Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 15 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

A month later, Perry was clearing security at Miami International, looking awkward in long trousers, closed-sole shoes, and a denim jacket. It was autumn in Boston, and he couldn’t show up in flip-flops and a pair of cutoffs. The security guards gave his leathery, lopsided face a hard look. He grinned like a pirate and made his funny eyebrow twitch, a stunt that earned him half an hour behind the screen and a date with Doctor Jellyfinger.

“What, exactly, do you think I’ve got hidden up there?” he asked as he gripped the railing and tried not to let the illegitimati carborundum.

“It’s procedure, sir.”

“Well, the doc said my prostate was the size of a guava about a month ago—in your professional opinion, has it shrunk or grown? I mean, while you’re up there.”

The TSA man didn’t like that at all. A minute later, Perry was buckling up and leaving the little room with an exaggerated bowlegged gait. He tipped an imaginary hat at the guard’s retreating back and said, “Call me!” in a stagey voice.

It was the last bit of fun he had for the next four hours, crammed in the tin can full of recycled discount air-traveller flatulence and the clatter of fingers on keyboards and the gabble of a hundred phone conversations as the salarymen on the flight stole a few minutes of cramped productivity from the dead travel time.

Touching down in Boston and getting his luggage, he felt like he’d landed on an alien planet. The feeling of disorientation and foreignness was new to Perry. He was used to being supremely comfortable, in control—confident. But he was nervous now, maybe even scared, a little.

He dialed Tjan. “I’ve got my bags,” he said.

“I’ll be right around,” Tjan said. “Really looking forward to seeing you.”

There were more cops than passengers in the arrivals area at Logan, and they watched Tjan warily as he pulled up and swung open a door of his little sports-car.

“What the fuck is this, a Porsche?” Perry said as he folded himself awkwardly into the front seat, stepping in through the sun-roof, pulling his bag down into his lap after him.

“It’s a Lada. I had it imported—they’re all over Russia. Evolutionary algorithm used to produce a minimum-materials/maximum-strength chassis. It’s nice to see you, Perry.”

“It’s nice to see you, Tjan,” he said. The car was so low to the ground that it felt like he was riding luge. Tjan hammered mercilessly on the gearbox, rocketing them to Cambridge at such speed that Perry barely had time to admire the foliage, except at stop-lights.

They were around the campus now, taking a screeching right off Mass Ave onto a tree-lined street of homely two-storey brick houses. Tjan pulled up in front of one and popped the sun-roof. The cold air that rushed in was as crisp as an apple, unlike any breath of air to be had in Florida, where there was always a mushiness, a feeling of air that had been filtered through the moist lungs of Florida’s teeming fauna.

Perry climbed out of the little Russian sports-car and twisted his back and raised his arms over his head until his spine gave and popped and crackled.

Tjan followed, and then he shut down the car with a remote that made it go through an impressive and stylish series of clicks, clunks and chirps before settling down over its wheels, dropping the chassis to a muffler-scraping centimeter off the ground.

“Come on,” he said. “I’ll show you your room.”

Tjan’s porch sagged, with a couple kids’ bikes triple-locked to it and an all-covering chalk mosaic over every inch of it. The wood creaked and gave beneath their feet.

The door sprang open and revealed a pretty little girl, nine or ten years old, in blue-jeans and a hoodie sweater that went nearly to her ankles, the long sleeves bunched up like beach-balls on her forearms. The hood hung down to her butt—it was East Coast bangbanger, as reinterpreted through the malls.

“Daddy!” she said, and put her arms around Tjan’s waist, squeezing hard.

He pried her loose and then hoisted her by the armpits up to eye-height. “What have you done to your brother?”

“Nothing he didn’t deserve,” she said, with a smile that showed dimples and made her little nose wrinkle.

Tjan looked over at Perry. “This is my daughter, Lyenitchka, who is about to be locked in the coal cellar until she learns to stop torturing her younger brother. Lyenitchka, this is Perry Gibbons, upon whom you have already made an irreparably bad first impression.” He shook her gently Perrywards.

“Hello, Perry,” she said, giggling, holding out one hand. She had a faint accent, which made her sound like a tiny, skinny Bond villainess.

He shook gravely. “Nice to meet you,” he said.

“You got your kids,” Perry said, once she was gone.

“For the school year. Me and the ex, we had a heart-to-heart about the Russian education system and ended up here: I get the kids from September to June, but not Christmases or Easter holidays. She gets them the rest of the time, and takes them to a family dacha in Ukraine, where she assures me there are hardly any mafiyeh kids to influence my darling daughter.”

“You must be loving this,” Perry said.

Tjan’s face went serious. “This is the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”

“I’m really happy for you, buddy.”

