David Louis Edelman
MultiReal
'MultiReal' trade paperback cover

Excerpt: Lessons Learned

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Chapter 7

The familiar sight of his tenement curving around a Shenandoah hilltop put a smile on Natch’s face that not even black code could dim. Natch had never felt a sentimental attachment to any of the places he had called home; he remembered walking out of the hive for initiation with barely a backwards glance. But he had never savored the unique flavor of returning to a place he had fought to defend either.

The front doors swished open to greet him. Natch stepped into the atrium and nearly collided with Horvil.

The engineer’s chubby face instantly sparked into a grin. “You’re back!” he cried, folding the fiefcorp master into a bear hug. Natch could feel a turgid programming bar pressed against his back. The distinct smell of peanut butter drifted through the air.

“I’m back,” agreed the entrepreneur.

“For real this time, right?” The engineer poked him in the collarbone with one grubby finger. “Not just another five-minute stop-by in multi?”

“For real.”

“About time,” grumbled a voice from the back of the atrium. Horvil shuffled aside to reveal his cousin Benyamin, who was rising from one of the stiff-backed chairs that lined the building’s front hall. “Your apartment won’t let us in,” he said, stretching his arms up in the air with fingertips clasped.

“Well, that’s not completely true,” said Horvil with a frown. “Vigal, Jara, and me, we can all override the security just fine. But you never approved everyone else for emergency access.”

“So we’ve been stuck working out here,” continued Ben.

“At least the building management was nice about it,” said Horvil. “They could’ve kicked us out. But they didn’t. They even let us drag the workbench out here once or twice.”

“You can thank her for that.” The young apprentice tilted his head slightly to the left, indicating another roomier chair where the channel manager Merri had taken up residence. Merri struggled to stand, suppressed a yawn, then switched on a stim program to suffuse her with some energy.

Natch took in the blond woman’s disheveled dress and the backpack propped slantwise against the leg of an end table. Suddenly he realized that, unlike Benyamin, Merri was here in the flesh and probably hadn’t been home since the demo at Andra Pradesh. “Why are you still here?” Natch asked incredulously. “Why didn’t you go back home?”

Merri shrugged with embarrassment. “I know how expensive it is to teleport to Luna,” she said. “It’s just not worth wasting the company’s money. And I’m not up to one of those long shuttle rides right now.”

“Someone else would’ve put you up. Horvil’s Aunt Berilla has a fancy estate in London. They must have a thousand spare bedrooms.”

“It’s not a big deal, Natch. The local Creed Objectivv hostel works just fine.”

“But you’ve got a companion on Luna,” Benyamin retorted. “Bonneth needs you, you said. She can barely get across the apartment by herself — ”

“Bonneth,” said Merri with an air of tired finality, “will be fine.” Natch sensed undercurrents of tension between the two fiefcorpers, but decided this was something he could deal with another time. He shook his head, stepped around the pleasantly befuddled Horvil, and strode down the hall to his apartment with three apprentices in tow.

Jara seemed to have anticipated Natch’s arrival before he even made it in the door. The tiny fiefcorp analyst was perched on the arm of Natch’s sofa, contemplating an ornate holographic calendar floating in midair. “We need to talk scheduling, Natch,” she announced without even looking up, as if continuing a conversation already in progress.

The fiefcorp master paused a moment and let the comfortable trappings of home flood his senses: the windows showing bar charts of the bio/logic markets, the workbench in his office with a trapezoidal structure bobbing above it in MindSpace, the sprightly patch of daisies in the apartment’s precise geometric center. A cup of tea on the kitchen counter gave mute testimony to Serr Vigal’s presence. “Where’s Vigal?” asked Natch.

“Here I am,” came the voice of the neural programmer as he wandered in from the balcony. Natch thought he spotted a few more gray hairs in his old guardian’s goatee, and an unusual amount of concern written in his eyes. Serr Vigal surprised the both of them by taking Natch into a tight embrace.

“I’m glad you’re back,” mumbled Vigal.

“Me too,” said Natch.

