Joe Cube is a Silicon Valley hotshot--well, a would-be hotshot anyway--hoping that the 3-D TV project he's managing will lead to the big money IPO he's always dreamed of. On New Year's Eve, hoping to impress his wife, he sneaks home the prototype. It brings no new warmth to their cooling relationship, but it does attract someone else's attention.When Joe sees a set of lips talking to him (floating in midair) and feels the poke of a disembodied finger (inside him), it's not because of the champagne he's drunk. He has just met Momo, a woman from the All, a world of four spatial dimensions for whom our narrow world, which she calls Spaceland, is something like a rug, but one filled with motion and life. Momo has a business proposition for Joe, an offer she won't let him refuse. The upside potential becomes much clearer to him once she helps him grow a new eye (on a stalk) that can see in the fourth-dimensional directions, and he agrees.After that it's a wild ride through a million-dollar night in Las Vegas, a budding addiction to tasty purple 4-D food, a failing marriage, eye-popping excursions into the All, and encounters with Momo's foes, rubbery red critters who steal money, offer sage advice and sometimes messily explode. Joe is having the time of his life, until Momo's scheme turns out to have angles he couldn't have imagined. Suddenly the fate of all life here in Spaceland is at stake.Rudy Rucker is a past master at turning mathematical concepts into rollicking science fiction adventure, from Spacetime Donuts and White Light to The Hacker and the Ants. In the tradition of Edwin A. Abbott's classic novel, Flatland, Rucker gives us a tour of higher mathematics and visionary realities. Spaceland is Flatland on hyperdrive! At the publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management software (DRM) applied.
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July 01, 2003
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Excerpt from Spaceland by Rudy Rucker
New Year's Eve
My idea for handling December 31, 1999, was that Jena and I should fix a nice meal, drink champagne, watch TV, and stay clear of the Y2K bug. I bulldozered over Jena's gently voiced objections. I figured that at midnight the power would go out and the rioting would start. We'd lock the door and light some candles, and Jena would smile at me and kiss me and say I'd been right to make us stay home. In my mind, that's what was going to happen. And, hey, even if I was wrong about the rioting, we'd miss a Millennial traffic jam.
My secret hope was to get Jena in bed before midnight so we could be in each other's arms right at the moment of the Big Flip, all those nines rolling over to zeroes and the two of us close as close could be. That was the right way to usher in a new Millennium! Yes! Not that I came out and told this to Jena, as I knew very well that she would have preferred to go somewhere complicated and expensive.
Jena liked sex even more than I did, but she didn't like for me to make assumptions about when we'd do it. It was always supposed to be some kind of surprise. A spontaneously occurring romantic impulse. A force of Nature, unpredictable as an earthquake or a hurricane. When in fact it was inevitably every one to four days. One of the ways I passed my time at work was to update an Excel spreadsheet tracking our sex frequency. I had a formula in one of the cells to compute what I called the DBS index. A rolling average of the days between sex acts. When the DBS rose above three, it was time to turn on the charm. Buy flowers, talk about Jena's problems, do like that. Not that I always did. To tell the truth, a high DBS was my fault as often as it was Jena's. Even though I talk a good game, I'm not the most highly sexed guy around.
Thanks to a stressful Christmas visit with Jena's mother and stepfather back in Prescott, Arizona, the DBS was up to 4.1. I should have at least planned to take Jena out for dinner on New Year's Eve. Put us both in a romantic mood. But by the time the facts hit my radar, every place was booked and full, as things always were in California. Not that I really and truly looked that hard for someplace to go. I was fixated on my game plan. Hit the sack before midnight and the romance would take care of itself!
Late in the afternoon of New Year's Eve I drove over to the Kencom campus in San Jose to bag this experimental TV set from our lab. In my pinheaded ignorance of what women actually care about, I had the notion that if I brought home some really cool electronics, then Jena would be down with staying home on New Year's Eve. As if.
