The weird thing about the future is, it changes.

I mean, look at the way people have written about it over the years. You get politicians promising on the virtue of their own grandmothers that the future is going to be just like the good old days -- all you have to do is vote for them. The sociologists can't decide whether we have a future or not, and the science fiction writers -- Christ, don't get me started. They give you everything from utopia to dystopia and back. Personally, I never really liked the Buck Rogers worlds of brushed chrome and all those Godawful Art Deco buildings. Of course, the cyberpunk stuff isn't much better. I don't know what was wrong with Gibson, but he needed some serious couch time and a date with Prince Valium.

So you have these visions of the future wandering all over the map. Well, we're here now, baby, in what those hacks would oh-so-delicately refer to as the future, the big beautiful 21st. So what do we do now? I don't know, and as long as it doesn't fuck with me too much I don't really care. But if you seriously need to classify our life and times, put it somewhere between Brave New World and the Sprawl, with a little Wizard of Oz tossed in for flavor. For instance, the Internet never took over the globe like Congress kept insisting, despite the 2012 Exxon Interdiction. All it did was start a new industry.

Remember Prohibition? Like booze, people want entertainment and they want it now. And the Internet was the perfect delivery medium, at least in the beginning. Forget cable -- on a Netserver, you could read news or mail, talk with anyone who'd answer your chat request, run your business, surf the Web, fuck around with Virtual Reality, do whatever the hell you felt like and could afford. All without leaving your comfy chair.

When Exxon took that away in the States, a lot of couch potatos went into revolt. A lot of them. Remember the Monument Riots? Netaholics Anonymous's announcement that they were doing more business than all of the the original twelve-step programs. It's settled down some, now. The new bootleggers are up and running, and they're doing business very nicely, now, thank you.

-- Frodo Thompson, "Fear and Loathing on the Internet."


The sibilant hum of tech flowed beneath the surface tension of Radical Vapours like white noise, outlining the participants in aural neon. The bartender nodded cursorily at various customers, giving them a rotting ceramiplast grin the color of antique ivory. Hookers worked the newbies and tourists, shifting from man to man in their dance of flesh. Occasionally, a bodyguard would flex a brand-new pectoral graft, occasionally a piece of biz would go down--


The writer looked up, blinking. "Yeah?"

"We don't allow that Gibson ripoff shit in here," the bartender said, folding his arms. The movement looked like two mountain ranges slugging it out. "Write it straight or don't write it at all."


"Don't but me, kid. You have any idea what plagarism lawsuits cost nowadays?"

The writer selected the previous text and hit Delete. "Better?"

"Much. Now, if you want a story, I can tell you one that'll really pop your kneecaps." The bartender leaned back against the counter, enjoying a tooth pick. "'S up to you, though."

"Oh, what the hell. What do I have to lose?"

"Your bar tab?"

"Oboy. Tell me the story."

"Gladly. Once upon a time, there was a planet called Earth, and it was a shit place to be. But if you had a flexible set of morals, a sweet piece of hardware and a God-given talent with data, you could manage to have a lot of fun. . ."

It was just a bar. Not particularly swish, not even particularly clean. But it was situated right on top of a fiber optics node in the ass end of New Orleans, where nobody bothered with routine maintenance. When an ex-junkie and itinerant poet named Auntie Mame realized that she could be literally sitting on a gold mine, she cashed in a hushed-up threeway scene with a 15-year-old Vietnamese male prostitute and the city Financial Director and bought the place. She proceeded to rename it A Confederacy of Dunces, and had some phreaks work their magic with the lines.

The word eventually got out. A year after Dunces opened, a semicircle of tables in the back of the bar was established territory for the cowboys. Data thieves, they were the best of their generation, a hustling aristocracy of criminals born and raised in the nowhere place of the Net. At her favorite table, one of the cowboys drummed her fingertips on the tabletop, watching the cheap tin ashtray jiggle in time to the beat.

He better damn well be caught in traffic, Hoosier Red thought, glancing at the doorway more often than she wanted to. Here she was -- one of the hottest data bootleggers this side of Japan, Surjancev Ltd's main connection to fresh VR. Beloved of the Horsemen, she thought with dour amusement, a regular mambo-dancer. And she was still waiting on a clown.

"Hi, doll."

The back door, she thought with a sigh. Of course.

"What kept you?" she asked, not bothering to look up.

"Hey, I've got biz to run, babe." And Bozo Madrid, Esquire sat down, fluffing out his rainbow wig and adjusting the bald pate for maximum reflective capability. His "Bozo Gone Bad" look, she remembered -- the bald pate alone could blind you in minutes. "Decks to deliver, bugs to fix, the usual." He moved his leg against hers casually, pressure nice and tight to remind her who his main interest was. "New Orleans needs me, hon."

