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Eternal Franchise, 12.1 of 31.1

Jimson still saw everything with halos and heard everyone speaking in tongues when their little group was allowed through the gate into Rogers, fifteen minutes before the city actually opened. The actual operation itself had been nothing, four painless injections of nanostuff into the spaces near his optical and auditory nerves. But he hadn’t had time to customize the optilink interface, so semitransparent smart tags still hung over every object.

eternal-franchiseAnd Rogers, for all its veneer of being a mid-twentieth-century town, was full of smart objects. As they boarded the bus that would take them on their short trip to downtown, his vision was overwhelmed almost to opacity.

The bus driver was heavily wired, not just optilink but with a sensor array as well. The bus itself. The seven simulacra that permanently inhabited the bus, giving it local color: two alcoholics, huddling close over a bottle wrapped in a rumpled paper bag; an ancient couple, happily showing their age, holding hands that had never seen even the most rudimentary antiaging treatment; the young engineer, coming into the city to take a surveying job with the local government, who would talk to you long enough that you might figure out he was not entirely real, according to the eval tag that hung above his head, and the young lovers, sitting stiffly erect on their seat right behind the driver, bright eyes burning with young love, clearly yearning for each other but unable to do anything more than hold hands under the watchful eye of the (human) driver.

All of them there to remind the visitors that this was no joke, this was real, this was the way it was, way back when the seeds of Winfinity were first planted. The scrim that rose behind them was a barrage of tags, position and reflectance and real-time performance stats, as well as the actual data it displayed. Surveillance at the bus stop displayed red security windows. The mailbox, similarly tagged. The Shrill’s explosion of data. Tiphani. Even the asshole from Four Hands, his darkly encrypted data fragmentary and tantalizing. Jimson had diverted some of it to his processing queue, reveling in his new level of access to the Winfinity corporate network. Not as much as Tiphani or the Perpetuals, maybe. But enough. He was smart.

The fastest transition from staff to manager in the history of Winfinity, he thought, cracking a wide grin.

What are you smiling at? Tiphani sent.

Just . . . unk . . . sh . . . crap . . .

Subvocalizing is probably the hardest thing to get used to, Tiphani said.

Jimson stuttered some more, then switched to the eyeboard and pecked out: TOO MANY TAGS IN FOV

I turned them off a long time ago, Tiphani said. Now they’re only ondemand.

SOME INTERESTING ONES ON ASSHOLE AND ON SHRILL.

Don’t refer to Han Fleming as an asshole. You may have won quick promotion, but they’re recording everything somewhere.

STILL ASSHOLE.

Suit yourself. If you want to turn off the tags, just go to your prefs and subvocalize – or type in – minimize smart object tags.

PREFER THEM ON. INTERESTING ACTIVITY.

Tiphani shrugged in realtime as they found their seats. She and Jimson sat on one side of the bus, Han Fleming on the other. The Shrill’s cage sat between them. The Shrill bumped, rather listlessly, against the side of the cage nearest Han. Jimson thought he recognized some of the same datastream tags on both Han’s and the Shrill’s bandwidth, and frowned. Han’s data was largely black.

Was he trying to communicate directly with the Shrill?

No. Nobody at Winfinity would be stupid enough to miss that, would they?

Would they?

Jimson captured a couple of the historic tags and sent them off to Honored Maplethorpe’s virtual address, but all he received was a generic out-of-contact reply. He thought of sending it off to Yin, but Yin scared him in a vague and indefinable way.

Oh, well, he’d flagged it. If he didn’t get a response from Maplethorpe by the end of the day, he might try Yin. Or he might not.

The bus rumbled to life, and sudden excitement swept away his doubts. Here he was, a Manager already, on Earth, in the most revered city in the Web of Worlds, getting ready to see the new Original Sam! His mom and dad would never believe it.

He’d had a roommate back in the university on Shoujo, a tall, thin blonde who went by the ancient name of Patty Hawthorne. They’d even been bedmates for a short while, until she told him she was only going to U for the knowledge, not for the corporate contacts or indentures. She actually wanted to forge her own path, make her own empire. He thought she was kidding, for a time. She came from one of the newest outer planets, Winning, where it was fashionable to pretend independence, even if you weren’t truly independents.

But she was serious. When she found him set on a long indenture to Winfinity, they ceased being bedmates, and their interactions turned brittle until the Win-Sec people came to investigate her alleged leeching. And then he was alone, blessedly alone, for the rest of the term.

But she had said one thing that rang true, one thing that stayed with him, all these years.

