CHAPTER THREE. TRE. MARCH 2049 - OCTOBER 30, 2053
Tre Dietz had very long hair that was straight, sun-bleached, and tangled. He had lively brown eyes, a short mouth, and a strong chin. He stood about six feet tall and enjoyed the easy good health of a young man in his twenties.
Tre was a classic American bohemian. Like so many before him, he grew up in the rude vastnesses of the Midwest and migrated west to the coast, to sunny Californee.
Tre's mother was a teacher and his dad was a salesman. Tre was at the top of his graduating class in Des Moines. He got accepted at the University of California at Santa Cruz, and the Des Moines Kiwanians gave him a scholarship. While at UCSC, Tre smoked out, sought the spore, and transchronicized the Great Fractal, as did all his circle of friends—but Tre also managed to get a good grounding in applied chaos and in piezoplastics. Before he could quite finish all the requirements for a degree in limpware engineering, he got an offer too good to refuse from Apex Images. It happened one rainy, chilly day in March 2049.
Tre was on spring break from UCSC. He was living in a cottage down the hill from the university, down in a flat, scuzzy student part of Santa Cruz, rooming with Benny Phlogiston and Aanna Vea. Aanna was a big strong-featured Samoan woman, and Benny was a tiny Jewish guy from Philadelphia. All three of them were limpware engineering majors, and none of them was in a romantic relationship with any of the others. They were just roommates. Tre was already dating his future wife Terri Percesepe, although Tre and Terri hadn't realized yet that they were fated to mate. Terri was taking art courses, living with a girlfriend, and working for a few hours every morning selling tickets for the Percesepe family's day-excursion fishing boats. People still liked to fish, even in 2049, though these days there was always a slight chance of snagging a submarine rogue moldie and having to face the rogue's inhumanly savage retaliation. Each fishing boat was equipped with a high-pressure flamethrower for just this eventuality.
The day when Tre's life changed, the uvvy woke him. Tre was on his thin sleeping pad, and the uvvy chirped, "Tre Tre Tre Tre…" Tre grabbed the uvvy, which was about the size of an old-fashioned telephone handset, and told it to project.
You could use an uvvy one of two ways: you could ask it to project a holographic image of your caller or you could set it onto your neck and let it make a direct electromagnetic field connection with your brain.
In projection mode, part of the uvvy's surface vibrated to cast a lifelike holographic image into the air, and another part of it acted as a speaker.
"Hello. Tre Dietz?" The image showed the head of a conventionally attractive blonde California woman in her twenties.
"Yaar," said Tre. "It's me."
Rain was spitting against the windowpanes and a brisk breeze was picking at the house's thin walls. From a certain angle Tre could see a patch of ocean through his window. The ocean looked cold, silvery gray, rife with waves. This afternoon he was going out surfing with Terri at a beginner's nook just below Four Mile Beach; Terri was going to give him a lesson. Answering the uvvy, Tre had been hoping it was Terri. But it wasn't.
"Wonderbuff," said the hollow of the conventional blonde. "I'm Cynthia Major.
I'm in human resources at Apex Images in San Francisco. Tre, the Mentor wants me to tell you that we're very happily discombobulated by your Perplexing Poultry philtre."
A philtre was a type of software that you put onto an uvvy, so that the uvvy images would come out all different. Philtre like filter, but also philtre like magic potion, as a good philtre could make things look way strange if you put the philtre onto an uvvy that you were wearing on your neck. Philtres were a wavy new art hack.
Tre had made the Perplexing Poultry philtre in February with a little help from Benny, Aanna, and, of course, UCSC's Wad. Formally, Perplexing Poultry was about the idea that space can be thought of as a quasicrystal, that is, as a nonrepeating tessellation of two kinds of polyhedral cell. This fact was a mathematical result from the last century that had become important for modeling the structure of imipolex. Tre had learned about quasicrystals in his course on Limpware Structures. To make the philtre visually engaging, Tre had deformed the two basic polyhedra into a pair of shapes which resembled a skinny chicken and a fat dodo bird.
Experientially, the Perplexing Poultry philtre was a totally bizarre lift. If you fired up Perplexing Poultry in an uvvy on your neck, all the things around you would seem to deform into the shapes of three-dimensional Perplexing Poultry, i.e., into things like linkages of odd-shaped birds with weird multisymmetrical ways of pecking into each other. You yourself would become a wave of perplexity in the Poultry sea.
Tre had written his philtre as a goof, really, as something to wrap himself up in when he was lifted. It was very weightless to check out the beach or a coffee shop with your weeded-up head way into Perplexing Poultry.
Philtres were cutting-edge in terms of image manipulation. Rather than being a static video or text, a philtre was a system of interpretation. The technology had evolved from a recreational device called a twist-box that had been popular in the early thirties. Twist-boxes had been marketed as a drug-free method of consciousness alteration, as "a pure software high." Like uvvy philtres, twist-boxes worked by distorting your visual input. But the twist-box used a simple Stakhanovite three-variable chaotic feedback loop, rather than a ideologically designed process, as was characteristic of the new philtres.
And in these Dionysian mid-twenty-first-century times, people tended to use philtres as an enhancement to drugs rather than as a replacement for them.
The realtime human neurological mindmeld involved in programming a philtre was too complicated for Tre to have done on his own, of course, any more than a dog would have been able to paint its self-portrait. But Tre had access to UCSC's Wad, a cosmic mind-amplication device that was a grex, that is, a symbiotic fusion of several different moldies.
With Wad, many things were possible, particularly if your problem happened to be one that Wad found interesting. Since the flickercladding plastic of moldies'
bodies was quasicrystalline imipolex, Wad had thought the quasicrystal-related Perplexing Poultry philtre to be totally floatin' and had done a solar job for Tre.
So here was Tre getting an uvvy call about his Poultry from a businesswoman in the city.
"I'm glad you like it," said Tre. "How come you're calling me?"
Cynthia Major laughed, as though this were a refreshingly naive thing to say.
"We want you to sign a contract with us, Tre. Do you know anything about Apex Images?"
"Not really. You do ads?"
"We're the thirteenth-biggest image agency worldwide. Ads, music viddies, hollows, uvvy philtres—we do it all."
"You want to use the Perplexing Poultry to sell stuff like wendy meat?"
Cynthia Major laughed infectiously. "Good guess! Apex would like to sell wendy meat with Perplexing Poultry. We do have their account. Or sell uvvy sets. Or politicians. Who knows? The lift is, we at Apex Images want to have rights to lots of floaty philtres that we can license and put out there in all kinds of ways." "You want to own the rights to Perplexing Poultry?"
"Well, that whole issue is more complicated than you realize, Tre, which is why the Mentor thought of having us call you. Have you ever heard of a company called Emperor Staghorn Beetle Larvae, Ltd.?"
"Yeah, I have," said Tre. "They make imipolex. They're based in Bangalore, India. What about them?"
"They want to sue you. They own all the patents to Roger Penrose's work on quasicrystals, and they claim that your philtre is, in fact, derived from drawings which Penrose created for a 1990s two-dimensional quasicrystal puzzle that was also known as Perplexing Poultry. I assume this isn't news to you?"
"The lawsuit is news. But, yeah, of course I know about Penrose's work. We had a lecture on it in Limpware Structures. Emperor Staghorn Beetle Larvae, Ltd., is suing me? That's ridiculous. What for? I don't own anything."
"Well, Emperor Staghorn doesn't really want to sue; they'd much rather settle for a piece of your action. So before taking any irreversible steps, they got in touch with Apex through the Mentor. He's quite well connected on the subcontinent, you know. If you sign on with Apex, we can smooth this over, Tre, and we can handle all the bothersome legal aspects of your work in the future.
And we'll pay you a nice advance on future royalties."
As the woman talked to him, Tre was moving around his room putting on warm clothes. The sun was peeking out now and then, turning the ocean green when it shone. Tre's life right now suited him fine. He was not happy to see a possible change.
