Back | Next

( ( ( 3 ) ) )

The sun crept up the early-morning sky, panther-like, reminding Jara she had managed to last another twenty-four hours without going crazy or quitting or killing someone. She flushed with accomplishment. All she needed to do for the next eleven months was pace through the days with her head bowed low, like Natch in one of his moods, and she would survive. That was how you killed a stretch of time: stick around long enough to outlast it.

She told the others she needed a few minutes alone in the cool night air. Natch and Horvil disappeared inside.

Jara stayed on the balcony and watched the city of Shenandoah shake itself awake. Buildings that had automatically compressed themselves overnight to conserve space began puffing up like blowfish as their tenants awoke. The balcony outside Natch’s apartment floated upwards, almost imperceptibly, as residents on the lower levels claimed their living space for the morning. A river of pedestrian traffic wended from the poorer districts to the public multi facilities, ferrying half a million workers to offices around the globe, or to Luna, Mars, or one of the orbital colonies. Others flooded into the tube stations where sleek trains would whisk them across the continent at exorbitant speeds. A privileged few used the teleportation stations, still shiny and unspoiled and mostly empty.

Jara had witnessed the same morning transformation many times in London, but until now, she had never seen it in Shenandoah. She felt a momentary pang of envy for the people who lived and worked in the smooth, low curves of a modern city. They had never scrabbled to work over ancient brick or weedy cobblestone, nor taken a circuitous tube route around yet another corroded abbey that had been given perpetual right-of-way for the sake of history. Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Jara thought. You could live in Shenandoah if you really wanted—even though all you could afford here is a room in one of the old skyscrapers. She gazed off to the east, where the faint broken towers of Old Washington thrust above the mist. The towers were all that remained now of the variegated American empires that had flourished in the years before the Autonomous Revolt. One lone tube track snaked in that direction from Shenandoah and disappeared into the fog like the fossilized tendril of some long dead beast.

Stop delaying, Jara thought. Go inside and get this over with. Then you can go home and sleep. Whatever idiocy Natch is planning can’t be much worse than what you’re already doing.

* * *

She was wrong.

“You want me to what?” Jara shrieked, sounding even to herself like some farcical harpy from the dramas. The Unbeliever, the sour-faced One Who Doubts Our Hero’s Prowess.

Natch gloated at his apprentice’s reaction. “I want you to spread rumors,” he said calmly, mid-pace, “that the Data Sea is about to be bombarded with a crippling black code attack.”

“A crippling black code attack.”

“By the Pharisees.”

“The Pharisees. And what good is this going to do?”

“It’s going to cause the Patel Brothers to delay their product launch.”

Natch’s orders were such an affront to common sense that Jara couldn’t help but laugh. An emboldened Horvil let out a guffaw of his own. “Great plan,” cheered the engineer mockingly. “While we’re at it, let’s cause the Patel Brothers to put a million credits in our Vault accounts and give us all neck massages.”

Jara wondered fleetingly if Natch really had lost his mind. What connection was there between a respectable bio/logics company selling programs to improve the human body, and a group of superstitious fanatics who had walled themselves off in a far corner of the globe? Then she looked at Natch’s condescending smirk and realized he was utterly serious.


The analyst took a seat on the sofa next to her fellow apprentice. “All right, start explaining,” she said.

Natch nodded and gave another one of those self-absorbed looks into the distance. “What’s tomorrow?” he said at length.

Horvil tilted his eyes upwards in thought. “November first.”

“November first. A day like any other, right? For us, yes. Products launched, products sold, business as usual. But for the Pharisees, tomorrow is the Day of the Dead.”

He waved his hand at the closest viewscreen, which happened to be showing an early landscape by Tope. The painting’s sharp blues and greens morphed into an old Prime Committee video about the Day of the Dead. Technology has marched onwards, announced the narrator, but in the mythology of the Pharisees, ghouls and goblins still come out at night. The three of them watched as a band of brown-skinned Pharisees bowed low in dusty robes and began chanting in an archaic guttural tongue.

The Pharisees hate the civilized world, continued the nameless documentary narrator. Using bio/logic programs to manipulate the human body is “ungodly,” they say. And to implant tiny machines in the blood, to let some programmer’s code actually broadcast images into the brain… Unnatural! A sin!

Natch paused the display and snapped for emphasis. Onscreen, a youth was frozen in mid-scowl, his sunburned fist raised in defiance at some unseen foe.