Spazz Crotty was there in the lab, busy at his giant flat-screen monitor as usual. A tall, skinny guy, late twenties, a few years younger than me. I'm thirty-one. Spazz was wearing baggy, long skater pants, black leather sneakers, and a T-shirt with The Finger on it. He had short, bleached-blonde hair, with the sides of his head shaved. He had a ring in his nose and a big silver stud up on the top of his ear. I kind of admired him. Spazz was cool. He had tattoos. Jena had always wanted me to get a tattoo.
He did a voice recognition thing, answering me without looking up. "Hi boss. Want to watch me write some TRACE statements? Nasty bug in the serialization code." Even though Ken Wong had hired me on as the product manager for the 3Set development team, I knew next to nothing about programming, and Spazz never let me forget it.
"You shouldn't be working, Spazz. Today's a holiday. The Big Flip."
"So what're you doing here?" Spazz broke into coughing, having trouble getting his voice started up. He coughed a lot.
"I want to take the 3Set home and test it out. You haven't broken it, have you?"
"It's working," said Spazz. He had a hoarse, wheezy voice, and he talked very slowly. Every time Spazz spoke, he made it sound like he was letting you in on a big secret. "I was watching the Teletubbies this morning. I was getting really good depth. But then when I went to save and reload the image I got a power-switch crash."
I felt a surge of annoyance. "We don't need the freaking save and reload. We took it outta the beta spec last week. It's developer gold plating. You were at the meeting. Why are we even talking about this? It's New Year's Eve, dude."
Spazz turned and stared at me for a minute, fingering the hoop in the side of his nose. And then he smiled, suddenly happy as a kid let out of school. "Thanks for reminding me. What time is it?
I'm supposed to meet Tulip at home." He glanced back at his screen. "Jesus, it's almost six. I'll ifdef out the serialization code, do a rebuild, and close it down." He hit a few keys and the build messages began scrolling down the bottom of his screen. No warnings, no errors. We were almost ready for production. "You're taking the 3Set?" said Spazz. "Does Ken know?"
"I might have mentioned it to him," I said. Though of course I hadn't. No way would Ken want the 3Set leaving the lab. It was so secret that even his venture capitalists didn't really know what it was. Not to mention the fact that the 3Set was, theoretically at least, dangerous enough to be a liability risk.
Spazz grinned. "You're the boss, Joe." He copied the fresh build of the 3Set driver software to a Zip disk for me, shut down his computer, put on his leather jacket, and held the doors for me while I carried the 3Set out to my leased silver Explorer SUV, a premium model with the full Eddie Bauer trim package. The 3Set was a heavy mofo, with a thing like a fish tank instead of a picture tube. A true 3D display. The chips in it had a way of combining successive TV images to build up a 3D image inside the tank. It was pretty neat, when it was working. The risk aspect had to do with the fact that there was a hard vacuum inside the tank, and it could conceivably implode. But I was cool with that. I set it onto my back seat and fastened the seat belt around it.
Spazz's red Japanese motorcycle was next to my car; he took out his keys and unfastened his helmet from it. "We're outta here, huh Joe?" said Spazz. It was getting dark. There was a Wells Fargo bank right across the lot, with people lined up to get money out of the cash machine. I'd already gotten mine.
"What are you doing tonight, man?" I asked Spazz.
"Riding up to San Francisco with Tulip."
"Was it hard to get reservations?"
Spazz gave me a pitying look. "The taquerias on Mission Street don't take reservations. You're so uptight, Joe. It's like you're middle-aged. I bet you're planning to stay home and watch TV. On the 3Set, right?"
"You're gonna wish you were with me when all the lights go out," I said. "The roads'll be gridlocked. It'll be straight outta Mad Max."
