Our Dependency on Foreign Keys, Part One

by: William Shunn ((The header art featured is by the innovative digital artist, Hayrettin Karaerkek, entitled “The Puppeteer.”))

Part one, of a two part sci-fi thriller that begs the question, who can you really trust?

Part One

Fran needed a drink. Forty people. That’s all this party was supposed to be. Instead, there were eighty-seven, and that was just in the living room. One of whom was there to murder him.

But instead of heading to the AutoBar, Fran pinged Hondo again. “The situation here’s out of hand, big guy,” he subvocalized. “Where are you?”

The cursor on the PET’s secure feed continued to blink. Was Hondo giving him the silent treatment because of the party crashers or was something more sinister up?

Fran took off his retro, wood-framed spex and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “I feel like an interloper in my own apartment,” he shouted over the noise and music. He had to bellow over the noise and music.

“It’s a great party, Franny,” Kareem Foster said, sounding amused. The crowd had them both backed up against the wall.

Being called Franny made Fran grit his teeth, but he let it slide. His friends didn’t seem to care that he hated it. “You’re the planner here,” Fran said. “You have to say that.”

Kareem had secured the sponsorships, designed the environments, crafted the terms and conditions, and laid in all the supplies. The work was far beneath Kareem’s training in molecular biology, but since neither of them could work in that field any longer, Fran liked to help him stay busy.

“You know I’m the harshest critic of my own work,” Kareem said. “Just relax and enjoy this, Franny. I remember when you would have killed for attention like this.”

Kareem was right. Fran craved fame but it always seemed to elude him, and even had when he’d been involved in the biggest corporate lawsuit in the country’s history.

“Maimed, maybe,” Fran said. “But look at everyone. They don’t even have room to take their life jackets off. Where did they all come from?”

“Water taxis,” Kareem said, brushing back his dreads.

“Um, before that.”

“Jersey City?”

Fran sagged. “Jesus. There go the last tatters of my reputation.”

Kareem patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, man. Most people here don’t know the first thing about you, let alone the name of your big invention. You have no reputation.”

Frowning, Fran surveyed his jam-packed living room. People of all colors and genders holding drinks jostled randomly into one another in Brownian motion, bulky with their personal floatation devices on, their voices merging with the electronic soundtrack. More guests and interlopers kept trickling up from the jetty downstairs, accepting the evening’s Terms-of-Service with barely a glance, choosing an environment from the holographic menu, and following the party’s meandering jet stream to the AutoBar. It was a huge apartment by East Village standards  – completely rehabbed from what had once been three separate units – but not big enough to contain the impatience and growing hostility, stemming, in part, the fact that everyone’s wearables were firewalled. Kareem had given the party a robust Intranet with chat boards and private hangouts, but there was no access to the outside Net.

“All these people waltzing in like they own the place,” Fran said. “Like entering my home is their privilege.”

“I wouldn’t go throwing that word around if I were you,” Kareem said. “You’re rich, white, male, and six-foot-six. You’re made of privilege.”

Fran sniffed. “You’re male. And rich.”

“Rich on paper. Not the way you are.”

Fran couldn’t argue. Whistik was a billion-dollar enterprise, of which Kareem and four other friends owned two percent apiece. Fran himself controlled the remaining ninety, which effectively meant he controlled it all.

“It is my apartment,” Fran groused.

Sighing, Kareem said, “It’s one of your apartments, which means, unlike a lot of your guests, you don’t have to live in the Flood Zone if you don’t want to. In fact, the only thing you really need to worry about is what happens if you run out of beer. Which is why I’m ordering more right now.” He pointed at his eyes, the rich brown of which was only slightly discolored by his contax. “Go mingle. Get a drink. Leave the stress to me.”

Fran watched as Kareem turned, inserting himself smoothly into the throng.

Fran put a hand up to fend off a careless hipster who kept trying to back into him. Beer, the only thing he needed to worry about? Hardly. He had to worry about salvaging whatever Hondo’s objective for the evening had been, which Fran did not know, while at the same time keeping an eye on some strange activity in the Asian financial markets, and, as always, watching his back.

Fran pinged Hondo, yet again to no result.

