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Eternal Franchise, 14.1 of 31.1

Dian woke to the shuffle of feet and the rough prod of something she recognized immediately as a rifle barrel. She rolled over and looked up the length of barrel to the reflective lenses of combat-hardened stereo datovers. Past that to the three other grey-dressed men holding similar weapons. Noted, without surprise, the winged Win-Sec logos and barcodes emblazoned on their chests.

eternal-franchise“Diane Winter?” the lead man said, in a gravelly voice that resonated with years of yelled commands, screamed orders, cries of pain.

They found us, Dian thought. She felt suddenly weak. Things went gray. It took all her effort to hold herself up on the bed. She clung to consciousness, willing her thudding heart to keep her alert.

Maybe Lazrus would have a plan. He always had a plan. He would get them out of it, somehow. She twisted to look over at the other bed.

It was empty.

Empty.

For long moments, that thought was the only one her mind could encompass. Empty. They’d taken him already. Maybe outside and shot him. He couldn’t help her.

The only thing she had was her Winch on the nightstand. Maybe she could get a hand on it . . .

The Winch was gone, too.

Lazrus gone. Winch gone.

Terrible thoughts assembled. The image of Lazrus, cradling the gun, sneaking out in the night to leave her to Win-Sec . . .

No.

He wouldn’t do that.

He couldn’t.

Her eyes darted from Win-Sec agent to Win-Sec agent. None of them held the gun. Of course, they could have put it in a pocket, they could have . . .

No. Lazrus was gone. He took it.

Maybe he’d come back to rescue her.

No. Quit the fantasy.

“Are you Diane Winter?” the lead agent said, again. He sounded almost bored.

“Ye . . . yes,” she said. Not more than a whisper. Better to admit it all now. They might be easier on her.

“Also known as Dian Winning?”

Shit.

“Yes.”

“Will you come with us? We would like to ask you some questions.”

“About what?”

“Will you come with us?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“No.”

Dian almost laughed. This couldn’t be happening. There was no way this could be happening. A week ago, she was a valued Winfinity consultant. This week, she was a criminal.

Or was she?

“Why do you want to talk to me?”

The flicker of a smile. “I’m sure you know.”

“No. What have I done wrong?”

“Come with me.”

“You can’t just drag me off without charging me with something,” Dian said.

The smile disappeared. “Don’t be stupid.”

And what could she do, really? It didn’t matter. Nothing mattered, until she could talk to someone who could reveal what they knew.

You’re a smart person, she thought. You’ll get out of this.

She slid out of bed, ignoring the four pairs of eyes that tracked her underwear-clad body. One of them turned away, either fashionably antique or repelled by her slim Martian form. She bent down to pick up clothes. A rifle barrel stopped her.

“You’re going to take me down there like this?”

“Just don’t want you picking up a weapon, is all.”

“You already got my only one.”

Blank stares all around.

Oh, fuck that Lazrus asshole. Fuck him all to death! He did take off!

One of the soldiers picked up clothes and handed them to her. She shrugged them on, noting without surprise that she was donning the Winfinity fanboy outfit she’d worn in line two days before.

Oh, the irony.

They were efficient. They didn’t touch her at all. If she followed their directions, they let her walk by herself. If she was slow, a gun-barrel quickly corrected her.

A shining gray, black-tinted autotrans, bearing the winged Win-Sec logo took her to the tallest building in Winfinity City. She watched the sun rise through the autotrans’ tint, picking shards of gleaming orange light from the Gehry-planes of the huge structure. Car taillights painted red ribbons flowing into the structure, the first manifestation of morning rush-hour.

The barren highways leading out of the building seemed like an ugly reflection of her chances of escape. Dian’s dropped her head against the autotrans’ glass window, trying to remember if her father had an expression for hopeless situations like this.

But nothing came to mind. Mars wasn’t hopeless. It was never hopeless. You could always go farther into the Free areas if you didn’t like the growth of law and order. You could embrace one of the corporations and do your indenture and have your happy planned shiny life. You could just live below the radar, subsistence-like, solar power and tent-farms and a net-leech.

You just realized that a little too late.

