/ Language: / Genre:antique

Snow Crash

Neal Stephenson


Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash

Нейл Стефенсон. Снежная лавина (engl)

Snow Crash

ROC

Publishedby the Penguin Group

Penguin Books Ltd, 27 Wrights Lane, London W8 5TZ, England

Penguin Books USA Inc… 375 Hudson Street. New York, New York 10014, USA

Penguin Books Australia Ltd, Ringwood, Victoria, Australia

Penguin Books Canada Ltd. 10 Alcorn Avenue, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4V 3B2

Penguin Books (NZ) Lid, 182-190 Wair.iu Road. Auckland 10, New Zealand

Penguin Books Ltd. Registered Offices: Harmondsworth, Middlesex, England

First published in the USA by Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell

Published Group. inc. 1992

First published in Great Britain by Roc 1993

7 9 10 8 6

Copyright ~ Neal Stephenson, 1992

All rights reserved

(iratefui acknowledgement is made for permission to reprint a drawing from

The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind by Julian Jaynes.

Copyright ~ Julian Jaynes, 1976. Reprinted by permission of

Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

Roe is a trademark of Penguin Books Ltd.

Printed in England by Clays Ltd. St ives plc

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject

to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,

re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher's

prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in

which it is published and without a similar condition including this

condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

snow n… 2.a. Anything resembling snow. b. The white specks on a television screen resulting from weak reception.

crashv…,.-infr… 5, To fail suddenly,as abusiness or an economy.

–The Amencan I-Ientizge Dictionary

virus… [L. virus slimy liquid, poison, offensive odour or taste.] 1. Venom, such as is emitted by a poisonous animal. 2. Path. a. A morbid principle or poisonous substance produced in the body as the result of some disease, esp. one capable of being introduced into other persons or animals by inoculations or otherwise and of developing the same disease in them… 3. fIg. A moral or intellectual poison, or poisonous influence.

–The Oxford English Dictionary

Neal Stephenson. Snow crash

OCR and Proofreading by gatha@netzero.net

1

The Deliverator belongs to an elite order, a hallowed subcategory. He's got esprit up to here. Right now, he is preparing to carry out his third mission of the night. His uniform is black as activated charcoal, filtering the very light out of the air. A bullet will bounce off its arachnofiber weave like a wren hitting a patio door, but excess perspiration wafts through it like a breeze through a freshly napalmed forest. Where his body has bony extremities, the suit has sintered armorgel: feels like gritty jello, protects like a stack of telephone books.

When they gave him the job, they gave him a gun. The Deliverator never deals in cash, but someone might come after him anyway - might want his car, or his cargo. The gun is tiny, aero-styled, lightweight, the kind of a gun a fashion designer would carry; it fires teensy darts that fly at five times the velocity of an SR-71 spy plane, and when you get done using it, you have to plug it into the cigarette lighter, because it runs on electricity.

The Deliverator never pulled that gun in anger, or in fear. He pulled it once in Gila Highlands. Some punks in Gila Highlands, a fancy Burbclave, wanted themselves a delivery, and they didn't want to pay for it. Thought they would impress the Deliverator with a baseball bat. The Deliverator took out his gun, centered its laser doohickey on that poised Louisville Slugger, fired it. The recoil was immense, as though the weapon had blown up in his hand. The middle third of the baseball bat turned into a column of burning sawdust accelerating in all directions like a bursting star. Punk ended up holding this bat handle with milky smoke pouring out the end. Stupid look on his face. Didn't get nothing but trouble from the Deliverator.

Since then the Deliverator has kept the gun in the glove compartment and relied, instead, on a matched set of samurai swords, which have always been his weapon of choice anyhow. The punks in Gila Highlands weren't afraid of the gun, so the Deliverator was forced to use it. But swords need no demonstrations.

The Deliverator's car has enough potential energy packed into its batteries to fire a pound of bacon into the Asteroid Belt. Unlike a bimbo box or a Burb beater, the Deliverator's car unloads that power through gaping, gleaming, polished sphincters. When the Deliverator puts the hammer down, shit happens. You want to talk contact patches? Your car's tires have tiny contact patches, talk to the asphalt in four places the size of your tongue. The Deliverator's car has big sticky tires with contact patches the size of a fat lady's thighs. The Deliverator is in touch with the road, starts like a bad day, stops on a peseta.

Why is the Deliverator so equipped? Because people rely on him. He is a role model. This is America. People do whatever the fuck they feel like doing, you got a problem with that? Because they have a right to. And because they have guns and no one can fucking stop them. As a result, this country has one of the worst economies in the world. When it gets down to it - talking trade balances here - once we've brain-drained all our technology into other countries, once things have evened out, they're making cars in Bolivia and microwave ovens in Tadzhikistan and selling them here - once our edge in natural resources has been made irrelevant by giant Hong Kong ships and dirigibles that can ship North Dakota all the way to New Zealand for a nickel - once the Invisible Hand has taken all those historical inequities and smeared them out into a broad global layer of what a Pakistani brickmaker would consider to be prosperity - y'know what? There's only four things we do better than anyone else

music

movies

microcode (software)

high-speed pizza delivery

The Deliverator used to make software. Still does, sometimes. But if life were a mellow elementary school run by well-meaning education Ph.D.s, the Deliverator's report card would say: "Hiro is so bright and creative but needs to work harder on his cooperation skills."

So now he has this other job. No brightness or creativity involved - but no cooperation either. Just a single principle: The Deliverator stands tall, your pie in thirty minutes or you can have it free, shoot the driver, take his car, file a class-action suit. The Deliverator has been working this job for six months, a rich and lengthy tenure by his standards, and has never delivered a pizza in more than twenty-one minutes.

Oh, they used to argue over times, many corporate driver-years lost to it: homeowners, red-faced and sweaty with their own lies, stinking of Old Spice and job-related stress, standing in their glowing yellow doorways brandishing their Seikos and waving at the clock over the kitchen sink, I swear, can't you guys tell time?

Didn't happen anymore. Pizza delivery is a major industry. A managed industry. People went to CosaNostra Pizza University four years just to learn it. Came in its doors unable to write an English sentence, from Abkhazia, Rwanda, Guanajuato, South Jersey, and came out knowing more about pizza than a Bedouin knows about sand. And they had studied this problem. Graphed the frequency of doorway delivery-time disputes. Wired the early Deliverators to record, then analyze, the debating tactics, the voice-stress histograms, the distinctive grammatical structures employed by white middle-class Type A Burbclave occupants who against all logic had decided that this was the place to take their personal Custerian stand against all that was stale and deadening in their lives: they were going to lie, or delude themselves, about the time of their phone call and get themselves a free pizza; no, they deserved a free pizza along with their life, liberty, and pursuit of whatever, it was fucking inalienable. Sent psychologists out to these people's houses, gave them a free TV set to submit to an anonymous interview, hooked them to polygraphs, studied their brainwaves as they showed them choppy, inexplicable movies of porn queens and late-night car crashes and Sammy Davis, Jr., put them in sweet-smelling, mauve-walled rooms and asked them questions about Ethics so perplexing that even a Jesuit couldn't respond without committing a venial sin.

The analysts at CosaNostra Pizza University concluded that it was just human nature and you couldn't fix it, and so they went for a quick cheap technical fix: smart boxes. The pizza box is a plastic carapace now, corrugated for stiffness, a little LED readout glowing on the side, telling the Deliverator how many trade imbalance-producing minutes have ticked away since the fateful phone call. There are chips and stuff in there. The pizzas rest, a short stack of them, in slots behind the Deliverator's head. Each pizza glides into a slot like a circuit board into a computer, clicks into place as the smart box interfaces with the onboard system of the Deliverator's car. The address of the caller has already been inferred from his phone number and poured into the smart box's builtin RAM. From there it is communicated to the car, which computes and projects the optimal route on a heads-up display, a glowing colored map traced out against the windshield so that the Deliverator does not even have to glance down.

If the thirty-minute deadline expires, news of the disaster is flashed to CosaNostra Pizza Headquarters and relayed from there to Uncle Enzo himself - the Sicilian Colonel Sanders, the Andy Griffith of Bensonhurst, the straight razor-swinging figment of many a Deliverator's nightmares, the Capo and prime figurehead of CosaNostra Pizza, Incorporated - who will be on the phone to the customer within five minutes, apologizing profusely. The next day, Uncle Enzo will land on the customer's yard in a jet helicopter and apologize some more and give him a free trip to Italy - all he has to do is sign a bunch of releases that make him a public figure and spokesperson for CosaNostra Pizza and basically end his private life as he knows it. He will come away from the whole thing feeling that, somehow, he owes the Mafia a favor.

The Deliverator does not know for sure what happens to the driver in such cases, but he has heard some rumors. Most pizza deliveries happen in the evening hours, which Uncle Enzo considers to be his private time. And how would you feel if you had to interrupt dinner with your family in order to call some obstreperous dork in a Burbclave and grovel for a late fucking pizza? Uncle Enzo has not put in fifty years serving his family and his country so that, at the age when most are playing golf and bobbling their granddaughters, he can get out of the bathtub dripping wet and lie down and kiss the feet of some sixteen-year-old skate punk whose pepperoni was thirty-one minutes in coming. Oh, God. It makes the Deliverator breathe a little shallower just to think of the idea.

But he wouldn't drive for CosaNostra Pizza any other way. You know why? Because there's something about having your life on the line. It's like being a kamikaze pilot. Your mind is clear. Other people - store clerks, burger flippers, software engineers, the whole vocabulary of meaningless jobs that make up Life in America - other people just rely on plain old competition. Better flip your burgers or debug your subroutines faster and better than your high school classmate two blocks down the strip is flipping or debugging, because we're in competition with those guys, and people notice these things.

What a fucking rat race that is. CosaNostra Pizza doesn't have any competition. Competition goes against the Mafia ethic. You don't work harder because you're competing against some identical operation down the street. You work harder because everything is on the line. Your name, your honor, your family, your life. Those burger flippers might have a better life expectancy - but what kind of life is it anyway, you have to ask yourself. That's why nobody, not even the Nipponese, can move pizzas faster than CosaNostra. The Deliverator is proud to wear the uniform, proud to drive the car, proud to march up the front walks of innumerable Burbclave homes, a grim vision in ninja black, a pizza on his shoulder, red LED digits blazing proud numbers into the night: 12:32 or 15:15 or the occasional 20:43.

The Deliverator is assigned to CosaNostra Pizza #3569 in the Valley. Southern California doesn't know whether to bustle or just strangle itself on the spot. Not enough roads for the number of people. Fairlanes, Inc. is laying new ones all the time. Have to bulldoze lots of neighborhoods to do it, but those seventies and eighties developments exist to be bulldozed, right? No sidewalks, no schools, no nothing. Don't have their own police force - no immigration control - undesirables can walk right in without being frisked or even harassed. Now a Burbclave, that's the place to live. A city-state with its own constitution, a border, laws, cops, everything.

The Deliverator was a corporal in the Farms of Men Merryvale State Security Force for a while once. Got himself fired for pulling a sword on an acknowledged perp. Slid it right through the fabric of the perp's shirt, gliding the flat of the blade along the base of his neck, and pinned him to a warped and bubbled expanse of vinyl siding on the wall of the house that the perp was trying to break into. Thought it was a pretty righteous bust. But they fired him anyway because the perp turned out to be the son of the vice-chancellor of the Farms of Merryvale. Oh, the weasels had an excuse: said that a thirty-six-inch samurai sword was not on their Weapons Protocol. Said that he had violated the SPAC, the Suspected Perpetrator Apprehension Code. Said that the perp had suffered psychological trauma. He was afraid of butter knives now; he had to spread his jelly with the back of a teaspoon. They said that he had exposed them to liability.

The Deliverator had to borrow some money to pay for it. Had to borrow it from the Mafia, in fact. So he's in their database now - retinal patterns, DNA, voice graph, fingerprints, footprints, palm prints, wrist prints, every fucking part of the body that had wrinkles on it almost - those bastards rolled in ink and made a print and digitized it into their computer. But it's their money - sure they're careful about loaning it out. And when he applied for the Deliverator job they were happy to take him, because they knew him. When he got the loan, he had to deal personally with the assistant vice-capo of the Valley, who later recommended him for the Deliverator job. So it was like being in a family. A really scary, twisted, abusive family.

CosaNostra Pizza #3569 is on Vista Road just down from Kings Park Mall. Vista Road used to belong to the State of California and now is called Fairlanes, Inc. Rte. CSV-5. Its main competition used to be a U.S. highway and is now called Cruiseways, Inc. Rte. Cal-12. Farther up the Valley, the two competing highways actually cross. Once there had been bitter disputes, the intersection closed by sporadic sniper fire. Finally, a big developer bought the entire intersection and turned it into a drive-through mall. Now the roads just feed into a parking system - not a lot, not a ramp, but a system - and lose their identity. Getting through the intersection involves tracing paths through the parking system, many braided filaments of direction like the Ho Chi Minh trail. CSV-5 has better throughput, but Cal-12 has better pavement. That is typical - Fairlanes roads emphasize getting you there, for Type A drivers, and Cruiseways emphasize the enjoyment of the ride, for Type B drivers.

The Deliverator is a Type A driver with rabies. He is zeroing in on his home base, CosaNostra Pizza #3569, cranking up the left lane of CSV-5 at a hundred and twenty kilometers. His car is an invisible black lozenge, just a dark place that reflects the tunnel of franchise signs - the loglo. A row of orange lights burbles and churns across the front, where the grille would be if this were an air-breathing car. The orange light looks like a gasoline fire. It comes in through people's rear windows, bounces off their rearview mirrors, projects a fiery mask across their eyes, reaches into their subconscious, and unearths terrible fears of being pinned, fully conscious, under a detonating gas tank, makes them want to pull over and let the Deliverator overtake them in his black chariot of pepperoni fire.

The loglo, overhead, marking out CSV-5 in twin contrails, is a body of electrical light made of innumerable cells, each cell designed in Manhattan by imageers who make more for designing a single logo than a Deliverator will make in his entire lifetime. Despite their efforts to stand out, they all smear together, especially at a hundred and twenty kilometers per hour. Still, it is easy to see CosaNostra Pizza #3569 because of the billboard, which is wide and tall, even by current inflated standards. In fact, the squat franchise itself looks like nothing more than a low-slung base for the great aramid fiber pillars that thrust the billboard up into the trademark firmament. Marca Registrada, baby.

The billboard is a classic, a chestnut, not a figment of some fleeting Mafia promotional campaign. It is a statement, a monument built to endure. Simple and dignified. It shows Uncle Enzo in one of his spiffy Italian suits. The pinstripes glint and flex like sinews. The pocket square is luminous. His hair is perfect, slicked back with something that never comes off, each strand cut off straight and square at the end by Uncle Enzo's cousin, Art the Barber, who runs the second-largest chain of low-end haircutting establishments in the world. Uncle Enzo is standing there, not exactly smiling, an avuncular glint in his eye for sure, not posing like a model but standing there like your uncle would, and it says

The Mafia

you've got a friend in The Family!

paid for by the Our Thing Foundation

The billboard serves as the Deliverator's polestar. He knows that when he gets to the place on CSV-5 where the bottom corner of the billboard is obscured by the pseudo-Gothic stained-glass arches of the local Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates franchise, it's time for him to get over into the right lanes where the retards and the bimbo boxes poke along, random, indecisive, looking at each passing franchise's driveway like they don't know if it's a promise or a threat.

He cuts off a bimbo box - a family minivan - veers past the Buy 'n' Fly that is next door, and pulls into CosaNostra Pizza #3569. Those big fat contact patches complain, squeal a little bit, but they hold on to the patented Fairlanes, Inc. high-traction pavement and guide him into the chute. No other Deliverators are waiting in the chute. That is good, that means high turnover for him, fast action, keep moving that 'za. As he scrunches to a stop, the electromechanical hatch on the flank of his car is already opening to reveal his empty pizza slots, the door clicking and folding back in on itself like the wing of a beetle. The slots are waiting. Waiting for hot pizza.

And waiting. The Deliverator honks his horn. This is not a nominal outcome.

Window slides open. That should never happen. You can look at the three-ring binder from CosaNostra Pizza University, cross-reference the citation for window, chute, dispatcher's, and it will give you all the procedures for that window - and it should never be opened. Unless something has gone wrong.

The window slides open and - you sitting down? smoke comes out of it. The Deliverator hears a discordant beetling over the metal hurricane of his sound system and realizes that it is a smoke alarm, coming from inside the franchise.

Mute button on the stereo. Oppressive silence - his eardrums uncringe - the window is buzzing with the cry of the smoke alarm. The car idles, waiting. The hatch has been open too long, atmospheric pollutants are congealing on the electrical contacts in the back of the pizza slots, he'll have to clean them ahead of schedule, everything is going exactly the way it shouldn't go in the three-ring binder that spells out all the rhythms of the pizza universe.

Inside, a football-shaped Abkhazian man is running to and fro, holding a three-ring binder open, using his spare tire as a ledge to keep it from collapsing shut; he runs with the gait of a man carrying an egg on a spoon. He is shouting in the Abkhazian dialect; all the people who run CosaNostra pizza franchises in this part of the Valley are Abkhazian immigrants.

It does not look like a serious fire. The Deliverator saw a real fire once, at the Farms of Merryvale, and you couldn't see anything for the smoke. That's all it was: smoke, burbling out of nowhere, occasional flashes of orange light down at the bottom, like heat lightning in tall clouds. This is not that kind of fire. It is the kind of fire that just barely puts out enough smoke to detonate the smoke alarms. And he is losing time for this shit.

The Deliverator holds the horn button down. The Abkhazian manager comes to the window. He is supposed to use the intercom to talk to drivers, he could say anything he wanted and it would be piped straight into the Deliverator's car, but no, he has to talk face to face, like the Deliverator is some kind of fucking ox cart driver. He is red-faced, sweating, his eyes roll as he tries to think of the English words.

"A fire, a little one," he says.

The Deliverator says nothing. Because he knows that all of this is going onto videotape. The tape is being pipelined, as it happens, to CosaNostra Pizza University, where it will be analyzed in a pizza management science laboratory. It will be shown to Pizza University students, perhaps to the very students who will replace this man when he gets fired, as a textbook example of how to screw up your life.

"New employee - put his dinner in the microwave - had foil in it -boom!" the manager says.

Abkhazia had been part of the Soviet fucking Union. A new immigrant from Abkhazia trying to operate a microwave was like a deep-sea tube worm doing brain surgery. Where did they get these guys? Weren't there any Americans who could bake a fucking pizza?

"Just give me one pie," the Deliverator says.

Talking about pies snaps the guy into the current century. He gets a grip. He slams the window shut, strangling the relentless keening of the smoke alarm.

A Nipponese robot arm shoves the pizza out and into the top slot. The hatch folds shut to protect it.

As the Deliverator is pulling out of the chute, building up speed, checking the address that is flashed across his windshield, deciding whether to turn right or left, it happens. His stereo cuts out again - on command of the onboard system. The cockpit lights go red. Red. A repetitive buzzer begins to sound. The LED readout on his windshield, which echoes the one on the pizza box, flashes up: 20:00.

They have just given the Deliverator a twenty-minute-old pizza. He checks the address; it is twelve miles away.

2

The Deliverator lets out an involuntary roar and puts the hammer down. His emotions tell him to go back and kill that manager, get his swords out of the trunk, dive in through the little sliding window like a ninja, track him down through the roiling chaos of the microwaved franchise and confront him in a climactic thick-crust apocalypse. But he thinks the same thing when someone cuts him off on the freeway, and he's never done it - yet.

He can handle this. This is doable. He cranks up the orange warning lights to maximum brilliance, puts his headlights on autoflash. He overrides the warning buzzer, jams the stereo over to Taxiscan, which cruises all the taxi-driver frequencies listening for interesting traffic. Can't understand a fucking word. You could buy tapes, learn-while-you-drive, and learn to speak Taxilinga. It was essential, to get a job in that business. They said it was based on English but not one word in a hundred was recognizable. Still, you could get an idea. If there was trouble on this road, they'd be babbling about it in Taxilinga, give him some warning, let him take an alternate route so he wouldn't get

he grips the wheel

stuck in traffic

his eyes get big, he can feel the pressure driving

them back

into his skull

or caught behind a mobile home

his bladder is very full

and deliver the pizza

Oh, God oh, God

late

22:06 hangs on the windshield; all he can see, all he can think about is 30:01.

The taxi drivers are buzzing about something. Taxilinga is mellifluous babble with a few harsh foreign sounds, like butter spiced with broken glass. He keeps hearing "fare." They are always jabbering about their fucking fares. Big deal. What happens if you deliver your fare

late

you don't get as much of a tip? Big deal.

Big slowdown at the intersection of CSV-5 and Oahu Road, per usual, only way to avoid it is to cut through The Mews at Windsor Heights.

TMAWHs all have the same layout. When creating a new Burbclave, TMAWH Development Corporation will chop down any mountain ranges and divert the course of any mighty rivers that threaten to interrupt this street plan - ergonomically designed to encourage driving safety. A Deliverator can go into a Mews at Windsor Heights anywhere from Fairbanks to Yaroslavl to the Shenzhen special economic zone and find his way around.

But once you've delivered a pie to every single house in a TMAWH a few times, you get to know its little secrets. The Deliverator is such a man. He knows that in a standard TMAWH there is only one yard - one yard that prevents you from driving straight in one entrance, across the Burbclave, and out the other. If you are squeamish about driving on grass, it might take you ten minutes to meander through TMAWH. But if you have the balls to lay tracks across that one yard, you have a straight shot through the center.

The Deliverator knows that yard. He has delivered pizzas there. He has looked at it, scoped it out, memorized the location of the shed and the picnic table, can find them even in the dark - knows that if it ever came to this, a twenty-three-minute pizza, miles to go, and a slowdown at CSV-5 and Oahu - he could enter The Mews at Windsor Heights (his electronic delivery-man's visa would raise the gate automatically), scream down Heritage Boulevard, rip the turn onto Strawbridge Place (ignoring the DEAD END sign and the speed limit and the CHILDREN PLAYING ideograms that are strung so liberally throughout TMAWH), thrash the speed bumps with his mighty radials, blast up the driveway of Number 15 Strawbridge Circle, cut a hard left around the backyard shed, careen into the backyard of Number 84 Mayapple Place, avoid its picnic table (tricky), get into their driveway and out onto Mayapple, which takes him to Bellewoode Valley Road, which runs straight to the exit of the Burbclave. TMAWH security police might be waiting for him at the exit, but their STDs, Severe Tire Damage devices, only point one way - they can keep people out, but not keep them in.

This car can go so fucking fast that if a cop took a bite of a doughnut as the Deliverator was entering Heritage Boulevard, he probably wouldn't be able to swallow it until about the time the Deliverator was shrieking out onto Oahu.

Thunk. And more red lights come up on the windshield: the perimeter security of the Deliverator's vehicle has been breached.

No. It can't be.

Someone is shadowing him. Right off his left flank. A person on a skateboard, rolling down the highway right behind him, just as he is laying in his approach vectors to Heritage Boulevard.

The Deliverator, in his distracted state, has allowed himself to get pooned. As in harpooned. It is a big round padded electromagnet on the end of an arachnofiber cable. It has just thunked onto the back of the Deliverator's car, and stuck. Ten feet behind him, the owner of this cursed device is surfing, taking him for a ride, skateboarding along like a water skier behind a boat.

In the rearview, flashes of orange and blue. The parasite is not just a punk out having a good time. It is a businessman making money. The orange and blue coverall, bulging all over with sintered armorgel padding, is the uniform of a Kourier. A Kourier from RadiKS, Radikal Kourier Systems. Like a bicycle messenger, but a hundred times more irritating because they don't pedal under their own power - they just latch on and slow you down.

Naturally. The Deliverator was in a hurry, flashing his lights, squealing his contact patches. The fastest thing on the road. Naturally, the Kourier would choose him to latch onto.

No need to get rattled. With the shortcut through TMAWH, he will have plenty of time. He passes a slower car in the middle lane, then cuts right in front of him. The Kourier will have to unpoon or else be slammed sideways into the slower vehicle.

Done. The Kourier isn't ten feet behind him anymore - he is right there, peering in the rear window. Anticipating the maneuver, the Kourier reeled in his cord, which is attached to a handle with a power reel in it, and is now right on top of the pizza mobile, the front wheel of his skateboard actually underneath the Deliverator's rear bumper.

An orange-and-blue-gloved hand reaches forward, a transparent sheet of plastic draped over it, and slaps his driver's side window. The Deliverator has just been stickered. The sticker is a foot across and reads, in big orange block letters, printed backward so that he can read it from the inside.

THAT WAS STALE

He almost misses the turnoff for The Mews at Windsor Heights. He has to jam the brakes, let traffic clear, cut across the curb lane to enter the Burbclave. The border post is well lighted, the customs agents ready to frisk all comers - cavity-search them if they are the wrong kind of people - but the gate flies open as if by magic as the security system senses that this is a CosaNostra Pizza vehicle, just making a delivery, sir. And as he goes through, the Kourier - that tick on his ass - waves to the border police! What a prick! Like he comes in here all the time!

He probably does come in here all the time. Picking up important shit for important TMAWH people, delivering it to other FOQNEs, Franchise-Organized Quasi-National Entities, getting it through customs. That's what Kouriers do. Still.

He's going too slow, lost all his momentum, his timing is off. Where's the Kourier? Ah, reeled out some line, is following behind again. The Deliverator knows that this jerk is in for a big surprise. Can he stay on his fucking skateboard while he's being hauled over the flattened remains of some kid's plastic tricycle at a hundred kilometers? We're going to find out.

The Kourier leans back - the Deliverator can't help watching in the rearview - leans back like a water skier, pushes off against his board, and swings around beside him, now traveling abreast with him up Heritage Boulevard and slap another sticker goes up, this one on the windshield! It says

SMOOTH MOVE, EX-LAX

The Deliverator has heard of these stickers. It takes hours to get them off. Have to take the car into a detailing place, pay trillions of dollars. The Deliverator has two things on his agenda now: He is going to shake this street scum, whatever it takes, and deliver the fucking pizza all in the space of

24:23

the next five minutes and thirty-seven seconds.

This is it - got to pay more attention to the road - he swings into the side street, no warning, hoping maybe to whipsaw the Kourier into the street sign on the corner. Doesn't work. The smart ones watch your front tires, they see when you're turning, can't surprise them. Down Strawbridge Place! It seems so long, longer than he remembered - natural when you're in a hurry. Sees the glint of cars up ahead, cars parked sideways to the road-these must be parked in the circle. And there's the house. Light blue vinyl clapboard two-story with one-story garage to the side. He makes that driveway the center of his universe, puts the Kourier out of his mind, tries not to think about Uncle Enzo, what he's doing right now - in the bath, maybe, or taking a crap, or making love to some actress, or teaching Sicilian songs to one of his twenty-six granddaughters.

The slope of the driveway slams his front suspension halfway up into the engine compartment, but that's what suspensions are for. He evades the car in the driveway -must have visitors tonight, didn't remember that these people drove a Lexus - cuts through the hedge, into the side yard, looks for that shed, that shed he absolutely must not run into

it's not there, they took it down

next problem, the picnic table in the next yard

hang on, there's a fence, when did they put up a fence?

This is no time to put on the brakes. Got to build up some speed, knock it down without blowing all this momentum. It's just a four-foot wooden thing.

The fence goes down easy, he loses maybe ten percent of his speed. But strangely, it looked like an old fence, maybe he made a wrong turn somewhere - he realizes, as he catapults into an empty backyard swimming pool.

If it had been full of water, that wouldn't have been so bad, maybe the car would have been saved, he wouldn't owe CosaNostra Pizza a new car. But no, he does a Stuka into the far wall of the pool, it sounds more like an explosion than a crash. The airbag inflates, comes back down a second later like a curtain revealing the structure of his new life: he is stuck in a dead car in an empty pool in a TMAWH, the sirens of the Burbclave's security police are approaching, and there's a pizza behind his head, resting there like the blade of a guillotine, with 25:17 on it.

"Where's it going?" someone says. A woman.

He looks up through the distorted frame of the window, now rimmed with a fractal pattern of crystallized safety glass. It is the Kourier talking to him. The Kourier is not a man, it is a young woman. A fucking teenaged girl. She is pristine, unhurt. She has skated right down into the pool, she's now oscillating back and forth from one side of the pool to the other, skating up one bank, almost to the lip, turning around, skating down and across and up the opposite side. She is holding her poon in her right hand, the electromagnet reeled up against the handle so it looks like some kind of a strange wide-angle intergalactic death ray. Her chest glitters like a general's with a hundred little ribbons and medals, except each rectangle is not a ribbon, it is a bar code. A bar code with an ID number that gets her into a different business, highway, or FOQNE.

"Yo!" she says. "Where's the pizza going?"

He's going to die and she's gamboling.

"White Columns. 5 Oglethorpe Circle," he says.

"I can do that. Open the hatch."

His heart expands to twice its normal size. Tears come to his eyes. He may live. He presses a button and the hatch opens.

On her next orbit across the bottom of the pool, the Kourier yanks the pizza out of its slot. The Deliverator winces, imagining the garlicky topping accordioning into the back wall of the box. Then she puts it sideways under her arm. It's more than a Deliverator can stand to watch.

But she'll get it there. Uncle Enzo doesn't have to apologize for ugly, ruined, cold pizzas, just late ones.

"Hey," he says, "take this."

The Deliverator sticks his black-clad arm out the shattered window. A white rectangle glows in the dim backyard light: a business card. The Kourier snatches it from him on her next orbit, reads it. It says

HIRO PROTAGONIST

Last of the freelance hackers

Greatest sword fighter in the world

Stringer, Central Intelligence Corporation

Specializing in software-related intel

(music, movies amp; microcode)

On the back is gibberish explaining how he may be reached: a telephone number. A universal voice phone locator code. A P.O. box. His address on half a dozen electronic communications nets. And an address in the Metaverse.

"Stupid name," she says, shoving the card into one of a hundred little pockets on her coverall.

"But you'll never forget it," Hiro says.

"If you're a hacker… "

"How come I'm delivering pizzas?"

"Right."

"Because I'm a freelance hacker. Look, whatever your name is - I owe you one."

"Name's Y.T.," she says, shoving at the pool a few times with one foot, building up more energy. She flies out of the pool as if catapulted, and she's gone. The smartwheels of her skateboard, many, many spokes extending and retracting to fit the shape of the ground, take her across the lawn like a pat of butter skidding across hot Teflon.

Hiro, who as of thirty seconds ago is no longer the Deliverator, gets out of the car and pulls his swords out of the trunk, straps them around his body, prepares for a breathtaking nighttime escape run across TMAWH territory. The border with Oakwood Estates is only minutes away, he has the layout memorized (sort of), and he knows how these Burbclave cops operate, because he used to be one. So he has a good chance of making it. But it's going to be interesting.

Above him, in the house that owns the pool, a light has come on, and children are looking down at him through their bedroom windows, all warm and fuzzy in their Li'l Crips and Ninja Raft Warrior pajamas, which can either be flameproof or noncarcinogenic but not both at the same time. Dad is emerging from the back door, pulling on a jacket. It is a nice family, a safe family in a house full of light, like the family he was a part of until thirty seconds ago.

3

Hiro Protagonist and Vitaly Chernobyl, roommates, are chilling out in their home, a spacious 20-by-30 in a U-Stor-It in Inglewood, California. The room has a concrete slab floor, corrugated steel walls separating it from the neighboring units, and - this is a mark of distinction and luxury - a roll-up steel door that faces northwest, giving them a few red rays at times like this, when the sun is setting over LAX. From time to time, a 777 or a Sukhoi/Kawasaki Hypersonic Transport will taxi in front of the sun and block the sunset with its rudder, or just mangle the red light with its jet exhaust, braiding the parallel rays into a dappled pattern on the wall.

But there are worse places to live. There are much worse places right here in this U-Stor-It. Only the big units like this one have their own doors. Most of them are accessed via a communal loading dock that leads to a maze of wide corrugated-steel hallways and freight elevators. These are slum housing, 5-by-10s and 10-by-10s where Yanoama tribespersons cook beans and parboil fistfuls of coca leaves over heaps of burning lottery tickets.

It is whispered that in the old days, when the U-Stor-It was actually used for its intended purpose (namely, providing cheap extra storage space to Californians with too many material goods), certain entrepreneurs came to the front office, rented out 10-by-10s using fake IDs, filled them up with steel drums full of toxic chemical waste, and then abandoned them, leaving the problem for the U-Stor-It Corporation to handle. According to these rumors, U-Stor-It just padlocked those units and wrote them off. Now, the immigrants claim, certain units remain haunted by this chemical specter. It is a story they tell their children, to keep them from trying to break into padlocked units.

No one has ever tried to break into Hiro and Vitaly's unit because there's nothing in there to steal, and at this point in their lives, neither one of them is important enough to kill, kidnap, or interrogate. Hiro owns a couple of nice Nipponese swords, but he always wears them, and the whole idea of stealing fantastically dangerous weapons presents the would-be perp with inherent dangers and contradictions: When you are wrestling for possession of a sword, the man with the handle always wins. Hiro also has a pretty nice computer that he usually takes with him when he goes anywhere. Vitaly owns half a carton of Lucky Strikes, an electric guitar, and a hangover.

At the moment, Vitaly Chernobyl is stretched out on a futon, quiescent, and Hiro Protagonist is sitting crosslegged at a low table, Nipponese style, consisting of a cargo pallet set on cinderblocks.

As the sun sets, its red light is supplanted by the light of many neon logos emanating from the franchise ghetto that constitutes this U-Stor-It's natural habitat. This light, known as loglo, fills in the shadowy comers of the unit with seedy, oversaturated colors.

Hiro has cappuccino skin and spiky, truncated dreadlocks. His hair does not cover as much of his head as it used to, but he is a young man, by no means bald or balding, and the slight retreat of his hairline only makes more of his high cheekbones. He is wearing shiny goggles that wrap halfway around his head; the bows of the goggles have little earphones that are plugged into his outer ears.

The earphones have some built-in noise cancellation features. This sort of thing works best on steady noise. When jumbo jets make their takeoff runs on the runway across the street, the sound is reduced to a low doodling hum. But when Vitaly Chernobyl thrashes out an experimental guitar solo, it still hurts Hiro's ears.

The goggles throw a light, smoky haze across his eyes and reflect a distorted wide-angle view of a brilliantly lit boulevard that stretches off into an infinite blackness. This boulevard does not really exist; it is a computer-rendered view of an imaginary place.

Beneath this image, it is possible to see Hiro's eyes, which look Asian. They are from his mother, who is Korean by way of Nippon. The rest of him looks more like his father, who was African by way of Texas by way of the Army - back in the days before it got split up into a number of competing organizations such as General Jim's Defense System and Admiral Bob's National Security.

Four things are on the cargo pallet: a bottle of expensive beer from the Puget Sound area, which Hiro cannot really afford; a long sword known in Nippon as a katana and a short sword known as a wakizashi - Hiro's father looted these from Japan after World War II went atomic - and a computer.

The computer is a featureless black wedge. It does not have a power cord, but there is a narrow translucent plastic tube emerging from a hatch on the rear, spiraling across the cargo pallet and the floor, and plugged into a crudely installed fiber-optics socket above the head of the sleeping Vitaly Chernobyl. In the center of the plastic tube is a hair-thin fiber-optic cable. The cable is carrying a lot of information back and forth between Hiro's computer and the rest of the world. In order to transmit the same amount of information on paper, they would have to arrange for a 747 cargo freighter packed with telephone books and encyclopedias to power-dive into their unit every couple of minutes, forever.

Hiro can't really afford the computer either, but he has to have one. It is a tool of his trade. In the worldwide community of hackers, Hiro is a talented drifter. This is the kind of lifestyle that sounded romantic to him as recently as five years ago. But in the bleak light of full adulthood, which is to one's early twenties as Sunday morning is to Saturday night, he can clearly see what it really amounts to: He's broke and unemployed. And a few short weeks ago, his tenure as a pizza deliverer - the only pointless dead-end job he really enjoys - came to an end. Since then, he's been putting a lot more emphasis on his auxiliary emergency backup job: freelance stringer for the CIC, the Central Intelligence Corporation of Langley, Virginia.

The business is a simple one. Hiro gets information. It may be gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document. It can even be a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster.

He uploads it to the CIC database - the Library, formerly the Library of Congress, but no one calls it that anymore. Most people are not entirely clear on what the word "congress" means. And even the word "library" is getting hazy. It used to be a place full of books, mostly old ones. Then they began to include videotapes, records, and magazines. Then all of the information got converted into machine-readable form, which is to say, ones and zeroes. And as the number of media grew, the material became more up to date, and the methods for searching the Library became more and more sophisticated, it approached the point where there was no substantive difference between the Library of Congress and the Central Intelligence Agency. Fortuitously, this happened just as the government was falling apart anyway. So they merged and kicked out a big fat stock offering.

Millions of other CIC stringers are uploading millions of other fragments at the same time. CIC's clients, mostly large corporations and Sovereigns, rifle through the Library looking for useful information, and if they find a use for something that Hiro put into it, Hiro gets paid. A year ago, he uploaded an entire first-draft film script that he stole from an agent's wastebasket in Burbank. Half a dozen studios wanted to see it. He ate and vacationed off of that one for six months.

Since then, times have been leaner. He has been learning the hard way that 99 percent of the information in the Library never gets used at all.

Case in point: After a certain Kourier tipped him off to the existence of Vitaly Chernobyl, he put a few intensive weeks into researching a new musical phenomenon - the rise of Ukrainian nuclear fuzz-grunge collectives in L.A. He has planted exhaustive notes on this trend in the Library, including video and audio. Not one single record label, agent, or rock critic has bothered to access it.

The top surface of the computer is smooth except for a fisheye lens, a polished glass dome with a purplish optical coating. Whenever Hiro is using the machine, this lens emerges and clicks into place, its base flush with the surface of the computer. The neighborhood loglo is curved and foreshortened on its surface.

Hiro finds it erotic. This is partly because he hasn't been properly laid in several weeks. But there's more to it. Hiro's father, who was stationed in Japan for many years, was obsessed with cameras. He kept bringing them back from his stints in the Far East, encased in many protective layers, so that when he took them out to show Hiro, it was like watching an exquisite striptease as they emerged from all that black leather and nylon, zippers and straps. And once the lens was finally exposed, pure geometric equation made real, so powerful and vulnerable at once, Hiro could only think it was like nuzzling through skirts and lingerie and outer labia and inner labia… It made him feel naked and weak and brave.

The lens can see half of the universe - the half that is above the computer, which includes most of Hiro. In this way, it can generally keep track of where Hiro is and what direction he's looking in.

Down inside the computer are three lasers - a red one, a green one, and a blue one. They are powerful enough to make a bright light but not powerful enough to burn through the back of your eyeball and broil your brain, fry your frontals, lase your lobes. As everyone learned in elementary school, these three colors of light can be combined, with different intensities, to produce any color that Hiro's eye is capable of seeing.

In this way, a narrow beam of any color can be shot out of the innards of the computer, up through that fisheye lens, in any direction. Through the use of electronic mirrors inside the computer, this beam is made to sweep back and forth across the lenses of Hiro's goggles, in much the same way as the electron beam in a television paints the inner surface of the eponymous Tube. The resulting image hangs in space in front of Hiro's view of Reality.

By drawing a slightly different image in front of each eye, the image can be made three-dimensional. By changing the image seventy-two times a second, it can be made to move. By drawing the moving three-dimensional image at a resolution of 2K pixels on a side, it can be as sharp as the eye can perceive, and by pumping stereo digital sound through the little earphones, the moving 3-D pictures can have a perfectly realistic soundtrack.

So Hiro's not actually here at all. He's in a computer generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse. It beats the shit out of the U-Stor-It.

Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Elysees of the Metaverse. It is the brilliantly lit boulevard that can be seen, miniaturized and backward, reflected in the lenses of his goggles. It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it.

The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered out by the computer-graphics ninja overlords of the Association for Computing Machinery's Global Multimedia Protocol Group. The Street seems to be a grand boulevard going all the way around the equator of a black sphere with a radius of a bit more than ten thousand kilometers. That makes it 65,536 kilometers around, which is considerably bigger than Earth.

The number 65,536 is an awkward figure to everyone except a hacker, who recognizes it more readily than his own mother's date of birth: It happens to be a power of 2 - 2^16 power to be exact - and even the exponent 16 is equal to 2^4, and 4 is equal to 2^2. Along with 256; 32,768; and 2,147,483,648; 65,536 is one of the foundation stones of the hacker universe, in which 2 is the only really important number because that's how many digits a computer can recognize. One of those digits is 0, and the other is 1. Any number that can be created by fetishistically multiplying 2s by each other, and subtracting the occasional 1, will be instantly recognizable to a hacker.

Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.

The only difference is that since the Street does not really exist - it's just a computer-graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere - none of these things is being physically built. They are, rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the worldwide fiber-optics network. When Hiro goes into the Metaverse and looks down the Street and sees buildings and electric signs stretching off into the darkness, disappearing over the curve of the globe, he is actually staring at the graphic representations - the user interfaces - of a myriad different pieces of software that have been engineered by major corporations. In order to place these things on the Street, they have had to get approval from the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, have had to buy frontage on the Street, get zoning approval, obtain permits, bribe inspectors, the whole bit. The money these corporations pay to build things on the Street all goes into a trust fund owned and operated by the GMPG, which pays for developing and expanding the machinery that enables the Street to exist.

Hiro has a house in a neighborhood just off the busiest part of the Street. It is a very old neighborhood by Street standards. About ten years ago, when the Street protocol was first written, Hiro and some of his buddies pooled their money and bought one of the first development licenses, created a little neighborhood of hackers. At the time, it was just a little patchwork of light amid a vast blackness. Back then, the Street was just a necklace of streetlights around a black ball in space.

Since then, the neighborhood hasn't changed much, but the Street has. By getting in on it early, Hiro's buddies got a head start on the whole business. Some of them even got very rich off of it.

That's why Hiro has a nice big house in the Metaverse but has to share a 20-by-30 in Reality. Real estate acumen does not always extend across universes.

The sky and the ground are black, like a computer screen that hasn't had anything drawn into it yet; it is always nighttime in the Metaverse, and the Street is always garish and brilliant, like Las Vegas freed from constraints of physics and finance. But people in Hiro's neighborhood are very good programmers, so it's tasteful. The houses look like real houses. There are a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright reproductions and some fancy Victoriana.

So it's always a shock to step out onto the Street, where everything seems to be a mile high. This is Downtown, the most heavily developed area. If you go a couple of hundred kilometers in either direction, the development will taper down to almost nothing, just a thin chain of streetlights casting white pools on the black velvet ground. But Downtown is a dozen Manhattans, embroidered with neon and stacked on top of each other.

In the real world - planet Earth, Reality - there are somewhere between six and ten billion people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or fieldstripping their AK-47s. Perhaps a billion of them have enough money to own a computer; these people have more money than all of the others put together. Of these billion potential computer owners, maybe a quarter of them actually bother to own computers, and a quarter of these have machines that are powerful enough to handle the Street protocol. That makes for about sixty million people who can be on the Street at any given time. Add in another sixty million or so who can't really afford it but go there anyway, by using public machines, or machines owned by their school or their employer, and at any given time the Street is occupied by twice the population of New York City.

That's why the damn place is so overdeveloped. Put in a sign or a building on the Street and the hundred million richest, hippest, best-connected people on earth will see it every day of their lives.

It is a hundred meters wide, with a narrow monorail track running down the middle. The monorail is a free piece of public utility software that enables users to change their location on the Street rapidly and smoothly. A lot of people just ride back and forth on it, looking at the sights. When Hiro first saw this place, ten years ago, the monorail hadn't been written yet; he and his buddies had to write car and motorcycle software in order to get around. They would take their software out and race it in the black desert of the electronic night.

4

Y.T. has been privileged to watch many a young Clint plant his sweet face in an empty Burbclave pool during an unauthorized night run, but always on a skateboard, never ever in a car. The landscape of the suburban night has much weird beauty if you just look.

Back on the paddle again. It rolls across the yard on a set of RadiKS Mark IV Smartwheels. She upgraded to said magical sprockets after the following ad appeared in Thrasher magazine.

CHISELED SPAM is what you will see in the mirror

if you surf on a weak plank with dumb, fixed wheels

and interface with a muffler, retread, snow turd, road

kill, driveshaft, railroad tie, or unconscious pedestrian.

If you think this is unlikely, you've been surfing too

many ghost malls. All of these obstacles and more

were recently observed on a one-mile stretch of the

New Jersey Turnpike. Any surfer who tried to groove

that 'vard on a stock plank would have been sneezing

brains.

Don't listen to so-called purists who claim any obstacle

can be jumped. Professional Kouriers know: If you

have pooned a vehicle moving fast enough for fun and

profit, your reaction time is cut to tenths of a second -

even less if you are way spooled.

Buy a set of RadiKS Mark II Smartwheels - it's cheaper

than a total face retread and a lot more fun. Smartwheels

use sonar, laser rangefinding, and millimeter-wave radar

to identify mufflers and other debris before you even

get honed about them.

Don't get Midasized - upgrade today!

These were words of wisdom. Y.T. bought the wheels. Each one consists of a hub with many stout spokes. Each spoke telescopes in five sections. On the end is a squat foot, rubber tread on the bottom, swiveling on a ball joint. As the wheels roll, the feet plant themselves one at a time, almost glomming into one continuous tire. If you surf over a bump, the spokes retract to pass over it. If you surf over a chuckhole, the robo-prongs plumb its asphalty depths. Either way, the shock is thereby absorbed, no thuds, smacks, vibrations, or clunks will make their way into the plank or the Converse hightops with which you tread it. The ad was right -you cannot be a professional road surfer without smartwheels.

Prompt delivery of the pizza will be a trivial matter. She glides from the dewy turf over the lip of the driveway without a bump, picks up speed on the 'crete, surfs down its slope into the street. A twitch of the butt reorients the plank, now she is cruising down Homedale Mews looking for a victim. A black car, alive with nasty lights, whines past her the other way, closing in on the hapless Hiro Protagonist. Her RadiKS Knight Vision goggles darken strategically to cut the noxious glaring of same, her pupils feel safe to remain wide open, scanning the road for signs of movement. The swimming pool was at the crest of this Burbclave, it's downhill from here, but not downhill enough.

Half a block away, on a side street, a bimbo box, a minivan, grinds its four pathetic cylinders into action. She sees it catercorner from her present coordinates. The white backup lights flash instantly as the driver shifts into D by way of R and N. Y.T. aims herself at the curb, hits it at a fast running velocity, the spokes of the smartwheels see it coming and retract in the right way so that she glides from street to lawn without a hitch. Across the lawn, the feet leave a trail of hexagonal padmarks. A stray dog turd, red with meaty undigestible food coloring, is embossed with the RadiKS logo, a mirror image of which is printed on the tread of each spoke.

The bimbo box is pulling away from the curb, across the street. Squirrelly scrubbing noises squirm from its sidewalls as they grind against the curb; we are in the Burbs, where it is better to take a thousand clicks off the lifespan of your Goodyears by invariably grinding them up against curbs than to risk social ostracism and outbreaks of mass hysteria by parking several inches away, out in the middle of the street (That's okay, Mom, I can walk to the curb from here), a menace to traffic, a deadly obstacle to uncertain young bicyclists. Y.T. has pressed the release button on her poon's reel/handle unit, allowing a meter of cord to unwind. She whips it up and around her head like a bolo on the austral range. She is about to lambada this trite conveyance. The head of the poon, salad-bowl size, whistles as it orbits around; this is unnecessary but sounds cool.

Pooning a bimbo box takes more skill than a ped would ever imagine, because of their very road-unworthiness, their congenital lack of steel or other ferrous matter for the MagnaPoon to bite down on. Now they have superconducting poons that stick to aluminum bodywork by inducing eddy currents in the actual flesh of the car, turning it into an unwilling electromagnet, but Y.T. does not have one of these. They are the trademark of the hardcore Burbclave surfer, which, despite this evening's entertainment, she is not. Her poon will only stick to steel, iron, or (slightly) to nickel. The only steel in a bimbo box of this make is in the frame.

She makes a low-slung approach. Her poon's orbital plane is nearly vertical, it almost grinds on the twinkly suburban macadam on the forward limb of each orbit. When she pounds the release button, it takes off from an altitude of about one centimeter, angling slightly upward, across the street, under the floor of the bimbo box, and sucks steel. It's a solid hit, as solid as you can get on this nebula of air, upholstery, paint, and marketing known as the family minivan.

The reaction is instantaneous, quick-witted by Burb standards. This person wants Y.T. gone. The van takes off like a hormone-pumped bull who has just been nailed in the ass by the barbed probe of a picador. It's not Mom at the wheel. It's young Studley, the teenaged boy, who like every other boy in this Burbclave has been taking intravenous shots of horse testosterone every afternoon in the high school locker room since he was fourteen years old. Now he's bulky, stupid, thoroughly predictable.

He steers erratically, artificially pumped muscles not fully under his control. The molded, leather-grained, maroon-colored steering wheel smells like his mother's hand lotion; this drives him into a rage. The bimbo box surges and slows, surges and slows, because he is pumping the gas pedal, because holding it to the floor doesn't seem to have any effect. He wants this car to be like his muscles: more power than he knows what to do with. Instead, it hampers him. As a compromise, he hits the button that says POWER. Another button that says ECONOMY pops out and goes dead, reminding him, like an educational demonstration, that the two are mutually exclusive. The van's tiny engine downshifts, which makes it feel more powerful. He holds his foot steady on the gas and, making the run down Cottage Heights Road, the minivan's speed approaches one hundred kilometers.

Approaching the terminus of Cottage Heights Road, where it tees into Bellewoode Valley Road, he espies a fire hydrant. TMAWH fire hydrants are numerous, for safety, and highly designed, for property values, not the squat iron things imprinted with the name of some godforsaken Industrial Revolution foundry and furry from a hundred variously flaked layers of cheap city paint. They are brass, robot-polished every Thursday morning, dignified pipes rising straight up from the perfect, chemically induced turf of the Burbclave lawns, flaring out to present potential firefighters with a menu of three possible hose connections. They were designed on a computer screen by the same aesthetes who designed the DynaVictorian houses and the tasteful mailboxes and the immense marble street signs that sit at each intersection like headstones. Designed on a computer screen, but with an eye toward the elegance of things past and forgotten about. Fire hydrants that tasteful people are proud to have on their front lawns. Fire hydrants that the real estate people don't feel the need to airbrush out of pictures.

This fucking Kourier is about to die, knotted around one of those fire hydrants. Studley the Testosterone Boy will see to it. It is a maneuver he has witnessed on television - which tells no lies - a trick he has practiced many times in his head. Building up maximum speed on Cottage Heights, he will yank the hand brake while swinging the wheel. The ass end of the minivan will snap around. The pesky Kourier will be cracked like a whip at the end of her unbreakable cable. Into the fire hydrant she will go. Studley the Teenager will be victorious, free to cruise in triumph down Bellewoode Valley and out into the greater world of adult men in cool cars, free to go return his overdue videotape, Raft Warriors IV: The Final Battle.

Y.T. does not know any of this for a fact, but she suspects it. None of this is real. It is her reconstruction of the psychological environment inside of that bimbo box. She sees the hydrant coming a mile away, sees Studley reaching down to rest one hand on the parking brake. It is all so obvious. She feels sorry for Studley and his ilk. She reels out, gives herself lots of slack. He whips the wheel, jerks the brake. The minivan goes sideways, overshooting its mark, and doesn't quite snap her around the way he wanted; she has to help it. As its ass is rotating around, she reels in hard, converting that gift of angular momentum into forward velocity, and ends up shooting right past the van going well over a mile a minute. She is headed for a marble gravestone that says BELLEWOODE VALLEY ROAD. She leans away from it, leans into a vicious turn, her spokes grip the pavement and push her away from that gravestone, she can touch the pavement with one hand she is heeled over so hard, the spokes push her onto the desired street. Meanwhile, she has clicked off the electromagnetic force that held her pooned to the van. The poon head comes loose, caroms off the pavement behind her as it is automatically reeled in to reunite with the handle. She is headed straight for the exit of the Burbclave at fantastic speed.

Behind her, an explosive crash sounds, resonating in her gut, as the minivan slides sideways into the gravestone.

She ducks under the security gate and plunges into traffic on Oahu. She cuts between two veering, blaring, and screeching BMWs. BMW drivers take evasive action at the drop of a hat, emulating the drivers in the BMW advertisements - this is how they convince themselves they didn't get ripped off. She drops into a fetal position to pass underneath a semi, headed for the Jersey barrier in the median strip like she's going to die, but Jersey barriers are easy for the smartwheels. That lower limb of the barrier has such a nice bank to it, like they designed it for road surfers. She rides halfway up the barrier, angles gently back down to the lane for a smooth landing, and she's in traffic. There's a car right there and she doesn't even have to throw the poon, just reaches out and plants it right on the lid of the trunk.

This driver's resigned to his fate, doesn't care, doesn't hassle her. He takes her as far as the entrance to the next Burbclave, which is a White Columns. Very southern, traditional, one of the Apartheid Burbclaves. Big ornate sign above the main gate: WHITE PEOPLE ONLY. NON-CAUCASIANS MUST BE PROCESSED.

She's got a White Columns visa. Y.T. has a visa to everywhere. It's right there on her chest, a little bar code. A laser scans it as she careens toward the entrance and the immigration gate swings open for her. It's an ornate ironwork number, but harried White Columns residents don't have time to sit idling at the Burbclave entrance watching the gate slowly roll aside in Old South majestic turpitude, so it's mounted on some kind of electromagnetic railgun.

