I’m a fixer for Al Jazeera. It says so on my card: FIXER. That level of candor is what I like about the job. Any other place I’ve ever worked, I’ve had euphemistic titles like “compliance engineer” or “special assistant to the president.” Since I’m paid to cut the bullshit, bullshit titles really kill me.
When the ThoughtForm Revolution broke out in Tibet, my employers in Qatar sent me to recruit the world’s best-known thoughtform as their special correspondent. But since when does William Gibson do freelance journalism?
I took the redeye to Vancouver. Bill was out buying pork bangers. Mrs. GreatDismal made me a cup of tea. She told me I had her blessing, but there was no way Bill would take the job voluntarily. She suggested I track down his master, if he or she was still alive. I finished my tea and she handed me a flake of the lodestone Bill had on him when they first met. I slipped out before Bill got back from the market.
A sliver of lodestone is ordinarily enough to find a thoughtform’s master, but even with a team of experts the search can take weeks, and I had days at the outside. The People’s Liberation Army was already pouring into Tibet and a confrontation was surely imminent. I took a taxi to Fraser Street and pounded on the door of the Yak Parlour.
Tenzing stuck his head out and I handed him the lodestone and a stack of bills. He held the door for me and we walked inside. He pushed shreds of cabbage to the floor and unrolled a world map on the counter.
He set the lodestone down in the South Pacific and began to sing, low and with the force of a foghorn. Then the overtones began. The splinter of stone rocked onto its edge and slowly vibrated across North America. When it came to a stop I flicked it with my fingernail toward Bermuda. Tenzing fell silent. “Please,” he said. “Don’t do that.”
I cracked my knuckles. He began to sing again, and the stone twisted back into position. He took a deep breath. “There you go,” he said.
“Come on,” I said. “I paid for precision.”
Tenzing snorted and rooted in a cupboard. A glass jar of red pepper fell to the floor and shattered. “The wages of sin,” Tenzing said. I just sneezed.
He pulled out a dusty, coriander-scented double-handful of rolled maps. “Take half,” he said.
We unrolled maps, looking for the right one.
“Here we go,” I said. I spread a nautical chart of the South Carolina Sea Islands on top of the world.
“You owe me a beer,” Tenzing said. “And a bottle of pepper.”
I set the stone on Hilton Head and he began to sing. The stone wriggled like a fish and then stopped.
“Hawkins Island,” I said. “I’ll buy you a case of Heineken but it’ll have to wait until next time.”
“And pepper,” Tenzing said, brandishing a radish.
My flight to Charleston had WiFi so I was able to follow the protests moment-by-moment. I phoned my bookie in the Caymans and placed a bet that I wouldn’t be able to get Gibson in time. I’d get a bonus for this job one way or the other.
Depending upon whom you believed, somewhere between 100,000 and 1,000,000 tulpas were massed in front of the Potala Palace and they appeared ready to stay. Bullets and bulldozers had already proven ineffective against them, so the defense ministry had called up its elite Counter-Sorcery Units, and they were performing house-to-house searches all through Lhasa, looking for masters. But still the protests grew.
As I sped toward Hawkins Island in my rented fishing boat, I kept one ear wired to Al Jazeera. The People’s Liberation Army, who wouldn’t ordinarily spend a nickel on branding or production values, had clearly gone all out for the CSU’s: They patrolled in pairs, dressed in Klein Blue robes with tinted goggles and Mandarin scholar-hats, their black ponytails whipping out behind them. The reporter in my ear, Mahnoor Bishara—a combat correspondent whom I had met and whom I knew to be completely fearless—sounded borderline intimidated by them. The PLA must have hired an art director from the Korean underground—somebody with a bright future.
The tulpas were waving shoes and running back and forth through the ranks of the PLA regulars. Some of the soldiers couldn’t handle the penetration and had to be carted off by battlefield psychiatry squads.
My boat pulled up at a rotting dock on a muddy shore. An ancient woman with blue-black skin and six grey hairs had a fishing line in the water and a curly joint between her lips. She raised her eyebrows as I moored the boat.
“Sorcerer?” I asked. “Know where I can find one?”
She blew a smoke ring, and it settled around her head like a halo.
“Levitates a little?” I said. “Visitors leave but never arrive?”
Her bobber dipped below the surface. She reeled up a mossbunker and dropped it in a pail. “Who wants to know?” she asked.
“I have a job for a friend of his,” I said. “Know where I can find him?”
“Know what goes good with mossbunker?” she asked.
I shook my head.
“Cash,” she said.
I dug in my pocket and held out a fifty.
She blew another smoke ring and split into two identical old women. “Fifty bucks each,” she said.
I handed another fifty to the tulpa.
“So, who’s my friend?” the original asked.
“Gibson,” I said. “They need him in Tibet, on TV, today.”
“Gibson,” she said, and passed the joint to her tulpa. The tulpa took a deep hit and said, “He was a good one. One of my best.”
“‘Was?'” I asked. “He’s up in Vancouver right now, frying bangers.”
“Ran off in 1978,” the original said. “Something from an eyedropper. Broke the connection. How’s he been doing?”
“His wife seems happy with him,” I said. “Guess I wasted a hundred.”
The tulpa dug in her pocket and pulled out a greasy scrap of paper. “Check with Ugyen,” she said. “Maybe he’s still got pull.”
“Ugyen?” I asked. But there was nothing there but smoke.
The moment we landed in Xining I checked the news. Potala Palace Square was full shoulder-to-shoulder with tulpas: male and female, short and tall, thin and fat, grounded and levitating. A thin blue line of CSUâ€™s waved copies of the Bardo Thodol at the protesters, as if that would do any good.
I handed the greasy scrap of paper to the taxi driver. He cursed me in Xining street dialect and kept up the insults until I laid a 500-yuan note on him. This started him driving and reduced his complaining to a low rumble. He let me out at a blackened garage next to the Huangyan rail line and careened off in a cloud of dust. I kicked the garage door. “Ugyen?” I yelled. “Come on out!” I kicked the door again.
Slowly the door rolled open and a shrunken old Tibetan man in a stained jumpsuit spat phlegm on my shoe. “Don’t kick my door,” he said.
“I was talking to one of your tulpas,” I said. “Old Gullah lady. Sent me to you.”
“It’s that damn Gibson, isn’t it?” he said. “Everybody wants a piece of him.”
I handed over my card. “My boss is interested in symmetry,” I said. “He’s looking for a thoughtform to cover the ThoughtForm Revolution in Tibet. One who can write.”
“What’s it to me?” he asked.
“Cash?” I asked, holding out a fat roll of yuan.
“Don’t need cash,” he said.
“Whiskey?” I asked. “I can get you whiskey.”
“Got whiskey,” he said, and waved his hand at a stack of rusting drums in the back of the garage.
“Viagra?” I asked.
He turned his ass to me and farted. “Don’t need Viagra,” he said. “But I’d take your soul.” He smiled with all four teeth and pulled a notebook and a pen from his breast pocket. He held them out.
What could I do? This is what they pay me for.
The cameraman shot some cover of the palace, and then the producer had him frame Bill against a backdrop of hundreds of thousands of chanting, swaying thoughtforms.
“This is great!” Bill said.
And the tulpas began to march.