The moment was brief. There would be plenty of time later for sentimentality; right now Natch had business to attend to. He stepped free of the neural programmer’s arms and began his normal hectic pace around the living room. Benyamin and Horvil hustled to find seats. “Everybody here? Someone’s missing. Where’s Quell?”

Merri settled into a quiet corner on the floor next to the balcony and sat with her legs crossed. “Quell went to get a bite to eat,” she said. “He kept complaining about the food in your building, so we found him an Indian restaurant down the street. He should be back in a few minutes.”

“Where’s he been sleeping?”

The channel manager shrugged her shoulders. “I think he rented a room somewhere.”

“Fine,” said Natch with a flip of his hand. “Okay, Jara. Scheduling. Go.”

This was the day of our presentation at Andra Pradesh,” said Jara, pointing to the holographic calendar. The square marked Tuesday, December 6 popped off the calendar like a kernel of corn on the flame. “And here’s today.” December 28 leapt up, causing the previous three weeks to cascade off the surface of the holograph. “The public hasn’t heard a peep out of us in three weeks. No press releases, no timetables, no demos, nothing.”

“Natch’s been a little busy,” snorted Horvil, who had appropriated the chair-and-a-half for his ass and the matching ottoman for his feet.

“Granted,” said Jara. “But the public doesn’t know that. Three weeks is an eternity in bio/logics. It’s a good thing the Council pulled that little stunt yesterday, because people were wondering if he was still alive.”

“Don’t even joke about that,” muttered Vigal, balancing his cup of tea on one palm as he found a place on the couch between Ben and Jara.

“Magan Kai Lee swoops down here with dartguns blazing, and you call that a little stunt?” said Horvil. “If Natch hadn’t warned us to stay clear, we could’ve all been killed.”

Jara did not back down. “Come on, Horv,” said the analyst. “The Council just wanted to scare him. They weren’t planning on killing him.”

Ben let out a harrumph. “How do you know that?”

“Because,” replied the analyst as calmly as a proctor explaining arithmetic to a hive child. “Natch can’t hand MultiReal over to the Council if he’s dead, now can he?”

Benyamin’s mouth clamped shut. Silence enveloped the apartment.

Jara continued. “Listen, Ben. We’re talking about basic Data Sea networking principles. Len Borda can’t just steal the MultiReal code from Natch. He needs core access, or Natch could just lock him out of the program whenever he felt like it. And core access on the Data Sea isn’t something the Council can fake. They’d need the matching signatures tied up in Natch’s OCHRE system. It’s practically impossible to crack.”

Serr Vigal nodded sagely. “She’s right,” he said. “Even the Defense and Wellness Council can’t circumvent Data Sea access controls.”

The young apprentice refused to give up. “They could get core access from Margaret.”

“Sure,” said Horvil, picking at a loose thread on his jacket. “But think of it this way. There’re two people in the world with the master key to MultiReal. One of them’s holed up in a tower with five thousand armed guards, and one of them’s just hanging out in an apartment building. Who would you go after?”

“This is all beside the point,” continued Jara. “Without Natch’s cooperation — or Margaret’s — Borda wouldn’t even be able to find the code. You can’t just trace subaether transmissions. He’d have to search every qubit on the Data Sea with pattern recognition algorithms. Even using the fastest computational engine in existence, that’d take…”

Arithmetic fluttered behind Horvil’s closed eyelids as he yanked the string on his jacket free. “Two thousand one hundred twenty-nine years. No, wait. Maybe four hundred eighty-eight years. Or…”

Jara raised her eyebrows and extended an open palm in the engineer’s direction. “A long time, at any rate.”

“But if the Council couldn’t find MultiReal, then nobody could find it,” protested Ben. “It would just float on the Sea forever with all the other useless crap. If Len Borda’s trying to get rid of MultiReal, wouldn’t that suit him just fine? Get rid of Natch and Margaret, and then nobody has core access.”

“Yes, but what if Borda wants to keep MultiReal for himself?” said Jara.