She is gliding down the antebellum tree-lined lanes of White Columns, one microplantation after another, still coasting on the residual kinetic energy boost that originated in the fuel in Studley the Teenager's gas tank. The world is full of power and energy and a person can go far by just skimming off a tiny bit of it.

The LEDs on the pizza box say: 29:32, and the guy who ordered it - Mr. Pudgely and his neighbors, the Pinkhearts and the Roundass clan - are all gathered on the front lawn of their microplantation, prematurely celebrating. Like they had just bought the winning lottery ticket. From their front door they have a clear view all the way down to Oahu Road, and they can see that nothing is on its way that looks like a CosaNostra delivery car. Oh, there is curiosity - sniffing interest - at this Kourier with the big square thing under her arm - maybe a portfolio, a new ad layout for some Caucasian supremacist marketing honcho in the next plat over, but -

The Pudgelys and the Pinkhearts and the Roundasses are all staring at her, slackjawed. She has just enough residual energy to swing into their driveway. Her momentum carries her to the top. She stops next to Mr. Pudgely's Acura and Mrs. Pudgely's bimbo box and steps off her plank. The spokes, noting her departure, even themselves out, plant themselves on the top of the driveway, refuse to roll backward.

A blinding light from the heavens shines down upon them. Her Knight Visions keep her from being blinded, but the customers bend their knees and hunch their shoulders as though the light were heavy. The men hold their hairy forearms up against their brows, swivel their great tubular bodies to and fro, trying to find the source of the illumination, muttering clipped notations to each other, brief theories about its source, fully in control of the unknown phenomenon. The women coo and flutter. Because of the magical influence of the Knight Visions, Y.T. can still see the LEDs: 29:54, and that's what it says when she drops the pizza on Mr. Pudgely's wing tips.

The mystery light goes off.

The others are still blinded, but Y.T. sees into the night with her Knight Visions, sees all the way into near infrared, and she sees the source of it, a double-bladed stealth helicopter thirty feet above the neighbor's house. It is tastefully black and unadorned, not a news crew though another helicopter, an old-fashioned audible one, brightly festooned with up-to-the-minute logos, is thumping and whacking its way across White Columns airspace at this very moment, goosing the plantations with its own spotlight, hoping to be the first to obtain this major scoop: a pizza was delivered late tonight, film at eleven. Later, our personality journalist speculates on where Uncle Enzo will stay when he makes his compulsory trip to our Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area. But the black chopper is running dark, would be nearly invisible if not for the infrared trail coming out of its twin turbojets.

It is a Mafia chopper, and all they wanted to do was to record the event on videotape so that Mr. Pudgely would not have a leg to hop around on in court, should he decide to take his case down to Judge Bob's Judicial System and argue for a free pizza.

One more thing. There's a lot of shit in the air tonight, a few megatons of topsoil blowing down from Fresno, and so when the laser beam comes on it is startlingly visible, a tiny geometric line, a million blazing red grains strung on a fiber-optic thread, snapping into life instantly between the chopper and Y.T.'s chest. It appears to widen into a narrow fan, an acute triangle of red light whose base encompasses all of Y.T.'s torso.

It takes half a second. They are scanning the many bar codes mounted on her chest. They are finding out who she is. The Mafia now knows everything about Y.T. - where she lives, what she does, her eye color, credit record, ancestry, and blood type.

That done, the chopper tilts and vanishes into the night like a hockey puck sliding into a bowl of India ink. Mr. Pudgely is saying something, making a joke about how close they came, the others eke out a laugh, but Y.T. cannot hear them because they are buried under the thunderwhack of the news chopper, then flash-frozen and crystalized under its spotlight. The night air is full of bugs, and now Y.T. can see all of them, swirling in mysterious formations, hitching rides on people and on currents of air. There is one on her wrist, but she doesn't slap at it.

The spotlight lingers for a minute. The broad square of the pizza box, bearing the CosaNostra logo, is mute testimony. They hover, shoot a little tape just in case.

Y.T. is bored. She gets on her plank. The wheels blossom and become circular. She guides a tight wobbly course around the cars, coasts down into the street. The spotlight follows her for a moment, maybe picking up some stock footage. Videotape is cheap. You never know when something will be useful, so you might as well videotape it.

People make their living that way - people in the intel business. People like Hiro Protagonist. They just know stuff, or they just go around and videotape stuff. They put it in the Library. When people want to know the particular things that they know or watch their video tapes, they pay them money and check it out of the Library, or just buy it outright. This is a weird racket, but Y.T. likes the idea of it. Usually, the CIC won't pay any attention to a Kourier. But apparently Hiro has a deal with them. Maybe she can make a deal with Hiro. Because Y.T. knows a lot of interesting little things.

One little thing she knows is that the Mafia owes her a favor,

5

As Hiro approaches the Street, he sees two young couples, probably using their parents' computers for a double date in the Metaverse, climbing down out of Port Zero, which is the local port of entry and monorail stop.

He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse. Hiro's avatar is now on the Street, too, and if the couples coming off the monorail look over in his direction, they can see him, just as he's seeing them. They could strike up a conversation: Hiro in the U-Stor-It in L.A. and the four teenagers probably on a couch in a suburb of Chicago, each with their own laptop. But they probably won't talk to each other, any more than they would in Reality. These are nice kids, and they don't want to talk to a solitary crossbreed with a slick custom avatar who's packing a couple of swords.

Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you're ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you've just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

Hiro's avatar just looks like Hiro, with the difference that no matter what Hiro is wearing in Reality, his avatar always wears a black leather kimono. Most hacker types don't go in for garish avatars, because they know that it takes a lot more sophistication to render a realistic human face than a talking penis. Kind of the way people who really know clothing can appreciate the fine details that separate a cheap gray wool suit from an expensive handtailored gray wool suit.

You can't just materialize anywhere in the Metaverse, like Captain Kirk beaming down from on high. This would be confusing and irritating to the people around you. It would break the metaphor. Materializing out of nowhere (or vanishing back into Reality) is considered to be a private function best done in the confines of your own House. Most avatars nowadays are anatomically correct, and naked as a babe when they are first created, so in any case, you have to make yourself decent before you emerge onto the Street. Unless you're something intrinsically indecent and you don't care.

If you are some peon who does not own a House, for example, a person who is coming in from a public terminal, then you materialize in a Port. There are 256 Express Ports on the street, evenly spaced around its circumference at intervals of 256 kilometers. Each of these intervals is further subdivided 256 times with Local Ports, spaced exactly one kilometer apart (astute students of hacker serniotics will note the obsessive repetition of the number 256, which is 2^8 power-and even that 8 looks pretty juicy, dripping with 2^2 additional 2s). The Ports serve a function analogous to airports: This is where you drop into the Metaverse from somewhere else. Once you have materialized in a Port, you can walk down the Street or hop on the monorail or whatever.

The couples coming off the monorail can't afford to have custom avatars made and don't know how to write their own. They have to buy off-the-shelf avatars. One of the girls has a pretty nice one. It would be considered quite the fashion statement among the K-Tel set. Looks like she has bought the Avatar Construction Set (tm) and put together her own, customized model out of miscellaneous parts. It might even look something like its owner. Her date doesn't look half bad himself.

The other girl is a Brandy. Her date is a Clint. Brandy and Clint are both popular, off-the-shelf models. When white-trash high school girls are going on a date in the Metaverse, they invariably run down to the computer games section of the local Wal-Mart and buy a copy of Brandy. The user can select three breast sizes: improbable, impossible, and ludicrous. Brandy has a limited repertoire of facial expressions: cute and pouty; cute and sultry; perky and interested; smiling and receptive; cute and spacy. Her eyelashes are half an inch long, and the software is so cheap that they are rendered as solid ebony chips. When a Brandy flutters her eyelashes, you can almost feel the breeze.

Clint is just the male counterpart of Brandy. He is craggy and handsome and has an extremely limited range of facial expressions.

Hiro wonders, idly, how these two couples got together. They are clearly from disparate social classes. Perhaps older and younger siblings. But then they come down the escalator and disappear into the crowd and become part of the Street, where there are enough Clints and Brandys to found a new ethnic group.

The Street is fairly busy. Most of the people here are Americans and Asians - it's early morning in Europe right now. Because of the preponderance of Americans, the crowd has a garish and surreal look about it. For the Asians, it's the middle of the day, and they are in their dark blue suits. For the Americans, it's party time, and they are looking like just about anything a computer can render.

The moment Hiro steps across the line separating his neighborhood from the Street, colored shapes begin to swoop down on him from all directions, like buzzards on fresh road kill. Animercials are not allowed in Hiro's neighborhood. But almost anything is allowed in the Street.

A passing fighter plane bursts into flames, falls out of its trajectory, and zooms directly toward him at twice the speed of sound. It plows into the Street fifty feet in front of him, disintegrates, and explodes, blooming into a tangled cloud of wreckage and flame that skids across the pavement toward him, growing to envelop him so that all he can see is turbulent flame, perfectly simulated and rendered.

Then the display freezes, and a man materializes in front of Hiro. He is a classic bearded, pale, skinny hacker, trying to beef himself up by wearing a bulky silk windbreaker blazoned with the logo of one of the big Metaverse amusement parks. Hiro knows the guy; they used to run into each other at trade conventions all the time. He's been trying to hire Hiro for the last two months.

"Hiro, I can't understand why you're holding out on me. We're making bucks here - Kongbucks and yen - and we can be flexible on pay and bennies. We're putting together a swords-and-sorcery thing, and we can use a hacker with your skills. Come on down and talk to me, okay?"

Hiro walks straight through the display, and it vanishes. Amusement parks in the Metaverse can be fantastic, offering a wide selection of interactive three-dimensional movies. But in the end, they're still nothing more than video games. Hiro's not so poor, yet, that he would go and write video games for this company. It's owned by the Nipponese, which is no big deal. But it's also managed by the Nipponese, which means that all the programmers have to wear white shirts and show up at eight in the morning and sit in cubicles and go to meetings.

When Hiro learned how to do this, way back fifteen years ago, a hacker could sit down and write an entire piece of software by himself. Now, that's no longer possible. Software comes out of factories, and hackers are, to a greater or lesser extent, assembly-line workers. Worse yet, they may become managers who never get to write any code themselves.

The prospect of becoming an assembly-line worker gives Hiro some incentive to go out and find some really good intel tonight. He tries to get himself psyched up, tries to break out of the lethargy of the long-term underemployed. This intel thing can be a great racket, once you get yourself jacked into the grid. And with his connections, it shouldn't be any problem. He just has to get serious about it. Get serious. Get serious. But it's so hard to get serious about anything.

He owes the Mafia the cost of a new car. That's a good reason to get serious.

He cuts straight across the Street and under the monorail line, headed for a large, low-slung black building. It is extraordinarily somber for the Street, like a parcel that someone forgot to develop. It's a squat black pyramid with the top cut off. It has one single door - since this is all imaginary, there are no regulations dictating the number of emergency exits. There are no guards, no signs, nothing to bar people from going in, yet thousands of avatars mill around, peering inside, looking for a glimpse of something. These people can't pass through the door because they haven't been invited.

Above the door is a matte black hemisphere about a meter in diameter, set into the front wall of the building. It is the closest thing the place has to decoration. Underneath it, in letters carved into the wall's black substance, is the name of the place: THE BLACK SUN.

So it's not an architectural masterpiece. When Da5id and Hiro and the other hackers wrote The Black Sun, they didn't have enough money to hire architects or designers, so they just went in for simple geometric shapes. The avatars milling around the entrance don't seem to care.

If these avatars were real people in a real street, Hiro wouldn't be able to reach the entrance. It's way too crowded. But the computer system that operates the Street has better things to do than to monitor every single one of the millions of people there, trying to prevent them from running into each other. It doesn't bother trying to solve this incredibly difficult problem. On the Street, avatars just walk right through each other.

So when Hiro cuts through the crowd, headed for the entrance, he really is cutting through the crowd. When things get this jammed together, the computer simplifies things by drawing all of the avatars ghostly and translucent so you can see where you're going. Hiro appears solid to himself, but everyone else looks like a ghost. He walks through the crowd as if it's a fogbank, clearly seeing The Black Sun in front of him.

He steps over the property line, and he's in the doorway. And in that instant he becomes solid and visible to all the avatars milling outside. As one, they all begin screaming. Not that they have any idea who the hell he is - Hiro is just a starving CIC stringer who lives in a U-Stor-It by the airport. But in the entire world there are only a couple of thousand people who can step over the line into The Black Sun.

He turns and looks back at ten thousand shrieking groupies. Now that he's all by himself in the entryway, no longer immersed in a flood of avatars, he can see all of the people in the front row of the crowd with perfect clarity. They are all done up in their wildest and fanciest avatars, hoping that Da5id - The Black Sun's owner and hacker-in-chief - will invite them inside. They flicker and merge together into a hysterical wall. Stunningly beautiful women, computer-airbrushed and retouched at seventy-two frames a second, like Playboy pinups turned three-dimensional - these are would-be actresses hoping to be discovered. Wild-looking abstracts, tornadoes of gyrating light - hackers who are hoping that Da5id will notice their talent, invite them inside, give them a job. A liberal sprinkling of black-and-white people-persons who are accessing the Metaverse through cheap public terminals, and who are rendered in jerky, grainy black and white. A lot of these are run-of-the-mill psycho fans, devoted to the fantasy of stabbing some particular actress to death; they can't even get close in Reality, so they goggle into the Metaverse to stalk their prey. There are would-be rock stars done up in laser light, as though they just stepped off the concert stage, and the avatars of Nipponese businessmen, exquisitely rendered by their fancy equipment, but utterly reserved and boring in their suits.

There's one black-and-white who stands out because he's taller than the rest. The Street protocol states that your avatar can't be any taller than you are. This is to prevent people from walking around a mile high. Besides, if this guy's using a pay terminal -which he must be, to judge from the image quality - it can't jazz up his avatar. It just shows him the way he is, except not as well. Talking to a black-and-white on the Street is like talking to a person who has his face stuck in a xerox machine, repeatedly pounding the copy button, while you stand by the output tray pulling the sheets out one at a time and looking at them.

He has long hair, parted in the middle like a curtain to reveal a tattoo on his forehead. Given the shitty resolution, there's no way to see the tattoo clearly, but it appears to consist of words. He has a wispy Fu Manchu mustache.

Hiro realizes that the guy has noticed him and is staring back, looking him up and down, paying particular attention to the swords.

A grin spreads across the black-and-white guy's face. It is a satisfied grin. A grin of recognition. The grin of a man who knows something Hiro doesn't. The black-and-white guy has been standing with his arms folded across his chest, like a man who is bored, who's been waiting for something, and now his arms drop to his sides, swing loosely at the shoulders, like an athlete limbering up. He steps as close as he can and leans forward; he's so tall that the only thing behind him is empty black sky, torn with the glowing vapor trails of passing animercials.

"Hey, Hiro," the black-and-white guy says, "you want to try some Snow Crash?"

A lot of people hang around in front of The Black Sun saying weird things. You ignore them. But this gets Hiro's attention.

Oddity the first: The guy knows Hiro's name. But people have ways of getting that information. It's probably nothing.

The second: This sounds like an offer from a drug pusher. Which would be normal in front of a Reality bar. But this is the Metaverse. And you can't sell drugs in the Metaverse, because you can't get high by looking at something.

The third: The name of the drug. Hiro's never heard of a drug called Snow Crash before. That's not unusual - a thousand new drugs get invented each year, and each of them sells under half a dozen brand names.

But "snow crash" is computer lingo. It means a system crash - a bug - at such a fundamental level that it frags the part of the computer that controls the electron beam in the monitor, making it spray wildly across the screen, turning the perfect gridwork of pixels into a gyrating blizzard. Hiro has seen it happen a million times. But it's a very peculiar name for a drug.

The thing that really gets Hiro's attention is his confidence. He has an utterly calm, stolid presence. It's like talking to an asteroid. Which would be okay if he were doing something that made the tiniest little bit of sense. Hiro's trying to read some clues in the guy's face, but the closer he looks, the more his shitty black-and-white avatar seems to break up into jittering, hard-edged pixels. It's like putting his nose against the glass of a busted TV. It makes his teeth hurt.

"Excuse me," Hiro says. "What did you say?"

"You want to try some Snow Crash?"

He has a crisp accent that Hiro can't quite place. His audio is as bad as his video. Hiro can hear cars going past the guy in the background. He must be goggled in from a public terminal alongside some freeway.

"I don't get this," Hiro says. "What is Snow Crash?"

"It's a drug, asshole," the guy says. "What do you think?"

"Wait a minute. This is a new one on me," Hiro says. "You honestly think I'm going to give you some money here? And then what do I do, wait for you to mail me the stuff?"

"I said try, not buy," the guy says. "You don't have to give me any money. Free sample. And you don't have to wait for no mail. You can have it now."

He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a hypercard.

It looks like a business card. The hypercard is an avatar of sorts. It is used in the Metaverse to represent a chunk of data. It might be text, audio, video, a still image, or any other information that can be represented digitally.

Think of a baseball card, which carries a picture, some text, and some numerical data. A baseball hypercard could contain a highlight film of the player in action, shown in perfect high-def television; a complete biography, read by the player himself, in stereo digital sound; and a complete statistical database along with specialized software to help you look up the numbers you want.

A hypercard can carry a virtually infinite amount of information. For all Hiro knows, this hypercard might contain all the books in the Library of Congress, or every episode of Hawaii Five-O that was ever filmed, or the complete recordings of Jimi Hendrix, or the 1950 Census.

Or - more likely - a wide variety of nasty computer viruses. If Hiro reaches out and takes the hypercard, then the data it represents will be transferred from this guy's system into Hiro's computer. Hiro, naturally, wouldn't touch it under any circumstances, any more than you would take a free syringe from a stranger in Times Square and jab it into your neck.

And it doesn't make sense anyway. "That's a hypercard. I thought you said Snow Crash was a drug," Hiro says, now totally nonplussed.

"It is," the guy says. "Try it."

"Does it fuck up your brain?" Hiro says. "Or your computer?"

"Both. Neither. What's the difference?"

Hiro finally realizes that he has just wasted sixty seconds of his life having a meaningless conversation with a paranoid schizophrenic. He turns around and goes into The Black Sun.

6

At the exit of White Columns sits a black car, curled up like a panther, a burnished steel lens reflecting the loglo of Oahu Road. It is a Unit. It is a Mobile Unit of MetaCops Unlimited. A silvery badge is embossed on its door, a chrome-plated cop badge the size of a dinner plate, bearing the name of said private peace organization and emblazoned

DIAL 1-800-THE COPS

All Major Credit Cards

MetaCops Unlimited is the official peacekeeping force of White Columns, and also of The Mews at Windsor Heights, The Heights at Bear Run, Cinnamon Grove, and The Farms of Cloverdelle. They also enforce traffic regulations on all highways and byways operated by Fairlanes, Inc. A few different FOQNEs also use them: Caymans Plus and The Alps, for example. But franchise nations prefer to have their own security force. You can bet that Metazania and New South Africa handle their own security; that's the only reason people become citizens, so they can get drafted. Obviously, Nova Sicilia has its own security, too. Narcolombia doesn't need security because people are scared just to drive past the franchise at less than a hundred miles an hour (Y.T. always snags a nifty power boost in neighborhoods thick with Narcolombia consulates), and Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, the grandaddy of all FOQNEs, handles it in a typically Hong Kong way, with robots.

MetaCops' main competitor, WorldBeat Security, handles all roads belonging to Cruiseways, plus has worldwide contracts with Dixie Traditionals, Pickett's Plantation, Rainbow Heights (check it out - two apartheid Burbclaves and one for black suits), Meadowvale on the [insert name of river] and Brickyard Station. WorldBeat is smaller than MetaCops, handles more upscale contracts, supposedly has a bigger espionage arm - though if that's what people want, they just talk to an account rep at the Central Intelligence Corporation.

And then there's The Enforcers - but they cost a lot and don't take well to supervision. It is rumored that, under their uniforms, they wear T-shirts bearing the unofficial Enforcer coat of arms: a fist holding a nightstick, emblazoned with the words SUE ME.

So Y.T. is coasting down a gradual slope toward the heavy iron gate of White Columns, waiting for it to roll aside, waiting, waiting - but the gate does not seem to be opening. No laser pulse has shot out of the guard shack to find out who Y.T. is. The system has been overridden. If Y.T. was a stupid ped she would go up to the MetaCop and ask him why. The MetaCop would say, "The security of the city-state," and nothing more. These Burbclaves! These city-states! So small, so insecure, that just about everything, like not mowing your lawn, or playing your stereo too loud, becomes a national security issue.

No way to skate around the fence; White Columns has eight-foot iron, robo-wrought, all the way around. She rolls up to the gate, grabs the bars, rattles it, but it's too big and solid to rattle.

MetaCops aren't allowed to lean against their Unit - makes them look lazy and weak. They can almost lean, look like they're leaning, they can even brandish a big leaning-against-the-car 'tude like this particular individual, but they can't lean. Besides, with the complete, glinting majesty of their Personal Portable Equipment Suite hanging on their Personal Modular Equipment Harness, they would scratch the finish of the Unit.

"Jack this barrier to commerce, man, I got deliveries to make," Y.T. announces to the MetaCop.

A wet, smacking burst, not loud enough to be an explosion, sounds from the back of the Mobile Unit. It is the soft thup of a thick wrestler's loogie being propelled through a rolled-up tongue. It is the distant, muffled splurt of a baby having a big one. Y.T.'s hand, still gripping the bars of the gate, stings for a moment, then feels cold and hot at the same time. She can barely move it. She smells vinyl.

The MetaCop's partner climbs out of the back seat of the Mobile Unit. The window of the back door is open, but everything on the Mobile Unit is so black and shiny you can't tell that until the door moves. Both MetaCops, under their glossy black helmets and night-vision goggles, are grinning. The one getting out of the Mobile Unit is carrying a Short-Range Chemical Restraint Projector - a loogie gun. Their little plan has worked. Y.T. didn't think to aim her Knight Visions into the back seat to check for a goo-firing sniper.

The loogie, when expanded into the air like this, is about the size of a football. Miles and miles of eensy but strong fibers, like spaghetti. The sauce on the spaghetti is sticky, goopy stuff that stays fluid for an instant, when the loogie gun is fired, then sets quickly.

MetaCops have to tote this kind of gear because when each franchulate is so small, you can't be chasing people around. The perp - almost always an innocent thrasher - is always a three-second skateboard ride away from asylum in the neighboring franchulate. Also, the incredible bulk of the Personal Modular Equipment Harness - the chandelier o' gear - and all that is clipped onto it slows them down so bad that whenever they try to run, people just start laughing at them. So instead of losing some pounds, they just clip more stuff onto their harnesses, like the loogie gun.

The snotty, fibrous drop of stuff has wrapped all the way around her hand and forearm and lashed them onto the bar of the gate. Excess goo has sagged and run down the bar a short ways, but is setting now, turning into rubber. A few loose strands have also whipped forward and gained footholds on her shoulder, chest, and lower face. She backs away and the adhesive separates from the fibers, stretching out into long, infinitely thin strands, like hot mozzarella. These set instantly, become solid, and then break, curling away like smoke. It is not quite so grotendous, now that the loogie is off her face, but her hand is still perfectly immobilized.

"You are hereby warned that any movement on your part not explicitly endorsed by verbal authorization on my part may pose a direct physical risk to you, as well as consequential psychological and possibly, depending on your personal belief system, spiritual risks ensuing from your personal reaction to said physical risk. Any movement on your part constitutes an implicit and irrevocable acceptance of such risk," the first MetaCop says. There is a little speaker on his belt, simultaneously translating all of this into Spanish and Japanese.

"Or as we used to say," the other MetaCop says, "freeze, sucker!"

The untranslatable word resonates from the little speaker, pronounced "esucker" and "saka" respectively.

"We are authorized Deputies of MetaCops Unlimited. Under Section 24.5.2 of the White Columns Code, we are authorized to carry out the actions of a police force on this territory."

"Such as hassling innocent thrashers," Y.T. says.

The MetaCop turns off the translator. "By speaking English you implicitly and irrevocably agree for all our future conversation to take place in the English language," he says.

"You can't even rez what Y.T. says," Y.T. says.

"You have been identified as an Investigatory Focus of a Registered Criminal Event that is alleged to have taken place on another territory, namely, The Mews at Windsor Heights."

"That's another country, man. This is White Columns!"

"Under provisions of The Mews at Windsor Heights Code, we are authorized to enforce law, national security concerns, and societal harmony on said territory also. A treaty between The Mews at Windsor Heights and White Columns authorizes us to place you in temporary custody until your status as an Investigatory Focus has been resolved."

"Your ass is busted," the second MetaCop says.

"As your demeanor has been nonaggressive and you carry no visible weapons, we are not authorized to employ heroic measures to ensure your cooperation," the first MetaCop says.

"You stay cool and we'll stay cool," the second MetaCop says.

"However, we are equipped with devices, including but not limited to projectile weapons, which, if used, may pose an extreme and immediate threat to your health and well-being."

"Make one funny move and we'll blow your head off," the second MetaCop says.

"Just unglom my fuckin' hand," Y.T. says. She has heard all this a million times before.

White Columns, like most Burbclaves, has no jail, no police station. So unsightly. Property values. Think of the liability exposure. MetaCops has a franchise just down the road that serves as headquarters. As for a jail, some place to habeas the occasional stray corpus, any halfdecent franchise strip has one.

They are cruising in the Mobile Unit. Y.T.'s hands are cuffed together in front of her. One hand is still half-encased in rubbery goo, smelling so intensely of vinyl fumes that both MetaCops have rolled down their windows. Six feet of loose fibers trail into her lap, across the floor of the Unit, out the door, and drag on the pavement. The MetaCops are taking it easy, cruising down the middle lane, not above issuing a speeding ticket here and there as long as they're in their jurisdiction. Motorists around them drive slowly and sanely, appalled by the thought of having to pull over and listen to half an hour of disclaimers, advisements, and tangled justifications from the likes of these. The occasional CosaNostra delivery boy whips past them in the left lane, orange lights aflame, and they pretend not to notice.

"What's it gonna be, the Hoosegow or The Clink?" the first MetaCop says. From the way he is talking, he must be talking to the other MetaCop.

"The Hoosegow, please," Y.T. says.

"The Clink!" the other MetaCop says, turning around, sneering at her through the antiballistic glass, wallowing in power.

The whole interior of the car lights up as they drive past a Buy 'n' Fly. Loiter in the parking lot of a Buy 'n' Fly and you'd get a suntan. Then WorldBeat Security would come and arrest you. All that security-inducing light makes the Visa and MasterCard stickers on the driver's-side window glow for a moment.

"Y.T. is card-carrying," Y.T. says. "What does it cost to get off?"

"How come you keep calling yourself Whitey?" the second MetaCop says. Like many people of color, he has misconstrued her name.

"Not whitey. Y.T.," the first MetaCop says.

"That's what Y.T. is called," Y.T. says.

"That's what I said," the second MetaCop says. "Whitey."

"Y.T.," the first one says, accenting the T so brutally that he throws a glittering burst of saliva against the windshield. "Let me guess - Yolanda Truman?"

"No."

"Yvonne Thomas?"

"No."

"Whatsit stand for?"

"Nothing."

Actually, it stands for Yours Truly, but if they can't figure that out, fuck 'em.

"You can't afford it," the first MetaCop says. "You're going up against TMAWH here."

"I don't have to officially get off. I could just escape."

"This is a class Unit. We don't support escapes," the first MetaCop says.

"Tell you what," the second one says. "You pay us a trillion bucks and we'll take you to a Hoosegow. Then you can bargain with them."

"Half a trillion," Y.T. says.

"Seven hundred and fifty billion," the MetaCop says. "Final. Shit, you're wearing cuffs, you can't be bargaining with us."

Y.T. unzips a pocket on the thigh of her coverall, pulls out the card with her clean hand, runs it through a slot on the back of the front seat, puts it back in her pocket.

The Hoosegow looks like a nice new one. Y.T. has seen hotels that were worse places to sleep. Its logo sign, a saguaro cactus with a black cowboy hat resting on top of it at a jaunty angle, is brand-new and clean.

THE HOOSEGOW

Premium incarceration and restraint services

We welcome busloads!

There are a couple of other MetaCop cars in the lot, and an Enforcer paddybus parked across the back, taking up ten consecutive spaces. This draws much attention from the MetaCops. The Enforcers are to the MetaCops what the Delta Force is to the Peace Corps.

"One to check in," says the second MetaCop. They are standing in the reception area. The walls are lined with illuminated signs, each one bearing the image of some Old West desperado. Annie Oakley stares down blankly at Y.T., providing a role model. The check-in counter is faux rustic; the employees all wear cowboy hats and five-pointed stars with their names embossed on them. In back is a door made of hokey, old-fashioned iron bars. Once you got through there, it would look like an operating room. A whole line of little cells, curvy and white like prefab shower stalls - in fact, they double as shower stalls, you bathe in the middle of the room. Bright lights that turn themselves off at eleven o'clock. Coin-operated TV. Private phone line. Y.T. can hardly wait.

The cowboy behind the desk aims a scanner at Y.T., zaps her bar code. Hundreds of pages about Y.T.'s personal life zoom up on a graphics screen.

"Huh," he says. "Female."

The two MetaCops look at each other like, what a genius - this guy could never be a MetaCop.

"Sorry, boys, we're full up. No space for females tonight."

"Aw, c'mon."

"See that bus in back? There was a riot at Snooze 'n' Cruise. Some Narcolombians were selling a bad batch of Vertigo. Place went nuts. Enforcers sent in a half dozen squads, brought in about thirty. So we're full up. Try The Clink, down the street."

Y.T. does not like the looks of this.

They put her back in the car, turn on the noise cancellation in the back seat, so she can't hear anything except squirts and gurgles coming from her own empty tummy, and the glistening crackle whenever she moves her glommed-up hand. She was really looking forward to a Hoosegow meal - Campfire Chili or Bandit Burgers.

In the front seat, the two MetaCops are talking to each other. They pull out into traffic. Up in front of them is a square illuminated logo, a giant Universal Product Code in black-on-white with BUY 'N' FLY underneath it.

Stuck onto the same signpost, beneath the Buy 'n' Fly sign, is a smaller one, a narrow strip in generic lettering: THE CLINK.

They are taking her to The Clink. The bastards. She pounds on the glass with cuffed-together hands, leaving sticky handprints. Let these bastards try to wash the stuff off. They turn around and look right through her, the guilty scum, like they heard something but they can't imagine what.

They enter the Buy 'n' Fly's nimbus of radioactive blue security light. Second MetaCop goes in, talks to the guy behind the counter. There's a fat white boy purchasing a monster trucks magazine, wearing a New South Africa baseball cap with a Confederate flag, and overhearing them he peers out the window, wanting to lay his eyes on a real perp. A second man comes out from back, same ethnicity as the guy behind the counter, another dark man with burning eyes and a bony neck. This one is carrying a three-ring binder with the Buy 'n' Fly logo. To find the manager of a franchise, don't strain to read his title off the name tag, just look for the one with the binder.

The manager talks to the MetaCop, nods his head, pulls a keychain out of a drawer.

Second MetaCop comes out, saunters to the car, suddenly whips open the back door.

"Shut up," he says, "or next time I fire the loogie gun into your mouth."

"Good thing you like The Clink," Y.T. says, "cause that is where you will be tomorrow night, loogie-man."

"'Zat right?"

"Yeah. For credit card fraud."

"Me cop, you thrasher. How you gonna make a case at judge Bob's judicial System?"

"I work for RadiKS. We protect our own."

"Not tonight you don't. Tonight you took a pizza from the scene of a car wreck. Left the scene of an accident. RadiKS tell you to deliver that pizza?"

Y.T. does not return fire. The MetaCop is right; RadiKS did not tell her to deliver that pizza. She was doing it on a whim.

"So RadiKS ain't gonna help you. So shut up."

He jerks her arm, and the rest of her follows. The three-ringer gives her a quick look, just long enough to make sure she is really a person, not a sack of flour or an engine block or a tree stump. He leads them around to the fetid rump of the Buy 'n' Fly, dark realm of wretched refuse in teeming dumpsters. He unlocks the back door, a boring steel number with jimmy marks around the edges like steel-clawed beasts have been trying to get in.

Y.T. is taken downstairs into the basement. First MetaCop follows, carrying her plank, banging it heedlessly against doorways and stained polycarbonate bottle racks.

"Better take her uniform - all that gear," the second MetaCop suggests, not unlewdly.

The manager looks at Y.T., trying not to let his gaze travel sinfully up and down her body. For thousands of years his people have survived on alertness: waiting for Mongols to come galloping over the horizon, waiting for repeat offenders to swing sawed-off shotguns across their check-out counters. His alertness right now is palpable and painful; he's like a goblet of hot nitroglycerin. The added question of sexual misconduct makes it even worse. To him it's no joke.

Y.T. shrugs, trying to think of something unnerving and wacky. At this point, she is supposed to squeal and shrink, wriggle and whine, swoon and beg. They are threatening to take her clothes. How awful. But she does not get upset because she knows that they are expecting her to.

A Kourier has to establish space on the pavement. Predictable law-abiding behavior lulls drivers. They mentally assign you to a little box in the lane, assume you will stay there, can't handle it when you leave that little box.

Y.T. is not fond of boxes. Y.T. establishes her space on the pavement by zagging mightily from lane to lane, establishing a precedent of scary randomness. Keeps people on their toes, makes them react to her, instead of the other way round. Now these men are trying to put her in a box, make her follow rules.

She unzips her coverall all the way down below her navel. Underneath is naught but billowing pale flesh.

The MetaCops raise their eyebrows.

The manager jumps back, raises both hands up to form a visual shield, protecting himself from the damaging input. "No, no, no!" he says.

Y.T. shrugs, zips herself back up.

She's not afraid; she's wearing a dentata.

The manager handcuffs her to a cold-water pipe. Second MetaCop removes his newer, more cybernetic brand of handcuffs, snaps them back onto his harness. First MetaCop leans her plank against the wall, just out of her reach. Manager kicks a rusty coffee can across the floor, caroming it expertly off her skin, so she can go to the bathroom.

"Where you from?" Y.T. asks.

"Tadzhikistan," he says.

A jeek. She should have known.

"Well, shitcan soccer must be your national pastime."

The manager doesn't get it. The MetaCops emit rote, shallow laughter.

Papers are signed. Everyone else goes upstairs. On his way out the door, the manager turns off the lights; in Tadzhikistan, electricity is quite the big deal.

Y.T. is in The Clink.

7

The Black Sun is as big as a couple of football fields laid side by side. The decor consists of black, square tabletops hovering in the air (it would be pointless to draw in legs), evenly spaced across the floor in a grid. Like pixels. The only exception is in the middle, where the bar's four quadrants come together (4 = 2^2). This part is occupied by a circular bar sixteen meters across. Everything is matte black, which makes it a lot easier for the computer system to draw things in on top of it - no worries about filling in a complicated background. And that way all attention can be focused on the avatars, which is the way people like it.

It doesn't pay to have a nice avatar on the Street, where it's so crowded and all the avatars merge and flow into one another. But The Black Sun is a much classier piece of software. In The Black Sun, avatars are not allowed to collide. Only so many people can be here at once, and they can't walk through each other. Everything is solid and opaque and realistic. And the clientele has a lot more class - no talking penises in here. The avatars look like real people. For the most part, so do the daemons.

"Daemon" is an old piece of jargon from the UNIX operating system, where it referred to a piece of low-level utility software, a fundamental part of the operating system. In The Black Sun, a daemon is like an avatar, but it does not represent a human being. It's a robot that lives in the Metaverse. A piece of software, a kind of spirit that inhabits the machine, usually with some particular role to carry out. The Black Sun has a number of daemons that serve imaginary drinks to the patrons and run little errands for people.

It even has bouncer daemons that get rid of undesirables - grab their avatars and throw them out the door, applying certain basic principles of avatar physics. Da5id has even enhanced the physics of The Black Sun to make it a little cartoonish, so that particularly obnoxious people can be hit over the head with giant mallets or crushed under plummeting safes before they are ejected. This happens to people who are being disruptive, to anyone who is pestering or taping a celebrity, and to anyone who seems contagious. That is, if your personal computer is infected with viruses, and attempts to spread them via The Black Sun, you had better keep one eye on the ceiling.

Hiro mumbles the word "Bigboard." This is the name of a piece of software he wrote, a power tool for a CIC stringer. It digs into The Black Sun's operating system, rifes it for information, and then throws up a flat square map in front of his face, giving him a quick overview of who's here and whom they're talking to. It's all unauthorized data that Hiro is not supposed to have. But Hiro is not some bimbo actor coming here to network. He is a hacker. If he wants some information, he steals it right out of the guts of the system - gossip ex machina.

Bigboard shows him that Da5id is ensconced in his usual place, a table in the Hacker Quadrant near the bar. The Movie Star Quadrant has the usual scattering of Sovereigns and wannabes. The Rock Star Quadrant is very busy tonight; Hiro can see that a Nipponese rap star named Sushi K has stopped in for a visit. And there are a lot of record-industry types hanging around in the Nipponese Quadrant - which looks like the other quadrants except that it's quieter, the tables are closer to the floor, and it's full of bowing and fluttering geisha daemons. Many of these people probably belong to Sushi K's retinue of managers, flacks, and lawyers.

Hiro cuts across the Hacker Quadrant, headed for Da5id's table. He recognizes many of the people in here, but as usual, he's surprised and disturbed by the number he doesn't recognize - all those sharp, perceptive twenty-one-year-old faces. Software development, like professional sports, has a way of making thirty-year-old men feel decrepit.

Looking up the aisle toward Da5id's table, he sees Da5id talking to a black-and-white person. Despite her lack of color and shitty resolution, Hiro recognizes her by the way she folds her arms when she's talking, the way she tosses her hair when she's listening to Da5id. Hiro's avatar stops moving and stares at her, adopting just the same facial expression with which he used to stare at this woman years ago. In Reality, he reaches out with one hand, picks up his beer, takes a pull on the bottle, and lets it roll around in his mouth, a bundle of waves clashing inside a small space.

Her name is Juanita Marquez. Hiro has known her ever since they were freshmen together at Berkeley, and they were in the same lab section in a freshman physics class. The first time he saw her, he formed an impression that did not change for many years: She was a dour, bookish, geeky type who dressed like she was interviewing for a job as an accountant at a funeral parlor. At the same time, she had a flamethrower tongue that she would turn on people at the oddest times, usually in some grandiose, earth-scorching retaliation for a slight or breach of etiquette that none of the other freshmen had even perceived.

It wasn't until a number of years later, when they both wound up working at Black Sun Systems, Inc., that he put the other half of the equation together. At the time, both of them were working on avatars. He was working on bodies, she was working on faces. She was the face department, because nobody thought that faces were all that important - they were just flesh-toned busts on top of the avatars. She was just in the process of proving them all desperately wrong. But at this phase, the all-male society of bitheads that made up the power structure of Black Sun Systems said that the face problem was trivial and superficial. It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe that they are too smart to be sexists.

That first impression, back at the age of seventeen, was nothing more than that - the gut reaction of a postadolescent Army brat who had been on his own for about three weeks. His mind was good, but he only understood one or two things in the whole world - samurai movies and the Macintosh - and he understood them far, far too well. It was a worldview with no room for someone like Juanita.

There is a certain kind of small town that grows like a boil on the ass of every Army base in the world. In a long series of such places, Hiro Protagonist was speedraised like a mutant hothouse orchid flourishing under the glow of a thousand Buy 'n' Fly security spotlights. Hiro's father had joined the army in 1944, at the age of sixteen, and spent a year in the Pacific, most of it as a prisoner of war. Hiro was born when his father was in his late middle age. By that time, Dad could long since have quit and taken his pension, but he wouldn't have known what to do with himself outside of the service, and so he stayed in until they finally kicked him out in the late eighties. By the time Hiro made it out to Berkeley, he had lived in Wrightstown, New Jersey; Tacoma, Washington; Fayetteville, North Carolina; Hinesville, Georgia; Killeen, Texas; Grafenwehr, Germany; Seoul, Korea; Ogden, Kansas; and Watertown, New York. All of these places were basically the same, with the same franchise ghettos, the same strip joints, and even the same people - he kept running into school chums he'd known years before, other Army brats who happened to wind up at the same base at the same time.

Their skins were different colors but they all belonged to the same ethnic group: Military. Black kids didn't talk like black kids. Asian kids didn't bust their asses to excel in school. White kids, by and large, didn't have any problem getting along with the black and Asian kids. And girls knew their place. They all had the same moms with the same generous buttocks in stretchy slacks and the same frosted-and-curling-ironed hairdos, and they were all basically sweet and endearing and conforming and, if they happened to be smart, they went out of their way to hide it.

So the first time Hiro saw Juanita, or any other girl like her, his perspectives were bent all out of shape. She had long, glossy black hair that had never been subjected to any chemical process other than regular shampooing. She didn't wear blue stuff on her eyelids. Her clothing was dark, tailored, restrained. And she didn't take shit from anyone, not even her professors, which seemed shrewish and threatening to him at the time.

When he saw her again after an absence of several years -a period spent mostly in Japan, working among real grown-ups from a higher social class than he was used to, people of substance who wore real clothes and did real things with their lives - he was startled to realize that Juanita was an elegant, stylish knockout. He thought at first that she had undergone some kind of radical changes since their first year in college.

But then he went back to visit his father in one of those Army towns and ran into the high school prom queen. She had grown up shockingly fast into an overweight dame with loud hair and loud clothes who speedread the tabloids at the check-out line in the commissary because she didn't have the spare money to buy them, who popped her gum and had two kids that she didn't have the energy or the foresight to discipline.

Seeing this woman at the commissary, he finally went through a belated, dim-witted epiphany, not a brilliant light shining down from heaven, more like the brown glimmer of a half-dead flashlight from the top of a stepladder: Juanita hadn't really changed much at all since those days, just grown into herself. It was he who had changed. Radically.

He came into her office once, strictly on a business matter. Until this point, they had seen each other around the office a lot but acted like they had never met before. But when he came into her office that day, she told him to close the door behind him, and she blacked out the screen on her computer and started twiddling a pencil between her hands and eyed him like a plate of day-old sushi. Behind her on the wall was an amateurish painting of an old lady, set in an ornate antique frame. It was the only decoration in Juanita's office. All the other hackers had color photographs of the space shuttle lifting off, or posters of the starship Enterprise.

"It's my late grandmother, may God have mercy on her soul," she said, watching him look at the painting. "My role model."

"Why? Was she a programmer?"

She just looked at him over the rotating pencil like, how slow can a mammal be and still have respiratory functions? But instead of lowering the boom on him, she just gave a simple answer: "No." Then she gave a more complicated answer. "When I was fifteen years old, I missed a period. My boyfriend and I were using a diaphragm, but I knew it was fallible. I was good at math, I had the failure rate memorized, burnt into my subconscious. Or maybe it was my conscious, I can never keep them straight. Anyway, I was terrified. Our family dog started treating me differently - supposedly, they can smell a pregnant woman. Or a pregnant bitch, for that matter."

By this point, Hiro's face was frozen in a wary, astonished position that Juanita later made extensive use of in her work. Because, as she was talking to him, she was watching, his face, analyzing the way the little muscles in his forehead pulled his brows up and made his eyes change shape.

"My mother was clueless. My boyfriend was worse than clueless - in fact, I ditched him on the spot, because it made me realize what an alien the guy was - like many members of your species." By this, she was referring to males.

"Anyway, my grandmother came to visit," she continued, glancing back over her shoulder at the painting. "I avoided her until we all sat down for dinner. And then she figured out the whole situation in, maybe, ten minutes, just by watching my face across the dinner table. I didn't say more than ten words - 'Pass the tortillas.' I don't know how my face conveyed that information, or what kind of internal wiring in my grandmother's mind enabled her to accomplish this incredible feat. To condense fact from the vapor of nuance."

Condense fact from the vapor of nuance. Hiro has never forgotten the sound of her speaking those words, the feeling that came over him as he realized for the first time how smart Juanita was.

She continued. "I didn't even really appreciate all of this until about ten years later, as. a grad student, trying to build a user interface that would convey a lot of data very quickly, for one of these baby-killer grants." This was her term for anything related to the Defense Department. "I was coming up with all kinds of elaborate technical fixes like trying to implant electrodes directly into the brain. Then I remembered my grandmother and realized, my God, the human mind can absorb and process an incredible amount of information - if it comes in the right format. The right interface. If you put the right face on it. Want some coffee?"

Then he had an alarming thought: What had he been like back in college? How much of an asshole had he been? Had he left Juanita with a bad impression?

Another young man would have worried about it in silence, but Hiro has never been restrained by thinking about things too hard, and so he asked her out for dinner and, after having a couple of drinks (she drank club sodas), just popped the question: Do you think I'm an asshole?

She laughed. He smiled, believing that he had come up with a good, endearing, flirtatious bit of patter.

He did not realize until a couple of years later that this question was, in effect, the cornerstone of their relationship. Did Juanita think that Hiro was an asshole? He always had some reason to think that the answer was yes, but nine times out of ten she insisted the answer was no. It made for some great arguments and some great sex, some dramatic failings out and some passionate reconciliations, but in the end the wildness was just too much for them - they were exhausted by work - and they backed away from each other. He was emotionally worn out from wondering what she really thought of him, and confused by the fact that he cared so deeply about her opinion. And she, maybe, was beginning to think that if Hiro was so convinced in his own mind that he was unworthy of her, maybe he knew something she didn't.

Hiro would have chalked it all up to class differences, except that her parents lived in a house in Mexicali with a dirt floor, and his father made more money than many college professors. But the class idea still held sway in his mind, because class is more than income - it has to do with knowing where you stand in a web of social relationships. Juanita and her folks knew where they stood with a certitude that bordered on dementia. Hiro never knew. His father was a sergeant major, his mother was a Korean woman whose people had been mine slaves in Nippon, and Hiro didn't know whether he was black or Asian or just plain Army, whether he was rich or poor, educated or ignorant, talented or lucky. He didn't even have a part of the country to call home until he moved to California, which is about as specific as saying that you live in the Northern Hemisphere. In the end, it was probably his general disorientation that did them in.

After the breakup, Hiro went out with a long succession of essentially bimbos who (unlike Juanita) were impressed that he worked for a high-tech Silicon Valley firm. More recently, he has had to go searching for women who are even easier to impress.

Juanita went celibate for a while and then started going out with Da5id and eventually got married to him. Da5id had no doubts whatsoever about his standing in the world. His folks were Russian Jews from Brooklyn and had lived in the same brownstone for seventy years after coming from a village in Latvia where they had lived for five hundred years; with a Torah on his lap, he could trace his bloodlines all the way back to Adam and Eve. He was an only child who had always been first in his class in everything, and when he got his master's in computer science from Stanford, he went out and started his own company with about as much fuss as Hiro's dad used to exhibit in renting out a new P.O. box when they moved. Then he got rich, and now he runs The Black Sun. Da5id has always been certain of everything.

Even when he's totally wrong. Which is why Hiro quit his job at Black Sun Systems, despite the promise of future riches, and why Juanita divorced Da5id two years after she married him.

Hiro did not attend Juanita and Da5id's wedding; he was languishing in jail, into which he had been thrown a few hours before the rehearsal. He had been found in Golden Gate Park, lovesick, wearing nothing but a thong, taking long pulls from a jumbo bottle of Courvoisier and practicing kendo attacks with a genuine samurai sword, floating across the grass on powerfully muscled thighs to slice other picnickers' hurtling Frisbees and baseballs in twain. Catching a long fly ball with the edge of your blade, neatly halving it like a grapefruit, is not an insignificant feat. The only drawback is that the owners of the baseball may misinterpret your intentions and summon the police.

He got out of it by paying for all the baseballs and Frisbees, but since that episode, he has never even bothered to ask Juanita whether or not she thinks he's an asshole. Even Hiro knows the answer now.

Since then, they've gone very different ways. In the early years of The Black Sun project, the only way the hackers ever got paid was by issuing stock to themselves. Hiro tended to sell his off almost as quickly as he got it. Juanita didn't. Now she's rich, and he isn't. It would be easy to say that Hiro is a stupid investor and Juanita a smart one, but the facts are a little more complicated than that: Juanita put her eggs in one basket, keeping all her money in Black Sun stock; as it turns out, she made a lot of money that way, but she could have gone broke, too. And Hiro didn't have a lot of choice in some ways. When his father got sick, the Army and the V.A. took care of most of his medical bills, but they ran into a lot of expenses anyway, and Hiro's mother - who could barely speak English - wasn't equipped to make or handle money on her own. When Hiro's father died, he cashed in all of his Black Sun stock to put Mom in a nice community in Korea. She loves it there. Goes golfing every day. He could have kept his money in The Black Sun and made ten million dollars about a year later when it went public, but his mother would have been a street person. So when his mother visits him in the Metaverse, looking tan and happy in her golfing duds, Hiro views that as his personal fortune. It won't pay the rent, but that's okay - when you live in a shithole, there's always the Metaverse, and in the Metaverse, Hiro Protagonist is a warrior prince.

8

His tongue is stinging; he realizes that, back in Reality, he has forgotten to swallow his beer.

It's ironic that Juanita has come into this place in a low-tech, black-and-white avatar. She was the one who figured out a way to make avatars show something close to real emotion. That is a fact Hiro has never forgotten, because she did most of her work when they were together, and whenever an avatar looks surprised or angry or passionate in the Metaverse, he sees an echo of himself or Juanita - the Adam and Eve of the Metaverse. Makes it hard to forget.

Shortly after Juanita and Da5id got divorced, The Black Sun really took off. And once they got done counting their money, marketing the spinoffs, soaking up the adulation of others in the hacker community, they all came to the realization that what made this place a success was not the collision-avoidance algorithms or the bouncer daemons or any of that other stuff. It was Juanita's faces.

Just ask the businessmen in the Nipponese Quadrant. They come here to talk turkey with suits from around the world, and they consider it just as good as a face-to-face. They more or less ignore what is being saida lot gets lost in translation, after all. They pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of the people they are talking to. And that's how they know what's going on inside a person's head - by condensing fact from the vapor of nuance.

Juanita refused to analyze this process, insisted that it was something ineffable, something you couldn't explain with words. A radical, rosary-toting Catholic, she has no problem with that kind of thing. But the bitheads didn't like it. Said it was irrational mysticism. So she quit and took a job with some Nipponese company. They don't have any problem with irrational mysticism as long as it makes money.

But Juanita never comes to The Black Sun anymore. Partly, she's pissed at Da5id and the other hackers who never appreciated her work. But she has also decided that the whole thing is bogus. That no matter how good it is, the Metaverse is distorting the way people talk to each other, and she wants no such distortion in her relationships.

Da5id notices Hiro, indicates with a flick of his eyes that this is not a good time. Normally, such subtle gestures are lost in the system's noise, but Da5id has a very good personal computer, and Juanita helped design his avatar - so the message comes through like a shot fired into the ceiling.

Hiro turns away, saunters around the big circular bar in a slow orbit. Most of the sixty-four bar stools are filled with lower-level Industry people, getting together in twos and threes, doing what they do best: gossip and intrigue.

"So I get together with the director for a story conference. He's got this beach house - "

"Incredible?"

"Don't get me started."

"I heard. Debi was there for a party when Frank and Mitzi owned it."

"Anyway, there's this scene, early, where the main character wakes up in a dumpster. The idea is to show how, you know, despondent he is - "

"That crazy energy - "

"Exactly."

"Fabulous."

"I like it. Well, he wants to replace it with a scene where the guy is out in the desert with a bazooka, blowing up old cars in an abandoned junkyard."

"You're kidding!"

"So we're sitting there on his fucking patio over the beach and he's going, like, whoom! whoom! imitating this goddamn bazooka. He's thrilled by the idea. I mean, this is a man who wants to put a bazooka in a movie. So I think I talked him out of it."

"Nice scene. But you're right. A bazooka doesn't do the same thing as a dumpster."

Hiro pauses long enough to get this down, then keeps walking. He mumbles "Bigboard" again, recalls the magic map, pinpoints his own location, and then reads off the name of this nearby screenwriter. Later on, he can do a search of industry publications to find out what script this guy is working on, hence the name of this mystery director with a fetish for bazookas. Since this whole conversation has come to him via his computer, he's just taken an audio tape of the whole thing. Later, he can process it to disguise the voices, then upload it to the Library, cross-referenced under the director's name. A hundred struggling screenwriters will call this conversation up, listen to it over and over until they've got it memorized, paying Hiro for the privilege, and within a few weeks, bazooka scripts will flood the director's office. Whoom!

The Rock Star Quadrant is almost too bright to look at. Rock star avatars have the hairdos that rock stars can only wear in their dreams. Hiro scans it briefly to see if any of his friends are in there, but it's mostly parasites and has-beens. Most of the people Hiro knows are will-bes or wannabes.

The Movie Star Quadrant is easier to look at. Actors love to come here because in The Black Sun, they always look as good as they do in the movies. And unlike a bar or club in Reality, they can get into this place without physically having to leave their mansion, hotel suite, ski lodge, private airline cabin, or whatever. They can strut their stuff and visit with their friends without any exposure to kidnappers, paparazzi, script-flingers, assassins, ex-spouses, autograph brokers, process servers, psycho fans, marriage proposals, or gossip columnists.

He gets up off the bar stool and resumes his slow orbit, scanning the Nipponese Quadrant. It's a lot of guys in suits, as usual. Some of them are talking to gringos from the Industry. And a large part of the quadrant, in the back corner, has been screened off by a temporary partition.