"have to admit I'm just a little bit worried, too," said Spazz earnestly, using his slowest, hoarsest voice. "I have this mental image of the Earth as being like one of those chocolate oranges, pre-cut into time-zone-sized segments. And when the Millennium hits, the segment with Tonga works its way free and tumbles off alone into black space, the sun glinting on the curved sector of its rind, with Tonga's part of the South Pacific all sloshing off the segment's edges. It's probably already happened, dude, but they're covering it up. And presumably the rest of the South Pacific is pouring down into the huge, wedge-shaped gap that Tonga's segment left, it's a thousands-of-mile-high waterfall that vaporizes into steam or even into plasma when it hits the molten nickel of the Earth's exposed core. It's gonna drain the Pacific dry. And more and more of the segments are falling out, needless to say. I wonder how soon the drop in the water level will be noticeable in the San Francisco Bay." Spazz broke off in a fit of coughing, bending nearly double.
I looked at him for a minute. He was putting me on. "Freak."
"I'm articulating the basic fear," said Spazz, straightening up and fingering the stud in his ear. "It's atavistic. The Y2K bug is a psychological displacement mechanism. People are terrified of the Millennium, and, ashamed of their fear, they project it onto this specific little computer problem. A niggling factoid to talk about instead of facing their inner Void. Hell, I know some of the hackers who helped hype the bug. It's a hoax on managers, man. A way to take down the industry for a few billion bucks."
"I hope you're right," I said, though really I hoped he was wrong.
"Look, why don't you and Tulip stop by my place on your way up to the City. We're on your way." Spazz and Tulip rented a crappy shack in the Santa Cruz mountains even though Tulip was a very well paid process engineer at a chip fab.
"You're really staying home with Jena?" asked Spazz. "Where do you live, anyway?"
He looked slightly interested. Spazz had met Jena at the Christmas party and they'd hit it off. Jena was a real live wire in social situations. As a marketing manager for a web tool company called MetaTool, face-to-face interactions were her thing.
"In Los Perros," I answered. "We bought a townhouse next to Route 85. It's at 1234 Silva View Crescent. Just a starter place till Kencom goes IPO."
Ah, the IPO, more eagerly awaited than the second coming. Until Kencom went public, our shares of founder's stock were toilet paper. The thing was, Kencom still hadn't come up with the killer product that would galvanize the market. For a dot-commer, Ken Wong was kind of old school. We knew we wanted something to do with communication, fine, but Ken had this obsession with making our new product from wires and plastic and chips--instead of from Java and press releases. Frankly, the 3Set looked like a bit of a dog. I mean, a full-grown man could barely even carry the thing. Where was that at, in this day and age?
I wrote my home address on the back of a Kencom business card and handed it to Spazz. "Stop by around nine."
"Maybe I will," said Spazz with a wheezy laugh. "Jena's hot." What a thing to say. Sometimes it was like techs didn't realize that I actually had a mind. Like I was an ape, or a robot.
On the way home I picked up a fresh loaf of sourdough, a couple of Dungeness crabs, a bottle of Dom Perignon, and some roses.
Jena was just getting out of the shower, wet and gorgeous. She was half Yavapi, and she had that classic Native American face with a strong, perfect nose and high cheekbones. Her eyes were narrow, as if designed for seeing across great distances, their color a clear shade of hazel. On her mother's side Jena was Norwegian. She had a good figure, pink skin and hair light colored enough to dye to regulation-issue California blonde. Did I mention that she had cutely bowed lips? She was the kind of woman that guys turned around to stare after in the street.
Jena was happy with the roses I'd brought; she laid them on the built-in dressing table while she started drying her hair in front of the mirror, standing there naked. I sat on the bed watching her, drinking her in, the curves and colors of her body. Jena always enjoyed being the focus of my attention.
"I got champagne and two Dungeness crabs," I told her.
"That sounds festive." She gave me a warm smile in the mirror. I walked over and kissed her. Held her in my arms. She made a soft noise and leaned back against me. I should have put a move on her right then and there, but I was kind of into getting the 3Set installed. And it seemed better to save the sex for midnight.
So I went out in the living room and got to work. I had to plug the 3Set into the wall, hook it to the cable TV line, run a USB cable from the 3Set to my computer, plug a Zip drive with the 3Set software into my computer's parallel port, and jack a Playstation controller into the game port for changing the viewpoint on the 3Set. The more tech we get, the more wires we need. It's like a law of nature. N times N or something. I had to get down on all fours under my composition board OfficeMax desk to figure out the wires, which is something I hate. Rooting around in the dust bunnies knowing you're probably getting it wrong.
