Neal Town Stephenson Cryptonomicon Chapter 86 WISDOM

Chapter 86

A few years ago, when Randy became tired of the ceaseless pressure in his lower jaw, he went out onto the north-central Californian oral-surgery market looking for someone to extract his wisdom teeth. His health plan covered this, so price was not an obstacle. His dentist took one of those big cinemascopic wraparound X rays of his entire lower head, the kind where they pack your mouth with half a roll of high-speed film and then clamp your head in a jig and the X-ray machine revolves around you spraying radiation through a slit, as the entire staff of the dentist’s office hits the deck behind a lead wall, resulting in a printed image that is a none-too-appetizing distortion of his jaw into a single flat plane. Looking at it, Randy eschewed cruder analogies like "head of a man run over several times by steamroller while lying flat on his back" and tried to think of it as a mapping transformation—just one more in mankind’s long history of ill-advisedly trying to represent three-D stuff on a flat plane. The corners of this coordinate plane were anchored by the wisdom teeth themselves, which even to the dentally unsophisticated Randy looked just a little disturbing in that each one was about the size of his thumb (though maybe this was just a distortion in the coordinate transform—like the famously swollen Greenland of Mercator) and they were pretty far away from any other teeth, which (logically) would seem to put them in parts of his body not normally considered to be within a dentist’s purview, and they were at the wrong angle—not just a little crooked, but verging on upside down and backwards. At first he just chalked all of this up to the Greenland phenomenon. With his Jaw-map in hand, he hit the streets of Three Siblings-land looking for an oral surgeon. It was already beginning to work on him psychologically. Those were some big-ass teeth! Brought into being by the workings of relict DNA strands from the hunter-gatherer epoch. Designed for reducing tree bark and mammoth gristle to easily digestible paste. Now these boulders of living enamel were horrifyingly adrift in a gracile cro-magnon head that simply did not have room for them. Think of the sheer extra weight he had been carrying around. Think of the use that priceless head-real-estate could have been put to. When they were gone, what would fill up the four giant molar-shaped voids in his melon? It was moot until he could find someone to get rid of them. But one oral surgeon after another turned him down. They would put the X-ray up on their light boxes, stare into it and blanch. Maybe it was just the pale light coming out of the light-boxes but Randy could have sworn they were blanching. Disingenuously—as if wisdom teeth normally grew someplace completely different—they all pointed out that the wisdom teeth were buried deep, deep, deep in Randy’s head. The lowers were so far back in his jaw that removing them would practically break the jawbone in twain structurally; from there, one false move would send a surgical-steel demolition pick into his middle ear. The uppers were so deep in his skull that the roots were twined around the parts of his brain responsible for perceiving the color blue (on one side) and being able to suspend one’s disbelief in bad movies (on the other) and between these teeth and actual air, light and saliva lay many strata of skin, meat, cartilage, major nerve-cables, brain-feeding arteries, bulging caches of lymph nodes, girders and trusses of bone, rich marrow that was working just fine thank you, a few glands whose functions were unsettlingly poorly understood, and many of the other things that made Randy Randy, all of them definitely falling into the category of sleeping dogs.
Oral surgeons, it seemed, were not comfortable delving more than elbow-deep into a patient’s head. They had been living in big houses and driving to work in Mercedes-Benz sedans long before Randy had dragged his sorry ass into their offices with his horrifying X-ray and they had absolutely nothing to gain by even attempting to remove these—not so much wisdom teeth in the normal sense as apocalyptic portents from the Book of Revelations. The best way to remove these teeth was with a guillotine. None of these oral surgeons would even consider undertaking the extraction until Randy had signed a legal disclaimer too thick to staple, something that almost had to come in a three-ring binder, the general import of which was that one of the normal consequences of the procedure was for the patient’s head to end up floating in a jug of formaldehyde in a tourist trap just over the Mexican border. In this manner Randy wandered from one oral surgeon’s office to another for a few weeks, like a teratomic outcast roving across a post-nuclear waste land being driven out of one village after another by the brickbats of wretched, terrified peasants. Until one day when he walked into an office and the nurse at the front desk almost seemed to expect him, and led him back into an exam room for a private consult with the oral surgeon, who was busy doing something in one of his little rooms that involved putting a lot of bone dust into the air. The nurse bade him sit down, proffered coffee, then turned on the light box and took Randy’s X-rays and stuck them up there. She took a step back, crossed her arms, and gazed at the pictures in wonder. "So," she murmured, "these are the famous wisdom teeth!"
