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Authors: William Gibson

Burning Chrome

BOOK: Burning Chrome
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Burning Chrome
William Gibson

To Otey Williams Gibson, my mother,
and to Mildred Barnitz, her true
dear friend and mine, with love

Preface

If poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, science-fiction writers are its court jesters. We are Wise Fools who can leap, caper, utter prophecies, and scratch ourselves in public. We can play with Big Ideas because the garish motley of our pulp origins makes us seem harmless.

And SF writers have every opportunity to kick up our heels – we have influence without responsibility. Very few feel obliged to take us seriously, yet our ideas permeate the culture, bubbling along invisibly, like background radiation.

Yet the sad truth of the matter is that SF has not been much fun of late. All forms of pop culture go through doldrums; they catch cold when society sneezes. If SF in the late Seventies was confused, self-involved, and stale, it was scarcely a cause for wonder.

But William Gibson is one of our best harbingers of better things to come.

His brief career has already established him as a definitive Eighties writer. His amazing first novel,
Neuromancer,
which swept the field's awards in 1985, showed Gibson's unparalleled ability to pinpoint social nerves. The effect was galvanic, helping to wake the genre from its dogmatic slumbers. Roused from its hibernation, SF is lurching from its cave into the bright sunlight of the modern Zeitgeist. And we are lean and hungry and not in the best of tempers. From now on things are going to be different.

The collection you hold now contains all of Gibson's shorter work to date. It's a rare chance to see the astonishingly rapid development of a major writer.

The tack he intended to take was already visible in his first published story, ‘Fragments of a Hologram Rose,' from 1977. The Gibson trademarks are already present: a complex synthesis of modern pop culture, high tech, and advanced literary technique.

Gibson's second story, ‘The Gernsback Continuum,' shows him consciously drawing a bead on the shambling figure of the SF tradition. It's a devastating refutation of ‘scientifiction' in its guise as narrow technolatry. We see here a writer who knows his roots and is gearing up for a radical reformation.

Gibson hit his stride with the Sprawl series: ‘Johnny Mnemonic,' ‘New Rose Hotel,' and the incredible ‘Burning Chrome.' The appearance of these stories in
Omni
magazine showed a level of imaginative concentration that effectively upped the ante for the entire genre. These densely packed, baroque stories repay several readings for their hard-edged, gloomy passion and intensely realized detail.

The triumph of these pieces was their brilliant, self-consistent evocation of a credible future. It is hard to overestimate the difficulty of this effort, which is one that many SF writers have been ducking for years. This intellectual failing accounts for the ominous proliferation of postapocalypse stories, sword-and-sorcery fantasies, and those everpresent space operas in which galactic empires slip conveniently back into barbarism. All these subgenres are products of the writers' urgent necessity to avoid tangling with a realistic future.

But in the Sprawl stories we see a future that is recognizably and painstakingly drawn from the modern
condition. It is multifaceted, sophisticated, global in its view. It derives from a new set of starting points: not from the shopworn formula of robots, spaceships, and the modern miracle of atomic energy, but from cybernetics, biotech, and the communications web – to name a few.

Gibson's extrapolative techniques are those of classic hard SF, but his demonstration of them is pure New Wave. Rather than the usual passionless techies and rock-ribbed Competent Men of hard SF, his characters are a pirate's crew of losers, hustlers, spin-offs, castoffs, and lunatics. We see his future from the belly up, as it is lived, not merely as dry speculation.

Gibson puts an end to that fertile Gernsbackian archetype, Ralph 124C41+, a white-bread technocrat in his ivory tower, who showers the blessings of superscience upon the hoi polloi. In Gibson's work we find ourselves in the streets and alleys, in a realm of sweaty, white-knuckled survival, where high tech is a constant subliminal hum, ‘like a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast-forward button.'

Big Science in this world is not a source of quaint Mr Wizard marvels, but an omnipresent, all-permeating, definitive force. It is a sheet of mutating radiation pouring through a crowd, a jam-packed Global Bus roaring wildly up an exponential slope.

These stories paint an instantly recognizable portrait of the modern predicament. Gibson's extrapolations show, with exaggerated clarity, the hidden bulk of a iceberg of social change. This iceberg now glides with sinister majesty across the surface of the late twentieth century, but its proportions are vast and dark.

Many SF authors, faced with this lurking monster, have flung up their hands and predicted shipwreck. Though no
one could accuse Gibson of Pollyannaism, he has avoided this easy out. This is another distinguishing mark of the emergent new school of Eighties SF: its boredom with the Apocalypse. Gibson wastes very little time shaking his finger or wringing his hands. He keeps his eyes unflinchingly open and, as Algis Budrys has pointed out, he is not afraid of hard work. These are signal virtues.

