Wed
Aug 12 2009 9:00am

Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 17 (of 81)

 

Illustration by Idiots’Books

Sammy checked in to a Comfort Inn tucked into the thirty-seventh storey of the Bank of America building in downtown Boston. The lobby was empty, the security-guard’s desk unmanned. B of A was in receivership, and not doing so hot at that, as the fact that they had let out their executive floors to a discount business-hotel testified.

The room was fine, though—small and windowless, but fine: power, shower, toilet and bed, all he demanded in a hotel room. He ate the packet of nuts he’d bought at the airport before jumping on the T and then checked his email. He had more of it than he could possibly answer—he didn’t think he’d ever had an empty in-box.

But he picked off anything that looked important, including a note from his ex-, who was now living in the Keys on a squatter beach and wanted to know if he could loan her a hundred bucks. No sense of how she’d pay him back without work. But Michelle was resourceful and probably good for it. He paypalled it to her, feeling like a sucker for hoping that she might repay it in person. He’d been single since she’d left him the year before and he was lonely and hard-up.

He’d landed at two and by the time he was done with all the bullshit, it was after dinner time and he was hungry as hell. Boston was full of taco-wagons and kebab stands that he’d passed on the walk in, and he hustled out onto the street to see if any were still open. He got a huge garlicky kebab and ate it in the lee of a frozen ATM shelter, wolfing it without tasting it.

He went and scouted the location of the new ride. He’d gotten wind of it online—none of his idiot colleagues could be bothered to read the public email lists of the competitors they were supposedly in charge of oppo researching. Shaking loose the budget to get a discount flight to Boston had been a major coup, requiring horse-trading, blackmail, and passive-aggressive gaming of the system. With the ridiculously low per-diem and hotel allowance he’d still go home a couple hundred bucks out-of-pocket. Why did he even do his job? He should just play by the rules and get nothing done.

And get fired. Or passed up for promotion, which was practically the same thing.

The new ride was in an impressive urban mall. He’d spent his college years in Philly and had passed many a happy day in malls like this one, cruising for girls or camping out on a bench with his books and a smoothie. Unlike the crappy roadside malls of Florida, there had been nothing but the best stores in them, the property values too high to make anything but high-margin, high-turnover, high-ticket shops viable.

So it was especially sad to see this mall turned over to the junky stalls and junkier ride—like a fat, washed-up supermodel sentenced to a talk-show appearance for her shoplifting arrests. He approached the doors with trepidation. He was resolved not to buy anything from the market—no busts or contact lenses—and had stuck his wallet in his front pocket on the way over.

The mall was like a sauna. He shucked his jacket and sweater and hung them over one arm. The whole ground floor had been given over to flimsy market-stalls. He skulked among them, trying to simultaneously take note of their contents and avoid their owners’ notice.

He came to realize that he needn’t skulk. It seemed like half of Boston had turned out—not just young people, either. There were plenty of tweedy academics, big working-class Southie boys with thick accents, recent immigrants with Scandie-chic clothes. They chattered and laughed and mixed freely and ate hot food out of huge cauldrons or off of clever electric grills. The smells made his stomach growl, even though he’d just polished off a kebab the size of his head.

The buzz of the crowd reminded him of something, what was it? A premiere, that was it. When they opened a new ride or area at the Park, there was the same sense of thrilling anticipation, of excitement and eagerness. That made it worse—these people had no business being this excited about something so. . . lowbrow? Cheap? Whatever it was, it wasn’t worthy.

They were shopping like fiends. A mother with a baby on her hip pushed past him, her stroller piled high with shopping bags screened with giant, pixellated Belgian pastries. She was laughing and the baby on her hip was laughing too.

He headed for the escalator, whose treads had been anodized in bright colors, something he’d never seen before. He let it carry him upstairs, but looked down, and so he was nearly at the top before he realized that the guy from the Florida ride was standing there, handing out fliers and staring at Sammy like he knew him from somewhere.

It was too late to avoid him. Sammy put on his best castmember smile. “Hello there!”

The guy grinned and wiggled his eyebrow. “I know you from somewhere,” he said slowly.

“From Florida,” Sammy said, with an apologetic shrug. “I came up to see the opening.”