You make your own opportunities, she said. You can’t rely on anyone else. It’s all you.

And I have, he thought. I made my own opportunities. They just happen to be within Winfinity, rather than in an empire of dreams and fantasy.

It was a short drive to downtown. Jimson spent it practicing his subvocalization. And cursing.

The big white-and-red Wal-Mart building stood gleaming across the street from the bus stop, fresh-painted and new. The blacktop parking lot in front was deep black, with crisp white lines marking the spaces for the cars that would eventually park there. A large canvas “GRAND OPENING” banner was strung over the plate-glass windows. Within, the flickering greenish glow of old-time fluorescents competed with the reflected light of the early-morning sun.

Jimson looked back the way they had come. The road stretched off past smaller businesses and houses and cars to grassland beyond. If it wasn’t for the tags hanging over the scrim, the illusion would be seamless. He was back in the twentieth, the great and revered twentieth, from whence their greatest legends came!

When I’m a Director or a Chief, I’ll come back here, but I’ll rent a car and drive myself, so I can proudly take one of the parking-spots right in the front of the big display-windows.

They piled out of the bus and headed for the store. A big red “OPEN” sign hung on the doors. Behind them, the sounds of the converging tourists grew louder: the grumble of buses, the roar and clatter of Chevys and Fords and Plymouths. The town itself had started to wake up; an overalled man was opening the door to Tom’s Hardware, a woman pulled a grocery-cart towards The Corner Store, a man wearing a suit and tie and hat walked briskly down the sidewalk.

“I can’t believe you couldn’t hold the town closed for the meeting with the Ambassador,” Han Fleming said, his lip curling as if he didn’t like the smell of authenticity. He wore a blue chambray workshirt over a white t-shirt and jeans, but he didn’t look comfortable in them.

Jimson smirked. Suck it up, he thought. His white dress shirt and black tie weren’t the most comfortable things he’d worn, and his polyester slacks slicked his legs with sweat, even in the cool morning air. Tiphani’s severe blue dress didn’t look any better.

“Can’t do that,” Tiphani said. “The Original Sam might start behaving strangely if he doesn’t have the right input.”

“You can’t drop the charade, even for a moment?”

Tiphani frowned and pulled him aside, away from the entrance of the store. “It’s not a charade,” she said. “He really thinks this is 1962, and he really thinks this is the first day his store is open. You’ve been briefed. Stop playing.”

“But he’s human, right?”

“One hundred percent. Certified clone of Sam Walton. I don’t know how your corporate history works at the Disneys, but we’ve spared no expense in recreating this event. Sams are cloned and raised in realistic virtual environments that replicate the true-life experiences of Sam Walton, before being installed here. Winfinity Groundhog Day technology ensures that he thinks that every day is opening day.”

“So how’s he going to react to our friend here?” Han Fleming said, pointing at the Shrill.

“He’s been biased to see the Shrill as another person. They’re doing realtime interpretation to smooth some of the language difficulties.”

“So we can say what we want?”

“We should be very careful. They’re only compensating for the Shrill.”

“I’ll try.”

“Winfinity won’t be amused if you destabilize another Sam.”

A quick smile. “We can do worse.”

A 1957 Chevrolet, teal and cream with lots of chrome, pulled into a parking space near the front of the building. The Perpetuals inside goggled at the Shrill.

“Come on,” Tiphani said. “Let’s get our audience.”

They pushed through the big glass doors into fluorescent-lit antiseptic retail perfection. Big signs proclaimed “GRAND OPENING SALE” and “SPECIALS IN EVERY DEPARTMENT”. Stacks of chrome and glass kitchen appliances fronted the nearest aisle, surrealistically atomic-age. Jimson goggled at the merchandise, watching the RULES tag scroll:

RULE 1: REMEMBER, IT IS 1962. DO NOT USE ANY ANACHRONISTIC SPEECH OR GESTURES.
RULE 2: OVERT SEXUALITY IS NOT PERMITTED.
RULE 3: YOU WILL NOT ADDRESS THE ORIGINAL SAM IN A
MANNER THAT INDICATES THE REVERENCE IN WHICH HE
IS CURRENTLY HELD.
RULE 4: YOU WILL NOT TELL ANY RESIDENT OF ROGERS THE CURRENT DATE OR ANY OTHER INFORMATION THAT INDICATES
IT IS NOT 1962. MANY OF OUR PERSONNEL HAVE DEEPLY
EMBEDDED MEMES THAT MAY BE DISRUPTED BY THIS DATA.
RULE 5: YOU WILL BUY SOMETHING IN THE STORE.

