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Authors: Bruce Sterling

A Good Old-Fashioned Future (7 page)

BOOK: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
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Fearing that Tug harbored a budding romantic notion of a honeymoon night for himself, Revel frowned and muttered, “Now I know why they call this the Granola State: nuts, flakes, and fruits.”

“Relax,” said Tug. “I know you’re not gay. And you’re not my type anyway. You’re way too young. What I want is a manly older guy who’ll cherish me and take care of me. I want to snuggle against his shoulder and feel his strong arms around me in the still of the night.” Perhaps the Etna Ale had gone to Tug’s head. Or maybe the Urschleim had affected him. In any case, he didn’t seem at all embarrassed to be making these revelations.

“See you tomorrow, old son,” said Revel, closing his door.

Revel got on the phone and called the home of Hoss Jenkins, the old forehand of the Ditheree field.

“Hoss, this is Revel Pullen. Can you messenger me out another pressure tank of that goo?”

“That goo, Revel, that goo! There’s been big-ass balloons of it floatin’ out of the well. You never should of thrown those gene-splice bacteria down there.”

“I told you before, Hoss, it ain’t bacteria we’re dealing with, it’s primeval slime!”

“Ain’t many of us here that agree, Revel. What if it’s some kind of plague on the oil wells? What if it spreads?”

“Let’s stick to the point, Hoss. Has anybody noticed the balloons?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, just keep folks off our property. And tell the boys not to be shy of firing warning shots—we’re on unincorporated land.”

“I don’t know how long this can stay secret.”

“Hoss, we need time to try and find a way to make a buck off this. If I can get the right spin on the Urschleim, folks’ll be
to see it coming out of Ditheree. Just between you and me, I’m out here with the likeliest old boy to figure out what to do. Not that he’s much of a
regular fella
, but that’s neither here nor there. Name of Tug Mesoglea. I think we’re on to something big. Send that tank of goo out to Mesoglea’s address, pronto. Here it is. Yeah, and here’s his number, and while we’re at it, here’s my number at the motel. And, Hoss, let’s make that
tanks, the same size as the one you filled up for me yesterday. Yeah. Try and get ’em out here by six
. tomorrow. And start rounding out a Pullen pipeline connection between our Nacogdoches tank farm and Monterey.”

“Monterey, California, or Monterrey, Mexico?”

“California. Monterey’s handy and it’s out of the way. We’ll need someplace real quiet for the next stage I’m planning. There’s way too many professional snoops watching everybody’s business here in Silicon Valley, drivin’ around scanning cellular phones and stuff—you’re receiving this call as encrypted, aren’t you, Hoss?”

“Sure thing, boss. Got my Clipper Chip set to maximum scramble.”

“Good, good, just making sure. I’m trying to be cautious, Hoss, just like Uncle Donny Ray.”

Hoss gave a snort of laughter on the other end of the line, and Revel continued. “Anyhoo, we need someplace
kind of out of the way, but still convenient. Someplace with some spare capacity, but a little run-down, so’s we can rent lots of square footage on the cheap and the city fathers don’t ask too many prying questions.… Ask Lucy to sniff around and find me a place like that in Monterey.”

“There’s already hundreds of towns like that in Texas!”

“Yeah, but I want to do this out here. This deal is a software kind o’ thing, so it’s gotta be California.”

Revel woke around seven
., stirred by the roar of the morning rush-hour traffic. He got his breakfast at a California coffee shop that called itself “Southern Kitchen,” yet served orange-rind muffins and sliced kiwi-fruits with the eggs. Over breakfast he called Texas, and learned that his assistant, Lucy, had found an abandoned tank farm near a defunct polluted military base just north of Monterey. The tank-farm belonged to Felix Quinonez, who had been the base’s fuel supplier. The property, on Quinonez’s private land, included a large garage. The set-up sounded about perfect.

“Lease it, Lucy,” said Revel, slurping his coffee. “And fax Quinonez two copies of the contract so’s me and him can sign off down at his property today. I’ll get this Tug Mesoglea fella to drive me down there. Let’s say two o’clock this afternoon? Lock it in. Now has Hoss found a pipeline connection? He has? Straight to Quinonez’s tanks? Bless you, honey. Oh, and one more thing? Draw up incorporation papers for a company called Ctenophore, Inc., register the company, and get the name trade-marked. C-T-E-N-O-P-H-O-R-E. What it means? It’s a kind of morphodite jellyfish. Swear to God. I learned it from Tug Mesoglea. If you should put Mesoglea’s name on my incorporation papers? Are you teasin’ me, Lucy? Are you tryin’ to make ol’ Revel mad? Now book me and Mesoglea a suite in a Monterey hotel, and fax the incorporation
papers to me there. Thanks, darlin’. Talk to ya later.”