They had burgers in the back-yard, cooking on an electric grill that was caked with the smoking grease of a summer’s worth of outdoor meals. The plastic table-cloth was weighed down with painted rocks and the corners blew up in the freshening autumn winds. Lyenitchka’s little brother appeared when the burgers began to spit and smoke on the grill, a seven-year-old in metallic mesh trousers and shirts wrought with the logo of a cartoon Cossack holding a laser-sword aloft.

“Sasha, meet Perry.” Sasha looked away, then went off to swing on a tire-swing hanging from the big tree.

“You’ve got good kids,” Perry said, handing Tjan a beer from the cooler under the picnic table.

“Yup,” Tjan said. He flipped the burgers and then looked at both of them. Lyenitchka was pushing her brother on the swing, a little too hard. Tjan smiled and looked back down at his burgers.

Tjan cut the burgers in half and dressed them to his kids’ exacting standards. They picked at them, pushed them onto each other’s plates and got some into their mouths.

“I’ve read your briefing on the ride,” Tjan said, once his kids had finished and eaten half a package of Chutney Oreos for dessert. “It’s pretty weird stuff.”

Perry nodded and cracked another beer. The cool air was weirding him out, awakening some atavistic instinct to seek a cave. “Yup, weird as hell. But they love it. Not just the geeks, either, though they eat it up, you should see it. Obsessive doesn’t begin to cover it. But the civilians come by the hundreds, too. You should hear them when they come out: ‘Jee-zus, I’d forgotten about those dishwasher-stackers, they were wicked! Where can I get one of those these days you figger?’ The nostalgia’s thick enough to cut with a knife.”

Tjan nodded. “I’ve been going over your books, but I can’t figure out if you’re profitable.”

“Sorry, that’s me. I’m pretty good at keeping track of numbers, but getting them massaged into a coherent picture—”

“Yeah, I know.” Tjan got a far-away look. “How’d you make out on Kodacell, Perry? Finance-wise?”

“Enough to open the ride, buy a car. Didn’t lose anything.”

“Ah.” Tjan fiddled with his beer. “Listen, I got rich off of Westinghouse. Not fuck-the-service-here-I’m-buying-this-restaurant rich, but rich enough that I never have to work again. I can spend the rest of my life in this yard, flipping burgers, taking care of my kids, and looking at porn.”

“Well, you were the suit. Getting rich is what suits do. I’m just a grunt.””

Tjan had the good grace to look slightly embarrassed. “Now here’s the thing. I don’t have to work, but, Perry, I have no idea what I’m going to do if I don’t work. The kids are at school all day. Do you have any idea how much daytime TV sucks? Playing the stock market is completely nuts, it’s all gone sideways and upside down. I got an education so I wouldn’t have to flip burgers for the rest of my life.”

“What are you saying, Tjan?”

“I’m saying yes,” Tjan said, grinning piratically. “I’m saying that I’ll join your little weird-ass hobby business and I’ll open another ride here for the Massholes. I’ll help you run the franchising op, collect fees, make it profitable.”

Perry felt his face tighten.

“What? I thought you’d be happy about this.”

“I am,” Perry said. “But you’re misunderstanding something. These aren’t meant to be profitable businesses. I’m done with that. These are art, or community, or something. They’re museums. Lester calls them wunderkammers—cabinets of wonders. There’s no franchising op the way you’re talking about it. It’s ad hoc. It’s a protocol we all agree on, not a business arrangement.”

Tjan grunted. “I don’t think I understand the difference between a agreed-upon protocol and a business arrangement.” He held up his hand to fend off Perry’s next remark. “But it doesn’t matter. You can let people have the franchise for free. You can claim that you’re not letting anyone have anything, that they’re letting themselves in for their franchise. It doesn’t matter to me.

“But Perry, here’s something you’re going to have to understand: it’s going to be nearly impossible not to make a business out of this. Businesses are great structures for managing big projects. It’s like trying to develop the ability to walk without developing a skeleton. Once in a blue moon, you get an octopus, but for the most part, you get skeletons. Skeletons are good shit.”

“Tjan, I want you to come on board to help me create an octopus,” Perry said.

“I can try,” Tjan said, “but it won’t be easy. When you do cool stuff, you end up making money.”

“Fine,” Perry said. “Make money. But keep it to a minimum, OK?”

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As part of the ongoing project of crafting’s electronic edition of Makers, the author would like for readers to chime in with their favorite booksellers and stories about them in the comments sections for each piece of Makers, for consideration as a possible addition to a future edition of the novel.

Doctorow’s Makers will be released in print by Tor Books in October. You can read all previous installments of Makers on on our index page.


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