Another sign shows Gibson as part of a growing new consensus of SF: the ease with which he collaborates with other writers. Three such collaborations grace this collection. ‘The Belonging Kind' is a rare treat, a dark fantasy bubbling over with lunatic surrealism. ‘Red Star, Winter Orbit' is another near-future piece with a lovingly detailed, authentic background; with the global, multicultural point of view typical of Eighties SF. ‘Dogfight' is a savagely effective and brutally twisted piece of work, with Gibson's classic one-two combination of lowlife and high tech.

In Gibson we hear the sound of a decade that has finally found its own voice. He is not a table-pounding revolutionary, but a practical, hands-on retrofitter. He is opening the stale corridors of the genre to the fresh air of new data: Eighties culture, with its strange, growing integration of technology and fashion. He has a fondness for the odder and more inventive byways of mainstream lit: Le Carré, Robert Stone, Pynchon, William Burroughs, Jayne Anne Phillips. And he is a devotee of what J. G. Ballard has perceptively called ‘invisible literature': that permeating flow of scientific reports, government documents, and specialized advertising that shapes our culture below the level of recognition.

SF has survived a long winter on its stored body fat. Gibson, along with a broad wave of inventive, ambitious
new writers, has prodded the genre awake and sent it out on recce for a fresh diet. And it's bound to do us all a power of good.

Bruce Sterling

Johnny Mnemonic

I put the shotgun in an Adidas bag and padded it out with four pairs of tennis socks, not my style at all, but that was what I was aiming for: If they think you're crude, go technical; if they think you're technical, go crude. I'm a very technical boy. So I decided to get as crude as possible. These days, though, you have to be pretty technical before you can even aspire to crudeness. I'd had to turn both those twelve-gauge shells from brass stock, on a lathe, and then load then myself; I'd had to dig up an old microfiche with instructions for hand-loading cartridges; I'd had to build a lever-action press to seat the primers – all very tricky. But I knew they'd work.

The meet was set for the Drome at 2300, but I rode the tube three stops past the closest platform and walked back. Immaculate procedure.

I checked myself out in the chrome siding of a coffee kiosk, your basic sharp-faced Caucasoid with a ruff of stiff, dark hair. The girls at Under the Knife were big on Sony Mao, and it was getting harder to keep them from adding the chic suggestion of epicanthic folds. It probably wouldn't fool Ralfi Face, but it might get me next to his table.

The Drome is a single narrow space with a bar down one side and tables along the other, thick with pimps and handlers and an arcane array of dealers. The Magnetic Dog Sisters were on the door that night, and I didn't relish trying to get out past them if things didn't work out. They were two meters tall and thin as greyhounds. One
was black and the other white, but aside from that they were as nearly identical as cosmetic surgery could make them. They'd been lovers for years and were bad news in a tussle. I was never quite sure which one had originally been male.

Ralfi was sitting at his usual table. Owing me a lot of money. I had hundreds of megabytes stashed in my head on an idiot/savant basis, information I had no conscious access to. Ralfi had left it there. He hadn't, however, come back for it. Only Ralfi could retrieve the data, with a code phrase of his own invention. I'm not cheap to begin with, but my overtime on storage is astronomical. And Ralfi had been very scarce.

Then I'd heard that Ralfi Face wanted to put out a contract on me. So I'd arranged to meet him in the Drome, but I'd arranged it as Edward Bax, clandestine importer, late of Rio and Peking.

The Drome stank of biz, a metallic tang of nervous tension. Muscle-boys scattered through the crowd were flexing stock parts at one another and trying on thin, cold grins, some of them so lost under superstructures of muscle graft that their outlines weren't really human.

Pardon me. Pardon me, friends. Just Eddie Bax here, Fast Eddie the Importer, with his professionally nondescript gym bag, and please ignore this slit, just wide enough to admit his right hand.

Ralfi wasn't alone. Eighty kilos of blond California beef perched alertly in the chair next to his, martial arts written all over him.

Fast Eddie Bax was in the chair opposite them before the beef's hands were off the table. ‘You black belt?' I asked eagerly. He nodded, blue eyes running an automatic scanning pattern between my eyes and my hands. ‘Me, too,' I said. ‘Got mine here in the bag.' And I
shoved my hand through the slit and thumbed the safety off. Click. ‘Double twelve-gauge with the triggers wired together.'

‘That's a gun,' Ralfi said, putting a plump, restraining hand on his boy's taut blue nylon chest. ‘Johnny has a antique firearm in his bag.' So much for Edward Bax.

I guess he'd always been Ralfi Something or Other, but he owed his acquired surname to a singular vanity. Built something like an overripe pear, he'd worn the once-famous face of Christian White for twenty years – Christian White of the Aryan Reggae Band, Sony Mao to his generation, and final champion of race rock. I'm a whiz at trivia.

