WHATEVER HAPPENED TO ODIA COATES?: A TRAGEDY IN SIX ACTS (PART V)

By David Gionfriddo

Photos © Claudia Murari

It was morning now, and time for a wake-up. Sandor opened a vending machine with an old-style iron key and took out a couple of plasticene packets of cherry Vim!.

“Can’t keep this stuff in stock, friend. The old duffers swear this’ll turn a ten-penny nail into a railroad spike.” Sandor thought for a good minute about not asking something of Passmore, who had moved down toward a lucite box that held a trio of bots posed slinky, ready to pounce, as the Brides of Dracula. “Not that I don’t believe you, the way you can spin a yarn, but it’s kind of funny I never seen your picture, you being so well-known and all. Mister Cee Eee Oh…”

Passmore was like a kid, nose pressed against a pet shop’s storefront window. “I don’t take photos,” he said. “The instant a photo is taken, it begins to lie. Can’t trust a thing that starts its life that way.” The synthelles inside crawled across an elegantly-dressed mattress, anxious to tear some unlucky nobleman to pieces.

Sandor took a long draught of Vim! through its length of plastic tube and closed his eyes, letting its natural uppers drag him back into full, wild consciousness.

“Now, this here’s the main event. Our pride and joy. Just put these little bitches online in March.  They’ve practically paid for themselves.”

“Hmmm.  Raduca-1 and -2,” he said, pointing to the ringleader in her silver filigreed headdress, and her dusky companion to the right, wrapped in black silk. “Know how you can tell? The chin dimple and the bump in the nose. We added those because our research people found that the Raduca buyers liked Flavia Ducasse the actress. They were actually doctoring up the ones with window putty to look like her. Synner had a piece on it. ‘Know your customer,’ the secret to success. Our costumers spent hours researching those gowns.”

“They do about 70% of our biz,” Sandor said. “We got three kids from the vocational school in Chatterton who come in every week to take turns on Jana there. Seems like I spend half my time replacing buttons and fingernails.”

For just the blink of an eye, Passmore seemed offended. “Don’t tell me that. You shouldn’t be losing that many, unless you’ve got sick fucks pulling them out. That should be on warranty.”

Sandor opened a door and crawled inside the box, where he could stroke a Raduca’s magical human hair, acquired at great expense from a Hindu temple in Tirupati.

“Aw, don’t you worry now,” Sandor said. “These little babies earn their keep. They’re just about perfect.”

“Thanks.  es, they are,” Passmore replied.  But know what I’ve learned? Perfection can be a real stone drag, boyo. A stone drag.” He seemed to want to see through Jana’s eyecam, to some shut-down inner world beyond. “Know what I fantasize about now? Moles and vaccination scars.  Port wine stains…”

6.         2067:  Gabi, the Unreachable Real

THE FEMINIST FIREBRAND WHO PUT AMERICA’S FEET TO THE FIRE

By Eve Newcomer, Special to the Times-Messenger

Rio Arriba County, New Mexico:  September 18, 2067 — Revered by many rights activists and social theoreticians, Ligeia Esther Shattuck struck fear into the hearts of publishers, politicians and industrialists.

After an undistinguished career in academia, Shattuck, enraged by what she perceived as a rising tide of sexism in American society, reinvented herself as the avenger Ligeia Grief, founded the Valascan terror sect, and declared war on a corrupt global patriarchy.

Shattuck, 53, died Thursday at Espanola Medical Center, of complications arising from late-stage breast cancer. She is survived by a brother, Willem, a city administrator in Montpelier, Vermont.

It was September 2046 when the Valascans – named for a mythical Amazon queen of exceptional cruelty – publicly declared war on what they described as the “offensive and virulent products” of American industry. Previously, a minor criminal organization of little renown, Shattuck’s group escalated its program of bombings, kidnapping and vandalism, prompting a high-profile battle with HYDRA officials and polarizing popular opinion.

Shattuck was called a “highly-principled, if overzealous, adversary” by Algernon Passmore, Chief Executive of Intimatron, Ltd., a particular target of the Valascans’ activities. Over the past two decades, no fewer than eight facilities owned by Intimatron, pioneer in the development of synthetic domestic companions, were the objects of attacks by the paramilitary group.

Late Thursday, the Valascans issued a statement proclaiming that Shattuck’s death would “in no way diminish [their] commitment…, or cause [them] to scale back the ongoing struggle for the soul of Woman.” HYDRA Executive Director G. Rouse Pettit said that he expected Shattuck’s death to fragment and weaken the group’s command structure, leaving it vulnerable to a “renewed offensive” by federal law enforcement.

Born June 19, 2014 in Greenville, Maine, to a commercial printer and a homemaker, Shattuck was a bright student and excelled in athletics, earning a lacrosse scholarship to Colorado State University.  In 2039, she was awarded a doctorate in Classics from Vanderbilt University and began lecturing at Arizona State University in Tempe, where she first became involved in radical politics, championing the writings of feminist theorist Elodie LaBranche. Denied tenure in 2043, she began participating in leafleting and demonstrations on behalf of groups like Hedwig’s Hands and, shortly thereafter, was arrested for firebombing the office of a local conservative political party.

It was during a short stay in an Arizona jail that she met the nucleus of women who would become her lieutenants in the Valascans.

Since the mid-‘40s, the Valascans have become one of America’s most notorious radical groups. Among the attacks attributed to them were the Harem magazine bombing of 2048, the abduction of actor Glenn Crockett-Visser and the 2053 blaze that gutted Intimatron’s Fowler, Kansas distribution center, killing three workers.

Ellen Reiss-Wilfong, Chair of Brandeis University’s Department of Women’s Studies and author of Just Like Leila Khaled Said: Women and Political Activism, punctuated Shattuck’s passing. “Without question,” she said, “the death of such a charismatic figure will usher in a whole new phase of feminist dissent.”

******

Outside the walls of Ex Machina – for tonight’s private party, rechristened Der Aufziehenden Sturm and decked out in Weimar drag – there were unruly, swirling winds, the kind that made a man’s jaw clench in rising fear. It was the kind of wind that could make anything happen, that could make anything a weapon or a hazard.  Passmore ordered a round of schnapps for the table and averted his gaze from the picture window toward the holoscreen, as Landra’s arm ensnared his.

“What’s on?  Something good?” she asked, scanning his face. “You’re looking worried. You’re looking older.”

Even with the sound off, Passmore could make out the scene:  a cloud of Valascans, maybe 75 or 80, in mourning robes, filing past a bier holding a familiar, chiseled face, swaddled in lavender cloth. Each mourner added a garland or a handful of spice before, in the dying sunlight stroking a nameless lake, the makeshift barge was set alight and floated off, its smoke ascending in thick black billows.

“Funeral for a friend,” he said. “Why am I not happy?”

“Maybe because you’re not yet a total shit,” she smiled. “Come on back, Pass. You’ll miss the cabaret.”

Their table was down front, at the foot of the tiny stage, and each step toward it was purchased with a distracted handshake, an awkward one-liner lobbed toward a grateful corporate underling, or a gentle, sexless caress to the arm of a customer’s wife or mistress. Passmore moved calmly, at a psychic remove, untouched by the hurly-burly. He only brightened at the sight of his favorite assistant, Cassidy Rule, a round-faced ingénue of 24 he had hired from last year’s East Anglia graduating class. Her temperament, work ethic and keen, creative mind had set her on Passmore’s fast track. She already had three assistants under her and a small but nicely-furnished anteroom adjoining Passmore’s private den on the restricted 16th floor. He hardly made a move without consulting her instant recall of his monthly schedule. Landra was even beginning to look at her with an elegantly misplaced suspicion that  Passmore did nothing to allay. It amused him.

“Good line-up for tonight?” he asked.

Cassidy beamed. “The world can finally see the GABIs. They really are the pinnacle. Real high-steppers. A triumph, sir.”

Passmore smiled and felt a little rush of blood to the face, even as Landra squeezed his arm in a pinch and guided him into a ringside seat. And there was Kessel, the squirelly messenger from Legal, greasepainted and slicked down in Joel Grey drag, a comic compere:

Wilkommen, damen und herren…tonight, we want you all to eat and drink your fill, enjoy friends and family, and witness the ultimate triumph of femtech, the ethereal, the divine, the indescribable…the paragon of Grace, Artistry, Beauty and Intelligence…the Two-thousand Sixty-Eight  GABI!”

And such a divine procession it was, the new GABIs, as mentally nimble as any natural woman, minds filled with every nuance of every performance, a library of subtle variation so readily accessible it was indistinguishable from spontaneous improvisation, flawless shells whose mental workings sparkled ad shone:  Pauline Chappell and Maura LaFront, blonde, lion-maned glamazons  harmonizing flawlessly on Thetys’ “Satyrnalia” and “Glitterfall” by the Giotto Circle, Angie O Graham, her endless, sculpted legs in black fishnets, crooning “Stormy Weather” to a shipping coordinator who had sprouted a near-to-bursting forehead vein, a pair of South American Paolas named Kay Lastima and Clara Quesi shimmying through a flawlessly choreographed Carmen Miranda medley…

Odia OneAs slowly as things had flattened out in the 50’s, Passmore thought, that was how quickly things had begun to change since Edgar Lessig had shown Passmore the Viveq on that summer day in 2061. It had taken a complex web of bribes, gifts and other considerations to gain access to the Defense Department’s game-changer, the so-called “H-bomb of artificial intelligence.” But the chip Passmore had held that day could have never been used for civilian applications. It would take four years of careful work, trimming back the available data, removing everything relating to weapons, logistics, military strategy, foreign intelligence, inventories of materiel, personnel histories of Pentagon employees, files addressing classified projects in physics, pharmacology, deviant psychology and a hundred other areas of military application, for the Viveq to be used in consumer bots. At last in March 2065, the Interagency Coordination Committee filed patent papers on a viable commercial-grade Viveq chip that held every fact a synthelle could ever use. And the Koreans, the Germans, the Japanese, would never know what hit them.

But that was only the beginning. The first GABI prototypes had so much information at their fingertips, they were barely able to respond. Souped-up processors only meant faster incorrect reactions or, in those instances when an appropriate response was unearthed, led to the so-called “know-it-all effect,” a demeanor so cold, robotic and affectless it was off-putting. The volume of information left no room for the quasi-human interaction that made the Arielle so popular. It was left to Lessig and his team to develop GG.noir.53, a protocol that would make the GABIs acceptably humanesque. GG.noir.53 was a decision lattice layered on top of every Viveq-C, designed to manage the GABI’s decision processes. The “horizontal” vertices used a series of variables to assess the ongoing seriousness of an interaction. The “verticals” controlled the flow of raw data. The junctions were decision trees controlling the timing and presentation of information outflows.  A number of templates were tested, but men responded best to filters based on the sly, sexy wisecracking heroines of films noir of the 1940s and 1950s. They were best able to balance mental agility, sexual challenge and tension-relieving wit. With the Viveq-C’s unbeatable knowledge base and GG.noir’s sophisticated interface, the GABI had a personality as peerless as its sexually-dynamic body was flawless.

“And now,” Kessel said, cutting through the volleys of uncontrolled laughter, the huffing and snorting of graceless, middle-aged lust, “a final message to Intimatron from our own S.S. she-wolves…Eva Afta und Lotte Nerve…” A pair of curly blonde Gretels in full Nazi regalia, brandishing riding crops they used to tease the unkempt middle managers who had pushed to stage front in a cloud of sweat and gin-breath, reared back to belt out a chorus of “Tomorrow Belongs To Me.” Passmore found all the ersatz decadence predictable and tiresome, particularly when the real world had begun to show such serious cracks, but he knew it would keep the workers happy and would give them all a pillow of memories that would comfort them through the frantic roll-out of the GABI, the final step in the establishment of Synthetic America.

