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( ( ( 6 ) ) )

Jara awoke groggy the next morning, hoping the past two days had been some sort of paranoid hallucination. After yesterday’s grim pronouncements from the Defense and Wellness Council, she had prived herself to the world and slunk straight off to bed like a wounded animal. Now she discovered she had slept for fourteen hours straight, a Horvilesque achievement.

Anxious for something familiar, Jara fell back into the morning routine she had been forced to abandon by Natch’s crazy plan. The routine went like this: Sit up and project the news feeds on top of the plaid blanket. Tune one viewscreen to the morning commentary by Sen Sivv Sor. Tune the other to the editorial by his rival, John Ridglee. Order a steaming cup of nitro from the building. Fetch nitro from the access panel at the left side of the bed. Activate Doze-B-Gone 91.

A few minutes of peaceful routine were enough to convince Jara she was okay. Enough to convince her that a small niche had been carved out for her somewhere in this hardscrabble mountain called the bio/logics industry. Almost enough to convince her she would survive another eleven months.

Insanity, insanity.

The chatter about yesterday’s “black code attack” had already slowed to a trickle. Everyone who had claimed financial losses in the panic had quietly recanted during the early-morning hours. Representatives of the assorted Pharisee tribes were tripping all over themselves to declare they had nothing to do with the hoax. Talk on the Data Sea had shifted focus from the attack itself to the Council’s behavior during the crisis. Why had Len Borda sent an underling to face the crowd at Melbourne instead of appearing himself? How did the Council plan on pursuing the offending parties? Other drudges were bemoaning the fact that vast swaths of the public had been deceived by such a simple stunt. Technology had kept the world so secure for so long. Had society become slothful and complacent?

The speculation merely elicited a yawn from Jara. She moved past the mundane news about TubeCo’s financial woes and deaths in the orbital colonies, waved away the parochial gossip from her L-PRACG and the solicitations from programming supply companies. The news feed on her blanket shifted in the blink of an eye to the bio/logic industry reports.

The lead headline:


Natch Personal Programming Takes #1 on Primo’s

* * *

Jara let loose a tidal wave of messages on her boss. She stood on the red square in her hallway sending multi requests and Confidential Whispers by the dozens, enough to cause a major headache. Anyone but a trusted associate would have automatically been cut off by the Data Sea by now. Still, Natch could have prived himself to her communiqués with the barest thought. What are you waiting for, Natch? Jara asked. What are you afraid of?

Finally, one of her multi requests got through. Jara took a deep breath and activated the connection. Multivoid whispered its sweet promises of oblivion for a scant few seconds and then abandoned her in Natch’s foyer. A viewscreen right in front of her face broadcast one of the early nudes of Baghalerix.

Voices drifted into her ears before the connection was stable enough for her to process them.

“Ratings? Who really cares about ratings?” came the first voice, cool and butter-smooth and almost certainly enhanced with bio/logics. Natch.

“Well, you do, from what I’ve heard,” replied the second. Jara stood for a moment, trying to remember where she had heard that scratchy growl. A male voice, at least twice Natch’s age. And then suddenly she placed it: the drudge Sen Sivv Sor.

So the feeding frenzy has begun, thought Jara bitterly. Everybody wants to talk to the new number one on Primo’s.

She wondered when her fiefcorp master was planning to bring her in to the conversation. Or did he just plan to keep her dangling at arm’s length? She studied the ballooning belly of the woman on the viewscreen and tried to decide if her boss had chosen this particular painting to send a message.

“Of course it doesn’t hurt to have high ratings,” Natch was saying from around the corner. “It’s good for morale; it’s good for business. But I don’t care if we’re number one on Primo’s or number one thousand, as long as we deliver the highest-quality programming. If I can look back at the end of the day and say we’ve done the best job we can do, then I can sleep at night.” Yes, Natch had definitely modified his voice; Jara recognized the laid-back cadences of SmoothTalker 139.

“But the Patel Brothers managed to pull back ahead of you in only forty-seven minutes,” said Sor. “Number one for less than an hour! Come on, Natch, tell me that doesn’t rankle you.”

