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( ( ( 4 ) ) )

Jara stared gloomily at the three-dimensional flowchart she had constructed on the coffee table. The flowchart towered mightily over her head, information layered on top of information like a ziggurat. She sat back and surveyed her handiwork. The names of people Jara had known all her life were lined up on a tier of data labeled gullible. Other names—friends, relatives, old lovers and companions—were skewered on holographic arrows labeled hard sell and soft sell. Her own mother’s name stood on an out-of-the-way parapet with the caption untrustworthy.

This is what you’ve always wanted to do, isn’t it? Jara told herself. Strategic analysis for a bio/logic fiefcorp. Managing timetables, scheduling product launches, assigning resources… right?

Monday was nearly over, and she still hadn’t gotten any sleep. Jara suddenly realized she had been staring at the flowchart without moving for at least an hour. Any minute, she expected the ziggurat to come crashing down on her in a virtual avalanche of data. And then she would die here, buried under the weight of Natch’s lies.

If you don’t want to be here, Horvil had told her, go home. She thought about the engineer, sweating inside a MindSpace bubble at the other end of London. The fact that Horvil was also forgoing sleep was small consolation to her.

Shortly after sundown, Jara felt the mental ping of an incoming multi request. Natch.

The fiefcorp master emerged from nothingness, gave her a cheerful wave in greeting, and began scrutinizing the flowchart. Jara hadn’t seen him since this morning’s meeting in Shenandoah, and his transformation was truly eerie. Gone was Natch the petulant schoolboy, seemingly shut off with the touch of a button. In his place stood Natch the slick entrepreneur, Natch the salesman, Natch the emblem of positive thinking.

“So you think we’ll achieve maximum penetration if we start spreading the rumors tonight,” he said with one hand pensively rubbing a chin that may have never known stubble.

Jara nodded wearily. “I’ve categorized all our acquaintances on three axes: credibility, connections, and sphere of influence. Then I’ve traced the likely flow of rumor from person to person, and plotted out the percentage chance the rumors hit critical mass.” She pointed to the pinnacle of the tower, a place of convergence. “I figure we need to start with our most influential friends tonight and work our way to the bottom of the list by tomorrow morning.”

“Why not the other way around?”

“These rumors have to have some foundation before they’ll take hold. One carefully planted source is worth more than a hundred pieces of idle gossip. That’s why I’m going to have Horvil talk to his family connections at Creed Élan later tonight. How can you get more credible than a creed?”

Natch began a fast-paced circuit around Jara’s apartment, but this time it was less an obsessive march than a confident strut. “I’m impressed, Jara,” he said. It was the first time he had praised her work in months. “Why the long face?”

Jara scowled. “Wouldn’t you have a long face if you had just called your own mother ‘untrustworthy’?”

Her sarcasm ricocheted off him like light off a mirror. “You really are something, Jara,” he said. “I don’t know how you manage to stay so detached through all this. My emotions have been all over the place the past few weeks. I’ve been irritable and demanding, I know… but that’s just because I can’t seem to find your level of professionalism. In fact, Horvil said to me the other day that you’re really the glue holding this fiefcorp together…”

On and on it went, and Jara found herself responding to his abject flattery in spite of herself. She had a secret weakness for a handsome face and a sugary voice, and Natch could be devastating when he turned on the charm. How does he do that? she cursed silently. Didn’t she know by now that Natch’s apologies were never sincere, that the honeyed words were just another weapon in his arsenal?

Nevertheless, his strategy worked. Somehow he had discovered her weakness for praise and exploited it. Jara found herself responding to the low, erotic pulse Natch stirred up in her—that he could stir up in anyone, male or female, at his discretion—and hated it. Hated it and hungered for it like she had never hungered for any of the hundred sexual satisfaction programs she had tried in the thirty years since initiation.

Or are you just jealous? she asked herself. He’s still in his twenties and he’s ready to take over the world. You’re past forty, and you’re still working as an apprentice.

“We’re going to be number one on Primo’s tomorrow, Jara, and we couldn’t have done it without you,” said Natch with a hand on her shoulder. It was a firm hand, not inappropriate, but still pregnant with possibilities. “The capitalmen are going to remember this in a few years, when you finally get sick of working for me and venture out on your own again. They’re going to beg you to accept their money.”

The analyst ran three fingers self-consciously through her curly mountain of hair. She wished there were an easy way to turn off the sensation of Natch’s virtual grasp, but the multi network didn’t allow that level of customization. “Yeah, well, maybe,” she replied lamely.