"What are you doing?"
"Jena!" I scraped the side of my head getting back out. Jena was wearing a party outfit, a shiny little red dress. She had her makeup thing happening, and her dyed blonde hair was piled up in this slutty heap with plastic clips holding it in place. I loved it when she did her hair like that. "You look so sexy. I'm lucky you married me." We'd lived together for three years before tying the knot. We were working day jobs and taking night courses at University of Colorado in Boulder. Right at the end of our courtship Jena had actually been close to leaving me. Marriage had seemed like the best way to solve our problems.
"You'll do," said Jena, laughing a little. She liked it when I flattered her. "What's that tank thing on your desk? Another video game?"
"That's the 3Set I'm always talking about. From Kencom. It takes network TV and makes it look three-dimensional. I brought it home for watching the Millennium shows. Let me shower off real quick and put on a clean shirt. You want a glass of wine? Or should we start with the champagne?"
"I'm not going to drink that much, so let's have the good stuff first. We can wait till you're done with your shower." She started looking through the CDs. "I'll put some music on."
I showered, shaved and put on some clean khakis, a tight white T-shirt and a dark brown silk shirt. Jena had her techno house music on the speakers and was doing a little dance. We'd made it to a few raves and she liked them a lot--not the drugs so much, but the scene itself. The dancing and the way people looked. The house music was really filling the place up. Party time! I danced with her for a little while.
Our living-dining room isn't very big, just a white drywall box with white carpeting and white mini-blinds over windows that don't really open. We hadn't gotten around to doing anything yet in the way of decorating it. Since we knew we'd be moving up soon, we'd gotten really inexpensive furniture. Our dining table and chairs were that shiny, molded, one-piece-of-plastic patio stuff: a round white table and a couple of chairs. Cost about seven bucks. Our only good furniture was our king bed and our beige leather couch.
Jena had put the roses in a souvenir beer mug and had prettied up the table with a tablecloth and some bright orange candles. We'd never done dinner at home with candles or a tablecloth before; usually
we ate something at work and just grazed on junk when we got home. I turned the music down a notch, sliced the bread, and set out the crabs. They'd looked forbidding in the market: big, red, and impregnable. But the guy behind the fish counter had taken them apart and cracked their shells all over with a hammer. I had a jar of cocktail sauce to go with the crabs, and Jena had put together a fancy salad from the supermarket salad bar. While I'd been out, she'd gone to the store, too.
We sat down at our little table and I opened the champagne, with Jena telling me to be careful. The cork bounced off the low ceiling and just missed her. I caught the first big spurt of foam in her glass, then filled mine.
"Here's to the end of a great year!" I said.
"It's been rather momentous," said Jena, smiling and clinking her glass with mine.
"We got married in June, moved to Silicon Valley in August, and bought a house in September," I said. "Heavy duty. Instant respectability."
"Maybe we're a little too respectable," giggled Jena. "Can you believe we're managers in. Silicon Valley computer companies? Here's my business card." She peeled a piece of crab shell off one of the legs and handed it to me.
"Nice texture," I said pretending to read the piece of shell. "You must be a player. Let's network. We'll do more than talk the talk..."
"We'll walk the walk," completed Jena. It was one of my favorite phrases. She tapped my wrist with the sharp end of the crab leg.
"How do you eat these things?"
"The man at Whole Foods said to just keep picking out the meat with your fingers," I said. "He says that most of it's in this big middle part. The body. You should have seen these puppies with their shells on. Like aliens or giant insects."
"How appetizing. Tonight's special is Venusian cockroach." Jena pulled a piece of meat out of her crab leg and dipped it in the cocktail sauce. "Mmm. It's succulent. Firm and fresh. Not like those frozen King crab things back in Colorado. Did you ever have those? Buck Sawyer was always taking me to the Red Lobster and ordering King crab. It tastes like cardboard." Buck Sawyer had been one of the guys Jena almost left me for. An old boyfriend, never quite fully out of the picture. A car salesman, a real lowlife. Jena gave me an innocent look and fished a big lump of crabmeat out of the crab's body. "Succulent," she repeated. Jena liked words, they were pets that she played with.
