Less than an hour after the meeting with the Four Hands asshole, Jimson’s optilink lit up with a request for an immediate meeting with Honored Maplethorpe.
As he hurried through the sterile halls, Jimson’s mood fluctuated from elation to foreboding. The Shrill was lost. At least for the moment. They couldn’t ignore that fact. Or could they?
Demotion, he thought.
Promotion, he thought.
Or – suddent enlightenment – a special assignment. Maintain his rank by proving his worth. Perhaps they would send him by fast courier to intercept the Shrill ship before Disney. But could a fast courier make it there in, what, twelve hours? The logistics, deployment, everything seemed a bit tight. Jimson called up stats on fast couriers on his optilink. Able to make the Mars-Earth run in 52 hours at current positions. But the accel . . . the figures slipped and danced. It might be possible. Might.
He held onto that thought as he entered the meeting-room. A single desk, shiny white, with Honored Maplethorpe’s darkness bulking behind. Jimson tried to read hints of the future in his expression, but his pokerface was perfect.
“Honored Maplethorpe, Jimson Ogilvy reporting as requested.”
“Sit down.” Expressionless.
“Thank you, Honored Maplethorpe.”
Silence. Honored Maplethorpe looked at him. Not through him; his eyes weren’t glassy with data. Just looked at him. Jimson felt as if he was being weighed and measured. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling.
“Losing the Shrill has attracted attention at the highest levels,” Honored Maplethorpe said.
“Attention? Honored Maplethorpe?” Jimson fought to keep his voice from rising to a squeak.
“From the CEO.”
“Which CEO, Honored Maplethorpe?”
Shit. Jimson saw his life’s dream-castle melting into a puddle of wax.
“I will do anything I can to help make it right,” Jimson said. “No matter what difficult assignment you have for me, I will carry it through, Honored Maplethorpe.”
“Your assignment may be only patience.”
“I was thinking I could go by fast courier . . .”
“No. No more games. We are entwined with Four Hands now. There is no undoing.”
“What are you going to do to me, Honored Maplethorpe?” Back to Staff, no doubt, Jimson thought. Which was terrible enough in itself. People who were demoted were never selected to be Perpetuals. It was something that wasn’t listed in any datastore, but the records were clear. Map the work-record of any Perpetual, and none of them had ever been demoted. Many were the silver-spoon variety, but there were examples of less fortunate souls working their way up the ranks.
Up. Not down. Never down.
Unless they cleaned the records, Jimson thought. Maybe that was it. Maybe Perpetuals were actually demoted from time to time, but the records were cleaned to make them seem more perfect. Idol-polishing. Yes, that could be it. It was possible.
“We are demoting you to Indentured for an additional five years,” Maplethorpe said. “Although stellar performance may reduce this time by half. Following that, you will have a chance to ascend to Staff and Managerial levels as per Winfinity charter. We cannot remove your optilink, but its function will be disabled.”
No. Indentured. Back to Indentured. This couldn’t be happening. It wasn’t possible! Jimson fought the urge to lunge over the desk and throttle Maplethorpe. No. He was only the messenger, only the messenger, he said it came from on high.
“I’m sorry, Jimson,” Honored Maplethorpe said, as the silence stretched out.
Retain what you can, Jimson told himself.
“May I request the courtesy of remaining Tiphani’s attaché, Honored Maplethorpe?”
“No. You will have no further contact, even incidental, with the Shrill. This from the top. I cannot change it.”
Jimson’s optilink tags faded away. A brief message told him that his access had been denied. Jimson squeezed his eyes shut as the reality of his loss fell on him, like a towering lead statue. It was real. They were taking him down. He would never be a Perpetual! With a mark like that on his record, it might be a decade or more before he was Manager. After his indenture.
A Manager at forty-five. The thought ripped through his mind, tearing apart years of conditioning and structure. And then a more terrible thought: or a Manager not at all. Ever.
