Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 60 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

The smell at the Wal-Mart was overpowering. It was one part sharp mold, one part industrial disinfectant, a citrus smell that made your eyes water and your sinuses burn.

“I’ve rented some big blowers,” Perry said. “They’ll help air the place out. If that doesn’t work, I might have to resurface the floor, which would be rough—it could take a week to get that done properly.”

“A week?” Death said. Jesus. No way. Not another week. He didn’t know it for sure, but he had a feeling that a lot of these people would stop showing up eventually if there was no ride for them to geek out over. He sure would.

“You smell that? We can’t close the doors and the windows and leave it like this.”

Death’s people, standing around them, listening in, nodded. It was true. You’d melt people’s lungs if you shut them up with these fumes.

“How can I help?” Death said. It was his constant mantra with Perry. Sometimes he didn’t think Perry liked him very much, and it was good to keep on reminding him that Death and his buddies were here to be part of the solution. That Perry needed them.

“The roof is just about done, the robots are back online. The dividers should be done today. I’ve got the chairs stripped down for routine maintenance, I could use a couple people for that.”

“What’s Lester working on?” Death said.

“You’d have to ask him.”

Death hadn’t seen Lester in days, which was weird. He hoped Lester didn’t dislike him. He worried a lot about whether people liked him these days. He’d thought that Sammy liked him, after all.

“Where is he?”

“Don’t know.”

Perry put dark glasses on.

Death Waits took the hint. “Come on,” he said to Lacey, who patted him on the hand as he lifted up in his chair and rolled out to the van. “Let’s just call him.”


“It’s Death Waits. We’re down at the ride, but there’s not much to do around here. I thought maybe we could help you with whatever you were working on?”

“What do you know about what I’m working on?” Lester said.

“Um. Nothing.”

“So how do you know you want to help?”

Death Waits closed his eyes. He wanted to help these two. They’d made something important, didn’t they know that?

“What are you working on?”

“Nothing,” Lester said.

“Come on,” Death said. “Come on. We just want to pitch in. I love you guys. You changed my life. Let me contribute.”

Lester snorted. “Cross the road, go straight for two hundred yards, turn left at the house with the Cesar Chavez mural, and I’ll meet you there.”

“You mean go into the—” Death didn’t know what it was called. He always tried not to look at it when he came to the ride. That slum across the road. He knew it was somehow connected with the ride, but in the same way that the administrative buildings at Disney were connected with the parks. The big difference was that Disney’s extraneous buildings were shielded from view by berms and painted go-away green. The weird town across the road was right there.

“Yeah, across the road into the shantytown.”

“OK,” Death said. “See you soon.” He hung up and patted Lacey’s hand. “We’re going over there,” he said, pointing into the shantytown.

“Is it safe?”

He shrugged. “I guess so.” He loved his chair, loved how tall it made him, loved how it turned him into a half-ton cyborg who could raise up on his rear wheels and rock back and forth like a triffid. Now he felt very vulnerable—a crippled cyborg whose apparatus cost a small fortune, about to go into a neighborhood full of people who were technically homeless.

“Should we drive?”

“I think we can make it across,” he said. Traffic was light, though the cars that bombed past were doing 90 or more. He started to gather up a few more of his people, but reconsidered. It was a little scary to be going into the town, but he couldn’t afford to freak out Lester by showing up with an entourage.

The guardrail shielding the town had been bent down and flattened and the chair wheeled over it easily, with hardly a bump. As they crossed this border, they crossed over to another world. There were cooking smells—barbecue and Cuban spices—and a little hint of septic tank or compost heap. The buildings didn’t make any sense to Death’s eye, they curved or sloped or twisted or leaned and seemed to be made of equal parts pre-fab cement and aluminum and scrap lumber, laundry lines, power lines, and graffiti.

