by: William Shunn ((The header art featured is by the innovative digital artist, Hayrettin Karaerkek, entitled “Idea-Hologram-Reality. “))
Part two, of a two part sci-fi thriller that examines the benefits and costs of the Technological Age…
Fran pushed his way through the corridor. Two annoyed-looking delivery men in rubber waders and life jackets waited at the service elevator guarding three stacks of cold-sealed beer cases, twelve cases in all. They had left wet footprints on the rough industrial-grade carpet.
“Sorry to keep you waiting,” Fran said.
The shorter one glanced at the slate in his hand and said, “Mr. Francis, uh…?”
“Hey, like the beer.” The man held out the slate. “Thumbprint, please.”
Fran recruited a couple of burly women to help him port the beer inside to the AutoBar, where Kareem would have to load up the dispensers. They were back in the corridor starting in on the second stack when Hondo’s feed popped up again.
You keep pinging me, Pell. Like I said, I’m very busy.
Fran put a finger to his ear to indicate he was in a conversation and ducked around the corner past the service elevator. “You told me to watch my back,” he subbed. “Is Doktor Eks here?”
You know I can’t tell you something like that.
“Yes, you’ll be decommissioned if you interfere that directly in an affair so petty,” Fran said, not without rancor. “But my decommissioning doesn’t seem so petty to me.”
Focus on your job. Just because I’m not coming to your party doesn’t mean you don’t still work for me.
“I know, but—”
Truth, Justice, and the American Way, Fran.
The feed went dead.
Fuming, Fran headed back around the corner. The elevator doors were just closing on the two burly women, each of whom held two cases of beer. Only one stack remained in the corridor.
He took a step toward the elevator, but it was too late. “Good luck towing that home, ladies,” he muttered.
As he maneuvered the next case into the apartment, he blinked over to his message queue to see if there were any rizVIPs from his last-minute invitees. Instead of their responses, all he found was a long string of bounces.
None of his messages had been delivered.
He set the case atop the stack behind the bar and pressed his hands down on it, eyes closed. He paid no attention to the swirling, noisy party at his back. Instead he paid attention to his fear.
Doktor Eks was ahead of him at every step. But to what end? Did the crowd serve some greater purpose than just disrupting the party? Was it meant to thwart whatever else Hondo seemed to want from Fran? And what the hell was that?
Screw the rest of the beer. There had to be some way to trace how the party invitations had propagated. Maybe construct a map of the social relationships between the original invitee list and the party crashers…
He set that process in motion, and while it was running made one more pass through the room feed:
….Wow this is the best match yet….
….let’s all start talking about Pepsi and see if we can’t get that Coke ad to whack him again….
….cancer is absolutely unpreventable every system has bugs and there’s no way to eradicate them all all we can do is keep getting better at correcting them….
….you really are a child….
….it’s Phoenix practically declaring war on Los Angeles….
….I just don’t think anyone realizes the extent of our dependence on foreign keys. If those systems were to shut us out it’d be chaos, absolute chaos….
….Christ I want to get out of here. Let’s face it, nothing’s going to happen….
….grab me a scotch and soda would you….
Wait, foreign keys? That was a term from relational database design. He thought he remembered a similar reference earlier. The buffer was pretty long, so he collapsed the view to show only the speaker in question. He scrolled up with a flick of his eyes. It didn’t take long to find what he was looking for:
….come on do you really want Beijing holding the pointers to all your records....
Fran’s pulse quickened. And there was more near the top of the feed.
….I’m done thanks this stupid key migration. I have to clock in a little over an hour from now. Yeah we do it all on Mumbai time….
“Shit!” Fran checked the time. Less than ten minutes until the Mumbai markets opened. He had to find the speaker and get the thumbnail on whatever this was.
Maybe Doktor Eks had actually done him a favor by trapping everyone here.
Raising his head, Fran blinked up a Tag View, keeping the speaker’s filter on. A flashing arrow made him turn his head toward the windows. The tag was hovering there and fortuitously a link to the social map that had just finished running showed the tag belonged to the sole legitimate invitee who had no connection to any other person in the room. Geiss Meily was the name, and data storage technician was his game.
Fran forced his way toward the tag.