"I'm not clear what I'd be signing up for."
"You sign with us, and we arrange contracts and for people to use your work.
We take a commission and maybe from time to time we might encourage you to design something to spec."
"This sounds awfully complicated. I'm still a student. I don't want to work.
I want to hack. I want to stay high and get tan. I'm learning to surf."
Cynthia gave a rich conspiratorial laugh. "Mr. Kasabian is going to love you, Tre. He's our director. Can you come up to the city for a meeting next week?"
"Well… I don't have any classes on Tuesday."
The blonde head consulted someone not visible in the uvvy's sphere of view.
"How about Wednesday?" the head responded. "Eleven A.M.?"
"Zoom on this," said Tre. "What kind of an advance are we talking about?"
The woman gazed off to one side, and Tre suddenly got the suspicion that Cynthia Major was a simmie, a software simulation of a real person. The face turned back to him and named a dollar amount much larger than Tre had imagined anyone wanting to give him in the foreseeable future.
"Myoor!" exclaimed Tre, imitating a surprised cow, as it was currently considered funny to do, at least among Tre's circle of friends. "I'll be there.
So the next Wednesday, Tre caught the light rail up to San Francisco. Benny Phlogiston rode along with him to provide moral support, also to visit a new live sex show he'd heard about in North Beach.
"It's layers of uvvy," Benny explained enthusiastically on the train. "I, heard about it on the Web. The club's called Real Compared To What. There's actual nude men and women there in the middle of the room, and they're all wearing uvvies on their necks, and there's these uvvy dildos as well. You go in there and put on your own uvvy, and you can actually be a dildo. A dildo that talks to a naked girl."
"That's great, Benny," said Tre. "I'm so happy for you. You feeble bufugu pervo.
Do you think we should get high right now?"
"Never get high before an important meeting, Tre," advised Benny. "Being high makes the meeting seem to take too long and makes it seem too important. Go in there and score some gigs, brah, and then we'll smoke up. Maybe Apex will give you a big advance and you can buy us drinks at Adler's Museum or Vesuvio.
Let's meet in Washington Square at three-thirty."
"That sounds good, brah Ben. Have fun being a dildo."
"You still don't understand, Tre. It's that the illusions have illusions inside them. The performers run you the illusion that you are in Real Compared To What being a dildo. But the dildo is smart, and the dildo is dreaming that it's a user. I want to tweak into moire patterns of uvvy/realtime bestial lust."
"Floaty. Give out some copies of Perplexing Poultry if you can. Maybe Real Compared To What will give you something free in return. A backstage assignation with a live woman."
Tre found Apex Images in a retrofitted Victorian on a back street above Haight Street. Heavily made-up Cynthia Major was sitting there in the flesh behind a desk. She was a real person after all.
"Tre!" she exclaimed pleasantly. "You're here! I'll buzz Mr. Kasabian."
The reception area filled two carpeted rooms. A dark wooden staircase led upstairs. The windows were bay windows that bulged out, leaving nooks occupied by displays of past Apex Image successes. The displays were hollows being run by uvvies. One showed the notorious EAT ME wendy meat ad with Wendy Mooney posed nude on a giant hamburger bun, with most of a big ass cheek bared to the viewer.
Her Happy Cloak cape was ruffled like a bolero bed jacket around her shoulders.
She was very attractive for being nearly fifty. The ad had the transreal sheen of a classic painting by the great Kustom Kulture artist Robert Williams—Apex Images had, in fact, purchased a license for the Robert Williams style from his estate. Another display showed a teeming cloud of Von Dutch winged eyeballs, a striking image used by ISDN, the main uvvy service provider. Still another showed a single large vibrating drop of water that seemed to sparkle and iridesce and break up the light through the window; this had been an ad for the Big Lift festival in Golden Gate Park this summer.
"Tre," said a man, coming down the stairs into the reception area. "I'm Dick Kasabian." Kasabian was a lean blue-chinned man with dark lively eyes and a saturnine cast to his features. He gave an impression of terminal hipness.
"Come on up to my office."
Kasabian's office had a nice view of downtown San Francisco and the bay. He offered Tre a glass of supersoda, and Tre took it.
"Your Perplexing Poultry philtre," Kasabian said, picking up two uvvies. "I like it, but I don't fully understand what's going on. Can we go into it together?"
"Sure," said Tre, placing the proffered uvvy on the back of his neck.
Although the earliest uvvy-like devices—the Happy Cloaks of the thirties, for instance—had actually punctured the user's skin with probes in order to connect to the nervous system, today's uvvies used small superconducting electromagnetic fields. So there was no danger of biological infection in using someone else's uvvy.
With their uvvies on, Tre and Kasabian were in a close mental link. They could talk to each other without moving their lips, and each could see what the other was seeing. It was a highly perfected form of communication. You couldn't quite read the other person's mind, but you could quickly pick up any verbal or graphic information that he or she wanted to share. In addition, you could pick up the emotional flavor of the information.
Tre noticed right away that Kasabian was linked into somebody else besides him.
"Oh, that's the Mentor listening in," explained Kasabian. "If we offer you the job, I'll introduce you to him then. For now he'd just like to lurk. He doesn't like his involvement with Apex to be known outside of the company."
"All right," said Tre.
"Let's load the Poultry now," said Kasabian. Saying this was enough to make it happen. The room's space wavered and bulged and formed itself into a Jell-O-like linkage of comical chickens and dodoes. Through Tre's eyes, Kasabian's head was an upside-down dodo pecking into a bundle of five chickens that made up his chest. Yet, impossibly, he still looked like himself. And in Kasabian's eyes, Tre's head was a pair of chickens pecking into three dodoes.
"That's the kind of thing I've been wondering about," said Kasabian. "Why aren't our two images more similar? Our bodies aren't shaped so differently. Is it arbitrary?"
"It's because the pattern where you are has to fit with the pattern where I am," explained Tre. "It's a tessellation of space, a division of space into cells.
And because the tessellation is based on quasicrystals, it tends to not want to repeat."
"Very weightless," said Kasabian. "But if I wanted to start out with my desk being made of, say, six dodoes, would I be able to do it?"
"Oh yeah," said Tre. "That's a special hidden feature, as a matter of fact. I'll show you how."
"Good," said Kasabian. "Because if we wanted to use it to like advertise something, the client might want to specify the way that the image of their product came out—and have everything else constellate itself around that."
"What would we want to advertise? Imipolex from Emperor Staghorn Beetle Larvae, Ltd.?"
"No no. Your first ads will be for wendy meat—just like you guessed when you talked to Cynthia. Emperor Staghorn wants your philtre's source code all right, but they don't want it for an ad. One of their limpware engineers wants to use it for quasicrystal design. If we license the design to them, they'll pay bucks instead of suing."
"Wow," said Tre. "I didn't realize what I'd done was so floatin'. Maybe I should work for Emperor Staghorn instead of for you."
"Don't do that," said Kasabian quickly. "You'd have to move to India. Also I know for a fact that the Emperor Staghorn scientist who wants to use your philtre would never let them hire you. Sri Ramanujan. He's very secretive and he doesn't want his assistants to understand what he's doing. He doesn't want you, Tre, he just wants your philtre. Plus any more weird tessellations that you can come up with."
"So you want me to be more of an artist than an engineer," mused Tre.
"Actually, that feels about right. Some of these courses I've been taking—"
"You've got a great creative talent," urged Kasabian. "You should go with it!"
They fooled around with the Perplexing Poultry some more, and then Kasabian ran a bunch of Apex Images demos for Tre. Finally they took their uvvies off.
"Apex does really lifty stuff," said Tre. "The ads are beautiful."
"Thanks," said Kasabian. "So now the Mentor wants to know: Are you ready to start working for us?"
"Advertising wendy meat is kind of lame, but I'd feel good about inventing new philtres and helping Emperor Staghorn Beetle."
