Check out The Incrementalists by Steven Brust and Skyler White, available September 24th from Tor Books!
The Incrementalists—a secret society of two hundred people with an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations, races, and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, just a little bit at a time. Their ongoing argument about how to do this is older than most of their individual memories.
Phil, whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has loved Celeste—and argued with her—for most of the last four hundred years. But now Celeste, recently dead, embittered, and very unstable, has changed the rules—not incrementally, and not for the better. Now the heart of the group must gather in Las Vegas to save the Incrementalists, and maybe the world.
You Entering Anything?
You’ve all been very patient since Celeste died. Thanks. Since no one responded on the forum, I’m asking here before I go ahead: I think I’ve finally settled on a recruit for her stub. If some of you want to look it over, the basic info is the hemp rope coiled on the bottom branch of the oak just west of my back gate.
There. That finished what I had to do; now I could be about earning my living. I put the laptop in its case, left my house, and drove to The Palms. Just like anyone else going to work. Ha.
Greg, the poker room manager, said, “You’re here early, Phil. No two-five, just one-three.”
“That’s fine,” I said. “Put me down for when it starts.”
Steven Brust and Skyler White
Greg nodded. He always nodded a little slowly, I think so as not to risk dislodging his hairpiece. “We have an open seat in the onethree if you want it,” he added.
“I’ll wait, thanks. How’s the boat?”
“It’s still being a hole to sink money into. But I should have it working again by August. Going to take the kids out and teach them to run it.”
“Why, so they can burn out the engine again?”
“Don’t even joke about it. But if I ever hope to water-ski, I’m going to have to.…”
Five minutes later I disengaged and went to 24/7, the hotel café, to relax until the game started.
While I waited, I drank coffee and checked my email.
Looks good to me, Phil. I have no problem with you going to Arizona to do the interview.
I hit Reply.
The World Series of Poker is going, so this is a good time for my sugar spoon and a bad time for me to go to Phoenix. Feel like crossing the pond? Or finding someone else to do the 1st interview? I’ll still titan. Or we can put it off a week; there’s no hurry, I suppose.
I hit Send and closed my laptop as I felt someone looming over me.
Richard Sanderson, all 350 pounds of him, slid into the booth. We’d exchanged a lot of money over the years, but I was glad to see him. He said, “Phil is here before noon. Must be WSOP week.”
“Uh-huh. Which now lasts a month and a half. You entering anything?”
“I tried the fifteen hundred buy-in seven stud and got my ass kicked. That’s all for me. You?”
“No. The side-games are so full of guys steaming from the event, why bother?”
“No shit. I played the fifteen-thirty limit at the Ballaj last night, had three guys who were on tilt before they sat down.”
“Hell of a good game.”
“How much did you lose?”
“Ha-ha. Took about twelve hundred home.”
“Nice work. Next time that happens, call your buddy.”
“If I ever meet one, I will.”
We bantered a little more until they called him for the one-three no limit game. I opened my laptop again, and Jimmy had already replied, saying that he didn’t feel like going to Phoenix (made sense, seeing as he lives in Paris), but he’d be willing to nudge the recruit to Las Vegas for me. I wrote back saying that’d be great, and asking him to get her to 24/7 at The Palms on Thursday afternoon.
Then I took out my copy of No Limits by Wallace and Stemple and reviewed the section on hand reading until they called my name for the two-five. I bought in for $500 and took seat three. I knew two of the other players but not the rest, because I didn’t usually play this early in the day and because there were a lot of people in town for the WSOP.
I settled in to play, which mostly meant looking at my hand and tossing it away.
I have a house not far from The Palms. I have stayed in many houses, apartments, condos, hotels, boarding rooms, sublets. I’ve lived in many places. But nowhere feels like home quite as much as a poker table. I watched the other players, making mental notes on how they played. I picked up a small pot on an unimproved ace-king, and wondered if the finger-tap from the Asian woman in seat one meant she’d missed the flop.
