Cory Doctorow’s Makers, Part 71 (of 81)


Illustration by Idiots’Books

She met Sammy in their favorite tea-room, the one perched up on a crow’s nest four storeys up a corkscrew building whose supplies came up on a series of dumbwaiters and winches that shrouded its balconies like vines.

She staked out the best table, the one with the panoramic view of the whole shantytown, and ordered a plate of the tiny shortbread cakes that were the house specialty, along with a gigantic mug of nonfat decaf cappuccino.

Sammy came up the steps red-faced and sweaty, wearing a Hawai’ian shirt and Bermuda shorts, like some kind of tourist. Or like he was on holidays? Behind him came a younger man, with severe little designer glasses, dressed in the conventional polo-shirt and slacks uniform of the corporate exec on a non-suit day.

Suzanne sprinkled an ironic wave at them and gestured to the mismatched school-room chairs at her table. The waitress—Shayna—came over with two glasses of water and a paper napkin dispenser. The men thanked her and mopped their faces and drank their water.

“Good drive?”

Sammy nodded. His friend looked nervous, like he was wondering what might have been swimming in his water glass. “This is some place.”

“We like it here.”

“Is there, you know, a bathroom?” the companion asked.

“Through there.” Suzanne pointed.

“How do you deal with the sewage around here?”

“Sewage? Mr Page, sewage is solved. We feed it into our generators and the waste heat runs our condenser purifiers. There was talk of building one big one for the whole town, but that required way too much coordination and anyway, Perry was convinced that having central points of failure would be begging for a disaster. I wrote a series on it. If you’d like I can send you the links.”

The Disney exec made some noises and ate some shortbread, peered at the chalk-board menu and ordered some Thai iced tea.

“Look, Ms Church—Suzanne—thank you for seeing me. I would have understood completely if you’d told me to go fuck myself.”

Suzanne smiled and made a go-on gesture.

“Before my friend comes back from the bathroom, before we meet up with anyone from your side, I just want you to know this. What you’ve done, it’s changed the world. I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for you.”

He had every appearance of being completely sincere. He was a little road-crazed and windblown today, not like she remembered him from Orlando. What the hell had happened to him? What was he here for?

His friend came back and Sammy said, “I ordered you a Thai iced tea. This is Suzanne Church, the writer. Ms Church, this is Herve Guignol, co-director of the Florida regional division of Disney Parks.”

Guignol was more put-together and stand-offish than Sammy. He shook her hand and made executive sounding grunts at her. He was young, and clearly into playing the role of exec. He reminded Suzanne of fresh Silicon Valley millionaires who could go from pizza-slinging hackers to suit-wearing biz-droids who bullshitted knowledgeably about EBITDA overnight.

What the hell are you two here for?

“Mr Page—”

“Sammy, call me Sammy, please. Did you get my postcard?”

“That was from you?” She’d not been able to make heads or tails of it when it arrived in the mail the day before and she’d chucked it out as part of some viral marketing campaign she didn’t want to get infected by.

“You got it?”

“I threw it out.”

Sammy went slightly green.

“But it’ll still be in the trash,” she said. “Lester never takes it out, and I haven’t.”

“Um, can we go and get it now, all the same?”

“What’s on it?”

Sammy and Guignol exchanged a long look. “Let’s pretend that I gave you a long run-up to this. Let’s pretend that we spent a lot of time with me impressing on you that this is confidential, and not for publication. Let’s pretend that I charmed you and made sure you understood how much respect I have for you and your friends here—”

“I get it,” Suzanne said, trying not to laugh. Not for publication—really!

“OK, let’s pretend all that. Now I’ll tell you: what’s on that postcard is the financials for a Disney Parks buyout of your friends’ entire operation here. DiaBolical, the ride, all of it.”

Suzanne had been expecting a lot of things, but this wasn’t one of them. It was loopy. Daffy. Not just weird, but inconceivable. As though he’d said, “I sent you our plans to carve your portrait on the moon’s surface with a green laser.” But she was a pro. She kept her face still and neutral, and calmly swallowed her cappuccino.

“I see.”

“And there are—there are people at Disney who feel like this idea is so dangerous that it doesn’t even warrant discussion. That it should be suppressed.”

