1They met in a jungle clearing.
Kelsey had done the vegetation: big bright Rousseau leaves, cartoon orchids flecked with her idea of tropical colors (which reminded Chia of that mall-chain that sold "organic" cosmetic products in shades utterly unknown to nature). Zona, the only one telepresent who'd ever seen anything like a real jungle, had done the audio, providing birdcalls, invisible but realistically dopplering bugs, and the odd vegetational rustle artfully suggesting not snakes but some shy furry thing, soft-pawed and curious.
Zona, her blue Aztec death's-head burning bodiless, ghosts of her blue hands flickering like strobe-lit doves: "Clearly, this dickless whore has contrived to ensnare his soul." Stylized lightning zig-zags rose around the crown of the neon skull in deliberate emphasis.
Chia wondered what she'd really said. Was "dickless whore" an artifact of instantaneous on-line translation, or was that really something you could or would say in Mexican?
"Waiting hard confirm from Tokyo chapter," Kelsey reminded them. Kelsey's father was a Houston tax lawyer, something of his particular species of biz-speak tending to enter his daughter around meeting-time; also a certain ability to wait that Chia found irritating, particularly as manifested by a saucer-eyed nymph-figure out of some old anime. Which Chia was double damn sure Kelsey would not look like realtime, were they ever to meet that way. (Chia herself was presenting currently as an only slightly tweaked, she felt, version of how the mirror told her she actually looked. Less nose, maybe. Lips a little fuller. But that was it. Almost.)
"Exactly," Zona said, miniature stone calendars whirling angrily in her eye-holes. "We wait. While he moves ever closer to his fate. We wait. If my girls and I were to wait like this, the Rats would sweep us from the avenues." Zona was, she claimed, the leader of a knife-packing chilanga girl-gang. Not the meanest in Mexico City, maybe, but serious enough about turf and tribute. Chia wasn't sure she believed it, but it made for some interesting attitude in meetings.
"Really?" Kelsey drew her nymph-self up with elvin dignity, batting manga-doe lashes in disbelief. "In that case, Zona Rosa, why don't you just get yourself over to Tokyo and find out what's really going on? Did Rez say that, that he was going to marry her, or what? And while you're at it, find out whether she exists or not, okay?"
The calendars stopped on a dime.
The blue hands vanished.
The skull seemed to recede some infinite distance yet remain perfectly in focus, clear in every textural detail.
Old trick, Chia thought. Stalling.
"You know that I cannot do that," Zona said. "I have responsibilities here. Maria Conchita, the Rat warlord, has stated that -"
"As if we care, right?" Kelsey launched herself straight up, her nymphness a pale blur against the rising tangle of green, until she hovered just below the canopy, a beam of sunlight flattering one impossible cheekbone. "ZONA ROSA'S FULL OF SHIT!", she bellowed, not at all nymph-like.
"Don't fight," Chia said. "This is important."
Kelsey descended, instantly. "Then you go," she said.
"You," Kelsey said.
"I can't," Chia said. "To Tokyo? How could I?"
"In an airplane."
"We don't have your kind of money, Kelsey."
"You've got a passport. We know you do. Your mother had to get one for you when she was doing the custody thing. And we know that you are, to put it delicately, 'between schools', yes?"
"Then what's the prob?"
"Your father's a big tax lawyer!"
"I know," Kelsey said. "And he flies back and forth, all over the world, making money. But you know what else he earns, Chia?"
"Frequent-flyer points. Big-ass frequent-flyer points. On Air Magellan."
"Interesting," said the Aztec skull.
"Tokyo," said the mean nymph.
Shit, Chia thought.
The wall opposite Chia's bed was decorated with a six-by-six laser blow-up of the cover of Lo Rez Skyline, their first album. Not the one you got if you bought it today, but the original, the group-shot they'd done for that crucial first release on the indie Dog Soup label. She'd pulled the file off the club's site the week she'd joined, found a place near the Market that could print it out that big. It was still her favorite, and not just, as her mother too frequently suggested, because they all still looked so young.