The rapid-fire wheeling and dealing filled Revel with joy. Expansively swinging his arms, he strolled up the hill to Tug’s house, which was only a few blocks off. The air was clear and cool, and the sun was a low bright disk in the immaculate blue sky. Birds fluttered this way and that—sparrows, grackles, robins, humming-birds, and the startlingly large California bluejays. A dog barked in the distance as the exotic leaves and flowers swayed in the gentle morning breeze.

As he drew closer to Tug’s house, Revel could hear the steady screeching of the Samoans’ parrot. And when he turned the corner of Tug’s block, Revel saw something very odd. It was like there was a ripple in the space over Tug’s house, an undulating bluish glinting of curved air.

Wheeling about in the midst of the glinting was the furious Toatoa. A school of small airborne bell jellies were circling around and around over Tug’s house, now fleeing from and now pursuing the parrot, who was endeavoring, with no success, to puncture them. Revel yelled at the cloud of jellyfish, but what good would that do? You could as soon yell at a volcano or at a spreadsheet.

To Revel’s relief, the parrot retreated to her house with a broken tailfeather, and the jellies did not follow her. But now—were the air bells catching the scent plume of the air off Revel’s body? They flocked and spiraled eldritchly. Revel hurried up Tug’s steps and into his house, right past the three empty cylinders of Urschleim lying outside Tug’s front door.

Inside Tug’s house reeked of subterranean sulfur. Air jellies of all kinds pressed this way and that. Sea nettles, comb-jellies, bell jellies, spotted jellies, and even a few giant siphonophores—all the jellies of different sizes, with the smaller ones beating frantically faster than the bigger ones. It was like a children’s birthday party with lighter-than-air balloons. Tug had gone utterly bat-shit with the Urschleim.

“Hey, Tug!” Revel called, slapping a sea nettle away from his face. “What’s goin’ on, buddy? Is it safe in here?”

Tug appeared from around a corner. He was wearing a long blonde wig. His cheeks were high pink with excitement, and his blue eyes were sparkling. He wore bright lipstick, and a tight red silk dress. “It’s a jelly party, Revel!”

A huge siphonophore shaped like a mustachioed rope of mucus came bumping along the ceiling toward Revel, its mane of oral arms soundlessly a-jangle.


“Oh, don’t worry so,” said Tug. “And don’t beat up a lot of wind. Air currents are what excites them. Here, if you’re scared, come down to my room while I slip into something less confrontational.”

Revel sat on a chair in the corner of Tug’s bedroom while Tug got back into his shorts and sandals.

“I was so excited when all that slime came this morning that I put on my dress-up clothes,” Tug confessed. “I’ve been dancing with my equations for the last couple of hours. There doesn’t seem to be any limit to the size of the jellyfish I can blow. We can make Urschleim jellyfish as big as anything!”

Revel rubbed his cheek uncertainly. “Did you figure anything more out about them, Tug? I didn’t tell you before, but back at Ditheree we’re getting spontaneous air jelly releases. I mean—I sure don’t understand how the hell they can fly. Did you get that part yet?”

“Well, as I’m sure you know, the scientific word for jellyfish is ‘coelenterate,’ ” said Tug, leaning toward the mirror to take off his lipstick. “ ‘Coelenterate’ is from ‘hollow gut’ in Latin. Your average jellyfish has an organ called a
, which is a saclike cavity within its body. The reason these Urschleim fellows can fly is that somehow the Urschleim fill their coelenterons with, of all things, helium! Nature’s noblest gas! Traditionally found seeping out of the shafts of oil wells!” Tug whooped, waggled his ass, and slipped off his wig.

Revel clambered angrily to his feet. “I’m glad you’re having fun, Doc, but fun ain’t business. We’re in retail now, and like they say in retail, you can’t do business from an empty truck. We need jellies. All stocks, all sizes. You ready to set up shop seriously?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean build product, son! I done called my man Hoss Jenkins at Ditheree, and we’re gonna be ready to start pumping Urschleim cross-country by pipeline around noon our time tomorrow. That is, if you’re man enough to handle the other end of the assembly line here in California.”

“Isn’t that awfully sudden?” Tug hedged, wiping off his mascara. “I mean, I do have some spreadsheets and business plans for a factory, but …”

Revel scoffed, and swatted at the jelly-stained leg of his Can’t-Bust-’Ems. “Where have you been, Tug? This is the twenty-first century. Ain’t you ever heard of just-in-time manufacturing? Hell, in Singapore or Taiwan they’d have already set up six virtual corporations and had this stuff shipped to global markets yesterday!”

