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Eternal Franchise, 16.1 of 31.1

Hours passed in the dull gray room. Dian began to hope that they would come and put her in with whatever other scourges of society they had in captivity, just so she’d have a place to lay down. The two chairs, hardbacked, weren’t good for sitting more than a few minutes at a time. Pacing had lost any novelty it once might have had. And the floor was too cold to make a comfortable bed.

eternal-franchiseNo food, no contact. The gray walls and floor blended into a seamless, almost hallucinogenic, whole in the shadowless light cast by the softly glowing ceiling.

They’ve forgotten me, she thought.

The top of the hard steel desk began to look like an inviting bed.

Someone didn’t fill in the right form, she thought. There’s no database record of me. I’ll die of thirst in this featureless little gray room. By the time they open the door, they’ll see nothing but a decomposing corpse . . .

. . . laying on the top of the table.

The door opened.

At first she just blinked, thinking, I’m really hallucinating now.

“Dian Winning?” A man stepped into the room, holding the door open behind him. Tense. As if he was afraid the door would click shut and lock.

Dian goggled at him. Nice thick black hair and friendly blue eyes. No gray. No crows-feet. A face maybe a little to chiseled and perfect to be truly natural. No pin decorated his chest, but the suit he wore was a fashionable dark-gray number, slung casually over a purple formfitting shirt. Even Dian recognized it as a Manager fashion.

“Who are you?” she said.

“I’m . . . it’s not important. Come with me!”

Dian started to get up, then stopped herself. “Why?”

“Because I’m rescuing you!”

Dian laughed. She was hallucinating.

Anger passed across the man’s face, leaving a frown. “What’s funny?”

“Who are you?”

A sigh. “Jimson Ogilvy.”

Wait. A. Minute. Memory reassembled. She remembered his face. “You were in the town. With the Shrill.”

“Yes.” Frantic hand-motions. “Come on!”

“Why?”

“Why what, damnit!”

“Why should you help me?” It made no sense. Her mind, food-deprived and sluggish, refused to integrate.

“I’ll take you to Mars.”

“So I can show you where the Shrill is?”

“Look, miss, I know where the Shrill is. I don’t need you for that. But I do need you to get us deep into Free Mars.”

“I don’t get it. You’re a . . .”

“I’m striking out on my own. Winfinity screwed me over pretty good a few minutes ago. I know where the Shrill is. I can get to it before they can. If you get up off your butt and come with me, that is!”

“You’re . . . how?”

“Fast courier. Come on, we’re booked in thirty-seven minutes from the nearest jumpoint. We have to hustle.”

“You’re going to take on Winfinity?”

“Yes! Damn it, make up your mind. I’d like your help. But I’ll try it on my own if I have to.”

Go against Winfinity. Try to steal the Shrill Ambassador from them. With this crazy guy who should be wearing a manager’s pin, but wore nothing. Whose eyes darted from side to side as if he was already running from a nightmare-thing that swiped at him from only a few feet back. Maybe caught, brought back to Winfinity, charged.

But it might just be a way to get to Mars and disappear, forever. And how could it be worse? She was already caught, charged.

Tiphani’s words were soft, but she wasn’t Win-Sec. Most likely she was looking at perpetual indenture, and whatever horrors went along with it.

She sprinted to the door. As she passed by Jimson, she paused a moment and kissed him, briefly, on the cheek. Because she didn’t have much to lose.

“What was that for?” he asked.

“Because you’re my knight in shining armor.”

“What?”

“You’re rescuing me, dummy.” They let the door slam shut and sprinted down the deserted hall.

“You can really get us off earth?” she said.

“As long as she doesn’t look at her account anytime soon,” Jimson said.

“She?”

“Tiphani. The Chief whose access codes I’m stealing.”

Dian let out a brief barking laugh. Not so much like a knight in shining armor, she thought, as a bandit in rusted chain-mail, using a stolen car to whisk her away.

Jimson looked at her quizzically, and she laughed again.

Whatever he is, she thought, I’ll take it.

#

Tiphani jumped when Han Fleming burst through the door of Honored Maplethorpe’s office, high in the Winfinity corporate tower. She was still trying to wrap her mind around the latest dispatch from the Holy Saleschannel.

Nukes, she thought. We’ve used nukes.

“You unspeakable monsters!” Han Fleming said, his eyes bulging and darty, his hands clenching as if in need of something to tear and rend.

“It is well-known that the Consumeristian Church is a neutral entity. I don’t see how their independent actions can reflect negatively on Winfinity,” Honored Yin said, not rising from an olive fabric couch, done in the rectilinear Danish Modern style.