"Have you ever tasted wendy meat?" asked Kasabian. "No? Guess what—neither have I. The gnarl of the images is all that matters."
"I wouldn't have to like physically come in here every day, would I?"
"God no. Nobody comes in here regularly except me and Cynthia Major. Apex can give you a base salary plus royalties on the philtres and any other research work that you produce. You keep the copyrights, but we get exclusive first rights for use. Occasionally we might ask you to do some specific contract work.
Like tweaking a philtre to fit an ad."
They made a firm deal and signed some papers.
"Okay," said Tre. "Now tell me who the Mentor is."
"Stahn Mooney," said Kasabian.
"None other. Stahn owns Apex, also he and his wife own most of Wendy Meat and W.
M. Biologicals. When Stahn got voted out of the Senate, he didn't leave with empty pockets! Put your uvvy back on, he wants to talk with you."
The uvvy fed Tre the visual image of a jaded-looking man in his fifties. The man was sitting in a wood-paneled room with a crackling fire in a huge stone hearth; the flames of the fire were made up of Perplexing Poultry. The man's mouth spread in a long, sly smile that Tre recognized from the many Stahn Mooney news stories he'd watched over the years.
"Hi, Stahn," said Tre. "I'm happy to meet you."
"It's my pleasure," said Stahn. "These Perplexing Poultry of yours are the waviest thing I've seen all year. The proverbial software high. You must be a fellow stoner."
"I lift," allowed Tre.
"Yaar," said Stahn judiciously. "I've been listening in just now while Kasabian here's been telling you about how we can sell the Poultry for more than just ads."
"Yeah," said Tre. "Like for limpware engineering?"
"Big-time." Stahn gave a wheezy chuckle. He seemed not to be in the best physical condition. "Sri Ramanujan at Emperor Staghorn Beetle Larvae, Ltd., is working on some new method for bringing humans and moldies closer together.
He won't give out any details, but it's bound to be a force for good, the way I look at it. Humans and moldies were meant to be one. Like Wendy and her Happy Cloak! Ramanujan says your Perplexing Poultry would be just the thing for his project if you could make them be four-dimensional. Does that make any sense to you?"
"I might be able to do it," said Tre after a minute's thought. "To fit into our space, the new philtre would actually be a three-dimensional projection of a four-dimensional tessellation. Like a shadow. I do know that the generalized Schmitt-Conway biprism will tile aperiodically in all dimensions of the form
3 times M. But dimensions four and five? Conway may also have done some work on aperiodic four-dimensional and five-dimensional tessellations. I can look into it."
"Stuzzadelic! Welcome aboard, Tre Dietz!" After a few more pleasantries, old Senator Stahn cut the connection.
With Tre all signed up, Kasabian suddenly turned out to be too busy to actually have lunch with Tre, somewhat to Tre's disappointment. With nothing better to do, Tre walked down Columbus Street to look for Benny at Real Compared To What.
The place had a honky-tonk facade covered with fuff hollows. There were some citified moldies lounging around in front, not doing much of anything, and there was a black man beckoning people in from the sidewalk.
"Light and tight!" the barker exclaimed to Tre. "Real Compared To What. Zoom on it, brah."
"I'm looking for a friend."
"Aren't we all. We got lots of friends inside."
"Can I peek in for free?"
"Look it over, and if you don't love it in two minutes, there's no charge.
Gustav! Show the man in."
One of the moldies came hunching over; it was shaped like a big inchworm, orange with purple spots. "Do you need an uvvy, sir?" "Not yet," said Tre. "I'll just use my eyes for now." He followed Gustav the moldie in through the thick curtains that hung over Real Compared To What's door.
Inside there was music and a closed-in smell of bodily fluids. The audience area was pitch-dark, and spotlights were on a stage with crawly uvvies, moldies, random pieces of imipolex, and several nude people, one of whom was Benny Phlogiston, on all fours with an erection, an uvvy on his neck, and a busy fat limpware dildo rhythmically reaming his butt.
"Hey, Benny!" shouted Tre. "Do you know what you're doing?"
Benny's head turned uncertainly in Tre's direction. His eyes had the glazed-over look of someone who's fully into mental uvvy space and all but obliv to the realtime world.
"Benny! Are you sure you're getting what you wanted?"
The dildo chose this instant to pull out of Benny and hop away. Benny came to his senses and stood up with a rapidly developing soft-off. He found his clothes back at his seat, donned them, and followed Tre back to the street. They moved slowly up the block.
"What a burn," said blushing Benny. "Did that really happen?"
"What did you think was happening?"
"It was this really sexy woman, this dominatrix type. She came off the stage and got me and stripped me and took me—I thought—to her boudoir room so I could be her love slave. She wanted to… to—"
"To buttfuck you with a dildo. No need to be embarrassed, Ben. It's a common male fantasy, pitiful creatures that we are—"
"All right, yes, that's what I thought was happening. Only—"
"Only there wasn't any woman behind the dildo," cackled Tre. "And her so-called boudoir was the lit-up stage!"
"Tre, if you tell anyone about this—"
"What's to tell? Who would be interested?"
"Come on, Tre. Please."
"Wavy. But you owe me big-time, brah."
"Fine. Fine." Benny turned and looked back at the moldies oozing around in front of Real Compared To What. "I hate moldies."
"They're not exactly man's best friend," agreed Tre. "But without moldies, there'd be no DIMs, no uvvies, no Wad, no Limpware Engineering courses, and no new job for me."
"You got the job!"
"You know it, little guy. It looks like a heavy deal."
"So buy me some food and drink!"
"Stratospheric," said Tre. "And let's stride. You probably don't want to be here if whoever was running that dildo comes a-stormin' out for some face time."
"Fully," agreed Benny, and they walked off into the side streets of North Beach for a memorable afternoon of youthful folly.
With the first big payment from Apex Images in hand, Tre let his studies slide.
Like why get a degree for a job he already had? That spring he flunked all his courses, and his parents cut off his allowance when he wouldn't come home to Des Moines. Tre coasted through the summer and into the fall, trying to get the four-dimensional Perplexing Poultry to click, but he kept not being able to get it to happen. It was a hard problem. He was going to have to think about it for a long time. Meanwhile he kept the money coming in from Apex by tweaking uvvy ads when Kasabian asked him to.
By Thanksgiving, 2049, with no other obligations in sight, it suddenly seemed to make sense to go ahead and marry Terri Percesepe. Terri and Tre took over the management of the Clearlight Terrace Court Motel on behalf of Terri's widowed mother Alice.
After her husband Dom had died, Alice had added the name Clearlight to the motel, which had formerly just been the Terrace Court. Clearlight was the name of the current wave of the perennial New Age philosophy of California: a holistic nature-loving libertarian set of beliefs that fit in well with the surf and the sun and the weirdest new drugs and computational systems on Earth.
Not that the Terrace Court was a particularly Clearlight kind of place—sticking Clearlight in front of its name was just wishful thinking. The same old pasty tourists came there anyway. In any case, as managers, Terri and Tre got to live free in the apartment behind the motel office, which solved a serious rent problem that had been on the point of emerging for Tre.
As well as working on floaty new philtres and now and then doing a contracted tweak for Apex, Tre kept busy helping Terri keep up the motel. And Tre and Terri fell more and more in love. Before they knew it, out popped two babies: first a son, Dolf, born September 23, 2049, and then a daughter, Baby Wren, born June
The one thing that always seemed the same, whether Tre was high or not, were the children. Tre delighted in them. It was fun to follow them around and watch them doing things.
"Clearly a biped," he would say, watching Wren stomp around their apartment with her stubby little arms pumping. Baby Wren was so short that if Tre put his arm down at his side, the silky top of standing Wren's head was still an inch or two below his hand. Wren was about as short as a standing up person could possibly be. Dolf was a clever lad who liked asking his father questions like "Will our house float if there's a flood?" or "If we couldn't get any more food, how long would it take to eat everything in the kitchen?" Little Dolf was determined to survive, come what may.