Bigboard again. Hiro figures out which tables are behind the partition, starts reading off the names. The only one he recognizes immediately is an American: L. Bob Rife, the cable-television monopolist. A very big name to the Industry, though he's rarely seen. He seems to be meeting with a whole raft of big Nipponese honchos. Hiro has his computer memorize their names so that, later, he can check them against the CIC database and find out who they are. It has the look of a big and important meeting.

"Secret Agent Hiro! How are you doing?"

Hiro turns around. Juanita is right behind him, standing out in her black-and-white avatar, looking good anyway. "How are you?" she asks.

"Fine. How are you?"

"Great. I hope you don't mind talking to me in this ugly fax-of-life avatar."

"Juanita, I would rather look at a fax of you than most other women in the flesh."

"Thanks, you sly bastard. It's been a long time since we've talked!" she observes, as though there's something remarkable about this.

Something's going on.

"I hope you're not going to mess around with Snow Crash," she says. "Da5id won't listen to me."

"What am I, a model of self-restraint? I'm exactly the kind of guy who would mess around with it."

"I know you better than that. You're impulsive. But you're very clever. You have those sword-fighting reflexes."

"What does that have to do with drug abuse?"

"It means you can see bad things coming and deflect them. It's an instinct, not a learned thing. As soon as you turned around and saw me, that look came over your face, like, what's going on? What the hell is Juanita up to?"

"I didn't think you talked to people in the Metaverse."

"I do if I want to get through to someone in a hurry," she says. "And I'll always talk to you."

"Why me?"

"You know. Because of us. Remember? Because of our relationship - when I was writing this thing - you and I are the only two people who can ever have an honest conversation in the Metaverse."

"You're just the same mystical crank you always were," he says, smiling so as to make this a charming statement.

"You can't imagine how mystical and cranky I am now, Hiro."

"How mystical and cranky are you?"

She eyes him warily. Exactly the same way she did when he came into her office years ago.

It comes into his mind to wonder why she is always so alert in his presence. In college, he used to think that she was afraid of his intellect, but he's known for years that this is the last of her worries. At Black Sun Systems, he figured that it was just typical female guardedness - Juanita was afraid he was trying to get her into the sack. But this, too, is pretty much out of the question.

At this late date in his romantic career, he is just canny enough to come up with a new theory: She's being careful because she likes him. She likes him in spite of herself. He is exactly the kind of tempting but utterly wrong romantic choice that a smart girl like Juanita must learn to avoid.

That's definitely it. There's something to be said for getting older.

By way of answering his question, she says, "I have an associate I'd like you to meet. A gentleman and a scholar named Lagos. He's a fascinating guy to talk to."

"Is he your boyfriend?"

She thinks this one over rather than lashing out instantaneously. "My behavior at The Black Sun to the contrary, I don't fuck every male I work with. And even if I did, Lagos is out of the question."

"Not your type?"

"Not by a long shot."

"What is your type, anyway?"

"Old, rich, unimaginative blonds with steady careers."

This one almost slips by him. Then he catches it. "Well, I could dye my hair. And I'll get old eventually."

She actually laughs. It's a tension-releasing kind of outburst. "Believe me, Hiro, I'm the last person you want to be involved with at this point."

"Is this part of your church thing?" he asks. Juanita has been using her excess money to start her own branch of the Catholic church - she considers herself a missionary to the intelligent atheists of the world.

"Don't be condescending," she says. "That's exactly the attitude I'm fighting. Religion is not for simpletons."

"Sorry. This is unfair, you know - you can read every expression on my face, and I'm looking at you through a fucking blizzard."

"It's definitely related to religion," she says. "But this is so complex, and your background in that area is so deficient, I don't know where to begin."

"Hey, I went to church every week in high school. I sang in the choir."

"I know. That's exactly the problem. Ninety-nine percent of everything that goes on in most Christian churches has nothing whatsoever to do with the actual religion. Intelligent people all notice this sooner or later, and they conclude that the entire one hundred percent is bullshit, which is why atheism is connected with being intelligent in people's minds."

"So none of that stuff I learned in church has anything to do with what you're talking about?"

Juanita thinks for a while, eyeing him. Then she pulls a hypercard out of her pocket. "Here. Take this."

As Hiro pulls it from her hand, the hypercard changes from a jittery two-dimensional figment into a realistic, cream-colored, finely textured piece of stationery. Printed across its face in glossy black ink is a pair of words

B A B E L

(I n f o c a l y p s e)

9

The world freezes and grows dim for a second. The Black Sun loses its smooth animation and begins to move in fuzzy stop-action. Clearly, his computer has just taken a major hit; all of its circuits are busy processing a huge bolus of data - the contents of the hypercard - and don't have time to redraw the image of The Black Sun in its full, breathtaking fidelity.

"Holy shit!" he says, when The Black Sun pops back into full animation again. "What the hell is in this card? You must have half of the Library in here!"

"And a librarian to boot," Juanita says, "to help you sort through it. And lots of videotapes of L. Bob Rife - which accounts for most of the bytes."

"Well, I'll try to have a look at it," he says dubiously.

"Do. Unlike Da5id, you're just smart enough to benefit from this. And in the meantime, stay away from Raven. And stay away from Snow Crash. Okay?"

"Who's Raven?" he asks. But Juanita is already on her way out the door. The fancy avatars all turn around to watch her as she goes past them; the movie stars give her drop-dead looks, and the hackers purse their lips and stare reverently.

Hiro orbits back around to the Hacker Quadrant. Da5id's shuffling hypercards around on his table - business stats on The Black Sun, film and video clips, hunks of software, scrawled telephone numbers.

"There's a little blip in the operating system that hits me right in the gut every time you come in the door," Da5id says. "I always have this premonition that The Black Sun is headed for a crash."

"Must be Bigboard," Hiro says. "It has one routine that patches some of the traps in low memory, for a moment."

"Ah, that's it. Please, please throw that thing away," Da5id says.

"What, Bigboard?"

"Yeah. It was totally rad at one point, but now it's like trying to work on a fusion reactor with a stone ax."

"Thanks."

"I'll give you all the headers you need if you want to update it to something a little less dangerous," Da5id says. "I wasn't impugning your abilities. I'm just saying you need to keep up with the times."

"It's fucking hard," Hiro says. "There's no place for a freelance hacker anymore. You have to have a big corporation behind you."

"I'm aware of that. And I'm aware that you can't stand to work for a big corporation. That's why I'm saying, I'll give you the stuff you need. You're always a part of The Black Sun to me, Hiro, even since we parted ways."

It is classic Da5id. He's talking with his heart again, bypassing his head. If Da5id weren't a hacker, Hiro would despair of his ever having enough brains to do anything.

"Let's talk about something else," Hiro says. "Was I just hallucinating, or are you and Juanita on speaking terms again?"

Da5id gives him an indulgent smile. He has been very kind to Hiro ever since The Conversation, several years back. It was a conversation that started out as a friendly chat over beer and oysters between a couple of longtime comrades-in-arms. It was not until three-quarters of the way through The Conversation that it dawned on Hiro that he was, in fact, being fired, at this very moment. Since The Conversation, Da5id has been known to feed Hiro useful bits of intel and gossip from time to time.

"Fishing for something useful?" Da5id asks knowingly. Like many bitheads, Da5id is utterly guileless, but at times like this, he thinks he's the reincarnation of Machiavelli.

"I got news for you, man," Hiro says. "Most of the stuff you give me, I never put into the Library."

"Why not? Hell, I give you all my best gossip. I thought you were making money off that stuff."

"I just can't stand it," Hiro says, "taking parts of my private conversations and whoring them out. Why do you think I'm broke?"

There's another thing he doesn't mention, which is that he's always considered himself to be Da5id's equal, and he can't stand the idea of feeding off Da5id's little crumbs and tidbits, like a dog curled up under his table.

"I was glad to see Juanita come in here - even as a black-and-white," Da5id says. "For her not to use The Black Sun - it's like Alexander Graham Bell refusing to use the telephone."

"Why did she come in tonight?"

"Something's bugging her," Da5id says. "She wanted to know if I'd seen certain people on the Street."

"Anyone in particular?"

"She's worried about a really large guy with long black hair," Da5id says. "Peddling something called - get this - Snow Crash."

"Has she tried the Library?"

"Yeah. I assume so, anyway."

"Have you seen this guy?"

"Oh, yeah. It's not hard to find him," Da5id says. "He's right outside the door. I got this from him."

Da5id scans the table, picks up one of the hypercards, and shows it to Hiro.

SNOW CRASH

tear this card in half to

release your free sample

"Da5id," Hiro says, "I can't believe you took a hypercard from a black-and-white person."

Da5id laughs. "This is not the old days, my friend. I've got so much antiviral medicine in my system that nothing could get through. I get so much contaminated shit from all the hackers who come through here, it's like working in a plague ward. So I'm not afraid of whatever's in this hypercard."

"Well, in that case, I'm curious," Hiro says.

"Yeah. Me, too." Da5id laughs.

"It's probably something very disappointing."

"Probably an animercial," Da5id agrees. "Think I should do it?"

"Yeah. Go for it. It's not every day you get to try out a new drug," Hiro says.

"Well, you can try one every day if you want to," Da5id says, "but it's not every day you find one that can't hurt you." He picks up the hypercard and tears it in half.

For a second, nothing happens. "I'm waiting," Da5id says.

An avatar materializes on the table in front of Da5id, starting out ghostly and transparent, gradually becoming solid and three-dimensional. It's a really trite effect; Hiro and Da5id are already laughing.

The avatar is a stark naked Brandy. It doesn't even look like the standard Brandy; this looks like one of the cheap Taiwanese Brandy knockoffs. Clearly, it's just a daemon. She is holding a pair of tubes in her hands, about the size of paper-towel rolls.

Da5id is leaning back in his chair, enjoying this. There is something hilariously tawdry about the entire scene.

The Brandy leans forward, beckoning Da5id toward her. Da5id leans into her face, grinning broadly. She puts her crude, ruby-red lips up by his ear and mumbles something that Hiro can't hear.

When she leans back away from Da5id, his face has changed. He looks dazed and expressionless. Maybe Da5id really looks that way; maybe Snow Crash has messed up his avatar somehow so that it's no longer tracking Da5id's true facial expressions. But he's staring straight ahead, eyes frozen in their sockets.

The Brandy holds the pair of tubes up in front of Da5id's immobilized face and spreads them apart. It's actually a scroll. She's unrolling it right in front of Da5id's face, spreading it apart like a flat two-dimensional screen in front of his eyes. Da5id's paralyzed face has taken on a bluish tinge as it reflects light coming out of the scroll.

Hiro walks around the table to look. He gets a brief glimpse of the scroll before the Brandy snaps it shut again. It is a living wall of light, like a flexible, flatscreened television set, and it's not showing anything at all. just static. White noise. Snow.

Then she's gone, leaving no trace behind. Desultory, sarcastic applause sounds from a few tables in the Hacker Quadrant.

Da5id's back to normal, wearing a grin that's part snide and part embarrassed.

"What was it?" Hiro says. "I just glimpsed some snow at the very end."

"You saw the whole thing," Da5id says. "A fixed pattern of black-and-white pixels, fairly high-resolution. Just a few hundred thousand ones and zeroes for me to look at."

"So in other words, someone just exposed your optic nerve to, what, maybe a hundred thousand bytes of information," Hiro says.

"Noise, is more like it."

"Well, all information looks like noise until you break the code," Hiro says.

"Why would anyone show me information in binary code? I'm not a computer. I can't read a bitmap."

"Relax, Da5id, I'm just shitting you," Hiro says.

"You know what it was? You know how hackers are always trying to show me samples of their work?"

"Yeah."

"Some hacker came up with this scheme to show me his stuff. And everything worked fine until the moment the Brandy opened the scroll - but his code was buggy, and it snow-crashed at the wrong moment, so instead of seeing his output, all I saw was snow."

"Then why did he call the thing Snow Crash?"

"Gallows humor. He knew it was buggy."

"What did the Brandy whisper in your ear?"

"Some language I didn't recognize," Da5id says. "Just a bunch of babble."

Babble. Babel.

"Afterward, you looked sort of stunned."

Da5id looks resentful. "I wasn't stunned. I just found the whole experience so weird, I guess I just was taken aback for a second."

Hiro is giving him an extremely dubious look. Da5id notices it and stands up. "Want to go see what your competitors in Nippon are up to?"

"What competitors?"

"You used to design avatars for rock stars, right?"

"Still do."

"Well, Sushi K is here tonight."

"Oh, yeah. The hairdo the size of a galaxy."

"You can see the rays from here," Da5id says, waving toward the next quadrant, "but I want to see the whole getup."

It does look as though the sun is rising somewhere in the middle of the Rock Star Quadrant. Above the heads of the milling avatars, Hiro can see a fan of orange beams radiating outward from some point in the middle of the crowd. It keeps moving, turning around, shaking from side to side, and the whole universe seems to move with it. On the Street, the full radiance of Sushi K's Rising Sun hairdo is suppressed by the height and width regulations. But Da5id allows free expression inside The Black Sun, so the orange rays extend all the way to the property lines.

"I wonder if anyone's told him yet that Americans won't buy rap music from a Japanese person," Hiro says as they stroll over there.

"Maybe you should tell him," Da5id suggests, "charge him for the service. He's in L.A. right now, you know."

"Probably staying in a hotel full of bootlickers telling him what a big star he's going to be. He needs to be exposed to some actual biomass."

They inject themselves into a stream of traffic, winding a narrow channel through a rift in the crowd.

"Biomass?" Da5id says.

"A body of living stuff. It's an ecology term. If you take an acre of rain forest or a cubic mile of ocean or a square block of Compton and strain out all the unliving stuff - dirt and water - you get the biomass."

Da5id, ever the bithead, says, "I do not understand." His voice sounds funny; there's a lot of white noise creeping into his audio.

"Industry expression," Hiro says. "The Industry feeds off the human biomass of America. Like a whale straining krill from the sea."

Hiro wedges himself between a couple of Nipponese businessmen. One is wearing a uniform blue, but the other is a neo-traditional, wearing a dark kimono. And, like Hiro, he's wearing two swords - the long katana on his left hip and the one-handed wakizashi stuck diagonally in his waistband. He and Hiro glance cursorily at each other's armaments. Then Hiro looks away and pretends not to notice, while the neo-traditional is freezing solid, except for the corners of his mouth which are curling downward. Hiro has seen this kind of thing before. He knows he's about to get into a fight.

People are moving out of the way; something big and inexorable is plunging through the crowd, shoving avatars this way and that. Only one thing has the ability to shove people around like that inside The Black Sun, and that's a bouncer daemon.

As they get closer, Hiro sees that it's a whole flying wedge of them, gorillas in tuxedos. Real gorillas. And they seem to be headed toward Hiro.

He tries to back away, but he quickly runs into something. Looks like Bigboard finally got him in trouble; he's on his way out of the bar.

"Da5id," Hiro says. "Call them off, man, I'll stop using it."

All of the people in his vicinity are staring over Hiro's shoulder, their faces illuminated by a stew of brilliant colored lights.

Hiro turns around to look at Da5id. But Da5id's not there anymore.

Instead of Da5id, there is just a jittering cloud of bad digital karma. It's so bright and fast and meaningless that it hurts to look at. It flashes back and forth from color to black and white, and when it's in color, it rolls wildly around the color wheel as though being strafed with highpowered disco lights. And it's not staying within it's own body space; hair-thin pixel lines keep shooting off to one side, passing all the way across The Black Sun and out through the wall. It is not so much an organized body as it is a centrifugal cloud of lines and polygons whose center cannot hold, throwing bright bits of body shrapnel all over the room, interfering with people's avatars, flickering and disappearing.

The gorillas don't mind. They shove their long furry fingers into the midst of the disintegrating cloud and latch onto it somehow and carry it past Hiro, toward the exit. Hiro looks down as it goes past him and sees what looks very much like Da5id's face as viewed through a pile of shattered glass. It's just a momentary glimpse. Then the avatar is gone, expertly drop-kicked out the front door, soaring out over the Street in a long flat arc that takes it over the horizon. Hiro looks up the aisle to see Da5id's table, empty, surrounded by stunned hackers. Some of them are shocked, some are trying to stifle grins.

Da5id Meier, supreme hacker overload, founding father of the Metaverse protocol, creator and proprietor of the world-famous Black Sun, has just suffered a system crash. He's been thrown out of his own bar by his own daemons.

10

About the second or third thing they learned how to do when studying to become Kouriers was how to shiv open a pair of handcuffs. Handcuffs are not intended as longterm restraint devices, millions of Clink franchisees to the contrary. And the longtime status of skateboarders as an oppressed ethnic group means that by now all of them are escape artists of some degree.

First things first. Y.T. has many a thing hanging off her uniform. The uniform has a hundred pockets, big flat pockets for deliveries and eensy narrow pockets for gear, pockets sewn into sleeves, thighs, shins. The equipment stuck into these multifarious pockets tends to be small, tricky, lightweight: pens, markers, penlights, penknives, lock picks, bar-code scanners, flares, screwdrivers, Liquid Knuckles, bundy stunners, and lightsticks. A calculator is stuck upside-down to her right thigh, doubling as a taxi meter and a stopwatch.

On the other thigh is a personal phone. As the manager is locking the door upstairs, it begins to ring. Y.T. unhooks it with her free hand. It is her mother.

"Hi, Mom. Fine, how are you? I'm at Tracy's house. Yeah, we went to the Metaverse. We were just fooling around at this arcade on the Street. Pretty bumpin'. Yes, I used a nice avatar. Nah, Tracy's mom said she'd give me a ride home later. But we might stop off at the joyride on Victory for a while, okay? Okay, well, sleep tight, Mom. I will. I love you, too. See you later."

She punches the flash button, killing the chat with Mom and giving her a fresh dial tone in the space of about half a second. "Roadkill," she says.

The telephone remembers and dials Roadkill's number.

Roaring sounds. This is the sound of air peeling over the microphone of Roadkill's personal phone at some terrifying velocity. Also the competing whooshes of many vehicles' tires on pavement, broken by chuckhole percussion; sounds like the crumbling Ventura.

"Yo, Y.T.," Roadkill says, "'sup?"

"'Sup with you?"

"Surfing the Turf. 'Sup with you?"

"Maxing The Clink."

"Whoa! Who popped you?"

"MetaCops. Affixed me to the gate of White Columns with a loogie gun."

"Whoa, how very! When you leaving?"

"Soon. Can you swing by and give me a hand?."

"What do you mean?"

Men. "You know, give me a hand. You're my boyfriend," she says, speaking very simply and plainly. "If I get popped, you're supposed to come around and help bust me out." Isn't everyone supposed to know this stuff? Don't parents teach their kids anything anymore?

"Well, uh, where are you?"

"Buy 'n' Fly number 501,762."

"I'm on my way to Bernie with a super-ultra."

As in San Bernardino. As in super-ultra-high-priority delivery. As in, you're out of luck.

"Okay, thanks for nothing."

"Sorry."

"Surfing safety," Y.T. says, in the traditional sarcastic sign off.

"Keep breathing," Roadkill says. The roaring noise snaps off.

What a jerk. Next date, he's really going to have to grovel. But in the meantime, there's one other person who owes her one. The only problem is that he might be a spaz. But it's worth a try.

"Hello?" he says into his personal phone. He's breathing hard and a couple of sirens are dueling in the background.

"Hiro Protagonist?"

"Yeah, who's this?"

"Y.T. Where are you?"

"In the parking lot of a Safeway on Oahu," he says. And he's telling the truth; in the background she can hear the shopping carts performing their clashy, anal copulations.

"I'm kind of busy now, Whitey - but what can I do for you?"

"It's Y.T.," she says, "and you can help bust me out of The Clink." She gives him the details.

"How long ago did he put you there?"

"Ten minutes."

"Okay, the three-ring binder for Clink franchises states that the manager is supposed to check on the detainee half an hour after admission."

"How do you know this stuff?" she says accusingly.

"Use your imagination. As soon as the manager pulls his half-hour check, wait for another five minutes, and then make your move. I'll try to give you a hand. Okay?"

"Got it."

At half an hour on the dot, she hears the back door being unlocked. The lights come on. Her Knight Visions save her from wracking eyeball pains. The manager thunks down a couple of steps, glares at her, glares at her for rather a long time. The manager, clearly, is tempted. That momentary glimpse of flesh has been ricocheting around in his brain for half an hour. He is wracking his mind with vast cosmological dilemmas. Y.T. hopes that he does not try anything, because the dentata's effects can be unpredictable.

"Make up your fucking mind," she says.

It works. This fresh burst of culture shock rattles the jeek out of his ethical conundrum. He gives Y.T. a disapproving glower - she, after all, forced him to be attracted to her, forced him to get horny, made his head swim - she didn't have to get arrested, did she? - and so on top of everything else he's angry with her. As if he has a right to be.

This is the gender that invented the polio vaccine?

He turns, goes back up the steps, kills the light, locks the door.

She notes the time, sets her alarm watch for five minutes from now - the only North American who actually knows how to set the alarm on her digital wristwatch - pulls her shiv kit from one of the narrow pockets on her sleeve. She also hauls out a lightstick and snaps it so she can see 'sup. She finds one piece of narrow, flat spring steel, slides it up into the manacle's innards, depresses the spring-loaded pawl. The cuff, formerly a one-way ratchet that could only get tighter, springs loose from the cold-water pipe.

She could take it off her wrist, but she has decided she likes the look of it. She cuffs the loose manacle onto her wrist, right next to the other one, forming a double bracelet. The kind of thing her mom used to do, back when she was a punk.

The steel door is locked, but Buy 'n' Fly safety regs mandate an emergency exit from the basement in case of fire. Here, it's a basement window with mondo bars and a big red multilingual fire alarm bolted onto it. The red looks black in the green glow of the lightstick. She reads the instructions that are in English, runs through it once or twice in her mind, then waits for the alarm to go off. She whiles away the time by reading the instructions in all the other languages, wondering which is which. It all looks like Taxilinga to Y.T.

The window is almost too grungy to see through, but she sees something black walking past it. Hiro.

About ten seconds later, her wristwatch goes off. She punches the emergency exit. The bell rings. The bars are trickier than she thought - good thing it's not a real fire - but eventually she gets them open. She throws her plank outside onto the parking lot, drags her body through just as she hears the rear door being unlocked. By the time the three-ringer has found that all-important light switch, she is banking a sharp turn into the front lot - which has turned into a jeek festival!

Every jeek in Southern Cal is here, it seems, driving their giant, wrecked taxicabs with alien livestock in the back seat, reeking of incense and sloshing neon-hued Airwicks! They have set up a giant eight-tubed hookah on the trunk of one of the cabs and are slurping up great mountain-man lungfuls of choking smoke.

And they're all staring at Hiro Protagonist, who is just staring back at them. Everyone in the parking lot looks completely astounded.

He must have made his approach from the rear - didn't realize that the front lot was full of jeeks. Whatever he was planning isn't going to work. The plan is screwed.

The manager comes running around from the back of the Buy 'n' Fly, sounding a bloodcurdling Taxilinga tocsin. He's got missile lock on Y.T.'s ass.

But the jeeks around the hookah don't care about Y.T. They've got missile lock on Hiro. They carefully hang the ornate silver nozzles on a rack built into the neck of the mega-bong. Then they start moving toward him, reaching into the folds of their robes, the inner pockets of their windbreakers.

Y.T. is distracted by a sharp hissing noise. Her eyes glance back at Hiro, and she sees that he has withdrawn a three-foot, curved sword from a scabbard, which she did not notice before. He has dropped into a squat. The blade of the sword glitters painfully under the killer security lights of the Buy 'n' Fly.

How sweet!

It would be an understatement to say that the hookah boys are taken aback. But they are not scared so much as they are confused. Almost undoubtedly, most of them have guns. So why is this guy trying to bother them with a sword?

She remembers that one of the multiple professions on Hiro's business card is Greatest sword fighter in the world. Can he really take out a whole clan of armed jeeks?

The manager's hand clenches her upper arm - like this is really going to stop her. She reaches across her body with the other hand and lets him have it with a brief squirt of Liquid Knuckles. He makes a muffled, distant grunt, his head snaps back, he lets go of her arm and staggers back wildly until he sprawls against another taxi, jamming the heels of both hands into his eye sockets.

Wait a sec. There's nobody in that particular taxi. But she can see a two-foot-long macrame keychain dangling from the ignition.

She tosses her plank through the window of the taxi, dives in after it (she's small, opening the door is optional), climbs in behind the driver's seat, sinking into a deep nest of wooden beads and air fresheners, grinds the motor, and takes off. Backward. Headed for the rear parking lot. The car was pointed outward, in taxicab style, ready for a quick getaway, which would be fine if she were by herself - but there is Hiro to think of. The radio is screaming, alive with hollered bursts of Taxilinga. She backs all the way around behind the Buy 'n' Fly. The back lot is strangely quiet and empty.

She shifts into drive and blasts back the way she came. The jeeks haven't quite had time to react, were expecting her to come out the other way. She screams it to a halt right next to Hiro, who has already had the presence of mind to put his sword back in its scabbard. He dives in the passenger-side window. Then she stops paying attention to him… She's got other stuff to look at, such as whether she's going to get broadsided as she pulls out onto the road.

She doesn't get broadsided, though a car has to squeal around her. She guns it out onto the highway. It responds as only an ancient taxicab will.

The only problem being that half a dozen other ancient taxicabs are now following them.

Something is pressing against Y.T.'s left thigh. She looks down. It is a remarkably huge revolver in a net bag hanging on the door panel.

She has to find someplace to pull into. If she could find a Nova Sicilia franchulate, that would do it - the Mafia owes her one. Or a New South Africa, which she hates. But the New South Africans hate jeeks even more.

Scratch that; Hiro is black, or at least part black. Can't take him into New South Africa. And because Y.T. is a Cauc, they can't go to Metazania.

"Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong," Hiro says. "Half mile ahead on the right."

"Nice thinking - but they won't let you in with your swords, will they?"

"Yes," he says, "because I'm a citizen."

Then she sees it. The sign stands out because it is a rare one. Don't see many of these. It is a green-and-blue sign, soothing and calm in a glare-torn franchise ghetto. It says:

MR. LEE'S GREATER HONG KONG

Explosive noise from in back. Her head smacks into the whiplash arrestor. Another taxi rear-ended them.

And she screams into the parking lot of Mr. Lee's doing seventy-five. The security system doesn't even have time to rez her visa and drop the STD, so it's Severe Tire Damage all the way, those bald radials are left behind on the spikes. Sparking along on four naked rims, she shrieks to a stop on the lawngrid, which doubles as carbon dioxide-eating turf and impervious parking lot.

She and Hiro climb out of the car.

Hiro is grinning wildly, pinioned in the crossfire of a dozen red laser beams scanning him from every direction at once. The Hong Kong robot security system is checking him out. Her, too; she looks down to see the lasers scribbling across her chest.

"Welcome to Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, Mr. Protagonist," the security system says through a P.A. speaker. "And welcome to your guest, Ms. Y.T."

The other taxis have stopped in formation along the curb. Several of them overshot the Hong Kong franchise and had to back up a block or so. A barrage of doors thunking shut. Some of them don't bother, just leave the engines running and the doors wide open. Three jeeks linger on the sidewalk, eyeing the tire shreds impaled on spikes: long streaks of neoprene sprouting steel and fiberglass hairs, like ruined toupees. One of them has a revolver in his hand, pointed straight down at the sidewalk.

Four more jeeks run up to join them. Y.T. counts two more revolvers and a pump shotgun. Any more of these guys and they'll be able to form a government.

They step carefully over the spikes and onto the lush Hong Kong lawngrid. As they do, the lasers appear once more. The jeeks turn all red and grainy for a second.

Then something different happens. Lights come on. The security system wants better illumination on these people.

Hong Kong franchulates are famous for their lawngrids - whoever heard of a lawn you could park on? - and for their antennas. They all look like NASA research facilities with their antennas. Some of them are satellite uplinks, pointed at the sky. But some of them, tiny little antennas, are pointed at the ground, at the lawngrid.

Y.T. does not really get this, but these small antennas are millimeter-wave radar transceivers. Like any other radar, they are good at picking up metallic objects. Unlike the radar in an air traffic control center, they can rez fine details. The rez of a system is only as fine as its wavelength; since the wavelength of this radar is about a millimeter, it can see the fillings in your teeth, the grommets in your Converse high-tops, the rivets in your Levi's. It can calculate the value of your pocket change.

Seeing guns is not a problem. This thing can even tell if the guns are loaded, and with what sort of ammunition. That is an important function, because guns are illegal in Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong.

11

It doesn't seem polite to hang around and gawk over the fact that Da5id's computer crashed. A lot of the younger hackers are doing just that, as a way of showing all the other hackers how knowledgeable they are. Hiro shrugs it off and turns back in the direction of the Rock Star Quadrant. He still wants to see Sushi K's hairdo.

But his path is being blocked by the Nipponese man - the neo-traditional. The guy with the swords. He's facing off against Hiro, about two sword-lengths apart, and it doesn't look like he intends to move.

Hiro does the polite thing. He bows at the waist, straightens up.

The businessman does the much less polite thing. He looks Hiro rather carefully up and down, then returns the bow. Sort of.

"These - " the businessman says. "Very nice."

"Thank you, sir. Please feel free to converse in Nipponese if you prefer."

"This is what your avatar wears. You do not carry such weapons in Reality," the businessman says. In English.

"I'm sorry to be difficult, but in fact, I do carry such weapons in Reality," Hiro says.

"Exactly like these?"

"Exactly."

"These are ancient weapons, then," the businessman says.

"Yes, I believe they are."

"How did you come to be in possession of such important family heirlooms from Nippon?" the businessman says.

Hiro knows the subtext here: What do you use those swords for, boy, slicing watermelon?

"They are now my family heirlooms," Hiro says. "My father won them."

"Won them? Gambling?"

"Single combat. It was a struggle between my father and a Nipponese officer. The story is quite complicated."

"Please excuse me if I have misinterpreted your story," the businessman says, "but I was under the impression that men of your race were not allowed to fight during that war."

"Your impression is correct," Hiro says. "My father was a truck driver."

"Then how did he come to be in hand-to-hand combat with a Nipponese officer?"

"The incident took place outside a prisoner-of-war camp," Hiro says. "My father and another prisoner tried to escape. They were pursued by a number of Nipponese soldiers and the officer who owned these swords."

"Your story is very difficult to believe," the businessman says, "because your father could not have survived such an escape long enough to pass the swords on to his son. Nippon is an island nation. There is nowhere he could have escaped to."

"This happened very late in the war," Hiro says, "and this camp was just outside of Nagasaki."

The businessman chokes, reddens, nearly loses it. His left hand reaches up to grip the scabbard of his sword. Hiro looks around; suddenly they are in the center of an open circle of people some ten yards across.

"Do you think that the manner in which you came to possess these swords was honorable?" the businessman says.

"If I did not, I would long since have returned them," Hiro says.

"Then you will not object to losing them in the same fashion," the businessman says.

"Nor will you object to losing yours," Hiro says.

The businessman reaches across his body with his right hand, grips the handle of his sword just below the guard, draws it out, snaps it forward so it's pointing at Hiro, then places his left hand on the grip just below the right.

Hiro does the same.

Both of them bend their knees, dropping into a low squat while keeping the torso bolt upright, then stand up again and shuffle their feet into the proper stance - feet parallel, both pointed straight ahead, right foot in front of the left foot.

The businessman turns out to have a lot of zanshin. Translating this concept into English is like translating "fuckface" into Nipponese, but it might translate into "emotional intensity" in football lingo. He charges directly at Hiro, hollering at the top of his lungs. The movement actually consists of a very rapid shuffling motion of the feet, so that he stays balanced at all times. At the last moment, he draws the sword up over his head and snaps it down toward Hiro. Hiro brings his own sword up, rotating it around sideways so that the handle is up high, above and to the left of his face, and the blade slopes down and to the right, providing a roof above him. The businessman's blow bounces off this roof like rain, and then Hiro sidesteps to let him go by and snaps the sword down toward his unprotected shoulder. But the businessman is moving too fast, and Hiro's timing is off. The blade cuts behind and to the side of the businessman.

Both men wheel to face each other, back up, get back into the stance.

"Emotional intensity" doesn't convey the half of it, of course. It is the kind of coarse and disappointing translation that makes the dismembered bodies of samurai warriors spin in their graves. The word "zanshin" is larded down with a lot of other folderol that you have to be Nipponese to understand.

And Hiro thinks, frankly, that most of it is pseudomystical crap, on the same level as his old high school football coach exhorting his men to play at 110 percent.

The businessman makes another attack. This one is pretty straightforward: a quick shuffling approach and then a snapping cut in the direction of Hiro's ribcage. Hiro parries it.

Now Hiro knows something about this businessman, namely, that like most Nipponese sword fighters, all he knows is kendo.

Kendo is to real samurai sword fighting what fencing is to real swashbuckling: an attempt to take a highly disorganized, chaotic, violent, and brutal conflict and turn it into a cute game. As in fencing, you're only supposed to attack certain parts of the body - the parts that are protected by armor. As in fencing, you're not allowed to kick your opponent in the kneecaps or break a chair over his head. And the judging is totally subjective. In kendo, you can get a good solid hit on your opponent and still not get credit for it, because the judges feel you didn't possess the right amount of zanshin.

Hiro doesn't have any zanshin at all. He just wants this over with. The next time the businessman sets up his ear-splitting screech and shuffles toward Hiro, cutting and snapping his blade, Hiro parries the attack, turns around, and cuts both of his legs off just above the knees.

The businessman collapses to the floor.

It takes a lot of practice to make your avatar move through the Metaverse like a real person. When your avatar has just lost its legs, all that skill goes out the window.

"Well, land sakes!" Hiro says. "Lookee here!" He whips his blade sideways, cutting off both of the businessman's forearms, causing the sword to clatter onto the floor.

"Better fire up the ol' barbecue, Jemima!" Hiro continues, whipping the sword around sideways, cutting the businessman's body in half just above the navel. Then he leans down so he's looking right into the businessman's face. "Didn't anyone tell you," he says, losing the dialect, "that I was a hacker?"

Then he hacks the guy's head off. It falls to the floor, does a half-roll, and comes to rest staring straight up at the ceiling. So Hiro steps back a couple of paces and mumbles, "Safe."

A largish safe, about a meter on a side, materializes just below the ceiling, plummets, and lands directly on the businessman's head. The impact drives both the safe and the head straight down through the floor of The Black Sun, leaving a square hole in the floor, exposing the tunnel system underneath. The rest of the dismembered body is still strewn around the floor.

At this moment, a Nipponese businessman somewhere, in a nice hotel in London or an office in Tokyo or even in the first-class lounge of the LATH, the Los Angeles/Tokyo Hypersonic, is sitting in front of his computer, red-faced and sweating, looking at The Black Sun Hall of Fame. He has been cut off from contact with The Black Sun itself, disconnected as it were from the Metaverse, and is just seeing a two-dimensional display. The top ten swordsmen of all time are shown along with their photographs. Beneath is a scrolling list of numbers and names, starting with #11. He can scroll down the list if he wants to find his own ranking. The screen helpfully informs him that he is currently ranked number 863 out of 890 people who have ever participated in a sword fight in The Black Sun.

Number One, the name and the photograph on the top of the list, belongs to Hiroaki Protagonist.

12

Ng Security Industries Semi-Autonomous Guard Unit #A-367 lives in a pleasant black-and-white Metaverse where porterhouse steaks grow on trees, dangling at head level from low branches, and blood-drenched Frisbees fly through the crisp, cool air for no reason at all, until you catch them.

He has a little yard all to himself. It has a fence around it. He knows he can't jump over the fence. He's never actually tried to jump it, because he knows be can't. He doesn't go into the yard unless he has to. It's hot out there.

He has an important job: Protect the yard. Sometimes people come in and out of the yard. Most of the time, they are good people, and he doesn't bother them. He doesn't know why they are good people. He just knows it. Sometimes they are bad people, and he has to do bad things to them to make them go away. This is fitting and proper.

Out in the world beyond his yard, there are other yards with other doggies just like him. These aren't nasty dogs. They are all his friends.

The closest neighbor doggie is far away, farther than he can see. But he can hear this doggie bark sometimes, when a bad person approaches his yard. He can hear other neighbor doggies, too, a whole pack of them stretching off into the distance, in all directions. He belongs to a big pack of nice doggies.

He and the other nice doggies bark whenever a stranger comes into their yard, or even near it. The stranger doesn't hear him, but all the other doggies in the pack do. If they live nearby, they get excited. They wake up and get ready to do bad things to that stranger if he should try to come into their yard.

When a neighbor doggie barks at a stranger, pictures and sounds and smells come into his mind along with the bark. He suddenly knows what that stranger looks like. What he smells like. How he sounds. Then, if that stranger should come anywhere near his yard, he will recognize him. He will help spread the bark along to other nice doggies so that the entire pack can all be prepared to fight the stranger.

Tonight, Semi-Autonomous Guard Unit #A-367 is barking. He is not just passing some other doggie's bark to the pack. He is barking because he feels very excited about things that are happening in his yard.

First, two people come in. This made him excited because they came in very fast. Their hearts are beating quickly and they are sweating and they smell scared. He looked at these two people to see if they were carrying bad things.

The little one is carrying things that are a little naughty, but not really bad. The big one is carrying some pretty bad things. But he knows, somehow, that the big one is okay. He belongs in this yard. He is not a stranger; he lives here. And the little one is his guest.

Still, he senses there is something exciting happening. He starts to bark. The people in the yard don't hear him barking. But all the other nice doggies in the pack, far away, hear him, and when they do, they see these two scared, nice people, smell them, and hear them.

Then more people come into his yard. They are also excited; he can hear their hearts beating. Saliva floods his mouth as he smells the hot salty blood pumping through their arteries. These people are excited and angry and just a little bit scared. They don't live here; they are strangers. He doesn't like strangers very much.

He looks at them and sees that they are carrying three revolvers, a.38 and two.357 magnums; that the.38 is loaded with hollow-points, one of the.357s is loaded with Teflon bullets and has also been cocked; and that the pump shotgun is loaded with buckshot and already has a shell chambered, plus four more shells in its magazine.

The things that the strangers are carrying are bad. Scary things. He gets excited. He gets angry. He gets a little bit scared, but he likes being scared, to him it is the same thing as being excited. Really, he has only two emotions: sleeping and adrenaline overdrive.

The bad stranger with the shotgun is raising his weapon!

It is an utterly terrible thing. A lot of bad, excited strangers are invading his yard with evil things, come to hurt the nice visitors.

He barely has time to bark out a warning to the other nice doggies before he launches himself from his doghouse, propelled on a white-hot jet of pure, feral emotion.

In Y.T.'s peripheral vision she sees a brief flash, hears a clunking noise. She looks over in that direction to see that the source of the light is a sort of doggie door built into the side of the Hong Kong franchise. The doggie door has in the very recent past been slammed open by something coming from the inside, headed for the lawngrid with the speed and determination of a howitzer shell.

As all of this registers on Y.T.'s mind, she begins to hear the shouting of the jeeks. This shouting is not angry and not scared either. No one has had time to get scared yet. It is the shouting of someone who has just had a bucket of ice water dumped over his head.

This shouting is still getting underway, she is still turning her head to look at the jeeks, when the doggie door emits another burst of light. Her eyes flick that-a-way; she thinks that she saw something, a long round shadow cross-sectioned in the light for a blurry instant as the door was being slammed inward. But when her eyes focus on it, she sees nothing except the oscillating door, same as before. These are the only impressions left on her mind, except for one more detail: a train of sparks that danced across the lawngrid from the doggie door to the jeeks and back again during this one-second event, like a skyrocket glancing across the lot.

People say that the Rat Thing runs on four legs. Perhaps the claws on its robot legs made those sparks as they were digging into the lawngrid for traction.

The jeeks are all in motion. Some of them have just been body-slammed into the lawngrid and are still bouncing and rolling. Others are still in mid-collapse. They are unarmed. They are reaching to grip their gun hands with the opposite hands, still hollering, though now their voices are tinged with a certain amount of fear. One of them has had his trousers torn from the waistband all the way down to the ankle, and a strip of fabric is trailing out across the lot, as though he had his pocket picked by something that was in too much of a hurry to let go of the actual pocket before it left. Maybe this guy had a knife in his pocket.

There is no blood anywhere. The Rat Thing is precise. Still they hold their hands and holler. Maybe it's true what they say, that the Rat Thing gives you an electrical shock when it wants you to let go of something.

"Look out," she hears herself saying, "they got guns."

Hiro turns and grins at her. His teeth are very white and straight; he has a sharp grin, a carnivore's grin. "No, they don't. Guns are illegal in Hong Kong, remember?"

"They had guns just a second ago," Y.T. says, bulging her eyes and shaking her head.

"The Rat Thing has them now," Hiro says.

The jeeks all decide they better leave. They run out and get into their taxis and take off, tires asqueal.

Y.T. backs the taxi on its rims out over the STD and into the street, where she grindingly parallel parks it. She goes back into the Hong Kong franchise, a nebula of aromatic freshness trailing behind her like the tail of a comet. She is thinking, oddly enough, about what it would be like to climb into the back of the car with Hiro Protagonist for a while. Pretty nice, probably. But she'd have to take out the dentata, and this isn't the place. Besides, anyone decent enough to come help her escape from The Clink probably has some kind of scruples about boffing fifteen-year-old girls.

"That was nice of you," he says, nodding at the parked taxi. "Are you going to pay for his tires, too?"

"No. Are you?"

"I'm having some cash flow problems."

She stands there in the middle of the Hong Kong lawngrid. They look each other up and down, carefully.

"I called my boyfriend. But he flaked out on me," she says.

"Another thrasher?"

"The same."

"You made the same mistake I made once," he says.

"What's that?"

"Mixing business with pleasure. Going out with a colleague. It gets very confusing."

"Yeah. I see what you mean." She's not exactly sure what a colleague is.

"I was thinking that we should be partners," she says.

She's expecting him to laugh at her. But instead he grins and nods his head slightly. "The same thing occurred to me. But I'd have to think about how it would work."

She is astounded that he would actually be thinking this. Then she gets the sap factor under control and realizes: He's waffling. Which means he's probably lying. This is probably going to end with him trying to get her into bed.

"I gotta go," she says. "Gotta get home."

Now we'll see how fast he loses interest in the partnership concept. She turns her back on him.

Suddenly, they are impaled on Hong Kong robot spotlights one more time.

Y.T. feels a sharp bruising pain in her ribs, as though someone punched her. But it wasn't Hiro. He is an unpredictable freak who carries swords, but she can smell chick-punchers a mile off.

"Ow!" she says, twisting away from the impact. She looks down to see a small heavy object bouncing on the ground at their feet. Out in the street, an ancient taxi squeals its tires, getting the hell out of there. A jeek is hanging out the rear window, shaking his fist at them. He must have thrown a rock at her.

Except it's not a rock. The heavy thing at her feet, the thing that just bounced off of Y.T.'s ribcage, is a hand grenade. She stares for a second, recognizing it, a well-known cartoon icon made real.

Then her feet get knocked out from under her, too fast really to hurt. And just when she's getting reoriented to that, there is a painfully loud bang from another part of the parking lot.

And then everything finally stops long enough to be seen and understood.

The Rat Thing has stopped. Which they never do. It's part of their mystery that you never get to see them, they move so fast. No one knows what they look like.

No one except for Y.T. and Hiro, now.

It's bigger than she imagined. The body is Rottweiler-sized, segmented into overlapping hard plates like those of a rhinoceros. The legs are long, curled way up to deliver power, like a cheetah's. It must be the tail that makes people refer to it as a Rat Thing, because that's the only ratlike part-incredibly long and flexible. But it looks like a rat's tail with the flesh eaten away by acid, because it just consists of segments, hundreds of them neatly plugged together, like vertebrae.

"Jesus H. Christ!" Hiro says. And she knows, from that, that he's never seen one either.

Right now, the tail is coiled and piled around on top of the Rat Thing's body like a rope that has fallen out of a tree. Parts of it are trying to move, other parts of it look dead and inert. The legs are moving one by one, spasmodically, not acting in concert. The whole thing just looks terribly wrong, like footage of an airplane that has had its tail blown off, trying to maneuver for a landing. Even someone who is not an engineer can see that it has gone all perverse and twisted.

The tail writhes and lashes like a snake, uncoils itself, rises up off the Rat Thing's body, gets out of the way of its legs. But still the legs have problems; it can't get itself up

"Y.T.," Hiro is saying, "don't."

She does. One footstep at a time, she approaches the Rat Thing.

"It's dangerous, in case you hadn't noticed," Hiro says, following her a few paces behind. "They say it has biological components."

"Biological components?"

"Animal parts. So it might be unpredictable."

She likes animals. She keeps walking.

She's seeing it better now. It's not all armor and muscle. A lot of it actually looks kind of flimsy. It has short stubby winglike things projecting from its body: A big one from each shoulder and a row of smaller ones down the length of its spine, like on a stegosaurus. Her Knight Visions tell her that these things are hot enough to bake pizzas on. As she approaches, they seem to unfold and grow.

They are blooming like flowers in an educational film, spreading and unfolding to reveal a fine complicated internal structure that has been all collapsed together inside. Each stubby wing splits off into little miniature copies of itself, and each of those in turn splits off into more smaller copies and so on forever. The smallest ones are just tiny bits of foil, so small that, from a distance, the edges look fuzzy.

It is continuing to get hotter. The little wings are almost red hot now. Y.T. slides her goggles up onto her forehead and cups her hands around her face to block out the surrounding lights, and sure enough she can see them beginning to make a dull brownish glow, like an electric stove element that has just been turned on. The grass underneath the Rat Thing is beginning to smoke.

"Careful. Supposedly they have really nasty isotopes inside," Hiro says behind her. He has come up a little closer now, but he's still hanging way back.

"What's an isotope?"

"A radioactive substance that makes heat. That's its energy source."

"How do you turn it off?"

"You don't. It keeps making heat until it melts."

Y.T. is only a few feet away from the Rat Thing now, and she can feel the heat on her checks. The wings have unfolded as far as they can go. At their roots they are a bright yellow-orange, fading out through red and brown to their delicate edges, which are still dark. The acrid smoke of the burning grass obscures some of the details.

She thinks: The edges of the wings look like something I've seen before. They look like the thin metal vanes that run up the outside of a window air conditioner, the ones that you can write your name in by mashing them down with your finger.

Or like the radiator on a car. The fan blows air over the radiator to cool off the engine.

"It's got radiators," she says. "The Rat Thing has got radiators to cool off." She's gathering intel right at this very moment.

But it's not cooling off. It's just getting hotter.

Y.T. surfs through traffic jams for a living. That's her economic niche: beating the traffic. And she knows that a car doesn't boil over when it is speeding down an open freeway. It boils over when it is stopped in traffic. Because when it sits still, not enough air is being blown over the radiator.

That's what's happening to the Rat Thing right now. It has to keep moving, keep forcing air over its radiators, or else it overheats and melts down.

"Cool," she says. "I wonder if it's going to blow up or what."

The body converges to a sharp nose. In the front it bends down sharply, and there is a black glass canopy, raked sharply like the windshield of a fighter plane. If the Rat Thing has eyes, this is where it looks out.

Under that, where the jaw should be are the remains of some kind of mechanical stuff that has been mostly blown off by the explosion of the grenade.

The black glass windshield - or facemask, or whatever you call it - has a hole blown through it. Big enough that Y.T. could put her hand through. On the other side of that hole, it's dark and she can't see much, especially so close to the bright orange glare coming from the radiators. But she can see that red stuff is coming out from inside. And it ain't no Dexron II. The Rat Thing is hurt and it's bleeding.

"This thing is real," she says. "It's got blood in its veins." She's thinking: This is intel. This is intel. I can make money off this with my pardner - my pod - Hiro.

Then she thinks: The poor thing is burning itself alive.

"Don't do it. Don't touch it, Y.T.," Hiro says.

She steps right up to it, flips her goggles down to protect her face from the heat. The Rat Thing's legs stop their spasmodic movements, as though waiting for her.

She bends down and grabs its front legs. They react, tightening their pushrod muscles against the pull of her hands. It's exactly like grabbing a dog by the front legs and asking it to dance. This thing is alive. It reacts to her. She knows.

She looks up at Hiro, just to make sure he's taking this all in. He is.

"Jerk!" she says. "I stick my neck out and say I want to be your partner, and you say you want to think about it? What's your problem, I'm not good enough to work with you?"

She leans back and begins dragging the Rat Thing backward across the lawngrid. It's incredibly light. No wonder it can run so fast. She could pick it up, if she felt like burning herself alive.

As she drags it backward toward the doggie door, it brands a blackened, smoking trail into the lawngrid. She can see steam rising up out of her coverall, old sweat and stuff boiling out of the fabric. She's small enough to fit through the doggie door - another thing she can do and Hiro can't. Usually these things are locked, she's tried to mess with them. But this one is opened.

Inside, the franchise is bright, white, robot-polished floors. A few feet from the doggie door is what looks like a black washing machine. This is the Rat Thing's hutch, where it lurks in darkness and privacy, waiting for a job to do. It is wired into the franchise by a thick cable coming out of the wall. Right now, the hutch's door is hanging open, which is another thing she's never seen before. And steam is rolling out from inside of it.

Not steam. Cold stuff. Like when you open your freezer door on a humid day.

She pushes the Rat Thing into its hutch. Some kind of cold liquid sprays out of all the walls and bursts into steam before it even reaches the Rat Thing's body, and the steam comes blasting out the front of the hutch so powerfully that it knocks her on her ass.

The long tail is strung out the front of the hutch, across the floor, and out through the doggie door. She picks up part of it, the sharp machine-tooled edges of its vertebrae pinching her gloves.

Suddenly it tenses, comes alive, vibrates for a second. She jerks her hands back. The tail shoots back inside the hutch like a rubber band snapping. She can't even see it move. Then the hutch door slams shut. A janitor robot, a Hoover with a brain, hums out of another doorway to clean the long streaks of blood off the floor.

Above her, hanging on the foyer wall facing the main entrance, is a framed poster with a garland of well-browned jasmine blossoms hung around it. It consists of a photo of the wildly grinning Mr. Lee, with the usual statement underneath:

WELCOME!

It is my pleasure to welcome all quality folks to visiting of Hong Kong. Whether seriously in business or on a fun-loving hijink, make yourself totally homely in this meager environment. If any aspect is not utterly harmonious, gratefully bring it to my notice and I shall strive to earn your satisfaction.

We of Greater Hong Kong take many prides in our tiny nation's extravagant growth. The ones who saw our isle as a morsel of Red China's pleasure have struck their faces in keen astonishment to see many great so-called powers of the olden guard reel in dismay before our leaping strides and charged-up hustling, freewheeling idiom of high-tech personal accomplishment and betterment of all peoples. The potentials of all ethnic races and anthropologies to merge under a banner of the Three Principles to follow

1. Information, information, information!

2. Totally fair marketeering!

3. Strict ecology!

have been peerless in the history of economic strife.

Who would disdain to subscribe under this flowing banner? If you have not attained your Hong Kong citizenship, apply for a passport now! In this month, the usual fee of HK$100 will be kindly neglected. Fill out a coupon (below) now. If coupons are lacking, dial 1-800-HONG KONG instantly to apply from the help of our wizened operators.

Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong is a private, wholly extraterritorial, sovereign, quasi-national entity not recognized by any other nationalities and in no way affiliated with the former Crown Colony of Hong Kong, which is part of the People's Republic of China. The People's Republic of China admits or accepts no responsibility for Mr. Lee, the Government of Greater Hong Kong, or any of the citizens thereof, or for any violations of local law, personal injury, or property damage occurring in territories, buildings, municipalities, institutions, or real estate owned, occupied, or claimed by Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong.

Join us instantly!

Your enterprising partner,

Mr. Lee

Back in his cool little house, Semi-Autonomous Guard Unit #A-367 is howling. Outside in the yard, it was very hot and he felt bad. Whenever he is out in the yard, he gets hot unless he keeps running. When he got hurt and had to lie down for a long time, he felt hotter than he had ever been before.

Now he doesn't feel hot anymore. But he is still hurt. He is howling his injured howl. He is telling all the neighbor doggies that he needs help. They feel sad and upset and repeat his howl and pass it along to all the rest of the doggies.

Soon he hears the vet's car approaching. The nice vet will come and make him feel better.

He starts barking again. He is telling all the other doggies about how the bad strangers came and hurt him. And how hot it was out in the yard when he had to lie down. And how the nice girl helped him and took him back to his cool house.

Right in front of the Hong Kong franchise, Y.T. notices a black Town Car that has been sitting there for a while. She doesn't have to see the plates to know it's Mafia. Only the Mafia drives cars like that. The windows are blackened, but she knows someone's in there keeping an eye on her. How do they do it? You see these Town Cars everywhere, but you never see them move, never see them get anyplace. She's not even sure they have engines in them.

"Okay. Sorry," Hiro says. "I keep my own thing going, but we have a partnership for any intel you can dig up. Fifty-fifty split."

"Deal," she says, climbing onto her plank.

"Call me anytime. You have my card."

"Hey, that reminds me. Your card said you're into the three Ms of software."

"Yeah. Music, movies, and microcode."

"You heard of Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns?"

"No. Is that a band?"

"Yeah. It's the greatest band. You should check it out, homeboy, it's going to be the next big thing."

She coasts out onto the road and poons an Audi with Blooming Greens license plates. It ought to take her home. Mom's probably in bed, pretending to sleep, being worried.

