Winfinity City sprawled beneath them, reassuring and familiar. It looked exactly the same as it had when Tiphani had come, almost a decade ago, to receive her promotion to Chief Sentience Officer. A formality, really. A promotion for delivering to them the news that, in her opinion, the Floaters of A. Centauri would never be knowable, and would never respond to their mimicry of their songs. A promotion for confirming what others had said: that there was no possibility of trade, and even colonization would be tricky, due to the low land-sea ratio and the possible concern over displacing an intelligent species.
But that was the way it worked, Grandfather Mirate’s invisible strings tugging her along, pulling her higher. Honored Yin’s comments about her being born of Chiefs stung. All high corporates knew each other, at least by reputation. And High Chief Mirate was one of the ones with the most colorful reputations. It was why he was High Chief, rather than Perpetual. Admired and respected, yes, but not safe enough to have around for another two hundred years or so.
The chrome-glass donut of Winfinity City rose around the restored First Store and Shrine of the True Sam, itself circled by the ancient suburban grid of Rogers. Traffic packed the sixteen-lane thruways of the city on every level. Local time was 4:30. Everyone going home from work, Tiphani thought. They did that here. None of that blended work and home stuff for them. Full traditionalism for them all.
Outside Winfinity, Arkansas’ cornfields had been salted and plowed and reduced to an image of the scrubland that surrounded San Bernadino, way back in the day. Foothills had been built to simulate the Actual View from the One True Shack. A bright line of red brakelights marked a path from Winfinity city to the Shack. A last rush of tourists before they closed for the evening.
“Continue tour of internal competitors (self)?” The Shrill said, slamming against the side of its cage hard enough to make the two stewards jump. Tiphani was glad they were flying chartered, alone. No crowds to deal with.
So it was awake again. “What?” she said. Her hearing was still crippled by the concert at the airport.
“Arrival soon, continue tour soon (now).”
“Everything’s closing for the night.”
“Periods of inactivity inconvenient (hate).”
“I’m sorry. We are not active all the time.”
“Want (impatient) to continue tour.” Slam. Slam.
“I understand. You must also understand that we would like to welcome you to our headquarters, and have you meet some of our most highly-ranked leaders.”
“Rank nonsequitur. Not yet time to sing. Assimilation (deal) not yet scheduled.”
“Would you like to start negotiations?”
“Start deal no.”
“Desire continue tour (understanding) in shortest possible lapse.”
“Do not desire extraneous activity.”
“You could meet our leaders on an informal basis.”
“Informal nonsequitur. Meet not necessary (anger).” Slam slam slam.
“It’s okay,” Jimson said, leaning towards the cage. “We’ll play by your rules.”
The Shrill stopped for an instant. “All rules nonsense,” it said, and began beating on the side of the cage again. “Feed now.”
Jimson triggered the complex mechanism that passed refrigerated top sirloin steak through a diamondoid lock. The Shrill, feeling the hum of the mechanism, went to the center of the cage. Its underfangs blurred as the lock opened. The sides of the cage quickly went red and spattery.
The jet arrowed at the big flat runway on the other side of Winfinity City and bumped down. Tiphani closed her eyes, trying to relax into fond memories.
The only thing that came was the dark.
Mobs ringed the One True Shack, even at nine-thirty in the morning. Jimson Ogilvy rubbed his eyes, trying to wake up. They’d spent altogether too short a time in Winfinity’s Hi-Lux Apartments, and altogether too much time on a tourbus empty of everyone but them.
As in the airport, the crowds parted for the Shrill, but unlike the airport, more of them craned their necks to look and comment. Which made sense. The One True Shack welcomed all in the spirit of its past; the crowd had its share of Perpetuals and Chiefs, but most were no more than Staff or Manager, or even hopeful indentired. There were lots of brand-new shiny Staff pins just like Jimson’s, proudly displayed on Winfinity company blazers. Staff couples, newly married, held hands, eyes shining with the dream of being Manager one day.
“That’s the Shrill, isn’t it?” said a young brunette, her shiny staff pin matching Jimson’s. Surgically beautiful, with green eyes like emeralds, she walked alone and unattached, pacing them.