Death was used to drawing stares, even before he became a cyborg with a beautiful woman beside him, but this was different. There were eyes everywhere. Little kids playing in the street—hadn’t these people heard of stranger danger—stopped to stare at him with big shoe-button eyes. Faces peered out of windows from the ground on up to the third storey. Voices whispered and called.

Lacey gave them her sunniest smile and even waved at the little kids, and Death tried nodding at some of the homeys staring at him from the window of what looked like a little diner.

Death hadn’t known what to expect from this little town, but he certainly hadn’t pictured so many little shops. He realized that he thought of shops as being somehow civilized—tax paying, license-bearing entities with commercial relationships with suppliers, with cash-registers and employees. Not lawless and wild.

But every ground-floor seemed to have at least a small shop, advertised with bright OLED pixel-boards that showed rotating enticements—Productos de Dominica, Beautiful for Ladies, OFERTA!!!, Fantasy Nails. He passed twenty different shops in as many steps, some of them seemingly nothing more than a counter recessed into the wall with a young man sitting behind it, grinning at them.

Lacey stopped at one and bought them cans of coffee and small Mexican pastries dusted with cinnamon. He watched a hundred pairs of eyes watch Lacey as she drew out her purse and paid. At first he thought of the danger, but then he realized that if anyone was to mug them, it would be in full sight of all these people.

It was a funny thought. He’d grown up in sparse suburbs where you’d never see anyone walking or standing on the sidewalks or their porches. Even though it was a “nice” neighborhood, there were muggings and even killings at regular, horrific intervals. Walking there felt like taking your life into your hands.

Here, in this crowded place with a human density like a Disney park, it felt somehow safer. Weird.

They came to what had to be the Cesar Chavez mural—a Mexican in a cowboy hat standing like a preacher on the tailgate of a truck, surrounded by more Mexicans, farmer-types in cotton shirts and blue-jeans and cowboy hats. They turned left and rounded a corner into a little cul-de-sac with a confusion of hopscotches chalked onto the ground, ringed by parked bicycles and scooters. Lester stood among them, eating a churro in a piece of wax-paper.

“You seem to be recovering quickly,” he said, sizing up Death in his chair. “Good to see it.” He seemed a little distant, which Death chalked up to being interrupted.

“It’s great to see you again,” Death said. “My friends and I have been coming by the ride every day, helping out however we can, but we never see you there, so I thought I’d call you.”

“You’d call me.”

“To see if we could help,” Death said. “With whatever you’re doing.”

“Come in,” Lester said. He gestured behind him and Death noticed for the first time the small sign that said HOTEL ROTHSCHILD, with a stately peacock behind it.

The door was a little narrow for his rolling chair, but he managed to get it in with a little back-and-forth, but once inside, he was stymied by the narrow staircase leading up to the upper floors. The lobby—such as it was—was completely filled by him, Lacey and Lester, and even if the chair could have squeezed up the stairs, it couldn’t have cornered to get there.

Lester looked embarrassed. “Sorry, I didn’t think of that. Um. OK, I could rig a winch and hoist the chair up if you want. We’d have to belt you in, but it’s do-able. There are masts for pulleys on the top floor—it’s how they get the beds into the upper stories.”

“I can get up on canes,” Death Waits said. “Is it safe to leave my chair outside, though?”

Lester’s eyebrows went up. “Well of course—sure it is.” Death felt weird for having asked. He backed the chair out and locked the transmission, feeling silly. Who was going to hot-wire a wheelchair? He was such a dork. Lacey handed him his canes and he stood gingerly. He’d been making his way to the bathroom and back on canes all week, but he hadn’t tried stairs yet. He hoped Lester wasn’t too many floors up.

Lester turned out to be on the third floor, and by the time they reached it, Death Waits was dripping sweat and his eyeliner had run into his eyes. Lacey dabbed at him with her gauzy scarf and fussed over him. Death caught Lester looking at the two of them with a little smirk, so he pushed Lacey away and steadied his breathing with an effort.

“OK,” he said. “All done.”