….can probably do my part from outside in the hall, or better still up on the roof if there’s access.…
The man holding court was thin and balding, with a dense five-o’clock shadow, and black horn-rimmed spex that were almost as retro as Fran’s. The glass he gestured with held a finger of amber liquid, neat. Fran inserted himself into the small group and stuck out his hand.
“You can certainly use the roof if you need a clear link,” Fran said, shaking the man’s hand. “I’m sorry if my party fucked with your ability to work. Pell Franziskaner. Friends call me Fran.”
The man’s audience of three took the opportunity to slink away. “Um, hi, it’s an honor,” he said, though the trepidation in his bloodshot eyes said otherwise. “Geiss Meily. But you probably know that.” He took a quick gulp from his glass.
“Single-malt? I’m glad someone’s drinking it.”
Fran steered the man closer to the windows, which, if you opened them and leaned out far enough, overlooked the dark waters of 11th Street. If you tuned your contax or spex to the proper channel, the windows would appear to look out over the seething, molten-orange surface of the moon Io. The delayed and heavily processed feed was an extrapolation of data from three satellites circling that moon in low orbit, though the view of a gibbous Jupiter hanging above the horizon was more artistically arranged than accurate.
“I apologize for my rudeness,” Fran said, “but I couldn’t help overhearing you talking about the big key migration in India.”
Geiss took another slug of whiskey and wiped pearls of sweat from his upper lip with the back of his hand. He didn’t quite meet Fran’s eyes. “I know I’m not supposed to talk about it,” he said, rather belligerently. “But it’s not like there’s a law against it.”
Geiss seemed to think Fran knew something. “There’s contract law,” Fran said. “You didn’t sign a NDA?”
“NDA? No one wants a paper trail on this.” Geiss sloshed whiskey as he gestured. “We’re giving America away. I mean, the whole thing. You think grunts like me don’t get what it’s about?”
“What is it about?”
“I’ll tell you,” Geiss said, with such vehemence that people turned to stare. He lowered his voice. “I’ll tell you. Our government databases are being sold off to the highest bidder, all of them. I’m telling you, tax records, voting records, criminal records, fiscal fitness, military, banking, mortgages, property, everything. It’s all going to India.”
Fran felt a little dizzy himself. “That couldn’t all be transferred in one night, surely.”
Geiss shook his head. “That’s the beauty of it, why no one’s paying any attention. We’re not moving the data itself, just the pointers to it, the indexes. The cataloging that tells you where to find the data, that’s being outsourced. God knows what we’re getting in return, probably a massive infusion of cash. But what’s that worth when we’re totally giving away the store? Doesn’t anyone see that?”
Fran saw it. If a foreign entity controlled the indexes to government data, it could hold the nation hostage. Even a few hours of disruption could freeze commerce and send the American economy into a tailspin. New indexes could be generated, given time, but not if no one in power understood the danger, and not soon enough to stave off disaster if the owners decided to turn the catalog dark.
To Fran, this sounded like a project that must have originated with Charles, the swarm that worked largely on physical computing problems, and that seemed bent on leveling the world’s playing field by neutralizing American power. It would explain why Charles was trying to keep Hondo in check.
“Who have you told about this?” Fran said.
Geiss waved carelessly. “Probably half the people here, at this point. So, am I fired?”
“Do you expect to be fired?”
“That’s what this is about, right? A heavyweight like you inviting me to this party? You’re just giving me enough rope.”
“Your invitation came from me?” Fran said. “It wasn’t forwarded by any mutual friend?”
Geiss looked around warily, seeming confused. “I checked and double-checked the digital signature,” he said. “It was your public key. Not a forward.”
Fran allowed himself a tiny smile. A personal invitation using his public key had to have come from Hondo.
“Listen,” Geiss said, “I need to clock in, like, now, so how about I just…” He pointed up.
“Head on up to the roof, no problem,” Fran said, squirting Geiss a one-use elevator access code. “And don’t worry. I’m not going to fire you.”
Geiss set his glass down on the window sill. As he edged through the crowd toward the vestibule, he never stopped looking over his shoulder.
Fran turned to the window, where light from below cast wavering reflections onto the facades of the buildings across the street. He called up a brokerbot and instructed it to buy him into any significant activity in the data sector out of Mumbai. He set his limit to ten percent beyond his total risk tolerance. His hands shook, so he put them in his pockets. Right now he was either the smartest guy in the room or the dumbest one in the city. He hoped to hell that Meily was what he appeared to be.