It was Hondo who had asked Fran to throw this party in the first place. “I want forty people,” the PET had instructed, “the kind with investable cash. Invite some of your friends, and have them invite some of their friends. But manage the process. Forty rizVIPS, no more, no less.”

“What is this, an Amway party?” Fran had asked.

“Much more exciting. Tell them you’ll be introducing a very special guest they won’t want to miss.”

Fran took this to mean that the secret of their business arrangement would soon be out. He had wanted his friends to meet Hondo for years, wanted it known far and wide that he was one of the very few humans who was friends with a PET. Pleased as he was, though, he wondered why Hondo was choosing now to step forward after so long in the shadows.

The death threats had started not long after the invitations went out, The first appeared online, in the forums Fran frequented, and we’re attributed to an untraceable internet troll called Doktor Eks. Fran hadn’t taken the threats seriously, and, wanting to keep the party low-key, had opted for electronic over physical security. It had been a big mistake, since the crashers kept right on crashing.

Scrubbers kept the air smelling more of sandalwood and cocoa than pot smoke, but the cooling system wasn’t doing as great a job with the temperature. It seemed to Fran the mood was heating up too. He slipped his spex back on and blinked-up a census. Ninety-eight people now in the living room, twenty-five in the kitchen, nineteen in the bedroom, five in the everloving bathroom. And who knew how many out in the hall, catching a signal and pissing off his neighbors. Was one of them a killer?

God, he needed that drink.

Arms raised, Fran angled toward the AutoBar. Despite the visual advantage his height gave him, he wasn’t nearly as adept as Kareem at cutting through the crowd, and he drew more than one aggrieved look along the way. Depending on which environment they’d chosen to party in, his guests might see him as a feudal daimyo or space pirate king, but clearly that didn’t grant automatic respect. He tapped the earpiece of his spex. Speech parsers began picking apart the nearby conversational threads. A text feed scrolled through his field of vision, different colors representing different voices.

….manic joy in the face of tragedy that’s just our way isn’t it….

….hey grab me another beer while you’re at it would you?….

….are you kidding me? In most ways Rio’s worse off than we are. São Paulo’s still the place to be…..

….that Frankenstein’s the host! Fuck me…..

….so he whips it out and stupid me, I make a nanotech joke. Oh man….

….but a PET on a leash there’s just no way…..

….this supposed Third World is eating our economic lunch….

….goddamn popup ad just got me again. What, they think if they make you spill your drink you’ll go back for a Coke instead?….

….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….

….it’s New York pal, you don’t like it fucking swim home….

….move that hand or lose it….

….I want to know when this PET’s supposed to show….

The undercurrent of hostility in the room was worrisome, but more concerning were the PET references. He supposed someone could have inferred the special guest would be a PET – Fran had dropped hints about Hondo to his friends over the years – but whoever had spread the invitation around had to assume the influx of people would change that plan. If these people had been lured out into the Flood Zone by the promise of a PET that never materialized, things could get ugly fast.

The term “PET” was the biggest scientific misnomer since the “God particle” of the turn of the century. PETs were hardly subservient to humans, as the name implied. They were computational intelligences that ran directly on the fabric of spacetime, the way older computers ran on semiconducting transistors. They had sprung up apparently spontaneously in the wake of the object-oriented energy breakthrough of ten years earlier, which had made fossil fuels obsolete. “PET” was short for “petaflop,” which was itself a woefully inadequate and likely misleading description of the computing power of those ghostly machines.

Fran didn’t pretend to understand the details of interdimensional energy extraction, but he had a better grasp than most on the workings of the intelligence swarms that were its most fascinating side effect. Hondo belonged to Smith, a swarm that took interest in questions of economics, politics, and resources. That included massive engineering projects to mitigate and roll back some of the effects of climate change. Hondo was something of a rogue in the PET community, pursuing his own peculiar objectives when not subsumed in the Smith hivemind.

Until Hondo had first approached him, Fran had assumed that PETs only interfaced with humans at the government level, mediated by research entities like CERN. He also had not realized that PETs could assume physical form for short periods, though it apparently required a huge expenditure of energy. “If you don’t mind keeping a low public profile,” Hondo had told him, “I think we could work together to mutual advantage.”

