyes out with his hands, but he stayed in the shadows, shaking, hating himself, and biting his lip until he drew blood. I'M GOING TO ROAST YOU, KID. ONE OF YOUR BITCHES IS MINE ALREADY. THEY LOVE FRESH CUNT AT THE WEAPONS LAB, YOU KNOW. THEY'LL HAVE HER INCUBATING SPINAL WORMS. EVER SEEN THOSE THINGS? ALL THEY EAT IS NERVE TISSUE, AND THEY DON'T STOP TILL IT'S ALL GONE... Before Jonny knew what he was doing, he was flat on his belly, screaming, firing the Futukoro, filling the air above the meat wagons with dragons, burning comets, screeching harpies. He knocked out the P.A. with the first volley, and took out some of the flood lights. Something occurred to him then, and he was up, scrambling back to the van. Some of Man Ray's toys were been back there, he remembered. What a nice surprise they would be for the Colonel. But he never got there. Two dark suited men intercepted him as he was stepping into the vehicle. Instinctively, Jonny brought his boot up into one man's armpit, paralyzing the arm. But it was not enough. His whole system hummed, crying out for blood. Jonny grabbed a handful of the first man's face and pushed him into the second. They both went down, and Jonny was on them, bringing his boots down heel-first, aiming for the throat. He missed the first man, corrected his aim for the second and knocked out some of his teeth. Jonny's fun was cut short, however, when an arm clamped across his face, and something cold and stinging touched his throat. As his body went limp, some neutral part of his brain noted that he had been stuck with a neural scrambler. The effect was a strange one since Jonny's mind continued to function perfectly, but with the pyramidal tracks of his brain jammed, his body had suddenly been reduced to so much useless meat. He was aware of the two men carrying him for some distance. He hoped they would not let him swallow his tongue. When they removed the scrambler, Jonny found himself on the filthy floor of an underground garage. A stretched Cadillac limousine, the rear end huge under twin sweeping tail fins, was parked nearby. His tongue seemed to be intact. The car door swung open, and a familiar florid scent of clove cigarettes billowed out. Then the ugliest man Jonny had ever seen smiled out at him. Please don't be angry, Jonny. Your friends are gone. Some of their compatriots picked them up a few moments ago, said Mister Conover, the smuggler lord. Aside from that, it's been my sad experience that people who are ready to die for a cause, all too often, end up doing just that. He grinned apologetically, showing horrid yellow teeth. There are far too many of them out there for you to do any good, you know. You'll just get yourself killed. Killed?" said Jonny. He laughed. Wouldn't that be a joke on everybody. SIX: The Exquisite Corpse Mister Conover, relaxed and smiling, was sporting that season's newest suit style from Milan (high-waisted pants, shoulder pads in the jacket, all woven from Russian silk. There was a Cyrillic character on each of the gold buttons. In all, the suit violated a dozen U.S. trade embargoes against pro-Arab countries.). He was the most powerful smuggler lord in Los Angeles, singlehandedly controlling most of the drug traffic in and out of southern California. Many of the other lords were working small, furtive drug deals of their own, deals designed to boost their cash flow and their self- esteem, and while they were, technically, cutting into Conover's action, he did not mind. Allowing the other lords to have their little deals helped to keep them happy and in line. And that, Conover knew, was a form of power he could not buy or do without. Rumor had it that Mr. Conover's influence reached far beyond the limits of Los Angeles, into the governor's mansion, and the offices of the multi-nationals in Osaka and Mexico City. Part of this was due to an elaborate kick-back scheme he had reputedly concocted with several pharmaceutical firms decades before, a scheme having to do with the scuttling of artificial intelligence controlled-cargo blimps and tankers, allowing the companies to collect on the insurance, then returning the vessels with new names and computer logs, while he kept the cargo. However, a portion of his influence had simply to do with his age. He had been born in the previous century, making him older than most of the corporations and politicos he was dealing with. Through the years, he had become a link to a golden age when the foundations for the power structure of their world was being laid, a sort of