A tall, thin, gawky-looking man wearing a striped shirt and an awkward blue tie walked towards them, beaming. His blue-on-white etched nametag read, simply, SAM.

“Welcome, welcome!” he said. “How are you fine folks doing this morning?”

“We’re fine, sir,” Jimson said, feeling almost faint. Here he was, standing in front of the Original Sam himself. He could see the razor stubble where the Original Sam had missed during his morning ritual, perhaps because he was so excited to be opening his first store. Did he perhaps have some intuition about how massive an enterprise he was starting? Could he have possibly known, somewhere, deep down, that this was the first day of an enterprise that would someday span fifty-three worlds?

Jimson looked deep in those friendly brown eyes, but he saw nothing. No secret knowledge. No straining for empire. Nothing more than an honest man, wanting to help people.

The Original Sam waved a hand. “We don’t need any of that sir stuff here, young man. Take a look around. You’re my first customers. If you don’t agree we have the lowest prices around, I’ll take another ten percent off.”

“Thank you, sir, that’s very generous,” Jimson said.

“Is there anything you’re looking for? I can show you around the store.”

Jimson looked down the long aisles to the back, where ancient televisions flickered in black and white and deeply flawed color. To have one of those for the centerpiece for the new apartment he could afford on a manager’s salary

“I’m looking for a television,” Jimson said. “I’m sure my friends have other things they’re looking for, though.”

“Ma’am?” the Original Sam said, looking at Tiphani.

“I’ll tag along with Jim,” she said.

“Your son? A fine boy?”

Tiphani’s expression hardened for an instant. “Yes, isn’t he,” she said.

“And your husband?” the Original Sam said, turning to Han Fleming and extending a hand. Han shook it, offering a sincere-looking smile.

“And your . . . daughter?” the Original Sam said, turning to the Shrill ambassador.

That’s some interesting mapping, Jimson thought, suppressing a smile.

“Yes,” Tiphani said.

“We have a great women’s section down the way,” the Original Sam said, pointing down another aisle. “Lots of pretty dresses, just in time for summer.”

“Nonsequitur nonsequitur,” the Shrill said. “This is ancestor (founder) of your past-time?”

Jimson sucked in his breath. He wished he had higher-level access. He might be able to read what they were feeding to the Original Sam. He noted, without surprise, that the Original Sam was one of the largest users of bandwidth in the area. He must have a high-access network installed to cover the occasional slip from a tourist and any glimpses he might get of hypersonics passing over Winfinity City.

“You are a pretty girl. I’m sure you’ll find something,” the Original Sam said, smiling down at the Shrill.

“You are (interesting) entity,” the Shrill said. “Haloed data preserved nonsequitur.”

“Thank you, young lady. Are you looking for anything special?”

“Seek longterm alliance (incorporation) (sharing) with entities understandable to Shrill.”

“I’m sure we have that color! Why don’t you and your mom run along and look at the clothes while the guys look at boring old television sets?”

“I think we’d . . .” Tiphani began.

Jimson elbowed Tiphani and sent: SEX BIAS GO.

You’re right, she sent, and pushed the Shrill off in the direction the Original Sam had indicated.

The Original Sam looked past them as a large group of tourists entered the store, wide-eyed and ready to shop. He put his hand on Jimson’s shoulder, still looking at the larger group. “Televisions are in the back, boys,” he said. “Yell if you need help.”

With a quick pat on the back, he hurried off to greet the new customers. Jimson turned to call after him, then stopped himself. Of course the Original Sam would go and help as many customers as he could. That was how he was. That was one of the things that made Winfinity great.

“Shall we go look at the TV sets?” Han Fleming said, smirking.

“Yes,” Jimson said. “Why not?”

They went and looked at the sets, showing ghosty, static-filled images of daytime soap operas of the period. A couple of sets were labeled with gaudy “COLOR” tags, but showed only black and white. Jimson puzzled over that, until the context-sensitive part of his optilink opened a window that explained they did not have a lot of color TV content in the Rogers area at the time the sets were sold.

He twiddled knobs and dials, changing channels and adjusting volume, reveling in the completely mechanical, totally analog feel of the controls. This was the real thing, painstakingly reproduced and working. He had to have one!

But his optilink shattered that notion: NOT FOR SALE, was the tag. It directed him towards small appliances and clothes. Han said nothing as he steered them back to the women’s section, where they caught sight of Tiphani and the Shrill, looking at wallpaper in a nearby aisle.

“Well, that was fast,” Tiphani said.

“Can’t buy them.”

“Oh.”

