Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 58 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

Lester hadn’t left Suzanne’s apartment in days. She’d rented a place in the shantytown—bemused at the idea of paying rent to a squatter, but pleased to have a place of her own now that Lester and Perry’s apartment had become so tense.

Technically, he was working on the Disney printers, which she found interesting in an abstract way. They had a working one and a couple of disassembled ones, and watching the working one do its thing was fascinating for a day or two, but then it was just a 3D TV with one channel, broadcasting one frame per day.

She dutifully wrote about it, though, and about Perry’s ongoing efforts to re-open the ride. She got the sense from him that he was heading for flat-ass broke. Lester and he had always been casual about money, but buying all new robots, more printers, replacement windows, fixing the roof—none of it was cheap. And with the market in pieces, he wasn’t getting any rent.

She looked over Lester’s shoulder for the fiftieth time. “How’s it going?”

“Don’t write about this, OK?”

He’d never said that to her.

“I’ll embargo it until you ship.”

He grunted. “Fine, I guess. OK, well, I’ve got it running on generic goop, that part was easy. I can also load my own designs, but that requires physical access to the thing, in order to load new firmware. They don’t make it easy, which is weird. It’s like they don’t plan on updating it once it’s in the field—maybe they just plan on replacing them at regular intervals.”

“Why’s the firmware matter to you?”

“Well, that’s where it stores information about where to get the day’s designs. If we’re going to push our own designs to it, we need to give people an easy way to tell it to tune in to our feed, and the best way to do that is to change the firmware. The alternative would be, oh, I don’t know, putting another machine upstream of it to trick it into thinking that it’s accessing their site when it’s really going to ours. That means getting people to configure another machine—no one but a few hardcore geeks will want to do that.”

Suzanne nodded. She wondered if “a few hardcore geeks” summed up the total audience for this project in any event. She didn’t mention it, though. Lester’s brow was so furrowed you could lose a dime in the crease above his nose.

“Well, I’m sure you’ll get it,” she said.

“Yeah. It’s just a matter of getting at the boot-loader. I could totally do this if I could get at the boot-loader.”

Suzanne knew what a boot-loader was, just barely. The thing that chose which OS to load when you turned it on. She wondered if every daring, sexy technology project started like this, a cranky hacker muttering angrily about boot-loaders.

Suzanne missed Russia. She’d had a good life there, covering the biotech scene. Those hackers were a lot scarier than Lester and Perry, but they were still lovable and fascinating in their own way. Better than the Ford and GM execs she used to have to cozy up to.

She’d liked the manic hustle of Russia, the glamour and the squalor. She’d bought a time-share dacha that she could spend weekends at, and the ex-pats in Petersburg had rollicking parties and dinners where they took apart the day’s experiences on Planet Petrograd.

“I’m going out, Lester,” she said. Lester looked up from the DiaB and blinked a few times, then seemed to rewind the conversation.

“Hey,” he said. “Oh, hey. Sorry, Suzanne. I’m just—I’m trying to work instead of think these days. Thinking just makes me angry. I don’t know what to do—” He broke off and thumped the side of the printer.

“How’s Perry getting on with rebuilding?”

“He’s getting on,” Lester said. “As far as I know. I read that the Death Waits kid and his people had come by to help. Whatever that means.”

“He freaks me out,” Suzanne said. “I mean, I feel terrible for him, and he seemed nice enough in the hospital. But all those people—the way they follow him around. It’s just weird. Like the charismatic cults back home.” She realized she’d just called Russia “home” and it made her frown. Just how long was she going to stay here with these people, anyway?

Lester hadn’t noticed. “I guess they all feel sorry for him. And they like what he has to say about stories. I just can’t get a lot of spit in my mouth over the ride these days, though. It feels like something we did and completed and should move on from.”

Suzanne didn’t have anything to say, and Lester wasn’t particularly expecting anything, he was giving off a palpable let-me-work vibe, so she let herself out of the apartment—her apartment!—and headed out into the shantytown. On the way to the ride, she passed the little tea-house where Kettlewell and Tjan had done their scheming and she suddenly felt very, very old. The only grownup on-site.

She was about to cross the freeway to the ride when her phone rang. She looked at the face and then nearly dropped it. Freddy was calling her.

“Hello, Suzanne,” he said. The gloat in his voice was unmistakable. He had something really slimy up his sleeve.

“How can I help you?”

“I’m calling for comment on a story,” he said. “It’s my understanding that your lad, Perry, pitched a tantie and fired the business-managers of the ride, and has told the lawyers representing him against Disney that he intends to drop the suit.”