Half a block from the entrance to Blooming Greens, she unpoons the Audi and coasts into a McDonald's. She goes into the ladies'. It has a hung ceiling. She stands on the seat of the third toilet, pushes up one of the ceiling tiles, moves it aside. A cotton sleeve tumbles out, bearing a delicate floral print. She pulls on it and hauls down the whole ensemble, the blouse, the pleated skirt, underwear from Vicky's, the leather shoes, the necklace and earrings, even a fucking purse. She takes off her RadiKS coverall, wads it up, sticks it into the ceiling, replaces the loose tile. Then she puts on the ensemble.

Now she looks just like she did when she had breakfast with Mom this morning.

She carries her plank down the street to Blooming Greens, where it's legal to carry them but not to put them on the 'crete. She flashes her passport at the border post, walks a quarter of a mile down crisp new sidewalks, and up to the house where the porch light is on.

Mom's sitting in the den, in front of her computer, as usual. Mom works for the Feds. Feds don't make much money, but they have to work hard, to show their loyalty.

Y.T. goes in and looks at her mother, who has slumped down in her chair, put her hands around her face almost like she's vogueing, put bare stockinged feet up. She wears these awful cheap Fed stockings that are like scouring cloth, and when she walks, her thighs rub together underneath her skirt and make a rasping noise. There is a heavy-duty Ziploc bag on the table, full of water that used to be ice a couple of hours ago. Y.T. looks at Mom's left arm. She has rolled up her sleeve to expose the fresh bruise, just above her elbow, where they put the blood-pressure cuff. Weekly Fed polygraph test.

"Is that you?" Mom shouts, not realizing that Y.T.'s in the room.

Y.T. retreats into the kitchen so she won't surprise her mother. "Yeah, Mom," she shouts back. "How was your day?"

"I'm tired," Mom says. It's what she always says.

Y.T. pinches a beer from the fridge and starts running a hot bath. It makes a roaring sound that relaxes her, like the white-noise generator on Morn's nightstand.

13

The Nipponese businessman lies cut in segments on The Black Sun's floor. Surprisingly (he looks so real when he's in one piece), no flesh, blood, or organs are visible through the new crossections that Hiro's sword made through his body. He is nothing more than a thin shell of epidermis, an incredibly complex inflatable doll. But the air does not rush out of him, he fails to collapse, and you can look into the aperture of a sword cut and see, instead of bones and meat, the back of the skin on the other side.

It breaks the metaphor. The avatar is not acting like a real body. It reminds all The Black Sun's patrons that they are living in a fantasy world. People hate to be reminded of this.

When Hiro wrote The Black Sun's sword-fighting algorithms - code that was later picked up and adopted by the entire Metaverse - he discovered that there was no good way to handle the aftermath. Avatars are not supposed to die. Not supposed to fall apart. The creators of the Metaverse had not been morbid enough to foresee a demand for this kind of thing. But the whole point of a sword fight is to cut someone up and kill them. So Hiro had to kludge something together, in order that the Metaverse would not, over time, become littered with inert, dismembered avatars that never decayed.

So the first thing that happens, when someone loses a sword fight, is that his computer gets disconnected from the global network that is the Metaverse. He gets chucked right out of the system. It is the closest simulation of death that the Metaverse can offer, but all it really does is cause the user a lot of annoyance.

Furthermore, the user finds that he can't get back into the Metaverse for a few minutes. He can't log back on. This is because his avatar, dismembered, is still in the Metaverse, and it's a rule that your avatar can't exist in two places at once. So the user can't get back in until his avatar has been disposed of.

Disposal of hacked-up avatars is taken care of by Graveyard Daemons, a new Metaverse feature that Hiro had to invent. They are small lithe persons swathed in black, like ninjas, not even their eyes showing. They are quiet and efficient. Even as Hiro is stepping back from the hacked-up body of his former opponent, they are emerging from invisible trapdoors in The Black Sun's floor, climbing up out of the netherworld, converging on the fallen businessman. Within seconds, they have stashed the body parts into black bags. Then they climb back down through their secret trapdoors and vanish into hidden tunnels beneath The Black Sun's floor. A couple of curious patrons try to follow them, try to pry open the trapdoors, but their avatars' fingers find nothing but smooth matte black. The tunnel system is accessible only to the Graveyard Daemons.

And, incidentally, to Hiro. But he rarely uses it.

The Graveyard Daemons will take the avatar to the Pyre, an eternal, underground bonfire beneath the center of The Black Sun, and burn it. As soon as the flames consume the avatar, it will vanish from the Metaverse, and then its owner will be able to sign on as usual, creating a new avatar to run around in. But, hopefully, he will be more cautious and polite the next time around.

Hiro looks up into the circle of applauding, whistling, and cheering avatars and notes that they are fading out. The entire Black Sun now looks like it is being projected on gauze. On the other side of that gauze, bright lights shine through, overwhelming the image. Then it disappears entirely.

He peels off his goggles. and finds himself standing in the parking lot of the U-Stor-It, holding a naked katana.

The sun has just gone down. A couple of dozen people are standing around him at a great distance, shielding themselves behind parked cars, awaiting his next move. Most of them are pretty scared, but a few of them are just plain excited.

Vitaly Chernobyl is standing in the open door of their 20-by-30. His hairdo is backlighted. It has been petrified by means of egg whites and other proteins. These substances refract the light and throw off tiny little spectral fragments, a cluster-bombed rainbow. Right now, a miniature image of The Black Sun is being projected onto Vitaly's ass by Hiro's computer. He is rocking unsteadily from foot to foot, as though standing on both of them at the same time is too complicated to deal with this early in the day, and he hasn't decided which one to use.

"You're blocking me," Hiro says.

"It's time to go," Vitaly says.

"You're telling me it's time to go? I've been waiting for you to wake up for an hour."

As Hiro approaches, Vitaly watches his sword uncertainly. Vitaly's eyes are dry and red, and on his lower lip he is sporting a chancre the size of a tangerine.

"Did you win your sword fight?"

"Of course I won the fucking sword fight," Hiro says. "I'm the greatest sword fighter in the world."

"And you wrote the software."

"Yeah. That, too," Hiro says.

After Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns arrived in Long Beach on one of those hijacked ex-Soviet refugee freighters, they fanned out across southern California looking for expanses of reinforced concrete that were as vast and barren as the ones they had left behind in Kiev. They weren't homesick. They needed such environments in order to practice their art.

The L.A. River was a natural site. And there were plenty of nice overpasses. All they had to do was follow skateboarders to the secret places they had long since discovered. Thrashers and nuclear fuzz-grunge collectives thrive in the same environment. That's where Vitaly and Hiro are going right now.

Vitaly has a really old VW Vanagon, the kind with a pop-top that turns it into a makeshift camper. He used to live in it, staying on the street or in various Snooze 'n' Cruise franchises, until he met up with Hiro Protagonist. Now, the ownership of the Vanagon is subject to dispute, because Vitaly owes Hiro more money than it is technically worth. So they share it.

They drive the Vanagon around to the other side of the U-Stor-It, honking the horn and flashing the lights in order to shoo a hundred little kids away from the loading dock. It's not a playground, kids.

They pick their way down a broad corridor, excusing themselves every inch of the way as they step over little Mayan encampments and Buddhist shrines and white trash stoned on Vertigo, Apple Pie, Fuzzy Buzzy, Narthex, Mustard, and the like. The floor needs sweeping: used syringes, crack vials, charred spoons, pipe stems. There are also many little tubes, about thumb sized, transparent plastic with a red cap on one end. They might be crack vials, but the caps are still on them, and pipeheads wouldn't be so fastidious as to replace the lid on an empty vial. It must be something new Hiro hasn't heard of before, the McDonald's styrofoam burger box of drug containers.

They push through a fire door into another section of the U-Stor-It, which looks the same as the last one (everything looks the same in America, there are no transitions now). Vitaly owns the third locker on the right, a puny 5-by-10 that he is actually using for its intended purpose: storage.

Vitaly steps up to the door and commences trying to remember the combination to the padlock, which involves a certain amount of random guessing. Finally, the lock snaps and pops open. Vitaly shoots the bolt and swings the door open, sweeping a clean half-circle through the drug paraphernalia. Most of the 5-by-10 is occupied by a couple of large four-wheeled flatbed handcarts piled high with speakers and amps.

Hiro and Vitaly wheel the carts down to the loading dock, put the stuff into the Vanagon, and then return the empty carts to the 5-by-10. Technically, the carts are community property, but no one believes that.

The drive to the scene of the concert is long, made longer by the fact that Vitaly, rejecting the technocentric L.A. view of the universe in which Speed is God, likes to stay on the surface and drive at about thirty-five miles per hour. Traffic is not great, either. So Hiro jacks his computer into the cigarette lighter and goggles into the Metaverse.

He is no longer connected to the network by a fiberoptic cable, and so all his communication with the outside world has to take place via radio waves, which are much slower and less reliable. Going into The Black Sun would not be practical - it would look and sound terrible, and the other patrons would look at him as if he were some kind of black-and-white person. But there's no problem with going into his office, because that's generated within the guts of his computer, which is sitting on his lap; he doesn't need any communication with the outside world for that.

He materializes in his office, in his nice little house in the old hacker neighborhood just off the Street. It is all quite Nipponese: tatami mats cover the floor. His desk is a great, ruddy slab of rough-sawn mahogany. Silvery cloud-light filters through ricepaper walls. A panel in front of him slides open to reveal a garden, complete with babbling brook and steelhead trout jumping out from time to time to grab flies. Technically speaking, the pond should be full of carp, but Hiro is American enough to think of carp as inedible dinosaurs that sit on the bottom and eat sewage.

There is something new: A globe about the size of a grapefruit, a perfectly detailed rendition of Planet Earth, hanging in space at arm's length in front of his eyes. Hiro has heard about this but never seen it. It is a piece of CIC software called, simply, Earth. It is the user interface that CIC uses to keep track of every bit of spatial information that it owns - all the maps, weather data, architectural plans, and satellite surveillance stuff.

Hiro has been thinking that in a few years, if he does really well in the intel biz, maybe he will make enough money to subscribe to Earth and get this thing in his office. Now it is suddenly here, free of charge. The only explanation he can come up with is that Juanita must have given it to him.

But first things first. The Babel/Infocalypse card is still in his avatar's pocket. He takes it out.

One of the rice-paper panels that make up the walls of his office slides open. On the other side of it, Hiro can see a large, dimly lit room that wasn't there before; apparently Juanita came in and made a major addition to his house as well. A man walks into the office.

The Librarian daemon looks like a pleasant, fiftyish, silver-haired, bearded man with bright blue eyes, wearing a V-neck sweater over a work shirt, with a coarsely woven, tweedy-looking wool tie. The tie is loosened, the sleeves pushed up. Even though he's just a piece of software, he has reason to be cheerful; he can move through the nearly infinite stacks of information in the Library with the agility of a spider dancing across a vast web of crossreferences. The Librarian is the only piece of CIC software that costs even more than Earth; the only thing he can't do is think.

"Yes, sir," the Librarian says. He is eager without being obnoxiously chipper; he clasps his hands behind his back, rocks forward slightly on the balls of his feet, raises his eyebrows expectantly over his half-glasses.

"Babel's a city in Babylon, right?"

"It was a legendary city," the Librarian says. "Babel is a Biblical term for Babylon. The word is Semitic; Bab means gate and El means God, so Babel means 'Gate of God.' But it is probably also somewhat onomatopoeic, imitating someone who speaks in an incomprehensible tongue. The Bible is full of puns."

"They built a tower to Heaven and God knocked it down."

"This is an anthology of common misconceptions. God did not do anything to the Tower itself. 'And the LORD said, "Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; and nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down, and there confuse their language, that they may not understand one another's speech." So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the LORD confused the language of all the earth.' Genesis 11:6-9, Revised Standard Version."

"So the tower wasn't knocked down. It just went on hiatus."

"Correct. It was not knocked down."

"But that's bogus."

"Bogus?"

"Provably false. Juanita believes that nothing is provably true or provably false in the Bible. Because of it's provably false, then the Bible is a lie, and if it's provably true, then the existence of God is proven and there's no room for faith. The Babel story is provably false, because if they built a tower to Heaven and God didn't knock it down, then it would still be around somewhere, or at least a visible remnant of it."

"In assuming that it was very tall, you are relying on an obsolete reading. The tower is described, literally, as 'its top with the heavens.' For many centuries, this was interpreted to mean that its top was so high that it was in the heavens. But in the last century or so, as actual Babylonian ziggurats have been excavated, astrological diagrams - pictures of the heavens - have been found inscribed into their tops."

"Oh. Okay, so the real story is that a tower was built with heavenly diagrams carved into its top. Which is far more plausible than a tower that reaches to the heavens."

"More than plausible," the Librarian reminds him. "Such structures have actually been found."

"Anyway, you're saying that when God got angry and came down on them, the tower itself wasn't affected. But they had to stop building the tower because of an informational disaster - they couldn't talk to each other."

"'Disaster' is an astrological term meaning 'bad star,"' the Librarian points out. "Sorry - but due to my internal structure, I'm a sucker for non sequiturs."

"That's okay, really," Hiro says. "You're a pretty decent piece of ware. Who wrote you, anyway?"

"For the most part I write myself," the Librarian says. "That is, I have the innate ability to learn from experience. But this ability was originally coded into me by my creator."

"Who wrote you? Maybe I know him," Hiro says. "I know a lot of hackers."

"I was not coded by a professional hacker, per se, but by a researcher at the Library of Congress who taught himself how to code," the Librarian says. "He devoted himself to the common problem of sifting through vast amounts of irrelevant detail in order to find significant gems of information. His name was Dr. Emanuel Lagos."

"I've heard the name," Hiro says. "So he was kind of a meta-librarian. That's funny, I guessed he was one of those old CIA spooks who hangs around in the CIC."

"He never worked with the CIA."

"Okay. Let's get some work done. Look up every piece of free information in the Library that contains L. Bob Rife and arrange it in chronological order. The emphasis here is on free.''

"Television and newspapers, yes, sir. One moment, sir," the Librarian says. He turns around and exits on crepe soles. Hiro turns his attention to Earth.

The level of detail is fantastic. The resolution, the clarity, just the look of it, tells Hiro, or anyone else who knows computers, that this piece of software is some heavy shit.

It's not just continents and oceans. It looks exactly like the earth would look from a point in geosynchronous orbit directly above L.A., complete with weather systems - vast spinning galaxies of clouds, hovering just above the surface of the globe, casting gray shadows on the oceans - and polar ice caps, fading and fragmenting into the sea. Half of the globe is illuminated by sunlight, and half is dark. The terminator - the line between night and day - has just swept across L.A. and is now creeping across the Pacific, off to the west.

Everything is going in slow motion. Hiro can see the clouds change shape if he watches them long enough. Looks like a clear night on the East Coast.

Something catches his attention, moving rapidly over the surface of the globe. He thinks it must be a gnat. But there are no gnats in the Metaverse. He tries to focus on it. The computer, bouncing low-powered lasers off his cornea, senses this change in emphasis, and then Hiro gasps as he seems to plunge downward toward the globe, like a space-walking astronaut who has just fallen out of his orbital groove. When he finally gets it under control, he's just a few hundred miles above the earth, looking down at a solid bank of clouds, and he can see the gnat gliding along below him. It's a low-flying CIC satellite, swinging north to south in a polar orbit.

"Your information, sir," the Librarian says.

Hiro startles and glances up. Earth swings down and out of his field of view and there is the Librarian, standing in front of the desk, holding out a hypercard. Like any librarian in Reality, this daemon can move around without audible footfalls.

"Can you make a little more noise when you walk? I'm easily startled," Hiro says.

"It is done, sir. My apologies."

Hiro reaches out for the hypercard. The Librarian takes half a step forward and leans toward him. This time, his foot makes a soft noise on the tatami mat, and Hiro can hear the white noise of his trousers sliding over his leg.

Hiro takes the hypercard and looks at it. The front is labeled

Results of Library search on:

Rife, Lawrence Robert, 1948

He flips the card over. The back is divided into several dozen fingemail-sized icons. Some of them are little snapshots of the front pages of newspapers. Many of them are colorful, glowing rectangles: miniature television screens showing live video.

"That's impossible," Hiro says. "I'm sitting in a VW van, okay? I'm jacked in over a cellular link. You couldn't have moved that much video into my system that fast."

"It was not necessary to move anything," the Librarian says. "All existing video on L. Bob Rife was collected by Dr. Lagos and placed in the Babel/Infocalypse stack, which you have in your system."

"Oh."

14

Hiro stares at the miniature TV in the upper left comer of the card. It zooms toward him until it's about the size of a twelve-inch low-def television set at arms' length. Then the video image begins to play. It's very poor eight-millimeter film footage of a high school football game in the sixties. No soundtrack.

"What is this game?"

The Librarian says, "Odessa, Texas, 1965. L. Bob Rife is a fullback, number eight in the dark uniform."

"This is more detail than I need. Can you summarize some of these things?"

"No. But I can list the contents briefly. The stack contains eleven high school football games. Rife was on the second-string Texas all-state team in his senior year. Then he proceeded to Rice on an academic scholarship and walked onto the football team, so there are also fourteen tapes of college games. Rife majored in communications."

"Logically enough, considering what he became."

"He became a television sports reporter in the Houston market, so there are fifty hours of footage from this period - mostly outtakes, of course. After two years in this line of work, Rife went into business with his great-uncle, a financier with roots in the oil business. The stack contains a few newspaper stories to that effect, which, as I note from reading them, are all textually related - implying that they came from the same source."

"A press release."

"Then there are no stories for five years."

"He was up to something."

"Then we begin to see more stories, mostly from the Religion sections of Houston newspapers, detailing Rife's contributions to various organizations."

"That sounded like summary to me. I thought you couldn't summarize."

"I can't really. I was quoting a summary that Dr. Lagos made to Juanita Marquez recently, in my presence, when they were reviewing the same data."

"Go on."

"Rife contributed $500 to the Highlands Church of the Baptism by Fire, Reverend Wayne Bedford, head minister; $2,500 to the Pentecostal Youth League of Bayside, Reverend Wayne Bedford, president; $150,000 to the Pentecostal Church of the New Trinity, Reverend Wayne Bedford, founder and patriarch; $2.3 million to Rife Bible College, Reverend Wayne Bedford, President and chairman of the theology department; $20 million to the archaeology department of Rife Bible College, plus $45 million to the astronomy department and $100 million to the computer science department."

"Did these donations take place before hyperinflation?"

"Yes, sir. They were, as the expression goes, real money."

"That Wayne Bedford guy - is this the same Reverend Wayne who runs the Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates?"

"The same."

"Are you telling me that Rife owns the Reverend Wayne?"

"He owns a majority share in Pearlgate Associates, which is the multinational that runs the Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates chain."

"Okay, let's keep sifting through this," Hiro says.

Hiro Peeps out over his goggles to confirm that Vitaly is still nowhere near the concert. Then he dives back in and continues to go over the video and the news stories that Lagos has compiled.

During the same years that Rife makes his contributions to the Reverend Wayne, he's showing up with increasing frequency in the business section, first in the local papers and later in The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times. There is a big flurry of publicity - obvious PR plants - after the Nipponese tried to use their old-boy network to shut him out of the telecommunications market there, and he took it to the American public, spending $10 million of his own money on a campaign to convince Americans that the Nipponese were duplicitous schemers. A triumphal cover on The Economist after the Nipponese finally knuckled under and let him corner the fiber-optics market in that country and, by extension, most of East Asia.

Finally, then, the lifestyle pieces start coming in. L. Bob Rife has let his publicist know that he wants to show a more human side. There is a personality journalism program that does a puff piece on Rife after he buys a new yacht, surplus, from the U.S. Government.

L. Bob Rife, last of the nineteenth-century monopolists, is shown consulting with his decorator in the captain's quarters. It looks nice as it is, considering that Rife bought this ship from the Navy, but it's not Texan enough for him. He wants it gutted and rebuilt. Then, shots of Rife maneuvering his steerlike body through the narrow passages and steep staircase of the ship's interior - typical boring gray steel Navy scape, which, he assures the interviewer, he is going to have spruced up considerably.

"Y'know, there's a story that when Rockefeller bought himself a yacht, he bought a pretty small one, like a seventy-footer or something. Small by the standards of the day. And when someone asked him why he went and bought himself such a dinky little yacht, he just looked at the guy and said, 'What do you think I am, a Vanderbilt?' Haw! Well, anyway, welcome aboard my yacht."

L. Bob Rife says this while standing on a huge open-air platform elevator along with the interviewer and the whole camera crew. The elevator is going up. In the background is the Pacific Ocean. As Rife is speaking the last part of the line, suddenly the elevator rises up to the top and the camera turns around, and we are looking out across the deck of the aircraft carrier Enterprise, formerly of the U.S. Navy, now the personal yacht of L. Bob Rife, who beat out both General Jim's Defense System and Admiral Bob's Global Security in a furious bidding war. L. Bob Rife proceeds to admire the vast, flat open spaces of the carrier's flight deck, likening it to certain parts of Texas. He suggests that it would be amusing to cover part of it with dirt and raise cattle there.

Another profile, this one shot for a business network, apparently made somewhat later: Back on the Enterprise, where the captain's office has been massively reworked. L. Bob Rife, Lord of Bandwidth, is sitting behind his desk, having his mustache waxed. Not in the sense that women have their legs waxed. He's having the curl smoothed out and restored. The waxer is a very short Asian woman who does it so delicately that it doesn't even interfere with his talking, mostly about his efforts to extend his cable TV network throughout Korea and into China and link it up with his big fiber-optic trunk line that runs across Siberia and over the Urals.

"Yeah, you know, a monopolist's work is never done. No such thing as a perfect monopoly. Seems like you can never get that last one-tenth of one percent."

"Isn't the government still strong in Korea? You must have more trouble with regulations there."

L. Bob Rife laughs. "Y'know, watching government regulators trying to keep up with the world is my favorite sport. Remember when they busted up Ma Bell?"

"Just barely." The reporter is a woman in her twenties.

"You know what it was, right?"

"Voice communications monopoly."

"Right. They were in the same business as me. The information business. Moving phone conversations around on little tiny copper wires, one at a time. Government busted them up - at the same time when I was starting cable TV franchises in thirty states. Haw! Can you believe that? It's like if they figured out a way to regulate horses at the same time the Model T and the airplane were being introduced."

"But a cable TV system isn't the same as a phone system."

"At that stage it wasn't, cause it was just a local system. But once you get local systems all over the world, all you got to do is hook 'em together and it's a global network. Just as big as the phone system. Except this one carries information ten thousand times faster. It carries images, sound, data, you name it."

A naked PR plant, a half-hour television commercial with no purpose whatsoever other than to let L. Bob Rife tell his side of a particular issue. It seems that a number of Rife's programmers, the people who made his systems run, got together and formed a union - unheard of, for hackers - and filed a suit against Rife, claiming that he had placed audio and video bugs in their homes, in fact placed all of them under twenty-four-hour surveillance, and harassed and threatened some programmers who were making what he called "unacceptable lifestyle choices." For example, when one of his programmers and her husband engaged in oral sex in their own bedroom one night, the next morning she was called into Rife's office, where he called her a slut and a sodomite and told her to clean out her desk. The bad publicity from this so annoyed Rife that he felt the need to blow a few million on some more PR.

"I deal in information," he says to the smarmy, toadying pseudojournalist who "interviews" him. He's sitting in his office in Houston, looking slicker than normal. "All television going out to consumers throughout the world goes through me. Most of the information transmitted to and from the CIC database passes through my networks. The Metaverse - the entire Street - exists by virtue of a network that I own and control.

"But that means, if you'll just follow my reasoning for a bit, that when I have a programmer working under me who is working with that information, he is wielding enormous power. Information is going into his brain. And it's staying there. It travels with him when he goes home at night. It gets all tangled up into his dreams, for Christ's sake. He talks to his wife about it. And, goddamn it, he doesn't have any right to that information. If I was running a car factory, I wouldn't let workers drive the cars home or borrow tools. But that's what I do at five o'clock each day, all over the world, when my hackers go home from work.

"When they used to hang rustlers in the old days, the last thing they would do is piss their pants. That was the ultimate sign, you see, that they had lost control over their own bodies, that they were about to die. See, it's the first function of any organization to control its own sphincters. We're not even doing that. So we're working on refining our management techniques so that we can control that information no matter where it is - on our hard disks or even inside the programmers' heads. Now, I can't say more because I got competition to worry about. But it is my fervent hope that in five or ten years, this kind of thing won't even be an issue."

A half-hour episode of a science news program, this one on the controversial new subject of infoastronomy, the search for radio signals coming from other solar systems. L. Bob Rife has taken a personal interest in the subject; as various national governments auction off their possessions, he has purchased a string of radio observatories and hooked them together, using his fabled fiber-optic net, to turn them into a single giant antenna as big as the whole earth. He is scanning the skies twenty-four hours a day, looking for radio waves that mean something - radio waves carrying information from other civilizations. And why, asks the interviewer - a celebrity professor from MIT - why would a simple oilman be interested in such a high-flown, abstract pursuit?

"I just about got this planet all sewn up."

Rife delivers this line with an incredibly sardonic and contemptuous twang, the exaggerated accent of a cowboy who suspects that some Yankee pencilneck is looking down his nose at him.

Another news piece, this one apparently done a few years later. Again we are on the Enterprise, but this time the atmosphere is different again. The top deck has been turned into an open-air refugee camp. It is swarming with Bangladeshis that L. Bob Rife plucked out of the Bay of Bengal after their country washed into the ocean in a series of massive floods, caused by deforestation farther upstream in India - hydrological warfare. The camera pans to look out over the edge of the flight deck, and down below, we see the first beginnings of the Raft: a relatively small collection of a few hundred boats that have glommed onto the Enterprise, hoping for a free ride across to America.

Rife's walking among the people, handing out Bible comics and kisses to little kids. They cluster around with broad smiles, pressing their palms together and bowing. Rife bows back, very awkwardly, but there's no gaiety on his face. He's deadly serious.

"Mr. Rife, what's your opinion of the people who say you're just doing this as a self-aggrandizing publicity stunt?" This interviewer is trying to be more of a Bad Cop.

"Shit, if I took time out to have an opinion about everything, I wouldn't get any work done," L. Bob Rife says. "You should ask these people what they think."

"You're telling me that this refugee assistance program has nothing to do with your public image?"

"Nope. L-"

There's an edit and they cut away to the journalist, pontificating into the camera. Rife was on the verge of delivering a sermon, Hiro senses, but they cut him off.

But one of the true glories of the Library is that it has so many outtakes. Just because a piece of videotape never got edited into a broadcast program doesn't mean it's devoid of intel value. CIC long ago stuck its fingers into the networks' videotape libraries. All of those outtakes - millions of hours of footage - have not actually been uploaded to the Library in digital form yet. But you can send in a request, and CIC will go and pull that videotape off the shelf for you and play it back.

Lagos has already done it. The tape is right there.

"Nope. Look. The Raft is a media event. But in a much more profound, general sense than you can possibly imagine."

"Oh."

"It's created by the media in that without the media, people wouldn't know it was here, Refus wouldn't come out and glom onto it the way they do. And it sustains the media. It creates a lot of information flow - movies, news reports - you know."

"So you're creating your own news event to make money off the information flow that it creates?" says the journalist, desperately trying to follow. His tone of voice says that this is all a waste of videotape. His weary attitude suggests that this is not the first time Rife has flown off on a bizarre tangent.

"Partly. But that's only a very crude explanation. It really goes a lot deeper than that. You've probably heard the expression that the Industry feeds off of biomass, like a whale straining krill from the ocean."

"I've heard the expression, yes."

"That's my expression. I made it up. An expression like that is just like a virus, you know - it's a piece of information - data that spreads from one person to the next. Well, the function of the Raft is to bring more biomass. To renew America. Most countries are static, all they need to do is keep having babies. But America's like this big old clanking, smoking machine that just lumbers across the landscape scooping up and eating everything in sight. Leaves behind a trail of garbage a mile wide. Always needs more fuel. Ever read the story about the labyrinth and the minotaur?"

"Sure. That was on Crete, right?" The journalist only answers out of sarcasm; he can't believe he's here listening to this, he wants to fly back to L.A. yesterday.

"Yeah. Every year, the Greeks had to pony up a few virgins and send them to Crete as tribute. Then the king put them into the labyrinth, and the minotaur ate them up. I used to read that story when I was a kid and wonder who the hell these guys were, on Crete, that everyone else was so scared of them that they would just meekly give up their children to be eaten, every year. They must have been some mean sons of bitches.

"Now I have a different perspective on it. America must look, to those poor little buggers down there, about the same as Crete looked to those poor Greek suckers. Except that there's no coercion involved. Those people down there give up their children willingly. Send them into the labyrinth by the millions to be eaten up. The Industry feeds on them and spits back images, sends out movies and TV programs, over my networks, images of wealth and exotic things beyond their wildest dreams, back to those people, and it gives them something to dream about, something to aspire to. And that is the function of the Raft. It's just a big old krill carrier."

Finally the journalist gives up on being a journalist, just starts to slag L. Bob Rife openly. He's had it with this guy. "That's disgusting. I can't believe you can think about people that way."

"Shit, boy, get down off your high horse. Nobody really gets eaten. It's just a figure of speech. They come here, they get decent jobs, find Christ, buy a Weber grill, and live happily ever after. What's wrong with that?"

Rife is pissed. He's yelling. Behind him, the Bangladeshis are picking up on his emotional vibes and becoming upset themselves. Suddenly, one of them, an incredibly gaunt man with a long drooping mustache, runs in front of the camera and begins to shout: "a ma la ge zen ba dam gal nun ka aria su su na an da…" The sounds spread from him to his neighbors, spreading across the flight deck like a wave.

"Cut," the journalist says, turning into the camera. "Just cut. The Babble Brigade has started up again."

The soundtrack now consists of a thousand people speaking in tongues under the high-pitched, shit-eating chuckles of L. Bob Rife.

"This is the miracle of tongues," Rife shouts above the tumult. "I can understand every word these people are saying. Can you, brother?"

"Yo! Snap out of it, pod!"

Hiro looks up from the card. No one is in his office except for the Librarian.

The image loses focus and veers upward and out of his field of view. Hiro is looking out the windshield of the Vanagon. Someone has just yanked his goggles off his face-not Vitaly.

"I'm out here, gogglehead!"

Hiro looks out the window. It's Y.T., hanging onto the side of the van with one hand, holding his goggles in the other.

"You spend too much time goggled in," she says. "Try a little Reality, man."

"Where we are going," Hiro says, "we're going to get more Reality than I can handle."

As Hiro and Vitaly approach the vast freeway overpass where tonight's concert is to take place, the solid ferrous quality of the Vanagon attracts MagnaPoons like a Twinkie draws cockroaches. If they knew that Vitaly Chernobyl himself was in the van, they'd go crazy, they'd stall the van's engine. But right now, they'll poon anything that might be headed toward the concert.

When they get closer to the overpass, it becomes a lost cause trying to drive at all, the thrashers are so thick and numerous. It's like putting on crampons and trying to walk through a room full of puppies. They have to nose their way along, tapping the horn, flashing the lights.

Finally, they get to the flatbed semi that constitutes the stage for tonight's concert. Next to it is another semi, full of amps and other sound gear. The drivers of the trucks, an oppressed minority of two, have retreated into the cab of the sound truck to smoke cigarettes and glare balefully at the swarm of thrashers, their sworn enemies in the food chain of the highways. They will not voluntarily come out until five in the morning, when the way has been made plain.

A couple of the other Meltdowns are standing around smoking cigarettes, holding them between two fingers in the Slavic style, like darts. They stomp the cigarettes out on the concrete with their cheap vinyl shoes, run up to the Vanagon, and begin to haul out the sound equipment. Vitaly puts on goggles, hooks himself into a computer on the sound truck, and begins tuning the system. There's a 3-D model of the overpass already in memory. He has to figure out how to sync the delays on all the different speaker clusters to maximize the number of nasty, clashing echoes.

15

The warm-up band, Blunt Force Trauma, gets rolling at about 9:00 P.M. On the first power chord, a whole stack of cheap preowned speakers shorts out; its wires throw sparks into the air, sending an arc of chaos through the massed skateboarders. The sound truck's electronics isolate the bad circuit and shut it off before anything or anyone gets hurt. Blunt Force Trauma play a kind of speed reggae heavily influenced by the antitechnological ideas of the Meltdowns.

These guys will probably play for an hour, then there will be a couple of hours of Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns to look forward to. And if Sushi K shows up, he's welcome to make a guest appearance at the mike.

Just in case that actually happens, Hiro pulls back from the delirious center of the crowd and begins to orbit back and forth along its fringes. Y.T.'s in there somewhere, but no point in trying to track her down. She would be embarrassed, anyway, to be seen with an oldster like Hiro.

Now that the concert is up and running, it will take care of itself. There's not much more for Hiro to do. Besides, interesting things happen along borders - transitions - not in the middle where everything is the same. There may be something happening along the border of the crowd, back where the lights fade into the shade of the overpass.

The fringe crowd looks pretty typical for the wrong side of an L.A. overpass in the middle of the night. There's a good-sized shantytown of hardcore Third World unemployables, plus a scattering of schizophrenic first worlders who have long ago burned their brains to ash in the radiant heat of their own imaginings. A lot of them have emerged from their overturned dumpsters and refrigerator boxes to stand on tiptoe at the edge of the crowd and peer into the noise and light. Some of them look sleepy and awed, and some - stocky Latino men - look amused by the whole thing, passing cigarettes back and forth and shaking their heads in disbelief.

This is Crips turf. The Crips wanted to provide security, but Hiro, a student of Altamont, decided to take the risk of snubbing them. He hired The Enforcers to do it instead.

So every few dozen feet there's a large man with erect posture wearing an acid green windbreaker with ENFORCER spelled out across the back. Very conspicuous, which is how they like it. But it's all done with electropigment, so if there's trouble, these guys can turn themselves black by flipping a lapel switch. And they can make themselves bulletproof just by zipping the windbreakers up the front. Right now, it's a warm night, and most of them are leaving their uniforms open to the cool breezes. Some of them are just coasting, but most of them are attentive, keeping their eyes on the crowd, not the band.

Seeing all of those soldiers, Hiro looks for the general and soon finds him: a small, stout black guy, a pint-sized weightlifter type. He's wearing the same windbreaker as the others, but there's an additional layer of bulletproof vest underneath, and clipped onto that he's got a nice assortment of communications gear and small, clever devices for hurting people. He's doing a lot of jogging back and forth, swiveling his head from side to side, mumbling quick bursts into his headset like a football coach on the sidelines.

Hiro notices a tall man in his late thirties, distinguished goatee, wearing a very nice charcoal gray suit. Hiro can see the diamonds in his tie pin flashing from a hundred feet away. He knows that if he gets up closer he will be able to see the word "Crips" spelled out in blue sapphires, nestled among those diamonds. He's got his own security detail of half a dozen other guys in suits. Even though they aren't doing security, they couldn't help sending along a token delegation to show the colors.

This is a non sequitur that has been nibbling on the edges of Hiro's mind for the last ten minutes: Laser light has a particular kind of gritty intensity, a molecular purity reflecting its origins. Your eye notices this, somehow knows that it's unnatural. It stands out anywhere, but especially under a dirty overpass in the middle of the night. Hiro keeps getting flashes of it in his peripheral vision, keeps glancing over to track down it's source. It's obvious to him, but no one else seems to notice.

Someone in this overpass, somewhere, is bouncing a laser beam off Hiro's face.

It's annoying. Without being too obvious about it, he changes his course slightly, wanders over to a point downwind of a trash fire that's burning in a steel drum. Now he's standing in the middle of a plume of diluted smoke that he can smell but can't quite see.

But the next time the laser darts into his face, it scatters off a million tiny, ashy particulates and reveals itself as a pure geometric line in space, pointing straight back to its source.

It's a gargoyle, standing in the dimness next to a shanty. Just in case he's not already conspicuous enough, he's wearing a suit. Hiro starts walking toward him.

Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society. They are a boon to Hiro because they embody the worst stereotype of the CIC stringer. They draw all of the attention. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time.

The CIC brass can't stand these guys because they upload staggering quantities of useless information to the database, on the off chance that some of it will eventually be useful. It's like writing down the license number of every car you see on your way to work each morning, just in case one of them will be involved in a hit-and-run accident. Even the CIC database can only hold so much garbage. So, usually, these habitual gargoyles get kicked out of the CIC before too long.

This guy hasn't been kicked out yet. And to judge from the quality of his equipment - which is very expensive - he's been at it for a while. So he must be pretty good.

If so, what's he doing hanging around this place?

"Hiro Protagonist," the gargoyle says as Hiro finally tracks him down in the darkness beside a shanty. "CIC stringer for eleven months. Specializing in the Industry. Former hacker, security guard, pizza deliverer, concert promoter." He sort of mumbles it, not wanting Hiro to waste his time reciting a bunch of known facts.

The laser that kept jabbing Hiro in the eye was shot out of this guy's computer, from a peripheral device that sits above his goggles in the middle of his forehead. A long-range retinal scanner. If you turn toward him with your eyes open, the laser shoots out, penetrates your iris, tenderest of sphincters, and scans your retina. The results are shot back to CIC, which has a database of several tens of millions of scanned retinas. Within a few seconds, if you're in the database already, the owner finds out who you are. If you're not already in the database, well, you are now.

Of course, the user has to have access privileges. And once he gets your identity, he has to have more access privileges to find out personal information about you. This guy, apparently, has a lot of access privileges. A lot more than Hiro.

"Name's Lagos," the gargoyle says.

So this is the guy. Hiro considers asking him what the hell he's doing here. He'd love to take him out for a drink, talk to him about how the Librarian was coded. But he's pissed off. Lagos is being rude to him (gargoyles are rude by definition).

"You here on the Raven thing? Or just that fuzz-grunge tip you've been working on for the last, uh, thirty-six days approximately?" Lagos says.

Gargoyles are no fun to talk to. They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter-wave radar, and ultrasound all at once. You think they're talking to you, but they're actually poring over the credit record of some stranger on the other side of the room, or identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead. For all he knows, Lagos is standing there measuring the length of Hiro's cock through his trousers while they pretend to make conversation.

"You're the guy who's working with Juanita, right?" Hiro says.

"Or she's working with me. Or something like that."

"She said she wanted me to meet you."

For several seconds Lagos is frozen. He's ransacking more data. Hiro wants to throw a bucket of water on him.

"Makes sense," he says. "You're as familiar with the Metaverse as anyone. Freelance hacker - that's exactly right."

"Exactly right for what? No one wants freelance hackers anymore."

"The corporate assembly-line hackers are suckers for infection. They're going to go down by the thousands, just like Sennacherib's army before the walls of Jerusalem," Lagos says.

"Infection? Sennacherib?"

"And you can defend yourself in Reality, too - that'll be good if you ever go up against Raven. Remember, his knives are as sharp as a molecule. They'll go through a bulletproof jacket like lingerie."

"Raven?"

"You'll probably see him tonight. Don't mess with him."

"Okay," Hiro says. "I'll look out for him."

"That's not what I said," Lagos says. "I said, don't mess with him."

"Why not?"

"It's a dangerous world," Lagos says. "Getting more dangerous all the time. So we don't want to upset the balance of terror. Just think about the Cold War."

"Yup." All Hiro wants to do now is walk away and never see this guy again, but he won't wind up the conversation.

"You're a hacker. That means you have deep structures to worry about, too."

"Deep structures?"

"Neurolinguistic pathways in your brain. Remember the first time you learned binary code?"

"Sure."

"You were forming pathways in your brain. Deep structures. Your nerves grow new connections as you use them - the axons split and push their way between the dividing glial cells - your bioware self-modifies - the software becomes part of the hardware. So now you're vulnerable - all hackers are vulnerable - to a nam-shub. We have to look out for each other."

"What's a nam-shub? Why am I vulnerable to it?"

"Just don't stare into any bitmaps. Anyone try to show you a raw bitmap lately? Like, in the Metaverse?"

Interesting. "Not to me personally, but now that you mention it, this Brandy came up to my friend - "

"A cult prostitute of Asherah. Trying to spread the disease. Which is synonymous with evil. Sound melodramatic? Not really. You know, to the Mesopotamians, there was no independent concept of evil. Just disease and ill health. Evil was a synonym for disease. So what does that tell you?"

Hiro walks away, the same way he walks away from psychotic street people who follow him down the street.

"It tells you that evil is a virus!" Lagos calls after him. "Don't let the nam-shub into your operating system!"

Juanita's working with this alien?

Blunt Force Trauma play for a solid hour, segueing from one song into the next with no chink or crevice in the wall of noise. All a part of the aesthetic. When the music stops, their set is over. For the first time, Hiro can hear the exaltation of the crowd. It's a blast of high-pitched noise that he feels in his head, ringing his ears.

But there's a low thudding sound, too, like someone pummeling a bass drum, and for a minute he thinks maybe it's a truck rolling by on the overpass above them. But it's too steady for that, it doesn't die away.

It's behind him. Other people have noticed it, turned to look toward the sound, are scurrying out of the way. Hiro sidesteps, turning to see what it is.

Big and black, to begin with. It does not seem as though such a large man could perch on a motorcycle, even a big chortling Harley like this one.

Correction. It's a Harley with some kind of a sidecar added, a sleek black projectile hanging off to the right, supported on its own wheel. But no one is sitting in the sidecar.

It does not seem as though a man could be this bulky without being fat. But he's not fat at all, he's wearing tight stretchy clothes - like leather, but not quite - that show bones and muscles, but nothing else.

He is riding the Harley so slowly that he would certainly fall over if not for the sidecar. Occasionally he gooses it forward with a flick of the fingers on his clutch hand.

Maybe one reason he looks so big - other than the fact that he really is big - is the fact that he appears totally neckless. His head starts out wide and just keeps getting wider until it merges with his shoulders. At first Hiro thinks it must be some kind of avant-garde helmet. But when the man rolls past him, this great shroud moves and flutters and Hiro sees that it is just his hair, a thick mane of black hair tossed back over his shoulders, trading down his back almost to his waist.

As he is marveling at this, he realizes that the man has turned his head to look back at him. Or to look in his general direction, anyway. It's impossible to tell exactly what he's looking at because of his goggles, a smooth convex shell over the eyes, interrupted by a narrow horizontal slit.

He is looking at Hiro. He gives him the same fuck-you smile that he sported earlier tonight, when Hiro was standing in the entryway to The Black Sun, and he was in a public terminal somewhere.

This is the guy. Raven. This is the guy that Juanita is looking for. The guy Lagos told him not to mess with. And Hiro has seen him before, outside the entrance to The Black Sun. This is the guy who gave the Snow Crash card to Da5id.

The tattoo on his forehead consists of three words, written in block letters: POOR IMPULSE CONTROL.

Hiro startles and actually jumps into the air as Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns launch into their opening number, "Radiation Burn." It is a tornado of mostly high-pitched noise and distortion, like being flung bodily through a wall of fishhooks.

These days, most states are franchulates or Burbclaves, much too small to have anything like a jail, or even a judicial system. So when someone does something bad, they try to find quick and dirty punishments, like flogging, confiscation of property, public humiliation, or, in the case of people who have a high potential of going on to hurt others, a warning tattoo on a prominent body part. POOR IMPULSE CONTROL. Apparently, this guy went to such a place and lost his temper real bad.

For an instant, a glowing red gridwork is plotted against the side of Raven's face. It rapidly shrinks, all sides converging inward toward the right pupil. Raven shakes his head, turns to look for the source of the laser light, but it's already gone. Lagos has already got his retinal scan.

That's why Lagos is here. He's not interested in Hiro or Vitaly Chernobyl. He's interested in Raven. And somehow, Lagos knew that he was going to be here. And Lagos is somewhere nearby, right now, videotaping the guy, probing the contents of his pockets with radar, recording his pulse and respiration.

Hiro picks up his personal phone. "Y.T.," he says, and it dials Y.T.'s number.

It rings for a long time before she picks it up. It's almost impossible to hear anything over the sound of the concert.

"What the fuck do you want?"

"Y.T., I'm sorry about this. But something's going on. Something big time. I'm keeping one eye on a big biker named Raven."

"The problem with you hackers is you never stop working."

"That's what a hacker is," Hiro says.

"I'll keep an eye on this Raven guy, too," she says, "sometime when I am working." Then she hangs up.

16

Raven makes a couple of broad, lazy sweeps along the perimeter of the crowd, going very slowly, looking in all directions. He is annoyingly calm and unhurried.

Then he cuts farther out into the darkness, away from the crowd. He does a little more looking around, checking out the perimeter of the shantytown. And finally, he swings the big Harley around in a trajectory that brings him back to the big important Crip. The guy with the sapphire tie clip and the personal security detail.

Hiro begins weaving through the crowd in that direction, trying not to be too obvious about it. This looks like it's going to be interesting.

As Raven approaches, the bodyguards converge on the head Crip, form a loose protective ring around him. As he comes nearer, all of them back away a step or two, as though the man is surrounded by an invisible force field. He finally comes to a stop, deigns to put his feet on the ground. He flicks a few switches on the handlebars before he steps away from his Harley. Then, anticipating what's next, he stands with his feet apart and his arms up.

One Crip approaches from each side. They don't look real happy about this particular duty, they keep casting sidelong glances at the motorcycle. The head Crip keeps goading them forward with his voice, shooing them toward Raven with his hands. Each one of them has a hand-held metal-detecting wand. They swirl the wands around his body and find nothing at all, not even the tiniest speck of metal, not even coins in his pocket. The man is 100 percent organic. So if nothing else, Lagos's warning about Raven's knife has turned out to be bullshit.

These two Crips walk rapidly back to the main group. Raven begins to follow them. But the head Crip takes a step back, holds both of his hands up in a "stop" motion. Raven stops, stands there, the grin returning to his face.

The head Crip turns away and gestures back toward his black BMW. The rear door of the BMW opens up and a man gets out, a younger, smaller black man in round wire-rims, wearing jeans and big white athletic shoes and typical studentish gear.

The student walks slowly toward Raven, pulling something from his pocket. It's a hand-held device, but much too bulky to be a calculator. It's got a keypad on the top and a sort of window on one end, which the student keeps aiming toward Raven. There's an LED readout above the keypad and a red flashing light underneath that. The student is wearing a pair of headphones that are jacked into a socket on the butt of the device.

For starters, the student aims the window at the ground, then at the sky, then at Raven, keeping his eye on the flashing red light and the LED readout. It has the feel of some kind of religious rite, accepting digital input from the sky spirit and then the ground spirit and then from the black biker angel.

Then he begins to walk slowly toward Raven, one step at a time. Hiro can see the red light flashing intermittently, not following any particular pattern or rhythm.

The student gets to within a yard of Raven and then orbits him a couple of times, always keeping the device aimed inward. When he's finished, he steps back briskly, turns, and aims it toward the motorcycle. When the device is aimed at the motorcycle, the red light flashes much more quickly.

The student walks up to the head Crip, pulling off his headphones, and has a short conversation with him. The Crip listens to the student but keeps his eyes fixed on Raven, nods his head a few times, finally pats the student on his shoulder and sends him back to the BMW.

It was a Geiger counter.

Raven strolls up to the big Crip. They shake hands, a standard plain old Euro-shake, no fancy variations. It's not a real friendly get-together. The Crip has his eyes a little too wide open, Hiro can see the furrows in his brow, everything about his posture and his face screaming out: Get me away from this Martian.

Raven goes back to his radioactive hog, releases a few bungee cords, and picks up a metal briefcase. He hands it to the head Crip, and they shake hands again. Then he turns away, walks slowly and calmly back to the motorcycle, gets on, and putt-putts away.

Hiro would love to stick around and watch some more, but he has the feeling that Lagos has this particular event covered. And besides, he has other business. Two limousines are fighting their way through the crowd, headed for the stage.

The limousines stop, and Nipponese people start to climb out. Dark-clad, unfunky, they stand around awkwardly in the middle of the party/riot, like a handful of broken nails suspended in a colorful jello mold. Finally, Hiro makes bold enough to go up and look into one of the windows to find out if this is who he thinks it is.

Can't see through the smoked glass. He bends down, puts his face right near the window, trying to make it real obvious.

Still no response. Finally, he knocks on the window.

Silence. He looks up at the entourage. They are all watching him. But when he looks up they glance away, suddenly remember to drag on their cigarettes or rub their eyebrows.

There is only one source of light inside the limousine that's bright enough to be visible through the smoked glass, and that is the distinctive inflated rectangle of a television screen.

What the hell. This is America, Hiro is half American, and there's no reason to take this politeness thing to an unhealthy extreme. He hauls the door open and looks into the back of the limousine.

Sushi K is sitting there wedged in between a couple of other young Nipponese men, programmers on his imageering team. His hairdo is turned off, so it just looks like an orange Afro. He is wearing a partly assembled stage costume, apparently expecting to be performing tonight. Looks like he's taking Hiro up on his offer.

He's watching a well-known television program called Eye Spy. It is produced by CIC and syndicated through one of the major studios. It is reality television: CIC picks out one of their agents who is involved in a wet operation - doing some actual cloak-and-dagger work - and has him put on a gargoyle rig so that everything he sees and hears is transmitted back to the home base in Langley. This material is then edited into a weekly hour-long program.

Hiro never watches it. Now that he works for CIC, he finds it kind of annoying. But he hears a lot of gossip about the show, and he knows that tonight they are showing the second-to-last episode in a five-part arc. CIC has smuggled a guy onto the Raft, where he is trying to infiltrate one of its many colorful and sadistic pirate bands: the Bruce Lee organization.

Hiro enters the limousine and gets a look at the TV just in time to see Bruce Lee himself, as seen from the point of view of the hapless gargoyle spy, approaching down some dank corridor on a Raft ghost ship. Condensation is dripping from the blade of Bruce Lee's samurai sword.

"Bruce Lee's men have trapped the spy in an old Korean factory ship in the Core," one of Sushi K's henchmen says, a rapid hissing explanation. "They are looking for him now."

Suddenly, Bruce Lee is pinioned under a brilliant spotlight that makes his trademark diamond grin flash like the arm of a galaxy. In the middle of the screen, a pair of cross hairs swing into place, centered on Bruce Lee's forehead. Apparently, the spy has decided he must fight his way out of this mess and is bringing some powerful CIC weapons system to bear on Bruce Lee's skull. But then a blur comes in from the side, a mysterious dark shape blocking our view of Bruce Lee. The cross hairs are now centered on - what, exactly?

We'll have to wait until next week to find out.

Hiro sits down across from Sushi K and the programmers, next to the television set, so that he can get a TV's-eye view of the man.

"I'm Hiro Protagonist. You got my message, I take it."

"Fabu!" Sushi K cries, using the Nipponese abbreviation of the all-purpose Hollywood adjective "fabulous."

He continues, "Hiro-san, I am deeply indebted to you for this once-in-a-lifetime chance to perform my small works before such an audience." He says the whole thing in Nipponese except for "once-in-a-lifetime chance."

"I must humbly apologize for arranging the whole thing so hastily and haphazardly," Hiro says.

"It pains me deeply that you should feel the need to apologize when you have given me an opportunity that any Nipponese rapper would give anything for - to perform my humble works before actual homeboys from the ghettos of L.A."

"I am profoundly embarrassed to reveal that these fans are not exactly ghetto homeboys, as I must have carelessly led you to believe. They are thrashers. Skateboarders who like both rap music and heavy metal."

"Ah. This is fine, then," Sushi K says. But his tone of voice suggests that it's not really fine at all.

"But there are representatives of the Crips here," Hiro says, thinking very, very fast even by his standards, "and if your performance is well received, as I'm quite certain it will be, they will spread the word throughout their community."

Sushi K rolls down the window. The decibel level quintuples in an instant. He stares at the crowd, five thousand potential market shares, young people with funkiness on their minds. They've never heard any music before that wasn't perfect. It's either studio-perfect digital sound from their CD players or performance-perfect fuzz-grunge from the best people in the business, the groups that have come to L.A. to make a name for themselves and have actually survived the gladiatorial combat environment of the clubs. Sushi K's face lights up with a combination of joy and terror. Now he actually has to go up there and do it. In front of the seething biomass.

Hiro goes out and paves the way for him. That's easy enough. Then he bails. He's done his bit. No point in wasting time on this puny Sushi K thing when Raven is out there, representing a much larger source of income. So he wanders back out toward the periphery.

"Yo! Dude with the swords," someone says.

Hiro turns around, sees a green-jacketed Enforcer motioning to him. It's the short, powerful guy with the headset, the guy in charge of the security detail.

"Squeaky," he says, extending his hand.

"Hiro," Hiro says, shaking it, and handing over his business card. No particular reason to be coy with these guys. "What can I do for you, Squeaky?"

Squeaky reads the card. He has a kind of exaggerated politeness that is kind of like a military man. He's calm, mature, role-modelesque, like a high school football coach. "You in charge of this thing?"

"To the extent anyone is."

"Mr. Protagonist, we got a call a few minutes ago from a friend of yours named Y.T."

"What's wrong? Is she okay?"

"Oh, yes, sir, she's just fine. But you know that bug you were talking to earlier?"

Hiro's never heard the term "bug" used this way, but he reckons that Squeaky is referring to the gargoyle, Lagos.

"Yeah."

"Well, there's a situation involving that gentleman that Y.T. sort of tipped us off to. We thought you might want to have a look."

"What's going on?"

"Uh. why don't you come with me. You know, some things are easier to show than to explain verbally."

As Squeaky turns, Sushi K's first rap song begins. His voice sounds tight and tense.

I'm Sushi K and I'm here to say

I like to rap in a different way

Look out Number One in every city

Sushi K rap has all most pretty

My special talking of remarkable words

Is not the stereotyped bucktooth nerd

My hair is big as a galaxy

Cause I attain greater technology

Hiro follows Squeaky away from the crowd, into the dimly lit area on the edge of the shantytown. Up above them on the overpass embankment, he can dimly make out phosphorescent shapes - green-jacketed Enforcers orbiting some strange attractor.