That was the last oral surgeon Randy visited for a couple of years. He still had that relentless 24-Jam pressure in his head, but now his attitude had changed; instead of thinking of it as an anomalous condition easily remedied, it became his personal cross to bear, and really not all that bad compared to what some people had to suffer with. There, as in many other unexpected situations, his extensive fantasy-role-playing-game experience came in handy, as while spinning out various epic scenarios he had inhabited the minds, if not the bodies, of many characters who were missing limbs or had been burned over some algorithmically determined percentages of their bodies by dragon’s breath or wizard’s fireball, and it was part of the ethics of the game that you had to think pretty hard about what it would actually be like to live with such injuries and to play your character accordingly. By those standards, feeling all the time like you had an automotive jack embedded in your skull, ratcheting up the pressure one click every few months, was not even worth mentioning. It was lost in the somatic noise.
So Randy lived that way for several years, as he and Charlene insensibly crept upwards on the socioeconomic scale and began finding themselves at parties with people who had arrived in Mercedes-Benzes. It was at one of these parties where Randy overheard a dentist extolling some brilliant young oral surgeon who had just moved to the area. Randy had to bite his tongue not to start asking all kinds of questions about just what "brilliant" meant in an oral-surgery context—questions that were motivated solely by curiosity but that the dentist would be likely to take the wrong way. Among coders it was pretty obvious who was brilliant and who wasn’t, but how could you tell a brilliant oral surgeon apart from a merely excellent one? It gets you into deep epistemological shit. Each set of wisdom teeth could only be extracted once. You couldn’t have a hundred oral surgeons extract the same set of wisdom teeth and then compare the results scientifically. And yet it was obvious from watching the look on this dentist’s face that this one particular oral surgeon, this new guy, was brilliant. So later Randy sidled up to this dentist and allowed as how he might have a challenge—he might personally embody a challenge—that would put this ineffable quality of oral-surgery brilliance to some good use, and could he have the guy’s name please.
A few days later he was talking to this oral surgeon, who was indeed young and conspicuously bright and had more in common with other brilliant people Randy had known—mostly hackers—than he did with other oral surgeons. He drove a pickup truck and kept fresh copies of TURING magazine in his waiting room. He had a beard, and a staff of nurses and other female acolytes who were all permanently aflutter over his brilliantness and followed him around steering him away from large obstacles and reminding him to eat lunch. This guy did not blanch when he saw Randy’s Mercato-roentgeno-gram on his light box. He actually lifted his chin up off his hand and stood a little straighter and spake not for several minutes. His head moved minutely every so often as he animadverted on a different corner of the coordinate plane, and admired the exquisitely grotesque situation of each tooth—its paleolithic heft and its long gnarled roots trailing off into parts of his head never charted by anatomists.
When he finally turned to face Randy, he had this priestlike aura about him, a kind of holy ecstasy, a feeling of cosmic symmetry revealed, as if Randy’s jaw, and his brilliant oral-surgery brain, had been carved out by the architect of the Universe fifteen billion years ago specifically so that they could run into each other, here and now, in front of this light box. He did not say anything like, "Randy let me just show you how close the roots of this one tooth are to the bundle of nerves that distinguishes you from a marmoset," or "My schedule is incredibly full and I was thinking of going into the real estate business anyway," or "Just a second while I call my lawyer." He didn’t even say anything like, "Wow, those suckers are really in deep." The young brilliant oral surgeon just said, "Okay," stood there awkwardly for a few moments, and then walked out of the room in a display of social ineptness that totally cemented Randy’s faith in him. One of his minions eventually had Randy sign a legal disclaimer stipulating that it was perfectly all right if the oral surgeon decided to feed Randy’s entire body into a log chipper, but this, for once, seemed like just a formality and not the opening round in an inevitable Bleak House-like litigational saga.