In the spring of 2053, Tre got an uvvy call from Stahn Mooney. Senator Stahn was way lifted and messed up.
"I'm a wee bummed you never got the fuh-four-dimensional Perplexing Poultry together, Tuh-Tre," jabbered the middle-aged man. "You luh-loser." He looked twitchy and hostile. "I've been asking Kuh-Kuh-Kasabian why I shouldn't fire you."
"Kiss my ass," said Tre and shakily turned off the uvvy. Early the next morning, Mooney called him back sober.
"Sorry about that last call," said Mooney. "My legendary problems with substance abuse are back; I'm turning into the bad old Sta-Hi Mooney. Of course your work is excellent, Apex wouldn't dream of letting you go."
"Glad to hear it. And I am sorry I never delivered on the four-dimensional Poultry design. It turns out John Horton Conway found four-dimensional and five-dimensional aperiodic monotiles sixty years ago, but it's not too well documented. UCSC Wad finally unearthed a construction in Conway's e-mail archives. But turning Conway's tessellations into beautiful three-dimensional projections—so far I can't do it, even with UCSC's Wad. I do still think about it from time to time."
"Emperor Staghorn Beetle Larvae, Ltd., is offering some really serious bread, Tre, which is what got me back onto this. It's a mongo business opportunity.
Ramanujan needs four-dimensional Perplexing Poultry right now, and Emperor Staghorn will pay whatever it takes to get them. Ramanujan can't figure it out himself, and he has this conviction that you're the man. It's not just the actual tessellation that counts, you wave, it's the gnarly Tre Dietz way you tweak it."
"Well, that's nice, but—"
"The loonie moldies are interested in this too. My old friend Willy Taze; he moved in to the loonie moldies' Nest a couple of years ago. He's talking about creating a virtual dial to like set the Perplexing Poultry's dimensionality to any number N." Stahn cleared his throat uncertainly. "Like three, four, five, six, seven… N—you wave? Didn't you say something about a general solution when we hired you?"
"Yes, the Schmitt-Conway biprism works for any N of the form 3 times M. Like for three, six, nine, and so on. And now that we have four and five, we can get all the others as Cartesian cross products. The dimensions sum when you cross the spaces. Like seven is three cross four or eight is three cross five. But you've got to understand that Conway's prisms are ugly. They look like waffles or like factory roofs. Turning them into pleasing visual Poultry is just too—"
"Try harder, Tre. I've got something for you to download that might help. It's a philtre Willy Taze sent me. Bye for now. It's time for my morning pick-me-up."
"Wait," said Tre. "One question. What do Emperor Staghorn Beetle and the loonie moldies want N-dimensional Perplexing Poultry for?"
"They won't exactly tell me. But supposedly it has something to do with better communications between humans and moldies. And merging things together is something I'm always for." Grinning Stahn pulsed himself a big toot from a handheld squeezie and toggled the connection off.
The loonie philtre, which was called TonKnoT, generated silent movies of smooth, brightly colored tubes tying themselves into N-dimensional knots. TonKnoT
kept pausing and starting over with a fresh knot. The knot would start as a straight stick with arrows on it, and then all the arrows would move about and the stick would turn, in some indefinable way, into a knot. The pictures seemed so urgent, yet the meaning continued to escape Tre. "Look at this," TonKnoT seemed to be saying. "This is important. This is one of the hidden secrets of the world."
The knot deformations were almost insultingly slow and precise, yet the gimmick of the shift kept somehow eluding Tre. "Look harder and you will understand."
And then in July, the jam broke and Tre finally designed his four-dimensional Perplexing Poultry.
Taking care of the kids and the motel had been getting to be too much grunt work, so as soon as Tre got his big advance from Apex for the four-dimensional Perplexing Poultry, he and Terri hired a moldie worker. Up until then, they'd been getting by with the bumbling uncertain labor of the sweet, bright woman named Molly, whom Terri's mother had passed on to them with the motel. By the ongoing linguistic warpage of euphemism, bright in 2053 had come to mean what special or retarded or half-witted might have meant sixty or a hundred years earlier. Tre and Terri took some pains to prevent Molly from buttonholing guests to talk on and on about what kinds of foods she laaaahked—always a favorite topic of Molly's. She liked oysters but not clams, crabs but not shrimp, squid but not mussels, beef but not ham, spaghetti but not macaroni, and on and on.
The weird cryptic idiot savant joke in this was that Molly liked only the foods whose name did not contain the letter m—it was Terri who'd figured that out.
They could never decide if Molly herself consciously understood this; if you asked her about it, she just laughed and said she didn't know how to spell.
Once they had a moldie to do the rooms, Terri and Tre began using Molly as a baby-sitter. She'd worked for the Percesepe family so long that there could be no thought of letting her go. The baby-sitting job worked out fine, as Dolf and Baby Wren loved Molly and hated Monique. Like most children, they instinctively feared moldies, with their odd motions and their alien stench.
When Randy Karl Tucker checked into the Clearlight Terrace Court Motel—the day before he abducted Monique—it was eight-thirty on a clear October evening.
Terri and Tre were in the process of giving the kids a bath—always a fun family time, with fat Wren slapping the water and shouting, while Dolf manned the faucets and guided a flotilla of floating things around the dangerous Wren. Terri was kneeling by the tub with a washrag and Tre was sitting on the closed toilet seat with a towel in readiness. Just then there was a chime.
"Uh-oh," said Tre. "A guest. I better go help Monique."
"Wren's done," said Terri. "Grab her and put her in her sleeper first. I can't do both the kids alone."
Tre pulled his uvvy out of his pocket, put it on his neck, and told Monique to stall. It was always good practice to get a face-to-face look at your guests. Not only did it make the customers happier, but it was unwise to trust a moldie's judgment about who to let into the motel.
Terri handed Wren into Tre's waiting towel. Moving quickly, Tre diapered Wren, zipped her into her sleeper, and set her down in her crib. "I'll be right back, Wren." Wren wailed to see her father go so quickly, but then shifted her focus to her crib toys.
Out in the office, Monique was behind the counter talking with a lanky young guy with a thin head and colorless eyes. He was dressed in cheap nerd clothes. He had his elbows on the counter and was slouched forward like a drunk at a bar.
small battered leather carry-on bag rested at his feet.
"Here's one of our managers," said Monique. "Tre Dietz. Tre, this is Randy Karl Tucker." The narrow-skulled man looked vaguely familiar. Tre felt like he'd seen Tucker around Santa Cruz recently.
"Hi, guy," said the man. With his accent it came out sounding like Haaaaah, gaaaaah. "I need a room for a night, maybe two nights. Nice li'l moldie you got yourself here." He stretched one of his long arms across the counter and gave Monique an appraising pat, intimately running his hand down her shoulder onto her chest. Monique twitched away from him. In her anger, she released a cloud of pungent spores and redolent body gas.
"Haw-haw," said Tucker. "She gets her dander up. I guess I shore ain't in Kentucky no more."
"Nope," said Tre, moving forward. "Not hardly. What do we have free, Monique?"
"We can give him Room 3D," said the reeking Monique.
"A nice room," said Tre. "On the lower terrace. It has an ocean view."
"Copacetic," said Tucker. "I'll charge it." He leaned down and got an uvvy out of his bag, being careful to immediately snap the clasps on his bag shut.
"Monique can take your code," said Tre.
"Monique the moldie," said Tucker and sniffed the air savoringly. "I like it."
He put his uvvy on his neck and chirped Monique his authorization code. He did something internal in his uvvy space and his eyes glazed over, staring blankly at Monique, his eyes squinted up small as two pissholes in a snowbank. Some uvvy conversation got him briefly involved and he started subvocalizing and gesturing. "Fuckin'-aye, Jen," said Tucker vaguely and took the uvvy off his neck. He favored Tre with a bogus grin. "Is that your hydrogen cycle right outside, Mr. Dietz? With the white DIM tires?"
