Authors: Pat Cadigan
Tags: #Fantasy, #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #General, #Suspense, #Contemporary, #Literary, #Computer hackers, #Virtual reality
"You peeked," she said, which brought a small flush to his cheeks and sent him bustling over to the couch to sit next to his grandnephew.
Fez was about sixty, as near as she could tell, with a cloud of white hair that reminded her of cotton candy, and bright black eyes, a nose that had been broken once or twice, and a mouth that never quite stopped smiling. The particulars might have suggested Santa Claus, but Fez was neither fat nor bearded. Even if he had been (Sam couldn't imagine it), the angles of his face had a little too much sharpness to them, and in spite of the smile, his face had the wariness of a man perpetually on guard.
She remembered how hard it had been to reconcile this semigrandfatherly presence with the mental image she'd formed from on-line contact, picturing him as a grand old man of perhaps twenty-nine or thirty, with all the looks, charm, and sex appeal that had always been attributed to renegades.
In retrospect she knew she should have figured it out. Fez's knowledge of the past forty years, casually displayed in the course of their many oddhours on-line conversations, had been too idiosyncratic in detail to be the product of anything but firsthand experience.
Sitting in the old easy chair, trying to choke down enough of the bland/salty soup to appease him, reminded her of the first time she'd come to this one-roomer in East Hollywood. Rosa had brought her, and he'd tried to feed her that day, too, but she'd been too boggled. Rosa herself had been a revelation, Cherokee Rosa as she was known on-line; she really was a Cherokee, and her name really was Rosa, and she had a mass of curly black hair, a knowing look, and a bone-crusher handshake. And, apparently, a mandate to bring her out of the tiny Santa Monica closet she'd been holed up in, making subsistence with gypsy scut work on her homegrown laptop.
We've been watching you, doll. You hack good.
Sam had had mixed feelings about that.
Big Brother, is that it?
Not Big Brother. More like the relative nobody wants to talk about.
me, Sam had said.
Sure was. And so Rosa had brought her to be surprised by Fez, and after that she'd kept coming back on her own as often as possible. She found out later that she was one of a very few Fez allowed to visit so frequently or, for that matter, ever (Rosa was another). She might have ended up all but moving in with him if he hadn't always thrown her out eventually. He wasn't looking to host the eastern branch of the Mimosa, he told her firmly, and he was nobody's father figure, he told her even more firmly, both of them well aware that father figure was not how she felt about him.
She settled for the benefit of his extensive knowledge of computer communications, and the privilege of being allowed to use the elaborate computer system sitting on the desk against the far wall. It looked deceptively jerry-rigged with all the mismatched upgrades and add-ons. The configuration had changed again since she'd last visited; there was a second flat easel-type screen now, and a couple of very large housings that had to have quadrupled available memory. She also noticed that the head-mounted monitor sitting off to one side was hooked up to the system, as if it had seen some use recently, which surprised her. Fez had never been especially enamored of Artificial Reality, at least as a place to visit.
The system was on, she realized, even though neither screen was lit. That was unlike Fez, as well, to run anything without screening its progress.
"So, you've been out of town and out of touch," Fez said to her.
"Camping in the
Rosa said. "I'm still trying to imagine it. That's in Missouri," she added to Fez.
"Yes, I've heard," he said serenely. "Some rather interesting things going on in Missouri, in the realm of nanotechnology —surprise, surprise"—he nodded at Rosa—"but I suppose you were too busy roughing it to check it out. Somehow I always had the idea that you thought camping was an overnight in a Mimosa squat, not hunting and fishing."
"No hunting. And I only tried fishing once. I have problems killing anything." Sam shrugged. "I was hacking around, and suddenly a trip out of town seemed like a good idea."
Rosa laughed. "And you left the hot hardware with me. You're just full of good ideas, aren't you?"
"Oh, the hardware was never hot. Just the software, and I took that with me."
"And what did you do, use it for earrings?"
Sam grinned. "No, but what a great encryption idea."
Rosa looked at her from under her brows. "It's not a real original idea. And I think the word you're looking for is
You've been in a computer too long."
"Whatever." Sam looked at Fez. "Did
hear from Keely?"
