Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 11 (of 81)

Illustration by Idiots’Books

“What’s with the jungle-gym?” It really had been something, fun and Martian-looking.

“That’s the big one,” Tjan said with a big grin. “Most people don’t even notice it, they think it’s daycare or something. Well, that’s how it started out, but then some of the sensor people started noodling with jungle-gym components that could tell how often they were played with. They started modding the gym every night, adding variations on the elements that saw the most action, removing the duds. Then the CAD people added an algorithm that would take the sensor data and generate random variations on the same basis. Finally, some of the robotics people got in on the act so that the best of the computer-evolved designs could be instantiated automatically: now it’s a self-modifying jungle-gym. The kids love it. It is the crack cocaine of jungle-gyms, though we won’t be using that in the marketing copy, of course.”

“Of course,” Suzanne said dryly. She’d automatically reached for her notepad and started writing when Tjan started talking. Now, reviewing her notes, she knew that she was going to have to go back and get some photos of this. She asked Tjan about it.

“The robots go all night, you know. Not much sleep if you do that.”

No going back to the hotel to see Freddy, what a pity. “I’ll grab a couple blankets from the hotel to keep warm,” she said.

“Oh, you needn’t,” he said. “That crew has a set of bleachers with gas-heaters for the night crew and their family to watch from. It’s pretty gorgeous, if you ask me.”

They had a hasty supper of burgers at a drive-through and then went back to the jungle-gym project. Suzanne ensconced herself at someone’s vacated desk for a couple hours and caught up on email before finally emerging as the sun was dipping swollen and red behind the mall. She set herself up on the bleachers, and Fiona found her with a thermos of coffee and a flask of whisky. They snuggled under a blanket amid a small crowd of geeks, an outdoor slumber party under the gas-heaters’ roar.

Gradually, the robots made an appearance. Most of them humped along like inchworms, carrying chunks of new playground apparatus in coils of their long bodies. Some deployed manipulator arms, though they didn’t have much by way of hands at their ends. “We just use rare-earth magnets,” Fiona said. “Less fiddly than trying to get artificial vision that can accurately grasp the bars.”

Tjan nudged her and pointed to a new tower that was going up. The robots were twisting around themselves to form a scaffold, while various of their number crawled higher and higher, snapping modular pieces of high-impact plastic together with snick sounds that were audible over the whine of their motors.

Suzanne switched on her camera’s night-vision mode and got shooting. “Where did you get all these robots?”

Tjan grinned. “It’s an open design—the EPA hired Westinghouse to build these to work on sensing and removing volatile organic compounds on Superfund sites. Because we did the work for the government, we had to agree not to claim any design copyright or patents in the outcome. There’s a freaking warehouse full of this stuff at Westinghouse, all kinds of crazy things that Westinghouse abandoned because they weren’t proprietary enough and they were worried that they’d have to compete on the open market if they tried to productize them. Suits us just fine, though.”

The field was aswarm with glinting metal inchworm robots now, shifting back and forth, boiling and roiling and picking up enormous chunks of climber like cartoon ants carrying away a picnic basket. The playground was being transformed before her eyes, in ways gross and subtle, and it was enchanting to watch.

“Can I go out and have a look?” she said. “I mean, is it safe?”

“Sure,” Fiona said. “Of course! Our robots won’t harm you; they just nuzzle you and then change direction.”

“Still, try to stay out of their way,” Tjan said. “Some of that stuff they’re moving around is heavy.”

So she waded out onto the playground and carefully picked her way through the robot swarm. Some crawled over her toes. A couple twined between her feet and nearly tripped her up and once she stepped on one and it went still and waited politely for her to step off.

Once in the thick of it all, she switched on her video and began to record through the night filter. Standing there amid the whirl and racket and undulating motion of the jungle gym as it reconfigured itself, she felt like she’d arrived at some posthuman future where the world no longer needed her or her kind. Like humanity’s creations had evolved past their inventors.

She was going to have to do a lot of writing before bed.

Freddy was checking out in the lobby when Tjan dropped her off at 5AM. It was impossible to sneak past him, and he gave her a nasty, bucktoothed smile as she passed by him. It distracted her and made the writing come more slowly, but she was a pro and her readers had sent in a lot of kind mail, and there was one from Lester, still away on his mysterious errand but sounding happier than he had in months, positively giddy.

She set the alarm-clock so that she could be awake for her next stop, outside of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, where some local millionaires had backed a dozen New Work teams.

