Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 69 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

Sammy got his rematch with Hackelberg when the quarterly financials came out. It was all that black ink, making him giddy.

“I don’t want to be disrespectful,” he said, knowing that in Hackelberg’s books, there could be nothing more disrespectful than challenging him. “But we need to confront some business realities here.”

Hackelberg’s office was nothing like Sammy had expected—not a southern gentleman’s study lined with hunting trophies and framed ancestral photos. It was as spare as the office of a temp, almost empty save for a highly functional desk, built-in bookcases lined with law-books, and a straight-backed chair. It was ascetic, severe, and it was more intimidating than any dark-wood den could hope to be.

Hackelberg’s heavy eyelids drooped a little, the corners of his eyes going down with them. It was like staring down a gator. Sammy resisted the urge to look away.

“The numbers don’t lie. DiaB is making us a fortune, and most of it’s coming from the platform, not the goop and not the increased visitor numbers. We’re making money because other people are figuring out ways to use our stuff. It’s our fastest-growing revenue source and if it continues, we’re going to end up being a DiaB company with a side-business in theme-parks.

“That’s the good news. The bad news is that these characters in the ghost mall have us in their crosshairs. They’re prying us open faster than we can lock ourselves down. But here’s another way of looking at it: every time they add another feature to the DiaB, they make owning a DiaB more attractive, which makes it easier for us to sell access to the platform to advertisers.”

Hackelberg held up his hands. “Samuel, I think I’ve heard enough. Your job is to figure out new businesses for us to diversify into. My job is to contain our liability and protect our brand and investors. It sounds a lot to me like you’re saying that you want me to leave off doing my job so that you can do yours.”

Sammy squirmed. “No, that’s not it at all. We both want to protect the business. I’m not saying that you need to give these guys a free ride. What I’m saying is, suing these guys is not good for our business. It costs us money, goodwill—it distracts us from doing our jobs.”

Hackelberg leaned back and looked coolly into Sammy’s eyes. “What are you proposing as an alternative, then?”

The idea had come to Sammy in the shower one morning, as he mentally calculated the size of his coming quarterly bonus. A great idea. Out of the box thinking. The right answer to the question that no one had thought to ask. It had seemed so perfect then. Now, though—

“I think we should buy them out.”

Hackelberg’s thin, mirthless grin made his balls shrivel up.

Sammy held up his hands. “Here, look at this. I drew up some figures. What they’re earning. What we earn from them. Growth estimates over the next five quarters. It’s not just some random idea I had in the shower. This makes sense.” He passed over a sheaf of papers, replete with pie-charts.

Hackelberg set it down in the center of his desk, perfectly square to the corners. He flipped through the first five pages, then squared the stack up again.

“You’ve done a lot of work here, Samuel. I can really see that.”

He got up from his straight-backed chair, lifted Sammy’s papers between his thumb and forefinger, and crossed to the wall. There was a shredder there, its maw a wide rectangle, the kind of thing that you can stick entire hardcover books (or hard drives) into. Calmly, Hackelberg fed Sammy’s paper into the shredder, fastidiously holding the paper-clipped corner between thumb and forefinger, then dropping the corner in once the rest had been digested.

“I won’t ask you for your computer,” he said, settling back into his chair. “But I expect that you will back up your other data and then send the hard-drive to IT to be permanently erased. I don’t want any record of this, period. I want this done by the end of business today.”

Sammy’s mouth hung open. He shut it. Then he opened it again.

Abruptly, Hackelberg stood, knocking his chair to the ground behind him.

“Not one word, do you understand me? Not one solitary word, you goddamned idiot! We’re in the middle of being sued by these people. I know you know this, since it’s your fault that it’s happening. I know that you know that the stakes are the entire company. Now, say a jury were to discover that we were considering buying these assholes out? Say a jury were to decide that our litigation was a base stratagem to lower the asking price for their, their company—” The word dripped with sarcasm—“what do you suppose would happen? If you had the sense of a five year old, you’d have known better than to do this. Good Christ, Page, I should have security escort you to the gate.

“Turn on your heel and go weep in the corridor. Don’t stand in my office for one more second. Get your computer to IT by 2PM. I will check. That goes for anyone you worked with on this, anyone who has a copy of this information. Now, leave.” Sammy stood rooted in place. “LEAVE, you ridiculous little dog’s-pizzle, get out of my sight!”

Sammy drew in a deep breath. He thought about saying something like, You can’t talk to me like that, but it was very likely that Hackelberg could talk to him just like that. He felt light-headed and a little sick, and he backed slowly out of the office.

Standing in the corridor, he began to shake. He pounded the elevator button, and felt the eyes of Hackelberg’s severe secretary burning into his back. Abruptly, he turned away and yanked open the staircase door so hard it smashed into the wall with a loud bang. He took the stairs in a rush of desperate claustrophobia, wanting more than anything to get outside, to breathe in the fresh air.