This had been six years earlier, when Fran was running his own small biotech startup and shortly after he had lost his mother. His company, Whistik, was still in its infancy and was close to being a viable product, and Hondo had offered a few oblique suggestions that helped clear the last few hurdles and then some. Hondo had also helped restructure the company before and after the lawsuit, much to Fran’s benefit. Their association had brought him tremendous wealth (and absolutely zero notoriety), though it frequently demanded he complete tasks that he didn’t fully understand. Like throwing this increasingly pear-shaped party.

So what to do now? Hondo’s agenda tonight was entirely opaque to Fran, though perhaps not to whoever was sabotaging it. Better to nudge the party crashers out the door and try to get things back on track or to let out some line and see what it might snare?

Fran had just reached the AutoBar when Hondo’s feed popped up:

I’ve been drafted into a priority application array. I’m sorry, Pell, but I won’t make the party.

“Christ,” Fran muttered. He turned away from the lovely array of liquor and joint dispensers, trying to keep a smile on his face. He hated his real first name, but Hondo only used it when there was trouble. “What are you talking about?” he subbed. “You’re why there is a party.”

Smith swapped me to Charles. I didn’t have a choice about it. Most of me is concentrated in the Eastern Hemisphere, and you know how much I like that.

Hondo was never its normal congenial self when submerged in a group consciousness, even less so when hotswapped to one besides Smith. It was also one of the few PETs to show ideological sympathy toward any particular country, let alone one as unpopular as the United States. It also had a particular fondness for Superman comics.

“No chance you’ll finish up soon?” Fran asked. “It’s a bad scene here, big guy, going to worse. You can’t spare a few cycles? I could really use a guest of honor.”

I’m so maxed I can barely keep this chat going. Besides, your crowd there is not what I ordered.

“Then tell me what you were planning here tonight. It might help me figure out what went wrong.”

I’m sorry, but you’re on your own. And please watch your back.

The feed went dead. Fran stood there in grim thought, hemmed in on every side by hipness. “You’re on your own” meant Hondo needed something from him but couldn’t say what because the swarm was monitoring. Which meant Fran now had to figure out not just what his saboteur was after and foil it, but what Hondo was after and make it happen. As if hosting a party wasn’t stressful enough on its own.

Where to start? When in doubt, give the system a little shake and see what happens. Or make your party planner do it.

Fran blinked up a Tag View, which superimposed a flurry of floating labels on everyone around him. By drilling down, he could learn anyone’s name, sexprefs, availability, and so forth. He could also filter on any tag attribute, which is what he did, tapping out Kareem’s name on a virtual keypad. An Orphan Tag popped up, flashing, pointing to the kitchen.

“You couldn’t have been closer to the bar?” Fran grumbled, plunging back into the noisy crowd. He blinked up the room feed as he pushed through.

….No….no, I’m not afraid of globalization. Not at all except to the extent that the rest of the world hasn’t bought into it yet….

….I think I should just take a vacation somewhere, find a boy and marry him….

….how the hell did you get an Icelandic work visa?….

….this was when I still was learning English. I thought the song said “we are the mushrooms my friend,” oui les champignons exactement….

….they’re greenspanning the environment. They say they have a plan but how do we know it’s in our interest or even there’s a plan at all?….

….no I didn’t have to bribe anyone. Jesus….

….you’ve never heard the Brooklyn alphabet? Fuckin’ A, Fuckin’ B….

….water erosion. We’re on bedrock right here. It should be fine, but that’s all landfill under the Old Freedom Tower….

….shit doesn’t happen fast I’m out of here….

Fran arched his aching back, diving his elbows towards his stiffened back, though no one in the crowd seemed to pay him much attention. He was panting by the time he reached the narrow kitchen. Kareem was trying to supervise the production of more canapés in a space overrun by people who didn’t seem to understand that the work they were interfering with was intended for their own benefit.

Fran motioned Kareem to the door.

“Change of spec,” he said quietly. “Time to weed out the unwelcome.”

“That was a quick reboot. Do I need to draft a few bouncers?”

“Nothing that crude,” Fran said, shaking his head. “Just put the word out on the boards that this party’s crufty.”