Kessel was loving his instant in the limelight. “Vell done, my beauties,” he purred. “Today, ze nightclub; tomorrow, ze vorld!”  A buzz at his ear shattered Passmore’s reverie. It was Phoebus Beech, leaning in to whisper:

“If I could have a word, just a word, before you call it a night…”

******

In the restaurant business, everyone remembered June 6, 2066 as Tomato Liberation Day, the day the tomatoes were freed. At 12:01 a.m., the patent protection the Agriculture Department had granted Barker-Systron for its rot-resistant seeds expired and the price of the delicious, plump fruit fell through the floor. It was a mad arms race among chefs everywhere to find new ways to use them. Pizzerias and pasta shops stayed open around the clock to feed the seemingly endless lines of customers, but nobody was immune to the frenzy, not even Yakatomi-San and his master chefs at Gochiso.

Tybalt wrinkled his nose and violently poked the menu with his finger. “Tomato tempura, tomato stir-fry, tomato teppanyaki…Holy hell, what a mess. Japanese kwee-zeen has gone right into the crapper ever since lobster fishing became illegal. What is that shit we’re harvesting from them now, sir?”

Passmore controlled his yogic breathing and focused his thoughts on stillness. “Telomase, Rafe.  It’s an enzyme that repairs DNA. One day we will all be essentially immortal thanks to our spiny friends. Small price to pay, I should think.”

“Whatever, sir,” Tybalt shrugged. “I just heard so much about lobster humidor. Gotta beat this tomato shit.”

“One shouldn’t be so mired in the past, boy. Rumor has it that the Tomo-nimono with swiss chard is quite lovely. Let’s us try it, shall we? Ah, Mr. Greene, everything work out?”

Rasmus Greene, an unhealthy-looking slip of a boy in a too-expensive alligator jacket, pulled out his chair and poured himself into a casual slouch.

“Why don’t they just ship all these goddamn tomatoes to Chad where the drought is? We get rid of them and the Chadites or Chadians get stuff to eat? Hey, I just saved the world!”

Tybalt fluffed his hair impatiently. “Because then we’d have to find organs for 12 million new pygmy organ grinders. Not to mention monkeys, polyp…”

Under normal conditions, Passmore would not be found dead on a recruiting lunch. But it had gotten so hard to find young men with even rudimentary skills…Rasmus Greene, a recent Swarthmore grad, was said to have a skill with arranging numbers that bordered on the autistic. And he was the grandson of a dissident director they needed to keep happy.  So there he was, with that hateful gremlin Tybalt from auditing to pick up the check. Passmore had to constantly fight the urge to teach etiquette because, once he began, there would be no end to it. He fought the urge at every racist jibe, at every telephone call that obliterated a train of conversation, at Tybalt’s grumpy excursion to the 4Sooth™ machines in the middle of a surprisingly nice roasted tomato sorbet.

“Hey, bossman,” Tybalt said, “Have you got any jake on you?  I couldn’t resist.” He flashed a purple chip in the palm of his hand. “The 4Sooth™ gave me 9-to-6 against on an ulcer flare-up. I had to go in for a grand.”

Greene sat up. “What time frame?”

“Two weeks.”

“I so need to get Health Sciences to update my medichip.” He tapped his arm angrily. The 4Sooths kick me out. NO CURRENT INFORMATION. Such bullshit.”

Passmore could barely hide his chagrin. “Aries, you at least have your ChromeCard™?”

Tybalt scanned the floor with a witless smile. “See, it’s kind of like this. I’m sort of maxed. Anything over $6K a month needs three authorizations…if you have past infractions. But we’re cool, right, boss? I thought you were tight with, uh, Mister Miyagi back there.”

Greene leaned forward. “Now, I see, Mr. Passmore.  This operation needs me like a…”

“Fish needs a bike.”

“No,” Greene said, confused. “I was gonna say ‘like a motherfucker’…”

The frenzied pace of the moment had set them all on edge, and it was all Passmore, who never travelled with money or cards since the girlgangs had begun to hit the financial zones, could do to placate Yakatomi, who, upon catching wind of the table’s liquidity woes, had sprung upon his valued customer and launched into a fusillade of colorful if unintelligible Japanese insults, punctuated by almost Kabuki hand gestures. It took a personal I.O.U. and Passmore’s sherry topaz tie pin to settle him down to the point where peaceful egress was possible. Despite Passmore’s urgings, Greene could not resist some parting shots.

“WE MADE THIS PLACE,” he screamed. “Ungrateful slope fucks. We should have finished the job at Manzanar. ..”

Embarrassed, Passmore shoved his guys into a waiting autocab and programmed it to head for the Egg and safety. Tybalt tossed off one last barb as they sped away.

“And get some fucking lobster on that menu!…”

Passmore was grateful for a pair of small mercies, namely that the smoky front windows of Gochiso were seven short blocks from Intimatron’s HQ and that a prior appointment allowed him to part company with his young underlings. From the Egg, he would ride, in blissful solitude, to the Gypsum Building on Necker, a faceless skyscraper along the river promenade where “Ingalls Promotions,” Lessig’s sham enterprise, leased interview rooms for its marketing focus groups. Although he always tried to suppress such hopes, Passmore was thinking that watching the new GABIs in action might be in some way amusing. Lord knew he needed some cheering up.

Despite its drab exterior, the interior of the Ingalls suite was rather impressive. Its heart was a nicely furnished control room, from which one could observe multiple groups of audience members watching small staged performances. Today, all three mini-theaters were in use, clusters of young housewives, bulky construction workers and students from the downtown colleges watching well-dressed middle-aged men chatting up a trio of superb, attentive girls.

Passmore spread out in a leather armchair and poured himself a glass of pineapple juice. “So, Edgar, what are we looking at?”

“Our first taste test,” Lessig said, swiveling to address each room in turn. “In A, Heather, with a straight Viveq interface. B is Hecate, who was fitted with a pretty standard Arielle-1conversational interface. Pretty straight binary process. Zeros and ones.”

“And who is that slick Spanish lady in Room C? The one who has the murderess’ face?”

“That, kemo sabe, is Helena-3, the show pony for GG.noir.”

“Is that the ‘digital attitude’ Casparaitis was telling us about?”

“You’ll see,” Lessig smiled, spearing an olive from a freshly-unwrapped deli tray. “Watch and learn. Oh, by the way, how was Greene striking you?”

“A detestable little swine, thanks for asking,” Passmore said. “But we’ll find something for him to count.”

A video monitor alongside the window into Studio A zeroed in on the performers, a suave older man in a tuxedo and Heather, a lovely green-eyed blonde in a clingy, red-satin cocktail dress, who rested her chin on folded hands, staring down her pursuer with a cagey grin. The man’s approach was scripted, stiff, pedestrian:

“You look restless,” he said, leaning in and smiling cozily, “like you’d enjoy a moonlight ride down the coast road…”

Heather’s stare was intense, her response quick. “Yes, lovely. Thirty-eight white sand beaches between Arcadia and South Carolina, twenty available to the public. Two lost in the Easter Mudslides 0f 2045. One the site of the Coe Oceanographic Institute, dedicated 2058.”

“Uhhh, o-kaaaay…” There was a ripple of gently derisive laughter through the spectators.

Passmore sipped at his juice. “Old green-eyes isn’t much fun. Kind of a drag.”

“Yup.  No social interface. Direct, unbuffered Viveq data dump,” Lessig answered. “AWT.  Almanac With Tits.”

“And beautiful tits they are.”

“But you couldn’t sell the synthusiast on that experience…”

Lessig clicked on the Studio B vidscreen.

“They’re dressed exactly the same,” Passmore said. “This David Niven has a bit more hair. And our Rita Hayworth is a bit more slender. Panthery.”

“When did you ever see a panther?”

“Cairns. 2063. The last jaguar.”

“Yeah, I remember that! We wanted to keep the audience data untainted by minimizing the qualitative variables. Catch that music? Ravel’s Bolero in all three rooms. Guarico lamps. Sol Lewitt on the walls. But now, watch what happens.”

“Smoother, one hopes.”

“Not quite.”

The sophisticated man had just offered his services to the stunning redhead, and had returned to his chair, confident yet curious, to await her response, perhaps her counteroffer. Her face was loving, a bit protective, no reproof in it, no pleasure in his discomfort. For three or four seconds, an oppressive silence hung between them, and then she spoke:

“Yes. Why, yes. The night can be good. I like it. The moon, its light, the sea, the sound of the sea, particularly the stretch between Oliver and Blackthorn, with the lighthouse. Crofts Head lighthouse. Yes, it could be nice, as the weather is likely to hold up…”

Passmore stiffened. “Hell’s bells. Another motormouth. Another endless talker with no personality.”

“Oh, she has one. I built it. It’s an S33 grid from an Arielle-2.”

“No Arielle was ever as charmless as that.”

“Right. No Arielle ever had a Viveq full of data to process. She’s overwhelmed. She can’t finish cooking her answer by the time her timer goes off. It just comes out uncooked…”

Passmore looked down at his hands and wished he had a cig for effect. “So we just spent $30 million developing a killer brain that has reduced our lovely temptresses to babbling dispensers of word salad.” From the hushed audience conversation on the vidscreen outside Room C, he could tell something different, a more interesting process, was unfolding.

“Take a gander in Salon C, jefe. Edgar Lessig can still design a personality. Hell, he invented the art!”

Onscreen, things looked to be at least entertaining:

Man: Why, hello, may I join you?

Helena: To what?

Man: Uh, to a good conversation?

Helena: Sure, Chester.  I’ll try anything twice.

Man: Well, to be truthful, I thought you looked a bit…

Helena: Bored? Heavens, does it show?

Man: A little. We could take off. I know a nice little place.

Helena: Where a lady doesn’t have to stick to the tablecloth? (sounds of gentle laughter)

Man: Absolutely. It’s just a moonlight drive away.

Helena: Down the I-4?

Man: Could be.

Helena: I don’t like cruising smartroads with strange boys.  They don’t have to keep their hands on the wheel.  (general laughter)

“Ha ha. Well, ain’t she a pistol,” Passmore drawled lazily. “So does she?”

“What?”

“Go. For the ride.”

“You know our little beauties aren’t built to say ‘No’. But she puts him through his paces first. And the boys love it. The GG.noir protos test in the stratosphere. Even the bozos and the beaters get off on it. Mama always said that Master’s in Sarcasm would pay off big one day.”

Passmore walked over to the window into Studio C. Inside, the audience had leaned back in their seats, some of the men in loosened ties, the older women dangling work pumps from big toes, the seniors smiling and laughing amiably, the atmosphere suffused with none of the awkwardness and tension of the other two stages. Helena was, it seemed, a genuine goodtime girl.

“It hasn’t failed us yet. Film noir is the most compatible filter. Women respond to the nerviness and intelligence. For men, it’s the challenge, the danger and humor, the suggestion of sexual power and transcendence. Something for everyone.”

Passmore let it all sink in.

“One thing more,” he said. “I want a bracelet on every GABI ankle. Every!”

******

The ever-building anticipation of success born at the Gypsum that June day made Passmore’s steps light as he slammed the cab door and hailed Cassidy outside the door of 3holo3, one of the city’s most widely trafficked holonets. His head was still buzzing from lack of sleep after the prior evening’s company-only “GABIret,” as Cassidy approached.

“Hey, you look mightily cheerful for one preparing to stare down the lions.” She was wearing what he thought was a marvelously stylish red-and-gray striped sundress and, in a flash of self-interrogation, found himself a bit embarrassed for noticing the games the wind played with it on her body.

“Would I sound callow for saying it seems a bit thrilling?”

