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Author: Mark Budz
Publisher: Bantam Spectra, 2003

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Book Type: Novel
Genre: Science-Fiction
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In the San Jose of tomorrow, all of nature is gengineered-from the warm-blooded plants to the designer people. But even in a rigidly controlled biosystem, with its pheromone-induced social order, the American dream is still the American dream. Caught between these new-old worlds, Rigo is on his way up-he's going to be part of tomorrow, even if it means he has to leave today behind.

Written off as a sellout on the streets of his old 'hood, Rigo's got his own ap in an aplex, a 9-to-5er, and a girl. He's got opportunity. If he works hard, his job with a heavyweight politicorp could give him a chance to move up in the clades. But when he's chosen as part of a team to construct a new colony on a nearby comet, Rigo smells a setup. And when disaster strikes, he learns that if there's a way to bend the rules, there's also a way to break them...





It's late, almost dusk, when Rigo finally gets off work, grabs a quick bite to eat at Salmon Ella's, and catches the Bay to Bay shuttle from Monterey to visit his ailing mother in San Jose.

The air in the train is full of sniffers, strings of broad-spectrum glycoproteins that are the molecular equivalent of flypaper. Rigo imagines he can feel them infiltrating his clothes, probing his asshole, prying underneath his fingernails for illegal moleculars. As a countermeasure, he's taken precautions. A few minutes before boarding, he dosed himself with antisense blockers, sticky proteins that will attach to the sniffers and cripple them as effectively as two dogs locked in a frenzied coupling.

Rigo finds an empty seat near the back of his pod and hunches against the window, a narrow ribbon of plastic bordered by a retail outlet for Armani bodyware on one side and a display case for Japanese bento meals on the other. The train is carrying commuters, starched suits and students taking classes at UCSC's Fort Ord extension. A few stare out the tinted bubble plastic, mesmerized by the blur of passing scenery, the fiery sunset that has turned the peeling bark of the eucalyptus trees into reddish tinder. Others browse the display case windows of various in-pod stores. But most of the passengers are interfaced with their information agents, sending and receiving e-mail, tuned to music, news, or digital video downloads. For the most part, people keep to themselves, hidden behind the cellophane eyescreens of their wraparounds and shades, talking only to their IAs or to themselves over the soft insect buzz of flitcams.

It makes for a quiet trip.

At Blossom Hill Road, the pod detaches from the train and Rigo's in terra cognita. Stepping from the pod, into the dissonant jungle of scents and sounds where he grew up is like slipping into a pair of ill-fitting clothes he's outgrown. The fabric of his well-being pinches uncomfortably at the seams.

He doesn't belong here. Not like Beto, who never left. But for some reason, he can't seem to break free. Something is always dragging him back. It's as if there's no escape from the place, or who he was.

Rigo checks the time. Six-fifteen.

The neighborhood is just beginning to rouse itself from catlike slumber. T'gueres are beginning to prowl their territories, looking for customers. In another few hours the streets of the barrio will be raging. Rigo can feel the energy building up, like ozone, the air getting ready to crackle, filled with the wild spray of photons.

Sweat breaks out under his arms. His neck feels clammy.

Place hasn't changed much since he was a kid. Sure, new buildings have grown in, like weeds, to replace those that have been torn down--but many of the stores, aps, and residential houses are no different. Some have undergone cosmetic changes, retrofits for solar panels, humidity collectors, photovoltaic windows, and piezoelectric siding, to make them more energy efficient and ecologically sound. Chihuahua Noodles is still on the corner next to OD, the Online Discount store, The Steak Out, and w@ng's tattune parlor. But there are a lot more restaurants and stores that cater only to clade-specific clientele. He passes a dance salon that exudes a floral aroma that makes his eyes water; his skin itches as he approaches the open doorway of a wine-tasting club. The watery eyes and itch warn him to steer clear, advise him in no uncertain terms that he's persona non grata.

Rigo hurries on, rubs his arms through his sprayon shirt. Breathes in the dusty-olive smell of circuitrees, the roasted almond aroma of umbrella palms and other gengineered flora developed after the ecocaust. In addition to preventing total climactic collapse, public-domain ecotecture generates heat and electricity, purifies water, filters air, blocks UV rays, and provides a variety of other civic services, including waste disposal and bioremediation. Of course, a lot of private-domain ecotecture has been added over the years, creating a real laissez-faire biosystem that's nearly as diverse as the one it replaced.

The t'gueres eye him warily, yet keep their distance. They spec he's not one of them but seem to know that he belongs here, is part of the ghetto community. It's as if he's still scented with his past. They can smell it on him, and recognize the odor as their own. Out of habit, his face hardens, his lips press tight, his eyes steel, and his jaw muscles bunch. As long as he keeps to himself, doesn't make direct eye contact, they won't be tempted to challenge him.

