One night in the Hall of Presidents convinced me of three things:
That Debra's people had had me killed, and screw their alibis,
That they would kill me again, when the time came for them to make a play for the Haunted Mansion,
That our only hope for saving the Mansion was a preemptive strike against them: we had to hit them hard, where it hurt.
Dan and I had been treated to eight hours of insectile precision in the Hall of Presidents, Debra's people working with effortless cooperation born of the adversity they'd faced in Beijing. Debra moved from team to team, making suggestions with body language as much as with words, leaving bursts of inspired activity in her wake.
It was that precision that convinced me of point one. Any ad-hoc this tight could pull off anything if it advanced their agenda. Ad-hoc? Hell, call them what they were: an army.
Point two came to me when I sampled the Lincoln build that Tim finished at about three in the morning, after intensive consultation with Debra. The mark of a great ride is that it gets better the second time around, as the detail and flourishes start to impinge on your consciousness. The Mansion was full of little gimcracks and sly nods that snuck into your experience on each successive ride.
Tim shuffled his feet nervously, bursting with barely restrained pride as I switched on public access. He dumped the app to my public directory, and, gingerly, I executed it.
God! God and Lincoln and cannon-fire and oratory and ploughs and mules and greatcoats! It rolled over me, it punched through me, it crashed against the inside of my skull and rebounded. The first pass through, there had been a sense of order, of narrative, but this, this was gestalt, the whole thing in one undifferentiated ball, filling me and spilling over. It was panicky for a moment, as the essence of Lincolness seemed to threaten my own personality, and, just as it was about to overwhelm me, it receded, leaving behind a rush of endorphin and adrenaline that made me want to jump.
“Tim,” I gasped. “Tim! That was…” Words failed me. I wanted to hug him. What we could do for the Mansion with this! What elegance! Directly imprinting the experience, without recourse to the stupid, blind eyes; the thick, deaf ears.
Tim beamed and basked, and Debra nodded solemnly from her throne. “You liked it?” Tim said. I nodded, and staggered back to the theatre seat where Dan slept, head thrown back, snores softly rattling in his throat.
Incrementally, reason trickled back into my mind, and with it came ire. How dare they? The wonderful compromises of technology and expense that had given us the Disney rides—rides that had entertained the world for two centuries and more—could never compete head to head with what they were working on.
My hands knotted into fists in my lap. Why the fuck couldn't they do this somewhere else? Why did they have to destroy everything I loved to realize this? They could build this tech anywhere—they could distribute it online and people could access it from their living rooms!
But that would never do. Doing it here was better for the old Whuffie—they'd make over Disney World and hold it, a single ad-hoc where three hundred had flourished before, smoothly operating a park twice the size of Manhattan.
I stood and stalked out of the theater, out into Liberty Square and the Park. It had cooled down without drying out, and there was a damp chill that crawled up my back and made my breath stick in my throat. I turned to contemplate the Hall of Presidents, staid and solid as it had been since my boyhood and before, a monument to the Imagineers who anticipated the Bitchun Society, inspired it.
I called Dan, still snoring back in the theater, and woke him. He grunted unintelligibly in my cochlea.
“They did it—they killed me.” I knew they had, and I was glad. It made what I had to do next easier.
“Oh, Jesus. They didn't kill you—they offered their backups, remember? They couldn't have done it.”
“Bullshit!” I shouted into the empty night. “Bullshit! They did it, and they fucked with their backups somehow. They must have. It's all too neat and tidy. How else could they have gotten so far with the Hall so fast? They knew it was coming, they planned a disruption, and they moved in. Tell me that you think they just had these plans lying around and moved on them when they could.”
Dan groaned, and I heard his joints popping. He must have been stretching. The Park breathed around me, the sounds of maintenance crews scurrying in the night. “I do believe that. Clearly, you don't. It's not the first time we've disagreed. So now what?”
“Now we save the Mansion,” I said. “Now we fight back.”
“Oh, shit,” Dan said.
I have to admit, there was a part of me that concurred.
My opportunity came later that week. Debra's ad-hocs were showboating, announcing a special preview of the new Hall to the other ad-hocs that worked in the Park. It was classic chutzpah, letting the key influencers in the Park in long before the bugs were hammered out. A smooth run would garner the kind of impressed reaction that guaranteed continued support while they finished up; a failed demo could doom them. There were plenty of people in the Park who had a sentimental attachment to the Hall of Presidents, and whatever Debra's people came up with would have to answer their longing.