The lines around Fez's eyes deepened. "Keely is officially MIA. There's nothing on-line about him, and nobody knows where he is, not even Jones." "And where's Jones?"
"I've got him," Rosa said.
temporary arrangement. He had the supreme tack-ola to suicide in Gator's tent, and she called me to pick up the body."
Adrian was staring at her openmouthed. "You're keeping a dead guy in your apartment?"
I mean, he's temporarily dead. He's probably not dead anymore, just comatose, but he'll go again in another couple of days."
The kid glanced at Fez a little dubiously. "Jeez, everything's different here. Where I come from, we usually die once, permanently."
"Not if you've got fancy implants," Rosa said sourly. "Our friend Jones— or rather, our friend Keely's friend Jones—was suffering from real bad chronic depression, suicidal, all that. Ellectroshock didn't work, so he went to this feel-good mill, and they gave him these brain implants that let him kill himself. He flatlines for maybe a minute or two, and then they kick up his adrenal system, and he comes back."
"Oh, she's not making it up," Fez assured his nephew. "It's actually an accepted alternative treatment for certain depressives who don't respond to any other kinds of implants."
"Which probably doesn't describe Jones," Rosa went on, "since he didn't try any others before he let the feel-gooders drill him. So now he's addicted to death, and he'll stay that way until his adrenal system tells him to go to hell. Then he'll go."
"Well, to purgatory, perhaps," Fez said good-naturedly.
Adrian sat back on the couch, hugging himself. "And people think
"I'd turn in the goddamn clinic that did him," Rosa said, "but they got canned for feel-gooding this week."
"That leaves Jones really adrift, then," Sam said. "No clinic and no Keely. What's he going to do?"
"Die. Periodically." Rosa turned to Fez. "So, should I take a hike while you look at the zap Sam got from Keely, or what?"
"What," Fez said. "You can keep a secret, can't you?"
Rosa drew a cross over her heart.
"Wait a second," Sam said, and looked significantly at Adrian.
He giggled again. "Don't worry, I'm perfectly safe. I guess Fez hasn't had a chance to tell you, but I can't read."
Fez said pointedly. "Or any other language with an alphabet."
"Makes me safe for anything you wanna screen without a voice-over," Adrian added.
"He has a brain lesion," Fez explained, sounding curt. "He's alexic. For various reasons implants have been unable to mitigate the problem, but we've managed to sneak around it. He learned Mandarin."
Rosa's eyebrows went up. "Really? You can read Mandarin?"
The kid shrugged. "It's not really reading. Not for me. As soon as the world goes to a dual ideogram and alphabet format, I'm really gonna have it made. Or I could just move to China."
"Why not just use Spoken Text?" Rosa asked.
"Same reason you don't," said Fez. "Time. Spoken Text takes at least twice as long as silent reading. If you could stand all that natter-natternatter. We've been routing the dataline through a homegrown translation program for him. Though I've noticed translation to ideograms does tend to put a slightly different spin on things."
Sam set her untouched mug of soup aside on the floor. "I wonder what it would do with Keely's zap. It's pretty odd stuff. Not that there's a whole lot to read." She looked at Adrian again. "Look, I don't want any innocent bystanders getting hit if they don't have to."
"Adrian's all right," Fez said firmly. "Now, what do you have?"
"I'm pretty sure Keely pulled this out of Diversifications. He wouldn't tell me, but I can't think who else would stampede him. The odd thing was that he encrypted it in some speed-thrash by a group signed with EyeTraxx for videos, and I found out completely by accident that Diversifications just acquired them. Now, my father's worked at the Dive since like the early Jurassic, and they've never, but
shown any interest in music videos. Besides hardware, all they do is commercials and Hollywood releases, instyvacations and tons of that social-expression shit."
"Don't knock the electronic greeting card," Rosa said, "If it weren't for that, some of us wouldn't speak to our mothers even on Mother's Day. — Shit, sorry," she added, looking contritely at Sam. "I caught the news about EyeTraxx kinda by-the-way myself, but I didn't think a thing of it. I mean, lots of companies jump the bandwagons late. Maybe if you hunted around on BizNet, you'd find their profits were down somewhere. If you could actually read anything on BizNet."
