Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 14 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

Perry’s funny eyebrow twitched as he counted out the day’s take. This gig was all cream, all profit. His overheads amounted to a couple hundred a month to Jason and his crew to help with the robot and machinery maintenance in the Wal-Mart, half that to some of the shantytown girls to dust and sweep after closing, and a retainer to a bangbanger pack that ran security at the ride and in the market. Plus he got the market-stall rents, and so when the day was over, only the first hundred bucks out of the till went into overheads and the rest split even-steven with Lester.

Lester waited impatiently, watching him count twice before splitting the stack. Perry rolled up his take and dropped it into a hidden pocket sewn into his cargo shorts.

“Someday you’re going to get lucky and some chick is going to reach down and freak out, buddy,” Lester said.

“Better she finds my bank-roll than my prostate,” Perry said. Lester spent a lot of time thinking about getting lucky, making up for a lifetime of bad luck with girls.

“OK, let’s get changed,” Lester said. As usual, he was wearing tight-fitting jeans that owed a little debt to the bangbanger cycling shorts, something you would have had to go to a gay bar to see when Perry was in college. His shirt clung to his pecs and was tailored down to his narrow waist. It was a fatkins style, the kind of thing you couldn’t wear unless you had a uniquely adversarial relationship with your body and metabolism.

“No, Lester, no.” Perry said. “I said I’d go on this double date with you, but I didn’t say anything about letting you dress me up for it.” The two girls were a pair that Lester had met at a fatkins club in South Beach the week before, and he’d camera-phoned their pic to Perry with a scrawled drunken note about which one was his. They were attractive enough, but the monotonic fatkins devotion to sybaritism was so tiresome. Perry didn’t see much point in hooking up with a girl he couldn’t have a good technical discussion with.

“Come on, it’s good stuff, you’ll love it.”

“If I have to change clothes, I’m not interested.” Perry folded his arms. In truth, he wasn’t interested, period. He liked his little kingdom there, and he could get everything he needed from burritos to RAM at the market. He had a chest freezer full of bankruptcy sale organic MREs, for variety.

“Just the shirt then—I had it printed just for you.”

Perry raised his funny eyebrow. “Let’s see it.”

Lester turned to his latest car, a trike with huge, electric blue back tires, and popped the trunk, rummaged, and proudly emerged holding a bright blue Hawai’ian print shirt.

“Lester, are those . . . turds?”

“It’s transgressivist moderne,” Lester said, hopping from foot to foot. “Saw it in the New York Times, brought the pic to Gabriela in the market, she cloned it, printed it, and sent it out for stitching—an extra ten buck for same-day service.”

“I am not wearing a shirt covered in steaming piles of shit, Lester. No, no, no. A googol times no.”

Lester laughed. “Christ, I had you going, didn’t I? Don’t worry, I wouldn’t actually have let you go out in public wearing this. But how about this?” he said with a flourish, and brought out another shirt. Something stretchy and iridescent, like an oil-slick. It was sleeveless. “It’ll really work with your biceps and pecs. Also: looks pretty good compared to the turd shirt, doesn’t it? Go on, try it on.”

“Lester Banks, you are the gayest straight man I know,” Perry said. He shucked his sweaty tee and slipped into the shirt. Lester gave him a big thumbs-up. He examined his reflection in the blacked-out glass doors of the Wal-Mart.

“Yeah, OK,” he said. “Let’s get this over with.”

“Your enthusiasm, your best feature,” Lester said.

Their dates were two brunettes with deep tans and whole-eye cosmetic contacts that hid their pupils in favor of featureless expanses of white, so they looked like their eyes had rolled back into their heads, or maybe like they were wearing cue-balls for glass eyes. Like most of the fatkins girls Perry had met, they dressed to the nines, ate like pigs, drank like fishes, and talked about nothing but biotech.

“So I’m thinking, sure, mitochrondrial lengthening sounds like it should work, but if that’s so, why have we been screwing around with it for thirty years without accomplishing anything?” His date, Moira, worked at a law office, and she came up to his chest, and it was hard to tell with those eyes, but it seemed like she was totally oblivious to his complete indifference to mitochondria.

He nodded and tried not to look bored. South Beach wasn’t what it had once been, or maybe Perry had changed. He used to love to come here to people-watch, but the weirdos of South Beach seemed too precious when compared with the denizens of his own little settlement out on the Hollywood freeway.

“Let’s go for a walk on the beach,” Lester said, digging out his wallet and rubbing his card over the pay-patch on the table.