"Call me Tre. Yeah it is. You like it?"
"What I do," said Tucker, "what I do is limpware upgrades. When's the last time you got those tires upgraded?"
"What for? It's never occurred to me. The tires work fine."
"Shit-normal rubber tires would work, but you don't use 'em," said Tucker. "I happen to be the sole local distributor for a new limpware patch that enhances the performance of DIM tires a hundred and fifty percent. Smooths the hell out of the bumps." "You're a limpware salesman?" said Tre disbelievingly.
"You don't think I look like no kind of a hi-tech propellorhead, do you, Tre Dietz?" Tucker chuckled slyly. "I might's well confess, I already know who you are. That's one of the reasons I'm bunkin' at this hole; I admire the hell outta your philtres. But I'm not here to hassle you, man. The thing about the tires is, I'd be right proud to give you an upgrade for twenty percent off the room rate."
Just then Dolf came tearing out of the back apartment, wet and naked. "Catch him, Tre!" called Terri.
Tre grabbed at Dolf, who roared with joy and ran back into the apartment. "I better go help with the kids," Tre told Randy Karl Tucker. "We can talk about your offer tomorrow when I have more time, but I'm probably not interested.
Thanks anyway. Do you mind if I have Monique show you to your room now?"
"It'd be my pleasure," said Tucker.
The next morning Molly showed up to watch the kids and Terri went surfing.
Tre smoked a joint and went to sit in a sunny spot out in front of the motel office with his uvvy. Now that he'd mastered the four-dimensional Perplexing Poultry, he was getting close on a general N-dimensional method for creating them from Conway cross-product prisms. These days he had a lot of interesting work to do.
Monique come bouncing up from the lower terrace. Her facial expression was even more opaque than usual, and she was followed closely by Randy Karl Tucker, dressed the same as yesterday and carrying his bag. Tucker looked mussed and wild-eyed, as if he'd been wrestling with someone. His neck bore several red welts, some of them disk-shaped as if from a mollusk's suckers. He was wearing his uvvy.
"Haaaaah, gaaaaah," wheezed Tucker. "Here's that upgrade I promised you!"
Before Tre could object, Tucker had pulled two purplish postage-stamp-sized patches of plastic out of his pants pocket and had slapped them onto the fat white imipolex tires of Tre's hydrogen cycle. "You're gonna love these to death, freakbrain," said Tucker. "I'm outta here. Monique, you whore! I want you to carry me outta here on your fat ass!"
"Just a minute there," said Tre, losing his temper. "You can't talk like that.
Monique has work to do. She doesn't rickshaw for the guests. And I don't want your xoxxin' goober patches on my DIM tires! Who the hell do you think you are?"
Tucker didn't bother to answer. Monique leaned forward and broadened her butt.
Tucker sprang onto her, sinking one hand into her flesh and grasping his travel bag with his other hand. Monique found her balance, Tucker whooped, and they hopped rapidly away.
The enraged, flabbergasted Tre stared after them for a moment, then ran back through the office and yelled to Molly, who was playing checkers with Dolf while Wren watched from her walker. "Keep an eye on things, Molly! I have to go out!" "All righty," sang Molly. "The boy and me are about to eat cookies! I'll give Wren one too. I love cookies, but I hate graham crackers!"
"Fine, Molly, fine."
Tre dashed back out and jumped onto his hydrogen cycle. The burner hiccupped on, and Tre pedaled to the corner with the little engine helping him. There, down at the bottom of the hill, were Tucker and Monique, moving toward the wharf in long, graceful leaps. Tre hurtled after them.
He thought—too late—of Tucker's patches on his DIM tires as he shot across the train tracks at the bottom of the hill. Instead of smoothing the bump energy into the usual chaotic series of shudders, Tre's tires seemed to blow out.
The raw metal of the wheel rims scraped across the pavement, showering sparks.
The bike slewed, the front rim crimped and caught, Tre went over the falls. His shoulder made a horrible crunch as he hit the pavement.
Tre lay there gasping for breath, monitoring the nerve impulses from his battered bod. Big problem in his right shoulder, a scrape on his forearm, but he hadn't hit his head. All right, he was going to be okay, but then—
Two strong slippery shapes wound around Tre's waist. The DIM tires!?! Tre jerked up into a sitting position. Bone ground against bone in his right shoulder.
The tires were like fat white hoop snakes who'd stopped biting their tails; they were the two sea serpents who slew Laocoon. Tucker's DIM patches glowed on the tires like evil eyes. There was a hideous pressure around Tre's waist, squeezing the air out of him. He got hold of the tires with his left hand and pulled them loose; they writhed up his left arm and twined around his neck.
"What's he doing? Is it a trick?"
A group of tourists had gathered around Tre and the DIM snakes. The young man who spoke was a valley wearing a bright new Santa Cruz DIM shirt with a gnarly graphic of a surfer on a liveboard.
"He's bleeding," said the woman at his side. She wore her long pink hair in three high ponytails. "And it looks like those moldie things are choking him."
"Help," gasped Tre. "Get them off me. They—" The pressure on his windpipe made further speech impossible, but now, blessedly, the valley stepped forward and tugged at the snakes. While continuing to grip Tre's neck with their tails, the snakes elongated their heads and stuck at the valley. Another onlooker—a lithe black woman in cotton tights—stepped forward and yanked the distracted snakes off Tre. She swung the snakes through the air and slammed them down hard on the pavement.
"Rogue moldies," yelled an old man. "Hold 'em down! I'll run into that liquor store and get some 191-proof rum to burn 'em!"
The valley planted his feet on one of the stunned DIM tires and the black woman stood on the other. The old man hurried hitchingly toward Beach Liquors. The woman with the three ponytails leaned over Tre, who was flat on his back.
"Are you okay, mister?" The valley woman's upside-down face looked big and soft and strange. Watching her white-lipsticked lips move was like seeing someone with a mouth in her forehead.
"I think so," whispered Tre.
There was a sudden cry, and now the DIM snakes had wormed out from under the people's feet. They humped off rapidly, leaped into the air, and all at once flipped into the shapes of seagulls.
Still on his back, Tre stared at the white shapes flapping away. The blue sky.
It was precious to be alive.
"What the hell?" asked the big valley.
"Now I've seen everything," said the black woman.
"Here's the rum!" called a voice, and the old man's footsteps came scuffing closer. "They got away? Gol-dang it. I've always wanted to burn a moldie.
Well, what the hey." There was a sound of a bottle being uncapped, followed by a gurgle of drinking. "Anybody else want some? How 'bout the victim here?"
Tre sat up and weakly waved the old man away. "Thank you," he said to the valley and the black woman. "You saved my life. God bless you."
"Shouldn't he stay on his back?" interjected an old woman. "His neck could be broken. He might have internal bleeding. We should get him to a doctor.
Where's the nearest hospital? Stop guzzling that rum, Herbert!"
"Most of us don't use doctors and hospitals here," said Tre painfully. Moving very slowly, he got to his feet. "I'll go to a healer."
"But shouldn't we call some gimmie?" asked the valley.
"We don't like to use them either," said Tre, attempting a grin. "Welcome to Santa Cruz."
After a little more chatter, the people drifted away. Tre stared briefly up and down Beach Street, then out toward the wharf, but nothing much was to be seen.
People coming and going. A Percesepe cruise boat pulling away. No sign of Tucker, Monique, or the DIM tires/seagulls.
It was only two blocks back to the motel, so Tre decided to wheel his cycle back there before doing anything else. The bare wheel rims clanged, the bones in his shoulder grated, but Tre made it. He was thankful to find Terri there.
"Terri, I'm hurt. I was in an accident. I think I broke a bone."
"Oh, Tre, that's wiped! You're so pale! How did it happen?"
"I was chasing Monique and Randy Karl Tucker. That weird hillbilly limpware salesman who checked in last night? Somehow he got Monique to rickshaw him away, and I was trying to chase them down with my cycle."