She was one of his newer hires, just months before. Her mother had been involved with a director of the UK subsidiary – another favor he had to pay off. But when he met her, at a mixer for the new crop, he had been instantly entranced. She seemed filled with light. Pure, in a way of which she could not have been conscious. She approached her work with something he had never seen or felt – joy — and the glow of it reflected favorably on him, made him feel clean and true and pointed toward a worthwhile goal. He felt taller and stronger and safer when she was around and he had felt it immediately, from the first hour. She made him feel good in the way that money and success and the deference of others once had, before the intrigues and the controversies and the family silences. Gemma he would call her, when her back was turned, when nobody could hear. It wasn’t love. He was almost sure of it. He knew he would need a right hand for the GABI’s imminent launch, which was sure to make hell out of the fall and winter months. It might, he knew, be 2068 before he truly came up for air.

There would be hours, too many, in fact, for such musings, but first, there were critics to face. 3holo3’s popular Holosect news magazine had invited Intimatron to take part in what it was calling “All In A Row,” a docucast on the synthelle and its (presumably adverse) social impacts. He had been urged to stay away, but curiosity had gotten the better of him. He would never repeat the mistakes of his youth and do the show himself, as he had done unveiling Akiko the CARA in ’37, but he could not resist the chance to prowl the sidelines, to sneak glimpses of the work in progress, to suss out points of counterattack. The on-camera work would be done by their new PR spokesman Belladonna Foss, and he was heartened by the sight of her, immaculate and lovely and full of tightly-reined power, at the elevator bank.

“Remember the principal points of emphasis,” Passmore said, as he passed into the elevator car. “Consumer choice. Social utility. Technological advancement.”

“And…,” Foss smiled.

“And a sneak peek at the future of synthetics. That will render all the other mere white noise.”

While technicians scuttled about, adjusting lights and chairs, Passmore gripped the hand of host and netceleb Aiden Meek. He marveled at how Meek had seemed to grow away from his name, filling an intimidating 6’2” frame, blaring a deep, sonorous baritone and nearly spraining Passmore’s fingers in a grip that surely signaled the games had begun.

“Of course, we would have preferred you on the other side of the cameras,” he joked.

I’ll bet you would have, Passmore thought.

“I find I’ve simply gotten too rascally in my old age,” he said. “An ornery old guy doesn’t function so well as the face of a company that sells eternal youth.”

Meek was looking at Cassidy. “But I see you’re still hoping a little will rub off.”

Passmore mock-laughed. “RHIP.  Rank has its privileges.” Fuck your children’s eyes, he thought. You bilious windbag. Of course, his hypocrisy was evident to all as he showily intimidated his own flock of young-and-shapelies, including co-anchor DeAngel Sands, a stunning African-American teen they had poached from a popular body modification cast who had singlehandedly staved off the program’s announced cancellation.

“I hope she hosts the piece,” Cassidy said. “I love her.”

“Oh no,” Passmore answered. “We’re pulling for Meek. We would be well served by the beauty-and-the-beast dynamic. In fact, we’re banking on it.”

In a small VIP lounge, Passmore, by special arrangement, scanned some of the raw footage: DeAngel, surprisingly grave and sturdy, combing the food and clothing banks in the Downs for recently-terminated waitrons and executive assistants to spin out tales of workplace woe in the post-synth city. He had to admit to being moved by their piercing eyes and meandering voices.  Loose gatherings of runaways and street kids looted phones and computer tablets from gardens of glass shards in smashed store windows. And, of course, there were the sex workers, pushed from the more lucrative echelons of their professions, recounting tales of beatings, rough trade and squalor among the cheap skinbars and mobile bordellos.

“The standard dislocations caused by automation,” Passmore opined. “They should have moved on to other occupations by now. Playing on the prejudices of the ignorant. It’s called progress, people.”

A haggard-looking professor of Women’s Studies (precisely the malady for which the synthelle was the intended remedy, Passmore thought, with some satisfaction) was scowling through a screed on gender displacement, fantasy captivity and socio-psychological disequilibrium, when a stagehand looked in and gave a pre-arranged sign that the interview was five minutes from starting. Passmore popped the pre-taped disc from the player and twisted impatiently in his seat. Almost game time, he thought. Cassidy’s eye was caught by a disc atop the console labeled Arashi. Carefully, she slid it in and watched a web of 3D images form around a concerned-looking Sands:

What you are about to see may shock you. It may upset you. It may…anger you. For this is the secret world of Arashi, an outlaw world whose members have broken with traditional notions of gender and propriety.

“Ha!,” Passmore said. “That’s a desperate stratagem. Tie us to crazy fringe cults!” The room began to fill with ghostlies of women in odd costumes dancing, grinding, frantically. A woman in ringmaster garb cracked a whip, leading fellow revelers, amorously embracing in various states of drag and undress, around a circular dance floor, huffing on an inhaler and chanting unintelligible instructions,

Here, in secret clubs called scenes – as in crime scenes – the abandoned women of the modern city act out their fantasies of destruction and deconstruction. Rules of beauty and attraction are fractured. Some enact the roles of the male despoilers, others present their unmale sexualities in bizarre, funhouse forms, force-feeding the world the nightmare end results of technological meddling like some cautionary sci-fi furies. 

A race of silver-painted angels in grotesque masks and bound feet soared across the room on tethers, making obscene-sounding war cries while a woman with a mastectomy scar covered by a bowstring, Amazon-style, ritually fought her way from a glass orb, cheered on by a dozen women dressed in the whites of naval officers.  Joan of Arc danced in a circle of rum-fueled fire. Cassidy sat wide-eyed.

It began in the streets of Tokyo, along trails of broken glass and burnt metal, but now these bacchanals for the brushed-aside and bamboozled can, according to HYDRA sources, be found in 36 countries, including most urban areas right here in the United States. Underground scenes accounted for over 200 arrests and thousands of dollars in damage last year. And they are spreading.

“Wild,” Cassidy breathed.

Passmore chuckled. “No worries, kid. If we can handle the Valascans, this will be like a children’s birthday party.” He rose to leave, barely glancing at the cast of characters that paraded around the room: kabuki lovers, slicked-back 1940’s crooners, carnival strongmen, Valkyries, gorgons, suffragettes , frontiersmen and burlesque queens swaddled in bubbles, all wild, marauding ladies, dancing on coals, rolling and tumbling in frenzied embraces, sending the squares fleeing into the acrid black night in a haze of ampholazine smoke and cheap perfume. The energy was mad and uncontrollable; DeAngel seemed small and overwhelmed like she never had before. These scenes made the dry, rehashed anti-synth polemics seem unwatchable. In the back of his mind, Passmore feared, without ever once thinking of Cassidy, that the world might want to see more.

“…but why?  With the world awash in your creations, with the impact on the human psyche, does the world need this new series we keep hearing about?” Meek was doing his number on Bella, leaning over her from a strategically-elevated chair, forcing her into retakes under searing lights, surrounding himself with an intimidating retinue of researchers, gofers and retouchers. But Passmore had brought in Bella from the Crystal Future Fund, a trade association that bought up indigenous peoples’ water rights for various mining and manufacturing cartels, so he knew how impermeable, how pitiless and mentally nimble she was. She could parry the assaults of an old mandarin like Meek, coasting on reputation and rambunctiousness, with nary a wince of discomfort.

“We do,” she said, with a preternatural warmth and conviction, “because we can. Because it is in man’s nature to extend the laser vision of invention and discovery as far as he can into the blackness. It offends us at our very roots to do less than we can. And need I catalogue all of the tangential benefits business, industry and medicine have derived from advances in robotics pioneered by synthelles: gyro-pinion arms for robotic surgeries, high-power lenses for surveillance, graftable silicate permaskin. The dollar is the lure of the brightest minds, but all profit in the wake of their inventions.”

“Stellar,” Passmore whispered to Cassidy. “Cheap at thrice the price.  I’m all tingly.” She could say everything the old robot guys still wanted to believe.

Meek was not about to relent. “But why the chip? Rumors say that the new gen of synthelles will incorporate Viveq, or some watered-down version of it. Why does a synthelle need so much data?”

Bella folded her hands and cupped them around a knee. “An innovator fears no knowledge. We have seen the synth move way past sexwork into numerous service and clerical jobs. And the research we’ve been conducting in how to harness and control the richness and power of Viveq’s dataveins will be paying dividends for decades.”

“And speaking of dividends, some people are going to make lots and lots of money on this…”

“With any luck,” she laughed. “The developers of knowledge, thousands of factory workers, millions of shareholders building nest eggs and saving for retirement and children’s educations. We hope to make profits for them all, Aiden.”

“That last Aiden,” Passmore swooned. “Style points…”

Meek turned to face the camera:

“With that, we are going to give our audience a chance to meet this new creation, just weeks before she reaches the market. Her name is Helena, we are told she is #6 in a series, and she has a functional IQ of 287. She can map the human genome, cook a perfect chateaubriand, and she is going to entertain us with a song. She is…. Helena-6…”

The perfect blend of sexuality, vulnerability, intelligence and feeling, Passmore thought: the American torch song. In the film clip ILTD provided, the light flowed elegantly down the coffee skin of her arms and neck as she nestled alongside the piano. Number six was made with long, chestnut hair and the wreath beautifully set off the kelly green velvet of her cocktail dress. Her face gave off a rigorous, calculating intelligence, her eyes moist and lovely, her gestures tender and measured. She bowed to the camera and picked up the microphone:

There’s something underhanded and unseemly about

The way you caught my eye with your impeccable pout

And made that jukebox concertina

Seem obscener

Than a lonely lady’s conjugal ecstatical shout

I slide into the booth with a theatrical sigh

And found a paper napkin for my ginger and rye

You pierced me like a crystal

Sad and wistful

Like a pris’ner staring through the bars rememb’ring the sky

Oh, something in the bloodstream since this world began

A tear for broken promises and crumbled plans

You don’t need to understand

It doesn’t matter if you can

I love love love love

My melancholy man

A gentle tenor saxophone gave her words a terrible, pleading quality heightened still further by the accents of an otherworldly harp. Matteson, their arranger and musical director, had outdone himself, Passmore thought. He knew that, in the eyes of his customers, Helena’s beauty and poise would render the preceding hour of theories and scaremongering a slick and professional nullity, nothing more. He burned with angry scorn as Meek gathered up the room’s gravity, leaned into the camera and, in his most shaming voice, tried to seal the proceedings with his pompous PostScript:

We live for beauty, for attention, but our failing was we could not abide the scarcity that gave it value. We could not cultivate the patience that gave it meaning.  We deluded ourselves into thinking ourselves gods, thinking the market our church.

First we made the lie. Then we sold the lie. Then the lie became our truth. Let us hope we can still shake ourselves awake.

“Now that you’ve seen the devil, old and spent and at the end of his rope,” Passmore said, gently guiding Cassidy by the shoulder, “don’t ever forget his face.”

“So we can fight him?” she asked.

“No,” Passmore said. “To identify his body on the ashpile.”

******

It was the feel of smartcar treads in the programmed cyberslots of the city smartroads that always made Passmore philosophize, even more than the subtle changing of the seasons.

“You know, I never gave a damn about nature – trees and rocks and sand. Never did. How can you get worked up over something you find? Something that’s given? Just…there? How can you get worked up about things that reflect no will or effort? It was always the cities, the roads, the things man made, the things that bore man’s signature, that moved me.” He was not even sure if Cassidy was listening. She just stared at the last squadrons of dive-bombing city birds and watched her patch of white breathfrost expand and recede on the inside of the window. Passmore pulled from his coat pocket Beech’s weekly brown envelope and, with nervous fingers, extracted the minidisc it contained and placed it into the player in his armrest. It was mostly for background; by now, the whole country had heard of the Valascans’ desperate suicide attack and its bloody aftermath. It was metastasizing into legend as they waited.