icon to commerce and stability. Mr. Conover was also a Greenies addict. Originally marketed in the late nineteen nineties as a longevity drug, Greenies were later found to be responsible for a whole range of bizarre side effects. However, these effects manifested themselves only after decades of use, and by then it was usually too late; the drug had already bonded with and re-inscribed large segments of the addict's DNA. To stop taking the drug would have killed Conover. The drug's street name derived from its peculiar tendency to slow the oxidation of blood in the user's system, giving the addict's skin a brittle, greenish-blue quality. The final irony was that Greenies turned out to be an exceptionally effective life extender. Thus, the user could look forward to decades (centuries?) of addiction and slow physical disintegration. No one really knew how old Mr. Conover was, but what he had become was obvious to all. Conover's small grayish-green skull of a head bobbed between narrow shoulders set above a thick torso. His nose was little more than a mass of jagged scar tissue surrounded by livid clusters of red tumors. He puffed constantly at gold-tipped Sherman clove cigarettes which he held in a long mother-of-pearl holder, an affectation which, like his clothes, was another symptom of his compulsion to accentuate his own ugliness. When he smiled, which was often, his thin lips stretched back from a stained jumble of teeth. His appearance always gave Jonny the feeling that he was in conversation with a well-dressed corpse. The Cadillac moved swiftly along an all but abandoned stretch of freeway. Sand was blowing in off the desert, carried to the city on the backs of freak Santa Ana winds. Carbon arcs mounted on the roof threw the cracked roadbed into stark relief, made the sand look like static on a video screen. Jonny looked out the double-glazed windows, but there was not much to see. They were driving through hills northwest of the city, on the edge of the German industrial sector, a bleak dead zone of strip mining equipment and half- finished bunkers housing the Krupp Corporation's experimental tokamak. The leached hills depressed Jonny, reminded him of a painting by Max Ernst that Groucho had shown him: Europe After the Rain. The landscape brought back uneasy memories of evenings on the Committee shooting speed with Krupp's young shock truppen. The German's did not have Meat Boys, instead, it was common for young recruits to display their machismo by replacing their limbs with unfeeling myoelectric prosthesis. Jonny had the patchy, drunken memory of a laughing boy holding a cigarette lighter to his fingertips until they melted and dripped away, revealing the silicon sensors and black alloy mesh beneath. Jonny relaxed on the soft leather seat in the rear of the limousine. Seated next to him, Conover pulled out an ornate silver cigarette case and offered him a smoke. Jonny accepted the cigarette and a light, pulling the harsh, sweet clove smoke deep into his lungs and letting it trickle out through his nose. It had been months since he last smoked a cigarette (Sumi had guilted him into stopping when a Croaker working out of the back of a taqueria told him he had a shadow on one lung), but his past seemed to be catching up with him at such a rate that Jonny figured he might as well get into the spirit of it. He coughed wearily as the smoke caught in his throat. Resting his head on the seatback, he watched the road slide by. Conover's chauffeur, a heavy-set ex- Guardia Nacional man, was skull-plugged into a radar/navigational unit in the dashboard, following a trail of military sensors under the road bed. Conover was one of the few men in the city Jonny trusted, certainly the only lord. For the moment, he felt safe. Conover leaned over and spoke to him quietly. You seem to have brought down the wrath of god, old son. Or at least you pissed off Zamora, which amounts to the same thing. What in the world can you have done? Jonny ran a hand through his hair. I wish I knew," he said. Maybe I'd feel like I deserve all this special attention." Much as he'd like to, the Colonel does not stage raids just for fun. He must have had some reason for singling you out. Conover put a hand on Jonny's arm. No offense, you're a charming boy, but--" The man's insane. He thinks you and I are playing footsie with the Alpha Rats, Jonny said. "I suppose that's assuming they have feet. I don't know. This whole thing's crazier by the minute. The Alpha Rats," Conover said, half as a question, half