"Rigo?" his information agent says. The cochlear whisper is a nagging high-pitched whine marinated in a nondescript Asian accent mined from the mediasphere.

"What is it?" he asks, annoyed. As luck would have it, he ended up with a neurotic older sister for an IA. Varda.

"What are you trying to conceal on your person?" the nosy hyperware asks.

"None of your business."

"It's illegal." A stray molecule must have slipped into his bloodstream, shown up in a routine biomed readout.

"I'm trying to help my mother," he explains in his defense.

"Well, this is hardly the best way to do it. You could end up in jail. What kind of help is that?" For some reason the hypervigilant Varda believes it's its job to look after him. Keep him out of trouble.

"I know what I'm doing," he says.

"Famous last words. If you're not careful, you're going to end up pregnant without a paddle."

Varda's penchant for malapropisms, disfigured metaphors, and leaps of illogic is well-intentioned and endearing, but not always helpful.

"We can discuss this later," he says.

"So you're just going to ignore me," the IA says. "Like always."

As Rigo crosses the street to his mother's aplex, dodging hydrogen fuel cell motorcycles and electric two-seaters, he hears the playful melody of steel drums, bright as sunlight reflecting off waves. The pan player is busking on a corner, half a block down. He's wearing colorful badris shorts, a black leather jacket, and sandals. Instead of hair he's got a dreadlock tangle of Guatemalan beads.

The carbonated music lightens his mood. Each metallic note, pure and carefree, bubbles irreverently inside him, fizzing like laughter against the hollow shell he's built to protect himself. The reverberations shiver through him, break down the rigid pattern of atoms that comprise his attitude. Climbing the stairs to his mother's second floor ap, he feels a momentary buoyancy. A giddy zero-g suspension that leaves him mildly disoriented. Not quite himself.

At the landing, halfway up, he turns the corner and bumps into a skinny t'guere. Rigo blinks, takes a step back just as the t'guere's right hand flicks toward him, quick as the tongue of a snake.

Rigo raises both hands, palms out. "Oye, ese. Easy."

The man squints at him. "Rigo?" The diamond blade, only a few hundred atoms thick and nearly invisible, wavers a moment before slithering out of view.

Pattern recognition kicks in: hollow cheeks, black close-set eyes, a mustache that resembles ripe refrigerator mold, and a gemstone-encrusted scalp. The gemstones threw him for a loop. Pink coral, opals, jade, sapphires. A real flaunt job. Rigo thought he was dealing with some upper-clade fuck, slumming in the barrio.

"Chuy." Rigo lowers his hands, feels his bowels uncoil. The dome of gems looks for all the world like the business end of a rhinestone-studded condom.

Well, Chuy always was a pendejo. As a tiguerito, back when they were both in grade and middle school, Chuy worked as an escort for slum-hounds, upper-clade clients looking to buy or sell black market goods in the barrio. He provided protection, guided them to where they needed to conduct business. Odds are he's performing the same service, but for a somewhat more eccentric patronage, judging by his coiffure.

The t'guere sniffs, wipes his nose. "Que carajo quieres? What are you doing here?"

"Visiting my moms." Rigo resists the urge to ask what Chuy's doing around his mother's ap building.

"Been a long time since I seen you." Chuy's eyes are all jittery. They roll loose in his sockets like one of those outdated, liquid-filled compasses that's always shifting direction.

"Been busy," Rigo says. "So. How's tricks these days?"

Chuy's slitted gaze, rock hard, settles on him for a moment. "You know. A little of this, little of that." He jukes his shoulders from side to side and grins, baring stiletto teeth. "What about you? Still sucking up? Kissing ass?"

Rigo stiffens. "That's harsh, man."

"Naw. It's a fact. You got out and sold out." Chuy grinds his teeth and breathes out. Rigo catches a whiff of burnt vanilla. The scent turns his knees to rubber, threatens to loosen his bladder.

"I'm surprised you're willing to show your face around here," Chuy says. He grabs his crotch and gives it a squeeze. "You got more cojones than I gave you credit for."

Rigo squirms, fighting the urge to wet his pants. "What're you talkin' about?"

"I guess la gente de primera figured they'd get an ex homeboy to check up on the lower classes. No sense riskin' their own ass. Not when they got a lambioso to do the job for them."

"Fuck you."

Chuy puckers his lips, makes a kissing sound.

Rigo takes a half step back from the badass pherion Chuy's putting out. The artificial hormone is getting seriously uncomfortable. If he hangs around much longer, things could get embarrassing.

Chuy thrusts out his chin. "My advice to you, ese, is to get your ass out of here while you can." He pushes past Rigo. "Sola vaya."

Good riddance. And not a moment too soon. As soon as Chuy rounds the corner, Rigo bolts up the stairs, taking them two at a time. At the second-floor balcony, he pauses to suck in a few deep breaths and regain control of his urinary tract. Fucking Chuy.

