David Louis Edelman
MultiReal
'MultiReal' trade paperback cover

Excerpt: Lessons Learned

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Chapter 4

Magan spent the next four hours on three different hoverbirds, watching time and space drift by the window.

“Towards Perfection, Lieutenant Lee,” chirped a voice from the cockpit as Magan stepped aboard the last hoverbird. Obviously the pilot had been too absorbed in the complex trigonometry of space flight preparation to catch the news. “Anything I can get you before we lift off? Commissary’s got a nice batch of weedtea, straight from — ”

Magan cut her off. “Nothing, Panja, thank you.”

“How about — ”

“To DWCR, please.”

Panja quieted down. She had flown Magan to DWCR hundreds of times in the past few years — only a small number of pilots had clearance to fly there — so she had learned to read his emotions well. Something must have gone terribly wrong.

Magan took a seat in the back row of the hoverbird and strapped on his harness. The pilot conducted the ship’s mechanical tests without a word, then set them on their way. Magan watched the clouds approach and fell into a light sleep until the ship alerted him that they were making the final approach into DWCR.

To those in the know, DWCR was the Defense and Wellness Council Root, Len Borda’s center of operations — and those who could not define the acronym weren’t aware of its existence anyway. But even most of those privileged enough to work at DWCR couldn’t pinpoint it on a map. The location was highly classified, and officers like Panja had to withstand a battery of loyalty tests before they were admitted to the inner circle.

Magan himself had spent several years stepping on a red multi tile without knowing exactly where he was being projected. But he never minded such obfuscation, even when it served to block something in his path. A system with a hidden solution remained a system with a solution, after all; a welcome change from the centerless anarchy his life had been before enlisting in the Council twenty-five years ago. Magan knew that, with scrupulous planning, he could master any system that confronted him. He knew that time and chance were the only obstacles between him and the pinnacle of the Council hierarchy. Eventually the secrets of DWCR would be his.

Nearly ten thousand Council employees were not so confident. Magan saw them huddled in their offices week after week wasting hours in useless conjecture. Some believed the Root sat in one of the many unexplored crevices of Luna. Others favored the Pacific Islands or the Antarctic or the uninhabitable sectors of Furtoid as more likely candidates. But so far Len Borda’s engineers had succeeded in keeping the Root impervious to any known positioning or tracing program, and prodigious sums of money were expended to ensure that the mystification would continue for years to come.

Nonetheless, Magan knew the secrecy could not last indefinitely. Secrets had a gravity of their own that sucked in the curious and the determined. Had the high executive planned for that contingency, or was he relying on the secrecy to last forever? The bodhisattva of Creed Bushido had the perfect aphorism to describe such closed-mindedness: Short-term plans, long-term problems.

In actuality, DWCR was a disc-shaped platter in orbit at the outermost reach of Earth’s gravitational pull, only a slight rocket thrust away from either floating off into the aether or spiraling planetwards to a fiery, cataclysmic doom. Lieutenant Lee watched out the port window now as the platter slid into view. A single observation tower jutted from the bottom with priapic majesty, as if waiting for something to impale.

Panja docked the hoverbird without a sound, and Magan stepped through the airlock as soon as DWCR had given them the all-clear.

Generals and military planners filed curt nods with Magan as he strode the Root’s maze of twisty little passages, all alike. Without proper clearance, he could wander these shifting corridors of gunmetal gray for days. Someone had made an attempt to inject some color on the walls, but the smattering of pretentious landscapes and portraits of executives past did little to lighten the atmosphere.

Magan made his way to the observation tower and kept his ears open for the hallway gossip. He heard rumors of military deployments, complaints about research budgets, details of appropriations bills before the Prime Committee… but not a single comment about the failed raid early this morning. Magan frowned. The only thing worse than listening to officers chatter about the Council’s failure was not hearing them chatter about it at all. He sighed as he reached the central elevator and cleared his mind.

The elevator did not head upwards. Instead it dropped, leading Magan to a floor on the tip of the observation tower. Borda’s private chambers.

When he emerged from the elevator, the Council lieutenant found himself standing on the deck of an ancient sloop-of-war. The ship swayed tipsily in the waves, sending the occasional spittle of SeeNaRee brine splashing on Magan’s face. Still-smoking cannons on the deck spoke of a recent battle against some enemy hovering just out of sight in the fog.

