Nancy lives in an apartment, like most of us. It's south of the big downtown complexes, near the far edge of the weather shield. The air conditioning breaks down a little so close to the shield, and the air is uncomfortably hot. Naturally, private air conditioners require a permit; so Nancy has a little portable fan, and she sets it to 'HIGH'.
We come in past the kitchen table, which is scattered with loose paper, and sit on her bed and talk about stuff. I am still a little curious about the project, but we talk about school politics and personalities and life with all its details and problems, and she is more engaging in civilian life than she is in class. Two hours pass almost unnoticed.
The "sky" outside is unbroken by clouds, but when the real sun goes down, the colour of the light is first red and then a beautiful velvet blue. We open the window, and the heat vanishes; for a long time we have a cool breeze, and then it gets cold and we shut the window again.
At about nine pm, Nancy's mom shows up. We hear the apartment door being unlocked, and someone moving around in the kitchen, taking down bowls and microwaving things.
"So, I don't think you've met my mom," Nancy says. She's sitting at the table, eating a bowl of curried rice, and reading a thin yellowed book. The pages are tattered, and some of them are badly torn or stained. I try to read upside down, with little success; but when she notices it she glares at me suspiciously through her bifocals. "This is Ability," Nancy says in some haste, having noticed the dynamic.
"Nice to meet you, Ms., um, Oppenheimer?" I say.
Nancy's mom shoves out her hand, trying to get me off balance. "You a friend of Nancy's?"
"Yes, from school."
"Mom helped me with the project," Nancy says.
"Seriously?" So what's her day job? Nancy's mom keeps on glaring although now she is looking at both of us.
"Ability Laney," she growls.
"I read your blog," she tells me, in tones of infinite contempt.
"—Thanks, I appreciate when—"
"So what are you going to write about this?"
"—Just the facts, ma'am," I smile sweetly.
"A reporter," she says. "I see."
She refused to say a word more, so I thanked Nancy for having me over and skipped out before her mom exploded. The mystery was solved, more or less. I could now understand why Nancy hadn't given the answer right away. Her mother had probably demanded to do that part of the work, and I had never figured Nancy for dishonest at all.
But Nancy's mom was another matter. I have met geniuses, at the Shimura Institute and elsewhere; she didn't seem like a genius, but she wasn't another salarywoman either.
Some kind of evil and strange energy animated her. And, fearless of personal danger, I wanted to know what it was.
The girders shone in the sunset. Time passed, the sun faded, clouds grew. Joseph had opened the window, and he was lying on the bed, half-asleep in the cold. Lucille came home, put a bill in the meter, walked inside, and swore at him. He didn't notice.
"Come on, you asshole, you know better than — Aah!"
She almost stepped on a soldering iron, which was plugged in and burning a hole in the carpet. Unfortunately the entire fucking floor was covered with bits and pieces of techie stuff. She slammed the window shut, cutting off the breeze, and angrily unplugged all of the electronics from the junction box. It got stuffy quickly in that little room, with both of them there, but she took off her jacket and lay on the other bed.
"Joe?" she said quietly. "How's it going?"
His eyes opened, and he looked over at her. "...Lucille. I've gone insane."
"Okay. Want to talk about it?"
"No." He lay back, and slipped into real sleep.
She smiled at him. It had been a long time since he'd done something unexpected.
The next morning they both woke up at the same time, and kissed. Joseph packed away his crap, and Lucille heated up some milk for instant coffee. They folded out the table together.
"So you've gone nuts," Lucille said conversationally.
"Oh, my God, don't joke about it," Joseph begged. "I'm not sure what was going on yesterday — I was trying to work on this idea I had, and these whispers... I mean, I kept straining for the words, but I could never quite hear what they were saying."
"Well, maybe it was a conversation in the next apartment?" She sipped at the coffee, which was gritty, but so essential to their life.
"But all the time? I kept hearing it the whole day."
"Do you still hear it now?"
"No." He looked around. "I don't."
"Fine then." She bit an apple.
"Fine. It was probably just a television someone left on anyway. You know the funny thing, ordinarily it would have driven me up the wall to listen to that kind of noise constantly."
"So did being insane help you take a look at the bootleg, or what?"
"Oh, yeah. Let me tell you about it. The nonstandard ASIC is probably the biggest lead..."
When the yakuza had approached them about the imager, it had been hard for them to convince Lucille that they were serious. She and Joseph thought about it carefully, and eventually agreed to hand over the plans for the projector in exchange for some money and of course their lives. Although they kept making jokes about what the criminals were going to use it for, they had no real idea what, if anything, the yakuza was planning.