Natch laughed the free and easy laugh that only the rich or the deranged possessed. “I give Frederic and Petrucio Patel a lot of credit. They didn’t waste any time launching a counteroffensive. It’s no wonder they’ve been number one so long. But I think we’ve proven our point: the Patel Brothers’ days of dominating the Primo’s ratings are over. From now on, they’ll have to watch their backs.”

Jara had heard enough. Obviously, Natch had no plans to include her in the conversation. She stalked towards the living room, her face a study in carefully controlled rage—and then stopped.

Perfection taint you! she screamed silently at her boss. The fiefcorp master had cordoned off the living room, blocking access as only the apartment owner could. It was an inhuman feeling, this sensation of just stopping, the inability to even make an effort to transgress. The designers of the multi network strove so hard to provide complete verisimilitude, and yet their method of access control utterly short-circuited human instincts.

“So what’s next for the Natch Personal Programming Fiefcorp?” Sen Sivv Sor was asking.

Natch’s grin was practically audible. “Kick the Patel Brothers out on their asses, of course.” His imaginary audience let out a spirited cheer.

Jara gritted her teeth and fired off a terse ConfidentialWhisper. “This interview is over,” she announced, “unless you want me to start bombarding him with all the evidence I’ve found about your little scheme.”

There was a pause in the conversation. Jara could hear the rustling of clothing, a man arising from his chair. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to call it a day, Mr. Sor,” said Natch. “Duty beckons. I’ve got a fiefcorp to run.”

“Sure, sure!”

The analyst suddenly found the impenetrable barrier lifted, and swooped around the corner just in time to see Sor give Natch a final clap on the back. The drudge looked exactly like his pictures on the Data Sea; his craggy face, white mop of hair, and distinctive birthmark would be recognizable anywhere. A second later, he disappeared. Off to rebroadcast the interview and play the bit part Natch had assigned him in the drama of his life.

Natch displayed no sign of the fatigue a normal human being would feel after four days without sleep. He looked alive, focused, handsome. Jara felt the familiar twinge of lust stabbing through her abdomen and sneered it down.

And then, in the space between one breath and the next, Natch’s demeanor completely shifted. A mask was silently discarded. Now his eyes held nothing but sullenness, and the once-over he gave her spoke more of dismissal than command. Natch didn’t even offer his apprentice a chair to sit in, but instead marched straight into his office. Jara stormed after him, trembling, only to find him standing at his workbench in the midst of a MindSpace bubble. The donut-shaped code of NiteFocus 48—now NiteFocus 49, she supposed—surrounded him like a life preserver.

What evidence?” grunted Natch.

Jara put her hands on her hips and mustered her best accusatory stance. “Evidence of what you did.”

“And what exactly did I do?”

“You know exactly what you did, you son of a bitch! You launched that fake black code attack yourself.”

If the analyst expected an angry outburst from her master, she was disappointed. She would have even been reassured by one of his contemptuous laughs. Instead, Natch nudged a periwinkle-colored chunk of code with his left hand while he probed its cratered surface with the fingertips of his right. “What makes you think I did that?” he said.

“Come on, Natch! There aren’t many people clever enough to pull off that little fandango yesterday. There’s even fewer who would have anything to gain by it. I’ve seen you tinkering around with strange programs over the past few weeks, stuff that doesn’t look like anything in our catalog. And then, of course, there’s the fact that the so-called attack happened exactly when our rumors said it would.”

“A happy coincidence.”

“And was it a happy coincidence you put our necks on the line instead of yours? Did it occur to you that when the Council starts asking questions, the rumors’ll lead back to Horvil and me? Not you, of course. You didn’t have anything to do with those rumors. You were busy getting our bio/logic programs ready for launch, as the MindSpace logs will clearly show.”

Something she said finally penetrated Natch’s thick skin. He worked quietly for a few minutes without speaking a word, the gears in his head clearly grinding away. The pause of a politician carefully phrasing a key platform. “If you really think I would do that to you and Horvil,” he said at length, “then you don’t understand me at all.”