October 17, 2067. This is your autobrief from Maginot Worldwide, a World of Intelligence in the Palm of Your Hand. Good day, Mister Algernon Passmore. And now, your liaison, Mister Phoebus Beech…

Beech’s face came onto the screen, emerging through a backdrop of mercenary carnage in some unrecognizable, ravaged city. He looked much more confident than any of them had a right to:

Good morning. Since the death of the insurrectionary Ligeia Grief last month, much of our effort has been spent charting the deterioration of the Valascans’ organizational structure, the state of the power vacuum at the top and HYDRA’s attempts to carpe diem and dismantle the org once and for always.  All indications are that they, while still remaining the primary security threat to Intimatron operations, are a waning force. Power is now being shared between a western cell, led by Circe Kenset, who are stepping up attacks on the national circuit of smartroads, poarticularly the San Ysidoro Artery linking the Central City Zones with the Midwestern Transits, and a more diffuse eastern faction captained by several of Grief’s former lieutenants. Their identities are of less immediate import than their objectives, which may include ILTD operations in the City proper, perhaps, even executives’ homes…

“Fat lot of good these guys have done us,” Passmore mumbled into his shoulder. “’Import.’ He means ‘importance,’ but he tries to sound fancy at the expense of clarity…” He switched off the player as the smartcar turned the corner into Marquesa Street and the picture before them, tinged with dying smoke, transformed into a tragedy of crime scene barriers, scattered rubble, and angry, unruly spectators, who wandered distractedly in burnt and charred clothes, faces and arms smeared in cinder, hugging each other or grabbing at the sleeves of uniformed peace officers, who tried their best to keep them away from the plainclothes detectives that searched the splintered façade of the flagship SynthCenter. Passmore could see Beatrice India, hair scorched, dress torn, giving a statement to agents from the edge of a ruined diorama of domestic dinnertime as he stepped from the company vehicle, into the path of an official who seemed to have homed in on him.

“Mr. Passmore. My name is Custer. Giles J. Custer. Urban Terrorism Task Force. Let’s step over here and talk, shall we?”

“This is my aide Miss Rule,” he replied. “Are you City? Or Bureau, or HYDRA?”

“A natural question,” Custer said. “The Task Force’s work is interagency, of course, but we report directly to the Commisariat in the Capital. You understand we need access to everything HYDRA has by way of intelligence and quick strike capability.”

“But, of course. We are at your disposal, Inspector.”

Senior Inspector. Shall we…?”

Custer held up a ribbon of police tape and ushered them inside the shattered storefront. From outside, Passmore could hear the clicking of camera shutters; he imagined that the resulting images might cast him in an advantageous light (the head of state touring the embattled embassy) and settle the nervous markets. Cassidy seemed dazed, barely aware, gently touching bits of burned fabric from ruined window displays, razors of safety glass and steel making grinding sounds beneath the sensible heels of her Kaspar Bozells. Passmore could not see her eyes and had no desire to.

“Yeah, we were starting a big push. The first GABIs were shipped here on September 30. This is the only shop that had them. This is – was – our main location, our destination.”

Passmore was surprised at how forthcoming Custer was with the facts of the crime. At around 8:15, as preparations were being made to open the doors, four unidentified Valascans, strapped with sulphur-silicate gelatin vests, took strategic positions – two inside, along the showroom floor, two along the intricate neon-and-steel façade – and prepared to manually detonate their explosives. At 8:22, a routine alarm check brought patrolman Paulette Recupero, 29, into the back office, where she radioed for tactical backup.  By 8:37, she had been joined by patrolmen Estes Mittleman, 46, and Cobb Pasternak, 31, who subdued the outside bombers with bear hugs, suffocating the impact of the blasts with special polymer Tachteam suits. Recupero dragged one bomber down the rear service stairs before detonation, and the fourth bomber’s detonator failed before she was killed with a pair of .50 caliber hollow-point shells to the chest. Seven dead, four employees injured (one critically), maybe $300,000-$400,000 in essential structural repairs. All in all, Passmore thought, it could have been worse. And the guys would already be working to spin things to ILTD’s advantage. For now, the priorities would be settling down the press and being at St. James’ when Laskey the custodian came out of surgery.

“And you’re sure they were behind it?” Passmore asked.

Custer lifted the corner of a yellowed blanket, draped over a set of remains, exposing a chunk of skin emblazoned with the smoky echo of the four-fingered hand tattoo. He eyed Passmore like a cornered informant.

“I suspect we’ll have to share a fair amount of information going forward. There could be repercussions. Of various types.”

******

In the succeeding weeks, ILTD’s corporate resiliency, and the resolve and ingenuity of its family, were, Passmore found, truly enviable. Laskey pulled through and, after several months of rehabilitation, was given a specially-designed prosthetic isoleg (the Atalanta, later incorporated into special, limited-edition GABI Defiants) and returned to certain ceremonial duties at the City Center store, which was rapidly rebuilt and operational. Needless to say, the Valascans’ suicide attack both drew unprecedented HYDRA attention to the disorganized remnants of their organization and provided ILTD with something of a publicity windfall. In fact, the Intimatron synthelle, which had always been considered a luxury good, now acquired a frisson of patriotic goodwill. Assisted by the always-alert ILTD advertising operation, the media had now made owning a synthelle tantamount to striking a blow against economic terrorism, and even progressive families who had argued against the encroachment of synthetics into family and business life allowed themselves to be swayed by the wit and switchblade charms of the new GABIs, who, with the help of Kluivert and the in-house ad shop, captivated the market as avatars of “the New Real.”

Passmore, meanwhile, held twice-weekly meetings with Beech to shore up security weaknesses at ILTD facilities and assess the information Beech extracted from his HYDRA contacts about Operation Dying Light, the final clean-up of the Valascans. On the weekend before Thanksgiving, in what had been termed in certain quarters The Thanksgiving Purge, agents killed three Valascan section leaders meeting in Baca County, Colorado to organize a mortar attack on a local smartroad interchange; at the same time, coordinated raids by HYDRA and local officers in seven other mid- and south-western states and territories resulted in another 39 dead, injured or captured. The ground forces could not long survive as a viable paramilitary operation, and this was good news.  What was not so welcome was the news that HYDRA had widened its focus to include sympathizers and financiers. Passmore had been successful thus far in deflecting attention from his own family, but it was getting harder. He had to start making deals. It was a type of hands-on politicking he had always hated, but never fully escaped.

Another unforeseen benefit of the Valascan bombing was the temporary shelving of the 3holo3 exposé. It shocked no one that, in the wake of the public outcry, which had led the state legislature to enact a Martyr’s Day holiday after only 45 minutes of debate, the network had removed its synthelle episode from the Holosect November schedule. But this was too good to last. After a respectable interval of four weeks, the show was given the December 8 airdate, just in time to interfere with last-minute Christmas buying. It was a small, but significant, aggravation.  And since that day on Marquesa Street, Cassidy, on whom Passmore had hoped to lean, had grown distant and careless, forgetting meetings, dressing in curiously flamboyant fashion, and sneaking out for longish, late-afternoon lunches. He made a mental note to hash things out with her, but it would have to wait. The real priority was managing the turbulent, but promising launch of ILTD’s knockout blow, the GABI, preserving the holiday momentum and maximizing year-end revenues.

Smarter, sexier, more versatile than any synth, the GABI was always planned to be the Rolls Royce of synthetics, the product that would establish ILTD once and for all as the be-all and end-all of its industry. It would prove so desirable, so irresistible, that it would shut down once and for all the negative press, the objections of the last remaining humanist critics. And ILTD would do something it had never done before; it would let Helena-6, with her enormous stock of general knowledge, her charm, and her disarming humor, lead the media campaign, while the company’s human PR staff worked back channels to assure prime placement of holo and ambient adclips, holocast interviews and spynotes, and to set up events and appearances. If the sublims they had been investing in proved worthwhile, soon every schoolboy would be daydreaming of a GABI upgrade, the sexdreams of neglected husbands filled with the precisely dispensed fragrance bursts of GABI Catalan shopgirls and Bavarian milkmaids. (If the ghostrails the doctors warned about proved to be real, Passmore mused, some phantom GABIs might even be tailing them to work.)

The 29th of November dawned the kind of smothering, clammy Tuesday that drew the cheer from the marrow of the happiest reveler, and Passmore’s plan was to spend the day cloistered, viewing rough cuts of the new adclips, blockading himself against all but essential interruptions, armed with a fifth of good rye and an inhaler of somnylantin to ease him through the slowest-moving hours. Cassidy was nowhere to be found, so no new appointments could be made. For all intents and purposes, he would be playing hooky on his own little mind-beach.

“These next weeks are the fulcrum on which my legacy will hang.” He uttered these words, closed-eyed, after a deep chest full of mist from his inhaler, to no one at all, seconds before he became aware of Beech’s figure at the window. “They will make my reputation unassailable, or undo me utterly. I feel it.” Beech said nothing, staring down at the tangle of people on the sidewalk that had sprung up around a drunken-looking human street whore and the newsagent she had tried to rob. He seemed to be awaiting a signal that it was time to get down to business, a signal Passmore was not eager to give.

“Burling and Hegel – you know, our guys down at the futures Bourse – they’re running a tranche of futures on the Pengilly algae bloom in the Caspian Sea. I’m thinking of tossing a couple hundred k from the loose-lips account. Could make us a ton if it holds out for a couple of weeks.” He aimlessly twirled a top in the shape of a globe. “Or is that considered gambling? Too much fun to be ethical?”

Beech did nothing, said nothing.

It’s not that fun these days, you know,” Passmore said, in a dying fall. “Used to be a team, a real team. I hardly know anyone in this place anymore. Just interchangeable faces, all straining to get a peek at the Old Man…”

“The Grand Old Man.”

“And there used to be all the neat little challenges associated with launching something new, something really new… Now, it’s all so accepted, just degrees on a pie chart…”

Beech’s gaze was still on the street. “The city POs are really giving that wench a going over. She can hardly walk. But ever since Martyr’s Day, you can’t pop in an extra stick of chewing gum without getting jumped on.”

“She should have had the good sense to be polycarbon steel.” Passmore poured a little Brenner’s into a pair of rocks glasses painted with pictures of the Stellarium from the Grenoble World’s Fair. “So, no point in putting this off. Lose your parade of horribles…”

Beech sniffed at his glass, as if suspicious of a mickey. “It’s a short list, but pretty horrible just the same.”

Passmore nervously plucked a micro from his drawer and held it aloft like a communion host. “Well, in that case,” he said, “I’m going to try an experiment. I am going to give my eyes positive stim while my ears take all the bad. I shall maintain total equilibrium.” Preliminary title matter fluttered across the room, static patterns spiraling into the three-dimensional shapes of angels. “Now,” he said. “DO YOUR WORST…”

(Across the saffron-and-wine Bakhtiari carpet, four proud women – Caucasian, African, Indian, Asian – in skin-tight gowns, threw back their windblown hair and descended the steps of the Topkapi Palace. Never before, an announcer said, has Intimatron, world leader in synthetic performance, offered such strength and beauty to the discerning buyer, now with an exciting feature a step closer to perfection…)

“Start you off with the easiest one. HYDRA is, as they say, ‘widening the net.’ New round of custodial interrogation orders in the new year, my guys tell me. Get this: Marduk Shellhammer and her boss, your wife’s old buddy Garza.”

“Petita Garza? She must be a hundred. Isn’t she retired?”

“From teaching housewives how to make Navajo flatbread, yes. From laundering money for radicals, not so much. What we have to worry about is keeping the missus from becoming entangled.”