"I think this is the first time I've ever eaten crab in my life," I said. "I was scared it might be fishy. But it's not. The sauce helps.
Horseradish. More champers?"
"Right on," said Jena. "Is the salad all right?"
"Sure! I like all the stuff you put in it. It's great with the crab."
We ate and drank for a couple of minutes, the house music pooting and tweeting along in the background. So far so good.
"Three and a half hours to go," said Jena presently. "That's a long time. Do you really think the power will fail?" She pursed her lips the way she did when she was thinking.
"We're ready," I said, not wanting to get into a debate on this. "We've already got our candles happening. We got that candle holder for our wedding, huh?"
"Candelabrum," said Jena. "My Aunt Sue gave it to us. She said it's sterling silver. And she gave us this tablecloth, too. 'For your little celebrations,' she said. Aunt Sue is such the romance hound. She almost caught my bouquet herself. I didn't want orange candles, but they were the last thing left on the shelves. You're not the only one who's freaking out. Oops." She hopped to her feet. "I forgot to turn out the lights. Glamour. Not to mention disguising the fact that we're in a four-hundred-thousand-dollar white cardboard packing crate next to a freeway."
"Aw, come on, Jena. Hey, it looks good with the lights out. Did you get a lot of candles?"
"A whole box. Happy Halloween! The orange glow is nice, isn't it? You look pretty, Joe. Remember how back in college you'd light a candle when I spent the night in your room? You had it stuck into a Ruffino wine bottle." We'd dated for a couple of years before moving in together.
"The only way to go," I said. Actually, the candle had been my roommate's. I glanced at my watch. "It's almost nine. I'll fire up the 3Set and see how the Millennium comes down on the East Coast."
"Oh great," said Jena. "We spend the next three hours watching TV. Do they still do Dick Clark? Or is he finally dead? I hope so."
"Did I mention that this guy from work might stop by?" I offered.
"Visiting the shut-ins," said Jena. "Who?"
"Spazz Crotty. You met him at the Christmas party. Skinny guy with bleached blonde hair and a nose ring?"
"Oh, I remember him all right," said Jena. "He kept staring at my butt. I was like 'take a picture, it lasts longer.' "
"You said that to him?"
"You know how I get when I have margaritas. He laughed it off. He was embarrassed. I said it in front of his girlfriend. This tall girl with really nice smooth brown skin--though she did have some acne scars--she had some kind of flower name, but I was so wasted I don't--"
"Tulip," I said. "Yeah, I told Spazz and Tulip to come by around nine."
"Well good," said Jena. "We can share our dessert. I bought this decadent tiramisu cake."
I got the 3Set going and we watched the Millennium roll over in Time Square. I thought it was kind of cool that we were the only people in the world watching it on a 3Set, but Jena wasn't impressed. The 3Set image was pale and grainy and didn't look all that three-dimensional; it only fattened up when the camera was on one person who was moving a lot. Jena said it was like watching a motel TV, which was, she added, appropriate for the kind of place we were living in. The champagne wasn't doing my cause a lot of good.
The ball dropped and the lights in Times Square kept right on shining. Everyone was laughing and yelling and partying their asses off. I was sort of surprised there was no disaster.
"We should be out with other people," said Jena, slitting her eyes. "I can't believe we're sitting in this crappy little townhouse watching your weird television. I feel like such a loser." She'd poured out the last bit of the champagne. "Where's Spazz and Tulip?" she continued. "When did you say they'd come?"
"Um, I'll call him."
So I got Spazz on his cell phone, and, naw, man, he's not gonna make it over, him and Tulip came straight up to San Francisco, with the bike it wasn't all that hard, and now they're down near the waterfront dancing and waiting for the fireworks. It's great. Ishould've come, too. Maybe I'll see him and Tulip on TV. Spazz telling me all this like it's something really worth hearing, and stopping every few sentences to cough. I said good-bye and hung up.
