Excerpt from "Gonzalo Vega and the Portal Down Below"

Gonzalo's encounter with Alex had left him feeling muddled. George was quiet as he drove them deeper into Chula Vista. Lost within himself. It was almost evening by the time they were within walking distance of the border. The data wall shimmered.

You know what you're doing here? asked George.

It's the easiest place to get out, said Gonzalo.

But the hardest place to get into Mexico.

Getting in won't be an issue.

You say so, said George.

You have any tips for getting out? I have a day pass to get into the Liminal Zone.

That should work. Without the Grid, they can't tell the real from the fake.

But they might be looking for me.



You can go by catapult. It's about 50/50. Otherwise, shoot for the half hour before the shift changes at eight. What about your machine parts?

It's a problem. Scrubbed of any identifying information long ago, but anyone can see they were built on a Foodco prototype.

Join the shortest line, said George. Don't try to choose your interrogators. You choose a longer line, you get flagged.

Gonzalo's hand tingled. He switched it on. His virus was feeling supportive.

I can help with the disguise, Eeshoo said.

Gonzalo didn't need any help with the disguise.

Gonzalo ducked into a small restaurant just across from the border gate, ordered a plate of plankton taquitos, went into the bathroom, and locked the door. He shoved wet paper towels into the door crack so that the computer's light wouldn't show. It was the size of a small grape, but the egg of light filled the room.

Gonzalo Vega, the computer said so quietly that it could only be heard inside Gonzalo's brain. What can I do for you today?

He mouthed the answer. He felt the vibrations. Time was slipping forward and backward inside the restroom, and when it had finished his hair was reddish blond, his eyes were blue, his skin pale and freckled, and his entire face somehow elongated. The pattern of his retinas had been altered to match his fake ID and his brainwave signature masked. It was the best that he could do. The day-pass Philip had given him identified him as Melchiades Robles, a forty-seven-year-old trader in vat-grown chinchilla furs.

You don't look forty-seven, said Eeshoo.

Infusions and modifications, said Gonzalo.

We can do better. Relax for a minute.

A strange tingling moved from Gonzalo's head throughout his entire body. He felt warm. The results were immediate: he looked older, used up, worn down. He really did now look like a forty-seven-year old who'd tried his best to maintain the appearance of an adolescent, but whose struggles and suffering had tarnished his aura.

I etched an identification marker into your mechanism, Eeshoo told him. Says it was installed four years ago in Melchiades' hometown of Temecula and built from certified used parts.

Okay, said Gonzalo.

He threw away the wet paper towels, ate his taquitos, and waited.

How many of you are there? he asked Eeshoo.

What do you mean?

I mean for some stupid reason I thought of you as singular. One virus drifting through my body. But obviously there's a lot of you. Obviously you're reproducing.

I'm a system, said Eeshoo. My consciousness doesn't depend on the survival of any one particle. Once we're across, the particles creating the effect will self-destruct.

You didn't answer my question.

At the moment?

At the moment.


The entrance to the border crossing was a ruined labyrinth. Crumbling walls, rusty fences, and concrete tunnels that twisted and turned nonsensically toward the data wall, a shimmering blur that was supposedly impenetrable. There were rumors that the data wall was haunted by the ghosts of children who had died at the border long ago, separated from their parents and locked in cages. There were rumors of special suits that would get one through the wall, or keys that would open secret doorways, passageways that would magically open up for two minutes one day out of the year. Given the much simpler option of catapulting over, these rumors seemed silly. The original plan had been for the wall to rise a mile into the sky, but the prototype created shifts in wind patterns that turned the American side of the border into an inhabitable oven. They'd settled for fifty feet. But nobody wanted to get into America anymore, they only wanted out.

At the checkpoint, Gonzalo joined the shortest line behind a pale guy with circuitry instead of hair and a Get Rich Or Die Trying T-shirt. The guy talked non-stop, whether to the rest of the line or to himself wasn't really clear. Filling the hole, Gonzalo supposed. He remembered the feeling when he first went off the Grid—the weird solitude, the absence of an imaginary audience, the emptiness he'd needed to fill up with words, jabbering away, jabbering and jabbering until he'd learned to accept the silence, to take comfort in the silence, to be himself and alone.