There were many lessons dad wouldn’t tell her until she’d experienced them for herself, because he knew the telling was nothing, the knowing wasn’t important. The experience was the real teacher. And she had to do a lot of things for herself. That first love. Not running up the hills. Never wandering into the freebars, no matter how friendly they seemed towards children. She imagined herself going back to him now, and him shaking his head, saying, Of course you don’t try to trick the corporations, because even if they’re slow and dumb, they get you in the end. And when they get you, they’re angry. And those multiple little dirt roads into the future that seemed so unappealing turn into one superhighway to a place you don’t want to go, with no hope of return.

They landed on a midlevel deck and shuffled her into an office where grimy gray desks sat in front of grimy gray people. They took her picture and stamped her forehead with a barcode. She reached up and rubbed its warmth, wondering if it would come off.

“We can take it off,” one of the gray desk-jockeys said.

But not me, she thought. I can’t take it off. Her spirits sank lower and everything went gray for a moment.

Dian let them march her to a sterile little cell, gray-painted featureless walls and a single desk with two chairs.

Interrogation room, circa any year, Dian thought. She imagined she could smell the acid tang of fear, the sweat of deep unease that lingered from countless previous questionings.

Dian circled the room, not wanting to take a seat. Circled and circled.

Fuck that Lazrus, she thought. They were right. Don’t trust an AI. Never. For no reason.

Circled. Probably watched by countless embedded microscopic eyes, she thought.

The door opened. Dian expected to see another grey-jumpsuited agent with stereo datovers, but the person who stepped into the room surprised her. A slim woman, slim to the point of almost Martian fragility. White-blonde hair pulled back in a severe bun, wearing a form-fitting suit with a Winfinity corporate pin she didn’t immediately recognize. Someone high-up, she thought. Someone important. And somehow familiar. She’d seen her before. Somewhere.

Dian wondered for a moment if the new woman was Martian, but she didn’t have the height. Probably from Earth, where the Hollywood ideal still held sway.

Dian watched the new woman take a seat. She remained standing.

“Dian Winning?” the woman said, from the desk.

Dian crossed her arms. “Why am I here?”

“I think you know that.”

“Quit the fucking guessing games!” Dian said.

The woman’s expression didn’t change. “I need to ask you questions about your companion.”

Sudden rage washed her vision red. Dian felt her fists clenching. Fuck that Lazrus. Asshole! Fuck him!

“He left me.”

“We know. After some rather painstaking reconstruction of found media, I might add.”

Dian nodded.

“Did you know what you were harboring?”

Dian did her best to look confused. She shook her head.

“Yes you did,” the woman said. “Don’t bother. I’ve been granted some predictive algorithms for this interview. I can already tell you that you knew that this Lazarus, or Lazrus, whatever he calls himself, was an embodied AI. I can also tell you really meant us no ill-will. Though you have no loyalty to Winfinity, you’re not malicious.”

“If you can tell all that, why are you bothering with the questions?”

A quick smile. “Did you know Lazrus held a gun on me?”

Lazrus. But why would . . .

Memory exploded. Lazrus and her in the café. Watching the Shrill. The group it was with. The woman was one of the group.

What had Lazrus done? Had he, had he . . .

“He took the Shrill ambassador hostage,” the woman said. “After breaking into my room.”

Dian gasped. What kind of . . . why would he . . . she made her way over to the desk, collapsed into the chair.

“I can tell you don’t know his motives, either,” the woman said. “I’m Chief Sentience Officer Tiphani Mirate. You may address me as Tiphani, if you would like.”

Dian felt an irrational burst of gratitude towards this slim corporate woman. She fought it down. She told you her name because that’s what her optilink told her to tell you, because it would soften you up. She’s still an upper-level corporate bitch, and she’ll screw you at any chance.

“Actually, I’d like to see you freed,” Tiphani said. “I have your history. You were poorly treated by a division that got caught in a political battle. They should have paid you for your time. I doubt you’d be here if you’d been paid.”

Gratitude and warmth, infinite and overwhelming. Dian’s hands twitched, wanting to reach across the desk to touch this other woman, feel some kind of human warmth in the cold gray stinking room.