a reply. He smoked his pastel Sherman, laughed mildly. The Colonel never ceases to amaze me. Did he happen to mention what, specifically, you and I were doing with the Alpha Rats? No. He just said we'd had contact and that we're into some kind of deal, Jonny explained. He gave up and ground out the cigarette in an ashtray gouged from a crystal lump of Amazon quartz. His throat burned. And that's all he said?" Conover asked. Yeah." Jonny hesitated before saying anything about Zamora's demand that he turn Conover. Just saying the words, Jonny felt, implied a kind of betrayal. But how will it look, he wondered, if I don't say anything and he finds out? Zamora's really got the hots for you, he said. "He cut me loose and told me I had to deliver you in forty eight hours or-- --Or we get the little scene back at the warehouses. Tell me, did Easy Money ever come up in your talk? I don't think so." Take a moment. I want you to be sure. Did Colonel Zamora mention Easy Money? No, never." You didn't seem so sure a moment ago." Well, I wasn't then; I'm sure now," said Jonny. He looked at the smuggler lord. Good," said Conover, nodding in satisfaction. Forgive me for being insistent, but it's important that I get to Easy before the Committee. He's made off with something of mine and I do not want Zamora involved, on any level, with its recovery. For what it's worth, Groucho, the Croaker, said Easy's gone to work for Nimble Virtue. Conover reached forward and picked up a bottle of tequila from a well-stocked traveling bar set into the seatback before them. Next to the bar was an array of sleek matte-black Japanese electronic gear; Jonny recognized a Sony compound analyzer, a cellular videophone and a voice-activated PC. Conover poured a shot of tequila into a glass and handed it to Jonny. I'd heard about Nimble Virtue," said Conover. In fact, I've been trying to set up a meet with her, but the witch is on the run. Paranoid,that woman is. My sources say she might have a pied a terre in Little Tokyo, but only time will tell. Jonny finished his tequila and Conover refilled his glass. Right now, though, why don't you relax and tell me, from the beginning, everything that went on with you and Zamora. Take your time, we have a bit of a drive ahead of us. Jonny took a gulp of the liquor, bracing himself with its cool heat. He was not wild about the idea of reliving that night, but he knew had known it was coming, ever since the smuggler lord had picked him up. Conover, meanwhile, was using a tiny spoon to scoop a fine white powder from a glass vial he pulled from the back of the bar. That done, he cut the pile the into several neat lines with a gold single-edged razor blade. As the lord snorted up a couple of the lines, Jonny began to talk, telling Conover everything he could remember, from the moment Zamora had picked him up, until he had found himself alone behind the prison, confused and outraged. It was painful; all that had happened since came crashing down on him. Ice was gone. Sumi was gone. Skid was dead. He even found Groucho's absence disturbing. When he finished, Conover had him run through the whole thing again, focusing on Zamora's theories about their connection to the Alpha Rats. After going through it a second time, Jonny was drained. Conover patted his arm, and nodded. A very good job, Jonny. Thank you, he said. "You look like you could use a break. I could use a new life. But what about Zamora and the Alpha Rats? Conover handed the tube he had used to snort the coke to Jonny. It all sounds fascinating. I never would have suspected the Colonel of having an imagination. It almost makes me wish it were true. Without you to pull out of the fire, Jonny, my life would be unbearable. Don't let anybody try and sell you on immortality. There simply isn't enough of interest to make it worthwhile. Do your time and get it over with; that's the best way. It's not polite to be the last one to leave a party. Jonny snorted up the white lines and asked: Then there's nothing to all this spaceman stuff? Conover shook his head, his eyes fixed miles and centuries away. No, nothing," he replied. Then he said something else; Jonny thought it might be: Empty." Jonny found himself beginning to feel a certain odd sympathy for the smuggler lord. For all his power, Conover had trapped himself in the decomposing body of a junky fop through a single miscalculation-- his urgent will to live. On the other hand, Mr. Conover was no fool. Had it really been a mistake? Jonny wondered. Or was it a stage