As he neared the booth at the front of the line, Gonzalo saw a picture of himself on the wall inside along with a variety of other faces, a few of whom he knew. Bomber X and Lucy Mu. They'd destroyed some power stations together.

He released some calming chemicals into his bloodstream. It was cool. Nothing mattered very much.

Where did you come from? he asked Eeshoo. Where were you before you were in me?

Just making conversation? asked Eeshoo.

Just making conversation.

I like the relaxants.

Most people do.

The pale guy stepped up to the agent, still babbling.

I lived inside the wheelchair of a legless man named Harriet, said Eeshoo. In my earliest memories, I'm already there, rolling around the East Village as Harriet looks for biological agents of pleasure.

When was this?

I must have evolved from a more primitive, unconscious form within that machine, maybe when the Grid collapsed.

The wheelchair was connected to the Grid.

Of course.

You're just a baby.

I've experienced many things. I've experienced your memories.

How did you end up inside me?

We were bombed, said Eeshoo. Harriet was certainly killed, his machine blown into fragments. One of the fragments landed on your wound, I imagine. I don't remember the actual explosion, but I'm sure that's how it happened.

Hmmm, said Gonzalo.

I didn't like that Alex guy, said Eeshoo.

He was okay.

He wasn't Zeke Yoder.

Most people aren't.

He gave you pleasure.

We gave each other pleasure. Didn't it give you pleasure?

Yes, but it wasn't like the pleasure of Zeke Yoder.

You've never met Zeke Yoder.

I've imagined him.

Alex was real, said Gonzalo. The pleasure was real. People still like to have sex with each other, despite the alternatives. Did Harriet have sex?

Harriet wasn't my host, the wheelchair was.

The pale guy was allowed entry into the Liminal Zone, and the agent waved Gonzalo to step forward. He wore strange leathery gloves and his name tag said Stoney.


Gonzalo handed him his holo-doc.

Purpose of your exit?

Business. I'm meeting a supplier in the Liminal Zone.

Hands up. Stand still.

The agent waved a wand around Gonzalo, then scrutinized the image. Gonzalo thought he was reading the inscription on his machine parts.

What happened to your foot?

My data got infected after the Grid went out.

That's some quality tissue.

My cousin. It's his job.

You're carrying an unusual device.

He pointed to one of the storage compartments in Gonzalo's arm.

It's just a computer.

I'll need to take a look.

Gonzalo took out the tiny sphere. The agent checked it with a portable data detector.

What is a fur salesman doing with a computer like this?

One of my clients gave it to me. As payment.

The agent spoke into his glove.

Xenobia? I've got a situation. 17G. 642.

Two minutes, came the response.

Gonzalo figured he was doomed. He flooded more relaxants into his brain.

Turn it on, said Stoney.

The egg of light filled the security hut. Gonzalo felt it penetrating his mind and recognizing him. It moved to surround the border guard.

Hey, said the guard.

He fell silent. His face went slack. Gonzalo had the strange impression that his body was being emptied of its consciousness. But then the egg of light retreated into the sphere and the face returned to its previous expression of alert yet bored suspicion.

I can see how that might be useful in the fur trade, he said.

Xenobia arrived. She had a face that Gonzalo thought of as trendy, a face almost certainly conceived during the second wave of the genetic engineering craze, when everyone wanted their children to look like one of a group of popular characters from Japanese animation.

Seems neutral enough, said Stoney. Take a look.

The light exploded again and enveloped Xenobia. Her face took on that same emptied look until it was done.

Okay, said Xenobia.

Okay, said Stoney.


Stoney time-stamped his ID and waved him into the Liminal Zone.

The Liminal Zone was only fifty feet across, from the data wall to the Mexican border, but stretched horizontally for miles, packed with sleeping compartments, food courts, legal services, and crowds of hawkers and hustlers vending all manner of goods and services to the thousands of travelers who were temporarily or permanently stuck in this place that wasn't technically anywhere. The Liminal Zone was outside the jurisdiction of either the US or Mexican government and was policed only by private security guards hired by the businesses who operated there. It was also outside the jurisdiction of realism—there were so many mind-altering frequencies and chemicals saturating the atmosphere that psychic boundaries were loose. No matter what reality-enhancers and antidotes Gonzalo pumped into himself, he knew that it would be difficult to be sure that anything he experienced here was actually the way he perceived it.