“Good idea,” Perry said. Anything to get off this patio and away from the insufferable club music thundering out of the speakers pole-mounted directly over their table.

The beach was gorgeous, so there was that. The sunset behind them stained the ocean bloody and the sand was fine and clean. Around their feet, Dade County beachcombers wormed endlessly through the sand, filtering out all the gunk, cig butts, condoms, needles, wrappers, loose change, wedding rings, and forgotten sunglasses. Perry nudged one with his toe and it roombaed away, following its instinct to avoid human contact.

“How do you figure they keep the vags from busting those open for whatever they’ve got in their bellies?” Perry said, looking over his date’s head at Lester, who was holding hands with his girl, carrying her shoes in his free hand.

“Huh? Oh, those things are built like tanks. Have to be to keep the sand out. You need about four hours with an air-hammer to bust one open.”

“You tried it?”

Lester laughed. “Who, me?”

Now it was Perry’s date’s turn to be bored. She wandered away toward the boardwalk, with its strip of novelty sellers. Perry followed, because he had a professional interest in the kind of wares they carried. Most of them originated on one of his printers, after all. Plus, it was the gentlemanly thing to do.

“What have we here?” he said as he pulled up alongside her. She was trying on a bracelet of odd, bony beads.

“Ectopic fetuses,” she said. “You know, like the Christian fundies use for stem-cell research? You quicken an unfertilized egg in vitro and you get a little ball of fur and bone and skin and stem-cells. It can never be a human, so it has no soul, so it’s not murder to harvest them.”

The vendor, a Turkish teenager with a luxurious mustache, nodded. “Every bead made from naturally occurring foetus-bones.” He handed one to Perry.

It was dry and fragile in his hand. The bones were warm and porous, and in tortured Elephant Man shapes that he recoiled from atavistically.

“Good price,” the Turkish kid said. He had practically no accent at all, and was wearing a Japanese baseball-team uniform and spray-on foot-coverings. Thoroughly Americanized. “Look here,” he said, and gestured at a little corner of his table.

It was covered in roses made from fabric—small and crude, with pin-backs. Perry picked one up. It had a certain naive charm. The fabric was some kind of very delicate leather —

“It’s skin,” his date said. “Foetal skin.”

He dropped it. His fingers tingled with the echo of the feeling of the leather. Jesus I hate biotech. The rose fluttered past the table to the sandy boardwalk, and the Turkish kid picked it up and blew it clean.

“Sorry,” Perry said, sticking his hands in his pockets. His date bought a bracelet and a matching choker made of tiny bones and teeth, and the Turkish kid, leering, helped her fasten the necklace. When they returned to Lester and his date, Perry knew the evening was at a close. The girls played a couple rounds of eye-hockey, unreadable behind their lenses, and Perry shrugged apologetically at Lester.

“Well then,” Lester said, “it sure has been a nice night.” Lester got smooched when they saw the girls off in a pedicab. In the buzz and hum of its flywheel, Perry got a damp and unenthusiastic handshake.

“Win some, lose some,” Lester said as the girls rolled away in a flash of muscular calves from the pair of beach-perfect cabbies pedaling the thing.

“You’re not angry?” Perry said.

“Nah,” Lester said. “I get laid too much as it is. Saps me of my precious bodily fluids. Gotta keep some chi inside, you know?”

Perry raised up his funny eyebrow and made it dance.

“Oh, OK,” Lester said. “You got me. I’m meeting mine later, after she drops her friend off.”

“I’ll get a cab home then, shall I?”

“Take my car,” Lester said. “I’ll get a ride back in the morning. No way you’ll get a taxi to take you to our neighborhood at this hour.”

Perry’s car had been up on blocks for a month, awaiting his attention to its failing brakes and mushy steering. So it was nice to get behind the wheel of Lester’s Big Daddy Roth trike and give it a little gas out on the interstate, the smell of the swamp and biodiesel from the big rigs streaming past the windscreen. The road was dark and treacherous with potholes, but Perry got into the rhythm of it and found he didn’t want to go home, quite, so he kept driving, into the night. He told himself that he was scouting dead malls for future expansion, but he had kids who’d video-documented the status of all the likely candidates in the hood, and he kept tabs on his choicest morsels via daily sat photos that he subscribed to in his morning feed.

