Read Islands in the Net Online

Authors: Bruce Sterling

Islands in the Net

Islands in the Net

Bruce Sterling

1

The sea lay in simmering quiet, a slate-green gumbo seasoned with warm mud. Shrimp boats trawled the horizon.

Pilings rose in clusters, like blackened fingers, yards out in the gentle surf. Once, Galveston beach homes had crouched on those tarstained stilts. Now barnacles clustered there, gulls wheeled and screeched. It was a great breeder of hurricanes, this quiet Gulf of Mexico.

Laura read her time and distance with a quick downward glance. Green indicators blinked on the toes of her shoes, flickering with each stride, counting mileage. Laura picked up the pace. Morning shadows strobed across her as she ran.

She passed the last of the pilings and spotted her home, far down the beach. She grinned as fatigue evaporated in a flare of energy.

Everything seemed worth it. When the second wind took her, she felt that she could run forever, a promise of indestructible confidence bubbling up from the marrow. She ran in pure animal ease, like an antelope.

The beach leapt up and slammed against her.

Laura lay stunned for a moment. She lifted her head, then caught her breath and groaned. Her cheek was caked with sand, both elbows numbed with the impact of the fall. Her arms trembled as she pushed herself up onto her knees. She looked behind her.

Something had snagged her foot. It was a black, peeling length of electrical cable. Junked flotsam from the hurricane, buried in the sand. The wire had whiplashed around her left ankle and brought her down as neatly as a lariat.

She rolled over and sat, breathing hard, and kicked the loosened wire off her shoe. The broken skin above her sock had just begun to bleed, and the first cold shock gave way to hot smarting pain.

She stood up and threw off the shakiness, brushing sand from her cheek and arms. Sand had scratched the plastic screen of her watchphone. Its wrist strap was caked with grit.

“Great,” Laura said. A belated rush of anger brought her strength back. She bent and pulled at the cable, hard. Four feet of wet sand furrowed up.

She looked around for a stick or a chunk of driftwood to dig with. The beach, as usual, was conspicuously clean. But Laura refused to leave this filthy snag to trip some tourist. That wouldn't do at all—not on her beach. Stubbornly, she knelt down and dug with her hands.

She followed the frayed cord half a foot down, to the peeling, chromed edge of a home appliance. Its simulated plastic wood grain crumbled under Laura's fingers like old linoleum tile. She kicked the dead machine several times to loosen it. Then, grunting and heaving, she wrenched it up from its wet cavity in the sand. It came up sullenly, like a rotten tooth.

It was a video cassette recorder. Twenty years of grit and brine had made it a solid mass of corrosion. A thin gruel of sand and broken shell dripped from its empty cassette slot.

It was an old-fashioned unit. Heavy and clumsy. Limping, Laura dragged it behind her by its cord. She looked up the beach for the local trash can.

She spotted it loitering near a pair of fishermen, who stood in hip boots in the gentle surf. She called out. “Trash can!”

The can pivoted on broad rubber treads and rolled toward her voice. It snuffled across the beach, mapping its way with bursts of infrasound. It spotted Laura and creaked to a stop beside her.

Laura hefted the dead recorder and dropped it into the open barrel with a loud, bonging thump. “Thank you for keeping our beaches clean,” the can intoned. “Galveston appreciates good citizenship. Would you like to register for a valuable cash prize?”

“Save it for the tourists,” Laura said. She jogged on toward home, favoring her ankle.

Home loomed above the high-tide line on twenty sand-colored buttresses.

The Lodge was a smooth half cylinder of dense concretized sand, more or less the color and shape of a burnt bread loaf. A round two-story tower rose from the center. Massive concrete arches held it a dozen feet above the beach.

A broad canopy in candy-stripe red and white shaded the Lodge's walls. Under the canopy, a sun-bleached wooden walkway girdled the building. Behind the walkway's railings, morning sunlight gleamed from the glass doors of half a dozen guest rooms, which faced east to the sea.

A trio of guest kids were already out on the beach. Their parents were from a Rizome Canadian firm, and they were all vacationing at company expense. The kids wore navy blue sailor suits and nineteenth-century Fauntleroy hats with trailing ribbons. The clothes were souvenirs from Galveston's historical district.

The biggest kid, a ten-year-old, ran headlong toward Laura, holding a long wooden baton over his head. Behind him, a modern wind-sculpture kite leapt from the others' arms, wing after tethered wing peeling loose in blue and green pastels. Yanked free, each fabric aerofoil flapped into shape, caught the wind, and flung itself into flight. The ten-year-old slowed and turned, fighting its pull. The long kite bucked like a serpent, its movements eerily sinuous. The children screamed with glee.

Laura looked up at the Lodge's tower roof. The flags of Texas and Rizome Industries Group slid up the tower's flagpole. Old Mr. Rodriguez waved at her briefly, then disappeared behind the satellite dish. The old man was doing the honors as usual, starting another day.

Laura limped up the wooden stairs to the walkway. She pushed through the heavy doors of the front lobby. Inside, the Lodge's massive walls still held the coolness of night. And the cheerful reek of Tex-Mex cooking—peppers, cornmeal, and cheese.

Mrs. Rodriguez was not at the front desk yet—she was a late riser, not as spry as her husband. Laura walked through the empty dining room and up the tower stairs.

The tower's trapdoor slid open at her approach. She emerged through the tower's lower floor, into a round conference room lined with modern office equipment and padded swivel chairs. Behind her, the trapdoor accordioned shut.