Something like a growl escaped Han’s throat. He whipped around, fixing on a painstakingly restored console stereo from the 1950’s. He flipped the top open, grabbed the heavy cast-metal record player, lifted it out of the case, and dashed it to the floor. It rebounded from the thin carpet, shedding Bakelite knobs and fragments of other small plastic parts. The stack of records that were on the changer shattered into licorice shards. Han turned to the console and kicked in the speaker grilles, tearing ancient fabric and shattering brittle plywood.

Han whipped back towards Honored Maplethorpe and lunged over his desk, putting his face only inches away from the other man.

He pointed at the wreckage of the stereo and said, “This is what you’ve done to the Gentlemans’ Agreement today!”

Honored Maplethorpe didn’t flinch. “Did you ever consider that the Consumeristian vessel might have been responding to the Pluto firing on it?”

“That isn’t what our records show!”

A thin smile from Maplethorpe. “It is interesting you are getting data within the Winfinity corporate network. It appears our mole problem isn’t entirely clear.”

“Working on it,” Yin said.

“Do you think we should ask the Four Hands emissary to assist us in our investigation?” Honored Maplethorpe said.

“In a more personal capacity? As in an in-depth examination of his embedded networks?” Honored Yin said.

“That’s exactly what I was thinking.”

Han pushed himself back from the desk, glaring at each of them in turn. “You dance around the issues. But the facts are clear. I can feel your own nets buzzing with the news. You talked to the Holy Saleschannel shortly before the attack. It can be inferred that an offer was made . . .”

“Winfinity’s piety is well-known,” Honored Yin said. “Disney and the other Four Hands members, less so. It is not surprising that we would contact a Church vessel. At any time.”

“That’s not what your own nets are saying. They’re connecting you to the use of the nukes.”

In Tiphani’s optilink, a message came in through the artie-encrypted channel: Is this true?

A quick query and summary charts had her subvocalizing back to the same channel: In essence, yes.

From Yin again: What’s the estimated cost of a media spin campaign to deflect this?

Tiphani shook her head and subvocalized, Can’t provide a budget. Not even arties have enough data. Given extreme aversion to use of nuclear weapons, though, and the general surprise of their use in the home system, I’d guess thirty to a hundred million credits. Skewing higher if there are many deaths on the Pluto. Skewing impossibly high if the radiation affects the Shrill as well.

From Yin: What’s your gut on plausibility of pluto-attacks-saleschannel excuse?

High, especially if Saleschannel corroborates.

Thank you, Tiphani.

You’re welcome, Honored Yin.

“I believe you owe us an apology,” Honored Maplethorpe said.

“For what?” Han said.

“Breaking my stereo.”

“This could be war, and you worry about trinkets.”

“It was a very valuable piece.”

Han rolled his eyes. “Our alliance was a very valuable piece, and you betray it the first chance you get!”

“We were not the organization that sent a warship.”

“It was the closest ship in the area!”

“Not true,” Honored Yin said. “The Holy Saleschannel was closer. You could have contacted them. It might have been a more neutral way to capture the Shrill. We’re fortunate they acted on their own.”

“You destroy the very fabric of our relationship.”

“You overestimate our need to have one,” Honored Yin said.

Han sighed. “Since the early days of the corporate age, the Gentleman’s Agreement has kept us from war within our home system.

You’d sweep that away and never look back?”

“We didn’t sweep it away, the Consumeristians did.”

“Everyone knows they’re the lapdogs of Winfinity! You’re the ones who financed them after you toppled America. They take their direction from you, don’t deny it!”

“Winfinity never toppled any governments.”

“Oh no? At Disney, we didn’t stand by and let them build the Space Elevator when we could have written a check to pay for the entire thing in cash!”

“Your corporate poverty doesn’t concern us.”

“We didn’t have an office betting pool on how far the government would go overbudget!” Han said.
Honored Maplethorpe gave him an ironic smile. “My grandfather lost quite a bit of money on that one.”

“That’s not important!”

“You brought it up, Han.”

“Winfinity is the most rapacious corporation there is! Everybody knows it! If you think you’ll get out of this clean, you’re sorely mistaken.”

Honored Yin sighed. “Funny. If Disney was so magnanimous, you’d think they would have done away with indentures.”

“Stop changing the subject! You know that indentures are the only way to finance the pensions and disability.”

“Among other things,” Yin said, smirking.

Han drew himself up to his full height, a deep frown carving his features. “You’re playing with me. You won’t laugh so much when the full Four Hands fleet arrives from Spindle, not so long from now.”

Honored Maplethorpe’s smile flickered. “We can just as easily Spindle in from the Shrill system, as well.”

“Can you?”

“Yes,” Honored Maplethorpe said.

