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Eternal Franchise, 11.1 of 31.1

CHAPTER ELEVEN

“You look like shit,” Dian whispered. “Fidget. Look around. Smile. Act excited.”

eternal-franchiseLazrus, deep in conversation with Sara, refocused his attention on external sensors. The line stretched in front of them for almost a hundred meters, disappearing into a bright red-and-white shack that was the entrance to Rogers. On either side of the shack rose scrims that reflected back the chrome towers of Winfinity City.

He turned to look behind him. The couple behind them, a High Manager and a Director, dressed in gaudy yellow running-suits with white racing stripes down the sides, smiled back at him. Beyond them, the line stretched at least another two hundred meters, people mainly brightly clothed in expensive reproductions of fashions three hundred years dead.

He tried to return the couple’s smile and leaned down to Dian to whisper back, “It’s hard not to look like an idiot, wearing what we are.”

Dian smiled. “Isn’t it great to be here!” she said, in a normal tone of voice. “I just wish they’d open.”

“We’re just going to have to take it off, anyway,” Lazrus said.

“Shh,” she said. “Blend. Or at least try.”

Lazarus had followed her advice to go deep into Winfinity-fan zone. They both wore reproductions of turn-of-the-21st Winfinity salesperson outfits, blue vest over white shirt, bright red Always! button prominently displayed, a couple of other buttons that said, Employee of the Month and Ask me about our specials! Lazrus chafed under the rough polyester pants, but she was right. They had no Winfinity pins, not even Staff, definitely not Manager or Director. The only way they’d get away with not having pins was in a costume that demanded authenticity. Winfinity fan-boy was it.

You do look like an idiot, Sara said. In Winfinity City, her voice was dull and compressed, and she showed no image. Hiding in the cracks of the bandwidth, not daring to use too much. Doubly so, standing next to that human.

What time is it? Lazrus asked.

What am I, your watch?

Lazrus rolled his eyes and polled his internal clock. Ten-seventeen. And the line wasn’t moving.

Can you check and see why they aren’t opening, Sara?

Oh, sure, waltz around in their network and get us all discovered. I’ve pulled all my favors getting you into the queue without Prep. Not to mention the autotrans. Or the persona-scrub and the commercial flight that got you here. You’re racking up quite the list of owe-mes.

I know, Lazrus said, reminding himself to move.

Dian laid her head on his shoulder, as if they were lovers, and whispered, “Why aren’t they opening?”

“I just asked. Sara doesn’t know.”

“Ask her to . . .”

“There’s a limit to her favors.”

“Do you think it’s us?”

Lazrus shook his head. “I don’t think so. There hasn’t been a lot of network activity in general. I don’t have a bandwidth problem. It’s things tagged as non-Winfinity, like Sara.”

Oh, so I’m a thing now. See if you get any more favors, like ever.

Sara . . .

Don’t bother.

A souvenir-seller strolled slowly by, nodding at Lazrus and Dian’s Winfinity uniforms. He wore much the same uniform, except his had been customized with hundreds of little buttons that were printed with various expressions from the 20th and 21st centuries, things like Keep on Truckin, and I Only Date Men Inferior to Me Because That’s All There Are and Remember the Alamo and Have a Nice Day. On his cart were other items: shrink-wrapped reproductions of children’s toy guns, cigarettes, MP3 players, cassettes, inflatable cash-registers.

“Morning, sir, ma’am,” he said, stopping next to them. “You are impressive fans. Interest you in any high-quality authentic reproduction souvenirs to mark the time you spent here?”

“I’m sorry, no,” Dian said.

“For the children?”

Dian looked at Lazrus. He could see she was fighting down nervous laughter.

“The Trinity has not yet blessed us with children,” Lazrus said. “But let’s look at what you have.”

The souvenir-seller looked quizzically at Lazrus.

Hearing the off-cadence of your words, Sara said. You’re probably not moving your face right, either. Smile!

Lazrus smiled, and watched a similar expression bloom on the souvenir-seller’s face as monetary potential was assessed.

They ended up with a pair of very realistic children’s weapons, a carton of cigarettes (guaranteed real tobacco, guaranteed carcinogenic), a lighter, and a reproduction of the first Winfinity Logo.

“What are you going to do with that crap?” Dian said.

“Look like a tourist.”

“Smartass.”

“Obsolete slang won’t hurt me.”

“It’s not obsolete on Mars.”

“Nevertheless.”

His clock showed it to be 10:30. The line had lost its definition. People spread out, craning their necks, trying to see if the shack was open, trying to see why. A murmur rose, still confused and hurt, but edging towards anger.