"Watch your step," Squeaky says as they begin to climb up the embankment. "It's slippery in places."

I like to rap about sweetened romance

My fond ambition is of your pants

So here is of special remarkable way

Of this fellow raps named Sushi K

The Nipponese talking phenomenon

Like samurai sword his sharpened tongue

Who raps the East Asia and the Pacific

Prosperity Sphere, to be specific

It's a typical loose slope of dirt and stones that looks like it would wash away in the first rainfall. Sage and cactus and tumbleweeds here and there, all looking scraggly and half-dead from air pollution.

It's hard to see anything clearly, because Sushi K is jumping around down below them on the stage, the brilliant orange rays of his sunburst hairdo are sweeping back and forth across the embankment at a speed that seems to be supersonic, washing grainy, gritty light over the weeds and the rocks and throwing everything into weird, discolored, high-contrast freeze frames.

Sarariman on subway listen

For Sushi K like nuclear fission

Fire-breathing lizard Gojiro

He my always big-time hero

His mutant rap burn down whole block

Start investing now Sushi K stock

It on Nikkei stock exchange

Waxes; other rappers wane

Best investment, make my day

Corporation Sushi K

Squeaky is walking straight uphill, paralleling a fresh motorcycle track that has cut deeply into the loose yellow soil. It consists of a deep, wide track with a narrower one that runs parallel, a couple of feet to the right.

The track gets deeper the farther up they go. Deeper and darker. It looks less and less like a motorcycle rut in loose dirt and more like a drainage ditch for some sinister black effluent.

Coming to America now

Rappers trying to start a row

Say "Stay in Japan, please, listen!

We can't handle competition!"

U.S. rappers booing and hissin'

Ask for rap protectionism

They afraid of Sushi K

Cause their audience go away

He got chill financial backin'

Give those U.S. rappers a smackin'

Sushi K concert machine

Fast efficient super clean

Run like clockwork in a watch

Kick old rappers in the crotch

One of The Enforcers up the hill is carrying a flashlight. As he moves, it sweeps across the ground at a flat angle, briefly illuminating the ground like a searchlight. For an instant, the light shines into the motorcycle rut, and Hiro perceives that it has become a river of bright red, oxygenated blood.

He learn English total immersion

English/Japanese be mergin'

Into super combination

So can have fans in every nation

Hong Kong they speak English, too

Yearn of rappers just like you

Anglophones who live down under

Sooner later start to wonder

When they get they own rap star

Tired of rappers from afar

Lagos is lying on the ground, sprawled across the tire track. He has been slit open like a salmon, with a single smooth-edged cut that begins at his anus and runs up his belly, through the middle of his sternum, all the way up to the point of his jaw. It's not just a superficial slash. It appears to go all the way to his spine in some places. The black nylon straps that hold his computer system to his body have been neatly cut where they cross the midline, and half of the stuff has fallen off into the dust.

So I will get big radio traffic

When you look at demographic

Sushi K research statistic

Make big future look ballistic

Speed of Sushi K growth stock

Put U.S. rappers into shock

17

Jason Breckinridge wears a terracotta blazer. It is the color of Sicily. Jason Breckinridge has never been to Sicily. He may get to go there someday, as a premium. In order to get the free cruise to Sicily, Jason has to accumulate 10,000 Goombata. Points.

He begins this quest in a favorable position. By opening up his own Nova Sicilia franchise, he started out with an automatic 3,333 points in the Goombata Point bank. Add to that a one-time-only Citizenship Bonus of 500 points and the balance is starting to look pretty good. The number is stored in the big computer in Brooklyn.

Jason grew up in the western suburbs of Chicago, one of the most highly franchised regions in the country. He attended the University of Illinois business school, racking up a GPA of 2.9567, and did a senior thesis called "The Interaction of the Ethnographic, Financial, and Paramilitary Dimensions of Competition in Certain Markets." This was a case study of turf struggle between Nova Sicilia and Narcolombia franchises in his old neighborhood in Aurora.

Enrique Cortazar ran the failing Narcolombia franchise upon which Jason had hinged his argument. Jason interviewed him several times over the phone, briefly, but never saw Mr. Cortazar face to face.

Mr. Cortazar celebrated Jason's graduation by firebombing the Breckinridges' Omni Horizon van in a parking lot and then firing eleven clips of automatic rifle ammunition through the front wall of their house.

Fortunately, Mr. Caruso, who ran the local string of Nova Sicilia franchulates that was in the process of beating the pants off of Enrique Cortazar, got wind of these attacks before they happened, probably by intercepting signal intelligence from Mr. Cortazar's fleet of poorly secured cellular phones and CB radios. He was able to warn Jason's family in time, so that when all of those bullets flew through their house in the middle of the night, they were enjoying complimentary champagne in an Old Sicilia Inn five miles down Highway 96.

Naturally, when the B-school held its end-of-the-year job fair, Jason made a point of swinging by the Nova Sicilia booth to thank Mr. Caruso for saving everyone in his family from certain death.

"Hey, y'know, it was just, like a neighbor kinda thing, y'know, Jasie boy?" Mr. Caruso said, whacking Jason across the shoulder blades and squeezing his deltoids, which were the size of cantaloupes. Jason did not hit the steroids as hard as he had when he was fifteen, but he was still in great shape.

Mr. Caruso was from New York. He had one of the most popular booths at the job fair. It was being held in a big exhibition space in the Union. The hall had been done up with an imaginary street pattern. Two "highways" divided it up into quadrants, and all the franchise companies and nationalities had their booths along the highways. Burbclaves and other companies had booths hidden among the suburban "streets" within the quadrants. Mr. Caruso's Nova Sicilia booth was right at the intersection of the two highways. Dozens of scrubby B-school grads were lined up there waiting to interview, but Mr. Caruso noticed Jason standing in line and went right up and plucked him out of line and grabbed his deltoids. All the other B-school grads stared at Jason enviously. That made Jason feel good, really special. That was the feeling he got about Nova Sicilia: personalized attention.

"Well, I was going to interview here, of course, and at Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong, because I'm real interested in high tech," Jason said, in response to Mr. Caruso's fatherly questioning.

Mr. Caruso gave him an especially hard squeeze. His voice said that he was painfully surprised, but that he didn't necessarily think any less of Jason for it, not yet anyway. "Hong Kong? What would a smart white kid like you want with a fuckin' Nip operation?"

"Well, technically they're not Nips - which is short for Niponese," Jason said. "Hong Kong is a predominantly Catonese - "

"They're all Nips," Mr. Caruso said, "and y'know why I say that? Not because I'm a fuckin' racist, because I'm not. Because to them - to those people, y'know, the Nips - we're all foreign devils. That's what they call us. Foreign devils. How d'ya like that?"

Jason just laughed appreciatively.

"After all the good things we did for them. But here in America, Jasie boy, we're all foreign devils, ain't we? We all came from someplace - 'cept for the fuckin' Indians. You ain't gonna interview over at the Lakota Nation, are ya?"

"No, sir, Mr. Caruso," Jason said.

"Good thinkin'. I agree with that. I'm gettin' away from my main point, which is that since we all have our own unique ethnic and cultural identities, we have to get a job with an organization that uniquely respects and seeks to preserve those distinctive identities - forging them together into a functionin' whole, y'know?"

"Yes, I see your point, Mr. Caruso," Jason said.

By this point, Mr. Caruso had led him some distance away and was strolling with him down one of the metaphorical Highways o' Opportunity. "Now, can you think of some business organizations that fill that fuckin' bill, Jasie boy?"

"Well…"

"Not fuckin' Hong Kong. That's for white people who want to be Japs but can't, didja know that? You don't wanta be a Jap, do ya?"

"Ha ha. No, sir, Mr. Caruso."

"Y'know what I heard?" Mr. Caruso let go of Jason, turned, and stood close to him, chest to chest, his cigar zinging past Jason's ear like a flaming arrow as he gesticulated. This was a confidential portion of the chat, a little anecdote between the two men. "In Japan, if you screw up? You gotta cut off one a your fingers. Chop. Just like that. Honest to God. You don't believe me?"

"I believe you. But that's not all of Japan, sir. Just in the Yakuza. The Japanese Mafia."

Mr. Caruso threw back his head and laughed, put his arm around Jason's shoulders again. "Y'know, I like you, Jason, I really do," he said. "The Japanese Mafia. Tell me something, Jason, you ever hear anyone describe our thing as 'The Sicilian Yakuza'? Huh?"

Jason laughed. "No, sir."

"Y'know why that is? Y'know?" Mr. Caruso had come to the serious, meaningful part of his speech.

"Why is that, sir?"

Mr. Caruso wheeled Jason around so that both of them were staring down the length of the highway to the tall effigy of Uncle Enzo, standing above the intersection like the Statue of Liberty.

"Cause there's only one, son. Only one. And you could be a part of it."

"But it's so competitive - "

"What? Listen to this! You got a three-point grade average! You're gonna kick butt, son!"

Mr. Caruso, like any other franchisee, had access to Turfnet, the multiple listing service that Nova Sicilia used to keep track of what it called "opportunity zones." He took Jason back to the booth-right past all of those poor dorks waiting in line, Jason really liked that-and signed onto the network. All Jason had to do was pick out a region.

"I have an uncle who owns a car dealership in southern California," Jason said, "and I know that's a rapidly expanding area, and - "

"Plenty of opportunity zones!" Mr. Caruso said, pounding away on the keyboard with a flourish. He wheeled the monitor around to show Jason a map of the L.A. area blazing with red splotches that represented unclaimed turf sectors. "Take your pick, Jasie boy!"

Now Jason Breckinridge is the manager of Nova Sicilia #5328 in the Valley. He puts on his smart terracotta blazer every morning and drives to work in his Oldsmobile. Lots of young entrepreneurs would be driving BMWs or Acuras, but the organization of which Jason is now a part puts a premium on tradition and family values and does not go in for flashy foreign imports. "If an American car is good enough for Uncle Enzo… "

Jason's blazer has the Mafia logo embroidered on the breast pocket. A letter "G" is worked into the logo, signifying Gambino, which is the division that handles accounts for the L.A. Basin. His name is written underneath: "Jason (The Iron Pumper) Breckinridge." That is the nickname that he and Mr. Caruso came up with a year ago at the job fair in Illinois. Everyone gets to have a nickname, it is a tradition and a mark of pride, and they like you to pick something that says something about you.

As manager of a local office, Jason's job is to portion work out to local contractors. Every morning, he parks his Oldsmobile out front and goes into the office, ducking quickly into the armored doorway to foil possible Narcolombian snipers. This does not prevent them from taking occasional potshots at the big Uncle Enzo that rises up above the franchise, but those signs can take an amazing amount of abuse before they start looking seedy.

Safely inside, Jason signs onto Turfnet. A job list scrolls automatically onto the screen. All Jason has to do is find contractors to handle all of those jobs before he goes home that night, or else he has to take care of them himself. One way or another, they have to get done. The great majority of the jobs are simple deliveries, which he portions out to Kouriers. Then there are collections from delinquent borrowers and from franchisees who depend on Nova Sicilia for their plant security. If it's a first notice, Jason likes to drop by in person, just to show the flag, to emphasize that his organization takes a personal, one-to-one, hands-on, micromanaged approach to debt-related issues. If it's a second or third notice, he usually writes a contract with Deadbeaters International, a high-impact collection agency with whose work he has always been very happy. Then there is the occasional Code H. Jason hates to deal with Code Hs, views them as symptoms of a breakdown in the system of mutual trust that makes society work. But usually these are handled directly from the regional level, and all Jason has to do is aftermath management and spin control.

This morning, Jason is looking especially crisp, his Oldsmobile freshly waxed and polished. Before he goes inside, he plucks a couple of burger wrappers off the parking lot, snipers be damned. He has heard that Uncle Enzo is in the area, and you never knew when he might pull his fleet of limousines and war wagons into a neighborhood franchise and pop in to shake hands with the rank and file. Yes, Jason is going to be working late tonight, burning the oil until he receives word that Uncle Enzo's plane is safely out of the area.

He signs onto Turfnet. A list of jobs scrolls up as usual, not a very long list. Interfranchise activity is way down today, as all the local managers gird, polish, and inspect for the possible arrival of Uncle Enzo. But one of the jobs scrolls up in red letters, a priority job.

Priority jobs are a little unusual. A symptom of bad morale and general slipshoddity. Every job should be a priority job. But every so often, there is something that absolutely can't be delayed or screwed up. A local manager like Jason can't order up a priority job; it has to come from a higher echelon.

Usually, a priority job is a Code H. But Jason notes with relief that this one is a simple delivery. Certain documents are to be hand carried from his office to Nova Sicilia #4649, which is south of downtown.

Way south. Compton. A war zone, longtime stronghold of Narcolombians and Rastafarian gunslingers.

Compton. Why the hell would an office in Compton need a personally signed copy of his financial records? They should be spending all of their time doing Code Hs on the competition, out there.

As a matter of fact, there is a very active Young Mafia group on a certain block in Compton that has just succeeded in driving away all of the Narcolombians and turning the whole area into a Mafia Watch neighborhood. Old ladies are walking the streets again. Children are waiting for schoolbuses and playing hopscotch on sidewalks that recently were stained with blood. It's a fine example; if it can be done on this block, it can be done anywhere.

As a matter of fact, Uncle Enzo is coming to congratulate them in person.

This afternoon.

And #4649 is going to be his temporary headquarters.

The implications are stunning.

Jason has been given a priority job to deliver his records to the very franchise where Uncle Enzo will be taking his espresso this afternoon!

Uncle Enzo is interested in him.

Mr. Caruso claimed he had connections higher up, but could they really go this high?

Jason sits back in his color-coordinated earth-tone swivel chair to consider the very real possibility that in a few days, he's going to be managing a whole region - or even better.

One thing's for sure - this is not a delivery to be entrusted to any Kourier, any punk on a skateboard. Jason is going to trundle his Oldsmobile into Compton personally to drop this stuff off.

18

He's there an hour ahead of schedule. He was shooting for half an hour early, but once he gets a load of Compton - he's heard stories about the place, of course, but my God - he starts driving like a maniac. Cheap, nasty franchises all tend to adopt logos with a lot of bright, hideous yellow in them, and so Alameda Street is clearly marked out before him, a gout of radioactive urine ejected south from the dead center of L.A. Jason aims himself right down the middle, ignoring lane markings and red lights, and puts the hammer down.

Most of the franchises are yellow-logoed, wrong-side-of-the-tracks operations like Uptown, Narcolombia, Caymans Plus, Metazania, and The Clink. But standing out like rocky islands in this swamp are the Nova Sicilia franchulates - beachheads for the Mafia's effort to outduel the overwhelmingly strong Narcolombia.

Shitty lots that even The Clink wouldn't buy always tend to get picked up by economy-minded three-ringers who have just shelled out a million yen for a Narcolombia license and who need some real estate, any real estate, that they can throw a fence around and extraterritorialize. These local franchulates send most of their gross to Medellin in franchising fees and keep barely enough to pay overhead.

Some of them try to scam, to sneak a few bills into their pocket when they think the security camera isn't watching, and run down the street to the nearest Caymans Plus or The Alps franchulate, which hover in these areas like flies on road kill. But these people rapidly find out that in Narcolombia, just about everything is a capital offense, and there is no judicial system to speak of, just flying justice squads that have the right to blow into your franchulate any time of day or night and fax your records back to the notoriously picky computer in Medellin. Nothing sucks more than being hauled in front of a firing squad against the back wall of the business that you built with your own two hands.

Uncle Enzo reckons that with the Mafia's emphasis on loyalty and traditional family values, they can sign up a lot of these entrepreneurs - before they become Narcolombian citizens.

And that explains the billboards that Jason sees with growing frequency as he drives into Compton. The smiling face of Uncle Enzo seems to beam down from every comer. Typically, he's got his arm around the shoulders of a young wholesome-looking black kid, and there's a catch phrase above: THE MAFIA - YOU'VE GOT A FRIEND IN THE FAMILY! and RELAX - YOU ARE ENTERING A MAFIA WATCH NEIGHBORHOOD! and UNCLE ENZO FORGIVES AND FORGETS.

This last one usually accompanies a picture of Uncle Enzo with his arm around some teenager's shoulders, giving him a stern avuncular talking-to. It is an allusion to the fact that the Colombians and Jamaicans kill just about everyone.

NO WAY, JOSE! Uncle Enzo holding up one hand to stop an Uzi-toting Hispanic scumbag; behind him stands a pan-ethnic phalanx of kids and grannies, resolutely gripping baseball bats and frying pans.

Oh, sure, the Narcolombians still have a lock on coca leaves, but now that Nippon Pharmaceuticals has its big cocaine-synthesis facility in Mexicali nearly complete, that will cease to be a factor. The Mafia is betting that any smart youngster going into the business these days will take note of these billboards and think twice. Why end up suffocating on your own entrails out in back of some Buy 'n' Fly when you can put on a crisp terracotta blazer instead and become part of a jovial familia? Especially now that they have black, Hispanic, and Asian capos who will respect your cultural identity? In the long term, Jason is bullish on the Mob.

His black Oldsmobile is a fucking bullseye in a place like this. It's the worst thing he has ever seen, Compton. Lepers roasting dogs on spits over tubs of flaming kerosene. Street people pushing wheelbarrows piled high with dripping clots of million- and billion-dollar bills that they have raked up out of storm sewers. Road kills - enormous road kills - road kills so big that they could only be human beings, smeared out into chunky swaths a block long. Burning roadblocks across major avenues. No franchises anywhere. The Oldsmobile keeps popping. Jason can't think of what it is until he realizes that people are shooting at him. Good thing he let his uncle talk him into springing for full armor! When he figures that one out, he actually gets psyched. This is the real thing, man! He's driving around in his Olds and the bastards are shooting at him, and it just don't matter!

Every street for three blocks around the franchise is blocked off by Mafia war wagons. Men lurk on top of burned tenements carrying six-foot-long rifles and wearing black windbreakers with MAFIA across the back in five-inch fluorescent letters.

This is it, man, this is the real shit.

Pulling up to the checkpoint, he notes that his Olds is now straddling a portable claymore mine. If he's the wrong guy, it'll turn the car into a steel doughnut. But he's not the wrong guy. He's the right guy. He's got a priority job, a heap of documents on the seat next to him, wrapped up tight and pretty.

He rolls the window down and a top-echelon Mafia guardsman nails him with the retinal scanner. None of this ID card nonsense. They know who he is in a microsecond. He sits back against his whiplash arrestor, turns the rear-view mirror to face himself, checks his hairstyle. It's not half bad.

"Bud," the guard says, "you ain't on the list."

"Yes, I am," Jason says. "This is a priority delivery. Got the papers right here."

He hands a hard copy of the Turfnet job order to the guard, who looks at it, grunts, and goes into his war wagon, which is richly festooned with antennas.

There is a very, very long wait.

A man is approaching on foot, walking across the emptiness between the Mafia franchise and the perimeter. The vacant lot is a wilderness of charred bricks and twisted electrical conduit, but this gentleman is walking across it like Christ on the Sea of Galilee. His suit is perfectly black. So is his hair. He doesn't have any guards with him. The perimeter security is that good.

Jason notices that all the guards at this checkpoint are standing a little straighter, adjusting their ties, shooting their cuffs. Jason wants to climb out of his bulletpocked Oldsmobile to show proper respect to whoever this guy is, but he can't get the door open because a big guard is standing right there, using the roof as a mirror.

All too quickly, he's there.

"Is this him?" he says to a guard.

The guard looks at Jason for a couple of seconds, as though he can't quite believe it, then looks at the important man in the black suit and nods.

The man in the black suit nods back, tugs on his cuffs a little bit, squints around him for a few moments, looking at the snipers up on the roofs, looking everywhere but at Jason. Then he steps forward one pace. One of his eyes is made of glass and doesn't point in the same direction as the other one. Jason thinks he's looking elsewhere. But he's looking at Jason with his good eye. Or maybe he isn't. Jason can't tell which eye is the real one. He shudders and stiffens like a puppy in a deep freeze.

"Jason Breckinridge," the man says.

"The Iron Pumper," Jason reminds him.

"Shut up. For the rest of this conversation, you don't say anything. When I tell you what you did wrong, you don't say you're sorry, because I already know you're sorry. And when you drive outta here alive, you don't thank me for being alive. And you don't even say goodbye to me."

Jason nods.

"I don't even want you to nod, that's how much you annoy me. Just freeze and shut up. Okay, here we go. We gave you a priority job this morning. It was real easy. All you had to do was read the fucking job sheet. But you didn't read it. You just took it upon yourself to make the fuckin' delivery on your own. Which the job sheet explicitly tells you not to do."

Jason's eyes flick in the direction of the bundle of documents on the seat.

"That's crap," the man says. "We don't want your fucking documents. We don't care about you and your fucking franchise out in the middle a nowhere. All we wanted was the Kourier. The job sheet said that this delivery was supposed to be made by one particular Kourier who works your area, name of Y.T. Uncle Enzo happens to like Y.T. He wants to meet her. Now, because you screwed up, Uncle Enzo don't get his wish. Oh, what a terrible outcome. What an embarrassment. What an incredible fuckup, is what it is. It's too late to save your franchise, Jason The Iron Pumper, but it might not be too late to keep the sewer rats from eating your nipples for dinner."

19

"This wasn't done with a sword," Hiro says. He is beyond astonishment as he stands and stares at Lagos's corpse. All the emotions will probably come piling in on him later, when he goes home and tries to sleep. For now, the thinking part of his brain seems cut loose from his body, as if he has just ingested a great deal of drugs, and he's just as cool as Squeaky.

"Oh, yeah? How can you tell?" Squeaky says.

"Swords make quick cuts, all the way through. Like, you cut off a head or an arm. A person who's been killed with a sword doesn't look like this."

"Really? Have you killed a lot of people with swords, Mr. Protagonist?"

"Yes. In the Metaverse."

They stand for a while longer, looking at it.

"This doesn't look like a speed move. This looks like a strength move," Squeaky says.

"Raven looks strong enough."

"That he does."

"But I don't think he was carrying a weapon. The Crips frisked him earlier, and he was clean."

"Well, then he must have borrowed one," Squeaky says. "This bug was all over the place, you know. We were keeping an eye on him, because we were afraid he was going to piss Raven off. He kept going around looking for a vantage point."

"He's loaded with surveillance gear," Hiro says. "The higher he gets, the better it works."

"So he ended up here on this embankment. And apparently the perpetrator knew where he was."

"The dust," Hiro says. "Watch the lasers."

Down below, Sushi K pirouettes spastically as a beer bottle caroms off his forehead. A bundle of lasers sweeps across the embankment, clearly visible in the fine dust being drawn out of it by the wind.

"This guy - this bug - was using lasers. As soon as he came up here - "

"They betrayed his position," Squeaky says.

"And then Raven came after him."

"Well, we're not saying it's him," Squeaky says. "But I need to know if this character" - he nods at the corpse - "might have done anything that would have made Raven feel threatened."

"What is this, group therapy? Who cares if Raven felt threatened?"

"I do," Squeaky says with great finality.

"Lagos was just a gargoyle. A big hoover for intel. I don't think he did wet operations - and if he did, he wouldn't do it in that get-up."

"So why do you think Raven was feeling so jumpy?"

"I guess he doesn't like being under surveillance," Hiro says.

"Yeah." Squeaky says. "You should remember that."

Then Squeaky puts one hand over his ear, the better to hear voices on his headset radio.

"Did Y.T. see this happen?" Hiro says.

"No," Squeaky mumbles, a few seconds later. "But she saw him leaving the scene. She's following him."

"Why would she want to do that!?"

"I guess you told her to, or something."

"I didn't think she'd take off after him."

"Well, she doesn't know that he killed the guy," Squeaky says. "She just phoned in a sighting - he's riding his Harley into Chinatown." And he begins running up the embankment. A couple of Enforcers' cars are parked on the shoulder of the highway up there, waiting.

Hiro tags along. His legs are in incredible shape from sword fighting, and he manages to catch up to Squeaky by the time he reaches his car. When the driver undoes the electric door locks, Hiro scoots into the back seat as Squeaky is going into the front. Squeaky turns around and gives him a tired look.

"I'll behave," Hiro says.

"Just one thing - "

"I know. Don't fuck around with Raven."

"That's right."

Squeaky holds his glare for another second and then turns around, motions the driver to drive. He impatiently rips ten feet of hard copy out of the dashboard printer and begins sifting through it.

On this long strip of paper, Hiro glimpses multiple renditions of the important Crip, the guy with the goatee whom Raven was dealing with earlier. On the printout, he is labeled as "T-Bone Murphy."

There's also a picture of Raven. It's an action shot, not a mug shot. It is terrible output. It has been caught through some kind of light-amplifying optics that wash out the color and make everything incredibly grainy and low contrast. It looks like some image processing has been done to make it sharper; this also makes it grainier. The license plate is just an oblate blur, overwhelmed by the glow of the taillight. It is heeled over sharply, the sidecar wheel several inches off the ground. But the rider doesn't have any visible neck; his head, or rather the dark splotch that is there, just keeps getting wider until it merges into his shoulders. Definitely Raven.

"How come you have pictures of T-bone Murphy in there?" Hiro says.

"He's chasing him," Squeaky says.

"Who's chasing whom?"

"Well, your friend Y.T. ain't no Edward R. Murrow. But as far as we can tell from her reports, they've been sighted in the same area, trying to kill each other," Squeaky says. He's speaking with the slow, distant tones of someone who is getting live updates over his headphones.

"They were doing some kind of a deal earlier," Hiro says.

"Then I ain't hardly surprised they're trying to kill each other now."

Once they get to a certain part of town, following the T-Bone and Raven show becomes a matter of connect-the-ambulances. Every couple of blocks there is a cluster of cops and medics, lights sparkling, radios coughing. All they have to do is go from one to the next.

At the first one, there is a dead Crip lying on the pavement. A six-foot-wide blood slick runs from his body, diagonally down the street to a storm drain. The ambulance people are standing around, smoking and drinking coffee from go cups, waiting for The Enforcers to get finished measuring and photographing so that they can haul the corpse to the morgue. There are no IV lines set up, no bits of medical trash strewn around the area, no open doc boxes; they didn't even try.

They proceed around a couple of comers to the next constellation of flashing lights. Here, the ambulance drivers are inflating a cast around the leg of a MetaCop.

"Run over by the motorcycle," Squeaky says, shaking his head with the traditional Enforcer's disdain for their pathetic junior relations, the MetaCops.

Finally, he patches the radio feed into the dashboard so they can all hear it.

The motorcyclist's trail is now cold and it sounds like most of the local cops are dealing with aftermath problems. But a citizen has just called in to complain that a man on a motorcycle, and several other persons, are trashing a field of hops on her block.

"Three blocks from here," Squeaky says to the driver.

"Hops?" Hiro says.

"I know the place. Local microbrewery," Squeaky says. "They grow their own hops. Contract it out to some urban gardeners. Chinese peasants who do the grunt work for 'em."

When they arrive, the first authority figures on the scene, it is obvious why Raven decided to let himself get chased into a hop field: It is great cover. The hops are heavy, flowering vines that grow on trellises lashed together out of long bamboo poles. The trellises are eight feet high; you can't see a thing.

They all get out of the car.

"T-Bone?" Squeaky hollers.

They hear someone yelling in English from the middle of the of the field. "Over here!" But he isn't responding to Squeaky.

They walk into the hop field. Carefully. There is an enveloping smell, a resiny odor not unlike marijuana, the sharp smell that comes off an expensive beer. Squeaky motions for Hiro to stay behind him.

In other circumstances, Hiro would do so. He is half Japanese, and under certain circumstances, totally respectful of authority.

This is not one of those circumstances. If Raven comes anywhere near Hiro, Hiro is going to be talking to him with his katana. And if it comes to that, Hiro doesn't want Squeaky anywhere near him, because he could lose a limb on the backswing.

"Yo, T-Bone!" Squeaky yells. "It's The Enforcers, and we're pissed! Get the fuck out of there, man. Let's go home!"

T-Bone, or Hiro assumes it is T-Bone, responds only by firing a short burst from a machine pistol. The muzzle flash lights up the hop vines like a strobe light. Hiro aims one shoulder at the ground, buries himself in soft earth and foliage for a few seconds.

"Fuck!" T-Bone says. It is a disappointed fuck, but a fuck with a heavy undertone of overwhelming frustration and not a little fear.

Hiro gets up into a conservative squat, looks around. Squeaky and the other Enforcer are nowhere to be seen.

Hiro forces his way through one of the trellises and into a row that is closer to the action.

The other Enforcer - the driver - is in the same row, about ten meters away, his back turned to Hiro. He glances over his shoulder in Hiro's direction, then looks in the other direction and sees someone else - Hiro can't quite see who, because The Enforcer is in the way.

"What the fuck," The Enforcer says.

Then he jumps a little, as though startled, and something happens to the back of his jacket.

"Who is it?" Hiro says.

The Enforcer doesn't say anything. He is trying to turn back around, but something prevents it. Something is shaking the vines around him.

The Enforcer shudders, careens sideways from foot to foot. "Got to get loose," he says, speaking loudly to no one in particular. He breaks into a trot, running away from Hiro. The other person who was in the row is gone now. The Enforcer is running in a strange stiff upright gait with his arms down to his sides. His bright green windbreaker isn't hanging correctly.

Hiro runs after him. The Enforcer is trotting toward the end of the row, where the lights of the street are visible.

The Enforcer exits the field a couple of seconds ahead of him, and, when Hiro gets to the curb, is in the middle of the road, illuminated mostly by flashing blue light from a giant overhead video screen. He is turning around and around with strange little stomping footsteps, not keeping his balance very well. He is saying, "Aaah, aaah" in a low, calm voice that gurgles as though he badly needs to clear his throat.

As The Enforcer revolves, Hiro perceives that he has been impaled on an eight-foot-long bamboo spear. Half sticks out the front, half out the back. The back half is dark with blood and black fecal clumps, the front half is greenish-yellow and clean. The Enforcer can only see the front half and his hands are playing up and down it, trying to verify what his eyes are seeing. Then the back half whacks into a parked car, spraying a narrow fan of head cheese across the waxed and polished trunk lid. The car's alarm goes off. The Enforcer hears the sound and turns around to see what it is.

When Hiro last sees him, he is running down the center of the pulsating neon street toward the center of Chinatown, wailing a terrible, random song that clashes with the bleating of the car alarm. Hiro feels even at this moment that something has been torn open in the world and that he is dangling above the gap, staring into a place where he does not want to be. Lost in the biomass.

Hiro draws his katana.

"Squeaky!" Hiro hollers. "He's throwing spears! He's pretty good at it! Your driver is hit!"

"Got it!" Squeaky hollers.

Hiro goes back into the closest row. He hears a sound off to the right and uses the katana to cut his way through into that row. This is not a nice place to be at the moment, but it is safer than standing in the street under the plutonic light of the video screen.

Down the row is a man. Hiro recognizes him by the strange shape of his head, which just gets wider until it reaches his shoulders. He is holding a freshly cut bamboo pole in one hand, torn from the trellis.

Raven strokes one end of it with his other hand, and a chunk falls off. Something flickers in that hand, the blade of a knife apparently. He has just cut off the end of the pole at an acute angle to make it into a spear.

He throws it fluidly. The motion is calm and beautiful. The spear disappears because it is coming straight at Hiro.

Hiro does not have time to adopt the proper stance, but this is fine since he has already adopted it. Whenever he has a katana in his hands he adopts it automatically, otherwise he fears that he may lose his balance and carelessly lop off one of his extremities. Feet parallel and pointed straight ahead, right foot in front of the left foot, katana held down at groin level like an extension of the phallus. Hiro raises the tip and slaps at the spear with the side of the blade, diverting it just enough; it goes into a slow sideways spin, the point missing Hiro just barely and entangling itself in a vine on Hiro's right. The butt end swings around and gets hung up on the left, tearing out a number of vines as it comes to a stop. It is heavy, and traveling very fast.

Raven is gone.

Mental note: Whether or not Raven intended to take on a bunch of Crips and Enforcers singlehandedly tonight, he didn't even bother to pack a gun.

Another burst of gunfire sounds from several rows over.

Hiro has been standing here for rather a long time, thinking about what just happened. He cuts through the next row of vines and heads in the direction of the muzzle flash, running his mouth: "Don't shoot this way, T-Bone, I'm on your side, man."

"Motherfucker threw a stick into my chest, man!" T-Bone complains.

When you're wearing armor, getting hit by a spear just isn't such a big deal anymore.

"Maybe you should just forget it," Hiro says. He is having to cut his way through a lot of rows to reach T-Bone, but as long as T-Bone keeps talking, Hiro can find him.

"I'm a Crip. We don't forget nothing." T-Bone says. "Is that you?"

"No," Hiro says. "I'm not there yet."

A very brief burst of gunfire, rapidly cut off. Suddenly, no one is talking. Hiro cuts his way into the next row and almost steps on T-Bone's hand, which has been amputated at the wrist. Its finger is still tangled in the trigger guard of a MAC-11.

The remainder of T-Bone is two rows away. Hiro stops and watches through the vines.

Raven is one of the largest men Hiro has seen outside of a professional sporting event. T-Bone is backing away from him down the row. Raven, moving with long confident strides, catches up with T-Bone and swings one hand up into T-Bone's body; Hiro doesn't have to see the knife to know it is there.

It looks as though T-Bone is going to get out of this with nothing worse than a sewn-on hand and some rehab work, because you can't stab a person to death that way, not if he is wearing armor.

T-Bone screams.

He is bouncing up and down on Raven's hand. The knife has gone all the way through the bulletproof fabric and now Raven is trying to gut T-Bone the same way he did Lagos. But his knife - whatever the hell it is - won't cut through the fabric that way. It is sharp enough to penetrate - which should be impossible - but not sharp enough to slash.

Raven pulls it out, drops to one knee, and swings his knife hand around in a long ellipse between T-Bone's thighs. Then he jumps over T-Bone's collapsing body and runs.

Hiro gets the sense that T-Bone is a dead man, so he follows Raven. His intention is not to hunt the man down, but rather to maintain a very clear picture of where he is.

He has to cut through a number of rows. He rapidly loses Raven. He considers running as fast as he can in the opposite direction.

Then he hears the deep, lung-stretching rumble of a motorcycle engine. Hiro runs for the nearest street exit, just hoping to catch a glimpse.

He does, though it is a quick one, not a hell of a lot better than the graphic in the cop car. Raven turns to look at Hiro, just as he is blowing out of there. He's right under a streetlight, so Hiro gets a clear look at his face for the first time. He is Asian. He has a wispy mustache that trails down past his chin.

Another Crip comes running out into the street half a second after Hiro, as Raven is pulling away. He slows for a moment to take stock of the situation, then charges the motorcycle, like a linebacker. He is crying out as he does so, a war cry.

Squeaky emerges about the same time as the Crip, starts chasing both of them down the street.

Raven seems to be unaware of the Crip running behind him, but in hindsight it seems apparent that he has been watching his approach in the rearview mirror of the motorcycle. As the Crip comes in range, Raven's hand lets go of the throttle for a moment, snaps back as if he is throwing away a piece of litter. His fist strikes the middle of the Crip's face like a frozen ham shot out of a cannon. The Crip's head snaps back, his feet are lifted off the ground, he does most of a backflip, and strikes the pavement, hitting first with the nape of his neck, both arms slamming out straight onto the road as he does so. It looks a lot like a controlled fall, though if so, it has to be more reflex than anything.

Squeaky decelerates, turns, and kneels down next to the fallen Crip, ignoring Raven.

Hiro watches the large, radioactive, spear-throwing killer drug lord ride his motorcycle into Chinatown. Which is the same as riding it into China, as far as chasing him down is concerned.

He runs up to the Crip, who is lying crucified in the center of the street. The lower half of the Crip's face is pretty hard to make out. His eyes are half open, and he looks quite relaxed. He speaks quietly. "He's a fucking Indian or something."

Interesting idea. But Hiro still thinks he's Asian.

"What the fuck did you think you were doing, asshole?" Squeaky says. He sounds so pissed that Hiro steps away from him.

"That fucker ripped us off - the suitcase burned," the Crip mumbles through a mashed jaw.

"So why didn't you just write it off? Are you crazy, fucking with Raven like that?"

"He ripped us off. Nobody does that and lives."

"Well, Raven just did," Squeaky says. Finally, he's calming down a little. He rocks back on his heels, looks up at Hiro.

"T-Bone and your driver are not likely to be alive," Hiro says. "This guy better not move - he could have a neck fracture."

"He's lucky I don't fracture his fucking neck," Squeaky says.

The ambulance people get there fast enough to slap an inflatable cervical collar around the Crip's neck before he gets ambitious enough. to stand up. They haul him away within a few minutes.

Hiro goes back into the hops and finds T-Bone. T-Bone is dead, slumped in a kneeling position against a trellis. The stab wound through his bulletproof vest probably would have been fatal, but Raven wasn't satisfied with that. He went down low and slashed up and down the insides of T-Bone's thighs, which are now laid open all the way to the bone. In doing so, he put great lengthwise rents into both of T-Bone's femoral arteries, and his entire blood supply dropped out of him. Like slicing the bottom off a styrofoam cup.

20

The Enforcers turn the entire block into a mobile cop headquarters with cars and paddy wagons and satellite links on flatbed trucks. Dudes with white coats are walking up and down through the hop field with Geiger counters. Squeaky is wandering around with his headset, staring into space, carrying on conversations with people who aren't there. A tow truck shows up, towing T-Bone's black BMW behind it.

"Yo, pod." Hiro turns around and looks. It's Y.T. She's just come out of a Hunan place across the street. She hands Hiro a little white box and a pair of chopsticks. "Spicy chicken with black bean sauce, no MSG. You know how to use chopsticks?"

Hiro shrugs off this insult.

"I got a double order," Y.T. continues, "cause I figure we got some good intel tonight."

"Are you aware of what happened here?"

"No. I mean, some people obviously got hurt."

"But you weren't an eyewitness."

"No, I couldn't keep up with them."

"That's good," Hiro says.

"What did happen?"

Hiro just shakes his head. The spicy chicken is glistening darkly under the lights; he has never been less hungry in his life. "If I had known, I wouldn't have gotten you involved. I just thought it was a surveillance job."

"What happened?"

"I don't want to get into it. Look. Stay away from Raven, okay?"

"Sure," she says. She says it in the chirpy tone of voice that she uses when she's lying and she wants to make sure you know it.

Squeaky hauls open the back door of the BMW and looks into the back seat. Hiro steps a little closer, gets a nasty whiff of cold smoke. It is the smell of burnt plastic.

The aluminum briefcase that Raven earlier gave to T-Bone is sitting in the middle of the seat. It looks like it has been thrown into a fire; it has black smoke stains splaying out around the locks, and its plastic handle is partially melted. The buttery leather that covers the BMW's seats has burn marks on it. No wonder T-Bone was pissed.

Squeaky pulls on a pair of latex gloves. He hauls the briefcase out, sets it on the trunk lid, and rips the latches open with a small prybar.

Whatever it is, it is complicated and highly designed. The top half of the case has several rows of the small red-capped tubes that Hiro saw at the U-Stor-It. There are five rows with maybe twenty tubes in each row.

The bottom half of the case appears to be some kind of miniaturized, old-fashioned computer terminal. Most of it is occupied by a keyboard. There is a small liquid-crystal display screen that can probably handle about five lines of text at a time. There is a penlike object attached to the case by a cable, maybe three feet long uncoiled. It looks like it might be a light pen or a bar-code scanner. Above the keyboard is a lens, set at an angle so that it is aimed at whoever is typing on the keyboard. There are other features whose purpose is not so obvious: a slot, which might be a place to insert a credit or ID card, and a cylindrical socket that is about the size of one of those little tubes.

This is Hiro's reconstruction of how the thing looked at one time. When Hiro sees it, it is melted together. Judging from the pattern of smoke marks on the outside of the case - which appear to be jetting outward from the crack between the top and bottom - the source of the flame was inside, not outside.

Squeaky reaches down and unsnaps one of the tubes from the bracket, holds it up in front of the bright lights of Chinatown. It had been transparent but was now smirched by heat and smoke. From a distance, it looks like a simple vial, but stepping up to look at it more closely Hiro can see at least half a dozen tiny individual compartments inside the thing, all connected to each other by capillary tubes. It has a red plastic cap on one end of it. The cap has a black rectangular window, and as Squeaky rotates it, Hiro can see the dark red glint of an inactive LED display inside, like looking at the display on a turned-off calculator. Underneath this is a small perforation. It isn't just a simple drilled hole. It is wide at the surface, rapidly narrowing to a nearly invisible pinpoint opening, like the bell of a trumpet.

The compartments inside the vial are all partially filled with liquids. Some of them are transparent and some are blackish brown. The brown ones have to be organics of some kind, now reduced by the heat into chicken soup. The transparent ones could be anything.

"He got out to go into a bar and have a drink," Squeaky mumbles. "What an asshole."

"Who did?"

"T-Bone. See, T-Bone was, like, the registered owner of this unit. The suitcase. And as soon as he got more than about ten feet away from it - foosh - it self-destructed."

"Why?"

Squeaky looks at Hiro like he's stupid. "Well, it's not like I work for Central Intelligence or anything. But I would guess that whoever makes this drug - they call it Countdown, or Redcap, or Snow Crash - has a real thing about trade secrets. So if the pusher abandons the suitcase, or loses it, or tries to transfer ownership to someone else - foosh."

"You think the Crips are going to catch up with Raven?"

"Not in Chinatown. Shit," Squeaky says, getting pissed again in retrospect, "I can't believe that guy. I could have killed him.''

"Raven?"

"No. That Crip. Chasing Raven. He's lucky Raven got to him first, not me."

"You were chasing the Crip?"

"Yeah, I was chasing the Crip. What, did you think I was trying to catch Raven?"

"Sort of, yeah. I mean, he's the bad guy, right?"

"Definitely. So I'd be chasing Raven if I was a cop and it was my job to catch bad guys. But I'm an Enforcer, and it's my job to enforce order. So I'm doing everything I can - and so is every other Enforcer in town - to protect Raven. And if you have any ideas about trying to go and find Raven yourself and get revenge for that colleague of yours that he offed, you can forget it."

"Offed? What colleague?" Y.T. breaks in. She didn't see what happened with Lagos.

Hiro is mortified by this idea. "Is that why everyone was telling me not to fuck with Raven? They were afraid I was going to attack him?"

Squeaky eyes the swords. "You got the means."

"Why should anyone protect Raven?"

Squeaky smiles, as though we have just crossed the border into the realm of kidding around. "He's a Sovereign."

"So declare war on him."

"It's not a good idea to declare war on a nuclear power."

"Huh?"

"Christ," Squeaky says, shaking his head, "if I had any idea how little you knew about this shit, I never would have let you into my car. I thought you we're some kind of a serious CIC wet-operations guy. Are you telling me you really didn't know about Raven?"

"Yes, that's what I'm telling you."

"Okay. I'm gonna tell you this so you don't go out and cause any more trouble. Raven's packing a torpedo warhead that he boosted from an old Soviet nuke sub. It was a torpedo that was designed to take out a carrier battle group with one shot. A nuclear torpedo. You know that funny-looking sidecar that Raven has on his Harley? Well, it's a hydrogen bomb, man. Armed and ready. The trigger's hooked up to EEG trodes embedded in his skull. If Raven dies, the bomb goes off. So when Raven comes into town, we do everything in our power to make the man feel welcome."

Hiro's just gaping. Y.T. has to step in on his behalf. "Okay," she says. "Speaking for my partner and myself, we'll stay away from him."

21

Y.T. reckons she is going to spend all afternoon being a ramp turd. The surf is always up on the Harbor Freeway, which gets her from Downtown into Compton, but the off-ramps into that neighborhood are so rarely used that three-foot tumbleweeds grow in their potholes. And she's definitely not going to travel into Compton under her own power. She wants to poon something big and fast.

She can't use the standard trick of ordering a pizza to her destination and then pooning the delivery boy as he roars past, because none of the pizza chains deliver to this neighborhood. So she'll have to stop at the off-ramp and wait hours and hours for a ride. A ramp turd.

She does not want to do this delivery at all. But the franchisee wants her to do it bad. Really bad. The amount of money he has offered her is so high, it's stupid. The package must be full of some kind of intense new drug.

But that's not as weird as what happens next. She is cruising down the Harbor Freeway, approaching the desired off-ramp, having pooned a southbound semi. A quarter-mile from the off-ramp, a bullet-pocked black Oldsmobile cruises past her, right-turn signal flashing. He's going to exit. It's too good to be true. She poons the Oldsmobile.

As she cruises down the ramp behind this flatulent sedan, she checks out the driver in his rearview mirror. It is the franchisee himself, the one who is paying her a totally stupid amount of money to do this job.

By this point, she's more afraid of him than she is of Compton. He must be a psycho. He must be in love with her. This is all a twisted psycho love plot.

But it's a little late now. She stays with him, looking for a way out of this burning and rotting neighborhood.

They are approaching a big, nasty-looking Mafia roadblock. He guns the gas pedal, headed straight for death. She can see the destination franchise ahead. At the last second, he whips the car around and squeals sideways to a halt.

He couldn't have been more helpful. She unpoons as he's giving her this last little kick of energy and sails through the checkpoint at a safe and sane speed. The guards keep their guns pointed at the sky, swivel their heads to look at her butt as she rolls past them.

The Compton Nova Sicilia franchise is a grisly scene. It is a jamboree of Young Mafia. These youths are even duller than the ones from the all-Mormon Deseret Burbclave. The boys are wearing tedious black suits. The girls are encrusted with pointless femininity. Girls can't even be in the Young Mafia; they have to be in the Girls' Auxiliary and serve macaroons on silver plates. "Girls" is too fine a word for these organisms, too high up the evolutionary scale. They aren't even chicks.

She's going way too fast, so she kicks the board around sideways, plants pads, leans into it, skids to a halt, roiling up a wave of dust and grit that dulls the glossy shoes of several Young Mafia who are milling out front, nibbling dinky Italo-treats and playing grown-up. It condenses on the white lace stockings of the Young Mafia proto-chicks. She falls off the board, appearing to catch her balance at the last moment. She stomps on the edge of the plank with one foot, and it bounces four feet into the air, spinning rapidly around its long axis, up into her armpit, where she clamps it tight under one arm. The spokes of the smartwheels all retract so that the wheels are barely larger than their hubs. She slaps the MagnaPoon into a handy socket on the bottom of the plank so that her gear is all in one handy package.

"Y.T.," she says. "Young, fast, and female. Where the fuck's Enzo?"

The boys decide to get all "mature" on Y.T. Males of this age are preoccupied with snapping each other's underwear and drinking until they are in a coma. But around a female, they do the "mature" thing. It is hilarious. One of them steps forward slightly, interposing himself between Y.T. and the nearest proto-chick. "Welcome to Nova Sicilia," he says. "Can I assist you in some way?"

Y.T. sighs deeply. She is a fully independent businessperson, and these people are trying to do a peer thing on her.

"Delivery for one Enzo? Y'know, I can't wait to get out of this neighborhood."

"It's a good neighborhood, now," the YoMa says. "You should stick around for a few minutes. Maybe you could learn some manners."

"You should try surfing the Ventura at rush hour. Maybe you could learn your limitations."

The YoMa laughs like, okay, if that's how you want it. He gestures toward the door. "The man you want to talk to is in there. Whether he wants to talk to you or not, I'm not sure."

"He fucking asked for me," Y.T. says.

"He came across the country to be with us," the guy says, "and he seems pretty happy with us."

All the other YoMas mumble and nod supportively.

"Then why are you standing outside?" Y.T. asks, going inside.

Inside the franchise, things are startlingly relaxed. Uncle Enzo is in there, looking just like he does in the pictures, except bigger than Y.T. expected. He is sitting at a desk playing cards with some other guys in funeral garb. He is smoking a cigar and nursing an espresso. Can't get too much stimulation, apparently.

There's a whole Uncle Enzo portable support system in here. A traveling espresso machine has been set up on another desk. A cabinet sits next to it, doors open to reveal a big foil bag of Italian Roast Water-Process Decaf and a box of Havana cigars. There's also a gargoyle in one comer, patched into a bigger-than-normal laptop, mumbling to himself.

Y.T. lifts her arm, allows the plank to fall into her hand. She slaps it down on top of an empty desk and approaches Uncle Enzo, unslinging the delivery from her shoulder.

"Gino, please," Uncle Enzo says, nodding at the delivery. Gino steps forward to take it from her.

"Need your signature on that," Y.T. says. For some reason she does not refer to him as "pal" or "bub."

She's momentarily distracted by Gino. Suddenly, Uncle Enzo has come rather close to her, caught her right hand in his left hand. Her Kourier gloves have an opening on the back of the hand just big enough for his lips. He plants a kiss on Y.T.'s hand. It's warm and wet. Not slobbery and gross, not antiseptic and dry either. Interesting. The guy has confidence going for him. Christ, he's slick. Nice lips. Sort of firm muscular lips, not gelatinous and blubbery like fifteen-year-old lips can be. Uncle Enzo has a very faint citrus-and-aged-tobacco smell to him. Fully smelling it would involve standing pretty close to him. He is towering over her, standing at a respectable distance now, glinting at her through crinkly old-guy eyes.

Seems pretty nice.

"I can't tell you how much I've been looking forward to meeting you, Y.T.," he says.

"Hi," she says. Her voice sounds chirpier than she likes it to be. So she adds, "What's in that bag that's so fucking valuable, anyway.

"Absolutely nothing," Uncle Enzo says. His smile is not exactly smug. More embarrassed, like what an awkward way to meet someone. "It all has to do with imageering," he says, spreading one hand dismissively. "There are not many ways for a man like me to meet with a young girl that do not generate incorrect images in the media. It's stupid. But we pay attention to these things."

"So, what did you want to meet with me about? Got a delivery for me to make?"

All the guys in the room laugh.

The sound startles Y.T. a little, reminds her that she is performing in front of a crowd. Her eyes flick away from Uncle Enzo for a moment.

Uncle Enzo notices this. His smile gets infinitesimally narrower, and he hesitates for a moment. In that moment, all the other guys in the room stand up and head for the exit.

"You may not believe me," he says, "but I simply wanted to thank you for delivering that pizza a few weeks ago."

"Why shouldn't I believe you?" she asks. She is amazed to hear nice, sweet things coming out of her mouth.

So is Uncle Enzo. "I'm sure you of all people can come up with a reason."

"So," she says, "you having a nice day with all the Young Mafia?"

Uncle Enzo gives her a look that says, watch it, child. A second after she gets scared, she starts laughing, because it's a put-on, he's just giving her a hard time. He smiles, indicating that it's okay for her to laugh.

Y.T. can't remember when she's been so involved in a conversation. Why can't all people be like Uncle Enzo?

"Let me see," Uncle Enzo says, looking at the ceiling, scanning his memory banks. "I know a few things about you. That you are fifteen years old, you live in a Burbclave in the Valley with your mother."

"I know a few things about you, too," Y.T. hazards.

Uncle Enzo laughs. "Not nearly as much as you think, I promise. Tell me, what does your mother think of your career?"

Nice of him to use the word "career." "She's not totally aware of it - or doesn't want to know."

"You're probably wrong," Uncle Enzo says. He says it cheerfully enough, not trying to cut her down or anything. "You might be shocked at how well-informed she is. This is my experience, anyway. What does your mother do for a living?"

"She works for the Feds."

Uncle Enzo finds that richly amusing. "And her daughter is delivering pizzas for Nova Sicilia. What does she do for the Feds?"

"Some kind of thing where she can't really tell me in case I blab it. She has to take a lot of polygraph tests."

Uncle Enzo seems to understand this very well. "Yes, a lot of Fed jobs are that way."

There is an opportune silence.

"It kind of freaks me out," Y.T. says.

"The fact that she works for the Feds?"

"The polygraph tests. They put a thing around her arm - to measure the blood pressure."

"A sphygmomanometer," Uncle Enzo says crisply.

"It leaves a bruise around her arm. For some reason, that kind of bothers me."

"It should bother you."

"And the house is bugged. So when I'm home - no matter what I'm doing - someone else is probably listening."

"Well, I can certainly relate to that," Uncle Enzo says.

They both laugh.

"I'm going to ask you a question that I've always wanted to ask a Kourier," Uncle Enzo says. "I always watch you people through the windows of my limousine. In fact, when a Kourier poons me, I always tell Peter, my driver, not to give them a hard time. My question is, you are covered from head to toe in protective padding. So why don't you wear a helmet?"

"The suit's got a cervical airbag that blows up when you fall off the board, so you can bounce on your head. Besides, helmets feel weird. They say it doesn't affect your hearing, but it does."

"You use your hearing quite a bit in your line of work?"

"Definitely, yeah."

Uncle Enzo is nodding. "That's what I suspected. We felt the same way, the boys in my unit in Vietnam."

"I heard you went to Vietnam, but - " She stops, sensing danger.

"You thought it was hype. No, I went there. Could have stayed out, if I'd wanted. But I volunteered."

"You volunteered to go to Vietnam?"

Uncle Enzo laughs. "Yes, I did. The only boy in my family to do so."

"Why?"

"I thought it would be safer than Brooklyn."

Y.T. laughs.

"A bad joke," he says. "I volunteered because my father didn't want me to. And I wanted to piss him off."

"Really?"

"Definitely. I spent years and years finding ways to piss him off. Dated black girls. Grew my hair long. Smoked marijuana. But the capstone, my ultimate achievement - even better than having my ear pierced - was volunteering for service in Vietnam. But I had to take extreme measures even then."