David, her husband, was stretched out on a wicker couch, with the baby on his chest. They were both fast asleep. One of David's hands spread cozily across little Loretta's pajama'd back.

Morning light poured through the tower's thick, round windows, slanting high across the room. It lent a strange Renaissance glow to their faces. David's head was propped against a pillow, and his profile, always striking, looked like a Medici coin. The baby's relaxed and peaceful face, her skin like damask, was hauntingly fresh and new. As if she'd popped into the world out of cellophane.

David had kicked a woolen comforter into a wad at the foot of the couch. Laura spread it carefully over his legs and the baby's back.

She pulled up a chair and sat by them, stretching out her legs. A wash of pleasant fatigue came over her. She savored it a while, then gave David's bare shoulder a nudge. “Morning.”

He stirred. He sat up, cradling Loretta, who slept on in babylike omnipotence. “Now she sleeps,” he said. “But not at three
A.M
. The midnight of the human soul.”

“I'll get up next time,” Laura said. “Really.”

“Hell, we ought to put her in the room with your mother.” David brushed long black hair from his eyes, then yawned into his knuckles. “I dreamed I saw my Optimal Persona last night.”

“Oh?” Laura said, surprised. “What was it like?”

“I dunno. About what I expected, from the stuff I read about it. Soaring and foggy and cosmic. I was standing on the beach. Naked, I think. The sun was coming up. It was hypnotic. I felt this huge sense of total elation. Like I'd discovered some pure element of soul.”

Laura frowned. “You don't really believe in that crap.”

He shrugged. “No. Seeing your O.P.—it's a fad. Like folks used to see UFO's, you know? Some weirdo in Oregon says he had an encounter with his personal archetype. Pretty soon, everybody and his brother's having visions. Mass hysteria, collective unconscious or some such. Stupid. But modern at least. It's very new-millennium.” He seemed obscurely pleased.

“It's mystic bullshit,” Laura told him. “If it was really your Optimal Self, you should have been building something, right? Not beachcombing for Nirvana.”

David looked sheepish. “It was just a dream. Remember that documentary last Friday? The guy who saw his O.P. walking down the street, wearing his clothes, using his charge card? I got a long way to go just yet.” He looked down at her ankle and started. “What'd you do to your leg?”

She looked at it. “I tripped over a piece of hurricane junk. Buried in the sand. A VCR, actually.” Loretta woke up, her tiny face stretching in a mighty toothless yawn.

“Really? Must have been there since the big one of '02. Twenty years! Christ, you could get tetanus.” He handed her the baby and fetched a first-aid kit from the bathroom. On the way back he touched a console button. One of the flat display screens on the wall flared into life.

David sat on the floor with limber grace and put Laura's foot in his lap. He unlaced her shoe and glanced at its readout. “That's pretty rotten time. You must have been limping, babe.”

He peeled off her sock. Laura held the wriggling baby to her shoulder and stared at the screen, distracting herself as David dabbed at her raw skin.

The screen was running David's Worldrun game—a global simulation. Worldrun had been invented as a forecasting tool for development agencies, but a glamorized version had found its way onto the street. David, who was prone to sudden enthusiasms, had been playing it for days.

Long strips of the Earth's surface peeled by in a simulated satellite view. Cities glowed green with health or red with social disruption. Cryptic readouts raced across the bottom of the screen. Africa was a mess. “It's always Africa, isn't it?” she said.

“Yeah.” He resealed a tube of antiseptic gel. “Looks like a rope burn. It didn't bleed much. It'll scab.”

“I'll be okay.” She stood up, lifting Loretta, and disguising the pain for his sake. The rawness faded as the gel soaked in. She smiled. “I need a shower.”

David's watchphone beeped. It was Laura's mother, calling from her guest room in the Lodge, downstairs. “
Gomen nasai
, y'all! How about helping Granny surround some breakfast?”

David was amused. “I'll be down in a minute, Margaret. Don't eat anything with the hide still on it.” They went upstairs to their bedroom.

Laura gave him the baby and stepped into the bathroom, which shut behind her.

Laura could not understand why David actively liked her mother. He'd insisted on her right to see her grandchild, though Laura hadn't met her mother face to face in years. David was taking naive pleasure in his mother-in-law's stay, as if a week-long visit could smooth over years of unspoken resentment.

To David, family ties seemed natural and solid, the way things should be. His own parents doted on the baby. But Laura's parents had split when she was nine, and she'd been raised by her grandmother. Laura knew that family was a luxury, a hothouse plant.

Laura stepped into the tub and the curtain shunted shut. The sun-warmed water washed the tension from her; she put family troubles out of mind. She stepped out and blew her hair dry. It fell into place—she wore a simple cut, short, with light feathery bangs. Then she confronted herself in the mirror.

After three months, most of her postnatal flab had succumbed to her running campaign. The endless days of her pregnancy were a fading memory, though her swollen body image still lurched up sometimes in her dreams. She'd been happy, mostly—huge and achy, but cruising on motherhood's hormones. She'd given David some rough times. “Mood swings,” he'd said, smiling with fatuous male tolerance.

In the last weeks they'd both been spooked and twitchy, like barnyard animals before an earthquake. Trying to cope, they talked in platitudes. Pregnancy was one of those archetypal situations that seemed to breed clichés.

But it was the right decision. It had been the right time. Now they had the home they'd built and the child they'd wanted. Special things, rare things, treasures.

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