Lo Rez Skyline had been released, if you could call it that, a week (well, six days) before Chia had been born. She estimated that no hard copies would have reached Seattle in time for her nativity, but she liked to believe there had been listeners here even then, PacRim visionaries netting new sounds from indies as obscure, even, as East Taipei's Dog Soup. She knew that, somehow, just as she knew that "Stuck Pixel", barely even a song, just Lo noodling around on some pawnshop guitar, must have been playing somewhere when her mother, who'd spoken very little English at that point, chose Chia's name from something cycling past on the Shopping Channel, the phonetic caress of those syllables striking her there in Postnatal Recovery as some optimally gentle combination of sounds Italian and English; her baby, red-haired even then, subsequently christened - Chia Pet McKenzie (somewhat, Chia later gathered, to the amazement of her absent Canadian father).
These thoughts arriving in the pre-alarm dark, just before the infrared winkie on her alarm clock stuttered silently to the halogen gallery-spot, telling it to illuminate Lo/Rez in all their Dog Soup glory. Rez with his shirt open (but entirely ironically) and Lo with his grin and a prototype mustache that hadn't quite grown in.
Hi, guys. Fumbling for her remote. Zapping infrared into shadows. Zap: Espressomatic. Zap: cubic space heater.
Beneath her pillow the unfamiliar shape of her passport, like a vintage game-cartridge, hard navy blue plastic, textured like leatherette, with its stamped gold seal and eagle. The Air Magellan tickets in their limp beige plastic folder from the travel agent in the mall.
She took a deep breath. Her mother's house seemed to take one as well, but more tenta-tively, its wooden bones creaking in the winter morning cold.
2"Okay to run this?" She pulled a zip and showed the flight attendant her Sandbenders, stuffed in between four pairs of rolled-up tights.
"You can't port back here; only in business or first," he said, "but you can access what you've got. Cable to the seatback display, if you want."
"Thanks," she said, "got gogs." He moved on.
The snoring of the blonde beside her faltered in mid-buzz as they jolted over a pocket of turbulence. Chia dug her glasses and tip-sets from their nests of clean underwear, putting them beside her, between her hip and the armrest. She pulled the Sandbenders out, zipped the bag shut, and used her free hand and both feet to wedge the bag under the seat in front of her. She wanted out of here so bad.
With the Sandbenders across her thighs, she thumbed a battery check. Eight hours on miser mode, if she was lucky. But right now she didn't care. She uncoiled the lead from around the bridge of her glasses and jacked it. The tip-sets were tangled, like they always were. Take your time, she told herself. A torn sensor-band and she'd be here all night. Little silver thimbles, flexy framework fingers; easy did it... Jack and jack...
The blonde said something in her sleep. If sleep was what you called it.
Chia picked up her glasses, slid them on, and hit big red.
- My ass out of here.
And it was.
There on the edge of her bed, looking at the Lo Rez Skyline poster. Until Lo noticed. He stroked his half-grown moustache and grinned at her.
"Hey." She kept it sub-vocal.
"What's up, girl?"
"I'm on an airplane. I'm on my way to Japan."
"Japan? Kicky. You do our Budokan disk?"
"I don't feel like talking, Lo." Not to a software agent, anyway, sweet as he might be.
"Easy." He shot her that catlike grin, his eyes wrinkling at the corners, and became a still image. Chia looked around, feeling disappointed. Things weren't quite the right size, somehow, or maybe she should've used those fractal packets that messed it all up a little, put dust in the corners and smudges around the light-switch.
She gestured for the living room, phasing past what would've been the door to her mother's bedroom. She'd barely wireframed it, here, and there was no there, no interiority. The living room had its sketchy angles as well, and furniture she'd imported from a Playmobil system that pre-dated her Sandbenders. Wonkily bit-mapped fish swam monotonously around in a glass coffee table she'd built when she was nine. The trees through the front window were older still: perfectly cylindrical Crayola-brown trunks, each supporting an acid-green cotton-ball of undifferentiated foliage. If she looked at these long enough, the Mumphalumphagus would appear outside, wanting to play, so she didn't.