Another three weeks of this stuff and she’d get to go home—Florida. The condo was home now, and the junkyard. Hot and sticky and inventive and ever-changing. She fell asleep thinking of it and smiling.

It was two weeks more before Lester caught up with her, in Detroit of all places. Going back to the old place hadn’t been her idea, she’d been dragged back by impassioned pleas from the local Ford and GM New Work teams, who were second-generation-unemployed, old rust-belt families who’d rebooted with money from the companies that had wrung their profit from their ancestors and abandoned them.

The big focus in the rustbelt was eradicating the car. Some were building robots that could decommission leaky gas-stations and crater out the toxic soil. Some were building car-disassembly plants that reclaimed materials from the old beasts’ interiors. Between the Ford and GM teams with their latest bail-out and those funded by the UAW out of the settlements they’d won from the auto-makers, Detroit was springing up anew.

Lester emailed her and said that he’d seen on her blog that she was headed to Detroit, and did she want to meet him for dinner, being as he’d be in town too?

They ate at Devil’s Night, a restaurant in one of the reclaimed mansions in Brush Park, a neighborhood of wood-frame buildings that teenagers had all but burned to the ground over several decades’ worth of Halloweens. In Detroit, Devil’s Night was the pre-Halloween tradition of torching abandoned buildings, and all of Brush Park had been abandoned for years, its handsome houses attractive targets for midnight firebugs.

Reclaiming these buildings was an artisanal practice of urethaning the charred wood and adding clever putty, cement, and glass to preserve the look of a burned out hulk while restoring structural integrity. One entire floor of the restaurant was missing, having been replaced by polished tempered one-way glass that let upstairs diners look down on the bald spots and cleavage of those eating below.

Suzanne showed up a few minutes late, having gotten lost wandering the streets of a Detroit that had rewritten its map in the decades since she’d left. She was flustered, and not just because she was running late. There was a lingering awkwardness between her and Lester and her elation at seeing him again had an inescapable undercurrent of dread.

When the waiter pointed out her table, she told him he was mistaken. Lester wasn’t there, some stranger was: short-haired, burly, with a few days’ stubble. He wore a smart blazer and a loose striped cotton shirt underneath. He was beaming at her.

“Suzanne,” he said.

Her jaw literally dropped. She realized she was standing with her mouth open and shut it with a snap. “Lester?” she said, wonderingly.

He got up, still smiling, even laughing a little, and gave her a hug. It was Lester all right. That smell was unmistakable, and those big, warm paws he called hands.

When he let go of her, he laughed again. “Oh, Suzanne, I could not have asked for any better reaction than this. Thank you.” They were drawing stares. Dazedly, she sat down. So did he.

“Lester?” she said again.

“Yes, it’s me,” he said. “I’ll tell you about it over dinner. The waiter wants to take our drink orders.”

Theatrically, she ordered a double Scotch. The waiter rattled off the specials and Suzanne picked one at random. So did Lester.

“So,” he said, patting his washboard tummy. “You want to know how I got to this in ten weeks, huh?”

“Can I take notes?” Suzanne said, pulling out her pad.

“Oh by all means,” he said. “I got a discount on my treatments on the basis that you would end up taking notes.”

The clinic was in St Petersburg, Russia, in a neighborhood filled with Russian dentists who catered to American health tourists who didn’t want to pay US prices for crowns. The treatment hadn’t originated there: The electromuscular stimulation and chemical therapy for skin-tightening was standard for rich new mothers in Hollywood who wanted to get rid of pregnancy bellies. The appetite-suppressing hormones had been used in the Mexican pharma industry for years. Stem-cells had been an effective substitute for steroids when it came to building muscle in professional athletic circles the world round. Genomic therapy using genes cribbed from hummingbirds boosted metabolism so that the body burned 10,000 calories a day sitting still.

But the St Petersburg clinic had ripped, mixed and burned these different procedures to make a single, holistic treatment that had dropped Lester from 400 to 175 pounds in ten weeks.

“Is that safe?” she said.

“Everyone asks that,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, it’s safe if they’re monitoring you and standing by with lots of diagnostic equipment. But if you’re willing to take slower losses, you can go on a way less intensive regime that won’t require supervision. This stuff is the next big grey-market pharma gold. They’re violating all kinds of pharma patents, of course, but that’s what Cuba and Canada are for, right? Inside of a year, every fat person in America is going to have a bottle of pills in his pocket, and inside of two years, there won’t be any fat people.”

She shook her head. “You look… Lester, you look incredible. I’m so proud of you.”