They had worked out a complicated scheme. Joseph, in Tokyo, would check the suitcase containing the parts for the gun into the baggage claim. Lucille, arriving separately, and therefore not under the eye of Sony Counterintelligence, would meet the bribed customs guard and get the parts out of it. She would drive back to her house, the yakuza would show up and give her the money, if they didn't Joseph would talk to Sony, all very usual.
She still wasn't exactly sure what had gone wrong with the plan. She had shown up, a bit late because of a traffic jam, and the guard hadn't been there. She had knocked on the baggage room door. It was unlocked. She walked in. He wasn't there, and neither was the suitcase, and so she walked over to the departures section. What are you doing here? Where's the suitcase? I gave it to the guy. When? A few minutes ago. Then where is he? I don't know. What are we going to do?
Lucille walked calmly to the ticket stand, and bought two tickets for İznik. She handed one to Joseph, pulled him out of the line, and they ran for it.
Their whole flight had been marked by the weird kind of paranoia that Lucille specialized in. Sometimes Sony would show up one step behind them, but most of the time they were operating blind; Joseph often doubted that anyone was following them. And Lucille was always dragging them around, buying plane tickets and then hanging out in the airport and looking for agents; she would rent cars with their credit cards in Minnesota, and hire someone to drive them to New Mexico City, while the whole time she would be in Australia, living with some friendly folks. She used to write down all the different stories, so that she wouldn't mix them up.
They survived, which up until now she had considered an unqualified success.
Second, and this is related, we've taken everything out of the word, just totally pulped it. It's like when you say something over and over again, and then finally you're going, "What the hell am I saying? How can this ridiculous noise possibly carry meaning?" That is what our whole culture has done with punk. Nobody can say it without being totally self-conscious and pretentious about it, and pretentious punk aside from being properly an oxymoron is basically worse than no music at all. Sorry for any Grey Tide fans.
Third, let's assume that it was still possible to be a punker, old-school, got it right, yeah, rusty safety pins and all. In that case, the last place you'll ever pull it off would be Down. See, punk before it died was all about how you were nothing in particular; how you were just what and where you were, without anything getting in the way like actually being able to play your guitar. Basic human condition stuff. But nobody in Down is just there, with nothing better to do than beat out some approximate rhythms and shout at maybe twenty of your friends who've got nothing better to do themselves than to come down and watch you make an idiot of yourself. Even the people who were born here.
We're all here because we want something.
So don't try to link me to any Down punk movement, and especially don't accuse me of having started one, because I have a healthy respect for the dead and I'm also just really sick of getting that inaccurate allegation from every bozo who can't think of a better substitute for intelligent conversation, or, worse, informed journalism. Besides, I mostly play classical these days.
It was not a large room, like those cavernous spaces used for mass production. Rather the opposite: dirty, small, and rented, with low drop ceilings that would, true to name, occasionally fall on you. Lined with tabletops and instruments, but not cluttered, workable, a fusion of genius and pragmatism, a rare combination.
It was the sort of room where all the really interesting things happened, these days, and that was meet, considering what they were doing. They did not need many instruments or raw materials, much clutter; their project was so small and elegant that it almost did not merit waste. Their trash for an entire month filled only a coffee cup, filled it with a thick, gray liquid that smelled like blood. Or rather, iron, which is why they made a joke about being mechanical vampires, and why one of them, furthering the joke, drank it.
They knew it was not biologically active, and indeed it was not; it passed right through him like a bargain food pack from 7-11. But that was also, of course, how it escaped.
Lucille walked beneath the tent. The sheets of plastic fabric were running with condensation and bright with the heat of the air. The unshaven, dirty man standing and frowning before her was a con artist, but he was holding a lightning ray, silver in the darkness.
The hologram had come to prominence only in the last ten years. The interference effect was almost twenty years old, but it had taken a long time to perfect the plates of microdots. A year ago, the Sony project to develop an electric hologram imager had produced a prototype the size of a room, massive beyond belief, but it could pick up realtime images of the body, the motion of the blood, living portraits of anatomy. She was peaking then, she was rising to success. Then Joseph Ackerman, engineer, boyfriend, hacked some of the test materials into a crude free-standing current projector, and blew up some cans with friends while on vacation in England. Somehow the Yakuza knew.
"So," she asked, with a dry mouth, "where did you get this?"
He shifted it from one hand to the other. "The outside mall, bridge. You look like you have a problem needs solving."
"I know, the outside mall. Who from?"
"Aw, come on, bridge. You know the outside mall: it's never the same person twice." He sat down on the heat shield, his legs sprawling to either side, and the white flesh of his ankle showed underneath his pant leg. "I did see a landmark. I saw some stained glass windows above the shield, like the ones they have in the big concrete church on Stone Street, and that was only a few blocks away."