And so finally the big day came, and Randy took care to enjoy his breakfast because he knew that, considering the nerve damage he was about to incur, this might be the last time in his life that he would be able to taste food, or even chew it. The oral surgeon’s minions all looked at Randy in awe when he actually walked in the door of their office, likeMy god he actually showed up! then flew reassuringly into action. Randy sat down in the chair and they gave him an injection and then the oral surgeon came in and asked him what, if anything, was the difference between Windows 95 and Windows NT. "This is one of these conversations the sole purpose of which is to make it obvious when I have lost consciousness, isn’t it?" Randy said. "Actually, there is a secondary purpose, which is that I am considering making the jump and wanted to get some of your thoughts about that," the oral surgeon said.
"Well," said Randy, "I have a lot more experience with UNIX than with NT, but from what I’ve seen, it appears that NT is really a decent enough operating system, and certainly more of a serious effort than Windows." He paused to draw breath and then noticed that suddenly everything was different. The oral surgeon and his minions were still there and occupying roughly the same positions in his field of vision as they had been when he started to utter this sentence, but now the oral surgeon’s glasses were askew and the lenses misted with blood, and his face was all sweaty, and his mask flecked with tiny bits of stuff that very much looked like it had come from pretty far down in Randy’s body, and the air in the room was murky with aerosolized bone, and his nurses were limp and haggard and looked like they could use makeovers, face-lifts, and weeks at the beach. Randy’s chest and lap, and the floor, were littered with bloody wads and hastily torn-open medical supply wrappers. The back of his head was sore from being battered against the head-rest by the recoil of the young brilliant oral surgeon’s cranial jack-hammer. When he tried to finish his sentence ("so if you’re willing to pay the premium I think the switch to NT would be very well advised") he noticed that his mouth was jammed full of something that prevented speech. The oral surgeon pulled his mask down off his face and scratched his sweat-soaked beard. He was staring not at Randy but at a point very far away. He heaved a big, slow sigh. His hands were shaking.
"What day is it?" Randy mumbled through cotton.
"As I told you before," the brilliant young oral surgeon said, "we charge for wisdom tooth extractions on a sliding scale, depending on the degree of difficulty." He paused for a moment, groping for words. "In your case I’m afraid that we will be charging you the maximum on all four." Then he got up and shambled out of the room, weighed down, Randy thought, not so much by the stress of his job as by the knowledge that no one was ever going to give him a Nobel prize for what he had just accomplished.
Randy went home and spent about a week lying on his couch in front of the TV eating oral narcotics like jellybeans and moaning with pain, and then he got better. The pressure in his skull was gone. Just totally gone. He cannot even remember now what it used to feel like.
Now as he rides in the police car to his new private jail cell, he remembers the whole wisdom-tooth-extraction saga because of its many points in common with what he just went through emotionally with young America Shaftoe. Randy’s had a few girlfriends in his life—not many—but all of them were like oral surgeons who just couldn’t cut the mustard. Amy’s the only one who had the skill and the sheer balls to just look at him and say "okay" and then tunnel into his skull and come back with the goods. It was probably exhausting for her. She will extract a high price from him in exchange. And it will leave Randy lying around moaning with pain for a good long while. But he can tell already that the internal pressure has been relieved and he is glad, so glad, that she came into his life, and that he finally had the good sense and, arguably, guts to do this. He completely forgets, for a few hours, that he has been marked for death by the Philippine government.
From the fact that he’s in a car, he infers that his new, private cell is in a different building. No one explains anything to him because he is, after all, a prisoner. Since the bust at NAIA he’s been in a jail down south, a newish concrete-block number on the edge of Makati, but now they are taking him north into older parts of Manila, probably into some more stylish and gothic prewar facility. Fort Santiago, on the banks of the Pasig, had cells that were in the intertidal zone, so that prisoners locked into them at low tide would be dead by high. Now it’s a historical site, so he knows they’re not headed there.