“No way!” The guy had a huge smile now, looked like was going to hug him. “You’re shitting me!”

“What can I say? I’m a fan.”

“That’s incredible. Hey, Tjan, come here and meet this guy. What’s your name?”

Sammy tried to think of another name, but drew a blank. “Mickey,” he said at last, kicking himself.

“Tjan, this is Mickey. He’s a regular on the ride in Florida and he’s come up here just to see the opening.”

Tjan had short hair and sallow skin, and dressed like an accountant, but his eyes were bright and sharp as they took Sammy in, looking him up and down quickly. “Well that’s certainly flattering.” He reached into his creased blazer and pulled out a slip of paper. “Have a couple comp tickets then—the least we can do for your loyalty.” The paper was festooned with holograms and smart-cards and raised bumps containing RFIDs, but Sammy knew that you could buy standard anti-counterfeiting stock like it from a mail-order catalog.

“That’s mighty generous of you,” he said, shaking Tjan’s dry, firm hand.

“Our pleasure,” the other guy said. “Better get in line, though, or you’re gonna be waiting a long, long time.” He had a satisfied expression. Sammy saw that what he’d mistaken for a crowd of people was in fact a long, jostling queue stretching all the way around the escalator mezzanine and off one of the mall’s side corridors.

Feeling like he’d averted a disaster, Sammy followed the length of the queue until he came to its end. He popped in a headphone and set up his headline reader to text-to-speech his day’s news. He’d fallen behind, what with the air travel and all. Most of the stuff in his cache came in from his co-workers, and it was the most insipid crap anyway, but he had to listen to it or he’d be odd man out at the watercooler when he got back.

He listened with half an ear and considered the gigantic crowd stretching away as far as the eye could see. Compared with the re-opening of Fantasyland, it was nothing—goths from all over the world had flocked to central Florida for that, Germans and Greeks and Japanese and even some from Mumbai and Russia. They’d filled the park to capacity, thrilled with the delightful perversity of chirpy old Disney World remade as a goth theme park.

But a line this long in Boston, in the dead of winter, for something whose sole attraction was that there was another one like it by a shitty forgotten b-road outside of Miami? Christ on an Omnimover.

The line moved, just a little surge, and there was a cheer all down the mall’s length. People poured past him headed for the line’s tail, vibrating with excitement. But the line didn’t move again for five minutes, then ten. Then another surge, but maybe that was just people crowding together more. Some of the people in line were drinking beers out of paper bags and getting raucous.

“What’s going on?” someone hollered from behind him. The cry was taken up, and then the line shuddered and moved forward some. Then nothing.

Thinking, screw this, Sammy got out of line and walked to the front. Tjan was there, working the velvet rope, letting people through in dribs and drabs. He caught sight of Sammy and gave him a solemn nod. “They’re all taking too long to ride,” he said. “I tell them fifteen minutes max, get back in line if you want to see more, but what can you do?”

Sammy nodded sympathetically. The guy with the funny eyebrow put in an appearance from behind the heavy black curtains. “Send through two more,” he said, and grabbed Sammy, tugging him in.

Behind the curtain, it was dim and spotlit, almost identical to Florida, and half a dozen vehicles waited. Sammy slid into one and let the spiel wash over him.

THERE WAS A TIME WHEN AMERICA HELD OUT THE PROMISE OF A NEW WAY OF LIVING AND WORKING. THE NEW WORK BOOM OF THE TEENS WAS A PERIOD OF UNPARALLELED INVENTION, A CAMBRIAN EXPLOSION OF CREATIVITY NOT SEEN SINCE THE TIME OF EDISON—AND UNLIKE EDISON, THE PEOPLE WHO INVENTED THE NEW WORK REVOLUTION WEREN’T RIP-OFF ARTISTS AND FRAUDS.

The layout was slightly different due to the support pillars, but as similar to the Florida version as geography allowed. Robots humped underfoot moving objects, keeping them in sync with the changes in Florida. He’d read on the message boards that Florida would stay open late so that the riders could collaborate with the attendees at the Boston premiere, tweeting back and forth to one another.