Kareem frowned. “In other words, flame my own handiwork.”

“No, better yet, say someone heard the host say no PETs ever manifesting. Say the real action is…I don’t care where else, as long as it’s plausible. Somewhere nearby, so it’s easy to get to.”

“You want a mass defection.”

“I want to be a Pharaoh with a tear in his eye thanking Ra, the Israelites, and their fucking plaguebringer of a god who has turned his back on Egypt.”

“Don’t worry, Franny. In five minutes, everyone here’s going to be asking themselves why they were ever big enough assholes to darken such a loser’s door.”

“You don’t need to go overboard.” Fran started to turn away, then checked himself. “One more thing. Circulate. Any legitimate guest you run across, tell them to stick around.”

“Aye-aye, boss.”

As Kareem got back to work, Fran glanced at the financial feed. It was still early in the trading day in the Asian markets, but prices were slowly falling as a few of the biggest traders quietly shed assets, one of the many patterns he’d programmed his brokerbots to watch for. Were they freeing up capital for some huge acquisition? He’d have to pay attention in case there was some juicy investment opportunity to be sussed out.

He brought up another filtered view of the room, this time with original invitees tagged. Lakshmi West caught his eye first. A tall South Asian woman with long, glossy hair, she was standing near the wall opposite the windows, examining Fran’s newest acquisition. With a longing glance toward the bar, he zigzagged her way.

….fucking rednecks. Sometimes I feel like a zoo animal when those tour boats cruise by….

….pretty I guess. But it’s all dead French guys to me….

….even so, we’re talking nanoseconds and the lag to Asia can simply add an unacceptable cost per transaction. It’s disastrous just from that standpoint….

….she must be six feet tall. Holy damn Barry, is she hot….

….that line was a turning point in literature for sure….

….quick grep your jacket. Let’s grab a boat to that party in Nolita….

….I don’t know Canada’s looking pretty good to me….

….I told you not to do that asshole….

The meter-wide painting, Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” hung alone on that wall, below eye level for him and lit from above by a trio of pinspots on ceiling tracks. It ranked a distant third to the bar and the windows as the biggest attraction in the room, but Fran figured among his friends it would rank first.

A few crashers were already heading for the door, which held him up a moment or two as he assumed the perfect position behind Lakshmi. She was bent at the waist, tracing her finger along one of the thick ridges of greenish-brown paint that made up the flamelike construct within the left half of the image. Fran resisted the temptation to lay a hand on her backside as he leaned forward to match her angle.

“Cypress tree,” he said. “Symbolic of mourning, and death.”

Lakshmi jumped, jerking her finger away from the painting. “Oh, God, Franny,” she said. “I’m sorry, I just…”

Fran waved away her apology. “Don’t worry, it’s a licensed nano-production. You can’t hurt it. It wicks your finger oils away, and if you should damage it…”

He reached past her and snapped off a tall ridge of the dark paint.

She looked at him with naked fear as he twirled the dry piece between his fingers. “What are you…?”

He gave her a wry smile. “But death was not ominous to Van Gogh,” he said, pressing the piece against the painting in more or less the correct location. “It was simply a passage to rejoining the stars.” The chip of paint stayed in place when he let go, flowing and reshaping itself to its original state.

“Neat trick,” said Lakshmi, her natural sassiness returning. “But what if I broke off a piece and never put it back?”

“As long as there’s goop in the reservoir,” Fran said, pointing at the top of the ornate frame, “it’ll fix itself pretty quickly.”

“You don’t say.” Lakshmi smoothed her hair behind her ear. “Wherever does it get its data? Surely the perfect baseline state isn’t part of the local hardware.”

Fran took a deep breath. Were they speaking in loaded metaphors? Lakshmi was, as he was privileged to know, genetically male, not that anyone would know without scraping some skin cells for DNAlysis. Lakshmi was a tall, beautiful, razor-smart post-op transsexual and would have been his perfect fantasy in every respect, if only she hailed from Southeast Asia, not the subcontinent. They had made attempt at love, yet found they were both a little too hungry for control. Lakshmi seemed to have gotten over it just fine, but Fran hadn’t. Not entirely.