(Tama, the Asian beauty, alights from her Eleuthera and sashays into the main reading room of the Piierpont Morgan Library. She sits, opening a weathered edition of The Consolation of Philosophy. The Viveq chip, making your agelessly flawless love a companion of potentially limitless intellect…)

“Look, these guys are dealmakers. There’s all kinds of stuff we can give them. Prosthetic limbs for their injured soldier boys. Campaign cash for what’s his name – Mann at the Subcommittee.  Let’s, uh, come up with…a package or something…”

Beech consulted some notes on his handheld and smiled slyly, glad to have Passmore’s genuine attention. “Domestic Security is going to be holding hearings next quarter on a long-term funding bill. HYDRA wants to self-fund from fines and forfeitures. Throw in your testimony, and…”

“You know the game. Go make it happen. Now, it gets harder?”

(Chioma, the African, dances along a mountain summit, silhouetted by the sunrise, while graceful blonde Eleonora, dark eyes suffused with a gentle, abiding sadness, scribbles lines in a notebook. An ultimate communion of body, mind and soul, renewed daily…)

Beech’s face went slack. “Just might not be fixable, is all. I’m sure you’re aware that lots of our womenfolk have been high-tailing it out of here for foreign parts due to the shrinking job market and…ideological difficulties with the manufacture and sale of synthetics.”

“Jesus, I thought we had plugged that goddamn leak.” Passmore showily knocked back his rye and poured another. “Emigration has been at acceptable levels for a couple of years.”

“Do you know who Ingrid Harmunsdottir is? An unemployed textile designer who’s been quietly fighting the government, working her way through the courts for 18 months. We got a call last week. From D.C. Now hear this:  In 48 hours – maybe a little less – the Supreme Court is going to release its opinion in Harmundsdottir v. Immigration and Naturalization Service, striking down on equal protection grounds the Population Integrity Management Act.”

“How can you know that?”

“Fischetti’s clerk is one of ours. We always recruited well at Stanford.”

(…For less than the cost of a new smartcar. Pavana, lustrous black hair blowing in a tropical breeze, emerges from a clear green ocean and walks, arms extended, toward the camera. The gentle sun slides across her smooth brown skin. GABI, now and forever, the New Real. Yours, from Intimatron.)

“It’s a perfect storm. In two days, the cork flies out of the bottle, maybe for good. And while the shock is still fresh, 3holo3 airs its anti-synth show, full of nice fresh social research on the evils of roboculture. And you and the little woman right in the middle of it all like Bonnie and Clyde.”

Passmore exhaled and leaned his head on folded hands. From across the room, it looked like he might have been praying, but Beech knew that Passmore had little use for anything that wasn’t the product of human sweat.

“Okay,” Passmore said. “This is going to take some thought. We’ll assemble a team.”

“You had better hope that none of your team is going to the little Holosect viewing party being thrown for the board.”

“Aw, fuck…”

“By your bestie, Constant Harbison.”

The best-laid plans of mice and men…Passmore had planned to spend the day behind closed doors, but the mention of Con Harbison’s name had driven all the breathable oxygen from the room. Stride informed by a reckless anger, Passmore pulled deeply on the last of the somnylantin and breezed across the ground floor lobby. A walk, he hoped, would clear his head, shake loose some ideas. It was Cassidy’s face, hidden beneath the brim of a fedora, that made Passmore stop short as he burst into the street. She looked tired and a little beaten-up, with the ghost of a bruise, smothered by thick make-up, bracketing her eyes, in the gray light as hot and dark as a smoldering coal fire.

“What happened to you? Are you OK? We’ve been trying to get hold of you all day.”

“Just a little bug, I guess.”  She was uneasy about being caught out in the light, where she could be seen. Her calf-length skirt seemed thrown on, and Passmore could swear there was a stiffness in her gait and that the ragged locks that poured out from under her hat seemed to reflect a rusty red light and to fall as if the victims of a nervous amateur trim. “My phone is missing.  I was out.”

“Yes, I guessed,” Passmore sneered. “We’ll talk when I get back. You look a mess. Let’s try to remember, there’s a thin line between style and…sty…” It sounded mean, and Passmore instantly regretted saying it. He could have sworn he heard her mumble at least the line is still there, as she folded into the comers and goers. It seemed, he thought, like everything had begun to wilt, in the space of a simple minute.

******

Odia TwoPassmore, as his true disciples knew, hated nothing as much as misdirected energy, and now he seemed to be caught in explosions of it, one after the other. True, holiday sales were brisk, but they weren’t the resounding knockout blow he had craved. There were too many distractions:  reassuring investors after Martyr’s Day, liaising with coppers of every imaginable stripe to root out the Valascans and their friends, reconstructing the City Center showroom, making sure the company was well represented at all the rah-rah rallies and media availabilities, brokering deals to keep the wife out of hot water…These all took time, energy and resources away from the real project:  acquainting the world with Helena-6 and her sisters Griet and Britta and Melanie and Fox Eyes and the 14 other carefully-crafted models designed to put the world in the GABIs’ hammerlock of love. It would happen, he knew, but the Christmas holiday could really have moved things along. The new Samson Dalat commercial was genius, almost irresistible, but conventional wisdom held that the first week of December was just too late to get it on the air.  Synthelles were just not impulse items and the commways had been full of the Heisses and the other knock-offs for weeks.

And as if there weren’t enough bits of debris floating in this particular punchbowl, Passmore was now being forced to strain out another. It was sealed in the package that had just landed on his desk by courier that evening, a proxy statement from yet another dissident group seeking representation on the board and a shareholder referendum on his policies:

The undersigned Congreve Excellence Fund, beneficial holder of 8.4% of the issuer’s currently issued and outstanding common shares, along with the shareholders listed on Appendix A hereto (the “Congreve Group”)are soliciting proxies seeking the election of a class of directors consisting of Dabney T. Nugent, Lucinda Raymond Nugent and Peter R. Kallisher (the “Congreve Nominees”). If elected, the Congreve Nominees will seek to remedy the longstanding domination by management of the Board and its committees, open up discussions to more serious consideration of shareholder interests (including, if and when appropriate, the identification or examination of merger candidates), and propose the immediate study of ways to diversify the company’s product lines and markets. The Congreve Group believes that management’s longstanding focus on a single product line has resulted in numerous missed opportunities to leverage its intellectual and physical assets, and caused substantial damage to the interests of both institutional and retail investors.  Please sign and return the red proxy card in the envelope provided to vote your shares for the Congreve Nominees.

He could hardly believe that people still used such crude methods. With the exception of the proxy fight whose settlement had put Maizie Dawes on the board four years earlier, he could not think of one such challenge launched in the previous decade. This vulnerability of ILTD to proxy extortionists was getting to be like a bad joke M&A lawyers told to amuse themselves. Passmore glumly stared up at the office’s hand-painted frieze of the Heroes of Discovery (his own conception) and considered his icons one by one: Thomas Alva Edison, Henry Ford, Nikola Tesla, Werner Von Braun…The line stretched right up to the present day — Annie Yee and Sohrab Shalami, perfecters of so-called “molecule sculpting”, and Mikhail Dhaiglev, who showed how to map the earth’s interior with gamma ray generators the size of blast furnaces. Yee and Shalami ended up destitute, their processes stolen by the university for which they taught, and Dhaiglev drank bleach and killed himself just weeks before his process was perfected. Even old Henry Ford ended up a broken man, puttering in the old-time village he built, like an industrial Marie Antoinette. He could not help wondering if this was what his rivals had planned for him, exile in some perfumed synthetic harem.

Passmore’s “All In A Row” viewing party consisted of only Lessig and Cassidy, his oldest remaining colleague and his newest. Since Endino’s decision to retire and fly-fish in the Rockies, Lessig, who never seemed to age or change, was Passmore’s one reliable anchor. He could hardly say the same for Cassidy, who continued her dance with dissolution.  She was still a beautiful girl, but she seemed to get thinner, angrier, every day. This afternoon she seemed pale and depleted, as if she had lost something at her core that had given her heft. Her eyes, still full of dark fire, had begun to show the yellowish tinge of the tox user. Her neck and ankles were trimmed with silver piercings, and the shadow of bruises haunted the skin of her midriff, exposed by the tight red plastic jacket she wore, too daring by half for the office of a Fortune 50 concern. She did not seem to notice the gold dragonfly barrette that had slipped from her jolting blunt-cut locks, maroon to match her knee-length boots. She had become a walking alarm.

“Is this going to take long?” she asked. “I have a reading at 9:00. A biofield reading.”

“Your field should be lit up like an aurora after this,” Passmore said. “You’ll really get your money’s worth out of that gypsy. But I meant to talk to you earlier. You can’t tell me you aren’t losing weight.  Just look at you. I have to watch out for you. What will I say to Mr. Rule?”

She slumped desultorily in a plush armchair beneath the modern end of Passmore’s frieze. “If you need to tell him anything, tell him I have to slim down mercilessly to slip into these Park Avenue fashions.” Her hand showily pointed up at the wall. “Thanks be to Annie Yee and her molecular diet.”

Lessig punctuated things by popping a fistful of hard candies into his own mouth. “Take care, now. Remember what that diet did to Annie.”

Cassidy had developed a theatrically naughty sulk that Passmore did not care for, and he made a mental note to tell her so, once Lessig was out of earshot.

“Well, of course,” Cassidy said. “That’s what augmenta and the tissue strengtheners were developed for. I’m not stupid, you know.”

Passmore had spent so much time worrying about Meek and Sands’ bombshell that a quiet part of his mind had begun to soothe him. How bad could it be really? It asked and he was, for a few moments, calmed. But the actual production, despite the whisperings of his gentle angels, was more corrosive than he had ever imagined. Meek handled the policy and Sands the human interest and, between the two of them, hardly a panic button was not pushed. Synthelles had turned a couple generations of men and boys into sex-crazed zombies trained to treat the women in their lives like robot slaves; women were being exiled from the workforce – first from sexwork, then with the advent of Viveq-C, from the loftier professions; girl gangs were running up crime statistics; domestic terrorists targeted synthelle production and sale facilities; skilled female workers were fleeing the moral slough of America by the thousands; the next generation of kids birthed in Alia units (the so-called “Zero Children’) never imprinted with birth mothers and, according to scientists at Duke, had begun to exhibit the most shocking indifference to human suffering.

“I would have pulled the stuffing out of that sailor, too,” Passmore said, breaking the defeated silence. “Just because I hate fucking puppets.” What really galled him was that, at every turn, were the sad pusses of the competitors he had thrashed – Mehta Seena from Natoya, St. Barthes from RoboForum, the glorified tractor repairmen from TouchWorks and their smirking leader Alvan Kindal, even that dwarf Nugent from Companion Sciences that was trying to hijack his board – and, without fail, they blamed Intimatron for every problem with the industry. Foss’ interview, which Passmore thought had been smart and sure-footed, was present only in snips of a few seconds that made ILTD look smug and dismissive.

“Not one mention,” he said to Lessig, “of the MotherWare development project. It’s like we don’t care about motherhood.”

And then there was the lurid handheld spy footage of the Arashi scenes, amphetamine-and-tox-and-liquor-fueled pantomimes with lady berserkers trashing vacant storefronts, enacting profane ceremonies on suburban lawns, transforming themselves in ways no Rolf Endino could ever imagine. Passmore was uneasy at the concentrated attention Cassidy paid. Lastly, Meek asked Is the synthelle still necessary? in a segment that visited marriage and sex therapy clinics and assayed the experimental promise of the new line of erogens, the custom-designed limited-duration sex viruses.

“It’s not too late,” Lessig said. “We would have to play catch-up, but we have lots of edgetech partnerships to draw upon.  Some of this new GABI revenue could stake a nice brain-chemistry joint venture. I know the folks at Rutgers and Northwestern are game. They have some nice things in the pipe.”

Passmore had thought Lessig had better sense than to question his judgment on such a matter in front of junior staff. Had Cassidy withered so much that she no longer registered?