No! It’s an algorithm, nothing more!

But . . .

The look in Tiphani’s eyes wasn’t cold. Somewhere, deep down, this Chief understood. She knew what Dian was going through. She cared.

“What do you want to know?” Dian said.

“Where is Lazrus taking the ambassador?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why would he want to take the ambassador?”

“I don’t know that, either! He made some comments, some offhand things, about being in contact with the Shrill, about understanding it.”

Tiphani pursed her lips and her eyes went glassy. Probably reviewing optilink data, Dian thought.

“They are both network-native intelligences,” Tiphani said. “Though I don’t understand what Lazrus could want from the Shrill.”

“What’s going to happen to me?” Dian said.

“Why did you and Lazrus come to Winfinity City?”

“He . . . I . . . it’s stupid.”

“Oversight,” Tiphani said.

“You can see that with your algorithms?”

“We can piece it together from the fragments of your conversation we found. You’ve had a very good covering agent.”

“Lazrus did mention Sara. She’s supposed to be a CI. Uh, I mean artie.”

A quick smile. “It seems the Winfinity network is infested with more than one artie. We’re working on that, though. Why did Lazrus come to Winfinity City to find Oversight?”

“The old missile silo,” Dian said. “The datacenter. There was something there. I don’t know what. It said Oversight was on Mars.”

“We know you held tickets. Do you think he still intends to go to Mars?”

“He seemed very intent on Oversight. He thinks it’s his way to perfection.”

Tiphani smiled. “The old postmodern myths,” she said. “Even our arties aren’t immune to them.”

“What are you going to do to me?” Dian said.

“I don’t know. Cooperate with us and it will be better for you.”

“I am cooperating!”

Tiphani drummed her fingers on the table.

“Tell me,” Dian said. “Please.”

Tiphani looked at her for a long time. Her eyes were still, her face dead. Finally, she said, “It depends on if we get the ambassador back unharmed. At least, you won’t be contracting with Winfinity ever again. Which means you won’t be contracting for any corporate ever again. Which means you never make it to the outer planets.”

Dian shook her head. They even knew that. They knew everything!

“At worst, they’ll make you a perpetual indenture.”

Dian sighed. “That doesn’t sound so bad.”

Tiphani pursed her lips. “A pretty girl doesn’t want to be a perpetual indenture. There are very few consequences for her mistreatment.”

“Oh.”

“Do you have coordinates for this supposed Oversight on Mars?” Tiphani said.

“Yes,” Dian said. “No. I don’t remember. Lazrus mentioned them, though. I’m sure they’re in my datover store.”

Tiphani smiled. “They are. Good.”

“Tiphani . . .”

Tiphani held up a hand. Her eyes went glassy again. “Good. The arties say Lazrus is probably going to Mars. Most likely. Two sigma anyway. Good enough for us.” She stood up to leave.

Dian imagined the door slamming shut, leaving her in this tiny gray room with only her dark thoughts for company.

“What can I do to help?” Dian said.

“Are you a consumeristian?”

“No, not really.” But I can convert. I’ll convert right now if that gets me out of here.

“If you were, I’d tell you to pray they were on Mars. Since you aren’t, all you can do is hope.”

Tiphani went to the door. Paused. Looked back.

“I’m sorry,” Dian said.

“So am I.”

The door opened. Shut.

Dian put her face in her hands and cried.

#

Han Fleming knew about their lost advantage, even before Winfinity set their meeting in the highest meeting-room of the Winfinity Corporate headquarters.

They think to grind me into shards of dust between their hardened steel shells, he thought. But the entire weight of Winfinity resting on me may create a diamond instead.

When he walked into the room and saw them sitting, smiling, on one side of the big blonde-wood conference table, he smiled. Hands under the table could conceal anything, though he doubted Winfinity would go so wildwest on him. More likely a discreet entrance of a dozen Win-Secs, eager to drag him off to a cell where he would never be seen again.