"You fell off your bike?"
"My tires squirmed off the rims. Then they tried to squeeze me to death and then they tried to strangle me and then they turned into seagulls and they flew away."
"My DIM tires. Tucker put some kind of patch on them. He jammed their limpware."
"You fell off your bike and your tires tried to choke you and then they flew away. Tre, you're stoned, aren't you? Why do you do this to yourself? To me and the kids?"
"I did smoke pot this morning, but that has nothing to do with it! Why are you so suspicious, Terri? I need your help, for God's sake. My shoulder's broken, I've nearly been killed, and I have to see a healer!"
"Fine," said Terri curtly. "We'll go to Starshine."
"Can I come too?" asked Dolf. "I want to see Starshine make Daddy well." The little boy stared worriedly up at Tre, who was grimacing.
"Yes, you can come," said Tre, patting his son on the head. It would be good to have a buffer between him and Terri. Terri often got angry when she was afraid.
"Molly, we three are going down to Starshine's."
"Bye-bye. Say bye-bye, Wren!" Little Wren stood unsteadily on Molly's lap and waved bye-bye, dimpling her cheeks and showing her gums.
The sun was high and glaring. Dolf skipped down the sidewalk ahead of the silent Terri and Tre. They walked a block down the back side of the beach hill to the little house where Starshine and her husband Duck Tapin lived. The house was set back from the street with a garage up front by the curb in the shade of a huge palm tree.
Duck was visible in the shadows of the garage, wearing his inevitable outfit of tan shorts and flowered shirt. He had a long, weathered face with reddish-blond walrus whiskers; his hair was a floppy mat of blond curls.
"Yaar, Duck," said Terri.
"Yaar," said Duck. "What's happening?" He looked up from the big table where he was carefully assembling some scroll-shaped pieces of colored glass into one of the windows that he sold for a living. Starshine's orange-and-white dog Planet lay at Duck's feet, quietly thumping his tail. Little Dolf hunkered down near Planet to pet him.
"My hydrogen cycle's DIM tires got screwed up," said Tre. "I fell off the cycle and broke something."
"Oh, that's dense," said Duck hoarsely. California born and raised, Duck was an unreflective pleasure hound who happened somehow to be a very gifted craftsman.
At any hour of the day, sober or not, he gave the impression of having spent the last twelve hours getting very weightless. "That's fully stuck. You want Starshine to heal you?"
"Yeah," said Terri. "Is she in the house?"
"No doubt," said Duck. "Go give her a holler. How's it going, Dolf? You helping to take care of your dad?"
"Yes," said Dolf solemnly. "What are you making?"
"This is a window for a lady up in the hills. It's going to be a peacock. See his head there? Whoops, there go your parents. Better follow them."
"Bye, Duck! Bye, Planet!" Dolf hurried after his parents, his thin little legs rapid beneath his short pants.
Duck and Starshine's house was a small pink-painted wooden box. There were large clumps of naturalized bird of paradise plants in front of it, some with a few late orange-and-purple blossoms shaped like the heads of sharp-nosed donkeys.
At the base of the cottage's walls were masses of nasturtiums with irregular round leaves and red-and-orange flowers. Crawling up the walls were vines that bore flowers shaped like asymmetrical lavender trumpets. A thick hop vine twisted its way up along the eaves.
Terri knocked on the door with the little brass head of a gnome that hung there.
After a while there were light, rapid footsteps and Starshine flung the door open.
"Yaar there!" she sang. Starshine was a talkative woman with straight brown hair, high cheekbones, and a hard chin. Her parents had been Florida crackers, but she'd turned herself into a Clearlight Californian. Seeing Terri and Dolf with Tre, she instantly spotted Tre's problem. "What all's happened to your shoulder, Tre?"
"He fell off his bicycle," said Dolf. "Can you make him well?"
"It hurts a lot here," said Tre, pointing to where his shoulder met his neck.
"It made a noise when I fell, and now when I move my shoulder, I can feel something grinding. After I fell, my tires tried to strangle me and then they flew away. But Terri here doesn't want to hear about that part. She thinks I'm fucked up."
"Poor Tre. Thank Goddess I'm here. For the last hour I've been about to go into town, but I kept feeling like there was some reason to stay. This must be the reason. Come on in, you three."
The house had only three rooms: the main room, the kitchen, and the room where Duck and Starshine slept. Starshine had Tre lie down on the floor while Terri watched from the couch with Dolf at her side.
"I'll scan you, and if it's a simple break I can glue it up for you directly,"
Starshine told Tre. She opened a trunk that sat by one wall and took out a device about the size and shape of a handheld vacuum cleaner. She detached a special uvvy from it and put the uvvy on her neck, then proceeded to run the device over Tre's neck and shoulder while staring off into space.
"I'm seein' your bones, Tre."
"Are you using radiation?" worried Terri.
"Heck no," said Starshine. "This is ultrasonic. My dog Planet hates when I use this thing. Did you see Planet outside, Dolf?"
"Yes," said Dolf. "Planet's in the garage with Duck."
"And before I moved in, Duck said he hated dogs," said Starshine. "That man was too solitary. The first time I saw him, I knew he was the one for me. He was tanned and callused like the carpenters and construction workers I'd been dating, but then I found out he was an artist! When I heard that, I set my cap for him. And now that we're married, I'm working on getting him to want some kids. I've thought of some beautiful names. Speaking of people with cute names, how's little Wren today?"
"Oh, she's wavin'," said Terri. "And Dolf here is learning to play checkers.
Is Tre going to be all right?"
"I think so," said Starshine, setting down her scanner. "Tre, old brah, you've snapped your collarbone is what you've done. Let me get out my glue gun and patch you." "Is it going to hurt?" asked Tre weakly. "Shouldn't you give me some drugs?"
"You smell like you've already been smoking some good reefer this morning," said Starshine teasingly. "Are you sure that's not why you fell off your cycle and saw your tires fly away? Reminds me of something happened one time to Aarbie Kidd."
"You see, Tre?" interjected Terri. "You should cut back. You've been getting so floppy."
"Oh, shut up," snapped Tre, lying there on his back with the two women and his son looking down at him. "In the first place, the accident was caused by that guy putting some kind of weird DIMs on my tires. In the second place, pot's not a drug. It's an herb. It energizes me."
"Oh yeah," said Terri. "And when's the last time you finished something?"
"What about my new four-dimensional Perplexing Poultry philtre, for God's sake!
"Yeah, well how come it took you four years to do it! You smoke too much, Tre!"
"Now, Terri," said Starshine. "Let me finish healin' him up before you start beatin' him down. First I'll give you a little mist, Tre, so that you won't feel it when I glue your break. And, Dolf, I think maybe you ought to go outside while I do this. I wouldn't want you to get spooked and bump into me."
"Do I have to?"
"You do what the healer says, Dolf," said Terri. "Go out in the garage with Planet and Duck."
"Go ahead, Dolf," added Tre. "I'll be all right."
"Okay. And, Mommy, you come get me when Daddy is well." Dolf ran out to the garage.
"He's a sweet boy to care for his daddy that way," said Starshine. She got a little squeezie of aerosol spray out of her healer trunk. She wafted a pulse of the spray into Tre's nostrils. His muscles relaxed and his eyelids fluttered shut. "I know some folks that have lost everything to this mist," continued Starshine. "It gives you mighty sweet dreams. Mist is giga worse than any silly old pot habit. And mist is nothing compared to gabba. That's what Aarbie Kidd got into after we rode his motorcycle out here from Florida. The minute old Aarbie got to California, he got hooked on gabba and started abusing me ten times worse than he ever did back in Florida. Him and his flamehead tattoos.
Thank Goddess I found Clearlight."
Starshine's eyes narrowed and she pulsed a bit more mist into Tre's nostrils.