What the hell was he doing with his life? The Wal-Mart ride was a lark—it had been Lester’s idea, but Lester had lost interest and Perry had done most of the work. They weren’t quite squatting the Wal-Mart: Perry paid rent to a state commission that collected in escrow for the absentee landlord. It was a fine life, but the days blurred one into the next, directionless. Building the ride had been fun, setting up the market had been fun, but running them—well, he might as well be running a laundromat for all the mental acuity his current job required.

“You miss it,” he said to himself over the whistle of the wind and the hiss of the fat contact-patches on the rear tires. “You want to be back in the shit, inventing stuff, making it all happen.”

For the hundredth time, he thought about calling Suzanne Church. He missed her, too, and not just because she made him famous (and now he was no longer famous). She put it all in perspective for him, and egged him on to greater things. She’d been their audience, and they’d all performed for her, back in the golden days.

It was, what, 5AM in Russia? Or was it two in the afternoon? He had her number on his speed-dial, but he never rang it. He didn’t know what he’d tell her.

He could call Tjan, or even Kettlebelly, just ring them out of the blue, veterans together shooting the shit. Maybe they could have a Kodacell reunion, and get together to sing the company song, wearing the company t-shirt.

He pulled the car off at a truck stop and bought an ice-cream novelty from a vending machine with a robotic claw that scooped the ice-cream, mushed it into the cone, then gave it a haircut so that it looked like Astro Boy’s head, then extended the cone on a robotic claw. It made him smile. Someone had invented this thing. It could have been him. He knew where you could download vision-system libraries, and force-feedback libraries. He knew where you could get plans for the robotics, and off-the-shelf motors and sensors. Christ, these days he had a good idea where you could get the ice-cream wholesale, and which crooked vending-machine interests he’d have to grease to get his stuff into truck-stops.

He was thirty four years old, he was single and childless, and he was eating an ice-cream in a deserted truck-stop at two in the morning by the side of a freeway in south Florida. He bossed a low-budget tourist attraction and he ran a pirate flea-market.

What the hell was he doing with his life?

Getting mugged, that’s what.

They came out of the woods near the picnic tables, four bangbangers, but young ones, in their early teens. Two had guns—nothing fancy, just AK-47s run off a computer-controlled lathe somewhere in an industrial park. You saw them all over the place, easy as pie to make, but the ammo was a lot harder to come by. So maybe they were unloaded.

Speaking of unloaded. He was about to piss his pants.

“Wallet,” one of them said. He had a bad mustache that reminded him of the Turkish kid on the beach. Probably the same hormones that gave kids mustaches gave them bad ideas like selling fetus jewelry or sticking up people by the ice-cream machines at late night truck-stops. “Keys,” he said. “Phone,” he added.

Perry slowly set down the ice-cream cone on the lid of the trash-can beside him. He’d only eaten one spike off Astro-Boy’s head.

His vision telescoped down so that he was looking at that kid, at his mustache, at the gun in his hands. He was reaching for his wallet, slowly. He’d need to hitch a ride back to town. Canceling the credit-cards would be tough, since he’d stored all the identity-theft passwords and numbers in his phone, which they were about to take off him. And he’d have to cancel the phone, for that matter.

“Do you have an older brother named Jason?” his mouth said, while his hands were still being mugged.


“Works a stall by the Wal-Mart ride, selling contact lenses?”

The kid’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t know me, man. You don’t want to know me. Better for your health if you don’t know me.”

His hands were passing over his phone, his wallet, his keys—Lester’s keys. Lester would be glad to have an excuse to build a new car.

“Only I own the Wal-Mart ride, and I’ve known Jason a long time. I gave him his first job, fixing the printers. You look like him.”

The kid’s three buddies were beginning their slow fade into the background. The kid was visibly on the horns of a dilemma. The gun wavered. Perry’s knees turned to water.

“You’re that guy?” the kid said. He peered closer. “Shit, you are.”

“Keep it all,” Perry said. His mouth wasn’t so smart. Knowing who mugged you wasn’t good for your health.

“Shit,” the kid said. The gun wavered. Wavered.

“Come on,” one of his buddies said. “Come on, man!”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” the kid said, his voice flat.

Perry knew he was a dead man.

“I’m really sorry,” the kid said, once his friends were out of range.

“Me too,” said Perry.

“You won’t tell my brother?”

Perry froze. Time dilated. He realized that his fists were clenched so tight that his knuckles hurt. He realized that he had a zit on the back of his neck that was rubbing against his collar. He realized that the kid had a paperback book stuck in the waistband of his bangbanger shorts, which was unusual. It was a fantasy novel. A Conan novel. Wow.