He ducked his head. He really did look amazing. Dropping the weight had taken off ten years, and between that and the haircut and the new clothes, he was practically unrecognizable.

“Does Perry know?”

“Yeah,” Lester said. “I talked it over with him before I opted for it. Tjan had mentioned it in passing, it was a business his ex-wife was tangled up with through her mafiyeh connections, and once I had researched it online and talked to some people who’d had the treatment, including a couple MDs, I decided to just do it.”

It had cost nearly everything he’d made from Kodacell, but it was a small price to pay. He insisted on getting dinner.

Afterward, they strolled through the fragrant evening down Woodward Avenue, past the deco skyscrapers and the plowed fields and community gardens, their livestock pens making soft animal noises.

“It’s wonderful to see you again, Lester,” she said truthfully. She’d really missed him, even though his participation on her message boards had hardly let up (though it had started coming in at weird hours, something explained by the fact that he’d been in Russia). Walking alongside of him, smelling his smell, seeing him only out of the corner of her eye, it was like nothing had changed.

“It’s great to see you again too.” Tentatively, he took her hand in his big paw. His hand was warm but not sweaty, and she realized it had been a long time since anyone had held her hand. Heart pounding, she gave his hand a squeeze.

Their conversation and their walk rambled on, with no outward acknowledgment of the contact of hand on hand, but her hand squeezed his softly now and again, or he squeezed hers, and then they were at her hotel. How did that happen? she asked herself.

But then they were having a nightcap, and then he was in the elevator with her and then he was at the door of her room, and the blood was roaring in her ears as she stuck her credit-card in the reader to open it.

Wait, she tried to say. Lester, hang on a second, is what she tried to say, but her tongue was thick in her mouth. He stepped through the door with her, then said, “Uh, I need to use the bathroom.”

With relief, she directed him to the small water closet. The room was basic—now that she was her own boss, she wasn’t springing for Crowne Plazas and Hiltons, this was practically a coffin—and there was nowhere to sit except the bed. Her laptop was open and there was a lot of email in her inbox, but for once, she didn’t care. She was keenly attuned to the water noises coming from behind the door, each new sound making her jump a little. What was he doing in there, inserting a fucking diaphragm?

She heard him work the latch on the door and she put on her best smile. Her stomach was full of butterflies. He smiled back and sat down on the bed next to her, taking her hand again. His hand was moist from being washed, and a little slippery. She didn’t mind. Wordlessly, she put her head on his barrel chest. His heart was racing, and so was hers.

Gradually, they leaned back, until they were side by side on the bed, her head still on his chest. Moving like she was in a dream, she lifted her head from his chest and stared into his eyes. They were wide and scared. She kissed him, softly. His lips were trembling and unyielding. She kissed him more insistently, running her hands over his chest and shoulders, putting one leg over him. He closed his eyes and kissed her back. He wasn’t bad, but he was scared or nervous and all jittery.

She kissed his throat, breathing in the smell, savoring the rough texture of his three-day beard. Tentatively, he put his hands on her back, stroked her, worked gradually towards her bottom. Then he stopped.

“What’s wrong?” she said, propping herself up on her forearms, still straddling him.

She saw that there were tears in his eyes.

“Lester? What’s wrong?”

He opened his mouth and then shut it. Tears slid off his face into his ears. She blotted them with a corner of hotel-pillow.

She stroked his hair. “Lester?”

He gave out a choked sob and pushed her away. He sat up and put his face in his hands. His back heaved. She stroked his shoulders tentatively.

Finally, he seemed to get himself under control. He sniffled.

“I have to go,” he said.

“Lester, what’s wrong?”

“I can’t do this,” he said. “I…”

“Just tell me,” she said. “Whatever it is, tell me.”

“You didn’t want me before.” He said it simply without accusation, but it stung like he’d slapped her in the face.

“Oh, Lester,” she said, moving to hug him, but he pushed her away.

“I have to go,” he said, drawing himself up to his full height. He was tall, though he’d never seemed it before, but oh, he was tall, six foot four or taller. He filled the room. His eyes were red and swollen, but he put on a smile for her. “Thanks, Suzanne. It was really good to see you again. I’ll see you in Florida.”

She stood up and moved quickly to him, stood on tiptoe to put her arms around his neck and hug him fiercely. He hugged her back and she kissed him on the cheek.

“I’ll see you in Florida,” she said.

And then he was gone. She sat on the edge of her bed and waited for tears, but they didn’t come. So she picked up her laptop and started to work through her mountain of email.

<<< Back to Part 10

Continue to Part 12 >>>

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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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