He stumbled on the way down, falling a couple of steps and smashing into the wall on the landing. He stood, pressed against the wall, the cold cinder block on his cheek, which felt like it might be bruised. The pain was enough to bring him back to his senses.

This is ridiculous. He had the right answer. Hackelberg was wrong. Hackelberg didn’t run the company. Yes, it was hard to get anything done without his sign-off, but it wasn’t impossible. Going behind Hackelberg’s back to the executive committee could cost him his job, of course.

Of course.

Sammy realized that he didn’t actually care if he lost his job. Oh, the thought made his chest constrict and thoughts of living in a refrigerator box materialize in his mind’s eye, but beyond that, he really didn’t care. It was such a goddamned roller-coaster ride—Sammy smiled grimly at the metaphor. You guess right, you end up on top. You guess wrong, you bottom out. He spent half his career lording it over the poor guessers and the other half panicking about a bad guess he’d made. He thought of Perry and Lester, thought of that night in Boston. He’d killed their ride and the party had gone on all the same. They had something, in that crazy shantytown, something pure and happy, some camaraderie that he’d always assumed he’d get someday, but that had never materialized.

If this was his dream job, how much worse would unemployment really be?

He would go to the executive committee. He would not erase his numbers. He set off for his office, moving quickly, purposefully, head up. A last stand, how exciting, why not?

He piloted the little golf-cart down the back road and was nearly at his building’s door when he spotted the security detail. Three of them, in lightweight Disney cop uniforms, wearing ranger hats and looking around alertly. Hackelberg must have sent them there to make sure that he followed through with deleting his data.

He stopped the golf cart abruptly and reversed out of the driveway before the guards spotted him. He needed to get his files somewhere that Hackelberg wouldn’t be able to retrieve them. He zipped down the service roads, thinking furiously.

The answer occurred to him in the form of a road-sign for the Polynesian hotel. He turned up its drive and parked the golf-cart. As he stepped out, he removed his employee badge and untucked his shirt. Now he was just another sweaty fresh-arrived tourist, Dad coming in to rendezvous with Mom and the kids, back from some banal meeting that delayed his arrival, hasn’t even had time to change into a t-shirt.

He headed straight for the sundries store and bought a postage-paid Walt Disney World postcard with a little magnetic patch mounted on one corner. You filled up the memory with a couple hours’ worth of video and as many photos as you wanted and mailed it off. The pixelated display on the front played a slide show of the images—at least once a year, some honeymoon couple would miss this fact and throw a couple racy bedroom shots in the mix, to the perennial delight of the mail room.

He hastily wrote some banalities about the great time he and the kids were having in Disney World, then he opened his computer and looked up the address that the Church woman had checked in under. He addressed it, simply, to “Suzanne,” to further throw off the scent, then he slipped it into a mail-slot with a prayer to the gods of journalist shield laws.

He walked as calmly as he could back to his golf-cart, clipping on his employee badge and tucking his shirt back in. Then he motored calmly to his office building. The Disney cops were sweating under the mid-day sun.

“Mr Page?”

“Yes,” he said.

“I’m to take your computer to IT, sir.”

“I don’t think so,” Sammy said, with perfect calm. “I think we’ll GO up to my office and call a meeting of the executive committee instead.”

The security guard was young, Latino, and skinny. His short back-and-sides left his scalp exposed to the sun. He took his hat off and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief, exposing a line of acne where his hat-band irritated the skin. It made Sammy feel sorry for the kid—especially considering that Sammy earned more than 20 times the kid’s salary.

“This really isn’t your job, I know,” Sammy said, wondering where all this sympathy for the laboring classes had come from, anyway? “I don’t want to make it hard for you. We’ll go inside. You can hang on to the computer. We’ll talk to some people. If they tell you to go ahead, you go ahead. Otherwise, we go see them, all right?”

He held his computer out to the kid, who took it.

“Let’s go up to my office now,” he said.

The kid shook his head. “I’m supposed to take this—”

“I know, I know. But we have a deal.” The kid looked like he would head out anyway. “And there are backups in my office, so you need to come and get those, too.”

That did it. The kid looked a little grateful as they went inside, where the air conditioning was blowing icy cold.

“You should have waited in the lobby, Luis,” Sammy said, reading the kid’s name off his badge. “You must be boiled.”

“I had instructions,” Luis said.

Sammy made a face. “They don’t sound like very reasonable instructions. All the more reason to sort this out, right?”

Sammy had his secretary get Luis a bottle of cold water and a little plate of grapes and berries out of the stash he kept for his visitors, then he called Guignol from his desk phone.

“It’s Sammy. I need to call an emergency meeting of the exec committee,” he said without preamble.

“This is about Hackelberg, isn’t it?”

“He’s already called you?”

“He was very persuasive.”

“I can be persuasive, too. Give me a chance.”

“You know what will happen if you push this?”