The other chairs in the ride crawled around each exhibit, reversing and turning slowly. Riders brought their chairs up alongside one another and conferred in low voices, over the narration from the scenery. He thought he saw a couple making out—a common enough occurrence in dark rides that he’d even exploited a few times when planning out rides that would be likely to attract amorous teenagers. They had a key demographic: too young to leave home, old enough to pay practically anything for a private spot to score some nookie.

The air smelled of three-d printer, the cheap smell of truck-stops where vending machines outputted cheap kids’ toys. Here it wasn’t cheap, though: here it smelled futuristic, like the first time someone had handed him a printed prop for one of his rides—it had been a head for an updated Small World ride. Then it had smelled like something foreign and new and exciting and frightening, like the first days of a different world.

Smelling that again, remembering the crowds outside waiting to get in, Sammy started to get a sick feeling, the kebab rebounding on him. Moving as if in a dream, he reached down into his lap and drew out a small utility knife. There would be infrared cameras, but he knew from experience that they couldn’t see through ride vehicles.

Slowly, he fingered the access panel’s underside until he found a loose corner. He snicked out the knife’s little blade—he’d brought an entire suitcase just so he could have a checked bag to store this in—and tugged at the cables inside. He sawed at them with small movements, feeling the copper wires inside the insulation give way one strand at a time. The chair moved jerkily, then not at all. He snipped a few more wires just to be sure, then tucked them all away.

“Hey!” he called. “My chair’s dead!” He had fetched up in a central pathway where the chairs tried to run cloverleafs around four displays. A couple chairs swerved around him. He thumped the panel dramatically, then stepped out and shook his head. He contrived to step on three robots on the way to another chair.

“Is yours working?” he asked the kid riding in it, all of ten years old and of indefinite gender.

“Yeah,” the kid said. It scooted over. “There’s room for both of us, get in.”

Christ, don’t they have stranger-danger in the north? He climbed in beside the kid and contrived to slide one sly hand under the panel. Teasing out the wires the second time was easier, even one-handed. He sliced through five large bundles this time before the chair ground to a halt, its gyros whining and rocking it from side-to-side.

The kid looked at him and frowned. “These things are shit,” it said with real vehemence, climbing down and kicking one of its tires, and then kicking a couple of the floor-level robots for good measure. They’d landed another great breakdown spot: directly in front of a ranked display of raygun-shaped appliances and objects. He remembered seeing that one in its nascent stage, back in Florida—just a couple of toy guns, which were presently joined by three more, then there were ten, then fifty, then a high wall of them, striking and charming. The chair’s breakdown position neatly blocked the way.

“Guess we’d better walk out,” he said. He stepped on a couple more robots, making oops noises. The kid enthusiastically kicked robots out of its way. Chairs swerved around them as other riders tried to navigate. They were approaching the exit when Sammy spotted a charge-plate for the robots. They were standard issue for robotic vacuum cleaners and other semi-autonomous appliances, and he’d had one in his old apartment. They were supposed to be safe as anything, but a friend’s toddler had crawled over to his and shoved a stack of dimes into its recessed jack and one of them had shorted it out in a smoking, fizzing fireworks display.

“You go on ahead, I’m going to tie my shoes.”

Sammy bent down beside the charge plate, his back to the kid and the imagined cameras that were capturing his every move, and slipped the stack of coins he’d taken from his pocket into the little slot where the robots inserted their charging stamen.

The ensuing shower of sparks was more dramatic than he’d remembered—maybe it was the darkened room. The kid shrieked and ran for the EXIT sign, and he took off too, at a good clip. They’d get the ride up and running soon enough, but maybe not tonight, not if they couldn’t get the two chairs he’d toasted out of the room.

There was the beginnings of chaos at the exit. There was that Tjan character, giving him an intense look. He tried to head for the down escalator, but Tjan cut him off.

“What’s going on in there?”

“Damnedest thing,” he said, trying to keep his face composed. “My chair died. Then another one—a little kid was riding in it. Then there was a lot of electrical sparks, and I walked out. Crazy.”

Tjan cocked his head. “I hope you’re not hurt. We could have a doctor look at you; there are a couple around tonight.”