“Remember the program that started raising blood pressures in all the orbital colonies?” said Natch. “That was just two years ago. Twenty-three hundred dead, and a harsh military response from the Defense and Wellness Council. But do you think they’ve had their fill of bloodshed? Of course not! The Pharisees haven’t been idle since then. They’ve been plotting and scheming and studying programming techniques, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to strike.

“When do the Pharisees tend to attack? On days of religious significance, of course. Like the Feast of All Saints. Like Jesus Joshua Smith’s birthday.

“Like the Day of the Dead.

“Think about it! Couldn’t the Pharisees have figured out a way to disrupt the financial markets or Dr. Plugenpatch or the multi network by now? Couldn’t they have chosen tomorrow to launch their opening salvo in the next holy war against us ‘connectibles’? Isn’t it possible the Defense and Wellness Council is shoring up its defenses right now to prepare for a major onslaught by some frightening new breed of black code?”

Horvil was totally captivated by Natch’s little narrative. He leaned forward on the edge of the sofa, shifting his attention nervously between the wildly gesticulating Natch and the ominous figure on the viewscreen with the unkempt hair and dirty robe. “It is possible, isn’t it!” he gasped.

“And if all this is true… wouldn’t November first be a very unlucky day for the Patel Brothers to launch a product upgrade?”

Jara felt Natch’s plot snap into focus, and for one sickening instant she saw the world through the fiefcorp master’s warped lenses. Colors faded away, blacks and whites dissolved into a miasma of indistinct gray. “So you want us to tell people our friends at the Defense and Wellness Council say something big is about to happen, and wait for the rumors to clog up the gossip networks?”

“I don’t want anything clogged up. I want fucking bedlam.”

“And you think the Patel Brothers will catch wind of all this and postpone their product launch to a day with a slower news cycle.”

Horvil shook off the jitters and sat back in thought. “So that’s why you’ve been pushing us so hard on NiteFocus 48,” he said. “A near-perfect program… launched on a day where there’s no competition… That just might cause Primo’s to edge us up a notch or two in the ratings.”

Jara frowned. She now gleaned why Serr Vigal and Merri had been excluded from this early morning rendezvous; they would never participate in such a scheme. In fact, now that Jara thought about it, Natch had been excluding them from a lot of ethically shady errands like this lately. A thought slithered through the back of Jara’s mind. What did that say about Natch’s opinion of her? She purposefully let it go.

Natch restarted the video. They watched a squad of Defense and Wellness Council officers execute a coordinated strike on a crowd of restless Pharisees standing on a hilltop. The Pharisees fired their rifles wildly at the white-robed figures materializing all around them. But the figures they hit were nothing but ghostly multi projections, spotters for the real strike force lining up behind them. A volley of needle-sized darts flew through the air, lodging themselves in the flesh of their adversaries and unloading their deadly cargo of toxic chemicals and molecule-sized machines of war. Within seconds, the fight was over and the Pharisees lay motionless on the ground.

“It’s a nice theory, Natch,” Jara said, “but I doubt one new program could cause us to jump five slots on Primo’s overnight.”

“No,” said Natch with a sudden diabolical grin, “but four programs just might.”

The apprentices simply stared at him, unable to summon any coherent words in response.

“What do you think I’ve been doing these past few weeks while the two of you plugged away on NiteFocus 48? I’ve been working, that’s what. Getting DeMirage 52 and EyeMorph 66 prepared for launch.”

Horvil counted ostentatiously on his fingers. “That’s only three. What’s the fourth program?”

“Mento Calc-U-Later 93.9. That’s been ready for weeks now.”

What? You told me that program was unlaunchable.”

“I lied.”

* * *

As the morning wore on, Natch stubbornly resisted all objections to his plan, though Horvil and Jara tried their best.

“This all sounds so nebulous,” protested Jara. “Who’s going to believe we know anything about terrorist attacks? We’re not spies—we’re businesspeople.”

“We’ve got good connections. People will believe them. Besides, we don’t need to come up with any specific information—a rumor of a rumor, that’s all.”

“What if it doesn’t work?”

Natch shrugged. “If it doesn’t work, then what’s the harm done?”

“The Council will deny the rumor,” interjected Horvil.

“And knowing the Council, they’ll deny it so forcefully that people will remain suspicious. Nobody ever accused High Executive Borda of being subtle.”

I could say the same thing about you, Natch, Jara thought to herself. “I don’t understand this at all,” she said, throwing up her hands in exasperation. “If we have four programs ready to launch on the Data Sea, why don’t we just launch them now? Why do we need Pharisees?”