Sometime in the next couple of days, I was going to see whether Celeste’s stub would work with Renee, and if it did, whether we might have a chance to not tear each other apart and maybe even do a bit of good. That was important; but it wasn’t right now. Right now, it was only odds and cards. And right now is always important.
A couple of hours later, I was all in with two kings against acequeen. The flop came ace-high, and I was already reaching in my pocket for another buy-in when I spiked a king on fourth street and doubled up. I’d have taken it as an omen, but I’m not superstitious.
Ren, I hate to spring this on you, and I know I said I wouldn’t ask you to travel anymore, but we need you in New York on Friday. The PowerPoint deck looks great, but Jorge has concerns about the audio component of the user interface. I’d like to have you there to field his questions. Get flight details etc from Cindi.
I chose Twix for anger control and Mountain Dew for guts, but nothing in the rows of vending machines between my cubicle and my boss’s office looked like lucky, or even wheedle. I bought Snickers as a bribe, and ate the first Twix bar on the way upstairs.
I poked my head around Liam’s office door, decorated since Memorial Day for the Fourth of July in silver tinsel and tiny plastic flags. He waved me in, tipped so far back in his ergonomic chair that a dentist could have worked comfortably. Liam laughed and said, “I understand,” and “She’s not going to like that,” into his phone headset, and winked at me.
I ate the other Twix bar.
“Okay, let me know. Thanks.” Liam pulled off his headset and waggled his eyebrows in the direction of the Snickers. “Is that for me?”
“Because you love me?”
“That depends,” I said, but it didn’t really, and Liam knew it. I slid the candy bar across his empty desk. “Working in a paperless office is different from not working, you know,” I told him.
He grinned and ate half the Snickers in one bite. “I hate to do this to you, I really do.”
“Then don’t. You don’t need me in New York.”
“I’m guessing you have a date for Friday.”
“I’m guessing you’re worried about the cost estimates.”
“It’s an awful lot to propose spending on a feature they didn’t request.”
“They would have written it into the requirements if they bothered to read their own research. I did. They need this. Jesus. Is the air at the top of the corporate ladder so thin it’s killing off brain cells? Don’t either of you remember what happened last time?”
Liam opened the bottom drawer of his desk and produced a giant peanut butter jar full of darts. I scooted my chair out of firing range and shut the door to reveal the big-eyed baby chick in an Easter bonnet Liam had snagged from Cindi’s previous decorating campaign.
“Who’s the guy?” Liam lofted a dart at the pastel grotesque.
“Someone new. He’s making me dinner.”
“I’ll buy you dinner. After the meeting—Eden Sushi, very posh.”
“I’ve had sushi with Jorge before.” I held up my hands like a scale. “Cold fish in bad company. Homemade gnocchi with a hot guy. Gosh, Liam, how’s a girl to choose?”
Easter Chicken suffered a direct hit to her pert tail feathers.
“Move your date to Saturday.”
“Can’t,” I mumbled. “He’s in a band.”
The dart fell onto the carpet as Liam let out a wheezy whoop. “Is the air in your blues clubs so smoky it’s killing off brain cells?” He leaned back in his chair far enough and laughed long enough for a molar extraction. Which I considered providing. “Don’t you remember what happened last time?”
“One bad guitarist boyfriend isn’t a pattern of poor dating choices, but half a million dollars in post-prototype changes should have turned Jorge into a research fetishist. Have you tried just reminding him?”
“He specifically asked me to bring you.”
“Oh, come on.”
“Sorry. But I can’t really say no, can I?”
“What, to your boss? Who would do such a thing?”
Hi Ren! Jorge’s PA just called me, and he’s going to Vegas for some poker festival. So guess what?!? So are you! All the Friday AM flights are full, so I bought your ticket for Thursday. You’re staying at The Palms.
There’s just no vending machine voodoo for this sort of day. I went home for ice cream.
Her flight arrives Thursday early afternoon. She’s got a gift coupon for 24/7 Café bigger than her per diem, but no telling when she’ll use it.
I cashed out around nine, posting a decent win, and went home to log it, check my email, and seed the Will Benson meddlework. I could imagine Oskar being all sarcastic about it: “Great work, Phil. Six dozen signs that won’t use quotation marks for emphasis. That makes the world tons better.” Fuck him. I hate quotation marks used for emphasis.