To make things even more complicated, she was another of his Whistik two-percenters, the only other one at the party apart from Kareem.

Fran tried to ignore the subtext and raised an imaginary toast. “Very good. The frame has an encrypted hardline to the Modern and only downloads the full image specs on initialization. After that, any change in the physical structure of the work triggers a differential update.”

She crossed her arms, appraising the painting. “And I imagine the image degrades if the connection breaks?”

“Scrambles itself, right. It’s useless without a connection.”

“No point in stealing it, then.”

“You’re the expert.”

“It’s how I would have done it.” Lakshmi studied the painting for a few moments more, while Fran studied her. When she turned to him again, Fran did not miss the amused tilt of her eyebrow. “Must have set you back.”

“Oh, I’ve squandered my resources for lesser returns.”

“At least you’ve never cut your ear off.”

He flicked his earlobe. “You never know. I’ve invested in some very promising regenerative tech.”

Lakshmi laughed. “Aren’t you just the cherry on top of the sundae, Franny. Far be it from me to criticize the way you spend your hard-earned fortune.” She gestured at the crowd. “Case in point. Fabulous party, though not what I was expecting from the invitation.”

Fran shrugged. “Turnout was a little more robust than I had planned.”

“Is the original agenda still intact?”

His smile felt plastic. “Remains to be seen.”

“All these years, Franny, how much trouble could you have saved yourself if you had just let me run your security?”

One of Fran’s inviolable personal rules was never to work with lovers, past or present.

“Probably about as much as I would have incurred.”

“Someone’s giving it to you tonight. Doktor Eks?”

So Lakshmi was making the same connections he was. He blinked up her tag. “Hey, you’re ‘casting Fem natural. That’s a Terms-of-Service violation. I could throw you out for that.”

“Would it be for the party foul or for guessing too well?” She fixed him with a concerned stare. “Franny, is Doktor Eks fucking with your party?”

He sighed. “What’s your opinion?”

“My professional opinion? I’d hate to make you compromise your ideals by billing you.”

“You don’t offer trial consultations?”

Lakshmi rolled her eyes. “All right, I’ll play. I admit that from his posts Doktor Eks sounds like he could be a real threat. I’m obviously the number-one suspect, or at least I should be, if you have half a brain. But Doktor Eks strikes me as a little too unhinged in a hard-to-fake way to have organized this whole, I don’t know, denial-of-party attack. Which you do seem to be absorbing reasonably well. Not that it looks like you were unprepared for the influx.”

“You know me. I like solutions that scale.”

Lakshmi cast a pointed glance down her nose at Fran’s crotch. “I’m not sure I remember it the same way, honey.”

“You couldn’t get enough of my solutions.”

“Obviously there came a time when my thirst had been thoroughly quenched.”

Fran raised an eyebrow in assent. “True, you did bail out just when things were getting interesting.” He bent a little closer. “But I do hope you don’t bail early and miss anything good tonight. So if you hear the party’s shipping water and see folks making for the lifeboats, stick around.”

Lakshmi’s eyes lost focus as she read something from the contacts that slightly discolored her irises. “Ah, I get it. Sending the rats after better cheese. I hope it works. I’d been looking forward to seeing if you had some, shall we say, pet project to show off.”

Her implied wink, as if they still shared any important secrets or other special links, enraged Fran. “Every project of mine is a pet project. You were one once too.”

Lakshmi’s smile morphed into a mannish scowl. “You understand, I hope, that if I could change just one thing from my past, it would be getting involved with you. I’m the best at what I do, but it’s amazing how that one decision demolished my confidence both personally and professionally. Half of me hopes Doktor Eks does kill you, just to wipe that fucking smirk off your face. Asshole.”

“Still as shy as ever, I see,” Fran said, putting a hand on her shoulder as he edged past her. “Enjoy the party.”

His collar felt too tight as he reentered the crowd. Why did he always let her get to him like that? Why hadn’t he grabbed that drink when he’d had the chance?