Y.T.'s eyes dart back and forth between Uncle Enzo's creased and leathery earlobes. In the left one she just barely sees a tiny diamond stud.

"What do you mean, extreme measures?"

"Everyone knew who I was. Word gets around, you know. If I had volunteered for the regular Army, I would have ended up stateside, filling out forms - maybe even at Fort Hamilton, right there in Bensonhurst. To prevent that, I volunteered for Special Forces, did everything I could to get into a front-line unit." He laughs. "And it worked. Anyway, I'm rambling like an old man. I was trying to make a point about helmets."

"Oh, yeah."

"Our job was to go through the jungle making trouble for some slippery gentlemen carrying guns bigger than they were. Stealthy guys. And we depended on our hearing, too -just like you do. And you know what? We never wore helmets."

"Same reason."

"Exactly. Even though they didn't cover the ears, really, they did something to your sense of hearing. I still think I owe my life to going bareheaded."

"That's really cool. That's really interesting."

"You'd think they would have solved the problem by now."

"Yeah," Y.T., volunteers, "some things never change, I guess."

Uncle Enzo throws back his head and belly laughs. Usually, Y.T. finds this kind of thing pretty annoying, but Uncle Enzo just seems like he's having a good time, not putting her down.

Y.T. wants to ask him how he went from the ultimate rebellion to running the family beeswax. She doesn't. But Uncle Enzo senses that it is the next, natural subject of the conversation.

"Sometimes I wonder who'll come after me," he says. "Oh, we have plenty of excellent people in the next generation. But after that - well, I don't know. I guess all old people feel like the world is coming to an end."

"You got millions of those Young Mafia types," Y.T. says.

"All destined to wear blazers and shuffle papers in suburbia. You don't respect those people very much, Y.T., because you're young and arrogant. But I don't respect them much either, because I'm old and wise."

This is a fairly shocking thing for Uncle Enzo to be saying, but Y.T. doesn't feel shocked. It just seems like a reasonable statement coming from her reasonable pal, Uncle Enzo.

"None of them would ever volunteer to go get his legs shot off in the jungle, just to piss off his old man. They lack a certain fiber. They are lifeless and beaten down."

"That's sad," Y.T. says. It feels better to say this than to trash them, which was her first inclination.

"Well," says Uncle Enzo. It is the "well" that begins the end of a conversation. "I was going to send you some roses, but you wouldn't really be interested in that, would you?"

"Oh, I wouldn't mind," she says, sounding pathetically weak to herself.

"Here's something better, since we are comrades in arms," he says. He loosens his tie and collar, reaches down into his shirt, pulls out an amazingly cheap steel chain with a couple of stamped silver tags dangling from it. "These are my old dog tags," he says. "Been carrying them around for years, just for the hell of it. I would be amused if you would wear them."

Trying to keep her knees steady, she puts the dog tags on. They dangle down onto her coverall.

"Better put them inside," Uncle Enzo says.

She drops them down into the secret place between her breasts. They are still warm from Uncle Enzo.

"Thanks."

"It's just for fun," he says, "but if you ever get into trouble, and you show those dog tags to whoever it is that's giving you a bad time, then things will probably change very quickly."

"Thanks, Uncle Enzo."

"Take care of yourself. Be good to your mother. She loves you."

22

As she steps out of the Nova Sicilia franchulate, a guy is waiting for her. He smiles, not without irony, and makes just a hint of a bow, sort of to get her attention. It's pretty ridiculous, but after being with Uncle Enzo for a while, she's definitely into it. So she doesn't laugh in his face or anything, just looks the other way and blows him off.

"Y.T. Got a job for ya," he says.

"I'm busy," she says, "got other deliveries to make."

"You lie like a mattress," he says appreciatively. "Y'know that gargoyle in there? He's patched in to the RadiKS computer even as we speak. So we all know for a fact you don't got no jobs to do."

"Well, I can't take jobs from a customer," Y.T. says. "We're centrally dispatched. You have to go through the 1-800 number."

"Jeez, what kind of a fucking dickhead do you think I am?" the guy says.

Y.T. stops walking, turns, finally looks at the guy. He's tall, lean. Black suit, black hair. And he's got a gnarly-looking glass eye.

"What happened to your eye?" she says.

"Ice pick, Bayonne, 1985," he says. "Any other questions?"

"Sorry, man, I was just asking."

"Now back to business. Because I don't have my head totally up my asshole, like you seem to assume, I am aware that all Kouriers are centrally dispatched through the 1-800 number. Now, we don't like 1-800 numbers and central dispatching. It's just a thing with us. We like to go person-to-person, the old-fashioned way. Like, on my momma's birthday, I don't pick up the phone and dial 1-800-CALL-MOM. I go there in person and give her a kiss on the cheek, okay? Now in this case, we want you in particular."

"How come?"

"Because we just love to deal with difficult little chicks who ask too many fucking questions. So our gargoyle has already patched himself in to the computer that RadiKS uses to dispatch Kouriers."

The man with the glass eye turns, rotating his head way, way around like an owl, and nods in the direction of the gargoyle. A second later, Y.T.'s personal phone rings.

"Fucking pick it up," he says.

"What?" she says into the phone.

A computer voice tells her that she is supposed to make a pickup in Griffith Park and deliver it to a Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates franchise in Van Nuys.

"If you want something delivered from point A to point B, why don't you just drive it down there yourselves?" Y.T. asks. "Put it in one of those black Lincoln Town Cars and just get it done."

"Because in this case, the something doesn't exactly belong to us, and the people at point A and point B, well, we aren't necessarily on the best of terms, mutually speaking."

"You want me to steal something," Y.T. says.

The man with the glass eye is pained, wounded. "No, no, no. Kid, listen. We're the fucking Mafia. We want to steal something, we already know how to do that, okay? We don't need a fifteen-year-old girl's help to get something stolen. What we are doing here is more of a covert operation."

"A spy thing." Intel.

"Yeah. A spy thing," the man says, his tone of voice suggesting that he is trying to humor someone. "And the only way to get this operation to work is if we have a Kourier who can cooperate with us a little bit."

"So all that stuff with Uncle Enzo was fake," Y.T. says. "You're just trying to get all friendly with a Kourier."

"Oh, ho, listen to this," says the man with the glass eye, genuinely amused. "Yeah, like we have to go all the way to the top to impress a fifteen-year-old. Look, kid, there's a million Kouriers out there we could bribe to do this. We're going with you, again, because you have a personal relationship with our outfit."

"Well, what do you want me to do?"

"Exactly what you would normally do at this juncture," the man says. "Go to Griffith Park and make the pickup."

"That's it?"

"Yeah. Then make the delivery. But do us a favor and take I-5, okay?"

"That's not the best way to do it - "

"Do it anyway."

"Okay."

"Now come on, we'll give you an escort out of this hellhole."

Sometimes, if the wind is going the right way, and you get into the pocket of air behind a speeding eighteen-wheeler, you don't even have to poon it. The vacuum, like a mighty hoover, sucks you in. You can stay there all day. But if you screw up, you suddenly find yourself alone and powerless in the left lane of a highway with a convoy of semis right behind you. Just as bad, if you give in to its power, it will suck you right into its mudflaps, you will become axle dressing, and no one will ever know. This is called the Magic Hoover Poon. It reminds Y.T. of the way her life has been since the fateful night of the Hiro Protagonist pizza adventure.

Her poon cannot miss as she slingshots her way up the San Diego Freeway. She can get a solid yank off even the lightest, trashiest plastic-and-aluminum Chinese econobox. People don't fuck with her. She has established her space on the pavement.

She is going to get so much business now. She will have to sub a lot of work out to Roadkill. And sometimes, just to make important business arrangements, they will have to check into a motel somewhere - which is exactly what real business people do. Lately, Y.T. has been trying to teach Roadkill how to give her a massage. But Roadkill can never get past her shoulder blades before he loses it and starts being Mr. Macho. Which anyway is kind of sweet. And anyway, you take what you can get.

This is not the most direct route to Griffith Park by a longshot, but this is what the Mafia wants her to do: Take 405 all the way up into the Valley, and then approach from that direction, which is the direction she'd normally come from. They're so paranoid. So professional.

LAX goes by on her left. On her right, she gets a glimpse of the U-Stor-It where that dweeb, her partner, is probably goggled into his computer. She weaves through complex traffic flows around Hughes Airport, which is now a private outpost of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong. Continues past the Santa Monica Airport, which just got bought out by Admiral Bob's Global Security. Cuts through the middle of Fedland, where her mother goes to work every day.

Fedland used to be the VA Hospital and a bunch of other Federal buildings; now it has condensed into a kidney-shaped lozenge that wraps around 405. It has a barrier around it, a perimeter fence put up by stringing chain link fabric, concertina wire, heaps of rubble, and Jersey barriers from one building to the next. All of the buildings in Fedland are big and ugly. Human beings mill around their plinths, wearing wool clothing the color of damp granite. They are scrawny and dark underneath the white majesty of the buildings.

On the far side of the Fedland barrier, off to the right, she can see UCLA, which is now being jointly run by the Japanese and Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong and a few big American corporations.

People say that over there to the left, in Pacific Palisades, is a big building above the ocean where the Central Intelligence Corporation has its West Coast headquarters. Soon - like maybe tomorrow - she'll go up there, find that building, maybe just cruise past it and wave. She has great stuff to tell Hiro now. Great intel on Uncle Enzo. People would pay millions for it.

But in her heart, she's already feeling the pangs of conscience. She knows that she cannot kiss and tell on the Mafia. Not because she's afraid of them. Because they trust her. They were nice to her. And who knows, it might turn into something. A better career than she could get with CIC.

Not many cars are taking the off-ramp into Fedland. Her mother does it every morning, as do a bunch of other Feds. But all Feds go to work early and stay late. It's a loyalty thing with them. The Feds have a fetish for loyalty - since they don't make a lot of money or get a lot of respect, you have to prove you're personally committed and that you don't care about those trappings.

Case in point: Y.T. has been pooned onto the same cab all the way from LAX. It's got an Arab in the back seat. His burnous flutters in the wind from the open window; the air conditioning doesn't work, an L.A. cabbie doesn't make enough money to buy Chill - Freon - on the underground market. This is typical: only the Feds would make a visitor take a dirty, un-air conditioned cab. Sure enough, the cab puffs onto the ramp marked UNITED STATES. Y.T. disengages and slaps her poon onto a Valley-bound delivery truck.

On top of the huge Federal Building, a bunch of Feds with walkie-talkies and dark glasses and FEDS windbreakers lurk, aiming long lenses into the windshields of the vehicles coming up Wilshire Boulevard. If this were nighttime, she'd probably see a laser scanner playing over the bar-code license plate of the taxi as it veers onto the U.S. exit.

Y.T.'s mom has told her all about these guys. They are the Executive Branch General Operational Command, EBGOC. The FBI, Federal Marshalls, Secret Service, and Special Forces all claim some separate identity still, like the Army, Navy, and Air Force used to, but they're all under the command of EBGOC, they all do the same things, and they are more or less interchangeable. Outside of Fedland, everyone just knows them as the Feds. EBGOC claims the right to go anywhere, anytime, within the original borders of the United States of America, without a warrant or even a good excuse. But they only really feet at home here, in Fedland, staring down the barrel of a telephoto lens, shotgun microphone, or sniper rifle. The longer the better.

Down below them, the taxicab with the Arab in the back slows down to sublight speed and winds its way down a twisting slalom course of Jersey barriers with.50-caliber machine gun nests strategically placed here and there. It comes to a stop in front of an STD device, straddling an open pit where EBGOC boys stand with dogs and high-powered spotlights to look up its skirt for bombs or NBCI (nuclear-biological-chemical-informational) agents in the undercarriage. Meanwhile, the driver gets out and pops the hood and trunk so that more Feds can inspect them; another Fed leans against the window next to the Arab and grills him through the window.

They say that in D.C., all the museums and the monuments have been concessioned out and turned into a tourist park that now generates about 10 percent of the Government's revenue. The Feds could run the concession themselves and probably keep more of the gross, but that's not the point. It's a philosophical thing. A back-to-basics thing. Government should govern. It's not in the entertainment industry, is it? Leave entertaining to Industry weirdos - people who majored in tap dancing. Feds aren't like that. Feds are serious people. Poli sci majors. Student council presidents. Debate club chairpersons. The kinds of people who have the grit to wear a dark wool suit and a tightly buttoned collar even when the temperature has greenhoused up to a hundred and ten degrees and the humidity is thick enough to stall a jumbo jet. The kinds of people who feel most at home on the dark side of a one-way mirror.

23

Sometimes, to prove their manhood, boys of about Y.T.'s age will drive to the eastern end of the Hollywood Hills, into Griffith Park, pick the road of their choosing, and simply drive through it. Making it through there unscathed is a lot like counting coup on a High Plains battlefield; simply having come that close to danger makes you more of a man.

By definition, all they ever see are the through streets. If you are driving into Griffith Park for some highijnks and you see a NO OUTLET sign, you know that it is time to shift your dad's Accord into reverse and drive it backward all the way back home, revving the engine way past the end of the tachometer.

Naturally, as soon as Y.T. enters the park, following the road she was told to follow, she sees a NO OUTLET sign.

Y.T.'s not the first Kourier to take a job like this, and so she has heard about the place she is going. It is a narrow canyon, accessed only by this one road, and down in the bottom of the canyon a new gang lives. Everyone calls them the Falabalas, because that's how they talk to each other. They have their own language and it sounds like babble.

Right now, the important thing is not to think about how stupid this is. Making the right decision is, priority-wise, down there along with getting enough niacin and writing a thank-you letter to grandma for the nice pearl earrings. The only important thing is not to back down.

A row of machine-gun nests marks the border of Falabala territory. It seems like overkill to Y.T. But then she's never been in a conflict with the Mafia, either. She plays it cool, idles toward the barrier at maybe ten miles an hour. This is where she'll freak out and get scared if she's going to. She is holding aloft a color-faxed RadiKS document, featuring the cybernetic radish logo, proclaiming that she really is here to pick up an important delivery, honest. It'll never work with these guys.

But it does. A big gnarled-up coil of razor ribbon is pulled out of her way, just like that, and she glides through without slowing down. And that's when she knows that it's going to be fine. These people are just doing business here, just like anyone else.

She doesn't have to skate far into the canyon. Thank God. She goes around a few turns, into kind of an open flat area surrounded by trees, and finds herself in what looks like an open-air insane asylum.

Or a Moonie festival or something.

A couple of dozen people are here. None of them have been taking care of themselves at all. They are all wearing the ragged remains of what used to be pretty decent clothing. Half a dozen of them are kneeling on the pavement with their hands clenched tightly together, mumbling to unseen entities.

On the trunk lid of a dead car, they've set up an old junked computer terminal, just a dark monitor screen with a big spider-web crack in it, like someone bounced a coffee mug off the glass. A fat man with red suspenders dangling around his knees is sliding his hands up and down the keyboard, whacking the keys randomly, talking out loud in a meaningless babble. A couple of the others stand behind him, peeking over his shoulder and around his body, and sometimes they try to horn in on it, but he shoves them out of the way.

There's also a crowd of people clapping their hands, swaying their bodies, and singing "The Happy Wanderer." They're really into it, too. Y.T. hasn't seen such childlike glee on anyone's face since the first time she let Roadkill take her clothes off. But this is a different kind of childlike glee that does not look right on a bunch of thirty-something people with dirty hair.

And finally, there is a guy that Y.T. dubs the High Priest. He's wearing a formerly white lab coat, bearing the logo of some company in the Bay Area. He's sacked out in the back of a dead station wagon, but when Y.T. enters the area he jumps up and runs toward her in a way that she can't help but find a little threatening. But compared to these others, he seems almost like a regular, healthy, fit, demented bush-dwelling psychotic.

"You're here to pick up a suitcase, right?"

"I'm here to pick up something. I don't know what it is," she says.

He goes over to one of the dead cars, unlocks the hood, pulls out an aluminum briefcase. It looks exactly like the one that Squeaky took out of the BMW last night. "Here's your delivery," he says, striding toward her. She backs away from him instinctively.

"I understand, I understand," he says. "I'm a scary creep."

He puts it on the ground, puts his foot on it, gives it a shove. It slides across the pavement to Y.T., bouncing off the occasional rock.

"There's no big hurry on this delivery," he says. "Would you like to stay and have a drink? We've got Kool-Aid."

"I'd love to," Y.T. says, "but my diabetes is acting up real bad."

"Well, then you can just stay and be a guest of our community. We have a lot of wonderful things to tell you about. Things that could really change your life."

"Do you have anything in writing? Something I could take with me?"

"Gee, I'm afraid we don't. Why don't you stay. You seem like a really nice person."

"Sorry, Jack, but you must be confusing me with a bimbo," Y.T. says. "Thanks for the suitcase. I'm out of here."

Y.T. starts digging at the pavement with one foot, building up speed as fast as she can. On her way out, she passes by a young woman with a shaved head, dressed in the dirty and haggard remains of a Chanel knockoff. As Y.T. goes by her, she smiles vacantly, sticks out her hand, and waves. "Hi," she says. "ba ma zu na la amu pa go lu ne me a ba du."

"Yo," Y.T. says.

A couple of minutes later, she's pooning her way up I-5, headed up into Valley-land. She's a little freaked-out, her timing is off, she's taking it easy. A tune keeps running through her head: "The Happy Wanderer." It's driving her crazy.

A large black blur keeps pulling alongside her. It would be a tempting target, so large and ferrous, if it were going a little faster. But she can make better time than this barge, even when she's taking it slow.

The driver's side window of the black car rolls down. It's the guy. Jason. He's sticking his whole head out the window to look back at her, driving blind. The wind at fifty miles per hour does not ruffle his firmly gelled razor cut.

He smiles. He has an imploring look about him, the same look that Roadkill gets. He points suggestively at his rear quarter-panel.

What the hell. The last time she pooned this guy, he took her exactly where she was going. Y.T. detaches from the Acura she's been hitched to for the last half mile, swings it over to Jason's fat Olds. And Jason takes her off the freeway and onto Victory Boulevard, headed for Van Nuys, which is exactly right.

But after a couple of miles, he swings the wheel sharply right and screeches into the parking lot of a ghost mall, which is wrong. Right now, nothing's parked in the lot but an eighteen-wheeler, motor running, SALDUCCI BROS. MOVING amp; STORAGE painted on the sides.

"Come on," Jason says, getting out of his Oldsmobile. "You don't want to waste any time."

"Screw you, asshole," she says, reeling in her poon, looking back toward the boulevard for some promising westbound traffic. Whatever this guy has in mind, it is probably unprofessional.

"Young lady," says another voice, an older and more arresting sort of voice, "it's fine if you don't like Jason. But your pal, Uncle Enzo, needs your help."

A door on the back of the semi has opened up. A man in a black suit is standing there. Behind him, the interior of the semi is brightly lit up. Halogen light glares off the man's slick hairdo. Even with this backlighting, she can tell it is the man with the glass eye.

"What do you want?" she says.

"What I want," he says, looking her up and down, and what I need are different things. Right now I'm working, see, which means that what I want is not important. What I need is for you to get into this truck along with your skateboard and that suitcase."

Then he adds, "Am I getting through to you?" He asks the question almost rhetorically, like he presumes the answer is no.

"He's for real," Jason says, as though Y.T. must be hanging on his opinion.

"Well, there you have it," the man with the glass eye says.

Y.T. is supposed to be on her way to a Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates franchise. If she screws up this delivery, that means she's double-crossing God, who may or may not exist, and in any case who is capable of forgiveness. The Mafia definitely exists and hews to a higher standard of obedience.

She hands her stuff - the plank and the aluminum case - up to the man with the glass eye, then vaults up into the back of the semi, ignoring his proffered hand. He recoils, holds up his hand, looks at it to see if there's something wrong with it. By the time her feet leave the ground, the truck is already moving. By the time the door is pulled shut behind her, they have already pulled onto the boulevard.

"Just gotta run a few tests on this delivery of yours," the man with the glass eye says.

"Ever think of introducing yourself?" Y.T. says.

"Nah," he says, "people always forget names. You can just think of me as that one guy, y'know?"

Y.T. is not really listening. She is checking out the inside of the truck.

The trailer of this rig consists of a single long skinny room. Y.T. has just come in through its only entrance. At this end of the room, a couple of Mafia guys are lounging around, the way they always do.

Most of the room is taken up by electronics. Big electronics.

"Going to just do some computer stuff, y'know," he says, handing the briefcase over to a computer guy. Y.T. knows he's a computer guy because he has long hair in a ponytail and he's wearing jeans and he seems gentle.

"Hey, if anything happens to that, my ass is grass," Y.T. says. She's trying to sound tough and brave, but it's a hollow act in these circumstances.

The man with the glass eye is, like, shocked. "What do you think I am, some kind of incredibly stupid dickhead?" he says. "Shit, that's just what I need, trying to explain to Uncle Enzo how I managed to get his little bunny rabbit shot in the kneecaps."

"It's a noninvasive procedure," the computer guy says in a placid, liquid voice.

The computer guy rotates the case around in his hand a few times, just to get a feel for it. Then he slides it into a large open-ended cylinder that is resting on the top of a table. The walls of the cylinder are a couple of inches thick. Frost appears to be growing on this thing. Mystery gases continuously slide off of it, like teaspoons of milk dropped into turbulent water. The gases plunge out across the table and drop to the floor, where they make a little carpet of fog that flows and blooms around their shoes. When the computer guy has it in place, he yanks his hand back from the cold.

Then he puts on a pair of computer goggles.

That's all there is to it. He just sits there for a few minutes. Y.T. is not a computer person, but she knows that somewhere behind the cabinets and doors in the back of this truck there is a big computer doing a lot of things right now.

"It's like a CAT scanner," the man with the glass eye says, using the same hushed tone of voice as a sportscaster in a golfing tournament. "But it reads everything, you know," he says, rotating his hands impatiently in all-encompassing circles.

"How much does it cost?"

"I don't know."

"What's it called?"

"Doesn't really have a name yet."

"Well, who makes it?"

"We made the goddamn thing," the man with the glass eye says. "Just, like in the last couple weeks."

"What for?"

"You're asking too many questions. Look. You're a cute kid. I mean, you're a hell of a chick. You're a knockout. But don't go thinking you're too important at this stage."

At this stage. Hmm.

24

Hiro is in his 20-by-30 at the U-Stor-It. He is spending a little time in Reality, as per the suggestion of his partner. The door is open so that ocean breezes and jet exhaust can blow through. All the furniture - the futons, the cargo pallet, the experimental cinderblock furniture - has been pushed up against the walls. He is holding a one-meter-long piece of heavy rebar with tape wrapped around one end to make a handle. The rebar approximates a katana, but it is very much heavier. He calls it redneck katana.

He is in the kendo stance, barefoot. He should be wearing voluminous ankle-length culottes and a heavy indigo tunic, which is the traditional uniform, but instead he is wearing jockey shorts. Sweat is running down his smoothly muscled cappuccino back and exploring his cleavage. Blisters the size of green grapes are forming on the ball of his left foot. Hiro's heart and lungs are well developed, and he has been blessed with unusually quick reflexes, but he is not intrinsically strong, the way his father was. Even if he were intrinsically strong, working with the redneck katana would be very difficult.

He is full of adrenaline, his nerves are shot, and his mind is cluttered up with free-floating anxiety - floating around on an ocean of generalized terror.

He is shuffling back and forth down the thirty-foot axis of the room. From time to time he will accelerate, raise the redneck katana up over his head until it is pointed backward, then bring it swiftly down, snapping his wrists at the last moment so that it comes to a stop in midair. Then he says, "Next"'

Theoretically. In fact, the redneck katana is difficult to stop once it gets moving. But it's good exercise. His forearms look like bundles of steel cables. Almost. Well, they will soon, anyway.

The Nipponese don't go in for this nonsense about follow-through. If you strike a man on the top of his head with a katana and do not make any effort to stop the blade, it will divide his skull and probably get hung up in his collarbone or his pelvis, and then you will be out there in the middle of the medieval battlefield with a foot on your late opponent's face, trying to work the blade loose as his best friend comes running up to you with a certain vengeful gleam in his eye. So the plan is to snap the blade to a full stop just after the impact, maybe crease his brainpan an inch or two, then whip it out and look for another samurai, hence: "Next!"

He has been thinking about what happened earlier tonight with Raven, which pretty much rules out sleep, and this is why he is practicing with the redneck katana at three in the morning.

He knows he was totally unprepared. The spear just came at him. He slapped at it with the blade. He happened to slap it at the right time, and it missed him. But he did this almost absentmindedly.

Maybe that's how great warriors do it. Carelessly, not wracking their minds with the consequences.

Maybe he's flattering himself.

The sound of a helicopter has been getting louder for some minutes now. Even though Hiro lives right next to the airport, this is unusual. They're not supposed to fly right near LAX, it raises evident safety questions.

It doesn't stop getting louder until it is very loud, and at that point, the helicopter is hovering a few feet above the parking lot, right out in front of Hiro and Vitaly's 20-by-30. It's a nice one, a corporate jet chopper, dark green, with subdued markings. Hiro suspects that in brighter light, he would be able to make out the logo of a defense contractor, most likely General Jim's Defense System.

A pale-faced white man with a very high forehead-cum-bald spot jumps out of the chopper, looking a lot more athletic than his face and general demeanor would lead you to expect, and jogs across the parking lot directly toward Hiro. This is the kind of guy Hiro remembers from when his dad was in the Army - not the gristly veterans of legends and movies, just sort of regular thirty-five-year-old guys rattling around in bulky uniforms. He's a major. His name, sewn onto his BDUs, is Clem.

"Hiro Protagonist?"

"The same."

"Juanita sent me to pick you up. She said you'd recognize the name."

"I recognize the name. But I don't really work for Juanita."

"She says you do now."

"Well, that's nice," Hiro says. "So I guess it's kind of urgent?"

"I think that would be a fair assumption," Major Clem says.

"Can I spare a few minutes? Because I've been working out, and I need to run next door."

Major Clem looks next door. The next logo down the strip is THE REST STOP.

"The situation is fairly static. You could spare five minutes," Major Clem says.

Hiro has an account with The Rest Stop. To live at the U-Stor-It, you sort of have to have an account. So he gets to bypass the front office where the attendant waits by the cash register. He shoves his membership card into a slot, and a computer screen lights up with three choices:

 M
 F
 NURSERY (UNISEX)

Hiro slaps the "M" button. Then the screen changes to a menu of four choices:

OUR SPECIAL LIMITED FACILITIES - THRIFTY BUT SANITARY

STANDARD FACILITIES - JUST LIKE HOME - MAYBE JUST A LITTLE BETTER

PRIME FACILITIES - A GRACIOUS PLACE FOR THE DISCRIMINATING PATRON

THE LAVATORY GRANDE ROYALE

He has to override a well-worn reflex to stop himself from automatically punching SPECIAL LIMITED FACILITIES, which is what he and all the other U-Stor-It residents always use. Almost impossible to go in there and not come in contact with someone else's bodily fluids. Not a pretty sight. Not at all gracious. Instead - what the fuck, Juanita's going to hire him, right? - he slams the button for LAVATORY GRANDE ROYALE.

Never been here before. It's like something on the top floor of a luxury high-rise casino in Atlantic City, where they put semi-retarded adults from South Philly after they've blundered into the mega-jackpot. It's got everything that a dimwitted pathological gambler would identify with luxury: gold-plated fixtures, lots of injection-molded pseudomarble, velvet drapes, and a butler.

None of the U-Stor-It residents ever use The Lavatory Grande Royale. The only reason it's here is that this place happens to be across the street from LAX. Singaporean CEOs who want to have a shower and take a nice, leisurely crap, with all the sound effects, without having to hear and smell other travelers doing the same, can come here and put it all on their corporate travel card.

The butler is a thirty-year-old Centroamerican whose eyes look a little funny, like they've been closed for the last several hours. He is just throwing some improbably thick towels over his arm as Hiro bursts in.

"Gotta get in and out in five minutes," Hiro says.

"You want shave?" the butler says. He paws at his own checks suggestively, unable to peg Hiro's ethnic group.

"Love to. No time."

He peels off his jockey shorts, tosses his swords onto the crushed-velvet sofa, and steps into the marbleized amphitheatre of the shower stall. Hot water hits him from all directions at once. There's a knob on the wall so you can choose your favorite temperature.

Afterward, he'd like to take a dump, read some of those glossy phone book-sized magazines next to the high-tech shitter, but he's got to get going. He dries himself off with a fresh towel the size of a circus tent, yanks on some loose drawstring slacks and a T-shirt, throws some Kongbucks at the butler, and runs out, girding himself with the swords.

It's a short flight, mostly because the military pilot is happy to eschew comfort in favor of speed. The chopper takes off at a shallow angle, keeping low so it won't get sucked into any jumbo jets, and as soon as the pilot gets room to maneuver, he whips the tail around, drops the nose, and lets the rotor yank them onward and upward across the basin, toward the sparsely lit mass of the Hollywood Hills.

But they stop short of the Hills, and end up on the roof of a hospital. Part of the Mercy chain, which technically makes this Vatican airspace. So far, this has Juanita written all over it.

"Neurology ward," Major Clem says, delivering this string of nouns like an order. "Fifth floor, east wing, room 564."

The man in the hospital bed is Da5id.

Extremely thick, wide leather straps have been stretched across the head and foot of the bed. Leather cuffs, lined with fluffy sheepskin, are attached to the straps. These cuffs have been fastened around Da5id's wrists and ankles. He's wearing a hospital gown that has mostly fallen off.

The worst thing is that his eyes don't always point in the same direction. He's hooked up to an EKG that's charting his heartbeat, and even though Hiro's not a doctor, he can see it's not a regular pattern. It beats too fast, then it doesn't beat at all, then an alarm sounds, then it starts beating again.

He has gone completely blank. His eyes are not seeing anything. At first, Hiro thinks that his body is limp and relaxed. Getting closer, he sees that Da5id is taut and shivering, slick with perspiration.

"We put in a temporary pacemaker," a woman says.

Hiro turns. It's a nun who also appears to be a surgeon.

"How long has he been in convulsions?"

"His ex-wife called us in, said she was worried."

"Juanita."

"Yes. When the paramedics arrived, he had fallen out of his chair at home and was convulsing on the floor. You can see a bruise, here, where we think his computer fell off the table and hit him in the ribs. So to protect him from further damage, we put him in four-points. But for the last half hour he's been like this - like his whole body is in fibrillation. If he stays this way, we'll take the restraints off."

"Was he wearing goggles?"

"I don't know. I can check for you."

"But you think this happened while he was goggled into his computer?"

"I really don't know, sir. All I know is, he's got such bad cardiac arrhythmia that we had to implant a temporary pacemaker right there on his office floor. We gave him some seizure medication, which didn't work. Put him on some downers to calm him, which worked slightly. Put his head into various pieces of imaging machinery to find out what the problem was. The jury is still out on that."

"Well, I'm going to go look at his house," Hiro says. The doctor shrugs.

"Let me know when he comes out of it," Hiro says.

The doctor doesn't say anything to this. For the first time, Hiro realizes that Da5id's condition may not be temporary.

As Hiro is stepping out into the hallway, Da5id speaks, "e ne em ma ni a gi a gi ni mu ma ma dam e ne em am an ki ga a gi a gi…"

Hiro turns around and looks. Da5id has gone limp in the restraints, seems relaxed, half asleep. He is looking at Hiro through half-closed eyes. "e ne em dam gal nun na a gi agi e ne em u mu un abzu ka a gi a agi…"

Da5id's voice is deep and placid, with no trace of stress. The syllables roll off his tongue like drool. As Hiro walks down the hallway he can hear Da5id talking all the way.

"i ge en i ge en nu ge en nu ge en us sa tur ra lu ra ze em men…"

Hiro gets back into the chopper. They cruise up the middle of Beachwood Canyon, headed straight for the Hollywood sign.

Da5id's house has been transfigured by light. It's at the end of its own little road, at the summit of a hill. The road has been blocked off by a squat froglike jeep-thing from General Jim's, saturated red and blue light sweeping and pulsing out of it. Another helicopter is above the house, supported on a swirling column of radiance. Soldiers creep up and down the property, carrying hand-held searchlights.

"We took the precaution of securing the area," Major Clem says.

At the fringes of all this light, Hiro can see the dead organic colors of the hillside. The soldiers are trying to push it back with their searchlights, trying to burn it away. He is about to bury himself in it, become a single muddy pixel in some airline passenger's window. Plunging into the biomass.

Da5id's laptop is on the floor next to the table where he liked to work. It is surrounded by medical debris. In the middle of this, Hiro finds Da5id's goggles, which either fell off when he hit the floor, or were stripped off by the paramedics.

Hiro picks up the goggles. As he brings them up toward his eyes, he sees the image: a wall of black-and-white static. Da5id's computer has snow-crashed.

He closes his eyes and drops the goggles. You can't get hurt by looking at a bitmap. Or can you?

The house is sort of a modernist castle with a high turret on one end. Da5id and Hiro and the rest of the hackers used to go up there with a case of beer and a hibachi and just spend a whole night, eating jumbo shrimp and crab legs and oysters and washing them down with beer. Now it's deserted, of course, just the hibachi, which is rusted and almost buried in gray ash, like an archaeological relic. Hiro has pinched one of Da5id's beers from the fridge, and he sits up here for a while, in what used to be his favorite place, drinking his beer slowly, like he used to, reading stories in the lights.

The old central neighborhoods are packed in tight below an eternal, organic haze. In other cities, you breathe industrial contaminants, but in L.A., you breathe amino acids. The hazy sprawl is ringed and netted with glowing lines, like hot wires in a toaster. At the outlet of the canyon, it comes close enough that the light sharpens and breaks up into stars, arches, glowing letters. Streams of red and white corpuscles throb down highways to the fuzzy logic of intelligent traffic lights. Farther away, spreading across the basin, a million sprightly logos smear into solid arcs, like geometric points merging into curves. To either side of the franchise ghettos, the loglo dwindles across a few shallow layers of development and into a surrounding dimness that is burst here and there by the blaze of a security spotlight in someone's backyard.

The franchise and the virus work on the same principle: what thrives in one place will thrive in another. You just have to find a sufficiently virulent business plan, condense it into a three-ring binder - its DNA - xerox it, and embed it in the fertile lining of a well-traveled highway, preferably one with a left-turn lane. Then the growth will expand until it runs up against its property lines.

In olden times, you'd wander down to Mom's Cafe for a bite to eat and a cup of joe, and you would feel right at home. It worked just fine if you never left your hometown. But if you went to the next town over, everyone would look up and stare at you when you came in the door, and the Blue Plate Special would be something you didn't recognize. If you did enough traveling, you'd never feel at home anywhere.

But when a businessman from New Jersey goes to Dubuque, he knows he can walk into a McDonald's and no one will stare at him. He can order without having to look at the menu, and the food will always taste the same. McDonald's is Home, condensed into a three-ring binder and xeroxed. "No surprises" is the motto of the franchise ghetto, its Good Housekeeping seal, subliminally blazoned on every sign and logo that make up the curves and grids of light that outline the Basin.

The people of America, who live in the world's most surprising and terrible country, take comfort in that motto. Follow the loglo outward, to where the growth is enfolded into the valleys and the canyons, and you find the land of the refugees. They have fled from the true America, the America of atomic bombs, scalpings, hip-hop, chaos theory, cement overshoes, snake handlers, spree killers, space walks, buffalo jumps, drive-bys, cruise missiles, Sherman's March, gridlock, motorcycle gangs, and bungee jumping. They have parallel-parked their bimbo boxes in identical computer-designed Burbclave street patterns and secreted themselves in symmetrical sheetrock shitholes with vinyl floors and ill-fitting woodwork and no sidewalks, vast house farms out in the loglo wilderness, a culture medium for a medium culture.

The only ones left in the city are street people, feeding off debris; immigrants, thrown out like shrapnel from the destruction of the Asian powers; young bohos; and the technomedia priesthood of Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong. Young smart people like Da5id and Hiro, who take the risk of living in the city because they like stimulation and they know they can handle it.

25

Y.T. can't really tell where they are. It's clear that they're stuck in traffic. It's not like this is predictable or anything.

"Y.T. must get under way now," she announces.

No reaction for a sec. Then the hacker guy sits back in his chair, stares out through his goggles, ignoring the 3-D compu-display, taking in a nice view of the wall. "Okay," he says.

Quick as a mongoose, the man with the glass eye darts in, yanks the aluminum case out of the cryogenic cylinder, tosses it to Y.T. Meantime, one of the lounging-around Mafia guys is opening the back door of the truck, giving them all a nice view of a traffic jam on the boulevard.

"One other thing," the man with the glass eye says, and shoves an envelope into one of Y.T.'s multitudinous pockets.

"What's that?" Y.T. says.

He holds up his hands self-protectively. "Don't worry, it's just a little something. Now get going."

He motions at the guy who's holding her plank. The guy turns out to be fairly hip, because he just throws the plank. It lands at an odd angle on the floor between them. But the spokes have long ago seen the floor coming, calculated all the angles, extended and flexed themselves like the legs and feet of a basketball player coming back to earth from a monster dunk. The plank lands on its feet, banks this way, then that, as it regains its balance, then steers itself right up to Y.T. and stops beside her.

She stands on it, kicks a few times, flies out the back door of the semi, and onto the hood of a Pontiac that was following them much too closely. Its windshield makes a nice surface to bank off of, and she gets her direction neatly reversed by the time she hits the pavement. The owner of the Pontiac is honking self-righteously, but there's no way he can chase her down because traffic is totally stopped, Y.T. is the only thing for miles around that is actually capable of movement. Which is the whole point of Kouriers in the first place.

The Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates #1106 is a pretty big one. Its low serial number implies great age. It was built long ago, when land was cheap and lots were big. The parking lot is half full. Usually, all you see at a Reverend Wayne's are old beaters with wacky Spanish expressions nail-polished on the rear bumpers - the rides of Centro-American evangelicals who have come up north to get decent jobs and escape the relentlessly Catholic style of their homelands. This lot also has a lot of just plain old regular bimbo boxes with license plates from all the Burbclaves.

Traffic is moving a little better on this stretch of the boulevard, and so Y.T. comes into the lot at a pretty good clip, takes one or two orbits around the franchise to work off her speed. A smooth parking lot is hard to resist when you are going fast, and to look at it from a slightly less juvenile point of view, it's a good idea to scope things out, to be familiar with your environment. Y.T. learns that this parking lot is linked with that of a Chop Shop franchise next door ("We turn any vehicle into CASH in minutes!"), which in turn flows into the lot of a neighboring strip mall. A dedicated thrasher could probably navigate from L.A. to New York by coasting from one parking lot into the next.

This parking lot makes popping and skittering noises in some areas. Looking down, she sees that behind the franchise, near the dumpster, the asphalt is strewn with small glass vials, like the one that Squeaky was looking at last night. They are scattered about like cigarette butts behind a bar. When the footpads of her wheels pass over these vials, they tiddlywink out from underneath and skitter across the pavement.

People are lined up out the door, waiting to get in. Y.T. jumps the line and goes inside.

The front room of the Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates is, of course, like all the others. A row of padded vinyl chairs where worshippers can wait for their number to be called, with a potted plant at each end and a table strewn with primeval magazines. A toy comer where kids can kill time, reenacting imaginary, cosmic battles in injection-molded plastic. A counter done up in fake wood so it looks like something from an old church. Behind the counter, a pudgy high school babe, dishwater blond hair that has been worked over pretty good with a curling iron, blue metal-flake eyeshadow, an even coat of red makeup covering her broad, gelatinous cheeks, a flimsy sort of choir robe thrown over her T-shirt.

When Y.T. comes in, she is right in the middle of a transaction. She sees Y.T. right away, but no three-ring binder anywhere in the world allows you to flag or fail in the middle of a transaction.

Stymied, Y.T. sighs and crosses her arms to convey impatience. In any other business establishment, she'd already be raising hell and marching around behind the counter as if she owned the place. But this is a church, damn it.

There's a little rack along the front of the counter bearing religious tracts, free for the taking, donation requested. Several slots on the rack are occupied by the Reverend Wayne's famous bestseller. How America Was Saved from Communism: ELVIS SHOT JFK.

She pulls out the envelope that the man with the glass eye stuck into her pocket. It is not thick and soft enough to contain a lot of cash, unfortunately.

It contains half a dozen snapshots. All of them feature Uncle Enzo. He is on the broad, flat horseshoe driveway of a large house, larger than any house Y.T. has ever seen with her own two eyes. He is standing on a skateboard. Or falling off of a skateboard. Or coasting, slowly, arms splayed wildly out to the sides, chased by nervous security personnel.

A piece of paper is wrapped around the pictures. It says: "Y.T. Thanks for your help. As you can see from these pictures, I tried to train for this assignment, but it's going to take some practice. Your friend, Uncle Enzo."

Y.T. wraps the pictures up just the way they were, puts them back in her pocket, stifles a smile, returns to business matters.

The girl in the robe is still performing her transaction behind the counter. The transactee is a stocky Spanish-speaking woman in an orange dress.

The girl types some stuff into the computer. The customer snaps her Visa card down on the fake wood altar top; it sounds like a rifle shot. The girl pries the card up using her inch-long fingernails, a dicey and complicated operation that makes Y.T. think of insects climbing out of their egg sacs. Then she performs the sacrament, swiping the card through its electromagnetic slot with a carefully modulated sweep of the arm, as though tearing back a veil, handing over the slip, mumbling that she needs a signature and daytime phone number. She might as well have been speaking Latin, but that's okay, since this customer is familiar with the liturgy and signs and numbers it before the words are fully spoken.

Then it just remains for the Word from On High. But computers and communications are awfully good these days, and it usually doesn't take longer than a couple of seconds to perform a charge-card verification. The little machine beeps out its approval code, heavenly tunes sing out from tinny speakers, and a wide pair of pearlescent doors in the back of the room swing majestically open.

"Thank you for your donation," the girl says, slurring the words together into a single syllable.

The customer stomps toward the double doors, drawn in by hypnotic organ strains. The interior of the chapel is weirdly colored, illuminated partly by fluorescent fixtures wedged into the ceiling and partly by large colored light boxes that simulate stained-glass windows. The largest of these, shaped like a fattened Gothic arch, is bolted to the back wall, above the altar, and features a blazing trinity: Jesus, Elvis, and the Reverend Wayne. Jesus gets top billing. The worshipper is not half a dozen steps into the place before she thuds down on her knees in the middle of the aisle and begins to speak in tongues: "ar ia ari ar isa ve na a mir ia i sa, ve na a mir ia a sar ia…"

The doors swing shut again.

"Just a sec," the girl says, looking at Y.T. a little nervously. She goes around the corner and stands in the middle of the toy area, inadvertently getting the hem of her robe caught up in a Ninja Raft Warriors battle module, and knocks on the door to the potty.

"Busy!" says a man's voice from the other side of the door.

"The Kourier's here," the girl says.

"I'll be right out," the man says, more quietly.

And he really is right out. Y.T. does not perceive any waiting time, no zipping up of the fly or washing of the hands. He is wearing a black suit with a clerical collar, pulling a lightweight black robe on over that as he emerges into the toy area, crushing little action figures and fighter aircraft beneath his black shoes. His hair is black and well greased, with individual strands of gray, and he wears wire-rimmed bifocals with a subtle brownish tint. He has very large pores.

And by the time he gets close enough that Y.T. can see all of these details, she can also smell him. She smells Old Spice, plus a strong whiff of vomit on his breath. But it's not boozy vomit.

"Gimme that," he says, and yanks the aluminum briefcase from her hand.

Y.T. never lets people do that.

"You have to sign for it, " she says. But she knows it's too late. If you don't get them to sign first, you're screwed. You have no power, no leverage. You're just a brat on a skateboard.

Which is why Y.T. never lets people yank deliveries out of her hand. But this guy is a minister, for God's sake. She just didn't reckon on it. He yanked it out of her hand - and now he runs with it back to his office.

"I can sign for it," the girl says. She looks scared. More than that, she looks sick.

"It has to be him personally," Y.T. says. "Reverend Dale T. Thorpe."

Now she's done being shocked and starting to be pissed. So she just follows him right into his office.

"You can't go in there," the girl says, but she says it dreamily, sadly, like this whole thing is already half forgotten. Y.T. opens the door.

The Reverend Dale T. Thorpe sits at his desk. The aluminum briefcase is open in front of him. It is filled with the same complicated bit of business that she saw the other night, after the Raven thing. The Reverend Dale T. Thorpe seems to be leashed by the neck to this device.

No, actually he is wearing something on a string around his neck. He was keeping it under his clothes, the way Y.T. keeps Uncle Enzo's dog tags. He has pulled it out now and shoved it into a slot inside the aluminum case. It appears to be a laminated ID card with a bar code on it.

Now he pulls the card out and lets it dangle down his front. Y.T. cannot tell whether he has noticed her. He is typing on the keyboard, punching away with two fingers, missing letters, doing it again.

Then motors and servos inside the aluminum case whir and shudder. The Reverend Dale T. Thorpe has unsnapped one of the little vials from its place in the lid and inserted it into a socket next to the keyboard. It is slowly drawn down inside the machine.

The vial pops back out again. The red plastic cap is emitting grainy red light. It has little LEDs built into it, and they are spelling out numbers, counting down seconds: 5,4,3,2,1…

The Reverend Dale T. Thorpe holds the vial up to his left nostril. When the LED counter gets down to zero, it hisses, like air coming out of a tire valve. At the same time, he inhales deeply, sucking it all into his lungs. Then he shoots the vial expertly into his wastebasket.

"Reverend?" the girl says. Y.T. spins around to see her drifting toward the office. "Would you do mine now, please?"

The Reverend Dale T. Thorpe does not answer. He has slumped back in his leather swivel chair and is staring at a neon-framed blowup of Elvis, in his Army days, holding a rifle.

26

When he wakes up, it's the middle of the day and he is all dried out from the sun, and birds are circling overhead, trying to decide whether he's dead or alive. Hiro climbs down from the roof of the turret and, throwing caution to the wind, drinks three glasses of L.A. tap water. He gets some bacon out of Da5id's fridge and throws it in the microwave. Most of General Jim's people have left, and there is only a token guard of soldiers down on the road. Hiro locks all the doors that look out on the hillside, because he can't stop thinking about Raven. Then he sits at the kitchen table and goggles in.

The Black Sun is mostly full of Asians, including a lot of people from the Bombay film industry, glaring at each other, stroking their black mustaches, trying to figure out what kind of hyperviolent action film will play in Persepolis next year. It is nighttime there. Hiro is one of the few Americans in the joint.

Along the back wall of the bar is a row of private rooms, ranging from little tete-a-tetes to big conference rooms where a bunch of avatars can gather and have a meeting. Juanita is waiting for Hiro in one of the smaller ones. Her avatar just looks like Juanita. It is an honest representation, with no effort made to hide the early suggestions of crow's-feet at the corners of her big black eyes. Her glossy hair is so well resolved that Hiro can see individual strands refracting the light into tiny rainbows.

"I'm at Da5id's house. Where are you?" Hiro says.

"In an airplane - so I may break up," Juanita says.

"You on your way here?"

"To Oregon, actually."

"Portland?"

"Astoria."

"Why on earth would you go to Astoria, Oregon, at a time like this?"

Juanita takes a deep breath, lets it out shakily. "If I told you, we'd get into an argument."

"What's the latest word on Da5id?" Hiro says.

"The same."

"Any diagnosis?"

Juanita sighs, looks tired. "There won't be any diagnosis," she says. "It's a software, not a hardware, problem."

"Huh?"

"They're rounding up the usual suspects. CAT scans, NMR scans, PET scans, EEGs. Everything's fine. There's nothing wrong with his brain - his hardware."

"It just happens to be running the wrong program?"

"His software got poisoned. Da5id had a snow crash last night, inside his head."

"Are you trying to say it's a psychological problem?"

"It kind of goes beyond those established categories," Juanita says, "because it's a new phenomenon. A very old one, actually."

"Does this thing just happen spontaneously, or what?"

"You tell me," she says. "You were there last night. Did anything happen after I left?"

"He had a Snow Crash hypercard that he got from Raven outside The Black Sun."

"Shit. That bastard."

"Who's the bastard? Raven or Da5id?"

"Da5id. I tried to warn him."

"He used it." Hiro goes on to explain the Brandy with the magic scroll. "Then later he had computer trouble and got bounced."

"I heard about that part," she says. "That's why I called the paramedics."

"I don't see the connection between Da5id's computer having a crash, and you calling an ambulance."

"The Brandy's scroll wasn't just showing random static. It was flashing up a large amount of digital information, in binary form. That digital information was going straight into Da5id's optic nerve. Which is part of the brain, incidentally - if you stare into a person's pupil, you can see the terminal of the brain."

"Da5id's not a computer. He can't read binary code."

"He's a hacker. He messes with binary code for a living. That ability is firm-wired into the deep structures of his brain. So he's susceptible to that form of information. And so are you, home-boy."

"What kind of information are we talking about?"

"Bad news. A metavirus," Juanita says. "It's the atomic bomb of informational warfare - a virus that causes any system to infect itself with new viruses."

"And that's what made Da5id sick?"

"Yes."

"Why didn't I get sick?"

"Too far away. Your eyes couldn't resolve the bitmap. It has to be right up in your face."

"I'll think about that one," Hiro says. "But I have another question. Raven also distributes another drug - in Reality - called, among other things, Snow Crash. What is it?"

"It's not a drug," Juanita says. "They make it look like a drug and feel like a drug so that people will want to take it. It's laced with cocaine and some other stuff."

"If it's not a drug, what is it?"

"It's chemically processed blood serum taken from people who are infected with the metavirus," Juanita says. "That is, it's just another way of spreading the infection."

"Who's spreading it?"

"L. Bob Rife's private church. All of those people are infected."

Hiro puts his head in his hands. He's not exactly thinking about this; he's letting it ricochet around in his skull, waiting for it to come to rest. "Wait a minute, Juanita. Make up your mind. This Snow Crash thing - is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?"

Juanita shrugs. "What's the difference?"

That Juanita is talking this way does not make it any easier for Hiro to get back on his feet in this conversation.

"How can you say that? You're a religious person yourself."

"Don't lump all religion together."

"Sorry."

"All people have religions. It's like we have religion receptors built into our brain cells, or something, and we'll latch onto anything that'll fill that niche for us. Now, religion used to be essentially viral - a piece of information that replicated inside the human mind, jumping from one person to the next. That's the way it used to be, and unfortunately, that's the way it's headed right now. But there have been several efforts to deliver us from the hands of primitive, irrational religion. The first was made by someone named Enki about four thousand years ago. The second was made by Hebrew scholars in the eighth century B.C., driven out of their homeland by the invasion of Sargon II, but eventually it just devolved into empty legalism. Another attempt was made by Jesus - that one was hijacked by viral influences within fifty days of his death. The virus was suppressed by the Catholic Church, but we're in the middle of a big epidemic that started in Kansas in 1900 and has been gathering momentum ever since."

"Do you believe in God or not?" Hiro says. First things first.

"Definitely."

"Do you believe in Jesus?"

"Yes. But not in the physical, bodily resurrection of Jesus."

"How can you be a Christian without believing in that?"

"I would say," Juanita says, "how can you be a Christian with it? Anyone who takes the trouble to study the gospels can see that the bodily resurrection is a myth that was tacked onto the real story several years after the real histories were written. It's so National Enquirer-esque, don't you think?"

Beyond that, Juanita doesn't have much to say. She doesn't want to get into it now, she says. She doesn't want to prejudice Hiro's thinking "at this point."

"Does that imply that there's going to be some other point? Is this a continuing relationship?" Hiro says.

"Do you want to find the people who infected Da5id?"

"Yes. Hell, Juanita, even if it weren't for the fact that he is my friend, I'd want to find them before they infect me."

"Look at the Babel stack, Hiro, and then visit me if I get back from Astoria."

"If you get back? What are you doing there?"

"Research."

She's been putting on a businesslike front through this whole talk, spitting out information, telling Hiro the way it is. But she's tired and anxious, and Hiro gets the idea that she's deeply afraid.

"Good luck," he says. He was all ready to do some flirting with her during this meeting, picking up where they left off last night. But something has changed in Juanita's mind between then and now. Flirting is the last thing on her mind.

Juanita's going to do something dangerous in Oregon. She doesn't want Hiro to know about it so that he won't worry.

"There's some good stuff in the Babel stack about someone named Inanna," she says.

"Who's Inanna?"

"A Sumerian goddess. I'm sort of in love with her. Anyway, you can't understand what I'm about to do until you understand Inanna."

"Well, good luck," Hiro says. "Say hi to Inanna for me."

"Thanks."

"When you get back, I want to spend some time with you."

"The feeling is mutual," she says. "But we have to get out of this first."

"Oh. I didn't realize I was in something."

"Don't be a sap. We're all in it."

Hiro leaves, exiting into The Black Sun.

There is one guy wandering around the Hacker Quadrant who really stands out. His avatar doesn't look so hot. And he's having trouble controlling it. He looks like a guy who's just goggled into the Metaverse for the first time and doesn't know how to move around. He keeps bumping into tables, and when he wants to turn around, he spins around several times, not knowing how to stop himself.

Hiro walks toward him, because his face seems a little familiar. When the guy finally stops moving long enough for Hiro to resolve him clearly, he recognizes the avatar. It's a Clint. Most often seen in the company of a Brandy.

The Clint recognizes Hiro, and his surprised face comes on for a second, is then replaced by his usual stern, stiff-lipped, craggy appearance. He holds up his hands together in front of him, and Hiro sees that he is holding a scroll, just like Brandy's.