“Oh, hell no!” he fairly roared. “Intimatron won’t stake its future on fads!  Does anyone believe that mankind’s sex drive will be satisfied by a pill or a shot? What we proffer is real.” He sensed his own range and modulated down. “Maybe when a steak dinner is replaced by a hologram, or hypnotic suggestion…”

Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory, is that it?”

Passmore was already on to the next thing, a cruise through the Hotel District for some Happiness Toys, and perhaps some decent room service bourbon. “Maybe you can nowadays,” he chortled, “but good luck fucking one…” He grabbed his raincoat and headed for the door.

“The proxy battle, this show and…they say bad luck always moves in threes. What the hell next?”

Lessig made a guilty face, unseen by the others.

******

As Passmore feared, the remainder of holiday season 2067, which should have been spent putting one of his comely creations in every global household, stacking an impenetrable bulwark of currency into ILTD’s coffers and turning its competitors into fire-sale casualties, was spent doing damage control, hunkered down with Foss and Kluivert’s people calculating spin for the public, or doing trained poodle-dances for a suddenly civic-minded board of directors, who turned the month of December into a drunken square dance of committee meetings, power lunches and skull sessions.

Worst of all, it was craggy old Maizie Cornflower Dawes, Dean of Native American Studies at Oklahoma State, who was added to the board to placate indigenous women’s rights groups, whose idiot nephew he had just hired to work in the audit group, and whose principal contribution to the corporate culture was the dull pain in Passmore’s left asscheek, who led the charge against Passmore’s suddenly-diabolical management style. In front of the entire board, she brandished newspaper stories about women’s demonstrations at some college Passmore couldn’t even remember, tugged at her intricately-brocaded hemp cassock and orated about ILTD’s “mad scientist, Merlin of male machismo” and the cataclysmic damage he was doing to her once-proud nation. When he thought about the trouble he and Legal had gone through to expand the board so that she might join without shareholder approval, it made him dizzy with rage.

Almost as sickening was the ungodly number of man-hours spent with the SEC lawyers at Minnefield Doremus strategizing and writing and editing the seemingly endless stream of mailings that bombarded Intimatron shareholders in an increasingly pointless war over the three Class 2 board seats. In mailing after mailing larded with the sort of absurd legal boilerplate that put sane men into terminal brainlock, Passmore pieced together a narrative history of his tenure, using financial statements as a smothering offensive weapon, tracing the inexorable advance of ILTD’s product across the globe, highlighting the company’s matchless history of cutting-edge craftsmanship, technical innovation and customer satisfaction, every page of which was challenged with endless questions and demands of proof from eager-beaver SEC examiners. Still, at the end, they had created an imposing narrative constituting, Passmore thought, something approaching the creation story of a new race.  And when the votes were tallied in April of 2068, the company’s slate of nominees had triumphed by a comfortable margin, thanks in no small part to Roderick Davis and his staff at Sharrock Partners, proxy solicitors who spent the last six-weeks in a round-the-clock blitz of communications designed to get out the vote and blunt the effects of “All In A Row”’s late-March broadcast rerun.

PASSMORE SURVIVES CONTROL TUSSLE read the Business page headline in the copy of the April 30 Herald Passmore clutched at his window the day after an Annual Stockholders’ Meeting that had been surprisingly and mercifully placid.

Survives!,” he shouted. “Survives? What kind of a word is that to use?”

“The kind to describe a guy who wins a 54%-46% vote,” Davis joked, like a man whose fee had already been earned. “Maybe this is just a warning shot. Should this become an annual event…”

Passmore gathered his thoughts, bit back his pique. He pointed to his trusty mural.

“Have any of you read Mikhail Dhaigliev’s memoir? If not, you should. At one point he says that …Well, let me dig it out.” From his bookshelf, he pulled a thin hardcopy volume, which opened immediately to a well-marked page. Passmore read:

My best ideas, the ones with staying power, came to me in the night. Like succubi they came, their deadly kisses robbing me of freedom and strength, leaving in their place only a cold fever, a will to work, to overcome.

“Gentlemen, I feel that I’m channeling this man. To you, to this enterprise, I give all this cold fire, all this work. It’s my life.”

Davis and his staff respectfully accepted Passmore’s thanks and took their leave. On his way out, Lessig stopped and closed the door to have a private word.

“Retirement isn’t a crime, Algernon,” he said. “You make it sound like we’re going to have to drag you out of here feet-first.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, is this what you really want, to be the Lion in Winter, fighting off hordes of ambitious young idiots in an endless series of palace coups? That prospect can’t be a barrel of laughs.”

“Putting me out to pasture, man?  Problem is, I don’t have a pasture. There aren’t many left.”  Was this what they had in mind for him?, he wondered. A forced retirement, with Lessig the messenger sent to break it to him? Some sort of damnatio memoriae, his name effaced from the corporate record and the public recollection? “You were never very artful; are you driving at something?”

Lessig bit his lip and smiled sheepishly.

“I’m leaving at the end of September,” he said.

******

Lessig’s pending departure hit Passmore hard, and he spent a trio of lunches in May and June with Ken Nkomo from Legal, assessing his options. None were very good. The standard employment agreement for artificial intelligence engineers contained a routine paragraph to which nobody ever paid much attention:

14.  Philanthropic Ventures: Notwithstanding any restrictions, prohibitions and limitations contained in Section III hereof, undersigned Employee may devote up to 200 hours per year to projects of a non-profit  charitable or philanthropic nature; provided that said project(s) do not (i) in the judgment of the Company, interfere with Employee’s work for the Company; (ii) constitute products or services that compete, directly or indirectly, with those offered by the Company; (iii) employ proprietary products, processes or technology developed by the Company, or used in the manufacture of the Company’s products; or (iv) cause the Company to become the subject of criticism or ridicule, or cause the Company, its officers, directors, employees, contractors or co-venturers, or any product or service it offers, to be viewed in a negative light.  Employee shall obtain approval for any work permitted under this paragraph from the Company’s Legal Department after complete disclosure of the project and the nature of his work on same.

It was hard to get the top AI kids, and this was viewed as a necessary ego-stroke, something that would permit these young prodigies to use their formidable skills to save the world, but that which most of the grasping little greedheads would never invoke. Passmore had never in his wildest imaginings believed that his right-hand man, the man who gave the synth its sass and style, would be woodshedding on some silly Paragraph 14 pipe-dream. It was like being struck by lightning.

“Is there a way to attack it? There’s always a way, if you want to badly enough.” Ken stirred his iced tea clock-wise then counter-clockwise in a way that usually accompanied bad news. “We could tie him up in court for years, if that’s what you want. But what’s the point? My experience is that once these guys announce they’re leaving, they’ve already checked out, if you know what I mean. You just create a lot of bad blood, and you might lose. Besides, once word gets out in the programmer community, good luck with future hires…”

“More money,” Passmore said, not really believing this was one he could buy. Lessig wasn’t that kind. He knew it. “Maybe if the offer comes from me.”

A search through Ken’s papers revealed that Lessig had filed the required consent. He was working with The Strange Land Foundation, a non-profit based in northern New Jersey dedicated to “advancing, through technological and therapeutic research, techniques to assist in the development of supportive, durable and intimate relationships between loving human beings.” The particular project, obliquely described, was Erosite, a “proprietary assistive device using the human nervous and endocrine systems to create heightened sensitivity to interpersonal communication.” Sounded like some kind of half-assed hypnotism, not deserving of Lessig’s talents, Passmore felt, and over the next weeks, he met regularly with Lessig to be updated on Saro Kitano’s transition to chief of AI, all the while prodding him for a clearer picture of this mysterious device.

“I can’t help it,” Passmore said, exasperated, “It sounds like you’re throwing away an amazing career on some kind of wonky home biofeedback kit. What a waste. It’s not too late, kid…”

“Give me some credit,” Lessig huffed. “It’s a lot more than that. It opens a new channel.” He paused and considered his words. “You need to see for yourself. You and Landra come on down to the lab one night after the guys go home. You guys need to get re-attached.”

******

Passmore went long stretches without thinking about Lessig’s offer. The Q2 financial statements had to be compiled, reviewed, “whispered” and released. Press releases were issued. The progress of the GABI was monitored. There was a brief but hectic series of fires to be extinguished when an unforeseen glitch in GG.noir caused unexpectedly violent defensive reactions to owners who accepted the tough-guy roles the GABI’s programming encouraged; several thousand synths (including two owned by the governor of  Arcadia) had to be quietly recalled and tweaked without the press catching wind. And when a columnist for SynSation started asking AI engineers about possible defections, Foss’ people went into mad dances of denial and spin. Passmore found himself on a desperate, 11th-hour campaign to lure back Lessig, who rebuffed offers of higher salary and incentives by renewing his insistence that Passmore and his wife “hook up.”

“I’m telling you,” he said, just weeks before he was to announce his departure, “this machine will save America. Maybe it can save you, too.”

“I didn’t realize we needed saving,” Passmore said, to no one listening.

Passmore was still laughing inwardly at the idea of bringing Landra down to see Lessig on the September Thursday he decided to accept Lessig’s offer. Since the Purge a year before, there had been a change in Landra;  she had become quiet, almost secretive, and was spending more time (too much, Passmore felt) with her old teaching and lecturing friends, debating, leading seminars at Women’sHearth, an increasingly radicalized group which had taken to holding its meetings at floating “secret” locations. When she was at home, she shut herself up in her suite of rooms and labored away on a new project she would barely discuss. Hooking her to some secret mind-machine could only feed what he saw as a budding paranoia. Instead, he managed to pull Cassidy, ever more curious about edgeworks, away from her endless stream of upsetting high-volume phone conversations. Lessig let them in, and Passmore could see the rig across the darkened testing studio.

It didn’t look like much, a pair of small black brushed-steel boxes with flashing aqua, blue and rust indicator lights joined to an IV pump like the kind they used to use to give lethal injections, back when that was the style. The whole apparatus was smaller than a microwave oven. Passmore was not impressed.

“This is it?” he said. “The future of…how did you put it…?”

“The future of human commitment,” Lessig said. “Let’s fill this up.” He raised the reservoir lid on the IV box. “Usually, we hook you up to a gentle tranquilizer. Anapaz or one of the mild, over-the-counter drugs. Okay?”

Passmore traded nervous glances at Cassidy. “We’d like to try a little variation. If that’s okay…”  From his shirt pocket, he produced a small red vial. “Can we introduce this to some saline?”

“Oxytocin? I don’t know if that’s really advisable for a first join.”

“Come on, man. My time is at a premium. I want to see what this is all about, and I don’t have time for one of your retreats. I am willing to accept the ‘risk’ or whatever. Let’s go.”

Cassidy sat down nervously, and Lessig gently tapped the back of her hand until he found a pristine vein. Passmore became aware of ambient dulcimer music as Lessig fitted him with the sensor headband.

“Now, after a minute or two, you’ll begin to relax. The Erosite will read your brainwaves and the generator unit will start to normalize and synchronize your electrical and endocrine activity. Then, it just happens. Enjoy, guys.” He switched off the laboratory light and left the room.

Then, it began.

