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The Cobweb

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Written by Neal StephensonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick GeorgeAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by J. Frederick George

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List Price: $11.99

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On Sale: May 31, 2005
Pages: | ISBN: 978-0-553-90162-7
Published by : Spectra Ballantine Group
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Synopsis

From his triumphant debut with Snow Crash to the stunning success of his latest novel, Quicksilver, Neal Stephenson has quickly become the voice of a generation. In this now-classic political thriller, he and fellow author J. Frederick George tell a savagely witty, chillingly topical tale set in the tense moments of the Gulf War.

When a foreign exchange student is found murdered at an Iowa University, Deputy Sheriff Clyde Banks finds that his investigation extends far beyond the small college town—all the way to the Middle East. Shady events at the school reveal that a powerful department is using federal grant money for highly dubious research. And what it’s producing is a very nasty bug.

Navigating a plot that leads from his own backyard to Washington, D.C., to the Gulf, where his Army Reservist wife has been called to duty, Banks realizes he may be the only person who can stop the wholesale slaughtering of thousands of Americans. It’s a lesson in foreign policy he’ll never forget.

Excerpt

one

MARCH 1990

CLYDE BANKS was standing in line, in the early stages of hypothermia, when he first saw his future wife, Desiree Dhont, wrestle. At the time, both of them were juniors at Wapsipinicon High School. Its Wade Olin gym, home of the Little Twisters, was named after the greatest wrestler in the history of the world--an alumnus. It was connected to the high school proper by a glass-walled breezeway, which enabled students to pass back and forth between academics and PE, even in the middle of winter, without getting lost in whiteouts.

On the night in question the Little Twisters were about to play a basketball game against their archrivals from just across the river: the Nishnabotna Injuns. The ticket line filled the breezeway and extended into the parking lot. The early arrivals' breath condensed on the insides of the glass walls, which became steamy in the middle and frosty around the edges. The steel framework of the breezeway was growing leaves of frost.

Clyde Banks was on the outside and Desiree Dhont was on the inside, which was typical of their lives at that point. He did not mind the cold, because this arrangement enabled him to stand and stare through the frosty windows at Desiree without her being aware of it.

Clyde was a quiet sort who spent a lot of time thinking about things. During this period he primarily thought about Desiree. He had not spent much time outside the upper Midwest and so had not graduated to more cosmic and general issues--for example, whether it was advisable to live in a part of the country so inimical to life that buildings only a few dozen feet apart had to be connected by expensive glass tunnels.

Clyde was not the only young man staring at Desiree, but he did have a more highly developed contemplative faculty than most of the others, and so he had come up with a rationalization for why Desiree and he were a natural match for each other: neither one of them was technically from Wapsipinicon. Clyde lived on the other side of the river, just outside Nishnabotna, and should have been going to the county high school, but his grandfather and guardian, Ebenezer, who had a thing about education, wouldn't hear of this and dug up a wad of money from one of his hundreds of tiny, secret, widely dispersed bank accounts, or perhaps just dug up some gold coins from one of his many secret, widely dispersed coffee cans, and actually paid tuition to send Clyde to school in Wapsipinicon.

Desiree's family lived several miles south of town, on a farm. The farm lay adjacent to a spur on the Denver-Platte-Des Moines Railway. This particular spur ran up into the middle of the Eastern Iowa University campus, taking coal to the university power plant. When Dan Dhont, Jr., the oldest Dhont boy, had reached junior high school, the Wapsipinicon City Council had voted to annex the first few miles of the railway spur. The Wapsipinicon town line now sported a long, needle-thin, Aleutian-like isthmus running straight out to the Dhont farm. Accordingly, Dan Dhont and all the other Dhonts matriculated and, more to the point, wrestled in Wapsipinicon.

So there was sort of a connection between Clyde and Desiree from the very beginning, or so Clyde had, by dint of lengthy contemplation, led himself to believe. He had not yet figured out a way to parlay this uncanny link into an actual conversation with the girl, but he was working on it. He had run through a number of options in his head, but all of them required ten or fifteen minutes of preliminary explanation, and he did not think this was the best way to get started.

Equally absorbed in the charms of Desiree Dhont was a Nishnabotna boy standing just behind her in line. Naturally, he was traveling with a whole group of other Nishnabotna boys. Just as naturally they egged him on, shouldering him forward playfully until he was almost rubbing up against her. After all, what was a Wapsipinicon/Nishnabotna athletic event without a few incidents of assault, battery, rape, and even attempted murder, perpetrated by Injuns against Little Twisters?

Finally the boy from Nishnabotna made the stupid but (to Clyde) wholly understandable mistake of reaching out and grabbing Desiree Dhont's left buttock.