It had never occurred to Sammy that professional types might turn out for a ride like this, but of course it was obvious. There were probably off-duty cops, local politicians, lawyers, and the like.

“I’m fine,” he said. “Don’t worry about me. Maybe you should send someone in for the people still in there, though?”

“That’s being taken care of. I’m just sorry you came all the way from Florida for this kind of disappointment. That’s just brutal.” Tjan’s measuring stare was even more intense.

“Uh, it’s OK. I had meetings here this week. This was just a cool bonus.”

“Who do you work for, Mickey?”

Shit.

“Insurance company,” he said.

“That’d be Norwich Union, then, right? They’ve got a headquarters here.”

Sammy knew how this went. Norwich Union didn’t have headquarters here. Or they did. He’d have to outguess Tjan with his answer.

“Are you going to stay open tonight?”

Tjan nodded, though it wasn’t clear whether he was nodding because he was answering in the affirmative or because his suspicions had been confirmed.

“Well then, I should be going.”

Tjan put out a hand. “Oh, please stay. I’m sure we’ll be running soon; you should get a whole ride through.”

“No, really, I have to go.” He shook off the hand and pelted down the escalator and out into the freezing night. His blood sang in his ears. They probably wouldn’t get the ride running that night at all. They probably would send that whole carnival crowd home, disappointed. He’d won some kind of little victory over something.

He’d felt more confident of his victory when he was concerned with the guy with the funny eyebrow—with Perry. He’d seemed little more than a bum, a vag. But this Tjan reminded him of the climbers he’d met through his career at Walt Disney World: keenly observant and fast formulators of strategies. Someone who could add two and two before you’d know that there was such a thing as four.

Sammy walked back to his hotel as quickly as he could, given the icy sidewalks underfoot, and by the time he got to the lobby of the old office tower his face hurt—forehead, cheeks and nose. He’d booked his return flight for a day later, thinking he’d do more reccies of the new site before writing his report and heading home, but there was no way he was facing down that Tjan guy again.

What had prompted him to sabotage the ride? It was something primal, something he hadn’t been in any real control of. He’d been in some kind of fugue-state. But he’d packed the little knife in his suitcase and he’d slipped it into his pocket before leaving the room. So how instinctive could it possibly have been?

He had a vision of the carnival atmosphere in the market stalls outside and knew that even after the ride had broken down, the crowd had lingered, laughing and browsing and enjoying a night’s respite from the world and the cold city. The Whos down in Who-ville had gone on singing even after he’d Grinched their ride.

That was it. The ride didn’t just make use of user-created content—it was user-created content. He could never convince his bosses in Orlando to let him build anything remotely like this, and given enough time, it would surely overtake them. That Tjan—someone like him wouldn’t be involved if there wasn’t some serious money opportunity on the line.

He’d seen the future that night and he had no place in it.

<<< Back to Part 16

Continue to Part 18>>>

* * *

As part of the ongoing project of crafting Tor.com’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 Tor.com on our index page.

9 comments
Marcus W
1. toryx
Boy, Sammy sure turned out to be a bastard.
Crazy Hayes
2. Crazy Hayes
YESSSS!!!!!
I was waiting for this to happen. I always thought Sammy was a jerk face.
Crazy Hayes
3. ricklynnx
@1: yah, I didn't see that coming.
Crazy Hayes
4. ricklynnx
But, I'm thinking this confirms my confidence in Tjan. I like the way he could see right through Sammy, and Sammy knew it.

Looking forward to Friday.
Marcus W
5. toryx
I like Tjan too. I'm curious to see what he's going to do about the incident.
Crazy Hayes
6. jcs
"This ride is shit," it said


Should this be

"The ride is shit," he said
Crazy Hayes
7. nucho
The kid was of indeterminate gender, thus the "it"


Speaking of kids, did anyone figure the why of the discrepancy with Tjan's children. Maybe he had them cloned?
Arcadia Barrile
8. UndeadJaxxy
I'm loving the cloned children theory. One set of kids for Tjan, one set for the ex. Everyone's happy :]
Crazy Hayes
9. apokalypsis
Loving Doctorow's latest alternate future. The future sounds a lot like a cross between a SciFi convention and the Fifth International.

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