Time snapped back.

“I won’t tell your brother,” he said. Then he surprised himself, “But you’ve got to give me back the credit-cards and leave the car at the market in the morning.”

The kid nodded. Then he seemed to realize he was holding a gun on Perry. He lowered it. “Yeah, that’s fair,” he said. “Can’t use the fucking cards these days anyway.”

“Yeah,” Perry said. “Well, there’s some cash there anyway.” He realized he had five hundred bucks in a roll in a hidden pocket in his shorts.

“You get home OK?”

“I’ll thumb a ride,” Perry said.

“I can call you a taxi,” the kid said. “It’s not safe to hang around here.”

“That’s really nice of you,” Perry said. “Thanks.”

The kid took out a little phone and prodded it for a minute. “On the way,” he said. “The guns aren’t loaded.”

“Oh, well,” Perry said. “Good to know.”

An awkward silence spread between them. “Look, I’m really sorry,” the kid said. “We don’t really do this. It’s our first night. My brother would really kill me.”

“I won’t tell him,” Perry said. His heart was beating again, not thundering or keeping ominously still. “But you know, this isn’t smart. You’re going to stick someone up who has bullets and he’s gonna shoot you.”

“We’ll get ammo,” the kid said.

“And shoot him? That’s only a little better, you know.”

“What do you want me to say?” the kid said, looking young and petulant. “I apologized.”

“Come by tomorrow with the car and let’s talk, all right?”

Lester didn’t even notice that his car was missing until the kid drove up with it, and when he asked about it, Perry just raised his funny eyebrow at him. That funny eyebrow, it had the power to cloud men’s minds.

“What’s your name?” Perry asked the kid, giving him the spare stool by the ticket-window. It was after lunch time, when the punishing heat slowed everyone to a sticky crawl, and the crowd was thin—one or two customers every half hour.

“Glenn,” the kid said. In full daylight, he looked older. Perry had noticed that the shantytowners never stopped dressing like teenagers, wearing the fashions of their youths forever, so that a walk through the market was like a tour through the teen fashions of the last thirty years.

“Glenn, you did me a real solid last night.”

Glenn squirmed on his stool. “I’m sorry about that —”

“Me too,” Perry said. “But not as sorry as I might have been. You said it was your first night. Is that true?”

“Car-jacking, sure,” the kid said.

“But you get into other shit, don’t you? Mugging? Selling a little dope? Something like that?”

“Everyone does that,” Glenn said. He looked sullen.

“Maybe,” Perry said. “And then a lot of them end up doing a stretch in a work-camp. Sometimes they get bit by water-moccasins and don’t come out. Sometimes, one of the other prisoners hits them over the head with a shovel. Sometimes you just lose three to five years of your life to digging ditches.”

Glenn said nothing.

“I’m not trying to tell you how to run your life,” Perry said. “But you seem like a decent kid, so I figure there’s more in store for you than getting killed or locked up. I know that’s pretty normal around here, but you don’t have to go that way. Your brother didn’t.”

“What the fuck do you know about it, anyway?” The kid was up now, body language saying he wanted to get far away, fast.

“I could ask around the market,” Perry said, as though the kid hadn’t spoken. “Someone here has got to be looking for someone to help out. You could open your own stall.”

The kid said, “It’s all just selling junk to idiots. What kind of job is that for a man?”

“Selling people stuff they can’t be bothered to make for themselves is a time-honored way of making a living. There used to be professional portrait photographers who’d take a pic of your family for money. They were even considered artists. Besides, you don’t have to sell stuff you download. You can invent stuff and print that.”

“Get over it. Those days are over. No one cares about inventions anymore.”

It nailed Perry between the eyes, like a slaughterhouse bolt. “Yeah, yeah,” he said. He didn’t want to talk to this kid any more than this kid wanted to talk to him. “Well, if I can’t talk you out of it, it’s your own business. . .” He started to rearrange his ticket-desk.

The kid saw his opportunity for freedom and bolted. He was probably headed for his brother’s stall and then the long walk to wherever he planned on spending his day. Everything was a long walk from here, or you could wait for the busses that ran on the hour during business-hours.

Perry checked out the car, cleaned out the empties and the roaches and twists from the back seat, then parked it. A couple more people came by to ride his ride, and he took their money.

