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Natch was impatient.

He strode around the room with hands clasped behind his back and head bowed forward, like a crazed robot stuck on infinite loop. Around and around, back and forth, from the couch to the door to the window, and then back again.

Behind him, the window was tuned to some frantic cityscape Jara didn’t recognize. Buildings huddled together at crooked angles like the teeth of old men, as tube trains probed the cavities. Singapore, maybe? São Paulo? Definitely a Terran city, Jara decided. Every few minutes, Natch would look in that direction and inhale deeply, as if trying to draw energy from the thousands of manic pedestrians ensconced within the four corners of the window canvas.

Natch stopped suddenly and wheeled on his apprentice. “Why are you just sitting there?” he cried, punctuating the question with a snap of his fingers.

Jara gestured to the empty spot next to her on the couch. “I’m waiting for Horvil to show up so we can get this over with.”

“Where is Horvil?” said Natch. “I told him to be here an hour ago. No, an hour and a half ago. Can’t that lazy bastard learn to keep a calendar?” Around and around, back and forth.

Jara regarded her employer in silence. She supposed that Natch would be devilishly handsome to anyone who didn’t know he was completely insane. That casually athletic physique, the boyish face that would never know gray, those eyes predictably blue as sapphires: people like Natch just didn’t exist on this side of the camera lens. Nor did they spout phrases like trouncing the competition and creating a new paradigm without a trace of irony or self-consciousness.

Natch shook his head. “I can only hope he remembers we’ve got a product launch tomorrow.”

“I don’t know why you’re being so uptight,” said Jara. “We do twenty or thirty product launches every year.”

“No,” whispered Natch. “Not like this one.”

Jara let it go. As usual, she had no idea what Natch was talking about. NiteFocus 48 was a routine upgrade that fixed a number of minor coding inconsistencies but introduced no new features. The program had an established track record in the marketplace, built on the well-known optical expertise of the Natch Personal Programming Fiefcorp. Unless Natch expected them to rework the rules of bio/logic programming overnight—and she wouldn’t put that past him—the NiteFocus product launch would be a pretty routine affair.

“Listen,” said Jara. “Why don’t you let Horvil sleep for another hour? He was up all night tinkering on this thing. He probably just got to bed. Don’t forget that out here, it’s seven o’clock in the morning.” Here was London: a sane place, a city of right angles. The city where both Horvil and Jara lived, and some six thousand kilometers away from Natch’s apartment in Shenandoah.

“I don’t fucking care,” Natch snorted. “I haven’t gotten any sleep tonight, and I didn’t get any yesterday either.”

“Might I remind you that I was up all night working on NiteFocus too?”

“I still don’t care. Go wake him up.”

For the third time that week, Jara considered quitting. He always had this condescension, this mania—no, lust—for perfection. How difficult would it be to find a job at another fiefcorp? She had fifteen years in this business, almost three times as much experience as Natch. Certainly PulCorp or Billy Sterno or even Lucas Sentinel would take her on board. Or, dare she think it, the Patel Brothers? But then she considered the three agonizing years she had spent as Natch’s apprentice, and the scant eleven months to go before her contract expired. Eleven months to go until I can cash out! I should be able to keep it together that long.

So Jara didn’t quit. Instead, she gave her fiefcorp master one last bitter look and cut her multi connection. True to form, Natch had already turned his back on her, probably heading into his office to do more fine-tuning on NiteFocus. You need to watch yourself, Jara thought. Natch’s brand of insanity just might be contagious.

She slid into nothingness.

* * *

The hollow sensation of a mind devoid of sensory input. Those blessed two and a half seconds of free time after one multi connection ends, but before the next begins. Emptiness, blankness.


Then consciousness.

Jara was back in London, but not at Horvil’s place, as she had expected. Horvil must have refused her multi request, so the system had automatically stopped the feed of sensory information flowing through her neural cortex. She stood now on the red square tile that was her apartment’s gateway to the multi network, staring at the walls she had never had time to decorate. She stretched her calves, slightly sore from five hours of multi-induced paralysis, and walked down the hall to the living room.

Jara’s apartment insulted her with its desolation: a featureless space, a human storage chamber. She resisted the urge to blow off Natch’s little summit and go shopping on the Data Sea for wall hangings. Eleven months, eleven months, eleven months, Jara told herself. And then I can cash out and start my own business and it won’t matter. In the meantime, I’d better wake up Horvil.