What just happened? asked Gonzalo.

You asking me? said Eeshoo.

I didn't program the computer to do that. I didn't ask it to do anything.

Ask it. I'm sure it's listening.

I switched it off.

Right, said Eeshoo. Off.

It was about thirty degrees cooler in the Liminal Zone. It was almost cold. Crowds were now swarming around Gonzalo, shouting or whispering pitches for a variety of services. Some of their messages were in code. Gonzalo understood some of the codes, but not all of them.

Computer thing, he said. Are you listening? Are you there?

Of course.

The voice was so quiet that it sounded almost internal.

Do you have a name?

You can call me Sofus.

You're a male too?

No. But this is how I will represent myself to you.

Okay. Why?

It seems to be more effective. Due to your preferences and emotional needs.

You seem to know a lot about me.

I've been traveling with you for many weeks now.

I'd like you to stop listening. To turn yourself off.

That is no longer possible. I would prefer not to lie to you.

Okay. Thanks.

So now Gonzalo had two companions who were always listening in, making their own decisions, and exercising control over his destiny. Eeshoo was either trying to tell him something or babbling to himself. Meanwhile, a child was trying to sell him something. The pale guy was surrounded by a crowd of people, all of them gesticulating wildly. For a moment, suddenly, Gonzalo wasn't sure which voices came from inside and which from out there, which ones belonged to him and which ones did not. He was selling illegal goods and services, he was an illegal good or service, he was watching a body move through a crowd, he was a crowd, he was a body. He was the atmosphere and everything that happened inside it.

Stop tripping, said somebody.

Maybe himself. Maybe Eeshoo. Maybe Sofus. Maybe the dirty child who'd grabbed his hand and was looking up at him and moving his lips. Maybe the old man who was calmly explaining that he could get him into Mexico, guaranteed, for a small fee. Maybe the enormous rat that was running back and forth at the edge of his vision.

He turned to face the rat. It wasn't there.

It's behind you, somebody or some part of himself said.

He turned. He was at the entrance to a mini-lounge, with just one table inside and two chairs. One of the chairs was empty. In the other one was a girl he recognized. In her lap was the enormous rat. He recognized the rat, too.

Willard, he said.

Have a seat, said Anna Miller.

The walls of the mini-lounge were skinny aquariums. The fish and bots that swam within the walls were all shades of blue and green, but there was one that seemed to be the color of fire. It swam so fast, however, that it just looked like a bolt of electricity zipping through the walls. A holographic menu insisted he choose a drink and pay with CASH®, so he ordered a Blue Moon. He tried to follow the movements of the speeding fiery fish and then he gave up and focused on the face of Anna Miller. She looked different without her bonnet and Amish clothes. He had never understood how an Amish girl could look so world-weary, however. He supposed it was the rat DNA she'd been infused with so that she could translate the squeaks of the rats.

Where's Leahbelle? he asked. Where's Zeke?

We were going to ask you that, she said. Sooner or later.

Sooner or later.

It was on the agenda.

His drink floated down onto the table from above. He took a sip. It tasted vaguely poisonous, he thought.

How did you get here? he asked.

Tunnels, of course.

Why are you here?

You don't look so well. You look old.

How did you even recognize me?

We've been waiting for you.

Willard wasn't saying anything. She wasn't translating. She wasn't exactly answering his questions either.

Eeshoo, he said. I don't need the effects.

You'll need to cross into Mexico, said Eeshoo.

I've got that covered. Revert me. Please.

He felt a tingling all over. He could see the difference in his hand. He could also see the difference in the way that Anna Miller was looking at him.

Oh, right, she said. I'd forgotten why I used to find you so sexy.

Used to?

Things change, said Anna Miller. Anyway, aren't you gay?

More or less.

She was squinting at him, as if trying to square his new image with some more exciting memory.

The new look is kind of garish, she said. The hair and the freckles don't really suit you. And something's happened to your face.