“What is my assignment, Honored Maplethorpe?”
“Given your specialization in Sentience, the logical assignment would be support of research into the Floaters on A. Centauri.”
Yes, it would. Boring as it was. The Floaters were well-known. They had nothing for humankind. They couldn’t internalize the idea of other intelligent individuals, let alone intelligent races. “Thank you, Honored Maplethorpe.”
“You have the Spindle Drive fare to A. Centauri, then?”
“Fare? Honored Maplethorpe?”
“You’re an Indentured again. You don’t expect Winfinity to expense your transport, do you?”
Shit. Shit shit. Jimson tried to poll his optilink, got nothing.
“Here,” Honored Maplethorpe handed him a datover.
“Thank you, Honored Maplethorpe.” He slipped it on, ignoring the large number of blinking red restricted icons, and accessed his account, querying it relative to the cost of an A. Centauri fare.
Current accessable accounts: 55.7K Winfinity Credit Units or 23.2K Universal Credit Units. Non-Lux fare on Winfinity liner, 122K Winfinity Credit Units.
But A. Centauri was just a hop away! The closest star! Why was it so expensive?
“No development there,” Honored Maplethorpe said. “Not many flights. Hence the price. However, if you want to finance the difference through your Indenture, I think it is likely that Winfinity Credit would cover you.”
And have a bill greater than twice my annual wage as Staff when I’m out of Indenture? And another Spindle fare to pay if I don’t want to be stuck on a geek outpost the rest of my life?
Anger exploded in Jimson. Tiphani’s head should be the one that rolls, not mine! She was the one who was dallying with me, instead of protecting the Shrill. She should have had guards and weapons, not a Staff – uh, Manager – pretty-boy!
But the heads that roll are never the top, Jimson thought. Never.
And justice is served.
“If I remain here, what is to be my assignment, Honored Maplethorpe?”
“There is no real call for Sentience specialists on museum Earth, I’m afraid,” Honored Maplethorpe said.
“What about arties? You have arties here.”
Maplethorpe frowned. “Arties are a myth.”
“I know they’re real! An artie abducted the Shrill!”
More furrowing of the brow. “Honored Maplethorpe.”
“Yes, sorry, Honored Maplethorpe.”
“It is interesting that you believe these rumors. Especially at an Indentured level, where you should never have heard them.”
But everyone knows, Jimson thought. Everyone on Shoujo knew. It was an open secret. You can’t hide it.
“What will be my assignment if I remain, Honored Maplethorpe?”
“There are minor clerical and assistant-level positions available within the city. Or, if you would like slightly more autonomy, acting within Rogers is an option.”
Washing Directorial feet versus being brainwashed into thinking it was 1962. Maybe it was better to take the debt and go with the geeks on A. Centauri.
“Must I decide now, Honored Maplethorpe?”
“Let HR know within 48 hours. There’s a direct link on your datover.”
“Thank you, Honored Maplethorpe.” The words tasted like acid and bile.
Honored Maplethorpe stood. “Your Manager’s pin, please.”
Jimson fumbled it off his shirt with numb fingers. It almost dropped on the slick white table. He handed it to Maplethorpe. Their hands touched for a brief instant. It was like touching warm granite.
“Goodbye, Jimson,” Honored Maplethorpe said.
Jimson pushed out of the meeting room and stumbled down the hall, ignoring the strange looks of Staff and Managers. He needed to get back to his own room in the Hi-Lux suites, the room he’d never slept in. He would sleep on it, and think on it, and decide in the morning. It wasn’t time yet to absorb this.
He queried directions to the suite on his datover. It told him:
GUEST JIMSON OGILVY HAS ALREADY CHECKED OUT. NEW RESIDENCE WINFINITY INDENTURED DORM #307, WINFINITY CITY SUBURB OF STRIPTOWN. FORWARDING DIRECTIONS.
No. This couldn’t be happening.