If Horvil wasn’t answering her multi requests, he was either asleep or ignoring her. The engineer was not known for being an early riser. In Horvil’s parlance, early meant any time before noon, and to a global professional who hopped continents with barely a thought, noon was a slippery concept. Jara gritted her teeth and called up ConfidentialWhisper 66, the program de rigueur for remote conversation. If Horvil wouldn’t see her, maybe he would deign to talk to her.

The engineer accepted the connection—solid evidence he was, at least, awake.

Jara waited impatiently for an acknowledgment, a response, something. “Well?” she complained. “Are you coming over to Natch’s apartment or what?”

Jara heard a number of fake stretching and groaning noises from Horvil’s end of the connection. ConfidentialWhisper was strictly a mental communication program, not an oral one. “I could pretend I’m still asleep,” said the engineer.

“If I have to be at this idiotic meeting, Horv, then you’re not getting out of it.”

“Tell me again why he wants to hold a meeting this early in the morning.”

“Come on, you know how it works. Apprentice in a fiefcorp, work on the master’s time.”

“But what’s this all about?”

Jara sighed. “I have no idea. Probably another one of his stupid schemes to take over the world. Whatever he’s up to, it can’t be good.”

“Of course it can’t be good,” said Horvil. “This is Natch we’re talking about. I ever tell you about the time in school when Natch tried to form a corporation? Can’t you just picture him trying to explain laissez-faire capitalism to a bunch of nine-year-old hive kids—”

“Horvil, I’m waiting.”

The engineer sounded unconcerned. “I’m tired. Call Merri. Call Vigal.”

“They’re not invited.”

“Why not? They’re part of this company too, aren’t they?”

The question had occurred to Jara as well. “Maybe Natch trusts us more than he trusts them.”

Horvil chuckled and made a sound like he was spitting out pillow lint. “Right, sure. Maybe he knows we’re too cowardly to stand up to him.” And before Jara had a chance to respond, the engineer cut the ’Whisper connection, leaving her alone with her empty walls.

How dare he call me a coward! she fumed silently. I’m not afraid of Natch. I’m just practical, that’s all. I know I only have to put up with him for eleven more months. She called up her apprenticeship contract for the thousandth time and reread the clause on compensation, hoping as always to catch a glimpse of some previously unknown loophole. But the letters floating before her eyes hadn’t changed: Jara would receive nothing except room and board until the end of the four-year term, at which time her shares matured. She blinked hard, and the illusory text on the surface of her retinas vanished.

Jara gave one last wistful glance at her apartment and stepped back down the hall to open another multi connection. Multivoid swallowed her empty walls and regurgitated Natch’s metropolitan windows. The fiefcorp master was nowhere to be found, but Jara was in no mood to track him down. He had to be here somewhere, or she would have never made it into the building. Jara threw herself down on the couch and waited.

Five minutes later, Horvil materialized in the room wearing the same mixture of bonhomie and bafflement he always wore. “Towards Perfection,” he greeted his fellow apprentice amiably as he plopped down in Natch’s favorite chair. It was actually a chair-and-a-half, but still barely wide enough to accommodate Horvil’s considerable bulk. “Who’s ready to wallow around in the mud? I know I could use a good wallow right about now.”

Jara frowned, wondering whether Horvil had concocted some algorithm to make even his virtual clothes look disheveled. “That makes one of us,” she said.

The engineer yawned and sat back in his chair with a smile. “Stop being so dramatic, Princess. If you don’t want to be here, go home. What’s Natch going to do? Cancel your contract? Fire you?”

Jara extended her finger into an accusatory position by reflex. She lowered it when she realized she had nothing to say.

And then Natch returned.

Neither apprentice saw the fiefcorp master come in, but now there he stood with his arms crossed and his eyes glaring. For once, he was not pacing, and this made Jara nervous. When Natch chose to focus all that kinetic energy on some concrete goal instead of stomping it into oblivion, mountains moved. Jara examined the gorge in her stomach and came to a sudden realization: she was afraid of Natch.

“We’re going to the top of the bio/logics market,” he announced. “We’re going to be number one on Primo’s.”

Horvil put his feet up on the coffee table. “Of course we are,” he said breezily. “We’ve been over this shit before. Market forces, fiefcorp economics, blah blah blah. It’s inevitable, ain’t it?”

Natch closed his eyes and took a deep breath. When he opened them, his gaze fixed on a spot of nothingness hovering midway between the two apprentices. Jara suddenly felt transparent, as if the world had gained presence at her expense. “You don’t understand, Horvil,” he said. “We’re going to be number one on Primo’s, and we’re going to do it tomorrow.

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