Benyamin leaned forward on the sofa, ran one hand through his inky black hair. “I must be missing something,” he said. “This doesn’t make any sense. If Borda can’t take MultiReal away, and he can’t kill Natch, then all he can do is threaten, right? What are we so worried about?”

Horvil put a hand on the young apprentice’s shoulder. “Do I really need to spell it out for you, Ben?” he asked in a throaty whisper.

All conversation came to a halt. Bio/logics could do much to shield the human body from pain, but in the wrong hands it could also be used to cause pain. Over the years, unscrupulous groups had devised OCHREs that injected painful toxins directly into muscle and bone, nightmare SeeNaRees that tapped into their victims’ darkest fears, and programs that directly stimulated the pain centers of the brain. Who could say which of these techniques the Council used?

Natch stopped midpace in front of the window, silhouetted by the Shenandoah morning. “The Patel Brothers are giving another demo this Sunday.”

The rest of the company blinked in surprise. Nobody had noticed that Natch hadn’t said anything for several minutes. Merri gulped uneasily and gave Horvil a sidelong glance. “I was going to mention that,” she said. “How did you know, Natch? The Patels haven’t even announced it yet.”

“Well, how did you know?” asked Horvil.

“Robby Robby,” replied the channel manager. “It’s his business to know what’s happening in the sales world. And it’s my business to know what he knows.”

Natch could feel the stares of his fellow fiefcorpers, but he paid them no mind. His eyes were locked on that pulsing square labeled Tuesday, December 6, hovering menacingly near Jara’s fingers like an accusation. How was it possible for three weeks to slip through his fingers and vanish without a trace? Already those days on the tube were becoming ghostly, indistinct, something from a dream. Jara was right: three weeks was an eternity in bio/logics. What unspeakable malice had the black code inside him unleashed during those three weeks?

“Natch…?” Vigal prodded gently.

The fiefcorp master blinked hard, trying to get his mind back into balance. He focused on the holographic calendar. How did he know about the Patel Brothers’ demo? The same way he had known about Magan Kai Lee’s failed incursion into his apartment building. Some might label it intuition or foresight, but to Natch it was simply algebra; all you needed to do was to churn through the variables and eliminate the cruft, and you would inevitably arrive at the solution. Couldn’t they see the reddish aura surrounding that square labeled January 1? Couldn’t they tell the Patel Brothers were giving a demo that day just by looking at it?

“So what did Robby find out about this demo?” Natch asked Merri. “Any indication what they’re doing?”

“Not really. Just vague rumors. They’ve booked an auditorium at the Thassel Complex, but it’s not one of the larger-capacity halls. We’re guessing it’s an industry-only event. Robby thinks he can get one of us in without too much trouble.”

“I’ll go,” said Jara.

The fiefcorp master nodded and began to pace once more. “So how do we respond?”

Horvil did some mental extrapolation of his own, then dropped his face dramatically into the palms of his hands. “Shit,” he said, nose poking through his thick fingers, “you’re not gonna put us through all that crap again, are you, Natch? Another demo in less than seventy-two hours?”

Natch shook his head, and the rest of the fiefcorpers released their breath simultaneously. “There’s no point,” he said. “The demo at Andra Pradesh showed everyone that we’re the standard bearers in this business now. If we scramble to beat Frederic and Petrucio to the punch again, it’ll just look like we’re being defensive. Better for us to schedule something on our own timetable. Take a little time to get this one right.”

Jara gave a curt nod of agreement. “So, when?” She swept her hand across the calendar, causing entire rows of dates to ripple smoothly off the surface. Her fingers drifted down towards February in a transparent effort to bring Natch’s attention to a later date.

Natch studied the chunks of time floating in the middle of the room, rubbed his chin. To Natch, each day had a unique flavor that he could roll on his tongue like wine. Few recognized the distinctions between weekdays and weekends anymore, and nobody but lawyers and accountants observed the new year. But there were a few days that seemed disturbingly rancid, for reasons he couldn’t discern. January 15th stood out as a particularly bad day, and the whole following week tasted as bitter as ash.