Lester had just finished his largest-ever flattened-soda-can mechanical computer, it snaked back and forth across the whole of the old Wal-Mart solarium, sheets of pressboard with precision-cut gears mounted on aviation bearings—Francis had helped him with those. All day, he’d been listening to the racket of it grinding through its mighty 0.001KHz calculations, dumping carloads of M&Ms into its output hopper. You programmed it with regulation baseballs, footballs, soccer-balls, and wiffleballs: dump them in the input hopper and they would be sorted into the correct chutes to trigger the operations. With a whopping one kilobit of memory, the thing could best any of the early vacuum tube computers without a single electrical component, and Lester was ready to finally declare victory over the cursed Univac.

Perry let himself be coaxed into the work-room, deputizing Francis to man the ticket-desk, and watched admiringly as Lester put the machine through its paces.

“You’ve done it,” Perry said.

“Well, I gotta blog it,” Lester said. “Run some benchmarks, really test it out against the old monsters. I’m thinking of using it to brute-force the old Nazi Enigma code. That’ll show those dirty Nazi bastards! We’ll win the war yet!”

Perry found himself giggling. “You’re the best, man,” he said to Lester. “It’s good that there’s at least one sane person around here.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, Perry.”

“I was talking about you, Lester.”

“Uh-oh,” Lester said. He scooped a double handful of brown M&Ms up from the output hopper and munched them. “It’s not a good sign when you start accusing me of being the grownup in our partnership. Have some M&Ms and tell me about it.”

Perry did, unburdening himself to his old pal, his roommate of ten years, the guy he’d gone to war with and started businesses with and collaborated with.

“You’re restless, Perry,” Lester said. He put nine golf-balls, a ping-pong ball, and another nine golf balls in the machine’s input hopper. Two and a third seconds later, eighty one M&Ms dropped into the output hopper. “You’re just bored. You’re a maker, and you’re running things instead of making things.”

“No one cares about made things anymore, Les.”

“That’s sort of true,” Lester said. “I’ll allow you that. But it’s only sort of true. What you’re missing is how much people care about organizations still. That was the really important thing about the New Work: the way we could all come together to execute, without a lot of top-down management. The bangbanger arms dealers, the bio-terrorists and fatkins suppliers—they all run on social institutions that we perfected back then. You’ve got something like that here with your market, a fluid social institution that you couldn’t have had ten or fifteen years ago.”

“If you say so,” Perry said. The M&Ms were giving him heartburn. Cheap chocolate didn’t really agree with his stomach.

“I do. And so the answer is staring you right in the face: go invent some social institutions. You’ve got one creeping up here in the ride. There are little blogospheres of fans who coordinate what they’re going to bring down and where they’re going to put it. Build on that.”

“No one’s going to haul ass across the country to ride this ride, Les. Get real.”

“Course not.” Lester beamed at him. “I’ve got one word for you, man: franchise!”


“Build dupes of this thing. Print out anything that’s a one of a kind, run them as franchises.”

“Won’t work,” Perry said. “Like you said, this thing works because of the hardcore of volunteer curators who add their own stuff to it—it’s always different. Those franchises would all be static, or would diverge… It’d just be boring compared to this.”

“Why should they diverge? Why should they be static? You could network them, dude! What happens in one, happens in all. The curators wouldn’t just be updating one exhibit, but all of them. Thousands of them. Millions of them. A gigantic physical wiki. Oh, it’d be so very very very cool, Perry. A cool social institution.

“Why don’t you do it?”

“I’m gonna. But I need someone to run the project. Someone who’s good at getting people all pointed in the same direction. You, pal. You’re my hero on this stuff.”

“You’re such a flatterer.”

“You love it, baby,” Lester said, and fluttered his long eyelashes. “Like the lady said to the stamp collector, philately will get you everywhere.”

“Oy,” Perry said. “You’re fired.”

“You can’t fire me, I’m a volunteer!”

Lester dropped six golf-balls and a heavy medicine ball down the hopper. The machine ground and chattered, then started dropping hundred-loads of M&Ms—100, 200, 300, 400, 500, 600, 700—then some change.

“What operation was that?” Perry said. He’d never seen Lester pull out the medicine ball.

“Figure it out,” Lester said.

Perry thought for a moment. Six squared? Six cubed? Log six? “Six factorial? My God you’re weird, Les.”

“Genius is never appreciated.” He scooped up a double-handful of brown M&Ms. “In your face, Von Neumann! Let’s see your precious ENIAC top this!”

<<< Back to Part 13

Continue to Part 15>>>

* * *

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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