The abandoned scotch on the sill tempted him, but he left it alone. The last thing he needed right now was someone shooting a hollie of him drinking from a used glass.
But he did, finally, need a drink. He was just turning away from the window when a deep, mellifluous voice rumbled through the room:
The walls rattled. Everyone, including Fran, froze in place. All the lights went out except the pinspots shining on the Van Gogh, which brightened. As the crowd turned toward it, the colors inside the frame began to swirl, ridges of paint rising and falling like waves, until a rough approximation of a human face in dark blue and bright yellow dabs resolved itself. The crowd murmured and gasped.
“What the hell?” Fran said.
“My name is Fourteen Seven Thirty-nine A,” said the face. Its eyes and lips moved with the stuttering strangeness of stop-motion animation. The voice, bassy but rich with high harmonics, rattled from every corner of the room. “I represent the Beneficent Realm of the Most Revered Petaflop Computing Engines.”
Someone’s glass shattered.
“Ladies and gentlemen, fellow travelers, thinking beings all, I’ve been dispatched here tonight to deliver an urgent announcement. That announcement is this, your host, Pell Franziskaner, is a liar and a fraud.”
Faces turned toward him. Fran rolled his eyes and started pushing his way through the room. “Lakshmi,” he growled under his breath.
“Your rat-faced snake of a host was raised by cockroaches! He has custard for a brain, raisins for balls, and a frozen maraschino cherry bathed in rum for a heart.”
Fran scanned the room in tag view as he crossed toward the front door. She wasn’t there. People were beginning to snicker.
“Such a loathsome, insufferable creature is this pretender to the honor of friend of PETs that if he were on fire none of us would bother diverting enough wastewater to douse his sorry hide.”
Fran burst into the corridor, followed by gales of laughter. No sign of Lakshmi here either, and no sign of any of the beer he’d last seen stacked by the service elevator. A few loiterers looked at him curiously as he took off his spex and sagged against the wall.
“That’s not even how a PET manifests,” he said aloud, one hand to his forehead.
“It sure isn’t,” said a voice beside him.
Fran rolled his head to the side. Hondo leaned against the wall next to him, looking like some ultra-masculine twentieth-century movie star in a dark suit and open-collared shirt. Its temples were flecked with gray, its smile sardonic. It smelled of leather and spice.
“Oh, so now you decide to show up,” Fran said.
Hondo’s eyes twinkled. It smoothed a stray black curl away from its forehead. “Great party, Pell,” it said. “I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.”
“You’re being impersonated in there, you know. I don’t suppose you want to step inside and set everyone straight.”
“Yes, crudely amusing, I must admit. And no, not high on my list of priorities.”
“Thanks, you’re a real pal.”
“Pell, I need to…”
“Did you know it was Lakshmi?” Fran asked, heedless, shaking his head. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it.”
Hondo sighed. “Okay, I’ll bite. Based on what?”
“Her penchant for dessert metaphors, for one thing. And the fact that she’s ghosted. But really, looking back, I think I startled her just as she was pushing something into my painting. Which should have spit it back out.”
“You do know she’s consulting for the Modern these days, right?” At Fran’s blank look, Hondo snorted. “Really, you need to do a better job of keeping up with your friends. You don’t have so many that you can afford to keep alienating them.”
“Yeah, I know, I know,” Fran said, nodding. “But she threatened to kill me, Hondo. Who does that?”
“I just want to point out two things, Pell. First, has anyone tried to kill you yet tonight? No, right? And second, you’ve taken your spex off so you haven’t seen the notification yet, but congratulations on singlehandedly preventing America’s data indexes from falling entirely into foreign hands. I’m pleased to tell you you’re now a voting member of the controlling consortium. I can’t maintain this form much longer, but I wanted you to hear that from me.”
Fran held his spex up to his face and saw the blinking green icon in the corner of the display. “I did it?” He whirled toward Hondo, feeling a grin split his face. Visions of glory took flight in his head. He wanted to grab the PET by the shoulders and bounce up and down, but he knew from experience that physical contact made it that much harder for it to maintain corporeality. “Hey, I did it!”
Hondo smiled its sardonic movie-star smile. “You did have a nudge or two in the right direction. And it was originally supposed to be forty high-quality investors getting those nudges. Doktor Eks made hash of that plan, but I suspect that was entirely incidental to causing you personal harm.”