Fran didn’t actually blame Lakshmi for the security breach that led Renata Terkel to file her patents on a “noiseless bioadhesive fastener” ahead of his. At least, he didn’t blame her now. But he had at the time, despite the fact that she’d already quit her security position to start a relationship with him. Why, he’d demanded, hadn’t she hired a better replacement? Or left better procedures in place, or proactively fed rivals like Terkel false intelligence to put them off track?

He shook his head. For all he knew she’d done those things, and more, but in the end Fran was still barred from further work in molecular biology, and his trusted inner circle were lepers in the industry. Thank God for Hondo, or they might all be destitute to boot.

Water under the bridge, he told himself. At least it was easier to move in the crowd now. Maybe Kareem’s decoy party was starting to work already. If so, it would be the first thing tonight to go right.

….hey, at least this isn’t D.C. I’d rather just get flooded than nuked and flooded….

….ten to one you strike out with him, Betsy….

….if you think we’re the center of the world’s economy any longer you’re just silly….

….Whistik doesn’t mean anything to you? Come on, silent Velcro ring a bell?….

….Wait. I thought you were leaving….

….and that’s where I had to hail my cab. 334 east 11th. Yes, yes. Right where that Dish novel was set….

….I’m warning you mister….

….I’m not advocating anything. I’m just saying that at a hundred years since Kennedy, we’re statistically overdue for an assassination….

….so all I did was tell her happy Ramadan….

….what the hell is everyone doing out there? I can’t hear myself think….

Fran spotted his friend Janjay Boakai and her guests near the street side windows, but a commotion from the front vestibule deflected him. Through the open door he could see a throng in the outside corridor, and they looked and sounded unhappy.

Kareem grabbed his arm. “Bad news, Franny. There are no taxis.”

Fran looked at him in confusion. “What do you mean there are no taxis?”

“I’ve checked all the apps,” Kareem said, spreading his hands. “There’s nothing anywhere close. A few people with their own boats have made it out, but everyone else has been coming back up.”

“Coming back up? Why?”

“What are they supposed to do – swim home?”

“Okay, but they’re ordering taxis, right?”

“Sure, that’s why they’re not reentering the firewall zone. But apparently there’s massive demand in the West Village.”

Fran put a hand to his forehead. The only route from there to here was way down at Canal Street, detouring around the Soho promontory. “Christ, this is just overkill.”

“What supervillain did you piss off, Franny?”

“Hell if I know.” Damn Doktor Eks, or whoever was behind this. He was already tapping out a message in the air near his right hip. Hondo’s priorities were just going to have to wait. “Okay, I’m blasting a last-minute invitation to everyone I know within a ten-mile radius. Why not, right? Maybe we can force some taxis our way.”

“What a mess,” Kareem said.

Fran grinned. “I notice you’re not still telling me what a great party this is.”

“And I won’t unless the beer shows up soon.”

“Meanwhile, do you feel up to organizing some impromptu entertainment?”

“What do you have in mind?”

Fran waded through the constricted vestibule with his arms above his head. Between their life jackets and the harsh fluorescent lighting, the crowd in the hallway outside looked like drowned corpses. Someone had shoved someone else, and now two young scrappers were trading insults and squaring off. Uncomfortably aware that a brawl would be the perfect cover for someone to slip a knife into his kidney, Fran pushed between them with his palms out.

He raised his voice. “I’m very sorry, but…..”

A tough-looking woman tried to lunge past him as her ferret-faced nemesis continued hurling insults. Fran’s open palm caught her in the breastbone. He rocked a little, but did not let her past.

“Please, everyone!” Fran said. “I’m sorry about the transportation situation, but I’m working hard to summon taxis.” He raised his hands, looking back and forth between the combatants. “Okay? Now, if anyone wants to come back inside while you wait, we’ll let you know when your rides are here. In the meantime, we’ll have dueling holaoke in the living room.” He motioned everyone back toward his apartment. “So come have a drink, play your favorite scene with Perry Pembo or Maisie Williams or Samuel L. Jackson, and let’s make the best of things.”

Amid the murmur in the corridor someone shouted, “Where’s your PET?”

Fran stopped at the door, turned, and flashed a smile. “I’ve always wanted one but the building doesn’t allow it.”

Kareem tagged along beside him as they pushed inside. “Dueling holaoke? Are you serious?”