Guignol cleared his throats. “That’s the consensus,” he said.

“And normally, I’d say, hey, sure, the consensus. That’s great. But I’ll tell you, I drew up these numbers because I was curious, I’m a curious guy. I like to think laterally, try stuff that might seem silly at first. See where it goes. I’ve had pretty good instincts.”

Guignol and Suzanne snorted at the same time.

“And an imperfect record,” Sammy said. Suzanne didn’t want to like him, but there was something forthright about him that she couldn’t help warming to. There was no subtlety or scheming in this guy. Whatever he wanted, you could see it right on his face. Maybe he was a psycho, but he wasn’t a sneak.

“So I ran these numbers for my own amusement, to see what they would look like. Assume that your boys want, say, 30 times gross annual revenue for a buyout. Say that this settles our lawsuit—not theirs, just ours, so we don’t have to pay for the trademark suit to go forward. Assume that they generate one DiaBolical-scale idea every six months—” Suzanne found herself nodding along, especially at this last one. “Well, you make those assumptions and you know what comes out of it?”

Suzanne let the numbers dance behind her own eyelids. She’d followed all the relevant financials closely for years, so closely that they were as familiar as her monthly take-home and mortgage payments had been, back when she had a straight job and a straight life.

“Well, you’d make Lester and Perry very wealthy,” she said. “After they vested out, they’d be able to live off the interest alone.”

Sammy nodded judiciously. His sidekick looked alarmed. “Yup. And for us?”

“Well, assuming your last quarterly statement was accurate—”

“We were a little conservative,” Sammy said. The other man nodded reflexively.

You were very conservative, she thought. DiaB’s making you a fortune and you didn’t want to advertise that to the competition.

“Assuming that, well, you guys earn back your investment in, what, 18 months?”

“I figure a year. But 18 months would be good.”

“If you vest the guys out over three years, that means—”

“100 percent ROI, plus or minus 200 percent,” Sammy said. “For less money than we’ll end up spending on our end of the lawsuit.”

Guignol was goggling at them both. Sammy drank his Thai iced-tea, slurping noisily. He signalled for another one.

“And you sent me these financials on a postcard?”

“There was some question about whether they’d be erased before I could show them to anyone, and I knew there was no way I’d be given the chance to re-create them independently. It seemed prudent to have a backup copy.”

“A backup copy in my hands?”

“Well, at least I knew you wouldn’t give it up without a fight.” Sammy shrugged and offered her a sunny smile.

“We’d better go rescue that postcard from the basket before Lester develops a domestic instinct and takes out the trash, then,” Suzanne said, pushing away from the table. Shayna brought the bill and Sammy paid it, overtipping by a factor of ten, which endeared him further to Suzanne. She couldn’t abide rich people who stiffed on the tip.

Suzanne walked them through the shantytown, watching their reactions closely. She liked to take new people here. She’d witnessed its birth and growth, then gone away during its adolescence, and now she got to enjoy its maturity. Crowds of kids ran screeching and playing through the streets, adults nodded at them from their windows, wires and plumbing and antennas crowded the skies above them. The walls shimmered with murals and graffiti and mosaics.

Sammy treated it like he had his theme park, seeming to take in every detail with a connoisseur’s eye; Guignol was more nervous, clearly feeling unsafe amid the cheerful lawlessness. They came upon Francis and a gang of his kids, building bicycles out of stiffened fabric and strong monofilament recycled from packing crates.

“Ms Church,” Francis said gravely. He’d given up drinking, maybe for good, and he was clear-eyed and charming in his engineer’s coveralls. The kids—boys and girls, Suzanne noted approvingly—continued to work over the bikes, but they were clearly watching what Francis was up to.

“Francis, please meet Sammy and his colleague, Herve. They’re here for a story I’m working on. Gentlemen, Francis is the closest thing we have to a mayor around here.”

Francis shook hands all around, but Sammy’s attention was riveted on the bicycles.

Francis picked one up with two fingers and handed it to him. “Like it? We got the design from a shop in Liberia, but we made our own local improvements. The trick is getting the stiffener to stay liquid long enough to get the fabric stretched out in the right proportion.”