“It is . . .” Jimson said.
“I’m sorry, Tiphani said, speaking over him. “This is an official visit. I’m afraid we can’t answer questions.”
“Oh! Sorry!” the brunette said, her eyes going wide when she saw the Chief’s pin. She held something out to Jimson, down out of sight. “Call me,” she whispered, before she sprinted away.
“Interaction with other forms prohibited?” the Shrill asked.
“Not prohibited. Inadvisable,” Tiphani said.
“Prohibited for what reason?”
“Danger to you, ambassador.”
“Do not see danger (risk).”
Tiphani sighed. “Consider it a cultural thing.”
“Nonsequitur, but acceptable.”
The One True Shack appeared before them, wreathed in greasesmoke. The smell of frying meat came thick and good to Jimson, who had skipped breakfast to meet their schedule. A white-suited man inside was a blur, going from stove to fryer to milkshake machine and back again, to serve the line that snaked out into the general crowd.
“Can we?” Jimson asked.
Tiphani shook her head, pointing at the prices. A burger was eight thousand five hundred universal credits, fries three thousand seven hundred fifty. “I don’t think Winfinity would approve, even on my expense account.
“I thought this was supposed to be cheap,” Jimson said.
“Read the fine print.”
Jimson squinted. Below the black hand-painted menu there was a long paragraph of copy:
The One True Shack prides itself on being able to offer you the One True Meal. Years of painstaking research have culminated in an authentic culinary experience guaranteed to recreate the True Taste of the past. Bovine genelines were carefully retroed to create a cow that matches exactly the herds of the mid-20th century. These herds are grown in fields dosed with carefully monitored amounts of air and soil pollution* to match the environment of the time. Similar care was taken with all other ingredients. Winfinity guarantees this is the most authentic mid-20th-century burger experience extant, experienced over 250 billion times before the Great Merger, and experienced today by over a million lucky pilgrims from the Web of Worlds.
*Including radioactive isotopes released by nuclear tests in Nevada from the time period immediately preceding the founding of the First True Shack (predominantly Sr-90).
Jimson nodded. Big investment, big price. That made sense.
“Hey,” said a deep voice, behind them.
Jimson turned. Three large men, all wearing High Manager pins, had separated them from the press of the crowd.
“This is an official visit . . .” Tiphani said.
“We don’t care,” the center one said. He had dark eyes, almost black, and a build that suggested a high-gravity world. “We just want to ask this guy here,” he rapped on the Shrill’s cage. “To cut to the chase, give us the secret of eternal life, all that.”
The Shrill, who had been banging the cage on the side nearest to the One True Shack, rushed at them and showed its underfangs. The big guy smiled but didn’t jump back. His two companions did.
“I’m sorry,” Tiphani said. “I need to ask you to leave. Honored Yin . . .”
“It’s OK,” the big guy said, holding a hand up to the diamond, letting the Shrill scrabble only a half-inch away. “I know, you told on us. We just want you to know, we know.”
“Get out of here.”
One more moment. Hand on glass. Big man looked directly at the Shrill. “Give us the secret,” he said. “Or we’ll come and take it.”
“Proscribed interaction fascinates (interested),” the Shrill said.
“Yeah, I feel the same,” the man said. Then he turned, looking almost sad, and disappeared into the crowd with his friends.
“That was strange,” Tiphani said.
“Was told interaction not permitted,” the Shrill said.
“It isn’t,” Tiphani said.
“Because we can’t control everyone. Or anyone.”
“How do you not sing constantly (fight) (war) understand not possible?”
Jimson and Tiphani both looked at each other. “There is general consensus,” she said. “Most of the time, anyway.”
“And when there is not consensus (agreement)?”
“Then we have trouble.”
“Is consensus about biological infallibility (immortality) continuing life?”
Tiphani sighed. “You have not wanted to discuss that. If you’d like, I’m ready and empowered to discuss trade.”
“Not trade discussion still formulating song. Consensus regarding desires?”
“There seems to be, yes,” Tiphani said.
The Shrill paused for a moment, then went back to banging on the other side of its cage. “This is shrine (ancient) (original) (place) of competitor?”