"I had my chance to get free of Aarbie after he wrecked his motorcycle and asked me to heal him. Tre hasn't been beating on you, has he, Terri? If you need some time to think things over, I can put him to sleep for a week."
"Oh no no no, don't do that," said Terri. "It's just that Tre ignores me sometimes. And I get so tired of being a wife and mother. I need a vacation is what it is. I wish I could go off by myself and surf or snowboard someplace really major and let Tre do all the housework for a change. But, oh, I shouldn't be harshing on him while he's hurt. Of course don't put him to sleep for a week, are you whacked? Tre doesn't compare to Aarbie Kidd. You get to work healing him, Starshine. And explain what you're doing as you go along." "Right now I'm going to have a cup of coffee," said Starshine. "Before I go and finish this. I'll let Tre chill just a little deeper. One more pulse of mist."
At the final pulse, Tre's body lost all of its muscle tone. He looked as soft as an imipolex polar bear rug.
"You want anything, Terri?" asked Starshine, ambling out to the kitchen.
"Just a glass of water, please. You're sure Tre's okay?"
"He'll be fine like this for an hour or until I give him the antidote. Did I tell you I saw Aarbie again just the other day? Down near the Boardwalk. He was real friendly. Yellow stubble on his head growing out of the hearts of his flame tattoos. Lifted on gabba as usual." Starshine clattered about in the kitchen, still talking. "What Aarbie's up to these days is what I'd like to understand.
First he said he was working for the Heritagists, and then he said he was working for the loonie moldies. He was with some skanky guy from Kentucky who kept telling him to shut up. Okeydoke, here we go." Starshine reemerged with a cup of coffee and a glass of water.
She got something that looked like a stubby plastic pistol out of her healer trunk and set it down next to the scanner and the mister that lay next to Tre.
"This is the glue gun," said Starshine. "But first I use my hands to set the bones. Did you know that in Arabic bone-setting is al-jabarl. The word algebra comes from that. Arranging things. I learned that in my classes. Time for some healer algebra, Tre." She laid the scanner on Tre's chest and adjusted his collarbone with both hands. Tre moaned softly.
Terri couldn't watch, so she looked away, letting her eyes range over the pictures on the walls—Starshine's life-affirming Clearlight posters of plants and landscapes, along with Duck's highly detailed oil-and-canvas fiber-for-fiber copies of high-art paintings. Duck loved dreamy late-nineteenth-century artists such as Arnold Bocklin and Franz von Stuck and had taken the trouble to get museum-grade nanoprecise copies of some of their pictures, complete with exact wood-gilt-and-plaster copies of the frames. The largest picture was Bocklin's Triton and Nereid, which showed a hairy guy—Triton—sitting on a rock in the sea and blowing in a conch shell. Lying flat on her back on the rock with Triton was a smiling sexy plump Nereid, toying with a huge bewhiskered sea serpent. The serpent's back was decorated with a lovely proto-Jugendstil pattern of green-and-yellow tessellation. Duck liked to explain the pictures to his friends.
"All righty now," said Starshine, setting down the scanner and picking up the glue gun. "See the tip, Terri?" The glue gun had what looked like a long, dull needle at the end. "It's folded up now, so I can push it through his skin.
But then on the inside it opens up into a swarm of bendy little arms, and those arms split up into arms that split. The little fibers reach into the break and fit any loose chips into place, and then they secrete… something. I forget the name. Phonybone? Phonybone is basically organic, except that it has some rare-earth elements in it. Ytterbium and lutetium. It's completely safe."
"Are you sure?" fretted Terri.
"It's automatic, honey," said Starshine as she brandished the glue gun.
"Every piece of my equipment has a big DIM inside it. If these machines were much smarter, they'd be full-fledged moldies—and, of course, then you wouldn't be able to trust 'em, would you? That's why we've got healers to run 'em. Here goes!" Starshine bent over Tre and pushed the tip of the glue gun through his skin just above his collarbone. As the invisible fractal tip unfolded and did its work, Terri could see slight motions beneath Tre's skin.
Again Terri looked away, resting her eyes on von Stuck's Sin, a high Jugendstil work with a massive, pillared gold-leaf wooden frame around a darkly painted half-nude woman, young and bold-eyed, her raven tresses cascading down with a stray pubic-like curl across her belly—and there in the shadows, draped across her shoulders, was a great thick black serpent, its inhuman slit-eyed face peering out at the viewer from beneath the woman's steady, shadowed gaze.
Next to it was a tacked-up paper Clearlight poster showing a huge sunflower with a smiling face. Out the window was the palm tree and the garage and the October afternoon and the soft piping of Dolf and the loud, laughing voice of Duck—tears filled Terri's eyes.
"Terri," came Starshine's voice presently. "It's all over, sweet thing. You can stop crying. And, brah Tre, it's time to wake up." Starshine changed a setting on her squeezie and pulsed a different aerosol into Tre's nostrils. He twitched and opened his eyes. "You're all better, Tre!" said Starshine. "And for recuperation, I'd advise right living and being good to your wife."
"Wavy," said Tre, sitting up uncertainly. "The dreams—I was seeing flashes of light from the Nth dimension. Yaar! I'm healed?" He rubbed his shoulder. "How much do we owe you?"
"Oh, how about a free room in your motel for maybe a week, ten days? My Aunt Tempest is coming out to visit from Florida, but I can't stand to have her in my house. Tempest raised me, you know. My parents died in the Second Human-Bopper War on the Moon back in 2031."
"I didn't know that," said Terri. "Were they heroes?"
"Not hardly," said Starshine. "They were working for the boppers. They were called Rainbow and Berdoo, just a cracker skank and her bad-ass man—like me and Aarbie Kidd used to be. Rainbow and Berdoo ran a toy shop on the Moon that was a front for a tunnel into the boppers' Nest."
"Wow," said Tre. "They were helping the boppers turn people into meaties?
Putting those robot rats inside their skulls?"
"I think Rainbow and Berdoo were probably meaties themselves by the end," said Starshine. "After they died, a guy called Whitey Mydol took care of me for a while. Him and his old lady Darla; they're friends of Stahn Mooney's. Stahn got in touch with my Aunt Tempest, and she had me flown right down to Florida."
"Senator Stahn's gotten kind of strung out lately," remarked Tre. "But he's still a good man. So when's your aunt coming? What are the dates?"
"Too soon till too long," sighed Starshine. "You don't have to give her a really good room."
"We can fit her in up by the parking lot," said Terri. "Those rooms are usually empty this time of year."
"Aunt Tempest couldn't be any worse of a guest than the guy I checked in last night," said Tre, cautiously flexing his newly healed body. "Randy Karl Tucker."
"Randy Karl Tucker!" exclaimed Starshine. "That's the name of the guy I saw down at the Boardwalk with Aarbie Kidd."
"Oh yeah?" said Tre. "Well, he's the one who sabotaged my DIM tires, and it looks like he stole Monique. Maybe you can help me find him?"
"I wouldn't advise you to try," said Starshine, shaking her head. "Not if he's friends with Aarbie. Terri, I'll let you know about Aunt Tempest. Now go on home and get Tre to rest."
When they stepped out into the yard, Dolf heard them and came running.
Tre hugged him. "I'm all fixed. Starshine glued me. What have you been up to?"
"Duck's shoes can walk by themselves," said Dolf. "Show them, Duck!"
Duck grinned and held his hands up in the air. Slowly and smoothly, he slid out of the garage toward Terri and Tre.
"They're DIM shoes," said Duck. "The soles are imipolex. They adjust to your foot. And if you press your toes a certain way, they ripple along on the ground by themselves. Loose as a moose." Duck made dancing gestures with his arms and gave his wild laugh.
"Do you have to feed your shoes?" asked Dolf.
"No," said Duck. "They're like moldies; they eat light." He struck a new pose and his shoes began dollying him back into the garage. "I gotta finish this piece by tomorrow. How's the sore wing, Tre?"
"It's solid," said Tre, gingerly patting his collarbone. "Good as new."