“But I can’t run a major manufacturing enterprise out of my house,” Tug said, gazing around him. “Even my laser-sintering equipment is on a kind of, uhm, loan, from the University. We’ll need lasers for making the plastic jellies to seed the big ones.”

“I’ll buy you lasers, Tug. Just give me the part numbers.”

“But, but, we’ll need workers. People to answer the phone, men to carry things …” Tug paused. “Though, come to think of it, we could use a simple Turing imitation program to answer the phones. And I know where we can pick up a few industrial robots to do the heavy lifting.”

“Now you’re talking sense!” Revel nodded. “Let’s go on upstairs!”

“But what about the factory building?” Tug called after Revel. “We can’t fit the business into my poor house. We’ll need a lot of floor space, and a tank to store the
Urschleim, with a pipeline depot nearby. We’ll need a power hookup, an Internet node, and—”

“And it has to be some outta-the-way locale,” said Revel, turning to grin down from the head of the stairs. “Which I already leased for us this morning!”

“My stars!” said Tug. “Where is it?”

“Monterey. You’re drivin’.” Revel glanced around the living-room, taking in the odd menagerie of disparate jellyfish floating about. “Before we go,” he cautioned, “you better close the door to your wood-stove. There’s a passel of little air jellies who’ve already slipped out through your chimney. They were hassling your neighbor’s parrot.”

“Oh!” said Tug, and closed the wood-stove’s door. The big siphonophore slimed its arms across Tug. Instead of trying to fight away, Tug dangled his arms limply and began hunching his back rhythmically—like a jellyfish. The siphonophore soon lost interest in him and drifted away. “That’s how you do it,” said Tug. “Just act like a jellyfish!”

“That’s easier for you than it is for me,” said Revel, picking up a twitching plastic moon jelly from the floor. “Let’s take some of these suckers down to Monterey with us. We can use them for seeds. We can have like a tank of these moon jellies, some comb-jellies, a tank of sea nettles, a tank of those big street-loogie things over there—” He pointed at a siphonphore.

“Sure,” said Tug. “We’ll bring all my little plastic ones, and figure out which ones make the best Urschleim toys.”

They set a sheet of plastic into the Animata’s trunk, loaded it up with plastic jellyfish doused in seawater, and set off for Monterey.

All during the trip down the highway, Revel jabbered into his cellular phone, jolting various movers and shakers into action: Pullen family clients, suppliers, and gophers, in Dallas, Houston, San Antonio—even a few discreet calls to Djakarta and Macao.

Quinonez’s tank farm was just north of Monterey, squeezed up against the boundaries of what had once been Fort Ord. During their occupancy of these rolling dunes, the army had so thoroughly polluted the soil that the land was now legally unusable. The base, which had been closed since the 1990s, was a nature preserve cum hazardous waste site. Those wishing to stroll the self-guiding nature trails were required to wear respirators and disposable plastic shoe-covers.

Tug guided the Animata along a loop road that led to the back of the Ord Natural Waste Site. Inland from the dunes were vast fields of brussels sprouts and artichokes. In one of the fields six huge silvery tanks rested like visiting UFOs.

“There it is, Tug,” said Revel, putting away his phone. “The home of Ctenophore, Inc.”

As they drew closer, they could see that the great storage tanks were marred with graffiti and pocked with rust. Some of the graffiti was richly psychedelic, but most was Aztec gang-code glyphs about red and blue, South and North, the numbers 13 and 14, and so on. The gangs’ points of dispute grew ever more abstract.

Between the tanks and the road there was a vast gravel parking lot with yellowed thistles pushing up through it. At one side of the lot was a truly enormous steel and concrete garage, practically the size of an airplane hangar. Painted on the wall in fading electric pink, yellow, and blue was
Quinonez Motorotive—Max Nix We Fix!

“Park here, Tug,” said Revel. “Mr. Quinonez is supposed to show up and give us the keys.”

“How did you get the lease lined up already?”

“What do you think I’ve been doing on the phone, Doc? Ordering pizza?”

They got out of the Animata, and stood there in the sudden, startling silence beneath the immense, clear California sky. In the distance a sputtering motor made itself heard, then pushed closer. Revel wandered back toward the nearest oil-tank and peered at it. Now the motor arrived
in the form of a battered multicolored pickup truck driven by a rugged older man with iron gray hair and a heavy mustache.

BOOK: A Good Old-Fashioned Future
13.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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