“Sure. We’ll clear a zone by that wall, across from the AutoBar. We’ve got the setup, right?”

“For holaoke, of course. It’s the ‘dueling’ part I’ve never heard of.”

“Me neither, but it sounds fun, right?”

Kareem put his face in his hands. “Franny, you remember that read-aloud party where we did Glengarry Glen Ross?”

“I remember.”

“Let me quote: ‘Fuck you.’”

“Ah, the classics.”

Heaving a sigh, Kareem headed off to start setting up. The movement in the room was more chaotic than before, as the large influx of people figured out how to sort themselves back inside. Bound and determined to get himself a scotch, Fran cut a winding path through the crowd.

….let Staten Island secede. Who gives a shit. New Jersey can have them….

….can you believe this freak? What the hell is dueling holaoke?….

….no, no. The reason the city’s so white is we’re the only ones dumb enough to stick around….

….despite all evidence to the contrary, I do love her….

….that’s so racist! What’s wrong with you?….

….well Amsterdam has been dealing with this a lot longer than we have….

….I warned him so many fucking times….

….look at this. See, I told you I always have plastic bags in my pockets….

….come on do you really want Beijing holding the pointers to all your records?….

….have I told you my theory of transitional objects? Men are always finding me when their relationships are in chaos. I’m there for them but they always go back….

….having a dog in this city is just cruel especially now….

Fran pinged Hondo more out of unconscious habit than anything. No response, of course. The far Asian markets had begun to level off, but he was curious to see what happened when the Indian markets opened, as they soon would.

He was almost to the AutoBar when a woman touched his arm.

“I heard you were the host,” she said, looking up.

He beamed a smile down at her. “Guilty as charged.”

She extended a slim hand. She was a petite Asian brunette with big brown eyes and ribbons that looked like kelp woven into her hair.

“Ace soiree,” she said. “Phyllis Han.”

She was short enough that he let the room feed keep running so he could be sure he was hearing her right, even though the text obscured his view of her.

“Pell Franziskaner,” he said, shaking her hand. “But my friends call me Fran.”

“Beer’s here, Franny,” said Kareem, poking his face between them. He jerked his thumb toward the door. “Unloading now on the Avenue C side, and I’m a little busy. Can you…?”

Fran winced. “Sure, just give me a minute.”

“Third prize is, you’re fired.” Kareem vanished again.

“That line’s not even in the play,” Fran muttered.

The woman had not released his hand and was now smiling up at him with a quizzical look. She was quite pretty.

“Nice to meet you, Franny,” she said. “My friends call me Phyl. I’m definitely not a Phylly.”

The feed rendered this as filly. Fran blinked up her tag. Fem post-op. Hmm. Thai-American. Hmm, hmm. Sexprefs: male, white, tall. Aside from her diminutive stature, she was his perfect match.

He distrusted her immediately.

“Well, Phyl,” he said, turning up the charm, “my real friends call me Fran.”

“Not a big Salinger fan, I take it.” Phyl jerked back suddenly with a squeal. She bumped into someone who glared as he shook drink spillage from his hand.

“I’m so sorry,” Fran said. “Was that the Coke ad?”

She put a hand to her chest. “The giant glass bottle erupting from the floor?”

“That’s the one. I think the adware needs some work. You’re not the first victim, and neither is his drink. I’ll talk to customer service. It’s not supposed to do that in the middle of a conversation.”

“I wish it wouldn’t do that at all.”

“It helps defray party expenses. But I don’t choose the content.”

“Are you sure you didn’t make it do that on purpose?”

“If only I could bend software to my will,” he said dryly, “I’d rule the goddamn world.”

She gave him an appraising look. Fran wondered what her contax showed her. Prohibition-era don? Atlantean monarch? Garden-variety dork in old-fashioned spex? Easy murder victim?

“Franziskaner,” she said. “Where do I know that name from?”

“Whistik, maybe?”

Phyl looked puzzled. Her vacant expression was distressingly sexy. “What-stick?”

“Whistik,” Fran said, pointing. “You know, the cling strips all over your life jacket? You probably know it as silent Velcro, though we’re not allowed to call it that.”

Her brows knitted. “I thought a woman invented that.”