"If you keep this up," Varda says, still in nag mode, "you're going to make love with the fishes."

"Sleep," he says, correcting the IA.

"Are you tired?"

Rigo shakes his head. Why does he bother?

From where he's standing he can see the lights of Silicon Valley, high-intensity halogen and xenon that metastasize north toward San Francisco, the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond. In the middle of all this, barricaded behind a hodgepodge of dikes, Los Altos, Menlo Park, and Redwood City raise their geek-chic hauteur over the submerged sections of Cupertino, Mountain View, and Palo Alto. Beneath custom ecotecture of powder-puff dandelion trees, most of Silicon Valley's condos, aplexes, stores, and bars form a data Eden that Rigo will never access. SV has some of the most advanced pherion encryption, decryption, and antipher defenses around. Homegrown pharm-ware that even the politicorps can't decode.

He's known t'gueres who tried to crash some of the more exotic SM parlors, ones offering somatic re-cordings of kinky sex with sheep, horses, and a variety of undomesticated animals. The t'gueres didn't stay long. Came back nauseous, covered with rashes. Some--those who had to be physically removed after succumbing to pherion poisoning--suffered lingering nerve damage, minor paralysis they wear proudly as a badge of courage. These t'gueres are respected by some, but derided by others. They're easy to spot on the streets--poor motherfuckers crippled by defiance, bitter that they have nothing else to show for their bravado.

The wages of spite, his mother would say.

Rigo was always too cautious to put himself at risk. Un ni-o pijo, an elitist snob, according to Beto, who still has a spasm in the corner of one eye and chides Rigo good-naturedly but mercilessly about his aspirations. As with a lot of brothers, there's a hidden undercurrent, an unspoken subtext that's meant to accuse and shame him--as if Rigo's committed a crime by wanting to better himself.

Is that why he's agreed to deliver the pharm-bred meds to their mother? To prove to Beto that he has the balls? Or is it because he knows that Mama will never accept the drug if she knows it's from Beto? That Rigo's the only one who has a chance of getting her to take them?

Rigo presses a fingertip to the iDNA button on the ap's door, sees the little pad turn green in recognition. Instead of having her IA unlock the door, his mother insists on answering it herself. She's old-fashioned that way. Never mind that he has to stand there for five minutes while she struggles across the room. From her point of view, it would be impolite not to invite him in personally. Rigo listens to her labored breath through the door--a shallow palpitating wheeze that makes him dizzy. He gets oxygen deficient just listening to her. From the sound of things she could be climbing Everest. Finally, about six dead bolts click and the door swings open.

"Mijo," she gasps, managing to affect both surprise and delight. "It's good to see you." Caged by recalcitrant ribs, her lungs refuse to fully inflate. Her jaws barely move, slurring the words.

"How's it going, Mama?"

"I've been watching DVDs all day. My feet are a little numb from sitting, but not too bad."

The wallscreen opposite the couch is tuned to an ancient black-and-white movie. Stark grainy images animate the glass, like shadows moving behind a curtain. She wasn't even alive when this stuff was filmed. But for some reason she's addicted. There's something atavistic about the personas that comforts her, smoothes away the rough-edged complexity of the present.

"Let me help you, Mama."

He takes one of her hands. It's warm, dry, and gnarled. Her knuckles are the size of peach pits, her fingers stiff as dried roots. It hurts to touch them. The sagging wrinkled skin of her arm is loose as an elephant's. She's wearing a red cotton print dress, sleeveless, that exposes her misshapen elbows and gnomish knees.

Late-onset fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva. FOP. The disease has begun to turn her tendons and muscles into bone, solder her skeleton into a single, rigid piece. Ribbons, plates, and stalactites of bone are forming inside her. In a couple of months, when her joints fuse completely, she'll be a statue, something birds can perch on in a park. The condition is painful to look at. He thought it would get easier to deal with each visit. But it hasn't. It's worse than ever.

Well, this time he can offer more than sympathy.

She winces as he guides her across the living room, gritting her teeth with pain, effort, or both.

"Let go," she says, disengaging her hand and shooing him away. "I'm fine."

Tottering heavily for a moment she steadies herself, attains a precarious balance, as if the tidal pull of the moon is enough to disturb the delicate play of forces at work in her joints. A bead of sweat forms on one temple, releasing the smell of the lavender soap and rose-scented shampoo. Her breath smells of raw cloves, which she chews to combat halitosis.

Uncertain if it's okay to let go, Rigo hovers beside her, one hand on her arm, ready to catch her if she falls. In response, her black eyes flash, bright as Apache teardrops in sunlight. She tucks a few strands of woolen gray hair into the long braid that trails down her neck, frayed as a horse's tail at the end, and then hobbles toward the kitchen.

Copyright © 2003 by Mark Budz


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