Sammy took the frame from him and spun it in one hand like a baton. “And the wheels?”

“Mostly we do solids, which stay in true longer. We use the carbon stiffener on a pre-cut round of canvas or denim, then fit a standard tire. They go out of true after a while. You just apply some solvent to them and they go soft again and you re-true them with a compass and a pair of tailor’s shears, then re-stiffen them. You get maybe five years of hard riding out of a wheel that way.”

Sammy’s eyes were round as saucers. He took one of the proffered wheels and spun it between opposing fingertips. Then, grinning, he picked up another wheel and the bike-frame and began to juggle them, one-two-three, hoop-la! Francis looked amused, rather than pissed—giving up drink had softened his temper. His kids stopped working and laughed. Sammy laughed too. He transferred the wheels to his left hand, then tossed the frame high the air, spun around and caught it and then handed it all back to Francis. The kids clapped and he took a bow.

“I didn’t know you had it in you,” Guignol said, patting him on the shoulder.

Sammy, sweating and grinning like a fool, said, “Yeah, it’s not something I get a lot of chances to do around the office. But did you see that? It was light enough to juggle! I mean, how exciting is all this?” He swept his arm around his head. “Between the sewage and the manufacturing and all these kids—” He broke off. “What do you do about education, Suzanne?”

“Lots of kids bus into the local schools, or ride. But lots more home-school these days. We don’t get a very high caliber of public school around here.”

“Might that have something to do with all the residents who don’t pay property tax?” Guignol said pointedly.

Suzanne nodded. “I’m sure it does,” she said. “But it has more to do with the overall quality of public education in this state. 47th in the nation for funding.”

They were at her and Lester’s place now. She led them through the front door and picked up the trash-bin next to the little table where she sorted the post after picking it up from her PO box at a little strip mall down the road.

There was the postcard. She handed it silently to Sammy, who held it for a moment, then reluctantly passed it to Guignol. “You’d better hang on to it,” he said, and she sensed that there was something bigger going on there.

“Now we go see Lester,” Suzanne said.

He was behind the building in his little workshop, hacking DiaBolical. There were five different DiaBs running around him, chugging and humming. The smell of goop and fuser and heat filled the room, and an air-conditioner like a jet-engine labored to keep things cool. Still, it was a few degrees warmer inside than out.

“Lester,” Suzanne shouted over the air-conditioner din, “we have visitors.”

Lester straightened up from his keyboard and wiped his palms and turned to face them. He knew who they were based on his earlier conversation with Suzanne, but he also clearly recognized Sammy.

“You!” he said. “You work for Disney?”

Sammy blushed and looked away.

Lester turned to Suzanne. “This guy used to come up, what, twice, three times a week.”

Sammy nodded and mumbled something. Lester reached out and snapped off the AC, filling the room with eerie silence and stifling heat. “What was that?”

“I’m a great believer in competitive intelligence.”

“You work for Disney?”

“They both work for Disney, Lester,” Suzanne said. “This is Sammy and Herve.” Herve doesn’t do much talking, she mentally added, but he seems to be in charge.

“That’s right,” Sammy said, seeming to come to himself at last. “And it’s an honor to formally meet you at last. I run the DiaB program. I see you’re a fan. I’ve read quite a bit about you, of course, thanks to Ms Church here.”

Lester’s hands closed and opened, closed and opened. “You were, what, you were sneaking around here?”

“Have I mentioned that I’m a great fan of your work? Not just the ride, either. This DiaBolical, well, it’s—”

“What are you doing here?”

Suzanne had expected something like this. Lester wasn’t like Perry, he wouldn’t go off the deep-end with this guy, but he wasn’t going to be his best buddy, either. Still, someone needed to intervene before this melted down altogether.

“Lester,” she said, putting her hand on his warm shoulder. “Do you want to show these guys what you’re working on?”

He blew air through his nose a couple times, then settled down. He even smiled.

“This one,” he said, pointing to a DiaBolical, “I’ve got it running an experimental firmware that lets it print out hollow components. They’re a lot lighter and they don’t last as long. But they’re also way less consumptive on goop. You get about ten times as much printing out of them.”