“It’s us,” Dian said.

“No,” Lazrus said. Seeing the fear in her eyes, he asked Sara, Can you help?

Wait, Sara said. They just announced.

What?

New Sam. They’re installing a new Sam. Old one retired unexpectedly. Closed today. Open tomorrow.

“New Sam!” someone cried out, deep towards the front of the line.

“Sam!” “New Sam!” “Great new Sam day!” “Yeah!” Expressions of joy filtered through the crowd as the news was delivered on their optilinks or datovers.

“Oh,” Dian said. “Just our luck.”

“Look happy,” Lazrus said. “New Sam! Yeah!”

“Yeah!” Dian said.

Something odd, Sara said.

What?

Sams usually last ten to fifteen years. This one’s only been installed for three years, seven months.

So there was a malfunction.

It is deeply off the short side of the bell curve.

What does it mean? Lazrus said.

I don’t know, and I don’t have any favors to pull.

Slowly, the line dispersed, forming random groups that swaggered off to bars for an early-morning toast to the New Sam. Dian and Lazrus got caught up in one of the groups and was swept into one of the seven hundred Cheers franchises in Winfinity City. Luckily, the group was big enough that they were able to sweep themselves out the back door before the bartender or any of the regulars noticed them. As deep fans, they’d be the first approached, as the franchisees tried to salvage any tiny hint of celebrity they might have.

In the chrome-plated serviceway behind the bar, Dian laughed. After a few moments, Lazrus joined her.

#

Lazrus looked amazingly, well, normal, Dian thought. In a 1960’s-style plaid shirt, unbuttoned at top to reveal a white cotton t-shirt, and worn khakis, he looked just like a character out of a program from the dawn of television. His stiff manner and slightly off-norm expressions seemed more like the struggles of a mediocre actor trying to perform under hot lights and in real-time for a live audience than the truly alien thing that he was.

Turn the world black and white, and he would fit right in, Dian thought. I could watch him on a screen that was three and a half centuries old and accept him as real.

She was less fortunate. Her pale-yellow sundress was unfamiliar and strange. She’d never worn anything that was open at the bottom, and rustled and tangled in unexpected ways. She kept waiting for the wind to blow it up and reveal all for anyone who wanted to see. And the strange things they used for bras back then! Her breasts looked like the two missiles of the era, and felt about as hard.

When did they ever believe this was a natural shape for a woman’s chest? She wondered, looking down at the two nose-cones poking at the synthetic yellow fabric.

They were nearing the scrim that separated Winfinity City from Rogers. Reflected images of them shimmered in the fabric, dark and dancing, like something seen in a not-quite-still pool. The small movements of the fabric made the reflected skyscrapers of Winfinity City dance, and the darkness around them alive with motion. Dian looked around, but could see only a broad concrete plaza where nothing moved. Still, she shivered, imagining a hundred cameras on them, a thousand Win-Secs ready to pounce.

“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Dian said.

“What is ‘this’?”

“Sneaking in here at night, instead of waiting until tomorrow morning.”

“Their security is focused on the installation of the New Sam, and their bandwidth has ramped up considerably,” Lazrus said. “Sara says this is an unprecedented opportunity for us to be in and out before we have to manage perceptions of the other tourists.”

“In and out before sunup.”

“Right.”

“Then why are we wearing these stupid clothes?”

“As a precaution that we won’t be out before sunrise.”

“That’s comforting.”

“Yes, I imagine it would be,” Lazrus said.

“I was being sarcastic.”

A quick smile. “I know.”

Soon they stood in front of the scrim. Like a funhouse mirror. Lazrus darted a look around the plaza. Dian followed his gaze. They were alone.

“You sure they can’t see us?”

“Sara is busy ensuring they can’t. Here, hold both sides of the scrim.”

Dian tried to grasp the fabric, but she couldn’t grip it. It was stretched too tight. Lazrus also tried and failed.

He shook his head. “Just press on it. The important thing is to keep it from reattaching after the cut.”

Dian pressed the fabric taut, looking at the distorted reflection of her face. Her normally thin face was pulled round and full, her eyes stretched into slits. It was something you’d see carved into a pumpkin at Halloween, hundreds of years ago.

Why am I here? she wondered. Why don’t I leave?

Because you’re too deep in, she thought. Take away Sara’s protection and you’re an unpinned, unindentured nobody in the middle of the biggest Winfinity convention there was. You don’t want to find out what that means.