Hiro reaches for his katana, but the scroll is already up in his face, spreading open to reveal the blue glare of the bitmap inside. He sidesteps, gets over to one side of the Clint, raising the katana overhead, snaps the katana straight down and cuts the Clint's arms off.

As the scroll falls, it spreads open even wider. Hiro doesn't dare look at it now. The Clint has turned around and is awkwardly trying to escape from The Black Sun, bouncing from table to table like a pinball.

If Hiro could kill the guy - cut his head off - then his avatar would stay in The Black Sun, be carried away by the Graveyard Daemons. Hiro could do some hacking and maybe figure out who he is, where he's coming in from.

But a few dozen hackers are lounging around the bar, watching all of this, and if they come over and look at the scroll, they'll all end up like Da5id.

Hiro squats down, looking away from the scroll, and pulls up one of the hidden trapdoors that lead down into the tunnel system. He's the one who coded those tunnels into The Black Sun to begin with; he's the only person in the whole bar who can use them. He sweeps the scroll into the tunnel with one hand, then closes the door.

Hiro can see the Clint, way over near the exit, trying to get his avatar aimed out through the door. Hiro runs after him. If the guy reaches the Street, he's gone - he'll turn into a translucent ghost. With a fifty-foot head start in a crowd of a million other translucent ghosts, there's just no way. As usual, there's a crowd of wannabes gathered on the Street out front. Hiro can see the usual assortment, including a few black-and-white people.

One of those black-and-whites is Y.T. She's loitering out there waiting for Hiro to come out.

"Y.T.!" he shouts. "Chase that guy with no arms!"

Hiro gets out the door just a few seconds after the Clint does. Both the Clint and Y.T. are already gone.

He turns back into The Black Sun, pulls up a trapdoor, and drops down into the tunnel system, the realm of the Graveyard Daemons. One of them has already picked up the scroll and is trudging in toward the center to throw it on the fire.

"Hey, bud," Hiro says, "take a right turn at the next tunnel and leave that thing in my office, okay? But do me a favor and roll it up first."

He follows the Graveyard Daemon down the tunnel, under the Street, until they're under the neighborhood where Hiro and the other hackers have their houses. Hiro has the Graveyard Daemon deposit the rolled-up scroll in his workshop, down in the basement - the room where Hiro does his hacking. Then Hiro continues upstairs to his office.

27

His voice phone is ringing. Hiro picks it up.

"Pod," Y.T. says, "I was beginning to think you'd never come out of there."

"Where are you?" Hiro says.

"In Reality or the Metaverse?"

"Both."

"In the Metaverse, I'm on a plusbound monorail train. Just passed by Port 35."

"Already? It must be an express."

"Good thinking. That Clint you cut the arms off of is two cars ahead of me. I don't think he knows I'm following him."

"Where are you in Reality?"

"Public terminal across the street from a Reverend Wayne's," she says.

"Oh, yeah? How interesting."

"Just made a delivery there."

"What kind of delivery?"

"An aluminum suitcase."

He gets the whole story out of her, or what he thinks is the whole story - there's no real way to tell.

"You're sure that the babbling that the people did in the park was the same as the babbling that the woman did at the Reverend Wayne's?"

"Sure," she says. "I know a bunch of people who go there. Or their parents go there and drag them along, you know."

"To the Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates?"

"Yeah. And they all do that speaking in tongues. So I've heard it before."

"I'll talk to you later, pod," Hiro says. "I've got some serious research to do."

"Later."

The Babel/Infocalypse card is resting in the middle of his desk. Hiro picks it up. The Librarian comes in.

Hiro is about to ask the Librarian whether he knows that Lagos is dead. But it's a pointless question. The Librarian knows it, but he doesn't. If he wanted to check the Library, he could find out in a few moments. But he wouldn't really retain the information. He doesn't have an independent memory. The Library is his memory, and he only uses small parts of it at once.

"What can you tell me about speaking in tongues?" Hiro says.

"The technical term is 'glossolalia,'" the Librarian says.

"Technical term? Why bother to have a technical term for a religious ritual?"

The Librarian raises his eyebrows. "Oh, there's a great deal of technical literature on the subject. It is a neurological phenomenon that is merely exploited in religious rituals."

"It's a Christian thing, right?"

"Pentecostal Christians think so, but they are deluding themselves. Pagan Greeks did it - Plato called it theomania. The Oriental cults of the Roman Empire did it. Hudson Bay Eskimos, Chukchi shamans, Lapps, Yakuts, Semang pygmies, the North Borneo cults, the Trhi-speaking priests of Ghana. The Zulu Amandiki cult and the Chinese religious sect of Shang-ti-hui. Spirit mediums of Tonga and the Brazilian Umbanda cult. The Tungus tribesmen of Siberia say that when the shaman goes into his trance and raves incoherent syllables, he learns the entire language of Nature."

'The language of Nature."

"Yes, sir. The Sukuma people of Africa say that the language is kinaturu, the tongue of the ancestors of all magicians, who are thought to have descended from one particular tribe."

"What causes it?"

"If mystical explanations are ruled out, then it seems that glossolalia comes from structures buried deep within the brain, common to all people."

"What does it look like? How do these people act?"

"C. W. Shumway observed the Los Angeles revival of 1906 and noted six basic symptoms: complete loss of rational control; dominance of emotion that leads to hysteria; absence of thought or will; automatic functioning of the speech organs; amnesia; and occasional sporadic physical manifestations such as jerking or twitching. Eusebius observed similar phenomena around the year 300, saying that the false prophet begins by a deliberate suppression of conscious thought, and ends in a delirium over which he has no control."

"What's the Christian justification for this? Is there anything in the Bible that backs this up?"

"Pentecost."

'You mentioned that word earlier - what is it?"

"From the Greek pentekostos, meaning fiftieth. It refers to the fiftieth day after the Crucifixion."

"Juanita just told me that Christianity was hijacked by viral influences when it was only fifty days old. She must have been talking about this. What is it?"

"'And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. Now there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men from every nation under heaven. And at this sound the multitude came together, and they were bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. And they were amazed and wondered, saying, "Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us in his own native language? Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabians, we hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God." And all were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, "What does this mean?"' Acts 2:4-12"

"Damned if I know," Hiro says. "Sounds like Babel in reverse."

"Yes, sir. Many Pentecostal Christians believe that the gift of tongues was given to them so that they could spread their religion to other peoples without having to actually learn their language. The word for that is 'xenoglossy.'"

"That's what Rife was claiming in that piece of videotape, on top of the Enterprise. He said he could understand what those Bangladeshis were saying."

"Yes, sir."

"Does that really work?"

"In the sixteenth century, Saint Louis Bertrand allegedly used the gift of tongues to convert somewhere between thirty thousand and three hundred thousand South American Indians to Christianity," the Librarian says.

"Wow. Spread through that population even faster than smallpox."

"What did the Jews think of this Pentecost thing?" Hiro says. "They were still running the country, right?"

"The Romans were running the country," the Librarian says, "but there were a number of Jewish religious authorities. At this time, there were three groups of Jews: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes."

"I remember the Pharisees from Jesus Christ, Superstar. They were the ones with the deep voices who were always hassling Christ."

"They were hassling him," the Librarian says, "because they were religiously very strict. They adhered to a strong legalistic version of the religion; to them, the Law was everything. Clearly, Jesus was a threat to them because he was proposing, in effect, to do away with the Law."

"He wanted a contract renegotiation with God."

"This sounds like an analogy, which I am not very good at - but even if it is taken literally, it is true."

"Who were the other two groups?"

"The Sadducees were materialists."

"Meaning what? They drove BMWs?"

"No. Materialists in the philosophical sense. All philosophies are either monist or dualist. Monists believe that the material world is the only world - hence, materialists. Dualists believe in a binary universe, that there is a spiritual world in addition to the material world."

"Well, as a computer geek, I have to believe in the binary universe."

The Librarian raises his eyebrows. "How does that follow?"

"Sorry. It's a joke. A bad pun. See, computers use binary code to represent information. So I was joking that I have to believe in the binary universe, that I have to be a dualist."

"How droll," the Librarian says, not sounding very amused. "Your joke may not be without genuine merit, however."

"How's that? I was just kidding, really."

"Computers rely on the one and the zero to represent all things. This distinction between something and nothing - this pivotal separation between being and non-being - is quite fundamental and underlies many Creation myths."

Hiro feels his face getting slightly warm, feels himself getting annoyed. He suspects that the Librarian may be pulling his leg, playing him for a fool. But he knows that the Librarian, however convincingly rendered he may be, is just a piece of software and cannot actually do such things.

"Even the word 'science' comes from an Indo-European root meaning 'to cut' or 'to separate.' The same root led to the word 'shit,' which of course means to separate living flesh from nonliving waste. The same root gave us 'scythe' and 'scissors' and 'schism,' which have obvious connections to the concept of separation."

"How about 'sword'?"

"From a root with several meanings. One of those meanings is 'to cut or pierce.' One of them is 'post' or 'rod.' And the other is, simply, 'to speak.'"

"Let's stay on track," Hiro says.

"Fine. I can return to this potential conversation fork at a later time, if you desire."

"I don't want to get all forked up at this point. Tell me about the third group - the Essenes."

"They lived communally and believed that physical and spiritual cleanliness were intimately connected. They were constantly bathing themselves, lying naked under the sun, purging themselves with enemas, and going to extreme lengths to make sure that their food was pure and uncontaminated. They even had their own version of the Gospels in which Jesus healed possessed people, not with miracles, but by driving parasites, such as tapeworm, out of their body. These parasites are considered to be synonymous with demons."

"They sound kind of like hippies."

"The connection has been made before, but it is faulty in many ways. The Essenes were strictly religious and would never have taken drugs."

"So to them there was no difference between infection with a parasite, like tapeworm, and demonic possession."

"Correct."

"Interesting. I wonder what they would have thought about computer viruses?"

"Speculation is not in my ambit."

"Speaking of which - Lagos was babbling to me about viruses and infection and something called a nam-shub. What does that mean?"

"Nam-shub is a word from Sumerian."

"Sumerian?"

"Yes, sir. Used in Mesopotamia until roughly 2000 B.C. The oldest of all written languages."

"Oh. So all the other languages are descended from it?"

For a moment, the Librarian's eyes glance upward, as if he's thinking about something. This is a visual cue to inform Hiro that he's making a momentary raid on the Library.

"Actually, no," the Librarian says. "No languages whatsoever are descended from Sumerian. It is an agglutinative tongue, meaning that it is a collection of morphemes or syllables that are grouped into words - very unusual."

"You are saying," Hiro says, remembering Da5id in the hospital, "that if I could hear someone speaking Sumerian, it would sound like a long stream of short syllables strung together."

"Yes, sir."

"Would it sound anything like glossolalia?"

"Judgment call. Ask someone real," the Librarian says.

"Does it sound like any modern tongue?"

"There is no provable genetic relationship between Sumerian and any tongue that came afterward."

"That's odd. My Mesopotamian history is rusty," Hiro says. "What happened to the Sumerians? Genocide?"

"No, sir. They were conquered, but there's no evidence of genocide per se."

"Everyone gets conquered sooner or later," Hiro says. "But their languages don't die out. Why did Sumerian disappear?"

"Since I am just a piece of code, I would be on very thin ice to speculate," the Librarian says.

"Okay. Does anyone understand Sumerian?"

"Yes, at any given time, it appears that there are roughly ten people in the world who can read it."

"Where do they work?"

"One in Israel. One at the British Museum. One in Iraq. One at the University of Chicago. One at the University of Pennsylvania. And five at Rife Bible College in Houston, Texas."

"Nice distribution. And have any of these people figured out what the word 'nam-shub' means in Sumerian?"

"Yes. A nam-shub is a speech with magical force. The closest English equivalent would be 'incantation,' but this has a number of incorrect connotations."

"Did the Sumerians believe in magic?"

The Librarian shakes his head minutely. "This is the kind of seemingly precise question that is in fact very profound, and that pieces of software, such as myself, are notoriously clumsy at. Allow me to quote from Kramer, Samuel Noah, and Maier, John R. Myths of Enki, the Crafty God. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989: 'Religion, magic, and medicine are so completely intertwined in Mesopotamia that separating them is frustrating and perhaps futile work… [Sumerian incantations] demonstrate an intimate connection between the religious, the magical, and the esthetic so complete that any attempt to pull one away from the other will distort the whole.' There is more material in here that might help explain the subject."

"In where?"

"In the next room," the Librarian says, gesturing at the wall. He walks over and slides the rice-paper partition out of the way.

A speech with magical force. Nowadays, people don't believe in these kinds of things. Except in the Metaverse, that is, where magic is possible. The Metaverse is a fictional structure made out of code. And code is just a form of speech - the form that computers understand. The Metaverse in its entirety could be considered a single vast nam-shub, enacting itself on L. Bob Rife's fiber-optic network.

The voice phone rings. "Just a second," Hiro says.

"Take your time," the Librarian says, not adding the obvious reminder that he can wait for a million years if need be.

"Me again," Y.T. says. "I'm still on the train. Stumps got off at Express Port 127."

"Hmm. That's the antipode of Downtown. I mean, it's as far away from Downtown as you can get."

"It is?"

"Yeah. One-two-seven is two to the seventh power minus one - "

"Spare me, I take your word for it. It's definitely out in the middle of fucking nowhere," she says.

"You didn't get off and follow him?"

"Are you kidding? All the way out there? It's ten thousand miles from the nearest building, Hiro."

She has a point. The Metaverse was built with plenty of room to expand. Almost all of the development is within two or three Express Ports - five hundred kilometers or so - of Downtown. Port 127 is twenty thousand miles away.

"What is there?"

"A black cube exactly twenty miles on a side."

"Totally black?"

"Yeah."

"How can you measure a black cube that big?"

"I'm riding along looking at the stars, okay? Suddenly, I can't see them anymore on the right side of the train. I start counting local ports. I count sixteen of them. We get to Express Port 127, and Stumpy climbs off and goes toward the black thing. I count sixteen more local ports and then the stars come out. Then I take thirty-two kilometers and multiply it by point six and I get twenty miles - you asshole."

"That's good," Hiro says. "That's good intel."

"Who do you think owns a black cube twenty miles across?"

"Just going on pure, irrational bias, I'm guessing L. Bob Rife. Supposedly, he has a big hunk of real estate out in the middle of nowhere where he keeps all the guts of the Metaverse. Some of us used to smash into it occasionally when we were out racing motorcycles."

"Well, gotta go, pod."

28

Hiro hangs up and walks into the new room. The Librarian follows.

It is about fifty feet on a side. The center of the space is occupied by three large artifacts, or rather three-dimensional renderings of artifacts. In the center is a thick slab of baked clay, hanging in space, about the size of a coffee table, and about a foot thick. Hiro suspects that it is a magnified rendering of a smaller object. The broad surfaces of the slab are entirely covered with angular writing that Hiro recognizes as cuneiform. Around the edges are rounded, parallel depressions that appear to have been made by fingers as they shaped the slab.

To the right of the slab is a wooden pole with branches on top, sort of a stylized tree. To the left of the slab is an eight-foot-high obelisk, also covered with cuneiform, with a bas-relief figure chiseled into the top.

The room is filled. with a three-dimensional constellation of hypercards, hanging weightlessly in the air. It looks like a high-speed photograph of a blizzard in progress. In some places, the hypercards are placed in precise geometric patterns, like atoms in a crystal. In other places, whole stacks of them are clumped together. Drifts of them have accumulated in the corners, as though Lagos tossed them away when he was finished. Hiro finds that his avatar can walk right through the hypercards without disturbing the arrangement. It is, in fact, the three-dimensional counterpart of a messy desktop, all the trash still remaining wherever Lagos left it. The cloud of hypercards extends to every corner of the 50-by-50-foot space, and from floor level all the way up to about eight feet, which is about as high as Lagos's avatar could reach.

"How many hypercards in here?"

"Ten thousand, four hundred and sixty-three," the Librarian says.

"I don't really have time to go through them," Hiro says. "Can you give me some idea of what Lagos was working on here?"

"Well, I can read back the names of all the cards if you'd like. Lagos grouped them into four broad categories: Biblical studies, Sumerian studies, neurolinguistic studies, and intel gathered on L. Bob Rife."

"Without going into that kind of detail - what did Lagos have on his mind? What was he getting at?"

"What do I look like, a psychologist?" the Librarian says. "I can't answer those kinds of questions."

"Let me try it again. How does this stuff connect, if at all, to the subject of viruses?"

"The connections are elaborate. Summarizing them would require both creativity and discretion. As a mechanical entity, I have neither."

"How old is this stuff?" Hiro says, gesturing to the three artifacts.

"The clay envelope is Sumerian. It is from the third millennium B.C. It was dug up from the city of Eridu in southern Iraq. The black stele or obelisk is the Code of Hammurabi, which dates from about 1750 B.C. The treelike structure is a Yahwistic cult totem from Palestine. It's called an asherah. It's from about 900 B.C."

"Did you call that slab an envelope?"

"Yes. It has a smaller clay slab wrapped up inside of it. This was how the Sumerians made tamper-proof documents."

"All these things are in a museum somewhere, I take it?"

"The asherah and the Code of Hammurabi are in museums. The clay envelope is in the personal collection of L. Bob Rife."

"L. Bob Rife is obviously interested in this stuff."

"Rife Bible College, which he founded, has the richest archaeology department in the world. They have been conducting a dig in Eridu, which was the cult center of a Sumerian god named Enki."

"How are these things related to each other?"

The Librarian raises his eyebrows. "I'm sorry?"

"Well, let's try process of elimination. Do you know why Lagos found Sumerian writings interesting as opposed to, say, Greek or Egyptian?"

"Egypt was a civilization of stone. They made their art and architecture of stone, so it lasts forever. But you can't write on stone. So they invented papyrus and wrote on that. But papyrus is perishable. So even though their art and architecture have survived, their written records - their data - have largely disappeared."

"What about all those hieroglyphic inscriptions?"

"Bumper stickers, Lagos called them. Corrupt political speech. They had an unfortunate tendency to write inscriptions praising their own military victories before the battles had actually taken place."

"And Sumer is different?"

"Sumer was a civilization of clay. They made their buildings of it and wrote on it, too. Their statues were of gypsum, which dissolves in water. So the buildings and statues have since fallen apart under the elements. But the clay tablets were either baked or else buried in jars. So all the data of the Sumerians have survived. Egypt left a legacy of art and architecture; Sumer's legacy is its megabytes."

"How many megabytes?"

"As many as archaeologists bother to dig up. The Sumerians wrote on everything. When they built a building, they would write in cuneiform on every brick. When the buildings fell down, these bricks would remain, scattered across the desert. In the Koran, the angels who are sent to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah say, 'We are sent forth to a wicked nation, so that we may bring down on them a shower of clay-stones marked by your Lord for the destruction of the sinful.' Lagos found this interesting - this promiscuous dispersal of information, written on a medium that lasts forever. He spoke of pollen blowing in the wind - I gather that this was some kind of analogy."

"It was. Tell me - has the inscription on this clay envelope been translated?"

"Yes. It is a warning. It says, 'This envelope contains the nam-shub of Enki.'"

"I know what a nam-shub is. What is the nam-shub of Enki?"

The Librarian stares off into the distance and clears his throat dramatically.

"Once upon a time, there was no snake, there was no scorpion,

There was no hyena, there was no lion,

There was no wild dog, no wolf,

There was no fear, no terror,

Man had no rival.

In those days, the land Shubur-Hamazi,

Harmony-tongued Sumer, the great land of the me of princeship,

Uri, the land having all that is appropriate,

The land Martu, resting in security,

The whole universe, the people well cared for,

To Enlil in one tongue gave speech.

Then the lord defiant, the prince defiant, the king defiant,

Enki, the lord of abundance, whose commands are trustworthy,

The lord of wisdom, who scans the land,

The leader of the gods,

The lord of Eridu, endowed with wisdom,

Changed the speech in their mouths, put contention into it,

Into the speech of man that had been one.

That is Kramer's translation."

"That's a story," Hiro says. "I thought a nam-shub was an incantation."

"The nam-shub of Enki is both a story and an incantation," the Librarian says. "A self-fulfilling fiction. Lagos believed that in its original form, which this translation only hints at, it actually did what it describes."

"You mean, changed the speech in men's mouths."

"Yes," the Librarian says.

"This is a Babel story, isn't it?" Hiro says. "Everyone was speaking the same language, and then Enki changed their speech so that they could no longer understand each other. This must be the basis for the Tower of Babel stuff in the Bible."

"This room contains a number of cards tracing that connection," the Librarian says.

"You mentioned before that at one point, everyone spoke Sumerian. Then, nobody did. It just vanished, like the dinosaurs. And there's no genocide to explain how that happened. Which is consistent with the Tower of Babel story, and the nam-shub of Enki. Did Lagos think that Babel really happened?"

"He was sure of it. He was quite concerned about the vast number of human languages. He felt there were simply too many of them."

"How many?"

"Tens of thousands. In many parts of the world, you will find people of the same ethnic group, living a few miles apart in similar valleys under similar conditions, speaking languages that have absolutely nothing in common with each other. This sort of thing is not an oddity - it is ubiquitous. Many linguists have tried to understand Babel, the question of why human language tends to fragment, rather than converging on a common tongue."

"Has anyone come up with an answer yet?"

"The question is difficult and profound," the Librarian says. "Lagos had a theory."

"Yes?"

"He believed that Babel was an actual historical event. That it happened in a particular time and place, coinciding with the disappearance of the Sumerian language. That prior to Babel/Infocalypse, languages tended to converge. And that afterward, languages have always had an innate tendency to diverge and become mutually incomprehensible - that this tendency is, as he put it, coiled like a serpent around the human brainstem."

"The only thing that could explain that is - "

Hiro stops, not wanting to say it.

"Yes?" the Librarian says.

"If there was some phenomenon that moved through the population, altering their minds in such a way that they couldn't process the Sumerian language anymore. Kind of in the same way that a virus moves from one computer to another, damaging each computer in the same way. Coiling around the brainstem."

"Lagos devoted much time and effort to this idea," the Librarian says. "He felt that the nam-shub of Enki was a neurolinguistic virus."

"And that this Enki character was a real personage?"

"Possibly."

"And that Enki invented this virus and spread it throughout Sumer, using tablets like this one?"

"Yes. A tablet has been discovered containing a letter to Enki, in which the writer complains about it."

"A letter to a god?"

"Yes. It is from Sin-samuh, the Scribe. He begins by praising Enki and emphasizing his devotion to him. Then he complains:

'Like a young… (line broken)

I am paralyzed at the wrist.

Like a wagon on the road when its yoke has split,

I stand immobile on the road.

I lay on a bed called "O! and O No!"

I let out a wail.

My graceful figure is stretched neck to ground,

I am paralyzed of foot.

My… has been carried off into the earth.

My frame has changed.

At night I cannot sleep,

my strength has been struck down,

my life is ebbing away.

The bright day is made a dark day for me.

I have slipped into my own grave.

I, a writer who knows many things, am made a fool.

My hand has stopped writing

There is no talk in my mouth.'

"After more description of his woes, the scribe ends with,

'My god, it is you I fear.

I have written you a letter.

Take pity on me.

The heart of my god: have it given back to me.'"

29

Y.T. is maxing at a Mom's Truck Stop on 405, waiting for her ride. Not that she would ever be caught dead at a Mom's Truck Stop. If, like, a semi ran her over with all eighteen of its wheels in front of a Mom's Truck Stop, she would drag herself down the shoulder of the highway using her eyelid muscles until she reached a Snooze 'n' Cruise full of horny derelicts rather than go into a Mom's Truck Stop. But sometimes when you're a professional, they give you a job that you don't like, and you just have to be very cool and put up with it.

For purposes of this evening's job, the man with the glass eye has already supplied her with a "driver and security person," as he put it. A totally unknown quantity. Y.T. isn't sure she likes putting up with some mystery guy. She has this image in her mind that he's going to be like the wrestling coach at the high school. That would be so grotendous. Anyway, this is where she's supposed to meet him.

Y.T. orders a coffee and a slice of cherry pie A la mode. She carries them over to the public Street terminal back in the corner. It is sort of a wraparound stainless steel booth stuck between a phone booth, which has a homesick truck driver poured into it, and a pinball machine, which features a chick with big boobs that light up when you shoot the ball up the magic Fallopians.

She's not that good at the Metaverse, but she knows her way around, and she's got an address. And finding an address in the Metaverse shouldn't be any more difficult than doing it in Reality, at least if you're not a totally retarded ped.

As soon as she steps out into the Street, people start giving her these looks. The same kind of looks that people give her when she walks through the worsted-wool desolation of the Westlake Corporate Park in her dynamic blue-and-orange Kourier gear. She knows that the people in the Street are giving her dirty looks because she's just coming in from a shitty public terminal. She's a trashy black-and-white person.

The built-up part of the Street, around Port Zero, forms a luminescent thunderhead off to her right. She puts her back to it and climbs onto the monorail. She'd like to go into town, but that's an expensive part of the Street to visit, and she'd be dumping money into the coin slot about every one-tenth of a millisecond.

The guy's name is Ng. In Reality, he is somewhere in Southern California. Y.T. isn't sure exactly what he is driving; some kind of a van full of what the man with the glass eye described as "Stuff, really incredible stuff that you don't need to know about." In the Metaverse, he lives outside of town, around Port 2, where things really start to spread out.

Ng's Metaverse home is a French colonial villa in the prewar village of My Tho in the Mekong Delta. Visiting him is like going to Vietnam in about 1955, except that you don't have to get all sweaty. In order to make room for this creation, he has laid claim to a patch of Metaverse space a couple of miles off the Street. There's no monorail service in this low-rent development, so Y.T.'s avatar has to walk the entire way.

He has a large office with French doors and a balcony looking out over endless rice paddies where little Vietnamese people work. Clearly, this guy is a fairly hardcore techie, because Y.T. counts hundreds of people out in his rice paddies, plus dozens more running around the village, all of them fairly well rendered and all of them doing different things. She's not a bithead, but she knows that this guy is throwing a lot of computer time into the task of creating a realistic view out his office window. And the fact that it's Vietnam makes it twisted and spooky. Y.T. can't wait to tell Roadkill about this place. She wonders if it has bombings and strafings and napalm drops. That would be the best.

Ng himself, or at least, Ng's avatar, is a small, very dapper Vietnamese man in his fifties, hair plastered to his head, wearing military-style khakis. At the time Y.T. comes into his office, he is leaning forward in his chair, getting his shoulders rubbed by a geisha.

A geisha in Vietnam?

Y.T.'s grandpa, who was there for a while, told her that the Nipponese took over Vietnam during the war and treated it with the cruelty that was their trademark before we nuked them and they discovered that they were pacifists. The Vietnamese, like most other Asians, hate the Japanese. And apparently this Ng character gets a kick out of the idea of having a Japanese geisha around to rub his back.

But it is a very strange thing to do, for one reason: The geisha is just a picture on Ng's goggles, and on Y.T.'s. And you can't get a massage from a picture. So why bother?

When Y.T. comes in, Ng stands up and bows. This is how hardcore Street wackos greet each other. They don't like to shake hands because you can't actually feel the contact and it reminds you that you're not even really there.

"Yeah, hi," Y.T. says.

Ng sits back down and the geisha goes right back to it. Ng's desk is a nice French antique with a row of small television monitors along the back edge, facing toward him. He spends most of his time watching the monitors, even when he is talking.

"They told me a little bit about you," Ng says.

"Shouldn't listen to nasty rumors," Y.T. says.

Ng picks up a glass from his desk and takes a drink from it. It looks like a mint julep. Globes of condensation form on its surface, break loose, and trickle down the side. The rendering is so perfect that Y.T. can see a miniaturized reflection of the office windows in each drop of condensation. It's just totally ostentatious. What a bithead.

He is looking at her with a totally emotionless face, but Y.T. imagines that it is a face of hate and disgust. To spend all this money on the coolest house in the Metaverse and then have some skater come in done up in grainy black-and-white. It must be a real kick in the metaphorical nuts.

Somewhere in this house a radio is going, playing a mix of Vietnamese loungy type stuff and Yank wheelchair rock.

"Are you a Nova Sicilia citizen?" Ng says.

"No. I just chill sometimes with Uncle Enzo and the other Mafia dudes."

"Ah. Very unusual."

Ng is not a man in a hurry. He has soaked up the languid pace of the Mekong Delta and is content to sit there and watch his TV sets and fire off a sentence every few minutes.

Another thing: He apparently has Tourette's syndrome or some other brain woes because from time to time, for no apparent reason, he makes strange noises with his mouth. They have the twangy sound that you always hear from Vietnamese when they are in the back rooms of stores and restaurants carrying on family disputes in the mother tongue, but as far as Y.T. can tell, they aren't real words, just sound effects.

"Do you work a lot for these guys?" Y.T. asks.

"Occasional small security jobs. Unlike most large corporations, the Mafia has a strong tradition of handling its own security arrangements. But when something especially technical is called for - "

He pauses in the middle of this sentence to make an incredible zooming sound in his nose.

"Is that your thing? Security?"

Ng scans all of his TV sets. He snaps his fingers and the geisha scurries out of the room. He folds his hands together on his desk and leans forward. He stares at Y.T. "Yes," he says.

Y.T. looks back at him for a bit, waiting for him to continue. After a few seconds his attention drifts back to the monitors.

"I do most of my work under a large contract with Mr. Lee," he blurts.

Y.T. is waiting for the continuation of this sentence: Not "Mr. Lee," but "Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong."

Oh, well. If she can drop Uncle Enzo's name, he can drop Mr. Lee's.

"The social structure of any nation-state is ultimately determined by its security arrangements," Ng says, "and Mr. Lee understands this."

Oh, wow, we're going to be profound now. Ng is suddenly talking just like the old white men on the TV pundit powwows, which Y.T.'s mother watches obsessively.

"Instead of hiring a large human security force - which impacts the social environment - you know, lots of minimum-wage earners standing around carrying machine guns - Mr. Lee prefers to use nonhuman systems."

Nonhuman systems. Y.T. is about to ask him, what do you know about the Rat Thing. But it is pointless; he won't say. It would get their relationship off on the wrong foot, Y.T. asking Ng for intel, intel that he would never give her, and that would make this whole scene even weirder than it is now, which Y.T. can't even imagine.

Ng bursts forth with a long string of twangy noises, pops, and glottal stops.

"Fucking bitch," he mumbles.

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing," he says, "a bimbo box cut me off. None of these people understand that with this vehicle, I could crush them like a potbellied pig under an armored personnel carrier."

"A bimbo box - you're driving?"

"Yes. I'm coming to pick you up - remember?"

"Do you mind?"

"No," he sighs, as if he really does.

Y.T. gets up and walks around behind his desk to look.

Each of the little TV monitors is showing a different view out his van: windshield, left window, right window, rearview. Another one has an electronic map showing his position: inbound on the San Bernardino, not far away.

"The van is under voice command," he explains. "I removed the steering-wheel-and-pedal interface because I found verbal commands more convenient. This is why I will sometimes make unfamiliar sounds with my voice - I am controlling the vehicle's systems."

Y.T. signs off from the Metaverse for a while, to clear her head and take a leak. When she takes off the goggles she discovers that she has built up quite an audience of truckers and mechanics, who are standing around the terminal booth in a semicircle listening to her jabber at Ng. When she stands up, attention shifts to her butt, naturally.

Y.T. hits the bathroom, finishes her pie, and wanders out into the ultraviolet glare of the setting sun to wait for Ng.

Recognizing his van is easy enough. It is enormous. It is eight feet high and wider than it is high, which would have made it a wide load in the old days when they had laws. The construction is boxy and angular; it has been welded together out of the type of flat, dimpled steel plate usually used to make manhole lids and stair treads. The tires are huge, like tractor tires with a more subtle tread, and there are six of them: two axles in back and one in front. The engine is so big that, like an evil spaceship in a movie, Y.T. feels its rumbling in her ribs before she can see it; it is kicking out diesel exhaust through a pair of squat vertical red smokestacks that project from the roof, toward the rear. The windshield is a perfectly flat rectangle of glass about three by eight feet, smoked so black that Y.T. can't make out an outline of anything inside. The snout of the van is festooned with every type of high-powered light known to science, like this guy hit a New South Africa franchise on a Saturday night and stole every light off every roll bar, and a grille has been constructed across the front, welded together out of rails torn out of an abandoned railroad somewhere. The grille alone probably weighs more than a small car.

The passenger door swings open. Y.T. walks over and climbs into the front seat. "Hi," she is saying. "You need to take a whiz or anything?"

Ng isn't there.

Or maybe he is.

Where the driver's seat ought to be, there is a sort of neoprene pouch about the size of a garbage can suspended from the ceiling by a web of straps, shock cords, tubes, wires, fiber-optic cables, and hydraulic lines. It is swathed in so much stuff that it is hard to make out its actual outlines.

At the top of this pouch, Y.T. can see a patch of skin with some black hair around it - the top of a balding man's head. Everything else, from the temples downward, is encased in an enormous goggle/mask/headphone/feeding-tube unit, held onto his head by smart straps that are constantly tightening and loosening themselves to keep the device comfortable and properly positioned.

Below this, on either side, where you'd sort of expect to see arms, huge bundles of wires, fiber optics, and tubes run up out of the floor and are seemingly plugged into Ng's shoulder sockets. There is a similar arrangement where his legs are supposed to be attached, and more stuff going into his groin and hooked up to various locations on his torso. The entire thing is swathed in a one-piece coverall, a pouch, larger than his torso ought to be, that is constantly bulging and throbbing as though alive.

"Thank you, all my needs are taken care of," Ng says.

The door slams shut behind her. Ng makes a yapping sound, and the van pulls out onto the frontage road, headed back toward 405.

"Please excuse my appearance," he says, after a couple of awkward minutes. "My helicopter caught fire during the evacuation of Saigon in 1974 - a stray tracer from ground forces."

"Whoa. What a drag."

"I was able to reach an American aircraft carrier off the coast, but you know, the fuel was spraying around quite a bit during the fire."

"Yeah, I can imagine, uh huh."

"I tried prostheses for a while - some of them are very good. But nothing is as good as a motorized wheelchair. And then I got to thinking, why do motorized wheelchairs always have to be tiny pathetic things that strain to go up a little teeny ramp? So I bought this - it is an airport firetruck from Germany - and converted it into my new motorized wheelchair."

"It's very nice."

"America is wonderful because you can get anything on a drive-through basis. Oil change, liquor, banking, car wash, funerals, anything you want - drive through! So this vehicle is much better than a tiny pathetic wheelchair. It is an extension of my body."

"When the geisha rubs your back?"

Ng mumbles something and his pouch begins to throb and undulate around his body. "She is a daemon, of course. As for the massage, my body is suspended in an electrocontractive gel that massages me when I need it. I also have a Swedish girl and an African woman, but those daemons are not as well rendered."

"And the mint julep?"

"Through a feeding tube. Nonalcoholic, ha ha."

"So," Y.T. says at some point, when they are way past LAX, and she figures it's too late to chicken out, "what's the plan? Do we have a plan?"

"We go to Long Beach. To the Terminal Island Sacrifice Zone. And we buy some drugs," Ng says. "Or you do, actually, since I am indisposed."

"That's my job? To buy some drugs?"

"Buy them, and throw them up in the air."

"In a Sacrifice Zone?"

"Yes. And we'll take care of the rest."

"Who's we, dude?"

"There are several more, uh, entities that will help us."

"What, is the back of the van full of more - people like you?"

"Sort of," Ng says. "You are close to the truth."

"Would these be, like, nonhuman systems?"

"That is a sufficiently all-inclusive term, I think."

Y.T. figures that for a big yes.

"You tired? Want me to drive or anything?"

Ng laughs sharply, like distant ack-ack, and the van almost swerves off the road. Y.T. doesn't get the sense that he is laughing at the joke; he is laughing at what a jerk Y.T. is.

30

"Okay, last time we were talking about the clay envelope. But what about this thing? The thing that looks like a tree?" Hiro says, gesturing to one of the artifacts.

"A totem of the goddess Asherah," the Librarian says crisply.

"Now we're getting somewhere," Hiro says. "Lagos said that the Brandy in The Black Sun was a cult prostitute of Asherah. So who is Asherah?"

"She was the consort of El, who is also known as Yahweh," the Librarian says. "She also was known by other names: Elat, her most common epithet. The Greeks knew her as Dione or Rhea. The Canaanites knew her as Tannit or Hawwa, which is the same thing as Eve."

"Eve?"

"The etymology of 'Tannit' proposed by Cross is: feminine of 'tannin,' which would mean 'the one of the serpent.' Furthermore, Asherah carried a second epithet in the Bronze Age, 'dat batni,' also 'the one of the serpent.' The Sumerians knew her as Nintu or Ninhursag. Her symbol is a serpent coiling about a tree or staff. the caduceus."

"Who worshipped Asherah? A lot of people, I gather."

"Everyone who lived between India and Spain, from the second millennium B.C. up into the Christian era. With the exception of the Hebrews, who only worshipped her until the religious reforms of Hezekiah and, later, Josiah."

"I thought the Hebrews were monotheists. How could they worship Asherah?"

"Monolatrists. They did not deny the existence of other gods. But they were only supposed to worship Yahweh. Asherah was venerated as the consort of Yahweh."

"I don't remember anything about God having a wife in the Bible."

"The Bible didn't exist at that point. Judaism was just a loose collection of Yahwistic cults, each with different shrines and practices. The stories about the Exodus hadn't been formalized into scripture yet. And the later parts of the Bible had not yet happened."

"Who decided to purge Asherah from Judaism?"

"The deuteronomic school - defined, by convention, as the people who wrote the book of Deuteronomy as well as Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings."

"And what kind of people were they?"

"Nationalists. Monarchists. Centralists. The forerunners of the Pharisees. At this time, the Assyrian king Sargon II had recently conquered Samaria - northern Israel - forcing a migration of Hebrews southward into Jerusalem. Jerusalem expanded greatly and the Hebrews began to conquer territory to the west, east, and south. It was a time of intense nationalism and patriotic fervor. The deuteronomic school embodied those attitudes in scripture by rewriting and reorganizing the old tales."

"Rewriting them how?"

"Moses and others believed that the River Jordan was the border of Israel, but the deuteronomists believed that Israel included Transjordan, which justified aggression to the east. There are many other examples: the predeuteronomic law said nothing about a monarch. The Law as laid down by the deuteronomic school reflected a monarchist system. The predeuteronomic law was largely concerned with sacred matters, while the deuteronomic law's main concern is the education of the king and his people - secular matters in other words. The deuteronomists insisted on centralizing the religion in the Temple in Jerusalem, destroying the outlying cult centers. And there is another feature that Lagos found significant."

"And that is?"

"Deuteronomy is the only book of the Pentateuch that refers to a written Torah as comprising the divine will: 'And when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, from that which is in charge of the Levitical priests; and it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them; that his heart may not be lifted up above his brethren, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left; so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.' Deuteronomy 17:18-20."

"So the deuteronomists codified the religion. Made it into an organized, self-propagating entity," Hiro says. "I don't want to say virus. But according to what you just quoted me, the Torah is like a virus. It uses the human brain as a host. The host - the human - makes copies of it. And more humans come to synagogue and read it."

"I cannot process an analogy. But what you say is correct insofar as this: After the deuteronomists had reformed Judaism, instead of making sacrifices, the Jews went to synagogue and read the Book. If not for the deuteronomists, the world's monotheists would still be sacrificing animals and propagating their beliefs through the oral tradition."

"Sharing needles," Hiro says. "When you were going over this stuff with Lagos, did he ever say anything about the Bible being a virus?"

"He said it had certain things in common with a virus, but that it was different. He considered it a benign virus. Like that used for vaccinations. He considered the Asherah virus to be more malignant, capable of being spread through exchange of bodily fluids."

"So the strict, book-based religion of the deuteronomists inoculated the Hebrews against the Asherah virus."

"In combination with strict monogamy and other kosher practices, yes," the Librarian says. "The previous religions, from Sumer up to Deuteronomy, are known as prerational. Judaism was the first of the rational religions. As such, in Lagos's view, it was much less susceptible to viral infection because it was based on fixed, written records. This was the reason for the veneration of the Torah and the exacting care used when making new copies of it - informational hygiene."

"What are we living in nowadays? The postrational era?"

"Juanita made comments to that effect."

"I'll bet she did. She's starting to make more sense to me, Juanita is."

"Oh."

"She never really made much sense before."

"I see."

"I think that if I can just spend enough time with you to figure out what's on Juanita's mind - well, wonderful things could happen."

"I will try to be of assistance."

"Back to work - this is no time for a hard-on. It seems that Asherah was a carrier of a viral infection. The deuteronomists somehow realized this and exterminated her by blocking all the vectors by which she infected new victims."

"With reference to viral infections," the Librarian says, "if I may make a fairly blunt, spontaneous crossreference - something I am coded to do at opportune moments - you may wish to examine herpes simplex, a virus that takes up residence in the nervous system and never leaves. It is capable of carrying new genes into existing neurons and genetically reengineering them. Modem gene therapists use it for this purpose. Lagos thought that herpes simplex might be a modern, benign descendant of Asherah."

"Not always benign," Hiro says, remembering a friend of his who died of AIDS-related complications; in the last days, he had herpes lesions from his lips all the way down his throat. "It's only benign because we have immunities."

"Yes, sir."

"So did Lagos think that the Asherah virus actually altered the DNA of brain cells?"

"Yes. This was the backbone of his hypothesis that the virus was able to transmute itself from a biologically transmitted string of DNA into a set of behaviors."

"What behaviors? What was Asherah worship like? Did they do sacrifices?"

"No. But there is evidence of cult prostitutes, both male and female."

"Does that mean what I think it does? Religious figures who would hang around the temple and fuck people?"

"More or less."

"Bingo. Great way to spread a virus. Now, I want to jump back to an earlier fork in the conversation."

"As you wish. I can handle nested forkings to a virtually infinite depth."

"You made a connection between Asherah and Eve."

"Eve - whose Biblical name is Hawwa - is clearly the Hebrew interpretation of an older myth. Hawwa is an ophidian mother goddess."

"Ophidian?"

"Associated with serpents. Asherah is also an ophidian mother goddess. And both are associated with trees as well."

"Eve, as I recall, is considered responsible for getting Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Which is to say, it's not just fruit - it's data."

"If you say so, sir."

"I wonder if viruses have always been with us, or not. There's sort of an implicit assumption that they have been around forever. But maybe that's not true. Maybe there was a period of history when they were nonexistent or at least unusual. And at a certain point, when the metavirus showed up, the number of different viruses exploded, and people started getting sick a whole lot. That would explain the fact that all cultures seem to have a myth about Paradise, and the Fall from Paradise."

"Perhaps."

"You told me that the Essenes thought that tapeworms were demons. If they'd known what a virus was, they probably would have thought the same thing. And Lagos told me the other night that, according to the Sumerians, there was no concept of good and evil per se."

"Correct. According to Kramer and Maier, there are good demons and bad demons. 'Good ones bring physical and emotional health. Evil ones bring disorientation and a variety of physical and emotional ills… But these demons can hardly be distinguished from the diseases they personify… and many of the diseases sound, to modern ears, as though they must be psychosomatic.'"

"That's what the doctors said about Da5id, that his disease must be psychosomatic."

"I don't know anything about Da5id, except for some rather banal statistics."

"It's as though 'good' and 'evil' were invented by the writer of the Adam and Eve legend to explain why people get sick - why they have physical and mental viruses. So when Eve - or Asherah - got Adam to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, she was introducing the concept of good and evil into the world - introducing the metavirus, which creates viruses."

"Could be."

"So my next question is: Who wrote the Adam and Eve legend?"

"This is a source of much scholarly argument."

"What did Lagos think? More to the point, what did Juanita think?"

"Nicolas Wyatt's radical interpretation of the Adam and Eve story supposes that it was, in fact, written as a political allegory by the deuteronomists."

"I thought they wrote the later books, not Genesis."

"True. But they were involved in compiling and editing the earlier books as well. For many years, it was assumed that Genesis was written sometime around 900 B.C. or even earlier - long before the advent of the deuteronomists. But more recent analysis of the vocabulary and content suggests that a great deal of editorial work - possibly even authorial work - took place around the time of the Exile, when the deuteronomists held sway."

"So they may have rewritten an earlier Adam and Eve myth."

"They appear to have had ample opportunity. According to the interpretation of Hvidberg and, later, Wyatt, Adam in his garden is a parable for the king in his sanctuary, specifically King Hosea, who ruled the northern kingdom until it was conquered by Sargon II in 722 B.C."

"That's the conquest you mentioned earlier - the one that drove the deuteronomists southward toward Jerusalem."

"Exactly. Now 'Eden,' which can be understood simply as the Hebrew word for 'delight,' stands for the happy state in which the king existed prior to the conquest. The expulsion from Eden to the bitter lands to the east is a parable for the massive deportation of Israelites to Assyria following Sargon II's victory. According to this interpretation, the king was enticed away from the path, of righteousness by the cult of El, with its associated worship of Asherah - who is commonly associated with serpents, and whose symbol is a tree."

"And his association with Asherah somehow caused him to be conquered - so when the deuteronomists reached Jerusalem, they recast the Adam and Eve story as a warning to the leaders of the southern kingdom."

"Yes."

"And perhaps, because no one was listening to them, perhaps they invented the concept of good and evil in the process, as a hook."

"Hook?"

"Industry term. Then what happened? Did Sargon II try to conquer the southern kingdom also?"

"His successor, Sennacherib, did. King Hezekiah, who ruled the southern kingdom, prepared for the attack feverishly, making great improvements in the fortifications of Jerusalem, improving its supply of drinking water. He was also responsible for a far-reaching series of religious reforms, which he undertook under the direction of the deuteronomists."

"How did it work out?"

"The forces of Sennacherib surrounded Jerusalem. 'And that night the angel of the LORD went forth, and slew a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, these were all dead bodies. Then Sennacherib king of Assyria departed…' 2 Kings 19:35-36."

"I'll bet he did. So let me get this straight: the deuteronomists, through Hezekiah, impose a policy of informational hygiene on Jerusalem and do some civil-engineering work - you said they worked on the water supply?"

"'They stopped all the springs and the brook that flowed through the land, saying, "'Why should the kings of Assyria come and find much water?"' 2 Chronicles 32:4. Then the Hebrews carved a tunnel seventeen hundred feet through solid rock to carry that water inside city walls."

"And then as soon as Sennacherib's soldiers came on the scene, they all dropped dead of what can only be understood as an extremely virulent disease, to which the people of Jerusalem were apparently immune. Hmm, interesting - I wonder what got into their water?"

31

Y.T. doesn't get down to Long Beach very much, but when she does, she will do just about anything to avoid the Sacrifice Zone. It's an abandoned shipyard the size of a small town. It sticks out into San Pedro Bay, where the older, nastier Burbclaves of the Basin - unplanned Burbclaves of tiny asbestos-shingled houses patrolled by beetle-browed Kampuchean men with pump shotguns - fade off into the foam-kissed beaches. Most of it's on the appropriately named Terminal Island, and since her plank doesn't run on the water, that means she can only get in or out by one access road.

Like all Sacrifice Zones, this one has a fence around it, with yellow metal signs wired to it every few yards.

SACRIFICE ZONE

WARNING. The National Parks Service has

declared this area to be a National Sacrifice Zone.

The Sacrifice Zone Program was developed to

manage parcels of land whose clean-up cost

exceeds their total future economic value.

And like all Sacrifice Zone fences, this one has holes in it and is partially torn down in places. Young men blasted out of their minds on natural and artificial male hormones must have some place to do their idiotic coming-of-age rituals. They come in from Burbclaves all over the area in their four-wheel-drive trucks and tear across the open ground, slicing long curling gashes into the clay cap that was placed on the really bad parts to prevent windblown asbestos from blizzarding down over Disneyland.

Y.T. is oddly satisfied to know that these boys have never even dreamed of an all-terrain vehicle like Ng's motorized wheelchair. It veers off the paved road with no loss in speed -ride gets a little bumpy - and hits the chain-link fence as if it were a fog bank, plowing a hundred-foot section into the ground.

It is a clear night, and so the Sacrifice Zone glitters, an immense carpet of broken glass and shredded asbestos. A hundred feet away, some seagulls are tearing at the belly of a dead German shepherd lying on its back. There is a constant undulation of the ground that makes the shattered glass flash and twinkle; this is caused by vast, sparse migrations of rats. The deep computer-designed imprints of suburban boys' fat knobby tires paint giant runes on the clay, like the mystery figures in Peru that Y.T.'s mom learned about at the NeoAquarian Temple. Through the windows, Y.T. can hear occasional bursts of either firecrackers or gunfire.

She can also hear Ng making new, even stranger sounds with his mouth.

There is a built-in speaker system in this van - a stereo, though far be it from Ng to actually listen to any tunes. Y.T. can feel it turning on, can sense a nearly inaudible hiss coming from the speakers.

The van begins to creep forward across the Zone.

The inaudible hiss gathers itself up into a low electronic hum. It's not steady, it wavers up and down, staying pretty low, like Roadkill fooling around with his electric bass. Ng keeps changing the direction of the van, as though he's searching for something, and Y.T. gets the sense that the pitch of the hum is rising.

It's definitely rising, building up in the direction of a squeal. Ng snarls a command and the volume is reduced. He's driving very slowly now.

"It is possible that you might not have to buy any Snow Crash at all," he mumbles. "We may have found an unprotected stash."

"What is this totally irritating noise?"

"Bioelectronic sensor. Human cell membranes. Grown in vitro, which means in glass - in a test tube. One side is exposed to outside air, the other side is clean. When a foreign substance penetrates the cell membrane to the clean side, it's detected. The more foreign molecules penetrate, the higher the pitch of the sound."

"Like a Geiger counter?"

"Very much like a Geiger counter for cell-penetrating compounds," Ng says.

Like what? Y.T. wants to ask. But she doesn't.

Ng stops the van. He turns on some lights - very dim lights. That's how anal this guy is - he has gone to the trouble to install special dim lights in addition to all the bright ones.

They are looking into a sort of bowl, right at the foot of a major drum heap, that is strewn with litter. Most of the litter is empty beer cans. In the middle is a fire pit. Many tire tracks converge here.

"Ah, this is good," Ng says. "A place where the young men gather to take drugs."

Y.T. rolls her eyes at this display of tubularity. This must be the guy who writes all those antidrug pamphlets they get at school.

Like he's not getting a million gallons of drugs every second through all of those gross tubes.

"I don't see any signs of booby traps," Ng says. "Why don't you go out and see what kind of drug paraphernalia is out there."

She looks at him like, what did you say?

"There's a toxics mask hanging on the back of your seat," he says.

"What's out there, toxic-wise?"

"Discarded asbestos from the shipbuilding industry. Marine antifouling paints that are full of heavy metals. They used PCBs for a lot of things, too."

"Great."

"I sense your reluctance. But if we can get a sample of Snow Crash from this drug-taking site, it will obviate the rest of our mission."

"Well, since you put it that way," Y.T. says, and grabs the mask. It's a big rubber-and-canvas number that covers her whole head and neck. Feels heavy and awkward at first, but whoever designed it had the right idea, all the weight rests in the right places. There's also a pair of heavy gloves that she hauls on. They are way too big. Like the people at the glove factory never dreamed that an actual female could wear gloves.

She trudges out onto the glass-and-asbestos soil of the Zone, hoping that Ng isn't going to slam the door shut and drive away and leave her there.

Actually, she wishes he would. It would be a cool adventure.

Anyway, she goes up to the middle of the "drug-taking site." Is not too surprised to see a little nest of discarded hypodermic needles. And some tiny little empty vials. She picks up a couple of the vials, reads their labels.

"What did you find?" Ng says when she gets back into the van, peels off the mask.

"Needles. Mostly Hyponarxes. But there's also a couple of Ultra Laminars and some Mosquito twenty-fives."

"What does all this mean?"

"Hyponarx you can get at any Buy 'n' Fly, people call them rusty nails, they are cheap and dull. Supposedly the needles of poor black diabetics and junkies. Ultra Laminars and Mosquitos; are hip, you get them around fancy Burbclaves, they don't hurt as much when you stick them in, and they have better design. You know, ergonomic plungers, hip color schemes."

"What drug were they injecting?"

"Checkitout," Y.T. says, and holds up one of the vials toward Ng.

Then it occurs to her that he can't exactly turn his head to look.

"Where do I hold it so you can see it?" she says.

Ng sings a little song. A robot arm unfolds itself from the ceiling of the van, crisply yanks the vial from her hand, swings it around, and holds it in front of a video camera set into the dashboard.

The typewritten label stuck onto the vial says, just "Testosterone."

"Ha ha, a false alarm," Ng says. The van suddenly rips forward, starts heading right into the middle of the Sacrifice Zone.

"Want to tell me what's going on?" Y.T. says, "since I have to actually do the work in this outfit?"

"Cell walls," Ng says. "The detector finds any chemical that penetrates cell walls. So we homed in naturally on a source of testosterone. A red herring. How amusing. You see, our biochemists lead sheltered lives, did not anticipate that some people would be so mentally warped as to use hormones like they were some kind of drug. How bizarre."

Y.T. smiles to herself. She really likes the idea of living in a world where someone like Ng can get off calling someone else bizarre. "What are you looking for?"

"Snow Crash," Ng says. "Instead, we found the Ring of Seventeen."

"Snow Crash is the drug that comes in the little tubes," Y.T. says. "I know that. What's the Ring of Seventeen? One of those crazy new rock groups that kids listen to nowadays?"