Christian White: classic pop face with a singer's high-definition muscles, chiseled cheekbones. Angelic in one light, handsomely depraved in another. But Ralfi's eyes lived behind that face, and they were small and cold and black.

‘Please,' he said, ‘let's work this out like businessmen.' His voice was marked by a horrible prehensile sincerity, and the corners of his beautiful Christian White mouth were always wet. ‘Lewis here,' nodding in the beefboy's direction, ‘is a meatball.' Lewis took this impassively, looking like something built from a kit. ‘You aren't a meatball, Johnny.'

‘Sure I am, Ralfi, a nice meatball chock-full of implants where you can store your dirty laundry while you go off shopping for people to kill me. From my end of this bag, Ralfi, it looks like you've got some explaining to do.'

‘It's this last batch of product, Johnny.' He sighed deeply, ‘In my role as broker –'

‘Fence,' I corrected.

‘As broker, I'm usually very careful as to sources.'

‘You buy only from those who steal the best. Got it.'

He sighed again. ‘I try,' he said wearily, ‘not to buy from fools. This time, I'm afraid, I've done that.' Third sigh was the cue for Lewis to trigger the neural disruptor they'd taped under my side of the table.

I put everything I had into curling the index finger of my right hand, but I no longer seemed to be connected to it. I could feel the metal of the gun and the foam-padded tape I'd wrapped around the stubby grip, but my hands were cool wax, distant and inert. I was hoping Lewis was a true meatball, thick enough to go for the gym bag and snag my rigid trigger finger, but he wasn't.

‘We've been very worried about you, Johnny. Very worried. You see, that's Yakuza property you have there. A fool took it from them, Johnny. A dead fool.'

Lewis giggled.

It all made sense then, an ugly kind of sense, like bags of wet sand settling around my head. Killing wasn't Ralfi's style. Lewis wasn't even Ralfi's style. But he'd got himself stuck between the Sons of the Neon Chrysanthemum and something that belonged to them – or, more likely, something of theirs that belonged to someone else. Ralfi, of course, could use the code phrase to throw me into idiot savant, and I'd spill their hot program without remembering a single quarter tone. For a fence like Ralfi, that would ordinarily have been enough. But not for the Yakuza. The Yakuza would know about Squids, for one thing, and they wouldn't want to worry about one lifting those dim and permanent traces of their program out of my head. I didn't know very much about Squids, but I'd heard stories, and I made it a point never to repeat them to my clients. No, the Yakuza wouldn't like that; it looked too much like evidence. They hadn't got where they were by leaving evidence around. Or alive.

Lewis was grinning. I think he was visualizing a point
just behind my forehead and imagining how he could get there the hard way.

‘Hey,' said a low voice, feminine, from somewhere behind my right shoulder, ‘you cowboys sure aren't having too lively a time.'

‘Pack it, bitch,' Lewis said, his tanned face very still. Ralfi looked blank.

‘Lighten up. You want to buy some good free base?' She pulled up a chair and quickly sat before either of them could stop her. She was barely inside my fixed field of vision, a thin girl with mirrored glasses, her dark hair cut in a rough shag. She wore black leather, open over a T-shirt slashed diagonally with stripes of red and black. ‘Eight thou a gram weight.'

Lewis snorted his exasperation and tried to slap her out of the chair. Somehow he didn't quite connect, and her hand came up and seemed to brush his wrist as it passed. Bright blood sprayed the table. He was clutching his wrist white-knuckle tight, blood tricking from between his fingers.

But hadn't her hand been empty?

He was going to need a tendon stapler. He stood up carefully, without bothering to push his chair back. The chair toppled backward, and he stepped out of my line of sight without a word.

‘He better get a medic to look at that,' she said. ‘That's a nasty cut.'

‘You have no idea,' said Ralfi, suddenly sounding very tired, ‘the depths of shit you have just gotten yourself into.'

‘No kidding? Mystery. I get real excited by mysteries. Like why your friend here's so quiet. Frozen, like. Or what this thing here is for,' and she held up the little
control unit that she'd somehow taken from Lewis. Ralfi looked ill.

‘You, ah, want maybe a quarter-million to give me that and take a walk?' A fat hand came up to stroke his pale, lean face nervously.

‘What I want,' she said, snapping her fingers so that the unit spun and glittered, ‘is work. A job. Your boy hurt his wrist. But a quarter'll do for a retainer.'

Ralfi let his breath out explosively and began to laugh, exposing teeth that hadn't been kept up to the Christian White standard. Then she turned the disruptor off.

‘Two million,' I said.

‘My kind of man,' she said, and laughed. ‘What's in the bag?'

‘A shotgun.'

‘Crude.' It might have been a compliment.'

Ralfi said nothng at all.

‘Name's Millions. Molly Millions. You want to get out of here, boss? People are starting to stare.' She stood up. She was wearing leather jeans the color of dried blood.