“Is there a question in there?”

“Oh, there are many questions in there, my darling. For starters, I wondered how it could possibly be true if you haven’t written about it on your little ‘blog’—” even over the phone, she could hear the sarcastic quotes. “—You seem to be quite comprehensive in documenting the undertakings of your friends down there in Florida.”

“Are you asking me to comment on why I haven’t commented?”

“For starters.”

“Have you approached Perry for a comment?”

“I’m afraid he was rather abrupt. And I couldn’t reach his Valkyrie of the Midwest, either. So I’m left calling on you, Suzanne. Any comment?”

Suzanne stared across the road at the ride. She’d been gassed there, chased by armed men, watched a war there.

“The ride doesn’t have much formal decision-making process,” she said finally. “That means that words like ‘fired’ don’t really apply here. The boys might have a disagreement about the best way to proceed, but if that’s the case, you’ll have to talk to them about it.”

“Are you saying that you don’t know if your boyfriend’s best friend is fighting with his business partners? Don’t you all live together?”

“I’m saying that if you want to find out what Lester and Perry are doing, you’ll have to ask Lester and Perry.”

“And the living together thing?”

“We don’t live together,” she said. It was technically true.

“Really?” Freddy said.

“Do we have a bad connection?”

“You don’t live together?”


“Where do you live then?”

“My place,” she said. “Have your informants been misinforming you? I hope you haven’t been paying for your information, Freddy. I suppose you don’t, though. I suppose there’s no end of cranks who really enjoy spiteful gossip and are more than happy to email you whatever fantasies they concoct.”

Freddy tsked. “And you don’t know what’s happened to Kettlewell and Tjan?”

“Have you asked them?”

“I will,” he said. “But since you’re the ranking reporter on the scene.”

“I’m just a blogger, Freddy. A busy blogger. Good afternoon.”

The call left her shaking, though she was proud of how calm she’d kept her voice. What a goddamned troll. And she was going to have to write about this now.

There were ladders leaned up against the edge of the ride, and a motley crew of roofers and glaziers on them and on the roof, working to replace the gaping holes the storm had left. The workers mostly wore black and had dyed hair and lots of metal flashing from their ears and faces as they worked. A couple had stripped to the waist, revealing full-back tattoos or even more piercings and subcutaneous implants, like armor running over their spines and shoulder-blades. A couple of boom-boxes blasted out grinding, incoherent music with a lot of electronic screams.

Around the ride, the market-stalls were coming back, rebuilt from a tower of fresh-sawed lumber stacked in the parking-lot. This was a lot more efficient, with gangs of vendors quickly sawing the lumber to standard sizes, slapping each one with a positional sensor, then watching the sensor’s lights to tell them when it was properly lined up with its mates, and then slipping on corner-clips that held it all together. Suzanne watched as a whole market stall came together this way, in the space of five minutes, before the vendors moved on to their next stall. It was like a high-tech version of an Amish barn-raising, performed by bandanna-clad sketchy hawkers instead of bearded technophobes.

She found Perry inside, leaning over a printer, tinkering with its guts, LED torches clipped to the temples of his glasses. He was hampered by having only one good arm, and he pressed her into service passing him tools for a good fifteen minutes before he straightened up and really looked at her.

“You come down to help out?”

“To write about it, actually.”

The room was a hive of activity. A lot of goth kids of various ages and degrees of freakiness, a few of the squatter kids, some people she recognized from the second coming of Death Waits. She couldn’t see Death Waits, though.

“Well, that’s good.” He powered up the printer and the air filled with the familiar smell of Saran-Wrap-in-a-microwave. She had an eerie flashback to her first visit to this place, when they’d showed her how they could print mutated, Warhol-ized Barbie heads. “How’s Lester getting on with cracking that printer?”

Why don’t you ask him yourself? She didn’t say it. She didn’t know why Lester had come to her place after the flood instead of going home, why he stiffened up and sniffed when she mentioned Perry’s name, why he looked away when she mentioned Hilda.

“Something about firmware.”

He straightened his back more, making it pop and gave her his devilish grin, the one where his wonky eyebrow went up and down. “It’s always firmware,” he said, and laughed a little. Maybe they were both remembering those old days, the Boogie Woogie Elmos.

“Looks like you’ve got a lot of help,” Suzanne said, getting out a little steno pad and a pen.

Perry nodded at it, and she was struck by how many times they’d stood like this, a few feet apart, her pen poised over her pad. She’d chronicled so much of this man’s life.