“It was a competitor,” Tiphani said. “Now, they are part of Winfinity.”
“Winfinity merged (became one) with this competitor?”
“Conflict not always necessary (fated)?”
“No. Sometimes we absorb other companies. Including ones we compete with. The merger of Wal-Mart, McDonalds, and Global Transport was the largest event of its kind in the history of the Web of Worlds, done shortly after the fall of Operation Martian Freedom.”
“Many nonsequiturs. Principle of absorption clear.”
They spent the morning at the One True Shack, deep in its maddening aroma. Eventually, Tiphani allowed Jimson to stop at a burger cart, this one without guarantees. They had still-overpriced but not ruinous burgers and moved on to the gift shop, where white chef’s hats and milkshake machines and recipe books and Authentic Fragments of the One True and Original Shack were sold.
Jimson fingered a plastic package of wood chips, some still with white paint clinging to them, and smiled. He knew they couldn’t really be part of the One True and Original Shack, but they were a symbol. They gave people hope. That was what mattered.
When the morning was done, and the sun was hot in the sky, they headed back to the tourbus. The Shrill made one last comment, almost disturbing:
“Good informative tour. Pleased you understand concept of integration (merger).”
What does that mean? Jimson mouthed. Tiphani shook her head, not looking at him.
“I’m happy you are pleased. I hope you are enjoying your trip in general,” Tiphani said.
“Enjoy without referent. Good (useful) information presented here. More than previous.”
“You seem to be interested in the concept of merger. Do you think Winfinity and your enterprises should explore that idea, rather than trade?” Tiphani said.
“Nonsequitur and premature. Not interested in discussing (arguing) this.”
“Tomorrow you see our headquarters. Do you think you might be ready to talk then? It would be a convenient time to meet our top staff.”
“Not interested in (pole). See braincase tomorrow?”
Jimson had to turn away to hide a smile.
Tiphani reddened. “I would just like to begin discussing how we can find points of mutual benefit. The earlier we begin, the more points of benefit we can find.”
“Not in rush (hurry). Insanity anger insistence.”
Tiphani looked at Jimson, and it was his turn to shrug. Where is that algorithmic work? he mouthed.
Tiphani shook her head. Still in queue, she mouthed.
The Shrill didn’t move on the trip back to town, as the bus slowly crept through ancient traffic. Tiphani’s eyes took on that glazed look of deep optilink access, and he could see her subvocalizing.
Setting new priorities, he thought. I hope.
As their limo carved through the chrome canyons of Winfinity City, Tiphani Mirate sat silent and still. Jimson craned his neck to look at the huge buildings and roads that towered above them, and she remembered doing the same thing the first time she was here. He thought they were just going to their official reception, the one they’d missed yesterday because of the Shrill’s insistence on continuing the tour.
But her optilink told the true story. Listed in attendance were both Honored Yin and Honored Maplethorpe. One Perpetual was never good. Two would be worse.
They probably think to drive a deal now, she thought. Listening in on all our conversations with the Shrill, but not understanding. Not wanting to understand.
Only wanting what they wanted.
Roads converged on Winfinity Interstellar Corporate Headquarters, and traffic slowed to a crawl. She had plenty of time to stare at the big red infinity symbol that was their corporate logo, the bottom half lit brighter red to form the Winfinity “W.”
They were allowed the VIP entrance, leading into an echoing white garage, tiled with fantastic scenes from the dawn of corporate culture: a family, sitting together in front of an ancient television with a round screen, sharing prepackaged dinners in foil containers; the same family shopping for brightly-packaged goods in the infinite aisles of a gigantic store; an executive looking out over a cityscape from a corner office window; three young entrepreneurs looking down at an ancient computer-screen, while network dreams hovered above their heads; Mars Enterprise and its crew standing proudly in front of it, in the famous publicity still from the reality show.