Erosite, Passmore thought, was a separate nation with unfamiliar laws. Nothing had borders; nothing was distinct, and in the soft arbor of tox, he was aware that this bothered him. He shut his eyes, not out of pleasure, but because nothing they could show him had any meaning here. Feelings were in patterns, colors, heat. His was a deep forest green that was interpenetrated by a soft rose. They stayed this way for a time he could not measure until he read a rising fear that clutched at his chest; it did not belong to him and he rose to embrace and comfort it. He had not known himself capable of such a kindness, and it strengthened everything within him. Later, when he had ridden the tox to a more familiar place, he was able to form questions that radiated out, coiled like snakes. They were things he had never thought to ask.  What precincts of me are worthy of care?  Can you be trusted to protect them?  Am I enough…? This roselife breathed into him, strengthened the joints which he now saw as weak and crumbling. The messages he sent (not controlled, but sent) were bulletins of need, and drew energies toward him, energies he thanked and embraced. You can be saved, here on the Earth, they said in a queer language of sense alone. Passmore was shocked by an elder-wisdom in them, wisdom that co-existed with a hollowness and doubt even more ingrained than his own. He clutched at this unknown friendly power, which supported and heightened the chilling toxflash, struggling to support it even as he drained its vibrancy. Somehow, he felt they were stronger together, these weathered, pitted, needful souls. Everything contradicted itself splendidly, and locked together like parts in the movement of a pocket watch. Everything he had known before seemed weak and vain and silly. He could have cut his heart away, but he could not find his hands. His, or anyone’s. He hung in this loving soul-hammock for an indeterminate time that should have never ended. When he awoke, it was 4:10 a.m. – the next day, he guessed, although it could have been a hundred years later – and there was only the other chair, the depression in the leather where Cassidy’s body had been, and the chill of ice around what he imagined was his heart. He felt sad.

He could have a future, after all, he thought. That Lessig…

Passmore thought events were seeming accelerated, as if things were barreling toward some mad author’s climax.

******

The session had given Passmore an electric lifeline, and he was still wondering which end of the line he had held when he walked into his place that morning. It took a moment for him to realize the usual silence of Landra’s drug-induced sleep had been replaced by a low trill of recorded music – a man’s falsetto voice – from the direction of Landra’s rooms:

I love your silken surfaces

The future’s in your eyes

And in your glycerin tears I see

My melancholia crystallize

Solenoid heart

Memory soul

The death of flesh

Your sighs condole

Solenoid heart

Viveq mind

Will you miss us when your sisters

Leave their men behind?

She sat, as had become her nocturnal habit, at her desk, poring over a pile of old music magazines, oblivious to his entrance. Her eyes picked out nothing, like an insect’s, and her fingers seemed to be doing the reading as they danced across glossy photos of Kraftwerk and Sinatra and Diana Ross. Still the voice sang on.

“See?” she said. “Fantastic. By this time, they weren’t even trying to hide…”

The torture was, Passmore thought, how much of the woman he married was still there: the grace, the restless energy, the way the delicate cross-hatch of lines preserved and reflected the youthful eye-light. Even the little sprinkling of gray in her carelessly long hair became her still, even as she spiritually ran away from him, week by week, month by month. He did not want to ask, but needed to:

“What, hon? What do you mean, hide…?”

She looked up, as if at nature’s grandest fool. “All along, there were those who saw and left us signs. They saw the robots coming. Saw or guessed, I don’t know…” He could now see the screen of her desktop, which appeared to show a bare title page:

The Flesh Is Weak: The Joyous, Big-Money Suicide of Humankind

An Exposé by

Perelandra Pindar Passmore

“Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase.  James Brown, ‘Sex Machine.’  John Foxx and Ultravox, ‘I Want To Be A Machine.’ Even that last Kubrick thing, AI…By the start of the 1980s, the signs were all there, like a bitty roadmap.” On the walls of her study, cut-out pictures were taped everywhere, a blanket of magazine and newspaper eyes.

“And they, they, were all part of it. They were all synth – whole or part. That’s how they could see and hear more…” She gently tapped her temple. “Omar Bradley. Ira Gershwin. Steve Wozniak. Morris Udall. Gene Littler. Michael Collins.”

“The Irish politician?”

“The astronaut. Warhol…”

“Andy?”

“Andy, no. Ludmilla, yes. At least one eye. You can tell by the off-center framing of her pictures.”

‘Which eye, right or left?”

Her mouth sagged in disappointment. “You always viewed my work as frivolous.” Passmore could see that she had been lovingly circling the magazine photos to highlight parts of images – Rod Stewart’s ankle, Carly Simon’s left forearm, Maarla Evernew’s bare left thigh, just above the knee. “See, repetition is the giveaway, repetition of habits.”

“Liz Taylor’s marriages.”

“Yes!,” she chimed. “Now you see! The writer Ballard saw, too. That’s why he fantasized her death.”

“It wasn’t a sex thing?”

Now she seemed vexed and angry. “Don’t be a child. Maybe as a cover story.” She focused on him with renewed intensity. “Don’t you see? They spoke in codes. They had to. They all saw it coming.”

“What, exactly?”

“Our obsolescence. Our displacement by the machines.”

So this was it. This was the great work. He began to feel a heaviness in his chest and an off-kilter sway to the room.

“And me, I accomplished this, I suppose?”

She locked his gaze again.

We, dear.  We did it…”

Landra turned on her whitenoisewall, and retreated behind its battlement of sound. At least, Passmore thought, no one could say they didn’t do things together.

******

Passmore’s corrosive, self-effacing sense of humor would be put to a series of ever-sterner examinations in the waning days of Q3 ’68. The normal stresses attendant upon the quarterly earnings release, and the constant dissection of ILTD’s marketing strategies were magnified by events the way a windmilled guitar chord was amplified by a festival sound system.

Lessig’s announcement, to be made, ironically, on Martyr’s Day in connection with the opening of the BeCOMing2068 self-expansion exposition, was the big trigger, as Passmore knew it would be. All the major news services and the half-dozen specialty ‘casts tailored to the synthelle trade had, despite ILTD’s finest corporate efforts, picked up on the subtlest hints of his imminent departure, and were holding the firm in a sort of information-age siege. And every day the rumors floated, ILTD’s share price dipped, from an April high of $108.50 to an early-October price of $88/share. And  this, Passmore thought, with the GABI kicking ass in the consumer companion market space… But in 2068, institutions had already begun to factor projected market conditions five years in the future into today’s prices, and the possibility that ILTD might not be able to nimbly unveil that brain-busting innovation three iterations from now, that the johnny-come-latelies could be gaining, not only created jitters among the investors: it also reopened public examination of all the social developments that could threaten the synthelle.  Call it “All In A Row, Act III’ or “Maizie’s Revenge.”

The SYNDrome website published a video white paper on October 14 that traversed the globe and entered the major brokerages’ mindbases within hours. For those wearing dollar-and-cents blinders, there was gloomy analysis based  on ILTD’s existing market penetration in the fast-expanding economies, a wilting resale market eroded by diminished desirability of Arielles and Alias, increasing average age of synths “on the road,” and ILTD’s lack of diverse catalog price points. As one’s view widened, one could be shaken by the increased price competition by cheap product lines tailored to the pre-recessionary economy, imminent protectionist tariff legislation in the Far East and developing legal challenges at home, including – and this pissed Passmore off no end – leaked information about the “violence” recall. To this was added the whole range of moralist and feminist challenges to the ethics of synthelle manufacture, the sharp decline in students’ compositional and computational abilities, the usurpation of women from entry- and mid-level service and manufacturing jobs (“and no convents to house the unemployable,” it read, in what Passmore felt was an unguarded glimpse of meanness), unheard-of rises in the arrest and incarceration of female street criminals, as well as possible future impacts of “zero children” of Alia birthing units and unwanted female children being raised in overcrowded state facilities. And while all this was going on, our brightest female students were heading out the back-door, filling New Gaia and making it the globe’s eighth-largest economy.  Bates College’s Expandable English Lexicon site, the reporter noted with arch humor, had added a pair of new terms – “sexodus” and “femflight” – to describe the phenomenon. Perhaps the sharpest stroke of the lash was that SYNDrome had gotten hold of Erosite demo footage, which it included in the report, with the suggestion that “the developing sciences of psycho-chemical emotional connectivity could bring human marriage rates back from their thirty-year lows” and, by implication, make synthetics passé. If that didn’t, cheap, simple low-maintenance boutique viruses surely would.

And there were the inevitable nods to the rabble-rousers, the Arashi scenes, the loose, violent street demonstrations that erupted in cities and college towns after HYDRA’s surprise arrests of Petita Garza and two dozen regional Women’sHearth leaders. As he devoured the report, Passmore noted that the patriotic patina that had covered the synthelle just a year ago had been burned away by a spectrum of economic, social and political forces it would have taken a battalion of consultants to predict.  By C.O.B. on the 15th, ILTD’s shares sat at just a little over $64 per share. It was a full-scale bloodbath.

Passmore just pulled his head out of his hands in time to see Cassidy, drawn and desparate-looking, eyes ringed in red, putting up the collar of her tissue-thin raincoat to hide her face as she grabbed a pill bottle and sprinted for the elevator. He hoped that sanity and balance would soon return to both stock market and the psyches at the Egg.

******

Since the start of Petita Garza’s sedition trial in the federal Southern District, things had been increasingly uncomfortable at home for Passmore;  he had been splitting his nights between a string of Hotel District stand-bys and the morphalounger in his office, where he would grind up some tox for the transdermal and let his mind wander – forward, toward glorious corporate triumphs yet unattained; backward, toward happier days at home, hustling, climbing the ladder.

They were into the third day of the defense’s case, the testimony of a forensic accountant called to rebut the state’s money laundering allegations. The string of hotel rooms had begun to get him down, particularly now that he had worked his way through the catalog of GABIs, and ceased to be amused by their gun-moll conversational skills. He had lifted a green vial of premium tox from Cassidy’s secret desk compartment. He would load up, jack into the after-hours tradefeed through his lounger headrest and eyeball the newscasts in 2D while dictating his speech for the big Mann Tulane fundraising dinner in two weeks’ time. Multitasking made him feel proud and fulfilled and fended off the undefended assaults of dreams. There was no profit in them. And Tulane’s favor would keep HYDRA at bay until this new zeal for law and loyalty could be better managed.

The good tox ground into a fine powder which, mixed with shaving foam or toothpaste, made a cream that grew hot under a transdermal patch and spread a warm, embraced feeling along arm and shoulder, all the way to the spinal mainline. From there, it was liquid teenage moonlight in every cell, like being loved-up by your own living blood. The world was extraneous. Nothing was needed or desired.  He did his best work this way, when he was asking the world for nothing. He could barely remember the particular soft points on his neck where the sensory probes from his lounger went, but he found them and set the channel to Tradefeed, where he could track the way Lessig’s departure was being seen by the markets:

ILTD, 6000 S @ 45.20…ILTD, 500 B @ 42…ILTD, 4500 S@ 45, 300  S@44.8

Soon, he thought, the hysterics would subside. Soon.

The endless cardiac pulse of the market was strangely soothing, even as the vidscreen opened up to the freeflow of raw news images. A windstorm uproots an agricultural silo. A hysterical woman spins a nervous tale as a hydrant spews in the background. Starving cattle plod through a denuded pasture.  A chorus line of synthetics in bikinis –badly maintained, Passmore thought — at a pageant in Kamloops.

ILTD, 12200 B@ 40.40…LESSIG TO LEAD EROSITE MEDIA EVENT…

Passmore shut his eyes for a moment and began to compose.

Never before have the underpinnings of American capitalist democracy quaked so audibly from the seismic attacks of enemies – and I do not use this term lightly – from within. The very people whose acerbic, negating lifestyles are made possible by the comforts our system provides.  Irony, thy name is…was…Grief. (pause  for applause, 3-5 seconds)

A country band serenaded West Texas’ oldest living resident with a chorus of “Cotton Eye Joe.” Spray-can graffiti desecrates a wall-length portrait of Soupy Sales at a St. Paul art gallery. Belgian hop farmers puzzle over fresh-cut crop circles. A village in Malawi rejoices over newly-irrigated fields. A human girl with nice, but imperfect, teeth and breasts, visits hospitalized victims of an industrial accident.

An economy requires certainty to flourish. We need to know that tomorrow the roads will be open and the lights will come on. There’s a reason they are called securities and not insecurities. (Pause one beat) Mann Tulane is the man we need in Washington to ensure the kind of security we all need for the US infrastructure. One imploded smartrail trackbed can, after all, ruin one’s whole day.