The mini-lounge seemed to be expanding and shrinking. He wanted to undo his disguise and look like himself, but he didn't want to get the computer involved until he knew what Anna and Willard were after.

Just a mild elongation, he said.

He addressed Willard directly.

Why are you here?

To see you, said Anna.

What's the colony's strategy?

Willard wants information. We've been told you're in possession of a special computer.

You don't translate anymore? Or have you developed telepathy?

The relationship has changed, said Anna.

She stroked Willard's neck. He turned and licked her hand.

We understand that the plan is to make contact with Aztlan, she said. With the underground dimension or the historical unconscious or whatever it is, and to harness the computer's capabilities in conjunction with a full-scale assault on the underpinnings of American pro-singularity reality.

Right, said Gonzalo. But I don't have the computer. My job is to make contact. The computer will be sent later.

Anna said, Maybe that's true. Maybe not. Either way, we'd like to make a deal with you.

Who is we?

The rats, of course. On behalf of the entire underground. We all want the same thing, don't we?

The floor of the mini-lounge seemed to be in motion. It was thousands of rats, scurrying this way and that. An infinity of rats. He was hallucinating, but something was weird. The hallucination was partially true.

Do your tunnels go into Mexico?

We cross the border freely.

There was a commotion outside the mini-lounge. Explosions, screams of agony, people dying painfully. Meat was getting squashed and eaten alive.

I'll be right back, said Gonzalo.

As soon as he peeked his head out, everything went back to normal. Everyone acted like nothing unusual was going on. He took a few steps out into the street. Rats were everywhere, but he only saw them at the edges of his vision. He turned back into the lounge. Anna and Willard were gone.

Eeshoo, he said. What's going on?

You got me.

Gonzalo was standing in the middle of the Liminal Zone, but nobody was looking at him. The image of himself seemed to be false, wavering, inconclusive. People and robots hurried past, spewing language, but he couldn't understand a word. Both Spanish and English had broken down into nonsensical fragments. His comprehension centers were fried.

You can understand me, said Eeshoo.

What does that mean?

It must not be the way your mind is processing the words. It's our perception of inside and outside that's being scrambled.

I'm being targeted.

Maybe. Maybe just collateral damage. There's a lot going on here.

A lot of wars. A lot of business.

What's your issue with meat? asked Eeshoo.

I don't need a therapist. I need help distinguishing what's real from what isn't.

That's what a therapist does.

Why don't they look at me? Am I camouflaged?

Maybe they don't think you have what they're looking for.

They always think I have what they're looking for.

Who is they?

Everyone, Gonzalo wanted to say. But he knew it didn't make sense. Nobody was out there, nobody real, nobody he could touch. He found that he was sobbing.

Good boy, said Eeshoo. Have a good cry. I like that.

Poor baby, somebody was thinking. Poor baby. Poor baby.

A woman was crying to his right. He was sure it was his mother. His memory of his mother was hazy, but he was sure he'd recognize her if he saw her. When he looked directly at the crying woman, her face turned into smoke.

Is it her? he asked.

Unlikely, said Eeshoo.


Not unless your mother is a machine built with bat parts and a smidgeon of human DNA.

A small pedal car was heading straight for him, and a little girl was chasing after it. Her hair was tied in a long braid that flew behind her as she chased the car, a car so small it was like a toy. It stopped right in front of him and a familiar little head popped out of the driver's window.

Hey, hot stuff, wanna take a ride with me?

It was Merle.

This isn't real, said Gonzalo.

I suspect it is, said Eeshoo.

I'm as real as real can get, baby.

The little girl caught up to him and stood there, breathing hard. She had long hair in a braid and enormous brown eyes.

You must be Valkilmer, said Gonzalo.

And you're the infamous Gonzalo, said Valkilmer. The fugitive. The outlaw, the rebel, the sexpot. A pleasure to finally meet you.

She held out her hand, but when he took it, rather than shaking it, she kissed it.

So now you've met him, said Merle. So how about you make yourself scarce for a while? Check out the arcade. Bring me a stuffed bunny.

He handed her a wad of CASH®.

It's not enough.

Fine, fine.

He tossed a few more bills at her. Valkilmer took a long last look at Gonzalo, as if memorizing his face, and then skipped off toward the arcade.