“I might save the company.”

“You might,” Guignol said. “And you might—”

“I know,” Sammy said. “What the hell, it’s only a career.”

“You can’t keep your data—Hackelberg is right about that.”

“I can send all the backups and my computer to your office right now.”

“I was under the impression that they were all on their way to IT for disposal.”

“Not yet. There’s a security castmember in my office with me named Luis. If you want to call dispatch and have them direct him to bring this stuff to you instead—”

“Sammy, do you understand what you’re doing here?”

Sammy suppressed a mad giggle. “I do,” he said. “I understand exactly what I’m doing. I want to help you all understand that, too.”

“I’m calling security dispatch now.”

A moment later, Luis’s phone rang and the kid listened intently, nodding unconsciously. Once he’d hung up, Sammy passed him his backups, hardcopy and computer. “Let’s go,” he said.

“Right,” Luis said, and led the way.

It was a short ride to the casting office building, where Guignol had his office. The wind felt terrific on his face, drying his sweat. It had been a long day.

When they pulled up, Sammy let Luis lead the way again, badging in behind him, following him up to the seventh-floor board-room. at the end of the Gold Coast where the most senior offices were.

Guignol met them at the door and took the materials from Luis, then ushered Sammy in. Sammy caught Luis’s eye, and Luis surprised him by winking and slipping him a surreptitious thumbs-up, making Sammy feel like they shared a secret.

There were eight on the executive committee, but they travelled a lot. Sammy had expected to see no more than four. There were two. And Hackelberg, of course. The lawyer was the picture of saurian calm.

Sammy sat down at the table and helped himself to a glass of water, watching a ring pool on the table’s polished and waxed wooden surface.

“Samuel,” Hackelberg said, shaking his head. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this.”

Sammy took a deep breath, looking for that don’t-give-a-shit calm that had suffused him before. It was there still, not as potent, but there. He drew upon it.

“Let’s put this to the committee, shall we? I mean, we already know how we feel.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Hackelberg said. “The committee has already voted on this.”

Sammy closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. He looked at Hackelberg, who was smiling grimly, a mean grin that went all the way to the corners of his eyes.

Sammy looked around at Guignol and the committee members. They wouldn’t meet his eye. Guignol gestured Luis into the room and handed him Sammy’s computer, papers, and backups. He leaned in and spoke quietly to him. Luis turned and left.

Guignol cleared his throat. “There’s nothing else to discuss, then,” he said. “Thank you all for coming.”

In his heart, Sammy had known this was coming. Hackelberg would beat him to the committee—never let him present his side. Watching the lawyer get up stiffly and leave with slow, dignified steps, Sammy had a moment’s intuition about what it must be like to be that man—possessed of a kind of cold, furious power that came from telling everyone that not obeying you to the letter would put them in terrible danger. He knew that line of reasoning: It was the same one he got from the TSA at the airport before they bent him over and greased him up. You can’t understand the grave danger we all face. You must obey me, for only I can keep it at bay.

He waited for the rest of the committee to file out. None of them would meet his eye. Then it was just him and Guignol. Sammy raised his eyebrows and spread out his hands, miming What happens now?

“You won’t be able to get anything productive done until IT gets through with your computer. Take some time off. Call up Dinah and see if she wants to grab some holiday time.”

“We split,” Sammy said. He drank his water and stood up. “I’ve just got one question before I go.”

Guignol winced but stood his ground. “Go ahead,” he said.

“Don’t you want to know what the numbers looked like?”

“It’s not my job to overrule legal—”

“We’ll get to that in a second. It’s not the question. The question is, don’t you want to know?”

Guignol sighed. “You know I want to know. Of course I want to know. This isn’t about me and what I want, though. It’s about making sure we don’t endanger the shareholders—”

“So ignoring this path, sticking our heads in the sand, that’s good for the shareholders?”

“No, of course it’s not good for the shareholders. But it’s better than endangering the whole company—”

Sammy nodded. “Well, how about if we both take some time off and drive down to Hollywood. It’d do us some good.”

“Sammy, I’ve got a job to do—”

“Yeah, but without your computer…”

Guignol looked at him. “What did you do?”

“It’s not what I did. It’s what I might have done. I’m going to be a good boy and give Hackelberg a list of everyone I might have emailed about this. All those people are losing their computers to the big magnet at IT.”

“But you never emailed me about this—”

“You sure? I might have. It’s the kind of thing I might have done. Maybe your spam-filter ate it. You never know. That’s what IT’s for.”

Guignol looked angry for a moment, then laughed. “You are such a shithead. Fuck that lawyer asshole anyway. What are you driving these days?”

“Just bought a new Dell Luminux,” Sammy said, grinning back. “Rag-top.”

“When do we leave?”

“I’ll pick you up at 6AM tomorrow. Beat the morning traffic.”

<<< Back to Part 68

Continue to Part 70>>>

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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