“I'm going to do it during the demo,” I told Dan, while I piloted the runabout from home to the castmember parking. I snuck a look at him to gauge his reaction. He had his poker face on.
“I'm not going to tell Lil,” I continued. “It's better that she doesn't know—plausible deniability.”
“And me?” he said. “Don't I need plausible deniability?”
“No,” I said. “No, you don't. You're an outsider. You can make the case that you were working on your own—gone rogue.” I knew it wasn't fair. Dan was here to build up his Whuffie, and if he was implicated in my dirty scheme, he'd have to start over again. I knew it wasn't fair, but I didn't care. I knew that we were fighting for our own survival. “It's good versus evil, Dan. You don't want to be a post-person. You want to stay human. The rides are human. We each mediate them through our own experience. We're physically inside of them, and they talk to us through our senses. What Debra's people are building—it's hive-mind shit. Directly implanting thoughts! Jesus! It's not an experience, it's brainwashing! You gotta know that.” I was pleading, arguing with myself as much as with him.
I snuck another look at him as I sped along the Disney back-roads, lined with sweaty Florida pines and immaculate purple signage. Dan was looking thoughtful, the way he had back in our old days in Toronto. Some of my tension dissipated. He was thinking about it—I'd gotten through to him.
“Jules, this isn't one of your better ideas.” My chest tightened, and he patted my shoulder. He had the knack of putting me at my ease, even when he was telling me that I was an idiot. “Even if Debra was behind your assassination—and that's not a certainty, we both know that. Even if that's the case, we've got better means at our disposal. Improving the Mansion, competing with her head to head, that's smart. Give it a little while and we can come back at her, take over the Hall—even the Pirates, that'd really piss her off. Hell, if we can prove she was behind the assassination, we can chase her off right now. Sabotage is not going to do you any good. You've got lots of other options.”
“But none of them are fast enough, and none of them are emotionally satisfying. This way has some goddamn balls.”
We reached castmember parking, I swung the runabout into a slot and stalked out before it had a chance to extrude its recharger cock. I heard Dan's door slam behind me and knew that he was following behind.
We took to the utilidors grimly. I walked past the cameras, knowing that my image was being archived, my presence logged. I'd picked the timing of my raid carefully: by arriving at high noon, I was sticking to my traditional pattern for watching hot-weather crowd dynamics. I'd made a point of visiting twice during the previous week at this time, and of dawdling in the commissary before heading topside. The delay between my arrival in the runabout and my showing up at the Mansion would not be discrepant.
Dan dogged my heels as I swung towards the commissary, and then hugged the wall, in the camera's blindspot. Back in my early days in the Park, when I was courting Lil, she showed me the A-Vac, the old pneumatic waste-disposal system, decommissioned in the 20s. The kids who grew up in the Park had been notorious explorers of the tubes, which still whiffed faintly of the garbage bags they'd once whisked at 60 mph to the dump on the property's outskirts, but for a brave, limber kid, the tubes were a subterranean wonderland to explore when the hypermediated experiences of the Park lost their luster.
I snarled a grin and popped open the service entrance. “If they hadn't killed me and forced me to switch to a new body, I probably wouldn't be flexible enough to fit in,” I hissed at Dan. “Ironic, huh?”
I clambered inside without waiting for a reply, and started inching my way under the Hall of Presidents.
My plan had covered every conceivable detail, except one, which didn't occur to me until I was forty minutes into the pneumatic tube, arms held before me and legs angled back like a swimmer's.
How was I going to reach into my pockets?
Specifically, how was I going to retrieve my HERF gun from my back pants-pocket, when I couldn't even bend my elbows? The HERF gun was the crux of the plan: a High Energy Radio Frequency generator with a directional, focused beam that would punch up through the floor of the Hall of Presidents and fuse every goddamn scrap of unshielded electronics on the premises. I'd gotten the germ of the idea during Tim's first demo, when I'd seen all of his prototypes spread out backstage, cases off, ready to be tinkered with. Unshielded.
“Dan,” I said, my voice oddly muffled by the tube's walls.