Standing at the prow of the ship was High Executive Len Borda.

*

Borda listened to his lieutenant’s version of events with rising ire, his back to the mast and his nose pointed out to sea. “Bloody drudges,” he said in a rumbling basso that not even the waves could drown out. “If I wanted their opinion, trust me, they’d know it.”

Some called the high executive arrogant, but that word seemed beside the point. After nearly sixty years running the world’s military and intelligence affairs, Borda needed no tone of intimidation. He spoke with the timbre of a man who had been the final arbiter for so long that he had forgotten any other reality.

Magan watched Len Borda move to the railing and run his hand over the intricately carved wood. He seemed to be scanning the murky horizon for a sign of the enemy, which would be the French, if memory served. Why Borda devoted so much attention to this virtual playground, Magan could not fathom. He admitted that the SeeNaRee programmers had a terrific eye for detail and historical accuracy. But Borda was spending more time here than in the world of flesh and blood lately, and that was not a good sign.

“Today is December twenty-seventh,” said the lieutenant after a long and uneasy silence.

Borda shrugged. “What of it?”

“The new year comes in four days. After what happened this morning, do you really think you can gain control of MultiReal in four days?”

One stony eyebrow lifted itself on Borda’s forehead and then subsided, like a breaker on the SeeNaRee ocean. “Four days is a lifetime,” he said. “I was willing to deal with Natch behind closed doors. He’s the one who decided to bring this fight into the public eye.” Borda scowled. “So be it. Let’s see how he handles a full onslaught.”

Magan clenched his fists into a tight ball behind his back, then slowly forced himself to stop, take a breath, unwind. Could Len Borda really be so foolish as to try the same thing again? Had his mind become so entrenched that he could do nothing but continuously loop through the same routine? “And what if this onslaught of yours fails?”

Borda was not nearly so successful at hiding his emotions, and didn’t bother with PokerFace programs either. The gritted teeth and trembling jaw told Magan everything he needed to know.

The high executive was planning to break their agreement.

“Forget about the fiefcorp master for a moment,” said Borda. “I need your help with something else.” The high executive waved his hand and summoned a block of text to float against the gauzy gray sky. Magan pushed the anger aside and read the letter with a growing crease on his brow.

Congress of L-PRACGs
Office of the Speaker
Melbourne

In accordance with my duties as speaker, I am writing to inform the Defense and Wellness Council that the Congress has officially opened an inquiry into the causes of the computational anomalies known as “infoquakes.”

Four such disruptions have occurred in the past month, leaving thousands dead and wounded. According to the sworn testimony of Congressional engineers, the severity of these disruptions is growing. It is my belief that the Council’s measures to limit bandwidth on the Data Sea are no longer sufficient to contain this threat.

The Congress hereby charges all employees of the Defense and Wellness Council to answer any forthcoming subpoenas promptly and with the utmost discretion.

May you always move towards perfection,
Khann Frejohr, Speaker

“You assured me that Frejohr wouldn’t be a problem,” growled Borda. “You told me this libertarian uprising of his would die on the vine.”

Magan Kai Lee banished the text with a hard blink of the eyes and stared glumly at the sea, which was barely visible through the thickening veil of fog. “So I thought, a month ago,” he said.

So you thought,” replied Borda caustically. He bent to pick up a small chunk of wood, a splinter that must have been torn from the rail by French cannons. “Frejohr’s only been in office for two weeks, and already he’s got the Congress of L-PRACGs holding hearings.”

“They’re meaningless,” said Magan. “The Congress has no authority over us.”

“No, but the Prime Committee does. And these infoquakes give Frejohr the impetus to put ideas in their heads.” Borda angrily threw the painted wood chip off into the mist, where the sea swallowed it without a sound.

“Papizon will find out what’s causing the infoquakes,” announced Magan. “It’s only a matter of time.”

“How much time?”

“I don’t know.”

The high executive snorted his contempt. “Papizon is usually not so vague.”

Borda’s pessimism was starting to grow tiresome. Magan thought the time had come for a quick knife thrust. “Papizon usually doesn’t get distracted by your useless side projects.”

Borda paced calmly across the deck of the ship. Magan noticed that the Ionic column of the high executive’s body was immune to the rules of physics governing the rest of the SeeNaRee; instead of Borda swaying with the tide, the sea itself appeared to be rotating around the fulcrum of Borda.