And then, seconds later, he vanished. His smile remained burned on her retinas.

Jara tiptoed down the hall to make sure Natch had indeed cut his multi connection and not just ducked into the next room to deceive her. You’re so paranoid, Jara, she told herself. This is your apartment. Nobody can multi here without your permission. Still, she breathed a sigh of relief after determining that her boss was not in the flat. Natch had been known to perform miracles before.

She glanced back at the ziggurat and nearly retched. There it sat, in three dimensions—the evidence of her final degradation in the bio/logics trade. I have to find some way to stop this from happening.

Jara stood at her window and watched the London evening crowd go about its business. Of course, it wasn’t a real window; Jara couldn’t afford an apartment with exterior walls on her meager fiefcorp stipend, and had to settle for flat viewscreens. But how easy it was to just tune in an outside view from the building and pretend. Down below, hundreds of people bustled around the public square, thousands maybe, casually perusing the Data Sea with hardly a thought to the bio/logic programs that ran their lives. Bio/logics regulating their heartbeats, bio/logics keeping their appointment calendars, bio/logics pumping sensory information into their skulls every second.

Jara’s mind buzzed with evil possibilities as she fell into the familiar game of what’s the worst that could happen. What would happen if panic overtook the market tomorrow and people started pulling money from their Vault accounts? What would happen if Horvil’s trepidations became reality and the Pharisees really did launch a black code attack? Or what if—perfection postponed!—some unconnectible lunatics figured out a way to sabotage Dr. Plugenpatch? Jara’s eyes darted to some anonymous pedestrian making his way across the cobblestones below, and suddenly he was no longer anonymous… He was an important businessman who would wake up tomorrow in Beijing or Melbourne or one of the orbital colonies, Allowell maybe… He tries to grab a batch of stock reports off the Data Sea while he drinks his morning nitro, and nothing happens… His blood pressure starts rising; he’s supposed to close a big deal today. What the heck is he going to do now…? The OCHREs in his body frantically ping the Plugenpatch medical databases for advice on how to keep his blood pressure down, and what to do about his congenital heart condition… But Dr. Plugenpatch doesn’t respond… The room goes dark, the lights go out…

Get a hold of yourself! Jara thought. You’re giving Natch way too much credit. One man can’t bring the whole Data Sea crashing to a halt on a whim. The Pharisees aren’t going to launch a black code attack tomorrow. What’s the worst that could happen? A few fiefcorps will lie low for the day, that’s all.

She switched the window display to a peaceful Irish countryside and tried to get back to work. The three-dimensional flowchart on the table silently mocked her: gullible. untrustworthy. undependable.

“Fuck fuck fuck!” Jara cried aloud, slamming her hand against the bare walls. She couldn’t just sit back and let this happen. Natch had to be stopped. He had to.

* * *

“I’m telling you,” said Horvil, “they’re talking about it all over the gossip networks. I’m not making this up! Go check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me.”

The woman pursed her lips skeptically and regarded Horvil with a penetrating look. It was the kind of dubious stare that muckety-mucks from the creeds had been giving him his entire life, long before he was old enough to deserve them. Then she cast a spiteful glance at Horvil’s apartment, which the engineer had carefully arranged in a tableau of dishevelment: half-eaten sandwiches mingling freely on the floor with dirty clothes, pieces of broken furniture, and the occasional bio/logic programming bar. The elderly woman sighed and turned back to smoothing the wrinkles on her purple suede robe. The state of the robe seemed more important to her than Horvil’s dire warnings of enemy attack.

“Creed Élan has contacts in the Defense and Wellness Council,” she said. “We have people in the Meme Cooperative. If everyone is panicking about Pharisee black code, why haven’t we heard about it?”

“Heck, I don’t know. I’m not a Council officer. Who knows how a wave of rumors like this gets started?”

“I don’t care how a wave of rumors like this gets started,” she mimicked cruelly. “I’m more interested in knowing how you, of all people, end up on the crest of it.”

The woman’s name was Marulana—at least, Horvil thought her name was Marulana. These rich old crones from Creed Élan were all interchangeable. They scrapped amongst themselves to be the first to solicit your donation for their silly charity events, but when it came time for you to ask a favor, they were nowhere to be found. All Horvil knew for sure was that she was a bigwig in Creed Élan—one of the handful of minor bodhisattvas that ran the organization. She was also one of the women his Aunt Berilla frequently had over for lunch in that gaudy calcified estate of hers on the West End.

He could have verified her name in a heartbeat on the public directory, but it didn’t really matter. Horvil knew this was going to be a short conversation anyway.