"He's not gonna make it," I told Jena, not looking directly at her. I stared into the tank of our 3Set like I was seeing something interesting. There were a lot of chips with micro mirrors on the bottom, the mirrors vibrating like crazy and painting virtual images up into the empty space of the tank. Like those saucer-shaped novelty items that make it look as if there's a quarter floating up above them? That's kind of the way the 3Set worked. There was no air in the tank, because if there were air, the supersonic vibrations of the mirrors would hit you and it would be bad. Poach your brain like an egg. As it was, the thing gave off a pretty loud hum--more like a whine than a hum. And in there I could see Dick Clark and some girl singers; they were about six inches high, and they looked pretty much like flat cut-outs, except that whenever they moved, the chips managed to fatten them up to look 3D. For being so expensive and complicated and dangerous, the 3Set was kind of a cheesy product. We were probably never going to ship it, and Ken-com was never going to go IPO. I was wasting my time working there. I was a loser and my wife was mad at me.
"How about some margaritas?" said Jena.
"I'll make them," she said.
If Jena got into the margaritas we were doomed. "Look," I said.
"Maybe we should go out."
"Right on. Where?"
"Hell, we'll go bar-hopping in Los Perros. We can be there in ten minutes".
"Fun." Jena smiled and looked relaxed for the first time that evening. I realized how stupid I'd been acting. If Jena was happy, so was I. When it came down to it, making Jena happy was what I cared about the most. Even my geeky little DBS index-it wasn't really about the numbers. It was just my idiotic way of measuring our relationship. If only I could ever remember for more than fifteen seconds that it all came down to the relationship, and not to my getting my own way.
"Be sure to bring some walking shoes and a warm coat," I heard
myself saying. "In case we have to hike home."
"We can always take a cab."
"If the axe comes down there might not be cabs."
"Poor Joe," said Jena with a little smile. "He worries so much that he acts middle-aged. We'll take him out and cheer him up. Just a sec while I fix my makeup. You can get our leather coats. Don't even think of wearing a tie."
Ten minutes later I'd parked my SUV on a side street and we were out on Santa Ynez Avenue, the Los Perros main drag. It was a two-lane street lined by single-story shops. Los Perros was a yuppie enclave embedded in the southern lobe of San Jose's suburban sprawl; its charm stemmed from the fact that it felt like a village. The stores' lit-up windows didn't cover the fact that the buildings themselves were cheap and rickety, as makeshift and cobbled together as what you'd see in a Colorado mining town.
I liked this flat little village under the big night sky. It was human-scale, homey, and--as long as you didn't hear the people talking, or compare their clothes--not so different from rural Matthewsboro, the town I'd grown up in. It seemed like a good place to raise children, not that we were planning that for any time soon. Jena and I were both hell-bent on moving up in our companies. Even so, I couldn't help thinking sometimes that it would be nice to have a kid.
There were a fair number of people out and about, though maybe less than on a normal Friday night. I wasn't the only one worried about the Y2K bug. The Christmas decorations were still up on the lampposts, wobbling in the gusty breeze. It was a damp night with a chill in the air. Some highschoolers rolled past on skateboards; three guys and a wiry girl in an orange watch cap. A pickup full of kids slowed to whoop at them, the skater girl raised her arm to pump the heavy metal, devil's-horns salute, and the kids in the truck whooped some more and pulled over to hang out. Up on the corner ahead of us was a middle-aged married couple frowning at each other. Bickering. Like my parents before they'd gotten divorced. Ah yes, my parents.
With my parents it had gone further than bickering. Ed and Mary Cube. They were country people who'd come into town to work, my mother as an accountant at a WalMart, my Dad as a clerk in a store selling ranching supplies. Dad would have liked to have been a rancher himself, but he didn't have any land. Being a high-school graduate, he felt he was too educated to be a mere cowhand, though he looked and talked like one. The only concrete sign of Dad's education that I ever noticed was that he read and collected Western comic books.