“Yeah?” he said. He'd been silent during the journey, the sound of his painful, elbow-dragging progress through the lightless tube my only indicator of his presence.
“Can you reach my back pocket?”
“Oh, shit,” he said.
“Goddamn it,” I said, “keep the fucking editorial to yourself. Can you reach it or not?”
I heard him grunt as he pulled himself up in the tube, then felt his hand groping up my calf. Soon, his chest was crushing my calves into the tube's floor and his hand was pawing around my ass.
“I can reach it,” he said. I could tell from his tone that he wasn't too happy about my snapping at him, but I was too wrapped up to consider an apology, despite what must be happening to my Whuffie as Dan did his slow burn.
He fumbled the gun—a narrow cylinder as long as my palm—out of my pocket. “Now what?” he said.
“Can you pass it up?” I asked.
Dan crawled higher, overtop of me, but stuck fast when his ribcage met my glutes. “I can't get any further,” he said.
“Fine,” I said. “You'll have to fire it, then.” I held my breath. Would he do it? It was one thing to be my accomplice, another to be the author of the destruction.
“Aw, Jules,” he said.
“A simple yes or no, Dan. That's all I want to hear from you.” I was boiling with anger—at myself, at Dan, at Debra, at the whole goddamn thing.
“Fine,” he said.
“Good. Dial it up to max dispersion and point it straight up.”
I heard him release the catch, felt a staticky crackle in the air, and then it was done. The gun was a one-shot, something I'd confiscated from a mischievous guest a decade before, when they'd had a brief vogue.
“Hang on to it,” I said. I had no intention of leaving such a damning bit of evidence behind. I resumed my bellycrawl forward to the next service hatch, near the parking lot, where I'd stashed an identical change of clothes for both of us.
We made it back just as the demo was getting underway. Debra's ad-hocs were ranged around the mezzanine inside the Hall of Presidents, a collection of influential castmembers from other ad-hocs filling the pre-show area to capacity.
Dan and I filed in just as Tim was stringing the velvet rope up behind the crowd. He gave me a genuine smile and shook my hand, and I smiled back, full of good feelings now that I knew that he was going down in flames. I found Lil and slipped my hand into hers as we filed into the auditorium, which had the new-car smell of rug shampoo and fresh electronics.
We took our seats and I bounced my leg nervously, compulsively, while Debra, dressed in Lincoln's coat and stovepipe, delivered a short speech. There was some kind of broadcast rig mounted over the stage now, something to allow them to beam us all their app in one humongous burst.
Debra finished up and stepped off the stage to a polite round of applause, and they started the demo.
Nothing happened. I tried to keep the shit-eating grin off my face as nothing happened. No tone in my cochlea indicating a new file in my public directory, no rush of sensation, nothing. I turned to Lil to make some snotty remark, but her eyes were closed, her mouth lolling open, her breath coming in short huffs. Down the row, every castmember was in the same attitude of deep, mind-blown concentration. I pulled up a diagnostic HUD.
Nothing. No diagnostics. No HUD. I cold-rebooted.
I was offline.
Offline, I filed out of the Hall of Presidents. Offline, I took Lil's hand and walked to the Liberty Belle load-zone, our spot for private conversations. Offline, I bummed a cigarette from her.
Lil was upset—even through my bemused, offline haze, I could tell that. Tears pricked her eyes.
“Why didn't you tell me?” she said, after a hard moment's staring into the moonlight reflecting off the river.
“Tell you?” I said, dumbly.
“They're really good. They're better than good. They're better than us. Oh, God.”
Offline, I couldn't find stats or signals to help me discuss the matter. Offline, I tried it without help. “I don't think so. I don't think they've got soul, I don't think they've got history, I don't think they've got any kind of connection to the past. The world grew up in the Disneys—they visit this place for continuity as much as for entertainment. We provide that.” I'm offline, and they're not—what the hell happened?
“It'll be okay, Lil. There's nothing in that place that's better than us. Different and new, but not better. You know that—you've spent more time in the Mansion than anyone, you know how much refinement, how much work there is in there. How can something they whipped up in a couple weeks possibly be better that this thing we've been maintaining for all these years?”