Lazrus slit the fabric with a tiny blade, drawing up between Dian’s outstretched hands. There was a tiny shirring noise and she tumbled through the fabric onto soft grass. She pushed herself up on hands and knees.

In front of her was the back of a small house, white-painted, with a dark porch. A kid’s swing-set rose in front of her, painted in bright colors that had gone pastel in the darkness. A low fence separated the small house from its neighbors, which stretched in a row into the darkness. Through the gap between the houses, she could see the dim yellow glow of an old-time streetlight and a paved road. Hulking cars from the 1950s and 1960s were parked on it.

She turned to see Lazrus stepping through the scrim as the fabric tried to zip itself up. He stumbled on the healing fabric and was almost caught in the middle as the top seam raced down to meet the bottom. It grabbed at his foot and he went headlong into the grass, right next to Dian.

“Graceful,” she said, as the scrim closed itself up.

Lazrus just frowned at her.

On this side, the scrim displayed images of fields stretching off into dark infinity. An unseen moon hung over them, painting the grass in shades of gray and black. On this side, the image was much more stable. The grass moved slowly and realistically in time with the breeze, and the stars on the horizon were stable and fixed.

Lazrus saw her looking at the scrim. “They’re spending all their processing power on this side,” he said.

“Compensating for the movement. So it’s more realistic. They’re also pumping the bandwidth here, too.”

“Who’s in all these houses?” she said.

“Nobody,” Lazrus said. “Or somebody. Hard to tell what’s inhabited or not. Winfinity doesn’t keep good records of their actors, except for compliance to historical norms.”

“So people could be in any of these houses?”

“Yes. They could be walking around, too, though that’s not likely. Not in this era. Not after midnight.”

“Are you sure this is a good idea?”

“Yes,” Lazrus said, his voice full of machine assurance.

“Oh . . . kay . . .”

The streets of Rogers were silent and still. As they walked deeper into the time-capsule town, the only sound was the fading hum of Winfinity City. They tried to stay off the roads, but fences and overgrown backyards slowed them down. They took to the sidewalks, looking up nervously at the ancient incandescent streetlights. But no lights flicked on in any of the houses that they passed, no fist-shaking occurred, nothing. Dian once thought she saw a shadowy figure sitting in the darkness that gathered under a deep front porch, lit only by the glow of a cigarette. But then they were past it, and she looked back and saw nothing.

After a time, it was easy to imagine that they had stepped into a time-machine and been transported back into the early 1960s. Except for the glow of the Winfinity towers rising above the scrim, the illusion was perfect.

The hiss of tires on pavement and the grumble of an ancient internal-combustion engine sent them scrambling into the side-yard of an overgrown house that looked like something out of a horror novel. Dian dodged branches and went to ground just as the car drove past.

It was a police cruiser, an anonymous lump of late-50’s iron painted white and black, with a huge chrome spotlight coiled on the passenger side like some alien lifeform waiting to strike. Its headlights painted the darkness with a feeble glow. Inside, she could see the profile of a pudgy face and the outline of a jaunty police-hat. As he passed under the streetlight, light-spill gave her a momentary view of a blank face, staring straight ahead into the night. The cruiser coasted through the stop-sign that guarded the deserted intersection and proceeded on, not doing more than 10 miles per hour. He left behind the reek of hydrocarbons, only partially burned.

I didn’t know they went for such realism, Dian thought. But she should have known. Apply infinite money to a trivial problem, and it mutates in interesting ways, her father always told her. And Winfinity did have near-infinite money. She imagined teams of researchers analyzing hundreds of old engines, to determine just the right amount of inefficiency to build into their fanatically-detailed models.

Suddenly it wasn’t a time-machine trip; it was a tour of an obsessive mind, frightening in scope and depth. She wished nothing more than to be out of here, to go to the outer planets and be done with it.

“You’ll get a chance to leave soon enough,” Lazrus said, as they were exiting the yard.

“How’d you know what I was thinking?”

“Inference algorithms,” Lazrus said. “Just like the ones that the higher-level corporates use. The bandwidth is really ramping up here. I forgot how much of myself I had to leave behind.”

“Well, don’t use them on me.”

“I just wanted you to know we were almost there.”

“How close are we?”

“A few more blocks.”

They entered the outskirts of the business district. A small market, a hardware store, a toystore, and a café huddled on one side of the street, shuttered and dark for the night. Dian hurried past them, imagining eyes behind the plate glass.