“They’re good people, these folks. Some of them have some carpentry or electronics experience, the rest are willing to learn. It’s going faster than I thought it would. Lots of support from out in the world, too—people sending in cash to help with replacement parts.”

“Have you heard from Kettlewell or Tjan?”

The light went out of his face. “No,” he said.

“How about from the lawyers?”

“No comment,” he said. It didn’t sound like a joke.

“Come on, Perry. People are starting to ask questions. Someone’s going to write about this. Do you want your side told or not?”

“Not,” he said, and disappeared back into the guts of the printer.

She stared at his back for a long while before turning on her heel, muttering, “Fuck,” and walking back out into the sunshine. There’d been a musty smell in the ride, but out here it was the Florida smell of citrus and car-fumes, and sweat from the people around her, working hard, trying to wrest a living from the world.

She walked back across the freeway to the shantytown and ran into Hilda coming the other way. The younger woman gave her a cool look and then looked away, and crossed.

That was just about enough, Suzanne thought. Enough playtime with the kids. Time to go find some grownups. She wasn’t here for her health. If Lester didn’t want to hang out with her, if Perry had had enough of her, it was time to go do something else.

She went back to her room, where Lester was still working on his DiaB project. She took out her suitcase and packed with the efficiency of long experience. Lester didn’t notice, not even when she took the blouse she’d hand-washed and hung to dry on the back of his chair, folded it and put it in her suitcase and zipped it shut.

She looked at his back working over the bench for a long time. He had a six-pack of chocolate pudding beside him, and a wastebasket overflowing with food wrappers and boxes. He shifted in his seat and let out a soft fart.

She left. She paid the landlady through the end of the week. She could send Lester an email later.

The cab took her to Miami. It wasn’t until she got to the airport that she realized she had no idea where she was going. Boston? San Francisco? Petersburg? She opened her laptop and began to price out last minute tickets. The rush of travelers moved around her and she was jostled many times.

The standby sites gave her a thousand options—Miami to JFK to Heathrow to Petersburg, Miami to Frankfurt to Moscow to Petersburg, Miami to Dallas to San Francisco…. The permutations were overwhelming, especially since she wasn’t sure where she wanted to be.

Then she heard something homey and familiar: a large group of Russian tourists walking past, talking loudly in Russian, complaining about the long flight, the bad food, and the incompetence of their tour operator. She smiled to see the old men with their high-waisted pants and the old women with their bouffant hair.

She couldn’t help but eavesdrop—at their volume, she would have been hard-pressed not to listen in. A little boy and girl tore ass around the airport, under the disapproving glares from DHS goons, and they screamed as they ran, “Disney World! Disney World! Disney World!”

She’d never been—she’d been to a couple of the kitschy Gulag parks in Russia, and she’d grown up with Six Flags coaster parks and Ontario Place and the CNE in Toronto, not far from Detroit. But she’d never been to The Big One, the place that even now managed to dominate the world’s consciousness of theme-parks.

She asked her standby sites to find her a room in a Disney hotel instead, looking for an inclusive rate that would get her onto the rides and pay for her meals. These were advertised at roadside kiosks at 100-yard intervals on every freeway in Florida, so she suspected they were the best deal going.

A moment of browsing showed her that she’d guessed wrong. A week in Disney cost a heart-stopping sum of money—the equivalent of six month’s rent in Petersburg. How did all these Russians afford this trip? What the hell compelled people to part with these sums?

She was going to have to find out. It was research. Plus she needed a vacation.

She booked in, bought a bullet-train ticket, and grabbed the handle of her suitcase. She examined her welcome package as she waited for the train. She was staying at something called the Polynesian Resort hotel, and the brochure showed a ticky-tacky tiki-themed set of longhouses set on an ersatz white-sand beach, with a crew of Mexican and Cuban domestic workers in leis, Hawai’ian shirts, and lava-lavas waving and smiling. Her package included a complimentary luau—the pictures made it clear this was nothing like the tourist luaus she’d attended in Maui. On top of that, she was entitled to a “character breakfast” with a wage-slave in an overheated plush costume, and an hour with a “resort counsellor” who’d help her plan her trip for maximal fun.

The bullet train came and took on the passengers, families bouncing with anticipation, joking and laughing in every language spoken. These people had just come through a US Customs checkpoint and they were acting like the world was a fine place. She decided there must be something to this Disney business.

<<< Back to Part 57

Continue to Part 59>>>

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 is now available in print from Tor Books. You can read all previous installments of Makers on on our index page.


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