Disgorged from the limo, they were escorted through the bright white aseptic halls to the VIP reception area, a place of comfortable white leather couches and soft gray rugs and elegant mirrors that hid observers behind. A chrome-and-glass bar sheltered liquor with exotic labels and crystal decanters containing liquids too elegant to be labeled, perhaps exotic grappas from the Web of Worlds, where savant-oenophiles tried to perfect the grape on every planet with an oxygen or carbon dioxide atmosphere. Floor-to-ceiling windows looked out over the broad expanse of Winfinity Avenue and the chrome canyons of the city. In the early-morning shadows, the scene was blue and cool, polished and perfect.
They’d barely taken their seats when Honored Yin and Honored Maplethorpe entered. Another bad sign, Tiphani thought. We defer to them, not them to us.
Honored Yin wore another black suit of almost mechanical cut. In the bright lights of the reception area, her skin seemed even more shiny, translucent, unnatural. Her complexion was almost gray, and any trace of epicanthic fold her eyes had once had was long-gone. Her discolored eyes darted from Tiphani to Jimson before resting on the Shrill.
“We wanted to take the time to welcome the ambassador in person,” Honored Maplethorpe said, bowing towards the Shrill. He was a tall black man who wore his rejuvenation much better than Honored Yin did. Tiny curls of white in his sideburns like sparks in the night. His face, believably weathered, fit well and true, and his dark-brown eyes shone with what seemed to be true welcome. His suit, muted purple, was relaxed, almost oversize, and looked to be made of real silk.
The Shrill zigged back and forth in its cage, but said nothing.
When the silence had stretched uncomfortably long, Honored Maplethorpe extended a hand to Tiphani. “And, of course, we would like to welcome our own emissaries to Winfinity City and Winfinity Headquarters.”
Tiphani endured a brief hand-crush, then Maplethorpe turned to Jimson. “And I understand this is your first visit to Winfinity City, Mr. Ogilvy.”
“It is, Honored Maplethorpe,” Jimson said. “It is quite a privilege to meet yourself and Honored Yin.”
“Please save the formality. This is an informal reception, we should talk as equals.”
“Thank you, sir,” Jimson said.
Oh, he’s slick, Tiphani thought, watching the kid. Hopefully he knows the undertext: yes, be comfortable, drop your guard, and we’ll just wait for you to tell us something you shouldn’t.
Honored Yin stepped forward to the Shrill, unable to hide a small frown of impatience. “Honored ambassador, I would like to personally welcome you to Winfinity Corporate Headquarters.”
The Shrill stopped for a moment, then bumped against the diamondoid. “Stated no conversation outside of (official) representatives,” it said.
Honored Yin looked back at Tiphani. “Yesterday,” Tiphani said. “In the crowd. We had some high managers try to address the ambassador.”
“They’ve already been reprimanded,” Yin said.
Tiphani went to the Shrill’s cage and placed her hand on it. “You may talk freely with these humans. They are our superiors.”
“No difference in construction noted,” the Shrill said.
Tiphani fought a smile. “I know it is difficult for you to understand our culture.
There are humans who have greater responsibilities than us. They are our superiors. They can tell us what to do.”
“Nonsensical. How is consensus (agreement) reached?”
“We accept direction from our superiors.”
“In case of same-status?”
“We meet and negotiate.”
“As we are doing today, honored Ambassador,” Honored Yin said. “We meet as equals, with hopes of discussing a mutually beneficial future for our two races.”
“Not equals. Humans more powerful (danger).”
“I’m sorry you feel that way. We’d like to work towards a mutual trade agreement that would help equalize any perceived imbalance.”
“Not yet discuss! Impatience (anger) no tour continue interesting now (singing).”
Yin shot a questioning look at Tiphani. Tiphani shrugged and shook her head. Subvocalizing through her Optilink interface, she sent a private message to Yin:
It doesn’t want to talk trade. It seems to want to understand us better first.
A PM came right back from Yin. Understood. Wanted to try at higher level.
“I am sorry, honored ambassador,” Yin said. “You have our welcome, and you may continue your tour.”
“Nonsequitur continuing now good (happy).”
“Thank you, ambassador.” Honored Yin bowed deep and rejoined their little group.
The Shrill banged hard against its cage, but said nothing.
“May I have a word with you in the other room?” Yin said, her eyes locked on Tipahni.
“Yes, Honored Yin.”