When I’d finished seeding, I checked our forum and added some noise to an argument that was in danger of acquiring too much signal. Then I watched some TV because I was too brain-dead to read, and much too brain-dead to graze. The Greek unions were striking, Correia beat the Blue Jays in spite of Encarnación’s two homers. I hadn’t recorded the game because no one cares about interleague play except the owners. When I felt like I was going to fall asleep in front of the TV, I turned it off and went to bed.
Wednesday was a good day: poker treated me well, and after a pro forma hour hunting for switches for Acosta, I just relaxed. The most exciting thing on TV was Jeopardy!, so I reread Kerouac’s On the Road. I wish I’d met him. I wish I’d met Neal Cassady. I almost did, once, in San Francisco, but I got into a fender bender at Scott and Lombard and never made it to the party.
Phil, I just happened to come across some of Renee’s background.
What are you trying to pull?
Funny. Jimmy “just happened” to come across some of Renee’s background, like I “just happened” to raise with two aces. And what was he doing up at that hour?
Well, I’d meet her sometime tomorrow, and decide then. When dealing with the group, especially Salt (myself included), it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission. Tomorrow would be a busy day: I needed to talk to Jeff the cook and Kendra the waitress, and I had to prep the café before Renee got in.
I went to bed and dreamed of high seas.
I couldn’t get the wi-fi in my room to work, but I had a nice apology gift certificate from Liam for the hotel café, so I went downstairs with my netbook and nooked into one of the high-backed booths. I ordered matzo ball soup because I thought it was funny to find it on a casino menu, but I worried about it as soon as the waitress left. Theirs might be good. Maybe even as good as my nana’s, but it didn’t stand a chance against my memory of hers. I flagged the waitress down and changed my order to a veggie burger, which would have offended my grandmother to her beef-loving soul. Then I opened Google Reader.
It was late for lunch and early for dinner, so I had the place mostly to myself when he walked in looking like all the reasons I’ve never wanted to go to Vegas. He wore a ball cap pulled down over predator’s eyes in an innocent face, and I couldn’t tell whether the hunt or the hunted was real. Still, there’s no conversation you want to have with a tall, dark and handsome man who sidles up to your table in the café of a Vegas hotel. I knew better. I put my earbuds in, and I didn’t look up.
“Hi,” he said, like he just thought of it.
I unplugged only my left ear, and slowly, like it hurt me. “Sorry?”
“Hi,” he said again with one of those smiles that means “I play golf!”
“Um, hi.” I touched the molded plastic of the earpiece to my cheek, but he kept a hand on the backrest of the chair beside me. He squatted next to it, graceful on his back foot, bringing us eye-level, and I stowed every detail to bludgeon Liam with.
“I know you’re not looking for company, but when I travel I’m always curious where the locals eat. Just wanted to let you know you’ve found it. There’s no better bowl of soup in town.”
“Good to know,” I said. Liam would actually feel guilty about this.
“But if you want a drinkable cup of coffee, you have to get out of the hotels.”
“I don’t drink coffee.”
“You’ll be okay then, as long as you’re only here a day or two.”
“Because you drive tea-drinkers out of Vegas with pitchforks?”
“Oh, no. We just leave them to starve.” The serious nod that accompanied his starvation of the caffeine-adverse made me laugh. Maybe all the earnest was a game. I was pretty sure I could see a dimple twitching under the edge of his mustache.
“I will leave you alone if you want,” he said. “I’m just talking to you on a theory.”
“What theory is that?”
“That you have absolutely no trouble fending off sleazy pickup attempts, and you like talking to interesting strangers, and you can tell the difference pretty quickly.”
I hesitated. “Okay,” I said. “Any insider tips beyond coffee?”
“Do you gamble?”
“And if I did?”
“I could tell you where not to.”
“And why would you do that? I’m guessing you’re not universally generous with your insights.”