The new jail cell is indeed in a big scary old building somewhere in the torus of major governmental institutions that surrounds the dead hole of Intramuros. It is not in, but it is right next to, a major court building. They drive through alleys among these big old stone buildings for a while and then present credentials at a guardhouse and wait for a big iron gate to be rolled aside, and then they drive across a paved courtyard that hasn’t been swept out in a while and present more credentials and wait for an actual portcullis to be winched up, clearing an orifice that ramps them down beneath the building itself. Then the car stops and they are abruptly surrounded by men in uniforms.
The process is uncannily like pulling up to the main entrance of an Asian business hotel, except that the men in the uniforms carry guns and don’t offer to tote Randy’s laptop. He has a chain around his waist and manacles attached to that chain in front, and leg chains that shorten his stride. The chain between his ankles is supported in the middle by another chain that goes up to his waist so that it will not scrape the ground as he walks. He has just enough manual dexterity to grip the laptop and keep it pressed up against his lower abdomen. He’s not just any chained wretch, he is a digital chained wretch, Marley’s Ghost on the Information Superhighway. That a man in his situation is being allowed to have the laptop is so grotesquely implausible that it causes him to doubt even his own supremely cynical assessment of it, namely that Someone—presumably the same Someone who is Sending Him a Message—has already discovered that everything on the hard drive is encrypted, and is now trying to gull him into firing the machine up and using it so that—so that what? Maybe they’ve rigged up a camera in his cell and will be peering over his shoulder. But that would be easy for him to defeat; he just has to not be completely stupid.
The guards lead Randy down a corridor and through some prisoner check-in stuff that doesn’t really apply to him since he has already filled out the forms and turned over his personal effects at another jail. Then the great big scary metal doors commence, and corridors that don’t smell so good, and he hears the generalized hubbub of a jail. But they take him past the hubbub and into other corridors that seem to be older and less used, and finally through an old-fashioned jailhouse door of iron bars and into a long vaulted stone room containing a single row of maybe half a dozen cells, with a guard’s passageway running along past the doors of the iron cages. Like a theme-park simulacrum of a jail. They take him all the way down to the last cell and put him there. A single iron bedstead awaits him, a thin cotton mattress with stained but clean sheets and an army blanket folded and stacked on top of it. An old wooden filing cabinet and folding chair have been moved into the cell and placed in one corner, right against the stone wall that is the terminus of this long room. The filing cabinet is evidently meant to serve as Randy’s work table. The drawers are locked shut. This cabinet has actually been locked into place with a few turns of heavy chain and a padlock, so it’s very clear that he is expected to use the computer there, in that corner of the cell, and nowhere else. As Attorney Alejandro promised, an extension cord has been plugged into a wall outlet near the cellblock entrance and run down the passageway and securely knotted around a pipe out of Randy’s reach and the tail end of it allowed to trail across in the direction of the filing cabinet. But it does not quite reach into Randy’s cell, so the only way to plug the computer in is to set it up on that cabinet and stick the power cord into the back and then toss the other end out through the iron bars to a guard, who can mate it with the extension cord.
At first this appears to be just one of these maddening control-freak things, an exercise of power for the pure sadistic pleasure of it. But after Randy’s been unchained, and locked in his cell, and left alone for a few minutes to run through it in his head, he thinks otherwise. Of course normally Randy could leave the computer on the card table while the batteries charged and then carry it over to his bed and use it there until the batteries ran down. But the batteries were removed from the machine before Attorney Alejandro gave it to him, and there don’t seem to be any ThinkPad battery packs lying around his cell. So he will have to keep it plugged in all the time, and because of the way they have set up the filing cabinet and the extension cord, he is forced by certain immutable properties of three-dimensional Euclidean spacetime to use the machine in one and only one place: right there on top of that damn filing cabinet. He does not think this is an accident.
He sits down on that filing cabinet and scans the wall and ceiling for over-the-shoulder video cameras, but he doesn’t look very hard and he doesn’t really expect to see one. To make out text on a screen they would have to be very high-resolution cameras, which would imply big and obvious; subtle pinhole cameras wouldn’t do it. There aren’t any big cameras around here.