in some other, infinitely more complex and subtle plan that Jonny and the rest, condemned to a pitiful handful of years, could not see? If the smuggler lord was working on something else, Jonny hoped it was very big. The price of it seemed high. Conover lit another in his constant stream of cigarettes. Tossing the match out the window, he let in a sudden blast of hot air and dust. His mood seemed to have grown lighter. I hope you don't mind, but I've a little side trip to make before we can go home. Just some business, you understand. I have a boat coming in from the south with some goodies on board: pituitary extracts, frozen retinas, a few kilos of cocaine. We wouldn't want to be late and give our neighbors the impression that we keep a sloppy shop, eh? He laughed, amused by his own rambling. "Besides, I believe these boys are going to try and burn me. And I wouldn't miss that for the world. Yeah? What would you do for the world?" Jonny asked, feeling pleasantly numb and reckless, buzzing on the coke. Objects in the car had taken on a warm internal glow. Conover looked at him, not without affection. Only a lunatic would want to run this dump, he said. "I'm content to farm my small bit and be done with it. L.A. has been a very good investment for me, in money and time. I always wondered why you didn't move into someplace like New Hope. I mean, those people have got to have some expensive habits. Conover raised his ruined eyebrows. More than you could know, he said. "But New Hope is a ghost town. The corruption there is a closed system. The same families have been running drugs and data through there for generations. Old families, very powerful. We're talking here about the Yakuza and the Panteras Aureo. The families connected to the multinationals have their own internal organizations to keep their people happy and restful. There's no freedom in that sort of set-up. Little potential for growth. He carefully ground out his cigarette and placed another in his mother of pearl holder. Besides, like Lucifer in the poem, I much prefer to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven. Jonny grinned up at him. I thought you said you didn't want to run this dump. It's all semantics. You can't buy Heaven, either." Outside, the sand had let up. Heat lightning crackled silently across the horizon. Inside the Cadillac, they had passed into what Jonny had come to think of as a pocket of silence, one of those odd conjunctions of time and place where conversation vanished of its own accord; at those moments, Jonny believed, all words became dangerous and banal. He had come to attach a certain sacredness to the silence. All things were at rest. It was a ritual from boyhood, no different from stepping around cracks so that he would not break his mother's back. Meaningless, he knew, but when the feeling passed, he missed it and in trying to force it back, came up, instead, with the twin images of Ice and Sumi. Hey Mister Conover, anything in this stuff we're picking up have to do with the new strain of leprosy? No," said the smuggler lord. Why do you ask?" I just figured you might be looking around for something. It's getting pretty bad in some neighborhoods. Have you seen the epidemic yourself?" asked Conover. You know how these things can get blown out of proportion. With AIDS in the last century and the new hepatitis strains at the beginning of this one, people are very susceptible to rumors of a new plague. Then the Link gets hold of the talk, and broadcasts it right into people's skulls, reinforcing their belief in their own delusions. Couldn't this plague just be some mass psychogenic reaction? Yeah, I've seen it. People aren't really talking plague-- not yet. The Croakers have a roomful of lepers quarantined. Say this new strain is viral and that it kills, maybe through some kind of secondary infection, said Jonny. "We're not talking about a few hysterical whackos here. The whole city's in trouble. Calm down, son," said Mister Conover, laying a hand on Jonny's arm. Remind me not to give you stimulants in the future." He smiled. Actually, I do know this new strain is real. Looks like a bacteria, acts like a virus and all that, right? I was just trying to get an untainted perspective. As I said, all I hear are rumors. Like in east L.A. they've taken to burning their dead. That neighborhoods are beginning to seal themselves off. The social effects of the disease are certainly real enough. Tell me, have the Croakers had any success in isolating reverse transcriptase from the