She ground the back of her sleeve against her eyes and smiled. “Sorry,” she said. Her nose was red, her eyes puffy, her freckles livid over the flush of her cheeks. “Sorry—it's just shocking. Maybe you're right. And even if you're not—hey, that's the whole point of a meritocracy, right? The best stuff survives, everything else gets supplanted.
“Oh, shit, I hate how I look when I cry,” she said. “Let's go congratulate them.”
As I took her hand, I was obscurely pleased with myself for having improved her mood without artificial assistance.
Dan was nowhere to be seen as Lil and I mounted the stage at the Hall, where Debra's ad-hocs and a knot of well-wishers were celebrating by passing a rock around. Debra had lost the tailcoat and hat, and was in an extreme state of relaxation, arms around the shoulders of two of her cronies, pipe between her teeth.
She grinned around the pipe as Lil and I stumbled through some insincere compliments, nodded, and toked heavily while Tim applied a torch to the bowl.
“Thanks,” she said, laconically. “It was a team effort.” She hugged her cronies to her, almost knocking their heads together.
Lil said, “What's your timeline, then?”
Debra started unreeling a long spiel about critical paths, milestones, requirements meetings, and I tuned her out. Ad-hocs were crazy for that process stuff. I stared at my feet, at the floorboards, and realized that they weren't floorboards at all, but faux-finish painted over a copper mesh—a Faraday cage. That's why the HERF gun hadn't done anything; that's why they'd been so casual about working with the shielding off their computers. With my eye, I followed the copper shielding around the entire stage and up the walls, where it disappeared into the ceiling. Once again, I was struck by the evolvedness of Debra's ad-hocs, how their trial by fire in China had armored them against the kind of bush-league jiggery-pokery that the fuzzy bunnies in Florida—myself included—came up with.
For instance, I didn't think there was a single castmember in the Park outside of Deb's clique with the stones to stage an assassination. Once I'd made that leap, I realized that it was only a matter of time until they staged another one—and another, and another. Whatever they could get away with.
Debra's spiel finally wound down and Lil and I headed away. I stopped in front of the backup terminal in the gateway between Liberty Square and Fantasyland. “When was the last time you backed up?” I asked her. If they could go after me, they might go after any of us.
“Yesterday,” she said. She exuded bone-weariness at me, looking more like an overmediated guest than a tireless castmember.
“Let's run another backup, huh? We should really back up at night and at lunchtime—with things the way they are, we can't afford to lose an afternoon's work, much less a week's.”
Lil rolled her eyes. I knew better than to argue with her when she was tired, but this was too crucial to set aside for petulance. “You can back up that often if you want to, Julius, but don't tell me how to live my life, okay?”
“Come on, Lil—it only takes a minute, and it'd make me feel a lot better. Please?” I hated the whine in my voice.
“No, Julius. No. Let's go home and get some sleep. I want to do some work on new merch for the Mansion—some collectible stuff, maybe.”
“For Christ's sake, is it really so much to ask? Fine. Wait while I back up, then, all right?”
Lil groaned and glared at me.
I approached the terminal and cued a backup. Nothing happened. Oh, yeah, right, I was offline. A cool sweat broke out all over my new body.
Lil grabbed the couch as soon as we got in, mumbling something about wanting to work on some revised merch ideas she'd had. I glared at her as she subvocalized and air-typed in the corner, shut away from me. I hadn't told her that I was offline yet—it just seemed like insignificant personal bitching relative to the crises she was coping with.
Besides, I'd been knocked offline before, though not in fifty years, and often as not the system righted itself after a good night's sleep. I could visit the doctor in the morning if things were still screwy.
So I crawled into bed, and when my bladder woke me in the night, I had to go into the kitchen to consult our old starburst clock to get the time. It was 3 a.m., and when the hell had we expunged the house of all timepieces, anyway?
Lil was sacked out on the couch, and complained feebly when I tried to rouse her, so I covered her with a blanket and went back to bed, alone.
I woke disoriented and crabby, without my customary morning jolt of endorphin. Vivid dreams of death and destruction slipped away as I sat up. I preferred to let my subconscious do its own thing, so I'd long ago programmed my systems to keep me asleep during REM cycles except in emergencies. The dream left a foul taste in my mind as I staggered into the kitchen, where Lil was fixing coffee.
“Why didn't you wake me up last night? I'm one big ache from sleeping on the couch,” Lil said as I stumbled in.