"Yeah, I bet." Just as casually, Red moved away, giving him a lazy once-over. A little over two meters tall, her hardware artist customarily dressed in green and gold silks, the large gilt codpiece between wiry thighs acting as a major accessory focus. The circus makeup was thick and clean, just recently applied, she judged. She remembered the feel of it smearing underneath her fingers during a clinch. A big red smile streaking down her chin, her throat, towards her breasts--

"Stop thinking dirty thoughts about me," Madrid growled. "I want to be loved for my mind."

"Can't help it. Clowns turn me on," she replied, leering.

A group at the bar watched this exchange. "Too weird for me," one of the whores said, clutching her john's arm in a practiced grip.

The bartender shook his head in disagreement. "Le Madrid, he is the eccentric," Guillame said. "The makeup and circus costume has become his world -- they hide his face, but they also protect it from the street. He prefers the absurdity of the clown to reality."

"And he kicks the shit outta anybody who hassles him, too," one regular said. "I heard some mean shit about Madrid, no lie. He's not just Hoosier Red's hardware god -- he's got a lot of sidelines. Street samurai--"

"--free-lance dentist--" someone else opined.

"--spook work for the Coast Guard--"

"--runs proscribed biologicals for game shows--"

"--and makes a mean Vienna sausage casserole." The group shuddered collectively.

"And have you ever wondered what's really underneath that codpiece?" Guillame said wisely. "Le Madrid is known to keep a number of unusual toys there."

"I know for a fact he's got a prosthetic, highly dangerous, symbiotic and intelligent weenie," someone said drunkenly. "I swear, I saw him plug it into a serial port once and start downloading." The men winced.

Madrid glanced at the group gathered around the bar. "They're telling the cyberdork story again," he said, adjusting his codpiece with a studied movement.

"Will you knock that off?"

"No problem, babe." He chose to flash the group a smile, exposing perfect teeth that concealed a range of arcane weapons. "What's under here is dangerous enough."

Red rolled her eyes. "You wish."

"I know. And you know. And I know that you know. And you know that I know that you know--"

Sighing, she leaned over and stuck her tongue in his mouth. Anything to make him shut up.

A hyperstack, overlooking Tokyo Harbor, gleamed like a fragmented diamond against grey static sky. The newest, the hottest companies vied for officespace there, all wanting what they saw as the Edge and hot for the outside that made them look like they had it. The Edge was their favorite topic, Madrid mused, briefly thinking of Red still asleep in the basement flat they rented. Edge was hot, razoring, the laserlight of talent in the neurotech fields, slick and fragile as amateur cyberpunk writing. And Yamujitsu was the newest, the hottest, and the hungriest, moving in on anything they thought could give them leverage. Madrid hadn't been surprised when Ralph Johnson, Yamujitsu gajin executive in his grey silk suit and tasteful earring, had requested a meeting.

"I've heard things about you, Mister Madrid," the man said. "Impressive things. According to the street, you can build a cyberdeck from a handful of rare earth and a few molars."

"Tangiers. We ran out of circuitboards," Madrid said modestly.

"And your partner is equally impressive -- Hoosier Red, the lady with the interesting handle." Johnson favored him with a smile. "Lifted an entire soap strand from Jamaica without a quiver, didn't she? Burnt IBM for their new stimsim design, has unusual connections in the Net, maintains the record for surviving braindeath under black ice--"

"--and makes great julienne fries," Madrid finished brightly, his gaze trailing off to the wall. He was used to these kinds of offices, although he wished sometimes that they weren't all painted in that weird shade of Neo-Yuppie Puke. "Yeah, she's good. The best, even."

"Your woman?"

"You might say that."

"Ah. I was curious -- there's also an unpleasant rumor going about, something about how you stalked, killed, butchered, cooked and ate a rival suitor for Ms. Red's affections."

The clown didn't say anything. He just smiled.

"That doesn't bother my company, you know. My company likes that kind of possessiveness. It's what going to make them very, very rich. And it can make you--" Johnson chose his words carefully. "Very, very well off."

"What about very, very rich?"

Johnson laughed. Madrid automatically scanned his dentals -- no implants, just a up-and-coming cavity. "That, you can do on your own," he replied. "What I can do is give you a head start. If you and Ms. Red are up to the job."

Madrid knew they were -- Johnson wouldn't have bothered calling him otherwise. "I think we can handle it," he said, honking his nose.


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