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( ( ( 2 ) ) )

The two apprentices sat stiffly, afraid to move. Jara wondered if she had stumbled onto the set of an old-fashioned drama by mistake, with Natch playing the part of the Mad Capitalist Who Went Too Far. Or maybe the fiefcorp master was starring in a farce instead. Number one on the Primo’s bio/logic investment guide tomorrow?

“Impossible,” said Jara. “You can’t just press a button and will yourself to the top of Primo’s. It’s all impartial, rules-based. They’ve got strict formulas that nobody knows except the senior interpreters.”

Natch regarded her with a stare he might have given a less-evolved subspecies of humanity. “And?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Natch. They sift through ten thousand bio/logic programs a day, and every decision they make affects the hierarchy. You can’t predict Primo’s rankings. And don’t give me that look—you can’t rig them either. People have tried.” She turned to Horvil, aiming her index finger at his bulbous nose. “Come on, Horvil—you know about Primo’s as well as I do. They’re not accountable to anyone.”

The engineer stretched his arms out over his head, suspended them there momentarily, then sent them crashing down onto his commodious lap. “Primo’s: impartial because we have to be,” he quoted the company’s official slogan. “Your bio/logic systems depend on us, from hearts and lungs to stocks and funds.

Natch might well have been a video clip in pause mode. He gave no outward sign he had even been listening to his apprentices’ exchange.

“All right,” spat Jara, anxious to break the tension in the room. “I suppose you have some brilliant plan to make this happen.”

The fiefcorp master began to pace once more. “Of course I do,” he replied, stone-faced. “Now, as you know, today we’re scheduled to release NiteFocus 48, our biggest—and best—product this year.”

Jara thought about debating the best portion of his statement, but changed her mind and leaned back in the sofa. Horvil was one of the best engineers in the business, but Jara knew from experience he got sloppy when he worked long hours. NiteFocus 48 would have its share of bugs and inconsistencies, like any program bred of human thought.

“Well, guess who else is planning a product launch this week?” continued Natch.

Jara’s heart skipped a beat. “Don’t tell me the Patel Brothers are finally releasing NightHawk 73,” she said.

The fiefcorp master nodded. “The same.”

Jara frowned and crossed her arms over her chest. With that kind of competition, how in the world did Natch expect to top the market this week of all weeks? The Patel Brothers had dominated the number one rating on Primo’s for the past two and a half years. They were widely perceived to be unbeatable. Of course, this hadn’t stopped Natch from confronting the Patels head-to-head on a variety of programs over the past few months—on the contrary, the challenge spurred him to new heights of competitive frenzy. He plotted their release schedules on graphs of three, four, and five dimensions. He hunted down even the deadendingest rumors about Frederic and Petrucio Patel.

And now, it seemed, after feeling the occasional prick of Natch’s jabs on the Primo’s battlefield—a loss of a point here, a preempted product launch there—the Patel Brothers had finally accepted the challenge of their younger rival. Releasing NightHawk in the same week as NiteFocus was a direct assault.

Horvil was unperturbed by this latest turn of events. “Why are you two so worried?” he said, trying unsuccessfully to stifle a yawn. “We’ve put a lot of work into NiteFocus. It’s good code. I’m not afraid to go up against the Patels.”

“So then, what do we do?” asked Natch. His tone of voice indicated it was a rhetorical question.

Jara scowled. She knew where this was heading. “If anybody but you asked me that question, I would say, We both launch our products on the Data Sea, and may the best company win.”

The fiefcorp master gave her one of his wolfish grins, the kind that had little to do with humor. On some alternate plane of existence, Natch’s audience howled in gleeful anticipation. “You think I’m afraid to go up against the Patels.”

“I just don’t like pulling these dirty tricks of yours. We’re number six on Primo’s, in a field of thousands. Why can’t you be happy with that?”

Natch stopped in mid-stride and gave his apprentice a piercing look. “Happy with failure?” he said incredulously, as if she had suggested joining one of the creeds and devoting his life to poverty. “Happy with this?” He gestured wildly around him at what seemed to Jara to be a pretty nice flat. Natch’s apartment had enough space for both living and working quarters, with room left over to entertain. Not only that, but it boasted real and programmable windows, as well as a lush garden of daisies right smack in the middle of the place. Maybe Natch’s apartment paled in comparison to the Lunar estates of the big tycoons, but at least it was decorated.

Jara composed herself. “Natch, number six on Primo’s isn’t failure,” she said. “Most programmers spend their whole lives trying to crack the top ten. We’ve gotten here in thirty-six months. Thirty-six months, Natch! Primo’s has been around for almost seventy years, and nobody’s ever done it as fast as we have. Horvil, where were we a year ago today?”

The engineer focused his attention inward for a split second, the telltale sign of a brain angling for information on the Data Sea. “Sixty-two,” announced Horvil momentarily. “The year before that, four hundred nineteen.” Jara threw up her hands as if to say, See what I mean? “And the year before that, we didn’t—”

Natch cut his apprentice off in mid-sentence. “Does this shit have a point?”

Jara stood her ground. “I’m not suggesting we quit trying, Natch. I’m just saying we’ll get to the top eventually, by the strength of our products, without dirty tricks. The Patel Brothers are getting older, and we’re gaining on them all the time. In a couple of years, when all the tax breaks dry up, they’ll sell out and dissolve their fiefcorp. That’s what happens in this business.”

Natch grimaced, rocked back and forth on his heels, and let out a restless sigh. He looked like the little boy who had been scolded by his proctors for staying out past curfew. Despite all his frantic motion, every chestnut-colored hair on his head remained perfectly in place. Jara met his stare, but she was disappointed to see Horvil struggling to stay awake. Thanks for backing me up, Horv!