Han smiled at them. His grand smile, as Disney’s own Pepetuals called it, biting in their allowed honesty. The frail Chief, Tiphani, whom he suspected held inner reserves of strength. The young grasper Jimson, sitting smug and smirking, scheming his next rung-grab. And of course the two shiveled Perpetuals, Yin and Maplethorpe, carefully pokerfaced.

“I take it you found our satellite.”

“We have purged much from our networks,” Yin said.

“I salute a worthy competitor,” Han said, bowing.

“Tell me why we shouldn’t kill you now.”

Han inched his smile a fraction more dazzling. “The mere fact you ask that question indicates your confidence in the true cleanliness of your network.”

Yin’s pokerface slipped fractionally, exposing raw hatred.

Ah, to be part of the old competition, raw and pure and clean, Han thought. None of this political thrust and parry. He was told that some smaller corporations far to the outside of the Web of Worlds employed their indentures for duels and other blood-sport; he imagined a duel between Perpetuals, the highest stakes, winner take all.

“We’ve destroyed your only satellite,” Yin said. “Of that we are certain.”

“Are you?”

“If you had another, you would have used it for a demonstration by now.”

“Would I?”

“Yes,” Yin said. “You would.”

Han kept his smile. But they knew. He had no great offensive weapons left. Not yet. But even with his fragmentary connection to the Four Hands datanet, he knew things that Winfinity didn’t. He hadn’t expected them to have an AI powerful enough to take out Black2, but the tiny pieces of Black2 that were left still fed data to the Four Hands net. He could look through and catch glimpses of where the Shrill was right now, on a tiny consumer can bound for Mars, creeping slowly through the void. His tenuous connection to Winfinity dataseeps told of their perfunctory questioning of the girl Dian, and their uncertainty as to the Shrill’s true destination.

“I should be furious that you questioned the suspect without me,” Han said. First feint.

“That doesn’t matter!” Yin said, standing up as if to lunge over the table at him.

“I should be further irritated because this whole affair stinks of Winfinity conspiracy, a plot to break a business relationship well-formed for the greater good of all humanity.”

“What are you saying?” Yin’s face was a deep, angry red.

“I’m saying that perhaps Winfinity considered me to be a burden, and thus engineered a way to remove the Shrill from my presence.”

“I can’t believe this accusation!”

“It would be a convenient way to end a business relationship you found incongruent to your goals.”

“Consider our business relationship to be . . .”

“I know where the Shrill is going,” Han said, softly.

Yin blinked. Silence around the table as the Winfinity contingent looked nervously at each other.

“We know where it is going, too,” Tiphani said, finally.

“You guess where it is going.”

“As do you.” Yin.

“No. I know.”

Yin’s eyes went dataglassed for a moment. “I don’t see how you can have any more specific information than we do.”

“They’re on a Westinghouse 04-011, bound to Mars by most efficient route, arriving with very little fuel for maneuvering.”

Silence. Four pairs of dataglassed eyes.

“How do you know this?” Yin asked.

Han smiled. “I believe I will continue to overbushel that brilliant light for a time.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’ll leave you to guess.”

“Why are you telling us?” Tiphani said.

Ah, a good question, an important question; she was sharper than the rest. Han could imagine a future with a woman such as that. At least for a time. She would make an excellent addition to his collection of wives back home. He turned the brightness of his smile to her.

“A Disney cruiser, Pluto, is well-positioned to intercept the consumer craft within the next fourteen hours.”

“A Disney cruiser in our space?” Yin screamed.

“Everything is shared space,” Han said. “You know the Grand Compact. The umbrella corporations are not about territory; they are about mindshare.”

“Not in the outer planets,” Tiphani said.

“I’m not interested in what happens on frontier worlds,” Han said. “This is Sol, where there are too many watchers to cheat.”

“Why not just take the Shrill for yourselves? Spindle out of here and go to Disneyworld?” Tiphani said.

“His ass,” Maplethorpe said. “He’s still sitting right here. And I’ll bet he’s a lot more important than just a Chief.”
Han just smiled at them.

“Consider our business relationship to be well in force,” Yin said.

“I never considered it to me anything but,” Han said.

August 22nd, 2009 / 1,470 Comments »



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