Jimson saw all his classmates back on Shoujo, laughing at him. You can grasp for the ring, they said, but you can’t hold it if you aren’t worthy.
I am worthy! I just got caught in a power-struggle!
But the ghosts of his classmates said: Worthies do not get caught in politics.
Jimson stopped and leaned against a wall. His emotions flared from red anger to gray collapse and back again. There had to be a way out of this. Had to be. Had to be.
Jimson eyetyped Tiphani’s Chief-level access code into the datover, holding his breath, hoping she hadn’t changed it already. Hoping she’d entirely forgotten.
No. Wait. The sequence was wrong. He switched two digits, scanned it again, forcing clarity.
WELCOME CHIEF TIPHANI MIRATE. DO YOU WISH REMOTE ACCESS TO ALL FUNCTIONS FROM THIS DATOVER?
Jimson blinked at the YES button. The red restricted-access icons blinked off, and the field of view of the datover expanded twofold.
Another thought struck.
IS IT POSSIBLE TO REROUTE REMOTE ACCESS TO JIMSON OGILVY’S OPTILINK, WINFINITY ID # 454-56-78743?
A pause. Jimson crossed his fingers.
Datatags bloomed in his vision as the optilink went active again.
Jimson fought an urge to pump a fist into the air in triumph. You don’t know how long this will last, he thought. They might figure this out anytime.
And when they figure it out, what will be your punishment then? Jimson shivered, remembering stories of perpetual indenture. Maybe he should just close the window and hope they never noticed.
But they always notice. They always catch up.
A new thought, sudden and powerful: You have a small window, and it is closing.
Infinite vistas exploded in his mind. He saw himself intercepting the Shrill and coaxing the secret to immortality out of it himself. He saw himself an independent Emperor, dispensing eternal life at a whim.
But how to get the secret? There would be study. And perhaps even dissection, if the Shrill didn’t want to cooperate. He needed a place to hide, somewhere off the corporate screens. And even if the fast courier ship would get him there, it wasn’t a Spindle ship. It wouldn’t get him to the edge. Or into independent space.
Free Mars. That was it. The crazies there. They were supposed to be allied with the Independents. They certainly had no problem keeping a cloak over their activities.
Jimson smiled as a plan unfolded.
You make your own opportunities, he thought. No matter where they may be.
Tiphani sat, straight and nervous, in a meeting-room with a large wallscreen. Flanking her were Honored Maplethorpe and Honored Yin. This was supposed to be good news, but she couldn’t lose the nagging thought, First Jimson, now me.
“We’re sorry about Jimson,” Honored Yin said.
“I suppose I am equally to blame,” Tiphani said.
“No. We won’t talk of it. It could be that we were too overzealous in his promotion.”
“He did show much promise,” Honored Maplethorpe said.
Honored Yin waved a hand. “We’re here for good news, not to postmortem the past. You’ll be excited to know there is a Consumeristian tent-revival ship, the Holy Saleschannel, which can reach the Shrill ship before Disney’s Pluto.”
“I thought Consumeristianity was corporate-neutral,” Tiphani said.
Yin smiled. “We’re going to try to pursuade them otherwise. I’ve already sent a brief. Now we’re going to talk to the Preacher for a bit.”
On cue, the screen brightened, showing a thickset, dark-haired man wearing old-fashioned horn-rimmed spectacles that alternately revealed and hid friendly blue eyes. His purple velvet suit flashed sequined trim at the camera-eye, and his embroidered tie showed part of a scene from an alternate Trinity: cityscape where the Producer was raising clean modern factories where slums once stood, Consumers with hands reaching up to said factories, the Holy Franchise embodied as the spirit of Ronald, smiling clown-face beaming down from the heavens as a white-gloved hand reached down to touch the factory.
Behind the preacher, a mock-organ gleamed in mellow brass tones. Muted sounds of a choir came echoing from deep within the ship.
“Preacher Dave Thomas, thank you for taking the time to talk with us,” Honored Yin said.