She had the perky, jaunty quality of someone who could instruct her nervous system to manufacture endorphin and adrenaline at will. I felt like punching the wall.
“You wouldn't get up,” I said, and slopped coffee in the general direction of a mug, then scalded my tongue with it.
“And why are you up so late? I was hoping you would cover a shift for me—the merch ideas are really coming together and I wanted to hit the Imagineering shop and try some prototyping.”
“Can't.” I foraged a slice of bread with cheese and noticed a crumby plate in the sink. Dan had already eaten and gone, apparently.
“Really?” she said, and my blood started to boil in earnest. I slammed Dan's plate into the dishwasher and shoved bread into my maw.
“Yes. Really. It's your shift—fucking work it or call in sick.”
Lil reeled. Normally, I was the soul of sweetness in the morning, when I was hormonally enhanced, anyway. “What's wrong, honey?” she said, going into helpful castmember mode. Now I wanted to hit something besides the wall.
“Just leave me alone, all right? Go fiddle with fucking merch. I've got real work to do—in case you haven't noticed, Debra's about to eat you and your little band of plucky adventurers and pick her teeth with the bones. For God's sake, Lil, don't you ever get fucking angry about anything? Don't you have any goddamned passion?”
Lil whitened and I felt a sinking feeling in my gut. It was the worst thing I could possibly have said.
Lil and I met three years before, at a barbecue that some friends of her parents threw, a kind of castmember mixer. She'd been just 19—apparent and real—and had a bubbly, flirty vibe that made me dismiss her, at first, as just another airhead castmember.
Her parents—Tom and Rita—on the other hand, were fascinating people, members of the original ad-hoc that had seized power in Walt Disney World, wresting control from a gang of wealthy former shareholders who'd been operating it as their private preserve. Rita was apparent 20 or so, but she radiated a maturity and a fiery devotion to the Park that threw her daughter's superficiality into sharp relief.
They throbbed with Whuffie, Whuffie beyond measure, beyond use. In a world where even a zeroed-out Whuffie loser could eat, sleep, travel and access the net without hassle, their wealth was more than sufficient to repeatedly access the piffling few scarce things left on earth over and over.
The conversation turned to the first day, when she and her pals had used a cutting torch on the turnstiles and poured in, wearing homemade costumes and name tags. They infiltrated the shops, the control centers, the rides, first by the hundred, then, as the hot July day ticked by, by the thousand. The shareholders' lackeys—who worked the Park for the chance to be a part of the magic, even if they had no control over the management decisions—put up a token resistance. Before the day was out, though, the majority had thrown in their lots with the raiders, handing over security codes and pitching in.
“But we knew the shareholders wouldn't give in as easy as that,” Lil's mother said, sipping her lemonade. “We kept the Park running 24/7 for the next two weeks, never giving the shareholders a chance to fight back without doing it in front of the guests. We'd prearranged with a couple of airline ad-hocs to add extra routes to Orlando and the guests came pouring in.” She smiled, remembering the moment, and her features in repose were Lil's almost identically. It was only when she was talking that her face changed, muscles tugging it into an expression decades older than the face that bore it.
“I spent most of the time running the merch stand at Madame Leota's outside the Mansion, gladhanding the guests while hissing nasties back and forth with the shareholders who kept trying to shove me out. I slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of the utilidor, with a couple dozen others, in three hour shifts. That was when I met this asshole”—she chucked her husband on the shoulder—“he'd gotten the wrong sleeping bag by mistake and wouldn't budge when I came down to crash. I just crawled in next to him and the rest, as they say, is history.”
Lil rolled her eyes and made gagging noises. “Jesus, Rita, no one needs to hear about that part of it.”
Tom patted her arm. “Lil, you're an adult—if you can't stomach hearing about your parents' courtship, you can either sit somewhere else or grin and bear it. But you don't get to dictate the topic of conversation.”
Lil gave us adults a very youthful glare and flounced off. Rita shook her head at Lil's departing backside. “There's not much fire in that generation,” she said. “Not a lot of passion. It's our fault—we thought that Disney World would be the best place to raise a child in the Bitchun Society. Maybe it was, but…” She trailed off and rubbed her palms on her thighs, a gesture I'd come to know in Lil, by and by. “I guess there aren't enough challenges for them these days. They're too cooperative.” She laughed and her husband took her hand.