Yin took her to a small white cubicle with a gray desk and two hard chairs. Yin took a seat behind the desk and motioned for Tiphani to sit as well.
“This is an official review of the actions of yourself and your assistant, with reference to the time period of 10:20AM-2:32PM, August 6th, 2314. This review will be monitored and evaluated to ensure compliance with Winfinity Corporate Directives.”
Shit shit. “I was meeting with you. In the church.”
“And your assistant was performing unauthorized and dangerous experiments on the Shrill.”
“He didn’t know. He thought it was dead.”
“He knows a lot more than you think he does. Analysis indicates a knowledge of risk and calculated action.”
“I’m sorry, Honored Yin. Had I been there, I could have prevented the action.”
“You seek to implicate me?”
Tiphani’s heart pounded. For a moment, her vision went gray. Eventually, she was able to stammer out, “No, no, I just . . . I just . . . I wasn’t there.”
“Perhaps you should have arranged for more supervision during the time you were gone.”
“Yes. I’m sorry, Honored Yin.”
Honored Yin was silent for a long time. Tiphani could almost literally feel the weight of her cold, dead eyes. Finally she sighed. “It was a calculated risk which paid handsomely,” she said. “We now know ten times more about the Shrill than we did before this escapade. Although that does not excuse the action, it does salve it somewhat.”
“What did we discover?”
“That is not important here.”
Tiphani nodded. “What are you going to do?”
“Appropriate action in the absence of results would be the termination of Mr. Ogilvy and your demotion at least a full grade, if not down to High Manager.”
Tiphani let the silence stretch out.
“However, at this point in time, we are taking no action.”
She let out a breath. “Thank . . .”
“However, if the negotiations are unsuccessful, we may pursue at least one disciplinary measure outlined in our previous conversation.”
And I can guess which one that is, Tiphani thought. Jimson has proved himself smart and resourceful. They can always use him on a frontier world, where he can’t do much harm. In that environment, a smart, resourceful risk-taker could be very, very valuable. A Chief with a proven record of poor judgement isn’t worth very much, though.
“I understand, Honored Yin.”
Yin nodded. “Get the thing through its tour, so we can get started on the real work.”
“Yes, Honored Yin.”
When they walked back into the VIP reception area, Honored Maplethorpe and Jimson Ogilvy were sitting at one end of the couch, golden drinks in front of them, talking like two old friends. The Shrill pressed up against the side of its cage nearest them, almost motionless.
And so you don’t get the talk, Tiphani thought, looking at Jimson. Nice, nice, very nice.
“Ah, you’re back,” Honored Maplethorpe said. “Are you ready to meet the Original Sam?”
“I thought we had to go through prep, sir,” Tiphani said. “Winfinity history and milestones, Original Store protocol, and all that.”
“You already know it. I did a brief with the boy while you were gone.” He gestured at a screenwall showing video of the Original Store and the following timeline:
1962: Opens first Wal-Mart in Rogers, Ark.
1970: Stock first traded; 38 stores, sales $44.2 million, 1,500 employees.
1979: Fastest company ever to $1 billion in sales.
1990: Becomes nation’s No. 1 retailer.
2002: Ranked No. 1 on the FORTUNE 500 listing.
2018: Participation in the television show Winning Mars
2028: Sponsorship of Operation Martian Freedom
2029: Grand Merger with McDonalds to form Winfinity; announcement of the Great Deal (indentures) and replacement of government
2083: Acquisition of Spindle Drive technology
2088: Discovery of Las Vegas; founding of first Extrasolar Office; Beginning of Web of Worlds
2145: Web of Worlds encompasses 10 planets
2202: Web of Worlds encompasses 20 planets
2287: Web of Worlds encompasses 50 planets
“That’s not protocol, Honored Maplethorpe,” Tiphani said. “Won’t the Original Sam be upset if we anachronize?”
“I’m sure you’ll do everything you can to fit in,” Honored Maplethorpe said.
“And I’m sure you will provide proper guidance for your junior associate,” Honored Yin said, offering a thin smile.
In other words, press forward to the finish line before I die, Tiphani thought.
All speed, no matter what.
May 4th, 2009 / 1,197 Comments »