Mom and Dad were always kind of raw and yokel, even for Matthewsboro, Colorado. They did some incredible things. The worst was this: My father was a terrible womanizer, a real Casanova, and my mother ended up stabbing him in the stomach with a carving knife. It was the worst thing I ever saw. It happened right before dinner one evening; I was twelve and my sister Sue was fourteen. Sis told Mom she'd just seen Dad on top of a girl in the woods by the lake, and all at once Mom's patience was gone and she stabbed him.
Dad recovered--and settled for an easy divorce instead of pressing charges. I'd expected it to be a relief to have lanky, ne'er-dowell Dad out of the house, and all the fighting over. But it turned out I never felt safe around Mom again. The stabbing wasn't the kind of thing I could forget. In high school I joined every activity I could to stay out of Mom's way, and once I left for college, I never went home to Matthewsboro for more than a day or two at a time.
Eventually Mom died from a series of increasingly debilitating strokes. I used to go see her twice a year in this little nursing home at Centerville, a slightly bigger town near Matthewsboro. Even when Mom was in her wheelchair with half her face paralyzed, I was still a little scared of her pulling a knife, my fear mixed in with heartbreaking pity.
Mom had hated it in the home, the food especially. Raised on a farm as she'd been, she was very particular about the purity of what she ate. Mom's final stroke came while she was eating. She died choking on a mouthful of canned, over-salted, cut-rate chicken soup. Terrible. It had been five years now.
As for Dad, he drifted down to Denver, where he worked for a ranch supply wholesaler. He still kept up his interest in collecting comics, branching out from Westerns to include Batman and Donald Duck. He lived alone in a rooming house. He had a series of woman friends--some of whom he met at comic book conventions. Women were always interested to meet a cowboy type like Dad. But he never married again, or even moved in with a woman.
In high school, every now and then I'd go down to Denver and spend a couple of nights with Dad, reading his comics and following him to work to listen to the ranchers and cowboys wrangling about feed, horse troughs and barbed wire. In college and after, we'd get together a few times a year to "tie on the feedbag" at some roughneck Denver watering hole near the tracks. He wasn't a bad guy, even though he talked like a dumb cowhand. Part of that was just an act.
It had only been a year now since I'd found out Dad had lung cancer-the news had come on Christmas Day, 1998. He'd gone down fast. I'd only been to see him the one time in the Denver VA hospital before he died. I'd thought he would last longer; I missed my chance to get any last words or final blessings out of him.
"Let's never get old, Joe," said Jena, who'd been looking at the middle-aged couple, too.
"We won't," I said, glancing over at her. When Jena was worrying about things, like she was now, her nose got sort of a pointed look to it. Her cheeks a little drawn in. You could see the unhappy young girl right there under her beauty. She worried more than most people realized. I put my arm around her and kissed her. She kissed me back, and for a few seconds it was just us inside the kiss, the way it's supposed to be. But then I broke the kiss, wanting to start on the task of figuring out which bar to go to.
The middle-aged couple had crossed the street to head for D. T. Finnegan's, the yuppie pub I'd been planning to steer us to. But, hell with that, if Finnegan's was where the bickering geezers were going, it wasn't for Jena and me. We walked on down the block to a dive bar named the Night Watch. It was jammin' inside, with Nirvana blasting on the speakers, colored little Christmas lights tacked to the black plywood walls, loads of happily drunk people our age, and not a suit or a necktie in the bunch. Lots of the women were decked out in sparkly little dresses. Jena and I looked just right.
We found a spot to stand in, and I pushed my way to the bar and got us two glasses and a shaker full of margaritas. Let it come down.
When I got back to Jena, there were a couple of people talking to her, a tall, slim-waisted woman and a handsome guy with short bleached-blonde hair, the sides of his head shaved, a T-shirt with a picture of The Finger, and a silver stud in the top of his ear. It took me a second to believe my eyes.
"Spazz? Didn't you just tell me you were in San Francisco?"