“If you have something to say,” rasped the high executive, “then say it.”

Magan widened his stance, flaunting his lack of intimidation at Borda’s presence. “You’re going about this MultiReal situation all wrong,” he said.

“Oh?”

“Natch thrives on anger. Every blow you strike against him only makes him stronger. So send another strike force to Shenandoah, start your onslaught. Not only will you fail to get control of MultiReal, you’ll have the Congress in full-scale rebellion. You’ll have people on the streets shouting their support for Natch and Margaret Surina.”

Borda’s face remained impassive, but the sea began tossing steep breakers against the ship, as if trying to send Magan plummeting overboard. The fog thickened, further obscuring Magan’s mental compass. But the lieutenant executive had done plenty of time on Council naval vessels and knew how to react to the choleric moods of the sea. He kept his feet.

“You forget I’ve been through this before,” said Borda in a voice like molten rock. “I know how to deal with entrepreneurs. And with Surinas.” His words were punctuated by the crackle of cannon fire from the enemy juggernaut still hidden somewhere off in the chop.

Magan recalled the iconic video footage that had swept across the Data Sea almost fifty years ago, footage that could still be found just about anywhere you looked. The smoking hulk of a shuttle half-buried in the sands of Furtoid. A charred and mangled hand arching out of the wreckage.

But then there was the other footage, the secret footage squirreled away in the depths of the Defense and Wellness Council archives. Marcus Surina, having miraculously survived the blast, blackened, gasping, eking out the last fifteen minutes of his life on a Council stretcher with Council dartguns aimed at his head and Council hoverbirds whirring in the background. Denied access to the soothing balms of the Dr. Plugenpatch databases lest someone discover he had not perished instantly in the wreckage. Cursing Len Borda to the very end.

“He should have compromised,” muttered the high executive, gripping tightly onto the railing. Whether he was speaking to Magan or to himself was unclear. “He didn’t have to come to such an end. But these Surinas, they’re all the same. Too full of pride, too nearsighted to see what’s right in front of their noses. I tell you, it must be something in the curry.” He leaned on the railing and peered out to the sea, but his attention was not on anything visible there. The British sloop began to pick up speed, causing the few remaining hairs on Borda’s head to flap in the wind.

Magan stood his ground, icy silent, and made no reply.

“It was a choice I had to make!” yelled Len Borda suddenly, snapping his fingers and wheeling on his lieutenant executive. “What should I have done? Let Surina hand out teleportation to every man, woman, and child? Assassins zapping onto the floor of the Prime Committee! People teleporting into walls! Millions dead! Would you have that blood on your hands?” The high executive aimed one finger straight at Magan’s chest. His voice was a thunderbolt, a primal and electric force of nature. “Consequences? Yes! There were consequences, Magan. Strong actions always have them. A new TeleCo board willing to listen to reason. A board smart enough to apply the appropriate safeguards. It was a necessary change. And if such a change required a-a market adjustment… then…”

Len Borda slipped into a troubled silence, which Magan Kai Lee made no effort to fill. The high executive was not blind. He had seen the millions wandering the streets for years with nothing but worthless TeleCo stock to their name. He had seen teleportation technology crawl back into the marketplace a stunted and crippled thing, too expensive for the masses to afford, too unreliable for the moneyed to trust.

And now Len Borda stood on the prow of his SeeNaRee ship, not just the most powerful man in the world, not just the master of the Council’s invincible armies — but an old man with a fractured mind, a man who had sacrificed some crucial chunk of his mortality fifty years ago in a shuttle explosion on Furtoid.

Short-term plans, long-term problems.

Magan Kai Lee pressed his advantage. “You made a mistake,” he said. “I can’t allow you to make the same mistake again.”

The high executive’s voice was a croak. “And what say do you have in the matter?”

Magan steeled his spine and summoned all the repressed rage buried in his soul. “You gave me your word, Borda, and I intend to see that you keep it. You will announce your retirement from the Defense and Wellness Council in four days, and turn this crisis over to me. As we agreed two years ago.” When I stood here in this office with a loaded gun pressed to the back of your neck. When I swore to you that I would not be stung by an assassin’s dart like the other lieutenant executives before me. When you convinced me that it would be better to take your seat as a chosen successor and not a mutineer.