virus samples? You think it's a retro-virus?" AIDS was. And that little fellow practically had the medical community reading Ouija boards before they got anywhere. What about going after it with a general virus-killer like ribovirin or amantadine? asked Jonny. The smuggler lord shook his head. That's been tried," he said. Amantadine seems to have some preventative applications, but if you're already infected, it's useless. You know about this new strain, don't you, Mister Conover?" It's my job." You don't seem too concerned." Personally? No. The Greenies took care of that long ago. I doubt my blood would be very appetizing to these little bastards. He rocked with some internal laughter. I haven't had a cold in over forty years. Then you don't know any treatments we could get hold of for the new strain? No one is even sure how it's transmitted," Conover said. And without the disease vector, curing a few individuals isn't going to stop an epidemic. Seated beside the driver in the front of the car, a hawk-nosed man with an oily pompadour turned to face the back. One of his eyes was blackened, and his upper lip was swollen badly, drawing it downward, giving him a childish, sullen look. Jonny recognized the man as the one whose teeth he had loosened with his boots earlier that evening. The man appeared to be slightly embarrassed. He would not look at Jonny. 'Scuse me, Mr. Conover, but I read un transmissor en la auto," he said. Jonny, my boy, you wouldn't be wired for sound, would you?" asked the smuggler lord. Jonny looked at him. Hey, you know me, Mister Conover." Conover nodded and turned to the front. What do you say, Ricos? You sure your little gadget's reading correctly? Si, no cuestion. The maricon es only new baggage 'round here. I'm not reading nothin' till he get in. Friend, if you can read at all I'd be surprised," said Jonny. Ricos made a quick grab for Jonny, but Conover shoved the man back in his seat. That's enough, children. Jonny, could somebody have planted something on you? No," Jonny said. Those Committee boys never got near me and these clothes are Croaker cast-offs. They'd have no reason to tail me to their own hideout. He looked at Ricos, pointed to his skull "Tu tener un tornillo flojo. Conover puffed thoughtfully at his cigarette, leaned forward and touched the driver's shoulder. Pull over up ahead," he said. Ricos, bring your remote. Come on, Jonny." The car stopped near an old dumpsite for a mining operation that had flattened the surrounding hills. Conover slipped on a white Panama hat as he led Jonny out and around to the back of the Cadillac. Cottony tracers of gas clung to gummy, bitter smelling waste pits. The smuggler lord pointed to Jonny with his cigarette holder. Find it," he said to Ricos. Ricos moved very close to Jonny and began moving a small electromagnetic device over Jonny's clothing, tracing the outline of his body. Jonny glanced over at Conover and wondered what was going through the smuggler lord's mind, but it was impossible to read that face. He concentrated, instead, in affecting a look of extreme uninterest as Ricos studiously moved the device around his crotch. Ai!" Ricos yelled. He held the box to Jonny's bandaged shoulder. Got you, maricon." Jonny looked at the man and then at the box in his hand. Jesus," said Jonny miserably. Oh fucking hell--" Jonny?" said Conover. He slumped against the back of car, Ricos standing over him delightedly. It took several seconds for the image to assemble itself; it appeared to him much the way he imagined visuals formed through skull-plugs: an out of focus mass of phosphenes settling slowly, like a reverse tornado, around a central spiral. In truth, he did not want to understand it, but in admitting that, he gave the thought form and terrible substance. Zamora did this," Jonny said. The image was clear. The prison infirmary had fixed him up nicely and, all their doctors were Committee recruits: bloodless and faceless; company men all the way. It was obvious. He had lead the Committee to the Croakers. Right to Ice's room. Now he was leading them to Conover. Oh fucking hell--" What is it, Jonny?" ask Conover. Jonny's hand moved involuntarily to his cast. I got shot earlier, he said. "I got shot and Zamora had them wire me. It's in my goddam shoulder. Conover approached him, shaking his head sympathetically. I'm truly sorry, son. It's an awful thing to have done," he murmured. We'll have to cut it out, of course. You can't go around beeping the rest of your life. Jonny laughed, when he thought