“Then that is perhaps best,” Han said. “No more of these political machinations. Let’s get everything out in the open, and see whose fleet is the strongest.”

Maplethorpe’s expression went carefully neutral.

“Or are you already calculating the outcome?” Han said.

#

Preacher Dave Thomas watched from the dark-lacquered wood confessional off the bridge as Alan Rodriguez delivered the message. It went broadband on all protocols, to Winfinity and Four Hands and the Consumeristian Church and anyone else who happened to be listening. Because that was their only chance of getting out of this clean.

He tried not to laugh. Laughing would be bad. Some detail-fanatic would analyze the background noise of the ship, hear someone laughing, match it to his voiceprint, and they’d all be screwed. Even though the recorded moans blasted at ear-splitting volume from the nave, even though it was mixed with the real moans of many of the choir, now feeling the first effects of radiation sickness.
“We plead to the Holy Franchise and all who hear to heed our cry for help,” Alan said. Fake blood stained his tunic and his head was wrapped with stained bandages. “We came unknowing on an operation we knew nothing about. Unwittingly targeted, we were forced to use a small nuclear device to protect the integrity of our ship, and preserve our greater mission to spread the Holy Franchise. We are now occupying a small cubic volume of space with a disabled Disney cruiser, the Pluto, and a non-operational Westinghouse pleasure craft. Although we are mobile, we hesitate to move from the scene before appropriate representatives from the involved corporations contact us and discuss proposed courses of action.”

Growls from the communications channel. Alan cast his eyes down at the ground and feigned grief. “I regret to inform you that Preacher Dave Thomas has been grievously injured. Head trauma and radiation exposure. He is currently with our nurses, who are doing what they can for him with our limited supplies.”

“Our overall condition is as follows: drive, operational, shortrange weapons, operational, hull scorched by fire from the Pluto, but currently intact. If we lose hull integrity, we will attempt to save as many of the choir and parishioners as possible, but the capacity of our bridge is relatively limited. We require antiradiation treatments and general first aid. Again, we invite discussion of appropriate action by authorized corporate representatives.”

“Status of the Disney vessel, from our preliminary observations: all non-radhardened systems nonoperational. Life support appears to be operational. All drive systems nonoperational. Even with their metal hull, they have likely undergone radiation exposure four to ten times our own. They have not communicated with us, either through inability or protocol.”

“Status of the Westinghouse ship is as follows: life support nonoperational. Drive nonoperational. Ship was in this state when we approached. Ship is being maintained in position until we discuss appropriate actions with corporate representatives.”

More squawking from the communications channel.

“I’m sorry, we had no choice but to violate the Gentlemens’ Agreement. We believe the direct fault for this lies with the Disney ship for firing on us, and the indirect fault to the corporation Disney has its current quarrel with. We don’t presume to know the mind of the Holy Franchise; it is our doctrine to act. Preservation of our mission is our highest goal.”

More squawking.

“Transmitting current coordinates. Not currently near any major gravity wells. At present rate of drift, we will pass Mars orbit in approximately three weeks. We have supplies for this period of time. We are unsure about the status of the Disney ship.”

Some more satisfied-sounding noises from the communications channel.

“Thank you,” Alan said, and flicked it off.

“It’s OK,” Alan said, turning to Preacher Dave. “You can come out now.”

“They bought it?”

“They’re not happy.”

“What does that mean?”

“They’re really, really not thrilled about us using a nuclear weapon. They were talking corporate charges before I told them we were just waiting for them to make their offers.”

“What do you think they’ll give us?” Preacher Dave said.

“More than a single Spindle ship, that’s certain,” Alan said.

Visions of an entire armada of Spindle ships driving deep into Independent territory flashed through Preacher Dave’s mind. He would go down in myth and legend, a heroic figure leading the charge for the Consumeristian Church. Like St. Norville Wathen and the Revered and Perfect Tami Beauregard, the ones who rose out of the burning ashes of the United States to begin their new Unification under the banner of the Holy Franchise. Like every Marstyr ever made, times a thousand, a million.

“I’d like to captain one of the ships,” Alan said, softly.

A quick flicker of anger spiked through Preacher Dave’s mind. The little grasper! Alan was a great Minister of Conversion, but he wasn’t ready for command!

He kept his face carefully neutral. Should’ve thought to ask that before your little speech, Preacher Dave thought.

“I’m sure something can be arranged for my most valued Minister of Conversion,” Preacher Dave said.

“Thank you, Preacher Dave.”

“No, thank you,” Preacher Dave said.

The communications channel chimed, signaling an incoming transmission. Preacher Dave smiled and ducked back into the confessional.

They’re playing our tune, he thought.

September 6th, 2009 / 1,182 Comments »



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