Not in his worst nightmares did this boy imagine that Desiree might be in any way related to the Dhonts. There was no family resemblance. After bearing five consecutive male children, Mrs. Dhont had concluded, contrary to medical opinion, that she was biologically incapable of having little girls, so she and Dan, Sr., had gone out and adopted Desiree from somewhere. Then she had vindicated her decision, and flummoxed the doctors, by having another three boys.

Unlike the biological Dhonts, Desiree tanned. She tanned marvelously and perfectly. Her dark eyes were set at an outlandish and seductive angle, and her thick, glossy hair was perfectly black. So the boy from Nishnabotna could not have known he was in danger; this alluring creature was cut off from her natural ethnic group, whatever that might be, and he could have his way with her.

Everyone has a role in the cosmic story, no matter how small, dangerous, or humiliating. The roles picked out for boys from Nishnabotna tended to fit all three descriptions. This one's was to answer a question that had confounded the wisest gossips and blowhards of Wapsipinicon for at least a decade, to wit: Could Desiree Dhont wrestle?

Everyone knew that the living room of the Dhont house had a wrestling mat instead of a carpet. Everyone knew that there was another mat on the basement floor. The Des Moines Register had printed an aerial photo of the farmstead showing their outdoor mat in the side yard, next to a home-built weight-training set under the shade of the windbreak. Everyone knew that the Dhont boys learned how to wrestle before they learned how to walk, and that Darius Dhont, upon bursting from his mother's womb after forty-eight hours of furious labor, had gripped a nurse's lower lip in an illegal hold, his long newborn's fingernails darting four tiny crescent-shaped cuts into her mucous membranes before Dan, Sr., had spanked him loose, one, two, three, like a ref slapping a mat.

Smart money said no. The whole idea behind having Desiree was that Mrs. Dhont would have a more feminine presence around the house. Why go to all that trouble to import X chromosomes from Timbuktu and then have her rolling around the living room in bib overalls, body-slamming her muscular brothers? So Desiree had been raised to be markedly feminine in more than just her name. Clyde had attended the same junior high school as Desiree, and he could still remember sitting behind her in algebra, tracing the construction of her French braids--straight dark hair pulled in on itself, stretched to explosive tension like the strings of a piano--and getting woozy over the lace that draped around her tanned neck like a ring of Ivory soapsuds.

The mystery had deepened when they had matriculated at Wapsipinicon High School. In order to justify the expense of the indoor swimming facility, all students had to take swimming classes. The girls changed into stunning black spandex one-pieces, and all the boys were stripped down to black spandex trunks that didn't conceal things any more effectively than their own supply of pubic hair. They needed no encouragement to get into the water.

The girls' suits were cut deep in the back, and everyone knew that a fella could grasp the straps from behind and pull them apart and down and strip a girl naked to the waist like shucking an ear of corn. So all the girls pulled the laces out of their gym shoes and used them to tie the straps together between their shoulder blades. Clyde spent at least a night a week fantasizing about this unbearably erotic rite: all the girls in the locker room binding each other's straps together with dingy gray shoelaces, pulling those granny knots tight, locking their breasts away so that only the greenish water of the pool could touch them. It made the suits visually narrower, as seen from behind, which made the girls' shoulders look broader than they were.

Desiree Dhont was thus given away by her deltoids. By the end of her first swimming class everyone knew that Desiree had indeed been full-nelsoning her siblings since she had been in the cradle. They were not at all masculine, not unbecoming at all, and underneath them her armpits were as sheer and smooth as the backs of her knees. But unmistakably they were powerful and developed, death-dealing Dhont deltoids, fairer and sexier than any breast or buttock.

And on the night in question they were concealed beneath Desiree's fluffy down-filled ski jacket. The boy from Nishnabotna knew nothing of the deltoids. He only knew that Desiree was a relatively tall girl; but he was even taller, and he was a boy, and he was with his friends, tough Nishnabotna boys who worked throwing hay bales and pig corpses. He was safe. He reached out and grabbed her ass.
He blinked as Desiree's long black braid snapped across his face, whipped around by tremendous centrifugal force.

She was in violent motion; his hand was empty before the pleasing sensation had even traveled up his arm to his brain.

A moment later she was behind him and his arm had been wrenched up behind his back, bent like a hairpin. Desiree shoved him face first across the breezeway and gave his arm a final twist. He opened his mouth to holler.

The sound was muffled by a chunk of steel window frame that went directly against his tongue. The frame was not insulated. It was January. Desiree let him go but the window frame didn't. His tongue, and about fifty percent of his lips' surface area, remained flash-frozen in place, as if the window frame had been coated with Krazy Glue.

Her girlfriend held her place in line. Desiree returned, hitching her jeans back around.