“You want to know how I heard about this?” Horvil gulped, looking for a quick way to foist Marulana’s suspicions on someone else. “Natch told me.” He gave her a conspiratorial shrug as if to say, Crazy world. You never know when you’re going to get swept up in another rumor or scandal. But what can you do?

“Oh, Natch told you,” replied the creed official with deepening suspicion. “Somehow that doesn’t surprise me.” Horvil had no doubt she would recognize the name. Ever since he had signed on with the fiefcorp, Natch’s name had been spreading among the Élanners like a virulent cancer. Aunt Berilla’s influence, no doubt. “So you hear that a major black code attack is imminent, and your first instinct is to contact your spiritual mentors at Creed Élan. Is that it, Horvil?”

The sarcasm in her voice was palpable, almost a third participant in the conversation. “Listen, Your Holy Creedfulness,” said Horvil. “I don’t expect you to panic every time you hear a strange rumor. But this is me talking! You guys know me. My family’s been shelling out credits to support Creed Élan since the beginning of time.” And I haven’t paid any attention to your dumb creed activities since I was a kid. I don’t even pretend to understand what kind of morals and values you people teach anymore. I’m not sure I ever did. “I’d just hate to see your fine customers—er, constituents—get sucked dry because some black code caught them unaware.”

“I’m certain our devotees will be just fine.”

The engineer lost his patience. “Why do you always have to look for ulterior motives? Do you think Creed Élan has a… a monopoly on good intentions?”

“No,” Marulana replied drily. “We simply know from experience that the only people fiefcorpers care about are themselves.” She threw a vulture-like frown in Horvil’s direction. Then her multi connection winked out without even a good bye.

Horvil collapsed back to the couch, frustrated, sending a stack of grubby pillows to the floor in the process. So much for family connections, he thought. At least he could be comforted that the state of his apartment would make it back to Aunt Berilla.

* * *

Jara stood in the atrium of the Meme Cooperative’s administrative headquarters. All the other governmental and quasi-governmental agencies built their offices in Melbourne, under the imposing shadows of the Prime Committee and the Defense and Wellness Council complexes. Not so the Cooperative, which had chosen the lonely orbital colony of Patronell as its base of operations for no reason Jara could discern.

The building followed the same bland architectural recipe that all bureaucratic buildings used these days.

Start with a base of stretched stone and flexible glass to provide that chic curved effect. Throw in a clump of rice-paper walls to show solidarity with the past. Add impossibly high ceilings. Coat every available surface with viewscreens, and auction off the advertising space to defray construction costs. Mix in a crowd of thousands. The result: instant nausea.

But Jara was not there to study architecture. She was there to do the right thing. She was there to report Natch to the Meme Cooperative and stop this insanity before someone got hurt.

The very idea was absurd, and it grew more ridiculous with each step she took. Who are you going to tell? And what are you going to tell them? Jara didn’t know; she just knew she had to tell someone. She tamped down that tiny voice inside suggesting she use the information as leverage to get out of her apprenticeship contract. No, I’m not just doing this for myself. I haven’t sunk to Natch’s level yet. Natch’s plan wasn’t just dangerous to the capitalmen who had grown fat off the fiefcorp boom, or the degenerate fiefcorpers like Natch and her old boss Lucas Sentinel, people Jara would just as soon see destitute. The plan also undermined the Primo’s rating system that had served the public for seventy years. People trusted Primo’s to uncover shoddy programs—programs that did not obey Plugenpatch specifications, programs that could theoretically overload bio/logic systems and cause fatalities. Primo’s was not perfect by any means. Its interpreters could be petty and inaccurate and just plain spiteful. But who else was there to turn to, really?

If Primo’s is that vulnerable, thought Jara, then what in the world can you depend on?

The fiefcorp analyst wasn’t sure where her feet were taking her, but now she discovered they were heading towards a department called the Fraudulent Fiefcorp Practices Division. She could see the office now, just past the viewscreen hawking a program called Feminine Mystique 242.37a. Natch’s fiefcorp had received its share of warnings from this office before, and Jara had walked these halls more than once to plead the company’s case before an arbitration board. She could have filed a complaint from home, of course, but this was the only way if she wanted to remain anonymous. Without proof that the petitioners were real people, the office would be flooded with data agents from dishonest fiefcorps.