“January 8th,” he said at length. “A week from Sunday.”

More relieved sighs. Given what the fiefcorp had gone through for the last demo, eleven days felt like a century.

“It’s too bloody quiet in here,” came a gruff voice from the doorway. “Let’s hear some more noise.”

Quell strode in, his breath stinking of saffron and bay leaves. The Islander looked as if he could have curled the rest of the fiefcorp with one massive biceps. The thin copper collar around his neck feeding him the sights and sounds of the virtual world seemed more uncomfortable than ever.

“You’re missing all the excitement,” said Horvil to his fellow engineer. “It’s demo time again.”

“Fun,” said the Islander, voice doused with sarcasm. “I can’t wait.” He walked over to Natch and enacted his peculiar Islander custom of clasping hands and shaking.

Natch stood before the window for a moment with his hands behind his back. Staring. “No, not a demo,” he said. “An exposition.”

Benyamin let out a skeptical phfft. “What’s the difference?”

“A demo is a preview. An exposition is a celebration.” The fiefcorp master’s statement was greeted by a confused silence. He stepped back and spread his arms towards the window as if unveiling a marquee. “Picture this: a field of grass, a huge crowd. Two teams playing baseball, every single player using MultiReal.”

Horvil gazed unblinkingly at the window. “Where are you going to get the other team?” he said. “You wanna invite the Patel Brothers?”

“No. We pick them at random. We pick all the players at random, both teams.”

“We could hold some kind of public lottery,” said Merri, her eyes glinting. “Then we could announce the winners at a big publicity event.”

“I think this could work,” put in Quell, rubbing his chin with his bear’s paw. “Instead of holding MultiReal up on a stage, we give the audience a taste of it. So they’ll know what it’s really like to use the program. Makes it that much harder for Borda to take away.”

“Aren’t we beating this baseball thing to death?” said Jara. “People are going to think the only thing MultiReal’s good for is hitting home runs.”

Natch, unconcerned: “Then let’s make it soccer. Or jai alai. Doesn’t matter.” He turned to face the rest of the fiefcorp and straightened his spine like a drill sergeant. “Listen, I know it feels like we have eons to put this together. But we’ve used up the element of novelty. People have been talking nonstop about MultiReal for a month now, and we can’t just repeat what we did last time.”

The analyst flipped dark curls of hair from her eyes, the better to face down a looming challenge. “I’m up to the task,” she said. “But it’s not me you have to worry about. Most of this is going to fall on Horvil’s shoulders.”

“Me and Quell, we’ve been pounding out all kinds of changes to the code in MindSpace,” said the engineer with an insouciant air. “Possibilities is humming. It’s like we turned some kind of corner. But still — doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy. We have a lot of loose ends to tie up before we can sic this thing on five hundred million people again.”

Natch: “So can you get the job done?”

Horvil’s voice did not leak the smallest droplet of doubt. “Yeah, we’ll get it done,” he said. Quell gave a reinforcing nod of confidence. “Provided that Ben’s assembly-line goons do their job.”

“No worries,” said Benyamin. “Greth Tar Griveth has the programming floor standing on notice.”

“And I’ll start working the sales channels with Robby Robby,” put in Merri, standing up and brushing off her blouse.

Serr Vigal sat on the sofa, beaming quietly. His role in the fiefcorp was strictly an advisory one, but no one doubted that he would make himself available as needed.

Natch’s pacing slowed as he surveyed the group arrayed before him. He could scarcely believe that a month ago, the Surina/Natch MultiReal Fiefcorp had been fumbling, awkward, and ready to quit. Now they had caught the same intoxicating scent of victory that Natch had been following since his first meeting with Margaret Surina. This was no hodgepodge of runners-up and also-rans Natch had assembled; this was a first-rate team.

The entrepreneur tried to conjure some words of inspiration, but for some reason the linguistic centers of his brain felt tangled and knotted. “All right,” said the fiefcorp master, twirling one hand in the air. “Let’s get to work.”

*

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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