“How’s the Ambassador?”

“Surprisingly stable. I talked to it a little bit – you can review it in your POV – and it seemed to understand that this was a historical recreation, and that the Original Sam didn’t really see it for what it was.”

“Want eat now,” the Shrill ambassador said.

Tiphani paled, looking at other shoppers near them. They already had a hard time not staring at the Shrill.

“We have to,” Jimson said.

She nodded. He had the cage deliver a piece of meat and watched as the Shrill tore it up, spattering blood and chunks of steak on the transparent walls. Several of the other customers looked away. Han Fleming stepped forward and watched through the top of the cage, his mouth slightly open, his eyes wide.

In the end, Tiphani bought several rolls of wallpaper, using the paper bills and heavy silver coins they’d been issued. The checker thanked them with haunted eyes, looking away from the bloody Shrill cage.

At the door, the Original Sam greeted them again. “Did you find everything you needed?” he said.

“Yes, it was wonderful,” Tiphani said.

“No dresses for the pretty miss?” he said, standing right in front of the blood-spattered Shrill cage.

“Not appropriate understood,” the Shrill said.

“Well, goodbye, have a great day.”

“You too,” Jimson said, waving as they walked out the door.

Outside, the deluge of tourists was in full force. Beyond the rapidly filling parking lot, the bus disgorged an army of bright-eyed passengers intent on the Original Store. Passerby steered wide of the Shrill, but did not stop or comment.

“That was rather quick,” Han Fleming said.

“We had an impressive amount of time with the Original Sam, considering the number of customers he sees in a day.”

“Perhaps the Shrill Ambassador would accept our hospitality to see Mr. Roy Disney, the founder of our enterprise. It would have an entire day with him, if it wanted it.”

“Your Disney is aware of the current date,” Tiphani said. “I understand he is somewhat unstable because of it.”

Han’s expression clouded, and Jimson’s red flags made him step in. “Rules,” he said. “Let’s not fight. Please. Why don’t we go have lunch and talk like civilized people?”

“That’s the best idea I’ve heard all day,” Tiphani said.

“I agree,” Han said, sending a fake plastic smile to Jimson.

But Jimson just smiled back. The rules of engagement were my idea, he thought. You have to follow them. And if they result in us winning the secret of ageless life, how far can I rise?

They took the Shrill back to the main street and found a coffee shop, nearly deserted in the early-morning rush to the First Store. The only other patrons were an old man who sat sipping at a white ceramic mug of coffee and rattling his morning newspaper, and a couple who were talking in low tones at a table near the back. The old man had no optilink tags, so he was probably local color. The female half of the couple had no tags either, but her companion was chewing data like nothing Jimson had seen since the Shrill.

Jimson frowned as they took their seats, wondering if the man was Win-Sec surveillance. But surveillance was usually low-level Staff or Manager, and they probably didn’t rate optilinks, or the level of network access this guy was using.

The girl’s big green eyes flickered up at Jimson for a moment, and he thought he saw a hint of fear blossom there. She was tall and thin, pretty in an exotic way, like pictures he’d seen on the local nets of Martian beauties for hire.
Martian?

The guy sat with his back to Jimson, but he could tell he didn’t have the Martian build. His broad shoulders and nondescript height put the lie to that.

A Martian tourist, and a Win-Sec deep-cover op?

No, that didn’t make sense. That didn’t make sense at all.

The man turned to take a quick look at their party, that quick sizing-up that people did when they were unsure of their place. He flashed the beginning of a smile, but his gaze stopped at the Shrill’s bloody cage. His eyes didn’t widen, though. He just looked at the cage. And looked. And looked. The woman said something to him, and he turned back to her, quickly, jerkily. There was something deeply wrong with the way he moved, but Jimson couldn’t quite place it. The strange man’s bandwidth use flared, for a moment slowing the local net.

Enough access to slow the local net. How powerful was he? What was he?

Jimson masked his confusion with a bright smile to the pretty girl, and looked down at his menu. Tiphani and Han Fleming talked to the Shrill in low tones, but he ignored them, wondering about the strange man.

Should he approach him? Should he send another note to Maplethorpe?

No, not yet. But he could get their tags and track them. The woman’s tag read Diana Winter. The man’s tag read Lazarus Turnbull. He flagged their personal IDs and turned his attention back to the conversation.

The waiter appeared. He smiled down at the Shrill, still brightly crimsoned with blood. “I see one of you has already eaten,” he said. “For the rest of you, what’ll it be?”

#

July 25th, 2009 / 1,158 Comments »



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