"I wouldn't have thought anything of it, either," Sam said, "except there was
about it in the news. I mean, not oven a mention. Now, the Ozarks are picturesque as hell and terribly quaint, but they have datalines there, too, and I didn't see a thing about it anywhere. And EyeTraxx is—
—a Hall Galen company, and Hall Galen calls a media conference if he burps."
"Perhaps it was a very small burp by his standards." Fez got up and went to the desk, flipping on one of the screens. "How did you look up the news of the acquisition, dear?"
She told him. "Ah yes, they must have buried that little item in the hardcore biz news. You'd have had to have your defaults set a particular way to get it." Fez beckoned to her and Rosa, and they joined him at the desk. The general dataline menu came up on the screen, and he touched the BizNet listing with his little finger. Immediately the screen filled with BizNet's menu, divided into six dense sections.
Sam could feel her eyes crossing. "Jesus, what a mess."
"Your hard-core biz type can scan this as easily as you can scan a program in your favorite assembly language," Fez said, giving her an amused glance. "BizNet went to great lengths to customize this for their serious subscribers—eye-tracking tests on the layouts, allathat. BizNet is the epitome of narrow-casting. As opposed to old-style broadcasting. Focused information, no waste." He touched an item in the upper left area of the screen; the six sections gave way to a four-part screen, each quadrant containing a new menu.
"Isn't there any faster way than paging through menu after menu?" Rosa asked.
"Like I said, set your retrieval defaults correctly in the first place," Fez replied. "And if we knew what those were, we'd already know what we don't know. Ya know?" He winked at Sam and then flipped through several more menus and pages of small print before he froze the screen. "Here we are." He pointed to a small paragraph.
"Shit," Rosa said, squinting at it. "Can we run this through Adrian's Mandarin translator?"
"That'll be next," Fez said matter-of-factly. "Market-segment translations. In time the language of every subgroup of society will get as specialized as the data it uses, and we'll have a new set of suburbs in the global village. Or rather, the same old suburbs with new names."
"There goes the neighborhood," Rosa said, still gazing at the screen with distaste. "Or here comes the neighborhood. Whatever's right."
Fez shrugged. "People keep looking for ways to chunk themselves. Do you think your average thrash-rockers care if the credit on the latest video firestorm reads 'EyeTraxx' or 'Diversifications' or 'Some Asshole in Detroit'? That's why this didn't make it into the general music news. Anyone who cares about the business end is already tapped into BizNet, not G-Clef. The musicians are all on PerfectPitch, the techies are downloading Circuit Break—"
"—and the rest of the world can go hang," Sam said thoughtfully.
Fez laughed. "By George, she's got it. Well, anyway, what
says, more or less, is that Diversifications investigated the possibility of a takeover of Hall Galen Enterprises as a whole, and Galen cut a deal, divesting himself of the EyeTraxx business unit, and they took that in a settlement."
Rosa put a finger on the screen. "Is that this part here— 'growth opportunities altered in reorganization, closing the aperture around the IBU? What's an IBU?"
"Independent business unit," Fez said absently. "A term for everything and everything in a term. There's a cross-ref here to MedLine, in Research: Human/Brain/Neurophysiology."
"I can read
just fine," Rosa said. "But why in hell would an item like this have a cross-ref in Med-for-god's-sake-Line?"
A small box blossomed in the lower central area of the screen, blinking a notice:
24 min. free access time left.
"Fucking gougers," Sam said, pointing at the box. The number changed to 23 as she watched. "That makes me so mad. Fucking surcharges."
Rosa shrugged as Fez touched the speed box at the top of the screen and selected the MedLine cross-reference out of the small menu that appeared at the bottom of the screen. "Could be worse. They could have just raised all the rates across the board."
Fez chuckled. "They might yet. 'Truth is cheap, but information costs.' I can't remember who said that."
"Vince What's-His-Name," said Sam. "Died in a terrorist raid or something. I thought you said all information should be free."
"It should. It isn't. Knowledge is power. But power corrupts. Which means the Age of Fast Information is an extremely corrupt age in which to live."
"Aren't they all?" Sam asked him.