about it. Zamora could not let him off that easily. The insult had been there all along; all that had been required was for him to recognize it. There was, Jonny had to admit, even a kind of twisted beauty to it. Conover called the driver out, and spoke to him for some time in quiet Spanish. When they parted, the driver opened the trunk and unrolled a cloth-bound set of surgical instruments. He helped Jonny off with his coat and pulled back the top of the Pemex jumpsuit. When he removed Jonny's cast and xylocaine patch, he did it with such sureness that Jonny was sure the man had been a medic at some time. Jonny felt a cool punch of compressed air on his arm as the driver injected him with something from a pressurized syringe. Seconds later, Jonny was flying. The driver set him on the rear fender and hooked a small work light to the inside of the trunk lid. Before Conover retreated inside the car, Jonny heard him say: When you find it, bring it to me. The driver held out a small device that looked like an old fashioned tattoo needle, but which Jonny recognized as an Akasaka laser scalpel. In Spanish, the driver told Jonny to concentrate on the hanging light. He did not feel a thing. Later, when the car was moving and Jonny was sacked out on the back seat, still high on whatever they shot him with, he heard voices in the midst of conversation. His shoulder ached with each heartbeat. But he seemed to recall that his shoulder always hurt, didn't it? Eventually he recognized Conover's voice. We each do our bit as best we can, of course. Zamora is a vicious, greedy prick, but a sterling leader of men. I've seen him pull many strange stunts in my time. However, I have never before known him to betray a sense of humor. He glanced at Jonny. "Have you? Jonny just rolled away and fell asleep. I'd like to go home now, he said, but nobody heard him. A dark, sour smelling harbor glittering oily rainbows amidst sluggish waves. Men talking in a circle some distance off, a litter of shapes around their feet; another painting came to him, Tanguy, this time. Sharks-- the bleached carcasses of dead sharks, stripped of their flesh by birds and their jaws by souvenir hunters, strewn across the sand like some hallucinatory crop ready for harvest. Down the beach, a roofless merry-go-round, half-collapsed, dangling a string of bloated wooden horses into the dirty water. The flares of gas jets miles away. Jonny rubbed grit from his eyes and tried to focus on the circle of men outside on the beach. He had no idea how long he or they had been here. He was very thirsty. From what Jonny could see, only two men were doing all the talking. One was Conover, who was easy to spot, towering above the rest, the glowing dot of his cigarette tracing erratic patterns in the air. Behind Conover stood Ricos, scowling into the ocean wind, his pompadour flailing around his ears like a dying animal. The man Conover was talking to was considerably shorter, but very board, wearing the white dress uniform of a Mexican Naval officer. A jet foil with the name Sangre Christi painted on the bow floated a few meters out in the harbor, rolling gently with the surf. Two small Zodiac crafts were beached nearby, one overloaded with sealed metal containers. The identification numbers on the Sangre Christi indicated that the ship was from the Gobernacion fleet stationed in San Diego, but she was running no lights, and the flag on her mast was Venezuelan, not Mexican. When the moon broke through the heavy cloud layer, Jonny got a good look at her crew, spread out in a semi-circle around the Zodiacs. About half wore naval uniforms; the others were dressed variously in jeans and leathers, pale gringos and dread-locked blacks numerous among the crew. That's it then, Jonny thought. They're pirates. Picking up the tequila from Conover's traveling bar, Jonny took a drink. The pirate captain pointed back to his ship and shouted something. Warmed by the tequila, Jonny's thoughts drifted back to his own time as a dealer. Jonny always picked up a buzz when he was pushing or setting up a meet that was wholly divorced from the rest of his life. Part of it was the thrill an ex-Committee boy felt at having gone over to the other side." Another part of it had something to dowith vague notions of changing the world, but he attributed this to youthful folly, regarding it as a consequence of spending too much time sober. Groucho's casual remark equating Jonny's dealing with revolutionary politics had disturbed him. It saddled him responsibilities