“You don’t have the experience to handle this,” scoffed Borda quietly. “Marcus Surina — ”

“Marcus Surina was a buffoon. He hid behind his family name and his reputation with the drudges. But this man, this Natch — he has no family to lose. He has no reputation to uphold. This man will outthink and outplot your armies until the end, Borda. No, there is only one person capable of defeating Natch.”

“And who is that?”

“Himself.”

Len Borda slumped perceptibly and turned back to the sea, looking old and careworn — but not before Magan caught the briefest shimmer in the high executive’s eye.

Magan felt a sudden nibble of doubt at his ankles. All his experience with Borda had taught him that the high executive was a creature of passion rather than forethought, a short-term planner. But why then did he occasionally see that knowing glimmer in Borda’s eye? Was it just the nostalgia of the grizzled veteran watching the young protégé come into his own? Or could it be that Borda’s ardor was merely artifice? Was that how Borda had bested all his would-be supplanters over the years?

The high executive stood for a long time without speaking. His ship had returned to calm seas, but the fog around them had only thickened. There was no sound but the soft, rhythmic lapping of oars on seawater, the distant cry of a gull.

Finally, Borda spoke. “I would like to offer you a compromise.”

Magan said nothing.

“New Year’s Day is just a convenient symbol,” continued Borda, his voice disarmingly matter-of-fact. “We chose that day to protect the markets, didn’t we? To cushion the financial impact of the announcement. But the real financial impact won’t come until the new year’s budget goes into effect on the fifteenth of January.” The high executive stood up straight, brushed something off his collar. “So I’ll give you two and a half weeks. Prove to me you can handle this crisis, Magan. Bring MultiReal under the Council’s control by the fifteenth, and I will abide by our agreement.”

Magan could feel his mind whirling like a difference engine, calculating odds, extrapolating possibilities. “And how do I know I can trust your word this time?” How do I know I won’t end up at the bottom of a river, like the last lieutenant executive who tried to bargain with you for succession?

“What choice do you have?” said Borda.

“Don’t delude yourself,” said Magan, his voice keen and deadly as a razor. “This decision isn’t yours to make, not anymore. You don’t think I’m the only one eager to plant a black code dart in your skull, do you? The only reason you sit in the high executive’s chair to this day is because I allow it.”

For the first time in the conversation, Len Borda smiled. It was a horrid expression, the hungry grin of a carnivore. “Spare me the pity of Magan Kai Lee,” mocked the high executive. “I don’t need it.”

And then, without warning, the SeeNaRee dissolved away. Magan found himself standing no longer on an ancient British sloop-of-war, but in a modern office arranged with the strictest military discipline. Two tables, a smattering of chairs, windows with a view of the globe below. Standing in a semicircle around him were four Defense and Wellness Council officers who had been hidden in the virtual mist. Their dartguns were drawn, and aimed at Magan. As the lieutenant executive regarded them with a cool eye, he felt the barrel of another dartgun press into the back of his neck.

“I give you until the fifteenth of January to take possession of MultiReal,” said Len Borda, his voice larded with triumph. “If you do, we have an agreement. If you don’t…” The officer behind Magan pressed the dartgun barrel deeper into his flesh.

Magan kept his face neutral, determined to show no trace of emotion or hesitation. “You’re not giving me anything, Borda. The Council will have control of MultiReal by the fifteenth, and you will relinquish the high executive’s chair — one way or the other.”

He turned without being asked, and the officer with the dartgun at his neck turned with him. Magan strode calmly to the elevator. Four of the officers sheathed their weapons as he passed, but the one at his back never let the nozzle of the dartgun stray from Magan’s skin, even as he accompanied the lieutenant executive onto the lift.

When the doors closed and the elevator began its ascent to the main level, Magan fired off a secure ConfidentialWhisper to the man at his back. “Keep that dartgun right where it is until I’m off the elevator,” he commanded. “Then send someone to find Papizon and Rey Gonerev. Tell them I need to see them.”

Ridgello nodded. “As you wish, Lieutenant Executive.”

*

Excerpted from “MultiReal” by David Louis Edelman. Copyright © 2008 by David Louis Edelman. Reprinted by permission of Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. Excerpt licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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