This is Chapter 17 of William Gibson’s new book, The Peripheral. This early chapter introduces us to one of the wildest characters, Conner, a wounded soldier who came back from an unnamed war missing a few limbs.
Going back to Jimmy’s was a bad idea. Knew it soon as she’d walked into the dark and the dancing, the smell of beer and state weed and homegrown tobacco. The bull was leaning out of the mirror, eyeing a girl who might have been fourteen. The LEDs were pulsing to a song Flynne had never heard before and wouldn’t have wanted to again, and she was the oldest living thing in the building. Still wearing her black security guard outfit. And she hadn’t even found Macon, over on the side of the lot where mostly black kids hung, where he did his funny business. She’d come because she still needed to ask him what Homes might have made of the phone he’d made for her, but maybe she’d really just been hoping for someone to talk to. She hadn’t felt like the sandwich she’d made to eat after the shift, and she didn’t feel like she’d ever be hungry.
That shit in the game. She hated that shit. Hated games. Why did they all have to be so fucking ugly?
She got a beer, her phone dinging as Jimmy’s ran a tab. Took the bottle to a little round corner table, unwiped but mercifully empty, sat down, tried to look like the meanest old lady she could. Girl who’d passed her the beer had a Viz, like Macon and Edward had, a tangle like silver cobweb filling one eye socket, but you could still see the eye behind it, watching whatever the little units strung in the tangle were projecting. Hefty Mart had to scan your socket before they fabbed you one, so it would fit, and there weren’t any funny ones yet. Looked better on a black face, she thought, but most every kid here had one and it made her feel old, and more so that she thought they looked kind of stupid. It was something every year.
“Look like you’ve come up short on the number of fucks you need to not give,” Janice said, appearing out of the crowd with a beer of her own.
“Short a few,” Flynne agreed, but no longer the oldest thing in Jimmy’s. She’d always liked Janice. She automatically looked around, because Janice and Madison weren’t usually very far apart. He was at a table with two boys, each one with a silver-tangled eye. He looked like Teddy Roosevelt, Madison, and most of what she knew about Teddy Roosevelt was that Madison looked like him. He had a mustache he trimmed but never shaved off, round titanium-wire glasses, and a moth-eaten wool cruiser vest, olive green, complicated breast pockets bristling with pens and little flashlights.
“Want some company with it?”
“Long as it’s you,” Flynne said.
Janice sat down. She and Madison had that thing going, that some married people did, where they’d started to look like each other. Janice had the same round glasses but no mustache. They could have swapped outfits without attracting any attention. She was wearing cammies that were probably his. “You really don’t look too happy.”
“I’m not. Worried about Burton. Homes had him for going up to Davisville and beating on Luke 4:5. No charges, just a public safety detention.”
“I know,” Janice said. “Leon told Madison.”
“He’s doing something on the side,” Flynne said, glad of the music, looking around, knowing Janice would understand about the disability money. “I filled in for him.”
Janice raised an eyebrow. “You don’t give the impression you liked it much.”
“Beta testing some kind of creepy-ass game. Serial killers or something.”
“You played anything, since that time at our place?” Janice was watching her.
“Just this. Twice.” Flynne felt differently uncomfortable. “You seen Macon?”
“He was here. Madison was talking to him.”
“In here much, you and Madison?”
“Do we look like it?”
“So fucking young.”
“It was young when we were here before, remember? You were, anyway. Burton’s kid sister.” She smiled, looked around.
As the song ended, there was a blast of deep-throated exhaust from out in the parking lot.
“Conner,” said Janice. “Not good. Fucking with those boys.”
Flynne, feeling like they were back in high school, followed Janice’s gaze. Five big boys with bleached hair, at a table covered with beer bottles. They’d be on the football team. Too thick for basketball. None wore a Viz. Two of them stood, each taking an empty green beer bottle in either hand, by the neck, and headed out to the porch.
“He was here about an hour ago,” Janice said. “Drinking in the lot. Not good when he drinks, on top of the other. One of them said something. Madison backed ’em off. Conner left.”
Flynne heard the sound of an impact, glass breaking. The next song started. She got up and went out onto the porch, thinking as she did that she liked this song even less than the last one.
The two football players were there, and she saw how drunk they were. Conner’s Tarantula, in the center of the gravel, bathed in harsh light from tall poles, was shaking with its exhaust, scenting the lot with recycled fat. His shaven head was propped up at the front, at that painful angle, one of his eyes behind a sort of monocle.
“Fuck you, Penske!” bellowed one of the football players, drunk enough to sound half cheerful, and flung his remaining bottle, hard. It caught the front of the trike, shattering, but off to the side, away from Conner’s head.
Conner smiled. Moved his head a little, and Flynne saw something move with it, above the Tarantula and what was left of his body, higher than the three big tires.
She marched past the football players then, down the steps, and out across the gravel, the kids on the porch falling silent behind her. She was older than they were, nobody knew her, and she was all in black. Conner saw her coming. Moved his head again. She could hear her sneakers in the gravel, and she could hear the bugs ticking against the lights, up on their poles, but with Conner’s engine throttled down low, drumming, how could she?
Stopped before she was close enough that he’d have had to crane to see her face. “Flynne, Conner. Burton’s sister.”
Looked up at her, through the monocle. Smiled. “Cute sister.”
She raised her eyes and saw, above him, the skinny, spinal-looking scorpion-tail thing the monocle controlled. Looked like he’d daubed black paint on it, to make it harder to see. She couldn’t make out what was on its tip. Something small. “Conner, this is some bad bullshit here. You need to go home.”
He did something with his chin, on a control surface. The monocle popped up, like a little trapdoor. “You going to get out of my way, Burton’s cute sister?”
He twisted around, to rub his eyes with what was left of the one hand. “I’m a tiresome asshole, huh?”
“It’s a tiresome asshole town. Least you got an excuse. Go home. Burton’s on his way back from Davisville. He’ll come see you.” And it was like she could see herself there, on the gray gravel in front of Jimmy’s, and the tall old cottonwoods on either side of the lot, trees older than her mother, older than anybody, and she was talking to a boy who was half a machine, like a centaur made out of a motorcycle, and maybe he’d been just about to kill another boy, or a few of them, and maybe he still would. She looked back and saw Madison was on the porch, bracing the football player who’d thrown the bottles, titanium glasses up against the boy’s eyeballs, boy backing to keep from being poked in the chest with the rows of pens and flashlights in Madison’s Teddy Roosevelt vest. She turned back to Conner.
“Not worth it, Conner. You go home.”
“Fuck-all ever is,” he said, and grinned, then punched something with his chin. The Tarantula revved, wheeled around, and took off, but he’d been careful not to spray her with gravel.
A drunken cheer went up from Jimmy’s porch.
She dropped her beer on the gravel and walked to where she’d locked her bike, not looking back.
Reprinted from The Peripheral by William Gibson by arrangement with Putnam, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2014 by William Gibson.
You can buy the book here.