Judging by the long line of multi projections, there were plenty of disgruntled consumers willing to put in the extra effort. Jara scanned the queue and discovered a dozen people who had carefully scrubbed their public profiles to protect their anonymity. She herself had taken this prudent step before opening the multi connection to Patronell; anyone who pinged the public directories with Jara’s image would see her name as Cassandra and her locality as Agamemnon’s Palace. She doubted anyone here would get the joke.

A fine dust of boredom settled on the petitioners. Every minute or two, the line would shuffle forward. The silence of strangers, the doldrums of public spaces.

Forty minutes later, Jara reached the head of the line. An incoming message welcomed her to the Meme Cooperative and offered a map to guide her through the office to her designated inspector. She took a deep breath and dove into the labyrinth of cubicles.

“Come in, come in,” urged the caseworker when she finally reached his cube. A slack-jawed fellow with Scandinavia in his eyes.

Jara walked to the metal chair opposite his desk and found herself ankle-deep in snow. The walls of the cubicle had disappeared—along with the rest of the Meme Cooperative building—and been replaced by a frozen tundra. SeeNaRee, Jara thought with distaste. She could practically hear the familiar SeeNaRee slogan she had seen on a thousand viewscreens: If you can’t go to the places you love, why not bring them to you? At least it was good programming; her toes were already starting to freeze.

“I am required by the charter of the Meme Cooperative to inform you this is an anonymous conversation,” began the official in a tired voice. “To ensure your confidentiality, neither I nor any of my colleagues can see you or otherwise identify you, your gender, or any of your distinguishing characteristics without your express permission, except to confirm your presence on the multi network. A sealed recording of this conversation will be stored in our archives for a period of no less than…” The nondescript official droned on for another minute as he gazed myopically in the direction of his visitor’s chair.

“I’m here to report a crime in my fiefcorp,” said Jara when she was finally given the chance to speak.

“The nature of the crime?”

“Inciting rumors with the intent to mislead.”

The Meme Cooperative official gave her a patronizing nod. “That may or may not be an actual crime,” he said nonchalantly, drawing circles in the desk condensation with his index finger. “Do these rumors concern a business rival?”

“Well, not exactly, they’re more just… general rumors…”

“About your industry?”

“You mean, are they about bio/logics? In a roundabout way, I suppose.”

With smooth strokes, the man connected two of the circles on his desk, forming the mathematical symbol for infinity. “Do you have any evidence of these alleged rumors that can be presented before an arbitration board?”

I knew this was a mistake, thought Jara bitterly. I haven’t been here for five minutes, and we’re already talking about “alleged” rumors. The Meme Cooperative official was obviously more interested in enjoying his SeeNaRee than in listening to the grievances of some ghostly, genderless voice from the outside world. “Listen to me!” she said. “Something terrible is going to happen, and someone’s got to stop it. It’s a matter of public safety!”

Again the placating smile. “This really sounds like it’s outside our jurisdiction. Perhaps you might try contacting your L-PRACG. Or maybe the Defense and Wellness Council would be willing to take a statement. There’s also the Fair Business Working Group of the Prime Committee. Have you tried them? Or the Creeds Coalition’s Council on Ethical Fiefcorp Behavior…”

Jara shook her head. This was pointless. Even if she did manage to ram a complaint through the thick skull of this bureaucrat, it would get lost in the administrative morass. She pictured a Rube Goldberg machine two hundred meters high, her complaint a pea bobbing back and forth on some remote conveyor belt hidden deep in the works.

What else can you expect when you trust an industry to police itself? thought Jara bitterly. But the system had lined too many pockets over the years; no one else wanted the responsibility.

The analyst cut her multi connection without a word. The familiar walls of her London apartment appeared once more. Let the bureaucrat prattle on in his little winter retreat and make excuses for the Cooperative’s inaction. Jara couldn’t take another minute of it.

She flopped down on her couch and called up the holographic rumor flowchart. Another towering structure that obscured her very existence, only this one she had built herself. Jara rubbed her temples and prepared to send a ConfidentialWhisper request to the first name on her list.

* * *

Horvil whined and pulled his head out of the burrow of pillows he had created in his sleep. His internal calendar assured him it was indeed Tuesday morning, and he had slept for ten hours. But if the sun wasn’t directly overhead, then it was simply too early for someone to wake him up with an urgent ConfidentialWhisper request.

“What?” groaned the engineer.

“I believe we owe you an apology,” came a timorous voice.

Horvil bolted upright, capsizing a stack of nitro mugs. “Marulana?”

“You were right, Horvil,” said the creed official, her voice a mixture of fear and chagrin. “Someone has launched a black code attack—and they’re going straight for the Vault.”

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