Suzanne noted that this bit of news turned both of the Disney execs a little green. They made a lot of money selling goop, she knew.

“This one,” Lester continued, patting a DiaB that was open to the elements, its imps lounging in its guts, “we mix some serious epoxy in with it, some carbon fibers. The printouts are practically indestructible. There are some kids around here who’ve been using it to print parts for bicycles—”

“Those were printed on this?” Sammy said.

“We ran into Francis and his gang,” Suzanne explained.

Lester nodded. “Yeah, it’s not perfect, though. The epoxy clogs up the works and the imps really don’t like it. I only get two or three days out of a printer after I convert it. I’m working on changing the mix to fix that, though.”

“After all,” Guignol noted sourly, “it’s not as if you have to pay for new DiaBs when you break one.”

Lester smiled nastily at him. “Exactly,” he said. “We’ve got a great research subsidy around here.”

Guignol looked away, lips pursed.

“This one,” Lester said, choosing not to notice, “this one is the realization of an age-old project.” He pointed to the table next to it, where its imps were carefully fitting together some very fine parts.

Sammy leaned in close, inspecting their work. After a second, he hissed like a teakettle, then slapped his knee.

Now Lester’s smile was more genuine. He loved it when people appreciated his work. “You figured it out?”

“You’re printing DiaBs!”

“Not the whole thing,” Lester said. “A lot of the logic needs an FPGA burner. And we can’t do some of the conductive elements, either. But yeah, about 90 percent of the DiaB can be printed in a DiaB.”

Suzanne hadn’t heard about this one, though she remembered earlier attempts, back in the golden New Work days, the dream of self-replicating machines. Now she looked close, leaning in next to Sammy, so close she could feel his warm breath. There was something, well, spooky about the imps building a machine using another one of the machines.

“It’s, what, it’s like it’s alive, and reproducing itself,” Sammy said.

“Don’t tell me this never occurred to you,” Lester said.

“Honestly? No. It never did. Mr Banks, you have a uniquely twisted, fucked up imagination, and I say that with the warmest admiration.”

Guignol leaned in, too, staring at it.

“It’s so obvious now that I see it,” he said.

“Yeah, all the really great ideas are like that,” Lester said.

Sammy straightened up and shook Lester’s hand. “Thank you for the tour, Lester. You have managed to simultaneously impress and depress me. You are one sharp motherfucker.”

Lester preened and Suzanne suppressed a giggle.

Sammy held his hand up like he was being sworn in. “I’m dead serious, man. This is amazing. I mean, we manage some pretty out-of-the-box thinking at Disney, right? We may not be as nimble as some little whacked out co-op, but for who we are—I think we do a good job.

“But you, man, you blow us out of the water. This stuff is just crazy, like it came down from Mars. Like it’s from the future.” He shook his head. “It’s humbling, you know.”

Guignol looked more thoughtful than he had to this point. He and Lester stared at Sammy, wearing similar expressions of bemusement.

“Let’s go into the apartment,” Suzanne said. “We can sit down and have a chat.”

They trooped up the stairs together. Guignol expressed admiration for the weird junk-sculptures that adorned each landing, made by a local craftswoman and installed by the landlord. They sat around the living room and Lester poured iced coffee out of a pitcher in the fridge, dropping in ice-cubes molded to look like legos.

They rattled their drinks and looked uncomfortably at one another. Suzanne longed to whip out her computer and take notes, or at least a pad, or a camera, but she restrained himself. Guignol looked significantly at Sammy.

“Lester, I’m just going to say it. Would you sell your business to us? The ride, DiaBolical, all of it? We could make you a very, very rich man. You and Perry. You would have the freedom to go on doing what you’re doing, but we’d put it in our production chain, mass-market the hell out of it, get it into places you’ve never seen. At its peak, New Work—which you were only a small part of, remember—touched 20 percent of Americans. 90 percent of Americans have been to a Disney park. We’re a bigger tourist draw than all of Great Britain. We can give your ideas legs.”

Lester began to chuckle, then laugh, then he was doubled over, thumping his thighs. Suzanne shook her head. In just a few short moments, she’d gotten used to the idea, and it was growing on her.