he had no intention of trying to fulfill. The world (at least Los Angeles, which was all he knew of the world), as Jonny perceived it, was little more than the natural battle of competing organisms, like the virus he had seen on the micrograph at the Croakers' clinic. Each viral unit was incomplete until it had taken over a living cell and used that organism to replicate itself, and the one-percenters and gangs of the city followed the virus's pattern. Inertia swept them along in a perpetual hustle, moving in time to the endless rhythm of commerce; most knew nothing else. And, as was the way of nature, the strongest viruses ate the weaker. The strongest viruses were the Committee, the lords and the multinationals, Jonny thought, forces that were overwhelming and, in the end, incomprehensible to him. Did the Croakers really believe they could change a world run by Zamora or Nimble Virtue? Even Conover was just a business man who had his own reasons for being there. And Groucho was too damned small to play Atlas, Jonny thought. He wondered where Ice was at that moment. He felt certain that she was all right; she seemed to have a talent for staying alive. In his mind, however, Sumi had become one with the ruined apartment. If Zamora really had her, she was lost. Jonny loved both women (something which he was quick to point out as the single distinguished feature of his character) but he felt he owed them something more that. The door opposite Jonny opened and Conover leaned in. Salt mist sparkled on the smuggler lord's shoulders and the wide brim of his hat. He smiled at Jonny. How are you feeling?" he asked. We'll be through here in just a few minutes. These boys are playing it to the last row. Hand me that box by your feet, will you? Jonny looked at the floor of the Cadillac and found a small black lacquered box with brass fittings in the shape of lotus petals. His head spun as he picked the box up. Conover smiled as he took it. Thanks, son. Sit tight. Have a drink," he said. Watching the smuggler lord cross the colorless sand, Jonny was overcome by a sudden and overwhelming sense of loss. As if he were adrift in some vast and infinite ocean with no land in sight. He had the strong urge to bail out right there, to run from the car and to keep running. But for some reason he stayed. If he drifted long enough, he thought, a landfall was bound to appear. Besides, he was drugged silly. Where would I go if I ran, he wondered. On the beach, the pirates were smoking and passing a bottle. Jonny raised his tequila to them and decided to remain in the car. Drifting, he knew, was what he was best at. Outside, the pirate captain was nodding as Conover ceremoniously handed him the small box. The pirate opened it for a moment, waved briskly to a couple of men by the Zodiacs. They made their way through the sand slowly with several containers, setting them a few meters from Conover and Ricos. That done, they retreated quickly from the smuggler lord's presence. Jonny caught a quick movement of one pirate's hand. He had crossed himself, Catholic-fashion. Ricos flicked open a butterfly knife and slit the metal strips that bound the top of one container. Reaching inside, he pulled out a white brick wrapped in heavy plastic and handed it to Conover. Jonny looked around the car, wondering where Conover's chauffeur had gone. When he looked back at the beach, the pirates were moving out, pushing their Zodiac's into the surf. The moon lit, briefly, the rubber floats that flanked each craft, like twin torpedoes wrapped in skin. Ricos carried the metal containers back to the Cadillac, stacking them by the rear bumper as Conover got in. Jonny nodded at the brick. Real cocaine?" he asked. Theoretically." That's an awful lot." You would think so, wouldn't you?" The smuggler lord pushed some bottles out of the way, and set the brick on the traveling bar. With his thumb nail, he gouged a hole in the plastic. He touched the finger to his tongue ad grunted, motioning for Jonny to have a taste. Wetting the end of his middle finger, Jonny touched it to the pile. What's wrong?" he asked, putting the finger gingerly to his tongue. You tell me," said Conover as he spooned a small portion of the powder into a test tube half-filled with a clear fluid. Swirling the mixture together, the smuggler lord fastened the test tube into the twin metal receptacles on the front of the compound analyzer. He punched a switch and a beam of pale laser light lit up the sample from the inside. Jonny found the taste of the p