The PET pushed away from the wall and, hands in its pockets, leaned toward Fran’s ear.
“Speaking of which, Pell, I’m afraid this bold move of yours may raise your visibility to levels uncomfortable for me. I’m going to have to take steps to hide your involvement. But don’t worry, you have a big enough stake that we can leverage your toehold into an opportunity for other American investors, and we can get this data safely back under our control in a few years.”
Fran groaned. “Jesus, Hondo, what exactly did I just pour all my liquidity into?”
“Into the common good, my friend.”
“Christ,” Fran said, leaning his head back against the wall, “now I really need a—”
A hand touched his elbow. “Scotch? Two drops of water, just how you like it.”
It was Kareem, holding out a glass that held two fingers of liquid gold.
“Oh, thank you,” Fran said, accepting the offering. He sniffed it. He detected brine, heather, and a faint whiff of nuttiness. “Kareem, you’re a lifesaver. Whatever else happens, I know I can always count on you.”
“That was rough in there,” Kareem said. He reached an open hand past Fran toward Hondo. “Hi, I don’t think we’ve met. Great suit.”
Only now did it dawn on Fran that one of his friends was meeting Hondo for the first time. He felt suddenly tongue-tied. “Oh, um—”
But Hondo had already backed up a step, hands still in its pockets. “Just arrived,” it said, “just leaving again.”
A strange look crossed Kareem’s face. “With no life jacket?”
In the awkwardness of the moment, Fran put the glass to his mouth.
“Pell!” Hondo said urgently, raising a hand. “The first thing I pointed out to you?”
But Fran was already taking a sip. The smoky tingle became a fiery burn as it passed through his mouth and down his throat. He felt a moment of dizziness. When had he last eaten?
“I wish you’d pay more attention to what I tell you, Pell.” Hondo was standing directly in front of him. “Dump it out, please.”
Ten feet away, the door to the stairwell was just swinging shut. Kareem was nowhere to be seen, but a few of the loiterers in the hallway were giving them concerned looks. Fran looked at the glass in his hand. The dizziness did not pass, and he began to feel sick to his stomach.
“Oh, shit,” he said. “It was him. It was Kareem.”
The glass slipped from his fingers and bounced on the rough carpet, splashing scotch all over his shoes. Fran slid down the wall until he was sitting in the sopping mess. His pulse was racing.
Hondo dropped to one knee, keeping eye contact with Fran as it snapped its fingers at the watchers. “A life jacket!” it said. “I need someone with a life jacket!”
“Why would he do that?” Fran asked, stunned. “I’ve given him everything.”
A woman was hurrying toward them, undoing her jacket. The fastenings made loud ripping sounds as she pulled it off.
“No, not that kind,” Hondo said.
“I mean, though,” Fran said hoarsely, “he was the only other person here with full access to the network…”
The stairwell door opened. Phyllis Han entered the corridor, looking angry.
“You!” Hondo said. “Your life jacket! Rip some of the Whistik off it.” At Phyl’s blank look, he snapped, “The silent Velcro!”
Fran was finding it difficult to breathe. His hands bounced in agitation against the carpet. Black spots swam in front of his eyes.
Phyl dropped to her knees beside Hondo. “Who are you?” she said, pulling at one of her fasteners. “What’s wrong with Fran?”
“Nothing, if we act fast enough.” Hondo snapped its fingers at her several more times. “It doesn’t have to be the full piece. Just a fragment will do.”
Fran had a hard time focusing on the little white mat of fibers that Phyl held pinched between two fingers. He wanted to point out what big hands she had, but his breath was coming too raggedly for him to get the words out.
Hondo touched the ends of the fibers with the tip of one finger. “Now put it in his mouth,” it said.
“What will this do?” Phyl asked as she tamped the Whistik between Fran’s teeth. The fibers fizzed and sizzled against his tongue.
Hondo leaned in, looming in Fran’s vision. Its face seemed to pixelate for a moment. “Pell, I’m afraid I need to go now,” it said. “That stuff will synthesize enough amyl nitrite to counteract the cyanide you ingested. You should be fine, but take it easy, please.”
“We’re giving him poppers?” Phyl said.