"Beautiful. Later, guys."
Back at the motel, three of Monique's nestmates were waiting for them: Xlotl, Ouish, and Xanana. While Xlotl was shaped like a chessman, Ouish and Xanana looked like sharks walking around erect on their tail fins—sharks with drifting, eddying fractals moving across their skins in shades of blue and deep gray.
They each had a silvery patch that sketched a resemblance to a face.
"What's the story with Monique?" Xlotl demanded of Terri and Tre. "What the hell happened?"
"It looks like Monique ran off with a scuzzy cheeseball guest," said Terri, smiling at Tre. She'd started believing him again. "He sabotaged Tre's DIM
tires, and poor Tre broke his collarbone trying to catch them."
Tre smiled back at Terri, then focused on Monique's excited nestmates. "How do you know something happened to Monique anyway?" asked Tre. "Did she uvvy you?"
"She didn't," said Xlotl. "And she was supposed to. So I grepped for her vibe and managed to get a feed from her virtual address, but—" Xlotl shook his head helplessly.
"What?" demanded Tre. "Can you tell me, Ouish? Xanana?"
"Yes, I can tell you," said Ouish. She had a rich, womanly voice that she generated by vibrating her silvery face patch. "Xanana and I have just been channeling her. Monique seems to be dreaming about the ocean. We think maybe she's undersea. Come here, Tre. Let me uvvy it to you."
"Wavy," said Tre, and Ouish laid one of her fins across the back of Tre's neck to feed him a realtime uvvification of Monique's current mental essence.
Monique seemed to be underwater, but it was not a realistic scene. The bottom had a white orthogonal mesh painted on it, for one thing, and the things swimming about in the water looked more like goblins than like fish. Instead of seaweed, the bottom was overgrown with rusty machinery. Yet the play of the shiny surface overhead was just as the ocean should be. The uvvy transmitted a nonvisual sensation that there was someone with Monique—inside her?—someone that Monique was frightened of, someone kinky, someone like Randy Karl Tucker.
It was too strange, too intense, and Tre felt faint. He pushed Xanana's flipper off his neck.
"That's my nestmate," said Ouish. "That's her right now. And I don't know how she got that way or where she is. Tell me about the guest who took her."
"At first Tre thought he was just a weird redneck limpware salesman," said Terri.
"His name is Randy Karl Tucker," added Tre. "He's from Kentucky. He was real interested in Monique last night, and this morning he got her to rickshaw him out of here. I almost caught up with them near the wharf, but Tucker put some kind of DIM patches on my tires that made them jump off my wheels and try to choke me and turn into seagulls and fly away. Does… does that any make sense to you guys?"
"It could be done," said Xanana. "Have you heard of superleeches? No? You poor fleshers can be so out of it. There's a new kind of leech-DIM called superleeches; they just started showing up in August. Nobody's told you? A
superleech lets a human take control of a moldie or, for that matter, take control of a simple DIM device like an imipolex tire. It's made of some new kind of imipolex. None of us knows where the superleeches are coming from. They're very bad. Very very bad. Very very very bad. Very very very very bad—" Xanana repeated this loop phrase maybe twenty or a hundred times, saying it faster and with more verys each time, so that the last repetitions merged into a single chirp. Xanana liked infinite regresses.
"And you say Tucker's a cheeseball?" interrupted Ouish.
"I don't really know for sure," said Terri. "It's a guess."
"Yeah Monique was gonna fuck him," said Xlotl. "We was talkin' about it during our break. Just ball him to make money, ya know."
"Oh wow, that's classy," exclaimed Terri. "Monique turning tricks in our motel.
If that's the case, we don't want her working here, do we, Tre? With the children? We don't want to run that kind of motel, do we? We don't want the Clearlight to end up like that horrible place where my father died!" The moldies shifted about uneasily at this remark, but Terri seemed not to notice.
"Answer me, Tre!"
"No, we don't want that," said Tre slowly. He'd been deep in thought ever since hearing what Xanana said. "I need to find out more about these superleeches.
I've got this feeling they're based on my four-dimensional Perplexing Poultry.
How come Apex Images never tells me anything?"
"Let's stick to the point," said Xlotl. "How do we save Monique? Is it for real that she's underwater?"
"She might be," said Ouish. "Or she might just be dreaming."
"Maybe she and Tucker turned right at the wharf and headed up toward Steamer Lane," suggested Tre. "Can you guys uvvy any moldies there?"
"Let me try," said Xanana. "Everooze and Ike might be surfing Steamers today."
In a minute, he'd made contact. Everooze, father of Monique and Xanana, was indeed surfing Steamer Lane, a point break at the Santa Cruz lighthouse.
Xanana spoke aloud so that Tre and Terri could follow the conversation.
"Yaar, Pop, have you seen Monique? Or has anyone else there seen her? Yeah, I'll hold on while you check. What's that? Zilly the liveboard did? Monique turned herself into a diving suit for a tourist and jumped into the ocean? But you didn't notice it yourself. You were shredding the curl. Wavy. Yeah. We think Monique's been abducted. Her signal's really weird; you can check it out.
You're going after her? Hold on, Ouish and me want to come too."
"I'm in," said Xlotl.
"And me too," said Terri. "If I can wear you underwater, Xanana?"
"Sure thing. Is Tre coming? He could ride inside Ouish."
"I should rest," said Tre. "I'm still a little shaky from the accident. And I've got to find out about this superleech stuff. I'll make some uvvy calls."
"Okay," said Terri. "But be sure and take it easy. Ouish, can you rickshaw me out to Steamers?"
"I don't do that," said Ouish coldly. "I'm a diver, not a rickshaw."
"You can say that again," said Xanana. "You can say, 'You can say that again'
again. You can say, 'You can say, 'You can say, "You can say that again" again'
again. You can say, "You can say, 'You can say that again' again" again'
And he was off to the races with another regress.
"La-di-da," said Xlotl. "This ain't no tea dance. Get the hell on me, Terri."
Xlotl formed a saddle shape on his back, and Terri got aboard. The three moldies and Terri went bouncing down the hill.
Tre watched them go, checked on Molly and the kids, sat down in a comfortable chair, donned the uvvy, planning to put in a call to Stahn Mooney. But just then the uvvy signaled for him.
"Hi there!" Tre saw the image of a teenage girl hick with a colorless lank ponytail. "My name is, um, Jenny? I bet you're wondering about Randy Karl Tucker's superleeches, aren't you?" Jenny gave a shrill giggle. "I could tell you all about them if I wanted to."
"Are you working with Randy for the Heritagists or something?" asked Tre. "I want Monique back right now. Are you a blackmailer?"
"Those are silly questions," said Jenny. "Me, a Heritagist? A blackmailer?
Think bigger, Tre. I want to talk to you about smart stuff! I can tell you exactly how Sri Ramanujan at Emperor Staghorn used your 4D Poultry to design imipolex-4 and the superleech. I have a viddy of him explaining it. If I show it to you, will you promise to tell me all the things it makes you think of next?" "But I have an exclusive contract with Apex Images."
"Oh right! I'm so sure. And meanwhile Apex never tells you anything.
Ramanujan gets your ideas and hogs them and doesn't give you anything back. You can trust Jenny, Randy. I'll never tell anyone a thing about our little deal. Here's a peek."
Jenny started a tape of a round-faced Indian man, presumably Ramanujan, explaining about his marvelous new Tessellation Equation. He seemed to be in a lab, and there was a math screen behind him. Tre could instantly see that this was a major mathematical breakthrough and that it had been inspired by his 4D
Poultry. It was like he was suddenly getting a glass of water after crawling through a desert. Just then Jenny stopped the tape.
"Are we interested? Hmmm?" Something synthetic about the hum made Tre suddenly realize that Jenny was a software construct and not a person at all. God only knew who she really worked for.
"Please let me see the rest of it, Jenny."
"And you promise to tell me what it makes you think of?"