"Snow Crash penetrates the walls of brain cells and goes to the nucleus where the DNA is stored. So for purposes of this mission, we developed a detector that would enable us to find cell wall-penetrating compounds in the air. But we didn't count on heaps of empty testosterone vials being scattered all over the place. All steroids - artificial hormones - share the same basic structure, a ring of seventeen atoms that acts like a magic key that allows them to pass through cell walls. That's why steroids are such powerful substances when they are unleashed in the human body. They can go deep inside the cell, into the nucleus, and actually change the way the cell functions.

"To summarize: the detector is useless. A stealthy approach will not work. So we go back to the original plan. You buy some Snow Crash and throw it up in the air."

Y.T. doesn't quite understand that last part yet. But she shuts up for a while, because in her opinion, Ng needs to pay more attention to his driving.

Once they get out of that really creepy part, most of the Sacrifice Zone turns out to consist of a wilderness of dry brown weeds and large abandoned hunks of metal. There are big heaps of shit rising up from place to place - coal or slag or coke or smelt or something.

Every time they come around a corner, they encounter a little plantation of vegetables, tended by Asians or South Americans. Y.T. gets the impression that Ng wants to just run them over, but he always changes his mind at the last instant and swerves around them.

Some Spanish-speaking blacks are playing baseball on a broad flat area, using the round lids of fifty-five-gallon drums as bases. They have parked half a dozen old beaters around the edges of the field and turned on their headlights to provide illumination. Nearby is a bar built into a crappy mobile home, marked with a graffiti sign: THE SACRIFICE ZONE. Lines of boxcars are stranded in a yard of rusted-over railway spurs, nopal growing between the ties. One of the boxcars has been turned into a Reverend Wayne's Pearly Gates franchise, and evangelical CentroAmericans are lined up to do their penance and speak in tongues below the neon Elvis. There are no NeoAquarian Temple franchises in the Sacrifice Zone.

"The warehouse area is not as dirty as the first place we went," Ng says reassuringly, "so the fact that you can't use the toxics mask won't be so bad. You may smell some Chill fumes."

Y.T. does a double take at this new phenomenon: Ng using the street name for a controlled substance. "You mean Freon?" she says.

"Yes. The man who is the object of our inquiry is horizontally diversified. That is, he deals in a number of different substances. But he got his start in Freon. He is the biggest Chill wholesaler/retailer on the West Coast."

Finally, Y.T. gets it. Ng's van is air-conditioned. Not with one of those shitty ozone-safe air conditioners, but with the real thing, a heavy metal, high-capacity, bonechilling Frigidaire blizzard blaster. It must use an incredible amount of Freon.

For all practical purposes, that air conditioner is a part of Ng's body. Y.T.'s driving around with the world's only Freon junkie.

"You buy your supply of Chill from this guy?"

"Until now, yes. But for the future, I have an arrangement with someone else."

Someone else. The Mafia.

They are approaching the waterfront. Dozens of long, skinny, single-story warehouses run parallel down toward the water. They all share the same access road at this end. Smaller roads run between them, down toward where the piers used to be. Abandoned tractor-trailers are scattered around from place to place.

Ng pulls his van off the access road, into a little nook that is partly concealed between an old red-brick power station and a stack of rusted-out shipping containers. He gets it turned around so it's pointed out of here, kind of like he is expecting to leave rapidly

"There's money in the storage compartment in front of you," Ng says.

Y.T. opens the glove compartment, as anyone else would call it, and finds a thick bundle of worn-out, dirty, trillion-dollar bills. Ed Meeses.

"Jeez, couldn't you get any Gippers? This is kind of bulky."

"This is more the kind of thing that a Kourier would pay with."

"Because we're all pond scum, right?"

"No comment."

"What is this, a quadrillion dollars?"

"One-and-a-half quadrillion. Inflation, you know."

"What do I do?"

"Fourth warehouse on the left," Ng says. "When you get the tube, throw it up in the air."

"Then what?"

"Everything else will be taken care of."

Y.T. has her doubts about that. But if she gets in trouble, well, she can always whip out those dog tags.

While Y.T. climbs down out of the van with her skateboard, Ng makes new sounds with his mouth. She hears a gliding and clunking noise resonating through the frame of the van, machinery coming to life. Turning back to look, she sees that a steel cocoon on the roof of the van has opened up. There is a miniature helicopter underneath it, all folded up. Its rotor blades spread themselves apart, like a butterfly unfolding. Its name is painted on its side: WHIRLWIND REAPER.

32

It's pretty obvious which warehouse we are looking for here. Fourth one on the left, the road that runs down toward the waterfront is blocked off by several shipping containers - the big steel boxes you see on the backs of eighteen-wheelers. They are arranged in a herringbone pattern, so that in order to get past them you have to slalom back and forth half a dozen times, passing through a narrow mazelike channel between high walls of steel. Guys with guns are perched on top, looking down at Y.T. as she guides her plank through the obstacle course. By the time she makes it out into the clear, she's been heavily checked out.

There is the occasional light-bulb-on-a-wire strung around, and even a couple of strings of Christmas-tree lights. These are switched on, just to make her feel a little more welcome. She can't see anything, just lights making colored halos amid a generalized cloud of dust and fog. In front of her, access to the waterfront is blocked off by another maze of shipping containers. One of them has a graffiti sign: THE UKOD SEZ: TRY SOME COUNTDOWN TODAY!

"What's the UKOD?" she says, just to break the ice a little.

"Undisputed King of the Ozone Destroyers," says a man's voice. He is just in the act of jumping down from the loading dock of the warehouse to her left. Back inside the warehouse, Y.T. can see electric lights and glowing cigarettes. "That's what we call Emilio."

"Oh, right," Y.T. says. "The Freon guy. I'm not here for Chill."

"Well," says the guy, a tall rangy dude in his forties, much too skinny to be forty years old. He yanks the butt of a cigarette from his mouth and throws it away like a dart. "What'll it be, then?"

"What does Snow Crash cost."

"One point seven five Gippers," the guy says.

"I thought it was one point five," Y.T. says.

The guy shakes his head. "Inflation, you know. Still, it's a bargain. Hell, that plank you're on is probably worth a hundred Gippers."

"You can't even buy these for dollars," Y.T. says, getting her back up. "Look, all I've got is one-and-a-half quadrillion dollars." She pulls the bundle out of her pocket.

The guy laughs, shakes his head, hollers back to his colleagues inside the warehouse. "You guys, we got a chick here who wants to pay in Meeses."

"Better get rid of 'em fast, honey," says a sharper, nastier voice, "or get yourself a wheelbarrow."

It's an even older guy with a bald head, curly hair on the sides, and a paunch. He's standing up on the loading dock.

"If you're not going to take it, just say so," Y.T. says. All of this chatter has nothing to do with business.

"We don't get chicks back here very often," the fat bald old guy says. Y.T. knows that this must be the UKOD himself "So we'll give you a discount for being spunky. Turn around."

"Fuck you," Y.T. says. She's not going to turn around for this guy.

Everyone within earshot laughs. "Okay, do it," the UKOD says.

The tall skinny guy goes back over to the loading dock and hauls an aluminum briefcase down, sets it on top of a steel drum in the middle of the road so that it's at about waist height. "Pay first," he says.

She hands him the Meeses. He examines the bundle, sneers, throws it back into the warehouse with a sudden backhand motion. All the guys inside laugh some more.

He opens up the briefcase, revealing the little computer keyboard. He shoves his ID card into the slot, types on it for a couple of seconds.

He unsnaps a tube from the top of the briefcase, places it into the socket in the bottom part. The machine draws it inside, does something, spits it back out.

He hands the tube to Y.T. The red numbers on top are counting down from ten.

"When it gets down to one, hold it up to your nose and start inhaling," the guy says.

She's already backing away from him.

"You got a problem, little girl?" he says.

"Not yet," she says. Then she throws the tube up in the air as hard as she can.

The chop of the rotor blades comes out of nowhere. The Whirlwind Reaper blurs over their heads; everyone crouches for an instant as surprise buckles their knees. The tube does not come back to earth.

"You fucking bitch," the skinny guy says.

"That was a really cool plan," the UKOD says, "but the part I can't figure out is, why would a nice, smart girl like you participate in a suicide mission?"

The sun comes out. About half a dozen suns, actually, all around them up in the air, so that there are no shadows. The faces of the skinny man and the UKOD look flat and featureless under this blinding illumination. Y.T. is the only person who can see worth a damn because her Knight Visions have compensated for it; the men wince and sag beneath the light.

Y.T. turns to look behind herself. One of the miniature suns is hanging above the maze of shipping containers, casting light into all its crannies, blinding the gunmen who stand guard there. The scene flashes too light and too dark as her goggles' electronics try to make up their mind. But in the midst of this whole visual tangle she gets one image printed indelibly on her retina: the gunmen going down like a treeline in a hurricane, and for just an instant, a line of dark angular things silhouetted above the maze as they crest it like a cybernetic tsunami. Rat Things.

They have evaded the whole maze by leaping over it in long, flat parabolas. Along the way, some of them have slammed right through the bodies of men holding guns, like NFL fullbacks plowing full speed through nerdy sideline photographers. Then, as they land on the road in front of the maze, there is an instant burst of dust with frantic white sparks dancing around at the bottom, and while all this is happening, Y.T. doesn't hear, she feels one of the Rat Things impacting on the body of the tall skinny guy, hears his ribs crackling like a ball of cellophane. Hell is already breaking loose inside the warehouse, but her eyes are trying to follow the action, watching the sparks-and-dust contrails of more Rat Things drawing themselves down the length of the road in an instant and then going airborne to the top of the next barrier.

Three seconds have passed since she threw the tube into the air. She is turning back to look inside the warehouse. But someone's on top of the warehouse, catching her eye for a second. It's another gunman, a sniper, stepping out from behind an air-conditioning unit, just getting used to the light, raising his weapon to his shoulder. Y.T. winces as a red laser beam from his rifle sweeps across her eyes once, twice as he zeroes his sights on her forehead. Behind him she sees the Whirlwind Reaper, its rotors making a disk under the brilliant light, a disk that is foreshortened into a narrow ellipse and then into a steady silver line, Then it flies right past the sniper.

The chopper pulls up into a hard turn, searching for additional prey, and something falls beneath it in a powerless trajectory, she thinks that it has dropped a bomb. But it's the head of the sniper, spinning rapidly, throwing out a fine pink helix under the light. The little chopper's rotor blade must have caught him in the nape of the neck. One part of her, is dispassionately watching the head bounce and spin in the dust, and the other part of her is screaming her lungs out.

She hears a crack, the first loud noise so far. She turns to follow the sound, looking in the direction of a water tower that looms above this area, providing a fine vantage point for a sniper.

But then her attention is drawn by the pencil-thin blue-white exhaust of a tiny rocket that lances up into the sky from Ng's van. It doesn't do anything; it just goes up to a certain height and hovers, sitting on its exhaust. She doesn't care, she's kicking her way down the road now on her plank, trying to get something between her and that water tower.

There is a second cracking noise. Before this sound even reaches her ears, the rocket darts horizontally like a minnow, makes one or two minor cuts to correct its course, zeroes in on that sniper's perch, up in the water tower's access ladder. There is a great nasty explosion without any flame or light, like the loud pointless booms that you get sometimes at fireworks shows. For a moment, she can hear the clamor of shrapnel ringing through the ironwork of the water tower.

Just before she kicks her way back into the maze, a dustline whips past her, snapping rocks and fragments of broken glass into her face. It shoots into the maze. She hears it Ping-Pong all the way through, kicking off the steel walls in order to change direction. It's a Rat Thing clearing the way for her.

How sweet!

"Smooth move, Ex-Lax," she says, climbing back into Ng's van. Her throat feels thick and swollen. Maybe it's from screaming, maybe it's the toxic waste, maybe she's getting ready to gag. "Didn't you know about the snipers?" she says. If she can keep talking about the details of the job, maybe she can keep her mind off of what the Whirlwind Reaper did.

"I didn't know about the one on the water tower," Ng says. "But as soon as he fired a couple of rounds, we plotted the bullets' trajectories on millimeter-wave and back-traced them." He talks to his van and it pulls out of its hiding place, headed for I-405.

"Seems like kind of an obvious place to look for a sniper."

"He was in an unfortified position, exposed from all sides," Ng says. "He chose to work from a suicidal position. Which is not a typical behavior for drug dealers. Typically, they are more pragmatic. Now, do you have any other criticisms of my performance?"

"Well, did it work?"

"Yes. The tube was inserted into a sealed chamber inside the helicopter before it discharged its contents. It was then flash-frozen in liquid helium before it could chemically self-destruct. We now have a sample of Snow Crash, something that no one else has been able to get. It is the kind of success on which reputations such as mine are constructed."

"How about the Rat Things?"

"How about them?"

"Are they back in the van now? Back there?" Y.T. jerks her head aft.

Ng pauses for a moment. Y.T. reminds herself that he is sitting in his office in Vietnam in 1955 watching all of this on TV.

"Three of them are back," Ng says. "Three are on their way back. And three of them I left behind to carry out additional pacification measures."

"You're leaving them behind?"

"They'll catch up," Ng says. "On a straightaway, they can run at seven hundred miles per hour."

"Is it true they have nuke stuff inside of them?"

"Radiothermal isotopes."

"What happens if one gets busted open? Everyone gets all mutated?"

"If you ever find yourself in the presence of a destructive force powerful enough to decapsulate those isotopes," Ng says, "radiation sickness will be the least of your worries."

"Will they be able to find their way back to us?"

"Didn't you ever watch Lassie Come Home when you were a child?" he asks. "Or rather, more of a child than you are now?"

So. She was right. The Rat Things are made from dog parts.

"That's cruel," she says.

"This brand of sentimentalism is very predictable," Ng says.

"To take a dog out of his body - keep him in a hutch all the time."

"When the Rat Thing, as you call it, is in his hutch, do you know what he's doing?"

"Licking his electric nuts?"

"Chasing Frisbees through the surf. Forever. Eating steaks that grow on trees. Lying beside the fire in a hunting lodge. I haven't installed any testicle-licking simulations yet, but now that you have brought it up, I shall consider it."

"What about when he's out of the hutch, running around doing errands for you?"

"Can't you imagine how liberating it is for a pit bull-terrier to be capable of running seven hundred miles an hour?"

Y.T. doesn't answer. She is too busy trying to get her mind around this concept.

"Your mistake," Ng says, "is that you think that all mechanically assisted organisms - like me - are pathetic cripples. In fact, we are better than we were before."

"Where do you get the pit bulls from?"

"An incredible number of them are abandoned every day, in cities all over the place."

"You cut up pound puppies?"

"We save abandoned dogs from certain extinction and send them to what amounts to dog heaven."

"My friend Roadkill and I had a pit bull. Fido. We found it in an alley. Some asshole had shot it in the leg. We had a vet fix it up. We kept it in this empty apartment in Roadkill's building for a few months, played with it every day, brought it food. And then one day we came to play with Fido, and he was gone. Someone broke in and took him away. Probably sold him to a research lab."

"Probably," Ng says, "but that's no way to keep a dog."

"It's better than the way he was living before."

There's a break in the conversation as Ng occupies himself with talking to his van, maneuvering onto the Long Beach Freeway, headed back into town.

"Do they remember stuff?" Y.T. says.

"To the extent dogs can remember anything," Ng says. "We don't have any way of erasing memories."

"So maybe Fido is a Rat Thing somewhere, right now."

"I would hope so, for his sake," Ng says.

In a Mr. Lee's Greater Hong Kong franchise in Phoenix, Arizona, Ng Security Industries Semi-Autonomous Guard Unit B-782 comes awake.

The factory that put him together thinks of him as a robot named Number B-782. But he thinks of himself as a pit bull-terrier named Fido.

In the old days, Fido was a bad little doggie sometimes. But now, Fido lives in a nice little house in a nice little yard. Now he has become a nice little doggie. He likes to lie in his house and listen to the other nice doggies bark. Fido is part of a big pack.

Tonight there is a lot of barking from a place far away. When he listens to this barking, Fido knows that a whole pack of nice doggies is very excited about something. A lot of very bad men are trying to hurt a nice girl. This has made the doggies very angry and excited. In order to protect the nice girl, they are hurting some of the bad men.

Which is as it should be.

Fido does not come out of his house. When he first heard the barking, he became excited. He likes nice girls, and it makes him especially upset when bad men try to hurt them. Once there was a nice girl who loved him. That was before, when he lived in a scary place and he was always hungry and many people were bad to him. But the nice girl loved him and was good to him. Fido loves the nice girl very much.

But he can tell from the barking of the other doggies that the nice girl is safe now. So he goes back to sleep.

33

"'Scuse me, pod," Y.T. says, stepping into the Babel/Infocalypse room. "Jeez! This place looks like one of those things full of snow that you shake up."

"Hi, Y.T."

"Got some more intel for you, pod."

"Shoot."

"Snow Crash is a roid. Or else it's similar to a roid. Yeah, that's it. It goes into your cell walls, just like a roid. And then it does something to the nucleus of the cell."

"You were right," Hiro says to the Librarian, "just like herpes."

"This guy I was talking to said that it fucks with your actual DNA. I don't know what half of this shit means, but that's what he said."

"Who's this guy you were talking to?"

"Ng. Of Ng Security Industries. Don't bother talking to him, he won't give you any intel," she says dismissively.

"Why are you hanging out with a guy like Ng?"

"Mob job. The Mafia has a sample of the drug for the first time, thanks to me and my pal Ng. Until now, it always self-destructed before they could get to it. So I guess they're analyzing it or something. Trying to make an antidote, maybe."

"Or trying to reproduce it."

"The Mafia wouldn't do that."

"Don't be a sap," Hiro says. "Of course they would."

Y.T. seems miffed at Hiro.

"Look," he says, "I'm sorry for reminding you of this, but if we still had laws, the Mafia would be a criminal organization."

"But we don't have laws," she says, "so it's just another chain."

"Fine, all I'm saying is, they may not be doing this for the benefit of humanity."

"And why are you in here, holed up with this geeky daemon?" she says, gesturing at the Librarian. "For the benefit of humanity? Or because you're chasing a piece of ass? Whatever her name is."

"Okay, okay, let's not talk about the Mafia anymore," Hiro says. "I have work to do."

"So do I." Y.T. zaps out again, leaving a hole in the Metaverse that is quickly filled in by Hiro's computer.

"I think she may have a crush on me," Hiro explains.

"She seemed quite affectionate," the Librarian says.

"Okay," Hiro says, "back to work. Where did Asherah come from?"

"Originally from Sumerian mythology. Hence, she is also important in Babylonian, Assyrian, Canaanite, Hebrew, and Ugaritic myths, which are all descended from the Sumerian."

"Interesting. So the Sumerian language died out, but the Sumerian myths were somehow passed on in the new languages."

"Correct. Sumerian was used as the language of religion and scholarship by later civilizations, much as Latin was used in Europe during the Middle Ages. No one spoke it as their native language, but educated people could read it. In this way, Sumerian religion was passed on."

"And what did Asherah do in Sumerian myths?"

"The accounts are fragmentary. Few tablets have been discovered, and these are broken and scattered. It is thought that L. Bob Rife has excavated many intact tablets, but he refuses to release them. The surviving Sumerian myths exist in fragments and have a bizarre quality. Lagos compared them to the imaginings of a febrile two-year-old. Entire sections of them simply cannot be translated - the characters are legible and well-known, but when put together they do not say anything that leaves an imprint on the modern mind."

"Like instructions for programming a VCR."

"There is a great deal of monotonous repetition. There is also a fair amount of what Lagos described as 'Rotary Club Boosterism' - scribes extolling the superior virtue of their city over some other city."

"What makes one Sumerian city better than another one? A bigger ziggurat? A better football team?"

"Better me."

"What are me?"

"Rules or principles that control the operation of society, like a code of laws, but on a more fundamental level."

"I don't get it."

"That is the point. Sumerian myths are not 'readable' or 'enjoyable' in the same sense that Greek and Hebrew myths are. They reflect a fundamentally different consciousness from ours."

"I suppose if our culture was based on Sumer, we would find them more interesting," Hiro says.

"Akkadian myths came after the Sumerian and are clearly based on Sumerian myths to a large extent. It is clear that Akkadian redactors went through the Sumerian myths, edited out the (to us) bizarre and incomprehensible parts, and strung them together into longer works, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. The Akkadians were Semites - cousins of the Hebrews."

"What do the Akkadians have to say about her?"

"She is a goddess of the erotic and of fertility. She also has a destructive, vindictive side. In one myth, Kirta, a human king, is made grievously ill by Asherah. Only El, king of the gods, can heal him. El gives certain persons the privilege of nursing at Asherah's breasts. El and Asherah often adopt human babies and let them nurse on Asherah - in one text, she is wet nurse to seventy divine sons."

"Spreading that virus," Hiro says. "Mothers with AIDS can spread the disease to their babies by breastfeeding them. But this is the Akkadian version, right?"

"Yes, sir."

"I want to hear some Sumerian stuff, even if it is untranslatable."

"Would you like to hear how Asherah made Enki sick?"

"Sure."

"How this story is translated depends on how it is interpreted. Some see it as a Fall from Paradise story. Some see it as a battle between male and female or water and earth. Some see it as a fertility allegory. This reading is based on the interpretation of Bendt Alster."

"Duly noted."

"To summarize: Enki and Ninhursag - who is Asherah, although in this story she also bears other epithets - live in a place called Dilmun. Dilmun is pure, clean and bright, there is no sickness, people do not grow old, predatory animals do not hunt.

"But there is no water. So Ninhursag pleads with Enki, who is a sort of water-god, to bring water to Dilmun. He does so by masturbating among the reeds of the ditches and letting flow his life-giving semen - the 'water of the heart,' as it is called. At the same time, he pronounces a nam-shub forbidding anyone to enter this area - he does not want anyone to come near his semen."

"Why not?"

"The myth does not say."

"Then," Hiro says, "he must have thought it was valuable, or dangerous, or both."

"Dilmun is now better than it was before. The fields produce abundant crops and so on."

"Excuse me, but how did Sumerian agriculture work? Did they use a lot of irrigation?"

"They were entirely dependent upon it."

"So Enki was responsible, according to this myth, for irrigating the fields with his 'water of the heart.'"

"Enki was the water-god, yes."

"Okay, go on."

"But Ninhursag - Asherah - violates his decree and takes Enki's semen and impregnates herself. After nine days of pregnancy she gives birth, painlessly, to a daughter, Ninmu. Ninmu walks on the riverbank. Enki sees her, becomes inflamed, goes across the river, and has sex with her."

"With his own daughter."

"Yes. She has another daughter nine days later, named Ninkurra, and the pattern is repeated."

"Enki has sex with Ninkurra, too?"

"Yes, and she has a daughter named Uttu. Now, by this time, Ninhursag has apparently recognized a pattern in Enki's behavior, and so she advises Uttu to stay in her house, predicting that Enki will then approach her bearing gifts, and try to seduce her."

"Does he?"

"Enki once again fills the ditches with the 'water of the heart,' which makes things grow. The gardener rejoices and embraces Enki."

"Who's the gardener?"

"Just some character in the story," the Librarian says. "He provides Enki with grapes and other gifts. Enki disguises himself as the gardener and goes to Uttu and seduces her. But this time, Ninhursag manages to obtain a sample of Enki's semen from Uttu's thighs."

"My God. Talk about your mother-in-law from hell."

"Ninhursag spreads the semen on the ground, and it causes eight plants to sprout up."

"Does Enki have sex with the plants, then?"

"No, he eats them - in some sense, he learns their secrets by doing so."

"So here we have our Adam and Eve motif."

"Ninhursag curses Enki, saying 'Until thou art dead, I shall not look upon thee with the "eye of life."' Then she disappears, and Enki becomes very ill. Eight of his organs become sick, one for each of the plants. Finally, Ninhursag is persuaded to come back. She gives birth to eight deities, one for each part of Enki's body that is sick, and Enki is healed. These deities are the pantheon of Dilmun; i.e., this act breaks the cycle of incest and creates a new race of male and female gods that can reproduce normally."

"I'm beginning to see what Lagos meant about the febrile two-year-old."

"Alster interprets the myth as 'an exposition of a logical problem: Supposing that originally there was nothing but one creator, how could ordinary binary sexual relations come into being?'"

"Ah, there's that word 'binary' again."

"You may remember an unexplored fork earlier in our conversation that would have brought us to this same place by another route. This myth can be compared to the Sumerian creation myth, in which heaven and earth are united to begin with, but the world is not really created until the two are separated. Most Creation myths begin with a 'paradoxical unity of everything, evaluated either as chaos or as Paradise,' and the world as we know it does not really come into being until this is changed. I should point out here that Enki's original name was En-Kur, Lord of Kur. Kur was a primeval ocean - Chaos - that Enki conquered."

"Every hacker can identify with that."

"But Asherah has similar connotations. Her name in Ugaritic, 'atiratu yammi' means 'she who treads on (the) sea (dragon).' "

"Okay, so both Enki and Asherah were figures who had in some sense defeated chaos. And your point is that this defeat of chaos, the separation of the static, unified world into a binary system, is identified with creation."

"Correct."

"What else can you tell me about Enki?"

"He was the en of the city of Eridu."

"What's an en? Is that like a king?"

"A priest-king of sorts. The en was the custodian of the local temple, where the me - the rules of the society - were stored on clay tablets."

"Okay. Where's Eridu?"

"Southern Iraq. It has only been excavated within the past few years."

"By Rife's people?"

"Yes. As Kramer has it, Enki is the god of wisdom - but this is a bad translation. His wisdom is not the wisdom of an old man, but rather a knowledge of how to do things, especially occult things. 'He astonishes even the other gods with shocking solutions to apparently impossible problems.' He is a sympathetic god for the most part, who assists humankind."

"Really!"

"Yes. The most important Sumerian myths center on him. As I mentioned, he is associated with water. He fills the rivers, and the extensive Sumerian canal system, with his life-giving semen. He is said to have created the Tigris in a single epochal act of masturbation. He describes himself as follows: 'I am lord. I am the one whose word endures. I am eternal.' Others describe him: 'a word from you - and heaps and piles stack high with grain.' 'You bring down the stars of heaven, you have computed their number.' He pronounces the name of everything created…"

"'Pronounces the name of everything created?"'

"In many Creation myths, to name a thing is to create it. He is referred to, in various myths, as 'expert who instituted incantations,' 'word-rich,' 'Enki, master of all the right commands,' as Kramer and Maier have it, 'His word can bring order where there had been only chaos and introduce disorder where there had been harmony.' He devotes a great deal of effort to imparting his knowledge to his son, the god Marduk, chief deity of the Babylonians."

"So the Sumerians worshipped Enki, and the Babylonians, who came after the Sumerians, worshipped Marduk, his son."

"Yes, sir. And whenever Marduk got stuck, he would ask his father Enki for help. There is a representation of Marduk here on this stele - the Code of Hammurabi. According to Hammurabi, the Code was given to him personally by Marduk."

Hiro wanders over to the Code of Hammurabi and has a gander. The cuneiform means nothing to him, but the illustration on top is easy enough to understand. Especially the part in the middle."

"Why, exactly, is Marduk handing Hammurabi a one and a zero in this picture?" Hiro asks.

"They were emblems of royal power," the Librarian says. "Their origin is obscure."

"Enki must have been responsible for that one," Hiro says.

"Enki's most important role is as the creator and guardian of the me and the gis-hur, the 'key words' and 'patterns' that rule the universe."

"Tell me more about the me."

"To quote Kramer and Maier again, '[They believed in] the existence from time primordial of a fundamental, unalterable, comprehensive assortment of powers and duties, norms and standards, rules and regulations, known as me, relating to the cosmos and its components, to gods and humans, to cities and countries, and to the varied aspects of civilized life.' "

"Kind of like the Torah."

"Yes, but they have a kind of mystical or magical force. And they often deal with banal subjects - not just religion."

"Examples?"

"In one myth, the goddess Inanna goes to Eridu and tricks Enki into giving her ninety-four me and brings them back to her home town of Uruk, where they are greeted with much commotion and rejoicing."

"Inanna is the person that Juanita's obsessed with."

"Yes, sir. She is hailed as a savior because 'she brought the perfect execution of the me.'"

"Execution? Like executing a computer program?"

"Yes. Apparently, they are like algorithms for carrying out certain activities essential to the society. Some of them have to do with the workings of priesthood and kingship. Some explain how to carry out religious ceremonies. Some relate to the arts of war and diplomacy. Many of them are about the arts and crafts: music, carpentry, smithing, tanning, building, farming, even such simple tasks as lighting fires."

"The operating system of society."

"I'm sorry?"

"When you first turn on a computer, it is an inert collection of circuits that can't really do anything. To start up the machine, you have to infuse those circuits with a collection of rules that tell it how to function. How to be a computer. It sounds as though these me served as the operating system of the society, organizing an inert collection of people into a functioning system."

"As you wish. In any case, Enki was the guardian of the me."

"So he was, a good guy, really."

"He was the most beloved of the gods."

"He sounds like kind of a hacker. Which makes his nam-shub very difficult to understand. If he was such a nice guy, why did he do the Babel thing?"

"This is considered to be one of the mysteries of Enki. As you have noticed, his behavior was not always consistent with modern norms."

"I don't buy that. I don't think he actually fucked his sister, daughter, and so on. That story has to be a metaphor for something else. I think it is a metaphor for some kind of recursive informational process. This whole myth stinks of it. To these people, water equals semen. Makes sense, because they probably had no concept of pure water - it was all brown and muddy and full of viruses anyway. But from a modern standpoint, semen is just a carrier of information - both benevolent sperm and malevolent viruses. Enki's water - his semen, his data, his me - flow throughout the country of Sumer and cause it to flourish."

"As you may be aware, Sumer existed on the floodplain between two major rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. This is where all the clay came from - they took it directly from the riverbeds."

"So Enki even provided them with their medium for conveying information - clay. They wrote on wet clay and then they dried it out - got rid of the water. If water got to it later, the information was destroyed. But if they baked it and drove out all the water, sterilized Enki's semen with heat, then the tablet lasted forever, immutable, like the words of the Torah. Do I sound like a maniac?"

"I don't know," the Librarian says, "but you do sound a little like Lagos."

"I'm thrilled. Next thing you know, I'll turn myself into a gargoyle."

34

Any ped can get into Griffith Park without being noticed. And Y.T. figures that despite the barriers across the road, the Falabala camp isn't too well protected, if you've got off-road capability. For a skate ninja on a brand-new plank in a brand-new pair of Knight Visions (hey, you have to spend money to make money) there will be no problem. Just find a high embankment that ramps down into the canyon, skirt the edge until you see those campfires down below. And then lean down that hill. Trust gravity.

She realizes halfway down that her blue-and-orange coverall, fly as it may be, is going to be a real attention getter in the middle of the night in the Falabala zone, so she reaches up to her collar, feels a hard disk sewn into the fabric, presses it between thumb and finger until it clicks. Her coverall darkens, the colors shimmer through the electropigment like an oil slick, and then it's black.

On her first visit she didn't check this place out all that carefully because she hoped she'd never come back. So the embankment turns out to be taller and steeper than Y.T. remembered. Maybe a little more of a cliff, drop-off, or abyss than she thought. Only thing that makes her think so is that she seems to be doing a lot of free-fall work here. Major plummeting. Big time ballistic styling. That's cool, it's all part of the job, she tells herself. The smartwheels are good for it. The tree trunks are bluish black, standing out not so well against a blackish blue background. The only other thing she can see is the red laser light of the digital speedometer down on the front of her plank, which is not showing any real information. The numbers have vibrated themselves into a cloud of gritty red light as the radar speed sensor tries to lock onto something.

She turns the speedometer off. Running totally black now. Precipitating her way toward the sweet 'crete of the creek bottom like a black angel who has just had the shroud lines of her celestial parachute severed by the Almighty. And when the wheels finally meet the pavement, it just about drives her knees up through her jawbone. She finishes the whole gravitational transaction with not much altitude and a nasty head of dark velocity.

Mental note: Next time just jump off a fucking bridge. That way there's no question of getting an invisible cholla shoved up your nose.

She whips around a corner, heeled over so far she could lick the yellow line, and her Knight Visions reveal all in a blaze of multispectral radiation. On infrared, the Falabala encampment is a turbulating aurora of pink fog punctuated by the white-hot bursts of campfires. All of it rests on dim bluish pavement, which means, in the false-color scheme of things, that it's cold. Behind everything is the jagged horizon line of that funky improvised barrier technology that the Falabalas are so good at. A barrier that has been completely spurned, snubbed, and confounded by Y.T., who dropped out of the sky into the middle of the camp like a Stealth fighter with an inferiority complex.

Once you're into the actual encampment, people don't really notice or care who you are. A couple people see her, watch her slide on by, don't get all hairy about it. They probably get a lot of Kouriers coming through here. A lot of dippy, gullible, Kool-Aid-drinking couriers. And these people aren't hip enough to tell Y.T. apart from that breed. But that's okay, she'll pass for now, as long as they don't check out the detailing on her new plank.

The campfires provide enough plain old regular visible light to show this sorry affair for what it is: a bunch of demented Boy Scouts, a jamboree without merit badges or hygiene. With the IR supered on top of the visible, she can also see vague, spectral red faces out in the shadows where her unassisted eyes would only see darkness. These new Knight Visions cost her a big wad of her Mob drug-running money. Just the kind of thing Mom had in mind when she insisted Y.T. get a part-time job.

Some of the people who were here last time are gone now, and there's a few new ones she doesn't recognize.

There's a couple of people actually wearing duct-tape straitjackets. That's a fashion statement reserved for the ones who are totally out of control, rolling and thrashing around on the ground. And there's a few more who are spazzing out, but not as bad, and one or two who are just plain messed up, like plain old derelicts that you might see at the Snooze 'n' Cruise.

"Hey, look!" someone says. "It's our friend the Kourier! Welcome, friend!"

She's got her Liquid Knuckles uncapped, available, and shaken well before use. She's got high-voltage, high-fashion metallic cuffs around her wrists in case someone tries to grab her by same. And a bundy stunner up her sleeve. Only the most tubular throwbacks carry guns. Guns take a long time to work (you have to wait for the victim to bleed to death), but paradoxically they end up killing people pretty often. But nobody hassles you after you've hit them with a bundy stunner. At least that's what the ads say.

So it's not like she exactly feels vulnerable or anything. But still, she'd like to pick her target. So she maintains escape velocity until she's found the woman who seemed friendly - the bald chick in the torn-up Chanel knockoff - and then zeroes in on her.

"Let's get off into the woods, man," Y.T. says, "I want to talk to you about what's going on with what's left of your brain."

The woman smiles, struggles to her feet with the good-natured awkwardness of a retarded person in a good mood. "I like to talk about that," she says. "Because I believe in it."

Y.T. doesn't stop to do a lot of talking, just grabs the woman by the hand, starts leading her uphill, into the scrubby little trees, away from the road. She doesn't see any pink faces lurking up here in the infrared, it ought to be safe. But there are a couple behind her, just ambling along pleasantly, not looking directly at her, like they just decided it was time to go for a stroll in the woods in the middle of the night. One of them is the High Priest.

The woman's probably in her mid-twenties, she's a tall gangly type, nice- but not good-looking, probably was a spunky but low-scoring forward on her high school basketball team. Y.T. sits her down on a rock out in the darkness.

"Do you have any idea where you are?" Y.T. says.

"In the park," the woman says, "with my friends. We're helping to spread the Word."

"How'd you get here?"

"From the Enterprise. That's where we go to learn things."

"You mean, like, the Raft? The Enterprise Raft? Is that where you guys all came from?"

"I don't know where we came from," the woman says. "Sometimes it's hard to remember stuff. But that's not important."

"Where were you before? You didn't grow up on the Raft, did you?"

"I was a systems programmer for 3verse Systems in Mountain View, California," the woman says, suddenly whipping off a string of perfect, normal-sounding English.

'Then how did you get to be on the Raft?"

"I don't know. My old life stopped. My new life started. Now I'm here." Back to baby talk.

"What's the last thing you remember before your old life stopped?"

"I was working late. My computer was having problems."

"That's it? That's the last normal thing that happened to you?"

"My system crashed," she said. "I saw static. And then I became very sick. I went to the hospital. And there in the hospital, I met a man who explained everything to me. He explained that I had been washed in the blood. That I belonged to the Word now. And suddenly it all made sense. And then I decided to go to the Raft."

"You decided, or someone decided for you?"

"I just wanted to. That's where we go."

"Who else was on the Raft with you?"

"More people like me."

"Like you how?"

"All programmers. Like me. Who had seen the Word."

"Seen it on their computers?"

"Yes. Or sometimes on TV."

"What did you do on the Raft?"

The woman pushes up one sleeve of her raggedy sweatshirt to expose a needle-pocked arm.

"You took drugs?"

"No. We gave blood."

"They sucked your blood out?"

"Yes. Sometimes we would do a little coding. But only some of us."

"How long have you been here?"

"I don't know. They move us here when our veins don't work anymore. We just do things to help spread the Word -drag stuff around, make barricades. But we don't really spend much time working. Most of the time we sing songs, pray, and tell other people about the Word."

"You want to leave? I can get you out of here."

"No," the woman says, "I've never been so happy."

"How can you say that? You were a big-time hacker. Now you're kind of a dip, if I may speak frankly."

"That's okay, it doesn't hurt my feelings. I wasn't really happy when I was a hacker. I never thought about the important things. God. Heaven. The things of the spirit. It's hard to think about those things in America. You just put them aside. But those are really the important things - not programming computers or making money. Now, that's all I think about."

Y.T. has been keeping an eye on the High Priest and his buddy. They keep moving closer, one step at a time. Now they're close enough that Y.T. can smell their dinner. The woman puts her hand on Y.T.'s shoulder pad.

"I want you to stay here with me. Won't you come down and have some refreshments? You must be thirsty."

"Gotta run," Y.T. says, standing up.

"I really have to object to that," the High Priest says, stepping forward. He doesn't say it angrily. Now he's trying to be like Y.T.'s dad. "That's not really the right decision for you."

"What are you, a role model?"

"That's okay. You don't have to agree. But let's go down and sit by the campfire and talk about it."

"Let's just get the fuck away from Y.T. before she goes into a self-defense mode," Y.T. says.

All three Falabalas step back away from her. Very cooperative. The High Priest is holding up his hands, placating her. "I'm sorry if we made you feel threatened," he says.

"You guys just come on a little weird," Y.T. says, flipping her goggles back onto infrared.

In the infrared, she can see that the third Falabala, the one who came up here with the High Priest, is holding a small thing in one hand that is unusually warm.

She nails him with her penlight, spotlighting his upper body in a narrow yellow beam. Most of him is dirty and dun colored and reflects little light. But there is a brilliant glossy red thing, a shaft of ruby.

It's a hypodermic needle. It's full of red fluid. Under infrared, it shows up warm. It's fresh blood.

And she doesn't exactly get it - why these guys would be walking around with a syringe full of fresh blood. But she's seen enough.

The Liquid Knuckles shoots out of the can in a long narrow neon-green stream, and when it nails the needle man in the face, he jerks his head back like he's just been axed across the bridge of the nose and falls back without making a sound. Then she gives the High Priest a shot of it for good measure. The woman just stands there, totally, like, appalled.

Y.T. pumps herself up out of the canyon so fast that when she flies out into traffic, she's going about as fast as it is. As soon as she gets a solid poon on a nocturnal lettuce tanker, she gets on the phone to Mom.

"Mom, listen. No, Mom, never mind the roaring noise. Yes, I am riding my skateboard in traffic. But listen to me for a second, Mom - "

She has to hang up on the old bitch. It's impossible to talk to her. Then she tries to make a voice linkup with Hiro. That takes a couple of minutes to go through.

"Hello! Hello! Hello!" she's shouting. Then she hears the honk of a car horn. Coming out of the telephone.

"Hello?"

"It's Y.T."

"How are you doing?" This guy always seems a little too laid back in his personal dealings. She doesn't really want to talk about how she's doing. She hears another honking horn in the background, behind Hiro's voice.

"Where the hell are you, Hiro?"

"Walking down a street in L.A."

"How can you be goggled in if you're walking down a street?" Then the terrible reality sinks in: "Oh, my God, you didn't turn into a gargoyle, did you?"

"Well," Hiro says. He is hesitant, embarrassed, like it hadn't occurred to him yet that this was what he was doing. "It's not exactly like being a gargoyle. Remember when you gave me shit about spending all my money on computer stuff?"

"Yeah."

"I decided I wasn't spending enough. So I got a beltpack machine. Smallest ever made. I'm walking down the street with this thing strapped to my belly. It's really cool."

"You're a gargoyle."

"Yeah, but it's not like having all this clunky shit strapped all over your body - "

"You're a gargoyle. Listen, I talked to one of these wholesalers."

"Yeah?"

"She says she used to be a hacker. She saw something strange on her computer. Then she got sick for a while and joined this cult and ended up on the Raft."

"The Raft. Do tell."

"On the Enterprise. They take their blood, Hiro. Suck it out of their bodies. They infect people by injecting them with the blood of sick hackers. And when their veins get all tracked out like a junkie's, they cut them loose and put them to work on the mainland running the wholesale operation."

"That's good," he says. "That's good stuff."

"She says she saw some static on her computer screen and it made her sick. You know anything about that?"

"Yeah. It's true."

"It's true?"

"Yeah. But you don't have to worry about it. It only affects hackers."

For a minute she can't even speak, she's so pissed. "My mother is a programmer for the Feds. You asshole. Why didn't you warn me?"

Half an hour later, she's there. Doesn't bother to change back into her WASP disguise this time, just bursts into the house in basic, bad black. Drops her plank on the floor on the way in. Grabs one of Mom's curios off the shelf - it's a heavy crystal award - clear plastic, actually - that she got a couple years ago for sucking up to her Fed boss and passing all her polygraph tests - and goes into the den.

Mom's there. As usual. Working on her computer. But she's not looking at the screen right now, she's got some notes on her lap that she's going through.

Just as Mom is looking up at her, Y.T. winds up and throws the crystal award. It goes right over Mom's shoulder, glances off the computer table, flies right through the picture tube. Awesome results. Y.T. always wanted to do that. She pauses to admire her work for a few seconds while Mom just flames off all kinds of weird emotion. What are you doing in that uniform? Didn't I tell you not to ride your skateboard on a real street? You're not supposed to throw things in the house. That's my prized possession. Why did you break the computer? Government property. Just what is going on here, anyway?

Y.T. can tell that this is going to continue for a couple of minutes, so she goes to the kitchen, splashes some water on her face, gets a glass of juice, just letting Mom follow her around and ventilate over her shoulder pads.

Finally Mom winds down, defeated by Y.T.'s strategy of silence.

"I just saved your fucking life, Mom," Y.T. says. "You could at least offer me an Oreo."

"What on earth are you talking about?"

"It's like, if you - people of a certain age - would make some effort to just stay in touch with sort of basic, modern-day events, then your kids wouldn't have to take these drastic measures."

35

Earth materializes, rotating majestically in front of his face. Hiro reaches out and grabs it. He twists it around so he's looking at Oregon. Tells it to get rid of the clouds, and it does, giving him a crystalline view of the mountains and the seashore.

Right out there, a couple of hundred miles off the Oregon coast, is a sort of granulated furuncle growing on the face of the water. Festering is not too strong a word. It's a couple of hundred miles south of Astoria now, moving south. Which explains why Juanita went to Astoria a couple of days ago: she wanted to get close to the Raft. Why is anyone's guess.

Hiro looks up, focuses his gaze on Earth, zooms in for a look. As he gets closer, the imagery he's looking at shifts from the long-range pictures coming in from the geosynchronous satellites to the good stuff being spewed into the CIC computer from a whole fleet of low-flying spy birds. The view he's looking at is a mosaic of images shot no more than a few hours ago.

It's several miles across. Its shape constantly changes, but at the time these pictures were shot, it had kind of a fat kidney shape; that is, it is trying to be a V, pointed southward like a flock of geese, but there's so much noise in the system, it's so amorphous and disorganized, that a kidney is the closest it can come.

At the center is a pair of enormous vessels: the Enterprise and an oil tanker, lashed together side by side. These two behemoths are walled in by several other major vessels, an assortment of container ships and other freight carriers. The Core.

Everything else is pretty tiny. There is the occasional hijacked yacht or decommissioned fishing trawler. But most of the boats in the Raft are just that: boats. Small pleasure craft, sampans, junks, dhows, dinghys, life rafts, houseboats, makeshift structures built on air-filled oil drums and slabs of styrofoam. A good fifty percent of it isn't real boat material at all, just a garble of ropes, cables, planks, nets, and other debris tied together on top of whatever kind of flotsam was handy.

And L. Bob Rife is sitting in the middle of it. Hiro doesn't quite know what he's doing, and he doesn't know how Juanita is connected. But it's time to go there and find out.

Scott Lagerquist is standing right on the edge of Mark Norman's 24/7 Motorcycle Mall, waiting, when the man with the swords comes into view, striding down the sidewalk. A pedestrian is a peculiar sight in L.A., considerably more peculiar than a man with swords. But a welcome one. Anyone who drives out to a motorcycle dealership already has a car, by definition, so it's hard to give them a really hard sell. A pedestrian should be cake.

"Scott Wilson Lagerquist!" the guy yells from fifty feet away and closing. "How you doing?"

"Fabulous!" Scott says. A little off guard, maybe. Can't remember this guy's name, which is a problem. Where has he seen this guy before?

"It's great to see you!" Scott says, running forward and pumping the guy's hand. "I haven't seen you since, uh - "

"Is Pinky here today?" the guy says.

"Pinky?"

"Yeah. Mark. Mark Norman. Pinky was his nickname back in college. I guess he probably doesn't like to be called that now that he's running, what, half a dozen dealerships, three McDonaldses, and a Holiday Inn, huh?"

"I didn't know that Mr. Norman was into fast food also."

"Yeah. He's got three franchises down around Long Beach. Owns them through a limited partnership, actually. Is he here today?"

"No, he's on vacation."

"Oh, yeah. In Corsica. The Ajaccio Hyatt. Room 543. That's right, I completely forgot about that."

"Well, were you just stopping by to say hi, or - "

"Nah. I was going to buy a motorcycle."

"Oh. What kind of motorcycle were you looking for?"

"One of the new Yamahas? With the new generation smartwheels?"

Scott grins manfully, trying to put the best face on the awful fact that he is about to reveal. "I know exactly the one you mean. But I'm sorry to tell you that we don't actually have one in stock today."

"You don't?"

"We don't. It's a brand-new model. Nobody has them."

"You sure? Because you ordered one."

"We did?"

"Yeah. A month ago." Suddenly the guy cranes his neck, looks over Scott's shoulder down the boulevard. "Well, speak of the devil. Here it comes."

A Yamaha semi is pulling into the truck entrance with a new shipment of motorcycles in the back.

"It's on that truck," the guy says. "If you can give me one of your cards, I'll jot down the vehicle identification number on back so you can pull it off the truck for me."

"This was a special order made by Mr. Norman?"

"He claimed he was just ordering it as a display model, you know. But it sort of has my name on it."

"Yes, sir. I understand totally."

Sure enough, the bike comes off the truck, just as the guy described it, right down to color scheme (black) and vehicle ID number. It's a beautiful bike. It draws a crowd just sitting on the parking lot - the other salesmen actually put down their coffee cups and take their feet off their desks to go outside and look at it. It looks like a black land torpedo. Two-wheel drive, natch. The wheels are so advanced they're not even wheels - they look like giant, heavy-duty versions of the smartwheels that high-speed skateboards use, independently telescoping spokes with fat traction pads on the ends. Dangling out over the front, in the nose cone of the motorcycle, is the sensor package that monitors road conditions, decides where to place each spoke as it rolls forward, how much to extend it, and how to rotate the footpad for maximum traction. It's all controlled by a bios - a Built-In Operating System - an onboard computer with a flat-panel screen built into the top of the fuel tank.

They say that this baby will do a hundred and twenty miles per hour on rubble. The bios patches itself into the CIC weather net so that it knows when it's about to run into precip. The aerodynamic cowling is totally flexible, calculates its own most efficient shape for the current speed and wind conditions, changes its curves accordingly, wraps around you like a nymphomaniacal gymnast.

Scott figures this guy is going to waltz off with this thing for dealer invoice, being a friend and confidant of Mr. Norman. And it's not an easy thing for any redblooded salesman to write out a contract to sell a sexy beast like this one at dealer invoice. He hesitates for a minute. Wonders what's going to happen to him if this is all some kind of mistake.

The guy's watching him intently, seems to sense his nervousness, almost as if he can hear Scott's heart beating. So at the last minute he eases up, gets magnanimous - Scott loves these big-spender types-decides to throw in a few hundred Kongbucks over invoice, just so Scott can pull in a meager commission on the deal. A tip, basically.

Then - icing on the cake - the guy goes nuts in the Cycle Shop. Totally berserk. Buys a complete outfit. Everything. Top of the line. A full black coverall that swaddles everything from toes to neck in breathable, bulletproof fabric, with armorgel pads in all the right places and airbags around the neck. Even safety fanatics don't bother with a helmet when they're wearing one of these babies.

So once he's figured out how to attach his swords on the outside of his coverall, he's on his way.

"I gotta say this," Scott says as the guy is sitting on his new bike, getting his swords adjusted, doing something incredibly unauthorized to the bios, "you look like one bad motherfucker."

"Thanks, I guess." He twists the throttle up once and Scott feels, but does not hear, the power of the engine. This baby is so efficient it doesn't waste power by making noise. "Say hi to your brand-new niece," the guy says, and then lets go the clutch. The spokes flex and gather themselves and the bike springs forward out of the lot, seeming to jump off its electric paws. He cuts right across the parking lot of the neighboring NeoAquarian Temple franchise and pulls out onto the road. About half a second later, the guy with the swords is a dot on the horizon, Then he's gone. Northbound.

36

Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.

Hiro used to feel that way, too, but then he ran into Raven. In a way, this is liberating. He no longer has to worry about trying to be the baddest motherfucker in the world. The position is taken. The crowning touch, the one thing that really puts true world-class badmotherfuckerdom totally out of reach, of course, is the hydrogen bomb. If it wasn't for the hydrogen bomb, a man could still aspire. Maybe find Raven's Achilles' heel. Sneak up, get a drop, slip a mickey, pull a fast one. But Raven's nuclear umbrella kind of puts the world title out of reach.

Which is okay. Sometimes it's all right just to be a little bad. To know your limitations. Make do with what you've got.

Once he maneuvers his way onto the freeway, aimed up into the mountains, he goggles into his office. Earth is still there, zoomed in tight on the Raft. Hiro contemplates it, superimposed in ghostly hues on his view of the highway, as he rides toward Oregon at a hundred and forty miles per hour.

From a distance, it looks bigger than it really is. Getting closer, he can see that this illusion is caused by an enveloping self-made slick/cloud of sewage and air pollution, fading out into the ocean and the atmosphere.

It orbits the Pacific clockwise. When they fire up the boilers on the Enterprise, it can control its direction a little bit, but real navigation is a practical impossibility with all the other shit lashed onto it. It mostly has to go where the wind and the Coriolis effect take it. A couple of years ago, it was going by the Philippines, Vietnam, China, Siberia, picking up Refus. Then it swung up the Aleutian chain, down the Alaska panhandle, and now it's gliding past the small town of Port Sherman, Oregon, near the California border.

As the Raft moves through the Pacific, riding mostly on ocean currents, it occasionally sheds great hunks of itself. Eventually, these fragments wash up in some place like Santa Barbara, still lashed together, carrying a payload of skeletons and gnawed bones.

When it gets to California, it will enter a new phase of its life cycle. It will shed much of its sprawling improvised bulk as a few hundred thousand Refus cut themselves loose and paddle to shore. The only Refus who make it that far are, by definition, the ones who were agile enough to make it out to the Raft in the first place, resourceful enough to survive the agonizingly slow passage through the arctic waters, and tough enough not to get killed by any of the other Refus. Nice guys, all of them. Just the kind of people you'd like to have showing up on your private beach in groups of a few thousand.

Stripped down to a few major ships, a little more maneuverable, the Enterprise then will swing across the South Pacific, heading for Indonesia, where it will turn north again and start the next cycle of migration.

Army ants cross mighty rivers by climbing on top of each other and clustering together into a little ball that floats. Many of them fall off and sink, and naturally the ants on the bottom of the ball drown. The ones who are quick and vigorous enough to keep clawing their way to the top survive. A lot of them make it across, and that's why you can't stop army ants by dynamiting the bridges. That's how Refus come across the Pacific, even though they are too poor to book passage on a real ship or buy a seaworthy boat. A new wave washes up onto the West Coast every five years or so, when the ocean currents bring the Enterprise back.

For the last couple of months, owners of beachfront property in California have been hiring security people, putting up spotlights and antipersonnel fences along the tide line, mounting machine guns on their yachts. They have all subscribed to CIC's twenty-four-hour Raft Report, getting the latest news flash, straight from the satellite, on when the latest contingent of twenty-five thousand starving Eurasians has cut itself loose from the Enterprise and started dipping its myriad oars into the Pacific, like ant legs.

"Time to do more digging," he tells the Librarian. "But this is going to have to be totally verbal, because I'm headed up I-5 at some incredible speed right now, and I have to watch out for slow-moving bagos and stuff."

"I'll keep that in mind," the voice of the Librarian says into his earphones. "Look out for the jackknifed truck south of Santa Clarita. And there is a large chuckhole in the left lane near the Tulare exit."

"Thanks. Who were these gods anyway? Did Lagos have an opinion on that?"

"Lagos believed that they might have been magicians - that is, normal human beings with special powers - or they might have been aliens."

"Whoa, whoa, hold on. Let's take these one at a time. What did Lagos mean when he talked about 'normal human beings with special powers'?"

"Assume that the nam-shub of Enki really functioned as a virus. Assume that someone named Enki invented