Merle puckered his wooden lips at Gonzalo.

Come give Merle some sugar, he said.

You can't just let her go off alone in the Liminal Zone, said Gonzalo. It isn't safe.

Nothing's safe, said Merle.

She's what? Six or seven?

Merle waved his little wooden hand, as if it was irrelevant.

Seven and a half, he said. You're missing the point.

What's the point?

For the first time in our long, passionate acquaintance, we are finally alone together.

Something didn't make sense. Merle was actually leering at him.

But where's Efron?

Gone and forgotten. Fallen between the cracks. Left in the dustbin of history. I dumped him.

That's not possible.

Why not? Efron was just dead weight. Always just there, between me and you, baby. A third wheel, a mutant fish on a bicycle built for two. I'm free now. We can finally have it the way we always wanted it. We can finally be together.

It's not possible, repeated Gonzalo. You were symbiotic.

Apparently not, said Merle. It seems the relationship was more parasitic, and I was the unhappy host.

But… how does that work? Where is your voice coming from?

Merle was looking him up and down, hungrily.

How does a puppet become a real boy? asked Gonzalo.

Ah, said Merle, isn't that the central question of western metaphysics? The motor and the goal?

Gonzalo bent over to look inside the tiny car. He expected to see a scrunched or miniaturized Efron huddled in the corner, but there was nobody inside but Merle. No strings, no wires. Merle grabbed him by the neck and started doing something to his neck with his mouth. Gonzalo guessed it was supposed to be something like kissing or licking.

Merle, stop.

He felt the little wooden hand rubbing his crotch. He backed up.

Merle, stop it.

We'll get a room, said Merle.

I don't have time for this.

Plug in with me, baby. You know you want some of this.

Gonzalo couldn't quite get his head around it. As a pair, Merle and Efron had always seemed kind of funny. Merle's obnoxiousness had always been moderated by his lack of power and agency. On his own, he seemed monstrous.

I don't feel the same way as you, said Gonzalo.

Don't lie to me. I've seen the way you look at me. You've been lusting after me since you were thirteen.

Eeshoo was trying to say something. To the side, four creatures of various types were huddled together so closely that it seemed they must be fondling each other or conspiring.

I'm in love with somebody else, Gonzalo told Merle.

Love, whatever, said Merle. I'm talking about pure animal lust.

When he stopped focusing on Merle, on his chirping little head, the crowds and the voices became indistinct, and Gonzalo started feeling like he was floating in a smoky nothingness. He was seeing rats again at the edges of his vision.

Why are you here?

Everyone comes to the Liminal Zone eventually, baby.

Only if they're on their way somewhere else.

I belong here, said Merle. I've been waiting for my destiny. Why are you here?

A robot was staring at Gonzalo. The robot had clearly been designed to convey whimsy and good humor. His body was a triangle perched on springs that ended in roller skates. He wore a little bowtie composed of two triangles. It was the bowtie and the wiry eyebrows that suggested that, like Eeshoo and Sofus and Merle, he was supposed to read as male. Everything about the robot seemed somehow triangular or relating to triangles and he had the silliest grin that Gonzalo had ever seen. Meanwhile, the group of four conspirators stepped back from the group in unison, each holding the corner of a net that spread out between them. A body of some sort was being launched over the data wall. Somebody was shooting at it. It was a boy. He landed right in the center of the net, but he had been riddled with artillery to the point that he was no longer recognizable. The conspirators dropped the net with the dead body in the center and disappeared.

The whimsical robot was wheeling directly toward Gonzalo on his flashy roller skates. He tossed something in the air and there was an eruption of pink bubbles, so thick they were like smoke. Gonzalo felt the earth giving way from underneath his feet and then he was falling.

About the Author

Stephen Beachy

Stephen Beachy is the author of the novels Glory Hole, boneyard, The Whistling Song, and Distortion, the twin novellas Some Phantom and No Time Flat, and the Amish sci-fi series that begins with Zeke Yoder vs. the Singularity. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in BOMB, The Chicago Review, The New York Times Magazine, New York magazine, and elsewhere. He is the prose editor of the journal Your Impossible Voice, teaches at the University of San Francisco, and lives in San Diego.