“Thank you, Honored Yin. Your deep and heartfelt belief is well-known within the church. I will always do you the honor of conversation.” His diamond-crusted teeth flashed as he spoke.
“I request a greater honor, dear Preacher.”
“I’ve skimmed your brief, and I believe I know your request. You know that we value our neutrality above almost all else. We spread the word of the Trinity and the magnificent future that awaits us all in the halls of all-corporate fellowship.”
“I understand, Preacher Dave. I was hoping that you would consider our cause. We are the originators of the Shrill diplomatic mission, and we currently lack a cruiser comparable to the Pluto in the area. We’d like to think of this as maintaining the balance of power between corporations, rather than tipping the scale in any single direction.”
“Your words are persuasive, Honored Yin, but I suspect Disney – or Four Hands is it, now – would see it in a very different light.”
“If Disney controls the Shrill, they themselves may go unilateral.”
“If we act in your behalf, we risk losing the tithes of all the Four Hands faithful.”
Honored Yin smiled. “I understand. Preacher, what is your current mission?”
“We spread the word to the Jovian outposts, the Cerean Hegemony, and, when we can, the Freemars. We head to Mars now after resupply on Earth, well-equipped to be persuasive.”
“It seems to me that someone of your stature should be engaged in more missions of interstellar scope.”
Preacher Dave Thomas frowned, turning his expressive face into a comical mask of despair. “It has been my deepest dream to bring the Word to the Independents, beyond the Edge of the Web of Worlds. But in all its infinite wisdom, the Church has not seen fit to bless me with such a mission.”
“I’m surprised the church has not recognized your fervor.”
“The church can sponsor only a few missions into the deep black per decade. I can only suppose they have many fine Preachers to choose from.”
Or only the dumbest ones, Tiphani thought. She wondered if any of their missions beyond the Edge had ever returned. She fought to keep her expression neutral.
“If we – that is, Winfinity – were to provide you with an appropriate Spindle Drive ship for such a mission, would that change your assessment of our request?”
Preacher Dave Thomas blinked. Flickers of conflicting emotions cascaded across his face: deepest surprise, fear and unease, settling on gleaming avarice.
“No,” Preacher Dave said. “It would not change my decision.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Honored Yin said.
“I’ve already decided to help you,” Preacher Dave said. “In reviewing your personal history with the church, I cannot find anyone of similar rank at Disney with your level of devotion. And true faith counts for more than anything.”
As does a big wallet, Tiphani thought.
“We would still like to offer the Spindle Drive ship for a greater mission,” Honored Yin thought.
“If it is given in the spirit of true faith, I will find it difficult to refuse such a generous offer.”
Honored Yin smiled. “It is given in true faith, Preacher. Not as a bond to any term of service.”
“In that case, thank you, Honored Yin. I am overwhelmed by your generosity.”
“I’m transmitting trajectory of the Shrill ship and Disney’s Pluto. When do you think you can intercept?”
Preacher Dave looked off-screen. “It will be tight. Somewhere between fifteen and fifty minutes before the Disney ship, depending on drive efficiency. I will pray to the Holy Franchise to lend our drive its infinite power. I assume you want us to capture the Shrill and retreat to a safe distance?”
“That will do. Thank you, Preacher Dave.”
“No. Thank you, Honored Yin. Once again, your faith enriches the Church. May the Holy Franchise extend your reach beyond your grasp.”
His image flickered once and disappeared.
“Is this really the right ship?” Tiphani asked.
“What do you mean?” Honored Yin said.
“What happens if the Holy Saleschannel has to meet the Pluto in battle? Are they even armed?”
Honored Yin smiled. “So little faith,” she said.
“So they’re armed?”
“You heard them. They’re just got equipped to go into Free Mars.”
“I guess I didn’t understand.”
Honored Yin sighed. “How else do they achieve their conversions?”
August 22nd, 2009 / 1,152 Comments »