“All right,” said the fiefcorp master, with a look on his face that said, I’ll go through the motions of considering your worthless ideas, but only for form’s sake. “Let’s take a look at NiteFocus 48 in MindSpace. Let’s see how strong our products really are.”

Jara and Horvil followed Natch into his office. The room was short and sparsely decorated and functional, but still quite a bit nicer than Jara’s workspace. Artificial daylight, streaming into the room from two square windows, showed a hectic market square somewhere in Beijing. That’s one way to keep working through all hours of the night, Jara thought sourly. Pretend it’s day.

Natch walked up to the squat workbench that sat in the center of the room and waved his hand to summon the virtual programming bubble known as MindSpace. He was instantly surrounded by a clear holographic sphere about two meters in diameter, along with an assortment of interlocking geometric shapes and connecting fibers.

The program loaded in MindSpace looked like a dense pyramid carpeted with spikes. It wasn’t any code that Jara recognized. “What’s that?” she said.

“Nothing,” grumbled the fiefcorp master, banishing the display with a flick of his wrist. A more cohesive structure appeared in the layer beneath, shaped like a lopsided donut and colored in soft grays and blues. Strands of purple and white formed an intricate net through the center. Jara could have traced those supple curves with her eyes closed. NiteFocus 48.

Natch took one look at the mass of bio/logic code floating in front of him and gave a snort of disgust. His dissatisfaction grew as he rotated the donut slowly along its z-axis. Imperfect! Jara could hear him thinking, a fourth-act soliloquy to his invisible audience. Unsatisfactory! A mocking reminder of all the projects I’ve left unfinished, all the goals I’ve left unattained.

“Well, what are we waiting for?” said Horvil. “Let’s fire this baby up.”

Jara gave her internal system a silent command to activate NiteFocus, and then waited a few seconds as the program disseminated its instructions to the microscopic machines floating in her bloodstream. She tried to detect the millions of calculations going on inside her brain, the logical handshakes extending thousands of kilometers from her virtual body here to cellular structures standing stiff on a red tile in London. But she knew that even if she were here in the flesh, the chemical reactions in the retina and the electric pulses along the ciliary muscle would be completely undetectable. Bio/logic programs had not been that crude since Sheldon Surina invented the science some 360 years ago.

“I think it’s working,” said Jara. A hopeful statement.

Horvil puffed up his chest and clapped a virtual arm around Natch’s shoulder. “Of course it’s working. What’d I tell you?”

The fiefcorp master said nothing. He turned off the Beijing scene on the left window, leaving a view of the real darkness outside. Natch squinted, shook his head, and marched through the other room to the balcony door. Horvil and Jara followed him as he stepped outside into the coal-dark Shenandoah night, about half past three now. A platform promptly slid under their feet from the side of the building.

The three fiefcorpers stood at the railing and gazed into the distance, looking for a suitable object on which to test their enhanced vision. Flashing lights were still evident in the rowdier quarters of the city, but out here in the residential district, things were relatively quiet. “There,” said Horvil, pointing towards a viewscreen that stood several blocks down the road, its lights dim now that there was no foot traffic. Jara found she could read the advertisement clearly.


Because the Defense and Wellness Council Still Lets You.

Beneath the print, the smart-alecky ChaiQuoke pitchman suckled on a neon purple bottle while a Council officer looked on with overt disapproval.

Horvil danced a clumsy jig of triumph. “Looks like the Natch Personal Programming Fiefcorp will still be in business tomorrow,” he crowed. “Oh yeah!”

Jara breathed a sigh of relief. Why had she been nervous? NiteFocus 48 had worked fine yesterday too, and the day before, and the day before. She hadn’t seen a major glitch in the program since version 43 or 44. “So what do you think?” she asked Natch. “Ready for launch?”

“Does it look like it’s ready for launch?” the fiefcorp master replied brusquely. “The color resolution needs a lot of work. And from the look of those blueprints, this program uses way too many cycles. You think we can just release a product that sucks up all the computing resources on the Data Sea and crashes people’s systems? No, it’s not fucking ready at all.”

Jara reacted as if he had slapped her. There was a sudden fermata in Horvil’s dance, which he tried to pass off as intentional. Why had they slaved through so many nights if they were going to get this kind of treatment?

“Can’t either of you see what I’m trying to do?” asked Natch, his tone suddenly quiet and contemplative. “I’m just pointing out the same inadequacies that Primo’s is going to find tomorrow. Primo’s doesn’t care if you spent all night coding. They only care about two things: success and failure. Success means more sales. It means more respect. It means moving up to the next level of the game. Everything else… is failure.” Natch rubbed his forehead and gave a yearning look out towards the horizon.

Jara couldn’t help but roll her eyes at his histrionics. Doesn’t Natch ever stop to wonder if he’s taking himself too seriously? She wanted to screech obscenities at the invisible audience, to throttle his knowing smirk. She wanted to get him out of those breeches somewhere quiet and instruct him in low, sibilant tones about the things that really mattered. The fiefcorp master turned. He gave Jara a long, penetrating stare of amusement and contempt while Horvil shifted awkwardly from foot to foot behind them. “Now come inside,” Natch said, “and I’ll tell you my plan.”

Jara lowered her eyes. “I thought you said no more dirty tricks,” she whimpered.

“I never said that. I said I’d take a look at NiteFocus 48, which I just did. And it’s awful. Besides, why do you keep using those words, dirty tricks? I don’t do dirty tricks. It’s called business.”

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