Spazz gave me his hoarse laugh. "Sorry, boss, I couldn't resist rattling your chain. Turns out Tulip's like you. She didn't want to chance going into the City. You remember Joe from the Christmas party, don't you, Tulip? He's Jena's husband. Joe Cube."
"Cube?" said Tulip, laughing a little. She had nice teeth and a merry smile. Three heavy gold hoops in each ear. Her skin was smooth, with a few pimples. A hank of her black hair hung down on one side. "That's not your true name, is it?"
"Yes it is," said Jena protectively. "And my last name's Bonk, so go ahead and mock that too. Joe and I have odd, short names. We're Americans of Humorous Descent. What's your last name, Tulip?" Jena narrowed her eyes, waiting to pounce on the answer.
"How nice. Does it mean something?" Jena took a quick sip of her margarita. She could definitely get into being bitchy.
Tulip shrugged. I noticed that her skin was unusually dark underneath her eyes. "You'd have to ask my father. It's a common Indian name. Don't worry, be happy. I'm sorry I laughed. I can never tell when Spazz is joking. He has a humorous name too. Let's drink to the new year! To Spazz, Cube, and Bonk! From sea to shining sea!" She had a standard California accent. An intriguing woman and, according to Spazz, one of the best custom-chip designers in the valley. She worked for ExaChip, the company that made our 3Set's ASIC chips.
"Long live Tulip," I chimed in, and she smiled regally down at me. There was a seriousness around the corners of her mouth. With her heels she had an inch or two on me, though not on Spazz.
The rest of the evening was your typical bar scene. Not really my favorite thing. The music gets louder and people yell whooo and there's a line for the bathroom and everyone flirts like mad--except for the guys like me, who usually end up talking to each other about sports or cars or computers or the stock market. Talking about freaking numbers. It's what I do.
I was leaning close into Spazz, going over the performance specs of the 3Set and trying to figure why the display basically looked so crappy. But then Jena got me to start dancing with her. That was good. Jena's fun to dance with, and it made me proud to be shakin' it with a woman that everyone was staring at. Tulip and Spazz were dancing too, and we switched partners for a while, and then switched back again. Tulip smelled exotic, like spices. It was almost like the four of us were friends.
And then, boom, it was countdown time and Jena and I were kissing and we all sang "Auld Lang Syne." Like all the other New Year's Eves. Even though it was the 21st Century now, it was still ordinary human people wanting to love and be loved, hoping for the best for themselves and their families, shooting for the same old goals like a place to live, enough to eat, and decent work. I got a little misty there for a minute.
The bar had a computer-driven laser up near the ceiling, with the vibrating green beam writing HAPPY 2000 on the wall. Spazz pointed at the computer and bugged his eyes. "Behold, O Cube," he said to me in his most portentous tones. "Our Lord and Master liveth!" Whatever.
Jena was wasted by now, out on her feet. Me, I'd switched to no-alcohol beer around ten so I could drive home. "We're gonna bail," I told Spazz.
"We'll leave too," he said.
On the street, Spazz gave the lamppost a kick and reeled back a little. "Still real," he said. "Deep down, I thought there'd be like this instant decay of matter. All the electrons spiraling into their nuclear suns. The advent of the End Times." He broke into a long, deep fit of coughing.
"I'll drive," said Tulip, twisting the ropy hank of her hair that hung down across her cheek.
"Okay," croaked Spazz. He got on the back of his motorcycle and Tulip took the seat up front. She had a helmet and a leather jacket too. With a wave and a roar they were off.
Jena and I passed a gaggle of three blonde girls talking on cell phones. I was glad to see the phones still working. Two of the girls were talking a lot, but the third looked like she was just pretending, trying to be like her friends, trying to blend in.
The girls giggled after Jena and I walked by. I was pretty much holding Jena up; her feet kept turning at the wrong angles. And when we got to our car she puked on the street. I drove slowly and took the back way home.
The 3Set was still on, though the display looked kind of screwy. I helped Jena into bed before going to power it down. There was no way we were going to have sex. Oh well. We'd made a night of it, one way or another. Bottom line? New Year's Eve sucks.