"My name's Desiree," she said. Desiree had been in this country since the age of five weeks, but Clyde still imagined she spoke with a haughty crisp accent like the models in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit video.

"Aaah," the boy from Nishnabotna said, swiveling his eyes way around in their sockets.

"Desiree Dhont," she said.

"Aaaaaaaaghhh!" the boy said, and began to struggle.

"Darius ain't here--yet. He's parking the truck."

Clyde decided not to stick around and watch the kid rip his own tongue off the window frame. He had a lot to think about now, and the Injuns-Little Twisters game was not the place to do it. Better, and much more his style, to walk around aimlessly in the blinding cold. What he had just witnessed was very important. He was going to have to do a lot of thinking about it.

He knew from that moment on that Desiree was the woman for him and that he was the man for Desiree and that one day they would get married and have a family. Actually getting introduced to her, getting her to fall in love with him, and all of that stuff were just details.

The details ended up taking about fourteen years to sort themselves out. Things got off to a false start the next year when Clyde seemed to spend about half his life wrestling Dick Dhont, younger brother of Darius. In any other municipality in the world Clyde would have been the champion of his weight class. In any other state he would have been state champion, and in any other country he would have had a fair shot at the Olympic team. At Wapsipinicon High he was a perpetual loser and object of merciless derision. The only way for him to move upward in life was to defeat Dick on the mat, which he tried to do once a week. On two occasions he actually won, only to be beaten by Dick the following week. Clyde and Dick got to know each other a lot more intimately than many married couples. Naturally he hoped that this would lead to a relationship with Desiree. It did; but the relationship was distant and platonic. Clyde was vindicated six years later when Dick won a gold medal at the Olympics, but this had done him no good during high school.

Desiree went off to nursing school. She was the only Dhont who could not obtain a full-ride wrestling scholarship to any school, and so she went the ROTC route instead. After she got her degree she spent four years in the Army, paying back her obligation, and then reupped for another couple of years. She married a guy she'd met in the Army and settled down in California. Two years later she divorced him and came back to Wapsipinicon.

Clyde worked construction for a couple of years, ostensibly to fund a future college education, but by the time he could afford it, he was no longer interested. He did not have any specific job ambitions that required a formal degree, and he had learned that he could read books in the EIU library for free and spend his money traveling.

He spent his tuition money riding a motorcycle around the United States and Canada and even did the wandering-around-Europe thing for a while. He came back to Wapsipinicon, goofed off for a year, got bored with that, and finally went to the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in Des Moines. After he graduated, first in his class, he was able to obtain his current job as a deputy county sheriff in Forks County, which included both Wapsipinicon and Nishnabotna. Sooner or later he ran into Desiree. They discovered to their mutual surprise that they had a lot to talk about. They dated for a few months, rented a house in Wapsipinicon and moved in together, then got married a year later.

After a couple of years of relatively carefree fun, they decided to start a family. They made this decision in June of 1989. They knew other couples who had had trouble getting pregnant and who had spent years pursuing various therapies and adoption strategies, and so they felt that they should start trying as soon as possible. Desiree got pregnant within approximately forty-five minutes.
Not long afterward Clyde Banks began to think about career issues again. It was time to move up in the world or find another line of work. The only way to move up was to run for Forks County sheriff in the 1990 election. This would mean putting his boss, Kevin Mullowney, out of a job. Mullowney was a Democrat. Clyde Banks had no choice but to grit his teeth and become a Republican. The Republican party was glad to have him, but there weren't many Republicans in the area, and the party did not have a lot of money.
Neal Stephenson

About Neal Stephenson

Neal Stephenson - The Cobweb
Neal Stephenson issues from a clan of rootless, itinerant hardscience and engineering professors (mostly Pac-10, Big 10, and Big 8 with the occasional wild strain of Ivy). He began his higher education as a physics major, then switched to geography when it appeared that this would enable him to scam more free time on his university’s mainframe computer. When he graduated and discovered, to his perplexity, that there were no jobs for inexperienced physicist-geographers, he began to look into alternative pursuits such as working on cars, unimaginably stupid agricultural labor, and writing novels. His first novel, The Big U, was published in 1984 and vanished without a trace. His second novel, Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller, came out in 1988 and quickly developed a cult following among water-pollution-control engineers. It was also enjoyed, though rarely bought, by many radical environmentalists. Snow Crash was written in the years 1988 through 1991 as the author listened to a great deal of loud, relentless, depressing music.

Mr. Stephenson now resides in a comfortable home in the western hemisphere and spends all of his time trying to retrofit an office into its generally dark, unlevel, and asbestos-laden basement so that he can attempt to write more novels. Despite the tremendous amounts of time he devotes to writing, playing with computers, listening to speed metal, Rollerblading, and pounding nails, he is a flawless husband, parent, neighbor, and all-around human being.

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