“We sound like our parents,” Tom said. “'When we were growing up, we didn't have any of this newfangled life-extension stuff—we took our chances with the cave bears and the dinosaurs!'” Tom wore himself older, apparent 50, with graying sidewalls and crinkled smile-lines, the better to present a non-threatening air of authority to the guests. It was a truism among the first-gen ad-hocs that women castmembers should wear themselves young, men old. “We're just a couple of Bitchun fundamentalists, I guess.”
Lil called over from a nearby conversation: “Are they telling you what a pack of milksops we are, Julius? When you get tired of that, why don't you come over here and have a smoke?” I noticed that she and her cohort were passing a crack pipe.
“What's the use?” Lil's mother sighed.
“Oh, I don't know that it's as bad as all that,” I said, virtually my first words of the afternoon. I was painfully conscious that I was only there by courtesy, just one of the legion of hopefuls who flocked to Orlando every year, aspiring to a place among the ruling cliques. “They're passionate about maintaining the Park, that's for sure. I made the mistake of lifting a queue-gate at the Jungleboat Cruise last week and I got a very earnest lecture about the smooth functioning of the Park from a castmember who couldn't have been more than 18. I think that they don't have the passion for creating Bitchunry that we have—they don't need it—but they've got plenty of drive to maintain it.”
Lil's mother gave me a long, considering look that I didn't know what to make of. I couldn't tell if I had offended her or what.
“I mean, you can't be a revolutionary after the revolution, can you? Didn't we all struggle so that kids like Lil wouldn't have to?”
“Funny you should say that,” Tom said. He had the same considering look on his face. “Just yesterday we were talking about the very same thing. We were talking—” he drew a breath and looked askance at his wife, who nodded—“about deadheading. For a while, anyway. See if things changed much in fifty or a hundred years.”
I felt a kind of shameful disappointment. Why was I wasting my time schmoozing with these two, when they wouldn't be around when the time came to vote me in? I banished the thought as quickly as it came—I was talking to them because they were nice people. Not every conversation had to be strategically important.
“Really? Deadheading.” I remember that I thought of Dan then, about his views on the cowardice of deadheading, on the bravery of ending it when you found yourself obsolete. He'd comforted me once, when my last living relative, my uncle, opted to go to sleep for three thousand years. My uncle had been born pre-Bitchun, and had never quite gotten the hang of it. Still, he was my link to my family, to my first adulthood and my only childhood. Dan had taken me to Gananoque and we'd spent the day bounding around the countryside on seven-league boots, sailing high over the lakes of the Thousand Islands and the crazy fiery carpet of autumn leaves. We topped off the day at a dairy commune he knew where they still made cheese from cow's milk and there'd been a thousand smells and bottles of strong cider and a girl whose name I'd long since forgotten but whose exuberant laugh I'd remember forever. And it wasn't so important, then, my uncle going to sleep for three milliennia, because whatever happened, there were the leaves and the lakes and the crisp sunset the color of blood and the girl's laugh.
“Have you talked to Lil about it?”
Rita shook her head. “It's just a thought, really. We don't want to worry her. She's not good with hard decisions—it's her generation.”
They changed the subject not long thereafter, and I sensed discomfort, knew that they had told me too much, more than they'd intended. I drifted off and found Lil and her young pals, and we toked a little and cuddled a little.
Within a month, I was working at the Haunted Mansion, Tom and Rita were invested in Canopic jars in Kissimee with instructions not to be woken until their newsbots grabbed sufficient interesting material to make it worth their while, and Lil and I were a hot item.
Lil didn't deal well with her parents' decision to deadhead. For her, it was a slap in the face, a reproach to her and her generation of twittering Polyannic castmembers.
For God's sake, Lil, don't you ever get fucking angry about anything? Don't you have any goddamned passion?
The words were out of my mouth before I knew I was saying them, and Lil, 15 percent of my age, young enough to be my great-granddaughter; Lil, my lover and best friend and sponsor to the Liberty Square ad-hocracy; Lil turned white as a sheet, turned on her heel and walked out of the kitchen. She got in her runabout and went to the Park to take her shift.
I went back to bed and stared at the ceiling fan as it made its lazy turns, and felt like shit.
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