And I saw for the first time that the mirrored lenses were surgical inlays, the silver rising smoothly from her high cheekbones, sealing her eyes in their sockets. I saw my new face twinned there.

‘I'm Johnny,' I said. ‘We're taking Mr Face with us.

He was outside, waiting. Looking like your standard tourist tech, in plastic zoris and a silly Hawaiian shirt printed with blowups of his firm's most popular microprocessor; a mild little guy, the kind most likely to wind up drunk on sake in a bar that puts out miniature rice crackers with seaweed garnish. He looked like the kind who sing the corporate anthem and cry, who shake hands endlessly with the bartender. And the pimps and the
dealers would leave him alone, pegging him as innately conservative. Not up for much, and careful with his credit when he was.

The way I figured it later, they must have amputated part of his left thumb, somewhere behind the first joint, replacing it with a prosthetic tip, and cored the stump, fitting it with a spool and socket molded from one of the Ono-Sendai diamond analogs. Then they'd carefully wound the spool with three meters of monomolecular filament.

Molly got into some kind of exchange with the Magnetic Dog Sisters, giving me a chance to usher Ralfi through the door with the gym bag pressed lightly against the base of his spine. She seemed to know them. I heard the black one laugh.

I glanced up, out of some passing reflex, maybe because I've never got used to it, to the soaring arcs of light and the shadows of the geodesics above them. Maybe that saved me.

Ralfi kept walking, but I don't think he was trying to escape. I think he'd already given up. Probably he already had an idea of what we were up against.

I looked back down in time to see him explode.

Playback on full recall shows Ralfi stepping toward as the little tech sidles out of nowhere, smiling. Just a suggestion of a bow, and his left thumb falls off. It's a conjuring trick. The thumb hangs suspended. Mirrors? Wires? And Ralfi stops, his back to us, dark crescents of sweat under the armpits of his pale summer suit. He knows. He must have known. And then the joke-shop thumbtip, heavy as lead, arcs out in a lightning yo-yo trick, and the invisible thread connecting it to the killer's hand passes laterally through Ralfi's skull, just above his eyebrows, whips up, and descends, slicing the pear-shaped torso diagonally from shoulder to rib cage. Cuts
so fine that no blood flows until synapses misfire and the first tremors surrender the body to gravity.

Ralfi tumbled apart in a pink cloud of fluids, the three mismatched sections rolling forward on to the tiled pavement. In total silence.

I brought the gym bag up, and my hand convulsed. The recoil nearly broke my wrist.

It must have been raining; ribbons of water cascaded from a ruptured geodesic and spattered on the tile behind us. We crouched in the narrow gap between a surgical boutique and an antique shop. She'd just edged one mirrored eye around the corner to report a single Volks module in front of the Drome, red lights flashing. They were sweeping Ralfi up. Asking questions.

I was covered in scorched white fluff. The tennis socks. The gym bag was a ragged plastic cuff around my wrist. ‘I don't see how the hell I missed him.'

‘Cause he's fast, so fast.' She hugged her knees and rocked back and forth on her bootheels. ‘His nervous system's jacked up. He's factory custom.' She grinned and gave a little squeal of delight. ‘I'm gonna get that boy. Tonight. He's the best, number one, top dollar, state of the art.'

‘What you're going to get, for this boy's two million, is my ass out of here. Your boyfriend back there was mostly grown in a vat in Chiba City. He's a Yakuza assassin.'

‘Chiba. Yeah. See, Molly's been Chiba, too.' And she showed me her hands, fingers slightly spread. Her fingers were slender, tapered, very white against the polished burgundy nails. Ten blades snicked straight out from their recesses beneath her nails, each one a narrow, double-edged scalpel in pale blue steel.

I'd never spent much time in Nighttown. Nobody there had anything to pay me to remember, and most of them had a lot they paid regularly to forget. Generations of sharpshooters had chipped away at the neon until the maintenance crews gave up. Even at noon the arcs were soot-black against faintest pearl.

Where do you go when the world's wealthiest criminal order is feeling for you with calm, distant fingers? Where do you hide from the Yakuza, so powerful that it owns comsats and at least three shuttles? The Yakuza is a true multinational, like ITT and Ono-Sendai. Fifty years before I was born the Yakuza had already absorbed the Triads, the Mafia, the Union Corse.

Molly had an answer: You hide in the Pit, in the lowest circle, where any outside influence generates swift, concentric ripples of raw menace. You hide in Nighttown. Better yet, you hide
above
Nighttown, because the Pit's inverted, and the bottom of its bowl touches the sky, the sky that Nighttown never sees, sweating under its own firmament of acrylic resin, up where the Lo Teks crouch in the dark like gargoyles, black-market cigarettes dangling from their lips.

BOOK: Burning Chrome
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