“Great,” Lester said. “This is what I’m working on. You talked to Perry about it before, right? The Disney-in-a-Box printers. Well, I’ve cracked it. We can load our own firmware onto it—just stick it on a network with a PC, and the PC will find it and update it. Then it becomes an open box—it’ll accept anyone’s goop. You can send it your own plans.”

Death hadn’t seen a DiaB in person yet. Beholding it and knowing that he was the reason that Lester and Perry were experimenting with it in the first place made him feel a sense of excitement he hadn’t felt since the goth rehab of Fantasyland began.

“So how does this tie in to the ride?” Death asked. “I was thinking of building rides in miniature, but at that scale, will it really impress people? No, I don’t think so.

“So instead I was thinking that we could just push out details from the ride, little tabletop-sized miniatures showing a piece every day. Maybe whatever was newest. And you could have multiple feeds, you know, like an experimental trunk for objects that people in one region liked—”

Lester was shaking his head and holding up his hands. “Woah, wait a second. No, no, no—” Death was used to having his friends hang on his every word when he was talking about ideas for the ride and the story, so this brought him up short. He reminded himself who he was talking to.

“Sorry,” he said. “Got ahead of myself.”

“Look,” Lester said, prodding at the printer. “This thing is its own thing. We’re about more than the ride here. I know you really like it, and that’s very cool, but there’s no way that everything I do from now on is going to be about that fucking thing. It was a lark, it’s cool, it’s got its own momentum. But these boxes are going to be their own thing. I want to show people how to take control of the stuff in their living rooms, not advertise my little commercial project to them.”

Death couldn’t make sense out of this. It sounded like Lester didn’t like the ride. How was that possible? “I don’t get it,” he said at last. Lester was making him look like an idiot in front of Lacey, too. He didn’t like how this was going at all.

Lester picked up a screwdriver. “You see this? It’s a tool. You can pick it up and you can unscrew stuff or screw stuff in. You can use the handle for a hammer. You can use the blade to open paint cans. You can throw it away, loan it out, or paint it purple and frame it.” He thumped the printer. “This thing is a tool, too, but it’s not your tool. It belongs to someone else—Disney. It isn’t interested in listening to you or obeying you. It doesn’t want to give you more control over your life.

“This thing reminds me of life before fatkins. It was my very own personal body, but it wasn’t under my control. What’s the word the academics use? ‘Agency.’ I didn’t have any agency. It didn’t matter what I did, I was just this fat thing that my brain had to lug around behind it, listening to its never-ending complaints and aches and pains.

“If you don’t control your life, you’re miserable. Think of the people who don’t get to run their own lives: prisoners, reform-school kids, mental patients. There’s something inherently awful about living like that. Autonomy makes us happy.”

He thumped the top of the printer again. “So here’s this stupid thing, which Disney gives you for free. It looks like a tool, like a thing that you use to better your life, but in reality, it’s a tool that Disney uses to control your life. You can’t program it. You can’t change the channel. It doesn’t even have an off switch. That’s what gets me exercised. I want to redesign this thing so it gets converted from something that controls to something that gives you control.”

Lester’s eyes shone. Death hurt from head to toe, from the climb and the aftermath of the beating, and the life he’d lived. Lester was telling him that the ride wasn’t important to him anymore, that he’d be doing this other thing with the printer next, and then something else, and then something else. He felt a great, unexpected upwelling of bitterness at the thought.

“So what about the ride?”

“The ride? I told you. I’m done with it. It’s time to do the next thing. You said you wanted to help out, right?”

“With the ride,” Death said patiently, with the manner of someone talking to a child.

Lester turned his back on Death.

“I’m done with the ride,” Lester said. “I don’t want to waste your time.” It was clear he meant, You’re wasting my time. He bent over the printer.

Lacey looked daggers at his shoulders, then turned to help Death down the stairs. His canes clattered on the narrow staircase, and it was all he could do to keep from crying.

<<< Back to Part 59

Continue to Part 61>>>

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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