“You might be surprised,” he said, and I caught a whiff of sincerity through a crack in the banter. “But I’d offer you all my secrets, if I thought you’d invite me to sit down. My knees are locking up.”
“Here’s your tea.” The waitress put it down just out of my reach and turned to him. “Get you anything, Phil?”
He glanced at me. Then she did. And whatever anonymous pleasure I’d been getting from a stranger’s privacy in public places seemed like less fun. I shrugged. “Have a seat.”
“Coffee would be great, Kendra.” He stood just slowly enough to make me think his knees ached, and slid into the booth. He told me secrets for eating cheaply and well in Vegas, until the waitress came back with a bowl of matzo ball soup. It wasn’t the sandwich I had ordered, but with its two delicate dumplings floating in a broth that smelled like sick days when Mom had to work and took me to her mother’s, I decided to risk it.
“Shall I let you eat in peace?” he asked, with enough Yiddish inflection to make me check his eyes for a joke.
He smiled at me and, maybe feeling daring because my matzo ball gamble had paid out so tasty, I smiled back. “No, stay,” I said, “and tell me what the locals do here besides eat.”
I decided that that part had been harder than it should have been. “I’d love to say something clever, like, laugh at tourists. But the fact is, get away from the Strip and locals do the same things they do anywhere else.”
“And in your case, what does that involve?”
“Just like everywhere else,” she said.
I felt a shrug asking to be let out, but suppressed it. “It sounds more glamorous than user interface design, but when you’re running bad, you miss the steady income.”
There wasn’t even a delay and a double take; she got it instantly. She nailed me in place with her eyes and said, “If you claim that was a lucky guess—”
“Not at all, Ren. Usually, I’d call you Renee until you okayed the nickname, but I know how you hate your dad’s French aspirations.”
She sat back. “Who the hell are you?”
“My name is Phil, and I’m here to recruit you to a very select and special group. The work is almost never dangerous, and best of all we don’t pay anything.”
Her eyes narrowed.
“Yes?” I asked.
“What I’m trying to figure out,” she said slowly, “is why I’m not calling security.”
“I can answer that,” I told her. “Mostly, it’s the soup. It tastes like your grandmother’s. Also, if you listen closely, you can hear Pete Seeger and Ronnie Gilbert singing ‘The Keeper Did A-Hunting Go.’ And if you look behind me—”
“Oxytocin,” she said, staring at me.
I was impressed, and I didn’t mind letting her see it. “Good work. That saves a lot of explanation.”
“You’re triggering memories to make me feel trusting.”
I nodded again. “Just enough to get the explanation in before you have me thrown out. And so you’ll believe the impossible parts at least enough to listen to them.”
“This is crazy.”
“It gets crazier.”
“I can hardly wait. What are the impossible parts?”
“We’ll get there. Let’s start with the merely improbable. Do you like the MP3 format?”
“Huh?” Her brows came together.
“A functional sound format introduced and standardized. Do you think that’s a good thing?”
She stared, waiting for me to say more.
“It almost didn’t happen that way. That’s the sort of thing you can do with oxytocin and dopamine and a few words in the right ears.”
She was silent for a little longer, probably trying to decide if she only believed me because I was meddling with her head. Then she said, “Why me?”
“Because you almost got fired for telling truth to power in a particularly insulting way, and you did it for the benefit of a bunch of users you’d never met, and you expected it to cost you a job you liked. That’s the kind of thing we notice. On good days.”
Kendra came by and refilled my coffee, which gave Ren time to decide which of the ten million questions she wanted to ask next. I waited. Her fingernails—short and neatly trimmed—tapped against the teacup in front of her, not in time to the music. Her eyes were deep set and her face narrow, with prominent cheekbones that made me think American Indian somewhere in her background. Her brows formed a dark tilde, her nose was small and straight, and her lips were kissably inviting and led to creases at the corners of her mouth that acted as counterpoints to the laugh lines around her eyes. I wondered what a full-on smile would look like.
“Jesus Christ,” she said.
“He wasn’t one of us,” I told her. “I’d remember.”