Children flee a flock of unusual flying spiders in Burma. Black Sea fishermen catch, after a struggle, the last living manta ray. A sculptor creates an 80-foot Blessed Virgin from antique car bodies. A state senator pounds a lectern and people applaud. Three men brawl outside a clothing store. Prices keep on falling in the market.

ILTD, 600 B@39…  ILTD, 67000S @41.10 … ILTD, 300 B @ 37.5…ILTD, 3800

The tox was a gentle high, trembling him like the time just after coming, and the video pictures laid on top, like sky reflections in a glass lake. Time, like so many other inconveniences, had lost its relevance, but Passmore could see the sky had gone from jet to royal purple, and he knew that he was moving the speech forward.

Trust. Strength. Freedom. Justice. These are the pillars of our way of life. And Mann Tulane, a leader of proven valor and integrity, battle-tested and time-hardened, is our finest hope to keep those pillars tall and strong.

He could feel the deep satisfaction of a job well done, echoed, eerily, by Settler’s Day fireworks over a placid Lake Lahontan and a southering flock of geese. Passmore was considering sleep when the Canadian skies gave way to a stern-looking newsreader (Caryn Ballantrae?, Drusilla Marvelle?) voicelessly describing what must have been something recent and dreadful. The image cut to an aerial view of an old ammunition factory on the outskirts of the City, somewhere in the old Rte. 7 Industrial District, not 30- minutes from the Egg.

The images were different from the pre-edited newsbites Channel 99 had been showing. The lighting was haphazard and the camera jerked with the pounding of footfalls. It looked shockingly live. From the factory, lit by bonfires and lanterns, poured a wild melee of costumed women, some thrown around roughly by police and paramilitary forces. A trio of Nubian warrior women brawled with Home Guard soldiers, while a dozen women in western wear – jeans, dusters, paste-on handlebar moustaches, carried a long banner, illegible in the failing light. A  squadron of Greek furies bashed in taillights and broke windows in police vans and rescue vehicles along the service road, and a pair of strippers in fishnets, with the aid of three other women in various states of undress, rocked a squad car until it toppled, trapping a confused trooper inside. Eight or nine women lay in the gravel, gasping for breath, being cuffed and clubbed by city cops. A mist of tear gas hung in the air, lending the feel of nightmare to the scene. Finally, a handheld camera fell on a small, thin body, immobile, painted in metallic bronze. In a pan so slow as to be unbearable, it found the small, wan pixie face, cheeks brushed with rouge like those of a child’s doll. The eyes, not yet closed, were frozen in fear and panic. She was a broken toy and, even under the blood that streaked the mask of her face, Passmore could see that it was

Oh Cass, how I loved that you were here and close. How I thought about watching you progress, about protecting you from the world’s guerilla army of refusers and deadeners and cheapeners. I wanted to create such perfect conditions for you with my pure care and protection. How did they reach you? How? What stray wire did their tawdry manufactured danger set glowing? And he knew he could never know any of it, never even ask these kinds of questions again, because every great adventure had to have tragedy appended to it, and who was he to expect otherwise? It was a new kind of pain for him, something that gnawed, made him lighter and less formidable from the inside out. Passmore did not like to lose. He did not like to have things taken away. These were the only thoughts he allowed himself as he watched her pawed, turned over, examined by his good friends the police.

And then everything stopped, giving way to a psychic absence that governed everything as the steel went out of his legs and he slid to his knees, falling, until the sunshine and the low rumbling of daily business roused him again.

ILTD shares had leveled off at $32/share. Passmore would need to draft a companywide bereavement message. There were things to be done, and it was no time for a leader to lose his wits. But the pressure, the strangeness, had become unbearable. In order to face the coming days, Passmore knew he needed a shot of normalcy, a calm night at home in Landra’s arms and a good night’s rest. Then, he might be in shape to stave off the onslaught.

Perhaps, he thought, this would be a good, peaceful night. Landra’s delusional guilt had lately begun to manifest itself as some mutant form of empathy. And he was starting to recover a bit of his old duende. The market had, after all, hit the company with everything. The morning-after effect had always been a bounceback, and nothing calmed the agitated like a positive 10-Q. As always, it seemed like ILTD sailed farthest and fastest in a rough wind; for all the unrest that had been stirred, the company was still headed toward $2 billion in sales, with double-digit growth in Africa, Central America and the far corners of Eastern Europe, where the keenest hunger was always felt for whatever was poisoning America. The numbers had always saved him before, and seemed like the best place to put his trust in this nervous time. Analysts came and went, and there were always traders who viewed the rants of Cassandras as buying opportunities. The American business community loved nothing like a comeback story and, as he dropped a pair of green vials into his shirt pocket, Passmore imagined tomorrow’s holocast heds: Kickin’ It With The Karnal Komeback Kid…

He smiled as he walked past the NNN hallway raw-feed holoscreen, which showed, first, a gorgeous bronze Helena-6, surrounded by well-mannered schoolgirls, cutting ribbon at a new dormitory wing of the Chicago Unerwünschte Kinderheim;  then,  the Provisional and Assistive Synthetic Citizenship Act (PASCA) being signed into law at a jovial ceremony by President Henriquez’s tanned, lovely Pilar model GABI. Now, the elderly and disabled could use their synthelles to vote, sign tax forms and perform the obligations of citizenship imposed by their beloved country.

It was always the same, he thought, as he turned toward the lift; no one wanted to talk about the good news when there were dead horses to flog.

7. Epilogue: 2068. The Empty, Desolate Sea

“So, that’s it, then?” Sandor said. “It all worked out. Or it’s about to. Right?”

Passmore saw no reason to damage their new friendship with the jarring details of Landra’s sudden end. The beers and the hours had made Passmore’s eyes blurry, and he could barely make out the lines of the Museum’s final exhibit, a hunched, neglected figure in the warehouse’s remotest corner. As Passmore got closer, its lines, its outdated clothing grew more and more familiar.

“Not much use out of that one,” Sandor said. “That was a throw-in from a guy who ran a salvage yard in Three Corners. Nobody climbs on that little honey. Kind of odd looking.”

And with the flip of a light switch, Passmore was looking into the bottomless chocolate eyes of Landra, not as she had strafed the dead, dusty air that evening, but as she had been in her youth. It was Protolandra, who was never dismantled, who had sat, forgotten, in this way station, waiting for him to save her.

“This was an old-time Arielle custom job, for an eccentric client,” Passmore said. “I have kind of a funny attachment to her. One of a kind. Does she run?”

“Like a watch, for what it’s worth. All of our stuff runs.” He fingered her faded yellow jumper with measured distaste. “Make me an offer. Take her off my hands, please.”

Passmore considered the matter. He had plenty of money, and could have had her for a song, maybe for only a few bars of a song. But by now, the world would be discovering Landra and the corporate scandalmongers would be trying to make her death part of some fabricated corporate scandal. There would be frenzied speculation, shaming, accusations.  Passmore knew he would have none of it. He liked the cool, clean air out here, the free feeling of being able to choose a direction and move. He was owed this. A credit transfer would lead the cops – maybe even HYDRA – right to him.

“I would like to propose a trade,” he said, dangling the ignition card to his beloved Encanta. Later, at opening time, only the old Algerian maintenance man watering the smartrails was there to notice Sandor playing with the elaborate controls of his new machine, or the prosperous middle-aged man and his youngish girlfriend climbing into the cab of the hydrogen tanker that had stopped to offer them a ride.

“Where you headed?” the driver asked. “I’m Mike and I’m headed right off the map. New Jericho, Free Zone.”

“We always meant to see that someday,” Passmore said. “We could use a little of that old time religion.”

“Uh huh. I get ya. I know just whatcha mean, man.” Suddenly, Passmore felt an affluence he had never known before. He was rich in time. And his thoughts began to tussle over the righteousness of what he had done, was doing, would do in the days and weeks to come.

Changing the world did not matter, because the world did not change. The greatest ideas were unexpressed, the greatest loves, unrequited, the greatest battles, unseen, inside a man’s skin. There would always be richer, smarter, prettier, and everyone would eventually be forgotten.  Only sadness, the essential sadness, could endure. So why had he done such damage?

In the end, we give everything away, he thought. The finest things, we throw away. It can never be any other way.

But they had done something more subtle and important for the long term, for history. They smashed the beauty cartel. They broke the stranglehold of love. Not broke, exactly, but loosened, the way methadone loosened the grip of opiates. And without that burning itch under the skin, so much of the energy that drove men to risk and create and dare was gone, lost like steam. They had never realized how much of society’s onward push was simply men trying to be noticed. They had never imagined those ripples. Now, men would have to find new motivations, motives that were pure and strong and based on universal goods, not the competition to catch a pretty eye.

Mike lit up a cigarillo, a LadyLisboa, and tipped the pack toward Passmore, gently swaying to the old Don Williams tune on the fideliband.

“Smoke?” he asked. Passmore demurred with a subtle headshake.

In spite of everything, he could not stop. There were changes, but only those that had to be. In reaching for his commercial destiny, he had forced demand into a new channel that had opened to accept it and now society was evolving, slipping from a constricting layer of skin. What would emerge would and must be good.

People – good people – were capable of unthinkable deeds if they created new masks for themselves. They could talk themselves in and out of things.  But a synthetic was only what it was and nothing other. Passmore found this basic honesty a worthwhile trade for humans’ creativity and caprice. In their search for new meanings, people could look to the bots for precious lessons in constancy. In many ways, it seemed that the synthelle’s journey to citizenship just underscored humans’ rush to escape it.

The transport hummed quietly on its rails past a scrapyard hemmed in by poor houses and what looked to be an old café trashed by looters, maybe one of those girl outfits. Mike navigated on an LED screen that laid out the smartrail network of Pennsylvania and Ohio, drumming on the window to a gospel version of “Dark End of The Street.”

“Your friend there don’t say much,” he said.

“No, sir,” Passmore answered. “I guess she just isn’t built that way.”

He was surprised, now that events had forced his hand, how little he really missed the thought of taking the company he had built through the coming crisis. Now, he had a home he had never seen on a coastline he had never visited, a stash of money from better times in the Baja Pacific Trust. Maybe, in time, they would get a boat, sail off and let the wild, ascendant sea carry them out to where they could be lost – truly, irretrievably lost. It was something to think about, to dream about. There was only new.

“Y’know, I guess I will have that smoke,” Passmore said. “You only live once.”

What a sad man he had been, in many ways, he thought. He had never really loved anyone.  Anyone or anything but his creations, his creations he had perfected, brought to the brink of citizenship. He had made them more than useful. He had made them worthy. What more, Passmore thought, was left to achieve? He felt humbled by it all. The facts of his life now seemed all throwaway, soaring, windblown. He wondered how any of this would read in the yet-unwritten story of his life, as he embraced the cold, quiet cages of age:

They rode off together, P. smiling and stroking his arm and humming along to “Walking The Sunlit Path.” (“The majesty of heaven caught in nature’s holy glare/Let go of all the greed in every day to day affair/It’s smoke/So let it go/Let it fly into the air…”)  It was like they two had never parted and it made Passmore’s heart glad. Before them, the road lay in pieces…

The new sun was on him. Things, he felt, would be set right somehow.  And the ghosts of history would make sure that he was remembered and loved, wherever he landed.

Whatever Happened To Odia Coates?: A Tragedy In Six Acts PARTS I-IV

PART I

PART II

PART III

PART IV

 

David Gionfriddo

https://www.facebook.com/david.gionfriddo
http://www.myspace.com/dcdaveg

Claudia Murari

http://claudiamurariphotography.blogspot.com
http://www.flickr.com/photos/claumurari
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Claudia-Murari-Photo/155631767821966

 

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