The back of Lucille's blouse was becoming damp and sticky. "Very well. For the gadget, I'll give you five thousand yen." She reached into her jacket.
"Hey, wait a minute. I need it in coins. No bills."
"I know that," she said, taking out two rolls of hundred-yen coins. They were wrapped in brown paper, decorated in Japanese. Her hand swung back, she threw them slowly through the air. He stuck his hands out, jerkily caught them, and winked at her while stuffing them down in his pockets. She gathered the lightning ray up from where it lay beside him.
Without a word, she elbowed back the tarp covering the entrance and ducked underneath. The sun was faint and the rain was soft. She walked with rubber soles on the gentle slope of the mirrored shield, reaching one of the plastic struts, and continued along and down. Nice day.
The wind was biting on the roof of the Laurent Building, one hundred and twenty-four floors. Lucille Fole stepped away from the blinding glare coming off the weather shield. Her knuckles were white and spotted with rain on the guard rail. The tendons in her neck relaxed.
And there he was. Joseph was standing by the elevator, leaning casually, waiting for her to touch back down. Maybe she was the only person who didn't know where she was going to hit.
"We never left," she screamed to him, across the rain, over the cracked concrete of the observation deck. "That whole time! Sony knew all about it! Why can't they just leave us?"
He couldn't have heard, he was too far away, but he saw her mouth moving and nodded. Dammit. Geodesic. She turned back to the precipice.
Why was it that she was so predictable? Hell, where could she find free will? In the nineties, they saw it in the Pachinko game of quantum mechanics, in the fact that random decision was possible. Then they took another look — decided that flipping a coin was not a decision, was the opposite of a decision. There's no free will for her there.
Einstein. He didn't believe in dice. General relativity was founded on the idea of a geodesic — the shortest path from one place to another, figured using the calculus of variations. But there was no free will in that, either, because the theory was completely deterministic. One path and one path only. All of physics seemed to be like that, mechanical, agnostic, no truths for philosophers. Fuck that.
She turned her head away from that city and shouted at Joseph, and the sky, and Tower Building, standing above her. She breathed deeply, and dropped to her knees and clawed at the floor, and then got up and staggered off into Joseph's arms. And the bastard hugged her. Well everything was just fine then, wasn't it?
A day after the the accident on the 6 line, on the porch of our apartment, the hydrangea in the window pot was losing its bloom. I leaned out over the altitude of the morning and the city beneath, shining in the blue sky. My watch showed eight o'clock and a half.
I had ten minutes to get to school. The breeze was warm. Better get started.
I had a SOL and sixteen pages of punchcard listings. Class began and ended. I was in the cafeteria, with the listings fanned out in front of me, and it was a little after two PM. My Digital Technology was next period, and I was doing a last-minute random check. I hadn't found a single mistake in this draft. The assignment would work out pretty well.
We filed into class. After we had submitted the work in a dozen forms, on disks, on paper, as URLs, as cellphone files, as excuses, and so on, we sat down and listened to the teacher tell us why we'd done it. Adaptability was mentioned a little, improvisation and the importance of planning, the emphasis Shinamura Institute makes on the skill of solving one's own problems. Putting down her laser pointer, our teacher smiled and said, "Did any of you take a closer look at the data on these cards?"
"Yeah," Jackie Leyland said, "it seemed to be compressed. The magic number at the beginning suggested it was in Junk format."
"Good," the teacher said, "and when you decompressed it?"
"I didn't," she said, looking hesitant. "I didn't think it would be important."
The teacher frowned at her over thick glasses. "Anyone else?"
"It was an image of a dog?" said Dave. "And it said 'Good work?'"
"Yeah, I got that too," "I saw that," "I decompressed it too," said three people.
"Yeees, that was it," she said, "but there was more to it than that."
Dave looked defeated. "All I found was the image."
I put my hand up. "Was there, like... encryption? Steganography? Was that why all the cards were different when the pictures were identical?"
She nodded to me. "Yes, there was, Laney. I don't imagine any of you got hold of it, but the lesson is: there's always another layer. You can always look a little harder, and get a little more." The class sat up and tried to look edified.
"It was a coupon. For pizza." said Nancy.
The teacher looked back up. "That's correct."
And that was unexpected. Nancy is Nancy Oppenheimer, who favors short-sleeved shirts and black streaks in her hair, and who started at Shinamura a few weeks ago. She'd been part of my team when we recapitulated the Napoleonic wars. You can usually get an idea of someone, hanging around and planning the movements of the cavalry, and she hadn't shown any particular talent for cryptanalysis. So...
"I... Um. Does anyone want it?" There was a pause, with her at the centre of attention. "Because I don't like pizza."
"Sure," I said. "If you'll tell me how you did it."
And that's when everyone else started to talk.