“All she did was file the first patent application,” Fran said, suppressing a growl. “Technically.”

Phyl broke out in a huge smile. “Oh, right! That big lawsuit.”

Fran couldn’t believe he felt such a need to set straight someone who might be angling to kill him, so he told himself he was just feeling her out. “My invention’s the one that actually worked. Terkel was using incomplete fractals to damp the turbulence from the fiber mats and cancel out that ripping sound, but she never got the noise down to an acceptable level. I started from scratch, with bioadhesive proteins…” He could see her eyes glazing over. “Well, anyway, it’s a long, ugly story.”

“You don’t appear to be hurting.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call the fees I pay to license my own invention a smoothly lubricated pleasure ride.”

“Wow, Franny.” Phyl pointed to the bar. “Want a cocktail with your bitters?”

He laughed ruefully. “Don’t they say never talk to a man about business at a party? No? Well, they should. And that’s quite enough about me. What’s your story?”

“Who, me? I’m pretty boring.”

“Really?” Fran folded his arms. “Then tell me how someone so boring ends up at my oh-so-exciting party.”

Phyl half-shrugged. “I heard about it from a friend.”

“Anyone I know?” Fran asked, though he knew her name was not on the original list.

“Oh, probably not.” She blinked up at him and stepped closer. “You know, though, I can’t help but notice you’re available, and we match about ninety percent of each other’s prefs…”

Fran swallowed. Flirting with her was fun, and he had to admit he felt that pit-of-the-stomach feeling you get when the sexual stars align. But he didn’t trust that feeling. And he didn’t trust her. He gestured around the room.

“Yes, and look at all the privacy we have.”

She took a step closer to him, craning her head back. “I have my own boat. We could go find some.”

And they could find me washed up like driftwood on 14th Street, Fran thought. “You have your own boat, and you’re still here?”

“Why would I have left? I hadn’t met you yet.” She moved even closer, her expertly grown breasts pressing against the points of his pelvis bone. “And I hadn’t met your PET.”

Sweat ran down Fran’s forehead, and he felt an uncomfortable stirring much lower. Damn. He blinked down at her as if stunned into silence, but in reality he was drilling down through her tag tree. No occupation or employer listed publicly – another Terms-of-Service violation. What the hell was up with protocol enforcement tonight? His fingers danced at his hip as he called up a quick web search.

It took mere seconds to discover that Phyllis Han was a freelance tech journalist.

“Um, hello?” she said, smiling up at him as she made a little wriggle.

Fran craved notoriety more than almost anything, but media attention was the last thing he wanted for this party, whether it proved a success or not. There’d be no quicker way to put him on the outs with Hondo.

“Tell you what,” Fran said, backing up a bare inch or two. He felt like he was spinning a dozen plates in his head. “You head down to your boat and be ready to cast off at a moment’s notice. I need to clean up a couple of loose ends here, but I’ll join you in a few minutes.”

Phyl’s grin widened and she lurched forward to grind her tits even more egregiously against his midsection. “You won’t regret it, Franny. I always keep a firm hand on the tiller.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Fran said. “Now hurry.”

After she vanished into the crush, Fran closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. He was tall enough that he couldn’t effectively hide an erection while cutting through a crowded room, so he needed to quash this one before he moved again. It was a shame he had no intention of joining Ms. Han in her boat – and that thought wasn’t helping matters.

He pictured an unseen blade sliding between his ribs. That did the trick.

He hoped he’d at least given Phyl enough of a head start that they wouldn’t run into each other again. With regrets, he gave up on the AutoBar for the moment and picked his way toward the front door, blinking up a holaoke view of the game in the far corner. The two contestants, each subscripted by an incrementing score box, faced each other across a table in a sunny diner. One had Perry Pembo’s lines from the cyber thriller Nontrivial Pursuit, the other Yolanda Lerner’s from some romantic comedy whose title Fran couldn’t remember. Pembo’s interrogation scene meshed surprisingly well with Lerner’s breakup, and the spectators were in hysterics. Kareem had apparently found some good hollie mashups to use.

“See?” Fran said to himself, nodding and blinking the room feed back up. “Dueling holaoke.”

To Be Concluded…

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