She positioned herself on the Playmobil couch and looked at the programs scattered across the top of the coffee table. The Sandbenders system software looked like an old-fashioned canvas water-bag, a sort of canteen (she'd had to consult What Things Are, her icon dictionary, to figure that out). It was worn and spectacularly organic, with tiny beads of water bulging through the tight weave of fabric. If you got in super close you saw things reflected in the individual droplets: circuitry that was like beadwork or the skin on a lizard's throat, a long empty beach under a gray sky, mountains in the rain, creek-water over different-colored stones. She loved Sandbenders; they were the best. THE SANDBENDERS, OREGON, was screened faintly across the sweating canvas, as though it had almost faded away under a desert sun.
Beside the water-bag lay her schoolwork, represented by a three-ring binder suffering the indignities of artificial bit-rot, its wireframe cover festered with digital mung. She'd have to reformat that before she started her new school, she reminded herself. Too juvenile.
Her Lo/Rez collection, albums, compilations and bootlegs, were displayed as the original cased disks. These were stacked up, as casually as possible, beside the archival material she'd managed to assemble since being accepted into the Seattle chapter. This looked, thanks to a fortuitous file-swap with a member in Sweden, like a lithographed tin lunch box, Rez and Lo peering stunned and fuzzy-eyed from its flat rectangular lid. The Swedish fan had scanned the artwork from the five printed surfaces of the original, then mapped it over wireframe. The original was probably Nepalese, definitely unlicensed, and Chia appreciated the reverse cachet. Zona Rosa coveted a copy, but so far all she'd offered were a set of cheesy tv spots for the fifth Mexico Dome concert. They weren't nearly cheesy enough, and Chia wasn't prepared to swap. There was a shadowy Brazilian tour documentary supposed to have been made by a public-access subsidiary of Globo. Chia wanted that, and Mexico was the same direction as Brazil.
She ran a finger down the stacked disks, her hand wireframed, the finger tipped with quivering mercury and thought about the Rumor. There had been rumors before, there were rumors now, there would always be rumors. There had been the rumor about Lo and that Danish model, that they were going to get married, and that had probably been true, even though they never did. And there were always rumors about Rez and different people. But that was people. The Danish model was people, as much as Chia thought she was a snotbag. The Rumor was something else.
What, exactly, she was on her way to Tokyo to find out.
She selected Lo-Rez Skyline.
The virtual Venice her father had sent for her thirteenth birthday looked like an old dusty book with leather covers, the smooth brown leather scuffed in places into a fine suede, the digital equivalent of washing denim in a machine full of golf balls. It lay beside the featureless, textureless gray file that was her copy of the divorce decree and the custody agreement.
She pulled the Venice toward her, opened it. The fish flickered out of phase, her system launching a subroutine.
The Piazza in midwinter monochrome, its facades texture-mapped in marble, porphyry, polished granite, jasper, alabaster (the rich mineral names scrolling at will in the menu of peripheral vision). This city of winged lions and golden horses. This hour of gray and perpetual dawn.
The stones of the Piazza flowed beneath her like silk, as she raised a silvered finger and sped into the maze of bridges, water, arches, walls.
She had no idea what this place was meant to mean, the how or why of it, but it fit so perfectly into itself and the space it occupied, water and stone slotting faultlessly into the mysterious whole.
The gnarliest piece of software ever, and here came the opening chords of "Positron Premonition".
Chia had programmed her Music Master to have an affinity for bridges. He appeared in her virtual Venice whenever she crossed one at moderate speed: a slender young man with pale blue eyes and a penchant for long, flowing coats.
He'd been the subject of a look-and-feel action, in his beta release, when lawyers representing a venerable British singer had protested that the Music Master's designers had scanned in images of their client as a much younger man. This had been settled out of court, and all later versions, including Chia's, were much more carefully generic.