The businesses gave way to a vacant lot that hosted the Towne Faire Carnival. A gaily-painted Ferris wheel, pastel in the moonlight, was bookended by a Tilt-A-Whirl machine and a bumper-car track. Other rides hid, like strange arachnoid forms, behind them. A large tent, painted in gaudy colors, advertised:

THE AMAZING FREAKS OF THE TOWNE
COME ONE! COME ALL!
ONLY 25 CENTS
GUARANTEED AMAZING!

Beyond the Towne Faire Carnival, the back of the Original Store was lit. Period trucks huddled in the weak yellow light behind the building, and a roll-up door was open, showing rows of boxes and palettes. There were no people to be seen, but Dian pointed it out to Lazrus anyway.

“I see it,” he said.

“Don’t tell me that your Oversight is under the Original Store.”

“No,” he said. “As far as I can tell, it’s under that tent,” he said, pointing at the freakshow.

“Figures,” Dian thought. It was less than a hundred yards from the back of the Original Store.

“You can wait for me here, if you’d like.”

Thoughts of the police cruiser and the dead-faced man came back. No. Thanks. She didn’t care how original they looked, underneath they were just actors. And citizens of this century. And Winfinity staff.

“I’m coming with you.”

Lazrus smiled. “I figured as much.”

They climbed the fence and made their way past the ancient machines to the tent. In front was a door, with an open padlock dangling from a simple slide-lock. Lazrus unhooked the lock and opened the door.

“They were expecting us,” Dian said, nodding at the lock.

“Don’t be nervous.”

“Right.”

Inside was as black as a Martian mine, and Dian was glad that she’d brought her microflash from back in Washington. Hooding the beam, she cast it on the floor as Lazrus drew the door closed.

Cages rose in front of them, their painted bottoms bright in the muted light of the flash. In the cages . . .

She had to stifle a scream. The flash jerked up and the beam touched the fabric of the tent. Lazrus grabbed her hand and jerked the beam down, accidentally switching the flashlight off.

“Don’t panic!” he said.

They were alone in the room with things! In the dark! The memory of what she’d just seen was burned into her retinas. She imagined them opening their cages, slipping out, and coming for them in the dark.

She tried to thumb on the flash, but Lazrus’ grip was too strong.

“Calm down,” he said. “They’re fake. Silicone and metal.”

“How do you know?”

“No body heat. They’re at ambient temperature.”

“But they might be . . . might be . . . that might be the way they are . . .”

“No.”

Slowly, she relaxed her grip. Winfinity wouldn’t go so far as to make real freaks, would they? Would they?

Lazrus let go. She hooded the light and turned it on.

Terrible things still slumped in the cages. The one nearest them was billed in gaudy letters as The Snake-Boy. His scaly skin had flaked off onto the wood floor of the cage, like huge dandruff. She could see where some of the green dye that the carnies had used to enhance his appearance had rubbed off. His head, pointed like aliens from an ancient movie, lay near the bars. He was nothing more than an animatronic of a pinhead with a skin condition.

She forced herself to reach through the bars and touch it. For a moment she thought it felt warm under her fingers. Then it was cold, the cold of silicone unheated.

“You see?” Lazrus said.

She nodded, shining the light down as far away from the other cages as possible. “Where is your Oversight?”

“According to the GPS, that exhibit is virtually on top of it.”

She looked at the snake-boy again. “This one?”

“Yes.”

Dian peeled back the fabric rill that encircled the raised wooden bottom of the cage and shone the flash inside. In the center, there was a dark hole with thick cables snaking down into it.

“Looks like Winfinity might have already found it,” Dian said.

Lazrus frowned. “Sara says there’s no record of this excavation on the books.”

Dian looked at the haphazard positioning of the freak cages and grinned. She imagined bored Winfinity indentures finding this and deciding not to fill out the forms, at least for a while.

“I hope they haven’t started restoration,” Lazrus said.

“I don’t think we have to worry about that,” Dian said, crawling under the cage. A mundane aluminum ladder glinted in the dark hole.

“What does that mean?”

“If they were restoring, they’d shut the whole tent. Or put up billboards and charge more. Somebody found this, somebody low-rank, and decided not to tell their superiors.”

“I hope they haven’t disturbed anything,” Lazrus said.

Dian shrugged and shone the flash down into the hole. The ladder went down about eight feet to a metal platform. To one side of the platform was a gleaming steel door, hanging open.

“Be glad they found it,” Dian said. “We would have never had time to do this dig.”

“I hope it’s all intact.”

Dian stepped onto the metal ladder and started down. “Stop worrying,” she said.

Lazrus nodded and followed he.

July 11th, 2009 / 1,160 Comments »



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