Natch shook his head. “First off, the programs aren’t good enough yet,” he replied. “We need at least another day to polish them up. And second, the Patel Brothers have been watching our every move for weeks now. They know we’re eyeing their number one spot on Primo’s. Unless we catch the Patels unaware for a few hours, they’ll immediately fire off a barrage of their own upgrades so they can stay on top. But if we have enough of a cushion, we just might be able to grab number one for a few hours.”

“What if someone catches us spreading rumors?”

“Like who?”

He’s right, the fiefcorp analyst reflected bitterly. Truth on the Data Sea was like the light from an ancient kaleidoscope: tinted and scattered and refracted on all sides. Especially in the bio/logics trade, where everyone was an interested party. Fiefcorps and memecorps spread rumors about their competitors all the time. So did the capitalmen who funded them and the channelers who pushed their wares. Jara remembered the recent case of a woman who planted rumors of incompetence about her own son to drive him out of business. Or the case of the fiefcorper who cornered the market on gastrointestinal programming by sabotaging his competitors’ sales demos. No charges had been filed in either case.

And who stood in Natch’s way? The Meme Cooperative—a fumbling bureaucracy.

Jara thought back to those interminable childhood lectures from the hive. So if the Meme Cooperative is so incompetent, she had once complained, who’s looking out for the little guy? Who’s keeping things fair?

Nobody, her proctor had replied ruefully.

Nobody? Jara had screamed in youthful outrage.

Oh, I could tell you what the headmaster wants me to tell you, the proctor had replied. All that bullshit in the official hive curriculum. “The fluidity of information on the Data Sea ferrets out weak struts in the economy.” “The independent writers, pundits, and watchdogs known as the drudges are very effective at rooting out corruption.” “We rely on the Local Political Representative Associations of Civic Groups—the L-PRACGs, our governments—to keep the free market in check.” But you read the news, Jara. Do any of those statements sound like the truth to you?

They had not. But those discussions had all taken place half a lifetime ago, back when a career as a Meme Cooperative bureaucrat or an L-PRACG policy maker had seemed like an attractive option.

Fiefcorps were a place to build up a nest egg until something real came along. How quickly everything changed after the hive! All it had taken for her to sell out her governmentalist ideals, Jara thought with bitterness, was the flattery of handsome, intelligent men like Natch.

Jara rubbed her eyes and came back to the present moment, but she could not dislodge Natch’s obfuscating lenses. The plan might work because it’s so ridiculous, thought Jara. Who would suspect the industry has sunk so low that one of its finest is willing to sow panic in the streets with Pharisee terrorism rumors? Who would suspect Natch has anything to gain by it?

And if someone did find out—if the Council or the Cooperative or the drudges or the Patel Brothers caught wind of the true source of these rumors—Primo’s would probably still crown them number one. An independent valuation system couldn’t afford to be swayed by the vagaries of law or politics.

Natch stopped pacing, making Jara uneasy. “I only see two potential problems,” he said. “One, the rumors might not generate enough flak in the marketplace to faze the Patels. They might still launch NightHawk on schedule. Two, Primo’s might find some undiscovered flaw in one of our programs and penalize us for it.”

“What about the other fiefcorps?” asked Jara. “Who? Lucas Sentinel? PulCorp? Prosteev Serly?”

Natch gave a dismissive flip of the hand. “I’ve already checked their launch schedules. Nothing.”

Horvil frowned. He had been silent for some time now, listening to Natch’s maddening logic and making quiet calculations of his own. Jara wondered if he had enough functioning brain cells this early in the morning to fully comprehend the magnitude of Natch’s scheme. “There’s one more problem,” said the engineer.

“Which is?”

“What if these rumors spook more than just the Patel Brothers? The Pharisees have killed people with these terrorist attacks before. What if we spark too much panic? I mean, we’re all connected”—the engineer waved his hands around in the air as if he could scoop up molecule-thick multi bots and subaether transmissions with his fingers—“and so we’re all vulnerable. There could be another black code attack any day now. Everyone knows that. The Council might really be gearing up for another assault. What if we cause too much panic? There might be a rush on the Vault. People might stop trading. The whole financial system could collapse.”

Natch grinned as if he relished the possibility. “Small chance,” he said. Was that a note of disappointment in his voice? “Come on, Horvil! A few rumors shut down the financial system? People aren’t that gullible. Besides, the Council will quash the rumors long before that happens.”

“And what—what if the Pharisees do actually launch an attack that day?”

“Horv,” laughed the fiefcorp master, “I’m not responsible for what those lunatics do. The only one I’m responsible for is me. Let them do their worst. No matter what happens, the markets will still be there on November second. Trust me.”

Back | Next