Somehow, to my list of bad habits, I had recently added the practice of tapping my eyebrow with my index finger like an overgrown Pooh Bear with his absurd think, think, think. I caught myself at it and balled my fingers into a fist. Phil had his long body draped casually in his seat, but it stayed taut somehow anyway. He reminded me of a juggler, with his large hands and concentration. “Are you hitting on me?” I asked.
He laughed and relaxed. “No,” he said, and I trusted him.
“Just checking.” I sliced into a matzo ball with the edge of my spoon. “Because guys who ask to join me in restaurants, and make small talk, and recommend soups, and invite me into secret societies are usually after something.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t.”
That shut me up. I ate some soup and pretended to be thinking. But mostly I was just drifting on chicken fat and memories. Eating hot soup in a cold café in the desert felt a long way from my grandmother’s house. “My, what big eyes you have,” I muttered.
“Little Red Riding Hood,” I explained, but it didn’t help. “I’m feeling like I’ve strayed from the path in the woods.”
“Been led astray?” he asked.
“Maybe just led. How did you know to find me in Vegas?”
“We arranged for you to be here. Sorry about your date with Brian. But if he has any sense, he’ll be waiting for you.”
“Is my boss one of your guys, or Jorge?”
“No. But one of us helped one of Jorge’s daughters a few years back, so it wasn’t hard to arrange.”
“So you have people in Vegas and New York. Where else?”
“Not yet.” His cheesy wink reminded me of the parrot in Treasure Island, the way source material seems clichéd when you don’t encounter it first.
“Why Vegas? Is the organization headquartered here?”
His laugh startled me, and made me smile, which startled me more. “No,” he said. “There are only around two hundred of us. I’m the only one out here.”
“So they brought me to you, specifically.”
“Right.” There was not a whisper left of his smile.
“You couldn’t have come to me?”
“The World Series of Poker makes this a bad time for me to leave Las Vegas.”
“So you wanted me enough to screw up my life in a couple of directions, but not enough to miss any poker?”
“Well, it’s not just ‘any poker.’ It’s the WSOP, but I would have come to Phoenix for you if I’d needed to.”
“I already told you.”
“No, you told me why me. Now I’m asking why you.”
Phil put down his coffee cup. It made no sound when it touched the table. “I can’t tell you that.”
“You arranged for me to be where I am. You planned how you would approach me, what I’d eat—no matter what I ordered—and what music would be playing in the background.”
I listened again. Sam Cooke. Family washing-up after dinner music—energetic, but safe. “And you’ve been manipulating me ever since.”
“Manipulating me really, really well.”
He inclined his head in something between a polite nod and a wary bow.
“I want to know how you do that.”
His smile came slowly, but he meant every fraction of it. “That’s what I’m offering,” he said.
“You and this small but influential, international, nonpaying, not-dangerous secret society of yours?”
“Like the mafia, only with all the cannoli and none of the crime.”
“Well, we’re much older.”
“An older, slower mafia.”
He looked a little disconcerted.
“And you fight evil? Control the government? Are our secret alien overlords?”
“Try to make the world a little better.”
“Just a little better.”
“An older, slower, nicer mafia?”
He stood up. “There’s substantially more to us than that. For example, most people can’t get Internet in the café. I’ve gotten about half the shockers out of the way, and next time we talk I won’t be meddling with your head. Sleep on it.” He took a small plastic dragon from his pocket and put it by my plate.
“I used to collect these things!” I said. “But you knew that, didn’t you?”
Kendra the waitress stopped him on the way out, said something to him, kissed his cheek, and came to clear our table with her face still pink. I put my earphones back in and logged into Gmail using the wi-fi you can’t get in the 24/7 Café to find two messages waiting for me.
Hope you’re enjoying Vegas. Jorge has pushed our meeting back. Something came up for him at home, so you have an extra day of fun in the sun on our nickel. Take yourself to a show or something. My flight is the same time, but on Saturday now instead of tomorrow. Sorry, but I know you can entertain yourself.
Assuming you’re free.
And somehow, as trapped and arranged and manipulated as it all felt, I knew I was.
The Incrementalists © Steven Brust and Skyler White, 2013