Randy becomes almost certain that if he could unlock that filing cabinet, he would find some electronic gear inside it. Directly underneath his laptop there is probably an antenna to pick up Van Eck signals emanating from the screen. Below that, there is some gear to translate those signals into a digital form and transmit the results to a listening station nearby, probably right on the other side of one of these walls. Down in the bottom are probably some batteries to make it all run. He rocks the cabinet back and forth as much as the chains will allow, and finds that it is indeed rather bottom-heavy, as if there’s a car battery sitting in the bottom drawer. Or maybe it’s just his imagination. Maybe they are letting him have his laptop just because they are nice guys.
So this is it then. This is the setup. This is the deal. It is all very clean and simple. Randy fires up the laptop just to prove that it still works. Then he makes his bed and goes and lies down on it, just because it feels really good to lie down. It is the first time he’s had anything like privacy in at least a week. Notwithstanding Avi’s bizarre admonition against self-abuse on the beach in Pacifica, it is high time that Randy took care of something. He needs to concentrate really hard now, and a certain distraction must be done away with. Replaying his last conversation with Amy is enough to give him a good erection. He reaches down into his pants and then abruptly falls asleep.
He wakes up to the sound of the cellblock door clanging open. A new prisoner is being led in. Randy tries to sit up and finds that his hand is still in his pants, having failed to accomplish its mission. He pulls it out of there reluctantly and sits up. He swings his feet down off the bed and onto the stone floor. Now he’s got his back to the adjacent cell, which is a mirror image of his; i.e., the beds and the toilets of the two cells are right next to each other along their shared partition. He stands up and turns around and watches this other prisoner being led into the cell next to his. The new guy is a white man, probably in his sixties, maybe even seventies, though you could make a case for fifties or eighties. Quite vigorous, anyway. He’s wearing a prison coverall just like Randy’s, but accessorized differently: instead of a laptop, he’s got a crucifix dangling from a rosary with great big fat amber beads, and some sort of medallion on a silver chain, and he’s clutching several books to his belly: a Bible, and something big and in German, and a current bestselling novel.
The guards are treating him with extreme reverence; Randy assumes the guy is a priest. They are talking to him in Tagalog, asking him questions—being, Randy thinks, solicitous to his needs and desires—and the white man answers them in reassuring tones and even tells a joke. He makes a polite request; a guard scurries out and returns moments later with a deck of cards. Finally the guards back out of the cell, practically bowing and scraping, and lock him in with apologies that start to get a little monotonous. The white man says something, forgiving them wittily. They laugh nervously and leave. The white man stands there in the middle of his cell for a minute, staring at the floor contemplatively, maybe praying or something. Then he snaps out of it and starts looking around. Randy leans into the partition and sticks his hand through the bars. "Randy Waterhouse," he says.
The white man frisbees his books onto the bed, glides towards him, and shakes his hand. "Enoch Root," he says. "It’s a pleasure to meet you in person, Randy." His voice is unmistakably that of Pontifex—
Randy freezes up for a long time, like a man who has just realized that a colossal practical joke is being played on him, but doesn’t know just how colossal it is, or what to do about it. Enoch Root sees that Randy is paralyzed, and steps smoothly into the gap. He flexes the deck of cards in one hand and shoots them across to the other; the queue of airborne cards just hangs there between his hands for a moment, like an accordion. "Not as versatile as ETC cards, but surprisingly useful," he muses. "With any luck, Randy, you and I can make a bridge—as long as you are just standing there pontificating anyway."
"Make a bridge?" Randy echoes, feeling and probably sounding rather stupid.
"I’m sorry, my English is a bit rusty—I meant bridge as in a card game. Are you familiar with it?"
"Bridge? No. But I thought it took four people."
"I have come up with a version that is played by two. I only hope this deck is complete—the game requires fifty-four cards."
"Fifty-four," Randy muses. "Is your game anything like Pontifex?"
"One and the same."
"I think I have the rules for Pontifex squirreled away on my hard drive somewhere," Randy says.
"Then let’s play," says Enoch Root.