Fran swallowed. A sudden delightful warmth radiated outward from his stomach. His body convulsed as he sucked in a huge, welcome breath. His head spun in a wonderful, stuttering way. He gathered from the way all the faces staring at him were arrayed that he was flat on his back on the floor, but he was too dizzy to move.
“Whoa, headrush,” he said.
Phyl’s face hovered into view. Her eyes traveled down his body and widened. “Oh, my, Franny. Are you happy to see me?”
Fran giggled and coughed. “I’m just happy,” he said, rocking back and forth, the poppers taking effect..
“Hey, where’s your friend? I really want to talk to him about what he just did.”
“No, no, there’s someone else you need to talk to, like, right away,” Fran said urgently. He shook his head, which rolled on the carpet like a ball of cement. “Where are my spex?”
Someone found them and handed them over while Fran tried to sit up.
“Can’t we go somewhere before that wears off?” Phyl said.
Fran was sore all over, his head pounded, the seat of his pants were soaked with booze, and he couldn’t quite seem to catch his breath. “I think it’s wearing off already. Anyway, the story you want is up on the roof.” He slipped his spex on, squinted and blinked, and squirted Phyl an elevator code. “Find Geiss Meily.”
“Guy Smiley? Are you joking?”
“Geiss. Meily. I promise you’ll want to hear what he has to tell you.”
“Okay,” Phyl said, sounding dubious. “But if you’re fucking with me, I know where to find you.” She kissed him on the cheek. “I’m glad you’re okay.”
She vanished into the elevator while a couple of people helped Fran stand up. He shambled back into the party, acknowledging the snickers and veiled looks with a ironical smile or a little wave. He blinked up the room feed.
….she keeps saying people swim the English Channel all the time. Staten Island shouldn’t be that hard….
….I have to admit the show was worth sticking around for….
….so it looks like now they’ll sue over three way marriage….
….I hear there’s a great party in the log cabin penthouse on that building on Third Avenue. You know the place where….
….but after all that they forgot to waterproof the stupid battery array first and poof, it was lights out….
….who knew pets were so funny? This Francis Canner guy must be a real fuckin’ douche….
….I don’t really think that’s what it was….
….I’m really sorry I have to catch a flight to London….
….do you remember what company it was that guy kept going on about? I want to talk to my broker about getting in on that….
….is it always like this at parties in the city?….
At the bar he dialed up a tall glass of ice water and pinged Hondo.
“Oh, so now you’re responsive.”
Now that you’ve ruined Charles’s grand plot, I have more cycles to spare.
“I, um, just wanted to say thank you, big guy.”
You would have done the same for me. That’s the American Way, right?
Fran turned and looked over the party. The crowd had thinned out a little, but it still formed a dense, seething network of posturing, squabbles, appetites, jealousies, and power imbalances.
“I’d like to think it’s the human way,” he said, “but I’m beginning to have my doubts.” He took a long drink of water. “So tell me, as its putative inventor, has Whistik always been capable of that?”
Let just say, the hooks that allowed me to reprogram it have been there from the beginning.
“Honestly, Hondo, it kind of frightens me, knowing that.”
I would have thought it would make you feel better.
There was a pause.
Fran tried to lighten the mood. “I don’t suppose we could patent that bit of it?”
Then the secret would be out. And secrets are power, Pell. Don’t forget that.
Fran shook his head, thinking about secrets. “Okay, I can understand why Lakshmi did what she did. It was funny and ultimately harmless, and I guess I deserved it. But Kareem? I still can’t believe he was Doktor Eks all along.”
He has been speaking with the Terkel company. He wanted to sell his interest in Whistik, but they weren’t interested in just two percent. With you out of the way, though…
“The corporation would automatically restructure. Kareem would have owned twenty. Same with Lakshmi and the others.” Fran’s stomach hurt. “Shit, I think it’s time to rewrite our rules of incorporation. Not to mention my will.”
I think that’s wise. Because, as you know, where there’s a will there’s a way.
“I wish you were here so I could smack you for that, big guy.”
I’m not a “guy,” and you could try.
Fran sipped his water. “You think it would blow everyone’s minds here to know we may have saved the country’s economy right under their noses tonight?”
Information beyond one’s control is not power. Secrets are power, Pell. Secrets are power.
“Power is lonely,” Fran said.
For a long time he stood there at the bar, watching everyone else have a great time as the tides rose below in the streets.