She'd fed him into Venice on her second visit, to keep her company and provide musical variety, and keying his appearances to moments when she crossed bridges had seemed like a good idea. There were lots of bridges in Venice, some of them no more than a little arc of stone steps spanning the narrowest of waterways. There was the Bridge of Sighs, which Chia avoided because she found it sad and creepy, and the Bridge of fists, which she liked mainly for its name, and so many others. And there was the Rialto, big and humped and fantastically old, where her father said men had invented banking, or a particular kind of banking. (Her father worked for a bank, which was why he had to live in Singapore.)
She'd slowed her rush through the city now, and was cruising at a walking pace up the stepped incline of the Rialto, the Music Master striding elegantly beside her, his putty-colored trenchcoat flapping in the breeze.
"DESH," he said, triggered by her glance, "the Diatonic Elaboration of Static Harmony. Also known as the Major Chord With Descending Bassline. Bach's 'Air On A G String', 1730. Procol Harum's 'A Whiter Shade of Pale', 1967." If she made eye- contact now, she'd hear his samples, directionless and at just the right volume. Then more about DESH, and more samples. She had him here for company, though, and not for a lecture.
She didn't know how long she'd been in Venice, this visit. It was still that minute-before-dawn that she liked best, because she kept it that way.
"Do you know anything about Japanese music?", she asked.
"What sort, exactly?"
"What people listen to."
"I guess so."
He paused, turning, hands in his trouser pockets and the trenchcoat swinging to reveal its lining.
"We could begin with a music called enka," he said, "although I doubt you'd like it." Software agents did that, learned what you liked. "The roots of contemporary Japanese pop came later, with the wholesale creation of something called 'group sounds'. That was a copy-cat phenomenon, flagrantly commercial. Extremely watered-down Western pop influences. Very bland and monotonous."
"But do they really have singers who don't exist?"
"The idol-singers," he said, starting up the hump-backed incline of the bridge. "The idoru. Some of them are enormously popular."
"Do people kill themselves over them?"
"I don't know. They could do, I suppose."
"Do people marry them?"
"Not that I know of."
"How about Rei Toei?" Wondering if that was how you pronounced it.
"I'm afraid I don't know her," he said, with the slight wince that came when you asked him about music that had come out since his own release. This always made Chia feel sorry for him, which she knew was ridiculous.
"Never mind," she said, and closed her eyes.
She removed her glasses.
The blonde was awake, watching her. She'd removed most of her make-up. Her face only inches away.
Then she smiled. It was a slow smile, modular, as though there were stages to it, each one governed by a separate shyness or hesitation.
"I like your computer," she said. "It looks like it was made by Indians or something." Chia looked down at her Sandbenders. Turned off the red switch. "Coral," she said.
"These are turquoise. The ones that look like ivory are the inside of a kind of nut. Renewable."
"Aluminum," Chia said. "They melt old cans they dig up on the beach, cast it in sand-molds. These panels are micarta. That's linen with this resin in it."
"I didn't know Indians could make computers," the woman said, reaching out to touch the curved edge of the Sandbenders. Her voice was hesitant, light, like a child's. The nail on the finger that rested on her Sandbenders was bright red, the lacquer chipped through and ragged. A tremble, then the hand withdrew.
3The site that Mitsuko's chapter had erected for the meeting reminded Chia of Japanese prints she'd seen on a school trip to the museum in Seattle; there was a brownish light that seemed to arrive through layers of ancient varnish. There were hills in the distance with twisted trees, their branches like quick black squiggles of ink.
Nearing the house, she saw that everything had been worked up out of club archives, so that the whole environment was actually made of Lo/Rez material. You noticed it first in the wood-and-paper panels of the walls, where faint image-fragments, larger than life, came and went with the organic randomness of leaf-dappled sun and shadow: Rez's cheekbone and half a pair of black glasses, Lo's hand chording the neck of his guitar.
But these changed, were replaced with a moth-like flicker, and there would be more, all the way down into the site's finest resolution, its digital fabric. She wasn't sure if you could do that with enough of the right kind of fractal packets, or if you needed some kind of special computer. Her Sandbenders managed a few effects like that, but mainly in its presentation of Sandbenders software.