Guignol looked grim. “It’s not a firm offer—it’s a chance to open a dialogue, a negotiation. Talk the possibility over. A good negotiation is one where we both start by saying what we want and work it over until we get to the point where we’re left with what we both need.”

Lester wiped tears from his eyes. “I don’t think that you grasp the absurdity of this situation, fellas. For starters, Perry will never go for it. I mean never.” Suzanne wondered about that. And wondered whether it mattered. The two had hardly said a word to each other in months.

“What’s more, the rest of the rides will never, never, never go in for it. That’s also for sure.

“Finally, what the fuck are you talking about? Me go to work for you? Us go to work for you? What will you do, stick Mickey in the ride? He’s already in the ride, every now and again, as you well know. You going to move me up to Orlando?”

Sammy waggled his head from side to side. “I have a deep appreciation for how weird this is, Lester. To tell you the truth, I haven’t thought much about your ride or this little town. As far as I’m concerned, we could just buy it and then turn around and sell it back to the residents for one dollar—we wouldn’t want to own or operate any of this stuff, the liability is too huge. Likewise the other rides. We don’t care about what you did yesterday—we care about what you’re going to do tomorrow.

“Listen, you’re a smart guy. You make stuff that we can’t dream of, that we lack the institutional imagination to dream of. We need that. What the hell is the point of fighting you, suing you, when we can put you on the payroll? And you know what? Even if we throw an idiotic sum of money at you, even if you never make anything for us, we’re still ahead of the game if you stop making stuff against us.

“I’m putting my cards on the table here. I know your partner is going to be even harder to convince, too. None of this is going to be easy. I don’t care about easy. I care about what’s right. I’m sick of being in charge of sabotaging people who make awesome stuff. Aren’t you sick of being sabotaged? Wouldn’t you like to come work some place where we’ll shovel money and resources at your projects and keep the wolves at bay?”

Suzanne was impressed. This wasn’t the same guy whom Rat-Toothed Freddy had savaged. It wasn’t the same guy that Death Waits had described. He had come a long way. Even Guignol—whom, she suspected, needed to be sold on the idea almost as much as Lester—was nodding along by the end of it.

Lester wasn’t though: “You’re wasting your time, mister. That’s all there is to it. I am not going to go and work for—” a giggle escaped his lips “—Disney. It’s just—”

Sammy held his hands up in partial surrender. “OK, OK. I won’t push you today. Think about it. Talk it over with your buddy.” He tapped the postcard against his thigh a couple times. “I’m a patient guy.” Guignol snorted. “I don’t want to lean on you here.”

They took their leave, though Suzanne found out later that they’d taken a spin around the ride before leaving. Everyone went on the ride.

Lester shook his head at the door behind them.

“Can you believe that?”

Suzanne smiled and squeezed his hand. “You’re funny about this, you know that? Normally, when you encounter a new idea, you like to play with it, think it through, see what you can make of it. With this, you’re not even willing to noodle with it.”

“You can’t seriously think that this is a good idea—”

“I don’t know. It’s not the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Become a millionaire, get to do whatever you want? It’ll sure make an interesting story.”

He goggled at her.

“Kidding,” she said, thinking, It would indeed make an interesting story, though. “But where are you going from here? Are you going to stay here forever?”

“Perry would never go for it—” Lester said, then stopped.

“You and Perry, Lester, how long do you think that’s going to last.”

“Don’t you go all Yoko on me, Suzanne. We’ve got one of those around here already—”

“I don’t like this Yoko joke, Lester. I never did. Hilda doesn’t want to drive Perry away from you. She wants to make the rides work. And it sounds like that’s what Perry wants, too. What’s wrong with them doing that? Especially if you can get them a ton of money to support it?”

Lester stared at her, open-mouthed. “Honey—”

“Think about it, Lester. Your most important virtue is your expansive imagination. Use it.”

She watched this sink in. It did sink in. Lester listened to her, which surprised her every now and again. Most relationships seemed to be negotiations or possibly competitions. With Lester it was a conversation.

She gave him a hug that seemed to go on forever.

<<< Back to Part 70

Continue to Part 72>>>

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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