Jara studied the fiefcorp master’s face carefully. Could he possibly be telling the truth? Could he be operating on a plane that far removed from everyday life? Or was this just another one of his acting jobs? She gazed into that unblemished, boyish face and wondered if there were any truths at all buried beneath its surface, or if truth for him was as mutable as programming code, subject to updates by the hour. A minute rolled by, then two. Jara cursed her body as a turncoat, fired up Delibidinize 14a for the third time that hour. Can’t he at least give me the satisfaction of turning MindSpace off? she fumed.

Finally, she straightened her spine and looked him squarely in the eye. “I quit.”

Natch gave her a sly look. “Fine,” said the fiefcorp master blithely. “Quit.”

A stunned silence filled the room. Jara didn’t move.

“Stop being so fucking melodramatic, Jara!” Natch burst out. He grabbed NiteFocus 49 with one hand and violently spun the virtual code around like a wheel, himself stuck in the spokes. “You’ve got less than a year left on your contract, and after that you’ll have the option to cash out. You’re telling me you’re going to give up all those shares and start from scratch someplace else? Room and board for another four years? I know you better than that, Jara. You’re going to stay right where you are and get filthy rich with the rest of us.”

“I could turn you in to the Council.”

Natch didn’t lose a beat. “Without hard evidence—which I know you don’t have—where would that get you? Nobody wants to hire a whiner or a whistle blower. You’d be right back where you were when I found you: blacklisted by the major bio/logic fiefcorps, taking shit from second-rate imbeciles like Lucas Sentinel. And don’t tell me the Council will get to the bottom of this, because they won’t. Dozens of cases like this cross Len Borda’s desk every week, and he’s lucky if he can close a tenth of them.”

“Then I’ll tell the Meme Cooperative.”

“Don’t make me laugh.”

“The drudges. I could send a message to Sen Sivv Sor and John Ridglee right now.”

Natch shrugged, as if the effort of responding to such an inane proposition was beneath him. He caught the spinning donut of code with one hand and began studying its surface once more.

Jara let her hands drop inertly to her sides. Is he right about me? she thought. Is that all I am—a whiner and a whistle blower? She thought back to her days peddling bio/logic analysis to Lucas Sentinel, to all the times she had cursed her fate and threatened to quit. Wouldn’t Lucas pull the same stunts that Natch did, if he had the guts or the foresight?

She hadn’t really intended to quit, she realized now. Despite all the indignities, Jara couldn’t bring herself to hate this cantankerous child. What she had wanted was the opportunity to deliver some kind of high-handed sermon about Pyrrhic victories and the value of interpersonal relationships. She wanted him to take her seriously. “People could have gotten hurt, Natch,” Jara said quietly.

“They didn’t.”

“But they could have.”

Natch finally capitulated and flipped off the MindSpace bubble around his workbench. The holographic donut melted back into the void. “Jara, everyone who invests in bio/logics knows what’s going on. Things like this happen all the time. Do you think the Patel Brothers got to the top without getting their hands dirty? Or Len Borda?”

Jara snorted angrily. “Oh, I see, the end justifies the means.”

The entrepreneur narrowed his eyes, as if trying to adjust his focus to a shallower depth of field. “Do you really think number one on Primo’s is the end? Then you don’t understand anything, Jara. Getting to number one on Primo’s isn’t an end at all—it’s a means. It’s part of the process… just a step on the ladder.”

“So what is the end? Where do all these means lead to?”

Natch stared out into the nothingness for a moment without speaking. She saw him for a brief instant unadorned, between masks. His jaw rocked back and forth, and in his eyes burned a hunger the likes of which Jara had never seen. That fire could consume her schoolgirl lust, swallow it without a trace. She shivered involuntarily.

“I don’t have a clue,” said Natch. “But when I find out, I’ll let you know.” And with a peremptory wave of his hand, he cut her multi connection.

Jara found herself standing once more on the red square in her London apartment. It was Wednesday afternoon already. In a few blessed hours, this entire debacle would be a distant memory. On the viewscreen, she could hear the crowds milling about in the public square, restless, impatient, disconsolate.

Jara sank to the floor and cried for a moment, then dragged herself back to her office. There was work to be done.

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