Screens slid aside as she and Mitsuko, seated crosslegged, entered the house. Coming to a neat halt side by side, still seated, floating about three inches off the tatami (which Chia avoided focusing on after she'd seen that it was woven from concert-footage; too distracting). It was a nice way to make an entrance. Mitsuko was wearing the kimono and the wide belt-thing, the whole traditional outfit, except there was some low-key animation going on in the weave of the fabric. Chia herself had downloaded this black Silke-Marie Kolb blouson-and-tights set, even though she hated paying for virtual designer stuff that they wouldn't even let you keep or copy. She'd used Kelsey's cashcard number for that, though, which had made her feel better about it.
There were seven girls waiting there, all in kimonos, all floating just off the tatami. Except the one sitting by herself, at the head of the imaginary table, was a robot. Not like any real robot, but a slender, chrome-skinned thing like mercury constrained within the form of a girl. The face was smooth, only partially featured, eyeless, with twin straight rows of small holes where a mouth should have been. That would be Hiromi Ogawa, and Chia immediately decided to believe that she was overweight.
Hiromi's kimono was crawling with animated sepia-tone footage from band-interviews.
The introductions took a while, and everyone there definitely had a title, but Chia had stopped paying attention after Hiromi's introduction. She didn't like it that Hiromi would turn up that way for a first meeting. It was rude, she thought, and it had to be deliberate, and the trouble they'd gone to with the space just seemed to make it more deliberate.
"We are honored to welcome you, Chia McKenzie. Our chapter looks forward to affording you every assistance. We are proud to be a part of the ongoing global appreciation of Lo/Rez, their music and their art."
"Thank you," Chia said, and sat there as a silence lengthened. Mitsuko quietly cleared her throat. Uh-oh, Chia thought. Speech time. "Thank you for offering to help," Chia said. "Thanks for your hospitality. If any of you ever come to Seattle, we'll find a way to put you up. But mainly thanks for your help, because my chapter's been really worried about this story that Rez claims he wants to marry some kind of software agent, and since he's supposed to have said it when he was over here, we thought -" Chia had had the feeling that she was moving along a little too abruptly, and this was confirmed by another tiny throat-clearing signal from Mitsuko.
"Yes," Hiromi Ogawa said, "you are welcome, and now Tomo Oshima, our chapter's historian, will favor us with a detailed and accurate account of our chapter's story, how we came, from simple but sincere beginnings, to be the most active, the most respectful chapter in Japan today."
Chia couldn't believe it.
The girl nearest Hiromi, on Chia's right, bowed and began to recite the chapter's history in what Chia immediately understood would be the most excruciatingly boring detail. The two boarding-school room-mates, best friends and the most loyal of buddies, who discovered a copy of the Dog Soup album in a bin in Akihabara. How they returned to school with it, played it, were immediate converts. How their schoolmates mocked them, at one point even stealing and hiding the precious recording...
And on, and on, and Chia already felt like screaming, but there was nothing for it but to sit there. She pulled up a clock and stuck it on the mirrored robot's face, where the eyes should have been. Nobody else could see it, but it made her feel a little better.
Now they were into the first Japanese national Lo/Rez convention, snapshots flashing on the white paper walls and little girls in jeans and t-shirts drinking Coca-Cola in some function room in an Osaka airport hotel, a few obvious parents in the background.
Forty-five minutes later, by the red read-out stuck to Hiromi Ogawa's blank metallic face, Tomo Oshima concluded: "Which brings us to the present, and the historic visit of Chia McKenzie, the representative of our sister chapter in Seattle, in the State of Washington. And now I hope that she will honor us by recounting the history of her own chapter, how it was founded and the many activities it has undertaken to honor the music of Lo/Rez..."
"Sorry," Chia said. "Our historian put all that together for you, but it got corrupted when they ran my computer through that big scanner at the airport."
"We are sorry to hear that," the silver robot said. "How unfortunate."
"Yeah," Chia said, "but I guess it gives us more time to discuss what brings me here, right?"
"We had hoped -"
"To help us understand this whole Rez thing, right? We know. We're glad you do. Because we're all really worried about this rumor. It seems like it started here, and this Rei Toei's a local product, so if anybody can tell us what's going on, it's you."
The silver robot was expressionless as ever, but Chia took the clock away just to be sure. "That's why I'm here," Chia said. "To find out if it's true he wants to marry her."
She sensed a general uneasiness. The six girls were looking at the texture-mapped tatami, unwilling to meet her eye. She wanted to look at Mitsuko, but it would have been too obvious.
"We are an official chapter," Hiromi said. "We have the honor of working closely with actual employees of the band. Their publicists are also concerned with the rumor you mention, and they have requested that we assist them in seeing that it not spread further."
"Spread? It's been on the net for a week!"
"It is rumor only."
"Then they should issue a denial."
"Denial would add weight to the rumor."
"The posting said that Rez had announced that he was in love with Rei Toei, that he was going to marry her. There was a long quote." Chia was definitely starting to get the feeling that something was wrong here. This was not what she'd come all this physical distance for; she might as well have been sitting in her bedroom in Seattle.
"We think that the original posting was a hoax. It would not be the first."
"You think? Doesn't that mean you don't know?"
"Our sources assure us there is no cause for concern."
"Spin control," Chia said.
"You imply that Lo/Rez employees are lying to us?"
"Look," Chia said, "I'm as into the band as anybody. I came all this way, right? But the people who work for them are just people who work for them. If Rez gets up in a club one night, takes the mike, and announces that he's in love with this idoru and swears he's going to marry her, the PR people are going to say whatever they think they have to say."
"But you have no evidence that any of this occurred. Only an anonymous posting, claiming to be a transcription of a recording made in a club in Shinjuku."
" 'Monkey Boxing'. We looked it up; it's there."
"Really? Perhaps you should go there."
"There is no longer a club called Monkey Boxing."
"Clubs in Shinjuku are extremely short-lived. There is no Monkey Boxing". All of Hiromi's smug satisfaction came through in the Sandbenders' translation.
Chia stared at the smooth silver face. Stonewalling bitch. What to do? What would Zona Rosa do if she were in Chia's place? Something symbolically violent, Chia decided. But that wasn't her style.
"Thank you," Chia said. "We just wanted to make sure it wasn't happening. Sorry I hit on you that way, but we had to be certain. If you say it's not happening, we'll accept that. We all care about Rez and the rest of the band, and we know you do too." Chia added a bow of her own.
Now it was the robot's turn to hesitate. She hadn't expected Chia to just roll over that way. "Our friends in the Lo/Rez organization are very concerned that this pointless hoax not affect the public's perception of Rez. You are aware that there has always been a tendency to portray him as the most creative but least stable member of the band."
This last, at least, was true, though Rez's style of instability was fairly mild, compared with most of his pop-cultural forebears. He had never been arrested, never spent a night in jail. But he was still the one most likely to get into trouble. It had always been part of his charm
"Sure," Chia said, playing along, relishing the uncertainty she was certain she was causing Hiromi. "And they try to make Lo out as some kind of boring techie, the practical one, but we know that isn't true either." She tagged it with a smile.
"Yes," Hiromi said, "of course. But you are satisfied, then? You will explain to your chapter that this was all the result of some prank, and that all is well with Rez?"
"If you say so," Chia said, "absolutely. And if that settles it, then I've got three more days to kill in Japan."
"Idiom," Chia said. "Free time. Mitsuko says I ought to see Kyoto."
"Kyoto is very beautiful..."
"I'm on my way," Chia said.
"Thanks for putting this site together for our meeting. It's really great, and if you'll save it, I'd love to access it later with the rest of my chapter. Maybe we could all get together here when I'm back in Seattle, introduce our chapters."
"Yes..." Hiromi definitely didn't know what to make of her attitude.
So worry about it, Chia thought to herself.
Idoru, by William Gibson, is published on October 3rd by Viking, a division of Penguin UK.